The Dragon's Apprentice

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Chapter 13 and Epilogue

Thunderholme Ruins, Cormyr (27th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)


Pain, again.

Coldness, again.

A moment of panic, and sweet release, nothingness.

Darkness, all around him.

Familiar darkness.

"The damned fugue plane." Ryuu said, then laughed, "Shit! I couldn't die in a field or a castle or something like that? It had to be a stinking hole in the ground?!"

The darkness held no answer, and he sighed, "Fine. Where to? The Hells? I've certainly earned it."

"No." a voice replied in Draconic, distant.

"The abyss then? Will I be pulled to Kanchelsis? To Kiaransalee? Tell me if I guess right?"

"No." a voice replied, not so distant.

"Where then?" Ryuu snapped, "And who in the hells are you and where's your voice coming from?!"

"Here."

A hand touched his back, and he felt no pain. The scars, inflicted before his first death, were gone.

A familiar feel to it, too. His scruff tightened. His back went stiff.

He turned; it was the wrong way to put it, because there was no direction, or sense thereof. It more accurately felt like he was rotating while immersed in water.

But there, her flesh translucent and cloudy, emanating its own, inner light, was Oki. She was just as he remembered her, and yet...not. The sheer experience, the sheer presence, in her, was overwhelming. This was an Oki as old as he was...

"An eternity..." Ryuu moaned, tormented, "Alone, and yet here you are. Is my end to be a reward, then?"

Oki nodded, "If you are ready. You are not yet here, with me, for I stand in the world coil, and you are but vapor and shadow."

His chest ached; he wanted it very, very much. He'd trade the uncounted centuries he had before him for these moments. It looked like he had. The battle became a distant memory.

"My love..."

Oki nodded.

"Sun on my Scales..."

He reached for her, a thundering in his heart that grew painful. Unwittingly, he glanced down, to find a gaping hole, still smoldering with shadowflame. But as he drew closer, the hole diminished, until only unmarred scales remained. A dull, silvery-iron sheen. His natural coloration. The shadows surrounding him thinned, and began to brighten, until his very flesh became translucent, like hers.

To die, and rejoin the world coil. To die, and rejoin his Oki.

Was this really happening?

"I've waited so long for this..." Ryuu admitted, his hand nearly, so nearly, brushing against her face.

Then, amidst the wash of memories of his life, newer memories surfaced. A sad-faced young woman with maroon eyes and a pale complexion. A surly, brown-haired priest, mace and holy symbol in hand. A golden-haired noble, looking like one of the knights from Ryuu's chapbooks in his armor.

"But I can't." Ryuu gasped, fighting the tears gathering in his eyes, "Not yet. A poor mentor I'd be if I let that girl be turned by a Dracolich and those idiots killed. I've lived this long for fighting for nothing. Gods be damned, I actually have a reason to do something for a change. I couldn't save our bloodline, Oki...but in a way, I can save my own. I won't be the catalyst for another Broodlord, another guiltless monster to be slain by the servants of the goodly gods!"

"But I've made mistakes. So many of them. I don't know if I'm about to make another one either path I choose. I'm sorry..." he said, downcast, "How long we have waited, to be parted only by this thin veil? How many millennia can we wait?"

Oki smiled, "As long as it takes. I have not forgotten, and I can never forget. I will wait here, for you to complete me, that we may become something new in another life."

"Thank you. Sun on my scales..."

Ryuu knelt, his heart aching as it hadn't since it had stopped beating. He wept.

"I love you. So damned much it hurts, even now, after so long. After everything I've done! Everything I've become..."

"Thank you. For this. For everything."

He stood. Banished his doubts. Hardened his resolve.

He turned from his mate, to another figure, for they were not alone in the fugue.

She recoiled behind him, and vanished. The light about his body dimmed, and darkened. His chest opened, and the scars burned across his back.

Just as he needed.

Gods, it vexed him coming to the father of Vampires for aid.

Kanchelsis had two forms. Thankfully, he was addressing the Rake, the sophisticated side, and not the Beast. He was a thin Half-Elf with a finely tailored suit of black silk and an open smile. His flesh was pale, as if sculpted from marble. His maroon eyes, dark-lidded, pinned him in place with their intensity.

