“Ah, here we are. Try it on.”
Aestas shyly took the amulet from the crafter Grum’s hands. The man had certainly outdone himself this time. The amulet was round like the rest of his wares, but had fine, detailed carvings of the sun on one side, the crescent moon on the other. A few precious stones gave a final touch along the amulet’s edges.
“White gold,” Grum explained to Morgan. “Thought she deserved something better than normal gold.” As Morgan reached into his pocket for coins to pay him, Grum shook his head. “Please don’t pay me.”
“Consider it a gift. You’ve done a lot for me by bringing business here over the years.”
“Well if you’re sure… White gold is very expensive these days.”
Grum nodded, then look to Aestas. “Take a look at your ward.” Morgan looked down and found a shyly smiling Aestas holding her hands behind her back. The amulet around her neck glistened in the sunlight and rested comfortably on top of her dress.
“Do you like it?” the crafter asked.
“I feel as though Papa was close to my heart,” Aestas said softly. “Thank you.”
“No trouble at all. The ash and soil will not fall out as it is sealed deep inside. Nor will the amulet shatter when it is dropped,” Grum said, smiling. “There’s a little secret with this amulet as well, and you can thank the Wizard Mizgog for that.”
“Well, we must be off,” Morgan announced, shaking the benefactor’s hand. “You’ve earned your title as a master crafter, Grum.”
“Thank you, Morgan. Watch out for those goblins now. Rumors going around about another dispute between the rascals.”
~ ~ ~
“Hey Vampy!” Pat sneered.
Aestas looked up from her gardening work. “What do you want?”
“Oh nothing. I notice you’ve got a pretty trinket there.”
The girl stood up, shrinking back a little. “Yes… Morgan gave it to me.”
“Let me see it.”
“Just hand it over here.”
“But you can see it well enough from there.”
“I said hand it!”
“But I- hey!” Aestas fell into the dirt as Manny pushed her from behind, pulling the amulet away from her. Aestas quickly stood up. “Give it back!”
“Nyah, nyah! You can’t catch us!” the boys cried, running north from the village. Aestas took chase, tears of anger and sadness blinding her.
~ ~ ~
They went inside the manor.
“Never go there, Aestas. That’s where the Count resides,” Morgan had told her. “Him and other ghastly beings.”
But I have to go… They took Papa with them. Nervously she stepped into the yard. Dead trees seemed to lean towards her, their thick branches extending slender fingers, fragile but dangerous. As she walked down the worn stone path, a tree leapt out in front of her and grabbed her by the skirt. Screaming, she tugged hard, barely managed to escape, a piece of her skirt torn off. She ran quickly past the other trees, not wanting to get caught in a wooden grave. After what seemed like eternity, she reached the front porch. Slats of wood had long broken and rotted away. The windows were boarded up and covered with cobwebs. Gingerly, she stepped up the porch steps and opened the great door.
“H-hello? Is anyone th-there?” No response. “Pat! Manny! I know you’re here somewhere!” She stepped inside. “I want my amulet back!” The door suddenly slammed shut behind her. She yelped in terror and ran back, finding the door locked. There has to be another way out! She began to walk down the hall, stopping at the foot of the great staircase. A low moan made her shrink back and go around further down the hall. She stopped at a door to a closet. From inside, she could hear a rattling sound. Aestas frowned.
“Quit playing with me! I know you guys are there!” She tried to open the door. “Oh… it’s locked and you can’t get out.” A key was in the keyhole. Carefully she turned it and opened the door. She peered into the darkness. “Pat? Manny?”
A long, bony arm shot out and tried to grab her. Aestas shrieked and turned to her left down another hall into a large room. The dancing skeleton gave chase, clattering along. It was soon joined by a cackling witch who uttered arcane words, ready to strike.
Aestas stopped when she reached a bookshelf, trapped. At the sound of the cackle and clatter, she panicked further and grabbed books from the shelf. The two beings were met by an onslaught of books fluttering in the air and staggered back slightly.
“Help!” Aestas heard a voice cry from behind the shelf.
