The streets of Valona, the larger of the two nosferatu-run city states, were bustling with energy. It was currently midnight, which was ‘high noon’ to the locals. Two out of three of Terrania’s moons lingered in the sky tonight, providing plenty of visibility as their reflected light illuminated the mild fog looming over the city. Most people would’ve found the atmosphere gloomy and somewhat depressing, but the nosferatu’s backwards sense of aesthetics made them see it as a rather lovely night. It was therefore no surprise that the citizens were feeling quite spirited, if not downright festive.
However, all of the commoners’ enthusiasm and well-meaning rowdiness seemed to disappear when they noticed a certain figure stalk the streets. This person was on the short and skinny side, and hardly what one would consider intimidating, especially to a bunch of weirdos that found facial scars, balding heads and creepy grins to be attractive features. Not that this stranger’s face could be seen, though one could argue that was precisely the problem. Or rather, it was the thing obscuring their face that caused the locals to part and make way with a mix of awe, fear, and reverence.
Poking out of the heavy cloak’s hood was a pearly white mask in the shape of a skull, with two almost glowing red irises peering out from its eye sockets. In nosferatu culture, this was the sign of a spectre, an elite assassin trained and sanctioned by Mortimer’s death cults. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to warrant the sort of extreme response the citizens were showing, though. Spectres were a form of secret police, yes, but the kind that was best ignored rather than revered. There was, however, one particular spectre that was known to frequent this particular part of Valona from time to time.
Kaede watched with a sort of smug satisfaction as the locals parted before her and fell to their knees. Being known as the Hero of Death in a society that worshipped Mortimer had its perks, and the fearful respect it prompted from the populace was definitely one of the better ones. She didn’t have to make a show of it, of course. She could have easily reached her destination without anyone noticing by simply blending in with the crowd. The general public had never seen her face or even heard her name, and about half of them seemed convinced she was actually a guy. Not to mention that nobody dared to imagine that someone as ‘hideous’ as Kaede could hold the sacred position of Hero of Death. Therefore, hiding her status was as simple as not wearing her ‘uniform.’
But where would be the fun in that? Kaede had spent her entire childhood hiding herself, so being practically worshipped by the same populace she had been avoiding had a cathartic sort of satisfaction to it. Plus, this little parade did more than simply feed the young nosferata’s ego. It also served to remind her fellow night walkers that Mortimer had, after many generations, finally elected one of them as his mortal representative. This was good as it stoked the people’s faith and generally made them feel better. Those in charge both knew of and encouraged this. Indeed, as odd as it seemed, this brazen display of divine authority had actually been a government-sanctioned one.
The other, and arguably more important, effect this public display had was to not-so-subtly inform Kaede’s business partner that she was on her way to see them. Word that a Hero was in the neighborhood tended to spread like troll-pox, and was as good a way as any to announce her presence to the local businesses. The one the nosferata was headed towards was a rather large four-story building owned by the Skull Brokers guild. When she arrived, she found the front door already being held open for her by two handsome men, who bowed their heads as she passed between them.
Waiting for her inside the spacious, dim, and skull-adorned lobby were several dozen clerks, each of them bowing silently and flanking both sides of none other than the owner himself. He had many monikers, including but not limited to ‘death dealer,’ ‘corpse vendor,’ and ‘the bookkeeper.’ His actual name was Herman Thanadeus, and he was, unlike literally everyone else around him, a human. Granted, one born to a nosferatu father, but a human nonetheless. He was rather tall at nearly two meters and wore a long quilted coat with a skull-shaped badge on the left side of his chest. The frame beneath his sharp mercantile attire looked lean, fit, and remarkably healthy, despite the clerical nature of his occupation.
His face, on the other hand, seemed positively lifeless. It was lean and haggard, the sort of countenance that made it clear he was of a rather advanced age. That aside, he looked remarkably average, and had the sort of features that would make him neither handsome nor ugly. It was the sort of middle ground that meant he was unremarkable by both nosferatu and non-nosferatu standards. Truly the perfect face to bridge the cultural gap between the locals and the outside world.
This miraculous mediocrity was no mere accident, however. Herman put a lot more effort than one might realize to maintain his universally inoffensive appearance. As a Merchant, he understood the importance of first impressions. His face was a forgettable one, but that made it easier for his dignified bearing and serious attitude to shine through. That was also the reason why his thick and black hair was constantly swept back. It helped reinforce his overall image as a cold and calculating businessman, which was precisely the sort of man he was.
Hence why Herman wasted no time and briskly escorted Kaede into his office without saying a single word, then slammed the door shut.
“You really need to start making appointments,” he said sternly. “Discreetly, I should add.”
“Oh, come off it,” Kaede brushed his remark off. “Don’t pretend like me showing up all Hero-looking isn’t good publicity for you. Besides, it’s not like it costs you anything.”
