“So we’re moving out?” Garnisic walked up next to Sapphire, a curious look plastered across his dwarven face.
“Yeah.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks and shrugged. “Wherever Paulin and Hesione are… They’re not coming back.” She gestured out at the tree-covered mountainsides. “We’ve waited two weeks. Kisidera is a wreck. We just… We have to move on, right? I’m not making a mistake here, am I?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Garnisic just shrugged and slowly turned around. “I’ll go get the others. Just focus on making sure we don’t materialize in a lake or something.”
Sapphire chuckled before just closing her eyes. The footsteps of the dwarf faded and she reached down to her belt. Her fingers found her newfound artifact, hanging by a few magical threads from the rope that encircled her waist. As she pulled the Goblet away from her body, the cords dissolved, allowing her to raise the magical object up to her eye level.
“Alright, Hichipol.” She breathed softly. “Show me where to go. Show me what to do.”
No one answered her, though an incomprehensible wellspring of power surged up within her. She smiled and allowed herself to transform, though she kept her eyes closed. In an instant, her heavy robes vanished as they were replaced by the lightweight blue cloak that she now sported. The goblet dissolved in her palms and solidified in her right hand, now a long and firm staff of bronze. Her thumb traced across the engravings, wondering if they had any meaning, or if they were simply decorative. She had no way of knowing, and little interest in pursuing the topic, but it still made her wonder.
As her power welled up inside of her, she cast out her mind, sending it whipping across the mountains to a small town she had located while meditating shortly after their arrival at the mountainside cave. The buildings came into focus, an odd architecture that involved thinly-walled buildings topped with sweeping ceramic roofs. It wasn’t a structure that she was familiar with, though that didn’t mean a great deal. Really, all it told her was that it wasn’t Distisil, Donisil, Sintison, or Elsinor. She hadn’t seen enough of the dwarven countries to rule out that particular possibility, and humans were notorious for just sort of doing whatever they felt like, which made the possibilities almost endless.
Of course, there was still another option. Perhaps… Perhaps she had somehow jumped across the ocean to the other continent. The sorcerer Versor was out there, somewhere, likely still alive. What did that mean? Was there any chance in the world that she could have followed him?
“And we’re here.” Garnisic mumbled as the footsteps returned. “You ready? We almost got blown up on our way in. It’s been a long time since you’ve had one of those things to deal with.”
“Don’t remind me.” Sapphire took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The city remained fixed in her mind, the strange outlines of the structure still visible in a way. She only wished that she could have seen the city’s residents. That much would have told her a great deal, but she supposed that she would simply have to jump and deal with the consequences.
With that, she turned to look at her group. They were a motley bunch, that much was certain. A human, a dwarf, an orc, and a vampiric high elf. Lost and abandoned by their leader, now… Now, all they had were each other. And, theoretically, Sapphire’s magic.
“I know it’s been a long two weeks.” Sapphire sighed and planted her staff on the ground. “I know it hasn’t been particularly easy on any of you. But I think that-”
“Save it, Sapphire.” Kisidera sighed and pulled her cloak up over her head. It was the same cloak she had been wearing back in Sintison, and showed the wear and tear of living in a cave for weeks on end. “Things are bad. Paulin and Hesione left us. You can’t make this situation any different.”
Sapphire hesitated for a few seconds, trying to figure out how to respond. She still hadn’t decided exactly what to do with the elf, which made things ever more complicated. Garnisic was an open advocate for just killing the vampire, while Ondernifam didn’t seem to care one way or another. Sapphire truly was the deciding factor… And she simply couldn’t come to any good decisions.
“Maybe I can’t change it.” Sapphire shrugged. “Maybe things are bad, but that doesn’t mean we have to live like they are.” She gestured out at the mountainside. “My son is out there somewhere. He doesn’t even remember who I am. It’s been hard, but I’ve had to push through.”
“You put up a mental block in your brain so you wouldn’t think about it.” Garnisic scoffed.
“Okay, well, I’m trying here.” Sapphire stamped her foot. The action caused the ground rumble, eliciting a yelp from Garnisic and an excited grin from Ondernifam. “I don’t know how to be a leader. I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing here. I don’t know if we need to keep adventuring together, split up, go buy a house, just go wandering through the wilderness…” She shrugged. “I don’t know. If anyone else wants to take charge, please, do so.”
Silence greeted her ears. Garnisic scratched the back of his neck while Kisidera simply met her gaze with a dull, uninterested glare. Sapphire nodded firmly after a few seconds, squaring her shoulders and planting her staff.
“Then that’s that.” She took a deep breath and let magic flow from her body through the staff. The engravings began to glow as the staff charged up, and she turned back to face the city, off somewhere in the distance. “Get ready. I don’t know where we’re coming out, so be ready for anything.”
With that, she closed her eyes and cast her mind out to the distant city. She breathed softy, speaking simply to her own magic and to the staff itself.
“Take us there.”
Magic erupted from the crystal of her staff, striking like lightning across the gathered individuals. Sapphire felt her feet leave the ground as she was swept along through an immaterial plane before slamming back to the packed dirt only a second later.
