No minor gauzy sheet of repellent magic, this was a ward, grounded in complex sigils scratched into the soil, the lines and whorls now radiant with energy. Great sinuous ropes of fire coiled and wove, knitting themselves into a scintillating wall of fire, a barrier bright enough to strike fear into the heart of any undead.
Kain was not just *any* undead.
Eyes narrowed to slits against the fiery glow, the wolf changed course, great hunks of sod thrown up under his flashing paws, streaking directly for one of the huge wards which anchored the repellent wall. Even as he gathered his strength, steel-tempered muscles bunching, he could feel his burden's grip begin to fail. The ropes had loosened in Kain's mad dash, and the boy's own strength was all but gone.
Wraiths howling at his heels, he launched himself into the air, straight at the fiery wards. The wards seared at his skin, scorched the edges of his fur in a moment of bright-flashing agony, the inimical magic within attempting to bar his passage; but Kain was not only vampire, but Balance Guardian as well, the embodiment one of the primal forces that rooted all of Nosgoth, and no hedge-wizardry could hope to stand against him. Fire crackled, lashing like whips to tangle and tear-and was repelled by the dark press of Kain's own power, smothering the flames before they could sear undead flesh from bone.
Landing, Kain felt his burden lurch, then slide, the whelp's strength finally failing him even as shouts of alarm and dismay rang all about them, humans running to confront the demon-wolf in their midst with torches and steel. Rahab fell, an ungainly and unconscious weight, and Kain found himself caught in the tangle of both boy and makeshift harness. This situation, he decided, was both undignified and unacceptable. Snarling in aggravation, he released his hold upon wolf-shape, the twisted cloth of the harness dropping away as he stood upright once more in his true vampiric form - then, before the light of the spell could fade, caught at another and assumed his aristocratic guise. A pale, obviously inhuman nobleman was unlikely to be much more reassuring to a human encampment such as this, who suffered as much from their own kind as the beasts that haunted the wild. It would, however, ensure far less blind terror than his true visage, and a much greater chance that he would be obeyed, especially if combined with a judicious amount of force.
"I require food, shelter and what healing you can provide for the boy," he commanded, ignoring both torches and makeshift blades as unworthy of his attention. The human males, clad in ragged but clean garb, shifted. They had ringed the creature, holding him at bay from the rest of the encampment-but none of them seemed keen to attack. The thing that stood before them was unlike any they had ever seen-not a ravening vampire, nor a mindless zombie. Far too solid to be either wraith or any other night-hauntings, the pale man could only be a wizard, or something far more terrible ...and none of them wished to be the first to fling themselves into the fray against such a creature!
Kain's eyes - no longer golden, but raptor-keen nonetheless - narrowed. "Now, vermin, if you value your worthless lives. Or do I need to skewer a few of your worthless band in order to hasten your obedience?"
Behind Kain, lit by the arcane glow of the wards, several of the insubstantial wraiths struck the now-weakened barrier. A few vaporized. Others of the spectres, marginally stronger than the others and enmaddened by the prospect of weakened prey so close, clawed at the ragged and slowly-closing puncture caused by Kain's passage through the shield, howling like the damned things they were. Others drifted back, turned, their forms wavering and fading as they moved away from the illumination... and then the sentry too was screaming, the human left outside the barrier.
Inside the ring of wagons, a few of the women dressed in bright patchwork garb took up a wailing cry as well, and commenced to throwing themselves against those men and boys who, wisely, had stayed back. The mad flickering and dancing of the disrupted wards made shadows leap and twitch like wraiths themselves.
It was all profoundly irritating.
And potentially dangerous, too - Kain could permit no interruption that might fatally divert his attention from the boy crumpled at his feet. With a low hiss of impatience, Kain lifted his hand, found the strands of magic that he needed by nothing more than the feel of them in his mind and between his fingers. And twisted.
Every nearby undead, other than Kain himself, erupted into bright blue flame - attenuating, dying, their shadowed tatters of souls ripped free and cast to the sucking void. The spectres vanished, even the strongest lasting only a second or two under Kain's arcane assault. Further out in the forest, there were other flares - rats or ravens, perhaps, scavengers which had dared feed on common shambling zombies, or skeletons so old they lay immobile and harmless but yet unliving. The spell was indiscriminate. Nothing that lacked a beating heart survived.
The human trapped outside the circle kept up its caterwauling for a moment, then fell silent, coughed a few times in confusion, and started back towards camp, shivering. The wards, no longer sensing undead along the perimeter, began to power down, their harsh glare fading out. On the other side of the wagons, one of the shieldback draftbeasts placidly lifted its head, tiny eyes blinking blearily, then the creature turned back to its silage. Beneath a wagons, one of the bull-mastiffs - enormous dogs akin to wolves and bred for protection - whimpered shortly. Shocked silence reigned.
