A Shade of Vampire 30: A Game of Risk (10 page)

Victoria

I
had been staring
at the bulge of the vial in Mona’s bag for too long.

The witch and her son still had their backs turned to me, almost knee-deep in the waves as they cooled off. My right hand stretched out slowly, tentatively at first, and then shot out all at once. My fingers parted the opening of the cloth bag all too easily. There wasn’t even a zipper to act as a barrier between that elixir and me. And then my fingertips felt the cool sleek neck of its glass container. My palm closed around it, and before I could think any further about what I was doing, I slipped it out.

I planted the vial of green, brown-tinged liquid on my lap and stared down at it for several moments. It swirled and churned almost as though it were alive… or perhaps had awoken at my touch.

My window of opportunity might only be a matter of seconds. If Mona and Brock turned around to see what I was on the verge of doing, I didn’t honestly know if I would still have the courage to go through with it. This was my choice, of course. I was an adult. As much as Mona had been reluctant for me to take another drop, I was sure that if I told her I was willing to take the risk she wouldn’t put up any further objections. But I didn’t want to see the look of nervousness in her eyes. The look of uncertainty. What I was on the cusp of doing would require every ounce of courage I possessed within me and the last thing I needed was even the slightest form of discouragement or negativity on my companions’ part.

Just the tiniest drop,
I repeated to myself. Half
of the tiniest drop… I’ll be all right.

I glanced furtively at Brock and Mona again. I got the feeling that they were just about finishing their dip in the waves.

It was now or never. Jump in with both feet, or not at all.

So, opening the stopper of the vial as quietly as I possibly could, I raised it while dropping my head backward and extending my tongue—all the while trying to ignore the smoke that spilled from it. But that was impossible to ignore. It made my eyes water and sting. I had to blink rapidly just in order to keep them open.
Just a little bit further.
I tilted the vial more.

I started as a splash of the liquid dropped on my tongue. I knew instantly that it was too much. It was more than just a splash. It was more like a small mouthful. I had been so cautious about the angle at which I tilted the vial. It was as if the liquid had a mind of its own and decided to leap out in excess. I spewed out the liquid frantically, even as it spilled down my neck and beneath my shirt.

I cursed under my breath. A burning sensation began to take hold of my tongue. It soon spread to the back of my mouth and my esophagus. I covered the wet patches of my shirt up with my cardigan before quickly fastening the vial and replacing it in Mona’s bag.

I drew in a deep breath and tried to reassure myself. Although a lot of the elixir had spilt into my mouth, much more than a drop, I had not swallowed all of it. I’d spat much of it out. The amount that I had actually swallowed was only a small bit… wasn’t it?

Turning my mind back to when Mona had fed me the liquid, I realized now exactly why she had used a spoon to measure out the portion before dropping it on my tongue. I should’ve thought to do the same, except I had no spoon. I could have poured a drop onto my fingertip, I supposed, but it was too late now. If any damage had been done at all… it was done.

As I began to retch, I tried to muffle the sound. I settled my eyes firmly on the waves. Mona and Brock had prolonged their paddle in the waves, to my relief. It would give me some more time to regain my composure. I would tell them what I had done in a short while, of course. But I just needed to recover my nerves first, and gain a sense of what was happening to my body—if anything.

The burning was still painful as ever. But I had experienced burning before. Had it been quite so severe? Something told me that it had not. But then again, my throat would be more sensitive this time around after the previous dose.

I tried to numb the worries and simply focus on the ocean. The vastness of it. Its seemingly never-ending depths. Its strength. Its calmness.

I was still trying not to vomit even as I felt a sharp cramp in the side of my abdomen. Now that… that was a sensation I had not felt before. I’d experienced my stomach churning, but not this type of pain.
But again
, I thought forcefully to myself,
perhaps it’s simply a case of my human body still being sensitive.

Then I realized the skin around the outside of my mouth was tingling. Around my lower lip, my chin, down the front of my neck, as well as my chest… Soon I felt the tingling spread all the way down to my navel, where the excess elixir had reached.

The sensation was mild at first—disconcerting, but not quite unpleasant—but then it started growing harsher and harsher, until it was like dozens of needles stabbing into me at once. It became almost as unbearable as the burning inside me.

Okay, something isn’t right. Something really isn’t right.

I needed to tell Mona, even though I hated to cause her this kind of worry.

But before I could even open my mouth to beckon the two back over to me, something strange happened. Even stranger than all the events of the last ten minutes combined.

