After burying Lodar’s body properly, Brand and his two trusted vassals continue their trek through the forest on horseback. The demigod has not told either one of his companions what his plans for the near future are. Too afraid to challenge a bloodsucker as strong as Corvic and not powerful enough to stand against Turok, Brand is at a loss about what to do. For now he plans to keep traveling and hope that his companions do not perceive him as weak.
They are only an hour away from Bos Stad when a sudden pain in Brand’s throat forces them to stop. He lurches forward, falling off his horse and rolling on the ground while making a strange gurgling sound. “What’s happening to him?” Prain asks her father while trying to help him. She positions him on his back and presses her lips to his in an attempt to force air into his lungs.
He coughs and sputters for a moment before shooting up into a sitting position. “What is it, milord?” Gall asks cautiously. “Do you still feel the loss of Lodar, even now?”
“No.” Brand shakes his head slowly. “It’s Wan. Wan just died.”
“That’s not funny,” Prain does not believe him.
“He’s not joking,” Gall can tell that his master is serious. “Are you sure about this, milord?” he asks.
“I feel it in my spine,” Brand answers, prompting Prain to start massaging the afflicted area.
“This is getting out of hand.” Gall strokes his graying beard. “Do you suppose someone is going around killing demigods?”
“I wouldn’t put it past Corvic to do something like this,” Brand mumbles.
“What will you do?” Gall asks in a serious tone.
“I don’t think I have a choice. If memory serves, both Husk and Kifflan should be traveling on the other side of Lord Glasstien’s territory. I will not wait for them to be slaughtered like Lodar and Wan.”
“Like I said, we don’t even know if Wan is really dead,” Prain tries to argue.
“Shut up, silly girl. Do not question your master’s declarations,” her father scolds her.
“It’s alright, Gall.” Brand touches Prain’s face to show that he is not mad. “I enjoy my declarations being challenged. It makes me all the more wary of the things I say. I'm sorry though, but I am sure that Wan has met with some sort of injury. If it is not already too late, then he definitely needs our help. We shall ride for the city of Glass Gate.”
“Yes Sir,” Gall shouts obediently. Prain frowns while pushing Brand’s hand away from her face. She is not opposed to him touching her, just his overprotective attitude. She does not need him to defend her from her father’s ridicule. It seems he can only see her as a child who needs protecting.
It is not surprising considering the fact that she was only ten when she became one of his vassals. Brand had been twenty years old when he inherited the power of the Red Warrior. Since then he has not aged in the slightest, making him and Prain the same in appearance but not actual years. In his mind she is still the ten year old girl who always followed her father around. She does not know how she plans to do it but she is desperate to make him take her seriously.
It is nearly a day before Seamus wakes up after inheriting the power of the Silver Shape Shifter from the shadow bloodsucker that defeated Wan. In fact, he sits up in his bed at the inn, screaming at the top of his lungs. Row, who had been resting her head on his arm while sitting in a chair next to the bed is jolted awake as well. “What? What is it?” She glances around in confusion.
“I can feel it.” He starts to pluck at his skin. “I can feel every single burn. I can feel the flesh melting off my face.”
Row places a hand on his forehead while shushing him. “It’s okay now,” she whispers while trying to push him back down onto the bed. “It’s over now. Those are memories of Wan’s. They aren’t yours.”
“But I can feel it,” he repeats. “It happened to me.”
“I know, and I'm sorry.” She presses her cheek to his to comfort him. “Just try to forget.”
“Ha,” he almost laughs. “I can't remember a thing about myself but I have an entire novel about Wan in my head now. Some things just aren’t fair.”
“I know.” Row continues to stroke his black hair. It has grown longer in the five years since she first met him, making him look slightly less civilized than he used to.
“By the way, who are you?” Seamus lifts her onto the bed so he can stare her in the eyes. She tilts her head in confusion, not understanding his question. “Lodar says you might be something called a royal bloodsucker. I have no idea if that’s true or not.”
“It’s true.” She nods. “I am the daughter of the late Lord Ironglave of Iron Grove.”
“I see. I guess that makes you his heir, doesn’t it?”
She shakes her head quickly. “I am the youngest of his children. The oldest is a bloodsucker over sixty named Drogen. If he has perished since leaving Massmede then the right falls to his younger brother Corvic.”
“And if Corvic is dead?” Seamus asks tactlessly. Despite the fact that these two bloodsuckers are obviously her older brothers, he believes she has no emotional attachment to them. In his mind, bloodsuckers do not have emotions at all.
“Corvic isn’t dead,” Row answers sternly.
“How do you know? He could have met a demigod and been…”
“He’s not dead,” Row repeats in an almost angry voice. “Corvic is a manipulative genius with a thirst for power. He was cast out of Massmede by my father before I was born. I have never met him but I have seen paintings of him. He is almost fifty years old with a feminine face as round and beautiful as my mother’s and black flowing hair to match.”
“He sounds like a spoiled brat,” Seamus scoffs. “Can he even fight?”
“He once took on two demigods at once,” Row answers calmly. She is not being smug or proud of her brother; she is simply stating facts.
“What? Really? Two of them? Which ones? How did he survive? Did they even survive?”
“Last I heard from my mother, Ardine gave up fighting after her encounter with Corvic. Turok came to my castle and kicked in the front door like he owned the place.”
“So that’s why you don’t like your brother,” Seamus surmises. “He’s the one who led Turok to your home.”
“Who said I didn’t like my brother?” Row is taken aback. “I love both my brothers. I hope I have every chance to meet them on our travels.”
“But you sound so solemn when you speak of them,” Seamus is flustered. “You sound like Corvic did something you can't forgive him for.”
“On the contrary, Corvic is exactly what bloodsuckers should aspire to be. I'm the disappointment. If I meet him he may kill me just for being so weak. I'm giving his family a bad name by running and hiding like a coward and relying on humans for my survival.”
“Hey, I don’t think you’re weak.” Seamus touches the side of her face. “You may run and rely on humans but you are not weak. You proved you were of royal blood last night.”
“Um, that was actually the night before last.” A guilty expression spreads across Row’s face. “You’ve been asleep for a long time.”
