Chapter 1: In Which Illyana Begs for Food and Meets a Blood Angel
Illyana wanted to scream at the figures passing out of Sigmora's city gates. She'd hidden from them the night before, hoping at least the girl she thought of as a sister, Kiri, would turn back or at least look for her. She'd suspected they weren't too fond of her, but needed to see if that was true. She'd trusted them, and she'd been wrong. The girl she loved did nothing. Neither did the young man she looked up to as not a father or a brother, but a friend--Boriol. He didn't feel the same about her. She'd loved them, and they didn't hate her. She'd thought that was a good thing--a step in the right direction. But they were indifferent. To Illyana, that was worse than any form of hate.
She slammed her fists against the wall on either side of the window, clenching her teeth and wondering why in the world she was holding in her scream. She pounded the wall again and again, harder and harder, hoping it would shatter, hoping the destruction would satisfy her. Her scream wouldn't come out, but her tears did. In her rage, she didn't tire until her energy was completely spent and she collapsed. She rested her head against the windowsill and cried.
Was it something she did? She'd eaten their food, sure. She'd taken up one of their horses and the man previously occupying it had apparently been glad to give it to her. Was it because of her race? Dryads were thieves, stereotypically. They could slip in and out of any wood structure like a sticky-fingered ghost, taking anything they pleased with them in or out. They were assassins, thieves, perverts. She could admit that her race was generally made up of shady people, though they were at least better than nymphs and blood angels among the fay, and they were especially better than any subrace of fiend.
"Who's up there?" somebody called from the floor below. Illyana looked behind her at the inn bedroom she'd hidden in. She heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, then the knob shaking on the door she'd locked. She heard the innkeeper fumble for his keys and didn't stay to hear more. She sank into the crack between the wall and floor, the wood reaching out to pull her in like a thousand tiny, greedy hands. Once in the wall, her form was no longer her own. She was the building, but the building wasn't her. She felt her being wrap around every room, every beam, every board. She no longer needed to breathe, to see, or to smell. All she did was think and feel, though not through her human form's sense of touch. She felt the innkeeper throw the door open and check the room Illyana had just been in. She didn't hear him call for the intruder to show himself. She felt the words, the tone of voice. The innkeeper was simultaneously apprehensive and annoyed. Illyana didn't see the gestures that betrayed the man's false anger--she felt them as well. It wasn't through vibrations, but just through the space her being occupied and surrounded.
She slipped out of the building, reforming her body as she went. Familiar human senses rushed back into her as her eyes melted out of the wood and connected to her brain as it, too, flowed from the entirity of the building into her body. Her nerves, not entirely formed, tingled as they appended themselves to what was already inside her. Dryads were formless when they entered a tree or other wooden structure with greater mass than their natural body, but they couldn't change their natural body. Illyana was twelve and looked twelve. Her eyes were light brown, her dirty skin a shade darker than her eyes, and her long, uncombed hair a shade darker than her skin. Her skin was pulled tight around her bones and small muscles. Even through her baggy, long-sleeved white shirt, her ribs were visible. It would take a lot more clothes than she wore to cover her malnourishment, and she had no desire to. If she appeared sickly thin, people were more likely to give her food. She'd also be hungry all the time. It wasn't worth it, but she didn't have much of a choice.
She'd been traveling for a year, and it was time to stop. If she stayed in one place, the chances of a merciful family bringing her in and feeding her increased. She'd seen it happen before to another urchin. Once.
She'd gone far enough north that the heat would have been unbearable if it weren't for the massive canopy of leaves the surrounding forest provided. As it was, people wore significantly less than they did back where she lived. Men and women both wore simple things like short-sleeved or sleeveless shirts and standard trousers or shorts and skirts, plus sunhats. Back home in the south, she'd found it strange that people would cover their hair in the north, but now that she was there, she could see why--or rather, feel why. She'd have to get a hat of her own if she was going to stay here.
She was hungry. Very hungry. Though staying in a tree provided her with the nutrients a tree needed to survive, she was, ultimately, not a tree. She needed food, and she'd rather beg than steal. She wandered and surveyed the city of Sigmora, searching for a populated spot to sit and look pitiful and cute. Intersections were populated, but people at intersections were usually hurried. So Illyana turned at an intersection, following a train track running down the middle of the cobblestone roads. Trains stopped at important, busy places. Important, busy places had a lot of people. Again, these people were usually hurried, but only when they were getting on or off a train.
The train station was marked by diagonal yellow lines painted on the road in front of a building with a pure glass front, its sign on a pole outside. Illyana strolled past it, glancing inside. Tens of people sat in a waiting room larger than most houses. Illyana smiled and plopped down under the "Train Station" sign.
In an hour, she collected a few pieces of bread, twenty lunes--which would buy her all of nothing when a loaf of bread was worth five hundred lunes--and one pat on the head from a woman who looked entirely too pleased with herself. It was something new, though. People generally didn't touch urchins.
