“Seamus… Seamus… Seamus, can you hear me?” Row calls to her servant. He is currently sitting on the bench at the front of their carriage, steering the horse with his reins while she sits in the back with all of the supplies they were able to collect before fleeing the village of Bos Stad. “Seamus, will you answer me?” she starts to lose her patience.
“Huh?” He finally turns his head to look at her. “Oh, I'm sorry, Milady. I'm Seamus, aren’t I?” A guilty expression spreads across Row’s face as she recalls that her servant has recently lost all of his memories. She had made sure to bring the deceased demigod Lodar’s powerful weapon, Arma Venture, with them to prevent it falling into the hands of someone who would abuse its power.
“Did you want something, Milady?” Seamus asks while trying to keep an eye on her as well as the path ahead of their carriage.
“I was wondering how far we are from the next village. I believe we are in Lord Glasstien’s territory now.”
“We are well past the border but I'm afraid there are not many towns within a day of Bos Stad. The whole point of it was a safe haven from ghouls in the middle of nowhere,” he explains. It seems that only his personal memory remains lost; he still has access to his common knowledge.
“What about the capital of Glass Gate,” Row asks.
“I'm not sure we should be heading to trade capitals like Glass Gate,” Seamus argues. “Surely any demigods looking for Lodar will come through there.”
“In my experience a larger city is the perfect place to hide,” Row disagrees. “My mother used to tell me stories of Glass Gate. Almost a tenth of the population is actually bloodsucker. The demigods have no way to prove it and no right to attack random citizens without cause. Lord Glasstien is not known for being understanding toward their crusade. Furthermore I can already assure you that the nearest demigod is, in fact, Turok, whom has taken up residence in the former territories of my late father, Lord Ironglave,” Row adds.
“It seems you have given more thought to this than I,” Seamus admits defeat. “We shall endeavor to reach Glass Gate by morning then.”
“Morning?” Row’s eyes pop as she glances over his shoulder at what little sky can be seen through the cover of the trees. The sun has almost completely vanished from sight. “It’s almost night.”
“We have been traveling for nearly a day now, milady,” Seamus informs her.
“Can you please stop calling me that?” Row asks in a slightly annoyed tone. “It reminds me of castles and lordships and my mother.”
“As you wish,” Seamus responds obediently. “What then should I refer to my lady as?”
“Call me Row, like you did before,” she orders him while crossing her arms.
Seamus nods slowly while continuing to watch her small and frail frame bob up and down in the shaking cart. She is currently clad in men’s clothing including a baggy shirt, trousers and a vest, rather than the normal burlap dress she has been wearing since adopting the role of a blacksmith’s daughter. Before the start of their journey, Seamus had suggested that she don clothing easier to move in, just in case they were to be attacked by ghouls in the forest.
“What are you staring at?” She covers her chest instinctively. His eyes have returned to their normal emerald green rather than the glowing yellow of that morning but she is still unnerved by the sight of them. At any moment the power he has absorbed could overwhelm him, causing him to fall back on the instincts of all demigods; to hunt down and destroy all living bloodsuckers.
“Me? Nothing.” He shakes his head. “I'm merely concerned for my mistress’s well being.”
“You need not concern yourself.” She turns away to avoid meeting his eyes.
“You are ever so small though,” he reminds her. “I'm afraid you might fall ill on a long journey such as this.”
“I'm twenty-two!” she shouts at him. “I'm older than you. Besides, I'm a bloodsucker. I'm immune to all human diseases. The only thing I require is sustenance, which I can go without for almost three weeks if absolutely necessary.”
“I see.” Seamus frowns at her. He obviously does not enjoy hearing about his mistress’s less than human attributes. At least that part of him has not changed, even with the loss of his memory. “That’s pretty amazing though. I never realized how resilient bloodsuckers actually were. It’s no wonder demigods have had such a hard time eliminating them from existence entirely.”
Row’s eyes narrow angrily as she turns to stare at him again. He quickly realizes what he has said and falls silent. After a moment he pulls hard on the reins, bringing the carriage to a complete stop. “What are you doing?” Row demands. “Any second now, this forest will be crawling with ghouls. We need to keep moving.”
“I'm sorry, milady… I mean Row, but this is going to be a long tiresome journey. If we are going to survive then you need to keep your strength up, as do I. We need food.”
“We have food.” Row tosses a piece of dried meat at him. “There, eat up and lets go.”
“Row, I'm serious,” his voice is stern. “We need to find something you can feed on. I'm going to have to hunt for animals.” He reaches past her and grabs hold of a longbow and a quiver of arrows.
“No creature in its right mind will be out at this hour,” she argues. “It’s fine, I’ll feed tomorrow.”
“Just wait for me here.” He ruffles her hair before leaping down to the ground.
Row turns out her lip to pout, which makes her look rather silly considering the fact that her fangs are always slightly protruding from her mouth. “Who gave you permission to touch me,” she mutters to herself.
