“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we simply have to deny your request.” The red-robed aqahartis on the other side of the table inclined her head in a sign of annoyance as Talfin pressed her ever-harder.
“Please? Statute fourteen of the Sorosin Depository of Faith states that the grace provided by Sorosin and his clerics must never be denied to any aqahartis seeking her mercy.” Talfin held up his hands.
“While I certainly agree that the Depository of Faith does indicate such things, I have a strong suspicion that you want to get into that cave for entirely different reasons.” The cleric shook her head. “My duty is to protect our sacred spaces at all costs. I would not allow a thief to walk in and steal our sacred statues, and I will not allow you to journey into a place reserved for our priests.”
Talfin did his best to maintain a pained face. The woman was immobile, refusing to budge even the smallest iota. He had been expecting to be turned away, of course, but he had rather been hoping that he would get some indication of what angle he might be able to use in the future.
“Is there no appeal process I could go through?” Talfin held up his hands.
“The Caves of Serintoth have not been opened to laypeople for five hundred years.” The cleric folded her hand. She rose to her feet, maintaining her posture, allowing her loose-fitting robes to flow out from her body like fins in the sea. “There will be no exceptions made. Most certainly not for the likes of you.”
“The likes of me?” Talfin jumped to his feet. “I thought it was against-”
“It is, indeed, a grave sin to pronounce such a harsh judgement on any individual, especially a fellow aqahartis.” The cleric turned and looked Talfin in the eye. “It is not, however, a problem at all to deny access to someone who happens to be known to encourage clerics to break our vows. If you do not respect our life choices, we will not give that same respect to you until you show repentance.”
Talfin groaned. That old gem was coming back to haunt him. “Look, I was a teenager! I didn’t know she had been ordained until after we were eating dessert! Can you blame me for getting a bit frustrated when she told me she didn’t want to continue the relationship?”
“I cannot personally assign blame.” The woman inclined her head. “That said, I do believe that you received an edict from the church for your actions. It might be time to dust off that old document, if you’re truly now looking for entry into our sacred spaces.”
With that, the woman turned and walked to the far end of the room. The door, made from a thin wooden frame overlaid with a paper-like material, slid aside with a whoosh. An attendant on the other side offered the woman his hand, which she took as she vanished. Talfin ground his teeth together in annoyance as he climbed to his feet. After glaring after her for several long moments, he turned around and walked to the door on his side of the room.
An attendant on the opposite side pulled it out of the way, and Talfin stepped through out into the sunlight. The noonday sun blazed down on the temple of Sorosin, built on a cliff that overlooked the Pure Spring and the underwater portion of the city. Talfin did have to admit that the structure was quite beautiful, with thin paper walls that were nonetheless waterproof, soundproof, and resilient to almost all forms of abrasion, along with steep tiled rooftops. Here, at the center of the religion, trimmed shrubs dotted the expanse between separate buildings of the temple compound, while dozens of clerics, priests, and bishops roamed back and forth in quiet contemplation.
Talfin continued to stand there for a few long moments before shrugging and walking down the sidewalk, angling towards the overlook point. He whistled softly as he did so, not casting any magic, just casting a tune to the breeze. As he reached the overlook, a simple grassy expanse that ended in a sharp dropoff, he crossed his arms and took in the incredible view afforded at that particular point.
Below the cliffs, stretching away in a glorious wet expanse, was the lake. Below the rippling surface, Talfin could see dozens of aqahartis, merfolk, and fish darting back and forth in the crystal-clear waters. Buildings, homes, businesses, and more filled the underwater habitat, the only true dual-nature city on the continent.
Surrounding the lake was the rest of the city, which subsequently expanded all the way to the horizon. Limestone buildings, drawn up from great quarries nearby, pieced together with nothing but sweat, blood, and aqahartis ingenuity. Their rooftops shimmered in the sunlight, millions of beams of sunlight cut apart and refracted by the sea glass that covered the rooftops Behind him, set on the odd hill that overlooked the pool, was of course the Sorosin temple. Off to his left, at the point where the city, lake, and hill all met, the royal palace rose from the ground to tower higher into the air than the temple itself.
