“Champ, hey Champ, are you in? Hello?” Cabith raps on the window to the blacksmith shop as he waits outside impatiently. “Come on, Champ,” he uses a shortened form of Champaign’s name. “Seriously, I have an order to fill and you aren’t helping.”
“Mommy’s not in right now,” Row spouts while pushing the swinging window outward so she can speak to the visiting merchant.
“Oh god, you startled me.” Cabith cringes. “Who are you and where did you come from?”
“It’s me, silly,” Row laughs.
“Yeah, I can see your Champaign’s annoying brat. I'm just wondering why you still look like a kid. It’s been two years since you came to Bos Stad. Grow up a little faster, would ya?”
“It’s not my fault my growth is stunted.” Row starts to pout. In the time she has lived in Bos Stad she has barely grown at all, which is entirely normal for a bloodsucker; not for a little girl though. Some of the people who see her on a regular basis are starting to become suspicious.
“Are you alone in there?” Cabith tries to peek through the window.
“What if I am?” she asks smugly. “Are you going to try robbing us again?”
“I have no idea what you are referring to.” He frowns at her. In truth he knows full well. Throughout the two years Champaign has been acting as the blacksmith in Bos Stad Cabith has played the role of sales representative; finding her clients with requests or buyers for her wares for a simple fee. On more than one occasion though he has attempted to take a larger cut than he was originally promised, prompting Row’s assumption that he is a thief, to which he is greatly annoyed.
“Why are you looking for Mommy?” Row asks while bobbing her head up and down playfully. She seems almost lost in her own imagination. Over the past two years she has become accustom to referring to Champaign as her mother.
“I was hoping to hammer out a new deal,” Cabith answers honestly. “I feel I’ve been getting the short end of the stick during a lot of our recent transactions.”
“Really? Why’s that?” Row continues bobbing her head.
Cabith can not be sure she is even listening to him. “You wouldn’t understand, kid. It’s grownup stuff.”
“I am a grownup.” She starts to pout again. Nothing seems to bother her more than the fact that she is nineteen years old with the appearance of a child. Her mindset seems to match though. Perhaps bloodsuckers take longer mature as well as age.
“Sorry for offending you, little one, but I really need to speak with your mother,” Cabith refuses to budge.
“Maybe you can speak to Seamus,” Row offers with a snap of her fingers.
“That little ruffian who’s always coming round here anymore? Why would I speak to him?” Cabith is not excited about the suggestion. Ever since he first discovered Row’s secret, Seamus has been visiting the blacksmith shop on a daily basis, simply to check in and receive instructions as her servant. She very rarely has any orders for him though and when she does they are never serious. “Where is the young fellow anyway?” Cabith glances around, half expecting Seamus to pop out another window like Row.
“He’s tied up in the back,” the bloodsucker answers with a mischievous smile.
“He’s what?” Cabith is utterly confused.
“He was annoying me so I tied him to a chair in the bedroom,” Row elaborates. “Want to see?”
“I know I'm going to regret this but I can't very well leave him,” Cabith grumbles as he paces over to the front door. Row unlocks it for him so he can step inside. The fire under the forge is not lit, practically confirming Row’s statement that Champaign is not home. “So where’s the bedroom?” Cabith twirls around to take in his surroundings.
“Over here.” Row drags him through a doorway by the hand. There seem to be no actual barriers between the rooms of the shop, just oval holes in the walls. Cabith eyes the random hanging metal work as he allows himself to be pulled into Champaign’s bedroom.
The first thing he notices when Row releases his hand is the fact that there is only one rag mattress. “Um, do you share a bed with your mother?” he asks while raising an eyebrow.
“Yup.” She nods vigorously. “I like to sleep next to her at night.”
“Well, to each their own, I guess.” Cabith shrugs. “Now where is…?” his voice trails off as he notices Seamus tethered to the only chair in the room with a thick rope. “Ah, I see.” He begins to untie him immediately.
“Thank you, sir,” Seamus breathes a sigh of relief as soon as the rope has been removed from his mouth.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what were you doing?” Cabith is slightly curious.
“I was being held captive,” Seamus answers calmly. “That vixen has been keeping me from leaving for over an hour.”
“Her?” Cabith points a skeptical finger at Row. “How weak are you, lad?”
“She’s stronger than she looks,” Seamus assures him.
Cabith is not convinced in the slightest. “What are you doing up here, boy?” he changes the subject.
“Just checking on her.” He shrugs. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to discuss the terms of my business agreement with her mother,” Cabith explains.
“Mother?” Seamus raises an eyebrow. Row tends to refer to her guardian by name when he is the only other person around. “Oh, you mean Champaign,” he catches on quickly though. “What’s wrong with the agreement you have now?”
“It’s not enough,” Cabith raises his voice. It is clear he has given this a lot of thought. “I'm the one risking my life to ferry her wares through the forest each day. I should at least be charging double for my services.”
“Risking your life?” It is Seamus’s turn to be skeptical. “How exactly is traveling through the forest risking your life?”
“I travel at night sometimes,” Cabith informs him. “I face the danger of being eaten alive by those monstrous ghouls every time I brave the darkness.”
“Yeah but you’ve always done that,” Seamus reminds him. “You brag to everyone about how unafraid you are.”
“Yeah well, times are changing. Have you heard of the strange disappearances around town? People are going missing from their own homes.”
“Impossible,” Seamus scoffs. “Ghouls can't be responsible for that.”
“Not the animal ghouls, no; but what about human ghouls? Apart from a nasty case of graying skin and the hunger for living flesh they are practically normal looking. They could sneak into the village unnoticed and drag unsuspecting victims out into the forest before devouring them, or worse, converting them into ghouls as well.”
Seamus is visibly disturbed by Cabith’s theory. “Is that really possible?” he asks in a low voice, as if speaking too loudly will make it all true.
“Haven't you ever wondered where ghouls come from?” Cabith matches the child’s hushed tone.
“I knew there was a link between bloodsuckers and ghouls but I’ve honestly never seen a human who has been transformed,” Seamus admits.
“I'm not surprised.” Cabith nods in agreement. “To be honest there aren’t many in these parts. People aren’t stupid enough to be caught outside after dark anymore. I’ve not seen any that have not already been captured by the guardsmen in other villages.”
“Why would they do that?” Seamus is curious.
“Some lords take it upon themselves to have their soldiers round them up whenever they begin appearing,” Cabith explains. “A plague is never a good thing, especially one where the people intentionally start spreading it. It’s best to stop this sort of thing before it blows out of proportion. In fact, they are having a meeting in the town square tonight to discuss what we should do.”
“Is it really that serious?” Seamus gasps. “I thought only a few people had gone missing.”
“One person missing is still one too many,” Cabith spouts. “Like I said, ‘got to nip this sort of thing in the butt.’ I'll be heading down there myself to see what’s what. I was hoping to catch Champ before then but I guess it can't be helped. I'll see you two kids later. Try not to kill each other, will you?”
Seamus watches with his mouth agape as Cabith stalks off toward the village square. He can barely believe what he has just heard. Is it possible that people are being kidnapped from Bos Stad and transformed into flesh eating ghouls like the creatures of the forest? “Boo!” Row startles him from behind.
“God damn it!” he shouts at her.
“Someone’s jumpy,” she laughs while poking him in the ribs.
He swats her hand away angrily. “Don’t do that.”