Seamus has already left the trail and entered the deeper part of the forest. He has both his quiver and broadsword strapped to his back and one arrow in his hand opposite the bow, ready to draw at the first sight of an animal. As Row warned him though, there are absolutely no creatures stupid enough to be outside when the hour of the ghouls’ awakening is almost at hand.
Seamus already knows what he is hunting though. Even though most animals choose to disappear into trees or holes in the ground at night, there are plenty of nocturnal ones to take their place. In fact he can already hear the ruffling of feathers high above him in the tree tops as several brown owls take flight.
Ever so slowly, making sure not to alert his prey of his presence, Seamus draws back on his bow string, pointing the shiny metal tip of his arrow up toward the tree tops. It is too dark to actually see what he is hunting but its silhouette still forms against what little sunlight remains. “Got you,” he whispers as he releases his arrow, which sails upward into the branches of the tree.
The screech that follows is low and weak, but it is definitely an owl. His arrow has found its mark. Though he is nowhere near as good as the knight that taught him, Champaign, he has spent a good portion of time practicing the use of simple weapons since nearly dying at the hands of Rashad almost three years ago. Never again does he plan to be so helpless in the face of danger.
He can see the outline of the injured owl rising into the sky as it tries to flee but the arrow has pierced one of its wings and it is sinking fast. Seamus positions himself nearby as he waits for it to hit the ground, hoping the force of the impact will end its life and make his task that much easier.
Just as the falling creature is about to descend below the lowest line of branches of the trees, another dark figure shoots past, snatching it out of midair. “What the…?” Seamus is left in utter shock. He quickly regains his composure though. “Hey, that’s mine.” He chases after the shadow. “Get your own bird.” He follows the dark creature as it bounds through the trees. It is much faster and more nimble than him but he is angry enough to keep up.
“Give that back!” he shouts while readying another arrow. “That is for my mistress.”
“Seamus?” the familiar young voice of Row startles him. He accidentally releases his hold on his arrow, sending it sailing high into the treetops, nowhere near its intended target.
“Row, what are you doing?” Seamus gasps while lifting his mistress off her feet.
“I was worried about you,” she admits. “I thought I saw black creatures in the trees so I came after you.”
“Well thanks to you I lost your meal,” he scolds her.
“I told you I don’t need…” her voice trails off at the sound of something rustling in the leaves behind them.
“Who goes there?” Seamus shouts while drawing the broadsword from his back and pointing it into the darkness while still keeping Row above the ground in is other arm.
“Put me down.” She starts to squirm.
“Wait, we’re running.” He informs her while sliding the broadsword back into its sheath. She grabs the bow from his other hand as he turns in the opposite direction of the sound. He kicks off of the dirt like a pouncing animal as he sprints back toward their carriage. She has to twist her fingers in the cloth of his cloak just to keep from fall as she jostles about.
They slow to a stop just as they reach the path again. “What is it?” she whispers in his ear. He sets her down and places a hand on her head to keep her low to the ground while peering through the trees at their carriage. There is a pack of six ghoul wolves surrounding it, some pacing in circles and some resting with their paws tucked under their chins and their eyes closed. “Still think I should have waited for you?” she asks smugly.
“Quiet,” he hisses at her while stepping out of the woods and onto the path. The circling ghouls are immediately aware of his presence. They make high pitching yipping noises at their resting companions to alert them of the intruders. Soon all six ghouls are on their feet, ready to defend their find.
Again Seamus draws his sword. He knows he can not defeat six ghouls on his own but he does not plan to have to. All he needs to do is make it back the carriage. Speed will be the advantage in their escape. “Seamus?” Row whispers as she follows close at his heels. He waves his free hand at her, telling her to remain quiet. “But Seamus…”
“Not now,” he hisses.
“But the horse,” she raises her voice.
“I said shut up!” his voice rises above hers, scaring the wolves slightly. “Oh great,” he groans as they move to surround him and Row. They still refuse to actually attack though. Despite all appearances, ghouls seem to be rather intelligent creatures. Seamus knows they will not wait forever though.
Rather than letting them make the first move, Seamus sprints toward one of the smaller one’s jabbing at its legs as it tries to avoid him. Quickly the other five wolves converge on him. He ducks in time to avoid two of them leaping above his head and rolls to the side to avoid two more. Once the wolves are satisfied their comrade is no longer in danger though they again retreat to a safe distance. “What’s wrong with them?” Seamus asks out loud.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you. I think they’re trained!” Row informs him.
“Trained?” Seamus is taken aback. “Who would train a ghoul… and how for that matter?”
“I don’t know but I thought it odd the moment I saw the carriage. They haven’t harmed the horse at all. She’s not even scared of them,” Row explains.
Seamus’s eyes dart to his target of escape. Of course the young bloodsucker is correct. Their horse is standing lazily in front of the cart, completely ignorant of the danger nearby. “What is wrong with her?”
“She doesn’t sense any threat,” Row answers. “My guess is someone else came by first and calmed her before she spooked. They left the wolves to guard her.”
“By someone else, you mean a human?” Seamus’s eyes are wide in disbelief.
