The Hanging Tree
“How much farther?” Minto whines for the twentieth time.
“The coach took us all the way to the border of the Sliverbane and Goldfrey territories; that’s all we could have asked for. Palinthia is all the way down at the south border, at least a three day journey,” Nuve explains.
“And it’s already been two days,” Minto continues to whine. “Will we at least arrive by nightfall? I want to take a bath at an inn instead of in a river.”
“For someone who grew up on the streets, you’re pretty needy,” Seamus retorts.
“For your information, I didn’t live on the streets. A good portion of the children willing to even approach me lived on the streets. My mother owned and operated a pottery shop.”
“Awe, that sounds magnificent,” Row coos. “I bet her creations were beautiful and stunning.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Minto shrugs.
“Oh.” Row immediately regrets opening her mouth. Again Minto’s plain reaction makes it impossible to tell if she is upset or not.
“These two women couldn’t possibly be more different.” Nuve shakes his head at them.
“Well one of us is a life force devouring monster, if that makes a difference,” Minto spouts.
“You should have more respect for yourself,” Seamus responds immediately. Row has to cover her mouth to keep from laughing. As a bloodsucker with a limited understanding of human emotion Minto’s opinion of her does not bother her much at all; it is still amusing to listen to Seamus turning her insults against her though.
“I guess I deserved that,” Minto sighs. “Alright, I think it’s been long enough since I asked this; how much further, ghoul hunter?”
“None,” he answers instantly.
“Huh?” she is caught off guard. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Nope. As all of us with eyes can see, we have arrived at Palinthia,” Nuve decides to join Seamus in mocking her.
“Is he lying?” The blind girl has no choice but to ask the very person she just insulted.
“No, we’re here,” Row assures her.
“And it’s not dark yet?” Minto asks hopefully.
“What does it matter to you? Just pretend it’s still daylight out,” Nuve does not let up. Minto lets out a long sigh while continuing to walk alongside Row, using the sound of her footsteps to direct herself. She is tired and does not want to encourage Nuve.
Row is once again glancing around at her surroundings like an excited child. The moment she first enters upon an area she has never been before is her favorite. She likes to compare it to everywhere else she has ever been while hoping it is somehow different and better and knowing it will ultimately turn out to be exactly the same.
Palinthia looks more like an encampment than an actual town. The roads are actually still covered in grass with slightly worn patches to mark where people normally walk. Rickety shacks and booths line each pathway with dozens of people chattering amongst each other about everything from travelers to the price of freshly churned butter. As the group of four passes each stall though, the voices fall eerily silent.
Seamus is walking with a hunched posture, eyeing each onlooker suspiciously while flexing his right hand with Arma Scov wrapped around his wrist. He is almost certain the people can not tell that Row is a bloodsucker but something else is making them uneasy.
With a little help from Arma Venture, still hidden inside his head, he manages to read a few of the strangers’ minds. As he suspected, all of them are thinking about the new visitors. With too many to differentiate between, he is only able to gleam the gist of what they are all thinking. The majority of them are terrified because the son of a man named Lucious has just returned after several years and will most definitely bring misfortune upon the town.
“Excuse me.” Minto grabs a random stranger by the arm. “Can you point us in the direction of the inn?” She seems completely unaware of the gloomy atmosphere they are creating; either that or she simply does not care.
“Inn?” The young man gives her an inquisitive look before he realizes that she is blind. “Oh, you’ll not find much in the form of cozy hospitality here, ma’am,” he warns her while tipping his hat, knowing full well she can not see him. “Best kind of visitors we get are merely passing through. Worst kind are the unlucky soon to be dead folk.” He gestures to a paddy wagon with bars covering the only visible openings. The action is meant for her companions’ benefit, not hers.
“And what category do we fall into?” Minto asks with a frown. Though she can not see the actual paddy wagon she can recall what Nuve said about most criminals in Lord Goldfrey’s territory being transported to Palinthia before being hung from a gigantic willow at the edge of the town.
Row has already spotted the massive tree and is now staring at it with sparkling eyes. Despite knowing its exact purpose she can't help but be impressed with its size and appearance. There are over a dozen separate nooses hanging from its strong branches, some with bodies still swinging in them. It seems that each person hung from the deathly tree is provided with a unique rope, meaning the number of people killed here could be estimated, if one were to count each individual noose.
