Thicker than Water
This thought ran through my head like a mantra as I desperately loaded powder into my flintlock and hurried to tamp down the ball. Ahead of me, I could see my companion attempting to hold the beast at bay. The knife-like claws of the draconic creature sparked against her saber, with every blow pitting the beast's savage fury against her graceful swordplay. The butt of the musket finds my shoulder as I zero in on the creature, taking great care to ensure my comrade is not hit by accident.
"Mira," I cry, "hold the beast, so I can take a shot!"
She makes no reply but moves her gloved hand to the tip of her blade, forming a plank of steel to press against the behemoth's claws. The creature is stuck between attempting to break through her guard and retreating for a brief moment. It does try to withdraw, evidently showing enough low cunning to guess my intentions.
It is too slow.
The next moment, smoke and fire erupt from the barrel of my gun, along with a thundering boom that sends my ears ringing. The creature reels back, howling in agony. My bullet found its mark right in the brute's eye. I can't let up; I've bought Mira a few seconds at most. I begin the reloading process with the same haste as last time, more powder finding its way to the cavern floor than in the barrel of my weapon.
The beast, however, must have expected this. Mira has wasted no time capitalizing on the creature's newfound blindness, rushing to attempt a leaping slash at its blind side. As she is about to put steel to scale, the beast thrashes one of its claws, catching my comrade in her stomach and throwing her back against the far wall with a sickening thud.
"Mira!" I shout, rushing to close the distance between us. By now, the beast had regained its senses and turned its gaze on me. About halfway across the chamber, I feel it begin to move. A frenzied charge in my direction, as if the beast sought to avenge the loss of its eye. The wyrm opens its jaws, intent on snapping them shut around me. He did not count on me having a sidearm. The pistol discharges directly into the creature's gullet, sending it writhing in agony as I rush to meet my fallen comrade.
With my rifle slung over one shoulder, I take her in my arms. I feel her hot breath against my chin and am filled with relief. She's dazed but not dead. I mutter a prayer for safety as I try my best to retrace our steps from memory, hoping to find some exit. Eventually, as the beast's roars fade, I hear a low groan from the woman in my arms. The sound makes me halt as I lower her to the ground, her golden locks splayed around her head, contrasting the dank cave floor.
Her eyes slowly open, the bright blue orbs darting around before coming to rest on my own.
"Mira," I ask, "Are you alright?"
"I've certainly felt better, old friend." She replies, "Were it not for your eagle eye, then I'd say we'd be in a worse state."
She tries to rise but gives a sharp hiss as she clutches her side. I focus my lantern on the area and notice dark blood seeping from a tear in her leather garments.
"We never should have come here," I mutter, "You're wounded now, and it's my fault; we never should have taken that job."
My friend gives an annoyed grunt as she moves to her feet, stumbling a little on her first step, "Had we not taken this job, the juvenile would have matured into a fully-grown dragon. If it ever decided to rampage, then hundreds could die." She gives her blade a few experimental swings to see if she can still fight before turning to address me once more. "At least now, if we fail, the only casualties will be two vagabond adventurers and a weakened dragonling that can easily be finished off by the militia."
"If the militia can handle it, let's get out of here and find you aid." I spit back at her.
Her face softens a little at my words, "Are you so concerned about my well-being that you would abandon a job worth three hundred thalers to get me aid?"
My eyes dart to avoid her gaze, "You know that you're important to me, Vladimira," I say sheepishly, "I'd hate to see you hurt because of my incompetence."
She smiles softly at my words, "You're a good friend, Johann, and you're not incompetent or stupid; this was just bad luck." She points her blade toward the entrance of the dragon's lair, "It's wounded; a few more shots and slashes should put it down."
She takes a resolute step forward, only to stumble and require my help to regain her footing. I can tell she's in pain but is putting up a strong face. It's one of the traits I both despise and admire in her.
"The surface is within reach, Mira; you're sure you are fine?" I ask.
She waves me off and resumes her steady stride, "Yes, now let's make three hundred thalers." It's obvious she's made up her mind, so all I can do is check my weapons and move to follow her.
As we move back into the deeper part of the cave, I am struck by a sense of dread. The noises of the beast have gone silent; not a sound stirs in the gloom beyond the treading of boots as we make our way forward. A few more moments pass before I voice my concern to my companion, "It's far too quiet, don't you think?"
"I was just about to say the same thing," She replies, "you have any ideas what the beast could be up to?"
"When I went to help you, I fired my pistol into the creature's mouth." I explain, "Perhaps the bullet pierced into the brain?"
"God willing." She mutters.
We walk a bit further until we return to the chamber where the dragon had been. We mill about for a moment examining the area for any clue where the dragon may have gone. A few dark blood spots show that our efforts have been met with some success, but ultimately, the dragon is nowhere to be found.
"Johann," she shouts, "I've found a blood trail! The beast has gone to lick its wounds in some side passage!"
"Then it will be cornered and expecting us," I sigh, "which means it will be twice as dangerous."
"It's wounded, both of your guns are loaded, and my blade is back in my hands. That lizard is as good as dead." Mira returns, "It's like when we were kids, Johann. The three things we can always rely on."
"Our weapons, each other, and God." I recite, the list burned into my mind.
A smile blossoms on my companion's face, "Exactly, now let's kill that dragon!"
The tunnel is long, longer than we expected. It feels like we are traveling toward the entrance to some underworld of ancient myth. I clutch my rifle tighter if I need to use it at a moment's notice, and I notice Mira has adopted a similar iron grip on her sword. We forge ahead cautiously, afraid any shadow could hide out quarry. Eventually, we arrive at another cavern, and the glow of golden eyes tells us we have found our prey. Or he has found us.
The lizard charges again with a roar, favoring his sighted side and making his pattern predictable. Mira tries to rush to meet the creature, but it barrels straight past her. Directly towards me. In a panic, I raise my rifle and fire another deafening shot into the beast. Though the creature howls in pain, he shows no signs of slowing down. In desperation, I pull my pistol and prepare to meet its gaping maw as before. The beast stumbles as Vladimira slashes at its haunches with her blade. The beast turns, and I see an open shot at its functional eye. This was the opening we needed. I raise my arm and aim my pistol as best I can, but as I am about to fire, I see something move out of the corner of my eye. We've underestimated the beast yet again. The dragon's tail slams into my side as the pistol fires uselessly into its scaly hide. I fly through the air for a few brief seconds, a wave of pain informing me that I've hit the wall. I try to stand, but pain wracks my body as I do. I resign myself to kneeling while watching the fight play out.
Vladimira seems concerned with my well-being as she spares quick glances in my direction. She's back to being in a stalemate with the dragon, trading saber swings with claw swipe against the beast, neither of them gaining ground against the other. The sparks, as they clash, illuminate the cave for a few seconds. It would be beautiful was I not so terrified. The dragon attempts a mighty roar, but something catches in its throat. My bullet damaged it, allowing Mira to slay the beast. She tries another leaping slash, and I see the beast has played another trick. I can hear myself shout a warning that comes too late. In sickening slow motion, I see the dragon raise one of its claws and skewer her in midair, the knife-like talons poking through her body like a ghoulish pincushion.
I can't even scream as my mind processes the scene before me. Mira's saber clatters to the ground as her arms go slack. The dragon quickly flicks its talon, tossing her body away from him. It lands near me with a thud. Though it causes me utter agony, I crawl over to her. When I reach her, her eyes have dulled, and her breathing has become shallow. Only her chest's faint rise and fall let me know she was still alive. "Mira! Stay with me; I'll get you to the surface, get you to a healer; just stay with me."
God almighty, I feel so helpless, watching my best friend bleed out and being unable to do anything. She weakly moves her eyes to my face; her mouth moves, but no words come out. A thin trickle of blood runs down the corner of her lip and across her cheek. If I don't do something, then she's going to… God, no, not that, anything but that.
At this moment, when everything is at stake, I'm reminded of Mira's secret.
We'd grown up in the same village, been friends since we were kids, and in all that time, I was the only one she trusted to keep her secret. The curse of her blood, her inhuman heritage, and the struggle she went through every day to save her humanity. A dhampir, she had called herself, a half-blood vampire.
