“Coming up on your destination.” The driver of the wagon called out as the small carriage rumbled across the plains of Tifingor. “You want taken all the way into the city, or are the outskirts good enough for you?”
“The outskirts will be fine.” Highsand Barn folded his hands in his robes and shifted on the seat. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” The driver, an aqahartis who they had hired after crossing the border, turned around and flashed a small smile. “You’ve been exceptional passengers. Both of you.”
Barn nodded in acknowledgement, then turned and cast a worried look at Franclin. Seated near the rear of the wagon, the young Dragon Hunter had barely said a word since leaving the dwarven fortress. He had just… Sat there. At least he was wearing his armor, its brilliant blue sheen gleaming in the early summer sun.
After a few moments, Barn sighed and climbed forward, scrambling up over the edge of the driver’s seat. As he did so, he touched a small privacy token, preventing his speech from drifting back to Franclin. He didn’t think the Hunter would even notice, and… Well, he had things to talk about.
“Yes?” The driver glanced over at the dwarven cleric. “Please tell me that you’re not about to become one of the customers I hate so much.”
“No, no.” Barn shook his head. He pointed down the road, where the walls of Tirinnoufin could just be seen on the horizon. “I just need you to get us there, nothing more. What I’m curious about is how well you know the city. I’m going to need some fairly specific supplies and services, and I’d rather not alert the wrong people to the fact that I’m looking for said services.”
The driver shrugged. “I know it as well as any other outsider, I’d say. I don’t know it like the back of my hand, but I’ve been there enough times to have a general idea. What are you looking for?”
Barn shrugged and forced himself not to glance over his shoulder, so as not to alert Franclin. “I need somewhere that could provide healing for the mind. Some form of meditative healing facility.”
The driver frowned in thought. “The Hunter has lost his nerve?”
“Something like that.” Barn shrugged. “If I understood it, I daresay that the problem would be resolved far easier. I’ve been working with him, and he’s definitely better, but he’s still a far cry from what he used to be.”
“I’d suggest the Sorosin baths, then.” The driver nodded at the city. “They have healing chambers where they use their vocal magic to induce trances and other forms of meditation. I’ve heard stories of the technique being used to cure dozens of mental illnesses.”
“I’ll give them a look.” Barn sighed and deactivated the totem. “What about food? Any suggestions?”
“Try the restaurants in the outer shell of the city.” The driver gestured forward once more. “Not the slums, mind you, but the deeper you go into Tirinnoufin, the more catered to aqahartis tastes the taverns are going to be. Other species often find such food quite bland.”
“Once again, thank you.” Barn flashed a small smile and climbed into the rear once more. He strode to the rear of the wagon as it lurched softly back and forth, and sat down on the bench next to Franclin. The Hunter simply glanced at him a single time before turning his attention back to the riveting performance that the floorboards were putting on.
“I know you were talking about me.” Franclin muttered. “You always try to hide it, but I’m not stupid.”
“And I never said that you were. I simply thought you might appreciate the privacy.” Barn shrugged and patted Franclin’s armored shoulder. “We’re going to get through this. I promise.”
“We’re going to get through what?” Franclin sighed and turned to face the dwarf. “We’re going to get through all the battles we have coming up? We’re going to get through whatever this Ambassador Talfin has to throw at us?”
“No, my friend.” Barn flashed a small smile. “We’re going to get through whatever you’re stuck in.”
“I’m not stuck in anything.” Franclin protested. “I just don’t want to keep fighting if there’s no way we can win.”
“You’re a Dragon Hunter.” Barn squared his shoulders and climbed to his feet. Even standing, he was still shorter than the seated Franclin. “You don’t give up.”
“I trained so that I could defeat anything this world had to throw at me.” Franclin snapped. He spun to face Barn, fire in his eyes. It was the first flicker of emotion that the Hunter had shown in weeks, giving Barn a tiny iota of hope. “When the angels came, I fought a god to find a way to kill them, and I did it. It never wound up being useful, but I found a way to kill them.”
“So just find a way to do that here!” Barn crossed his arms. He activated the privacy token and prepared himself for yet another inspirational speech. “We need that fire! We need you to stand up, defy all logic, and make your stand.”
“You don’t get it!” Franclin almost screamed at Barn. “The Fond’sar can’t be beat!” He held up his hands. “They wipe your memories. They infiltrate the most powerful organizations on the continent. They have gods themselves held prisoner. If you put me up against any one of them, yeah, I could probably beat them.” He balled his hands into fists. “As it is, there’s nothing we can do! We don’t know where they are. For all I know, I’ve already found their secret hideout a dozen times over and I’ve just had my memory wiped each time. This isn’t something you just fight.”
“And so you’re just going to give up?” Barn thundered.
“I joined the Hunters so I could protect the world.” Franclin swore loudly. “This? This isn’t something you can protect from. I’ve failed. My entire life, the organization that I dedicated my existence to, is just a sham for the Fond’sar. Who knows what I’ve done? How many targets I’ve taken down have actually just been things that the Fond’sar wanted out of the way?”
