The thing about vampires, he recalls from old lessons, is that they used to be more common. Not great rarities, certainly. But when the Great Demon rode east and its spawn raced out in front of it, everything magically aligned with fire was consumed from the inside, eaten out, left a hollow vessel for the Demon’s star-spark to occupy. Some humans lost their minds and turned at first, but it was easy enough to pick out the few vulnerable ones and send them further back from the front to safety.
Vampires, though, were all, down to every man, woman, and other, reborn into the world with fire nested in their marrow. There was no way to move that many people out of the grasp of the flaring hunger of the Demon, and even if there had been, after the first round of attacks from Demon-ridden vampires, nobody wanted to help them much.
The attacks were so bloody that cities began sending out teams of soldiers to hunt the hives and exterminate them before more vampires could be ridden. The Demon was too great and their alignment was too pure—vampires were dangerously efficient tools for it. They killed so many, so brutally, that any sympathy for them died with their victims. Enormous bounties were offered for sets of ridden vampires’ fangs.
So Saila, with a set of candles for eyes, should be… dead, Bastion thinks cautiously, and feels bad for it as he recalls how gentle she was with his metal leg, as if it were fragile flesh under her bloodied hands.
There are records of the changes being Demon-ridden had brought to the various races: charred and crackling skin snapping out embers for some. An aching and swollen belly rich with magma and lava eternally foaming out of the mouth for others. But vampires, oh vampires! Vampires had grown thin and sharp, and their eyes had lit up like flame, and their teeth had turned black as soot. And their hunger, Bastion thinks uneasily, eyeing Saila as she leads him further down into the underlevel… their hunger had spiraled violently out of control.
But perhaps, he muses, perhaps she came to be after the Demon had been defeated? Perhaps she was made and the lingering effects of the Demon lit her up inside without ever burning away her sense of self. Certainly her teeth are white as anybody else’s, and she doesn’t seem to be anywhere near violent. If anything, she seems a little shy.
No use thinking about it. Bastion considers himself nervy, perhaps a bit unsociably blunt outside of the comradeship of his fellow guards, but even for him that question is too sensitive, too red-hot with danger, to even consider asking.
“The bottom panel here was broken as well,” Saila says, gesturing to a thick wooden door hanging slightly ajar. Bastion holds the lantern up to confirm and frowns at the finely-shattered glass. What did she store down here to have this much security on it?
There are little sprays of that purple serpent blood smeared here and there on the door and the edge of the stairs, but since the serpent blood doesn’t catch the light, it’s harder to pick it out. He doesn’t know how informative it would be, anyway—it trails off rapidly into nothing two steps up. Bastion next lifts the lantern to the edge of the door and squints at the side. There are sunken cuts in the wood up relatively high. They’re higher than Saila could reach, lower than he would grasp for. Somebody of middling height, with sharp curved claws, tried to open the door. He’d guess they tried forcing it from inside the room ahead of them. Four fingers, no thumb used. “I got the door open a little and saw him…. And then I realized that the door was wet with blood, and….”
“Bad business, so you came back up. Makes sense,” Bastion confirms, reaching for the door handle to push it open further. He can’t see anything in the gloom ahead, but Saila’s cautious peer out is enough assurance, to him, that she won’t let him walk into the open maw of a monster waiting in the dark.
Something occurs to him, though. Before he steps forward to follow her, he turns the lantern to the glass panel again and examines it closely. Yes, there they are again: claw scratches. From the wrong side, though, as if the murderer reached out and sliced the panel through the wall itself, breaking the glass along those etched fault lines. He’ll have to check when they go back upstairs, but Bastion suspects the same might be true for the shattered panel.
Saila’s boots are just visible at the edge of his lantern’s light as she walks further into the room beyond the door. To Bastion’s considerable relief, a dim light appears. She does use light panels after all, if at a much lower light setting than most. That’s a weight off. He can hear water, too, which makes sense: the underway is theorized to have been a sewer, or perhaps a series of complex aquatic highways, for the people who abandoned the city before the refugees of the Great War found it.
As he steps into the underlevel, Bastion notices a few things immediately: Saila, crouched next to the enormous bloodied body of a water serpent still bleeding from its mouth; the way the snake’s sprawling coils are collected loosely on a plush purple rug that does an admirable job of hiding the bloodstains; a person-sized black chasm along one of the neatly bricked-up walls; and, finally, a deep red body of water flowing through a channel in the room, under one wall and out the next. He’s relieved to see that there’s a far wall, too: something about the idea of unseen entities in the darkness watching him is too creepy for an already hair-raising investigation.
