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The Lost War ; Act I - Threads of Fate

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The Lost War

By: Joshua Mercott

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Dedication

To the madness of power, and the power of madness

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Synopsis

It is 100 years since the War of Conversion and modern society and its people have grown divided. A powerful spell is unleashed on the globe, the very reason people go to war, and soon Animaloids come to exist. Everyone becomes either vampires (blood-wraiths) or lykans (werewolves). With the wolves outnumbering the vamps, the nation of Luposia grows strong and enforces control over the vampire homeland of Fangtasia. However, when you have Count Dracula for a leader, the scales of power are prone to shift as the mighty royal werewolf House of Drugozolv soon finds out.

 

When the eldest daughter Ambrosia Drugozolv faces injustice and rises to lead her people, it is her magic and the loyalty of the pack that will keep the race surviving the strange changes happening in their world. None of them yet know what the Dark Gods have planned for a world where Humans are thought to have gone extinct only to show up a century after the war, where surprises can be fatal, where new discoveries are made that are not always for the greater good, where madness is just around the corner, and where War can only be countered by Unity.

 

Will Ambrosia find peace with herself and the cards that fate has dealt her? Or will she take the easy way out, give up, and crumble into oblivion? What will become of the world that after turning into Animaloids ceases to give up on the savagery that made them so in the first place? Will Ambrosia find love in a lykan man who shows he cares for her or will she give up soft caresses for a life of hard-won victories? Lesser rulers have gone mad in the process. Ambrosia Drugozolv finds herself becoming increasingly alone in a world that is becoming rather crowded.

 

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Main Characters

Ambrosia Drugozolv – Eldest Royal-Princess of the House of Drugozolv

Viktoria Drugozolv – Matriarch; Ambrosia’s mother

Alexandrovich Drugozolv – Patriarch and Viktoria’s bond-mate; Ambrosia’s father

Julius Vourdal – Duke of Blood Hill, alpha-grade council member of the Lykan Syndicate

Olaf Hiraadhya – Leader of the Halvatians, an isolated Lykan tribe

Wallach Dracula Vladimiste [of the House of Drăculeș*t*i] – Count, head of the Confederacy of Diplomats & Prime Minister of Fangtasia

Earl Kurniyev Keel – Courtier; Ambrosia’s closest friend

Lady Elizabeth Koolva – Head of the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau

Michael Graham – Leader of the Human resistance

 

 

Mentioned In Passing

The Drugozolv cubs / children…

From oldest to youngest among the boys: Arkady, Vitaly, Boris, Andrei, Ivan, Zakhar, Ruslin, Yury, Robert, James and little Henry. The girls in that same order: Anna, Dina, Vera, Maya, Elena, Sofia, Bernadette, Martha, Angeline, Cecelia, Courtney and Caroline (the triplets), and Sylvia.

 

Dracula’s Immediate Family…

Seven daughters (Marcia, Jesse mentioned) & one son (Viscount James Dracula)

 

Fangtasia’s Policians

Baroness Betsy Moline (high-ranker); Rt. Hon. Ecstasia Jamsworth (Chancellor of the Exchequer); Rt. Hon. Octavia Buckton (Home Secretaryt); Rt. Hon. Lewis and Clark Gladstone (Attorney Generals)

 

Alycia Koolva – Den-mother to the Royals; Elizabeth Koolva’s sister

Lord Buchanan Koolva – Elizabeth Koolva’s bond-mate

Tevya Knol – Head of Ambrosia’s security contingent

Saramat Buchenko – Lykan historian

Jeqweh – Lykan councillor

Zachfar Kiodar – The Leon King

Alia – Chief lioness and commander; consort to the Leon King

 

 

1

“Presenting the Most-Noble Julius Vourdal, the Duke of Blood Hill, alpha-grade council member of the Lykan Syndicate.”

If you happen to see a house float by, it’s probably Vourdal. He moves gracefully even though he is built like one of the giants from the East of the kingdom. Being the only daughter to the reigning Matriarch of Luposia, I have the esteemed misfortune to attend a ball thrown in my honor just so several wolves from high-ranking families could come from across Luposia to the capital city of Moonhaven to woo me for my paw in marriage.

We werewolves are a proud race. Some even say we’re prouder than the Vampires who prefer to stay at arm’s length if not more from our culture and pack lifestyle. Records have it that my family, the line of Drugozolv, are prouder than the Dragon clans who have long since gone out of mind, presumed extinct. Has it been only one century since we decimated the human race and ‘divided’ them through the War of Conversion until all who were left on Earth were either vampires or lykans? It was a hundred years ago but to us immortals it feels like yesterday’s atrocity. At least, I feel that way, even though I was born a while after. Why can’t any of us live together? Perhaps because we are humans transformed, we still retain the habit of leaping at each other’s throats at the slightest provocation. Will it never end? I find myself in such a life, fated to carry on the policies and diplomacies of a world I much prefer evolved.

While the lykan men are praised for their battle skills and great ability at hunting, the women of our race are given a higher prestige. We are as capable as they when it comes to fighting and the hunt but we have something they can only dream of. Female lykans can use magic. Even the vampires are yet to learn how to wield this mysterious energy, which is why they don’t stoke our rage. They keep to their territory while we rule the vast majority of land and shallows. My mother the Matriarch is the most powerful member of the Drugozolv line. She became the first to take over leadership after the war. Her powers are so great that everyone decides it is better to respect her wisdom than attempt irrelevant coups. The entire kingdom of Luposia, covering purportedly the largest continent in the world, shivers when they hear the name Viktoria Drugozolv whose most frightening conquests happen so swiftly that there is nothing to describe in the records. The fact that she has only a brief chronicle to her name has made her the most feared ruler on the lykan throne.

My mother isn’t exceptionally beautiful, some would say she has rather plain features. She takes after granddad in this regard. As much as I love grandpa, I have to admit he is one of the ugliest werewolves I have ever seen, but he has a heart of gold, bless his soul. Who am I kidding, it’s as cold as ice, but still he loves his pack and that’s all that matters. “Family over desire, Lykans over life, Power over everything else.” His infamous motto.

The music plays up between court introductions, a beat-driven tune that I feel like dancing too while my dress demands decorum. My heels bite into my feet worse than my fangs did into yesterday’s meal. This is quite the formal event for my family. I have to literally stand beside mother and look pretty for the men. Suffice to say I hate every second of it. I glance at mom to my left. She sits so straight-backed she makes the ornamented throne look warped. I could never exude such intimidating appeal. Case in point…

“Presenting the confederacy of diplomats from Fangtasia.” The only vampires ever allowed to enter lykan lands are the confederacy. Mother appreciates trading opportunities acting directly under the confederacy who in turn answer to the Royal Office. There are nobles in Fangtasia, no rulers. Some of their men and women took up political roles while others among them became keynote diplomats. Mother had cut all royal ties when the lykans conquered the vampires. Her words still ring after nearly ninety years. “There shall be one head on this body and it shall be mine. Any who try to slice it shall taste the venom of my fangs if they haven’t been roasted by my magic first.” Ninety years she ruled on the throne and being immortal she could go on ruling if she pleased. Until she willingly hands the throne over, she is Matriarch and we are all loyal subjects to varying degrees.

I don’t hear her stand up. The thick silk folds of her gown must have rustled at least. She gains an enviable pose, her chin angled just right, her brows risen to attain that imperious arch without seeming supercilious. Her right hand is at her belly and her left rests on the sides of her gown where they curve outward. One of her shoulders is slightly ahead of the other. She looks toward the Royal Maw, what is normally called the entrance to the throne room.

“Count Dracula.” As always, when mother speaks the air seems to sing. “I trust you aren’t foolhardy enough to come to court to vie for my daughter’s hand?”

“Your Majesty, I come only to bask in your regal presence.” He bows. Vampires, sexy and charming. But then again, they’re vampires.

“It’s bad enough that a mighty warrior of sword and axe—and if memory serves, the bow—chose the delicate threads of diplomacy. Maybe that’s why your choice of weapon has shifted from truth to flattery, which makes for a blunt prick I can assure you.” She makes a royal gesture of welcome.

“Matriarch Viktoria Drugozolv.” He bows again and smiles. His blue eyes gleam and his fair skin contrasts the pale pink of his lips. I feel like he wants to look at me, to offer me that beguiling smile, but nobody dares lay eyes on the daughter without the mother introducing her first; lykan tradition. They can do so from a distance but to risk it in direct range of the Matriarch is to court disaster.

“Count Dracula Vladimiste.” She sits. The diplomats walk to occupy a place everyone could see them at, a cordoned off area decked with lilac and green ropes with the bluish-purple flag that represents the nation of Fangtasia.

Rigors of tradition aside, I have been standing for the better part of four hours. I know there are still a few more lykan nobles to be introduced, which means another three hours before I am free to return to my room and throw my feet in a bucket of cold water. If I wasn’t immortal and exempt from natural death, I swear these heels will have done the job. Packs are often extensive, and I adore each one of my twenty-four siblings, all younger than me. Heels will make for a rather unforgettable punishment for some of them especially the master of mischief, little Henry. He can drive the most composed lykan into a rage with his antics. Mother says an ability for mischief is a measure of a mind’s strategic potential. She could be right, he hides half my things although how he gets into my room without my noticing and how he returns the items he took is beyond me. I bet even now he’s pilfering my things, the little devil. I’d like to put Henry in these heels just so I could see him sit in one place and rub his throbbing ankles.

I’m twenty-two years old, a mere infant by lykan reckoning. My mother is already going on one hundred and fifty and she hasn’t aged a day since she was twenty-five; the age lykans stop aging. I have to wait three more years before I can begin magic lessons. Only then does a female lykan show the signs. This leaves me feeling vulnerable. I am not stupid, I know the reality of death, murder, starvation and the thorns of politics. I knew from the day I was born that I was marked for assassination. The last thing some lykans want, needless to say the vampires, is another Drugozolv in the world. Two were dangerous enough; I am referring to my father, the strongest most respected lykan in all of Luposia after mom.

“Ambrosia.” It was mother. “You’re leaning.”

I adjust my weight on both feet and stand in the lady-like manner that I was drilled to obey for two straight hours preceding tonight’s event. Mother hasn’t opened her mouth but communicates as she often does with me, through the mind; a possibility only extant between werewolf mothers and daughters. Her psychic skills are sharp, developed over a span of two decades if not more. I can receive but have a ways to go before I can enact the same skill out to someone. Her string of pearls clinks softly and her gold jewellery shines against skin so fair they look like moonlight spread thin.

“Presenting…” And so the evening goes, three more nobles came along—two lords and an earl—and all the while I feel like murdering my feet, if such a thing is possible. This makes me despise my human form. When the music plays and people take to the floor in a slow dance I envy their laughter. As the Matriarch’s daughter, laughter is considered the most un-royal thing to do. It is the most private of emotions and in my twenty-two years I have never once heard mother laugh. She smiles but only when she knows the gesture holds meaning. I am so different from her. I am suddenly reminded that even in gloomy castles and power-fuelled courts, in unfortunate slums like the Jertads and the Oldocks, in posh neighbourhoods like the Helganns and the Luminarays, and across extensive wheat and barley fields and poultry farms, there is a sliver of humanity that makes us give in to an impulse that didn’t transform along with us. Laughter is proof of our original innocence.

I have never been a self-conscious girl. I see myself in the mirror and don’t believe what people say about me. Tonight, like most events, I realize that gossip stating I am the most beautiful lykan in the world could be true. When I think about it, it makes me want to burst out laughing, which is exactly why I shouldn’t think about it. Let the earls stare, let the counts drool, let the dukes partake of dignified lechery. All I care about is a glass of cold Tyrial—a specially engineered blend of vodka, whiskey and bourbon, I don’t know how they did it but it tastes divine instead of nauseous—and a chair to sit down on, with lots of tiny cushions.

I catch Earl Kurniyev Keel’s gaze. He is by far the cutest in the room. Being a tolerant society we accepted him for who he is when he came out and made official the fact that he was gay. So many female hearts stopped beating when it came on the news but nobody gave him any grief. Three of my sisters were justifiably upset. Kurniyev and me are close friends, have been ever since we were toddlers. I had often wondered why he never looked at me the way other boys did. At this time, I also spot the vampire count shooting me a glance. Draculya gave me the subtlest smile a person could possibly manage.

Mother stands and the music stops. She earns the attention of the room, hundreds of higher-echelon lykans and sundry nobility. “Ladies and gentlemen, earls, lords, dukes, and the confederacy of diplomats who grace us with their presence.” She makes it sound acerbic without any real shift in tone. “We are gathered here tonight to commemorate my daughter’s twenty-second birthday with music, dance, song and feast.” Claps resound in the vast space. “I give you Ambrosia Drugozolv, eldest daughter of Alexandrovich and myself, royal princess and heir to the Drugozolv throne.”

At this point, I am supposed to move before her, curtsey, turn at the head of the stairs, descend and take the hand of the first suitor who will in turn be followed by the next higher-ranking official and so on until I waltzed with seventeen titled and privileged wolves of noble upbringing. With my feet in a biting mood, I keep from gritting my teeth lest they see my jaw clench.

“I like your shoes,” says Kurniyev Keel when it comes his turn.

“I hate them,” I reply. He gives me an understanding look and smiles. “Kurni, I need to sit down and you’re the only one who can help me right now, babe.”

“And miss out on a chance to make little Henry fist pump the air when I tell him how your outrageously uncomfortable but singularly fabulous heels are giving you reason to faint?”

I give him a playful slap on the lapels and he grins. “Don’t make me laugh.”

“Me? Wouldn’t dream of it.” He guides me to one side and shows me to a seat. The crowd parts so I can lower myself as I had been taught to do, fold one foot over the other at the ankle and position my legs diagonally. Everyone continues to dance.

After a proper amount of time, I stand only to see the massive doors to the throne room that have remained closed for a while slam open. There stands papa. It took all I had not to burst out in as carefree a manner as he. “Ambrosia, my doll, my little lily-cub! I apologize for being late, but the hunt was well worth it.” In walks Lykan Patriarch Alexandrovich Drugozolv. People are always happy to see him, everyone in the kingdom loves my father; I think they like him even more than they do my mother. He walks toward me with powerful grace and fatherly abandon, picks me up in his arms, and hugs me. “Happy birthday, my sweet,” he whispers and points his large hand to the doors. In comes a parade of dish holders carrying all sorts of delicacies, animals that he’d hunted and that would soon be cooked and served as the next course of the feast progressed. A massive bull elephant floated in with the help of female lykans who wielded magic with some effort. There was a bear and a few Yarnavs, a type of horse only untameable and much wilder. Delicious. This was just one beast of many that papa has hunted for the feast, so everyone at court could enjoy.

There are plenty more where they come from. The Creature Census Consortium keeps a good keen eye on these things. We will soon retire to the seemingly horizon-less dining room when dinner will be announced. I can see mom’s lips turn slightly up in a smile. I can see from the dull gleam in her eyes how much she misses hunting with papa. She used to be as good as he was but ever since she adopted the mantle of Matriarch she had a family to raise and a kingdom to run. She would occasionally go with him alone in the forests and jungles of Luposia.

My father goes to her. He holds her gently and kisses her on the lips. I have seen them like this several times but the scene is much different now. In private, he’d sweep her up in his arms, she’d laugh with glee, and they’d kiss like young lovers who had won the world. But at court they are the heads of a nation that spans the world, all the way to the orange energy-barrier that does not let us travel past a few hundred feet of ocean. He returns to me.

“Thank you, Papa, the presents are going to be scrumptious, I’m sure. I can’t wait to bite into them.”

“I picked the best ones for you. I thought of asking you to perform the traditional dance with daddy but I know how much your feet are killing you.”

I sigh a little too loudly. “You have no idea, Papa. It’s hell in heels.”

“Want to know how I knew?”

He gives me the chance to say the eventual, “Yes.”

“That’s exactly what your mother went through when she was twenty-two.” I didn’t know that and my jaw drops. I compose myself. “She didn’t say anything. I was the last to dance with her and something felt wrong about the way she moved. She looked calm and perfect but, Ambrosia, a woman reveals her thoughts in the way she carries herself. Your mother, I alone could see, was physically uncomfortable. I made her sit and she thanked me with her care and we grew to love each other since.” He turns to look at her and she smiles again, a soft and repressed smile. Everyone is dancing and some smile when they see the two of them. Mama and papa dance with their eyes. “Her feet were so red, I remember. I rubbed them for her, you know.”

I was about to laugh but reflected mom’s coy smile. “Mine are purple, I’m sure. And if anyone rubs them, daddy, they’re gonna fall off. Going to…” I correct myself.

“Oh, Jishanka,” nonsense, he says, “you’re as strong as your mother. You just like to complain a lot.”

“Daddy!” I whine. He laughs; he is allowed to. He leaves me be, bows gracefully to me, his queen, and the room and leaves to freshen up for dinner.

Kurniyev comes back after chatting with a few people. Since he was the last to dance with me, despite not being a suitor per se, it is customary that he hand me over to the next wooer. “Your dad’s a good man, surely you know,” he says as we watch Patriarch Alexandrovich leave the room and people share pleasantries with him. “In a lot of ways, it’s thanks to your parents that the kingdom of Luposia, even though there are still slums and impoverished locations, doesn’t know hunger.” Kurni oversees the welfare and support department of government including holding an influential position in the technology bureau. “The Drugozolvs have put food on everyone’s tables based on what they could afford and then extra. Those who can’t pay can still eat.”

“You should know, Kurni, you run the Center.”

He sighs and the golden brooch at his chest catches the light. I look around and see diamonds, pearls, and gold on people around us. One metal alone is banned, silver. There is no silver anywhere in Luposia. Its chemical and atomic properties don’t sit well with lykan blood. Call it a twist of nature but a fact’s a fact. It’s because it was so dangerous that I feel drawn to it, interested to learn more about silver, our one major weakness. No lykan scientist wants to study it to find immunity. Its radiation is erratic and no matter the protection good minds perished after even a few hours of exposure to silver. I was educated in these and other matters; top of my class in a private school in the city. I learned so much that fascinated me. I have ideas to help change things a few years down the road when I attain twenty-five and magic greets me.

Maybe because of where my thought veer, I can’t help but notice a brief reflection come from somewhere in the crowd. Kurniyev appears nonchalant. He is daydreaming, as I often see him do. I bow to Kurniyev and turn to take the hand of the penultimate suitor Boris Nimiech, the Marquis of Buinz.

I steal a glance at mother who has her head turned as she says something to a guardsman. I admire the way her pale white hair glows with diamond jewellery and flows up and slightly back, a gorgeous pillar of cream held up by the very elements it seems. The marquis twirls me and by the time I come back round I notice a subtle hardness in mother’s eyes. I recognize it as anger.

I see her get up, gesture for the music to go on. People continue dancing. She has already relayed orders and the pack picks up on the change in her aura. People dance, smile, and share soft sentiments. The burly guards positioned around the room shift from their positions. They begin to stroll without any special reason. The Matriarch walks to a side-table to select refreshment. She pours herself a glass of tyrial and as she lifts it to her lips her other hand discreetly points at something. She composes herself so fast I think she merely swatted an insect. I see the crowd part a little near the back of the room where a wide set of connected balconies stand open to welcome the cool night air. Mist occupies the outside but doesn’t enter.

I observe how the waltzers nearby see the thin man fall but don’t bother to show shock or stop their paired movement. I see two guards pick up the body and carry it with ease as they would a drunk and unconscious reveller. My mother carries her tyrial back, elegantly climbs the short flight of stairs and lowers herself onto the throne. The anger in her eyes subsides and she takes another poised sip.

An assassin has been dealt with.

Nothing escapes the House of Drugozlov.

Nothing escapes the wolf.

Welcome to my world.

 

 

2

 

The Luposia Times does not headline what happened. The printing press is rather old-fashioned and we use low quality paper to save resources in a world where we have stopped depending too much on technology. We only have weeklies not dailies and when the paper comes out, it includes photos of dad and me when we met in the throne room, and the feast he brought in. It said how he already organized a large city-wide buffet to commemorate the event, and how beasts were raised months in advance just to be culled on this special day. It was silly to read but people apparently make a big deal of these things.

There are photos of me dancing with all eighteen members of nobility. The collage is beautifully rendered but the written content is a bit too dramatic for my liking. I read the paper in bed, cooler-packs wrapping both my feet, and a breakfast tray to my side topped with cream, coffee, pancakes, fruits, chocolate oats, orange and apple juice and some small pill that my doctor says I am ‘supposed’ to take. Anyway, as long as mom approves who was I not to. There is a small note as well, nestled inside a crisp envelope with dad’s handwriting on the outside. I read it before I do anything else.

‘Mornin’, sleepy-head. Come to Hold-B2.’

I know where that is. My siblings and I are taught to memorise the entire castle including its secret pathways not so we could run from our enemies but so we could catch them quicker if they tried to escape. I tear the sealed envelope with my fingers; mom would’ve disapproved. It’s not my fault, Henry hid my letter opener. I take the coolers off my throbbing feet and slip into something soft and massage-oriented.

Lykan cubs learn rudimentary skills to fight and hunt as early as they can. Nobody in Luposia can be termed delicate or vulnerable in any true sense of the word. We have flaws until we mature and perfect our craft but all in all werewolves are hardy folk. “We protect the pack, but we don’t ‘protect’ the pack.” Grandfather’s words of wisdom. He went on to explain how ideal it is to teach lykan children the evils in the world. Their innocence is not as useful as their lives. We wolves grow strong and brave because of such high expectations and if our fighting prowess and magic don’t deter our enemies our fearlessness will most certainly wear them down. There’s a reason why the House of Drugozlov takes pride in their race.

I ponder these things as I slip into a silk pyjama-coat and head to Hold-B2. I tried finding fault with the way we live. Because we are brave and skilled doesn’t mean we feel nothing. Anxiety, nervousness, sorrow, depression, loss, we still have all those human traits, and we don’t shun them. They help us survive because we learned to strengthen ourselves using our weaknesses. There is more to the lykan race than what people wrote about us a century and more ago. The books I read on the matter only make me feel that we are still incomplete. We still need to change things even if it means going back. I feel jittery and my feet tingle as if to suit the feeling. I don’t linger on the curtness of dad’s letter. I am used to these things by now. I am being groomed on several fronts to take up my duties at court and elsewhere. But I thought after being formally introduced at court last night and eating plenty—the bear was great, the elephant was tough—I’d get to sleep in. When the tray came at six it served as a summons; ‘get up, there is work to be done’.

Four ladies-in-waiting helped me get ready. They draw a bath but I tell them I’ll be back in a while. They make the bed while I dress and head out the room. A small taskforce of Drugozlov guards escort me to the hold. Walking isn’t a chore, I have healed quickly although not as fast as a vampire can. Fifteen minutes later the clock strikes seven when I make an appearance.

The iron doors open to usher me into a dismal zone of the castle. I see mom with her arms folded before her. She is wearing a tight red top and a knee-length chiffon skirt, bloomed out like an upside-down bell-flower. Dad is a study in epaulettes, buckles and gold tassels; he is in uniform. Four guards hold their posts and adjust stances when they see me. I walk in, all the while keeping my eyes on the stranger hanging from a polished iron frame that could spin on a hinged pivot.

“From dental, blood and image-scan records, this man you see before us is a complete mystery. He doesn’t exist in our census database. Every lykan and vampire is in there; the census is taken every two and a half months. Where did this thing, approximately twenty-something years, nearly thirty I would say, come from?” Alexandrovich studies him. His foot taps, once, slowly, pauses, and taps again. “He tried to kill our daughter in our home. How did we not pick up on his scent? How did he get past the Drugozolv Guard at the main gate? It’s like he became a shadow within the shade, indistinguishable and easily forgotten.” He makes sense to himself more than anyone else. Dad assesses based on experience and he does not always stop to describe what he means in detail. “Even magical female lykans couldn’t get close to the castle’s estates. We have detectors for that kind of thing. What stealth-spell has this one used that bested us? No whiff of magic about him.” He sniffs audibly.

“And he’s conveniently fallen unconscious.” My mother turns to me and her pale brown eyes bore into mine. “He had silver on him, a metal that could most probably—if we haven’t any rebels in Luposia proper—be found in Fangtasia, where vampires dwell and plot our fall every day. Careful, my love,” she says when she sees father raise his hand to slap the man awake with a wet piece of tarp.

I say the first thing that came to my mind. “What’s wrong with him? He is giving off no scent. I mean, no scent at all.”

“Your senses have never been introduced to his kind in over eighty-five years. The human you see before you is the first one we’ve encountered in as long. And while we’re waiting for the Table of Wisdom to tell us what to do, we’re hoping this one will directly give us the answers we need. My spell back at court was meant for a vampire. Sadly, it’s put this human out for many hours.”

“But mother, what does this mean? Why send a human to kill a lykan? It seems futile.” So impressed am I with the fact that I am in the presence of a flesh-and-blood human being who gives off no scent I can register as familiar and who is most definitely dangerous that I don’t dwell on my own probable assassination in front of a court of lykans not to forget the diplomats. “Do you think the count had a hand in this?”

“Dracula is ambitious but he’s no fool.” Father looks at me. “The spy was carrying this.”

“My letter opener.” I take it with both hands. They have placed the paper-slitter inside a transparent tightly sealed bag.

“It has your monogram on it. But we knew it was from the castle, obviously.” Mother sighs. I rarely hear her sigh. “Ambrosia, you’ve already begun classes to be part of court affairs. Remember when I told you that when you’re introduced to court, you’ll be working to find your own niche in it? Yesterday was one day closer to that moment, which gives someone motive to assassinate you on such a special event.”

“Mercenaries like these are a dime a dozen, my doll,” said papa. “We took care of the last few hundred. But your’re part of the lykan court and this being a human changes a lot. I want you to be part of the investigation.”

Mother comes close and holds my hand. “We have a team combing your room for magical surveillance, sweetheart, but since it’s your room you will have the most reliable sense if anything is awry.”

“Nothing is wrong, mother. My room feels normal, nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And the letter opener?”

“Little Henry,” I blurt out as if it is obvious. “He comes into my room when I’m not there or I can’t spot him at least. He takes stuff, puts them back later, so I thought when the letter opener went missing early yesterday that he pulled another prank.”

“We’re going to have to talk to Henry.” Papa nods to mama and leaves the room.

“Dad, can’t we bring Henry here? Teach him something about all this?” Remember I said how all lykan children are taught about the world’s evils? This is an opportunity not a taboo. Someday Henry too will have similar problems and he’ll be better placed to face them if he starts learning about them early.

“You don’t know this, but Henry hasn’t been blood-trained yet.” Mom is right, I didn’t know. It is a boy thing, all male lykan cubs have to be trained to think rationally when they smell blood. An uncontrolled lykan is a danger to himself and his pack.

Father gives a deep-throated chuckle. “If Henry see the cuts on this man, being human to boot, I think he’ll eat him right here. Can’t have that, can we? Kid eats a hefty breakfast but this one has answers for us.” He grins. Mom and I give him a look.

“Your dad feels Henry’s a lot like him when he was a cub. He takes immense pride in his antics,” Mom playfully scolds.

The four guards in the room with us change stances again as my parents leave and I find myself alone in the cell with a stranger who only seven or so hours ago tried to kill me. I am not afraid, merely curious about how a delicate human—from what I have read of them—could dare try something like this. Did he come here thinking he would succeed? What did he do when he woke up in the morning and thought about his day? Where did he come from? Why was he against the lykans and not the vampires?

“Ahem.” I turn to find Lady Lizzie, head of the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau. One of the few portly lykans I’ve ever laid eyes on, Lizzie is as energetic as she is buxom. The woman loves her makeup but clothes have to be standard issue in keeping with her position. I have friends who were already attending school learning magic. They say Lizzie led the tracking and investigation courses. If the gossip about this woman is true, then I am in excellent hands though not gentle ones. Lizzie didn’t get to be head of the Bureau by dumb luck.

Her sister, by contrast, is slimmer, shorter, daintier, and den-mother to us royals. She takes all twenty-five of us, my siblings and me, out on picnics and educational excursions. Her magic is quite intimidating; Alycia wields two-handed short swords to send her magic coursing through, to sharpen the blast she says. The Drugozolv kids, myself included, remember when we went out with her a few years back and saw her take on a bear all by herself, growling guidance on tactics as she fought and eventually downed the beast without using any magic, only her swords. And even den-mother Alycia Koolva is afraid of her sister, Lady Elizabeth Koolva who stands and stares at me with the most fixed wolfish gaze. “Come with me, Ambrosia,” she says, her voice unimaginably beautiful; I think someone else spoke. This is my first meeting with the Lady Lizzie and already she has intimidated me.

I don’t ask where we are going. I feel she won’t take kindly to the question. Just because some of us are royals doesn’t make us better than anyone else in the pack. We are a team, strong only because we are together. We defer to those who are older, more experienced and more skilled. This is how lykans maintain integrity, we function as one being not as individual parts. We see the whole ‘machine’ of what our kingdom is. The tiniest spark can start a fire, the smallest faulty component can result in a total systems failure and the tiniest of cells can grow into life threatening tumours. The nation is relatively peaceful but there is still so much unrest and dispute to flush out.

We have vampires in Fangtasia who, even though outnumbered, pose a constant danger to us. Our ancestors made an agreement and both parties were, within reason, willing to uphold it. We are stuck inside some sort of energy bubble that even our most cunning scientists have failed to comprehend; studies were long since halted on excuse of resource waste. And now comes the first human sighting and consequent capture. Locked in Hold-B2 is something that could start the Conversion War all over again only this time the vampires will want the bigger slice of the pie. I can understand why Lady Lizzie walks on in silence and why I can’t help but tag along in silence too.

We don’t go to my room but take a couple of turns until we make it to the next wing where the cubs live. Lizzie seems to know her way in these corridors. She opens a door and walks right in. We find little Henry inside, sitting like a good pupil at his teakwood table. He has a book open to his right, angled up on a pedestal. There are a few toys on the table as well. He is using the figurines to play out a scene so he can read immersive and enhance retention. He puts the figurines down and stands to attention. “Henry Drugozolv,” says Lady Lizzie as she takes her seat and places the evidence bag containing the letter opener on the table.

Before I ask after what is happening, Henry starts to speak. “Lady Koolva, I candidly admit that I took the letter opener from elder-royal sister Ambrosia’s room without permission. I took it into the estate forests and hid them at intersection 23 where the great oak tree that grandfather Drugozolv planted stands burned and charred. I have no recollection, Lady Koolva, of reclaiming said object and returning it to elder-royal sis.”

“Thank you, Henry,” says Lizzie. I admit I was shocked. I have a fist at my throat and can only frown at little Henry whom I have never seen behave this way. I never thought my little brother could still his mind long enough to accomplish such formality. I am equally surprised to notice the way he stays respectful and collected in Lady Lizzie’s presence. Nobody else can make him be this way, except mom and dad who most probably asked him to wait in his room for Lizzie and do his homework in the meantime. He gets up and bows before leaving the room. I haven’t taken my eyes off him. I scruff up his hair as he passes and poke him as he runs out the door; he pokes his tongue out at me. The open drawer beside his bed catches my eye, mainly because I see something familiar poking out of it. The little bugger took my watch. He must have in the short time I’d been to the hold. He couldn’t hide it quickly enough. I grit my teeth and look at Lady Lizzie.

“Ambrosia,” she says and comes closer. “Facts first, truth later. Let us learn what we are dealing with and then look for meaning in it. This human business is not going to be easy to resolve, I’ll admit. If what your brother says is true, then this original man,” that was the term they used for actual humans before we became vampires or werewolves, “could have kept tabs on all the royal cubs and seen Henry hide your letter opener. He must have gone to investigate, though why he took it I am yet to learn.”

“Perhaps he thought he’ll succeed. Perhaps someone told him there was a certainty that he’d get the job done yesterday and he wanted to sell the gold letter opener after he returned.”

Lady Lizzie looks at me in a way I can only describe as probably impressed perhaps not. “Your instincts are good but not sharp. If he is working for the vampires—as I am convinced he is—he’d have gotten his hands on the silver dagger we found on his person, which is in quarantine as we speak awaiting further study. Anyone other than vampires and we’d have found the goods, I can assure you. We even came across many silver objects that the vampires have hoarded over the decades. Now, since we know that he is ninety-eight percent working for the vampires, we can safely assume that they lied to him about the success rate of tackling the Drugozolvs. This means the man is uneducated but skilled nevertheless, trained by a vampire based on the way he could easily enter and leave, and based on trajectory reports of the way he moved around the ballroom last night; textbook vampire strategies. I have collected a sample of his blood and discovered that it contains a new blend of chemical that cuts his human scent by stopping it from reaching his sweat glands. It is not been classified, meaning it’s probably Fangtasian in origin. As for the gold letter opener I believe he was to bring it back as proof of assassination, which brings me,” she takes a deep breath, “to the next part of my assessment. That he had a clear view of your room and, if memory serves, the way the letter opener catches the dawn light on your desk. He couldn’t find an opportunity to enter your chambers at any point in the day from where he hid waiting so he must have seen Henry take the opener after you left to get orientated and dressed for the courtship ball yesterday evening. He found it safer to follow the boy and claim his proof without risking leaving forensic evidence behind in your room. Having gotten the letter opener, he waits, probably to evade the guards. From the rate of toxicity that our scientists have reported about his blood, I’d say he had to inject himself a few times. A preliminary study of the body will confirm the same, once we have the man completely to ourselves. Lastly, all this time spent hiding killed the hours and he had one last chance—further proof that this is his first time on the field. He failed at the assassination, obviously, and from the delayed departure of the count and his confederacy of diplomats, I would go as far as to guess that they didn’t know of the coup; but that is debatable. This brings me to understand that an underground society of human beings is behind this plan and that they could most probably be in league with the vampires who play the role of silent partners. They get the silver, are encouraged by the vampires’ lies, and the foolish humans decide to kill you before you get closer to officially entering court affairs; sealing the fact that there will be another Matriarch on the throne in the years to come. With your death, the humans will find sufficient morale to fight for the lykan throne. Based on all we know,” she takes a deep breath, “we’d better find traces of this chemical in the estate forests, which seems to be the only lead that can help us trace the assassin’s movements back to his hideout.”

I can see why Lady Lizzie is feared and respected by her colleagues and my family. “Can’t we just ask the assassin? Force him if needed?”

She throws me that fixed unblinking gaze again. I feel she will stand there for all eternity until the cogs in my brain start to turn. “He’s mute?”

“They cut out his tongue. I thought you’d have gathered that much from the fact that he had to bring something back as proof. This further confirms the diplomats’ lack of involvement. If they could see him succeed from when they were at court, he wouldn’t need proof. And this means…?”

“I was supposed to have been killed before the courtship ball not after.”

Lady Elizabeth Koolva turns and walks out the room. I follow.

We make our way to the estate forests that adjoin my wing of the castle. Several guardsmen walk about. They have put up no-pass cordons and signposts and have set up examination tables. They are already at work, which means Lizzie already knew everything she told me earlier. The lykan works fast, I must admit. She doesn’t stop to cater to my concerns. “Thoughts?” she asks.

“We can’t scent him out. What do we have to work with, Lady Koolva?”

“We have the chemical he used to inject himself. He’d have been waiting in the trees for a long time. He’d have needed to rely on the synthetic compound regularly or his glands would’ve secreted a human odour and the guards will have caught the scent.”

“But we’re talking about a scent that can’t be smelled. I’m guessing that if the vampires designed this chemical to be undiscoverable from inside a human body then we can’t smell it outside either.”

“Very good, Your Highness.” We are outside among the men. It is technically office hours, titles and formalities are the norm. “It would be like finding a needle in a haystack.”

I start to get a gist of how Lizzie thinks. Every word is a test, every exchange a message to beget a more specific answer, the exact one she expects or something better. I don’t want to look bad before this woman whose sharp mind cuts to the root of a problem in record time. I decide to play her game. “Suppose the needle and haystack are literal. Only a fool will come across it because he will prick his finger and cry out in pain, alerting the others. The only way to truly hide a needle in a haystack is to put it in plain sight where the fool can’t reach it.”

“Seeing as how none of us here are fools, I think we’d best get started.” She beckons to a guard and walks toward the tree line.

“Wait,” I say. I learn something just now, but I am worried if it will wash. Facts first, truth later; as Lady Lizzie said a while back. I am doubtful, though. When the mind is satisfied with an easy answer, it is often the wrong answer. “We already know what’s happening here, Lady Koolva.” The Lykan guard within hearing distance perk their heads up and look at me. In fluffy slippers and a night-coat, I feel terribly underdressed. “The vampires planned this to perfection. Their biggest flaw was that we could pick up vampiric presences anywhere in Luposia but not human ones. That was the weak link in the chain. They sent a human to assassinate me but he failed because he wasn’t good enough. Now, why search for this chemical and use it a lead when it’s obviously a distraction. We can’t find it because we don’t have the technology to help. The vampires therefore know what our technology can’t detect. Since our tech is highly classified and each development in the past ninety years has been carried out under the strictest secrecy so no vampire can learn to defend themselves knowing what to defend against,” I take a deep breath, for more reasons than because I had to breathe to speak the next sentence, “it means we have a traitor in the pack.”

My words unnerve the usually stoic guards. They snarl among themselves as they discuss the theory. “Very good, Your Highness,” says Lady Lizzie Koolva and she gestures for me to take the lead. I have earned her approval. She guides me to a forensics table here, a gathering there, and tutors me on what’s going on and how different methods can potentially help resolve the problem. It’s been a few hours but all Lizzie has shared are tentative probabilities not confirmations. After I have seen everything I need to, Lizzie says it’s time to take the report to my parents, so we walk back inside.

 

 

3

 

We find them at lunch. Has it already been that long? How can six hours just fly by? Mom and dad are in the dining room. Being the start of the weekday, they had matters of State to attend to. As they dig into some of yesterday’s leftovers, sip some red wine and bite into some leafy veggies, I sit at the table, nibble on a buttered slice of baguette and explain our findings. Lady Lizzie stands by the door, her hands folded before her.

“What do you think, Lizzie?” dad asks after I finish.

“I think your daughter has the gift, Your Majesty.” I bet it is more praise that she has given in many years. Lizzie never says anything just to please someone, even if it is the Matriarch and Patriarch of Luposia.

“You see, Ambrosia, my doll,” papa says as mom dabs his lips with a napkin. “Lizzie won a chance to mentor you. Many years ago, she played a game of might with heads of all industrial departments in Luposia to see who would get to orientate you into their field once you were officially introduced to court.”

I turn in my chair and see Lizzie. I stare at her like she is wont to do at others. I wait. “I outsmarted them all, Your Highness.” That’s all she says and that’s all I ever want to know. How she fooled all those lykans vying for my inclusion in their department might be a tale too scary for me. I turn back to look at dad as he continues.

“So she wanted to see if you had the aptitude for investigation, assessment, and clue-seeking without the use of magic or tools, only your wits.” He taps at his temples. “Of course, even if you got it wrong you still have three years to pursue anything else you want to do until you’re twenty-five and show promise of magic. Those lessons will be the trickiest.” He gives mom a knowing look.

“She liked what you did in the field. The way you could think on your feet, save time and resources.” Mom’s voice cuts through even the most informal space with regal accuracy. “You are now eligible to join the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau under the mentorship of Lady Elizabeth Koolva. You can rise in the ranks as you prove capable and for the next three years you shall be agent-in-training from the House of Drugozlov. There will of course be an official event for this.” She looks at Lizzie and she nods briskly as if to confirm that everything is prepared and awaiting only me to come attend.

“Your mind, if I may say so Your Highness, is sharp, but your body needs training to keep up with it.” Lizzie speaks almost out of turn but I’d missed the cue she’d received from mother who has taken hold of her fork and knife and is cutting into a side of grilled beef. “As you have already been notified of this during your courtship orientation classes, I feel it is safe to assume that you have chosen a mode of physical martials to train in.”

I have indeed. After much thought and not a small amount of vivid dreams, I saw myself holding the bow, the target’s beating heart an imagined rhythm in my mind as I let my imagination connect to its psyche, judged using instinct and sight to learn where the target would go, and with the air as my constant measure I loosed an arrow to land the kill. But then I saw myself squinting to see if I hit the target, how it reacted, what I needed to do if I missed. I realized that there are factors with archery that will disappoint me.

I remember taking the sword and feeling its heft. I landed a few awkward slices and goads on the dummy. I recalled people saying that the heft of a sword should be the same weight as the blade and an expert swords-lykan could balance a perfect weapon on a finger if they found its centre of gravity. I showed promise. With more practice, I could get quite good with this weapon. Then again, swords need a wider peripheral vision and quick core-muscle reflexes and I wasn’t as good in my training simulations as so many other lykans. I will not be average at something when there is a chance that I can be the best at something else.

I had other weapons to try, of course, from guns and slings to stranger armaments, all of which are useful in some form of battle or strategy. Guns can often be useless compared to a bow. A sword can be a less intelligent choice when stuck in a tight corner while a pair of koomjoes can save one’s life. Time flew, as it often does with me, and I found myself at the ball yesterday. This morning, I am on my feet investigating my own potential assassination. With all this going on, I failed to select a martial to develop.

As eldest royal-daughter I am starting to deliver less than what is expected of me. I should expect more from myself. It’s how my parents raised me. Despite their differing ages all my siblings, including little Henry, know what weapon they want to master already. I keep my thoughts to myself as I sit and think. I want to be my own person, my own woman, my own lykan. As much as I adore and love my family, I can’t take another ‘just like her grandfather’ or ‘exactly what your mother chose at your age’ or even ‘no better choice for a daughter of the House of Drugozlov’. I want to be outrageously unique to the point of scandalous; but in the awe-inspiring sense of the word not the attention-seeking version. I want to be original. I wait for the dramatic feelings to pass. I have learned never to speak when I am in any kind of emotional state, elevated or downtrodden. Before sense can kick in, I speak.

“I want to learn the art of daggers, poisons and dusts. I want to be an assassin.”

I hear a plate crack and a glass shatter. Mom has knifed into the china and dad holds a broken glass in his hand halfway to his mouth. Lizzie’s eyes go slightly wider than usual, which means she is terribly uneasy about the aura her leaders are giving off.

I don’t often hear dad when he is angry. For the first time since I was a cub and had put on mama’s makeup when I wasn’t supposed to, I hear dad enter this mode. “Any field you want,” he says as he lays down what remains of the glass. “Any martial of your choice. The whole world at your fingertips and a mighty legacy in your future. You still decide on a distinctly uncouth vampiric choice of fighting, the cowardly way out and a repulsive martial that is forbidden in all of Luposia. What would the pack say, Ambrosia? The people, the nobility. How will this affect the next three years of your life and the magic that will enter after?”

“Papa, please listen. I do not choose this to be rebellious. You’ve always known me to be a dutiful daughter. I don’t intend to mar the House of Drugozlov with this choice, which both you and mother dislike so passionately. I do this because, contrary to what you said, the world is not at my fingertips. From all that I have read, heard and seen, it’s simple to conclude that we’re silently at war with Fangtasia. We’re not a united world, we’re divided into werewolves and vampires. Assassinations and underhanded attacks are not the way this game should be played, at least not in the next hundred years to come. My siblings, your children, cannot go through the whole assassination cycle and come out proving a pointless tradition of strength and valour, luck and divine favour. We need to know our place in the universe, papa. And it starts at the simplest levels. If I were to master the art of daggers, I’d be better able to protect my family to the highest honour of my house. I will also be able to safeguard the people of Luposia with that knowledge. I will know how our enemies think and how they can snake their way into our lives. Imagine what the knowledge can do for me when I embrace magic. I want power, I admit, but smart power, papa. We should see where we stand decades into the future not just here and now.”

“What you say is wise, daughter,” says Viktoria Drugozlov. “I won’t insult your pride by letting you know that we have planned far into the future too, into the years your siblings and our people will grow up in long after we’re gone. But what you’re asking for is the impossible. We’ll have to send you to Fangtasia if you want to find tutors in that field. We’ll have to make agreements with the vampires for your safety and more besides. The risk is enormous; we are practically bringing their target closer and hoping they miss.”

“Nothing in life is risk-free, mama. We must do what we can to the best of our ability. Nothing can be built if we see only the risks involved. You taught me that. I want to build something with my life, mama. I want to be a beacon of inspiration like you and dad and several others in Luposia. We need to rebuild so much that years of war and a century of tentative hopes hasn’t. This will also give me a chance to learn more about vampires so we can together find a way to unite the races.”

“I wouldn’t say we can unite the races, my doll,” father says hastily. “That’s even more impossible that your choice of martial. What about your marriage? We want you to be happy, strong, accomplished and someday soon a mother yourself and someday after that, Matriarch and ruler with an heir to the throne.”

I sigh and adjust my position. I look down at the table and its gold platters and utensils, at the lace cloth and the china. “I don’t know what to say. I promise not to fall in love with a vampire?”

Papa laughs. He thumps the table and guffaws. “It’s the vampires falling in love with you that worry me, my dutiful and controversial baby-girl.” He kisses me on the forehead. Lizzie too has a smile on her face; I thought that muscle didn’t even exist for her. But mother is still mother. She stares at dad with mild rage, and even Lizzie is given a look.

She gets up, adjusts her dress and gracefully leaves the room. She isn’t happy, not by far. There is more at stake here than a princess’s whims, however smart. I know what she must be thinking. A century of tradition and culture, war and word, aggression and sacrifice. How can the Matriarch look weak in the eyes of her enemies and pack by sending her magic-less daughter on a fool’s errand that some would call a suicide mission of hopeless unification?

As with everything in the lykan world, actions speak louder than words. I have to find a way to prove this; I feel confident that I can. But first I have to be allowed to leave Luposia on good terms or none of this will matter. Papers need to be signed and I need to officially gain royal permit to go. I have the distinct and irrepressible feeling that I have walked myself into a tight spot.

 

 

 

4

 

She takes a whole month to come up with an answer. Viktoria Drugozlov isn’t one to be rushed, not by anyone, not for anything. Time seems to tease me and crawls instead of taking to the air as it is wont to do with everything I am involved with. In Luposia, you will never find an idle wolf. Everyone does something, work or play, to stay active and fruitful, contributing something somewhere Unemployment? What’s that? When I begin work at the Bureau the newspaper cover story prints ‘Princess Drugozlov still debating options. Like the grand Matriarch, Ambrosia doesn’t prefer to be rushed.’ Even in this I am compared to someone. I want to see a day when they will say the name Ambrosia Drugozlov and not have anything to compare it with but mighty deeds and achievements of my own making that they’d compare someone else with. Anyway, there is more to my decision than fulfilling my own desires. My mind understands this but my spirit is yet to find that peace.

For now, my life is spent eating, sleeping, and working on tentative terms at the Bureau under Lady Koolva who won’t give me any high-profile cases if it means I will travel abroad and leave them unfinished. I share the company of friends and am escorted by guards everywhere I go. So far so normal. I take this month to say my goodbyes to people I care about. I’m not sure if mother will say yes to sending me off but it is best to leave nothing to the last minute. I do not use any direct goodbyes but subtle conversations that make my friends laugh and enjoy being amusement. I feel that such moments make for better memories than sudden farewells that will only erect walls between us.

As royalty it is imperative I spend time with my people. I attend events, offer patronage to local businesses, and be part of resolutions where I can. Poverty and crime, and the grudges that inspired them, are extant in lykan society; we didn’t leave it behind with our human days. We have a world’s worth of problems to solve and while we have wolves on the field, political representatives included, all data has to pass through the throne-city of Mielya-Houda, loosely translated ‘the city of the House of Might’, the largest metropolis in Luposia, its capital, and the place I call home. But that is its formal name, everyone simply calls it Moonhaven. As I sit in one of the cafes downtown and enjoy beverages with my friends, I feel unusually irrelevant about heading off to Fangtasia. It is a whole new city and I am yet to visit several places in Moonhaven itself.

I have attended important events all my life as princess but that is no way to see and appreciate a city’s soul; one has to move around, explore, be part of life off the beaten path. Being royalty, I have many friends but few besties. At work, everyone cares for me, likes my company and make me feel welcome but I will never find that lasting connection it seems. I learn to be happy in my own company, turn to books to brush up on Fangtasia and learn as much as I can from the little the records have about them and the martial of assassination. Ever since the Conversion War that split and eventually dissolved the human race, several things changed.

The internet was reserved only for the military and any social links were available only in close-set LAN hubs spread around Luposia. There are no private networks and that is the law, even in Fangtasia. An internet means chaos and freedom of action, which the good will use to others’ benefit but that the bad will squander and call ambition. It will make us human again. Something good came out of this system, though. People socialized better, learned to respect authority and each other, and worked toward a common goal. They even stopped to help others along the way, something I know was unheard of a hundred years ago in so-called modern human society.

History is vague about why exactly we went to war. Everyone knows the details were classified, and after several decades we stopped to care. Exploration became physical with people leaving their homes and travelling near and far to see places and meet people instead of sitting at home and seeing far off lands on a computer screen. The lack of an internet has made for an efficient economy that in turn rendered several things cheap especially travel. My people could make fresh starts and pursue new goals as long as it didn’t affect the pack system. Am I allowed to enjoy such freedom too? My desire to go to Fangtasia and learn a forbidden art benefits me as well as others. Doesn’t it mean a wiser future for my pack, for my family, for my sense of self?

My closest friend, Kurniyev Keel, offers me something to eat. I am with him today. The snack is wrapped in flat-bread and sauce dripped from both open ends. I find a plate for it and he comments, “You eat roti-tortillas with your hand, Ambrosia.” I respond with, “I am eating it with my hands, holding a knife and fork.” We laugh and exchange pleasantries. I enjoy his company most. He does not judge or compare me. He supports my decisions because he knows the burden of keeping dreams hidden inside and never getting a chance to go out there and make them come true. I find a strange attraction to him even though I know he is into male lykans. Does his kiss feel different? Will his lips taste different to that of a straight man? What makes people like him so amazingly different that they can add a whole new element to the diversity of life and living beings in it?

I put aside my childish feelings. As eldest and future Matriarch, I must do what I like but not if it puts the needs of the pack behind. Such responsibility will only get worse, I believe. Sacrifice is a royal burden and the path to it is rife with complications.

 

 

5

One month has come and gone. I am dressed in a formal gown, red as apples from the west and decked with sapphires interwoven with gold embroidery, which added weight to the silk. I am once again in heels. My parents stand on the immense balcony built on one side of the castle where they can personally address over five hundred thousand people down in the square. Television has marginally escaped the strangulation of technology. Even though we are all inside some sort of light-barrier growing at the borders of our land, broadcast signals are not interfered with. Early attempts were made to contact anyone alive outside the barrier but when no answer came for more than thirty years, they shut the program down. We are all there is now, a society that has bloomed in culture and tradition without giving in to stagnation. News crews are ready to relay the Drugozlov Ordination Speech to an eager public in both Luposia and Fangtasia.

Mother’s decision today will decide the rest of my days. Whatever she says, I will have to accept. She is already mid-speech, making the people clap, laugh and just enjoy another day when the Drugozolvs take pride in their pack. “People of Luposia, I give you our eldest daughter, Ambrosia Drugozolv.” I didn’t expect this. She turns and calls me over. I think I move but my feet feel rooted. I pick them up and walk towards the mike. Mother places a palm on the mouthpiece. “You have a duty to your pack. Tell them the truth as you see it before you leave.”

Is that a yes? Yes, I think that is a yes. The Matriarch is letting me go so I can follow my dream, study what I want, be whom I please, go where the river takes me. The silent sense of freedom is overwhelming. Breathing becomes difficult and there is a lump in my throat. I stand before the mike as Viktoria Drugozlov hands me the keys to get out of the kingdom. The people stop clapping. My shoulders feel like they are holding up a sky of silence.