The palace was a true wonder, unlike anything he had seen in any of his other travels. Its style was a cross between strong dwarven walls and the more fluid construction of the aqahartis religious community. Great columns of stone rose from the ground to support towers, parapets, and grand walkways. Sea glass covered almost the entire surface, shimmering in the sunlight with a glow that made his heart leap within him.
Inside those walls, the entire government of Tifingor took place. Inside those walls, the king made his royal decrees. The royal court held sessions to hash out disagreements too small for the king to deal with. Delegates gave reports, soldiers were sent out for battle. It was the hub of Tifingor itself, the center of everything that Talfin held dear.
He continued to stand there for several long moments, just soaking it all in. It wasn’t long, though, before his mind began to turn back towards the issues at hand. Vampires. Fond’sar. Suddenly, the city began to look a good bit darker. So many nooks and crannies, so many places for vampires to build lairs, so many people who could secretly be Fond’sar agents.
Talfin shook his head after a few moments of such contemplation. If he was going to succeed, he couldn’t get caught up in his own head. He took a deep breath, flashed a smile at a rather attractive young woman who stood nearby, and jumped off the cliff with a flourish.
As he fell, he swung his hands up over his head, forming a perfect triangle. His legs snapped out behind him, and he began whistling softly. Magic swirled through the air around him, orienting him face-down, plunging like an arrow into the heart of the pool. A second whistle cast magic down ahead of himself, breaking up the surface of the water for a smoother entry.
He entered the water with a muffled roar, smooth as a hot knife through butter. A long trail of bubbles followed him, hanging in place for a brief second as he reached the bottom of his plunge. A few aqahartis nearby waved at him in delight, but most simply continued about their day. Divers weren’t uncommon, it was always advisable to keep an eye out for them when swimming through the waters of the Pure Spring.
While he could have easily spent a good deal of time enjoying the sights of the lower city, he had business to do. He flexed his webbed hands and feet, kicking through the waves with a purpose. He came blasting up out of the water close to the palace with a splash, making his way up the softly sloping edge of the pool and onto the primary courtyard. From there, he made his way through the sparse crowd and down the boardwalk that ran down the side of the pool at that particular point.
Only a few dozen feet away, Druila sat on a bench, munching on what looked like a beet of some sort. Talfin walked past her, not making eye contact, but muttering a quick incantation under his breath. A mental link sprang into existence between the two, and Druila climbed to her feet. They quickly began to draw apart physically, hopefully making it far harder for anyone to notice their involvement together.
“How’d the meeting go?” Druila’s voice drifted through Talfin’s head. “You look grumpy.”
“I do not.” Talfin shot back.
“Yeah, you really do. Like that time a few months back when you had to host the dwarven matriarch of the Furl clan.”
Talfin groaned at the memory. “Please, I’m trying to forget that that ever happened.”
“Yeah, that’s never going to happen.” Druila chuckled. “So how’d it go?”
“Well, I’m grumpy, so that should give some indication.” Talfin sighed and shook his head. “Apparently I have a reputation among the clerics. They’re not letting me in.”
“Right. Which we knew.” Druila sounded impatient. “Look, we need to get into that cave. What do we know?”
Talfin scratched his chin as he tried to think. “The cave is apparently only for ordained members of their clergy.”
“Alright, that’s something we can work with.” Druila mused. “Know any clerics who might be willing to succumb to a bribe?”
Talfin raised an eyebrow. An interesting thought. Druila really was getting good. “Only one, and he was eaten by Severin’s vampires. I might be able to draw out some more, though. Let me do some thinking on that.”
“You do that.” Druila sounded more than a bit patronizing.
“I suppose you already have a plan?” Talfin crossed his arms, despite the fact that she couldn’t actually see him.
“Indeed I do.” Druila sounded quite pleased with herself. “It might not have anything to do with the clerics, but it just might work. We just have to come up with a way to interest the vampires in taking over the caves, then use the cover of the chaos to sneak inside.”
“First off, we are not going to be the ones doing the sneaking.” Talfin corrected. “Barn and Franclin can go diving in headfirst all they want, but I’m keeping my distance. Secondly, that’s a horrible idea.”
“How?” Druila countered. “We can tie both of our problems together into one nice, neat package.”
