A Celebration of Lesser Evils 3.8

The plan, the protocol, the panic that went up Ana’s arm and stopped in its tracks. She couldn’t shake or show an inch of weakness – that was exactly what a blueblood would look for, as deceptive as her appearance was. Judging by her looks alone she couldn’t have been much older than Ana’s age, but she was short for that age and ghastly pale – so much so that she seemed smaller and younger than her own daughter. That, though, was an illusion. Judging by her accent she was no less than a century old. Silken leathery wings shivered, beat themselves and retracted into her back like they were never there in the first place.  She was dressed for the party, but unmasked.

Step one was to evacuate the surrounding populated area. Ana scratched that idea immediately. They were in one of the most highly populated cities in the country, and she didn’t exactly have the authority to run into people’s homes and tell them they ought to be leaving soon since a ravenous blood-sucking monster was on the prowl.

The second step came from the first principles of what a vampire was, and how they came to be. A vampire became such through the drinking of the blood of another vampire until they began to vomit it up and die. One who had well-developed stores of mana in their previous life retained that, and became the redbloods. However, being a walking corpse they couldn’t improve it on that store, or commune with devils. That door was closed to them at their death.

Bluebloods were the wretched, unnatural few that had taken on witchcraft and been endowed with sorcery at their death, and had kept that door open in doing so. 

That meant that the second step was to never underestimate them. They had been groomed from birth to be the best, the most ruthless, the political heads and potent generals with decades of experience in every human skill imaginable. Instead, needle them – don’t present enough of a threat that they’ll bring their whole abilities to force, and once one had probed deep enough to get a sense of their general tactics, one could proceed to step three, which was striking at whatever tiny purchase they gave and hoping it was enough to kill them.

Impossible, thought Ana carefully, No. Plausible? Depends. I need to be ready to bust down that door and escape.

The other traditional part of the first step was to try to starve them of human blood over the course of a week or so. Even among the vampires the bluebloods had immense appetites, and starved much quicker if left bereft of their sustenance. That might have been why she avoided the party – she had to change her plans to eat. That was out of the matter too, though.

The other general advisement was to isolate them. Also not easy, considering the formerly-pregnant redblood staring them down. She grasped feverishly at her mother’s shoulder, not even bothering with whispering her intent.

“Kill them,” she said, “What are you waiting for?”

“I’m waiting for them to kneel,” said the mother softly, “This is always the problem with you younger people. So hasty!” 

Ana swallowed. She wasn’t planning on kneeling, on giving an inch to a vampire. Still, she felt the main flaw in the by-the-book tactics she had been taught. They’d been written half a century ago, when you could still see the occasional blueblood encroach onto a Sepulcherite territory, and when you probed someone else they necessarily probed you, whether you were interrogating them or fighting them. A brief glance at Vella revealed that she hadn’t changed her stance either. 

“Everyone says, ‘you,’ now, correct? Is that the new way of being polite to people?” Inquired the blueblood, “You must excuse my ignorance. I’ve been absent from my seat here for so long that I’ve forgotten the ways that the common people speak.”

There was a tense silence in the air as she seemed to assess them all. Ana felt it in her gut – she wasn’t underestimating them. That was almost as bad news as her being there in the first place. The one thing that made vampires more manageable was their tendency to hubris. One that was a truly canny opponent, one not just relying on their strength and gifts, was something to be feared. 

She stopped the fear in its tracks. Probe first.

“Yes. We did away with the thees and thous a while ago,” said Ana.

The mother nodded and smiled.

“Then I suppose you all need some instruction in the other realms of etiquette. First, you two will kneel as subjects, and then that fellow behind you, since he’s a guest in our nation.”

No one moved. 

At last, the vampire pursed her lips, and started a slow step forward.

“I take it you’ve fought my nephew and my… grandchildren. He was always more suited to hunting prey that didn’t bite back. Maybe you fancy yourselves revolutionaries? Vanguards of the Kolet people? Wolves of the so-called intellectuals and politicians in those petty upriver cities?” 

