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Turning his back on the gate, Rayth walked with Oscar back into the heat of the after party. Having already fed, he was ready to get some sleep—vampires could get food comas too—but now that he didn’t have the excuse of introducing Lune to the circus, he would have to help tear down the yard like everybody else. It was probably going to take a while too. He’d been one of the first to snag a victim, so he would have to wait for the rest to finish feeding before they could even start taking everything apart.
The incense didn’t do anything to help his weariness either. After being exposed to it for as long as he had already, he was starting to find it harder to think straight. It wasn’t the best timing, since he still needed to tell Frieda that the new girl had escaped. He would have preferred to have that conversation with a clear head.
He yawned broadly and shook his head, trying to clear away the mental fog that was becoming more annoying with each passing minute. As soon as he was done talking to the ringmistress, he planned to go lay down someplace where the air wasn’t quite so thick with drugs. It was what he usually did in between feeding and packing up the circus equipment, since he wouldn’t be of any use to anyone when he couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing.
“You don’t seem as worried as I thought you’d be,” Oscar spoke up suddenly from his side. “Since you lost the girl Frieda wanted you to keep an eye on, I mean.”
Rayth glanced down at him, taking a moment to let his echoic memory recover what the brownie had just said to him before he replied, “I wasn’t going to force her to stay. This place is a land of nightmares to a human. She had every right to leave if she couldn’t handle it.”
His tongue felt thicker than usual. He didn’t like it.
“But you’re human too,” Oscar pointed out.
“Only half,” Rayth countered, flexing his fingers on his right hand to stay grounded. “It was easier for me to adapt because I already knew how to function around the supernatural, at least a little. And besides,” he frowned, watching a nearby succubus drain the essence from a man she had locked lips with. “It doesn’t make any sense for her to be here anyway. Frieda put this place together to protect us from hunters. Lune doesn’t have to worry about being hunted, because she’s… well… normal.” He furrowed his brows finding it harder to summon the words he wanted to use.
“I guess so,” Oscar shrugged. “But Frieda still told you to watch her, so she’s going to be upset, right?”
“Probably,” the half-vampire agreed. Spotting the ringmistress up ahead, he sighed, “Actually, I’ll find out now. See you later, Oscar.”
“Good luck, Fangs,” the brownie saluted him as if he was a soldier about to throw himself into enemy lines.
Parting ways with his friend, Rayth made his way over to Frieda, who had, of course, already spotted him approaching.
“Ah, Rayth,” she turned to him with a smile. Her smooth German voice tempted him to relax. “Is there something you need?”
“No,” he shook his head, the motion making his vision swim for a second. He could tell he needed to get off his feet before he started staggering. “Can we sit down though? Preferably away from the incense. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Of course,” the faerie said. Her smile seemed to waver ever so slightly, but it could have just been his imagination. She gestured for him to follow her. “Come. We can speak by the big top. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Hidden 1 yr ago 1 yr ago Post by Siaya Dragalorn
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A good distance down from the gate behind the afterparty, she paused. From where she stood, she made out the lines of another gate further from her desired tent than she’d like. She didn’t want to chance getting spotted by other workers not at the gathering before she wanted to be.
She doubled back, daring to take her hand off the train car and test herself with a slow jog. She still felt off-balance, but it was doable. She hoped that if she wound up needing to run for her life, she could manage it by then.
Back at where the wood turned into mesh fence, she removed her backpack and squeezed through a gap between the two types of fencing just large enough for her slender frame. Her pack caught, but she managed to squish its contents around enough for it to follow after her.
She shrugged it back on and trudged along the shadows of the farirground’s fence. A dirt road ran alongside her. A few sad, dim streetlamps created pathetic patches of light every few car-lengths opposite the fence. Every little noise drew her attention or startled her.
She ran through what little she knew about vampires, and how to defend herself from them. There were the classic measures, of course: holy water, stake through the heart, etc.
She stopped and glanced to the row of trees lurking behind the lamps. Mostly various types of palm, the sweet smells from a few flowering trees hung in the air. She scanned the ground for any decent-sized branches. Alas, from what she could see, only small twigs unhelpfully littered the sprouting weeds beneath.
She sighed. She didn’t have time to go hunting for a better weapon. She’d just have to make do. And keep an eye open for anything useful as she went.
Thankfully, she found a side gate closer to the main tent. Though she could mostly walk in a straight line now, she still didn’t quite trust herself to jump the fence again. Not on the first try, at least.
The lock for this gate rested on the outside. It lacked its padlock, likely stored in one of the pockets of a carnival worker.
She pushed it open just enough to peek inside. A smaller booth covered in a canvas tarp blocked her view of the fairgrounds. She could hear chatter and arguing as workers not at the afterparty started taking down the unneeded stands and equipment. She suspected they’d soon start dragging things out to the train.
She cringed as the hinges squealed as she opened the gate enough to enter. Hoping it would still be unlocked if she wound up needing a quick getaway, she closed it as quietly as she could behind her. Putting extra focus into each step, she crept to the edge of the booth blocking her view.
The large tent rose toward the sky just a short sprint away. She let out an irritated huff. So close, yet so far. Half crouching, she crept further out from the booth and turned her head toward the majority of the voices.
Though the harsh lights of the yard made her nearsighted, turning the forms of the workers into blurry shapes further away, she got the impression none of them looked her way. They hurried about between the different setups, a few coming down as Arla watched.
Keeping low, she hurried toward the last covered booth between her and the Big Top. With another glance in the general direction of the others to make sure she had’t been spotted yet, she slunk across the final stretch toward the tent flaps.
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Flopping down in a chair across from Frieda, Rayth leaned his head back and exhaled slowly. Now that they were on the edge of the back yard away from the bulk of the incense clouds, he could start to detox from the drugs. However, it was going to take some time for his wooziness to wear off. His head was still foggy as if one of the clouds had settled inside of it, and his limbs felt limp with exhaustion. At the moment, he wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and rest it off, but he couldn’t do that yet.