“Which provides twice the number of opportunities for things to go terribly wrong.” Talfin shook his head. “The Sorosin clerics are a suspicious bunch, and Severin isn’t stupid. There wouldn’t be any way to fool both of them.”
“The mighty Talfin: Faced with a challenge that he can’t even think about defeating!”
“I’m just trying to be realistic.” Talfin shot back. “I don’t particularly want to end up dead if we mess this up, and death would be preferable to the things that either of these groups can do to us.”
“Alright, then.” Druila sounded dismissive. “I guess if you don’t want to give it a shot, I’ll just stop thinking about it.”
“Please do.” Talfin sighed and rubbed his forehead. “There’s too much going on right now. We can’t afford any slip ups.” There was only silence in return, and Talfin sighed. “What else do you have for me? There’s something you’re holding back, I just can’t tell what.”
“Now there’s the master of observation I know.” Talfin was getting quite annoyed with Druila’s sarcasm. “I got a report from one of our spies in Sodonis. It sounds like some new muscle came waltzing into down and destroyed the distribution center yesterday.”
Talfin’s eyes narrowed. “They did what?”
“You heard me. Only two vampiric casualties, but the vampires seem to be relocating as a result. Our contact said that they’re setting up a temporary outpost in a cave outside of town, but they’ll probably move as soon as they receive further confirmation from Severin.”
“No!” Talfin swore loudly. “I was getting useful information out of that place!” He fought to keep from scowling outwardly. The distribution center had been an invaluable resource, letting him track shipment of vampiric goods across almost all of Tifingor.
“It was a source of continual data.” Druila sounded unconcerned. “Still, a disruption in the pattern might not be a bad thing. It could let you see how Severin reacts to losing such a massive resource.”
“It could also make Severin start being a lot more cautious about how much he lets leak into the world of the living.” Talfin stroked his chin. “That’s not news I wanted to hear.”
“Would you like me to go buy you a cake to make you feel better?”
“Oh stop it.” Talfin sighed and scratched his head. “Thanks for the update.”
“Anything more you need from me today?”
Talfin thought it through for a few seconds, then shook his head. “Take the rest of the day off. I have a court briefing this afternoon that I need to prepare for, and then I’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to piece together this situation.”
“Talk to you later, then.” Druila broke the bond an instant later, and Talfin groaned.
Why couldn’t the girl just run? He knew that there wasn’t a chance in Calsin that she would head back to her home in the slums, nor would she go to his house to stay safe. No, she would be out and about, plotting and scheming, working for the betterment of Talfin’s own schemes. Couldn’t she at least focus on her own schemes or something?
Oh, well. He still did have the final say, which was comforting. He just had to make sure that the plans he devised kept both of them safe. It made the planning phase so many times harder, but… If that was a sacrifice that he had to make, so be it.
“Sire?” The young human vampire knelt at the foot of Severin’s throne. “You wished to speak to me?”
“Indeed I did.” Severin stroked his chin as he reclined on the throne, sneering down the impudent mutt of a minion. “I’ve been hearing rumors about you, and I just wanted to confirm them. You understand how that is, right?”
“Of course.” The boy stammered. Jet black hair bobbed around his head, greased with the finest oils that had been stolen from the spas above ground. “Just tell me what you need to know. I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding.”
“I do hope so.” Severin nodded. “Now, you joined our ranks three months ago, yes?”
The boy nodded rapidly. “I sought you out. Joined you voluntarily!”
“As did most of my current crop.” Severin agreed. “Some call our condition a curse, but immortality truly is a blessing, is it not? So many more would join our ranks if only they knew the incredible joys that come with this ascension.”
“I completely agree.” The boy continued to nod.
Severin slowly rose, his black leather cape draping across the stone-carved throne. “When you took your vows to join our convent, what did you agree to?”
The boy slowly looked up at Severin’s towering form. “Huh?”
“Your vows!” Severin held out his right hand, twisting his fingers upward as if grasping something. It was a rather fruitless gesture, but seemed to terrify underlings when performed properly. “Restate them here, please.”
“I…” The boy stammered, then took a deep breath. “I pledge myself to the community of the night and to its betterment. I renounce all ties above ground, I renounce the land of the living. I pledge myself to freeing flesh and blood from its mortal coil, and I denounce anyone who fears this change.”
