A non-canonical, two-part short-story, Progress shows a middle stage in the party's interpersonal relationship, where Reva has begun to bond with the dwarf, Anjroce, whose gruff ways tend to turn people away. It explores Reva's view of the world and the people around her as the group signs on to save a village from a group of vampires nesting nearby.
The Girl Who Was Alone
The bones rang out against the endless flagstones, a hailstorm of ivory and steel marching towards the girl who was alone. Alone. Where were the others? On every side there were only more of them, with their empty eyes and chattering teeth like white pebbles. Skeletons, their unnatural animation bent against the child, flowed like an iron tide across the world. She struggled, cried out, called upon the magical forces that now seemed to have forsaken her, and the things advanced.
A hand pulled off her cloak, another took away her staff. Swords were raised, and they came down like falling trees, spilling her blood across the ground. The bones clinked and clattered and laughed, and the girl died in pieces.
Reva awoke with gasp.
She was blinded by the morning light and tangled in her cloak, her body drenched in sweat and covered in bits of hay that would never all be gone. The girl rolled and put her head over the edge of the loft, expecting to vomit but never quite reaching that point. She spat and gagged and waited for the shaking to stop.
From one of the stalls below came a whinny and a snort. The whole stable smelled of dung and hay. A stablehand stared up at her in confusion and asked if she were okay, or told her that she wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s all people ever said to her and she had stopped paying attention to them long ago. A few coins thrown in his direction would shut him up, if needed. People liked coins.
Reva crawled back to her spot in the hayloft. The large, gray mass of fur beside her shifted in waking and opened one of its big, moon-like eyes. Alia sensed her discomfort and licked the girl’s face in an attempt to soothe her. Reva just lay there for a while, watching motes floating in the beams of light that knifed their way through the walls of the loft.
Still shaking, she crawled onto the huge wolf’s back and gripped the soft fur tightly. It was hot, but it smelled familiar and safe. She held her staff against her body, not trusting to leave it behind.
“Will you take me to the river?” she asked, and her guardian immediately began to rise up. Alia gently shook the hay from herself and leapt down from the hayloft, bounding across the grass between the innyard and the river. The stablehand gave a few shouts of alarm but made no effort to follow.
The others would be in their rooms at the inn, probably awake a long time past. Reva often regretted becoming involved with them and their tendency to wake in the day and sleep in the evenings. She had since given up on changing their minds about what hours were suitable for being awake and how long and how often one should sleep. Nightmares would keep her from taking any naps today, though.
The wolf sat her down by the riverbank and licked her face once more before going to find breakfast. Reva lay there in the cool shade and damp clay and admired the darkness that the tree lovingly provided for her. How nice it was, shielding her from the sun with its leafy arms. She would be sure to leave it an offering of thanks before she journeyed on.
Reva sat up stiffly and watched the water slide past. She had seen people clean themselves and their clothes with magic, but she preferred to do things like she always had. The water was cold and clear, pulling her hair and swirling it around as she waded in, ducked beneath it. She lifted up and breathed in, sputtering out droplets and scrubbing her face and shaking her head about. Perhaps today would not be so bad.
She put on a clean shift while her robes dried out. She should get another set; she had the money, after all. The others always gave her coins whenever they got paid and she stopped trying to refuse them, even if keeping track of so many bits of metal was tiresome. They seemed alarmed whenever she left them anywhere.
With her staff, she drew shapes in the silt and waited for her companion to return. It was almost noon, perhaps late for breakfast, but Alia always made sure she ate when the two of them got up. The shapes became more intricate and she saw a grasshopper land on her robes as they lay on the grass.
Alia brought back a sizable rabbit, but Reva was not hungry. The wolf would not let her get by without eating it, so she promised to take the rabbit to the others for later.
The others stood around her talking. They were going to leave town, it seemed, since there was nothing left to do here. Reva hoped that they would go up into the mountains. Mountains seemed nice.
The elf woman was waving a finger about as she often did; she felt herself very important and maybe she was, but the others in the group argued their own points. The human man with the harp, the one who always told jokes, was saying something about danger while the two dwarves talked between themselves in their heavy tongue. The one with the glasses had a mug of ale in his hand just as he always did.
Reva held the dead rabbit to her chest, wrapped in oiled cloth. She was going to give it to the others, but they seemed preoccupied. Anjroce, the taller of the two dwarves, looked over at her and smiled.
“What’s that you’ve got there, girl?” He did not sound drunk today, which was good. Anjroce was Reva’s favorite in the group, but lately she avoided him when he drank. He drank a lot.
“Rabbit.” Her little voice was buried in the ongoing conversation.
“Rabbit, eh? Well, I know just what to do with that. What say you an’ I make stew tonight on the road? I used to make a mean rabbit stew,” he laughed and his beard wagged about like hanging moss.
She smiled and handed him the rabbit to put in his pack. Anjroce was a good person, even if he caused trouble with townspeople, sometimes. He liked to drink and carry his axe about in the open, but he never hurt anyone. Usually.
“So it’s decided then.” Vanya, the elf woman, put her hands on her hips and gave a sigh.
“Sounds like an adventure.” Talo, the man who told jokes, gestured dramatically. “Will Reva be alright with it, though?”
Everyone looked at her. All those eyes waiting to see what she would do. Her throat tightened and she suddenly wished Alia were not out hunting for herself.
“I won’ let nothin’ get her.” Anjroce took a step closer and put his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t mind that.
