Soulbound ‡ clash

by Wes Leigh

Chapter 10

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

-- W. H. Auden

In muted whispers, as though they didn't want the River to know or the jungle to hear, the witches of the Tribo do Rio Ancestral passed the word with trembling apprehension: "Corpo Seco has returned …"

Ignatius Caedes made no effort to hide as he walked along the jungle path leading to the Tribe's compound. Entering the central clearing, he stopped and waited.

The witches watched from inside their homes, hoping in vain that Corpo Seco would leave them in peace. For a year now, after having driven away their cousins, the warlocks of the Ordem da Pedra Dourada, the witches had lived in seclusion and tranquility, licking their wounds after fighting against the warlocks, struggling to understand why they had gone to battle in the first place, worrying about the loss of their matron, Grandmother Costa, and her powerful amulet, her muiraquitã. It was all hazy in their memories. The reason for the fight. The death of their leader. The loss of her amulet. The only thing they knew for certain was that the troubles all began when Corpo Seco came into their midst.

And now he was back.

Ignatius Caedes waited patiently. He was in no hurry. He listened carefully for any sounds indicating the witches were nearby, but all he heard were chirps and twitters from jungle creatures. Though he was certain the Tribe was hiding in their homes, spying on him, they were making every effort to remain undetected.

Very well. He would draw them out. He dispelled the illusion he had cast upon himself to hide the dark green amulet he wore at his neck. Then he turned in a slow circle, showing the witches the jade muiraquitã resting on his pale chest.

There were muted gasps as the witches saw and recognized what Ignatius wore.

He smiled and spread his arms wide, beckoning with his hands for them to come out and join him in the center of the clearing.

Slowly, cautiously, the witches emerged from hiding and approached Ignatius.

He casually stroked the amulet and began speaking in oily tones. "Come, my children. Join me, and hear how I fought for you against your ancient enemies, against those who killed your leader and stole her amulet while she lay dying. They are vile and worthy of destruction. But see now … I have brought it back to you. I have avenged her death and recaptured her muiraquitã, and now I return to you, wearing it on my own neck, as though I am one of you, as though I am a member of your Tribe, your new guide, your benevolent protector, your shield against all enemies."

A jaguar high up on a branch above Ignatius blinked its eyes slowly before transforming into the naked shape of Paulo Costa. He shook his head sharply. The words pouring from Corpo Seco's fanged mouth made no sense. Grandmother Costa died in the battle against the warlocks, that much was true, but the warlocks didn't take the amulet from her as she died. It was missing before that, wasn't it? Wasn't that why they fought the warlocks? To retrieve her amulet? Paulo remembered his grandmother shaking her fists in the air, furious at the loss of her muiraquitã, calling the Tribe to join her in battle against the warlocks. But if the warlocks killed Grandmother Costa and took her amulet from her on the field of battle, why did he remember her shouting with fury at the theft hours before the fight began? It was all so confusing.

Ignatius spread his arms wide and his voice deepened in tone. "Hear me now, members of the Tribe. I am Corpo Seco. I am Death walking. I stride into battle and all fall before me. You will be my companions in arms, assisting me in the destruction and mayhem to come, and all will fear Corpo Seco and his allies, the Tribe of the River of the Ancestors. This day, you will leave the River and join me, and together we will destroy all who oppose us."

Paulo frowned in confusion. This wasn't their way. It wasn't what Grandmother Costa would have wanted. The River was their home. They belonged here. They had always lived here and were destined to remain, caring for the jungle and its creatures. It was the way the Tribe had always lived and yet now …

Paulo transformed into a flamingo and leapt off the branch, spreading his wings to cup the air and fall to the ground. He landed softly and transformed back into a human teen, joining the rest of the Tribe as they approached Corpo Seco to hear his commands and obey his every order.

"All I'm saying is this isn't the way our Covenant—or any Covenant for that matter—should be operating." The speaker was a tall, powerfully built vampire. He was blind in one eye and wore an eye patch, covering the gruesome injury he had sustained while he was still a human, fighting in Napoleon's army. He rested in bed next to a willowy vampiress, his wife for several centuries.

She sighed. "The Covenants operate under the direction of their Executors, and our leader has determined that this is necessary. Who are we to question it?"