“Simple, right?” Severin slowly stepped down from the platform that the throne stood upon. So few words, and yet so powerful. Since your induction, have you lived by these words?”
“Wholeheartedly!” He nodded firmly.
“Indeed.” Severin now stood only inches in front of the quivering child. “Then I assume you were canvassing this woman and her child as potential meals, yes?”
Severin raised his left hand now, pointing off behind the boy. The vampire spun as two of Severin’s guards drug a woman and a young girl forward. The girl truly was a child, no more than six or seven, while the woman appeared about the same age as the cowering vampire. She seemed reasonably attractive by human standards, but not so much that she was worth risking Severin’s wrath.
“Do you recognize these two individuals?” Severin crossed his arms and strode over to where the two females were held. Their eyes were wide, Severin could hear their hearts pounding within their chests.
“No!” The boy shook his head rapidly. “Never!”
“Indeed?” Severin mused. “Because I received a report, late last night, that the spy I sent to follow you had witnessed you sleeping in the same bed as this woman. There are even theories that this is your daughter. Would you care to comment?”
The vampire simply continued to stare at the two women in horror. Severin waited for a response, then shrugged.
“If they mean nothing to you, perhaps you won’t mind if I indulge in my weekly meal? I’m quite famished.”
“No!” The creature screamed before Severin could take a single step towards the two. “Don’t touch them!”
“Oh!” Severin feigned surprise in what he hoped was sincere sarcasm. “You mean… You do know these women?”
“I was just trying to earn a living!” The vampire shuddered. “My job fired me, and no one else would hire someone with so much baggage. I just thought… If I wasn’t eating, there would be more money for my wife and daughter. If I wasn’t sleeping, I could work some of the jobs that require more strict physical forms.”
“Which explains why you’ve been seen in the warehouse districts.” Severin folded his arms. “Alright, then. Amuse me. What should I do to someone who very clearly broke their vows?”
The boy looked up and met his eyes. After a few seconds, he shrugged. “Let me go? Let all of us go?”
“Wrong!” Severin kicked him in the head, sending the man tumbling. The woman and girl both screamed as if they were in pain, and Severin snarled at them. “Quiet!”
As the screams turned into simple whimpers, Severin took a deep breath for dramatic effect and knelt down next to the quivering vampire.
“Let’s try this again. What do you think should happen to you?”
“Kill me.” The vampire whispered. “Do whatever you want to me, just let them go.”
“Oh.” Severin pointed at the two women, who continued to shudder. “You mean… Let several witnesses go? Let them run up to tell the soldiers where we’re hiding?”
“What do you want from me?” The vampire screamed up at Severin. “I just want to keep my family safe!”
“You should have thought of that earlier!” Severin roared back. He stood up and kicked him in the side, sending him rolling across the floor. Severin watched him go, then sighed. “Lock him up in the exposure prison. I want to see him suffer.”
Several more guards rushed forward, grabbing him by his coat collar and hauling him away. Severin felt a smile grow on his face as they pulled him away. He had been waiting for an opportunity to use the exposure prison. Now they would get to see just how well he could design torture equipment.
“Please.” The mother broke free of the guards and fell to her knees. “Don’t kill my daughter.”
“Funny, isn’t it, how you living beings all try to care for each other.” Severin slowly turned to face her, stroking his chin once more. “You fear death so much, and yet you’re willing to die for one another.”
“That’s love!” The woman snapped.
“No, that’s insanity.” Severin shrugged. “Allow me to demonstrate. Your spouse is about to be killed. If they die, you’ll no longer have them with you. You can’t bear that thought, so you sacrifice yourself instead. Now, you’re still separated from your spouse, except that you’re the dead one instead of them.”
“Some might call that heroic.”
“At best, it’s selfish.” Severin sneered. “You don’t want to live without them, so you consign your spouse to living without you.”
“You just don’t understand-”
“What I understand is that my rules were violated.” Severin knelt down next to her and placed a hand on her chin. She shook like a leaf, but didn’t try to flee. That was to her credit, at least. “I now offer you a choice. One of you dies. The other gets turned and lives as one of us.” His smile split his face as the horror began to register on her face. “If you refuse, we turn both of you, then come up with some terribly horrible way of killing you. Really, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but it’ll be uncomfortable.”
