A note from jayfiction99

The dust settles, and with it comes some final revelations. Cole and Natalie confront ugly truths about their natures while Captain Iron-teeth finds some closure. 

Chapter 43: Dead Dreams

“Saleem’s experiment with attaching broken souls to a homunculus body is promising but ultimately not useful for my goals. Shredding a soul into pieces and using those pieces to grow new souls in artificial bodies is clever but limited. Resulting in little more than overly complicated asexual reproduction. No, I need to go deeper than that. Recycling a soul is not the answer. Creating a new one from scratch is.” - Notes of Countess Isabelle Gens Silva.

Cole fell through ashen skies, his cloak flapping in bitter winds as he plummeted. Arms and legs flailing, he tried to fall properly, not tumble through the air like a maple seed. Finding a balance, Cole hurtled towards the ground, watching the blasted ruins below him come closer. As shock and panic faded into understanding, Cole set his jaw and prepared for whatever his dream had in store.

Like in his previous dreams, he wasn’t alone in the sky; in fact, the dusty hellscape of his vision was practically crowded. Hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses plummeted around him. Trying to shield his eyes from the ash and wind, Cole swallowed dryly and looked for anyone he knew among the corpses. The bodies were in better shape than in previous dreams, or at least they were intact. It was hard to tell in the dizzying descent, but Cole thought the corpses looked like natural deaths. Many were old or gaunt, burdened with many years and hardships. The closest body was of an elderly man with a thick beard and a shrunken frame—the look of someone subjected to too much magical healing.

Looking away from the corpse, Cole watched the approaching ground and awaited impact. It didn’t take long; he slammed into an ash mountain with bone-crunching force. Yet the dream didn’t end, leaving Cole buried in soot. His arms, legs, and probably more of him was broken. Cole started to panic as breathing became hard; suffocation was a horrible way to go.

The ash started to shift before true terror or asphyxiation could grip him, rolling under Cole like the ocean surface. Uncovering his face and exposing him to the terrible eclipsed hellscape. Other bodies fell nearby, raining down with wet thunks and meaty cracks. Cole watched the old man splatter a few meters away, wincing as the worn body practically detonated on impact.

Before the last drops of blood could return to earth, the corpse shifted. Cole watched ash slither along its flanks and fuse with the body’s injuries. A chill went down Cole’s spine as he realized how similar the process was to a Vampire’s regeneration. A parody of that horror, with ash becoming dead flesh, instead of the reverse. More and more ash covered the corpse, solidifying into muscle and skin. Encasing the ruined corpse in a new body, a very familiar body. Cole sucked in a rattling blood-flaked breath as his doppelganger sprung into existence.

A bolt of lightning flashed down from the heavens and struck the faux-Cole. Ears ringing with the ensuing thunder, Cole blinked away after images as the faux-Cole started to move. It slowly stood up on shaky legs and started to shuffle toward Cole. Uncertain of what to do, Cole could just stare as his copy crouched down over him. Reaching out to touch his face. As its fingertips brushed Cole, an excruciating shock bit through him, and he screamed in pain.

Eyes startling awake, Cole blinked away his dream as the last bits of a scream escaped his lips. The entirety of the Tenth Temple clinic waiting room was staring at him with undisguised fear. Rubbing his face and hissing a curse, Cole stretched out his legs and yawned. He’d fallen asleep waiting while the healers treated Yara. As the final bits of awareness returned to him, Cole realized he didn’t know where Natalie was. Getting up, he ignored the nervous looks he got and headed deeper into the clinic.

Sniffing the air, Cole sifted through the smells of sickness and medicine until he found a familiar lily scent. A side effect of Natalie’s undeath was any perfume or soap she used lasted far longer than it had any right to. Finding the scent, Cole followed it. He’d gotten used to his improved nose, and tracking Natalie’s passage was easy enough. Passing an open hospice room, Cole caught another familiar smell. Not of a person, but of an eventuality he knew all too well.

Glancing into the room, he saw a trio of solum tenders moving a wrapped body onto a cart. Seeing him, one of the tenders stepped over to the door and tried to shut it, only to be stopped by Cole’s strong hand. The corpse was wrapped up except for its face, traditionally the last part to be shrouded. Cole recognized the body; it was the withered old man from his dream.

