Chapter 174: A Siren’s Call
The sun rose above the looming hills of Dusk Valley where the Cairn Tribe made their camp. Warlord Marek Helene sat outside the wooden fence and stared inside the enclosure at the creatures forgotten by history. The Unildyr lazed about the grass, munching on the bones of yesterday’s feeding. Their pitch-black eyes stared at Marek with a curious look that denoted some level of intelligence. The problem was, Marek didn’t know how intelligent.
“They’ve grown,” Nokuti muttered.
“Yes, they are about the size of a large dog, I think?” Crow guessed.
“It’s faster than what I thought it would be,” Marek admitted.
“If my ancient texts are any indication, they will only begin to grow more quickly from here on out,” Crow said.
“That’s unnerving,” Nokuti shivered.
“You simply don’t like them because the hatchlings hate you,” Crow said.
“They hate you too, Crow,” Nokuti gloated.
“Yes, I’m still trying to figure out why,” Crow sighed.
“You’re the smartest guy I know, I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Marek patted his back.
“At least they like you, my Lord,” Crow said.
“Not as much as they like Grim,” Marek shook his head. “They actually tolerate the axlean. I think Grim even managed to get as close as five feet to one of the hatchlings before they started growling at him. It was incredible.”
“Perhaps they can tell he is from a different Realm?” Nokuti said.
“Doubtful. Kyriil is from the Ivory Realm and he loves the Unildyr, yet they bare their sharp little teeth every time he tries to get close,” Crow said.
“What about Lysaila?” Nokuti asked.
“She’s refused to even get near the pen. Something about her lamia instincts screaming at her to stay away,” Marek shrugged.
“I envy her. The only reason I’m here is to make sure Marek is safe,” Nokuti sighed.
“What about Vaughn and Dawn?” Crow asked.
“Our twin archmagi have not visited the pens once, they said they have better things to do, whatever that means,” Marek grumbled.
An Unildyr hatchling raised his pale grey head and made a low-pitch cry. His brothers and sisters soon followed. Their tails waved slowly in a circular pattern.
“Looks like they are hungry,” Marek raised his hand.
The nearby warriors nodded at the signal. They grabbed the tied-up enemy scouts and tossed them into the pen. The Unildyr moved in a silver blur. Their long translucent claws shredded the helpless scouts in seconds.
Nokuti looked away in disgust, “I still can’t believe you actually brought those monsters with us.”
“We couldn’t just leave them in that cave,” Marek smiled wryly.
“Besides, imagine if we learn how to control them properly. The Realm could be ours,” Crow said.
Nokuti threw her hands up in the air, “I don’t have time for your ifs. Hollow Shade’s scouting parties are becoming more relentless every day. They will find us if this keeps up. We can’t fight all the armies of Hollow Shade when they do. Even if we gathered the armies we have amassed throughout Dusk Valley, we are still too small.”
“You’re right,” Marek nodded. “Which is why we need the help of the Adder Tribe.”
“The most influential of the Valley Tribes? A splendid idea. Should I start gathering intel on their elders? How do we plan on subjugating them?” Crow asked.
Marek shook his head, “We aren’t, not this time. They are too respected throughout the valley. Attacking them would mark us as enemies of all the other tribes. We can’t fight the Valley Tribes and Hollow Shade. But if we strike an alliance with the Adder people, then other tribes might follow us in our battle against the City of Shades.”
“The Cairn and Adder tribes have never been close. How do you plan on establishing an alliance?” Nokuti asked.
“I’ll personally meet with their chief. I have already called a meeting,” Marek said.
“Are you kidding me? There is no way in hell I’m going to let you go there yourself. The Adder Tribe is steeped in tradition. They already see you as a radical. If you go into their den, you won’t come out alive,” Nokuti said sternly.
“If the Cairn’s chief doesn’t go, how will we garner their respect? How will we convince them of joining our cause?” Marek asked.
“Send an Unildyr hatchling to the meeting. Show the Adder elders what we are capable of, that the Valley people have a chance to win this war if they stand with us,” Crow said.
“That’s way too dangerous, for both parties,” Nokuti warned.
“We can manage. The Unildyr are fine with a cage so long as it is spacious enough, has plenty of food, and the ride is short. Oh, and don’t forget there can’t be too many bumps. The last man in charge of the wagon didn’t fare so well... All in all, fairly easy to accomplish,” Crow said.
“He makes a viable point,” Marek nodded.
“You can’t be serious,” Nokuti groaned.
“We still need someone to guard the hatchling. The twins?” Crow asked.
“No, they said they were busy, remember? I don’t think they will be much help any time soon. Maybe Grim,” Marek said.
“No, the axlean already makes our people uncomfortable. Having him at the negotiations is too risky. Same goes for Lysaila. The Adder people revere snakes. Having a lamia there would only tempt them to capture her, who knows what they would do with her?” Crow said.
