Ryoka had no experience with kidnapping. Which was a fair statement to make. In fact, it was weird to think of anyone as being experienced with being kidnapped. However, she vaguely felt like there was a class she could have taken, or a few tips she could have memorized from some online self-help article.
After all, it felt like Ryoka had been kidnapped at least once. But not really. Let’s see. Magnolia? Not really a kidnapping so much as a forced meeting. But it was close. Teriarch? Again, no, but being enchanted had a few parallels. Az’kerash? Again, it had a lot of similar qualities. Being interrogated and having fingers broken by Venitra was close…but not the same.
So this was new. How about that? And by vampires, no less. Or was it Vampires? Ryoka had spotted four, plus Fierre. Five vampires. That was really bad if they were about to suck Ryoka’s blood. On the other hand, they hadn’t while she was passed out.
That was a good sign. In fact, Ryoka had high hopes she wouldn’t die. Because while she was no expert on abductions, she was slightly experienced with dealing with creatures of myth and legend. Dragons, the fey—vampires weren’t much worse, right?
The other reason Ryoka was hopeful was that she was lying with her back to the coffin, she could hear the vampires talking, and they hadn’t noticed she’d woken up yet. That meant they probably couldn’t hear her heart beating—if they could, they’d be able to tell it was racing a mile a minute. They were talking to each other, their voices…well, fairly normal.
There was little inflection to their accents. Not that Fierre had ever spoken with the stereotypical vampire inflections. The other voices Ryoka heard could have been from anywhere—with one exception.
“…and what if she does talk? Should we threaten her, or just…get rid of her?”
“I didn’t bring her here to kill her.”
A male and female voice were arguing back and forth. Fierre and someone else. A third vampire, older, his voice a lot more gravelly, spoke next.
“You shouldn’t have brought her here at all, Fierre. If you dealt with her properly—”
“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to safely. I stay at an inn run by an adventurer. I thought mother could help me. She’s the best at this.”
“It might not be necessary. Fierre, has she threatened you? What did she want?”
A third voice, steadiest and most confident of the lot. Also, male. If Ryoka had to analyze by the tenor, she’d guess there were three male vampires here, all of different ages. One was old, another young, and the third middle-aged. That was just a guess, though. Fierre’s voice was uncertain as she replied to the middle-aged one.
“I…don’t know. She just identified me and promised she wouldn’t tell anyone. But—”
“Why don’t we wake her up and hear what she says?”
“Okay. But no one scare her. Rivel. And if we need to, mother, would you…?”
“If thou callst on me, my offspring, of course I will comply. But thy sire is correct. Let us first know this mortal’s intentions.”
And there’s the odd one out. One of the voices, the only female voice beside Fierre’s, was distinctly vampirish. As in, eastern European, Slavic, I-just-walked-out-of-Transylvania, Dracula-style accent and way of speaking. If Ryoka hadn’t known better, she’d have thought that was coming from some kind of hardcore vampire wannabe. From the real thing it was…still cheesy.
But they were vampires. And Ryoka had seen them move. There was something fluid about the way they moved. Graceful, in a way that Humans weren’t naturally. And Ryoka still wasn’t over her first discovery. Fierre was a vampire. Vampires existed in this world.
How about that.
The discussion had reached its conclusion somewhere above her and to the right. Ryoka heard light movements. And then she sensed eyes on her. She held still, praying she wouldn’t be found out.
“Anyone want me to grab a bucket of water?”
A voice. Immediately shushed. Ryoka heard a pause. And then a voice, low, sultry, and echoing in the dark space.
Ryoka opened her eyes and sat up. She couldn’t help it. There was something in the tone that went beyond mere force of personality. Some kind of command that reached into Ryoka and moved her body against her will. It was familiar, almost like Magnolia’s Skill—but different. Where one was a Skill, this was instinctual obedience.
At first it was dark. Ryoka’s eyes caught a glimmer of moonlight, shining down from a slit overhead. A window. And then she took in the room.
She was sitting in an open, wide room. Tall, grand. Filled with open coffins. Smooth, worn stone. Open caskets to place bodies in. And she was lying on one. On top of one, rather. Ryoka felt her back aching slightly. She blinked, looked around—there was no one standing around her. Then she looked up and saw them.
Vampires. Five of them. Two stood in the rafters, on wooden support beams. An old male vampire and a younger looking one. The older one was coughing quietly, the younger one just watched Ryoka. And below them, standing on the ground, were three other vampires.
Fierre, no longer wearing the dark clothing that normally concealed her face. Her hair was raven black, her skin unnaturally pale. She looked young, as did the two who stood behind her. A man and a woman, both who looked no older than their early thirties. But they felt older. And it was the woman who’d spoken.
Graceful, tall, her dress some dark red and black fabric that nearly blended with the shadows. By her side stood a man in rough clothing. He too was a vampire, but his neck was…odd. Puffy, the skin bulging outwards. But like his wife he had red eyes and that unnatural stillness about him. None of the five vampires moved for a moment. Ryoka stared at them, heart beating. And then the woman moved.
One hand rose. Pale fingers splayed outwards in a grand gesture, towards Ryoka. The female vampire kept her chin raised as she approached, gliding across the dark room.
“Mortal. You trespass in the halls of my family. You speak to one not of mortal ways. We are the children of the night. Vampires.”
Her lips rose in a slight smile. Her voice echoed through the room. The woman stopped in front of Ryoka and looked down.
“I am Lady Colfa, Mistress of House Lischelle-Drakle. And thou art?”
Everything about her screamed vampire to Ryoka. And the entire air wouldn’t have worked except that she was one. In her totality. She looked flawless in the moonlight—and yet—Ryoka’s eyes travelled to her right arm. She’d spotted a rash there, hadn’t she? The female vampire noticed the look and turned so her left side was facing Ryoka. She gave Ryoka a dark look and the young woman’s heart began to beat faster.
“I’m Ryoka Griffin. I uh, didn’t mean to intrude. I mean neither you or your family harm, Lady Colfa.”
Ryoka spoke quickly. Her mouth was dry. Her mind racing. What was the best angle here? What did they want? They sounded like people, remember that. Even if this Lady Colfa was noticeably different. Was she the sire of the others, perhaps?
You’re dealing with ancient and powerful beings here. Even if they seem surprisingly normal. But vampires don’t necessarily think like we do. Be careful. Don’t offend them. What would Erin do?
Probably offend them. Don’t do that.
“Ryoka Griffin. A City Runner. A traveller who delivers messages. One who is everywhere and nowhere. Who may not be missed.”
Colfa bent her head, inspecting Ryoka. Her eyes were slightly red and they shone as she bared her fangs slightly in a sinister smile. Ryoka kept very still.
“Mortal. Know that thy presence here is borne only lightly. Mine kindred suffer you only for one reason: you uncovered the true nature of our offspring. How?”
She’s got sharp teeth, she has no shadow, and she keeps out of the sunlight. But Ryoka didn’t say any of that.
“I—I’m just familiar with vampires. That’s all. I didn’t mean any harm by it. Look, I won’t tell a soul—”
She tried to move, swing one leg off the coffin. Colfa’s eyes flashed and Ryoka stopped. The lady vampire tapped one lip with an unpainted nail.
“No, you will not. And whether you leave this place is entirely up to our disposition.”
“Look, if I could convince you I don’t mean any harm—”
“Harm? You think you could harm us?”
Colfa turned, quick as a snake. Ryoka froze again. The female vampire bent, inspecting Ryoka like an insect. Ryoka tried not to lean back. Why didn’t she carry any garlic in her bag of holding? She could have at least put a few wooden stakes in there! She swallowed. Colfa had another smile on her face.
“You could harm us as easily as fly, girl. But we could harm you. Easily. And unless you beg, unless you prove your sincerity and give us reason to trust you, you may find another purpose for the coffin on which you sit. Now, tell me or perish, foolish mortal. Once and for all, for what reason didst thou—”
Ryoka’s heart nearly stopped. She jumped, looked down, and recoiled. Something was down there! It was staring up at her with big, black eyes. Its round…woolly…body was…
A sheep poked its head up over the side of the coffin and stared at both Ryoka and Colfa. Vampire lady and Runner girl stared at it. The sheep stared at them and then baaahed again. Loudly.
“What the f—”
A surprise sheep was not one of the things Ryoka had expected. She leaned back as the animal looked from her and then to Colfa. For the vampire’s part, she looked shocked. And then annoyed. She hesitated, and then flicked one hand at the sheep.
“Shoo. Begone, grazing beast.”
Colfa turned her head, pretending not to notice it. The sheep wandered over and butted her in the shin. It began to rub its head against Colfa’s dress.
“I said, begone.”
Colfa pushed the sheep away. Quite gently. The sheep baahed quietly and refused to go. The vampire shot a quick glance at Ryoka. The young woman had no idea what expression was on her face, but it was frozen there.
One of the other vampires coughed. It looked like he was hiding a smile. The old one sighed, and the other vampire on the floor, the one with the awkward neck, moved forwards. The sheep turned and approached him, still baaahing. Ryoka caught a glimpse of Fierre’s face, a mix of chagrin and embarrassment. The vampire in the rough clothing bent, patted the sheep along the head, and then spoke quietly.
He gently urged the sheep out of view. Ryoka watched him disappear out of the room. Through a hole in the wall. Moonlight shone through, revealing a grassy pasture outside. The vampires and the Asian girl watched the sheep disappear, and then all eyes turned back to Colfa. The Lady of House Lischelle-Drakle hesitated, and then decided to pretend that last moment hadn’t happened.
She eyed Ryoka, and seemed to give up slightly. Lady Colfa frowned, and then her tone grew more direct.
“Tell us your intentions, Human child. What purpose did thou have in seeking my daughter out? Was it to extort her for some riches or personal gain? Did you seek to become vampire yourself? Know this gift is a rare and powerful one, not to be bestowed upon any who merely ask it. Tell me why you accosted her.”
That was a sheep. Ryoka’s mind couldn’t get over that.
“I—I just wanted to know if she was a vampire. That’s all. I don’t want to become a vampire. And uh, I don’t want anything from Fierre. I just wanted to know…if vampires were real. That’s all.”
Ryoka looked up. Fierre was staring at her curiously. Almost hopefully. The other two vampires on the rafters exchanged glances. One of them, the younger, spoke.
“Sounds good to me. Why don’t we let her go?”
Colfa cast a withering glance up above. The young male vampire folded his arms discontentedly. Lady Colfa shook her head.
“The safety of my daug—my offspring, Serafierre, is not one to be taken lightly. I require more proof of your goodwill, mortal.”
She looked directly at Ryoka. The young woman shook her head.
“I don’t know how I can prove my goodwill.”
Colfa’s lips quirked into a smile again.
“No? I have one idea. Serve me, Runner. Swear to obey me and mine kin. As a thrall to our house, eternal-bound. Obey, and you will go safely. Say it.”
Her eyes flashed. Uh oh. Ryoka felt an immediate compulsion to say yes. To obey, and agree to be their thrall, whatever that entailed. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and then closed it.
“No. I’m sorry, but no. I’ll swear not to reveal your secrets. But not to obey you.”
Colfa blinked. Her red eyes wavered. For a second she looked behind her, up towards the rafters. The old vampire sitting there shrugged. Colfa turned back to Ryoka with a frown.
“I am a creature of the night. Vampire. Immortal of blood. You will obey me. Swear it.”