In two hours, her income was much better. A man in a suit knelt, talked with her for a minute, and left her a thousand lune note. She got no more bread--she'd eaten the first as soon as it had fallen into her hands--but she did get some chocolate. Though it was tempting, she waited to eat it until someone gave her water. With her age and gender, she was at an advantage as a beggar. A young girl gained much more sympathy than a middle-aged man. All the same, she had to look vulnerable and dirty, yet pretty. Rotting teeth were not pretty, and two of her molars already hurt when she bit down with them.
In the third hour, the train came, collected about a hundred people, and the street was suddenly empty. Illyana got up to leave and found her path blocked by an angel--no, not an angel. This one's wings were dull red, and the last three feathers on either side shined and pointed almost like blades. Her hair, nearly as long as Illyana's, matched her wings.
"Where did you come from?" the blood angel asked, stepping forward. Illyana stepped back. She looked around for something made of wood to sink into. Unfortunately, none of the buildings had enough wood on them to let her fit inside, much less escape. She took another step back. The blood angel took two steps forward, thrust her wings backward, and soared toward Illyana, landing close enough that Illyana could see the color of her eyes. They were red, like everything else. A common color for angels, but unnerving on a blood angel.
"South," Illyana said. "I'm from Dakonia." The blood angel was a girl, not much older than her. She wore baggy gray trousers and a tight, sleeveless, faded red shirt.
"That's a thousand kilometers away. Why are you here?"
"I ran away and got lost on my way back and I needed food," Illyana said, backing up another step. The blood angel glared at her for a moment, then smiled. Illyana blinked. Blood angels could do that?
"A dryad who isn't a thief," she said, sounding skeptical. "Now all I need to see is a virgin nymph and a civilized draman and I'll have seen it all. What's your name?"
"Illyana Fhin." Illyana was also surprised. Weren't blood angels the creatures that were supposed to torture criminals after their deaths? Moreover, weren't all blood angels killed the moment they turned from angels into blood angels? What was one doing in a heavily-populated metropolis?
The blood angel cocked her head and looked at Illyana expectantly.
"Healer," she said, remembering northern manners: state your name and your birth ability when introducing yourself. "I'm a healer."
The girl looked skeptical, but nodded slowly. "Show me."
Illyana opened her mouth, but didn't get a word out before the girl bit down on her own wrist with two fiend-like fangs, drawing blood. She held her arm out toward Illyana. Illyana raised a hand to the puncture marks and felt around the wounds. They were shallow--the blood angel's fangs had hit her ulna and even a blood angel wasn't stupid enough to keep biting after that. It was only a flesh wound--the first thing the doctors back home had taught her to heal. She let her inergy flow from her fingers and into the bite mark. She couldn't truly heal--nobody could. She, and anybody else born with healing, was only able to speed up the body's natural healing process in a single area. Healing a bite was a simple task, as smaller injuries could be healed at many times the speed of larger injuries.
Illyana let her arms fall to her sides. The blood angel, true to her name, licked the blood away from her wrist and looked at the pale skin where the bite mark had once been. She nodded, then looked back at Illyana.
"If you're planning on staying here, fine." She stepped forward, leaning in close. "But if you steal so much as a single lune from anyone--no matter how despicable--in this city, I'll make sure you're punished."
"I'm not a thief," Illyana said, looking the girl straight in the eyes. The return stare unnerved her enough that she had to look down. The other girl's face betrayed emotions that Illyana couldn't quite place. A slight, tight-lipped smile combined with a narrow-eyed stare could mean many things.
"I won't take your word for it," said the girl. "You seem honest, but I have yet to trust a dryad."
The blood angel spread her wings--the blade-like feathers on her wingtips screeched like steel as they slid against each other--and took flight, blowing up dust all around Illyana. She rose, then disappeared over the top of the train station. Illyana heard her wing beats for a minute after that, and wondered how she hadn't heard the blood angel arrive in the first place.
The blood angel had apparently been watching her for long enough to know that she hadn't stolen anything. Was she distinctive enough to watch? Her skin was a similar shade to the rest of the people in Sigmora, maybe a few shades darker. Was she the only beggar? No, she'd seen two or three on her way to the train station. Was it her race? She hadn't seen any other dryads, and though her hair covered most of them, her ears, pointed outward like most fay, yet shorter than elves or angels, might give her away.
That was of small concern, though. Illyana wasn't sure she wanted to stay in Sigmora anymore. She didn't want to be a thief, but she'd made that resolve a few times over the year she'd been away from home, and she'd broken it every time. The thought of being punished by a blood angel didn't appeal to her.
Maybe this was what she needed. She didn't want to steal anymore, and with the threat of a blood angel's punishment, maybe she could stop. She'd try it, she decided. If she managed to go a week without stealing anything, she'd stay.
She sighed. Just wait until you're starving and there's a nice bakery made of wood, she told herself. That's how you failed the last three times.