Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle was sick. No—
Dying. Her father sat by her bed. He had seen it before. He held her hand tightly. Too tightly; he realized he would have snapped a non-Vampire’s bones. He released his grip, but sat there.
Himilt Drakle had seen it before. In children. Adults. They passed like this, if disease or accident didn’t take them. And it was hard to kill a Vampire.
But this—this was how the curse Balmer spoke of took them.
“It hurts. It hurts!”
Serafierre was muttering, half-awake, half-unconscious. She writhed in the bed.
“What hurts, Fierre? What happened?”
Himilt waited, but Fierre was unable to speak. Her face—normally as pale as snow—was flushed. Her body was warm. For a Vampire—that was a fever. More than that, she was in pain.
She had vomited twice. Now—she grabbed at the sheets, shredding them as her fingers became claws. Her strength as she gripped Himilt’s hand was enormous. But whatever she fought, she was helpless. Her father sat there, until he heard from afar the sound of footfalls.
The rest of his family were silent and light-footed. The labored breathing, the voice—Himilt sniffed the air. He knew Ryoka Griffin had entered the old castle that was his family’s home and farm before she burst into the room.
Ryoka Griffin saw her friend lying in the bed, next to her father. Himilt was wearing dark, working clothes, full-body like the rest of his family to protect him from the sun.
Fierre was running a fever and a rash like Colfa’s ran up and down her body. She—cried out as Ryoka caught her breath. His neck was still puffy, the sign of thyroid cancer on Earth. Beyond that—he sat still, his red eyes fixed on his daughter. He barely glanced up at Ryoka as she took in her friend.
This morning, before dawn, Fierre had been full of life as she left the Unmarked Carriage. Now, she was comatose. Not even conscious.
“Colfa found you.”
Himilt looked up and Ryoka felt a chill. The Vampire’s eyes were very cold. He sat still, holding his daughter’s hand.
Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle burst into the room. Ryoka had only gotten here first because Colfa and the other two Vampires, Bamer and Rivel, had been helping her buy potions and alchemical ingredients in Reizmelt.
“What have you done to my daughter?”
The first time Colfa had met Ryoka, she had put on airs, spoken vith the traditional accvent that was quite silly to Ryoka, and played at being Vampiric royalty.
Now—she dropped the accent. She sounded like Lupp, or another [Farmer], which is what she was. A Vampire [Shepherdess]—Colfa had been one of the Lischelle family, who were like royalty among herders and farmers—who had given away her levels and humanity to become a Vampire.
Her pretense was gone, now. Colfa lifted Ryoka up and slammed her into the stone walls of Fierre’s room. Ryoka felt a burst of pain and her head went white as Colfa’s claws dug into her skin, piercing flesh with ease.
The woman’s eyes glowed in the night and candlelight. Ryoka felt the Vampire pressing her into the wall. She could push Ryoka until the Human was paste.
That was a Vampire. Ryoka felt Colfa smack her into the wall and then shake her impatiently, like a doll.
“Well? Answer me! She said you cured her! What did you do? What did you give her—”
“Colfa. She can’t respond.”
Himilt rose. He grabbed his wife’s arm, and she tried to shake him off before she let him pull her back. They moved so fast. Ryoka dropped, stumbling, and caught herself.
“What did you do to her?”
Colfa inhaled. Ryoka gasped for air as Bamer and Rivel returned.
Four Vampires stood in Fierre’s room, over their stricken kin. They looked at Ryoka.
“We brought the medicine, Colfa. Herbs, iceweed—potions. Where do you want them?”
“Put them here. I need to mix them.”
Colfa answered distantly. She was waiting. They all were. Ryoka coughed, gulped. And spoke as she looked at her friend.
“I thought—I thought I cured her. Made her better. Cured her of whatever was making her sick, I mean. I gave her a panacea.”
Rivel snorted. Fierre’s older brother glared suspiciously at Ryoka. Bamer just shook his head. He was old—not related to Fierre. Someone who lived with Himilt, Colfa, Rivel, and Fierre and worked their farm.
“There is no cure. You gave her poison.”
“No! I’m sure it was—she was healthy the last few days! She took the medicine two—three days ago and she was fine. It made her stronger, faster. She said she felt better than she ever had in her life. She was more allergic to garlic though. And the sun nearly killed her—”
The Vampires in the room exchanged a quick glance. Himilt stirred.
“She mentioned that. She tossed you across the field, Rivel. She wasn’t that strong before.”
“Impossible. She was just a bit stronger.”
Fierre’s brother scoffed, but he looked conflicted. Himilt shook his head. He looked at Bamer, then Ryoka.
“She was telling us she fought Golems in this—island she went to. With her bare hands.”
“She did. She was so much better. And her cough disappeared. I thought…what happened?”
Colfa took a few deep breaths as she went to check on Fierre’s temperature. She looked up at Ryoka, her fury abated—at least for the moment.
“Fierre came just before dawn. She said you had given her some strange medicine and she’d been—cured. Of her sickness. She ran about and she was better! We were all astonished. She told us what had happened, some of it, said she’d taken your blood by accident, ate and drank with us, and then—felt poorly.”
Colfa looked at her husband. Himilt scratched at his neck.
“Barely midday. She thought it was exhaustion at first, or the sunlight—it did burn her far worse than us when she was careless. She lay down—when I went to check on her an hour later, she was warm. She got worse and worse until Colfa went to find you.”
The young woman listened, trying to make sense of it all. Bamer scratched at his chin. His eyes flicked to Ryoka again.
“I didn’t believe it. A cure for Vampires? That’s the stuff of stories. I thought she’d just had a strength potion or something that made her feel better.”
“No. It was real. I’m sure of it. I—the person who gave it to me wouldn’t have lied. And he was one of the few people who’d have a cure-all.”
“Who? What was it? Tell us—”
Again, Himilt put a hand out.
“Colfa. Whatever the case, Miss Griffin, Fierre is ill. Do you have more of whatever you gave her? Do you know what ails her?”
“I don’t. She drank it all. Can I—can I touch her?”
Himilt nodded. The others stood back. Ryoka bent over Fierre.
“Fierre? Are you awake? Can you hear me? What happened?”
A groan was her only answer. Fierre’s eyes were open, and sweat beaded her forehead. She looked—Human. She even felt warm to the touch—just a normal person’s body head. But for a Vampire…
“Did she do anything strange? Did she eat or drink anything out of the ordinary?”
Ryoka looked at Fierre’s family. They all shook their heads.
“She did nothing out of the ordinary. We thought it had to be something that had happened on her trip.”
Ryoka could imagine ten thousand scenarios where something in Valeterisa’s trapped mansion caught up with Fierre. But…why not Ryoka as well? It made no sense.
She was panicking, Ryoka knew. She slapped her cheeks.
The facts. Stick to the facts, you idiot. And the facts were—Fierre was sick. She had been cured. And now she was sick.
Something had made her unwell. Find what that was. Ryoka stood up. She looked around, meeting their eyes. Colfa and Himilt’s last.
“I didn’t do this. At least, not on purpose. I was sure what I gave Fierre would help. If I’m wrong, I’ll pay for it. But I don’t think I am. I think something happened to Fierre, when she got here or just before. We need to find out what that is. Cure Fierre, if possible. Have you given her a potion?”
“That was the first thing we tried! I bought what I could in Reizmelt—there are some [Healer]’s remedies that help us.”
“Okay. Okay. Then—can you show me where Fierre was? What she ate and what she did, step by step?”
Rivel glared at Ryoka. The young woman gave him an odd look.
“I need to see exactly what Fierre did. Each and every thing! Any one of those things could be the culprit here.”
It was a logical, orderly way of looking at the problem. Rivel hesitated and Himilt nodded. His eyes focused on Ryoka, searching her like the first time they had met.
“We can do that. I’ll show you around. Bamer—help Colfa. Anything you know, any old stories. Rivel, you stay with Fierre.”
“I still think it’s this ‘cure’. How are you so certain? Do you know what was in this potion?”
It was fair to ask. Ryoka felt flushed, as she looked down at Fierre.
“No. But I am certain.”
“Then who made it? What grade of potion was it? If you have no idea, how can you be so sure? Fierre is a—a Vampire. Not a Human.”
“I know that! But the person who gave it to me was certain it would cure anyone. He gave me a panacea. A relic-class potion. He—it was a Grand Mage of Wistram.”
The others traded looks. Colfa inhaled and exhaled as her eyes flickered.
“How do you kn—would that even—why d—baaaah.”
The ‘baaah’ made Ryoka jump. It hadn’t actually come from Colfa. Rather—just behind her and lower to the ground.
A sheep had wandered into Fierre’s room. A familiar sheep with a luxurious coat.
“Fluffles? Get out! This isn’t the time!”
Ryoka stared at the sheep as Colfa pointed. She forgot that Fierre’s family really were good, local farmers. And that their livestock had a habit of wandering indoors.
Fluffles the Sixth baahed until Colfa pushed him out of the room with her foot. She turned back to Ryoka, but Fluffles had reminded everyone.
“Be sure. I need to mix up a tonic. It—be sure! Himilt, deal with the Human. Bamer, come with me!”
She swept out of the room. Ryoka heard another baaah as the sheep was carried away. She turned to Himilt.
“I—let’s go. I need to know what Fierre did.”
“Are you sure her sickness came from here?”
The father looked at Ryoka. She didn’t.
“No. I need to make a list of everything Fierre did. She was almost never out of sight—we even slept in the same carriage. The carriage, damn. And the island…I’ll make a list. I have paper—no—”
Ryoka cursed again. No paper or quills or ink in her bag of holding! She’d tossed everything out to make room for the magical items she’d taken from Valeterisa’s mansion. The Vampire farmer shook his head.
“We have paper and ink. Come with me. Rivel—shout if Fierre gets worse.”
The two strode from the room. Ryoka was taking deep breaths. Focus. Write it all down. Be logical about this. It’s not bad. She’s just feverish. She’s going to be okay. Focus—
The two strode through the night. Himilt was quick and silent, Ryoka muttering. They saw light flickering through the old keep, distant voices from Colfa and Bamer, the sounds of the awake animals—just Fluffles, really.
Not much sound. House Lischelle-Drakle was silent. Ryoka felt like the living, noisy intruder. She hurried after Himilt as he passed by an open part of the keep, where the hallway’s wall had just—collapsed. Grass and nature had intruded.
Himilt turned. Ryoka was hopping on one foot; she’d stepped on a burr. He eyed her bare feet. Then his head swung around.
“Wait. Someone is coming.”
He held up a hand. Ryoka froze. She didn’t hear or see anything at first. But Himilt’s senses were keen. And soon—she heard galloping hooves.
Figures raced up the road, talking loudly in the distance. Ryoka saw…four. Three people on horseback, one short, another with a glint of metal, and one on foot. Her heart sank.
The Silver Swords and Salamani. They dismounted as Himilt turned to Ryoka.
“The—the Silver Swords. And Salamani, a Courier. They must have followed—”
Ryoka saw Himilt’s face change. His red eyes flickered and he looked around. He spoke one word.
He split from Ryoka as she ran outside, cursing. The complicated night got worse. Ryoka’s friend, a Vampire, lay sick of something. And here came a son of Vampire hunters.
Earlier on the same day Fierre fell sick, Lord Tyrion Veltras was demanding answers of his family’s personal [Healer].
The woman was good. Level 36—the best of the region and a friend of House Veltras. She was especially adept at treating injuries that had been allowed to fester, a necessity for anyone who treated [Warriors].
But she was good at disease, and Tyrion had summoned her without fear when Sammial had fallen ill. He had expected her to pronounce the boy well—maybe with a resurgence of the shortness of breath he’d had when he was young.
Instead—Sammial had fallen into a coma where he struggled for each breath as his airways closed within a day. Something was terribly wrong.
“Lord Veltras. I can’t understand it. No disease outside of a magical one would work this fast. Did your son ingest anything? Touch some plant, for instance?”
The [Lord] turned to Ullim. The [Majordomo] shook his head.
“Lord Sammial stayed indoors all day, milord. Except for one point where he went to market…but I’d swear there was nothing out of the ordinary there.”
“Inquire if anyone was selling some rare item. We must be thorough, Lord Veltras. Your son is breathing, but if he has inhaled or touched something, I must know of it!”
The [Healer] was as close to the scientific method as most people who didn’t have Ryoka’s knowledge. Lord Veltras ordered Ullim and the [Majordomo] sent [Messengers] racing from the keep.
“What is wrong with him, exactly?”
“Closed throat—fever—he’s coughing, which makes it worse. It could be any number of things, Lord Veltras. You must stand back. If it’s infectious…I may need more of my supplies from my shop.”
“I will have whatever you need delivered.”
The [Lord] strode from the room and paced impatiently outside the hallway. He was a man of action. He did not like things like disease, which you could not take a sword to. Tyrion turned on the sixth back-and-forth in front of Sammial’s room.
“Jericha, my horse. I will go to the market and inquire myself.”
He snapped as he saw his aide striding towards him. Jericha, normally quick to anticipate his needs, didn’t nod or hurry off. She just stopped.
Her eyes were wide, and her face pale.
“Lord Veltras. You have a guest.”
Tyrion failed to take notice of her expression at first.
“Inform them I’ll meet whoever it is later. My horse—”
“Lord Veltras. You should meet with this person. She—she claims to be an [Assassin] from the Assassin’s Guild.”
The Lord of House Veltras spun. He reached for his sword and his mind flashed to an obvious connection. He snarled—until Jericha spoke again.
“Milord Tyrion. Forgive me. But…ten minutes before she arrived—Lord Hethon fell ill. He claimed it was a stomachache. I went to secure him after the woman arrived. He isn’t responding.”
Tyrion’s hand found his sword’s hilt as a cold certainty gripped him. He looked at Jericha, and her face.
“The [Healer]. Where is the [Assassin]?”
She told him. Then she yanked the door open to Sammial’s room. Tyrion walked through the halls of his keep.
His sword was drawn. Ullim, running to find him, saw the Lord of House Veltras walking past servants, guards—with one intent.
The [Assassin] was sitting in the first guest room, calm as you please. She looked up as Tyrion burst through the doors. He pointed his sword at her.
“What have you done?”
This hired killer did not come with any disguise or pretense. Ironically—that meant she wore a mask. It was painted a dark green, with only a single rose in the center, and two slits for eyes. She sat in dark clothing, fiddling with a dagger.
“Lord Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns is displeased.”
That was all the woman said. She did not rise, or flinch as Tyrion drew back his blade. The words came curtly from Tyrion’s mouth.
“What poison did you use? Where is the cure? Answer me, or you die this second.”
The masked face turned towards him. This [Assassin]’s voice was cool.
“I do not have the cure for the poison I gave your sons. Both of them, I might add. And if you kill me—one of them dies.”
The [Lord]’s arm tensed. It would be so easy to bring it down. So—he forced the blade away, grabbed for a ring.
“I do not. I poisoned your sons. They will die without the cure. I do not have the cure. And the Circle will exact vengeance if my blood is spilled, or a single hair on my head is harmed.”
Each sentence the woman pronounced made her outline glow true in Tyrion’s vision. He hesitated.
“You know the poison.”
Her mask tilted the other way.
“If you are thinking of having me tortured, Lord Veltras, go ahead. Do you think my employers tell me the nature of the tools I use?”
That was neither lie nor truth. She might know. But—Tyrion hesitated.
If it was someone other than Sammial or Hethon, he might have taken her bet. But his sons. He had promised to keep them safe.
“What have you done? Does your Circle want to die that badly? If my sons die, I will raze your Guild—”
“Sheathe your sword, Lord Veltras. And sit down.”
The woman just stared at him. The [Lord]’s knuckles whitened on his sword hilt. After a moment, he made up his mind. He slammed the sword into its sheathe.
“Tell me why you came.”
She didn’t move. Tyrion’s jaw tightened with a creak.
Ullim and Jericha had returned. Both were armed. Tyrion looked over his shoulder.
“Ullim. Secure Hethon and Sammial. Post every guard you have. Scour the keep for more intruders! Anyone you suspect—check their identities!”
Ullim hurried away. Jericha didn’t leave. She had a wand and sword in hand. She looked at the [Assassin].
“Your servant may remain, Lord Veltras. Sit. Down.”
The [Assassin] didn’t care about Jericha. She just waited until the [Lord] sat. He stared at her, but even if looks could kill—she had warned him.
The [Assassin] did not beat about the bush after Tyrion had sat. She just sat forwards and put her dagger away.
“Lord Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns has elected me as their messenger to bring you a second…offer. Or rather, an exchange. Your son’s lives and your family and your people’s safety for your cooperation.”
“I gave them my answer. I do not deal with traitors of Izril and cowards.”
Tyrion’s voice was taut. The [Assassin] looked at him.
“And here is the Circle’s response. Did you really think you could interfere with their business with no consequences, Lord Veltras?”
He said nothing. The [Assassin] sat back and folded her hands behind her head with a sigh. The effrontery enraged Jericha. She pointed her wand at the [Assassin].
“What do you want? Speak your business!”
“Neither son will die of the poison I gave them today. Or even tomorrow. They may last a week, or a month at the most. But I have never known a full-grown man, Minotaur, or other species to live longer than that. And the cure is beyond your [Healer].”
