“Focus on something positive.” The voice of the healer poured through Franclin’s mind, overwhelming every aspect of his senses. “Find a good memory. A moment of love. A feeling of warmth. A time where you shared a meal with friends over a blazing hearth. A time when you felt enveloped in the care and comfort of family.”
Franclin nodded tightly, trying to avoid moving as the healer had suggested. A single thought rose to mind: The time he had faked his death by riding a lava-covered dragon through the underbelly of Isnouto. It hadn’t been a particularly defining moment in his life, but man, was it fun to think about in retrospect.
“I will now place you within that memory. Keep it close. Relive it, here.”
Franclin took a deep breath as the world swirled around him. With a loud clack, armor snapped down around his limbs. His old, orange armor. The dragon materialized under his body, and… There he was.
Cheering fans screamed down as the dragon flew through the ring. Lava flowed past his body, caked on his armor, as the mighty beast dove through the elevator in the center of the ring. They came crashing to the bottom in a torrent of fire and flesh, slamming into the ground with the force of a mountain. Flames spilled across the cave floor below, sending poachers and guards scattering. Animals in cages roared, mages prepared to fight back. The dragon ignored it all, leaping forward and flying for the exit that seemed so far away. A mighty grin split Franclin’s face. There was a reason that people had to train so heavily to take the creatures down. They were mighty, they were unstoppable.
As they flew through the cave, dodging fireballs and blasts of lightning, something caught Franclin’s eye. A dwarf, clothed in red robes, standing on top of a cage holding an armored minotaur. The dwarf simply raised a hand, making no other move against him.
That single move, though… That was enough. Franclin’s arms and legs turned to butter, he lost his grip on the dragon’s neck. The air tore him from his mount, letting him fall to the ground so far below. He was plummeting… He was falling…
He came crashing down into the fortress so deep below the mountain, landing squarely in the courtyard surrounded by a thousand armored minotaurs. A hollow laughter filled the air as more dwarves rose from the shadows. Crossbows, swords, daggers, hundreds of weapons pointed squarely at him. An army, ready to rise up and slaughter the entire world.
“Rise!” The dwarves collectively screamed at him. “Get up! Snap out of it!”
“Huh?” Franclin’s eyes snapped open as the illusion broke. He sighed to find himself exactly where he had been several minutes earlier: Floating inside the sensory deprivation chamber of the Sorosin clerics. It was pitch black, though he knew that the container was little more than a stone coffin filled halfway with water. A loud scraping noise echoed through the tiny chamber as the lid slid aside, and webbed hands reached inside to pull him out.
Franclin waved away the help, and did his best to sit up and climb out into the daylight. He blinked spots out of his eyes as the late day sunlight nearly blinded him, then sighed. The chamber sat beneath an open-air gazebo, a tiled roof supported by little more than wooden poles. Dozens of similar gazebos sat in the nearby area, separated by larger pools of water that gleamed with magic as clerics sang their strange and magical songs.
Barn sat in a chair nearby, a worried look on his face. The two clerics, both male, helped Franclin dress in his loose-fitting robes that Talfin had insisted he wear. He nodded in thanks as his limbs quivered. It felt as though he had lost all his strength in the short time he had been immersed.
“How did he do?” Barn finally asked. “Franclin? How is it?”
“About like before.” Franclin muttered and stumbled over to Barn. “They’re everywhere.”
Barn sighed, and the lead cleric glanced back and forth between the two individuals. Franclin just groaned and nodded at the dwarf.
“Just give him the diagnosis. If I walk away, I’ll still know you’re talking about me.”
“Of course.” The cleric bowed his head. “The tests went poorly, to say the least. Every induced dream or vision devolved into fear and horror, no matter the approach. I’ve seen recovery in worse cases, but it will take time. Thankfully, this was just an introductory session. I’ll use more powerful magic next time.”
Franclin put his head in his hands and groaned. “How long will this take?”
The cleric paused. “I’m honestly not sure. The mind is a fragile instrument. Repairing it must take time, or fatal mistakes might be made.”
“Just make me better.” Franclin balled his fists. “I hate this.”
Barn sighed and gestured at the Hunter. “He clearly has ambition. He wants to improve. Is that not enough?”