“You like that, do ya?” The man smirks at Row, earning a scowl from Seamus. “It’s not unheard of; some people are fascinated with this sort of thing. Apparently the demigods Maumolla and Genlock came here once just to see our distasteful little attraction. If you ask me those two have something crooked in the brain. I wonder if it’s possible for a demigod to actually enjoy the sight of death.”
“It’s actually quite probable,” Seamus mutters without tearing his eyes off of the massive willow. “Demigods live for hundreds of years. After a while, mundane things cease to fascinate them. They are left with an urge to explore less routine means of entertainment. Trust me, some of Maumolla’s and Lodar’s experiments were quite sickening.”
“You sound like a demigod enthusiast if I ever saw one,” the man laughs. “My name’s Jeric, by the way. Have I got an opportunity for you; how would you like to actually meet one of the nine?”
“Right now?” Minto cocks her head. “So it’s true; one of the nine is actually in Palinthia.”
“He’s been here for about a week,” Jeric informs her, “summoned by special request from Lord Goldfrey himself.”
“Is Lord Goldfrey here too?” Minto asks in a curious voice.
“Don’t be daft,” Nuve scoffs.
“I'm afraid your friend’s right, milady. Lord Goldfrey would never sully his hands with the likes of this atrocious place. He needs it for only one purpose; the threat of eternal torment at the hands of the hanging tree.”
“Why the need to eternally torment criminals once they’re dead?” Row is equally as curious as Minto.
“To deter other criminals, of course,” Jeric answers as if it should have been obvious.
“But something’s wrong.” Nuve is now staring at the gigantic willow with wide eyes.
“Oh, you’ve noticed it, have you?” Jeric takes a similar stance next to him.
“What? What is it?” Row bounces on her heels impatiently. “All I see are ropes and dead bodies.”
“What kind of bodies?” Nuve asks in a stern voice.
“Well…” Row squints at the swinging corpses, seven in total. “Wait a moment, are these all criminals?”
“Why? What do they look like?” Minto tugs on Row’s sleeve.
“Well, there are three men, two women and two…” Row’s voice trails off.
“Two what? Two what?” Minto is almost tearing Row’s shirt.
“Two children,” Row answers with a gulp.
“Huh?” Minto releases the bloodsucker’s blouse. “You execute children here?”
“No,” Nuve answers before Jeric can. “Even if a child committed a crime punishable by death, they would not be sentenced to the eternal torment of the hanging tree. These people weren’t hung for being criminals. Why were they killed?” He grabs Jeric by the collar.
“The tree did it,” he answers in a faraway voice, startling Nuve into releasing him.
“You can't be serious,” Minto almost laughs.
“What do you mean the tree did it?” Nuve demands.
“It just… did.” Jeric shrugs. “It began happening about a month ago. Every few nights, new bodies have been strung up from the tree. Some people claim the left over nooses have been slithering into people’s homes and dragging them up into the tree. If you look there, you can see that Penigog is actually hanging by his ankles. It don’t make no difference though; he’s long dead by now.”
“What have you been doing to stop it?” Nuve grabs and shakes Jeric again.
“What do you want us to do? We’ve been feeding it criminals as fast as we can. That’s the only thing that seems to keep it satisfied.” He gestures to the paddy wagon once again. “If we don’t feed it enough though it still takes the innocent.”
“I can't believe this.” Nuve runs his hands through his messy red hair while backing away from Jeric.
“You sure seem to know an awful lot about Palinthia, stranger.” Jeric’s eyes narrow. “Have we met before? Are you from around here?”
“No,” Nuve answers almost too quickly.
“Dang it, you look just like a face I’ve see around; maybe on one of those old posters by the pub. You know, the ones that warn you who’s been turned into a ghoul recently so you don’t get eaten by your old friend by mistake. Yeah, that’s it. You look just like that Lucious fellow. You wouldn’t happen to be named Corwin, would you?”
“I said I don’t know you, now leave me alone.” Nuve turns around to hide his face.
