Blood Oath

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It is not long before all of the guards trample down from the hillside castle, sounding their horns and waking the villagers. “What is going on?” the people can be heard shouting as the men round them up in straight lines.

“We’re searching for a bloodsucker,” Token has taken charge of Champaign’s formerly loyal guards.

“A bloodsucker, here?” Several people start to gasp.

Token chooses not to share that the bloodsucker is in fact the daughter of their late lord. Instead he simply describes her appearance. “Have any of you seen a young girl, about the age of ten. She will be extremely pale and dressed in a white nightgown.”

“A child? Are you saying the bloodsucker’s a child?”

“Bloodsuckers are ageless,” Token reminds the villagers. “Even if she looks like a child, she is nothing more than an abomination hiding in the world of men. She has no place here and she will be exterminated. Now, have any of you seen her?”

“Pardon my saying so, captain, but we was all still in bed until the horns sounded,” one of the villagers explains.

“I realize that but the bloodsucker may have come to one of your doors seeking assistance. Isaac, have you had any visitors this night?” Token turns his attention to the tavern keeper.

“Not for the past hour.” He shakes his head. “Even so, I think I’d remember a child.”

“Why don’t we just tell them?” Rahn nudges Token.

The self appointed guard captain rolls his eyes at his watch post partner. He has still not forgiven him for abandoning him at the drawbridge. His hair is still slightly wet from falling into the moat. “People, have any of you seen Guard Captain Champaign this night?” Token shouts.

“Why?” The response he receives is not the blindly obedient one he was hoping for.

“Has she been captured by the bloodsuckers?”

“Bloodsucker; there’s only one of them.”

“I thought he said there were two.”

“He said there was one child.”

“And Captain Champaign is helping him.”

“Is it a him or a her?”

“Enough!” Token bellows at them. “You’re all useless. I'll find the filthy bloodsucker myself.”

“Um, sir.” Rahn taps him again.

“Don’t touch me, you traitor.” He jerks away.

“But sir, I think you should speak to him.” Rahn gestures to an older man at the back of the line of villagers. He has stringy grey hair and a golden tooth. “He’s been staring at his feet this whole time until you mentioned the captain.”

“I see.” Token nods. “Why didn’t I think of this before? Good day to you, Vonrah, or should I say good night.”

“You won't get anything from me,” the old man sputters.

“But I haven’t even asked you anything yet.” Token pretends to pout while actually mocking the old man.

“Who is he?” Rahn is confused.

“This was Captain Champaign’s mentor once,” Token explains. “He and her father were good friends. After his passing, he trained her in the art of sword and leadership.”

“He trained a traitor,” Rahn spits.

“He is a traitor.” Token slaps Vonrah across the face, knocking him to the ground.

“You’d beat an old man to get what you want?” he spits at the guard’s boots.

“It’s not what I want, it’s what Turok wants. Your protégé has put us in an awful situation. I'm afraid the demigod who has graced us with his presence may choose to punish us all for Champaign’s mistake.”

“Ha, what happened to not kneeling to a false god,” Rahn laughs at his partner.

“Will you be silent,” Token hisses at him.

“I haven’t seen Champaign on this night,” Vonrah spouts sternly while standing back up. “I am completely unaware of her betrayal.”

“Nice try, old man.” Token punches him in the stomach this time. Vonrah drops to one knee but does not say anything. “You’re only making this harder on yourself,” Token sighs. Just as he is rearing back to strike again, shouting from the far side of the line of villagers distracts him.

“That’s him.”

“He’s really here.”

“What is a demigod doing in a lord’s domain?”

“He doesn’t fear the lords.”

Soon the villagers fall silent as they watch Turok striding towards them, holding something in his hand. The villagers scream and cringe when they recognize it as their Lady Owleen’s head. “Can you all see it?” he shouts. “Young and vibrant as the day she first set foot in Massmede almost sixty years ago. This is your lady. This is a bloodsucker.” Token groans as he realizes all his work to cover it up has been lost.

“Is he serious? Is that Lady Owleen?”

“She looks so young.”

“That’s just her head. Where’s the rest of her?”

“He killed her.”

“Is he going to kill us now?” The villagers are panicking now.

“Silence!” Token tries to maintain control. “What are you doing here, Turok?”

“I'm looking for my prey,” he answers with a smug grin. There are cuts on his face that weren’t there before and several of his braids have come undone. However these are all minor injuries while Lady Owleen obviously suffered more fatal wounds.

“This is the power of a demigod,” one of the villagers shouts. Soon all of the citizens of Massmede have dropped to their knees, bowing their heads to pray to the god before them.

