(20th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
They faced each other in the clearing, the cool breeze of a Cormyrean night rustling the knee-length grass, Selûne nearly full above a blanket of her tears..
"Remember." Ryuu instructed, his expression calm and reserved; "Fear not the iron. Any wound you sustain, lest it be a stake through your heart or a decapitation, you can heal. The pain is only a memento from your previous life. Learn your errors through this pain, and then dismiss it. It has no power over you now."
Nodding, Haidée lifted her sharp and uncovered sword in a duelist's stance; blade leading in her left hand, the other hand behind her back, knees slightly bent, her left leading. She knew now that swordsmen ideally offered the smallest amount of their bodies to the opponent by angling so; standing facing them was tantamount to suicide. By angling herself, she became more difficult to hit, while retaining her balance.
Ryuu stood in a near perfect symmetry with her stance. But when he moved, he did so with a natural dancer's grace, lunging forward with his sword. It barely looked like he moved at all.
Turning her wrist, Haidée slapped the blade aside, using as little actual force to do so; her opponent's momentum was supposed to do most of the work for her. Ryuu nodded at her parry, backing off. He began to circle, forcing her to do the same, lest she reveal her flank to him. He was testing her footwork; she had to match his speed, all the while retaining her stance and her center of gravity, all the while in turn seeking to outpace him and find an opportunity to strike.
One who only defended ended up dead; to defeat anything but a novice opponent, offense was needed.
Likewise, he had shown her that novice warriors defended, or attacked. An ideal fighter found the space between attack and defense, and managed to do both, attacking with a perfect parry laying in wait, parrying with a perfect riposte ready to spring and catch a thoughtless opponent off guard.
Using his lessons, Haidée had studied his swords; small, curved, and narrow, they were ideal for thrusting, but the fact that he used two seemingly upset this. How could he do any of these things that he showed her when forced to use both hands?
He lunged again, seeking to capitalize while she was thinking, but Haidée denied him again, slapping the blades away once, twice, thrice, backpedaling as he pressed his attack, and twisting his main hand sword aside, she retaliated, recovering and thrusting again with reach dull ring of edge on edge as he parried her in turn with the other.
Eventually, Haidée overextended; she saw Ryuu's eyes gleam as her footing faltered, and she saw in clear, almost frozen motion, as his sword slipped behind her guard. Instinct took over; he might very well run her through with his strength.
She slipped forward, and found herself standing several paces away, facing the trees outside the clearing, an ache in her shoulder as if she'd slammed into him.
"Recover!" her master snapped, the rustling grass betraying his approach, and Haidée pivoted, knees bent, and parried him as he rushed forward, stopping his momentum.
"What did I just do?" she asked, stunned, and he grinned, backing off, "You used a short burst of vampiric speed. Good. You are learning that your limitations are not what they used to be. You can use that again, and again, to immediately defeat a lesser opponent. Right now, we are fighting as the king's guard might; with confidence and skill, but under mortal limitations. Forget who you were, child. You are a Vampire now."
"Yes, Master. Master..."
"How do you fight with two swords?"
He considered, then, "I developed my technique over many decades, improvising where I might be hindered by such a style. Likewise, I use intimidation and misdirection where normal mastery might not abide. It is a good technique, though it requires perfect ambidexterity and synchrony of motion. It is, you understand, more the style of a dancer, not a brawler or duelist. Because I do not fear wounds, I can bring myself to a state of higher focus, and that is precisely what I need to use two swords as I do. But that I cannot teach; you simply have to learn it if you want to do so as well."
"But if it is so much more difficult than this, why do you do it?"
He smiled, "Why not? When you are as old as I am, you get a different perspective of things; efficiency does not compare to entertainment. I use this style because it requires so much of me. I teach you the duelist style because you can learn it quickly, and use the most of what you have. I am beyond such measures."
The bout was over; they both sensed it, and Ryuu didn't press the matter. They sat on her father's porch, watching the forest.
