His sister had been gone a full day.
Rasmus first panicked back when the sun started to set the night before, but he held himself firmly down in the inn’s chair. Kaia always mocked him for babying her, insisting that he was being far too tunnel-visioned towards the fairer sex.
“If baby Kondori had been a girl, you would have never eaten him,” she’d say.
He did not laugh, hoping not to encourage her. A few years ago, back when they still traveled with their father, a witch had told Rasmus he had a brother in the womb with him. The fortune teller proved to be a fraud, but Kaia was tickled with grim humor about it.
It was weird for his sister not to return before sunset. She was scared of the dark, for one thing, but it was unusual she even went off without him in the first place. He hadn’t asked to go, but when he pressed for where she was headed, she’d just given him a dirty look. Before he left her in town, he saw her talking to a particularly handsome boy. The correlation was more terrifying than any other thought he could come up with, but he reminded himself not to be a jerk, that she should want to talk to men.
She didn’t have to come back early. She could stay out as long as she wanted. It was none of his business. Even if she got pregnant. It was her business. Even if she got hurt. Even if he made her cry. Even if she was attacked.
No. He’d kill him.
He ordered a drink, wasting precious pennies on the cheapest ale they offered. It didn’t calm his nerves. Hours passed and he sat there, waiting, knowing that if she came back and he was awake she’d start up with the jokes again. He had just gotten her to stop calling him “Heavenly Father” after an especially “holier than thou” comment on his part. Or maybe she wouldn’t find it so amusing, and it would just discourage her from going out and meeting people. He should be happy she finally found someone she didn’t take an immediate dislike to.
He finally forced himself to go to bed, reminding himself that while Kaia was not a graceful warrior—more of a runner than a fighter, really—she could take care of herself. If he hadn’t heard from her, it was probably because she didn’t want him to.
When he woke the next morning, she wasn’t there. The door to the inn almost split off its hinges. He stormed into town.
The village was a small one, the furthest hut still visible from the main road. The siblings had come into it yesterday, having heard word of some sort of supernatural activity. Kaia had gotten her hopes up, but due to the vagueness of the rumors, Rasmus thought it was just another paranoid village on the Merchant Pathway.
They’d been traveling from civilization for several weeks. Though not close enough to the borders of the Wyrd to merit this kind of panic, it seemed people all over were exposed to the hysterical epidemic. It worked well for the siblings—it was easy to convince peasants of what they already wanted to believe—but Kaia always lusted after the truth, no matter how much she feared it. Every time they encountered a creature of the Wyrd, she would be giddy for days afterwards. As long as she wasn’t bleeding. And even then…
But Rasmus had believed so much that they were just hysteric, he didn’t even hope to be wrong. Kaia bothered all of the peasants while he glanced at the shops, thinking of a means to get a free meal in the dump.
It looked as though none had food enough for themselves, clear travelers kept the place sustained. The inn it would have to be. Kaia stayed out gossip mongering, and he went to his room. She did grant him the favor of coming to say she was leaving, but if she hadn’t, maybe he would have trusted his instincts sooner.
He did not have to make demands of the villagers long.
“Stop,” he said to the first man he met. “Please. Have you seen a girl?”
The man, middle-aged and lanky, stared at him for a moment, and Rasmus felt a flurry of anger at the peasant’s stupidity.
“A girl,” he spat. “A traveler. Light blonde hair. Looks just like me. But shorter. With worse dress.” He waited, the man’s face fell. “Have you seen her?”
“How long has she been missing?” he said quietly.
Rasmus’s face drained of color. Now he couldn’t answer.
“Young man, come with me. Sit down.”
His expression turned somber, coldly apathetic.
“Girls have been disappearing,” Rasmus said stiffly.
The peasant swallowed. “You’ve heard.”
“Wyrd swallows it,” he swore. “Of course.”
“Only one so far. Now… two.”
Despite himself, despite the normalcy of this life, something was different. He couldn’t stop fear quaking in his core. But he manage to swallow it down. With a deep breath, he put on his show face. Kaia was fine. It wasn’t like she hadn’t gotten out of messes before. She was good at that, out of necessity.
Rasmus spun on his heel, his brown coat flapping as he headed for the center of town. His face hot, he pressed back the rage with himself, to turn, mid-road, and throw up his arms, leather sleeves snapping.
“People! Stop! Look! Listen!”
The peasants did, as he suspected. Luckily, as he didn’t have his usual patience.
“I am Rasmus Kondori, a vampire hunter, a destroyer of liches! A ghost tracker. A slayer of all things of the Wyrd. I have heard murmurings of your plight. My sister and I have come here to save you. Many of you have seen her yesterday. You need to answer my questions now if we are to stop this!”
He felt his knees shake. Stop it. Focus. Kaia is fine.
They stared at him, not one single reaction amongst the ten people who watched. He clenched his teeth. Skeptics. He hated skeptics.
“Your sister has been taken then,” a man said.
“I don’t know what the hell’s happened,” Rasmus snapped, all demeanor lost. “But you’re going to answer me. Who saw her last?”