“Well this is an interesting change of pace,” Turok laughs. As his eyes travel through the line of guards, they too start to kneel before him; all except for Token and Rahn. “Now this is odd.” Turok’s smile fades. “We have ourselves a straggler. Are you still going to defend this bloodsucker?” He tosses Lady Owleen’s head at Token’s feet.

“No.” The self-appointed captain shakes his head. “We were just in the middle of interrogating this man.” He gestures to Vonrah who is still trying to catch his breath.

“Who is this?” Turok’s eyes light up with interest.

“Turok,” Kalina, the sorcerer from the drawbridge, interrupts the demigod. “Turok, he’s fading. I need a healer.” She is supporting Grange on her shoulder though he barely even seems to be alive. His skin is a pasty grey and his mouth is foaming.

“Get him a healer,” Turok orders one of the guards.

“You there.” He points at Mistress Rodeen, the local herbalist. “Help him.”

“I'll do what I can.” The old woman rises to her feet and shuffles over to Kalina and Grange.

“Now, who was this again?” Turok returns his attention to Vonrah and Token.

“This is Champaign’s mentor,” the captain explains quickly. “I have no doubt that he helped her and the young bloodsucker escape.”

“Well that’s no good.” Turok clicks his tongue disappointedly. “What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?” He kneels down in front of Vonrah. His presence is immediately overbearing, like some form of unseen pressure pushing on the old man painfully. He can practically sense the power flowing from the demigod’s body. He is definitely a superior human being.

“Please,” Vonrah snaps under the pressure of looking such a powerful person in the eyes. “Please, I didn’t know she was a bloodsucker. I simply wanted to help my protégé. You have to forgive me.”

“Feeble old man,” Token spits in disgust. Even he had held his ground in front of the demigod before; now it seems no one in Massmede plans to stand against Turok. Why was such a man ever even blessed with the power of the gods? What made him so special?

“What did you do?” Turok demands. “Tell me!”

“I gave them food and water,” Vonrah sputters. “I gave them all my maps and a torch to light their way. They will be sticking to the path until morning for sure; lest they encounter the forest ghouls and become their dinner.”

“You fool.” Turok shouts as he stands up. “Why would a bloodsucker need to fear the ghouls? They could be halfway through the forest by now if the little one has fed off the knight.”

“Why, why would Champaign let her?” Vonrah’s eyes widen in horror. “Who would ever willingly feed one of those things?”

“You’ve seen the abomination’s face; what was your impression of her?” Turok asks calmly.

“She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” Vonrah admits. “I wanted to do anything to help protect her.”

“People of Massmede, listen up,” Turok starts to shout again. “You have all been fooled by this woman and her daughter.” He gestures to the head still lying at Token’s feet. “She is not your lord, she never was. Lord Ironglave is dead. I am now in complete control of your village. If any of you disagree with this statement you may challenge me to combat one on one. Be warned though, I do not spare the folly in my duels.”

None of the villagers speak up against him, not even Token. “That’s good, that’s what I like to hear.” Turok nods to himself with satisfaction. “As for you.” He spins around to face Vonrah again. “You are to be hanged for your crimes against humanity.”

“What? You can't be serious.” His eyes go white in terror. “I didn’t know she was a bloodsucker, you have to believe me. I didn’t know, I didn’t know. At least give me a fair trial.”

“Is judgment by a god not good enough for you?” Turok leers at him. “Are you saying my words pale in comparison to the law? I am your new lord; I need not hold trial. I find you guilty, what say you?” he directs this question at the villagers.

Too fearful to disagree, the villagers erupt in a roar of complacency. Turok nods proudly as they scatter to collect the rope and other equipment necessary for a hanging. Token is glaring at the demigod with absolute distain. There is nothing he can do though.

“Hurry, hurry, Champaign,” Row calls to her guardian as she runs ahead along the path. “It’s almost nightfall. The ghouls will be out soon. We need to make it to the next town.” Champaign is slightly annoyed by the strange little girl trotting ahead of her in her flowing white nightgown. Why should a bloodsucker even be scared of ghouls?

They have been walking nonstop since leaving Massmede early that morning, before the sun had even started to rise. Luckily the majority of their actual journey took place during the daylight. The ghouls are not afraid of sunlight but their hunting patterns seem nocturnal. It is considered a death sentence to travel between towns under the cover of darkness.

“Slow down,” Champaign wheezes as she drags her feet. She is absolutely exhausted. The supplies she acquired from Vonrah barely lasted the day and the wound on her stomach has been threatening to rip open this entire time. She was forced to abandon her heavy armor in its entirety, save for her boots, almost immediately after setting out. If she were attacked by a ghoul at this very moment, she would have nothing with which to defend herself.

