183? undisclosed location.
I stroll leisurely alongside the river, enjoying the silence and the feeling of a job well done. Light from gas lampposts illuminates the doric columns of the massive building by my side.
My guard is down, and this mistake costs me dearly.
One moment, the world is as normal as it can get these days, the other, a sphere of void opens in front of me and tendrils of power snatch me like a child takes a doll. I barely have time to take out my dagger and slash at the power ineffectually before I am dragged in.
“Ah, what the…”
A massive hall.
I stand in the middle of a spell circle. The construct is grandiose, almost on the scale of what Semiramis pulled off. I am filled with dread. Who would squander this much power to get me must have a purpose.
As I watch, the last of the runes fade and a protective dome of force covers me.
I feel no immediate danger, and so I take in my surrounding.
The hall is a rectangular throne room of ridiculous proportions. The ground is pink marble polished to a delicate lustre. And the walls white stone smoothed to a shine. Golden leaves etched into the stone tell tales of valor, showing knights and heroes fighting mighty demons. Magic is clearly shown and in one of the decorations, a horned man with a furious glare blows off the top of a mountain. I really, really hope this is a metaphor of sorts.
It also smells of stale air, and something unpleasant underneath. I think we are belowground.
I return my attention to the people, now that the last flashes of magic die down and I can use most of my senses again. The room is not empty. Lines of guards in gaudy armour line it, and though I question their taste, I can tell that their gear is magical.
At the end of the hall, several mages stand around who I assume to be the sovereign. They must be the summoners.
Before they can even speak, I feel something to my right, eddies of power that even our magical restraints cannot stop. I am in only one of three circles. One contains remnants of flesh that appear as if a person had been made to go through a tube the size of an arm. The last is occupied by a woman.
She is slightly taller than me, with raven black hair left to fall on her toned shoulders. Her clothes are that of a peasant. A white shirt hinting at a modest bust, brown pants ending with athletic legs. Her feet are clad in boots of good quality, made to fit. It is as if she did not care about her appearance at all even though she clearly could. And yet, her posture speaks of confidence, an absolute trust in her own power. She is lightly balanced on the balls of her feet with a grace that no mortals should be able to achieve. Truly, by appearing so normal, I feel like someone placed a tiny hat on a giant tiger.
The woman turns to me lightly. Cold blue eyes take me in and assess me in an instant.
She is mighty. I do not know how I realize this, only that it is a certain thing. Her essence has a terrible weight as if she were much smaller than she should be, and waves of tremendous magic pulse from her in waves.
Fortunately, she continues her inspection. The woman checks the ground around her and the people in front of us with no hint of concern whatsoever. If anything her smirk has not left her face since I started to look.
Finally, one of the men in the small assembly comes forward. He is rather ancient and clad in a garish cloak of red and gold. His smile is thick as molasses, and just as dark,
“Welcome! Heroes of faraway lands! You have been summoned by nobody lesser than the great and mighty King Abel! To fulfil the prophecy and rid this land of every and all demons!”
He does not speak English, the meaning of his words is simply carried by a harmless magical tendril directly into my mind.
I truly am not in my own plane. This is magic on a grand scale. Too bad it was carried out by what amounts to kidnappers.
“Ah great. The summoned hero story. Why put a barrier up if you want our help?” says the woman on my side, in proper English this time. Her voice has a strange accent that I cannot place, and there is something behind too. I feel like she could speak louder, loud enough to crack my mind open.
“We mean you no harm!” the man continues as he comes closer, and I can finally tell where the smell comes from. He is only playing at being a human but I can taste his essence through the barrier. It is foul.
“The shield is there to prevent magical power leaking outwards. You were chosen as prospective heroes, individuals with great potential. Young and surging in power!” the creature continues as it approaches. There is something off with its face as well. The Skinwalker was better at imitating people.
This stinks of enslavement coated with a thin layer of bullshit. Is it so hard to imagine that “Heroes of Faraway Lands” would have more intellect than the average hamster? Prevent magical power leaking outward indeed. They are not even trying. I flex my claws. No one enslaves me, not anymore.
