“Alright, I think I have a plan.” Talfin leaned back in his chair. “We need to expose the vampires in the court, right?”
“Right.” Sapphire nodded slowly, not quite understanding where Talfin was coming from.
“Well, I think I know a way to do that.” Talfin flashed a grin. “Take a look at this.”
Sapphire frowned as Talfin pulled a piece of paper out of his official robes. As he passed it over to her, she squinted down at the text, more than a bit uncertain what the aqahartis was going to try to get her to do next.
“This is a permit to sell baked goods.” Sapphire finally sighed and crossed her arms, deciding that attempting to pull any further meaning from the ticket would be too much.
“Yes.” Talfin leaned forward. “Specifically, a permit to sell baked goods just outside the entrance to the palace. All you have to do is set up shop, we put out our display of rolls, and wait to see what happens!”
Sapphire held the man’s gaze for several long seconds before sighing and shrugging. “And that’s supposed to do something?”
“Indeed!” Talfin exclaimed. “It’s a little-known fact that vampires don’t particularly like salt. However, any vampires that visit the stand will assume that they might be watched, so they’ll be more likely to buy things with salt, and then just not eat all of it to throw off suspicion.”
“Uh, huh.” Sapphire nodded slowly. “So… Let me get this straight. You want me to set up a mobile bakery so that I can sell food, watch who buys food with salt, and then keep track of who actually eats the food with salt versus ignores it?”
“Exactly.” Talfin nodded. “It’s foolproof.”
“No, it’s a fool’s errand.” Sapphire snapped. “Talfin? I’ve seen you in action. I’ve heard the stories. You’re being ridiculous right now.”
Talfin scowled at her. “I take offense to that.”
“I really don’t care!” Sapphire climbed to her feet. “If you’re not going to come up with something useful to do, I’m going to head out into the sewers and just start killing things.”
“No!” Talfin exclaimed. “You can’t do that. People will die.”
“A fact that you keep reiterating, despite the fact that I see no evidence to back it up.” Sapphire ground her teeth together. “You have exactly one minute to convince me that I should stay here and not just go marching out. Time starts now.”
Talfin sighed and looked down at the ground. Sapphire held her gaze upon him, fury brimming in her blood. She had arrived in Tirinnoufin almost two weeks earlier. At first, Talfin had come out with a decent plan. A way to redirect the vampires to a nearby city where they could be ambushed safely. Since then… Nothing. Talfin hadn’t been able to tell them if the misdirection had worked. He hadn’t been able to tell them when or where to strike, and he had roundly refused to allow them to just go kill the vampires. Worse, he even knew where the entrances to the underground passages were. He was just too scared to actually use them.
“What do you want from me?” He finally looked up, meeting Sapphire’s eyes. “The last person who expected something from me decided to run. Are you going to do the same?”
“If I leave, it won’t be a run, because I don’t know you that well.” Sapphire sighed and ran her hand through her hair. “Please, just work with me on this.”
“I am!” Talfin held up his hands. “You just have to have patience that my plans will work!”
“Not even you have that much patience!” Sapphire almost screamed at him. “Every day you come up with new schemes like this! You don’t even know if your old plans have worked, and yet you’re still plotting.” She pointed at the door to Talfin’s home. “You know the identity of a vampire who works in the court. You’ve talked to me about his schemes that are probably vampiric in nature. And yet you continue to let him work, never bothering to interrupt him.”
“I know, I know.” Talfin sighed and put his head in his hands. “It’s complicated.”
“No, it’s not.” Sapphire shrugged. “You’ve lost your nerve. Just like literally everyone else here, you’ve lost your nerve.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk.” Talfin spat.
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “I’m practically running this operation.”
“Right. And you have no idea how.” Talfin sighed and began to rub his temples. “I know I’m not doing great right now, but please don’t go thinking that you’re able to sit on some throne and stare down at me. I’ve heard you talking to Barn. You were abandoned by Hesione and Paulin just as much as I was abandoned by Druila.”
Sapphire held her breath for a few seconds before sighing. It was a true enough statement. She had been thrust into a position of leadership, and still had no clue what she was doing.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly the same thing.” Sapphire countered. “I’ve had to step up. All you’ve done is stand down.”
“No, it’s exactly the same thing.” Talfin sighed and climbed to his feet. “We both had someone there. Someone who helped us, someone who supported us. It’s not just their loss that we’re feeling. It’s frustration at the fact that, in a past life, we didn’t need their support.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “That’s a pretty deep statement.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like I really do anything other than sit around and think about things all day.” Talfin sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Alright, fine. I’ll go back and rework the plan.”
“Just try to figure out if the plan you already organized has worked or not.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “If it did, then there are probably vampires in Indifi investigating things right now, and we’re just wasting time by not going after them.”
Talfin held her gaze for a second longer before nodding slowly. “Fine. I’ll go.”