The corpse tender looked up at him with undisguised fear, his hands gesturing in funeral cant. Cole winced; some Priests and followers of Master Time took vows never to speak while handling a fresh corpse. Hoping not to disturb the soul still trapped inside the husk. Cole couldn’t ‘speak’ the hand language of funeral cant, but he knew enough to tell the Priest was asking him to leave.

Forced to pantomime, Cole gestured to the body and his amulet, letting a little glow escape the metal hourglass. The Priest hesitated but let Cole pass. To have your soul freed by a Paladin was a great honor; he wouldn’t rob the dead man of such final rites. Stepping over to the body, Cole reached out and touched the cooling flesh of the body. Pouring his power into the remains and breaking the link between body and soul. He released a relieved breath as he felt the man’s soul and departure. Nodding to the Priests, he turned to leave. The corpse-tenders bowed to him and returned to work, shutting the door in his wake.

Taking a few steps down the hallway, Cole leaned against the cold stone and let out a shuddering breath. Shoveling through his memory, Cole tried to confirm what he already knew. He’d not ever seen the dead man until his dream. The old man had died just minutes ago, right around the time Cole was sleeping. Just as the implications settled on Cole, a familiar voice caught his attention.

“Hells NO!” it was Natalie, speaking with that whisper-shout, angry people trying to be quiet used.

Sighing to himself, glad to have the distraction, Cole followed Natalie’s hissed curses and rebukes. Finding her and Hierophant Hedwig standing outside another room. Both women glared whole-greatswords at each other, clearly about to start arguing. Clearing his throat, Cole got their attention; both Vampire and Elder Priestess had the sense to look a little embarrassed at his arrival.

“What’s going on?” he murmured, going over towards Natalie, noting how agitated his partner looked.

Hedwig sucked in a calming breath and said. “The woman you brought to us is suffering severe withdrawal from the Sting. She’s not in good physical condition, and the stress will most likely kill her. If she is to survive with all her organs intact, she’ll need to be eased off the Sting, not cut from it.”

Cole slowly nodded his head. “And you want Natalie to provide the venom to help?”

Glaring at him, Natalie shook her head. “I know what that stuff does to a person. She’ll be my thrall, my slave! I won’t do that to someone!”

Letting out a sad sigh, Hedwig nodded. “I admire your conviction and wouldn’t ask if there was another option.”

Licking her fangs, Natalie glanced around the hallway like a trapped animal. “What about the other Vampires in the city? Couldn’t one of them do it?”

Hedwig’s eyes flicked to Cole, and she said. “They can be difficult to contact, especially with Cole here. I know at least three enter voluntary torpor whenever a Paladin is in the city. The paranoia of ‘immortals’ and all that. I could get one of them in a few nights, but I don’t know if Yara has that long.”

Seeing Natalie’s next excuse, Hedwig shook her head. “You can ask Morri, but I think your prisoner is in a deep healing torpor. Heavy bindings are being placed on him, and the Temple will not permit him to awaken until we are completely certain he cannot escape. The Scarlet Knight will be of little use for weeks at least; if Yara is to survive, you will need to help her.”

A series of emotions rippled across Natalie’s face before genuine fear won out. Grabbing Cole’s hand, she pulled him down the hallway and into an empty room. Looking up at him, she whispered. “Annoch the Binder was a master of breaking people. He would enslave people and twist them into horrible, horrible things….”

Licking her lips, mustering up her courage, Natalie whispered. “When the thirst takes control, I get terrible thoughts, of… of being like Annoch. Cole, I can’t do this; I can’t risk a single step on that path.”

Setting a hand on her shoulder, Cole leaned down, pressing his forehead against hers. “You are helping save a life, Nat. That’s nothing like the Alukah.”

Shying away slightly, Natalie shook her head. “Well, maybe this is how Annoch started, using his powers trying to help people. Maybe this is the excuse I need to-”

Cole cut her off with a kiss. Natalie resisted for maybe half a second before giving in to the kiss. Ending it, Cole stroked her hair and said. “I very much doubt this path leads to damnation. Even if it does, I’ll stop you well before you reach perdition.”

Melting against his chest, Natalie asked in a very small voice. “Promise?”

“I promise,” answered Cole, and they hugged. After a moment, a slight chuckle escaped Natalie, and Cole frowned. “What’s funny?”

