It’s been a busy few weeks for me, and I’ve made some great progress on KINGLESS COUNTRY. I’m on the final chapters and I’ve devoted my exclusive attention to it. I’ll be alternating reposts and new short stories for the next few weeks, but this may be a good time to catch up on some of the existing stories on the blog if you’re a new reader.
I will be posting touched up versions of the stories (some of these are several years old after all!), so it may have a few surprises in store for even the most regular of my readers.
Chapter 01 — The Forests of Terra
Nell Draadich stared into the campfire, considering her next move. Despite the claims of unusual noises in the evenings, an unnatural silence clung to the night air an hour past midnight. Farmers, merchants and guardsmen all claimed to hear them. She stifled a yawn and eyed her empty kettle of coffee, resting atop her small can stove. Too late for a second pot.
Devoid of howls of the undead, the evening air remained pleasant and comfortable. She pulled her simple grey cloak closer to her thin frame, fighting off the cool breezes of the evening. Her usual garb, a dark leotard trimmed with tiny feathers cut away in parts, did little to keep her warm. Its scant design allowed freedom of movement and helped prevent distraction from spell-casting and in the muggy summer days of the forest it had been a godsend. At night, it was a liability. A long loin cloth covered her front to the knees and a shorter one on the back. She tapped her only bit of jewelry, a heavy silver choker, in an act of restlessness. A chill wind forced its way between the trees and rustled her natural grey hair. She shivered, easing the flame back into place when inched closer to comfort her. “I’m fine. Stay calm.”
The typical time of threat drew near, but it looked more like a dead lead. The freshly risen weren’t exactly known for their manners.
Leaves rustled behind her, coaxing her to stand. She cast aside her cloak, leaving her hair to splay out behind her and settle against her back. She seized her weapon, an anointed wooden short staff with an ankh decorating its top, and appraised the lush foliage surrounding her. The campfire grew restless, but she turned back and gestured to calm it.
She stepped forward without looking, catching a root with her sandaled foot and tumbled into a clumsy hand braced landing. She winced against a culmination of sleep deprivation, pain, and embarrassment. A reflection of light caught a pair of beady red eyes peering at her through a nearby bush, hiding from her outburst of noise. A rabbit.
Nell smiled in spite of herself, pulling into a cross-legged sit. “Oh so it was you making all that noise.”
She clicked her tongue, calling the rabbit over. It sniffed at the air, eyeing Nell with confusion and approached with cautious little hops. She placed a hand on the soil, and after a few tentative sniffs, it nuzzled against the tips of her fingers.
“I have some fruit in my pack. Maybe you’d like some?” The undead must have been here recently. The foliage must be corrupted if the animals are being so bold.
A knife landed clean in the middle of the rabbit’s back, pinning it to the soil and ending its tiny life. It died without a peep. Nell stood, whirling about to find her attacker. Her eyes darted around the low light provided by her campfire.
The flame leapt from the piled sticks and rallied to her side, manifesting into a contained sphere of living fire. Her trusted familiar, Wisp, darted and swam between trees searching for her foe.
“You’re just an amateur,” a voice said behind her.
Nell froze against cold steel placed through her veil of hair and against the small of her back. A bead of sweat slid down the side of her face. When did he get behind me?
“Go back to town. I don’t have time to babysit. The forest isn’t safe for foolish women who—”
He leapt backwards, avoiding a torrent of flame erupting from Wisp. Nell spun to catch a glimpse of her aggressor. He stood hunched with a single dagger at the ready, wearing leather armor fashioned into a long black coat. A steel brace pinched the arm of his off hand, lined with tiny throwing daggers. He had the look of a professional, but his belt stood out amongst the shadows of the forest. A tumultuous mixture of blues, greens, and yellows made it look more like fool’s motley than armor. There was only one in the world.
“C– Culvir? You’re Culvir Silverdark right?” Nell lowered her staff. He was a fellow hunter from the Association, and one she knew by reputation.