She opened her eyes to find themselves standing on an open plain, filled with softly-waving grasses. In the distance, off to her left, she could just see the mountains on the horizon. To her right, though, stood the city that for so long had only existed in her mind’s eye.
It was everything she had imagined, and more. A low wall was all that stood around the settlement, a wooden fence that seemed reinforced with magic of some sort. On the other side, the building style was exactly what she had seen: Thin, paper-like walls with large sliding doors, steep tiled rooftops. Great swaths of sea glass decorated much of the visible surfaces, with ornate designs standing out on the walls and hanging from strings in the form of elaborate wind chimes. A fantastic melody trickled through the air as a soft wind blew through the area.
The final piece that swam into focus were the people. Specifically, the half-dozen individuals who all turned to look at the newcomers with a mixture of awe and fear. All were aqahartis, a mixture of elderly men and women with young children darting back and forth through the buildings playing ball. One of the young children raised a hand in greeting, but the others seemed far less welcoming. Sapphire waved back, hoping to make a good first impression, then turned and began walking along the edge of the wall, making sure to stay far enough back that she wouldn’t cause undo suspicion.
All the while, she kept her sorcerous garb on full display. She noticed Garnisic glancing at her curiously, but she kept her staff at the ready nonetheless. She had spent too much time in hiding, too much time without a sorcerous artifact at all. Now that she had one back, she was going to let people know. Without Kisidera’s Family connections, maybe the garb would even net them some better living quarters.
In the distance, as they strode around a bend in the wall, the city gate came into view. It wasn’t anything fancy, a simple gap in the fence along the northern side of the walls. A handful of guards stood with tall, ceremonial spears raised to the skies. Sapphire put on a smile as the guards all turned in her direction, and she stepped out in front of the group.
“Hello!” She waved as they approached. “My name is Sapphire, sorceress of the Goblet, and these are my traveling companions. We just came from the mountains, and seek sanctuary within your borders.”
The guards didn’t Seem to relax as she approached. When she finally drew up in front of them, one of the guards stepped forward. The woman wore a single silver scale on her shoulder, otherwise, she looked almost exactly like the others. Sapphire bowed her head, and the woman returned the greeting.
“You must excuse our caution.” The guard’s voice was a lovely cascade of noise, as was most aqahartis speech. “Are you truly a sorceress? I have heard of Sapphire the sorceress, but I see no proof that you are indeed her.”
“Oh, please don’t ask for proof.” Garnisic groaned behind her. “She’ll probably suck the entire city into the dark realm or something.”
Sapphire turned and glared at him. “Will not!”
She pointed the staff at the sky and charged it with magic, loosing a blast of energy at the sun. The arc of blue magic exploded violently, causing lightning bolts to rain down across the nearby prairie. As the blasts of magic shook the air, trees began to grow from each point of impact, and soon a small forest had sprung up on the otherwise treeless plain.
“Told you.” Garnisic snorted.
Sapphire stuck her tongue out at him before turning back to the guards, who now looked far more concerned than they had been only seconds before. As she opened her mouth to ask another question, she heard Garnisic’s voice drifting up from behind her again.
“You’re just going to let those things clutter up their view?”
Sapphire turned and glared down at him. “You really want me to try and clean those up?”
Garnisic shrugged. “I think they do, and I’d rather be on their good sides.” He glanced up at Ondernifam and chuckled. “Bets on what happens?”
“I think she kills everyone in the country!”
Garnisic subsequently facepalmed as the guards all planted their feet and began preparing for an attack.
“I’m not doing that!” She assured Ondernifam, then turned to the guards. “I’m not going to do that. I can try to cut these down if you’d like, but-”
“We’ll harvest the wood and use it for a celebratory bonfire for the next Eve’s Day celebration.” The guard shook her head. “For what it’s worth, I’m convinced. I didn’t think I’d ever see a true sorceress again.”
“I wasn’t sure if I would either.” Sapphire sighed, then nodded in the guard’s direction. “Thank you. I promise, I’ll be more careful in the future.”
“As a sorceress, I’ll have the Provisioner send a delegate to your quarters to discuss appropriate magic use while in our city limits.” The guard flashed a small smile, then turned to the rest of the group. “And the rest of your party?”
“Garnisic, Ondernifamtheri, and Kisidera.” Sapphire gestured at the other three members of their group. “We’ve been traveling together since the Angel Incursion.”
“Angel Incursion?” The guard frowned. “Haven’t heard it called that before, but I like the name.”
“It seemed appropriate.” Sapphire sighed and scuffed at the ground. “I… I think we all lost a lot in that.”
“I lost three siblings.” The guard nodded and glanced down as well. “It’s hard to think that it might be over. That Sintison is the worst of our problems again.”
“You’re telling me.” Sapphire nodded for several seconds before shrugging. “So we’re good?”
