“I will slay these monsters.” Ondernifam rumbled as he stomped back and forth. “I will find them, and I will destroy them!”
Sapphire did her best to ignore the orc as he paced in front of the monster murals in the lower atrium of the Windmaster archives. She tapped her foot and leaned against a pillar, sighing as she waited for something to happen.
“Ahh, there you are!” The Windmaster from the day prior rushed out of a side door, breathless. She held a small volume in her hand, leather bound, no more than an inch thick. “I apologize. You must know how unusual this is for our archive.”
“I can only imagine.” Sapphire flashed a smile and took the volume from the Windmaster’s hands. “Thank you. I’ll finish with it as soon as possible.”
“Please, take your time.” The woman bowed her head. “I must impose no more unjust punishment on you. Have a seat. I will fix you a beverage.”
“That’s not necessary.” Sapphire turned to stroll across the open marble floor to a set of tables, then paused. “Though if you had some blood ale, I’m sure Ondernifam over there would appreciate it.”
“I’ll see what we have in our storerooms.” The Windmaster flashed a small smile at the snarling orc. “We might even have some fresh deer flesh.”
Ondernifam’s head snapped around. “Fresh meat?”
“I’ll be right back.” The Windmaster turned and walked away, vanishing through the same doorway she had come through. Ondernifam walked over to the opening and began to pace, eagerly awaiting his treat. Sapphire smiled, then walked over to the tables and sat down. Carefully, trying not to damage any of the pages, she flipped the volume open.
“The tale of Borium the Meek.” Sapphire took a deep breath and prepared to open herself to a meditative state. She paused as she reached out to the field, though. Maybe this was something she should just… Read.
The hours flew by as she flipped through the pages, soaking in the information. It wasn’t a long read, but it was quite dense, causing her to go back and reread things many times over to ensure that she hadn’t missed any crucial information. By the time she finished, her mind was spinning. She closed the book and pushed it away from herself, somehow unsurprised when the Windmaster walked up next to her.
“Did you find the answers you were looking for?”
“Maybe.” Sapphire stroked her chin. “Just… Maybe.”
In the story, Borium had been born to wealthy parents in Istinis, and grew up watching legions of soldiers go off into war against the dragons. He was selected by the Crown early in his life, and happily led massively successful campaigns against the monsters. Eventually, though, he began to balk at the prospect of killing the majestic creatures and began misdirecting his troops in order to save lives. This caused the Crown to reject him, as he no longer needed its ability to lead. He was subsequently granted the Ring, at which point he tried to use it to stop the armies from invading the Scorched Lands and vice versa.
According to the story, he had experienced many of the same problems as Sapphire, and had ultimately torn the Ring from his body and cast it away in order to avoid falling slave to its power. Shortly after this happened, he was granted the Cape, and subsequently used his newfound power to bring great peace to the land.
That, of course, left her facing a distinct issue. Did she cast away the Ring, as he had done? What if his situation had been a fluke, and by getting rid of the object she would only be condemning herself to a life of ordinary human magic? Would she truly be able to live like that?
“If I can answer any questions, feel free to ask me.” The Windmaster dipped her head. “I may not be the foremost expert on this subject, but I’m certainly familiar with your cause.”
“Thank you.” Sapphire frowned as she noticed Ondernifam’s mysterious absence. “Where’s my friend?”
“I had one of our acolytes take him to a fighting pit nearby.” The Windmaster held up a hand at Sapphire’s horrified look. “It was designed with such purposes in mind. Enchantments control statues designed to provide a challenging, non-lethal course.” She shook her head. “We get plenty of stories on the wind, we have no desire to add to those stories.”
“In that case, as usual, I have only my thanks to give you.” Sapphire sighed and gestured at an open seat next to her. “Please, sit.”
The Windmaster dropped into the chair and nodded at Sapphire. “What can I answer?”
Sapphire opened her mouth, then paused. What did she even want? “I… I guess I don’t know. It’s complicated.” She sighed. “I just don’t know what to do. I already rejected the authority of one artifact. I don’t want to accidentally buck the authority of another artifact. You know?”
“Yes.” The Windmaster pursed her lips. “You read Borium’s hypothesis, yes? That the Ring was designed to draw out an individual’s personality?”
“And show what they truly desired.” Sapphire nodded. “Yes, I read it. If that’s the case, why does the Ring drive people insane? Why doesn’t it just test them for a length of time and then vanish, replaced by the appropriate artifact? You know?”
“Yeah.” The Windmaster sighed and crossed her arms. “And, in answer, I don’t know. Hinchipol was a god. Mortals can’t truly understand the minds of full gods, no matter how hard we try. It’s likely that he had some sort of a purpose, but it would be impossible to know what that was without asking him.”
Sapphire grimaced. “The only time I’ve ever spoken to him was when Persphone severed the bond between me and the Pendant.”
