*Update: August 2021* It's been a while, eh? Nearly a year since the last update. Life has been all kinds of crazy, thanks to COVID really screwing things up. But I did find a job, and am about to complete the last semester of my bachelor's degree!
And to all the doubters … I AM NOT GIVING ASHFALL UP. It's a bit of an ugly piece, and I'm slightly ashamed of it on some levels, but I swore to the Internet that I'd finish it, and so I will. Even if it takes me six years.
So, the update. A few minor changes happened, trying to clean up the cohesiveness of the story, adding motes of lore here and there. In the end, I switched from calling dragon societies weyrs to calling them sieges. I just couldn't feel good about stealing the word from Dragonriders of Pern. Other than that, a few minor lore changes happened, and that was that.
So I'll be writing! Slowly, but surely. We'll reach the end eventually.
*Note to returning readers* You'll want to read over Chapter 18: Family again. The most changes occurred there.
It was lucky that vampires so often preferred the wild places. It made getting to them much easier. I felt a stream of wind sweep up beneath me and so adjusted my course a little with my tail, flicking the stabilizing fins to put me right into the current. The air pressed hard beneath the membranes of my wings, tightening them against my fingers. I flexed them out, catching the wind, and rose a little higher. The movements were easy and automatic.
I loved riding the headwinds.
As long as I stayed high above the cloud cover, neither human nor vampire eyes would be able to pick me out of the sky. I turned my narrow snout downward, even though I couldn't see through the cloud any better than a human. There was a definite drag at my fireheart, pulling insistently straight down. I knew I had arrived at the appropriate place, as selected by the Matriarch, the leader of my Siege.
Of course, I'd been here for nearly twenty minutes, now. I should have been on the ground and in my tiny, fragile human shape, sniffing out my targets. But here I stayed, riding the fierce winds, reluctant to leave behind the sky and my natural form. I shot a stray glance behind me, half-wondering if my sister had followed me.
I sure hoped not—for her sake. This was my mission. They were mine to burn. She'd have her chance … when she was older.
The sun above the clouds glistened on my smooth, obsidian scales. They reflected the light like a million shimmering, ebony mirrors. Steel-hard scales, diamond-tough and sharp as broken glass along their edges. Nothing could pierce them. I was impenetrable!
I thought again of how loath I was to trade this form for my mortal one.
Mortal forms were so … crushable.
Of course, that was the whole point. The vampires weren't supposed to know what I was. My human shape hid the truth from their ruby-red eyes. It was enough to lure them away, to coax them into false security … at which point it would be too late to flee. Not even their speedy legs were fast enough to escape the fury of dragonfire.
I sighed through my snout, giving in to the pull on my fireheart. I adjusted the shapes of my wings and the fins all along my tail, back, and neck, descending lower. The moment I passed through the cloud, the wind changed. It weakened, twisting and flipping in all directions. I mastered it with further adjustments to my frills and wings, controlling my descent. I could feel the intense chill through the insulation of my scales and my intense body heat. Ice crystals rattled by the billions against my armor, bouncing off the scutes on my snout. Those that landed in my sensitive eyes were extremely irritating and sharp. I snorted, irritably, flicking my transparent inner eyelids shut so I could still see.
It was a good thing that the gigantic bag I carried around my neck was waterproof. The rain and hail would have soaked my human clothes and books, otherwise. I was more concerned about my books than my clothes. Clothing was replaceable. Books … less so.
The trees approached quickly. They gusted and waved to and fro in the variable wind, tossed about. I could see the location that the Matriarch had picked for me to land—a small opening in the trees not quite big enough to hold my form. But that was by design. I only needed to reach the ground. The rest of my time would be spent in my human form, camping out under the canopy.
Just as I descended into the trees, I glanced up with my glowing, lava eyes to see the town where my vampire prey was hiding. It was called Kellogg. A tiny place, the Matriarch had said, smack dab in the middle of the forest and perfect for a vampire to hide in.
A few trees smashed out of my way as I folded my wings and frills, plunging to land in the tiny clearing. For a one-hundred-fifty-foot dragon, it was much too small. Wood and stone crunched, and I winced. Now was not the time to make a mess. That would come later when I killed the vampire.