I pull the knife from its scabbard on my hip, bringing the blade up to my palm. Looking down on the limp form of my best friend, I am reminded of the dire warning Mira gave me the night she admitted her secret. Blood, she told me, would awaken her to her monstrous heritage. Blood would heal her and give her strength, but the blood would also kill the woman I knew, the girl I had grown up with.
My mind is racing with possibilities. Would my friend become a feral beast hungry for my blood? Would she lose the gentle nobility and composure I'd always admired in her? Would losing her humanity rob her of her memories, making me a stranger in her eyes? Ultimately, none of it matters. It pains me to betray her wishes, but I would rather have her as a monster than a corpse. I bring the knife to my palm and endure the sting as I draw the blade across, coaxing a few drops of red from my palm.
"Mira, forgive me."
Holding my hand above her mouth, I let a few crimson drops fall on her tongue. One drop, then two, and then three and four. Was she lying? I've given up hope by drop number seven, especially since I can hear the dragon stomping towards me. Drop ten falls, and her eyes shoot open, her wounds beginning to close as she shoves me aside and gets to her feet. As she passes, I can't help but notice her eyes. Her usual placid blue has been replaced with a violent red. She stares at the dragon in utter contempt and takes a fighting stance as the beast approaches. I stumble into a sitting position, trying to reload my pistol, only for her to look back and utter two words.
I watch in awe as my friend takes a single step and shoots forward to close the distance with the dragon, the beast opening its maw to try and intercept her. She clears the creature's jaws with a single leap and hooks a hand on one of its horns, stepping onto its neck. The creature bucks and thrashes, attempting to dislodge her, but Mira remains rooted in her position on the beast's cranium. She maneuvers to the creature's ruined eye, cocking back her fist before driving it home with a battle cry. The dragon howls in agony as my friend continues punching deeper and deeper into its eye socket. Sickly squelching noises came with each blow as she's long since reduced the creature's eye to a ruined pulp. The anguished roars reach a fever pitch and are suddenly strangled as Mira begins yanking pink goo out through the dragon's eye socket. The beast seizes up and makes a few desperate motions before collapsing and moving no more.
Mira dismounts the dragon with another graceful leap, shooting one last look at the fallen beast as she lands.
"Worms like you should know your place." She growls before spitting at the creature's corpse.
Despite the pain, I struggle to my feet, hobbling my way over to her side. "We did it. You were incredible, Mira." I say, placing a hand on her shoulder. Mira turns her head at my touch, crimson eyes staring at me like a dog at a piece of meat. She shakes her head, and her face turns from hunger to concern as she wraps her blood and brain-matter-stained arms around me.
"Are you alright, Johan? That was quite a hit you took." Mira asks, bringing her face across from mine.
"I'm fine, a few bruised ribs, but I'll live. You're the one I'm worried about, Mira." I reply, "I really thought I'd lost you."
She doesn't answer but continues to hold me close, her grip tightening to the point of being uncomfortable.
"We need to take something of this creature back with us, or else there will be no reward; let's get started." She deflects.
Packing the beast's head between the two of us, we make for the surface, and it isn't long before the light of midday strikes our faces. I shield my eyes, but Mira is more affected, recoiling back before regaining her equilibrium in the shining sun. We make it to town by early afternoon, depositing the dragon's head to the adulation of the townsfolk and collecting our reward. Throughout the entire proceeding, Mira remained strangely quiet. This malaise seemed to continue as we set off for the next leg of our journey, and even as we stopped to make camp, her odd behavior continued.
"Well, despite everything, the job was a complete success. I don't think we've ever been paid so much, have we, Mira?"
She gives no answer, her eyes fixed on the fire and the stew slowly simmering over it.
"Mira, are you well?"
She locks eyes with me, and for a second, I glimpse the violent crimson I had seen in the caves, that same famished look in her eye that sends chills down my spine. With a few blinks, the beast is banished, and I see the familiar sapphire of her eyes once again.
"You look troubled, Mira. What's on your mind?"
She again casts her gaze into the bubbling stew, "Earlier, you said you were afraid you'd lost me."
"The dragon had run you clean through; blood was coming from your mouth, and you weren't breathing. I, I was afraid you'd died; I panicked."
She doesn't look up from the stewpot, but I hear her heave a heavy sigh, "You gave me blood, didn't you, Johan?"
A feeling of shame washes over me, her accusing tone cutting deep, "I know you told me not to, but it was either that or watch you die!"
"If you had a choice, why didn't you let me die?"
Her words strike home like a dagger thrust between the ribs, "Vladimira, did I hear you right? Are you truly saying I should have just let you die?"
"I'm saying you should have let me die human!" she snaps, eyes finally meeting mine as she raises her head. I understand why she avoided eye contact for so long.
She's crying. I never realized how broken up she'd be over this.
"Mira, I think you're overreacting. You haven't sprouted wings or a tail, you're still the same girl as always, and even if you did, I'd never abandon you." I say, my hand finding its way to her shoulder.
"You don't understand, Johan." She whispers.
"I can try if you'd let me."
Without a word, she grabs the ladle from the stewpot and pours a helping of stew into the bowl at her side. She stares at the soup for a few seconds, a smile growing on her face as she sniffs. Her eyes narrow into a glare before softening into a look of defeat.
"You know, I remember when I first had this soup. Back when you and your father brought me to the village. I was so cold, so hungry. Miss Maria made me this soup. Just beef, potatoes, and broth, but for a scared and starving little girl, it may as well have been a feast."
As if to punctuate her point, she takes a spoonful into her mouth. Chewing slowly and deliberately before swallowing with some finality.
"It was my favorite food, but now…."
Her teeth clench as she flings the bowl away from her, all joy in her eyes replaced with rage.
"Now it doesn't taste like anything! The broth tastes like water, the beef and potatoes may as well be sand and stale bread, everything is bland and not even filling!" she yells, her fists clenched at her sides as if containing the anger and despair she's obviously feeling. "There's only one thing that can fill me anymore, and we both know damn well what that is."
She stands there for a moment, her back towards me, shaking with rage from her earlier outburst.
"Do you understand now, Johan?"
I can feel my mouth drop as I finally comprehend her words, "You mean, because of what I did, you can only feed on blood? L-like a V-vamp-"
"Like her, like my damned mother!" she snaps, cutting off my thought. Without saying a word, I find my feet; this isn't the first time Mira has exploded over the mere thought of her birth mother. In another moment, my arms are around her, Mira quickly turning to reciprocate, her face burying itself against my neck. A stillness settles between us after that, just the crackling of the fire left to break the quiet.
"No matter how much I try, I can't get away from her." Mira sighs.
"Because you never had to; you got away from her when my mother started calling you her daughter, any influence that woman has in your life is down to you, Vladimira."
I get no reply, only a tighter squeeze, followed by a delicate kiss on the neck. Which quickly turns south as I feel teeth graze my skin.
Again, she snaps back from her course, eyes glowing crimson in the firelight only to fade back to their usual sapphire at my words. Without a word, she pushes me away, a look of horror on her face, not for anything I have done, but for what she almost did.
"I'm sorry," she sputters, "I, I have no idea what came over me."
I open my mouth but quickly find a finger placed over it, "We'll talk about it tomorrow," I move to offer protest. Still, a stern look from my friend stops me in my tracks, "Tomorrow, Johan, get some soup and get some sleep; it's still thirty miles to the capitol, a day and a half's walk. You'll need your strength. A-and, I'm sorry I made a mess with that soup."
"We'll get through this, Mira; we've been through worse together and survived. Have some good dreams tonight."
She hesitates for a moment at the mouth of her tent but does not turn.
"The only thing we can trust in this world is each other, isn't that right, Johan?" she asks, recalling part of our familiar motto.
"Yeah, that's right," I answer.
I get no response, just a silent nod as she disappears into her tent. I am alone with the fire, the night sky, and my thoughts.
For a good reason, Mira never liked to talk much about her birth mother. She is a vampire, a creature of pure malice and evil, cursed by God along with the rest of monsterkind. It was because of her that Vladimira had been hunted. Because of her, she had to live with the cursed blood she despised. But it was because of me that curse had been awakened.