The Windmaster’s eyes opened wide. “Wait. What?”
Sapphire shrugged. “I violated a bunch of her rules, mostly on accident. She summoned me before herself, revealed the Pendant to be a fragment of Hinchipol, they talked for a few minutes, and then she severed the connection and spat me back into the mortal world.”
“You spoke to Persphone?” The Windmaster whispered. “Sapphire? Do you know how rarely that happens?”
“I’d guess not very often.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “Yes, I know, I should probably be grateful for the opportunity to have seen a goddess, but it really wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
“Pleasant or not, it’s still fascinating.” The Windmaster sighed and leaned forward. “I can’t speak to your situation. I know that isn’t reassuring to hear, but… Every sorcerer and sorceress is different. All I can say is that I’ve read a lot of these books, and Borium is the only record we have here of someone surviving the Ring’s torment.”
Sapphire’s eyes narrowed. There was something about the way she said the word here. “Are there books or records elsewhere of someone surviving the Ring?”
The Windmaster’s face began to twitch. After a few seconds, she sighed and crossed her arms.
“You said that you’ve seen the gods, right?”
Sapphire nodded. “Yes.”
“Then, as far as I’m concerned, you qualify as a divine exception to our traditional privacy rules.” The Windmaster leaned forward. “There was a sorcerer who passed through here about thirty years ago. A wielder of the Lantern named Versor. I wasn’t here at the time, but I’ve read the transcripts of his visit. He entered the forbidden texts with an order from King Korvac, perused a number of our most protected volumes, and left. In the meetings, he reported that he had originally been given the Eye, but that he had voluntarily rejected it, taken on the Ring against the wishes of the Sorcerous Mage Thomas, and then subsequently rejected it in favor of the Lantern.”
Sapphire’s breath suddenly came in much shallower gulps. “How is that even possible? He was able to control which artifact he chose?”
“It seems that he knew a way, yes.” The Windmaster nodded. After a few seconds, she leaned back. “Unfortunately, no one has seen him since then, and his story has yet to appear amongst our archives.”
Sapphire tried to suppress her hope. There was no way that could be true! “I’m sure that not every person who dies gets caught immediately.”
“Sometimes, stories can bounce around for quite some time, especially in a time of war.” The Windmaster acknowledged. “That said, sorcerers are usually caught very quickly, as their magical affinity makes them easier to detect. Wherever Versor is, he’s still alive. Old, to be certain, but very much alive.”
Sapphire felt more hope blossoming within her chest. There was no suppressing it this time. “How can I find him?”
“I don’t know.” The Windmaster sighed. “The books that he visited are forbidden to all but the highest level of my order. I wouldn’t dare enter without permission. Still…” She shrugged. “You are a sorceress, powerful or not. That means something. Maybe your Ring is still good for helping locate Versor.”
With that, the Windmaster climbed back to her feet and patted Sapphire on the shoulder. “I’ll go get your orc for you. I do wish you the best of luck. Feel free to come back at any time.”
Sapphire flashed a small smile as the woman walked away. It was strange to consider, really. She had the life witness of Borium, but didn’t know how to implement it. She had the distinct hope that there was another sorcerer alive somewhere, she just didn’t know where.
It all left her with an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach, something between hope and total despair. For the first time since being rejected by the Pendant, she had some true answers… She just didn’t know what to do with them now that she had them.
“Oh, come on!” Kisidera flashed a seductive smile at Paulin. “It’ll be fun!”
Paulin sighed and closed his eyes. “Please? I’d really just rather go for a walk around the city if you don’t mind.”
Kisidera stuck out her bottom lip. “Walking is for peasants. Let’s live like true royalty for a change!”
“You do realize that I am royalty, right?” Paulin sighed and opened his eyes once more. They were in the massive suite that Kisidera had arranged for them, high in the virtual resort that they were living in. Archways led to a balcony that overlooked the lower portion of the city. Lavish blankets lay spread across a bed that could have fit the entire group, curtains hung from the ceiling at key points. Bowls of grapes and other fruits sat on tables, where they would stay until they went bad and were replaced. And that was just their room, Sapphire and Hesione shared a similar room while Ondernifam and Garnisic shared a third. “This isn’t how we lived.”
“Oh, I saw your palace.” Kisidera snorted.
“Unless you traveled there before you met me, no, you didn’t.” Paulin frowned. “It had already been destroyed by then.”
“I’ve seen the pictures.” Kisidera crossed her arms. “It was more elaborate than anything we had.”
“No, it really wasn’t.” Paulin protested. “I’m not going to say that we lived in poverty, but it certainly wasn’t anything like this. There were servants, but we still did most of the work ourselves. This is just over the top and wasteful.”