“I can only assume it was a ghoul who was once human,” Row’s voice lowers. She is still slightly afraid of the memory of Rashad from three years ago. Seamus however is completely clueless. He has retained his skill with bow and sword from training with Champaign but he has no actual memory of it or the reason he took it up to begin with. Instead he has a very hollow feeling in his chest, warning him to avoid an encounter with this human ghoul at all cost.
Of course, it is already too late though. “Very good, little one,” a masculine voice from beyond the tree line startles both Seamus and Row.
“Who goes there?” Seamus points his sword at the shadowy figure of a man as he emerges from the forest.
“Oh there’s no need for that. If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already. My name’s Aldrea. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He pushes Seamus’s sword away from him as he approaches with the intention of shaking hands. Seamus backs away instinctively though. “Well, what’s your name, boy?” Aldrea keeps a genuinely friendly demeanor though.
“Are you a ghoul?” Seamus asks in utter confusion.
“Technically I was a human first. Just because I had the serious misfortune of being caught out after dark one night does not mean I need to abandon my humanity in the pursuit of living flesh, does it?”
“Huh?” Seamus is unable to follow Aldrea’s unnecessarily complex words.
“How do you sustain yourself?” Row asks. Her curiosity is outweighing her fear.
“By eating animals, of course,” he chuckles. “Why just today I managed to catch a wonderfully delicious looking bird. It was just falling out of the sky. Some idiot must have shot it.”
“Hey, that was my owl!” Seamus’s eyes flare angrily.
“I see.” Aldrea nods. “Well I am sorry but I’ve already taken it back to my camp. My wife is currently preparing it as we speak.”
“Preparing it? As in cooking it?” Seamus raises an eyebrow.
“Oh yes, my wife is a wonderful cook. She prepares most of the meals in our camp.”
“When you say camp, you mean a camp of ghouls, right?” Row tries to follow.
“Some of us are ghouls, and some of us are human, like my wife.” Aldrea flashes her a grin.
“What are you blabbering about?” Seamus can't wrap his mind around the idea. “It’s against the laws of nature for ghouls and humans to coexist. It just isn’t possible.”
“In normal society, no, I guess not.” Aldrea shrugs. “But out here, things are different. We choose to remember the fact that we were once human and be thankful for it. One day my wife may choose to join me in this extended form of life but for now I'm happy she can enjoy certain feelings I can not.”
“This is madness. You’re making this up.” Seamus stumbles toward the carriage.
“Perhaps you’d like to see for yourself,” Aldrea offers. “We could even provide you with food as payment for your bird. What do you say? I rarely get to speak to travelers. It has been years since I’ve been able to leave the shelter of the forest and enter the surrounding towns.”
“Shelter?” Seamus scoffs. “Those cites are shelter from the likes of you and your pets.”
“Differing points of opinion I suppose.” Aldrea shrugs again. He seems to be an easy going sort of person.
“We’d love to see your camp,” Row is overly excited.
“She means we’ll be leaving now,” Seamus corrects her while tugging on his horse’s reins.
“But Seamus, this is a wonderful chance,” Row begs. “We might never get to observe ghouls like this again.”
“Why would you want to?” Seamus cringes. “We’re basically following seven ghouls into the depths of the forest. What if they simply want us to still be alive when they get us back to their hungry friends?”
“I don’t think they’d go through all this trouble,” Row argues. “Please, Seamus; I’ve not had much contact with anyone inside the walls of my castle. I want to see the world.”
“This is a part of the world no one should want to see,” he snaps. “We need to keep moving, remember?”
“I'm not the one who stopped us in the middle of the forest at sundown,” Row spits back.
“I was looking out for you,” he argues.
“Really?” Aldrea interrupts their bickering. “Is there something wrong with the poor girl?”
“Huh?” Row’s eyes widen. “Can't you smell me?”
“I can tell that you both carry the lingering stench of death,” Aldrea admits. “I fear you have recently been near an immeasurable amount of fallen corpses. Perhaps that is blocking my senses. Is there something else I should be able to smell?”
“Um, no, no, not at all.” Row shakes her head. She is not sure that he would be so welcoming if he knew she were a bloodsucker. Despite ghouls being the direct result of her own species they do not tend to cohabitate. In fact, they tend to avoid each other due to competition for food. “Come on, Seamus, let us see their camp,” she tries to return to the previous conversation as quickly as possible.
“But…” he still tries to argue.
“You wanted me to eat something, didn’t you?” She glares at him intently.
“Yes,” he sighs. “Fine, we shall visit their camp but as soon as the sun rises, we need to be off. I want to reach Glass Gate before tomorrow night.”
“Glass Gate?” Aldrea is intrigued. “I wonder what you could possibly plan to visit a place like that for. I won't pry of course; your business is your own.”
“And we’ll keep it that way, thanks.” Seamus frowns at him as he lifts Row into the carriage. Aldrea whistles at his pet wolves, ordering them to scatter into the forest before taking the reins from Seamus with the intention of leading their horse on foot.