By all accounts, the right thing to do would have been to honor her wishes and let her die human. But I could never have done that. Call it cowardice, selfishness, a fear of being alone, whatever you ascribe it to, there was no way I could have let my oldest friend die.
Heh, "oldest friend," I think we've become much more than that, even if neither of us wants to admit it.
Another spoonful of soup; she wasn't wrong about how nostalgic this was. After a long winter's day hunting the hills with my father, my mother's soup never failed to warm me. It didn't hurt that Mira would always be there to meet us, always giving me hugs and dragging me to the house for supper. I never understood back then, but my father always smiled at that. Always smiled at how deeply I'd blush when Maria began teasing us about when we'd bring her grandchildren. This soup, my father's smile, the warm embrace of a friend. I would hate for this taste, which conjures so many memories, to be robbed from me.
With any luck, this will all prove temporary.
It should be around midnight, maybe later. A sound has yet to come from Mira's tent since she turned in for the night. My body feels heavier than it ever has, the bruises from today's fight finally taking their toll. A good night's rest in my bedroll sounds heavenly. One last look is spared at the lone tent next to mine. A thought briefly flashes through my mind that I should join her and let her know she isn't alone. My hand comes to my neck absentmindedly, feeling the faint marks Mira had left from her attempt earlier. As kind as it would be, I shouldn't put temptation in her path. As he is now, she's like a victim of the succubus flesh change, she either overcomes it and learns to adapt, or it consumes her. Like she said, we'll talk in the morning. My head touches the pillow, and it is not long before sleep finds me.
"Remember what I taught you, Johan. Breathe in, then exhale slowly." A voice from my memories directs, "Squeeze the trigger, don't pull."
"I know, Papa," I answer, my voice much younger.
His steel grey eyes bore into mine, a look of the utmost seriousness on his face. His head turns, and I follow his gaze to a group of men leading a young girl in chains across a snowy field. We'd been hunting them all day, men worse than wolves. Slavers. They were better dressed than most slavers, but judging from how they treated their captive, it left little doubt as to what they were.
"Don't fire until I tell you; when you do, follow me and grab the girl."
"Then what, Papa?"
Without a word, he passes me his prized possession, his old pistol. "Grab the girl and run as fast as you can to the village; if anyone tries to stop you, use this."
I nod, and my father smiles. With a single motion, he shoulders his rifle and draws a bead on the nearest man. I follow suit, putting my sights on a bald man with a crooked nose. He would yank the chain attached to the small girl's wrists every now and then, causing her to fall face-first into the snow. At that moment, I feel nothing but hatred. My breath slows; there is nothing but me, my rifle, and the target. The girl refuses to get up from where she's fallen, and the bald man moves to strike her, his blow nearly landing as I hear my father whisper a single word,
With a slight motion of my finger, and a quick jerk of recoil, the man's chest explodes, knocking him down and staining the snow crimson. Shocked by the recoil, but not from taking a life, I barely register as my father shakes me to attention and yanks me along as he charges.
I don't remember much, a blur of adrenaline as I cross the field. Eventually, I reach the girl, my father ordering her to cover her ears as he shoots off the lock on her manacles with one of the fallen slaver's pistols. Without having to be told, I grab her and run as far and as fast as I can. I do remember reaching the village, collapsing exhausted at the main gate, the girl clinging on to me for dear life, shaking like a leaf all the while.
"It's fine; you're safe now; those bad guys won't hurt you anymore," I reassure her.
Her eyes find mine, deep sapphire-tinged red from her tears.
"My name is Johan, Johan Jaeger; what's yours?"
"V-Vladimira, Vladimira Ardelean." She answers, her voice so soft it is nearly lost on the biting breeze. "Where are…? "
Before she can continue, a door opening interrupts her thought. A dark-haired woman sporting the black helmet bob typical of women in the Church steps out, narrowing her yellow eyes at me for a moment before softening. Miss Maria, an old friend of my father, captain of the guard, and the woman I'd be calling mother if she hadn't told me not to.
"Johan? Why are you back so early, and where is your fa-, dear God, what's wrong with that girl?"
"Ms. Maria," I plead, "You need to help her; Papa and I saved her from bad people. I don't think they were feeding her."
The stern woman takes a few steps forward, concern etched onto her face. She turns Vladimira's head a few times, examining her hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. The whole while, Mira clings to me harder yet doesn't resist Maria's explorations. Only when she opens Mira's mouth that the former warrior of the Church recoils slightly, a look of knowing shock crossing her face, though she quickly regains her composure.
"You're right; bring her inside, Johan." She says, her tone somewhere between the fierce growl she uses when leading the guard and the motherly tone she uses with my father and me. With a gesture, she shows the both of us inside, a warm fire throwing light across the makeshift mess hall of the village guardhouse. As if bewitched, Vladimira releases her grip on my arm and wanders over to the fireplace. Her eyes are fixed on the bubbling stewpot, her mouth beginning to water as she stares at the simmering broth. Before we can react, she thrusts her hands into the pot, ladling soup into her mouth, uncaring of the searing heat.
"What do you think you're doing!" I shout, wrenching her away from the fireplace. If she was in pain, she didn't show it, her hands blistered an angry red, but she didn't scream. She just cried, wet drops staining the dry pine boards of the floor. A hand finds its way to my shoulder, the sympathetic face of my father's old friend staring down at the two of us. "Mothe-, Maria, her hands…"
"They'll need bandaging; burns get infected quickly if left untreated," she sighs. "I'd have gotten the bowls out quicker if I'd known she was that hungry." She turns and moves toward the infirmary, looking over her shoulder one last time, "Get dinner ready while I help her, Johan, and keep watch for your father."
With a nod, I busy myself preparing supper. Four steaming wooden bowls sit on one of the threadbare tables within minutes. It's not long before the women join me, Vladimira's hands fully bandaged. As she sits, her hand moves to grab the nearby spoon (also wooden, Maria never seemed to use silver), only to drop it with a pained expression. She tries again, and once more, the same outcome each time.
I notice Maria staring at her intensely, a look of deep sympathy on her face. At last, she resorts to lapping at the soup like a dog, tears streaming down her face again. It was at that moment that I moved to take up her spoon.
"Here, let me help you."
The pale wood of the spoon disappears into the brown broth, emerging with a bounty of beef and vegetables that I move toward the girl. She seems confused at my actions, cocking her head as I bring the spoon toward her mouth.
"Say "ah,"" I tell her, opening my mouth to demonstrate.
Understanding my words, she complies, taking the spoonful of soup into her mouth. As she chews and swallows the simple stew, something alights in her eyes. The sadness I'd seen in them fleeing to be replaced with… joy? Wonder?
"M-more, please?" she squeaks, her eyes still not meeting mine.
Again, I put the spoon in the bowl and moved it to her mouth. Again, she takes the food, chews it, then swallows it with a smile. By the fourth spoonful, she's kept her mouth open, only closing it to chew and opening it again immediately after swallowing. As she eagerly awaits the next spoonful, her face reminds me of a baby bird. Eventually, a chuckle from across the table breaks my concentration. Staring over, I see Maria laughing behind her hand at the sight.
"What so funny?" I question.
"Oh, nothing Johan," she answers, "I just hope you remember this when your children ask how Mommy and Daddy met."
At first, I don't fully understand her implications; the realization only sets in when I look at Vladimira and see her face has turned a rather vibrant shade of red. It isn't long before my cheeks grow hot too.
"I-it isn't like that! She hurt her hands; what was I supposed to do?!?" I shout, my blush no doubt deepening.
"Haha, just like your father, always so easy to tease. You should have seen him when we first met-" She stops, eyes fixed on the door and the figure that has just stumbled in. My father was covered in blood and clutching something close to his chest. A cloak one of the men was wearing, a partially obscured insignia emblazoned on it. Crossed keys with a black bend sinister imposed over it.
"Put the children to bed, Maria." My father commands. The dark-haired woman stares at him before turning to look at us again.
"You heard your father, Johan. Why don't you show your little friend where she'll be sleeping?"
She smiles, the kind of forced smile I know all too well. The same smile she would put on whenever I asked her about topics I knew she'd rather avoid. How she met my father and their position in the Church. Why she insisted I not call her "Mother" and why sometimes I could swear I saw lupine ears sprout from her head. I wanted to protest, to demand an answer, but there is only so much disobedience a child can muster. Turning away, I take the girl's pale arm, ensuring to avoid touching the bandages on her hands, "Let's go, Mira; I'll show you where the beds are."