“So, what did you wish to speak to me about, Rayth?” Frieda asked, coaxing him to fight back against the chemicals and pay attention to the matter at hand. She had settled comfortably in the other cushioned chair with one fishnet covered leg crossed over the other. There was no hint of intoxication in her bright eyes, but he hadn’t expected to see any. She was a pureblooded faerie, and an ancient one at that. He didn’t think there was anyone in the circus who was older than her except, perhaps, for the oracles she kept around as a sort of advising board.
He’d heard a rumor from the other creatures that faeries grew more powerful as they aged, sort of like fine wine. If it was true, no amount of drugged incense would be enough to make her even a little tired.
“Rayth?” the ringmistress said his name again, and he blinked, realizing he’d lost his train of thought.
“Right, sorry,” he mumbled, wracking his brain to remember what they were supposed to be talking about. After a minute, it came back to him. “Remember when you told me to help Lune get settled in?”
“Yes,” her alert eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“Well, I was going to,” his head lolled to the side, so he lifted it again to meet her gaze. “But she ran.”
“She ran?” Frieda’s expression was unreadable, but there was an edge to her voice that made the vampire certain he’d messed up.
“Yeah,” he shrank down in his seat. “But it wasn’t my fault. She’s a human. I told her I’m not, and she got scared. I wasn’t going to chase her down… That’s not the kind of sanctuary this is. Right?”
Frieda pursed her lips, idly tapping her slender index finger against the armrest of her chair. It was clear that she was thinking deeply about something, but Rayth was too dazed to fathom what was going on inside her head.
After a long pause, she spoke again, but what she said came as a surprise. “Go lie down. We need all able hands ready to help with the tear down.
Rayth stared at her blankly, caught off guard by the sudden change in subject. “You’re not mad?” he asked and then immediately bit his tongue. Now wasn’t the time to poke the bear. If she was going to let him off, he shouldn’t have questioned it.
“I see no reason why I should be,” the faerie smiled at him, rising gracefully to her feet.
“But I just lost our newest member,” he tilted his head, baffled. Internally, he wished he could duct tape his mouth shut. The incense took away his filter, so he couldn’t stop himself from spilling the questions on his mind.
Frieda chuckled. “I don’t believe you did. Now, get some rest, Rayth. That’s an order.”
“Okay,” he mumbled, standing up more shakily. As he made his way over to the fence, he lingered on the ringmistress’s words. Why does she think I didn’t lose Lune? He thought with a confused look on his visage. I saw her run away. She’s gone.
Maybe the faerie had decided Lune wasn’t worth keeping around since she was a human. Maybe she had said he hadn’t lost their newest member because the girl wasn’t their newest member at all. Of course, that had to be it.
Satisfied with the explanation, he settled down in the grass, facing the fence, and propped his head up on his arm. He took a slow breath, enjoying the smell of clean air now that he was too low to inhale the smoke that hovered overhead. With nothing else to do, he could finally focus on clearing out the mental fog that plagued his thoughts.
He shifted on his side until he was comfortable and closed his eyes, taking advantage of the chance to rest before he would have to help the others clean up the yard.
Hidden 1 yr ago 1 yr ago Post by Siaya Dragalorn
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Arla slid to a halt at the second booth just long enough to check she had still gone unnoticed. A smug smile pulled at her lips. Though a small success compared to her overall mission, it gave her an extra boost of confidence.
Think ninja. With that, she hurried into the tent. She stumbled once, the motion around her making her head throb a bit harder, but righted herself with a couple quick steps.
She glanced around the now deserted arena. Everything still stood mostly as it had before. Only a few strands of lights had been unplugged, and now the music pulsed from outside the back of the tent rather than inside it. She could almost see the ghosts of the performers still in the ring.
Alas, even the bouncers had abandoned their posts. Which left no one for her to ask to find the ringmistress. But someone, she figured, would have to come out this way at some point. She stopped at the end of the folding bleacher. She shifted her weight. She hated the thought of having to wait, but her only other option was to return to the back yard herself and risk being spotted by the vampire.
With a heavy sigh, she went to the bleacher closest to the back exit. She scanned the area around her, looking for anything pointed and wooden as she went. She shrugged out of her backpack and knelt down beside the stands.
Constantly glancing to the back exit, she took her precious camera from around her neck and returned it to its padded bag. She’d rather it not end up a casualty of war. She frowned, inwardly scolding herself for not thinking to attempt getting a decent picture as proof.
The thought made her pause. She glanced to the back entrance again, then dug inside her backpack for the case with her smaller, point-and-shoot camera. Finding it, she pulled it out. She clipped it to her belt, then pulled the silvery camera from the case.
She stared at its black screen for a moment, then turned it on. She looked away as it started up before the screen automatically adjusted its brightness to her set preferences.
Her thumb hovered over the playback button. She glanced to the entrance to the afterparty again, but no one had yet to come out. She took a deep breath, then hit the button. The last photo she’d taken popped up on the screen.
The light of the flash glinted harshly off the dusty green scales of a lizard man, his body half outside the picture and tilted from the low, hasty camera angle. The picture froze the shock on his snarling, blood-stained maul from the sudden flash that had blinded him. Further behind the scaly creature, a bright smudge in the darkness caught the light. The lizard’s pale, spidery companion.
She draped her hand over her side, the shallow scrapes of a narrow miss hidden beneath her shirt. The picture wasn’t of a vampire, but if Frieda needed proof Arla wasn’t insane, that might work. Plus, the camera's flash had already helped her once. It wasn’t a stake, but maybe she could get lucky a second time. Desperate times and all that.
She tapped the shutter-release button to ready it to take pictures. The battery was nearly depleted, but she estimated it would last her for what she needed it to. She set it to not turn itself off after being idle, then slipped it into its pouch at her hip. She zipped it up only halfway, giving her quick access to it.
One minute. She’d wait one more minute for someone to come into the arena before hunting someone down herself.
