The advice for travellers passing through Essetta on the way to Oberno is to travel only during the day, and to spend the night in one of many welcoming Halls of the Sun, safe from marauding vampires within a palisade patrolled by armed guards. Those who heed this advice can be forgiven for wondering if the tales of vampires are exaggerated, a childish fear of the night by sun-worshipping tribes hiding in their hill-top fortresses.
But there is far more to Essetta than these honey-gatherers and tasle-pickers. To discover the heart and soul of Essetta you must brave the forests at night and seek out the nocturnal tribes. Do not do this lightly! Every year there are reports of travellers going missing in the night, and of bodies found drained of blood and some even violated in other ways.
Be sure to wear ribbons in your hair – white if you are a priest of the Crimson Order, green or blue otherwise – and should you encounter a vampire then pray to the goddesses that it is not one of those vile ancients whose foul nests look down from the high valleys of the Mountains of the East.
Even at night, Essetta is a beautiful country. During the day, the forests are a lush green broken by bright blossom and sweetened with birdsong. It is also a land of ominous shadow, the great barrier range blocking the sun until mid morning, and the evening sun making a tapestry of light and dark out of the hills and valleys of Essetta itself.
At night it is the light of the moon and arch filtering through the branches that creates an almost magical realm, and the sounds of laughter and games of children is an almost surreal delight when you are expecting – as I was – a vampire to leap out of the black night at any moment.
I am happy to say I survived my brief adventure amongst the Essettans, and I have much to add to the Crimson Encyclopaedia. I wish, here, to relate a rare honour, a chance meeting with one who many believe to be a creature of pure myth. I must confess to having been half of this mind myself, but I am delighted to be able to confirm with my own two eyes the existence of a white-skinned vampire.
To the nocturnal tribes of Essetta, Hrana is almost a goddess. Indeed, their statues of their goddess are, I have since determined, very clearly modelled on Hrana. And yet, they talk about their mysterious lunar goddess with fear and reverence, while Hrana is welcomed like a long-lost family member. The children love her, and there is such joy in her when she plays with them.
It is difficult to reconcile this image of sisterly affection with the records of her as tata’Neyota, the Devil’s Mistress, wizard and warrior, battling the M’Takh for a thousand years and more. How many hearts has she stopped with her black knives? How many throats has she torn open with her terrifying fangs? Why isn’t all that blood and horror visible somehow when you look at her?
Talking to her, I could almost believe she was just a young woman, not an ancient monster – but I was never foolish enough to take the ribbons from my hair.
– Kariyne Marlo, 3/993
There is something wild about Hrana, both in appearance and manner. Her hair is a tangled mane and her clothing is two mismatched strips of rough cloth tied about her breasts and waist, and a bracelet of finely worked gold that wouldn’t be out of place on the wrist of a princess. She moves, however, with a sinuous grace and precision that seduces the eye, and with an occasional swiftness that startles it.
Her white skin and the triangle of scales running up her forehead are not Essettan features. As far as I know, only the Slavers have skin that colour, and she is most definitely not a Slaver. ‘Where do you come from?’ I ask her.
‘Not too far from here,’ she says. ‘North of the river. I was born in a little village at the foot of the mountains close to the high pass. But it was long ago, before the no’Shiel, even before the Potennu. I was born a Natarri and raised as a priestess of Keylin. I alone of all vampires was made a vampire, not born one.’
Made a vampire? How is that even possible? ‘Who made you?’ I asked. And how – or, better: ‘Why? Was it by choice, or was the choice made for you?’
She laughs, tailing off into a mischievous grin. ‘So many questions!’ She opens her mouth for a moment to show me her long, terrifying fangs. ‘Did I ask for these? No. I made a choice, yes, but the consequences of that choice were not clear. Nothing is clear when the Dancer works her mischief.’
The Dancer! More myths coming to life! I want to ask her a hundred questions about Bas’Lillene and the Slaves of God – and the Emperor, of course – but before I can open my mouth she shakes her head irritably. So instead I ask the first question I can think of: ‘What’s it like to be a vampire?’