“Just one more thing. Standard procedure, you know the drill.” The guard turned and passed her spear and shield off to one her companions, and took a small crystal that Sapphire recognized as a focusing device. “We need to scan you to make sure no one is undead. The vampires have been taking advantage of the incursion. Just one more way to make a bad situation worse.”
“Scan away.” Sapphire closed her eyes as the woman held up the crystal. Even while she remained calm outwardly, her mind spun as she thought through the various options.
When the guard scanned the group, she would know that Kisidera was a vampire. It was as simple as that. Aqahartis magic was infamously good at seeing through illusions, which meant that there was no way a simple spell that Sapphire could cast in a split second would be enough to trick the guards. If she tried to affect the crystal itself, any further user would be able to see the lingering damage, which meant…
“Blind her eyes.” Sapphire didn’t speak out loud, but instead directed her thoughts through her staff. “And please, don’t actually blind her. No theatrics. No causing zombies to rise up. Just make sure she-”
“And that’s that.” The guard’s voice broke back into her concentration. “Everything looks good. Enjoy your stay in Sodonis.”
“Many thanks.” Sapphire inclined her head as the guards parted. “Can you recommend any place to stay?”
“It depends on how much money you have.” The guard shrugged. “The Sound of the Prairie is amazing if you have a small fortune saved up.”
Sapphire bit her lip. “How about less than that?”
The guard chuckled. “You know what? Take this.” She reached into a small bag that hung on her waist and pulled out a small token. “Go to the Apple Tree Lodge. The city will pay for your stay, provided that you don’t go too crazy. We’re honored to have a sorceress within our walls.”
“Thank you, once again.” Sapphire took the token and dropped it into her pocket.
“The thanks is all mine.” The woman flashed a small smile. “Travel safely, young sorceress.”
Sapphire inclined her head in thanks before walking past the guards and through the gate. The others followed close behind, with Kisidera hanging tightly between Garnisic and Ondernifam. Together, the quartet began making their way down the hardpacked dirt street, relishing the breeze that seemed to be channeled by the buildings to just flow through the city.
She squared her shoulders as she walked forward, ready for anything that they could face. They had a place to stay, and it wasn’t costing them anything at all. While it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was a good enough staging ground to figure out where to go next. In that moment… That’s all she really wanted.
“We could lay waste to this entire country!” Ondernifam proudly crowed as they walked into their room, a location whose walls were far thinner than Garnisic appreciated. He wasn’t certain, but it looked to him like several sheets of paper had been hung on a wooden frame, and that that had really been all the effort that the architects had put into the building’s construction.
“No, we really couldn’t.” Garnisic sighed and hopped into a chair, letting his feet dangle. It was frustrating that there wasn’t any dwarven-sized furniture, but it was a fact of life that he had grown all-too-painfully used to. He dropped his hammer next to the chair as Kisidera slumped onto one of the beds. “What now?”
Sapphire simply breezed through the room, only transforming back into her ordinary clothes after the door had slid shut. Before she answered, she walked up to the small window, where she pulled aside the shutters to gaze out across the small town square that the room overlooked.
“Calsin to Sapphire?” Garnisic waved his hand as Ondernifam began to explore the room, sniffing all four beds carefully and purposefully. “You there?”
“Sorry.” Sapphire turned back to him and shrugged. “Lost in thought. What was the question?”
“I asked what the plan was now?” Garnisic held up his hands. “We have a place to stay for a few days. What do we do after that?”
Sapphire held his gaze for a few seconds before shrugging and sitting down on one of the beds. “I thought we already established on the mountain that I don’t know what the plan is.”
“Right.” Garnisic held up his hands. “Now we’re not on the mountain.”
“It’s been an hour!” Sapphire protested. “Give me a bit longer!”
“You’ve had two weeks!” Garnisic hopped to his feet and started stomping over to her bed. “We need a plan, Sapphire.”
Even as he stormed over to confront her, an odd voice seemed to speak up in the back of his mind. What was he doing? Why was he being so harsh on her? He relented as he reached her side, and sighed deeply.
“I’m sorry. I…”
Sapphire just nodded wordlessly. Kisidera, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, nodded at Ondernifam.
“Maybe the two of us should go explore the city.”
Sapphire held up a hand. “First off, it’s too dangerous. The city guards are on alert for vampires, and-”
“So now I’m just supposed to stay locked up?” Kisidera snorted. “I thought you wanted me getting out and about? I thought you wanted me off my bed, up and exploring the world again.”
Sapphire sighed and put her face in her hands. “I do, but-”
“So I’m going with Ondernifam for protection.” Kisidera gestured at the orc. “Ondernifam? If anyone recognizes me as a vampire, eat them.”
This time, Garnisic was the one to facepalm as Ondernifam leapt across the room to Kisidera’s side. The two of them charged out of the room an instant later, and the door slid shut. Garnisic groaned and turned to face Sapphire fully, while the sorceress simply flopped back onto the bed.
“Alright, fine.” Sapphire muttered and pulled a pillow up over her head. “And you’re sure we need to be doing something? Not just buying a house and living together?”