I just hope the blue-eyed monster thinks the same as she turns to me.
“What do you think?” she says, looking at me, “That bundle of flesh doesn’t seem quite happy about being here either.”
“A spell that has one in three chances of turning their target to mincemeat indicates that little care is given to their target,” I observe.
Unwise. Our captors are beyond careless. This flimsy barrier will not hold the one next to me and even I should manage to break with the Herald’s power, given time.
“How thoughtful. You are right. Though I must say, I would very much like to experience the full extent of this spell’s power… perhaps I could learn to resist it fully…,” the woman adds.
Oh, so that’s how it is. She’s probably quite resilient, the kind to travel around looking for a challenge. I sincerely hope that she will not find it here.
“Why summon us?”, she continues, “Doesn’t the mighty, high and powerful king what’s his name have enough powerful people to fight the war himself? You already have fourty eight capable knights standing in this very hall. Pretty wasteful if you ask me.”
She clearly saw through their feeble attempts at manipulation. Her mocking tone is obvious, and if I were those imbeciles over there, I would start to reinforce the barrier or find somewhere else to be.
“You were chosen to fight the fiends who wield necromancy, blood magic and curses in their unrelenting pursuit of conquest! Are you not those good of heart and spirit? Those who would vanquish the evils of the world?”
They must have messed up their ritual. This is the only explanation.
“Some of my best friends are necromancers. And blood mages… and curse… mages?” the woman adds, looking thoughtful. That is good news for me. At least she is not a zealot.
“Besides… I can feel blood magic from your king. Seems a little dishonest to me,” the woman continues, then something strange happens. Her essence materializes into ash, which coalesces into a chair. At the same time, she reaches into the shadow of her aura and pulls… a bowl of food.
By the Watcher!
If only I could do the same thing, store items in my shadow… then... I could store guns! Explosives! Maybe a whole canon! That would be so great… Wait, no Ariane, focus. The big one is about to speak.
“Then, perhaps…” the ‘King’ starts in a voice like shredded metal, before coughing. “Perhaps you would be interested to side with us after all-” he finishes.
If the pitch was not already enough to betray his inhumanity, the blood would. The scent is tangy, reminding me of Wendigo. The thing on the ground is fouled, but what runs in his veins… now that would be something.
“My King! You mustn’t,” one of the sovereign’s attendants interrupts.
The King just punts him into a wall.
Alright then. It might make for a GOOD HUNT, STRONG PREY. Wait, hold on, I was going to negotiate my return. This is not time to start shedding blood, if I can even do it. Who knows how powerful they are? I need to be cautious, extremely cautious.
“A… being… of ash. And one of blood,” the king says with an empty chuckle. “Would you not serve me? You could be lords… whole continents would cower before your might. As heralds of King Abel.”
Cute, but something tells me we would have to conquer those continents ourselves. Besides, I SERVE NO ONE. Calm, Ariane, you need to stay calm. Diplomacy will get me through this.
“I’m quite happy where I am. Can you send us back now please? I have obligations and I’m sure the same is true for you.” the woman says and she once more turns to me, “I’m Ilea by the way, nice to meet you. Like the daggers and the whole corpse-like thing you’ve got going on,”
“I am Ariane of the Nirari,” I grumble, “and I am not a corpse.”
Honestly, do corpses even move? Nonsense. At least she likes my daggers, so she has a few redeeming qualities.
Before I can introduce myself further, the woman continues.
“Hey you’re a vampire, right?”
Dread takes my heart. She knows! I really hope that my judgement was correct and that I can join necromancers and blood mage on the list of approved creatures or else, I am done for. I can taste her essence in the very air. She will obliterate me if she wants to.
Perhaps… she could even hold her own against my sire.
“Don’t worry about it. As long as you’re not a feral monster trying to eat me, there shouldn’t be a problem,” she continues with the same unsettling smile, as if everything was an amusing distraction for her. I feel that if that smile were to disappear, terrible things would occur.