His words still bothered her, "You said entertainment, Master?"
He nodded, not at all surprised by her outburst.
"Battle excites you? Fighting entertains you?"
"Yes. You are offended?"
She averted her eyes, "...Yes."
Ryuu frowned, then shrugged, "We can spend the rest of the night doing something else, then. I cannot explain in brief words what I have learned in this matter."
Though he didn't sweat, nor had he ever, Ryuu had doffed his tunic before the match had begun. Seeing the gruesome wounds across his back, it amazed her he was so nimble and flexible.
"Does it hurt when you move like that?"
"When you fight? When you're...not fighting?"
"Always. The pain has become a part of me. I barely notice anymore, because it is difficult to remember a time when I didn't have these scars. Like I said, pain to us is only a phantom of what came before we became what we are."
She had no reply.
"I had another dream about you." Haidée finally said, troubled.
He nodded. His expression softened.
"It was beautiful."
Again, he nodded.
"Do you still play the harp?"
Ryuu shrugged, "Sometimes. It is hard to travel with a proper instrument, and I have called no place home in a long, long time. How about you? Ever tried?"
Haidée shook her head.
"Maybe I will show you how sometime."
"I would like that, Master."
Ryuu grunted noncommittally, "You progress well. You could give any fresh-faced warrior a run for their money, and we have practiced only four days. But do not think you have escaped my ministrations...as we travel, I will continue to train you." to which Haidée frowned, "Very well, Master. Master?"
"Can I not stay here? If I learn control, can I-"
"No. You cannot." Ryuu interrupted, raising a hand, "True control takes decades, and many never achieve it at all. The reason Vampires are so ill considered is due at least as much to the fact that we cannot control ourselves in times of duress as due to the fact that we may or may not be genuinely evil. Like werewolves, we fall prey to the grotesquery of our true nature, that most, even Humans, especially Humans, manage to hide. Lust, anger, hunger, greed...we lose much of our control when we find that we can live forever, that we have this power, and often become ruled by our desires. We go wild, mad, sadistic. We become more likely to take risks, and indulge these urges. And when we descend into utter debauchery, mortals invariably take notice, and attempt to slay us. Soldiers, warriors...heroes. All would seek to destroy you, if they knew what you are. I told you what it meant to be a Vampire, Haidée. I told you what you would have to lose if you wanted to live."
She nodded, despondent, "I must lose everything I had in life."
"Not everything." Ryuu corrected, "The memories of your previous life, and the wisdom they impart, are yours forever. Never forsake them; they will anchor you to the person you were, so you need never become lost. Many forget, and it precipitates their descent into madness. But for a time, lest the grief cripple you, you must separate yourself from that which is no longer available. Believe me when I say it is for the best, because I have learned from experience."
Ryuu nodded, "Anyway, I think I will teach you the harp sometime. Skill with a blade and skill with an instrument are much the same; practice, practice, practice, and a little improvisation. It will help develop your discipline, ere we test your proficiency in the arcane."
Silence stretched, then...
"I am sorry."
Ryuu frowned, puzzled.
"I should not have judged you for liking to fight. I just.."
"Ease, child. I am not offended. You could say that, old as I am, I define life as is measured as a single person as absurd. A person, to me, is only the sum of the connections they make with those around them. Taking a life, especially if I consume it, I consider merely a celebration of life, because that life continues with the connection that I have made to it, and indeed, the connection that will be made when I am slain. When my time comes, and I have no doubt eventually it will, I will embrace it as the inevitability that it is, and the enjoyment I took in that temporary life. Pleasure and permanency, I say! Such is the experience of life!"
Haidée tried to absorb his words, and failed. She could not reconcile his kindness towards her with such a callous, unfeeling philosophy. She built up her courage, and posed the question, "What do you consider my life, then? Why did you care at all if I had died?"
Ryuu considered this for a time, letting only the wind break the silence between them.