Still no one answered. A few started to walk away. He bristled.
“This is why no one likes peasants!” he shouted. “You morons! I know what you’re thinking. If I am incompetent, it is not a waste of your time. Those girls have disappeared. It’s not a fluke, it’s not their fault, it’s your downfall. Now I could waste time with this whole song and dance, but I will not play nice. You will talk to me. You will help me.”
The lanky man who Rasmus had spoken to stepped up. “We told your sister everything.”
“What everything?” the boy said, marching forward. “What did you tell her exactly?”
Before the cart had even stopped, before the driver had time to bark at them, Kaia had leapt off, leaving her brother to grunt after her to “Calm the hell down.” For the past couple of villages, the gossip was all about this one. What kind of supernatural events were allegedly taking place? No one knew. She didn’t care. If it was true, it meant big bucks, big adventure, and big sights. She was hoping for ghosts, feeling a little exhausted after bartering with idiots for rides for the past few weeks.
As she wandered through town, she ignored Rasmus for the most part. He was in some sort of mood. Just as tired as she, probably feeling more ripped off by the driver’s price. Usually they could get on for free. Usually she was the one annoyed, but she was too excited to worry about it.
When he grumbled and said he was headed for the inn, it was a relief to see him go. She hadn’t seen him this pissy in a while, and she didn’t understand it. Probably had to do with the last village being so reasonable. They wanted the head of a beast before they’d paid for it. Also meeting hunters of the Wyrd didn’t seem to hit them in the same way it did with most peasants. The siblings were running low on funds, and this place didn’t look to be promising either.
She saw it another way.
At that time, all they had heard about was the “crisis” in Waterdeep. So, that was all she had to go on. She wandered up to several people, explaining without her brother’s showmanship:
“I’m here to kill some monsters. What do you got?”
She amused most, many of them looking down on her like a child saying she was going to grow up to be Queen. The women were worst. But Kaia wasn’t patient when it came to manipulation, so she just tried it again and again until someone bit. By that time, Rasmus had left.
“You’re here for the disappearances then,” a man grunted at her. “You a vampire hunter?”
She squinted an eye. “By action, yes.”
“I’ve heard of you.”
They were in front of a shop—him sitting on a crate, her standing, arms crossed—that seemed to be a weird mixture of a bar and a home. It wasn’t uncommon, but it unnerved her, mostly because she couldn’t figure out exactly what it was supposed to be.
He was an older gentleman, his hairline receding, a peppery beard on his face. He smoked a long pipe with a bell shape on the end, and could barely be obligated to even give her the stink-eye, though he did manage.
With a once over, the man debated. Finally he came to a decision, sitting forward.
“Why do you think it’s gonna be a monster?’
She shrugged. “I’m just hoping. Killing is easy. Runaways are filled with drama.”
He scowled at her. Kaia lifted upward.
“I’m not trying to be difficult. Who disappeared?”
She clenched her fist victoriously. “Good start. Typical. I know typical. What kind of girls?”
He turned more to her, disgusted.
“Ten-year-olds, fifteen-year-olds, five-year-olds, grandmothers, what?”
Now the man managed a smirk. “Girls about your age. A girl to be precise.”
She raised her brow. “Who?”
“Gisli. Almost a women.”
“I am a woman, I’ll have you know. I have the stains to prove it. What happened?”
He blew out a puff.
“Disappeared from her bed? Went out one night and never came back? What?”
At this, his faint amusement dispersed, disgusted with her. He stood abruptly and walked off. She giggled to herself, although she was quickly becoming aware that this was no laughing matter. Usually, in real cases, the victims were already dead. If the victim might still be alive, this would be a lot more stressful.
It was getting to be late in the afternoon, and Kaia decided it was time to get Rasmus involved. She didn’t expect him to be happy that it seemed there was something real afoot, but she preferred him to do the legwork, as long as she could eavesdrop.
Right when she turned to go, someone tapped her on the shoulder. Her whole body clenched at the violation, but when she spun around, Kaia managed to keep a polite expression.
Polite, but not endearing.
A beautiful man frowned grimly at her—someone not much older than her. His brown hair was unassuming, his crumpled clothes dull. She had asked him some questions earlier, right when Rasmus had turned and left in a huff. He’d been more talkative than the others, but only to tell her outright she had no business monster chasing.
“Come with me,” he said.
She flicked a glance at the sky, frowning thoughtfully, but he had already started walking away.
“Oh, sure,” she said, chasing after.
He took her back the grassy parts of the village, where there were only some thin, worn paths up to specific doorsteps. The man didn’t talk, and Kaia kept her eyes open. When he led her to a hut and made a gesture, she stopped, staring at him skeptically.
“I’m not going in there.”
He glowered, but turned and knocked. Crossing his arms over a cheap tunic, he waited. It took a moment, but the door finally opened. A fragile woman, probably mid-thirties, looked out. Her eyes were tired, brown hair stringy. She flicked a glance from Kaia to the man before opening up further.
“Alrik… What is this about?”
“She’s that vampire hunter, here about Gisli.”
