Kisidera sighed, the motion forcing air through her dead lungs. It was an odd feeling, as her left lung actually did expand, the dried fibers stretching and rasping in protest, while her right lung stayed firmly shut. It rather hurt, in an odd sort of way, and simply added to the number of things that made her desire to just rip her heart from her chest.
Over on the other bed, Sapphire sat in her full sorceress robes, cross-legged and apparently lost in some sort of meditative trance. Probably keeping an eye on everyone else, off doing things.
Oh, and what was that they were doing? Killing vampires. Killing, with prejudice, the same type of creature that she had become. Not looking for a cure, like Paulin had at least promised her that he would do. Not trying to contain them to one of the vampiric countries. No, just killing them. Dusting them, when they got crass. It was sickening.
The only thing keeping her alive was Sapphire’s desire to honor Paulin’s memory, or something. Not Kisidera’s memory. Not because they knew she wasn’t a threat. She simply wanted to be able to please Paulin if he ever did bother to show up again. What kind of a life was that? Everyone considered her a threat, everyone wanted to keep their distance, and yet they wouldn’t let her die. It was like she was some sort of animal at a zoo. Kept at a distance but kept alive. Caged, not released into the wild.
The worst part was that she was beginning to question what she wanted. Up until that point, she wouldn’t have stopped anyone who wanted to kill her, though she also didn’t really have the energy to do the deed herself. Now, though… Now, she wasn’t sure. She just wanted Paulin. She wanted to be free. She wanted to go back to being her old self. She didn’t even care if she was living in luxury or poverty, she didn’t care if she was on the run or holed up in a cave. She just wanted to feel normal. She just wanted to feel like someone actually cared.
On the bed, Sapphire’s eyes snapped open. Without saying a word, she turned and dashed out the door, letting it fall shut with a loud crash. Kisidera sighed and turned her attention back to the ceiling. Well, there went someone else. More peace and quiet.
Of course, now that everyone was gone… She could leave. She could crawl out of the bed, slip into the hall, and run off into the night. No one would ever have to know. She was fairly certain that she could hide her vampirism, at least well enough to avoid detection. She could have a real life. She could meet new people. Carve out a true existence.
Of course, that required effort. Energy. Which Kisidera had none of. After a few long minutes, she turned over onto her side, facing the wall instead of the ceiling. It was the most she had moved in days. Now, she could see an entirely new array of things. A small crack in the mortar. A dead cockroach trapped in a spider’s web. More dust.
She was still laying there when the door finally came crashing back open. She sighed and rolled back over, watching a defeated and destitute group come stomping inside. Sapphire didn’t appear physically worse for wear, though she certainly seemed mentally defeated. Ondernifam, on the other hand, was covered in slices from swords and daggers, though he looked as though he was already healing. Garnisic’s armor was battered and dented, having seemingly taken quite the beating.
Franclin came crashing in just after those three, collapsing on the bed with a muffled whump. His armor hung from his body in tatters. Most of the plates had mostly disconnected from the leather straps that actually held them in place, while many of the enchanted gemstones were missing. His left boot sparked intermittently, showing the floor in glowing embers. Barn was just behind him, appearing much like Sapphire.
Talfin was the last one through, looking perhaps worse than any of the others. He collapsed into a chair near Kisidera’s bed and squeezed his eyes shut. A few tears leaked out and dripped down his scales, and Kisidera sighed.
“I assume that things didn’t go well?”
“What gave you that impression?” Garnisic snorted and started unbuckling his armor.
“Probably the fact that you look like you were rolled down a mountain!” Ondernifam snarled.
“Not the time.” Sapphire sighed and shrugged. “They played us like an organ.”
“So what now?” Barn folded his hands. “What do we do?”
Utter silence answered him. As a cricket started chirping in the closet, Sapphire forced herself to stand upright.
“We have to keep fighting.” She made a fist with her right hand and thrust it upward. “We have to help Druila. We have to stop Severin. We can do this.”
“No, we can’t.” Talfin finally spat. “They have my signature. If I do anything more, they’ll nail me to a wall.”
“Then go back home, crawl in your bed, and stay out of our way.” Sapphire stomped up to him. Fury brimmed on her face. “All you’ve done is held us back. I could have ended this threat by now. I could have marched down into the sewers weeks ago, cast a few fireballs, and Tirinnoufin would be free. Instead, you spent all your time following failed plans.”
Talfin swore and sat up. “My plans were just fine!”
“You don’t even know if they worked or not!” Sapphire screamed back at him. “You just spend your time sitting around, thinking about whether or not they might have-”
Talfin’s eyes snapped open with a fervor. Sapphire took a step back in surprise, and Kisidera felt her heart give a small flutter. Excitement. That was new.
“It worked.” Talfin breathed softly. “Seriously, it worked. The vampires are massing to invade the caves in Indifi!”
Sapphire took a step back and frowned. “How could you possibly know that?”