An alarming surge of energy erupted within me, like a firework exploding from within the very core of me. It came from nowhere. I felt an irresistible urge to suddenly leap up and start running. Running. Faster. And faster. Even before I could put my shoes back on. Even as the hot sand scorched the soles of my feet and whipped against my ankles. It was a need, an almost primal need, to run. Run like I needed to breathe. All I could do was surrender. I could barely even consider the fact that I had just raced away from Brock and Mona. I wasn’t sure if they had even noticed my leaving the rocks before I entered a line of trees, entered the woods.

Sharp objects lining the undergrowth pierced my feet, even as I sped faster, so fast my vision became practically a blur. I didn’t know what it felt like to be high on drugs, but I suspected that this was something like it. Even despite the pain still coursing through me, the burning, the stabbing, and now the acute pain in my feet, somehow, it was as though my being transcended it all, and all I could do was continue racing. Racing. Racing. Where to, I had no idea. But the destination didn’t matter. It was just the movement, the seamless flow of my limbs. The breeze whipping past my face. The leaves grazing my skin. The musty scent of the trees filling my nostrils.

I felt like a spirit of the trees. So one with this environment. So at home. Like I had been born and raised in these woods.

Time became inconsequential to me. The only thing that existed was the ground slipping away beneath my rapid footsteps… Until the physical enclosure of my free, wild spirit let me down. A searing pain shot up my right ankle and my run was forced to an abrupt halt. I tripped and crashed to the ground, still rolling over and over from the impossible momentum I’d built up. I was unable to halt myself in time. A sickening thunk broke the sacred silence of the woods. My head collided with the base of a tree trunk.

My harried breathing was loud in my ears as my vision began to fog over.

Even now, every fiber of my being was begging to keep running. But as I glanced down, I knew that I could not. My feet were bloodied beyond recognition, and my right ankle was twisted at a disturbing angle. It looked like a lot more than a sprain.

Funny,
I thought groggily,
that’s the ankle that let me down before, during my first ever trip to The Woodlands.

My brain was shutting down. My vision soon blacked out completely, removing the view of my mangled ankle and feet.

My breathing became slower, heavier, as though I were about to drift off into a profound slumber. A slumber I wasn’t sure I would wake from.

But if I did, whatever state I might find myself in then, I knew what I had to remind myself of.

This was my story. My choice.

My risk.

Bastien

T
he last words
I had spoken to my mother were that I was going to see Yuraya “now”. That was not exactly accurate. I had a number of things to do before I could go to her. But I could travel quickly. She would not be waiting long.

The first thing I did was race out of the Mortclaws’ mountain and speed toward the old port where I had left Rona. I continually glanced behind me to check that nobody was following me. The Mortclaws were capable of various kinds of witchery, but after the meeting I’d just had with my mother—after she had seemed so pleased by my behavior—I was sure that nobody would be chasing me now.

Arriving at the old port, I quickly located Rona’s boat. I found her huddled beneath the upper deck, curled up in one corner, though she was not sleeping. Her eyes were wide open.

She immediately shot up as I entered, relief washing over her face. But I had not come with any good news yet. I’d simply come to check in on her, check that she was still all right, on the way to my next destination… Which had to be Blackhall Mountain.

Rona hated to be left alone again, but she was thankful that I had bothered to stop by and check in on her at least. She promised me that she would continue staying undercover until I came to her again.

Thus, I left the old port and continued on my journey though the Woodlands.

Cecil, Cecil, Cecil
. I had hoped that he would be at home. He was the only person I was close enough to, who had enough knowledge to help me carry out my dangerous plan. He was many years older than my Blackhall parents had been, and he had traveled a fair amount during his lifetime.

A bittersweet warmth rolled through me as I arrived outside the Blackhalls’ lair. The place that had been my home for as long as I could remember.

How I wished I could turn back time. It was only a short while ago when Victoria had spent days with me here. When we had been discussing how we would make our long-distance relationship work. How, maybe, I would soon find time to spend a week or so with her in The Shade. At the time, the sudden responsibility of managing an entire tribe had seemed like a burden. Now, it seemed like the easiest task in the world.

Shaking my melancholy aside, I approached the entrance and banged my fists against the door.

A doorkeeper—Hefron—emerged a few seconds later, looking shocked to see me.

“Bastien!” Hefron exclaimed. “What in heaven’s name happened to you? What has been going on?”

Questions that I knew I was about to be bombarded with about a hundred times as I made my way through the chambers in search of Cecil. I didn’t have time to answer such questions now, for him or anybody else. Not even Cecil. I had only two objectives.

