The pain that is death would never go away, would it?
Knelt beside her horse, Sorasiehn set a hand upon its flank, stroking the snorting beast gently. The arrow sticking out from atop its leg would be fatal. Every breath the beast took sent jolts through its erratic heart. Stretching her hearing further, she perceived the strain of pierced flesh against metal and wood. If she were to yank out the arrow, it would die faster.
And it would suffer greatly. Unlike her own mother.
A breath caught in Sorasiehn’s throat. She took her hand off her horse to cover her own face.
“This is not the time,” she said to herself, trying to steady the shaking spreading through her body. “Don’t think about it.”
But all she saw was her mother, her eyes frozen in a stare – the deadly arrow sticking out from her throat – and her body, evaporating into blue dust. Sorasiehn shook; she squeezed her face, trying to force the thoughts out. And when she heard herself scream in her mind, she screamed out loud as well.
Why could she not forget? She had tried; she had struggled. She had upheld her mother’s values and principles and fought for a justice she didn’t really understand, and all for what?
Her horse’s quiet whine brought Sorasiehn back to the present. She took a deep breath and swallowed the shaking in her throat, to place her hand back on the horse’s flank. Its rapid breathing told her one thing: it was in pain.
“If I’d been more careful—” Then what? she wondered. Would it have changed anything? Would her aggressors not have targeted its heart?
No, she knew: they would have targeted her, instead. And her life was far more important than a horse’s. Just like her mother’s had always been far more important than her own.
Sorasiehn gritted her teeth, her fist pressing now against her chest. She would not cry; no matter how hard she squeezed her eyes shut, she refused to cry. Tears were weakness. Pain was weakness. All that she needed was—
“I hate you all!” Her scream echoed among the trees, fading, fading away, until she heard but her horse’s pounding heartbeat, and the silent voice of the Aberviohn stroking her own, calling out to her with despicable compassion.
“I don’t want you to help me,” she snapped, gripping tight the front of her shirt. “I want—” Everything to be over.
But she silenced the thought as soon as it was born, tearing it apart in her mind. She was not weak. She would never be weak again. She couldn’t afford anything else but that hatred – that hatred that had kept her alive, and safe, and eager to carry on. All of her mother’s murderers would be dead, one day. As dead as the humans who’d killed her mother back then, whom Sorasiehn had killed in turn with these very same, blood-stained hands.
Ignoring her horse’s whines, Sorasiehn twisted herself round until she could see them – the humans she’d killed but heartbeats ago. Pieces of flesh now, strewn among the trees. It wouldn’t be long now until predators came to feast. The thought constricted her heart, and she turned her eyes back onto her horse. After one last, long stroke, Sorasiehn rose to her feet.
Even as the horse stared up at her with pleading eyes, Sorasiehn drew her sword. This was all she could do for it. End your pain.
It thrashed when her blade pierced its heart, but only for a moment. Her hilt held fast, Sorasiehn waited – she listened, to the beast’s breathless whines, to the dim murmur of its chest swelling with blood, while all around them, nature bristled with peace. At the end of the horse’s life, right after she heard its last breath vanish into the air and its heart ceased to vibrate, Sorasiehn let out a sob that she immediately muffled with her hand, swallowing her own voice.
By the time she returned to her makeshift camp by the near river, she’d steadied herself. Every thought of her mother, banned; every memory of the blood on her hands, buried. She thought of nothing as she went and knelt beside the river, washing her hands in the clear, cold water. The face she saw reflected at her was that of a warrior – hard, unyielding, and somehow insecure.
Growling, she cursed at the water and splashed her image away. As though in retribution, or so it felt to Sorasiehn, the skies rumbled overhead. The first drops of rain pattered down soon enough, to her groaning frustration. When the winds flared up and began to bater her with their slicing cold, she reluctantly decided to take shelter in the nearby cavern.
Seated against cold rock, Sorasiehn ignored best she could the memories trying to resurface, of her horse nuzzling her in the dark, of her resting her head upon its flank to sleep. She’d hated its affection, back when she’d first saved it from humans eager to skin it alive for meat and merchandise. How many times had she not shoved its head away, or yelled at it, or even taken off without it? And still that stupid beast had followed her. Look where it got them.
“This is upsetting,” she snapped, shooting back to her feet. Without thinking, she headed towards the exit, to stop at the cavern’s edge and stare up. “I hate the rain.”
She breathed in deep nonetheless, letting in deep the scent of wet wood and grass, the sharp tang of lightning. After a while she winced, a sharp pain stabbing through her sword arm. The cold – rain, sharp and cold, seeped through the blood-clotting leaves she’d applied maybe a day ago, when that vampire first had found her. She pressed her thumb against her bandaged arm, wincing in pain and in thought. Thank the Aberviohn that their magic wasn’t bound to the state of their limbs, or she wouldn’t have survived that ambush. She’d be as dead as her horse.
Irritated, Sorasiehn sighed and returned to her sitting spot. She rummaged through the bags dragged from her horse’s corpse and pulled out a thin blanket that she wrapped around herself. In her hands, she gathered the winds; she pulled them in, trapped and twined them between her fingers and released them a breath at a time, ultimately keeping close but the hottest of breezes reaped from the lightning itself. She could still feel its energy crackle through her hands, prickling her skin like myriads of tiny daggers. In time, pain turned to a numb drumming that relaxed her shoulders and quieted her breath. Her eyes grew heavy, her heartbeat steady, and with the feeling of her mother’s hands upon hers, Sorasiehn felt at peace.
Until she heard the screech.
Immediately, she tensed and sat up, releasing the winds and her memories back into the wild. Holding her breath, she stretched out her ears and her hearing beyond the batter of rain and thunder, waiting for the next screech.