“I’ve wanted to improve ever since that fortress.” Franclin hissed. “Do you think I like being like this? I just…” His breath began to come in shallow gulps. “I don’t know how you handle walking around when… When…”
A soft whistle swept through the air, and Franclin’s racing heart began to slow. He nodded at the secondary cleric in thanks, who simply inclined his head as he continued to emit the calming tone.
“Allow me to attempt to explain.” The cleric sat down on the floor next to Barn’s chair. “Think of the mind as a physical body part. If you broke your leg, you would find it difficult to walk. Depending on the severity of the injury, you might walk with a limp, simply swallow the pain and exhibit no external signs of injury, or find you might find yourself completely bedridden. The key aspect of this analogy is that, when you’re sitting down, the pain might ease. You momentarily forget just how much it hurts to walk, and you have a desire to walk again. Once you put weight on the leg again…”
“It all comes back.” Barn nodded slowly. “I’d never thought of it that way.”
“Few people do.” The cleric shrugged. “With Franclin, I would say that the injury is most closely analogous to a sprain. The pain is deep-seated, and will take much time to heal. If stressed, it could cause far worse injury.”
“When can I come back?” Franclin placed his hands on the railing around the edge of the gazebo, leaning on the hewn stone as he gazed into the nearby pool. It was deep, carved dozens of feet into the cliff face. Two aqahartis swam around in the bottom, twirling and twisting in an odd dance.
“Tomorrow.” The cleric gave a single nod. “I will never turn away someone who requires help. The only reason I don’t wish to start you right now is because your body needs rest as well as your mind. Return to wherever you are staying, get a good night’s sleep, dine on the cuisine offered in the city, and return in the morning whenever you please.”
“I’ll be here.” Franclin nodded firmly and pushed himself away from the guardrail. Barn followed as he walked down the short set of stairs and onto the cobblestone walkways that wound through the area.
As he wound through the pools, angling for the exit on the far side of the area, Barn shuffled up next to him. The dwarf coughed several times before sighing.
“You really think this will work?”
“It can’t hurt.” Franclin sighed. “I just… I can’t…” He shuddered. “I can’t do this. I can’t face you-know-who. But you’re not going to let me go, and they’re going to catch up with you eventually, which means that I have to pull myself together somehow.”
Barn grimaced. “I’m sorry. I truly am.”
“It’s not your fault.” Franclin balled his fists. “It’s my own.”
“How is it your fault?” Barn frowned up at him.
“I’m the one with the stupid mental issue.” Franclin paused as they reached the exit. There, a soft path led down from the Sorosin temple, weaving back and forth down the grassy hill to the edge of the town, just behind the palace. “I’m the one who has a perfect body. I can kill dragons. I could probably kill a giant, and I… Look at me.” He shrugged. “I’m a failure because I’m scared. I’m scared. That’s literally the first thing they burn out of you when you enter Hunter training.”
Barn opened his mouth to reply, but Franclin cut him off. “Not only that, but I was one of the youngest people to ever qualify for entry into the program.”
“Really?” Barn raised an eyebrow as they started walking down the path. “Tell me about that.”
Franclin scowled. “You’re just trying to distract me.”
“If it works, I don’t particularly care.” Barn shrugged. “Now, tell me about that.”
Franclin sighed, even as his heart dropped a bit. Barn was only asking to keep Franclin from melting down. He didn’t actually care about him, just cared about having Franclin available to fight when the time came.
“The Hunters don’t have any official age limit, but the trials are so intense that they suggest not starting until you’re a legal adult, whatever age that happens to be for your species.” Franclin puffed out his cheeks as he thought back to that fateful day. “I started the process when I was twelve. Ran away from home, walked up to their headquarters in Istinis, and demanded to be let in. I’m told that after my first exam, they had to send me home for a month to test to see if I had any divine blood in me.”
“That’s a drawback?” Barn sounded incredibly curious. So that much he cared about. “You’d think that they would love having demigods fighting for their cause.”
“Apparently someone in Vorthis told them that if they ever commission someone with divine blood, they’d be cursed or something.” Franclin shrugged. “I don’t know all the details. Anyway, they had me tested, it all came back negative, and I entered training. Five years later, I finished with the Wizarding Academy, performed my final trials, and got my first contract with Isnouto. Five years, I have the option to cancel at the end of the term if I don’t like it.” He sighed in annoyance. “And then I happened to meet an angel.”
“Funny the way life works.” Barn sighed. “What about your parents? What were they like?”
