Woman of the night - Editor
by L Young
It had been so long since Ariana felt fear, it took her a moment to recognise it. Her life, hidden among the masses of Vedlam City had become so habitual fear never played a part. But tonight something was different. Ariana could feel herself being stalked.
Her last encounter with a Hunter had nearly killed her, but after a long bloody fight the Hunter's age worked against him. Out of respect Ariana left him broken, but alive, cursing her with every labored breath. Whoever or whatever was hunting her now, it wasn't Alric. He was old then and that was thirty years ago. No, this was someone new.
This part of Vidlam was a crumbling assortment of warehouses, taverns, brothels and gambling dens bathed in the stench of human filth.
Ariana had always been so careful, supplementing her diet of animal hearts with men she picked off the street. Men no one would be likely to miss like beggars or foreign sailors. She even made sure to take them to that isolated section of tenement buildings she owned, far from where she actually lived on the East end. That had been her custom, week in, week out for ten years. Not a sign of suspicion. It was what Ariana loved about Vedlam - the anonymity. In a city of a hundred thousand people it was hard to stick out.
She could go months without encountering her neighbours and no one cared. But now someone was watching. They'd seen her lead men away. Men who never reappeared. And now they had decided to take action. Well she could too. Hunting had been a regular part of her life since the curse brought her back after she succumbed to fever all those years ago. Her parents thought the stories about red haired children who died coming back as cannibalistic Dark Fey as just that - stories. It turned out they were wrong. Nightmares about digging her way out of her grave still haunted her sleeping hours. The easy kills had made her rusty, but the instinct was still there.
Ariana eased her way deeper into the jumbled crowd of sailors and dockworkers. Normally every noise, every person was an opportunity to feed. Now they were threats.
At 76 years old, she still looked exactly the same as the day she died of fever at 16 - dark red hair, blue eyes, petite body and face that never lost its adolescent plumpness. There were far prettier women on the streets, but she had discovered if a woman was cheap and had a pulse the men here didn't care. By the time they discovered her lack of a pulse, it was too late.
A lanky man reeking of alcohol stepped in her way. "Allo darling. How much?"
With her mind on things beside food, Ariana was about to tell him to shove off; when it occurred to her she could use him.
She put on her best smile. "Six shillings, handsome."
Responding with a lecherous wink, he said, "Cheap at twice the price."
Taking his calloused hand, Ariana led him toward one of the nearby alleyways. Waste littered the sides of the stone buildings lining the dark, damp, alley. She couldn't think of a less alluring place, but she doubted the customer cared. She could feel the lust coming off him, little better than a rutting dog. When they were a sufficient distance away from casual observation she took his hand. "So what's' your name, handsome?"
Running a hand along her side, he said, "Jakson."
She smiled sweetly. "Jakson, can you do something for me?"
"Scream." She seized his hand, pulling it back until it snapped - the crack of the bone piercing the stillness of the alley.
As he doubled over in pain Ariana gave him a hard kick to the leg, splintering his leg bone. Jakson fell to the ground screaming long and hard. Vidlam was a cold place. Such screams were commonplace in rough areas like this. The only ones who would come running would be the Hunters.
As he writhed on the ground, Ariana pulled the small dagger hanging from his belt. She quickly ran her finger along the edge. Though dull, the blade would suffice for her purposes. She ripped into the left side of her skirt, then the right. It annoyed her to damage the fabric, but if she was going to be doing a lot of running, she needed more room then the dress currently allowed. Her task completed she eased back into the darkness. Putting the blade between her teeth, she climbed up the side of the warehouse to get a better vantage point.
From her hiding spot she saw a trio of men advance into the alley. They did so warily, carefully measuring each step. Strangely for Hunters, they were armed with wooden cudgels rather than the swords hanging from their belts. Two took up flanking positions, while the other, a tall muscular man with short blond hair, tucked his cudgel into his belt and drew his blade. He advanced towards Jakson who sobbed, "Thank the maker. Can you help me?"
Staring into the darkness, the man said, "Where is she?"
Jakson shook his head, groaning. "Crazy bitch ran off." Cradling his arm, he continued. "I don't know how she did it."
"She's strong." Raising his blade, he sliced Jakson's throat. He turned away from the still convulsing man.
Pointing to the killer, the one on the right said, "I don't like this, Balic. It's not her pattern. She always takes them back to the tenement. Why would she do this?"
"Because she knows," replied the one called Balic. "Just like the boss said she would."