I maneuvered myself deeper into the trees, trying to organize my limbs so they wouldn't keep damaging things they weren't supposed to. The trees only crunched some more—limbs breaking, whole young pines snapping in half. I growled, wearily, and closed my eyes.
The heat and energy of my fireheart increased as I called upon it. An electric zip coursed through my veins, spreading from the center of my chest into my wings and legs, burning in my mouth and throat. The light of my gold-red flame washed over me, welcome and inviting.
In the next moment, I was standing crouched in the freezing, wet grass. My tiny, sensitive human body responded very unhappily to the rain and wind. I cowered at the horrible chill and increased the flow of power from my fireheart, raising my body temperature to levels that would have been extremely unsafe for an ordinary mortal. The rain steamed on my delicate brown human skin.
Well, here we were.
And I was not enjoying it.
I scrambled to the place where my bag had fallen, feeling the fabric to pick out the poles that were folded inside. I pulled and bent them, and they snapped into place one at a time, until there stood a small tent, zipped up, waterproof, ready to hide in. I hurried under the fabric roof, relieved to get out of the weather, blinking my worthless human eyeballs against the darkness. It was so COLD. I cursed in the rough draconic tongue, dropping to my knees and feeling around in the dark for my human clothes.
I found my bra and underpants and wriggled into them in the warmth and darkness of my dragon-sized satchel-tent. Humans wore the weirdest things these days. I pulled on one of the sweaters I'd brought, not caring what color it was. As a human, I could no longer see in the ultraviolet. The world was dull and boring without that chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum. What did color really matter?
Well, it mattered when looking into the eyes of a vampire. The darker the red, the riskier my job was. If the eyes were black … well, I hoped they wouldn't be black. That was the other problem with my human form. I wasn't just easily chilled. I was killable. And fragile. And so tempting to a thirsty vampire.
I was forced to layer up the human clothes to make myself feel better. Used to the elevated temperatures and vast size of my true form, it would take me some time to become accustomed to the rapid heat loss and cool natural temperature of my human body. It was essential that I do. As long as I felt dependent on the warmth of my fireheart to keep me comfortable, my core temperature would be too high for a normal human. The vampires would be able to feel it. It would blow my cover.
Once I was clothed, I reluctantly left the warmth and safety of my satchel and returned to the rain. But only for a short time—I needed to set up camp somewhere a little drier before I started my march toward the town. I might even wait to start hiking until the storm had stopped. The cold was still unbearable. I braved the weather again for ten seconds, leaving my satchel-tent to drag it across the rough, wild grasses and beneath the trees. It was extremely heavy to my little human body. I panted and strained, dragging the tent-bag over the grass by the strap that had once been around my neck in my true form. It felt as though I were trying to pull an elephant with me. Once I found a spot that was relatively dry thanks to the density of the trees, I put in some stakes to keep the tent from blowing away. Then I ran a quick scouting operation, checking out the rest of the forest to be sure that I was alone. I startled up a squirrel, and that was all.
I returned to my camp and burrowed back into my satchel-tent. I zipped it shut from inside to keep out the cold, arranging myself on a pile of my other clothing for cushion, finding my favorite blanket and pulling it over my head. My silky black waves of hair were now plastered in a most unflattering fashion to my head. Blasted rain. Good thing nobody was here to see. Knowing where I was, I didn't expect the downpour to last much longer. When it stopped, I'd start hiking. For now, I needed to rest.
When I woke up from my little nap and crawled out of my giant satchel, the rain had ceased, and the sun was setting. It was the perfect time to come across vampires. Half-hoping I'd meet one in the forest just so I could take it down on sight instead of wasting time luring it away from the town, I pulled on my hiking boots and set off for Kellogg, Idaho.
Whatever nasty, idiot vampires were there, they had days left to live, at most. I was a dragon on a mission, sent by the Matriarch, bent upon fire and destruction. I took a moment's comfort from the idea of incinerating something, and then climbed over a soggy log with a huge effort, wincing at the rough bark that caught at my delicate human skin. My movements were slow and cautious compared to the strength and impenetrability of my dragon form. I tried not to be too annoyed. I could be in this shape for quite some time. It was part of me just as much as my dragon shape was. I needed to accept this less convenient side of myself. All dragons did.