“Oh no, what about our schedule?” Seamus crawls across the bed to stare out the window, jostling the small bloodsucker around in the process. “Wait, when was the last time you fed?”
“There is a sheep ranch not far from here. I’ve already replenished my strength,” she explains. “Thank you for worrying about me though.” She flashes him a fanged smile. Seamus tries his best not to shudder. The memory of blood running down her face is more than he can take. He wants to see her as an innocent child, not a monstrous creature who could kill him at a moment’s notice.
There is a smell of food wafting up from the kitchen below, which prompts Seamus to throw on his boots and descend the stairs. “Good morning, young sir and madam,” the innkeeper greets them with a smile and a bow. “Let me first extend my thanks to you. You were unconscious following your bout with the spirit and I was not able to give you proper congratulations.”
“You know what happened?” Seamus is surprised.
“The whole town knows.” He beams proudly. “Don’t worry about your tab. Practically everyone has pooled together to pay for your stay. We was gonna try buying a favor from the demigod Wan, but treating you to a few finer things will be much cheaper.”
“Ha, Wan,” Seamus mutters while trying not to smirk. It is ironic that the very person they were planning to pay to deal with their spirit essentially turned out to be the culprit. They may never know that though. “So our breakfast is free?” Seamus confirms while sitting down at one of the long wooden tables in the dinning hall.
“Well your meal will be free,” the innkeeper mutters. Seamus shoots him a suspicious glare. “I simply meant that the girl seems uninterested in the food I’ve prepared,” he explains quickly.
Seamus turns his glare to Row who simply shrugs. She has not been making it too obvious that she does not eat human food but someone was bound to notice eventually. “We can't stay here long,” Seamus whispers after receiving a wooden plate of bread, meat and cheese.
“I don’t really want to stay here,” Row admits. “Everyone is looking at us.”
Seamus glances around the dining hall to confirm Row’s suspicions. Everyone in the room does indeed seem to be giving them awkward looks of interest. “Perhaps they too know we are the ones who dealt with their spirit.”
“Something’s still off though,” Row remains on guard. “They don’t seem to want to congratulate us; they’ve left that job to the innkeeper. They actually seem suspicious of us. Maybe they are wondering how we defeated a spirit if we are not demigods ourselves.”
“All the more reason to leave,” Seamus reaffirms. Row nods in agreement.
The rest of their meal is silent and quick as Seamus wants to be traveling again as soon as possible. Row simply watches him eating, licking her lips while focusing her eyes on his. It is extremely unnerving for him. He almost wonders if she is imagining feeding on him.
A separate thought enters his mind about letting their lips touch for some reason but he quickly squelches it. He can't remember that he had similar thoughts back when they first met but his reason for refusing to dwell on them remains the same; she is a bloodsucker with life or death control of him. He can not afford to think of her in any other way, no matter how entrancing her appearance may be.
Outside of the inn, the situation is not much better. All of the villagers stare at them as they walk past, whispering belittling remarks under their breath. “Where exactly are we going?” Seamus asks as Row leads him down the street to a small shop.
“A nice woman came and took our laundry from the inn yesterday,” she informs him. “She said she’d bring it back today but I don’t think we should wait.”
Seamus nods in agreement while glancing down at his clean clothing. Row must have been the one to undress him while he was unconscious, a thought that bothers him slightly. She is wearing the dress that Noreen made for her. The white nightgown she wore during her fight with the shadow was soaked in blood. Hopefully the launderer will not find it too suspicious.
Row knocks on the window to the shop, prompting a woman with a small face to slide the curtain aside to peek out. She nods when she recognizes her customer and shuffles to the front door to allow them in. “That sure was a lot of blood,” she makes an offhand comment while handing Row a bundle of clothing including her nightgown and Seamus’s outfit from the night they killed the shadow.
Seamus waits for her to pry about its source but she does not. Instead she leans down to whisper in Row’s ear. “I’d leave town if I were you. While everyone is grateful for your help, I'm afraid the innkeeper saw everything. He knows your secret, child. We all know what you are. As long as you don’t attack us we will keep our distance but I really wonder why your kind tries so hard to fit in with humans. You’re different; accept that.”
Seamus grits his teeth. He wants to argue with the woman and explain that his mistress is at least trying to emulate human emotions but he can't. He knows that he is just as prejudiced against bloodsuckers and ghouls as the rest of the people in this town. He has asked himself the same questions they are asking now a hundred times; why do bloodsuckers try to coexist with humans?
Row is staring at the laundry woman with calm eyes. She is not bothered by her brutal honesty at all. Perhaps she is incapable of taking offence like a human would. Seamus can't remember but she once argued quite forcefully with him about his opinion of her. Perhaps she only cares what he thinks and no one else. Either way it appears as if she has no emotions at all, just like the people of the town assume. She is only proving them right.
“Let’s go.” Row hands Seamus their laundry as she turns to leave. He does not argue and simply followers her back toward the inn where their horse and carriage still is. Again the eyes of the villagers follow them as they pack their things and set off in the direction of the edge of town.
Seamus is extremely worried about his mistress as she is remaining completely silent. When offered the chance to be worshiped by the humans and ghouls in the forest she was overjoyed. It stands to reason the opposite reaction would put her in low spirits. For some reason though, she is acting like it does not matter at all. Perhaps she is used to it by now.
As they reach the far side of the village they notice a group of children gathered in the shadows cast by the nearest buildings. They seem to be laughing at them. Seamus is forced to bring their carriage to a halt when four older boys move to block the path that leads out of the village. “What do you want?” he asks in a stern voice. He is in no mood to deal with rowdy children.
“Why are you leaving so soon?” the tallest one asks with a smug expression. “Don’t you want to stay a while?”
“Just move out of my way,” Seamus refuses to engage in conversation.
“My dad says you’re a monster; is that so? Are you one of those creatures that eat people?”
“If you don’t move, then I'm going to have to run you over,” Seamus resorts to threatening the boys.
“Oh I'm so scared.” They pretend to shiver. “My dad says that you’re going to attack us all in our sleep. He stayed up all last night watching the streets to make sure you didn’t come near our house. He has a bow and arrow ready to shoot you on sight.”