Shrugging, she said, “You promising to kill me shouldn’t be so comforting.”

Cole shook his head. “I wouldn’t kill you; I could never do that. But if I needed to, I would seal you and the Alukah away until a solution could be devised.”

Another bitter laugh slipped from Natalie. “I guess I’ll take that instead. Alright, I think I can do this.”

Detaching from Cole, Natalie opened up the door and returned to Hedwig. “I’ll do it,”

Before her own doubts could catch up, Natalie entered the clinic room and approached Yara. The redheaded woman looked horrible, closer to a corpse than Natalie did. Sucking in a pointless breath, Natalie glanced at Hedwig. “So what do I need to do?”

The Hierophant put a hand on Yara’s head and whispered an incantation; the unconscious woman shifted slightly and moaned. “Give her a half dosage; if you aren’t exact, it won’t be terrible, but the closer you get, the better.”

“Lovely,” whispered Natalie as she exposed Yara’s neck and felt venom build up in her fangs. She knew little about the magic or mutation that produced the different toxins. Still, Natalie had learned enough to tell them apart and call up the right one. The Sting was a terrible thing, a potent narcotic, aphrodisiac, and hypnosis aid all in one. A snakebite might kill a person. A vampirebite would do more; it could destroy them.

Sinking her fangs into the exposed skin, Natalie let some of the venom flow into Yara. It was difficult to tell how much she was using, and Natalie was forced to inject the poison slowly. Giving Yara’s heart enough time to push the venom through her veins… and effect the little bit of blood Natalie was taking. A moan of pleasure escaped her as the spiced blood entered her mouth. It was delicious, an utterly enrapturing taste that would have had her shivering with ecstasy if she still could. Natalie started to drink more, letting the venom flow faster.

As the ambrosia tried to lull Natalie into a gluttonous stupor, she used all her willpower to pull away from Yara. Stumbling back, not bothering to shut the wound, Natalie hissed in frustration. The taste had been wonderful and irrational anger flowed through her at being denied. Forcing down her instincts, battering the thirst away with naught but will, Natalie looked to the other people in the room. Cole was close by, hand outstretched, concern writ large upon his face.

A wave of lust, hunger, and sheer desire slammed into Natalie as her roused instincts mutated her mundane feelings. Mouth stained red, she started to move towards Cole. Natalie wanted him in every way she could and denied one pleasure; she’d settle for another.

The world slowed as Natalie lunged for him, her supernatural speed stretching seconds into relative minutes. She could watch as Cole’s eyes widened in shock and his face contorted in fear. The vampire relished the sight; the human recoiled from it. In the time measured in panicked heartbeats, Natalie started, fought, and ended an internal war. She pounced, but not for Cole; Natalie propelled herself at the nearby wall, slamming into it with enough force to rattle the room. Stopping the desire to attack was impossible, so Natalie had foiled her strike. Veering off and smacking into the stone like a feline doped up on catmint.

Blinking away red stars, Natalie groaned and looked up to see Cole standing over her, his amulet in hand, ready for an attack. Smiling up at him sadly, Natalie sighed. “I… I didn’t hurt you.”

Cole relaxed and reached down to help her up; Natalie scooted away, gesturing for him to give her a moment. Shutting her eyes, Natalie pushed through the last bits of her blood frenzy and stood up. Rubbing ash from her scalp, Natalie looked over towards Yara and Hedwig. The Priestess has put herself between Natalie and the thrall, both her hands glowing with power. One was touched to Yara’s neck, healing the bite, the other ready to support Cole in subduing Natalie.

Shaking her head and releasing a tired breath, Natalie said, “It's not just a drug for the thralls; I’ve never tasted blood that good before.”

Then after a moment’s thought, she went over to a clean bedpan nearby and spat into it, trying to get the taste of the spiced blood out of her mouth. “Evil, evil stuff. I should be better prepared if I must do that again, but… I’d rather not.”

Hedwig let her magic fade, a solemn frown on her face. “I didn’t realize how much of a toll this would put on you, Natalie. The few times I’ve seen a Vampire help wean a thrall, they didn’t react like you did. I’m sorry; I’d not have asked if I knew another way to help my patient.”

Thinking on that, Natalie shrugged. “I’m still young. Staying in control is hard sometimes. The others probably have more experience or… are dulled to the taste. No matter, it was terrible, but I saved someone.”

