There is no moonlight tonight. Even the stars are hidden behind the high, thin clouds that dim their twinkle away to inky blackness. Jack gives silent thanks to the new moon. Without moonlight the land is nothing but layers of shadow. Perfect for his preferred hunting tactics. He's an ambush predator by habit, waiting motionless until someone stumbles into his range. Oh, he could hunt like an average vampire and use copious amounts of magic to lure prey to him. However, he'd rather save his energy for an emergency. Atypical hunting methods are one of the many stratagems Jack Morrison employs to avoid detection by Hunters. No one expects a vampire to hunt like he does, so when the Hunters come running they don't think to look for a vampire.

A chill wind blows, rustling dead leaves across the ground, masking any noise he might make. Not that Jack makes a lot of noise, but some humans have exceptional senses - best to use the environment to his advantage. It should be easy to get a meal tonight; most humans will wrongly assume the goosebumps going down their spine are from the crisp fall breeze, not a vampire, and walk right into his trap. Should being the key word here, Jack muses to himself. In just one year and a scattering of months he turns one thousand, and he's learned by now that even the best laid plans can go awry.

Patience will get me a meal. Hunger gnaws at his insides. It's been too long since he last ate enough. Silence will get me a meal. Jack prays no one will hear the faint sounds of hunger that come off him. Inhuman or not, his body uses similar biological processes as humans. Pesky vampire body makes sound like humans from time to time. Jack scans his surroundings for the signs of prey. Surely someone will pass down this stretch of road hidden in the shadows of a large stand of birch trees. I will get a good meal tonight.

For tonight's hunting expedition Jack's outfit has nothing but white, black, and grey fabric, a mottled mess meant to blend in with the pale bark and dark shadows. Skin unnaturally white, and dark circles around his eyes match the palette as well. Humans have magical amulets to detect illusions now. Inhumans, mages, witches… magic no longer hides them like before. Hiding using mundane methods saves Jack all the power he would need to use to overpower or work around the effects. As far as he knows, Jack is the only vampire that hunts this way. Not that he talks with any other vampires, but Athena, his Dryad hostess provides him with plenty of gossip.

Two feet to his left is a narrow, cobblestone road. This is the shortest path between the towns of Rockspire and Glensdale. Tthe Spire Mountains that cut this piece of country in half separating the two closest towns, Rockspire and Glensdale. Those tall, imposing mountains, most of which are dormant volcanos paint a pretty picture. Those tall mountains tops are already capped with snow, stark against the black basalt stone. Those towns need supplies. Humans are fragile things, always getting wounded. This tiny pass between Mt. Drake and Mt. Gryphon, one of the few passes wide enough for human use, makes the road well traveled. Humans are brave beyond the point of stupid, so it is traveled at night.

Boredom gnaws at Jack almost more demanding than the need in his gut. His brain studies his surroundings. Red eyes take time to survey the road. Although he's hunted here before, his brain demands something to think about. Human structures are a decent enough point of study, he can use the information later. He notes it is tiny road, barely wide enough for a single horse pulled carriage, and it barely fits in the narrow mountain pass. Where the pass narrows so there isn't room for road and stream, bridges are necessary. Human or inhuman, someone clever got both the stream and the road into the available space.

Without a care, the road winds lazily through the assortment of trees, crisscrossing the shallow stream as needed. If he can, Jack prefers to do his hunting in this stretch of country. The humans that live nearby are constantly breeding, always a fresh supply of the young and stupid. It's a pretty place, plenty of landscape to admire while waiting. Jack finds it a nice hunting ground.

It's been several weeks since his last good meal, and Jack can still envision the tasty morsel in his mind's eye. A young male in his prime, his blood sweet like the candy he used to enjoy while mortal. Salvia forms in his mouth as he remembers the meal, whose brown eyes pleaded with him, as his mouth could not. That flawless skin so pliant under his claws as he coaxed the meal into hardness. Their muffled moans of pleasure as he fucked him before feeding still ring pleasantly in memory. One of his fangs slides free of his mouth, as he remembers riding that particular morsel. Another fang slides out, his tongue lapping against his lips. That one's blood was divine to drink, pure and untouched. Blood almost as good as Gabriel's human blood… both fangs bite into his lower lip. A tiny blush crosses his face, fangs retreating quickly, as blood sluggishly flows from the wounds. The small trickle of dark blood drips down his chin, almost as dark a red as his eyes. He wipes away the blood with the back of his fist, the wounds already healed by the time it leaves his face.