“That’s not what he meant, Anjroce; we can’t have her freezing up on us again. Do you remember last time we did something like this? One of those skeletons nearly put a spear through Talo.”
“Oh, that wouldn’t have been so bad: I could have joined up with a church and become a cleric.” He waved his hands and gave a big smile as if to indicate punchline. No one said anything for a moment. “Because I would have been ‘holy.’”
The dwarf with glasses, Aftrog, laughed into his mug. It was a stifled, snorting sound.
“This group has enough trouble without our healer going all tight every time something dead is up and walking. You heard the townspeople, this vampire is not to be trifled with. If Reva can’t be expected to do her job, we’ll have to find a replacement.”
“Reva will be fine.” Anjroce situated himself between the elf and the girl. “That’s all there is to it. Now, are we going to stand ‘round all day or are we going to go clean out a temple?”
The temple was a day further up into the mountains. The group went on foot, except for Talo who had a dun gelding that shared his easy temperament. He played his harp as they went and he sang songs that Reva mostly ignored.
The woods grew tall around them, firs and pines that spread their needles on the old path and prepared to shed their cones for the spring. Dark squirrels ran through the underbrush and perched on logs as they sought to make their nests. The world was coming back after winter and the stream near the path was full and burbling with freshly melted snow.
No one else seemed to notice these things.
Alia divided her time between walking beside Reva and running ahead up the path. She liked to explore and stretch her legs, and these woods were full of fresh smells and small animals to chase. She was never gone long, though, always coming back to check on her friend, or bring a nut or rock or whatever else the wolf thought she might like. Reva truly did love these gifts; she ate the nuts and put the rest in her bag of odds and ends.
Vanya’s staff tapped rhythmically as she walked. It was a long piece of ash, cleaned and carved with designs, and topped with a bright jewel that somehow was woven into its grain. The elf’s long face said her mind was elsewhere, perhaps working through some puzzle or problem.
“I am concerned about the stability of the temple grounds,” she said suddenly. Talo continued playing softly. “The structure has been abandoned for nearly sixty years, its foundation may very well be broken by this point. The high silt content in the soil here sometimes causes landslides and likely puts great strain on the support structures.”
Architecture was not one of Reva’s interests.
“We’ll be fine.” Talo kept plucking the harp. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that religion is an enduring institution,” he snickered.
“Nonetheless, I feel that certain precautions should be taken before we enter.” She gave a list of things that seemed to be obvious to the two dwarves. They laughed and rolled their eyes.
Reva’s job was to prepare spells that could shape and reinforce earth and stone, as well as her usual curative magics. The rest of her preparations were to go to offensive powers: lightning and fire and ice. She lacked the variety and higher understanding that Vanya thrived on, but Reva knew what she knew and the others relied on her. A small sense of pride bloomed in her heart; she may not have liked everything about traveling with others, but admiration felt nice and new.
“I’ll do my best to not get in the way,” Talo laughed and no one else did.
When the shadows grew long, a camp was made amongst the bushes by the stream. Supper was to be rabbit stew, which Reva found she was eager to try. She made the fire while Anjroce fetched water. He had a big pot that he carried on the road because (as he said), “eating well is always a top priority on an adventure.”
Reva wandered around the area, picking up twigs that seemed like they might be good to make a fire, while Alia circled at a distance. She had never been in charge of making the fire because she never did the cooking. Talo did the cooking and it was bland.
When she had a good bundle, she took them back and laid them in the circle of rocks she and Anjroce had made. She told the others not to help tonight; this was her and Anjroce’s job. She was supposed to light the fire, which she had also never done. After thinking for a moment under the careful gaze of Vanya (which seemed always to fluster her mind), Reva decided that magic would suffice since she didn’t have flint or tinder, as Aftrog had pointed out.
Reva ate most of her food raw before she joined the others. When it was just her and Alia, she ate whatever the wolf brought back from hunting. When they moved on and began to live near other people, they took as much offense to her eating habits as they did to the wolf who followed her into town. Potatoes tasted better cooked, and she had no desire to contract Rabbit Fever again.
“You’ve got a good fire going, girl!” Anjroce came back with a big pot of water and a cleaned and butchered rabbit. “Get my bag from the log over there, I keep some ingredients in it.”
“Ingredients?” said Talo, idly tuning his harp. “You never share those when I cook.”
“I don’t trust you to use ‘em right.”
Inside the brown leather haversack by the log, between the weapon oil and a flask of unknown alcohol was a rolled up cloth tied shut with twine. She picked it up and it smelled like food, more than anything else in the scrip, so she brought it over by the fire an unrolled it carefully.
A wax-sealed packet of salt, several bundles of dried leaves and three packets of unknown ground up plant material. It smelled nice, though, like those shops they sometimes passed where pieces of meat were cooked in flat pans with mushrooms and other tasty things. Bits of these went into the pot, along with some flour, butter, three potatoes, a carrot, and the remainder of some rather old turnips.
“Wish we had got some onions. Reva, get me the wine from my bag. Should have said that before.”
“Can’t you go five minutes without drinking something alcoholic?” Vanya was watching.
“We dwarves have a long and storied tradition of consuming liquor.” Anjroce took the wine skin from Reva’s hand, tasted it, then poured a fair amount into the pot.
“Wine is not a liquor,” said the elf.
“I drink the stuff, I don’t make it,” Anjroce snorted. “Besides, it’ll all cook out. Two hours or so and it’ll be ready.”
