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Generated: Sep 18, 2019 12:56 AM
Post last updated: Sep 18, 2019 12:56 AM
dareth shiral
Dragon Age Ari lands in vampireworld
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Arilal has found yet another Elvhen ruin in the swamp.

It's not like it's hard. The woods south of Ostagar are fucking packed with ruins, Elvhen and otherwise. And Flemeth only told him to stay away from humans, not from cool ancient ruins he finds. So it's fair game.

He jumps down into the entry hall, chopping away the vines blocking the doorway with his shortswords (which he wields more like bastard swords, given the size of his arms). He enters the tomblike dark of the passageways, killing a couple of giant spiders along the way. Yawn. Then there's a couple of animated elf corpses, double yawn.

He wants something interesting. He finds it. A giant mirror, cracked down the center but otherwise gleaming without any sign of age. No dust or muck on the glass, no foliage on the intricately carved frame. It hums with mystic energy.

He pokes it, which turns out to be a mistake, because suddenly he's sucked through the glass and into a different place entirely, swearing fluently the whole time.

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He's in what a native of this world would call a "haunted house". That is, an abandoned mechanical ride in a rotting carnival nobody bothered to dismantle. Horrors painted on plywood surround the boy, along with cheap plastic skeletons and bedsheet ghosts.

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...Along with a dark haired boy and girl who look like they could've been carved from polished moon rock.

"Uh, hi," says the boy of the pair. It's easy to tell he's a boy, given his stark nakedness. 

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The other, a girl, sniffs the newcomer. "You smell weird."

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Arilal is naked, too! What a coincidence. (Flemeth never makes him wear clothes, which is why Flemeth is the coolest dad ever.)

"Hi yourself," he says, looking around. "And you look weird, so there. What... is this place? Because it's not an Elvhen ruin."

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"We look awesome," Zeke corrects him. "You look grey."

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"This is a stupid ride stupid humans rode to scare themselves," Tabby explains.

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"Well yeah, I'm Vashoth, we're literally the Grey People. Humans are pretty stupid," he agrees. "What're you? Besides shiny."

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Tabby grins, revealing very pronounced canines. "Vampires."

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"Imagine if everything lame about humans was great instead."

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"That's a pretty tall order! Most of what I know about humans is that they want to kill my dad. Oh, and they worship the Maker, which is stupid. And they hate everybody who isn't human. And... okay, maybe I know some stuff about humans. But I don't know how to make any of that great!"

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Tabby proceeds to lift the grey boy over her head. With one hand. "We're strong."

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Zeke leaps over the two of them, landing on his feet in a blur. "We're fast!"

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Tabby sets Ari down again. "And when we finish growing up we don't get old. And we heal everything."

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Zeke points to his junk. "Third set."

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"Gross!" Ari says admiringly. "That sounds awesome! All I get for being Vashoth is that I'm stronger than humans - not strong enough to lift people one-handed - and I'm immune to a bunch of poisons. I'd totally trade."

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"You could you know."

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"How so? Blood magic? Dad says to stay away from blood magic until I'm older."

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"Is it magic? Hmm."

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"We'd feed you our blood, then you'd nap, then you're a vampire!"

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"...That doesn't actually sound very much like blood magic at all, huh. Certainly sounds better than having to acquire you as a shifting form, that takes ages."

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Tabby rocks forward on her heels. "Say pretty please and we might just make you one of us."

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"You'll have to join our coven, though," Zeke cautions. "Oh, and what's a shifting form? Is that like--"

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Cat.

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Ari turns into a fluffy grey wolf pup, then back, in the span of a few seconds. "So you're apostates too, then?"

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Zeke turns back. "Don't know what word means." He shrugs. "Vampires can just be cats."

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"Oh, that is cheating. An apostate's a mage who isn't enslaved by the Chantry, I am one." He wreaths his hand in blue foxfire demonstratively. "Mages can do cool stuff like turn into animals or manipulate the elements or put curses on people. We can also talk to spirits and demons and go into people's dreams. It's a toss-up, though, because the humans hate mages and they'll send Templars after you if you're not a Chantry slave. Dad usually kills them for me but he says in a couple of years it's gonna be my job to."

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"I can light fires!" Tabby chirps, burning one of the ghosts as demonstration. 

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"I make things really cold," says Zeke.

And the ghost is frozen solid. 

"So, want to join the club? The mummies and the uncles would like a new witch boy."

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"...I mean, yeah? That sounds great. Do you have to get, I don't know, permission from somebody?"

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"Screw that!" 

She bites her wrist, drawing blood. "Drink! It'll taste yuck at first but get super good if you keep doing it.."

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"Alright!"

He drinks. It actually doesn't taste that bad - Ari's always kind of liked the taste of his own blood when he inevitably busts his lip or his nose sparring with Dad, and while this girl has a different claret, the principle holds. Then it gradually changes, from "not bad" to "delicious". Arilal drinks until he can drink no more, then falls asleep, his mouth unlatching from her wrist as he slumps and drools red down his chin.

He dreams for hours. Not like his usual dreams; it feels nothing like the Fade, no lyrium or spirits to play with. Instead he's flying through the air, diving and spiraling and swooping gleefully, nothing chasing after him, only his own freedom and power. He buzzes a flock of swans and they scatter. He laughs.

The dream fades gradually, but he wakes up all at once. There's food nearby. He pounces - sinks his teeth into it - drains it dry.

Once he's drunk his fill, he looks at the corpse lying on the floor. "Who was that?"

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"Some creep who wanted to mate us," answers Tabby.

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"How do you feel?" 

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He laughs, testing the point of one of his teeth with his tongue. "I feel great. I feel like - like I could peel a Templar out of his armor and crush him like a grape without using a lick of magic."

He leaps up and taps the ceiling, then laughs some more.

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"Bet vampire noses and eyes and stuff are better than yours were."

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“That too! Especially smell, everything smells really interesting. Especially you guys. And you look even prettier than you did.” He turns around to look at the mirror he came through. “I’m prettier, wow.” He grins, showing off his teeth. 

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"You looked kinda neat before, too." He tilts his head. "Any reason you didn't have pants? People who aren't us usually have those."

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“Pants are human bullshit,” he says dismissively. “Dad says I should really wear armor but I’m fast enough I don’t have to and he doesn’t push it. Dad’s cool.”

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"Sounds like it."

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"Total bullshit."

Like the efficient little predator she is, Tabby crouches and swiftly extracts the corpse's blood rich liver. She tears it in half and offers it to Ari. "Wanna share?"

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“Yeah, sure.”

He takes the liver and sears it with a quick flame before biting into it. 

“Mm. Humans taste great, I don’t know why we never ate any of those Templars.”

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"What are Templars?"

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“They’re the humans who kill you if you’re a mage who isn’t enslaved. They wear this fancy heavy armor and they can stop you from doing magic for a while with their powers. Dad usually has me lead them into magic traps, but I think now that I’m a vampire I’ll just eat them.”

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Tabby high fives him. "Right on."

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And then proceeds to leap right through the ceiling into the night.

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Zeke follows!

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Ari leaps after them! 

It’s cold out here. Colder than the Korcari Wilds have ever been, certainly. He remembers from Flemeth’s lessons that the stuff falling from the sky is called “snow”, and that it’s like rain. 

His new vampiric body doesn’t care what temperature it is. The snow sticks to his cold skin, and he giggles at the vaguely ticklish feeling. Then he follows his new friends, whose names he still doesn’t actually know. (He’s basically a feral child, it’s not really his fault he never asked.)

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Zeke and his sister jump off the roof of the haunted house, running through the carnival towards the rusting ferris wheel. "Race you up!"

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Oh hell yes. Ari knows from climbing.

When he gets close to the wheel, he uses a pillar of earth to fling him upwards, catches onto a rusted spar, and begins clambering to the top like a mad squirrel.

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Tabby, being a competitive little sod, heats up a spar he's about to put his hand around red hot, enough to even sting a vampire.

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"Ow!"

The pain doesn't really bother him. It's kind of cool, actually. But it weakens the metal enough that his tiny but powerful grip pinches it in half. He only falls a couple of yards before catching himself, but he's lost his lead. "No fair!" he growls, scrambling upwards again.

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Only for Zeke to use the boy's back as a springboard, landing on top of the highest gondola.

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That's legitimate. Insulting, but legitimate.

"You guys are tricky," he complains when he reaches the top.

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"And your magic's cool," Tabby replies as she climbs up next to him.

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"Thanks! It really is. Wish I could share like you guys did, but it's inborn. Which sucks, because you guys being mages too would be cool as hell."

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Tabby looks over out at the lights of the small town in the distance, full of prey, candy, and all sorts of distractions.

"It's alright. Maybe we can make magic babies when we're older."

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"Rest of the coven's gonna love you," says Zeke.

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"Making magic babies does sound fun," Ari says thoughtfully. "Dad sure seems to like it, he's had like a hundred kids over the years. Might as well carry on the tradition, right?"

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"Gotta get new vampires somehow. Me and Tabby are gonna start our own coven when we're big!"

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"Cool! I wanna come with!"

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"Awesome!"

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"So, what kinda things does your magic do?"

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"Ooh, try being a cat!"