“Alright, alright, everybody’s got their secrets.” Jeric raises his hands to signify giving up. For some reason his overly helpful demeanor bothers Seamus. He seems to be able to sense this as his focus quickly shifts from Nuve to him. “Well, did you want to meet the demigod or what? He’s over by the acreage where travelers set up camp. It’s the closest thing to an inn if that answers your question, ma’am.” He bows to Minto, again fully aware that she can not see him.
“Will there at least be a bath?” she asks hopefully.
“There’s a river for washing clothes,” Jeric offers with a shrug before turning around to lead them.
“I hate this place already.” Minto moans as she saunters after Jeric.
“You’re not alone,” Nuve agrees with her.
“Aren't you from here though?” Minto is confused. Seamus taps her on the shoulder and presses his finger to her lips when she turns her head to face him. She quickly realizes that she should not mention Nuve’s connection to Palinthia again.
“Ah, here we are.” Jeric stops when they reach a clearing in the booths. Several tents have been set up in circles with campfires in the center and people standing around chatting with each other.
“This doesn’t seem so bad,” Row is actually intrigued.
“What? What is it?” Minto grabs her sleeve again.
“Am I your keeper now?” Row is slightly disturbed.
“Nuve’s in a bad mood.” Minto pouts at her.
“You two normally get along quite well, don’t you?” Row pats her shoulder.
“Who gets along with that pompous windbag?” Minto crosses her arms. Row jerks back in surprise. She knows that Minto likes to pretend she is not friendly with any of the other members in their group but she had assumed she would at least admit to liking Nuve.
“You guys are really funny,” Jeric snickers.
“Who asked you?” Minto snaps at him.
“Um, technically you did,” Seamus reminds her. “We’re sorry to have bothered you, sir.” He bows to the stranger politely.
“Oh, it’s no trouble. It’s always interesting to meet the new people in town. As you can imagine, the atmosphere is normally quite bleak.”
“Listen up, you vagabonds!” a sudden loud voice emanates from the center of the encampment. “I am the demigod Kifflan. Many of you may have heard of the goings on related to the famed hanging tree of Palinthia. I have been called upon to discover the reason for its unrest.”
“So that’s Kifflan,” Seamus mutters while trying to see through the crowd of people all gathering around the center campfire now. From a distance he appears to be of average height, unlike the exceptionally tall Turok or Brand, or the exceptionally short Maumolla; the original Maumolla. His hair is almost shoulder length, black yet dusty. His face is bright as if he almost never sees actual sunlight and he has no facial hair to speak of. He also has two distinct lines running down his cheeks that may actually be scars.
“Isn't it amazing?” Jeric’s eyes are gleaming. “This is what it’s like to be in the presence of one of the nine.”
“Well this is a welcome exchange from how I normally meet them,” Seamus grumbles to himself, earning a punch to the arm from Row.
“What is he doing shouting at a crowd of travelers though?” Minto asks.
“If you all would shut up, we could listen,” Nuve snaps at her. Obediently she falls silent as all five of them crane their necks trying to hear better.
“In my investigations, I have discovered that all of the nooses used to hang criminals were made from the same material,” Kifflan continues to shout. “After asking some of the village elders I have discovered that the fishermen of this town once killed a mystical creature called Each Uisge. Its hair was cut off and braided to make the majority of the ropes now hanging from this tree. Do you understand what that means?”
“What is he suggesting?” Seamus is suddenly worried.
“He’s saying the hanging tree is possessed by the spirit of an Each Uisge.” Nuve’s eyes widen in fear.
“Is one of those things really all that bad?” Minto asks.
“An Each Uisge is a gigantic mystical water horse that dwells in the ocean and has been known to eat human flesh,” Nuve explains. Minto grabs her stomach and very nearly vomits on the ground.
“Why would they do such a thing?” Seamus glares at Nuve. “Do they not know why forging anything from the remains of a mystical creature is forbidden?”
“Says the man with shards of a snawfus inside his head,” Nuve scoffs.
“Quiet,” Jeric hisses at them. “He’s got more to say.”
“I have consulted with a descendent of Coden Bane, the great master who created my Arma. He has assured me that Arma Driv is more than capable of slaying an Each Uisge if it were to manifest itself physically. Unfortunately this one is long dead and only exists in spiritual form now.