Garnisic snorted. “Look at us and what we’ve been through. Tell me one location on the entire continent where we’d be content to settle down.”
Sapphire groaned through the pillow, then nodded. “Alright, fine. So what do we have? What horrors do we know of that we can reasonably try to fight and destroy?”
Garnisic stroked his beard for a few seconds. “I’ve heard that the Fond’sar are particularly evil this time of year.”
Sapphire snorted. “We’d need an army of sorcerers to take on the Fond’sar. We don’t even know where they’re located.”
“Probably Taninor somewhere.” Garnisic shrugged and leaned up against the bed. “What about vampires? It sounds like there’s quite a problem with them here.”
“Oh, that’s going to go over well.” Sapphire sat up and tossed the pillow to the side. Her hair now hung about her head in a wild mess. “We’re living with a vampire. I’m sure that going out and fighting other vampires is really going to help her mental state.”
“We don’t have to be living with a vampire. You know that, right?” Garnisic held up his hands. “We’re not bound to Kisidera. She was dating Paulin, who, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job about tracking us down.”
“I know.” Sapphire snapped her fingers, causing a flash of magic that pulled her hair back behind her head in a far more organized fashion. “The worst part about it all is that we know the two of them spend a lot of time traveling through time. Mal told us all about meeting them back in Donisil. They’re out there, just not here.”
“Exactly.” Garnisic nodded. “So why try so hard to keep her around? She’s dead. She died back in that resort. She deserves the respect of a proper burial. I mean, you wouldn’t just go dig up someone’s corpse and carry it around with you, right?” He gestured at the door. “That’s what we’re doing with her. It’s dishonorable to her memory.”
Sapphire sighed and shrugged, flopping back onto the bed once more. “I just… I don’t know. When I was at the academy, there were half a dozen theories on vampires that were put forth. No one is really sure if they’re alive or not.”
“You can’t tell me that suddenly there’s a topic from the academy that you actually paid attention to.” Garnisic shook his head. “She’s a liability. She’s affecting the moral of the rest of us, she affects our safety, and she’s preventing us from actually doing any good. Vampires are moving across Calsin, and we’re going to be unable to do a thing about it unless we do something about her.”
Sapphire frowned. “Vampires moving across Calsin?”
“Yeah. That Lilith girl.” Garnisic frowned, then felt a flash of horror as he belatedly realized that he had done the exact same thing as Ondernifam and forgotten to tell anyone about the note. “Oh! I completely forgot!” He reached into his pocket and fished out the small scrap of paper that Ondernifam had given him just before the whole cave incident. “Here. What do you make of this?”
Sapphire took the note and read it out loud, concern growing on her face.
“As a registered vampiric agent in the civilized world, Lilith of the Desert formally extends an invitation to join her New Legion. Please send a return letter with a list of your accomplishments as an undead lord and await further instructions.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks. “Well, that’s concerning.”
“Ondernifam took it off the vampire in the basement of the resort.” Garnisic shrugged. “All I can figure is that he was trying to aggressively recruit more help.”
“And Kisidera got caught in that effort.” Sapphire breathed softly. “If that’s true, the same thing could be happening across…”
Her voice trailed off, and Garnisic nodded. “All of Calsin. Yes.”
“Then it seems, unless we come up with a more pressing issue, such as locating the Fond’sar base, we need to be pursuing this Lilith of the Desert.” Sapphire mused. “I can only assume that the desert is the Vamsick Desert in Notirot. How’d you like to head south?”
“I have literally been asking to head south ever since we decided to head north.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “So yes, that sounds good to me.”
“Then I’d say we have a plan.” Sapphire sat up. “Now we just need to find Kisidera, and-”
A knock echoed on the doorframe, breaking their conversation. Garnisic gestured at the door, and Sapphire waved her hand. The door slid aside, allowing the guard from the city gates to come walking in. She still wore her armor, plated and ready for war apparently, but seemed docile otherwise. She slid the door shut behind her, and Garnisic frowned. Personal visits from city guards were rarely a good thing.
“Ahh, good. I’d hoped I’d catch you here.” The guard bowed her head. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Helondria, and upon my request, I have been designated to serve as an envoy from the Provisioner to our newfound friends.”
Garnisic raised an eyebrow. “You’re request? I didn’t realize that destroying an entire landscape would make us so dear to you.”
Helondria frowned, then chuckled. “Oh! No, it wasn’t that. The trees are already gone, actually. They pulled up their roots and walked away a few minutes after you left.” She frowned and stroked her chin. “I should probably put in a report with the monster patrols.”
“So why did you want to talk to us?” Sapphire swung her legs over the side of the bed, nearly smacking Garnisic on the head. “Is something wrong?”
“That depends on how you look at it.” Helondria crossed her arms, her face growing sterner. “You’re traveling with a vampire. Given that you’re a sorceress, I decided to let you inside, but I need to know why you would be in the company of such a foul beast.”
Garnisic swung to face her. “I thought you did a mind trick or something to get us through!”
“So did I.” Sapphire muttered and climbed to her feet. “Not strong enough?”
