Crimson Blaze: Retribution

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Chapter 1

Valyrna glanced around at the crowds along the main street. For all the times she’d been on the outskirts of Clorenthia, she couldn’t remember ever setting foot within its walls. Even when she and Alec had hunted Lukiel, they decided not to go inside. They didn’t want to draw attention to themselves when the vampire had more likely gone on the run. Some folks could be wary of strangers, and they figured their hunter’s outfits would stick out among the villagers.

They would have been right. The elf’s high-end clothing clashed with the basic wardrobe of the townsfolk, and she sensed more than a few stares as she passed people. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, however, so she continued to walk until she located what appeared to be a general store.

She stepped into the building to find the place mostly empty. A young woman hovered at the front counter with a cleaning rag in her hand while a slightly older man restocked the shelves behind her. He was clearly busy, so she turned her gaze to the other girl as she made her way inside.

The woman flashed a bright smile. “Hi there! Something we can help you find?”

Valyrna returned the grin as she leaned casually against the counter. “More like someone. You wouldn’t know where I can find a vampire and an ex-hunter in this town, would ya?”

A loud clatter caused both women’s attention to shoot towards the man. It looked like he’d nearly dropped the items in his hands, and his balance on the stool seemed rather precarious. A flush appeared on his face as he regained his bearings.

To Valyrna’s surprise, the other woman simply rolled her eyes and ignored him. Instead of checking on him, she turned back to answer the hunter’s question. “You mean Lukiel and Adonai? They’re just up the street. Illano’s not busy. He can take you.”

Illano. That must have been the klutz on the stool. When she looked at the shopkeeper, she almost giggled at his awkward expression. Who knew the reason for his reaction, but she had to bite her cheek to keep her mirth under control.

The other girl glanced back at him with a raised eyebrow when he didn’t move. “Right?”

He finally responded - albeit clumsily - as he stepped down. “Uh, yeah, no, I’m busy - I mean, not busy, um ... ” His composure somewhat returned after he set everything in his hands on the floor. “I’ll show you in - Uh, to the inn.”

The woman behind the counter snickered.

Illano shot her a glare. “Shut up, Corie.”

Well. She wouldn’t soon forget this first impression.

Corie shook her head with a smirk and chucked the rag at the shopkeeper. It would have gotten him in the face, except that he caught it and dropped it in the bucket. “Smooth, bro,” she teased. “Real smooth.”

He shot her another look on his way to the door. The expression faded to something more reserved as he returned his attention to the elf. “Follow me.”

The hunter bit her lip to hold back the grin that threatened to appear. Interesting though this exchange had been to watch, she had a hunch poor Illano wouldn’t appreciate any further teasing.

* * * * *

Lukiel flashed a bright smile and handed the woman her change. “Thanks so much, ma’am. Be safe on the rest of your journey.”

She offered a sheepish grin of her own in response. “We will. I apologize again for the window.”

“Don’t worry. It happens.”

She glanced around the lobby for her two rambunctious boys. When she saw them sprinting haphazardly about the room, she quickly rounded them up to shepherd them toward the exit. On their way out, she mouthed, “Sorry,” one more time to the vampire.

He barely stifled a laugh. Those kids reminded him of himself and Tajali at that age when his parents attempted to make them behave. Sometimes it worked, but many times it didn’t.

Now that things had gone quiet, he escaped into the office and nudged the door mostly closed. A small stack of papers waited for him on the desk, piled up from no free time to work on it over the past week. He’d have to figure out a more efficient system to keep ahead of it from now on.

Annoying though the workload may have been, he took the pile of parchment to be a good sign. It meant business was steady and the reopening of his parents’ inn had gone well. He still faced a hell of a learning curve in business management, but he thankfully didn’t have to do it alone.