Barn held his gaze, then sighed and looked down at the ground. “I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to any of that.”
“Exactly.” Franclin shook his head and slumped back down again. “I wish you’d just let me go. Let me die in peace. Quit just dragging me around. I’m not going to be any help to you in battle.”
“You mistake my kindness for a simple battle strategy.” Barn deactivated the totem once more and sat down next to the Hunter. “My friend, even if we were not at war, I would drag you to the ends of Calsin if it meant getting your health back.”
Franclin just scoffed under his breath. The driver glanced back at them, a frown on his face.
“At war? Are you two involved in the Sintison affair?”
Barn shook his head, though that wasn’t entirely true. “It’s a long story, I’m afraid. We have just come from Taninor, though. Dreadfully nasty at the moment.”
“I’ve heard that the dwarves are massing their armies.” The driver frowned in curiosity before turning forwards again. “Happen to see anything?”
Barn sighed and nodded slowly, trying not to think about it. Indeed, they had been detained for some time as they attempted to leave the country as swaths of armored troops marched up to the border of Sintison.
“From what I can tell, Sintison is set on devouring as much land as they can take.” Barn shrugged. “I do not think that they will be able to take the lands of the dwarves with any semblance of ease.”
“For the sake of Tifingor’s survival, I sincerely hope that Sintison tries to pursue the dwarves rather than a more southward expansion.” The driver chuckled. “I’m sure you feel differently, though.”
“I think that the death toll will be enormous no matter how it turns out.” Barn sighed. “I feel no particular affiliation for any country of this world, only the people who are afflicted within it.”
“Well said.” The driver sighed. “Well, we’re almost here. Prepare to depart!”
Barn flashed a small smile at Franclin, who refused to return the acknowledgement. Barn jumped to his feet and walked to the front of the wagon, where he picked up the handful of bags that they had accumulated. Ahead, the city was drawing here, only a few hundred feet away.
Unlike most major cities throughout Calsin, Tirinnoufin was surrounded by an enormous slum, an expanse filled with tents, temporary structures, and shoddily-constructed permanent buildings. In other cities across Calsin, the city officials simply built up more walls as the city’s population expanded, but the aqahartis king apparently couldn’t be bothered with such a thing. It made Barn’s heart ache, to see so many people so lost and destitute.
As the wagon pulled up to the edges of the slum, Barn walked to the end of the wagon and hopped down. Franclin followed, likely resigned to the fact that he would lose the argument if he tried to stay in the wagon. The driver rumbled off towards the stables, leaving the two of them standing on the worn and dusty path that led to the city gates nearly a quarter-mile away. A handful of aqahartis guards milled around the area, but none of them bothered to give the duo a second glance.
“Let’s get moving.” Barn gestured for Franclin to follow him, and eagerly started tromping into the city. Franclin followed at a short distance, his gait uneven and halted, but he was nonetheless still there. Barn flashed him a reassuring smile before turning his attention forward.
The denizens of the slum mostly ignored the two travelers, though a few small children pointed and laughed as youngsters so often did. Their parents, though… The men, the women, humans, dwarves, and elves: They all looked positively defeated. Most had large holes missing in their garments, and simply stomped back and forth carrying buckets of animal food or leading the beasts of the field through the area.
Barn so desperately wished that he could give them something. Some money, some food, something to help get them by. The problem was that if he gave food to a single person, the entire slum would riot in an attempt to each get their own piece. It was a conundrum that he faced anytime he entered a place of dwelling for the poor, and was one that he didn’t think he was likely to solve anytime soon.
The two of them were almost hallway to the city gates when someone finally did approach them. It was a trio of what looked like local enforcers, a plains dwarf, a high elf, and a dark elf. Both elves had their sleeves rolled up to show a wide variety of accumulated scars, while the dwarf was almost completely covered in makeshift armor.
“You! Newcomers!” The dwarf bellowed. “Inspector Brunt! I’m here to inquire about your business within this fair city!”
“I’m afraid that our business is quite personal.” Barn bowed his head. Brunt? What had happened to the man’s family name? “Do forgive me, but we need to keep moving.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” The dwarf puffed out his chest. “I asked you a question.”
“And I’m traveling with a Dragon Hunter.” Barn gestured back at Franclin. While the boy didn’t look particularly threatening with his slumped posture, his armor was still quite distinctive. Underbelly “tax collectors” were a common problem in such low-income areas, and weren’t anything he wanted to deal with at that moment. “Let us through, please.”
“Ooh, the priest is getting angry!” The dwarf sneered.
“Technically, my rank is Highsand.” Barn bowed his head. “A priest is someone who serves directly in the presence of their god. A cleric is someone who does the work of their deity in the world itself. As such, I would be a cleric, not a priest.”
“Save it.” The high elf hissed softly. “Brunt here asked you a question.”
“Brunt, is it?” Highsand Barn turned to the dwarf and bowed his head. “I do apologize for any inconvenience, but we are coming into the city to speak to someone. It is of the utmost importance that we meet him as quickly as possible. Please, allow us passage.”