At least I will be fine. It would take utter desperation or a truly maddening Thirst to force me to go against her.
“I am afraid such is not possible. Too much was invested to get you here. You will serve me. Willingly or not,” the king says, as he emits a powerful aura.
This is bad. I have no time to think, not time to plan. There is too much I do not understand.
“Hold on, friend, perhaps we should try to negotiate with them first…” I tell the firebrand at my side. We can stall. They are ready and prepared for us now, with lines of knights. If we wait, perhaps security will be laxer and we will have a better chance of escaping.
“Okay mate. Last chance. Beam us back or I will literally rip off your head,” the woman replies.
That’s her way of negotiating? Well, we’re in it now.
I prepare to dodge a spell but I am not a target. A globe of power emanating from the King spreads out and hits Ilea.
A ghastly wound explodes on her chest. Carmine blood stains her shirt, the ground, and her lips. That’s got to be a lung. This is it. I take out my dagger, call the power of the Herald in my claws and watch in amazement as the woman’s torso pops back in as if nothing had happened.
Mesmerized, I stand witness to a miracle. First, a full set of bone-coloured armor emerges from the shadow of her aura to cover her entire body. Then, the thundering essence around her takes shape and slides over the first defense to form a streamlined layer the color of ash, if ash shone like white stars. It clads her from head to toe in an intricate tapestry of scales and plates as elegant as they look sturdy. This is the work of a true master, designed for her. The only thing exposed is a pair of glacial blue eyes under forward-facing horns, and they look cold indeed. There is an anticipation in the air. The time for talk is over. Now, we Hunt.
“I don’t think you have a choice here,” she adds with a wink.
Indeed I do not.
And it’s your fault! Bah!
“Kill them!” the king screams as he discards his human form, exploding into a demonic grey-skinned abomination with a crown sitting atop a lupine skull. Quite tall too! Well, the bigger they are...the better they taste.
“Whoa, pretty disgusting there,” Ilea comments with the tone of a housewife seeing a half-rotten cabbage on the ground.
She’s correct, it is rather gross. Well, nothing to it. I move, and go after the knights first. The smart thing would be to go after the mages or the creature that can make someone’s chest explode from afar but I am counting on my unexpected ally to be the obvious target and she does not disappoint. She somehow appears in their midst and wrecks through them in moments. The magical armors which I had admired but moments ago folds like cheap paper as her strange back... tentacles? Literally rip the things apart.
I still want those breastplates, they look nifty.
I lay into the knights myself. I weave through them and stab necks, armpits and thighs, avoiding the protected areas. The knights’ movements are good but they are far too slow. Their blood smells like a lesser version of the King’s. Inhuman. TASTY.
“You dare defy me!?” the king roars with a broken voice,
“Yes, yes. I do dare. I’ve heard this so many times before. What the fuck did you expect, summoning powerful heroes here?” Ilea asks, sounding weirdly reasonable as limbs and broken corpses rain around her. I am moving forward and to the sides, using walls and the knight’s positioning against them. I need to avoid getting cornered. I stab and slash, sometimes pushing foes on the path of thrown spears and axes. The chaos of battle works to my advantage and allows me to stay one step ahead.
Ilea’s chest explodes once more, only to reform in instants. She does not even flinch.
I’m a bit jealous.
“You’ll need more than that!” she says like a fishmonger asking for more change.
Then she extends a hand and a cone of pure heat blasts vaporizes everything behind me.
“Hsss!” Hot hot hot. I’M ON FIRE. No, calm down, it’s just my second most expensive dress. Aaaaaah. I glare at the culprit who shrugs helplessly as her tentacles stab and gut a knight poised to strike her.
“My dress!” I complain. That bloody thing cost me two hundred dollars!
“Sorry… behind you!”
Yes, yes, I know. I jump forward and knee the creature in the chest plate to unbalance it, then stab it.
Should have just stabbed it.