“In order to slay it I would need the help of a powerful sorcerer to perform a ritual, also given to me by Bane’s descendent. I know that none of the residents of this village are capable of such a ritual. That is why I have come to you. If any of you have any prowess in the art of magic whatsoever, please form a line so I may assess your capabilities. Your help in this matter is most appreciated.”
“He’s rather humble, isn’t he?” Minto is actually impressed. “Perhaps he is not as bad as all the other demigods you have met,” she whispers to Seamus.
Slowly the crowd of onlookers starts to disperse. It seems that if any of them actually does possess magical prowess, they are not willing to risk their safety to help the pleading demigod. “Well, this wasn’t unexpected.” Kifflan nods while trying not to look disappointed.
“What’s happening?” Minto can hear the disinterested chatter.
“They’re all ignoring him now,” Row answers.
“I kinda see what you mean about no one helping demigods.” Minto touches Nuve’s shoulder. “Maybe I should…”
“No,” he cuts her off before she can even suggest it.
“Huh? I thought you wanted to support the demigods. Jauntess taught me quite a few things while she was preparing my seeing eye potion. I know it’ll involve more than scrying but…”
“I said no.” Nuve grabs her hand with his right arm, squeezing it painfully. “Demigods have an ability to sense one another. With Seamus the way he is, Kifflan would see through us in an instant, especially with his Dark Assailant ability.”
“What exactly is the Dark Assailant ability?” Minto cocks her head. Row takes on the task of prying Nuve’s metal fingers off of her since it seems she is not going to react to the pain at all.
“The Dark Assailant is the third in the trio made up by Wan, Salazar and Komeck. They kept these territories safe over a hundred years ago. Komeck was the first to die at the hands of Lord Goldfrey’s knights, not the current Lord Goldfrey obviously.”
“Why would a lord kill a demigod?” Minto is startled.
“Rumor has it that Komeck was smitten with the lord’s wife. Any truth to that claim has been buried by the test of time. All I know for sure is that he was chained to rocks and sunk to the bottom of a pond so that no one could approach and receive the rapture. One poor homeless man did though.”
“Kifflan,” Minto mutters to show that she is paying attention.
“Kifflan was a wretched thing, delirious from hunger after not having anything to eat for over a week. When he saw the black light shining down from the sky he ran for it. Goldfrey’s knights nearly killed him as he trampled through their ranks but he made it.”
“And then?” Minto is hanging on his every word.
“And then he killed them all,” Jeric answers in a solemn voice. “Is that what you are going to say, stranger?” He is glaring at Nuve. “Are you going to call our demigod savior wretched for what he may or may not have done to our lord’s knights a century ago.”
“It’s not the fact that he killed them that worries me,” Nuve admits. “I have seen demigods kill many who deserve it. No, it’s how he killed them,” Nuve gulps.
“How?” Minto is impatient. “What did he do?”
“Arma Driv,” Nuve answers. “It is the weapon he spoke of, made by great master Coden Bane. A horrible assassin’s athamé.”
“What’s an athamé?” Minto is still confused.
“It’s a long dagger with a rippled blade, almost like it warped when being constructed in the forge. To keep it from being flimsy, its blade is thick. Because it is thick it is dull, because it is dull it takes a lot of force to stab someone and can’t be used to slice at all. Because of the force used and the ripples in the blade it tears the flesh when it enters and when removed. It pretty much gouges out large chucks of flesh and leaves the victim bleeding to death.”
“That’s barbaric,” Minto gasps.
“The worst part is that it can’t be used without the intent to kill. Arma Driv prevents its wielder from launching their hand if the blow they intend to inflict will not be fatal,” Nuve explains.
“What exactly does that mean?” Row leans closer. She is now equally as captivated by Nuve’s story as Minto.
“There were ten knights surrounding the pond Komeck drowned in. Each one died of a single stab wound to a vital organ, ranging from the throat all the way down to the deepest artery in the leg.”
“That’s amazing, Nuve, but it doesn’t really answer my question; what is the power of the Dark Assailant?” Minto repeats.
“Sight.” Nuve touches her cheek beneath her right eye.
“Sight?” Her mouth hangs open in awe. Obviously she is even more interested now.
“The Dark Assailant has better eyesight than even The Red Warrior or the Jade Behemoth. He can see for miles and identify things most people can't even fathom, including mana and auras.”
“And that would explain why he's looking right at us,” Seamus interrupts.