“Where is Cecil?” I demanded.

I was hurried to meet him in his quarters near the top of the mountain where he had been resting. He came to the door, bleary-eyed and confused. “Bastien? What—”

“I need your help, Cecil. You must come with me. And in the meantime”—I turned to the rest of the crowd who had followed me up through the mountain—“everybody must leave! Evacuate! Take boats and sail away from The Woodlands. It is not safe for you. The Mortclaws have returned!”

Everyone became deathly silent.

“Th-The Mortclaws?” Cecil croaked.

“You heard me!” I said. “They have returned, and I personally witnessed them wipe out the Northstone pack! They ate them alive! None of you are safe here. You must leave. Any other land will be safer than here. At least for now…”

I was bombarded with still more questions, but I would only repeat the same thing until quickly, the werewolves began to get the picture. Those who had received my news departed from the hallway and began spreading the word to others around the mountain, until the whole pack was in a panic, everybody rushing in and out of chambers, preparing to leave.

My heart ached for poor Cecil. He was an old man who really did not need this kind of pressure. But I desperately needed him to come with me.

I told him to quickly pack up a few possessions for a journey that had no specified length. As he retreated to do just that, I hurried to my own quarters to do the same. I grabbed a bag and stuffed it with a few items of clothing before hurrying back to Cecil. I was glad to see that he was ready.

I gripped his hand and led him down through the mountain toward the exit. It was daytime now and he was still in his humanoid form, which made it easy for me to carry him.

I transformed into a wolf in the clearing and ushered him onto my back, even as the wolves behind us asked where we were going.

“You need not worry,” I told them. “Just worry about yourselves. Get yourselves out of here,” I repeated for the umpteenth time.

I could not wait to witness all the wolves bundle out of the mountain. I just had to trust that they would heed my warning. I took off with Cecil, bounding through the trees toward not the old Port but the new one, where the best-kept ships were moored.

On arrival, I couldn’t care in the slightest which boat belonged to which tribe. I simply chose the one with the most levels—a beast of a vessel with five decks in total. By now, Cecil, atop my back, had stopped asking questions and realized that it was best to wait patiently until I started offering answers.

After dropping off my bag near the bow of the ship, I took Cecil down to the lowest deck, where I told him to make himself comfortable.

“I’ll return very soon,” I promised.

Turning away from his bewildered face, I dashed away and headed for the trees again. Foraging in the undergrowth, I started looking for specific weed—one that was filled with a pungent sap that, when mashed up, gave off a most overpowering and unpleasant odor. It was also a fact little known to werewolves that the plant could be a powerful intoxicant; ingesting the right dosage could knock a werewolf flat out for days. I’d only discovered it by accident when I was younger; I had been a highly curious cub, probably a stupidly curious one. I would often try eating things I thought had an interesting smell—dirt, vegetation, bugs—and these weeds had been an unfortunate example of that habit. They had knocked me out for a day and a half, and had my Blackhall parents fearing I might never wake up.

The weeds grew abundantly in The Woodlands, and I did not have trouble finding an ample supply nearby. Tearing at the ground, I gathered as much as I could in my jaws—careful not to actually swallow any—before returning to the ship and dumping it in one corner of the room where I’d planted Cecil.

I repeated the process, hurrying back and forth from the woods to the boat, until finally, I’d piled up a huge stack of the weeds in one corner of the room. Then I quickly began slashing at the plants with my claws, until the whole room was filled with the vile scent.

Finally, I turned to Cecil.

“I’m sorry for all this, Cecil,” I said hoarsely. I drew in a shallow breath. “I believe you have been to The Dunes before, am I correct? The realm of the jinn?” I only knew about this land because of Victoria. She had taught me much about my world and hers.

“I-I’ve never been there,” he replied feebly. “But I have passed by it a number of times before.”

“So you would know how to navigate there from here?” I asked.

“More or less, I suppose.”

“Then I need your help….” As I began to explain my plan, I knew how crazy it was, how many things could, and probably would, go wrong. But I didn’t have time for doubts. There was no more time for thinking. Only doing.

I told Cecil that if he didn’t want to go through with it, I could leave him on the dock, and the Blackhalls would soon arrive. He could depart with them, and I would somehow try to find The Dunes myself, even though I had not the slightest idea how I would even start going about such a feat. But Cecil, to my relief, said he understood the dangers but also the importance of my mission. He agreed to remain with me.

And then… it was time for me to keep my word to my mother.

It was time for me to return to Yuraya.

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