Track 5: Love song for a Vampire
Re-checked the article for the damned fifth time, then clipped it onto the slate of moonstone and blue obsidian. It flickered, then the entire bit of paper disappeared.
I waited a little in the rented room of the inn, sitting on the floor. Not that there aren't chairs, but I think sitting on the floor is conducive to thinking. Never had to think so much each day for centuries.
Glanced at my watch, one of those devices that have finally surfaced in this world. Took its time, too =96 had to make a lot of hints to a young engineer or something-like the last time I was in one of the human cities. With my help it refined remarkably quickly, hence the smart, black-leather strap, silver-rimmed timepiece. Baldur's Gate time, for convenience =96 since I don't need sleep I just use it to time when I have to hand up my articles.
Article hasn't come back yet. Wonder what's wrong at the other end.
I reached over and put the slate on the bed, then wandered over to the window. Looked out over the first mostly human Underdark city, in all its dirty, busy splendor. Phase doesn't have a base here yet, but I suppose it's only a matter of time. This city is close enough to the surface, and it suits me =96 no sunlight.
Stinks, even from up here, of sewage, unwashed bodies and faintly of the livestock part of the city. A nose which is several times as sensitive as 'normal' gets on my nerves frequently. I mean, fine, in a lonely place it is a good thing to use to find enemies, but if you're like me and you like being in civilization, then if you absently find yourself paying attention to it you tend to get headaches. Don't know how dogs get along, really, but the best dog I'd seen was as stupid as the worst cat, so I suppose they won't have the imagination to get headaches.
Several thousand creatures breathing and living in the smoky atmosphere. It is not a good idea to use fuel-lights in an enclosed area, really. Stupid, all of them.
Speaking of stupid, I felt hungry, and cursed the thirst. Learnt to control it, of course..but sometimes it is like a raging river, barely about to burst the banks and the dam, lapping over the edges, roaring in my ears. At times like that...but creatures have a tendency not to like my kind, and even with my strengths I cannot take on a large number of opponents.
I sat down on the bed and glanced hopefully at the slate. Still innocently blank, no rematerialized paper. Bad, very bad. Either there was a problem in the Mains that was big enough to tear Creed from his desk, or he was re-editing it. Which meant that I would have to write it again if it reappeared.
I don't take criticism very well. I'm the sort of person who would rather believe that no one understands me, than to believe that I'm wrong, and admit it. So why did I take this job?
I ask myself that question pretty often. Like now, when I'm in a city of a few thousand souls in which blood flows like some sort of walking meal on legs, and I can't take a bite without chancing a crucifixion and a burning on a stake. Or when one of those pesky L'Ryan females show up with stakes, crossbows, holy water and that Look in their eyes. If you ask me, all of them should be put in institutions for the violently insane.
Am I feeling sorry for myself?
Do I regret being what I am?
No. Was born what I was, and I can't change that, even if I wanted to. I like being young forever, being stronger, faster, keener, and being able to appreciate the hunt. It was more fun before the Dale Reckoning, when people lived in scattered groups and we hunted in packs, my kind, and all places were alike to us.
Now there are a lot more people than then, and when they start throwing up stuff like those crazed L'Ryans, well, life gets a lot more interesting.
So, what am I doing here?
And why am I asking myself questions? The thirst must be affecting me. I'm not the sort of person who likes talking to himself. Bored, seriously, gravely, severely bored.
I glanced at the slate again, and felt annoyed that paper had reappeared in it and I hadn't noticed at all. Words were written on it in Creed's precise handwriting:
Johan, your work accepted. As you are one of our Underdark correspondents I suggest you get a feature on the Ilythiiri. Since you are the Shapechanger that should not be a problem. At least a two-page spread. Peacock's doing the duergar already. Stop procrastinating.
The dark elves! Oh, why me.
So what if I was the Shapechanger...
Changing gives me a headache. You have to have an exact image of what you want to be, or there would be embarrassing complications. It's best suited for someone with a photographic memory, not someone like me who loses his wallet, keys, shoes, shirts and so on with embarrassing frequency.
Once you've Changed, there's a problem too. I mean, the first other shape I took was an eagle's. Jumped out of a sixth-story window in a tower. Talk about stupid. Just because one's Changed doesn't mean you automatically know exactly how to do what the shape does. Lucky that Bishop East was standing in the garden, or I'd have broken most of my bones.
And even if I did Change, dark elves are not the most welcoming of races. Riddle you with crossbow bolts than talk to you. And to get an accurate scoop on the current affairs in a city would need more resources than I currently had. And was it really sensational? A certain House kills a certain House. That's really all there is. Fine, there's intrigue and all that, but really, what sort of people like to read those things?
Besides, I was onto something here. The Governor of this sorry place was announcing a change of status for the ministers, and I'd need to be here to get the story on it, won't I?
I was procrastinating.
Damn that human, he knew me too well.