The air still had a chill bite to it, but the rich scents of earth, moss, and pine were enough to keep my spirits up. The forest always smelled so good after the rain. I followed the falling sun, plowing a determined course to the west, knowing I'd march straight into the little town in just a few more hours. With me I carried a little American money, enough to buy something to eat and somewhere to stay for the night (if I had to stay that long). We had been carefully amassing the unassuming bits of paper by traveling down to human habitation and selling valuable pieces. It seemed humans had just as much affection for shiny things as we did. Although we couldn't sell pieces of broken glass for much, the mortals did pay healthily for gemstones and metals.
I kept my eyes and ears open for anything unusual as I hiked, watching for signs of vampire activity. Careless vampires occasionally left the bodies of their victims deep in the woods. If I stumbled across one, I might be able to track the culprit from there. If I were lucky, the vampire would still be nearby. I'd kill it immediately, and my job would be done before I even walked into town.
But I didn't find a vampire. Neither did I see the remains of vampire prey. What I did find were the pungent leftovers of huge herds of elk. I stepped around the piles of dung, thinking about food. Elk were tasty, especially when I was big enough to swallow them whole. Lots of good, dense flesh. I finally left the trees as the sun was falling behind the mountains, casting the town into their vast shadows. I stepped onto the sidewalk and started moving toward the town's center. Once I had my bearings, the hunt could begin.
There was a library, I knew. It lay relatively close to the southern edge of the town. The Matriarch had warned me about it. I promised myself again—for the fifth time—that I'd stay away. The last thing I needed was to disappear into a book. I'd never come out. Not with all that knowledge right at my fingertips. My mission would end up postponed for days as the library consumed my thoughts. I couldn't have that! So I turned toward the center of town. My stomach was complaining about being empty. I needed to eat. Flight and off-trail hiking were exhausting activities, and a dragon needed calories. I started looking for restaurants.
Even as I abandoned the familiarity of trees and moss and earth, entering the tiny urban jungle, I could still smell the wild. Kellogg was minuscule, and the wildlife found its way in. As I moved toward the scents of food, a crisp breeze brought the comforting aroma of damp earth drifting between the buildings, and a raccoon shambled into the darkness behind a shop. Even walking out of my comfort zone, some of the familiarity followed. I considered camping out in the woods that bordered town. It would be more like what I was used to. I'd probably sleep better there than I would in an inn or hotel. I mused about it, wondering if I'd be safer in my fragile human form if I slept indoors. The vampires would be out hunting, and I didn't want to be caught alone and sleepy. My human shape would not protect me.
Was it really any safer indoors? A wall of wood and sheetrock wouldn't stop a vamp.
I decided to think about it with a full stomach. Besides, I still had time to hunt for my vampire quarry tonight before I'd wear out. There was a chance I wouldn't have to find a place to sleep among the humans.
I entered the restaurant with some unease, glancing at the sign on the door that said when it was closing. I didn't have a watch with me, and it wasn't the same time here as it was in the Alps. I knew it was seven hours behind, but I'd gotten a little jet-lagged during my flight across the ocean. I wasn't sure what time it was back home anymore.
The woman at the counter looked shocked. I wasn't surprised. I'd just trekked for four hours off-trail through the woods to get here. I glanced down at my muddy boots and pants, observing a twig stuck in my long, tangled, black hair from some wayward tree. All this combined with my honey-brown skin, lean little body, shocking blue eyes, and sharp, mischievous face … well, I had to look downright wild, like a very lost wood-sprite. It would have to do.
"Hello," I said, glancing back up at her. "I apologize, are you closing?"
"Uh … no, not for another two hours."
"Good. What's the largest meal you have?"
She told me what it was. Something with steak. I'd never heard of it before, and I was thrown for a second by her rocky-mountain accent. I didn't bother to ask for a repeat. There was steak, so it didn't really matter. "Excellent, I'll take two of those. Rare, please."
I took a seat nearest to the window, trying to make sure I'd be in a good position to spring up and bolt if something came by. Exactly what would come by, I couldn't guess. If I was lucky, it would be a vampire. Three waitresses came out with my meals. It took all of them to carry the food. There were four plates, and it smelled delicious. I was starving as only a hungry dragon could be. They arranged the entire assortment over the table. It looked big enough to feed an army. I muttered a quick thank-you, refused any more service, and dived in.