My knees! Ow! This is getting worse and worse. I hiss once more as another knight uses the opening to nick my leg. And there go my leggings too. Unforgivable. VERMINS. KILL THEM ALL.
Ilea has nearly reached the King when one of the robbed mages erects a barrier. PATHETIC. I gather the power of the Herald in my claws and breach it. PREY. I fall on the robbed and Devour it in a second. Power, defiled and mighty roars in its veins. It calls for domination and violence, but it is also unstable and destructive. Delicious.
I raise my head to see the tentacle woman looking slightly amused. She points at the King who is still trying to make her chest explode as if this time, the result would be any different.
“That guy,” she says and points at the malformed sovereign.
A few dark spears blink into existence and rush the creature with enough speed and power to skewer a frigate. Our foe simply blocks it with its muscular arms, and I feel power reaching beneath me. Spikes of blood emerge from the ground. Before I can dodge, Ilea blinks before me and stop the onslaught by… simply standing there and letting them crash on her torso.
“Want a bite?” she offers
“Certainly,” I reply. The King looks like a prize.
Then she grabs me by the collar and tosses me forward.
Aaaaaah… Why that tricksy little… Ah! I twist my body mid-air and manage to land knives first into the creature’s eyes.
It opens a wide maw.
Before it can bite down, Ilea appears on its side and casually punch it. The impact sends the beast to the side. It is unbalanced.
It’s my chance.
I claw my way in its steely flesh and latch to its throat. I bite down.
The crown upon my brow is light, it is where it belongs now. The empire of Ys has suffered the independence of those squabbling kingdoms to the South for far too long. My father was weak, and it is time to strike! Those who resisted will be trampled, their wives shall weep and their children will die in darkness, mining leagues below the ground for the glimmering fuel that powers our machines.
Fools! My troops have been stalled by guerillas and armed peasants? Inconceivable. I need to take harsher measures.
Tarran Hill has fallen under the combined efforts of the alliance How did it ever come to this? I have no choice now, I will conduct the ritual, bind my essence to that of an Outsider. The others before me turned into half-mad demons but I will not succumb to its influence. I am far too strong for that…
I pull out. Power, unbridled, courses through my vein. The host was weak but the corrupting essence? It is incredible. Like a smooth fire begging to be unleashed. It tastes of cruel trickery and almost lies, of a game of patience that can never truly be lost.
I fall down to a knee. Oops? Teehee. Wait, no, now is not the time to lose my focus. I am a mighty ruffian-propelled vampiric projectile of death and destruction. I am sharp and devious and completely, completely sober. Yep!
“It is done,” I announce. Ilea blinks before me and I jump back in alarm, though she simply lowers her hands.
“No worries. I’m a healer,” she says.
Yes, you are the very essence of the Hippocratic oath, you lunatic.
“It will heal. There is no need,” I reply.
“Ah, you can regenerate too, nice, can you lose your head too?”
I don’t like where this conversation is going. But hey, it’s fun!
“In theory yes, though I would rather not find out. Why, can you? ” I ask with a smile.
“You’re drunk, aren’t you?”
The woman smirks. Blasted! I am made.
“No! I am not! Just curious, is all,” I say, taking great care to have a good pronunciation. There! No way she figures it out now. Ariane, queen of acting!
Instead of replying. She tears her head off.
Just like that.
I am not really here. Somebody managed to hypnotize me and I am now having a vivid hallucination. Either that or I am, in fact, dead, and must suffer for all eternity in this hell, enduring some sick being’s twisted sense of humor. Those are the only reasonable explanations I can think of.
“Huh, I did not expect a demonstration. Perhaps one day, I shall develop the power to erase selective memories. That would be nice,” I add.
“Want a bite?” she says, and throws it at me.
It really is her head. It’s still even smiling.
“Made you lose your head in five minutes, heh. Who are you… really?” I ask
“I told you, I’m Ilea. I was brought here from Elos and I intend to go back,” she says.