He sat at the desk and sent a scowl at the paperwork for a brief moment. Eventually, he started to sort through it all and got busy enough that he lost track of time. At some point, he came across a list. Throw pillows, mirror in room 132, sheets ... It looked like Lucien’s handwriting, and the boy’s job included checking the rooms for anything that needed to be bought or replaced. This must have been his list for the week.

His attention drifted at the sound of a pounding noise on the opposite side of the building. Adonai must have begun repairs to the broken window soon after the woman and her boys left. He hated to interrupt the phoenix in the middle of a job, but the other man always insisted he take on errands whenever Lukiel had other things to do.

The vampire took a quick minute to somewhat organize the chaos on his desk, and then he headed outside with the list in hand. As he neared the corner of the inn, two other voices mixed with Adonai’s. He paused for a moment to listen.

“Damn. We got double trouble today.”

“Very funny, jackass.” The female voice sounded familiar, but Lukiel couldn’t place it. Whoever it was, she and the phoenix seemed to be poking fun at one another.

“I take it you two know each other?” That was Illano. Quiet and unassuming as always.

Adonai’s response conveyed his smirk even though the vampire couldn’t see it. “Unfortunately, yes. I used to work with her. Taught her everything she knows, so don’t piss her off.”

Wait. Was he talking about ... shoot, what was her name? ... Valyrna? The elf woman with the mini crossbow? Why was she here?

Suddenly on edge, Lukiel hesitated to make his presence known. Though consciously he knew better, he wondered if she intended to take him in for questioning. His gaze dropped to the protection pass on his hand, and he reminded himself that if Adonai didn’t sound concerned, then he had no reason to be, either.

He took a breath to steady his nerves before he stepped around the corner. He tried to act surprised to see Valyrna, but he couldn’t tell if she bought it. “Hey. What are you doing here?”

Her easy smile calmed him down a little bit. “I said I’d swing by to check on you boys, make sure you’re staying out of trouble.”

Oh, right. ... He’d completely forgotten.

The vampire managed a chuckle at her upbeat demeanor, although he didn’t quite know how to approach the hunter. “I didn’t think you’d come around so soon. It’s only been a few months, hasn’t it?”

“I didn’t think so, either. But I finally finished that dumb ass Alec’s training, and I guess Eleya took pity on me,” she said with a laugh. “She gave me some time off, so I figured now was a good time.” Then, as if she could sense his unease, she added, “Just a friendly visit, of course.”

In the short silence that followed, Lukiel sent an inquiring glance towards Adonai. The phoenix caught on and gave a reassuring nod, a clear indication he had nothing to worry about.

Before the vampire could speak again, the shopkeeper interrupted. Poor guy looked uncomfortable and out of place. “I’m, uh, I’ll ... just head back to the shop.”

“Hold up. I’ll go with you.” Adonai set down his tools and stretched. “Gotta grab some things to finish this window.”

That reminded Lukiel why he came out here in the first place. He stepped forward to catch the phoenix by the arm. “Hey, can you pick up this stuff, too?”

Adonai took the list and looked it over. With a smirk, he said, “Jeez. Don’t want much, do ya?”

The vampire returned the gesture and pulled him in for a quick kiss - before he playfully shoved him away. “Get lost,” he teased.

As the other two men wandered off, he caught sight of a small grin on Valyrna’s face. She didn’t say anything, though, and simply waved to Adonai and Illano as they passed her.

Lukiel couldn’t help but smile as well. It felt nice to be fully open about his relationship with the phoenix. Initially, he’d wanted to keep it quiet from the rest of the town, since he didn’t know how they might react to two guys being romantically involved. It slipped out at some point, and surprisingly, no one seemed to care. Or at least, if they did, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

He returned his gaze to Valyrna and shifted into business mode. “Well, uh, welcome to the McNallie Inn. I’m sure you’re tired after your travels.” He motioned for her to follow as he led the way to the front of the building.

The elf woman paused before the entrance to give it a quick once-over. “Spiffy looking place. I didn’t know you ran an inn.”