It took me less than half an hour to put the contents of all four plates down. I ate fast, hardly taking notice of what exactly was going in my mouth, starving and already several hours away in my head. I had things to do. Places to be, people to meet … vampires to torch … The waitresses watched my progress in some horror. I ignored them, too busy with my own thoughts and meal to bother. I wouldn't be here longer than a few days, anyway, so what did it matter what they thought? I happily feasted on the steaks, delighted with the softness and juiciness. A dragon couldn't have cooked it better. Or maybe I was just starving to death. Everything tasted better when one was extra hungry.
Once everything was gone, one of the waitresses came to collect my dues, looking a bit stunned. I peered at the receipt she handed me, smirking a little at my own appetite, and paid up. "Keep the change."
Thirty minutes before closing time, I was out the door and back on the street. The sun had set completely, and the world was cast into darkness. I squinted around, helplessly dependent on the street lights, cursing my weak human eyes. Whatever … I'd make due. My stomach was full, I was feeling much better, and I needed a trail to follow. All that remained was to search.
And search I did. For days. I left not one stone unturned, not one rumor uninvestigated. I picked up all the gossip, checked every newspaper, slid down every back alley. When that turned up nothing, I retreated to the woods, scouting out the perimeter all the way around the town and beyond, plowing in my weak little human form through the brush. I searched for signs of vampire, looking for kills, blood-scent, tracks, anything. I even took to hanging out around the shiftier houses the neighborhood had to offer, which were, admittedly, very few. It was a dirty practice, one I despised. And it was useless. I found no trails as a result of it.
So, after nearly a week of alternating between sleeping outdoors and in a small hotel, I found myself standing in front of the library. It was a small accident that I'd come here. My irritated pacing of the town had brought me to this street, and now I was stuck. I stood there for almost twenty minutes, warring with myself. Come on, six days?! It's been long enough. I deserve a book … or two …
No! I can't afford to waste time. There MUST be a vampire here. I haven't covered all the bases. The clues are just … well-hidden, this time.
The vampire hasn't hunted at all since I got here. In this prime hunting ground? It'll kill at least twice before it moves on from territory like this. There's still time. It will reveal itself soon. Just one little book! Only one. Less than three hundred pages.
NO! I can't stop. I can't let down my guard. Constant vigilance. It could hunt tonight. I have to intercept it. I must lead it away … turn it to ash … before some poor human dies in its undead hands …
Eventually, the bookish half of me won the battle. I was tired of working. I wanted a break. I wanted a book and a cozy chair with a computer nearby to supply answers to all my random questions. So I stepped into the library. It would be closed in two hours, I reasoned. I'd have to get back to work then.
Ah, the good smell of the library! Books and carpet and paper. I took a minute to observe the shelves and little stick chairs, my wandering eyes searching for computers and overstuffed seats. Plenty of books. Prominent was the area designated for the human children, a place of color and entertaining decorations. I wouldn't spend any time there, but it was amusing anyway. I wandered in the opposite direction of it, knowing that the places designed for someone like me would be well away from any potential noise. I caught a glimpse of comfortable-looking corners through the shelves and beelined for them, still trying to find squashy armchairs. No library was complete without squashy armchairs!
As it ultimately turned out, I found the computers first. And what I saw there stopped me in my tracks. All thoughts of armchairs and books bolted from my mind. In an instant, I was back in work mode.
Vampire?! In the library?!
It was such a shock that I froze in midstep at the head of the isle, locked onto what was definitely a vampire. All the signs were there: the perfect body with every proportion just right, the deathly bloodless skin, the nasty shadows under the eyes … The computers were clustered into an open corner, resting on a set of long benches against the wall. The vampire was sitting up to one of the monitors, staring with a fierce intensity at the screen with his chin resting in his white hands, his legs crossed at the ankles under the seat. He was statue-still, completely oblivious to me standing there staring at him with my jaw clenched tight.
Thoughts whirled through my head. I had to do something. The library?! Why the library? I needed to kill him. Not here! Not among all these flammable books. And the witnesses. I had to lead him away. What was he doing here? This wasn't a good place to hunt. Too few targets. Too many witnesses. He was supposed to be skulking down a back alley in the dark. What was he looking at? What did a vampire need a computer for? My fireheart burned. Torch him! Cleanse this place. Get him away from the books! Filthy UNDEAD!