“Meeting someone?” Brunt took a step back. “See? That’s all you needed to say.”
Barn scowled at him. “What difference does it make to you?”
“If you don’t have to answer me, I don’t have to answer you.” Brunt sneered in return.
“Wait.” The dark elf held up a hand, his cold, hard eyes boring into Barn. “Who are you meeting with?”
Barn sighed. He didn’t particularly want anyone knowing they were there, but… They were just local muscle, and the sooner he could get rid of them, the sooner he could actually get on with his mission.
“Ambassador Talfin.” Barn sighed. “There? Enough?”
All three sets of eyes narrowed. “Talfin? What business do you have with Talfin?”
Barn shook his head. “For his ears and his alone.” When the enforcers simply stepped into the street to block their way, Barn sighed and held up his hands. “What are you, his personal bodyguards?”
“No!” Brunt squeaked, then shook his head. “Come with us, please.”
Barn crossed his arms. “Why?”
A soft hiss echoed through the air. Barn and Franclin slowly turned around to see a young dark elf female standing in the middle of the road, a curved stone blade in either hand. She flashed a small smile at them, then slowly raised the weapons to point at the two newcomers.
“Because I said so.” The girl breathed softly. Her face was kind, but the stance her body held spoke of extreme poise and practice. “Please, don’t make this difficult.”
…if he bolts, he’ll head into the lower west wing. I’ll need cover to make sure he can’t escape through the windows or doors, and…
Talfin sighed and ran his webbed fingers across his face. His fingertips brushed across his scales, sending an odd tingling sensation through his cheeks. He grimaced and lowered his hands to the armrests of his chair, groaning softly.
He had been awake all night, trying to come up with some appropriate angle to use against Overseer Fen. There were dozens of potential options to follow, but every time he started truly dissecting the situation, he ran into problems.
The fact of the matter was that he couldn’t expose the overseer, not just yet. He needed to use the man to map out the full extent of Severin’s operation. He needed to find points of distribution, he needed to figure out where the vampires were actually living since he had uncovered their first lair. There were so many factors, and it all made for a fantastically complicated mess that under different circumstances he might have actually enjoyed sorting out.
He was preparing to mull through a slightly different variation of the same scheme when a small tone echoed through the air. Druila was there! He felt a smile break across his face and pushed back from his desk, quickly stepping out into the upper-floor landing and skittering down the stairs to the main level of the structure.
There, as he stepped into the living room, he found himself facing not only Druila, but two other individuals as well. Druila hopped up onto his couch, once more placing her feet on the imported leather, while the dwarf and human simply stood awkwardly next to the large hole in his floor.
“Ahh… Welcome!” Talfin bowed at the waist. “Forgive me, I wasn’t expecting guests.”
“I do hope you’ll forgive us as well.” The dwarf returned the bow. “I was planning on scheduling a meeting with you through more official channels, but Druila here managed to secure us a more clandestine passage.”
“She manages to surprise all of us, I think.” Talfin swept into the room and sat down on the stone throne. “Please, have a seat.”
The dwarf quickly found a small dwarven chair next to the couch, while the human chose a wooden chair that had been grown into the proper shape by the elven gardeners in Nettingo. While they got situated, Talfin did his best to examine the two of them. The dwarf was a Highsand, seemingly with a devotion to the Consuming Wave. The human, on the other hand, was a bit of a mystery. His armor was quite obviously crafted by the Hunter Council, but his posture was a far cry from any Hunter that Talfin had ever met. Moreover, he could hear the boy’s heart thumping within his chest. He was terrified, scared on a level that Talfin rarely saw outside of mental institutions.
“I do hope you’ll forgive our intrusion.” The dwarf finally spoke up as the human ceased rattling in his armor. “My name is Highsand Barn, and this is Franclin. We’ve come here on behalf of the King of Elsinor.”
Talfin’s eyes opened in surprise. “When were you dispatched?”
Barn seemed taken aback by the question, but he shrugged. “Right before Nettingo was destroyed. Nine months, then? Almost ten?”
“I see.” Talfin dipped his head. “I suppose you haven’t heard, then?”
Barn frowned. “Heard what?”
Talfin hesitated for a brief moment. He always hated it when he had to tell delegates that the leaders who sent them had passed away. “The Ambassador of Defense staged a coup and is now recognized as King. The former King was killed in the uprising.” He hesitated. “I don’t know if that affects your mission at all, but I truly am sorry.”
The Hunter seemed unconcerned, but Barn’s jaw dropped in shock. He slowly tilted his head forward, looking down at the ground. It was more than a full minute before he looked back up and met Talfin’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I just… I’ve known the King for many years, longer even than he’s been king. We became friends when he was still Prince Geraldin. I knew that Elsinor was on shaky ground, but I had no idea that he had perished.”
“I understand completely.” Talfin sighed. “Please, take your time.”
“No.” Barn sighed and shook his head. “Time isn’t something we have right now. I know we’ve never met, but the king said that he knew you. Perhaps not well, but enough to know where your heart lay.”
Talfin shrugged. He had only met the king on a handful of occasions, and none of them had been particularly pleasant.