“The Sorosin clerics!” Talfin exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “I ran into a couple of them just a few minutes ago. Long story, no time. They blamed me for the vampires attacking the caves, which means…”
“Your plan worked.” Barn breathed softly. “That means that our window of opportunity is fairly short.”
“We’d need to move now, yes.” Talfin inclined his head. “Sapphire, do you still have your wagon?”
“Down in the stables, yeah.” Sapphire nodded slowly. “What are you doing? I thought you were against all forms of attack.”
“I was.” Talfin nodded. He puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “Look, Druila means more to me than you could possibly imagine. If she’s been captured, she’ll probably be relocated out of the city. If the vampires are truly making a move against the Indifi cave, she’ll probably be taken there. We have to strike, and we have to do it now.”
“Alright, then.” Sapphire clapped her hands. “I’ll go get the wagon ready.”
“I guess I’ll go grab some food for the trip.” Garnisic sighed and turned, stomping from the room.
“I’ll go make my own preparations.” Talfin straightened up, flashing a brief smile. “We may not have lost this battle yet. Even if Druila isn’t there… I don’t know.” He sighed. “Maybe you guys are right. Maybe I’ve just sat around for far too long. Let’s get out there and slay some vampires.”
With that, people quickly fled from the room, leaving only Kisidera and Franclin there by themselves. The Hunter turned and looked at her, and she met his eyes. With a sigh, both of them flipped onto their backs, staring up at the ceiling.
The calvary was off to war, and they had once again been left behind. Not that Kisidera could truly blame them at all, it just continued to hurt.
And so, she would lay there. Until something changed, until the world fell apart around her, until Paulin came back.
When something changed… Well, she would deal with that when the time came.
Severin screamed in rage, projecting his voice through the cavern. The Sorosin clerics held their ground, their long, thin swords prepped and ready. Five of them, ready for anything he could throw at them. Or at least ready for anything they thought he could throw at them.
“Shall I dispatch the troops?” Horfin stepped up behind him, his voice quiet.
“No.” Severin sneered and pulled a curved scimitar off his belt. “I’ll take this.”
With a smile, he jumped forward, his undead legs launching him across the distance in a single breath of energy. The clerics only had a moment to react before he struck, bringing up their swords in a weak defense. He slammed his sword into their own, driving back the weak, thin blades. The clerics were trained for worship, not combat, and it showed.
He struck down the defense of the first cleric and slashed the scimitar through the man’s neck. As he collapsed, Severin spun, chopping an arm clean off the second cleric. As the man fell to the ground, Severin threw his sword at the third, laughing as the scimitar embedded itself deep within the man’s chest. As the final two clerics ran forward, he emitted a loud shriek, sending a shockwave blasting from his mouth.
The blast struck the men like a wall, driving them backwards a step and cracking several of their bones quite loudly. One of them stumbled and fell to his knees, though the second kept his footing. His sword, however, fell to the ground.
“You’ll never win.” The cleric muttered softly, blood flecking on his lips.
“Oh, I already have.” Severin strode up to the cleric, grabbed the man’s head, and twisted firmly. A loud crack echoed through the air as the cleric fell to the ground. A few brief seconds were spent finishing off the other two clerics who had somehow kept breathing. At the end, Severin felt more alive than he had felt in a long time. Horfin and Druila slowly walked up to him, admiration on at least one of their faces.
“A good show, my lord.” Horfin inclined his head. “Your skills in battle are quite impressive.”
“You were able to take down a handful of third-year trainees.” Druila shrugged. “It was better than average. Not impressive, but passable.”
Severin glared down at the girl. He still wasn’t quite sure why Horfin had brought her back, though they both assured him that it was a good idea.
“And I suppose you can do better?”
Another cleric rushed into view, a sword gripped firmly in his hand. Deep red robes marked him as a trained warrior, one of the combat clerics tasked with defending the faith. Severin took a step back and gestured at the attacker, indicating Druila’s new target.
The dark elf simply raised her left hand. A glowing rune formed in the air just above her palm, a twisting series of interlocking circles. The cleric drew up short, turned, and began scrambling to run away. A beam of pure light subsequently pulsed from Druila’s body, striking the man and vaporizing him in the blink of an eye.
“In case you’re wondering, that’s known as the Divine Light, a spell only capable of being cast by dark elves who have both mastered the use of the tetherion plant and who have at least a minor devotion to the god Firthax.” Druila flashed a small smile. “That’s impressive.”
Severin privately admitted that it was, indeed, quite a spectacle. Outwardly, he shrugged and attempted to remain nonchalant.
“It was decent.” He sighed and gestured at the mess. “Well, we should probably get this cleaned up. Our legions will be arriving here soon enough. From here, we begin our grand march south.”
“I look forward to watching Talfin squirm as he realized that he was unable to prevent his brother from accomplishing anything.” Druila grinned sadistically. “You’re certain that the ‘trade’ went off well?”
“I set it up just as you wanted me to do.” Severin inclined his head. “We’ll receive a document with Talfin swearing loyalty to me, his team will be taken down, and he’ll be left despondent. By the time he can recover, barring unforeseen circumstances, we’ll be long gone.”