“People of Luposia. I am the eldest royal-princess, first in line to the Drugozolv throne, daughter to Viktoria and Alexandrovich Drugozolv and fellow caretaker of the pack. I am Ambrosia Drugozolv, first generation born after ninety-five years in which time we have thrived as a people.” Applause rings out like thunder. I can feel the vibrations through the balcony floor. “I stand before you today to share truths with you, truths I believe is my duty to my pack and family to share.” They go deathly silent and I feel heavier on my feet than I did a few minutes ago. “I strongly believe in unity and universal knowledge. If we’re divided in who we are and what we can know, we’ll never truly be a progressive race. I am referring to both lykans and vampires. To make a united Luposia we need to have an open mind. With Matriarch and Patriarch’s blessing and permission, I am glad to reveal my duties as royal courtier for the betterment of Luposia. I choose to play the role of diplomat to Fangtasia.” A second ago, they looked like they were going to applaud. But then, uproar in the square. The dissent is palpable. I wait for the noise to subside. “It will be a first in the Drugozolv court and in lykan society. Just because the vampires have their diplomats doesn’t mean Luposia shouldn’t for whatever reason. Why should we stand afraid to learn about their way of life on their turf when they so eagerly send diplomats, not to mention assassins, to ours?” This has them thinking.

“Speaking of which, I have something to say about my martials.” People hold their breath. The mood is no longer one of celebration. “I am going to learn the assassination art of daggers, poisons and dusts so I can be more aware of dangers to my person and to that of my friends, family and pack. I can teach it to others in days to come so we can become even stronger and therefore closer to a cessation of any wars that might threaten our livelihoods. We can get closer to genuine unity through strength, wisdom, honour and power. The Drugozolv way. The way of the Lykan!”

I take a huge risk with this one. Just because my tone sounds inspiring and bold doesn’t mean it will have the effect I want. I fully expect silence and the soft drone of gossip, even antagonism; so many of these werewolves are from the old days and the martial I chose is close to the enemy’s heart than the wolf’s. I know the pack shows as much consternation concerning my decision as mama and papa did at breakfast. It is quiet. My parents stand behind me, supporting me but supporting the pack as well. Lykans are a close-knit society. We don’t show favour when it comes to important matters; I had come to accept and respect that. But as I see the people in the square whisper among themselves, seconds became minutes until I finally accept that my own pack has lost faith in me. They care for me, of that I am certain, but their confidence is slipping through my fingers.

Father steps forward. The whole square immediately looks up at him and shut their mouths. I know I made a mistake not telling mama and papa about becoming a diplomat; it is a power-position, for one thing. The words just came out of me because I tested the atmosphere and hoped that the people of Luposia would find my work and martials in line with each other, the desire for assassination training complementing the role and responsibilities of a Fangtasian diplomat. It’s never been done before, it is something I could stamp my name on, and it is a wise investment for the future of our race. Before papa could open his mouth to offer support for me and assuage the people, I place a palm on his shoulder.

“My friends,” I say into the mic as father moves aside. “I am not a foolish lykan.” I look at them in earnest. “I am not a carefree cub ignorant of the trials we have faced down the years. I am a grown woman and in three years will attain the mantle of magic and grow some more. I stand here without magic and on the cusp of a journey that could alter the futures of not just the lykan species but the vampires as well. I have had ample education and reading inside the castle and over the years have learned things most of us older lykans knew, back in the War of Conversion nearly a hundred years ago. When the human race was wiped out and divided into werewolf and blood-wraith, we saw an imbalance on Earth. Planetary laws shifted in strange ways and ecosystems altered on a massive scale. Our country is one Luposia but it was once divided into many different regions. The same things can be said of the vampires’ homeland. Matriarch Viktoria Drugozlov, my mother, used her magic to understand that killing off the vampires would create a diversity rift in the Earth’s functioning and it would eventually have wiped us off too. There’d have literally been no humans, converted or otherwise, and the Earth as we know it will have adapted and moved on without us. Now, how long are we going to be at war? How long are we going to say the chronicles and records of the past are hearsay or theories and that they hold nothing substantial? Are we going to wait to see the end of everything we’ve rebuilt and remade over a century gone? I for one believe that it’s a miracle we’ve come as far as we have. I may not speak much and some of you have known me to be silent and obliging at events I’ve attended all my life. But I am twenty-two, a member of court, set in my work and martials and determined to make a lasting difference. I am a Drugozolv and I will conquer in the name of my house and for the honour of my pack!” I don’t care for applause nor do I expect it but this time it comes, like a stampede it rushes across my senses as lykans everywhere send me their energies and give me the support I thought I’d lost.

Mama and papa, even Lady Lizzie, clap softly behind me. The people see their pride and clap even harder. With all this noise in the air, lykan ears fail to pinpoint one piercing sound. It is the crack of a sniper rifle subdued by the cheers. Even mama and papa miss it. Only one person distinguishes the sound and moves. Lady Lizzie shifts so fast I can’t believe she covers the distance from the antechamber to the balcony in a few seconds. She isn’t as slim or streamlined enough to achieve such a feat. She holds me firmly by both shoulders and twists so her back is faced outward. A soft thwock and a growl means Lizzie had been hit by the bullet that had my name on it.

Almost instantaneously, thick steam, sparks, small embers and ice flakes appear in the air around each lykan. Given a few seconds, a final flash of light for each concludes their transformation. Standing on their hind legs, hocked and furry, full-fledged werewolves growl until the sound is like a machine army displaying primeval aggression. Lizzie has made the shift as well, an immense blob of a werewolf. She is more frightening to see after her change blinded my eyes with its final flash. Mama and papa are already balanced on the balustrade, smelling the air. The Matriarch and Patriarch spread expansive bat-like wings – royalty alone is gifted this feature – and take off in the direction of the bullet that mama has managed to ascertain. Werewolves are bigger, taller and more muscular in their altered forms. If it wasn’t for the shock of it all, I too would’ve changed on instinct alone.

From between the pillared balustrade I see werewolves rushing every which way to find the threat. Their long tails lash the air as their growls, howls and roars fill it. The female lykans nearest the balcony raise their hands and form a large translucent shield around the castle facade. The Drugozlov guard search the palace in case the bullet was a distraction and an execution team waited inside. They pick up scents and sights a thousand times more efficiently in wolf form.

The sniper is most probably vampiric and, if so, only mama and papa can capture them, if they haven’t already run a few miles since the shot. I am confused but far from afraid. Lizzie takes me into the palace and bangs the balcony door shut. She lifts me in her arms and speeds to a safe spot. The space around me is a blur.

It is one thing to attempt to assassinate me but this is the closest call I have ever had. They couldn’t get snipers in range of the castle. They couldn’t get humans like the one in Hold-B2 to learn the skill in time. With the roar of the crowd a vampire hoped to kill me and get away with it. The Drugozolvs and lykans loyal to the pack don’t plan to let this evening become a dent in their reputations. It is one kind of power to exert influence on a whole nation, but it is a whole other kind to control one’s death. Our enemies cannot be allowed to believe that they can control the eldest royal-princess’s.

 

 

6

All twenty-four of my siblings are in the safe-room with Lizze and her sister Alycia, both transformed. Little Henry isn’t bothered to join the club. Being the youngest, he has yet to learn how to change at all, an act that will take root when he turns fifteen. Funny how the eldest and youngest are both waiting on a change that is a few years away. I have thirteen sisters and eleven brothers. It’s a veritable colony, which is part of the reason why I cannot possibly spend as much time as I should with each. I used to be able to when I was younger but ever since I started being groomed for the court, I saw them less and less.

I say each of their names in my head to pass the time. I use each name to convince myself about whom I was deciding to protect when I learn the assassination martials. From oldest to youngest among the boys there is Arkady, Vitaly, Boris, Andrei, Ivan, Zakhar, Ruslin, Yury, Robert, James and little Henry. The girls in that same order are Anna, Dina, Vera, Maya, Elena, Sofia, Bernadette, Martha, Angeline, Cecelia, Courtney and Caroline (the triplets), and Sylvia.

This is our legacy, the Drugozolv line destined to rule Luposia and Fangtasia for as long as the Earth is habitable and isn’t thrown into another bloody war. Our lives have often been threatened, and we are not new to vampiric threats in this regard. If they themselves can see the importance of a royal house and its existential importance, we as lykan royalty should never lose sight of the same and how much we need to evolve and grow to guide the pack.

My certainty to leave Luposia has dwindled to a vague probability. After this latest attempt on my life, mama and papa will never let me go; they value my birthright and potential magic in the days to come. However, not going can be a blatant sign of weakness and fear. I am the eldest, and need to get up and get things done, maintaining the dignity of my family and house. I cannot sit here until the danger passes, it makes me feel sick. I should be out there, challenging them to try it again to my face. The early lykans I read about may not have been as sophisticated as we are but they had guts. I want to showcase such direct bravery whenever I can, within reason of course. It is a delicate deed to observe when the quill has gained more power than the sword and when the latter regains it once more.

The doors bang open and guards enter to tell Lizzie something. I get up and reach her side. “It’s not good,” he says. I rush out the door and the wolves follow. I head to The Imperial Bourdoir, my parent’s room. Lizzie doesn’t stop me, she leaves some men with her sister, who nods to say she’ll manage with the children. I fast-walk into the bedroom and there are medics everywhere, patching papa up.

“He’s alright,” comes mom’s clear voice despite the loud sounds in the room. “He found one of them. He took him on. The sniper came prepared, used a shotgun on your father. The medics are taking the splinters out of him so his healing can kick in.” I reach her side and notice the bruises on her. “Silver bombs.” I give her a searching look. “I found another contact. The sniper met with him, ran one way while his accomplice took the other. I gave chase but he escaped out the North Gate and blew it up when I flew under. Don’t worry, if I flew over I’d still have faced the silver bomb’s area of effect. My magic was weakened and I had to retreat.”

“Where are the vampires getting this technology from? I thought we were doing all we could to hinder their efforts.” I am confused and regretful. “This is all my fault. I f I didn’t say the things I did, they might have let me be and not cause this furore that has dad unconscious and you in this state.” I forgot to whom I spoke.

Mama draws me into a hug. “We knew our enemy. We thought they were vampires and strategized accordingly. Sadly, more humans are involved. Both the sniper and the silver bomber are humans, a man and a woman. They were sent inside the city where they hid using a like chemical to what the prisoner in the hold used.” I hear Lizzie asking questions and directing her men but also listening to every word mom shares with me.

“Silver,” she says as she walks to the Matriarch, “means vampires are involved. The humans have understanding of our technology and tactics, hence their ability even to touch the Patriarch and you, Your Majesty. Not to forget that chemical the labs are calling ‘Flesh-Smoke’. We need to counter this, and all the answers lie with that man in Hold-B2. Permission to move into interrogation phase beta, Your Majesty.”

My mother’s answer is instant. “Granted. Where are the diplomats?”

“Waiting in the hall. The count has heard and says he wants an urgent word.”

There are no outbursts of anger or repulsion from mother. I know that if this were dad he’d have done something quite rash. He won’t tolerate such a direct threat to his family when all leads point to vampires. Mama composes herself and exits the room. The medics look calm, meaning dad is going to be alright. I follow my mother out, Lizzie tags along. Both stay lykans.

Viktoria Drugozolv’s fur is as white as snow and my father’s, as black as ebony. Their wings reflect the same. Holding their tails above the ground Lizzie and mom walk on hocked hinds; it is strange to watch them move so gracefully, even more so under the illumination of the castle chandeliers.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have transformed over the years. Once when I turned fifteen, my first change. Again, the following full moon. Only a handful of times after that. I’m not complaining, I love being a lykan. The burst of awareness is a high that few things in life can match. It is fang, claw and power and I enjoy every bit of it. I deliberately keep from changing often because I don’t want to get used to being a wolf and rely on it so deeply and passionately. I need to learn how to carry and protect myself in human form first. It was my decision to make and I have stuck to it these past eight years.

We walk into the hall and see the confederacy of diplomats bow. Right up front is Count Dracula, the head of this peace-group, I should say, who have been thrown into the spotlight after what happened. If they were anywhere else but in the royal place around this time they’d probably have been burned inside their homes if the citizens didn’t drag them out first and rip them to shreds. Even the count for all his legend can’t escape the lykan brand of retribution.

“Your people are hand in glove with humans,” says Matriarch Viktoria without preamble. “But some of our own seem to be disloyal to the crown. To attack my daughter in my own land, my home, my den?” She sounds angry but somehow manages to communicate the meaning civilly.

“I cannot apologize, Matriarch,” Count Dracula says, his voice as refined and steady as my mother’s. “I am not part of this foolishness and I cannot honourably say how sorry I am for this insult and atrocity done against your House.” I am taken aback. He apologizes and at the same time doesn’t. I wonder if the vampire is desirous of the company of wolves. I feel he wants to know me intimately; I sensed as much during the courtship ball. But up close I am relieved to prove myself wrong. I discover that all he emanates is respect to and mild ignorance of my status, name, title and body. Even if he wanted me and surpassed the impossible to ask for my hand, I’d have refused the count on the basis of age.

He is extremely old though he looks to me no older than thirty. Count Dracula is more ancient than my own grandpa. I do not know why I think of his charm when I should remain uncaring of it. I am not drawn to the vampire, my recent interest in uniting the races through an alliance might be guiding my thoughts. I only think these things when I see him. His scent, clothes, and mannerisms, all hold an exotic meaning I can’t help but want to decipher and explore. They are maddeningly mysterious.

“I trust that you will be leaving to Fangtasia?” I ask the count and he gives me a strange look as if to say ‘who is this infant to speak to me in the presence of the Matriarch’. For the briefest time, I see his ego, the wall he has built and safeguarded against so many opponents in the past. He is so unlike anything records and stories describe, constant when he needs to be but inherently transient.

“I believe, my lady, that my diplomats and I will need to settle matters in the homeland before we can truly stand tall on Drugozlov land again.”

“You are correct,” mother interjects. Lizzie lingers, waiting on orders. She has organized a small group of guards at the entrance and when the Matriarch gives the signal she escorts the count and his fellow diplomats out the door. They probably have transportation waiting to take them safely to the border and then to the airport where they can embark on a flight and travel the miles home to Fangtasia.

“I am coming with you.” Again, I blurt out my thoughts without any regard for cause and effect. But the effect I had caused recently has shaken my senses and set them vibrating. Mama turns to look me directly in the eye and says the last thing I expect. “I will pack your things and have them sent after you. Count Dracula,” she catches the vampire’s gaze. “I will hold you directly responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the eldest royal-princess of the House of Drugozlov. The last thing your people need is to the wrath of every werewolf in Luposia crashing through your allotted territories.”

He bows without any sign of hesitation. She leaves us and heads back to papa who will not be taking the news as well. “Lady Koolva,” my mother calls at the threshold. “You will go with Ambrosia.” She walks away before the head of her Investigation Bureau could say another word. She doesn’t look like she is going to anyway. Female wolves work fast and cut right to the core of things. It is not in our nature to stop and think four times about such decisions; the men will have given in to strategy and calculation.

I am a lykan of court and now, I believe, is the time to show strength not sentiment. I feel like my mother when I follow the guards, Lady Lizzie, Count Dracula and the other diplomats out the door. I take only the clothes I have on my back. I feel so very alone, like the world has just inflated into a gigantic balloon that could burst at the worst time possible.

 

 

 

7

“Where are our cars?”

“Count, with all due respect,” Lizzie takes a deep breath, “you won’t be able to get to your flight with your cars. The streets are under surveillance, papers are being checked all over the city and the airports have been sealed. Only your flight is granted royal permission to take off and since you have the royal princess with you, it’s imperative that the Press know how things stand from the start.”

She opened the doors of the expansive castle exit. The gardens are lit with yellow lighting and camera flashes greet us as we walk onto the porch. At stop at the top of the stairs. Reporters for Wolf Weekly do not shout questions at us as they are wont to do if this were a more light-hearted moment. They prefer instead to stand with mikes extended and cameras rolling, waiting.

“Though injured, the Patriarch my father is alright and is expected to make a full recovery soon. During the chase he uncovered crucial knowledge of more human beings involved in recent goings-on. I’m sure by this time the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau, headed by Lady Elizabeth Koolva, with respect to the open-information agreements has revealed to the public the involvement of humans in my courtship ball assassination attempt, several months ago. This has been followed by yet another one, namely the recent balcony shooting, for reasons as yet unknown.” I am in the mood to milk the power I seem to have accrued in the past few hours. People listen to me now and I need this kind of attention to better instil in them the respect they have in my family. “Though their tactics and strategies are relatively new to us, the escaped criminals and any others out there with a mind to disrupt Lykan peace and threaten the royal family will be apprehended and dealt with accordingly. I am not swayed in my decision to become the first diplomat to Fangtasia just because some coward somewhere is afraid of change and the good it can do for us all. I am leaving Luposia to uphold my word and principles. Who are lykans if they do not believe in their purpose and keep to the strength of those beliefs? I will find a way to make right the mistakes of the past. Though it all seems hurried and premature, I assure you that I will back these promises up with action. Thank you for coming.” They let us pass without a word of protest or query. All eyes are on the vampires as if to threaten them that if they so much as thought ill of the eldest royal-princess, of me, things will go badly for them, very badly. I take point and cut a path to the middle car. Lady Lizzie gets in with me, the guards get into the other vehicles and the diplomats are in a car growling just behind mine. The line-up makes its way to the airport.

It is quite unnerving to see Lizzie still in wolf form, her eyes glowing bronze in the dimly lit car. Night has fallen and much had changed. All it took was one gunshot and cogs started to turn with gusto. What is coming, none can tell. As long as it isn’t war, everyone will wake up to sighs of relief. But I can’t help but wonder how so much could happen in less than two hours. Is it wise to assume the rest of the time leading up to dawn will hold no drastic changes to the lykan way of life? Will I be dead or alive when the sun rises or will I have made a counterintuitive move that stays the hand of the enemy? I didn’t think that far ahead, but I am glad with my choice; nervous but glad.

We leave through the East Gate and make our way to the outskirts; it is open fields now, fenced farms, and poultry rearing centres sparsely dotting my view. About twenty minutes later we arrive at Elementa Airport, named after a skilled lykan who was once my mother’s friend before she died in battle defending her men till the very end; that was sixty-two years ago, long before the airport was built on the ashes scattered by the War of Conversion.

There is no ceremony or tradition as we exit the vehicles, leave the parking lot, and make our way to the private hangar where the vampires’ flight sits serviced, oiled, fuelled and ready for takeoff. The airport officials were alerted to our coming and several dozen werewolves stand in attendance to see us off. They lead us along the quickest route and get us settled into Fang Air’s diplomat airline. It takes only fifteen minutes before we are asked to buckle ourselves in. While some of the officials look suspiciously at the vampires, especially at the Count, others snarl without hiding their emotions. I know I am being silly thinking about this but I feel even the airport crew are disappointed with my decision to leave Luposia at a time like this and open myself to greater risk.

This was all my fault to begin with. If I’d kept my mouth shut, papa wouldn’t have been injured and we’d have learned more from the prisoner in Hold B-2. I even inadvertently cornered mama into deciding whether or not to let me go. I am old enough to leave the den and being a court member gave me every right to have a say in official matters. My proposal was clear. During the one month I waited, I’d been called in to speak to various Luposian officials and states-lykans to get their approval on the matter. Mama and papa aren’t allowed to vote in matters of Parliament. They too had to have a say in what I decided to do. It was inevitable, I guess. My future was left open to strangers who could say yes or no and decide the very flow of my dreams. I won by a single extra vote in my favour, Lady Lizzie’s.

As I sit inside the plane, I seem to be losing my grip on hope, in my own dreams for a united nation under lykan rule and no threat of imminent vampire wars. Despite the lykan skills and intelligence drilled into me by varied tutors, despite all that I have learned and that has framed my ideas for a better future, I sit feeling hopeless, helpless. For the next few minutes, I completely give up on any of my ideas working. This world will never change, it’s too far gone for that. There is always going to be war, it’s a primitive coding in our very genes, even back when we were human. We’ll always be in conflict, there will never be a boring utopia where everyone is equal and well fed, desires and needs are easily discovered and nothing goes to waste. It is a girlish and utterly stupid idea. Ambrosia Drugozolv, what in the name of Wolvaar are you thinking? A hundred years ago, religion, tradition and culture were different. Today it’s the same things in different skins, much like our lykan religion with its one god Wolvaar. How can I hope to beat the system, to change things? How can my parents let me get away with this notion? Is it because we are lykans that our power went to our heads and we assume all things are possible? That a century of growth and expansion in survival and skill can help us accomplish anything?

We aren’t immortal. Lykans reach five hundred – a rare few go a little over – at which point they gradually age and pass away. Vampires at that same age still have all their physical prowess but for their speed, which dwindles to nothing useful. At the half-millennium mark, we are to all intents and purposes human as we look at the end days and reminisce on what came before, sitting and waiting for death to claim us, helpless despite a life spent attaining greatness in the form we are born into.

In one regard, the vampires have it worse when they attain senility, namely an increased susceptibility to illness and disease, which they counteract with blood-infusions and herbal remedies. Our generations, the children we birth and leave behind, are all that stand between us and oblivion. What kind of a world are we leaving them? If I die in this soup of mysteries and perils called life, will history remember me as a hero who changed lives for the greatest good ad brought lasting peace and unity to the races of lykan and vampire? Or will they call me a young and over-idealistic wannabe who cannot hold a flame next to the Drugozolv fire?

There are so many questions swimming in my head that I feel I might do the one thing almost non-existent among lykans, cry. We are survivors and above most weak emotions. When a loved one dies, we stand in respect as they are burned on a sacred funeral pyre. To shed a tear for the passing of a fellow lykan is to dishonour all that they did in life. They should see us grateful and proud when their souls leave our world and mingle with the Multiversal Ever-River.

Why me? Of all the questions I pose in silence, this last one lingers long after the flight to Fangtasia has taken off. Is what I’m doing a sign of incompetence and folly on the part of the eldest Drugozolv, or will I make a difference worthy of my pack? I’m not sure anymore, but then again anxiety has a bad habit of speaking up when we most need it to shut up.

 

 

 

8

The flight eats up an entire day and a few hours more. There is nothing to do but read, think, use the restroom, steal glances, think something about other passengers, read, and take naps. We barely speak. As diplomat, even without any formal training, I should have used my capacity to discuss with the Count about Fangtasia but he is so deep in his own little world that I feel it would be inappropriate to disturb him just to ask a vague question or two, even if I meant them merely to break the silence. I don’t know the other diplomats. Besides, it is always a good idea never to trust a politician; they can twist the simplest of words and make you seem like a monster later. This is a huge concern for any diplomat representing their country on enemy soil. Mother deliberately gave Dracula charge over my safety so his legend and age would act as deterrent to his people if they tried to harm me only to end up insulting his name. Best let it go, I think, and prepare to stay composed when ill vibes from Fangtasian citizens come crashing down on me. They might not be as friendly as I would like them to, but at least they won’t be overly antagonistic.

We freshen up as best we can and the only words I have heard all day are, “Arrival at Fangtasia Central momentarily. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We’ll be coming in for a landing in T minus twelve minutes. Thank you.” The captain’s voice sounds as charming as the airhostesses; I see so few female vampires about. I cinch the seatbelt that demands I know rocket science to make clamp and socket meet. “May I?” He speaks! The count helps me with my conundrum. I am grateful for his assistance but I show it awkwardly. Lizzie lifts up a hand when the count approaches her next.

The landing is smooth but then again I’ve been on so many flights since I was a child travelling with my parents that they all feel the same to me, turbulence included; except for these complicated seatbelts. I like the sensation of flying. Mom says I will truly experience it when I grow my own wings at twenty-five. They will gradually lengthen until I am thirty-five. I feel so human without them. As the wheels touch down, I realize that I a foreigner have just landed magic-less and wingless in a foreign land. Though I expect the airport to be packed with Fangtasia’s Press, it stands empty. The space looks like a glorified warehouse. Every step we take meets our eardrums with a distinct thock.thock.thock as we make our way to the cars parked outside. It is as silent as the grave, no pun intended. Where are all the people? Were they deliberately kept uninformed so they wouldn’t organize riots on the streets? More unexpectedly, I didn’t think I would say goodbye to Lizzie so soon.

“Aren’t you coming with me? Mom said…”

“To accompany you to the airport. I will be leaving behind a dozen of my best men to assist you and serve as your bodyguards for the foreseeable future.” She hugs me, which she’s never done to anyone as far as I can remember. “Take care of yourself, Ambrosia. A lot depends on how you carry yourself in the next few weeks. I will be more useful back home. The flight provided sufficient clues for me to ascertain that you are in safe hands, so to speak. I advise you to keep a constant eye on Dracula and all his movements.”

“Take care of mama and papa and don’t forget the brats.” She smiles; I have achieved the impossible. Even some of her men look spooked when they see her don the expression. Our footsteps echo off the hangar walls. These were indeed dutiful lykans. Back in flight, they’d had their own seats in the middle and back and I recall assuring them that I’d be alright with the diplomats up front. Now, however, the assigned head of the group shook his head at the idea of putting too much distance between him and me. I wore him down in the end. He was more afraid of what Lady Koolva would think, I guess. She isn’t one to go easy on her men. I overheard her before we boarded. “Protect the princess with your lives. Hers is far more valuable than any one of yours. If you are lax in your training I will see to it that you serve less dignified purposes back in Luposia, absent your tails and ears which I shall cut off myself and feed you for dinner.” She had walked away to sign some papers and I distinctly recall the men exchanging nervous glances. They weren’t upset at the treatment. They knew the Lady always kept her word and justifiably so; duty before self. A soldier who can perform magic, Lady Lizzie is no small fry. Even absent the threats, my men will do what it took to keep me safe; my sense of security feels strong.

The streets are empty, I observe, and I’m sure I hear traffic and voices coming from the other side of the buildings across the street. They must have planned all this to a tee, to keep me out of the public eye. But for what? I’m the new diplomat. They’re going to have to know sooner or later.

“I will have to see the people sometime,” I say, looking out the window at the whitewashed houses and painted apartments. “I’m afraid I’m not going to sit before a desk for the duration of my stay, Count.” I am reasonably tetchy and he can’t call me on it. I expected some sort of welcome, even a hostile riot, anything to gauge how I was going to be received. None of this helps with my plans and strategies to win the Fangtasians over to an alliance. The sooner I pitch the notion the less time they have to prepare counter arguments and scathing judgements to the contrary. Throw cold water when people least expect it, get the tough part over with. “I’d like an audience as soon as possible.”

“That will be tricky, Your Highness.”

“I didn’t spend more than a day soaked in silence with you and the other diplomats just to land in Fangtasia and not do what I came here to. Is this what you expected of me, Count Dracula?” I look at him and I think he sees my seriousness for the first time. “I am not here to indulge a hobby or because I am bored. Someone has to do something. Pardon the bluntness with which all this is coming out, but we both know I am right.” The sun catches my features. I can see how distinctly the rays unsettle the vampires but their eyes reflect my face. I can almost imagine how impactful I seem to them, the spitting image of Drugozolv royalty, tall, powerful, resolute, stubborn, and with ferocious cheekbones to complement it all.

“I’ll see what I can do, Your Highness.” The other vampire diplomats exchange glances; I ignore them completely.

“After the way we left things in Luposia, I suggest you make it happen. I’d hate to put in a negative comment in my report back to the royal family. And I am not going anywhere until a mark has been made for the greater good.” I don’t give him the benefit of an eye-lock. I have to be tough, tougher than ever before. These vampires may decide may itinerary but they will not decide what I am here to do.

A quarter of an hour driving along clean dirt paths with copses everywhere and boulevards lining some turns brings us to a palatial house, which is surprisingly smaller than I’d expected by the Count’s standards. But at five floors and seven rooms on each landing, I’d say Dracula lives in luxury. A complete staff of maids, cooks, and a butler stand outside for us. In a neat line, almost machine-like, are all seven of Dracula’s daughters, siblings to the count’s eldest son who looks like he is nailed to the spot. I expected a cold response and from all that I’ve seen so far, I got it times ten. They bow when I exit the vehicle from the front while my guards leave the car via the other side.

“Her Highness’s luggage will be here tomorrow. Meanwhile, please offer the penthouse for the use of her men and Her Grace.” The count’s words take me off guard.

“I appreciate the hospitality, Count,” I say as I shake hands with each of his daughters. “But you told me I was here for a meal. I intend to retire to a diplomatic residence once papers are signed to that effect, hopefully before the week is out. A place at the heart at the city is on my agenda.”

“With all due respect, Your Highness, your mother implicitly made me responsible for your welfare in Fangtasia. I take personal interest in your safety regardless. I believe it will be a wise investment of your time to stay with my family for the weekend and decide afterwards?” He does have a political point, even though I know I am being cornered into accepting. It will be better to take these things one step at a time. I shake hands with his son. Now that I stand before him I can see so much of his father in the young man, whom I take to be my own age, that I feel instantly relieved for some reason. Like his looks, his thoughts could be familiar to that of his dad’s, meaning I will not have to turn the universe to make sense of his intentions as and when they disclose themselves. Plus the fact that he is incredibly good looking up close, a welcome turn from his father’s posh cold exterior oozing power and charm in intimidating measure; the son was more approachable by far.

“Viscount James Dracula, at your service, Your Highness,” he says and kisses my hand. He most definitely inherited his father’s snakish charm. Bloody vampires; no racism intended.

We head inside and I am offered refreshments. My men have come in with me and look everywhere, smelling the air and gathering intel without coming across as rude to our hosts. I believe it was a hard act to balance. “Where’s the lady of the house, if I may ask?” I am sat in the living room, crystal show-pieces all around, including a full-length ornamented mirror and a scintillating chandelier. The sofas feel like clouds and the decor, quite imperial.

“She isn’t with us anymore,” answers Viscount James. “It’s just dad and us.”

I want to say ‘I’m sorry’, but something just bade me stay quiet and take a sip of the lemon tea. Before I bring lips to glass, my head of security, Tevya Knol, places a hand close to my face and interrupts me. He takes the glass, smells and then sips from it; he behaves like a wine connoisseur I met once back home. He holds the glass in his hands and waits for something to happen; he is sensing changes inside him that only a lykan guard can. He hands the glass back to me and nods. It is quite uncouth, I must say. But werewolves consider each other close irrespective of social standing and duties. A princess could drink from the same cup as anyone else and the twain would smile and exchange pleasantries. We are a pack, after all. But the vampires seem to have entirely different opinions about rank. When I sip my lemon tea I see one of the daughters wince.

I don’t apologize for my lykans’ behaviour. They are doing their jobs, which is more than I felt I am doing, sitting here sipping refreshments when I should be out there getting to work. Politics is slow. I should know, I’m the moderately trained diplomat whose royal blood gave me the chance that others had to sit through years of training and testing to receive. I have been around such rigors all my life and picked up a thing or two from my parents’ many lectures to me on court affairs, money matters and of course boys. They trained me enough for ten degrees but this is my first real test.

We have dinner together. It is a simple affair. There is turkey, pudding, salad and jacket potatoes. My men are given plates of their own and once again Tevya smell-and-tastes each portion I arrange on my plate. A few minutes later, the Dracula family and I engage in amiable conversation.

“She used to be our light, mother was,” says Jesse, one of the daughters. “She used to play a game with all of us when we were younger, much younger. After-dinner mystery-finder, she called it. She’d hide candies around the house and the one who found the right type would get all the other sweetmeats as well. It was basically a treasure hunt, we liked it. Most of the time we didn’t find them, more than ten candies and not a single location we knew contained them. She was very good at keeping things to herself.” Jesse goes quiet. The silent meaning of a terminal illness expertly hidden.

“Of course, when one of us got the candies, we shared them with the others. James always grabbed more than his fair share,” Marcia says and giggles.

“Hey, it’s not my fault. I’ve got big hands.” He places his fork and knife down and shows us his palms. They are distinctly wider and longer than I’d noticed when I shook them. Somehow, when gloves are off details seem to reveal themselves. He glances at me with a smile before going back to cutting the turkey. I look at the vessels and am glad to notice that Dracula chose stainless steel. He must have stashed whatever silver he had inside lead boxes; back home, a certain department knows full well that he has some in his possession. They are illegal, more so in Fangtasia. I pick up on a tiny sliver of aura residue that I remember from one of my early classes; silver alright.

“No stories about dad?” I ask. Dracula looks up at me in much the same way his son just did but without any of the appeal.

“Next to my wife, Your Highness, I am boredom incarnate.” His daughters laugh and his son goes on eating like he didn’t hear.

I want to ask what became of her but my instincts bid me avoid the topic. “The meal is positively scrumptious, Count Dracula.”

“Thank our chef. He’s brilliant.”

“Please offer him my compliments.”

“More wine?” asks James. When did he get up and come all the way to where I am? I have keener senses than this.

My head of security hasn’t taste-checked this one but I decide I cannot insult the Draculas any more than I have done already. Besides, Lady Lizzie did slip me a few pills that could counteract almost every poison on record. I have them on me and, emboldened, gesture for Tevya to sit and James to pour the full-bodied red. I can’t help but admire his scent. I am not attracted to him, it’s just that he is so good looking I have to appreciate it at least sensually. It would be a crime not to. I take a sip of the wine and can see my guards tense in anticipation. All eyes are on me. “Perfect,” I say and the relief in the room is palpable. Only the Count had gone on eating.

We speak for a while longer. I learn the stories behind some of the curiosities in the house. Dracula had a thorn framed inside a glass-fronted baize-backed piece that could hang from a wall. “He took that out of mom’s foot once when they went exploring in the woods. This was of course a long time ago,” James rolls his eyes, “but there it is. He said to me, ‘James, most lovers come together over roses. Your mother and I met thanks to a thorn.’ I found it quite cheesy, I must say, but it makes sense I guess. Weird sense, but yeah.” With his arms folded before him and his sharp blue eyes studying the glass, I observe the bulge of his biceps and the width of his chest. He is tall and lean but not skinny. When he sighs, I notice the way his pointy nose flares a bit and a lock of hair falls across his forehead. “If you’ll follow me, Your Highness. I’ll show you to your room.”

He walks ahead of me. My guards are already combing the top floor checking for ‘irregularities’, as Tevya calls it. He has never let me out of his sight and walks a few paces behind even now. James has his father’s walk but there is a jump in his step I cannot seem to place. No matter what he does, he looks good doing it. I wonder how many vampires would’ve thrown themselves at him. I was potentially befriending the future leader of Fangtasia. I had a feeling he will fill the parliament chair that several other more eligible candidates desire to earn and represent vampire interests in Luposia.

“Thank you for an enchanting evening, Viscount.”

“Your Highness,” he bows.

“I think it would be more appropriate, Viscount Dracula, if one of your maid staff were to attend my needs. Not that I’m complaining but to have the eldest son of Prime Minister Dracula accompanying me to my quarters might raise concern.”

“One could say the same of the twelve lykan men who share space on this level.”

He takes me by surprise. “Tread lightly, Viscount. Be wary to whom you speak.” I grow stern and suddenly sound much like my mother. I must have because it seems to subdue the charming James Dracula who smiles without showing any sign that his ego is bruised. He leaves me alone at the threshold and walks away, hands in pockets. I shut the door shut behind him. Is it me or is the weather in Fangtasia warmer than expected?

I change into pyjamas that one of Dracula’s daughters lent me for the night. It is improper for the royal-princess to opt for such a thing, but what are lykans if not adaptable. It beat sleeping in the nude. What James said about my dozen-strong bodyguard resting in other rooms on the same floor comes back to haunt me. I value my men, they are my pack. The insult lay in what James suggested. I can’t sleep in a strange bed. It is soft and warm but I mustn’t warrant the sandman’s favour tonight. The walls have different colours, the sheets smell different, the windows are latched and bolted and facing the wrong directions. I also fail to find the inner comfort required for sleep. An hour later, I hear a pebble plonk at the east-facing window. Quaint circumstances aside, I needed to stay cautious.

Without preamble the door to my bedroom opens and Tevya strides in but doesn’t look at me. He goes straight to the window, spreads the curtains until he has managed a thin slit. He looks down and then at me. “Your Highness, my apologies for the intrusion but the sound warranted a security check.”

“That’s understandable, Tevya. What is it?”

“It’s for you, Your Highness. I can play intermediary, if you’d like.”

“Who is it?”

“The count’s son, Your Grace.” Tevya’s tone is off.

“This is most improper.” Tevya makes a guttural sound. I move to the window and am aware of sniper vantages. I recall what happened back in Luposia that goaded me to come here even more. “What are you doing, Viscount?” I try to keep my voice formal but it breaks when I see him in the garden light, dressed in outdoor wear and looking as good as he did earlier this evening. His eyebrows shoot up as he gazes at me.

“Is there any moment when you can look bad?”

“Don’t be impertinent. What do you want?”

“You’ll find some of Jacintha’s clothes, fresh and ironed, in the wardrobe. Put them on and come with me, I want to show you something.”

“This is ridiculous, James. Do you realize you are speaking to the eldest royal-princess of the House of Drugozolv?”

I didn’t know vampires could make puppy-dog eyes but this one can and does. “To uphold diplomatic integrity, I’ll ask my head of security to accompany us.” Tevya throws me a sharp glance. “It’s alright. We have to learn everything we can as fast as we can,” I say to him, closing the screen so James can’t see. I fish out a pair of black jeans and a casual white top and charcoal-grey jacket. Tevya turns his back as I change. He doesn’t trust a moment of this and he isn’t going to let me out of his presence, not with the window open and a vampire standing five stories below. He knows how fast they can be. Tevya fought in the war more than ninety-five years ago. He was already two hundred and twenty-two then. An experienced veteran safeguards me and even he is on edge.

The two of us slip down the gutter pipe, as agile as lykans can be, and join James in the garden below. “I’ll have to take a different route now.”

“Why?” I asked him.

He unabashedly tilts his head at Tevya. “Have you seen him? He’s built like the Eiffel Tower. All he’s missing is good lighting and he could pass for a monument.” Tevya has the sense not to growl but his jaw clenched. “Let’s go.”

“You sound strangely chipper considering that you got a diplomat out of bed in the middle of the night.”

“Your Highness, the diplomat willingly got out of her bed and joined me in the middle of the night.”

I throw him an expression. “What are we going to see?”

“Fangtasia,” he says and smiles. I smile back.

“You’d best call me Ambrosia. I trust we’re not going to run into any of your friends?”

“Just us, Ambrosia.” He pronounces my name in a very different way from anyone else. It sounds nicer, gentler, less official.

With my head of security sticking close but out of sight, James shows me wonderful locations in the city. The Sanguina Stadium where playoffs take place, from old-world sports to new ones. The movie hall where Luposia-approved films are broadcasted—he calls it the Hall of Moving Pictures; it was several years before filmmaking reformed in earnest after the war, people thought it would never come back. He shows me the park and it is magnificent, from the topiary to the flower spreads—he tells me the whole thing was commissioned by one of Parliament’s leading members, a Baroness Betsy Moline.

I want to walk through the gardens and feel the waters of the fountain, but we need to stay hidden. So many vampires are out and about. Some of them are clearly lovers, others family. They remind me of my own back in Luposia. I miss them already. We hide in the bushes, two high-ranking children of higher-ranking political powers giving in to a little immaturity. I feel James’s warm breath against the side of my face and we can’t help but look at each other then. I end up holding his gaze for an inordinately long time. I think he moves an inch closer but I find my hand on his shoulder as I push up to my feet. I walk into the woods spreading behind us.

“I think we should go back now. It’s nearly half past three.” I stash my anxiety under a gleeful smile.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” he says and gives me that puppy-dog look again.

“Trust me, I have seen more of Fangtasia than my own country, James. I have a long day ahead of me and I should get some rest.” The vampires had no cities per se, just one vast territory subject to a strict system under lykan control.

“Very well, Ambrosia. Someday I’ll show you the rest of it. Once you’ve set your duties in order, and you’ve been officially introduced to the people, we can move about and explore more of this beautiful country I call home.”

“It’s as gorgeous as Luposia.”

“Not better, I’m sure. Luposia has set the standard for beauty.” He looks meaningfully at me. I think I may have blushed.

“Be that as it may,” I look back at the well-lit gardens with their hedge-pillars and topiary cones. I can smell the flowers all the way from here.

“Coming?” asks James from behind a tree trunk. He is either sexy and charming or cute and adorable. I can’t seem to make up my mind about this vampire. He confuses me. But I know all this could be a ploy. His father didn’t get where he is by being a gentleman only. He might have told his boy to treat me well and flirt a bit, get my guard down and my hopes up. Anything is possible. I am only twenty-two years old, same as James, but we have relatives and acquaintances older than us who know the cruelties of the world and have made sure they educated their children accordingly. The only way to avoid the facts — I catch Tevya looking at me from the trees, his yellow eyes aglow — is to be like a guardsman, always ready to fight, always suspicious of the darkness inside people’s hearts. I remember my way, I have always been very good when it comes to directions. Even though it is a while before I catch up to James I meet him back at the house.

“Thank you for tonight. I really enjoyed the trip. I would like to ask a favor, though.”

“Anything.”

“I’d like to make a call to my parents, see if everything is alright back home. I noticed you had an extension in the house.”

“It only works during business hours. At other times, dad has a personal cell I needn’t tell you that everything on these devices will be recorded by both parties.” He sounds like a lawyer, stating the clauses that will benefit both lykans and vampires while acting like he was some neutral middleman.

“Of course. So, tomorrow? I’d like that call.”

“You shall have it, Ambrosia.”

I climb the gutter pipe back to my room and don’t appreciate the way James looks up at me. Tevya follows me up.

“Thanks,” I mouth to him and he gives me the most winsome smile. I close the window, latch it, and pull the curtains. I see Tevya bow and leave the room. I change back into pyjamas and sleep lightly. The city is still on my mind and I re-explore it in my mind’s eye. One thing keeps coming back more often than I would like. The sensation of James’s breath on the side of my face. I get up, head to the washroom, splash some water on my face, return to bed, and curl up among the starched white sheets. Bloody vampires.

 

 

 

9

I awake to find that my luggage has arrived. My men help me unpack and I shelf or draw things where I want them to go. Dracula’s hospitality is starting to get addictive. I have a place for all my things. I must call mom and dad, let them know I’m alright and settled in. Tevya will have informed Lizzie anyway and she’d have told my folks. The guards use a radio-communication device that I am familiar with, but I prefer hearing my parents’ voices.

“How’s papa?”

“He’s doing fine. He wants to speak to you.” Mama and I exchange notes and she kisses me bub-bye before passing the phone to dad.

“I was worried about you, my doll. Why did you go? Why didn’t you wait to discuss this? When are you coming back?” He is unrelenting.

“It’s important that we show strength, papa. You taught me this, all the time I was growing up. Trust me. I will not let you down.”

“It’s not the Drugozolv name I’m worried about.” Mom says something in the background. “Come home soon. The people of Luposia have invested their faith in you and so has your mom and me. If the old man could see you now,” he is referring to grandpa, “he’d say you are doing the Drugozolvs proud.” I blush.

“Thank you, papa. I’ll be in touch. I’m glad you’re alright. Let me know if any fresh information comes up about the humans. I’ll do my own research here.”

“Stay safe, Ambrosia.” The call is being recorded and we are both aware of what we are saying. We let slip the obvious about humans so there’d be no suspicion of foul play on our side, no code-talk suspicions. We are here to find the humans, the vampires are not our targets. But the fact that I haven’t any magic and am surrounded by the enemy is too obvious a fact to ignore.

“I will.” We hang up. I hear papa’s breathing as he waits for me to place the phone down. “Let’s go,” I say to Tevya. Twelve lykan guards and a diplomat walk out the main entrance to shouts from the Press who have gathered outside the gates. The Count is giving them a statement and there beside him stands James, looking resplendent in formal court attire. If the Viscount gets any handsomer the sun will turn green with envy.

I walk point with my entourage. I have to make a good first impression so I wear my black vintage coat with steampunk button and lapel ornamentations. I also have on a royal-blue satin frill top and a silver ruffle-skirt. The outfit encourages heels and so I chose a pair of white rhinestone stilettos. I also brought along a few of a girl’s best fiends. Judging by the rate their cameras flash, I can safely put a check next to my first to-do. My hair is pinned up, which allows the breeze to caress my neck. It is quite warm out and I want to get into the car before my makeup runs. It’s a good thing I went waterproof. Impressions are everything for a woman. As much as I dislike conformity, it is necessary.

The count himself introduces me and the cameras broadcast my image across the world, even back home where my people await news of me. “People of Fangtasia, I am glad to be the first diplomat to serve common interests in your gorgeous country. I thank you for this warm welcome.” The Press ask me a few questions and I answer courteously as mama taught me to. There is apparently a very different technique to Q&A when it concerns the media. For a few minutes of screen time, I have invested hours of work, buckets of anxiety and concern, and not a small amount of trust. In these few minutes I need to communicate the fearlessness of the Lykan race calmly and with as few words as manageable. I was here to create common ties and unite the races. I hope the Fangtasians are glad I didn’t come bearing the banners of war. Sadly, a show of power is all they understand, not just the vampires but my people too. It is why I’d often wondered if anything good is ever going to come of our being here. Where are we going, I recall myself pondering.

The next bullet on my list is attending a brunch that doubled as an official ordination ceremony for my right to diplomacy. I meet a plethora of officials, from Secretaries of State to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt. Hon. Ecstasia Jamsworth who is quite a portly woman and reminds me of Lady Lizzie. I already know that Count Dracula fills the shoes of Prime Minister. Compared to all these tall vamps, the Home Secretary is the tiniest I have ever seen. At four feet, the Rt. Hon. Octavia Buckton is rather miniscule and despite her stature is pompous in language and gesture. Various ministers came forward to introduce themselves, each one washed by the sharp studious gazes of my guards. The Attorney Generals are the last Parliament officials to come shake my hand. They are plain faced but extraordinarily polite young men, fraternal twins, the Rt. Hon. Lewis and Clark Gladstone.

Brunch is a magical affair. Luposia has feasts and fetes but nothing like this. I am spoiled for choices. My men eat a handful and hurriedly so. Tevya unabashedly taste-checks all my choices. The Fangtasians have gone all out. I enjoy some blueberry almond-crunch brioche rolls, wild mushroom bruschettas, roasted tomato and basil tarts, poached rhubarb with labne, buttered eggs with mint and lemon, baked eggs with gravlax soldiers, roast beef and sausages, spinach-cheese-and-chicken pies, roast pumpkin and feta tarts, mini-chocolate and caramel rolls, couscous-yoghurt-date parfaits, and banana muffins with varied glace icings of passionfruit, strawberry, and mango. I am glad in the knowledge that I can lose all these calories within the next two hours thanks to the high metabolic rate of lykan blood. Some lykans and vampires, as they grow older, lose the ability to process foods efficiently. Lady Lizzie springs to mind.

I am offered a guided tour of Fangtasia by none other than Count Dracula himself. Wherever the Prime Minister goes the people jostle to see him. The vampires seem to harbor a rather conservative idea of government where the people rarely get to see and speak to the ones who lead them. I see proof of that in the way they take photographs and wave at Dracula more than they do me. Luposia isn’t run like this, we have an open system of government where the people are as involved in State affairs as court officials who are present to maintain order, carry out their official responsibilities, and register millions of opinions not to forget legislation; our Parliament decides which law is worth passing for the benefit of Luposia. They maintain established systems to get it all done in quick time. It’s interesting how we have picked up the pieces since we fell apart.

“What’s past there, Count?” I caught a strange scent coming from a darkened side of the city.

“It’s an unrenovated portion of Fangtasia, Your Highness. We have more lively locations for you to see. We haven’t visited the palace district, the museum, the parks that you said you wanted to see last and of course there’s the entertainment and shopping sector.”

“I’d like to go there before we continue with this captivating tour, Count Dracula. I insist.”

For the first time in the many years I have seen Dracula, his countenance turns slightly sour. It is a political slip-up that makes me question why we drove this way at all. Did he want me to notice that side of town or did the vaunted count simply perform an oversight and sat there hoping I wouldn’t bother to ask? I spot canopies put up at odd angles along the roofs of houses adjacent to the boulevard. I was young not unobservant. I assume the canopies are used to hang festival ornaments for my appreciation but as I get closer I realize it serves as a cover, to distract or dissuade me from noticing what stood on the other side. Is the count so convinced that I am a spoiled princess like some of his own daughters who show a level of ego I never expected to find in ladies of good upbringing. The more I study Dracula and see him regain his composure the more I can’t wait to learn what rests on this side of town.

The car changes directions and we find ourselves in the dismal shades of Fangtasia’s slums. The stench grows increasingly worse the deeper we go. The houses are unpainted and in varying degrees of degradation. The people here are starving, sick, homeless or all three combined. I don’t get out of the car, it will have been irrelevant. The target of my attentions is inside the vehicle.

“Hunger and poverty are still rampant in the Drugozolv kingdom, I see.”

“Your Highness, this is merely a recent development that we are aiming to rectify. Proposals and strategies are being exchanged between my Parliament and the ruling kingdom of Luposia to counter this inconvenience.”

“Inconvenience…” The guards in the car with me grow restless. I’m sure the lykans in the other vehicle will have sensed my anxiety as well; pack aura, pack sense. “It looks like it’s been around a while. We’ll have to handle this ‘inconvenience’ when I send home my report. Wouldn’t you agree, Count Dracula? We can’t have a degrading society. Hunger will get us there sooner than we can blink. It’s one thing to have people of differing wealth but no lykan in Luposia finds themselves going without food or a proper roof over their heads.”

“You’re right, Your Highness.” For a man of his age and esteem, he plays the servant quite well. Ever since Fangtasia came under lykan rule following the Conversion War, Dracula’s versatility has proven to be top notch. Here is a survivor on a par with lykans themselves.

“It’s strange, wouldn’t you agree, Count, that all the way here in Fangtasia I seem to have no humans performing their latest brand of mischief while only a day or so back Luposia was faced with their threats. And they came carrying silver too.” I adjust my skirt. “I didn’t come here just in the capacity of diplomat representing Luposia, I also chose the assassin’s daggers as my martials. Surely you’ve been told.” He waits for me to continue. I study the sorry scene outside. “I’d like you to set up an appointment with your best tutor tomorrow. I will begin lessons with my men in attendance.”

“Your Highness, this art form is ancient and worthy of respect. To have all your men witnessing its secrets would make its repute redundant.”

“And yet without my men, I’d easily be killed by the best assassin tutor in Fangtasia.” I think it best to be blunt from this point onwards lest we enter a prolonged political game of cat and mouse, which I hate.

“The eldest royal-princess is upset.”

“Watching the state of life,” I gesture to the slums and the people running inside their homes at the sight of the posh car in their squalid neighbourhood. “It’s a form of oppression that beings like us can easily circumvent. To have them exist is to encourage inequality, to be human again. So many of my parents’ principles and laws are being broken because of this one zone in an otherwise beautiful city. I can’t help but think how news of this didn’t reach the Drugozolv court or rather why someone isn’t pushing to do something about this.”

Dracula is swift to respond. “Your Highness has only recently joined the court. She might as yet be unaware of ongoing talks. These things take time. We go as fast as we can but it takes as long as it takes.”

“Eloquent but irrelevant. These are top priority concerns, Count. Are you telling me that the Luposian royal government hasn’t bothered to resolve this issue oh I don’t know, for the past ninety-odd years, most probably less to compensate for when these slums purportedly began? That would mean someone inside Luposia is against change for the greatest good, and are lining their pockets at the treasury’s expense. There’s a word for it where I come from, count, it’s called treachery. Each policy put forth by my government is based on a principle. They are like chain links, if one breaks the whole series breaks with it. Imagine what that will do to our society and way of life. It isn’t like our people are living in the lap of peace.”