He hadn't thought of Gabriel like that in centuries, not since before Jack left without a word. When Jack was a very young vampire, not even into his first century, Gabriel Reyes had been his lover. They had know each other even when they were both mortal, and thanks to a very bloody war, they both became inhumans, powerful immortal creatures, at the same time. Jack had the fortune to become a vampire, Gabriel Reyes unluckily became a Wraith, instead of a more awesome inhuman. Jack feels blessed for becoming a vampire. For the first hundred years they were an inseparable team, but that changed. War didn't make them split ways, the struggles of peace afterwards did.

The wind shifts, picking up the leaves again, and the temperature abruptly drops. Annoyance spikes in Jack. Another inhuman is also on the hunt, he can sense them coming closer with every second. These are unclaimed hunting grounds; any inhuman can use them, provided they defend themselves and their meal from other predators or Hunters. Jack tastes their magic, tongue licking the enchantment off the breeze, slowly rolling it around in his mouth. Pumpkin is the first hint he gets, the taste and feel of the magic strong. He judges his opponent. They're strong. I can already taste their magic without seeing them. Ugh! Whoever is coming is incredibly powerful, probably the second in command to a sovereign inhuman. Their magic tastes oddly familiar, but Jack can't place it. Though the taste does instantly bring to mind feelings of pumpkin pie and fire.

The temperature drops again, frost forming on the ground. Damned annoying, inconsiderate, high and mighty, magically powerful asshole! The changes in weather, loudly announcing the stranger's flamboyant approach, are rapidly sending Jack's dinner plans to hell. Fire and ice, pumpkin spice… An emissary of the Pumpkin King! Jack decides it is time to go. I don't want to deal with anyone's slave! His body turns into a pale mist, quickly condensing into the form of a large, silver bat. Wings spreading wide, he takes flight into the night.

Individual birch trees rapidly shrink into an endless sea of green beneath him. It's not worth the cost to fight someone's pet for a single meal he hasn't even captured yet. Jack doesn't need to eat so badly he'll squabble over unclaimed territory without an actual meal at stake. There are other options open to him, just not the most desired outcomes for getting a dinner. His stomach growls. Jack is not pleased and mentally grumbles during his flight.

Oh, he'd win that fight, but that would announce his presence to anybody in tune with the supernatural for a hundred miles, and anger this bastard's master. Not just any master, the magic he tasted belonged to the Pumpkin King. One of the most infamous, powerful Kings in all of the lands ruled by inhumans. A possible meal is not worth giving away his location to so many unsavory customers and calling down the wrath of a powerful Inhuman. He has no desire to have either a Hunter or one of the Inhuman Kings tracking him down!

Banking sharply to the right, Jack follows parallel to the Spire Mountains. Tall and imposing, the Spire Mountains bisect the continent into two vastly different regions. North of the range is filled with humans and their Kingdoms. Jack hasn't traveled the human ruled lands in nearly eight centuries. Not since Citadel de Noire got destroyed. South of the range is mostly untamed by human hands, filled with inhuman Kingdoms. Although the towns hugging both sides of the mountains are usually a mixture of both human and inhuman. One of the largest, most well known mixed towns, is Nuevo Muerte. It's ruled by an inhuman King. The Pumpkin King rules from a massive castle carved into Mount Saw, one of the largest peaks in the range. The heart of Mount Saw is still rumored to be an active volcano. All of this Jack knows from hearsay, he refuses to go there in person.

Jack's home is in the Overwatch forest, which is the largest forest in the south. Overwatch forest is adjacent to the Spire Mountains for most of their length, spreading outwards, like a patched quilt for hundreds of miles. Not all of Overwatch is ruled by Athena, there are various sections ruled by other power creatures, however, she does rule most of it. Parts of the forest are claimed by the Pumpkin King. A majority of Overwatch's population is smaller magical beings. They call any bits of the forest actively under the Pumpkin King's control, Blackwatch. Again, parts of the forest Jack refuses to visit.

Honestly, at times Jack has briefly considered joining the service of a more powerful creature of the night. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find food and get away undetected with Hunters getting more organized these days. They're putting up traps in areas he likes to hunt, and it's proving problematic for him as one of the few lone vampires remaining. If he had another companion to help him safely spring the trap it would be different. Gabriel never let either of them go hungry. I wonder if Gabriel is still alive and free? Jack's flight takes a sudden dip and he forces his wings to flap harder to level out. He is not thinking about Gabriel right now!

