As quietly as she knew how, she continued to approach. There were six lights, now, their glow even brighter as the moon had disappeared behind dark clouds, and she could see a shadow hovering around them. Her mouth suddenly very dry, she stepped always closer. The shadow stood less than twenty feet in front of her, and Myrna frantically tried to recall what she had heard of Souls Night. The souls wouldn’t hurt her as long as she left them in peace. They might try to show her images. But she couldn’t remember anything that told of shadows lurking over the souls. Was it protecting them, maybe? Or was it something different, something much more dangerous—a demon?
Just as the idea struck her mind, Myrna walked on a dried branch. She felt it snap before the cracking sound reached her ears, and she winced. This wasn’t good. She hadn’t wanted to be noticed by whatever was there, a few feet away now, but it was too late. The shadow was growing, turning toward her. A flame wavered in front of the tall shape, its light reverberating in fiery eyes. Myrna’s blood turned to ice in her veins. Cold beads of sweat rolled down the back of her neck. The shadow took a step toward her, and she reacted without thinking.
The spear left her hand before she was even conscious of having taken aim. She had trained so long for this, hiding from all to do it. Women weren’t supposed to fight demons. They were supposed to stay home, and hope for the best. She had never understood why. As far as she could recall, she had known that she wouldn’t be hiding while others fought for her.
What she had never trained for, however, never expected, was the cry of surprised pain the shadow let out when the spear hit it. Part of her had expected the spear to pass through the shadow as though passing through smoke. Instead, the shout was accompanied by the noise of a solid body falling back on the ground. As it did, the hood of the black cloak that had made that body seem other than human fell back, revealing a pale face that almost seemed to glow in the light of the returning moon.
Horrified by what she had done, Myrna rushed forward, falling to her knees next to the man. The spear was embedded in his abdomen, the area around it shining wetly with blood. He struggled to sit up and she babbled a string of breathless apologies.
“I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean…Gods…”
He raised his hand and it hovered near the spear as though to grab it, but did not touch it.
“Pull it out,” he grunted.
Myrna’s hands shook when she grasped the spear. She raised her eyes to the man’s face, ready to give him a warning, but instead what she saw sent a flash of pure fear through her. She let go of the spear at once and fell back on her heels in her haste to get away.
“If I wanted you dead, I would have killed you already. Now get that spear out of me.”
There was something powerful in his voice, compelling even through the pain that tainted it. Myrna approached the man again—the vampire. For a moment, his eyes continued to burn with an unnatural fire, but nothing in him hinted at violence or danger. Only when the fire disappeared, leaving his eyes a deep blue, did she grab the spear again with hands as hesitant as they were slippery. She closed her eyes and pulled as fast, as straight as she could. The vampire groaned.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, daring to look at him again. “I thought…”
Her voice trailed off as he stood, a hand pressed to his bloody side. She froze when he bent down toward her, certain for a second that he would take his revenge now, but all he did was pick up a small object from the ground. She watched, her fear and apologies forgotten in favor of curiosity, as he touched the cup-like object to one of the lights she had noticed earlier. A flame rose, tiny, wavering, but resistant even in the face of the wind blowing around them. They were small candles, she now realized; by the strong, acrid scent of them, she guessed they had been made from the sap of a certain kind of trees that grew in the woods. Such candles did not give enough light to be of much use, but nothing short of water would kill their flame.
There were now seven of these candles, lined up at the top of small piles of rocks. Behind each pile, rounded stones had been polished smooth by the elements, but Myrna could still guess letters, here and there. These were tombs, she realized, her stomach tightening into a painful knot.
The vampire stood still in front of the last tomb for a few more moments, then turned back toward Myrna, a hand pressed to his bloody side. She hurried to her feet so he wouldn’t loom over her, but even so he stood a full head taller than she was.
“Why are you here, child?” he asked, his voice gravelly. “Who are you?”
“My…my name is Myrna. I am from Riverside.”
A short, impatient nod told her he knew of her village.
“The last time, your people sent three armed men during daytime,” he said, sounding more tired than angry. “Do they fear me so little now that they will send one lone child to steal from me?”
“I’m not a child,” she replied, annoyed. She crossed her arms and raised her chin a little higher, forgetting that she had wounded the vampire in the light of his accusations. “And I did not come here to steal.”
His expression remained blank. “Then why are you here?”
“It’s a challenge,” she explained, trying to reach for a patience she didn’t possess. “I had to come here tonight, alone, and return—” She realized the implications of what she was saying as the words passed her lips, but it was too late to stop now. “—with proof that I had come.”
She could feel her cheeks flushing at his accusatory tone and dropped her eyes. They fell on the bloody hand he was pressing to his side, and her feelings of guilt only heightened.
“I have to bring back a weapon,” she said, talking very fast. Then, gesturing at his wound, she added: “Shouldn’t you…lie down, maybe? I could clean this for you. Bandage it.”
He ignored her suggestion, focusing instead on what she would rather not have talked about now that she understood the entirety of the challenge. The Fighters had indeed sent her to steal, even though they hadn’t phrased it that way.
“Who do you think owns that weapon you had to bring back?”
“I didn’t know anyone would be here,” she muttered.
“And yet you came armed.”
She wanted to roll her eyes at that, but she doubted he would take it well. Her initial burst of fear at being in front of a vampire had faded, but she couldn’t forget what he was, couldn’t forget old stories of how, once, humans had shown so much respect to vampires.
“Of course I came armed. It’s Souls Night. I wasn’t going to walk around defenseless. And I truly am sorry. I thought you were…”
She couldn’t finish, her fear suddenly too ridiculous to voice.
“You thought I was what?”
Once more, her cheeks felt too hot, and Myrna was grateful that it was so dark. “I thought you were a demon.”
He laughed. The sound took her by surprise, deep and truly amused, but somehow awkward, as though he hadn’t laughed in a long time.
“And you thought a spear would help against a demon?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a Fighter yet. But I will be. And a spear has to be better than nothing.”
His laughter died as abruptly as it had started. Myrna could feel his eyes on her, heavy, piercing, measuring her from her braided hair to the toe of her boots. When he shook his head, a wave of cold ran over her; she was sure she had failed whatever test he had run her through, and she had to fight her need to move back, away from the judgment about to fall from his lips. He didn’t say anything however. All he did was grimace, look down at his middle and at his blood stained hand, and then he turned away toward the stone building fifty yards behind him. Myrna had been so focused on him, she hadn’t noticed it until now.
“Go home, Myrna,” he said without looking back. “Children have no business fighting demons.”
Outrage bubbled inside her at his words. She didn’t think twice. She strode after him.
… continued in Souls Night