Cheering erupted in the streets. In the black of night, the clanging of a thousand doors opening made music. The roads filled with people. Noise polluted the air. Cries surged with each wave of newcomers, and soon everyone was celebrating. Men in red coats and tall hats walked the cobblestone streets, waving at the excited peasants.
Kaia walked out from the temple, the sound of their joys muffled from the bottom of the basement steps, through the halls, still going when she stepped out crisp outdoors.
A spinning bustle of people rushed around her. The surge of confusion led the girl to stumble. She scanned for a semblance of understanding in the noise and disorder.
Suddenly, she panicked.
Dust kicked up as she pounded through the streets. She raced over to where the crowd grew thick. Attempting to push her way through, large people barely noticing her touch. A surge of rage brought her forward, but her shoving only caused a horrible backlash. Kaia broke the wall of forms only to be tousled by those who would push back. She fell on top of a woman who knocked her off. The girl toppled into the dirt and boots went down on her. She ripped her hands out from priority stepping grounds, holding them over her head for protection.
The boots continued to kick, then they began to realize someone was there. At the first sign of a breath, Kaia leapt her feet, clutching her right pounding hand to her chest.
“Rasmus!” she called fruitlessly. “Rasmus!”
Her voice died in the wave of a thousand cries.
She consciously calmed her panting. Kaia nursed her bent hand before more and more bodies rammed into her. Kaia concentrated on her paranoia, determining that she was being irrational; It was a celebration after all. That clearly meant they found the child.
“Rasmus!” she shouted.
She tore through the crowd, her speed halted with bumping and sliding, and soon she found herself very close to tears. She shoved free from the crowd into an open part of the street. Backs to her, people clumped together, eyes focused on something before them. She touched a woman on the shoulder.
“What’s going on?” she shouted over the ruckus.
The woman stared at her, blinkingly, unable to understand.
“What happened?” she said louder.
The woman just smiled broadly and pat her on the head, then turned back to the loud celebration.
Kaia stood awkwardly, arms dropped limply to her sides.
She stood on her toes to look over the crowd, the twisting of her stomach fading each time she told herself, This is a good thing.
Suddenly a tall man entered through the thicket of people. She could see his head and shoulders over the tops of the crowd, a man with the black hair with a proud posture. It took her a moment to realize he was not abnormally tall, but on horseback. Kaia laughed nervously at her own stupidity.
Many more followed after him, trotting along at a small pace, their faces illuminated dimly by moon and torchlight. They seemed exhausted, but cheerfully, enjoying the praise with subtle smiles. She stared at them, tilting a confused head before suddenly she recognized the large crimson hats and dark red symbols over marking their possessions.
A surge of disgust overwhelmed her. She couldn’t believe her eyes. How dare they come all the way out here? What did they want from this place? She just stood, gaping in disbelief when a hand grabbed her shirt.
Rasmus smiled at her meekly.
She threw her arms around him so hard he fell back. She sniffled into his neck. “I thought you were dead!”
He blinked a bit then slowly peeled her off, slicking his teeth as she scraped along the open wounds.
“Why?” he asked. “I’m strong.”
She stood back to look at him. She squinted, seeing the dim view of his agony.
“Got pelted by grubs,” he smiled weakly. “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
“I was afraid you died!”
He thought about this. “Jump to conclusions much?”
“They were celebrating! I thought they had lured you out in the woods to murder you!”
He smiled and gently held his sister, bringing her to his side to partly console and partly lean on her. “Well, people usually do only celebrate after killing someone. Come on. Let’s get back to the room. It’s late.”
His soothing face turned grim, and he took his slow steps back towards where they were staying. Rasmus looked defeated, fallen, a thick heaviness weighing down on him.
“You didn’t find her?” she asked.
He shook his head. “We got only a little ways into the woods before the woods started to attack us. Many men are injured. One maybe fatally, I haven’t checked. Though I don’t think that was the woods doing, just the cannons of the bastards who came, ‘just in time.”
He glowered at them over his shoulder as he said this, watching as they continued waving to the crowd.