“What?” Nuve looks up at Kifflan who is eyeing Row from across the campsite.
In a matter of seconds he lifts his arm and launches a chain from his sleeve with a round cuff on the end which promptly clamps onto Row’s wrist. “What’s happening?” she wails as Kifflan starts to pull her across the campsite.
Seamus wastes no time reacting. He flickers out of sight with the power of the Jade Behemoth and reappears halfway between Kifflan and Row, holding onto the chain so it can not move anymore. His hand quickly shifts into the form of two thick metal blades which he uses to crimp and eventually cut through the chain. “What in the lord’s name are you?” Kifflan gasps.
“What do you want?” Seamus asks his own question while pushing Row until she is standing behind him.
Kifflan tilts his head as if he does not understand. “Oh, you mean this,” he laughs while holding up the broken chain. “Sorry, I didn’t know how else to get your attention. Everyone is leaving so quickly; I didn’t want to lose you in the crowd. How exactly did you do that?” He strides across the campsite until he is standing directly in front of Seamus.
“What is it you want with me?” Row is trying not to shiver.
“Well…” Kifflan leans down until they are staring each other in the eyes. His are pitch black, both the irises and the pupils, making for a fearful sight. He does not seem to notice that Row’s are red. They are not glowing at the moment and can easily be mistaken for a bright brown. “You have a sorcerer’s aura about you,” Kifflan finally answers her question.
“What?” She stares at him stupidly.
“I should explain; my eyes, these eyes, can see almost everything, including your aura. You remind me of Salazar actually.”
“Ah, there’s a reason for that.” Nuve skids to a stop directly to Seamus’s left.
“You on the other hand.” Kifflan turns his attention to Seamus while ignoring Nuve. “You remind me of Turok. I can't be sure as I have rarely ever spoken to him in person though.”
An incredibly guilty expression encompasses Seamus’s face as he tries to decide what to do. He is not sure how Kifflan would react to hearing that he has killed and absorbed the powers of four of his comrades. “Don’t be silly,” Nuve gives a loud fake laugh. “This is the wizard you are looking for. That was merely a magic trick.”
“It was?” Kifflan raises an eyebrow. He does not seem all that convinced. “What kind of magic allows one to morph their body like the Silver Shape Shifter?”
“Well, our good sorcerer Seamus was trained by none other than the demigod Husk,” Nuve makes an excuse.
“Ah, I thought that aura was familiar.” Kifflan turns back to Row. “It bleeds of the Bronze Cognition. Wait, which one of you is the sorcerer?”
“He is.” Nuve points at Seamus.
“But she…” Kifflan’s dark eyes dart back and forth between the pair. “No matter how I look at it, she is the one with the aura like Salazar’s.”
“That’s because he is enchanting her,” Nuve continues sputtering.
“Oh.” Kifflan’s expression changes. “So he has that much of a grasp on his abilities? How marvelous. Can you show me?”
“Sure he can.” Nuve jiggles Seamus by the shoulders while laughing nervously. “Go on, oh powerful wizard. Show the demigod what you can do.”
“What?” Seamus jerks away from him. “What are you talking about?” he whispers.
“Kiss her,” Nuve whisper back.
“Why?” Row is equally as confused.
“Just do it or we’re all dead,” he hisses through clenched teeth. With shy and embarrassed expressions, Seamus and Row glance around at all of their onlookers before pressing their lips together nervously. Immediately they both begin to shrink, Row back down to her normal size, if not a slight bit taller, and Seamus to the same size he was when they first met.
“What the…!” Jeric jolts in shock. “What just happened?”
“Unrequited youth,” Kifflan whispers. “That is most assuredly one of Salazar’s enchantments. According to Komeck’s memories, he perfected it when he realized his Bronze Cognition was causing him to age at the rate of a normal human, meaning he would die sooner than all of the other demigods. I had no idea he could train someone else to use it. This is amazing… and a stroke of pure luck, if I may say so.”
“Huh?” Seamus turns to gawk at him. “Why is it lucky?”
“You are exactly the sort of sorcerer I need for my ritual.” Kifflan claps excitedly.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t be any good at it.” Seamus shakes his head vigorously.