The [Assassin]’s voice was quiet. Tyrion waited, tense. Now—his nerves were humming.
“I will find a cure.”
“You will try. But you will not succeed. The Circle will not allow you to cure your sons, Lord Veltras. No one will save your sons but our agents. Happily—the Circle is quite reasonable. Your sons need not die. Merely sign this contract I have been entrusted with and they will be healed, within the hour.”
A scroll was produced. Tyrion didn’t move; Jericha snatched it out of the air as the [Assassin] tossed it forwards.
“This is—a Blood Oath Contract? Ridiculous!”
Jericha recoiled. Tyrion knew what she was speaking about—vaguely. It was a grade of magical contract, enforced by blood magic. Extremely difficult to bypass, if at all.
“What does it say, Jericha?”
He hadn’t looked away from the woman. Tyrion was thinking. He heard Jericha read, mutter an oath.
She gulped. Then she read, slowly.
“…It’s a simple contract, Lord Veltras. Without room to change the terms, which demand that you never raise your blade against or oppose the Circle of Thorns or any of their agents. That you fight and command the armies they give you. And you reveal no secret of theirs or their agents, again.”
“Three promises. The Circle would have let you swear a lesser oath and rewarded you for it before, Lord Veltras. Now—this is the terms of your lineage.”
The [Assassin] waited, calmly. She had been chosen to enforce this threat, and she waited to see what the [Lord] did. Rage against her, threaten her pointlessly; if he acted like a fool she had been empowered to punish him.
But Tyrion Veltras did nothing. He just sat there. And when he looked at her, his face was expressionless.
“So that is your threat? The lives of my sons for my obedience, like some leashed dog?”
She hesitated. She had been given to understand that Lord Tyrion’s one weakness was his family. But there was nothing on his face.
“That is the Circle’s ultimatum, Lord Veltras. You may try to find an antidote. But the Circle will—”
Tyrion stood up. He looked at the [Assassin], then towards Jericha.
“See this…woman out of my keep, Jericha. Don’t harm her unless she gives you a reason to.”
“Lord Veltras. The Circle will not be—”
Tyrion strode out of the room. The [Assassin] hesitated as Jericha looked at her. The retainer’s hand clenched the scroll tightly. The female [Assassin] pointed at it.
“I wouldn’t destroy that if I were you. That is your [Lord]’s only chance. Tell him that.”
Jericha hesitated. She raised her wand as she put the scroll in her belt.
“You heard Lord Veltras. Begone.”
The [Assassin] rose. A bit worried. She debated arguing—but Jericha had her orders. And the [Assassin] had given the ultimatum. Briefly, she considered that the Circle might have made a mistake. If Tyrion Veltras was willing to let his sons die, they would have removed their only hold on him.
But if he did hold any affection for them—he would sign the scroll. She was sure either way that Tyrion was calling for [Alchemists] or other experts even now. But this time—the Circle had accounted for that. She left the keep as Hethon and Sammial lay sick. Unaware that in the Circle’s game and designs—there was one last card to play. And that Tyrion Veltras reached for it now.
One card if you were someone who liked card games. An extra die if you played dice. If you played chess…a queen in your back pocket or something?
Analogies were silly things. But it was fair to say it like that. Even the Circle of Thorns, even the plight facing Ryoka and afflicting Fierre—there was an easy solution, a cheap, almost unfair one.
Lord Tyrion didn’t know it—but he reached out to the person who could provide it now. And Ryoka went to the source.
Magnolia Reinhart’s family were famed for their use of poisons and the [Lady] was the most resourceful woman in all of Izril. Ryoka stood by Falene and begged the half-Elf.
“Please. Just send it. Say it’s from Ryoka Griffin and that my friend is hurt. I know he can help. He’ll listen to me.”
“Grand Magus Eldavin. You know Grand Magus Eldavin?”
The half-Elf [Battlemage] was frankly incredulous. She hadn’t been at The Wandering Inn to see the ‘Grand Magus’ in person, but word had spread. Ryoka nodded.
“I…I ran a delivery for him. He doesn’t owe me a favor—not exactly. But he’ll listen. Please.”
Himilt’s head rose slightly. He was standing in his fields, apart from the Silver Swords who had come with Salamani to see what had drawn Ryoka away. Dawil glanced at Ylawes and Salamani blinked.
The pieces came together. For other people. They came to the wrong conclusion for the right reasons.
Fierre’s cure. Ryoka’s strange, Erin-like connections. The rumors about her delivering to the High Passes, the Wyvern bounty.
A Grand Magus. Oh, the misunderstandings. Ryoka was oblivious to it as everyone else put the pieces together and kept their silence, redoubling their interest in the moment.
“Very well, I’m sending the [Message] as follows. ‘To Grand Magus Eldavin, sender: Ryoka Griffin. Urgent…’”
So too from Tyrion Veltras as well, towards Magnolia Reinhart. It was the kind of thing the Circle of Thorns may have understood could happen. They might have figured on Magnolia Reinhart’s interference—even expected it after the assassination attempt.
But a Dragon? Dragons were cheating. On the [Messages] came, two for sickness and answers. They moved through the world at the speed of magic, which could be instantaneous or slow.
Instantaneous in this case. They travelled—and the spells disintegrated. Severed, before they even reached their target. After all—you could trace where a [Message] spell was received. So they never arrived.
“Two more in the interception net. Someone’s trying to trace you. Or me.”
Teriarch raised his head and narrowed his eyes. Magnolia Reinhart stood in his cave.
“Let them send [Messages] after I’m gone, Teriarch. The world will know soon.”
The Dragon lowered his head. He looked at the woman. Even now—she had yet to recover from the shock of it.
Sacra was dead. Her carriage had been attacked on the road, blatantly, and the best [Assassins] of northern Izril had nearly taken her head. The Dragon hesitated. He coughed into one claw.
“So. Ahem, I assume you will be well-protected once you leave my cave? As I said, interference…”
He trailed off. It was hard to make excuses after he had teleported her out of danger. But the [Lady] looked up at her friend.
“I will be safe, Teriarch. Until I arrive in Drake lands—I will be at sea. The Velistrane awaits me in harbor.”
“Hm. Well, that would do it so long as you keep your staff vigilant. Make sure of that, [Maid].”
The Dragon focused on Ressa. The [Maid]-[Assassin] just nodded. Her eyes flicked to the side.
“The primary version is destroyed. Or taken. Whoever took it removed the tracking spells. But your backup is fixed. I…reinforced some of the magic. As for your servant…”
Teriarch scratched at his neck. He looked past Ressa.
A [Butler] stood. Reynold looked down at his legs, his face blank. They were quite different. The Dragon spoke, almost apologetically.
“I didn’t teleport your legs, Human.”
He neglected to mention that he wasn’t about to give the man a potion that could regenerate his legs. That was frankly worth as much as Magnolia’s damn carriage, if not more.
“Lord Dragon, they are exquisite. Thank you.”
Reynold bowed precisely. He did not smile; his face didn’t move. He’d been like that since waking up after being saved. He paused, then looked up.
“I found nothing.”
“We will find them. This is not over, Reynold.”
Magnolia Reinhart stood there. She exhaled. Then she glanced up at Teriarch.
“Old man. Dear friend. It’s time for me to go. I fear I’ve been put on the back foot for now.”
“You—you’re sure you don’t need some help? Not that I’d give it, of course…”
The Dragon saw her smile. The [Lady] shook her head.
“It’s a poor thing to rely on Dragons too much. Someone quite crotchety said that.”
The Dragon exhaled hot air on Magnolia.
“I think it was quite a wise statement. As you wish. You will appear right outside the city gates as if it were a [Lesser Teleport] spell. As I’ve said—be wary of the Walled Cities. They’ve changed.”
“I will, Teriarch. Thank you.”
Magnolia Reinhart nodded. She smiled at Teriarch. He harrumphed once more. But she was right.
There was more that was said. But in the end—the Dragon cast a spell. The three vanished, along with the repaired secondary carriage.
Teriarch lay back down. He was tired. More mentally than physically—but a good deal of the latter himself. He thought about his actions, self-reflecting. Critiquing. Another [Message] spell came and was severed at the root.
Many of them, in fact. Teriarch could see the senders. Not the contents of the [Message], but the mages themselves.
“Some half-Elf…hah. Someone from Invrisil—that [Enchanter] fellow? Drake from Pallass—has to be that young Grimalkin. Wistram, Wistram, Wistram…”
He snorted as the senders found they were sending to nothing and their spells were collapsing. The Dragon sighed.
“I’ve been too active. Or rather, Grand Mage Eldavin has. Yes, too active by far. This is what interfering gets you. Busybodies like flies. Time enough for it to stop. I don’t need this. Time…for isolation.”
Magnolia had made her decision. She was going to the Walled Cities. He had helped her. Now, interest in him was too great. The Dragon prepared to cast a spell. A truly powerful one. He found an [Archmage]’s staff, snorted as he hunted around.
“Where’s that damn book? Let’s see. Staff here, stave there—”
Magical wands and other artifacts floated up like they were lesser components of a spell. The Dragon sighed.
Enough was enough. There were adventurers in the High Passes and while they wouldn’t break through his cave’s barrier that easily—there was a chance. This spell…had only ever been broken once.
“By that damn [Innkeeper]. But there’s a reason for that. Other worlds. Hah! At least those Winter Sprites won’t be getting in.”
The Dragon muttered. Once this spell was cast—nothing would reach him. Not allies. Not enemies. Seclusion absolute.
It was necessary. He was growing attached. Too attached by far. The Brass Dragon hesitated as he cast the magic, setting up the spell. He could leave a little loophole, after all.
For…a [Lady] or her servants. Or a young woman? The Dragon thought about this. He thought about himself. He thought about them.
He thought about how his kind died.
He left no loopholes for others. Only he could end the spell, or a power greater than the spell itself. The Dragon murmured old words of magic. Dozens of artifacts shone as he drew on their power, weaving isolation around him.
It was done. The Dragon lay, panting, as he sealed himself away from the world. No more aid. No more miracles. It had to be done.
He would devote himself to only one thing. The Dragon lay there, sighing, as he flipped open a tiny laptop. He clicked a few buttons. Then saw the screen flicker off.
The laptop shut down. He had no need of it for a while, and keeping it recharged was annoying, even for a Dragon. The other electronics went to a spot in his neatly-organized cave, pride of place, but stored for now.
Teriarch checked his cave one last time. He felt vaguely pleased, as someone who had finally sorted out an incredibly messy room felt upon seeing it brought to order. And of course—he was loathe to go and upset it again.
“No more Izril for a while. No Magnolia—no Griffin. They can take care of themselves. They must. This world neither needs me nor benefits from my interference. They can only rise by themselves.”
The Dragon told himself that. He thought of Ryoka’s grand plans. The Summer Solstice. Drat. He’d forgotten about that! He hesitated.
But it was too late. He’d cast the spell and breaking it would be problematic, even for him. So the Dragon lay there.
His breathing slowed. He rested his head on his claws.
Yes. It was for the best, even if accidental. He’d have delayed casting the spell if he recalled. But sometimes…you had to…let…
Teriarch’s consciousness dwindled. The Dragon’s body slumbered. He never heard Ryoka’s pleas, and Magnolia was in no place to help Tyrion Veltras.
So it was. The Dragon closed his eyes and slept.
Grand Magus Eldavin opened his eyes slowly. He grimaced and felt at his back. It was an odd sensation to him. Lying on your backs. The things other species came up with.
“Let’s see. Body check. Hm. Hmm…”
The old half-Elf got up and stretched. He reached one arm up, experimentally touched his toes and swayed back and forth.
It felt good. Sensation was there, even pain when he poked himself.
No aches and pains. Well, what idiot would make a body for himself possessed by some venereal disease or afflictions? Eldavin felt sharp.
Limited, but sharp. After all, a half-Elf’s brain, however complex couldn’t handle a Dragon’s intellect. Let alone the need to disguise his magic.
Eldavin recalled Teriarch. But—in a while he’d not need to fear referring to himself as a Dragon or Teriarch. That was the danger with really good simulacra spells. You could lose yourself. But—the danger was far less with his body secure.
He did a few hops, nearly tripped over his robes, and cursed. The Grand Magus windmilled his arms, caught himself, and looked around swiftly to see if anyone had noticed. But no one had.
The half-Elf looked around as his eyes adjusted and his mind adjusted to the different way of seeing.
The secret laboratory of the Grand Magus was well-stocked. He’d put a number of lesser artifacts inside, completed the guise with some half-finished spells and some of the 2nd-edition books. He walked about, practicing the motion until it was effortless.
“Mm. Body check complete. Clothing check? Undergarments…yes. Do I wear…? No, brassieres are for females. Usually.”
He snorted. Eldavin scratched at his head, and then flicked his hand.
“Better cast some spell. Can’t have burglars breaking in. Now, if I wanted to go to a harbor—er…”
He was in the High Passes. So…the half-Elf pulled at one lip. North or south? Well, he’d have to make the journey on foot until he could hire transport. What a pain, what a pain.
The Grand Mage cast about with his senses. He felt no connection to his cave. The spell was working. He’d left no loopholes except for himself. And his entire self was right here.
He could have slept. A year ago, he might have. He’d been preparing for it after Erin Solstice had accidentally broken the enchantment last time. But the world had changed in a year.
Eldavin began tossing some things into his bag of holding. Gold, some books for the journey—
“Wrymblood and fire! I should have packed the laptop!”
He shouted as he threw a book down. And it was hidden behind more enchantments than he could break as a pitiful Grand Mage! The half-Elf kicked around his secret home and tripped over his robes again. He picked himself up, swearing.
“—beard. This is fine. I’ll manage. Let’s see. I might as well send a [Message] telling them I’m coming.”
He stood up, grabbed the bag of holding and stormed from the cave. He was leaving. And as Teriarch had concluded—the Dragon was done interfering with Izril.
But that did not mean he had removed himself completely. Grand Magus Eldavin was bound for one place he had not returned to in…well, ages.
Wistram Academy. They were at the center of this phenomenon affecting the world and something had to be done. The Dragon—no, half-Elf—had decided to put his claw—finger on the scales as it were.
“Time to go on a journey. They had better still have that buffet.”
The Grand Magus looked around the laboratory. He adjusted his robes and walked from his cave. Into the High Passes. He scared the living daylights out of a team of adventurers.
“Good day to you.”
Eldavin nodded to them. Todi’s Elites stared at the famed Grand Mage as he walked past them, oblivious. The half-Elf walked on, already getting used to the primitive method of locomotion. He hummed under his breath. It would be a pleasant experience, eating food, speaking, limiting himself this way. Finding company…well, that got old millennia ago. He wanted to see what Wistram was these days.
It was an adventure. The Grand Mage walked on. After a moment, he smiled as he shaded his eyes to look up at the sun. He reflexively cast a few privacy spells as he muttered.
“Reminds me of that movie-thing I saw.”
What was that quote about wizards that Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin kept repeating? Something about arriving? Well, Teriarch had meant what he said to Magnolia. But there was another saying he had.
“A Dragon can do what he damn well pleases.”
He walked onwards, looking ahead. Until he tripped.
There was no aid from Dragons that night. Or in the desperate hours later. Ryoka knelt by her friend. Fierre was feverish. Muttering. She’d rejected the water, gulping it down, spitting it up—along with blood.
Something was wrong. But what? Teriarch wasn’t there to provide an easy answer. Maybe he’d heard Ryoka—but made good on his threat at last. She had been relying on him, going to him as the first resort.
But oh—this once? Ryoka whispered as Fierre groaned with pain.
“I’ve let too many people down before, Fierre. I promise, I’ll find out what’s wrong.”
She rose. Himilt was waiting. Ylawes, Dawil, Falene, and Salamani had no idea what was wrong, but Ryoka had put them on the wrong track—going into Reizmelt to search for clues about a ‘magical disease’ or some poison that Fierre might have run into.
“Let’s make that list, Himilt. I’ll do the carriage—you walk me through Fierre’s day.”
As the night deepened, Ryoka began to search for clues to unravel this mystery. She followed Himilt as he began walking his home with her.
Racing to find what was wrong with her friend with no idea of the time limit or the malady involved.
Ryoka Griffin was at war with time. And time was not her ally. The sun rose too quickly as she worked, night turning into day.
The sun shone down brightly on a tree bordering a forest. A tree like any other.
Like no other. It was a Special Tree. Because it belonged to the one Antinium landowner the world had ever known. He clambered upwards, hopping from branch to branch and landing lightly.
He was a [Skirmisher], and he had a ring that allowed him to leap with ease. Now, he paused on a wide branch and found something.
A bird’s nest. The bird had evacuated the instant it saw the giant insect heading its way, abandoning its young in a shocking display of pragmatism or cowardice. Now, the Antinium’s antennae twitched as he checked the nest and found three eggs.
“Aha. The fruit of the land! A magnificent harvest!”
Ksmvr happily collected the three eggs into his bag of holding and investigated the rest of the tree.
His tree. He even had a deed to it. It was signed by Yvlon Byres, granting him the rights in perpetuity to the tree.
It…probably wasn’t legally binding, but Pisces was stymied from pointing that out by Ceria’s foot, which tended to hit his shins whenever he tried.
Now, the Antinium waved down at Pisces from the tree’s branches. The [Necromancer] waved back as he chewed on some cracked walnuts.