It sounded closer.
Horror suddenly struck her. She yelled out her mother’s name and ran, out into the slick, pouring darkness, thinking only of saving her mother’s life. Several times her feet slipped in the dark, until she couldn’t regain her balance and she stumbled to the ground, shouting in surprise and in fear and in pain. A lot of pain, she realized when she tried to move. She’d fallen onto the sheath of her mother’s sword.
Sorasiehn’s heart constricted then. Hands tight onto the sheath, her side throbbing, she remembered the cold, cruel reality of her mother’s passing – of her murder. Breathing hard through gritted teeth, she glared out into the dark, towards the distant screeching. Going after a night beast would certainly get her killed. Even with a light stone – even with several light stones, she’d still be at an unfair disadvantage.
What had she been thinking!?
Cursing under her breath, Sorasiehn made her sludging way back to the cavern, guided by the hollow silence amidst the rain. Once safe and dry, she pulled off her clothes and tossed them aside, keeping only her belt and her blades close. The blanket didn’t offer much drying power, but it was better than nothing, and the winds she conjured close would, in time, warm her up.
But she couldn’t stop herself from tensing up every time she heard the distant screeching tearing through the air. Was it closer? Farther away? Impossible to tell with the downpour clogging her hearing, and the winds howling between her fingers. She could only wait, prepared for the worst.
Before long, the worst that happened to her was her own mind bleeding together her mother’s death, and her horse’s. She realized she’d left the horse’s carcass out and in the open for any predator to feed on – just like she’d abandoned her mother’s dust. No matter how hard she reminded herself that her mother was gone, the urge to run out and find her swelled in her heart, blinded her to the dangers, to the cold, to the dark – things, she rationalized, that would get her killed by the predator roaming the woods. Its screech echoed again, and she thought it sounded too close for comfort. She couldn’t afford to take any risks. So Sorasiehn grabbed her bag and strew out its contents, stepping back into the darkness as her light stones illuminated the small cavern. She tried not to think of the cold prickling her skin, or of the slickness of the rocks beneath her bare feet. Hand at her sword’s hilt, all she focussed on was the light, and the sound, and holding her own breath while steadying her heart’s beat.
The beast’s own heartbeat she heard first of all, a loud, haphazard pounding followed by the quiet screech of its breath. She heard the quiet splash of paws treading upon wet stone. Sorasiehn frowned then. The treading sound lasted for too long to belong to an animal’s. It sounded like a human’s.
Not a human’s, she realized, swallowing to its screeching breaths. A vampire’s.
He – It came into view soon enough, squinting to the pale blue light of the stones. Slightly taller than herself, fancy dressings ripped in bloodied places. It could have easily passed off as human, were it not for the wildness of its wide eyes, and the large clot of blood around its distended lips. She saw no fangs, yet everything about its hunched posture, its clawing fingers, and the pounding in its chest, betrayed it as a predator.
And she knew it saw her – smelled her. They always did.
She ripped the leaves from her arm and tossed them into the light, high enough for her to watch them fly, to observe the vampire’s reaction. Its eyes flitted about, as though unsure what to keep track off. Immediately she charged, swinging her sword in a wide arc while taking aim at its neck, only for her sword to clank off rock as it evaded. Nerves abraded by the sharp echo and the tremors in her arm, Sorasiehn dropped her sword and screamed – and the tactic worked. Clearly thinking her badly hurt, the vampire lunged. Swiftly, she pulled out the dagger at her belt and aimed high, soon to feel her blade pierce flesh, and see its eyes go wide in shock. She wasted no time stepping back, dagger in tow, to watch the vampire screech in agony and drop to its knees, hands at its throat. In the dim blue light, its blood looked dark and disgusting, tainting its clothes, its skin, the very stone it was going to die on.
For a short while she waited and listened. The vampire’s heart calmed, stabilized; its breath sounded hoarse through the gurgle of its blood. It would be a matter of heartbeats until it’d go mad from blood loss and become a greater threat, but also far more vulnerable. A dagger alone wouldn’t be enough, but when it’d pounce, she would evade, shove him farther away with the magic now coiling round her free hand, and reach for her sword.
The vampire did nothing. After a while of watching it bleed out and cough and gradually collapse onto its own free hand, Sorasiehn wondered: was it a trick? A trap? Or maybe not a vampire at all? It had no fangs, but its attitude, its sounds… She couldn’t have been wrong.
When it finally collapsed onto its stomach, gurgling like a dying man, Sorasiehn cautiously stepped closer, picking up her sword on her way. She nudged the vampire with her foot – once, twice – and as it didn’t react beyond making its dying noises, Sorasiehn steeled herself and kicked it onto its side, immediately holding her blade downward in defense. It – He? – only gurgled and coughed and showed no sign of hostility, curled up in a miserable heap. His breath was rapid, a faint screech in his – its – throat.
She could take no risks.
Sorasiehn lifted her sword, clutched atop the man-beast’s throat. One clean cut, held in place until it stopped breathing, should do it. A merciful death for a beast that, ultimately, hadn’t done anything to her.
But when it stared up at her, Sorasiehn froze. In its eye, she saw no fear, nor did she see violence or threats. There was determination and certainty, a strong conviction echoed by its words.
“Kill me,” it said. Do it now, do it fast, do it before I kill – she heard it all, in his stare, in the beat of its heart, in the quiet rasp of its breath. Sorasiehn’s own gasp caught in her throat.
Even as she hesitated, its glare didn’t relent. Kill me, it kept saying – kill me, what are you waiting for, why are you hesitating. And why was she? Why couldn’t she strike? Why was she shaking? Why did she feel ready to burst into tears?
She repressed them, and the sob in her lungs, until the vampire’s eyes finally closed.
To be continued…