Stairs have been dug into the side of the mountain and railings placed at strategic positions. It does not help, I feel like I am a trespasser in a place that should have remained untamed and untouched.
We quickly reach a small landing. Nestled between two planes of the mountain is a shack. It is little more than a shelter and when we enter, I notice that it can barely contain all three of us. A cot and cupboard have been pushed against the farthest wall. Most of the single floor is covered with an alchemy kit and a desk covered in paper. I let the men walk around and quickly find what I knew would be there: a research journal.
The tome is hefty so I mostly glance through. The cult leader’s writing is methodical and more importantly, it is not coded, therefore my reading is quick and unimpeded. I soon learn that Abernathy found the place three years ago thanks to hints from a Creek guide. He immediately found something which he refers to as the temple, further up, and studied the inscriptions left behind. Apparently, some of them contained European style alchemical annotations on the art of blood magic. He gathered several rogue mages and followers and moved in.
A bit over a year ago someone broke through the temple and destroyed the lab and many of the notes, that is when Abernathy ramped up his activities and started kidnapping people for blood experiments. At the same time, he acquired something he refers to as “the Source”. He believed he could produce an elixir of eternal life without the drawbacks of sun sensitivity and bloodlust. The attack on the lab was taken as an attempt to stop him from reaching enlightenment.
We have to go up.
Dalton and Bingle join me with little to show for their efforts. I wordlessly hand the adventurer a single sheet I took from experiment note.
“Subject: Flora Schaffer, female...”
His voice dies down as he keeps on reading. I already suspected she would be dead of course. This only confirms it.
My vassal and I wait in respectful silence until he is done. The grief on his face is palpable.
“Forgive me, I need a moment.”
We step outside, close the gate behind us and wait. I am a bit shaken as I realize that this is the first time I have witnessed the fearless adventurer with such a hopeless expression on his face.
“I wanted to ask you something, Mistress.” Says Dalton.
“What are you exactly?”
I turn to him dumbfounded.
“You decided to serve me, yet you do not know what I am?”
“I knew enough to decide, now I want to know everything.”
I spend a few minutes telling him about my strengths but also my weakness to fire, silver and the sun. It only occurs to me when I am done that I did not even contemplate him betraying me. My instincts tell me that he will not. We have bonded now. His loyalty is as certain as the dawn.
It doesn’t take long for Bingle to join us.
“Forgive me for this delay. I am.. I was...”
I place a comforting hand on his arm and address him with a soothing voice.
“There is nothing to apologize for sir, and I can only extend my condolences to you. I know it is poor comfort in the face of such pain, yet I must remind you that without our timely intervention, those unfortunate souls behind us would have suffered a fate most cruel.”
Bingle seems surprised by my touch; his honest face brims with emotion.
“Yes, you are correct. Thank you so much Miss Delaney. We have done well tonight, and though salvation was beyond my grasp, we made sure that vengeance was not. A worthy end, I say!”
“Indeed. Now, that loathsome man’s notes mention a temple above, and I would like to see it with my own eyes and make sure there is nothing afoot.”
“Of course, Miss Delaney! Your tenacity and rigor are an inspiration! No stone shall remain unturned until we ascertain that evil has been vanquished!”
“Then I shall lead the way, forward!”
Wait, what is wrong with me?! Why did I just say that?!
Is the man contagious?
I certainly hope not. I would not want to turn righteous.
My hearing has recovered enough to hear Dalton’s amused chuckle. I may never live this down.
We walk for ten minutes at a measured pace along the mountain and up a natural ridge. Eventually, the path turns right to end on a small plateau.
Hidden from the worst of the wind, pine trees and knee-high bushes have prospered and spread around the place, turning it into a shelter. I notice regular formations that look too perfect to be the work of nature. Rather, someone grew a garden here and left it for at least a decade. Further up, the valley disappears between two cliffs.
This feels awfully familiar.
I remember now. “Not where, but when.” said Nashoba in that dream months ago.
I found it! The place from the dream!
Just as I remember it, the blocky architecture clings to the rock as if it had been dug in. Two lion statues stand guard on each side of the main entrance, a little worse for wear. I hear nothing suspicious.
“Let me in first Miss Delaney.”
We enter the so-called temple and look around. The men take out lanterns and light the insides.
Abernathy has mentioned that the place had been ransacked. That is not correct. The single room has been devastated by an impact of incredible power. Everything that stands near the door such as a stone bed and fire pit remains intact. Further up, debris litter the floor and the opposite wall has been shattered completely.
On the side, I recognize a bare alchemy station under a pile of rocks curiously arranged. I walk closer.
Somebody gathered stones with inscription. I recognize the tongue.
“Dalton, I need your lantern.”
It is, of course, a lie for the benefit of Bingle.
I read a few runes despite the poor state. Unfortunately, there is not enough to infer a meaning, unless...
I walk to the shattered wall, dodging the errant stone.
Something smells delicious. I know a very similar scent, from long ago. It’s on the tip of my tongue...
I approach the impact.
Either someone brought a small cannon or...
I place my fist against the central hole and push in. I touch smashed rock when I am elbow deep. Hmm.