Most inhumans, such as vampires, werewolves, wraiths, witches, etc are the slaves of a more powerful inhuman. Almost all the slaves willingly give up their free will in the process of accepting a King's rule. By giving it up, and all their power, they receive a safe place to stay, food, and other resources. Everyone under a King's control surrenders all their power to their King, strengthening them. The more slaves they control, the more powerful the King. And not everyone serving a King does such service willingly, they often trick anyone and anything they can into eternal servitude. A common tactic for acquiring new slaves is "rescuing" some cornered inhuman from a Hunter, binding the unlucky individual with a life debt. When you live forever unless killed, that's a long time to be indebted. Jack's thought wander back to Gabriel and if he's happy. Once more his flight altitude takes a sharp dip and he labors to even out.

Unfortunately, Jack's pride gets in the way of this simple solution to his problems. The thought of giving up his power and his freedom after living so long on his own is abhorrent to him. Jack Morrison is one of the oldest vampires still awake, possibly the oldest, and consequently one of the most powerful. He knows of three or four who are much older than he is, but each of them has withdrawn to some remote location, falling into eternal slumber. Once a vampire falls into that state, they're effectively dead. He's lasted this long, he'll continue to be fine hunting solo!

Jack takes great pride both in being a long-lived vampire and in being a blood mage. Not many vampires choose to practice blood magic. He's only heard of one other who channels their magic through blood. The rest seemed to find it inferior to other types of magic, or even disgusting. Fools! More than once he's been accused of playing with his food, wasting a good meal for measly magic.

Practically, vampires avoid blood magic because they can't consume blood fueling magic, it's like poison. Their bodies reject any blood that's been used for powering a spell. 'It's a waste Jack,' one told him, right before Jack killed them. Jack knows his fellows are too proud to spill blood and never get to enjoy a drop to drink. It is a lot of work to gather blood for dinner and blood for spell work. They're not work about that! Despite all the extra work, however, Jack has found blood magic to be an extremely potent tool. Bats normally don't grin, but the large silver one flying over the forest does.

With his power he could easily have his own collection of slaves, a castle and city of his own, assured meals, entertainment, and safety. But it isn't a matter of power. Again, it's a matter of pride. During that first century following their great victory, when he was still with Gabriel, it had been a bitter bone of contention. Gabriel wanted to gather slaves, wanted power against those who hunted them, wanted safety and comfort. The war was over, they won, but peace was fleeting and fragile. They had to make sure it lasted! At the time it was a revolutionary concept! Life-debts and the exchange or combination of power had always been a part of an inhuman's life. The binding properties of sworn oaths made them too useful to ignore, but the system of one King with many slaves hadn't always been so universal. Jack often speculated that Gabriel's brilliant idea and probable success had helped popularize the practice.

Jack wouldn't have objected to being Gabriel's slave. Gabriel had been stronger even when they were mortal and Jack was willing to follow him once they were reborn as a Wraith and a Vampire. The problem was that Jack wouldn't be the only one following him, and Jack didn't want to share. The thought of sharing his Gabriel, of others enjoying that body which ought to belong to Jack alone… It drove him insane with jealousy. Jack had been possessive and territorial before their mortality was stripped away from them during that long forgotten war. Being changed into a vampire didn't help those feelings at all, if anything it increased them.

They fought bitterly for months on end before Jack simply left without warning. Gabriel had made up his mind, and Jack couldn't change it. What else was left to do? He would have followed Gabriel alone into hell itself but he couldn't watch more and more beings make their claim on his Gabriel, couldn't share. He refused to submit to Gabriel the King, and that was that.

Wrapped up in thoughts of what might have been, Jack found himself startled from his reminiscence about the past by the sight of his nest. The massive oak, deep in the heart of the forest stretched her branches wide with the appearance of welcome. The shape of her crown was really a relic of the lightning strike that brought them together. Her trunk split by the strike, her upper body almost torn in half, she was gravely wounded and likely to perish in the coming winter when Jack found her. Jack used a complex spell powered by his own blood to heal her in exchange for shelter. If he were any other inhuman, slavery would have been the price, but after the painful result of his argument with Gabriel, even the idea of taking slaves leaves a bad taste in his mouth. Jack hasn't taken a single slave in the nearly 900 years since their separation.