“What are you so afraid of?” She leans close to his chest while staring up into his eyes. As usual he is drawn to the sight of her glistening fangs, barely visible inside her slightly open mouth. It seems she can't close it completely without causing herself discomfort. “What are you looking at?” she asks while blinking at him inquisitively.
“Nothing.” He turns away while blushing. Over the past two years he has started becoming more fascinated by her abnormal qualities than scared. It is something he is not proud of.
“Why do you keep staring at my face?” she seems to have caught on slightly.
“It’s nothing,” he grumbles while trying to avoid meeting her gaze.
“Tell me,” she begs. “If you don’t tell me then I'm going to bite you,” she threatens him jokingly.
“You haven’t bitten me since the day we met,” he reminds her.
“Today might be the day,” she taunts him. “Champaign’s been gone for a while now. Maybe I'm getting hungry,” she draws out the last word. The sudden shivers running down his spine make her smile. She enjoys toying with him.
“Stay away from me.” He backs toward the door.
“You know you can't outrun me.” She licks her lips. His eyes are drawn to the saliva now dripping from her mouth. It is almost as if she really does plan to bite him. If he weren’t scared out of his mind he would find her mouth irresistibly enticing. “Where are you going?” she asks playfully as he manages to exit the shop while still walking backwards.
“I'm going to see what they’re talking about in the town square,” he makes a quick excuse.
“Ooh, wait for me.” She bounds after him, slamming the door to the shop behind her.
“No, that’s really not necessary,” he moans.
“I’ve already made up my mind.” She grabs hold of his arm tightly. “Escort me to the town square, servant,” she orders pompously.
“Ye-yes, milady,” he whimpers as he leads her away from the shop. His heart is beating rapidly and his hands are shaking. It is taking all of his concentration to keep himself from yanking his arm away from her and running. Though he has been acting as her servant for almost two years now, he is still not comfortable being touched by her. She is after all fully capable of killing him without a second thought.
When they arrive in the village square the meeting is already well under way. The five members of the town council are seated at a table in the center while several influential citizens form a circle around them. They are all shouting at each other, blaming one another for the situation at hand and for the lack of action about it.
“Ooh, how exciting,” Row is incredibly bad at reading the mood. She seems to think the yelling is part of some sort of entertainment. Again Seamus is not surprised by her reaction. He would actually be more concerned if a bloodsucker failed to maintain psychopathic indifference to the suffering of humans. He does however convey his annoyance to her my squeezing her hand painfully.
“Ow, ow, stop it,” she whines. “Okay, okay, I'm sorry, just stop it.” Finally he releases his grip. “Ouch, what was that for?” she pouts at him. He does not answer and instead continues to watch the townspeople shouting at each other.
“What do you intend to do about this?” they demand of their council.
“Do you even know if the missing people are still alive?”
“Is it the work of ghouls or bloodsuckers?”
“Should we send word to the nearest demigod?” The final question startles Row. She starts to tremble, gripping Seamus’s arm tightly.
“Hey, what’s wrong with you?” he is taken aback.
“I heard that the demigod Turok has been annexing land in what was once Lord Ironglave’s territory,” one of the villagers shouts. “Perhaps he would be willing to help us thin the number of ghouls in our forests.” Row jolts violently beside Seamus. She is positively afraid of even the mention of his name.
Seamus on the other hand is immensely excited. Having a demigod come to Bos Stad could be the answer to all of his problems. One look at Row and a demigod would know she is a bloodsucker. Seamus would have his life back for sure. He can already imagine it. Surely the bloodsucker next to him is afraid. She has just learned that her days are numbered.
“Are you mad?” voices of protest arise quickly. “He’ll try to take over Bos Stad the same way he did Iron Grove and Massmede. He has already laid claim to all of the land in-between. If we invite him in, we’ll be in his debt forever. Is that what you want?”
“We might not have a choice,” the lead council member admits. “If we really are dealing with a bloodsucker, it may already be too late.”
“Why don’t we put it to a vote,” a different council member suggests. “All in favor of contacting the demigod Turok for aid?”
“Wait!” a shrill voice interrupts them. Seamus quickly realizes that it is none other than Champaign. Apparently this is where she was rather than tending to the blacksmith shop. “We should only contact Turok as an absolute last resort,” she shouts at the council members.
“Why?” the leader of the council demands. “Why do you fear Turok so much? Should we not worship those blessed by the gods and welcome their assistance?”
“Their assistance comes at a price!” Champaign warns him. “You should not be so trusting. These demigods were simply human once. They abuse their power and use it to rule like lords. Lords are exactly what you have been keeping from ruling Bos Stad all this time. Are you really willing to give all of that up now simply because of a few disappearances?”
Seamus’s heart sinks in his chest. Of course it would not be so easy. Champaign is completely under the spell of her mistress bloodsucker. There is no way she would allow the villagers to invite a demigod into their midst. She will fight against it to the death. After all, if she were to meet a demigod she may as well be dead. She is a traitor to humanity through and through.
“We can't simply let people keep disappearing because you fear the demigods are corrupt,” the council shouts back at Champaign.
“It is not my fear alone,” she assures them. Several nods and murmurs of agreement emanate from the surrounding villagers, putting to rest the council’s plan to contact Turok once and for all.
“We still have a problem to deal with,” they argue relentlessly. “What do you suggest we do?”
Suddenly the villagers start to shout at Champaign as well. Despite their agreement that contacting Turok would be unacceptable, they still feel the need to assign blame to Champaign for having no alternative. “What would you have me do?” the former knight asks in a calm voice.
“Someone needs to lead an expedition into the forest to wipe out as many ghouls as possible,” the villagers shout. “Make sure they know not to mess with Bos Stad ever again.”
“I can do this,” Champaign answers calmly while keeping a stern face. Murmurs of disbelief arise immediately. “I can lead a small unit of armed militia into the forest. We will drive the ghouls out once and for all; will that satisfy you?” this question is directed at the council.
Seamus shakes his head slowly. It is now painfully clear; the lengths Champaign will go to defend her mistress. It had never crossed his mind that she would be willing to hunt down the very creatures that bloodsuckers originally spawned simply to protect one little girl. The grip Row has on her must be immeasurable.
“We the council, do find this course of action agreeable,” the leader of the council answers Champaign. “In the event that you are unable to complete your task or that the disappearances continue, we shall indeed seek aid from the demigod Turok. Until that time, good luck on your endeavor. Good day to you all.” He claps his hands before standing to leave the center of the town square, followed quickly by the rest of the council.
Immediately the town erupts in roars of protest and agreement. “You heard the council,” Champaign lords her victory above them. “Anyone wishing to defend their loved ones please see me at the blacksmith shop. All volunteers for this expedition are welcome.” Again she is met with roars of equal agreement and disagreement.
She is not listening though. She is already on her way back to the blacksmith shop, planning to prepare enough armor and weapons to outfit a unit as large as her entire former guard squad. Row drags Seamus through the crowd of screaming villagers as she attempts to catch up to her guardian. After the shock of hearing Turok’s name, she wants nothing more than to seek comfort and solace from her substitute mother.
“How much further are we planning on going?” Heidus whines for the sixteenth time. He is a younger man who volunteered to brave the forest with Champaign for the simple reason of being able to brag about it to the villagers when they return. Overall a total of twelve men agreed to accompany Champaign, including Cabith.
“Will you be quiet, lad,” the merchant scolds Heidus.