The paper blurred into an empty, torn envelope. Written on the back, also in Creed's handwriting:
Get on with it.
Fine, fine. I unclipped the envelope, then wrote below the words:
Wish there was some way to do this without actually going to those cities...we have no resources there, no way of knowing what is happening.
I clipped it back on the slate, and it vanished. Clever, these devices =96 Creed's making, of course. Sort of like a telegraph, even if this world hasn't invented telegraphs yet.
Another bit of paper appeared, a grocery bill.
Try Destiny of the Endless. You have the coach.
That's something I hated about Creed. Always so terse and cryptic. So I wrote beneath it, feeling like some bloody idiot in a classroom passing notes to and fro beneath the teacher's nose.
Who? What Endless? And this better not be off Toril. I get coach-sick on a long journey.
I am not pathetic, okay?
I moved the clip, which would initiate the transfer. The paper disappeared.
After a moment, another note on the back of an envelope:
Go to the library in your city and look for the reference. Or personally visit the Ilythiiri. Your choice. And hurry up. I'm running out of paper.
I sighed. Yes, there was a public library here. But the first time I visited it I kept having the nagging feeling that I should be biting the pretty librarian.
So I tucked the clipboard under my arm and headed out of the room, pulling on my trenchcoat. Black leather, of course =96 love black leather. Paused outside the stable area. Should I use the coach?
Too cumbersome in the traffic now, I determined, so I hurried down the streets, trying not to stare at people's necks. Got lost in a remarkably short time, in a quieter bit of the city. Perfect place to get mugged.
A bit more wandering, and as no familiar landmarks came to view I began to seriously consider Changing, even if it would be annoying to have to struggle out of my clothing. Besides, I did not see any clean bit of ground here to put the clothes.
Amusement finally came in the form of a mugger, a well-built human, who leaped out of one of the doors of one of the ramshackle houses lining the streets, yelled something, then charged. I avoided him easily, grabbed his cudgel, and snapped it.
That put us on the same plane of understanding more quickly than words would. I dropped the fallen pieces of wood gingerly and fastidiously seized the cleaner parts of his shirt, and slammed him hard against the wall several times for good measure.
No one about. Hell, I'd chance it.
I felt my canines lengthening, pressing against my lip, that ticklish feeling as my eyes changed their color and other, the not-unpleasant tensing in every nerve and muscle. Outwardly I wouldn't look too different, but I would be faster and stronger now. It's what the Bishop West used to call 'Vampire mode'.
I'd had centuries of practice, enough to hit the main artery on a first bite. The man tried to jerk away or scream for help, but I'd clamped one hand over his mouth and another on his arm, pressing him against the wall. In my 'normal' mode I was already stronger than he was. In this mode, he had no chance at all.
Blood tasted different in this mode. In the other, it's sharp and metallic, not exactly what I call delicious. Terrible, in fact. The first prank Castle East played on me was to give me a cup of it while I was in the other mode. I was younger then, and more stupid...that is, less knowledgeable =96 drained it in a gulp, then was coughing and choking like a chain smoker on his last legs.
Now it seemed like the sweetest ambrosia in the world, like drinking a rainbow, such a texture and a tangy explosion, and as I sucked I couldn't seem to get enough of it. I could feel new strength surging through my veins, colors became sharper, and I was filled with a general sense of well being.
Hey, who needs drugs.
When I'd finished =96 quite a workmanlike job, I'd say, not a single bloodstain on me =96 I began to curse the action. Corpses are so much more difficult to dispose of in a city. People are more missed.
I'd 'lived' for a long time, and you don't do that without learning some tricks. A little phrase unpronounceable with a human voice box, a wave of the hand, and the corpse caught fire, burning with a dull tangerine flame which had no smoke, but which quickly consumed and reduced the corpse to black ash. No smell, either.
I'd also 'lived' long enough not to need blood any longer, actually. It's just a craving now that can be suppressed. Young vampires, say until their thousandth year of life, need blood because there're things in blood =96 some other worlds call it plasma =96 which a vampire body doesn't learn to produce until quite late. By that time we're usually addicts to the liquid already, however. The need's psychological.
Vampire bodies are obviously different than humanoid ones. We don't need all that bother of digestive tracts and the sort. Our bodies are made to be able to withstand all the exertions of what is essentially a vampire =96 speed and strength and Changing. Most of us can only take two forms =96 a large wolf and 'human'. I'm called the Shapechanger because I can take any form, for an odd reason.
Not that I like to. The only forms I can accurately take on a moment's notice is well, a wolf and human. The rest get chancy if I have a short time limit.
So what's in a vampire? Well, we have our own equivalent of blood. Vampire blood's sort of silvery, which is why when we're in vampire mode our eyes are that color, and so are our nails, and our skin seems paler. 'Human' form is well, we just counterfeit the colors. We're the same inside. It's a preferred form because it's the closest to vampire form, and it's like a universal passport to anywhere, having a 'normal' and 'common' shape.