“Thank you.” Sapphire inclined her head. “Just-”
A knock echoed through the air. It was a single strike against the wood of the front door, a signal that in most places would have signified someone just wanting to come inside and visit. Given that it was a knock on Talfin’s door, Sapphire was immediately a bit more suspicious. Talfin himself flinched quite forcefully before frowning.
“Expecting guests?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow.
“No. That hasn’t seemed to stop people recently, though.” Talfin frowned. He forced himself from his chair and swept past Sapphire, angling for the front food. As he did so, he motioned at the doorway into the living room, and Sapphire quickly ducked out of the way. If things exploded, at least she would be able to come in swinging. She allowed herself to transform, gripping her bronze staff tightly. On the other side of the doorframe, Talfin gave her a brief nod before pulling the door open.
“Ambassador Talfin?” The voice was soft and slithery. Without seeing the speaker, Sapphire was almost certain the man or woman was a vampire, though it was hard to tell what gender or species they might have been.
“That’s me.” Talfin’s voice was quiet. “What are you doing here?”
“Delivering a message.” The voice remained soft. “We have Druila. You will cease trying to stop us. We know of your plans. We know that you have a sorceress working for you. If you wish to see Druila alive again, you will come to meet with us at Druila’s old shack. There, you will swear fealty to Severin. We will not mandate that you join our ranks, though the option will certainly be open. You may bring an escort or even simply send proxies, but the sorceress must stay away. Do you understand?”
When Talfin spoke once more, his voice shook with anger and loss. Sapphire took a deep breath and tried to measure the man. He truly cared about the dark elf. She had honestly thought that he simply valued her contributions to his empire of schemes, but… Maybe it was indeed something more.
“You know our demands. I strongly suggest that you meet them.”
The door clicked shut a moment later, and Talfin stumbled back into the living room. Sapphire wasn’t even sure how he was still walking, he looked like he might as well have been a ghost. The color had drained from his scales, his jaw flapped open and shut like a flag in the wind. As he stood there, gaping, Sapphire took a step forward.
“We know where they’ll be. I can go in and kill them all and get Druila out alive.”
“No.” Talfin shook his head rapidly. “They won’t actually have Druila with them. She’ll be off, hidden somewhere where they can react to any violence that might take place. There’s only one way we get out of this, and it isn’t with you.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “So you’re just going to go sign a piece of paper that declares you subservient to your brother? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that will make it almost impossible for you to bring any sort of legal proceedings against him in the future.”
“I know, I know!” Talfin almost screamed. He took several deep breaths, then paused and tilted his head to the side. “Unless…”
Sapphire pointed her staff at him, casting a spell that caused the crystal to glow with an odd light. “Talfin? I don’t know what you’re planning, but please don’t.”
“We may not be able to use our sorceress, but we do have a Dragon Hunter.” Talfin started snapping his fingers. “Franclin has been making significant progress! We can use him! He goes in, we get Druila back, and then he kills everyone there.”
Sapphire shook her head. “Franclin can still barely get himself to look at a sword.”
“It’ll have to do.” Talfin turned and dashed from the room. “If you want to help me out, keep up!”
Sapphire groaned and ran her hands through her hair, then allowed herself to transform back into her ordinary clothes and began to jog after the fleeing aqahartis.
Everything was falling apart at the seams. Talfin was unraveling, Franclin and Kisidera were both essentially comatose, and she… Well, she wasn’t doing that fantastic either.
The vampires were continuing to march forward. They were continuing to gather their forces, and the team dedicated to stand in opposition to them couldn’t even figure out how to hold a weapon.
They were doomed. They were doomed, and Sapphire didn’t have a clue how in Calsin to save them.
“Ahh, my friend.” Barn smiled as he hopped up onto the too-high barstool. “I do apologize for taking this long to arrange a proper meeting.”
“No need to apologize.” Garnisic climbed up into the chair opposite him. They were in a tavern in one of the darker districts of Tirinnoufin, having finally managed to get together to discuss matters. “I’ve been trying to keep people together just as much as you have.”
“Indeed.” Barn inclined his head. “Tell me, how is that going? Also, what would you like to drink?”
Garnisic frowned, the question catching him a bit off guard. “If they have Husisic Ale here, I certainly wouldn’t mind.”
Barn waved his hand, bringing a young, female aqahartis dashing over. He dropped several gold pieces into her palm and ordered a Husisic ale, a loaf of bread and cheese, and a mug of milk. The girl scurried off, and Barn turned back to Garnisic once more.
“Thank you.” Garnisic inclined his head and glanced around the tavern. It was a fairly standard seedy development, complete with half-melted candles, a faint odor of vomit and urine, and a host of assorted individuals who all looked more than willing to rip out the hearts of anyone who crossed their paths.
“It’s my pleasure.” Barn sighed deeply, then stroked his beard. “If I must confess a sin, I do find it a joy to take my leave of Franclin for a few minutes. I love that boy like a son, but working with him so constantly wears on a soul.”