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He turns into a cat and back. "Oh, that's really different. Um, my magic is mostly the shifting plus primal and entropy - that's elements and cursing people. I can make somebody really clumsy or easy to hurt, and I can put somebody to sleep or rip out some of their life energy. Ooh, or I can make them have horrible waking nightmares. That's really fun."

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Tabby looks absolutely delighted.

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Zeke reclines. "View's nice up here."

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"It is. So many little lights. I guess this is what cities look like?"

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"You never seen a city?"

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"Raised in a swamp. Closest I ever got to seeing a city was Lothering, and that's about two hundred people. And I only ever saw it from a distance. ...I never met any other kids, either."

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"That's not nice... what's your name by the way?"

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"Ari. And, I dunno, it's not nice but it was necessary. Templars visited Lothering sometimes, and they'd be able to tell I was a mage and they'd try to take me away, and Dad would have to kill a bunch of people. Overall easier to just keep to ourselves."

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Hug. "I'm Zeke."

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Tabby joins in. "Tabitha."

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Ari melts into the hug. "Oh, that feels really nice."

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"Wanna come see a movie?"

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"I have no idea what that is! But it sounds fun, so sure!"

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Tabitha cackles, before leaping down from the Ferris wheel.

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Ari leaps down after her! 

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The trio shoot into the trees surrounding the carnival ground, before coming into the city itself. The twins stick to the alleys and rooftops.

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Ari follows the twins' lead. They've got more experience here.

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They come to rest crouching behind a dumpster. 

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"You want to try movie food, Ari?"

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"Eh, I just had a liver. I'll try some if you want any, though."

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"I mean, we'd have to steal clothes and money to buy some..."

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"Lots of trouble, not much reward. Let's skip it, we can always try it later."

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Agreed.

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And thus the twins and Ari creep into the back entrance of the local dive cinema, prowling through the grey concrete hallways behind the screens. 

Zeke spots two employees chatting behind the door of the theatre the twins are eyeing.

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"Shit. Ari, think you can make them not a problem?"

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"Sure thing."

Ari closes his eyes and makes some mystic passes with his hands. There's a faint blue glow around his hands, and the employees collapse to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.

"They'll be out for a couple of minutes," Ari says. "Let's move."

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"Cool..."

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The vampire children creep into the thankfully nearly empty theatre, slithering under the chairs until they reach the back. Just in time for Age of Ultron.

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Ari perches on the back of his seat, because the chair itself is kind of gross to sit on without pants to protect his butt. He doesn't understand most of Age of Ultron, but the punching is pretty cool!

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Zeke manages to steal some popcorn from a sleeping grandparent. "Wanna try?"

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"Ooh! Yeah, definitely."

He has a couple of kernels. "Wow that's salty. Tasty, though."

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"Superheroes are weird," Tabby opines with a mouthful of popcorn.

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"Superheroes are like Iron Man, right? I dunno, he's just trying to protect people from his weird golem that went crazy. Seems reasonable enough, wanting to fix his mistakes."

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"Using your powers to babysit humans, though..."

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“Oh, yeah, that’s weird. Like, I'd save a human if one was right in front of me, but I can’t see making such a big thing out of it. Maybe it’s more fun than it looks.”

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"The costumes are kinda neat. I mean, pants, bleh, but all those colours."

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"You don't need pants to be colorful," Ari scoffs. "I can make vitaar, it's a kind of Vashoth warpaint. A coating of that'll make you as colorful as you want."

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"Really?"

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Tabby shushes him, because the speedy guy is dying.

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Ari shushes and watches the rest of the movie. It's not more comprehensible, but he's not here for things making sense, he's here for punching.

There's more punching. It's cool.

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The credits roll.

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"We should go."

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"But there's always a scene after the credits!"

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"I wanna see that!"

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"Fine."

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Josh Brolin as a purple monster takes a gauntlet out of a vault! The lights come on! An usher is looking down at the trio!

"Excuse me."

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"Oh, sorry."

Ari hops down off his perch and stretches.

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"I--you--where are your clothes?"

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"Uhhh..."

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"Elsewhere?"

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"Humans are kinda into pants, Ari," Tabby mutters too low for human hearing.

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"I think you should come with me."

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"I disagree."

A quick gesture, and the usher is frozen in place. The air shimmers around him.

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"Book it!"

Zeke and Tabby blur away nearly as fast as the speedy dead man.

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Ari books it.

"At least we got to see the extra scene!" he says happily.

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"You are so handy."

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"I am! Magic is the best. Where are we going?"

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"Find somewhere have a bath maybe? Cinema gunk and blood and all."

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"Yeah, fair. When you say 'bath' are you thinking more 'river' or 'bathhouse?' Is this city big enough to have a bathhouse?"

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"People here have baths in their houses. You have hotels where you're from?"

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"What's a hotel. So, no."

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"So, humans have these big buildings full of nice rooms you can rent."

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"Oh, like an inn! Yeah, we've got inns. The inns don't have baths in them, though. Very few things have baths in them besides bathhouses."

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"Sound good?"

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"Yeah! Let's find a hotel and bathe."

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It's winter, so the hotels aren't in hot demand. With utility corridors and keen senses of smell, it's not too hard to find an empty room. A penthouse, Tabby insists. A quick, superhuman twist of the door knob, and they're in.

The penthouse is vaguely nautical themed, with aged driftwood decorations and mother of pearl floors. And a mini fridge. And a spa-bath.

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Ari beholds the bathtub.

"...How does the water get in?"

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Tabby somewhat smugly turns the hot water knob.

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While Zeke is delighted to find some complimentary scented bubble bath!

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"Ooh!"

Ari starts washing off, delighted by the hot water and the scented bubbles.

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Tabby raids the fridge for little cans of pop. 

"Think we should try the superhero thing?"

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"What, you mean like going around helping people?"

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"Yeah! And beating up bad people! Maybe eating them! If there's less bad people, the good people will die less and that means more food!"

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"And we can be colourful!"

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"Yeah! I'll make some vitaar, we'll have to go back to the Wilds for a bit to get the ingredients but I can collect them pretty quickly."

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"The Wilds?"

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"The swamp where I came from. We can go back to the haunted house and go back through that mirror, I'll get all the herbs and brew them together, then we can come back and be heroes."

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"Sounds fun!" 

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"I'm down."

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"Nice."

Ari dries off with the absurdly fluffy (by his standards) hotel towel.

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Zeke punches out the bathroom window and slips out into the night air.

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"...Windows open, you know," Ari feels compelled to point out. Then he follows Zeke out.

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Twenty stories down, Zeke lands on his feet before darting into an alley.

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Follow, follow. (The concept of an alley is still a bit weird to Ari. The concept of buildings close enough to form alleys, really.)

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They make their way back to the haunted house. A layer of snow has settled over Ari's first meal.

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Aw, nostalgic.

Ari finds the mirror easily enough. It's humming with magic just like its twin, so he pokes it again, and he gets sucked right back in and pops out in the ruins. He waits for the twins to come through after him.

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They stumble through happily.

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"Cooool!"

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"Yeah!" He leads them through the ruins, which are indeed pretty cool if you've never seen an Elvhen ruin before. There's some carvings and mosaics, a lot of ivy, a couple of worn-away statues.

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"We should walk into more mirrors."

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"Most mirrors aren't Eluvian. Not sure how that one ended up connecting to a mirror in your world, actually, they're supposed to just be a network between places in Thedas. But old magic can get kind of weird sometimes, it's not that surprising."

He leads them out of the ruins and into the swampy forest that is the Korcari Wilds. "Keep a lookout for red or blue flowers, okay? They're an important ingredient in the vitaar."

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"Sure!"

Splash splash.

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"Pretty!"

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Ari keeps stopping to pick various plants. Blue and red flowers are held in his right and left hands respectively; other plants are distributed more evenly. He also points out various other herbs along the way.

"That's elfroot. Tastes good, and it'll take away a headache if you make tea with it or staunch bleeding if you crush it and press it to a wound." "That's deathroot. Very poisonous." "Embrium. Kind of weird to find it here, it usually likes a drier climate. The pollen can be used to treat pneumonia."

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"Man, humans get sick a lot."

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"Hey, Vashoth get pneumonia too. It's just something that happens when you've got lungs."

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"Not vampires. We don't even go to the bathroom."

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"Oh, cool. Well, it's something that happens when you need your lungs, anyway."

It's not too long before they fetch up at a tiny cottage. There's a man standing outside, wearing a simple robe and raising his eyebrow.

"Hi Dad!" Ari says, hugging him.

"Arilal," Flemeth says mildly. "You've made friends. And your skin is cold, and you're no longer grey. All in all, quite a few changes."

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"I turned him into a vampire, was nothing."

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"I see. What exactly does that... entail?"

"I drank some of her blood and now I'm stronger and faster and I have better senses and I won't get sick or old!"

Flemeth's eyes widen slightly. "Interesting." He turns to the other two and bows. "It seems I must thank you for the gift you have given my son. Won't you come in? I have soup and bread, and I'm sure you must be hungry after walking such a long way through the Wilds."

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"Delighted," says Zeke, perfect gentleman.

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Ari runs in, but doesn't sit down to eat, instead going to a workbench in the back and beginning to mash up flowers with a mortar and pestle.

"What are you making, son?" Flemeth asks as he lays the table with soup bowls and bread.

