It’s nearing first light. The tavern is dark and nearly empty downstairs, only a few candles flickering here and there to keep the mortals from tripping over chairs and unconscious patrons. Feranya, on the other hand, doesn’t need candles to see in the dark. She pads softly over to the large cask in the corner and turns the tap, holding her canteen under the stream of cool, fresh water. It’s then that she overhears a small group of people huddled in the corner.
“…scars, you say? That matches the profile as well.”
“See? I knew that lass was trouble, I did!”
A woman’s voice. “You were wise to summon us.”
“Not to be, heh, crass, but, well… might I ask if… perchance… there might be some kind of… reward for her capture?”
A coarse laugh. “We’ll let you keep the bribe she paid you, and forego prosecuting you for harboring an enemy of the Prophet and the state. How does that sound?”
“…sounds… right reas’nable, your holiness.”
“I’m so glad you think so.”
A chill runs down Feranya’s spine. Vigilants.
Instinctively she turns towards the door to run — and stops. She grits her teeth. Dammit. No. I can’t leave her. She’s defenseless.
Feranya glances at the group out of the corner of her eye as she shuts off the tap. She has only seconds to formulate a plan, she quickly realizes, before the situation is completely out of control.
She takes stock. Two of the figures are large and burly. Armored. Revolvers and blades at their waists. The third, wiry, feminine, swathed in white silk robes. Feranya shudders. An actual fucking Inquisitor. Behind them, she recognizes the treacherous innkeep, and scowls. I’ll deal with you later.
She turns, approaching the group, hands in her pockets. Trying to glamor three people all at once… this is not going to be easy.
“Excuse me!” she calls out, waving as she approaches, trying to affect the most innocent, demure, feminine demeanor she can. The Vigilants are facing her in an instant, hands on their guns. She pretends not to notice. “Are… are you from the Temple?” she asks earnestly.
The Inquisitor sets down her glass with a delicate clink and turns slowly to face Feranya. “Can we help you, young lady?” she asks, her tone of voice immediately suggesting the answer is “no.”
Feranya focuses on the Vigilants as she speaks, her eyes darting back and forth between them. There’s not much hope of glamoring the Inquisitor. She’s too alert, too well trained. Ensnaring her would take hours of careful, subtle work. Hours Feranya doesn’t have. But the Vigilants are the ones with swords.
“Oh, I mean, well,” Feranya says, squeezing her wrist in a show of nervousness that’s completely authentic. “I just, you know. You don’t see many of you folk around out here. Makes a lass worry, it does. Um.” She looks up at the Inquisitor. “Is… is something the matter? Are we… are we safe?”
The Inquisitor smiles thinly. “Do not let our presence alarm you, child. Only those who consort with the diabolic and unworldly forces of this universe need fear the purifying blade of the Inquisition. The faithful may rest secure in the knowledge that Anur's grasp shall find no purchase among them.”
It’s all Feranya can do to stop herself from rolling her eyes. But her charm caught the Vigilants at least off guard. Their body language is beginning to soften. The glamor is working its way through them. Slower than it should, but her word choice is limited right now. She just needs to keep it up a little longer.
“Diabolic forces?” she blurts out, putting a hand to her quivering lips, trying to project an image of total vulnerability. “There are… diabolic forces here? What do you mean? What are they going to do to us?”
One of the Vigilants claps his fist to his heart. “Don’t worry, miss,” he exclaims before the Inquisitor can reply, sounding slightly drunk. “We won’t let a thing happen to you!”
The Inquisitor’s expression changes instantly. She looks from one Vigilant to another, and steps back quickly, drawing a slim revolver from somewhere under her cloak and aiming it directly at Feranya in one fluid motion. “Release them, vampire!” she cries.
“V-vampire?” blurts the innkeep, staring at Feranya. “Here!?”
“Don’t look into her eyes, you fool!” the Inquisitor growls. “Get out of here before she claims you too!”
Feranya looks pleadingly at the Vigilant. “You can’t let her hurt me!” she wheedles. “You said you’d protect me!”
The Vigilants glance at each other, then turn to face the Inquisitor, stepping in front of Feranya to block her aim. “Your holiness, y’can’t hurt her!” one slurs out, swaying slightly. “We’re s’posed to… to protect th’ faithfu—”
“You’re under a glamor, you idiots!” The Inquisitor grits her teeth. “She’s a vampire! Fight it, don’t let her control you—”
“Tha’s not a very nice thing t’ say,” says the other Vigilant. “You shouldn’t call people such names, miss—”
“Kill her,” Feranya orders, pouring all of the willpower she can bring to bear into the command. “She’s one of them.”
The Vigilants immediately reach for their firearms. There are two short, sharp cracks, and both fall dead. The innkeep screams and faints. As Feranya dives for cover, a bullet grazes her thigh, ripping through her flesh and spattering the floor with fresh blood. She lets out a strangled cry of pain.
“Goddess damn you, wretched creature!” The Inquisitor’s voice is shaking. “The blood of the righteous is on your hands and you will pay in kind!”
“You’re the one who pulled the trigger, darling.” The voice seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. The Inquisitor aims her revolver back and forth wildly, eyes darting this way and that, looking for any sign of movement. “You’re the one who murdered two of Meraya’s most faithful servants. You’re the only dark power here.”
