"Quinn? Can I borrow you for a moment?" a soft voice at my elbow asked.
I looked around and saw that Bailey, Esterloch's Master Vampire, was standing close by. Around us, many a chattering conversation was being held by our fellow townsfolk as the harvest feast continued. Flames licked at the night sky while the scents of spit-roasted meat, flame-cooked potatoes still in their skins and roasted chestnuts filled the air. I turned away from the heat of the fire, just as Jay rejoined us; my mate held a couple of turkey legs in one hand and a couple of jugs of mead in the other. I relinquished one of each from him before I nodded at Bailey.
"Consider me borrowed," I said before I ripped a huge chunk of meat away from my turkey leg. "What can I help you with?"
"I was hoping to ask a favour of both of you actually," Bailey asked and grimaced in sudden embarrassment.
Although he couldn't blush, I still could imagine a faint red tint on his pale cheeks and his fangs showed briefly during that one grimace.
"Well, whatever it is, I'm sure we'll grant it," I said as I exchanged baffled glances with Jay.
"Within reason," Jay agreed and gave the vampire one of his dimpled grins.
"Good. How much do you know about vampire lore?" Bailey asked, hesitantly despite his chuckles over Jay's response.
"Not very much," I admitted after Jay had shrugged nonchalantly. "Probably the same as what you know about dragon lore."
Bailey's mouth twitched in amusement as though I'd proved his point.
"Good point. I suppose you've never heard of the Dragon Son's Castle then?" he asked.
"No," Jay said in surprise. "Is it really owned by the son of a dragon?"
"No. It's a misnomer. It was actually a vampire's castle. No one knows what happened to the vampire in question but he was said to have a dragon's ferocious wrath and strength," Bailey explained. "Which is why I thought of you two for this particular task; I thought you'd appreciate the connection. Now, in vampire lore, there's a waterfall near to this castle that's supposed to bleed red every hundred years or so. I missed it the last time that it happened as I was only newly undead, but it's due to flow red again next month. It's like a pilgrimage for my kind; we haven't truly existed unless we've visited the site of one of our forefathers, if you know what I mean."
"I suppose. But," I said with a slow and amused grin. "I sense there's a but there."
"But, in short, I need a ride there," Bailey said and laughed in such a way that let us know he was aware he'd been caught out. "I would take a gryphon or something but as I said, considering this vampire was considered good enough to be a dragon, I thought you'd naturally want to have a look. Being dragon-shifters yourselves."
"But you need a ride first and foremost," I said and rumbled into laughter at Bailey's embarrassed grin. "It's okay. Jay and I could do with a holiday anyway. What say you, Jay? Do you fancy taking a look at this dragon son's castle?"
"Do I ever," Jay said with a grin. "I love castles and keeps. And I'm intrigued by this blood-red waterfall. Is it really blood?"
"I don't think so," Bailey said with a shrug. "It's to do with something in the water turning it red. Like trapped iron oxide build-ups or something? Anyway, the river that feeds the fall sometimes gets fed in turn from another spring that's trapped in rocks nearby; something happens to the ground in the area and this spring gets diverted every hundred years. The iron and the subsequent red colouring comes from this trapped spring. Weird phenomenon."
"Sounds it," I said with a smile. "As we said, count us in. Seeing as you need a ride and everything."
I exchanged grins with the vampire and Jay before we continued with our meal; we talked about where the spring and castle were located. Jay and I were soon acquainted with all the details we needed to know.
one month later
Jay and I met Bailey just outside of Esterloch as the moon was rising high over the valley. With Bailey was a retinue of vampires that wished also to see Blood Falls. I was surprised to see the group only included about thirty or so vampires; I had expected more, for some reason.
Once we'd ascertained that we all were ready, Jay and I turned into our dragon forms and helped Bailey and those of his kiss who wanted to, to climb onto our backs. The rest rode on gryphons, hippogriffs and winged horses. As per my status as Alpha dragon, I took the lead; I listened carefully to Bailey's shouted instructions as he guided us through the night.
We had to make a couple of stops so that Jay, me and the vampires could sleep through the day. On the beginning of the third night, we finally reached the castle in question, high in the north-eastern mountains of Erialand. I was glad of my thick, fur-lined cloak for I would have frozen in my human form otherwise. Jay, of course, being a dragon of ice, loved the cooler temperatures and the vampires were typically impervious to any temperature.
After a brief search of the area beyond the castle, we found the rushing waters of the waterfall-fed lake to the south of it. Trees packed their way around the perimeter of the courtyard and lake both, and falling from the cliffs that reared high above our heads, we saw the red-tinted waters rushing into the lake at our feet. There were also caves in the cliff-face which we knew would provide excellent shelter during the day if we needed it.