He smiled as he stepped inside and headed for the front desk. “Actually, it used to be my parents’. The original burned down, and the town came together to build another in its place. So I guess it’s mine now.”

She waited to speak again until the door closed behind her, and her tone became a bit more serious. “I hope that means no one has given you flack about the pass, right?”

Lukiel sighed, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from wandering to the back of his hand again. “Thankfully, no. After they realized I was innocent, they didn’t know how to act around me. But after a while, things seem to have gone back to how they were before my family’s murder.”

Her grin returned, her relief apparent. “That’s good to hear.”

The vampire straightened his posture as he changed the subject. “Okay, so! As far as I’m concerned, you’re an honored guest here, and I refuse to charge you for a room.”

The hunter opened her mouth, likely to object, but then she seemed to change her mind. She shook her head and teased, “Why do I get the feeling arguing with you would be as pointless as arguing with Adonai?”

He smirked. “You’d be right.” He reached into the desk drawer and fished around until he found the key he wanted. As he handed it to Valyrna, he called out loudly to his brother.

Lucien answered from somewhere in the back and appeared a moment later. The boy glanced at the woman only long enough to register her presence before he turned to the vampire. “What’s up?”

“Show our newest guest to her room, and be quick about it.”

The younger brother offered a mock bow and gave his answer with heavy sarcasm. “Yes, boss.”

Lukiel nearly ordered the boy to behave, but he bit his tongue at the last second. Lucien straightened and seemed to take a hint from the vampire’s expression alone, as he regained his manners and guided Valyrna down the hallway.

With the lobby empty again, Lukiel turned to stare through the open back office door. His enthusiasm waned, and a scowl returned to his face. He still had a lot of paperwork to sort through ...

* * * * *

Adonai followed Illano into the shop. He offered a quick wave to Corie, who sat at a side table with their accounting books scattered about, and then he disappeared to the corner where they kept the building supplies.

Almost immediately, he heard the sister begin to tease her brother. “Gee. Didn’t think you’d be back so quick. Figured you’d spend a little more time flirting with your new girlfriend.”

That remark caught his attention, and he peeked around the shelves to watch the rest of the siblings’ spat.

Illano glared at her as he stepped behind the counter to restock. “Watch it, Corie. Maybe I’ll ask the baker’s son to bring by the next delivery. I know he’d love to take a walk with you.”

She scowled. “Go ahead. You can pay for his funeral.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Adonai debated whether he should say anything. The banter made it clear the shopkeeper had developed an interest in the elf woman, but the phoenix also knew Illano didn’t like to be called out. Just the same, he couldn’t resist making just one remark. “Her name’s Valyrna, in case you’re wondering.”

The shopkeeper groaned. “Don’t you start, too.”

Corie broke into a fit of laughter. “I am so putting this in my next letter to Aryea.”

“Don’t you dare tell our sister! I’ll never hear the end of it!”

Adonai couldn’t bite back a snicker, but otherwise, he let the matter drop and returned to his shopping. Illano would get it bad enough from Corie without his help, so he didn’t say any more.

Sure enough, on his way out of the shop, he heard the two at it again. Corie must have been waiting for him to leave before she really started to get on her brother’s case. Poor Illano.

When the phoenix reached the main road, he stopped. He couldn’t quite tell what, but something had caught his attention ... somewhere. He couldn’t even pinpoint if he’d seen it or heard it. His gaze strayed down the street toward the town gates. For a few minutes, he stood still and silent to watch the people who milled about the area.

Whatever he thought he sensed, he couldn’t identify anything or anyone obviously out of place. Old habits, he supposed. Granted, his intuition was usually right, and it served him well in his hunting days. And right now, it told him something was amiss.

But if he couldn’t fish out the source of his suspicion, he couldn’t exactly do anything about it. He could only keep an eye on things and be ready to react.

So for now, Adonai brushed the incident aside and continued towards the inn. He still had a window to repair. Then he’d worry about this weird hunch.

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