That time was spent in storytelling. Aftrog talked about his time as a merchant guard, how he took bandits by surprise, drunk and unarmed. He had spent years traveling around, finding trouble and making trouble wherever it was scarce. Anjroce found him admirable, but Vanya only sighed and shook her head.
Anjroce’s story was one he had told before, the one where he broke into the menagerie and rode the giant bird; his stories began to repeat themselves not long after the group started traveling together. They rarely entailed anything beyond his getting into—and then out of—trouble while drunk. He and Aftrog got along swimmingly.
Talo told a lengthy joke (or, a story with a punchline) that Reva did not understand, and Vanya turned aside prompts with a wave of the hand, having turned her attentions to one of her books.
It was never expected of Reva to offer a story.
The stew was good and warm on the cool spring night and when she was full, Reva curled up with Alia and watched the Moon rise above trees, feeling very good about things. Night was her time, when she felt safe and—yes—a little closer to being home. It seemed so far away, sometimes, that she wondered if she had ever really been there. Anjroce said she would find her way back if she looked hard enough.
Even here, so far away, the Moon was the same. She waxed and waned, but she always returned in the evenings to watch over Reva, just as she had in the forest that Reva had lost. They called her Andolin here, built statues of an elven girl (dark skin and bright eyes, hair like the Moon on a river), and told the story of her and her sister. As much as there was that Reva was uncertain of, she believed these people in this because they spoke also of her loving and quiet nature, her heart for the lost and the scared. They said that she watched over the dying, guiding their souls to their eternal homes. Reva trusted in Andolin, clinging to her as the sole point of solid familiarity in a strange world awash in stranger things.
She would find her way back.
The others began to sleep, first Aftrog, then Talo. They both snored, but it was not too loud and the sounds of the forest surrounded them. Reva started to drift off.
“I want you to speak to Reva for me.” A whisper of Vanya’s voice sprouted amongst the background.
“You speak her language.” There was a quiet exhalation and the smell of pipe smoke drifted past. Anjroce was often the last to bed. “And she speaks yours, at that.”
“You know what I mean. I want you to, well, apologize to her for me. I should not have talked to her like that, earlier. I forget sometimes that she’s little more than a child, even by human standards.”
“Sounds like something you should do yourself.”
“She doesn’t like me. I don’t blame her; we’re two very different people. You know how she is, all closed up around others. She listens to you, though.”
There was a snort. “I thought we agreed not to do these kinds of things anymore. Undead, I mean.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” She sounded sincere. “But these people need help and they’re offering too much money. If another group came through they might rob the town blind. If we do it, then the people get what they need at a fair price, no extortion.”
There was a long silence between the two.
“I’ll think about it,” said the dwarf. “You get to bed, or meditation or whatever you elves do.”
A soft ruffling came as someone stood up, then the night pressed in and was quiet.
As Reva slept, she dreamt of soft lullabies sung by a voice she knew well. Once, she had enjoyed these, but time and incident had stolen that from her. As sweet and heartful as they were, they were not meant for her.
Anjroce was a good man—if misunderstood by most—but he had his problems just as the rest had theirs. Not long ago, while drunk one night when Reva could not sleep, he had told her a story and called her a name. “Belle,” he had said as he stroked her hair and waited for sleep to come. “You’ll be safe with me, this time,” he had yawned. “I won’t let you down again.”
Belle was not her name. It was not her name at all. Reva knew who she was, though, the daughter he had once had. He had mentioned her in the stories he didn’t tell the others. The name had burned Reva like a hot iron and she did not know why. She knew only that she was not Belle, and she never would be. Not for anyone.
Thoughts of the dead girl crawled through her dreams.
Reva awoke early for travel the next day. From a rise near the stream, she watched the Moon set amongst the distant hills and meditated for the spells she would need that day. Tonight would be the first of the Bright Moon, and she prayed to the waxing light for guidance, even as it vanished from sight below the rim of the earth.
The sun rose quickly and harshly into the sky, and no clouds would stand before it. The group moved together up the path, until the woods opened around them and the light of noonday found them standing on worn stones before a tall, ancient structure. The pale tower rose above an overgrown courtyard where the stream had swallowed the pathway. It was a great, imposing building wrapped in vines and cracked through the middle like a splitting log.
To Reva, the place seemed rotten. It was old and the earth was taking it, dragging it down and eating it over the course of years. Some day, it would all come down in a pile, and she could only hope that they were not inside when it happened.
A crumbled statue lay in the foliage, its face lost to time and the elements, but a single, snow-white hand rose from the dirt like a fragile reminder of long-dead beauty. This was a temple of Gwaena, goddess of the sun, light, and reconciliation, and sister to Reva’s dear Andolin. She could never understand how two beings of such differing aspect and countenance could work in accord, much less be sisters, but their ancient war was long over, their furies burned out and buried, settled by their deaths and rebirths. Most people regarded both highly, saying that love and sacrifice can withstand even unknowable strife.
A strange place for a vampire to make its nest. Neither of the deities would tolerate the abomination that was undeath, and for such things to inhabit such a hallowed place was an insult against the gods themselves. Reva wished that the structure would just collapse upon itself and bury this whole adventure, hallowed place or not.
“Is everyone ready?” said Vanya as she surveyed the destruction. “The vampire and its brood should be more vulnerable during the day. If you get separated, find a sunny spot and wait for the others. That said, don’t get separated.” She seemed to glance at Reva, but not as though she expected trouble.