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Throughout her conversation with Rayth, Frieda had been… confused, to say the least. Having found the girl she had been searching for, she had let her guard down. A careless mistake. The oracles might have told her that she would succeed in procuring the new member, but she should have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Lune’s eagerness to join the circus had proven too good to be true. All it had taken to send her running was the mention of one supernatural creature—one of her most docile pets at that. She would have to be more clever to convince her to stay.
Fortunately, she was blessed with a second chance. Just as she had been thinking about what to do with the news Rayth had given her, one of her faeries had gotten her attention with a frantic wave of his arms. Looking over the vampire’s shoulder, she had watched as the tiny scout gestured to the big top, an indicator that something of importance was inside.
A victorious smile had painted her lip. She had been certain she knew where Lune was hiding.
So, unwilling to let her prize slip through her fingers again, she had quickly dismissed Rayth with a command to get some rest and rose from her seat to handle the girl, herself. It was always so with the most important tasks. She could not trust anyone else to complete them to her standards.
Pushing aside the thick fabric flap that led into the abandoned ring, the faerie spotted Lune right away. The girl was alone, and she couldn’t help but wonder what she thought she was doing if she had been frightened by the vampire. Perhaps she had been waiting in ambush?
Whatever the case, the opportunity was perfect for the ringmistress. The fewer distractions around, the better. Her faerie magic was at its most potent when one was unable to tear his or her attention away from it, just like classic hypnotism.
Striding gracefully to Lune’s side, a concerned frown spread across her features. “My dear, what are you doing in here?” She asked gently, feigning bemusement.
Of course, she would not admit that she knew more than she let on. Knowledge was power, and she intended to keep it all to herself. It was what gave her the upper hand in any situation, and this was no exception. She also wished to hear the girl’s perspective from her own lips, curious to understand what had set her off so she might be able to correct it more easily.
“I thought you were getting settled in?” she went on, taking a seat by Lune’s side in a manner by which a mother might comfort her upset child. She remained close but did not touch the girl. “Is there something wrong?”
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Arla had scarcely counted to ten before her impatience got the best of her. With a huff, she zipped up her backpack. She straightened and reached for one of the straps to sling it over her shoulder.
Movement at the back entrance made her release it and crouch back down, ready to flee if Rayth was the one who came through. Her hand went again to her knife’s handle, ready to draw it.
The girl blinked in surprise as her gaze settled on the ringmistress. Arla was starting to get the feeling Lady Luck was drunk and couldn’t decide whether it was for or against her.
Leaving her pack at her feet, Arla straightened and released her knife.
“Frieda,” she called as the woman’s gaze found her. A mix of relief and anticipation quivered in her voice.
Arla cast a few wary glances to the back entrance as the woman strode to her. But something about the woman’s presence slowly quelled her paranoid alertness. Perhaps the mix of kindness and confidence the woman exuded, as if there was nothing in this world she couldn’t handle. No threat too great for her to overcome.
Despite everything, she felt her muscles relax a fraction as the woman stopped at her side. Alas, she tensed again as Frieda’s question reminded her of why she was crouching in the deserted tent rather than taking a well-needed shower.
Arla inhaled slowly as Frieda sat on the bench near her. The woman’s voice and expression were filled with more caring warmth than she’d ever gotten from even her own parents.
“You…” she began, hesitating as she shifted her weight uneasily. The aura about the woman mixing with her own sense of urgency melted the stiffness in her words. A resoluteness replaced what timidity had warbled in her voice. “You’re troop, you’re in danger.” She met Frieda’s gaze.
“Rayth—he isn’t what he seems. He’s a monster,” she admitted before she could think through her words. “And I mean that in the literal sense, like, straight out of a horror movie kind of monster. The fangs and people-eating kind.”
Realizing what she’d said—and that she’d raised her bent fingers in a clawed, fang-like shape as she spoke—she cringed. So much for trying to not sound certifiable.
She shook her head and looked to the ground. She’d already started digging her grave, so she may as well roll with it.
“I know how crazy this sounds, but I swear I didn’t just escape the funny farm. There are… things out there.” Her voice quivered slightly. She glanced over to the back entrance. “Things that shouldn’t exist outside of myth, but do.” She raised her head to meet Frieda's gaze for a second. “I know you don’t have any reason to believe me, but I can prove it.”
She looked to the half unzipped pouch at her belt as she removed the smaller camera from it.
“Not Rayth, but about monsters.” She switched the camera’s mode to display her desired photo. Not bothering to change the camera’s brightness settings this time, she held the view screen toward Frieda.
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An essential part of being a faerie was having a sensitivity to the emotions of others, and Frieda was nothing if not masterful at this art. She perceived the swirling confliction inside of Lune as if the words “urgent” and “afraid” were written plainly on her forehead. The delightful negativity tantalized her inner predator—fear was a veritable delicacy to her kind—but it was not the feeling she wanted to see in this girl. If she was on the border with her decision to join or flee from the circus, the ringmistress intended to do everything in her power to erase the fright from her conscience.
She was not surprised when Lune began to gush about her concerns regarding Rayth. The half vampire had already told her that he was the cause of her anxiety. However, she knitted her brows together in a contemplative expression anyway, as if she was hearing the runaway’s words for the first time and taking them to heart.
Ultimately, her goal was to become Lune’s confidant, to win her trust and persuade her to believe she was someone who could offer sound wisdom in confusing times. The best way to do that was to give credence to her worries without dismissing them as nonsense. Of course, it was nonsensical for her to be alarmed by Rayth among all her monsters, but she maintained complete control over her flawless features without giving away her true thoughts on the matter.
The faerie sat patiently while the girl defended her claims, even revealing a photo she had taken of two beasts she didn’t recognize. The latter was somewhat unexpected, but considering what the oracles had told her about Lune, she wasn’t completely astounded to find out that the runaway had been approached by other supernatural creatures before.
When she finished speaking, Frieda sat for a moment in silence, deciding the best way to tackle the barrier without scaring her off. The one thing she was certain about was that she needed to spread word to the rest of her troupe to keep their individual species a secret. After seeing how Lune had reacted to just one of her creatures, she believed it would be better for the girl to think the rest were a normal group of freak shows and oddities just like any other circus. At least initially. Once she was comfortable, the ringmistress could tell her the truth about the others.
