Unable to answer, I looked away, down at the group. They had blankets spread and tents set up. The girls had removed their shoes and were raising their skirts while wading in the water.
“Now I know why they say fairies toy with women and kill men.”
She laughed again, not ashamed in the slightest. “Innanmi, true fairies follow an ironclad rule. Mortal men who lay hands on us don’t survive the experience.”
In response to the face I was making, she added, “Don’t worry. Half-fairies aren’t expected to follow that rule.”
“What about men who just happen to meet you?”
“I mostly don’t let men meet me. When decent ones do, I make sure they don’t get the wrong idea, and I gently lead them to safety. Mortal men are simple creatures, child. With skill they can be led easily.”
I cleared my throat, then frowned, “My mother…”
“She has an unusual method, because she loves humans so dearly. Fairy humanophiles are rare, but they have a gentler way to handle lovers. They choose an individual man they like and stick with him, lovingly caring for him into old age, until he dies a peaceful and natural death. But in the end, he still never escapes with his life, you know.”
My mouth hung open a bit. I mean, that was a really dark interpretation to put on a lifetime commitment. I covered my slack jaw by taking another bite.
“Humans outnumber us by much more than a thousand to one. For our own survival, we need them to fear us. They’ve killed off an entire race before. A race that was even more powerful than us.”
My mouth stopped moving as I heard those words. A subject very important to me had suddenly come up, right out of the blue.
I swallowed and interpreted, “The stregas?”
“That’s right,” she nodded, then glanced down at the mortals. “Oh, they’re already starting.”
I glanced down, but all that I saw was a little horseplay. I had been paying attention to grandmother and ignoring them as they waded and flirted.
“Two or three groups come here every month, sometimes more, in the spring. Supposedly they’re here to camp, but the men’s real goal is to coax the women out of their clothing for a moonlight swim and maybe more, and the women’s real goal is to be reluctantly coaxed out of their clothes for a moonlight swim and maybe more. Watching the girls overcome their modesty is half the entertainment.”
“You watch them a lot?”
“Only if I happen to be at the surface, but I always know what they do. Only one couple from this group has come up to my pool before, but I recognize all of them. This group is from the main town down on the river. The guys and two of the girls are adventurers visiting home and the other girl is an old friend of their’s, a barmaid. Perhaps they’re trying to recruit her.”
“You know all of them?”
She chuckled. “I go into town rather often, Innanmi. In disguise, of course. I’ve kept watch over the locals for a very long time. I know them as well as I knew their ancestors five thousand years ago.”
After a brief look down, she said, fondly, “All but one of these are my descendants, actually. One or more of those daughters I mentioned are their ancestors.”
“All but one?”
“The tall man with the heavy muscles is a newcomer. He joined their party and adopted Oste as his home.”
I shook my head, wondering exactly how much ‘watching’ she did over the locals. She mentioned once being considered a goddess here. Maybe she took the responsibility to heart.
As we listened, the girls succumbed to the logic that they might get their dresses wet while wading in the warm water, and it would be safer to wear only their chemises. They had returned to shore to remove them, but were slow to actually shed their outer clothing, being shy.
Grandmother commented, “You know, sometimes, once they pair off and aren’t paying attention as a group, I pluck one of the girls and play with her. She goes back embarrassed and thoroughly fatigued. There’s an extra girl this time. Want to try it?”
“No, thank you!” I answered firmly.
She gave a light laugh, savored another bite, then said, “Stregas. You heard that in the north?”
“They have a lot of the story mixed up, but they have the most important detail right. Humans really did kill off the Elders.”
I remembered a similar term from the Hamagaar story. “The ancient race.”
“That’s how they remember the Elders in some places. ‘Strega’ is a name that evolved long after they were gone.”
“Uncle Arken– Mother’s elven friend– thought the ancient race were fairies.”
She breathed in, thinking about it. “I know of Arken. He’s wrong, but not he’s not completely wrong. Fairies are their descendents, after all. But so are monstrous races like vampires. When the First Ones brought in civilization, they brought in the Elders to lead the mortals. The rest of us came later, after the humans rebelled.”
I thought it was odd how she said ‘brought in’ instead of ‘created’, but for some reason I didn’t question it. Instead, I supplied, “To replace the lost stregas?”
“To protect the mortals from themselves. With the Elders gone, they would have overrun the world and destroyed it, next. My mother tells me humans always do that, on any world where they live without restraint.”
She savored another bite of fish for a bit, swallowed, and explained, “Since direct guidance didn’t work, we fairies and magical beings and monsters keep the humans from destroying the world and each other instead.”
“And the demons, as well?”
“The demons are a separate matter,” she stated firmly. “They are humanity’s sin.”