“It’s the unforeseen circumstances that I’m worried about.” Druila frowned. “You’re certain that he doesn’t know we’re here?”
“Unless one of the clerics themselves happen to tell him, he’d have no way of knowing.” Severin grinned.
“Fantastic.” Druila smiled. “Oh, it’s going to be nice to see him burn.”
“Indeed.” Severin bent down and pulled his sword from the chest of the dead cleric. He began to wipe the blood off using the man’s own robes, satisfied that they were succeeding. “I’ve spent many years attempting to outwit the slimy fish.”
With that, he sheathed the blade and turned to march away. “Horfin, come with me. I want to finish clearing this location out.”
“And myself?” Druila raised an eyebrow.
“Make yourself at home.” Severin felt a grin breaking across his face. “We have a war to win. Just find a good place to enjoy the show.”
“Here we go!” Sapphire called out as they raced towards the gates of Indifi. The sun was just setting on the horizon off to her right, marking the end of an almost full-day length of time on the run. Magic flowed from the glowing crystal of her staff, rejuvenating the horses with every step it took. They had taken off as soon as Talfin had finally realized that he had done something productive, and had ridden nonstop through the night and into the next day.
As they approached the settlement, Sapphire gazed out across the small city. It looked quite similar to Sodonis, with tiled rooftops and thin walls. Here, further south than she had yet been in Tifingor, carefully curated trees sprang up around the homes, their spindly branches accenting the walls quite fantastically. As shadows overcame the town, lights danced from within the homes, lanternlight filtering through the thin walls and casting their own shadows into the growing mix of darkness.
Of course, the most striking facet of the town had to be the fact that it didn’t have any guards standing at its gate to prevent the group from simply roaring through. Oh, and the enormous pillar of smoke that seemed to be rising from the middle of town.
“Do we have a plan?” Talfin, seated next to her, leaned forward. “Do we just go in swinging swords, or are you planning something a bit more subtle?”
“Oh, we have a plan alright.” Sapphire snapped. “Actually accomplish something for once.” She turned and called back to the people behind her, which, at that moment, consisted of Highsand Barn, Ondernifam, and Garnisic. “If you’re good in a fight, hit as many vampires as you can! I don’t want a single one of these bloodsuckers getting out alive.”
“I’m afraid that I’ll simply be observing the facilities.” Highsand Barn spoke up in an odd tone. “I know this may be a bit of an odd time to bring this up, but I’m afraid that my interest in this particular battle doesn’t actually lie in the participants.”
“Then stay out of my way.” Sapphire shot back. “Final approach!”
As they shot through the city, Sapphire caught glimpses of dozens aqahartis peering out of their homes to watch the strange wagon barrel past. They exploded through the streets, tearing around sharp corners and flying past shops and stores. Almost no one was actually out and about, everyone simply watched from behind the protection of their walls. It was like the whole city had shut down. Meanwhile, the pillar of smoke simply grew taller and broader as they drew closer to the base.
They blew around the final corner in a swirl of dust, and Sapphire finally allowed the horses to slow. In front of her, a small courtyard ordinarily allowed access to the enormous temple compound of the Sorosin clerics. Now, it simply allowed her to see the enormous flames that licked upward from the blazing buildings. Dark figures darted back and forth within the fire and smoke, cloaked vampires and armored city guards alike.
Sapphire leapt from the cart, landing in the center of the courtyard. A few nearby soldiers turned to glance at her in irritation, but none bothered to stop her as she charged forward. Ondernifam landed next to her, unslinging his new battle axe in one smooth motion. Garnisic scrambled forward as well, hammer cocked and raised over his shoulder.
“If it’s undead, take it out.” Sapphire ground out. “Come on!”
She thrust her staff forward, casting a cooling spell. The fires instantly died out across the whole compound, leaving the last few traces of smoke to drift up into the twilight sky. As visibility increased across the area, Sapphire smiled. Guards, obviously lost and disoriented, began to form up in rank. Vampires, on the other hand, began to turn and run, angling towards the center of the compound.
Sapphire raced forward, feet barely even touching the cobblestones. The temple compound was laid out much like the structures in Tirinnoufin, with an outer ring of more structured buildings, filled with pools of water connected by gently curving pathways made from cobblestone and moss. Sapphire cast another cooling spell, freezing the surface of the liquid to run straight across.
Ahead, two vampires paused at a small gondola and drew swords, turning to face her. She thrust her staff forward, flinging sunbursts at the creatures. Both of them exploded into clouds of dust, falling before her magic. Other vampires, who had seemingly paused to do the same thing, simply turned and ran. Sapphire threw more sunbursts after them as well, though she was only able to hit one of the other creatures.
Ahead, all of the vampires seemed to be funneling into the mouth of a small cave that was set amidst the gentle pools of water. Dozens of them jumped in at the same time, before the last of the creatures evaded Sapphire’s blasts of magic and raced inside. Sapphire smiled and raced for the cave, only to pause as she heard Garnisic’s voice calling out from behind her.
