The town of Arbessos was about as large as Megame had been expecting. It was a small-ish town, barely more than a village, surrounded by dark wilderness where the trees had grown to the very edges of the town properties. The road leading to it had barely even been that, a bare strip of earth well-worn by travelers and carts. The three of them had traveled the road for several days before finally arriving, relying on Cade’s memory and Kara’s keen eyesight to guide the way. According to Hachi they weren’t too far out of the way and Megame tried to reassure herself that, so long as they stayed roughly on their path, she had nothing to worry about in regards to displeasing Inari-sama.
The town itself seemed almost like something out of a classic monster film. Houses built in an old European style, all wood and thatched roof, filled with people who were dully dressed, primarily farmers trying to eke out whatever land and resources they could from the stubborn forests. Ahead of them the road continued past the town, rising up a hillside and into the dark forest where, about a mile up a low mountain, Megame could see the vague outline of a castle’s parapets.
The people of Arbessos did not seem to want to speak much, offering them nothing but an occasional look of questioning or concern as they traveled down the central road towards the castle path.
“Should we find somewhere here to stay?” Megame asked, more quietly than she needed to.
“Probably shouldn’t.” Cade said, his step not faltering. “Constantin’s going to learn we’re in town when he wakes up, better to announce ourselves first rather than have him visit us in the dead of night.”
Megame shivered at the thought of a creeping vampire waiting outside her room in some inn, and hastily agreed. Cade had said he was more of a decent sort of vampire, but Megame would rather meet him and be sure than to trust someone else’s word on the matter. It’s not that she didn’t believe Cade, it’s just…well it was a vampire.
So they four of them continued on foot, with Hachi once more in her vulpine form, towards the castle, unchallenged by the locals who simply let them pass with watchful eyes.
“They seem suspicious.” Kara noted quietly, clearly a little uncomfortable with so many eyes on them.
“Well, we’re off to meet a vampire willingly.” Cade said. “Wouldn’t you be?”
“Wouldn’t they remember you?” Megame turned to Cade. “You’ve been here before, after all.”
“That was quite a long time ago.” Cade shrugged. “A lot of them wouldn’t remember, heck plenty of them weren’t even born.”
“Right…” Once more, Megame found herself wondering how much her companions were keeping from her. It almost made her regret revealing so much about herself. It must be nice being so mysterious.
Once more the road darkened around them as the path began to rise up the slope of the mountain, twisting back and forth on itself as it wound its way up the slope. There were no lights or lanterns to guide them and as they continued the sky overhead began to darken with the coming night. The clouds overhead gained their evening colors as the dark canopy of trees blocked out much of the light, leaving them in a state of semi-darkness that was rapidly growing deeper.
The rest of the group seemed undaunted, picking easily over the road even as Megame struggled to find her footing.
“C-can you two wait up?” She stammered as she hurried to catch up with them, Hachi at her heels.
“Trouble seeing in the dark?” Kara asked as she turned to her, and in that moment Megame saw a cat-like flash of light behind Kara’s eyes.
“A bit…” Megame admitted “Though it looks like I’m the only one…”
“’Fraid so.” Cade said, and he offered her a hand, but Megame refused it, reaching instead into her pack to pull out one of her charms. She placed the long paper charm, covered in her own ornate calligraphic script, against her forehead as she chanted a quiet verse under her breath. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the world was a much brighter place, kami of starlight dancing behind her eyes as they illuminated the world in her vision.
“You two might be monster hunters and magic hitmen, but I still have a few tricks of my own.”
“Heh, fair enough.” Cade lowered his hand. “I’ll be sure not to underestimate you.”
With her vision in the darkness improved, Megame managed to keep pace as the four of them traveled up the mountainside. She was also somewhat relieved that her own fatigue wasn’t dragging them down. Inari’s blessings had given her the stamina for more than a simple trek up a low mountain, so she was hardly even breathing heavily when they turned a corner through the woods and faced the great façade of Constantin’s castle.
The place seemed as much a palace as a fortress. Grand architecture combined with defensive walls, artfully built minarets rising high into the night air, great glass windows to let in the light during daytime hours. It was more elegant than it was foreboding, and rather than some portcullis or drawbridge, the sealed entrance was a magnificent double oak door bound in iron and covered in decorative metalwork.
Kara whistled openly at the castle. “Nice place…lots of good vantage points too.”
“I’d be careful with what you say.” Cade said warningly. “Walls have ears in a place like this.”
“He’s going to find out soon enough” Kara said, gesturing to the rifle bag slung over her shoulder.
“Well, for now we’re guests.” Cade said. “Sacred hospitality and all that.”
“There’s nothing particularly sacred about a vampire.” Kara said. “So he’s going to need a damn good reason for me to not just smoke him in his sleep.”
“Well…sounds like we’ll be off to a fine start.” Cade sighed, but he said nothing more as he stepped up towards the door, banging a powerful fist against the hard wood until it echoed around them, backing up to rejoin them as they waited for a reply.
For a moment all was quiet and Megame wondered if it was still too early in the evening for a nocturnal vampire to be awake. Before she could decide whether or not to knock again, however the door began to creak open.
With a great groaning noise the great entrance parted, the doors opening seemingly under their own power. In the entrance, standing alone, was a single man, the entrance hall behind him dimly lit by torch and candle light so as to cast the front of him in shadow.
“It is rare that I receive visitors these days, particularly from foreign lands. Please, step closer into the light.”
