Alina stared at the steaming pastry sitting in front of her. She had cut a triangular hole that led into the seasoned ground beef and vegetables sweating within. Her stomach pained from her earlier meal, but she needed to know, needed to taste, a chance to be human again.
The spices and soft vegetables squished and filled her mouth with flavorless water. Bland and tasteless. When she swallowed, it was as if she consumed air. Her spoon clanged on the table before she pushed the pie away. She had loved pie as a child, but now it repulsed her.
Alina sensed a soft presence near her shoulder. The wooden stool squealed against the floor, followed by the aroma of scented flowers. Alina looked out of the corner of her eyes and saw the magician's assistant leaning on the counter.
"I've never seen anyone turn their nose at the world famous Crow's Nest pie. Did you have too many ales before embarking on the tasty adventure?"
Alina stared at the smoky steam and rolled a coin between her fingers. "It tastes . . . boring."
Daciana gasped and pulled on the charred baking pan. "You're mad! Let me see." Her fingers curled over the pie and froze in place. "You do not desire this anymore, do you?"
Her eyes lit up. Daciana clawed through the tanned flour and ripped handfuls of glistening mud and vegetables into her mouth. Alina watched the juices fly out of Daciana's mouth and turned away in disgust.
"This is -mmph- delicious."
"You make it seem otherwise."
Daciana sucked on her slimy fingertips. "What's your name my pretty?"
"Did you not like the show? Most people have brown splotches in their trousers when they see Ciprian's beast."
"I was not particularly fond of your gratuitous cleavage. Besides, I knew the wolf wouldn't escape. It is a show after all."
"Well, the bosom brings the coin. It's survival of the fittest and the smartest."
Alina spun in her stool and faced Daciana. "Why do you bother me?"
"Would you rather I speak to the fine selection of perverse old men in this tavern? You intrigue me, luv." Daciana sniffed over Alina's shoulder. "There's a strange scent about you."
Alina placed her open palm on Daciana's forehead and slowly pushed her flaring nostrils away. Daciana giggled and dug her hands into the pie again.
"May I ask why you're here, luv?"
"I am not your love."
Daciana spoke with a mouth full of meat. "Don't be a cranky old hag."
Alina raised the spoon to the girl.
"That's vile. It was already in your mouth. My fingers will do just fine, luv."
The spoon clanged on the counter. "What I'm doing here is none of your concern."
"Are you here to see the old man?"
Alina's eyes narrowed. "What old man?"
"The one that could cure your vampi--" Alina's smacked her gloved hand against the girl's lips. A deep growl rumbled within her throat as she bared her human-sized teeth.
"I could use some fresh air," Alina said.
Alina grabbed onto the girl's corset and carried her out of the tavern. Once they were free of prying eyes, the vampire threw Daciana against a stone wall. Daciana's curly black locks exploded in a star burst of hair behind her. A metallic ring sung from Alina's scabbard. Daciana's widened eyes and the stars above reflected within the sword's steel.
"Who are you?" Alina said.
"You shouldn't point your blade at me."
Alina poked the tip into Daciana's flesh. The girl's head tilted away from the blade.
"Stop this. I mean you no harm."
A sudden force pushed against Alina's hand and sent the hilt of the sword flying down the alley into the open hand of the magician. His face was illuminated by a fireball that sat in his palm.
Alina reached into her boot and grasped for a hidden dagger. A warm, soft hand gently touched hers. "You don't need that," Daciana said.
Alina stared into the girl's delicate eyes. "What do you want with me?"
"I don't do magic."
"No. Ciprian and I are going on a very dangerous journey. We saw what you did to those bandits when you rescued that boy."
"Oh . . ." Alina felt the sting of shame wash over her. "Then you know."
Ciprian extinguished the fireball and handed the sword back to Alina. She looked up at him and noticed a deep scar across his neck, jagged and pink. His neck started to move and she could hear the sound of a heartbeat echoing in a cave.
"Ciprian says that you did a poor job of masking your identity."
Alina quirked a brow at Daciana. "He doesn't speak?"
"Not by choice. He uses magic to commun--nevermind that now. Do you seek a cure for your condition or not?"
"The old man we're going to see is said to be able to cure any ailment. We're hoping he can restore Ciprian's ability to speak."
"And you want me as a guard?"
"Well, a companion would be better. Ciprian believes the old man will make us fetch ingredients. It would be easier with a fighter on our side."
A patter of footsteps fluttered near the tavern. Ciprian chased after the sound and returned holding a boy by his collar. He threw the boy next to Alina and made more sounds with his throat.
"Why are you spying on us, boy?" Daciana said.
Alina looked at the young man and recognized his cherub face and portly body. "Leo?"