“As do I.” Seamus retrieves his long bow and draws the string back. There is no arrow but the boys still flinch when he releases the string.
“You’re just asking for it now.” Their confidence has drained slightly. Slowly they disperse, allowing Seamus’s carriage forward finally.
“Wait,” Row whispers before the iron wheels manage to cross the line that represents the end of Quess.
“I'm not waiting for anything,” Seamus snaps at her louder than he intended. He is still annoyed from having to deal with the children.
“I smell something though.” She starts to sniff the air like usual.
“Please don’t tell me…” Seamus groans. She grabs his head and directs his attention to the shadowy cover of the trees. There are several pairs of yellow glowing eyes watching them. “Ghouls,” Seamus whispers. “What are they doing? I thought they only came out at night.”
“The cover of the trees is dark enough for them,” Row answers. “My guess is they’ve noticed Wan’s disappearance as well. They perceive the town as weak and this is their chance to strike.”
“Strike at villagers traveling during the day?” Seamus raises a confused eyebrow.
“No, they’ll attack the town come nightfall,” Row surmises.
“Then we have to leave now,” Seamus urges.
“We can't; they have the whole of Quess surrounded.”
“Maybe they won't attack us. They won’t waste energy on one carriage leaving when they have a whole town ripe for the taking, right?” Seamus remains optimistic.
“If they have enough ghouls to attack an entire town, then one carriage will be easy pickings. They won’t even waste any energy killing us. In fact, they may even gain some by feeding on us.”
“You’re a real ball of sunshine, you know that?” Seamus is becoming annoyed with her pessimistic attitude, though he knows she is correct. “What can we do then?” he defers to her intelligence entirely.
“The best we can hope for is an opening to slip away while they are attacking the town tonight,” she answers.
“Should we warn them of the impending danger?” Seamus asks in a worried tone. He can already guess her response.
“It’s not like they would believe us. Don’t you dare ask that I try to save them either. I'm not risking my life for people who wouldn’t do the same for me. Besides, it wouldn’t do any good; I can't beat this many ghouls. It’s just not possible.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to.” Seamus shakes his head. “I'm pretty sure I’d be no help either. I don’t even know how to control either Wan’s or Lodar’s power. It took them nearly two hundred years to master their abilities and we still managed to kill them.”
“Wait, don’t you have Wan’s memories?” Row recalls. “Doesn’t that help at all?”
“I have flashes of his past,” Seamus disillusions her. “Controlling their power is not all about knowledge. The amount of stamina it takes to shift form repeatedly like Wan is immeasurable. The only reason that bloodsucker managed it is because he just fed. I have no way to replenish my strength. My mind is no where near as overbearing as Lodar’s either. I would more likely end up being the one controlled if I tried to use Arma Venture.”
“If only you had Maumolla’s power too,” Row sighs.
“The Violet Champion?” Seamus draws on Wan’s memory to identify Row’s meaning. “She has unlimited stamina, doesn’t she?”
“Her weapon, Arma Vec is more taxing than any of the others,” Row informs him. “It literally drains the wielder and their opponent of life and mana as they fight. Only someone with extreme endurance training or Maumolla’s power can use it without passing out.”
“Why would one of the great masters make such a weapon to begin with?” Seamus is appalled.
“Remember, the great masters were the best craftsmen of their time. They mastered almost a thousand forbidden techniques each. Weapons like the Arma are so powerful that they are banned. The great masters each received one chance to practice their skill when the demigods first rose to power. Each of the hundred demigods requisitioned a different weapon from each of the great masters, specifically designed to compliment their abilities.”
“A wreath that can amplify the Golden Clairvoyance. A wire that can coil into any form, just like the Silver Shape Shifter. A staff that drains the wielders life force, perfect for the Violet Champion,” Seamus rattles off the three Arma he knows of.
“A large butterfly axe that can pass through anything and inflict massive internal damage.” Row shivers as she remembers the first Arma she ever saw.
“Arma Tua,” Seamus recognizes it from Wan’s memories. “What exactly is Turok’s power?”
“I don’t know.” Row shakes her head. “My mother never saw it in person until she died by his hand.”
“Why do I feel like killing Turok will be much more difficult than defeating Lodar or Wan was?” Seamus is starting to worry.
“Because we didn’t actually fight Wan,” she reminds him. “That bloodsucker did all the work and then got sloppy.”
“Then how are we going to go on living like this? We got lucky twice but it’s not going to happen again. If we meet another demigod, we are done for,” Seamus is now the pessimistic one.
“We’ll have to try drawing on Wan’s memories to learn how to fight them. I'm sure with Arma Venture you will remember something. Until then, let’s just focus on escaping this godforsaken town.” Talking about demigods appears to have shaken Row’s resolve slightly.
“Let’s hope the villagers can stand having us stick around for a little longer,” Seamus tries to laugh as he turns their carriage around, heading back towards the inn.
“How long do you think they’ll wait?” Row asks as Seamus glances out the window of their room again. There is a mob of people in the street below, all holding torches and swords, ready to behead the both of them as soon as they decide to risk going outside.
“You’d think they’d be more grateful,” Seamus grumbles while pulling the curtain closed again.
“It’s human nature to hate those who are different, isn’t it?” Row sighs.
“Different is an understatement.” Seamus frowns at her. “You eat humans to survive.”
“Are you afraid of me?” Row asks while crawling along the bed they are both sitting on until her face is only a few inches away from his. “Do I frighten you?”
“Honestly, I'm terrified of you,” Seamus admits. “I keep wondering at what point it will become beneficial for you to simply turn me into a ghoul.”
Row looks extremely hurt by this statement. It seems she still does care what he thinks of her for some reason. “You know, you’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a friend,” Row whispers, prompting Seamus to scoot a little closer to her, almost letting their noses touch. “What are you doing?” she is surprised.
“I'm showing you that I'm not as afraid as you think,” he whispers back. “I swore to serve you, whatever that may entail. You need not worry about my personal feelings.”