“Come on,” Row urges her forward. “We can't be out here when the sun goes down.”

“Aren’t you tired?” Champaign argues. “Couldn’t we rest for a minute or two?”

“I'm not tired.” Row turns around to stare at Champaign with glowing red eyes, made all the more menacing by the setting sun behind her. Champaign jerks her head in shock; she was not prepared for that sight. “You’ve had so much food and water, Champaign,” Row whispers ominously. “Why are you so tired?”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Champaign asks in a shaky voice. She is trying and failing to remain calm. It had not sunk in until now but she is technically alone with a bloodsucker in the forest; a creature who survives by feeding off of human life force.

“I'm a little hungry,” Row admits while licking her lips. Champaign gulps nervously, contemplating what to do. “Don’t worry, I'm not going to eat you,” Row assures her in an unconvincing voice.

“May-maybe you should feed on me a little,” Champaign suggests nervously. She would rather offer herself willingly than have the creature before her attack in a moment of weakness.

“Are you sure?” Row is eyeing her up and down, stopping to gaze at her neck repeatedly.

“Just do it already.” Champaign clenches her eyes shut in anticipation.

“I'm really sorry about this,” Row tries to be polite as she climbs the muscular woman like a tree so she can rest in her arms. “I wouldn’t need to do it if I hadn’t given you so much of my life force back at the drawbridge.”

“Hurry up,” Champaign moans. Row sucks in a small amount of air as she sinks her white fangs into the knight’s neck. Her eyes glow brighter as she absorbs Champaign’s life force. The former guard captain sways from side to side as she slowly starts to lose strength. She is feeling cold again just like when she received her abdominal wound but she has little blood left to bleed as it starts to open again. “Are you done?” she groans as she grows weaker and weaker.

Row barely acknowledges her as she continues to draw strength from the fading knight. “Row, that’s enough,” Champaign wheezes. “You need to stop now.” Again she is ignored. She clenches her fist as tightly as she can and brings it down against the small child’s head, knocking her to the ground with a thud. Instantly she collapses into the dirt of the forest floor, having almost no strength left.

Row stands up slowly, breathing heavily as blood and saliva drip from her mouth. She is glaring menacingly at her reluctant meal. Slowly the glow in her eyes starts to fade though as she returns to her senses. “Champaign,” she rushes to her friend’s aid. “Are you alight?”

“I, I can't feel my legs,” the knight sputters.

“Oh no,” Row moans as she cradles Champaign’s head her in lap. Looking up at the sky she can see the sun disappearing behind the horizon. It will not be long before the forest is overrun by ghouls of all forms and sizes. “What should I do, what should I do?” she starts to chant while rocking back and forth.

“Go,” Champaign urges her. “Run to the next village and don’t look back.”

“I'm not leaving you,” she whines the same way she did when abandoning her mother.

“You are one stubborn little child,” Champaign manages a chuckle.

“I'm seventeen,” Row reminds her.

“You really don’t look it.” Champaign shrugs while closing her eyes.

“Oh come on now, don’t do that.” Row slaps her cheek gently. “You can't sleep here. We need to get going.”

“I can't,” Champaign argues.

“You can and you will,” Row groans while lifting the knight up over her shoulder. With the energy she has just siphoned her strength has increased. Champaign falls quiet though, appearing to have fallen unconscious.

The sounds of different animals calling to each other can be heard throughout the forest now as the sun finally disappears from view. Only a few more moments of twilight remain before darkness is upon them. “No, no, no, not now,” Row groans. She can hear the sounds growing louder all around her. In the distance something large is approaching. “No!” she shouts as a large shadowy figure leaps out from beyond the trees, landing directly in her path.

From its shape she can guess that it was once a wolf, before some other ghoul got a hold of it and drained it of life. Now all that remains is a hollow husk of a formerly majestic creature, which appears to have swollen to at least twice its former size. “Nice doggy,” she mutters to the ghoul while backing away slowly. “Go away now.”

Rather than obeying, it bares its shiny white teeth at her, the only thing about it not completely stained black. The darkness almost seems to have permeated the creature itself. Row takes another step back as the creature continues to advance towards her. It seems to relish in her fear, taking its time rather than simply pouncing on her.

It soon grows tired of toying with her though. Just as she is about to break for the side of the path it leaps at her, springing itself forward with its powerful back legs. She screams as she is sent tumbling head over heels by the sheer force of the creature landing next to her. Champaign rolls to a stop at the base of a tree, still completely unconscious.

