“Kaia, get your head down.”
“Every single person in this town knows we’re leaving. They insisted
“Don’t be a dumbass,” Rasmus said, clawing at her shirt.
Kaia dropped with full obedience to the letter of his orders, but she remained halfway in the street, the water barrels that didn’t do much to conceal her brother doing absolutely nothing to hide her from passersby. One tall man with a stooped back gave her a sidelong glance. She waved flirtatiously.
“This,” Kaia considered carefully, “is a waste of time. No one’s going to jump out at us the second we go to leave town. The Vampire Hunters told us to go after the demon. The villagers told us to get lost. What are you looking for?”
Whatever it was, he continued to watch for it, eyes squinted at the barren road, lips tight as he ignored her.
The road spiraling away from the little village turned almost orange in the sunlight. The destruction that had struck the area kept people congregated in the central portion of the remote town, huddled around the church and the homes that had been torn to shreds. When the siblings first had bolted from the meeting of the Vampire Guild with direct orders to hunt a demon, the peasants seemed too much in shock to tackle the repairs, but the few around them now definitely bustled about, paying no heed to the foreigners acting like thieves in a melodrama.
“Four people died,” Rasmus said.
Kaia poked herself in the eye. It was something she noticed herself doing when her brother would yammer, wondering if she could feel anything. Perhaps it started as a means to get his attention, but he didn’t even look at her.
“Four people died, and what are they doing? Mobbing the front doors of their church. No one cares! A house was demolished. Friends and family slaughtered. There are injured and in pain, and do you see the look on their faces?”
“Well, to be fair, we don’t really care either,” Kaia pointed out. “I’m just thinking about money.”
“We don’t know them!” he insisted. “They’re not our neighbors. We haven’t met them before. We have the right to be callous.”
She held up her palms.
“And not only do they not seem to care, they aren’t even surprised.”
“Well, considering the statistical likelihood we’re all going to die soon, it really shouldn’t be that shocking.”
“I’m worried about why you’re bleeding all over the place.”
He darted his eyes back to the street, nervously chewing on his lip as he scrutinized their only—highly accessible—escape route.
He spun. “Why the hell would you do something that stupid?”
Kaia poised mid-shift, a petrified look on her face as inertia rolled her backwards. She fell from her squat onto her ass.
“I was trying to save people!” she said.
“By releasing a monster?”
Exaggeration died down, her throat closing. “He’s not a—”
“Who here isn’t?” Rasmus hissed. “Every single one of these petty peons has red hands. There’s something wrong with this place!”
The wind blew heat across the road. A movement in the sun gave way to shadows, but the day was still unusually warm, especially for how close to fall the world was supposed to be.
Rasmus waited for her answer, but she didn’t know what to tell him. He was right. They’d known something was going on in the village since the moment they first left the industrial cities in search of rumors of the Wyrd’s appearance, since first word of Henrik’s horrific death occurring in these woods.
She breathed a little sigh, playing with her fingers. Her skin only ached a little now, the majority of her discomfort being in the sweat and butter residue that made her sticky. She closed her eyes and attempted to make the sick feeling in her stomach go away. She attributed it to hunger.
They turned. A Guild Member stood, sunlight pouring down his head and shoulders, cloak flapping majestically in the wind. Her eyes grew wide in concern. It was the man who had a front row seat of her decision to release the demon. Why he had lied to his fellow Vampire Hunters was as beyond her as what the hell he wanted now. She smiled. “Hello.”
“I need to talk to you.”
“Might I inquire about what?”
Before she could decide if she wanted to run, he snatched her up by the arm. Kaia twisted as she rose, giving her brother a terrified and pleading stare. Rasmus uncharacteristically looked just as taken off guard, frozen on his perch behind the water barrels as if absolutely stunned people could see him.
Something in the woods must have messed with his head, she thought. Maybe he was in shock.
“Are you afraid I’m going to bolt?” she asked, giving a pointed frown at the man’s latched on fingers.
“Just follow me.”
She tried to shift out of his grip. His hand tightened till it hurt. She grabbed his wrist. He pulled her into the alley.
“What are you planning on doing about the demon?” he demanded.
She paused and looked around for how he could miss the obvious. “Exorcism.”