“He just wanted to be left alone,” Saila says, tucking her face down into her hands. She’s crouched near where the fine fur along the serpent’s throat, which is still a little red with riverwater, has splayed, revealing a pink set of gills. “He was quiet. He minded his own business. I’m- I’m sorry.” Bastion looks over the scene with a degree of hesitation: well aware of his personal limitations, he’s not sure how much comfort he’ll be. Should he pat her on the shoulder? Say something kind? Remain silent?
The rug feels dangerously plush under his feet as he approaches, like he’s about to fall over, so he shies away from it. Bastion steps back to the stone floor. It may be slippery as glass, but at least he can feel his feet under him properly.
After a moment of debate, he lets Saila alone to mourn and glances around in the gloom. Better to let her be than to clumsily try to comfort her and fall on his face while doing it.
Now to look around.
There are scrape marks in the stone of the room along the ledge into the river. Bastion holds up the lantern and inspects them, sees a few tufts of fur caught on the stone. Years of the murdered party pulling himself out of the river in this exact spot, looks like. He turns his head and confirms his suspicion—yes, the serpent’s front fins have sharp nails, almost like fingernails, at the very edges. Hm. Interesting, if not helpful.
Bastion turns his attentions to the most obvious element of the scene first. One of the enormous venom-laden fangs Southern serpents are infamous for is snapped off jaggedly at the root and brutally driven through the victim behind the skull. The other fang, intact, is slowly turning black from the gums down, which tickles a distant memory for Bastion. He thinks he heard, somewhere long ago, about a venom that rapidly decays when milked. Certainly he doesn’t know of any successful antivenom against a Southern serpent’s bite. It seems possible that the serpents themselves aren’t even immune. He hopes the death was quick, at least.
Bastion circles around the rug next. There’s something about the way the deceased is curled on it, a certain orderliness that even his death can’t disturb. Mindful not to step on the sprawling, brilliantly-colored fins, Bastion leans over and squints at the center of the thick coils: there’s an empty spot, as if something was being protected. The fur seems disturbed there, too.
It would explain why he was murdered, Bastion muses. But what had been taken?
“Is anything missing from this room?” Bastion asks, feeling awkward when he hears Saila sniffle and draw her face from her hands. She pats herself this way and that, her search growing more frantic as she fails to find what she’s looking for. Bastion rummages in his inventory and pulls out a spare handkerchief.
“Do you have a- I’m sorry, I seem to have- thank you,” she says with such intense, stumbling gratitude that Bastion feels like a heel for having suspected she might want to kill him. He steps over to her carefully, mindful of the unpleasantly squashy rug, and hands her the little square. She spends a moment carefully dabbing at her face before finally answering his question. “My spinning wheel is missing,” she says, which gives Bastion pause. He gives the lantern, illuminated by magical string, a speculative look. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to leave that out. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to say you’re sorry all the time,” he says, looking around in the dim room once more. The hole is the obvious entry point. If they stole the wheel, they wouldn’t be able to leave again that way. They would need to leave through the door, and-
“REDUCED!” shouts something in a high-pitched tone.
“What the fuck,” Bastion says, drawing his sword immediately and throwing himself between Saila and the noise’s source: the serpent’s tail feathers. Saila, behind him, stands up and peers around his side. He’s gratified to see that she chooses his sword arm, which means that if he does need to strike, he has a full range of motion.
Except that she immediately slips around him and reaches down between the rapidly-fading plumage of the river snake, emerging with a little round container clutched in her bare hands.
“Can you please be careful,” he pleads, pacing gladly off the rug to shed lantern-light on the thing. It’s a wicker ball, and something yellow and small is crouched inside. Based on its location, he suspects the murderer might have lost it in the struggle. He can’t imagine a serpent being a fan of birds. He also can’t imagine Saila keeping a bird underground, somehow.
“What is this?” Saila asks, wiping her cheek with the back of a hand. In the harshness of the lantern light, Bastion sees that her tears are leaving faint black smudges on her skin though she’s certainly not wearing makeup. He doesn’t know what to make of that, doesn’t know what that means or how that fits into his theory of Saila, so he just files it away to think about later and resumes feeling exasperated at her general lack of caution. “There’s something alive in here. Are you all right?”
“REDUCED RATE KEKEKEKEKKEKEKEKE!” screams whatever’s inside, the yell devolving into a repetitive, piercing chirp that makes his ears ring a little.
“A bird of some kind,” Bastion suggests into the following stunned silence. He doesn’t recognize the call in the least. He hopes not to gain any familiarity with it.
“Why does it sound like shady a vendor at the street markets?” Saila asks, tilting her head this way and that. The image of a small dog pops back into Bastion’s mind; impatient with himself, he looks over at the hole in the masonry, wondering if there might be any clues to be had.
He sees a shine of something small and round wink, starlike, in and out of existence.