“But we haven’t seen a single ghoul the entire time we’ve been out here,” the young man continues to complain. “Are there even ghouls in this forest?”
“Is this your first time leaving the village?” Cabith asks in an insulting tone. “The sun has barely just set. In a few moments we will be attacked by dozens of ghouls. You’re about to get your wish.”
“Wait, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to fight any ghouls. When I said I had practice with a sword, I meant a wooden one,” Heidus is practically sniveling now.
“God pull yourself together, man,” Cabith groans. “Champ, why did we even bring him along?”
“So we have someone to trip while we’re running away,” she answers in an almost serious voice. This causes Heidus to gulp loudly. He has just started to whimper again when Champaign covers his mouth. “Quiet, I think I heard something.” She cups her ear with her other hand.
“That’ll be the ghouls, no doubt,” Cabith surmises. “Are you ready, men?” He brandishes a long black snake whip; much like the one he lost the day he first met Row and Champaign. The murmur of compliance from the other eleven men, minus Heidus whose mouth is still covered, is less enthusiastic than what he had hoped for. Of course it makes no difference as the creatures of the forest are upon them.
The first ghoul to appear is a boar, much like the one that rammed into Cabith’s cart two years ago. It is not stupid enough to charge at the tightly knit group of humans and instead begins to circle around them, keeping close to the trees in case it needs to make a quick escape.
It is soon joined by what appears to be a pack of rabid raccoons, each several times larger than that of a normal one. “What’s going on?” Bartain, another volunteer, asks as several dark birds begin circling above them.
“Perhaps they were expecting us,” Anthon, an older man with more wisdom than his peers, surmises.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Heidus rips Champaign's hand away from his mouth so he can talk.
“They’re waiting until they outnumber us,” Cabith answers.
“Then we should attack them now,” Heidus shouts while drawing his sword.
“He’s right,” the other volunteers start to agree with him.
“Normally I would say antagonizing ghouls would be a bad thing, but that is in fact what we came out here to do,” Cabith admits.
“Then let the battle begin!” Champaign shouts as she charges forward, drawing a rather elegant broad sword from her scabbard. It is the sturdiest weapon she has been able to forge since beginning her career as a blacksmith. She is currently clad in armor similar to her former captain’s gear but nowhere near as strong. She still has a long way to go before she can actually call herself a blacksmith.
The boar screams in terror as it realizes it has run out of time to wait. It actually smacks its head into a nearby tree as it tries to flee. Cabith is faster though, cracking his whip and wrapping it around the poor creature’s neck. He drags it down the slope, bringing it to a stop at Champaign’s feet. She quickly disembowels it, killing the strongest of their current foe.
The circling birds above immediately begin to screech at her, diving toward the ground and scratching at her armor as they whiz past her. The men behind her are not so lucky though. Not many of them know how to wear armor and therefore chose not to. The birds’ claws cut like inch long knives, digging into their faces and arms, drawing screams of pain from each.
Cabith twirls his whip around himself, keeping birds from even getting close to him. It does nothing to protect against the raccoons though as they charge down the slope, scampering between the men’s legs and even climbing up some of them. Heidus swings wildly as one of them claws at his face, nearly slicing a few of his comrades. The group quickly disperses, leaving him in the center of their tiny clearing by himself.
Soon all of the raccoons have converged on him, clawing and biting his face and arms. Cabith attempts to scare them off by cracking his whip but they are too focused. They quickly start to tear pieces of his flesh off, gouging him right down to the bone. His wails of anguish are cut short by one of them biting straight through his neck and severing his windpipe.
“This wasn’t what I signed up for,” Garth moans. “We’re all going to die out here, aren’t we?”
“Get a hold of yourself.” Champaign points her sword at him. “Anthon, Nordis, pour a circle of grog from your flasks and set it on fire.” Obediently the two oldest and heaviest drinkers set ablaze a circle of fire to protect the group from the ravenous raccoons. The creatures begin to hiss at them in announce as they begin a tactic of approaching the fire only to retreat again whenever it licks their fur.
“This will not hold them off for long,” Cabith warns their leader.
“Give me a moment to think,” she shushes him.
“We’re going to die, we’re all going to die,” Garth has taken over the deceased Heidus’s job of whining.
“Someone slap him for me,” Champaign orders. Cabith moves to do so but doesn’t need to as the man quickly quiets himself while retreating to hide behind Nordis, who is trying to empty the last few drops of grog from his flask into his mouth.
“Any time now.” Cabith taps his foot impatiently.
“I know!” Champaign snaps at him.
“Hold on, there’s something coming,” Cabith’s tone changes. After years of traversing the forests at night he has learned how to recognize impending attacks from ghouls. “There is a pack of five wolves approaching.”
“Oh great, that’s all we need,” Champaign groans. As predicted, five new ghouls soon appear at the top of the slope. At first all that can be seen is their yellow eyes in the dark but soon their black bodies become visible by the light of the flaming circle, which is already starting to die out.
“What now, sir?” Anthon asks while readying his spear.
“How good are any of you at bow and arrow?” Champaign asks meekly. All of them shake their heads. “I thought so,” she sighs as she readies the long bow she has been carrying on her back this whole time. She is obviously not confident in her own skill.
Long ago she had mastered every form of weapon available in Massmede, making herself one of the most skilled guards in the whole town. After being promoted to captain though she had fallen out of practice. Add two years of pretending to be a blacksmith and not a warrior and anyone would feel disadvantaged.
She takes a deep calming breath as she draws her first arrow. The wolves seem aware of her intentions and quickly disappear from sight behind the trees. The raccoons however are not as intelligent. They are still playing a game of touch the fire, hoping that on the hundredth time it will have miraculously stopped hurting them.
Champaign’s first arrow sails lazily to the right of the nearest raccoon, impaling its tail and pinning it to the ground. It starts to scream and run in circles, through the flames, until it too catches fire. The wailing cry of a flesh eating creature burning to death is something the eleven men and their leader could have gone their whole lives without hearing. It is nothing compared to the smell of searing ghoul that follows. Several of the men turn to vomit.
Champaign is too preoccupied lining up her next shot. One of the five wolves makes the mistake of peeking out from behind its tree in order to identify the wails of the dying raccoon. It pays for it with its right eye, which explodes in a shower of yellow juice along with an earsplitting scream. This causes the rest of the wolves to scatter from their hiding places.
Anthon launches his spear like a javelin, skewering one of the wolves in the side and pinning it to a tree. It is not fatally wounded, but it gives Champaign the opportunity to fill it with arrows before it can free itself. With the count of wolves circling the fire diminished the men are feeling more confident. They ready their swords, axes and spears as the flames finally die out around them.
Cabith is not much help with his whip but the rest of the men quickly manage to dispatch the remaining raccoons as they leap over the embers of the former fire circle, having been waiting for the moment to strike the entire time. The wolves are still panicking and running in circles, trying to avoid Champaign as she fires arrow after arrow at them while her men buy her time.
Finally she hits another one. The arrow slides neatly between its ribs, piercing one of its lungs. The creature staggers a few more feet before toppling over. It is enough to send the rest of the wolves scattering. The men around Champaign start to cheer at their minor victory but her attention is drawn elsewhere. At the edge of the tree line, a dark creature is still stirring. It is the wolf she shot in the eye. It seems to have finally regained some composure.