“Your Highness, with all due respect, I find your accusations a bit strong handed.”

“I am not accusing the Fangtasians, Count Dracula, merely the weak link in the Luposian chain. If anything I am accusing my own government of negligence in association with whomever is helping them be so neglectful. There’s nothing for you to worry about, certainly? This will require immediate rectification, of course. Let’s head on to the prettier side of town, Count. I’d like to see how much effort has been put into rebuilding your territories and how best we can divert that flow to needier zones. These are after all lands that belong to Luposia and ruled by Matriarch Viktoria Drugozolv and Patriarch Alexandrovich Drugozolv. You are stewards not owners to choose who lives dirty and who refined.”

He pushes a button to inform the driver to head back to civilization. Before long my men and I find ourselves back among polished high-rises and immaculate squares, sensual gardens and rich vampiresque architecture. It is as different as it is beautiful to the lykans’ own grand edifices and complex ornamentation of timber and stone, granite and alabaster. But the slums still linger in my mind. Any city that has them is like a well-proportioned body with a festering sore. Sooner or later the gangrenous element will spread. It’s not the slum dwellers who are to blame, which is where most efforts are often directed. They resort to crime because of the kind of setting they are placed in. Everyone needs to dig their hands in the filth and clean it up, make life wholesome, and educate against repeats. People respond to what is expected of them. Throw them in the dirt and none can complain when they get dirty.

I play the scene out in my mind. High-ranking vampires decide to turn a blind eye. Standards fall with such ignorance and the slums grow while others assume they’re safe in their gilded homes. What happens when there’s no food and healthcare for all these people? A disease can take to the air and an airborne menace recognizes no beautiful walls or artistic decor. Civil skirmishes will be around the corner as ill preparations swell tensions. A hundred years of experience and still the vampires prefer to promote class systems.

Vampires working with humans is a given. For one thing, silver is a vampiric preference and the humans are emboldened by it as recent events have clearly shown. For another, as I mentioned to Count Dracula, there seems to be no human threats in Fangtasia against my person. Much like a checkmate, the vamps are forced to hide affiliations lest they provide cause for lykan raids into the country. Speaking of lykans, the traitor that Lady Lizzie Koolva estimates to work in our government is fast becoming fact, pending only solid proof. I try to put myself in her shoes now to guesstimate who it can be.

I use what I’d just discovered. If word of the Fangtasian slums hasn’t reached let alone been resolved by Luposia’s royal courts, then the Lykan Exchequer might be the bad wolf. It is his duty to allocate budgets for such things. Or it could be the Foreign Affairs Minister who can more easily pick up on these things than most and is probably deliberately staying his hand. Since I’m the first diplomat to Fangtasia, it falls to me to report these infractions and bring it to the attention of the proper Luposian authorities. A solid number of lykan politicians had voted against my going to Fangtasia. Why? Who can be trusted?

I am supposed to wave to the crowds and leave the car’s convertible top open for them to see me. But after witnessing one of the dark sides of my stay and coming up with the theories I did I had to put my duty first. I had to call home as soon as possible. Things aren’t right in Fangtasia as we hoped it would be. We need to give them another once-over and bring some semblance of justice or we will all be sitting on a timed bomb with no view of the clock or the wires that make up the destructive device some would call politics but I prefer to term lies.

I have spent so long by myself hearing my own opinions, theories and ideas that I feel it is about time someone else should simply speak their minds. This assassin tutor could be that person. There is always a bond between teacher and student. No matter how much they hate each other, they will need to rely on a bond if one is to teach and the other is to learn. I am confident I can use such a relationship to wrest the tutor’s loyalty toward me and learn the truth of things while keeping busy mastering the art of daggers, poisons and dusts. What is that thing they say about two birds?

Calm, Ambrosia, Calm. I kept telling myself this mantra ever since I got into the car and left Dracula’s residence. The one thing they don’t teach you in diplomat-school is patience. You either have it, learn it, or stand devoid of it. I must have patience. The diplomacy will follow. My stomach jolts. I place a hand there and feel no rumbling to indicate a digestive side effect. The brunch was heavy but I’ve eaten heavier.

“Your Highness.” It’s been a while since Tevya spoke.

“It’s alright. I just feel a bit off for no reason.” Dracula doesn’t care, he is busy reading something. I look out the car window at the giant television screen playing music and advertisements declaring a metropolitan air of progress and recreation. Then the screen crackles. “Stop the car! Stop this vehicle immediately!” I hit the black barrier that separates us from the driver. He must have heard because he brakes hard. I get out of the vehicle and my men follow. The ones in the other car exit as well.

“Princess Ambrosia Drugozolv!” It is Kurniyev Keel, my best friend, and royal courtier. “I have managed to hack into the security systems after an EM pulse took down our primary turbines. This message is a live emergency broadcast to any and all channels. I do not know if you will receive this news in time or if you are even alive to see this, but I pray that you are and will. I will fight as hard as I can to keep things safe along with the other lykans until we hear from you.” Short bursts of video play out and my eyes are glued to the gigantic multi-screen system. His voice merges with the pictures. “If you die, the last of the Drugozolv line will be extinguished.” Kurni is breathing hard. I recall that rhythm, I had used it to find him when we were young and indulged in games of hide and seek. The message is authentic. The Imperial Palace is engulfed in flame. My home. The city is host to random fires and broken buildings, smoke from explosions. My city. I can hear Kurniyev’s voice cracking as he speaks. Lykans are on the streets, running, helping, the women using magic where they can, injured on the pavements, blood. My friend’s message goes black, leaving me with the horrors that have washed across Moonhaven, the capital city of Luposia. Someone is strangling the news feed. It is all I can do not to fall to my knees in despair. Instead, I go for plan beta.

 

 

10

The plan was subtle, designed to bring glory and honour to the lykan name of Drugozolv and my people across Luposia. It was going to me my unforgettable deed, to which my name alone can be appended. It will have struck fear into my enemies, and such fear. But then the humans interfered They bring sudden danger to my home.

A year before, on my twenty-first birthday, something happened to me in private and I told only mother about it. Nobody else in the entire kingdom knew that I had already bloomed magically. I could use magic at an age when every other female lykan, even mom, couldn’t; they got theirs four years later at twenty-five. That natural flow had not changed for the past one hundred years. And then I came along, the exception to the rule.

My mother personally took me through intensive training and taught me how to use my magic to the greatest possible effect. I was a fast study. She noticed things about my skills that were superior to her own. To say she was proud would be an understatement. I mastered everything, read up on all the needed texts and guidelines and performed the sharpest forms of magic we knew.

My martials – I pretended not to know it too well if only to keep my secret – is with the long sword that can double as one-handed or two. It is a slightly clichéd choice of weapon but I grew good at mixing and matching as I used magic and blade in bursts of fatal efficiency. It took a while to reach a certain proficiency, and even after a year I find I still have much to learn. I scored slightly less on melee skills than magic, which is relatively a good sign.

Only mother taught me, in the secret depths of the castle. Nobody else was to know. I was being groomed to be Luposia’s secret weapon, a swift and final strike to our enemies the vampires, a guerilla suppression that could lift us from the throes of conflict and bring peace once and for all.

The one month mother took to decide on whether or not to send me was really a ritual period where Viktoria used her knowledge of blood-anointing to garner the blessings of the Lykan God Wolvaar to impart luck and power to the eldest royal-princess, me, Viktoria Drugozolv’s own flesh and blood. I was ready to infiltrate the vampiric ranks with the full force of my training and knowledge. Lady Lizzie suspected something different about me, especially when I didn’t transform like the rest of them when that sniper sent a bullet my way. I remained human all year to boot.

If I shifted, my wings will have shot open, a clear giveaway of a lykan with royal magic alive in her veins. This had to be kept top secret, even from one of our best minds. With the human threat having revealed itself, I was tasked with rooting them out while finding a means to take out the vampires responsible for their covert coming. We had cause and motive, just not evidence to launch a full frontal.

My wish to learn the art of assassination was a farce to get closer to my enemies through their own forbidden art. Papa knew nothing. It was a terrible truth to keep from him but we had no choice. Both mom and I had to put on an act so he’d never come to learn of my secret. If he did, he’d have been happy to declare my power from the ramparts but he’d never had understood the practical risk of sending me into enemy territory alone, magic or not. And if papa made up his mind about something he could convince anyone, even mom, to listen. It was best to leave Alexandrovich Drugozolv out of a sure-fire strategy.

The only other soul in the world who caught whiff of my new powers was little Henry who’d said, ‘I won’t tell Papa if you don’t punish me for taking things from your room’. It was an unusually confident request. I had to go along with it; small price to pay the brat to keep his fangs closed. But deep down I knew he’d never tell, little Henry was understanding that way. No assassin could kill me what with the magic I could wield. Mother taught me to recognize their tactics. When I was getting close, getting to know my targets, the screen today shows a hacked message that reaches me only to shatter hopes and dreams. I trained to fight vampires not humans, and therein lay the disadvantage. But no matter, I may be partially ignorant but am far from weak. So much loss back home, my family included. The tears were willing to fall, I was reluctant to let them; it will be a dishonourable thing to do.

Dozens of silver-tipped spears penetrated my father’s body and pinned him to the wall like an ornamental butterfly. He went down fighting, his final expression one of anger and sheer rage. But he was ignorant of human tactics. Did he protect the family? Mom’s wings were torn and her paws sliced off. She lay covered in silver. A thick cordon of rope had my siblings tied tight outside the royal palace. An immense makeshift pyre became their doom as shadowed arms set flame to wood and oil. Kurni captured all the details needed to convict the vampires for sheer racism and hate crimes of the highest degree. They do not want peace, they want power, such is their greed.

Kurni is no match for humans armed with silver who were probably scouring the castle. The screams of my siblings tore a hole in my soul. From the oak tree that grandfather once seeded in the family estate gardens, there hung a rope. This is a vampiric punishment from many decades ago, when they would hang the being who killed a good number of their people and only if his valour came unexpectedly; like a consolation punishment-prize. Father alone would have had that kill-rate before he fell, but nobody saw Henry Drugozlov’s unbridled frenzy when he took on his attackers. He wasn’t blood-trained, making him even more dangerous, uncontrolled. From that rope on the oak hung my youngest cubling little Henry, his body limp and swinging in the breeze. They were all in wolf form when they passed. They died fighting. This was murder of the most heinous degree, carried out by human hands with silver provided by the vampires. They landed the first guerrilla strike. They’d be fools if they thought no response would come of this.

I will not cry. I turn to glare at Count Dracula standing outside the car and gazing at the screen as though he knew nothing. I am already transformed and my men, especially agitated at what they just witnessed, stand as wolves. They are shocked to see my wings and the hot light in my paws. Their training holds them steady. The crowd grows quiet and soldier-vampires rush into the square. They see my stark silver fur and they gossip, even at this time they gossip.

I grow in height and muscle, power and magic. I stand tall as my fur ripples in the breeze. Count Dracula says, “You should have been back home. You’d have all died peacefully. We’d have taken control and kept the other lykans alive. All we want is a shift in power. If we can serve you, you can serve us, no harm no foul. Why’d you have to go make things so complicated?”

He disgusts me in ways even the dirtiest filth won’t have been able to. I send a roar at the Prime Minister of Fangtasia. It sounds strange, as deep as a bear’s, as paralyzing as a tiger’s and yet as powerful as a wolf’s. The sound makes the count stop dead in his tracks even though he just transformed into a feral vampire himself, claws and fangs ready to defend.

“Liars… Murderers… Thieves… My family… My pack… My HONOUR!”

I fold my wings and run like the wolf, my claws dig into the tarmac. My guards follow. Vampires, feral blood-wraiths the lot of them, come at us. Most of the civilians run away. Their soldiers rush us while Dracula and his parliament join in the fray. I stand on my hind legs and receive the sword Tevya throws to me. It is crafted with the Drugozolv design, the sword that has been in my family since the War, the sword that belonged to mother. Whatever Lizzie guessed she guessed right. She had sent the sword along with her guards, though how she hid it for diplomatic purposes I do not know.

I fight as I was trained. I land a few perfect slices that cut deep into cold flesh. I lower my sword and form a bolt of lightning in my hand. I fling it so hard and so fast I brings down an entire building, starting with the ground floor. Soldiers rush to join the fray from inside but the edifice falls on them, burning. I throw smaller balls and dagger-like projectiles. I am so furious that even as I kill so many vampires I regret not biting into them first and ripping them to shreds. I want to paint Fangtasia with their blood for what they did. I am not myself. I am here, trying to find answers to catch the vampires red-handed and then offer them a chance to come clean and alter their ways. Only if they said no will I have revealed my true colors. But this atrocity… My family died because of me, while I am here, all my fault, I should never have come. Dracula says something into a communications device. I reach him, grab him by the throat and throw him hundreds of feet into the estate gardens.

I run on all fours to gain an added speed boost. When needed, I take to the air. I rely on strength to grab what soldier-vampires I can and tear chunks out of them before I drop them; let them die in the throes of their own agony. How my family would’ve suffered. How many lykans would’ve been in pain when the vampires consorted with the humans today. I will show them who we are. I will show them what they have set in motion. All they did was demand death. Death now comes for them, on silver wings and carrying magic.

They finally show their true weapons, letting the silver catch the light. That must have been what Dracula ordered. “So you have confessed,” I shout, and my voice rings like my own only deeper and stronger. “You admit to working with the humans. Silver, I should’ve known not to give you vampires the benefit of the doubt. I will personally annihilate the traitor in my pack whom you have beguiled into supporting this endeavour.” Dracula throws the first spear. His aim is perfect but I catch the spear by its haft, break it in half and look at the silver point. It doesn’t burn me, it makes me feel nothing. “I am the only lykan to show magic four years ahead of the norm. I am the only lykan immune to silver. Wolvaar himself chose me. I am become evolution’s answer to the lykan race. You think this can kill me?” They grow afraid, I can see it in their eyes. I don’t wish to keep them waiting. “I am Ambrosia Drugozolv of the House of Drugozolv. And I will avenge my pack and family this day and in the days to come. Come at me, I have death in my claws and oblivion in my fangs.”

I fly higher and rain lightning. I drop force-spheres and make sure to avoid hitting my men. A few of them have fallen, but the others remain. Their black fur shoots under the sun like living shadows. They are as angry as I am. I need that anger. I need it to fuel their muscle. The pain in me is so large it has transmuted to rage. I destroy a better part of the square and take thousands of vampiric lives. It feels good to see my enemies pay; blood for blood.

“Nobody is innocent. I will show you what comes of messing with the lykan pack and my family.” I swoop down and catch the scent of the politicians I shook hands with during brunch. I hunt them down. Feral vampires as they are, their strength is still nothing compared to mine; and I have magic to enhance it. I sink my fangs into their throats and rip their heads off with my own two paws. By the time I am done, I am covered in blood but I don’t care. Their valour to stay and fight only hastens their end. I fly up again, my men kill as many as they can as they follow my trajectory.

We make our way to Dracula’s residence where the vamp himself has fled when he saw that not all the silver and shooting in the world could get rid of a handful of incensed lykans. I wish I had come alone. If only Lizzie didn’t send her men. I don’t want to lose any more than I already have. I redirect my mind to one last thing before I choose another course. There is too much emotion in me, I feel myself growing blind to reason and not caring about it.

Our speed pushes us into the outskirts a few miles from the square and the massacre. We arrived extremely quickly. Dracula’s residence comes into view as we bank a turn at a big chunk of natural crystal growing up from the ground. We assault the gate, tear it off its hinges. Our roars are unashamed and unhidden. We want them to know we are angry. Let them come. They have stoked a fire they cannot put out. I use my magic to levitate the heavy gate now dented and scratched ugly. I send it flying at the main door several meters away. My lykans and I plunge through the gaping hole. There he is with his family, heading into the basement where he most probably has a secure silver-reinforced shelter or perhaps even a corridor that leads to a safe house.

“You don’t get the privilege of escape.” They stop moving when they hear my voice. James rushes in from another room and stands beside his despicable father. In their feral forms, they look identical. “You knew about this.” I point at James. “You are all liars and traitors. You thought you could get away with this? You thought your lives are now your own, that you have earned freedom because you took out the Royal House of Drugozolv? All of Fangtasia now owes me a blood-debt and I intend to collect. One Drugozolv still stands.” With a roar I rush at the women, James’s sisters. Some of them have little children in their arms. They hide them from me, like I am the animal here and they are only doing the right thing. Right from the start, I was treated like a monster. I will not to disappoint them. I grab hold of a young boy, no older than my Henry. I hear the vampire-child squeal for his mother before I bring my jaw down on his skull and crush the life out of him as they did my youngest brother’s, who went down fighting like a werewolf.

My men and I kill every one of them right there in that corridor. The women have silver daggers, James has a short-sword made of the same metal. They injure Tevya and a few other guards but I am immune and too fast for them. I wield magic, fang and claw to obliterate the Dracula line until all who are left are father and son. James is almost in tears, I can see his eyes quiver as he watches his family so brutally murdered. Dracula seethes.

“What right have you to be angry?” I ask him and move closer until I am almost towering over him. Blood drips off me and gloops to the floor. I catch James by the neck and lift him bodily up. I lean in close to Dracula’s face. I have cast a spell on them both already. Neither of them can move for the next few moments. “What right have you to a family when you are capable of denying someone else theirs?” I rip James’s right arm off; it takes some effort.

I lift the spell and watch him squirm and shout from the pain. His roar comforts me, his pain gives me solace. I see my father’s pinned body, my mother’s torn wings. I rip another limp off James. I see my siblings, and the memories come rushing into me; they burned alive. I rip his legs one after the other. He is just a thorax now.

He has yet to die. He roars, his fangs bared at me, trying to reach me. I throw him to the floor and let him bleed in his own treachery. “You will live to see me conquer. You, Count Dracula, former Prime Minister of Fangtasia, will not have an easy end but will be around to see what true power is when I squish the last vestiges of life from your body. This is what you chose, you brought this upon yourself, your family and your people. Too long have we tolerated your kind; snakes in our backyard. I am the last of the Drugozolvs and I will not rest until I have had my full vengeance.” With loud cracks and flashes I teleport the eight remaining guards and myself out of a rattled Fangtasia.

The vampires have witnessed the impossible. The wolf is out of the bag. They have seen nothing yet.

 

 

 

11

We arrive to a very disturbed Luposia. Not all lykans are trained to keep from crying. They have seemingly forgotten the tradition that stated tears dishonour the dead. I can’t blame them. We are all crying on the inside. When I howl to get their attention, they turn to me with expressions of despair and confusion. They see their silver Matriarch and get down on their knees, moving back and forth as sobs wrack their bodies while confusion messes with their minds. The castle is destroyed. Most of it has been burned before the female lykans could use magic to extinguish the hungry flames. I raise my hand and send fire pouring over the castle.

“Let it burn. This is the funeral pyre of the Drugozolvs. Let it burn!” They move away from the premises when they hear the command. “I am your Matriarch now! This insult to pack honor will be punished in the darkest ways imaginable. I will not rest until I have wiped the streets with the skin of all traitors in Luposia and emptied the blood of our enemies into the sea.”

Lady Lizzie moves up to me. I am stood on a shattered pile of debris “I tried to protect them,” she says and sounds uncharacteristically emotional. “They came from too many angles. They knew the castle layout.” She is wide-eyed.

“You failed.” The words leave me before I can restrain myself.

Lady Koolva says, “My sister died protecting the children. The humans had unstudied technology. We were not prepared.” She looks at me, at my lykan form. “How is this possible?”

“Don’t change topics, Koolva. Tell me about the humans, tell me everything you, in your professional capacity, know about them.”

“We know nothing.”

“And your male-mate? Where is Lord Buchanan Koolva? I wish to have words with the traitor.”

“Matriarch! He is no traitor to your House.”

“That’s not what Tevya Knol learned when he tapped into Count Dracula’s phone records earlier today and discovered numerous encrypted calls made to familiar extensions. I have been in training for a year now, Lady Koolva. I am glad mother isn’t alive to know that you have been hiding a betrayer!” The lykans around me hear. They are all in wolf form and growl at Koolva as they sense my agitation. “While you are not a traitor yourself, you knew all along, right from the time of the courtship ball and before. My father who burns inside that castle along with his legacy, trusted Lord Buchanan enough to give him the Foreign Affairs post. This is how your male-mate repays us? He is no longer a wolf but a mongrel that followed empty promises and betrayed his own people. Your love for him is no excuse to keep such treachery hidden. Did you take me for a fool, Koolva? Did you think I wouldn’t come to know? Your sister is dead because of your weakness. Even the head of the Investigation Bureau can’t hope to circumvent Drugozolv justice.”

“Your Highness, I— This is not what your mother would have done.” She is unlike herself. She has come undone. She is weakness itself.

“It’s ‘Your Majesty’ now, Lady Koolva.” I lift my hand and Elizabeth’s body gives off loud cracks as her bones break and bend inside her body. “I am not my mother. She is dead because of what she failed to see in you. You are part of the reason I have lost my home and family and several members of my pack.” She falls into a slump as her bones shatter, leaving only a sack of skin, fat, organs, and blood that served the soul of an abettor who assumed love would change her male-mate’s mind from his perfidious ways.

“I will show Lord Buchanan how a mind should be changed. Bring me the traitor!” The wolves run. The hunt is on.

Kurniyev Keel limps toward me; he has had medical attention, I notice bandages on him. I can tell he wants to hug me like he often does when we meet but he keeps his distance. His eyes question my transformation. He too does not know of my secret. “It is still me, Kurni. There’s much that needs to be done.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Don’t be a pup, Kurnieyv. The secret had to be kept.”

“It didn’t help.”

I am already pumped on emotions I cannot understand. I raise my hand to backhand him for his insolence. His ears flatten and he cowers before me. “You think I do not know that? Look,” I hold his lykan head and point at the burning castle that was my home. “See what my duty has cost me. See what calm and patience has wrought. See what politics and diplomacy has taken. Swift power is the only real way to show our enemies who we are and what we’re made of. If I had only known this earlier. It is I, not you, who will live with this regret.” I lift him up to his feet. “I thank you, Kurni, for the message you succeeded in sending. It came late but at least it wasn’t too late that I was taken completely off guard.”

“Your mind is volatile, Ambrosia,” he says, looking concernedly at me. “You must change back. You’ve transformed before the age of twenty-five. While that has its advantages you cannot say it’s foolproof. I have read about things like this. It has never happened before, but the theories are not kind toward it. Like a body needs sleep, you need to regain your other self, the human woman. You have used such great power. My meters,” he produces a device, I remember him patenting it, “shows your energy emanations in the red end. Who knows how the wolf will react to the magic coursing through you. After a year of limited transformations done in secret, Ambrosia, this sudden and prolonged rush of power will only be for the worse.”

“The wolf will not overpower me, Kurni. I am the wolf. I decide what my body should or shouldn’t react to. The vessel is nothing, it’s the soul that matters. I will take no further advice from you concerning this. I know your men are already on the field searching for Buchanan. I want you to find him. I wish to give him a piece of my mind. Go.” He bows and leaves me be on the broken pile. My eyes fill with the burning castle. It feels like my memories of mama, papa, little Henry and my siblings, heirlooms from my grandparents who fought and died in the War of Conversion, and everyone I have come to know and love inside those walls burns with the timber and walls as the harder stone chars. I hold a log in my hands and break it. I will not cry, I keep telling myself. I am a lykan. I will not cry.

“We can prepare a mansion for you, Matriarch Ambrosia,” says one of the castle staff who had escaped during the melee; she looks pretty beaten up. “I know we can get it up and running by nightfall.”

“I will be sleeping in the Drugozolv Guard Quarters, with my men.” I turn to Tevya Knol. “Get every lykan out here, except pregnant wolves and cubs below the appointed age.”

“What shall I relay, Your Majesty?”

“We are going to war.”

He bows and sprints away. This is a wolf I can trust, until I see that he isn’t worth the risk. I have no room for weakness. It is now a non-existent word in my vocabulary. I will grieve later—there will be an official event in the Temple of Wolvaar to memorialize my family and others we lost—but for now I have to sow discipline. I have to show the mangy vampires what it means to mess with the wolf.

“Get some of our best hunters ready. Organize the scouts. Gather more to the cause. We need to keep the food circulation going without stoppage.” I go to collect more lykans, male and female alike, to follow me into the lush forests to hunt for deer. We need to stock up for the troops about to form all across Luposia, now that I have given the order. Kurniyev Keel finds me at regular intervals to report on communiqué and share updates. The lykans from all cardinal directions have been alerted.

Kurni has organized refrigeration systems for mass quantities of meat to be stored for the troops whom he says have seen his video message too—Alexandrovich speared, Viktoria silver-bombed, the cubs burned, little Henry hung. I drop my head in guilt before I take to the trees. The wind fans the flames inside me.

 

 

 

12

“If mother’s magic was feared for ninety-something years then I will show them what mine can do in its debut stages. They will learn to dread it for all eternity.” I conclude my war orientation speech with my generals and high-ranking soldiers. I have the feed broadcast so the whole troop can be part of it. If there is ever a time for openness and unity, it is now. It has been forty-eight hours, give or take, and an army of lykans have set up camp outside Moonhaven. Food rations have been distributed and a shelter is being built inside the city by our best engineers who combine skill, strength and magic to prepare a safe-house for all cubs and pregnant lykans travelling here from close by, escorted by adults who can proficiently wield a weapon. We work double-time, running on rage before it mellows out into strategic action.

“Our engineers are spread out, building shelters not just here in the capital but across the country in regions pre-set by our forebears. They will be impregnable as we go to war and end this insult once and for all.” My words are heard all across Luposia and I’m certain the vampires have tapped into the feed; we left the wireless transmission open just so they would. “A few more days and we will wipe the vampiric race off this side of the Earth!” I have not cared to revert to human. I revel in the adulation as my people support the pack’s cause. “Blood for blood, honour will be ours, the Lykan race is one.”

The chant carries and the people speak the words over and over. Several lykans present used the very slogan when they went to war one hundred years ago as humans, unbeknownst to the coming change. “They called it the War of Conversion. Let this be known as the War of Lykan Supremacy!”

We eat light meals in the evening and stay up into the night. We drink moderately and laugh raucously. We broadcast it all so the vampires will see that we are not afraid, and that we are coming. Let them prepare. I have more in me than they can ever imagine. We are yet to find Buchanan. Whatever secrets he took with him to the other side, he didn’t have the one thing that will win this war. He didn’t have me.

Julius Vourdal, Duke of Blood Hill, alpha-grade council member of the Lykan Syndicate comes to my tent. The bear of a man bows.

“It’s late for apologies, Vourdal, but I am sorry I couldn’t dance with you at the courtship ball. You wouldn’t believe this, but my feet and I weren’t quite getting along.” I have to act this way, nonchalant, cold when needed but with a fire ever-burning. I need to be this person for my own sake.

He smiles and speaks in that resonant voice I’ve come to associate with him. “I understand, Your Majesty. I am sorry for our loss.” He doesn’t say anything impertinent. Lykans always consider one family’s death as a loss to the entire pack and the Drugozolv family is the very heart of Luposia. “The Lykan Syndicate wishes to make you a member after this war is over, Matriarch. Does the gesture please you?”

“It does indeed.” I think it best not to offend tradition, even useless ones like this. They need my power and money, it is all I mean to some of them. I’ll claim theirs and call it even. Matters like these could never truly be pure. It is one of our human facets pending competent replacements. The wolf in me is growing stronger the longer I linger in this form. Politics is never clean business. Now that I am Matriarch I have to be part of things I did not come trained for. Magic and battle is all I have known for the past year and I have been too late to use it when most needed. Never again.

“Our doctors warn against remaining in your form for such a lengthy period of time, Matriarch. I say this only for your well being.”

“Have you eaten?”

“Not yet, Your Majesty.”

“Go. Eat. I need your strength on the field more than I do your advice in this tent.”

He leaves me to my plate of meat, berries and wine. In times like these, there seems no point to niceties, because no one really returns the favour. If I shared small talk and indirect apologies with hints of promises I never planned to keep, Julius will be forced to suggest the same things in different words and assume he is convincing me. I do not wish to inspire such delays. There is a time for politics and a time for action. Sadly, the latter warrants bluntness.

My family is gone. I have covered the fact with so much work that it feels like a throbbing sore. I must first build something decisive from their murder. I will worry about my own well being later. Some of us sleep that night. Most of us just can’t seem to find a reason to close our eyes. The fires have long since abated at the castle. It is just a blackened ruin now. I go back to see. High-ranking nobility and members of the Drugozolv guard force accompany me as soon as I leave the tent. Tevya is there. I notice a rotting pile of flesh nearby.

“Most of you haven’t personally met Lady Elizabeth Koolva. While her sister died protecting my siblings, she was busy acting in the interests of Lord Buchanan Koolva, her bond-mate. He is a traitor to my rule and I have placed an open arrest warrant for him. I want him alive.” Their silence denotes agreement. Lykans hate treachery above all else and when one of our own, a high ranker at that, gives in to it we will do whatever it takes to mete Wolvaar’s justice on his head.

“The banners are ready, Matriarch,” says Earl Mikahail Federov. “They have the Drugozolv logo, and the old ones have been remade to resemble the new.” I am presented a sample. Upon unfurling, I see the fine head of a wolf, fake-silver thread but then again the real thing would’ve taken too long to process and too difficult to carry into battle knowing how the tiniest amounts roiled lykan senses. When word spreads about my immunity, people start calling me the Silver Matriarch. I appreciate the title if for no other reason that that it will strike fear into my enemies whose only real advantage is the metal in question. I want to wear a suit of silver armor just to spit the fact in their faces but my people come first. The pack’s safety is why I have become what I have become. Of what use is all this power if it isn’t used for the good of the pack?

“The siege engines are ready as well, Your Majesty,” says Duke Julius Vourdal.

“Have the cubs been fed?”

“All across Luposia, Matriarch.”

“Sound the horns. We march immediately. South to Fangtasia.” I turn to go back outside the city to where the camps spread. The rest of my company form disciplined contingents in keeping with commands sent down the chain. Our march takes us a few miles out to the chief airfields. I had them reopened and prepped like they were during past war times. Troop transports await us in these locations. In normal times, fuel, food, and more were flown where required across the nation. With war upon us, we need to conserve what we can in case of emergencies. My wolves are working to manage such matters.

Two hours later, an army is organized and plenty of others in reserve in pockets across the country; they will mobilize when called for but not yet. Wolves are either in the air or marching toward shore to ships that await them in Drugozolv harbours. Less than a million reside in my company. A force numbering slightly more are heading up from the south. Our communication is highly encrypted but we don’t take any chances, not with Lord Buchanan’s betrayal and the potential information he might have leaked to the enemy. He might even be with them now divulging our strategies. We remain alert but are confident thanks mainly to the magic we have on our side for which there are no known weaknesses except the obvious; the user dies, the magic dies with them. I’m sure Buchanan might have moved to phase two of his scheme if he hadn’t seen what I was capable of back in Fangtasia. Their centralized location was a strategic decision that mother had ordered a long time ago.

With lykans moving in from all sides, coming from the closest regions in Luposia to where the vampire territories began, the vamps should not be surprised if they found themselves surrounded. Personally, I am curious to see how they are going to get out of this one. How close I came to upholding the name of my House and making a mark in history like none other. A few weeks, months even, and I’d have had them eating out of my paw. Peace treaties will have been signed and any corrupting influence in Fangtasia will have been wiped clean. It was all going to be elegant, a subtle show of power with mildest force applied when called for. When did it all unravel and so badly? How could it all have gone wrong so fast.

To be perfectly honest, if the humans working with the vampires can lay a hand on the feared Drugozolvs themselves, then my pack is indeed vulnerable. We are not invincible; I know that, always have. That dratted Dracula admitted to wanting me dead as well. The very thought of his charming smile and polished features as he gave the execution order makes me prickle with rage. I hate vampires for what they did. We were all at peace until they decided to bite for no reason. That’s the difference between snakes and wolves, the latter find meaning in a hunt while the former simply strike because they are afraid.

“Their greed has brought this upon them,” I say over the globa-comm to high-ranking soldiers who have been sharing updates every now and again. Nobody talks of what happened to my family. I am grateful for that. I am sitting in a plane with several soldiers, including the ones who were with me in Fangtasia when all hell broke loose. “Their lust for power, the lykan power, will see an end to their bloodlines. We will defeat them so thoroughly that I will wipe every mention of them from the records so none shall even know of their pitiable species. And as for the humans,” The pause is unintentional. I want to find the right words. We left this line deliberately open so the enemy can hear what we have to say about their sordid ilk. “We will render them extinct once and for all. This time, they will perish for good.”

Howls and cheers course through the intercom but I don’t bother to soak it up. The time for happiness is not yet here. The lykans in the plane keep silent in my presence. I need my pack. No matter how powerful I am I need them. Not for political reasons but moral and physical support, which is more powerful than all the magic in the world. I sense their care, love, loyalty and concern and it drives me, just like I was driven by the loss of my family whom I loved with all my heart. My heart nurtures my mind and they together guide my power. I don’t rely on ancient philosophy with such thoughts, merely the principles that all lykans have come to cherish.

The pack is stronger together than any lone wolf will ever be. A lykan is nothing if they do not know this. Soon, we will educate the vampires who apparently prefer division to unity.

 

13

We make landfall and start setting up camp in wine-country, a region known as Ginataar in mid-west Luposia. It is the only largest stretch of open land on which we can settle this conflict with the vampires, assuming they want to face us head-on in battle. Our siege weapons will certainly find the space to their liking. My strategists and I had a long conversation over a secure channel; this line we kept closed and hack-proof. Unanimous consensus was that the vamps will use their outer cities to set up defences. In other words, they will not be coming out to meet us. This made matters more complicated. The cause of war is often unfairness but the rules of war is anything but; in a fight, anything goes. I am unmoved in my decision to fight this backstabbing monster we have for an enemy. Not a single lykan I have seen so far seems like they do not want to be here. Small comfort in such times.

“I want troops positioned along the western slope, here, in case there’s an ambush we can’t catch scent of. Even though our victory is guaranteed, we’ll leave over-confidence for another day. General Thornhawke,” the lean lykan with a wicked gleam in his eye turns to look at me, “you will accompany the Duke to the southwest where our scouts have confirmed the vampires will not be appearing. I could use our best wolves for last; keep them in reserve until you hear from command. When you catch the horn of the House of Julius go off, you will march into battle. The rest of us will form traditional contingents and march head on to meet them or their defences, whichever comes first. What news?” I turn to see a scout whom I’d smelled coming our way. She stands waiting outside the tent and walks in with a note. “They’ve arrived. Begin marching procedures. I want this battle begun in an hour. The sooner the better.”

I leave the tent while my general, captains and noble family heads exit via the back and sides. “Matriarch! Matriarch Ambrosia Drugozolv!” The voice sounds familiar although I’ve never heard him shout before let alone address me so formally.

“Kurniyev,” I respond. “What is it?” I jog up to meet him, my fur swishing in the breeze.

“It’s…” He points toward a tent. Many lykans surround it and chatter on about something. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“What’s in there?”

“It came down from the sky, parachuted in a while ago. A small media device. I could only get so far before I had to come find you. It isn’t one of ours, I thought command was sending us footage that will help with strategy but it’s more recent, I can assure you.”

“Who else knows?” He shakes his head. I cut a path to the tent. Inside I find a neat red box with baize lining, and the elegant filigreed swirls of the Prime Minister’s office. Though stripped of his rank, he still pretends to exercise it. Count Dracula has sent me a message and Kurniyev has seen it for security reasons – he is not just the welfare department’s go-to person but also my head of technology. Confirming that the device isn’t a bomb or bio-threat, and based on what he must have seen on it, he thought it best to call it to my urgent attention.

I reach out a claw and hit play, leaving a thin scratch on the polished wood box. “Matriarch Ambrosia Drugozolv. As I’m sure you’re aware, all is fair in love and war. I do believe love has much to do with this conflict, but in matters of war I am convinced of one fact.” Count Dracula’s charismatic voice pours out of the device to the point of nausea. “It is a blood moon tonight. While the lykans outnumber us in manifold ways, and have the capability to wage war anytime they please, you chose the best night to fight; a full moon, when the lykans are at their strongest. With females who can wield magic and males whose strength graces even our literature, suffice to say that we vampires are at a sizeable disadvantage. I believe that among your men, such valour starts quite young. Case in point,” he moves his arm elegantly to the side and the camera shifts focus. “May I present Henry Drugozolv, last in line to the throne, youngest son of late Viktoria and Alexandrovich Drugozolv.”

My sibling, in a cage, cub-wolf form, aggressive, chomping on the iron bars, and very much alive. Somewhere inside I am overjoyed to see him still breathing. My mind whirls. I had refused to see his body, to see any of theirs. I relied entirely on Kurniey Keel’s photos and videos hack-transmitted to me when I was in Fangtasia and acted upon them while teams were still performing investigations and autopsies. There was so little time. Was it only a few days ago? Now we’re on the field, ready to fight, and this happens.

“Call off the fight, Matriarch Ambrosia. Or the next heir to the throne dies. Call of any future attempts at war and give us a fair share of land to call our own. We’ll stay out of your fur for good, for the rest of our days.” What a fool. Does he think I can’t have my own children after I am done with the vampires tonight? I am certain he’ll kill Henry, silver or some other means, but he’ll do it. Can I build a new lykan world on such a memory? Is one life, no matter how dear, more important than a nation full of them. This is my darling brother who, despite his intolerable mischief strike, I will protect fiercely.

The decision is tricky. I’ll have made it sooner if this were another cub from another family. But it’s my little Henry. I am shaken by this development. I cannot decide, and yet my indecision speaks to my weakness. Am I emotional or am I a leader not given to sentiment but rather the greater good of her people? What will mother have done? “You have fifteen minutes to call me back on this line. The timer begins when the message ends and I receive a wireless alert of the same. Thank you for your time, Matriarch. I trust you will arrive at a wise decision.” The line goes dead.

He is giving me an ultimatum. He is telling me to let little Henry go, that he is young and not worth remembering in long histories. He is trying to sow dissent, to reduce morale. My heart says he is succeeding at it. This last-minute ploy is proof that Dracula knows he doesn’t stand a chance against us. He is desperate, but so am I, for vengeance. I need to get Henry back safe and sound; the pack aside, he is the only family I have left. I cannot have my cake and eat it too, but I need to try.

Dracula wants me to look both strong and heartless, remembered in chronicles for a decision I had no real part in making. Lizzie’s husband did this, they are hand in glove and checkmating me. He must have kidnapped my baby brother, put another body there that looked like his – probably surgically made up to seem like Henry – so even if I were to see the body before it was burned I’d not have been sure. The lykan traitor will have found ways to mask the scent of the strange child who is probably another innocent lykan kid, taken from somewhere in Luposia against his will. It is still a crime against the pack, one more life taken. Since when did a wolf stoop to such indecency? “Disgraceful.” It is all I can say to myself as I stand in the tent and feel Kurniyev’s eyes upon me from between the tent flaps.

Even with all my power, I won’t be able to reach my brother in time. I don’t even know where they’re holding him. I see Dracula’s plan. This war will be delayed, parleys will be called for, more room for betrayal will open, my pack will be far more confused and lost than I am right now. If the head dithers the body mimics. I have come so far. We have all come so far. I won’t turn back now…

I call the fiend. “Count.” This is one title I cannot remove. He earned it several centuries before the War of Conversion began. I realize just how old this despicable creature is. Small wonder how easily he can play games with innocent lives, age no bar.

“Matriarch.” His voice sounds even deeper over the phone. I know that the moment I dialled back, I opened the floor to negotiations.

“Take me instead.”

“With all your power, Matriarch Ambrosia, I’m afraid we have no secure holdings to contain you, though you will make a fine royal-prisoner of war. Besides, you’ve shown that silver cannot injure you, which is a first considering the lykan race’s glaring weakness.”

“I cannot give you more land just so you can scheme some more with the humans. It is utterly unreasonable. Complete autonomy and total independence from Luposia? You are asking me that with a straight face, Count? You’re reaching for the stars. After what you’ve done to my family and the way you’ve treated my people especially in the past few days, I’d ask you to lower your demands. You have no less than the few minutes I’m going to stay on this line to suggest a proper exchange in return for my brother. I’m not even sure if this is yet another genetic trick and if that wolf-cub you have behind iron bars is really my brother or another lykan abductee, in which case you are adding to all that you have to answer for.”

I fall quiet. I can hear him breathing, typing, probably listening to someone else on another line advising him on how to proceed. The fact that he is taking so long and that he is using what bureaucracy he can to find the best solution to the conundrum tells me something. I immediately make the decision that could either change the tide of this war or alter the way my own lykans will see me when they learn the truth. Luposia is an open government, after all, and I intend to maintain transparency with my people. Secrets and lies lead to ruin, as Lady Lizzie’s double-play for her male-mate in hopes that she can find a way to bring him out of it has proven. Nothing good ever comes of such games. I don’t fully register what I am doing. Little Henry is still hanging in my head. I call Dracula’s bluff, but am I the biggest fool to have done so? I cut the line and leave the tent. I hear screams and shouts from lykans pointing to the sky.

I am still getting used to my magic. All the powers I know were taught by mom, and even she didn’t teach me everything. We thought we would have time and each other, but fate is a treacherous thing, much like Lord Buchanan who bit his own pack for a doomed ambition. I look up and see what appear to be sleek projectiles heading our way.

“Propellant arrows,” says Kurniyev as he comes to stand beside me. “They light up as they reach a destination and rain down as fire-tips.” The first word that comes to mind is missiles but we disbanded them a long time ago. They were too dangerous for peace. Though the vampires had ways to hide their accumulation of silver, they could never have hid missiles or nuclear weapons for that matter. They were all buried, discontinued, and the wolves who hid them committed righteous suicide and took the secret with them so none shall ever have a means to go back to those times. Metal detectors were no good, the vamps found a way to coat silver with substances that didn’t trigger the meters. Halfway between a missile and an arrow are the things raining down on us.

“Get ready!” It is dark and night has fallen in earnest. The full moon captures the dull shine of arrow tips as they pierce the sky and come for us in our flammable tents set among spark-worthy machines. I have to try something and realize how foolish I seem to myself, experimenting at a time like this. I kneel on my hocks, pick up a few stones, stretch my arm and threw them back to me. I visualize a spell if only to cement the idea of it in my mind before producing a small purple ray of light. The stones come through unscathed; not my intention. I want them to fall into the tiny atomic-wormhole I’d projected a few inches to my right. It isn’t as complex a spell as it seems. I try again, and again, and again. I fail. The arrows reach their zenith, their tail ends turn off and fire blooms around their tips as they make the descent. They will fall fast. Magic is sensitive. I have to visualize a spell to perfection. Even if I don’t grasp the science behind it I have to know what I want done. Natural laws will take care of the rest.

I grab more stones, reach out, throw them back to me, create the ray, and force my will on the spell without stressing out at the same time. Before the arrows make it to eight feet from ground level, I mass-produce that same ray until a large portion of the sky is painted with it. The arrows plunge through, disappear and land in the wormhole zone. Everything else is natural, and the projectiles return to source-point.

The vampires have lost the element of surprise. Many of my female lykans take out the strays with well-aimed shots while my spell grabs most of the arrows and rains them down on the enemy ranks. They kill many vampires with head or heart shots leaving others shouting in pain as they pluck the shafts out and retreat; their speed-healing will do what it does best.

I assume they have a second array of arrows to send at us, and I don’t think I can mass-produce that spell so soon after the first attempt. All magic needs time. The more complex they are the longer female lykans need to wait before they can properly visualise it again. I unsheathe my sword. The moon shines down on us. My people transform with flash-bangs of light as we group up and run at the enemy who most certainly must be several hundred meters away if they had to shoot those arrows at us. We see them, ahead of us. They are shouting challenges, weapons ready but their eyes filled with trepidation. The wind carries the scent of their torture. I never knew vampires could stink of such fear. Their sweat gives it all away; it emboldens us. Because their full force isn’t here, this being merely an advance party, we obviously outnumber them. They thought the arrows would burn us in our tents before we could put on armor and rush to meet them in battle.

It is strength over strategy this time. My communication managers spread the word and we have our ambushers attack from the east where hilly slopes had kept them hidden for just such an eventuality. Our archers take out a good number of them from the sides and set fire to the one mechanical device they brought with them. Vampires can be stealthy when they want to, but here there be lykans. Let them try speed-healing their way out of death’s grip. The hopeless fools, we rid the field of them. Their blood drenches my sword like polish on the nails of a mistress of the night.

 

 

 

13

My worst fears are confirmed. Little Henry was real. It was him and not someone made to look like him. They sent his body back in a mahogany coffin with the callous words ‘Your Choice’ in delicious cursive, signed Count Dracula. Between the hormonal changes young magical energy induces in me and the recent fight on the plains of Ginataar, I don’t know how to react. I miss his mischief; it is all I can think of. I will miss his growing up; it is what I ponder next. The whole army is silent, kneeling, thinking. The sun shines down on us. I haven’t changed like my men have, I’m still in lykan form.

He looks like he is sleeping. But he is truly dead, much like the fish he once played with a few years ago when he had learned to speak.

“Daddy, daddy, look what I got.”

“Put it back in the pond, Henry, or the fish will die,” said Alexandrovich, our father.

“But look, it’s dancing, it’s playing with me.”

The fish died and papa took Henry aside to explain to him that fish need water like we need air. “Ohhhh,” Henry had said, realization having dawned. “I’ll remember that, daddy. We’d better get another fish. None of the others seem to be dancing as well as that last one. Who will entertain the other fish? They all look bored, like Anna.” He threw something at his sister and she shrieked. It was a toad he had stored in his pocket from his time in the garden. Mischievous Henry is no more.

They build a special holding for his coffin and when it is done I personally fly it back to Moonhaven, ordering my men to set up camp and await my return close to midday tomorrow. I take Henry to the gardens at City Square where he loved to play and terrorize the dessert cart vendors. He will look rather nice memorialized in stone; my eyes catch a good place for him. I already made plans to commemorate others of my family here. But there will be time for statues later. We are at war, now is not a good time to lose sight of the real aim.

My people don’t judge me, in fact I think they pity me. They adore me for putting the pack first, it’s the Drugozolv imperative, but they feel sad that I had to lose so much else in the process. They do not know what I am going through; frankly, neither do I. Someday the pack will go on without me. But without me they will not stand a chance against the vampires and their penchant to inspire treachery even among once-loyal werewolves. Dracula cannot be trusted to change his mind in time. He has committed plenty of atrocity using time as his weapon. The rest of us do not have his particular bolt of luxury.

Much like I have broken nature’s pattern by showing magical potential early, Dracula’s extraordinarily long lifespan is his point of pride. I do not want to think of a world where I have grown old, died, and taken my magic with me, leaving my people in the hands of a capable count who will not hesitate to twist the world to his desires. I think about the enemy as I stand and watch ordinary men and women stand with me, their heads bowed, paying their respects. When I lift the box, I notice one of Henry’s eyelids lift to reveal a dim blue pupil. I close it back and draw the casket over it. He was a fighter. I’m certain he fought till the end, never making it easy for them, never giving them the satisfaction of seeing him weak. He’d have been a great Drugozolv.

If someday I bear a son, I wish a little bit of Henry will find its way into his character. I don’t mourn on the outside, but grieve in stark silence. I made sure that nobody shed a tear; those prone to doing so keep away from the funeral. Tears dishonour the dead, including the lykans who fell in the recent fighting; their bodies were being put on carts to be sent back to Moonhaven where they will be buried in the military plots allotted to them, attended by their families and friends. By that time, I may already be involved in another skirmish with the vampire filth. Everything was going fast, it had to. The pulse of war cannot be lethargic.

After a customary period of silence and when Wolvaar’s priest is done singing verses for the departed, I carry the small coffin back to where the castle stood; it is burned and charred with renovation work already begun to get parts of it up and running. Henry’s body, as my advisors Kurniyev included suggested, had to be burned where the rest of the family was. Their ashes have long been claimed by the autumn winds and carried in the direction of the mighty mountain in which slept a volcano. My soul seems like one of the dry leaves, slowly withering. I chose the majority over one soul, and now they have taken the last family I had.

What will people think of me? I never really bothered with this question until now. Is the life of a royal and one related to me any more important than the life of the lykan soldier who died fighting for Luposia? Will I be judged in their minds for not having launched a rescue mission, to keep from calling Dracula’s bluff which turned out to be true? What about the several lykans who will have died so only Henry could be saved? If I had lingered and those arrows fell… What will that tell about me as the Matriarch whose ultimate duty is to put the pack above her own desires and judge what is best for all lykans and not just a few? Did I make a tough decision that had to be made or should I have taken time to decide on an alternate strategy, banking on time we did not have? I hate questions. They weigh me down. I grow tired with each query.

This war became personal for all of us. When something affects the Drugozolvs, it affects the pack. So it has been for a century and so it shall be forever more, once I wipe the slate clean of the vampire race. As for the Count, I have special plans in mind for him. I raise my hand to the sky and the coffin lights up along with a good portion of the makeshift pedestal that held it off the ground. My soul burns as I watch Henry’s body give in to the kiss of flames.

 

 

14

The intelligence meeting is about to begin. It has been five hours since I burned my brother’s corpse, unmolested by the enemy who had him since they killed the rest of the royal lykan line of Drugozolvs only a few days ago, leaving me the sole heir to an empire I don’t fully know how to lead. I am going moment by moment and since we are faced with an avoidable war, I understand that magic and fighting, things I’d trained for, will help me see the rest of the days with some measure of boldness.

When I got back on the flight out of Moonhaven and toward my camped army, I didn’t think I would reach them so soon. The journey on foot was long and tiresome, especially with the strange autumn humidity; like us, the climate changed as well when the spheres went up after the War of Conversion, causing the landmasses they contained to adapt to a new cycle.

Whatever challenge the future holds, overconfidence is one thorn I do not need embedded in my finger. I have witnessed mightier wolves bleed out suddenly and without warning because they were so certain of their thoughts and plans only to find them crash against the cold walls of Fate and sink their dreams and hopes. I have to rely on what I was taught. I don’t have a word to describe how it feels to be Matriarch of the Lykan race, brutally forced to ascended the family throne, left to rule with an unsure hand in a time of war against all of Fangtasia and the sudden human menace that has given the vampires such indecipherable confidence. It was an ‘us or them’ scenario and I most certainly intend too see my wolves into the far future.

“I called this meeting to discuss the human problem. What do we know from data collected so far?”

Bread, vegetables and fruit tastes different to the lykan tongue. I have not changed back to human, and biting into a morsel a while back reminded me of the difference. The reason I am this way is because I want to stay prepared and even a few seconds’ delay could cost me. The vampires shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when cornered as they are now. I had bitten into a plum croissant and while it tasted wonderfully different compared to when I ate one as a human, I found myself failing to savor it. I eat to survive, to live, to gain strength and nourishment for my bones and muscles. I don’t think I will ever eat something and truly enjoy it again. Lykans learn to appreciate life’s layered mysteries, even something as simple as food, but I am losing bits and pieces of myself starting with the simplest pleasures. I know it has to do with my staying wolf for this long, but if someone were to ask me my opinion I do not feel being this way is overly bad. Perhaps it is a thorn that can at any moment suddenly and without warning bleed me out. But the alternative, vampires taking me off guard in my human form when my magic isn’t at its optimum, is not a possibility that the last Drugozolv can rest easy with.