This time whatever she did was stronger. Ryoka felt an urge to agree, to say yes. She fought it. And maybe it was experience of meeting both Teriarch and Magnolia, but she managed to resist whatever Colfa was doing fairly easily.
“You will obey!”
Colfa snapped, and upped the pressure in her voice and eyes. Ryoka gritted her teeth.
The old vampire spoke up at the same time as Fierre. Colfa ignored them. She was angry now. She put all of her energy into her next words. They echoed around the empty room, and Ryoka felt something pulling at her mind.
“I am a vampire. Immortal. Obey!”
Immortal. Ryoka thought of Ivolethe. And Teriarch. She looked up. And her fear turned into anger. Immortal?
There had been no wind in the room or outside. Barely a breeze in the still air. But at Colfa’s last words, dead air came to life. Wind blew through the room and outside. First a gust, and then a howling, whistling current through the opening in the wall. Colfa half-turned, eyes widening, and the other vampires including Fierre cried out.
Ryoka swung herself off the coffin and stood. Colfa turned to face her as the wind blew at her dress, pulling at her hair. Ryoka reached for her belt, gripped a bottle in one hand. She looked Colfa straight in the eye and shook her head.
“Obey you? No. I have met true immortals. And they are nothing like you.”
The wind blew at Ryoka’s hair. It circled the room, whipping up dust, blowing at the vampires. And then it was still. The vampires looked around. The young one spoke uneasily.
Colfa didn’t respond. She was staring at Ryoka. And the pressure was still there. But Ryoka was resisting it. It wouldn’t work, and she could see the vampire was growing angrier. She was ready for Colfa’s next move. Prepared to fight and run, however unlikely it might be. But to her surprise, a voice interrupted the stalemate between her and Colfa.
“Colfa. It’s not going to work. Let the Runner go.”
The female vampire looked back. The vampire with the odd neck was standing in the opening that led outside. He looked at Ryoka, and then at Colfa and shook his head.
“Your domination won’t work. And she has magic. The Runner has said she won’t reveal our secrets. She came to learn about us. So let her.”
Colfa’s voice snapped. Himilt, whom Ryoka thought might be Colfa’s husband, shook his head again.
“What other choice is there? Fierre, we’ll let you explain.”
Fierre protested for a second. Her father gave her a long look and she subsided.
“You shouldn’t have abducted her to begin with. Tell her and we’ll see what happens. Unless anyone disagrees? Rivel? Bamer?”
He looked up at the two vampires sitting above him. Both shook their heads. The younger one, Rivel, looked slightly bored. Bamer, the elderly vampire, stared down at Ryoka with a frown but said nothing. Himilt nodded. He turned to Ryoka. And to her surprise, he walked over and held out a hand.
“My apologies, Miss Griffin. We’re wary of guests who know who we truly are. Welcome to our home. I am Himilt Drakle—”
“Lord Himilt val Lischelle-Drakle.”
Colfa hissed at him. Himilt sighed. Ryoka saw he had farmer’s clothing on. She hadn’t noticed at first, what with him being a vampire, which took higher priority, but he was a vampire dressed like a working farmer. His clothes were a bit muddy, and he smelled of the outdoors. His hand was callused. She took his hand and he gave her a gentle squeeze. Himilt sighed again.
“I’m Lord Himilt val Lischelle-Drakle. This is our family home—”
He received an elbow to the side, quick as lightning from his wife. The vampire barely reacted, but Ryoka felt the shock of the impact though their handshake before he let go. That had to hurt.
“—ancestral estates. Please excuse Fierre abducting you. She will explain who we are and answer your questions. You will not be harmed here.”
He looked over at his wife, as if seeking confirmation. She was scowling, and Ryoka noticed that she didn’t have lipstick on either. Her nails weren’t painted, and the grand dress Ryoka had thought she’d been wearing was actually cotton, not silk. In fact, it looked slightly rumpled. She turned towards Ryoka and tilted her head back. Her voice was imperious and still very traditionally vampiric.
“Mortal girl, you abide here by the grace of our goodwill. Should it run out, fear for thy life. Our daughter of fangs will escort you. Heed her every word with care. We shall meet again.”
She turned and swept away from them. Towards a door at the far end of the room. Himilt nodded and retreated. Ryoka watched them go, feeling very, very confused. The other two vampires looked at each other and stood up. The younger one waved at Ryoka.
“Hi. I’m Rivel.”
He leapt to the ground, a good ten feet, and landed lightly without so much as wincing. Then he leapt nimbly out through the hole in the wall. He’d been wearing farmer’s clothes too.
The older one was slower to move, but when he landed on the floor, it was without so much as a wince. He looked at Ryoka, shook his head, and then complained to Fierre and everyone in earshot.
“Why are we up so late? I need to be awake in the morning, you know. I’m going back to sleep. Tell me if we’re killing the Runner or what when I wake up.”
He followed Colfa through the door. Ryoka stayed where she was. She looked around and saw the last vampire standing awkwardly by herself. Fierre looked around desperately, as if hoping one of the older vampires would come back. But they didn’t. She looked at Ryoka and gave her a desperate smile.
Ryoka stared at her. There were a lot of things she could say, many of them stupid, some of them inflammatory. But that wasn’t the way. So she put aside what she’d just seen and witnessed, gave Fierre an awkward smile, and raised one hand.
“So you’re a vampire.”
“And your entire family are vampires.”
“That’s right. I’m um, sorry about choking you—”
“Oh no, I get it. Can’t let other people find out about vampires, right?”
“That’s right. I panicked. Most people don’t remember vampires, but the ones who do don’t remember us fondly. I thought you might be trying to threaten me.”
“I said I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Yes, but—sorry. Anyways…yeah. We’re vampires.”
“…So what’s it like?”
“What? Oh, being a vampire?”
“Oh, you know…”
As conversations went, this one was awkward. Ryoka thought she knew uncomfortable, but talking to Fierre was establishing a new benchmark. She and the vampire girl sat awkwardly on a stone coffin, half staring at each other and half looking at their hands, and around the room in embarrassment.
Ryoka coughed. There was dust in the air, stirred up by the wind. Fierre waved some away from her face.
“Sorry about that. We don’t clean this place often.”
“Oh no, it was my fault. It’s uh, nice in here. Is this your family crypt or something?”
Fierre looked mildly surprised and amused.
“What? No. We don’t use this place except to store stuff. In the coffins.”
“Not to sleep in?”
That came out before Ryoka could help it. Fierre blinked at her.
“No. We don’t sleep in coffins. I have a bed.”
“Oh. Right. I mean…obviously. Vampires don’t sleep in coffins. It’s just that in legends…I mean, I only know legends, which is why I asked.”
“We don’t sleep in coffins. Not these ones, at any rate. They’re made of stone. Very hard and uncomfortable. I guess we could, but this place hasn’t been used to store dead bodies in centuries. It used to be, but my family bought the land here ages ago and cleared everything up.”
“Your family bought this land? I thought they were your ancestral estates.”
Fierre shrugged, and scratched her neck uncomfortably. She’d taken off her scarf and her heavy, thick clothing. She looked like a normal girl now. With pale skin. Red eyes. And fangs.
“That’s just what mother likes saying. This place has been in the family for…sixty years? But that’s about it.”
More silence. The two looked at each other. Ryoka took a few breaths. They’d never get anywhere tiptoeing around.
“So you’re a vampire.”
Fierre took a shuddering breath. She was breathing hard, as if this was the most exhausting thing Ryoka had ever seen her do. She looked up and met Ryoka’s eyes for the first time.
Vampire. Creature of death. Blood feeders. Masters of the night. Only, that was what people said. And reality looked different. Fierre was slightly scrawny. She looked like she was in her teens. Her clothing wasn’t the color of midnight—it was worn, nondescript. She didn’t sleep in a coffin.
But she was a vampire. Fierre took another gulp of air.
“Wow. You’re the first person—the first non-vampire I’ve ever met who’s known I’m—ever. You know?”
“No. Not really.”
Ryoka saw Fierre look up. Suddenly, she laughed. So did Ryoka. They laughed, and some of the tension in the air drained away. Just like that.
Wasn’t that easy? Suddenly, Ryoka felt silly. Of course they were like people. If they weren’t, she would have been dead already. How else could Fierre have blended in so well? Ryoka laughed and then coughed harder as more dust entered her lungs. Fierre grimaced.
“Hey, you want to get out of here?”
“Fine by me. Um—where are we?”
The vampire girl leapt off the coffin. She pointed towards the door that her mother had gone through.
“My home. Come on. It’s not much, but I can show you around. This way.”
Ryoka followed her out of the room full of coffins and through a door of plain wood. It looked…recently installed. The masonry was crumbling in this keep or whatever Fierre’s family had bought. The hallways were dark and cold underfoot. Ryoka shivered, hopping from one bare foot to the other. Fierre noticed.
“Sorry. We don’t keep many lights on. Vampires can uh, see really well in the dark. And we don’t get cold.”
“I noticed. You said your family bought this place? What was this, a castle or something?”
“It used to be. A big one, too. But it was already mostly gone by the time it was bought. Now it’s just the keep and some ruins left over. We’ve been working on it now and then, but there’s never enough time—oh.”
She turned left. Ryoka stopped as she saw Himilt, the level-headed vampire, holding a trowel and standing in front of a hole. In the wall of the keep. It led straight outdoors and Ryoka saw tall grass outside. The vampire was industriously applying a coat of dark grey mortar to the stones and repairing a hole in the wall. Fierre looked embarrassed.
Colfa was appalled. The vampire appeared in a blur of swishing red and black, hurrying towards her husband.
“Himilt! What are you doing?”
The vampire looked up and replied mildly.
“You’ve been telling me to repair the gap in the wall for years. I’m finally doing it.”
“Yes, but here? Now?”
Colfa shot a meaningful glance at Ryoka. Unperturbed, her husband spread a bit of mortar on the stonework and plopped a stone into place.
“It’s the best time, isn’t it? First the sheep wander in, now this. If you want to give me a hand, I can do it faster.”
“We have a guest.”
Fierre led Ryoka back, blushing, though it was barely noticeable on her face. Ryoka tried not to laugh.
“Those are your parents? Or your sires?”
Fierre shook her head.
“Don’t you start. My mother’s the only one who talks like that, you know. She even put on a dress to impress you. They’re my parents.”
“Vampires can have children?”
The girl looked back at Ryoka. The Runner girl paused.
“Sorry. There’s just so much I want to know.”
“I can see that. Yes, we can have children. But we’re not—I don’t know what you’ve heard, but we’re not like mother acts.”
“But you are vampires. Immortal. Quick. And strong. You managed to choke me—I wasn’t expecting that. I hit you and you didn’t so much as flinch.”
“Yeah. I didn’t expect you to do that. It hurt a bit.”
Fierre looked back at Ryoka as she pushed open a door. She grinned toothily.
“Just a bit.”
A change was coming over her. Gone, gone was Fierre the quiet girl who was afraid to show her teeth. She began walking faster, talking more animatedly. She was in her home. And she’d told Ryoka the worst. What could happen next? In a way, Ryoka realized, she’d been the one who was more scared between the two. After all, Ryoka had met a Dragon. Fierre had never so much as told another Human being who she really was.
“Look. This is home.”