“I will admit, our reputation has shown marked improvement because of your publicity stunts, but it is not as free as you seem to think.”
Herman sat behind his desk, leaned forward to put his elbows on it, then put his hands together in front of his mouth.
“Having the entire office, including myself, drop what we are doing just to line up for your arrival is highly disruptive to our operations. The delay you caused today will cost us approximately five thousand lead pieces’ worth of profit.”
A sum that, when converted to the currency standard used by the rest of the world, came out to roughly 1,800 GP.
“That is not good business,” he continued in a deadpan tone. “So unless you want me to start charging you every time you visit, I suggest you tone. It. Down.”
“… Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
It was rather surprising how much pressure this old man could exert even though he was no soldier or adventurer. The negotiating table and trade exchange had been the battlefields of his choice, and he was a veteran in his own right. With both his Merchant and Scribe Jobs being at Level 81 and 87 respectively, he was steadily earning his way to a Rank Up. The latter of those had been especially noteworthy, as he was officially the second-highest Level Scribe on the continent, possibly even the world.
“I’m glad you understand,” he said coldly. “And take off that ridiculous outfit.”
It wasn’t as if he particularly hated it, but Herman preferred to do business face-to-face, mostly so he could read the other party’s expressions. The nosferata stiffly removed her mask and lowered her hood to reveal her unnaturally beautiful features and flowing black hair. She then took off her cloak, leaving her in a casual short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and sandals that showed off plenty of her flawless pale skin without being obscene or provocative. Kaede then neatly folded the covering garment and placed it on the small shelf next to the door.
The man then invited her to take a seat in front of him, and she wordlessly did so. It was painfully clear the girl was nervous about this meeting, her earlier bravado nowhere to be seen. She would have gladly preferred to face down another orc warlord over having to endure the unflinching gaze of Herman’s gray eyes. At least she could afford to stab the greenskin. Literally. She’d need several lifetimes to pay back the fees and fines she’d be saddled with if she dared to break her contract with Herman.
Speaking of contracts-
“Now, how did your assignment go?”
“… Oh, right,” Kaede finally found her voice. “I’ve successfully paid off all seventeen families in Azurvale that had a legitimate death insurance claim, and the one that tried to make an illegitimate one has been dealt with.”
“Define ‘dealt with,’” Herman insisted.
“Terminated via knife through the heart,” the nosferata clarified.
“Did you remember to leave the relevant paperwork where it could be easily found?”
“Yes. I put it on his nightstand, next to the body.”
The man held his hand out and a thick leather-bound ledger materialized out of nowhere. With practiced ease, he snatched the book out of the air, immediately opened it to the latest entry and then started recording the completed payouts. He did this by using the ornamental claw-like pen tip affixed to his left index finger. The way he wrote with just a single digit and periodically snapped the thumb and middle finger on that same hand never ceased to weird Kaede out, but she knew better than to say anything.
Pissing off someone with close ties to the nosferatu spectres wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but it was certainly in the top ten.
“A new job came in for you while you were away,” Herman pointedly stated once he was done. “Interested?”
“Don’t have anything else lined up so, sure, let’s hear it.”
“There’s been another fraudulent death insurance claim.”
“Ugh,” Kaede rolled her crimson eyes. “When are these idiots going to learn?”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself that question, my dear.”
The insurance policies in question were made via special contracts prepared by Herman himself. Correctly filling out, signing and then stamping one of those would, in essence, activate a Quest. Rather than delivering goods, escorting merchants or slaying a prerequisite number of monsters, however, the objective of this Quest would be for the person to die within a certain amount of time. Should the signee perish for any reason, then Herman would get an instant notification that one of his ‘Quests’ had been ‘completed,’ and he could immediately start making arrangements to pay out.
On the whole it was a surprisingly lucrative endeavor, though it did have a number of problems. For one thing, Herman didn’t trust anyone but himself to make the insurance policies. He still let his employees handle the blank forms and make the final agreements with the guild’s customers, but that was it. The strict old Merchant was something of a control freak, and refused to have others accept deals on his behalf without his involvement. The problem with this was that, as the number of insured clients rose, it became harder for one man to keep track of them all. He had a firm handle on the operation for the moment, but there had still been the occasional hiccup.
Azurvale’s Great Collapse had been especially troublesome in that regard. The man had managed to log the burst of Quest completion notifications in his head, though the unprecedented number of them had made him doubt whether something had gone wrong with his magical contracts. Not to mention that the amount of money that needed to be transported across the continent had been rather significant. That was why he had sent Kaede, whom he had an employee contract with. The girl’s job had been to investigate what had happened, confirm the claims, pay the bereaved families their dues, and generally sort things out. That had been the exception, though. Normally Herman had a pretty solid grip on his death insurance policies, and would know for certain if a claim that arrived at his office was genuine or not.