When the woman gave her a nervous once over, Kaia just huffed, shoving inside.
Stepping into the one-roomed hut bathed in firelight and the little remaining light in the sky, she stopped short at the sight of a young man. He was hunched in the corner, sitting on a stool, staring at the ground. Eyes redder than embers, a face fallen so far it could be in the underworld, her heart caught.
Alrik was at her side.
“Yorick, someone’s here who claims she can help.”
He looked up, saw Kaia’s face, but then immediately dropped back into the recesses of his mind.
Alrik’s face softened, looking at his friend with grief. Kaia flicked a glance from each of the boys. The woman set a hand on Kaia’s shoulder. She jumped at the abuse before turning back to see the lady’s face.
“You believe it’s a vampire?” the woman said.
“I doubt it,” Kaia said flatly. “We use the term ‘vampire’ hunter loosely.”
“Are you with the Guild?” she asked, shoulders hoping, brows doubtful.
The girl just released an awkward chuckle, pulling free of the woman’s grip.
“It could be anything at this point,” she said, walking towards Yorick.
Kaia sat down on the stool across from him, clasping her hands on her brown skirt and leaning forward. “I need to ask a few questions before I can determine anything.”
At first she believed he hadn’t heard, but then he nodded. She flicked a glance to the other members of the room before sitting back.
“First, who are you?” Kaia asked.
Alrik threw himself away with a scoff.
“My name is Yorick,” he began slowly. “I was Gisli’s fiancé.”
Kaia arched a brow. “And this is your mother?”
“And this is your friend.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
He shifted uncomfortable. “We had a fight.”
Kaia bit back her disappointment.
“She wanted to leave Waterdeep. Head to the city. I told her I didn’t have that kind of money… That I didn’t want to leave my mother.”
The girl studied over the woman’s youth compared with her son’s age. Kaia passed her judgment, but managed to keep it to herself.
“She said she didn’t want to live in fear all the time,” he continued.
He looked up at her.
“Did she storm out? Did you leave first? Where were you?”
“We were outside her home. She told me to go away.”
He shrugged. “Then nothing.”
“How long until you realized she was gone?”
“In the middle of the night her father came to us in a panic,” her mother said.
Kaia huffed. “And you have no idea where she went. No note? No goodbye?”
Yorick bristled. “She did not run away, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“I said nothing,” Kaia told him, standing. “I know nothing. It could be anything. She could have run away. She could have been asked to be taken away—”
She stopped at the look on Yorick’s face. “Inadvertently. It happens. Fey folk like to play around with human’s words. She might have been spirited away or gotten lost.” Kaia swallowed. “She may have been attacked.”
The mother glowered, beginning to shake. “Which is it?”
Kaia shrugged. “There’s too much up in the air. How long ago was this?”
“About a week.”
The girl couldn’t prevent herself from grimacing. “What does she look like? How old is she?”
“Long dark brown hair. Tan skin. Beautiful eyes.”
“On it,” Kaia nodded, gaze on the ceiling.
“Sixteen?” Kaia glared at Alrik. “My age, my ass. You people.”
The mother tensed and Alrik frowned, but Yorick remained in his grief.
“Alright. I’ll be honest with you,” Kaia said. “The timing is unfortunate. If she has been taken to the Wyrd getting her back will be…”
“Impossible,” Alrik finished.
“Difficult. We’ve never done it before.”
“No one’s ever done it before.”
“Wrong.” She hesitated, stopping herself. “I would go into stories, but none of you would care. The good news is I hope to find her alive.”
Yorick looked up, face contorted.
“If it was basic mauling, she would have been found. Parts of her, anyway,” she shrugged. “Those types of monsters aren’t notorious for their subtly.”
“Creatures have many uses for young women. The fact that it’s been a week is unnerving… but if she was being used for parts there would have been more disappearances by now.” She recognized, looking out at the small village. “Unless you don’t have any more girls.”
“Dear God, woman,” Alrik hissed. “Have tact.”
“This is good news.”
“There are other girls,” Yorick muttered. “In the village. No disappearances though.”
“Then the question is about the creatures.”
All eyes snapped to her as she hopped onto a tiny, hay bed.
“If something supernatural is involved—and I’m not sure it is—then it is either new here or old. Obviously. If it is older… which it probably is, then we should already know something about it. And by we, I mean you. Past stories, past encounters…” She watched them, but no one spoke up. “If it is new to the region, then there should be a reason why it came here. A sudden change… Made an entrance. Either way, you know something important. Just have to figure out what it is. So.” She looked around the room. “The rumors of supernatural activity did not start with one girl’s disappearance a week ago. What spirits live in Waterdeep?”
No one spoke. Slowly, all heads turned towards the young mother. She stepped back.
Rasmus gaped. He was not one to be taken by surprise, but he was taken by surprise.
“But gossip led us here. We knew you had been attacked.”
“Waterdeep spreads rumors about spirits all of the time. When the Vampire Guild comes, then we make a fortune. They never send just one, if they send anyone at all. The men come, they spend their fortune drinking and eating while casually searching the area. The more they suspect it’s nothing the longer they linger. They’re on the easy job, and on the Guild’s bank no less.”