“But I do worry,” she admits. “It’s not a façade like everything else about humanity I emulate. I actually do worry about you. I worried about Champaign as well. I can't explain it.”
Seamus is taken aback by her honesty. He does not know how to respond though. “It’s almost nightfall,” he tries to change the subject. “We’ll have our chance to escape any minute now.”
“Yeah. We will.” Row’s expression remains solemn. She was almost hoping for a response to her statement. She still has no idea what Seamus feels toward her apart from loyalty of servitude.
Seamus peeks out the window again in time to see the crowd below shifting in the street. They have noticed something odd happening around the rest of the town. Some of the ghouls from the forest must have already begun their attack. “The lights; the lights are going out!” one of the men shouts while directing everyone’s attention toward the streetlamps. In the distance Seamus can see them dimming. The ones closest to the edge of town are indeed going out.
“What’s happening?” The people are starting to panic.
“It’s the bloodsucker’s doing.” Some of them try to remain focused on the window of the inn but the majority are too scared.
“Here they come,” Seamus whispers as a flood of ghouls pours into the village square. Pitch black animals with glowing yellow eyes surround the mob and begin to pounce on the people one by one, starting with the torch bearers. Slowly the light outside the inn starts to fade. “Ready?” Seamus clasps Row’s hand tightly. She only nods in response.
A sudden knock at their door startles both of them. “Please help us,” the voice of the innkeeper resonates through. “I know you can help us, please try,” he begs.
“I'm sorry,” Seamus’s voice is full of genuine regret.
“Please, I beg of you.” He pounds on the door. “My family is here. You have to do something.”
“Let’s go,” Row’s cold demeanor has returned. For a moment Seamus is left wondering if she only acts warmly upon occasion to mess with his head. If he didn’t know better he would say she were flirting with him like some of the girls back in Bos Stad often did. He has no actual memory of it though, just a general idea of what it was like.
Seamus pulls Row out onto the roof through the window, just like the night they fought the shadow. They run along the slanted structure until they reach the post where their horse is tethered. Seamus leaps first, pulling Row after him with ease. She not only looks like a twelve year old, she is as light as one too. The animal is already spooked though. It whinnies while raising its front hoofs in the air, kicking at the dark creatures now surrounding the inn.
“Go!” Seamus shouts while cracking the reins. Row undoes the rope binding it to the post. The black and white mare gallops forward a few paces before rearing back, twisting itself and the carriage around the post. The ghouls in the village square have taken notices. They bound towards the helpless horse as it continues to panic. Seamus cracks his reins again, trying to urge the mare forward while also attempting to scare the ghouls. It does not work though.
In a matter of seconds the black creatures have swarmed on the horse, digging their teeth into its flesh and dragging it to the ground. Seamus draws his sword and leaps out of the carriage to protect it but it is too late. They have already torn too much flesh from its bones. In an attempt to save it some pain, Seamus slashes its throat before turning his blade on the ghouls.
He actually manages to chop off the head of one of the boars while it is distracted. His accomplishment is short lived though as soon a swarm of birds descends upon him from above, pecking at his face and arms. He staggers backwards before falling to one knee. He props himself up with the sword while trying to shake the birds off. They swoop up into the air, preparing to dive at him again.
“Are you okay?” Row calls to him from the safety of the carriage. “Can you heal yourself?”
“I'll try,” he grunts while trying to imagine his form changing. Perhaps he can shape shift into something fierce enough to fight back.
“It won’t work,” the familiar voice of Lodar rings in his ears. “It took Wan years to master his power and that bloodsucker had a distinct advantage over you.”
“What if I let Wan take control of me,” Seamus suggests. “You did it once before, didn’t you?”
“It doesn't work like that. Wan can only manifest himself with my assistance,” Lodar explains. “He can’t posses you the way I did; that is strictly a part of Arma Venture.”
“Then you can possess me,” Seamus surmises.
“I could try.”
“Promise me you won’t try to hurt Row,” Seamus demands.
“I would gain nothing from continuing my crusade now that I am dead,” Lodar informs him. “Besides, I'm rather curious about this special creature you serve. I wonder what impact a royal bloodsucker might actually have on the world.”
“Special?” Seamus repeats in an unconvinced tone. It is not that he doesn’t believe Row is special, he just can't believe Lodar would care about such a thing.
“Oh yes, everyone who realizes it will want a piece of her,” Lodar adopts his normal condescending manner. “You best keep her safe from ghouls or other bloodsuckers who might want to make her their queen.”
“Queen?” Seamus is again skeptical.
“She holds the divine blood of Doryan; the right to rule both human and bloodsucker. Some may perceive that as a threat and a reason to eliminate her.”
“I understand,” Seamus finally decides to take Lodar seriously. “Now, help me protect her.”
“I'll do what I can.” With Lodar’s words, Seamus’s eyes begin to glow bright yellow. He is not holding Arma Venture so the power is still weak. The ghouls seem slightly startled by his sudden change though. Some of them even seem to believe he is one of them due to his matching yellow eyes. It is not enough to deter the majority though. There are wolves, rabbits, raccoons, skunks and even a few bears converging on him from all directions.
Seamus’s eyes begin to flicker as he struggles to overtake their minds. He forces a few of them to back away but there are too many. He is too busy trying to control Lodar’s power to even bother swinging his sword as the wolves and raccoons begin to bite his legs. They rip off several pieces of his flesh and retreat to a safe distance to eat but he barely seems to notice. He is now on the verge of passing out as the strain of taking on Lodar’s mind and power is far too much for him.
Just as the yellow light leaves his eyes, he notices a slew of flaming arrows raining down upon the flood of ghouls. The creatures scream in anguish as their flesh starts to burn. Seamus manages to look in the direction of the arrows’ origin. There is a silhouetted figure standing atop the saddle of a brown steed. “Are ye alright?” the voice of a boy no older than sixteen calls to him. “Oy, alive, are we?”
Seamus reaches a hand out toward the figure before collapsing on the ground. “Come on, come on,” he can hear Lodar’s voice in his head still. “This will take everything I’ve got.” Slowly the fresh wounds on his legs start to close as Lodar uses Wan’s power to the best of his knowledge.
