The sight of a red cloak would usually have Kaia jumping out of her skin. She remembered her first meeting with a member of the Vampire Hunters vividly; a tall man smashing a cane into her father’s back for selling so-called “snake oil.”
Even though they might have been in the right about her father’s swindling, it had become apparent over her twenty-odd years that while they did save lives and acted as protectors, they were territorial and lashed out against any others who attempted to do their work. She had been a first-hand victim to it many times.
Henrik had been kind though. He had lost his family to a vicious attack of creatures from the Wyrd and so had license and motivation to join the Hunter’s Guild more so than any other man there. These reasons were pure, and upon meeting Rasmus and Kaia on a particularly violent alp hunt, he had been one to defend the siblings and suggested an allowance in catching the creature that left women dead in their sleep, blood leaking from their breasts.
During the last year the siblings had been lingering around his area, the hunter stationed in a larger village to the west of civilization and had encountered him a great deal. It might have been a little much to refer to him as a friend, but Kaia felt some affection for him. He had helped them many times, and they’d even gone so far as to help him too. He believed devoutly in doing what it took to save people, whether that be accepting help from outsiders or telling those outsiders to get the hell out of there before he forcibly removed their snake oil and anything holding on to it.
So sure, they had also had their conflicts, but Kaia always felt like he was just calling them out on their shit.
It was just happenstance they heard word of his funeral. They actually avoided the station where the Vampire’s Guild was located as most weren’t as open to travelers as Henrik.
They got rumor of a Guild member’s funeral when restocking in a nearby village. They had been mostly camping and had only returned for the day. Kaia had never heard of a memorial like this, and while it hadn’t occurred to her before, she supposed she assumed that a lot of members would die a lot and they couldn’t afford to make a big deal out of it. Sure, a family would have their own wake—if the hunter had any family—but the Guild itself? Celebrating its members? Despite everything else, Kaia had been positive they were too self-involved to necessitate a time for mourning.
“They don’t die that often,” Rasmus had insisted.
“Yes they do,” she said. “They must.”
“No. They keep their asses out of it until they have reason to believe they’ll succeed. They’re very precious with their own lives. Plus, they have huge numbers and great resources. They can overkill easily. People only die in that group when they’re being giant idiots.”
“But what if it’s someone we know?”
“I’m sure I won’t be made to care anymore than I do now.”
“What if it’s Henrik?”
But Kaia’s fascination led her onward. She never really believed it would be Henrik—probably an important leader or something. Then she started asking around and her little whimsical paranoia started looking more and more probable. A sinking feeling overcame her, and her curiosity turned to panic. Then someone gave her the name.
She didn’t burst into tears. Not immediately.
The morning of the funeral Kaia had cleaned her face the best she could in the river. She lacked any sort of soap or cloth that wasn’t also covered in dirt from the road, and as she tried to in vain to get a glimpse of her reflection in the sunlight water, tears formed behind her eyes. She was helpless. She didn’t have any black to wear, she couldn’t even get herself presentable to say goodbye to him one last time.
Rasmus walked up and held her. She felt he didn’t really understand.
The station was swarming with red cloaks. Many of the peasants wore red as well. It was not an easily found dye in the area, and so they didn’t have much, most of them just tying bland cloths around their arms or hair. The siblings had absolutely nothing that color, though that didn’t bother Kaia as much as the black. She wasn’t there to celebrate the guild after all.
She had to keep her heart down the entire time. This many Guild Members, all in full uniform, made her nervous.
Why were they going so out for Henrik’s death?
It seemed hunters from all around were coming, not just those already stationed here. The crowd was large and grim, a strange quiet for an open area filled with this many people. The vast market place had its stalls moved or just shut down. The dirt road had barely been worn by foot travel, grass and plants still peeking up in a myriad of places.
The small road between rows of houses funneled into this plaza. Off a little further the whole area opened up to the broad, flat horizon. It would seem desolate normally, but with the bright garments and tall, black hats, colorful banners held up high, it looked like a totally different place than a village so close to the Wyrd.
The doors to the Guild’s hall were, for once, open. Kaia paid no heed to if her brother chose to follow. She entered in, determined, not looking back, not hesitating.
There was a casket, directly in the center of the lobby, where a great, wall-to-wall rug laid intricate across the floor. Clean, off-white walls ran behind giant pillars. Candle sticks had been placed from foot to head of the brown polished resting place. It was closed.
She couldn’t imagine they had spent this much money or time keeping it clean. Not for an outpost here. The siblings had had a hard enough time finding work. While they were a good distance from the city, they were close enough that nothing seemed to be going on. What did the Hunters see here that she didn’t? Why make this so nice?
She approached slowly, carefully. Only a few hunters lingered in the hall, none paying any noticeto her. They chatted appropriately, though still quiet enough that she could hear her blood pumping in her ears.
When she reached the coffin, she touched it, but it didn’t seem to make it any more real. She ran her fingers along it, almost as though Henrik’s spirit would come out to her.
Her mother had died, but she was too young to remember.
Her father had died, but she was too hate-filled to care.
She had never gotten close to anyone, never really stayed around long enough to make a friend. She had never seen someone she’d known die before. A part of her refused to believe it. She had probably misheard, the back of her mind told her. But Kaia knew the best way to deal with painful thoughts was to confront them. The point of a funeral was, in fact, to help survivors come to terms that this person was really gone. Wasn’t it?
