Ganbaatar slid a thin wire into a door’s keyhole, Svetlana kneeling just beside him while watching an adjacent door. Something clicked from within the hole, and then the elven man tried the doorknob. It opened, creaking slightly. Svetlana’s head whipped back around, and then the both of them entered quickly, shutting the door just behind.
Svetlana cast a simple spell, and light illuminated the room in the form of a ball of light. In one corner, Magister Vasilisa slept rather soundly on her bed. Ganbaatar remained by the door, alert, while Svetlana stepped up to the Magister.
“Auntie,” Svetlana called out in a terse whisper, shaping the woman. “Auntie, wake up.”
The force that Svetlana used gradually compounded until she was practically tossing Vasilisa about like a doll, yet the Magister did eventually wake. She was still half-drunk, drooling, and altogether unfit for a conversation.
“Ganbataar,” she called out. “The smelling herbs.”
Ganbaatar reached into his pocket and threw a small jar at Svetlana. She caught it, unscrewing it as quickly as she could while Vasilisa mumbled something. Svetlana’s face twisted as soon as the jar opened, and she held it near Vasilisa’s nose. The jar was glowing.
“Ah!” Vasilisa winced, recoiling away. She shuddered as something came over her, then her eyes gained some clarity. “What in the gods—Svetlana?”
“Those are magic herbs to combat drug-induced slumbers,” Svetlana said, screwing the jar tight again until the glow faded. “Rather effective at purging the blood near instantaneously. It’s used for drugs that vampires employ to subdue victims, but it works on alcohol, too.”
Vasilisa rubbed at her nose. “That was the worst smell I’ve ever experienced. What are you… why are you here, Svetlana? Who is… he?” She stopped rubbing. “I’m almost certain I locked my door.”
“He—no, we picked the lock. Ganbaatar is a vampire hunter,” Svetlana said at once. “Auntie, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to talk to you in private. The men you’re with, the Veidimen—I don’t know how you’re associated with them, but one is not as he seems.” She fixed her blue eyes on her aunt’s own. “One of them is a vampire.”
Vasilisa grew rather still. “Svetlana…”
“Please, hear me out,” Svetlana continued. “Ganbaatar came here in search of a vampire possessed of certain powers—strong powers. He fought with this man. That man was sitting beside you in the Drawnwater estate… and we know he’s been staying here the past while, in the room over. He was the one in the heavy armor. Ganbaatar can even point out the dent in the armor that he caused during their battle.” She shook her head quickly. “I’m not sure the others are vampires, but we can say for certain that the armored snow elf is.”
The Magister slowly sat up in her bed. “Svetlana, I know.”
Her niece slowly edged away from her on the bed. Ganbaatar raised a judgmental brow from his spot beside the door.
“You… know?” Svetlana repeated.
“I know,” Vasilisa nodded. “I didn’t initially, but I do now.”
Ganbaatar leaned against the wall, crossing his arms. “Why is he still alive?”
“Because of the two with him. And because of the intent of their actions,” Vasilisa said at once. “Silvaden, their leader, is helping me recover the flame of Quadreign—actually called the Flame of the Tenebrous Star. And he intends to use it to cure this man, Vulras, of his vampirism.”
Ganbaatar looked mightily perturbed, but Svetlana asked, “Can that be done?”
“I don’t know,” Vasilisa admitted. “Silvaden has brought to light many truths about the flame. It is something crafted by the snow elves, not by House Quadreign. As such… there may be truth to that.”
Svetlana and Ganbaatar both were stunned into silence. In the stretch that followed, Vasilisa rubbed at her nose, still bothered by those smelling herbs. Then, she paused abruptly.
“I’ve been here for days. Why did you come in here now?” Vasilisa asked, looking between the two of them.
Ganbaatar answered, “Couldn’t be sure the vampire wouldn’t hear our approach. He is sleepless and vigilant.”