Fierre led Ryoka towards a door and threw it open. Rather than continue into the rest of the keep, the walls and indeed, the entire structure just…stopped. Ryoka saw a few broken walls, some flooring partially consumed by grass, and then just nature. She looked out and saw it.
A pasture. Sheep, greyish white and thick in their winter coats lay together, slumbering in the grass. Little lambs, both ewes and rams were protectively shielded by their parents, while a few oddly nocturnal sheep were up and about, grazing the first bloom of spring. A fence boxed them in, and beyond them lay a barn, another pasture where cows slept. The open sky—and below, a large, rocky field full of grass and boulders, along which a dirt road wound.
They were standing on a plateau. And this ruined castle, Fierre’s home, stood on top. Ryoka looked around and backed up from the keep. She looked up at it. It was a decaying mess of a building, but someone had taken the time to repair many of the gaps with fresh stone and mortar, roofing the top, and the keep was grand for all that.
Once, it had been a castle. Now, pedestals of stone were scattered around, the broken walls used as part of the fencing keeping the animals in, overgrown by grass. It was a peaceful, peculiar sight. Ryoka turned her head and saw her standing there.
Fierre. The girl looked at her. And there was something urgent in her posture. In the way she moved. She took a few steps forward, and then turned to face Ryoka.
“This is my home. And you were right, Ryoka. I’m a vampire.”
She flinched, as if saying that word aloud was frightening. But after the world failed to strike her down, Fierre’s shoulders rose. She looked around. And then she grinned at Ryoka.
“I’m a vampire.”
She leapt up, and it was as if gravity had vanished for her for a moment. Ryoka looked up and Fierre landed on the faded stone pedestal. Another leap and she touched the wall of her home. She clung to the wall, and then kicked off again. Higher, landing on the roof of the keep. She looked down at Ryoka and her eyes sparkled the tiniest bit red. White teeth flashed, and Ryoka felt a jolt in her heart.
Fierre jumped, and she flew through the air, farther than the world’s greatest Olympian long-jump. She landed on a pillar of stone, waved her arms at Ryoka. Spun. Jump again. She soared through the night, laughing in the moonlight. Showing off. Delighted to just be. A creature of legend.
Somehow, unaccountably, or perhaps accountably, they liked each other. Perhaps it was because they were both similar—despite not appearing it at first glance. But when she could be herself at home, Fierre delighted in well, being a vampire. She was proud of it, and all too willing to show off the inhuman agility and strength that was a hallmark of her kind. She could lift a sheep—carefully—over her head, leap phenomenal distances, and see perfectly in the dark.
And Ryoka was Ryoka. Pride was in her nature, but she’d learned to work at being personable. With Fierre she didn’t have to. The two walked around the pasture as Fierre pointed out the livestock her family raised and tended. She’d grown up here before moving to the city to earn a living.
“I’m actually twenty five years old.”
Fierre gave Ryoka a toothy grin.
“Oh yes. Vampires don’t really age. We can if we want to, or even get younger. But we don’t have to grow old.”
“Then why do you look like you’re sixteen?”
“Because it’s easier to pretend to get older each year. I was even younger when I first came to Reizmelt. Which is hard, because I’m old inside. For instance, I’m older than you.”
She looked up at Ryoka with an upturned nose. Ryoka reflexively elbowed her. Fierre just laughed. Ryoka shot her a sideways look.
“I bet it also makes it hard to hang around people like Madain, doesn’t it? Given that you could probably twist his arms off.”
The vampire girl tried to look innocent.
“Who, me? I’d never try. I’ve thought of it, but—I’m not sure I could, honestly. He was a good adventurer and I’m not that strong. I can lift a sheep, but tearing heads off or punching holes in the wall isn’t easy.”
“Yeah, but he can’t do that.”
“I’ve seen him punch straight through the wall of his inn.”
“Oh. Crap. Remind me not to make him angry. So you, what, hide among Humans to earn a living?”
“Pretty much. I’m good at it too, aren’t I?”
Fierre glanced up at Ryoka.
“I keep my teeth hidden, I stay out of the sunlight, and I don’t ever show anyone that my shadow’s missing.”
“Yeah, but it’s still sort of obvious if you know what to look for.”
Fierre looked put out. She glanced sideways at Ryoka.
“No one’s ever found out I’m a vampire, though. And I’ve had to survive a few sticky situations. Corrupt Runners trying to do me in, monster attacks—I was even mugged by a gang of [Thieves] once.”
“How did they taste?”
The two started giggling. Fierre put one hand on Ryoka’s shoulder to steady herself.
“I don’t drink Human blood! Really, I don’t!”
“Why not? Are you afraid of making more vampires.”
She shook her head.
“We can control that. It’s not like sucking blood makes new vampires. If it did, we’d have vampire sheep instead of live ones. No, it’s way too risky. Bite marks look distinctive, and if you get spotted—my family’s sworn never to drink blood from people. Ever.”
Ryoka frowned. She kept one eye on the grass, watching out for sheep poo as she walked around with Fierre.
“Then how do you survive?”
Fierre pointed to the next pasture. Cows were resting at night. But again, some were up and awake. Apparently having nocturnal owners meant the animals became semi-nocturnal themselves. Ryoka eyed them.
“You suck their blood?”
“That’s right. Or we harvest it so we can move around. I get blood in bottles each week from the farm. It’s cow blood, mainly. Sheep too. Pigs, goats…we get a lot of blood from pigs during the slaughter, but cows are bigger so we can bleed a bit more from them.”
Ryoka had an image of bleeding animals in a slaughter house and shuddered. But again, Fierre shook her head.
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt them. And they’re used to it. We only take a little bit each week and we have lots of animals to keep up the blood supply.”
“Huh. So wait. You said vampire sheep. Does that mean—”
A loud baaah interrupted Ryoka. She jumped and saw a familiar white shape heading straight for her. The sheep that had so rudely interrupted Colfa appeared, baahing and staring up at Ryoka and Fierre. It approached the vampire girl. Fierre bent and rubbed its head.
“Hello there, Fluffles. You’ve been a bad sheep, haven’t you?”
Fierre looked up and grinned wickedly.
“That’s right. Fluffles the Sixth. He’s mother’s favorite. You can pet him if you want. I was about ready to die laughing when he came in and ruined mother’s performance.”
“That was something alright. I was about to wet myself before he started baahing. So your mother and your father are [Herders]?”
“That’s right. Except without the class.”
“Oh. Then what’s their class?”
Ryoka looked up, curious. Fierre made a face.
“None. Vampires don’t earn classes. We can’t level up. Mother lost her classes when she became a vampire. Old Bamer thinks it’s a way of keeping balance. Imagine if a high-level [Warrior] were a vampire.”
“That makes sense. Hey—guess what? I don’t have a class either.”
Fierre’s eyes widened.
“You don’t? Are you crazy? How are you doing that wind thing, then?”
Ryoka felt a bit insulted. She straightened and Fluffles the Sixth went off to find more hands to scratch his head.
“Hey, you said you don’t have a class.”
“Yes, but I’m a vampire. You’re Human. I’ve met people who don’t want classes. They’re odd, odd sorts. I should have known you were one of them.”
The vampire looked challengingly at Ryoka. The Asian girl opened her mouth, and sighed.
“Okay, you’ve got me there.”
The two laughed again.
“So why don’t you have a class?”
“I…just don’t trust classes that much. I don’t like the idea of being defined by my Skills or what leveling does to you.”
“That’s fair. It does change you. I’ve seen it happen. Myself, though, I wish I could level up. Skills are wonderful, aren’t they?”
“They are nice. I could use a [Runner]’s Skills, but…is that why you’re an opener? Because you don’t have Skills?”
A low sigh escaped Fierre’s lips.
“Partly. It is hard to earn a lot of money if you don’t have levels. Opening’s a good job because I can fake having Skills that protect me against poison or a lot of traps. Not that I try to get hit by spells, by the way. But it’s saved me twice when there’s been contact poison on the envelope. Vampires are really hard to poison. But I work other jobs as well.”
“I noticed. How many jobs do you have?”
The girl began ticking them off on her fingers. Ryoka looked around and spotted Himalt walking towards the barn, hole in the keep apparently fixed. He was quite quick—so was Fierre. Even walking, they moved faster than normal, as if permanently sped up.
“Let’s see. I work as an opener for Runners. I buy and sell information—but I’m not that well-connected. I help Miss Kelysta out in her shop, mainly by grinding poisonous herbs and so on. I’m a part-time laborer, I do grave digging if the [Gravedigger]’s back is shot. Sometimes I help with building, I’ve earned money as a butcher, and I’ve got experience as a barmaid…”
“Sure you don’t want to add being a Runner to that? You could probably make a good living. At least as a City Runner.”
“I’d do that, but then I’d have to run at night. Sunlight’s bad for me. Plus…it’s not good to attract that much attention, you know?”
“Right. Can’t let anyone find out. Uh—why’s that so bad? Because people will hunt you down?”
The girl scowled darkly.
“Not most people. Most people don’t even remember us. But a few groups do. Ever heard of the Byres family? They’re famous vampire slayers. So are the Veltras and Terland families. If word got out there were vampires, we’d be hunted down and adventurers would be collecting bounties on our heads.”
“Not exactly ideal.”
Ryoka agreed mildly. She opened her mouth to ask another question and heard a rumble. So did Fierre. Both girls looked at Ryoka’s stomach.
“Sorry. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Since someone decided to knock me out.”
At least Fierre had the decency to blush.
“Sorry. Why don’t you come inside? We’ve got food.”
“I don’t eat blood.”
This time Fierre elbowed Ryoka, and the taller girl doubled over and clutched at her side.
“We’ve got real food too. Come on.”
This time they circled the keep and went in through the kitchen. There were a lot of doors, and not a lot of locks. Or any, rather. Not even a deadbolt. Fierre looked around the slightly dusty and unused kitchen and began rummaging around on the shelves.
“We’ve probably got cheese, bread…no fresh meat, sorry. Mother doesn’t keep much in the larder except to entertain guests.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
Ryoka heard a laugh. Fierre frowned into a cupboard and then turned and shouted.
“Mother? Where’s the food?”
“Look in the upper pantry, daughter of mine!”
A loud voice echoed back down the hallway. Fierre looked and pulled out a hairy piece of cheese. Ryoka took one look at it and shook her head. Fierre scowled.
“It’s got mold on it! I can’t give her that! Remember what happened last time?”
“Go into the storeroom!”
“Sorry. Wait one second.”
Grumbling, Fierre went into the keep. She came back moments later holding a slice of cheese and a bottle. She handed both to Ryoka.
“Here. Some wine. And cheese. Don’t worry—it’s fresh.”
Ryoka blinked at the fare, but she accepted both. One sniff confirmed that the food was indeed good, and she set to with vigor. Two bites in and Ryoka’s tongue caught up. Her eyes widened.
“This is some good cheese!”
“Isn’t it? We make it here.”
Fierre grinned proudly.
“We raise cows, like I said. Not just for blood. My family sells milk, makes cheese—we earn a lot of money off of our pigs, too. Eggs, wool—it’s good money.”
“I’d pay for this cheese. You want some?”
Ryoka offered it to Fierre, but the vampire girl waved away the cheese before pouring herself a cup of wine. Ryoka had forgotten the vampire part and asked about it. Fierre just shrugged.
“I can eat food. I just don’t need to if I have blood. And with food, it has to come back out.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
“You’re the one who does it all the time. Not me.”