And the one he was talking about was most certainly not.
“So, where is the scumbag that needs a stabbing?” Kaede asked grumpily.
“It’s actually a local,” Herman revealed.
“Oh, thank fuck.”
Dealing with a fraudulent claim meant finding the bastard that was pretending to be dead and making an honest person out of them. The death insurance policies were notorious for being made under pain of death, so Kaede had an entirely legal reason for murdering them. The problem was that these people could sometimes be on the literal ass-end of nowhere, and hunting them down was both boring and time consuming. Admittedly sorting out the Azurvale situation had been a rather important, interesting, and well-paid assignment, but Kaede was glad this one seemed to be a fast one.
“Watch your profanity, will you?” the man behind the desk grimaced. “It is both unprofessional and unbecoming of a Hero of Death.”
Despite what his cold and calculating demeanor might suggest, the aged human was actually a rather devout worshipper of Mortimer, mostly because of having been raised in nosferatu society.
“Whatever,” Kaede brushed him off. “Can you just give me the details so I can get this over with?”
Herman snapped his fingers, causing his magic ledger to spit out the relevant contract. The tome was actually an Artifact-grade item called the Accountant’s Grimoire. It had a number of cataloging and storage functions that made it simultaneously invaluable to a bookkeeper and useless in combat. That latter part was more of a feature than a flaw, however, as it had spared the old Merchant a visit from the rumored Relic Hunter.
Having retrieved the relevant paperwork, Herman placed it on the desk, and plopped a standard-looking Quest Log on top of it. Kaede leaned forward and placed her hand on the turquoise crystal ball, prompting all of the relevant information to pour into her head. She now knew she was after a sixteen-year-old nosferatu woman named Florence Kane, what the agreed-upon payout was, that the next of kin was her husband, and where they both lived. She didn’t particularly need their addresses though, as the special contract she had with Herman allowed her to track Mrs. Kane with her Eyes of the Dead God Skill. Activating said ability and swiveling her head and eyes around was all it took to locate an uncharacteristically blue ‘blip’ somewhere in the distance.
One could accuse Herman Thanadeus of many things, but being sloppy with his magical paperwork was not one of them.
“Alright, I’m on it.”
The girl put her cloak and mask back on and, at her employer’s insistence, departed from his office in a far stealthier manner than she had arrived. She dropped by the inn she was staying and got the rest of her gear before heading out. Her first order of business was to visit Mrs. Kane’s ‘widower.’ Their address was in the richer parts of Valona, which was unsurprising considering only those with considerable means could afford Herman’s death insurance premiums. It was also rather predictable that Mrs Kane herself was nowhere near the house.
What surprised Kaede was that, after shamelessly sneaking in, rooting through the place and silently observing the husband, it became clear that the man genuinely believed his wife was dead. He had this depressed air around him, had put up some tasteful obituaries in front of his home, and by the look of things had turned the bedroom he’d shared with her into a sort of shrine or tomb. Deciding this warranted a more direct approach, Kaede exited the house, took off her mask and knocked on the front door.
She introduced herself as one of Herman’s employees that was here about the insurance claim, which was entirely true. After barely containing his disgust at the overwhelming hideousness of his visitor, the man was able to explain what had happened. Apparently his wife and several of her lady friends had disappeared during an outing beyond the city’s walls. It wasn’t until days later that what was left of their monster-mangled corpses was recovered. He insisted he had seen, identified, and buried his wife’s broken body himself, and got rather cross when the ugly girl kept asking him about the painful memory.
After concluding that the man was either an absurdly good actor or genuinely had no idea his spouse was still alive, Kaede excused herself and set off to see what Mrs. Kane had been up to. Her ‘blip’ pointed towards the relatively short mountains about twenty kilometers northeast of the city. The young assassin was both a Rogue and a Ranger, so she managed to reach the region within two hours of running. As she got closer, she realized her Skill was guiding her towards the mountain’s peak. This struck her as odd, as the cliff-riddled summit was completely barren and devoid of any signs of life.
Or at least it looked that way from afar. As she nimbly climbed the treacherous sides of the needle-like peak, Kaede noticed something rather bizarre built into the cliff face. It was, as far as she could tell, some kind of blood-red five-sided crystal. It almost looked like a midnight ruby, but there was no way that was true. The thing was twice as big as her own head, after all. Either way, both the clean cut of the gem and the glowing arcane runes surrounding it made it clear some kind of magical trickery was afoot.
The exact nature of said trickery was revealed when Kaede climbed a few meters higher and passed through some kind of illusory barrier. Upon reaching the top of the cliff, the nosferata finally saw the thing said barrier was hiding. The summit, which appeared empty and lifeless from afar, actually had a rather massive castle on top of it. The structure had an overabundance of creepy spikes, looming spires, disturbingly large skull decorations, ugly gargoyle statues, and moss-covered stonework, and looked positively eerie in the pale moonlight. On the whole, it was the sort of place one would expect to be haunted by at least fifteen different vengeful spirits.