“Like I said earlier, auntie,” Svetlana touched Vasilisa. “We needed privacy. But now…”
“Privacy?” Vasilisa repeated. “You mean to say we have it now?”
“Yes,” Svetlana nodded. “After all, the three of them went out.”
Vasilisa’s face hardened. “They went out?”
Elenore awoke to noises. She lifted her head up as they crystallized in her senses. It was shouting… and the sound of crackling and popping.
At once, her attention diverted to the sphere of sense offered by the bronze jewelry gifted by Argrave. She saw the familiar—the royal guards that Argrave had left in her care. They were just outside the tent, but their focus was on something else. She heard a word repeated time and time again, both distant and near: fire.
At that, she rose to action, moving off the bedroll she slept upon and reaching for her prosthetic wooden feet that Durran had carved for her. The royal knights just outside stepped away, speaking about collecting water. And then… others entered her sphere. The way they travelled was clever, taking full advantage of camouflage offered by the flourishing spring taiga. They crept towards Elenore’s tent.
Their approach bred panic within Elenore. Her main guards had just walked away, outside of the sense offered by the jewelry—if she called out, could they hear her? Or would those closer hear her, those she feared sought her out only to end her?
In the end, Elenore felt frozen, her hands trembling too fiercely to even put the prosthetics on her feet. They came ever near to her tent, and she could see blades in their grasp. Trying hard to stay quiet, she crawled away, seeking out a portion of her tent that had been occupied with supplies. Just as she hid beneath a stretch of unused tarp, she saw the men tugging at the tent, trying to lift it up. It had been staked firmly, though, and eventually they merely cut the canvas with their blades, entering inside.
Elenore felt she was staring death in the eye as they spread out across her tent, searching for her. She held her breath, tried to stay her shuddering, tried to hide her existence as best she knew how. Just as she feared being discovered, so too did she desperately search for something to enter her senses, someone to call out for help to.
And then… she barely saw a peculiar gray scale boot enter her sense, then exit just as quick. Nevertheless, without hesitation she screamed as loud as she could, “Durran!”
Elenore’s presence was exposed, and all of the men in the tent were quick to react, moving towards the pile of supplies she had hidden herself under. She kicked out at things in the pile with the stumps that once had been her feet, casting a barrel at them—foolishly, it only exposed her more.
Yet then, Durran burst into the range of her senses, running with determination as he emptied a bucket of water onto the ground. He pushed through the tent flap, coming to stand and survey the scene.
“Durran, help!” she called out again, trying to move closer to him.
Without hesitation, Durran cast the bucket he held at the nearest assailant, then rushed towards her. Magic was already swirling in both of his hands. Just as a man took a swing at her, Durran fired a spell—a lightning spell. It struck the man squarely in the chest, and he dropped the blade. Even still, it had momentum from the swing, and the tip pierced Elenore’s thigh deep.
After crying out, she swallowed her pain and kept moving towards Durran. She pulled the blade free of her thigh and offered it to him, and he seized it without missing a step in his sprint. Two men were closest to her, and Durran became a whirlwind of steel to the both of them. His attacks were wild, serving only to create space.
The men were coordinated. Rather than foolishly rush Durran, they surrounded him, then prepared to press inwards and crush him with a coordinated attack. With his body shielding Elenore, his maneuverability was severely crippled if he wanted to keep her safe. He faced five foes.
“Why’d you stop screaming? Am I alone enough?” Durran quipped even here.
“…could be more of them,” she said, pained. “You’d best be.”
As though that were a finish to their conversation, Durran conjured a B-rank ward to his right with his ring. While it held off two, he worked on the other three—his blade darted towards one, yet just before it met his foe, he blasted them with a wind spell from his left hand. It was a mere wave of force, but it disturbed enough to lend Durran an opportunity.