“I wouldn’t say wasteful.” Kisidera shrugged and gestured at the food on the table. “If that wasn’t here, it would just be rotting in a warehouse somewhere. There’s so much food produced in the area that the residents couldn’t possibly eat it all. No one goes hungry in Donenrot.”
“But people are hungry elsewhere.” Paulin sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “It could be shipped to the northern villages, or to the farmers out in more distant areas of Sintison. This is just ridiculous.”
Kisidera sighed and climbed to her feet. “Come on, Paulin. We’ve been living in squalor for the last several months. In winter. Enjoy yourself! Come with me and enjoy the hot springs they have here. We’ll be bathed by attendants, freshened with spices and flowers.” A smile flitted across her face. “With the money that Sapphire saved in the bank, we could stay here for awhile. Maybe even take a few months off.”
Paulin’s blood began to boil. “Really? Really, Kisidera?”
“What?” She shrugged. “It’s nice.”
“And I thought the fishing village was nice!” Paulin pointed at the door, not particularly caring if he was pointing in a northward direction. “You threw a fit about heading south to find your parents. I gave that up, voluntarily, so that we could start trying to follow that path. Now, it seems like all you care about is pleasure.” He shook his head. “You only wanted to leave the rules of the Family, but you’re still their flesh and blood.”
Kisidera’s face flashed with anger. “You’re going to pull that on me?”
“Yes.” Paulin held up his hands. “I gave up my ideal lifestyle so we could be together. All this?” He gestured at the trappings of the room. “This is just spitting in my face. You tricked me, you don’t actually care about me at all or finding your parents, you just wanted to get somewhere you didn’t have to work for a living.”
“That’s not fair.” Kisidera hissed. “I love my parents, and I will fight until I’m able to find them. The fact of the matter, though, is that you are a wanted man and Sapphire still has business here in the city. I’m trying to make the best of the situation. It’s not my fault if the best of the situation isn’t an alley or the rafters of a tavern.”
Paulin almost tore out his hair. “But you’re talking about staying here for months.”
“That’s because this war could last for months!” Kisidera shouted back at him. “Did you not read the news bulletin this morning?”
Paulin was momentarily halted in his anger. “Huh?”
“The news bulletin.” Kisidera stomped over to a side table and grabbed a small pamphlet, which she thrust at Paulin’s face. “They release them when major events happen. Spies from Elsinor last night tried to assassinate the king. Korvac was saved by a high elven soldier, which has the population up in arms.”
Paulin took a short breath. “Really?”
“At breakfast, two of the staff had already left to enlist in the army.” Kisidera crossed her arms. “We either have to leave now, or we need to settle in for the long haul. In a week, the standing army here in Sintison itself is going to double in size. Twenty gold pieces say that they station a few thousands of those new recruits around the country for protection. That protection is going to have eyes for you and you alone.”
Paulin sighed and shook his head. “You’re changing the subject.”
“No, I’m not.” Kisidera stared him down. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take a bath. You can either come with me, or you can go take your walk.”
With that, she waltzed over to the door of the room, pulled it open, and swept out. Paulin watched her go, sighing deeply as he did so. Why did she have to be so difficult? She had been a rock, a single steady point, when he had been trapped in the Apician Estate. She had been who he could vent to in frustration when Lord Apician was doing her best to frustrate all his plans. She had been the one he had been able to turn to, she had helped him survive that ordeal in so many ways. Even after they left, she had continued to stay there even while he ran around like a headless chicken trying to contain the damage that his father, the Ambassador, and the angels were pouring out upon the nations.
Now, though? Now, all she wanted was to avoid their friends, sit in hot baths, and be waited on hand and foot. She wanted servants, palaces, and more, and this was the closest she could get to that. Somehow, Paulin suspected that if they ever did get on the road again, she would immediately begin spouting nonsense about finding her parents the moment that they had to lie low for more than a few hours.
Even as his anger flowed through his body, he sighed and tried to put himself in her sandals. She had stuck by him even while he had been preoccupied with dozens of other tasks. She had remained, and now that they were free, they could spend some time together. Could he really blame her for wanting to take a break from the craziness of spending time on the road, living in huts by the sea, and always being around other people?
He slowly took a deep breath and walked out of the room, following her. Skylights allowed the sun to drift in, lighting the passageways through the resort. A gentle wind blew through, ruffling curtains at the ends of the halls. Paulin caught a glimpse of her heel vanishing around the corner near one of the curtains, and hurried after her. As he reached the corner, he saw the door to the spa swinging shut with a dull thump. The sign on the door was set to “do not disturb,” complete with a guard in rather skimpy armor leaning against the wall nearby.
“Excuse me.” Paulin walked up to the guard, who shifted slightly to look at him. She was a dark elven woman, who only wore armor across her chest and waist. The rest of her skin was exposed, even the sword that she held looked like it wouldn’t have been able to kill a pig. “Did a high elven woman just go in there? Long hair, probably looked like she was mad at someone?”