"Vitaar! Blue and red, royal elfroot base for the blue and blood lotus for the red."

"Make sure not to over-concentrate the lotus," Flemeth cautions. "You don't want to be hallucinating the whole time you're wearing it."

Ari makes an irritated noise. "I know that!"

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"Your son's cool!" Tabby announces. "And so's your soup!"

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Flemeth laughs. "I can take credit for the soup, but Arilal is his own creature." He ruffles Ari's hair fondly. Ari shakes his head vigorously to dislodge his hand, and Flemeth retreats with another chuckle.

Then he sits at the head of the table, steepling his fingers. "So, you're both vampires, and my son is as well. Is there any particular disadvantage to it? Should I expect him to fear open spaces, or crave lyrium, or..."

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"Am, grown up vampires can break humans mating with them if they're not careful? Stuff that works on them doesn't work on us? We grow up a lot slower."

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"I see," he says. "Well, there shouldn't be any problems related to mating for a while yet. If Arilal grows too slowly, though... hmm. Perhaps it was time, anyway."

Ari looks over his shoulder with some confusion. "What are you talking about, Dad?"

He waves a hand. "Nothing important. How did you two meet Ari, anyway?"

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"He stepped through a weird magic mirror."

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His eyes narrow. "An Eluvian? In the Wilds? How- well. All's well that ends well, I suppose."

"I ate a guy!" Ari volunteers. "He was delicious."

Flemeth taps the table thoughtfully, not visibly disturbed. "That doesn't sound like you, Arilal. What did he do?"

"Well, I'd just woken up and I was really hungry. But Tabby says he wanted to mate with her."

"But you didn't feel threatened in any way?" Flemeth presses.

"No, not really. He was just... there, and I killed him, because he smelled delicious. Are you saying I should feel bad?"

Flemeth shakes his head. "If Tabby managed to draw him in, he probably deserved it. But it does sound like becoming a vampire cost you some of your empathy. The Ari I know wouldn't have killed someone without a good reason."

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Tabby shrugs. "Vampires eat people."

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"That much is rapidly becoming apparent," Flemeth says drily. 

"So, wait, am I a different person now?" Ari asks, sounding somewhat disturbed.

"No, you're still suffused with a certain essential Ari-ness. But you've become a little bit more like me."

"...well, that's not so bad."

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"You're just a predator like me and sis now. The rules are different."

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Flemeth smiles. "Yes, that's the word for it. We're all predators here, now."

"You're being creepy, Dad," Ari says fondly.

"And what of it? An old man needs a hobby. And I'm nothing if not an old man."

(He looks about thirty, actually. Except around the eyes.)

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"And we're gonna have a coven when we're big and me and Ari will mate and make ultimate babies! It'll be great!"

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Flemeth nods seriously. "I'm sure you will. Arilal comes from excellent stock." He rises just before the cauldron over the fire begins to boil, his chair scraping over Ari's protests at his phrasing, and pours four mugs of elfroot tea. (It smells kind of marshmallowy.)

Ari sips his tea mutinously.

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"So, what's a Vashoth?"

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Flemeth pulls a tome from a nearby bookshelf and opens it to an illustration labeled QUNARI. It shows a powerfully built grey humanoid, a head and a half taller than the human provided for scale, with broad, swept-back horns. He’s shown baring his teeth and brandishing a massive battleaxe.

“Not the most culturally sensitive portrayal,” Flemeth notes, “but you get the idea. The Kossith were a race of horned giants, who later chose to call themselves Qunari, the People of the Qun, or the Word. This Qun defines the Qunari; the races who do not follow it are called ‘bas’, less than animals. Some Qunari, dissatisfied with the demands of the Qun, fled their homeland to forge a new life for themselves, usually as mercenaries, because, well, look at them. These are called ‘Vashoth’, the grey ones. If you call a Qunari a Vashoth, he will kill you. If you call a Vashoth a Qunari, he will kill you. If you call either Kossith, they will both kill you. This has been a history lesson.” 

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"Qunari, Quanari," Tabby sing songs at Ari.

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Ari rolls his eyes. “I’m not Vashoth anymore, I’m a vampire. Wasn’t Vashoth before either, really, I was a Witch of the Wilds, but I’m especially not now.”

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"You do still smell a little funny."

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Ari sticks his tongue out. 

“That’s undignified,” Flemeth chides. “But he’s right; he’s not Tal-Vashoth, a ‘true grey one’, because he was raised outside of their society, loose as it is. There’s no reason for him to have any particular emotional valence attached to either term, beyond you being a pest about it.”

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"Awww."

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Ari considers her. "You know, if you want a fight you can just ask."

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"I always wanna fight."

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“Let’s fight, then!”

”Not in the house,” Flemeth says firmly. “Take it to the sparring ring.”

The training ring turns out to be a rocky hilltop near the hut, clear of trees and grass, with several large scorchmarks in the dirt. Flemeth puts them at opposite sides of it. 

“You may establish ground rules before fighting if you like,” he says, “or you may simply begin tearing each other to pieces like wild animals. I don't actually care."

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Tabby goes for the latter, roaring!

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Ari is not exactly surprised by this. He sidesteps her charge and tests her defenses with a kick to the ribs. 

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Fiend! The vampiric strength knocks her back, but she decides to go for the one weak spot shared by all male vampires...

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It’s a solid hit, which, given the force of the attack and the intent of the attacker, means that a very important piece of Ari’s anatomy is ripped off and sent flying. Flemeth winces slightly; he may be two thousand years old and an arcane abomination, but some reflexes don't go away.

It hurts, of course. Possibly more than anything that’s ever happened in Ari's life. But pain is a very bad way to put Ari down. It is a good way to send him into a blood rage, though. Blood and worse running down his legs, he leaps onto Tabby and bites into her forearm with bone-crunching force, worrying it back and forth like a Mabari hound.

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Skin and muscle tears away, while Tabby tries to bite off some fingers.

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Fingers aren’t important. What is important is destroying his enemy. 

Flemeth turns to Zeke. “How much damage can she actually take? Because Arilal is going to go for the throat eventually.”

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"A lot. Long as her head stays on and her heart's alright really."

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“Hmm. I’ll put a lifeward on her anyway, he does have a tendency to get carried away.”

He gestures, and nothing visibly happens, but a tinge of strain enters his expression. 

Meanwhile, Ari has switched from trying to rip off Tabby’s arm to trying to get her in a clinch and crush her ribcage. This is kind of fun! Would be better if he were still capable of conscious thought, and probably even better if he hadn't just had his dick torn off, but under the circumstances.

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Tabby grunts as a few of her ribs pop. "I concede."

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Ari is not at home right now.

Flemeth is, though. He waves his hands and Ari is lifted off of his opponent, still snarling and clawing at the air. After a few seconds of rage-floating, he slumps forward as the fury drains from his system. He twitches slightly as he falls to the ground.

"Ow," he says flatly.

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"You fight good!"

Tabby's body is visibly healing, wounds closing, her ear reforming like some kind of fleshy mold.

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"You didn't have to go for my stuff like that," Ari complains as said stuff continues to regrow. "Could've had a nice, normal fight, maybe broken a couple of bones."

"Perhaps next time you should wear pants," Flemeth suggests innocently.

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"Quit complaining, she's done it to me twice!"

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"I feel like that's all the more reason to complain, if it's a habit!"

He attempts to wipe some of the blood off his thighs. It doesn't go very well; it's gone all tacky. Flemeth claps his hands together. "To the river with you both, come on. Tabby, just follow Ari, he'll show you the way."

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"Kay."

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Zeke trots along with them.

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Ari cheers up quickly, and the river is close by. It's deep and quick, but clear. Ari jumps in immediately and starts washing blood off and splashing around.

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Tabby cannonballs after him.

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While Zeke is busy making castles out of river-mud.

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After a few minutes of this, the sound of metal clanking on metal filters through the noises of the forest. A man in heavy metal armor emblazoned with a sigil of a flaming sword walks out of the treeline. He double-takes at the sight of three pale-skinned children swimming in the depths of the Korcari Wilds, and waves at them. "This isn't a safe place to play!" he calls. "Where are your parents?"

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"Me and Tabby's Ma is back at the nest." He shrugs. "Dad's in the Amazon, I think."

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The knight looks deeply confused. "I... alright... what about your parents, little boy?"

Ari gives him an evaluating look. "We're from Lothering," he says after a few seconds. "We ran off for a camping trip. We heard the Wilds were full of treasure we could bring back, but so far we've just found flowers and a couple of shiny rocks. Are you here with friends, Mr. Templar?"

"Yes," the Templar says. "Listen, why don't I take you back to camp and one of my comrades can get you back to Lothering, alright? It's not safe for a couple of kids out here."

"That sounds lovely," Ari says with a sincere smile. Then, to Tabby and Zeke, he whispers:

"Either of you feeling hungry? Because we're about to be killing a lot of people."

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"Not gonna turn down some fresh human."

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Ari climbs onto the shore. "We're ready to go when you are, ser."

The Templar nods. "Just get your clothes and come with me."

"Don't have any," Ari says breezily.

"...sorry, what?"

"Who wants to wear clothes when you're out in nature?" Ari laughs. "Weren't you ever a kid?"

The Templar grins ruefully. "I guess I must have, but it's been a while. Alright, just come with me and try not to step on any rocks."

