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Blood Red

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Blood Red

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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2014
Series: Elemental Masters: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Rosamund is an Earth Master in the Schwarzwald, the ancient Black Forest of Germany. Since the age of ten, she has lived with her teacher, the Hunt Master and Earth Magician of the Schwarzwald Foresters, a man she calls "Papa." Her adoptive Papa rescued her after her original Earth Master teacher, an old woman who lived alone in a small cottage in the forest, was brutally murdered by werewolves. Rosa herself barely escaped, and this terrifying incident molded the course of her future.

For like her fellow Earth Masters of the Schwarzwald Lodge, Rosa is not a healer. Instead, her talents lead her on the more violent path of protection and defense-- "cleansing" the Earth and protecting its gentle fae creatures from those evil beings who seek to do them harm.

And so Rosa becomes the first woman Hunt Master and the scourge of evil creatures, with a deadly specialty in werewolves and all shapeshifters.

While visiting with a Fire Master--a friend of her mentor from the Schwarzwald Lodge-- Rosa meets a pair of Elemental Magicians from Hungary who have come looking for help. They suspect that there is a dark power responsible for a string of murders happening in the remote countryside of Transylvania, but they have no proof. Rosa agrees to help them, but there is a catch: one of the two men asking for aid is a hereditary werewolf.

Rosa has been taught that there are three kinds of werewolves. There are those, like the one that had murdered her teacher, who transform themselves by use of dark magic, and also those who have been infected by the bite of these magical werewolves--these poor victims have no control over their transformative powers. Yet, there is a third kind: those who have been born with the ability to transform at will. Some insist that certain of these hereditary werewolves are benign. But Rosa has never encountered a benign werewolf!

Can she trust this Hungarian werewolf? Or is the Hunter destined to become the Hunted?



This was not the Schwarzwald, but all forests were home to an Earth Master. Rosamund--who no longer called herself "Ackermann," but "von Schwarzwald"--was just as comfortable here in the depths of Transylvania as she was at home. The earth itself spoke to her, and she could no more have gotten lost on the deep forest trails in these foreign mountains than she could have gotten lost going from the front door of the Bruderschaft Lodge to her rooms.

She breathed in the cool air, inhaling all the myriad scents of leaf and moss, bark, a brook nearby. Different scents from home, yet not unalike. As an Earth Master, all places that were not cities were "home" to her, so she didn't feel any displacement or unease that the scents were not what she was used to. She had been here in Transylvania for a week, which was three days more than she needed to settle into a new place.

If she "borrowed" the nose of one of the forest creatures, she'd have an olfactory kaleidoscope to sort through, of course; her own human nose couldn't tell her nearly so much. That might cause a little disorientation. But I think not, she mused, allowing all her senses to adapt so she could begin her hunting. No, although this is not home, it becomes more familiar to me with every moment.

It was just as well she couldn't get lost, because it was almost midnight, and as black under the trees as the inside of a Guildmaster's pocket. Not that Rosa needed light. Not when every living thing, from the smallest blade of grass to the tallest tree, emanated its own sort of living light when she looked with the attuned eye, and the part of her that saw magic as shimmers of color. This was, to her mind, the most important gift of Earth Mastery, to see the energy created by every living thing. It was especially important for both her and Hans, because the evil they hunted walked exclusively by night.

The Brotherhood hereabouts was small, having suffered much depredation at the hands of witch-hunters, Turks, and zealots of various sorts. That was why they had finally begged help from outside their borders. They could not cope with the thing that had moved into the ruins of some long-ago noble's great old manor. There were no Masters among them, only mages, and one attempt to track the creature had already ended in the deaths of two of the four local hunters.

And now that she was standing here, on the trail her hosts said the creature habitually took to stalk its prey, Rosamund knew why they had been outclassed. She read the tracks that stood out, black with evil, against the moss of the path, where even the vegetation itself had lost its life energy beneath the press of those feet.

Her hosts had been mistaken, something she had suspected from the beginning. There was not one creature, there were two. Master, and servant.

She felt her lips curving in a thin smile. They would not be prepared for her. Back home in the Schwarzwald she had a certain... reputation. Here, well, it was unlikely they would have heard of her. Or if they had, they would probably dismiss that reputation as being a tall tale. All the better.

Now, Rosa. Caution, not overconfidence. Assume the worst. Assume they know you are here and are ready for you. You cannot afford to take anything for granted. She could almost feel her mentor gently cuffing her ear for her momentary hubris. The smile left her lips, and she eased herself down the trail, following those death-colored footprints.

As dark as it was, it did not matter what the colors of her clothing might have been, but she was clad in her usual loden-green wool hunting jacket, with dark leather knee breeches and soft leather boots that came over her knee, beneath the red, hooded cloak that was almost as much a part of her as her skin.

