The entrance hall of the Lightfellow residence was warm, but they could not see much of the St. Loa’s Festival decorations that were everywhere on the streets outside.
“Whoa, big place. Pays to be one of the Six Knights, huh?” said a man with copper brown hair.
“She’s Captain of the Six Knights, Edge,” said another. He took off the hood of his dark brown winter cloak, revealing his curtained blonde hair. He brushed back a curl that threatened to assault his right eye.
“You could be a knight too, you know.”
“Not my style, Nash. Even now, they’re sitting in their manors, praying to statues of a goddess, while a vampire is running around their back yard.”
“Lighten up, will ya? The vampire isn’t going anywhere,” said Nash. “I hope.”
“What about the one we brought with us? You hope there won’t be trouble?”
Edge didn’t say another word, and neither did Nash. They looked around the large house, populated with practical wood furniture. Even not taking in St. Loa’s, there wasn’t much of any sort of decoration, apart from a few swords mounted on the walls. Nash was about to make a quip about that, but then the butler opened a door and stood apart. Chris and Percival came into view, and she smiled when she saw Nash.
“Greetings!” she hailed. “I trust your journey went well?”
“We’re here, ain’t we?” said Edge.
“And I trust you remember Edge,” said Nash with a wink as Chris and Percival approached. Both were dressed casually, and it didn’t look like Percival was just visiting.
“Hello, Percival. Have you taken residence with Captain Chris?”
“None of your business,” the Knight said, but with a smile and tone so sweet that Nash could hardly take offense. The dashing Knight looked mostly the same as during the war, but he had grown his brown hair longer.
“Don’t worry, I’m not here to steal her from you,” he quipped back. “Although you do look as young and beautiful as back then, Captain Chris.”
The Silver Maiden had retained her youthful looks, thanks to the agelessness bestowed by the True Water Rune.
“I could say the same for you! But if I look very closely, I might guess that you’ve grown a couple of years older,” she said to Nash.
“Well, it’s been a couple of years.”
“More than six years, really,” she corrected.
Edge grunted impatiently and rolled his eyes.
“Any word from Hugo?” asked Nash.
“He’s due to arrive sometime during St. Loa’s week. But since you’re here, maybe you could tell us more about the vampire.”
“Maybe tomorrow. If you don’t mind, we’re going to find an inn and have a good rest. Maybe that one by the sea.”
“Alright. Let us talk more tomorrow, then. If you go to that inn, tell them you’re on my business, you might get a discount.”
“Your business, not the council’s?”
“Okay. ‘Till tomorrow. Have a good night, you two!” said Nash.
“You two, too!” called Percival back, as they turned toward the door.
“Damn,” said Edge as they stepped out. “Are we just going to be sitting around waiting?”
“You could go pray to a goddess statue,” replied Nash. “We can’t do much on our own, if it’s like what miss– where is she?”
“Nowhere to be seen. A little vampire hunting before the inn?” said Edge, straight-faced.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Nash.
“Now who needs to lighten up?” said Edge. Nash looked at him with mild surprise.
Winter had come, but the snow-covered streets of Vinay del Zexay were ever so slightly warmer than the surrounding countryside. They decided to head for the inn by the sea, and keep their eyes open on the way. Night had fallen long before they arrived, but the dim light of various lanterns and lit windows reflected from the white snow, making the silent city brighter than it would have been on a dark autumn night.
The Zexens had already decorated their houses for St. Loa’s Festival, with fir branches and cones, deer antlers, red sashes, and small statuettes and dolls of St. Loa dressed in grey or white robes, most of the statuettes carved from wood. On some windowsills, they could see poinsettia flowers, in brilliant red or subdued white colors.
“I should have asked, but is it St. Loa’s Day already? We could have gone around, knocking on doors,” said Nash.
“Shouldn’t we have presents?” replied Edge idly.
“A song will do.”
“I don’t sing,” said Edge.
“Of course you don’t.”
As they walked, Nash followed a particular set of footprints in the snow, and when they got close to the sea, he saw them leading into an alley. He gestured to Edge to follow him quietly, and went into the alley. It lead into a small opening between the buildings, huddled tightly together, but the prints vanished there.
“Huh?” said Nash, and lifted up his head. “Don’t tell me–AAAAAAGH!”
A shadowy figure had leaped on top of him, and he fell to the ground. He saw a flash of red eyes, sharp canine teeth, and pale skin, unnatural even in the dim light. Edge grabbed the hilt of his weapon, but stayed put.
“Oh. It’s just you,” the vampire on top of him said.
“What are you doing, you old hag?!” exclaimed Nash. He looked up into Sierra Mikain’s mischievous face, her sharp canines glinting as she smiled.