Rasmus studied him skeptically. “But Kaia is missing too. The girl did not just run off.”
“No,” the man sighed. “Gisli probably didn’t. We haven’t had much in actual spirit trafficking, but it still happens. There is nothing to be done.”
“My sister is gone,” Rasmus spat. “And you knew it too. You don’t doubt it, right?”
“Death always comes in threes, in these parts.”
“Shut the hell up,” Ramsus snapped. “Nothing from the Wyrd lives so close to humans unless it’s going to interact with them. Now what did you tell Kaia?”
There was a rustling to his left, and he turned to see the face of a young, exhausted woman. She was wringing her hands.
“This is Brenna,” the lanky man said. “She is the mother to Yorick—the girl’s fiancé. She talked to your sister yesterday.”
Rasmus scowled at her until he realized she’d been crying. He moved swiftly forward, coming up to her as she struggled to speak.
“Your sister went with my son to watch for spirits.”
Rasmus stopped, considering the magnitude. He didn’t see a lot.
“They haven’t returned.”
He nodded, heart beating faster.
She looked left then right, but the peasants didn’t give her sympathy. They weren’t angry, however, in fact, their apathy had suddenly morphed into fearful curiosity.
“Where did they go?” Rasmus demanded.
She hid her face in shame. He stiffened.
“When I was a young woman,” the mother licked her lips before stopping. “Maybe you should come with me,” she muttered.
“Just tell him,” a man grunted. “We already know.”
Rasmus gave a skeptical glance to the voyeurs, but decided to be sympathetic. He nodded, and she started walking.
“I will take you there,” she said, moving quickly. “Where they went. And explain while we walk.”
He slipped back a few steps behind her, head bowed, wracking his head. He was lost. He should go back and get one of the heavy-ass books Kaia insisted on lugging around. One of them must say something about this sort of thing. Maybe then he could figure out what was going on.
“Well?” he said finally as they walked past the wooden huts.
She looked down. “I told your sister that there was a Wanderer’s Hut outside of town.”
The woman debated, trying to figure out a way to explain. “There is a story, I must tell you.”
He clenched his teeth, but didn’t look at her.
“You must understand… I don’t want you to judge me. I was an unhappy child, and my actions…”
“My sister just wandered off headfirst and disappeared without giving me a word,” Rasmus smiled sadly. “I’m not too concerned about your actions years ago.”
Her lips quivered as she tried to speak. “It’s my lot in life, you understand. But I couldn’t accept that. I believed Fate was on my side. I didn’t think bad things would happen. They couldn’t get worse. I didn’t try and stop them.”
His brow knit as he glanced back behind him. He tried to keep his strides short, but he couldn’t help walking fast, and they were approaching the long empty road. The woman kept up.
“We’ve had spirits in the past… monsters the same as anywhere… Not more than anyone else. But the Wyrd still lingers here and the beasts know civilization won’t help us. One day I was having a really… horrible time, so I went out into the patch of woods and cried out for any beast to take me.” She stopped and pointed. “There.”
Rasmus looked at her, surprised at her nonchalance.
They had reached the last house and hesitated. He peered into the woods off to the left of the road, seeing the crumbling roof of what he assumed was the wanderer’s house.
The mother turned to him. “I came out there to get spirited away. To be taken to the Wyrd, and far, far from this place. I screamed for them. And someone came.” Clasping her hands together, she turned away. “But they didn’t want me. They wanted… a virgin.”
Rasmus scowled at her, his throat tingling.
“The whole town knows… about it all. So they believed I can summon them again. That either I sent away my son’s lover out of jealousy, else I could get her back.” She spun and grabbed his hands. “I can’t. I would if I could. I want my son to be happy. You have to believe me.”
Ramsus slowly turned away from the Wander’s House, eyeing her out of the corner of his eye. “What’d he look like?”
She blinked. “What?”
“The thing that came to you.”
“It was…” She bit her lip. “A man. Covered in shadows.” She searched his face. “I don’t remember.”
The woman looked around. “Your sister and Yorick went out to watch for him. They haven’t come back.”
One long stride and he was running, arms braced as he targeted the house.
The moonlight was shaded by dark clouds. Kaia gnawed on her cheek. It had been several hours, and she wondered if Rasmus was waiting up.
“Two things have happened,” she said, leaning over to Yorick. “He never considered I was going off on a midnight goose-chase, and went to bed—blissfully asleep now. Or, he is waiting up, ready to kill me for being an idiot.” She thought. “Or Rasmus thinks I’m dead.”
Yorick’s grim face rotated towards her.
“We should be quiet,” he whispered.
She shifted, throwing her arm over her skirt-draped knee and shrugging. “Oh no. It’s no use. Either they’re of what I call the specter persuasion, in which case, they already know we’re here.” She sat up straight. “Or they are not and we have to let them know we’re here.”
He just shook his head, putting his face in his hands. She watched him.
“Don’t worry,” Kaia said after a moment. “She’ll be fine.”