“We’re going to need some sort of plan,” Kaia asked, pressing harder than necessary.
Rasmus didn’t even flinch at the alcohol, his anger enough adrenaline to remove all feeling. She kneeled behind him, touching salve to the cuts her brother’s bleeding back.
“These may be poisonous,” she said, looking at the wounds with worry. “Or they may continue to grow. I’ve never heard of these worms before.”
“You’re being paranoid. Just because it’s unknown doesn’t make it any more dangerous. I doubt the wounds are any worse than being hit by an ordinary board.”
“They would have had to been hard to split the skin,” she argued.
Sweeping up another glob of salve, she attempted to over protect his wounds by being excessive, smearing enough on his skin that if he had tried to lay on his back he would have slid through the dirt into the wall.
“I think this means we should leave,” she said calmly. “Being that the Vampire Hunters have come. We aren’t really making any money, and I’m afraid of what would happen if any recognize us. Or even if they don’t, they still might do something to punish us for freelancing. Do you remember that one man back in the ‘termite village’?”
“He was a jerk,” Rasmus grunted. “It doesn’t mean they’ll even pay attention to us.”
“But still,” she said.
“I thought you wanted to find out what had happened to Henrik. What about the kid? The demon? This place is crawling with strange activity. We can’t just go.”
She swallowed. “I’m getting nervous. This place is dangerous. If the hunters are here, they can take care of things. We can learn what happened to Henrik from their reports.”
“I’m not leaving without finding that girl!” Rasmus snapped.
Kaia flinched, frozen in shock. She hesitated before pressing a cloth bandage against wound along his shoulder.
Rasmus bowed his head, playing with his fingers. He glanced back.
“I can do it,” he said, pulling away.
She refused to hand the roll to him. “Last time you didn’t let me do it my way, you almost got an infection and the physician wanted to take your leg off.”
“He would have taken my leg off if the cut had been on my finger,” Rasmus corrected, snatching the bandages from her. “Besides, I can feel the amount of crap that you put on my back and I can’t imagine that any more would have an effect.”
He pressed on a welt on his collarbone.
Kaia crossed her legs, staring up as he drew back from this world, growing faint behind his dropping eyelids. She rocked back and forth, biting her lip with a thought.
“I made the tart,” she said. “With a few errors, of course. I think all together we ended up with a batch of three.”
He turned. “You made it?”
“I helped,” she smiled. “The innkeeper was very insistent about it. She wouldn’t even tell me when I was messing up. I think I wasted about a pound of flour.”
“That’s odd,” he said.
“Well, she is very obsessed with me for some reason. If she were a man, I’d be a little suspicious. However, it seems to be just a part of her busybody behavior, attempting to make me into a homemaker. She’s very into ‘selling silver’ and she doesn’t even know it.”
“To you?” he asked.
“Yeah. She feels that I am in emotional turmoil because I do not have a routine. I clearly must be miserable.”
“Well, maybe she’s right,” he shrugged.
“Not any more than anyone else taking a random stab. She doesn’t know me.”
“You certainly could use a little silver,” he said.
“I could not,” she scoffed. “Number one, being as cynical as I am, I’m never the type to use false hope or trust a stranger’s word. No snake oil, no silver. I know ‘no one will sell silver for a hay penny,’ and no peasant housewife knows what it’s like to live on the road. I’ve learned my lesson about trusting people. And anyway, I am damn confident in the potential of the future. More so than you.”
He just smiled dimly. “I hope that’s true.”
She stared at him, watching his motions to understand.
“There’s so many of them,” she said finally, winding up the remanding bandages. “I don’t think I’ve even heard of a group of them traveling together. Not for the death of a hunter. The death of Henrik must be a bigger deal than we thought.”
He pulled a wet rag from the bowl next to him and pressed it to his face.
“Do you think there’s a vampire here?” she asked.
He looked at her. He chewed on his lip.
“I mean, they usually don’t leave the coast to enter into the Wyrd unless specifically summoned. Do you think the villagers know something that they didn’t tell us? About the girl? That it may be a vampire?”