Which, by nosferatu standards, meant it was the most awesome castle Kaede had ever seen. So literally breathtaking, in fact, that it took her almost an entire minute to realize that, despite its tastefully decrepit and ancient appearance, the stone fortress was very much occupied. There were numerous lights on and she could make out the shape of some rather bulky sentries patrolling the ramparts. The Eyes of the Dead God confirmed Mrs. Kane was in one of the many towers towards the center of the castle, and Kaede doubted that loudly announcing her presence would be a good idea. After all, someone went to great lengths to hide this place, and would probably prefer it stay that way.
After making up her mind, the Hero of Death proceeded with the infiltration of the castle. She was immensely happy she had taken the Spider Climb Skill from her Rogue Job. With it, she could make her feet and hands magically adhere to most solid surfaces, allowing her to scale the sheer stone walls despite the absence of any footholds. She infiltrated the interior by squeezing her slender frame through the steel bars on one of the lower windows.
Said interior was fancy and well-decorated enough to be called a royal palace, but more importantly there didn’t seem to be any magical security measures worth a damn. Kaede knew this for a fact because of her especially sharp nose. She had discovered that most anti-intruder enchantments typically gave off a very faint scent that was remarkably similar to that of burning metal. She wasn’t entirely sure why that was, but suspected it had something to do with the magic in the air. Whatever the case, the distinct odor was nowhere to be found, so she bravely stalked the hallways and corridors.
Thankfully the only people the Hero of Death encountered were a number of servants in sharp maid and butler uniforms. All of them were busy cleaning the place in typical nosferatu fashion, which meant they would not stop scrubbing and sweeping until the entire place was literally spotless. Well, aside from a few large spiderwebs, which were left untouched for aesthetic reasons.
The point was that these people were so absorbed in their work that they probably wouldn’t have noticed Kaede even if she bumped into them, let alone the way she was silently creeping through the shadows. However, the intruder couldn’t help but notice how… disturbingly happy everyone seemed. That probably had something to do with the badges and brooches everyone was wearing. More specifically with the bright red gems in them that looked a lot like the massive stone Kaede had encountered while scaling the mountain.
After an effortless and somewhat unsettling few minutes of skulking around, Kaede finally reached her target. Florence Kane was wearing the same maid uniform, jeweled brooch and unnatural smile as the other female servants. She calmly walked down the hallway while pushing a serving trolley with a bottle of wine and a plate of assorted cheeses. It seemed rather obvious that the woman was both alive and not entirely in control of her actions, so Kaede silently followed after her until she could figure out what exactly was going on.
The enthralled maid eventually wheeled her snack-cart onto a rather large balcony. The Hero of Death peeked out from inside the hallway and immediately noticed two things. The first was that this place had a rather grand view of what lay beneath the mountain. Which, considering the time of day, meant the only thing that could be seen were the distant lights of the city of Valona amidst a sea of darkness. The second and far more worrisome sighting was that of a high-back armchair that was so extravagant it looked like an excessively cushioned throne. It seemed reasonable to assume that whoever was seated there was in charge around here. It was therefore rather fortunate that the chair was facing towards the moonlit view rather than the door.
Kaede watched with bated breath as Mrs. Kane wheeled her trolley up to the chair’s side. A ghostly pale hand held out an empty wine glass and the maid wordlessly filled it with the blood-like contents of the bottle she was carrying. She then proceeded to just stand there grinning like an idiot while the mysterious person sitting in the chair slowly sipped on their wine and occasionally took a slice of cheese from the plate. This seemed to go on for nearly fifteen minutes before either of the two made any new movement.
With a sigh so deep and pronounced that it almost sounded like a yell, the chair creaked. Kaede retreated fully behind the doorway as she realized now was as good a moment as any to fall back, regroup, and reevaluate her mission.
“If you’re going to try to kill me, then could you get it over with.”
A clear, feminine, and thoroughly bored voice washed over the Hero of Death, making her instinctively freeze in her tracks.
“Fine. Be that way.”
To her surprise, however, she didn’t hear a series of footsteps ominously approach her. What happened instead was that the mysterious woman sat back in her chair and continued slowly enjoying her midnight snack. Well, ‘enjoying’ might have been too strong a word. Judging from the apathetic grunts and sighs, the lady of the castle was thoroughly drowning in her tedium. It wasn’t until almost an entire hour of just standing there that Kaede finally decided to just show herself. It might not have been the best idea, but her target hadn’t been the one in the chair and said person seemed unwilling to just leap to violence.