“I don’t have a clue.” Franclin shrugged. “They wipe your mind upon entering the ranks of the Hunters. It removes all possible ties to your past life that might inhibit your effectiveness.”
“Interesting.” Barn frowned. “So… You have no clue who your parents are? No idea where you came from?”
“My official record states that I was born in Distisil, but that’s all I know.” Franclin shrugged. “I might have been born to witches, I might have been a noble… I don’t know.”
Barn simply nodded as they continued to trod down the path. “I lost my own family, too.”
“You’re required to give up your last name, right?” Franclin mused.
“Upon ordination, yes.” Barn nodded. “I haven’t forgotten my name, but I have been forbidden from ever using it again. However, I was referring to a time long before that. I was only a young child when my entire clan was slaughtered. When I gave up my name in ordination, my entire line ceased to exist.”
Now it was Franclin’s turn for confusion. “Your entire clan was slaughtered?”
“Indeed.” Barn nodded. “Care to wager a guess who would do such a thing?”
Franclin’s bones once again turned to butter, and he slowed to a stop. “Please tell me that it’s not our dwarven friends. Because that’s really not what I need to hear right now.”
Barn froze. After a few seconds, he straightened up and brushed off his robes. “Of course not.”
Franclin sighed as they once again began walking. This time, it was dead quiet. Dead quiet, of course, save the crackling of twigs that might have come from an invisible assassin. Dead quiet save the soft rustle that could have been a conjured shadow warrior. Dead quiet save the soft brush of fabric against stone that might have indicated an archer taking aim from a rooftop.
“Alright, I’ll bite.” Franclin finally sighed and shrugged. The Fond’sar were everywhere, it couldn’t kill him to hear about something they had done so many years earlier. “What happened?”
“Are you sure?” Barn looked up at him.
“It can’t be worse than this.” Franclin spread his hands. “Now talk.”
Barn grimaced. “I was fifty years old, I think. A proper adolescent. At the time, I had no clue what happened. We were a small clan in Tornor, we all lived on a farm out in the wilderness. It was your stereotypical ‘too-many-mouths-to-feed’ dwarven family. We’d go into the city and all the more proper clans would make snide comments, you know how it is.”
“I actually do not.” Franclin felt his heart clench as they reached the end of the grassy slope and started into the rows upon rows of buildings. Massive limestone structures, dark windows which could hold any number of deadly threats.
“Oh. Well, it’s not particularly fun being compared to rabbits.” Barn sighed, then shrugged. “Anyway, one morning I woke up to find that everyone was dead. Just like that, dead and gone. Everyone. Dad, mom, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents.”
Franclin frowned. “You seem so matter-of-fact.”
“I’ve had centuries to process it.” Barn sighed. “I didn’t know it was the Fond’sar until I was inducted into their ranks. There, they were only too happy to gloat about it.”
Franclin shook his head. “Why do that, though? Why kill off your entire family except for you?”
“That’s… That’s a long story.” Barn sighed. “In short, it’s about as crazy as anything else involving the Fond’sar. They have a box that contains something that one of my ancestors locked up. Apparently there’s something about how the last member of his clan has to do something at a certain time in order for it to unlock, and the Fond’sar just can’t resist opening anything that crosses their path to find out what might be inside.”
“Interesting.” Franclin mused.
“Only if it’s not happening to you.” Barn scoffed. “Now, I will say that it’s likely the only reason I’m alive today.”
“Well, that’s good for you.” Franclin sighed. “I really don’t want to talk about this anymore, okay?”
“Understood.” Barn quieted down in an instant. After a few seconds, he gestured down the road. “Here’s the inn where Talfin secured us lodging.”
“Good.” Franclin wrapped his arms around himself. “I just want to sleep.”
Barn nodded and shuffled forward a bit faster. They quickly scurried up to the Torchlight Tavern, a combination inn and bar that looked rather upscale. Curtains hung on the doorways, dancers performed on stages to the music of aqahartis singers… It looked like it really might have been something good.
Franclin did his best to ignore the tapestries, and instead simply followed Barn up the stone staircase to the third floor. There, he found himself stepping into a small, though lavish, room. He dropped onto the bed, ignoring the steaming bath in the corner, the fruits that decorated the nightstand, and the handwritten letter that seemed to have been placed on the bed prior to their arrival.
After that point, he was aware that Barn was doing something, but he didn’t particularly care to find out exactly what that was. He pulled silk sheets up over his body, slammed the thick woolen pillow onto his head, and did his best to block the world away.