“As much as anyone in my circles can know one another.” Talfin sighed and glanced at Druila, who simply smirked at him. “I can only assume that he was requesting aid in fighting the angels. Since that particular threat had been eradicated, can I offer anything else in compensation?”
“Actually, he’s not.” Barn glanced at Druila. “You trust her?”
“With my life.” Talfin nodded.
“Good.” Barn climbed to his feet and held out his hand. Franclin lethargically reached into a pocket of his armor and withdrew a small disk, no more than a few inches across that practically glowed with enchantments. As he did so, Barn lowered his voice. “Take this. Lock it away where it can’t possibly pick up your voice.”
Talfin frowned and nodded as he took the object from Barn. “This is a long-distance communicator.” He breathed. “Isn’t it?”
“We’ve heard people talking back and forth even just last night.” Barn nodded. “People in Elsinor. Or, you know… What used to be Elsinor.” He sighed, then nodded at the object once more. “I was once told that we could calculate a maximum possible range based on how the voices degrade the farther apart we get.”
Talfin nodded, his mouth beginning to salivate. “How far?”
“So far, I haven’t noticed a single iota of dip in the quality.” Barn shrugged. “At least for the moment, its range seemed to be indefinite.”
“I’ll see if my ears can pick up on any differences that other species can’t hear.” Talfin frowned at the device, then activated a small rune on the side of the chair. A panel slid aside, and he placed the communicator within the chair. As it slid shut, he folded his hands and gestured at the dwarf once more.
“I have many questions, but I suspect that many of those will have to wait.” He folded his hands. “You mention hearing voices, as well as keeping it away from noise that could allow someone else to hear us. From that, I can only conclude that these belong to someone else that he wishes us to spy on?”
Even as he said it, a single thought rose in his mind. A horrific, horrible thought. His blood turned to ice, and his hands latched down onto the armrests of his chair.
“No. No, no, no.”
“The unshakable Talfin, actually terrified.” Druila crowed. “Now this is interesting.”
“You’re with the resistance.” Talfin’s voice emerged as a simple whisper.
“Indeed. I’ve been among the ranks of the Fond’sar for many decades now.” Barn crossed his arms. “Franclin is a somewhat new addition. He’s… Struggling to adjust to the new view of the world.”
“I see.” Talfin bit his lip. That much actually explained a lot. He had nearly fainted of shock when first presented with the horrors of the Fond’sar, and he wasn’t someone who particularly cared about the well-being of the world.”
“The Fond’sar?” Druila raised an eyebrow. “You have to be joking.”
“Please believe that we’re not.” Talfin glanced in her direction. “If you have any sense about you, leave this room now. Erase today from your memory, I don’t care how.”
“Do I seriously have to have this talk with you again?” Druila crossed her arms. “I’m not a child to coddle.”
“No, and I don’t mean for an instant to insinuate that you are.” Talfin breathed. “The Fond’sar, though…”
“You would be wise to heed your friend’s concerns.” Barn spoke up. “The Fond’sar are nothing to be taken lightly.”
“And I won’t take them lightly.” Druila climbed to her feet. Talfin could hear her blood racing through her veins, could sense the soft changes in the air movement as her body heat rose and began to alter the environment itself. “Talfin? I’ve dedicated my life to you. Name one thing that I haven’t done for you.”
“You’ve never asked me how I became who I am.” Talfin climbed to his feet. “It’s been a fact that I’ve quite appreciated.”
“I just assumed you would tell me when I was ready.”
“I have no desire to ever inflict such a tale upon you.” Talfin took a deep breath. The conversation was rapidly spiraling out of control. He needed to get things back on track, and quickly. “Forgive me, Highsand. I’ve done my best to forget the fact that I know more than passing rumors about the Fond’sar.”
“Believe me when I say that I fully understand.” Barn climbed to his feet as well. “As it happens, though, I have a bit more to add to the mission. The king simply wished us to deliver the communicator, but in the time since we left we’ve managed to add a particularly crucial ally to our cause.”
“We can use every ally we can get.”
“Except me, apparently.” Druila muttered.
Talfin ground his teeth together. He spun back and forth between Druila and Barn, then sighed. “Druila, I will tell you, I promise. Let me take care of this business, and I’ll tell you everything.”
With that, he spun back to Barn and held up his hands. “Who’s this ally and what can I do for him?”
Barn grimaced. “That’s the thing. See… We wound up meeting a controller.”
Talfin felt the world swim around him as he processed the sheer magnitude of such a statement. “You what? Please tell me that you’re joking.”
“I wish I was.” Barn sighed. “That’s not the worst part.” Talfin held his breath as Barn forged onward. “It was just recently awoken by the angel incursion. It happens to know that there are others, just like itself, slowly awakening across the continent.”
Talfin had to force himself to remain upright. “Which means…”
“The Fond’sar are closer than ever to achieving their goal.” Barn nodded. “And, if I’m not mistaken, our only hope of stopping them is to get to the controllers before they do.”