"Come on, guys, let's go with Ser..."

"Gideon."

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Zeke cartwheels past.

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While Tabby takes Ari's hand. 

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Ari swings their hands up and down.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you the Witch of the Wilds would eat you if you went into the forest?" Ser Gideon asks as they make their way along the small path he's beaten through the forest.

"That's just a story," Ari scoffs.

"It isn't! We're actually here to get the Witch once and for all. It's hard, because she knows the forest better than we do, but we've got the Maker on our side and we can counter her magic."

Ari hums. "I always heard the Witch of the Wilds was a boy."

"Oh, you did say you were from Lothering," Ser Gideon recalls. "Everybody else says she's a girl, because it's the Witch of the Wilds, isn't it, not the Wizard of the Wilds?"

Ari nods thoughtfully. "Makes sense, I guess. So we just follow this path to get to your camp?"

"Right."

"You've been awfully helpful," Ari says, then he lets go of Tabby's hand, leaps up, and snaps Ser Gideon's neck.

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Tabby stamps Ser Gideon's head like a rotten pumpkin for emphasis.

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Zeke sniffs the air. "This is gonna be fun."

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"It totally is! The Templars have big swords, most of them, and we won't keep having the element of surprise for too long, but we can take them. Oh, watch out for the Holy Smite - it feels like they're setting your brain on fire, or so Dad says. That's usually how they get mages, they Smite them and then stab them through the heart while they're reeling from the pain."

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Zeke is vibrating with excitement. "Got it!"

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Tabby is already running down the path.

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Ari runs after her.

The Templar camp isn't that far. The clanking sound of heavily armored men pacing around is easy to follow.

"I have a bad feeling about this," one man says, sharpening his sword. "What makes us any different from every other Templar she's ripped to shreds?"

"Faith, Lawrence," another replies. "We're better equipped, better informed, and we have the Maker on our side."

Lawrence pauses. "I think the others would also have had the Maker on their side," he says cautiously.

"You'd think, wouldn't you," Ari says softly. Before any of them can react, he's wrenched Lawrence's sword from his hands and put it through his throat.

There's twelve Templars in the clearing, all fully armored. Most are holding their swords. One is holding a warhammer. They're not unfazed by the sudden murder of their compatriot, or the naked child appearing in their midst, but they're ready for a fight.

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Zeke manages to throw a Templar into one of his comrades, hard enough that his helmet penetrates the man's ribcage with a satisfying bundle of snaps.

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Which inspires Tabby to stab a man with another man's snapped, exposed bone.

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The Templars back up into a circle of blades. "Blue right! Red left! Yellow center!" their leader barks. There's a sound like a clap of thunder, and everything goes white.

It fucking hurts. As soon as the pain starts to fade, the commander shouts again and there's another thunderclap of agony.

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The twins are... not doing so hot.

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Tabby however is managing to crawl through the dirt towards the Templars. 

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One of the Templars stabs her in the shoulder.

"That seems cruel," one says.

"It's a monster," the stabber responds.

From her vantage point near the ground, Tabby can see roots growing up within the circle of Templars.

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Tabby decides this is probably something they probably shouldn't see.

"Please, misters, I don't know what's happening!"

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"You killed Vincent," the first man growls. "Whatever you are, you're not human."

The second man, who has pointed ears, rolls his eyes but does not comment on the implicit racism.

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"I--I did what? Where am I?"

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"Don't listen to it," the commander says sharply. "It's-"

A thorny vine reaches out and crushes his throat, and he's cut off midsentence. The Templars break formation, whirling around to defend against this new threat, but they're flanked. Ari takes advantage of their distraction to get to his feet and rip out the elf's throat.

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Tabby manages to pull off a leg sweep, slicing away a couple of Templars' feet.

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The remaining Templars don't last long. One tries another Smite, but Ari distracts him by fracturing his kneecap with his tiny yet powerful fists.

Once the Templars are all dead, the vines coil in on themselves and rise up until they form a sort of cocoon, out of which steps Flemeth, his arms folded.

"Arilal."

"Sorry, Dad," Ari says sheepishly.

"I told you to have a bath. Instead you tried to take on a fully equipped team of Templars, who had been sent to kill me and were certainly equipped to take down three children, no matter how strong they might be. You had no strategy. You had no contingencies. You didn't adapt to the circumstances."

Ari hangs his head. "I wanted to impress you."

"You failed."

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"But he was great!"

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Flemeth turns to her. "You are not my child, and I do not expect you to know how I expect one of my children to behave. Rest assured, charging into battle crying out for blood is not it. The Witches of the Wild are cunning. They are subtle. They use trickery and deception to lead their foes into inescapable traps, and thus they cannot be defeated. I raised Arilal, even if he is not my own flesh and blood, and I expect him to understand my ways. From you, I expect nothing."

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"Should we be insulted?" Zeke whispers to Ari.

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"If he wants you to be insulted, he'll insult you. He literally expects nothing from you, or from anyone else who isn't me." To Flemeth, he says "So what should we have done?"

"You tell me," Flemeth says. "You wanted to impress me? Tell me what would have worked."

Ari thinks about it. "...we should have drawn them out," he says eventually. "It was easy for us to kill Ser Gideon, because he was alone. We could have used the lost-children excuse to get one or two more of them, then picked them off one by one as they left the camp for tasks and personal needs. They'd catch on after a couple of deaths, but at that point we could start breaking them psychologically. Mutilate the corpses and toss them into the camp, maybe. Certainly we could make noises and keep them from sleeping. After a night of that, they'd be easy prey."

"Then why didn't you do that?"

Ari pauses, looking at Tabby and Zeke. Then he reluctantly admits, "Tabby wanted to rush in, and I didn't want to sound boring in front of my friends."

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"Great, pin it on me."

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"Actually sounds fun."

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"I'm not pinning it on you. It's still my fuckup."

Flemeth nods. "Given you've never had friends, though, it does make sense you'd do stupid things for their benefit. I know I did." He looks bitter for a moment, then continues "I'm ready to forgive this if you don't do it again. Can you promise me you'll be smart in the future?"

Ari nods rapidly. "Yeah!"

"Liar," Flemeth says fondly.

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"So, can he still play with us?"

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"I don't imagine I could stop him," Flemeth says.

Ari hugs Zeke firmly.

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Zeke hugs back. "So, should we go back through the mirror?"

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"Well, let's get the vitaar first," Ari says. "Since it's what we came for in the first place."

Flemeth pulls two jars out of his robes and hands them to Ari. "I finished it and took it with me, since I imagined you'd want it."

"You're the best," Ari says happily. "Okay, now we can go back through the mirror."

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Zeke runs off backwards, waving at Flemeth. "Thanks Ari's dad!"

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Flemeth laughs and waves back.

Ari speeds through the woods towards the ruins. "That all went pretty well, honestly."

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"We got the paint, we killed some fuckwits, we figured out your vampireness works properly..."

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"Yeah!"

Ari, more familiar with the terrain, is the first through the mirror.

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It's still night on the other side. The snow's a tad thicker on the floor. There's also a scent. Similar to the twins but... unfamiliar. 

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The scent puts him on edge. He sinks half-consciously into a battle-ready stance.

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A pale, blond, absurdly curly head of hair pokes out from behind a corner. "Hi!"

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"...hi. Um. Who are you."

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He steps out into full view. Turns out he's about as naked as the twins, and seemingly the same size, if slightly rounder. "I'm Maurice!"

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"...and you're a vampire?"

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"What else would I be?"

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"Well, human, potentially. Or an elf. It's nice to meet you, I'm Arilal."

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He walks over and sniffs the other boy. "You smell new."

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"I am! I changed... today, I guess, or maybe last night. It's been fun so far."

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"So you were human yesterday? Wow." 

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"Nope! I was Vashoth, humans suck. I'm from another world, where they suck slightly more."

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"What was it like? Changing, I mean? Also, you seen some twins around? Black hair, vampires like us? Their trail stops here."

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"It's like... Y'know how sometimes when you're dreaming and you're about to wake up, your spirit gets kind of stuck halfway between the Fade and your body for a bit, so you're trying to move but you're too slow and you try to open your eyes but they won't open? Like that, and I just woke up. And yeah, they're the ones that turned me! They're on the other side of the mirror, catching up with me."

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"The Fade?"

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"Yeah, the place spirits live, where dreams happen. It usually pretends to be places you know, but sometimes, especially if you're a mage, you can see how it really is, all twisty and weird with lyrium everywhere."

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The twins bound out of the mirror.

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"Maurice!"

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She and Zeke envelop Maurice in hug.

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Ari joins in!

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"This is our cousin," Zeke explains.

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"Our uncle mated one of his mothers."

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"Oh, cool! Do I fit into this family tree somewhere, since you turned me?"

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"You're probably gonna be their coven-mate!"

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"Oh, yeah. That works, then."

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"Is that paint you're holding?"

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"Sort of! It's vitaar, a kind of body paint made with magic herbs. You paint it on and it hardens until it's like steel, but you can still move around and stuff and it'll stretch with you. Qunari and Vashoth use it instead of helmets in battle, because they've got horns."

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"Whatever are you gonna do with that?"

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"Be superheroes!"

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"Yeah! I don't actually know any superheroes, really, but it seems fun."