I take a look inside. The point of origin has a single black spot.
Could it be....
I shove hand back in and after fumbling for a few seconds I manage to touch something. When I pull back my index has the slightest hint of a tar-like substance. I rub my fingers and sample the scent.
A wave of emotion overcomes me. There is no vitality left yet this fragrance is unmistakable. Stunned, I stand back and realize the crater is surrounded by other runes. I pull two and two together.
“What are those Miss Delaney?”
“A poem in the tongue of Akkad. It says:
Little bird flew low and high
To the rock and to the sky
Little bird flew far and wide
Yet always one step behind“
“I do not understand.”
“This is a taunt.”
My Master came here a year ago. He did not find what he was looking for. Someone took it and hid it from him.
This is why he came to this remote place.
This is also how he… Found me.
As to what his target was, I have no idea. If we find a container of some sort, we might get a clue. I decide to keep looking. I am particularly interested in where that precious smell comes from.
I turn left and walk to the wall. A particularly well-preserved stone cabinet has escaped the devastation.
That is rather suspicious.
“Help me move this, I think there might be something there.”
Both men rush past me, intent on making sure I do not need to work. Alright, so there are some benefits to being of the fairer sex. I would still rather be allowed to go bounty hunting.
With little effort, Dalton and Bingle push the piece of furniture out of the way. Light shines into a small bathroom, sparsely equipped with a stone tube and a storage shelf. More interesting is the prostrate figure on the ground. This is where the tantalizing scent comes from.
I can’t help myself. I walk past my companions and ignore their warnings. I fall on my knees before the humanoid thing and lift its chin.
Two Amber eyes open and blink at me. They are too large to belong on a human face. The thing’s traits have a strange alienness to them, different yet alluring. I think it is male, a he then. I lean closer. He smells so scrumptious, so incredibly delicate. This bouquet, this vitality ... I open my mouth and eight fangs manifest. The man cries a single tear as he shows an acceptance born out of the deepest pits of despair.
He knows what I am, he knows what I will do and he has already given up. Good, now I just need to...
I close my mouth with a click.
If I do this now, I will have to kill Bingle. I do not believe I can hypnotize him into forgetting someone’s death.
I don’t want to kill Bingle. No. I do not want my instincts to get in the way of my long term plans. So I slowly force myself away from the most potent, delicious blood I have...
Wait that’s it.
This entity provided the blood that saved my life the night of my escape. Or not. His smell is slightly different, spicier and more mature. I fed on his kind, however.
I finally force myself to turn.
“He’s alive! We need to free him.”
I compel myself to take a step back from that enticing, delicious smell. Bingle passes me by and kneels. I notice that he still has the keys he used to free the other prisoners fortunately, and that they fit.
Hold on he will notice that something is wrong!
I turn in a panic, only to see a perfectly normal, if unhealthy man where I left the strange creature. A quick study shows a sort of shimmer around his eyes and ears.
“Can you talk lad?”
“Are you hurt anywhere.”
“No... just sore, thirsty and hungry.”
But not dirty. How could somebody dirty have such an incredible perfume!
“Don’t worry lad. Your troubles are at an end! We shall take good care of you. You have the word of Cecil Rutherford Bingle!”
Yessssssssss good care.
“Mistress you are drooling.” Whispers Dalton. “Do you need more blood?”
“Thank you I’ll be fine.”
What is wrong with me? Besides the recently skewered heart, nothing. I do not even feel the Thirst. This creature just has a blood that I apparently cannot resist.
I will not bite.
I will not bite.
Maybe just a little... NO! I will not bite. Calm down Ari, this is not like you. Just take a deep breath.
Alright, this was a terrible idea. How can this man smell so intoxicating! Gah!
“Are you alright Miss Delaney?”
I look away so he doesn’t see the fangs.
“I apologize, it is just, I am sorry I need some fresh air.”
I stumble out until I reach outside. Up here, a cold wind blows down the flanks of the mountain and carries on it hints of pine. I start feeling better or at least, more in control.
Only a short while later, the three men exit the structure. In the open, the temptation is not so strong.
Bingle looks at me with empathy and leads the way down. I follow him while Dalton supports the strange creature. I do not dare get closer. Actually, Bingle has his back to me so I suppose I could indulge...
No. No! Oh, that is it. Get a hold of yourself Ariane! This is unsightly! I am no slave to my impulses.
As I slap my cheek, the softest breeze caresses my ears as something whispers to me.
“Why did you spare me Nightwalker?”
“Hum sorry! Sorry everyone, I just missed a step.”
Dalton is dubious and Bingle full of concern.
“Miss Delaney, I apologize! I should have remembered your ordeal! Foolish me! You, hrm, if you, hrm, if it is not too impertinent of me to offer, you may take my arm. I shall lead you to safety!”
Yes, let me be downwind before I do something we shall all regret.
“If it is not too much trouble...”
I approach and grabs his muscular arm. Hum! This is not entirely unpleasant. The man himself radiates with pride, it seems that my trust means a lot to him. Perhaps I should not offer my back to this creature though. It made it clear it knows what I am.
“Is this a cruel trap, Nightwalker?” Whispers the wind once more.