The mother shook her head rapidly. “You… You can’t make me choose that!”
“Ahh, but I can.” Severin sneered. “Now choose! You made the choice to stay with your husband even after he became undead, which means that you now get to deal with the consequences!”
“I’ll be turned.” The girl spoke up. “Turn me, let her die.”
Severin glanced at the mother, whose eyes had suddenly grown a great deal wider. “Wait, I-”
Severin nodded at the guard just behind the woman, who drew his sword and slashed through her neck in a single moment. Her body collapsed in a heap as her head struck the floor with a thud. The girl let out a soft cry, and Severin reached out to take her hand.
“Welcome to our fold.” He nodded at the guard just behind her. “Take the child to the transformation room, and prepare a celebration. A new member joins our ranks at the evening meal tonight!”
The guard nodded and led the child away while several servants rushed forward and began to clean up the wife’s body and blood. As they worked, Severin settled back into his throne and sighed deeply.
“Well, master, I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting that particular outcome.” His second-in-command materialized out of the shadows. A high elven man named Horfin, he had been one the most successful collectors in the fallout from the angel incursion. He had managed to secure dozens of new hosts for the prison, and had coordinated much of their current supply line across the country.
“Sometimes, I like surprise endings.” Severin turned to look at the vampiric elf. With sickly yellow skin and sunken eyes, high elves truly didn’t transform well into vampires.
“And that’s why you’re in charge, not me.” Horfin shrugged. “The way you roll with the punches is truly inspiring.”
Severin groaned as he detected an odd tone in the man’s voice. “Something just happened, didn’t it?”
“Our supply outpost in Sodonis was attacked and exposed.” Horfin shrugged. “Only a minor loss of lives and goods, but the illusions were stripped away and a full report was made to the Provisioner of the city. The survivors have been relocating the supplies to a location outside of town, and are requesting a new location to work from.”
Severin sighed and closed his eyes. He had dozens of distribution centers across Tifingor, ranging from the important ones to the slightly less critical stations.
“Sodonis was our decoy, right?” Severin finally opened his eyes once more. “The one we’ve been using to feed Talfin information?”
“Partly, yes.” Horfin nodded. “We’ve allowed him to track transports, but that doesn’t mean that the supplies have just been fake. Most of our avifruit came through Sodonis. If we want to prevent a repeat of the angel incident, we’ll need to find a way to reroute it. Additionally, the operators created a vortex using latent magic in the area. When activated, it could dump people directly into Lilith’s clutches.”
“For the meantime, have shipments to Sodonis sent directly here instead.” Severin sighed. “The only reason we had the layover at all was just to keep Talfin from finding our real interests. At least for the moment, maintain an outpost outside of town, but only ship nonessential items through. Prepare one of our other centers, maybe the Femur Rock outpost, for transition to become the new public face.”
“Of course.” Horfin inclined his head. “I’ll have it done immediately.”
“Good.” Severin paused. “Do you have any information on who exposed the cell?”
“None, save that it was likely a sorceress.” Horfin shrugged. “I haven’t kept up on which sorcerers walk the land these days.”
“Fantastic.” Severin rubbed his jaw. “And you said that it did contact Lilith?”
“She’ll notice when it stops working.” Horfin nodded. “No getting around that one.”
“It wouldn’t be like Lilith to leave anything that I could possibly work around.” Severin groaned and closed his eyes. “Send a message to Lilith explaining the incident. Find the name of the most likely sorceress and send it along with the apology. Make sure to emphasize that we haven’t been compromised in any way, and that I look forward to meeting her in person in short order.”
“Of course.” Horfin began to back away. “Is there anything else? Any gift that I can send along to Lilith as well? She does seem to enjoy presents.”
“More than some children I’ve known.” Severin snorted in agreement. After a few seconds, he shrugged and nodded. “Dress up one of the captives. Bind their wounds, put them under a trance, and send them as a token of reparation. Make sure it’s someone strong enough to weather the trip, but frail enough to prove a tasty snack.”
“I know just the person.” Horfin turned and swept away. “Glory to the undead.”