I have never heard of Elos. It is probably another plane. One thing is sure, if that woman is the norm, I don’t want to go there, ever. Being able to walk under a foreign moon is not worth having spare body parts thrown at you mid-conversation. I will still play nice though, in case she expects me to return the favor. I like my own head where it is now, thank you very much.
“Ilea… well met! I am a vampire as you have previously deducted. Do you perchance have a way to travel through the planes?”
Somebody get me out of here.
“Nice to meet you too, Ariane. I can only return to my own realm. Maybe one of the mages here can help out,” she suggests.
“The mages! Yes! How could I forget?”
We did not kill them all.
“I have no clue either, sorry,” she says.
I look around and focus. One heartbeat, behind the pillar.
“I found one,” I say, and go grab the man. I drag him back to the pedestal, kicking and screaming. Dessert! No wait, I need him alive. To go home!
“Return me to the United States, promptly!” I demand.
“We can’t… the magic required… it would take decades,” he whispers.
“I can supply it,” Ilea says. “You just provide the magic circle.”
“Can we trust this… creature?” I wonder.
Ilea shrugs. “No. Definitely not but do you have another idea?”
“The circle is simple… I understand it, studied it… for decades… please, let me live! I can bring you back,” the man pleads.
He smells delicious, like… a second main course. I Charm him in an instant, sweeping aside his pathetic defences. He is terrified and as a result, he wants to please. His survival depends on our goodwill. I lower the fear and fan the flames of devotion in his heart.
“You want to live, don’t you? You are a powerful mage, are you not?” I ask.
“Yes I do. I am, quite powerful. Wiser than even King Abel!”
“Then you would surely be able to bring us back to our realms. To protect your own people,” I say, and I do not need to bluff to make him believe it.
“Yes, of course. But the magic… it is impossible,” the man stammers out.
Not if Ilea fuels it. She can grow heads like some grow petunias. What’s a magical portal through time and space? I press on.
“With her help, it may be possible. You would be a hero! Having banished the monstrous creatures that have murdered your king!”
“I will get right to it! Only small modifications need to be made… but I can only send you back from where you have come… nowhere else,” he says and scrambles to the circle to complete it.
I watch his back with satisfaction.
“Impressive powers. Does that come with the vampire class?” asks the woman by my side.
“Class? I know of no such thing. What are you? If I might ask?”
“I’m a human. So are you, by the looks of it. You said United States? I’m from Earth too, though I don’t exactly call it home anymore. The place I’m from has magic and monsters. And quite a few opportunities to find power,”
“Human… you looked more monster than woman,” I add with some regret. I am so jealous.
“You too. Well, sometimes you just have to let it out, you know? Feels good to let loose and these fuckers deserved it. So, ready to go home?”
The man motions us to join him, the modifications to the magic circle done.
Last chance for a dessert.
“If I might ask... would you… would it be fine for you if… if I drank a little of your blood?”
By the Watcher, I sound like a Supplicant but this is a unique opportunity. I hope she does not take offence.
“Knock yourself out,” Ilea says. “But it does feel a little uncomfortable seeing you hold my head.”
I return the body part which I was still holding for the simple reason that it would feel inappropriate to boot it under some column while its owner is just right there, watching. She makes the thing disappear.
“This should suffice for blood,” she says, and use a tentacle to literally wrench her heart out, breaking her ribs and everything.
Alrighty then. I’m sure Isaac has some methods to make memories fade in the background. Definitely. I hope.
“A parting gift,” she says with a bright smile as her chest cavity fills out again.
“Erm, thank you, Ilea of Elos. It was an experience to make your acquaintance,” I reply. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again actually. Provided we are on the same side.
“Ready?,” Ilea asks as I step into the circle.
“Until we meet again.”
Teleportation. The ability to open a conduit through time and space, sending and retrieving people and goods from unfathomable distances in the blink of an eye. Truly, a wonder of magic. If I am being reasonable, I should not be surprised, nor angry, that the panicked mage would miss the mark by twenty paces and send me back just above the river.