Announcing her presence just seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Uh, hello?” the masked girl called out as she stepped out of the doorway.
“Too late, I’m already bored of you,” a pale hand waved dismissively from the side of the chair. “Why don’t you do us both a favor and just hurl yourself from the balcony.”
Kaede responded to this ridiculous suggestion by exploding into a sprint and leaping into the black abyss that stretched out before her.
“… Oh, shit!”
She came to her senses moments later and without a moment of hesitation turned around in mid-air and took out the grappling hook launcher she’d recently bought from a certain mithril golem. She pulled the trigger, resulting in an ear-splitting *BANG* as the device performed its function and launched the grappling hook upwards. It snagged the edge of the overhead balcony and Kaede felt her arm nearly detach from her body as her descent came to an abrupt end. She pushed the other button on the handle and the device’s high-speed winch started reeling her upwards. She was dragged upwards so fast that she shot past the balcony’s edge and lingered in the air for a few moments with her cloak billowing outwards like a pair of gigantic bat wings.
She then, with all the grace of a bowl of porridge, flopped down onto the balcony, right at the feet of the woman that had nearly killed her just by speaking a few words.
“Well, now. This is new.”
As the would-be assassin looked up, she saw an existence that practically oozed nobility stand up from her seat. Her armor, if it could be called that, consisted of a pair of boots, a left glove, a choker, and a corset-like breastplate that not only exposed her cleavage, but generally failed to cover the upper half of her torso. All of these pieces were made out of the same kind of black metal, had a silver trim, and were adorned with yet more of those crimson jewels. Aside from that she had a high-class pair of trousers on her legs, an elegant rapier on her hip, a full wine glass in her hand, and an extravagant fur coat on her shoulders. On the whole, Kaede thought her outfit looked like a weird cross between casual wear, ceremonial armor, and adventurer gear.
Looking further up at this snobby woman’s face revealed another round of surprises. Smooth and flawless skin, sharp and elegant facial features with nary a scratch, bump or line on them, and waist-length luscious black hair that swayed gently in the wind. If it wasn’t for the nearly glowing crimson eyes and the not-quite-elfish-but-still-pointed ears, the Hero of Death could’ve sworn she was looking at a human or something. Yet somehow Kaede knew she was looking at a fellow nosferata, one that shared her… deformities.
Moving her Eyes of the Dead God slightly higher up revealed that this mysterious aristocrat bore the name Arisha Nightriver, and that her max HP was, in a word, far beyond that of a simple adventurer.
“You there!” she said commandingly. “What is this curious device you hold?”
“It’s, uh… a grappling hook launcher?” Kaede answered dumbly.
Arisha stepped forward and the Hero of Death found herself completely paralyzed, unable to move a single millimeter despite internally screaming at her legs that she wanted to run. Much to her relief, this terrifying woman didn’t slit her throat or anything, she merely took the thing from her hand and started playing around with it. She pulled the trigger several times, but since it hadn’t been reloaded the launcher did nothing. Seemingly losing interest, Arisha tossed the rather expensive gadget away and loomed over Kaede.
“So. What’s a spectre doing on my estate? I thought I told your bosses that I never wanted to see one of you rats snooping around here.”
“I don’t work for those stuck up fanatics,” the young girl found her voice. “The only one I answer to is Mortimer himself!”
“Why? Are you his Hero or something?”
“You’re not very good at it.”
“I’m still a newbie!”
“I can tell,” Arisha scoffed. “Only a total greenhorn would try sneaking up so brazenly on one such as I.”
“T-to be fair, I wasn’t here for you. I was looking for the woman next to you.”
Over the next few minutes, during which Kaede could not move anything other than her lips, she managed to explain her reason for being here. It was both a little surprising and slightly inconvenient that Arisha, apparently, had no idea who Herman Thanadeus was. She still conceded that Kaede was telling the truth once she saw the insurance policy, at which point the girl was finally allowed to stand up.
“So, Kaede, huh?” she asked bemusedly. “What sort of parent names their child after a blood sausage dish?”
“I wouldn’t know, I chose the name for myself,” the younger one said sternly. “Did not have the best childhood.”
“Of course, you didn’t,” the noblewoman scoffed again. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be a Hero. Nobody who’s anybody has ever had what could be classified as a normal childhood. Myself included, of course.”
“Really? No offense, but you strike me as, uh, someone above the petty struggles of street rats.”
“I will admit, I was born into old money and never had a want for anything. Other than a new face, of course.”
Arisha gestured at her ‘hideous’ visage while simultaneously making a look of pointed disgust.
“I’ve had it for centuries, and even I still can’t get used to seeing it in the mirror, curse my refined tastes.”
Kaede swallowed nervously when she heard that. If what this woman was saying was true, and there was no doubt in her mind that it was, then Arisha Nightriver was among the select few enlightened who had achieved their second Rank Up. More specifically, a legendary existence known as a nosferatu bloodlord.