He rolled on his side and faced his wife. "We are intelligent vampires who have managed to stay alive as long as we have by giving careful consideration to what we do and who we follow."

She turned her head quickly, studying her husband in alarm. "You are suggesting that we leave our Covenant?"

Shrugging, he replied, "It is not a decision I would make without carefully considering several facts. First, our Executor has allied himself with an ancient vampire. Second, our Covenant is also now working alongside werewolf Packs. Third, we find human witches in our midst, practicing a variety of shielding and warding spells. And no one talks about any of this. No one discusses where it will lead us. We simply follow Ignatius Caedes wherever he commands us to go."

"We are eradicating an abomination, husband. Vaewolves."

"And then what?" he asked. "Who will be next after we destroy these vaewolves?"

"Why must there be anything next? After we complete our mission, the alliance will be disbanded and we'll all go our separate ways."

"Are you certain of this, my love? Do you trust this Ignatius Caedes? He is, after all, an ancient vampire, and their kind has never been truthful."

She frowned. "You've been dwelling on old legends, I suspect. Certainly there was a time when ancient vampires were perilous, but if Ignatius is so dangerous, wouldn't he have been destroyed by other vampires before now?"

Leaning over, he gently kissed his wife on the cheek and whispered, "Ignatius met with all the executors and alphas today. I was asked to attend, merely for the sake of appearances. Ignatius informed us all that we will be moving against the vaewolves before the next full moon." He paused and leaned closer, whispering, "Hanging from Ignatius' hip, I saw a thin, wickedly curved blade. A black dagger. A soulblade."

She gasped and turned to her husband in alarm. "You are certain of this, my heart?"

He nodded. "Our Executor saw it too. I took him aside and asked him how we can follow one wearing such a weapon. His eyes were vacant and clouded, and his answer was bungled. He said to me, 'Our destiny is in his hands. We follow him to Death and Glory.'"

She carefully considered her husband's words, then stated, "We have no choice. Our path is clear."

Late at night, a black SUV drove slowly down the main street of Agony, North Dakota, turning into a residential neighborhood and stopping in front of a large house. The passenger window slowly lowered, revealing the pale face of Ignatius Caedes. He studied the house for almost a minute, before asking, "You are certain this is the place?"

The human sitting behind the wheel of the SUV gulped and nodded. This was one job he wished he'd never taken. It had seemed simple enough when he first took the phone call three weeks ago. As a private investigator, he had fielded many similar requests. He had been asked to follow the trail of a family of Brazilians who first immigrated to Houston, Texas, then abruptly moved somewhere north. The family name was Luís, but court records in Houston showed they changed their name to Ruiz before leaving Texas. After checking thousands of real estate transactions, he'd discovered the purchase of this home in Agony, North Dakota, by a man named Miguel Ruiz. Apparently, Miguel had an elderly father named Jacob Ruiz, who had also changed his name in Houston. Before coming to Agony, he had been known as João Luís, an unusual name that matched one the investigator had been searching to find.

As investigations went, it had been straightforward. People couldn't hide anymore. Too many electronic footprints followed you wherever you went. But when he called up the customer to report his success in tracking down the Brazilians, he'd been ordered to meet the guy and drive with him from Fargo to Agony. It had been a nerve-wracking trip, and he didn't quite know why. There was something eerie about this customer, and it wasn't simply his strange name. Ignatius Caedes? It sounded Italian or Spanish or … something foreign. And the man made your skin crawl simply being in his presence. The private investigator trembled as he pointed at the home. "Yes. This is it."

Ignatius turned to face the private investigator and asked, "Which room is the grandfather's?"

The private investigator leaned in front of Ignatius and pointed. "The small building there on the side. He lives there. The rest of the family stays in the main house."

Ignatius smiled and said, "Then your service to me is ended."

The man gulped, happy to hear that.

Ignatius' hand moved with lightning quick speed, grabbing the man in a steely grip around the back of his skull. With a quick snap of the wrist, Ignatius broke the man's neck. His eyes stared at Ignatius in baffled confusion, unable to understand why he could no longer feel his body and why the world around him was slowly growing dim.

The last thing he saw was Ignatius bending down, fangs dropping from his gaping mouth as he bit into the man's neck and feasted.

