The sun had only just passed its zenith when their path led them onto a trail again. Kara’s route had taken them through the wilderness, over hills and through forests without even the barest hints at human habitation. It was not an unusual method of travel for Megame, but it was nevertheless a tiring one. Their path had been long, twisty, and full of obstacles they had needed to go around. Old paths and streets might have dangers, but at least most people had once had the sense to build them along quick and efficient routes.
Because of that, it was with some relief that Kara announced they had reached their destination. The relief, however, was soon muddled with confusion as Megame looked around for the destination in question. It seemed to be simply another patch of forest brightly lit in the early afternoon sun beneath a canopy of green leaves that filled the underbrush with soft dappled light. The bird chirped loudly around them, chiming in to the sound of their feet shuffling through fallen leaves.
“There it is!” Hachi, in her small vulpine form, darted ahead of Megame, a red blur over the leaves as she moved almost silently over ground and fallen logs. Megame followed her quickly as Kara casually took up the rear.
It appeared so suddenly that Megame was half-convinced it had been hidden by magic, though a close inspection could see why their destination had been so brilliantly camouflaged. It was a simple cabin, small and clearly meant for one person, two at most, and had been built of old timber beneath a roof of gathered plants and leaves. Everything about it was built out of parts of the forest close at hand, and as a result it was almost impossible to see from a distance unless you were looking for it specifically. The log timbers had growths of moss across them, small shrubs and weeds were growing around the base and out of the roof, and bright green ivy covered nearly half of its walls, save for a gap where a round window had been set.
The cabin was dark, and no smoke was rising from it. Likely whomever inhabited it was away for the day. The only path leading to it was barely even a game trail, a tiny cleared passage made by the steady recurring footfalls of one person.
“This where a vampire hunter lives?” Megame asked, turning to look at Kara skeptically.
“You bet.” She said as she moved to stand next to her. “Good one to, from what I’ve been told.”
“It just seems so…” Megame struggled to find the words.
One expected a vampire hunter to work out of an old church, or in some hidden laboratory where they designed fantastic weapons and had access to libraries full of ancient occult lore. This seemed more the solitary cabin of a hermit, and not the super-religious-old-man-on-the-mountain kind of hermit but the I-want-my-privacy-dammit kind of hermit.
“Rustic?” Hachi offered. Megame shrugged.
“It’s a bit on the quaint side I’ll grant you that.” Kara said, giving the cabin a look over. “But I told you before, you can’t just keep falling back on the old Dracula stereotypes when it comes to vampires.”
Megame frowned. “But that’s all I know…You’re telling me none of it is right?”
“Well…” Kara rolled her eyes. “Okay, a bit of it right.”
“Do they drink blood?” Megame asked.
“Well…yes of course they do.” Kara said. “That’s more or less what makes them vampires.”
“Do they hate sunlight?”
“Yes, but most can go out if they can take a bit of pain. It’s not like they instantly turn to ash if they see the sun, but if they’re out there long enough they might.”
“Do they hate garlic or crosses?”
“It’s more religious faith in general that turns them off. No idea on that garlic thing. Ask our vampire hunter when he gets here.”
“Are they ugly or pretty?”
“Depends on when they last ate.” Kara shrugged. “Most well-fed vampires are your super-sexy foreigner types. I’ve seen some starving vamps though and those can get really nasty.”
“That sounds really stereotypical to me.” Megame complained. “And this vampire lives in Romania, just like Dracula.”
“I know, in a castle even, it’s crazy.” Kara chuckled. “Sometimes things just work out the way you expect, I guess.”
“Still,” Kara noted, looking at the cabin. “I’ll admit this place seems a little…naturalistic for a vampire hunter. And there’s something odd about it too, something weird in the air…”
“I like it.” Hachi said. “These kinds of places are so much nicer than those horrible brick tombs you humans usually build for yourselves.”
“Ya, well, to each their own.” Kara shrugged. “But we’re looking for a vampire hunter and I don’t expect one of them to adhere to a fox’s standard of living. They’re usually pretty zealous about their religion or belief…this seems more…”
“Peaceful?” Megame offered.
“Sure, let’s go with that.” Kara said, sitting down on a large boulder. “Best make yourself comfy. Plan to wait here until he gets back.”
Megame found a reasonably bare patch of earth to sit on before stretching out her arms and legs. “I suppose we can rest a few hours, right Hachi?”
The fox made her best impression of a shrug. “You two relax, I’m going to go find my lunch.” She said, before darting off into the underbrush.
“Where’d you meet a fox like that anyway?” Kara asked when she had gone.
“Hachi?” Megame asked. “Home in Kyoto. She was one of the guardian fox spirits at Fushimi Inari Shrine there. It’s where I used to work as a miko.”
“Don’t usually get fox spirits that intelligent out west.” Kara said. “You’re a lucky girl, I guess.”
“Japan is full of stories of intelligent foxes.” Megame smiled. “All of them are really cunning, and some are mischievous, but they can be very loyal too. If it weren’t for Hachi, I never would have made it that far.”
Kara smiled lightly. “I never had much time or capacity for traveling companions. Most of my jobs are done solo.”
“Who hires you?” Megame asked. “Do you work as some kind of mercenary? Like a magic hitman?”
“Not quite.” Kara’s face became a blank mask. “I only have one boss, and she prefers a certain level of anonymity in all things.”