Kaia gave a small glance over her shoulder. No one was looking. Her brother hadn’t even bothered to follow her in. Coward.
She ran her hands under the lid. She quickly examined it—had they already nailed it shut? She began to lift. It rose.
“You don’t want to do that.”
Kaia slammed it shut. She spun.
The soft expression on a hard face prevented her from speaking. The older Vampire Hunter kept his distance, hands in large pockets. His dark brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, his features weathered by sun and battle. He was not angry or stern, just tired.
“I need to see,” she managed to say.
Honesty would not have been her first instinct if she had chosen her words.
“I was a friend of his,” she said. “He was always… This is Henrik…?”
He gave one solemn nod, eyes on the ground.
She swallowed, a heavy weight in her chest.
“I just…” She couldn’t finish her sentence.
“I understand,” he said. “But you don’t want to see him like this.”
Her eyes flicked up.
“His body has been through some… hardships.”
“What hardships?” she breathed, then, with more courage, “How did he die?”
The man debated for a moment. He looked to his fellow guild members with a thought. He waved her over.
“Come,” he said.
Normally she would have balked at him leading her into a back room, especially here, but her curiosity made her willing.
The office was much more as she would expect: wooden floors, yes, but ugly and old ones. The walls were some tan stone mushed together with some sort of mortar. It was older, poorly crafted, and much cheaper than the lobby. Of course the Guild’s vanity would have some places presentable for the public, no matter where the station was. This made her more comfortable. She relaxed in the lopsided chair.
He sat across the desk. Clasping his hands in front of him, he stared down at the surface. Kaia let the silence go on. She knew better than to speak first.
“How do you know Henrik?” he asked.
“He saved my life a couple of times,” she said. Probably true, though she tried not to look back and notice how often she almost died. “He was… a real hero. I didn’t know him well…” Kaia was shocked to feel tears welling up. She suddenly couldn’t speak. She changed subjects. “I would just like to know what happened.”
He pulled up higher, readying himself. “He was on a mission.”
She nodded, encouraging.
The man closed his eyes, thinking hard. Then he finally got down to business. “About a month ago, we heard word of a problem in a village far to the west. They had sent for aid several years before in which the church responded. We did not get involved then. It seemed that the aid of the priests there had done the trick.”
She remained still, her voice hushed. “What was going on?”
He debated. “We are not sure. Just some strange activity that apparently made them fearful. They came to the church, however, not us. The church did let us know, but they insisted they could handle it.”
Kaia’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.
“Then, recently, something upset the priests as well. They didn’t say much either, but requested our assistance immediately. We were assured that there was nothing, no creature. They just needed our expertise. Even still, considering the distance and the dangers in even just the journey, we sent our best men. About five of them to scout it out.”
“And they got there, relatively in one piece. When they arrived, the priests told them of strange goings on… odd behaviors and peculiar weather. At first the men claim that there was nothing much of anything happening. Then, one night, Henrik and another went out to scout the area.”
Kaia bit her lip, trying to be patient.
“They knew they were right up to where the Wyrd has been seen. It is said that its boundaries are physically manifested just past the mountains behind that village. You can actually witness the great, gray void. They knew to be careful. But Henrik disappeared.”
“For four days. He had been beside his partner when, all of the sudden, he was gone. They searched for him, but there were no signs, no footprints, no struggle, nothing. Then, when they decided to return, they found him, unconscious, no damage or wound.”
Her mind started whirling. For an insane second, she believed he might be alive. This was all a hoax. He wasn’t in the casket at all…
“They brought him back. He woke a few times, but he wasn’t cognizant, unable to understand where he was and definitely lost on what had happened to him prior. They managed to return swiftly and bring him to the mages and physicians. They didn’t seem to think anything was wrong with him. Trauma, they suppose, accounted for his mind. They believed he had been mentally tortured by some creature. We let him rest here in the guild. He has no family to be sent home to.”
“I know,” she said.
“So we could only hope he would get better.”
“But he didn’t.”
“In the middle of the night, he changed.”
“His face…” The man paused. He shook his head. “His body evolved into something entirely unhuman. He became possessed. He attacked us. He almost killed the man watching over him.”
Her face paled.
“It took many of us to bring him down. We couldn’t calm him, couldn’t put him to sleep. He was resistant to any spells, any drugs. In the end…” He twisted his mouth. He sat back. “I wasn’t there at the time. And I can’t say anymore.”
She nodded, but her face had hardened. Her mind had left, now thinking very hard.
“But you understand why you wouldn’t want to see him.”
She nodded again.
“He died a hero,” he assured her.
She didn’t look at him.
He waited for her to speak, when she didn’t, he finally asked, “Can I answer any other questions?”
Her eyes snapped to his. “What are you planning on doing about this?”
“About these events? Are you going to send more men to determine what is going on?”
“That is none of your business, I’m afraid.”
“I mean, something is happening. The peasants know it, the priests…”
“I am not privy to that information, and it is not for outsiders to discuss.”
“Never is,” she said, standing.
He watched her. She left.
Kaia strode by the casket, eyes locked on the door. The tears in her throat had evaporated with the heat of anger. At least now, she didn’t feel so helpless. At least now there was something she could do about it.