It was a poor defensive position, sure. If someone attacked him in the night, he would be taken down without a proper fight. The problem was that even if he did take precautions, make himself uncomfortable for the sake of protection, he would still die like a dog if they ever decided to take him. Better to just hide and hope for the best.
Shadows and noises continued to haunt him as he so desperately tried to find the sweet taste of sleep. Why had the world become so hostile? Why did the wind always have to have the taste of death upon its breeze? What had happened to the warm summer gale that he was used to?
And, most importantly: Would he ever be able to find that summer again?
“Ah-ha!” Talfin crowed, then frowned as his mind raised a counterpoint. “Wait. Never mind.”
“I’m still telling you that you need to link the problems.” Druila crossed her arms from the chair nearby. “We have a cave that we need to get inside. We have monsters that really like caves. I really don’t understand what’s tripping you up here.”
“What’s tripping me up is the fact that we need to do this withoutthe Fond’sar realizing that we’re doing it.” Talfin sighed. “According to Barn, the controllers are going to try and escape this realm once they all bond together. That’s a great and noble goal, and I intend to help it succeed in any fashion that I physically can.”
“But that’s going to take time. There are dozens of surviving controllers scattered across Calsin.” Talfin turned to face her. “In order to link them all, if I devoted one hundred percent of my time to the issue, I might be able to get it done in a year or two. If the Fond’sar get their hands on even a single controller, none of that effort will matter.”
Druila crossed her arms. “The controllers were that powerful?”
“I already told you that they could command legions of minotaurs.”
“All the major dwarven fortresses today have legions of minotaurs.” Druila shrugged.
“Do I seriously have to re-explain this every time?” Talfin bit out.
“You keep hiding parts of it!” Druila yelled back at him. “I keep having to pry it all out of you! I know what happened when you were taken to the fortress, I understand the atrocities that you witnessed. What I don’t understand is how that gets any worse with the controllers.”
Talfin sighed and rubbed his forehead. He didn’t understand it all himself, just enough to realize that it was a really bad idea to cross the group. “In current dwarven fortresses, a single dwarven operator can reasonably control about ten minotaurs at a time. For an army of the creatures, that’s a lot of manpower required. On the flip side, the dwarves were able to attach over one hundred thousand to a single controller, and the only reason they didn’t attach more was because they ran out of space in their fortress. In theory, a single controller could control over a million individual minotaurs at a time.”
Druila whistled softly, and Talfin plowed forward. “Furthermore, they could enslave and fully control sentient species.”
Druila nodded, then paused. “Wait. What?”
“You heard me right.” Talfin inclined his head. “They could walk in here, slap a control mechanism on the back of your neck, and you would be forced to obey its every whim. Just like a mindless drone.”
Druila put a hand over her mouth, and Talfin sighed. “Look, it just gets worse from there. It really, truly does. Now would you please just trust me so I can stop telling you all these horrible things? You’ll probably get to experience it for yourself soon enough.”
“Fine.” Druila stuck out her bottom lip. “I just want to know what we’re up against.”
“No, you’re letting your dark elf come out.” Talfin muttered under his breath. “Obsessed with death, all of you.”
“At least your hearing is good.” Talfin sighed and gestured at the map of Tifingor, which he had sprawled out across the desk. “Alright, one thing at a time.”
“Sure, we can keep doing that.” Druila tilted her head back to stare up at the ceiling.
Talfin snorted and turned to glare at her. “Alright, then! What’s your big plan?”
“I’m so glad you asked!” Druila flashed a smile and slid over to the map. “Let’s look at everything going on, right? The distribution center that was just destroyed was used for the fruit that the vampires use to control their appetite, right?”
“Right.” Talfin muttered. “And?”
“Every proper vampire cell in Tifingor has to have that fruit, which means that by our keeping track of it, we can track vampire activity.” Druila held up a finger. “It’s how we keep track of all the cells that Severin tries to keep hidden when he ships things to distribution centers that he thinks that we don’t know about.”
“Still retreading old territory.” Talfin scowled.
“Well, as far as we know, there isn’t any cell of vampires in Indifi. It has too many clerics who regularly banish the undead from the land.”
“I know. That’s half this problem.” Talfin sighed and shook his head. “There aren’t any vampires in that area. Thus, anything we do would draw attention to us, which we can’t do.”
