by Ulquiorra9000

Chapter 1

Erin O'Sullivan's first warning of mortal danger was the loud trilling of flutes.

"Fergus! Honey -" Erin blurted. She leaped up from her reading chair in her and her newlywed husband's bedroom, heart racing, her breaths coming in rapid bursts in a constricted chest.

Fergus nodded, his face pale and grim. "Just like we practiced, hon. Come on. We're gettin' out of here." He extended a beefy hand, and his wife took it.

Outside their cozy little house came the collective screams and panicked shouting of the little town's citizens, and already, Erin heard the loud rumble of their cars' steam engines coming to life. And at the town temple, someone was ringing the bell as loud as they could as an additional alarm.

Erin's heart froze at the thought. Who was ringing the bell? It wasn't like road bandits were sneaking in! The danger was already very clear!

It was no mystery when a Dearg-du came calling.

Erin hastily tied her brown hair into a bun and slipped on her knee-high leather boots, fastening the brass buckles and throwing on a traveler's cloak against the evening chill outside. Fergus, meanwhile, had on his wolfskin coat over his workman shirt, his heavy boots stomping on the frosty ground. The sound of flutes and clarinets was growing louder from the west, and the sound of wailing, helpless townsfolk.

"Where's the damned Army detachment?" Fergus cursed under his breath, his hand still tightly clasped on his wife's. "They oughta be here by now!"

"I know," Erin said tightly, "but maybe something slowed them down? Another Dearg-du? They've worked together before..."

Fergus made a frustrated noise. "Maybe. I don't know, hon. Come on!"

He and Erin darted through the town's back alleys and side streets, keeping their heads low in the glow of the electric street lamps. A few cars were already speeding down the street toward the surrounding forest, their steam engines whining with strain.

Any second now...

Orange light glowed in the town as buildings caught fire. Erin winced. Had townsfolk set their homes on fire to trap the Dearg-du's deadly thralls? Or had the thralls broken in and broken the gas pipes? Either way, Erin's home town, the quiet Teaglach, population 3,000, was dying.

"Here! Thank the gods," Fergus said fervently as he brought his wife to his workshop downtown. He jammed his key into the shop's supply truck and climbed into the driver's seat, and Erin scrambled into the passenger seat, shutting the door tightly. With a twist of the ignition, Fergus fired up the truck's massive engine. On the truck's nose, brass pipes and steel capsules rattled and shook with steam pressure, and the analogue dials on the dashboard all set themselves to the ready status.

Fergus disable the emergency brake, set the truck to drive, and slammed on the gas.

More burning buildings flashed past as Fergus barreled through Teaglach's cobblestone streets, and stray people ran after the truck, waving their arms and shouting for the O'Sullivans to stop and pick them up. Erin clutched her heart in dismay. She longed to help them; her friends were back there! But in the rearview mirror, she saw over a hundred-odd thralls shuffling down the street. No way could Fergus rescue those people in time.

Erin felt tears burn in her eyes as she clamped her hands over her head. That very instant, the thralls waved their flutes and clarinets like batons, and their horrible music blasted the townsfolk off their feet and stunned them. They were helpless, like mice under a fox's paw.

Then the "fox" appeared.

From down the street swaggered a Dearg-du, her raven-black hair billowing in the hot air from the fires, her white gown grazing the cobblestone street as she walked. She towered over her male thralls, patting a few on the head as though they were obedient dogs (well, they kind of were).

Erin, watching from the rearview mirror, saw the Dearg-du pick up a woman by her neck and open her mouth wide, exposing her long canines.

Erin shut her eyes just before the Dearg-du's fangs pierced the woman's jugular.

"We're almost outta here," Fergus said bracingly. "Erin, honey, just hang on. We'll just - DAMMIT!"

Erin's eyes flew open just as a cluster of thralls converged on the road ahead of their speeding truck. Erin didn't even have time to cry out; she only threw her arms up before a loud chord of flure and clarinet music hit the truck like a tidal wave.

Erin felt weightless as the truck tumbled over and over, its metal frame crumpling and screeching in the strain. Its windows shattered and pieces of the engine burst free, causing jets of high-pressure steam to shoot everywhere. Erin felt her body ache with bruises, her ears ringing as her head hit the roof. Only her seatbelt kept her from being pulverized.

The truck tumbled to a halt at the town's edge and Erin hastily undid her seatbelt. She landed on the ground in a heap, scrambling to free her husband. "Fergus!"

Fergus was lodged in place by his seatbelt, his eyes wide, his face pale. His neck and chest were slicked with red.

The windshield. Its shards had torn him apart. He was already dead.

Numbly, Erin held up her hands, then looked down at her body. Cuts oozed blood all over her, but none seemed too bad. The glass hadn't killed her.

Maybe it should have. The local People's Army detachment hadn't shown up to repel this raid. Common knowledge held that no one survived a Dearg-du attack otherwise.

No. I have to get out of here! Fergus... please forgive me.

Erin's insides felt constricted and cold, but somehow, she felt the cold fog in her brain blot out the grief and horror. For now. Her adrenaline was still racing, her will to live pushing her. She quickly took Fergus' wedding band from his stiff finger, pocketed it, and scrambled out of the wrecked truck.

"I know you're out there!" came the Dearg-du's taunting voice. Erin glanced over her shoulder; the red-skinned humanoid was trotting down the street, looking every which way. "Hello? Where are you? I'd love to meet you!"

Erin blocked out the monster's taunts and scrooped up a shard of glass from the windshield. Just in time; one of the thralls had caught up to her, the man's head lolling on his shoulders, a typically blank look on his face. He groaned vaguely and held up his clarinet to subdue Erin where she stood.

The glass shard hissed through the air as Erin slashed the thrall's throat. The possessed man seized up, then dropped his clarinet and collapsed without complaint. Nearby, the other thralls seemed to dimly register their comrades' demise, and they slowly started to converge on the lone Erin.

It had bought her enough time. Erin scampered to a back alley, faster than the thralls could follow her. She knew this place well; around a left turn, past an overflowing dumpster, past the back wall of the tanner's shop...

The Dearg-du's taunting voice grew more distant as Erin broke free of Teaglach's outer limits, and she dived into the forest's protective underbrush. Animals scurried away as she came crashing down. She barely even registered the protests of her many cuts. Would she bleed out? She didn't care. It was time to run.

And run she did. Erin didn't stop fleeing from her hometown until the sound of flutes and clarinets died down, and she heard no more of the Dearg-du's boastful comments. She kept checking over her shoulder for pursuers, but nothing was coming. Good.

Night finally fell, and Talwydd's bright half moon rise from the southeast, giving Erin a little more light. Owls hooted in the sporadic pine trees and crickets chirped. As long as Erin didn't hear a werewolf's howl, she could keep going.

At some point, Erin tore her blouse into strips and bandaged her deepest cuts, and she felt just enough energy to hobble down the road and toward the next town, Draethawd.

She didn't stop until she reached Draethawd's welcome sign and sank to her knees, her body illuminated by the lights from shop windows. Then, finally, she threw back her head and let out a long, pained wail and didn't stop until several people came running to help her.