“Believe me, I understand.” Garnisic sighed as well. “How’s he doing?”
“Better, I think.” Barn frowned. “He can hold a conversation without panicking now, and he’s sleeping at night. It’s an improvement over what he used to experience, as shocking as that may sound.”
Garnisic simply nodded, and Barn inclined his head. “What about Kisidera? You’ve been more or less taking care of her ever since we’ve arrived.” He frowned in thought. “Has she left the room this entire time?”
“I don’t believe so, no.” Garnisic shook his head. “I’d give an update, but I don’t rightly know where she was truly at to begin with. Paulin’s departure really got to her.”
Strictly speaking, the statement was true. He didn’t know Kisidera’s heart any more than he knew the hearts of any of the rest of the group. That said, he had spent many a long day just chatting with the vampire, mulling over their states in the world and wondering when and if any of it would change.
He knew that Kisidera was in a massive amount of mental pain, both over her vampirism and the fact that Paulin still hadn’t returned. The facts just continued to mount as Sapphire spent almost every day plotting with Talfin to wipe out the vampiric underworld even while she tried to comfort Kisidera with words of platitude and reassurance. At that point, Garnisic expected that he knew Kisidera better than anyone else. Of course, since Barn and Franclin still didn’t know that she was a vampire, it made it difficult to talk about her.
“I’m truly sorry to hear that.” Barn sighed. He closed his eyes for a brief moment. “It seems that this crisis has affected all of us, in ways that we don’t even realize.”
“You can say that again.” Garnisic frowned in thought. “Do you ever feel like the world is changing? Fundamentally, drastically changing?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Barn nodded. He sighed and held up a finger. “The Angel Incursion served as a beacon. Vampires are rising, countries are riding off to war, the Fond’sar are on the move. The world has been at peace for a thousand years, ever since the Dwarven Civil War.”
“Right.” Garnisic sighed. “So why end it now?”
Barn placed his hands on the table, spreading his fingers wide. Garnisic recognized the gesture as a sign made by Highsands to designate mortality.
“The hearts of mortal men are fickle things.” Barn shrugged. “We desire peace for ourselves, but we long to watch others fight in war. We wish for riches, but only if it results in others being dumped into poverty. We desire glory, but only if it comes by a sword that spills the blood of husbands, fathers, and sons.”
“Well that was more pointed than I was looking for.” Garnisic muttered.
“Next time, I’ll go find a mountain dwarf Highsand who only has the wisdom of one elemental to give you the shallow answer you desire.” Barn chuckled even as Garnisic scowled at him. “I joke, I joke.”
“I’ll bet.” Garnisic sighed as the waitress sauntered back over to the table, the requested meal in hand. She placed the loaf of bread and cheese in the center, while placing the drinks in front of their respective consumer. Garnisic picked up his mug and took a deep draught of the ale, relishing the deep gravely taste of the alcohol. After a second, he frowned and put the mug down. It was a good deal more bitter than he was used to, as if…
“I think this is a cheap knockoff.” Garnisic scowled. “They’re scamming us.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that this is sheep’s milk, not cow’s milk as advertised.” Barn put down his own flagon before chuckling. “Oh, to be able to complain about such petty issues. At least we have full stomachs and a roof over our heads.”
“My stomach could use a bit of filling.” Garnisic nodded at the loaf.
“My apologies, then.” Barn snorted and grabbed a large knife. He quickly sawed off two large slices of bread, chopped off a hunk of cheese, and fostered the three items together to form a makeshift sandwich. He passed the concoction to Garnisic, who quickly took a bite. It wasn’t the most amazing cheese or bread that he’d ever had, but it was certainly quite appetizing. His stomach rumbled, and he continued to eat.
Around half the loaf had vanished before Barn pulled a small totem out of his pocket and placed it on the table. Garnisic recognized it instantly. It was shaped like a tiny wooden tree, and flickered with dozens of enchantments that should never have been allowed to interact. A magical field sprang to life around the two of them, and Barn flashed a small smile.
“Say what you will about the Fond’sar, but they’ve done well to give us the tools we need to defeat them.”
“Oh, I’ll say quite a lot about them.” Garnisic sighed. “I, for one, am not giving them a single positive spin. At all.”
“As a cleric, I’m duty-bound to at least offer a few words in thanks.” Barn sighed. “In all seriousness, we’re in severe trouble. Franclin and I came here with a purpose, and I fear that Talfin fails to recognize the urgency.”
Garnisic frowned. Finally, they were getting down to business. “What’s going on?”
“First of all, those long-distance communicators that you put together worked wonders.” Barn flashed a smile. “Here in Tifingor, we can hear reports all the way in Elsinor.”
Garnisic’s jaw dropped. “What?” That didn’t make any sense. He had never done anything like that! That kind of thing wasn’t even possible! Unless… “Wait a minute.”
Barn frowned. “You don’t remember, do you?”