As soon as it realizes that it is alone it starts to panic. It darts toward the group of humans, causing them to disperse. It leaps over Champaign in her crouched stance, still holding her bow. She fires her final arrow at the creature’s belly but it misses. The distraught animal lands in the clearing behind Champaign and scampers to its feet again, charging back along the path the group originally took. “It’s heading for the village,” Champaign realizes.
The group is still recovering from the scare of the creature’s brashness. The former knight is the only one ready to give chase. “Cabith, you’re in charge,” she shouts to the merchant before clamoring to her feet as she barrels after the creature.
“Wait, you can't leave us here,” Garth calls after her as she disappears down the path. “What if more of them come this way?”
“Then we soak the ground in their blood,” Cabith answers. “We make sure the vial things never dare set foot in this clearing again. At the very least it will make travel in these parts a might bit easier.” Garth gulps nervously as he stares at Cabith’s confident smile. He is not sure if the man is mad or heroic.
He has little time to think about it though as the sound of ghouls howling in the distance fills the air. Apparently the scattering wolves have found reinforcements. In less than a minute they will be upon them. Garth starts to whimper again while Anthon retrieves his spear from the dead pinned wolf. “We’re not going to die out here like this,” he spits angrily. “Let them come, I'm ready.”
Slowly the men reform their circle, even without the fire. It would not be impossible to follow Champaign back to the village but that might mean letting the creatures pick them off one by one. This way they stand a better chance of survival and of taking a few more ghouls with them. This was exactly what they volunteered for after all; to clear out as many ghouls as possible in hopes of making Bos Stad even slightly safer.
While Champaign is off hunting ghouls in the forest, she tasks Seamus with looking after Row, just in case she fails to return. “So this is where you live?” Row twirls around as she enters his house, taking in every corner of the main room.
“Um, who exactly are you again?” Seamus’s mother is no where near as enthusiastic.
“I'm Row,” the young bloodsucker answers as if her name is all that she needs to know.
“Ah yes, of course you are,” the older woman mutters sarcastically. “How could I forget? I guess that answers all of my questions. I'll just be letting a complete stranger stay in my home because she told me her name.”
“That’s awfully kind of you,” Row responds smugly.
“Seamus, come here.” She drags her son into a separate room by the ear. “Who is she?”
“She’s the daughter of the blacksmith,” he answers calmly. “She asked me to look after her while she leads the expedition into the forest.”
“Oh dear.” His mother’s face changes from annoyance to concern. “What if she doesn’t return?”
“Then we chop off Row’s head and burry her under the house,” he is only partially joking.
His mom is not amused in the slightest though. “I'm serious, Seamus; we can't just keep a random child here.”
“We’ll worry about it if and when the blacksmith fails to return. Besides, I'm sure she can look after herself,” he mutters under his breath.
“You’re taking full responsibility for this,” she warns him before leaving the building. She still has several more houses to clean even though it is already past dark.
“Your mom is interesting.” Row enters the same room as Seamus a moment later.
“Don’t touch anything,” he growls at her. He is not much happier about having to put up with a strange girl than his mom, let alone a bloodsucker. He is still trying to think of a way to free himself from his current predicament.
“Do you suppose Champaign will be alright?” Row is worried.
“I honestly don’t care,” Seamus is blunt. “If she doesn't come back will that change anything at all?”
“It will mean that you will inherit her responsibilities, including becoming my new source of sustenance.”
“I knew that,” he sighs. The thought has actually been eating away at him quite a bit. Bloodsuckers have an abnormally long lifespan, at least twice that of a human. At some point Champaign will cease to exist during Row’s lifetime and she will be forced to seek out a new source of food. Seamus is beginning to wonder if he should be trying to end the rein of this particular bloodsucker before it has even begun. He is not confident that he could kill her though, even if he caught her off guard.
“What are you thinking about?” Row can tell that something is weighing heavily on his mind.
“I'm thinking of killing you,” he answers honestly. Row can not help but laugh. She does not believe him in the slightest. He stares at her blankly though, thoroughly annoyed that she is not even slightly worried that he might actually try to harm her.
“So what do you do for fun?” she continues trying to have a normal conversation.
“I like to climb things,” he answers dully.
“Oh yeah, you are really good at that, aren’t you?” She recalls his attempt to escape from her when they first met by scaling the walls and rafters of the blacksmith shop. “I'm actually pretty good at climbing too.”
“I know!” he shouts angrily. “I saw it first hand. I'm stuck as your pathetic servant because I couldn’t outrun you. You don’t have to remind me about it.”
“Oh.” Her expression sinks. She had not realized how angry he was with her until now. Despite knowing that humans have a natural dislike for bloodsuckers she had assumed he would learn to enjoy her company the same way Champaign seems to. It had not occurred to her that he is technically a prisoner bound under the threat of injury or death. “I'm sorry…” she tries to apologize.
“Don’t,” he refuses to listen. “Don’t pretend like you even care. I know how bloodsuckers think. You’re incapable of processing human emotions.”
“I can feel things,” she argues.
“Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing,” he disagrees. “You can attempt to understand human feelings but you will never fully grasp them.”
“That’s not true. I’ve been trying really hard.” He is starting to make her feel bad.
“You mistook a brawl for entertainment at the town square yesterday,” he reminds her.
“They both involve screaming,” she moans while grabbing her head. Listening to him is almost painful. In truth he is almost correct about her. She finds it difficult to emulate human behavior. Normal things that seem to bother the weak creatures such as jealousy and greed make no sense to her. She has never desired anything in her life. The closest feeling she can equate to it is hunger which can be referred to as the desire to feed.
“See, you’re completely clueless,” Seamus continues insulting her.
“I am not,” she whines. For some reason she seems to value his opinion of her. Perhaps she actually desires him not to think poorly of her. “Wait, I think I feel something.” She grabs her chest. “I actually think I care about the way you see me.”
“Well that’s great, you can emulate ego,” he scoffs.
“I'm serious,” she is on the verge of tears. Never has a human’s words bothered her as much as his. Something about him is changing the way she thinks. She is almost learning what it means to be human. “Please, give me a chance to show you,” she begs. “Ask me anything. Present a scenario where a human and a bloodsucker’s choices would normally differ.”
“Fine, you want to play that sort of game, so be it.” Seamus grins smugly. “You are walking down the street when suddenly a thief appears with a knife and demands all your money. When you refuse he grabs a random nearby person and threatens to stab them. What do you do?”
“Well obviously I am stronger than a stupid thief,” Row answers pompously.
“I thought you were going to approach this question like a human would,” he reminds her. “What would a normal human do?”
“I suppose they would pay the thief in order to save the other person’s life,” Row surmises. “See, even I can figure that out about humans.”
“Alright, let’s change the situation a little bit though. Now the thief is actually a crazed murderer. He plans to kill one of you regardless of money. Do you let him kill you to protect the other person or do you let them die to save yourself?”
“How am I supposed to answer that?” Row whines. “It’s not fair.”
“How is it not fair? It’s a simple question of self sacrifice.”
“No it’s not,” she continues to disagree. “That sort of situation depends entirely on who I am in society. What if I were a lord or at least a descendent of one? The other person would be duty bound to lay down their life for me. If they were a lord then I would be expected to do the same.”
“You’re thinking too logically,” Seamus grumbles. “That’s just like a bloodsucker, thinking before acting. Follow your emotions and make the choice to save the other person, regardless of stature.”
“You’re simplifying it too much,” she growls back. “What if the other person were a child? Obviously I would feel more obligated to sacrifice myself for them. On the same note I would feel less inclined to save the life of a random man I’d never met before.”