Severin watched him leave, vanishing into the dusky cave. He smiled and leaned back on his throne once more, trying to process the new information.
A sorceress. While he wasn’t certain of it, the name “Sapphire” rose to his mind. He had heard stories from the ambassadors of Distisil back when he had still been active in the court. So… What was she doing here? Sorcerers weren’t often the ones to face off against vampires, as they preferred larger and more grandiose targets. Maybe this new girl liked to chase small rumors? Or, more likely, she had simply stumbled across it by accident and would soon move on.
Whatever the case, no matter what Severin happened to suspect, the truth was out there. She was doing something, and there was a very real chance that her goals would continue to overlap his own. All things considered, he was less terrified of facing down Lilith’s anger than he was of facing a sorcerer bent on his destruction. Of course, that just meant that he needed to keep her out of action.
That much, at least, would provide him with a bit of an exciting challenge. A smile broke across his face as he began to ponder the possibilities. Oh, the fun he was about to have! Lilith, a sorceress…
What more could he ask for?
“I need answers.” Sapphire stood at the doorway of the room, fire brimming on the crystal of her staff.
“I’m working on it.” Garnisic muttered. “You do realize that I’m not the only one with the capability to read around here, right?”
Sapphire sighed. “Yes, but Kisidera can’t know what we’re doing, and-”
“And you’re off hobnobbing with all the big wigs of this place.” Garnisic muttered. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m working on it. Just go off to your meeting, I’ll make sure to have the place cleaned up by the time you get back.”
Sapphire turned and shook her head. “We’re waiting on-”
“Sapphire.” Garnisic sighed and turned away from the small desk. Ever since they had made their escape from the tunnel system, Sapphire had seemed reluctant to leave his side, even when summoned to official meetings with the Provisioner. “I can fight. I have my old hammer, I can pack a good punch. I was fighting minotaurs with Ondernifam before you ever came along.”
“I know, I know.” Sapphire closed her eyes. “I’m just afraid that they could attack in force in retaliation, and…”
“And you don’t want anyone else turned into a bloodsucking monster.” Garnisic shrugged. “I get it, I really do. Now go to your meeting and trust that I’ll take care of things.” He turned back to the notes and scoffed under his breath. “It’s not like I can get any work done with you here anyway.”
A small bolt of lightning zapped over the desk, causing him to yelp in surprise. He spun to the doorway, only to find it sliding shut as Sapphire stepped out. Good. She was far too uptight, she needed to just get out and let him work.
With that, he sighed and unfolded the first letter. It was true, he hadn’t read a single letter since they had left the caves, which meant that he was running a bit behind schedule. If he didn’t want the wrath of the sorceress to come down upon him, he needed to have a far more solid report put together by the time that Sapphire came back.
He held up the first letter to the light of the window and began to read, muttering under his breath as he deciphered the bad handwriting. At a glance, it seemed to be from a wife to her husband, detailing everything that had been happening in her life.
“Today the weather was nice. Not too hot, not too cold. I was able to step outside for a bit once the sun went down, took a walk past the Pure Spring. I have to admit, I miss being able to swim in its waters. I miss you more, though. Love, Driscilla.”
Garnisic snorted and set the letter, unfolding the next as quickly as his thick fingers would allow him. This one seemed to be much of the same, a boy writing a love letter to someone down in Notirot.
As the hours rolled on and he slowly worked his way through the bag of mail, it became obvious that he had snatched a bag that simply contained that: Mail. There were no business ledgers, no reports of where things were being taken, nothing that would give them any sort of a heads-up about their foe. He was becoming more and more dejected, muttering swears under his breath as he realized that the sun had nearly set, he hadn’t learned anything of interest, and he was now only halfway through the bag.
In frustration, he grabbed the bag, hopped down from his chair, and turned it over. Letters exploded across the floor, scattered far and wide. Garnisic muttered a curse of affirmation, then dropped to his knees and began sorting through the letters in a more fluid fashion. Letters to random people went in one pile, letters to people with titles went in a different pile.
He was nearing the end of the letters and the bottom of the bag when a particular letter caught his eye. It wasn’t a particularly fancy letter, but it was written on a thick, woven parchment paper. The type only available to higher-class individuals in wealthier nations. Garnisic frowned and scooped up the letter, unfolded it as fast as he could.