Used to be when I wore the vampire form every moment of my life, hunting with the pack. Loved the heightened sensations, the deeper instincts. I miss it, too, but taking a vampire form now is asking for trouble. Easily tracked, for one =96 the L'Ryan females have developed some sort of Finder. A true vampire form apparently gives out signals, which would be received by the Finder if one stayed too long in it. Then the next thing you know =96 crossbow through the heart, off with one's head, then ash.
Wood in the heart kills a vampire. Somehow we're allergic to that sort of exposure =96 not that if I were to hammer a stake into a human's heart he won't die, of course =96 but it's something like what would happen if I were to feed someone alpha-radiation contaminated food. Our reaction is turning into an instant ash pile. Irreversible reaction. We don't know why it happens. It just does.
Cutting off the head works too, of course. Works with everything, come to think of it. Just that a vampire without a brain connected to the body also turns into ash. Hit us anywhere else, even with wooden stakes, and we heal fast. Break our legs and the bones knit back in an hour or so, faster if there's blood to drink. Cut off our arms and give us a few months =96 they grow back. Like crabs, in a way. Need a few spells, though.
Changed back to human, rubbing down the goosepimples (always happens), then started walking again.
Ah, now I'm at the library. Final checks for bloodstains, then walked into the cheery-looking, spacious building. Who was the architect who designed this again? Ah yes, Msanyr. Elven designs are very tasteful.
Just the right amount of ambience to get one to stay here the whole day reading. Nice and quiet. Talking's not allowed except to the librarian and at the Discussion rooms on the third floor. Lovely place.
The librarian at the wood counter looked up and smiled as I sauntered in. All the floors are carpeted, so I always felt a bit guilty about walking all over it with dirty boots. Bookshelves in neat rows, made of glass and metal instead of the normal wood, books all numbered, in sections, and in alphabetical order. This place was someone's love.
She wasn't the only librarian, of course =96 just the one I particularly noticed. Delicate face and a sensitive chin, willowy build, full lips and blue eyes, hair many colors of yellow, slender neck. Okay, time to veer away from that topic.
"Hello Mr. Knight," she said in that velvety, feminine voice of hers, "Are you here for a book?"
Not particularly bright. I like those sort. Of course I'm here for a book, this is a library...
"You remembered my name!" I endeavored to smile charmingly. "Smart girl like you...you waste your talents working here, love."
She blushed a light rose, fingering her dress in delightful agitation. "Oh no, I love this place."
There you go.
Well, I had a schedule to catch, damn Creed, so I can't take the time to play. Pity, she was of age to be turned, and I wouldn't mind a companion. Anyway, she'd surely be missed, unlike that ruffian in the street.
Leaned slightly on the counter. "I'm looking for a book," I said, "And I was wondering if you could be as gracious as to help me?"
Blushed again. Don't think she's used to compliments. Or she's the shy type. Or just trying to pick me up. I'm just trying not to think of the fact that blushing is due to extra blood to the cheeks.
"Of course, Mr. Knight," she said a little breathlessly. "What book is it? And the author?" Creatures of the shape we wear usually feel attracted to vampires. We always take a handsome shape unless there's a reason not to. Something about that the Bishop West called self-imagery gives a sort of default look to a shape we take when we don't specify it. And it's not only the looks, it's some sort of allure that's part of being a vampire.
I'd always thought it was something natural. I mean, it'd make prey willing to come to us. So why not?
I realized my mind was wandering again, so I made up for it with another smile. "Sorry, love. No author, just any book on 'The Endless', or 'Destiny'. It's a bit vague, but..."
"Supernatural?" she asked.
"Maybe religious as well. But they're the same thing, most of the time." I mused.
She walked with a quick, naturally graceful step. Out of the counter, then towards the shelves. Very pretty girl. Wonder if...
She read the signs under her breath. "Politics, maps...literature...ah, here we are." She ducked in, so I followed. Narrow space between bookshelves =96 could nearly feel the blood heat from her. Bad, very bad. As she tiptoed to read the book spines her blouse strained against her.
Jerked my eyes away to the words in front of me. Why Religion? (Eller Backwell). Pantheons and their relation to the alignment of the stars (Wilver Badre)...
Sometimes I wonder. Humans do the strangest things to occupy their already very short lives.
A movement next to me, and I realized the girl was trying to reach one of the books on the topmost shelves. "This one?" I asked, pointing.
"It seems to be a match," she said, "Not tall enough to reach it."
"I am," I took it down. A little dusty. Title of Seven Realms of the Endless. Initials of author, N and G, no name. Not very odd I suppose.
I turned to the first page, and read through the foreword, then closed the book. Yes, this should be it. Something's going straightforward for once.
"Would that be of help, Mr. Knight?" Ah, forgot who was standing next to me. Her very expression was that of utter earnestness.