“I am a vampire. I don’t need to sleep as much—although I get tired during the day, I don’t need to eat anything if I have blood, and I heal up really fast.”
She coughed into her hand. Ryoka eyed her.
“But you do get sick.”
“But aren’t you…dead? Or er, undead?”
The girl sat up instantly, looking cross. She shook her head vigorously.
“We’re not undead. That’s a myth. If we were undead, why would we need to drink blood?”
That was a good point. But all the stories Ryoka had ever heard had pointed out vampires as being distinctly dead. She stopped chewing for a second and eyed Fierre.
“Do you mind if I check your pulse?”
“No. Go ahead.”
Fierre let Ryoka touch her neck. To Ryoka’s surprise, she had a pulse, albeit very slow. Her skin was cold to the touch, but, Ryoka had to admit, it was just cold. Not exactly the chilling touch of death.
“See? We’re not undead.”
“Nope. You’re more like a lizard. Ow!”
This time Fierre prodded Ryoka under the table with one finger. The Runner girl yelped. Fierre smiled.
“We’re alive. I wouldn’t have this stupid cold if I wasn’t. But like I said, we heal quickly. Although we do get sick quite often…Bamer thinks that’s a curse.”
She rolled her eyes. Ryoka didn’t. She was thinking of the rash she’d seen on Colfa’s arm. But she didn’t bring that up.
“So you’re an immortal vampire—”
“That’s just what mother says. We die.”
“Fine, a powerful vampire—”
“—who works multiple jobs to do…what? Save up for high-quality cow’s blood?”
The grin on Fierre’s face faded.
“No. I’m just supporting the family. I send most of the money I earn back here. It’s not that we don’t earn a lot from our business, but every bit counts, you know?”
Towards what? But Ryoka had sensed Fierre didn’t want to say just yet, so she nodded.
“So you stay at Mad Madain’s because…”
“It’s cheap. And he serves his meat bloody. It’s convenient for me and he doesn’t ask questions.”
“Fair enough. So you’re just an everyday, hardworking vampire girl helping make ends meet. What about your mother?”
Fierre fiddled with her empty cup. She noticed Ryoka’s stare and flushed.
“Okay, she’s very different. She likes being a vampire, alright? She was Human—before father turned her.”
“She married into the family. She’s a Lischelle. Hence the name. We’re just the Drakles, but mother insists on calling ourselves Lischelle-Drakles because she thinks it sounds better.”
“And no one gets suspicious at the last name ‘Drakle’?”
“They just think it means Drake.”
“…Fair. Okay, so your mother just met your father and they…fell in love?”
“That’s right. He only revealed he was a vampire when they were in love. And she begged to be one. For years, apparently.”
For some reason, that was the least surprising bit to Ryoka. If vampires ever came to Earth, her Earth, they’d have no shortage of followers. And it also explained why Colfa acted like she did.
“So the Lischelles know your family are vampires? That’s a lot of trust.”
Again, Fierre shook her head.
“Oh, no. None of them are vampires except for mother, and they don’t know she’s one. She keeps it secret. And we’re lucky in that sense. Mother’s name really helps our business.”
“Yes, definitely. The Lischelles are famous [Shepherds], [Beast Tamers], [Herders]…they’re practically royalty among the farming communities. Dad always said he got lucky marrying Mom. She agrees.”
Fierre rolled her eyes. Ryoka sat back.
“So you don’t enslave people with hypnosis, prey on the innocent, or create more vampire thralls to control the living. But you do have the power to do something, don’t you? Your mother tried it on me.”
This time Fierre paused and looked away.
“That was—domination. Yeah, we can do that. It works best on animals, but mother’s gifted, apparently. She can control people. Even make them forget things. It didn’t work on you, though. Why is that?”
“Maybe because I had a charm?”
Ryoka showed Fierre one of her Runner charms. The vampire gave them a dismissive look.
“Charms don’t work on the vampire gaze. It’s not an enchantment so the charms can’t block them. Try again.”
“I’m just stubborn, then. I’ve had people try to charm me before. It never works.”
Fierre gave Ryoka an appraising look. The Runner sat back.
“Give me your best shot.”
The vampire studied Ryoka, and then shook her head lightly.
“No thanks. I don’t practice my gaze. It’s risky if you get found out, or if you meet someone who can resist. I want to live a healthy, long life, thanks.”
“Until you’re what, eight hundred?”
“Forty would be nice.”
Ryoka laughed. But Fierre didn’t. She smiled and reached for the wine bottle.
“There’s a bit about vampires you don’t know, Ryoka. A lot of it’s sort of true. Bamer says we used to prey on people and control a lot of Izril—until we were nearly wiped out, that is. We don’t do any of that anymore. And we’re not immortal. Some of us can live into our sixties, or even eighties…but never longer.”
It sounded like a joke. But the convivial atmosphere, helped by the wine, had left Fierre’s face. She looked into her cup, and then drank it down.
“Nothing. It’s nothing. We just have shorter lifespans, that’s all.”
She grinned at Ryoka, showing her fangs. The Human girl hesitated.
“Okay. So you’re all good people. Then why not come out? Why hide?”
“Byres. Silver swords. It’s not worth the risk. We keep to ourselves, stay safe—it’s better this way. That’s what Dad says and everyone agrees. But sometimes people find out and we have to scare them quiet. Or make sure they don’t talk. Like you.”
Fierre leaned over, scooting her chair towards Ryoka. She leaned on the girl’s shoulder. As if the wine was suddenly having an effect.
“Normally, mother makes them forget. That’s why I brought you here. But rarely—it’s never happened with my family—we meet someone who can know about us. Then we teach them a sign so they can find more vampires. We call them Flesh Friends.”
“No. I made that up.”
Fierre laughed and Ryoka did too. The vampire girl leaned against Ryoka. She was cold, but soft. She smiled up at Ryoka and for some reason, Ryoka’s heart skipped a beat.
“We’d be good friends, don’t you think? I’ve always wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t a vampire and knew who I was. I wanted to talk to you, but you were always busy.”
“Really? About what?”
Was it getting warmer? Fierre grinned.
“I wanted to know about the bare feet.”
“Oh. I just like running barefoot. Uh—”
It was warmer. Ryoka was flushing a bit. She shifted, to get a bit of room. Fierre just scooted over, hogging Ryoka’s chair.
“If mother and father agree, you’ll get to leave here knowing our secret. Then I could talk to you about all my secrets. You’d be the only person who knows who I am. Wouldn’t that be nice? We could be…friends.”
The look Fierre gave Ryoka said the opposite of friendship would happen in that case. Ryoka blinked rapidly. What was going on? She was certain—fairly certain—that she wasn’t attracted to Fierre. Or she hadn’t been. Until right now. Now, she was definitely and severely interested in Fierre’s pale lips, her body. Fierre rested a hand on Ryoka’s arm.
Her touch was cool and electric. It sent a shock running straight down Ryoka’s spine as Fierre gently touched her arm. Ryoka felt her heart beating way too fast. She tried to pull away and her mind finally put two and two together.
“You’re—charming me. Stop it.”
“Didn’t you say to give it my best shot? Well, I am. Are you…interested?”
Ryoka was, very. Fierre tilted her head and gave Ryoka a pointed smile. For some reason that was the most appealing thing in the world. Ryoka swayed. Her head dipped. What was she doing? She wasn’t attracted to Fierre! Or girls! Okay, it was a spectrum of liking someone, but—
“Would you like to be friends? I’m terribly interested. And don’t worry. I won’t bite.”
That last line nearly pulled Ryoka out of it. But the look Fierre gave her dragged Ryoka right back in. And closer to Fierre’s lips.
Don’t do it. Her mind was telling her not to take that kiss, and for more reasons than just that Fierre was trying to make her do it. Ryoka tried to resist, but Fierre’s seduction was a lot harder than her mother’s command. She tried to will herself to stop, but Fierre’s face was on a collision course with hers.
Pull away. What would Erin do? What would Erin do? What would—
“You and I could find a space together. Or close the door—”
The vampire girl was smiling wickedly and running a hand up Ryoka’s arms. She leaned forwards, and her face froze up. She inhaled—
And then she sneezed on Ryoka. That broke the spell quite effectively. Fierre wiped her nose, coughing as Ryoka jerked backwards in her seat. Ryoka felt all her attraction towards Fierre vanish—she wiped her arm and Fierre scowled.
“Damn it. Stupid cold.”
Ryoka was panting. She stared at Fierre as the vampire girl fished around for something. She came up with a potion and drank a mouthful. Her coughing subsided. She looked up and met Ryoka’s eyes. The two stared at each other. Fierre grinned.
“Well? I don’t know about you, but I’d say that worked.”
The Runner opened and closed her mouth a few times. She looked at Fierre, who was giving her a challenging, half-mocking grin. Daring her to say anything. Ryoka looked at Fierre, gulped, and then slowly spoke.
“I think we are going to be best friends. Or I’m going to have to kill you.”
And the vampire girl laughed.
Ryoka had been awoken in the Drakle household closer to midnight than not. And it was into early morning when they exited the kitchen, laughing, a bit drunk on wine, but mostly good spirits. Fierre stopped Ryoka in the hallways and grew a bit more sober for a second.
“I was supposed to tell you about vampires. But you knew almost everything. Even more stories than Bamer. Are there really tales about…Dracula, and vampires where you come from?”
“More than you could know.”
Fierre looked at Ryoka. Without telling her where she was from, Ryoka had told her about Earth’s legends. Most of which it turned out were fairly accurate—you could get a seducing vampire who preyed on virgins and offed anyone trying to get rid of him—he was called an asshole, and a criminal.
Fierre had enjoyed the stories, and Ryoka had confirmed it. She liked Fierre. Vampire Fierre was forthright, honest—and if she didn’t like what Ryoka said, she’d poke Ryoka in the stomach. She was quite, quite strong. And Fierre seemed to like her too, as odd as that was. Now the vampire girl looked…thoughtful.
“You really just wanted to know if I was a vampire? To talk to me?”
“Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t the greatest plan, but I was sleep-deprived and a bit stupid. And we were in the sunlight. If you really freaked out I probably would have bought a wagonload of garlic and some silver, but…I just wanted to know. To be friends.”
Ryoka shrugged. Fierre looked at her, mouth slightly open, showing her fangs. It was how she smiled when she was happy.
“I’d like that. Okay. I’ll see what I can do. I need to talk to my mother. She won’t want to leave you, but if I can convince her you’re trustworthy—”
“We can be Flesh Friends?”
Fierre snorted and then tried to cover it. She turned.
“I’ll be back. You can go wherever you want. Just don’t go into the bull’s pasture. Or leave the plateau. Or wake up Bamer. He’s sleeping.”
She turned and vanished down the dark hallway. Ryoka, who’d grown used to the dim lighting by now, yawned and looked around. She was feeling tired, despite having had an arguably long nap thanks to Fierre. Melatonin, and all that. She thought about waiting in the kitchen, but Ryoka didn’t handle sitting and waiting well. So she wandered the keep instead—for about a minute.
“Cold feet, cold feet.”
The inside was too chilly for Ryoka, so she hurried outside into the grass. The sheep were all asleep by this point, even Fluffles. Ryoka walked quietly around them, staring at the wooly forms, and then noticed a few animals were up. The cows. A few were up and a dark figure was tending to one of them. Ryoka wouldn’t have noticed, but the metal on the bucket Himalt was milking the cow into shone in the moonlight. She wandered over.