Then, "Again? Fine. You could say that at times I find this belief to be...insufficient. Sometimes I get...lonely. Sometimes I get sentimental, remembering the life I had lived before. I was a healer. It was my duty, my passion, to help those in need. So I offered you a chance to live. And you took it. You held on, and remained to continue and develop new connections."
"Connections to you?"
He laughed, and his deep, raspy chortle broke the tension, "Gods, no. You are not my type. Master and student will do fine as our connection, as well as sire and offspring. What do you take me for?"
His mirth did not abate, and with some hesitation, Haidée joined him, forcing air back into her lungs so she could match his laughter.
"Wonderful. I feel up for something different tomorrow."
"Find out for yourself. I find that contemplation of the unknown nourishes the intellect."
Esmer found Tolon in the taproom, drowning his sorrow in drink. While he had no idea how a farmer could pay for these things, but he just didn't have the heart to ask how he had come up with the coin.
He had said that he'd left his daughter's rites to a friend, that priest Esmer remembered frequenting the tavern for a few days, and that there had been a second priest handling her...
Tolon hadn't said the word; his voice had broken.
Esmer would shelter the old farmer, he decided; even if the marriage had not been consummated, he considered the old man family.
First, however,...he wanted to pay his respects. They had to have buried her somewhere near the house, probably next to her mother. He would visit that house one last time, he decided.
He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't.
Alexander brewed himself tea to sooth his migraine. He had altered his sleep cycle, the better to keep pace with his undead associates. When they entered the house, it was Ryuu first, as always.
They shared a look, then Ryuu sat cross-legged in front of the hearth. Haidée stared longer, and she shifted uneasily, before she sat at the table on the other end of the room, poignantly looking away.
He hadn't gotten used to her eyes, now a deep maroon color, and she, in turn, had not accustomed to being so close to a living Human. He could see the thirst boiling up in her.
Since he had arrived, Ryuu had been keeping her well fed, the better to help suppress her urges, but he had begun weaning her, testing her mettle.
Alexander, for his part, had agreed to keep his holy symbol hidden under the folds of his robe. She couldn't be repulsed by an icon of a deity, but by her own willpower. It was always tense when they were in the same room.
"Tomorrow evening, I think we'll take a little trip east..." Ryuu declared, "You fight well enough for what we'll find out there, and frankly, I tire of this location. It's so...peaceful."
"Aside from rampaging Ghouls, of course." Alexander chimed in, without realizing it.
"One Ghoul." Ryuu corrected, "And not any more. Thanks to me. Anyway; I'm thinking up the mountains. A scenic, perilous locale, that."
"The Stormhorns are to the north." Alexander replied, and the Vampire shook his head, "Nay, too much of a military presence up there. Too risky. I was thinking the Thunder Peaks. Oversember Vale."
"That is a distance of many leagues. And across flat plains."
"I didn't say we were going to walk!" Ryuu snapped, "Gods, what has you so prickly today? Well, aside from your average propensity for prickliness. We, well, that is, Haidée and I, are going to fly there. I guess if you insist on coming we can carry you."
"Fly?" Haidée asked, "How?"
"As bats. You have a measure of my powers, remember. If you desire, you can take the shape of a wolf, fog, or a swarm of particularly carnivorous bats."
Alexander eyed him with equal incredulity as the girl did, "Carry me aloft...as bats?"
"Certainly!" Ryuu replied, grinning, "Vampires can drag a person for many leagues as a swarm of bats. It's one of our preferred methods of feeding. On the wing, we'll reach the vale before sunrise, and it holds many natural caves to hide in. In a bind, I could summon a cloud of darkness to protect the two of us, but I don't think I'll need to."
Sipping his tea, Alexander kept his protests to himself. He had made a promise to Tolon and to his god.
"Chin up, priest. I assure you that you will remember your time in the skies of Cormyr positively. How many men could say they experienced such a thing?"
Not many. Certainly none who flew amongst a pair of Vampires survived to tell the tale...