“Provisioner Taled.” Sapphire knelt as she walked into the regional governor’s palace. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” The melodious aqahartis voice danced through the air. “Rise, please.”
Sapphire climbed back to her feet, holding her staff loosely across her body in a position that she had been told was respectful.
The Provisioner’s palace was, in a word, incredible. It resembled the other buildings of the city quite strongly, with thin walls and tiled rooftops, but with a few extra additions. Statues made from sea glass stood at each of the four corners of the room, while an intricate mosaic covered the floor with spirals and swirls that mesmerized the eyes. Strips of cloth hung from several mobiles that adorned the ceilings, which twirled and flared in the soft, artificial wind that blew around the throne room in a circular motion.
In the exact center of the room, Provisioner Taled sat cross-legged on the floor, the focal point of the mosaic swirls. He had a smile on his face, and gestured at a spot not far from him where the swirls formed several other secondary focal points. Sapphire quickly walked over and sat down at the point he had indicated, receiving an approving nod in return.
“You pick up on our culture swiftly.” His old, withered face smiled softly at her. “Many other visitors must be instructed on even simple things.”
“I’ve had to learn to adapt.” Sapphire returned the smile. “Being a sorceress isn’t as simple as being able to bend reality to your will.”
“Nor is being a Provisioner as simple as giving out stores of food to those in need.” Provisioner Taled placed his hands on his knees, a gesture that Sapphire didn’t know if she was supposed to copy or not. “It would seem that both of us are aware of the duties that come with our station, that we can weigh the responsibilities against the powers we are granted.”
“Indeed.” Sapphire nodded. “In fact, it’s with that knowledge that I offer my services to you today. I’m told that you’ve been having issues with vampires, and that you could use help removing them.”
“In my pride, I wish that I did not have to ask for help.” Provisioner Taled held up his hands. “Nevertheless, my people are ill equipped to handle such a crisis, and the army of Tifingor is being sent north to the border of Sintison. We are on our own here. Though now, perhaps we have an ally.”
“Simply tell me how to proceed.” Sapphire inclined her head. “Tell me what I can and can’t do. I’ve been told that there may be religious rites that I need to observe.”
“All I ask is that you avoid allowing the vampires access into any of our hallowed spaces, such as this one.” Taled held up his hands. “I understand that deception and trickery may be required to adequately remove the threat, but if an undead creature crosses the threshold of one of our structures, it must be burned and rebuilt.”
“I’ll make sure to keep my distance.” Sapphire inclined her head. “Do you have any leads? Any indication where they might be hiding? One death per day means a small group at minimum, no single vampire could eat so much.”
“There are many grottos beneath the city.” Taled gestured at the ground below him. “You can find an entrance at the communal pools towards the northern end of the city. We believe that they’re hiding in there.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “If you don’t mind my asking, if you know their location, why not try to go after them yourself?”
“We have tried many times.” Taled shrugged. “They know the lay of the land well. None of the patrols we’ve sent in have ever emerged, even when we commissioned a force of a hundred soldiers.”
“Then I’ll do my best to remove them.” Sapphire shifted slightly, preparing to stand up. “Is there anything else I can answer for you before I head out?”
“Only one question.” Taled leaned forward. “I was told that you arrived in our city with three companions but have only arrived today with one. Could you explain this, please?”
“Of course.” Sapphire prepared the lie that she had rehearsed with Helondria earlier that day. The true answer, of course, was that Ondernifam was still guarding Kisidera so that no one would figure out that she was a vampire. “My elven friend Kisidera is ill. She picked up a disease coming through Sintison, while fleeing Prince Korvac. Ondernifam has stayed to take care of her as she struggles to recover.”
“I find it unusual that an orc would be called upon to provide care and comfort in a time of illness.” Taled frowned, then shrugged. “I shouldn’t call down judgement upon anyone, though. If he has indeed found himself gifted with such skill, he should put it to good use.”
Sapphire nodded, putting on a small smile. “That’s our opinion as well.”
“Then I sincerely wish you the best of luck.” Taled inclined his head. “Remove this threat from our soil, and I promise that you can stay with us as long as you desire.”
“Thank you for your generosity.” Sapphire climbed to her feet and bowed once more. “I’ll be off, then.”
Taled inclined his head in thanks, and Sapphire turned to march from the room. As she approached the doors, two guards stepped forward and slid them aside, allowing her to walk back out into the open. They slid the doors shut once more, and Sapphire let out a long breath. How did Hesione and Paulin handle being around politics all the time?
“How’d it go?” Helondria stood next to Garnisic at the base of the mud brick stairs that led up to the palace. “Are you good?”
“We’re all set.” Sapphire nodded. “All we have to do is head down into the grottos and start killing vampires.”
“Please, do be careful.” Helondria glanced back and forth between the two warriors. “I’ve seen your magic in action, and I’d rather not see the whole town wind up falling into the flames.”
“Don’t worry!” Sapphire dismissed the concern, despite the fact that she had been rather afraid of the possibilities herself. “We’ve got this.”
“For all our sakes, I sincerely hope so.” Helondria turned and started walking away. “I’ll be back on guard duty. Report to me once you’ve accomplished your goal.”