Himalt looked up, and the cow turned one big head and gave Ryoka a watery look. Both cow and vampire seemed quite calm in the moonlight. Himalt nodded.
“Hello. Fierre’s told you all about us?”
Ryoka leaned on the fence, watching as milk squirted into the bucket.
“Mostly she just told me what you weren’t. I knew a lot of legends about vampires—uh, from my home. But there are quite a few differences, apparently.”
“Mm. Such as?”
The vampire’s voice was calm. He looked like a farmer right out of Ryoka’s imagination—except for the pale skin, red eyes, and neck. It was bulbous, and Ryoka eyed it with a growing certainty about why that might be. But she made no comment.
“Uh, I thought vampires were technically undead. And that you couldn’t get sick. Or eat food, really.”
“Well, you’re partially right. Food doesn’t do much for us. A vampire can eat all day and the food mostly goes in and out. Blood’s what we need to live. As for sickness and being undead—we’re not the vampires our ancestors were.”
Himalt’s hands were rhythmic. The cow seemed to be enjoying the milking. Ryoka noticed more getting up. She understood, in a way. If Himalt wanted to do his work out of the sun, the cows had to change when they woke up and went to sleep. He replied calmly, turning his head.
“Not at all. We don’t drink the blood of people. Some of us were famous necromancers. Stronger vampires who burned up in sunlight like kindling. They were probably closer to your stories. But the Drakle line has been born vampires. We give birth. Rarely do people marry into the family.”
“Like your wife.”
The hands paused for a second.
“Yes. Colfa was an exception. But mostly, we marry between ourselves.”
“Um…how many of you are there?”
Ryoka wondered if inbreeding was an issue. Himalt just shrugged in reply.
“I couldn’t say. Hundreds? Not thousands. There are clans of us scattered about. We know each other. Not that the Byres or any adventurers of today would find us—most of the time. I trust you understand why we keep to ourselves?”
“I do. And you have my word I won’t tell anyone, Mister Himalt.”
“That’s good to know. Colfa was worried after her gaze and voice failed on you.”
“Does she work on the farm with you?”
It seemed at odds with Colfa’s grand act, but Himalt nodded.
“Normally she doesn’t wear that dress. She’d be out here, but she’s talking to Fierre. I believe they’ve deliberating what your fate—I’m sorry, thine fate, should be. She’ll agree to let you go, I’ m sure.”
“What would you have done if you decided you couldn’t trust me? Hypothetically speaking.”
Ryoka had to know. Himalt looked up, still milking the cows.
“We’d probably have to find a way to keep you silent. Since Colfa couldn’t use her gaze, we’d turn to magic—or spread the word and try and find someone with a stronger gaze.”
“You wouldn’t kill me?”
“We’re not monsters.”
The word was a quiet rebuke. Ryoka flushed. Himalt shook his head.
“My wife has never killed an innocent soul. [Bandits]? Yes. Monsters? Of course. And wolves, bears…but she has a soft spot. I’m lucky to have met her, you know.”
Ryoka felt embarrassed, as she always did when someone older than her talked about love. Himalt looked up at her, and his voice was calm.
“Miss Griffin, I’m not sure where you’re from to hear so many legends about vampires. But I won’t ask. Secrets should be respected, and I trust you to keep ours. But I have one warning. It’s not made in malice, understand, but I have to say it. Reveal my daughter’s secret or put her in harm’s way, and I will find and kill you.”
The words travelled a little ways in the grassy pasture, and faded. The wind carried them away, so only the Runner girl heard. She stared at Himalt. The vampire didn’t reappear behind Ryoka in the blink of an eye, or intimidate her with some superhuman feat of strength like lifting the entire cow over his head. In fact, all the while he never stopped milking the cow in front of him.
But he met her eyes. And that was enough. For a brief moment, Himalt looked up and something else looked at Ryoka. Not a farmer. Not a Human. It was ancient and terrified the mortal part of Ryoka. It stared at Ryoka as it knelt, milking the cow. And then it was gone, and Himalt was back. He looked back to his task as if nothing had happened. Ryoka shivered. Himilt had more of true Vampire in one glance than all of his wife’s pretenses and airs.
“And I don’t doubt your word. Good folk shouldn’t, so I apologize again for saying it.”
Himalt stood up. The bucket was full, and the cow seemed happy. It wandered off. The vampire nodded.
“They should be done talking by now. If not, let’s surprise them. Miss Griffin?”
She expected him to lead the way to the gates. But instead, Himalt jumped. It was a graceful movement. He leapt up and landed on the other side of the fence, bucket in hand. And somehow, though the milk sloshed slightly, not a drop of it fell to the ground. Himalt gave Ryoka a slow, pleased smile. And she grinned at him with awestruck delight.
The two walked back towards the keep. They didn’t say much. But Himalt did pause, a little bit in front of the faded stone. He pointed up at it.
“This is our home. Not our first home. The Drakle family moved about for thousands of years. We’ve changed names. Lived in the open or the past. Now there are only a few of us left. Ryoka Griffin, look upon it.”
He turned, setting the bucket down. And again, the farmer changed. A tall figure stood with his back to the keep. Ancient, worn stone grew taller. A pair of red eyes looked down at Ryoka. The wind stilled, and Ryoka looked up at Himilt. A vampire with old eyes stood proudly, chest raised, poised.
He held his hand out and swept it slowly across the ruined, overgrown estate. And she heard his voice, saw his feelings in every line of his body.
Look. Here, amid the ruins. Here I am. Here we are. See what we are. What we were.
The shadows seemed darker around him. Grander. But Himilt cast no shadow. He looked down at Ryoka. He was a farmer. And happy with it, or so it seemed. But he was also a vampire. And though he had changed to live, he had not forgotten. In his way, he was more of his ancestors than Colfa could ever be.
Grand, humbled. A past glory, reduced to this. No—wait. That wasn’t the point. Ryoka looked past Himalt. He didn’t seem merely sad. His outstretched arm took in his fields. The placid animals. The past had changed, become something new. And it was his.
There was nothing to say. But Ryoka knew something of immortals. So she bowed. Slightly, a courtly bow. And the vampire smiled. He turned away and picked up his bucket. And by the time Ryoka straightened he was Himalt the farmer again.
That was how the two found Colfa and her daughter. Himalt and Ryoka were smiling and talking about cows. Apparently vampirism affected animals very differently. Made them dangerous. But magical cows were nice.
“Ahem. Mine husband. Hast thou entertained our mortal guest?”
Colfa looked severely at Himalt. He looked up.
“I have, my dear.”
Suspiciously, as if she suspected Himalt of rolling in the mud just to make her look bad, Colfa eyed Ryoka and her husband. But Ryoka only nodded politely.
“Your husband showed me the grandeur of your estates, Lady Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle. I am honored to be your guest and humbly beg your forgiveness for my temerity earlier.”
She gave Colfa a very proper bow. Himalt and Fierre both rolled their eyes a bit, but Colfa looked delighted. She straightened and smoothed the dress.
“Well then. Since thou hast shown thine sincerity, I judge my daughter’s trust in you to be founded. Mortal Runner, you may go with the forbidden knowledge of our existence—so long as you swear to keep our secret on pain of death.”
She fixed Ryoka with a menacing look. Ryoka nodded, keeping her face straight.
“I do swear, milady. It is a compact most sacred, which I shall honor with every bit of my mortal heart.”
That last bit was probably too flowery even for Colfa, because she shot Ryoka a look. But she nodded.
“In that case, go. Return to where you came hence with the knowledge of what you’ve seen…unless you’d like to sleep first? We have extra beds.”
The Drakle estates lay at the top of a plateau, uphill. It was a good spot, although as Fierre pointed out, it sometimes meant they had to lead the herds down the slopes to graze.
“Not to mention how hard it is to get a wagon uphill in the mud. But it’s nice.”
“It is. And I like running downhill. Which way’s Reizmelt?”
She and Ryoka stood at the top of the hill. The wind was blowing strong, and though the sun had yet to rise, the sky was lighter. Fierre pointed.
“That way. We’re hours away. As the vampire runs.”
“And the Runner?”
“Well, if you can keep up, we’ll be back by midmorning.”
Fierre shot Ryoka a challenging grin. The Runner blinked in surprise, and then smiled.
“How the hell did you get me out of Reizmelt and all the way out here without me waking up? In secret, no less?”
“Easy. I put you in a wheelbarrow and put a cloth over you.”
“Wait, that worked?”
“Yup. The [Guards] know me. They probably thought I was hauling something. And then I jumped over the walls when they weren’t looking with you. That was harder since you’re heavy.”
“And you ran with me all the way here?”
That would have been a challenge if Ryoka had done that to Fierre, and she was shorter than Ryoka by a good bit. Fierre shrugged.
“It did take the rest of the day.”
“And I was asleep the entire time?”
The vampire girl smiled sheepishly.
“You did wake up. Twice.”
Ryoka felt at her throat.
“Don’t worry. I was careful. Now, do you want to go? I can’t run as fast in the sun. And I’ll be in trouble if I’m out of the shade.”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Ryoka began running down the hill. She took off, having been stretching while Fierre was chatting. She heard a startled exclamation from the girl. But Ryoka was already gone.
And the wind changed. It followed Ryoka, and it whistled as it raced down the hill. Ryoka’s legs blurred as she sped up, trying to keep up with gravity. She heard a laugh, and looked up.
A pale shape leapt down the hill. Fierre didn’t bother to run. She just leapt, bounding down the hill, landing off rocks and flipping through the air. Ryoka looked up and saw Fierre wave at her. The vampire disappeared down the hill. Ryoka gritted her teeth and ran faster.
Down from the hill and into the grass. Ryoka hit the road and there she was. Lounging, pretending to sleep. Ryoka ran right past Fierre and kicked some dirt at her. The vampire leapt up and raced after her. She caught up in twelve seconds, and the two locked eyes while running.
Ryoka went into her top-speed sprint. The wind howled behind her for a moment and she lost Fierre. The vampire girl’s eyes widened. She caught up—with a tad bit of difficulty. Ryoka kept the pace for ten seconds. Twenty. The wind was urging her on. Her legs were screaming to stop.
One minute. Her fastest minute ever run, thanks to the wind. Then Ryoka slowed, panting. Fierre nearly overshot her. She slowed, and Ryoka saw a glimmer of sweat.
“You’re not bad!”
Fierre turned and ran backwards, mockingly grinning at Ryoka. She jumped backwards, stumbled a bit, and then turned forwards. Ryoka inhaled some stinging cool air into her lungs.
“I hate you.”
She laughed, and heard Fierre laugh too. The pair of them ran together, Fierre leaping, not bound by gravity. And when she ran, though she had poor form, it was as if she was skating across the ground rather than running. Graceful, wonderful. And Ryoka ran with her, every step calculated, the product of practice and form.
That was how they ran, through the night, while the world was slumbering. The sun kept rising. And then the first ray struck the ground. Ryoka didn’t stop running, but Fierre paused.
She slowed, sighed, and covered herself up. Ryoka saw Fierre glancing up at the sun as she tugged a scarf into place around her neck. Ryoka slowed as well, and the two progressed to a quick walk.
“Do you need to cover up?”
“We’re not walking into the sun. But I’m tired, and it’s harder to run. Besides, I shouldn’t run in the day.”