Sapphire sighed and spun back, halting her forward progress. Ondernifam leapt past her, still angling for the cave. She turned to call after him, then paused. With a flick of her wrist, a burst of magic leapt from her staff and knocked the orc sideways into a small pool of water. Ondernifam let out a mighty howl as he went under, and she smirked before jogging back to Garnisic.
“What’s going on?” She glanced back and forth between the dwarf and the small cluster of aqahartis clerics that had formed around him. “Something wrong?”
“Sort of.” Garnisic wagged his hand back and forth. “Apparently those caves are sacred to these clerics.”
“Then why has Talfin been so obsessed with them?” Sapphire scowled at the ground.
The clerics around her all flinched, and Sapphire got the odd feeling that Talfin wasn’t exactly the most beloved individual among the ranks of the religious of Tifingor. After a few seconds, one of them spoke carefully.
“Please believe me when I say that we appreciate your help. You’ve already done much for us, but I’m afraid that you simply cannot go underground.”
Sapphire ground her teeth together. She hadn’t been able to fight against the creatures in Tirinnoufin because of Talfin’s orders, and now she couldn’t fight against them due to the clerics’ orders.
“Why did you stop me from my conquest?” Ondernifam roared as he stomped back up to the group.
“Call it Orc: four, Sorceress: four.” Sapphire sighed and mostly ignored Ondernifam. “Why can’t I go down there? They’re probably destroying all your sacred relics, polluting your sacred springs, tearing up your documents, you name it.” She sighed. “I can end this.”
“I can sense your desperation, believe me.” A pink-robed cleric stepped forward and placed a hand on Sapphire’s arm. “You feel as though you always fail, that you cannot protect those you love.”
“I don’t need a character analysis right now.” Sapphire pulled away. “Just tell me how I can help. What I can and can’t do.”
The clerics held her gaze for a few moments before the pink-robed cleric simply inclined his head. “Very well. In answer, it does not matter what evil may have descended into the caves. All evildoers will be purged without harming so much as a drop of ink. I am not worried about the artifacts that we store there, only the people who may be injured by the vampires. And, while my concern is certainly valid, we all pledge our lives to Sorisin and the Pure Spring. To die in defense of such a sacred space is an honor that most of us will not attain.”
Sapphire sighed and ran her hands through her hair. “So you just want me to sit here and wait until your shrine protects itself?”
“I know how it must sound, but yes.” The cleric inclined his head. “Please. You are obviously a mighty warrior. Show your strength in your restraint.”
Sapphire sighed and ground her teeth together. Slowly, she turned back to face the cave entrance. So many vampires, just waiting for her to slay them. If she wasn’t going to be able to do anything, then why did they choose to go after the vampires? Why couldn’t they have started trying to do… Oh… Anything else?
Overhead, stars began to replace the blue sky of the day. Sapphire planted her staff and took a deep breath. She would stand there, and she would be ready. All she wanted to do was help.
Was that really so much to ask?
“Well, that’s sudden.” Barn whistled softly as Sapphire cast a spell that extinguished all the flames across the entire compound. “And you say that you fought against her once?”
“I should point out that she only made her appearance near the end of that particular venture.” Talfin sighed and climbed to his feet, hopping down out of the wagon. He had to admit, it was an impressive feat. He didn’t know if even he would be able to perform such powerful magic. “I also feel I should point out that I offered her a chance at friendship before any of her current companions.”
Barn snorted and climbed down out of the wagon. “Are you trying to convince me that you’re an upstanding man of god?”
“It never hurts to have a handful of good deeds on full display when working with a cleric.” Talfin puffed out his cheeks, surveying the area. “You ready?”
“Not at all.” Barn puffed out his cheeks. “How do we do this?”
“Hold my hand.” Talfin took a deep breath, preparing his vocal cords. “Whatever you do, do not let go. The only reason this is going to work is because everyone is distracted.”
With that, he opened his mouth in a silent song. Invisible waves rippled out through the air, causing both himself and the dwarven cleric to vanish. He quickly strode forward, pulling Barn along across the cobblestone and up into the temple complex.
Absolute chaos reigned as guards and vampires tore back and forth. A few clerics chased after both groups, desperately trying to maintain some semblance of order, but it was a mostly futile gesture. To place the proverbial cherry on top of the cake, the buildings that Talfin needed to access had already burned partway down, making it far easier to bypass the spells that likely coated the doors. They quickly stepped through a gaping hole in a wall and skittered through the now-empty space into the scorched interior.
Talfin had only been inside once before, during the fateful mission where he had stolen the sword that had, until recently, served him quite well. He quickly led Barn through several meditation rooms, a small hallway that had once displayed a large number of astronomical charts, and to an artifact storage room at the exact center of the structure.
As he stepped inside, Talfin was somehow unsurprised to find it more or less untouched by the flames that had ravaged the rest of the building. Large vases, intricate paintings, and other such frivolous, non-magical works of art filled the space. At the exact center, a large rug hid the entrance to the artificial cave systems that were apparently sacred or something.