“She your wife?” The guard raised an eyebrow. “I’d hate to be you tonight.”
“Me, too.” Paulin sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Can I go in there after her?”
“No can do.” The woman shook her head. “Against our policy. She requested anonymity. She’s got it.”
“Oh, fine.” Paulin sighed and started to turn away. “Thanks anyway.”
A scream echoed from the door the moment that Paulin put his foot down. He spun back, only to find the guard now significantly more alert, a sneer on her face.
“What are you doing to her?” Paulin rushed forward. She brought up her sword, which he slapped away. It snapped in two upon his strike, and he grabbed at the doorknob. Unsurprisingly, the door failed to budge an inch as he slapped at it, trying desperately to get it open.
“I’m afraid that’s locked.” The guard tapped the remaining foot of her sword against Paulin’s shoulder. He glanced at the pathetic weapon, noticing that even though it was made from a pale, brittle material, it was still sharp. “I assure you, nothing is wrong. Just a bit of fright therapy.”
Kisidera’s scream echoed once more. This time it was pained, the scream of a limb being lobbed off. Paulin grabbed the sword out of the guard’s hand and slammed the weapon into the elf’s stomach. It punched straight through her skin, lodging firmly in her abdomen. Which, naturally, was when he noticed that she didn’t seem to be in any sort of pain. She slowly reached down and pulled the blade out, smirking softly.
“Guess you get to join the party after all.”
The door burst open with a snap of her fingers. Two cloaked figures within lunged forward and grabbed him, yanking him through. Off-balance, Paulin stumbled and fell on his face. Without hesitating, he jumped back to his feet and tried to assess the situation, momentarily bemoaning the fact that he was wearing the expansive, flowing robes that Kisidera had begged him to put on.
The room they were in was fairly large, though it was completely closed off from any outside light. Several torches hung on the wall, their flickering flame illuminating the large pool of water that emitted a soft steam. It also illuminated Kisidera, who was strapped to a pillar in the middle of the pool. And, of course, it illuminated the vampires.
That was the only thing they could be. They wore the robes of the attendants at the resort, but now that they had their mouths open, he could see their fangs, none of which looked overly welcoming. One perched on the base of the pillar and had his mouth on Kisidera’s neck. The other three stood near the door and were slowly advancing towards him.
“Kisidera?” Paulin gasped. “Can you hear me?”
Kisidera moaned softly, and Paulin took a deep breath. He had no weapons, he wasn’t wearing proper clothes, and his girlfriend was being turned into a vampire. In all likelihood, he would be next.
No, this wasn’t good at all… And he wasn’t sure how in Calsin he was going to get out of it.
“I do not understand what the problem here is.” Ondernifam stomped down the street, fists balled. People flowed by on either side, glancing nervously up at his massive frame. Good. “You have said that you need to get rid of the Ring. So get rid of the Ring.”
“But what if my desires haven’t formulated themselves properly?” Sapphire whined beside him. “What if the Ring hasn’t done its work yet? I could toss it away and never become a sorceress again.”
“Or you could keep it and die.” Ondernifam growled. “If you die, I will have no one to prank.”
Sapphire frowned. “You have Garnisic.”
Ondernifam nodded slowly. That was a good point. And yet… “Garn is not a formidable foe. He is small and round. He can be defeated by a hill! You can just melt the hill. Or turn it into a dragon, which I can then fight!” Ondernifam grinned down at the sorceress. “Can you do that when we leave?”
Sapphire sighed and nodded up at him. “Sure, I’ll turn a hill into a dragon as soon as I can.”
“Yes!” Ondernifam howled, then nodded. “Then you should cast away the Ring. I need you alive long enough to do this.”
Sapphire just reached out and patted his arm. Ondernifam grinned and patted her head back. She had needed comfort, and he had given it to her! Good.
They continued to walk, side by side, as they made their way back through the city. Ondernifam sighed as they did so. He was more than ready to escape from the city. He wanted to get back out into the country, where he wasn’t always told not to do things. Where he could go hunt deer and rabbits, where he could run free. Where he could actually fight something. Now, it was always No! Don’t punch that guard. Don’t insult that soldier. Or that shopkeeper. Bleh.
They soon arrived at the steps leading up to the resort where they were staying. It was yet another thing that Ondernifam didn’t understand. Everyone seemed to talk about it like it was so nice, but it didn’t have any fighting pits! The pools didn’t contain the blood of slaughtered enemies. The servants weren’t orclings. What true and respectable luxury resort didn’t at least have a public compost pile where all the leftover scraps of food were stored? What was he supposed to eat when he got hungry for a snack?