Fierre looked disappointed. Ryoka just shrugged.
“We’ll jog then. Or walk if you want to. I can keep going. How about you? Need a stamina potion?”
She offered it to Fierre. The girl slapped it out of her hand. Ryoka grabbed for it and missed, swearing. Fierre leapt and snagged it out of the air. She handed it to Ryoka, who blinked at her. Fierre winked.
“I’m still fast. I get slowest at midday.”
So they jogged. Fierre was only too happy to grouse about sunlight to Ryoka.
“It burns us if we’re out in the open. I can get a sunburn just walking outside for a few minutes. Apparently, it was even worse for old vampires.”
“Does it help if you have an umbrella? What about uh…something on your skin?”
“Like mud? Dad says he did that one time when he was desperate. And umbrellas work, but I can’t really explain needing it, can I? Besides, even with an umbrella, some sun gets through. And I can’t explain getting a tan.”
“No, that’s true…”
Ryoka tried to remember how sunscreen was actually made. That would be something interesting, wouldn’t it? Her mind was racing with all kinds of questions about vampires. And as it happened, they had the time to talk. All the time to talk about silly things. And it wasn’t just Ryoka asking the questions.
“So if you stepped on a nail…”
“That’s my worst nightmare. Rusty nail into bare feet. Or glass. But—look, it doesn’t happen.”
“It has to have happened once.”
“Twice. Ever. Glass is something you can spot. The same goes for metal and other stuff. Dog crap…yeah.”
“Three times. And it was all the fault of the owners. Look, the worst thing I ever stepped on was a snail. Once. But nails? Never. And even if you had a normal shoe on, a nail would go right through that, wouldn’t it?”
“True. I stepped on a nail once.”
“How’d that feel, then?”
“Well, vampires don’t feel pain as much as regular people. And it healed up soon after I pulled it out.”
“…I hate you even more.”
“Want to become a vampire?”
“No thanks. I like sitting in the sun. You do know that moonlight’s actually sunlight, just reflected off the moon—er, moons, right?”
“What? That sounds silly. Besides, I can handle some light. Like the shade. It’s just direct light that’s a problem.”
“Hate it. I’m allergic. Dad gets hives if someone so much as brings it into the same room.”
“Gotcha. Uh, silver?”
“It burns. It’s one of the reasons I can’t do alchemy full-time. And it makes me itch if there’s too much of it around.”
“Wood stakes? Through the heart?”
Fierre paused and gave Ryoka a look.
“Would you survive a stake through the heart?”
The girl shrugged.
“We can’t heal if something’s stuck in our bodies. I suppose that’s why. Yes, wood hurts. Silver’s still worse.”
“How about crosses? Holy water?”
“Holy what? And why would a cross bother me? Is that some kind of weapon?”
“Hmm. Never mind.”
That was interesting. Maybe there was a faith component involved. Ryoka didn’t doubt it. She continued down her list.
“Can you…turn into a bat? Mist? And how about entering places uninvited? Crossing streams of water?”
Fierre shifted uncomfortably and shaded her faced with one gloved hand. She already looked slightly tan as the sun rose higher.
“Mist…maybe Bamer would know if that’s possible. He’s the oldest vampire I know. I’ll ask him next time I go back home. As for the rest…I don’t like doing it, but I can. How do you know so much about vampires?”
“Does your country have an obsession with us or something? Because mother’s bad enough.”
“Oh, believe me. If you met some people…you wouldn’t even have to charm them. They’d be begging you to bite them and pull them into your boudoir. You have one of those, right? And they’d expect you to talk like this. With ve accent, you undershzand? Zuh clazzic mark of zhe vampire.”
“Hahaha! Stop that.”
“Vhat? Vhy are you svo angry? I’m just—hey!”
Fierre suddenly grabbed Ryoka in a headlock. Ryoka wasn’t expecting that and was too slow to pull away. She couldn’t. Fierre looked was shorter and slimmer—but she was strong.
“Gah! Get off!”
Ryoka punched Fierre in the side. The vampire didn’t so much as budge. Ryoka didn’t want to hit her that hard—and then she remembered. Vampire. So she drew back, belted Fierre in the side—and nothing happened. Ryoka blinked, and then tried to swept Fierre’s legs. The girl staggered, and it was Ryoka who fell down.
Fierre bent and helped Ryoka up. The Runner girl stared at Fierre.
“That was embarrassing.”
Another shared grin. Ryoka rubbed at her neck.
“You’re a lot more physical than I thought you’d be. You’re so reserved.”
“Well, I have to be. But I’m not, so cut out with that stupid accent. I grew up with a lot of brothers, so I’m used to fights. Vampire fights.”
Ryoka imagined what rough housing would be like with a vampire’s strength. No wonder the Drakles lived in a stone keep.
“How many brothers do you have? Rivel’s one of them, right?”
“That’s right. He’s the only one who stays at home. The others…well, I have one who moved away.”
“That’s two. Not exactly a lot.”
Ryoka grinned. Fierre’s face fell.
“I—had a lot of brothers.”
“It’s fine. It was a long time ago.”
But it wasn’t fine. The two began walking now. Ryoka could see Reizmelt in the distance. But she was looking at Fierre. This was the heart of it. After a while, Fierre spoke.
“You noticed my mother’s rash, right? On her right arm?”
“I did. Like I said, I didn’t know vampires could get sick. That’s why I had my doubts you were one at first. I thought you were acting.”
“No. We get sick. Miss Kelysta’s always giving me free potions because of it. They help, they really do. But it costs a lot, so even though we make a lot, it goes to potions. Expensive ones, sometimes. Mother’s not the only one. Bamer’s sick most of the time, but it’s not often bad. But my father—”
“I noticed his neck. I thought he was born like that.”
Fierre breathed in and out slowly.
“No. The neck, and other things happen to vampires at they grow older. It gets worse with time. It’s…a thing that happens. Bamer calls it a curse. The neck, the swelling—that happens. Not just to vampires, but that started about six years back for Dad. We just get sick more easily, that’s all. Mom’s had that rash for ages, Rivel’s healthy, but he used to get terrible fevers. Bamer’s coughed all his life. I got sick last month.”
“And it hasn’t cleared up?”
Fierre shook her head.
“It’s not as bad as some illnesses. I just…shiver sometimes. And cough. I’m healthy, mostly. But vampires don’t live long.”
“Because of the sickness?”
“It’s always something. Something gets you. A bad illness. Or—or something goes wrong and they start going mad. Sometimes it’s like Bamer and you just get…weaker. But that’s the price of being a vampire, right?”
Fierre looked back at Ryoka. The young woman bit her lip.
“All the children get sick?”
“Not at first. It gets worse over time. But we do get sick more often. More and more.”
“I see. Tell me one thing. Was it always like this?”
“Not in the past. That’s what Bamer says. But centuries ago it started. He thinks the Byres family cursed us after we went into hiding.”
“After you stopped preying on people and started drinking animal blood.”
Ryoka bit her lip. But she said nothing because it was just a suspicion. But a big one. Fierre walked on in silence. After a while they began to chat again, and pretended that the last conversation hadn’t happened.
And they reached Reizmelt at midday.
“Your face is tanned.”
“Shh. Don’t draw attention to it.”
“Or your shad—”
Ryoka yelped as an elbow struck her in the side. She pushed her way into the Huntress’ Haven, Fierre at her side. The inn was still open, but it was, as usual, completely des—
“There she is!”
Both girls froze. A group of five adventurers were sitting inside the inn, talking with Mad Madain. And a large dog was sitting at their feet, licking a plate clean. It got to its feet as the adventurers turned. Ryoka recognized them at once.
“Miss Wind Runner!”
“You’re back. Had a nice night out?”
Madain gave Ryoka a leering grin. Then he looked at Fierre with a frown, clearly not sure if that applied to her. She waved.
“Hi, Madain. I’m going up to my room. I’ve got to get to work.”
She edged quickly towards the stairs, clearly nervous of the dog. It was sniffing at her, and looking wary. None of the Humans noticed. One of them with fiery tattoos running down his arms strode over.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
“Yes. You’re uh—the adventurers, right?”
Ryoka was blanking on their names. She’d just met them. It felt like yesterday. And it was. No, was it two days ago? They all got to their feet. The [Mage] held out his hand.
“We didn’t know if we’d meet you here. You were gone yesterday by the time we got back to the city. We wanted to thank you in person. We’re so grateful for what you did.”
“Oh, there’s no need—”
Flustered, Ryoka shook her head. But the young man gripped her hand tightly. He met her eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you. I’m Levil, Captain of the Pithfire Hounds. This is Keima, Tally, Bram, Ullica—the dog’s Makki. And you met Lamont. He’d be here, but it’ll be at least a week before he can walk, even with potions. But thanks to you he’s alive. Without you, none of us would be here.”
He indicated his team, who came forwards. Ryoka saw another [Mage], Ullica, Keima, a woman with an axe, Tally, who had a bow, and Bram, who kept the dog from jumping on Ryoka. They all insisted on thanking her to her face and shaking her hand. Red with embarrassment, Ryoka tried to downplay what had happened. Which only made things worse.
“If you hadn’t come along—we already lost Dassa. We’d given up hope anyone would come.”
Tally was red-eyed as she hugged Ryoka. Levil gently pried her off. He met Ryoka’s eyes.
“We owe you large for doing what you did. Not just for the potions—if you hadn’t blasted the frogs with sand, we might have lost either way. We’d like to pay you—”
“No, really, you don’t have to. I mean, you already paid me. And it was a lot. The Runner’s Guild gave me the reward to helping with your friend. I can’t ask for more.”
“Are you sure? We’ve got the bounty on the Wailer Frogs. Look, we could give you—”
Ryoka stopped Levil.
“Please, no. I did my job. I was happy to do it. I’m—I’ve got friends who’re adventurers. I know what it’s like.”
The Pithfire Hounds looked intrigued.
“Really? Anyone we know?”
“Uh, they’re a Silver-ranked team. The Horns of Hammerad. They work down in Celum, mainly.”
Levil turned and looked at his companions. The others shrugged. Bram frowned, and so did Madain, who was clearly eavesdropping as he cleaned a table, but no one spoke up. Levil shrugged.
“Horns of Hammerad? Never heard of them I’m afraid. They’re Silver-rank, right? Ah, right. Well, we’re as common as rats I’m afraid. But we’ll spread your name to the other teams. It’s…reassuring to know there’s at least one Runner who’ll answer emergency calls.”
The look he gave her was questioning. Ryoka nodded.
“Anytime. Anywhere. I can’t promise I’ll be in the area, but if I get the request, I’ll answer it.”
“Thanks. Now, can we buy you a drink? We’d love to talk if you’re not busy…? And I’m dying to know how you cast that wind spell. I’m a [Pyromancer], by the way. That’s our party. Fire and dogs.”
Ryoka hesitated. But she knew there was the right thing to do and the anti-social thing. So she nodded and took a seat. And to her surprise, she enjoyed herself. The Pithfire Hounds were down-to-earth, good adventurers who didn’t truck about with dungeons, complex missions or traps. They hunted down their prey, smoked it out, and killed it. It was a good job—unless you ran into a monster group you weren’t prepared for, like Wailer Frogs.
“We had no idea they were in the area. They were way further south of the marshes than they should have been. Damn things. If I’d known they were there I would have flooded the caves with smoke. But we went back this morning and destroyed their nest. Still, this was not worth the job with Lamont out.”
