The day had been especially hot, causing Zarafa to shiver as the temperatures dropped along with the sun, encasing the desert in frigid darkness. Clutching her threadbare shawl closer, she hurried with shambling steps toward shelter, her red hair falling in clumps around her face, covered in dirt. She had not been clean in a month, when she last made the journey to the bathing well, although it wasn’t unusual in Ponorama for one to go so long without a bath. Only the town sorcerers, practically royalty for their talent with magic keeping the Thunderbirds at bay, bathed regularly here.
Thanks to the scorching days in Ponorama, the towns came alive when the sun went down before it got too cold. Zarafa could already see the lights ahead among the larger settlements, and her steps slowed. She knew she wasn’t welcome there, but the scraps from the celebrations were better than she could find at any other time, and she couldn’t afford to pass up such an opportunity. Bending over as though her shame pressed her shoulders toward the ground, she shuffled along the dusty terrain toward the commotion. Her stomach already growled at the smell wafting toward her.
The celebration held tonight was the biggest and most festive one of them all, as the people of RiverBed conveyed their gratitude for the end of the Scalding season and the beginning of the Sky Lights season. Zarafa paused just before she reached the people, stopped by a loud, bugling call. Every face turned heavenward, and moments later, the dancing blue and green Sky Lights appeared, drenching the scene in color that wasn’t seen anywhere else in the realm. Zarafa gaped at the sight for only a moment before returning her thoughts to the task at hand- snatching some food and getting away before she could be caught.
Sneaking past clumps of people, she was relieved that they paid her no attention, and she made her way easily to the banquet table. She glanced once more to her right, her left, and her right again, and saw no one who would stop her. Reaching out a hand, she grasped a loaf of bread, then, with more glances to ensure no one was watching, gulped down enough drink to wet her throat. She couldn’t help but let out a gasp of relief at the feeling of it sliding down her throat, instantly rejuvenating her. Finally, she turned to go, but only took a few steps before she was noticed. Shouts erupted around her, and she lengthened her stride, pushing for her body to flee the scene.
She wasn’t fast enough. Tripping over someone’s extended leg, she tumbled to the ground hard, skidding far enough to scrape up her skin. Drawing in a quick breath, Zarafa flipped onto her back and stared wide-eyed at the person who had tripped her.
The man had a sneer on his face as he looked down at her. Though he wasn’t clothed in the uniform of the peacekeepers, he could still report her to them, or just punish her himself. He reached down and jerked her up with one strong hand. ”Hungry, are we?” he hissed, the words slipping menacingly from his lips, making Zarafa feel uneasy.
“L-leave me alone,” she gasped, trying to pry her clothes from his grasp. He didn’t budge, and pulled her closer. His eyes gained a strange hunger in their dark depths. Zarafa let the bread slip out of her fingers. It landed in the dirt and sent up a puff of red dust. “Look. There’s the bread. Just take it and leave me alone,” she sobbed, trying once more to pull away from him. Her effort turned out to be just as futile as the first try, and the stranger’s eyes gleamed at her, almost with an animal-like hunger. “Who are you?” she cried out. Looking over his shoulder, she found that those who had been chasing her had gone back to the party, leaving him to enact justice upon the beggar and thief. A few watched, waiting to witness the punishment.
“Oh, sweetheart... what you should be asking is what am I,” he replied, baring his teeth in a feral smile. Zarafa’s heart nearly stopped at the sight of his canine-like fangs. His eyes changed as his teeth did, burning gold as the pupils stretched, looking more like diamonds than the circular pit of a human’s. A scream erupted from her as his face dipped toward hers, but he continued. One of his hands grasped her hair and yanked it back, exposing her throat.
Zarafa’s nails raked across his face, but he grinned, unfazed, and guided her neck toward his unnatural fangs. She tried everything she could think of to get away, but he was stronger than anyone she’d ever known. Perhaps even stronger than the sorcerers that guarded each town in Ponorama.
His fangs pierced her artery, and as her life-blood left her, Zarafa found her consciousness slipping into darkness, helpless to do anything to prevent it.
The first thing she noticed was heat; an unbearable scorching that raked across her skin like a sandstorm. Her skin felt dry and cracked, and her body felt heavy and painfully dry as well. A groan escaped her parched lips and with pure effort of will, she forced her eyes to open. They took a few minutes to focus. The images before her swirled and flickered in and out, increasing her feeling of nausea. Finally, she was able to somewhat take in her surroundings. Head pounding, she sat up and peered around, squinting against light so bright it made her eyes sting. Zarafa reached out and touched the wall. Is that… wood? She glanced at the table and chairs unable to believe her eyes. A cold dread crept up her spine. Only a sorcerer would have such a thing in Ponorama.