As they stomped up the stairs and through the main kitchen, Ondernifam gave the air a sniff. Chicken. Cooked. No blood, no guts. Positively barbaric! He ignored the servants, hoping that they would be sufficiently insulted by the lack of acknowledgement. They continued up the stairs, through the open and windy hallways. Who designed a hallway that funneled wind? It was a perfect way to let your smell into the air and alert any attacking enemies know how many people were inside.
They were just reaching the door to their rooms when a scream echoed through the air. It was quiet, barely audible, but it was there. Ondernifam spun and growled while Sapphire grabbed hold of the door handle.
“What is it?” Sapphire sighed. “Is there a rat or something you want to eat?”
“Kisidera is in trouble.” Ondernifam leapt down the hall. “Come!”
He reached the corner and dug his claws into the wall, allowing himself to be slung into the new direction with fervor. This put him face-to-face with a scantily clad guard who smelled rather like a vampire. So that was why the cooks never used garlic in their food!
In any event, the vampire had a single moment to look surprised before he smashed a ham-sized fist into her face. She was blown backwards into the wall, where he crushed her skull with one final blow. She crumbled into dust just as Sapphire rushed around the corner, a curious look on her face.
“Ondernifam! What are you doing?”
“You got my name wrong!” He snarled and kicked the wooden door. The wood emitted a loud crack but failed to collapse. He took a step back and jumped forward, driving himself into the door once more. With a crash, it exploded into splinters, allowing him to tumble into the bathhouse.
It took him a single glance to size up the situation. Kisidera was strapped to a pole being sucked on by a vampire. Paulin was cowering in a nearby corner as three more vampires closed in on him. Ondernifam let out a mighty roar and thumped his chest, jumping at the vile creatures.
The lone human vampire spun and raised his right hand. A concussive blast rolled off his fingertips, throwing Ondernifam across the room and into a wall. He groaned as his skull cracked against the stone, then pushed himself away and leapt back into action.
Sapphire finally made it into the room midway through his leap. She launched a handful of fireballs at the creatures, though they were far smaller and more pathetic than normal. Nevertheless, they did make the vampires flinch for a brief moment, allowing Ondernifam to land next to them.
He picked up the closest vampire, a high elf female, and slung her across the room without watching where. He then grabbed the human vampire by the throat and lifted him off the ground, roaring in his face. The creature subsequently kicked Ondernifam in the ribs, causing his muscles to relax. He collapsed in a heap as everything went numb.
No! That wasn’t fair! Ondernifam growled and flopped towards them as hard as he could, trying to make his muscles do anything. Thankfully, a healing spell struck him an instant later, giving him strength once more. He grabbed the leg of the final vampire, an aqahartis, and snapped it. The man collapsed, screaming, and Ondernifam climbed back to his feet.
Of course, this allowed the high elf vampire to jump onto his back. Her hands latched down around his arms as her disproportional strength began to fight against his own. Ondernifam roared, then fell backwards. He landed squarely on top of her, eliciting a loud yelp. The arms let go, and he jumped to his feet and began stomping on the woman.
“Sapphire!” He finally roared. “More magic!”
“I’m trying!” She shouted back. “You keep getting in the way!”
Ondernifam finally finished crushing the vampire enough that she turned to dust. He spun back to find the human vampire with his hands outstretched. One pointed at Ondernifam, one at Sapphire. The aqahartis vampire flopped like a fish on the floor behind him, while Paulin still just kicked at the man uselessly.
“Use light.” Ondernifam growled. “Vampires hate light!”
In response, the vampire threw a fireball at both Ondernifam and Sapphire. It was much larger than Sapphire’s rather pathetic attempts, and knocked Ondernifam sprawling. Flames burst up and down his skin, and he dove into the pool of water as quickly as he could. The warm waters closed over his head, and he coiled his muscles to spring back up.
After a moment, he hesitated. Sapphire hadn’t had time to use any spells. The vampire would watch for a moment to see which foe he had defeated more, then turn to the other. Which meant that Ondernifam needed just a brief moment longer.
He allowed himself to sink to the bottom of the pool and drew his legs up to himself, then sprang upwards as hard as he could manage. With a blast that he knew would be comparable to a proper tidal wave, he erupted from the water and sprang at the vampire.
As predicted, the man was indeed facing Sapphire. He never knew what hit him as Ondernifam crushed his head with a single punch. As the dust settled, Ondernifam stomped on the head of the aqahartis and turned back to the central pillar.
Kisidera’s flesh had grown quite pale, far more so than it should have been. The vampire sucking on her was still latched to her neck. As Sapphire climbed to her feet and prepared a spell in her palms, Ondernifam held up a hand.
“If you kill a vampire while it is feeding, it will also kill the host.” He snarled. “Good way to kill enemies. Bad way to lose allies.”