“Not soon enough.” Helondria shrugged. “It took effect, but only after I had already confirmed that she was vampiric. My question remains: Why?”
Sapphire sighed and rubbed her forehead. “She was dating a former member of our group. She got turned, and we went to look for a cure, but then he vanished and now…”
“Now you’re stuck with her.” Helondria frowned and nodded slowly. “You do realize that she’s dead, right?”
“That’s what I’ve been telling her!” Garnisic nodded forcefully.
“I’m not just going to kill her until I explore all our options.” Sapphire held up a hand. “Look, if I need to, I’ll imprison her or something, but I’m not going to do anything that we can’t undo. My orders to Ondernifam stand, and will continue to do so.”
Helondria’s face twisted into a sneer. “So you’re one of those people who think that vampires are still living? That they’re just changed?”
“I don’t know what to believe.” Sapphire transformed back into her sorceress form. Garnisic took a step back as he blinked spots out of his vision, and Sapphire leveled the staff at the woman. “What I know is that she isn’t a threat. If she tries to bite anyone, I’ll dust her in a heartbeat, but thus far all she’s eaten is moss and bloodfruit. She’s even refused to consider eating bandits or murderers.”
Helondria nodded slowly. “So you would fight vampires who were actively trying to spread their disease?”
“Of course.” Sapphire nodded. “Most people don’t survive the transformation. If they do, they’re forever altered. They can’t reproduce, they don’t age, it’s a curse. You can rest assured that I’m no ally to vampirekind.”
“It eases my mind to hear that.” Helondria shifted slightly, taking her hand off the hilt of her sword. For the first time, Garnisic realized how close she had likely been to striking out at the two of them. “In that case, let me present my case to you.”
Garnisic nodded as Sapphire walked around the bed. He followed her, keeping an eye on his hammer. It wasn’t particularly close, but if Sapphire kept the soldier distracted he could probably still reach it. He might not particularly like the idea of leaving Kisidera alive, but he wasn’t planning on letting anyone harm the living members of their team.
“Speak.” Sapphire kept her staff pointed in the direction of the soldier.
“As I alluded to at the entrance of the city, vampire activity is increasing rapidly.” Helondria crossed her arms. “We’re a small city. Ten thousand people if a lot of people have come inside for a festival. We lose someone every single night to the bloodsuckers.” She balled her fists. “Sometimes it’s more than one. They’re not trying to turn more, they just drain them of blood and leave them on the floor of their homes. We’ve spent months trying to track down the monsters, but we haven’t found a thing. If you would be able to help, we’d be in your debt.”
Sapphire nodded slowly, and Garnisic felt his stomach sinking. So they were going to wind up chasing down vampires. Privately, he had really been hoping that after heading south to the desert, they would wind up getting bored and going after the Fond’sar instead.
“We’ll help.” Sapphire nodded. “As it happens, we were planning on heading after some vampire activity anyway. With what we know, it’s possible the two of them are connected.” She glanced at Garnisic, who offered her a brief smile. “Lilith of the Desert will never know what hit her.”
“I’m still not convinced that this is going to work.” Druila’s voice echoed in Talfin’s ears as he stalked down the sidewalk of the lower shopping district of Tirinnoufin. Limestone buildings rose all around him, decorated with sea glass and brimming with life. Women sat on the ledges of wide open windows, knitting and doing other housewife things, while their husbands and children manned the shops below. The air was filled with gloriously tempting smells, from nectar rolls to burblecheese pastas to various types of soups.
“Those without faith find themselves at the mercy of those who do.” Talfin spoke quietly, aware that their bond should prevent anyone else from listening in, but not wanting to risk it anyway. The sun beat down overhead, the sounds of commerce filled the streets.
“I’m impressed.” Druila’s voice came back.
“That I know the Sorosin sacred text?” Talfin snorted dismissively. “I’m at least passingly familiar with every religion in Calsin that has more than ten followers.”
“No, I was impressed that you actually bothered to talk. Most of the time you just put on that grumpy face of yours and refuse to chat.”
“Well, maybe I’m in a good mood.” Talfin shot back.
“Or maybe you’re nervous that you might actually track down your brother this time.” Druila’s voice was singsong. “Ooh, will this be the time? The time when I can finally lay eyes on the love of my life once more?”
“He’s here somewhere and I’m going to find him.” Talfin hissed. A brief scuffle rose on the stones just next to him, and he stepped to the side as a young beggar shot past, leaping over the stones of the street holding a brilliant gold coin in his fingers. As the boy reached a corner, he slipped the coin into his cloak, where Talfin heard the distinct noise of metal against cotton. He flashed a smile in recognition of the fact that the boy had insulated pockets inside his clothes. That way, he could keep posing as a copperless beggar while hiding the noise of coins clinking against each other. Talfin made a mental note to contact the boy in several years, and then turned his attention back to the task at hand.
“Or he’s going to find you.”
“Shut up.” Talfin snapped.