“Darling, I already know what he is,” she confessed, looking away from the camera to meet Lune’s gaze with a cordial smile. “But you have nothing to be concerned about. Rayth may be a vampire, but he came here for the same reason you did: to find a safe place to call home. If he was dangerous, he would have been expelled long ago. Anyway, I can assure you that he has one of the sweetest dispositions of anyone I have ever met, and there’s no need for you to be afraid of him.
“Besides,” she leaned closer to the girl and lowered her voice as if sharing a secret. “He’s only a half vampire. One of his parents was human. Did he tell you that?”
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To the woman’s credit, she listened with surprising interest. Whether or not the hint of concern Arla thought she detected was for the girl’s sanity or the danger a vampire signified, she couldn’t say.
In the short silence that followed her word-spewing, she held her breath. Her gaze searched Frieda’s for any tell of her thoughts as the woman stared pensively at the photo. Arla braced herself for any number of disbelieving reactions. To be treated like a child with too much imagination. Even so, she squared her shoulders, trying to look as confident as she could.
But nothing could have prepared her for the ringmistress’ response.
“You… what?” She gawked at Frieda as the woman at last looked away from the camera.
For a second, she wondered if the ringmistress had decided the best course of action was to play along with the delusion, but she saw no misgiving in Frieda’s kind eyes. She was positive she meant it. Not only did the woman believe her, but she already knew. Which meant Arla wasn’t alone.
The girl eyed Frieda skeptically at her reassurances Rayth was harmless. She wanted to believe her, the calm composure in the woman’s accented voice slowly lulling her fear. She already doubted the woman would let anything into her circus she thought could be a danger.
Arla shifted her weight, fighting with herself over whether or not to accept the woman’s judgment. She glanced to her camera, inwardly shuddering at the thought of her last supernatural encounter.
When Frieda leaned forward, Arla couldn’t help but draw in close as well, unwilling to risk missing any part of whatever mystery the woman revealed.
Arla inhaled and shook her head, partially in answer to the question, and partially from her own surprised astonishment at the whole situation. “That’s… actually a thing?”
She shook her head again. More through habit than conscious thought, she turned the camera off and replaced it in its pouch.
She took a deep breath. “How can you be sure? That he’s not dangerous, I mean, not about his parents.”
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Frieda could tell that Lune was struggling to accept her claim that Rayth wasn’t as dangerous as she thought he was. Considering the fact that she seemed to be a stranger to the supernatural world and had been prematurely exposed to monsters that had wished to do her harm, the faerie couldn’t blame her for being cautious. Slow emersion would be best. In fact, it was a good thing the girl had encountered the vampire first among the creatures in the troupe, since as a halfling, he could serve as a bridge between the reality she knew and the reality that brought her fright. She just needed to coax her to warm up to him first.
“It is,” the ringmistress nodded in confirmation at Lune’s question. There were a multitude of complexities in their underground world, and a creature’s origin was no exception. She was sure that the girl sitting beside her had heard the myths and legends surrounding vampires as a species, but the information humans had on them was sorely lacking.
Under better circumstances, she might have bothered to fill the gaps in the runaway’s knowledge, but at the moment, her goal was to paint the picture that she was a relatable figure. Showing off her extensive knowledge of the supernatural right now was not the way to do that.
Instead, she explained her reasoning with a simple: “If it was not so, my dear Rayth would not exist.”
The faerie sat quietly as Lune replaced her camera in her bag, ever patient as she waited to find out if her efforts to calm the girl had been fruitful. To her pleasure, Lune’s voice wasn’t as urgent when she spoke again, though the words on her lips were still skeptical.
“He’s been part of this circus for a year,” Frieda’s smile was ever present, and a hint of fondness seeped into her blue-eyed gaze. The more affection she utilized when speaking about the vampire, the easier it would be for her nervous new member to trust that he was harmless. That was her hope, at least.
“In all the time he’s spent here, he has not hurt anyone else in the troupe,” she went on truthfully enough. Rayth hadn’t touched any of the other members. Like the rest of the monsters, his preying was restricted to the unfortunate humans they invited to their exclusive after party. “Since he’s gone this long without becoming a danger to anyone else, I have no reason to believe his habits will change. But don’t just take my word for it.” She rested a hand encouragingly on the girl’s shoulder. “I think it would do you good to talk to him directly. If you would like, I can fetch him to speak with you. He’s just outside the big top. I’ll even stay here during the conversation to make sure you are safe, if it would make you feel better.”
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Arla’s eyes narrowed in consideration at the ringmistress’ reassurance that Rayth had hurt no one. Which, she supposed, made sense; if he had, she doubted she’d be having this conversation with Frieda. But, then, wasn’t there a mind control thing lore said vampires could do?
She inhaled at Frieda's suggestion. Her hand twitched, as if ready to fall back to her hunting knife at the mere thought. But, Arla had to admit, the woman had a point. All the words in the world couldn’t stand up to experiencing something for yourself.
She took a deep breath, Frieda’s final offer making her proud side bristle. As kind as the offer was, she realized that, right now, she had to look like an untrusting, cowardly child.
She had to trust the ringmistress wouldn’t put her in harms way. Or at least give the impression she did. Besides, Frieda had done nothing so far to give her reason to do otherwise. A part of her wanted to trust her wholeheartedly. It nagged at her for doubting the woman in the first place. But experience still kept her on edge.
And, more pressing, Arla would not have the ringmistress—her boss now, for all intents and purposes—thinking she couldn’t handle problems on her own. That she needed someone to hold her hand while she faced her fears.
“No,” she answered firmly. “To the second bit, not to speaking with him,” she elaborated with a slight sideways nod. “You don’t need to stay. I can handle it. Besides, I’m sure you have more important things to do than babysit,” she offered a smile she hoped was more reassuring than it felt. But if he eats me or something, I’ll haunt you for the rest of eternity, she added silently.