“Nonsense. You’re the student of the Bronze Cognition, aren’t you?” Kifflan won't take no for an answer. “Come with me at once. I will show you the ritual you must perform.”
“I'm coming too.” Nuve chases after them as Kifflan drags Seamus away by the hands. He is obviously excited to have finally found someone capable of helping him. If he had proper eyes they would be sparkling.
“Wait, Nuve, what about us?” Minto calls after them.
“You look after Row… or have her look after you,” he changes his suggestion after a moment.
“Do not worry, fair ladies, you still have me.” Jeric bows in front of Minto. Despite not being able to see him the tone in his voice tells Minto what he is doing.
“Thanks, that’s very kind of you.” She takes a step back to let him know that she is not impressed.
“We’ll meet underneath the hanging tree at midnight!” Kifflan shouts back at them. “I’ve already gathered a few able volunteers to help me slay the Each Uisge when it manifests itself physically. It will be quite the spectacle and you are welcome to observe.”
“Wow, he’s far too excited about all of this,” Row mutters as she watches him disappear from the campsite along with Nuve and Seamus.
“He’s also quite gullible, isn’t he?” Minto adds. “Anyone with his abilities should be able to tell that Seamus killed the Bronze Cognition and stole his powers. What kind of idiot actually believes that Husk took a student?”
“Think about it from the point of view of an immortal,” Row urges her. “He’s been a demigod for over a hundred years. He probably can’t even imagine a demigod losing. In his mind, this is a much more likely situation.”
“Now that’s just plain conceitedness.” Minto shakes her head.
“It’s the way demigods are,” Row sighs.
“What are you two talking about?” Jeric takes a step closer to them, bridging the gap Minto intentionally created.
“Um, we really don’t need you to accompany us any longer,” Minto laughs nervously.
“Oh, it’s quite alright. What kind of Palinthian citizen would I be if I abandoned a pair of ladies as beautiful as yourselves.”
Minto turns her head to face Row, who she can recall was quite lovely when she saw her with her seeing eye potion. She is surprised that Jeric would refer to her, a former prostitute never seen without heaping amounts of powder on her face, as anything even close to beautiful.
“Come on, you wanted to take a bath, right?” Row drags Minto away from the strange man by the hand.
“Wait, ladies…” Jeric takes another step towards them.
“Do not follow us,” Row raises her voice suddenly. “We will be taking our leave of you now to refresh ourselves. Surely you must realize that you can no longer be our guide. Your commitment has been appreciated. Good day sir.”
Jeric stares at her with a confused and slightly upset expression before resorting to grumbling as he shuffles away. “Yeah, good day lady, good day to you both.” He is obviously not happy. He obviously intended to enjoy their company for a lot longer.
“That was scary,” Row sighs with relief when he is finally out of sight. “After that, I really could use a bath.”
“You have no idea.” Minto yanks the two dark wooden sticks out of her sweat drenched hair, letting her long black locks fall down around her face. Row watches with interest as they walk towards the river at the edge of campsite. She has never once had her hair done up. This is the first time she has even considered it as a possibility. Perhaps Seamus would be impressed if she were to try changing her appearance more often. Of course, growing from the size of a twelve year old into a twenty-two year old can be considered a change of appearance.
When they reach the river, Row notices that there is a set of ropes strung between two tall poles with tattered blankets hanging from each in order to create a private bathing area for the female campers. There are even a few women already bathing behind the makeshift curtain. “Can you help me?” Minto grunts while undoing the sash to her robe and letting it fall to the ground behind her. “I'm not used to dressing and undressing myself.”
Row helps her undo her bodice while keeping an eye on the other campers in the area. Several of them are watching but no one is saying anything. “They must think I'm your servant or something,” Row grumbles.
“And that upsets you?” Minto tilts her head.
“You do know that I am of royal blood, don’t you?” Row reminds her. “If anything, you are my servant.”
“Wow, I didn’t realize bloodsuckers had such emotional thoughts,” Minto is actually impressed with Row’s sudden show of attitude.
“We aren’t monsters.” Row rips Minto’s bodice off angrily.
“No, you just survive by sucking the life out of people,” Minto chimes smugly. She still seems to think that being human makes her better than Row somehow.
“What do you think killing and gutting pigs is?” Row sputters. “Humans survive by consuming the flesh of animals too. From my point of view, your eating habits are far more barbaric than mine.”