Hours pass as I lay awake, staring at a hole in the wooden ceiling and straining my ears to hear anything of the conversation occurring on the floor below. Most of it is hushed whispers, with the occasional outbursts, such as a venomous blurt of "Heretics." from Maria. The conversation has become much more precise now. Beside me, Vladimira slumbers peacefully; this is no doubt the first sleep she's had in ages. In the moonlight, her long, splayed hair appears almost silver. I readjust the blanket and return to my eavesdropping.
"I've seen her teeth, Klaus; there's no doubt about what she is. " Maria interjects.
"Everything points to her being human. Walking in sunlight without issue, garlic in the broth; if she were a fullblood, she'd be much sorrier." My father retorts.
"Still, she's a bit more than a normal little girl; she should have been screaming bloody murder with those burns."
"Too true, Maria, too true."
Silence passes for a few moments before I hear a muffled giggling.
"Speaking of which, you should have been here to see our son."
"Oh, what did Johan do this time?"
"He was such a little gentleman feeding our mystery girl. To be honest, it reminded me of us growing up."
A scoffing laugh greets that remark.
"Oh really, was she licking his face the whole time?" my father chuckles.
"You'll never let me live that down, will you?"
The muffled sound of a chair scraping across the floor answers her question; I know exactly what my father is doing, "Not on your life, my little wolf."
Though she denies it with every fiber of her being, I know enough to guess what he means by that. Why "friends" would insist on sharing a house, a room, and a bed. Why do my father and Miss Maria go on "patrol" all night during the full moon? Why is my hair dark and my eyes yellow when my father's hair is fair and his eyes grey? As I roll over in bed, I'm confronted by those same bewitching blue eyes.
"Mira, how long have you been awake?"
The little girl begins to speak, her voice little more than a whisper, just like before, "Y-your Mama, she's… like me, isn't she?"
"What do you mean?" I question.
Her brows knit, not expecting me to ask her a question in return, "I mean, she's a m-monster, right?"
I roll to stare at the ceiling pondering how to respond, before rolling over and giving a knowing smile, "She's a person just like you or me, she smiles when she's happy and cries when she's sad, and that's all that matters." I realize I didn't deny Maria being my mother; I'm not ashamed to admit it to someone I already consider a friend.
"That's, that's not what I…." Mira sputters, rolling onto her elbow to better support herself as she faces me.
"I know what you meant," I answer, "and I told you the truth, my mother is just a person, even if she can grow wolf ears and a tail or turn her fingers into claws."
Mira says nothing; even in the dark, I can tell she's deep in thought.
After a few moments, I hear that same soft whisper, "My Mama is a monster; she drinks people's blood. She kicked me out because I didn't want to drink blood like her, and those bad men took me because I was all alone."
My eyes widen at her words. Father had told me stories of his time with the Church, stories about powerful monsters that drink blood and walk at night. Could this thin, pale girl, who looks like she wouldn't hurt a fly even if it bit her, really be one of those creatures?
"Johan," she asks, sitting up to hover her face over mine, the serene blue of her eyes reflecting my yellow irises, "do you hate me because of my Mama? Because of what I am?"
Recalling the events of earlier today, I scarcely hesitate before I bring an arm up to her shoulder, "What you are is my friend, Vladimira; your mama being a monster just means you're like me." At those words, her eyes widen, her perfect teeth shining in the scant moonlight as her face contorts into an innocent grin
"Friends?" she squeaks, almost as if she didn't dare believe what she just heard to be true.
"Friends," I say, returning her grin.
Before I know it, I'm being crushed in the deceptively powerful embrace of the small girl, tears staining my nightshirt as she buries her face in my chest.
"Friends! I've never had a friend before; Mama always said we don't make friends with the cattle, but you're not a cow, Johan!" Mira exclaims.
We slowly lean back onto the bed, my arm wrapped protectively around Vladimira like my mother used to do for me, her head still buried in my chest as she expresses joy at finally finding a friend.
"Johan, I'm so happy…."
A weight much more than a little girl presses on my chest.
"So, so very happy."
I can feel the heat of breath on my neck as the cabin's warmth is replaced with the early morning chill of the deep forest. My eyes shoot open, the dream having long since been dispelled, and the first thing I see are pools of deep, luminescent red staring directly into my soul.
"Johan, my old friend." Vladimira purrs, her face only inches away from mine.
"Mira? Why are you in my tent? It can't possibly be sunrise already."
She smiles a predatory grin that shows off her teeth, her canines seeming to have elongated since last night, "Tsk, tsk, tsk, Oh Johan, I've had a terrible night. My stomach has been growling since I went to bed without supper." She moves closer, her cheek brushing mine as she moves her mouth to my ear, "I figured you wouldn't mind if I got some early breakfast."
My eyes shoot open at the brush of teeth against my neck, arms moving to toss Vladimira off of me with all my strength, sending her tumbling back ass over teakettle through the flaps of my tent. Wasting no time, the blanket is quickly thrown off as I grasp at slings and bandoliers, arming myself for the inevitable confrontation. Checking the flint and powder of my guns, I can't help but say a silent prayer that I don't need to use them. Against her, I doubt I even could.
As I exit the tent, my eyes strain against the darkness; the first light of false dawn won't come for a few hours yet. The only illumination comes from the still smoldering embers of the campfire, barely enough to light the area immediately around it. Once, then twice, I sweep the camp, keeping a solid grip on my rifle as I search for any sign of Vladimira. By the third sweep, I still have yet to see her. Is she hiding from me? Was that another involuntary attempt, and she's returned to her tent in shame?
"Mira?" I call out, slowly closing the distance to her tent, "Mira, are you in there? I'm not upset, come out, and we can talk about this."
No answer is given, though I hardly expected one. I inch closer and closer to Mira's tent, wary of ambush, my finger hovering close enough to the trigger to be used at a moment's notice.
"Vladimira, I know you aren't yourself right now, but we can get through this. You're my friend; I'll always be there for you," My hand reaches out to part the flap of her tent to reveal nothing but the ruined remains of Mira's bedding, feathers, and bits of blanket torn to shreds as if by wild animals.
Laughter resounds from all around me, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.
"Sweet, sweet Johan, always wanting to 'save' me. You realize I'm no longer that pathetic waif you plucked out of the snow, right?" the voice speaks. It's Mira's, but the tone is all wrong. None of her usual joviality, none of the good-natured warmth. Instead, her tone is almost glacially aristocratic, crisp, concise, and condescending.
"I just want to help you, Vladimira."
My whole body freezes as I feel the cold air on my ear. I almost think it is a gust of wind until I hear the distinct sound of inhalation.
"You can help me," the voice says, "by giving me your blood."
My body moves on instinct, turning quickly and squeezing the trigger. Time seems to slow as I hear the familiar boom of flint striking powder, smoke, and fire issuing forth, giving a place to start as I trace the bullet's hypothetical trajectory. Yet once the smoke clears, Vladimira is nowhere to be seen, gone without a trace, as if she'd evaporated into… mist.
Some primal instinct within me screams to dodge. I duck to barely avoid a hand reaching out from the growing cloud of mist; at least two more swipes are dodged before I feel my legs pulled out from under me. As I lay dazed on the ground, the fog coalesces once more into the familiar shape of my old friend.
"That, that was…." I stammer, struck by the peculiar sight of Mira using magic, not just any magic.
"Yes, Johan, that was blood magic. My people's magic, a vampire's magic." She says, her eyes staring at me like a cat regarding a trapped mouse. I try to form a reply but find the air choked from my lungs as her hand closes around my throat, lifting me in the air with her single arm and bodily pinning me to a tree. As much as I try to struggle, this new Vladimira is much too powerful. The unnatural strength of an awakened Dhampir outstrips any resistance I can muster. She watches a look that betrays her innermost feelings, a look of almost remorseful enjoyment.
"Mira *gasp*, stop." I choke; the effect it has is nearly immediate, her face turning from mocking glee to utter horror as her grip relents, leaving me to slump to the ground gasping for air. Hands grasp my shoulders as familiar blue eyes swim into view, tinged with tears as their owner rushes to console me.