Stick with the others and you won’t become lost. Reva repeated in her thoughts. Don’t let them see you, don’t let them touch you. Stay hidden and keep quiet. She hated the harshness of daylight, but she preferred it to the darkness of a vampire’s den.
Andolin will keep you safe.
“Will you be alright, girl?” Anjroce put a heavy hand on her shoulder, a comforting and protective gesture, though they were almost the same height.
“Good, you’ll be fine. I won’t let you down.” He took her hand and led her forward.
In the Dark
Alia picked up the scent immediately. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but it seemed that Reva could smell it, too. Amidst the atmosphere of decay, the cracked and shattered stone, the shards of colored glass that once had been images of worship, there was a sickness. Some disease gripped the air and burrowed into the surfaces of the temple, choking out the life.
Reva shivered and put up her hood.
Alia swept her large head back and forth across the ground, her breath scattering dust and leaves to show faded patches of a mosaic beneath her paws. Something had passed through the room, leaving no trace to the uncareful eye. A vampire could sneak about like the night wind, but even such a phantom could be tracked by a wolf’s sharp nose.
The center of the temple was a tower with no roof, lined with windows and balconies spiraling up to the top. Most of the balconies were now piles on the floor, and the windows had been broken and covered, or blackened out to block the sunlight. Tarps were strung across the width of the tower above, shading most of the floor.
From somewhere below, the sound of running water echoed through the wreck.
“Has she found anything?” Vanya was examining a piece of rubble that had once had carvings of some type on its surface. Now the lines made shapes, but no discernable images.
“There’s more than one,” Reva said, trying not to disrupt the quiet.
Anjroce snorted and tucked his thumbs into his belt.
“It could be worse,” Talo offered and wiped a hand on his coat. He had been picking at the tattered remains of a book, but something wet had gotten on his fingers.
“It could always be worse, but that’s no reason to go easy on things. Reva, can you two track them?”
Reva only nodded.
“Good. Now let’s move before all the daylight’s gone.”
Vanya cast a light on her staff, bathing the ruins in a steady and pale illumination that made odd shadows amongst the rubble. She motioned for the dwarves to lead the way, their eyes were keen to the darkness, making them the best vanguards.
From the main tower branched a number of smaller wings, emanating from the middle like the rays of the sun. The path led into a darkened section, one that stretched toward the slope of the mountain. The ground was cracked and uneven, small sprouts of resilient fungus poked through the broken structure. The sound of running water became louder.
“Strange,” said Vanya. “Why would vampires set up their nest near a running stream? They can’t cross it, so some of the rooms ahead must be out of their reach.”
“Darkness,” Anjroce stopped for a moment, turning a rock over with the handle of his axe. “The soft earth of the stream will likely have collapsed supports further in, opening the temple structure into the cave. No fear of the sun that far in.”
The room was still and empty except for rubble. The windows were all obstructed from the outside, either by natural growth or someone’s intentional covering. Rotted benches lined the walls and tattered fabric dangled from the ceiling like hanging moss. At the far end of the room was a narrow alcove with a heavy wooden door, still whole amidst the decay of the temple.
“You sure this is the way? Don’t look like nobody’s been through here in a stone’s age.” Aftrog surveyed the room.
“I’m no tracker,” Talo certainly was not; he was most at home in the common room of an inn, not sneaking around in ruins on a mountainside. “But this place looks pretty empty to me.”
Alia continued to sniff about, going to the wooden door.
“They come through here.” Reva stepped carefully over a rock. How could the others not feel it? “There,” she pointed to the door.
The two dwarves went to it, squeezing past Alia. One of them pulled on the big handle, but it did not budge.
“Door’s locked,” said Anjroce.
“Guess we’ll have to break it down,” said Aftrog.
The two smiled at one another mischievously.
“You will do no such thing.” Vanya glided between them like an intervening spirit of reason. Talo and Reva followed. “We’ll have a hard enough time here without the two of you making a racket. If we can take them by surprise, we should,” she pointed and waved her finger as she did when she was lecturing. “Fortunately, I came prepared for such an event. Take note, boys,” she raised one hand, spoke some magic word, and knocked on the door.
It clicked and opened inward a hair. Then a little more. Then, all at once it pushed open as hundreds of rats poured from the doorway. The sea of vermin washed over them, climbing and crawling on the group.
There was panic. The wave of squirming rats smelled of filth and disease and their chittering seemed to burrow into Reva’s skull. It was deafening and hot and the rats scurried up her robes and cloak, biting where they could. She saw Alia roll over, trying to crush the invaders, but they swarmed onto her and covered her body like ants on a dying beetle.
The others were yelling, Anjroce attempting to beat the rats away with his axe. Reva pulled one off, but each that she removed was replaced by more. It was like they were trying to pull her down, cover her up and devour her. She had to do something.
She pulled her mind away from the scurrying, the smell, and the bites. She had to concentrate, had to think. A spell to get rid of the rats. She knew a spell to repel vermin why had she not prepared it? Cursing her own shortsightedness, Reva reached for an alternative.
A light sprung from her body, quickly resolving into ethereal flames that harmlessly danced across her skin. The rats caught fire and fled from her, screeching and hissing, repulsed by the consuming flames. Free from her attackers, she raised a hand to help the others just as Vanya summoned a great, rushing wind from the depths of the temple. The gale blew the rats back behind them and the vermin were dashed against the walls, scattered and dazed. Those that could, fled, their cries fading into the distance. As quiet slowly returned, the party regrouped.
“If I ever see another rat…” Vanya shuddered and dusted her robes. Her hands were covered in red wounds that would need immediate attention to ward off infection. That was Reva’s job.