The Inquisitor grits her teeth. “Get out of my head.”
“You should kill yourself.” The vampire’s voice is mocking. “You should take that little gun you used to cut down two good, holy men who trusted you and point it right at your own head and pull the trigger. Maybe then Meraya will forgive y—” Feranya’s concentration is shattered by the report of a firearm, and a vase near her explodes in a shower of ceramic and glass. She hears pounding feet on the stairs and looks up to see the Inquisitor gone.
“Shit,” she hisses. “Shit, shit, shit.”
She sprints toward the stairwell, yanking a throwing knife from inside her coat as she hurtles up the stairs. The blood loss is starting to make her lightheaded. She catches a glimpse of the Inquisitor outside Seri’s door. Seri’s unlocked door.
“No!” Feranya cries as her foe disappears into the room, praying to any god listening that the next thing she hears won’t be a gunshot. “No, no, no!”
She arrives at the doorway only seconds later — just in time to see the Inquisitor fall to her knees and then collapse, sprawling on the floor, rivulets of blood trickling down her face and arms.
Feranya stares, uncomprehending. The last thing she sees before she passes out is Seri, shaking like a leaf, standing behind the Inquisitor, fresh cuts on her arms, a bloody knife in hand. Pointed directly at the dead Merayan.
Not so defenseless after all.
Seri is sitting on the bed, carefully cleaning her knife with water from her companion’s canteen, when Feranya opens her eyes. “Wh… what happened?” she murmurs woozily, glancing back and forth. “…Seri?”
Seri lets out a gasp of relief and hugs Feranya tightly. “Oh, thank Anur. You’re alive.”
Feranya takes a deep breath, trying to collect her memories. “I… yeah. I am. Wh-why wouldn’t I be?”
Seri leans back against the wall. “You got shot. The bullet nicked a vein.”
“…shit,” Feranya breathes. “Why am I alive?”
“I… did my best to patch you up,” Seri says, shrugging and glancing away. “And I gave you some more of my blood, just in case. I guess it was enough.”
“You ‘patched up’ a gunshot to a vein?” Feranya stares at her. “Where in Eriasta did you learn how to do something like that? Who are you?”
Seri looks down. “I… well, I’m no healer, but I was apprentice to one for a couple years. I guess I picked up a bit here and there.”
A memory comes suddenly into focus and Feranya leans over to glance at the floor. The body of the Inquisitor is still lying there, still covered in its own blood.
Feranya looks back at her. “How did you kill the Inquisitor?”
Seri’s expression darkens and she looks away. She says nothing.
“…Seri, why are the Vigilants after you?”
“Does it matter?” Seri blurts out angrily, slamming her knife back into its sheath. “They are. And if they find me they’ll take me away and torture me and kill me.”
Instinctively, Feranya starts to weave a glamor, to force the truth out of the girl, but stops herself and lets the enchantment fade away before she speaks. I have no right to do that to her.
Instead, she reaches out and takes Seri’s hand. Seri starts, her muscles tensing for a moment, but quickly slackening again. Feranya squeezes gently. “Seri,” she murmurs, “the Inquisitor wasn’t alone. She had Vigilants with her. And they knew you by description. She was willing to kill two of her own people just to get to you. Whatever’s going on here is really, really serious.”
“You think I don’t fucking know that?” Seri’s lips twitch. She yanks her tunic over her head, turning to face the window. “See this? See those scars?” she blurts out. “That’s what they did to me. Over and over and over again. They had me for days before I got away from them. So I fucking know this is serious!”
Feranya stares, speechless, at Seri’s back. The girl is covered in long, deep, thin scars, crisscrossing each other again and again. Whip marks.
And on the back of her neck is the unmistakable wound of a recent branding. In the shape of the mark of Anur.
To the Merayans, a symbol of witchcraft. Of monsters and darkness and evil.
“By the Four…” Feranya takes a shaky breath. “Seri. You poor thing.”
Seri says nothing as she turns back around, trying to pull her tunic back down over her shoulders, but she’s shaking too badly. Feranya reaches out and gently tugs the garment down. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, offering Seri her hand. “I’ve never seen anything so horrible.”
Seri flops over on the bed, staring blankly out the window.
Feranya lays down next to her, gently takes her hand again, holds Seri as her heartbeat slowly begins to calm.
“We need to leave before the Vigilants show up in force,” she says quietly after a while.
“…I know,” Seri mutters.
“I paid good money for this room. How the fuck did they even find me?”
Feranya sighs. “The innkeep betrayed you. He must have sent a runner to tell the Vigilants about the bribe.”
Seri grits her teeth. “The fucking innkeep? After everything I paid him? I—” She stops, choking on her words, tears of rage and helplessness trickling down her cheeks. “Why can’t anyone just leave me alone!?” she blurts out. “All I want is to be left alone and everybody fucking picks on me. Everybody finds some way to make trouble for me. And all I can do is run. Every time I get hurt worse and worse and everyone who hurts me gets to fucking live happily ever after—”
“Hey.” Feranya touches her on the cheek. “This time is going to be different.”
“…what's that supposed to mean?”
“I mean,” Feranya says, a smirk on her lips, “we’re going to go have a word with the innkeep before we leave. And then we’re going to clean out his safe.”