“Well that’s an impressive trick.” The silhouetted figure lets out a whistle.
“Who are you?” Row pokes her head out from the carriage. As she is slightly closer than Seamus and slightly higher off the ground she can see him a little better. To her he is not pasted against the night sky, which is glowing with the reflection of a burning town.
“My name is Nuve.” He bows to her. “I'm a ghoul hunter.”
“I see.” Her eyes dart from side to side as she examines him. He has longer hair than Seamus’s which is also much lighter. His eyes are sapphire blue rather than emerald green and he is at least a year younger with no signs of facial hair whatsoever. He is wearing a red tunic over a white shirt with a brown cloak. Row gasps as she spots the weapon he used to launch his barrage of arrows, a crossbow built into a metal right arm.
“Ah, I see you noticed.” He flexes the iron appendage. “It’s alright to gawk, I'm not shy.” He flashes her a flirtatious grin. “I'm not ashamed of my injury. This is the staple by which I make my living.” He folds the sides of the crossbow down into his arm before flicking his wrist to extend a rather wide blade. “See, it has every use you could imagine.”
“Th-thank you for saving us,” Row stutters. “You didn’t have to.”
“Oh, but I did,” he disagrees. “I could never abandon a fellow human in trouble. You are humans, right? Wait, of course you are; what am I saying? Why would ghouls attack their own? What is your name, by the way, milady?”
“Row,” she mutters shyly.
“Row?” he repeats with a perplexed expression. “Is that short for something?” She shakes her head slowly, not wanting to tell him her full name. “Oh well, the name doesn’t, matter. You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Might I ask if you are betrothed to anyone? If you are not, let me be the first to offer my bid.”
“Excuse me.” Seamus suddenly rises to his feet, startling both Row and Nuve.
“Ah, hello there, sir.” The young man leaps off his horse, landing a few feet away from their carriage. “My name is…”
“I heard your name,” Seamus cuts him off. “I heard everything. I'm injured, not dead.”
“You don’t seem very injured now, do you?” Nuve struts around their dead horse to stand in front of Seamus. Their difference in height is as minute as their difference in age.
“How old are you?” Seamus is glaring at him.
“Does it matter?” Nuve rolls his eyes. “I'm old enough to be a ghoul hunter, let’s just leave it at that. I'm much more interested in learning how you recovered so quickly. Are you by chance a creature of the night as well? If it weren’t for your eerie green eyes I’d say you were a ghoul or a bloodsucker yourself.” Row instinctively looks down to avoid letting him see her red eyes. In the dark they could pass for brown when not glowing though.
“I'm neither ghoul nor bloodsucker, so stay your blade.” Seamus pushes the wide knife back into Nuve’s metal arm.
“Aren't we snippy?” The younger boy grins at him. “Am I to assume she’s your fiancée?”
“My what?” Seamus is taken aback. “Wha-what would give you such an idea?”
“It was just an observation. You’re awfully protective of her. I can see why though. I can imagine every man within riding distance lining up for a chance to kiss those succulent lips. I'll pay you ten pieces of gold just for one night with her. You look like the sort that’s desperate for money, am I right? What’s she worth to you? I'll take her off your hands for a thousand.”
Seamus responds by punching Nuve in the face, knocking him flat onto his back. “Alright, I deserved that.” He is not even slightly upset. “She could be your sister for all I know. I shouldn’t have treated her like an item to be bartered or traded. Let me start over, milady.” He rises to one knee and lifts Row’s hand with the intention of kissing it.
Seamus slaps it away before he can though. “Ouch.” Row rubs her sore fingers.
“What do you want from us?” Seamus asks sternly.
“Nothing much.” Nuve shrugs. “I'm just trying to get acquainted with this lovely woman.”
“Do you always pursue children?” Seamus asks in a serious tone.
“My-my, there is no such thing as age when a woman is concerned. I will wait 'til she is older if that’s your concern, stranger.”
“Enough!” Seamus shouts. “It appears you have managed to drive the ghouls back for the night at least.” He gestures to the burning town which is far too bright for the nocturnal creatures now. “If you’ll excuse me, we must be off before they return.”
“Oh that won't matter,” Nuve chuckles. “I'll be staying in town until I'm sure it’s safe. I'll stand watch night after night if I have to.”
“Well that’s very kind of you.” Seamus tries to move past him.
“You know, you aren’t gonna get far with a dead horse,” Nuve stops him. “If you like, I’d be willing to put you up at the inn for a few nights. You could have your own room and I'll share one with the lady…” his attempt to flirt with Row again is cut off by another punch to the face from Seamus. He manages to stay on his feet this time though. “Wow, for someone who almost died a moment ago, you sure know how to hit.” He is completely unfazed. “My offer to put you up still stands though.”
“We don’t need your help,” Seamus refuses. Despite their intention of beheading them, the villagers already promised that everything in town would be free for them in exchange for defeating the spirit.
“Well, if you change your mind…”
“We won't,” Seamus growls at him while leading Row away by the hand. She winces as he squeezes it tightly in the exact same part he slapped. “Sorry,” he mutters while loosening his grip.
“It’s okay,” she responds in a low voice. She is not sure why he is suddenly being so protective of her but it is not exactly unwelcome. She would much rather him act like this than be afraid of her.
“Ah, back so soon.” The innkeeper is peeking up from behind the bar of the inn when they enter. “It sure was lucky that ghoul hunter was here.”
“Yeah, very lucky.” Seamus’s eyes narrow. He is almost positive Nuve was sent for the same way they planned to send for Wan. Whether he was called to deal with their spirit or in fact Row is a different matter.
“Will you be staying another night?” the innkeeper chuckles nervously.
“It’s still free, right?” Seamus is still glaring suspiciously.
“It’s complimentary, yes.” The innkeeper nods. “Anything for our town heroes. Naturally I shall be offering our new ghoul hunter friend free lodging as well.”
“Naturally,” Seamus repeats ominously.
“The same room again?” the innkeeper asks. “One bed is still alright?”
“What? One bed?” Nuve pokes his head through the door of the inn. “Are you two actually sharing a single bed?”