“Unless all we do is reroute a shipment of the fruit through Indifi.” Druila held up a finger. “Picture this. We intercept one of the carts on routes that Severin tries to keep more hidden. We give the driver a note that redirects him through Indifi. When he gets there, someone offloads a couple crates and lets the driver continue onward. When he gets to Tirinnoufin, Severin asks him what happened. He shows him the note, leaving Severin to wonder what vampire cell has been operating out of Indifi without his knowledge.”
Talfin crossed his arms. “I see multiple issues with that plan.”
“Do the issues go away when I mention that we steal the paper and ink from the Sorosin clerics?” Druila raised an eyebrow.
Talfin opened his mouth to reply, then paused. That… That could work.
“Severin examines the note, as he’ll do, to make sure it’s nothing that we did. When he sees that it’s from the clerics, he gets curious. He goes to investigate the cave, and a battle breaks out between himself and the clerics.”
“And we walk in while the world burns around us.” Druila folded her hands. “Go ahead. Shoot it full of holes.”
Talfin bit his lip. “We’ll need to convince a cleric to work with us. Either that or just hypnotize him.”
“I already have a contact within the temple here.” Druila met Talfin’s gaze. “He’s even agreed to use the secondary paper, which almost resembles common parchment except for a watermark. It will look like someone from the temple was trying to disguise the fact that they were from the temple.”
Talfin opened his mouth, but was cut off by Druila’s continued commentary.
“Oh, and did I mention that this cleric in particular knows the signature variant used by the monks of Indifi? As opposed to the signature used by the monks here in Tirinnoufin.”
Talfin frowned. There were precious few details that escaped his notice, but that was something interesting. “Different sects have different signatures?”
“It’s an incredibly subtle detail, only noticeable by experts. The clerics don’t like anyone else to know about it.” Druila blinked her eyes rapidly. “You would be amazed what you can learn as a female if you just cut your robes to show a bit of ankle when you’re sitting down.”
“No. No, I certainly would not.” Talfin sighed and leaned back in his chair. After a few seconds, he slowly raised his hands in defeat. “It’s not a bad plan.”
“No, it’s not.” Druila smirked. “When do we start?”
“Whenever you start enacting half the stuff that I’m sure you have in place anyway.” Talfin sighed. “Let me guess, you already dispatched someone to go catch a delivery?”
“No, but I have someone in mind, and he’s been given all the information.” Druila shrugged. “I wouldn’t actually start up a scheme this large without consulting you first.”
Talfin felt an odd sense of relief at that statement, though he wasn’t sure exactly why. Druila seemed mildly annoyed by his response, and crossed her arms sharply.
“Is that not okay?”
“No, that’s great. I really appreciate it.” Talfin muttered softly. He reached up and scratched his head, then frowned. “I… I’m sorry.”
Druila frowned at him, then sighed and put her head in her hands. “Come on Talfin. I’m not replacing you.”
Talfin turned and crossed his arms. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that you’re acting the same way that everyone always does when they find out that I’m good at things.” Druila’s voice pitched higher, a sign of pain. “I like this type of things. I like a lot of things.”
“And you’re going to put me out of business.” Talfin groaned and gestured at the map. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that.”
“Do you know how many things you see everyday that miss me completely?” Druila raised her eyebrows. “You’re good at what you do. Besides, let’s be hypothetical for a second. So what if I am better at something than you? I’m your friend! We’re fighting on the same side! Two minds? Who cares which one is the best?”
“Literally everyone!” Talfin groaned as soon as the words left his mouth. Druila’s mouth snapped shut, and her eyebrows crawled up her forehead. Talfin sighed and ran his hands through his hair as Druila seethed.
“So I’m not allowed to be better than you?” Druila hissed softly. “Is that why you didn’t tell me about the Fond’sar? That was the last thing you still had to hold over my head, and now that it’s gone, you’re left as someone subpar? For the first time in your life, you aren’t the best one?”
“I didn’t tell you about the Fond’sar because I wanted to keep you safe.” Talfin held up a finger. “We’ve discussed this. As for one of us being better than the other…”
“You do realize that I’m almost as old as you are, right?” Druila pressed onward. “My body ages differently, but I’m only like five years younger.”
“I know!” Talfin roared. “That doesn’t mean you don’t need protection. You’re still an adolescent.”
“An adolescent who’s better at politics and scheming than you are!”