The cloak--well, in the darkness, it only registered as more darkness, even if by day she stood out like a flower bursting through cobblestones. She wore it always, in memory of Grossmutter Helga.

As for the rest of her clothing, it was certainly far more startling to common eyes than that red cloak. But no one was around to be outraged at her wearing a man's knee breeches instead of a skirt.

For one moment she greatly regretted not wearing her special leather gear--leather on the outside, with cloth of silver on the inside, between the leather and the silk lining. But she had not had any notion when she started this Hunt today that she would have need of it. Too late for regrets.

As for Hans, he was used to her hunting gear. The women of the Bruderschaft wore men's breeches often when needful, and the men had gotten used to that hundreds of years ago. The Bruderschaft was practical above all else.

She made less noise as she threaded her way along the forest track than a deer would have. Her boots had soft soles, not hard; they were like those of a Red Indian from America. She could feel everything through those soles, and the magic of the Earth was not impeded by thick, hardened leather and hobnails.

Around her the forest was silent and frightened, as well it should be, with such evil in it. The trail she followed veered away from a running brook--no surprise there, these creatures often found it difficult to cross running water without a bridge--then up a rise to a wooded ridge. And there... the two who had been together parted company.

And for just a moment, she hesitated. She wanted, oh, most fervently, to follow the spoor of the beast that took the left-hand way. But that loped off in the direction of the deeper forest. There was no one there who could be in any danger. Well, no humans anyway, and any Elemental creatures would scent or feel the beast coming with plenty of time to hide. The other footprints, however, went to the right, where she knew a small village lay. So the master was, indeed, seeking prey tonight, as was the servant. There had been no movement into or out of that old manor for the full week she had been here. They were being cautious, but that caution had probably made them ravenous. Too ravenous for niceties; both would kill tonight.

That decided her. That, and knowing that the wind lay in her favor for now, if she pursued the right-hand quarry, but if she went left, she would be downwind, and might become the hunted, not the hunter. After midnight, the winds would shift; the sylphs of the air had told her little gnomes as much. She could lie in wait for the beast and ambush it when it circled back to its master, sated with the kill, or still hungering and thinking of nothing but hunger.

Concentrate on the master. If we have to, Hans and I can hunt the servant together, later. It would be on its guard, but there would be four of them. She and Hans could take Matei and Gheorghe with them. And she and Hans would be doubly protected, for she would not forget her special gear a second time.

Knowing now which direction she needed to go, and guessing where the evil creature would probably head, she let the forest tell her the shortest path to the village, and she made all speed. Years of learning to trust her feet to read the trails, years of trusting the magic let her run without thinking of the track itself, only the spoor she followed. Now that the Master had parted from his servant, he was being more cautious, and the tracks were fainter.

Don't think. Don't feel. Hunt.

She paused in the shadow of the trees above the little valley that held the village. Down there, not a single light shone, and a damp, cool breeze with a hint of rain on it made her glad of her cloak. It was late, and these village folk were all abed by now. She sought, and found, a rabbit, quivering beneath a bush nearby, and "borrowed" its nose, smelling what it smelled, and immediately was struck with the scent of the thing that made the rabbit shiver. There was no doubt; what she sought was down in the village itself, its scent mingling with the myriad scents of the humans and their living. The scent of the thing held the effluvia of stale blood and age and evil, and she readied her crossbow, wondering briefly how Hans was faring, back at the ruins.

Hans is an Earth Master and experienced. He has been on many, many Hunts, as well you know, she scolded herself. Let Hans tend to his Hunt, and you tend to yours.

The scent was everywhere in that little valley now, although those poor villagers down below with their blunted, human senses would not even detect a trace of it, not unless the thing was atop them and breathing coldly into their faces.

Now that she was this close, she felt that familiar mix of excitement and fear starting to build. She needed both. Fear, to keep her sharp--excitement, to make her fast.

She slipped carefully among the trees, glad the moon was down, but aware that the thing she hunted had means of its own to see by dark. Still... it was without allies, now that it had left its servant behind. And she... was not.

At the edge of the village, she put her hand to the ground. Oh, my friends, my little friends, please give me your wisdom. Where is the hunter, the slayer-by-night? she asked silently. She waited patiently. The creatures of Earth did not move quickly, nor trust easily. But she was fairly certain which of the many sorts would answer her first.

Sure enough, after a while, she felt a tugging on her sleeve. She looked down. Glowing a little with a healthy golden energy was one of the little alvar, anxiously pulling on the button at her wrist. She smiled down at it, thought her thanks at it as hard as she could.

This one had an acorn-cap for a hat, a round head not unlike an acorn, but a spindly little body and spidery legs and arms, all encased in a garment that seemed to be made of moss. When it saw her looking down at it, it let go of her sleeve, and gestured, then scuttled away. She followed.

