In Search Of A Friend

Castalia stood on the edge of the hole in the middle of the floor. Its ragged edges were characteristic of this rundown little shithole bar; broken ends of floorboards promised splinters for anyone stupid enough to slide along them. The hole itself was about five feet deep and had been wallowed out to an almost perfectly smooth bowl shape. Dead center of the hole was another hole, this one about three feet across, also smoothed out. It led down a few more feet before swinging out northward and out of sight.

Normally, there would be a large, purple creature lying in the hole. Her name was Xanthippe. She had several tentacles and an amorphous blob at the center of them. She said she was ‘Starfallen,’ whatever that meant. Castalia had never gotten around to asking about the term. But Xanthippe wasn’t there, leaving her post as the bar’s bouncer.

Five days ago, her friend had been in this hole and things had been fine. Five days ago, the proximity between the friends allowed for Xanthippe’s telepathy to allow them to communicate. Five days ago, they’d had a knock-down, drag-out fight. Blood flying, weapons drawn, the whole bit.

Now Casta stood staring at the empty hole in the floor and wondering where Xanthippe had gone. She wondered many things about her Starfallen friend. Mostly, she wondered if the purple being was somewhere safe.

Well, that and the thing that was tugging on her guts: guilt.

This was a new feeling. After all, one does not become an accomplished assassin and poisoner by having very much of a conscience or very many feelings at all. Goddamn it, Val! she thought, as if it was someone else’s fault that she was developing feelings. No, it was her own fault that she’d started allowing feelings into her life and she’d be damned if she was going to stop them now. She was in love with Valentin and it was amazing and she’d have to deal with the echoing ramifications of it. Including learning to trust the people she had taken to calling friends. Including having a wider palette of feelings than she’d ever bothered to deal with before.

So there was the lump of squirmy shit in her guts that she could identify as guilt for having gotten into such a brutal fight with her friend. Yes, the overgrown starfish was her friend. And that seemed to mean that she needed to do something. What, exactly, she didn’t know. But she had to take some kind of responsibility for her own actions and take the steps towards mending things.

Sighing, she jumped down into the hole, her knees bending to absorb the shock of the landing. There was some crusted purple goo on the sides of the main hole: evidence that Xanthippe had been there, but that it had been a while. Casta was fairly certain the duration would prove to be exactly the five days since she’d been here and had that fight. She didn’t bother getting out her kit to take a sample and run a test. Her squirming guts knew that Xanthippe hadn’t been back since the fight.

She closed her eyes and thought back those five days. She remembered cursing her friend. The feeling of Xanthippe’s tentacle wrapped around her throat. The spray of translucent glop from another tentacle as she’d sliced at it with her razor. The howl of rage and pain that sounded inside her skull from the Starfallen’s telepathy, actually making sounds in the physical world; sounds that made her wince in remembrance of the shriek like a cat being roasted alive.

Xanthippe had thought that she was going to harm someone. That hurt. Granted, she harmed people for a living, but she wasn’t on a job, and was just chatting with another friend at the bar. Her hungers had roused and Xanthippe, feeling them and hearing Castalia talk to herself in her own head, assumed that she was going to attempt to feed on this other person. ‘Doing her duty,’ she’d called it. Protecting someone who didn’t actually need it.

And so, they’d fought. And, when it was all over, Xanthippe had retreated down into her labyrinth of tunnels, headed for gods only knew where. Somewhere that she felt was safe from me, she thought. Which meant that it wasn’t likely to be in any of the places they’d gone together down here.

Down she went into the second hole, having to bend over to fit in the tunnel, heading north to the first junction. Light source. I forgot to bring a light source. Well, now she’d get to test the alterations she’d made to her eyes. A potion she’d quaffed weeks ago had never worn off. Now she was sporting fangs and a hunger for blood…as well as a set of crimson eyes with serpent’s pupils. Another problem for another time. So far, the eyes seemed to be working well in the dark.