If I die before my time, the lykan cause will plummet into ruin and chaos. We’d become a divided race of survivors, vagabonds and nomads, hunted and ostracized. Count Dracula will use the confusion to further divide us until there is nothing left of werewolves. I know in my heart that he wishes female lykans to serve the blood-wraiths so the vampires can at last have magic working on their side. I feel a tingle shoot up my spine as I imagine Lady Lizzie working for them instead of her husband. What a formidable loss that would have been. I had to kill her, she was too invested in false hopes to change her mind. But not a moment has gone by since that I don’t regret doing her in.

A message had to be sent. If there are spies in my pack – one more reason I stay in wolf form – they’ll take back news of this to Buchanan. My ruthlessness will keep him on a short leash. It had to be a power-play or submission was the sole alternative. I, Ambrosia Drugozolv, do not submit. How did my parents manage it? How did they rule with all these imbalances? I have learned magic and battle from mother not the finer side of politics; that task rests entirely on my shoulders now.

I remember asking her about it once. Mom compared politics to wisdom. ‘You gain more of it the older you get. Spend time among politics long enough and you will know what to do, Ambrosia. As for magic and combat, these need you to train hard and with discipline, everyday. You can afford to procrastinate or guess your way out of a situation as a politician. But whole armies can be compromised if even one soldier errs in their ability to strike true when needed.’

Pressure is falling all around me with no order to their arrival. Madness. That’s the word to describe the life of someone bestowed with responsibility, royalty no less. It is elegant madness. The room gradually fills. Food trays are laid out along with coffee, water and other beverages.

“This conference has convened at two hours past midday,” I declare for the official record. I take my seat. “We’re here to discuss hard facts on what the humans are offering that the vampires react with such boldness after nearly one hundred years of co-existence. We will follow the usual steps, beginning counter-clockwise with each member sharing their reports so all who are part of the joint committee assembled in this room can hear and take notes. At the end of the chain we shall have a summary of all data thus presented. Reports and intelligence will be shared by Earl Kurniyev Keel, head of intelligence. And the new assistant director of the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau Julius Vourdal, Duke of Blood-Hill, will offer his take on things. Let us begin.”

The circus begins. I do not know how with words to communicate and paper to remind of what is being talked about, a roomful of lykans can end up creating a chaotic flow of information so intense that will require a whole library to hold the opinions, theories, implications, and silent accusations thrown across a piece of wood called a table.

I admit to losing myself several times during the meeting. I am supposed to take notes to ask about in due course, but I pay attention only to topics concerning the humans. I feel that is where my powers will be most useful. We don’t know how they work, which is how a family as powerful as mine even fell to their ploys. I cannot make the same mistakes, not after the vamps and humans have shown how fast they can work. Every snippet of data shared here will help hone my understanding of how the humans behave. They will not have the world we sacrificed so much time and effort to create, they will not win it all after they are done raping it with their greed. I believe things were bad enough when mother allowed the vampires to have their own territory out of respect for some natural fact of planetary balance and retaliation. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it but I am certain of one thing. This month, natural balance or not, will see an end to humans and the vampires they pretend to serve.

“Before summation,” said Duke Vourdal. I am having trouble understanding the last few aural reports, something to do with perimeter readings, food distributions and city maintenance. They are overly complicated and vague at times. Life had to go on, war or not, but the complexity of planning and time management makes me glad my parents placed competent minds at the helms of these departments. If they waited on me alone to tell them how to run a nation during wartime, I’ll only have been able to blink in the room while all my decisiveness is applied out in the field. Julius knows me well enough to see that I am in thought. He doesn’t interrupt until I give him my full attention – I’m certain they all know I am struggling to keep up but they indulge my semi-naiveté. They probably peg it down to my losses, and they are partly correct in doing so. “I just received confirmation of intelligence from the mountain tribe, Matriarch.” He looks at Kurniyev to continue.

“The Halvations, the recluse-tribe of warrior-wolves, request an audience with Her Majesty.” Everything is so formal it makes me uncomfortable.

“But I thought they served nobody. It is their spiritual code, isn’t it? Are they here?”

“They are, Matriarch. We thought it best to save time and introduce them to you at the earliest opportunity, in keeping with the pace of the meeting.”

“That’s alright, this is good news. Send them in.”

Not only are these reclusive monkish sect of wolves ace craftsmen, farmers, weavers and artisans, they are also outrageously good at fighting; which is what drew me to pick up a book on them in grandfather’s library a few years ago. Rumour has it that they can wield any and all weapons known to lykan and vampire alike. We respected their right to reclusiveness and left them to their own lives to follow a spirituality we didn’t quite understand. Today, however, we have need of the numbers not to mention the skills. When they walk in, they look like pillars with grown legs. Not only are they incredibly proportioned, they move so softly on such well-honed bodies that it defies wolf reasoning.

“The House of Drugozolv welcomes the Halvatians, warrior-wolves of the mountain tribe of Halva, honoured members of the pack, and dear friends of my late father Alexandrovich Drugozolv.”

The leader bows and his men seamlessly imitate him. They do it with one hand on their backs with fingers curved while the other arm is fisted at the front, before the thigh. Their braided hair droop across their shoulders as if they too want in on the ceremonious show of respect.

“Matriarch Ambrosia Drugozolv, we are deeply sorry for our loss. Your family was a fine one, and your father has our eternal loyalty and respect. We began our trek as soon as news reached us and deemed it wise to offer you our aid. In this time of war, the Halvatians have decided to break seventy-five years of tradition and pledge battle allegiance. We are here to fight for you, Matriarch, if you will have us.”

“There aren’t words to describe my father’s magnanimity, nor are there words to say how grateful I am to have you join us. Rise, Olaf Hiradhya and fellow Halvatians. We welcome you with open arms. I am afraid the time for camaraderie has to be brief. This intelligence meeting will soon conclude and we will continue the fight. We wish to end it soon so we can all return home and rebuild, regrow and resurge as a pack.” I do not know how I recall the leader’s name. It just lands in my head and my mouth seems to respond. I don’t think this ability can be called magical but I’m sure it is useful. This must have been what mother referred to when she said ‘menta-magic is something that comes after you, Ambrosia, you never go pursuing it. If the Energies feel like sharing a truth with you, they will favour you with one. Don’t force it, it can mar your rods of instinct.’ I partially understood her at the time but now I understand her a bit more.

Olaf Hiradhya is not surprised to hear me say his name. He must be familiar with the art, perhaps his female-mate displays it, if he happens to have one. The tribe I only ever read about is standing in this very room pledging loyalty to my House. I am glad papa did right by them in the past or I’m guessing they’d never have shown up.

I look out the tent and am glad to see that we are camped at one of the borders of Fangtasia. Relying on marching patterns that in some mathematical way sped us up as a group and got us moving between locations faster – the knowledge carried by veteran werewolves – we have but to sound the horns and get things going.

“In summation,” repeats the Duke of Blood Hill, “preliminaries have been concluded concerning the chemical hormone that the humans use to mask their scent from lykan noses. We fear, Matriarch, and this is information late in coming and is at best a theory. There is some cause for concern but proper security measures have been placed back home…” It is his custom to prolong a point like this. Mother once said she found it more informative than the point itself while father mentioned how amusing the duke was when he spoke in this manner. I recognize neither trait. I have already estimated what he is about to say and I don’t feel amused or informed. “…The humans could still be back home targeting the families we left behind while we’re all the way here. News of your ability to teleport between locations has stayed their hand, we believe, or so my intelligence reports reveal. But in all probability the enemy is in the den, or so we must assume. Competent lykans are in place to help in case of an emergency.”

I can’t shatter morale by saying that teleportation is a powerful atomic and quantum – which has to do with the mind more than the brain – shift in matter and elements. It is harder to do in lykan form. I have already teleported once, having taken my remaining guards with me, from the very nation we are stood outside of. I can’t teleport again for at least twenty days; need those powers to stabilize, can’t explain it really. In case there are spies in this very room, I keep quiet. Twenty days, all I can do is hope for the best as I rain the worst down on my enemies and give them no time to call bluffs.

I stand. The others stand with me. I pause for breath. “The meeting is adjourned, the conference is closed. The time for formalities is over and the time for action is now. It has been a few days since our enemy faced defeat at our hands in Ginataar. Tomorrow we invade Fangtasia proper. Though the full moon has come and gone, we are still powerful. There will be a mass transformation at a shrine of Wolvaar that we are nearly done building; give it two hours. As soon as we’re done getting a foothold on enemy soil from the west, I’ll head home to root out the human mongrels and await your successful return.” The duke looks like he is about to say something.

“My parents made the mistake of facing the humans without first learning their tactics. I don’t intend to err that way. Have these hormones passed along to as many lykans as you can in the next couple of hours. It will help our men and women subconsciously note the molecular scent. In case these humans are waiting for us inside Fangtasia, and they most probably are, our instincts will have something to work with even if we do not consciously recall the scent. We can’t have them killing our people right under our noses. Let’s reclaim the honour that has been taken from us and avenge our losses.”

Everyone in the tent makes to leave. Commercial and urban matters, including food, security and this chemical Kurniyev calls Liquid-Ghost, will be arranged by the convoy flying back to Moonhaven in Bell –Boeings parked far from the wall and the sightline of vampires. Most of our military craft remains much the same as what our human ancestors used. Maybe that is the problem. Instead of small changes, we need big ones. I make a mental note to promote massive restructuring and research into creating specialized designs for the future to distinguish our race from the ones that came before. Keeping our technology secret didn’t stop Lady Lizzie’s male-mate from leaking it to the enemy. Now that humans are among us and not dead as we all thought they were, they will know how to use our technology against us. It is after all familiar to them, unchanged from when they were in control nearly a century ago.

It is a stressful state being leader. War, politics, running a nation instead of running my dreams. I come from a bloodline that demands this of me, and I can’t refuse it even if I want to. They were right when they said one often finds their destiny on the road they least wish to travel. Every facet of life plays the role of mirrors. Good things become bad, bad things make way for good, villains inspire heroes into being, heroes encourage villains to challenge them, in darkness we find the light, and in death lies the great mysteries to life and why we are all here in the first place. If existence is a game of opposites, how are we to balance the rules? Where is fairness and justice? Or are those virtues to be found in the embrace of criminality?

The duke leans over. “Matriarch, if I may, I feel you should revert to human form before we invade. We have sparse but sufficient research on the debilitations of staying lykan. The consequences have rarely been overcome and that too only if the biology is spot on. Please, I insist.”

“You insist?” I look at him full in the face. He is a gentle wolf with strong features, and pleasant in a way only he can explain. I recall seeing how good he was on the field back in Ginataar. But he is overstepping his mark. Mother warned me about politicians like these. I relax when what I really want to do is tell the duke to shut up about my personal state of being. He is neither my doctor nor my male-mate. Where is this rage coming from? Perhaps it is the wolf inside me, and the duke is right to ask me to revert for a while, insist upon it even. But it will not do given the urgency of my situation and the safety it demands.

“I know full well what I am risking being in lykan form.” My voice carries high enough that the men and women who were part of the intelligence meet stop moving toward the tent exit, turn and see what is going on with the duke and the Matriarch. “I am a Drugozolv. Have you not seen what they did to my family? They can and will do worse to any one of us.” I am gesturing now and my voice rises. “I am full on lykan because every second counts. The humans have technology that can catch us mid-transformation. Now, I do not mean to boast, but I of all werewolves find strength in my pack and not in myself alone. But if I am not here today, with a plan gone wrong and much cleaning to be done, a war to win, a race to wipe out, human threats to overcome, and lykan interests to uphold, Wolvaar forbid I die and you lose your most powerful weapon, one that can turn the tide in our favour.”

I head toward the tent flap. I want to keep walking but feel the need to say every lingering thing that sticks to my soul and pinches me to speak. “There is one Matriarch in the House of Drugozolv. I will have no male lykan underestimating me or any female lykan questioning my state of mind. I hear your point, Duke, but refuse to dwell on it. I, Ambrosia Drugozolv, have spoken. Now get up and let’s go to war. The real enemy is out there, not in here trying to fight for her pack. Get up! As for the rest of you, head back home and keep things primed. We’ll be returning in a few days, with the blood of victory dripping from our claws. Sound the horn when the time comes. I want all our troops ready to transform so we can together unleash havoc on the Lavender Wall that separates us from the scourge that tried to plague us with fear and panic. Are we men or are we werewolves?” My hand forms a fist before my face. “By Wolvaar, I will have Dracula’s head if it’s the last thing I do.”

I bring my fist down hard on the table, cracking it. My politicians seem genuinely impressed. The duke himself has an approving expression. But it is the loud cheers, shouts, and chants that rise up from my army that elevates my soul. The noise fills the outside as male and female soldier-lykans stand united in our common desire to cleanse the world of a disease going by the name Vampire. Wolvaar knows we have harboured the sickness for too long.

 

 

 

15

Supplies and equipment are packed. Before long, we leave the wheat farm and make our way through the barn country of Dashvamas, filled with all manner of dairy animals also favoured for their meat, and poultry. We eat meagre rations along the way to keep up our stamina. The march takes us past one of Luposia’s widest rivers, The Journeyman, where we use the hand-chain technique to make a rope of lykans whom the others use to get across swiftly. We rely on magic to levitate heavy objects across; saves times and energy; we need to save magic in case of another ambush.

A rush of breeze commanded by some of the more adept elemental lykans sees our soldiers drying fast as we prepare to face the steep slopes of Turio. The hilly terrain is known for Minxie berries, tiny but overwhelmingly scented Vazh flowers, and rare herbs like the Piera used in magical poultices to speed up healing or euthanizing depending on the concentration.

We prefer battling during night time. However, given the time when the last fight concluded, the duration of the intelligence meeting, and the brief ritual before a shrine to Wolvaar to gain the Dark God’s blessing for a safe march, we have been on foot all night and the better part of next morning. If only we had those beasts called horses but sadly the last ones went extinct a few years after the Conversion War. Too many were used for labour, battle, or meat, and their numbers dwindled until there was no hope of renewing the population.

By midday we arrive at the infamous wall. Now all we need do is wait for our siege equipment, which are too massive to move across our route and not a practical expenditure of magic either. They are being flown over by jumbo-cargo planes. Even bombs were taken off the technology list when we deviated from the corporate greed of the past and left behind the habit of using more resources than we needed. Whatever bombs we possessed, we made using simple chemistry and natural substances. Our magic and strength will be better anyway.

As I stand and look at this behemoth of a wall, I see just how bright it is. Made from a form of granite whose properties are close to that of precious stones than anything else. The vampires were first to discover the node and we let them have control over mining operations for the material they christened Lavenderite. Not only does it have the same colour as lavender it even gives off a natural odour that smells the part. I recall father telling us about his visit to the mine inauguration where he had remarked on the scent coming out of an otherwise dingy mine.

They built this wall several decades ago, long before I was born. I have read up on our history and know from pictures that the wall is pale purple in hue and capable of catching the sun and playing with its light. The wall before me is not that colour, though it should be.

“They have buttered molten silver along the whole wall,” says one of the soldiers who served as forward scout throughout the march. A cliff fell hundreds of meters to the north and south of the wall. Facing us from the east is a gigantic silvery-purple portcullis of a wall.

“Where did they get all this silver?” the scout mutters.

I don’t blink before I answer. “Lord Buchanan has been a busy wolf.” Nothing we have can put a dent on the metal – there is simply too much of it – but the Lavenderite can crumble over repeated assaults. My analyst comes forward. I see his team already at work assessing the situation. He has either doubts or solutions.

“Matriarch,” he says and waits for me to acknowledge him. “From the pattern of layering, the vampires have poured the silver metal from atop the ramparts and covered both the inner, outer and top portions of the wall. The wall itself is eighteen feet thick making an attack on it impractical, especially now that it’s made of silver.” I know what he means. An assault will not go easy on us, meaning none of my people can get close enough to place even a paw on it. While I enjoy immunity, I cannot do anything on my own but simply fly over the wall, and then what. The weakening aura of silver can barely be felt at this distance.

“We are strongest where we are standing,” I say. My troops hear me. “The vampires won’t dare bring the fight to us. They expect us to run into the silver aura, grow weak and give them a chance to take out as many of us as possible.” I let the implication sink in. “Send up a red goose.” Barely a minute passes when a large red ball is slingshot at a tangent; a machine fashioned after a taut crossbow makes quick work of the order. The ball heads out, reaches an apex and falls at an oblique angle at the Lavender Wall. A sharp laser shot lights the air for a brief few seconds and then, the goose is dead.

“Lykans! We cannot pour another cover-layer to veil the silver. Our magic will be countered if we try. Any containers we levitate up there to drop the liquid layer will be shot, as you just observed. The enemy knows we are here; as we expected them to. Only one option remains, and that is to break the wall from a distance. I need ideas and fast. The longer we stand here the bolder the enemy gets.”

“Matriarch Ambrosia,” says Kurniyev Keel and gestures for me to meet someone. I nod to the slim female lykan whose name I somehow have printed on my consciousness, much like how I knew the Halvatian leader’s. It feels like a sharp note of psychic instinct, flaring up, producing the name, and falling back into the depths.

“What do you have for me, Saramat Buchenko?” She is taken aback. The feeling is mutual.

“Matriarch, I majored in ancient history and archaeology. I work in the Viktoria Museum, named in honour of your late mother,” she says and waits, takes a breath of relief that she got through the introduction without bungling it, and continues, “There are records that source back several thousand years pertaining to something the humans called The Bible. In the segment titled Old Testament, we have records of a power used by a chief and follower Joshua, who served the religious leader and prophet Moses. When they warred against the city of Jericho they brought down the walls using ‘trumpets’. While it was once believed that mere faith alone razed the wall, we have worked on a scientific angle and discovered that these horns were actually machines that emitted sound waves. When the vibrations matched that of the wall’s atomic vibrations, the structures cracked and crumbled.”

“Old wisdom from a misunderstood religion,” I say. “What are you trying to convey, Saramat?”

“That Mr. Keel has branched out your House’s science department and works with archaeologists from all fields of study to help find stronger technology for the future based on what the humans made in the past. We have been developing one much like the Jericho device.”

“Has it been field tested?”

“Using our resource allocations, we only tested it once large-scale in keeping with what we knew will work based on the historical record and other material we found after the War of Conversion.”

“Can we make small ones to see if they work first? We do not want this to go wrong. The wall before us is Lavenderite not ordinary stone.”

“Project Jericho has been decades in the making, Matriarch. Your mother personally founded the idea. To make a smaller version will take months of calculation, design work, simulation, testing and finally production, then followed by field tests.”

“We have minutes not months.”

“We can test the device in a simulation but we need a bona fide obstacle to work with. And the wall,” she turns to look at the silver menace, “is Fangtasian. We’d have breached laws if we tested an obviously military device on that material.”

“I understand. Fly it over, we’ll put it to work here and now.”

Kurniyev Keel takes out a comm-device. We are only a few hours away by flight. Reports coming in mention how resources need to be strictly allocated; it’s a good thing we footed it and left the machines to come over by air. Siaramat gives me a glance. “Matriarch, it may not work. We have had more failure percentages than success rates with this device. I only suggested it because it is an option, viable or not. The exact configuration can be tricky and when it isn’t found in time, the machine will need to be shut down and air-cooled so as to even out the vibrations before we give it another go. And that will take all of four hours, minimum.”

“Maybe this is the part where we need to have faith,” I say. I’ve apparently given her something to think about.

“I hope it’s alright,” says Kurni as he walks up to me and speaks so only I can hear. “I made premature preparations in case you said yes to the idea, so we could save time. The machine will not need to be packed up, it is almost halfway here in one of our cargo planes.”

“Good. How long before it lands?”

“A few hours.”

“Well, now we wait. Set the place up, get ready to go at a moment’s notice. Spread word to the rest of the pack.” He goes away to relay fresh orders. We set up tables, one to hold plans and another for refreshments. A team distributes food and water to keep our bellies calm and minds piqued. I organize a line of female lykans to maintain a shield over us in case they send explosives or fire-tipped projectiles again. It is quite clear that they are keeping an eye on us and probably wondering what we are doing. Let them wait, let them wait and bleed.

Well into the afternoon, we hear the chugging of rotor blades. An immense cargo carrier is lowering itself. The twin rotors angle the bulging metal body underneath to make for a smooth landing. We had prepared a clearing for the plane. Surrounded by trees with the only opening at an angle away from the wall, we stand assured that the enemy will be blind to what we have brought to their doorstep. Kurniyev Keel and his team get to work prepping the machine – it has so many wires and so few buttons. I see him set up an access console to wirelessly send short-range bursts of information to the massive thing he has named the Portly Wailer.

Talk spreads and plenty of lykans feel the name too literary and difficult to remember; classic Keel. Everyone else at the lab simply calls it the Fat Banshee. There she sat, a gigantic gape from where the sound will rush out and everything else, a frame-less mass of wires and hanging toggles. Makeshift wheels were cut into form using the surrounding trees for material – we have kept enormously busy the past few hours. They are attached to a suitable frame, which too we built using the device’s dimensions. The extras are cut, smoothed, drill-nailed, welded with steel at the corners, fitted, and ready to roll.

Our strongest male lykans help the energy-giants that some of our women created to pull the ensemble out into the hot sun and turn it to face the Lavender wall. The giants needed to be re-created on and off. Producing and then maintaining solidity out of pure energy is difficult, especially over several minutes, and I have yet to master the lesson among others.

The Fat Banshee is wheeled into place. Kurniyev gives me a thumbs-up and I nod. His hands are at the console, pressing buttons on the wireless board from a ways off. The machine thrums to life and moans softly, almost like a sigh from someone who has just quenched a day’s worth of thirst. An idea comes unbidden.

“Setting toggles to vibrate at silver metal atomic rates.”

“No,” I say to Saramat’s words. I have to call out to her because she is beside Kurniyev, both of whom are several meters away from my position. By this time, we are all at a safe distance from the machine. Protected inside a magic shield it stands safe from the vampires who are probably panicking. The shield will have to fall each time the machine fires, and select lykans are on standby for me to raise-drop my arm. Everyone holds their breath and waits for my ‘no’ to complete itself. “Not silver. Change settings. Set it to Lavenderite vibration rates.”

Saramat and Kurniyev both seem to understand but have vague expressions on their faces; they have studied samples of the stone before and have the data needed. They aren’t sure of what I have planned. I give the signal and even from several feet away we feel the vibrations course through the earth as the Fat Banshee prepares to sing. The machine lets loose a concentrated blast of sound. It hits the wall but we see nothing significant. The sound keeps going out, a deep and doleful howl with an undertone of angry roaring. Dials are adjusted in stages so the vibrations slowly but surely reaches an apex rate. It grows deeper and deeper until our ears pop; the sound waves are attaining the required degree. The Lavenderite vibration rate hasn’t been reached yet. During this time, Saramat makes strange gestures as she observes the wall’s reaction. I shift my glance just in time to see dents appear in the silver as the stone inside it crumbles, warps and breaks.

Using military hand-signals I have learned to understand and execute, I collect the best magical lykans to help me with the next phase. Leaving more than fourteen feet of foundation under the ground, we raise the broken wall using nothing but our combined magic. Silver lays a strain on the others – their magic links them to the wall – and their limited strength lays a strain on me as I try to compensate for the difference. The so-called portcullis opens against its will, the wall goes up and up. Moving it a few meters inward we execute the trickiest step of this entire stage.

We bring the wall down hard on the first line of buildings. We lift the wall again and repeat, using the vampires’ own Lavenderite-silver wall against them while we stand out of range. We haven’t even set paw inside the country and already we are battling in it. The crashes stop only when the wall has been crushed as it went on crushing. I can’t smell blood in the air, meaning we didn’t kill any of the soldiers who were positioned atop those buildings earlier. They must have evacuated when their precious wall was compromised.

With one uniform heave, our furred brows shaking with the effort, our snouts rigid and bared with exertion, we throw the crumpled wall into the adjacent cliff. Even as we hear it clang and bang its way to the valley below, my wolves fall in formation and rush ahead into vampire territory. I join the run with a howl, leading my lykans on bestial limbs to heat the cold hearts of blood-wraiths with fear.

We have to manoeuvre past the debris we created when we used the silver wall, a veritable jungle of broken masonry and burst water pipes. Sharp shards stick out in several places. We eventually manage to make it out the other side onto relatively normal pavements and roads. No sooner have we come than the retaliation begins. Pre-programmed explosions go off as they register body heat. I lose several lykans in the next few minutes. We run wherever we can, indoors, outdoors, atop roofs and into sewers. We discover a few enemy soldiers; they shoot and the gunfire echoes.

Using the noises as a compass, we gang up on them and gank as many as we can find. Soon we come across more vampires, men and women alike, some of them civilians who do not even know how to hold a rifle or take the safety off a pistol. They are wasting limited ammunition. From shadowed corners come contingents of vampires, shouting loudly as they run at us from side streets and alleyways. Shots fire, bombs explode and we meet in the crux of battle.

Blood spills onto the road and snakes into the gutters, and they spatter the walls. Lykans and blood-wraiths in turned form are weapons in their own right. With magic and strength, my lykans take out more of them than they can ever hope to match. The vampires are a godless race. They believe only in power not the source that gave it to them. Granted the gods aren’t always with us nor are they on our side when we need them most. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is the only thing we can do as mortals. None of this takes away from the fact that there are Intelligences, minds and hands that made things that we then use to make more; creation cycle, the scholars call it.

The original matter is not ours, we’ve only inherited it and often grab extra power that comes at a price. The vampires don’t care to understand any of this. To remind them, we built a Wolvaar Basilica, the second largest in all the world, right here in Fangtasia. To no avail, though, for none attended the daily masses that went on in the company of empty pews. See where their lack of faith has dragged them. It has sown dissent, disloyalty, and distrust and today the vamps find themselves helpless against the might of those whom they wronged, those who believe in the power of truth and balance. They have corrupted everything we hold dear and I am left with the sole option of ridding us of their poison.

The government sector is where we stand, namely Vlad City though all of Fangtasia is one big city-less county. I infiltrate the basilica; a strange scent is coming from inside. It is that chemical, Liquid-Ghost. Perhaps the humans who murdered my parents thought they could hide in there and hope to be saved. Maybe it is a lure to get me inside, a trap. What they do not realize is that I will survive and they will not.

I rise up on hind hocks and paw my way inside. Pews, polished marble and extinguished incense are my first sights. A strange scent lingers; varnish. I can smell everything. Closed spaces circulate smells despite ventilation, it seems like the walls had been coated with sundry savours that only my nose can detect. I keep him in my sights from the time I notice him, a simple looking person who doesn’t smell like a vampire at all, which means only one other thing.

“On this altar, we will sacrifice you for all that your family has done to us.”

I am tempted to pounce but do the unlikeliest thing instead. I go and sit beside him. “Why?”

“Your parents, the Drugozolvs, wiped out the human race. Do you know how it really began or do your histories chronicle a polished rendition of the War of Conversion?”

“It may be close to a century but I am not foolish enough to doubt how well secrets can stay hidden.”

He takes a deep breath, stands, rubs his palms on his vest and sits down a few feet away from me. “There came a day when a core pack of wolves and a dozen-strong school of vampires convened. The meeting happened in Old-World Russia, where today your House rules. They decided that living as the minority, unknown, ridiculed, never wielding power they were born to, had to end. Vampires and werewolves grew in confidence and numbers after a dark pact was made to the darkest of all beings in the universe. The name has escaped the histories. Somehow when someone somewhere writes it down, it literally disappears off the page or scroll, even digital versions. Darkness prefers to remain hidden. This world for some as yet unknown reason cannot seem to hold any tangible version of this entity’s name.

“Be that as it may, it gave the wolves their ability to turn using the phases of the moon to fuel their transformative power, and granting them natural bio-skills that came with being a Lykan. The unnamed dark being also gave the vampires their powers who didn’t have magic nor relied on planetary influences to boost their forms. From a combination of arcane astrology and magic, with blood pacts signed by both races, the first lykans and early vampires came several millennia ago. They lived, reproduced in moderation and stayed hidden while human society grew, expanded and modernized. Nearly one hundred years ago, when the lykans and vampires grew to an average number, the core originators met once more. Even with relatively few numbers, they coordinated a takeover. An unprepared world found itself lost to their greed.

“Nobody believed in such things, you see, nobody cared enough to. They were all living in their own micro-worlds of desire, ambition, and accumulation. Stories and fables about them came and went, but that’s about it. Humans were sheep, ripe for the culling. But the vamps and wolves hit a snag. Debates and arguments took root that soon grew into squabbles. The vampires were turning more and more humans while the lykans were trying to keep to their steady end of the bargain; the so-called balance. That’s when your parents, Viktoria and Alexandrovich Drugozolv – core members along with some nobilities and lesser ranking personages of your court and House – called for open war. They rushed to convert as many humans as possible without any regard to who was left on the streets, helpless, scared and lost to insanity. This is the part they removed from the histories, the suddenness of their assault. People perished before they could make sense of it. Ambrosia Drugozolv, have you never wondered how from a global population of seven point something billion, the total number of lykans and vampires alive today number less than half of that? That’s how you have so much to eat and drink, because of how few mouths there are to feed.

“More than half the world’s population fell critically ill or died. Some adapted to the new bite-gene in their systems but others did not. We kept the truth alive down the decades. Colonies of humans escaped and stayed in hiding – it seemed our turn to do what you and the vampires once did. We stayed that way all this while, grew our numbers amidst suffering and gradual memory loss as most of us forgot where we came from. To keep the truth alive, we forebears encouraged teachers. We carried the truth down these many years and here I am sharing it all with you. How can we hope to forget what brought us here?

“Soon after our human numbers dwindled and that of vampires and werewolves increased, orange-red light-barriers cocooned our nations and caged us all inside. The entire ecosystem changed as a consequence. Russia was once a frozen wasteland, now it’s teeming with jungles and forests. When the humans went, the planet shifted to accommodate the two new alpha races. The minority no longer mattered. After so much heartlessness served by both Dracula’s people and the Drugozolvs, could you really expect us to remain silent and not retaliate when we could no longer stand the sight of your families thriving while ours died due to disease and starvation? I of course am mortal, I do not remember my ancestors who founded our community. But I can imagine, yes? I can imagine how many loved ones we lost and how many we buried because of illness we couldn’t cure for fear of being found out by you or them. The herbs were right outside but we needed to wait for nightfall and even then check if we could be spotted. By then it was too late for a lot of us who needed immediate medical attention.”

He adjusts his weight. “You weren’t the Drugozolv who did this, but you are the one who is in power now. We tried to kill you for a reason. Once your pack became vulnerable in the absence of the almighty Drugozolvs who will no longer inspire and push the Lykan cause, we’ll have retaliated against the vampires and seen an end to them as well. Dracula knows this but he wants us to risk our necks to slice yours, make things easier for him. We have weapons that he does not know of; he thinks we are weak like our ancestors. They cannot get rid of us as easily as they did them. We struck a deal to get rid of the Drugozolvs. We nurtured a silent scheme to go against them next. In a world free of both your cruelties, we plan to regrow the human race. There, it isn’t all that hard to guess the flow of things, Matriarch. Fate like money shifts allegiance.”

“You had ample opportunity to come to us. Unlike the vampires, my House would’ve opened their doors to you no matter the past and the way things stand. My parents were not as bloodthirsty or greedy as the vampires. Things happened based on circumstance. Compared to our enemies, we are the more powerful. Why not come to us?”

“Mistakes, Matriarch. We trusted the wrong side, then by the time we wanted to contact you we had already performed several assassination attempts against your family; a course of ten years. To come after all that, look your mother in the eye and not be able to lie, will have only seen an end to us. When your courtship ball occurred Count Dracula insisted we take our efforts up a notch, even though we aren’t as skilled as the vampires. With so much happening, politics, so many agendas and so many years of it, it was all we could do to keep going, and bide our time.”

“Still doesn’t change the fact, though. You could have come to me. I am a grown wolf, not a cub, I would have listened to your side of the story even if you thought my parents would have turned you away. If you were afraid for your lives, you could have sent me a note at least. You judged me without even knowing me and how I would react to your approach. I will certainly have been suspicious but my education was varied enough to encourage me to investigate matters on my own before I dragged in the authorities.”

At this point he chuckles, genuinely so, and I think he feels embarrassed that he gave in to the sentiment. He collects himself. “A note,” he repeats, belatedly weighing the idea’s worth.

“Question is, do we still have a chance, an opportunity, to change things? Or are we going to continue fighting, despite knowing what we know?” I angle my gaze and fix him with a wolfish stare. To lie to a Drugozolv is to attempt the impossible. My family’s magical and albeit dark past holds advantages unavailable to the average lykan. It’s why we rule and everyone looks up to us. I am both relieved and saddened to know that the man is telling the truth.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” He gives me a look that speaks volumes. For a few seconds, I am lost. I didn’t know what he is thinking. But then my mind pulls another magical feat of perception and I see unwelcome meaning in his words.

“Can’t we live together, minus the vampires?”

“We need a world of humans again, Matriarch Ambrosia. Nature will remain imbalanced otherwise. Your kind was born of a dark pact that will someday collect. Even if you pay the piper, it will leave the planet severely vulnerable, in some form or fashion. Unnatural things have unnatural consequences.”

“Have you found a way to turn us back?” I sift through several different queries to find the most pertinent or this man and I will sit here talking forever.

“That’s like asking to become a man when you’re born a woman, if you know what I mean. Surgical procedures are one thing, but this. This is your soul, a dark-magic link. The Matriarch is lykan, the Count is vampiric. It will never change.”

“So all of us have to die? And knowing what we now know, you’re asking me to help you destroy the vampires as well as the pack?”

He takes a while to think. “I don’t know what to say.”

I take an equally long time. “So all this is a lie?” I study my surroundings.

“All religion is based on one concept,” he says. “That there is something bigger than all of us. If we could get where we are being who we are, what’s to say there aren’t better beings climbing their own ladders, evolving in their own ways? Mithras, Horus, Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Attis… All these names are quite ancient now. To Wolvaarians they’re pagan gods when once they were elite deities. They all share a common thread of historical similarities that will surprise most believers. It sure did back in the day when people had the technology to compare notes on a global scale. Some factual alterations did happen, but then again there was one single strong thread that linked them together. Anyway, the other humans and I believe Wolvaar is the dark deity who gave you your powers. The vampires too, by extension, but the blood-wraiths believe in disbelieving.”

“So much I didn’t know… So much that isn’t there in the records.”

“What do you plan to do about this situation, Matriarch? It’s up to you. I cannot stop you, nobody can. We humans and the vampires are fighting a losing battle. I told them as much but we had to do what we had to do. We couldn’t just accept our fates. We had to try something. I can apologize but too much has been done and we’ve all lost something dear in the process. All we can do now is rely on our convictions.”

“Have your people come to the House of Drugozolv. You are hereafter free and can walk unafraid among the lykans. Wait until I have made the announcement and have resolved the vampire problem.” I get up to leave.

“You aren’t listening, Matriarch. You and the vampires pose a danger to the world. The dark one…”

“I will do what needs to be done.” I walk to the door. “I will relay messages so everyone back home knows to expect you. I will communicate with my troops and see that they help you leave Fangtasia safely. As for the vampires, I intend to kill every last one of them by midnight. I suggest you pack and meet me in Luposia. I make you a promise of security. It is time to give back what we once took. I for one cannot live in the same world after knowing what I know.”

I don’t know his name; I don’t need to. With the heaviest of hearts, I step outside and howl my message into the coming dusk. There is still killing to be done, only the humans are off the list. I know what I am doing and where my decisions will lead. But I have seen the truth and not even Wolvaar can change that. The truth is more powerful than any god. Despite the confusion wrecking my soul, I realize that Truth itself is the ultimate Deity and that even the gods and goddesses are bound to it. When I think about it, we even lie because we know what the truth is; we know what to subvert. We embrace the truth in the end because it remains the only hope in an uncertain life.

“What are you going to do, Matriarch?” he calls out; his voice echoes through the basilica.

“I go now to cut the head off the snake that’s been baring its fangs at my people for a long time.”

I hear the howl-backs; message received. Without breaking discipline or stride, they carry on with the core plan. My ears pick up the tinny beeps of a dial tone. The man inside the basilica is contacting his people.

The future never seemed this dismal. Am I going to be the last of my race, the last of a magically transformed species of human? I can’t even call myself that, I am a lykan, a wolf-spirit. I wish I could keep Dracula alive long enough to see the expression on his face when he learns of this. For a monster who believes only in power, he will call me insane for what I am going to do, dooming my own pack. One hundred years and I choose to use my powers to obliterate everything my race has held in high regard.

Maybe I am insane, but justice and truth are too strong for me to fight. I was taught to choose my battles, when to pick up the sword and when to lay it down. If we fight this, we will all drown against the overwhelming tide of reality, the reality we have chosen to ignore.

 

 

 

16

When I see lykans and humans not clashing head on but avoiding one another, I know that my message is being obeyed. In the thick of battle, decisions have to be made concerning siding with new parties even though those orders are deserving of doubt. A hundred years of antagonism temporarily melts in light of convenience. It kills me inside to keep important parts of the plan from my people; so un-lykan of me.

With no reason to worry about the humans hotfooting it out the wall, we focus our attention on eliminating vampires left, right and centre. We don’t stop to listen to their demands for parley. It is slice first, listen later. Shots fill the air. Bodies pile up. We are out of explosives but the vampires still have a good stock of them, so we manage to take it off their dead hands. The high-grade stuff eats through obstacles like an aggressive mutant. It blasts ways through areas we couldn’t bring down with just our strength.

Magic is one thing but there is often so little time to get the right number of wolves together and concentrate the right amount of magic for a task. Raw strength and technique in these situations often prevails. The Halvatians are with me although how they found me in the thick of the chaos is beyond me. Olaf Hiradhya and his men don’t bother to show acknowledgement. They are fully focused on attack and defence wherever needed, using their unusually shaped weapons to deadly effect.

We have officially invaded Fangtasia’s principal quadrant, the very same one I had visited and mingled with Dracula’s parliament. They made a mistake not building it more centrally in anticipation of such times. We will have had to traverse half a nation from any side to get to this place where the many heads of this beast sit on the body called bureaucracy. These politicians aren’t fat cats who didn’t lift a finger to do anything. They are adept fighters in their own right who battled during the War of Conversion and kept things going for the Fangtasians since. All of them had a part to play in the scheme that sent us to war in the first place. I won’t underestimate them till each of them is dead, staked, and decapitated.

I try to keep it simple but things are more complicated than that. Since what the man in the basilica said rings true – and I know he is telling the truth – then I need to gather intel from the most unlikely of sources and understand why, if he knew all this beforehand, he didn’t bother bringing it to the right attention. Seemed like a weak excuse when the man said too much had happened and that he couldn’t offer a belated apology. The human is working an angle and if he can do it, I shudder to think what Dracula has in the pipeline.

We approach the Parliament building. The beauty of it takes us by shock. I remember seeing it before but only at night when it stood limned in golden lights. During the day, the scintillating edifice gleams without paining the eye and every shape, curve, arch, and groove stands out in all its complex grandeur. I give orders not to mar the building unless absolutely necessary. We might need to blast some indoor sections, though. The vampires being as swift as they are we will be better off using close range tactics to trap them in place before taking them out.

A few hundred lykans comb the complex but find the offices empty. We are left with no choice but to wreck the place to see if the vampires lie nestled inside ventilation shafts or in spaces under the carpeted floorboards. Eventually, the comms crackle. The report comes in saying the Stage Room, where Parliamentary meetings, votes and legislation happens, is locked and reinforced from the inside. While the other lykans continue the search an elite team of soldiers and I head to the spot.

“I want this side X-Ray Beamed.” Better to know what awaits us inside than to rush in headlong and be sorry for doing so. Last thing any of us wants is to trigger a bomb in such close quarters. I know the other vampires are behind this door; a sense of something alive. These particular vamps are tricky, more so than the others. After all, they are politicians.

Once the beam is done sweeping its gray gaze over a large portion of the wall and double doors, it relays images to a monitor. We see pale silhouettes huddled close. They look like they are talking but none of them seem unduly panicked. Is this a trap? How so? I calculate as many angles as I can.

I jerk my head at the door when we’re ready and my lykans ram through. They sprayed weakening gel on the hinges to lessen the effort. Almost instantly, the fighting begins. The buxom Ms. Ecstasia Jamsworth proves the most strong. She catches and throws a few of my wolves out the nearest window in an attempt to thin our numbers and create a bottleneck. The dwarfish Octavia Buckton leaps over shoulders, heads and backs and brings long silver swords down on my men. The lykan women alone can catch her with magical netting; she is too swift for melee action. I unfurl my wings and fly at Lewis and Clark Gladstone, the twins, who use complicated cat like movements to keep many of my lykans at bay. Their hands and legs link in strange ways as they use each other, like dynamic chakra blades. Even their weapons reflect the same. With one circular blade in each hand, the duo wield four silver fatalities. Count Dracula sits at the back, so blatantly over confident it makes me wonder if we are playing into his plan. Perhaps he assessed the outcome and felt it pointless to put on any more of a show than his politicians are doing.

These vampires are as skilled as my own parents. They were with them back in the day, back when this so-called dark pact was made. Time for some decisive action. I catch up to Ecstasia and place both paws on her temples. She immediately grows weak and falls as I burn her brain with electrical energy. I sneak my way under furniture and behind drapes to get to Octavia who is almost out of the nets with help from her silver blades. I bite into her shoulders and rip both her puny limbs off. My pack will take care of the rest. I have to move faster; they’ll have realized by now. I grab hold of their own chakra blades and in a flurry of wolf-frenzy use the silver to dice the twins. Chunks of them smudge the floor. I raise a paw to send up an alert, ‘leave the Count to me’. There are plenty of other government officials who make up Dracula’s parliament but they aren’t here, probably spread out across Fangtasia leading individual contingents against our invasion.

“Count.”

“Matriarch.”

Dracula used his sharpest weapon in the direst moment. “If you’ll follow me, we need to talk,” he says. I listen if for no other reason than because I had much to learn myself. He enters an antechamber connected by a series of stairs to the Stage Room. He goes up first and I follow, keeping my distance. Our footsteps are soft, but the same can’t be said for noises coming from the stairwell as we make our way up two flights and into a posh waiting room. It has apple-green walls and dark furniture with gleaming showpieces and one large painting that happens to catch the setting sun raying in through a stained-glass window.

“The only reason I am standing here talking to you is because of how I have been raised. After what you did to my family, you are getting the longest straw.”

“On a similar note, the only reason I am standing here talking to you despite what you did to my loved ones is because of what I did to yours.” The words seem unplaced coming from his fanged mouth.

“There’s so much drama with you, Dracula, it feels like being in a soap opera each time I am in your presence.”

“Not so much the opera, more the soap. I do what I can for the benefit of my people only to slip and fall over my own principles.”

I give him a look. “Did you know the real history behind my family and your people? You were there, a hundred years ago. Did you know about the death toll due to lack of genetic acclimating?” He is quiet. Even the consummate Dragulya knows that he can’t lie to me but he doesn’t confirm any of my rhetorical queries either. Probably doesn’t want to slip on more soap. “I met this leader of the humans. He told me everything.”

“He can’t be trusted.”

“And yet you trusted him to have my family killed.” My voice rises and I collect myself.

“This is war, Ambrosia, and you know the powers your family brings to the field. I did what any strategist will have done. I took out the strongest opponents. Apparently I didn’t calculate that there could be someone even stronger than them.” He gazes sidelong at me.

“I know what the human said is true; in fact, I believe it. The pact, the secrecy, the greed to transform more humans to one side, which led to the War of Conversion in the first place… Not only did it all make sense, there wasn’t a note of deception about him in this regard. He means an end to both the vampires and my people, you see. It is there I find myself in a conundrum.”

“You mustn’t kill us. If you heard the history and know it to be true, then you know that both the blood-wraiths and the lykans made a pact with the same dark god. You call him Wolvaar and we just silently believe in a faceless disembodied being who doesn’t require our prayers or worship just action and accomplishments as we go on living and provide energies to his universe.”

I make a sound at the back of my throat. “That’s something I haven’t heard, I must say. Here I am thinking your people are atheists. I see we have much to talk about, Count. What of this human? You’ll certainly hand him over if it means saving your own skin.”

“When you intone it that way, it sounds cheap and parasitic. Think of the survival potential. His mortal life or my immortal one. I have lived long and don’t intend to die without a fight.” I wish I had a recording device on me right now. I can’t just conjure one up, magic is sometimes more complicated than that. Creating matter by layering quantum particles in just the right order takes extreme skill and years of practice. My memory will have to suffice.

“What do you hold over them? Or am I wrong in thinking that you are the master in this relationship you seem to have cultivated with the humans?”

He doesn’t rise to the bait. “We have our ways.”

“Why not kill them? I mean, from what their leader told me he wants us both gone, all the vampires and all the lykans. It’s the only safest bet for the future. Why indulge them when you knew the truth? Why a hundred years of lies?”

“So many questions, Matriarch. All I can say is, ambition is its own addiction.”

“You won’t be happy to know that I have offered the humans amnesty and freedom to move on lykan lands. They’re migrating into Luposia as we speak, which is why I’m guessing you didn’t get a hold of them on the phone. You were abandoned inside Parliament to face us when we came, no humans to help pad your ranks. I’m sure you had a nice big plan to kill us all and add me, the last Drugozolv, to the family crypt.”

“I’d ask how you knew, but you’ve proven to be capable of a lot of things lately.”

“I have agreed to his terms. I plan to finish off every last one of you blood-wraiths and then negotiate terms for coexistence.”

“I don’t need to be a Drugozolv to know you’re lying, Ambrosia. They won’t let you live, they want you gone, have wanted us all gone for nearly a century. They have too much invested in this ideal. They will see the advantage of coexistence and the practical appeal of it but tradition and culture, and the memories of the past are much too powerful. They will choose what their ancestors wanted of them. They will want the world back in human hands. Say, a hundred more years from now and we’ll have become a mere footnote in history, if that. The world will keep changing. We’re here today, gone tomorrow. No matter how harsh or cruel the things your parents did to earn werewolf freedom and what you mother did advocating the natural importance of vampiric existence – because of the common pact we made – you shouldn’t be brash and undo everything on mere sentiment. You can be angry with me for my deeds and words, but if I am going to die I feel I should have said everything needed before the end.”

“You live up to your reputation, Count, I’ll give you that.” I ensconce him in a lattice-cage made using pure energy. With that dumb look of shock on his face and discomfort at the heat the energy was giving off, I float the cage out. My lykans, save for a few growls and one spit, get back to their tasks and leave Count Dracula to me.

“Kill every last vampire! By nightfall no man, woman or child who’s a blood-wraith should be alive either on the ground or under it. Comb all the passageways, break only what’s needed, keep secure the more beautiful and useful locations. Find the traitors and do not hesitate to rip them out of existence.” After I am confident my words have reached as many lykans as possible, including over the common intercom system hanging from the belts of some of my men, I take the path that leads to the broken wall. Several humans walk by, armed and wary of vampiric assaults now that they’ve shifted sides. The broken masonry has been cleared and the way stands open. The human leader whose name I am yet to learn comes up to me. Count Dracula gives him such a look it would’ve crushed lesser men. He stares back but is first to break eye contact.

“Thank you, Matriarch. How can I help?”

“You can start by telling me your name.”

“Michael Graham.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Graham, even it’s only for a short time.” He and I both know I want humans back on Earth, to reinstill the earlier albeit weak order and relative calm that has abandoned us since the Conversion War; we have been at each other’s throats, is all we have been doing since. Even if it is existence, of what use is a dark life knowing that one day the seller will come to collect? Death comes for us all, but this is a different kind of death. What if this Dark God of ours whom I looked up to one day returns, sees things he does not like, and chooses to get rid of the lot of us on a whim? What if someday my pack is asked to sacrifice everything instead of leaders like me doing it for them. I will keep us from meeting such an eventuality. The only way out is out. We cannot be here and hope to stay secure. My parents asked for great powers and the invoice will one day arrive at my door if it hasn’t already. I will not see my pack suffer the way I have; ignorance is not bliss.

“Listen to reason, Ambrosia,” the Count hisses from inside his cage. “You cannot go killing all the vampires. What if Michael is wrong, hmm? What then? What if you need a thriving vampiric population lest you call down the wrath of your own god with whom we made a pact, together? The humans know nothing, they’ll be dead in due time, naturally speaking. We are the superior species. I advise you to think this through.”

“Advice?” Michael does not seem to be in a tolerant mood. “Lies more like it. Since when did vampires believe in the divine?”

“Silence, Michael, you fool. Your idiocy has become a contagion. You have infected the Matriarch herself. Stop talking, if you know what’s good for you.”

“A desperate vampire will say anything to get out of a mess,” I scoff. “I have seen the truth in Mr. Graham’s eyes, truth that I have never once seen in yours, Count Dracula.”

“It is because I am desperate,” he shakes the magical cage bars, “that I am even telling you the truth. Look into my eyes. See it for yourself. You kill all the blood-wraiths and hope to keep me alone alive? So you can escape on a technicality? One vampire does not make up the balance, the whole lot of us do. I see what you plan to do, Ambrosia. Stop. Stop killing my people. You can keep me hostage, take all of Fangtasia and our freedom. But do not take our lives.” Michael is about to say something. “Shut up, Graham. You have done enough harm as it is, for a human.” The Count’s voice holds beguiling force. Michael bites back his retort. “There are bigger forces than us and they’re not of this world. We call them gods, Ambrosia, but they are heartless and inestimably powerful. Their cruelty is without measure, which is why we vampires do not care to light candles in their name or scatter petals on their shrines. I have learned plenty in my time. Stop this invasion, and this carnage. Continue it if you’re dissatisfied with my explanation. I am imploring you, Matriarch. Already we have caught their attention. You need to trust what I know.”

“Too weak an argument, Count. You had ample time to come to my family and tell them all this, instead of murdering them in cold blood and through a cowardly act of subterfuge too. You didn’t have the guts to come yourself and face them. I will not listen to a craven’s rendition of life.”

“Your family knew all this. Viktoria and Alexandrovich Drugozolv. They alone among all the lykans knew. Only two others knew. Lady Elizabeth Koolva, who eventually gleaned it from your mother. And her male-mate Lord Buchanan Koolva, who learned it from me and left her because she kept it secret from him, said she swore an oath to your mother not to tell but that she will try everything in her power to covertly bring Buchanan back to his senses, back to the pack. I received intelligence that you killed the one woman who had the secrets you now need to know.”

“This is madness. Why are you doing this? Why complicate everything now? Why risk it all by telling me this late in the day. After all that has been done, what do you hope to gain out of this?”

“The world will die if you continue with your invasion. Stop walking. This cannot wait till we get back to Luposia. We both know you can’t pull another teleport spell after your last attempt. Stop and listen.” Dracula was so unlike himself I was starting to understand he could have a point. He knew the limits of my powers?

I raise a hand to silence Michael who is about to say something to the Count. He seems as genuinely clueless as I am.

“You have my attention, Dracula, but you’d better be telling the truth.” I look into his eyes and cease to blink as the Count starts to talk.

“We are the oldest inhumans, us vampires. We were given the gift first by the Dark Gods, with Wolvaar representing their order. In addition to being hybrids, a combination of snake and feline, we also look the most humanoid in our transformed states. The second partner, among any other races, that forged a pact with them were the lykans, who took on one bestial quality and looked the part entirely; magic and genetics coded for your appearance…” He tilts his head at me.

“What did you mean by ‘any other races’? It’s just us wolves and you blood-wraiths. The Old Gods set up boundaries of powerful magic all around Luposia and Fangtasia. There’s just us.”