“I don’t think so.” Garnisic sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I knew that certain things had been wiped, and I’d been able to recover some of it. I never thought that I’d done something like that.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, they have truly been a miracle.” Barn shrugged. “We’ve handed communication disks out to three total operatives now. The resistance is spreading quickly. Soon, we’ll be able to start planning a proper counterattack against them.”
“Good.” Garnisic flashed a smile. “The Fond’sar have to be taken down.”
“I completely agree. As I said, that’s why Franclin and I are here.” Barn folded his hands. “Are you familiar with the concept of a controller?”
Garnisic frowned. “It sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.”
“I’m not surprised.” Barn shrugged. For the next several minutes, he explained the purpose of the controllers and what they knew. When he finished, Garnisic leaned back in more than a bit of shock.
“And they’re waking back up? You’re certain?”
“They’ve been dormant for a thousand years, and yet Malah’s arrival somehow triggered their reawakening.” Barn inclined his head. “As I said, the Angel Incursion has served as a beacon for more than a few dark forces.”
“So what’s the issue?” Garnisic frowned. “You said that Talfin isn’t taking the issue seriously?”
“We need access to the cave where the controller is located. Talfin had devised a plan to get us in, but since then, nothing has happened.” Barn shrugged. “Every day that we delay is another day that the Fond’sar grow closer to their goal. I do not know if they have operatives in this area, but I would be far from surprised. We need to get into that cave, and we need to do it soon.”
Garnisic nodded slowly. “And you’re certain that there’s no way we could just walk in?”
“The cave is controlled by the Sorosin clerics. It’s apparently quite sacred.” Barn sighed. “If the caves truly contain a controller, the area might be considered so hallowed because of the powerful magic they contain. That’s simply speculation, but I believe it bears pondering.”
“It still doesn’t get us in.” Garnisic stroked his beard. “What was Talfin’s plan?”
“In short, instigate a great deal of vampire activity, cause a battle, and sneak in during the chaos.” Barn shrugged. “The biggest issue is that his plan to draw the vampires to the caves was solid, but there’s no way of knowing whether or not it worked. The only thing I can think to do would be to ride down there ourselves, which could potentially expose us to any vampires there and undo any part of the plan that Talfin still hopes to use.”
Garnisic sighed and closed his eyes. For the second time, he was being sidelined. As the Angel Incursion wore ever onward, he had been shuffled to the side, to the point that he had literally hidden in a barn during the final battle. Now, he was left to the whims of a man who had seemingly lost his mind. Or at least lost whatever it was that made him function.
“I’ll start thinking about a solution.” Garnisic sighed. “If we have a chance of unseating the Fond’sar, we have to take it.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Barn inclined his head, then brightened. “Enough of that, though. The other day, you seemed to indicate that you had something to talk to me about as well. Since you’re obviously struggling to recall your memories, I can only assume that it deals with something that happened after our last meeting?”
Garnisic nodded, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the strange token that he had been given in the prison camp. He tossed it onto the table without a word, allowing Barn to scoop it up in an instant.
“I haven’t seen one of these in over a century.” Barn breathed after a few seconds. “Where did you get this?”
“A woman gave it to me. The same woman who gave me back my hammer, which I had lost at the bottom of the Inland Ocean.” Garnisic leaned forward. “The same woman who called me her brother.”
Barn froze. After a few seconds, he tossed the token back onto the table and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.” Garnisic snarled. “You have to know. I’ve seen that look on people before, and it’s not the look of someone who’s innocent.”
Barn stroked his beard for several long and painful moments. Finally, after a wait that positively hurt, he sighed.
“There is much that I know that I haven’t told you. Please believe me when I say that it’s for your protection.”
“How does that protect me?” Garnisic held up his hands.
“By your own admission, you’ve experienced more than one memory wipe in the last year.” Barn folded his hands. “At our last meeting, which you seem not to remember fully, you admitted to still more memory wipes. The Fond’sar keep an eye turned to you, even if they don’t follow you at every single moment. You will almost certainly fall afoul of them again, and if you know certain things, it could prove fatal.”
Garnisic sighed. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, it was a solid enough argument. The Fond’sar came and went as they pleased, leaving no trace. Especially now that he was in Tifingor, he could be placed in a forced dreamstate without much of any effort at all.
“Promise me that when this is all over, you tell me who I am.” Garnisic whispered. “I want to know what I did, who I am, that’s attracted this much attention.”
“I swear, when we formally mount our offensive, I will lay everything bare.” Barn inclined his head. “Until then…” Barn sighed and shrugged. “The Fond’sar treat life and death like a game. If we are to defeat them, we must do the same. Granted protection by the Elementals, I am placing my own tokens on the proverbial board. What I will say is that you are of particular interest to both sides of the battle, a coveted token that could easily swing the war in either direction once it begins.”
“Now you’re just making me curious.” Garnisic snorted.
“My friend, I assure you, this final war will begin far sooner than either of us desire it.” Barn flashed a small smile. “If you’d like, I can at least explain the token. If you keep it on your person, it will be found should you be captured anyway.”