Sapphire nodded, though she seemed to keep the spells prepared in her hands, as bits of magic arced from fingertip to fingertip. Meanwhile, Ondernifam sized up the vampire doing the feeding. She was an elf, mottled from the looks of it, which boded well. Elven vampires had far less magic than their living counterparts. He crouched down, preparing himself to spring.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the woman pulled her mouth away from Kisidera’s throat. Ondernifam jumped at her, claws outstretched. She folded neatly around his body like a piece of paper, crumpling under his might. He crashed into the far wall, causing her head to crack against the wall quite powerfully. Before he could make a move to slay her, Sapphire fired a bolt of lightning into her head, causing her to crumble into dust for good. Ondernifam turned and growled at her before signing.
“Fine. Orc: Four. Sorceress: Three.”
Sapphire just rolled her eyes and cast a freezing spell on the pool. The water turned to ice, and both she and Paulin rushed to Kisidera’s side. They quickly untied the now-unconscious girl while Ondernifam stomped over to the entrance and balled his fists, preparing for retaliation.
“What do we do now?” Sapphire called to the orc. “Do you know any way to save her?”
“We need to get away from here.” Ondernifam snarled. “More of these creatures could come at any time.”
Sapphire and Paulin both rushed past him an instant later, carrying Kisidera between them. Ondernifam frowned at the sight. He had thought they were paying their last respects, not trying to keep her. She was dead now! Why would they be trying to save her?
Oh, well. He shrugged and followed as they ran away from the room. They would have more vampires to fight before they could escape, and that was good enough for him. If Kisidera turned against them and tried to slay them, he would just have to fight her at that point. As everyone else liked to say, they could cross that bridge when they came to it.
Paulin felt his breath coming in short gasps as they rushed Kisidera back to the room. They rushed inside and slammed the door shut, with Ondernifam pacing back and forth in front of the entrance. Being careful to avoid the beams of sunlight shining through the open archways, they carried her to the bed and laid her pale form down.
“What now?” Sapphire glanced at Paulin. “Is there a cure for vampirism?”
“I don’t know!” Paulin shook his head and tried to think. “There has to be. Oh, I’m sure there is. There’s a cure for everything, we just have to find it!”
“Ondernifamtheri.” Sapphire turned and called to the orc. “How do you cure vampires?”
“You crush them!” Ondernifam roared.
“Come on.” Sapphire pleaded. “You’ve obviously fought them before!”
“Yes.” Ondernifam nodded. “And I have slain many.”
“He’s not going to help us.” Paulin snapped and took a deep breath, gazing down at his fiancé. She was so pale, so innocent. It made his heart ache just looking at her. He had been so angry with her that she had stomped off and been captured. If only he had been more understanding! Maybe none of this would have happened.
He was so lost in thought that when he noticed Sapphire staring at him expectantly, he had to shake his head for a moment to snap out of his head.
“I said that I’m going to go find Hesione and Garnisic.” Sapphire’s eyes flickered for a moment. “They’re near, I can sense them. Stay here with her. If she wakes up… Be careful.”
Paulin nodded as Sapphire ran away, crashing through the door a moment later. He took a deep, shuddering breath as he tried to process the implications of what was happening. Turned into a vampire. Simply the act of being a vampire was illegal in every primary country except Sournous. There were a few other countries where the punishment could be mitigated, of course. In Notirot, exile into the desert was common. In Tifingor it was possible to obtain a letter from the royals of Glintor allowing you to seek sanctuary, but only under very specific circumstances. In Sintison, the punishment was death by sun exposure. It was a horrific way to die, intended to discourage voluntary infection. Paulin had only ever witnessed one such execution, and it hadn’t been a pleasant experience for anyone involved.
“We’re going to get you through this.” Paulin whispered. “There are vampire experts out there. We’ll find someone who knows how to treat you, and we’ll restore you to the land of the living.” He flashed a smile. “There are rumors that the Persphonar know how to do it. Granted, they don’t like me at the moment, but I’m sure we can work something out.”
“You realize that she can’t hear you, right?” Ondernifam chuckled from the door.
“I’m processing things here.” Paulin snapped. “Shut up or do something good for once.”
“I saved you from the same fate.” Ondernifam snapped. “Ungrateful elf.”
Paulin balled his fists, then sighed. After a few seconds, he nodded and forced the words down his throat.
“You are welcome!” Ondernifam crowed. “I will protect this family if it’s the last-”
“We’re here.” Sapphire burst through the door, followed by Hesione and Garnisic. “We’re all here. We’ll get through this.”
Paulin ground his teeth together. He suspected that a great number of people were going to be saying that phrase over the next several days, and he equally suspected that he wasn’t going to appreciate it any more than he did at that moment.