“Nokuti?” Marek looked at her with a glimmer in his eye.
“No way in hell will I guard one of those murderous babies. Nor will I leave your side, I am here to keep you from getting killed,” Nokuti kicked him lightly.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Marek smiled wryly.
“That only leaves Kyriil. He loves the Unildyr, he no doubt will take the job. The elf is eccentric, but he is still a powerful chromatic white high-master,” Crow surmised.
“You forgot the part where Kyriil is an idiot and a lecherous pig. We can’t leave him in charge of any Unildyr nor have him talk to any of the Adder elders,” Nokuti frowned.
“Which is why I’ll have Crow go with Kyriil to keep him in line,” Marek said.
“What?!” Nokuti’s eyes widened.
“I was already planning on taking Crow with me to the negotiations. I think this works well. Kyriil will keep the Unildyr safe during transport and Crow will act as my representative during the negotiations,” Marek said.
“As you wish, my Lord,” Crow bowed.
“Uh, no. You can’t trust Crow with something this important. He is an outsider,” Nokuti crossed her arms.
“That’s hurtful,” Crow mumbled.
“Crow may not have been born in the Cairn Tribe, but he has been with us longer than any of the others in our team. He has proven himself over and over. I trust him with my life, as should you. Crow will be my representative. That is final,” Marek placed his hand on the smaller man’s shoulder.
“Thank you for your trust, my Lord. I will not fail you,” Crow swore.
Nokuti stared daggers at the masked man. She bowed to Marek, “Very well, my Lord…”
“Thank you for understanding,” Marek smiled. He turned to Crow, “You’ll leave in a few days. The meeting place will be at Widow’s Crag at dawn.”
“Widow’s Crag is close to the river towns, how is that safe?” Nokuti said in exasperation.
“There may be many soldiers at the river towns, but none of them stray too close to the crags on account of how dangerous they can be during flood season. More importantly, none of Hollow Shade’s scouts will think to look there,” Marek explained.
“It’s still dangerous,” Nokuti warned.
“It will only be for one day. Crow, you can handle that, right?” Marek asked.
“I will try my best,” Crow nodded.
“Then it’s settled. Now, I need to go check on our own scout reports,” Marek walked away.
“If you’ll excuse me, general Nokuti, I have to go scrounge up whatever information we have on the Adder Tribe,” Crow bowed.
Nokuti glared at Crow’s back as the man walked away.
Nokuti pushed the tent flap aside and marched inside. Crow sat on his bedroll, his black cloak of feathers wrapped around him like a cozy blanket. He held an open book between his gloved hands.
Crow’s avian-skull mask rose at her entrance, “Nokuti, what a lovely surprise. What brings the venerable general to my humble tent at this late hour?”
“We need to talk,” Nokuti said.
“Wonderful, please take a seat,” Crow pointed to the only chair in the corner of the tent.
“I rather stand,” she crossed her arms.
Crow closed his book and put it aside, “Whatever makes you comfortable. I have to admit, I am quite happy that you have finally come to me for counsel. I have noticed you have been growing increasingly stressed as of late. I think I may be able to help; I have served Marek well as his advisor and I have no doubt I can do the same for you.”
“I’m not here for your advice,” she snarled.
“Oh. Well, that’s awkward. Ahem, how can I help you, general?”
“I was wondering the same thing.”
“I don’t trust you, Crow.”
“And yet you came into my tent in the middle of the night. That seems a bit contradictory, no?”
Nokuti crouched in front of Crow, face-to-face, “My mother used to tell me that the true character of a person could be discerned by the fear in their eyes.”
“She sounds like a wonderful person. I heard she passed away several years ago. My deepest condolences.”
“Hm. My mother was a wise person. She knew many things and I paid attention when she spoke. So you must understand why I feel so uncomfortable that this giant skull hides your face, even your eyes,” she tapped his bone-mask.
“That is a dilemma.”
“One that is easy to fix,” she wrapped her hands around Crow’s mask.
“I rather you not.”
Nokuti smirked, “Oh, why is that? Are you shy?”
Nokuti glanced at Crow’s hands, they rested at his sides without struggle. “You’re not even going to stop me from taking off your mask?”
“I wouldn’t be able to even if I tried.”
Nokuti glared at Crow and his calm demeanor. She released him and stepped away, “I changed my mind.”
“Splendid, so where were we?”
“You’re insufferable, you know that?”
“I have been called worse. Ah, I remember, you were saying you don’t trust me. I’m going to take a guess and say you don’t believe I can handle the negotiations with the Adder Tribe.”
“Do you expect me to gamble the fate of the entire Cairn on a man whom I can’t even see his face?”
“What about a man who has done nothing but helped and advised Lord Marek?”