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"The paint's so we can have costumes without pants."

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"Because you guys don't have the best witchcraft."

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"Why, what's yours do?"

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Suddenly there's two of the vampire. "Illusions!" they say as one.

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"Oh, that is cool. Dad can do illusions, but it's really complicated, he says I probably couldn't learn it unless I practiced for decades."

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"So when I walk around humans during the day I just make them think I have clothes on."

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"Nice. Man, there's so much stuff you could do..."

Flemeth would tend to describe Ari as an "early bloomer". Others might go with "tiny pervert".

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"It's funny to turn it off for a second when they're looking."

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Ari jumps up and down. "Yes! The power went to a worthy user!"

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"Can I superhero with you guys?"

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"I'm fine with that!" He looks to the others for confirmation, aware that he is not in charge here.

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"Course he can, he's family!"

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"That's what I thought, but I didn't want to assume! Welcome to the team!"

He hugs Maurice again. This is a momentous occasion.

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Maurice is very good at hugging.

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Ari is the one to break the hug, after a good while, because he's excited to play with the vitaar. "Is anybody here actually good at painting? Because I'm not."

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"Maurice is the best at painting!"

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Maurice bows slightly. "I dabble."

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"Cool! Can you paint me, then?" He offers up the jars of vitaar.

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"Sure! Any way you want to look?"

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"Mm... I wanna look cool. And more blue than red, I think. Other than that, follow your muse."

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Maurice's muse is... interesting. He manages to get the vitaar quite pale on most of Ari's body, with curly red horns on his forehead. A blue serpent coils from his navel to the nape of his neck. 

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Ari doesn't move, even though it really tickles sometimes. When it's done, he looks in the mirror-portal.

"Horns! I never had horns. Or a giant snake! You're really good at this!"

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"Not sure why horns. Came to me."

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"Vashoth sometimes grow horns! They come in at puberty, so I dunno if that'll happen to me, being a vampire and all, but it might not have anyway."

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"Be real neat if it did."

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"The Qunari think adults without horns are scarier, but I think I agree with you. We'll see when I grow up, I guess."

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Tabby meanwhile is made a girl on fire.

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"A classic."

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Zeke is half and half.

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Maurice clicks his fingers, and suddenly he's the tye-dye vampire.

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"Very intimidating. Let's go!" Ari considers for a moment. "Where do we go."

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"I think there's some druggos in town."

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"Meh, they're not hurting anybody. Good for eating but not good for heroing, you know?"

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"Oh, I meant the ones giving out the drugs."

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“Ohhhh. That could be fun!”

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"And they have guns so there's a challenge!"

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“Cool! What’s a gun?”

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"You don't know what guns are?"

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“I’m from another world,” Ari says. “I’m missing a lot of stuff.”

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"Hmm, well guns are these little human things that shoot tiny hot balls of metal real fast."

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“Huh. I can probably take ‘em.”

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"Totally."

Maurice and the twins take off.

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Ari follows! This has served him well in the past.

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My, that is one dilapidated warehouse.

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It certainly is! Ari is not familiar with warehouses as a class, but this definitely seems like an unusually dilapidated model.

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Maurice takes the lead, wiggling through a broken window onto a catwalk.

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Ari follows, humming under his breath.

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Below the children, ten scuzzy men with semi-automatics guard piles of white powder in plastic wrap.

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Ooh. Okay, severely outnumbered by humans with weaponry, non-Templar: sleep spell, maddening nightmares on the most threatening, kill the remainder before they wake up. But that'd be boring

...last time he objected to a strategy because it was boring it almost got him and his friends killed. "Mind if I take a few out the boring way?"

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"Hmm, should we let them get a look at us?"

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"...okay, yeah, showing off takes precedence."

Ari hops down and strikes a heroic pose. "Hey! Villains! We're here to kill you!"

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Zeke follows. "For great justice!"

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"And food!"

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The apparent leader of the men--a meth-thin fellow with a shockingly adolescent beard--blinks at the kids. 

"...The shit are your parents? Or clothes."

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Ari feels that this is entirely enough conversation. He's here to kill people, not talk about irrelevant things like parents and clothes.

In a flash, he's torn out the throat under that scraggly beard and he's on the others like a fox among chickens. Chickens with assault rifles.

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They start firing!

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Meanwhile Maurice is proving himself quite the little predator, chewing on humans in the shape of a far more... classical vampire, all rotting skin and hook like talons.

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Ari lets a couple of the bullets hit him, one in the arm and one in the gut. It feels really cool, like a punch but it just keeps burning and aching. He feels it in the pit of his stomach, and it makes him want to curl up his toes and stretch out and just let go of something. But killing people feels almost as good as that would, and it seems like a better choice at the moment.

Given his costume, his enjoyment is pretty obvious.

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Tabby starts running up behind Ari. "Throw me!"

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Ari tosses her at a guard who's trying to run.

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She aims her feet for his legs, shattering them from under him.

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She then proceeds to moon the guy.

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Ari laughs as he rips out a heart, staining his forearms red. "That's just rude!"

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"Well what else is it for?"

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Ari considers this.

"Fun to look at. Especially Maurice's. Have you seen that thing?"

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"He's my cousin."

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"Art transcends blood."

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"I only barely know what a cousin is. Are you not supposed to like their butts? That seems repressive."

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"Wow, you don't know a lot, do you?"

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Enjoying a moment of feral triumph, Tabby kissing Ari right on the lips. "Don't listen to him."

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And then Maurice has his turn. "No her."

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Ari enjoys both kisses very much! The smell of blood and death enhances the experience even further. He also takes the opportunity to touch Maurice's butt.

"I was raised in a swamp by a crazy immortal witch, I'm missing a lot of background information. But I know a bunch of ways to kill people! Way more than most kids, I bet."

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Maurice responds in kind. "You sure you weren't from a vampire womb?"

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"We don't have them in my world! I actually don't know what my birth parents were like besides 'big and grey', but they definitely weren't vampires."

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"So, which of us is better, oh Ari?"

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"I like boys better than girls, so probably Maurice. I should try kissing Zeke, though, just to be sure."

Ari tries kissing Zeke.

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Zeke does his best to kiss back.

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"Mm... I think I need to try Maurice again." He kisses Maurice.

"Maybe I should kiss Tabby again, though." He does so.

"...oh no, I've forgotten what Zeke was like! I'd better start over."

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"We clearly need a neutral judge."

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"Nah, I was kidding. Maurice is the best at kissing overall, but Zeke, you have really nice lips, and Tabby, you made it really fun, so I personally think we're all winners, especially me, 'cause I got to kiss three really cute people a bunch of times."

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"Shoulda bitten your lips off."

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“Hey, I’m just being objective! Besides, I said you were cute and fun.”

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"So, feel like a superhero?"

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“Mmm... it felt really cool getting shot, but I don’t know if that’s what being a superhero feels like. It mostly felt the same as when we killed those Templars. Maybe we were superheroes already. In our hearts, or whatever.”

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"Doubt it."

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"You got shot?"

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“Yeah, couple of times. It felt cool. Still kinda hurts.”

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"The bullets still in you?"

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“Oh, probably. I guess that’s what’s hurting? I should probably get rid of them at some point.”

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"Want a hand?"

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“Sure.”

He points to the bullets’ locations: one in the upper arm, one in the gut. 

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Maurice proceeds to dig them out with his bare fingers.

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Ari squirms energetically. When Maurice removes the second bullet he makes a noise and curls his toes and shudders for a few seconds. Then he flops down onto the floor. 

“Thaaaaanks,” he says dreamily. He reaches out limply to drag Maurice into cuddles. 

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Maurice complies. "You liked that?"

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“Yeeeeeah,” he says. “Hurts, but... nice.”

Maurice thus secured, he reaches out and waves vaguely towards Zeke and Tabby. 

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The twins proceed to lay down with the two.

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And Ari falls asleep.

The Fade is different here. Less rocky, more... ethereal? It's like the city they're in, but filled with fog. The geometry's all twisted up and everything doesn't connect right, but that much, at least, Ari's familiar with. He starts exploring.

No spirits. No demons. That's weird. Not even the little floating wisps that crop up around dreamers. And there are plenty of dreamers in this city. He can see them, pinpricks of light like a field of stars. He flits between them for what seems like hours, looking through the dreams as he passes like a librarian glancing at the titles of books around him. Stuck at my old job. Back in high school. Didn't study for a test. Naked in public. (There's a lot of variations on that one, and Ari sometimes watches them play out if the dreamer looks cute or the scenario is particularly inventive.) Need to pee but there's no bathroom. Flying. Teeth keep falling out. Dad's hitting me again.

...Ari stops at that one. Yep, that's a little boy - littler than he is - getting the living hell beat out of him by a big scary mass of shadows who can be assumed to be his father. With a thought, the membrane of the dream opens up and he steps through. (He wasn't able to do this before, in Thedas. He doesn't think much of it. Dreams are dreams.) He banishes the shadows and heals the boy with another thought. The boy cautiously opens his eyes.

"Who... who are you?" he asks.

"Ari. Does your dad really hit you like that?"

He flinches. "N-no."

Ari looks at him, peers into his soul, and he knows he's lying. "Is he trying to make you stronger?"