She had learned how to heal from an elf cleric, whom she had traveled with for a short time. More than just magic, she learned to put her knowledge of herbs and roots to use as medicines, and she had needed to patch herself up more than once. Bandages and poultices were her first choice for things like this.
The group came to her one at a time to get cared for. Vanya was the first because she was physically the weakest (“I am a scholar, not some barroom hooligan,” she would sometimes point out) and injuries to her hands might impede her spellcasting. Wounds on her legs and ankles also needed care, the cuts already beginning to itch and burn. She accepted the stinging medicine with the quiet poise that she wrapped about herself like a cloak, and said nothing.
Talo shook one last rat from the leg of his breeches and presented his bloodied hands.
“Now, don’t put honey on it; tell me straight: will I ever play the harp again?” he said melodramatically. “My harp is my livelihood, without it I’m nothing but a pretty face! And an excellent singing voice. And a really, really good sprinter. And I’m not too bad at—ouch!”
He stopped talking when Reva began dabbing balm onto his wounds. She worked in silence as always.
Anjroce and Aftrog took bandages, but no medicine; it was best to save precious resources, and the dwarves insisted that neither had been sick in their whole lives. Their sturdy constitutions would likely protect them, but if either began to fever, she would see to it.
Alia was the hardest to care for. The big wolf was smart, but her sensitive nose turned up at the fragrant poultice that needed to be bandaged to her flank, where the rats had dug beneath her fur tear at her skin. The spot was mostly hairless and red, already swelling and growing feverishly hot. She whined and licked Reva’s face and snorted when her protestations were ignored. Reva felt bad and gave her a little bit of dried meat from her trail rations.
Reva, herself, needed only a small bit medicine and a cantrip to ease the pain. She cast one on each of the others, but it did little more than close the smaller wounds. Her more potent spells would be needed later.
Her needs taken care of, Alia picked up the trail again, cautiously making her way through the wooden door. Beyond a short, downward staircase, the floor of the next hall was collapsing into a cavern beneath. Ragged cracks ran through the stone tiles and portions had vanished altogether into a cavity that opened below. What remained was broken and unsteady, bereft of support and structure.
“I thought we would encounter such trials,” she said, proud of her forethought. “I was correct, the silt and limestone in the mountain makes poor foundation for a temple. Reva, did you take my advice in preparing spells?”
“Good. Make us a bridge, then.” She sounded as though she were beginning the task.
The collapsing floor was mostly unsupported from below. Reva had spells to alter the shape of stone, but there was little to work with there. If she simply took the rubble and put it together in one spot as a bridge, it might crumble beneath its own weight. Making supports was out of the question; she couldn’t manipulate that much rock. Her best chance was to do as much as she could with the pre-existing structure of the room.
Reva went to one wall and placed a hand on it as she spoke a single, carefully formed word of magic. Obeying her will, the stone pulled itself down along the length of the broken floor, pinching together into a narrow walkway. When the spell finished, the structure had an unusual look to it, a texture like roughly molded clay. It would be brittle, but sufficient to carry their weight.
They made their way across single-file as the sound of running water echoed up from the depths below. Reva’s pride did little to blot out the thought of falling into the darkness below, and she nearly jumped trying to get to the far side.
But they made it, and Anjroce gave her a broad smile and mouthed “well done,” and Reva felt suddenly very shy, and she smiled back.
An open archway at the end of the hall led into a wider room with a high ceiling that hung the remains of tapestries. The walls were filled with darkened windows, their colored images now dull a bereft of sunlight. Tattered cloth littered the floor, piled here and there against the wall where some small creature had made nests. Vanya’s light shown waveringly into the thin air, just touching upon yet another doorway beyond the hall.
Reva thought this place—and the rest of the temple—seemed unnaturally aged, as though it were not some eighty years untended, but a hundred, or two hundred. She wondered if the Vampires had done this, intentionally or not. Perhaps their deathless existence was enough to rot the world around them.
They began to cross, moving quietly over the hard floor. Reva and Alia, at least, were quiet, but the others made such noise that she wondered if they wanted to attract attention. They were strangely careless about some things; how did they survive without being able to sneak?
Vanya’s light went out.
Something moved suddenly in the darkness and everyone scrambled to orient themselves, helpless and unable to see. Reva’s hair bristled, the darkness feeling like a tangible entity, clammy, intrusive, sliding across her skin. She could feel it, just behind her eyes, and she knew that this darkness was the product of magic, and that the Dwarves would be just as blind as the rest of them.
“Stand back, I’m warning you!” came Talo’s voice from behind. A twanging sound came from the darkness, then the ting of metal hitting stone.
A few quick barks and a low whine came from Alia as she circled Reva, always keeping close enough to touch, to smell. The wolf coiled around her protectively, a calming influence.
Something made an unfamiliar sound; some stealthy foot touched wrong and a stone shifted beneath it. A whisper of magic came from Vanya and her whole body bloomed in pearlescent light.
Standing amongst the group were three figures, taken aback by the sudden and unexpected radiance. Their skin was like ash and their eyes were milky white, unblinking. Their unclean hair and clothes might have once been beautiful, before time and neglect ruined them. Each had a hungry mouth rimmed red with old blood.
The things were unarmed, but their nails grew to long, ragged claws. These flashed through the unnatural light, cutting at their foes. One stood near the two dwarves, grabbing at Aftrog and shrugging off the flurry of blows that would have stunned a living foe. Another had come from behind, tearing at Vanya while Talo tried to reload his crossbow.