“Only helped? What about the Unildyr?” Nokuti sneered.
“The Unildyr are the only means we have to shatter the Ebon Wall of Hollow Shade. If you have some other idea I’m all for it.”
Nokuti frowned, “It doesn’t matter if the Unildyr can destroy the walls. The problem is will they? Because what I saw today did not seem like a cooperative bunch of friendly beasts.”
“Okay, I’ll be the first one to admit that there may have been some unexpected results. The Unildyr are not as receptive to our care as I had hoped. But let’s be realistic. We actually managed to bring back an ancient species. All in all, I think we have done a splendid job so far.”
“And what guarantee do we have that the Unildyr won’t turn around one day and try to eat us instead?” Nokuti poked his chest.
“Have you heard of sirens?”
“Have you ever heard of the creature known as a siren?”
“...Once or twice. I think I overheard some of the sailors back in Hoarfrost Bay talking about them. Why?”
“Sirens are known to reside in Hoarfrost Bay. Luckily, we never encountered one when we sailed to the chrome gate last year.”
“I think I can handle any sea creature that might have attacked our ship,” Nokuti said confidently.
“I have no doubt. Do you know why a siren is dangerous?”
“Not particularly, but I’m guessing you do.”
Crow nodded, “Many people fear a siren’s voice. You see, sirens are elemental creatures, they possess both water and air mana. Together, a siren can create a melodic voice that can trick their victim’s mind and lure them into the sea. But the true danger of a siren is not their magic, it’s their sadism.”
“Sadism?” Nokuti furrowed her brow.
“Usually a predator hunts when they are hungry and they stop when they are full. Make no mistake, sirens are predators. The moment a victim falls into the water the siren drags them deep into the sea and feasts on their prey. Yet there are records of sirens luring sailors into the water and simply watching them struggle to swim in the freezing bay.”
“The sirens don’t kill the sailors, they don’t drag them underwater, they simply watch the sailors swim. Each time a sailor gets near their ship, the siren calls out with their voice, entrancing the sailor’s mind and bringing them back into the water. The sirens continue this until the sailor runs out of energy and drowns. The sirens then drag their prize away, not to eat, but to simply admire.”
Crow pointed to his skull-mask, “They usually take the skull of their prey as a trophy, just like frost giants. The difference being sirens will do this by the hundreds. They will decimate entire ship crews, not out of hunger, but because the simple matter of fact is, they are bored. And like many predators, sirens enjoy playing with their prey.”
“Great story, any point to this all?” Nokuti yawned dramatically.
“Sirens lure their victims with a mystical voice. The prey is unaware that they are being lured into a trap. All the while the siren sits back and watches, content to simply wait until their prey is ripe. My point is, if we don’t want to be unwary prey for the Unildyr then there is only one thing to do.”
“And what is that?”
“Keep them pleased. Don’t let them get bored. A bored sadistic predator is the most dangerous of all. And believe me, neither of us wants to be food for an Unildyr.”
Nokuti raised her eyebrow, “I know you told me that story to convince me how the Unildyr aren’t a threat, but you’ve only succeeded in the opposite. Honestly, I trust you less now.”
Crow sighed, “Okay, fine. Then what about this? If I was so untrustworthy, why haven’t I told anyone that Marek is a son of Hollow Shade’s Ruling Family, House Helene?”
Nokuti pounced on Crow and threw him to the ground. She hissed, and hovered her fangs over his throat, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t rip your throat out right now.”
“Marek hasn’t killed me despite my knowledge,” he whispered into her ear.
Nokuti shoved him away, “Marek knows?”
“Obviously, I told him. I am loyal to our lord, same as you.”
“Marek only ever told me his secret. How do you know about it?” Nokuti narrowed her eyes.
“I am literally our tribe's spymaster, in charge of information gathering. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t even know the name of the man I followed,” Crow dusted off his feathered cloak.
“And yet you still follow Marek, an aristocrat, a son of one of the families responsible for the attacks on our people for the last three centuries. Why?” Nokuti muttered.
“I believe Marek can change this Realm for the better.”
She sat down on the ground, “Even if it means plunging the entire Dusk Valley into war?”
“What? Are you having misgivings? You? Nokuti, the great vampire general, fearless mage of the Cairn Tribe? I don’t understand.”
“I doubt you would,” she laughed bitterly.
“Maybe if you explained. I find a friendly ear always helps.”
“As if you could be any help.”
“Try me,” Crow sat next to her.
“...It has to do with Marek, I can’t say.”
“I know he is a Helene. How much worse can it get?”
Nokuti bit her lip.
“You may not trust me, but Marek does. And you trust Marek, no? Besides, you can always kill me if I ever talk. Who better to voice your thoughts to?”
Nokuti sighed, “You really are insufferable.”