Of course, at that particular moment, a Sorosin cleric also stood at the center of the room. He had a sword held in either hand, and seemed ready to move at the slightest scuffle. Talfin took just a moment to size the man up. He was small and nimble, likely able to move with some sort of enhanced speed or power. He also had his eyes closed, indicating that he was operating on sound, not sight. Which meant that Talfin didn’t stand much of a chance at all of actually sneaking up to him.
After a few seconds of deliberation, Talfin simply let go of Barn’s hand. The dwarf reappeared in the air, seemingly having just popped into existence. Barn reacted exactly as Talfin would have expected, giving a slight jump of surprise. In response, the Sorosin warrior turned and erupted forward, swords outstretched, ready to slice the dwarf into pieces.
Barn had only a moment to look surprised before the swords came crashing down on his head. Thankfully, Barn’s Elemental protection chose that moment to kick in, creating a force field around the dwarf’s body. The aqahartis’s eyes opened wide in surprise, and Talfin screamed. A piercing blast escaped his lips, creating a shockwave that blasted the cleric off his feet and through a nearby wall. In response, a large part of the building collapsed on top of him, flattening that particular corner of the room and shattering a possibly priceless vase.
“Talfin!” Barn exclaimed. “What… Did you…”
“He’ll be fine.” Talfin’s ears perked as the man began clawing at the wood that now lay on top of him. “We, however, might not be if we can’t get out of here before he gets back on. Come on.”
Talfin raced forward and pulled the rug back with a flourish, revealing the same trap door that he had used all those years earlier. Not particularly worried about being discovered at that point, he screamed down at the wood, causing a portion of it to crumble into dust. The door collapsed, crashing down into a small tunnel of dirt and stone. Talfin jumped down inside, then helped Barn to climb down inside as well.
“What now?” Barn whispered. He glanced back and forth, eyes wide. “Where do we go from here?”
Talfin took a brief moment to survey their surroundings. Several tunnels all seemed to intersect at that point, which was more or less as he remembered. Candles illuminated the area, set in small alcoves that were spaced out every ten feet or so. Two tunnels stretched out towards the center of the compound, while two more went to the left and right and seemed to be sloped down into the ground.
“Take that one.” Talfin pointed off to the right. “It’ll take you to a large cavern where they have their worship services. From there, slide around the wall behind the altar and you’ll find a secret door. Once you go through that, you’ll be in a stairwell that goes deep into the ground. If there’s a controller here, it’ll be down there.”
“Thank you.” Barn inclined his head, then paused. “You aren’t coming?”
“If I had to wager a guess, Sapphire is going to get stuck outside, unable to actually attack.” Talfin flashed a small smile. “I’d like to make sure that Severin doesn’t manage to escape.”
Barn raised an eyebrow. “You think Severin’s here?”
“This many vampires all together, attacking under a common flag?” Talfin shrugged. “If he’s not here, he’s the worst commander in all of known history. Now go. I don’t know how much more time we have.”
Barn gave a short nod, turned and dashed off down the passage. Talfin watched him go, then turned to one of the hallways that led towards the center of the compound. He cloaked himself once more, then stepped back into the shadows afforded by the strange interactions of flickering candle light in the small area.
Only a breath passed before the aqahartis warrior dropped in from above. HIs face was a mask of fury, and Talfin frankly couldn’t blame him in the slightest. In the reverse situation, Talfin would be furious at the intrusion, which just meant that he needed to get rid of the man as soon as possible.
The man tilted his head to the side, listening, then turned and began to run after Barn. Talfin chuckled and took a deep breath. This caused him to momentarily become visible again, which, naturally, allowed the warrior to hear the sharp intake of breath. He spun back to Talfin, ready for battle.
Talfin gave him no such allowance, and spoke in a haunting whisper that cast its magic across the short distance between them. The aqahartis lunged forward, only to have his eyes roll up into his head as he fell asleep. He came crashing down to the floor with a thud, asleep before he stopped rolling. Talfin smirked and turned away, glad to be done with the problem.
That much accomplished, he rushed forward, tearing down the hallway as fast as his feet would take him. He continued cloaking himself through this process, though he was aware that such haste would likely make him detectable to any clerics who happened to be down there. At that moment, though, all he wanted to do was avoid the vampires. Anyone else would likely be busy enough trying to survive that they wouldn’t pay him much attention.
Whether he would have been detected or not soon became a moot point, as he was able to run the entire distance without seeing a single other person. He soon came stumbling up to the end of the tunnel, where the space opened up into a large, open space just underneath the mouth of the primary cave entrance. It was a space that had been hollowed out by the clerics, to allow for some sort of ritual that he neither understood nor cared to understand. Something to do with the tide, if he remembered correctly. It was actually a fairly nice-looking area, with a pathway windinding down from the mouth of the cave around the outer walls in a tight spiral until it reached the floor.
The floor of the cave, of course, was filled with vampires, all of which were staring up at the open entrance. Talfin knelt down as he came into view, maintaining the cloak as well as he could. They all seemed… Shocked? As if they hadn’t been expecting resistance? He could certainly understand not expecting a proper sorceress to show up, but it was a bit unsettling to see them so shaken.