Garnisic inclined his head. “I’d like that.”
“Then here goes.” Barn picked up the token, which as always, displayed a hammer suspended above a ram’s horn. “The symbology is twofold. First, the hammer over the horn. The working class, the slaves, the countless individuals pressed into Fond’sar service, rising up and crushing the regal oppressors. However, if you turn it over…” Barn flipped the coin upside-down, placing the ram’s horn above the hammer. “The upside-down horn is the crest of the Oleric clan. When the Fond’sar were formed, it was done through a union of three dwarven families. The Olerics were the third and smallest of the three, and were quickly overshadowed by the previous two. As they were sliced out of the organization, they vowed to destroy the plague that they themselves had helped create.”
Garnisic nodded slowly as Barn continued. “Thus, the hammer is subservient to the Olerics, for they exist as the only possible hope of escape from these cruel masters. The distinct issue is that the Olerics were completely exterminated in a large battle about two centuries ago. I’ve seen a handful of these tokens since then, but they’ve become scarcer since that particular hope has began to fade.”
Garnisic puffed out his cheeks. “Then why give me one?”
“Believe me when I say that I haven't a clue.” Barn shrugged. “As I stated, the Olerics are dead and gone. The Fond’sar made certain of it. Unless someone else has adopted the name, I see no reason why this token should be making a resurgence. The resistance that I have joined has no such visible crest, for fear of a similar fate.”
“Interesting.” Garnisic sighed, then took the token back. “I suppose any more details would be pushing the boundaries?”
“I do believe so.” Barn sighed. “As I said-”
“No, it makes sense.” Garnisic shrugged. “Not to mention the fact that I do care about the people I’m traveling with.” His mouth twisted downward into an annoyed scowl. “Even if they’re not always the most keen on sharing that sentiment with me.”
“Sometimes, the greatest virtue in life is caring for those who care not for us.” Barn reached out and grabbed the totem, deactivating the privacy field. “In any event, we should probably be heading back. I’ve enjoyed this talk.”
“As have I.” Garnisic grabbed the knife and cut himself another sandwich before hopping down to the floor. Barn followed, and together, the two dwarves wandered out of the tavern and into the open air once more.
The conversation hadn’t cleared up nearly as much as Garnisic wished that it would have. Oh, well. He couldn’t have everything… He only hoped that they could come up with a way to make Barn’s plan work. If not, he suspected that the vampires were going to be the least of their problems as time wore onward.
“You’re getting ready to head out?” Kisidera’s lifeless voice drifted through the small inn.
Franclin nodded equally lifelessly from his bed where he still lay. It was late in the day, and he knew that the Sorosin clerics would be waiting on him, but… Heading out would require moving from bed. And, at that moment, it felt like he had several massive shields attached to each arm holding him down. The ceiling seemed like a perfectly appropriate structure to simply stare at.
“What did you do?” Franclin finally sighed and forced the words through his lips. “Before all this, the angels, the vampires, what did you do?”
“I was a court official in the Apician Family.” The response came back after only a few seconds.
“Really?” Franclin raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed.”
“Because I happened to be born to the right parents?” Kisidera scoffed. “I’ve seen people do more impressive things in their sleep.”
“Fair enough.” Franclin sighed, then closed his eyes. It was so nice and warm in the room. Why did he need to go anywhere at all? Why not just… Take a break for the day?
“And what about you?” Kisidera’s voice drifted back.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Franclin frowned as he caught sight of a spider crawling across the ceiling. “Dragon Hunter?”
“No, like what did you do as a Dragon Hunter?”
“Not hunting dragons, that’s for sure.” Franclin sighed. “I was licensed to guard Isnouto for awhile. Then I chased down angels. Fought a demigod. Got my soul split in two. Oh, chased by a wraithguard. Don’t forget to add that one.”
Kisidera sighed deeply. “It sounds so exciting.”
“And I think that living behind thick walls sounds exciting.” Franclin sighed and shook his head. It was the most he had moved that entire day. “Maybe we should just change jobs.”
“So you can lie in my bed and I can go take a bath every day?”
Franclin snorted. “Something like that.”
Kisidera’s voice died. In the corner, a loud snort reminded him that Ondernifam was technically still there, doing a fantastic job protecting the two of them. It was amazing how stir-crazy the orc would go, until they framed the command “sit” as something involving combat.
He didn’t know how much longer it was before the door banged open. Sapphire appeared in his vision an instant later, concern on her face. She was pushed aside by Talfin after a split second, the aqahartis’s face flush with urgency.
“Where’s the fire?” Franclin muttered and rolled to the side, forcing himself to sit up. They were just going to make him do it anyway, and he wasn’t particularly keen on Sapphire using her magic to accomplish it.
“No fire.” Talfin shook his head. “Just a tiny little problem that I need your help with.”
