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When she regained consciousness it was to find herself lying on her back tucked carefully into his bed. Eros was sitting in the desk chair, now positioned at the window, with one leg pulled up to his chest as he watched the sun begin to rise. Kennina could only see the profile view of his face, but it was enough for her to know that he hadn’t bothered to reconceal his eyes. The charade was over. There would be no more games.
She had to get away. Get out of the cabin, out of the forest, and run. Sneak off while he was not looking at her. The straw shifted slightly as Kennina maneuvered herself off of the mattress, her feet making silent contact with the frigid floor as she pulled herself upright and crept swiftly across the room to reach for the door.
“It’s locked, Leoaică.” She didn’t need to turn around to know that he was looking at her now, those unholy eyes boring a hole in her back. “If you want out after you’ve heard me speak, I’ll allow you free. But you must not return here. Ever.”
“And why the hell would I want to listen to anything that you have to say, AshHand?” She snapped at him, whirling around to meet his gaze with her own flaming eyes. “You’re just another Dhampir! Another monster who shapes the truth to suit their wicked ends!”
“Why would I bother pulling punches, as it were, when you already know who and what I really am?”
“Why would you bother to tell the truth?”
“Because I have no image to be concerned with keeping.” Came the stiff response. “It won’t be entirely accurate, as even the memory of immortals fade, but it will be the closest thing to the truth that you will get.”
“Just let me go!”
“I was a prince, once. Born 572 years ago in a province in Romania to the King and Queen of a kingdom the name of which has long since been forgotten.” Reorienting his chair with no regard for her continued attempts to force the locked door open, Eros threw one arm over the back as he cross one leg across the other. “When I was a young boy, the Angel Michael appeared to me and told me that my birth had long been prophesied. That I was to be a great hero of the light who would lead humanity to their salvation from the Vampires. Who would defeat Lilith, once and for all. He gave me the tools to do so-the blessed blade Cenușă, Ash-Bringer in your tongue, from which I would later take my name and the Rune of the Light-and guided me in the early days of my training.” Kennina hadn’t noticed the massive weapon lying near him before he picked it up, laying the blade across his lap and stroking the flat of it in much the same way as one would stroke a furry animal. “My best friend and vassal, Knight Ser Cerdic the Allegiant, was the first to join the fledgling order. And for a time it consisted of just the two of us, honing ourselves and our weapons-mine the longsword and his the short sword and shield-into the two techniques that would become the backbone of our forces. Pierre, the absolute offense, and Apărare, the absolute defense the true purpose of which was to cull me should I ever fall to the corruption the fight against which we championed.” He ran the tip of his thumb along the edge of the blade, splitting it open and paying the pain no mind as he watched the red blood paint itself across the black metal. “For ten years we fought them in what was the height of their power in the Dark Ages, the Scourge of their empire, but the time came where I grew too bold, overstepped and misjudged the consequences of the direct ire of the Queen of the Damned. I was 25 when it all came crashing down around me…”
JUST OUTSIDE OF BIELNJA, ROMANIA
MID JULY, 1448
The Vampire bared its fangs in a threatening hiss lashing out with its long claws as he advanced on it, but Eros was prepared for the all-too-predictable move. A flick of his wrist set the vibrations running up his sword like the surge of lightning along the trunk of a tree, the metal blade rippling as fluidly as a candle flame taken by a breeze and the Dhampir’s attack ended in the complete obliteration of its arm.
Stilling his sword quickly he repositioned itself on the loose stones of the mountain side to the right of his wounded quarry and feinted towards its injured side before redirecting his swing upwards and embedding his blade in its skull. With a final hiss of pain and fury the slain Vampire fell to the ground with a loud crash.
With his enemy dispatched, the Lord of the Slayer’s Order allowed his exhaustion to show through and, after retrieving his weapon from the corpse which was already falling away to ashes, the AshHand collapsed onto a nearby rock to catch his breath.
That fight nearly pushed me to my limit; a few minutes more and I’d have been bled dry by my own technique. Glancing down at the sword in his hands, he turned it slightly against the stones so that the blade flashed white beneath the layer of red blood coating its surface. To slay them. Both my mandate and my burden. I suppose that, if I die in the process, such is what is meant to be.
Brushing the sweat which had soaked through his bangs away from his brow with the back of his hand and pulling a cloth from the small pack her carried, Eros wiped Cenușă clean of gore before sliding it into its sheath across his back and getting to his feet. It was time that he be getting back to the village which had called upon his services.
A shrill whistle from between his teeth was answered by the sharp clattering of hooves, and a moment later a warhorse-pelt pure white and clad in silver armor-came galloping into view. Slowing its pace as it reached him, the stallion tossed its mane and snorted.