“An adolescent who’s going to get herself killed!” Talfin slammed a fist onto the table. Druila jumped slightly, and he sighed. “Look, I don’t mean it like that, but… You can’t be doing all this. Passing out information, getting things ready without me.”
Druila snorted. “I already told you I wouldn’t actually do anything without you.”
“Yeah, but how long will it be until that changes?” Talfin bit out. “How long before you start crafting your own schemes on the side? How long before you wind up getting caught in a scandal and wind up locked away for the rest of your life? How long before you wind up dead and I have to fish your body out of a river somewhere?”
Druila just shook her head. “So you think I’m not good enough. I’ll make a misstep.”
“I don’t know!” Talfin balled his hands into fists. “It’s just too dangerous.”
“Yeah?” Druila just continued to shake her head for several long seconds before looking up to meet his eyes. “Have you ever cared about me? At all?”
Talfin felt his world spin. “What?”
“Have you ever cared about me, or have I just been a convenient pawn to use in your schemes?” Druila balled her fists.
“Of course I’ve cared about you!” Talfin protested.
“Prove it.” Druila licked her lips. “Where was I born?”
“Donitor.” Talfin answered without hesitation.
“Wrong. That’s just what I tell people I don’t trust and who haven’t bothered to ask.” Druila snapped. “How did my parents die?”
Talfin felt a small flash of heat rise to his cheeks? “Blight?”
“Wrong. How did I know to intercept you on that day you were coming into the city?”
Talfin glanced down at the floor. “Dumb luck?”
“If you truly think I encountered you through sheer dumb luck, then you’re no better than literally anyone else in my life.” Druila’s voice shook. Talfin could detect multiple emotions, none of which were positive. “I’ve spent my life seeking out a master to train me. A master in literally anything. All I want to do is learn from them because everyone around me might as well be cattle. And every time, just like this, they wind up panicking when they become afraid that I’ll surpass them.”
Talfin shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, I think it is.” Druila turned away. “You won’t see me again. Trust me, don’t waste your time looking.”
Talfin swore as she darted from his office. He leapt to his feet and raced after her, only to come crashing out into the stairwell to find the expanse completely empty. He swore under his breath and bounded down the stairs three at a time and tore out the front door. There, all that answered his cries were the stars, staring down impassively above him.
“You don’t get it.” He whispered under his breath. “Please. Please don’t leave me.”
Crickets chirped in the distance, echoing through the night air. He sighed and slowly turned, walking back up into his home. She had vanished in a split second, either teleporting somewhere else, turned incorporeal, or employed some other form of magic that he was less familiar with.
When the door of his home slammed shut behind him, he fell back against the wood. His eyes closed, and he sank to the floor.
“No. Please don’t leave me.” An odd ache welled up within his chest. “Please come back.”
Once more, only crickets answered his call. She had gone. He had hurt her, and she was gone.
And unless he could come up with a more brilliant plan than he had ever before even imagined, there was no getting her back.
“Ahh, welcome, gentlemen.” Severin slowly stepped through the wooden door and into the home, letting his black leather cloak drift across the stones behind him.
Inside, two vampires sat at a banquet table, the area only illuminated by flickering candles and a fireplace at the far end. It was an elaborate room, belonging as it was to a mid-level Court overseer. The man himself, Overseer Fen, sat in the chair of honor. His wife, a particularly slim aqahartis, swooned in her own leather cape just next to him.
“I believe that this is my home, and therefore I provide the welcome.” Overseer Fen stammered.
“You would believe incorrectly.” Severin settled into the chair at the opposite end of the table, leaving a stretch of space of nearly thirty feet between them. His assistants swept inside just behind him, carrying several large jars along with a particularly bulky crate. They set the crate on the ground beside the table and began pulling the lid off while other guards began unscrewing the lids on the jars. “Once you join my legion, all property belongs to the lair. As the current overseer of the lair, you are on my property, and thus I welcome you. Not the other way around.”
“Of course, master.” Overseer Fen dipped his head in respect. His wife refused to do so, but Severin decided to allow the slight to pass him. At least this time.
“I do hope you’ll enjoy the meal that I brought.” Severin smiled as the guards hoisted a squirming and gagged dark elven man up onto the table. Meanwhile, the jars were dumped out into bowls, allowing the fresh avifruit to be placed in appropriate portions. While the dark elf continued to squirm, a plate of avifruit and utensils were placed in front of each of the three vampires, and the guards withdrew into the darkness of the house beyond the dining area.