They left the clinic soon after, it would take a few days for Yara to be in any shape to talk, and Natalie wanted to be as far away from her as possible. Dawn was coming soon, so they returned to the apartment. Cole was monosyllabic the entire trip, his mind clearly elsewhere. Ratcheting up Natalie’s tension to nerve-snapping levels. She was trying not to think about how she’d almost attacked him in the clinic, but clearly, he was.

Back in private, Cole absently went over to the newly purchased chest containing Isabelle’s skull. Plucking the polished bone from the box, Cole examined it, Natalie silently watching. A flicker of anger passed over Cole’s face, and he put the remains back into the chest and locked it with a little more force than necessary. Slumping into a nearby chair, Cole put his head in his hands.

Worried and uncertain, Natalie stepped closer and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Cole looked up at her with genuine confusion before realization set in. “Oh, Love, I’m not angry with you.”

It was Natalie’s turn to be confused. “You aren’t?”

Shaking his head, Cole reached out for her; his hand was trembling. “No, you did really well at the clinic. You stumbled but didn’t fall, which is incredible, all things considered.”

Cole’s other hand was on his neck, and Natalie looked at his scars. Seeing the collar, he seemed to be trying to wipe away. “Did Isabelle use her venom on you?”

Letting out a breath, Cole glanced towards the chest. “Yes, but only a little bit. Never enough to fully addict me, but just… a little spice.”

Balling her hands into fists, Natalie let out an angry hiss, “That bitch.”

Cole shook his head. “In the Duchies, using a small amount of Sting is considered… kind. The pleasure it brings is a payment for the blood. It’s twisted, but… what isn’t among the Nocturnal Nobles.”

Scrunching her face up, Natalie sighed. “I get it, but I still don’t like it. So if it's not my ‘stumble,’ what’s bothering you?”

Forcing his hand away from his throat, Cole grimaced. “Isabelle didn’t overuse the Sting, but my captors did.”

Lips parting in understanding, Natalie was about to accept that offered explanation. But some gut instinct stopped her. “What else?”

A snort escaped Cole, and he offered Natalie a sad smile. “You know me too well.”

Letting out a breath, he explained his dream to her. Natalie listened in silence as he described the ashen wasteland and some of his previous visits to them. He’d told her about meeting Master Time and Isabelle in his dreams before, but never before painting the full picture of his falling nightmares. “At first, I thought they were just some manifestation of guilt. But… that’s seeming less and less likely. I’m worried, Natalie; I’m worried about what I am.”

Rolling up one sleeve to show his now scarless forearm, Cole continued. “Usually, I regenerate a limb with some of the old scars; I’ve never had one fully ‘cleaned’ like this before. Something is happening, and I don’t know what.”

Cole clasped his hands together to stop them from shaking. “I’m resurrecting faster than I used to and have gotten stronger than any normal human. I gained strength after using up my soul against Petar and a better nose after helping the Werefolk. This can’t be a coincidence, and now… now with the dead man.”

Looking up at Natalie from his spot, Cole swallowed down a sob. “Isabelle told me my regeneration was powered by the ambient Aether. She said it works similarly to a curse or other self-perpetuating spell. But… I think there has to be more than that; I think I’m doing something to the dead around me.”

The words spilled from him like disemboweled entrails, and their effect on Cole seemed only marginally less painful. Pointing at the box containing Isabelle’s skull, he growled. “I don’t even think she knows how I work, Natalie! I’m changing, transforming, I can feel it, but I don’t know where it's heading.”

Natalie sat down next to Cole and rested herself on his shaking form. “So am I, Cole. You aren’t alone in this; I’m with you. We might be monsters, we might be cursed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good life together.”

They were familiar words, gifted by Master Time to Natalie, now regifted to Cole. Just as they’d pierced Natalie, they broke through to Cole. Sucking in a shuddering breath, Cole squeezed her knee and whispered, “Thank you, and I’m sorry I broke down like that. Tonight was difficult on you, and I should have-”

Natalie leaned over and bit Cole’s ear, not hard enough to draw blood but enough to hurt. “W-what was that?”

Giving him an annoyed stare, she answered. “Stopping you from apologizing for doing the right thing. Yeah, tonight’s been miserable. Hells, the last few… MONTHS! have been miserable. But we can help each other deal with it, so stop worrying and let me hug you.”