Continuing to squint, she shuffled carefully over the wood floor, back hunched as she investigated. The room was simply furnished, which meant it wasn’t the dwelling of a sorcerer. Who, then, lives here? Why am I here?
Piece by piece, her memory came back. She was tripped by a stranger, who then grew fangs and bit her neck... Recalling this, Zarafa’s hands flew to her throat, searching for the wound. She couldn’t feel any puncture wounds, but the area was tender beneath her probing fingertips, as though there was a massive bruise there.
A scraping sound reached her ears, and she spun toward it, bracing herself to try and fight off whatever creature that stranger from the night before was. A man walked in, though he didn’t look like the person who attacked her. She continued staring at the man as he walked toward her. The opening to the dwelling shut behind him.
He stood tall and proud, dark chestnut hair styled nicely on his head and a slight smile turning his lips upward. Shoulders back, he appeared even more regal than the sorcerers. “Greetings,” he said, stopping before her and examining her with his gaze. His eyes paused for a moment on her neck before they continued to her face, where they stopped. She dipped her head a little and shuffled her feet, off-put by this man meeting her gaze. No one ever did that. They looked down their noses at her when they looked at her at all, and it was never for longer than a few seconds at a time. But this man... he was still staring at her, looking almost expectant.
She cleared her painfully dry throat and spoke, keeping the words at a minimum. “Who are you?”
“My name is Dexter,” he replied, and then fell silent, as though waiting for the next question. The man was odd, but she was quickly warming up to him.
“You saved me.”
“Because we can be of help to one another,” he replied, finally turning from her to sit on a chair made of wood, pulled up to a wooden table.
“...How?” She finally hesitantly copied him and sat in the other chair.
He gave her a full smile, shockingly white teeth sparkling at her. “In time, my dear. For now, though, I’d like to get to know more about you. The beggar who dared to walk right up to the banquet table and snatch some food, surrounded by the entire town of RiverBed. The woman who fought her attacker after he caught her. Your actions were both brave and surprisingly well-executed. Considering,” he added, allowing his smile to shrink once more.
“What happened to me?” she dared to ask, reminded of her encounter with the stranger. Her finger took to tracing a knot in the wood. “What did he do to me?”
At this, his smile disappeared. “He was a vampire, my dear. ...And he turned you, which I find to be a much more cruel action than killing you, which is what I expected him to do.”
“A... what?” she choked in confusion.
“The sun hurts your eyes and skin, yes?” he asked in way of answer to her question, his eyes following her finger’s movement as though irritated by it. “And you feel as though you’ve had nothing to drink for weeks?”
Zarafa pulled her hand back into her lap, not wanting to bother him. “Yes,” she replied, attempting to swallow, but her throat was too dry to do anything other than stick together painfully.
“And that bruise at the site of the bite- it’s no normal bruise,” he continued. “It’s the magic of the vampire’s venom spreading from that area.”
“He didn’t have to inject you. He could have just fed and fled, which this vampire usually does. I suppose he took a liking to you and decided to put you in transition.”
“Yes. You aren’t fully a vampire yet. Should you choose to not feed on human blood, you would die.”
“Yes, well, no worries, it doesn’t take much,” he continued coolly, pulling a vial out of a pocket and handing it to her. There was no doubt about it. That was blood inside. “I already took the liberty of taking some of my own blood for you.”
“What... why?” she murmured, the vial warm in her hands. She felt drawn to it, though the thought of drinking the blood was... odd, to say the least. Though it should have repulsed her. Perhaps his story had some truth to it.
He smiled, baring his white teeth at her once more. “Because I believe that you could be a valuable asset,” he replied simply, reclining in the chair, though as his shoulders were still drawn back, he didn’t appear to relax. “Take the blood, and I’ll take you away from here and give you a better life.”
“Away from RiverBed?”
“From Ponorama,” he clarified. “You wouldn’t want to stay here after the transition is complete regardless. I’m not sure how the vampire that bit you has survived. He probably hid during the day and only came out at night. But in Lii, the magic of the realm protects vampires from the sun. You could continue to live your life during the day.”
Zarafa shook her head slightly, resting her gaze on the wooden table beneath her hands. Ponorama had never been kind to her, but... leaving for another realm? As a vampire? She didn’t even know everything that would entail yet. Still... there was nothing for her here. And this man, Dexter, was promising her a better life elsewhere. He had already shown her a great more kindness than anyone else ever had.
She looked up, meeting Dexter’s gaze. Straightening her shoulders as he did, she opened the vial and tipped it back, letting the blood flow past her lips.