It was a solid twenty seconds before I could move again. The vampire didn't twitch as I stood there, half in panic. He silently watched the screen. I was just considering taking my pocketknife to my wrist to get his attention when he suddenly moved, and I stiffened. But all he did was blink, let out all his breath, and take up the mouse. Click click. His unnaturally perfect white hands went to the keyboard and typed something out at a blinding speed. Enter.
Then he was watching the screen again, scrolling through options, frowning just slightly. His perfect forehead was creased. One of my questions nagged harder at my mind than the others. What does a vampire need a computer for? They were driven by pure bloodlust. Computers weren't a good supply of blood.
But maybe they were a good supply of victims.
My feet started moving for me. I cautiously approached from the side, nervously watching the vampire, ready to step away if he suddenly looked up. But he didn't. He was still scrolling. His eyes narrowed at the screen. I stepped up behind him, tilting my head to see around his shoulder. Plugged into the search bar was one of the most impressive search entries I'd ever seen from something that wasn't a dragon, a prolonged string of Boolean operators trimming the search results down to incredible specifics.
And the search topic? It wasn't about tracking some poor potential victim, which I had thought might be the case. He was looking for … Greek fire.
Chills ran down my spine. Greek fire—one of very few things that were perfectly designed to kill vampires. Greek fire was an ancient form of napalm, purportedly capable of burning underwater. The recipe to make it had been famously lost after the collapse of the Byzantine empire … not even we dragons had the secret locked away in our great catacomb libraries. Of course, that was mostly because we didn't need the secret—we manufactured our own far more effective version inside our own bodies. But why was a vampire doing research on Greek fire? The possibilities raced through my mind, and I didn't like it. He didn't need to know about fire. No, he needed to follow me into the woods so I could change him from a crystalline, undead being to ash.
The vampire switched to a different tab all at once. I marveled at the complexity of this search entry, too. He was looking at napalm, this time—the modern version. Specifically, he was looking for chemical combinations specific to a certain color. Red. My heart skipped a beat. One of the colors of my own flame. A coincidence, I knew.
Also a coincidence that this strange vampire with very good research skills should be looking up napalm to begin with when there was a dragon standing right behind him.
At that moment, he seemed to become aware of my presence. He straightened up a little, his head twitching slightly to turn an ear in my direction, taking note of the sounds of a living creature behind him. I took a sharp step back, my heart lunging into my throat. Indestructible as I was in my true form, I was desperately fragile as a human. Even if he wasn't going to attack me here, I was still vulnerable. It was still scary.
Then the vampire turned to look at me, blinking and tilting his head, curious. I got my next nasty shock.
They were like amber. No, like brass! No, like a honeybee in the sunshine! I couldn't decide. The effect the color had on his gaze was incredible. Memories flickered across my mind's eye—my mother whispering stories to me when I'd been a hatchling, telling about enchanted vampires with golden eyes. Those were—but they were—they were only stories! I reeled, confused, suspicious, and somehow angry that this wasn't what I had expected. I'd been so ready until this!
I was accustomed to the bloody scarlet or soulless black of a vampire's eyes. The gaze contained a cruel, lustful savagery. After all, vampires were built to take life from things that held warm blood. The very feeling I had ever gotten from their stares had always testified to that. But this … this was totally different. These eyes held no cruel, heartless lust. They were just … curious. Baffled. Probably because of my shocked gaping.
" … Hello," said the vampire, raising a perfect eyebrow. "Are you okay?"
I took another small step back, automatically increasing the distance between us as the vampire breathed. Surely he could smell my warm, living scent. Surely he could hear the quick, intense pounding of my heart. But if these things held any kind of appeal to his bloody appetite, he didn't show it. My skin crawled. My mother's voice was murmuring distractingly in the back of my head, reciting children's rhymes in the dragon tongue. Vampires unlike their predecessors, their eyes anointed with light by the Sun Mother …
What was he eating? The realization came to me all at once. What was this vampire drinking? The ugly scarlet of a normal vampire's eyes came from their blood meals. If this one didn't have red eyes, then … he wasn't drinking blood.
"Are you alright?" the vampire wondered again. He shifted in his seat, almost moving to stand up. "Is something wrong?"
