Chapter 5 | Rose and Thorn

It was not often that Akra found herself in villages where bad things had clearly happened.

She disliked small towns. Small towns bred close-minded, fearful populations who gawked at her in the streets like she was a monster. They scoffed and grimaced at her half-scaled face, her silver fingers with long claws that came to a sharp point. It wasn’t the judgment that bothered her. Akra appreciated the beauty of her unique heritage, the strength of her body, the abilities of her muscles. She had no qualms about the space she occupied in the world. Not all eyes upon her held prejudice; many were captivated, if not admiring, of her height and prowess.

But the dragonborn had no tolerance for weakness, and fear of monsters signified weakness, and those who feared monsters often lived in small villages exactly like the one she found herself in at present.

Although, she thought, looking at the boarded houses and empty streets, it seemed Barovia had a reason to fear monsters.

The letter on the wolf-ravaged corpse had spoken of vampires. No matter. Akra welcomed the challenge of the unknown. Let them find themselves at the pointed end of her blade. She had a keen sense for danger. Those close to her would remark that she had an eye out for it, always. Akra thrived on the movement of her limbs and the weight of a weapon in her hands.

That Liam had witnessed her glee in combat firsthand, and had still welcomed her companionship instead of running in the other direction, had warmed her to him. In fact, she was altogether pleased by the assortment of people with whom she was now traveling, regardless of how they may appear — short, tall, observant, aloof, magical, worldly. Foes would do well not to underestimate them. After all, the most effective fighters were the unpredictable ones.

The dragonborn was aware that the air around her was frigid, but its bite didn’t cut. The mist felt pleasant against both her skin and her scales. Under her boots, the cobblestone was slick and slippery, grouted by wet mud.

The village was void of sound and life, and for all Akra knew, could have been empty for either days or years. It seemed suspended in its own era.

From the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of black descend from the gray. The raven that had found them at the gate appeared again, landing on the roof of a boarded shop just inside the entrance of the village. Amira fixed her eyes on it for a moment, then lifted a bent arm like an experienced falconer, displaying her forearm and inviting the raven to rest upon it. She raised an eyebrow, expectant.

The bird seemed disinclined, and flew off. Amira scowled.

Akra met eyes with Hoben, who shrugged. What’s the deal with this damned raven?

The fog came in closer, forcing them further into the village. Hoben and Ruh Ruh looked sadly at the closed tavern as they passed by building after building, all abandoned.

A soft whimpering made them all jump. In front of a boarded house stood two small beings. It took a moment for Akra to realize they were children.

Akra narrowed her eyes. Beside her, she felt the warlock stiffen. They exchanged wary glances.

Run Ruh pushed past them both, approaching the children.

The taller child, a girl, shushed the crying boy beside her.

“There’s a monster in our house!” she exclaimed, pointing to the tall brick row house that had seen better days. Its windows were dark. It had a gated portico on the ground floor, and the rusty gate was slightly ajar. The nearby houses were also abandoned.

“Who are you?” Akra asked, more accusatory than intended.

“These are clearly demon babies,” Amira interrupted, folding her arms. The rest of the party balked at the two women, embarrassed by their rudeness. Amira was unperturbed by their judgment. “Oh, come on! There’s no one else in this town, other than these spooky-looking children who just happen to be standing here, and you don’t think that’s suspicious?”

Akra agreed. How did they not see that something was obviously amiss?

Akra repeated the question, hoping it sounded kinder this time. The girl introduced herself as Rosavalda; the boy’s name was Thornbolt, and he was her brother. Akra guessed that Thorn was around seven years old, but he seemed small for his age, like a withered apple. He sniffled and held his small stuffed toy close to his chest.

Was this a trap, perhaps? Akra thought wildly of prodding them both with her sword to see if they were real.

Instead, she asked, “What kind of monster is in your house?” Rose clamped her hands over Thorn’s ears.

“We don’t know,” the girl said. “We’ve just heard — the sounds.” She grimaced. “Our parents are in there. And our baby brother, Walter, in his room on the third floor.”

Run Ruh glared at Akra and Amira, and kneeled in front of the children, although he needn’t have; he wasn’t much taller. He took Thorn’s hands in his own.

“Where can we take you where you would feel safe?” he asked. “Would you come inside with us while we look for your parents?”

Akra would have been touched by the barbarian’s protectiveness if she didn’t think the children were luring them to certain doom. She wasn’t entirely convinced that they weren’t the monsters they claimed to hear from inside the house.

Both children vigorously shook their heads, and refused to move. Ruh Ruh sighed and promised to return.

“So, are we going inside?” Hoben asked, standing on his tip toes, peering through the portico gate. Akra was impressed by the halfling’s boldness.

Akra looked to Liam, who nodded. They all looked toward the house, knowing that it held something dire within it, and they each had their own reasons for wanting to know what it was.

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