Cole obliged, and they sat together, two damaged souls finding solace in each other. Softly, Natalie said, “Whatever is happening to you, it can’t be too terrible. It’s not like Master Time would make you his champion if you were some soul-eating horror.”

Cole didn’t answer, and Natalie leaned over to look him in the eyes. Unwilling to meet her gaze, he said. “Master Time gave one of the first Vampires, a nation-eating demigod of blood, his Stigma.”

Natalie blinked at that and sighed. “Fuck.”

The Weinstadt Guard Tower was in good spirits. More than a week had passed since the fall of House Louon, and their Captain was being hailed as a hero across the city. Most of the ill will growing in Weinstadt over their guards' perceived failure had evaporated. Aiding a Paladin in slaying a Demon and then bringing down a corrupt noble family would have that effect on all but the most jaded citizenry.

It was in this high atmosphere that Arkaz Iron-teeth found himself unusually dour. With the stress of the Heart-stealer murders off him, he’d been able to recover from his ailment and return to work full time. Watching over a reasonably subdued thirteenth district and managing the final aftershocks of the whole incident.

Sitting in his office alone, Iron-teeth stared at the medal on his desk, his reward for surviving Milda. There was talk about the city awarding him, the Paladin, his inner circle, and a few others medals for their heroics. The city was trying to turn this mess into some grand success. Iron-teeth was disgusted by the whole proposition. Memories of charred meat and dying screams told him this hadn’t been a success. Isac Louon wasn’t the only one to die in the fire; innocent members of his family and all manner of servants had died in the blaze.

Looking down at his medal, Iron-teeth got up from his desk and went to the nearby arming cabinet. Pulling out his weapon, a stout dwarven krazkrak, he returned to his desk and smashed the medal with a single violent strike. Bits of metal exploded across the room, and the desktop cracked. Sighing, Iron-teeth set down his weapon and got to work cleaning up after his little act of idiocy.

Cat-eyes found him like this, bent down, collecting bits of scrap off the office floor. “Uh, you okay, sir?”

Grunting in annoyance, Iron-teeth dropped the metal fragments onto his desk. “Yes, just taking care of overdue work. Do you need something, Alia?”

Shrugging, she said, “I was heading home for the night and wanted to make sure you hadn’t fallen asleep in your office again.”

Iron-teeth snorted. “I’m not dead or senile yet, girl. I’ll be leaving soon enough. See you tomorrow and say hi to Mina for me. I haven’t seen her for a while now.”

Cat-eyes twitched slightly at that. Her burgeoning relationship with the Priestess was annoyingly public. “Will do; she’s been busy with the Temple but she thinks she’ll be back with us in another week.”

Fleeing any more awkward conversation, Alia waived and shut the office door behind her. “G’night”

Grunting in response, Iron-teeth returned to cleaning up his medal. Iron-teeth let out a weary sigh as the final piece fell into the trash. He’d once dreamed of seeing Louis Louon and his family seeing justice for all the good people they got killed. Now all Iron-teeth could think about was how pitiful the whole situation was.

Slipping on his coat, Iron-teeth buckled on his krazkrak and locked up his office. Saying his goodbyes, he left the Tower and headed toward the seventh temple. He had one more stop he needed to make before going home. A stop he’d made every night since Louon Keep burned.

The Priests of Aunt Seeress knew to expect him and led him where he wanted to go. They had tried to stop him the first few times he’d visited. But dissuading a resolute Dwarf was like punching through a boulder, requiring unnatural strength. Eventually, the Priests simply decided to let Iron-teeth visit with their prisoner and patient.

When he first came, Iron-teeth had expected Liam Louon to be locked away in some moldering dungeon, wrapped in chains and manacles. The truth couldn’t be more different. Liam floated in a clear glass sphere, suspended in a murky fluid, a bubble of enchanted air around his mouth and nose. Every time Iron-teeth saw the sight, it made his insides shudder. Liam had been badly burned, and his skin was a horrifying mass of fresh wounds. Floating in the semi-opaque fluid, he looked like some ancient bog sacrifice to a Fell God.

Stepping close to the sphere, Iron-teeth noted the carefully carved sigils marking the glass. Where the Tenth Temple fought the Undead, the Seventh dealt with defilers of mind and magic. Their ‘prison cells’ would contain all but the most powerful Magi or Seer. A little much for the burned wretch currently inside one, but Iron-teeth wasn’t complaining.