“I would, but you need me.” Druila’s voice became more inquisitive and playful. “What was that you said to me this morning? In order for this to work, Druila needs to be stationed outside the Brutal Hog so she can notice what’s going on.”
“Then just shut up until I need you.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” Druila chuckled softly. “Alright, let’s see. What to do to alleviate this boredom?”
“I’m working, so I’m not bored.” Talfin was beginning to grow quite annoyed with the dark elf.
“I’m not working, so I ambored.” Druila returned. “Alright, then. I want to know details about all these religions you know of. What’s the smallest religion you’re familiar with?”
“I told you, ten members.” Talfin shrugged. “There are three that fit that category. The most interesting is a group of witches in Elsinor who worship a fairy that got struck by lightning. They’ve been living in the mountains for years, most people don’t even know that they’re there. Their sacred text consists of a single piece of papyrus, and is mostly the ramblings of the grandmother. Once she dies, it’ll drop below ten members and I’ll no longer care.”
“You just made that up.” Druila snorted.
“If I did, it kept you entertained.” Talfin closed his eyes for a brief moment as his mind flashed to the time when he had learned about the small cult. A lake of lava, spewing flames high into the cavern where they stood. Minotaurs, sentient slaves, enchanted death collars… For all he knew, the strange cult had perished many years earlier, but he didn’t want to forget the information. Just in case. “For what it’s worth, I’m certain that the cult won’t grow any larger. The fairy apparently forbade any of her worshipers to have children.”
“And it’s in Elsinor.”
“Almost into Donitor. I think they’re technically on Filisan land, but no one from the Family is going to bother them.”
“You know, you’d know a lot more about me if you ever bothered to learn anything that I taught you.” Talfin reached an intersection and glanced up and down the road. All clear. Just the occasional traveler, but no one who looked ready to kill him.
“You talk too fast.” Druila complained.
“So listen faster.” Talfin took a deep breath as he turned to the right. His heart gave a mighty thump within his chest, and he shook his head. “Alright, I’m moving in to the target. Stay on watch. Breaking link now, meet me at the house with results.”
With that, he clicked his tongue and broke the mental connection. While he would have preferred to keep the link up and ready, having it active meant that he couldn’t communicate with anyone around him. Given that his current task required him to actually speak to someone, it just wasn’t practical to do anything else. Druila would watch the Brutal Hog, and would report back to him later.
Ahead, the shopping district ended as the buildings began to transition into more service-based shops. Barbers, city offices, gambling parlors. It was the latter that Talfin headed towards, an unnamed establishment whose entrance was hidden from most people. He walked up to a small red door, just below a sign for a dressmaker, and whistled a particular tone. It was a specific set of frequencies, impossible for any species other than aqahartis to articulate.
As soon as the tone had left his mouth, he stepped to the right. There, another door appeared in front of him, set in the wall without any other features. He quickly reached out, twisted the knob, and stepped inside. If anyone had been watching him, it would have appeared that he had just entered the first, red door. It was an excellent system, more than adequate to fool the lesser minds around the town.
The door opened into a small gambling parlor, no bigger than a large bedroom, and consisted of a single table with three other aqahartis males sitting there. Talfin slid into his own chair wordlessly as the others finished the hand of cards that they were playing. While they continued to deal and toss cards about, Talfin took a moment to size up his competitors.
Two of the three were new to him. One was a man in a red robe, signifying him as upper management of the public works department. The second wore a single-piece embroidered garment, and was likely one of the rich elite. The third and final one, though, was who Talfin was concerned with.
He was a massive aqahartis, nearly six feet tall and as burly as a bear. Or simply as a somewhat average orc. His clothes were leather, signifying him as one of the hunters. Not the Dragon Hunters, of course, but the off-brand local variety that Tifingor used to keep the plains free of roaming monsters.
None of the men spoke, and simply began dealing him cards as soon as they finished their hand. Talfin reached into his pocket and pulled out several coins and pieces, placing it all on the table. He heard the men all scoff under their breath, as he made such an obviously rookie mistake. To alleviate their concerns, he let his hand brush his second pocket, causing a few more coins to make a mile jingle. The hunter and the upper management both relaxed, though the elite still looked annoyed at the prospect of having to play with someone of an obviously lower class.
As Talfin picked up the cards he had been dealt, he let out a small breath. It wasn’t much, designed to simply show interest in the cards rather than a positive or a negative. His opponents wouldn’t be able to pick up much from it, except for the fact that he could be heard. And that meant that he wasn’t linked to anyone.
That distinction was quite important. Almost universally, in high-stakes games, aqahartis would link to other people so that their voices couldn’t be heard at the card table they were playing at. It helped ensure privacy, and could provide helpful advice depending on who they were linked to. If Talfin wasn’t linked to anyone, it meant that he was vulnerable.
As the game quickly went on, Talfin made sure to lose every game roundly. It wasn’t an easy task, as he was dealt a number of rather incredible hands. His opponents were also quite bad, telegraphing exactly what their hands held long before they ever revealed them. If he had actually been playing for money, he didn’t have any doubt in his mind that he would have been able to clean them out easily.