As she faded into the distance, Sapphire glanced down at Garnisic. The dwarf looked back up at her, concern on his face. She grimaced along with him, then turned and started walking down the road towards the grotto in the distance. Garnisic trotted up next to her, neither of them speaking until they were well on their way.
Even still, as they made their way to the grotto entrance, they only spoke casually, not daring to talk about anything of any importance until they arrived at the edge of the large pools. Sapphire had to admit, as they stepped up to the communal area, that it was impressive even from a non-aquatic standpoint. Surrounded by buildings on all sides, the expanse featured several dozen pools, ranging from shallow splash ponds to deeper diving pools. Well over a hundred aqahartis lounged throughout the area, taking advantage of the warm day.
These details skimmed past Sapphire, though, as she directed her attention to the large cave entrance off to her right. A trickle of water flowed from one of the larger pools into the grotto, but other than that, it seemed more or less featureless. She nodded once at Garnisic before making her way across the dusty ground and stepping into the cave.
“So they bought the story?” Garnisic finally breathed as the daylight began to fade behind them.
“Seems like it.” Sapphire pointed her staff out in front of her, casting a brilliant beam of light from the crystal. The light illuminated the artificially pristine curvature of the tunnel, as well as the far more natural stalagmites and crystal formations that were growing out of the walls to reclaim the structure. “He seemed eager to see the project completed, he didn’t ask about many of the details.”
“That either means he’s desperate or he already knows.” Garnisic muttered. “I’m not sure which one I like more.”
“Me, either.” Sapphire nodded slowly. “All we can do is try to take these guys out and go from there.”
“Yeah, what do you really think our odds on that are?” Garnisic glanced up at her. “Someone vanishing every night? That just seems too convenient, you know?”
“Not to mention sending in hundreds of soldiers only for them to all vanish.” Sapphire nodded in thought. “There’s a lot that’s not really making sense here. I just don’t know what to make of it.”
“So we’re just going to keep walking into the thing that’s almost certainly a trap.” Garnisic shifted his hammer.
“That’s the plan, yes.” Sapphire sighed. “I know it’s not ideal, but-”
Sapphire glanced down at the dwarf. “Yeah?”
“What are we doing?” Garnisic sighed and unshouldered his hammer, letting the heavy metal drop to the floor of the grotto with a clank. “I know, I know. Yesterday I was trying to convince you that we needed to be doing something, but…” He shrugged. “We’re just chasing shadows here.”
Sapphire held his gaze for a few seconds before nodding slowly in agreement. “Yeah. I know.”
Garnisic shrugged. “I mean… Look at us. So desperate to do something that we literally just chose something at random. Oh, we want to go do something? Hmm… Single-handedly solving Calsin’s vampire problem seems like a good idea!”
Sapphire chuckled. “That thought crossed my mind, too.”
“Yeah.” Garnisic turned to face forward once more. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for forcing you to just choose something.” He took a deep breath. “We just faced down the end of the world. We watched an entire city explode. Maybe settling down isn’t such a bad idea.”
“Or just traveling.” Sapphire shrugged. “We don’t even have to stop anywhere, we can just wander from place to place. Take odd jobs here and there, try to see the world.” She flashed a smile. “Maybe we can set a goal of traveling through every major city on the continent.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Garnisic nodded at the empty tunnel. “So we go blow these guys up, collect our fee, and head out?”
“Seems solid to me.” Sapphire took a firm grip on her staff. “Just like we were doing after we rescued Malah.”
“You mean after you decided to resurrect a lich and exposed the entire continent to the wrath of the angels.”
“Well, when you put it that way.” Sapphire chuckled and started walking forwards once more. “Oh, I’ve missed this.”
“You mean just getting to do random stuff without a plan?” Garnisic chuckled. “You know what? I have too.”
Sapphire was preparing a response to Garnisic’s statement when she caught a flicker of something in the magical field. Not her own magic, the field of Calsin. She held out a hand, stopping Garnisic, and knelt down. Carefully, she held her staff out in front of her as the disturbances started to grow stronger.
Her words were cut off as a maelstrom gusted through the cavern, picking both herself and Garnisic off the ground. She flailed with her staff, shooting out beams of magic that held her in place in midair. As soon as she was in place, she cast out magical strands, catching Garnisic several feet from her.
The wind howled around them like a hundred thousand wolves, with all the strength of a hurricane. They simply hung in the air, suspended by little more than glowing magical ropes. Sapphire had no particular difficulty maintaining the ropes, but also wasn’t able to do much else besides simply keep the two of them from falling.
It was well over five minutes before the wind died down. Sapphire dissolved the ropes and dropped back to the ground, catching Garnisic just above the pavement with a magical cushion of air. As he fell the last few inches to the stone floor, Sapphire ran up next to him and cast an illusion spell around them. The tunnel grew hazy, and she took a deep breath.
Footsteps echoed through the air only seconds later, and two dark shapes materialized out of the darkness. Almost certainly vampires, their species was indistinct. Both seemed to be male, but she could have easily been mistaken about that as well.
