They met in the woodlands just beyond the kingdom. It was secluded enough for a private meeting between four of the most ancient aristocratic families in Arendelle.
“Do I really need to be out here for this?” asked Countess Vi, Anna’s regent. Hilde Von Altheim stood beside her, the commander’s yellow eyes latching on to the two middle-aged men across from them. “It’s the middle of the night; the kingdom’s asleep, and I want to be hanging around playing charades with the little one, Danny.”
Her slender arms were crossed skeptically as her vampiric, immortal eyes lingered on a nervous-looking Gerald Vinter and his Hellström counterpart, Lord Neumann. “Do I need to make my judgements of these fellows personally, Hilde?”
“Ha! I actually agree with you,” snapped Neumann, shivering as he adjusted his cashmere wool coat, on which was emblazoned the coat-of-arms of the Hellström: a stylized blaze of fire over a shield, flanked by a bear and a crane. “We stayed quiet like good little boys while you were wreaking havoc and tussling with Her Majesty last year, and we kept our heads down when you and Hilde ascended into Anna’s inner court! And you suspect us of being the culprits who have been harassing and haranguing you, Countess Vi?”
“Trust me, I don’t want to be here, either,” said Vi, yawning. “I might be a vampiress, but I prefer hanging out in Arendelle Castle at night, tucked in and cozy.” She glanced at Hilde languidly. “These old men are too… mediocre and comfortable to want to pick a fight with me. I can feel it. I hear their heartbeats, sense their mortal lives calling to my thirsty fangs… and all I sense is intense annoyance at you, Hilde, for summoning them out here, and me.”
Hilde hid her disappointment. “You truly know nothing about who might wish ill on Vi, Lord Neumann? You protest your innocence as strongly as Gerald Vinter did?”
“I don’t care if you’re Arendelle’s most powerful warrior. Your playing at detective has been a farce from start to finish,” snapped Neumann. “Vinter’s already told you – the true nobility of our kingdom have long receded from public life. By true I don’t mean those wannabes in the House of Jarls, those whose enfeoffments barely date back five generations. These are civil servants, bureaucrats, and career-men and women roleplaying as the real deal: us. You, Countess Vi. You, Commander Hilde, or should I say, Baroness Hilde. You know the deal with Gerald and me: you can find plenty in the shared histories between our clans to want mutual revenge for. You can point to anything over hundreds of years to justify renewed enmity!” He glared at Vi. “But we’re not children. We can dislike one another without ever wishing ill or taking action against each other.”
Vi was also calm, although she did look disappointed. “Even after all my research in the library and Hilde’s work, it seems we’re chasing after a spectre that can’t be grasped.” She closed her eyes, and for the first time she looked a bit vulnerable and weary. “Like a ghost that won’t stop haunting us.”
“If it’s not the noble families of Arendelle, then it must be someone very close to us. I don’t believe at all it’s anyone in Anna’s circle,” said Hilde. “And it can’t be Kai, or Mattias. I just don’t believe they would hurt Vi or betray Anna like this.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” came a gentle and diffident voice from the trees. Vi, Hilde, and the Arendellian nobles turned in surprise to see a small young woman step into the moonlight, adjusting her shining spectacles. She had haunting, beautiful green eyes and a small and pensive smile.
“Selene!” cried Hilde. “What are you doing here? Did Minister Michael send you here? We said we’d be joining him for breakfast tomorrow, after all.”
“Yes, he did. I’m here to help, Commander,” said Selene, “since you still seem to think all this is about the Countess, which is exactly what someone who wants to strike at you, to draw you out and to end you, would do. Because even something as petty and mean as hate mail would propel you to go on a wild goose chase against enemies that no longer existed, blinding you to the enemy right under your nose.”
Vi blinked, and for a moment she and Hilde were completely stunned. What was Selene even saying?
But something had changed in her eyes.
Selene reached into her pocket and revealed a circular amulet encrusted with gems. It was engraved with Norse runes, and she pointed the amulet at Vi. “Kveldulf Eventide Art: Berserker Seal!” she cried, and six, razor-sharp sheets of light suddenly materialized above Vi, shooting with blinding speed at her and piercing into her abdomen. Arms outstretched, Vi shrieked in agony, eyes as wide as saucers, completely caught off-guard and unable to escape as the holy light – deadly to vampires and undead – sliced into Vi’s body. Hilde roared in outrage and disbelief and lunged at Selene, but Selene only raised her amulet higher, and the light stabbed into Vi deeper. The Countess screamed loudly and uncontrollably, tears of pain rolling down her cheeks. Hilde stopped helplessly, hands balled into fists so hard that she felt her nails digging into her flesh and drawing blood. “That should keep you from overpowering me too easily for a while, prime minister. And that should keep Hilde from taking action more quickly than I prefer,” said Selene coolly. “Thanks to classified documents compiled by my uncle, I know your every strength and weakness. And I’ve prepared weapons accordingly for you… ” She gazed at Hilde hatefully. “… and for your protector. But you wouldn’t remember my uncle, would you? You know, the man that you, a great werewolf warrior, failed to protect?”
“Guuuh,” gurgled the Countess, blood spraying from her mouth. “Selene… !” she hissed in disbelief.
Hilde glared at Selene, her eyes flaring as she felt a deep, primal stirring to battle in her gut.