The wolf ignores the knight for the bloodsucker though. It wants to incapacitate both of its meals before eating them. Row has just stood up again when the creature swipes at her chest, tearing her white nightgown and gouging a large chunk out of the tree next to her. Unlike with a human, the wound she receives is far from fatal for a bloodsucker, especially one that has just fed. She manages to stand up again while wincing in pain.

The creature is obviously surprised by her resilience but it has not given up. It bears down on her, teeth and all. Row raises her hands defensively, only to have the creature snap its gigantic jaws shut on her forearms. Again she screams as it lifts her off her feet, slamming her against a nearby tree in an attempt to rip her limbs off. Again she is stronger than a human though and practically unharmed, something that enrages the creature.

It throws its head back, tossing her into the air and opening its mouth wide in preparation to swallow her whole. She is already hoarse from screaming but that doesn’t stop her. Falling toward the creature’s gigantic jaws, its expanding throat is all she can see. As soon as she lands in its mouth, it snaps its lips shut. The walls of its throat close in around her, trying to push her down toward its stomach.

Instinctively, she digs her fingernails into the fleshy walls, gouging them terribly. The creature opens its mouth again, roaring in pain. Unlike a human’s fingernails, Row’s resemble steel. It seems her recent meal has strengthened them as well. Row lands on the ground at the creature’s feet along with a splatter of blood as it tries to cleanse itself by spitting. Despite being internally injured, it is still standing.

Row leaps to her feet just in time to avoid its fearsome claws slashing the forest floor where she was. It is not stupid enough to try swallowing her whole again; it plans to kill her first now. Row’s eyes glow brighter as she starts to rely on her instincts more. She somersaults backwards away from the creature as it continuously tries to flatten or shred her with its paws.

Eventually she runs out of room to move though, accidentally slamming herself against a tree directly behind her. The creature wastes no time pinning her to the tree by stabbing its claws through her stomach. She spits out of mouthful of blood before clenching her jaw in determination. She is almost completely feral by now, relying on her animalistic instincts to keep her alive.

The creature squeals in pain as she sinks her fangs into its paw, biting off several chunks of flesh in the process. It tries to rear back but she will not let it. She flips her head, flinging it upward against the tree behind her, the same way it did to her when it bit her arms. It is a magnificent sight, considering the fact that the creature is large enough to swallow her whole. It whimpers in pain one last time before slamming down into the ground and falling silent.

Row drops to her knees while spitting out blood and flesh. She does not enjoy the taste of wolf ghoul at all. She is breathing heavily while trying not to gag. Her right ear twitches on instinct though as she notices another sound nearby. She turns her glowing eyes upon the source with the intention of tearing whatever it is to shreds. She stops herself though when she realizes that it is human.

“Oh dear god, are you alright, little girl?” a rather skinny man in a thick brown long coat asks while eyeing her up and down. “Are you bleeding?” He can see the red liquid dripping from her mouth. He seems completely unaware of the black creature at her feet though. The lantern in his hand is barely enough to light up her face.

“Who are you?” she growls at him.

“I'm a simple traveler on my way to Bos Stad,” he answers quickly.

“Liar,” she spits at him. “No one travels the forest alone at night.”

“What about you?” he counters.

“We were caught out here unprepared,” she admits while rising to her feet. Her eyes are glowing less now as her feral instincts are subsiding.

“We?” he is slightly confused. “Are you not alone?”

Row glances around quickly for any sign of her companion. “Champaign?” she calls to her loyal guard as she rushes to find her. The fight with the wolf ghoul left her disoriented and unaware of her location in the forest. It seems she is not far from where she dropped Champaign though.

“Oh no, is she hurt?” the strange man is immediately concerned when he notices the unconscious knight at the base of a slope in the forest floor, where she rolled after being dropped.

“Do you know medicine?” Row asks while kneeling down to check Champaign’s pulse, which is weak but present.

“I'm no healer but I do have some herbs with me.” He reaches into his side satchel. “I never go on a journey without something useful.”

“Why are you even out here by yourself?” Row is starting to grow suspicious again.

“As I said, I'm on my way back to Bos Stad,” he answers while rubbing some crumpled plants into Champaign’s wounds.

“Shouldn’t you have waited until daylight though?” Row pries.

“It makes no difference to me. I have made this journey many times before,” he assures her.

“I don’t believe you. Without a caravan to barrel past these horrid creatures you’d be torn limb from limb as soon as you set out.”