“I suppose I can see your point,” Seamus finally allows himself to be swayed. His example was a rather poor one. How willing a person is to sacrifice themselves for someone else is entirely dependent on their own character. Not all humans would make the noble choice. On the other hand a bloodsucker would not lift a finger to save a human.
The question suddenly occurs to Seamus, would a bloodsucker sacrifice itself to save another bloodsucker? He is entirely unaware that Row’s mother did exactly that back in Massmede. “Do you see now why I…?” Row begins to gloat over her victory but stops mid-sentence.
“Yeah, yeah.” Seamus rolls his eyes. “I suppose you are better at emulating human emotions than I thought.”
“Quiet,” Row hisses at him. “I thought I saw something.”
“Huh, where?” Seamus glances around the room stupidly.
“Out there.” Row points to the window. Outside they can see the cobblestone street dimly lit by a single lamppost.
“What did you see?” Seamus is equally curious and concerned now.
“I'm not sure.” Row shakes her head. “My eyes might just be playing tricks on me.”
“Just spit it out,” Seamus orders her. “I'll be the judge of how important it is.”
“Well… I kinda thought I saw a person climbing into the second story window of the inn,” she admits while twiddling her fingers.
“You what?” Seamus is shocked. “That’s extremely serious. You know people have been disappearing, right? What if you just saw the kidnapper in the act?”
“You really think so?” Row’s eyes widen.
“Come on, we have to make sure for ourselves.” He grabs a lantern from the kitchen before exiting his house.
“Wait for me,” she calls after him as she follows quickly behind.
“Which window was it?” he asks while striking a match on his boot to light the lantern.
“Front facing. The one you can see from your house,” she answers.
“Hello,” Seamus whispers as he dances the light from his lantern over the glass of the window.
“Don’t wake them,” Row whimpers.
“If they answer then they weren’t asleep to begin with,” he informs her. The curtains behind the glass of the window sway from side to side ominously, as if they have just been disturbed. “I think you’re right. Someone just went in through there.”
“What do we do?” Row moans unhelpfully.
“You wait here.” Seamus hands her the lantern. She watches as he steps back in order to get a running start. It is actually impressive to see him scale the side of the building like a cat despite the fact that she could obviously do a better job. He slithers through the window silently but almost immediately falls right back out, having been pushed by something or someone.
“Seamus!” Row shouts while tossing the lantern aside and opening her arms to catch him. If she were a normal human girl it would do no good but with the strength of a bloodsucker she is able to support his weight entirely. “Seamus, what happened?” she gasps while dropping him to the ground. She is unable to lift him properly for very long.
“He pushed me,” Seamus spits angrily while standing back up and dusting himself off.
“I have no idea what that thing is.” Seamus points up to the window where a pale face is staring back down at them.
“Clouse?” Row raises a confused eyebrow.
“Clouse?” Seamus recognizes the name.
“He smells just like Clouse… only different somehow,” Row mumbles to herself.
“Bloodsuckers really are impressive, aren’t they,” Seamus is actually in awe of her for once. She hisses at him for mentioning her secret out loud though. “Wait a second; Clouse was the third person to go missing, wasn’t he?” Seamus realizes. “What he is doing here now.”
“Why don’t you ask him,” Row suggests with a shrug.
Seamus can't see a reason not to. “Hey Clouse, where have you been?” he shouts up to the pale faced man. “That is you, isn’t it Clouse?”
“Aye.” The figure nods.
“Come down here so we can talk.” Seamus waves to him. The man seems confused but he obeys, climbing down from the window in a sort of daze. “What’s wrong with you, Clouse?” Seamus leans close to him, trying to get a better look.
“Don’t.” Row quickly pulls him back as Clouse lunges at him with his mouth open, almost like he is trying to bite him.
“What on earth?” Seamus’s eyes are wide in shock. “What is he?”
“He smells like a ghoul,” Row answers.
“Are you saying he’s been turned? How?”
“I, I'm not a ghoul,” Clouse seems suddenly scared. “Please, you have to help me. He’s going to kill me.”
“Who’s going to kill you?” Seamus asks. “Start from the beginning. Where have you been?”
“He took me.” Clouse’s eyes dilate as he starts to remember. Seamus and Row both note that they are almost glowing yellow by the light of the lamppost, just like a ghoul’s.
“Who took you?” Seamus tries to keep him focused.
“The man. Well, he wasn’t a man, not anymore. His skin was gray and he looked like a ghost.”
“You look like a ghost,” Seamus admits.
“Don’t say that,” Clouse hisses at him. “I'm not a ghoul; I'm not like him.”
“I hate to say it but I think you are.” Seamus eyes him up and down. “Did this man feed on you? Is that what happened? Did he drain you of life until you turned into this?”
“He said he was helping me,” Clouse whimpers. “He said I would feel so much better when he was done. He lied to me; I don’t feel stronger, I don’t feel more alive. I feel dead inside. I feel lonely and weak and hungry; oh so very hungry.” His eyes flash a bit brighter as he says this, causing both Seamus and Row to back up. “What’s wrong?” He can sense their fear. “I'm not a ghoul, I swear.”
“I'm sorry.” Seamus retrieves the lantern Row tossed and relights it.
“What are you doing?” Clouse steps towards him.
“Stay back.” Seamus warns him while waving the lantern at him.
“Hey, calm down.” Clouse takes another step regardless.
“Why are you here?” Row speaks up suddenly.
“Huh?” Clouse’s eyebrows twist in confusion.
“Why did you come to the inn?” she clarifies. “Whose room is that?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I only came because he told me to. He told me to find more people to join him. He turns a different person each night. He wants to make an army of us.”
“Oh no,” Seamus groans.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Clouse whimpers. “I have to do what he says though. I can't go back empty handed.”
“This is why I hate bloodsuckers.” Seamus glares at Row.
“This isn’t the work of a bloodsucker,” she argues. “He said he was as pale as a ghoul. Somehow a human got turned and now he’s turning others.”
“He was probably turned by a bloodsucker,” Seamus spouts accusingly. “Even if he wasn’t, there wouldn’t be any ghouls if it weren’t for them. All of this is their fault originally.”
“If you want to blame someone then blame the demigods,” Row spits back.
“Demigods protect us from the likes of you,” Seamus defends.
“Demigods nearly drove us extinct,” Row shouts. “Before they showed up we were always careful not to create ghouls excessively.”
“How do you justify creating these creatures at all?”
“They keep the demigods busy. Without them we’d have been killed off a long time ago,” she explains.
“Such a selfish species.” Seamus rolls his eyes.
“Um, it seems you two are busy,” Clouse laughs nervously while backing away.
“Not so fast.” Seamus smacks him in the face with the lantern, shattering it and spilling burning oil all over him. Clouse begins to scream and run in circles.
“What did you do that for?” Row demands.
“I'm not letting a ghoul run free,” Seamus answers sternly.
“He is our only lead at finding this intelligent ghoul who is turning other humans. Do want him to continue?”
“Well…” Seamus doesn’t want to admit that she is right. His chance to do so is cut short by the sound of Clouse falling over. The fire has spread down from his face to encompass his whole body. Even if they tried there is no way they can save him now.
“Well that’s just great.” Row scowls at Seamus. She can't believe how easily he is letting his prejudice against bloodsuckers cloud his better judgment. “How exactly are we supposed to find the rest of these human ghouls now?”