They sat atop the hut, the roof having sunken down to a climbable distance. It had buckled in the middle, flattening out. The roof was made of wood, not thatched, and so had deteriorated quickly. It was the worst Wanderer’s Hut she’d sheen. They were always awful and poorly taken care of—a half-assed attempt at appeasing wandering spirits, but more time than not travelers used them to be cheap. Generally, things were repaired enough to keep them standing—Not warm, not safe, but up.
“I sort of doubt that she’s been kidnapped,” she whispered. “And I really doubt she’s hurt yet.”
He eyed her. “What makes you say that?”
Kaia shrugged. “A lot of things. Speculation mostly. As I said, the man-eaters are messy and persistent. The kidnappers always want something more than just a meal. They took her alive for a reason. And if they wanted parts, they try to take as many girls at one time as possible. Before they raise suspicion. Once the town is on high alert, it’s so much harder. Plus,” she shrugged, “The town is not on high alert.”
They met gazes.
“The villagers know something they’re not saying,” Kaia explained. “Either they think she left willingly—a runaway. Or they know exactly what happened to her.”
Yorick’s eyes flicked behind them. Kaia stiffened, but wouldn’t turn around, even when the approaching thing behind her stopped concealing his footsteps.
“Which makes me think it also might just be a trap,” she realized.
Rasmus had searched the woods for hours. At first the mother followed him, silently watching him, wringing her hands. Rasmus started by being quiet, hoping to sneak up on anyone who had hurt her. But he found no blood, no loss of possession, no sign of a struggle. That didn’t mean anything. Not only was Kaia the sort to surrender quickly, but she was also the kind to go willingly. And eagerly. Because she was an idiot.
By the time it started to become dark, the mother had disappeared, gone back to her home. The fuel of fury that brought Rasmus out disappeared, suddenly turning to a throbbing pain in the pit of his stomach. Kaia had been in danger before. He’d once watched as she was shoved off a third story balcony, her little frame crumble on the ground with a sickening smack. When her body couldn’t move, neither did his, and for an instant, his body retched, his frame paralyzed with terror, before the warlock he’d been fighting cracked a cane across the back of his head. Kaia had been able to heal perfectly, but Rasmus never forgot that moment—the first time he had to come to terms with his sister’s mortality. He was going to go out before her. He was going out big, proud, and in a blaze of glory. She could only die of old age, in bed, with friends and family around her.
But there was something new to this. As he began to dart around the forest, crying out her name, he felt his denial subsiding, reality gripping him with a cold fist. She was gone. Not by her choice, not because she was being inconsiderate, but because she had been taken. She might already be dead.
Luckily the denial hadn’t escaped that far yet. She was alive, he decided, and he just had to find her. Her and the stupid fiancé. Who the mother who didn’t care anything about.
He stopped abruptly.
He could catch a lie a mile away, but knowing the actual truth had always been more challenging. He’d thought the woman was just leaving shit out, but obviously she was full of it.
Rasmus returned to the village beating up doors and shouting demands. He ordered them to come out, moving one right after the other, making enough of a racket that even the most spiteful men stuck their heads out of glassless windows.
He whirled one foot around and moved for the center of the town. Barely any moonlight on him, he stood glaring as some people came out with torchlights.
“People of the town,” he said, hands high and up. “I bid you with good news.”
They came in curiously, not so dumb that they didn’t react to the sarcasm dripping in his tone.
“I have come to a grand conclusion about the disappearance of your Gisli and that of my sister. If you would, Miss Brenna, step forward.”
The woman had come out like the rest of them, though her hut was further away. She’d been waiting for him to return.
“Where is your son?” he said.
She bit her lip, flicking a glance to the fellow men standing around.
“Now don’t get them involved,” he smiled maliciously, features warped in the torchlight. “If they wanted to fight me, I’d be dead by now.”
The woman stared defiantly into his eyes.
He lurched forward. “Where is my sister?!”
His sword crashed into the dirt. She jumped. He stormed forward.
“What the hell did you do to her? Bring her to me, now.”
Her chin rose high. He waited, hoping.
Still silence. Up went his sword. Crack.
A blinding pain cut through Rasmus’s cheek. He stumbled back, and Miss Brenna unclenched her fist, fire in her eyes. As Rasmus touched his face, he eyed the poorly lit peasants rousing around him. Their torches lifted in the air. Others grabbed scattered tools, surrounding him, hatred in their eyes.
He had expected this, and yet he hadn’t really planned for it.
That was Kaia’s thing.
Kaia bolted. She leapt from the rooftop, hitting the ground hard. Even despite crushed ankles, she shrugged off the stumble and broke through the bush.
Voices shouted after her, crying, pleading for her to come back.
She scrunched up her face in annoyed disbelief, but ran faster. Kaia even managed to bite back the urge to snap back a comment—mostly because she couldn’t think of anything.
They didn’t chase at first. Their voices grew distant as she bounded into the dark. They didn’t follow her for a reason. There were things in this forest. Something was following her alright.