Snickering at the antics of his mount, Eros reached out to grab the reigns and stroke its neck. “No need to be getting so excited, Glory. Our opponent is finished. There’s no need for you to fight.” The horse snorted again and pawed at the stoney ground as its rider moved around to pull himself up into the saddle. Reins held tight in a firm but gentle hand, he turned the steed back towards the direction of the path and nudged it into a canter with his heels, and then to a gallop once they’d reached more stable ground.
Bielnja was a village of fair size, the buildings ranging from a large inn to a handful of mid-sized stores to numerous small houses all with the same wooden walls and sharply slanted straw-thatched roofs. The streets were empty as he rode through them, and once he reached the inn he found out why; everyone living in the village had gathered there to wait for his return as night feel. Tying Glory to a post outside, Eros made his way through the door.
Silence fell the moment that it swung shut behind him, the countless pairs of eyes which instantly adhered to him all filled with fear.
“The Dhampir,” he announced, voice ringing through the thick silence, “is dead. Your village need fear it's evil no longer.”
An audible sigh of relief passed through the room, shoulders sagging as the tense apprehension left them and music and conversation once more filtering through the large room even as it began clearing out. The village’s leader, an aging man with a rapidly receding hairline, approached him at his position beside the door.
“Lord AshHand,” Eros raised his eyes from the floor at the sound of his name to find him holding out a small stained sack full of coins. “Payment for what you have done for us. I know that it isn’t much, not even half of what the Order usually charges, but-.”
“Keep the money.”
The man’s eyes widened in shock. “B-But-!”
“It is at God’s will that I and those who have chosen to follow my way fight and die to protect humanity from the monsters that lurk in the darkness of the night. We exist to serve the people we defend, not for the people we defend to serve us. And, where we do require some manner of funding to continue the undertaking of our mandate we do not expect payment of any kind from those who cannot afford it. So I’ll tell you again,” reaching out with one hand, he gently pushed the bag back towards him, “to keep the money.”
“Thank you, Sire! Prince! Thank you!”
“Prince?” he smiled wryly. “Not anymore; I set aside my royal blood to chase shadows. Now, if there is nothing else for me to do here I’ll be going; exhausted though I am, I’ve still quite a ways to go before I make it home.”
Seeming to recover from his shock, the man nodded and stepped back. “O-Of course Lord AshHand. Be safe on your journey home.” Nodding, Eros turned and left the inn.
Untying Glory’s reins from the pole outside and stepping back up into the saddle, he turned the horse back onto the road and started heading out of town. The night was dark and overcast but warm, the mountains rising blacker than black off to his right and the window of homes and stores-most dark but a few still lit by the wavering light of melting wax candles-watching him pass. The only sounds that reached his ears were the merry chirping of crickets and the dull rhythmic thumping of the hooves of the home beneath him landing against the dry-packed dirt.
All seemed to be well, as if the night were purposely trying to lull the seasoned warrior into a sense of security, so when the shrill shriek split the quiet it was enough to make him jump compulsively yanking his mount to a stop.
Eros turned his head left and right, squinting his eyes to peer through the gloom of latening evening but found nothing. What had that scream been? Where had it come from? What was going on? He’d killed the Dhampir responsible for terrorizing the village earlier that very same day. Watched as its body had fallen away to ashes.
Could there have been more than one?
“Glory, go!” The stallion bolted in the direction of the sound as a second scream rang out, Cenușă’s blade glowing dimly in the blue hour of twilight as Eros leaned close against the neck of his horse.
Erupting into the middle of town the Order’s leader caught sight of three men-quite plainly human-standing in a loose circle like a trio of wolves around the curled form of a woman lying on the ground where she had been thrown after they’d dragged her from her hiding place beneath the loose straw filling the back of a ox-drawn cart.
“Hitchhiking little bitch!” One snarled, drawing back his foot to kick her again. “You want a ride somewhere, pay or walk!”
“Hey!!!” Eros bellowed, Glory’s hooves sparking against the stone pavement of the square as the stallion reared and kicked with a high-pitched scream. “Get away from her!” Leaping from the saddle, he approached them with his weapon drawn and eyes sparking.
“A Slayer!” One yelped on catching sight of him, another swearing loudly and retreating a few steps, but the ringleader of the little mob was unruffled by his sudden appearance and stepped up without hesitation to stand in his way.
“Listen, Vampire hunter, this is a personal matter. Has nothing to do with your fang-faced demons, and thereby there’s no reason for you or your order to be involved-.”
The razor sharp tip of his sword was leveled beneath the man’s chin, Eros’ brown eyes glowing with rage. “No reason for me to get involved as a trio of low life parasites beat a helpless woman!” He growled. “Being the man that I am, one possessed of chivalry rather than the mind of a beast, I’m not about to walk away! But if the three of you know what’s good for you, you will.”