“It’s none of your concern.” Seamus shoots him a disgruntled look.
“Of course it’s my concern. How can you share the bed of a lady before being wed?”
“Weren’t you the one offering to buy a night with her for ten gold pieces?” Seamus reminds him.
“Wow, that’s something you don’t want to do,” the innkeeper interjects.
“Really? Why?” Nuve’s curiosity is piqued.
“Trust me, you just don’t.” The innkeeper wipes the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. An angry scowl from Seamus warns him not to say more. The last thing they need is this strange ghoul hunter learning that Row is a bloodsucker. It will not be long before someone in the town tells him though. They can not stay long.
As soon as they are back in their room, Row drags Seamus to the bed and pushes him onto it. “Hey, what’s gotten into you?” he is surprised.
“You need to rest,” she spouts in a shy voice.
“I'm fine, really?” he tries to protest.
“You almost died again,” she argues. “I don’t want to lose you too.”
Seamus stares at her blankly for a moment. He holds no memories of Champaign and has no idea why she is so upset. What he does know is that she is showing genuine emotion again, something he is starting to enjoy seeing. “Okay, you win.” He pats her head. “I'll rest tonight.”
“Thank you.” She flashes him her normal fanged smile before crawling into the bed next to him. It is not strange as this is how they have been sleeping since arriving in Quess. She places an arm over his stomach while pressing her face against his chest, trying to take up less space. He is actually tired from his short skirmish and therefore barely notices.
For the moment at least they are safe from ghouls and angry villagers. Tomorrow will tell if they should be worried about their new ghoul hunter friend.
“Good morning.” Nuve is waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the inn to greet Seamus and Row at sunup.
“Are you still here?” Seamus’s response is not a friendly one.
“As I said, I shall stand watch until I am sure this village is safe. Quite a shame I didn’t arrive earlier though. A good number of people were killed.”
“That’s your concern, not mine.” Seamus stalks past him to the bar where the innkeeper is waiting to serve him breakfast.
“What will you be having?” the man asks in as cheerful of a voice as he can muster.
“Whatever you have is fine,” Seamus decides not to be picky. It is a wonder the man can even continue to function normally after the commotion of the night before.
“Oh, I'll pay for the lady’s food,” Nuve offers with smile.
“Um, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” the innkeeper tries to deter him.
“Why not? A woman has to eat, right?” Nuve wiggles his eyebrows suggestively at Row.
“The lass doesn’t have much of a stomach,” the innkeeper makes an excuse.
“Well that’s no good.” Nuve clicks his tongue while shaking his head. “Come on now, darling. You have to keep your strength up. Here, I'll feed you.” He grabs a piece of bread from Seamus’s plate and tries to push it into Row’s mouth.
“Don’t touch her.” Seamus’s hand travels to the hilt of his sword.
“Easy now, calm down.” Nuve prepares to block any impending attack with his metal arm. “What’s the big idea? Is she incapable of eating?”
“It’s a condition,” the innkeeper spouts. His attempts to cover for Row are only making things worse.
“A condition, eh?” Nuve’s eyes narrow. “I'm reaching here but that sounds an awful lot like a bloodsucker to me.” Row and Seamus glance at each other nervously. “Of course that’s impossible, right?”
“Damned impossible,” the innkeeper is far too enthusiastic.
“Then eat the bread,” Nuve’s voice is stern, almost threatening.
“I'm not hungry,” Row mutters while hiding her face behind Seamus’s sleeve.
“What’s the matter; already had your fill on human blood?” Nuve taunts her.
“What are you insinuating?” Seamus glares at him.
“Why does it matter? All she has to do is eat a little bit of bread. If she’s human then I'm not even asking that much. Problems only arise if she’s not human.”
“She’ll eat your bread… right?” Seamus stares at Row inquisitively. He has never actually seen her consume human food before.
“I don’t want to,” she mumbles almost inaudibly.
“Too bad.” Nuve shoves the bread towards her again.
“Come on, Row, just a bite,” Seamus urges her. She stares at him as if he has asked her to hang herself. “Please,” he is practically begging. Slowly she opens her mouth to allow Nuve to push the bread inside while making sure to hide her fangs from view. All three men watch cautiously as she chews for what seems like forever. She looks like she may be sick at any moment but she manages to swallow it at last.
“There, satisfied?” Seamus asks Nuve.
“Absolutely.” Nuve beams proudly. “I knew you couldn’t be one of those monstrous creatures. You’re far too pretty.” Row grabs the side of her stomach nauseously but manages to hide her discomfort from both Nuve and Seamus.
“What exactly was all that about?” Seamus asks Nuve suspiciously.
“Can you keep a secret, friend?” Nuve lowers his voice. “I was summoned here to track down and kill a bloodsucker. Look at this.” He hands Seamus a letter similar to the one he was supposed to take to the Dust Pail Pub in Glass Gate. Seamus’s eyes dart to the innkeeper immediately.
“It weren’t me, honest.” He shakes his head violently.
“Quiet you bumbling fool,” Seamus hisses at him.
Luckily Nuve is too absorbed in his explanation to notice. “It seems there is a nasty little bloodsucker running around here. Something like a spirit was kidnapping women folk and this bloodsucker made the mistake of revealing itself while fighting the thing off.”
“Really?” Seamus pretends to be perplexed, earning him a disappointed scowl from the innkeeper. “If this spirit was evil, doesn’t that mean this bloodsucker did the town a favor?”
“The reason it chased the spirit off doesn’t matter. It doesn't change what the thing is; a monster. This thing lives by sucking the life out of humans. It’s very name says it all. It’s my job to make sure creatures like that don’t get to wander free for very long, understand?”
“I think I do.” Seamus frowns at him. He is beginning to question whether bloodsuckers are really all that bad or if humans have never even given them a chance.
“Of course my services come for a price,” Nuve adds in a cheerful tone. “Killing a bloodsucker cost fifty times as much as a ghoul. I can't wait to get me hands on one finally.”
“Wait, you’ve never killed a bloodsucker before?” the innkeeper asks in shock.
“There aren’t that many of them left,” Nuve laughs. “I bet you’ve never even seen one.”