“It’s funny, really,” the noblewoman continued. “I’ve taken countless face wounds, at least a third of them self-inflicted. Shaved my hair, fractured my skull, burned my skin with both fire and acid. And yet it always healed completely, without a single scratch, dent, wrinkle, or scar. I have to enthrall my own servants just to stop them looking at me in disgust. I especially can’t stand the way those pencil pushers that call themselves ‘leaders’ can barely talk to me without throwing up. Or how the commoner brats throw stones at me! At me! The great and powerful Arisha Nightriver! Such gall! Such disrespect!”
Her idle complaints had devolved into full blown ranting by this point, and Kaede was struck rather speechless by her words. Especially the first half, which had a rather… familiar ring to it.
“Do you have any idea how maddeningly infuriating that feels?!”
“I kind of do, actually.”
Kaede then slowly removed her mask and revealed her own face, which had the appearance of a much younger version of Arisha’s. Not that the noblewoman looked old. In fact, the ageless body she had obtained had not even a single wrinkle on it, which was actually part of the problem.
“Uuugh,” Arisha pulled back with a profound groan of disgust. “For Mortimer’s sake, girl. Put your mask back on.”
“Well, isn’t that a skull calling the gravestone white?” Kaede crossed her arms with a pout. “I was just trying to say I get where you’re coming from.”
“Oh, please! What does a pathetic whelp like you know?”
“I know that your problem isn’t your face, it’s your bitchy attitude.”
As per usual, Kaede’s mouth had run just a few seconds faster than her brain. She had barely even finished saying that remark when she realized how terrible of an idea that was. Yet Arisha didn’t seem outraged, stunned, or offended. She just sort of stood there, blinking dumbly.
“Hold on a second, how did you even get up here?”
“I, uh, just said I climbed up, didn’t I?”
“Through the illusory barrier I had set up?”
“Curiouser and curiouser…”
“What?” Kaede asked dumbly. “What is?”
“It would take some serious skill to pass through it without my knowing, yet such feats are clearly beyond you. Otherwise I wouldn’t have heard your heartbeat when you were spying on me.”
“Again, I wasn’t spying on you! I was just following that zombie-girl over there!”
Arisha drew closer with a focused glare. Kaede wanted to pull backwards, but something was keeping her body from moving again. Thankfully the living relic didn’t do anything weird to her. Other than leaning in until their noses were a hair’s breadth from touching, then taking a few deep sniffs of Kaede’s odor.
“I see. That would explain it,” she said flatly as she pulled away. “It would appear we are related.”
“You’re a descendant of mine. Quite distant, but we most definitely share some blood. Enough for my bloodstones to think you one of my kin,” she tapped the bright red gem in her chestpiece.
“Wait, bloodstones? So those are literally crystallized blood?”
They certainly looked the part, if nothing else.
“Indeed. Only a nosferatu bloodlord’s special Skill can make them. They can be used in a variety of ways and I have a special connection with them. And, apparently, so do you.”
In other words, the reason why Kaede had been able to sneak in so easily had been because she, through some twist of fate, had been a distant relative of the local landlady.
“I must say, this is rather surprising. I was not aware my line had survived this long.”
“What do you mean ‘this long?’ How old are you, exactly? Er, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“Old enough to have witnessed the Addams Theocracy sink beneath the waves of what you now call the Oculus Sea.”
“O-oh… You, uh, look… I mean, err… that’s… nice?”
Kaede genuinely had no idea how to respond to that, so the best she could do was make dumb noises that barely constituted as words.
“Still, this meeting has been rather exciting. Probably the most excitement I’ve had in the last three hundred years! I think that calls for a celebration!”
She clapped her hands together, causing a rather peculiar bottle to appear out of thin air. It was unlabeled, big enough to hold about a litre of liquid, and made entirely out of silver. Oh, and it also floated around in mid-air with a wisp of white smoke around it. Arisha dumped the contents of the wine glass she was still holding, then held it up to the silver bottle. The thing gently tipped itself over and refilled her vessel with a rather ethereal-looking substance that was so red, smooth and sparkly, it could only be described as ‘liquified rubies.’
“Drink?” she offered it to Kaede.
“Uh… Maybe? What is it?”
“Oh, it’s the product of one of my Ultimate Skills,” Arisha explained. “It’s called Ethereal Vintage, and is a wine good enough to make the gods weep.”
Fairly strong too, by the smell of it. Simply the odor wafting from that glass made Kaede go right past drunk and straight to hungover. She had a feeling a single sip would probably be enough to kill her on the spot.
“I’ll pass. What sort of Ultimate Skill creates wine, though?”
“An aristocrat’s,” the bloodlord said proudly.
“Last I checked, ‘Aristocrat’ wasn’t a Job.”