She spun about, looking over her shoulder, stumbling backwards, searching the blackness for shadow, for movement. Eyes blinded by her rush, it seemed every thought was paralyzed. She had gone functionally deaf. Kaia swallowed, but returned to her full on sprint.
Some action was always better than none.
Finally they clumsily thundered after. It calmed her. Her mind cleared. She began to think.
Fight or flight?
Oh, gee. Which one would work out in the armless girl’s favor?
The ditch came on her without warning. Her foot missed the ground. She flew forward.
With deft feet even in her oversized boots, she caught herself, clumsily bouncing off rock and slope until she hit the bottom. Her landing was graceless, turned her around, and left her startled, staring up at the men who came for her. Her breath caught in her chest, her sides had begun to hurt. She had just enough strength left to do something. That something was not keep running.
She leapt for a tree.
Leaning over the far edge of the ditch, she had to scramble to even get to the base. Her arms managed to be less slapstick about their purchase. Crawling over gray birch and through clawing branches, she managed to situate herself fine by the time they made her way.
It occurred to her suddenly that these were men, not beasts. What did she expect to happen? She gave herself an annoyed look before removing her boot. They made it to her base.
“Come at me, bitches,” she said, weapon raised.
But the two men stopped at the opposite end of the ditch. Yorick bent over and heaved. Kaia couldn’t see much through the dark, but the other form seemed as human as he sounded. Her grip on her shoe loosened.
Not that Man couldn’t be far more dangerous than any other creature. Yet she was more afraid of what she didn’t understand. Men were simple. It’d be worse if they were women.
“Kaia, please,” Yorick said, breath heaving. “We’re here to help you.”
“Oh,” she said. “Obviously.”
“Come down. The woods are dangerous at night.”
“And pray tell, sir. Who the hell are you? Because Yorick and I… well we’re just bosom friends. We’ve done nothing if not bond, so I can see why he wants to save me from… Sleep.” She clutched a branch to lean out. “But you… I mean, what villager gives a shit about strangers?”
He hesitated. “My name is Hendersen. I am just a lowly peasant.”
She began to climb higher.
“Kaia,” Yorick said. “I’m sorry it had to be this way, but you don’t understand…”
She stopped and looked at him. She waited. He blinked up at her, his eyes shinny in the faint moonlight. He shrugged.
She groaned. “Where’s, Gisli? She even dead? You hurt her?”
“She doesn’t exist,” Hendersen said. “We needed to convince you to get you out here.”
Kaia clapped a hand on her hip, boot dangling as she leaned out from the tree. “And how the hell did you know that would get me out here?”
“We know who you are. Who your brother is.”
“Then you know you’re going to get your ass kicked.” She paused and thought. “How?”
“Miss,” Hendersen said. “Please.”
He looked around his shoulders as if the vicious beasts would come along at any point. Kaia lowered herself skeptically, arms out straight to balance herself in a fragile crouch.
“How did you hear of my brother and me?” she said.
Neither spoke, and for a moment her insides crawled. Then Yorick asked, “What?”
“What do you want?” she shouted.
“We are trying to save you.”
Her tension began to melt away, morphing into amused curiosity. “Oh really? From what?”
Their forms looked at each other. Hendersen finally called back, “It is a sensitive issue, Kaia. Come down where it is safe, and we will tell you everything.”
“Counter offer. You tell me everything, and I’ll come down before the wolves eat you.”
“You won’t believe us,” Yorick insisted.
His voice cracked in his pleading. She twisted her mouth, but sat. Struggling to pull on her boot one handed, she said, “Try me.”
“It is not a question of the supernatural that you will fight. It is the question of your brother.”
She stopped abruptly. Slowly her gaze turned to them, her body paralyzed. They stared up at her, waiting.
When she landed, they jumped back. Kaia strolled up the hill and they parted, giving her space until she stood right before them. “What’s wrong with my brother?”
Hendersen swallowed, bowing his head. “Your brother… isn’t your brother.”
Her face remained stone.
“We have heard of your exploits… Warning came from the town before us… We knew that the man named Rasmus was coming—An unsworn vampire hunter… or one who claimed to be. He swears to be following a beast who has ripped the heart from many young girls.”
She jerked back her head with a skeptical squint. This wasn’t a story she’d heard. Though they’d made up enough in the past.
“But word has come from the last village, informing us of your… brother’s deeds.”
Her eyes adjusting to the moonlight, she could finally see Hendersen for what he was—A sun-slapped peasant, tall with friendly eyes, a sunken exhaustion and sadness pulling down on his broad shoulders. His dark curly hair fell in his face, short coils tickling his rough skin. He licked his dry lips.
“Do you remember how you left the last town?”
Her brows went up, Kaia admitting, “Well, it was very much in a hurry.”
He swallowed, “Did you ever question why?”
Disgust overwhelmed her. “This isn’t about the sheep girl. Tell me it’s not.” Eyes rolling heavenward, she slapped her hands down to her side. “That lady is crazy. I told him that. I told him not to—” Kaia pointed right at his chest. “Women are nut jobs, don’t you know that? Have you ever talked to one? We are liars. And if you break our hearts, we make up shit. Shit we are inclined to believe because I know I’m not going to admit that someone actually doesn’t like me. And she was pretty enough that I don’t think she was used to being rejected.”