Jay and I continued to watch as the vampires began to explore the area. They all seemed to want to fill vials with the red water as a reminder of their pilgrimage and each one of them seemed pretty excited to be there. I wasn't as impressed as they were, however; Jay must have guessed as to what I was thinking for he nudged me suddenly.
"Just red water, isn't it, love?" Jay asked me and his grin when it came, was highly amused and heavily dimpled.
"I guess. The vampires seem to love it though," I said and laughed. "Once you've seen it, the novelty wears off after five seconds."
"Five seconds," Jay repeated and hooted with sudden laughter.
I also grinned as my mate turned his attention up to the castle and watched it for a while. His gaze briefly followed the bats that flittered around the towers on their hunt for food.
"Perhaps we should have a look at the castle," he suggested without needing to be prompted.
"We may as well, while we're here," I agreed before I called Bailey over.
I told the master of what Jay had suggested and after a quick conference with the highest-ranking vampires in his kiss, Bailey swiftly agreed. We then picked our way up to the castle and wandered through the broken gates into the courtyard. The place would once have been magnificent if it hadn't been deserted and dilapidated; it also was eerily creepy with a solemn, evil atmosphere about the place. We wandered around the courtyard and marvelled at the size of the flagstones and the height of the building itself. Once we became bored of the courtyard, we began to explore the echoing corridors and halls that were housed within.
Of course, most were empty, as the castle had long since been abandoned by the vampires that had once lived there. Cobwebs festooned every corner and even across some of the entrances to the halls. Jay was particularly fascinated by the stable-block, and spent an interminable time there, as he tried to imagine the horses the stalls must once have held. I was drawn in turn to what must have been the farrier's forge; I examined the cold hearth and fingered the anvil that had been left behind. We'd only been there a short time when we heard running footsteps and a vampire burst into the forge in a hurry.
"Dragons. Come quick. Bailey's disappeared in the Great Hall," she shouted.
"Disappeared? What do you mean?" I asked but my words fell on empty air because the vampire had already gone.
"What happened exactly?" I asked as I gazed around the Great Hall.
It was too reminiscent of the one I'd left behind at Adiren Keep and I had to suppress a disgusted shudder at the unwanted memory of my past.
"He was looking over here and he disappeared," Jadina, the vampire that had found us at the forge said.
She gestured towards a blank wall and I exchanged baffled glances with Jay; I didn't like to point out to Jadina that it was impossible for someone to disappear through a solid wall unless magic was involved. I could tell that Jay was thinking along the same lines yet he, too, remained silent.
Jay and I began nosing around the wall in question. We both could scent Bailey's distinct aroma and felt the faintest shimmer of dark magic around the stones but Bailey himself wasn't there; the magic also wasn't his, we knew. Vampires didn't possess magic as mages did which led me to wonder if a mage's spell-work was perhaps involved. After a few more moments, Jay nudged me.
"Secret magical passage, d'you think?" he asked and grinned.
"Possibly," I said even as we heard muffled yells from behind the wall that sounded unmistakeably like Bailey's voice.
We began yelling for him even as the wall before us began to slide open; a strong wash of dark magic slapped us in the face as it did so which proved our earlier theory that spell-work was involved. Bailey peeked out from the revealed chamber behind the wall and beckoned us all in. The vampires crowded in after Jay and me and more than one of us shivered as another wave of dark magic washed over us.
"What in the name of drakes is going on here?" I muttered as Bailey gestured again for us to follow him.
"Never mind that. Follow me," the vampire said.
"Why? Where are you taking us?" Jay asked Bailey suspiciously.
"You'll see," Bailey said and I could see despite the darkness that surrounded us that he was grinning.
It seemed we had to be satisfied with that because Bailey remained stoically silent even when pressed further on the subject. We seemingly had no choice then but to continue walking down the corridor as it descended and eventually found ourselves in what appeared to be some kind of dungeon below the keep. Small windows were situated high up in each corner of the room, yet due to it being night-time, they didn't throw much light into the underground space. That fact didn't bother any of us. We all could see well enough in the dark.
"Look at this place," Bailey said as he gestured around the dungeons. "Lots and lots of urns."
And so there were. I wondered aloud as to what they were doing there, yet Bailey had a ready answer.
"Demolished vampires," he said grimly. "It's what the Dragon Son used to do. He forced his enemies and even members of his own kiss out into the sun as punishment. It could have been for something like treachery, insubordination or theft without recompense or remorse."
"Bit harsh, isn't it?" I asked in disapproval.
"Well, we're not all nice guys, Quinn," Bailey said and while he grinned in amusement at me, I knew that he had a serious point to make.
"I think the same could be said for dragons," I conceded as I thought of my own father.