“Alright, people!” A man dressed in court robes swept up the winding pathway, sliding to a position just above everyone else. “I know this isn’t exactly what we planned for, but I’m sure it’s all going to work out!”
The uproar made Talfin’s ears hurt a great deal, and he quickly clapped his hands over the side of his head. As the noise slowly began to die down, the man began to speak once more. Talfin frowned as he finally processed who the man truly was.
Overseer Fen. There was no doubt in his mind, he was staring at the same person he had been tracking for the previous several weeks. What was he doing there? He was far too high in the government to risk in a battle like this. If he was killed, Severin would lose a valuable pawn. Unless…
Unless… A: Severin had other pawns in the government, and B: This wasn’t what Severin was trying to accomplish. He had gotten Talfin’s message, alright, but had arranged a trap for Talfin instead of the other way around.
“I told you it wouldn’t work.” Talfin muttered under his breath, directing the insult at Druila. “This is why we plan things.”
Overhead, Overseer Fen continued to blather on. Talfin let out a sharp whistle, forming a spectral arrow from his voice. The projectile flashed across the room and blew through Fen’s heart, turning him to dust in a mere moment. As the particles of dust fluttered to the ground and the room once more exploded into chaos, Talfin turned and dashed back through the tunnel.
If Severin was planning another attack, he needed to figure out where he needed to be and fast. Severin wasn’t likely to miss an opportunity, and Talfin had just handed him one on a silver platter.
He only hoped that they would be able to survive the resulting carnage.
Barn paused as he raced up to the entrance to the worship grotto. The area was eerily quiet, as though the silence of the gods themselves had descended upon the holy space. He carefully peered around the corner of the doorway, observing an empty space filled with empty pews, lit candles, and sacred statues.
“Gods, forgive me.” Barn made a small gesture over his chest, begging the pardon of those he was about to offend. “Consuming Wave, offer reparation for my sins.”
He was encroaching on a religious space, a space that no one but consecrated Sorosin clerics were supposed to enter. He took a deep breath, then slowly crept out into the room. Fire from the gods failed to consume him, and he let out a short breath.
After a few more seconds of reverence for those who worshipped there, he turned and jogged around the right side of the room as instructed. The altar stood near the front, a large block of stone carved to resemble waves of the sea holding up a flat slab. Behind it, a false wall stood just apart from the rear wall, to allow clerics the ability to store objects necessary for worship without cluttering up the space. He once more paused in silent prayer before skirting behind the wall to find himself standing in a short area filled with tables that held cups, sacred candles… And, most importantly, a large painting.
At any other time, Barn would have run straight past the painting. It was simple, depicting the towering Sorosin above a stormy sea, something that would be almost expected in such a holy place. Now, though, with the knowledge that a hidden door sat somewhere in the area, it practically screamed at Barn to investigate it. He quickly stepped up to the frame and ran his fingers across the intricate woodwork, locating a switch hidden in the carved waves.
With a pop, the painting swung open. Behind it, just as Talfin had predicted, was a stairwell. The stairs were carved into the stone, granite slabs that slowly spiraled down into the ground. Barn took a deep breath and stepped forward, slowly climbing into the secret passageway.
Before he could say another prayer of forgiveness, something stung his neck. He slapped at the irritation, which was likely an insect. Of course, this is when his fingers encountered the small, metal dart lodged in his thick skin. Horror pulsed through his veins, and he spun to find several red-robed figures standing just behind him, sneers etched across their faces.
He wasn’t particularly surprised to find that he had been detected, in fact, he had rather expected it. What was unexpected was the fact that they were very clearly dwarves, not aqahartis. As the world darkened around him, he desperately called out to the Elementals. He needed help. He needed protection!
Unfortunately, the world only continued to spiral into darkness. He fell to his knees, then simply collapsed on the ground as his body began to shut down. A single face leered over him, calling down insults… And then the world went black.
An ever-growing spiderweb. A fly. A fly stuck in the spiderweb. A spider eating the fly that was now stuck in the spiderweb.
Kisidera’s stomach gave a powerful rumble, and she sighed. On the other bed, Franclin sighed as well. Neither had moved since the group had stormed out… Well, whenever that had been.
“I don’t think they’re coming back.” Franclin finally spoke up. “At least not anytime soon.”
“Sure seems like it.” The words felt hollow on Kisera’s lips. “I wonder why.”
“Probably off fighting big battles.” Franclin wheezed.
“Or just enjoying each others’ company now that I’m not around to mess it up.”
There was another long pause, which was subsequently broken by Franclin’s stomach grumbling. Kisidera sighed as the man stirred on the bed. He was about to ask her to get up, wasn’t he?
“You want to get some food?” Franclin slowly sat up, just inside her vision. “It’s been awhile.”
“I know.” Kisidera sighed. “And no, I don’t.”