“Maybe we don’t need to,” Seamus whispers.
“Of course we need to!” she starts to shout again. “If we don’t deal with these disappearances then the council will vote to contact Turok for aid and I'll have to move and you’re sadly mistaken if you think we’re leaving you behind so you can tell him we were even here. No, you’re coming with us when we run, dead or alive.”
Seamus is not even listening to her. He places a finger to his lips warning to be quiet but she is too angry to obey. “What is wrong with you?” she demands. “Why won't you answer me?”
“I think we’re in trouble,” he mutters.
“You’re gonna be in trouble if you don’t…” her sentence is cut off by Seamus as he grabs her head and turns her around. She falls completely silent as she realizes what he has been looking at this entire time. There are four humanoid figures surround them, all just as pale and pasty as Clouse.
“Nice of you to kill our friend,” the apparent leader speaks first. He is a tall man with more muscle than Cabith yet not overly large. He has long black hair that seems sleek with sweat or grease, probably from living in the forest for however long.
“Who are you?” Seamus demands. He already has a pretty good idea though. All three of the other human ghouls are familiar faces from Bos Stad. Each one went missing during the past week. “I'm so sorry,” he sighs while looking into Doreen’s eyes. She is a sixteen year old girl he knew from around the village. She was always so lively and vibrant. Now she looks pale and dead.
“Do not pity them,” the leader laughs. “I have freed them of the prison chain that is humanity. They are now stronger and faster and smarter?”
“All they are is animals,” Row spits. “Ghouls are not bloodsuckers. They don’t even compare.”
“Is that what you are?” the leader finally takes notice of her. “I thought you smelled different somehow.”
“I am a royal bloodsucker, heir of Lord Ironglave and Lady Owleen. You would do well to listen to me.”
“Is this the part where you threaten me?” he laughs again. “I'm not afraid of a child, little one. I know why you wish to rid this town of me. You fear the demigod Turok. For someone so proud of your lineage you’re quite weak.”
“Isn't he scared of Turok?” Seamus asks.
“If he isn’t then he’s a fool.” Row shakes her head solemnly. “Perhaps he plans to have turned this entire town into a ghoul army before Turok arrives. It still will not help him though. There is a reason Turok is still alive after two centuries while most of the original hundred demigods have fallen. He is not weak. He will tear through this town like water.”
“Are you trying to frighten me off, little girl?” the leader’s laughter is becoming annoying. “I fear no man, demigod or not. Even one such as Turok can not stand against an army. Once I have defeated him I shall go on to slay the rest of the remaining demigods. I shall be the herald of a new age of ghouls. Humans and bloodsuckers will be a thing of the past.”
“I pity you.” Seamus can see tears filling Row’s eyes. “You shall taste the sting of Arma Tua like my mother did.”
“Arma what? Aren't those the mythical weapons given to the demigods two hundred years ago?” Seamus asks.
“They’re real,” Row assures him. “Champaign almost died by one of them; Arma Tua, a powerful axe with the ability to ignore one’s armor at will. It is impossible to defend against. Demigods didn’t gain their titles by accident.”
“You’re really scared of this thing, aren’t you?” Seamus’s eyes are wide. He has never felt pity toward Row before today. He almost feels bad for the loss of her mother and the death that awaits her if she ever encounters Turok again. It is not enough to sway him though. He still needs her to release him from his servitude.
“Enough talk,” the lead ghoul growls. “I will show you how powerful I have become.” He bares his teeth, which are just as sharp as the wolves in the forest. His fingernails have also grown like claws and his eyes are glowing yellow. He is more animal than human now.
He and his three subordinates all pounce at once, pinning both Row and Seamus to the ground. Their claws and teeth immediately start tearing into the pair’s flesh, causing them both to scream. This is the most pain Seamus has ever felt. Of course, Row has not been so lucky. In fact, this is nothing compared to the wolf which nearly swallowed her alive.
It almost comes as a surprise to the other ghouls when Doreen starts to scream in place of Row. The young bloodsucker has sunk her fangs into the former human’s arm and twisted it painfully. It almost seems ready to snap clean off. As ghouls are in essence the husk that is left when all life force has been drained, there is practically nothing for Row to feed on. Instead she rips the flesh from Doreen’s arm, straight down to the bone, rendering it useless without any muscle to move it.
“Wha-what did you do?” she screams. Row’s eyes are glowing red and her mouth is dripping with blood. She has already let her instincts take over. Luckily for Seamus the three other ghouls choose to leave him alone in order to attack Row all at once. Though his wounds are deep, he has suffered no permanent damage in the short time they were upon him.
Row takes a stance as the three ghouls charge at her. She bites into the only other female’s shoulder and flingers her into the air like a rag doll. She crashes to the ground a few feet away from Clouse’s body just as the leader tackles Row. He pins her to the ground again and bites into her throat, attempting to suck out her life force. It has been a while since she has fed though and there is hardly anything to take.
Row uses her legs to fling him off of her before pulling herself to her feet just in time to avoid being pounced upon by the third and final ghoul. With her remaining life force drained she is weak though. She is barely able to stumble out of his reach as he scampers along the ground after her. When she trips, he is upon her, sinking his teeth into her flesh and ripping it from her torso. She wails in pain at first but quickly falls silent, making only a slight gurgling sound as blood pours from her mouth.
Seamus has managed to drag himself out of the street. He has just slumped against the door to the inn when the lead ghoul grabs hold of his legs and pulls him backwards. He digs his fingernails into the ground but it is no use. They actually begin to peel off as he is dragged over the cobblestone once again. “Let’s hope you prove better sustenance,” the ghoul hisses while biting into the back of his neck. Seamus is unable to even scream as he feels his blood spurting out.
Suddenly the sound of a whimpering animal draws all four ghouls’ attention away from their prey. A pitch black wolf is leaping from rooftop to rooftop as fast as it can. How it even got past the tall wooden gates of the village is a mystery. It is very obviously being pursued by something though; a figure clad in armor, sprinting through the streets below with fierce determination.
Without anymore roofs within jumping distance, the wolf lands in the middle of the street, directly in front of the inn. It has a look of utter fear on its face. With the street filled with ghouls it can't decide which way to run. As they are practically unconscious neither Seamus nor Row are able to notice a splintered arrow shaft protruding from where its right eye should be.
It has just decided to charge toward the collection of people fighting in the plaza when the armored figure appears from the street corner directly behind it. It leaps at the lead ghoul, trying to catch him off guard, but is too slow. It falls to the ground with a horrible whimper as a slew of arrows strikes it square in the back, directly between the shoulders. “Got you!” Champaign shouts as she tosses her bow into the air.
The four human ghouls all stare at each other in utter shock. They have no idea what is going on. The armor clad blacksmith seems unaware of what they are though. It takes her a mere moment to recognize her charge underneath the second male though. “Release her!” she shouts while drawing her sword.
“Who… what…?” he is too confused to comply.
“I said get off her!” Champaign brings her broad sword down on him, slicing his head from his shoulders without the slightest bit of hesitation.
The leader and his two remaining followers quickly leap away from their prey before the former knight can dispatch them as well. “Who are you?” the leader asks.
“I should be asking you that,” Champaign spits angrily. “What have you done to my lady?”
“Are you not aware of what she is, human?” the leader asks. “She is a bloodsucker. She is an enemy to your kind.”