The boy looks perplexed. "I... no. Just when I do something wrong, he-"

Ari leaves that dream, finds another near it with the same taste. Fucking that hot chick from work. He slips inside, and with a thought, the lady disappears. The man - big, but not as big as he was in the boy's dream - looks around, confused. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Do you have a son?" Ari asks.

"What? Yeah, I guess - why're you-"

Ari looks at him, and smiles. Not a nice smile.

He leaves the dream covered in rapidly dissipating blood, feeling like a real superhero. Then he makes his way back to his body. Are the others asleep, too?

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Yes, as it turns out.

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He peeks into their dreams.

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Maurice is hunting swimmers through a sea of paint.

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Fun! What about Zeke?

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Rockstardom in front of crowds of gingerbread men!

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That’s great. Ari pops in to sing a duet with him.

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Zeke does not question this. Hair metal!

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Ari grows a pair of horns and starts absolutely shredding on a lute. It seems situationally appropriate.

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Zeke is head banging.

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Ari follows suit immediately. Zeke is his native guide, here. He will nod as vigorously as he must.

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Literal guitar shredding!

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When the guitar disintegrates completely (it takes a while, dream physics being what they are), Ari tosses his lute into the crowd, dips Zeke low, and kisses him. 

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Oh swoon.

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Ari leaves him with that, slipping out of the dream and returning to the wider Fade.

He swims through paint with Maurice for a while, but he's not that into it. What's Tabby dreaming about?

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Battle! Endless battle!

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Oh hell yes.

Ari is content to slaughter their endless foes until it's time to wake up, as marked by "when one of the others starts waking up". He wants to get back to the physical world, but not until everybody's had a chance to sleep. But as soon as one of the others stirs, he pops back into his body and squirms over to them and whispers "Good morning!"

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Tabby stretches. "Morning."

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"I think I liked your dream the best! It's hard to say between you and Zeke, Zeke's was fun too, but killing things is more fun than singing, I think."

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"Oh. That was really you?"

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"Yeah! I waved a couple of times but I guess a dreamthing might've done that too."

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Maurice opens his eyes. "Morning!"

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"Morning! How come you like paint so much?"

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"...It's paint. It makes things colourful!"

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"Why do you like butts so much?" Zeke jeers cheerfully as he sits up.

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"They're objectively great, Zeke, don't be ridiculous. Paint is, like, fun for what it is, but I didn't know you could dream about it. I'd definitely dream about butts if I had my own dreams, though."

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"Also, you can splash paint."

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"Splashing paint is pretty fun, it's true."

Ari stretches. "What's the plan for today? Just doing whatever seems fun some more?"

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"Wait, you don't have dreams?"

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"I'm a mage. The Fade doesn't react to me the same way. I could make a dream to have, but it'd be complicated and kind of boring. It's more fun to just play around with other people's. Like yours! I'd never have thought of singing in front of cookie people, but it was really cool."

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"It was, wasn't it?"

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Tabby is weighing a couple of the powder packets in her hands. "Huh, I think this is that cocaine stuff."

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"What's cocaine? -oh, probably a drug, these were drug dealers. Huh. What should we do with it?"

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She rips one open, grabbing a handful of coke. "Snow fight!"

She hurls it in Maurice and Ari's general direction.

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"Ack!"

Ari leaps back, then dashes forward to grab a packet of "snow" and toss its contents at Tabby. (He makes sure to select one not soaked in blood, because that seems like it might promote clumping.)

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It smacks into her... and her mouth.

Her pupils dilate.

"HEEEEEY!"

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...oh dear.

"Zeke, what does cocaine do?"

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"It makes humans all jittery and fast and--"

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"Shit."

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It's like a hummingbird in flight. On coke. "HERE'S TABBY!"

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...what the hell.

Ari rips open a bag and tosses it in the air, inhaling deeply and feeling the drug enter his system. Then he tosses some at Zeke.

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Zeke does the same, tossing it on to Maurice!

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The world is a place of absolute stillness, their air a liquid thinner than ink, and they could race the light.

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They do that for a while!

Fortunately, cocaine doesn't last very long in a vampire's system. When it's burned out, they're only about as hyperactive as they always are. Which is pretty damn hyperactive. Also they're covered in cocaine.

"That was so much fun," Ari giggles. "I see why humans do this stuff now."

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"Yeah," agrees Maurice, "shame it can make em all sick and dead."

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“Yeah, but like, what doesn’t,” Ari shrugs. “Might as well have some fun in the time they’ve got.”

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"Yeah, but then why do they stick their kids in school?"

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“What’s a school?”

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"Place they lock up human kids during the day and try teaching them."

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"Oh. Teaching's important."

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"Okay, so you wanna sit at a desk all day in a stuff old uniform?"

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"What does any of that have to do with teaching? I just mean it's good to learn things from people that know them. Like Dad teaching me magic. Not like I'd have worked it out on my own, right?"

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"Whatever. Should we head back to the nest?"

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"Yeah!"

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The children slip out of the warehouses, flitting over rooftops and the cover of Maurice's illusions. Soon enough, they're walking through forest--the womb in which vampire-kind knew its infancy. They're made for it.

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Follow follow. Ari quietly notes the differences between Earth's and Thedas' forests.

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Eventually, they come to a large, dilapidated house. A pale face peers out from a second floor window. 

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A couple seconds later another little vampire is standing before the four. As white and bare as the others, he smells even more like the twins than Maurice.

"Who's this?" he asks a little testily. He sniffs Ari warily.

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"Hi! I'm Arilal. The twins turned me."

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The boy puts his hands on his hips. An odd gesture without pants. "You didn't ask the mummies first!"

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Absently he adds, "Hi Maurice."

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"Hey."

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"Lighten up Danny!" insists Tabby. "He's an awesome witch boy."

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"I am! Those are both things I am."

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Zeke decides to make introductions. "Ari, this is Danny, he's our cousin-brother."

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"Hi Danny! What's a cousin-brother?"

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"Our mummies are twins, and they both mated with the some guy!"

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"Oh! Fun."

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And then two women walk out of the house, nude and white as Greek statutory, tall and powerful looking. One's face is set into a stern, contemplative shape.

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The other looks much more cheerful. "Hello, children," she calls. "I see you made a friend."

The wordplay is far too obvious.

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Ari bows politely. "Hello."

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The friendly looking woman gently pushes Ari upright. "Oh, don't be silly."

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Ari shrugs. "S'how Dad told me to greet grown-ups I don't know. I'm Ari."

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She plucks the boy up, hugging him. "I'm Winona. The twins are mine," she gestures at her own twin. "This is Agatha, my sister."

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"Hello."

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Ari wriggles when hugged, but doesn't attempt escape.

"Hello miss Agatha."

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" 'Agatha' is fine."

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"They didn't get permission!" Danny protests.

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"We're aware, Daniel."

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"Are we in trouble?"

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Winona strokes his hair. "Don't worry about it." She sets him on his feet. "Tabby said you were a witch?"

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"Mage, actually. I can control the primal elements, put curses on people, or turn into animals - mostly just a wolf puppy right now, but I'll keep learning new forms. Plus I can go into people's dreams. I think that part got easier when I became a vampire, I didn't used to be able to do much except watch but now I can go in and out easy as dreaming."

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"That sounds... enriching."

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"I'm sure he'll be very popular with the girls."

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"I don't think I'll need that to be popular with the girls," Ari says with a grin. "But it doesn't hurt!"

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"Well, if you had to turn without permission, you seemed to pick a good boy."

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"I aim to please."

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"So you're not going to take his head?"

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"Afraid not."

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"...Kay."

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"Best you don't, yeah. If you killed me, Dad would get really mad, and then you'd all probably die, and that'd be unpleasant all 'round."

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"Our coven is your coven."

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"Yay!"

Ari does a little dance.

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"Shall we show you around?"

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"Sure!" As usual, Ari will follow where he is led.

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The nest is a large, rambling old wreck, a few bedrooms with mattresses strewn on the floor, old books and toys Tabby and Zeke have pilfered, a chicken coop that apparently also plays home to human stock on occasion.

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Kind of cool, kind of just depressing. Ari has a feeling he knows why the twins don't spend as much time here.

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The twins seem to think it's kind of rad honestly.

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Well that's him told.

"What else is there to do around here?"

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"Ever play soccer?"

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"Nope!"

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Tabby explains. "We just play it with these big metal anchor things."

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"Cool!"

Ari's pretty good at soccer, for somebody who's never played it before. He kind of sucks at playing goalie, but he's got good offense.

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Besides, what really matters is how many trees you topple with stray kicks.

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Ari can get behind those rules!

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The rest of the daylight hours are basically a blur of games and Ari being fussed over. Then, in the middle of the night:

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"My mummy says I should be nice to you."

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"She's probably right. It'd be weird if I was part of your cousin-siblings' coven and we hated each other, right?"

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"Yeah... it'll be my coven too you know."

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"Course it will. You were here first."

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"Mummy also said we should go out and do something? Alone?"

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"Sounds like fun! What do you wanna do?"

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"You know what video games are? You don't know a lot of things."

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"I don't! They sound like, and tell me if I'm off base here, some kind of game?"

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"Yeah, they're like part movie."

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"Ooh. Where do you play them?"

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"Depends. Some games you get in human houses, some in these special places called arcades."