Beamed at her. "You're a treasure, miss...?"
"Nellie Carter. Please do call me Nellie," she said, a little nervously. Probably wondering if she was being too forward.
"A most charming name," I said gallantly, "Then you can hardly call me Mr. Knight, can you? I am Johan to friends, and I'd be most honored to call a pretty girl like you one."
Blushed a bit harder now. I'd better get out of here.
"I loved your article on the elections," she said, trying to cover up her discomfiture.
"Glad to hear of it," I like flattery. "My editor thought it was a little flippant."
"Oh no," Nellie said quickly, "I thought it was very well written."
"Thanks," I said, taking her hand with the milky, fair skin of someone who'd hardly ever seen sunlight, and kissed the back of it, an old fashioned gesture. One of the better human gestures, I'd say. Shaking hands always seemed to me like some sort of strength contest.
Needless to say her cheeks pinked. She looked slightly disappointed as I thanked her again then took my leave to go sit somewhere a distance away from the counter, but in plain sight. Keeping her interest. Could see her watching while she catalogued books and did whatever a librarian does.
However, I had to read the book, and eventually managed to stop thinking of girls, blood and skin.
Finished all the sections on the one known as Destiny in two hours or so. Very interesting. And I think I know how to get there now. Made a few notes in the notebook I keep in a pocket, then got up and went to the counter.
She attempted to look as though she hadn't been staring at me for the past two hours, and smiled hesitantly.
I put the book on the counter. "Thank you so very much for your help, Nellie. I'm afraid that I'm the sort who can't remember simple things like where the book came from, so..."
"I can put it back for you," Nellie said helpfully. "Do you want something else, Mr...er, Johan?" Ah, she likes being on a first name basis.
"No, that's fine," I smiled at her. Kissed her hand again, lingering on it. She's got a nice scent, none of that overpowering artificial thing called...ah yes, perfume which tends to give me sinus trouble.
Left before I decided to give in to the inner voice which told me to leap over the counter, curl a hand around that neck and...
Work is good.
Work is good.
Had to repeat that silently to myself until I got back to the inn. Paid the innkeeper a bit more to hold the room for me. I am comfortably off =96 investments tend to accumulate if you live long enough. This job's a hobby. Hell, I'm not even paid for this...just something to occupy my time. Or that's what I tell myself when the job gets inconvenient, like now.
Put my stuff in a bag, slung it over my shoulder, and nearly overbalanced into the wall. Got upright and went to the stable area, found my carriage =96 designed like a hansom, with a few changes. I like those. Not to mention they take skill to drive, so it's a bit of a challenge. Dumped the bag on the driver's perch, then went back to the stables.
Ia and Io whickered from their stalls, two immortal horses, one of the only ones which could run on the Conformity Thoroughfare. They've got Shire stock somewhere in them =96 those feathery hairs that cover the big hooves. Black horses without a single white hair on them, very pretty, rather stupid, and very faithful.
I opened the stall doors, and the stablehand's eyes widened when he saw them trot after me like two oversized dogs.
A true hansom has only one horse actually, but as mentioned before, I changed this one a little. It's black, of course. Safest that way, and black's a vampire color. I harnessed both horses easily to the carriage, patted them, fended off their attempt to eat my trenchcoat, then climbed up to the driver's perch. Put on the hat there, wide brimmed.
Cracked the whip, and guided them out into the street. Some people stared =96 two handsome horses attached to a cab? In a city, I put a set of arms on both carriage doors if I don't want to be flagged down, and they were on now =96 my own arms, a black horse's head, bared teeth, facing the east, on a field of dark crimson. The unrolled scroll usually with a motto on it, blank under the horse head. That's my motto, actually. Adaptation.
Set of arms on a hansom =96 an eccentric noble. And get out of the way.
Drove them to another quiet-looking street, pulled the hat over my face so as to avoid possible recognition, then whistled a precise melody. Horses began to blur at the edges like a smudged painting as they started the transition to the Conformity Thoroughfare. Prickling sensation as the blurring spread over to the carriage, then we're on the Thoroughfare.
Today it's not raining, thank gods, just what passes as sunlight in the Place Between Worlds. On a thin, cobblestoned path that just incidentally is about six inches thick, and hanging out over a great height. Above and below, more paths crisscrossing each other, spiraling up, plunging down. If you know how to navigate this place, you can go anywhere in any world.
Centuries using this place with Ia and Io, and I still can't do that, not very well at least. I have to use the fixed portals.
There were other carriages in this place, and pedestrians as well. Just not very often do our paths cross. There's no time here, so I stopped my watch and listened to the reassuring rhythm of hooves on the path. No noise here either, it's like a vacuum. Could hear footsteps, oh, a few hundred feet down, though. Some pedestrians. Not of interest to me.