“...It was 16 years ago. Marek’s mother’s name was Tamora Helene, heir to House Helene. She had been kidnapped years earlier and had been forcefully married to Marek’s father, the previous tribe chief. But Tamora finally managed to get word out to her twin sister via a traveling merchant.”
“I see, things are beginning to make more sense…” Crow nodded slowly.
Nokuti wiped her eyes, “House Helene had sent a secret squad of soldiers to rescue Tamora. She wanted Marek to come with her, but he chose to stay with me. The morning the soldiers arrived, Tamora was waiting for them. Except it wasn’t just a squad. It was an entire battalion, they rushed our tribe’s tents, killing everyone in sight. ...They killed my parents.”
Nokuti cleared her throat, “When Tamora announced who she was, the soldiers cut off her head. I still remember Marek’s hoarse screams. The gentle giant I had always known died that day, all that was left was a vengeful son. Marek killed dozens of soldiers with his bare hands. I protected him with my magic. Our warriors fought off the enemy, but by the time we had won, half our tribe was dead, including our chief.”
“Marek doesn’t want revenge against Hollow Shade. He wants revenge against House Helene…” Crow muttered.
“And he’ll stop at nothing to get it. It’s consuming him. How many more innocents will have to die? How many more children will have to grow up without their parents. All because of this war Marek started. The war you helped him start… The one I helped him start. Ugh, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”
“I suspect you have been wanting to tell someone for a very long time. No one else knows Marek is a Helene. I was the only option, wasn’t I?” Crow said quietly.
“I never thought I would be telling you any of this,” she grumbled.
“Well, I do have one of those faces I suppose, wink, wink. Get it? I said wink because you can’t see my face.”
Nokuti rolled her eyes.
Crow cleared his throat, “So, let me get this straight. Everyone else thinks the Cairn Tribe was simply unlucky and attacked by another army sent by Hollow Shade to exterminate the Valley Tribes. No one knows their families died because of Marek’s mother. That would really change their leader’s narrative wouldn’t it?”
“If you tell anyone,” Nokuti glared at him, her fangs glinting in the candlelight.
Crow raised his hands in surrender, “My lips are sealed. My only question is, why did House Helene betray Tamora?”
Nokuti clenched her fists, “Isn’t it obvious? Tamora’s twin sister wanted the Helene throne. Everyone already thought Tamora had died years ago. She just made sure it was the truth. Luckily, Tamora never mentioned Marek. Otherwise, they would have sent more soldiers.”
Crow chuckled to himself.
Nokuti frowned, “A-are you laughing? Are you actually fucking laughing!?”
“A bit, yes.”
“What's wrong with you? How can you find any of this funny!?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he shrugged.
She shot to her feet, “This was a mistake. I should have never told an insolent ass anything.”
Crow stood up slowly, “Oh, Nokuti, that's what I love about you. I mean there are so many things I find endearing about you; Your loyalty to Marek, your devotion to the Cairn Tribe, and let’s not forget your magical prowess or that fierce yet beautiful expression, like the one you’re wearing right now.”
Nokuti pulled out her dagger, “Are you really hitting on me you cad!”
Crow snapped his fingers, “And there it is! What I love about you most, your anger. That prideful anger that tricks you into believing you can do anything. That is your curse, you were unlucky enough to be born with a taste of power. The prodigy of the Cairn, life must have been easy for you. You probably thought you could shape your future in whatever way you wished, fate was yours to control.”
Nokuti placed the tip of the dagger under his jaw, “Be quiet before I slit your throat and drain you dry.”
“Hm. Except that perfect little ideal world was ruined the moment your precious tribe was attacked. You realized that you couldn’t stop your parents from dying, because contrary to your belief, you were not actually powerful, you had no control. It’s the same realization you are having now. You can’t kill me, because we both know Marek instructed you not to touch me. And you are oh so loyal to him, aren’t you?” Crow pushed the dagger away.
She clenched her jaw but said nothing.
“You are angry, Nokuti, though not at me. You wish you could stop Marek and end this war before it even really begins. But you can’t, can you? Because at the end of the day, you know deep inside, you don’t have the resolve to stop the one you love. You hate that about yourself. A pawn beholden to her own feelings.”
“I am no one’s pawn,” she growled.
“Of course not. You simply came into my tent to lash out your anger and frustrations because it was the only logical and reasonable conclusion. No?”
“I am going to kill you someday,” Nokuti snarled.
“I really do love that anger in those scarlet eyes,” Crow said tenderly.
“...What are you really after?”
Crow placed a finger on his chin in thought, “Hm. Would it be too straightforward if I said, ‘You?’”
Her brown cheeks flushed red with anger. She clenched her dagger with a white-knuckle grip.
“Someday,” she muttered and turned to leave.
“Have a lovely evening, general.”
“You truly are insufferable.”
Crow sat down and picked up his book, “Noted.”