“Who said I didn’t have one?” the man responds smugly. “It’s just beyond those trees over there.”

“You have means of travel?” Row’s suspicions melt into relief instantly. “Might we ride with you? It doesn’t matter where you are going. Bos Stad is fine. Anywhere is fine.”

“I suppose I can't simply leave you out here to fend for yourselves, can I?” He gives the idea more thought than he should. “Fine, you two are welcome to ride with me until we reach Bos Stad.”

“Really, thank you, thank you, thank you.” She leaps up to hug him around the neck.

“Alright, settle down, little one, you’re getting blood on me.” He pushes her away. She grabs the sides of her torn nightgown and folds it over itself to hide the wounds on her torso. They are slowly starting to heal themselves and she doesn’t want him to realize she is a bloodsucker. He is already suspicious of the blood now drying to her face and chin. “Are you seriously okay?” He touches her mouth.

“It’s my own blood,” she lies outright while trying to wipe it off. An internal wound like Champaign’s is more than enough to make her spit up blood so it should not be too suspicious if Row claims to have a similar injury.

“She’s fading fast,” the stranger returns his attention to Champaign rather than continuing to worry about the odd child. “I'll carry her to my carriage.”

“Thank you again, kind sir.” Row bows politely. She has not had many encounters with humans and none outside of her castle. This is in fact the first time she has ever left the confines of its walls.

“What is your name, little one?” the man asks as he hoists Champaign up over his shoulder.

Row considers lying to him for a moment but it seems to serve no purpose. While her mother’s name would definitely draw suspicion from anyone in league with Turok, no one at all should know hers. “Row, Rowleen,” she answers weakly. “Row for short.”

“That’s an interesting name, isn’t it?” The man nods in approval. “My name is Cabith, and this must be Champaign.”

“How did you…?” Row’s eyes widen in surprise.

“You were calling for her when she was lost,” he explains. “I must say, I'm confused about something. Your wounds are obviously from a ghoul, but this one on her stomach looks like that of an exceptionally sharp blade.”

“How can you tell?” Row’s eyes narrow.

“Ah, we’re here,” he announces as they break away from the trees into a small clearing.

Row glances around with her nocturnal eyes, taking in her surroundings as if it were daylight. She can see a single brown horse tethered to a sturdy tree with an enclosed black cart behind it. “How do you know what a blade wound looks like?” she repeats her question as soon as she is done looking around.

“I'm a trader of many things, including weapons meant for killing,” he explains while carrying Champaign into the clearing. “In order to sell them I often have to let my buyers try them out first. I have seen many a tree slain by the sharpest edge on a butterfly axe. Your friend looks to have barely survived her encounter with one. If I didn’t know better I would say it was an Arma.”

“A what?” Row’s eyes widen again as Cabith opens the side of his carriage to load Champaign’s body. She has heard her mother say the word before.

“Armas are dangerous weapons forged by elite masters. They were gifted to the hundred demigods when they first rose to power over two centuries ago. I have never seen one in person but I hear they never dull. They are almost alive with the power of the demigod that holds it. Of course there are only nine demigods left, if even that. It is much harder to keep track of them now and it would not surprise me if at least a few of them have perished since the last time they were all in one place.”

“What if someone took the demigod’s weapon?” Row suggests. “Would they be able to wield it?”

“It is not impossible for others to hold an Arma, child,” the man answers with a smile. “It would simply require the same amount of upkeep as any normal weapon. Without the demigod’s power to imbue it, it would not remain as ageless and indestructible as them.”

“I see,” Row mutters to herself as she climbs up into the carriage beside her guardian. The howling of ghouls in the distance startles her though. “We should go,” she moans.

“Do not worry, little one.” He flashes her a prideful grin. “This is a safe area from ghouls. Apparently a great battle took place here once before. Several of the creatures were slain and the ground soaked in their blood. Whether out of respect for their dead or simply due to an unbearable scent of death, they no longer brave this clearing. That is why I left my horse unattended here. I knew it would not be attacked.”

Row nods slowly as Cabith unties his horse from the tree and climbs into the carriage beside her. She is not sure why but being around this human is more unnerving than with Champaign. His knowledge of the forest far outweighs hers, making her feel weak and helpless. Her mother’s attempt to protect her by secluding her in the castle has backfired. She is now practically alone in a world that wants nothing more than to kill her with no knowledge of how to survive.

Cabith flashes her another smile as he cracks his reins, startling his horse into a trot back towards the path. It is too slow for him though. He cracks them harder and harder until the horse is sprinting, causing the carriage to shake violently. Row can hear Champaign moaning as her head jostles from side to side. “What are you doing?” she shouts at Cabith.