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"So should we break into a human house or an arcade? Hmm... A house would be better during the day, when the people are more likely to be out, so arcade I guess?"

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"...I know one with laser tag, too."

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"I don't know what that is either but if you say it's fun it probably is!"

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Danny proceeds to jump out the window.

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Ari proceeds to follow!

Along the way he wonders what laser tag is. He's familiar with tag, but lasers are an unknown confounding factor. Some kind of animal? It sounds like a kind of reptile, maybe, or an amphibian. Something that slithers.

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Danny tries to make conversation. "So, you like being a vampire?"

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“Yeah! It’s way better than being Vashoth. I can run faster, fight harder... it’s like everything cool about me just got cooler. It’s kind of weird not caring about random people as much, now that I’ve noticed that, but it’s not like they ever did anything for me, right?”

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"Well yeah. Can't even imagine being all human."

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"Yeah, humans suck. Although apparently they invented video games, so they've got that going for them."

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"That's the rub. Humans are useless, but because they're useless they invent all the neat stuff."

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"Well, elves invent some things. But elves are mostly useless too. And Qunari invent things, but they're assholes. Your logic checks out."

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"And humans invent crap things too."

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"Like religion and slavery! -actually I think the elves and Qunari independently invented religion and slavery too, never mind. Vampires probably didn't, though."

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"Also pants and something called Facebook."

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"Pants are terrible. What's the Facebook?"

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Danny giggles. "Magic book of lies humans try to trick each other with."

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"That sounds great! I love magic, lying and trickery!"

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"Less fun than it sounds. Did you know they invented swimming clothes?"

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"What the fuck."

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"I know, right?"

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Ari shakes his head. “Humans.”

Do they seem to be approaching their destination?

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The long grass they’re walking through does seem to be giving way to shitty rural town. Danny’s making a beeline for a building called “Sherman’s Arcade.”

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Follow follow follow. Ari's excited!

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Danny slips in through a fire escape with a broken lock. The inside of the arcade is filled with slumbering video-game machines, along with a claw machine and an air-hockey table.

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"Cool."

Ari marvels at the occasional unlit neon tubing. It's so brightly colored! He kind of wants to eat it! He doesn't, though, because he's marginally more responsible than that.

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"Just a sec, I'll go flip the breakers."

He blurs off. A second later, everything springs to light and life.

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It's even brighter now!

Ari's transfixed by a fighting game that launched into a play demo. "That's so stupid," he breathes at a particularly elaborate finishing move. "I love it."

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"I tried that in real life once. The spine kept breaking, though."

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"Well, that's not as fun as getting it right, but it's still pretty fun."

And now he's thinking about Danny covered in blood and making that frustrated face while he stands over a body with its broken spine in his hand, and oops, that's a mildly awkward boner. Not that he actually cares.

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Danny notices. “Thinking about someone?”

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"Thinking about you killing somebody, yeah. You're pretty, and killing people is hot."

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Danny giggles. “I am not pretty! Maybe for humans I guess...”

Blushing is quite obvious for vampires.

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“Yeah you are! You’re smart and pretty and you make this face when you’re frustrated where your face gets all scrunched up and it makes me want to kiss you! You’re great.”

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"Flatterer."

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"Well, yeah. Let's do laser tag, I wanna know what a laser is."

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"Sure!"

Dani proceeds to explain the basic mechanics of the game, sets them up with some kits, and runs into the darkened "arena"

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The harness is slightly itchy against Ari's bare chest, but it's kinda fun. He's somewhat disappointed by the premise: guns without bullets? Why would you take out the fun part? But Danny likes it, and he doesn't want to be a pill. He clambers up one of the obstacles, lies flat on his stomach on top of it, and casts around for his target.

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Who's cunning crawling along the ceiling, and gets off a shot.

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"Dammit!"

Ari drops to the floor and scurries under an overhang, lurking in a shadowed corner while he waits for his vest to stop flashing. He holds his gun close, in case Danny decides to press his luck.

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"I am the darkness!"

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Ari throws his voice to make it sound like he's leaving his hidey-hole. (Ventriloquism is a job skill for a Witch of the Wilds.) "Screw your darkness, we're playing laser tag!"

Then he sneaks out the other side and shins up onto the top of the structure, scanning the ceiling for Danny.

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He doesn't seem aware of him.

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So Ari shoots him.

"Vengeance!" he crows.

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"I will unman you, new boy!"

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"What is it with you people trying to rip my dick off? I need that! Not at the moment, but I have plans!"

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"Wait, Tabby got you already?"

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"She was goading me and I was like 'if you want to fight we can just fight' and we fought and she emasculated me and I went into a blood rage and tried to crush her to death."

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"Fighting girls sucks sometimes."

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"Is that just what girls are like? I never really met one before."

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"Eh, lotta girls I've met are less... Tabby than Tabby. We just have more bits to grab onto in a fight."

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"Oh. Yeah."

Ari's gun is by his side; he seems more or less to have forgotten the game.

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Which Danny takes immediate advantage of with a few well aimed shots.

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Ari laughs. "Bastard!"

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He pokes his tongue out at Ari. "Vampires don't get married so nhyaa!"

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"That's just pedantic. -anyway, that was fun! What should we play next?"

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"I did stuff to some of the arcade cabinets so they go really fast!"

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"Ooh!"

They play video games for a while. Ari has a surprising amount of luck button-mashing on that fighting game, but still loses. He doesn't seem to mind very much. 

"D'you want to make out?" he asks after a few losses.

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He shrugs. "Maybe later."

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Ari tries a few more games. He's helped by speed and intelligence, but hindered by his lack of gamer instincts.

He flops onto the ground. "I'm not very good at this," he complains.

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“You’re doing better than a lot of us. Seriously, like, Maurice had never even a video game when I first showed him. And he isn’t even from another planet or whatever.”

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“I guess so. I think I’d rather do something real, you know?”

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“Reality is overrated.”

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"I dunno. I like dreams, and they're not real... maybe I'm just spoiled for choice."

He hops to his feet and tries another machine. This one, a top-down shooter, holds his attention a little better.

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Danny sneaks up and pecks him off the neck.

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Eee! Ari proceeds to completely ignore the video game in favor of turning around and kissing Danny on the nose.

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"Interesting choice."

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"Did you have a better idea? I'm open to suggestions."

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"I have lips you know."

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"So you do!"

Ari proceeds to kiss them. They're good lips!

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"You're weird into kissing for a kid, you know?"

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"It's fun! I don't know if it's a Vashoth thing or if I'm just a weird kid, but it just... feels better than other things I could be doing. It's like murder."

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"I think Tabby's going to drag you into a corner in like, ten years."

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"I should certainly hope so."

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"You're lucky. No non-cousin-sisters in my coven..."

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"That's a bit sad. Maybe we can find you a girl and turn her! Then we'd have more genetic diversity, and Tabby'd have someone to be a girl with. If that's something she's missing, I don't really know how girls work."

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"...That's an idea."

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"I have those sometimes! Want me to look through some dreams and see if I can find any interesting girls?"

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"Sure."

 

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"...Nah, I bet the mummies wouldn't mind. They didn't mind you, and girls are important."

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Ari nods. "We can ask first if you want to be super sure. We're gonna have to go back to the house anyway probably, I'd rather not sleep in the arcade."

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"...Hmm. Let's not. Don't want to spoil the surprise."

(And it's harder to say no when she's right there...)

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"Sure. Should we even go back to the house then, or just sleep in the woods?"

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"I say the woods. Maybe Lilith will smile on us."

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So Ari leaves the arcade, runs into the woods, and curls up under a bush. He's blessed with the ability to fall asleep quickly, and he does.

This town's dreams are mostly as dull as the town itself. Even the children don't seem to be flying through the stars or turning into giant bugs or exploring the ocean; this one's mining cubes of some kind, this one is taking a spelling test in just her underwear, this one-

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-is dancing ballet and playing a violin. Her shoes aren't proper ballet shoes, though, they're sharpened to a wicked point at the tip. And the bow to her violin is a butcher's knife, though it doesn't change the beautiful music she's playing. And she's not dancing on a stage, or in a studio; she's leaping and twirling atop an endless sea of blood and flame.

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Whoa.

That's cool.

"Hey!" he calls as he floats above the licking flames. "Who are you?"

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She pauses in midair, looks him up and down.

"Shouldn't you be telling me that?" she asks archly. "It's my dream."

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"Guess so," he admits. "I'm Arilal."

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"Zanna," she says with a bow. She flourishes the knife as she does so. "Why're you naked? I'd better not be going through puberty early."

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"You're probably not. I just don't like clothes, is all. Aren't you hot in that dress? I don't know if you've noticed, but everything's on fire."

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She shakes her head. "It's a dream, dummy. It doesn't have to make sense."

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"How come you know it's a dream, anyway? You a mage?"

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"No, I just have lucid dreams. I taught myself how when I was six. What's a mage?"

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"What's it sound like?"

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"Someone who can do magic. Like going into somebody else's dreams... Is this really happening? I didn't just dream you up?"

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"Real as anything. I'm looking for somebody interesting to join my vampire coven. You seem like the most interesting person in town, at least, but I dunno if that's good enough."