Severin slowly picked up his fork, turned it over a few times in his hands, and stabbed down into the avifruit. As he took a bite, he grimaced and forced the foul concoction down. It was like taking medicine: Not pleasant, but necessary for survival. As he choked down the first wedge of soft, fruity flesh, he flashed a smile at Overseer Fen.
“I hear that you’re making progress in the court. Securing minor distribution points around the city for our purposes.”
“Yes, of course.” The man nodded. He was short, nearly as short as some of the taller plains dwarves, and wore a suit that looked more studious than vampiric. “It’s a long process, but I’m making strides. I’ve been reporting my success to your messengers.”
“They’re your messengers too.” Severin pointed out. “You maintain a high rank even within my own organization. Let us not forget, you have renounced entirely the ways of the world. This isn’t something that can just be taken back.”
“Believe me, your… Our messengers have made that quite clear.” Overseer Fen shook his head. “I often feel as though I’m suspected of treason simply by reason of existing.”
“Not at all.” Severin assured him. “Everyone is suspected of treason, at least at first. You must understand the position that I’m in. Just last night, I had to condemn a man to death for defying my orders. I sincerely would hate to be forced to continue such a barbaric practice.”
“And I would hate to instigate such a change in your overwhelmingly hospitable attitude.” Overseer Fen inclined his head. He too began choking down his avifruit, allowing his wife the chance to speak up.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of this audience?”
“It’s simple, really.” Severin took the nearby napkin and dabbed the corners of his mouth, waiting for the drug to take effect in his blood. “I’m choosing to move up our timeline.”
Overseer Fen jumped visibly, only composing himself a few moments later. The bureaucrat shook his head, obviously confused. “What do you mean? I thought we still had years before we moved forward.”
“As did I.” Severin folded his hands. “However, as reports continue to trickle in, there’s something disturbing happening. A sorceress has appeared in Tifingor and appears to be investigating our operation.”
“Then shouldn’t we go underground and wait for her to leave?” Overseer Fen pressed.
“Ordinarily, I would say yes.” Severin nodded. “However, she already managed to uncover our distribution ring in Sodonis and broke the vortex that we had set up to Lilith’s castle. Reports indicate that she recently left Sodonis and is traveling north to join us in Tirinnoufin.”
Overseer Fen grew noticeably paler, not an easy task for a vampire. “Here? What do you think she’s doing here?”
“Somehow, I suspect that she’s not coming to enjoy the healing power of the Pure Spring.” Severin flashed a small smile as his fingertips began to tingle. Perfect. “It should be noted that she played a rather critical role in the angel incursion. Rumors say that she’s the one who broke the curse of the angels after all the fighting was over. She was at the fall of Nettingo, and even adopted one of the dark angels as her own son. She’s no one to mess with.”
“Then the last thing we need to do is something rash!” Overseer Fen continued to protest. “Plans always fail when they’re executed hastily!”
“I completely agree.” Severin inclined his head. “As a precaution, I’ve had plans in place for years about how to proceed in a rush. I am now enacting those plans, which, as stated, are old plans indeed.” Overseer Fen opened his mouth to reply, and Severin cut him off. “Suppose the plan does fail, and we’re cut down and die. Would your rather die knowing that you tried, or die wishing desperately that you had just done a bit more?”
Overseer Fen sighed. “I suppose the former.”
“Good.” Severin flashed a small smile and climbed to his feet. He took several steps forward, striding up next to the poor man who lay there on the table. Scars covered his neck, the signs of being fed on over and over and over. Severin reached down and ran a finger along the neck, enjoying the soft whimpers of terror. “Then it’s settled. Without the ability to join with Lilith’s army in secret, we will be assembling our forces and marching south. With Tifingor’s troops all stationed along Sintison’s borders, no one will be able to stop us before we cross the border into Notirot and the Vamsick Desert.”
“So it’s foolproof?”
Severin laughed. “My friend, no plan is foolproof. I have no doubt that there are a million ways that things could go wrong. This is the difference between the living and the dead.” Severin’s fists slowly tightened. “The politicians of this day are concerned about worldly things. They plot, they plan, and they scheme. They place every pawn on the board in carefully calculated positions, preparing to inflict a killing, unescapable blow. We have no such qualms. We do what we need to do.”