“Gerald,” cried Vi, her eyes wide in genuine shock. “Neumann! Were you two complicit in this?” She was immobile, with Selene’s mysterious talisman having sealed her in place. She was bleeding heavily, her midsection destroyed and blood flowing copiously down her shaking legs and oozing across the forest floor. It was complete agony.
“You knew what Selene was doing and you didn’t tell us?” roared Hilde. “You could have said something! Why did you lead us on? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry!” cried Gerald, his hands raised. “She… she blackmailed me! She knew things about me and my family that I’d never even told my close friends!” He put his hands to his face, weeping inconsolably. “My mistress… my alcoholism… my estranged brother. She knew it all, and she only asked me to play a part in drawing your attention, to play coy with you.”
“Me too. She knew about my legal embarrassments in my younger days, and my bankruptcy several years ago,” whimpered Neumann. “We had to play our part if she wasn’t going to leak them to the press and to our families and associates. But we swear we never had any involvement in attacking you, Countess Vi. We just needed to let you and Vi chase after an incorrect lead and let your suspicions against us build. Now that you’ve summoned us out here, Selene can – “
Neumann suddenly screamed as his kneecap exploded in a haze of blood, bone, and cartilage. Gore and tissue flew everywhere as he collapsed onto the damp, grassy ground. “There was no ancient enemy spoiling for a fight with Countess Vi. Nor is there some old noble family in the shadows trying to destroy the Mundilfari name. You’ve served your purpose, old men. Ghosts of an irrelevant past,” said Selene quietly, raising a uniquely built pistol that seemed to fire detonating bullets. She put it back in her holster, her other hand still holding the amulet. Her soft and gentle voice was completely out of place. “Now crawl out of here, Neumann and Gerald,” advised the librarian, “unless you want to be caught up as collateral in our coming crossfire.”
Gerald rushed over to the whimpering Neumann and lifted him up, scrambling to escape as the women continued their exchange. “Coming… crossfire?” growled Hilde, her heart pounding loudly in her ears as fear for Vi’s life overrode any anger she had against the bumbling, blackmailed nobles. But Selene raised a finger at Hilde, contemptuously wagging it in a warning: should Hilde make a move without her approval, Selene would tighten the six sheets of light, her incantation potentially killing the Countess.
“Wait. You’re looking to pick a fight with the First Vampire? With me? With the Crown itself?” Hilde began to bark in incredulous laughter. “You’re more foolish than you look. You’re just a librarian. What could you, a single young woman, possibly do against the full might of Anna’s inner court, especially now that you’ve outed yourself as a traitor who has assaulted my Lady?”
“Ah, Commander Hilde,” said Selene, “always focused on the big picture – so focused on ancient family feuds, old hatreds, or the grand Mundilfari project, that you couldn’t see you and Vi were completely played. You were misdirected to chase after shadows on a wall.” She let out a mirthless giggle. “It’s really not that complicated, not that I needed some big master plan for someone of your… intelligence, Hilde. I made you all think that someone had it in for the Countess, and watched with pleasure as you all fell over yourselves trying to figure out the culprit. It was just so easy to lie to you.”
“You… you helped us. I thought you did. You were giving us information. Materials,” cried Vi, wincing as her wound continued to spill blood. “You… ” Her eyes widened. “You made me think I was the target by hiring goons and trolls to attack me… when your true target was someone else,” she said in realization, glancing at a stupefied Hilde.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” snarled Selene suddenly, “what you can do with spare paper and rotten fruit, a few trolls willing to cause some trouble for cash, and the best intelligence in the kingdom? But I suppose it wasn’t as easy as I’m making it out to be: after all, I spent months meticulously researching your weaknesses and the tailor-made weapons – the Kveldulf arsenal of anti-monster armaments – that would give me a fighting chance against you. Which is why you, the great Mundilfari scion and First Vampire of Scandinavia, are helpless and at my mercy right now.”
Selene licked her lips. “And you’re right. You’re not even my true target. At least you’re brighter than your guardian, Countess.” She gazed at Hilde. “Oh, Baroness Von Altheim. You still haven’t figured it out? You were so easy to play, so easy to lure out into the open. You stumbled right into this, Hilde – all because you couldn’t stand to see Vi under attack. And you took it upon yourself to be her saviour, as usual. It was so funny to watch you running around trying to solve Vi’s problems, when you were dancing to my strings all along.”
“You – ” snarled Hilde, as fur began to burst from her left cheek. Her wolfen eyes glowed even brighter in the moonlight. “What do you want? And how do you know so much about Vi and me? About everyone?”
“That’s a stupid question,” said Selene, “My uncle was the best intelligence officer Anna and Mattias ever had. I have all his files and notes, and his estate still has access to Arendellian intelligence – infrastructure that an innocent, bookish librarian like myself could use for archival purposes. It was Uncle’s job to know every nook and cranny of this realm, to have tabs on every life detail about government officials, military officers, figures of influence here, and Anna’s inner court.”
“Now,” she continued, her voice burning with a calm fire that seemed it could melt steel, “let’s talk about Sergeant Severin, Hilde. Your comrade and fellow officer in the Russo-Arendellian War. You failed to protect his life. He died on your watch. And now, with the life of your beloved Countess in my hands, I’m coming for yours.”
BAIT AND SWITCH. THE SHADOW OF THE PAST HASN’T COME FOR VI.
IT’S COME FOR HER GUARDIAN.
UP NEXT: SELENE’S REVENGE!