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She stares at him, eyes burning with long-suppressed frustration. "I'd do anything to get out of here. Do you want me to kill somebody? I will. Torture an animal? I'll do it. Burn my house down, shave my head, call you Dark Master? Anything."

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"Uh, don't torture any animals or burn your house down. Or shave your head, you've got nice hair. I think I'm just gonna watch you from the shadows for a day or so and see if you're actually cool or if you just have awesome dreams."

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"Alright," she says, back to agreeable. "Just don't take too long to decide. I'll remember this conversation, and if you back out I might burn the house down anyway."

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"Noted."

He withdraws from the dream and wakes back up. "Found somebody. She's kind of, uh, intense? But I think she's vampire material for sure."

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"Neat! Know where she lives?"

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He does some mental math. "Yyyyyyyeah, half a mile east of here."

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"Race ya!"

Danny takes off.

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Ari races him! And loses, because he just woke up and Danny got a head start.

As the sun comes up, Ari recognizes the house he saw (the broad strokes of) in the Fade last night. "There it is," he says, pointing.

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It's a charming little house, painted red with white detailing. There's lots of bushes to hide in, perennials with plenty of concealment interspersed with early-budding forsythia that'll probably be blooming riotously yellow in a couple of weeks. There's a picture window into the kitchen. The refrigerator has a framed picture on it of a scowling little blonde girl in a red dress. She'd be quite pretty, if not for the murder in her eyes. Or perhaps she's quite pretty anyway. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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“Her eyes are...vampy.”

Danny suddenly understands  why Ari is so... him. Visibly so.

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"I thought so! She was dreaming about doing ballet and playing the violin while being on fire in an ocean of blood, which also seemed pretty vampy."

Ari notices Danny's visible understanding and grins. He did good!

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“Someone’s got good taste. So, we tail her?”

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"Yeah, that's the plan. Making sure she's the real deal."

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The boys wait for signs of movement.

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Zanna strolls into the kitchen a little less than an hour later, pours herself a bowl of cereal without milk and starts eating.

"You're in a good mood," says her mother, who has been in the kitchen for some time without noticing the boys hiding in her bushes. "Usually I have to drag you out of bed kicking and screaming."

"Had a nice dream."

"Oh, what was it about?" asks her mother.

"I was a ballerina," Zanna says evasively.

"So you like the dance classes? I'm so glad."

Zanna rolls her eyes. "It was just a dream, don't read into it."

"Now that's my daughter," her father says jovially. "I was worried somebody's replaced you and I'd never get my grumpy little girl back."

"Oh, hush," her mother says fondly.

Zanna rolls her eyes again and turns to the project of eating her cereal.

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"She see you in her dream?" Danny asks Ari.

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"Yeah. Said she'd remember, but I thought she might have been bluffing. I guess she wasn't."

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Zanna finishes her cereal in record time, slings her backpack over her shoulder, and heads out the door.

Once she's on the porch, she looks around. Her eyes light on the bush the boys are hiding in, and she raises her eyebrows. "You're not gonna be able to observe me very well if that's your hiding spot," she comments, hunkering down.

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Danny blushes and waves. "Ah, hi!"

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"Hi," she says. "I'm Zanna, what's your name?"

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"Danny. I'm a vampire, but you probably knew that."

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"Yeah, I figured. Do you want to come to school with me? I can probably pass you off as my cousins visiting from another town, if you wear clothes. And then you can observe me in my natural habitat."

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"Sure."

Danny spots a couple of appropriately sized children across the street. A quick burst of vampiric speed, and they're both dazed and naked in a bush.

Danny throws a pair of trousers and a t-shirt at Ari.

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"...I was gonna get you some of mine, but your way definitely seems like more fun."

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Ari vests himself appropriately.

"These are itchy," he whines.

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"Don't be a baby," Zanna advises.

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"It's just for..." Danny looks at Zanna. "How long is school?"

A small voice says, About six hours.

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"Shit, I thought you guys did it for like, an hour max. Being human suuucks."

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"It does," she says. "But we don't have to go for the whole time if you decide to turn me into a vampire sooner than that. We can just vanish in the middle of the school day! They'd probably call the cops! It'd be hilarious."

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“We’ll see how you shape up!”

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She curtseys mid-stride. "I'll try not to disappoint."

They approach the school. As they do, a girl Zanna's age catches up to them and says breathlessly, "Zanna! Did you hear- who are you?" she asks the boys.

"Danny and Ari," Zanna says authoritatively. "They're my cousins from- California. What haven't I heard, Harper?"

"Logan and Aiden got caught streaking! They said their clothes just disappeared, but that's stupid, clothes don't just disappear, that's the kind of thing you say when you're too embarrassed to say the actual reason you did something. Anyway, Mom grounded the heck out of them."

Zanna breaks out laughing. "Oh no!"

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"Can't blame them," says Danny. "It's a nice day."

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Harper laughs. "I guess so! Anyway, I'm gonna tell Emma - bye Zanna bye Danny bye Ari-" She runs off.

"Bye Harper," Zanna calls after her. "That's Harper; we're not actually friends, if you were worried. She just tells everybody everything."

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"Useful!" 

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"Yeah, she can be handy if you want a rumor spread, but she'll tell everybody who told it to her, too, so you've gotta be careful."

There's an adult approaching them. "Zanna, who are these boys?" she asks.

"They're my cousins visiting from California," Zanna says smoothly. "Aunt Flora wanted them to come to school with me so they wouldn't be alone in the house during the day."

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Ari bows. That seems safe.

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"Uh, hi."

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"Hello," the teacher says distractedly to the boys, then turns back to Zanna. "Your parents really should have called us about this, Suzanna."

"They must have forgotten," Zanna says.

"It's just that if we don't know who's going to be on school grounds, it reduces security, and..."

Zanna gives the teacher a dubious look. "They're eight years old. They're supposed to be in school anyway."

The teacher sighs. "I guess you're right. I'll just mark them down in the guestbook. What are their names?"

"Danny and Ari."

"And their last names?"

Zanna freezes. "Um... they're my second cousins, so I don't actually know?" She turns to Danny. "What is your last name?"

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“Lennox?”

The question mark seeps in.

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"Danny and Ari Lennox. Alright, I'll sign you both in. Suzanna, tell your parents to call ahead next time, okay?"

"Yes ma'am," Zanna says.

The teacher heads back into the school. Zanna exhales. "Probably should've gotten your full names earlier. At least Mrs. O'Neil bought the second cousins bit."

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"Yeah, I don't really have one of those."

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"Well, you came up with one in the pinch, and that's what matters. Where'd you get Lennox from if it's not your last name?"

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"Ma says it's a good idea to have one if the humans ask."

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"And she was right!"

They enter the building and head to Zanna's classroom. It's decorated with a variety of elementary-school projects, most prominently a flock of shoddily-colored-in paper cutouts of butterflies, scrawled with crude cursive. "Welcome to Hell," Zanna says cheerily.

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Danny tilts his hand. "I don't know, the butterflies are kinda nice."

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"Our most recent 'art' project. We shaded them in colored pencil, then chose four adjectives to write on the wings. Because we were learning what adjectives were."

Zanna points to her own butterfly, which is patterned in swirls of red and black and festooned with gel-pen-pink cursive reading pointless, stultifying, tedious and facile.

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Danny whistles, a little impressed. "Those are pretty big words for a human girl your level of bigness."

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"I used a thesaurus," Zanna admits. "Honestly I put in a lot more effort than the assignment warranted, but it got on my nerves."

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"Think of it as vampire auditons."

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"I will."

Mrs. O'Neil enters the classroom. "Alright, class, we have some visitors today! Danny and Ari Lennox, Suzanna's cousins, are visiting from California, so be sure to be on your best behavior to give them a good impression of our school."

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Ari waves. "Hi!"

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"We like your butterflies!"

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"Aw, thank you!" says Mrs. O'Neil. "Everybody worked very hard on them. Especially Suzanna!"

Zanna glares. "It was a protest piece."

The teacher laughs.

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So does Danny.

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Class commences.

As promised, it's pretty stultifying. They read a chapter of an insipid book about animals having a party, practice their multiplication tables, spell a few words. The teacher doesn't really expect them to participate, being outsiders to the class, but they are supposed to sit still and not talk unless called on. Zanna does participate, and acquits herself much better than the average student; she clearly already knows most if not all of what's being taught, and only really raises her hand out of frustration with her classmates. Mrs. O'Neil tries not to call on her too often, winking at her and shaking her head when she raises her hand too quickly.

After entirely too long, it's time for recess. The kids form into a line, with a boy named Aaron at the front and Zanna and her "cousins" at the rear. Then they file out onto the blacktop.

"So, what do you think?" Zanna asks.

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"...How have you all not killed the teacher?"

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"It's a daily struggle. She protects herself by only giving us safety scissors."

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“Is this a weird strategy to get us to turn you sooner? You didn’t pay her to be boring?”

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"When would she have done that? We've been watching her since she woke up."

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"Yeah, she's always like that. School is always like that, she's not even the worst teacher I've had. It's a nightmare. And it's the kind where nobody else even seems to realize anything is wrong."

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“Dodged a species bullet there. Do we get to play outside now?”

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"Yep," she says. "Everybody else plays foursquare and stuff. I usually stay near the fence and, um. Pretend to be a witch."

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“Maybe if we turn you you’ll be a witch.”