Grateful for his help, and at such a small price, she gladly made a small chamber inside her trunk where he could sleep each night, as well as spare for his things. As the years passed on, and his friendship with Athena grew she let him add on a treehouse in her branches. Between his blood magic, the remote location, Athena's oversight, and the lack of roads, his current home has proven to be a safe haven.

"Athena, I'm back," Jack announces as he lands gracefully on his landing perch. Its an ornately carved stand in the shape of a sea dragon, located on the largest east facing balcony. His body warps from bat, to silver mist, to his humanoid vampire form, shedding his clothing to the wooden boards beneath his feet with one fluid use of vampiric magic. By now he has complete mastery over his body, removing his personal clothing is easy. His body is naked for Athena to enjoy, if she bothered to think of males in that manner. Athena doesn't think of him in a sexual or romantic manner, and it's not as if there's a single corner of the forest she can't observe, so if he wants to change into something other than drab hunting colors why waste time taking off his clothes by hand? Who knows, maybe one day she will take the time to admire his god like body. That has yet to happen; at best she makes sarcastic comments demeaning his manhood. He smiles. Such a good friend, not afraid to poke fun of him! It's a nice change from the usual panicked deference he gets from every other being, human or inhuman, he bothers to talk to.

"You failed to catch dinner again." Athena's voice vibrates through the wood beneath his bare feet, her tone dry and unamused. One of her branches snaps against his bare ass, leaving a red mark.

"Failure implies I couldn't catch my meal. I didn't fail, I was interrupted. It was perfect hunting conditions, my dinner was assured." Jack bares his fangs, eyes narrowing as he stalks over to his wardrobe. It seems she isn't the mood to play nice tonight. Something must be bothering her. If it hadn't been for that idiot parading through his carefully laid ambush… One hand rips a door open, and he scans his choices. He doesn't plan on getting bloody, so one of his pristine white suits will do nicely. Not that Jack has a lot of outfits. A large wardrobe implies he goes shopping. Interacting with humans, unless they're his dinner, is beneath him, not to mention risky.

He's halfway dressed when Athena politely interrupts, "Not white. You need to refresh the wards on the cairns tonight." Shit. She's right, like usual. Blood Magic and white suits don't mix well at all.

Jacks lip curls at the amusement in her voice. Yanking off his shirt, his claws catch and tear the fabric. He tosses it aside and reaches for his red leather jacket and pants. It's not hard to repair his clothing with magic, a little claw damage isn't a huge deal. He can repair his shirt later, it's not hard to weave a spell that'll undo the damage. Though they're enchanted to repel stains, these clothes aren't meant for hunting; they're meant for working magic. So many spells are in the red leather it's amazing they haven't grown a mind of their own! Such is one of the side effects of magic, enough of it in one place turns inanimate objects into thinking beings with a will of their own. Rather pesky at times actually! Not that he's 'lost' clothing to sentience, he's just heard the horror stories. Perhaps the one time he fought an enchanted suit of armor it had come into being that way. Not that he'd wasted the time while fighting for his life to ask how the thinking, self automated armor came to exist.

"There's a gathering of red caps in the southernmost meadow," Athena tells him, her voice fading, as she focuses her attention elsewhere in the forest.

"Thank you Athena. Is there anything you'd like me to bring back?" Jack is glad she told him about the Red Caps. Brutish, troublesome creatures, they are always harassing the more peaceful residents of the forest. But tonight they can finally contribute to the greater good. A cruel smile reveals his fangs. Their blood will suffice for the spell he needs to cast.

"I would appreciate some honey. There are fairies just west of your destination that should have some." Athena's voice returns to a normal volume as she returns her attention to Jack. Athena is preparing for winter, it's just a few months away. She's busy getting ready for the long sleep even now, and honey is a vital ingredient in some of the spells she casts. Most Dryads slumber during the winter, she is no exception. Jack wasn't looking forward to the long months without her company, but he was used to being alone.

"Very well. I'll be back by dawn." Jack's blood magic would make Athena gravely ill, so all of his spell casting must be done far away from her roots. He gives her a formal bow, his hand tight against his chest, then takes his leave, gracefully jumping from branch to branch until he lands on the ground.