She rolls her eyes, but smiles. ‘What’s it like knowing you’ll be dead in fifty years and forgotten in a hundred? What’s it like knowing that even if you spend your whole life travelling to new places, you’ll barely escape this tiny corner of OhLo? I am on a grand adventure. I get lonely, often, and I have shed tears enough to fill the Great Lake, but I have seen so much indescribable beauty and plan to spend eternity seeing all of it.’
She has me there. I would love to spend eternity exploring OhLo. ‘Can you be turned back to a human?’
Hrana shrugs. ‘I imagine the Dancer could turn me back, but I doubt she ever would. No one else has the skill to do it. Rashimin, the Witch-Doctor and my goddess have all tried and failed to understand the spells Lillene cast.’
‘If you had the choice to no longer be a vampire – to just be a human again – would you go for it?’
‘There have been days when I’ve hated myself for what I am, when I would have been sorely tempted to say yes, but I do know that if I ever did say yes I would truly hate myself for as long as I lived.’
I can’t understand why she is so content with her nature. She is a blood-drinker! How can anything make up for a life of feeding off the blood of others? ‘If you had the chance to be human again,’ I say, starting to annoy even myself, ‘to do one thing,’ holding up a finger to emphasise the one, ‘what would it be?’
She looks amused. ‘I know what you’re asking. I don’t really miss anything about being human. Thoughts of sunlight and food, for example, are not attractive, and there is a power and richness in my nature that I would have to sacrifice, and for what? But there is one thing I would like, and that is to be part of a Winterfest, surrounded by life and love and music and dancing and everything that’s best about mortal life.’
I don’t know why I needed to hear her say that. I smile my gratitude before asking, ‘What is the most important thing to you?’
‘Children,’ she says, looking over to where a gang of six- and seven-year-olds are racing around chasing each other. ‘Perhaps because I will never have another, or perhaps because they represent an innocence that I will never again know.’
It’s strange to see children so unafraid of the dark, especially when there are real monsters out there in the night. ‘Should humans tolerate the existence of vampires?’ I ask, aware of the foolishness of asking a vampire.
‘Which specific vampires do you have in mind? Or would you kill all of us, and those even whose descendants might one day be vampires? Oh, there are a few I would gladly get rid of, but there are more than a few humans equally worthy of a blood-letting.’
There is a sudden ferocity in her eyes that has me stumbling backwards a few steps, but she makes no move to attack me. ‘How do you not become a monster?’ I whisper. ‘What stops you from going off and doing anything you want, acting on any impulse?’
‘What stops you?’ she demands. ‘Is it fear of being caught? Or is it possible you have a heart? A conscience? Have you no desire to do your absolute best to keep your friends and family safe from the horrors of the M’Takh and the Slavers?’ She takes a deep breath to try and calm herself. ‘As long as my heart beats I will care, and as long as I care I am as vulnerable as you.’ With a sudden flash of irritation, she adds, ‘I’m tired of talking about me.’
I try to think of a less personal question. ‘They say a vampire’s bite brings pleasure rather than pain,’ I say. ‘Is that true, and how is that even possible?’
‘It certainly brings me pleasure,’ she says with a teasing smile. In the space of a heart beat she is standing in front of me. Before I can react at all, her hands are on my hips pulling me tight against her, our breasts squashed between us, her breath cool against my lips as she says, ‘The giving and taking of blood is an incredibly intimate exchange, and it only hurts if you fight it.’ Ignoring my struggles and mounting panic, she leans close and whispers in my ear: ‘Take those ribbons out and I’ll gladly show you.’
‘No!’ I cry, as much from the shock of realising I want her to bite me as from terror that she will.
She releases me with a laugh, and I collapse backwards onto the ground. ‘Last question,’ she says.
My mind is a blank. Suddenly the only question I can think of is from when I was a young girl reading stories of monsters. ‘Would you date a werewolf?’
She shakes her head, disappointed with the question, and with me. ‘I have never dated anyone. What would be the point?’ And with that, she turns and walks off into the black forest.