Franclin frowned down at her. “I don’t think I’ve seen you eat in all my time here. Barn brings me meals every now and then, but not you.”
“I’m a special case.” Kisidera flashed a thin smile. “Call it a curse.”
Franclin didn’t respond, but simply inclined his head. He slowly climbed to his feet, armor clanking. His once-pristine armor now looked mostly broken, marred by scratches and pockmarks. Kisidera winced in sympathy. Once a symbol of great class, it was now broken and blistered.
“What didhappen to you?” Kisidera finally asked as he turned away. He turned back, an odd look on his face, as Kisidera sat up. “Lord Apician hired a Hunter once to clear out a monster that the Filisans dropped behind our walls. He didn’t come cheap. You look like you could be hired for a wooden token.”
Franclin just flashed a small smirk. “Call it a curse.”
For a few seconds, they just stared at each other. Kisidera sighed and flopped back on the bed. She didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay there, stay hidden, and stay out of the way. And yet...
And yet, her team didn’t care about her. Prior to her vampirism, every single one of them other than Paulin would have left her in the dust. She owed them for taking care of her, certainly, but that was it. They didn’t care. There was a chance that Franclin actually did.
Once more, Franclin’s boots started clomping towards the doorway. As he pulled the door aside, Kisidera decided to confess. It might have left her dead, but she had to do something. If she didn’t, she was never going to move again.
“I was turned into a vampire and then my fiance left me.” Kisidera breathed softly. “He said he would come back, but he just ran. The others have been keeping me alive, but only because they’re afraid that he might actually show back up and want to see me.”
The door clicked shut a moment later. Franclin’s face appeared in her vision, a curious but soft gaze on his face. His eyes traced up and down her body before he gave a soft whistle.
“I never even noticed. I am getting sloppy.”
“So are you going to be the one who finally just kills me?” Kisidera held out her hands, palms-up.
Franclin simply looked into her eyes, a small smile playing across his face. It wasn’t a malicious smile, not a sneer nor even a smile of any particular joy. Instead… It was just a smile of comfort.
“I discovered evidence of a secret society that’s probably going to destroy the world and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
Kisidera’s eyes snapped open. “So even if I stay alive-”
“You’re probably just going to die in a few years when they finish amassing their power anyway.” Franclin shrugged. “That about sums it up.”
An odd laugh worked its way up through Kisidera’s throat. When it emerged, it was hardly recognizable as a laugh, but that’s what it truly was. She sighed and sat up slowly, a smile playing across her own lips.
“You know what? That’s honestly the best news I’ve heard in months.”
Franclin chuckled as well, then held out his hand. “Want to get some end-of-the-world lunch? Or whatever meal it happens to be time for?”
Kisidera grabbed his hand as Franclin hauled her to her feet. She shrugged and steadied herself. She wasn’t necessarily weak, but she certainly wasn’t as steady on her feet as she had once been.
“So we’ll go find a murderer or something.” Franclin held up his arm and tapped the armor plates against a nearby wall, where it emitted a number of sparks. “I think the tracking enchantments are still working on this thing. We find a criminal, you eat him, then I pickpocket him and go buy an ale or something with whatever he’s carrying.”
“As a former member of the Apician Family, just hearing that proposition out loud horrifies me.” Kisidera sighed. “As… Me… Let’s do it.”
Franclin flashed a small smile at her before pulling the door open and stumbling out into the hallway. She followed, leaving behind the safety of the room for the first time since their arrival. Together, the two of them made their way through the hallways, down the stairs, and out onto the street. More than a few patrons of the hotel shot them annoyed glances, but they mostly ignored the odd stares.
As they walked out onto the street, they found it nighttime, with the moon sparkling down high overhead. That was fortunate enough. Belatedly, Kisidera realized that they hadn’t exactly had a plan if it had been daylight. Oh, well. It wasn’t a problem, so she wasn’t going to expend a great deal of her mental energy worrying about it.
Instead, the two of them simply set out on a walk. They didn’t have any particular direction, and soon enough found themselves wandering along the shores of the underwater portion of the city. Kisidera slowly walked up to the edge of the liquid, watching the moonlight play across the waves. A warm breeze blew through the area, catching a bit of moisture off the lake and drifting across her body. Franclin stepped up next to her as a mermaid flashed through the liquid nearby, flipping and rolling in the waves.
“You know, some would call this romantic.” Franclin sighed and pointed across the waters, to where a sheer cliff rose high above the surrounding city. Just next to it, the sea-glass-covered royal palace towered high as well, towers and spires reflecting the moonlight peacefully.
“I imagine so.” Kisidera sighed and nodded. “You did hear the part about my being left by my fiance, right?”
“You could also be my grandma if you aged in human years.” Franclin shrugged. “I was just making a comment.” He shrugged and continued to point. “They say that if you dive off that cliff while your true love is watching you, they’ll never again even be able to consider leaving you. It’s used for proposals here quite a bit.”
Kisidera raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you know that fact.”