Athena is one of the elder dryads in this forest, and the de facto matriarch. When Jack found her those many decades ago, just days after that fateful lightning strike, he didn't know how many of the smaller magical beings living within the forest's borders depended on her. When he took up residence, it opened his eyes to a new world. He isn't certain what would have happened if she had died from that lightning strike, but he knows it wouldn't have been good.

The more he learned about how the forest depended on Athena, the more he grew concerned at the lack of magical protection. He petitioned her to lift the ban on blood magic, just for him. It had been hard to convince her. Most blood mages were careless, poisoning the earth and water with sloppily discarded corpses, warping the natural magic with the pain and fear of their victims. Jack's methods of working blood magic were just as atypical as his hunting methods. Once he showed her what he could do, without harming the forest, in fact helping it, she had relented.

Not that he produces traditional protection spells. The best he can manage in the traditional sense is a short lived shield. No, instead what he did was put nuisance spells throughout the forest. Trespassers can't traverse the forest with any domesticated animal. He made that spell's definitions generic on purpose, both pets and livestock cringe, spook, balk and shy, refusing to enter. Prey animals are subtly herded away from any potential hunters, while predators are encouraged to stalk and attack. In short, any unwanted guests find themselves plagued with the worst possible luck. And all of his spells are neatly placed on road cairns, he only needs to refresh the Master Ward, which then spreads the effects to all the linking wards. The forest acts cursed, yet all attempts to find any actual curses will fail. Thanks to his efforts, all human traffic, as well as most inhuman traffic, has ceased. Any intruder who presses on despite the various nuisance spells will find themselves against nigh unbreakable wards.

Jack often adjusts the wards based on what Athena hears on the grape vine. She easily gathers gossip because most of the residents tell her all about their lives. When he moved in, and proved friendly, he gained access to the flow of information she received. Before living with Athena, he considered the smaller magical residents of the world lesser beings. Now that he has to work with them, he's grown to respect them.

Almost everyone has a cousin that lives in some city. This is how Jack knows about the comings and goings of other inhumans. Their closest neighbor is the Pumpkin King's city, Nuevo Muerte. The forest close to it is called Blackwatch. He avoids that section like it's the Blood Pox. Suddenly Jack feels oblivious. That was whose magic I tasted earlier. I should have realized! Odd, I didn't think he sent his higher ups so far out of his land... No matter, that ass's minion ruined my dinner plans!

A mysterious figure who had never really bothered Jack before, the Pumpkin King is a wraith of incredible power who resides in a large castle surrounded by a mixed human/inhuman city, and is generally hated by all human Hunters due to how untouchable he is. Jack hears a lot of news about human Hunters from the residents of the forest. Hunters kill all inhumans, even the small fairly harmless ones. It's a survival tactic among the smaller inhumans to share all news, rumors, and gossip on Hunters.

Fairies really love gossip, and will talk for hours on end if their victim will hold still. No one has ever seen the Pumpkin King's face is a favorite rumor, that he always wears a carved pumpkin as a head. He's supposedly the first Headless Huntsman, the pixies say. His claimed lands border the edge of their forest, but until now the Pumpkin King has kept to his lands, never trespassing. Strictly speaking, there was no trespassing tonight either, but that section of unclaimed land is close enough for Jack to take notice.

Although he has no slaves, Jack is the unofficial King of this forest. The more he helped Athena manage the it, the more he ended up with a vested interest in keeping it safe and flourishing. While he will never become a true King as long as he refuses to take slaves, almost all of the smaller magical residents follow his orders. There are Laws in the forest, and treaties between the small tribes. Jack enforces them as judge, officer, and executioner, as needed. Those that don't obey end up as fuel for his magics, with Athena backing his decisions. Politics are awful, even ones he has control over, but while Jack loathes them with a passion, and avoids such nonsense to the best of his ability, he still knows how they work. He can't defend himself against threats he doesn't understand.

The problem this causes is that everyone in the forest is off limits for him as a food source. Considering all the peace treaties and non-aggression pacts in place it would cause quite an uproar if he started hunting in the forest. And since they aren't his slaves, he can't command them to provide him with their blood. All his meals must be gathered and consumed far from his home. It hadn't been an issue originally, but Hunters are starting to become much more effective.