Despite the joke, she shuddered inwardly at the prospect. She hated the idea of willingly presenting herself before a monster who could kill her before she could blink. If legend had gotten their enhanced speed right, anyway. But it was that and find the truth for herself, or figure out a Plan B.
“I’ll come with you so you don’t have to waste more time on the return trip.” She grabbed her backpack and shouldered it, hoping to demonstrate her willingness to overcome her own troubles.
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Frieda watched Lune with an unreadable expression as the girl declared that she would speak to Rayth by herself. While she was pleased that the girl was willing to overcome her fears for the sake of reconciliation, she disliked the thought of giving her another chance to change her mind and run again. There was no way to insist on accompanying her, though. Not without giving away her distrust. She would just have to have faith that the oracles’ prediction had been correct.
“Very well then,” she nodded approvingly, rising to her full height from the bleacher. “Come this way.”
Leading Lune back into the yard, the faerie strategically placed herself between the girl and the other members of the troupe. Most of her creatures had finished feeding already, but the ground was littered with the unconscious bodies of their victims. Given how the runaway had reacted to just one vampire, she wasn’t about to let her have a direct view of that horrific scene.
Instead, she directed her to the fence, where Rayth was still napping in the grass. The half-vampire hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but between his exhaustion from the long night and the effects of the incense in the air, he’d passed out almost as soon as his head had touched the ground. Now, he was laying sprawled out on his back with one knee up, leaning against the wooden barrier.
Though he was tired, all it took was one call of his name from Frieda to awaken him. He groaned and stretched languidly, groggy from the chemicals that still lingered in his brain, before he sat up to see why the ringmistress wanted him.
The start of a broad yawn escaped his lips but wasn’t completed as his gaze landed on Lune. His breath caught, and he snapped his mouth shut as if hiding his fangs could make her forget they were there. He hadn’t expected to see her again after she’d fled from him in terror.
Frieda noticed his bemused expression.
“Rayth, would you mind talking to my dear Lune for a minute?” the faerie simpered at him. “I think it would do you both good.”
“Sure,” he said slowly, still taking in the situation. Dozens of questions buzzed in his head. Where had Frieda found Lune? Why was she back now? What did she want him to talk to her about? Too discombobulated to get his thoughts in order, he didn’t ask any of them as he climbed to his feet.
“I’ll leave you both to it,” Frieda nodded. “If either of you need anything else, please come and find me.”
As the faerie walked away, Rayth turned toward Lune. He wasn’t sure how to approach her after she had run from him, and he didn’t know what the ringmistress wanted him to say to her either. However, the persisting silence was even more awkward, so he cleared his throat. “So… do you want to go inside?” he asked with a tilt of his head toward the big top. “It’s not as smoggy in there.”
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Arla watched the ringmistress stand. For a moment, she’d forgotten exactly how tall the woman was. She gave a nod of her own at Frieda’s light command and followed the woman. She kept her eyes on the ground ahead of her, trying to put her thoughts and worries in place.
Laughter, chatter, and music blended together in the night. It floated out from the awning covering the afterparty a few yards to their side. The scent of the incense filtered out beyond it, fighting against the night’s fresh air.
She took another breath, this one shorter and more careful just in case the wisps of smoke would be enough to reignite the worst of her reaction.
As they neared the back fence, Arla glanced up. A set of three chairs with mismatched cushions formed a tight triangle, but they were all empty. Her gaze fell instead to the ground where Rayth laid on his back in the grass against the fence, his eyes closed.
Arla took a deep breath, steeling herself as well as she could for her nearing encounter. An encounter with a vampire she’d willingly agreed to.
If it wouldn’t mark her a hypocrite, she’d call this whole thing crazy.
Trying to keep Frieda’s confidence in Rayth’s harmlessness at the front of her mind, she stopped with Frieda as the woman called the vampire’s name.
Arla's muscles tensed as his eyes snapped open, instinctively readying to fight or flee. She took another breath and curled her fingers into a fist to keep them from going for her hunting knife. Her brows raised slightly as Rayth groaned and stretched, a very human reaction to being disturbed during a nap.
He’s half human, she reminded herself. Curiosity sparked at the back of her mind, the concept of someone being only half supernatural a strange thought.
Arla held her breath as the boy stood. Though diluted with the smoke, she felt the fog from the incense slowly trying to creep back into dominance over her mind. She suppressed an irritated scowl. A clouded head was the last thing she needed right now.
She cast Frieda a quick, half-hearted smile in thanks at the woman’s final words, but instinct kept her from looking fully away from Rayth. Her heart quickened at being left alone, but she refused to let the fear of him own her.
She eyed him calculatingly for a long moment, mulling over what Frieda had said about him and what she’d seen of Rayth so far. She startled when he cleared his throat, making her realize she still hadn’t said anything.
She hesitated before answering. As reluctant as she was to be somewhere more isolated with him, it was better than staying out here, fighting an allergic reaction. Besides, as she'd told the ringmistress, she didn't need babysitting. And staying close to others was basically the same thing.
“Yeah, sure,” she said with a stiff nod.
She put her thumbs in her pockets, both keeping herself from going for her knife and keeping it close enough for a quick grab. If worse came to worse, it was at least something.
She moved so she stood between him and the partygoers, and strode back toward the Big Top. She kept a cautious distance between herself and Rayth, her eyes never straying from him. Her gaze flicked to each of his movements, watching him with the calculation of a rabbit eyeing a fox.
“So, a half-vampire,” she began, her voice lowered cautiously. She doubted the others of the festivities could hear her between the distance and music, but better safe than sorry. “In a circus.” Despite the unease in her tone, a smirk betrayed a hidden amusement at the concept. “I imagined circus performers would be colorful people, but that takes the cake.”
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Even though Lune tried to be subtle, Rayth could tell that she was just as nervous around him as she had been when she’d first bolted away. Her eyes were shifty, and she watched him with the same caution as an animal of prey would study its predator. It wasn’t the first time he’d been regarded as if he would go on a killing spree without warning, but her lingering wariness puzzled him. He would have thought that after she’d talked to Frieda, she would have realized she didn’t have anything to be scared of. Why else would she have come back if she hadn’t been convinced?