“I’m off duty.” Franclin shook his head, considering just laying back down. “Black mark. No can help.”
“You have to.” Talfin pleaded. “They know about Sapphire! They’ll kill her if I send anyone else.”
“You could always just go by yourself.” Sapphire raised an eyebrow.
“They’ll kill me.” Talfin shook his head. “I need someone good at combat who can go in my place. Franclin is a Hunter.”
Franclin sighed and shook his head. He couldn’t believe they were even bothering to have this conversation yet again. “I don’t know what the situation is, but I can’t do it. I physically can’t.”
“No, you mentally can’t.” Talfin sighed. “Physically, you’re just as fit as you used to be. Well, you might have sluffed off a little bit, but not much. I know a few spells that can give a temporary boost to morale! They’re not necessarily advisable except for in a pinch, but-”
“You will not touch Franclin with one of those spells!” Barn thundered as he stormed in the door. “I’ve spent years counseling people suffering the effects of such magic!”
Talfin fell to his knees. “Please. They have Druila. They’re offering a trade. I just need you to take a piece of paper to them, and we get her back. It’s that simple. If I go, I’ll be killed or turned into a vampire.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “You’re leaving out the part where he kills all of the vampires just out of spite.”
“And you’re ruining everything!” Talfin turned and screamed at her. “Please! I just need to rescue her.”
Franclin groaned and flopped back onto the bed. He didn’t want to go. He just wanted to lay there. Barn began to argue, Sapphire transformed, and Talfin broke into sobs. As the spider above continued to crawl across the ceiling, Franclin squeezed his eyes shut.
He just wanted to tune it all out. He wanted everyone to leave, he wanted to be left alone. And yet…
And yet, he was a Dragon Hunter. Once given that mark, it was never taken away, even if it was turned black. He was still a Hunter. He had taken vows to protect people. He had taken vows to fight. And, most importantly of all, he was fighting vampires, not Fond’sar.
“Alright.” He sighed and nodded, forcing himself to sit up. “I’ll go.”
Barn and Sapphire both turned and looked at him in shock. “You don’t have to do this.” Sapphire held up her hand even while Barn began to rattle on about the dangers of the spells.
“No.” He took a deep breath and climbed to his feet, ending the argument. “I do have to do this. If I’m going to get better, I have to get back into the fight sooner or later. And I’m not going to use the spells. I need to do this on my own merit, not on some magic that I get zapped with.”
He slowly lifted his arm, pointing his finger at the lone closet that the room sported. As he did so, he called upon Calsin’s magical field and cast a simple telekinesis spell. With a pop, the door sprang open, revealing his armor laying there in a small pile. He took a deep breath as Ondernifam yelped in surprise.
“Just point me in the right direction.”
Franclin took a deep breath as they walked through the open gates of the city. The walls fell away on either side as they walked out under the shimmering moonlight, into the slums that were now only populated by the asleep and the vagrants.
His legs trembled, making his armor knock. His arms felt like they weighed a hundred pounds, every single movement felt like he was dragging his limbs through molasses. He was in no shape to fight anything or anyone, let alone take on a convent of vampires that were prepared to fight a sorceress.
“Hey.” Garnisic glanced up at him. “You’ve got this.”
“Thanks, but no, I don’t.” Franclin shook his head. “No, I really don’t. I appreciate you coming along, though.”
“Of course.” Garnisic nodded. “You have our steel anytime you need it.”
For a few seconds, Franclin just glanced back and forth between the two warriors accompanying him. On one side was Garnisic, a proud and staunch dwarf with an oversized hammer. On the other side was Ondernifam, an orc who looked just as likely to start attaching the slum itself. A brand-new battle axe hung on straps over Ondernifam’s shoulders, a gift from Talfin.
They had little else to say as they walked down the main road, nodding to the few soldiers and guards they saw out and about. Talfin had given them very specific instructions on how to get to their rendezvous point, as well as specific instructions on what to do under different circumstances. Franclin had only paid attention to a fraction of it, as he didn’t particularly expect to survive the upcoming battle anyway.
When they reached the far outer ring of homes and shacks, they turned to the left and began wandering directly into the slums themselves. There, Franclin had to focus himself, not letting himself look to the left or right. People of all races were sprawled out across whatever they could find. In some cases, the only bedding available seemed to be straw, and not always even clean straw. Only a handful even had walls around themselves, many simply slept under the stars. In summer it likely wasn’t terrible, but Franclin didn’t even want to think about how it might look come winter.
Ahead, a small shack came into view that looked slightly better than the surrounding buildings. It actually stood upwards of six feet high and seemed to even have a makeshift door. In that location, such extravagance could only have been a sign of extreme luxury.
Of course, the home also sported a number of cloaked figures standing in front of it. As the trio approached, a particularly tall one let his hood fall down onto his back, revealing a vampiric high elf. The man smiled sinisterly as Franclin approached, and Franclin placed his hand on his sword.