Another padding step. A measured threat.

“Nonya, run along now. Your mother will deal with this.”

The daughter made a careful step towards the back door, then a full run, skidding towards the street in a streak of blood and fabric. Ana kept her hands on her blade.

“And you,” said the vampire, gesturing towards Sol, “You’re probably some kind of missionary type, aren’t you? They came in droves back in my day. Puppets to that wretched little upstart church down south. We couldn’t have known, of course – I was only a child then.”

She traced a circular path with her foot, and one of her hands clenched. 

“My greatest regret is that we didn’t crush you at the start.”

There was a split second to react as she moved, a split second in which Ana raised her sword and lunged forward. The blade hit home, caught, and sliced through the fabric of the vampire’s dress, slivers and threads of black lace falling to the floor like ash. There was a brief moment in which Ana thought she might have cut her. The milky-white skin was laid bare, though, and it rippled with shivering muscle that was entirely uncut. 

Another moment without even a hint of rational thought. Ana couldn’t see the blow. She couldn’t sense it – couldn’t even feel it coming. She simply knew, and found her ward, and shielded herself with it. A knife, sharp and unforeseen, glimmered green under the glow of the mana and for a brief instant the blueblood looked the color of the sea on a clear day. She swiped with her free hand at Vella, who seemed to have the same idea. She raised her own ward as Ana retreated with her, a crude defensive formation taking up most of the hallway. Ana kept her blade low, ready to thrust upwards.

“Sol, go!” Cried Ana. She heard him kick the door once, and there was a whimper.

“Some kind of rescue, then,” said the blueblood, “Let it be known that I’m not an unreasonable woman. I’d be happy to let you-”

Ana let her guard down and stabbed up at the vampire’s waiting throat, letting the azure mana do half of the work in getting it there. She sidestepped the blow again, this time taking a few strands of hair from her head. Another kick at the door, this time cracking the wood holding it in place. 

“I said, I’m a reasonable woman. But you two clearly are not. You need to be instructed.”

Ana raised the ward again, ready for her to strike, and strike she did – an open palm to Ana’s ward, and the knife to Vella’s. There was thud as the door flung open and a woman screamed from beneath a gag. Instead of recoiling from the ward, the mother stared straight into Vella’s labyrinthine construction, her face twitching and her fingers scrabbling against the sparking mana of Ana’s own. Their sharp nails scratched more and more as she found the wherewithal to speak.

“A labyrinth. You admire us?”

In spite of her size, she showed great strength. Vella struggled against the knife with the ward, trying to push back. Another thud – the sound of a window being unlatched and opened in the other room. 

“Usurper,” Vella spat.

Before Ana could react, she grabbed the invisible edge of the ward even as it sparked and singed her flesh.

“My rule is as natural as my strength,” said the vampire.

She then clinched the fuzzy edges of the other ward, the sparks and shivering bolts of light scorching her forearms, her face utterly contorted with rage and pain. It was only for a moment, but it felt like forever. She was holding onto raw verdure, bare handed, simply letting it burn her in place, without an inch of protection. What would deflect a blade of steel or club of stone was held with mere willpower and flesh of the terrible figure, aglow and casting long shadows down the hall.

“I am the favored of Ia-Atshe! Kneel!” 

She forced them both down with a mighty heave that shook Ana’s feet and made them skid. Most of the time, she only felt a little drain when one of her wards deflected a blow, but here she felt it go by inches, the pounding sense in her head coming on almost instantaneously. Vella, on the other hand, let her ward go, and the vampire’s fist to chest sent her reeling into the wall.