Seamus tethers his horse and carriage to a rather large tree and lifts Row down to the ground before continuing to follow Aldrea on foot into a clearing. The first thing he notices are over a dozen separate tents of all sizes with blazing fires burning next to each one, making the entire area rather warm even though it is the middle of the night. “This place is amazing,” Row spouts while twirling around with her arms out, letting the smoky ember filled air surround her.
“Stay on your toes.” Seamus taps her to get her attention.
“Are you still worried?” She frowns at him.
“I have good reason to be. We’re in the middle of an encampment of ghouls.”
“As I said before, not all of us are ghouls,” Aldrea interrupts. “In fact, most of the children here are completely human.” He gestures to a group of kids not much older than ten running and playing near one of the fires. Row watches with obvious interest. “Would you like to join them?” Aldrea offers.
“I don’t know.” She blushes while turning away. She had played with the children of Bos Stad upon occasion when she had first arrived but after a while her stagnant appearance became an obstacle. The children continued to age while she remained the same. Eventually they simply forgot about her.
“Oh look, here they come now.” Aldrea waves as the children sprint from their fire to the edge of the clearing to greet their guests.
“Who are you?” A young girl pokes Row in the stomach. “Why are you dressed like a boy?”
“For various reasons,” she responds shyly. “I'm Row, by the way. What’s your name?”
“Clementine,” she answers proudly.
“No you’re not, I'm Clementine,” another girl interrupts.
“What about me? I want to be Clementine,” yet another girl joins into their argument.
“This is odd.” Row furrows her brow in confusion. “Is Clementine a common name here or something?” Seamus and Aldrea both stifle laughter simultaneously, causing her face to redden even more than before. “What’s so funny?” she demands.
“Have you ever played wolf man?” Seamus asks, to which she shakes her head. “It’s a rather simple game that almost every kid plays at some point in their life,” he explains. “You start by picking a boy and a girl to be the heroes, Boris and Clementine. Then they leave the group and start counting without looking while the rest of the children choose someone to be the wolf man.”
“That sounds interesting.” Row nods as she listens. “What happens next?”
“Well, the children scatter while Boris and Clementine chase them. When they catch one they ask if they are the wolf. The person shouts someone else’s name, supposedly the wolf’s. Boris and Clementine decide whether or not they believe them and if they should let them go. If they were the wolf and managed to trick Boris and Clementine then they win the round. If they weren’t the wolf then Boris and Clementine still have to keep searching.”
“That’s strange.” Row tilts her head as she tries to follow. “So the next person they chase will be the name the person shouted?”
“Exactly.” Seamus nods. “They then decide if they think it’s the wolf or if the first person lied. They repeat the process over and over again until they actually catch the wolf or accidentally let it go.”
“What happens if they do let it go?” Row gasps. She has already immersed herself in the rules of the game.
“Then they lose their turn as Boris and Clementine and a new pair is chosen along with a new wolf,” Seamus answers.
“That actually sounds pretty fun.” Row claps happily.
“Want to play with us?” the original girl offers.
“I'll try.” Row lets the children drag her away by the hand.
“I see you’ve played wolf man before,” Aldrea seems impressed with Seamus.
“Most kids have,” he responds with a deliberate lack of enthusiasm.
“I'm sorry if you are still not comfortable here,” Aldrea is overly apologetic. This only serves to annoy Seamus even more. “You mentioned your mistress was hungry. We have more than enough food to share.” Aldrea gestures to a blue cloth tent next to a fire. There is a woman turning a spit with what is obviously Seamus’s owl on it.
“Hey!” He rushes to reclaim what is his.
“Oh, hello.” The woman is surprised by his sudden appearance. “Um, Aldrea, who is this?” She turns to her husband for answers.
“This is our respected guest. He has yet to share his name with me though,” Aldrea answers.
“A guest; how wonderful. Will he be staying for dinner?”
“I'm not sure. Will you be?” Aldrea asks.
“That’s my owl,” Seamus is still upset.
“Oh yes, sorry about that,” Aldrea gives a short chuckle, which only seems to bother Seamus more. “Well then you are more than welcome at our fire tonight. Will your mistress be joining us?”
“I'm afraid not.” Seamus’s eyes are focused on the long dead bird in front of him. There is no way Row will be able to siphon any energy from it now. The most he can hope for is a chance to build his own strength so as to allow her to feed off of him at a later time.
“Nonsense, we can wait for her to finish playing with the other children,” Aldrea’s wife spouts quickly. “Our boy Jolee will be returning as well.”
“You have a child?” Seamus blinks at her in astonishment. “I was unaware that ghouls could have children.”
“Oh yes, ghouls are perfectly adept at reproducing. In fact, at any given time, the majority of ghouls you will encounter in the woods were spawned rather than turned. It has after all been hundreds of years since they first started appearing,” Aldrea explains.
“That’s not a pleasant thought.” Seamus frowns at him.
“I understand exactly how you feel,” Aldrea takes no offence. “If things keep going the way they are, the forests will eventually be overrun by ghouls and there will be no natural source of food left to sustain them. They will be forced to attack human settlements just to survive.”