“I didn’t see them go through. Did you?”
“I’m sure they did. No one can stand up against the vortex.”
“Oh, I hope so. The last time we set it off when no one came through, Lilith-”
“Don’t say her name!” The second voice sounded annoyed. “You know what happens when she gets upset.”
“Don’t remind me.” The first voice grumbled. “I just-”
Sapphire stood up, broke her spell, and twirled the staff around her head a single time. Two piercing lances made from pure light blazed from the tip of her staff, striking the two vampires through the heart. Or at least the torso. Or at least their bodies… Somewhere.
The light was painfully bright, forcing Sapphire to glance away. As she turned back, she found two small piles of dust, with the vampires noticeably absent. Good enough for her. She took a deep breath, then nodded deeper into the passage.
They continued to move cautiously as they continued down the passageway, but saw little else of concern. No more vampires revealed themselves, no more traps were sprung. It was just… A grotto. Nothing more, nothing less.
It wasn’t long before the tunnel came to a sharp curve, where it shot off to the right. Sapphire crept up to the sharp deviation and cast her light down the cave, where she caught a glimpse of a great underground lake around a hundred feet away. She was too far away to see many details, but it didn’t seem particularly exciting. Just a lake, with a few other tunnels draining into it. More than likely, there was some sort of portal that would shuttle excess water out to sea or into a nearby river, but…
That final thought caught her attention. A magical portal, designed to send things somewhere else. Could that have been the vortex that the two vampires were talking about?
“I have an idea.” Sapphire knelt down and planted her staff on the ground. Her hands wrapped tightly around the metal handle, and she began to let her magic flow through the weapon. “I think there’s something hidden around here.”
“Yeah.” Garnisic’s voice broke through her concentration. “I think I’m looking right at it.”
Sapphire frowned and opened her eyes once more. Garnisic stood beside the wall nearby, where a small crag sat in the stone. She frowned and shrugged. “It’s a hole. I don’t even think I could fit inside that thing.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” Garnisic shrugged. “Ta-da!”
He took a step towards the wall and vanished, seeming to shrink and vanish inside the small crack in an instant. Sapphire climbed to her feet and strode towards the hole, somehow still surprised as the opening suddenly grew and twisted into a far larger opening. Garnisic stood next to a campfire that crackled brightly, its light not even making it through the almost ten-foot-high doorway.
As Sapphire stepped into the area, she glanced around in surprise. It wasn’t much, but it was quite clearly a home. Two cots sat against the wall, a spit had been erected over the fire, there were even several small sea glass sculptures hanging from the stone. Sapphire frowned and knelt next to the fire, more than a bit concerned.
“How’d you know to look for this?” She glanced up at Garnisic.
“They’re aqahartis.” Garnisic shrugged. “I’ve… I’ve dealt with them before. You always have to question things around them.”
“Fantastic.” Sapphire breathed softly, then frowned. “So there were two vampires down here. That’s it?”
“Maybe.” Garnisic shrugged and knelt down next to Sapphire. “You know how we’ve been saying that things look suspicious?”
Sapphire nodded. “Yeah?”
Garnisic gestured at the furnishings of the cave. “What do you see here?”
Sapphire shrugged. “Beds, food…” Her voice trailed off. “Cooked food. Beds. This isn’t made for vampires.”
“It doesn’t seem so, no.” Garnisic tapped his chin. “If we’re not looking at something for vampires, what are we looking at?”
Sapphire bit her lip, then once more planted her staff on the ground just in front of her. Magic flared through the air, and she took a deep breath.
“I need to figure this out.” She breathed softly. “Like you said, we’re missing something. I hereby command all illusions in the area to break.” Her staff gave a soft flare as blue lightning began to flicker from the crystal. Sapphire took a deep breath, raised the staff high, and screamed as loudly as she could.
“I said break!”
Lightning exploded from the tip of her staff. All around her, the walls of the cave seemed to dissolve. The fire collapsed on itself, transforming into several enchanted crystals that gave off light and heat. The beds vanished, the artwork dissolved, a great chasm seemed to open up around them.
Sapphire slowly climbed to her feet to take in their new surroundings. The cave was now close to fifty feet on a side, and was filled with crates. Curious, Sapphire pointed her staff at the closest crate and cast a spell that carefully peeled it open.
Inside were dozens of jars of fruit. It was a brilliant orange fruit, like nothing Sapphire was familiar with, and seemed to be preserved in some sort of syrup that filled the glass containers. Sapphire frowned and stepped up to it, looking at the strange contents. After confirming that it wasn’t an illusion, she broke open several more crates to confirm that every single container in the room held the same strange cargo.
“Uhh… Sapphire?” Garnisic spoke up behind her. “Two things. Thing one: I think I just found something. Thing two: I think we’ve got company.”
Sapphire spun to see Garnisic holding a small canvas bag that seemed filled with paper. He slung it over his back and nodded at the entrance, and Sapphire jogged over to the opening. Outside, she could hear footsteps in the distance. They weren’t loud, but it did sound like there were quite a few of them.