Nevertheless, he stuck to the plan. He lost all the money on the table, drew into his “secret” stash, and lost all of that as well. Over a hundred gold coins, down the drain. On the final hand, as he lost the last of his coin to the hunter, all eyes in the room turned to him. He patted down his robes, determined that he didn’t have anything more, and sighed deeply.
All three seemed disappointed to see him leave, as they had been enjoying the extra cash flow. He climbed to his feet and turned to leave, then paused. Once more, all eyes in the room turned to him as he spun back to the table.
“Gentlemen.” Talfin crossed his arms and tapped his foot in a pattern that he hoped would be annoying. “I know you can’t talk to me right now, so don’t worry about it. I just… I have something else. I won it off a guy the other night. I think it’s valuable, I’d be willing to wager it.”
The overseer and the elite both scoffed at him, but the hunter shrugged. Talfin nodded rapidly, reached into his robe, and pulled out a small statue.
Now, in all reality, he had stolen the statue from a vampiric caravan that he and Druila had ambushed outside the city gates a few weeks earlier. It was a carved figurine, likely a depiction of a family member, that had been placed in a large crate containing various personal belongings of people who were being relocated to vampiric lairs in other cities. Most importantly for the situation at hand, the hunter had been present, doing a fancy “inspection” to ensure that no vampires were on board.
After stealing the statue, Talfin had simply sat back to wait. The hunter had reappeared in the city after only a few days, and had subsequently begun canvassing the entire metropolis. Lost-and-found centers, civic offices, he had even gone tromping through the sewers. Now, he was being presented with the object of his query. The one object that could link someone, likely a fairly upstanding someone, with vampiric activity.
The hunter leapt to his feet after only a moment, fists balled, eyes wide. Several long seconds passed while he simply stared at the object. If Talfin had to guess, he was busy shouting at whoever he was linked with. Finally, after an agonizing amount of time, his jaw unsealed and he roared down at Talfin.
“Where in the Spring did you get that?”
“Ahh!” Talfin leapt backwards, holding the statue up in front of his face. “Please! I told you, I won it off someone in another card game!”
“I can hear you lying.” The hunter strode forward and grabbed Talfin’s wrist. He wrenched the statue out of Talfin’s hands in a split second, cradling the object. “I know you’re not telling the truth.”
If I was lying, it would stand to reason that I wasn’t telling the truth. Talfin had to force himself not to scowl at the stupidity of the statement. Now, the reverse of the statement was by no means accurate: It was incredibly easy for someone to not tell the truth and still not be lying, per se.
“Alright, alright!” Talfin squeaked. “I stole it! It fell out of his pocket and I thought it looked valuable.” He waited several long and painful seconds before holding up his hands in apparent confusion. “Is it valuable?”
“It… It belongs to a good friend of mine.” The hunter turned to stomp away. “Forgive me, gentlemen, but I must take this back.”
“Wait!” Talfin protested. “I was going to bet with that!”
“You were just going to lose it.” The hunter growled before vanishing through the door. Talfin watched him go, then turned to the other two. Both of them just shrugged and stood up as well, preparing to leave, and Talfin slunk to the door.
As he stepped back out into the sunshine, he spun and watched as the hunter tore through the crowd, vanishing down the street. He briefly considered following, then shrugged and decided against it. He just needed to get home, he didn’t want to attract undo attention by chasing the man. That could come later.
With one final glance at the hunter’s path, he turned and began to wander back down the street, making his way toward his home. As he did so, he kept his senses attuned to the environment, not allowing himself to think about much. People milled around him, their footfalls, their breathing, even their heartbeats painting a picture of their lives. A few were in love. A few had just fallen out of love. A few were planning on stealing things. A few were terrified of having their things stolen.
The stories, it all continued until Talfin reached his home once more. He swept up to the front door of the two-story limestone building and stepped inside with a flourish, more than happy to finally be away from the city and all its prying eyes. With so many ears, so many sensory organs out there, every time he put a foot outside his front door he was at risk. Sure, most of the people he passed had the observational powers of a brick, but there were always those who stood above the crowd. He was certain that at least one or two others in Tirinnoufin could rival his own powers.
Inside his home, though, he was safe. Powerful enchantments in the wall prohibited anyone from listening in, negated most forms of observational magic, and shored up the stones against a forced invasion. On top of that, his home sat on its own lot, complete with a grassy lawn and small pool in the back, which meant that no one could sneak up to him easily. Anyone who did would be facing the wrath of his protective stone golems. Many would have considered his security measures excessive. He simply thought he was being prudent.
“The master of the house returns home.” Druila’s voice drifted in from the living room. Talfin walked through the doorway to find the dark elf lounging on his couch made with korcat leather imported from Sournous. She rubbed her bare foot across the leather as he watched, apparently enjoying the grimace as he watched the desecration of such a valuable artifact.
“You’d better have something good for me.” Talfin dropped into an upright chair made from ancient stone. It had been imported from an ancient dwarven ruin in Donisil. The same ruin that he had sent Hesione, Garnisic, and Ondernifam into, actually. “He took the statue back, which means we’re out of leads if nothing happened.”