She raised her hand and slammed it bare against the shivering ward, and Ana very nearly fell. It would have been easy to fall, easy to simply give up and bargain for their lives and the lives of poor Maya and the lives of so many others who the blueblood might encounter on dark nights like this. It would have been simple. And it was tempting, too – Ana had compromised on so many other things. She had compromised on witchcraft, she had ran in sadness and fear from the only woman she ever loved, she had run from death, she had refused to kneel and take an honest humbling from any of these things, distracting herself with petty moneymaking and fighting and all the matters of survival.

That was what she had done for all her life. She had run from the one orphanage that had been her home for the longest when it had proved too much to see the faces of the people there anymore, and she had joined the Inquisitors to get as far from the poverty that she loathed as possible. She had bent herself into all sorts of uncomfortable positions to live. 

She let her ward go out, the heptagram fizzling into darkness and the headache of her backlash coming on strong, and fell to the earth. 

For a moment, the vampire seemed pleased, and that was all the opportunity that Ana needed. 

She used the momentum of going down so quickly and swung out one of her legs, using her foot like a crook to sweep the vampire’s legs out from under her. She fell to Ana’s level, and Ana released her hand from the ward and punched the vampire in the face. The vampire took the blow like a feral dog and bit the hand that had been fed into her jaw. Ana yelped and lept back to her feet before slashing at the blueblood’s hamstrings. Dark, shimmering blood spilled from the sound, nearly purple in color. 

Something orange sparked in her hand, and Ana’s stomach dropped. She could feel the first after-effects of using so much mana in holding off her mighty blows, and the blueblood hadn’t used any herself. The whole of her body seemed to shimmer with the orange color and she held her palm open like a claw, ready to strike. Ana made to raise her ward again, but her hand faltered and by the time she could bring it to bear, her foe was already behind it, a hand gashing into her shoulder, just as sharp as the knife in the other. 

She stumbled in retreat, and yelled out. 

“Run! Run! I’ll hold her!”

Retreat and survive. Retreat and recover from her whining, aching headache and the fresh wound in her shoulder.

Why couldn’t it just have been some Dzhima crime lords? Thought a tiny part of her mind, Godhead protect my soul and my body. This is going to be difficult.  

Vella didn’t seem to think the same. She made to punch the vampire clear in the back of the head only to be interrupted by the sudden appearance of a vast black wing. Ana took the momentary distraction and used more of her azure mana, sending her blade spinning into the vampire’s foot and pinning it to the floor. She hissed like a viper and showed no hesitation in ripping a fresh channel between her toes. Ana panicked, extricating the tip before the vampire swiped her knife just a few inches from her eyes. She followed it by scratching at Ana’s hand as she backstepped towards the door. She attempted to riposte, to keep the vampire at bay only for her to buffet Ana with the sudden appearance of another wing and knock her further towards the door. 

The door – the door consumed her mind. No more thoughts of past or future, resistance or submission. The door had to have a lock or she was dead. Half-blind and her ears ringing from the blow, she stumbled out into the night air, and slammed it behind her before grabbing for something, anything resembling a bolt that she could  lock from here.

Something clicked, and she ran as her vision cleared, the blow to her head and chest finally starting to clear. She tried to assess the street, tried to find any sort of landmark as she heard the door being rattled and battered by the terrible strength of the dragon. The lights blurred and shimmered red as a droplet of blood from the cut in her head blinded her. 

Then, a throaty, low calling of a bird. To her left, she was so certain. 

She followed the noise and cleared her eyes with her sleeve, finding herself in front of Maya, Vella and Sol. She gasped as she found her breath. 

“Keep running! She isn’t-”

She coughed, and the cough hurt. She was fairly certain she hadn’t broken a rib, but she had certainly bruised one. 

“-We need – we need to get her off of our tail.”