“Pigs don’t have thoughts,” Minto scoffs. “Besides, I don’t eat meat.”
“Fish counts as meat,” Row argues.
“Fish are even less alive than pigs,” Minto refuses to listen.
“Honestly, why do you even travel with us?” Row asks a question she has been curious about ever since she first met Minto. As far as she recalls, Seamus brought her to their home in Glass Gate after finding her wandering around the city in dazed state. Afterward Nuve had refused to abandon her, despite the fact that she had apparently tried to rob and or murder him at some point prior to Seamus finding her.
“What does it matter if I travel with you?” Minto asks while yanking on the strings holding to Row’s bodice. They had been the only things holding it in place after she had shrunk back down to her proper size.
“Like it or not, I'm a bloodsucker,” Row spits at her. “I can't change what I am. The least you could do, if you intend to continue in my and Seamus’s company, is act like I am of equal worth.”
“While you continue to look down on humans?” Minto wrinkles her nose.
“I don’t have anything against humans.” Row’s voice is not very assuring. “My father was human.”
“Your father was a lord, as you so love to point out,” Minto counters. “You are pretty much made up of two things I hate, royalty and bloodsuckers.”
“So that’s it.” Row shoves Minto toward the river. “You despise anyone born of a higher class than you.”
“The higher class are all elitist snobs.” Minto digs the heels of her boots into the grass of the river bank. “Present company included.”
“I know nothing of elitists or otherwise,” Row informs her. “I have never looked down on the lower class in my life.”
“You just did,” Minto reminds her. “Your whole life, being looked after by knights and handmaidens, that’s what I can't stand. You’re so used to being pampered that you don’t realize how cruel the real world is to people like me.”
“It’s not my fault you were born the way you are.” Row lifts one of Minto’s legs and pulls the boot off of it without even undoing the laces.
“No, it’s not,” Minto sighs while kicking off her other boot. “I'm not blaming you, I'm just saying that you don’t understand. You should try to understand how I feel before you condone the way I act.”
“I understand that you were raised being told that bloodsuckers would devour you for no good reason.” Row nods angrily. “What you don’t know is that I was raised being told that humans would chase me with pitchforks and try to chop off my head. Which stories do you suppose are more true? We’ve been traveling together for a while now and I have yet to even try feeding on you, yet every chance you get you have to remind me that I am a monster, a creature so far beneath you I don’t even have the right to complain.”
“Why are you getting so upset?” Minto stumbles backwards, stepping into the mud of the river. “I thought bloodsuckers were emotionless.”
“We are logical creatures,” Row continues shouting at her in a hushed whisper so that no one else can hear her. “We do not comprehend how humans allow feeble emotions to cloud their judgment and impair proper thought process. What we do have is fondness and understanding. We enjoy the company of those we see repetitively… including you and Nuve,” she adds after a moment.
“Wait, are you saying you consider us your friends?” Minto is shocked.
“Is that so bad?” Row asks in a pleading voice. “Am I not allowed to say I prefer you two over other humans I have never met?”
“I thought you hated us,” Minto admits. “All this time I worried that you were simply waiting for the moment when we ceased being of use to you. I thought you’d turn us into ghouls or simply kill us.”
“I’ve never turned a single person into a ghoul. Why does everyone always assume that?” Row groans. Minto can’t help but laugh at her. It is funny to hear a bloodsucker complaining about trivial things. She is still laughing as she backs further into the river, pulling her dress off over her head as she goes, making sure not to let it get wet. Row frowns at the water for a moment before doing the same.
“What’s wrong?” Minto can hear her hissing through gritted teeth as she tries to endure the purifying sensation of the water moving past her skin.
“I got used to touching running water when my aura was suppressed,” Row admits. “Now that it is returning, the water burns slightly.”
“Oh, I forgot. Bloodsuckers can't cross running water. Why exactly is that?” Minto is curious.
“Bloodsuckers are different from humans because of two main factors. First, they are physically different. Their bodies are slightly stronger with sharpened senses of hearing and smell like an animal. Second, their aura is more prominent,” Row explains.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that humans have a weak aura, allowing them to cast spells and such,” Minto chimes.