“No need for violence, Hunter.” The elf sneered. “We have honored our end of the deal. Druila is near and prepared to return. We only require delivery of the document.”
Franclin nodded and glanced at Garnisic. The dwarf slung his hammer over one shoulder with his right arm, and reached into a pocket in his armor with the other. He subsequently withdrew a small document that Talfin had thrown together at the last minute. The elf leaned forward and plucked the document from Garnisic’s fingers, and Garnisic went back to holding his hammer with both hands.
“If you’ll forgive me, I wish to examine this article more fully.” The elf passed the document to a nearby hooded figure, who began to peruse the scribbling. “Talfin isn’t known for being forthcoming. You must understand our concern, of course.”
Franclin chose not to speak, and instead simply inclined his head. They then proceeded to stand there for several awkward minutes before the vampire nodded.
“It’s binding enough. There’s a bit of tricky language involved, but it will tell the Court that Talfin has signed an agreement with a vampire. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more than will be needed.”
“Good.” The elf flashed a sick smile. “Then I see no reason to postpone any longer than necessary.”
With that, the vampires all began to turn around. Franclin frowned and shook his head. “Where’s Druila?”
“Oh, did we imply that you’d be getting her back?” The elf sneered. “The deal was that she remained alive upon delivery of this document. Just now, I said that she was willing to return, not that she would.”
Franclin drew his sword, and Garnisic and Ondernifam both took their stances. The elf simply kept his own, unconcerned stance.
“Think very carefully about what you are about to do, Hunter.” The elf hissed. “Talfin entered into a perfectly legal agreement, to which both parties have lived up to their end of the bargain. If you were to do anything more, the results could be disastrous.”
Franclin swore under his breath. He reached up and activated the xenophile enchantments that caused the helmet to snap up around his head. The elf sneered, but made no move. For several long moments, Franclin pondered what to do.
If he attacked the vampires, they would strike back. He would fall, easily. He simply wasn’t in his peak condition. Not to mention the fact that they would undoubtedly come back for Talfin later. So… What to do?
Without warning, something struck him from behind. He was driven to his knees as a vampire quickly slid a knife around to his throat, ready to slit his neck open. Garnisic was a bit faster than the vampire, thankfully, and smashed it off his back with a massive blow from his hammer.
As Franclin stumbled to his feet, the area exploded into chaos. The high elf vampire turned and ran, while several dozen other vampires materialized out of the darkness. They all rushed forward, and the trio sprang into action.
Or, rather… Garnisic and Ondernifam sprang into action. Franclin jumped for the nearest vampire, but found himself barely traveling a handful of feet. His eyes opened wide, and the vampires came crashing past his guard. A silver blade flashed at his armor, cracking against the shimmering blue paint. Enchantments flickered powerfully as the vampire darted around Franclin’s sword, avoiding every slash that Franclin tried to inflict upon it.
“No!” Franclin swore as the vampire ducked around behind him. More knife strikes echoed against his back, the ping of a blade with a job to do. He grabbed firmly onto the hilt of his sword and spun rapidly, striking at whatever he could hit. His sword sailed through the air as the vampire ducked, causing him to simply overbalance himself. The vampire quickly stood up and started striking at his armor once more.
With a mighty kick, the creature slammed a foot into Franclin’s chest, knocking him backwards. The sword fell from his fingers, and Franclin called upon the enchantments of his armor. Ice began to form in his palm, and then… Didn’t.
He landed flat on his back an instant later as almost every single enchantment in the suit seemed to begin malfunctioning. Ice exploded unconstrained from his palms, followed by a torrent of green energy that spiked up into the sky. His armor seemingly gained a thousand pounds as weight-negating enchantments quit working. Detection spells began to fail, sending him warnings indicating thousands of incoming soldiers and other assorted threats. Lights began to flicker in front of Franclin’s eyes, pounding through his skull in a tidal wave of noise and brilliance.
The vampires hadn’t even had the decency to kill or turn him. They had simply taken advantage of his debilitated state and had… Ruined his armor. There were stories of great knights slicing the armor off their foes, but it was always when they were facing a hotheaded newcomer to whom they wanted to show a lesson. It didn’t happen in real life. Certainly not to a Hunter.
It was a fate worse than death. He had told them that it had been a bad idea to send him, and they had done so anyway. Now, he was lost, Druila’s life was forfeit, and Talfin was likely next. What kind of Hunter was he, anyway?
No, he only deserved to die. And in that moment, it seemed like he was going to be denied even that much.
Talfin held his breath as he huddled next to the open gates of the city. Dressed as a beggar, he kept himself as still as possible, instead simply listening to the armored footsteps of Franclin and Garnisic stomping out to meet the vampires. He could hear Ondernifam’s footsteps as well, of course, but those were a good deal fainter as the orc wasn’t in the habit of wearing boots.
The footsteps continued to fade as they traveled farther and farther out into the slums. By the time they reached Druila’s house, every ounce of his attention was focused on that noise. It was almost impossible to tune out the cacophony of other noises echoing through the city and the slums, but not impossible.
