“We better hurry back,” the bat hissed.
“It’s your fault we’re here, Pipsqueak,” the girl snapped back. She piled fruit into a basket. The market was the closest place with mangoes, and her favorite bat demanded nothing less to eat. “You wouldn’t be so hungry all the time if you ate moths like I tell you to. This is my last good cloak, and it’s already holey.”
“What’s that?” asked the fruit vendor.
“Um,” said the girl, “I said, do you accept gold?” She spilled a handful of yellow beads onto the counter.
The vendor said nothing. His mouth was occupied with hanging open. The girl waited politely before shouldering her basket and weaving her way out of the market.
“Monster’s on the loose,” muttered a villager whose shoulder she brushed.
With her one free hand, the girl tugged her hood further down. “P-pardon, sir?”
The villager and his gaggle turned to stare at the young girl. “Monster’s on the loose,” he repeated. “The dragon was spotted last night o’er the palace towers.”
A dragon, not her. The knot in her stomach untwisted. She heard them talk about an angry beast and a kidnapped king’s son as she turned back into the street.
“What’s a dragon got any use for a prince?” asked Pipsqueak.
“Don’t be naive,” said the girl. “He’ll have at least a month of food with all the knights coming to rescue the king’s son. Dragons are as lazy as they are wicked, you know.”
“Aren’t you going to help?” the bat squeaked into her ear.
“With what?” she snorted.
“Are you kidding?” She laughed ruefully, hiding her fangs behind her palm.
“You’ve slain monsters before and have the strength of ten men,” said Pipsqueak. “What’s a dragon to a vampire queen?”
She hurried along the path that led to the dark woods. “I’m going back to the castle--”
“Oh, Kathluna, don’t be a coward!”
“--to get a suit of armor. Relax, Pip. I may not have a shadow, but I’d like to think I still have a heart.”
The sky was a chilly morning-gray when Kathluna rode out to meet the dragon. Her steed was a runaway that had found its way to her castle. Most animals went mad when Kathluna approached them, but the horse, like the castle bats, had grown accustomed to her vampire-scent.
She hadn’t been frightened in forever. But standing at the black yawn of the dragon’s lair, she suddenly remembered what it felt like. Her armor clattered as she dismounted. It served a double purpose. Even in cloaks, vampires still couldn’t be out in the sun. Metal plates could block the rays well enough. She hoped it would be enough to protect her from the dragon.
Dragons weren’t like bears or tigers or other wild beasts. They were twice as dangerous, and were motivated by wickedness instead of animalistic instinct. She was a bit annoyed that she had let Pip talk her into this. She was far from invincible.
When she stepped into the cave, she flipped open her helmet visor. The darkness was cool against her skin, and her night-eyes searched for the shape of the dragon.
Kathluna walked deeper into the cave. When she reached a long cavern lake, she saw movement in the corner of her eye. It took her awhile before she realized it was just her reflection in the water.
For the first time in years she could see herself. She drew close to the water and peered over the edge. A knight in full silver armor looked up at her.
The girl flipped open the visor. In the watery mirror, the suit of armor was empty.
Suddenly, Kathluna was knocked forwards into the water. She sat up and gasped, knees deep in chilled water.
“You don’t smell like human,” said a deep voice.
“No surprise to me,” said Kathluna, splashing to the shore. Metal sang as she drew her sword.
Kathluna drew back her arm and launched her blade into the darkness, but the dragon knocked it aside with its wing. “You’re undead, aren’t you?” It knocked her to the ground with a sweep of its tail. “I can’t fathom why you’d leave the shadow of your haunt.”
Kathluna scrambled up and spat between her fangs. “Not all monsters hide in holes like you,” said said, driving forward. She leapt up to tackle the dragon. It hissed at her, but she clung its shoulders and with her bare hands, threw the dragon down.
She placed her foot on the scaly throat. “Is the prince alive?”
The dragon laughed all the same. Its eyes slid to the mouth of the cave, where golden dawn was just beginning to outline the stones. “Well then, you’re already dead. If the sun doesn’t kill you, his people will--”
Kathluna narrowed her eyes and stepped off the dragon. She kicked it towards the back of the cave. “You’re not welcome here,” she said, and struck the side of the cave with her fist. The stone crumbled and sealed off the monster.
Kathluna put her hand to the prince’s face, then drew back. His skin was so warm. Terrified, she just clapped her hands by his ears instead. “Wake up.”
He did so, groggily. “Where--?”
There was a gash over his chest. He caught her staring at it. “The dragon practically impaled me in its grip bringing me over here,” the boy explained. “I guess it didn’t want me getting to my sword.”
Kathluna remembered the dragon’s cruel claws. “It’s miraculous that you’ve lasted this long,” she said as she pulled him to his feet. “C’mon.”
She half-carried him to where the horse was waiting at the end of the cave. As soon as she crossed the threshold, the light hit her face like burning oil.
“Shut my visor!” she hissed at the prince.
“Why should I--”
“Just do it!”
He closed her helmet, and Kathuna exhaled. She could still hear the sun sizzling on the metal, but at least it was cool inside the suit. Kathluna helped the prince onto the horse’s back, and then climbed behind him.
The horse was slowed with the weight of two people and a metal suit. The prince slumped weakly in the saddle, so Kathluna slapped him with the back of her hand.
“Stay awake, kid,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
Kathluna couldn’t remember being twelve. “Do you like bats, Puck?”
“Er, what I meant was, do you have any friends?”
“Not really.” The prince coughed and trembled. “Can I ask you something?”
“I suppose. Are you going to ask me if I’m a vampire?”
“I know that already. I can tell.”
She couldn’t decide if she was amused or annoyed. “How’s that? Did you see my fangs?”
“It’s because you’re pretty like death,” said Puck. “But I was going to ask you--” The prince broke off coughing again, and would have fallen off the horse if Kathluna hadn’t pushed him back on.
“Puck?” Kathluna looked wildly about. They wouldn’t make it to the castle in time. She unsheathed her sword and threw it away. She pulled off her helmet and tossed it too. The sunlight burned her so bad that tears sprung in her eyes. But she continued to unbuckle the rest of her armor.
Faster. She tossed chestplate, boots, and shield into the grass. The horse ran lighter, her skin screamed fiercer with white-hot pain. Kathluna cried aloud and wrapped her cloak tight around herself. Her fair hands, arms, face--all blistered in the cruel sunlight. She thought she might crack or splinter away.
Blinking back tears, Kathluna stared off into the distance. She saw the crowd of the kingdom gathered, watching the prince and the vampire riding towards them.
A small group of soldiers rushed to meet her. Kathluna quickly dismounted and lifted the prince off the saddle. “Take him,” she said to the men. For a moment she was surprised when they stepped back. But then she remembered what a fright she must have looked like--fanged and pale-skinned, and covered in sun blisters to top it off.
“Quick,” she hissed. They hurried down the slope with the little prince, and she realized she was alone.
Covered in cuts and welts, the vampire queen stood on the top of the hill. The people stared back at her, waiting in silence. And then one by one, they began to applaud.