“Pisces, I have obtained a magnificent bounty of goods from my landed estates!”
“Wonders never cease, Ksmvr.”
The [Necromancer] felt Ksmvr land with a thump as the Antinium hopped down. Ksmvr saw Pisces’ snack.
He caught himself.
“Pisces, would you care to enter into a trade agreement for your produce? I have three eggs. I will trade one for your walnuts.”
Pisces thought about this. He handed over half his walnuts and received an egg.
“This trade agreement is struck. I have now concluded diplomacy. I must make war to enlarge my estate.”
At that, Ceria started laughing so hard she nearly fell out of the branches of the tree she’d been lounging in. She caught herself and swung to the ground.
The half-Elf was very nimble in the trees, having grown up in a forest herself. She landed next to Pisces. The descendant of apes had stayed put, thank-you-very-much. He slapped her hand down as she reached for some walnuts.
“Hey! As your captain, I order you to give me your walnuts, Pisces.”
The [Cryomancer] glared at Pisces. He edged away from her radiating cold.
“I respectfully decline.”
“I will give you my walnuts, Captain—I mean, Friend Ceria. And I will give you one egg for some ice cubes. I wish to crunch them.”
“Ooh! An egg! Sure thing, Ksmvr. How’s being a member of the landed gentry treating you?”
The [Skirmisher] stood tall, regarding his tree.
“The burdens weigh heavily, Captain Ceria. I have been plagued by fears of beavers, termites, and other calamities striking my tree last night. Yet I find the rewards to be fruitful. Here is your egg. Thank you for the ice.”
He happily crunched some of the ice cubes Ceria made out of water from her flask in his mandibles. Ceria took the egg, sniffed it, then cracked it and tilted her mouth. She ate the egg raw and saw Pisces grimace.
“What? You’re afraid of raw egg?”
“After the last time we got sick? Yes. And that’s a raw egg, Ceria. Haven’t you heard of frying your food?”
The half-Elf shrugged, licking her fingers. She chewed for a second before replying.
“I used to live in a forest. I ate bugs and raw eggs when I needed food. Er…Ksmvr, I don’t mind, but you know these aren’t cooking eggs? There’s birds in them.”
Pisces turned pale. He shoved the egg back towards Ksmvr, who tilted his head sideways.
“I rather thought the added meat was the increase in value, Ceria. Do you not want your egg, Pisces?”
“No! And here I thought half-Elves were civilized. May we go? I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
Pisces grumbled. Ceria shrugged. They had trooped out here this morning at Ksmvr’s insistence, to check on his personal tree. Now they walked back towards the Byres estates.
“I have a tree! I must exploit it somehow. I wonder if the sap is edible? Perhaps I can entice more birds to settle there. In exchange for the eggs.”
“But Ksmvr, if you eat the eggs, the birds can’t reproduce.”
The Antinium went still. Then he grabbed the two remaining eggs.
“I must return these to the nest! Excuse me! I should not eat my tenants!”
He raced back towards the tree. Ceria looked guilty as Pisces snorted. They saw the Antinium bounding upwards.
“He’s having so much fun with that tree. Don’t you dare tell him the contract’s invalid. Yvlon signed it anyways and her parents don’t care.”
“I just wanted to tell Ksmvr because a [Woodcutter] might fell it quite accidentally.”
“Well—we can ask Yvlon to have it marked or something! Look how happy it makes him!”
The two waved at Ksmvr, who was loudly remitting the unborn offspring back into the custody of the bird. He was…like a kid.
Ksmvr could be quite serious and pragmatic, but when he acted like this, you remembered that he was two—perhaps three—Ksmvr forgot when he was born.
The three Horns of Hammerad strolled back to the small keep surrounded by the moat. House Byres, an old, reduced family who were known for silver and their code of honor. It was something, even if it was a small noble house. After all, all three had adventured with Yvlon for a while and she talked about her heritage seldom.
“So…how hilarious do you think breakfast is going to be? Scale of one to ten?”
“Numbers fail to express the hilarity to me.”
Pisces smiled. He strode along, relaxed. Ceria was just as calm as she swung her skeletal hand up to scratch at her head.
For all intents and purposes, the Horns of Hammerad were on break. There wasn’t much to do in House Byres. Oh, they’d convinced a few Corusdeer to stop attacking a field in one of the rare non-violent encounters the Horns had ever had. They’d even performed a few other tasks with magic—but it was free work. They didn’t ask for money from Yvlon’s people.
“This really is a nice place. Not as developed as some woods, but it’s pretty safe. Not rich, but not poor. It’s…nice.”
Pisces nodded and Ksmvr happily looked around. House Byres was one of those places in the world where you didn’t have to worry about stuff like Rock Crabs wandering about, or was economically poor or interestingly magical.
“No wonder Yvlon wanted to get away from here.”
Pisces commented. Ceria scowled.
“Haven’t I been the model of politeness, despite the clear aversion Lord Byres has for me?”
The [Ice Mage] grunted. Pisces had been rather restrained.
“Keep it up. I don’t get why Yvlon wants to leave so b—good morning, Lady Shallel!”
The half-Elf broke off and waved to the [Lady] who was waving towards them at the opened gates and drawbridge of the keep. Shallel Byres, unusual because her name did not start with ‘Y’, nodded to the three adventurers as they walked across the drawbridge.
“Hello, Miss Ceria. Mister Pisces, and Mister Ksmvr. Breakfast is ready and Yvlon was asking after you.”
All three adventurers brightened. The Horns of Hammerad were united in that they liked food—if anything, it was their fourth member waiting in the dining room, Yvlon, who was the odd one out in that regard.
Certainly, this morning she only poked at her breakfast. Among the items was a boiled egg that Ceria regarded guiltily. But the food was hot, filling, made by a decent [Cook] who found satisfaction in being the personal employee of a minor noble house.
“Good morning to you.”
Yitton Byres sat at the table with his daughter, eating formally with silverware. His nod was a tad uncomfortable; not for Ceria, but rather for Pisces and Ksmvr. It was a tossup which he disliked more, the [Necromancer] or the Antinium. But Pisces had observed that Lord Yitton was unfailingly polite, if as distant as possible.
That was House Byres. Formality, honor, and silver. The [Necromancer] eyed the actual silver silverware. He resisted the urge to pocket a knife or two. He was above that, but he was still sort of tempted.
“I trust you’ve all slept well? And you—ah, Ksmvr—you seem to enjoy your tree?”
Shallel Byres was interesting to Pisces. She was clearly a [Lady]; posture, manners, and a few of her Skills had indicated that. It took a special sort of woman to smile at an Antinium as guilelessly as she did. Or maybe she was genuinely at ease around him, which made her even more unique.
Terandrian accent. Pisces sipped from some milk as Ksmvr spoke about the bird’s nest. When he got to Ceria eating one of his tenants, Yvlon nearly choked on her bite of bread. Yitton and Shallel looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf blushed.
“Er…sorry. I get peckish.”
Pisces nearly snorted milk out his nose at the unintentional pun. Ceria kicked him as hard as she could and his eyes watered up. Shallel had to have observed the slapstick, but she just smiled at Ceria.
“I’m familiar with half-Elf customs, Miss Ceria. You must have been from a more rural village, is that right?”
Ceria blinked with surprise and then smiled.
“That’s right! Well, sort of. I got kicked out so I lived more on the land. Do you know much about half-Elves, Lady Shallel?”
“Mother’s from Terandria, Ceria.”
Yvlon muttered. The first things she’d said all day since greeting her team. She looked…like she was sulking. Which delighted Pisces, frankly. He sat back, enjoying some butter on his bread as he listened.
“That’s right. I grew up in the big cities, but I knew a few half-Elves. As much as any Terandrian Human.”
“Oh right, you mentioned that. Then how did you get to Izril?”
Shallel sighed as Yitton coughed. There was a mischievous look in her eye as she replied.
“Well, I married into money of course! I was the daughter of a very minor noble house. Terandria has a…mm…a group of young [Ladies] whose entire purpose is to earn a large dowry or marry upwards, or to the right sort of gentleman. I’m sure you’re familiar with us, Mister Pisces?”
She directed that to Pisces. The [Necromancer] blinked.
“I am. Er—it seems that your marriage wasn’t entirely motivated by material wealth, though. Most [Ladies] wouldn’t marry outside of Terandria for any amount of gold.”
“True. It was more of mutual affection when I met Yitton. But let’s not pretend I didn’t meet him out of purely romantic reasons. You had better watch out yourself, Pisces. And you, Miss Ceria. Mm…Ksmvr might be immune, but you are all three Gold-ranks. Lovely young men or women will be tossing themselves at you. Ylawes has done well, but Yvlon would delight me if she brought back someone suitable.”
Yvlon turned red, and Yitton coughed. He was a bit red across the ears himself.
“I think we’re drifting off-topic, Shallel.”
“As you like, Yitton.”
The woman smiled. She was far more conversational than the two more formal Byres. Pisces was already delighted at Yvlon’s discomfort so he added to it as best he could.
“I must say, for my part Lady Byres, I’ve been touched by your welcome. I truly feel as though Yvlon is family, and I must respect your willingness to let me, a [Necromancer], under you roof—”
Ceria’s kick this time was audible across the table. Pisces doubled over as Yitton stopped eating and Yvlon covered her face with her metallic hand.
Shallel didn’t blink.
“A teammate of Yvlon’s is not some random stranger, Mister Pisces. I’m told you saved Yvlon’s life multiple times and she speaks highly of you. We couldn’t simply turn away someone like that on the basis of his class, could we?”
It was Pisces’ turn to blush slightly as he rubbed at his leg. Yitton cleared his throat once more, avoiding looking directly at Pisces. He clearly had a different opinion.
“Yvlon’s accomplishments are certainly profound. Slaying an Adult Creler at her age? I can’t name more than a dozen Gold-rank teams who’ve accomplished the same. And as a Silver-rank…that’s the stuff stories are written of.”
“It was just a rank. We were already Gold-rank, father.”
Yvlon blushed as Yitton looked at her. Shallel smiled.
“Nonsense. Ylawes himself hasn’t ever gone up against an Adult Creler. He tells me all the time what an accomplishment it is. You even have a title from Rhir! Hell’s Wardens. You’re far too modest, Yvlon.”
“House Byres will boast about it for generations, certainly. It’s the kind of accomplishment I wish I’d had as a young man. But it’s one thing to dream, another to do it.”
Yitton nodded. He was sparing with Ceria, Ksmvr, and Pisces—speaking mostly to Ceria at the last few meals. But he wasn’t as recalcitrant with his daughter.
The young [Silversteel Armsmistress] herself turned crimson at the praise offered from both parents in front of her team. She shifted in her chair.
“It was a team-effort. Without the other teams—we’d have all died. I was just one adventurer.“
“But you did carve into the Adult Creler’s brain by yourself, Yvlon. I would place your combat contribution near the top, if not instrumental to our victory.”
Ksmvr added at the precisely wrong moment.
“Yes, we can’t overstate your bravery, Yvlon. You even told us all to run.”
Pisces drawled. Yvlon gave him a glare that threatened a punching.
“Not to mention you just lost your arm and you told Pisces to reattach it so you could keep fighting!”
Even Ceria joined in the teasing. Although she went too far—Yitton glanced at his daughter’s arm and Shallel’s smile wavered.
“You were exceptionally brave, Yvlon. Is it wrong to praise courage where we see it? Family or not—valor is valor.”
Yitton Byres nodded and Yvlon’s tomato-qualities increased. It interested Pisces no end.
Obviously, he and Ceria and even Ksmvr had been aware of Yvlon’s reluctance to go home. They’d speculated, but none of them had known quite why Yvlon wanted to avoid her family. And at least part of the answer was now clear: Yvlon’s parents, far from being the distant nobility, were dotingly proud of their daughter’s accomplishments.
More than even Pisces expected. As breakfast wrapped up and the plates were taken away by the few servants, Shallel turned to Yvlon.
“You and your team will have time to talk about all your accomplishments and laud the other contributors to your victory, Yvlon. We’ve asked Lenisa to come by to put your victory to verse.”
“Oh no. Mother—please. We don’t need—”
“Too late! I know how you are with the storytelling, Yvlon, but it’s not about you. The other villages and towns want to hear about your battle in details and I’m sure your teammates would enjoy it! Please send in Lenisa.”
Pisces blinked as an older woman in her late fifties was shown into the room. Lenisa, as it turned out, was a rather flashy woman with a flair for big gestures. She had a hint of dramatis that he respected. And she fit her class.
“I, am a [Storyteller] for House Byres. It is my role, honored adventurers, to put the deeds of Lord Ylawes and Lady Yvlon to verse! And such stories will go to every village and town under the aegis of House Byres—even further! They’ve reached even Invrisil. And I have no doubt that your victory as Silver-rank adventurers over an Adult Creler will be my greatest work yet!”
The woman had notes ready for the taking, and even an [Artist] to take portraits of all the Horns of Hammerad.
Pisces was delighted. Yvlon looked like she wanted to sit in Ksmvr’s tree and hide.
“What? Free advertisements? Yvlon! You didn’t say your parents had hired a [Storyteller] just for us!”
Ceria whispered to her friend. Yvlon gave her a wretched look.
“They didn’t. Lenisa is a family friend. They’ve hired her for every single victory I’ve ever won, starting when I was Bronze-rank.”
“W—really? That sounds great!”
But before Yvlon could elaborate, Lenisa had taken over the dining room.
“We’ll need individual accounts, but please, tell me everything. As many details as you have in you! What the Bloodfields look like, events leading up to the battle—I ah, understand we might need to take some narrative liberties here.”
She glanced at Yitton, and then Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s eyes narrowed.
“About what, pray?”
“Oh, the undead. I understand there was a bone—giant? Some undead…creation utilized in the battle?”
“You mean, the Frostmarrow Behemoth that saved our lives? Yes, Ceria and Pisces conjured it.”
Yvlon replied, glancing at Yitton. He affected not to notice. Lenisa scribbled a note on her parchment.
“Frost and ice? Well, we can emphasize the ice a bit. How about ‘a creation of frost and bone for dire purpose awoketh’…I can workshop that later. Now, Miss Byres, you know how I like to do things! Horns of Hammerad, it is such an honor to make a tale of Lady Yvlon’s comrades!”
The [Storyteller] beamed at the three Gold-rank adventurers and Yvlon. Ceria blinked. There was something—almost scary about how enthusiastically Lenisa said that. Not even a hint of the irony Pisces would have injected into every syllable.
When House Byres’ subjects claimed to love their noble family, they really meant it. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr saw the admiring glances the young [Artist] kept giving Yvlon—as much awe as infatuation—as they gave an accounting of the battle. The Horns became modest almost as a defense mechanism; Lenisa exaggerated everything she heard until modesty helped them reach an almost-accurate truth.
“So…you do this for every battle Yvlon wins?”
“All of the major ones, of course. Why, haven’t you heard any of them? I sent Miss Yvlon the copies—I have everything here if you’d like to look! Here—this is the first story I ever ran, in verse! The Mothbear’s End and Yvlon Byres’ First Quest!”
She showed the Horns of Hammerad a small, bound, illustrated tale recounting a Bronze-rank Yvlon Byres with the Silver Spears slaying a Mothbear plaguing a village in the Byres lands. The illustration had a flowing-haired Yvlon battling a tremendously big Mothbear.
Pisces made a sound. Yvlon closed her eyes as Ksmvr clicked approvingly.
“With an enemy this large, Yvlon was no doubt deserving of at least this much praise! That is the largest Mothbear I have ever seen, nearly half again as large as the average member of its species. It must be fourteen feet tall. For a Bronze-rank adventurer, this is quite a feat.”
“It wasn’t that tall, Ksmvr.”
Yvlon replied in a low voice. Lenisa laughed.
“I exaggerated only a bit, Mister, uh, Mister Kiss-rem-vier. Is that how you pronounce your name?”
“No, not at all.”
Pisces and Ceria exchanged a look. They were enjoying this look into Yvlon’s life. To them, it was hilarious seeing the stoic, often serious member of their group squirm. They saw Shallel smiling as she watched the proceedings.
“When you three have the portraits done, we’ll add them to the gallery. It’s a shame you can’t stay longer or we’d pay for a mage-picture.”
All three adventurers looked up. Yvlon closed her eyes.
Mage-pictures were almost completely-perfect images a [Mage] could capture. They could even move if you paid for them. It was expensive, but even a minor [Lord] could afford them.
House Byres had an entire gallery devoted to their three children. They told a fascinating story to Pisces. For one thing—he stopped finding everything so funny.
It might not be obvious to Shallel, or Yitton, the doting parents they were, or even Lenisa, but if you looked down the gallery, you saw something.
“Yvlon, Ylawes…and this must be Ysara, correct?”
Pisces pointed at the third, unfamiliar girl captured across the stages of her life up to early adulthood. Yvlon moved in one of the mage-pictures, swinging a sword, captured in perpetuity by the [Mage] or [Illusionist] or whomever had drawn the picture out with magic.
“That’s right. Ysara didn’t take to the [Warrior] class although she was the most gifted of the three, frankly. A genius with a sword—but she’s a [Merchant].”