“Fine,” Arisha rolled her eyes. “It’s because I got from Level 1 to Level 100 of my Alchemist Job by trying to make the perfect wine.”
And while she had, in a manner of speaking, achieved that goal, the problem with the Ethereal Vintage was that it would disappear after six hours of being conjured. Along with all of its beneficial potion-like effects and any drunkenness or hangovers it might’ve caused. The alcohol poisoning that would instantly kill any unranked enlightened though? That part was rather permanent. The Skill itself could be used as often as once a day, but Arisha felt doing so would cheapen the taste, so she only partook of it on special occasions.
And finding out that one of her bloodline had become a Hero of Death despite her many shortcomings was most certainly an event worth celebration.
After about half an hour of getting shamelessly plastered on her own magical wine, Arisha had revealed herself to be the sort of drunk that moans and complains about everything. A somewhat violent one, at that. She had slovenly thrown a Reality Slash Spell at one of the moons for being an ‘annoying sky-bright-thing.’ And while her incantation didn’t get even remotely near the celestial orb, it certainly didn’t feel that way to Kaede. The hurricane-like air currents her half-hearted magic kicked up were no joke, and she could swear she saw the moon twitch ever-so-slightly in response.
Then again, that last part was most likely caused by the drunken haze the young Hero was currently in even though she hadn’t drunk anything. It was because of Arisha’s breath, which was so overpowering that it was enough to make even a veteran dwarven mercenary tipsy. And she most definitely got face-fulls of that, given how inexplicably clingy the increasingly depressed drunk was getting.
“I’m telling yoooooou! Men are the woooooooorst!”
She was practically yelling into her eyes every time she complained.
“None of them care about your… It’s all the face! The only ones that’ll even look at an ugly old bitch like me are those pathetic humans. Or those fuckin’ knife-ears. Bunch o’ filthy heathens, the lot of them!”
Kaede opened her mouth to respond, only to violently throw up. Thankfully she managed to avoid splashing her ‘host,’ but this infectious intoxication was starting to really mess with her head.
Next thing the girl knew, the stinging rays of the morning sun were waking her from her nap atop some incredibly fancy sofa. At least there was no hangover, but she still felt drained and generally shitty. She looked herself over, noting the multiple layers of vomit on her clothes. At least she wasn’t naked, which was good. On the other hand, the fancy sitting room she found herself in had definitely seen better days. There were sword slashes and large holes through almost all of the furniture and walls, and none of the windows had any intact panes of glass in them. There were also three bodies in the corner, one of which she immediately identified as Mrs. Kane.
Suddenly remembering her purpose for being here, the nosferata leapt to her feet and looked around for Arisha. However, the noblewoman was nowhere to be found. Neither were any of her enthralled servants for that matter. Kaede scratched her head, trying to remember what had happened last night. She recalled bits and pieces, but it was all one giant haze. In the end she decided to just grab her gear and leave, which proved difficult since it took her nearly two hours to find her mask. She didn’t even bother questioning how or why it had wound up lodged halfway up one of the dead guys’ ass cracks, but she made a mental note to have it burned and get a new one.
Kaede thought long and hard about Herman’s assignment on her way back to town. She ultimately decided to pay the widower, as that enthralled state Mrs. Kane had been in could hardly be called alive. She also managed to remember something a very drunk Arisha had mentioned during the evening. Apparently all those people she kept as slaves had been commoners who had unwittingly wandered into her domain. It certainly explained why this mountain had so many disappearances around it, even though the monsters inhabiting it were nothing special.
As for the body the widower had seen, that was likely something prepared by the local government. Kaede had gotten the distinct impression that the nosferatu bloodlord had been one of their dirty secrets, and she could understand why. If a VIP could kill hundreds of soldiers by themselves, then a double-VIP must have been like a living calamity. Covering up a few dozen disappearances a year was probably a small price to pay to keep her in check and out of densely populated areas. Especially given her unhinged demeanor.
The overblown ego that typically accompanied those who considered themselves ‘nobles’ was bad enough without them having the power to destroy entire neighborhoods on a whim.
That aside, the first thing Kaede did upon returning to Valona was to drop by her room with the intent of catching up on some sleep. Nosferatu society was a nocturnal one to begin with, so she’d have to wait until sundown before she could do anything in regards to her assignment. Or at least that had been the plan until there was an insistent knock on her door just minutes after she’d returned to her room. It was a messenger sent by Herman. Apparently the old man had demanded she visit his office right away, and had posted one of his employees to keep an eye out for Kaede’s return. The nosferata was tired, but needed to discuss the Kane case with him anyway, so she saw no reason to decline.