Kain's lip curled, a gesture that would have exposed a single long canine fang, had this form been blessed with them. "Force me to repeat myself again, tzigane, and I will -"
"Nay. Nay, Sirah, there be no need for any of that." A woman long past bearing years pushed her way between two of the blade-wielding men. Her hair was almost as white as Kain's, her skin wizened like a half-dry grape. Only rarely did humans attain such an age under the Empire s dominion. "Andrzej, Mihai, enough. Go see what be wrong with the dogs. Nicu, make up a warm bed for this boy, and fetch my unguents. You there, carry him." The woman struck at one man's arm with her staff - a weak blow, but one which seemed to galvanize the mortals as thoroughly as the crack of any slaver s whip. Chastened and confused, the men sheathed their blades. One of them stepped hesitantly towards the vampire lord, as if he meant to touch Kain's boy.
Kain growled at the importunate reach; the sound was not as inhuman as it might have been in his true form, but was sufficiently menacing enough to make the bearded man back hastily away. "Guide us, woman, and make it quick. I am hardly about to leave the whelp to you unwatched." Cradle-robbers and child-stealers, the prudish and suspicious towns-dwelling farmers and villagers named the travelling folk, usually without cause. But tzigane were not without curses and tricks aplenty, all finely honed to survive in a world where every hand was against them, and Kain would be a fool indeed to leave that which he intended to protect unguarded in their hands.
The old woman hesitated, some of her assumed authority faltering for a moment-then she gave him a deferential nod, waving the man away. "Of course, Sirah. This way, if it be your will." Leaning on her staff, she moved towards one of the wagons closest to the center of the encampment and the fire. Kain knelt to draw his arms - carefully! - under the boy's limp frame and then followed, carrying the shivering weight of the boy effortlessly, and ducked his head to enter as she led the way inside. A heavy combination of foreign spices, human scent and old wood made for a pungent atmosphere indeed, and Kain had cause to be thankful his nose in this form was no longer vampire- or wolf-keen. He could also feel the prickle of minor magics woven into the ornate rugs and worn carvings of the walls, but none of seemed inimical to the undead - or if they were, they were not potent enough to affect an elder.
The woman gestured to the narrow bench-bed that ran along the far wall. Piled high with thick-woven and brightly-patterned blankets, it was more than large enough for the slight boy he carried. " If you would put him there, Sirah-we must warm him before all else." There was a discreet rap upon the door, and she scooted around the vampire lord with the adroitness of a creature used to confined spaces. The man she had named Nicu had returned, it seemed - she took a wrapped chest from him with the liquid murmur of hushed conversation, then turned back to her patient, flapping an impatient hand at the worried man when he seemed inclined to linger.
The whelp coughed hoarsely in his sleep, then snuffled a bit, thin fingers plucking at the blankets. Kain scowled down at him; did the wretch have to be so blasted *pitiful*? It seemed so impossible, the idea that a strong, proud fledgling could ever emerge from this pathetic chrysalis of shivering flesh and bone
Back creaking ominously, the woman placed the wrapped chest on the floor beside the little bed. She straightened only to find the creature's child shivering atop the blankets, and sighed briefly. Using the knob of her staff, she pounded on the wooden wall of the wagon. "And hot water for the flasks, Nicu!" she added to the listeners whose heartbeats Kain could detect through the wooden walls, and then shambled again around the vampire lord. She set to easing the topmost quilt out from beneath the insensate boy. "He'll be warmest under the coverlets, Sirah," the granddam said neutrally.
Kain snarled, but lifted Rahab cautiously once more, careful not to squeeze or grasp. The boy was quite warm against Kain s skin - cooler perhaps than Kain's normal prey, but certainly not as chill as a hungry fledgling. "I do not require your admonitions-" Kain growled, placing the young mortal back down and permitting the woman to cover him over. He knew that humans tended to prefer being swaddled in fabric, though it seemed to him that was likely due to mortal modesty or fear of injury, parasites, or predation. Being covered did not keep a vampire warm... but on the other hand, only the newest fledglings wasted any significant amount of energy as body heat. Perhaps the woman s words made a certain amount of sense. "-only your cooperation. Repair the boy, and I will depart with him this night - and leave your band unscathed. Delay, and I shall find myself significantly less... charitable."