Now, if the book had been right, then I'd have to go up here and onto the metal path. Pulled on the reins, and the horses obligingly pulled the hansom up. They don't need whips, actually. Just for appearances. Technically they don't need the reins either, but it's easier than giving directions by talking and talking.
I began to sing as I drove, to fill up the empty lack of sound.
"Black horses, two, with bell'd reins a-jingling,
Black coach, sable hue, wheels a-rattling,
Black driver, vampire, pointed fangs a-gleaming,
Black whip, stinging, o'er the horses a-cracking."
No more bells on the reins, of course. Without the rest of the Court here, they just called attention that I may not have been able to ward off by myself.
Knight West, better known now as Peacock, had made up the song when the pack had rode together in this carriage, and when I'd never noticed the lack of sound here. Eerie tune, but a little catchy. Rather popular in certain cities now, and they never even knew the origin of it. One human even asked me if I'd based my carriage on the song.
"Maids'd turn their pretty heads =96 when the vampire coach comes a-passing,
Boys'd turn their handsome heads =96 when the vampire coach comes a-running,
Watch and fear the vampire pack, that laughs and sings inside,
Watch and revere the vampire Court, that howls and roars inside."
Halcyon days indeed. I turned the hansom down another path. The paths are just right for the coach =96 they change their width to suit the traveler.
"Run away, mortals all, when we come a-hunting,
Hide away, creatures all, when we come a-killing,
For Sunrise's a fair time away from now, when the moon's a-smiling,
For the vampire pack's a-hunting,
And we'd find and kill you all."
Continued singing, missing the time when after that phrase we'd all turn our faces to the Lady Moon and howl like a pack of wolves. Onto another path, no portal yet. Just hoping I wouldn't get irreparably lost. Wandering here forever and ever would be severely annoying.
"Vampire eyes, to seek you, our food,
Vampire nose, to smell your hot blood,
Vampire ears, to hear your screams,
Vampire fangs, to end your dreams."
I remembered Knight West trying to think of a rhyme for 'screams', and the Court trying to be helpful. Beams? Seams? Teams? And I chuckled sadly, for times past.
"This isn't a song to warn you,
This isn't a song to scare you,
This is a song for us, to sing 'till we tire,
For this is a song, a love song, a love song for a Vampire."
I suppose at this point Knight West got tired, because the lyrics became less and less...clear. Peacock kept trying to tell us that well, since we love who we are and all the bits in the song that described us, why not call it a love song?
I remember laughing at her. Knocked me off the coach, she did. Knight West always had a powerful right hook.
"Run away, mortals all, when we come a-hunting,
Hide away, creatures all, when we come a-killing,
For Sunrise's a fair time away from now, when the moon's a-smiling,
For the vampire pack's a-hunting,
And we'd find and kill you all."
Aha, the portal. A portal, on a platform adjoining the main path. Weird runes on it...with carvings. Man with a book chained to him. Yes, that's it.
Turned the hansom onto the platform, then into the portal, which lengthened and widened to fit us. The prickling, blurring sensation again, and I'm in a huge garden, can't see the ends, which stretched out in every direction, appearing to meet the horizon. The garden looked like what was fashionable in Baldur's Gate now =96 half-overgrown splendor, with fountain wreathed with roses here that still worked, crystal-clear water spurting out of a fish's mouth, to a metal bench covered in autumn-painted leaves.
The scent of flowers and crushed grass, and some sort of light which obviously wasn't sunlight, or I'd be a bonfire. Don't really understand why vampires are allergic to sunlight. Now, Destiny should be around here somewhere...
Restarted my watch, to be in time to hand up the article, since time passes here. It has to. This is possibly where it started.
Drove in circles for a while =96 a lot of weird sculptures in this place, some of which I don't even know if they are sculptures...
Thirsty again, and Ia and Io were pulling at the reins hopefully, wanting to stop and graze.
Fine. I tugged and the reins. "Whoa!" Relieved, they stopped, and waited with impatiently pawing hooves until I got them out of their traces, then they lowered their heads to the grass.
"Don't take too long," I patted Ia, then decided to walk around, the slate and a pen under my arm. I should be able to find my way back here, or if not, I can always whistle the horses over.
Fascinating place, Destiny's gardens. Seemed to have some sort of perpetual mist, insubstantial, not clinging at all, that gave the place a sort of ethereal look. Wandered a bit more, whistling the tune of Knight West's song to myself.
And then I saw him, standing next to another slightly overgrown fountain, this time of a creature that I didn't recognize.
He looked like a human monk, dressed in gray monk robes, heavily hooded. Thin white hands, long-fingered, held up a heavy-looking book, chained to a wrist. His finger traced out words as they supposedly appeared on his book.
He glanced up as I approached, and his face was an old one, and his eyes were the milky white of a blind man. This didn't seem to be impeding his sight, or whatever was the equivalent.
"Greetings, Knight East," he said in a grave, solemn voice that sounded like the type you find in a grave, solemn church sermon. Been to one or two before =96 it amused the Emperor to do so.