They stared at her, dumbfounded. Finally, Yorick said, “You believe that nonsense?”
She put her brow in her hand.
“Look,” she insisted with hard gesture. “My brother is the friendly sort. He may be the whorish sort. I don’t know. I can’t imagine he is as pure as he pretends to be. And if he used the woman, then he deserves a good ass kicking. But I don’t think he did, and honestly it doesn’t matter. The girl fell in love with him, and now she’s spreading lies. That’s all there is to it.”
Hendersen clasped a hand on her shoulder.
“I think it is your brother that is spreading lies. If it is your brother…”
Kaia stared at him levelly, her assumption of his stupidity obvious in her face.
She shook him off. “Whatever explanation you’re interested in. But I don’t need your saving. If he’s a specter then—”
That actually stumped her.
“Do I need to kick your ass, or can I go?” she finished.
Hendersen looked for something to say. “You can’t fi—”
The man went for her shoulder. She slipped away from him. Her pace picked up, ready to run at the first sign of his chase.
He just called after her. “Kaia! We don’t want him to eat you too! Please, listen to us!”
She stopped herself from chuckling. They didn’t follow. She marched into the woods at a brisk pace, wondering if she would be able to find her way back. Far at her back, Kaia almost didn’t hear Yorick’s last murmur, but she thought she could make out the words, “They’ve already got him.”
She started running.
The people were hesitant to attack. Peasants had no more training than what their fathers could offer them. They were unrefined, unpracticed. They were afraid. The beasts of the Wyrd were, as Kaia would call it, “passive-aggressive as shit,” and rarely demanded real combat, more often dragging their victims until the dark of night. Rasmus could hold them off as long as they were willing to hesitate.
His sword out before him, he said, “Tell me what you want with the girls. Maybe I can help you.”
A man snarled at him.
“Games up!” another shouted.
“Don’t talk to it,” a third ordered. “Don’t let it charm you!”
He raised his sword higher, bristling.
“Listen, people. Whatever it told you, whatever it insisted it could do, there is a way to fix it. Sacrificing your girls is never the way. It will never work. Beasts are never satiated. I can help you. I want to help you. I’ve done these things before, but if my sister is hurt—”
A peasant swooped forward, bringing down the handle of his broom with full force. Rasmus blocked, his blade hitting deep into the wood. The peasant struggled to remove it as Rasmus slid out and away.
Something struck him in the back.
He stumbled, but swung his weapon hard, carelessly. It was enough to send them back in fear. Rasmus recovered. Holding the blade out to his side, putting the crowd on point, he whipped out the dagger from his belt and stayed the other side.
“You want to fight me? Over this? I am trying to save your women!”
“We know what you are, demon!”
Their voices erupted into an intelligible chorus. Rasmus rotated, trying to keep an eye out for the next attacker, trying to read their lips. They were angry, afraid. It was a mob.
He could fight them. He could kill many. But did he want to?
Wait a minute. Demon?
With a flare of his brown coat, he spun back towards the words. Swiping his sword in front of him, he parted the peasants in his way. They allowed him through, each afraid to let him touch them, each shouting out, “Monster!” “Demon!” and “Beast!”
Where was Kaia? He had to get them out of there.
His mind struggled for answers, his eyes anticipating strikes. After passing, his back to them, many peasants swung. He managed to block a few, dodge a few more, but two struck down hard. Adrenaline saved him from the pain, but he knew he’d be feeling it soon.
The woods. Would she really be in the woods? Could she be kept in someone’s house? Could she have been mutilated long ago? What was he thinking, not going after her? Her behavior had been odd, out of character. He should have trusted his instincts. He should have bang down doors the moment she hadn’t returned home. If he was too late—
Someone threw a torch. The firelight flickered as it swooped past his head, scorching the tip of his ear before it collapsed in the dirt. He leapt over it, but turned, diving next to the side of a house to keep his back protected. He raised his weapons and stared, wild eyed and confused. They sensed his fear, sensed they were winning. Their grins grew. They were possessed, insane. They could still be the terrified victims he’d assumed, but as they stood there, moving in, blood-lust in their eyes, he didn’t see humans anymore.
This town was a nightmare.
He spun again, bouncing off a crate and grabbing hard onto the thatched roof. Hay came off in hand, but he managed to swing himself to the top. He clambered across the top, feet slipping and the material came off beneath him. Rasmus raced across then jumped down the opposite side.
He ran into the house behind it.
It was tiny, one-bedroomed with very little in it. An unlit lantern hung by the bed. He snatched it up. Out the window through the back he made his way in the street, the sounds of panic around him. They were chasing him, realizing they had lost him. The men were running, their lights coming for him. He managed to slip inside the next house before they came around the corner.
Again he collected the lanterns, but as he looked at their pitiful size—three of them, barely enough oil to light themselves—he knew he had to get to the storehouse.