Shallel looked just a hint uncomfortable as she passed by Ysara’s portraits. Indeed—they ended right as she seemed to be in her early twenties. But Ylawes and Yvlon had far more. It seemed that every year, their parents had paid for one picture, even if not a mage-picture.
It told a story. Ylawes was always the dutiful warrior, captured in some warrior’s pose—in later years, with a Griffin’s head, or his teammates, only the last few years being Dawil and Falene. Yvlon—
In her first pictures, she was an enthusiastic girl, swinging a sword with poor posture but energy. Pisces, who had been trained as a [Fencer], had seen Ysara’s almost-perfect form. He had no doubt she had been one of those geniuses you hated to meet on the dueling grounds.
Yvlon though—no. Until she was in her early teens, she was, like the others, practicing swordsmanship. Then—for about four years—she was holding books, smiling but not quite capturing genuine happiness as the mage-artist captured her in more thoughtful poses.
“She got back into her sword training when she was around seventeen. See?”
There the training resumed, but Yvlon’s smile turned more into concentration. Nor—did she turn up with her trophies, monsters slain, like Ysara and Ylawes. Except for one image.
She stood with her sword planted in the dirt next to a Mothbear’s head. A much smaller Mothbear than the illustration indicated. Yvlon didn’t smile, so the artist had made her more somber, reflective.
Pisces was certain Yvlon at that time had not been willing to smile, no matter how much coaxing she’d received. He looked at her now and saw a reflection from the pictures on Yvlon’s face.
“We’re delighted for you to stay as long as you like, Yvlon. Indeed—I hope you’d remain to perform some of the traditional rites. Ylawes has been absent so I put them off, but you’ve returned at a good time. Your companions are much welcomed as well. Miss Springwalker, we have you to thank for helping us build that dam so quickly.”
A while later, after Lenisa had gone away to put the battle with the Adult Creler to verse, Lord Yitton spoke with the others in the parlor.
“It was nothing, Lord Byres.”
Ceria smiled and waved a hand, abashed as he bowed slightly to her. A dam had nearly collapsed and Ceria had helped freeze the entire place up so it could be repaired.
“It is quite gracious of you nonetheless. As I said, your team is welcome to stay or work around House Byres as long as you like, Yvlon. I must ask that you refrain from even practicing with these…undead, however.”
Yitton turned to Pisces, bringing up the incident from yesterday at last. Yvlon frowned.
“It was just one undead bear, father.”
The [Lord] looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s smile was frosty.
“Quite under my control, Lord Byres. There was nothing to worry about. I apologize for alarming one of your people.”
“I quite understand, Mister Pisces. However. My subjects are terrified of the undead. I ask you as Lord of House Byres to not summon such monsters in my lands except at greatest need. I have heard Yvlon’s reassurances that you can control them. Nevertheless, I object personally and morally to their existence, as well as a class that utilizes them.”
The [Lord] met Pisces’ eyes. The [Necromancer] began to sniff, saw Yvlon and Ceria wincing out of the corner of his eyes, and surprised them all by bowing slightly.
“As you will, Lord Byres. Refraining from using my magic is simple enough.”
Yitton nodded to him and that was the second thing he said to Pisces all day. After he had gone, the Horns went for a walk. Yvlon needed it and they wanted to privacy to speak.
House Byres’ lands were nice. Picturesque, in that old knightly-way. You could just imagine some of the people working the fields looking up and seeing a [Knight] on his way to fight some evil monster.
“Ylawes must just fit in here.”
Ceria had been thinking the same thing. Yvlon just shrugged as she kicked around moodily. In the distance, children and people looked up, waving at Yvlon who had to wave back and staring at her arms. Everyone had been in uproar when they’d seen her new arms—but they’d accepted it with startling ease. Perhaps because it was a sign Yvlon Byres had stayed true to her house.
“Silver and steel, huh?”
The half-Elf glanced at Yvlon. The woman nodded.
“Honest as steel, pure as silver. That’s the Byres tradition.”
“Rude as a muddy toad slapping you in the face, you mean. You okay, Pisces? Lord Byres was pretty direct.”
The [Necromancer] shrugged moodily.
“He’s far from the first person I’ve met to hold such beliefs. And he was rather cordial about it; he could have been far ruder. I will live. You on the other hand, look quite unwell, Yvlon.”
He turned to the [Armsmistress]. Yvlon rubbed at her arms, clenching and unclenching her metal hands and staring at them as she did quite often these days.
“I—I’m sorry if I’ve been unsociable, everyone. But I really do want to leave as soon as we can without upsetting my parents.”
The others exchanged a quick glance. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened and closed.
“But why, Yvlon? Your parents seem very nice to me. I have no frame of reference for this statement, but I will make it anyways.”
“It’s—complicated, Ksmvr. Family often is. I like my parents, and Ylawes and Ysara, of course. It’s just that I’m not always at home around them. Do you understand what I mean?”
“No. But this is normal. You are not at home in your home.”
Ksmvr skipped ahead, thinking. The others waited; educating Ksmvr about the world was a full-time job they were all used to. He came back and looked at Yvlon and Ceria and Pisces.
“May I share my interesting observations, please?”
“Go ahead, Ksmvr. This should be quite illuminating.”
Pisces smirked. Ksmvr nodded. He tilted his head one way and then another and then spoke.
“I have never had a family. I was created to lead Antinium and replace Prognugator Klbkch. I was made to die and be replaced. It seems to me that families among other species treasure new life with an excess of value on the young. This is not a bad thing.”
The other’s smiles faded. That was Ksmvr for you. One moment he was childish, the next moment he stabbed you in the gut and let you bleed. Pisces looked at Ceria and Yvlon, at a loss, and it was the half-Elf who reached out.
“Almost right. You have a family now, Ksmvr.”
“Yes you do. And as far as I’m concerned, you could be my little brother. House Byres is your house, Ksmvr.”
Yvlon smiled and squeezed Ksmvr’s shoulder gently. He looked at her, antennae moving with suppressed emotion. He opened and closed his mandibles.
“…May I have two trees?”
Everyone laughed. Yvlon nodded.
“Why don’t you go pick one out?”
“I’ll help if you want, Ksmvr. I know good trees. We can find another bird’s nest.”
Ceria waved at Pisces and Yvlon, mouthing silently. She didn’t say anything specific, but it was more of a ‘I’ll go with him to make sure no one else freaks out or he doesn’t scare someone and have them attack him’, kind of thing. Pisces and Yvlon nodded as Ksmvr and Ceria ran off, babbling about bark or something inane.
The [Necromancer] turned to Yvlon as they strolled along. She grimaced.
“…If I complain, do you promise not to repeat what I said in front of my family?”
“Yvlon, Yvlon. I mock you, but I don’t reveal secrets.”
Pisces tsked, hurt. Yvlon rolled her eyes, but she relaxed a bit.
“Then—what do you think of my family?”
“To quote Ksmvr, they are ‘nice’. Quite proud parents. Very proud. One might say excessively so.”
The blonde-haired woman’s face said it all. Yvlon rubbed at the place where her metal shoulder merged with her skin.
“—If you tell them, or Ylawes, I’ll break your fingers. But I hate it here. You saw that collection of my ‘achievements’? They’ve always been like this. Me, Ysara, Ylawes—they’re so proud. Which is good. I was so happy—until I realized I didn’t deserve it. That Mothbear? Ysara killed an Ogre Chieftain and five Ogres in battle when she was my age. Ylawes fought a Griffin and beat it by himself to save a [Farmer].”
“Achievement isn’t an objective thing.”
Yvlon stopped walking and looked at Pisces.
“You’re telling me that, Pisces? You?”
His lips twisted.
“Very well. Say rather you stood in the shadow of two quite talented older siblings. That isn’t unusual.”
Yvlon ran a hand through her bright hair.
“I know. I know—but it’s been like this all my life. I lived in Ysara’s shadow, and then Ylawes’. His Silver Swords—I copied him, but I was never half as accomplished as he was. And my parents doted on both of us. I felt like I earned nothing properly—especially because I was always Lady Yvlon around here.”
She gestured at her chest, as if she wore the armor she was normally never without. At home she wore just an ordinary set of clothing and looked much smaller without.
“I got my armor and weapons from my family—even for my entire team! So I went south to Celum to actually achieve something. And you know what happened next.”
Pisces nodded. He had seen the covered image near the end of Yvlon’s gallery that Shallel had carefully not brought up. The original Silver Spears. Yvlon had spent a while there when she’d first returned home.
“Well, as you said, family is complicated. I find it all amusing of course—”
“—but when we leave, we needn’t speak of it again except to humiliate you at our convenience.”
Yvlon glowered and raised a fist, but she smiled as Pisces edged away. She looked back at her home and nodded to him.
“I feel like a fool back home, that’s all. What about you, Pisces? You…do you miss your home?”
It was a loaded question. Especially because Yvlon knew a bit. Pisces hesitated. A while back he’d have side-stepped the question or lied. But he was working on keeping secrets. He rolled his shoulders and reached for the rapier he carried.
“Rather a different experience than yours, Yvlon. I was never good enough. Lazy, arrogant, a half-made [Fencer] who embarrassed his father at every turn…I rather feel he disliked me.”
Yvlon’s face changed as Pisces stared ahead. She coughed, and replied slowly.
“—I understand that my complaining wears thin, especially compared to other’s experiences. I’m sorry.”
Pisces sniffed. He hated genuine emotion. He made his tone light and careless.
“Well, I will accept your apology of course, but I rather feel as though I had the better deal of it. My father made it easy to ignore his condemnation. Your parents set the bar of Yvlon Byres’ accomplishments so high it was practically out of reach for the girl herself. That you touched it is worthy of praise.”
Yvlon blinked and eyed Pisces. Her lips quirked.
“Worthy of praise. Thanks.”
The [Necromancer] turned his head away, feeling the slightest of blushes and fighting it.
“You should find Ceria or Ksmvr to utter such praise. Or that [Storyteller], of course.”
Funnily, they understood each other fairly well these days, Yvlon and Pisces. Each of the Horns of Hammerad had their own relationship to each other. Yvlon and Ksmvr’s was as deep as Ceria’s and Pisces’ for instance, but the other connections had unexpected harmony at times. Yvlon looked ahead.
“Tell me more about undead, Pisces. You keep complaining that undead could make House Byres better. How?”
Pisces nearly tripped over a stone. He looked at Yvlon.
“You want me to expound on the undead? Here?”
She gave him a calm look.
“My father’s anti-undead. I’m not. My views on necromancy are different. Remember who fixed up my arms? You keep telling us about Khelt, which uses undead. What—would you make them mine silver or something?”
The [Necromancer] scratched at his messy hair.
“Well, silver is a rare problem. The metal would affect the spells, but I was uh, being more hyperbolic in my ire than anything. The truth is that I’ve seen undead employed as laborers and it isn’t a flawless solution. It would take some work to implement, actually. Previous iterations have failed.”
The [Armsmistress] looked sidelong at her friend.
“Really? Do tell.”
There was no help for it. Pisces sighed. They knew his last name, anyways. Pisces Jealnet, son of nobody famous in particular. He coughed into his sleeve, going back, deciding what to tell and what was still too personal.
“It’s nothing special. You know some of it already. I belonged to a…cabal in Terandria. While I was growing, before I left for Wistram. They were a group of [Necromancers]—and a few other irregulars with similar interests. They taught me necromancy. I ran away from home to join them. I don’t know—I doubt if they are still extant. I have never inquired. Some members may remain.”
Pisces scratched at his head. She didn’t even blink at him having been part of a [Necromancer] cult in Terandria. He almost missed the outrage and shock of the old days.
“We lived in hiding, learning, teaching each other, experimenting. And, well, among other things, we ran a—a sort of commune, you might say. And we even had a farm.”
Yvlon stopped again.
“You. Had a farm. Run by undead?”
She was trying not to laugh. Pisces folded his arms sullenly.
“Is it hard to imagine? Of course, we were emulating Khelt. And Az’kerash, who had created similar places in Terandria before he was reviled. Ours was quite small; only a few hundred undead at most. Undead tilled the fields, performed menial chores, even mined and cut wood. It was an experiment.”
“It sounds like it failed. What was the cause?”
“Wait, let me guess. Infighting? Undead going rampant? No—creating stronger undead by all the death magic?”
She had been listening to his lectures to Ksmvr! Pisces smiled. Then he was embarrassed again.
The blonde-haired woman just stared. Pisces threw up his hands.
“They’d attack the skeletons for bones! It got so that we had to ward the undead and patrol the commune. Zombies started rotting and attracted birds, insects, and so forth—we even lost a Ghoul to the wildlife one time. And the undead would lose their binding spells, wander off, or do something inane like cut down every tree in a ten mile radius until we caught up to it…”
Yvlon started laughing. Ceria and Ksmvr, who came back from finding his second tree, saw the warrior woman doubled over in mirth as Pisces glowered at her. They started laughing too, not even knowing why at first.
Yvlon Byres wiped tears from her eyes when she was done. Pisces was glowering.
“We were all low-level. Our best member was just reaching Level 30 when I left, and he was better at combat, mass-raising undead rather than customization. I could design a far better one now. It might even be useful. But I will desist while I’m on Lord Yitton’s lands.”
Yvlon fell silent. She nodded slowly.
The [Necromancer] sniffed in reply and waved it away. He thought that was that. But the short conversation with Yvlon had clarified how she really felt. In a way—it was a mistake to let her unbottle her feelings. Because ‘you couldn’t put the skeleton back in the flesh suit’, as one of his former [Necromancer] friends had used to say. It came to a tipping point when Lord Yitton wanted them to participate in the first Byres tradition.
“It’s just a minor custom, but House Byres always breaks and shares the first loaf of bread from a harvest among themselves. Yvlon, you should take part. It would honor the village to have a Gold-rank adventurer participate.”
“Not to mention you haven’t been back in nearly two years.”
Shallel added. Yvlon sighed.
“We’re just eating bread, father.”
“It’s traditional and it shows our appreciation.”
Yitton gave his daughter a stern look. Ceria broke in, smiling awkwardly.
“I’d love to come and wouldn’t mind having something to eat, right you guys?”
Ksmvr and Pisces nodded, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Yitton hesitated and glanced at the two. He coughed into a fist.
“—Perhaps it would be best if Yvlon were to come alone. It is a Byres tradition. More frankly—the presence of a [Necromancer] and one of the…Antinium would be disruptive.”
Ah. He was doing it again. Pisces rolled his eyes, but without real rancor; eating bread was only something Ksmvr enjoyed.
“Father. Pisces is part of my team.”
Yvlon’s brows twitched. It was a warning sign to anyone on her team. Shallel gave her husband a similar look.
“I’m sure the Horns of Hammerad would be welcome, Yitton.”
“But this is a traditional meal. The people know about Mister Pisces…they might feel as though the first baking were—unclean. With all due respect, Shallel…”
Pisces saw Yvlon raise one of her metal arms. She brought her fist down on the dining room table. Hard.
The thump made everything on the ancient wood surface jump. And—cracked the table itself.
Yvlon hadn’t meant to do that, Pisces was sure. She and everyone else stared at the impact and crack that had broken the family’s possible heirloom.
Yitton went pale with fury. But Yvlon was already furious. Fury replaced her look of guilt.
“That’s enough, father! If you don’t want Pisces or Ksmvr around, you needn’t ask for me!”
She pushed herself up. Yitton hesitated.
“I am only explaining—”
“You’re insulting him to his face. That’s not honesty. That’s just rudeness! I know you don’t like [Necromancers]. But you could at least try.”
“Yvlon, really. I’m quite used to—”
“Shut up, Pisces.”
He put up his hands and backed away as Yvlon glared at him. She rounded on her father. Yitton looked startled at the confrontational note in his daughter’s voice.
“Yvlon, you’ve seen what [Necromancers] have done. Ylawes’ team has fought any number of them. Shallel told you stories about Az’kerash.”
“And? What does that have to do with my teammate? Not every [Necromancer] is evil, father! Pisces is a friend. He’s saved my life. He is not always honorable. But he has never been evil.”
The Lord of House Byres looked like he wanted to debate that point, but present company made him hesitate. He stiffly inclined his head to his daughter.
“…You have every right to believe that, Yvlon. But the fact remains that any incidents that occur will be your responsibility. Are you prepared for that? I have never seen an undead creation that did not seem to want me dead.”
He looked at Pisces. Yvlon ground her teeth.
“I’m responsible for any accidents that occur? Aren’t we all? If you want to talk about responsibility—what about you marching on Liscor with an army ready to slaughter the Drakes and Gnolls there?”
Ceria, Pisces, and Ksmvr’s head swung back towards Yitton. He hesitated.
“Yvlon. I did what I felt was best for the realm. I did not know you were there. Lord Tyrion’s motives were unknown to us all. On the face of it, we hunted a Goblin Lord.”
“And you did a fine job of slaughtering them.”
“You speak as if that weren’t the point. There was a Goblin Lord, Yvlon.”
“They’re not all monsters!”
Shallel made a sound. Yvlon glared around the table.
“They’re not. I’ve met some of them that spoke and thought and were—more honorable than some [Lords] and [Ladies] I could name! They’re a people. It took me meeting them in person to find that out. But why has no one else in the Byres family ever figured that out?”
Yitton was just shaking his head.