“And what are you then?” she counters. “From the looks of it you are all ghouls. You are not welcome in my town.” She moves to tower over Doreen who has not yet recovered from her torn arm and is unable to flee.
The other female ghoul winces as Champaign stabs her through the skull, killing her instantly. “Go, now. We have to go.” She tries to drag her leader away.
“I'm no coward.” He shoves her off. “I'm not afraid of you.”
“You should be.” Champaign grits to her teeth as she takes a stance.
Row’s eyes flutter open at the sound of her guardian’s voice. “You’re pathetic.” She spits blood at the lead ghoul. “You wanted to face Turok but you can't even fight a measly human.”
“Shut up!” His anger is taking over. He crouches down like a cat before leaping towards Champaign with his claws out. She turns sideways to avoid him easily while also slicing off a good amount of his flowing hair. His eyes glow brighter as he hisses angrily. He spins around to charge again but Champaign has already retaken her stance.
This time she doesn’t move, letting him tackle her to the ground while trying to bite through her armor, which is practically impossible. Before he can retreat she has brought the hilt of her sword down on his head. He falls backwards dizzily as the glow fades from his eyes for a moment. He is able to recover in time before Champaign can swing her sword at his throat though.
“What’s wrong?” the former knight taunts him. “Did I hear my lady say you were planning to take on Turok?”
“Yeah, that’s right. I'm going to turn Bos Stad into the largest stronghold imaginable,” he answers while scampering to his feet.
“Why?” Champaign is genuinely curious. “Were you not human once yourself?”
“Humans are weak,” he scoffs. “I was a vassal for a lord for ten years. Do you know what I have to show for it? His lordship and I were attacked by ghouls while traveling throughout his settlement. Luckily his lordship managed to escape… by throwing me from the carriage as a distraction.”
“Oh you poor thing,” Champaign clicks her tongue. It is unclear whether or not she is being sarcastic. The former knight rarely displays anything resembling a sense of humor.
“I will have my revenge!” the ghoul bellows. “Lord Glasstien shall pay for abandoning me. He will face the nightmare that I have become.”
“And to have your revenge you must annex the citizens of Bos Stad?” Champaign asks cautiously.
“I need an army. I need to be powerful enough to defeat lords and demigods alike. I plan to create a new world where ghouls can live freely. My days as a human are over. This is all I have left.”
“Well then I am sorry, sir, but that makes you my enemy.” Champaign raises her sword.
“Why can't you understand?” he growls while leaping toward her again. By now his eyes have started glowing once more. He seems strangely stronger than before, perhaps due to determination, perhaps due to having fed on Seamus for at least a short while.
Either way Champaign is fully prepared. She uses the flat of her blade to block his claws and swiftly slice them off. Unlike Row’s they are not as strong as steel. He is hardly daunted though. The pain he receives from each blow she lands is nothing compared to the penalty he will suffer if she defeats him, which will most definitely be death. It is universally accepted by humans that all ghouls and bloodsuckers are to be killed on sight.
“What is your name?” Champaign asks as her eyes follow the ghoul. He is pacing back and forth just out of her reach, looking for another opening. “I feel you deserve at least that much; a name on your tombstone. All of your subordinates were once fellow citizens of Bos Stad but you are obviously not from our village.”
“You want to know my name? Sure, I'll tell you. One day you will all revere me as the spark that started a new way of life. I am the dawn of a new era. I am the herald of the age of ghouls. I am Rashad the beast. Fear me.”
“So the name is Rashad. It is a noble name, indeed. ” Champaign nods approvingly. “I only wish you were still human.”
“Oh stop preaching,” Rashad scoffs. “You have betrayed humanity. You are a sympathizer and an accomplice of bloodsuckers. If I were to turn you, you might actually choose to become my ally. Is that possible? Why don’t you give it some thought?”
“I already have a purpose.” Champaign shakes her head. “Even if I succumb to the horror that is inhumanity as a ghoul I shall continue to protect my lady. I will not follow you.”
“Well that really is too bad,” Rashad hisses while leaping at her again. This time he stays low to the ground, dodging each swing from her sword with ease. He may have once been a human but he has been developing his skills as a ghoul ever since the day he turned. He really has abandoned his former life for this one. As he said, what choice does he have?
After trekking through the woods for several hours and chasing the one eyed ghoul wolf all the way back to the village, Champaign is more than a little tired. Rashad however seems full of energy and intent on fighting to the death. If only the former knight had the rest of her expedition with her; they might assist her in making quick work of this human ghoul.
Eventually Champaign gives up swinging at the quick footed ghoul all together. Instead she stands perfectly still, waiting for him to attack her. He circles around her multiple times, looking for the slightest opening. Of course even when she is not facing in his direction it is difficult; she is fully clad in armor making it impossible to actually injure her even if he were fast enough to strike in her blind spot.
“What are you waiting for?” Champaign resorts to baiting him. “Aren't you planning to transform this whole village into your loyal followers? Wouldn’t it be best to eliminate people like me first? Hurry or the sun might come up. I’ve always been curious why ghouls only hunt at night? Does the sun burn you? I can't wait to see.”
“Shut up!” Rashad takes the bait. He may have accepted his new life as a ghoul but that doesn’t mean he does not have regrets. He does not enjoy being looked down upon like an animal. With his rage clouding his judgment he circles around the former knight one more time before darting towards her from directly behind. It is not the opening he was hoping for but it is the best he will find.
It doesn’t seem to be enough though. Champaign spins around on her heels the moment his claws reach the space between her armor on her torso. His hand is caught and yanked painfully, tearing the tissue within and eliciting an animalistic yelp from his mouth. He once again attempts to scamper back to a safe distance but he can no long bound or pounce.
Champaign’s blade catches him in the back of the leg as he turns to run. He tumbles forward and comes to a stop a few feet away from Seamus, who is still unconscious. The seemingly small wound on the back of his thigh is bleeding profusely though. Champaign must have nicked something important. “Wha-what’s happening to me?” Rashad demands in a slurred voice as his vision starts to blur.
“A healer once told me that ghouls pump blood at a faster rate than normal creatures. With a proper wound in the proper place, you can latterly cause them to bleed themselves to death.”
“Ha, nice try, but I can keep myself alive through sheer force of will.” He reaches out to grab Seamus, hoping to replenish his life force through feeding.
“No!” Row, who he had not seen approaching, leaps at his arm, sinking her teeth into it and severing it from his shoulder.
“Huh?” he is too shocked to respond. “I can't feel…”
Row’s eyes are glowing red as she curls up in front of the inn door like an animal protecting its kill. Champaign can guess that she is restoring herself by feeding on what little life force Rashad’s arm contains. A few years ago it would have been enough to make her sick. Now she is practically used to living with this terrifying creature and watching her feed on everything from stray animals to the former knight herself.
Row does not seem to enjoy the taste of ghoul at all though. As her glowing eyes glance over the bleeding stump that remains she catches sight of Seamus’s limp form. She is still in control of herself enough to know she attacked Rashad to protect him. She doesn’t however realize anymore why she would do such a thing. She is so hungry right now and he smells like nothing more than food.
Champaign can tell what her mistress is thinking. As a proper human she should attempt to stop her. However she has abandoned humanity in the service of her mistress. She has no emotional tie to Seamus and sees no reason why she should not let her charge consume him. It would definitely eliminate the chance of him ever revealing their secret. His death could simply be blamed on the humanoid ghoul bleeding and sobbing in front of her.