After sinking his blade deep into the leftmost man’s neck, he released the handle and turned to the others who’d already recovered and came at him fiercely. He caught the next man’s blade with his bare hand, and his royal-forged gauntlet chipped slightly from the blow yet remained sturdy enough to stop the attack. He grabbed the man’s shoulder with the other hand and pushed him on top of his ally. They both stumbled, and Durran finished his attack with a C-rank spell even Elenore recognized—[Wargfire], a maw of a wolf-like flame that consumed the both of them. Now aflame, they were hardly stiff competition.
Durran took a step back as the last two circled around the ward he’d made. He pulled free the blade he’d jammed in the other’s neck, then stood back before Elenore. The last two both rushed synchronously. Durran prepared another spell, yet the man threw something ahead. Electricity exploded outwards from a simple enchanted charm, catching Durran and sending him reeling.
The two took the opportunity not to continue the assault on Durran, but to approach Elenore. One pulled his blade back to stab her through… yet Elenore had not been remaining idle. She threw a fistful of dirt she’d dug at the man’s eyes, and used all the strength she could muster to get away.
She was successful in staying away long enough for Durran to recover. With a strange lightning scar marring his face, he stepped up to the blinded man and seized his hair, jamming his blade through his neck. The other backed away, panicked and undecided, until his back met with the still-active ward Durran had conjured. He looked back for but a moment… but it was long enough for Durran to come at him. Their blades met—overhand met underhand, a stab met a hilt, yet Durran surprised his foe finally with a simple punch to the face with his free hand. Staggered, the man met a quick end with a blade into his chest.
The battle was ostensibly done, but Durran moved and mercilessly dispatched the two men that had been caught on fire. Only then did he walked towards Elenore, kneeling before her.
“Those worthless idiots… center of the camp, they let this happen…” he muttered as he kneeled before her, healing her leg.
Just then, the two royal knights that had left the tent returned, stepping inside. They grabbed at their blades when they saw Durran, completely bewildered by the scene before them.
“Where were you?!” Durran rose to his feet and shouted with wroth. “Where in the gods’ name were you?! The king’s sister was ambushed, and where were you?!”
“The… the fire, sir…” one of them mumbled.
“Durran,” Elenore called out. “Leave them.”
Durran paused, then continued, “This is inexcusable. This is an embarrassment. This is a disgrace of the highest magnitude. I don’t see any reason why these men should still be breathing after such a useless display.”
“Durran,” Elenore repeated. “Send them out.”
Durran’s jaw clenched, then he looked back. “Princess…”
“Send them,” she repeated.
Durran’s anger did not quiet, and he stewed in silence for a time before commanding in a harsh bark, “Get out of my sight.”
The men were all too happy to leave. Durran stepped back to her.
“They don’t deserve to live. The center of camp. The center of camp,” he repeated, shaking his head. “What kind of drooling imbeciles populate our military?”
“My men were here, too. They got past all the guards. It’s more a testament to their skill,” Elenore said. “Durran…”
Durran knelt down. “Are you alright? You’re shaking.”
Elenore used the last of her strength to lean out towards Durran, wrapping her arms around him. His armor was stiff and uncomfortable, and unpleasantly cold… yet even still, she wanted nothing more. Durran let out a light exclamation, then resigned himself to the role, returning the embrace.
“I thought I was dead,” she whispered, trying to calm her trembling.
Durran said nothing, holding her in the quiet. “We don’t get that luxury. Argrave decreed it was so.”
“I underestimated this Unhanded Coalition,” she continued. “You told me of their skill, yet I was still incautious. We cannot blame our subordinates when improper instructions are given.”
Durran shook his head. “Good subordinates know what to do.”
“Hah,” Elenore laughed. “Were that true, the world would be a paradise unto itself, all simply ‘knowing what to do.’ Leaders are important.” She finally pulled away, still trembling. “And we need to know who leads this Unhanded Coalition. Elsewise… things will spiral out of control long before Argrave returns to remedy our lack of spellcasters.”