The one near Reva had once been a woman, tall and hard-featured, with a strong chin and a long neck. Its tongue hung from its mouth, sliding across its lips like a worm feeling about its hole. Sharp teeth glinted in Vanya’s light.
Alia was on it like a bolt, knocking the thing to the ground. Teeth and claws tried to tear at the unnatural creature, but the wolf made little progress for her effort. Such unclean creatures must be destroyed by certain methods, or else they will return.
Reva found her knife in her hands. Words came back to her, spoken seemingly so long ago by the one who had first helped her on the road of the world.
“If you fear so much, take this silver dagger and may it protect you, daughter of the Moon,” she had said. “Silver is the metal of purity and the bane of undeath.”
But she froze. The hilt was slick in her hands and fear clutched her heart like an iron talon. Aftrog was lifted from the ground and hurled against a wall, the monster making a choking cry as it did so. These spawn would kill her. If she fought one, she would die, and that would be it. She felt the blood pulsing through her neck; could they hear that? It seemed so loud.
A stream of fire shot from Vanya’s hand, scorching her opponent and fanning against the far wall. Blood trickled down her arm. Talo let another bolt go, hitting the creature in the chest. It hissed at the fire, striking out again with a lunge.
It seemed like only a blink more and it was all over. Some of Vanya’s radiance condensed into a solid, glowing beam that pierced the spawn and turned it to ash. Her light dimmed but did not vanish. The dwarves beat theirs down, Anjroce swinging his axe in a fury and Aftrog weaving about, punching and kicking. The axe connected hard against the creature’s neck and its head fell away shrieking, and the thing turned to dust.
Alia tried to pin hers down, unable to finish it herself.
“Should we keep this one? Maybe we can learn something from it.” Talo panted and bent over, reloading his crossbow.
“No, a spawn is completely under the control of its sire. We destroy it, regroup, and move on.” Vanya really was bleeding a lot. “Reva, see to the wounded.”
Alia and the two dwarves held the spawn down and drove a stake through its heart, then cut off the head. It was the quickest and most thorough method they had. I made a horrid croaking sound as it died.
Vanya was tended to first, since she was bleeding the heaviest. A ragged cut snaked its way down her arm, the sleeves of her robe sticking to it wetly. She had other knicks, but medicine is a business of priorities.
Healing people with magic was an easy thing. A few words and a touch was all it took and the skin pulled itself back together. Reva could feel the power of the spell leaving her, fading like a tingling on the fingertips. She always felt a little empty afterwards.
“It drained some of my energy.” Vanya said weakly as she began drawing blood out of the fabric of her robes with magic. She looked pale, pained. “I don’t expect you to be able to fix that, but I do expect you to shape up. We’re fighting life and death here and if you can’t help during the battle, things are going to go bad fast.” She still glowed, giving her hard eyes an otherworldly appearance. “Now go see if the others need your help.”
Reva scurried away without protest.
The others stood around where they had destroyed the last of the spawn. Alia came to her and gave a few excited licks. Her wounds were minor, but Reva always gave her a thorough check. It was natural, and she did it without even thinking. Each took care of the other, worried for the other, and so they survived.
“Are you hurt?” She approached the last three, Alia at her side.
“Nothing too bad,” Talo said, rubbing a cut on his chin.
“I got a few scrapes, but I didn’t let it suck any blood.” Aftrog ran a hand down his stiff, narrow beard and laughed. He would need some healing, though; a dark spot on his tunic spoke against his attestations of wholeness.
“I could use a patch, if you don’ mind, girl.” Anjroce was smiling, despite a ragged gash on his forehead. Blood ran down into one of his eyes and it gave Reva a sick feeling in her stomach. In that light, he looked ashy pale.
She healed everyone, feeling guilty and worthless. She really hadn’t done anything, just stood there with a knife in her hands. Reva could fight, she had done it before. Bandits, monsters, giants; she could shape the earth and summon fire from the air, but she had done nothing. Vanya was right: if she didn’t shape up, things would go bad.
Reva decided not to be afraid. Could it be that easy?
Beyond a doorless frame (a sign lay on the floor, the words “Recovery & Administration” written boldly on it) was a round atrium, half collapsed into cave system beneath it. The remnants of sickbeds were strewn about and the walls were lined with shelves and old bottles of medicine. This had been a room for sickcare, long ago. Now, unnatural stains blotted the floor near a gaping hole that led below.
“We go down there.” Vanya did not wait to see where Alia found the trail. “Anjroce, check to see if the floor is safe near the opening; I don’t want the whole thing to fall out from under us.”
Anjroce stared at it for a few moments and shrugged. “Looks safe t’ me.” His instincts on stonework were better than Aftrog’s. Anjroce said that all dwarves grew up learning how to build and cut stone, regardless of what profession they chose. “Dwarves build their lives in stone,” he had once told her.
Despite his assurances, the group moved carefully around the gap. One side of the hole was up against the cavern wall. The vampires must have used that to get in and out. Reva wanted to twist the stone, cover the hole and trap the things underground forever. She knew it wouldn’t work; there would be other ways out and vampires could slip through gaps like air. She couldn’t run from them; they had to be destroyed.
The drop down was short enough. Alia jumped in fearlessly, then immediately went on guard, her sharp nose sorting through the new smells beneath the earth. The others followed carefully, Talo showing a surprising amount of grace in his landing and Vanya falling gently like a feather.