“I know a lot of random facts. Knowing how to interrupt proposals is always a good tactic to use if the person you’re trying to kill happens to be engaged.” Franclin shrugged and started to turn away. “Now let’s find us someone to take advantage of.”
Kisidera turned to follow him, only to turn back as an enormous screech echoed through the air. Franclin appeared back at her side a mere instant later as dark forms blew through the sky, leaving their dark silhouettes against the carpet of stars. They continued to let out screeches even as they started landing on the top of the cliff.
“Batherals.” Franclin breathed. “That’s not good.”
Kisidera glanced at him to find his face white. “What are batherals?”
A massive explosion erupted upward from the top of the cliff. Fire blazed into the sky as war calls began to pour forth from the abyss that seemed to be opening wide.
Kisidera frowned, then breathed softly. “The vampires. The vampires that the team was going after. They’ve been duped!”
Franclin turned back to her, an eyebrow raised. “You sound concerned.”
Kisidera took a deep breath and nodded in his direction. “So do you.”
Franclin grimaced, then sighed. “This could be really good for you, you know.”
Kisidera frowned. “How so?”
Franclin pointed up at the chaos. “Vampires. A lot of them. If I had to guess, they’re not attacking. They’re just making a big show so that people talk about it as they leave. I bet they’re heading to Glintor or something. If you run, you could be with your own people. Probably actually live out your life. No one would ever need to go.”
Kisidera frowned. “What about you?”
Franclin shrugged. “What about me? I’m a washed-up Dragon Hunter. I don’t have a place in this world. Not anymore.” He took a breath and nodded once more at the billowing clouds of smoke. “Now go. You’ve only got one chance at this. A chance to actually do something with your life.” He flashed a small smile. “I promise, I won’t tell. Just don’t waste it.”
Talfin scowled as he stomped back onto the main courtyard in front of the temple complex. As he gazed back across the area, flames began to rise once more as the wonder trio of Sapphire, Garnisic, and Ondernifam began to lay waste to the confused vampire hoards that were now streaming back up to their doom. The vampire hoards that were being manipulated by his magic. Would he get any of the credit, though? Likely not.
After a few moments of annoyance, he shrugged and glanced back and forth at the area. Carefully, so as not to attract attention, he slid back over to the wagon and climbed up into the back. It took precious little time to cover himself up with a blanket, take a deep breath, and begin his silent song.
A few brief moments passed as the rest of the world fell away. Finally, after entirely too much time, Druila’s voice rose in his inner ears.
“It’s about time you called.”
“What in the Pure Spring are you doing?” Talfin hissed. “I thought the plan was to get you in Severin’s good graces and then make sure he fell into our trap!”
“A plan that is still unfolding.” Druila shot back. “For what it’s worth, do you have any idea how hard it is to keep lying to this guy? He’s good. I’m throwing every trick in the book at him and he’s still almost caught onto me more than once.”
“Just try throwing the book. Or a sword. Maybe it’ll lob off a few of his more critical body parts.” Talfin sighed. “It hasn’t exactly been easy on my end, either. Being a mopy downer isn’t exactly fun.”
“Nor is it particularly fun to watch. However, as I’ve told you a dozen times now, they didn’t know how deep our friendship truly was. You didn’t have to go so extreme.”
“Anything less than perfect opens up room for errors.”
“Did you call to convey information or to complain? Because I’m kind of in the middle of something.” Druila sounded annoyed. “Severin caught wind of our plans to lure him to Indifi. He decided to sacrifice Overseer Fen, whom I can only assume is dead by now, and decided to launch the bulk of his forces from Tirinnoufin itself.”
Talfin’s breath caught. “Launch his forces?”
“At present, thousands of vampires are currently beginning their march south to meet up with ‘Lilith of the Desert.’ I’m doing my best to slow them down, I think I can get them to take up to a month or two to make the journey.”
Talfin’s mind spun. “Even with that much time, there’s no way we can mount enough of a defense to stop them.”
“I would heartily agree. Which is why I decided not to blow my cover.” Druila sounded pleased with herself. “I’m not alone, either. There are a handful of vampires who aren’t particularly pleased with Severin’s leadership. We’ve got a child seeking revenge for the death of her parents, we’ve got spouses who were torn apart, the list goes on. If this continues to brew, with a bit of help from yours truly, we can turn this into a properly explosive situation.”
“That’s why you’re the best.” Talfin grinned.
“You said it, not me.” Druila chuckled. “I’ll contact you with updates as I learn them.”
“Perfect. Stay on target, and I think we’re going to see some absolutely stellar results.” Talfin puffed out his cheeks. After a few seconds, he sighed. “Stay safe, Druila.”
“You too, Talfin. If we come through this alive, I’m taking a room in your house.”
“I’ll have your things from the shack moved in.” Talfin grinned.
“Not necessary.” Druila snickered. “Just burn that sucker to the ground. Do a dance around it if you want.”
Talfin frowned. “I never thought you were a pyromaniac.”
“Every one of us has a few quirks, you know?” Druila chuckled. “Tifingor is about to go up in flames. Seems to me we might as well enjoy the show while it happens.”
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