Scrambling to a halt just before the first junction, she blessed those altered eyes. The ones that saw a spike trap in the middle of the junction. It wouldn’t bother Xanthippe at all – the Starfallen would simply cling to the ceiling and bypass it entirely. But anyone drunk enough or stupid enough (and she cheerfully put herself in the latter category for the moment) to attempt to find their way down here would be plunged into a six-foot-deep pit filled with wooden spikes.

The choice before her was left or right; east or west. She chose west, since Xanthippe had taken her east both times she’d been down here.

The western tunnel didn’t go far before it branched again, north and south. Another pit trap sat in the mouth of the northerly tunnel, so she took it. On she trudged, losing track of time, but always able to see where she was going. Eventually, the tunnel turned upward. Grateful to stand upright and rest her poor back, she encountered some kind of plug at the top of the tunnel. Casta felt around, looking for a latch or some kind of release mechanism, but found nothing.

Not being the most patient of people, and possessing the supernatural strength of the vampire, she punched upward. Wood splintered with an amazing amount of noise. She probably should have considered stealth as the first option, but that wasn’t going to help at this point.

She needn’t have worried. When she pulled herself free of the splintered boards, she found herself in a cellar, overgrown with mold and lichen. Castalia looked back down at how she’d entered: there was no latch, no hinges, no reason to believe it had ever been a door of any kind. Therefore, the question was ‘Why have a tunnel to this point?’ Xanthippe was relatively new to the Island, so she’d said. Less than a year of residence. Had she dug this tunnel herself? Or, perhaps, some other entity had honeycombed the area with tunnels that Xanthippe had taken it as her home?

Lurching over to a semi-collapsed barrel, she sat herself down and took a look at her hand. Shredded, battered, and sore. She grimaced. Since her errant potionmaking had entered her into the ranks of the undead, she had had a difficult time adjusting to needing blood. Not just for food, but for healing, as well as maintaining her sanity. If her hungers rose beyond a certain point, she became a ravening thing, dangerous to all around her. But she’d been careful!

Okay. Maybe she was kidding herself on that score, but she hadn’t slipped into the blind feeding frenzy she knew was her doom if she ever let herself go long enought without feeding. ‘Feeding.’ Even the word itself made her stomach churn with bitter bile. Her fellow creatures – friends! Loved ones! – reduced to bovine status as she took their essences from them to keep herself alive…or whatever she qualified as now. Her every interaction was something she questioned, her motives far from obvious, even to her. Was she buttering people up so she could feed from them? Was she stoking the flames of petty jealousies, rivalries, not-ripe love affairs, or estranged friendships so that she would have the emotional flavor of them to spice her meals?

She didn’t know. And, before Val, she wouldn’t have cared. Now, she cared. Now, it mattered to her what people thought of her, whether her friends were okay. And Xanthippe was her friend. Shaking herself from her moribund state, she stood and pushed her way back down the hole. Only in the light from above was something visible: on the wall, next to the end of the tunnel was a mark. It looked like a series of interconnected rings: five on the top and five on the bottom. In other circumstances, she might not have worried about its meaning. But those, she knew, were pressure rings from Xanthippe’s tentacles. She’d been here, and marked this place for some reason. Without really meaning to, she raised her hand and let a finger drift over the markings.

And was blown into the opposite wall by a concussive wave that slammed her head into the rough-packed dirt before collapsing most of the floor above her onto her head.

It was a long time before she managed to dig herself free of the rubble, all the while praising her vampirism, which had kept her mostly intact (if dizzy and sneezing, battered and bruised) where a mere mortal would have been crushed to death. Chum for the FailBoat’s call. With all of the damage, and how long it had been since she’d last fed, she could feel the hunger rising, threatening to blot out sanity.

Rather than retreat through the tunnels, she decided to go back topside, through the ruins, and stop at one of the settlements. Hopefully, the medical units around each settlement would have some bagged or bottled blood she could buy. Otherwise, it was off to the jungle to attempt to feed from some crazy-ass monster or misalignment of life while it was attempting to kill her.

The one thing she did hope was that she didn’t run into anyone she knew in the process. That would be bad.

To be continued…

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