When she hesitated at his question, he folded his arms over his bare chest in subconscious defensiveness, wondering if she still thought his intentions were malicious. He wasn’t trying to isolate her. The offer to get away from the back yard had been for both of their benefits, since the incense always messed with his head, and now that he knew she was human, he was sure she was feeling it too. It just seemed like the smarter choice to go inside the big top, where they could talk clearheadedly without getting drunk on the multicolored haze.
If she did think he was plotting to drain her blood, she was bolder than he’d expected. He felt himself relax when she agreed to go with him and took a step forward to walk to the tent. However, before he could take a second, he felt a whispery, feminine voice tickle his ear: “Don’t tell the girl about the rest of the troupe yet. Frieda’s orders.”
He glanced over his shoulder to see who had spoken, but he couldn’t see anyone there. If he hadn’t been able to catch the familiar scent of faerie or feel the shiver of moving air near his jaw, he might have thought he’d imagined the quiet words, but he was sure it had been one of the ringmistress’s underlings. Her warning cleared up some of his confusion too. Frieda must have implied that he was the only non-human member of the circus if she didn’t want him to tell her that the others were supernatural creatures as well.
Lune’s lowered voice drew Rayth’s attention back to the present moment. It sounded like the ringmistress had told her about more than just his vampire lineage. He wasn’t particularly secretive about being a halfling, but it felt a little strange to discuss the subject with someone who had learned about what he was through a third party. Most of the time, if it came up, he would tell them himself. She didn’t seem perturbed though. If anything, it almost looked like the thought was funny to her.
“It’s a big world,” he shrugged, latching eagerly onto her lighthearted approach to the subject. Although he didn’t believe he was the most unique member of Cirque du Sombre by any means, he kept the objection to himself for the sake of honoring Frieda’s request.
Trotting a couple paces ahead, he pulled back the curtain entrance of the big top for Lune to enter first. It wasn’t much, but he hoped that small, kind gestures would help her to see that he wasn’t just a bloodthirsty monster like she’d thought. The tactic had worked on other humans he’d interacted with in the past, so it was worth a shot.
“It’s not that surprising though, is it?” he went on, casting her an amused smile as they stepped into the tent. “I mean, have you ever seen a Latino vampire before?” He made his way to the closest bench and sat down in another attempt to demonstrate that he wasn’t a threat, ever mindful of the effects his actions could have on her while she was still warming up to him.
He made no effort to convince her to sit with him and instead leaned back languidly with his elbows propped on the raised bench behind him. “As for my decision to join the circus, it was a practicality,” he explained. “No one else expects it any more than you did, so it makes for a good cover. It’s safe; and that’s why anyone does it, right?”
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Larger than I thought a couple days ago, that’s for sure, Arla thought with a mirthless smile at Rayth’s response to her last statement. A shudder ran down her spine at the thought. A shudder she wasn’t entirely sure stemmed from fear or excitement. Or maybe, she had to admit, a bit of both.
There were dark things—strange, dangerous things out for blood—out there. Lizardmen. Vampires. And who knew what else. Just the thought made her skin crawl and heart race. And yet. And yet
Her attention returned fully to Rayth as the boy hurried a couple steps ahead, pulling her from her thoughts. Her fingers twitched toward her hunting knife, but she stopped herself from reaching for it as Rayth pulled open the tent flaps for her.
Her brows raised slightly at the simple, gentlemanly gesture. She offered a quick, suspicious nod in thanks as she passed him. Instinct prickled at having him behind her, even for a moment. She turned slightly to still keep an eye on him as she strode into the Big Top first.
She paused just inside, letting him fully enter the large area before her and to keep him in her sight easier.
She snorted a chortle at his question. “I’ve never—” She caught herself before she could finish with, ‘seen a non-Latino vampire before,’ remembering she’d tried to falsely insinuate otherwise earlier. She didn’t need him thinking she was a complete armature in a fight against a supernatural being. Not yet, at least. Not until she was certain Frieda's judgment wasn't tainted by some type of mind control. Compulsion, she thought it was called.
“No,” she amended quickly, “can’t say I have.” Her gaze followed him cautiously as he sat on the nearest stand. She followed, still keeping a what she deemed a safe distance between them as she strode around where he sat. She took a seat at the bottom bench, leaving a couple yards between them. Facing him, she drew one foot onto the bench in front of her, the other still on the ground, and rested a hand on her knee, trying to appear less nervous than she felt.
She ran her tongue over her teeth contemplatively as Rayth answered why he joined the circus in just as vague of a way as she had. She nodded slightly in agreement, but the action stopped short as he finished.
There was that word again. Safe. Longing for just that, to not be running for her life, tugged at her chest. She glanced over her shoulder as if expecting to find either her parents or the monster duo lurking somewhere in the shadows, ready to drag her off. She’d originally fled from safe, from the monotony of normalcy. But what she’d stumbled into instead hadn’t been what she’d expected.
“I want something in-between,” she muttered, the words slipping from her tongue without her full consent.
Realizing she’d taken her eyes off the more pressing issue, she scowled and looked back to the half-vampire. The boy hadn’t moved, and even appeared to be putting forth extra effort to seem less threatening. To be the picture of harmless Frieda had tried to reassure her he was.
“There’s no adventure in living in complete safety.” She continued. “Like you said. Being here is unexpected. Convenient.” And the faster I get further from this town, the better, she added silently. “But traveling and preforming… that’s an adventure all its own. Least, I imagine it is.” She shrugged. “So. Frieda thinks pretty highly of you. She told me you’ve been with the circus for a year? But you haven't… hurt anyone here?” She finished slowly, trying to untangle her thoughts.
She eyed him, gaze sweeping over his face, watching for any misgivings or hint of hidden hostility. On the up side, what effects of the incense had stalked her again had begun to fade, letting her mind clear.