“I could still bite you, you know.”
“Careful, now,” said Nash. “That guy has a short supply of humor, and I think he used it all up for tonight already.”
Sierra glanced at Edge, and rose up from Nash. With an exasperated gasp, he rose up as well, and brushed off the snow from his clothes.
“I just wanted to take a look. I haven’t been here in a while,” she explained. “And I really like the decorations on the windowsills.”
“Huh? You like the images of St. Loa?” asked Edge.
“Yes. And all the other things. I wish more places had a St. Loa!”
Edge looked at her with a straight face, but Nash couldn’t help but chuckle.
“You shouldn’t have wandered off. I could have asked her to invite you in,” the Harmonian said after a brief pause.
“I’m fine,” she replied.
“I’m not,” said Nash and felt a sore spot on his back.
“Oh yes you are,” said Sierra with a smile and poked his chest.
Edge turned away and said, “Let’s hope Alanis made it and we don’t have to go looking for her.”
He left the alley, and walked the seaside street to the inn, with Nash and Sierra following. Nash had already gotten used to the fact that she didn’t need any extra clothing even in a cold climate. The ancient vampire was wearing dark blue and purple robes, and a simple white dress, with her neckline and thighs exposed to the winter chill. When they got to the inn, Edge waited for them by the door, and watched as Sierra entered.
“She can just waltz right in?” asked Edge from Nash.
“Public establishment,” he replied.
“Those rules aren’t worth half a potch,” the swordsman grumbled, and followed them to the inn’s warm embrace.
Nash walked to the counter, taking the innkeeper’s attention away from Sierra, whom he was eyeing with suspicion.
“A lady by the name of Alanis should have arrived here to reserve a room,” he said.
The innkeeper was a rotund man, bald, with a bushy moustache. He was older than Nash and Edge, and older than what Sierra looked like. His slightly uncertain gaze strayed back to Sierra, but he pulled his eyes back. “Uhh, how many?” he asked.
“Four. Me, Alanis, the lady who handles cold well, and the guy with the cleaver.”
“I AM NOT A CLEAVER!!!” came a sudden shout from the scabbard on Edge’s back.
“Wha– what was that?” asked the innkeeper, trying to discover the source of the voice. He hadn’t seen the bronze-haired swordsman speak, but Nash turned toward him, and leaned closer.
“Please forgive my rudeness,” Nash seemed to say to Edge, “I meant the word only in the most praising manner, o great Star Dragon Sword.”
“Fine,” came a voice from Edge’s scabbard.
The innkeeper stared at them in silence, lifted his eyebrows, and it looked like his moustache also rose. Then he blinked rapidly. “Uhhh… alright. I have the reservation here. That young girl is sitting over there,” he said, and pointed at a corner of the restaurant, where Alanis was in the business of a young man.
“Oh! She’s found someone already!” said Sierra. “Do we need a room for five?”
The portly proprietor looked at Nash uncertainly, but he quickly shook his head. Looking relieved, the innkeeper continued.
“So. This being St. Loa’s week, the breakfast will be St. Loa’s porridge, meat and fruits, with a pitcher of St. Loa’s Nostrum at extra cost,” the portly man said, looking like many a cup of St. Loa’s holiday drink had passed under his growing moustache, and into his growing belly.
“Sounds good,” said Nash. “We’ll skip the nostrum for now. But now that you mentioned cost, Captain Chris Lightfellow put in a good word for you…”
In the corner table, Alanis noticed the rest of the party had arrived.
“Oh. Those are my peeps. I’m staying with them until I get my situation here fixed.”
Melville turned and looked over his shoulder. “Those are people from the war, except for the weird-looking one. Is it gonna be dangerous?”
“Oh, look who’s worrying for me!” said Alanis to him. “Maybe. I can take care of myself these days.”
Melville looked back at Alanis, who had really grown into a gorgeous woman in the years that had passed. Her face had lost its childlike roundness, and her brown eyes looked more keen and playful, yet less innocent than he remembered. Her lips were also fuller than he remembered, and her nose seemed to have more definition. Yet her large ears still stood out, and her brown coat completely fit the style he remembered her having.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend to worry about?” asked Alanis suddenly.
Melville was taken aback. “No!” he replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Why’d you say it like that?” thought the brunette.
“It means I don’t have a girlfriend,” said Melville, slightly aggravated. “But it’s not like I’ve just been waiting for you.”
Alanis smiled at him. “So there’s been someone?”
“Ah! Uh. Well, kinda.”
“Well, I’m glad for you,” she said and smiled brightly.
Melville stared at her, not knowing what to say. Then she stood up, and was about to leave.
“Um, wait… I–” he stammered.