He raised a brow, straightening, his dagger stayed at the ready. “Don’t tell me you–”
She placed a hand on her chest and bowed in greeting. “I’m your new partner.”
Culvir’s expression went blank. He stepped closer, and sized her up through dark glasses, odd considering the time of night. His chin length light brown hair, framed his round face, and he wore a permanent scowl.
“You probably already knew that,” she said, “I talked to the locals and—“
“I know all that too,” Culvir said. He glanced around before continuing. “Only a rookie doesn’t gather information before a job. I’m a seasoned veteran, not some wet-nosed novice. If the association thinks we should work together, fine. Orders are orders, but you won’t get in my way.”
“What? You think you’re something because you killed some zombies? Or maybe you killed a vampire on accident and they decided to let you in out of pity.” His scowl turned into a sneer.
Nell toyed with her staff, speaking in a low mutter. “A-actually, we were put on the same team because you and I currently have the most kills in the Association, we are first and second. My name is Nell Draadich. I looked you up as soon as they offered the assignment. We’re apart by five.”
“What? You’ve killed ninety-five vampires? You?”
“One Hundred and five actually, I should have been clearer.” She scratched the side of her cheek. “They have this– bad habit of standing next to each other. It ends up working well for me.”
Culvir turned away, muttering as he adjusted his glasses.
“I’m s-sorry,” Nell said.
“Don’t be. It’s pretty clear how you do it. You have a pretty face and you look more like a bar wench than a hunter. They probably just see you as an easy victim.”
“Maybe–” She said, flushing scarlet. Did he just call me pretty?
Culvir threw up his arms. “Bah, another waste of time. I’ve been here for hours and no sign of them.”
“Hours? But–” Nell bit her lip. “Isn’t it sort of pointless to look for vampires much before midnight?”
“Pointless?” Culvir rounded on her. “I start an hour before sundown every day. If there’s even a chance that I can catch one of these blood suckers in the act, I’ll gladly put the extra effort in. These things aren’t going to kill themselves.”
“While it pisses me off that some lazy spell flinger has more kills than me, it only means I have to work harder. I’m fine with that.” Culvir turned to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“Scouting, you can just sit here and be bait.”
“But, I have an idea, since there are two of us.” Nell gestured with her staff towards the ground, carving a mark on the ground with a conjured spark. It flared with power and then faded to nothing. She waved him close enough to whisper. “Come here.”
Culvir raised a brow and complied.
“We should argue. I think something is watching us.” Nell glanced back at Wisp, who danced in the woods flitting about.
“That’s bullshit,” he said. “I’ve gone around the perimeter at least a dozen times. There hasn’t been a trace of vampires or any undead.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.” She leaned closer to him. “Why do you wear sunglasses at night?”
“None of your business.” He pushed her away, with carefully fingers on her breastbone. He gave the silver choker around her neck a flick. “Why do you wear a dog collar?”
“Well, I–” Nell reached to her neck, running her fingers against the surface. It stood out against her pale skin and matched the color of her hair. It had been a treasured gift and it served an important purpose. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Not very confident are you? If you weren’t so clumsy you probably wouldn’t need the extra protection. I guess everyone is a little afraid of bites.”
Culvir put away his dagger, and sat on the spot. He leaned back and sized up Nell. “It’s a wonder those rags do anything to keep you alive with all that exposure. Your luck is only going to hold out for so long.”
Nell settled her gaze on the forest beyond. He took the bait.
“They probably think some bar wench has wandered out of the city. You may not have much here.” Culvir pointed to her chest. “But you probably get a few craning necks looking at your considerable backside.”
Her blush returned, she had been particularly sensitive on that point. “C-considerable backside? Why would you–.”
“Truth hurts lady,” Culvir folded his arms across his chest and smiled a forced grin resembling a grimace.
Nell caught a glimpse of a shadow creeping behind him. She raised her arms to cast, but the intruder moved too fast. The figure drove their blade downward towards Culvir’s skull. Her trap triggered, illuminating the magical rune below the assailant, but not before they finished their swing.