“My name is Ariane” I grumble back, too low to be heard by the humans.
“Very well, since you have given me the gift of courtesy I shall reciprocate. I am Sinead.”
We continue our conversation in the same manner.
“What are you?”
“You truly do not know?”
“I wouldn’t ask otherwise!” I softly hiss.
“Your kind calls us trespassers or errant ones. We are from far away…”
“How far is far away? India? Nippon?”
“We are from another dimension.”
“Ah…Really?! How did you even come here?!”
The wind sighs with annoyance.
“My kind likes to play games. Sometimes we slip and fall into other worlds. This would not be an issue if your plane was not so heavy.”
“Your reality is rigid. We cannot get through it. It resists us too much. We cannot get back and so we are lost, trespassers and prey.”
“You must be young... Your kind captures us and harvests our immortal blood. It is kept in secure containers to be drunk as an emergency. We are slaves and cattle to you lot. Barely better than animals.” He adds with resentment.
I now understand. Six months ago, I should have died from the wounds I suffered at the hand of Jimena. Only a miracle could have saved me, and this miracle was the blood of his species.
“I do not understand! I thought that blood must be consumed on the spot!”
“We are immortal. We do not age, and so our blood can keep its vitality indefinitely if harvested properly.”
“I never knew...”
“Curious, I would expect clans to inform their members of our existence so that you know not to devour us instantly should you happen upon our kind. It would be too merciful a fate, I suppose...
Our essence remains bound to the blood so only a limited amount of elixirs can be harvested from the same captive, who then needs to be kept alive. My people has been reduced to kept assets and fugitives like me.”
If what he says is true, and I believe him, then Jimena gave up on an incredible treasure to help me. What I used to run home could have been employed in combat to save her life instead! My gratitude towards her only ever grows.
Why did she not mention it? Well, I am not surprised that my friend would try to hide the extent of her sacrifice, and yet there could be something else. Vampires may attempt to hush the existence of such a powerful secret weapon. I will have to be discreet.
“I know not what you have planned,” Says Sinead, “and so I am left at the mercy of a creature of the night...”
He goes on like that for a while and I learn a few interesting things. His species is called the Likaeans and they are powerful magic users. On their home plane, they can manipulate the very essence of reality the way a great painter manipulates colors. Down here, they are limited to a few tricks and illusions. I also learn that Sinead is by default the leader of his kind, the most powerful Likaean here, and that he has a second of sort. Finally I learn that Sinead is an absolute drama queen.
Honestly, I am impressed.
Grand declamations, laments and inflamed discourses pour ceaselessly from his lips. Some of it even rhymes! He goes on and on without pause, cursing this plane and its inhabitants, his fate, the moon and the stars, the neighbor’s dog. Everyone. The worse thing for me is that he never even tried to escape. We are on a dark path outside, at night, he is not bound, and we are clearly exhausted and wounded and still, there is not a single attempt to even steal a knife! If it were me, I would have at least tried something...
Wait, could he have played me all that time?!
I turn in a panic but no, he is still hanging from Dalton’s shoulder, looking in the distance like an opera main lead. I can still smell him when the wind gives us a respite.
I believe that if his race is half as dramatic as he is, it is no wonder that they have been exploited by vampires. We all have one thing in common: ruthlessness.
I continue musing while we walk down the path at a slow pace. With Bingle guiding me, I can stop focusing on my surroundings and Sinead’s constant whining.
He is clearly the Source mentioned in Abernathy’s workshop notes. If I understand properly, the cult leader has been using his blood as an attempt to reach eternal life.
Perhaps this is why it felt so wrong.
Likaean blood is precious. It is not to be squandered by a fumbling idiot with no talent or experience. A few scratched symbols are not enough to reach the apex of mastery required to brew an elixir of eternity. I remember the woman in my vision, when I drunk from Master and was made a vampire. She was writing something on tanned human skin. It was an intricate formula, a work of art far beyond anything I have seen since, not even in Loth’s workshop.
This man could not have achieved his goal within three lifetimes. He only made an impure mix with fleeting effects, at the cost of one’s free-will.
How naïve of him to even assume that our mewling rescuee could be a strong enough source of power. He is weak and pathetic here. He would not have sufficed, no. It would take something incredible to change a human at such a fundamental level. It would take a god.
Truly, this entire project was doomed from the start. I take comfort in the knowledge that at the very least, we cleaned our own backyard.
Oh, and we rescued some humans and that weird alien being. I suppose this counts as a success.
“… So tell me, child of darkness, tell me why do you play with me so? What sinister fate awaits me, now that my freedom…”
Sinead’s ranting has progressed enough that he requires attention. Good.
“I have not decided yet.”
“I said, I have not made a choice. Now please leave me be, I tire of this conversation.”
I do not have the inclination to handle this man today. I am not Thirsty, I am exhausted and his survival depends on a tangle of commitments and rules I do not feel like considering before a good rest.
We soon reach the cave again. I go to Loth, still busy with the wounded. It seems that a few of them will not make it.
“Please look after me, I need to rest my eyes for a moment.”
“Very well Mistress.”
Yes, there is still much to be done. I just need a moment.