“I really liked seeing you again. Let’s talk more later, okay? Bye!” she said cheerfully, and moved hastily to Nash and the others.
Melville looked over his shoulder, following Alanis as she moved away. She talked briefly with her companions, then they moved upstairs to their room.
* * *
Nera hugged Hugo closely on Fubar’s back. The griffon soared through the chilly air, and under them stretched the mostly empty borderlands between Grasslands and Zexen, covered in white snow. A few isolated farms, and a couple of very small villages appeared under them, all encased in the peaceful winter landscape. While they sped through the sky, the scene under them stayed still. They barely saw a farmer or villager outside, most huddled inside in the warmth of their houses.
It had been the harshest winter in years for the Grasslands. Small ponds and even larger lakes had completely frozen over. Even Duck Village was now surrounded by ice, and what few ducks remained stayed indoors as much as they could. Hugo had seen to it that a generous helping of bread and other food from Karaya’s plentiful harvest in the autumn had been sent to the Duck Clan. Some ducks stubbornly remained in the village instead of travelling south for the winter, even though they didn’t handle the season well.
“What was that last village we were in?” asked Nera, as they flew under light grey clouds, with light snowfall around them.
“Ixnay,” replied Hugo.
“No. Ixnay on the Iksay. Ixnay.”
“The ironheads have silly names for their villages,” the Karaya warrior mused. “They sound like pig language. Ixnay! Oink oink!” she imitated.
Hugo chuckled briefly. “Alright, Nera. None of that if we land in another Zexen village still.”
“Isn’t it weird to have more vampires so soon after that one you fought in Budehuc?” she asked.
“We don’t know the full story yet,” he replied. “The villagers didn’t tell us much we didn’t know already.”
“What if it’s the same one?”
“It shouldn’t be. But whatever it is, this time we’re prepared.”
Despite the cold air whizzing past them, Hugo felt warm. He remembered the winters without the True Fire Rune, how biting the cold had been. Now he felt like he had an inner fire, a literal flame welling inside him, warm and dry. On this, the coldest of winters in recent memory, he felt warmer than ever, and he was pretty sure Nera felt it too, her body pressing tight onto his.
They passed over more masses of snow and white forests, until they were over the last stretch of the Yaza plains, with Castle Budehuc coming into sight. Hugo patted Fubar on the side, and said, “Land anytime you want, buddy. We can walk the rest of the way.”
However, Fubar took them all the way past the castle walls. A couple of Karaya guards clad in heavy cloaks took notice of them, but quickly recognized Hugo and his griffon and turned back to survey the surroundings. Heavy snow covered the yard, but trenches had been made across the white mounds, leading from building to building. Hugo could see that white puffs of smoke came out from the chimneys of the stores, so despite the winter, Budehuc now seemed to be more lively than it had been before that autumn visit — which had ended up being very lively in its own way.
On their way to the castle, they could see someone approaching them in the trench dug into the snow.
“Hugo! Hi!” she said. Despite not having seen her in several years, Hugo instantly recognized Mio, the physician. Even when wrapped in a cloak to shield herself from the cold, she was as cheerful as ever.
“Mio! You’re back from the north?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “Um, sorry, but I’m needed in the inn,” she said, and moved past them in the trench. Nera eyed her curiously when she brushed past her.
“She’s a healer?” she asked as they moved on.
“Yeah. I think she’s from Dunan. She worked here during the war.”
“She must have been busy.”
“Yeah. But Captain Chris’s Rune helped a lot back then.”
“Captain Chris Lightfellow, who has the True Water Rune,” recollected Nera.
“There was also another True Rune bearer in the Fire Bringer, a Harmonian mercenary called Geddoe,” he said.
“Right,” affirmed Nera.
By then, they were already at the door. They stomped off the snow from their boots and swiped their clothes as clean as they could, then went in.
“Huh,” said Hugo. “It’s still pretty empty.” There was nobody in sight, and the castle was still in a state of disrepair like it had been in the autumn. Hugo could feel a cold draft, but it was still warmer than outside, even taking profile of his Rune.
“Maybe they’ve fled?” asked Nera.
“Is that a joke?” replied Hugo, throwing her a grin. “HELLLOOOOO!!! Anybody heeeereeee?!?!” he shouted.
The doors of the meeting hall to their left opened. Thomas and Cecile came out, clad in thick clothes.
“You made it!” said Thomas. He turned back to the meeting hall. “Hugo’s here!”
Three more people came out from the meeting hall, and Hugo could instantly recognize them as members of the Harmonian mercenary group. He greeted Joker, Queen, and Geddoe, the bearer of the True Lightning Rune. Now he could be certain of the safety of the castle.