The vampire wicked looking sword cleaved downward, swinging wild at the last moment and into the moist soil to narrowly miss. Culvir grinned and vanished into thin air.
The vampire tugged on his sword, confused. The blade of a dagger burst from the vampire’s throat. Nell winced against the splash of vampiric blood, and clenched a fist to trigger the rune. The air amongst the trees distorted and Culvir reappeared backpedaling to avoided the flames. His sterling dagger remained lodged deep in his prey.
The vampire gaped in terror, clawing at its throat, and the hungry flames devoured him.
Culvir pulled another dagger from his metal brace, glancing around, and remained alert and ready.
The vampire writhed amongst the torrent of flame and disintegrated into a charred husk.
A distant explosion rocked the forest and a flame engulfed body flew through the night air overhead. Nell focused, and triggered another delayed spell. The flying body burst like a firework, scattering ash and gore to the winds. A lump of charred flesh and blood jettisoned against a nearby tree leaving Wisp to reform from the swirl of crimson flames. It flitted back to Nell in its usual diminutive state. Tiny patches of smoldering flame lingered around the second vampire corpse, she gestured to extinguish them, welcomed wisp into her hand, and gave Culvir an apologetic look. “Well you definitely got this one, so we—“
“I don’t need your charity. You got both of them.” Culvir waved her off. “I’m not worried about it. Seven is an easy gap to close.”
Sometime during the scuffle, Culvir lost his glasses revealing his adorable bright blue eyes. The contrast between his sculpted and strong features made for a handsome combination. She gaped at him blankly.
“What?” He folded his arms.
“Your glasses,” Nell said, turning away her gaze.
“Hm?” Culvir brought a hand to his face realizing his vulnerability. He scanned about, frowning.
“I think I understand now, Why they—”
“I don’t want to hear about it.” He spotted his glasses, plucked them from the ground and replaced them. He paused to claim his dagger as well. She could not keep the image of his face out of her head. “Not a word. If it doesn’t have anything to do with killing vampires, it doesn’t need to be said.”
Nell’s wandering gaze settled on the corpse of the rabbit. She had almost forgotten it. “Why kill the rabbit?”
“Fresh blood, of course. Even animal blood will draw their attention.”
“B–but I can do the same thing with magic. You shouldn’t kill animals just for bait.”
“It’s not like I’m going to waste it.” Culvir lifted it by the throwing dagger and held it up like a skewered kebab. “Dinner. Don’t tell me you don’t eat meat. How are you supposed to keep up your strength without a healthy diet? It’s just as important as a strict exercise regime.”
“You don’t have one of those either? “What sort of Hunter are you?”
A normal one? Nell couldn’t think of a single person in the Association who had been strict. Their ranks comprised of rowdy drunks and womanizers. She could count the number of women in the group on one hand.
Culvir slid the rabbit’s remains from his blade, wiped it clean and replaced the weapon in his steel brace. He tucked the rabbit under one arm and brought out a small black book, writing with long angry strokes. “Well that’s going to change, partner. I can’t have some skinny undernourished waif watching my back. Well uh–”
His head tilted downward. Nell squirmed against his pointed gaze at her hips. Does he think those things keep me from telling what he’s looking at?
He scribbled in the book again and closed it. “There. We’ll camp here and keep an eye out for stragglers, and tomorrow we get started on a game plan. Once I get the reports filed and sent off to the Association. Culvir retrieved his silver dagger and went about checking the vampire bodies for clues.
We’re supposed to do reports?
Culvir Silverdark proved every bit as odd as her colleagues said. An insufferable stick in the mud, strict to the letter and law of the Association, but she couldn’t help being drawn to the passion he poured into his work. Her thoughts drifted to the care he took to push her away and the gentle look in his eyes. His reputation of the Association hid a more interesting and appealing truth, one she felt inclined to explore on her own.