Forcing herself to remain calm, Ariana dropped from her hiding place into the middle of the trio. She jabbed the dagger into the throat of the nearest man, blood spraying out onto the alleyway’s cobbled surface. As he fell, she grabbed the sword from his belt and threw it spear like into the chest of the second man. As Ariana spun around, Balic attempted to flee. Diving forward, she caught his boot and sent him tumbling to the road. She jumped to her feet and smashed her boot into his leg, snapping his bone. He let out a scream. She placed a hand over his mouth. "Control yourself or I break the other one."
Balic's eyes radiated a mix of hate and fear, but he slowly nodded. Much as she needed his fear now, she never got used to people considering her a monster. It angered her because it lumped her in with vampires and other such creatures that roamed the night - creatures who couldn’t control their hunger.
But in the back of her mind the term stung more because Ariana thought it was true. Much as she enjoyed the long life and enhanced strength her condition gave her, at the end of the day she still had to rip the beating heart from a person’s chest and eat it raw. The act both repulsed and delighted her. Ariana had found she could sate the craving with animal hearts, but eventually it got to be too much and she went hunting.
Frowning she removed her hand and Balic gasped, "Please don't kill me or turn me into one of your servants. I have useful information."
Ariana had only ever turned one person and that ended badly. The last thing she needed was another Devran, but she wasn’t about to tell Balic that. “I’ll be the judge of that. We'll start with how you found me?"
Wincing through the pain, Balic replied, "We're mercenaries. Hired out of Glorin. We were given different areas of the city to stake out during the evening. The man who hired us said you'd be easy to spot, that you'd be too vain to dye your hair. "
She stroked her hair defensively. "A girl's allowed some vanities."
He snorted. "You're no girl."
She locked eyes with him. "What was that servant?"
Cringing he looked down. "Nothing."
"That's what I thought," replied Ariana smiling. "Continue."
"We've been following you for several weeks. Getting an idea of your habits."
"What changed tonight?"
"Said he wanted an idea of what you'd do when you knew you were being followed so we made ourselves more obvious."
"If this is a hunt, why the cudgels?”
"We were told you weren't to be killed,” replied Balic. “He wants you for himself."
"And what is this master's name?"
"Calls himself Devran. Said he had an encounter with you a while ago."
Ariana went numb. That was impossible. She picked up Balic, ramming him against the wall. "Tell me the truth."
Groaning in pain, Balic muttered, "I'm telling the truth. It's Devran."
Ariana felt her stomach contort itself into knots. Frowning, she asked, "What does he look like?"
"His face is covered in bandages. But he's the same size as me, sandy brown hair, blue eyes. Can’t be older than thirty."
Ariana shook her head. It wasn't possible. Devran was dead. Had been dead for twenty years. After what he did to that village, she had killed him herself, watching as his life's blood drained from him.
Apparently enjoying her discomfort, Balic smiled. "He said that would cause a reaction. In fact, while I've been talking he's been closing the net. The others should be here any moment. Give up now and he might go easy on you, monster."
Grabbing his head, Ariana twisted it until it snapped. "I'm not a monster."
Even as the words left her mouth, she knew she'd just proven him right. "Bollocks," she muttered.
A crossbow bolt streaked past her face. Ariana saw several men advancing down the alleyway towards her. Tossing Balic's body aside, she sprinted away as several more bolts lanced past her.
Fear and anger gave strength to her senses. She felt them around her, herding her no doubt to some killing ground of their choosing. Ariana was far from satisfied with her life, but she wasn't ready to die just yet.
She clambered up the warehouse wall as best she could. As she reached the top, a crossbow bolt slammed into her left hand. Screeching in pain, she pulled herself up, then ripped the bolt from her palm. Looking up, Ariana saw a man frantically attempting to reload his crossbow. When he saw her, he let out an unmanly squeal and fired prematurely.
She stepped aside, the shot missing her by inches. Ariana had no intention of giving him another chance. Charging, she ripped the crossbow from his hand, then smashed it into his head. Teeth flew from his mouth, clattering onto the roof.
As he rolled on the ground groaning, Ariana gave him a swift kick to the head, knocking him out. She examined her hand. The bolt had gone right through leaving a bloody puncture wound in her palm. It would heal, but it needed time. She eyed the neighbouring building's rooftop. She took a few steps back, then started to run, jumping as she reached the edge. For the briefest of moments the pain from her hand vanished and she enjoyed the sensation of flying before hitting the neighbouring roof and rolling to her feet.
Brushing a loose hair from her face, Ariana searched for the next rooftop to aim for. Taking a deep breath, she ran forward, landing on a warehouse just across from her.