Another strange statement. But before I asked for an explanation, I had to ask…
“Grandmother, why do you know about all of this and the rest of us don’t?”
“Hm. Maybe because I’m much closer to it? I’m almost as old as a fairy can be, Innanmi. My father is part of the first generation, and I’m one of his oldest children.”
Another glance down and she laughed. “Oh, they’re getting a quick start tonight.”
I looked down and saw that two of the women had already removed their kirtles, leaving only the usual knee-length chemises worn under such dresses. Both men were stripping down to their loincloths. As we watched, the girls tossed their dresses into one of the tents, then waded into the water, scandalously revealing considerable thigh when they raised their hems to keep them dry.
The men followed them in while the remaining girl finally summoned her courage and shrugged off her dress as well.
“They arrived somewhat late, so I suppose they’re making up for lost time. Usually they would arrive before sundown and proceed more leisurely.”
“I thought it was awfully late. It must be Midnight already.”
“Well, perhaps they wanted the moon to be fully up. What’s the point of getting your love interest naked if you can’t see her?” she said with an impish smile.
“What?… do they go that far?” I asked, a little shocked.
“Love-making is not uncommon,” Grandmother answered, to my astonishment. “Usually they hide, but sometimes they just separate into pairs. There’s several spots that are popular. Some don’t hide the couples from our sight up here. But that beach is popular too, and there’s an easier path up to this perch from the side opposite where we were. Couples sometimes come up and enjoy each other right here where we’re sitting.”
She laughed at my expression. Or my red face. I imagined it was easily visible in the moonlight. My notion of conservative rural girls, mostly based on prim Melione and vigilant Brigitte, was crumbling fast.
“They might see you,” I worried. “You shouldn’t be sitting that much in the open.”
“They won’t see me,” she stated with certainty. “I’m making sure of it.”
I frowned because I couldn’t detect any magic at work.
“You mentioned magic that can’t be detected,” she said, as if answering my thoughts.
“Can you tell me more about it?” I asked, jumping right on it. “Can you teach me how to see it?”
“I can’t, in an evening. In a hundred years, you will understand enough to begin the most basic instruction. Come back then.”
My shoulders slumped a bit. She patted my hand. “But it will be okay, because you have other means to fight, as long as you know what it is you are fighting.”
“Like what your mysterious man from Caria Elatium is doing.”
“The place you call ‘Carael’. The one you call Jurmat. He is quite obviously a blood magician.”
I shook my head. “A what…?”
“Blood magic, dear. It’s the origin of demonic magic, but it came from our ancestors. The Elders used it, and as a vampire, you have the potential to do the same. The demons perverted it, but a very few non-demon blood magicians remain who can teach how to use it without starting from demonic magic.”
“And you say he’s using it?”
“Well, no herd of renegade vampires is attacking women willy-nilly. Not only are hardly any vampires left, finding enough of them willing to break the law and attack that many women would be impossible.”
According to Aunt Elianora, there weren’t even a thousand true vampires left in all of Orestania. When Mother killed my father’s followers, she wiped out nearly twenty percent of the kingdom’s vampire population, potentially including all of the criminally-inclined ones. Drawing enough vampires into one town to explain the sheer number of attacks was indeed unbelievable.
She continued, “But finding one renegade blood magician… well, only a few know the art, but it seems much more likely. And blood magic’s applications include the secret magics such as you are chasing. A blood magician must either collect from many as this one is doing, or sacrifice victims to take all their blood and mana, the way demons do.”
“So he’s the cause?”
“Your goddess friends believe more than one magic is at work, and they are working at cross-purposes. At this time, you don’t know which of the magics are his.”
She was accepting my description of the angels– ‘goddesses’, in her reckoning– without question. The reason, I suspected, was some sort of truth detection magic. During my explanations, she noticed every evasion or omission I made and forced me to tell the whole truth.
“But he’s the only lead. Which means there’s more blood magicians?”
“There are other possibilities. Other beings like your ‘angels’, for example.” She said the unfamiliar English word ‘angels’ very carefully. “The First Ones of our world sound very much like the same beings to me, and the First Ones are quite capable of such things.”
That claim was astonishing when first heard, but took very little time to accept. I had never heard of them before this night, but whoever these ‘First Ones’ were, they had to be at that level to accomplish the things she was attributing to them. Were they the same kind of beings?
“It’s also possible for extremely high level demons to use magic such as you describe, building from their demonic corruption of blood magic. But magicians from another world are more likely. Your friends said these magics weren’t native to this world. I assume they mean, now that the Elders are gone. But what they told you suggests that they are native in other worlds.”
It was more-or-less what the IT lady was looking for. Interference from outside. But I had to ask the question she was begging.
“A magician could come here from another world?”
“Why not?” she asked. “You did.”