The days of the lone hunter are over. Now they have a central guild, and every single member reports to it. They meticulously gather data on their prey: analysing the hunting grounds in question, the attacks used on the victims, and what type of undead caused it. Next, they share it freely amongst themselves, and finally they gather in large groups with the most effective weapons and go hunting. Unless you're extremely powerful, getting caught by a group of Hunters is certain death. He wonders if this is humanity's response to inhumans forming larger, more powerful groups. With entire cities ruled by immortal Kings, controlling everyone from the shadows, it wouldn't be surprising.

I may need to see about possible agreements for acquiring meals. It's getting harder and harder to find them on my own. How can I secure a deal for food without becoming a target for some power hungry King? Before that thought reaches any solid conclusions, Jack senses trouble. The usual sounds of the forest have stopped. No hooting of owls, chirping of crickets, or shuffling small creatures disrupt the night. Instead there is silence. Has he gotten that close to the meadow where the red caps are gathered already? His gaze flicks around, checking his surroundings; several stones lay in a jumbled heap just ahead of him, and beyond the stones lies the meadow.

Most of the neutral, and all the good magical creatures avoid this meadow. Too much blood has been spilled there. As souls pass through the Veil between the living and the dead, if their passing is sudden, violent, or exceptionally tragic, the soul doesn't want to go. They tug at the very fabric of the Universe in a vain attempt to stay among the living. Violent deaths cause unease in the natural flow of magic itself. Such is the case here, the souls of the dead passing has tainted this section of forest beyond the tolerances of most creatures that can sense anything magical.

Ah, yes. I'm in the right area for them to ambush me! Should I act unaware of them and let them attack me to no avail? Or just call them to me, and cast the ward while they watch me kill their own, helpless? Jack decides on magical method. It's much faster that way, and there are other he things he wants to do tonight. Best to get this over with quickly.

Jack is not a good being. He thrives on death, so the meadow doesn't bother him at all. Personally, the aura is appealing to his finely tuned magical senses, but the taint also disrupts sensitive spell work, or he would have set up his workshop here. Blood magic has to be woven very carefully, otherwise it causes too much strain. Thankfully, Jack knows a spell, one he picked from his first teacher, that negates this problem. Not powered by blood, and not a native vampire ability, it's actually an adaptation of something from a siren. All he has to do is cast this specialized compulsion on the sacrifice and their soul has no clue what's happening. In fact, they die blissfully, glad to be free of their body, which eliminates all of the 'grabbing at the fabric of reality to avoid death' bits.

That loophole is one reason why his blood magic is insanely hard to counter. All the counterspells he's come across are based solely on the sacrifices' souls dying horribly. Other blood mages are really missing out by continuing to terrorize their victims. Then again, if it was a common method, countermeasures would be more common too. It is one reason why Jack never takes on any students. If his atypical methods become well known, they'll get countered, and there goes one of his best protections. Jack puts one hand into a pocket and he reaches for a vial of blood. His fingers after a moment of blind searching, brushed against a small, glass vial. Inside is some blood. Fingernails pry off the cork and slick, cool liquid brushes against his finger tips. Power flows through him and he smiles. His other hand rises up to head level.

Spell now ready to cast, his fingers snap loudly, the sound echoing in the silence. Magic flowers through his hand coated with blood, through his body and into his other hand. Malice seethes through the magic, a lingering desire to hurt and maim. Jack's source for his current set of blood came from a serial rapist. A nasty young man who whined about being a nice guy. The town Jack snatched that asshole from is a lot safer now! Again he snaps, this time with a powerful magical lure for anyone with ill intent to come forward. 'Come, join in. Malice here. Join in, come here all those who love to hurt!' Lure set, Jack waits.

Those with hatred in their hearts, those who thrive off malice, will be drawn to him. Red Caps are the perfect prey this. Not long after, a few small men come shuffling towards him. If it weren't for the red caps on their head, they could be mistaken for brownies. One of them lets out a whine at spotting Jack. They all see him now, the knowledge it's a trap bitter in their bodies. Hatred shows in their eyes as they struggle against the lure. However, vampires' magic ages like wine, the older they are, the more powerful it gets; and Jack turns 1,000 in just a couple of years. It would take far more than some red caps to break his blood magic fueled compulsion.

Before long they are within arm's reach. Their beady eyes glare pure hatred at him. Jack merely graces with them a smile, counting his haul. There are four in total, the perfect amount. His body reacts with faint hunger as his pale fingers wrap around the first one's throat, lifting him up to eye level. It would be an easy meal; just drink his blood and be done with it. Alas, Jack is under treaty. Even if they are nothing more than nasty abominations who do no good, he is prohibited from consuming any denizen of the forest as long as he lives within Athena's branches.