In retrospect, she should’ve been a bit more suspicious at the timing involved, but that didn’t occur to her until she entered his office and noticed the positively grim expression on his face. Not to mention the generally pulverized state of his desk. The sturdy piece of furniture looked as if someone had snapped it in two and thrown it against a corner, forcing Herman to use a shitty table as a temporary substitute.
“Uh, hey boss,” Kaede greeted him warily. “What did I miss?”
“It’s not so much what you missed,” he said in his traditionally cold voice. “It’s what you caused.”
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I sent you on a simple insurance job, didn’t I?”
“Then care to explain to me how you managed to convince a thousand year old blood-obsessed drunk, whom I might add looked remarkably like you, to leave her mountaintop castle?”
“Uh… What?” she blurted out in disbelief.
“Arisha! Nightriver!” he shouted, catching Kaede off-guard. “You know who that is, yes?! I would certainly hope so considering she apparently came here because of your ‘recommendation!’”
It would appear that even though the bloodlord hadn’t known who Herman was prior to Kaede blacking out, the two of them had gotten rather well-acquainted since then.
“Don’t ‘whoops’ me, you imbecile!” he continued yelling. “Do you have any idea what your carelessness accomplished?!”
“So your desk got smashed, big deal. You should’ve seen-”
“The High Cardinal has put my business on lockdown! Because of you!”
What followed was a scathing lecture during which Herman loudly and continuously reprimanded the impulsive assassin for all the damage she’d caused. Apparently the local authority had their panties in a bunch over their little secret leaving the city-state on a whim, and were looking for someone to blame. The Skull Brokers guild had been put under investigation as a result. It was only natural they’d be targeted, seeing as how this had been one of the only two places that Arisha had visited before she disappeared.
Herman wasn’t particularly worried about legal action, though. He was an honorable businessman who made sure his operations were entirely above board and not involved in anything shady. Admittedly sending assassins out to kill people who tried to make fraudulent insurance claims was a bit dicey, but those people had signed an arcane contract with their life on the line. They knew what they had gotten into, so the fact they were stupid enough to weasel out of it had been their own fault. It worked both ways, of course, with Herman offering up his own life should he fail to honor his own part of the deal in the event of the insured party’s death.
The real problem, however, was that even though the local authorities’ inquiry would turn up nothing of consequence, the guild could not operate while the investigation was underway.
“And knowing what kind of arrogant, racist bastards run this place,” Herman’s lecture began to peter out, “it’ll probably be months before they get off my back!”
Kaede had, for the most part, weathered the verbal beating with a stoic expression. As scary as he could be, the man before her was nowhere near as terrifying as a certain bronze-skinned, red-haired, and cat-eared scouting instructor.
“Can I ask something?” she spoke up once her boss had run out of steam.
“… What is it?” he replied after taking a deep breath.
“You said this was one of the places she visited. What was the other?”
“I hope you’re not going to chase after her.”
“Oh, gods, no. I’m just curious, not suicidal.”
“It was the local Mercenary Guild. Things are much worse over there. I’m told some dumb fool dared to make fun of her appearance. Then she just looked at him and he went shlorp.”
“Apparently it’s the sound a person makes when they’re literally turned inside out.”
“It had gotten much worse after that,” Herman continued. “Or at least that’s what the man I sent to investigate told me. Haven’t seen it for myself, but he claims the upper half of the building was just gone when he arrived. Like someone had sliced it in half with a giant knife.”
Kaede nearly said something along the lines of ‘sounds like her, alright,’ but managed to keep her mouth shut.
“What was she even doing in there?”
According to Herman, Arisha had only shown up at his door because Kaede had mentioned it in passing. She raised a huge fuss about them ‘taking advantage of an ugly-faced girl for their own benefit.’ The man had somehow convinced her this was not the case with the help of his magical ledger and the contracts stored within. It would seem that the inebriated millenium-old bloodlord held some weird kind of respect for legally binding agreements.
However, Kaede couldn’t think of a single plausible reason why Arisha would visit a place like the Mercenary Guild.
“Nobody seems to know,” Herman shrugged. “Those that survived her rampage are either comatose or reduced to gibbering wrecks. But… if I had to hazard a guess, I think she might’ve been looking for someone.”
“What gave you that idea?”
“She kept muttering incoherently about something on her way out of my office. Something about a… Shadman?”
Kaede froze when she heard that. Mostly because it jogged loose a memory from last night’s festivities. One where she had been alternatively complaining and praising the shady mercenary that went by the moniker of the Sandman. She had spent nearly an hour loudly talking about how she was both terrified of his incomprehensible power and grateful for helping her come to terms with her facial situation. She also remembered how incredibly interested Arisha had been in that particular topic, and all the questions she had asked.
It would appear that the Hero of Death had, through very little fault of her own, managed to convince one walking calamity to head towards another.
And while she did not know how that meeting would end, Kaede felt incredibly grateful that there was half a continent between here and Azurvale.