“Why just the two of us inside one common energy-barrier? The ecosystems changed. The vampires and werewolves chose to take over the prominent rung of the food chain ladder and rule as alpha specimens. Though we are older than you, vampiric numbers dwindled and we came out of the War of Conversion with the shorter straw. You took precedence, at least the Drugozolvs did. I admit we went on a blood rush and wanted to gain the upper hand without letting your family know. It was a war, however you look at it, and we chose to act before we lost out. Tapping into the vast gene pool from the old lands of Britain, Europe and Russia, and the better part of Asia, you bested us even though we planned otherwise and grew the pack into what it is today, the Lykans of Luposia. We retained a good enough section of old world China and called it Fangtasia; it became our home. Whatever our power struggles, an ecosystem has its own. A lot more than natural laws were at work in the Earth-plane. There are parallel dimensions, wormhole connectivity channels, interstellar time-threads and a whole lot more. Believe me when I tell you, Ambrosia, that where one Earth suffers so do the rest of them.” The air is dry and Count Dracula coughs. Someone moves to bring him water but I swipe the gesture down. This snake’s thirst can never be quenched.

He notices, but doesn’t care. “The Dark Gods are building their own energy resource. Everything that lives in these parallel Earths releases energy and every thought, action, and decision of the beings that live there releases energy. They have ways of harvesting this power and using it to fuel their own goals. Since the War of Conversion I remember your parents and my people striving to survive in a world that changed so fast we thought we’ll perish before the day was out. Climates altered, water levels rose and fell, and terrain itself transformed. The Dark Gods were at work balancing things for their benefit. It frightened us. We could see the results of their actions but not the ones performing them. Wolvaar came down to make the pact. The wolf god favoured lykans and gave you a slight edge over us vampires. He gave your women the ability to call upon magic. They put us in here with you to balance some unfortunate scale, threw up an energy-barrier to keep us inside, and let the new ecosystem adapt in keeping with planetary laws.

“We cannot bring the wall down, Count. Even if we could, we know what’s written in scripture. There is only death beyond those confines; disease and destruction. Why would we want to risk facing that? What are these old world countries you speak of?” I take a second to recall my studies. “Africa, India, Australia, the island nations of Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, North and South America and the icy wastelands of the Arctic and Antarctica. They’re all gone, poisoned with radiation.”

“No. They’ve all been paired up, like we are. That’s how the gods get to keep the energy coming and attain global equilibrium at the same time. Thing is, there are different bestial-hybrid life forms in all these places, all held inside energy-barriers to help equalize their own particular ecosystems.”

“Sounds like a metaphysical concept I’d rather not bank on?” I grow increasingly worried about the implications.

“Death, that is the end concept. If we die, our souls have to move on. Energy, after all, never stays in the same place or form. Now that we’ve given our souls to the Dark Gods, they will use it. I’m starting to understand that the earliest lykans and vampires were tricked so we could fulfil some sinister purpose on Earth that these gods have wrought. Everything that’s happened could be happening according to their plan. When your family and I along with some of my vampires chose to wrest the Earth from human beings, it must have been a genetic predisposition sowed in us by these gods. We were meant to win, to prevail. We did it like we desired it above all else; the illusion. Thanks to us, the Dark Gods tapped into a loophole and claimed all souls for themselves. To save the entire human race they had to convert the entire human race. This next part is conjecture, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find other bestial life forms like ourselves in other old-world nations. If the rest of the globe is dead, as historical records have chronicled, then the gods will be left with all those souls to transfer. One of my people’s oldest records says how when a body dies, the soul is carried into a parallel Earth. It’s just a footnote but that one line has haunted me for centuries, long before the War of Conversion. As I said, I have been around a while. When these souls are sent to other Earths, following an even bigger balance principle, the energy value, much like an economy, will either rise in value or drop in the same. The Dark Gods are anything but risk takers. They do not like losing energy when that’s the one thing they most need. They want us here, where they can bank on our value, work with surety and consistency. This is why so many of us lose the will to die. We are genetically predisposed to finding excuses to stay alive, no matter what it takes. Those who do indeed die by intentional or accidental causes are ‘managed’. Better a handful of souls than an ocean.”

“How is it that what you’re saying is true in my eyes? How can this possibly be true?”

“You cannot be lied to. You have to believe me; you already do. You can see it in my eyes, Ambrosia. It is your family’s talent to be able to do this.”

“Shut up, Vlad. Stay silent!” I hold the magical cage and shake it. “Enough of this. What knowledge you’ve been sitting on for all this time. This is the worst betrayal of all.”

“I wasn’t the one who betrayed you. It was your parents. They knew all this. I told them everything. Yet they chose to live a simple life and carry on being ignorant. What could we do? You had magic and strength while we only had a lesser version of the latter.”

“How dare you stand in a cage and accuse my parents? They can’t have known all this? You’re trying to deceive me. If they knew, mama would have told me when she tutored me.” He leans forward and looks me in the eye as if to say ‘see the truth in my gaze, see if I’m lying’. Is he pitying me? “I will find a way to bring down those energy-walls just enough to peek outside and see the truth. I know you’re speaking it, Count, but I am no god. You could still be lying in some roundabout fashion. I cannot risk so much on your word alone.”

“You shouldn’t kill us until you’re certain what I’m saying is a lie.”

“So you can have time to plan a counter strike? I don’t think so.”

“Listen. In the past hour alone, thousands of vampires have perished. Several more will if you don’t call a ceasefire. When the balance becomes critical, doom will come to your pack as well. There are bigger fish to fry. Just in the last few minutes you’ve learned things you never knew before. Why it was hidden, why people lied about it, all of that is secondary compared to the implications of the here and now.”

“And what of the humans? Where do they fit into all this?” I ask and Michael Graham along with a few of his men looks at the Count as they wait for his answer.

“They are exempt. They didn’t make this pact, they didn’t become one of the converted. They do not fall under the rule of the Dark Gods we are indebted to. It’s only because there are so few of you,” he addresses Michael, “that the Dark Gods aren’t using that same loophole they did against us. You remain unaltered while we were forced to become beasts in order to maintain a balance only they can make sense of. All that rogue magic and bloodshed had to come at a price if things were to revert to normal. Whether you like it or not, Michael, you will randomly become either a lykan or a vampire over time. You’re stuck inside the same energy barrier we are, and the natural laws will come into effect for you as well. The air you breathe is the very catalyst that will transform you one day. Nature will attempt to balance things. It is only a matter of time, and you do not even need to be bitten to become that which you most despise.”

“This is a lie, a clever and detailed ruse. Matriarch, are you honestly buying this nonsense?”

“My ability to see the truth hasn’t once raised the red flag since the Count started speaking. I say the same for your words, Mr. Graham. You have, based on what you know, both been sharing facts you sincerely believe are true. You are telling the truth probably because you consider what you know to be truth. Whether it genuinely is fact or not, that remains to be seen.” I wait and let my meaning sink in. “The Count, however, has more knowledge on these matters. We need to test his wisdom before we can rush into things. Vlad here is just full of surpirses. At this point I can’t say he has anything to gain. I can see no lie, which makes it that much more complicated. My family raised me to uphold Drugozolv justice. I do not intend to insult their memory by changing the most basic of rules that they set in stone.”

“With all due respect, Matriarch,” says Michael. “We are merely allies not friends. I therefore use my right to self-opinion and suggest that the only balance we need to be seeking is the return of Earth to human hands and none other. It seems the simplest way to save a future that is, as Dracula himself said, lost to darkness. We had an agreement. Think. If the lykans and vampires are gone, these so-called gods will have no choice but to let humans repopulate the Earth. After all, they need our ‘energy’ to keep their scales ‘balanced’.” He throws Dracula a scathing look. “Since you two made the first direct pact with them, once you two are gone maybe, just maybe, all the rest of your people will, if Dracula’s story is to be believed, revert to human. Things will be back to normal and your people may be safe, fully human. I may not be sure, but it is a strong possibility nonetheless, one that we must favour.”

“What you say is wise, Mr. Graham, but I for one am not going to sacrifice my pack on whims no matter how truthful they may seem. I want hard evidence and I’m sure you would too if you were in my position.” He looks like he wants to say something but thinks better of it. “Think of it this way. Whatever happens, the humans win.” The Count has a rough expression on his face.

I give the cage a vigorous shake. “How do we bring down the energy-barriers?”

Dracula holds his own counsel. He doesn’t speak, merely looks at me. Then he relents. “A few days from now, there will be a blood moon, a lunar eclipse that comes once in several decades. It will mark exactly one hundred years since the original spark that began the War of Conversion and unleashed dangerous magic into the earth-plane. The walls will automatically come down then. Ecosystems will start to merge globally and even out over time. My astronomers have been studying this phenomenon for decades, Matriarch. I can assure you I know this at least for a fact.”

“Hiradhya,” I call the Halvatian chief to my side. He has been listening to everything and stands rigid with wariness. “Call an immediate cessation to the invasion. I want news broadcast to our troops to gather as many living vampires as they can and put them all under arrest as prisoners of war. I want our news programs to declare a national Fangtasian curfew with nobody leaving their homes. We will supply food rations starting immediately. Fangtasia is a prison camp now.” I turn to another member of my pack. “Get the wolves assembled. I want an emergency conference held outside the Lavenderite Wall as soon as possible.” I remove the cage-magic and Count Dracula falls to the floor, landing neatly on the balls of his feet. He gets up, dusts himself off, and falls in beside me. “You will never leave my sight,” I say to the Count. He stares back, not making any movement. Michael is biting back a protest. I give the man a look. This fresh information is way too much. I need to make sense of it all before I come to a decision.

“If you knew all this, why kill my family?”

“I only intended to kill your parents. They refused to listen, said they will never end the lykan bloodlines and obliterate the pack, which goes against what Graham has been spouting. They wanted the humans, I refused to give them over. I needed your folks gone and hoped their death will grant me an audience with the Dark Gods with whom I wished to forge a new pact; their passing will have caught divine attention. The plan fell apart. They had their children with them when it all went down. I was given no choice. Even the gods didn’t show. It was a massive failure.”

“That’s wrong. You could have saved my siblings. You didn’t need to kill my parents either. You had me in Fangtasia. All you had to do was take me aside and tell me what was what. You didn’t give me a chance to believe you.” I drilled my words home.

“There was too much at stake, Ambrosia. I didn’t know what you would say. Remember that your parents were more than a hundred years old when they died. You are only twenty-two. I’m sorry but I can’t place trust in a blade that has experienced so little of battle?” I catch him by the collar and lift him up off the ground. I hold him with one paw and punch him till he bleeds and bruises. He is already healing, the damn vampire. I drop him. “I am no stranger to battle. The Dark Gods didn’t notice when you sent humans to kill my family, they don’t care.”

“The gods indeed don’t care.” He spits blood. “Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but whether they know it or not,” he spits more blood, “we can never know why they do what they do. Their silence is confusing, but I think it’s better we remain ignorant as to their reasons than learning a most bitter truth. There’s only so much a person can take.”

My mind and heart are unsettled. There is a veritable battle being waged inside me. If it isn’t for my view of reality flooding and flowing into a sea of possibilities, I’d have seen an end to the vampire race by dawn. I was serious enough to lie to Michael Graham. It was never my intention to show the humans clemency. My mind was made up to take them back with me so I could cull the lot of them for what they did to pack. I will always choose the lykans, come rain or high water. No matter what my parents did, I am still alive, I am still here, breathing, fighting, choosing. My wolves are everything to me.

Whatever be the agenda of the gods, I cannot choose to have my people lie down and die like sheep for a cause that has several unproven factors. When it comes time to take charge, I will revert to pack instinct and keep my lykans safe even if it means risking our futures in the eyes of these Dark Gods who apparently don’t care whether we live or die. Life is a series of bridges, death even more so. I can only cross the one I come to.

I hate Dracula for what he has done, what he has brought all of us to. His reasons for killing my family and jeopardizing my pack are poor but his wisdom – and I hate myself for even thinking it – runs long. What am I becoming? What’s going to happen to us when in a few days’ time the energy-barriers come down and lands unknown lie open to us? Are the Count’s words true? Yes, but are they truly? I find it hard to believe that peace will soar to us from foreign lands.

 

 

 

17

“This conference has convened at nightfall,” I declare for the official record and take my seat. “We’re here to discuss hard facts and share data on what to do concerning Count Dracula’s knowledge, which I have found to be true. You are all privy to the same knowledge; he just shared it. We will follow the usual steps, beginning counter-clockwise with each member putting forth their theories, suggestions, and plans of action to the joint committee assembled in this tent. At the end of the chain, we shall have a summary from Kurniyev Keel, Earl, head of intelligence. And the assistant director of the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau Julius Vourdal, Duke of Blood-Hill. I take this moment to introduce Mr. Michael Graham, the leader of the human beings.”

“Before we begin in earnest, Matriarch, one of my team has something to share with you. She feels it might be important to our talks.”

“Bring her in, Graham, and let’s get started.”

She enters, demure and reclusive. Bowing, she says, “Greetings, Matriarch. It is an honour to meet you.” She doesn’t make eye contact and her words are hollow, false; it is to be expected.

“What was it you wanted to share with us? I’m going to make an educated guess here and say you aim to inform us on how to permanently transform back to human.”

“There is a way to transform back, Matriarch, but it is an old wives’ tale not a certainty. I am unsure if it is appropriate to bring it up in the presence of all these werewolves.” The woman spoke out of cue. Michael gives her a look.

“Don’t add insult to injury, now. If company discourages you from speaking out on this matter, will my sole attention be any different? Proceed,” I command and she walks forward without a care to look at Graham. “The idea of undoing our transformations could be false hope, if what Dracula said about eventual transformation is correct. I’d like to hear what you have to say, so please cut to the chase.”

“The glacial waters form a pool before they stream down as rivers that in turn connect to the oceans. This ‘First Pool’ contains magical waters that can work miracles, which itself is a weak word for what it can do.” She hesitates.

“But?”

“There is only one such pool in Luposia, Matriarch Ambrosia, and none of us know where it is. Besides, it is guarded by special Dragons.”

“You may have been correct earlier when you said this is inappropriate. We have just been to an actual war, faced real problems and losses, and we come back here to see how we can go forward and what needs doing, with extremely tough decisions involved as you can imagine, and here we have a woman spouting superstition and nonsense, and expecting us to bank on its credibility. Forgive me, I am not usually this harsh. Are you honestly suggesting I have my men pack up and help me chase the cure for all Animaloids so we can revert to human based on a story like that? Olaf!” The Halvatian comes forward from the back of the room and bends at the waist. He is not part of our council and is no courtier but is present for his know-how on some facets of warfare. “In all your travels, have you ever heard tell of such a thing in Luposia?” I turn to look at Michael. “If Olaf Hiraadhya does not know in his capacity as leader of the Halvatian tribe, then no wolf in all of Luposia can boast knowledge on the matter.” I give my attention to Olaf again.

“We have heard of the story, Matriarch, but never in all my years have we found it to hold substance.”

“There you have it. Before we leave this topic, I am curious about one thing. Ever since the energy-barrier went up and kept our nations in a bubble, we have seen strange and abrupt natural emergences, like animals that were not here before and climate that is not of this region. So many animals and plants died due to the after-effects of the War of Conversion. If Dragons are indeed real, and I doubt they are, how could they have survived the climate change? I am guessing they are reptiles, after all, and we know how dependent they are on temperature.”

The woman has been waiting to speak. “I know it is difficult to believe, Matriarch, but in my professional opinion as a biologist, I have clinically studied this story from several angles. Human beings were subject to magical radiation that converted them into vampires and werewolves. Only some of us were out of its range or were lucky enough to be so when it happened. The rest were directly turned by your people and the Count’s.” She pauses for emphasis. “The baser animal template is more stable than the human one. Thousands of ancient beliefs speak of animal spirits and reincarnation into human following a series of animal forms over varied lifetimes; which is why we all have a certain bestial quality living inside of us.” She pauses again and makes sure she has our full attention. “Your people and Dracula’s reverted to a stable form in keeping with where you started, namely human; one group became wolves and the other a snake-cat combo. What’s to say Dragons, that are more ancient in comparison and far more powerful, did not also revert to a baser more steadily vibrating form?”

“Interesting. What do you mean?”

“What if these Dragons are not Dragons per se but have taken on the baser more steadily vibrating form of the apex predator in a region. As you became wolves, Luposia’s apex predator, could these Dragons have also become a genetic combo-species? Perhaps a Dragon-Wolf?”

“If what you say is possible, then the histories that speak of nations before the war and are also probably within their own energy-barriers, could have something similar on their lands. That’s if those places have not completely been destroyed. So they all have their own combo-species of Dragon? It is a curious concept, and irrelevant to our place in this new world. The Dragons do not dictate the way we live and we, apparently, do not even know they exist. I want to ask you what these Dragons eat, for everything needs to eat, and I will not be surprised if you say they live off the glacial waters in this ‘First Pool’.”

“You are most perceptive, Matriarch.”

“This is ridiculous. Creatures of fire living off water and guarding a powerful magical source that can unmake our transformations when in fact the Dragons themselves are purportedly transformed versions of their former selves. It is all too ironic to believe. What is your name?”

She gives a coy curtsey and says, “Marie Stenton.”

“Well, Marie Stenton, I am exhausted from the skirmish we just concluded against the vampires. I am burdened with the loss of loved ones and pack members. There is still more to be done and discussions to be had with your leader, Mr. Graham here. While I appreciate and welcome a good story, I feel we should end such talk. It sows confusion and promotes misinformation. Those desperate for peace will believe any fantastic tale whether or not it has credence. I desire peace as much as the next lykan. However, as Matriarch of my pack and leader of Luposia, I refuse to dwell on this thread of thought. I hope with all sincerity that you understand why I am being so in your face about this.”

“I understand. Matriarch.” She bows and moves back out of the tent to go be with her people.

I stare at her a while longer to make sure she has moved out of earshot before turning to the human leader. “Now then, back to more immediate matters in the real world.”

I will not show I am gullible or weak, not to these humans, not to anyone. Haven’t we suffered enough? To know that we might have had a cure all these decades sitting right under our noses is a silly concept. We’d have found it. It is probably a human distraction tactic and I cannot let my guard down. Perhaps after the way I treated Marie Stenton, her people and mine will hopefully not think about this silly idea and jeopardize our uncertain futures more than it already is.

“My fellow Lykans, false hope can be a fatal thing.”

I give the cue to continue. We do not linger on what just happened and we do not leave the tent till a few hours past dawn. We eat here, use the outdoors to relieve ourselves, stamp orders to organize the vampire immigrants whom I have stripped of citizenship and have placed under house arrest. Food distribution is the biggest problem, but with Count Dracula’s broadcasted messages we are able to gain cooperation and obedience; I made sure to have Kurni check to see if he passed any kind of subliminal message in the process. It has been nearly a week and I have yet to change back to human. The threat has not subsided, rather it has grown.

My committee members aren’t pleased to find themselves sharing Mr. Graham’s company not to mention how they feel about Count Dracula’s. The twain occupy seats at the table as if their crimes are moot. The human had had a hand in killing my family with vampiric support or vice versa, I cannot make up my mind. They glance at me, judging my decision-making skills and probably attributing it to a lapse in judgement brought on by my prolonged lykan state. I dislike them for distrusting me, but then again everyone is entitled to their own feelings. I stop the exchange of information when I hear talk begin of Michael’s idea to rid the world of transformed humans, or Animaloids.

“I am sorry, Mr. Graham, but in light of this new problem, I suggest you allow me the dignity to break news of our plans to my pack in private. Please step outside, so I can fulfil that duty as Matriarch. I will summon you back inside for the rest of the meeting.”

A few guards come take Graham outside. I don’t even need to tell them to keep a sharp eye on him and to stand him out of earshot.

“Why does he get to be inside?” he asks in all impertinence, jerking his head at Count Dracula who sits there looking like he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thought of anything.

“Because I said so.” He gets up and reluctantly leaves.

When he is gone a while, I break news of my pretence, about my going along with Mr. Graham’s idea to rid the world of vampires and werewolves. I reinforce the concept of it being make-believe. They still judge me but mostly for the best, because for a second they thought I was leading us into oblivion. I want to speak out against the mistrust in their eyes but instead feel it best to come up with assurances. I shared this in Dracula’s presence so tomorrow if the humans come to know I can hold the wraith responsible to which end he will do everything he can to keep the information secret from the human beings; after all, our co-existence benefits him too.

“My fellow lykans, just because I have remained wolf all this time so I can be better prepared to face threats and not go the way of my parents,” here I look at the Count, “doesn’t mean I am witless and unable to lead my pack and Luposia into a living breathing future.” I give them a look I saw my mother use many times. It works so fast I think I channelled Viktoria Drugozolv from the afterlife. They stand, salute, bow, and mutter respect and apology in equal measure. By the gods, mother, I wish you were alive to see this. It sure will have made papa grin.

Count Dracula sips tea. He too must have seen mama do this over almost one hundred years of knowing her. How much he knows. That brain of his has so much memory and knowledge contained in its cells. He hasn’t just changed the course of my battle plans but warped it, threw it over a cliff and sent an avalanche after. We are now competing with the purpose of the Dark Gods when only fourteen hours ago the lykans breached the Lavenderite Wall in such a way that history will record our deeds and speak quite highly of it. The former Prime Minister of Fangtasia, however, used the last weapon I expected him to. He used the truth. Did mom and dad, why even granddad, have the same problems with this blood-wraith?

“Get Mr. Graham back inside,” I call out and the lykans standing guard go to alert the pair who escorted Michael to a seat under a tree.

“They know?” he asks when he returns. He studies their faces with expectation and not a small amount of suspicion.

“We do, Mr. Graham. The wolf pack will be gone after the vampires are, willingly and voluntarily, as per our Matriarch’s wishes, all to avoid a dark price that could come at some unknown time in future and destroy us all anyway. This is a most sensitive matter, something we aim to keep from both our peoples. I hope you understand the need for your own secrecy concerning this. The members inside this tent share a higher understanding that we cannot honestly expect of the rest of the pack.” Julius Vourdal surprises me. I thought Kurniyev Keel always had my back in moments like these. Julius, whose diligence has helped grow the pack in outstanding ways these past several decades, has his moments.

“I’m going to say what’s on all our minds in the hope that we can put it aside until after we’ve faced the coming storm. Count Dracula?”

He intones, “Hm?”

“We blame you. Not only did you orchestrate this whole mess, you also didn’t tell us about the barrier coming down in the next few days. I’m guessing even my parents didn’t know about this particular fact, because if they did they’d have told at least my Head of Intelligence to be prepared.” I look at Kurniyev and back at the Count. “After all this is said and done, you will most certainly be tried for your crimes and be found guilty. You run and you’re doomed.”

“Fair enough,” he says, looking as smug as a cat.

“Arrogance aside, what are we going to do? Regale us with your infinite wisdom.”

“Since you ask politely.” I really hate this vampire. “We begin by making preparations.”

“Ships and planes to explore other nations will be required, fuel quotas will need allocating,” I say to some of the committee members as they take notes. “We’ll need to gather as many foreign tribes and colonies to our side as possible, the Lykan side – you will have no say in the matter, Count Dracula, nor will you meet any of these people.” He protests, as I expected he would. “You will stay here and communicate to our field wolves. I will hear no more of your demands. Do I make myself clear?” I use the slice and dice gesture I’d seen my mother perform when she wants absolute obedience. I must say these tricks are working. The Count shuts up, which in itself is rewarding. I grow tired of hearing his voice. His only use is information. “What else?” I ask him.

“Well, gifts will be lovely.”

“Gifts? For whom?”

“For the people you’re going to see.”

“Don’t be silly. I’d think having the energy-barrier go down and seeing other Animaloids would be gift enough for anyone, given the circumstances.”

“As determined as you are, Matriarch, this is actually something – I’m surprised to say – I learned from your father. I do not wish to bring up his name after everything – a crime for which, as you said, I’ll face trial and consequent punishment; there, you have your confession.” The other wolves and I grow uncomfortable and rigid, most of us forming fists. “But hear out the memory. I once asked him the same question. I am older than him and thought he was being silly and prone to flights of fancy. A gift shows courtesy and much like a smile inspires casualness and friendship. It’s quite a powerful political tool. That’s how I won over my mother-in-law, rest her soul.”

“Not funny.” I give him a look. “Presents, food and drink packages, lykan brands only,” I say to a committee member and she notes it down. “Next?”

“We’ll need medicine. In case people don’t react as well as we think they might when the barrier comes down. Our vaccines might not work against a foreign invasive element, but anything at hand can potentially help.” I hear scribbles and typing. “Anything else?” I want this to be over. Talking about saving lives with a creature that has taken more than its fair share of them does not sit well with me.

“We react accordingly for anything else,” says Dracula.

“Move out!” I command and the tent empties. “In my sights,” I tell the Count and walk out. He gets up and follows. I am not the only one keeping an eye on him. Every lykan we pass holds him in their sight. He is a venomous reptile in the company of wolves, and he still has plenty of poison left in him. “Now that we have all the major issues settled, there is one other thing I need you to tell me.”

“I was wondering when you would ask. Under the basilica, in the catacombs.”

“Watch him,” I say and leave thirty guards, including Olaf and his Halvatians in charge of Dracula. I take to my wolf limbs and sprint past the broken wall. I run until my limbs ache and I arrive at the basilica where all my plans recently took a U-turn. I stealth my way past the doors and to the back of the building where a set of stairs lead into the apse. Another set of stairs guide me into the dark underbelly of the catacombs. When I open the thick oak door, I instantly catch the scent. I do not personally remember him but the scent of a werewolf is unmistakeable.

I hunt for him in the darkness, the damp coating my fur. Lord Buchanan Koolva, the traitor who misused valuable information and instead of bringing it back to his pack gave it instead to the vampires like the fool he is. He is sat with his head between his knees. A war is going on and he doesn’t even have the decency to adopt wolf for, not that he deserves it. His greatest value lay in the fact that he was married to Lady Lizzie. I killed her because of him. She protected this useless piece of lykan filth, choosing the one over the many; inexcusable. The Lord is sleeping in the crypts of a church dedicated to the god whose principles he betrayed. Pack is power, forever. He followed the wrong half of that motto.

I grab him by the neck. I never moved this fast before let alone hefted a lykan as heavy as Buchanan. He is too shocked to focus on transforming. I leave the catacombs faster than I’d entered. My wings come open as I near the grand entrance doors. I leap into the evening air. He starts to shout when he sees the ground give under him, but his voice comes out garbled. I crush his throat with my free hand. If I so much as hear this betrayer make another sound, I will keep slicing of flesh until he has bled out. I hold that thought. I have plans for this one.

When I reach camp, my people notice me and point their fingers or claws at the sky. I fly low and land. Lykans came to collect Lord Buchanan but I yell, “Forget chains! Build me a crucifix.” They work on adrenaline, fueled by my alpha aura. I give off a heat even I can’t explain. I can see Buchanan shake. Fires are lit and ground lamps drilled into place. A crude crucifix is made ready. They hold him down. He spits blood as he tries to plead despite the crushed larynx. Howls and growls fill the air as my soldiers come to learn of what is happening. They despise his treachery, it stinks to high heaven.

I use my strength to nail his hands to the horizontal plank of the cross-beam. I even reach out for an extra nail based on what I read about in books and seen in videos; part of my long training. This way he’ll stay alive for longer before his rib cage caves in his lungs and he strangles to death.

His shouts are airy and forceless. I have help lifting the cross into a vertical position and placing it inside the hole dug for it. We reinforce it using our own paws, scrabbling dirt back into the hole. As we move back, we gaze at this horrible excuse for a lykan. On a small metal plaque, I personally burn the words: ‘Here hangs Lord Buchanan Koolva, a disgrace to the Lykan race, a dishonour to his pack, and a disappointment to the House of Drugozolv’. By this time, cameras are already chronicling our efforts; drone technology has been brought out to play with the latest cargo arrival.

I can feel the silent elation as we serve a traitor his just desserts. I can’t be sure but I think I see Count Dracula’s throat bulge then go back to normal. I go to wash the spattered drops of Buchanan’s corruption from my body. I wish Dracula could meet an end as simple and straightforward as this. But even the blades of justice stay sheathed in the light of knowledge.

 

 

 

18

All of next day we organize hundreds of thousands of vampires. They pack, lock their homes, and make their way out of Fangtasia and into Luposia proper. In disaster-free areas, they stay indoors. We send out a small army of drones to be our eyes in the sky. We also set up teams to comb the place for answers, silver and anything else we can find to help our cause. The evacuation and relocation goes well into the next day. We set up camps and makeshift shelters, build homes with the vampires helping. Soon, it looks like we aren’t at all warring with each other but that some misfortune not of our making or their choosing led them to this refugee-like state. We have to move on, carry on, forge ahead. No point sitting on our paws all day.

Meanwhile, our planes line up near the energy barriers. Moonhaven, my capital city, is close not just to one of Fangtasia’s borders, namely the zone we assaulted earlier, but it is also close to the shoreline. The strategic position helped us quell multiple problems; but that’s all in the past. The rest of the country was Mother Luposia, surrounding the vampire nation from all sides. I received reports about other contingents having assaulted gates and entrances along the periphery, and who stopped when the order came to put the vampires under house arrest.

Where before we had hundreds of feet between us and the barriers I now see camps, tarp forts, storage zones, and more. Travel and transportation is ongoing, relying on old maps to judge the fastest departure points so we can arrive at various old-world nations that Dracula mentioned in the meeting. We barely sleep, eat just enough to keep us going, and work the rest of the time; gone is any notion of holidaying and weekends. We have only half a day left until the blood moon rises and the energy-barriers purportedly come down. Dracula ordered his studies in the matter brought to our attention and some of my brightest wolves confirmed the fact.

Even Dracula has made no plans for when the barriers drop. He wants to hold fast to his chunk of country and make slow decisions, it seems. Then again he no longer has the freedom he enjoyed before. He even went so far as to admit, during discussions and debates these two days, that he made mistakes. He knew it unwise to apologize, and good that he didn’t; it was too late on all counts for a dratted apology.

As for me, it was still too early to let my guard down. I have room and time to do it but deliberately deny myself the chance to shift to human. Considering how long I’ve been a wolf, I will need to remain a young woman for several days maybe more before I can safely turn again. I’ll only have magic at hand but not the natural lykan powers to complement and enhance them. With a certain Count always in my sights, I feel remaining a werewolf for the foreseeable future the best security bet, for my pack and me.

I wash the horizon with my gaze and study the bright reddish-orange glow; the ‘eternal sunset’, some lykans call it. Whatever this energy-barrier ushers when it drops I will require my full powers to help as needed. I am risking a mental breakdown staying in this form, but I am going steadier than most others can if the roles were shifted. I’m a Drugozolv and the only female lykan to show magical potential years before the commonly observed twenty-five. I use the natural advantage to help carry my pack through this delicate phase of our lives. When I feel the tinge of pride at the accomplishment, I recall the sacrifices I had to make and the time allotted to me to make them and I grow humbled by my weakness as compared to Fate’s strength.

“Matriarch,” my chief of construction comes to meet me. “The vampires are settled in. We’re getting them ready for work allocation. Your orders?”

“Put them all to work, women and children included, no exceptions. They are strong of mind and body. We will show no favouritism based on rank, age, or status. Allocate varied degrees of labour. They will help rebuild what they were part of destroying. Don’t look so bewildered, Gorchenko, no vampire is ever truly innocent. As for mercy, they haven’t earned it.” He bows. I know he’ll diligently carry out my orders. Pack law and sense of duty is what keeps us strong. My decisions may be harsh but life will only get harsher. Any sign of weakness will become a thorn in my people’s side. If we sow pity, then pity is all we will reap. The vamps should keep busy lest they plan to divert all that time and energy along sinister paths. Department heads will know how to keep a whole nation of them in line, or so I must believe. There is no time for double-checking.

“Michael Graham, come with me.” The man gets up from his place at the table where he was immersed in conversation with some of his people. I want to test something and as much as I wish to take a random human I think it better to have their leader himself help me understand something before the blood moon presents itself. We get into a car. I don’t know how to drive yet and I am not comfortable with Graham behind the wheel. Olaf Hiradhya knows vehicles well and he offers to take the wheel. Julius Vourdal asked to tag along. Once inside the car, I share my experimental notion concerning the energy-barrier and both lykans are curious to want to see it. It doesn’t matter what Michael thinks, he should be glad he is even invited.

The open-top jeep growls a bit louder as it picks up speed. We are in open terrain, only wild grass stretches as far as the eye can see, interspersed with flowering plants and weeds. For the next several meters we see nothing until we arrive at the energy-barrier curving up, up, and away. I have seen it before but only in films and books. Nobody ever truly bothered about the wall or made it a focus for lykan culture. It is as foreign to us as the lands and oceans that spreads beyond. No matter where our work took us, the past hundred years saw vampire and lykan pass open stretches of natural meadow and in the distance, the ‘eternal sunset’. The days and nights changed color, but the barrier never did. We practically avoided it altogether.

It feels weird to have a human and a vampire in a motorized transport with me as we head toward the wall with the express intention of reaching it not merely passing from a distance. All this so I, the reigning lykan Matriarch, can enact an experiment before the blood moon brings down the barrier encompassing a veritable continent.

Even going at seventy, it takes a while to arrive. We exit the jeep and walk closer to the barrier but no more than necessary.

“Now what?” asks Michael.

“Touch it.”

“Matriarch?” he queries with a dumbfounded look on his face.

“The way I figure, Mr. Graham, the wall is going to come down anyway. It’s more an ecosystem balancer than an actual cage; based on the Count’s studies. Now, since vampires and lykans are technically Animaloids with similar hybrids probably residing beyond the barrier, I developed a curiosity to see how it would react to an actual human. We are in the cage, not necessarily you, Mr. Graham. I mean, the walls were said to have gone up ever since the last human was killed or converted, so to speak. Perhaps the small number that escaped into hiding – your community, Mr. Graham – fell into the negligible zone. Whoever erected this barrier, estimating the human race would go extinct sooner or later, decided to equalize the new Animaloid balance in some way only they could understand. I’d like to see if it recognizes you, to see if you can actually pass through the thing unharmed.”

“Has anyone even attempted this before?”

“Maybe, Mr. Graham, but there’s no record or rumour of it, so I’m guessing not. From your concern, I take it that none of your people ventured an attempt this far out on open ground where we could have spotted you.”

“Not one lykan or vampire in the past one hundred years was curious enough to learn about the barrier up close? Really?”

“Curiosity is a fickle thing, Mr. Graham. It leads some to discovery and most to greed. We’re not humans, we are in possession of higher-order animal faculties. Our instincts kept our curiosities in check. You know what they used to say about the cat.”

“So you’re sending me to the barrier, as the cat?”

“It won’t kill you. Theoretically.” I tie a rope lasso around his waist. “In case you do pass through and try to leg it.”

“Or to drag me back if I drop dead. I’m not your prisoner, Matriarch Ambrosia. I’m here of my own free will.”

“Don’t make me remind you why you’re still alive. Allies not friends, remember? Comes with a price. Answers, mutual survival, change in plans, you name it, you’re here because we hit a knowledge-snag. Otherwise the invasion would have proceeded according to plan, I’d have killed you right there in the basilica, taken your head, used it to lower human morale, and by this time all the vampires and humans in Luposia will have become extinct. I so looked forward to seeing Dracula’s dead body float in a formaldehyde tube in the living room of a refurbished Castle Drugozolv. Whatever the Dark Gods might have done is secondary. We didn’t know because Dracula will have been dead too, so how can they blame us for being genuinely in the dark about their plans. Information is why both you and he, along with both your peoples, are still breathing. Don’t get me wrong, our alliance is a good thing but it’s more complicated than a simple shake-hands-be-nice relationship. I’m sure deep down, in your mortal soul, you understand what I’m talking about.” I gesture for him to walk forward.

He gives a strange expression, checks himself, and takes in the sight ahead. Michael wipes his palms on his pants and walks slowly toward the barrier. From the way he moves, I would think he expects the ground to give under him at any moment. He finally reaches the wall and seems glad not to have stepped on any landmines; I heard him muttering something along those lines. He turns to look at me. I beckon for him to go on. He turns back to the wall, reaches his hand out, and touches it.

Nothing happens. There is still that sunset glow all across its face. I check to see if anything is happening way up high but the wall shoots vertically through the clouds and I’m sure we have no means to reach that high and take a look. Telescopic data failed to get past the barrier, according to the old records at any rate. The man presses his palm against the surface. Tiny fibrous strands seem to nip at his palm like guppies. “Tingly. And warm.” He sounds unusual. He seems so relaxed that his tone too has altered to suit his mood.

A bright flash of light blinds me and I can just make out Julius and Olaf suffering from the same. Graham’s shout reaches my ears. His rope lasso flails in my hands; I know he is flying backward. I take to the air, follow the length of the rope as fast as my wings can carry me and catch him under both arms. Why is the rope wet? The man was standing in the shallows when he touched the barrier. My eyesight improves. I can see Olaf and Julius in full wolf form, shaking their heads to clear their senses.

We spend a while recuperating in the jeep. Olaf’s vision is still cloudy and so we are unable to drive back. We stew in our own thoughts until I speak.

“It knows the humans.” I nod to myself. “It knows you are trapped in here with us. It recognizes you as it might have done any one of us. I don’t wish to test that barrier myself or put any of my lykans at risk but I would like to see a certain Count have a go at it.” If Dracula were here, he’d have experienced something worse seeing as how his senses and bright light do not get along. Makes me wish I’d brought him along but then I’d have missed the distress on his face anyway. “Let’s head back when you’re ready, Olaf.” My sight returns to normal. The others need a while longer. Graham will be back to his old self only much later, judging by the way he has become a loner all of a sudden. We drive back to base. “The wall is coming down in a matter of hours. That would mean they – whoever put the barrier up, gods, whoever – will expect us to travel beyond these shores. We have the technology and the will. But it’s all so…” I cannot find the word though it is on the tip of my tongue. “So random and care-a-hood.” Julius makes a non-committal sound.

Whom do we see waiting for us back at Camp Voyager – that’s the name we gave the expanding series of tents and abodes, built since the invasion of the Lavenderite Wall – but a grim-faced Dracula. He has his arms folded before him like a petulant child.

“I was hoping I’d be invited. You left when I was asleep, Matriarch. The barrier, I wanted to see it too.”

“Don’t complain, Count. I can’t waste time coming to wake you. They said you were snoring. Anyway, the energy-barrier’s overrated. Nothing untoward happened. We saw it, touched it, it was solid, we returned. It’s going to go down in a matter of hours anyway.”

“I know I’ve been keeping information from the lykans, but that does not warrant insults to my intelligence, Matriarch. With all due respect. I have sent covert operatives out to the wall before to study it at blind spots that we found in your surveillance monitors. We know what the barrier can do.”

I sigh and look at him. He could be bluffing. “And what, pray tell, can the barrier do?”

“Well, the vampire who touched it was burned to a crisp; embers and ashes. We had to work fast and dump soil on him as soon as possible before the cameras caught heat activity. This was seventy odd years ago. He’s probably helped nurture the growth of all sorts of grasses and weeds by now.”

I shoot Michael a furtive glance. He is washing from a bucket of water, too far away to hear any of this.

“I wonder what happened to Mr. Graham,” says the Count.

“You can ask him yourself. It’s only four hours to the eclipse. Time to brace ourselves. Where are you going?”

“To talk to Mr. Graham,” says Dracula as if it is the most obvious answer in the world.

“Never leave my sights. Does that not ring a bell?” He clenches his jaw but obeys. He is getting bolder. I don’t like it. He seems like a creature testing the electrical fencing, checking for weak spots.

Lykans go about carrying out duties, the first batch of vampires have already started working, food is being prepared with the closest vampire too far from the station to drop any surprises into our meals, clothes are being dried out in the breeze, wood is being chopped, and guards are keeping a close watch on everything, confiscated guns in hand. Female lykans light the evening with their magic, providing illumination in some areas and helping with labour in others. I relay a message so the women know to save a good portion of their powers in readiness for what’s coming.

Monitors are set up and important government officials, back home and across Luposia, are busy signing, reading, writing, typing or waiting for me to convene a meeting. The news crew use what resources they have at hand to film relevant moments. They await a cargo carrying high-end equipment, salvaged after the Techno-Ban in keeping with restrictions laid out in the past. It will help capture live the barrier’s descent. Technology made us go to war encouraged by the magic that entered prematurely into society. The history is vague and what with recent revelations, it has only grown murkier. I see machines moving to and fro and it makes me wonder how things would have been back then. We are all working on Dracula’s know-how. None of what he mentioned is present in any of our records, chronicles, journals or texts.

“Ladies and gentlemen, fellow lykans, nobles, and members of court.” I speak into the small pinhole camera and it projects my image onto blanket-screens raised outside. “All of Luposia is aware of events that transpired these past few days. We are appalled, shocked, confused and in a constant state of waiting for answers. The energy-barrier that was once a familiar sight from afar has become the centre of our attention. When it drops, according to verified data from our enemy now turned informant, we’ll be exposed to the rest of the planet as it currently stands. The same planet we thought was dead and irradiated, uninhabitable, will be open. We do not know if there is radiation outside or if other beings have adapted to it. We also do not know if we will die under its effects or worse fall critically ill. If, Wolvaar granted, nothing untoward happens and we travel to different lands, tapping into a large portion of our fuel reserves to do so, what we’ll even find in these new locations we cannot say.

“There is simply too much to know too soon. Add to this the vampires, whom we cannot kill – I’m sure you’ve received knowledge from Kurniyev Keel, Head of Luposia Intelligence, as to why. All that I can say is that the blood moon is coming. We have this astrological event in our records just not the significance of what Dracula has said will take place in,” I look at a table clock, “one hour. Keep your eyes open, take lykan form, and carry on in all calmness. We’ll need to work steady. Too slow and we’ll probably be late, too fast and we’ll have missed something. We must set the mark and hold fast to our own over whatever’s out there. You have your production orders – weapons, tools, medicine. Get ready to face the unknown. If all is well, I will take the first flight to check on the closest landmass, what they called Africa in the old world. Reports and plans of action will be shared across available channels. Duke Julius Vourdal will serve as steward in my absence. To be honest, what we are doing is guessing, assuming, theorizing and basically just winging it. We have to keep running or we will never make the kill. We are lykans, and together we will stand strong. Pack is power. There is nothing worth fearing.”

I hear voices coming in over an intercom system to my right. Several voices are together saying, “Pack is power. For the glory of the House of Drugozolv, and the honour of our Matriarch Ambrosia Drugozolv.”

I turn off the transmission. The crew who helped set all this up now takes to the switches and toggles as I exit the tent and leave them to their work. Our fate will be known to us in less than sixty minutes.

 

 

 

19

There is growing unease in the camp when the call goes out to transform. The declaration carries throughout Luposia. It is only half an hour before the eclipse when every lykan alive takes wolf form, cublings included. The vampires turn into their dense-boned animalistic versions too, the idea being that whatever happens we’d be ready to face it in our strongest forms. Something comes over us and even usually disciplined werewolves and calm-classy vampires show distinct signs of discomfort. It is not direness just a feeling that doesn’t sit well. I feel it strongly too. My animal instincts act up when the Earth’s shadow falls on the moon and paints it red with atmospheric concoctions.

There are growls and howls, wolves start to pace, weapons are prepped, and vampires breathe so heavily we could have shot them in the dark. It feels like war only all of us are on the same side against an invisible enemy who is yet to show hostility. I recall Dracula saying how frightened he and the early lykans, my parents included, were when the Dark Gods changed the very make-up of the land and air. Are they here right now bringing the barrier down? Is their presence upsetting our mortal senses? I could have demanded silence but there is no point. It is getting difficult even for me to stay composed. I feel like running at something, cutting it open with my sword, but I do not know whom to attack, only the air.

The red of the eclipse sheds a rusty hue on my silver fur and I seem like something born of blood and darkness staring up at the moon with eyes as yellow as lemons from the far east of Luposia, from the calm and silent Meelya Orchards. I look at the barrier and it shows no sign of breaking or dissolving. It glows brighter, pale white at times and deep read at others. It unnerves me, to say the least. I feel an underlying note of anger. But what am I angry at, and why? Strange signs and colors dot the barrier. The shapes of these signs grow distinct. The complex magical symbolism predates anything in our records. It is like the sky has been painted in arcana. Perhaps our eyes are to blame as they grow aware of magic that has remained hidden from us all this time, keeping us from seeing the scary beauty fill the firmament.

The signs start to dissolve like blood in a lake. Soon the entire barrier, from deep underground all the way up into space form five-sided patterns, one adjacent to the next, uniform throughout, like a honeycomb. They turn just as golden. None of us panic. Whatever happens now it will either let us live or die no matter how far or fast we run. This is bigger than all of us. As if the energy-barrier hears my thoughts, each five-sided honeycomb tilts up like a slat window. Each one opens toward the inside. All of Luposia is watching wherever they are right now. Good thing this barrier does not interfere with broadcast signals and radio waves. It is perfectly harmless as far as I can sense, though it is far from a sight worth celebrating.

A breeze rushes in from the outside and is the first to taste the space we call home. It takes a short while to reach us but when it does all we can do is stand and soak up the scent. Lykans tilt their noses up, close their eyes, and savor the breeze. It brings with it bizarre memories, scents for which we have no words. Layers of meaning land on our senses, gifted by the wind. The air grows chill and we feel it course along the insides of our snouts. We are all of us breathing deeply. I open my eyes and see mist take form. The light grows dimmer and clearer at the same time. The breeze becomes slightly aggressive as flakes of snow come down upon us.

They fall like lace trimmings. It is not the season for them but still here they are. Snow falls only in deepest winter in Luposia. It is like time has been fast-forwarded, really fast-forwarded. I remember my cubhood and what I felt when I first saw snow. I was almost a teenager when I tasted the flakes and made patterns on the ground. The snow was so white I thought light had taken liquid form. Philosophy called to me, that the light conquered something in the dark beyond and to commemorate the fresh inflow of positive energies and new magic, snow – each unique fractal of it – fell in my world like illumined drops of starlight, bringing hope that our gods are at war and winning. Exposure to fairy tales made me believe in impossible ideas. But snow is magical, even if it is part of the cycle of rain and is altered due to ambient temperatures. Isn’t scientific fact magical in itself?

The energy-barrier started to do stranger things. Monitors capture live broadcasts and reporters narrate goings on. I walk to the screens in the comms tent and see for myself. Different regions have different things happening in them. Some host snow, like we are experiencing, others have clear evenings while some others are entirely unaffected. All around Luposia, the energy-barrier has honeycomb patterns with open lids positioned flat and horizontal. The lunar eclipse has thrown a shadow on reality, and the moon has gone a deeper red like someone has bathed it in wine. Only thanks to our lighting systems can we see what is happening with our people in other regions. Our eyes for the first time find it difficult to adjust to the nocturnal onset.

“Go home.” I dispatch the word over a common channel. “All Lykans go home.” It isn’t urgent, my voice is calm and low. I have a feeling the barrier will be a while descending. Perhaps tomorrow it will finally disappear. “Civilians only. Vampires included. Return to your campsites or homes. All military and court personnel will remain and take turns keeping an eye on the barrier. Any changes are to be reported to my base immediately.”

I let the comms team relay the message to other sectors and loop it for clarity in case someone missed a point earlier. They transcribe it and send text messages wherever needed. The eclipse concludes and the moon is left black as a widow’s veil.

“Lovely night.” Dracula says it like it holds meaning.

Tonight marks a week and five days since my family was massacred and I haven’t given myself time to grieve. I don’t have time. My heart is still heavy with the guilt of my decision where little Henry was concerned; I chose the many over the few, the pack over one life. My soul has not stopped bleeding. And here stands the vampire responsible for it all, and he has the audacity to say all is fair in war. Ever since I felt the prick of doubt at his shared truths, I decided I was going to keep this enemy close. His nonchalance is starting to seem like an infection; it sickens me to my core. I wish you were here, papa, you and all my brothers and sisters. I wish you were here, mama, you knew exactly what I needed and when. I wish I could anticipate returning to my room in the castle and seeing something missing only to know little Henry is being a mischievous imp. I should use the word ‘again’, mama, not ‘never again’. I will not cry. It will only dishonour the memory of what you did and accomplished in life.

I hope the afterlife is a peaceful place, because real life has forgotten what peace is. Circumstances pile up, each one more complex than the next, seemingly meaningless, abrupt, and often incomprehensible. It’s not even a month and those who were once at each other’s throats are now working together toward a reluctant peace. The vampire who murdered you and your children is now my ally but at the same time still my sworn enemy. I am confused. I feel as though I am going mad. It all seems so planned out, so normal, so circumstantial and understandable. Am I already mad, or is this some fresh strain of insanity coming across as normal? Life is weird. The fairy tales I used to enjoy seem more believable.

Dinner is served and I have to go if I want to keep to schedule and maintain my strength. Food. It suddenly feels unreal. Eating, living, learning, understanding, deciding, fighting, loving, losing, sleeping, waking. Why do we do it? Are there really Dark Gods and am I even now sending them harvestable energies with every thought, every choice, and every action?

Madness, mama, madness. You were wrong when you said my magic, if left uncontrolled, could make me think abnormal things. I feel it’s the simple things in life, including solitary moments like these, that have the power to drive us crazy. It’s not magic but the reality of existence that can push us over the edge. I’m kind of glad you aren’t alive to see me learn such truths, which may not even be truths for all I know.

I’d best satisfy my belly and take a short nap. My mind is growing restless. It feels like I am being deceived with realistic thoughts that, for all I know, may not even be real.

 

 

 

 

20

I am constantly keeping track of time, like when papa used to go off scouting, hunting or making political visits to Fangtasia leaving me, cub Ambrosia, back home. Three and a half hours later, the eclipse lifts. The moon ceases to bleed and is pure once more. As soon as the final shadows slip off its face, the energy-barrier falls. It comes down like a metal rack, neatly, one layer atop the other. They give off a deep and eerie sound, feels like a hundred years of thunder have been compressed and let loose. Nothing remains of the barrier anymore. I hide my angst as I rush to the spot and see lykans busy videotaping every second.

The titanic creations crafted by alien hands are gone. Where have they vanished? Could sheer energy akin to heat and force, only more superior, have stood as strong as mountains for all this time? The shallow seabed has a neat delineation where the barrier used to be. I can find no way to glean how deep the wall went; the underwater sand has covered any hope of a quick study. Some of my lykans dive, snap photographs, and bring back their waterproof cameras to show me what looks like a scab coursing along the bed. I shift to the next photo and the next only to see that the seabed is becoming flatter and flatter, as if the barrier didn’t exist at all.

I want to step into the shallows a bit beyond. Will it feel different, vibrate oddly, plunge me to the centre of the Earth? I throw a pebble at the wave-less waters; a female lykan holding a camera shoots me doing it. I throw a twig, a leaf, a fruit, a dead and a live rabbit, and even let a few birds out of a cage; some of my courtiers bring these to me. The birds fly back inland; some sort of magnetic deterrence, perhaps. But the live rabbit doesn’t hop back. It simply gnaws on the flower buds that grow on the shore and doesn’t seem afraid of the open vastness. I step into the shallows, testing the soft sea sand with my paws. My people hold their breath.

I suddenly have this immense desire to turn this moment into something worth remembering. There is a time for caution and a time for recklessness. I move a ways inland and assume the wolf position, all fours, ready to pounce. I run headlong at the sea and leap into the water. My senses are shot with the sensation. Are there dangerous creatures this far out, even if it is only a few meters from shore? My instincts will warn me, surely. I swim back and exit dripping wet only to howl at the full moon. They called this the Mediterranean Sea.