“I’ve seen one,” the innkeeper assures him. He is quickly warned to keep his mouth shut with a glare from Seamus.
“Is something going on that I don’t know about?” Nuve is becoming suspicious.
“You better not say a damn word,” Seamus whispers to the innkeeper. He looks like he would like nothing more than to tell Nuve everything.
“I don’t like being left out of the loop, men. Whatever you know, spit it out,” Nuve demands. Despite his playful attitude and obvious lack of age he seems to take his job very seriously. The fact that he is missing his whole right arm is proof enough he has been in more than a few fights. Seamus is not sure he could face off against him head on.
The innkeeper is practically bobbing up and down with anticipation. Air is escaping his mouth but he is not actually saying anything. “What is wrong with you, man?” Nuve is disturbed.
“She…” He does not have time to speak before a sudden fit of hacking and coughing from Row draws everyone’s attention. She falls off her barstool and lands on her hands and knees, choking on her own vomit as she expels the bread she swallowed.
Seamus starts to rub her back softly. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s her.” Nuve backs away from the bar. “It really was her.”
“What do you mean?” Seamus asks in confusion.
“Bloodsuckers can't eat human food,” Nuve explains. “Meat is a little easier on them but they just can't process plants and grain. The term bloodsucker comes from their need for a strictly liquid diet if they consume anything at all besides pure life energy. Your pretty little friend there is a monster.”
Row’s red eyes glare up at him as she continues to spit saliva despite her stomach already being empty. “What are you going to do?” Seamus asks cautiously, giving Nuve a chance to refrain from becoming their enemy.
“I, I don’t know,” he admits. “I came here fully prepared to kill a bloodsucker, no matter how young.”
“She’s not a child, idiot,” the innkeeper shouts at him.
“I'm well aware of the aging process of bloodsuckers,” Nuve spits back. “Just let me think for a moment.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t wait for you to try to kill us.” Seamus helps Row to her feet and drags her toward the door.
“What are you waiting for? Stop them!” the innkeeper growls at Nuve.
“If they’re leaving then it doesn't matter, right?” He shrugs unconvincingly.
“What happened to your spiel about not letting them roam free? What are you gonna do when she attacks someone else in another village? Could you live with yourself knowing you could have stopped her here?” The innkeeper seems dead set on convincing Nuve to kill Row.
The ghoul hunter takes a deep breath before responding. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s my job to destroy these monsters.”
“Then get out there, lad.” The innkeeper nods.
Outside in the street Seamus is busy searching for a horse to pull his carriage. Of course no one in Quess is going to be willing to sell him one. He is actually contemplating stealing one, a crime punishable by death. Then again, aiding a bloodsucker carries the same punishment.
Just as Seamus is about to un-tether Nuve’s horse from its post, the ghoul hunter startles him. “What are you doing?” he asks while shaking his head disappointedly.
“Don’t judge me,” Seamus grumbles while continuing to fiddle with the rope.
“Are you seriously going to add another crime to your list of offences?” Nuve asks calmly. “Come on, man, walk away. You have nothing to gain from continuing to protect this bloodsucker.”
“Leave me alone.” Seamus tries to ignore him.
“Are you smitten? Is that it? Has she placed a trance on you?” Nuve tries to discern the reason for his loyalty.
“I'm not like you,” Seamus spits angrily. “I don’t swoon the moment a pretty girl walks past.”
“I'll admit that was a mistake on my part.” Nuve smiles while tilting his head from side to side. “To think I was taken with a bloodsucker. They really are beautiful creatures, aren’t they?” Again he is ignored by Seamus who is still struggling to undo the knots in Nuve’s horse’s rope.
“You won't get it. I tightened that myself with this arm,” Nuve informs him while flexing his metal appendage.
“Does that thing even work properly?” Seamus scoffs.
“If you’re asking if I have trouble controlling it then the answer is obviously yes. There is no possible way it will ever handle as well as my own arm but I don’t have much choice now, do I?”
“I really don’t care,” Seamus grumbles.
“I’ve been awfully patient with you but I think it’s time you make a decision. Walk away or I'll be forced to kill you,” Nuve’s voice is stern. Without warning, Seamus draws his sword, which clangs against Nuve’s arm, knocking him back into the street. He manages to somersault backwards before Seamus can follow up by pinning him to the ground with his blade. “That wasn’t smart.” Nuve’s eyes flare angrily.
“Row, go wait in the carriage,” Seamus orders. The young bloodsucker is still feeling sick from the bread and therefore has no qualms about fleeing rather than fighting.
“If you’re still there when I finish off this guy then your death will be slow and painful,” Nuve taunts her. Seamus tries to quiet him by slashing at his chest. Again Nuve’s arm serves as the perfect means to block it but he seems less confident in his ability to beat Seamus now. “I see you’ve been trained by a professional.”
“I really couldn’t tell you if that were so or not.” Seamus shrugs. Without his memory of the rigorous training Champaign put him through following his ordeal with Rashad, all of his fighting skill feels like a natural part of him, coming out on instinct when he needs it.
“I'll wipe that smile off your face, once and for all,” Nuve snaps.
“Wouldn’t that be you?” Seamus counters. “You’re such a happy-go-lucky person. If I were a cripple I’d be much more depressed.”
“Now you’ve done it.” Nuve unfolds the crossbow attachment of his arm and launches three separate bolts at him.
“Jeez, that thing’s fast.” Seamus is barely able to deflect them all. He is given no time to rest though as Nuve has a massive supply of bolts in a satchel on his side and a wire bow string that re-draws itself every time he clenches his fist.
“I really didn’t want to have to fight you,” Nuve shouts over the sound of his arrows clanging off of the sword.
“You could still let me go,” Seamus suggests jokingly.
“If only I could,” Nuve sighs.
The next bolt to hit the sword explodes in a cloud of smoke, knocking Seamus off his feet. “What was that?” he coughs while rolling behind a barrel to avoid another slew of arrows.
“Some of these things are pretty tricky,” Nuve informs him. “Those ones you saw last night are meant to set a whole building ablaze. What do you suppose they’ll do to your measly shelter?”
