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 guile 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 controlling 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. She skims the dusty archives of her mind, swiftly finding a suitable memory. A young prostitute on a sofa in a darkened safehouse, softly crying and quivering as Feranya bandaged her wounds. The vampire concentrates, calling the images into clarity, letting them crowd out her thoughts and the emotions of that day spring forth.
She glances between the guards, looking each in the eye. For a moment she can feel the cold steel of military minds beneath her gaze, and presses her conjured emotions across the connection as hard as she dares — too hard, and they might realize the feelings aren’t their own. Compassion, lust, pity, concern; the odd complex of emotion that fuels chivalry towards the weaker sex. That’s what she needs to evoke in them right now if this has any hope of working. “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 otherworldly 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 attack caught the Vigilants off guard. There’s a new kindness in their eyes and their body language is beginning to soften. 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 and terror. “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. “Fear not, miss,” he replies before the Inquisitor can answer, stepping closer and patting Feranya reassuringly on the shoulder. She rewards him with a fragile smile, eyes wide, encouraging his reaction. “You’ve my word no harm can come to you as long as we’re here. Isn’t that right, y’Holiness?”
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 towards the floor. “You.” She points with her free hand. “Step into the light and show your eyes.”
Shit. “Wh-what? M-m-me?” Feranya exclaims, clutching at her chest, staring up desperately at the Vigilant. She grasps at a hated memory, one dark with failure, shame, and survivor’s guilt, and drives the sensation into his soul with the force of a blow. Then she breaks the link before the panic overcomes her and she loses control over her own emotions.
“I command you under the Law of the Curia!” snaps the Inquisitor, her firearm rising. “Disobey a lawful order and your life is forfeit.”
The Vigilant turns on his heel, stepping in front of Feranya and blocking the Inquisitor’s line of fire. “Milady!” he bursts out, and Feranya feels the satsifaction of a job well done at the sheer terror in his voice. He holds up his hands. “Peace, peace! Your Holiness, please, why must you threaten this poor girl so—”
The other Vigilant looks confused and conflicted, one hand on his revolver, the other on the hilt of his blade. “Ka’ila, steady on—” he begins.
“Insubordinate fools!” roars the Inquisitor. “Aught is amiss, control yourselves!” She steps to the side, trying to get a line on Feranya, who quickly moves to cower behind Ka’ila.
“Your Holiness, milady, what has gotten into you— we must protect the faithful—!”
“Soldier! You are beguiled!” The Inquisitor grits her teeth. “I must ensure this woman is no vampire—”
“V-vampire?” blurts the innkeep, staring at Feranya. “Here!?”
“Don’t look into her eyes, you fool!” the Inquisitor growls. “Get to your back room and lock the door!”
“‘Vampire’!? Milady, cease; you have lost your reason!” bursts out Ka’ila, sounding shocked. “The poor thing is just afraid—”
“You’ve got to stop her!” begs Feranya, staring into the other Vigilant’s eyes and suffocating his psyche with distrust and betrayal. “You don’t know what she’s done, she’s trying to kill me!”
The other Vigilant quickly draws his firearm; Ka’ila takes a flying leap at the Inquisitor as if trying to disarm her. 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, your Holiness.” The voice reverberates around the room. The Inquisitor aims her revolver back and forth wildly, eyes darting this way and that, looking for any sign of movement. “You’re just murdered two of Meraya’s most faithful servants, out of your own madness. You’re the only dark power here!”
“Spare me your pathetic lies. They will not obscure my clarity.”
“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 so you can’t hurt anyone else ever again. Maybe then Meraya will forgive y—” Feranya’s composure 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 guiling, to force the truth out of the girl, but stops herself and lets the memories 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. Knife marks. The kind only torturers leave.
And on the back of her neck is the unmistakable wound of a recent branding. In the shape of the mark of Anur.
To her, a holy symbol of pleasure, of freedom. Of moonlight, soft blankets, and skilled paramours.
To the Merayans, a symbol of witchcraft. Of monsters and darkness and the most reprehensible evils.
“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.”