Other lykans dive in. Only a few stand back and court amusement. Along this stretch of Luposia, whoever lives near shore and is present when the barrier went down runs into the waves and enjoys the freedom of discovering something that had been out of reach for nearly a century. I feel the water weighing me down; I shake myself dry. I head to the screens and enjoy sights of elation and surprise wherever Lykans have gathered and are part of this important coverage. Most of Luposia is not close to shore but I see their reactions via other screens, watching what is happening.

My pack is happy, bathing under the moonlight, lounging on sand, scree, or cliff. The cubs seem the happiest of all. It is a historic moment not because I ran into the waves like an impulsive youngling but how actual cubs, the real younglings, give in to joy that years of war and uncertainty had robbed. Most of the film crew captured their euphoria.

I think of little Henry and my siblings. What would they have done? Only a while back did my heart soar, now I see it beat down. I shake away the feeling. There is a time for this too. Right now I am witness to history. There it is, there in the eyes of the next generation, there in our children’s happiness. The cubs of Luposia who will one day grow to be her wolves.

 

 

21

We are excited with our heading, namely south across the Mediterranean and into Africa. This time I have to take the Count along; leaving him behind is a bigger risk than having him tag along. I am still frustrated that he knows a lot about these foreign lands than anyone else in Luposia, which is curious considering he has not stepped foot outside the energy-barrier in nearly the same time as the rest of us. Then again, he was around long before the war, and leaving his mark in human society for centuries before my parents and he even met. I hate that of all beings this abhorrent murderer-politician gets to have it easy simply because he knows things we do not.

I was glad for one thing at least. I can perform another teleport. The required amount of time has passed and I can re-use the skill without any backlash. However, teleporting to a land I have never seen is impossible. The eyes have to have been there and the mind should directly have registered the image. Count Dracula, Duke Julius Vourdal, Olaf Hiradhya, and I are in a ferry-jet and flying over the sea using what map knowledge we possessed and taking Dracula’s notes to heart; we stay suspicious. The vamp is unsure if we plan to gang up on him and call it an accident and we are unsure of what his sick mind has in store.

Ground technicians keep radio contact. I have sufficient fuel and flight expertise in Olaf and Julius, both of whom are skilled in flying; one of the sub-proficiencies they chose as cubs. I can’t resist asking Julius, “You can fly a plane but not drive a car?”

“Matriarch, some things about me take even me by surprise when I sit down to think about them.” He shores up his pride. “Anyway, cars are different from planes so knowing one doesn’t automatically give you knowledge of the other. Some engine similarities aside, the two machines…” He goes on for a bit. I have not heard him speak at length about a non-political topic before. I like the way he shakes his head at times as he rambles. He seems carefree, which is a rare mode for Julius. He presses a few toggles on the dashboard and his words stretch until he is done, then he continues speaking normally again; silly for someone so big and old, but he still has the physique and looks of a much younger werewolf.

I glance at Olaf in the pilot seat beside Julius; he is doing an excellent job at stifling a smile. I have trusted these two men for all this time and didn’t even realize how much of my life I placed in their paws. Only wolves can truly grasp the dynamics behind how lykans get close to each other simply by experiencing each other’s company. Soldiers that we are, we take moments like these to ‘play’, bond, and forge attachments.

Count Dracula is sitting at the back and staring out the window. He used the in-flight bar to make himself a gin cocktail. I don’t like to think that he has class, but he does know how to keep a cool head no matter what is happening. I turn my attention back to the two flying the plane. I am suddenly and without warning reminded of marriage. For a royal, this isn’t a whim or casual desire but a responsibility in the strictest sense. In other words, I have to marry as soon as possible.

There are no heirs to the Drugozolv throne after me. With Luposia to rule and so much more left to discover now that the energy-barrier has fallen, I have a duty to my people more than myself. My maximum survivable age is five hundred after which I will gradually slide into a natural death. I am twenty-two now. Mama was nearly seventy-five when she and her cubhood sweetheart tied the knot.

Whenever I think of the way they died, I understand that life is short and does not adhere to our plans for it. Even if we have five hundred years on the meter, it can stop anytime from one of several causes. Life is action, it doesn’t stop to explain itself before it does what it does. On our heads rests the burden to seek an explanation.

Julius Vourdal, nobility, born with a golden spoon, trained in military tactics, government policy and court affairs. A diplomat who can wield a weapon but who prefers to play it steady from the sidelines. A kind and polite man whom I know always sleeps on a problem before passing judgement. I have never seen him get angry or irate without good reason. He holds his own until he is certain his opinion is worth sharing.

Olaf Hiradhya, aggressive, silently so. Part of the reclusive Halvatian sect of warrior-wolves, there is a whole iceberg of information about the man that he hides under murky waters. For all his mystery, he is fiercely loyal and believes in doing right by those who do right by him. He knows the world and its cruelties and though he is rightful chief to his people and has to live to lead, has shown that he will put his life in jeopardy if it means saving another lykan’s.

Both men are much older than me. They have been with my parents since the War of Conversion. Julius fought beside papa in that war while Olaf stuck to his sect and its principles and declined. I know the Duke is eighty-eight years old and I’m guessing Olaf is running on ninety. They are adolescents by lykan standards. I know how I sound but these thoughts are important, as I keep telling myself. I am no fool, I know the value of procreation to help carry on a bloodline and its dignity. The male-mate could be anyone, because the power of the Drugozolv gene passes through the females in my family. That does not mean I can share the power of my House with just anyone.

Even if there are eligible bachelors in Luposia, I have already set my sights on these two. How do I decide between a wise man and a strong one? Isn’t wisdom a form of strength and strength one of wisdom’s most important offshoots? How do I learn to love and trust either the Duke or the Halvatian? Will I grow to love Julius or Olaf, whomever I choose, or will we grow apart after a while? They both love and care for my family, they both knew my father and he in turn enjoyed their company. How can one heart be asked to contain one love when it is so much more complicated than that? Am I going to make a mistake choosing someone who wouldn’t give their life to uphold Drugozolv principles? If I die after marriage, childless, will the lykan I married be able to rule as mama and papa did all these years, with justice, understanding, swiftness, and sacrifice?

If I happen to have cubs with one of these men, will he raise them right if I die and leave them a kingdom and lineage to nurture and expand? If this man and I grow old together, will we still find love in each other’s eyes and a sense of the greater things in life? Will we still understand that love isn’t just about a good roll in the sack but sacrifice and the will to fight life’s battles together?

So many legitimate questions. I don’t have the luxury of time, especially after all that has happened. I can’t sit around and hope to live forever. I am not immortal per se, I can be killed despite my powers; like my own family was done in despite theirs. I need to leave something behind, cubs who will carry Drugozolv blood and keep Luposia standing strong. All it takes is one royal house falling apart and the next few years will see to a divided nation who will assume they are moving on but refuse to believe that they are moving apart from who we are as werewolves.

It is quite simple: I find a male-mate ideal for the throne, marry, have sex, have kids, carry on, love, hardship, compromise, compensation, patience, understanding, and aforethought. It admittedly has its own layers of complexity but nothing that can’t be understood in light of simplicity. There’s no point garnishing marriage with silly-filly ideals that look lustrous in the pages of a book. Reality requires action, swift and smart decisions, and an unwavering will to believe in a bond once it has been struck. Real life is tougher by far than anything seen in one’s head. I need a husband and children for the sake of my nation and pack, and I am not one to believe in immaculate conceptions; least of all at times like these.

You can tell a lot about a lykan from his scent. While Julius has a sombre fragrance, mild and subtle, Olaf’s is powerfully musky and quite insistent on the senses. I like the puzzle this places before me. I have been thinking about these things long before this moment, for the past several hours in fact, ever since I called a halt to the invasion and Count Dracula’s words pulled me onto a different path. Then there is Michael Graham silently demanding the death of all races but his own so the Earth can return to the normalcy it once enjoyed. The arrogance of humans never ceases to amaze, even after they are deemed extinct they return and want everything under the sun.

“When I am convicted, I hope I can still receive an invite to your wedding; out of courtesy.”

“How did you—? How dare you.”

“Don’t be upset, Matriarch. I love reading, especially people. You weren’t making things hard with the way you carry yourself in the presence of those two.”

He at least has the decency to share the words softly and only after I have left the cockpit.

“You overstep your mark, Count Dracula. A lady doesn’t like to be cornered in this fashion.”

“I’ll leave the cornering to the wolf, Matriarch. You’re a big girl now. Just because a lady doesn’t like something doesn’t mean she can avoid it.” He sips his gin and stares out the window. I want to wring his neck if for no other reason that because he is right.

Before I can find a seat close enough to keep an eye on the Count but far enough away so he won’t be prompted to start a conversation, the plane jerks. Dracula’s glass shatters in the aisle and I have to spread my limbs to grab hold of what I can. This is clearly not your average turbulence. I look out the window only to see a stream of flames and smoke along one of the wings.

Olaf’s crisp words over the intercom: “Concentrated mortar blast. Oblique target system. No prior visuals.” There is civilized life outside Luposia and Fangtasia after all. We are not alone and, apparently, we aren’t welcome either. I remember our plane has no real crash landing features. The scout vehicle is going down. A carpet of trees rushes toward us. I strap myself in and throw protective bubbles around all four of us before I study the view out the window. Vast Savannah sand and tall grass, dry heat and trees growing only in the area where our plane is—

Booms fill my head, metal scrapes and breaks, trees come uprooted, and the world goes black.

 

 

 

22

I awake to the wretched insides of a ruined plane. It is a mess, torn in irreparable places. Olaf groans as he comes to check up on me. The Count is missing and Julius is out cold in the pilot seat. A slight shimmer vibrates around the three of us, meaning the shield has held. My magic has kept us safe though the landing has shaken us. The seat I occupied is skewed at an odd angle. Fires light portions of the plane and the surrounding trees. The heat from the broken machine doesn’t give me a chance to gauge the natural climate. I walk out of the debris with Olaf who seems to need more help than I do. We are both in lykan form, the adrenaline having goaded the wolf to surface. We carry Julius between us and head quickly away from the mess in case a fuel line catches and explodes.

I spot movement near the far tree line where dry grass meets green weeds. When I can no longer hear the fires crackle from the debris and the groan of warping metal, I pick up growls and trumpets from afar. Olaf and I look at each other before heading toward Count Dracula who is waving to us from the shadows.

“He healed fast, even considering the shield I put around him,” I mutter so only Olaf Hiradhya can hear.

“Even in healing, he has an agenda,” says Olaf. I wait for him to continue; this is the first time he has proffered a personal opinion on the Count. He clearly knows something and I want in. He instead adjusts Julius’s weight to take more of his bulk. When we reach the Count he doesn’t bother to help or ask after us. He points covertly, though he didn’t really need to. It will have been hard to miss.

“Matriarch, I think we arrived in the middle of a civil war.”

Mortar bombs fly high and fall from an angle; that’s what hit us, I surmise. We weren’t targets but had unwittingly flown into range of one of those projectile. Bombs go screaming into the air and land randomly on the vast beige field cursed with a skirmish. Having recently been in one ourselves and generally used to this atmosphere, Olaf and I don’t panic. The Count’s calm is self-explanatory. What I don’t quite understand is how aggressive the gigantic grey beasts are. I can’t place them, strange leathery skin, long appendage hanging from the forehead, white bony outgrowths from their mouths and a body equal parts fat and tough. Their trumpeting and thudding quake the ground.

The lean-muscled beige creatures attacking each behemoth are fast to say the least. I can’t place them either. They too are Animaloids like us, and that’s as much as we have in common. Covered in oddly designed leather armour interspersed with distinct Egyptian themes, they run on the sand oblivious to the heat. While a dozen of them face up to one behemoth, the closest and largest tusker catches my eye not because it is gigantic, as large as a house in fact, but because of the splash of red I see weaving in and out of his shadow. The warrior seems to be avoiding all its attacks with remarkable speed.

The long horsetail headdress flicks like a whip. The leather armour seems heavy at first notice, but the warrior knows how to move with it. Every now and again it gives a boisterous growl that cuts to the bone. It uses dual scimitars to scratch the grey giant accosting its group. Despite the tusker’s deep roars and heavy movements, the lean warrior’s growls are distinct in their own right. A wrinkled leathery appendage slaps at the warrior, catches it in the midriff and sends it flying bodily backwards. It checks its momentum, twirls in midair and lands on its paws before turning right round and rushing back to the beast. The red tail from the warrior’s helm swats the air.

“Count?”

“Hmm?”

I give him a searching look. “How can you be sure this is a civil war?”

“The king!” Someone on the field declares, and we immediately perk up. Julius comes out of his stupor and looks bleary-eyed at us. I nod. “The king!” There is the shout again. Roars and growls suffuse the air and an armoured creature with the biggest bunch of fur on its head that I have ever seen on any beast runs on four limbs. It isn’t as fast as the other warriors some of whom have smaller manes while others have none at all. He stands upright much like we do. He is behind the large beast and signals to the lean Animaloid with the red whiptail helm.

Using roars, claws and his bare teeth he slashes deep wounds into the behemoth and before long brings it to its knees. He rips off one of the large flapping appendages on the side of its head and the creature trumpets in pain. He holds the two bone-like outgrowths coming out of its mouth and twists the head. At first, it attempts to regain solid footing. But gradually the twist-force of the thick-maned creature the other warriors called the king wins and the grey giant’s head lolls lifelessly. Its thrashing body goes limp.

Blood in his jaws and hunger in his eyes, the king sprints back into the melee. When I look at the place he left, I see the sharp yellow eyes of the red-tailed-helm warrior staring back at me. Before I can raise my lykan arm to show I mean no harm, it slips its scimitars into scabbards, gets down on all fours and runs my way. It covers the distance so fast I think I may have hallucinated. From her shape I understand she is female. There is a strange pungency about the tall lean creature; she towers over me. Looking down at us, she waits. I hear a guttural growl. Olaf, already in wolf form, growls back, but she ignores him as she might a bug, beneath her concern. She seems to know things, like who in the group is the leader and whether to apply force or patience. I see experience in those golden eyes. It is bizarrely calming.

“What are you?” She says in a rather thick accent and starts circling my men and me. The Count is missing, again. I follow his scent and learn that he is up a tree before the wind changes and he is gone. By this time, several other Animaloids have come to our position. Some of them are studying the plane wreck. They growl, stand tall on their hind limbs and wait for orders from this unusually elegant female who seems to be commanding the fight; after the king, I’m guessing. My mind needs facts to bridge the many islands of what I have learned these last few minutes.

“You picked bad time to visit.” Her accent is unconventional but then again this was a whole other culture; at times I find it hard to make out her words. “How did get here so fast?” One of her people speaks her language, explains the state of things. “Aahh, so plane yours? One hundred years wall be up. It go down and you here. My grandparents once live. They will know to do with you but they not here no more.” She stops circling. “You harmless, I think. Maybe you capable of great harm?” For someone who has just come from a harrowing fight she isn’t panting or showing any signs of upset.

“We are Lykans from Luposia, the country across the sea.” I gesture in the needed direction. “I am Ambrosia Drugozolv, Matriarch of the lykan pack and head of the Fangtasian vampires whose territories and loyalties have long since been acceded to my House. We too have been caged behind the wall for a hundred years.”

I will never forget the reaction. She actually does a double-take. Her eyes grow bigger, her pupils wider, her stance more rigid. She turns and runs back, much like she would have in her human form. I’m guessing they can revert to one like lykans can. Her people gasp and move back from us like we carry the plague. When I ask, “What’s wrong?” they run away to tell more of their people. Soon all the lean beige creatures pass word and we are bathed in their glances. Even the gigantic grey-beasts hear the news and grow curious. It looks to me that the entire field is settling down in stages.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” I say, growing a bit frustrated, “what is the problem here?” My voice carries even though I don’t intend it to.

“The wall came down, we panicked, someone said something wrong, tusks were raised, claws were unsheathed and, well.” It is quite surprising to hear such an immense fighter, one of the grey-beasts I saw on the field, speaking so calmly not to mention fluently; one his own lies dead nearby but he doesn’t seem to care. I don’t understand these people. Their emotions change too rapidly.

“A hundred years ago,” begins a voice overflowing with such authority and bombast it seems like it’s issuing from a loudspeaker. The large-maned king walks forward, his long sword in hand, an even longer tail swishing behind him. An entourage of warriors encircle him at all times, a shield of flesh, muscle and bone. “Matriarch Drugozolv. A hundred years ago, I remember a Drugozolv. We only heard of his reputation and already we trembled. He could and would never come here, to Africa, that’s what we called it then. But thanks to Alexandrovich Drugozolv’s blood-pact with the Dark Gods, we were unwittingly gifted these forms.” He stops and stares at me. He doesn’t seem angry but his furrowed face makes that hard to discern. “Our Animaloid forms are sure to be unusual to you. After all, you have never left your country. You were born inside the energy-barrier and facts like these are easily forgotten. It was hard enough for us.” This king reminds me of Julius who stands, exhausted and worried, beside me. Just like the duke, this king doesn’t cut to the point. “We share a lot of the same terms and words. Dreams came to our shamans about such things, and then stopped coming altogether. We evolved as lion-human hybrids. The others you see are elephant-human hybrids, all in order to balance the pact – our shamans said the Dark Gods demanded it. We share this country with new animal and plant life since the barrier went up; much like your own home, I am guessing. The heat, however, it remains the same in several places. Despite past differences, we coexisted for a short time with your parents. Then they had to go back to their homeland and face a growing threat. The wall then caged us all. My name is Zachfar Kiodar, the Leon King. Matriarch Drugozolv,” he bows by way of respect and the rest of his tribe bows with him, even the elephant-hybrids, “I ask pardon for the state you have found us in. A misunderstanding escalated out of proportion. We should have received you with more dignity. Our power is a gift, or so we take it to be. We owe gratitude to the House of Drugozolv for making the hybridization possible. I am certain there are others in the world who will revel at this news. We don’t know what became of your people after the Dark Gods built the wall. How is your family?”

“Such news can wait for a calmer time, Your Majesty. But what others are you referring to?”

“You mean to tell me you haven’t received outside communication in all these years?”

‘Outside of where? The energy-barrier?’ I was about to ask that but I seem to have made a strong first impression on these people with my family name. I need to maintain that image. They seem amiable but my instincts tell me never to trust a feline of which lions, as I vaguely remember reading, are one. Speaking of feline, I turn to see the Count climbing down the tree. The chief lioness-warrior has her eyes fixed on him as he descends. She stands akimbo and waits until Count Dracula gains the ground.

“Count, a word,” I say. The lioness knows to leave me alone. She takes her own time to walk away, though.

“Alia, we’re late as it is. I thought we had an agreement. Let me speak to the King.”

I jerk my head at Alia the chief lioness and back at Dracula. It feels like I’ve stepped into a parallel timeline after an entire conversation has concluded. “What?”

“You told she feral. That was word you use. You said she crazy, Mad Matriarch greedy for power, has to be put down for safety and long-term security of Animaloid races on Earth. Nothing in latest correspondence substantial. I see her.” She flicks a paw at me. “She courteous. Insanity and common courtesy no mix, Count Dracula. Her aura pure. You explain to Lykan Matriarch.” She curses in her native tongue and walks to the king whose mane bends in the dry breeze. They and a small group of leonine people I take to be their shamans based on their ritualistic clothing discuss among themselves.

I channel my anger on the Count who seems not at all disturbed at the soup he is in. “What is going on here?” He stares back at me so calmly I can’t help but feel a shiver rush up my spine.

“The barrier,” he says and leans against the tree. If the sun made his features look curious, the shade brought shadows to jagged cheekbones and eyebrow arches; Dracula hasn’t altered form. “Or should I say over it.”

“I’m not standing here for an autograph, Count.”

He doesn’t give his customary glance-at-the-floor-then-up-again look. He knows he is cornered just as I know that I am shedding restraint. “After the lykans and vampires struck deals with the Dark Gods, the barrier went up but not before the Earth’s climate and geography shifted a notch. In that time your parents happened to be close to the African shore and came to meet the Leons. They told them of the pact and that the gods are deliberating. Wolvaar returned and demanded an audience, your parents sailed back to Luposia. The barrier went up a day later. Things were different a hundred years ago. Underground fuel reserves were spread unevenly. North America, Northern Africa and parts of the Philippines had a large stock of oil and when the barrier went up these reserves shifted. The only other location where a fuel pool became concentrated was under Fangtasia. We discovered it and, yes, kept it secret from our Luposian governors.” His breathes deeply and fiddles with a leaf. “This gave us the opportunity to test space probes. We know the energy-barrier went deep underground and that any chance at digging will raise suspicion. I didn’t realize that other nations were experimenting with the same ideas. The first time I found inspiration to build a probe and send it over the wall was when a probe from the former United States fell on Fangtasian soil. Strangers from an ocean away had made the first move with the express intention of sending their message to the central regions of Luposia where they will have gained the most attention. It is only logical that cities be clustered nearer the centre of continents after the wall went up; who would have wanted to live too close to the barrier anyway. A smart decision on the part of the Americans, but with Fangtasia enjoying a central position in Luposia, strategically surrounded by lykans, we received the probe intended for you. Using thermal camo-blankets we kept it hidden until it cooled off and we could better access it without your interfering.”

I grow worried. The Count continues.

“The American message had the other Fangtasian authorities and myself in discussion for a few months. The top of the barrier ended at the Ionosphere. As you know the sky has seven layers, ending at the Magnetosphere which marks airless space. The wall stopped at the Ionosphere and produced a powerful vacuum-core field that stretched all the way to the Magnetosphere. If we could apply enough thrust to our probes to reach that pull-zone, it would do the rest. Theoretically, the magnetic effect would drag the metal probe in. When it touched the vacuum-core it would be repelled to the other side. Up and over the wall. After it lowered into the Ionosphere again, guidance systems kicked in and the probe headed to pre-set latitude-longitude codes. It could have landed anywhere in central Luposia but fate sent it our way, Matriarch. You can understand why we kept it secret.”

“Inexcusable.” I don’t realize that I have gritted my fangs.

“The North American peoples introduced themselves in the note. Their transformation has made them bear-human hybrids, including polar bears from the colder northern zones from beyond old-world Canada and Alaska. Collectively, they called themselves the Kodiaks. To send a message back the way it came, using the very knowledge detailed in the original communication, we used the forests outside Fangtasia. Relying on sound-proof shielding, we fuelled the same probe and sent it back. The Kodiaks had given us step-by-step directions on how to perform this along with coordinates that would return the probe to takeoff point when it arrived within range of their systems. You can say that over the past few decades the bears and vampires shared quite the correspondence. We had to use illusory tricks each time we shot a probe up along the energy-barrier, to discourage wolf curiosity.” Is that a smirk on his face? “Soon we were able to build our own probes to send in strictest secrecy to other regions. All the while, we adhered to key moments when the lykans won’t be alerted to our activities. Even before the barrier came down, the Leons and I became acquaintances. Similarly we befriended the Sirens in the former Philippine island chains, the Tiger-people, Peacock-priests and Rhesus-races of India came next – the only place we know to have a triple Animaloid balance inside one energy-barrier. And we are yet to receive word from the former lands of Australia; I have a feeling it’s barren now, but you never know. The South Americans, according to the Kodiaks, have completely closed their borders even though their zone held both continents inside one large energy-barrier. They mentioned in their message how they explored anyway and found Anaconda people, Jaguar blood-medics and, if the bears can be believed, two more Animaloids that could well lead South America to beat India’s triple status.”

“As fascinating as all this is, and as repulsive as you keeping it all under wraps, where are you going with this information?”

“Oh, I almost failed to mention. I told them about your hunger for power and the callous nature of lykans who don’t even cry for their dead, and feast on raw meat and blood like the barbarians you are. Armed with battle prowess and magic, you desire to take over all races, which is a fact I myself firmly believe.” Julius and Olaf move to accost him but I give them the curt command to step back several paces. To insult a Matriarch is to sully the pack itself, but they obey. “I therefore spent the lesser part of the last hundred years preparing any Animaloids outside the barrier to wage war against Luposia when the time comes. In essence, I talked you down. The bears have already set sail in keeping with the plan, the sirens will swim over and await them and the tigers will move in from the south and take the mountain paths into Fangtasia. Why am I telling you all this? Because you have already lost.”

I am fuming. If I am left standing another moment, I’ll move to strike Dracula down with bare fists. I dither until I have all the information I need to fuel my inner will and unleash the full feral fury of the wolf within. Emotion matters when it comes to magic.

“You see, Ambrosia, I have lied but I have also been living a lie the past one hundred years.” He turns to face me. I bristle at the sight of him. How can he remain so casual? Does he think the pack would break so easily? “I am…” I feel his hesitation, his distinct desire not to say something. It lasts but a second though not fast enough to escape a Drugozolv. “…powerful. Just like you are the only one to show magic so early, I am the only vampire who can perform it in my turned state.”

“And you didn’t use magic before? You had ample opportunity, sufficient reason to.” I wish to curtail this conversation. If what he says about these other races is true, my pack is in danger starting with the townships, cities, villages and tribes in the coastal regions of Luposia; unlike what the count said, we were not afraid to build near the barrier. I have to get back to my people. However, the head of the snake that has injected my life with such misfortune sways only a few feet before me.

“My plans will have been wasted if I prematurely showed that I could use magic. Your parents, for one, will not have taken it lightly. I will have been specially imprisoned for the rest of my days.”

“I sense a lie in you, Wallach Dracula Vladimiste, disgraced head of the House of Drăculești.” My paws light up with magic, a growl leaves my throat. The fur along my back bristles on end and my wings spread. The Leons and Behemians see me. They don’t think I am the enemy and they don’t like Dracula as much as he wants them to.

“Nice to know I fooled you this far.”

“It not your skill at persuasion it’s more my talent at reception; and I failed to see the truth.”

“Everything else I said is true, as I’m sure you realize. Your magic is of no use against me unless I pretend it hurts.”

“I’d like to test that notion myself.” The wind seems to stop when before it lifted palls of dust and swept it toward the open sea.

“My dear Matriarch, don’t let overconfidence run away with you. You cannot harm a god.”

“What?” I hissed. “You dare compare yourself to the divine.”

“As the oldest of all transformed species throughout history, the Dark Gods offered the vampires a choice after the War of Conversion. The covert meeting had to be attended by one vampire chosen by his own people. I personally met with Wolvaar and he offered me one wish, with all the usual strictures of course. I chose to become like them. Seeing value in my vampiric soul – a transformed soul is pricier than a human one – his fellow gods and he agreed. They own my soul but I am now an eternal being, a Dark God after their own image.”

He transforms before my very eyes. I can’t believe this is happening. I have so many questions left. I search for weaknesses to exploit. He exudes a forceful aura while changing. Wings shoot out of his back, leathery, unusually long and with ridged extensions along the outer edges. He grows taller until he towers over me, like one of the trees. The sound of tearing fabric accompanies the shift. Even the fibres of his clothes seem to rip and re-weave as they attain a golden hue with jagged black designs. Horns protrude from his head and curve repeatedly like a ram’s. His fangs and other vampiric attributes are the only familiar things about him. His physique is enormously powerful. When next he speaks, it sounds like the ground would drop with each syllable.

“You see, Matriarch. Of this, I didn’t lie. I was granted the gift by none other than the chief of the Dark Gods, Wolvaar the wolf deity himself. The other gods are satisfied with getting my soul but Wolvaar is greedy. He wants more. He asks that I bring you to him so he can personally transform you into a Dark Goddess. He specifically said your name and that was about ninety years before you were even conceived.”

“You’re telling me,” I take deep breaths or I’ll not have been able to form the words, “that my own parents lied to me?”

“That and the fact that I was allowed to kill them so your powers could be fuelled by inner darkness as you sought vengeance. Your parents weren’t taken out by a bunch of humans. A small group of them helped break through the castle defences but no way could they hope to stand against the power of the mighty Alexandrovich Drugozolv let alone the late Matriarch Viktoria Drugozolv. Only a Dark God could have killed them. I take full credit for it, of course.” His voice is intimidating. It takes everything I have to collect myself.

“So Wolvaar, the most holy dark deity of the lykans acquiesced to your wishes and didn’t even bother to come to me with his request. He lent you the gift of dark godhood while I buried tons of grief for the loss of my family who died because they refused to let me in on this secret. So you killed them before they could prepare me. You did it so you will still hold favour in the eyes of the gods. Was taking me aside and informing me of all this so hard, Count Dracula? Why were you so frikkin’ hasty? I will say this. I think all this god dealing business is a bunch of horse manure. You made a deal with the wrong kind of devil, and you lost your sanity because of it. As for your new look,” I give him the once over, “it’s small recompense for the loss of a mind. When you ‘talked me down’ to the other Animaloids as the Mad Matriarch, I think you were subtly hinting at your own loss of sense.”

“I will hear no more of this insolence!” His voice is like thunder, but I stand my ground. Something more than bravery roots me to the spot. “I will destroy your body, Ambrosia Drugozolv, after which I shall trap and transport your soul to the Black Hall where you will serve as Wolvaar’s wishes. My duty will be done and I can wash my hands of you and your lykan filth forever more and take my place among the pantheon of gods for all that I have gone through on their behalf. And you will refer to me as Atma Dracula. I am technically a god.”

I clench my jaw and look at him. The other Animaloids are wary. They want to give him their allegiance because he is powerful. But going against the second-born Animaloid race, the lykans, is not a risk-free option. After all, Wolvaar is chief and even he wants my soul. While they dally I can’t help but scoff at Dracula and pour all the scorn I have into that sound. “You disgust me, blood-wraith. Technically a god, huh? I will discuss technicalities with your corpse.”

He takes to the air, and the trees bend to one side when he exits over the canopy. I see Julius go to the lions. He heads straight for the lioness and the great-maned king. The diplomat in him has already got to work. Olaf produces a bow that he had slung across his back and empties his quiver at Dracula whose body deflects it like he is made of hard metal. I take to the air and follow the monster.

Using my magic I try to get past his artful skill at deflection and evasion as we fight our way towards the Mediterranean. We are both flying to Luposia. Come what may, this battle just got even more personal than when Dracula’s very existence threatened my pack and when he terminated my family to butter his power-play and make things easier. I am a fool not to have listened to my instincts. I kept him close because I knew he was upto no good. A slight push against those sentiments and I’d have attained revelation. My negligence will not kill me today, but inaction will.

I shoot another energy-ball at Dracula and watch as he soars dangerously fast over the deep blue sea. He fires magic back at me but it is weak from lack of practice. Perhaps his powers will grow in time with his new form; I won’t wait to find out. I tail him, sheer rage beating in my heart.

 

 

 

23

Meanwhile, this is what happened back in Africa with Julius and Olaf…

 

“We weren’t born yesterday,” says the king of the lion-people as he sees what Dracula has become. “A Dark God. What were the real Dark Gods thinking when they gave him this blessing? No mortal can understand their edicts, even the old and purportedly wise Dracula. His dealing with us was honest but not honest enough. You are correct, Duke Vourdal,” he says as he turns to Julius. “Your queen, Ambrosia Drugozolv, has our full allegiance.”

Alia, the lioness-chief and consort to the king walks forward. “Shall prepare vessels? We miss Dracula’s agenda but I not miss battle across Unknown Sea.”

“My bride is correct. Prepare the Plates!” The king’s order is so loud Julius’s ears cringe because he is stood so close when the order is given.

“I’m afraid I will need some explanation as to these plates.”

“Forget explanations, Julius,” interrupts Olaf Hiradhya as he comes to where they are, his werewolf form rigid in the presence of unknown company. He is usually the calm one, thinks Julius when he notices it. “Why explain when you can see?”

The elephant-people or Behemians, as Julius learned they are called, help the Leons pull huge wheeled vehicles toward the sea.

“Um,” Julius begins.

“Not carts,” says Alia, “Plates inside.”

The duke didn’t miss a roll of the eyes as she walks away to organize things. Olaf is already off to see what these plates are about. He feels uncomfortable paying this much attention to a man he doesn’t care much for until he saw Ambrosia getting a little too comfy in his company. Get your head in the game, Julius, he scolds himself. There is a time for fighting and a time for politics. Your Matriarch needs you now. He fast-walks toward one of the immense carts.

“We only can test devices in lakes, and we not have lakes too long each season, shorter in summer,” Alia explains as she led Julius to the closest cart.

“How do they work exactly?” he asks, keeping calm despite the urgency beating inside his chest.

“See. They placing in water. We use basic pole and sail. Leons row forward. It build momentum, water pass through slit along front of plate.” She went on to explain the process piecemeal as Julius committed it to memory. Inside the 5-inch thick plate, which can accommodate about twenty people on its 10-foot square surface, a mechanism uses the inflow of water from the front slit and pressures it along fine channels until it exits the back of each plate. This creates a rush, much like sucking water out of a pipe. The pressure evens out and that’s when they take down the sails and put away the rudders. After that, a mere tilt in the required direction is all the plates need to sail at a steady fifty miles per hour.

“Amazing,” says Julius when she finishes. “We can use such speed right about now.”

“You hasty, for politician,” Alia looks askance at him from behind her helm, her yellow eyes agleam.

“And you are curt for a lioness chief.”

“I candid, not curt.”

“Touché.”

“You me ride on same plate,” she says and Julius turns to nod only to find that she meant Olaf Hiradhya who walks purposefully toward one of the plates and hops on; his hocked wolf legs make the move seem easy.

“And what should I do?” demands Julius.

“You go with King,” Alia points him to where a plate is set and waiting with the king of the Leons making his way toward it while giving his shamans orders to carry out in his absence.

Before long, an armada of sails and splashes indicate rowing as the Plates manoeuvre wave after wave in their first field run on actual seawater. The king’s plate is one of the last to reach deep waters. Julius converses with him on several points. They are both immersed in the futures of their countries. Julius turns to look around and he can no longer spot Alia’s vessel and the Halvatian lykan who is becoming inconvenient in his eyes.

He feels the Plates pick up speed, using the momentum of the water as dictated by their internal components and design. The pressure evens out and the Plates go faster and faster until they attain fifty miles per hour. If it took Julius, Olaf, and Ambrosia as long as it did to get here by plane it is going to be a few hours before the duke will see his homeland again.

But a lot can happen in a few hours, let alone what might already have befallen his Matriarch. She is in a realm of freedom, the sky, where her flying and magic skills excel. But with Dracula also there, she is well and truly in danger. The sky has no solids for Ambrosia to hide behind.

 

 

 

24

“You’re gonna have to land sometime, Count!”

“I can say the same for you, milady!”

“Even your Dark powers will not best me in this, you dishonourable vampire!”

“Taunting will get you nowhere, Ambrosia.”

“I am Queen of my people and you…” I produce a whip of light and lash out, directing it up and then slamming it down. It meets Dracula’s back and sends him falling to the ocean. “…will address me as Matriarch!”

The air is rent with our adrenalized wing-flapping and magical attempts to take the other one out. Just a while back, I remember fighting him hand to hand and using moves I had only been taught and trained back home by mother, never against an actual opponent least of all a Dark God. Dracula does not deserve this so-called gift, he is cursed to the very core of his being just as us lykans are bitten to our cores with the blessing of werewolvery. There is no changing fate and yet what price or promise did Dracula offer to have earned such a divine gift? That he will bring my soul back to serve the whims of a god who doesn’t care for the lives he has jeopardized by choosing this demon to be his messenger?

My mind is a mess of thoughts, calculations, chains of logic, and more as I attempt to understand Dracula’s ambitions. Another part of me wants nothing better than to kill him and dispense with anything he may know that I do not. I refuse to linger on why I want him alive. Is it because he has answers, especially pertaining to how Wolvaar wants me for a Dark Goddess? Why me? Why now? Why all this drama to get to that fruit? It makes no sense. Someone is lying. What I find hard to accept is that even the gods can fib.

My whiplash sends Dracula plummeting to the sea. When he hits the water he does not resurface but goes a few feet under and starts to swim from there toward Luposian shores. We have made it to within viewing distance of the coastline. Between the mid-air fighting and escape manoeuvres, we couldn’t hope to get here as fast as the plane that brought me to the land of the Leons and Behemians; strange names, that’s what I’d said to Alia when she told me sometime before my talk with Dracula. As I dive and watch the waters come up to meet me I send a positive thought to Olaf and Julius and hope that they are being treated well.

I fold back my wings and cinch them tight. Much like flight, I am in a free realm where I can swim using lykan muscle and agility. It is comparatively slow going underwater and Dracula seems to have gained an unusual amount of speed. We are both using what skills we know to catch our breaths and regulate energy loss; this dictates every move we make to swim. I must admit Dracula is better at it than me. I have to resurface to get my bearings and fresh oxygen. I lose the Count more than a few times when I go back under and let my instinct help find bearings. I am starting to understand that he doesn’t want me dead. Maybe this is Wolvaar’s orders. Look at me think, a Dark God whom my people have worshipped for decades and I am here treating him like another piece in the game.

Answers will come, Ambrosia – daddy’s words – they will come to the one who does not force them to appear. I let go of control and follow Dracula whom I have finally caught up to. We are swimming deep and can’t have seen him from the air. The water is getting thicker and makes it difficult to see ahead. I use every ounce of my strength to reach him but he performs a swift fish-like turn and disappears.

I make it to shore and feel the sand rough beneath my paws. I leave the water, wet and watchful I notice movement in the distance and when I raise my nose up to the sky I catch a whiff of lykan. I run on all fours to the spot so I can rally a group together. I haven’t forgotten Dracula’s Animaloid allies who, for whatever rhyme or reason, are coming to assault Luposia. The wheels in my mind turn. Dracula will certainly have demanded they help him conquer my country while he, in his new role of Dark God, will grant them their heart’s desires; a liar through and through. I have to find a way to keep things from escalating.

Always find ways to stop a war, my dear; mom once said to me. When you cannot, then do not delay, prepare to fight. In this world, she had added, there is no such thing as passive resistance.

“The Matriarch!” The shouts are picked up until several lykans in human form recognize me and bow.

“No time for formalities. Get me to a general transponder. I need to relay a message to all of Luposia.” I have to do this now, even though I am late. I have to mobilize my forces and any lykan who is ready to face a full on war; most have already graduated in their tests and field skills in this regard. Now or never, just in case peace talks do not work with our foreign enemies who will most probably arrive ready to fight without giving us the benefit of the doubt. They have been nurtured by lies for several decades now; of that Dracula was not lying. I am so confused about him I cannot trust myself for the time being.

As soon as the system opens and I can type in the security digits that link me to my base in Moonhaven, I give them a gist of everything that happened since I left Luposia’s borders. They will have their own ways of writing a communiqué or broadcasting the news to every channel we can access. I am confident that within the next few hours Luposia will be prepping for defence. The Sirens coming in from the East, the Kodiaks from the west, the Trindians from the south-east.. We are, to all intents and purposes, surrounded until our scouts report otherwise. Caution is indeed the better part of valour.

I am in desperate need of clarity. Not knowing where else to go and even though I have lost all faith in the gods after what they have done granting Dracula such power, and – I can’t believe I’m even considering this – Wolvaar himself wanting me for a Dark Goddess, it all feels silly and pointless to me. If only I had sensed Dracula being mendacious about this fact. He was telling the stone-cold truth, for once in his miserable existence.

So I find myself climbing the grimy stairs into a small chapel in this lykan village I have chased Dracula to; the village of Ofra is silent as a grave. I need information and the assurance that all lykans are ready to defend the homeland against the new threat. I can’t catch sleep, lose my appetite too, and desire the touch of the familiar. Still getting used to despising a deity I revered, I take a seat at the front-most pew and stare at the statue of Wolvaar the Lykan God. For the first time in my life, I feel I am staring at a stranger.

 

 

 

25

“Why, Wolvaar, why are you doing this? You are a god and your people look up to you. Why grant Dracula such power? He is thwarting our peace with it. It has given him inspiration to conquer and usher in an age of decay out of which only he will come out the victor. Is it truly victory when one being lives while a billion die? Did you do this to strengthen us so we can evolve to fight him and all that he stands for? Or is it merely that you changed your mind and favour another purpose?”

“Since when have the gods ever answered the questions of mortals, Ambrosia Drugozolv?” I admit I am surprised. I feel a core thread of fear course through me and set me on the verge of panic. The deep but clear voice shivers my soul but I force myself to respond calmly to it. I never felt this way before, the way I could so easily feel pressured and light at the same time. “We ask questions, never answer them. Our ways are beyond your comprehension.” Wolvaar’s voice trembles through the chapel. My mind screams the truth to me. I don’t feel the need to second guess. I know I am in the company of a Dark God and yet I also know that I have to pretend serenity in order to gain enough of it, if only to ask the ultimate deity of the lykans ‘why?’

“And what about our ways? The ways of the people you and the other gods created. How can you tolerate calling Dracula one of your own at the expense of our future?”

“One of our own? He is a vampire and in due time will die as all vampires do. He can never be one of us even though he displays our power for the time being.”

I sense myself grow plaintive. “But why, Wolvaar?”

“Why not?”

Even though I am the Matriarch and have been trained to think otherwise, I feel I am being teased. “Then what is all this for?” I demand, standing up, my arms shooting wide. “Why make us? What is our purpose? Why am I royalty while another lykan works in the bakery downtown? Will things be the same if I were born the baker, and the baker a queen? An unfair balance, if you ask me. What is the point of it all, Wolvaar? Were not the humans a hundred years ago bestowed with a promise and dreams of future greatness in the eyes of their gods? Why taint that by making us Animaloids? We are at war so often that we do not care to think of peace as a reality but a fable. Even now we face another threat on our doorstep.”

The Lykan God tsk-tsks; he sounds like a snake of Ouroboros proportions. “Poor child, you are of the same opinion all higher-order intelligent beings are. And still with the questions… There IS no purpose!” He roars and the walls crack from the strain. “How can you sit there assuming that just because you live and made it to the top of the food chain that you should automatically reap all the benefits, imaginary at that. There is a simple truth to the Universe, Drugozolv, listen. Nothing matters. There is no grand plan or purpose for the humans let alone the Animaloids that the varied human races have become. You exist, how do I put this…simply because you CAN. We made you simply because we COULD. Life for Life’s sake, Death for its own. Creation flows on, never stopping, never slowing. We make and make in a limitless universe and amuse ourselves as gods knowing that we can create limitations in each universe, little pockets of order in an ocean of chaos. But I am telling you so little of what I truly mean.

“You are no one to judge us. We made you, we have ways to know what you are going to think even before you think it. What a being thinks, it does. Here you stand expecting the gods to bend a knee and serve your every pleasure when in fact it is you, worms that you are, who should willingly leap into the broth and sacrifice your lives for the nourishment of your creators. What is life? What is death? It is all energy. You die, you become something else. A mountain crumbles and it becomes part of something else, changing its purpose and the way living things can manoeuvre it. Change is Creation, Creation is Change.

“For all your skill, Ambrosia, you ask me why why WHY, Wolvaar, why do it at all? We made you and left you as you are. How you used your freedom is not our burden to bear. You see the world and how unfair it is, how cruel and dangerous, and you look at the gods like we are to blame. Never! You are the created, and you in turn go on to create. If you forge a world filled with misery, where the rich get richer, the poor attain new lows, and injustice is the law, don’t you dare come whingeing to us even if it is to ask for help. We are in so many places, we have so many things to do. Your prayers are but chirps that we deign to listen to when we are free to sit and dream.

“To you higher-order life-forms, we are gods. Among ourselves, we do not see it that way. There are thousands of us, if not more, spread across galaxies and universes. What we are is merely powerful entities that something else made simply because THEY could. Given our higher reasoning, we understood these things early and taught it to future generations. We, however, do not call our creators gods. They demand things of us that we meekly provide, and they leave us be to add to the energy vortexes of the universal flow.

“Nothing matters, Ambrosia, from killing to kindness, loss to victory. They are all notes in the timeline, records, streams, all existing because they CAN exist, all for the sake of existence. We wanted a higher-order life-from worthy of representing her people, all Animaloids on Earth in fact, to come have a seat at the Divine Table. If you do not want the post, so what, we don’t particularly care. Dracula is a means to an end. He is a way for us to get to you.

“Asking you directly, Ambrosia, will not have worked. Remember, we know how you think. It is all part of the game, the ebbs and flows of the tide. Stay calm, Ambrosia, this too shall pass, because this moment too will change and become an entirely different thing. One day, your solar system will fail and take the planets reliant on its energy to a starry grave. Once life is in the interim section, there will sadly be no record of all the things accomplished by Humans or Animaloids but for the notes in the gods’ own records. Your lifestyles are insignificant, selfish, slow, and degrading more then evolving. Don’t get me wrong, they will make for amusing storytelling shared before a cosy hearth, but nothing grand enough to be sung in halls of scholarship and history. Because…?”

“Nothing truly matters,” I say as I stare at the floor and give in to misery. I sit down hard. I am even sadder knowing that my misery does not really matter. Strangely, I feel relieved knowing this. In so knowing I also feel disgusted.

“On another note,” continues the Dark God, not offering me reprieve. Even though I can only see him at the corners of my vision it feels like I see all of him. The ebony of his form, the fine bristles of his fur. The inherent growl in his tone has an image all its own. Those eyes, as red as fresh fire. He is more Lykan than most lykans, a true god of the pack. But his heart is darkness itself. He values power more than the pack. “Haven’t you ever wondered how higher-order life-forms have accomplished what they have despite earthly limitations? Is it not written that we made you in our image?”

“You are not the god I serve. The one my people worship is kind and loving, fighting for the future of we who are his children. You seem to care a hood what happens to us.”

Wolvaar makes a non-committal sound. “You could be right. You could be wrong. But we too were once on Earth, my child. We were trapped in corporeal prisons just like you and every other being on this planet. Some of us evolved to the dark side and others to the light. These are the beings you term gods. We were all human once and before that, beasts. Couldn’t you assume that the gods might have transported themselves into this prison world just to prove something, if not to anyone else at least to themselves? Your magic, for instance Ambrosia, is too powerful for earthly use. We who were once human now made divine need your aid elsewhere in the universe. The Beings of Light may even pay you a visit and will ask the same of you. But remember, child, who even though silent was here to keep an eye on the planet we once called home. Us, the Dark Gods. Me, Wolvaar, the Lykan God in whose image you are woven. Your evolution is coming, Ambrosia, whether you like it or not. Dracula is too far behind in this regard, but the fool served his purpose. You want him gone and the lykans free of the vampire menace? You wish your people to shrug off war and live in peace for all the days of their lives? That future rests in the decision you make today. How fitting that you get to ponder this on sacred ground. Call on me when you have assimilated all that I have said. Know yourself, Ambrosia Drugozolv, and you will have known the universe and the gods.”

I take a while before replying. I think I have fallen into a time void where an eternity rushes by so fast that it takes only a minute to speed along. “Then what of the humans that have apparently been in hiding all these decades? They want the world returned to its previous setting by ridding everyone who has the Animaloid gene. I am more than willing to risk anything, even my pack, dare I say it, if we can return to a human state. But if we are to die so they can live, where is justice? Whatever happened to evolution and going forward if we are merely to go back? Dracula even has it that the humans are infected anyway, doomed to transform as several millions of them did during the Conversion War due to magical corruption.”

“For all your intellect, Ambrosia, you are coming across as imbecilic. Pay attention. There are no humans left. Your whole species should have gone extinct but for what the Dark Gods and I decided. Returning you to a baser genetic code ensured stability and durability in a future filled with uncertainty. Your human genome after all is extraterrestrial; you are stardust and god-code added from other dimensions and seeded on Earth. The only way to ensure your survival in the changing climate and geo-structure was to transform you.”

“And the only way to do that was to make us lose ourselves in war, the War of Conversion, so it would all look like our idea and the gods could conveniently stay out of the picture, as usual, and claim indifference to human progress.”

“Your tone is disapproving. Doesn’t matter. We have rules, codes, and laws, things you will not understand but can vaguely appreciate seeing as how they are crucial to maintaining order even in your simple society. You can revert to human when you choose and turn back into the Animaloid forms gifted you. The vampires possess a balance of snake and feline genes, but their transformation does not show it as fully as yours and others’; a few deviations from the norm. This is your existence now. No longer can you be fully human.”

“You haven’t answered my question. We do have humans. They came forward and revealed themselves, allying with us against the vampires who have been using them in secret for years and years. Assassinations ring a bell? They used to consider us the enemy. If, as I am assuming, they are not doomed to transform eventually then they must already be transformed. Who are they, really, if not human?”

He takes a while before he answers. For a second I think he is going to ignore me. “The last time we saw them was when they came to help with a war at Jericho; ‘biblical’ times. There were so few of them then. Able to manipulate the very workings of sound itself they could wield different tones, from beauty to atrocity. The Sirens are a special species indeed, second oldest after the vampires. Lykans come in third. We had to make the sun stand still a while longer to maintain the gravitational influence needed for their song to vibrate through the walls of Jericho and bring it crashing down; it is a bit too complex to explain. The sun stoppage is what led to the leap year coming into your calendars. Anyway, the Sirens are not for the Lykan cause and have been working with Dracula to create an elaborate act. They remained in their human form to sow confusion while their people are spread where needed to deliver a sonic surprise in due time. Just before the energy-barrier went up, a few sirens who were only just starting to transform – the magical corruption, you understand – made it past the borders of Luposia and were trapped within. Dracula eventually found and integrated them into his schemes. There are no more humans, Ambrosia Drugozolv, none for nearly a hundred years and counting.”

He sounds unusually soft. I feel as though I knew him all my life when in reality this god is more alien to me than anything else. I turn to see him sitting beside me on the pew, staring down at me from his lofty form, tall and muscled, so perfect in ways I cannot describe.

“We tried to change things back to the way they were, to give your species time to evolve. Fate, however, grips us all. It forced you onto the same path the Dark Gods were on before we chose forms to evolve into and leave the Earth-plane altogether. Life is a journey, Ambrosia. They weren’t joking about that. We are ever travelling, ever moving, backwards and forwards, never stopping. We left the Earth-plane but we come back to visit when we can. Perhaps someday we will leave elsewhere like other gods have done before us. You too will follow in these galactic footsteps. You, Ambrosia, will have to sooner than most. We need your soul to help take us to the next level. Forget the worries of the world, it will never end, not here not anywhere. All life is war. Only death brings peace. Stop searching for virtues in all the wrong places. Come now and become a Dark Goddess and I will put an end to the troubles that Dracula has brought to your shores. I cannot guarantee peace for your people but I will assure you of the continuity of the Drugozolv royal line and the well-being of the Lykan pack. They will be safe and free. What they do with that freedom is entirely up to them. Come to me when you are ready, Matriarch.”

He disappears right before my eyes. It is as if I have been talking to the air.

 

 

26

I stare at the tiny forms in the distance. Wolves come from the same direction my scouts reported seeing the Kodiaks arrive. Hailing from the American North, the bear-people seem to have arrived already to join a wrongful war against my pack and country. I see more lykans fast-walking toward me. The nearest ones have answered the call. My regional heads made good on my communiqué. Taking the side-winding path that leads up a small slope and around a hill, the beginnings of an army are in full wolf form. In keeping with the urgency of my broadcast they run across whatever terrain they can to arrive at the village where I told them I will be waiting.

To my left stretches the coast and to my right a carpet of fields dotted by tilled patches where wild crops proved to grow better, united in the company of other strange wild things. Agricultural quirks are not unheard of in Luposia where magic and science have long since intermingled and created new laws. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the Animaloids are going war. The gods ‘saved’ us from humanity by making us Animaloids. We get to enjoy our former selves, namely human, for a while until duty, ritual, and circumstance calls for us to put on the mantle of the beast within. What, I worry, will these gods – whom I have lost all trust in, especially Wolvaar – turn us into if we are at each other’s throats yet again? There will be nothing left of us this time to save, mere ashes dispersed by the morning wind.