People sounded around him, the loud horde unable to conceal itself. Rasmus touched his light blonde hair and looked around. There was not cloak, not even an article of clothing. The hay bed had a quilted blanket atop of it—not something that could disguise him well. For once he wished he didn’t have his mother’s complexion.
This hut had no windows. He could hide here for a while. But that was not sustainable. They would return home, and what’s more, if they got frantic, they might hurt Kaia in hopes… in hopes she’d tell them something, in hopes to draw them out, out of sheer frustration. He didn’t know.
His heart clenched painfully. He swallowed.
Rasmus closed his eyes. Where was the store house? Where was he? He tried to map it out in his head.
The room was dark. So would be the outside world, as long as he could avoid the torchlight.
There were bangs of doors opening and closing in the distance. They hadn’t gotten to his house yet. Upset shouts with orders and accusations. They had started searching the buildings. Rasmus threw the lanterns down on the bed. Cracking his fingers with his thumbs, he took a breath and dove.
Out the door he went, down on all fours. No one was close enough, though the light around the corners was enough to see by—unfortunately. Up on his tiptoes, braced on his fingertips, he scampered to the edge, darting across the street. Rasmus froze as he spied some men in the distance, then realized it was a mistake.
Move, move, move. He had to keep going, no matter what.
Shouts came at his back. Someone had spotted something. They were still not sure of what. He pushed up to two legs, sprinting along, back still crouched, as he aimed towards the far building. It came into sight just as he felt the torches swoop in behind him, following him. He was inside the door before anyone could touch him.
The warehouse had been with crates and barrels. It was autumn, the middle of harvest, the beginning of most trade. How could he find the lantern oil in this mess?
Outside the sounds grew louder, the men more angry.
Even if he created an explosion, a distraction, how would he find his sister? In the mess? In the chaos?
He needed a hostage.
The thought made his stomach twist. Was he really going to threaten some innocent man?
Right outside he heard a slew of swearwords that even Kaia would be impressed by. He scowled.
Well, he wasn’t going to kill him or anything.
Rasmus pressed up against the outside door, ear next to the thin wood. Hearing through the uninsulated wall was not difficult, but his heart pounded blood through his ears, thundering in his mind. His breath hardened as the sounds waxed and waned, yelling fading, footsteps coming closer. People were still ransacking houses, their rampage loud. He only had a little time.
Suddenly, footsteps were close. They headed towards him, targeting his door. The stride become more determined, getting louder and louder in the meshy ground, sticking and cwaking until just outside the warehouse.
Rasmus swung open the door and grabbed.
Kaia yelped in a frustrated manner as her brother attempted to wrestle her to the ground. A face full of blonde hair, he stopped, releasing her when she pulled away. Both fell in an awkward pile.
“Kaia!” he breathed.
“Get off of me,” she said.
Rasmus was on his feet in an instant, dragging his uncoordinated sister into the warehouse while the torchlights glowed around the corner. Once the door was shut, he pulled her into him. She let him hug her for a moment, though her body was obviously tense, irritated. She never liked to be hugged.
“How did you find me?” he whispered.
“Well,” she shrugged, taking a step back. “Last time we had a lynch mob, you tried to blow up half a castle, so I just assumed you’d be in the warehouse.”
He stared at his sister, voice caught, throat aching. Rasmus examined her, looked her over for wounds. “What happened to you? I thought you were attacked.”
“Nah,” she waved him away, obviously trying to shake his severity. “They just lured me out into the woods to keep me away from you.”
He blinked, shook it off, then blinked again.
“Because you’re a blood thirsty murderer,” she explained. “Or something. I told you that sheep girl was a bitch.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said, going for the door.
“They’re not going to let us go that easy.”
She stopped and looked at him. After a moment, she shrugged and went for the barrels. They started to search.
They had lost sight of the flames, but the smoke was still high in the night’s sky.
When they had run back to the main road the peasants followed them like a swarm of bees. Kaia decided they had gone far enough from the houses, hoped the road would protect the trees, then tossed the tins she was carrying. Rasmus took one barrel and dropped it, telling his sister to run. When the men realized what they were doing, they doubled back. Rasmus lit his match and bolted.
They had just barely made it free in time.
People’s focus suddenly changed, and as the villagers swarmed the fire, rushing to the well, Kaia and Rasmus ran for it.
They had made a good distance and now wandered through the dark night, wondering where their next destination would be.
“Someone might get hurt,” Rasmus muttered finally.
Kaia shrugged. “We did what we could.”
“Oil is expensive.”
“They wasted my time. That’s more expensive.”
She grinned at her brother, but his eyes were on her, focused, sad.
“What?” she demanded.
“I would never hurt you.”
“I would never let anyone hurt you.”
She nodded at him, her throat dry. “I know.”
“You are my sister, and I will never let any harm come to you.”
“Good,” she said.
They smiled at each other.
“Just remember that, and that’s it’s not only my fault our stuff is still at the inn.”
Rasmus stopped short, his face bleached. Kaia grinned.
“Goddamn it,” he spat, turning back around.