“I see you’re still sleeping.” the old soldier whispered to the Heart-stealer. “No matter, I’ll keep coming back.”

Staring up at the withered husk of a man, Iron-teeth shook his head. “I pity you, boy. I despise you, but I understand why you became what you are.”

Knocking on the glass, Iron-teeth turned to leave. As he did, the ruined body inside the sphere started to twitch. Cracked, burnt lips opened, and words came from smoke-scorched lungs. They were carried through the air bubble and into the wider room by some magic Iron-teeth didn’t care to guess at.

“K-k-kill me.”

Iron-teeth’s escort ran from the room, going to alert someone the prisoner had finally awoken, leaving the captain alone with the heart-stealer. So no one heard what Iron-teeth answered.

“The Goblins used to give wounded prisoners they couldn’t ransom to their Witches. Every soldier in my squad carried a mercy dagger, except for me. Not because I didn’t fear capture, I just had something better.”

Reaching into his pocket, Arkaz Iron-teeth found the small nail he’d kept there for this reason. He’d never had the talent to be a true Runesmith, but his grandmother had taught him a few tricks. Etched on the nail head was the rune for force, and wrapping the actual nail was the rune for penetration. Making two of the most basic runes had tested Arkaz’s abilities. Years ago, he’d created the little charm as a secret weapon and hung onto it out of nostalgia and paranoia.

Placing the nail’s point against the glass, Arkaz whispered the activation word and released the magic he’d forced into the runes. With a violent crack, the nail shot forward, piercing the glass and shattering it into a storm of fragments. Arkaz covered his face and ignored the sting of sharp glass as the sticky fluid of the cell flowed out in a wave. As the storm of debris ended, Arkaz looked at his handiwork. The sphere was totally gone; its innards spilled out on the ground before him, including the twitching body of Liam Louon.

Leaning down over the Heart-stealer, Arkaz quickly snapped his neck. Ending the murderer’s suffering with a single quick yank of strong dwarven hands. Priests of the Seventh Temple rushed in then, just as Arkaz wiped his hands clean on his coat. Everyone in the room was shocked, Iron-teeth had visited Liam multiple times, and this wasn’t the first time he’d been alone with the Heart-stealer.

Looking at them, Arkaz shrugged and said, “He asked for mercy, and I answered.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, a mirthless smile showed the captain’s shining teeth. “I don’t think I have to worry about them giving me a medal now.”

Cole had never visited the grand opera house of Vindabon before; neither duty nor interest had pulled him to the institution that earned the city its epitaph. Now as he and Natalie sat in box seats watching a performance, he understood why Vindabon was the City of Music and Dreams.

The opera they’d gotten seats for was a relatively new and scandalous performance, at least according to Hierophant Hedwig, who was a clear enjoyer of the art form. It was called The Fall of Antoia, and two hours into the show, Cole knew why it was receiving so much attention. It depicted a sordid romance between a Sidhe Princess and a human bard. Anything to do with the Sidhe was more than taboo, and portraying one in a positive light was tantamount to heresy in some more conservative regions.

Still, from the moment the curtain rose, Cole couldn’t take his eyes off the opera. Magic and mundane talents were woven together to create a stunning show. Act two was coming to a close, and doing so with an excellent finale, Princess Antoia and Wil the Bard danced through the air on sculpted light. Both singers harmonized their voices and movements as they twirled along a shaft of moonlight.

Antoia’s wings had been sculpted from lace and dipped in some kind of phosphorescent paint so they glittered and sparkled with every movement. Her long dress dripped down from her and rippled in an unseen breeze, as she floated through the air. Wil the Bard, by comparison, was grime stained and shabby. Wearing a threadbare robe and a sculpted mask of white wood. The mask symbolized the stolen Sidhe name Wil used to enter the faerie court.

As the couple's duet ended, Antoia leaned down to her smaller suitor and pulled up his mask, kissing him as the music swelled. Drifting down off the moonbeam, they settled onto the stage just as a troop of Sidhe knights in patina-stained armor exploded onto the stage in a puff of technicolor smoke. At their head, a hulking brute with antlers and a spear of carved bone. With a wave of his spear, green ribbons shot up from the stage and wrapped around the lovers, pulling them apart.