“They’ll probably starve first,” Seamus disagrees. “In over two centuries they have yet to figure out how to overcome things like high walls and gates.”
“Oh they can take down such defenses with sheer force in numbers,” Aldrea informs him. “They simply choose not to because they are not desperate enough yet. Once the hunger and necessity sets in, there will be no stopping them.”
“I really hate ghouls,” Seamus mutters to himself. He is not even slightly concerned if his hosts can hear him. Aldrea once again is unbothered but his wife has a difficult time hiding her scowl.
After a while Aldrea decides it is time to change the subject. “This is my wife, Noreen. I wasn’t sure if you were properly introduced.”
“Nice to meet you, Noreen,” Seamus responds monotonously.
“Pleasure.” She glares back.
“Um, so what is your relation to Row?” Aldrea tries again.
“Huh?” Seamus is caught off guard.
“Why do you travel together? It is obvious you are not related and I highly doubt you are betrothed. You must be a kind young man willing to take in an orphaned child.”
“Maybe I am,” Seamus sighs. Aldrea is obviously confused by his response. “I honestly do not know how we met. I have been suffering memory loss as of late.”
“Oh dear, that’s terrible,” Noreen gasps. “I hope it gets better soon.”
“It’s not the sort of thing you recover from,” her husband whispers.
“Oh, I'm so sorry; please excuse my rudeness.”
“Just forget about it,” Seamus is in no mood to discuss his condition.
“Quite right. Let us get back to the matter at hand; food. It seems Jolee and Row have finished their game.”
Seamus looks up to see Row trotting through the camp toward them with a boy of nine following close behind. “Did you have fun?” he asks as soon as she is within earshot.
“Row got picked to be the wolf man!” Jolee shouts happily.
“Is that so?” Aldrea snickers while offering his lap for his son to sit on. Seamus can see by the yellow rings in Jolee’s eyes that he is at least part ghoul; another thing that disturbs him greatly.
Row sighs as she takes a seat on the ground next to Seamus. “What’s wrong?” he can tell something is bothering her.
“Why did I get picked to be the wolf man and not Clementine?” she complains. “I already know what it’s like to be the hunted creature. I wanted to be the hero for once.”
“Oh dear, are you two being hunted?” Noreen picks up on the most serious part of Row’s complaint.
“Nothing so serious,” Seamus tries to calm her.
“Here child, have something to eat.” The woman hands Row part of the owl’s wing.
“Um…” the young bloodsucker simply stares at it with a look of distaste.
“Is something wrong?” Noreen asks calmly.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Seamus assures her while taking the wing from Row and eating it himself.
“Well that’s no good, you’ve got to let her have some too.” She quickly hands Row another piece. The young bloodsucker angrily tosses it at Seamus again. “Does she not like it?” Noreen is concerned.
“She… doesn’t eat much,” Seamus tries to make an excuse.
“If she’s going to be traveling in the woods, she needs to keep her strength up,” Aldrea interjects. “Come on, one bite won't hurt.”
“It might,” Row grumbles while burying her face in her knees.
“Maybe she’s just upset about having to play the wolf man,” Noreen suggests. “Why exactly did the other children pick her?”
“Because her eyes are red!” Jolee spouts confidently. Both of his parents gasp in unison. Seamus’s hand travels to the sword on his back instinctively.
“Bloodsucker,” Aldrea shouts while standing up, dropping Jolee on the ground.
“Wait, we’re not here to hurt anyone,” Seamus tries to assure him.
“Oh this is a treat.” Noreen’s eyes are sparkling as she examines Row’s face closely. She has to lift her head by the chin to see her red eyes, which are not glowing at the moment. “Wow, I never thought I’d actually get to meet a bloodsucker in my lifetime.”
“You, you’re not scared of me?” Row’s eyes meet hers.
“Oh, of course not, child. We’ve dreamed of meeting one of your kind for a decade.” The woman grabs hold of Row’s hands. Instinctively the bloodsucker wriggles herself free though.
“You people worship bloodsuckers,” Seamus realizes.
“Is that so strange?” Aldrea asks while smiling at Row. “Is it alright if I touch your skin?” he asks. She scoots backwards along the ground in response.
“Don’t be afraid.” Noreen crawls after her. Seamus sticks his hand out to block her path. “What’s all this?” she is confused.
“Do not touch my mistress,” he warns her with a menacing glare.
“You certainly are uptight, aren’t you?” She frowns at him. “Don’t worry, I won't do any harm. Just let me look at you properly. Row shakes her head while shivering.
“That’s close enough.” Seamus’s eyes flare yellow for a moment, causing Noreen to stop in her tracks.
“I understand, master.” She nods obediently.
“What in blazes…?” Aldrea is completely shocked.
“What did you do?” Row hisses at him.
“I don’t know,” he is starting to panic.
“By my stars, are you by any chance a demigod?” Aldrea seems equally impressed and terrified. “Wait, no, that’s impossible. That would make you the Golden Clairvoyant. You can't possibly be Lodar the mystical mind dominator.”
“I'm not,” Seamus tries to assure him.