“Please tell me that one of you knows how to cure vampirism.” He turned and glanced at the two newcomers. Garnisic shifted uneasily while cradling his massive hammer on his shoulder while Hesione just looked at the ground and scuffed her feet. “Please!”
Hesione spoke up after a few moments. “You’ve traveled more than I have, Paulin. If anyone knows, it’ll be you.”
“I’ve never heard of it being done.” Garnisic shook his head as he too looked down at the ground. “I’ve heard a few stories of vampires getting into the mines, and they’re not particularly pleasant stories.”
“You two aren’t helping.” Paulin turned back to Kisidera, who continued to lay there. So serene, and yet so potentially dangerous. “What do we do?”
Once more, there was a short hesitation. It was Hesione who finally broke the silence, her voice echoing hollow around the room.
“We may have to… You know…”
“We are not killing her in cold blood.” Paulin refused to look away from her pale face.
“She could kill us all in our sleep if we let her live.” Hesione protested. “I know you love her, but-”
“You’d just love to end her, wouldn’t you?” Paulin turned and snarled up at his sister. “You’ve hated her ever since she came into my life. You just can’t accept the fact that I moved on!”
“It’s awkward, but it’s something I’ve been willing to live with.” Hesione took a step forward, staring down at him. “I’m not willing to live with a vampire.”
“Hold on.” Sapphire held up a hand and stepped between the two elves. “I’m no expert, but I did attend a magical university. Nothing that’s done with magic can’t be undone. Fundamental rule of magic number one. There’s a way out there to reverse her condition, we just have to find it.”
“And how are we going to do that?” Hesione crossed her arms. “Just go wandering across the country until we find something?”
“Why not?” Sapphire pointed down at Kisidera. “She’s our friend. We all fought for Mal, Simon, Isnita, and the angels. We’ll fight for her, too. It’s not like we really have any pressing concerns facing us after we escape Sintison’s army.”
Garnisic began to nod slowly, though Paulin could still see indecision written over his face. “Vampires aren’t inherently dangerous. Some of them can actually be quite functional members of society. They have to be careful, but as long as certain rituals weren’t performed on the vampire who created her, we should be good.”
“Then we’ll just confirm that.” Paulin nodded. “How do we do that?”
Once more, there was a long pause. Sapphire finally shrugged after a few seconds and gestured all around them.
“We’d just have to search the resort. Shouldn’t be too hard, I’d say.”
“Then let’s do that.” Paulin climbed to his feet. “Where do we start?”
“The deepest darkest place they have here!” Ondernifam roared. “The dungeon!”
“They probably don’t have a dungeon here.” Garnisic held up a finger.
“All self-respecting buildings have dungeons!”
“Let’s go, then.” Paulin climbed to his feet. He glanced down at Kisidera, who was still unmoving. “We need to figure that out before she wakes up, right?”
“Right.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks and stepped up next to the bed. “I’ll stay and guard her. I can use illusion spells to make sure that no one knows we’re here.”
“Good!” Paulin jumped to his feet, then walked across the room and grabbed his combat robes. “Well? Let’s go!”
Ondernifam snarled as the group stomped down the stairs of the building. He sniffed the air, trying to strain out any hint of vampires. It was quite difficult with all the flowery scents drifting around the place, and he scratched at his face.
“Nothing?” Paulin glanced at him worriedly as they reached the main kitchen area. “Please?”
“I’m trying.” Ondernifam growled and balled his fists. “This isn’t easy.”
A servant of the establishment walked up to them and bowed at the waist. When he straightened, he extended his hand to Paulin.
“Is there anything I can help you find today?”
“Vampires!” Ondernifam rumbled. “We need to find the vampires here!”
The servant’s face momentarily paled, and Ondernifam caught a faint whiff of vampire. Good. He was on the right path!
“If you will just follow me this way, I think I can help with that.” The servant turned and walked past the stairs, into a narrow corridor that Ondernifam had never noticed before. He stomped forward, proudly pushing out his chest. That had been his idea! He had found the nest! He really was quite brilliant, wasn’t he?
About halfway down the hallway, the servant opened a door that led into a rather dark and ominous stairwell. Perfect! Vampires always liked to hide in ominous things!
“You will find what you seek down here.” The boy bowed at the waist once more. “If you’ll let me return to my duties, I-”
Garn brought his hammer crashing down onto the servant’s head. The human crumbled into dust, and Ondernifam roared in surprise. Paulin turned and raised an eyebrow.
“Really? You didn’t see that?”
“Of course I did!” Ondernifam snarled, then jumped down the stairwell. “Be vanquished, undead hoards!”
As he landed at the bottom, he spread his arms and roared into the underground space. Quite unfortunately, it was almost completely empty. A half-finished rune had been carved into the floor, but it was far from complete. A few tables sat around the sides of the room as well, stacked up with a handful of likely magical artifacts that Ondernifam recognized from the last time he had faced the undead monsters. A single throne sat at the far end, where a human vampire in a long black cloak looked at the group eagerly.
