The day was sunny and brisk, a light breeze stirring up occasionally to blow Aestas’ hair about. These days were always her favorite; they were such a contrast to the darkness that had once seemed destined to be a part of her nature and still haunted her dreams. She knew she was free of all that, now, but there was a persistence to the dreams that unsettled her.
Idly she walked along the shore to the southwest of Draynor, taking wide, kicking steps in the overgrown grass. She had the afternoon free to do as she pleased, and now she pleased to take a walk and a nap. Her frequent excursions into the remote realms beyond Draynor village often left her tired to the bone. How much there was to the world! She had little hope of ever seeing it all, and it was despairing to think that she must choose what she could see. There could be so much more that she was missing, things that were more important than what she did manage to see and do.
The world was cast into sudden shadow. Aestas looked up to see that she had walked into the shade of a willow tree. It was a good a place to nap as any—actually it was one of her favorites—so she sat down heavily and leaned up against the gnarled trunk. She stared peacefully out across the water and was soon sleeping deeply.
She dreamed of Count Draynor and his sinister manor, with its locked doors and deep shadows and things in those shadows. She dreamed of his face leering at her, of the two village boys who had teased her and then saved her life—and it seemed so real and present and urgent, like there was someone in danger from that monster right now—
Aestas opened her eyes. The bright afternoon sun blinded her for a moment, reflecting off the water with an almost violent intensity. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed that there was a dark spot in her vision, a spot where the sun did not shine so intensely. She blinked several times, and the water came into clear focus. Several hundred feet out was a small boat, no larger than a canoe, drifting idly on the swell. She jumped to her feet. “Hello?” she called out. When no response from the boat was forthcoming, Aestas dashed down to the shore and splashed into the water. She waded out to her waist and stopped, waiting for the boat to come closer.
It was an agonizingly slow process. If nothing else, Aestas would love to have to boat to herself, but there might be something in it. What could it be? Probably nothing in it at all, she thought. Why would there be? It’s just an old boat. The thing was drifting infuriatingly slowly!
At last, the boat drifted within arm’s reach. Eagerly Aestas reached out and pulled it closer. Grinning in anticipation, she looked down into the floating tomb.
She screamed. Shoving the boat away in revulsion, she fell backward in her haste to get away and splashed into the water. She resurfaced spluttering and still half screaming. She scrambled as fast as she could through waist deep water, desperately yearning for solid ground. He toe caught on a submerged rock and she fell again, this time half in and half out of the water. The mud had probably ruined her dress.
“Aestas? You okay?”
Aestas looked up, embarrassment driving out all previous emotions. Manny stood over her, a look of concern quickly fading to a huge grin of amusement. “Decide to go for a swim?”
Aestas scrambled to her feet, blushing furiously but remembering the reason for her panic.
“There’s a dead man in that boat,” she said with all the dignity she could muster. It sounded rather absurd.
Apparently Manny thought so too. “A dead man?” he repeated, now looking wry.
“Yes, a dead man.” Aestas was starting to feel the impact of her words. Her pulse quickened. “See for yourself.”
She hung back as Manny took off his shoes and waded into the water. The boat had drifted closer. He reached it and began to pull it closer. “Holy—” he yelped, and did a curious backward jump that nearly sent him toppling. “There’s a dead man in there!”
“Told you,” Aestas said. She followed Manny into the water. “Help me pull it to shore.” Together they tugged the boat into the shallows and grounded it, both avoiding looking inside all the while. Finally there was nothing left to do but look.
The man had died painfully. There were deep gashes in his arms and the sides of his chest, and the blood had dried covering nearly his entire upper torso. Quite a lot of his blood-crusted skin could be seen through the rags he wore, which did not entirely conceal a dully shining object tucked into his pocket. His right hand clutched a wooden stake in a grip of death. It was bloodied as well. “Saradomin,” Manny breathed. The entire inside of the boat, man and all, was coated with a layer of fine ash. Aestas had seen that sort of ash before. The stake in the man’s hand was bloody.
“We have to show this to Dr. Harlow,” Manny said. Aestas nodded absently. She reached for the object in the man’s pocket and drew it out. It was a small glass orb, approximately the size of an apple. It glowed slightly in her grip. She turned it around in her hand, examining it but not really seeing it. So this man had died at the hands of a vampire. He had taken the vampire with him, but he had not been as fortunate as she. Should she have been so fortunate? She remembered the terror of thinking she would die at the hands of Count Draynor, could feel her death approaching, remembered fighting for an interminably long time as she lay comatose—“Ah!”
She dropped the orb as it seared through her with a heat that was both physical and mental. In that second, thousands of images swirled through her head, images that she could not begin to divine a meaning from. They went as quickly as they had come, and Manny was shouting at her for dropping the orb as he fished around in the water after it. Aestas merely rubbed her hand absently. Manny emerged from the water clutching the orb, a look of concern on his face after seeing hers. “You okay? We should show this to Dr. Harlow.”
Aestas came back to earth slowly, still dazed from the collection of images and sensations that had hit her like a speeding gnomeball. “Yes . . . Let’s go.”