"Johan, oh my God, I'm sorry. I, I didn't mean to..." The dhampir sobs.
As suddenly as it stared, the crying abates, Mira seizing up and grasping her head in pain. I try to reach out for her, but my hand is quickly batted away; red eyes framed with dark tracts stare angrily back at me.
"Johan, run, please run before I do something unforgivable."
As much as I want to defy her, to stay here and help her like I always have, my body moves instinctually. Picking up my rifle and running as fast as my legs will carry me into the dark of the moon-bathed forest, my heart pounding in my ears and my blood thrumming as it pumps through my body. I dare not look back, fearful that I'll see those red eyes trailing behind me.
I try my hardest to steel my nerves to get a handle on the situation, but fear overtakes my reasoning every time. The only option I can think of is to hide and wait for the morning sun to banish the demon that has overtaken my companion. The irony now dawns on me that the hunter has become the prey. All I can do is keep my weapon loaded and my wits about me.
There's something nostalgic about this. Crouched in the brush, trying to control my breathing, making sure neither sound nor steam gave away my position. It calls to mind simpler times, days spent with my father learning the trade of a hunter. My current predicament reminds me more of my father than I care to admit. It reminds me of the times once every lunar cycle that he and Maria would disappear from our modest home and not return until daybreak, their clothes were torn to shreds, and my father was covered in bites and scratches.
It's my curse; I inherited his love for dangerous women.
The crunching of leaves in the distance sets me alert; for all the curses I inherited from my father, I should also count the blessings I got from my mother. Time passes agonizingly slowly as I stare down the length of my rifle, waiting for whatever creature disturbing the night's peace to wander into my sights.
"Gah!" a voice sounds from father away, upsetting the beast I've been waiting for and causing it to break cover. A wolf with light brown fur comes bounding out, running past my position and disappearing into the brush, sparing me a glance with eyes that look… red?
"Damned mutt!" the voice is closer now, "To think I smell wolf's blood, and sure enough, I find a wolf."
Soon enough, Vladimira emerges from the spot previously vacated by the wolf, hands on her hips and a look of utter frustration etched onto her face, muttering words that, while soft, are clearly audible.
"Damn it, Johan, why couldn't your mother be a monster whose blood doesn't smell like a common forest creature?"
Her ranting is interrupted by a bodily growl that causes her to double over, clutching her stomach. Part of me is screaming to help her like I would have done a thousand times before this like I did when we first met as an apprentice huntsman and a starved little girl on her way to the slaver's block. But, knowing what she hungers for, I can do nothing except push those feelings down.
"Hungry…" she moans, sniffling a little as she cranes her head to try again to find my scent. I can't help but smile, I hadn't known there was a wolf den nearby this position, but I can't help but be thankful there was. They can mask my scent until dawn when I can collect my friend and get her the help she needs.
I'll have to remember to thank my mother for the help of her extended kin.
Speaking of Maria, the way Mira sniffs the air can't help but remind me of the woman in her more bestial states when Mira and I would misbehave, the kind I would only see briefly before my father, the hunter, came to save his children from the Big Bad Mama Wolf. Let it never be said that monsters have lost all of their savageries.
A low chuckle snaps me out of my musing; I quickly take up my rifle and recentering the sights on Mira.
"Alright, Johan, I'll admit, tracking you through scent is nearly impossible. Your father obviously taught you well." She slowly turns in a circle as she speaks, addressing the entire forest with her words. "Unfortunately, my old friend," she stops facing my position, her eyes closed as she lowers her head dramatically. It's when her eyes shoot open, the demented red orbs locked directly with mine, that I realize something is wrong, "I've been with you long enough to know what gunpowder smells like."
As I try to get up and run, she flashes a wicked smile, her fangs on full display. In the time it takes me to push off the ground, she grabs me by the front of my nightshirt and holds me in midair.
"Hahaha, I guess I finally beat you at hide and seek, Johan." she chuckles, "If I wasn't so damned hungry, then I'd be celebrating." She seems to bask in her glory for a moment, keeping me suspended and away from the ground. My mind is racing, trying to find anything to get me out of this situation. It doesn't take long for an idea to come, a low blow I'd never consider an option usually, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
"Your mother would be proud of you, I'm sure."
I find myself on the ground again for precious few seconds before I'm shoved roughly against a tree. The glowing crimson eyes of my blood-starved friend drilled into my soul.
"Say that again, I dare you."
Mustering some courage, I match her icy stare with one of my own,
"I said, 'Your mother would be proud of you.' you know, the one who abandoned you because you refused to do the exact thing you've been chasing me all night over."
"Johan, if you know what's good for you…."
"No, I'm not going to mince words here; you've become exactly the kind of monster your mother wanted you to be, the mother who'd rather have seen you sold at auction than accept you not being a 'fullblood' like her. Father told me all about her, back when he went to the church archives in the capital, Countess Wil- "
Her hand grips my throat, lightly choking me as her teeth gnash angrily.
"Johan, if you say that whore's name, then I will be very, very upset. Make it easy for both of us and just accept what's going to happen" Her grip slackens, and I see some calm return to her face.
"Vladmira…" I sigh, a smile returning to her face at the familiar sound of her name, "Vladimira… Carmilla Bathory, daughter of Countess Wilhelmina Bathory and the church hunter Imre Ardelean."
Any hint of joy or goodwill vanishes instantly, replaced with the look of rage she wore moments prior. One final twist of the knife should send her over the edge; I smile at her, knowing that.
"Like mother, like daughter." I spit.
With a cry of fury, Vladimira grasps me like one would grab a bale of hay and bodily tosses me away from her. I seem to have underestimated her strength, as the simple throw sends me sailing through the forest canopy, snapping branches (and likely a few bones judging by the periodic feelings of immense pain) as I go. It isn't long before the feeling of weightless flight is replaced by more pain, the snapping of something I truly hope are more branches heralding my landing. I try scrambling to my feet but putting any weight on my left arm brings only pain, to say nothing of the pain already coming from my midsection. The only thing I can do is crawl slowly away across the small creek I'd landed near and prop myself up against a large, weather-beaten stump.
The sound of brush snapping soon draws my attention to the far side of the creek, the undergrowth parting to reveal my old friend, her face still a mask of rage from my earlier provocations. That is until she lays eyes on me. As she does, a look of concern briefly flashes on her face before being replaced with an expression that, while stern, is nothing like the furious glare she wore moments prior. Slowly she stomps across the creek, splashing water with each step until she comes to stand above me. For a few moments, we say nothing, merely staring each other down with mutual wariness. Ultimately Mira is the one to break the stalemate.
"*sigh* Why did it have to come to this, Johan?" she questions, her voice now betraying a hint of regret at her actions.
"I should be asking you that, Mira; I said I would help you, and you attacked me."
"I told you how you can help me; just a little sip of the red stuff, and I'll be back to normal."
I recoil slightly at her words, "Vladimira, you sound like a damned Oriental opium eater when you talk like that."
"AND WHOSE FAULT IS THAT, JOHAN? Whose idea was it to feed me blood even after being explicitly told what would happen!"
She's right, of course, but just because someone is right doesn't mean they're correct.
"You say you want to help me, and then all you do is hurt me, shoot me, sink a dagger in my back by comparing me to that damned bitch who birthed me!" she shouts, leaning in closer for impact.
"And yet, for all your bluster about how much you despise her, you still act exactly like she would."
I expect her to recoil in offense, to spit back at me in rage, or even attempt to toss me through the air again. Instead, she simply grows silent.
"Johan," she says, her voice barely above a whisper, "Do you really think this is how she would act in this situation?" She takes a few slow steps closer to me, her eyes never leaving the ground as she does so. "I've been giving you chance after chance to get away, either out of my love-my lingering feelings of friendship for you desperately leashing my urges or out of some newfound sadism. I don't know."
Step by step, she advances, growing closer with each dramatically slow footfall. She hesitates at the small creek, perhaps not knowing if the vampire taboo against running water applies to her now. Eventually, I hear a splash as her boot enters the shallow streambed. Despite my body screaming in protest, I try to get to my feet, to prolong the chase just a bit longer, but it is all in vain. Eventually, she comes within range, her head still hung low to shield her eyes behind a silver curtain.