A few blocks away, in the Smyth Covenant mansion, Xavier met with two vampires, a husband and wife who were members of a Michigan covenant. They'd contacted him earlier in the day with the message that they needed to speak to him on a matter of dire importance.

Now, sitting in his study, Xavier offered drinks to the visiting couple. They declined, apologizing for the haste in which they wished to conduct the meeting. The man was tall, muscular, with a patch over one eye. The woman was thin, elegant, reserved. Both spoke eloquently and politely, as was befitting when addressing the Executor of another Covenant.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet with us," the male vampire said.

Xavier nodded. "You said the matter was extremely important."

Turning to his wife, the man replied, "My wife and I are members of the Dubois Covenant, under the leadership of Executor Michel Dubois." He paused for a moment, then said, "Perhaps I should say we were members of the Dubois Covenant. We've left them."

His wife added. "A voluntary separation with cause."

Xavier was surprised to hear that admission. "For what reason? If you are willing to tell me, of course."

The man replied, "Our Covenant is now following the orders of an ancient vampire who goes by the name of Ignatius Caedes."

Xavier stiffened, visibly alarmed to hear this.

"Then you have heard of him?" the man asked.

Xavier nodded. "I have."

"We are leaving our Covenant because we choose not to follow where Ignatius would lead us. We also do not agree with other actions he has taken."

"Such as?" Xavier asked.

"He has formed an alliance between several vampire Covenants, a few werewolf Packs, and witches from Brazil who specialize in a variety of magic arts. They are preparing for war … and your town is the target."

"You know this how?"

"Ignatius made it clear he is coming to Agony. He claims there are vaewolves here, and he intends to attack this town, kill the vaewolves, and destroy anyone—werewolf or vampire—who stands in his way."

Xavier's blood seemed to freeze in his veins. It was what they had been expecting, but to hear the words made it seem more real, more perilous.

The willowy female vampire touched her husband's arm gently and said, "Tell him the rest, my heart."

The male vampire leaned forward and said, "Ignatius carries a soulblade."

Xavier stared at the man, stunned. His worst fear had been realized. What could they do to fight against such an evil?

"You must leave," the man continued. "Warn your Covenant. Disband if necessary. Flee for your lives. That is what we are doing. We leave tonight for Europe. We will hide there for a decade or so before seeking a new Covenant to join."

Xavier shook his head. "I can't do that. I have responsibilities here, to the vampires in the Smyth Covenant, to our friends, to our neighbors. That is not an option."

The man sighed. "Then you will perish."

The woman stretched out one hand toward Xavier. "Please heed our warning. Get out of Agony while you can."

Ignatius wiped the blood from his lips and shoved the body of the private investigator aside. The appetizer was finished. Time for the main course.

He opened the door of the SUV and climbed out. There was but a sliver of a new moon that night, so darkness surrounded him as he walked slowly across the dry, dead lawn and up to the small building to one side of the residence. He approached the window and looked inside, disappearing and teleporting into the shadow-filled living room. It was silent and empty.

He walked quietly down a hall and paused at an open doorway. In a bed, sleeping, was a man with light gray hair. Ignatius slipped into the room, pulling out a black dagger as he approached the sleeper.

Just as he reached the bed, the sleeper awoke. Turning to face Ignatius, João Luís quickly cast a shielding spell between them. Ignatius slashed down with the dagger, angry to see it deflected to the side into the mattress of the bed. He struck again and again, struggling to penetrate the magical barrier.

João rolled away, falling off the bed on the opposite side, and scrambled on hands and knees for a nearby chair and the staff leaning against it.

Ignatius jumped through space to stand between João and the staff. Ignatius wiggled one finger at João. "Now, now, now. We can't allow you to use this. Not now. Never again, old man." Ignatius grabbed the staff in one hand and held the black dagger in the other.

João summoned a wall of wind that blew Ignatius against the wall and pinned him there. The wind tore at Ignatius, yanking the staff from his hand and sending it flying toward João.

Ignatius grabbed the jade amulet at his throat and muttered a quick phrase. A tidal wave of water swept across the room between them, crashing against the window and shattering it and also carrying the staff outside to land on the far side of the lawn.

João squinted at Ignatius. "When did you obtain that amulet and the power to wield water magic?"