She cursed her own hubris. She had wanted to be humbled more, and now here she was, thinking she could beat a blueblood with some quick thinking and a half-baked plan thought up by an academic who probably hadn’t even seen a blueblood. Not that she had seen one either before today – Ana counted that as a blessing – but when it came to advice, the first step should have been to bring an entire army, silver bullets and all. Or at least a platoon. She stamped her foot and kept herself upright through the headache before speeding away with the three. Sol took the lead now – he knew this part of the city better than them. Ana felt the blood trickle down her face and her chest, starting to wear thin at every single angle. They came to a stopping point at the intersection of a few alleyways, too thin for a horse to go down but enough for two men at a time. Ana coughed again, then shuddered as she heard the beating of wings. 

Not large ones – small ones. Another bat, the size of her fist clinging tightly to a crevice in a brick house. Sol’s eyes met hers, and he didn’t hesitate in smashing the beast between the bricks.

“She’s… using them as spies? Some kind of witchcraft,” said Ana, “Assuming she isn’t birthing them like her daughter.” 

Sol nodded and slumped against the other wall. Maya braced herself with an arm, and looked up. She was very much like her daughter, but far more worn from hard years of labor and captivity, dark circles under her eyes and work-strong arms pockmarked with needle-thin bitemarks and bandages. She looked like she could have adapted just as well to dock-working as being a maid. 

“We could lead her to the city watch,” said Sol, “They have a big building not far from here-”

“They’ll be slaughtered,” said Ana, “Or she’ll fly over them. No. We need to lose her some other way.”

“You don’t look so good, Merya,” said Vella, “Are you sure-”

Ana had enough.

“No one else dies tonight! No one else. I’m not putting anyone else in peril for my safety. I’m tired of it.” 

Sol sighed, his chest heaving and sweat beading down his face.

“You’re right, but I’d like to save my skin. We’re assuming she’s still following?”

“No doubt,” said Vella, “She looked pissed when you swept her legs.”

Ana coughed again.

“We keep moving, then. To the river. We could try to swim it, and she might lose us in the waters.”

Sol shook his head. 

“With your wounds? You’d die of an infection before the sun’s up.”

“And we all die before that if we don’t get there, fast,” said Ana. 

“I’ve got some help from my friend in high places, but I’m not so sure that it would be… prudent,” said Vella, “I’m not even sure if it would work, and if I failed it’d make things worse.”

Her deal. Ana nodded.

“Keep it as a last resort. To the river, whether we cross by bridge or by water,” said Ana. 

Sol looked at her, worried. 

And so they did, running through the alleys as the rush of combat faded. Ana felt very much like a coward, even though she knew it was necessary, and more than that she worried. The first worry was the immediate one. Here, running across the pavingstones and through the alleyways was too much like childhood again for her, only now the watchman who had come to take her away was in all odds soaring overhead, spying them from afar. She knew now what a mouse felt like when a falcon flew high overhead to swoop down and carry them off, looking up at the stars constantly for any sign of those dark wings, that shadow in the air. 

The second worry was more abstract. A blueblood – she hadn’t believed it at first when Edam had said it, but now there was proof of it before her eyes. There hadn’t been a report of one in so long in Koletya, and now it was here in the old capital, murdering in its old hunting grounds, acting as if it were still reigning here. It was disturbing in its implications. Ana shuddered at the thought of more of her kind coming in droves like they had in the old days, commanding their feverishly loyal armies to crush the people. There were only whispers of what they had been doing in the places that they had fled to – gathering allies in the mountainous reaches of Sondi, in the frigid northern holds of Darea, in the dark of the pagan scarlands, where they corrupted holy earth to unholy purpose. 

In the days of the revolution, they could’ve gone on the offense – and they did. The first Inquisitors in Koletya dug deep behind the lines and assassinated more than a few noblemen. Generals, advisors, other vampires who the Church could justify offing. They retreated and fled to places the Church couldn’t follow. Now they were reaping the seeds that had fallen far from the row. 

Ana cleared her head and calmed herself as they made another turn towards the river. As dangerous as the blueblood was, she was being pursued by the Inquisition too. Between Edam and every other witch hunter in the city, even a blueblood that strong wouldn’t stand a chance alone. That meant she needed to retreat eventually. Hopefully. 