“But that is most definitely his power,” Aldrea is positive. “How can this be? Unless… you killed Lodar, didn’t you?”
“I…” Seamus does not know how to respond.
“Yes,” Row answers for him. “I killed Lodar the Clairvoyant. Are you going to pass judgment on me? If you think you can stand against one who has slain a demigod, then go ahead and try.” Seamus stares at her in complete astonishment. He has no idea where the shy girl from a moment ago has gone.
“I wouldn’t dream of judging you,” Aldrea spouts quickly. “In fact, we here are not friendly with any of the demigods. Surely they would destroy our entire way of life if they found us.”
“I have no doubt.” Seamus nods in agreement.
“We applaud your act of ending one of the nine’s reign. Our great bloodsucker forefathers are most definitely pleased with you. You should be proud of yourself. Perhaps you should seek out the remaining eight and end them as well; then all ghouls and bloodsuckers will be able to live peacefully without fear of unjust persecution.”
“You must be joking,” Seamus barely stifles a laugh.
“Why? If you have the power to destroy the nine then you most definitely should,” Aldrea continues to preach.
“See here, I may have sworn an oath to defend this one particular bloodsucker to the death but killing demigods is another matter. They are the heroes of the gods. They were chosen for…”
“For what?” Aldrea scoffs. “Do you know what the gods are? They are nothing but children playing wolf man; one hundred Boris and Clementines chosen like game pieces for the gods’ amusement.”
Seamus’s expression twists in awe as he slowly starts to understand Aldrea’s point of view. “Are you insinuating that the demigods are nothing more than toys?”
“The gods have a sick sense of humor. It’s not about right and wrong or good and evil; it’s about choosing sides in a game. You can't choose to be on Boris and Clementine’s side anymore either; you’re already on the side of the wolf man. You have no other option.”
Seamus turns to look at Row, asking for her opinion on the matter. She is just as overwhelmed as him. “We should go,” he surmises.
“Wait, stay here a few days so the rest of our camp can meet you,” Aldrea begs. “Many of them have never seen a bloodsucker before. They will worship you like one of the gods, I promise. I'm sure they will even bless you with supplies if you so desire. Some of the humans may offer themselves as sustenance for your mistress. Please, just stay with us tonight.”
Again Seamus looks to Row for an answer. She seems extremely embarrassed at the prospect of being gawked at by the entire encampment but she also seems intrigued. All of her life she has had to hide her true nature from humans. This may be her only chance to meet people not terrified of her and desperate to kill her.
Seamus can see the decision forming in his mistress’s mind. “Fine,” he gives in. “We will stay the night and meet the rest of your encampment tomorrow. We will not stay a single day longer though, agreed?”
“Agreed.” Aldrea shakes his hand. “We welcome you to our humble home. Of course I would like to ask one more favor of you though, good sir.”
“What now?” Seamus sighs in annoyance.
“If you could remove the curse you have placed upon my wife.” Aldrea gestures to Noreen, who is still standing perfectly still with a blank look in her eyes. Seamus had completely forgotten about her.
“I'm sorry. I will release her at once.” He clenches his eyes shut as he concentrates on ending his control of the poor woman. As she slowly wakes from her daze the thought crosses Seamus’s mind that he was not even wearing Arma Venture. Somehow he was still able to use its power though. Perhaps the connection between demigod and weapon is such that they can use them from a distance. He will definitely need to look into it more when he has time.
“Milord, are we stopping here?” Gall asks as his master Brand brings his steed to a halt. They have been riding through the forest on horseback for the better part of the night. It is only just past dawn.
“Where are we?” Brand asks in a hoarse voice while swinging his head from side to side awkwardly.
“Milord, are you alright?” Gall is extremely concerned.
“My chest hurts,” Brand groans as he slips from the saddle of his steed, barely landing on his feet.
“Are you hurt?” Prain gasps while leaping off of her horse. She quickly props the unsteady demigod on her shoulder and presses a hand to his forehead. “You aren’t feverish,” she mutters.
“As if a demigod would succumb to illness,” he sputters.
“Sir?” Gall steps down from his horse as well. “Perhaps these forests are too much for one demigod,” he refers to the fact that they have been fighting their way through horde after horde of ghouls just to get as far as they have. With a demigod’s power it is not as impossible as it would be for normal people.
“Do not look down upon me,” Brand growls at him while letting his head sway. “I asked you where we were, Gall; answer me.”
“We are just outside of Lord Ironglave’s territory, now occupied by Lord Turok.”
“And those?” Brand gestures to a wooden structure just beyond the nearest line of trees.
“Those would be the gates of Bos Stad; a self governed town that acts as the midway post between Iron Grove and Glass Gate. Surely you should know this.”
“I don’t have full access to Genlock’s memories at will!” Brand snaps at him. His black hair is dripping with sweat and he is breathing heavily.
“You look terrible,” Prain coos softly while stroking his head. “Perhaps we should stop and see if they have a healer.”
Gall takes a long look at his master before responding. “It does not appear we have any other choice,” he agrees with his daughter.