Bailey nodded a silent agreement yet didn't add anything more to the conversation. Instead, he gestured for us to continue looking around. We did so and didn't stop until we found a hidden passageway, which led to a secret treasure room. There remained a few chests, but they proved to be empty on perusal.
"Oh well, probably just as well," Bailey said with a shrug. "The money would have been cursed anyway."
"Really?" Jay asked in surprise.
"I think it was one of the Dragon Son's quirks. He protected his huge wealth with dark magic. He had a dark mage in his employ," Bailey explained with a brief shrug. "If we took anything, we'd never get very far; either the magic would get us or the Dragon Son would - if he's still here. Which everyone doubts, by the way."
"Well, as you said, luckily there was nothing to take," one of the other vampires said sourly. "I've had my fill of this place anyway. It's evil here. Can you not feel it?"
"Ever since we walked in," I admitted before anyone else could.
"Well, I for one suggest we leave now," Jay said uncomfortably.
We all agreed and so, made our way back to the magical doorway again; we discovered the portal had closed behind us and refused to open once more.
"What the -? How do we get this open again?" Jay asked as he slapped both hands on the unresponsive wall. "Quinn love! Do something."
I grunted in agreement and so, we both shoved forcibly against the wall with our shoulders. Even our combined dragon-strength wasn't enough to shift it open and dragon-shifters were the strongest beings anywhere in Erialand. The dark magic that swathed the door pulsed to choking levels and Jay and I reared back in disgust.
"In the name of drakes," I said angrily.
I mimicked my mate's earlier actions as I slapped both hands forcibly against the barrier separating us from freedom.
"This shouldn't have happened," Bailey said in anger. "Should it?"
"Who knows? I have no experience with magic walls like these," I growled in frustration. "I want to get out of here."
"We're never getting out," Jadina said. "I'm sorry."
"What? What are you sorry for?" Bailey asked distractedly.
He didn't take his gaze from the magic door, however.
"I found a ruby in that treasury we left. It was jammed in a corner. I sort of took it," she said in embarrassment.
"Sort of? Either you did or you didn't," Bailey said as he turned on her. "What did you do?"
"I took it, all right? It was pretty," Jadina said and even in the darkness, I could see she was pouting.
A sudden sound emanated from the darkness below then, and we quietened. It seemed as though someone with heavy boots was climbing up the passage after us.
"I know you're there," a sepulchral voice called to us. "Thief."
"It's the Dragon Son," one of the vampires hissed.
"I thought you said he was dead," I said to Bailey.
"I didn't say that. I said no one knew where he was," Bailey insisted.
"He's been watching us all this time, hasn't he?" Jadina hissed in sudden fear. "He was hiding in another hidden room or something. He watched me take the ruby, didn't he?"
"In the name of drakes - throw the ruby back," I hissed at Jadina.
"No!" Jadina said as she shrunk back from me.
"Throw it back, drakes blast you," I shouted. "You saw what happened to those vampires down below, didn't you? They were reduced to ashes. Are you going to condemn your kiss to the same fate? Jay and I can't transform in this confined space. We can't save you, you stupid vampire."
"Quinn's right," Bailey said angrily. "Throw it back, Jadina or you'll kill us all. Death for vampires who commit theft without remorse or recompense, remember?"
Jadina moaned about it being unfair and that she wanted to keep the pretty jewel yet I still heard her throwing the ruby away. She then shouted that she was sorry and didn't want to die. The boots stepped closer still and stopped; we heard faint scrabblings against the stone floor, followed by a faint triumphant sound as the Dragon Son found his treasure.
"Lucky escape," the still unseen vampire hissed from below. "This time."
The Dragon Son turned and walked away from us down the corridor once more; his footsteps soon faded completely away.
"Has he gone?" Jadina asked, and her voice carried a genuine note of fear.
"You'd better hope for all our sakes he has," Jay said in disgust just as the magic-powered wall began to swing out again behind us.
We piled out into the Great Hall with cries of relief and it was only then that I realised how claustrophobic it had been in the corridor. We saw from the horizon that it was getting near dawn; Jay and I had no choice but to transport our vampire friends back to the caves at the lakeside.
The following night, we began the return journey to Esterloch. All the vampires were chattering happily of our adventures at the castle. Both Jay and I did not join in much, despite our amusement over the excitement the vampires were experiencing. Even though we still felt angry over the close run-in with the Dragon Son due to Jadina's temprary greed, we'd had had a surprisingly good time too.
"I wonder if we'll be asked again?" Jay asked with a grin.
"We'll see if we are in another hundred years time," I said and laughed.
Jay's grin widened into a laugh even as he winked cheekily at me. I hugged him before we turned our attention back to the vampires once more.