As such, as he sat there, he heard the vampires start speaking. It was far too muffled to understand what they were saying, but it was there nonetheless. He heard the soft scuff of paper as they made the trade, heard the affirmation, and…
And heard something that simply dripped with condescension. That wasn’t good. Only a second later, a loud crash shook the air as a fight broke out.
At that moment, Talfin’s eyes snapped back open. It had happened. Some way, somehow, the vampires and his negotiators had gotten into a fight. Whatever happened, there would be a winner. With luck, Franclin, Garnisic, and Ondernifam would come out on top. On the off-chance they didn’t, though… He needed to be prepared.
Without any further hesitation, he jumped to his feet, spun, and raced through the city. His beggar’s robes fell to the ground, leaving him in the simple robes of a commoner. From there, he simply flew through the cobblestone streets, thankful that they were mostly deserted.
Of course, it was the “mostly” that he was worried about. He rapidly felt himself growing more and more paranoid the further in he got, as every shadow could have been a lurking vampire. Sending Franclin to the meeting, regardless of how the outcome played out, was a statement that Severin wasn’t likely to take lightly. Talfin’s breath came in short gasps as he flew through the city, which he did his best to ignore.
It took only a few short minutes before he arrived at the small apartment in the Sorfloris district that he always kept on hand for a time of need. The small door was boarded over, though the wooden planks collapsed as he screamed out a password that deactivated various spells he had set up. With that, he dove through the door and into a living room that rightly looked as though it hadn’t seen any use in years.
Without hesitating, he grabbed a large chair and pulled it to the side, revealing a large cavity in the wall. Inside… Well, inside was the sword.
His hands closed down over the hilt, and he yanked it out into the moonlight. According to legend, it had been the personal sword of St. Desnuris, forged by the breath of a dragon and blessed by Sorosin himself. Talfin didn’t really know how much of that he believed, but it certainly packed a punch. Ondernifam had found it useful enough rescuing them from the underwater prison. With luck, it would help him now.
“Alright.” Talfin breathed softly and held up the sword. “I’m not a fighter, so you’re going to have to do most of the work. Protect me from the vampires. Get Druila back for me.”
The sword lit up like a bonfire, casting shimmering blasts of light across the room. Talfin jumped back as the light seemed to coalesce and flow across the walls, rippled up across the ceiling, and pooled on the floor.
With a snap, the liquid light all swirled into two whirlpools just in front of him. Talfin took a few more steps back as dark shapes began to rise from the portals. He glanced down at the sword in fear, uncertain of what he might have just summoned. He had been hoping it would just turn him into an incredible fighter, not… Well, whatever was happening.
With a final burst of light, two Sorosin clerics rose into the room. They weren’t clerics that Talfin recognized, though that wasn’t exactly unusual. Both of them opened their mouth in song, paralyzing Talfin in an instant. He collapsed in an instant, the sword falling from his numb fingers. One of the clerics reached down and scooped up the sword while the second one stepped forward and placed a foot on Talfin’s chest.
“So you’re the one who stole the sword.” The cleric hissed softly. Talfin’s fear had spiked through the ceiling by this time, and yet he was helpless to move as the man continued to jeer at him. “I can only assume that you’re the thief and not the buyer. Anyone rich enough to afford purchasing such a valuable artifact should be living like a king.”
The second cleric ceased singing as well, letting Talfin’s body reanimate. His lungs began to heave as he fought to drag air back into his blood. He hadn’t yet regained the ability to speak when the second cleric spoke up.
“Wait a moment. I know you.” The man walked over to Talfin, letting the sword dangle far too close to Talfin’s throat for comfort. “Talfin. You’re with the Court. I should have known it was you.”
“In fairness, it was a pretty clever heist.” Talfin finally regained the use of his vocal cords. “Please, let me borrow it for a few hours longer. I’m in danger. So is someone I love.”
“You should have thought about that before trying to draw upon the divine power of Septhisil.” The cleric remained obstinate. “You also should have thought about that before trying to redirect a hoard of vampires to our sacred caverns.”
Talfin blinked. “Huh?”
“I suppose you may not have thought about the consequences of such an action: Accusing the Ambassador to Indifi of being a vampire and making it seem as though our sacred caverns were a proper haven. Let me tell you this, though.” The cleric leaned close. “You will pay for your crimes, Talfin. I do not extract it here, as I do not have that authority, but you will pay. I assure you of that.”
With that, the two clerics vanished in yet another burst of light, leaving Talfin writhing on the floor. He took a deep breath and slowly scrambled backwards against the wall, desperately fighting against the black pit that seemed more than ready to swallow his mind.
He had failed. Yet again, he had failed. The sword had been his last hope, his last shot at saving himself and Druila from the vampiric hoards.
Now, the vampires were going to come pouring forth… And there was nothing more he could do about it.
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