“If we want to avoid becoming dinner for those foul creatures, we must be able to outrun them,” he explains. “They could not smell us in the clearing but they will definitely have heard us leaving. Ah, here they are now.” He gestures to a group of black creatures now visible in the lamp light, running along side the carriage, whipping through the trees, waiting for the chance to strike.

“We won’t make it!” Row cries. “They’re too fast.” Unlike Cabith who can only see the shadows moving, she can make out each one’s shape. There are five of them; two more wolves and three of what appear to be wild boars. They are all as black as night with dripping white teeth though, no longer normal creatures, only husks remain. They have one simple drive, to devour anything living apart from each other.

“We’ll make it,” Cabith does not share her concerns. “I know all their tricks. If you want to survive long in the forest, then stick with me.” He cracks the reins again, causing his horse to veer off away from the trees. One of the boars makes the mistake of leaping onto the path, thinking its meal is about to escape.

Cabith pulls hard on his reins, telling his horse to stop. The boar behind them is running too fast and ends up slamming into the back of the carriage, hard enough to knock itself unconscious. Row screams as she is bounced from her seat. Cabith catches her with one hand and pushes her back in. “Keep an eye on your friend,” he orders. “She isn’t looking too well.”

Row peeks out of the carriage again just as the other four ghouls make the choice to leave the cover of the trees to attack. With the horse still trying to pick up speed again they are sitting ducks. Cabith is prepared though. He pulls a long whip out from under the seat of the carriage and cracks it against the horse’s back. The terrified beast springs to life again, galloping forward and leaving three of the four ghouls behind.

The final one is a wolf, something that scares Row greatly. She starts to imagine what will happen if it catches up to them and manages to detach the carriage from the horse. She will no doubt be required to fight it like the last one and she is not sure she could beat it this time. Even if she could it would mean revealing herself to Cabith, something that would definitely not end well.

“Come on you black devil!” Cabith shouts as he swings his whip outward, catching the wolf around the neck and yanking it off its feet. He is not strong enough to keep the handle from ripping out of his grasp though. The wolf is left tumbling in the dirt of the path behind them, tangling itself in the black whip mercilessly. It will be a while before it is able to free itself, if it ever recovers enough to do so at all. “Haha, did you see that?” Cabith laughs enthusiastically. “Teach those creatures to mess with me.”

Row sighs with relief as she leans back in her seat, resting her head against Champaign’s shoulder. She is desperately overjoyed at not having to fight another ghoul. Her calm quickly fades as she realizes that Champaign’s breathing has slowed. She can not even feel her pulse at all. Her head starts to spin as she contemplates what to do. The simplest option would be to ask Cabith for help but she does not want to distract him. There is no doubt in her mind that they have not faced the last of the ghouls they will see tonight.

The only thing she can think to do is to return some of the life force she stole from her earlier. It will mean weakening herself but she doesn’t have any other option. Cabith seems too focused on the path ahead of him to notice as Row leans her head down against Champaign’s neck. Once again the knight moans in pain as the bloodsucker’s fangs enter her. This time it is for her own good though.

“Row, don’t leave me,” Champaign is mumbling in her sleep by the time Cabith brings his carriage to a stop just in front of the wooden gates that bar entry to the town of Bos Stad.

“Who goes there?” a guard in chain mail calls down from a watch tower above.

“Oh, no one but little ol’ me,” Cabith waves to him.

“What are ye doin’ out past dark, Cabith?” the man is not amused.

“I had a business transaction that ran long,” he makes an excuse. Row has no way of knowing if he is lying or not.

The guard grumbles in annoyance as he turns a crank to open the wooden gates just enough to allow them through. “Some day you’re going to die out there.”

“He’s right, you know,” Row sides with him. “You are far too reckless.”

“Says the little girl who was going to die if I hadn’t come along,” Cabith counters.

“I'm not little.” Row crosses her arms and puffs out her cheeks to pout.

“Alright, where is the healer?” Cabith is no longer paying attention to her. He pulls on his reins again, stopping the cart in front of a blue tent set up next to a rickety looking tavern.

“Where is this?” Row asks as he climbs down from the carriage before pulling Champaign out after him.

“Oh, Rederick,” Cabith calls into the tent. “I have business for you.”

“What? Who?” a sleepy voice responds. Slowly a man in a bright robe emerges from the blue tent. “What hour is it?” he asks while rubbing his eyes.

“It’s just past midnight,” Cabith answers. “Now wake up, I have a patient for you.”