“Ah…” Megame got the hint and stopped probing, the pair of them falling into more comfortable light conversation as the afternoon turned to evening. When Hachi returned from her hunt, she joined in their peaceful conversation. The rich noises of nature never ceased in the clearing around them. Day birds gave way to evening songs and soon the insect and tree frog choruses joined in to create a symphony of faunal noise in the clearing around them. Megame had never been to a place so peaceful and full of life. While the forests had regrown, this patch of land seemed a sanctuary within nature itself, undisturbed and in harmony.
It was almost nightfall when a new noise interrupted both the chorus of the evening and their own conversation. The sound of creaking wood and old hinges as the door of the cabin opened from the inside and a man shuffled out into the waning light.
He was a grown man, appearing in his late twenties or early thirties, with a slightly haggard face and broad chin marked with deep stubble. He still had a youthful vigor in his movements, but his face seemed older than the rest of him, slightly worn and haggard, the baggage of many sleepless nights and taxing work. He was dressed in little more than a handspun linen tunic under a long brown coat lined with pockets, a broad hat placed casually over his head as if in an afterthought, hiding a thick bramble of curly dark hair. His nose was long and narrow, and sat between a pair of sharp eyes giving him the rough appearance of an untamed bird of prey.
He regarded the pair (plus fox) for a moment with almost detached nonchalance, looking them over before speaking, taking a light cough to clear his throat before he did.
“So…what can I do for you ladies?”
Both of them stood. Megame bowed deeply in greeting and apology for their trespass, Kara folded her arms over her chest as she raised a curious eyebrow.
“You were in there all this time?” She asked skeptically.
“Ya.” The man said before taking a long, almost exaggerated yawn. “I was sleeping, what of it.”
Megame glanced around as if doubting the waning light “…but it’s dusk.”
“Listen.” The man said impatiently. “When you hunt nocturnal monsters for a living you tend to become a bit nocturnal yourself.”
“Oh…” Megame bowed her head sheepishly.
“So you’re the vampire hunter?” Kara asked. The man gave her a long inquisitive look.
“…Yes.” He finally said. “The name’s Cade, and I’d have yours.”
“Kara/” She said flatly.
“Megame Kamigawa,” Megame introduced herself. “And this is my companion, Hachi.”
“Word to the wise, Megame Whateveritis.” Cade said. “Never give your full name to a stranger, especially not in these parts.”
“No?” Megame cocked her head to the side, curious. “Why not?”
“Names are power.” Cade said. “You’ll note the rest of us tend to just stick to one, even your fox there. And I’m about zero percent sure that Kara is your friend’s real name.”
Kara shrugged as Megame looked at her with a betrayed expression. “Well, he’s right.”
Hachi nodded her small fox head. “Even mine is just a nickname, though most foxes don’t have any.”
Cade pointed at Hachi. “That is a clever fox, she’ll take you far.” He nodded to Megame. “Now then, to get back to business, what brings you ladies here?”
“Well you’re a vampire hunter.” Kara said. “Take three guesses.”
“Ya, I figured.” Cade brushed it off. “Name and place?”
“Constantin, in the castle at Arbessos.”
There was a long silence in the clearing, even the tree frogs and insects going quiet.
“No.” Cade said flatly, before starting down the path from his cottage.
“Wait…No?” Kara looked honestly surprised for the first time since Megame had met her. “What do you mean no?”
“I really can’t fathom simpler language than ‘no’.” Cade said.
“But Cade-san,” Megame said, hurrying to his side. “You are a vampire hunter, aren’t you?”
“Among other things.” Cade said. “Vampires are just the premium service I offer.”
“Well then…we don’t understand why not.”
“For one, I don’t do blanket requests for bounties.” Cade said. “I’m not in this business for the money…I can’t see why anyone would be in this business for the money. Secondly, I have my reasons not to go to Arbessos to meet Constantin.”
“The people there need protecting.” Megame said. “He’s a bloodsucking monster…I think.”
“I see you’ve been pulled right along.” Cade said. “Trust me, Megame, the people of Arbessos are in no real danger from Constantin.”
“He’s defying the natural order.” Kara said, somewhere between an order and an offer.
Cade snorted. “Welcome to the club, now, if you ladies are finished…” He continued down the path, leaving them by his empty cottage as he wandered into the darkening woods.
“Guess that’s it…” Megame said sadly, disappointed by her lost chance to see a real-life vampire hunter.
“This doesn’t make any damn sense…” Kara muttered. “Why would I be sent to him if he said no…?”
Hachi sighed audibly. “Honestly sometimes I feel like I need to do all the work.”
“But he won’t be convinced with words…” Megame said.
“Who said anything about words?” Once more Hachi was in her human form, her hair long black done up in an ornate an elegant bun at the back of her head and the neckline of her kimono dropped by a few inches as she moved stealthily past them to catch up with Cade. Megame moved to follow her but was stopped by Kara, and the pair of them watched as Hachi caught up to Cade, exchanging a few words as she moved close to his arm, pressing herself against his side.
Megame didn’t have to hear the specific words to catch the sultry tone of her voice, the way her tail curled or how her body moved with Cade’s to know what she was doing, and she blushed bright red as she looked away. Kara, meanwhile, watched with nothing but a crooked smirk on her face.
“I got to hand it to you.” She said. “That’s a hell of a fox.”
Several minutes later the pair of them returned, Hachi smiling her mischievous vulpine smirk and Cade’s tanned face slightly redder.
“After some due consideration,” He said. “I’ve decided to accompany you three at least as far as Arbessos…which I will probably regret by the time we get there.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=18&sl=180