Levil sighed. He seemed cheerful for all his friend had multiple broken bones. Lamont was alive when all was said and done. The Pithfire Hounds were most torn up about their dog, Dassa, who’d been killed by one of the frogs.
“It’s so dangerous. Adventurers die too, but dogs—we try to keep them out of the fighting if it looks bad, but Dassa charged right in. Saved us from getting swarmed in the first few moments.”
Ryoka listened to the others talk. She shared a drink, two, and then the Pithfire Hounds decided they’d taken up enough of her time. They excused themselves, stopping again to shake her hand.
“If you need anything—call on us. We’ll be about Reizmelt, and not just to check on Lamont. We’re based around here. We’ll see you again, Miss Wind Runner?”
It was easy to smile as she met Levil’s hot handshake. The [Mage] had unusually warm hands, even when he wasn’t casting spells. He nodded at her and the party followed him out. Ryoka sighed, looked over, and saw Madain staring at her. He raised a key in one big hand.
“I’m locking up for the day.”
To his credit, he hadn’t pushed the Pithfire Hounds to leave, and he’d refrained from adding more than a few comments about himself through their talk with Ryoka. But he was clearly ready to go hunting. Ryoka hesitated. Fierre had already left, being too nervous to stay and chat with the adventurers. But Ryoka was too tired to find her and she was really tired.
“Oh. Can I sleep inside? I’ll hop out a window if I need to.”
Madain hesitated. He eyed Ryoka and seemed on the verge of refusing. Then he grunted.
He stomped over to the door. He paused with his hand on the doorframe as he yanked it open and looked back.
“Good work, by the way. Wailer Frogs suck.”
Then he shut the door. Ryoka heard him lock it. She grinned wearily, walked upstairs, and passed out.
In the evening, a Street Runner woke Ryoka up. He threw rocks at the Ryoka’s closed shutters and shouted at her until she opened the shutters.
“If Madain catches you scratching his inn, he’ll cut you. And I’ll let him. What do you want?”
She growled down at the Street Runner. It was the same boy who’d gotten her for the Pithfire Hounds. He grinned up at her, completely unabashed. Ryoka realized she was wearing only her bra. She eyed the boy, but didn’t close the shutters.
“Spit it out or I’ll jump down there and poke you in the eyes. What’s your message?”
The Runner nodded. He cleared his throat.
“Miss Griffin? Mister Prall wants you to know your order’s ready. He wants you to pick it up today. And you’ve got a package waiting for you at the Runner’s Guild. They won’t let us handle it.”
He scowled, put out. Ryoka rubbed her face. Prall’s order? Oh, right! And something at the Runner’s Guild? A delivery for her. And by ‘us’, the boy meant Street Runners. Which meant the package had to be worth something. Ryoka’s heart began to beat faster. Was this…?
“Wait one second. I’ll be down in—”
Ryoka reached for a shirt. And pants. She came down a minute later, her clothing rumpled. The Street Runner looked up as the wind slammed the shutters closed. He whistled. Ryoka rubbed at her eyes. She could have used more sleep, but on the other hand, she’d sleep well tonight.
She fished in her belt pouch and handed the Street Runner a tip. A few copper coins. The Street Runner grinned.
“Thanks, Miss Wind Runner! Say, do you think I could get a Skill like yours?”
“Uh—well, it’s a rare Skill. And you need…a magical class to get it. I’ve got a rare variation of my class.”
“Aw, magic, huh?”
He looked disappointed. Then shrugged.
“See you later, Miss!”
With that he took off. Street Runners were always delivering messages for coppers. Ryoka was glad she hadn’t had to start at that level. She sighed, tried to untangle a bit of knotted hair, and got to work.
Her first stop was Mister Prall. He was a [Blacksmith] of Reizmelt. One of them. Blacksmithing was a good job, especially in cities. Adventurers ran through edged weapons fast, and there was always work making pots, utensils, repairing stuff, and so on. So even a low-level [Blacksmith] could find steady work.
That made hiring one expensive. But when Ryoka had first come to Reizmelt, she’d had Teriarch’s money. And while she’d spent some of it on protective charms, alchemist gear, potions, and so on, the majority of it had gone to two projects. The less expensive one by far had been Prall, and even that had cost a fair bit.
The [Blacksmith] was waiting when Ryoka jogged up. He had three barrels full of her goods, and he looked tired. Ryoka didn’t blame him. One look in the barrel told her he and his four apprentices had been hard at work. It was filled to the brim with her order. Prall took care not to touch his goods as he accepted the other half of his payment from Ryoka, counting the gold pieces. He nodded.
“Thirty six…thirty seven. That’s it, alright. Thanks, Miss Griffin. I’d not charge so much for this much work, but I have to say it’s earned. I’m sick of working iron and if I have to forge one more of these things—bah. It’s done, and as fast as you wanted. Do you want to count to make sure it’s all there?”
One look told Ryoka that he’d toss one of the sharp objects at her if she wanted to. Ryoka shook her head.
“I’m fine. Thanks so much for doing this.”
Prall just shrugged.
“Ah, your coin’s good so don’t worry. I’m just tired. And figuring out the design was interesting. As for the forging…it’s the kind of work I’d leave to my apprentices, honestly. If you want more, I’ll have one of them do the rest. But this will do. How do you want to carry it off? You can have the barrels for what I’m charging you.”
“No need. I’ve got a bag of holding. Uh, but I might need to borrow a glove?”
Silently, Prall found one for her. He even helped shovel the sharp iron objects into the bag of holding as Ryoka held it open. He was more impressed by that than Ryoka’s gold.
“It must be a good bag of holding. Cheap ones don’t let you grab things at will. And really cheap ones you have to reach into. You sure it can hold all this?”
“Definitely. And—yup, I can grab what I need just fine.”
Ryoka pulled out some crumbly dirt. Prall eyed it.
“You have odd things in that bag of holding. Then again…I heard about the Pithfire Hounds. Nice work, Miss Runner. You planning on using these the same way?”
Ryoka blushed. Had everyone heard the story?
“Not in the same way. But they’ll definitely stop anyone from catching me.”
“No doubt about that.”
Prall nodded. He looked at the barrel and how much they had left to shovel into the bag of holding and turned and roared for his apprentices. He let the three of them fill the bag as he and Ryoka relaxed.
“There’ll be adventurers who might want to use that. Mind me selling them, or is this a secret? Because if it is—it’ll cost you.”
The [Blacksmith] was a practical man. He offered to keep the design secret for a fee. Ryoka mulled it over and shook her head.
“It’s easily copyable. And it’s not like I can pick up every one. In fact…damn, I’d better make sure I don’t leave these around, shouldn’t I?”
“Unless you want every traveller on the road and Runner to kill you, I would.”
Prall nodded. So did one of his apprentices, who’d stepped on one of the objects by mistake. Ryoka shook her head. Another invention to add to the list of things she’d brought to this world. But as far as deadly weapons of war went…this was dangerous, but not as bad as trebuchets. And she needed these. Any edge to keep her alive.
Secret weapons in place, Ryoka bade farewell to Prall. She then headed straight for the Runner’s Guild, with a great deal more anticipation.
Heads turned when Ryoka entered the guild. A murmur sprang up. Ryoka slowed as she looked around. City runner and Street Runners eyed her. It was a familiar scene. She’d experience it in Celum and the Runner’s Guilds around there. But this time it didn’t feel…as bad.
“Wind Runner! Good job with the adventurers!”
A Runner called out. Ryoka had no idea what her name was, but she waved back.
“Thanks! I just got lucky, though!”
Some of the other Runners came up to say hi. For the first time Ryoka introduced herself and caught a few names. Mintal, Caawl, Oberfex—she smiled and said hi. It was something she’d never done before. And that was enough.
“Miss Ryoka? We’ve got a package for you. Given that you work here, I thought you’d be back soon enough to let it wait.”
The [Receptionist] at the desk smiled at Ryoka. The Runner smiled back. She hesitated.
Alime smiled at Ryoka. She handed the Asian girl a small box. It was neatly sealed and smelled of sandalwood. There was no need for a covering; it had been sealed without a lock until Ryoka touched it. Then it sprang open. A Runner sighed enviously, and Ryoka stared into the box. She blinked. Her mind went white for a second, and then she slowly reached down and lifted something out.
The Runners and [Receptionist] who were sneaking peaks at Ryoka didn’t see what she picked up. Whatever it was, it was small enough to hide in her hand and be transferred to the bag of holding. But they had no doubt that it was a magical good. The box alone said that plain and clear. A Runner’s trinket of some kind. Ryoka said nothing. She blinked a few times, and then saw something else in the box. A hand-written note. The writing was neat, and plain.
To Miss Ryoka Griffin. Your product, as ordered. The challenge was mostly of keeping to the design, but I enjoyed the commission nonetheless. Please refrain from sending a return message unless you have more business for me.
-Hedault, [Enchanter]. Invrisil.
Ryoka read the message twice, then put the note in the box. Both were useless now, but she tossed them in the bag of holding to find a place to dispose of them later. She’d probably burn the note. Just to be safe. The [Receptionist] smiled at her.
The young woman looked up. She felt her hand tingling. Felt a jolt of adrenaline, almost like pain, run through her stomach. Her exhaustion was gone. Outside, the wind had gone still. She reached into her bag of holding with one hand and found the object. She gripped it and nodded.
“Yeah. I’d like to request something. I’m a City Runner. But I’d like to be included in Courier listings.”
The [Receptionist] blinked. The other Runners who’d heard turned around.
Courier listings. That meant that Ryoka would be included on a list of anyone willing to take Courier-level requests. She could be asked to deliver something by name, even if she wasn’t allowed to take Courier-only deliveries. The [Receptionist] wavered.
“That’s…I’ll amend the list and inform the other Runner’s Guilds. A change will be put out at the end of the day. Is that what you would like, Miss Ryoka?”
Are you sure? But she didn’t ask that. Ryoka nodded.
“I would. Thank you. And I’ll take whatever delivery you have right now. Farthest—or hardest.”
She was vibrating. Her right hand was clenched so tightly that Hedault’s creation was digging into her palm, threatening to draw blood. The Runners were watching her. The [Receptionist] looked through her notes. She paused.
“We do have something. All the way to Baepr. But it’s quite, quite—”
“I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure? This one has a counter-bounty on it. The Silversmithers do not want this delivery to reach the Mage’s Guild, and they’ve put a bounty on it. There may be [Bandits] as well as other groups—”
“I’ll do it. Please, give me the package.”
The [Receptionist] was about to protest, but she met Ryoka’s eyes. Slowly, she let Ryoka to the back room which was warded to collect the delivery that had arrived in Reizmelt by guarded caravan and nearly failed to get this far. Ryoka inhaled as she saw a bar of gold, not as perfect as the gold that lay in the gold reserves of other counties, but gold nevertheless.
“It has to get to the Mage’s Guild. Don’t even bother stopping at the Runner’s Guild. [Thieves] may try and take it. And there’s a bounty—a hundred gold to anyone who stops the delivery. And the gold bar. Are you certain?”
Ryoka lifted the gold bar. Or rather, she managed to lever it up enough to slide it into the bag of holding. The [Receptionist] nodded.
“Go. Take the back door out. I’ll stop all the Runners from leaving for ten minutes.”