“Goddamn it, Cabith, have you no sense of night and day?” Rederick snaps at him.

“This can not wait.” Cabith clasps the man’s shoulder tightly to convey seriousness. “This young woman is fading and I’ve done all I can.”

“Let me have a look at her.” Rederick tugs his arm away from Cabith while pulling a pair of glasses out of his sleeve. He has the merchant drag Champaign underneath a streetlamp in order to get a better view of her wounds. He almost yelps while jumping back in shock at the sight of her neck. “Dear god, she looks like she was fed on by a bloodsucker.”

“Forget that, she’s got a giant gaping hole in her stomach,” Cabith redirects his attention.

“What? Oh yes, oh dear.” Rederick clicks his tongue. “I must say I'm surprised she’s still alive.” Row tries to hide a guilty expression. She knows full well her guardian would have perished had she not embellished her with life force throughout their journey.

“Just tell me what you can do,” Cabith is growing impatient with the healer.

“I'm not sure what the point would be.” Rederick shrugs. “She seems stable for now. As long as I close up this wound she should make a full recovery eventually.”

“Then what are you waiting for, man?” Cabith claps his hands.

“Hold on, hold on,” Rederick grumbles as he returns to his tent. A moment later he reemerges with several different plants underarm. Row and Cabith watch as he breaks them up and mashes them together with a mortar and pedestal. He applies the thick green mush to the wound on Champaign’s stomach before wrapping a white bandage around her torso.

“Is she gonna be aright?” Row asks hopefully.

“She should be.” Rederick nods. “In fact, the stinging from those herbs should be waking her up pretty soon.”

As if on cue, Champaign jerks up into a sitting position. She lurches forward while groaning in pain. “Where am I?” she demands. “Row, who are these people?”

“It’s okay, Champaign, they’re here to help you,” Row assures her.

“Really?” The knight glances at the two men skeptically. After having her entire guard squad betray her it is hard to trust strangers.

“Merchant Cabith, at your service.” Cabith bows to her. “I found you and your daughter stranded in the forest.”

“Daughter?” Champaign glances at Row. “Oh yes, my daughter.”

“I must say I'm surprised. It was extremely unwise of you to attempt to brave the forest on your own at, especially with such a young child to look after.”

“Hey!” Row is not happy about being referred to as a child. Cabith averts his eyes. Despite the fact that he has been speaking to her as an equal this entire time, he still believes that she is no more than ten years in age.

Champaign does not want to rouse suspicions by arguing with him. “Thank you for rescuing us.” She lowers her head to convey gratitude. “I wouldn’t have taken my daughter out into the forest if I had a choice.”

“So what are you, some kind of knight?” Cabith eyes her up and down. “Are you on some kind of quest right now?”

“Knight? Who said I was a knight? I'm not a knight,” Champaign starts to stutter. The last thing she wants is for anyone to know who she really is.

“Okay, easy now,” Cabith tries to calm her. “I just assumed so because of those boots.” He points down at her feet which are the only parts of her still clad in armor.

“Oh these?” Champaign scoffs. “I made these myself. I work with metal, I mean I'm a metal worker, I mean I'm a blacksmith,” Champaign rushes to come up with a believable lie.

“Really now; a blacksmith?” Cabith’s interest is piqued. “We in Bos Stad have been without a blacksmith for some time. Perhaps you would consider taking up the position.”

“Who me?” Champaign is caught off guard.

“When the blacksmith died, he left no one to inherit his workshop. It is completely abandoned. I'm sure if you talked to the town council they would agree to let you move in. Are you looking for a place to live?”

“Actually, yes.” Champaign’s eyes light up. She can hardly believe her luck. Of course she doesn’t know the first thing about metal work, save for what work she saw the castle blacksmiths do whenever she requested new armor for herself and her men.

“Wonderful.” Cabith claps again. “You can set up trade with everyone in Bos Stad and the neighboring villages. I can be your liaison, for a small brokerage fee of course,” he adds after a moment.

“Always thinking with your coin purse, Cabith.” Rederick shakes his head disappointedly. “Speaking of which, who is going to pay for my services? It cost double after dark.”

“I'll assume you have no money.” Cabith grins slyly at Champaign.

“No.” She shakes her head. As Vonrah is long retired he no longer makes any money at all and was unable to give them anything. He lives purely off of supplies shared from the castle as gratitude for his many years of service. At least he did until, unbeknownst to Champaign, he was hanged at dawn for treason against humanity in the form of aiding the escape of a bloodsucker. It is surely the same punishment she will face if ever returns to Massmede.