“You sound like Emperor Godart, Yvlon. This—this notion isn’t unique. But I’ve told him exactly what I will tell you: Goblins, individually…may have the ability to reason. They may have honor. But no Goblin King has ever made anything than unrelenting war. Velan was known as Velan the Kind before he broke every vow and forswore his honor to destroy nations.”
“That—may be true.”
Yvlon hesitated. Pisces wasn’t in this debate, but he reflected that Yvlon was arguing uphill. [Necromancers] and Goblins weren’t the best peoples to defend historically.
“The point is that you’re insulting my team! Pisces and Ksmvr because of their species and class! Not who they are! Enough, father.”
“I’m only pointing out dangerous elements in your life as I see it, Yvlon. No Byres in living memory has ever allied with a [Necromancer]. And the Antinium? Have you forgotten your history? Our House rode against the Antinium in both wars!”
At last, Yitton’s voice grew heated. Pisces slowly reached for his bag of snacks. Well now, Lord Byres was finally saying what he really felt.
“So the enemy’s always the enemy? No wonder we can’t make peace with the Drakes! You’re more stubborn than they are!”
“Yvlon! Mind your manners!”
Shallel spoke up, shocked. Yvlon turned her head.
“Why? Should I say how I feel politely? How’s this? I’ve never been more appalled by the slippage of House Byres’ morals when it comes to the hypocrisy I see in giving fellow Humans like Lord Tyrion the benefit of the doubt while castigating Pisces and Ksmvr!”
“That’s enough, young lady. You’re embarrassing yourself in front of our guests and your team.”
Yitton’s voice was cold as he looked at the Horns. Ksmvr waved at him. Yvlon flushed.
“They’ve seen worse! I don’t need to be perfect around them! And I’m not Ylawes, father! I’m starting to think Ysara was right! No wonder she left!”
The [Lord] stood abruptly. He strode from the room without another word.
Shallel got to her feet. She gave Yvlon a look with so many layers Pisces had to catalogue them and then hurried after Yitton.
Yvlon stayed where she was. Pisces saw her pale face turn red in the silence that followed. He chewed on a walnut. As family arguments went—that went right up with his altercations with his father. But he didn’t say that.
“—I think it’s time to go. Sorry you all had to see that.”
The [Armsmistress] muttered. She looked around at her team. She turned.
“Let me grab my things. We’ll just go and—”
“Don’t be silly. You can’t leave now!”
Ceria barred her way. The [Cryomancer] looked just as embarrassed at having Yvlon air her grievances in her presence, but she was firm.
“You can’t just run off. You will regret it, Yvlon. Take it from me.”
The woman looked down at the half-Elf. Ceria pointed towards where Yvlon’s parents had gone.
“You’ll regret it if you don’t talk to them.”
“You—er—you’re speaking from experience?”
Yvlon looked around, ears still red. Pisces shrugged. He’d been quite glad to walk away from his family, but Ceria had a different perspective. She nodded as she tried to turn Yvlon around.
“I ran off after shouting at my parents. I regret that. My parents are still alive…but I wonder if they remember I’m gone.”
“Remember you’re gone?”
The woman was sufficiently distracted by that to abandon her flight. Ceria nodded. She and Ksmvr tugged Yvlon back to the dining table and got her to sit down. Ceria smiled.
“Half-Elf village. Removed from time. They could be doing the same routine and still setting the table expecting me to come in. I’m from the Village of the Spring. Hence the name. Springwalker? There’s Springwaters, Everspring—half-Elves have stupid naming conventions. I…the last time I was there I stormed out and I was kicked out of the village a day later. I never got to say goodbye. You don’t want that.”
“I—I’m sorry, Pisces, Ksmvr. I only meant to get my father to stop insulting you. The rest of that…”
“Why don’t we go for a little walk again? You can speak with your parents in peace.”
Pisces spoke up at last. Yvlon gave him a grateful look and nodded. Pisces put away his snack and motioned with his head. The other two Horns followed him out.
Yvlon sat there, embarrassed, restless, guilty—looking at the cracked dining room table. It would need a [Repair] spell; hopefully the old wood could be fixed with magic. Sometimes, if the damage was too great or the material too advanced, the spell failed…
“Yvlon? Oh, thank goodness. You’re still here. I feared you’d run off like you used to.”
Shallel returned a few minutes later. Yvlon jumped and then colored again. Her mother had returned. The [Lady] walked back towards the table and regarded the damage.
“Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d hit it so hard.”
“Tables are tables, Yvlon. We’ll have a [Mage] come and look at it. Or the [Carpenter]. Old Della is still working.”
“Uh huh. Maybe she can make a brace or something.”
Shallel nodded. She looked at Yvlon and then cleared her throat as she sat back down.
“Your father’s gone for a walk. I think when he returns you’ll both be calm enough to talk.”
Yvlon started. She wondered if Yitton’s walk would have him run into her team. Either way…she nodded and sat there.
“I—I’m sorry for shouting all that. I should have said it to begin with. But there was the banquet and there was never a good moment.”
Her mother smoothed her skirts.
“I think it was overdue. I wish it could have been more tactfully done, but I’m sure Ylawes will want to have one of his ‘one-on-one’ chats with his father in no uncertain terms either. He was quite unhappy in the letter he sent.”
The youngest Byres blinked. She had never heard Ylawes utter anything but praise for her father. Shallel nodded.
“He prefers to express his discontent privately. He’s very much like Yitton that way, Yvlon. Did you think they never argued?”
“I’ve never heard him do it once. Only Ysara—”
Yvlon fell silent, fidgeting with her arms. She ran her fingers over the metal flesh. Shallel sighed. She looked at Yvlon’s changed skin and shook her head.
“I was quite unhappy when I learned about it myself, Yvlon. I spoke to Yitton—but he’s as stubborn as any Byres. He’s had a few changes of opinion, but a [Necromancer] and one of the Antinium was too much for him. Wait. I think he’ll apologize to your team and we’ll see what happens next.”
Yvlon nodded. Her mother had always been the mediator of the family, especially when Ysara was still around. Yvlon rubbed at her arms again, and Shallel noticed.
“There’s a lot we haven’t had time to talk about, Yvlon. Or should I say, that you’ve been reluctant to bring up. Your arms for one.”
The young woman flinched.
“They’re fine. I didn’t want to worry you. That’s why I pretended nothing had happened.”
“Mhm. That’s quite believable.”
Shallel saw her daughter flush again. Yvlon hesitated, bit her lip, and then pointed at her arms.
“They don’t look—unnatural to you? They don’t bother you? Really?”
The [Lady] looked at Yvlon’s arms, inspecting the metallic, silvery gleam of them for a while. She met Yvlon’s eyes and shook her head slowly.
“You’re my daughter, Yvlon. Of course I was shocked. But they’re beautiful. Just like you. I was far more worried when I heard you’d been injured—possibly permanently. This is far better than what Ylawes described, I think. Do they disturb you?”
Yvlon hung her head. Her grievances with her father, the mixed feelings over returning home—and her arms. She spoke, looking around for her team. She hadn’t said this to them. But her mother—Yvlon looked up and nodded.
“I don’t feel Human, mother. I—I was crippled. This is better. But I feel like I’m part-Golem or something. I’m afraid. I feel like I was given my strength! I didn’t earn it—”
“Oh Yvlon. Come here.”
Shallel rose and went over to her daughter. She embraced Yvlon, closing her eyes so Yvlon wouldn’t see her unshed tears. It was Yvlon who needed reassurance.
Coming home was hard. Yvlon stared at the arms that appalled her so much, some nights she couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t told her team that.
When the Horns of Hammerad returned, Yvlon was better. She and Shallel had spoken, frankly at last, and Yvlon felt calmer for it.
Yitton still hadn’t returned, but Yvlon was content to let him wait. She turned to her team.
“I have an idea. Why don’t we do the traditional Byres activities? Father can join us for the bread and some of the other things—but some of the rituals are things I’d normally do alone. Or with my team.”
Shallel nodded approvingly as Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr exchanged looks. The Antinium [Skirmisher] raised one tentative hand.
“What do these rituals consist of, Yvlon? Will our proficiency matter to the success?”
“Not at all, Ksmvr. It’s mostly just old traditions. And—well, it’s vaguely entertaining to do some of them. You get free food a lot of the time. How about it?”
Her team conferred. It sounded like a fine activity to all of them, especially if it helped Yvlon reconcile. So they stood up and followed her as she led them deeper into the keep.
Pisces dawdled a bit to see if he could [Repair] the table, but he concluded the parts needed to be joined as seamlessly as possible and that he might lack the nuance of the spell. He found Yvlon standing at a large door made of, curiously, stone and silver inlays. The crest of her house was etched into the door and it looked like one of the most reinforced parts of the keep.
Yvlon pushed the door open for an answer. Pisces saw a room—mostly empty—where armor, weaponry, and more would have been hung. At the moment—it had enough arms and armor for about two dozen fighters at most. Although—he had to note—the metal was the same silver-steel alloy that Yvlon and Ylawes used.
“The Byres armory. Not much to see, right? This is for the family only; the house guard have a different area. This is our ancestral vault, heritage of all Byres descendants, and so on.”
The woman waved a hand with the vagueness of someone who had seen it a hundred times. Pisces looked around the room.
“Wow. It’s magnificent. And old! Are those historical battles or something?”
Ceria pointed to faded stonework on the walls. Pisces saw traces of paint, but only the etchings themselves had remained, showing battles with [Knights] and other monsters. Yvlon nodded, embarrassed.
“It’s a Byres tradition, writing down our accomplishments. Those were our ancestors, the ones who built the keep.”
“So that’s where your parents get it from! We should hang the Mothbear picture right here!”
Ceria teased. Yvlon shoved her with one arm, smiling. She looked around the room. It really was empty compared to what it could hold.
“You can tell we’ve declined. I used to think this place was so grand—but, well, House Byres is a fraction of how large it was.”
“Don’t you have more members of your House than just your brother and sister?”
Pisces pointed out. Yvlon nodded.
“Oh, sure. Extended family. They live all over the place. You met some of them in the banquet. But we used to be a huge noble house. This was an armory for all our [Warriors]—now it’s only the main family that keeps the tradition of having at least one [Warrior] per generation.”
“Ah. And the armor?”
Yvlon walked over to the sets of glittering armor. It too was a bit of an illusion. The metal was silver and steel, but it wasn’t enchanted—and perhaps only on the same level as your average steel worked by a [Blacksmith]. Locally forged, in short, not a Pelt-masterpiece or something from Pallass’ forges.
“All of our artifacts were sold, or lost their magic over the years. But—we still have this tradition. Silver and steel. Our alloy. Ylawes’ breastplate is made of the stuff. My armor and weapons too. We’re supposed to always keep enough sets of armor and weapons to fight with. In case they’re needed.”
“Ooh. This is quite lovely, Yvlon. I admire the aesthetic beauty of your armor and weaponry. Perhaps not their efficacy in combat, but certainly their luster.”
Ksmvr tested one of the blades on his arm. Yvlon sighed.
“Silver and steel isn’t actually stronger than just steel, Ksmvr. These are specialty weapons and armor. Good for killing—oh, lots of monsters that are mostly dead.”
Pisces frowned. He normally loved to have the answer to that, but he only vaguely recalled the answer. Yvlon shrugged.
“Eh. Some types of monsters are weak against silver. Shape changers, mostly. Ever heard of…Vampires?”
“I have. Er—a bloodsucking monster in antiquity, weren’t they? Mostly based on Izril.”
“That’s right. And House Byres used to slay them. Since they’re dead—we’re no longer needed. Us and a few other houses keep up the traditions, though. I know all the other old slaying families—childhood friends. There’s the Artien House—actually, if we ever pass by, you should meet Delanay. He used to come over to play all the time and his family takes the old traditions even more seriously than father…anyways, here’s the first tradition. The tithe.”
She walked over to something at the far end of the room. It was a pedestal with a bowl under it before some great mural of battle. Pisces, squinting, saw figures on one side with hints of silver paint battling rather bestial figures on the others. He saw fangs, claws—then heard the clink of metal.
Yvlon had pulled out her money pouch. Now, she counted gold coins into the small bowl on the pedestal. She knelt there, then rose, looking embarrassed.
“I suppose father or mother will use it to have a replacement set made—or for repairs. Traditionally—those pledged to House Byres would come by and tithe some of their earnings. So there’s no point to—”
“Shush. Be respectful.”
Ksmvr came before Yvlon and solemnly put some coins in the pedestal. He copied Yvlon, kneeling before the old mural.
“Yes, Yvlon. You are quite ruining the solemnity of the moment.”
It was worth a gold coin to see Yvlon’s face. Even Ceria did the same. Yvlon smacked both their heads with her hand. Not Ksmvr. He was actually serious.
“Fine. If you want to donate to our house, be my guests. That’s the first tradition over with. Second—the cleansing rites.”
“What’s that about?”
Ceria sneezed; the armory was a bit dusty. Yvlon smiled.
“You’ll actually enjoy this. Come on.”
She led them to another spot in the keep. This time, towards a small bathing area. Pisces blinked. Ceria whistled.
The basins of the outdoor tubs and small, natural hot spring were made of silver. They glowed even in the daytime. Yvlon smiled.
“We’re supposed to bathe here for an hour. Right after we arrive, actually.”
“But it’s midday. You mean we take a bath in the sun?”
Ceria squinted up. Yvlon nodded.
“Yep. That’s part of the ritual. Oh—and you have to be naked.”
Pisces looked up. Ceria stared at him and then at Yvlon. The woman coughed.
“In separate areas, Pisces. You go over there.”
That was how they found themselves sitting in the bubbling water, relaxing in the sun. Ceria and Yvlon on one side, Pisces and Ksmvr on the other, blocked by a dividing wall.
“You have ancestral hot springs. In a silver basin.”
Ceria poked at the waters. There was nothing special about them, unlike some magical hot springs she’d heard of, but it was a beautiful place. Yvlon relaxed, her arms shining in the sun along with the rest of the metal that made up this place.
“I used to think everyone had baths like this. A lot of the people in House Byres have silver bathtubs, you know. Heirlooms.”
“Your land is so weird. And obsessed with silver.”
“Tell me about it.”
On the other side of the baths, Pisces was relaxing. Only a bit disappointed by the fact that he was alone. He cracked one eye open as he sighed in the hot waters.
“Ksmvr? You really needn’t get in…”
The Antinium was rocking back and forth, naked—but yet to put one foot in the hot springs.
“I am not afraid of water. Or being cooked alive in my own juices because I cannot regulate my internal body temperature. I am not afraid of water. Or—”
“Maybe just put one foot in the hot springs?”
Pisces suggested. Ksmvr nearly collapsed in relief. He paddled the water with his feet as he sat at the edge of the hot springs and he and Pisces just sat there in silence. Until Ksmvr asked a question.
“It seems Yvlon was quite reluctant to go home because of her family issues. Ceria has family issues. I am given to understand you have family issues.”
“It’s an endemic problem among non-Antinium, Ksmvr. Especially adventurers. We—and I am using the term generally here—don’t tend to get along with families of a more conservative lifestyle.”
Pisces sighed as he leaned back. He could get used to this. Ksmvr nodded a few times.
“Do you wish to visit your family like Ceria, Pisces? I would like to return to the Free Hive someday, but I am excommunicated.”
The [Necromancer] opened his eyes and sat up in the water. He looked at Ksmvr and hesitated.
“I’ve thought of it. Someday, perhaps. Returning home would be dangerous. But there is an allure to it. Still—Terandria is quite a ways away.”
“But you wish to. Then I shall come with you when that day arrives. Even if I must cross…the ocean.”
He shuddered. Pisces smiled.
“That’s far in the future, Ksmvr, even if I should decide to do it.”
“All the more reason to plan ahead, Comrade Pisces.”
The [Necromancer] laughed.
“Well said, Friend Ksmvr!”
On the other side, Ceria and Yvlon wondered what was making the other two laugh. Ceria turned to Yvlon.
“This really is fun. I’m glad we came here, Yvlon. Despite family fighting and all.”
Yvlon nodded slowly. She was feeling better too. This was a good resting point. They hadn’t had many of them; Erin’s inn might count, but ‘restful’ and ‘Erin Solstice’ were a bit hard to reconcile as ideas.
“I think a few more days and we can leave without upsetting my parents. What comes after this? That dead village Pisces wants us to investigate?”
Ceria waved her skeletal hand in the air.
“Maybe. We’ll play it by ear. We’re new Gold-ranks. We have to make a name for ourselves! Let’s just relax. Then we’ll aim for Named Rank.”
Yvlon had to laugh. They’d been Silver-ranks for years and Gold-rank had been an all-consuming passion for them. Now? She relaxed.
“Onwards and upwards, right, Ceria?”
The half-Elf winked at her friend. She frowned at the hot water; her aura was making it lukewarm. She concentrated—and the bubbling resumed. Ceria submerged herself up to her neck.
“We’re adventurers. Let’s go kill something. Right after we do a few more traditional rituals. Is a massage traditional?”
“Not at all. Want me to try?”
Yvlon, eyes still closed, flexed one of her metal hands. The hand turned…spiky. Little metal barbs ready to cut apart anything Yvlon touched. Ceria eyed it.
The sun was shining. The sheep were making happy sounds in the pastures.
Fierre was dying.