The bridge stood over the slow-rolling Teper. The dark, murky water barely even reflected the stars. She hadn’t seen it before, but there it was, the stony remains of the attempts to build a new bridge. Its architect had sabotaged the opening, set gunpowder and discarded silverware in the wooden scaffolds, and invited a whole cadre of nobles out to drink to its opening. They said the blast destroyed only the bridge itself, leaving only a single abandoned stonework that burned for a month. The revolution was only a few years after.

Now it had been eroded by the years and the brackish water that mixed with the fresh of the Teper. A little lantern sat thereon, a beacon in the night for the passing ships so that they would not strike it. The rest of the river ran wide and wild. Ana was having her regrets about thinking of swimming it. The last of the backlash started to kick in, and even looking over the edge made her feel dizzy and sick to her stomach. She stood back and looked to the bridge. There was no need for assent. The night and the thin alleys that lead to Blackwood could give them cover. 

So across they ran, then slowed, then all of them came to a halt at the other side, ducking into yet another back alley to get some respite. Every chest heaved and wheezed. Even Sol, who had avoided the worst of it, looked like he was just about ready to keel over and die. 

And they waited – waited desperately for something to break the tension as they hobbled towards the old hospital. Nothing did; Ana wasn’t certain if the vampire had simply been distracted, or if it had decided to simply leave them be. She just prayed that it was as merciful to everyone else as it was to her, that it had the good sense to not murder wantonly – because wanton murder would give it away. 

There, in the dark was the vague silhouette of the hospital. She felt blood drip from her coat, saw the light in the window, and thought of Edam before she collapsed into a dreamless sleep on the doorstep. 


Ana awoke to morning light in a hospital bed. She wiped the crust from her eyes, and tried to see through her pounding headache. Blurry shapes whirled around her in a stream of colors and more than that every single part of her body hurt.

“Hello?” Asked a familiar voice, “You there?”

“Yeah, Sol. I’m awake. Having a little trouble seeing.”

“The bandage is covering your eyes.” 

He gently raised up the accidental blindfold, putting the rest of the room in sight. Vella was slumped in a chair, still fast asleep, bandaged up carefully. Ana had been treated much the same, as had Maya. She had been given fresh bandages, and her daughter had fallen asleep beside her, clinging to her tightly to make up for the absence. A furnace pumped away, keeping away any sense of a morning chill and boiling what looked like breakfast for them. Ana’s whole body ached.

A job well done, as well as it could be done when a man was already dead. She had gotten the hostage out, and that was enough, as much as the blueblood getting to simply escape worried her.

She struggled upright, and rolled her shoulders.

“Any bad news?”

“You lost a good bit of blood,” said Sol quietly, looking at the window, “Me and Terete were at it all night, stitching you up.” 


“And you’ll recover,” said Sol, “Terete’s a great doctor. She said that all you’ll have to worry about is infection, and she’s got half a dozen remedies and curatives for that.” 

He rubbed his stubble in thought and then sat. 

“Just one problem.”


“We found… locusts in your wounds. Locusts that had emerged from your flesh, fully formed.”

Ana swallowed. She knew that this would happen, sooner or later. She had slipped up – prayed without thinking first.

“Now, you and I both know that no sorcery can create life like that. It can create imitations, it can create simulacrums, it can create all manner of illusions that seem like life, but those locusts were alive. Flew right out the window. And somehow you managed to unlock deadbolts from the outside just by fiddling with a lock.”

He stared her dead in the eye. There was no avoiding it at this point.

“So, you’re a witch. And I may be many things, but I’m not stupid. The people after you are with the Inquisition.”

“I’ll admit it,” said Ana, “I am. If you want me to leave, I’ll leave. Find somewhere else to live.”

He shook his head.