“Oh, something happened, alright.” Druila smirked and sat upright. “Came flying out of the tavern like his fins were on fire.”
“Good. You wrote down his description?” Talfin desperately hoped that the elf had actually bothered to note her observations rather than just trying to memorize his features.
“Didn’t need to.” Druila flashed a small smile. “And no, I’m not going to describe him. I can just tell you who he is.”
Talfin’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead, and he sat up straighter. “He’s someone we know?”
“Someone youknow. I’ve only seen him from a distance.” Druila held up her hand. “Five questions. Go.”
Talfin scowled. He hated her question games, but there wasn’t much he could do other than play along.
“Well, I know he’s male and aqahartis.” Talfin stroked his chin. “Works in the government?”
“Royalty or administrative?”
“Service or utility?”
Talfin frowned in thought. “Have I eaten lunch with him in the last seven days?”
“Overseer Fen.” Talfin crossed his arms.
“Nailed it!” Druila smirked. “You’d have thought his wife was being held for ransom.”
“That would require her to either be attractive or rich, and she’s neither.” Talfin smirked, then frowned. “Overseer Fen. That’s higher than I thought the vampires had been able to infiltrate.”
“On the bright side, it looks like he’s staying here for the time being.” Druila nodded at an open book on a nearby table. “I swooped by his apartment, and it’s still fully furnished. Based on your record of vampiric transfers, I’m pretty sure his belongings weren’t intended to be moved at all. His housekeeper just went on vacation, though.”
“Indeed?” Talfin felt a plan blossoming in his mind. “No staff, and caught up in court all day. That much, we can work with.”
“It is the reason why you didn’t think they would make moves on anyone that high up.” Druila shrugged. “I also happened to notice that, despite not having staff, his home looked like it was ready to receive guests tonight. Probably other vampires to go over the ledgers and such from court.”
“You know what? I take back what I said about your observation skills.” Talfin smirked. “It’s like having another version of me running around.”
“I aim to please.” Druila stood up and mock-bowed, then kicked at the bear-shaped table in the center of the room. At the touch of her bare feet (a pun that she had quite enjoyed when creating the spells involved in the mechanism), the table slid aside to reveal a passageway. “Well, if that’s all, I need to get back and make sure that my garden has been left alone. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a couple beets out of it later this week. Ought to make a good stew.”
Talfin frowned. “You know, you really can stay here. I have ways of hiding your presence. No one would be the wiser.”
“I’m still not even sure that this tunnel is a good idea.” Druila jumped down inside, landing with only her head sticking out. Talfin climbed to his feet and walked up to the edge of the hole as she prepared to depart. “Anything extra we do adds risk to both of us. Severin will use anything he can to dispossess you, and I’m sure he’d love to remove my head from my neck. The only reason we’re both still alive is because he’s so political, but the moment he gets a whiff of something he can use against us-”
“I know, I know.” Talfin ran his hand through his scaly hair. “I just… I’ve been out to your place. You could at least eat here. You don’t have to try and survive on what you can produce out there, especially since I know you don’t actually spend any time out there anymore.”
“Talfin?” Druila raised an eyebrow. “Worry about yourself, and I’ll worry about me. Okay?”
Talfin scowled, but nodded. “Fine.”
Druila flashed him a single smile before crouching and touching an enchanted plate on the wall. The bear slid back into place, and Talfin sighed. He turned to sit back down on the throne, then hesitated. After a few painful seconds, he walked over to the couch and sat down, pulled off his shoes, and slowly leaned back. As his webbed feet caressed the leather, he had to smile. It did feel good, there was no getting around that.
Ever since he met her, he and Druila had faced the vampire threat together. She had proven a quick learner, and despite not being aqahartis, had vastly outshone his expectations. She could take initiative on the fly, glean information from even the smallest detail, and had saved him from political failure on multiple occasions. On top of that, she was right: If she started living in his house, even in one of the guest bedrooms in the second dungeon level below ground, she would eventually be discovered.
And yet, he wanted so badly to pull her from the slum which she resided in. It was filthy, she often went days without eating, and he knew that the locals she lived near were less-than-pleasant people. He just… He just wanted her to be safe. That was it. Was that too much to ask? She was a teenager, after all! Well, technically she was almost forty, but that was essentially the dark elven version of a teenager. Was it really a crime to want to keep her safe?
His thoughts continued to drift after her as he lay there. Finally, after far too long contemplating ways of helping her improve her life, he shook his head and climbed to his feet.
The vampires were rallying once more. Despite their setback just before the angel incursion, they had never quite fallen apart. Under Severin’s leadership, it seemed that they grew stronger every day. If Talfin was going to prevent a vampiric takeover of the country, he needed to come up with a plan to stop his brother, and fast. Now that he knew the name of another vampiric agent, perhaps he would be able to do something more. Something better.
Something that would ensure that Druila never had to live in a vampire-overrun Tifingor
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