Ryoka Griffin sat there, head in her hands, hair spilling down around her face. She looked down at the list of everything Fierre had done, from when she had left Reizmelt and gone with Ryoka to the Archmage’s isle to now. Then she looked at her friend.
Fierre had stopped muttering and thrashing as the sun rose. The room was dark, devoid of sunlight obviously, with only a magical [Light] spell Ryoka had cast for illumination. Now, she just lay there.
But it wasn’t sleep. Her breathing was growing weaker. Ryoka checked her pulse again.
That was all Colfa said. The Vampire mother sat there. She applied ice to Fierre’s head, frozen with a spell. Trying to lower Fierre’s temperature to what should be cold skin for a Vampire. She wiped sweat from Fierre’s brow.
Ryoka’s friend looked so…Human as she lay there. Her eyes were closed, and her hands had been neatly folded. Ryoka wished Colfa hadn’t done that. It seemed like defeat.
“What—what have I missed?”
Colfa glanced at Ryoka. The young woman ran down the list. Colfa reapplied the ice, tried to give Fierre some water.
The Vampire girl had taken some of the sheep’s blood that Fierre’s family lived on, some water—but she was sick, throwing up—and none of the tinctures Colfa had tried to give her daughter had any effect.
Whatever was attacking Fierre—it was getting worse. Now, Ryoka heard Fierre breathing weakly.
“Say it again.”
Ryoka read dully.
“Reizmelt. Djinni’s carriage. Ate magical food and drink with me. Panacea. Struck by sunlight; exposed to garlic. Would any of that—”
Himilt spoke up. The farmer sat there, in his dark clothing, head bowed. Not asleep, but unmoving. Thinking.
“Did she eat the garlic?”
“No. She had a reaction to it—but it was thrown out.”
“Then it wouldn’t affect her. Garlic only causes suffering. I’ve never heard of a Vampire dying of it. Bamer’s stories never mentioned it. Physical sickness, yes. Not this.”
Ryoka made another note on the list.
She knew the answer even as Colfa looked at her. The woman had even tested it.
“Sunlight burns us. If Fierre was…cured…it would have set her ablaze within moments, as you said. But as soon as we return to shadows we begin to heal.”
No point in asking again and again. Ryoka ran down the list.
“She passed over the ocean…she was really seasick.”
“Nothing to do with her heritage.”
Let’s see. Spells, fighting across the isle…nothing out of the ordinary so far. Ryoka bit her lip. Her mind was…fogged. She hadn’t slept since yesterday, before dawn. But she had to focus. Figure it out. She found the next suspicious entry on her list.
“Mirrors in the Archmage’s mansion? Fighting Golems? The—the air that put me to sleep? [Insanity] spells?”
“Nothing like that would do this. Perhaps whatever put you to sleep—but I cannot believe it would have lingered in her body and only affected her now.”
Colfa shook her head. Fierre made a sound and all three started. Ryoka saw Colfa touch her daughter’s head.
“She’s getting warmer. What. Else?”
“Imprisonment. Collecting artifacts, leaving the mansion. Meeting the Archmage. Eating some food—my rations and carrots and bad tea.”
Himilt opened his eyes as Ryoka paused.
“Fierre used to eat raw meat. Bloody. I know a Vampire who ate foul, rotten flesh and never suffered for it. Nothing like that could harm her.”
Ryoka tapped at her lips.
“After that we left…”
She felt like she was missing something. But—it had been an entire day’s journey back to Reizmelt so whatever had happened still had taken a long time.
“When she returned here—Fierre told you what had happened. Tell me if I’m missing anything. She ate in the dining room. Anything unusual?”
“Fluffle’s blood. Two days old. We all had it, though.”
The sheep? Ryoka blinked, but that was why the Lischelle-Drakle family raised their animals. The perfect cover, and apparently the animals didn’t mind the bleeding much. Ryoka bit her lip.
“We had some wine. Fierre was thirsty—the magical food didn’t fill her up, so she had wine and water. Then she took a bath to wash the grime of the road away. She went out with the animals—fought Rivel—”
“Did he injure her?”
Himilt shook his head.
“She threw him across the field. That was when we started to believe. Bamer had us all listening to stories. Colfa was making food for lunch—”
“Oh. And then?”
“Fierre went back to her room, feeling unwell. She lay down—and that’s when she began feeling sick. We thought it was exhaustion so we gave her a stamina potion. Then—a tiny bit of healing potion. But it neither made her better or worse.”
“If it was an infection—”
“We don’t get infections!”
Colfa hissed at Ryoka, baring her teeth. Ryoka flinched. She looked at the woman’s arm.
“But your rash—”
“It’s not from an injury. It’s just…”
The woman trailed off. She looked at Himilt and he spoke. It was the same grim conclusion that Bamer had already come to, that Fierre’s parents believed to be the root of the cause.
Ryoka lowered the notepad. She thought there was something…something she had forgotten. But she needed to know.
“Look. We tested the wine. Rivel’s dead drunk. We tried the blood—”
Bamer had done that. He was full, but completely fine. And everything else couldn’t be tested, except through Ryoka and Salamani who had done exactly what Fierre had in the Unmarked Carriage. Ryoka clenched one hand.
“Tell me about the—the curse afflicting Vampires, please.”
Himilt and Colfa looked at each other slowly. Colfa rose.
“I’m going to see to the…guests. Himilt, tell Ryoka. If Fierre becomes worse—tell me.”
A look flashed between them, so fast Ryoka didn’t understand. But she felt it.
Colfa left the room, to inquire after the only other non-Vampires here. The Silver Swords. They had come back empty-handed with Salamani, and were now dozing. Himilt walked over and sat at Fierre’s bedside.
Ryoka approached Fierre from the other side. She reached out for her friend, felt at her head. Fierre was now warmer than the average Human should be. For a Vampire that was a fever of…Ryoka felt her stomach twisting.
She wasn’t going to die. You didn’t die after being cured! Not on a day like this. Ryoka was going to find the solution. She was going to…
Why hadn’t she found it yet? Ryoka fumbled for a stamina potion, gulped it down. But it could only give her energy, not solve her lack of sleep, her panicking mind.
“What’s the malady, Himilt?”
The father sat there, head bowed. His eyes flickered up to Ryoka and down to his daughter. When he replied, it was in a low voice.
“These are Vampire secrets, Ryoka Griffin.”
“I know, but—”
The eyes moved upwards. Ryoka felt a shock run through her. Colfa had eyes that could mesmerize. Himilt’s held her for a moment, with nothing but force of will.
“For Fierre, I will tell you all our secrets. But what happens next, Ryoka Griffin—for good or ill—will never leave this land. You have brought one of House Byres here. One of our greatest enemies. I am warning you only once. We may resort to—desperation—for Fierre. If he uncovers our secret, he and his entire team will never leave. You will need to keep him away.”
Ryoka gulped. The idea of a farmer killing an entire Gold-rank team and perhaps Salamani as well was ludicrous. Himilt though…four Vampires?
“I’ll do what it takes.”
Himilt only nodded.
“The beginning, then. Bamer could tell you more, but he likes to exaggerate. I know the story my mother and father told me. Once, we were Vampires. The same kind you seem to know about. Powerful, varied—with the ability to change forms, cast magic, command lesser beings. It was said the greatest of us feared only dragonfire and could even stand and defy the sun.”
The City Runner felt a tingle run across her skin, even now. It was like listening to Teriarch speak of his past. Himilt nodded.
“We were legion. But like so many empires, we grew overconfident. Our enemies fought us—and we waged a long war against them. We won and lost—that’s not the point. The true ending was when the sickness, the malady, the curse or whatever it was began.”
He reached for his side, uncorked a flask of water and drank. Just water; not blood. Vampires were not undead. Just biological beings with magic, on a different setting than Humans. They wouldn’t be able to fall sick otherwise. Ryoka wondered…was it an autoimmune disease, like the one she knew from Earth? She glanced at Himilt’s neck. He nodded, touching it.
“One of the symptoms. Colfa has a rash—she became a Vampire late in life. She might outlive us all. Bamer, Rivel, Fierre—they were all born with the signs. Back to the beginning. We lost many powers in the first generations when the sickness became noticeable. We fell ill—and we do not succumb to poison or disease. But we fell ill. Our strength waned, as did the weaknesses of our bodies. Many fell ill at once and died raving of the pain of whatever ailed us. Those who survived—were afflicted.”
“And no cure? Not even one?”
He shook his head.
“Of course not. Everything was attempted. And before you ask—yes. Everything. We did not go into hiding right away. The first Vampires so cursed drank the blood of countless thousands but it availed them little. They turned to magic, alchemy—nothing worked. In six generations—we no longer derived the power from the blood of Izril’s mortals. Within eight generations, the affliction stabilized. We live short lives, but we can at least stand under the sun or touch silver.”
Decipher what it meant. The root of what he was saying was that whatever it was was…hereditary? A disease so powerful that it ate away at Vampires? Yes…it did match a disease. But Ryoka wasn’t certain.
Teriarch was the clue. He had hinted that his panacea would cure Fierre—but not the root of the problem. If she could be reinfected—and why was she worse?
“What about my panacea? I have to believe there was at least one artifact like that. Even if it was rare.”
Himilt paused, and his eyes flickered. Fierre stirred—fell still.
“Yes. Great magics did stave off the illness for a while. But it led to this. Those cured fell ill faster. Something crept up on us.”
This time the chill made Ryoka shudder. She saw Himilt glance at her for a second. Could he sense her beating heart? Ryoka looked down at her list.
“I need to figure out what I’ve forgotten. What I’m missing. How long does Fierre have?”
“I don’t know.”
Ryoka stared at Himilt. She looked at his daughter and felt a surge of anger. She had been racing around and Himilt and the others had been helping her. But as the sun rose and Ryoka’s hypotheses had failed, they had grown silent. Given up.
“Don’t just sit there! We need to act! Fierre can still be saved!”
Again, Himilt’s eyes flashed like blood and Ryoka froze. There was real wrath there. And something else.
“She will be. I am not sitting idly, Ryoka Griffin. If Fierre should grow worse…Colfa is resolved. But I will ensure Fierre does not die.”
Something about the way he said that made Ryoka hesitate. A little light bulb flicked on in her head.
Who had said it? Not the Archmage. The Djinni.
Karsaeu. She had said…Ryoka closed her eyes.
“Royal blood! I could—get some?”
Her eyes snapped open. Himilt blinked.
How far was Riverfarm? No—The Wandering Inn. Did Laken even count? Ryoka whirled back to Fierre.
“Royal blood. Could it—could it bring a Vampire back? Someone—the Djinni—she said that she’d kill Fierre so dead that not even royal blood would bring her back. Does that mean it could revive her?”
The older Vampire blinked. Then—he shook his head. Ryoka’s face fell.
“I don’t know how old this Djinni is. But she’s only half-right. Death is not so easily reversed. The blood of royalty—changes us. But it cannot bring back the dead alone.”
“Oh. Then—what will you do?”
Fierre’s father sat there, stroking his daughter’s hand. He looked down at her with a soft look in his eyes.
“Its easy. If something is killing her—she only needs to grow stronger.”
It took Ryoka only a second to understand why he said it like that. She slowly rose and looked at Himilt’s back. He didn’t turn towards her.
“What—what do you mean by that, Himilt?”
He shook his head slowly.
“Ryoka Griffin, you have no idea what Vampires are. You know the stories. But not the truth. You didn’t make her a true Vampire. You just cured her of her sickness, the same sickness that took away our true power. But strength is sacrifice. If she is a true Vampire—she can grow stronger the one way I know.”
Ryoka should have felt afraid for herself. But she wasn’t. The look Colfa had given Himilt. The way he was acting. The silence from Rivel and Bamer…she whispered her conclusion.
“She has to drink other Vampire’s blood?”
His silence was everything. Ryoka was right, about this, at least. She gulped.
“Fierre said—she told me once she used to have more siblings. But they died. Does that mean…?”
Himilt spun. His fangs were visible as he snapped.
“No. Do you think we fed them to each other? No. It would have done nothing. Vampires as sick as we cannot take each other’s strength. But Fierre. If she is better…”
He fell silent again. Ryoka breathed once more. But then she saw Himilt’s certainty. He believed Ryoka. Colfa didn’t and neither did Bamer, not quite. But Himilt believed Fierre was better. He was going to…
The father looked up at Ryoka. His eyes were red and tired. He shook his head slowly as he sat by Fierre.
“You know so much, when even our foes have forgotten most of what we were. Who are you, stranger? Why did you bring death upon my family?”
The words hit her like an avalanche. Ryoka Griffin stumbled backwards. She saw Mihaela Godfrey looking at her. Krshia. Mrsha—
She had tried to help. Ryoka turned and fled.
The young woman was panting outside, in the sun. Ylawes was exhausted. But he saw her fleeing Fierre’s room, white-faced. Now—Ryoka stood there.
“What—why do they always die?”
She looked up at him. The [Knight] hesitated.
“You can’t blame yourself, Miss Ryoka.”
“I can. Fierre was fine until I tried to help her. I—what am I missing. What happened?”
Ylawes looked around helplessly.
“It’s some kind of magical sickness, as far as I understand it, correct?”
Ryoka didn’t bother correcting him. Ylawes ran a hand through his fair hair.
“It had to have come from Archmage Valeterisa’s isle. I’ve heard stories about her. She—experiments. Salamani went through everything that could have hurt Fierre. But it has to have been something that occurred when he wasn’t with you.”
The man gestured towards the keep.
“He—he’s fallen asleep. He was running to [Alchemists], looking for a cure. Don’t blame him. But Salamani did remember—when you were first brought to the cells, before you woke up, your friend was distraught. She said she attacked you.”
The room of insanity. Ryoka’s head slowly rose. Yes…she recalled that. And—and something else.
Fierre had drank her blood. Not just that. Ryoka shot upright.
“The fucking rats.”
Ylawes blinked. Ryoka whirled.
“I know what it could be! I forgot!”
The green rats Fierre had been snacking on! They had to be—plague rats? Radioactive? Ryoka’s mind was racing a mile a minute. She hesitated, torn—then she raced for the kitchen.
“Colfa! I know what made Fierre sick!”
The woman spun. She was making food for her guests, being the only former Human among her family who had possessed a strong interest in cooking.
“What? Tell me!”
“Rats. Fierre was in the isle. And she ate rats…they might have been poisoned! I bet Valeterisa has damn poison rats or something! Or—it could be me. Fierre. She drank my blood.”
Ryoka babbled an explanation. Colfa’s eyes widened. She glanced over Ryoka’s shoulder; Ylawes was hurrying after them.
“What’s wrong with your blood?”
I’m from another world. Ryoka knew it had to be one or the other. That was the only thing Fierre had imbibed that was out of the ordinary that no one else had!
“We need to figure out which it was. If it was one or the other…”
“We don’t have these rats. Was there something off about them?”
“They were green.”
“Green? And Fierre ate them?”
Colfa was horrified. Ryoka cursed. If only they had…
“Wait. Waitaminute. Ylawes—”
She caught the [Knight] as he peeked in. Ryoka looked around.
“I—think I know what’s wrong with Fierre.”
“Rats. She uh—ate some green rats.”
“What, ate them?”
The [Knight] was horrified. Ryoka nodded rapidly. It was close to the truth! She looked around and turned to Colfa. The mother was eying Ryoka’s neck. She covered her mouth with her hand as she turned to the [Knight].
“Perhaps you can ask about rat-related diseases, Adventurer Ylawes?”
“I’m sure there are hundreds. Let me wake Falene.”
The appalled young man backed away. Ryoka’s mind was spinning.
“I think—I think—Fierre might have saved some rats as a snack. In her bag of holding!”
“That sounds like her. Her bag of holding…follow me.”
Colfa blurred. Ylawes raised his head and stared as she zipped out of the kitchen and down the halls of her keep. She was moving too fast. But neither she nor Ryoka was in the right state of mind.
Fierre’s bag of holding was lying in the bathroom—she’d forgotten to take it with her. Colfa and Ryoka found it after about eight minutes of running around and cursing.
“Let’s see. Artifacts, scrolls, potions—fuck.”
Ryoka grabbed a handful of sludge. Colfa recoiled and held her nose.
“What is that?”
“Fierre threw up into the bag of holding. It’s everywhere. Ugh, ugh…here!”
Ryoka pulled out a green rat, freshly dead and smelling only a bit from the bag of holding. Colfa recoiled.
“She ate that?”
“She said they were tasty. Here—”
Ryoka tried to shove the rat into Colfa’s mouth. The woman slapped Ryoka’s hand down.
“I’ll see what blood it has. But it could be yours, you said? Why did Fierre drain your blood?”
“It was an accident. Here—”
Ryoka fumbled with a knife. She slashed across her wrist. Colfa froze in the act of washing the rat.
Blood ran down Ryoka’s arm. She thrust it at the Vampires.
“Are you mad?”
“I’ll drink a healing potion! Just—”
What would they do if it was Ryoka’s blood? Or the rat? The young woman hesitated, but Colfa looked at her and nodded. She grabbed Ryoka’s arm and lapped up the blood. Then she tore open the rat and bit the flesh.
For a moment she was savage, her teeth tearing apart fur and meat. Ryoka backed away as Colfa’s eyes glowed. She swallowed, wiping at her mouth.
“Ryoka? Falene says she thinks—Ryoka?”