"Aye, Sirah", said the woman. Most creatures could sense fear, and she concealed hers the best she could by focusing on the boy. The child s shivering gradually deepened, becoming a hard, wracking shudder. Chillghasts could drink down a man s warmth until he was too weak even to shiver right; she had seen it before, so perhaps this was an improvement. And so much smaller was this boy... was his arm *broken*? Ghasts wouldn t have done that. Sighing shortly, the woman levered herself down onto one knee, and folded open the top of her small chest. The wood was intricately carved, smoothed and darkened by the touch of many hands. It came open on old hinges, revealing dozens of paper or leather packets. The woman s knobby fingers flicked through them, selecting some, returning others. "And if I do hurry, and he be too weak, he will be in similar trouble a league down the road. Then the curse you are like to leave behind will slay us just the same, Sirah, and you'll still be no better off." Comfrey and coughenbane, peppermint and ginger, if she had any left...
Kain arched a brow. He had much more potent devices at his disposal than mere curses. "Then apply a healing draught, woman, and be done with it."
The matron stiffened a little. "Would that we had such draw with the Sarafan! Nay, Sirah, they ve not deigned to gift or sell such tonics to such as we. And thieving them is impossible, these days." She spat in the direction of the door. "Even so, rest and food and my herbs mend just the same."
Eyes narrowed, Kain drew a fraction of a breath - reluctantly, for the smell of the cramped wagon and crowded humanity was overpowering in this small space - and tasted no particularly heightened scents beyond the usual, nor the bitter mealy scent of a lying mortal. With some reluctance, he stepped back so much as the walls of the wagon allowed, braided garlic and bundles of aromatic plants bumping against his back, to permit the woman room enough to work. He watched sharply as she performed an unusual but practiced series of actions - placing her ear upon the boy's chest, feeling along the sides of his jaw and the pit of his arms. When the leather flasks of hot water arrived, she poured a little into a crude wooden cup, along with some of the dried herbage. She wrapped each flask in a scrap of felt and tucked it close to the boy s side, and then, after some few minutes, began spooning the warm water into the boy's mouth.
The sound of the boy s heartbeat gradually became stronger, a firmer and less thready pulse, and the intensity of his shivering reached a peak and then began to ease. Kain waited, watching, with a patience developed over centuries. His silence seemed to unnerve the woman, and after a time, she cleared her throat. Her fingertips rested on another packet. "Perhaps... the Sirah would favor a restorative draught as well?"
A trace breath served to identify the substance she lingered on - opiates had a remarkably distinct scent. Kain weighed again the benefits and drawbacks of simply cutting a bloody swath through these mortals, and his laugh was a sinuous, dark thing. The incapacitation of just a handful of this band might serve a useful purpose. "I think, tsigane, that you should not offer to slake a thirst you do not understand..."
The door eased open, and the wafting breath of air smelled of cooked meat and root vegetables. "The stew, Baba Puridaia?" The boy was lanky, tall and thin, with tousled red hair and skin tanned dusky. He shifted nervously, from one foot to the other. Kain's eyes narrowed.
The elderly woman's fear was well-concealed, with only the slightest widening of the eyes, the barest shiver under those many layers of cloth to betray her reaction to Kain s unsubtle threat. Well-hidden or not, however, the threat proved its worth-her gnarled fingers left the packet of opiates where it was, and instead she busied herself with receiving the newly-arrived food. "Good, good-set it there. Don't hover about the doorway, boy - you ll let in the damp." With a brief sideways look at Kain, she took the covered pot from the boy, expertly blocking his curious gaze- and Kain's as well. "Well? Go on, boy, before I thump some sense between those ears!" Shutting the door again, she shuffled back to the bed, setting the pot on a small nearby table. "Useless brat."
A brief check on the boy swaddled on the bed, and she grunted in sour satisfaction. "We've chased some of the cold out of his bones, but he looks to be running a fever." With another careful, sidelong look, she added, "Respectfully, Sirah, if you take him out into the cold again tonight, he s not likely to survive. Sleep and hot food will do much better for him, along with such cures as I have."
Kain arched a skeptical brow. The old woman obviously didn't fear for her own safety, but for that of her band; she probably hoped to make herself too useful to kill. And then there was that other boy. It seemed an impossible coincidence, but could it be he'd found more than one future-fledge this night? Such a possibility bore investigation.
He'd felt no shift in the timestream, no uprising against his will, as he had with Rahab. But then, would he necessarily feel such swells? Perhaps not, or perhaps there had been no dissidence simply because Zephon was in no danger. How many rangy youths with sandy-red hair could there be, in this time?
Quite a great number, Kain was forced to conclude. And going after the second bird now might risk the escape of the first. Kain relaxed with patient feline grace. Let the old mortal believe that her wing-dragging ploy had succeeded - it mattered little to Kain.
"So it seems," the vampire lord growled, looking down upon his fragile prize, tracing the shape of the boy beneath the coverings. "Tend to your charge, tzigane. I am... content to bide my time."
Less than half-aware, Rahab shivered beneath the furs.