"Do you want to know how she would act?" she says, her voice as cold as the night air around us.
I open my mouth to answer, only to find her hand around my throat again.
"That was a rhetorical question, Johan. You aren't supposed to answer."
She raises her arm mechanically, lifting me to my feet with dispassionate slowness until I'm again at eye level with her, the crimson glow beginning to shine through her moonlit locks.
"Mother always told me never to speak to the cattle."
Before I can react, she strikes, needle fangs glinting in the moonlight for mere seconds before I feel them puncture my neck. The sudden feeling of penetration puts me into a state of shock, soon exacerbated by the warm and sticky texture of fresh blood running down from my neck to my shoulder and chest.
But, simultaneously, I can feel something else hot and wet falling on my back. Not sticky like blood; much more aqueous. I realize what this other liquid is when I hear a small sob between the periodic sucking.
Tears. Vladimira is crying.
How many nights did we spend like this as kids? She held on to me for support as she cried through another nightmare about living with her mother, or worse, that one day would become exactly like her.
It might be the wooziness from the blood loss, my wolf-born nose picking up her familiar scent so close, sending me back to the days when we last shared a bed in that homey little loft at my parent's house. But whatever it is, despite the feeling of needles in my neck, I do the thing I'd always done when Vladimira was sad or upset.
I reach my one good arm out and gently wrap it around her.
Almost immediately, I feel the fangs vacate my neck, the wound closing up as the healing properties of vampire saliva do their work (A thought comes to my mind of the days when I'd ask Mira to spit on any cuts or scraps I had just to see her mortified reaction). I feel Vladimira attempt to push me away, which only causes me to squeeze tighter. I feel her struggle with some increased intensity, which slowly lessens the longer I keep my arm around her, eventually becoming resigned as she buries her head in my chest. After minutes that feel like ages, I hear a soft whisper.
"Don't do this, say you hate me, shoot me with that pistol, but please, don't do this."
"Now, why would I do that?" I answer, my words slightly slurred.
Her head shoots up, her eyes now even redder from the tears.
"Because I've crossed the line, the line I said I'd never cross; I'm a monster!"
The years turn back to that fateful winter's day, the words she said so many years ago, "Do you hate me because of my Mama? Because of what I am?" I release her from the embrace, moving to place my hands on her shoulders like I would back in those bygone days.
"Vladimira…" I sigh, "what you are is my friend; I've said that from the first day we met, and this won't change that."
Her eyes meet mine, tears subsiding and red giving way to that wonderfully familiar shade of blue. We sit there for a moment, tears again welling up in her eyes, contrasting with the wide grin on her face. Yet all of me is unprepared for what happens next, as my friend charges at me in a diving leap and throws me to the ground in a passionate embrace.
Or at least it would have been passionate if she hadn't put pressure on my already broken ribs, eliciting an embarrassingly high-pitched yelp of pain on my part. For her part, Vladimira looks aghast at realizing just how injured I've become from the night's activities.
"Oh God, Johan, I'm sorry."
"It's fine… let's just get back to camp."
"Johan, I nearly broke every bone in your body; it's not fine!"
"Vladimira. We'll talk about it in the morning; let's just get some sleep."
Her face doesn't lose its worry as she scoops me into her arms; I think about making a joke but ultimately decide against it. The entire walk back to camp passes in stone silence, neither of us wanting to be the first to bridge the subject of tonight's events. Honestly, who could blame us? Vladimira nearly betrayed everything she stood for, and I had seriously considered the possibility of killing my oldest and dearest friend.
Our mood isn't improved coming back to our ruined campsite, the torn down tents, and scattered cookery evidence of our earlier scuffle. Thankfully, my tent mainly remained untouched, and my cot remained in the state it was when Vladimira had woken me nearly two hours before (by my reckoning).
My friend sets me down as gently as possible, moving to evaluate and dress my injuries. Most of which involves setting my arm and bracing my midsection, giving the bones time to heal on their own (Which doesn't take very long for me, an upside of my maternal heritage of lycanthropes). Only afterward, when I attempt to crawl back into my tent for some well-earned rest, do I hear my friend call out to me.
"Johan, wait," she says, already changed back into her nightclothes and face dusted with a hint of a blush, "my tent is ruined, and I was wondering if you would mind sharing your bed for the night?"
Her obvious embarrassment gives me a chuckle.
"Vladimira," I say, "we spent most of our childhood sleeping beside one another; why would you need to ask? Just climb in whenever you want to." Having said my peace, I lay my head down, trying to hide my smile as the blankets rise and fall again as a familiar warmth sidles up next to me.
I did not expect an arm to drape itself over my chest and a head of disheveled blonde hair to nuzzle next to me. For a split second, so fast I'm not sure if I imagined it, I swear I feel lips on my cheek.
"Good night, Johan," Mira whispers
It's not long before sleep welcomes me back to its embrace.
It's been seven months since my father brought Vladimira into our home, and the girl has been a hit throughout the village. Always smiling, cheerful, and never missing a chance to help the various townsfolk with their problems. Today, she's gone off with the baker's wife to pick blackberries.
And here I am, bedridden with some minor illness.
Downstairs I can hear my parents going about their day, my father cleaning his guns. My mother prepared some more of her wonderful soup, at least judging by the smell of cleaning oil and beef broth (I have to thank mother for this nose). The latter brings a smile to my face, Mira loves my mother's soup, and it's also grown to be a favorite of mine. Even if Maria teases us every time she makes it, reminding Mira to wait until the pot is off the hearth unless she wants me to spoon-feed her again. It's a little cruel, but all in good fun.
The sound of horses and carriage wheels breaks me from my reminiscence, sending my dulled senses straining towards the lower floor.
"Maria, is someone outside?" I hear my father say.
What follows is a low growl that I can hear even from my 2nd-floor loft.
"A carriage," Maria replies, "windowless, and it stinks like blood and corpse flesh."
At this point, I've gotten out of bed and sidled up to the edge of the landing, peering down on the kitchen/dining room below. Nearly every house occupant jumps as two short raps come from the door. My father moved to grab his pistol, checking the powder and flint before moving toward the entrance. Maria, for her part, is in a state she would never let anyone outside the family see. Two black-furred lupine ears jut from her head, and from under her skirt, I can see the end of a similarly colored wolf's tail; her hands are at her sides, palms open as her nails grow wickedly into claws, and her hands take on the semblance of bestial paws. She, too, follows my father towards the door, waiting to pounce on anything her dear friend shoots.
The door opens, and though my sight to the entrance is blocked, I can tell from how my blood runs cold that whoever has come to visit is no one good.
"Ah, good day," I hear an aloof, aristocratic female voice say from beyond the threshold, "I'm sorry to trouble you, but I believe you may have come into possession of something that belongs to me. Might I come in?"
"And what would that be?" My father asks.
"A very troublesome little girl, now might we discuss things inside? I hope you understand the sun disagrees with my complexion."
My father looks to Maria, who's been busy staring daggers at the mystery woman. They lock eyes and nod quickly before Father turns back to the stranger.
"Alright, but no tricks, vampire." He says, spitting the last word out.
"Please, refer to me as 'your grace' or 'countess' if you would."
What steps through the door puts me in shock. Alabaster skin, hair of near-perfect silvery blonde, and piercing red eyes shining like rubies dropped in a snowbank. The most beautiful woman I've ever seen, one whose presence fills me with dread.
"So," Maria asks accusatorily, "You're little Vladimira's mother?"
The vampire doesn't even deign to look at her as she answers.
"I don't recall giving you permission to speak to me, dog."
With a wolfish snarl, Maria's hand shoots for the woman's throat, lifting her into the air as her claws press into the soft flesh of her neck. All the while, her ears lay flat against her head, her hair raised like hackles.
"After everything that girl has said, you better have a damn good reason why I shouldn't gut you here and now."
The countess seems unphased by Maria's sudden violence, merely turning her head languidly towards my father.
"My good hunter, please do a better job of training your mongrels," she looks back at Maria with a superior smirk "this bitch obviously isn't housebroken."
"I'll show you housebroken when I piss on your corpse, leech!" Maria shouts, her claws pressing far enough to draw blood.