Slowly the four of them moved forward, and as they did Megame caught a better view of the man. He was about as tall as Cade but much thinner, lightly built but with more of an athletic build rather than being skinny. His shoulders were still relatively broad, but that could have been the mantle of the long coat he wore that hung almost to his ankles. It was an old and worn garment, seemingly well-used in bad weather, and beneath it he wore finer garments than one would expect of a castle lord. His face was kind and, Megame could not help but notice, supremely attractive with gentle lines and thin eyes beneath a head of bound blonde hair. With her enhanced vision, she could see the red color of his eyes in the moonlight.
“Ah, I see my guests are not so unfamiliar. I’m surprised to see you here again, Cade, I had thought we had an agreement.” The vampire’s voice was not unkind, though it did have a sharpness to its tone that sent a shiver down Megame’s spine.
“I’d hoped it would have stayed that way, Constantin.” Cade said. “But it seems some powerful forces have had some disagreements, so we’re here to re-open negotiations.”
“Well, let it not be said that I am an ungracious host.” Constantin spread his arms in a magnanimous gesture. “Companions of Cade are always welcome in my hall. I’m sure you’re tired from the road. I have business in town tonight, but you may rest here this night and the day tomorrow, and perhaps tomorrow night we can have our discussion.”
“Sooner would be better.” Kara said. “I don’t think we need a night and a day to rethink our positions, and you could try and pull something in the night.”
Constantin did not reply at first, simply gesturing for them to follow past the threshold as they stepped inside, the warmth of the hall a welcome reprieve from the chilly night air.
“It is not ideal, I admit.” Constantin said, still facing them, and in the brighter light, Megame could see the flash of pronounced canines. “Had I some forewarning of your arrival I would of course have received you for the entire night. Alas I am as busy as any lord should be and tonight is no exception. As for preying upon you or displaying some other malice while you rest…well I doubt any of you have cause for concern. Cade trusts me of course; I doubt you, my dark-haired guest, would be so careless as to ever sleep with fewer than one eye open, and of course the young eastern maiden has a fox, which even I am not potent enough to slip past. Besides, if any of you were truly weak enough to be so easily cornered by me, I doubt Cade would have brought you.”
“Well he’s right there, at least.” Cade shrugged.
“But of course where are my manners. As Cade has no doubt told you my name is Constantin, lord of this castle and protector of Arbessos, and I would like to have the pleasure of knowing my other guests.”
“My name is Megame…” She said, pausing before giving her family name as she recalled Cade’s warning. For now she’d have to start trying to be mysterious. “And this is my companion, Hachi.”
Hachi once more took her more human form to bow politely. There was little worry in giving Hachi’s name, as she had been upfrotn when they met about it being an appelation rather than her true name.
“Two fine and rare beauties to grace my hall.” Constantin smiled, and Megame felt her stomach flutter at his words, though the feeling seemed to pass immediately. Again, she recalled Kara and Cade’s words regarding the hypnotic powers of vampires. How much of his attractiveness came from nothing but magic?
He turned to Kara. “And what might your name be, dark-haired traveler?”
“Kara.” She said plainly. Constantin looked her over for a moment in silence, as if observing something through her.
“Well you are of course welcome here, Miss Kara. All of you will have rooms prepared for you at once. I do not keep much food here save for what the servants need, but I’m sure it will suffice for hungry travelers when dawn comes.”
“There are easier ways to settle why we’re here.” Kara said, her tone darkening, though the gracious smile never left Constantin’s face.
“I can hazard a guess why you are here, Miss Kara, and I appreciate Cade’s efforts in having you come through the front door rather than through a window or some other manner of skullduggery.”
Kara raised an eyebrow. “You know why I’m here?”
“I imagine, in the eyes of some, my time is up. Though others might say it has been up for quite some time.”
Megame passed worried looks from Constantin to Kara. There was intensity in the air between them, and she saw Cade’s fingers curling as well. No one was sure what action either Kara or the vampire might take.
“In a manner of speaking.” Kara said. “Though some would prefer a surprise assassination, introducing myself makes it feel more like an execution.”
“Well, I cannot say I’m surprised you came for me. I expected one of Cade’s ill-informed brethren to hunt me down rather than one of your kind.”
Kara shrugged. “I’ve been reassigned, don’t think too hard about it.”
Constantin put his arms behind his back. “I had a feeling as soon as I saw you, you’re certainly not human, but I’m rather honored to have you as my personal angel of death.”
“Trust me, it’s not much of an honor.” Kara’s hands tightened on the strap of her rifle bag.
“Wait, hold on just a minute.” Megame was red-faced as she interrupted them, stepping forward to stand almost between them. “I know what Kara’s mission is, and I’m not sure if I agree with it or not. What I don’t agree with is everyone seeming to know everything and leaving me in the dark.”
Megame turned on Kara. “Why are you on this mission?” She asked. Her face was bright red, she hated being this direct and demanding, but she wanted answers before Kara and Constantin tried to kill one another.
“You mean you haven’t told her?” Constantin asked curiously from behind Megame.
“I told her it’s my job and the rest doesn’t matter.” Kara narrowed her eyes, her face gaining a truly severe expression that made Megame shiver, but she didn’t move. “And what I am doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Then why not tell me?” Megame asked desperately “Just so I know.”
Kara sighed, her hand falling from her rifle bag. “Fine” She said with finality.
“I am…was…a Valkyrie.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=30&sl=817