They stood in a round cavern with two caves leading from it. Alia followed the path deeper into the mountain, keeping close to the ground. A draft moved through the air, carrying the stale scent of old earth and the moisture of underground water.
Reva was not one to fear tight places. She most often felt safe when closely surrounded, hidden, protected. But this was different, and she thought this might be what it was like in the stomach of a snake. There was no safety in these walls around her, they did not keep the things she feared out, but only served to trap her in.
The path split, the trail leading left, and before long the group came to a bridge.
A narrow strip of stone crossed an empty chasm, infinitely dark on all sides. The shadows seemed to twist in constant movement, roiling in black waves or crawling over themselves like countless beetles. At the end of the bridge was an opening to another cave.
They stood for a moment and stared at the spit of stone; it seemed strange, like a thin line that linked two distant worlds.
“It’s—it’s some sort of illusion, obviously.” Vanya did not sound quite confident.
“The bridge looks sturdy, but ah don’ trust it.” Anjroce tapped the ground with the butt of his axe.
“This does look pretty unnatural,” Talo said. He stood near the back and leaned over the others to see. He was by far the tallest in the group.
Alia looked to Reva for instruction, but the girl had none to offer.
“Real or not, it seems to be the only way ahead.” Vanya began casting something, feeling out the energies in the air. “It’s likely a screen spell to dissuade ‘visitors.’”
She motioned for the group to advance and they did so, if slowly. They went single-file, with Alia crouching to keep her balance. Reva walked behind Anjroce, her hand on his back to steady herself. She could do this, she just had to keep her eyes ahead. The others were fine, she would be, too. They had been through much together, and though she sometimes (often) felt anxious interacting with one-on-one, she thought that the benefits of having people around might outway the discomfort.
Then something grabbed her ankle.
A shadow was wrapping around her leg like a tendril as another reached out to grab her arm. She managed a brief scream before they yanked her from the bridge.
She was going to die.
Reva hung in mid-air, pulled straight to one side by the grasping darkness. She shut her eyes, held her breath and waited to be consumed. But something held her back. Anjroce had her by the wrist, leaning precariously over the pit below. He was saying something to her, and the others were grabbing to hold him steady.
“Don’ let go, Reva!” He shouted, his voice echoing into the unknowable distance.
The darkness spread across her body, wrapping around her arm and crawling up her neck. It felt cold, like a slimy rock beneath still waters. She opened her mouth and was pulled into the crushing black.
Reva came out of the wall gasping. The ground was cold, but softer here. How long had she been pulled through the darkness, unable to move or breathe? Water flowed nearby in an ever-present rush.
It was dark. Where were the others? Where was her staff? She opened her mouth to call out to Alia, but she hesitated. It would be best to find out where she was before shouting. She drew her silver dagger (a comforting thing) and cast a light on its tip.
She sat on a bank of sand and silt near an underground stream. Water glinted in the magical light, casting little scales of brilliance across her vision. Closer at hand was a stone wall, solid an unmarred by Reva’s apparent movement through it. Beyond the edges of her sight, the stream extended in both directions.
Reva stood and dusted earth from her robes, her muscles aching from her strange journey. She wanted to curl up in the woods with Alia, sleep underneath a tree and wake to gentle rain. She wanted to be safe in the open world.
But most of all, she wanted to be home.
A man moved in the shadowy illumination beyond the range of the light. How long had he been there? She raised her knife to defend herself and thought quickly through what magic might protect her. Her heart raced; how long since she had fought something by herself? Had she ever?
The man stepped from the shadows, dressed like a noble with a strong brow and hooked nose. His coat was red beneath a dark cloak that seemed to shift in and out of the background. His tongue licked across sharp teeth.
“I see you’ve been caught.”
His eyes were vibrant, bright like embers in the darkness. When had it grown dark again? They seemed to roll back and forth, back and forth. They were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
“You’re mine now, child,” came a voice in her head, a gentle tinkling of bells. Had that always been there? It felt like it belonged. “You filthy sneaking rat.”
Such a sweet voice, she wanted to sit and listen to it forever.
“How shall I kill you? Shall I kill you at all? Eventually, yes, but not now. I wonder, how do you taste?” The man with the bright eyes glided closer, a gleaming shadow against the background. A hand held Reva by the chin. It felt cold and dirty, like a fish that lived in grit and mud. The pale face drew her gaze upwards.
“You and your dog,” the voice sang. “Such trouble from one so small. But I can see power in you. You will make a vampire some day.” His eyes shone like chips of solid fire.
A nail traced its way across her cheek and came away red. Was that blood? Whose blood was that? Things seemed foggy, slowly drawing themselves out through time. Only one thing was clear: this man knew what was best for her.
He kept talking about things she didn’t understand, but dying seemed nice when it meant you got to live forever. Becoming a vampire would give her everything she had ever wanted: power, wealth, followers. Life would be good.
The man snaked his way around Reva, his cloak brushing against her legs like a cat. A hand ran across her neck, gripping it briefly.
“Let’s see how you taste.” He leaned in to bite.
Reva waited in the rain with Alia. Distantly, thunder rumbled, the sound drowning in the sheets of water that came down in a flood. She stood in the town square and waited for the men to return. Surely, there must be a reason for the delay. Alia whimpered at her side.
They were soaked to the bone.
A dwarf came through the all-but-empty streets. Had she seen him before? All these people looked the same after the first few days amongst them. So many faces. Alia was anxious; she wanted to go find shelter and let the storm pass, but Reva would not budge.