"Maria, that's enough!" My father finally interjects, causing the werewolf to drop the pale woman to the floor with a whimper "and you, my lady, I'll thank you not to insult my partner in such a way."
The woman regains her footing, rubbing the rapidly healing gashes on her throat while giving a low chuckle.
"Partner? How humorous, pretending to abide by the Church's decree on man laying with monster," I try to move back, sensing imminent danger should I keep peeking off the landing, but am too late as crimson eyes lock with my own, "when I've been able to sense your little pup spying on us from the moment I walked in."
With a "come hither" motion from the vampire, I find myself propelled forward by a supernatural force, tumbling end over end to land flat at her feet. The woman crouched down to my level, staring directly at me with those wickedly hypnotic eyes.
"How about you, young man? Could you tell me where my dear, foolish little daughter is?"
She reaches a hand towards me, quickly checked by a pistol cocked near her ear, to say nothing of a bestial snarl coming from behind her.
Staring into her ruby eyes, I feel all warmth flee my body. I feel like a mouse before an eagle matching her predatory gaze. I'm sitting defenseless in front of her with only my father's trigger finger and my mother's sharp claws keeping her at bay. Though all of me wants to run, cry, empty my bladder, or do something other than sit there dumbly waiting for this monster to make her move, my body is paralyzed with fear. This woman has ended lives, sometimes gleefully, if Mira is to be believed.
The only thing I can think of is the fitful nightmares of the beautiful girl I pulled out of the snow. How she'd toss and turn, crying and begging forgiveness from the memory of this creature. My body quivers, and I have to look away lest those bloody pools she calls eyes petrify me again. Eventually, I squeak out a reply.
"She doesn't want to see you."
"Oh? And why would a daughter not want to see her dear mother?" she said, her lips peeling back in a smile certainly intended to show off her thin, needle-like fangs.
"S-she says you hurt people, tried to make her hurt people, and when she wouldn't, you threw her out."
"Oh," she exclaimed, her face taking on a look of contemplation for a few moments before quickly shifting to a very different emotion.
"Hahaha, I guess I did that, didn't I?" The woman laughed.
Behind her, I can see my parents' faces harden; Maria, in particular, looks absolutely furious, her controlled scowl twisting into a violent snarl.
"You don't deny any of it?" Maria growls
"Do you deny you and your mate have killed deer from the forest as food?" the vampire retorts, "Do you deny your mate has taught him how to do the same as a matter of survival?"
"That's not what, my dear? Different? Because I beg to differ."
With a pat on my head, the woman turns to face Maria and my father, her regal bearing not shaken at the sight of a fullblood werewolf and a veteran church hunter ready to pounce on her. "You kill to survive, hunt animals for their flesh because that sustains you, and teach your young to do the same because you want them to survive. We, vampires, are the same way." The woman says nonchalantly. "You only see a difference because our prey can speak and yours cannot. If a deer could beg for mercy, I'm sure you'd see that what we do for sustenance is not so dissimilar."
"I would have thought a fellow monster would understand that, but it seems more and more of us are selling out to the humans." The woman punctuates her point with a shrug. "I'd say it's pathetic if I, too, hadn't bowed to human morality, forced to feed on reprobates and the scum of society."
Maria is coiled like a spring, poised to pounce on the aristocratic beast before her, only for a raised hand from my father to stop her in her tracks. The countess sniffed derisively at the apparent deference being shown by my monster mother to her human spouse.
"Morality debates aside, Madam, your daughter has shown no inclination to want to return to you in all the months she's lived here. Indeed, as my son has said, she's expressed nothing but fear at the thought of being returned to you."
The countess crosses her arms,
"That's as may be, dear hunter, but I still am her mother, and as such, am entitled to"
"YOU'RE NOT HER MOTHER!" I cry, unable to stomach the woman's haughty condescension any further.
Near every face in the cabin turns towards me, the countess wearing a look of surprise and my parents showing concern.
"You might have had her, but you're not her mother." I continue, rage fueling every word. "When we found her, she was starving, being beaten by men who kept her in chains, and she said you put her there; you left her alone so they could take her!"
The vampire gives a slight superior smirk, not that I notice in the throughs of my tirade,
"You say she's your daughter? She hates you; she's afraid of you! The first week she was here, she'd wake up crying, apologizing to you because even in her dreams, she couldn't get you out of her life. Every night for a week, me or Miss Ma-Mama would have to come and hold her so she wouldn't throw herself out of bed!"
My cheeks have turned beet red, partially from my illness and partially from the embarrassment of admitting I've cuddled with Mira before. Tears flowed freely down my face, and my nose was even more congested than it had been,
"Mira is better off never seeing you again, so go shrivel up in the sun, you old raisin! We're her family, not you! And I'd sooner die than let you take her back!"
My breaths come heavy; I must look quite a sight, yet the countess's infuriatingly smug expression stoked my rage for another salvo. Yet just as I open my mouth, I feel furry arms wrap around me, pulling me close into a tuff of grey-black fuzz that smells of wood smoke and spices.
"Johan, that's enough; you've said all you need to."
"I won't let her Mira away, Mama; she's my friend, and I'm her only friend!"
"Mira isn't going anywhere, Hündchen; your Papa and I will make sure of it, so just go upstairs."
I try to protest. To insist that my mother let me give this haughty, overdressed mosquito the tongue-lashing she deserves, yet before I can let loose, a dry chuckle and the sound of clapping breaks the tense silence that has hung in the air.
"Hohoho, bravo, it seems the little pup has a mighty bark; I can admire a human with some measure of courage! Tell me, boy, are your feelings for my idiot daughter so strong that you'd truly be willing to face a creature like me for her sake?"
Before answering, I try to twist my features in the best approximation of my father's cold, serious mien.
"I'm all she has, and besides Mama and Papa, Mira is all I have. I won't let you take that away, even if I have to die," my memory flashes to the crooked-nosed man I shot to save Vladimira, "even if I have to kill, I will do it if it means she could stay happy."
"And what would you do if Vladimira lost herself to her true instincts and came to crave your blood?"
"She wouldn't; she's not like you!" I snap back before reining myself in, "even if she did, I'd find a way to bring her back to her senses."
The woman's smile widens as her eyes close, considering my words like a merchant weighing grain to determine its price. After what feels like ages, she gives a definitive snort and turns toward my father.
"Well, I apologize if I gave you a fright, my good man, but it seems my business here was for naught." Her heels click across the wooden floor as she makes her way towards the threshold, not bothering to look back at Maria, pausing only once to give a last comment, "And you, wolf pup, should Vladimira ever lose herself, and should you pull her back from the brink, then come to my castle, your father can tell you where it is, I should like to speak with the both you." With a flourish, the door opens along with her parasol, her heels giving final clicks as she walks to the porch, "And bring me, oh, 4,500 thalers for the bride price!"
With that, the door closes behind her, leaving my family in a state of utter befuddlement. The look of shock was not leaving Maria's face even as her bestial features transformed into her human ones. Things remain very quiet for a while after that, not a one of us wanting to comment on the tense standoff that occurred and was resolved with equal swiftness until eventually Maria solemnly declares that dinner needs to be started, which breaks the trance and sends my father back to cleaning his rifle and myself back to my sick bed.
My last memory of that fateful day is Mira standing over my bed, cheerfully describing her day picking berries with Mrs. Volker, capped off with a kiss on the cheek.
A pair of much larger and older lips press upon my cheek in the waking world, carrying the chill of the frigid morning air along with them. The sudden feeling of cold flesh upon warm causes my eyes to open with some speed, making the owner of said lips recoil back with equal swiftness.
"Ah, Johan, I didn't mean to wake you."
The morning sun streaming through the tent frames Mira in a heavenly halo, making her look like an angel to contrast with the devil I fought last night. I move to get up and greet her, only for a sharp pain to send me back to my cot. A cry of pain escaped my lips that seemed to have the same effect on Vladimira as my broken ribs have upon myself, twisting her face into one of pain and regret and speeding her to my side, her arms cradling my head as I ease back to laying down.
"Ha, that means last night wasn't just a nightmare, then?"