“Supreme Commander Lilith,
“It has been a pleasure getting to make your acquaintance over the previous letters exchanged. You seem like a lovely and powerful woman, and I look forward to meeting you face to face.
“While I do not wish to discuss the capabilities of my current operation on paper, for fear of interception, I am dispatching a personal envoy to discuss such figures. At present, I control more vampires across Tifingor than have been amassed in one location since the vampiric wars. Furthermore, I can ensure that this is not an exaggeration, as the Crown Prince of the Volicar Province in Glintor can validate my claims.
“It is with eager anticipation that I await your reply. My legions stand ready to serve you, provided that you can prove that your own claims are true. May the undead rule the world once more.
Garnisic frowned. Pay dirt. He flipped the letter over, looking for any sign, any marking that might indicate where the letter was being sent from. After seeing nothing, a single thought leapt into his mind. He held the letter up to the fading sunlight creeping through the window, letting the beams of light pass through the parchment.
“There we go.” Garnisic breathed. “Ahh, I love watermarks.”
Sure enough, illuminated by the light, a faint pattern could be seen. It was almost invisible, a simple dark line that stood out against the lightened paper around it, that formed a simple crest. Garnisic memorized the crest as quickly as he could, then grabbed a quill off the desk and scratched the design onto a nearby piece of blank paper. He didn’t have a clue what it was or what it pointed to, but there was a good chance that Sapphire would have a better idea.
With that, he scurried over to the letters on the floor, sorted through the remainder as quickly as he could, and stuffed them all back into the bag. He subsequently shoved the bag underneath his bed, ensuring that it couldn’t be seen. Finally, he folded up the letter from Severin and tucked it into a pocket on his belt. No sense in letting it get lost.
He took a deep breath as the sun finally slipped below the horizon. After lighting a few candles around the walls, he hopped into his bed, leaning back on the soft mattress. He hadn’t yet moved when the door slid aside to allow Kisidera and Ondernifam back into the room.
“How goes it?” Garnisic rolled over and pretended to look interested.
“I know you guys are keeping me away from something.” Kisidera dropped onto her own bed and flopped backwards, landing spread-eagle across the bedding. “You really don’t have to.”
Garnisic snorted. “Hide something from you? You’re part of the team!”
“I’m also a vampire.” Kisidera muttered. “You’re probably out there killing other vampires right now.”
Garnisic frowned, hoping that his expression would carry the appropriate amount of disdain. “What? No.”
“Look, if you are, that’s okay.” Kisidera held up her hands. “I just wish you’d take me out along with them. I’m sick of this. Just end it, please.”
Ondernifam snarled. “I will never let any of my friends lose the battle with death!”
“You’re a little late on that one.” Kisidera’s voice was soft.
Garnisic said nothing, but simply stared up at the ceiling. Why couldn’t Sapphire be there? Sure, she wasn’t a great leader, but… Well, she was a lot better than him! And now he was stuck in a room with an elf who wanted to die and an orc who was only happy if he was killing other things. Ondernifam dropped onto his own bed with a loud crash while Kisidera continued to speak.
“You really want to kill me, don’t you?”
Garnisic sighed. “Now what makes you say that?”
“I was a member of the High Families. I know how to hide intentions, and you’re not doing such a hot job of that right now.” Kisidera sighed. “Please don’t play with me right now. You want to kill me.”
Garnisic sighed and shrugged. He didn’t particularly want to confront her in that way, but what choice did he really have? He rolled over to face across the gap between their beds. She did the same, her hollow eyes meeting his own.
“I don’t think that having a vampire around is worth the risk.” Garnisic finally nodded. “Maybe you’re holding it together right now, but what happens when that changes? What happens when you get too hungry? Which one of us is next?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.” Kisidera held up a hand, which was twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Scars covered the skin, it looked… Rather grotesque. “Look at me. Look at what I’ve become. It isn’t worth dying just to become this. I just want to move on, enter the true afterlife, before I do something that bars me from entry.”
“And I respect that.” Garnisic nodded. He flopped over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. “We shouldn’t be keeping you alive against your own will.”
“I’m glad someone else agrees.” Kisidera sounded forlorn. “Do you think you could… Just do it? Right now?”