Just in case one of them leaked information that Ryoka had the delivery. The girl nodded.
She walked out of the guild. The City Runners watched her go. One of them raised a hand.
Ryoka looked back once. Then she stepped out of the inn. She was very still in the street for a moment. Then she slowly breathed in, and out. The [Receptionist] and the other Runners watched her.
At this moment, Ryoka could outrun anything or anyone in the world. She looked down again at the thing Hedault had wrought, and the air was still around her. Ryoka began running, a jog at first. And then faster. Faster.
She ran. Out of the city, through the gates, down the road. And her mind was calm. Blank. Ryoka ran. It didn’t matter how far. Baepr was hours away. The sun was beginning to set in the sky. But Ryoka ran. Faster and faster. And her hand was closed on the cold thing in her hand.
The [Bandits] found her on the road, two hours to Baepr. They must have scrambled to get into position because they burst out of hiding from a distant hill. Men and women with bows, and three horsemen. A [Mage], too.
There weren’t many people on the road where they set their ambush. At the sight of the [Bandits], the people immediately took cover. A caravan guard spread out to block the wagon. But the [Bandits] were aimed only at Ryoka. She looked at them and slowed.
Strange. The lead rider wavered as he saw Ryoka Griffin stop. She was the Wind Runner, wasn’t she? But the wind was unnaturally still right now. And she’d stopped. He was aiming for her with a lance. But she didn’t even look at him or the horse he was riding. She was staring down at something in her hand.
Ryoka looked down at the thing she’d commissioned from Hedault. It shone as she held it up to the light. Cold. Beautiful. Blue. She looked at it and her heart beat painfully in her chest.
Shimmering ice. Ever frozen, magical ice carved into a shape. A flying little faerie, a statue. Carved and enchanted. Caught forever mid-smile, mid-laugh. It froze Ryoka’s skin. It burned and chilled to the touch.
The wind rose. Ryoka looked at Ivolethe, at the figurine, and she looked at the [Bandit Leader]. He saw her smile.
The wind blew. Dust rose from the bag of holding at Ryoka’s side. The [Bandit] cursed and rode at her. A gale whipped up, throwing dust in his eyes. His horse reared and turned. He cursed. And Ryoka Griffin ran.
The [Archers] were racing forwards. They took aim and loosed with their short bows. But the wind caught the arrows and sent them flying astray. The [Mage] raised a hand and pointed.
Nothing happened. A charm at Ryoka’s side flashed brightly. The [Mage] cursed and pointed.
He hacked and coughed as the dust storm blasted him. The [Bandits] shielded their faces, swearing. The [Bandit Leader] pointed at Ryoka desperately.
“Ride her down!”
He and two others rode after Ryoka. She was running fast. So fast that even on horseback they gained slowly. But they did gain on her. Pace by pace. She looked back once, twice. The [Bandit Leader] leveled his lance. He saw Ryoka reach into her bag of holding and braced. But she didn’t hurl an alchemist’s weapon at him. Instead, she began spilling something onto the ground behind her. Metal flashed.
The [Bandit Leader]’s eyes widened as she hurled one of the things at him. He dodged it, and saw a metal mess of points fly past his face. And more were landing on the ground, sticking upright.
The [Riders] saw the flash of metal and swerved out of the way instantly. Ryoka was relieved; she didn’t want to harm the horses. But it was for horses, carriages, and anything else chasing her that the caltrops were made. The [Bandits] swore as they dodged out of the way. The dust storm circled back around Ryoka. It picked up the iron caltrops, and then the [Bandits] began screaming.
They stopped following her after a minute. Ryoka kept running. She ran faster and faster as the wind dropped the dust and caltrops. She’d have to tell the Runner’s Guild about the hazard. Or maybe—
The wind blew harder. The caltrops funneled back towards Ryoka. Then dropped. Not yet. She didn’t dare go back for them, so she left them and shouted a warning at the first traveller she found. And she ran on. When she tired, when her lungs burned or the wind slackened, she just had to look down at the image of Ivolethe, and feel the biting cold. That was enough.
It wouldn’t be later. But in this moment, now, it was enough. The wind howled around Ryoka. Hedault had captured Ivolethe perfectly. It had cost a small fortune, all Ryoka had, to commission the piece out of Everfrozen Ice. In truth, Hedault had probably done it to her as a favor. It didn’t matter.
It was enough.
That night, Fierre was sitting alone in the Huntress’ Haven. She was eating the wing of the bird Madain had caught, pretending to enjoy it while really just focusing on the yet uncooked in the meat. She wiped her running nose on her sleeve, coughed, and looked up.
The door had opened. A Runner limped into the room. She was sweaty, dirty, half-dead. But triumphant. She walked over to the kitchen and served herself. Another Madain efficiency. Then she came over and sat down at Fierre’s table.
“I didn’t think you’d be back today.”
“I wanted to keep running.”
Ryoka coughed. Fierre silently poured her a cup from the pitcher of water. Ryoka drank, let Fierre fill her cup, and drank again. She coughed, and then spoke.
“It took me a while to get back. I did the delivery, but I had to hide out for a bit. Usually no one holds a grudge for a delivery, but [Bandits] are a different matter. The adventurers who went after them didn’t find the group. And I had to pick up some uh, pointy things.”
“I heard all that. And you got the delivery to the Mage’s Guild in Baepr. Really quickly. It’s all the buzz in uh, the circles I talk to.”
Ryoka just smiled wearily. Fierre nodded. She looked at Ryoka. Fidgeted. And then she burst out.
“It’s weird, having someone know your secret.”
“It is. But you’ll get over it. And it’s not a bad thing, right?”
The girl looked at Fierre. She smiled. She was tall. Her hair was black, but her skin was far from Fierre’s perfect paleness. She was different. A Runner. Fierre hesitated.
“This won’t change things, you know. Business is business. I can’t help you for free.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“And if people think I am helping you instead of other people—”
“It’s okay, Fierre. We’re just…friends.”
Fierre savored the word, like an exotic treat. Ryoka nodded. The word was unfamiliar on her tongue as well.
“Friends. I’m just someone to talk to. And someone who can order you bloody steaks without it being suspicious.”
The vampire snorted, and then she smiled.
“Okay. And I’ll be the one who tells you you’re drooling a bit.”
Ryoka wiped her mouth.
“I’m hungry. And tired. And my feet hurt. And my legs.”
Fierre sniffed the air.
“And you’ve burst some blisters on your feet. You should heal those.”
Laughter. And food. Ryoka ate ravenously. Fierre leaned back.
“Okay. Friends. And I won’t tip the scales for you. Much. But uh, you should know that there’s some attention on you.”
Ryoka looked up.
“You are the Wind Runner. And people are hearing your name. Thanks to the little kids.”
“Little mud-throwing monsters.”
Ryoka leaned back and groaned, wondering if she could use the wind to conjure more food rather than have to get up and grab it herself. Fierre nodded.
“Maybe, but you owe them. Because of that, people are looking into your past. And you’re…slightly noticeable. You know what I found out?”
The vampire girl closed her eyes and recited from memory.
“Ryoka Griffin. Possible connection with Magnolia Reinhart, inquired after by a Wall Lord of Salazsar, destroyed a Runner’s Guild in Celum…”
“That wasn’t my fault. And I didn’t destroy the guild. It just got uh, snowed in.”
“…short career. Surprisingly short, but you earned a City Runner’s level from merit alone. And you completed a delivery to the High Passes. However…around here you are an unknown City Runner, and your speed and defensive rating is way below most Couriers.”
Ryoka sighed. Fierre raised one finger.
“But…you’re reliable, you have a reputation as being honest, and you do have a title. And between you and me? After this job, you might be getting more offers directly. People who’re willing to take a risk will go to you. It’s dangerous, but that’s how City Runners become Couriers.”
Ryoka opened one eye.
“Sounds like I’m a Runner you should get to know, then.”
Fierre gave her a toothy grin. No one was watching. Ryoka smiled as well. Then she suddenly frowned as if she’d had a thought.
“Hey, you’re…connected, right? You don’t just deal in Runner’s information. Could I hire you to find something for me?”
Fierre raised one eyebrow.
“Money can get you anything. A lot of trouble if you ask the wrong questions. But go on.”
The Runner hunted around. She found her money pouch and pulled out some of her day’s earnings. Fierre blinked as Ryoka offered her ten gold coins.
“How’s this for finding someone? Or a group of people?”
“You must want them pretty badly. This will do. I might have to get more, but I’ll take this on faith. I’ll need names and descriptions.”
“You’re all heart. I don’t have descriptions. I do have names. Three of them, although there are more. It’s a group of kids. My age or younger. Possibly working as adventurers. Rose. Imani. Joseph.”
Fierre hunted for a bit of parchment, then decided to give up and memorize everything. She tapped a finger on the table.
“That’s not enough to go on.”
“You’ll find them somewhere in Magnolia Reinhart’s estates, or at least under the protection of her people. That should narrow it down.”
“That’s…Magnolia Reinhart’s strictly off-limits for a lot of things. You know that, right?”
“Right. Don’t worry though. You won’t get in trouble for asking.”
That was probably true. Fierre mulled it over. She looked at Ryoka. Friend. She didn’t know if she could trust Ryoka entirely, to be honest. She’d met her, abducted her, and they’d talked. But Fierre liked the girl. So she took a risk.
“Okay. I’ll ask about. Now tell me, what was that run like? And what did you get from Invrisil?”
She saw the young woman grin. And though Fierre didn’t know where Ryoka was from no matter how much she’d offered for the information, though she’d been unable to find more about this girl who was a ghost who’d appeared last year, she thought she could trust her. So Fierre hoped. Hoped…she’d made a friend.
My feet hurt. I’m Ryoka Griffin. I sit in Mad Madain’s inn, listening to him drink and talk with his few customers. At another table, Alber is eating silently. Maybe he’s wondering how Fierre and I suddenly became friends. I’m a bit hazy on that myself.
I don’t know if I can trust her. I don’t know if what I’m doing is wise. I don’t know—but I do know one thing.
It’s in my belt pouch. I reach for it as I tell Fierre about the run, drinking from my water glass. I should get more of what chicken or whatever it was that Madain shot. My feet hurt. And my legs. But I can feel it. Smooth as glass. Cold. But so familiar.
Oh Ivolethe. I’m so sorry. And thank you.
I clutch the little icy figurine, cold as pain. But there’s less sadness in me. Truly. There’s so much to do. So much. A world of possibilities.
Rose. Imani. Joseph. If Fierre can find them, all the better. They may still be at Magnolia’s mansion, but I’ll bet they’re gone. I have something I need from them, and they might need something from me. Will Magnolia object?
The wind. I’m thinking of hang gliders, wing suits, even parasails now. The icy figurine hurts. And it’s so familiar I want to cry.
My new friend might be HIV positive. Vampires exist and they’re dying. Disease and rot and sunscreen.
I want to see Teriarch again. And this time talk to him like a person.
Someday, I will run like the wind. But not today. Today, a girl who might be my friend is grousing about alchemists and silver powder. She pauses to cough now and then. And she’s looking at me. Uncertainly. And I think—her face is a reflection of my own.
So I smile. And I sit back in my seat. The spring air is cool. And a breeze blows into the inn, carrying the smells of a new year with it. I relax. Today was a good day. But tomorrow awaits, and the day after that. I have time.
We’re only just getting started.