“What’re you doing out in this wash, lass? Ye’ll catch yer death of cold.” He approached, his cloak pulled tight about him. He had eyes like driven nails beneath his hood and a long beard that ran with water. Alia moved and bared her teeth and he retreated a step. “I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
“I am fine,” she told him. “I am waiting for people to come back.”
“Well, ye can’t just stand here in the rain. Who’re you waiting for?”
“There were some men. They said if I gave them coins, they would lead me home.”
The wolf snorted.
“Girl,” The dwarf sighed. “Listen, I cannae just leave ye here. Wind come through and ye’ll blow away at your size, wet or not.” He reached out a hand and took her wrist and she recoiled. Alia slunk forward, her soaked fur rising along her back in a ridge. The dwarf let go.
“Leave me alone.”
“I don’ wan’ trouble.”
“Then leave. I’m waiting here for them. That’s what they said to do.”
“And when was that? When did they say it? How much did you pay them?”
The dwarf wouldn’t leave.
“I gave them eleven pieces of gold, sometime before it started raining.”
“Ach, girl, ye got robbed, you did. You’ve been out here all day? Come, let’s get you inside.”
“No, get away from me!”
“Lass, I don’t know what they told you, but I don’ think they’re comin’ back.”
Something inside her started to hurt, or maybe it had been hurting for a while and she was trying to believe it wasn’t. Something was crawling up her throat, choking out the air. It squeezed its way out of her lips, a little sound lost in the infinite deluge.
“No, they will come back,” she sobbed. “They said they could help me.” Tears ran down her cheeks, mixing with the rain.
“Listen, ah, girl, my name’s Anjroce. I’m staying at that inn—that one right there—with a friend of mine. Why don’t you an’ I go over there, dry off and we get you some tea and supper? Ye look like ye need some meat on yer bones. I’ll talk to the innkeeper and see if we can get your…wolf a place to stay, too. Ye can tell me what’s the matter and I promise that if ever I can help ye, I will.”
The man was knocked away with such force that Reva toppled over, too. A creature stood over the man as he lay on the ground. It was giant and hairy, hunched and four-legged. Sharp teeth flashed and great, pale eyes shone in the darkness.
The man scrambled to his feet and the creature latched its jaws to his arm.
“Kill it!” The voice in her head shouted. “Kill the beast!”
She raised her hand to strike, but something held her back. Those eyes looked so familiar, big and careful, bright like the Moon. Where had she seen them before?
The spell broke.
The vampire wrestled with Alia, its fist striking at her eyes as she shook its arm. Curses flew from its mouth as it tried to dig a nail into her flesh.
“Alia!” Reva cried out as her companion’s blood was drawn. She held up her knife and spoke a word. Ghostly daggers appeared around her in a cloud, hovering like silent silver chimes. The first one flew through the air, striking the vampire in the shoulder. The wound hissed like water on a hot stone.
As another knife took flight, she started casting again. A beam of rainbow light shot from her finger, exploding on the creature in a burst of colors. Reva blinked for a second, blinded by the sudden brightness.
The vampire struck Alia hard, knocking her to the ground. It put one boot on her neck and pressed down. The great wolf whimpered and tried to stand back up, receiving another blow to the eye.
“Your little lights won’t save you.” It pushed down harder. Spit oozed from a tear in its lip. “You think I can’t kill some dumb animal?” It stepped over the stunned wolf and came at Reva directly. “You think I’m afraid? That I’ll run away from a few mortals with pretty spells and axes? I am old, child, old as these caves. I’ve killed more than you have ever seen. I—”
It was cut short as Reva raised a hand, drawing a massive spike of ice from the air and hurling into the monster. The vampire staggered back, speared through the middle, reaching at the cold spire that now impaled it. It screamed in a wordless curse, breaking the frozen lance with its bare hands and rushing at her in a blind rage. She jumped back and made a sign, seeing rings of light in her mind’s eye. They closed down on her foe, wrapping it in gleaming chains and crushing against its will. It struggled, held in place but for a moment.
Reva ran to the injured wolf, a healing spell readied. She needed her now more than ever. She needed to not be alone. Reva put her hands on Alia’s face and whispered to her. The wolf’s big eyes brightened, then burned with new eagerness.
She felt drained, the magic taking its toll as it left her body. She had only a little more before she would collapse, but until then—
The mangled vampire burst its mental bonds in a scream of hate and bestial fury. It stumbled, gathering itself at the water’s edge and shaking with rage. It had never seemed less human than it did now, its injuries seeming to elongate it, stretch it as it regathered its strength. It was a twisted and pitiful thing, the last vestiges of its humanity gone.
Alia stood with a growl, shaking mud from her thick fur. She crouched, then leapt on it, grabbing its neck in her jaws. Its limbs flailed about as she dragged it into the water. The creature struck out with its claws, digging into the wolf’s shoulder and trying to wrench itself free. She pulled it under the flowing water, holding her breath as the flood rushed over them. The vampire struggled, reached up, and turned to dust that washed away in the current.
For a moment, the rushing was the only sound. The two wayfarers stood looking at one another, breathing. Reva went to her guardian as Alia drew herself up from the waters. The fur was wet, but Reva didn’t care; they were together again and—if only for a while—they were safe. Reva hugged her, and they were quiet.
“Where are the others?” she asked at length. “I think they’ll need us.”
Alia knelt down, prompting Reva to climb onto her back. She stood for a moment, then took off, bounding up the stream and into the stretching darkness.