Prain helps Brand back onto his steed and leads it forward on foot while Gall takes control of her horse. There is a line of men waiting at the base of the tall wooden gate when it comes into full view. “Halt, who goes there?” the lead watchman shouts at them.
“Step aside. We demand safe passage in the name of the demigod Brand!” Gall shouts back.
“Who?” The men ready their spears.
“Have you not heard of the great red warrior?” Gall asks pompously while leaping down off his horse and drawing his sword.
“He must be Genlock’s replacement,” one of the watchmen whispers to the leader.
“I see.” He drops his spear. “Sorry for the hassle, we are in the midst of a crisis. Perhaps Lord Brand can be of assistance.”
“I'm not…” Brand spits at him.
“Excuse me?” The watchman cups his ear.
“I am not a lord,” Brand wheezes.
“Oh, of course not. Quite right, sir,” the guard quickly agrees. “Sorry for the mistake. You are the next best thing though, are you not?”
“What is it you require our assistance with?” Gall’s eyes narrow suspiciously.
“Actually, there’s not much you can do now,” the watchman admits. It all happened the night before last. We’re still sorting through the bodies.”
“The what?” Brand clasps a hand on the man’s shoulder. The guard immediately crumples to the ground in pain as he tries to pry the demigods fingers off of him.
“Brand, your strength!” Gall quickly reminds the demigod of his power.
“Oh.” Brand releases his hold immediately.
“What on earth was that?” the man groans while pulling the cloth of his tunic away from his neck, revealing a terrible bruise.
“That is the power of the red warrior,” Gall informs him. “He has the ability to focus his strength onto any part of his body. I’ve seen him run with legs as powerful as an ox and toss boulders like pebbles.”
“He’s a monster,” the other watchmen begin to chatter amongst themselves.
Prain glares at them to silence them but Brand seems unconcerned. “You mentioned bodies,” he draws them back to the previous statement.
“Oh yes, we had a terrible plague set upon us the night before last. Nearly half of our village was slain.”
“What?” Gall’s jaw drops in shock. “You can't be serious.”
“I wish it weren’t true but it is. See for yourself.” They push the gates open to allow the travelers inside. They are immediately shocked by the sight of corpses upon corpses piled on every street corner. Prain has to turn her head to puke while trying not to drop Brand, who is still too sick to stand without her.
“What happened here?” The demigod’s eyes are wide in disbelief. “Who are these people?”
“These are our neighbors,” the watchmen answer. “These are people we have known for years.”
“But how did they die?” Gall demands.
“When we awoke yesterday morning they were all just lying around the blacksmith shop.”
“Where? Take me to it!” Brand coughs.
“Is he alright?” the lead watchman is growing concerned.
“Just take us to the shop!” Gall channels his master’s urgency.
The watchmen nod obediently as they lead the way down the street. Prain struggles to maintain her composure as they pass more and more bodies. “Here we are.” The watchmen stop them just before the town square, right behind the blacksmith shop.
“Look sir, ghouls.” Gall points at the many black creatures littering the ground. “Are they what killed your neighbors perhaps?”
“If only.” The watchmen shake their heads. “As you can plainly see, the majority of these wounds were made by a blade.”
“They were killed by a human,” Gall realizes. “But who? Surely they were not fighting each other.”
“We have only one guess as to who may have attacked them. There is only one face amongst the dead we do not recognize.”
“Who?” Brand lifts his head while clutching at his chest. There is a sharp pain burning in his heart.
“As I said, we don’t know him…”
“Show me his face. Take me to him!” Brand shouts.
“Sir, it’s not a pretty sight. He almost seems to have had his heart torn from his chest.” Brand jolts violently at the mention of the injury. He grabs his own chest in pain once again.
“What’s happening to him?” Prain begs her father for answers.
“Take me to him!” Brand screams at the watchmen again.
“He’s, he’s inside the shop,” the lead guard sighs while hanging his head. The oak doors to the building are wide open as there are too many corpses blocking them from closing. Again Prain looks like she may be sick at any moment. She still manages to support Brand on her shoulder as they follow the sauntering watchmen inside.
Past the forge in the center of the main room there are two rectangular stone tables meant for setting hot weapons on temporarily. Instead they both hold a single body each. One is clad in steel armor while the other’s seems to be made from gold. Brand grabs his chest again as he lurches forward, breaking away from Prain’s support. He stops with his head hanging directly above the hole in the golden armored man’s sternum.
“No,” he whispers as tears spring to his eyes. “What happened? What happened to you? This is impossible. This, this, this…”
Gall places a hand on his shoulder and tries to pry him away but he will not move. “Who is it?” Prain shouts. She is unable to take the suspense anymore.
“This is the Golden Clairvoyance,” Brand answers while choking back his tears. “This is the man we came to see. This is the demigod Lodar.”
“But, but he’s dead.” A shiver runs down Prain’s spine. “That’s, that’s impossible, right? It’s impossible to kill a demigod.”
“Look at this wound. He wasn’t killed by a human,” her father informs her. “This is the work of a bloodsucker.”