Suddenly the shelf began to vibrate and Aestas tumbled backwards as it revolved. The skeleton lunged forward, only to have its arm severed off as the wall closed. Aestas stood up, staring at the arm in pure horror, only to snap out of her daze as another cry pierced her mind.
“Help! Please! Count Draynor chased us down here!”
Aestas took a quick glance around the room and picked up the broken leg of a chair, noting the ladder leading down to where the cries came from. With only the thought to help, she climbed down the ladder and found Pat and Manny, huddled close together in the far corner of the torch-lit, stone-walled room. Count Draynor stood at his full height, fangs bared, and headed straight for them.
“Stop!” Aestas cried. The Count turned to find her with the wooden leg raised.
“You! You’re supposed to be dead!” he hissed. He took a flying leap at her, only to crash into the wall as Aestas leapt to the side frantically.
“Get out of here!” Aestas yelled to the boys as she scrambled back on her feet.
“What about you?!” Pat exclaimed.
“GO!” Aestas yelled. “I’ll follow!” Aestas rolled out of the way again, stabbing the front of her wildly with the stake to keep the distance between her and the Count as far as possible. The boys scrambled up the ladder.
Count Draynor snarled, watching his meal run off. “Seems like I’ll have to settle for you.”
“Don’t be so sure!” Aestas said, baring her own fangs.
“Eh?! You can’t be a vampire! I didn’t-” The Count stopped, then laughed wildly. “Ah! I see now! Your pathetic father turned you into one of us!”
“He’s not one of you! He’s a good vampire, and I’m not a vampire! I… I’m a little girl!” Aestas stammered.
“Well then, we’ll just have to see how girly you are!” Count Draynor lunged for her again, managing to grab her arm. Aestas stabbed the wooden leg deep into his shoulder. The vampire cried out in rage and let her go. Sobbing in fear, Aestas tried to climb up the ladder with the Count chasing after her.
At the top, Pat and Manny were waiting for her. “Aestas! Come on!”
She tripped on the torn edge of her skirt. With a shriek she lost her footing, her fingers clinging tightly onto the top rung. The boys grabbed her hands just as the Count grabbed one of her ankles. Aestas screamed as she tried to pull away with the boys’ help, but the Count held on tightly. It was tug-of-war game with the girl in the middle.
“The amulet! Pat! Use the amulet and reflect the sunlight!” Manny cried as the sun’s rays filtered into the room.
Without another word, the older boy pulled out the amulet with one hand and held it in front of the window. Beams of light danced over the room and down the ladder. A hideous scream was heard and Aestas was pulled over into the room, badly scratched, but alive.
The three stared down the ladder, hearing the vampire grumble and growl before falling into silence.
“Th-that was close,” Pat breathed.
“I will return!” Count Draynor howled to them before another word was spoken. “When the night is dark, I will come and kill you!”
Aestas cringed. “H-how do we get out of here?”
Manny ran over to the window and tried it. “No use, it’s stuck,” he said gloomily.
“There’s no other door except the bookshelf,” Pat added, glancing at the arm besides it. “But it looks like we’ve got company on the other side.”
Aestas nodded. “A witch and a skeleton chased after me into here.”
Manny swallowed a lump in his throat. “So we’re trapped? That vampire is going to kill us?” he squeaked.
Pat slumped onto the ground in a daze. “It looks that way…” He looked up and held the amulet back to Aestas. “I’m sorry…”
Aestas took it and replaced it around her neck silently. She stared down at the ladder where the Count was now probably asleep and waiting for night to come. She didn’t want to die by his hands, not after her father had saved her from such a fate. Scanning the room once more, she pointed at the broken fragments of the wooden chair and table.
“We can make stakes,” she said hopefully.
“What good will that do? He’s bigger and stronger than us. No way will we be able to stake him in time,” Manny grumbled.
“You wanna die a coward?” Pat demanded.
Manny looked over to Aestas, who had begun to pick up several pieces of wood. He took out his fletching knife from his pocket. “All right, let’s do this.”