The two women jumped. Ylawes poked his head into the bathroom. He saw Ryoka gulping a healing potion, the bloody dagger in hand.
“Ylawes! This is a bathroom!”
“I’m terribly sorry!”
The [Knight] pulled his head back at once, blushing. Ryoka couldn’t believe the [Knight] would be that…
Ylawes looked Colfa and Ryoka up and down as they left a moment later.
“What happened to your wrist, Ryoka?”
Colfa’s mouth and clothing was free of blood. Ryoka hesitated.
“I—was trying to dissect the rat and slipped. But we think it might be the rat. What—what did Falene find out?”
“A number of diseases. None that match Fierre’s condition yet, but I wanted to ask if you had a rat.”
Ryoka handed Ylawes a spare green rat. He took it in his gauntleted hands, very gingerly, and nodded.
“Let me…give this to Falene. Thank you.”
He looked back just once. At Ryoka’s wrist. She felt trepidation. But then she turned to Colfa.
“It might take a day or two to see if you’re sick, though. Damn, damn—”
“I’m not sick. Nor will I be.”
The Vampire spoke softly. Ryoka looked at her.
“You can’t be sure—”
“I’ve had animal blood before. The rat tasted no different. I’ve drank the blood of rabid animals—and sick ones. I can tell the difference. Unless that [Knight]’s friend can find poison in it—neither you nor the rat were the cause. Your blood tastes different, for that matter. And I have drunk Human blood.”
Ryoka blinked. Colfa was staring at her.
“I…could it make you sick?”
“No. It just tastes different. Believe me—I thought you might be right. But the more I think of it—even if Fierre was eating poisoned rats, so what? Fluffles the Fifth ate a bunch of poison once and we drank his blood. None of us were sick; it just tasted foul.”
Poor Fluffles the Fifth. Ryoka thought that distantly…then her stomach clenched. And her certainty turned to despair once more. Especially when she went to find Falene and the [Battlemage] held up the rat in a leather-gloved hand.
“No poison. It’s just a rat. Why anyone would eat a rat is beyond me, but there you go.”
“I could see eating a rat. I bet Ceria would give it a bite. You too good for rats, Pointy?”
Dawil muttered. Falene glowered at him, but their heart wasn’t in it. The Silver Swords saw Ryoka put her head down.
She’d failed. Ryoka had no more clues left! Only the Unseen Carriage and she was almost certain that Karsaeu wouldn’t have fed Fierre poisoned magic food. What was there left? Ryoka had tried being scientific about it! She’d tried—
“What’s that smell?”
Falene covered her nose. Ryoka raised her head.
“Sorry. It’s uh, puke. Fierre’s bag of holding had…she threw up in…”
She stared at her hand. Then sniffed at the black gunk there. Ylawes and Falene gagged a bit. So did Ryoka. But she stared.
“She threw this up when she took…”
The panacea. Here was something Fierre’s body had rejected. Ryoka remembered the stream of black vomit so clearly. And it was still here, preserved by the bag of holding.
“Look, Miss Griffin. I said a lot of stuff about rats. But if you’re that hungry, I’ll make you some food.”
Dawil looked nervous as Ryoka stared at her hand. But the young woman was muttering.
“…Gotta be a clue. I just need to isolate…microscope. Microscope.”
She looked up. Colfa saw hope reignite in Ryoka’s eyes. She looked around, wildly, galvanized by an idea. Then she stared straight ahead. Ylawes, Dawil, Colfa, all followed her gaze.
Ryoka Griffin stared at Falene. At Falene’s face. At something perched on her nose.
“Falene. I need your glasses. And I need you to cast some spells.”
The half-Elf protectively covered her face. But then Ryoka grabbed for the spectacles and snapped them in half. She needed a microscope. This time—she was certain.
The answer lay before her. Just too small to see.
A microscope was an incredibly powerful tool of the modern age. Also—simple in concept to design. Ryoka didn’t know how to create a high-powered version. But she remember a simple do-it-yourself school project. All you needed was a tube, some black cloth or paper, and two lenses…
And if you couldn’t engineer something perfectly out of a bunch of leaves and sticks, use magic. Falene, after she had been prevented from murdering Ryoka with her bare hands, was incensed.
“You need to magnify your vision? I can do that with a spell! [Farsight]!”
“That’s not what I need. I need way more magnification than this. You—uh—you can [Repair] the glasses, right? I’ll pay for them!”
“I’ll pay for them if they’re that expensive. Come off it, Skystrall. Ryoka, what do you need?”
Ryoka had assembled the crude microscope and was trying to get the lenses to work. Falene made a sound of disgust, but she tapped Ryoka’s temples next to her right eye.
“[Farsight]. How’s that? Your right eye—”
Ryoka’s eye burst into tears at the sudden magnification. It was beyond disorienting—but then she looked through the microscope and blinked.
“I think—I think—[Light]—”
A harsh white light appeared from beneath the sample tray. Which was, in fact, a windowpane upon which Ryoka had heaped a bunch of Fierre’s dried puke. The others crowded around as Ryoka sifted through the black vomit. She had a pair of tweezers used for extracting ticks from the animals and long brush.
“I think it’s working! I can see—”
Tiny particles. No doubt food, gastric acids. Ryoka began sifting through it. She thought…she saw something odd.
“I might need some water. Something to dilute this. And—and a bucket. We can’t throw anything away. But we can isolate different parts, right?”
No one else had any idea what Ryoka was talking about. But even if she dissolved part of the vomit, as long as she kept the liquid, all the components were there. And part of Ryoka…part of her had a suspicion.
“I can get the water. Dawil, let’s haul some up. Where’s your well, Miss Colfa?”
“That way. There’s a bucket there…here. I’ll find more.”
Colfa strode off. Falene pinched at her nose and backed up, muttering about the cost of good spectacles.
All the pieces were there. Ryoka stared at black particles swirling together. She took the water Colfa had on hand and mixed it with a first sample, leaving some for control. But…but now she was perfectly calm. Terrified. But calm.
This time she was certain. The clues were there. She saw it. It was specks of blackness as she washed the dark waters, isolating what wasn’t food or easily dissolvable. Black…but that made sense, didn’t it?
It tarnished. But where did it come from?
“Okay, we broke the first loaf of fresh bread, we exchanged drinks—walked the lands to check for impurity, and made an offering of silver at the shrine-thingy. Weird name. Shrine. Shrine.”
The Horns of Hammerad were still doing traditional Byres activities. Ceria kept sounding out the word; it wasn’t one she was familiar with. Yvlon nodded.
“It’s a rare word. But that’s what we call it.”
“And why an offering of silver?”
Pisces had helped place the nuggets of silver on the little dais. He looked quizzically at Yvlon. She scratched at her head, smiling a bit.
“That was for the Silver Dragon, Yderigrisel. If you can believe it.”
The Horns smacked into each other as they all stopped.
Ceria stared back at the overgrown shrine. Yvlon shrugged.
“It’s an ancient pact. Tradition at this point. House Byres used to be friends with a Dragon. But it died millennia ago. There’s a ‘legend’ that says Yderigrisel will come back in our hour of need. But uh—it won’t.”
“Why are you so certain? This is amazing!”
Ceria was astounded. Yvlon smiled sadly. She shook her head.
“We’re certain because it came back already. During the Creler wars. Yderigrisel came back to fight the Crelers—and died. The greatest tragedy of House Byres.”
The others fell silent, digesting this. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles, wondering if he should bring up other, living Dragons. Or at least, one. But he felt that was rude to the memory of this one.
The others walked on as Yvlon led them forwards. Ceria shook her head. Their day had been all these traditions, most of which had been, as Yvlon put it, mildly entertaining.
“You have so much history. Half-Elf villages are older than most Human lineages, even some kingdoms. But we do the same thing for thousands of years. I used to live in a cottage over two thousand years old, you know. It kept being repaired and the wood regrown.”
“Why the past tense?”
Pisces kept glancing back at the silver. If the Dragon was dead…he had a project for a silver skeleton in mind. Ceria flushed.
“I uh, burned it down when I started learning magic. It was one of the reasons I got kicked out of my village. But let’s not talk about that. What’s next, Yvlon?”
“Uh…just one or two more things. Let’s see. Follow me.”
Yvlon led her team forwards. Towards the keep. And a small structure.
“What’re you doing, lad? More of your old family’s rituals? This isn’t the time.”
“It’s good luck, Dawil. Here—let’s get the water.”
The son of House Byres paused next to the well and fumbled for his bag of holding. Dawil frowned.
“Oh, you were doing that in Reizmelt. That…what do you call it again?”
“I’ve done this at least fifty times, Dawil. Try to remember. It’s called—”
“Well seeding. It won’t take long. Father and Ylawes do it all the time—Ylawes even does it when he goes around Izril. It’s all ceremony, old ties with the cities and all that.”
Yvlon had a small bag in her hand. She had to borrow it from the keep. Pisces peered at it.
“What is that?”
“Silver dust. You toss a bit into each well. A tiny bit.”
Yvlon stopped Pisces.
“Too much is bad. Turns your skin blue-grey. My great aunt died of it. We know all about silver poisoning. Just a tiny bit. You do it at every well you come to.”
Ceria scratched at her head. Yvlon gave her a blank shrug.
“Tradition. It’s supposed to bring good luck, ward the land, and so on. I guess it’d scare away some monsters. Not Crelers, but…okay, we’re done. Who wants snacks?”
They walked off. Pisces felt like the moment had been significant for some reason.
“I have never heard of this tradition, Yvlon. How long has your family been doing it?”
“Oh, as long as I can remember. We’re not supposed to talk about it. We have lots of stuff like that. For instance—we can never hold a gathering of the family at night or under a roof. We have to always meet in the sun. And nude sunbathing is encouraged. There’s a painting I used to see as a child that mother put away of—stop leering, Pisces.”
The Horns laughed and walked away. Unconcerned. But…
There it was.
Silver. Ryoka kept washing the granules, inspecting it. It wasn’t shiny, glittering stuff like you expected—until you remembered that silver tarnished when it touched sulfur. And if it had been in someone’s stomach or their body…
Ryoka had collected as much of the black stuff Fierre had expelled. And now—she wasn’t sure if Fierre had thrown up, or just regurgitated what was making her sick.
Because there it was. Maybe a gram of it at most. Ryoka had no doubt washed some of it away or lost the rest. But it had been in her.
She looked up. Falene had gone to wash herself after Ryoka had accidentally splashed her and Salamani. Now, it was just Colfa. The woman stared at Ryoka.
Her face—well, a Vampire always looked bloodless. But Colfa swayed on her feet.
“But—but how? Fierre wouldn’t eat that.”
“She couldn’t. Not straight up. But…what if she—what if all of you had been eating it, or—or getting it somehow? Over the years? What if…?”
Ryoka’s head was in her hands. It was so obvious in hindsight. She looked at the concentrated pile of it.
Silver. A lifetime’s supply of ingestion. She looked at Colfa.
“I know—I know it might hurt. But if you could touch it? Please?”
The woman hesitated. They had to know. She reached out and slowly touched the pile. It was black and smushed as her finger touched it, wet—
Colfa cried out. Ryoka saw her clutch at her finger. And the skin was raw, torn, bleeding from where she had pressed her finger forwards.
And that had been just a touch. Ryoka looked at the silver.
A gram of silver, spread across your entire body. It wouldn’t…kill you. Even if you were a Vampire. But it was poison in your very blood. And it wouldn’t ever leave you. Not without great magic. And even if you got rid of it…
“There’s silver on your land. That’s why Fierre’s in a coma. I did cure her. And she came back and—”
Where was it? Ryoka felt like she already knew. But all the pieces were falling together. She even had a thought. And here came Dawil and Ylawes.
“Sorry we’re late. The lad had to perform one of his rituals. But we’ve got water. Mind, it’s got a bit of silver in it. Not enough to make you sick. At least House Byres knows about that…”
The Dwarf hefted a huge bucket onto the table. He looked between Ryoka and Colfa. And Ylawes? He met Ryoka’s eyes, blankly at first. But then he saw her glance at Colfa.
“No. Not at all…do you…?”
Do you do this often, Ylawes? Ryoka’s lips were numb. The [Knight] nodded slowly. Even an idiot wouldn’t have missed the way Colfa was looking at him. And Ylawes—was no idiot.
“This is an extraordinary household, Miss Colfa. Ryoka.”
He glanced at her irises. Brown. And then at Colfa’s. The [Knight] shifted. He was wearing his silver and steel armor. Colfa drew back slightly as he moved—almost coincidentally next to him.
“I—do not appreciate adventurers performing strange rituals in my home, Mister Ylawes.”
“Told you, lad. Ask first.”
Dawil grunted, cheerfully oblivious. Ylawes ducked his head. He studied Colfa.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Colfa. It’s a tradition among my House.”
“I see. Well, I am entirely grateful for your assistance. But I find your actions—disturbing. Perhaps you would care to remove yourself?”
The [Knight] paused as Dawil sighed.
“Naturally, Miss Colfa. But if there’s anything I can do to help Miss Fierre, I would feel better in remaining.”
Colfa’s eyes narrowed. She was—shaking. Ryoka couldn’t imagine what she was feeling. Especially since she had put the pieces together. Ylawes was in danger.
Or was it Colfa? The [Knight] was just studying Colfa. Ryoka saw the young man running through a checklist.
Pale hair. Bloodless skin. Red eyes. Heavy clothing, an aversion to sunlight…Colfa was keeping her mouth from opening wide, but my, what large canines she had.
But what proof did he have? How old were the legends of Vampires? Then again…Colfa was about to snap. Ryoka saw it. She hesitated, ready to jump forwards. But if Colfa tossed her like a ragdoll, that was proof in itself.
“Excuse me, Sir Knight. But I think my wife is overwrought. Please, excuse us.”
A voice. Ylawes turned. Ryoka, Colfa, Dawil—saw Himilt standing there. The Vampire, Fierre’s father, tugged at the scarf around his misshapen neck.
He looked like a farmer. Pale of skin, red-eyed. But a farmer. Ryoka saw Ylawes hesitate.
“I’m terribly sorry to intrude, sir. It’s just—”
His eyes flicked back to Colfa. Himilt walked forwards. Ryoka was afraid. Dawil was muttering, eying the [Knight] who was being uncharacteristically rude. Himilt—Ryoka pivoted, wondering what to do.
The Vampire farmer stopped in front of Ylawes. Ryoka tensed. She saw Himilt swing up his hand.
He held it out. Ylawes blinked. Slowly, he reached out with his gauntleted hand. Colfa and Ryoka’s eyes locked on Himilt and Ylawes.
He was wearing silver armor. Himilt didn’t blink. He took Ylawes’ hand and shook it. His hand was gloved. Ryoka waited for steam. For a sign…Himilt clasped Ylawes’ hand with his other hand. He even smiled, faintly.
“Apologies, Sir [Knight]. My family has a bad history with adventurers. Bad sorts who took our coin and walked off. I know House Byres; silver, correct?”
“That’s our export, Mister Himilt, was it?”
The man lowered his hand. Ylawes blinked at his gauntlet. He inspected it, then looked at Himilt. Then he colored and bowed slightly.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. We’ll remove ourselves.”
He looked at Ryoka, and then Colfa, but Himilt even walked him towards the door. He stepped into the light for a moment, adjusting his hat with his gloves. Ylawes dragged a confused Falene and Dawil away. He looked back once or twice, but he was so embarrassed that he nearly tripped over himself in leaving.
Himilt saw Ylawes off. He even made a point at lingering in the sun before he stepped inside. Ryoka and Colfa caught him as he collapsed.
The man dragged the farmer’s gloves he’d donned off his hands. Colfa and Ryoka gasped.
His skin had disintegrated down to muscle, even bone in parts. The Vampire’s skin was torn, as if it had tried to crawl away from the silver armor. He knelt there, sweating, as Ryoka stood over him.
When he looked up at Ryoka, his face was twisted by pain. Himilt forced the words out.
“I heard. What do we do now?”
Ryoka turned. In the shadows, two more Vampires appeared. Rivel, eyes wide and furious as he stared after the Silver Swords. Bamer, clutching at his chest. Staring down at the veins where his death flowed. Ryoka felt the Vampire’s world shaking.
But she had to save Fierre first. The City Runner closed her eyes. Thinking.
“The well is poisoned. The groundwater is laced with silver. That means everything that comes from it—”
She heard a moan. And Ryoka felt it.
Look at how they killed them. With poison in the water, the ground.
How clever. House Byres had won. They had won in such an easy way. Not with grand [Knights] and armies. Just—a tradition. A bit of silver here, there.
Poison in the wells.
Nothing was safe. Nothing. Water—crops grown? Everything and everyone in Izril, perhaps. Everywhere the wells had been seeded. Ryoka looked around.
“The blood. Your sheep drink from those wells. Your food as well. Fierre needs—”
She trailed off. Ryoka started again, piecing it all together.
“It must—she must have drunk blood from your animals. And the party—she washed herself with water from your wells. You put ice on her forehead. The tinctures were made with water. Everything you have. Your crops, your animals—all of it comes from the water here.”
Colfa made a sound. She looked around, eyes wide. The rash running down her arm…that’s why they were sick. It wasn’t a disease. Heavy metals in their blood, making them weaker. That’s why they had such short lifespans. Thyroid cancer…
“What is safe?”