Antoia wailed and pleaded with her father, the Stag Lord, but he ignored her. Stomping over towards Wil, the Stag Lord started to sing. Proclaiming the Bard a liar and a thief, unworthy of his daughter by nature and by birth. As his baritone rumble peaked, the Stag Lord lunged forward and struck Wil with his spear.

The audience gasped, and a dozen extras covered head-to-toe in green bounded up from offstage, trailing brown ribbons behind them. They swarmed over Wil, wrapping him in the ribbons. Binding him tight and tossing the extra length into the air, where some wire or magic caught them. As the extras faded away, the Stag Lord stamped his staff on the ground, and a peal of thunder mixed with bird song filled the theatre.

Clouds of strange multi-hued fog swirled up and around the imprisoned Wil. When the Bard was fully hidden from view, the Stag Lord took a mighty breath and blew, sending wind to push away the fog. Revealing a barren willow tree in place of the Bard. Antoia ran to the tree weeping, wrapping her arms around it and collapsing. As she fell, the curtain came down, ending the second act.

Murmurs and light clapping escaped the audience as the intermission started. Leaning back in his chair, Cole looked over at Natalie. She wore a serious frown and looked positively upset. A little surprised, Cole leaned over to her. “What’s wrong?”

Looking at him, she sighed. “I don’t like sad stories, I understand their purpose, but I still don’t like them.”

Blinking away his surprise, Cole was shocked. “You think this is a sad story?”

Now it was Natalie’s turn to look confused. “Wil was just turned into a jagging willow tree, Antoia is going to avenge him but lose everything in the process.”

Shaking his head, Cole let out a chuckle. “I don’t think so; I think this story will have a sweet ending.”

Crossing her arms, Natalie raised an eyebrow. “I think the ending will be bitter. The play is literally called The Fall of Antoia.

Shrugging, the Paladin found one of the Vampire’s hands and squeezed. “I guess we just have to wait and see.”

“You were right,” grumbled Natalie as she finished clapping and leaned against Cole. The opera company had just left the stage, and the applause was thunderous.

Careful to not let his strength translate into deafening claps, Cole just smiled and shrugged. As the last cheers faded and people started to leave the Opera hall, Cole said, “We both were. The ending was bittersweet.”

Shaking her head, Natalie gestured down at the closed curtain. “Antoia changed Wil back and ran away with him. They got married and lived a life together.”

Cole stopped clapping and said. “Antoia had to give up her connection to the Fae, becoming mortal and unable to ever go home again. A fair price to pay for true love, but still a price.”

Natalie thought about it. “I guess that does make it a little bittersweet. But I think a happy ending with a touch of sadness isn’t a sad ending..”

Getting up from her seat, Natalie stretched. A strictly unnecessary gesture for a vampire, but she enjoyed how the act drew Cole’s eyes. The Schneiders had made her another dress, and it fit wonderfully. Smiling at Cole’s sheepish admiration, she tapped his chest and the amulet hidden beneath his clothes. “You always have had a thing for hourglasses, haven’t you?”

Cole snorted with genuine laughter, pulled himself up, and pulled Natalie into his arms. “I enjoyed the Opera; how about you?”

Natalie snuggled into him and sighed. “I honestly preferred the street theatre, it didn’t take itself as seriously, and the rawness of it had an appeal. Which did you prefer?”

Glancing around the opera house and all its filagree and fashion, Cole said. “The Opera. It required more investment than the street theatre, which made its story more rewarding.”

Nodding in understanding, Natalie detached herself from Cole with great reluctance. “Well, you finally took me to the Opera; what do we do next?”

Thinking about Harmas, and the war, Cole let out a tired breath. “Enjoy life together and help who we can.”

Swallowing uselessly, Natalie took Cole’s hand. “Together, that sounded nice the first time you said that. It sounds even better now.”

A note from jayfiction99

This is the last main content chapter of this book, with just an epilogue to go. I intend to release said epilogue on Monday since its not long enough to count as a full chapter. 

If you have the time and energy, please write a review for this story. You've (assumedly) read two large books worth of it, so letting me and future readers know what you've liked about it would be appreciated. 

I'm 3 chapters ahead on my Patreon if that interests anyone.


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About the author


Bio: Enterprising author and college student.

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