Despite the absence of any more attackers, she couldn’t help but feel like they were closing in. She continued jumping from rooftop to rooftop, her nerves getting more on edge with each jump. She prayed to what ever God was looking out for her to keep her safe.
If she could keep this up she could lose the Hunters and get to one of her safehouses. One she hadn't visited in months. As she flew across to the next warehouse, pain flared in her thigh. She bungled her landing on the brickwork and fell backwards. Her ears echoed with her screams as she smashed into a pile of wooden barrels below.
It was only her enhanced strength that prevented the four-story drop from killing her. It took her a moment to move her pain-racked body. As she slowly sat up wincing from the splinters lining her back, she discovered why she fell. There was a crossbow bolt stuck in her thigh, blood flowing from the wound. Gritting her teeth, she pulled the bolt out, a small chunk of flesh coming with it. Tenderly she rubbed the wound, wishing she had time to bind it.
Stumbling to her feet, Ariana saw several men armed with wooden cudgels blocking her way. "Get her!" yelled one.
Rushing forward, Ariana ducked under the first attacker's swing. She grabbed him and tossed him at the others. An attacker sidestepped behind her, whacking her on the head with his cudgel. Ignoring the pain in her head, Ariana grabbed his arm, snapping it back until it broke. Then she finished him off with a blow to the head.
She took his cudgel and leapt into the middle of the others. Working hard to keep her grip tight despite the blood still flowing from her wound, she smacked it into one man after the other until they were all sprawled on the ground around her. Pain flared in her foot as one jabbed a dagger into her boot.
"You son of a bitch!" growled Ariana bringing the cudgel down upon his skull. Reaching down, she pulled the dagger, slick with blood, from her foot.
She raised the cudgel for another strike as a man just slightly taller than her stepped out of the shadows holding a sword. He wore dark leather armour, a short black cloak.
His face was covered in bandages but around the bloodshot blue eyes she saw scar-lined skin. "Still the Queen of death." He pointed to her foot. "I must apologise for that. But mercenaries are really only good at one thing and that's taking money. I told them I didn't want you hurt, but you know what happens when the blood starts flowing."
Ariana found the voice achingly familiar. She lowered the cudgel. "Devran?"
The bandaged man smiled, "Devran's dead, but you know that."
Her mouth dropped open. "Alric?"
He spread his hands. "Surprised to see me after leaving me to die in Eldarm?"
Ariana sighed. "I didn't leave you to die. I left you to live. To give you one last chance at a normal life."
He snorted. "I couldn't do that. Not knowing you were still out there. Our parents need avenging."
Ariana flushed as she remembered the mob storming their farm. While Alric led her to safety their parents had attempted to buy them some time. They had accomplished the task at the cost of their lives. With that her once devoted elder brother became her worst enemy.
She broke from her reverie and studied his bandaged form. "Oh Alric, what have you done to yourself?"
Drawing his blade, Alric began circling her. ""What I had to, sister. After our last encounter I knew I'd run out of time. I'd never beat you as I was. Fortunately the time I spent studying you and your kind produced an interesting discovery. While you live off the hearts of humans, humans can also live off yours. It seems the heart of a Dark Fey can reverse the aging process and improve strength. The effect is only temporary and...” He reached up to his face. “There are some side effects, but it has kept me alive. After that, it was just a matter of finding you. For a while I feared you might be dead, killed by someone else. Dumped in a hole somewhere, unmourned. Then I heard about Ladorn a village up in the mountains. A village where nearly everyone died thanks to Dark Fey. Talking to the survivors I discovered Devran. Your failed attempt at turning."
Devran’s name still stung. “A momentary lapse,” replied Ariana. “I was lonely and Devran was noble, honorable and witty. I thought he would make a fine companion to see out eternity. But the turning changed him.”
“And a whole village died because of it.”
“It was an accident. I never meant to hurt anyone.”
"You never do," replied Alric. "But that doesn't make a difference, does it?"
"We're family, Alric. It doesn't have to end this way."
He snorted, "We haven't been family since you dug yourself out of that grave. Mother and Father were so happy to have you back they didn’t care how. It was just a superstition. Red haired people don't turn into Dark Fey. You looked like Ariana, so you had to be her."
"I am your sister, Alric," replied Ariana softly. “I never meant for Mum and Dad to be killed or for you to be exiled.”
“They died because you wouldn’t stay inside. What did you think would happen when those merchants disappeared? Or when people kept seeing you in the woods after we’d buried you.”