He scowled, displeased with her answer.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“If your plans are to sabotage us then I will rescind my kindness of not revealing you to the authorities. Do you want that?”
“Was it kindness?”
“Are you going to try to help the demon escape?”
“If I’m under an enchantment, I suppose I must.”
His eyes bored into her, searching for the truth. Kaia blinked back innocently at him. Finally he admitted. “It shouldn’t last this long.”
She debated this. “So either I was under his charm or I wasn’t, but either way, I’m not now?”
He flicked his eyes to the side, almost looking embarrassed.
“Wouldn’t I be able to tell if I had been mind warped?”
His lips grew stern. “I am under the impression that if you were charmed, your pride would not allow you to admit it. Just leave it at that.”
She gave him a squint. “Why do you not want me to be arrested?”
“Many reasons,” he said. “The least of which being that I would be the one to have to contend with it.”
“Because I would have to explain how it was that a little girl released a demon under my supervision. Because I would have to reveal that the demon did not escape on his own accord, which means that they would have to go through the painful trials to see who else is under his charms, and because you and your brother would be treated worse than any other person needing to be exorcised or tried, and because I believe your kind is necessary. I like you. I don’t want to see you destroyed by my clan.”
“So you are betraying your guild and throwing out the rules because of personal reasons. You’re new to the league, aren’t you?”
He licked his dry lips. “Relatively. Yes.”
“Most are pretty bureaucratic.”
“I need your word.”
“The problem with that is, of course, if I did free him of my own accord, then I should be held responsible. If I didn’t, then the demon could have charmed others, and therefore the painful tests would be necessary.”
“No they wouldn’t.”
“They don’t work.”
At first, she didn’t hear this correctly. Her mouth opened. She tried to speak. He cut her off.
“Listen to me, woman. I am trying to help you out here. The guild is vicious when it comes to peasants, and worse when it comes to freelancers. I’ve seen how they work, and I need to know, are you planning on helping the demon or not?”
“I am planning on capturing him.”
He diverted his chin. “But you freed him.”
“Yes, but I was charmed,” she mocked with a sad nod. “But now I’m charmed by cash. Besides, I’m not stupid. He needs to get the hell away from people before he kills someone else.”
“I don’t understand your logic.”
“Well, I’m trying to form a couple of plans so all my goals can coincide. Not sure how it’s going to work yet, but I’ll find a way.” Her gaze flicked up from his boots to his face. “Did the guild do something to you?”
He just smiled and tipped his hat.
“Mysterious,” she murmured.
“I wouldn’t worry about it though,” he said. “Figuring out how to have your cake and eat it too. They’re not going to pay you, even if you do succeed.”
Kaia just raised her brows in amusement. We’ll see.
“Just heed my warning,” he said, turning away. “You will not betray me or there will be hell to pay.”
“But I already paid hell!”
“Be good,” he ordered over his shoulder. “I will be watching.”
But before he could leave, Kaia reached out, grabbing a hold of his shoulder. “Wait.”
Their eyes met.
“What do you know about Henrik’s disappearance?” she demanded. “The death and mutation of your Guild Members?”
The hunter sucked in a breath. “How did you know about that?”
“Isn’t that why you came here? Do you think it has anything to do with the demon? The destruction of the town? All the weirdness?”
“Is that why you’re here?” the hunter said “For Henrik?”
“Why do you care?”
“He’s our friend,” she said. “Not all Guild Members are awful you know.”
The hunter did not say anything. He didn’t even nod. His blue eyes pierced into her, unwavering.
“My brother and I… had a similar experience,” she admitted finally.
The hunter hesitated, then nodded, eyes narrowed.
“And we just wanted to make sure…” She shrugged. “We just wanted to understand. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to… examine things when someone else went through… sort of the same events.”
“Follow the demon,” he said. “Get to him first. They don’t want word out about that damn thing. They’ll kill the beast and you won’t get to know anything.”
He turned and left, heading off down the street. Kaia awkwardly turned, about to leave, when suddenly the hunter stopped. “You’re going to have to hurry. They catch word of what you’re really after, they’ll kill you too.”
He left. Rasmus put a hand on Kaia’s shoulder. She jumped. How long had he been there?
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.