He gives the struggling red cap a very toothy smile, and a single fang slips out. "You four broke the laws." Jack doesn't bother to mention which laws. Red caps live off of torturing others, they can't live without it. And while the laws are written so that unsavory magical beings can live here, Athena and the other Matriarchs made it clear that such activities are strictly forbidden inside the bounds of the forest. The panic the little men give off is enough to convict them. Although they could be as monstrous as they wanted outside the forest grounds, almost all creatures who live on the suffering of others fail to control themselves.

"Which suits me just fine. I need to refresh my wards. Your blood will suffice for the task." Jack's toothy grin is followed by a small, pleasant laugh. Swiftly he alters the compulsion, forcing them to follow behind him in a silent, docile line. One of them starts to cry, and the others struggle harder. Tiny legs shake, and small hands form into quivering fists, but they still follow behind him as he makes his way to his altar.

There's a small section on the edges of the Athena's domain where Jack has set up his workstation. Oh, it's still part of the forest, but something else bigger and nastier controls the woods south of the dryads' area. From the rare taste of Its magic he's found, It feels like an old god. Gods are rare, but very real. Even as old as he is, he wouldn't last against one for more than a couple minutes at most. He doesn't want to die, so he doesn't look for more answers, but down here his blood magic won't affect any of Athena's people. He's lucky that the old god living nearby seems uninterested in his magical affairs. Still, he has some of his best detection spells in place in case It decides to pay him a visit.

Centered in his work area is a large stone altar, and next to it a stand where he keeps a bowl for collecting blood, and a couple small knives. A total of six tables, and three chests for storing supplies surround the altar. All of them are tainted with his magic, any interloper would find themselves hexed if they touched anything.

Jack snaps out of his thoughts when the red cap he's holding bites his hand. In an attempt to fight back, the little bastard managed to bite him! He didn't manage to resist the spell enough to break the skin, but the action alone caught Jack's attention. His eyes focus on the red cap in his hand. Pupils grow, turning the red of his irises into a thin red line around a bottomless pool of black.

"Rude," he addresses the red cap before giving a sharper focus to his spell, forcing his victim to catch and keep his gaze. "Now just relax small one. You're so very happy right now. Everything is wonderful." When the body goes limp in his hand, that's his cue it's safe to work his spells. His free hand curls into a claw shape, sharp fingers slowly dig into the diminutive chest. Bones crack as he wiggles his fingers between the ribs, feeling for the heart. He finds it, beating slowly. Using his inhuman speed, he rips it out to hold it, still pumping, over a black, stone bowl. Each pump of the heart drips blood into the bowl, where hand-etched runes slowly come to life. These runes match the ones he's marked on the road cairns. The moment the heart stops beating, Jack crushes it to squeeze out the last of the blood.

Meticulously setting the now useless lump of flesh on one of the many side tables, Jack repeats this with the remaining three red caps, the sickly red glow of the runes brightening with each addition. The common assumption is that the blood of pure, innocent virgins is the best for such spellwork. Jack has found, through trial and error, the blood of malicious assholes actually works best. Blood is important, and takes on the personality of the body it courses through; the blood of hateful beings wants to continue being nasty. Since almost all blood magic spells are malevolent in nature, he's found that blood from evil people actually enforces the spellwork willingly. Another perk is no one really comes looking for the town asshole. Manhunts happen mere hours after a town's sweet maidens start vanishing, but disappear the guy everyone hates and they're practically throwing a parade in gratitude. Jack prides himself on keeping the population of assholes lower.

With a mental flick, Jack casts a spell and water start flowing through the black basin, washing all the blood into his disposal area. One of the reasons why experienced blood mages are rare is that the risk of tainting the land is very high. Bodies start piling up, the ground and water supplies are poisoned, people fall ill, and suddenly there's a witch-hunt. He's not surprised; anyone who wants safe drinking water runs them off when they're so sloppy with spell material disposal. He spelled a section of ground to dissolve the bodies and left over blood into a mulch. His methods help the forest grow and stay strong. Once he explained it to Athena, and showed her the mulch, that was when she relented. Before he took up residence, blood magic was strictly taboo. An exception was created just for him, otherwise his enchantments would be outlawed, beneficial as they are.