"Name's Johan Knight now," I said, and stood at his arm, and looked at his book:
"Name's Johan Knight now," the Knight East said.
But the words looked irregular, like what you get when you put several tracing papers of words on top of each other. I frowned.
"The Book reads that I should allow you to try and decipher the words," Destiny said, and he sounded a little puzzled. "It is a beginning."
"Of what?" I asked immediately. Uncapped my pen and poised it over the paper.
"An end." Destiny was playing cryptic. I looked at the book again.
"Are all which is happening now being written in your book?" I asked.
Destiny inclined his head. "Yes."
Right. I can do this. I need better eyes if I can read tracing paper put on top of each other, though...
"'Scuse me," I muttered, and concentrated. It's slightly harder to turn back to 'vampire mode' now when there's no promise of blood, but I did it, and looked at the book again.
The next thing I was aware of, I was sitting on the edge of the fountain, my head in my hands, and having a major migraine.
"You do not try to read all at once," Destiny said, though there was nothing gentle about his voice, "You concentrate on reading one. You are immortal and a vampire, that has saved you. A mortal would have died if he had managed to read what happened in a certain instant in all the worlds."
"That's a comfort," I croaked, still feeling very, very dizzy. "Mind if I throw up somewhere?"
Destiny didn't even smile. "If you will. But in the fountain."
Nearly fell in myself. But in the instant the vomit touched the water, it dissolved. Water left. Wow. I washed my face in the water before thinking.
Didn't dissolve. Okay.
Got to my feet without collapsing, and closed my eyes, breathing evenly until the black spots disappeared, then staggered back to Destiny. This time, I concentrated on the first page.
The words appeared clearly, even if I had the nagging feeling that I had to refocus my eyes.
So. Now, the layer under that:
Creed sat down in his chair, and said, "What the hell is Johan doing now?"
Very helpful. Maybe the book was showing up the layers that were related to me, instead of making me sift through everything.
Finally found the layers of the drow cities, and I began to write down points.
It must have taken hours, but I finally got down basically what was happening in the major drow cities, wrote the article, and sent it in a second before the deadline.
Destiny looked mildly curious as I wrote and sent. Finally he said, "You are a 'journalist'?"
"Just coined the name in this backward world," I nodded. "Underdark correspondent, Johan Knight." I tipped the hat in his direction in a mock salute.
"And people buy your...newspapers to find out about current affairs?"
"That's the idea," I said, "Phase is the pioneer newspaper, though of course we have competition now. Seemed like a fun thing to do...Peacock and I were in hiding, and were bored. Then one day we saw this man wandering around saying that he wished he had a way to make people aware about important events, and Peacock happened to say, 'Why not start a newspaper?' I think you know this already."
I grinned, then waited for Creed's comments to reappear on the slate. "Nevermind. I'd tell you again. So this man Creed began to ask what a newspaper was, and by the time we'd finished, he'd somehow managed to get us to agree to become journalists. He's very persuasive. Said that it'd be something 'fun' for us to do with the rest of our 'lives'. Peacock was the one who was enthusiastic about it. Dragged me along. Frankly, I was just happy waiting for that world to come up with cigarettes."
"It worked out. We have a lot of employees now. Mages to do the duplicating spell until Peacock and I remember how to make a printing press, more journalists, artists to do the portraits until, again, Peacock and I remember how to make cameras, and it's running well from then on. And the Underdark was a good place to hide from the Vampire Hunter." Damned L'Ryan females.
"A Vampire Hunter," Destiny said, and traced out another word on his book. "There are currently fifty-three who call themselves by that title altogether in all the worlds."
"Well...nice to know," I said doubtfully. "Lots of Vampire Courts as well, I'd think?"
"Everything goes in circles," I shrugged, and glanced at the slate. Ah, the reply's back:
I knew you could read his book. We will do this for fortnight. Focus on a few different cities each day.
I showed the slate to Destiny, who looked, but otherwise did not react. "Be with you for a while, then."
He turned back to his book. Not one for conversation, then.
As I gathered material on my first city, Abaethaggar, I talked. I like to speak to people. "So you were the first?"
"Of all things," Destiny said soberly, "I traced the first word in the book."
"Then?" I asked.
"When life came into being, so did my sister Death," Destiny shifted the weight of the book on his arms. "The others followed, with the last, Delight. Who is now Delirium."
"Do you know why?" I asked curiously.
"Yes." But he would say no more, so I just concentrated on Abaethaggar and being sarcastic. Creed's complained about my caustic writing, but it's apparently popular in the masses, so he can't make me change it.
I stayed in the garden for a long time, until I lost count of the days. Ia and Io were very happy where I'd left them, though they'd occasionally come and attempt to eat Destiny's robes. Told them to guard the coach, though. The thing has sentimental value, if nothing else.