“We need to get out of here now.” Garnisic whispered. “Trust me, I’ve got what we need.”
“Then let’s go.” Sapphire grabbed Garnisic’s hand and pointed the staff at the ceiling. “Take us away.”
Magic flared back across the two, and they vanished in a burst of light. As they rematerialized on the streets above, causing several pedestrians to jump in surprise, Sapphire closed her eyes and tried to think.
There was no way that the vampires would just overlook the fact that their lair had basically been blown up. She had likely set something in motion… And she had no way of knowing exactly what that would look like.
“And then he died.” Talfin sighed and leaned back in his office chair. “Just… Gone. Like he’d never existed in the first place.”
“I’m so sorry.” Druila slowly removed her hand from her mouth. “I had no idea.”
“I told you that you didn’t want to know.” Talfin turned to her, where she perched on the corner of his desk. “The Fond’sar are nothing to mess with. I didn’t tell you about them because I really didn’t want you to ever have to find out about them. No one should have to live with that knowledge.”
Druila puffed out her cheeks for a few seconds before kicking her bare feet in the air. Talfin winced, not quite knowing what the full brunt of her weight would do to his desk. Thankfully, it held, and she turned back to him.
“You’re fighting them.”
“I’ve allied myself with people who are doing the fighting.” Talfin corrected.
“That’s something!” Druila jumped down to the ground. “Let me fight, too.”
“Look, I…” Talfin stammered. She was entirely too eager to just dive headfirst into the situation, and it frankly terrified him to no end. “The Fond’sar aren’t something you can just fight. Look at Franclin. He gets it!” Talfin sighed and gestured over his shoulder. Out the door and down the stairs, the Dragon Hunter had passed out on the couch after Barn had left to secure more permanent lodging in the city. “Franclin is used to killing giant, scary monsters, and that’s not something you just do to the Fond’sar. I’m used to political maneuvering, and that’s not something you can do.”
“So how do we stop them?” Druila pressed. “Come on! You’re always talking about doing things, pushing me to learn new stuff, and now you’re just going to wimp out on me?”
“I’m not wimping out.” Talfin sighed, then gestured at the large map of Tifingor that covered his desk. “As for how to fight them, the dwarf’s plan isn’t a bad one. Probably the single most practical attack we could make, given the circumstances.”
Druila nodded slowly and stepped up to the map. “Explain it to me.”
Talfin glared at her for a few seconds before relenting. “There are these things called controllers. That’s probably not their actual name, but it’s all that us mortals can manage.” He sighed. “Back before the Dwarven Civil War, the Fond’sar had enslaved dozens, possibly hundreds of the creatures. Their magic was powerful enough to command legions of minotaurs, protect fortresses from all forms of attack, so on and so forth. Come up with something epic and impossible, and they could do it.”
Druila nodded slowly. “So what happened?”
“No one really knows.” Talfin shrugged. “For whatever reason, when the civil war broke out, the Fond’sar leadership collapsed. Suddenly you had dozens of Rails all competing for supreme leadership. In the chaos, the controllers all vanished. Ever since then, the Fond’sar have dedicated almost all their resources to reclaiming the lost controllers.”
“Because they can help them take over the world?” Druila held up her hands.
“No.” Talfin drummed his fingers against the wood of his desk. “If world domination was their plan, they could have achieved it a dozen times over by now. They have other goals in mind, but I unfortunately have not been trusted with such knowledge.”
“You have theories?” Druila raised an eyebrow.
“Of course I have theories.” Talfin sighed. “The problem is that-”
“The Fond’sar don’t work like that.” Druila rolled her eyes. “I know, I know. So what are we going to do?”
Talfin shrugged and pointed to a small city dead south of Tirinnoufin: Indifi.
“If Barn is right, there are two controllers in a cave beneath this city. Now, if I’m not mistaken, the cave in question is under the dominion of the Sorosin clerics, who don’t exactly like to let people just go walking into their sacred places.”
“Let alone you.”
“Let alone me.” Talfin agreed. “So now, our problem is how to get inside without attracting undo attention.”
“And figuring out how to leverage the situation with Overseer Fen.”
Talfin once more decided to glare up at her. “Alright, then. If you’re so smart, you do it.”
Druila smirked. “Give me your chair.”
Talfin groaned and climbed to his feet, at which point Druila jumped into the leather seat. With that, her fingers began to dance across the map, seemingly taking measurements while she muttered softly under her breath. As she went at it, Talfin just took a step back and watched her.
She was a true marvel, there was no doubt about it. The last time he had walked out of a Fond’sar fortress, he had sworn it would be the last time he ever dealt with the organization. Trying to scam them was the last thing he wanted to do, and trying to do it while navigating the vampire situation…
Of course, if there was anyone who could manage it, it was him. Now that he had Druila, he was virtually unstoppable. In that moment, for the briefest of seconds, a smile flickered across his face.
He was, indeed, heading back into battle. Maybe it was terrifying, and maybe they would all wind up dead, but… For the first time since his trip to Donisil with the lich, he felt a flicker of true happiness and excitement. True challenge.
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