“I left the Church too. For my own reasons. I knew you had too – it was just in the way you carried yourself and the things you chose to take with you. My only question is why’d you leave? Why risk damnation?”

“I was with them,” said Ana, “The Inquisition. Edam was my partner. She was… like a moral center. Like an anchor, someone I could strive to be like. I mean, the Church was too – it was a way of helping people. And then I fell in love with her, and things fell apart from there.”

Sol nodded, and looked out the window again.

“What a damn shame,” he said, “And you have an understanding?”

“Yes,” said Ana, “Yes. And I think the understanding is that it should never have happened. That we would have been less miserable if we had never said a word of love to each other. And that she decided not to chase me last night because it would have let more of the vampires go free. That she doesn’t want to have to chase me, and she resents that I make her slip up in her duties.” 

Sol seemed deep in his consternation before smiling again.

“So she won’t be investigating us?”

“Probably not,” said Ana, “I’m not in her head.”

Not anymore, she thought to herself, As much as I wish to be.

“Then stay. I’ve got my shields against that sort of investigation. And of everything I’ve seen, you’re either a hero or one of the biggest fools in the city.”
“Both,” said Ana, coughing, “Definitely both. I had half a mind to let that woman execute me because I loved her. Damnably foolish.”

“Everyone is for love. That’s why I’ve stayed a bachelor,” said Sol, chuckling a little.

Ana looked over to Maya and Ishka again. They looked peaceful, content. 

“Are most of your odd jobs like this?”

“Hm? Are you kidding?”

“No,” said Ana, “Do all of them end up like this?”

“With half a dozen people bloodied, battered and bruised? With reports of a strange woman flying over the streets on the wings of a bat? Of a burned corpse and inquisitors? Oh, not to mention a whole lot of word about strange ‘rats’ crawling about.” 

“That bad?”

“Not our problem,” said Sol, “All of that is going to your former friends and the watch. No word on us specifically. Allatsha sent a runner who said he was displeased, but he was keeping to his word since we didn’t technically break the peace of his party.” 

Ana swung her feet out over the bed, stood, and stretched the sore muscles in her back. She wobbled out to the window with Sol. Outside, people talked, sold goods, and lived happily and undisturbed by all the strange happenings last night. It was a good day, a soft day, a new one.

“Do they normally go this bad? No. Never. Worst I’ve ever had to do before was arson,” said Sol, “And if you’re asking if they usually end with a mother and child being reunited, also no. Most of them are just jobs. Helpful jobs, but nothing this dramatic.”

Ana rolled her shoulders again.

“I didn’t exactly like being a pit fighter, you know. I mean, I liked the attention the crowds, the money, but it wasn’t-”

“Mm,” grunted Sol, waiting for her to continue.

“What I’m saying is, I could help you around some more. Two vampires are still on the prowl. And people are bound to need more odd jobs done. And you can’t do it all alone.”

“You’re asking me to be your new anchor, I take it?” Asked Sol.

Ana shrugged, and cringed at the pain, rubbing her ribs. 

“If you want. I need something to do with my time. Something that helps people.” 

“Recover first. I think you’re a little concussed. And then, if you’re still inclined, I’d be happy to have you helping me with my jobs.” 

He extended a hand, and she shook on it. 

“I’ll do my best,” said Ana.

He turned his head as if something had very suddenly occurred to him. He pointed at her to make sure that what he said next was driven home.

“Please don’t fall in love with me,” he said dryly, “It hasn’t worked out for anyone before. Also, you still have to pay rent.”

“Hey!” Protested Ana.

“Alright, alright. Fine. Halve it.”

“You said I’d pay what I could.”

“Half of that then,” he said, laughing. 

So they went, back and forth, from half to a quarter, joking all the way. Ana looked out at the city, and felt the air in her lungs pass over her bruised rib. Alive, alive and happy – and for a moment, it felt as if the dark of the last night had never happened, and all the monsters of the world already laid in their graves.

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