“Sapphire would kill me.” Garnisic sighed. “And I don’t think Ondernifam would understand.”
On the other bed, Ondernifam produced a loud snore. Kisidera sighed, seemingly in agreement.
“He’s just a big puppy, you know?”
“Yeah.” Garnisic chuckled. “Sometimes I think a puppy would be more intelligent than he is.”
“But he’s got lots of heart.”
“Like I said, he’s a puppy.” Garnisic closed his eyes. “Just with green skin and long claws.”
There was a long pause before Kisidera spoke again. “You’re doing this for your friends. Even though you want to kill me, you hesitate because you know it would hurt people?”
“I guess you can put it that way.” Garnisic nodded. “I wouldn’t have thought of it like that, but yeah.” He sighed. “This team is the closest thing I’ve had to family in a long time.”
“Me too.” Kisidera breathed back. Once more, there was a long pause before anything else was said. Finally, Kisidera breathed one final line.
“I’m doing this for my friends, too. I’ve had countless opportunities to end things. Time to slip away while you’re sleeping. I could have just taken off my shawl in the sunlight. Plus, it’s not like we don’t travel with weapons.”
Garnisic frowned. “Come again?”
“I want to die.” Kisidera’s voice trembled. “Gods, I just want to end this. I’m in constant pain, my fiancé abandoned me, I just feel… I feel so lost and alone. And you want me dead just as much if not more than I want myself dead.” She paused for a brief moment to gasp in agony. “But I can’t do it. What if I meet Paulin again? What if our paths still cross? And… You guys.”
Garnisic frowned. “Us?”
“Sapphire. Ondernifam.” Kisidera shrugged. “Ondernifam treats me better than anyone other than my father, and Sapphire is still willing to fight for me. I can’t just… I can’t leave them. You know?”
Garnisic puffed out his cheeks as he thought of the many times he had had the opportunity to bail on the ragtag group. The time he had been presented with a proper dwarven chapter to join. He could have said yes, and he would have spent the rest of his days drinking Husisic Ale and crafting enchantments. He could have chosen to walk away when Nettingo was blown up. He could have chosen to walk away when Paulin had grown so busy with the kingdom that everyone else had stayed in a barn to avoid the soldiers. He could have left after the Angel Incursion. And he had stayed.
“Yeah. Yeah, I get that.” Garnisic sighed. “So where does that leave us?”
“From where I stand, it just puts us in the same position that it always has placed us.” Kisidera shrugged. “I’ve never known you well. I probably never will know you particularly well. We have mutual traveling partners, so we’re stuck together for the time being.”
Garnisic ran his hand through his beard, then sighed and flopped back on his side to face her. “I don’t know if it’s that bleak.” He shrugged. “If Ondernifam just brought home a pet vampire after a late night in the pub, I wouldn’t really listen to any of his or its excuses, I’d just end it and deal with the consequences later.”
“So you do care about me?” Kisidera’s voice caught in her throat.
Garnisic took a long and deep breath before replying. What was he doing? He was supposed to be killing vampires, right?
“I guess I do.” He finally managed. “It’s not just about Paulin, either. I never really liked the guy.”
“That’s a lie and you know it.” Kisidera chuckled. “Well, goodnight Garnisic. I’ll stand guard. No sense in you getting ambushed during the night for your actions yesterday.”
Garnisic frowned. “Whatever do you-”
“I know you destroyed something vampiric under the city. Everyone’s talking about something that happened, and Sapphire’s magic is rather recognizable.” Kisidera sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Get some rest, my dwarven friend. With luck, something will happen and we’ll both get our wishes. Until then…” She mimed lifting a glass of alcohol. “Cheers to friends who we’d do anything for.”
“You can say that again.” Garnisic muttered as he closed his eyes.
He didn’t have any clue what was happening. He didn’t know why he had just said what he had said, and he was even less sure how he felt about the entire situation. He didn’t know what Sapphire was going to want to do about the Lilith situation, and he didn’t know where that path would lead them if they did choose to go that route.
In truth, he knew almost nothing. He only hoped that Sapphire would be able to take that little bit of nothing and turn it into something useful. If not… They were likely all headed for the same fate as Kisidera herself.
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