I didn’t fail to include the idea into the message I broadcasted to my people and in the handwritten letters I had ready to send to the foreigners. The field of wild crops inspired me. Our sustenance grows among plants that were there by nature, some inedible and others plain poisonous. Perhaps this is the balance my mother insisted on upholding. Like wild crops growing among wild unknowns, I need to reach out to the foreigners so we can grow together or burn as one. I dispatch the letters via scouts who volunteered from among the village folk. I see them head off in the last reported directions of the Kodiaks and Sirens, east and west.

I also sent a letter to our new allies, the Leons and Behemians, whom I still do not know can be trusted. They juggled allegiances too easily; first they were for Dracula and now they are for me, their emotions having altered as quickly as their forms. I recalled what Dracula told me about there being more Animaloids out there. They, like the Trindians whose paths are too circuitous, will not be here in time to join the fight. Dracula could only reach out and offer false promises to the ones closest to the continent of Luposia. His wisdom could have helped us grow stronger but Vlad chose instead to use his great abilities to divide us further. He has kept at it for such a long time that it has probably become more habit than ambition.

I do not even notice being in lykan form. My fur is wet and some sand still clings to it, but I don’t care to wash up, not even planning to turn human to do it. Our enemies can be on us at any moment and I will be needed on the frontlines. I will not be caught dead in a bath for want of a little cleaning. Scout reports are slow in coming back. I have to assume the worst. Two small groups of werewolves reach Ofra from opposite sides of the coastline hugging the former Mediterranean. We grew up calling it the Lonely Waters and the new name, or rather the old one, sounds strange to the ear. I fly, my wings still reliable. Magic illumines my fists and sheds a distinct light on the senses of my people who are spread in semi-darkness. Night comes upon us as silently as this war.

“My fellow Lykans! Lend me your ears, your Matriarch speaks!” My shout sweeps across them. They stand firm, facing me. “I know you are pumped to aid me in battle. No foe can dare step into our den, onto our lands, and threaten our futures. But listen to me. By this time, all of us know of Dracula’s machinations. Trust me when I say he has had plenty of time to craft them. Just as we were unaware of his treachery so too are we in the dark about these new people come to our shores. Are they truly enemies here to get rid of us and earn the vampire-lord’s false promises? We are also unaware of a potential ‘other side’ to this coin. They could have arrived seeking friendship, and a desire to know more about other Animaloids, something the energy-barrier that caged us didn’t permit. Prepare your hearts for war but keep your spirits open to peace. I will defend the lykan pack and creed, our honour as a race and our right as survivors, with my own dying breath if need be!” I can’t keep my hand from forming fists and thumping against my chest with the anger coursing through me at what Dracula did to bring us to such dangerous waters. “But I shall first and forever more seek peace. And in the total absence of it, I shall pick up the Drugozolv sword and lead you to war!”

By this time the villagers too have gathered to listen, their able-bodied conscripted into the ranks that have arrived from other locales. They cheer, howl, roar, and clap before they disperse to gather resources and set up camp. None of them say it out loud, but I know as I alight and enter the comms tent that they keep one ear open in case things go wrong and I am forced to give the command to meet the enemy head on.

Once I am back inside the tent I feel this intense relief. There are no hope-filled eyes on me, no implicit trust from hundreds of hearts willing to run with me into battle, and no blind faith from a nation of werewolves who look to me and refrain from questioning my decisions. It is a pleasant feeling to be away from such deep conviction. I have faced pressure before as princess, more so now that I am Matriarch, but so many actions led to me being where I am. I turned twenty-two only a while back and yet it feels like several years have elapsed since.

I feel older than my years and not above making mistakes, only my errors will cost the pack. I don’t remember the last time I even saw myself in the mirror. I feel so many things inside me that I am afraid I will see another lykan looking back at me from the glass, equally astounded at the stranger staring back. What time is it? It is nearly ten at night. I have travelled to a country and back and have yet to find a moment’s peace. Julius and Olaf must be heading here still with the Leons; they must have some kind of transport ready like we did the plane else they’d have said something. I hope they are alright and that the Leons and Behemians didn’t change their minds about us.

I drop into the chair before the communications array. No sooner have I done that than I spot something poking out from under the tent flap. It is a gorgeous white flower that adorns my castle on special days. It is my family’s official flower, selected by mother who travelled here and chose it for its resilience, beauty, and magical properties. Before long, it came to symbolize the House of Drugozolv. This region is home to the Kaali, which loosely translated means ‘Unconquered Lily’. In addition to several potent properties used in lykan medicine and magic, the Kaali is so distinctly white nothing we knew rivalled its pearlescence.

“My people are always on the cusp of war, threats they should never have had to face, and you have the audacity to show yourself, you the cause of it all.” I speak to the shadow in the tent. “After all that you have done against my people, I am of a mind to murder you and be fully justified in doing so. This time, I must kill you as only I can.”

Vlad Dracula walks into the dim light. We both look exhausted but his appearance is downright terrible. “You have spoken with Wolvaar?” I expected this conversation but didn’t anticipate here and now. Hearing the genial tone in the blood-wraith’s voice makes me nauseous. “Then you know?”

“He had a lot to say, I’ll give him that, but none of it was hopeful. I don’t believe I can ever trust that god again. I lost my faith in immortals but my belief in the pack is unwavering.”

“I am not here to exchange such words with you. I am here to set things straight, if you are willing to listen.”

I take a while to deliberate. This liar has said enough already. I tolerated his words, believing them to be wisdom. So much of what he said rang true; the barrier coming down, life outside Luposia. I am ashamed to say I trusted him but it was not to no avail. If I go on listening, it will be a waste of my time. How can I heed his words when I know I cannot believe a single syllable, true or false doesn’t matter. I keep silent, my hands form fists. I glance at the Kaali in the corner and draw on its resilience. I hold firm, waiting.

“Things are heating up. The Dark God Wolvaar is not pleased. Before you say anything to retort – and I know you have every right to say it, Ambrosia – listen first. You do not know the half of it. Of so many things, you are still ignorant.”

“You’re losing your charm, Dracula,” I stretch out the words. “I fear this new straightforwardness will not get you the tolerance you might be expecting.”

“You do not know who you are, Matriarch Drugozolv. Your parents did, though of course your siblings were too young to learn the same…” I have a short sword at his neck and my lykan claws dig into his chest. I feel his flesh sliming under my paws and his blood, cool almost cold, like something stored in ice. He is genuinely surprised that I can move so fast in such a small space.

“How dare you speak of them? You killed them!” I keep my voice as low as I can while driving the point home. “You murder my family and stand here talking about them like it was someone else’s deed. Before me, the last Drugozolv!”

He winces slightly at the pain as blood stains the front of his shirt. “That is what I am trying to tell you, Matriarch. It was not I who killed them, it was the Dark God Wolvaar. He had me take the mantle of murderer because he knew you will be more willing to listen to someone like me, a vampire you have known for years as opposed to a god. He knew I couldn’t play to your sympathy, not in a thousand years, and so he asked that I play to your anger. Then, he said, you will open yourself to his attempts to convince you to come back with him while he sows peace for all Lykan-kind.”

“You play his messenger, he plays from afar, both of you complicate things instead of keeping them simple, you utterly confuse me and put lives in danger as you play games with no rules. By the way, Dracula, I thought you said you were a god yourself. Want to know what Wolvaar had to say about you and your so-called godhood?” I place scathing stress on the word. “Wolvaar wants me angry, does he? Interesting strategy. I have been his audience in the church nearby. He saw that his words fell on eager ears not deaf ones, he saw for himself that I am willing to listen. How can a Dark God assume I wouldn’t when it is in my nature to give even you the benefit of the doubt?”

“I did what I did for my own reasons but I swear unto you by the House of Drăculești that I did not lay a finger on your family.”

“Why are you telling me this now? You have brought war to my doorstep, repeatedly so, and you are confessing your sins in making it happen? Lies! That is all I hear.” The blade cuts into his neck just a bit, and my claws find a rib. He remains remarkably calm. If he thought compliance to my strength would earn him my trust the vampire is wrong. I want to make a national execution of this wraith, but he is disappointing me by opening himself to a somber passing.

“It is the will of the Dark God, Matriarch. Not all of us can stand up to him as easily as you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I sense hidden meaning, vampire! What do you gain from all this? What is it you covet from the Dark God? All this to take my throne! People died so you can enjoy a bit of power?!”

“I never coveted the Luposian throne or the power of the House of Drugozolv. All I want…” He stops.

“Spit it out, snake!”

“All I want is death.”

He blindsides me. I did not expect this. Is this another one of his distractions, one of his covert ploys? I wait, my blade lifts slightly away from his neck, and I replace my claws with a palm to hold him against the table.

“Only the Dark God can bestow the gift of death on me. I have lived for centuries even when human beings were top of the chain. I have lived almost a century more with Animaloids with whom I share a closer bond. But I have always sought death. My training and upbringing led me along corridors of power, conflict, and victory where I earned my repute. None of it means I yearn to live, none of it hints that I cherish life. My enemies cannot get rid of me because I am simply un-killable. I am more immortal than most. Vampires and lykans die after an unnaturally prolonged life or if a fatal blow is sent their way. None of it works for me. I have attempted suicides a thousand fold, but I woke up hale and healthy. I tried tricking people into killing me, but all they did was die instead. I watched that gift of peace go to everyone else but myself. I begged the Dark Gods for help and your own Wolvaar eventually came carrying an offer. I did not question him, not when I knew my chance to taste the freedom of death was so close.”

I turn the short sword and point it at his heart. “I call your bluff, Count Dracula.” His eyes encourage me to go for it but I do not want to give him the satisfaction. I am still angry at this beast. I plunge my sword into the open wounds on his chest. Blood splatters my face as I plunge a few more times. I stab his heart, I can feel the blade go in and out of that pitiable organ. He leans like a manikin and merely stares at a point between him and the top of the tent. It is uncanny to say the least. I have heard tougher beings, lykans themselves, scream in pain for far less.

“You are not dead or dying. How is this possible? You can’t have told the truth, not about this.”

“This has been my burden all these centuries, eternal life absolute. If by donning the mantle of divinity I can find a way to convince you to give up your soul willingly, I will be rewarded with death. So promised Wolvaar the Dark God. Why he wanted things done this way, it is not my place to question. I get what I want in this plan else I’d have been left to rot in this existence. Surely, you can see why I said yes, why I didn’t hesitate for one second nor stop to seek a catch.”

I see no blood dripping from his wounds. He is slightly shaken but fine. He has healed in the span of a few moments. “What did you mean when you said only I can stand up to Wolvaar? What did you say my parents knew? If death is what you sought all this time, disobey the gods why don’t you, they will rain a swift blow on your head. Why kill my family?”

“Your parents were tasked with telling you the truth but they refused. They broke the pact that stated as much in one of its clauses. ‘When the eldest comes of magical age, she shall be taught her true path’. They wanted a normal pack life for you, because the alternative was to lose you forever. They loved you too much to let you go. They took an oath between themselves to never let you know lest you be biased by the revelation, lest you choose to leave. Your choice to give in to Wolvaar’s wishes had to be absolutely voluntary after the reveal.”

“Did Wolvaar make them swear this oath?”

“You did, Ambrosia. But not as lykan flesh and blood.” He gulps. “You are the Supreme Dark Goddess who reincarnated herself in lykan form several years after the War of Conversion. Why you did it, only you can know. You did not even reveal your plans to your bonded consort, Wolvaar. It is this bond you share that made him take the indirect approach to bringing you back to him. He knew you will not listen if he asked you to return face to face; you’d have called him mad if he stated his reasons. When a soul, even one as powerful as yours, becomes mortal for a designated period of time, it has to forget the greater part of its memories or it will only succumb to insanity. You are the Supreme Dark Goddess Felanova Hinnalya Terthamma Devi, and you are known by several different names aside from that. You came down to enact a will that you are yet to remember; and the gods do not want you to fulfil that plan. I only did as Wolvaar commanded me. Answers can only be found with him, my Matriarch. Forgive me, but I cannot refuse the promise of death, to be free of all this. I am as close to madness as you will be if you continue along this path and refuse to obey the gods of whom you are one.”

I breathe deeply. I do not know where to begin. “Why do I not sense a lie, Dracula?” The words sound too girlish even to me. “You picked a fine time to be honest. I sense a lingering emptiness in you.” My tone waxes strong. “You will not go scot-free for the crimes you committed against my people. I am still the Lykan Matriarch and I have a duty to my pack before myself. You will serve your punishment and then you will die. I will then sit and figure this out.” Strange to see Dracula so contrite, on one knee and gaze lowered. “Wolvaar better realize that I will have words with him, directly. If all you said is true, you will end this threat of war once and for all. I will capture you now, Vlad Dracula, and show my people and the foreigners that you have lied, that you will no longer plague us. Give me any trouble and I will take you for a fraud, more than you already are, and yours will be a fate worse than death if you dare double-cross me now, Count. Remember I am deciding not for myself but for my pack. Do I make myself clear?”

“I am in your hands.”

“Don’t you think this is you betraying Wolvaar? Hope he stays his hand and grants me the honor of doing you in. Did he renege on his promise to grant you death, is that why you came to me? This all smells fishy, Vlad, I’m sure you know what I mean.”

“Dangerous times are coming, Ambrosia, and your destiny is to determine the very future of the Animaloids. That is why I brought the closest ones here, not to wage war against Luposia but to pay witness to your will as Supreme Dark Goddess. They are not here to fight. I couldn’t tell you the truth, which is where I went wrong. Wolvaar told me to take the indirect approach with you, he was explicit and insistent. I had to lie to get you as close to acceding to his wishes as I could. It was your mother Viktoria Drugozolv who said ‘Do not do anything before its time’.” He coughs, like the words bring up a memory that chokes him. “I was cornered by a superior will as I sought my final end. I am as confused in life as you are in this tent. Answers rest solely with Wolvaar, more than I can ever hope to share with you. I came to you because Wolvaar is taking too long, demanding me to procrastinate when I rather he tell you everything sooner. I understand that the ways of the gods are shrouded in mystery but I am too old to continue playing their games. I tried for this long but I can’t keep up. I need to die while I am still myself. I refuse to pass away after I have lost the last vestiges of my sanity. I will leave now to convey your message to him and tell him what I should have a long time ago. This is between the gods, you and he, and I wash my hands of any further involvement. When you come into your divinity, kindly grant me a faster death than your dark consort. I take your leave, Matriarch.”

“All well and good, but you seem to have misheard me, Dracula.” I move closer to the blood-wraith. “You are my prisoner, remember. The god you speak of probably already knows, he will soon enough. You will let me tie these ropes around your wrists and walk you through the streets. I will summon Wolvaar’s treacherous soul. For now my people need closure. They too mourn the loss of my family and several of their own. I refuse to tell them what you have told me. They need only see that a heinous murderer will finally be brought to justice. Do I make myself clear, Count? You want permanent death? I suggest you stay on the path I put you on where you will most certainly find it.”

I look at him for a while, waiting for him to make a move.

“And as for these foreign Animaloids you have brought to Luposia with your crafty lies, I will see to it that they are told the truth; just in case they really are here for war. We need allies in this day and age, Count. Friendship inspires peace. For all your cleverness, you thought that allying with a Dark God trumps anything your own people could have given you? You think I will have pleaded to the gods to bring an end to a war you started? Silly dreams aside, I can see Wolvaar pouncing on the opportunity to ask for my soul in exchange for peace. He said as much anyway. You forget how fickle the gods are but how loyal your own kin can be. Strength is not measured by the power someone holds but by how much power they are willing to give up so others can be strong. I am not ashamed to say that you, Count Dracula of the House of Drăculești, are the worst kind of fool. Because your stupidity has cost lives.”

I tug on the rope and guide the pathetic creature out into the bonfire-lit space to bring the lykans comfort in these troubling times.

 

 

 

 

27

The growls grow in cadence until they became a chant of repressed anger. Each lykan assembled in Ofra stares at Dracula like they want him to melt, slowly and painfully. He walks without being forced to; I hold fast to the rope around his wrists. He can break them anytime, he still has great powers both vampiric and divine, but he is compliant, willing. I will not believe a word he says anymore; I will consider them only in the full knowledge that they are devoid of meaning. His truths are evil and his lies, costly.

Word spreads. Lykans with some skill in camera handling come to record the moment for later disbursement as well as posterity. Drones take to the sky, controlled with analog transmitters. The footage will later be streamed via the comms array back in the tent; a picture speaks a thousand words. The drones cover all needed angles. It might have been the cameras or prolonged exposure to Dracula’s presence but the other lykans grow restless. Some throw fruits at him, others pebbles. A couple of lykans even spit on him as he passes by. He deserves far worse for what he put my pack through. He brought death to my people and many did indeed die, my family being the first casualties of his greed for death. As if they sense my pain, the lykans howl and shout, swear and curse, and move forward to grab Dracula.

It is clear to me that they want to exercise their own strain of justice and the mere sight of Dracula has inspired the selfish desire to land the killing blow on a foe who did the same to their kin. Wolf pack rules encourage swift action, so I am not unduly disappointed in their turn of mind. But I need Dracula alive for the time being not torn to shreds and his flesh devoured as a sign of wholesome victory over an enemy who was the cause for so much death and suffering. I am certain my pack will leave this one’s remains alone.

Some parts of Luposia are starving so there will be food to feed my armies. Other parts of the country mourn for the loss of sons and daughters who fell in recent fights. The rest of the nation is prepping for defence and using available resources to shore up their cities against a probable foreign invasion. The cause of it all walks behind me, not humbled but defeated by his own ambition to die. Unable to find quick satisfaction from the gods, he has come to me in the hopes that I will provide what he needs. His death will not be quick but it will be certain.

They close on him. I fly up and tug Dracula with me. He is not the least bit surprised, so deep in thought he seems to have filtered out the howls, roars, and humiliating remarks. He is phased out so completely that he doesn’t even notice the mob coming at him or that I have air-lifted him several meters. One can never be sure what this blood-wraith is thinking at any given time. Hanging from the rope by his wrists, I fly a bit higher. The path I stood on disappears as lykans fill the gap. They reach their wolf arms towards the sky assuming I am going to drop them Dracula. Their claws slice the air. With one mighty swoosh of my wings I earn silence. The force of my magic hits them like a strong breeze.

“Lykans, be still and listen, your Matriarch speaks!” I take my time turning where I float to look at my people spread in all directions. They look at me. “I understand your anger. It is also my anger!” They stiffen. They know I mean the loss of my family, how I of all lykans understand their hate and disgust. In that moment, I have become one among their mourners not the last royal heir whom no suffering can touch. “He will pay for his crimes and for his support of the Dark God Wolvaar!” Several loud gasps arise from the crowd and many sit low on their hocks in shock. “We have been betrayed. My lykans, we have been betrayed! Not by this filth we have come to call Dracula who does not deserve his lineage or his title. We have been done in by the very entities we beseeched and called our gods!”

“Matriarch… Matriarch…” The chant sounds lonely even though it comes from so many werewolves whose ferocity of a moment ago is sapped. They look lost and without hope. They know I am telling the truth. They know I won’t have spoken it otherwise.

“Why are you sad?!” My voice echoes across the village and is so loud that some of the werewolves cower. “Are we solely defined by the gods we serve? Are they the only ones who give our lives meaning? Does not the fact that we even exist mean we are important enough to live? Each one of us, from a farmer to a courtier, is crucial to the change that will evolve the pack. We were human once and then we turned Animaloids. What is to say that tomorrow we will not become the gods whom we so foolishly think serve our interests?!”

I don’t recognize the rage in me. It is one thing to feel for the injustice committed against my family but this is a very different sensation. I feel most unlike myself, detached from everything yet linked to it all.

“Go now. Carry my message to the newcomers who have arrived on Luposia’s shores. Tell them that it is folly to wage war inside the den of your enemy where we are strongest. Tell that that it is even more foolish to wage war against an enemy who has just invited them to dinner at the Royal House of Drugozolv.” This takes all of them by surprise. “We thought the war will not end and that we should go on fighting it. We were idiots to think that we had no say in the matter. Watch now as I end this war once and for all, for the glory of Luposia and the honor of my House!”

Roars of approval cascade like a tidal wave. It is so loud the ground rumbles. “I take this time to boldly address the Dark God himself!” The speed with which silence falls surprises me. “Wolvaar!!!” I wait until I feel his attention, a vague quietude, a covert knowing. “You are invited to my House where feasts will be prepared for every Animaloid, including the foreigners who have come to visit. We will make friendship not war. For you, Wolvaar, there will be no place at my table even if you so deign to join. You will watch as Animaloids take back what is rightfully ours. You will watch as I commence my official Betrothal Dance to find my Lykan bond-mate so I can replenish the Drugozolv line.” Gasps and gossip spread in the crowd. The drones capture all and record them on tiny memory cards that just noted one of the grandest declarations in werewolf history. “I am the Dark Goddess Felanova Hinnalya Terthamma Devi. Hear my name for I am the law-maker. Feel my power for I made Life with it when the world was young. What I speak, becomes. What I think, breathes. What I feel, manifests. And I remember why I am here among the Animaloids whom I created. I saved Humanity and made them different for a Purpose only I ordained. Hear me, Dark Gods, and the ones that belong to the Light. The next few days will see my desire come to pass. I am Felanova Hinnalya Terthamma Devi and my word is universal law!”

A blinding flash of golden light consumes the area as my lykan form alters. My fur changes and my body becomes taller and leaner. My muscles grow shapelier and contain more power than before. I exude a heat that rivals the bonfire below, a forest fire even but contained, harming none. When I open my eyes, they are the all-seeing ones of a Dark Goddess made flesh whom nobody can hope to conquer. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, I find fierce bliss.

 

 

 

28

I am myself and at the same time not. What a bloody ridiculous state of mind. My fur has grown blacker than before at the roots and their tips look like each strand has been dipped in gold. My eyes are bright silver and they shock me when I look in a mirror back home. I remember Dracula once gave orders to have my House burned. I had let it burn as a funeral pyre that will also stand as a symbol to fuel the rage in each lykan heart against what the vampires did to my family.

As a result, the castle is not yet habitable, not until after these fights have been resolved. I take residence in a bungalow deeper inside the city, which is perfect for me because I can communicate with my pack at a moment’s notice from here. The barracks are conveniently nearby, all I need do is fly over. Everyone is in the know. The original drone footage was displayed and edited reruns are ongoing.

Despite the discontinuation of numerous technology, which we learned was one of the root causes for the War of Conversion, we made do with what we needed; it’s keeping us going. Word of mouth is still the fastest means of communication. Even past the rich walls and floors of the bungalow, I can sense the eyes of Luposia trying to make sense of it all. They believe their eyes but can’t come to accept what they are seeing, such is their conundrum. They want to believe.

Part of me feels there is no outright panic on the streets because my people await confirmation from me on what I have become, which is a loose word. I am ‘becoming’ the Dark Goddess within. Gradually, memories are coming back and the more I learn from the eternity-pool of knowledge that I apparently possess the more my body changes. So far, my thoughts resurface with familiar images, sensations, and sounds but in strange dreams I see vague shapes that hint at something more. I have grown another few inches too. My form seems to have adopted the Lykan image so intensely it does not look like it’s going to revert to human anytime soon. I feel a squirming inside me. So this is how mother may have felt like when she bore me in her womb. I feel pregnant but with something deviant. A seed of evolution is growing inside me. My main problem is being taken aback by my own reflection; this house is full of mirrors.

“Your Majesty?”

He looks tired. “Julius.” I go to receive him. He takes a step back and kneels before me. “Julius?” He is in human form and sets his shoulders to indicate he is all ears for his Matriarch’s command but his eyes do not meet mine. “Stand up, will you. Everyone treats me different. Can you at least consider me as Ambrosia Drugozolv. My real self has in no way changed the young lady whom I have grown into in this lifetime.”

He gains his feet and looks at me, incredulity writ across his strong face. “This is… I don’t know how to…”

“It’s alright, Julius. The Leons and Behemians? They are well?”

“Massive camp-crafting is underway to accommodate those who are still travelling by sea. Our barracks is serving to house the ones who have already arrived.”

“Good, we will need their help in the days to come. Hope the journey was not too taxing.”

“It was more the speed with which we made it here than the trip, Ambrosia.” He suddenly feels like he is speaking to the wrong person because I see his composure slip when he sees me. He regains it.

“And Olaf?”

“I haven’t heard from him. He was with the Behemians when I left with the Leon-King. He might have landed a ways off and is coming over on foot. A portion of the sea had strong currents and forceful winds. Perhaps the plate-boats were carried to a distant spot.”

“I am sure he will take care of himself and our new friends. We need eyes in the sky, Julius. Send what drones we have fully charged and ready to come back with thick footage. What of the Sirens and Kodiaks? Are they here for war?”

“Your messages have been dispatched, Matriarch, but there is no response yet. Silence could mean anything.”

Typical Julius. Using ‘Matriarch’ to show that he is broaching a serious conversation.

“Let’s leave that topic for later. Right now, I have a betrothal dance to plan. Professionals are working on the venue and setting things up as we speak. Don’t worry. It is all to spite Wolvaar, the so-called Dark God who had a direct hand in murdering my family. I will not let him get away so easily especially now that I…remember.”

Julius falls to a knee. “Matriarch, please don’t ask me to stand. You are a being beyond imagining. Have mercy on me enough to let me kneel before you. I cannot pretend the things you want me to.”

I am stunned into silence. I never thought him capable of such blatant humility. I understand his feelings. If I myself can give in to shock at the transformation that has taken root in my soul, I can imagine what those close to me will feel.

“You need to get your formal attire prepped for the dance.”

His head tilts slightly up and toward my feet. He is asking why.

“You are one of my suitors. Go now, get ready, and bring back news of Olaf Hiradhya and our foreign friends whenever you can.”

I turn my back to him and study the view out the slit-windows. I don’t know why I give him the cold shoulder but I am starting to understand that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. I can’t be both Ambrosia and the Dark Goddess Felanova Hinnalya Terthamma Devi. The world will always favour the stronger identity. Even I cannot stop thinking about it. Will I grow strong or will lunacy be my only reward for accepting who I really am inside? As I ponder, my keen lykan senses pick up each heavy footfall of the Duke of Blood-Hill as he backs out of my chambers, his head still bowed.

 

 

 

29

“I will not be cooped up here anymore than I already have.” In a meeting with my regional heads and sector leaders, I find it best to forego political ramblings and cut to the chase. I have been here not ten minutes and we are yet to talk about the real problem. “We are gathered here this evening to discuss potential war and how best we can thwart it. Replies are yet to arrive concerning the other Animaloids’ stance on things; we need to assume the worst until proof shows otherwise. We have allies in the Leons and Behemians who have come from another globalized nation that before we didn’t know existed. A hundred years ago they called it North Africa. Now we have foreign Animaloids to worry about, and they may not be our friends. The Dark God Wolvaar has set many sad circumstances in motion, one of them being the culling of my family. Memories are returning to me, Councillors, but it is not going to happen in a matter of hours. It could take days even months. If a war threatens, I will fight it and I know all of Luposia will join me in doing so. What matters is that we prevent one from happening, which is why I planned a feast to go with the Betrothal Dance. We need to extend our hands and tables to the newcomers if we are to show them we are serious about earning their allegiance.”

“It is a wise decision, if I may be so bold as to confess, Matriarch.” Wizened but sharp, frail of body but not of mind. That’s how best I can describe the lykan who served as advisor to my grandfather when he ruled Luposia. He is supposedly retired but the special nature of our circumstances called for his counsel. “The Drugozolv line has to be carried on. We do not yet know what has become of your body from all this fighting, my Matriarch.” For such brazenness to come from a werewolf known for his tact surprises me.

“Councillor Jeqweh.” I fix him with a stare that if I saw myself do it will have reminded me of mother. “I do not need a man to tell me how my body functions.” He bends his head. “We are all adults here. That I should marry and give birth to a child is imperative. Councillor Jeqweh, in a lapse of discretion, is worried that battle has robbed my womb of its ability to give birth or my breasts of their capability to produce life-sustaining milk for any children I may birth. Has it not occurred to you that you are not sitting in the presence of Ambrosia Drugozolv but the Supreme Dark Goddess made flesh and who has come to serve the Lykan cause while other deities like Wolvaar seek different goals?”

I keep my voice civil but somewhere along the way my tone has grown more extensive, like a bubble encompassing everyone inside. My fur moves against an impossible breeze that swirls only around me. I have cast an intense shadow on the wall behind me and the better part of the ceiling. The councillors shove their chairs back and fall supine, their foreheads touching the floor, their knees bent at the belly. They are in human form and smaller than I remember. I have yet to shift back to my own; the dangers of not doing so have already been shared with me. Since we came to learn of my supernatural status, my remaining lykan has become of less import. The entity who has adopted my body and was born as the eldest daughter to the House of Drugozolv is on everyone’s mind.

“Any replies to the letters?” I ask to break the silence. The others regain their seats, stooping so their heads are low but not too low that they seem uncouth.

“Our scouts are yet to return, Great One, and–”

“Address me as Matriarch, as is customary.”

“Apologies, Matriarch,” says one of the sector leaders. “I will personally bring word to you as soon as they are back. Their lifeline readings are aglow, meaning they are still alive.”

So that is what the beeping strip of material was on their foreheads. I noticed it as they retracted their hoods to pay me their respects before heading out.

“Any word on our other project?” I tasked some of our best minds with rifling through what remains of Castle Drugozolv to uncover any information about why my parents knew about the goddess inside me but kept it hidden from everyone including myself. I understand why they were so protective. It makes even more sense why there were so many assassination attempts, more against me than my siblings; Dracula knew of this secret as well. If I can uncover mom and dad’s exact reasons – they must have a record of something somewhere – I will be better able to analyse the future of the pack, my place in it, and how I can safely recall godhood without overstepping mental limits.

“Nothing of significance, Matriarch,” says Olaf Hiradhya as he opens the doors to the conference room and enters with careless aplomb. He is unused to the way things are done at court, even if said court is in a location outside the castle. “I settled the Behemians in. I met Julius on the way and we exchanged notes. I stopped by the castle to see if I could help out in any way. My clan is already on site using combing the ruins.” He is talking about the Halvatian ability to pick out even the smallest details in the most complicated, or in this case burned and defaced, spots. If they can do it out in the wilderness, they have it easy in a relatively structured setting like a broken castle.

“If they cannot find clues, I do not know who can.” I walk up to Olaf and embrace him. He is as shocked as the councillors in the room. They’d react normally if this were papa who did it; that’s where I got the inspiration anyway, but it seems tradition is ever at my throat. I ignore their incredulity and my mistaken choice of gesture. Instead I focus on Olaf who seems to be better composed in my presence than anyone else since the revelation of my divinity. I see concern in his eyes where others show an altogether different understanding.

As I exit the room, the councillors stand and bow; lower than usual. They have learned their place, I’ll give them that. I cannot believe I just thought that. My way of thinking is growing more clinical than I would like it to. With Olaf by my side, I walk downstairs and toward the exit. Servants, staff, and officials make way for us. “Tell me everything.” He doesn’t need further explaining.

“We got carried by a rogue current. It set us a ways off from where the Duke was headed; several hundred miles away, if my estimation is correct. Once we made land, the newly instated Behemian Chief expressed a desire to explore but I asked that he help martially first. It was hill terrain so we will have had to trek a few days to arrive, which is why I felt it better to spend only a few hours to get to the nearest shipyard, an underwater salvage company. They lent their most powerful vessels to take us up-river at speed to Moonhaven. Seeing the newcomers with us and recognizing a Hiradhya, he believed I worked for you and supplied us with rations as well.”

“I will see to it that he is recompensed for such prompt action. I am glad you are here, Olaf, and not too late.”

“I heard something about a betrothal dance.”

“I already prepped Julius and now I am informing you. You are listed as one of my suitors.”

“If I may be so bold, Matriarch, what is it you intend to accomplish through such an event?” He cuts to the core of the matter; I welcome the change. But asking the Matriarch to clarify her decision is not a sound request. He is not papa.

“There is a time for war and a time for politics, Olaf. I do not expect you to understand.” He has not been at court as often as he could have. “All I ask is that you trust me without being like everyone else and demanding a lengthy explanation that I cannot in all honesty provide.”

Olaf looks about to broach a whole other topic, probably a briefing. He sees the fatigue in my eyes despite the radiance coursing through me. He bows and leaves without a word. I can only stare as at him as he goes. Those broad shoulders look like they carry the weight of everyone else’s burdens. The rhythm of his walk soothes me.

We walk as one to see preparations in the making. It is customary for the Matriarch to do this, a show of involvement even though she is denied from lifting a finger to aid in the proceedings of her own marriage. My choice pervades every stage of the process but loyal hearts and diligent hands do all the work, more than happy to partake of a wedding fit for a Drugozolv. It is the cure to their unrest, and they gladly pursue it.

It gladdens me how fast and well a normally sombre city can transform into a festive one. From banners to music blaring from speaker systems to shopping everywhere I turn, Moonhaven seems immersed in the imminent celebration. It is strange to see some of the foreigners shopping as well. They didn’t come to fight. Proof arrived in only a while ago when I exited the castle and Kurniyev himself came at haste to deliver the news. Dracula’s lies will have cost my pack plenty if I had moved a minute too soon; if I had unsheathed my sword. The newcomers bow when I pass and I bow back to offer them the courtesy they are showing my people with their patronage and lack of hostility.

I grow unsure why I called for this event at all. Seems to me peace has already been attained. Is it to give our potential invaders a chance to cool their heads more completely and see that the lykans are not savages as Dracula will have said, one of many falsehoods he instilled to nurture hate against our race? The Count did say he kept from fomenting distrust but I couldn’t possibly let him have his way anymore. Is this event designed for me to marry in the simplest sense of the word and secure the Drugozolv line lest someone gets it into their heads that killing the last Drugozolv will leave the powerful throne of Hael’liene open for the claiming? Or do I do it all purely to spite Wolvaar the Dark God whom I feel will make an appearance, giving us all a chance to ask our gods ‘why’?

Why indeed? If I am the Dark Goddess that Wolvaar calls consort, and said I left the company of the gods to fulfil a purpose temporarily forgotten, then why am I wasting time appeasing so many souls? Why am I doing things the mortal way, the traditional way? I have yet to remember the one fact that will transform me completely and give me a solid heading in this confusing series of circumstances. I should be investing my time along those avenues, not planning a wedding and a hurried one at that.

There, I see it. More than six hundred feet, the single stretch of road before me flows from the threshold of Castle Drugozolv all the way to the main exit on the city’s inner fortification wall. It is the longest unbroken road in all of Luposia and this time tomorrow I will be walking it decked in bridal wear from the farthest end to the castle my home, where I will be married to the lykan I choose and who will in turn choose me. Gifts and blessings will be shared along the way by whoever wishes. The whole city will be in attendance, some watching streamed footage from their homes; we have a short-range television array at least. So much has been disposed of since the War of Conversion, including technologies my ancestors felt would bring more harm than good in a society long robbed of peace. We had to throw out the trash that was infecting us so we could breathe a bit freer and see that we were living in filth.

I am going to get married, the foreigners are not hostile and seem open to an alliance, my people are happy, and I am the Dark Goddess waiting to bloom into my full powers. What could possibly go wrong?

The long road resembles my life in some way. What will tomorrow bring? Will I ensure lasting peace and, with the energy-barrier gone, link us Lykans with more foreign nations and together spark off global trade, and follow that up with smarter choices than what the humans made in the past?

As I gaze at the road, festive constructions going up along either side, I stare into the middle distance, lost. I enjoy having nothing on my mind, no thoughts rushing through my brain, no feelings pounding in my heart. My body is light from lack of armour; I sense as much when the wind courses through my new-hued werewolf fur. My hand hangs empty of mother’s sword. My head is not caged by the helm they made for my thirteenth birthday for use when I will grow into a young lady and begin combat training. So much of my life has gone by so soon that all I can do in this moment is let go. If only for these few moments, I am free.

 

 

 

 

30

I don’t rely on alarms to wake me up. Four in the morning finds me out of bed. I slept as a wolf and have no need for cleaning rituals like I would in human form. I grip Iltan, mom’s sword, and spend time in the garden practicing my form. I have no need for the helm or shield, this is me bonding. The peaceful side of combat lies in how its movements inspire calm in the deepest reaches of one’s mind when sword and wielder play as one, alone, no bloodshed, just the dance of war.

I appreciate each minute as I swing, coil, fly up, twirl, fall back down, jab, parry, counter, and conclude my routine. I perform it every morning at this time; have done for the past few years since training began. So much has happened since. This heirloom sword went on to taste blood on the field in the hands of the daughter who once idealized a day without war. What a world we live in? Why does nothing ever truly change? Am I doomed to resign myself to such inevitability? No, I refuse. I am Ambrosia Drugozolv and today I will make history, for my family and my people. I am also the Dark Goddess and I can feel her power inside this fleshly body. I can and will make a difference.

If with my power I cannot move even one mountain, then what sort of inspiration will I be to others who feel, like I once did, helpless in the face of change? We make our own destiny in this world or will be destined to follow the purpose of others. What is this strange feeling? I am alone. Alone in everything I do.

A shuffle interrupts me. My lady-in-waiting slips her gaze into the room, hiding as much of herself as she can beside the threshold; she looks like a scared child. Like everyone else who heard of my new self, she too is unnerved in my presence. I no longer hear the tinkling sound of her ankle-bracelets or the soft mirth of her giggles. It feels like she doesn’t want to draw any attention to herself as long as I am in the castle.

I nod to her. She disappears. Time to get ready. My childhood was spent among books and discipline, my adolescence honing battle skills and diplomacy. I had no time or freedom to indulge in talk of boys like the other Lykan girls. I am therefore quite ignorant of the romantic allure of a wedding, all I see is the practical need to bond with a male Lykan whom I trust and am willing to support and gain his trust and support in turn.

Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that more durable than a heightened explosion of irrelevant feelings that will dissipate much like the lethargy that books say follow a sexual orgasm? My thoughts deviate. This wedding is not founded at all on romance but the need to bandage a wound and injuries closely associated with it. I am ashamed to admit I have yet to choose my man, my bonded Lykan. The ceremony, after all, has more serious implications. Sounds like a bad excuse. Panic; no, I refuse to give the thought substance.

I am a Goddess. I can choose whom I please and as long as I am true to the bond I will not be wrong. But Olaf or Julius? Julius or Olaf? Both trusted Lykans who have shown their support in recent days like no other, at court and otherwise. Much older than me but fit and strong, potent enough to help me beget an heir; or heirs. One knows how to wage a war while the other knows how to run a country. Who will serve the throne alongside me? My negligence is costing me calm.

Dracula has indirectly ensured that I get no time to plan. For the sake of diplomacy, I need to make the right choice. In order to do so, I need to plan. Maybe there is something to what those lykan girls talk about after all. At a time like this it will have been simpler to discuss boys and blush.

 

 

31

I begin to understand why people call this highway Bride’s Bane. It is an exceedingly long walk, not that we can’t manage but it will take its toll. Makeup and heavy silk is out of the question. All Lykan brides begin the walk in full-wolf form and when they reach Castle Drugozolv, revert to their human guises. Did I just call our human forms a ‘guise’? I have been the wolf for so long now I do not remember how I tied my hair or dressed myself before the change.

Our clothes return to our persons afterward, an organic quirk of the transformation spell that we have endured and adapted to over the years. Our scholars are yet to understand the mystery of how our clothes are sent to some unknown nether-place and then re-manifest on our bodies when we leave wolf form and become human. Strange how we are more or less naked as werewolves but when it comes to our humanity the candour is frowned upon. Is being a beast more innocent by comparison?

The stretch of road is one of the principal locales in lykan tradition. Nobody truly knows when the volcano they called the Heart of the Future rose or why. It came around the time of the Conversion War, most probably a result of the viral magic that flew rampant across the globe. One of its main lava tributaries flows right under Moonhaven, my capital. The fiery stream flows straight as an arrow and the Bride’s Bane was constructed along it. An underground lava-fall drops where the castle begins. Much has been said and written about the symbolism and speculated prospects of the natural setting but for all I know the volcano is a testament to our survival and the fire that flows in our hearts, the spirit of the wolf aflame with it.

Many such formal weddings have happened in Luposia. People came from far and wide, covered the length and breadth of the country at times, walked the Bridal Bane, and gained the blessing of the Drugozolv family who would send the couple off with a memorable gift, after which the families will host receptions and parties at pre-booked venues. They would also stop midway at the mighty edifice of the Church of Wolvaar, attend a brief prayer session and continue the walk; seems more like a sanctuary to rest the bride’s wolven legs more than anything else.

The priests, though not ostracized, are out of commission by my express orders. No more masses are held in honour of the Dark Gods. Wolvaar’s recent deceptions are sufficient encouragement for me to put my foot down. The bloody passing of my parents packed enough force to halt marriages throughout the kingdom with mine being the first one in as many weeks. I, the Supreme Dark Goddess made flesh and born into the Drugozolv line, will make change where before there was stagnation. I refuse to stop at the church on my way along the Bane, and I will make sure my people see me go past.

Instead of shifting my thoughts to the next topic at hand, namely the matter of a mate, I grow concerned at who will be there from home to give me a gift and send me on my way. It is a girlish thought, one that I should have overcome. My family is dead, killed, gone. I am the last of the Drugozolvs despite being one of the Dark Gods. I will perform my duty and when I recall my true purpose for being on this planet, I will make sure I enact it with the full force of my nature and see an end to war and suffering. Mortals should have more important things on their minds, like discovery and evolution, not poverty, starvation, inequality, and the constant squabble to survive. That was the world we left behind and why we even sacrificed all that technology so we will not be tempted to don greed’s mantle. If I do not walk today, I might usher an age of lethargy and direness that will spawn hatred and dissent. People will give up on progress, the fingers of routine will choke them, but eventually they will prefer it to war any day of the week. Bored, dissatisfied, and troubled they will find a way to be greedy again. Never again.

The War of Conversion occurred due another cause that led to division; the histories are unclear about exactly what. I will not let a similar thing happen if I can help it. Even with my magic I need diplomacy to blunt my enemies’ swords. When I fully turn into the Dark Goddess that I am, I will need to work among mortals, as mortals would expect me to. Most importantly, I will need to fill the Drugozolv throne for when the time comes so I can leave my lykans and go do what only the gods can.

I have no armour on me, no heavy extravagances, yet I feel weighed down. My stomach churns at the imminent thought of choosing a mate, a decision I should have come to hours ago not when everything is lining up for Ambrosia Drugozolv, the last heir to the throne, to walk and meet her lykan mate and bring hope to the hearts of her people. Strength, I have already shown on the battlefield. Hope, I’ve misplaced somewhere along the way. Now I am left with a pit in my belly as to who to choose between Julius Vourdal, Duke and loyal courtier, and Olaf Hiradhya, isolated sect leader of the Halvatians. Both helped profoundly since all this began, and my people know it to be true. But whom will they respect? After all, the throne and my children will be left in his hands, for him to nurture, strengthen, teach, and guide.

Am I making a mistake? I have nobody to guide me. I am alone. The breeze falls on me and ruffles my fur. I breathe it in, grateful for the caress. I see the crowds along the highway; what a turnout. They are silent, awaiting my cue to begin. If they didn’t know of my divinity, I think there will have been singing and dancing. The bards will have gathered days in advance to share their lovely compositions with the masses. Wrestling matches will have been held. Feasts prepared with adequate resource allocations performed by the Castle kitchen staff themselves. A lot would have been set in motion but for the fighting and the fear it has instilled. The people are nervous, they are not at peace. The hours have made them edgy. Much has been revealed to them and much expected.

I raise my paw and music trickles into existence. The crowds align themselves along the highway. Bands pick up the tempo all along Bride’s Bane. They will each pick it up as I pass. Parade makers move into the street and get into formation, replacing frolic with discipline and solemnity. I fly up, and in so doing know that I have taken them by mild surprise. My wings are spread to their full extent.

“People of Luposia, welcome foreigners, and fellow Lykans all. This is a day for celebration not sullenness. I see fear when I should see joy. I notice pain when I should sense strength. I am not just your Ambrosia but something more as well. Laugh, be happy. Mirth is one of the greatest shows of strength. Let our happiness reach the ears of the so-called Dark Gods who lied to us through their pawn Dracula. Let them hear us delight in our victory this day. Are you not glad to see me get married? Is not this day one of joy? Do I mar my family name after all that we have been through and lost?”

By the time I land back on the road, a festivity deserving of today rings out. I begin my walk in a moment that has completely changed from how it was before. My smiles and waves encourage the people until I hear such revelry that I forget all my problems and feel idyllic. My mind does not let go of the reality of my situation. It will be a while before I arrive at the Church of Wolvaar but the more immediate concern is choosing a mate and sending word through the courier I know is waiting in the crowds to alert the man and have him prepared to meet me in the Castle. The times have created this delay, and I hope the man I choose will understand and choose me wholeheartedly in return. It is a lot to ask, but I am out of alternatives. This is the most effective decision I know.

Olaf and Julius will each in their own right agree to be part of this. They always put their Matriarch’s needs before their own. No matter where they come from, both Lykans value loyalty and duty. They love my family and will do anything to see that it does not fall apart more than it already has. I know also that they have had a soft spot for me all these years. It grew when they saw me at my twenty-first birthday, which was used to co-host a betrothal dance to introduce me to fresh suitors.

Olaf was not there but I noticed a similar gleam in his eye when we met, when the Halvatians decided to join the fight. I am not a silly wolf, I know what a man wants and what a woman needs. It is not rare knowledge that men need to be roused in some form or fashion, or a bond with them will be at best a companionship. ‘Lust and passion define a romance while love lights it from within’. The conversation that was once embarassing when mom sat me down and taught me the birds and the bees now helps me understand how multifaceted life is. Shying from addressing the important things is the quickest way to ignorance. And I have personally experienced that ignorance is not bliss, it is a painless vaccine that kills us over time.

Will I be too intimidating a bride? I know for a fact that I am not vulnerable and in need of protection. I am certainly no damsel in distress, a state of coyness some men seem to prefer over independence and fearless sword wielding. Will it please my man or repulse him, even if he wishes to change that feeling into attraction? Heavens, since when did honeymooning become more taxing than war?

The men… Julius, performs courtier duties to a fault, ever the diplomat, older than Olaf and wise in the ways of politics and the importance of transparency and unity. I use every vestige of my imagination to peer into a future with him. He will be caught between serving the needs of the people and that of his Matriarch. We may not always be on the same page. The constant tug could send him deeper into self-isolation, unable to act, refusing to compromise his principles and being blamed for it by both the Lykan public and me.

Where are these thoughts coming from? The air smells sweet and cheerful noises pervade my senses. Why am I being so cruel to myself right now? I feel the sting of truth and myself embracing it rather than sweeping it under the carpet.

Olaf, the wanderer, leader of the Halvatians, ever the outdoors kinda guy. He will never be happy at court where his presence will be required more often than he would like. He will grow aggressive, distant, hateful of his freedom being curbed, and how less time he will be able to spend with his tribe the Halvatians.

Either one of those scenarios will make me hate myself for letting it happen. Especially after now when my heart is harsh enough to offer forewarning. I know I am being cynical but it is cynicism and suspicion that opens our eyes to what can go wrong. With that knowledge we can more fully appreciate the good things when they come and linger before they too abandon us as life takes us downhill seeing that we just crested a rise.

Two hours’ walk finds me at the Church of Wolvaar. I see its tall minarets and elegant granite curves. The gorgeous gold dome reflects the sun until it looks like a small sun in its own right. Today is not about preparation. With what time they had, people put up decorations and banners. Between our recent tiff with Fangtasia and the energy-barrier coming down our resources were spread thin. Judging by the music, scents, and fresh infusion of merrymaking, we are doing alright. But I remember signing papers that demanded moderate use of material and labour for today.

The ‘whom to marry’ quandary returns to haunt me and I shove it away this time. Now that we are at the Church my courtiers and other officials join the parade. As per tradition, I stop and raise my sword high after it is handed to me by someone important, though I don’t recognize him. “Those loyal to the Drugozolv throne and the rule of my family whose responsibilities I, the Supreme Dark Goddess Felanova Hinnalya Terthamma Devi, will continue to uphold, come stand behind me.”

They hastily form a contingent that spreads several meters from the stairs leading up to the Church entrance. I do not know many of these Lykans are the building blocks of my government. Time enough for formal introductions later. I glance at the church door, padlocked with the royal seal posted across the doors. I plan to remodel the building for other uses – can’t have the edifice razed to the ground, it is far too beautiful for that – but for now I need to make a statement. The Dark Gods will no longer take us mortals to be playthings or subject to their control. I have a feeling I descended from on high to change this very thing, among others.

I climb the stairs; several flights angled upward. When but a few more steps remain for me to reach the landing, I hear the crowd gasp and chatter. Lykans are strong-willed enough not to scream or give in to a reaction as ordinary. I sensed him already but I keep climbing until I reach a position I feel is ideal. I look up and there stands Wolvaar in all his divine magnificence. A golden gorgeous lykan whose power to repel and attract exude like water when a river breaks its banks. He looks down into my eyes from his incredibly lofty height, like one of the church monuments come alive.

Even though this is the first time lykans are laying eyes on their chief deity in living form they do not panic. They prostrate themselves before him out of tradition, confused if all this is real. Is this the Dark God himself come before us? Why now? To stop his Goddess, of course, his consort, from marrying another. But she has done much for us, unlike the cold and isolated gods whom we served but who never answered. She alone took the effort to come among us and promise a better future.

I feel bizarre assuming my people’s thoughts. They are probably thinking something entirely different, I’ll never know. I am busy calculating how best to avert a crisis. I did not expect him to show up so blatantly let alone dressed in his godly best. Wolvaar says nothing, the breeze dies, and we stand staring at each other, neither backing down.

“Painting red on the threshold to signify closure is not a wise decision, not for the Church of Wolvaar.” His voice is deeper than I remember, all encompassing, extensive.

I make sure my voice carries. “You address your Goddess, Wolvaar. I demand propriety.” I climb the last of the stairs. He climbs down a few. When he takes a knee and bows his head without any reluctance whatsoever, I look over him at my people. “The gods are not to be bowed to. We are merely evolved versions of yourselves. Get up and stand tall in our presence. You were created not to show weakness but to declare pride in the strength of your existence. This is what pleases the gods.”

The people rise and stand facing me. I glance at the drones buzzing about capturing all the video footage they can in their little techno-brains before their battery levels slump and they need to return for replacements. The drone team is organized enough to manage things in such a way that at least two drones are always in the air, ready to cover salient angles.

“I do not expect the Dark God to understand the importance of today. He shows up when it suits his purpose when he should have arrived to fulfil the needs of his people aeons ago. After all, it is our energies dedicated to him inside this very Church and elsewhere in Luposia that has infused power into his considerable skills.”

I do not know where this knowledge is coming from, it just lands on my tongue as I speak, not stopping to let my brain register implications and whether or not these words should be uttered at all.

“Bring the ochre so I may stamp sealed on the Church of Wolvaar and thus declare all churches closed. The Dark God doesn’t need our worship. He seems content to ignore us when we are in need of his attention. We will grow together as a family and pack and forge alliances with new Animaloid races in the days to come. We need no dark blessings to accomplish that.” I hope my invites reached the peoples I am referring to. I hope the newcomers sent representatives if not the leaders themselves coming to be part of today’s events. I grip the paintbrush and stare at the Church. The silence is deafening. I throw the brush aside and hear it clatter down the steps, splattering red like blood from a severed limb. I call upon magic, my hands lit with the power within me. My wings open and spread and with intention. I flick my wrist and the bucket flings itself against the Church doors, blasting red on the entire surface and a good portion of the pale blue walls. My fur moves in the breeze and gleams in accord with my eyes. I seem to grow taller, my lykan form resplendent,

I turn and descend the stairs, ignoring Wolvaar who just stands grim faced before the facade. “The man you are going to marry will forever be in danger of my wrath, Devi. He will never bear the seed that can birth the Drugozolv line you so eagerly desire.”