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Lounging as comfortably as he could on the stiff bench, Rayth breathed slowly as he felt the swimming sensation clear from his head. The circus’s after parties were just as much of a benefit to him as they were to the rest of the nonhuman creatures in the troupe, but he still hated the lingering effects of the incense they burned every time they invited their prey into the backyard. He wished there was an easier way to subdue the guests that didn’t make him feel so dazed.
At least Lune seemed calm enough to have a civil conversation with him now. He followed her with his eyes as she sat down not too far away but still far enough that he could tell she didn’t trust him wholeheartedly. The gesture didn’t offend him. Just the fact that she had willingly stepped back into the big top with him alone was a step in the right direction. He wasn’t going to push her to buddy up when she wasn’t ready.
“It really is,” he confirmed, ruminating on the year he’d spent with Cirque du Sombre so far. Life as a ‘circus freak’ was the perfect blend of adventure and security. He enjoyed the traveling and the performances, and in return for his contributions, he was protected from monster hunters by Frieda and the rest of the group. The ringmistress was good at gathering humans for them to feed on too, but the runaway wouldn’t be able to partake in that feature of their dark organization.
Truthfully, he wondered just how long Frieda thought she was going to be able to keep the supernatural side of her circus a secret from Lune. The girl had to figure out sooner or later that there was something off about the other troupers. When she did, he hoped the faerie had some sort of plan in place to keep her from panicking.
When Lune said that Frieda thought highly of him, a smile pulled at the corner of Rayth’s mouth. Since he’d joined Cirque du Sombre, he’d developed quite a bit of respect for the ringmistress, so hearing that she had praised him to the runaway made him puff up inside. “That’s right.” Because no one here is on the menu, he finished silently. If the circus had been made up of human performers, it would have been harder for him to keep his fangs to himself, but he had no appetite for supernatural blood. He wouldn’t bite any of the other monsters even if he was woozy from malnourishment.
Well… he bit his lip as his scarlet eyes flicked down toward Lune’s neck. His nonviolent streak might be more difficult to keep up with an actual human living among them. However, he had just hit a century on this earth a few years ago. He liked to think he had enough practice not to lose control when the cirque already hosted after parties often enough to keep his bloodlust sated. As long as he was mindful around her between feeds, there was no reason for him to turn on her.
“I’m still… what I am, and I can’t help my nature,” he continued, making sure to set realistic expectations. “But when I need to drink blood, I always find a source outside of the circus.” He sought her gaze amusedly. “I may be a vampire, Lune, but I’m not a mindless animal. I can control myself if I have to.”
As he spoke, he idly reached back to pull the tie loose from his thick hair so that the dark curls fell down to frame his face. The performance had ended long ago, and he was more comfortable leaving it unbound when he didn’t have a reason to pin the unruly locks out of his eyes.
“Anyway, if you’re looking for an adventure, this is the place to be,” he assured the blue-haired runaway with a friendly grin. “We travel all over America, and everyone in the troupe is really… unique. I’m sure you’ll like it here if you give it a chance, and you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity just because of me. I promise I won’t bite.”
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Arla’s brows rose slightly in amusement at Rayth’s slight proud smile. She blinked slowly at his response of “That’s right,” unsure which of her last statements or questions it was intended for. With a mental shrug, she decided it was a sum to all of it. She opened her mouth to ask another question, but she caught his gaze flick toward her neck.
She inhaled, muscles tensing. She moved her hand from propping herself up to rest closer to her hunting knife, ready to draw it. But he didn’t make a move toward her before he continued speaking. She met his gaze, holding it until he looked away to let his hair down. Her eyes followed his hand as he pulled the tie from his hair. He was on the handsome side, she’d give him that.
Scowling, she shook her head at the ill-timed thought, and glanced away. Holding her breath, her eyes narrowed as she mulled over his words.
At least he was being honest, then. Or at least, she felt like he was being honest. Sincere. While she wouldn’t say she was the best judge of character, she was at least usually good enough to get by. Though time would tell, she had the feeling she wouldn’t have to worry about being killed in her sleep. For tonight, at least.
At last, she released her breath. She slid her hand back from her knife to again help support her sitting position. She raised her chin as Rayth continued, assuring her that the cirque was exactly what she’d hoped it was.
Arla snorted a laugh somewhere between amused and disbelieving at his last words, unsure if he’d meant it as a joke or not.
“Knife thrower and a comedian?” she began, raising her brows at him. “No wonder they accepted you in.” She exhaled heavily and shook her head, glancing away. “I’m not going anywhere ‘just because of you.’ Wouldn’t be here now if that was the case, would I?”
She felt the truth of her decision settle fully in her as the words left her mouth, as if all it needed was to be said to be written in stone. This would be the start of the adventure she’d wanted, one way or another. Vampire or no vampire.
“Besides.” She looked back to him. The corner of her lips quirked upward as she donned a cocky expression. “I can’t knowingly let a giant mosquito go parading around a circus mostly unchecked, now, can I?”
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“I’m a man of many talents,” Rayth shrugged, flashing a toothy grin at Lune over his shoulder. Though he made the statement carelessly, he was aware of the way most people took his words when he insinuated that he wasn’t just a boy. His eternally youthful face and the energetic pitch of his voice were deceiving. Humans always assumed he was on the upper edge of his teenage years even though he was well past that point of his life. By vampire standards, he was technically still quite young, but he had enough life experience to consider himself a seasoned adult by now.
At Lune’s following assertion that she wasn’t going to leave because of him, he bit the tip of his tongue to keep himself from pointing out that she had almost left once because of him already. He didn’t know what had brought her back the second time around, but just in case the thread was fragile, he didn’t want to upset her and make her change her mind again. If he had to tell Frieda that he’d scared off their newest member twice, he’d be mortified.
“I guess not,” he agreed congenially instead.