She stopped, eyes going wide as she threw up her hands. “That would make sense! They didn’t want us to know it’s a vampire because they thought that we’d just flee! Which…” she shrugged with a grin. “We might. But that would make sense. We felt like they were leaving stuff out… Maybe they knew exactly what it was, but it’s been around so long they have normalized it.” She paused. “But if they knew a vampire’s been around for a while, why would they summon the hunters now? Yet it would explain so many…” She gibbered on. “Of course, Henrik’s monstrous corpse was obviously not a vampire attack, but many know magic as well…” She trailed off.
“Actually,” Rasmus said, handing her the rag and picking up his shirt. “I think they’re here for the demon and that’s it.”
“I don’t think they even know about the girl. One of them told me they were here for ‘a pick up.’”
Kaia said nothing, her eyes dropping down to the ointments before her. She paused.
“This whole town is weird,” he said. “I don’t understand it.”
The girl began hastily putting everything away.
“I mean, they have allegedly captured a demon, and no one seems to care about it?”
“That’s what I said,” she muttered.
“I’d like to see what it takes to get these people to react to something. It must be the worst catastrophe in the world to get them to look twice. Or an unwed pregnancy.”
The pub was filled.
Rasmus entered with a tucked-in curiosity, examining the place from the door. Kaia pushed past, walked to the center and took a good look around. No one noticed, a little to her chagrin, their attention all wrapped around the man in the corner. The siblings looked at him, neither giving way to their feelings on the subject, both just standing awkwardly, waiting for the other to move.
The man in the corner was one of the hunters, his red hat down across his face.
As Rasmus headed in, his sister turned to him, smiling, “Should I go sit by him?”
He granted her a scolding scowl and moved to the table opposite the hunter. Kaia followed, watching the men about her laughing in their showy manner, slowly sitting next to her brother.
She studied her brother. His faced was carved into a frown, Rasmus glaring around the room as though he was looking for who was about to try and kill him.
Finally she leaned in and whispered, “Why are we here?”
He said nothing.
She followed his line of sight right as the man behind the crimson hat raised his chin. Out from under the shadow she caught his gaze and her breath went to her throat.
Icy blue eyes caught them, his glance gathering information in the brief moment before he turned away, looking to the barmaid who approached.
“Well look at that,” she said wondrously. “A man of the guild and not a scar on him.”
Rasmus’s mouth tightened.
Licking her dry lips, Kaia rested on the table. She stared intently into Rasmus’s face. His glare was unwavering, burrowing into the crimson man’s side so that even the most demure of men would feel it. Even from their distance they could recognize the tension in the stranger’s neck.
A waver on her lips, Kaia rephrased once and again in her mind. Finally leaning towards her brother’s ear, she whispered, “What about the little girl?”
His hand slammed on the table. She jumped. He rose. With a swift motion, Rasmus stormed to the other side of the room until he stood before the vampire hunter. The stranger with the crystal blue eyes looked up.
Finally the stranger tipped back his hat and leaned in his chair. “Can I help you?”
Rasmus spluttered. “Two nights ago, a young girl was taken from this town.”
The crimson stranger raised his eyebrows.
“Did your company know that?”
“Is there a moment you can spare to do
something about it?”
The condescending rage dripped in Rasmus’s voice. Kaia felt her heart twist with the low growling.
She did not expect that when the man stood, he would merely tip his hat. Anticipating a blade to slip into his palm, she shivered at the man’s patronizing smile then collapsed as he turned and left.
Kaia paused in bewilderment when the hunter stopped at the door. “I’ll go report it now.”
Rasmus stood there, shockingly inert. Only his cloak had a faint trembling as he turned. Over his shoulder he glanced from face to face, each telling different stories of apathy or amusement, annoyance or anger.
Then he spun.
“No one said a word?” he shouted. “No one bothered to mention anything?”
They just watched him, lazily staring at the outsider’s disgust.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?”
Shrugging off his hate in a grunt, he strode out the doors, leaving his sister sitting and staring.
A few men turned to her.
She hesitated. Leaning back in the chair, she threw her feet up on another.
“The service here is awful!” she said.