Raising her hands, Ariana shouted, “I didn’t think!” She forced herself to stay calm. “I didn’t know what I was doing. But I’ve changed.”
The pair stood silently for a moment, then Alric said, "So have I."
Alric leapt at her, swinging his blade at her head. Ariana brought up her cudgel only to have it smashed in half by Alric's blow. She dived out of the way as the sword's edge came within inch of cutting her. As she rolled to her feet, Alric thrust the blade forward, forcing her on the defensive, jumping from one spot to another to avoid being cut.
Alric was faster than he had ever been before. Ariana realised if she was going to come out of this alive, she would have to go all out. But if she didn't have the heart to kill Alric before, could she do it now?
Alric apparently had no such inhibitions. He charged after her, wild stroke after wild stroke, fury in his eyes, getting more agitated with each unsuccessful stroke. Ducking under his next sweep, Ariana slipped on the wet cobblestones, falling to the ground with a thump. Alric thrust forward and she rolled out of the way, his blade grazing her shoulder, blood spraying from the wound.
A red mist enveloped her thoughts. She rushed forward and knocked the blade from Alric's hand. Alric grabbed her dress, then elbowed her in the face. Snarling, she smashed her fist into his nose. As he groaned, she seized his tunic and threw him to the ground. A move that landed him right beside his sword. Ariana darted for him, but Alric snatched the blade, deftly halting her advance with a slash.
Ariana fell back. Clutching her stomach, she collapsed to the ground. Peering down at the wound she saw blood pouring out. It wasn't fatal, but the fight wasn't in her anymore. She had already lived far longer than she had any right to, if her life could be called living. It was time for her to take responsibility for all the people she’d hurt - her parents, the people of Ladorn, Devran, Alric. Unsuccessfully blinking back red tears of pain, she looked up at Alric bearing down on her. "Finish it, Alric. I don't care anymore."
Alric stopped in his tracks. “Ariana, still surprising me after all this time. I promise a quick death.”
“At least you’re using my name now.” Closing her eyes, she waited for the blade to cleave her head from her neck and wondered with a little trepidation what fate awaited her on the other side. When several seconds passed she muttered, "The Alric I remember didn’t break his promises. If you have any feelings for me, stop your gloating and finish this."
When Alric didn't reply, she dared to look up. Alric stood in the same spot, his sword still posed to strike, but shaking in his grip. Screaming, Alric brought the blade down stopping an inch from her throat. The pair locked eyes. His hate had been replaced with something else, but whether it was any good for her she didn't know.
Alric slammed the blade into the ground. "Dammit! Sixty years and I still can't do it.
Ariana thought she saw his eyes water. He dropped his sword to the ground and looked at her. “I’m sorry, Ariana. I hate seeing you like this, but I’m not strong enough to release you.”
Ariana extended a bloody hand to him. "It's because we're family. We don't have anyone else." Wincing, she got to her feet. "You can't kill me and I don't want to kill you. I never did."
"So I should just forgive for what happened to Mother and Father?"
"Dammit, Alric! I made a mistake." Looking down she continued. "I see their faces every day. I see a lot of faces."
She reached out to him. "I don't want to fight anymore."
Alric sighed, "I can’t kill you, but I can't have you killing people."
"I don't choose innocents, Alric." At least not anymore, she thought.
"Just because your current victims are scum, doesn't mean they deserve death."
With some effort Ariana shrugged. "Most did, but I'm not in a position to debate morality with you."
"Because you're a monster?"
Ariana winced with laughter, that he could call her monster after what he’d done to himself. She forced a smile. "No, because I'm bleeding to death. Look, I only need human hearts occasionally. We can help each other, Alric. If you can bring yourself to look away when I need to hunt. I can help you find other Fey for your...needs.”
“You would hunt your own kind?”
“I have no allegiance to them,” replied Ariana. “If I did I wouldn’t be living alone.”
Alric stroked his chin. “Fey are getting hard to find and the hearts don’t last as long as they used to. The idea of using a monster to catch a monster is intriguing.”
Biting back a more acerbic response, Ariana replied, “I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but yes. So what do you say, brother?”
Alric stood silently mulling her offer. Finally he extended his hand. "It'll be daylight soon. We should get those wounds mended."
She gestured to the bodies surrounding them. "What about your men?"
Alric gazed at them. "My responsibility. I will compensate them for their losses. They don't need to know you survived."
She slumped exhausted against his side, saying something she hadn't uttered in sixty years. "Thank you, brother."
Yet in the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but wonder - what would Alric do if they couldn’t find any Dark Fey?