“Is that your only weapon?” Seamus asks.
“I’ve never needed anything else.” Nuve shrugs while preparing to launch another volley.
“Good to know.” Seamus smirks.
Nuve’s arm suddenly jerks downward at the ground, accidentally launching one of the flaming arrows. “What is this?” Nuve asks while tugging on a long silver wire coiled around his metal appendage. It is holding him in place, making it impossible to flee from his own fire.
“Do you like it?” Seamus laughs. “I'm still learning how it works. You’re lucky you have that hunk of metal. I had to feel that thing scraping the skin off of my arm.”
“This is… Arma Scov,” Nuve realizes. “Where did you get this?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Seamus is grinning ear to ear as he stands up from behind his barrel. “Are you willing to call this a draw yet?”
“Not by a long shot.” Nuve is smiling as well. He folds the bow back into his arm just as the wide blade he showed them the night before springs out. It can't cut Arma Scov but it stretches it far enough for him to slip free. He also drops a small pouch of powder from his satchel onto the arrow still burning in the ground. Seamus ducks behind the barrel again as it explodes. “Black powder,” Nuve informs him. “Quite strong, isn’t it?”
“You take too much joy in your job,” Seamus spits at him.
“I do, don’t I.” Nuve simply smiles again.
“Seamus!” Row shouts from the cover of the overhanging roof of the inn. What remains of their carriage is still sitting underneath it in the shade.
“I think it’s time for Arma Venture,” Seamus shouts back.
“Arma what?” Nuve’s eyes widen as Row tosses the antler wreath at Seamus. He knows he can't let this already overpowered human touch the deadly weapon. He tosses another pouch of black powder at it and shoots it with one of his flaming arrows. Seamus’s hand explodes along with the wreath, which shatters into tiny pieces. “Try piecing that back together,” Nuve tries to remain smug but his fear still shows.
It is Seamus’s turn to stare with wide eyes at the bloody stump that was once his hand. “Maybe you could use one of these,” Nuve taunts him while waving his metal hand. Slowly Seamus starts to pick the pieces of antler out of his arm and chest. Each one feels more painful coming out than going in. Suddenly the remaining shards start to sink into his skin, causing him to bite his tongue to keep from screaming in agony. “What’s going on?” Nuve is extremely disturbed.
He and Row continue to watch from a distance as what remains of Arma Venture digs its way into Seamus’s flesh. They can almost see the bumps in his skin as it travels up his arms and into his face. Seamus grabs his head and screams as two small horns poke out of his forehead. “What in god’s name are you?” Nuve’s arm falls limply at his side as he stares in awe.
Seamus’s eyes start to glow silver as the blood pouring from his stump increases. Eventually it starts to solidify. Finally it starts to morph into the shape of a new hand. Nuve draws a W across his chest with is left index finger, a popular symbol used when praying to the demigod Wan. Slowly the horns protruding from Seamus’s forehead retreat back under his skin, allowing the wounds they created to heal over as well.
Nuve is at an utter loss. “What has become of the Golden Clairvoyant and the Silver Shape Shifter?” he demands.
“I am both of them,” Seamus manages to answer despite being hoarse from screaming.
“Blasphemy,” Nuve whispers.
“I am your god,” Seamus raises his voice.
“Heresy.” Nuve shakes his head. “You are a usurper. You have stolen those powers. You are not a god; you are a pretender. You are…”
“Enough!” Seamus shouts as his eyes flare yellow. Nuve falls silent immediately, completely transfixed. “We are not your enemies, ghoul hunter. You will not attack us again.”
“Understood.” Nuve nods dizzily.
“I will be taking your horse,” Seamus adds after a moment.
“No, not Adrial,” Nuve snaps out of his daze.
“What?” Seamus is too surprised to respond.
“Adrial was a gift from a farmer I once saved. I asked for his daughter’s hand but he wouldn’t hear of it. This was the only thing he would offer.”
“What’s happening?” Seamus turns to Row for answers as he always does.
“You’re not Lodar. You can't control Arma Venture the same way; not mention it’s been shattered into a dozen tiny pieces. You control other people by dominating their mind with your own. If his thoughts are stronger than yours, then he’ll maintain control.”
“But thoughts of his horse?” Seamus is skeptical.
“He must have strong feelings about it.” Row shrugs. “Quick, try to lead him away from the topic before…”
“You!” Nuve interrupts her. “What did you do to me?”
“Easy now, ghoul hunter.” Seamus raises his hands, trying to calm him.
“Wait a moment, why are we fighting?” Nuve glances around at the destruction they have caused in the wake of their skirmish.
“Well…” Seamus tries to think of a way to answer.
“We’re not enemies,” Nuve sputters. “You aren’t ghouls.”
“I think some of what you said got through to him,” Row shouts excitedly.
“So you’re not trying to kill me anymore?” Seamus confirms.
“Um, no.” Nuve stares at him like he said something unbelievable.
“I can't believe it.” Row laughs while running out from her cover and leaping into Seamus’s arms.
“Ouch,” he groans as he tries to hold her weight.
“Oh, sorry. Are you still hurting?”
“Changing my form does nothing for the pain, unfortunately,” he answers. “I'm actually left with a lot of phantom feelings when it happens.”
“I'll get you some ice and water,” Row offers while leaping down to the ground again.
“And what about you?” Seamus turns his attention back to Nuve.
“I… I’ll be dealing with the ghouls outside the village,” he answers in an unsure tone.
“Good, that sounds good.” Seamus nods approvingly. “I just need… need a moment to rest.” He falls face forward on the ground.
“Seamus!” Row shouts while kneeling down next to him. “Seamus, you’ve used too much energy. I warned you about this.” He seems unable to respond though.“Come one, let’s get him up.” Nuve lifts him up onto his shoulder. Row stares at him in bewilderment. The man who only a moment ago was trying to destroy them is acting like an ally. She can't help but feel extremely lucky that Seamus managed to at least insert that one thought into his head. It has completely drained him though. Despite having the power of two gods inside him, he is barely able to even access the potential they hold. Wan’s power to heal any wound is useless if it almost kills him in the process.