My brain had started to catch up to the moment. I blinked hard, trying to get a grip. "No, nothing's wrong. I … I simply …" I scrambled to find some excuse for myself. I wasn't prepared. I didn't know what to say. I was half-trying to remember exactly what it was that the stories had said about golden-eyed vampires. I wrenched my thoughts to the present with all my might. "I … Greek fire? Those secrets were lost long ago. It's a dead end."
I grimaced inwardly. That had been the wrong thing to say. I was supposed to play dumb. Act like some fool layman. No average girl would know a thing about Greek fire. Besides, I was supposed to be coaxing him into the woods to kill him, not engaging him in an intellectual chat.
Sure enough, the vampire looked vaguely surprised, not thirsty like he should have been. He frowned a little, tilting his head. "I know. But it wouldn't do to leave any stone unturned in a search, would it?"
"No," I muttered, my brain on hopeless autopilot. "But you'd be better off with modern napalm." Oh, SHUT UP. STOP TALKING.
The vampire narrowed his eyes a bit. He was so baffled. Not vicious, not acting the tempter, not trying to beguile or enchant or trick me into his waiting jaws, just … curious. "I don't … know you, do I?"
"No," I muttered, and I stepped back further. "No, sorry." My eyes flicked over his body, looking for clues, trying to understand. No wonder I hadn't been able to track him. There were no murders to find, there was no bloody trail to follow. He wasn't killing humans … if my guess about the meaning of his eye color was right.
He had the tall, thin, lean look of a young man with a metabolism too fast for his own good. He was dressed so nicely and neatly, like a rich young teacher's pet, in a white collared shirt and new jeans. So unlike the wild, unkempt vampires I was accustomed to. His wrists and hands were sort of … delicate. Scholar's wrists. I could see the faint lines of bluish veins beneath his porcelain-white skin. He was calm, the backs of his hands smooth, the tendons relaxed. I was puzzled. He was a calm vampire? With all this rushing blood so close to him, a soft young girl perfectly poised to be coaxed away and devoured? How?
My gaze flicked back up to his face. His messy hair was a glossy kind of black, his eyes big, inviting, shiny, and alert, still blazing their unbelievable gold. All at once, I thought of a lanky black cat with delicate paws sitting on a book.
Whoa, that was not good. My skin crawled again, for a different reason this time. I felt … attraction.
UUGHH! I shivered. I took several quick steps back, averting my eyes. In all the time I had studied vampires, I had never felt such a strange liking for their appearance. They were my prey; I was their killer. I knew the physical cues that signaled when a vampire was trying to hide among mortals. I had been trained to pick them out of crowds and off streets. I knew the subtle differences in their movements that made it clear they were not ordinary, innocent humans. But never, NEVER had I felt an attraction to one. I had never appreciated their unnaturally perfect proportions or beautiful faces. They were monsters. There was nothing to like.
Or … there had been nothing to like. The murderous evil in their auras has always ensured that. But this vampire was lacking in a certain evil aura. The quiet innocence in his inviting, golden eyes was too legitimate.
I lost whatever nerve I had still had and fled. All I could do before bolting was mutter a meaningless, "sorry, my mistake," before turning tail and bee-lining it for the exit. I really shouldn't have turned my back on him. It was breaking code to turn one's back on a vampire. It opened me up to be attacked. It was like turning away from a lion, inviting it to strike. But I was too repulsed by the strange feeling deep in my gut to worry about that right now. What I was feeling could not have been more wrong. It was not right. I could not have any sort of appreciation for a vampire, not even for his excellent research skills or scholar's wrists. Nope. Nope, nope, nope!
I stepped out the door into the fading sunshine. The clean, cool, forest air soothed my skipping heart. I started off in a random direction. All I could think was to put as much distance as possible between myself and that vamp. Yes, far away. Very far. The other end of town. That should be good enough. I'd have to be sure he didn't follow. I'd have to be very careful. Then I'd come up with a strategy. Had to lure him away, draw him into the woods, turn him to ash. All vampires had to die. They were monsters, every one. Mindless, blood-sucking zombies. Dangerous to the innocent mortals. All had to die. All had to burn. Cleanse the Earth of their kind. That was my mission.
My stomach turned over at the thought. I remembered the golden eyes. Some deep instinct whispered, deeper even than my urge to spit flame. That wouldn't be right, it murmured. … And you know it.