“Let me pay for this then,” Cabith offers proudly. “Take it as a good sign of our future business together.”

“You still have to approve your little venture with the town council,” Rederick reminds him as he accepts his pay.

“Town council?” Champaign raises an eyebrow. “Isn't Bos Stad under the rule of a governing lord?”

“Milady, Bos Stad is in the middle of nowhere,” Cabith chuckles. “It is nothing but a stopping point on one’s journey. Certainly nothing a lord should consider fighting for. Imagine if Lord Ironglave or Lord Glasstien took control of the only source of rest between their two territories? They could unfairly tax travelers and force them to brave the forest at night simply to avoid paying tolls. Is that what you want? No, we do well governing ourselves here.”

“I never thought about it like that,” Champaign admits. She has lived her whole life under the rule of Lord Ironglave, and Lady Owleen after his passing. Being taxed was simply a part of life. “Surely your town council taxes you,” she surmises.

“There are five members and they each hold a position in prestigious families in the area. They have nothing to gain by raising taxes unfairly,” Cabith assures her.

“Well, good for them. If you don’t mind I'll be turning in now, thank you very much,” Rederick yawns before retreating back to his tent.

“Is he really allowed to live there?” Row is curious.

“He pays rent to the tavern owner,” Cabith explains. “There is a medicine tent set up on the other side of town for locals to visit but Rederick is the man you want to see if you’re from out of town. The ladies at the medicine tent will treat you well in exchange for favors from your family and businesses. Rederick charges a straight fee which is better for people not planning on staying in town long.”

“What do you mean family and business?” Row continues her questions.

“For example they might have your mother fix something metal of theirs in exchange for a discount,” Cabith answers. “I might deliver things to the next town for them for free. It all depends on what you and your relatives do for a living.”

“This seems like a very interesting place,” Champaign sighs.

“Interesting?” Cabith raises an eyebrow. “Not good, not bad, just interesting?”

“That’s what I said.” Champaign nods. “I haven’t been here long enough to know if it is good or bad. I'll give you my honest opinion on that later.”

“I'll look forward to it, milady.” Cabith tips his hat. “Do you ladies have a place to stay the night? I'm sorry but you won't be able to talk to the town council about moving into the blacksmith shop until the morrow.”

“I suppose our fair merchant has some idea where we can stay.” Champaign rolls her eyes. Despite how helpful he appears to be she is overly suspicious of Cabith. He seems far too friendly to a pair of strangers he met in the woods. Of course the people of Bos Stad might simply be that friendly. Once again the betrayal of her guards has made it difficult on Champaign to trust anyone.

“I do have a suggestion,” Cabith responds with a smile. “I could pay for one night at the inn and you could offer me a permanent discount on all metalwork in the future. You two can share a single bed tonight, can't you?”

“Discounted metalwork for life?” Champaign’s eyes widen. “Are you serious?” She has not even acquired the position of blacksmith yet but she knows better than to promise him anything so vague. He could purchase items adding up to a lot more than a night at the inn. “How about I just pay you back what a night costs with a little interest,” she offers him while crossing her arms angrily.

“See here milady, I’ve already paid for your herbal treatment out of the good of my heart. I'm simply trying to come out of this with my money well spent, is that so bad?”

“I don’t take kindly to being swindled, Mr. Cabith,” Champaign responds hotly. “I’d rather sleep outside on the dirt than make a bargain like that.”

“On a cold night like this?” Cabith scoffs. “Are you willing to subject your daughter to such dismal conditions? Then again I did find you traveling at night in the woods. Your lack of concern for your child shouldn’t surprise me, should it? Influenza could kill a child of her age though.”

“I’ve heard quite enough, Mr. Cabith. I shall endeavor to repay your kindness eventually but I shall be accepting no more of it. Good day to you, and good night.” Champaign drags Row away from the streetlamp by the arm. Cabith shakes his head disappointedly at them as they disappear into the night.

“Was that really okay?” Row asks with a hint of concern in her voice.

“You’re a bloodsucker; you can't die of influenza, can you?” Champaign grumbles.

“No, but I'm more worried about you,” Row admits.

“I'll be fine,” Champaign assures her. “I was trained for endurance. Guards are taught to stand their posts through rain or snow.”

“Even with a hole in your stomach?” Row reminds her.

“Oh.” Champaign’s confidence drains away. “Well it’s too late now anyway. I’ve already made up my mind, we’re sleeping outside.”

“If you say so,” Row remains skeptical. She can't really argue though. It will not change the fact that they are too broke to afford a room at the inn. Besides, after the day they have had, sleeping outside should be the least of their worries.
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