Shrugging, Ignatius replied, "Does it matter? Those powers are now mine, granted to me by the one who died on my blade. She was a fool and did not guard herself as carefully as you do, but it won't matter in the end. You will still die this night, and I will take your power and add it to hers." He gestured with one hand, and the floor beneath João buckled as roots crashed up through the foundation.

João tried to run but the twisting tree roots twined around his legs first, then coiled up his body, pinning his hands to his side. One muddy stem curled around his face, prying his mouth open and gagging him. Though he struggled to escape, he was held firm, unable to move or gesture or speak. His eyes darted from left to right, seeking any hope of escape.

Ignatius lifted the dagger above his head and slowly stalked forward, grinning maliciously. "And so you now join your cousin," he snarled. He moved two roots aside, exposing a spot on João's chest, where he pressed the tip of the blade and slowly pushed it in. The dagger itself seemed to hiss as deep blue shadows gathered and swirled around the blade, passing up Ignatius' arm and into his mouth as he breathed in. His eyes glowed bright red until he closed them, sighing in satisfaction.

João Luís shuddered, unable to cry out. His body gradually turned to ash and trickled to the ground, finally free of the writhing tree roots.

Outside on the lawn, Ignatius heard shouts, voices crying out in alarm. He smiled and chuckled, then disappeared.

Miguel Ruiz and Diego and the rest of the family ran out their front door. They saw Papa João's staff on the grass of the lawn, now soaked with water. The window of Papa's house was shattered. His bedroom was wrecked. And he was gone. The floor near the bed was buckled and broken by tree roots that still moved as though trying to squeeze and hold someone. Gray ashes littered the floor around the roots.

They searched the house but found no sign of Papa João.

Diego ran out onto the lawn, searching the sky, hoping to see his grandfather flying above them, but the sky was empty. Diego fell to his knees in the wet grass and began weeping.

Miguel followed Diego outside. Walking slowly, his back bowed in grief, he leaned down to pick up his father's staff and gripped it so tight his knuckles turned white. Turning, he walked back to where Diego knelt and gripped his son's shoulder, squeezing it in sympathy.

"Where is Papa?" Diego sobbed.

Miguel and Diego walked back into Papa João's demolished house and knelt down next to a pile of ashes on the floor. Weaving his hands slowly before him, Miguel created a small vortex that stirred the ashes briefly, forming a ghostly image of his father's face that was immediately replaced by a shadowy dagger. The images faded and Miguel stood up, swallowing hard.

"He is gone," Miguel whispered. "Taken from us."

Diego clutched at his father's arm. "How?"

"Stricken down by a soulblade."

"What does that mean, Father?"

Miguel pulled Diego into his arms and held him tight. "It means Corpo Seco is back. He took your grandfather's life and all his powers, using a soulblade to slay him and absorb his magical abilities."

"That is how he killed Grandmother Costa also," Diego murmured.

Miguel held Diego at arm's length, his eyes fierce and intense. "What are you saying Diego?"

Diego was suddenly frightened by the look in his father's eyes. "I … I saw Corpo Seco strike down Paulo's grandmother with a soulblade. She turned to ash and the dagger glowed with a green light."

Miguel gulped and pulled Diego into his chest, squeezing him even tighter than before. "How can we hope to stop him now? With the powers of the witches and your grandfather too, on top of his vampiric abilities. This is a catastrophe."

Diego swallowed hard. "Are we going to have to leave again, father?"

Miguel nodded. "Yes, Diego. We have no choice."

Michel Dubois knocked on the door and waited until Ignatius Caedes motioned for him to enter.

Bowing his head humbly, Michel said, "I have lost two members of my Covenant."

Ignatius grunted. "How did this happen, Michel?"

"They left without warning. We don't know where they went, but they are no longer in their residence."

Ignatius shrugged. "Why should I care?"

Michel chose his next words carefully. "These two have questioned my decision to follow you. There is a concern."

"A concern?"

"Yes. That they may speak to the Smyth Covenant and warn them about what we are doing?" Michel waited, nervous as to how Ignatius would receive this news.

Ignatius began laughing softly, gaining volume slowly, then he stopped abruptly and asked, "Do you think anyone can stop what I have begun?"

Michel shook his head slowly. "I do not."

"Good," Ignatius snapped. "We proceed as planned."

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