Here the life-energy faded to almost nothing, what with the streets being pounded earth, the houses being dead wood and stone, and only the outline of the few growing things and the patches of the gardens to give her anything to see by. The village was not very big, smaller than Holzdorf. Just two main streets, crossing the road. The little creature moved like a leaf blown by the wind, down one of them, its faintly glowing body barely visible in the darkness. She followed, staying close to the buildings, using what protection they offered her, keeping herself as close to the walls as possible, although she always ducked beneath any windows she passed. It might be very dark, but she had not gotten as far as she had as a hunter by being incautious. What good would it do to have tracked her quarry all the way to this village if it was alerted because some wakeful villager struck a light, saw a shadow cross the window and raised an alarm?

She caught up with the alvar. It was huddling against the wall of a goat shed, and when she reached it, it pointed with a trembling arm down toward the water mill. There, outside the village proper, there were grass and growing things to give her light to see by again. The creature stood out blackly against the faint glow of Earth energies given off by the grass around the mill... in fact, it emanated its own sort of anti-life energy, an aura that pulsed hungrily.

She immediately saw why the creature had taken up a post at the mill. The sound of the millrace and the rushing water would cover any noise. It was too hungry to think of anything but draining the prey dry, and all it had to do to escape immediate detection was tip the body into the water when it was done. The victim wouldn't be found until the body had traveled far from the village--if it was ever found at all.

It's smart, I'll allow that. This is probably how it's kept people from knowing it's prowling their villages until now. If it hadn't been for the Brotherhood--well, the creature probably could prey at will for months before having to move on.

And almost exactly halfway between her and the creature was its intended victim; from here it was little more than a white form stumbling toward the mill, but Rosa knew it was almost certainly one of the village women or girls, dressed only in the shift she went to sleep in, being drawn by the creature's sinister magic.

Poor girl. The creature would have gone sifting through dreams, looking for someone who was vulnerable. And... well, expendable. The servant girl who was a bit of a slut. The unwanted, plain daughter who would never find a husband. The widow who was a bit odd. Someone who, when she vanished, would set heads wagging and tongues clacking, but would not send friends and neighbors out on a manhunt.

Probably the servant girl who is a bit of a slut. People will assume she ran off on her own when she vanishes. Rosa gritted her teeth. Not tonight, monster. Not this time.

Rosa put her hand down to the alvar; in her hand was a bit of cheese from her belt pouch. The alvar took it greedily and scuttled away. That was all the thanks it needed, as most of the Earth Elementals--the small ones anyway--were always eager for a bit of "man-food." As soon as it had hidden itself, she moved.

The creature--the vampir--had all of its attention focused on luring in its prey. It must have been very, very hungry after a week without feeding--or feeding only on the unsatisfying blood of what it could catch in the forest.

She took advantage of that preoccupation to slip up the hill, staying in cover by making use of every bit of fence, hedge, and wall. She moved as quickly as she dared, conscious that the clock, so to speak, was ticking away the precious seconds before the girl fell into its clawlike hands. She had to reach the vampir before its victim reached it.

She slipped around by the back of the mill, and the noise of the wheel, the falling water, and the river all surrounded her with so much sound that it was impossible to hear what was going on up ahead of her.

She didn't need to hear anything, however. The nearness of the creature was like a feeling of sickness. And she was close enough she could sense its excitement. The prey must be very near.

She readied her hand-crossbow, with the special, oversized bolt made entirely of hardened holly wood, with a needle-sharp point in place of an arrowhead. It was one of the weapons she had made sure to have with her when the local Brotherhood had first called for help. Excitement and fear in equal measure boiled up in her, and every nerve was afire with both. With the bolt in the channel, the crossbow cocked and ready, she rounded the corner to confront the creature.

Just in time. Its victim was a mere ten feet away, swaying where she stood. The hideous thing had its back to Rosa and had no idea she was there. Its bloodlust and hunger were overpowering at this distance. Even an ordinary human with not a speck of magic would have felt it. It had no eyes, no thought, for anything but the prey in front of it.

With a silent prayer to Saint Hubert, she let fly.

The bolt flew clean and true, hitting the monster squarely in the heart.

Its victim dropped where she stood, unconscious, as the monster's control over her evaporated.

It didn't die cleanly, of course. The vampir never did. It thrashed and writhed and spouted half-rotten blood from every possible orifice. But at least it did so quietly, and as soon as it was safe Rosa closed in on it and drove the stake all the way through its body with a shove of her boot, pinning it to the earth. That finished it. With a final squirm, it died, mouth open in a soundless gasp.

The stench was appalling. She pulled a candle out of her hunting bag and struck a lucifer match to examine the monster.

Copyright © 2014 by Mercedes Lackey


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