He thinks he can raise his voice at me, that I won’t retaliate? “Yet more proof, Wolvaar, that the gods prefer threats to support. Besides, what would you know of seeding? I do not see us with child for all the centuries that we have been together. I can certainly say that the fire in me is not incapable of begetting life. You will do well to hold your insults. I will not take lightly to any more of them. Now be gone and let us lykans feast and be merry as only mortals can in the company of their loving Goddess.”

I must admit I did not expect to hear claps, roars, cheers, and music explode as I reach the road and continue the next hour of my trek along Bride’s Bane. I am happy to see the people glad to the point that they completely ignore Wolvaar. They lavish adoration on me. I never felt more inclined to do so much for my pack than I do at this instant. It goes to show that even the gods can be humbled by the love and loyalty of mortals.

I beam when I see a shower of petals rain down on from high windows to either side of the highway. Music and dancing break out, the way I remember seeing at events like today. People dance mere feet before me, on the Bane itself. I laugh and cherish every moment that eventually brings me to the ramparts of Castle Drugozolv where the portcullis stands open and the castle guard are decked in their ceremonial uniforms of red and gold with tinges of azure. The banners of my House fly high and flap like the wings of doves; even the banners and the breeze are dancing.

One thing still befuddles me. When I turned to wave at someone in the crowd, I caught him in my peripherals. Wolvaar, standing there, his strong arms folded before him. A flicker passed over his form, probably a trick of the light. I vaguely recall seeing the phenomenon before, I can’t remember when, but suffice to say that my other problems feel normal compared to the portent rising inside me. I feel troubled, more so than usual, about that flicker.

In keeping with tradition, the bride will turn from atop the castle stairs and as she does so will transform into the human version of herself. Even though I have no understanding of the nether-space in which our clothes and the things we had on our body before the alteration are, I have faith that it will not fail me. I visualize my dress and my immaculately made up hair and not to forget the makeup applied on me using natural herbs to smooth my skin and floral extracts to coat my lips, and sterilized charcoal to adorn my eyes. They will all be there as I make the long overdue shift, I’m sure. I had napped while they did me up before the Bane walk. I needed the rest but was partially awake to listen to them say ‘turn this way, look this way, upward now, Matriarch, a little lower, thank you,’, and so on.

Whereas I am nervous to change back, my people are eager to see me do it. I do not understand why I am reluctant. Is it that I am afraid I will lose my powers as Dark Goddess if I become anything other than lykan? Am I worried another attempt will be made on my life when I am in a comparatively vulnerable form? I reach the stairs and it seems like the whole world has begun to chant. “Daarma. Daarma. Daarma.” The word means shifting from Animaloid to human or vice versa. The word holds great meaning; adaptability, evolution, and the power they both inspire. Ever since Animaloids came to exist about a hundred years ago, the word has grown in significance until today when it represents the very core of our natures more than any other word in our multifarious languages and dialects; we taught and held fast to varied old-world tongues that changed a little with time.

‘Daarma’. I let the chants fill me. It is so loud the sound could well be slamming against the front of the castle like waves on stone. ‘Daarma’. Now that I am so close, I hope I can make real-life change happen after marriage without any more problems and threats to my pack and person. I hope I can finally bring peace to Luposia, and by extension the rest of the globe now open to us, and consequently myself who needs peace just as much as anyone else. ‘Daarma’. I turn and simultaneously transform.

My gown appears, my hair looks exactly as it did before I shape-shifted, my makeup is still perfect – I guess it is anyway, because nobody is looking at me funny – and I have on a pair of heels. Everything else is new but the heels belonged to my mother; they fit me so well that I lose myself in a memory.

My dress is ornate, elaborate, royal in every sense of the word, and sensuously red. All Luposian brides wear red not white to declare their fire, passion, and fearlessness. I feel no different from when I was in lykan form. Then again, why must I? I have been transforming human to wolf and back again since I was a cub. Circumstances have made my heart beat to a different rhythm. Things that were once familiar and that I had taken for granted seem rare and precious now. Everything in my life seems to play a game of price and consequence. Something as common as changing forms has gained dire import.

As the sun peels back the clouds and showers me with its rays, the red of my dress flashes in brilliant ways. The people are awestruck. The diamonds catch the light; my earrings, pendant, waist-belt, and bangles. The sound of my people’s appreciation follows me all the way into the castle. After such a long time, the drums beat to herald a good cause.

 

 

 

32

The decorations look splendid. I have never seen the castle so gorgeous in all the years I have lived here. My court is assembled in the throne room. Usually the bride announces to her people the husband she has chosen, the man in turn declares his love for his bride on the very steps of the castle, and together they walk inside for the formal ceremony witnessed by important officials. Nobody asks me why I am yet to do this. Who would ask a Goddess why she did what she did?

I enjoy the stares, adulation, bowing and praise. They are happy to see me but not for the reasons one might think. My being in lykan form for an extended period of time gave a lot of people cause for concern. ‘The psyche will be seriously affected’, said one school of thought. ‘The balance between beast and human has to be maintained via form-shifts or else…’, surmised another. Nothing affected me, but I keep over-confidence in check. I know I can be wrong, especially since I have yet to realize why I left my divine seat to become one among mortals. Why lykans and not one of the other Animaloid races?

I want get to the bottom of these things, even at a time like this when I stand before an applauding court and lower myself onto the regal throne. My thoughts deviate to a thorny idea, namely Wolvaar’s flicker. Even as formal proceedings go on and each individual or group comprising my government comes forward with gifts for the bride, introducing themselves, and pledging allegiance to the House of Drugozolv, I find my mind divided. I easily memorize their names and what service they bring to my reign as Matriarch. At the same time I assess the flicker time and again. It doesn’t leave my thoughts.

On the outside, I am the perfect host and proud bride. Inside, I am subject to the chaotic intertwining of logic and nonsense, impossibility and reality. I assimilate what Wolvaar said back at the church before I’d dramatically stamped closed to its purpose. I reacted to his threats idly because I am the Supreme Dark Goddess in the body of Ambrosia Drugozolv. I am as powerful as he is.

However, can I say the same for the man I will choose to marry? He will always have to be on his guard? The potential for danger is immense, especially when we have children. See what happened to my family; that wound still throbs. Wolvaar is an immortal deity. He is not above using cubs to get to their parents, which is one of the reasons I abhor the Dark Gods, and probably left their company. I do not like how they misuse power. Can I really subject Julius or Olaf to such a life, literally living in fear of the gods and fearful of history repeating itself? What must I do?

Mother once told me, ‘If a question in the present plagues you, look to the past. Somewhere there, your question has already been answered through the experiences of those who came before you. It’s a vast field to search, Ambrosia, but waiting for an answer to come to you can be quite the burden.’

I know I saw that flicker before. The familiarity is what I find frustrating, on the tip of my mind but not tipping over. I am yet to choose my man and the hour is coming when I must unveil my final decision. We just came out of a great fight against Dracula’s forces; the prisoner is still in the dungeons in the other part of the castle and his so-called humans who are really Sirens in disguise have all been apprehended. Several traditions have already been postponed in light of today’s urgency. The crux of the event is whom I am going to marry. The pronouncement cannot be extended, much.

I head back up to the throne as the large double doors open to reveal a line of strangers, representatives and their entourage with leaders present, as expected; a good sign. They must have been organized in the lobby and brought inside for the final phase of introductions. Old werewolves who were part of the days leading up to the rebuilding of society after the War of Conversion know how to handle such matters. Foreign interest was never our strong suit being stuck inside the energy-barrier. Apparently even the newcomers to our lands need orientation from wiser minds. When in Luposia… How good of them to agree when they could have put up walls in their own right and said they would do things their way and not oblige our traditions.

I am grateful for their courtesy and shower them with open welcome to Luposia and my court. None of the representatives is in human form; they carry their Animaloid forms with pride. I recognize the Leons. The lion people enter with their king.

“Presenting the King of the Leons, who comes representing the pride of the race of lions and their dignity. Following them, the Behemians, the mighty elephant people who share the same land as the king. Hailing from old-world Africa, we welcome you to Luposia and the Drugozolv court.”

“Matriarch Drugozolv,” begins the king in his proud and vociferous tone. His consort Alia smiles at me. “We are glad to ally with you in these unsteady times. My people and I find comfort in the fact that we shook paws instead of drawing swords against one other. I wish upon you the Naadarian Blessing. May you be fruitful and may the land flourish under your rule.”

Their presence and that of the gigantic elephant-people makes my courtiers uneasy and the Castle Guard even more so. They had no time to prepare for such things, having been part of the war effort and now partaking of their duties here, trusting that I know what I am doing. I can sense Tevya Knol, my personal bodyguard, studying them from behind his ceremonial helm; he doesn’t seem happy with the cape, though. I cordially thank the Leon King and his people and welcome them to court.

“Presenting the Kodiaks of the Former North America, the powerful race of bear people.”

“Matriarch Drugozolv, this is the first time we are speaking.” Not only are all of us distracted by the sheer bulk and size of these Animaloids who seem to reach the ceiling even, though I exaggerate a little here, but their voices are so deep they seem to hold the tonal depth of ten echoes with none of the reflectivity. “It is an honor to meet a warrior who prefers diplomacy over warcraft. We heard you waited to see if my people had arrived to fight. Though the cold-wraith,” he refers to Dracula, “had us come with no real agenda, we are glad that our first experience after the barrier came down and we fast-travelled…” I make a mental note to ask him about this, about how the Kodiaks arrived in Luposia so soon when an ocean separates us, “…We are glad that our blood did not spill on a land this beautiful by a Matriarch more beautiful still.” He bows. It is strange to see a bear perform the gesture, clumsy but with an inherent dignity. Their race displays contradictions but their hearts are pure.

“Presenting the Sirens from the former Philippines and sundry chain-islands in the Eastern Waters.”

Slender beings with fish-like appearances but not slimy, the Sirens move almost as if they are one organic being. Their movements mirror each other’s and even though they each have individual features, I can’t really tell them apart.

“Matriarch Drugozolv, we are happy to be welcomed so freely especially after what a handful of our own have done against your family. We are ashamed to call them our people but we do take responsibility for their actions.”

“You are most humble, sir, but I prefer the responsibility be on their heads alone for the crimes they committed. I trust you received them unharmed to be subject to Siren justice?”

“We have indeed, Matriarch, just as we received your request to be part of proceedings, especially in the case of Mr. Michael Graham who used false identity in his dealing with a ruler who is above petty scheming.” I thank him with all my heart but before I can gesture for him to occupy his reservation at court, he says, “As a show of gratitude for your mercy and understanding, we offer you this song…”

The group holds hands and crisscross arms. They regale us with a song performed in their native tongue. None of us understands the lyrics but the music is so inestimably beautiful that it brings us all to our feet, eyes unblinking and some mouths agape. We stare at them and their divine rendition of a song that needs no musical instruments to impart rhythm. They sing for all of five minutes but it feels like we have swum in an eternal pool of wonder and beauty. After they are done, we fail to applaud. We do not want any sound disturbing the tune they have left lingering in the air. All of us bow before the Sirens and I take the leader’s hands in mine, offered freely. We simply look into each other’s eyes for a while before the Sirens and their chief move aside.

I ask for music to be played to pad out the silence that has taken hold of my court. Outside, it seems like the whole country has been listening to the Siren song; everything is so quiet. Then again, drones are soaring about, capturing occurrences inside the castle and broadcasting it to public television screens where the rest of the pack could partake of their Matriarch’s marriage. I am sure they await my declaration of a husband, a suitable bond-mate who will help rule Luposia and provide it with an heir who will resolve the lack of hope that has recently pervaded the country.

The next hour sees me moving among the courtiers, exchanging small talk and pleasantries. Their stories about mama and papa, even the siblings, makes me feel like I barely knew my own family. A light-hearted aura spreads across the space. English is fortunately the common tongue that has been taught down the decades among the disparate races. Except the Kodiaks the others have their own languages, but we haven’t translators fluent in them. Part of our talks is how we didn’t know the other even existed and that there are more Animaloids out there waiting to meet; the Trindians are a primary topic, they are marching overland as we speak.

It is humbling to realize that in less than one hundred years we have each developed societies, cultures, and traditions in keeping with our animalistic transitions. A century is not a long time, merely an extended lifetime for the average human. It pleases me to realize how fast we picked up the pieces even though we are yet to make a whole.

I find myself alone in a silent corridor leading to other chambers in the castle. I take this opportunity to soak up the solitude; I need it to think things through. Camaraderie reigns in the throne room and adjoining hall and lobby but I am ill at ease about unresolved questions and mysterious circumstances. The flicker of Wolvaar returns to haunt me. Why do I need to figure this out so urgently? My instincts will not let go; I have been raised to trust my instincts.

The Alexandria Hall. Have I walked so far already? Now that I am in a different wing of the castle, I can no longer hear the sounds coming from the throne room. My grandfather’s library is touted to be the largest storehouse of knowledge in Luposia. The name probably comes from some historic locale that boasted something similar; my ancient history is rustic. Only scholars and the family used the library, there were not many others who did. Perhaps that is why they did not make a digital version of the books. They didn’t scan and paste into hard drives; will have sped up searches if they had but no matter.

Now that I am here I prefer to ignore philosophical notions of coincidence and instead explore the library in the hope of coming across an answer to my conundrum before I am needed back at court where I will make the most important decision of the day. My instinct flares hot. I am in the right place.

I feel silly searching for a book on ‘Flickers’. It will be at best a footnote mention, part of the main content, and I could end up with several hundred occurrences to sift through. I don’t have that kind of time. They used to have worldwide search engines people could access via the internet. It too went the way as other tech in the technological digression following the War of Conversion. When the barrier went up over the landmasses, we were so cut off from everything. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that we got used to simpler means and simpler lifestyles because we were unconnected to the pressure of global connectivity. I could do with better software right about now if only to save time and stress. In its absence, I rely on the next best thing, namely old-fashioned looking. I hear the library doors creak.

“Matriarch.” Olaf’s concerned tone; he tries hard not to show it. “We saw you missing at court. Staff said you came this way.”

Julius soundlessly follows and subtly closes the library door. “How can I help, Matriarch?”

“First, stop calling me that when we are alone. The informality is frustrating. I am glad you showed up, and not a moment too soon. I need help looking for something. The library is too vast for me to find it on my own. Just look for books that deal with illusion magic, specifically ones that produce flickers. I’ll explain momentarily.”

“Where do we begin?” mutters Olaf, making a slow turn as he walks toward me.

“Start up there, both of you. I’ll cover the shelves below.”

I catch a ghost a smile on Julius. “That’s rare, the duke is smiling. I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. I can’t get up there, not in this dress.” I give him a playful shove and direct him to the opposite side of the library from where Olaf is stood laughing. Both men climb while I take to the rows below. It’s nice seeing them dressed up; they both clean up handsomely. Their tuxedos have stuck to the original design but the lapels and a handful of other elements changed over time; slightly more steam punk oriented without sacrificing refinement. The overall impact is sheer futuristic elegance that never ceases to amaze.

I seek a place to start. The books have not been catalogued; downsides to having the castle librarian fall ill and head to the country for some fresh air. He is down with a severe case of plum-stitch; indigestion related. He won’t be back for a couple more months. In the few that he is absent, the scholars who made their way to the library filled in all the proper paperwork but didn’t care to put the books back. The guards who closed up stashed them in the nearest open shelf spaces and of course it ended up creating a mess. Now the Matriarch herself cannot find a book with the right title in the right quadrant. Raefmon James, do get well soon. Anyways, much of the nation was too busy fighting to think about things as ordinary as keeping a library organized.

“There’s a bunch of kids’ fairytales here. What are we looking for exactly?” I notice Julius wincing at Olaf’s uncouth address of the Matriarch but then again it is the courtier in him that irks.

“Something, anything, to do with illusions. Skim if you have to.”

“This is going to be a while.”

I bite back a response and continue my search. I come across poems, verses, songs, journal entries, fiction, scientific theses, and other subjects and segments dealing with magic but none that mention the idea of illusions. Yesteryear encyclopaedias say something about stage tricks but that is far from what I seek.

I need a lead, something that will point me in the right direction. I feel as if I am at a crossroads and do not recognize any of the paths before me. I know something is off, but where do I go to resolve the feeling?

 

Into darkness go their souls,

Ne’er to come back out of it.

They seek magic, power that old,

Should ne’er be wielded nor made habit.

Illusions strong the maker can craft,

Reality warped, false designs,

Skill is needed, don’t be daft,

Such magic prints a later price, one that binds,

And ne’er lets go,

It will for sure bring woe,

To those who know.

Take this warning and be mindful,

Before you grow addicted to a call so sinful.

 

I find the verse in an old tome translated from a language they called ‘Latin’, if the note is anything to go by. I have been here fifteen minutes and this is the closest I have gotten to a clue. I flipped the book open to a random point and begun skimming. I now go back to the beginning and see if it has a ‘contents’ page. No. I start skimming from page one. I do not alert the others in case they relax their search and miss an important entry that could compound the one I just found.

I recognize Julius’s voice. “Cub’s stories here have something interesting to say.”

“What?” I call to him.

“It’s a mother lykan scolding her cub for wandering away when she had her back turned. ‘Don’t you dare go wandering into the woods now. I will not come looking for you, and even if I do the witch will have gotten ya. And mark my words, I am not going to demand the Matriarch’s precious time just to come find your furry disobedient butt, young man. Them witches only Matriarchs can sense.’ ” I can imagine Julius donning that look he often has when he says something immature and realizes only later that he did.

“What does that mean, exactly? Only the Matriarch can find a witch? How and why?”

Julius, keen as always, says, “Suppose it has something to do with magic, witches being involved and all. Illusions like the one you are asking about could be the magical sort, not tricks.”

I ponder this. It’s a step forward, I can feel it. Besides, who better than a wise witch to help me come to terms with my divinity? To guide me as I peer into my soul and learn my purpose for being; somewhat like regression hypnosis? But Luposia does not have any witches, nor rumors of them. I am so taken with this turn in information, however, that I consider it a veritable sign.

“How do you find a witch? Fine me a book on that.”

“Way ahead of you.” Olaf. He throws the book at me. Julius’s eyebrows rise. I catch it with both hands and sit down at the nearest table. The men climb down and come to where I am.

“We have a book on how to find a witch?”

“Not exactly,” says Olaf. “This is an old compendium on how people used to find them relying on outdated methods. I thought, with a little creativity, we can alter the methods to suit the need.”

I make a non-committal sound. “This is interesting.” I place my finger on the page and real out loud. “ ‘In the absence of freedom, a witch calls the forest her home. She uses magic from the natural environs to hide her location. Powerful witches are even capable of moving their residence and those who happen to arrive accidentally at one will find the laws of science warped in unearthly ways. Science we are yet to understand? Or plain supernatural forces like space-time bending? Be that as it may, witches are often found by canine companions; which is the simplest solution by far.’ ” Julius smiles, Olaf gives a quick laugh, I stifle mine. “ ‘Whereas the cat family runs to them in secret, dogs are more open-hearted in their approach to witches. Rarely has a canine befriended a witch; or the other way around. Their keen sense of smell does not merely pick up the intense scent of witchy potions and herbs but also the tinge of supernatural energy that becomes a smell in its own right and lingers in the air, capable of being tracked by canine senses. But sadly the dog has to know exactly what it is tracking lest the witch be powerful enough to hide even that thin strain of the supernatural by disguising it with the scent of pine trees or petrichore. The scents do not last long, because the supernatural-scent (or scent-ernatural) changes so constantly that even the best witches find it hard to keep crafting new spells to replace the ones that are dwindling. If the dog is not distracted and it finetunes its senses to pick out ‘pine’ or ‘wet earth post-rain’… Sadly, we are not aware of dogs that have gained such sharp awareness skills, which require the guidance of inner-cranial higher-order intelligence. I close this entry –.’ ”

I look up to see if I missed anything.

“Our culture seems to say that only the Matriarch can find a witch.” Julius scratches his chin.

“This entry says a canine can do it if it learns to pinpoint pine or petrichore; the mask scents. The one with the sharpest sense of smell among anyone in the pack is the Matriarch.” Olaf crosses his arms.

“I am going to leave the rest of the get-together in your capable hands, gentleman. Stall until I return. If there is a witch in the Luposian woods I intend to find her before the hour is out. My questions seem to have buried answers in the wisdom of witches.” I get up to leave.

I can see the men want to say something, ask after something, but before I hear them I leave the room and head to my own where I will change out of these clothes and put on something outdoorsy. I check myself in the mirror with only my undergarments on. Scars, more than I expect to find, but then again I am a warrior. But I am also the Matriarch. What do these scars say about me? That I am a reckless bloodthirsty ruler or one who is willing to lay her life down for the Lykan cause no matter how many wars it takes?

Exiting the overly complex red dress is a nightmare. I usually have staff to help me out of things like this but I need to be alone for what I have planned. I am stood here staring at myself by way of taking a break from the exertions of ‘dress-cape’; one of my sisters came up with that word when she was training to wear a corset. I feel numb, the memory does nothing. A few minutes later I am lykan. I didn’t think looking at myself transform would be unnerving, especially since my fur has changed color from full-fledged silver to black roots and gold tips. The process isn’t gory but the way this specific strain of magic works is creepy in its own right.

I do not want anyone to see me leave so I open the window and look out to make certain. Staring at the city spread before me brings a sense of comfort. My people, the lives that my family has been in the business of saving, governing, nurturing, and guiding. They had help, mom and dad had each other. What do I have? A murdered family whom I refuse to cry for because tears will mar their memory. As Dark Goddess, I am supposed to be more than this. I should be able to cleanse my life and that of my people of any ill feelings and sorrow. I feel more mortal than divine. Wolvaar, I despise you. Why did you do this to me, you careless and selfish god?

I spread my wings and take to the sky, hoping the cover of darkness will keep my progress secure from eyes that could be looking up at the skies this very minute and wondering why the stars have yet to come out on this momentous day when the Matriarch is about to bring lasting peace to Luposia.

 

 

 

 

33

It doesn’t take me long to arrive at the forest’s edge. From this point east of the castle, the woods stretch for several hundred miles, ideal reconnaissance terrain. The more consistent the land, in this case filled with trees and streams and natural elements, the more easily I can sort out the clutter and let my lykan senses pick up untoward scents; essentially a puzzle game of ‘pick the odd one out’. I take a deep breath to ready myself for the hunt. It is a witch-hunt but one that will end with me seeking her wisdom rather than burning her at the stake. They could be an Animaloid for all I know or worse, human, which would take me back to square one; the nightmare repeats.

I sense nothing at first, familiar smells enriched, enhanced, calming, normal. I walk deeper, touching trees, stopping at a shallow stream for a sip of water, watching the clouds go by, their airy canopies contrasting the green spreads below. I walk some more, manoeuvring narrow paths, slopes, rocks, escarpments, even climbing trees when I need to get a solid bearing. It is easy in lykan form. I find the exercise so fruitful that I deny myself flight and enjoy the hunt on terra firma.

A clearing, one of several I have passed, comes up. Watches are rare in Luposia; everyone relies on a centralized clock tower in each city or region so it never truly mattered to wear a smaller version on our wrists; besides, lykans can tell time using the sky. Also, all werewolves carry weapons in readiness to defend their city and wearing a timepiece only got in the way. Watches are a distraction; at least that’s what grandfather told me when I asked him for one on my thirteenth birthday. This was when they forged my helm and I complained, desiring instead something that I could actually use at that age.

He said to me, ‘There will come a day, my little Ambrosia, when you will be frustrated with time. You will look at a watch on your wrist and wish to high heaven that by stopping its beat you could stop time itself if only to gather your sanity. Why be reminded of our total lack of control over these things? We cannot conquer the great forces of the world, time being chief among them. We are subject to them because they have already conquered us.’ Remarkable how crisply I recall his words when so much of what mother and father told me have been lost to the vagaries of youthfulness.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in. Or should I say the wolf.” The voice takes me by such surprise that I actually slip off the rock I am sitting on. It is humiliating. I should have my sword out by this time and at the speaker’s throat, not lying there on the dirt looking like a scared puppy. That’s when I realize I forgot to bring my sword; magic, I remind myself, better. “The Matriarch herself, at my humble door.” She bows comically, like it isn’t bizarre enough to speak to a member of royalty like she didn’t give a damn. “Come in, come in. Watching you try to find me is amusing, but it grew boring and fast. Thought I’ll save you the trouble.” I hesitate, for obvious reasons. “You’d better come in, I won’t hear what you have to say otherwise.” She leaves the door open and heads inside. I follow. The space astounds me. It is ten times the size of the hut I saw before I entered. I barely notice that as soon as I step past the threshold I have turned human.

“How…?” I can’t keep the query from leaving my mouth.

“Oh, pish-posh, this is no fantasy, child. The inside is all real, it’s the outside that’s the illusion. Much like a person.” She winks at me.

“Aren’t you a witch?” I know I sound silly but I can’t help it.

“What, just because I’m a witch I have to live in a rundown house with mould, rats, and roaches and have warts all over my face?” She makes an expansive gesture. “With all the herbal facials I give myself I’d better not see one open pore, if you know what I mean. Well, not you, actual women who need to work to keep up their looks.” Did she just pose? “My name is Mirelda. I’m a witch, Mirelda the merry witch, they used to call me, because I so hate gloomy faces. Sit while I go put a kettle on.”

“That won’t be necessary. I won’t be staying long.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence, child. With the questions you have, I’ll be surprised if your stay is brief. Besides, the tea won’t be poisoned, you can sense as much using your werewolf thingy while in human form, if you don’t mind. I just had the place cleaned, no offense. In keeping with popular belief, we witches are cat people.” She grins and disappears into what I assume is the kitchen and comes back so soon I am dazed as to how much time could have passed.

I find myself tongue-tied. This witch is a contradiction in multiple senses of the word. She maintains a supremely luxurious indoors where silk, pearl, gold and jade commingle with teakwood, mahogany, woollen carpets and other curiosities, collectibles, and keepsakes that I can only imagine come from the far reaches of the globe, though how she could have left the energy-barrier that kept us in here for decades is beyond me. I want to ask if she accrued all this wealth before the Conversion War. If so, then this witch is more than a century old and is right in priding herself on her looks.

Not only is Mirelda one of the most curvaceous women I have seen she also carries herself with such reckless abandon that it is, for want of a more proper word, sexy. I knew girls back when I was an adolescent who tried to be this way but they didn’t come close. Mirelda has an hourglass figure that I lack due combat training that has sculpted my body into a more solid mould. She looks young and old at the same time, young enough to attract any man but old enough to exude a sense of unparalleled wisdom. Why am I admiring this witch? For all I know she could be the problem not the solution.

“You look adorable when you lose yourself in thought.” I start at the voice. She stands just behind me, but how did she evade my lykan senses? I do not like this woman as much as I think I do.

“Want some?” she asks, holding out a dark-brown bar that confuses me at first before realization dawns. “Chocolate. I hear the last ones went out of circulation in Luposia, what, thirty years ago? I lose count. Oh, I almost forgot. Tea!” She snaps her fingers and a glimmering tray of silverware appears on the table. She takes a seat across from me and lets her hair loose. “I’ll be mum.” She guides the tea into cups using nothing but her finger while the air seems to do all the work. The kettle floats gracefully as it obeys Mirelda. I have not seen such magic, one that does not use light energy or emit heat before producing an influence.

“I knew your mother once.” She has my full attention. “Viktoria and I crossed paths one day. She didn’t personally know me but seeing that I had dropped my basket, all my herbs and fruits scattered on the roadside, she exited her royal carriage, asked a couple of guards to clean up while she personally helped me shop in the nearby marketplace for fresh groceries. She foot the bill, too. I can see why Luposia loves the Drugozolvs. They never did tolerate poverty or starvation, truly keeping the pack together and united; a whole nation of middle- and upper-class citizens. Oh, did I forget to mention that she was pregnant at the time, with you? Seven months in and my o my was she gigantic. But she carried herself with such elegance. All she knew of me was that I was a citizen, a lykan in human form, but pregnancy seemed to have dulled the late Matriarch’s senses even though her instincts were still razor-sharp. I later learned she asked to take a different route, via the marketplace, though why she didn’t tell her carriage driver. That’s how we even met. Even dulled, her senses picked up on me; my disguise had come so close to shattering. Your mother was a remarkable woman.” She sips her tea. “Need more sugar...”

“How are you connected to all this?” I ask, unable to add detail to my question. I sense that she understands my meaning before I even ask it but she waits for me to ask anyway.

“Do you like what I’ve done with the place?”

I dislike the topic change but perhaps she, like some courtiers I know, need to be cajoled into the crux of the conversation. “It’s missing cats.”

“You’re funny. Witches don’t really keep animals, dear. Spirit familiars come in animal form and stay under the radar, if you know what I mean, but we never let them enter our homes. Animals are such disgusting creatures, they smell and worse. The only good animal is a dead one who happens to have excellent fur. I so adore authentic fur. Real animals smell so bad a witch can’t suffuse enough sage into the air to call the nature sprites she needs to complete a bucket list of chores.”

“Is this a joke? If so, it’s quite poor.” I scoff. She makes a non-committal sound and takes another sip of her tea. I mirror the move, keeping my eyes on her at all times.

“Loved the red dress you wore earlier. Why did you change?”

“I had to walk through a few miles of forest.”

“So? Doesn’t stop me. Then again, you are an Animaloid. Sorry, dear, it’s just the witch in me playing up a bit.”

“I’m sure there’s another word for it.”

“You’re one to talk.” She winks again.

“You have already overstepped several boundaries, Mirelda. I trust you will keep within them from here on.”

The air in the room turns dark. “Careful, Ambrosia. You don’t come into my house and imprint your royalty. If I will it, I can whisk my house from here to elsewhere, up a mountain, to the bed of a lake, anywhere. My power and age far exceeds your own, though I think you will beg to differ. I recognize no government let alone a monarchy. When you walked past that threshold you didn’t come in as Matriarch Drugozolv but as a little girl in need of answers. Or am I wrong in assuming that you came here for the truth? You can leave right now if you’re not interested.” She pours herself another cup of lemon-flavoured tea, adds a little too many teaspoons of sugar, and stirs.

I am tempted to leave, see if she calls me back. But I am even more tempted to stay, having come this close to getting what I want. Nobody in my position will deny that this witch is full of answers. “My apologies.”

She doesn’t care to look at me but picks up a slice of tea-cake, dabs some cherry jam on top and bites into the soft crumbly part.

“Whatever happened to Merry Mirelda?” I mutter.

“Too much merry is a bad thing. I learned the hard way to be happy. A skill honed back in the day when I used to be a great actress. Won awards and all. I lived for the adulation, the sheer worship of the masses. Some magic and good old-fashioned talent served to keep me in the lap of luxury. All that changed when some of the Delta Coven sisters decided to get drunk on one fateful full moon night. They frolicked when it was their turn to stay guard over the key. When it was stolen part of the guard-magic put in place in the Jivh Quadrant fell apart. Now that quadrant has always proved troublesome for us Alpha Coven witches who alone could secure it but the one day we needed space to gather resources, mental and emotional, and our sister coven commits one dim-witted deed, and one silly vampire steals one important key…” Her tone keeps lilting, “And we had magic enter common minds, drive them insane in ways only dark magic can. It cloaked itself after that to the point that even we witches couldn’t trace it. It grew for the next half-decade and worked intuitively, impressive if I can say, and had the world go to war. Using all that spilt blood, the energies that already had a mind of their own – because they were sentient energies, you see, locked away in Jivh – performed an ambitious ritual only they could. Witches, protected by nature magic, escaped the conversion spell that transformed everyone else into Animaloids and threw up barriers over landmasses to isolate them for the next – how long has it been – ninety-one years. Our covens were separated so we couldn’t pool our powers to reverse the atrocity, assuming we could at all. We waited, and the world became… Well, here we are.”

The crunch of her biting into a biscuit gives me goosebumps. I am dumbstruck but force myself not to show it. “Are you telling me that all the wars and problems our people have suffered not to mention separation from the rest of the world and our forced denial of major technologies, because we thought they were the reason the world went to war in the first place, is all because one coven of witches got drunk and grew neglectful?”

“That about sums it up.” She takes another bite of a cake and winks.

“And the vampire who stole the key was Dracula, I suppose?” I probe.

“How astute.”

The question I dread to ask pops up in my mind. I have arrived so fast at the answer after so long being kept in the dark that it leaves me dazed, unsure. Where did my train of thought derail? What else am I forgetting to ask? I want to pose a simpler question before I broach this one but my mind is slower than my tongue all of a sudden. “So, Wolvaar… Was that a result of your lauded acting skills combined with a little magic, of course?” The sarcasm comes of its own free will.

“Whoever said little? It isn’t easy to portray a god, let alone a male one.”

My whole world comes crashing down. My forehead heats up and spreads to my neck. My stomach gains a lump. My legs go numb. I did some terrible things knowing Wolvaar is real. I judged him, the patron deity of the lykan race and one of the greatest of the Dark Gods. “All those lies you told me, about me being the Dark Goddess and how nothing ever matters in life. Your appearance in the church was rather timely.”

“Why, thank you. I had to get to Dracula somehow. He wouldn’t have listened to just about anyone. My act wasn’t a role practiced for a few weeks. It took years of careful planning and execution to appear to Dracula in a timely fashion that would convince the suspicious bugger. I succeeded with phase one but there is still a ways to go for mission completion.”

“You used me to try and get to him?”

“It had to be done. More was at stake than the sentiments of a child.”

“The child whose family was killed for this secret.” I form a fist and bring it down on the table, hard.

“Sheathe your claws, Ambrosia. My mahogany needn’t suffer the brunt of your anger.”

“Explain. Please,” I say through gritted teeth.

“If you’re hoping for me to say your family is alive and well and that I stashed them away in a kennel somewhere, you are sorely mistaken. They have indeed passed on. But I didn’t land the killing blow that took out all but one Drugozolv.”

“Dracula said Wolvaar did it. Who else but a god can defeat my parents? And you just confessed you played Wolvaar.”

“A little full of ourselves, aren’t we? The power of a god far exceeds anything we have going on this forsaken planet. They can but think the thought and the elements will obey, killing your family in one of thousand ways. Dracula is the culprit there. I see that you have taken to trusting the vampire and his convolutions.”

“I learned my lesson.”

“Apparently not. How do you know Dracula is lying? Rhetorical question; you know because he opens his mouth to speak. Not a word of his can be trusted. If my sisters had a chance at investigating the Delta Coven’s drunken stupor, I bet a hundred diamond rings that Dracula had something to do with it. I had to hide myself from his senses, and so I played god with you but more importantly to him. If you are convinced, so will he be doubly so. I wished to milk the chance until I got close enough to kill him in a way only witches know how. I couldn’t risk losing even if it meant an elaborate delay or a few wars. One second is all it takes and if Dracula is fast enough, he will have ruined years of pretence and planning and the only witch I know who can kill him,” she points two fingers rather stylishly toward herself, “will have doomed us all. I didn’t think he will kill Viktoria and her family nor foment all this war business. He is persistently unpredictable, the cold sod.”

“Your magic, your powers, you could have helped them. Were you there when it happened?”

“I was nowhere even near the castle when the culling went down. I couldn’t have helped even if I was.”

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” I feel helpless.

She gives me a pitying look, places the cake down on the plate, girlishly dusts her fingers, gets up and walks to stand away from me.

“Like I said, I wasn’t there.”

“And if you were, I reckon you’d not have broken a nail just to save my family who are mere animals in your eyes. Too much planning and pretence will have gone to waste, am I right? Can’t have your act flushed away for one lykan who, with pregnancy pains, got down to help a poor old woman when she could have parted with coin so you could go help yourself.”

“Don’t guilt me, Ambrosia. I have lived with it long enough.”

“This is not about you, Mirelda. I am the one who lost them, I am the one who became an orphan and at the same time a single sibling. I am living with the pain and refusing to cry it out so as not to insult their memory. I lost my youngest brother twice; not that you’ll care to know how. I went through so much alone since then, doing what I can for my people because my parents will have expected me to stand strong as they did for all these decades before they were murdered. I wanted to hang myself and in so doing strangle the pain in my heart. But I carried on into uncertainty so Luposia will not be thrown into panic, power struggles, and political upheavals. Now the nation has new allies who have come from abroad who think I am the frikkin’ incarnation of the Supreme Dark Goddess. I believed it to a fault myself and defaced Wolvaar’s place of worship for the lies that he…you…so effortlessly fed me. What am I going to do now? What if you are worse than Dracula and are lying to me as well? You’re an actress, fibbing without remorse comes easy to you.”

I push back the chair and let if fall with a loud clatter. I walk out without waiting for a response. As I am about to slam the door on the witch, I see her sit down at her precious mahogany table and take another sip of tea. I hope she chokes on it. I need space, I need to clear my head right now. I can’t think about anything or I will just explode. I turn into the wolf and dash into the woods. When on earth did it start snowing?

 

 

34

My life is as messed up as the climate. Small isolated pockets of space tend to develop their own meteorological patterns. When the barrier fell, these patterns grew skewed and that effect started to spread. Only a few days and already the weather is changing at an alarming rate. For instance, it’s snowing mid-summer.

I take another route through the forest and arrive at the city’s edge. Luposia’s capital of Moonhaven is beautiful around midnight when the stars are out in full splendour and the buildings catch their light in remarkable ways. I take to the air, not wanting to surprise any late sleepers. Then again, who sleeps properly these days? There is whisper of war at every turn and unrest among my people. I feel weak not being able to help them find happiness. Isn’t it my duty as leader? Don’t they look up to me? I am not a ceremonial figure, I fight on the frontlines and in battles of diplomacy too. I may not be as educated or experienced as some others in this regard but I can rise to the occasion. It is, after all, in my blood. I spot the Church of Wolvaar. My guilt weighs me down as I descend. Earlier I felt I made a decisive move, but I now see that all I did was perform sacrilege.

My heart is colder than the snow. Mirelda, just saying her name makes me queasy. Her laissez-faire attitude to my problems, the way she treated me like nothing more than a talking animal, and her ingratitude to mother has totalled up to a bigger burden than I can carry. She doesn’t love the pack like we do, she is merely amused by us as she goes about pursuing her own ends. I am left scratching the dirt with my claws as I think about what I have done. So many mistakes, so many bad decisions. It is all so inevitable that I can only attribute it to fate. Why did it give me so many dark threads? Can’t I have some joy in this life? Isn’t everyone entitled to a little?

I remember the pond at the back of the church, its waters fed by an underground stream. The volcano tributary running deep under Bride’s Bane keeps the water heated; I see steam rise up against the snow. Many lykans consider it divine, in fact the cleaners even use this water to freshen up the church. Nothing else would do for the house of god. I used my own arms to dip and carry a few buckets of water to the front of the church. I do not use magic for this.

I carry a step-ladder from the maintenance room at the back; will need it to reach the higher places without flying. Once I have all that I need I take the brush, dip it in a bucket of water to which I added cleaner fluid, and get started on the red splosh across the front of the Church. I shut myself to feeling anything. I just need to get this over with so I can go back to my guests. Even if a citizen sees me, it’s alright, they will know soon enough from an apology announcement I plan to make in the throne room concerning how wrong I was about the gods. After recent revelations, specifically my not being the Dark Goddess just plain old Ambrosia Drugozolv, I will even have to call off the wedding. No statements need to be made anymore, not after this. Peace will need to hold its breath until I clear the air.

Something good came of all this anyway. I have more time to plan and choose my mate in advance instead of leaving it to the last minute; hopefully war, fights, disturbances, skirmishes, and petty bureaucracies will not push me to use a wedding as a peace offering again. Before all that, though, I need to make peace with the gods whom I so recklessly insulted. Thank Wolvaar for his mercy that he did not strike me down when I cursed his name on these very stairs let alone his house of worship. How the gods must laugh at our mistakes.

I am here for the better part of fifteen minutes. The task is hard going. No magic, making it harder. I welcome the throbbing joints and aching muscles. Battle and training have strengthened me to a peak, but these pains have a psychosomatic cause. I complete only one side of the facade adjacent the door. There is still the other side, the upper portions, and smatterings on the floor, stairs, and cornices. My werewolf eyes can spot them but my limbs are heavy with distress.

The pre-wedding event is on television and almost all of Luposia is watching. Perhaps that is why so many of the houses nearby feel empty; groups are gathered en masse at local screens. I have to get back after I do right by this and reveal what I learned to the people. Lykan society is all about transparency and I will uphold the policies my parents forged when they created our community.

Footsteps disturb me. Mist clings to the air. The steps sound like they are running. “What are you doing?” Olaf asks.

“Correcting a mistake.”

He understands as if I told him all about it over the course of an hour. How does he do it? He opens his arms as he walks toward me and I automatically find myself nestling into the embrace. It reminds me of how easily my father once understood what I wanted and needed; the difference. Olaf smells of tree bark and earth with an underlying core of glacial river-water and rock-dust. I breathe in his scent and take comfort from it. My arms find their way around him. They trace the shape and thickness of his body. We fit so well, as if we would find the most comfortable position in the world in a hug.

“Julius asked me to meet you here.”

“Why? He can’t possibly have known I’m coming.” Realization hits me with the force of a hailstorm. I push back from Olaf, knowing he comprehends my meaning. I jump into the air. My wings carry me. Olaf becomes the wolf and runs following my trajectory. We head back to the castle. I surprise myself when I reach it in a matter of minutes. Olaf has fallen behind. Urgency pushes against my chest from the inside as I arrive at court, snow spangling my fur, my breath misty before me as I pant. I don’t care to see who is present, all I see is blood, on the walls, ceiling, the stairs leading up to the Drugozolv thrones, and the thrones themselves. It is nightmarish to see such savagery in the solemn and respectful hall I grew up in.

“What is the meaning of this!” My shout rings out. I am furious. My home, my honour, and my authority as Matriarch have been besmirched by this deed. I discover several lykan courtiers lying dead, their bodies piled up along with those of the representatives who came to court on behalf of their people; the Behemians, Leons, Kodiaks, and Sirens. Who fought whom? The leaders are nowhere to be found. Only some of the foreigners’ bodies are about, and more lykans than I can count. So much blood. What happened in the hour I had been away?

“There she is!” The declaration catches my ear and I turn to see a mob exiting an antechamber. “We have been looking all over for you.” I know that voice, I just cannot believe it’s him. Dracula looks back at me, and behind him stand the foreign leaders I thought were my new friends. They all look like they had escaped within an inch of their lives. I spot a guard’s polearm nearby.

“I told you this is what she will do.” Dracula turns to address them. There are no lykans among them, just some Animaloid representatives and their chiefs. “She brings all of you here and leaves you growing lazy and distracted with food and merriment while she is off scheming with a witch; you heard the scout’s report yourselves. She plans to kill you all, travel to your respective nations, and conquer the world for her own. The Drugozolvs have always been a greedy pack of dogs.” He glowers at me, still dressed in the rags of imprisonment but emanating such hatred and force of will that I can feel his heat from halfway across the room.

“She lied to you about being the Dark Goddess. Can you truly trust a ruler who spits in the face of her own patron deity? See what she did to the Church. This one is bitten to the core with the bloodlust of her Animaloid nature. She has gone mad, rabid even, with the outward appearance of calm; strange disease state, but an ailment nevertheless. Bringing the wrath of the gods down on her people and cavorting with witches to see to the demise of those she calls her friends. Remember that other thing, how she murdered Lady Elizabeth Koolva, head of the Drugozolv Investigation Bureau? Probably because she was getting close to the truth of her schemes. The woman merely protected her husband who wanted to ally with me to see if we could forge a lasting peace between our peoples. We knew her family would disapprove, which is why we kept it all secret and waited for a time to act. How the Drugozolvs hate us vampires; we too are Animaloids, you know. She killed Lady Koolva and crucified her bond-mate. If she can treat her own in this manner, imagine with her powers what she will do to your families back home? All we need do is threaten her throne and she will lash out if it means holding onto power. She probably killed her own father, mother, brothers, and sisters and used it as blame-worthy material to render my vampires and me extinct.”

He is raving but the others seem to take to it like he is giving a religious speech.

“Who let you out of your cage, vampire?” I demand and stand proud. I will not let them sense fear in me. “As for the rest of you, it is truly shameful to see people I shook hands with, invited into my home with open arms, stand there believing such lies. Didn’t it occur to you that he was jailed for a reason? Did you ask him why we locked him up, the details? Better yet, did you not think to be courteous and offer me the benefit of the doubt, and tell this idiotic blood-wraith that you had rather wait and hear my side of the story before coming to a decision? As leaders of your people, have you no sense of diplomacy? Look around you! You have killed my people, my courtiers, men and women who stood greeting and welcoming you not an hour ago. All for what? Because you trust the Count here? What has he promised you that you are willing to strangle an alliance? You trust a prisoner but not the ruler of Luposia? He spits poison and you readily stand under the shower.”

“It is not Dracula they trust.” The voice comes from behind the group. “I have set them straight on the state of our nation since before the Drugozolvs were killed. They know everything, have known before they came here.” Julius Vourdal walks to the fore. “I have long dealt with Dracula in secret. Koolva’s husband was my agent and message-bearer, but you put an end to that when you found out. Why didn’t you stop and ask him his side of the story before you nailed him to the cross?” His attitude has changed completely. I can’t recognize him. “I conducted a covert operation that saw to a batch of space drones flying up and over the energy-barrier, reaching our foreign friends where they lived and asking that they come to Luposia when the wall falls. I had scientific and astrological minds working to help me uncover the exact dates and times for when that phenomenon would occur. Your parents refused to listen to a word I had to say. They refused to ally with the vampires but were willing to feed off the trade opportunities they brought to lykan society. Power is not strength, Ambrosia. And when I saw the way you reacted to circumstances since you became Matriarch, I hoped you would do things differently from the way your family did. But you had the same hate and distrust. How can you possibly hope to join hands with complete strangers,” he gestures to the group around him, “when you are so willingly repulsed by your own neighbours, namely the vampires and their leader. I decided then and there that the Drugozolvs will not listen to reason. They have to be taken out of the picture altogether.” He shamefacedly confesses his ‘righteous killing’ of my family and corrected Dracula on a point he made earlier.

I tilt my chin up, restraining ferocity. Not yet, not yet. “Julius, you had ample opportunity to sit me down and ask me the same things you say you once asked my parents. I may not have refused an alliance if advice came from someone I trusted, which was you. You know me a long time, and you know I have always taken your words to heart. You went behind my back on an assumption, or should I say a whim.” I collect myself. “After all, why kill my brothers and sisters, mere children all of them, when the only people you say who refused to listen to reason were Viktoria and Alexandrovich. This all looks like a power struggle to me, Vourdal.” My attitude changes. I know he cannot recognize me. “Looks to me like you wanted things to happen this way, much like someone who desires circumstances to go wrong just so they can stand at a time like this and say ‘I was right’. Who is mad, I ask you? Who is twisting whose words? You have brought these foreigners here not to make peace and forge friendship but with the express aim to gain wealth.” I look at each of them. They lower their heads. “Like sheep, all of you. No independent thought. No love for your people and their long-term futures. As long as you eat and are satisfied, you do not give a damn about who starves in the process. Such inequality and capitalist greed is what my family hoped to stamp out from the start.”

Dracula shuffles. “It is time we put an end to this. The bitch cannot be suffered to live.”

My will falters. It shakes, it trembles. It knows what it must do, but is seeking excuses not to do it. My training cuts in and reins me back. “I will show you vengeance.” My words turn growls. My body lights up in a flame of virtuous fury. “If it is blood you came looking for, I will feed you your own. I will show you why the Drugozolvs rule Luposia. I will show you why you made a mistake when you took me for an enemy rather than a friend. I will protect my people with my life. I refuse to die and leave them in your sorry hands, liars and thieves the lot of you.”

I see Dracula move to one side. He has no armour and he doesn’t look like he wants to take me on. He moves toward a table to get something. Julius, the bastard traitor, stands behind the group, a remorseless look on his face. The others draw their weapons and rush me. I pounce at the polearm.

The doors crash open and the enormous torrent of growls, roars, and howls fill the throne room. The doors Dracula wanted to close bang open, flinging him away to one side and stopping the Animaloid leaders dead in their tracks. Before they can turn their weapons to face up to the new threat they are swarmed by werewolves who fall upon them in waves. I fly into the air to avoid being caught in the melee.

Almost every citizen in the capital seems to be armed to the teeth, men and women alike, some adolescent lykans included. My people have come to my aid. Shouts of “Long live the Matriarch” and “Ildanya Luposia”, ‘For Luposia’, rent the air that a witch flies through on a broom made of hawthorn.

Mirelda lands. Mirelda swings. More than ten opponents are flung against the far wall. Magic without light or heat; it’s her, alright.

“Mirelda!” She looks up at me. I shrug. She points to a tiny drone flitting about near the throne room’s vaulted ceiling. She must have used one of our drones that the hostiles did not catch and broadcasted the scene to a shocked public. All Luposia, every Lykan that calls this country home, have surely decided that enough is enough. Luposia never had civil war issues but when one of our own, in this case the dratted Julius Vourdal who so cunningly wove himself into our lives, betrays the pack no Lykan will sit idly by and let it progress from there. Due solid proof in the form of whatever the drone captured, the Luposian fire has been stoked.

The Animaloid leaders put up quite the fight but they are subdued. My pack knows to wait for my command, kill or let live, only the Matriarch shall declare. They hold them down on their knees. A mob runs to collect Dracula. I see Mirelda hold what looks like an oddly shaped pistol. She shoots. Dracula throws something at me. I cannot see what it is. He goes down, clutching his side in agony. I feel a cold sensation at my heart. Mirelda screams. Darkness clouds my vision and my wings fail as I fall into the waiting arms of my people.

 

 

 

To Be Continued…

The Lost War

Act II – Honor Among Wolves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Lost War ; Act I - Threads of Fate

It is 100 years since the War of Conversion and modern society and its people have grown divided. A powerful spell is unleashed on the globe, the very reason people go to war, and soon Animaloids come to exist. Everyone becomes either vampires (blood-wraiths) or lykans (werewolves). With the wolves outnumbering the vamps, the nation of Luposia grows strong and enforces control over the vampire homeland of Fangtasia. However, when you have Count Dracula for a leader, the scales of power are prone to shift as the mighty royal werewolf House of Drugozolv soon finds out. When the eldest daughter Ambrosia Drugozolv faces injustice and rises to lead her people, it is her magic and the loyalty of the pack that will keep the race surviving the strange changes happening in their world. None of them yet know what the Dark Gods have planned for a world where Humans are thought to have gone extinct only to show up a century after the war, where surprises can be fatal, where new discoveries are made that are not always for the greater good, where madness is just around the corner, and where War can only be countered by Unity. Will Ambrosia find peace with herself and the cards that fate has dealt her? Or will she take the easy way out, give up, and crumble into oblivion? What will become of the world that after turning into Animaloids ceases to give up on the savagery that made them so in the first place? Will Ambrosia find love in a lykan man who shows he cares for her or will she give up soft caresses for a life of hard-won victories? Lesser rulers have gone mad in the process. Ambrosia Drugozolv finds herself becoming increasingly alone in a world that is becoming rather crowded.

  • Author: Joshua Mercott
  • Published: 2016-03-27 06:20:10
  • Words: 95931
The Lost War ;  Act I - Threads of Fate The Lost War ;  Act I - Threads of Fate