Overseer Fen simply nodded slowly. “And you believe that the sorceress is a sufficient reason for this course of action?”
Severin inclined his head. “The gods of this world only care about mortal affairs when it affects their worship. Demigods only care when their parents care. Warlocks only care when their masters care. It goes on and on. Sorcerers, though… Those are a different breed altogether.” He held up two hands. “In a way, they’re not so different from us. They serve a dead god, a god who simply gives them power and turns them loose on the world. One foot in the divine, one foot in the mortal realm. This is why no one fears the wrath of demigods, but all with knowledge fear an angry sorcerer.”
“Why would she be angry?” Overseer Fen held up his hands in confusion.
“Reports state that she travels with a vampire. A former friend turned into one of our kind.” Severin hissed softly. “Perhaps she seeks vengeance. I do not know, and I do not care, provided that we stay out of her grasp.” He took a deep breath, forcing air through his decaying lungs. “I need you to find me a staging area. Find me a place where we can stack fifty thousand vampires, a place that we can use to march south.” Severin leaned forward. “Please do not misunderstand me. This is not a request. Fail me, and you will live to regret it.”
“I… I understand.” Overseer Fen inclined his head. “Is there anything else?”
Severin frowned as he licked his lips and leaned forward. For a few brief moments, he let his fangs play across the skin of the dark elf’s neck, relishing the fear that the man exuded as he squirmed.
“Only one thing.” He paused. “My brother, Talfin. He will work even harder than the sorceress to stop us once we start moving. Make sure that he’s taken out of the equation.”
Franclin groaned as Barn emitted yet another painfully powerful snore. He slid the pillow off his head and sat up, letting the sheets fall from his body in a clump. Across the room, Barn lay sprawled across his own bed, projecting powerful roars up into the air.
Franclin closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to ignore the noise, but quite unable to do so. He hadn’t been able to sleep a wink between wondering about the skittering noises under the bed and Barn’s incessant snoring.
After a few moments of silent and quite painful contemplation, Franclin swung his legs off the side of the bed. He forced himself to his feet, slid to the door, and opened it as quietly as he possibly could. With that, he was out, slipping into the hallway and letting the door fall shut behind him.
The corridor was only lit by torches, their brilliant light casting flickering shadows across the walls. It took little imagination to turn the shadows into great monsters of yore, causing it to take far more effort to turn them back into simple shadows.
In that moment, he hesitated. A great chunk of him wanted to turn around and stomp back into the room. He wanted to curl up under the blanket and never move again. But… If he did fall asleep, if by some miracle a god reached down, touched him, and sent him into an eternal slumber, he would still be haunted by his dreams. There, the monsters were real. There, he could be killed in a thousand different ways. There… There, he didn’t want to even think about the possibilities.
It was this, the less terrible option, that moved him through the inn wearing little more than his night clothes. It was this fear that led him out onto the street, devoid of any protection save the fact that it would be considered dishonorable in many cultures to kill someone so helpless.
Terrible buildings stared down at him, dark windows set like sunken eyes in misshapen skulls. Bandits moved through the shadows, the few people still out and about all evaluated whether it would be worth it to bother punching him into the gutter.
His feet moved swiftly, even as his mind led him in no particular direction. He simply… Walked. He forced himself past the doorways that held assassins, he forced himself over the gutters that led to monster-infested sewers. And, soon enough, he found himself at the open gates of the city, protected by several guards who all looked like they would sooner run him through than listen to him speak a word.
He didn’t know why, but he felt his legs cease to move at that point. For some reason, on that warm summer night, he sat down on a small barrel that stood against the wall of a stable. And so he sat there, and he watched. He watched as a few late-night travelers came through. A man on horseback. Two drunken dark elves. He even found a smile flickering across his lips as a large bullfrog hopped through the gates as though it were a real person.
And so it was that he was still sitting there when a full wagon rumbled through the open gates. The guards began interrogating the driver in the soft moonlight, which allowed Franclin to catch a glimpse of the driver as she swung down to speak to them.
In that moment, his jaw dropped. It was Sapphire, unmistakably so. The great sorceress, one of the only people who could match his former skill in battle.
His legs moved of their own accord long before his mind processed the situation. He jumped to his feet and skittered across the distance, racing for that wagon.
The world was full of danger. Fond’sar stalked the streets, ready to kill him in a single breath. And there, seated on that wagon bench, was someone powerful enough to end it all.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.