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Despite everything, the first blow was unexpected, and Gabrielle instinctively wanted to reply in kind. The blood trickling from her nose, counterpoint to the sharp pain, roused her demon and she felt her fangs start to elongate. She fought the change, just like she fought the instinct to strike back. And if she closed her hands tight enough that her fingernails drew blood from her palms, she didn’t use her fists to fight back. She parried some blows, but without much conviction.
She could easily have struck back; those were only humans around her, and only a handful of them at that. In seconds, she could have killed all of them, or broken a few bones to disable them; neither option would have taken much time or skill. But they had more of a right to hurt her than she did them, and so she stayed there, and waited for one of them to figure out what she was and shove a piece of wood through her heart.
It was far too common, these days, for isolated people to be the victims of attacks as unprovoked as they could be deadly. It was enough to be dressed in clothes that weren’t rags to attract this sort of attention. Enough to look reasonably healthy. To look like you weren’t starving. To look like you had anything worth stealing on your person. Any reason was enough, really; and sometimes, no reasons were needed at all.
Gabrielle remembered days of peace, when this kind of behavior would have been met with swift retaliation from the vampire clan on whose grounds the transgression had occurred. Vampires were protective of what they considered theirs, and humans definitely fell into that category. The pacts didn’t say it in so many words, of course, and the humans would have been offended to even hear it, but as a clan Master, that had always been how Gabrielle saw things. The people she had protected against demons and rogue humans alike and who had offered blood to her and to her clan had been hers. Free to move to other villages, free to do as they pleased, but ultimately hers, just as much as her Childer had been hers. Responsibility and family, all at once.
Now though, vampires were too busy fighting demons to be able to police the humans. And the humans were so scared by everything going on around them that their attempts to police themselves often ended in summary executions.
Gabrielle knew all that. She had tried, for as long as she had been able to, to keep a hold on her territory, to keep her people safe. But without a clan around her, the task was too large, and all she could do was spend her nights patrolling grounds she didn’t dare call hers anymore, and help whatever humans she met. If she heard about demons invading a town or village, she would run there, often arriving too late to do more than mourn and kill a few beasts. The humans who had once looked up to her, sought her help, had for the most part stopped believing in her.
She was glad they had.
Even with the rampant danger, people often stayed in their villages rather than seek refuge in overcrowded towns that weren’t as safe as they claimed to be. The village councils that had survived had gained power, and they organized patrol groups to ward off demons entering their villages and keep human thieves and murderers at bay. If they were lucky enough to have them, young people who knew hardly anything about weapons armed themselves with axes, short swords and spears. Otherwise they used sticks and rocks. Decently armed or not, one thing was common to all of them; they reeked of fear.
Gabrielle had laughed, the first few times she had encountered these groups on her territory; these children were pitiful, not quite believing they could fight yet ready to die trying. Over the years, the laughs had turned into sour anger. The humans had learned to fight, at least enough to get by, and as a group they were often as effective defending their villages as she was alone. Eventually, the anger had faded, leaving only tiredness and regret. Gabrielle was tired of fighting, tired of protecting humans who were as wary of her as they were afraid of demons. More than two centuries of fighting for them on her own were enough to make up for her failings, or so she thought. If whoever passed judgment on these things thought otherwise… well, hell couldn’t possibly be much worse than this.
She had been ready to die, but she had planned to do so standing, and she was almost surprised suddenly to find herself on the ground. The grass was wet against her cheek, she noticed. Wet and sticky. It took her long seconds to realize it was wet with her blood.
Focusing on little, insignificant details helped, it made the pain manageable if not less – oh, no, not less, they had stopped beating her, now, but she could feel each cut, each bruise and a couple of broken bones. She could hear them talk, too. Talk of the need for a stake carved from special wood, talk of beheading, and short swords hidden back in the village that could be fetched in minutes. Tired as she was, she was ready to tell them that any piece of wood, as long as it was pointy enough to pierce her skin, would do the job, and the special wood was a myth. Anything for all of it to end now, and quickly, the physical pain and the mental agony alike.
The talking stopped, and the part of Gabrielle’s brain that wasn’t consumed by pain wondered if she had passed out already. But if she had, she wouldn’t have been aware of it, wouldn’t have questioned herself, wouldn’t still be feeling pain, just as overwhelming as it had been, two hundred and a few years earlier on that cursed morning.
She had knelt, then, broken in mind and body, on a battlefield littered with corpses she couldn’t look at, because each of them wore the face of a friend, of a member of her clan, of a human from her first allied village. Each streak of lightning in the sky had made it all too clear how many bodies lay around her. Most of them should have vanished, should have been reduced to ashes, but the Primal Forces had done something to the vampires they had killed that night, and their bodies had remained intact in death. Gabrielle had knelt, waiting for the sun as she did now, ready to join the fallen fighters she had led to their deaths. She had failed the members of her clan, as she had failed the humans under her protection. And then, she had heard it despite the relentless thunder over her head. A sob. A heart-wrenching sob. The cry of a lost soul who had seen everything, everyone they loved disappear. Just like Gabrielle had.
She had found it in herself to stand, to stumble to the crying man lying with scorched bodies. She had called his name, in vain. Erik had not reacted, too lost in his grief to respond to a simple word. Gabrielle had closed her hand on his shoulder, gradually squeezing hard enough to hurt, because Erik did not look at her until she did that. Dead eyes had stared at her, unseeing, from behind a mask of blood and grime. Gabrielle had heard words fall out of her mouth, comfort that tasted of ashes, courage as bright as a dying flame. Erik had continued to stare at her blankly until Gabrielle had pulled him up and led him to shelter in the ruins that had been their lair. Saved him, like she hadn’t been able to save the others. And then…
A noise – soft steps – pulled Gabrielle back to the present, and she made the effort to open her eyes. At first, she thought that she was still lost in her memories as her gaze met the icy gray eyes of a vampire she hadn’t seen in two hundred years. But when she blinked, the tall shadow only got closer, clearer.
“Have you lost the last sane bits of your brain?” a sneering voice asked, too loud, slightly off. “What the hell is wrong with you? Trying to get yourself dusted?”
Gabrielle’s only answer was a grunt. Closing her eyes again, she mentally wished Erik would go away, leave her alone, to the tender care of the soon to come sunrise, or to that of these humans. Although they seemed to have disappeared. Where had they gone? To get that sword, maybe?
Strong hands grabbed her, and as she yelled in pain Gabrielle was sure Erik was about to finish the job. In a sense, it was fitting.
The pain was excruciating, broken bones moving as no bone should, cracked ribs protesting, bruised skin coming into contact with too strong hands …
Blissful darkness swallowed everything into silence.
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