“Ahh, you’ve come about the notice! I’d hoped it would reach the ears of someone worthy.”
Paulin slowly stepped down next to Ondernifam. Ondernifam wrinkled his nose as the smell of angry pheromones drifted off the elf. “What are you talking about?”
“The notice that I posted in the underworld!” The vampire climbed to his feet and began to sweep across the room. “Brave adventurers willing to take on the curse of the undead in exchange for partaking in the greatest revival of vampire arts ever seen!”
“What about ‘Be vanquished, undead hoards’ makes you think that we’re here to help you?” Garn stomped down the stairs as well, hammer cocked and ready. “I’m seriously curious.”
The vampire held his gaze, then sighed. “I suppose some fanciful hope that my advertisement had actually worked. I am rather pressed for time, and it’s really not a bad occupation by any means.” After a few moments, he shrugged. “And, I suppose, I’m stalling for time.”
Next to him, Paulin frowned. “Stalling? What’s coming? Send legions of your minions, we’ll cut them down.”
“Oh, I quite believe you.” The vampire nodded. “It’s warriors like you who ultimately stand in our way, why we vampires have yet to claim the land of the sun. Which is why I sent one of my attendants to alert the army of Sintison that Prince Paulin of Elsinor is staying here. Oh, and Hesione isn’t it? There are quite a number of rumors circulating on the regal information network at the moment that you contain royal blood as well. All of these are facts that I’m certain King Korvac won’t be keen on hearing.”
Paulin swore. “You didn’t.”
“Oh, I did.” The vampire waved his hand. “Now run away, little-”
Ondernifam snarled and jumped across the room. As his claws closed down over the man’s head, he had one final moment of satisfaction for the day as his skull cracked and popped under the mighty orcish muscles. The vampire collapsed into dust, and Ondernifam roared.
“Now we can fight the Sintison army!” Ondernifam roared.
“No. Now we need to run.” The group turned and dashed up the stairs. “Come on!”
Ondernifam turned to follow, then paused. He glanced down at the floor, where a large piece of paper seemed to be lying among the dust. He bent down and picked it up. Paper was paper, but papers dropped by important people seemed to be important to everyone else in the group.
With that, he turned and ran after them, leaping up the stairs. They were on the run again! What fun!
He only hoped that wherever they were heading would have just as much fighting as the resort!
Paulin held tightly to Kisidera’s hand as the wagon slowly rumbled away from the city. Through the city gates, he could see dozens of guards rushing back and forth. They had made it out just before the official blockades went up at the city exits, thankfully enough. As long as no one followed them, they would be fine.
Next to him, Kisidera swayed slightly as the wagon rumbled down the road under the noonday sun. She wore a thick cloak that practically screamed vampire given the warm temperatures of the day, but… Well, they would just have to hope that no one bothered to look too closely at the wagon.
“What did I do?” She breathed softly. Her voice had changed, become somewhat lighter and smoother. “What have I become?”
“You’re still yourself.” Paulin gave her hand another squeeze. “You’re still sentient. You’re still a high elf.”
“I’m diseased.” Kisidera held up her arm and drew back her sleeve, exposing her skin to the sun. It began to smoke and blister almost instantly, and Paulin quickly pulled the sleeve back down.
“Please don’t hurt yourself.” Paulin breathed softly. “I love you.”
“I don’t.” Kisidera snapped. “And what if I hurt you? I don’t sleep. You all have to. Is someone just going to stay awake with me at all times to make sure I don’t eat anyone?”
“We’ll find a way to satiate your appetite.” Paulin held up a hand. “You were hungry when you woke up, and then we got you some bloodfruit, remember? You said you were feeling better.”
“Oh, come on.” Kisidera snapped. “It tasted like dirt. Yes, I’m not hungry now, but I don’t want to keep eating that stuff for the rest of my life. Not to mention that the only reason we didn’t raise suspicion when we bought it was because we had Ondi. The moment that someone sees a high elf eating bloodfruit, they’ll know.”
“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Paulin sighed. “Please don’t give up on me. I’m not giving up on you.”
“Maybe you should.” Kisidera spat, then sighed. “Fine. Whatever.”
Paulin took a deep breath as the wagon continued to rumble away. As they were seated in the rear of the vehicle, leaning against the front boards, they were given a perfect view of Donenrot slowly fading in the distance.
Once again, they were fleeing. Once again, their lives had been changed forever. What was next? What would they be thrown into now? How in Calsin were they going to find a way to cure Kisidera? And would they even live that long?
Paulin had none of those answers. All he knew was that he loved her dearly. He was going to fight for her, and he was going to keep fighting even if he had to cross the entire continent a dozen times over.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.