"I'm afraid not," Mira smiles, the strain evident in her eyes and mouth, "and I'm sorry for anything I said and did last night. I hope you understand I wasn't- "
"You weren't yourself; I know."
My interruption causes her to recoil again, reminding me of the infrequent times Maria would be scolded by my father, usually for entering her true form out of anger, picturing the large wolf ears pressed flat against her head with a look of shame on her face. For a second, I imagine Mira in a similar position, with bat ears. However, my mirthful musings are short-lived as Mira diverts her eyes to the floor and speaks.
"I can understand if you'd like us to go our separate ways; after last night, I would be hesitant to partner with… well, a bloodthirsty beast like me."
Moving as carefully as I can to avoid agitating my broken bones, I scoot closer to her, finally resting my weight on her as I throw an arm around her neck.
"I thought all we could rely on was our weapons, God, and each other, Vladimira? No offense to the gunsmith and certainly not to the Almighty, but I'd feel safer with three out of three than just two."
Her expression turns serious, eyes narrowing as they stare directly into mine.
"This isn't a joke, Johan; I nearly killed you last night."
"Yet, as evidenced by my breathing currently, you did not."
"But I could have! Your arm is broken because of me, likely a few ribs too!"
"Because I provoked you," I retort, "I said some regretful things about you and sent you into a rage; for that, I apologize."
She opens and closes her mouth wordlessly, no doubt trying to find a response to what I've just said. After a few seconds, her eyes close, and the look of shock moves to a gentle smile.
"I nearly kill you, and you're the one apologizing."
"You wouldn't have killed me, Vladimira, just like I could never have killed you." I move closer, planting two quick kisses on her cheek that cause her eyes to open. "I believe that makes us even for last night and this morning."
Her surprise is evident, her cheeks flushing bright red as she rubs the spot my lips made contact. Though the spell is quickly broken with a shake of her head
"W-well, that reminds me, I came to get some bowls before I got you up; breakfast is ready."
"The soup from last night?"
"Yes, I figured it would be a shame if it went to waste." She states, twirling her hair around her finger.
"Beef and potatoes sound wonderful, thank you."
Mira doesn't take long to help me to my feet, mindful of my injuries. She lends me her shoulder again and helps me hobble over to the fire pit, again alive with the smell of wood smoke and simmering stew. Soon, Mira and I are seated, steaming bowls in our laps as if repeating the events of last night. I'm about to tuck in when an arm grasps my shoulder, grabbing my attention to see Mira has moved closer, balancing her bowl on a small unsplit round of wood and looking at me with a hint of embarrassment.
"Johan, c-can you feed me?"
"What was that you said, Mira?"
She heaves a heavy sigh, "I asked if you could feed me, Johan."
An impish grin crosses my face, "Mira, if this is about nostalgia, then I'm the one with my arms injured this time."
"That's not what this is about, Johan," she says thoughtfully, "I'm asking you to feed me because, because… because I'm afraid that all I'll taste is ashes, just like last night."
For a moment, through the haze of steam, I see a malnourished little girl with bandages on her hands. Her somber expression tells me everything; without a word, I dip the spoon into the bowl and move it carefully toward her. Though she claims this isn't about nostalgia, I can't help but feel some watching her take a bite and chew. My reminiscence is interrupted by a squeal of delight from my friend, who snatches the bowl from where it's sat and begins ravenously devouring soup without regard for manners or how much is getting on her coat. As I look at her shoveling meat and potatoes into her mouth, I can't help but notice the tears streaming down her face. As she tears in, I can't help but smile as I clean my bowl with somewhat less enthusiasm. I pause as I notice her dabbing her face with a canvas that must have once been her tent.
"Good?" I ask.
She gives no answer, throwing her empty bowl aside to sweep me into a hug.
"It tastes just like I remember." She sighs, squeezing me hard enough to let her feelings be known but not enough to be painful to my mending bones.
"How long before you need to, you know?"
Her hug becomes slightly painful as her embrace tightens.
"Maybe a day, maybe an entire month, I don't know. I don't want to think about that, Johan!"
She buries her face in my shoulder, tears of joy turning to sorrow once again staining my shirt. I give a few pats on the back as a muffled voice comes from below.
"I don't want what happened last night to happen again. I don't want to be that thing that only saw you as food."
She squeezes even tighter, prompting a yelp of pain to slip my lips.
"I don't want to be like her." She says meekly.
Gently, I grab her chin, leading her eyes to mine.
"Vladimira, you are not like her, not then and not now."
"Then who am I like, Johan, a beast that attacks the most precious person to them out of mindless instinct? Who does that remind you of?"
"It reminds me of my mother, of Miss Maria."
The clearing goes quiet, not a sound save for the chirping of morning birds in the glen.
"You know what my mother is; you know why she and my father would leave us alone on nights with a full moon. She'd lose herself, attack him, scratch and bite and claw until he was bloody and beaten, but he was there to make sure she didn't do something she'd truly regret."
"Hurting the man she loved wasn't something she'd regret?"
"Of course, it was," I answer, "but my father knew the risks, and he refused to abandon her where she could attack someone who didn't."
I grasp my good hand to hers, my moon-touched eyes reflected in her blessedly blue ones.
"I want to be that for you, to make sure you never are forced to compromise your ideals out of hunger or instinct," with some pain, I've managed to take her other hand with my broken one, "to put it simply, Vladmiria, I want us to be more than friends, I want us to be part-, no, I want us to be more than that!"
Her hand shoots to her mouth, covering the apparent shock at my statement.
"Johan, do you know what you're saying?" she asks, grave seriousness pouring from every word.
"I do, and I'd repeat it if you'd like. I love you, Vladimira Ardelean; if you need blood, then take my last drop; I'd give it freely; I'd give the heart from my chest if it meant I never saw you as full of sorrow as you've been these last days!"
I'm caught off guard as Mira tackles me to the ground, uncaring of the pain I feel as she showers me with kisses across every part of my face, giggling in between assaulting me with her lips, her infectious laughter sending me into stitches as I try to return as many kisses as I can. This farce seems to last for ages before she runs out of steam, collapsing on the ground next to me, heaving breath the whole while. Pausing only to cup my cheek and lead my face to hers.
"Do I need to tell you how happy I am?" she asks, the grin on her face stretched a mile wide.
"I guess I'll have to start planning our wedding then?" I ask, returning my own sheepish yet genuine smile.
"Ha, A little early, don't you think? We've only just met, oh… twelve years ago?"
"And we have much more in front of us, Schneeengel."
We embrace once again, happiness transferring through our closeness to extinguish any pain or sorrow. Either from my broken bones or from her shattered world, it doesn't matter as long as we have each other. The sun streaks across the sky, Mira's head nestled next to mine. My vision drifts to the woods, the site of our clash last night, and through the trees, standing proudly, is that same wolf from the previous night. The one with the eerily familiar red eyes. I blink once, and the wolf is gone. I blink twice, and Mira's mother, Countess Carmilla Bathory, is standing in the clearing where the wolf once stood, a rare (I'd imagine) look of approval on her face.
"Congratulations, little pup," her voice sounds in my head, "now don't forget what I told you. It's long past time for my daughter and me to have a heart-to-heart, as you humans say."
With one more blink, the clearing is empty. Not a single branch disturbed to suggest anyone or thing was there. I even try rubbing my eyes, yet the scene does not change.
"Johan," my love yawns, "did you see something?"
I give one last hard look to the woods before shaking my head, "No, it was nothing." As I sit next to her, a thought crosses my mind.
"Mira, how much coin do we have?"
"4,786 thalers, why?"
I close my eyes, thinking back to every day that has led to this point. The laughter, the tears, the adventure, and the little moments like this have made up our lives, and with any luck will do so for the rest of our time on this earth.
"There's somewhere I want to go, but I'm afraid you won't like it."
Her answer to that is to pull me closer.
"As long as I'm with you, that's impossible."
Neither of us says anything after that, listening to the gentle symphony of each other's breathing.
No matter what the future held, we had each other, and even if His so-called "ministers on Earth" disapproved, we had God and his endless love. And for what was to come, it wouldn't hurt to buy more bullets and get a new sword.
Sleep soon finds me, and the last words on my mind are a mantra I'll keep repeating every day of my life.
"This was no mistake."