Next on the agenda is gathering the honey Athena requested. Before their slumber during the winter, all Dryads do a lot magical preparation. While magic varies from species to species, Jack knows that it all has the same source. Humans use and cast magic vastly different from inhumans, and most small magical creatures cast it differently as well. Honey is important for her spellwork, and hmm… if he makes a slight detour after getting it, he can bargain for some fire honey as well. Athena would love getting some! He smiles at the thought of her reaction.

The forest runs on an exchange economy, similar to a human village, only there is no actual coin exchanged. Actions pay for goods here. From the least to the greatest, not even the rulers of the forest are exempt; Athena too needs to pay for what she uses. Nothing is free here, not even gifts. Gifts are a thanks for something; the law that all debts must be paid applies to even the smallest of magical creatures. Need something? Do an unpleasant job, or provide a specialized skill unique to your species.

What pays for Athena's honey is the massive amount of credit Jack has acquired. Since he put his wards into place, human and inhuman traffic has trickled to a halt, and the forest is an absolute haven for smaller magical beings as a result. All the beings in the forest know this, and benefit from the peace. Thus, any living creature inside the forest simply gives Jack whatever he asks for, even if he hasn't helped them in person.

Fairies are always cheerful, and always causing trouble. Jack doesn't like dealing with them; every time they interact they try to annoy him, chirping at him with their squeaky voices and focusing their overly cheerful smiles in his direction. Fetching the honey is no exception, he's tormented the moment the damned things know he's there. No way in hell is he gathering honey by hand! He could, but that takes a lot of time, and is messy, and he doesn't want to waste magic gathering honey either. No, he'll get it from the fairies and pixies that gather it, despite their pestering him.

Thanks to the many treaties in place, he can't swat them away when they attempt to braid his hair while he is talking with their Queen. Instead he has to rely on telling jokes: really bad human jokes. As old as he is, his arsenal of puns is nigh bottomless. Fairies tend to be literal creatures, and puns actually give them headaches. Luckily, Queens are an exception, they have slightly more intelligence and can tolerate his jokes to keep away the crowds of overly curious fairies plaguing his personal space. Not always, more than once he's been cursed by a peeved fairy queen for his puns; thankfully nothing serious just an unpleasant hex to shut him up.

"What does a tree feel in Spring? Re-leaf!" Jack says with a toothy smile, and all the fairies scatter. When he brings out the puns they all give him a wide berth.

Pixies are bit trickier, and they have the fire honey he wants. Similar to fairies, they're cheerful pests. Sadly they're a step above fairies in intelligence, which means puns don't work as a repellent. And of course the same treaty keeps them from harm so he has to use non-lethal methods. Jack's trick for dealing with pixies is to charm something to look shiny. They're drawn to shiny objects, similar to the crows they use as rides. And since he's not nice, and he hates dealing with them, he always enchants animal shit. All it takes is some well placed illusions, and they're too in love with the new sparkly pile of deer shit to give him the time of day. Most mages wouldn't be able to pull this off; pixies have an insanely high tolerance for magic, it slides right off of them. Luckily for Jack, he's old enough that his magic can power through a pixie's natural resistance. All they see is a something shiny that they must play with, and end up covered wingtip to wingtip, head to toe, in feces.

Thankfully, the pixies don't hate him for this; they see it all as a good joke on his part. A few times he'd ended up cursed by pixies, or other mischievous creatures. Not that their curses ever lasted long, but he did learn to respect them. Before moving into Athena's realm, he assumed that any magical being smaller than a human was weak. How wrong he was! No, their magic is just different. More than once Jack has watched and studied the smaller beings cast their magic. Every time he's left baffled how it works. In the end Jack leaves with a smile and the fire honey he wanted for Athena.

Before he even takes one step towards his nest though, a shiver runs down his spine. Someone powerful is attempting to bypass his wards, and the taste of their magic is pumpkin flavored. It seems that the high ranking minion that chased him off of his dinner earlier is paying the forest a visit. As the minion directly counters his magic with his own, Jack feels a shock run down his spine. He was mistaken, that isn't a minion, it's The Pumpkin King himself! This high and mighty asshole is heading directly to the heart of the forest, implying he's after Athena. Jack picks up his pace, if it comes down to a fight Athena will need his magic, and even then they might not win. They're both powerful as individuals, but a King is the focal point for the power of all his slaves. The question is, why is their neighbor, who ignored them for so long, finally paying Athena a visit?