I'd gotten to Sshanntynlan, stood up for a moment to stretch my legs, when I was rudely disturbed by a crossbow bolt whizzing past my ear. Reacted immediately =96 ran for cover. Destiny did not look the least perturbed =96 continued to read his bloody book as if I wasn't being killed in front of him.
Peeked out from behind my tree and nearly got a thrown stake between the eyes. Managed to catch it, though. Stake, crossbow bolts, and muttered cursing in a female voice =96 the Vampire Hunter. Damn.
She had a friend with her. Male. Outnumbered. Even if I were against her one on one, I'd consider myself outnumbered...
Should I change and fly?
An image of myself nose-diving into a tree sprang to mind. Only thing that may accomplish is if the Vampire Hunter managed to die laughing.
Struggled out of my trenchcoat and shirt, then changed. That weird sensation of muscle stretching and tightening and melting, then I'm lower down on the ground, and my eyesight is worse but the nose's stronger. Picked up the slate in my teeth, took a deep breath, then tried to make a break for it.
I'd spent too long in 'vampire mode'. They'd managed to track me down...
With the speed of a wolf and a vampire combined, they'd never catch me in a flat-out race.
They didn't need to. There was a retort of air expanding, as if of something being ejected at a high speed from something, then with a hissing of rope on grass and fur, a big, weighted net fell on me.
The first instinct of a trapped animal is to panic. This will, however, from experience, entangle me further. From the sound of approaching footsteps, the Hunter and her friend were too close for me to Change over to human, lift the net, Change back to wolf...
Fog couldn't hold a slate, but...
I just need to survive.
This was the worst change. You feel as though you're being pulled apart, yet there's no pain. Always makes me throw up after it.
Takes the longest time, too. I was only three-quarters intangible when they showed up.
The Vampire Hunter raised her large scimitar. "Change back from fog, or I'd cut off what's left of your head."
When faced with that sort of threat...so I did, but back to a vampire. Unfortunately, one not wearing clothes. However...
"Right, I'd stake you now," she said serenely.
I thought fast. Unfortunately, the first thing that came to mind...was blurted out. "Let me finish my article first, okay?"
"Article?" Stake didn't waver.
Pushed out the slate. Her friend...dark elf...picked it up, and looked at it. Dark elf, scimitars. Violet eyes. Drizzt Do'Urden.
I tried to lift up the side of the net, but her boot came down on my hand. Hard. Swearing and nursing my stinging fingers, I wondered what to do next.
Drizzt finally looked back at me, also untroubled by the fact that I wasn't wearing anything. It's hard to faze an adult elf. "Why are you writing so much about a drow city?"
"Because I have to do an article on it. I work for the Phase." I said. My mouth tends to babble when my brain is trying to think of a way out.
"You do?" the Hunter blinked.
"Name of Johan Knight," I said, and peered when Drizzt began to chuckle. The Hunter kicked him in the shins, though it didn't get him to stop. Pretty redhead girl, actually. Just incidentally very murderous.
"If you kill him now you'd lose your favorite writer," Drizzt said, then began to laugh again. "Mielikki, what a coincidence. We were just..."
"Drizzt, I swear I'm going to strangle you later," the Hunter sighed, then poked me with the tip of the scimitar. "You're really Johan Knight?"
"Yes. Why the hell should I lie about that?" Favorite writer...maybe I'd have a chance after all.
The Hunter bit her lip. "Damn. And you're a vampire."
"I haven't bitten anyone for days," I said innocently.
"Not long enough," she snapped. "Your Queen caused my mother's death, Knight East."
"And you've caused her death, and the Bishops', and the Castles'. All of them my friends, my family, for centuries," I replied, also with some heat. "I bloody well think I have a right to a blood feud too! You don't hear me going around living only for vengeance, and trying to kill every member of your family, do you? Learn to move on. Or is that too hard to understand?"
Her eyes blazed at me, but Drizzt put a hand on her shoulder. "He is right. Revenge is empty."
She turned on him. "How can you say..." then she sighed. "Well, yes you can. But he's a vampire. Even if I had no feud with him I'm still oblighed to stake him."
"He is technically doing a good deed," Drizzt said mildly, "Providing information for the public."
"Huh. You're prejudiced because you like his articles."
"Well, you do too." Drizzt said blandly.
She looked daggers at him, then sulked for a moment. "Is the Knight West doing this too?"
"Her name's Peacock Knight now," I replied.
"Should have guessed." The Hunter sighed deeply. "Anyway, I liked reading...your Underdark segment. Oh, what the hell. Drizzt, go get his clothes, will you? Thanks, love." She turned back to me. "What can you do to make me feel better about this?"
"Well," I changed back to my human face. "I could give the two of you an interview..."
Later watched them leave, murmuring to themselves. Weight off my back, and a surprise article for Creed. Drizzt and the Vampire Hunter together? A scoop for sure...maybe he'd even give me some time back to that human city to check out the librarian. Right now, just damned relieved that I'm not a pile of dust.