“But why so brutal?” the guard captain asks. “Why rip his whole heart from his chest?”
“Because that’s what it takes,” Brand answers. “That’s what it takes to kill a demigod.”
“Have you actually ever seen one die before?” the guard is skeptical.
“We told you, didn’t we; this is Genlock’s successor,” Gall reminds him. “He watched a bloodsucker named Corvic and his followers hold Genlock down and force feed him molten lead.”
“My god, that’s sickening. Why would they do such a thing?” the guard is horrified.
“Because that’s what it takes!” Gall repeats his master’s words. “Ripping Genlock’s heart from his body would not be enough to kill him. With sheer force of will he could control his own blood and force it to continue pumping through his veins.”
“You really are monsters?” The guard backs away slowly.
“That is the Red Warrior’s power; to control every single part of his body at will,” Gall continues preaching. “He has full access to everything from the very blood he bleeds to the thinnest strands of his hair. I once watched master Genlock use his own arm to pierce a bloodsucker’s chest like a sword. He could go weeks without eating or survive off of raw meat if necessary. He was almost like a ghoul…”
“Enough!” Prain shouts while grabbing the sides of her head and crouching down to the floor. She does not know what sickens her more, the piles of dead bodies outside or her father’s stories. She didn’t want to know the extent of the power her master wields. In her heart she knows he is far beyond human but a small part of her still hopes he is not actually a monster.
Brand is not even listening to Gall or Prain. He is too busy sobbing over the loss of one of Genlock’s dearest friends. Though he himself never even met Lodar, he has more than enough memories of him to mourn his loss. The reason for the sickly pain in his chest has become clear now, he felt him die. He has no idea how, but he felt it.
“Sir?” Gall tries to gain his master’s attention. “Sir, what are we going to do now?”
“What?” Brand turns around and blinks at him stupidly.
“Who is going to pass judgment on Turok now?” Gall asks calmly.
Brand’s eyes flicker for a moment as he recalls his anger toward the oldest of the demigods. “We will,” he answers calmly.
“Um, excuse me, sir?”
“Without Lodar, the job falls to us. It is now our responsibility to stop Turok.”
“But, but, sir. You, you can't stand against Turok. It’s impossible. He’ll kill you where you stand. Need I remind you that Arma Tua can pierce any part of your body as he pleases? It does not matter if you harden your skin like stone, he can simply ignore it. Even if you had Arma Lita with you…”
“What about Arma Lita?” Brand’s eyes flare dangerously at the mention of Genlock’s weapon, which he has never held.
“I was merely reminding you that it would do no good against Arma Tua in a fight,” Gall refuses to be intimidated. He knows Arma Lita is a touchy subject for Brand. Following the act of pouring molten lead down Genlock’s throat, Corvic had left him to die, taking his precious Arma with him. Of course it took nearly an hour for the powerful demigod to succumb to his injuries, at which point Brand had just arrived in time to touch the rapture and inherit the role of the Red Warrior.
“I don’t care how powerful Turok thinks he is. If he bleeds, I can kill him,” Brand is confident.
“I strongly advice against this course of action, sir,” Gall argues relentlessly. “Taking a direct stance against a fellow demigod could result in a division of loyalty. You could bring the wrath of seven other demigods down on your head in one fell swoop. Is that what you want?”
“I want Turok to pay for his insolence. I want to honor Lodar’s memory by doing what he couldn’t. I want to find the filthy bloodsucker that killed him and rip their head from their shoulders.”
“While I have no doubt your strength would make that possible, sir, I still must protest.”
“Why?” Brand crosses his arms in annoyance. “When did you become such a coward?”
“Can you just think for a moment, milord?” Gall snaps at him. “How old was Lodar?”
“He was one of the original demigods like Genlock, Turok, Ardine and Maumolla,” Brand recalls.
“And how long had he survived up until now?”
“Two hundred years,” Brand mutters while hanging his head. “And if I said that he was undoubtedly killed by a bloodsucker, what would you say?”
“I’d say it was impossible,” Brand answers solemnly. “There are nine demigods left who can not be killed by mere bloodsuckers; at least, there were before Genlock died.”
“When you hear of bloodsuckers killing one of the nine, who comes to mind?” Gall asks softly.
“Corvic,” Brand’s voice sinks.
“Now, tell me again, what do you plan to do when you find the bloodsucker responsible for Lodar's death?” Gall taps his foot.
Prain watches as her master sinks into a nearby chair, clutching the sides of his head in utter despair. Having just heard the story of Genlock’s demise, she does not need to ask who Corvic is. It shocks her to learn that there is a bloodsucker in existence who her master fears. “What do we do now?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” Brand continues to pull at his hair.
Gall places a hand on his daughter’s shoulder and starts to lead her out of the shop. She is not ready to leave though. “Wait, what about…?”“Leave him be,” Gall insists. “He needs time by himself to think.” Prain nods slowly. She knows there is nothing she can do to help her master. Part of being a demigod is making decisions no one else wants to make. In truth he is still only a human trying to fill the role of a demigod. It is taking its toll on him and she can tell.