“And if we don’t?”
Worn down as he was from the drawn-out battle earlier in the day he could only use the Pierre technique for the matter of a few seconds but that was more than enough; a combination of the flickering blade, moving as if it were alive, and the furrows cleaved into stone mere fractions of an inch from their feet sent all three running with their tails between their legs, fleeing as quickly as their cart could go.
Eros didn’t wait for the attackers to disappear before he turned towards their victim, lying unconscious and badly bruised on the ground. With careful hands, he did his best to check for any injuries amidst the numerous folds of her clothing but what he found left him both relieved and newly furious; what the young woman’s body had been so tightly curled around was an unharmed infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The woman’s pulse was faint, her pale skin a patchwork of bruises and the front of her dull grey dress wet with blood. Unable to discern the exact extent of her wounds but well aware that the situation was beginning to border on dire, the warrior drew on the power of the Light Rune etched into his neck to at the very least slow the bleeding though he knew he was no healer.
Then, gathering both the woman and her baby into his arms, Eros mounted back up in Glory’s saddle before rushing back to the inn and kicking down the door startling the patrons inside.
“Get her a room; someone call a healer!” The innkeeper rushed over immediately as someone else ran out of the building to alert the village’s healer to what was going on.
“What happened, Slayer? You told us that the monster-.”
“It was men who did this; I don’t know why, but she was hiding in the back of their cart and when they found her they didn’t take kindly to her presence.” He told him. “Please, a room for this young woman and her child so that she might recover; I’ll pay the cost in full.”
“Of course, Sir. Come with me.”
The innkeeper lead him up the stairs and down a hallway to a door, unlocking it with a key and allowing him inside. Eros rushed immediately to the bed, carefully lying the woman down atop the sheets just as the healer, an ancient woman bent double over a knotted cane, came clumping into the room.
“The Slayer is the one who brought her here?”
Eros nodded, meeting her hazed gaze unflinchingly. “Yes, I am. I did what I could with my magic but I’m no healer; whatever you can do for her, I will pay for it.”
“Your gold is hardly my concern, boy.” The crone informed him sharply, her cane scraping against the floor as she made her way over to the bedside. “Your Angel Rune may well have saved this girl’s life but I’ve still got quite the struggle ahead of me.” Picking up the baby lying at the woman’s side, she turned and held it out to him. “Care for the child in the meantime. I cannot afford for its distraction.”
A moment of hesitation passed before Eros stepped forward to take the baby into his arms. “Will she wake soon, do you think?”
“By morning, most likely, if all goes well.” The harriden informed him before turning to the innkeeper who still stood in the doorway. “Take the warrior-boy to a room so that he can rest and care for the child. I’ll send you to get him should anything change.”
“O-Of course, Madam Babă.” The innkeeper, clearly unnerved by the presence of the wizened witch, quickly turned to him. “Come with me, Slayer. There should be another vacant room nearby.”
Eros was lead to another room on the far end of the hall and allowed inside. Closing the door behind himself after bidding the innkeeper goodnight, the exhausted slayer dragged himself over to the bed and sat down on it.
So much for making it home by tomorrow evening. He thought with a sigh, looking down at the six month old in his arms. Large black eyes, shining and open wide with wonder, were staring up at him. “Your mother is going to be fine, little one. But you’ll be staying with me for tonight so that we’ll both be out of the healer’s way. Alright?” The baby burbled at him in reply, a bit of drool dribbling down his double chin as he shoved his little fist into his mouth. “The sooner you and I get to bed the sooner we can see her; can I trust you to behave yourself while I get ready for bed?” A happy squeal was his only answer.
Smiling, Eros got back to his feet and began unhooking the straps of his armor, pulling off his monnions plated gloves and sabatons before swinging his sheathed blade off of his shoulder to rest it against the wall. Using the water that had been left in the basin for him, he bathed quickly to clean the dried blood off of his skin before changing into the spare cotton shirt and pants he’d brought with him in his small leather pack.
Returning from the little wash room he found the boy stretched out on his stomach on the bed, kicking his tiny feet back and forth and chewing on the sheets.
“Teething, are we?” Eros scooped the child up into his arms again and was rewarded with a tiny hand latching itself to the bridge of his nose. “Yes, that’s my nose.” Gently prying the tiny digits loose only resulted in them readhering themselves moments later, it wasn’t long before he gave up trying to free himself and merely allowed the child to do as he pleased, extinguishing the candle at the bedside which had been providing light to the room and lying down to sleep with the child on his chest.
About half an hour passed while the infant continued his investigation of the warrior’s face, pinching his nose and pulling on his lips, until finally losing interest and laying his head down on the elder’s chest to sleep. It wasn’t much longer after that that Eros, too, succumbed to his fatigue.
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