Champaign’s focus shifts as she realizes that Rashad is not completely immobilized. He is still dragging himself toward Seamus with his one remaining arm. “I can do it,” he whispers. “I’ve seen the ghouls in the forest re-grow their limbs with enough raw flesh. Come here little one, your suffering will be over shortly.”
Champaign stabs her sword into the ground between Rashad and Seamus, blocking his only chance to recover from his two mortal wounds. “This meal belongs to my lady,” she informs him sternly.
Rashad’s eyes widen pleadingly. “But, but, I need him. I need to survive. I need to take my revenge on Lord Glasstien.” Champaign doesn't respond. Instead she lifts her armored foot as high as she can and brings it down on the poor ghoul’s skull, knocking him out cold.
“Oh god,” his final subordinate gasps in fear. She has been watching throughout the entire ordeal without making a move or a sound. “Please, please don’t kill me. I never wanted any part of this. “Just let me go. I'll never bother you again.”
Champaign shakes her head. “If I do that, you’ll just continue to feed on others.”
“I won't, I promise. I'll eat animals in the woods. I won't ever come near another human being again. Just please don’t kill me,” she begs.
“I’d like to believe you, I really would,” Champaign’s voice is cold and cruel. The ghoul turns to run as the former knight retrieves her bow from the ground where it landed after she tossed it. She has made it almost a block away before Champaign’s final arrow catches up to her, puncturing her in the back of the neck bringing instantaneous death.
Row’s eyes are glowing red as she watches. Not a single hint of remorse shows on her face. Her attention quickly returns to Seamus though. It is lucky that he has passed out from blood loss or her might be screaming at the top of his lungs at this very moment, trying to wake the town so they all can see the truth about the bloodsucker that lives amongst them.
“Alright, here we go,” Champaign grunts as she lifts her charge from the ground. “You have to hurry; my men will be here any minute.” Row does not argue. She sinks her fangs into her guardian’s exposed neck, drinking her blood and life force deeply. Champaign struggles to remain standing as Row siphons more than she has ever before, a definite necessity in order to recover from her wounds.
The hungry bloodsucker seems entirely able to control herself this time though, stopping long before her guardian’s life is even in danger. “Thank you.” She smiles up at Champaign weakly after she sets her back down.
“What about him?” the former knight gestures to Seamus who is still lying face down on the cobblestone street. “Shall we leave him?”
“No.” Row shakes her head. Despite his obvious hatred of her, she holds no ill will for him. She in fact might even regret it later if she decided to let him perish. Ever so gently she presses her fangs into the already existent wound on his neck in order to transfer some of Champaign’s life force to him.
Almost immediately he begins to cough and sputter, jerking violently while rolling over to stare at his savior. “What did you do to me?” he groans.
“He’s fine,” she sighs while standing up.
Seamus has just pulled himself into a sitting position when the sound of approaching footsteps draws his attention. He turns his head to look as eight men clamor to a halt in front of Champaign, all saluting like good soldiers. “Men.” She salutes them back. “Is this all that’s left of you?”
“What did you expect?” Nordis, who has adopted the job of leader, responds coldly. “You left us to fend for ourselves in the middle of the forest.”
“I'm sorry.” Champaign’s eyes widen. It is obvious she had not even considered her men’s safety when she left them. “I had to protect the village. Who knows what a lone ghoul could do among defenseless civilians. I thought you could handle yourselves. You volunteered after all.”
“We’re not soldiers, sir.” Nordis continues to glare at her. “What are you exactly? You look like an actual knight clad in glimmering armor. What are you?” he repeats.
“I'm a blacksmith,” she lies to his face. “Who all did we lose?” she tries to change the subject.
“Anthon and Garth didn’t make it back and you already know what happened to Heidus,” Nordis answers solemnly.
“What about Cabith?” Champaign’s face shows genuine concern for once. If she had to choose a favorite from her makeshift expedition it would have to be the smart mouthed merchant.
“He stayed behind at the gate to make sure none of the ghouls could get in. They seem wild enough to try scaling the walls tonight, much like that wolf you chased in here.” Nordis gestures to the dead animal on the ground. “My god, what happened here?” he finally realizes the carnage they are standing in.
“Here, this is the ghoul responsible for the disappearances.” Seamus points at the only surviving human ghoul, still unconscious from Champaign’s blow to his head.
“What should we do with him?” Nordis’s eyes are wide in awe.
“He won't last long as he is. Lock him up but don’t treat his wounds,” Champaign orders. “We’ll have the council pass judgment tomorrow. This way the people of Bos Stad can have peace of mind that this whole ordeal is over. There is no need to contact Turok or any other demigods now.”
“You really don’t like the demigods, do you?” Nordis frowns at her while directing two younger men to carry the unconscious figure towards the town lockup. “We’ll inform the council of this first thing in the morning,” he assures Champaign before giving a final salute, which she returns. “Oh, one more thing; Cabith didn’t look too well when we left him. I'm not sure he’ll make it through the night.”
“Goddamn idiot,” Champaign grumbles. “Thank you for everything, Nordis, I mean it.” She waves as she sprints off in the direction of the gate.
“Sir, don’t expect me to follow you into battle ever again,” he calls after her. “I'm wise to you now.” She pretends not to hear him as she disappears down the street, leaving her mistress behind with Seamus who is still propped up against the door to the inn. He is quickly yanked to his feet by Row though, who proceeds to drag him along the street in pursuit of her guardian.
Cabith is propping himself up at the entrance of the village with a spear when Champaign finds him. “Dear lord, what are you doing, man?” she snaps at him.
“I really don’t know,” he laughs while wheezing. “I suppose I didn’t want the rest of the men to see my final moments.”
“Why haven’t you gone to see Roderick yet?” she demands.
“If he can fix this, I’d pay to see it,” Cabith coughs while opening his trench coat to reveal a large hole in his stomach.
“What happened?” Champaign gasps.
“One of those damn birds flew straight through me,” Cabith answers with a groan. “I didn’t even realize the damage it’d done at first. So, do you think Roderick can fix me up? Be honest now.”
“Of course he can.” Champaign smiles at him sweetly, surprising both Row and Seamus. Never have they seen the former knight show any sort of positive emotion. She seems to be shaped entirely out of solemn experiences and stern expressions.
“You’re lying,” Cabith scoffs. “Don’t you know better than to lie to a dying man?”
“I'm not lying,” Champaign assures him. Everything’s going to be just fine. Close your eyes now, you must be getting tired. I'll carry you to Roderick’s tent.”
“Ah, that’s all I need; to be carried by a woman.” Cabith’s protests seem unnecessary though as he soon passes out from blood loss.
“Why did you lie to him?” Seamus is visibly upset.
“Because he’s going to be fine, isn’t he, Row?” the former knight turns her attention to her charge.
“Oh no,” Seamus groans.
“I don’t think I have enough life force to help him though,” Row argues.
“It’s alright, just borrow what you need from me.” Champaign offers her neck to the bloodsucker. “We just need him to live long enough for Roderick to heal him properly.”
“Are you sure?” Row is cautious. “Does this man really mean that much to you?”
“Despite everything he has done in the past two years he’s still the only reason either of us is alive today,” Champaign reminds her. “I'll be damned if I'm going to let him die when I know we can save him.”“As you wish.” Row shrugs before biting her guardian once more. Seamus is slightly unnerved by her calm reaction. It seems she is still not as good at emulating human behavior as she thought.