Destiny hadn't changed his position. He turned a page in his book. Although he's supposed to walk through the gardens until the multiverse ends, I doubt that he really needs to. Standing in one spot seems to suit him for the moment. I began to read over his shoulder again.
A major overthrow in Sshamath. Headline's just coming to me now.
Somewhere away from here, I hear Io whickering to Ia. I can smell flowers, and even the wind, in this form, and nearly taste the light. I feel...free, that no one's trying to cut off my head and stake me in the back...
Gods, I love this job.
"Journalist vampire," Zaknafein repeated.
"Well, yes," the author grinned.
"And how did that come about? Have you been eating too much sugar again?"
"Be nice," the author chided him. "Well, actually because since I'm secretary for the school newsletter..."
"And what does the story have to do with a love song?" Zaknafein asked critically.
"Um." The author tried to think of a reasonable answer. "Er."
Zaknafein rolled his eyes. "I would think you just used that title because it was the only one with the word 'Vampire' in it."
"Did not!" the author said indignantly, "I wanted to...yes, that's it. I wanted to show that love doesn't always refer to strong affection for someone else."
"Story seemed rather pointless to me," Zaknafein sniffed. "No plot. No resolution. No..."
"You're being negative," the author said primly, "Sure this story has a point. And a plot. And I did resolve it. It's not my fault if you're too dense to see it."
The side of Zaknafein's mouth quirked, a disbelieving expression. Supreme sarcasm. The author glared.
"Would you rather I told you it was a marvelous, meaningful story that literature students many years later would study for their exams?" Zaknafein said dryly.
The author thought a bit. "Yes."
Zaknafein blinked. "You are not supposed to say that. You are supposed to..."
"Hey, I'm being honest with you. So there," the author stuck out her tongue.
Zaknafein sighed. "Very childish."
"Yeah, so?" she turned back to the computer.
He picked up a small white booklet on the computer table and flipped through it. "Do you not have a chemistry exam tomorrow?"
She looked at him, then snatched the booklet. "Hey! Um. Shut up."
"Why not go and study?" Zaknafein said with deceptive pleasantry, "Instead of..." he waved vaguely at the screen.
"I'm taking a break." The author said.
"I thought the idea of taking a break is after you work," Zaknafein said mildly. "Not before you work."
She glared at him. "Yeah. Okay. Whatever. Now, ask questions about the story."
"Just trying to help," Zaknafein said innocently, "Now. You have so far, fascinations with love, Bregan D'aerthe, werewolves, and now vampires?"
"Too much Buffy," the author commented, then brightened. "I wonder if I can do a Spike-Dark elf crossover? I mean, Spike is so cool...although now that they put a chip in his neck he can't kill anyone..."
Zaknafein listened to this with a great show of patience. Finally he said, "You have been taking sugar, have you not?"
The author ground to a stop and peered at him. "Me? No. Not sugar. Um."
Zaknafein reached forward and unearthed a box of Oreos.
"Hey!" She snatched it from him.
"How rude," Zaknafein said lightly.
"Shut up, you," the author put it out of reach. "That's not sugar."
"If you like."
"It's not! And you can stop looking like that."
The elf began to answer, then there was a hammering on the door.
"What?" the author turned her chair around, nearly managing to roll over Zaknafein's foot.
Her brother's voice came from behind it, "Look! My toes are laughing!"
Zaknafein shook his head sadly. "Then again, you may have inherited some sort of disease of the mind. It is evident in your brother."
"Go away!" the author yelled at her brother. Predictably, he did not, but when she ignored him he finally did.
"My brother is a basketcase," she said resolutely, "I assure you I am not."
"A bucket, then?"
"Eh?" the author blinked at him.
"Bucketcase." Zaknafein was all of innocent.
"Why you...nevermind," she muttered. "Elves..."
"Very well," Zaknafein decided to take pity on her. "What is the next story?"
"Delirium," the author said, "I'm becoming a little attached to the Winter-Jarlaxle reality, so it may or may not be on that. Won't have one of them as the main character, though. Overused already. Still thinking about the Despair story."
"If this keeps up you will run out of ideas for new stories," Zaknafein chuckled.
The author grinned. "So long as my brain is active and I read and see new things, I'd always have ideas."
"Your stories are beginning to be more of 'PG'," Zaknafein commented. "And I will not even remark on the 'active brain' part."
The author attempted and failed to look virtuous. "My writing is maturing. And I heard that, Zaknafein."
Zaknafein mouthed 'degenerating', then smiled inoffensively, or tried to, when the author glared at him.
"You smile like a shark, Zaknafein," the author said. "Go get your drink and stop badgering me." She knew that was exactly why he had been exasperating, but now she couldn't be bothered.
Zaknafein waved, saluted mockingly, then wandered off.
The author muttered about having to get help which was nice to her.