Ryoka felt Colfa shaking her. She inhaled slowly.
“River water. They couldn’t poison that the same way…if they went upriver—no, it’d be safer. Ocean water…rainwater! Anywhere House Byres wouldn’t have access to! We have to wash Fierre—she’s got silver on her skin!”
“River water. There’s a river near here. Rivel. Get water. Run.”
The young Vampire vanished, running for a bucket and umbrella. Bamer kicked over the water that Ylawes and Dawil had drawn with an oath.
“I’ll kill them. We’ll call every family and end House Byres once and for all—”
“Bamer. Enough. Fierre is what matters.”
Himilt stopped the old Vampire. He looked at Ryoka, then around. At his wife, his son, who had paused for a moment at Bamer’s words. Himilt spoke slowly. Deliberately, as his hands healed.
“Fierre is what matters. We—we are all dead.”
The five moved into action. Ryoka shook Salamani awake. The slumbering Courier blinked at her.
“For a potion! Get it from the [Alchemist], please? As much as you can?”
He leapt up. Ryoka turned to Colfa.
“Even afterwards…you’ll need to drink.”
“Our crops. The sheep…it’s too late for us.”
The mother nearly sat down. Then she rose again. Rivel was back with a bucket filled with water.
“I washed it in the river. But are you sure it’s…?”
He held the bucket away from him. Ryoka didn’t know.
“I think your home has a higher concentration of silver in the wells. Wells…it’s just collecting there over time. A river would have far less, if the Byres’ even do it. The best thing would be to desalinate ocean water or collect rainwater. We could build a solar still or use magic…fuck, let’s just boil this and collect the steam!”
She had the Vampires boil the water into steam and collect the drops of water. That was obvious! Now—Ryoka was thinking. She went to Colfa.
“Wash Fierre from head to toe. Don’t use soap—wait. I might have something from Liscor. I doubt House Byres ever got down there. Use no products made in the north! Here—”
She handed the woman a half-used bar of soap she’d bought in Liscor. Ryoka was going down the list. Not toothpaste, not potions…
“Is there time for Fierre?”
Ryoka turned to Himilt.
“If she’s that sick…she must have a stronger reaction because she was cured. You all have an immunity. That was why you survived. And that’s why she kept throwing up! Colfa! We need to make Fierre vomit! Give her as much pure water as you can and get her to spit it up! We need to flush her system! And—charcoal! Burned charcoal!”
That was a way to remove poison, wasn’t it? Activated charcoal! Ryoka thought.
“Can Vampires get sick from eating charcoal?”
“I doubt it. We can drink most poisons. Just not silver.”
Bamer shook his head. Ryoka nodded.
“Then feed Fierre burned charcoal! Lots of it! If it can’t kill her—”
Magical immune systems. If it couldn’t kill Fierre, Ryoka would shovel a detoxifying agent down her throat! Himilt and Colfa took Fierre into the bathroom to wash her and try to purge her system. It was a disgusting process. Ryoka heard Fierre retching…the young woman helped Bamer boil more water. She raced about as Salamani ran back with distilled water and was sent on a useless errand—he was a distraction.
It worked. That was all there was to it. Fierre had ingested silver, washed herself with it, but Ryoka’s desperate treatments worked. The Vampire flushed her system over the course of the next few hours. Ryoka knew it was working because she heard Fierre’s groggy voice as the girl regained consciousness.
She was going to live. Ryoka collapsed with relief. That was all. She had…done it.
Fierre wouldn’t die today. Ryoka closed her eyes.
So. That was what Teriarch had known. He had known the Vampires were poisoned. And he had done nothing. How cruel. And how like the Dragon. He had given her a hint by accident, though. And Fierre would live. But her family…
“Ryoka. There’s a problem.”
The young woman started. She looked up.
Colfa’s dress was messy. But her daughter was alive. The Vampire mother looked relieved. Grateful, as she stared at the Human who had saved her daughter. Uncovered the truth. Just…concerned.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Fierre’s well. But—she’s starved for blood. She threw up all the blood she drank. And all our stores—everything we have is tainted. We could go into Reizmelt and find a [Butcher]—but how do we know…?”
How did they know that the blood there wasn’t the product of animals fed on Reizmelt’s well water? Monster blood? Animal blood? Did they find a deer or something and hope it had never drunk from silver-tainted water?
Ryoka didn’t know. She bit her lip.
“Maybe cow’s blood? Find one that’s usually grazing near rivers, I guess. Or…oh.”
She looked up. Colfa looked down at Ryoka.
“Where were you born, Ryoka Griffin?”
Earth. And yes, Ryoka had lived on well water, water from Izril for the last year. But that wasn’t a lifetime of living here. If there was anyone…Ryoka Griffin saw the unspoken question.
“Fierre is starving. We can stop her. But if you’re willing—she’ll go into a frenzy soon.”
For a moment, the City Runner hesitated. But what was the alternative? She had done all this for her friend.
“Take me to her.”
Fierre was alive. But she was restrained. By her father. He was keeping her pinned as she writhed. Not with pain—but hunger. Her eyes had turned red and she was biting.
“I’m hungry! Blood! Blood! Where’s Fluffles?”
That took the scary right out of her—well, a bit. Ryoka saw Fierre stare at Ryoka. She licked her lips.
“Fierre. Control yourself. Ryoka’s agreed to give you blood.”
Even in her ravening state, Fierre glanced at her father. He looked at Ryoka, hesitating. She waited. Her heart was racing. She remembered Fierre attacking her in the mansion. That had been terrifying. She knew how strong Fierre was. But Colfa was right here.
“Is it safe, Himilt?”
“Fierre wouldn’t turn you. Neither Colfa or I would allow it. And it’s not a simple process. But there’s something else. If she’s cured…”
Colfa started. Ryoka saw her eyes flicker to Fierre and then Ryoka. Himilt gave his wife another unspoken look. This one significant. He stared at Ryoka, hard.
“We’ll deal with what happens. Nothing…terribly…bad will happen to you, Miss Griffin. I don’t think from giving blood once. If the stories are true.”
That didn’t reassure Ryoka at all. But she nodded, tightly.
Fierre sat up. Colfa took Himilt’s place as he stepped back. He closed the door as Colfa held her daughter, struggling to keep Fierre back.
“Remember. Do not drink quickly. Slowly. Just enough to hold you until we find more blood.”
“What—what do I do?”
Colfa hesitated. She was unsure, Ryoka realized. Her family didn’t usually drink blood.
“When Himilt turned me…sit there. Bare your neck and tilt your head…yes. Fierre? Slowly.”
She relaxed her grip. Ryoka sat there, terrified, sensing Fierre sniffing.
“She’s…not that appetizing. I’m not hungry for her.”
The Vampire muttered. Ryoka stirred.
“It’s not that. It’s something…”
Fierre trailed off. She licked her lips. Her stomach growled.
“Can I really bite you, Ryoka?”
“Yes, Fierre. Go ahead. You’re hungry.”
The City Runner saw the Vampire hovering. Colfa was watching. And then—Fierre grabbed Ryoka’s neck. Gently. She bit. Ryoka gasped as she felt a sharp pain. Then nothing.
She cracked open one eye, unclenching her fists. Strange. Ryoka felt Fierre there. She even felt the sensation of pressure on her neck. Blood pumping…she heard her heart beating, rapidly. But no pain.
It felt—Ryoka felt a sensation run down her body.
Tingling. Ryoka twitched. She searched for pain, but there wasn’t any this time. Just an unbearable tingling. It felt good, actually. And it was intensifying.
Her head felt light. Ryoka sagged. Her head went blank. All she heard was the blood pounding in her head.
Huh. No wonder Vampires got away with this. They weren’t—weren’t like mosquitoes at all. Ryoka could do this forever. The tingling was turning into—she was drifting and—
A voice spoke at the edge of Ryoka’s hazy consciousness. A hand interrupted the drain, the unbearable, wonderful feeling.
Fierre pulled away with reluctance, licking her lips. Ryoka collapsed. The world went dark; she must have blanked out for a second because Fierre was helping her sit up.
“Ryoka? Thank you.”
The Vampire girl was alive. If anything, it was Ryoka who was pale and disoriented. Fierre offered Ryoka a healing potion. The young woman drank. She looked at her friend, watching her anxiously.
“I’m so glad.”
Ryoka reached out and grabbed Fierre. The Vampire felt the Human hug her, fiercely. Then Ryoka sat back. She took a drink from the healing potion.
Then she passed out. At last—
She could rest.
But the world was changed for it.
They rode away in silence. Dawil kept glancing at Ylawes. At last, the Dwarf broke the silence.
“Alight, lad. You’ve never acted like that before. You always ask for permission before doing that well-thingy. And most [Mayors] are happy to let you. But what in the name of the Grandfather’s beards was that?”
Falene nodded. She’d been caught up on what had occurred and she was looking just as dubious. Ylawes shook his head. His cheeks were still flushed.
“I—thought that—it was just a hunch. I feel like a complete fool, Dawil. But that family…tell me. Have you ever heard of the legend of Vampires?”
The half-Elf’s ears perked up. Dawil frowned and shook his head.
“Never. What’re they?”
“An old foe. My family used to fight them. They used to rule Izril. They looked just like us. But they had pointed teeth, they drank blood…they were monsters in disguise. There were signs. Reddish pupils, pale skin, fangs, and they feared sunlight and silver.”
Dawil half-twisted in his saddle.
“You’re pulling my leg, Byres. That’s got to be the dumbest thing…red pupils? I know half a dozen [Mages] who have weird colors in their eyes.”
“I know. But the way they were acting…I was almost certain. Ryoka cut her wrist—apparently—and that mother…”
The [Knight] sighed. Falene tapped her lips.
“What proved they weren’t?”
“Himilt. He shook my hand.”
Ylawes regarded his gauntlets. Dawil raised his brows.
“These Vampires allergic to common courtesy or something?”
“No, it’s my armor. Silver and steel alloy. A Vampire shouldn’t have even been able to touch me according to the stories. And they are just stories these days. I’ve embarrassed us. I hope Ryoka calls on us if she needs help.”
The young man turned ahead, shaking his head. Dawil glanced back at the Lischelle-Drakle farm in the distance.
“If it wasn’t a story, let’s say. How’d you feel about a girl with sick parents being these blood-folk?”
Ylawes looked blank.
“Vampires were evil monsters without conscience or remorse. They hid among us, pretending to their emotions. So no. I don’t believe that would apply here, Dawil. These are just…good folk. A bit odd, but…”
He fell silent. The seed of suspicion was there. Ylawes hesitated.
“Falene. Can you…send me a [Message]?”
“Of course. To whom?”
The [Knight] hesitated. He’d investigated. But there was someone who knew more than he did, or his father.
“Delanay d’Artien. He’s a childhood friend. Just…ask him to get in touch with me.”
Dawil glanced up sharply. But Ylawes said nothing more. Falene nodded. After a moment, the [Axe Champion] cleared his throat.
“Just don’t do anything you’d regret, Ylawes. They seemed like good folk. And we’re adventurers, not busybodies. Ever onwards. Are we done with Reizmelt and Ryoka Griffin?”
Ylawes started from his thoughts. He nodded slowly, looking at his team.
“Let’s stay a few days to make sure Miss Fierre is well and to see about the artifacts. Maybe we could even go towards Invrisil and see this Master Pelt, Dawil. If he’s that skilled…”
“So we came all the way here just to turn around? Fine by me.”
The Dwarf snorted. Ylawes just shrugged. They didn’t have a set destination. That was the Silver Sword’s way. It was Falene who interrupted.
“If we don’t have pressing business, Ylawes, I have a petition.”
“Go on, Falene.”
The [Battlemage] tapped a finger against her lips as she adjusted her fixed spectacles. What a curious contraption Ryoka Griffin had made. So quickly, too. A ‘microscope’. Falene prided herself on her lexicon of knowledge. And she had never heard that word…she spoke to her team.
“I think we should pay a visit to Wistram Academy. All of us. Something of significance has occurred there and only by going in person will we know the truth. No one, not even my friends, will tell me what has occurred.”
“Wistram? That’s a boat voyage.”
“Consider it. We could at least head towards a port.”
“Of course, Falene.”
The Silvers Swords rode onwards, each with their own thoughts. Ylawes, thinking of his friend, who used to, as a child, be so into investigations for his family’s foes. Falene tilting her head, thinking of Wistram, her home, Ryoka…a few other individuals.
Dawil fingered his axe and thought of Pelt, the disgrace. Also—what he was going to eat for lunch. But their suspicions and hunches were only a fraction of the truths unveiled today. For others—it was a far simpler conclusion.
“We are dead. Silver runs in our veins.”
Himilt val Lischelle-Drakle stood in his family’s keep. Not the place where his line had originated. The Drakle family had moved from place to place, keeping out of sight. Hiding, hoping to live in peace.
But they had been dying, attacked by their enemies even in hiding. By what even their senses couldn’t detect.
Silver in the wells. Fierre was pale. She looked at her mother, her brother, Bamer, and her father. All afflicted by signs of a weakened immune system.
There was no panacea left. Ryoka wondered if eating charcoal would help. But it was part of them. And now—Fierre’s family was aware of what was killing them.
“Not a curse. House Byres. The Humans. Who came up with it?”
Bamer was muttering. Himilt was watching him. When he spoke, it was to Ryoka as well as his kin.
“Long ago, our kind ruled Izril. No people are innocent of crimes. Yet those committed by Vampires made even the other species of the world draw back in revulsion and horror. I have heard those stories.”
“So this is all just?”
Rivel shouted. Himilt looked at his son and shook his head. His eyes glowed faintly.
“Never. I would never have allowed it. I would have never remained here. Never—started a family if I knew this was our fate.”
He looked at Colfa. She reached for him.
“There is nothing to regret there. Just the enemies of our kind. And now we know.”
The farmer nodded. He looked around, at Bamer, Rivel, and Colfa. And it was to them he spoke, excluding Fierre.
“So we die. Our enemy triumphed by turning the land against us. In the days that come, we must decide what will happen next.”
Serafierre croaked. She looked smaller. Her pride as a Vampire run up against the magnitude of the hatred for her kind. The cunning. Himilt looked at her. He almost smiled. He looked at Fierre, and then Ryoka.
“One of us will live. A Human has saved her life and given her a future. Thank you, Miss Griffin. I will not forget this. Nor will our kind. You are a friend to Vampires. And perhaps—not for this generation but the next—perhaps there is hope.”
“Where? Where can we go?”
Bamer crouched, his face bitter. Himilt looked out the window.
“Where Byres did not wander. Where water comes from few wells. Perhaps not even Izril. We will have to decide. As a family—and as a people. It will be divisive. Many will want to retaliate. But this day we know the truth. For now…rest.”
He said that to Fierre and Ryoka. Both were recovering. Ryoka lay back down. Fierre went to bed. She was still dizzy—still sick from her near death experience. Colfa, going to check on her, heard her daughter muttering as she sipped from the purified water that her family would have to use from now on.
“We’ll get you pure blood soon, Fierre. Ryoka’s agreed to help you. Rest.”
She had a future. Colfa held Fierre gently. The girl murmured, falling into sleep.
“Tasty. But. I’m still hungry. Ryoka doesn’t have it.”
Cures. Sickness. Family. The Vampire lived. Her family knew what ailed them.
The Horns of Hammerad walked the lands of House Byres and Yvlon reconciled a bit of her issues with her family. At least—a bit.
Lord Tyrion Veltras had no such luxuries. He sat in the room where Hethon and Sammial lay, guarded by House Veltras’ most elite warriors. Jericha and three dozen [Mages] had fortified this place.
But it was too late. They were ill. Hethon breathed shallowly; Sammial was coughing, almost unable to breathe.
The [Assassin] had left the blood-contract behind. As well as the warning. The cure would escape Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns would damn his attempts.
The [Healer] and three of the best [Alchemists] locally were poring through encyclopedias of poison and antidote, searching for the symptoms and cure—if there was one. Tyrion Veltras was reaching out to anyone he could think of. He refused to kneel, not to the Circle.
“Milord? It’s late. We can watch over Lord Hethon and Sammial.”
Jericha approached Tyrion tentatively, holding a ball of [Light]. She saw Tyrion’s head rise slowly.
“I will cure them. And when I do—you will take Hethon and Sammial to Terandria. Then I will hunt down this Circle of Thorns and put them to death by my own hand. Every last one.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
She bowed. Tyrion went back to sitting. But his fury—he listened to Sammial coughing, Hethon’s labored breaths.
A scroll lay in front of him. The words glowed in the darkness. Tyrion sat there, staring at the contract and the terms.
Author’s Note: I am done! This was a longer chapter, plagued by exhaustion. Exhaustion…I was running a large sleep-debt which I’ve mostly paid off.
I hope this chapter is good despite it! The chapters where all the little hints draw together are always hard. I wish I had something cool to say. Cool things happened this week! I got to type and the person on the screen responded!
And speaking of, I’ll leave you with a beautiful image of another immortal being of old. Dragons, Vampires…and the Treant, drawn by Enuryn the [Naturalist]! Give them lots of praise for this amazing, mystical being!
Thanks for reading! Tune in next time where I hopefully have perfect sleep! But either way, the story continues!