“Yes.” Row nods. “Without powerful auras using up the mana around them, they are able to use it for other things like spells and magic.”
“What exactly is mana?” Minto’s questions seem endless.
“It is basically the source of magic,” Row continues to enlighten her. “It bleeds off of all living creatures like an invisible mist in the air and is absorbed as energy by the auras of mystically imbued people like demigods. The aura of a demigod, fed by mana, is what keeps them youthful. It also feeds their powers. Maumolla’s infinite stamina is basically her aura transferring the mana around her into strength at will.”
“And for a bloodsucker?” Minto’s mouth is hanging open in awe. She is easily impressed with almost anything mystical.
“A bloodsucker’s aura preserves their youth as well, though it only slows the aging process rather than halting it. This is because a bloodsucker’s aura can't absorb mana in the air. Instead they must feed on the life force of other living creatures.”
“That’s the scary part.” Minto shudders.
“It’s necessary.” Row is unapologetic. “The physical body of a bloodsucker is incapable of breaking down human food; therefore their source of energy must be introduced directly into them via feeding.” Row touches one of Minto’s hands to her fangs, causing her to squeak in fear.
She quickly calms herself though. “What about reproducing?” she suddenly asks. “Are bloodsuckers incapable of nurturing a child inside of them either?”
Row’s face turns bright red. She had not been expecting that sort of question at all. After a moment she clears her throat and begins to explain as best she can. Despite being completely embarrassed by the question, she is enjoying proving herself more knowledgeable than Minto, even if everything she knows is actually inherited from her mother’s stories. “A bloodsucker reproduces the same way a human does. A child grows inside their body while being nurtured by the same energy the mother feeds on.” She touches Minto’s hand to her stomach to prove she has a belly button.
“But don’t they ever get cravings for certain foods?” Minto asks. “My mother asked for the strangest things according to my aunt. She once requested fish eyes and pig liver.”
“Cravings are the result of a lack of certain nutrients the child needs to grow.” Row rolls her eyes. She does not know how the conversation became like this. “As bloodsuckers take all of their energy from a single source, there is no reason they would ever experience cravings.”
“Oh.” Minto’s expression suggests that she feels stupid for even asking. “Well, thank you for telling me so much about your kind. I'm still a little confused about the running water thing though.”
“Oh, I forgot. Because of water’s purifying property, it basically sucks the life force a bloodsucker has gathered out of it while weakening their aura.”
“But how can something physical like water cleanse something like life force energy,” Minto argues.
“Water is not merely physical. Like the air around us, it is also filled with mana, as is the ground beneath us,” Row informs her. “Each element has its own unique type of mana. It’s why there are so many different kinds of sorcerers, just like the water witch that was with Turok. A sorcerer’s ability to control a certain element comes from a special connection, usually due to being in the presence of that type of mana for long periods of time while growing up.”
“So if I lived underground for the first five years of my life…?”
“You would be more adept at controlling the each and rocks,” Row answers.
“So that water mage grew up on an island or something,” Minto surmises.
“Or near the ocean.” Row shrugs. She is not really interested in where Kalina hails from. She only hopes that she will never see her again. Following her defeat by Seamus, she had run off with Token the moment Seamus fell unconscious after reading Maumolla’s mind.
“Wait, does that mean the water mage would grow weak when underground?” Minto asks.
“Earth mana does not have the same cleansing properties as water mana,” Row discourages her. “She may find it difficult to draw on earth mana to feed her spells though. Of course, there was something wrong with that witch. She could draw mana from the slimmest source. I wouldn’t be surprised if she could leach mana from other living creatures just like a bloodsucker.”
“I'm beginning to wonder if humans are just as bad as bloodsuckers.” Minto’s expression is suddenly solemn. Row pats her shoulder affectionately, not knowing how else to comfort her. “Well, thanks again for telling me all this,” Minto’s face lights up slightly. “I feel a lot more relieved now. I had no idea how interesting bloodsuckers actually were.”Row’s chest swells with pride. Never in her wildest imagination did she ever expect to receive a compliment of any kind from Minto. It seems that despite her deep-rooted prejudice, she is still smart enough to understand logic and reason. It may take a while but eventually she may accept Row entirely. In fact, she can probably say that Minto is the closest thing to a female friend that she has ever had.