Lightening the mood, her last quip earned a bark of laughter from the half-vampire. “Giant mosquito?” he repeated incredulously. “I’ve heard a lot of crazy names through the years, but that one’s a first, Smurfette.” Ending the nickname on a hard ‘t,’ he shot her a waggish wink. If it was a battle of wits she wanted, he’d gladly stand toe-to-toe with her. Most of the other monsters in the circus were too serious to banter, so maybe there was a benefit to keeping a human around after all.
Sensing that the tension had lifted, Rayth stood up from the bench and glanced at the large fabric flaps that curtained off the backyard. Between his nap and the conversation with Lune, the other troupe members had probably made some decent headway on packing up all their gear. He didn’t want to wait until they were done before he showed her to the train. Someone might mistake her for a lost after party invitee on the way and pounce.
“Now that you’ve made up your mind, do you want me to show you where you’ll be staying?” he asked, turning back to the blue-haired girl. Just in case she was still wary of going anywhere alone with him, he chased the question with an impromptu piece of motivation: “If we beat everyone else back, we’ll get first dibs on the showers.”
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Rayth’s quick laugh made Arla jump, her expression wavering. But it melted quickly back into a half-grin as he repeated her playful insult. She shrugged one shoulder in a silent, ‘no regrets’ confirmation of what she’d said.
She returned his wink with a confused blink at his retort. “Smurf—Oh!” Remembering her recently died hair, her grin widened. She glanced up at her bangs and blew at their blue strands. “Hey. At least Smurfette had her pick of the boys in the village.”
The amusement in her emerald eyes shifted into a ready wariness as Rayth stood. She followed his gaze to the tent flaps curiously, then settled back on him as he turned to her.
She stiffened at his question, her mouth pulling down slightly in a frown. A part of her hated that he’d know where she was staying. But, she supposed, that would be unavoidable, regardless. As little as she knew about trains, she figured it’d be impossible to not bump elbows with the same person from time to time.
But then, maybe that could work for her advantage. The closer they were, the better of an eye she could keep on him. Make sure he wasn’t doing anything suspicious behind Frieda’s back. As amicable as he seemed, everyone had their secrets. Her parents’ corporate parties had taught her that much, at least.
She snorted a laugh at his apparent reasoning for wanting to leave the Big Top.
“What, tired of my stink already?” She stood and readjusted her backpack. She gave an animatedly sad sigh. “Just when I was considering bottling it. Eau de Smurf.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped toward the exit. Keeping one eye on Rayth as discretely as she could, she pulled back one side of the entrance flaps.
Arla looked fully to him, then nodded for him to go first. “Lead the way, Mosquito Boy.”
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When Lune retorted to his nickname for her, Rayth had to stop himself from pointing out that she could have had her pick of ‘village boys’ too. She had already nearly run off once just because he had fangs. He didn’t want to make her think the vampire that she didn’t want to come within an arm’s length was flirting with her—even if he really did believe she was effortlessly beautiful. Her blue hair was intriguing, and she had a great smile when she stopped scowling at him long enough to show it.
Expecting her to waver after he offered to show her to the train, he wasn’t offended by the distrust that etched itself into her face. At least it didn’t last long this time.
“Actually, I thought you’d be tired of mine,” he grinned back at her. “Putting a show like this together is grueling work, and I, unfortunately, didn’t take after my mother when it comes to being able to do heavy labor without breaking a sweat.”
Really, the jest was only true in part. He did sweat like a human when he worked his body, but no one had ever accused him of having an odor. His best guess to explain it was that he’d inherited some sort of genetic compromise between his human and vampire parents. Whatever the case, he wasn’t going to complain about being able to run a marathon without smelling like he hadn’t showered in a month when he was done.
“But seriously, that’s a terrible idea,” he shook his head. “Eau de Smurf would be more like Eau de Déchets, and trust me, that would never sell.”
He followed her to the exit, keeping a subtle watch just in case she noticed anything upsetting outside the big top. The troupe never picked up the bodies of the people they fed on—it was easier to leave them behind when they moved on—so the scene in the backyard probably looked pretty gruesome right about now. Of course, none of the humans were dead, but they definitely looked like it after they’d been drained of blood, energy, spirit, or whatever else they had been unfortunate enough to lose to the creature of the circus during the after party.
“If you insist, Blue’s Clues,” he quipped as he stepped outside.
Now that the effect of the incense had been wearing off both of them for a while, he knew it could be more difficult to keep her eyes off the more startling scenes in the backyard, so he attempted to keep her attention on him with some friendly conversation.
“So, are you from around here?” he asked, falling in step beside the runaway. “You look like the big city type to me.”
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Arla shrugged at Rayth’s response, adjusting her hold on the door flap. “You should smell the locker room after track practice. Besides. Aren’t—” she cast a quick glance through the opening. Though no one else stood nearby that she could see, she lowered her voice, all the same, “vampires supposed to have super-smell or something?”
She watched him as he stepped toward her, doing her best to ignore the impulse to step away. She shrugged again at his dismissal of her perfume idea, pretending she knew what Eau de Déchets meant outside of apparent context. “Hey, it worked for Monster’s Inc.
She raised her brows at him as he passed, adding another epithet to her list.
“Woof, woof, Count von Count,” she said, letting the flap fall back into place, refusing to let him have the last line of banter.
She hurried to catch up to him, once more keeping herself between him and the party-goers.
The music from the after party still drummed through the warm night’s air, but conversations had died down, as if a majority of the guests had left. Her brows furrowed. She had no idea what time it was, but it seemed a bit early to call it a night, even by normal standards.
Wondering how many people still remained, she started to turn her head toward the covered festivities. Rayth’s voice called her attention fully back to him before she could get any kind of good look.
She ran her tongue over the back of her teeth, debating on how much to tell him. She’d practiced a cover story, down to a fake ‘hometown’ if she could get away with it. With a mental shrug, she decided the vague truth wouldn’t do any harm.
“Sorta,” she began, matching her pace to his. She looked upward to him, even the boy towering over her. Though, that wasn’t exactly the hardest thing in the world to do. “Just outside Los Vegas.” She cocked her head slightly, curiosity replacing a majority the caution in her gaze. “What about you?”
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