"I know we haven't exactly gotten along..." Ryuu said, distant, "But I could use a little help. I don't think I'm ready for death just yet."

The god nodded, smiling.

"You always want something. Even when I put down that runaway Obyrith for you."

"Divine intervention is no small thing, child." Kanchelsis agreed.

"I'm all ears..."

The god lunged towards him. Ryuu wasn't stupid enough to resist. His fangs plunged into Ryuu's throat, his arms locked him in an embrace.

The Vampire groaned, breathless, collapsing.

The God held him up. He could hear Kanchelsis' slurping.

But blood wasn't being taken from him. It was being given. And it was Kanchelsis' own blood.

Ryuu cried out, wide-eyed, at the feeling of divine power flowing into him. His mortal shell, ancient but still vulnerable, hollowed out. A portion of his own essence bled away, replaced by that spark.

He screamed, in absolute horror, at the realization of the "gift" he had just been given.

Kanchelsis spoke his price. He discerned only two words.

"Vlad Tolenkov."

And at that, the god vanished, and Ryuu slipped back through the darkness, the blood of a god pulsing in his veins.


The Dracolich slowly lumbered towards her. Haidée had eyes only for her master.

"Haidée!" Esmer yelled, "Get out of there!"

She looked to him, dimly, to see him running as fast as his blooded leg would allow. He held his side, his panicked expression snapping her back to her senses.

She took her wand, and eyed the Dracolich, whose skeletal face nonetheless registered a smile.

"There's nowhere to run." Aurgloroasa hissed, gloating, "He was a fine opponent, to be sure. You are his spawn. I can sense it. Maybe you can be useful to me."

"Abyss take you!" Haidée snapped, and the Dracolich issued a raspy hiss that sounded like laughter. Sirahani sneered, "walking" towards them by projecting her apparition forward.

"I enjoy willfulness." Aurgloroasa said, reaching down with a single shadow-shrouded claw, "I will break it by making you watch as your other friends die."

But then Ryuu stirred in her arms, opened his eyes.

They were black, lacking pupils.

"You have betrayed Kanchelsis..."

He sneered, struggling to his feet. The gash where his heart had been, wide enough to accommodate a human hand through to the other side, didn't seem to bother him. Haidée could feel something terrifying manifest inside of him.

"You have conspired against a god..."

Sirahani blanched, confused. The feeling grew worse.

Ryuu's hands spread wide. He smiled.

"You, who chose the dark gift for selfish ends, and raged when your people abandoned you...who spilled their blood for seeing the monster in you..."

His smile darkened, became feral.

"You, who offered a Dracolich the means to invade a nation to better your selfish ends of revenge..."

"You..."

"Shall die!" he cried, laughing, "My reckoning will come in time, when I will face the judgment of the World Serpent for all I have done. But your reckoning comes now, at my hands!"

"And you!" he raved, pointing to the Dracolich, "You vulture! You carrion feeder! Taking the blackest rites; the Ceremony of Endless Night! The sacrifice of the innocent! Enslaving their souls in death! You damned coward, hiding behind them and sitting on your podium hurling belittlement and pandering offers of service towards me?! Arrogant child! Hopeless cretin! You make me sick! SICK!"

"I am the shadow of death, whose battles ravaged Toril in ancient times! Do you think I would demean myself by service to some gaudy villain?! To the hells with you, wyrm! Earlier I might have been a little cross with you, but you'd better hope your god favors hapless fools, 'CAUSE NOW I'M REALLY SEEING RED!" Ryuu shrieked, cackling madly, the open, un-healing wounds across his back bleeding shadowflame. The hole in his chest burned shut. A cloak of luminous red blanketed him, blood that shimmered with tendrils of shadow.

As he lunged forward, the cloak parted into a pair of membranous wings, spattering its material onto her armor in a brief fountain. Her wounds healed in an instant. The very ground shook with his strength as he bellowed his rage. His pennons, like bladed arms, struck the casting Elf, and her apparition winked out of existence.

Aurgloroasa, with blinding, unnatural speed, slipped backward, into an impenetrable cloud of shadows that blanketed the platform. Alexander and Esmer cried out, swallowed by the magically conjured darkness. Her last sight was her master darting towards it before it covered her as well.


Ryuu bellowed, charging right into it, and his swords bled shadowflame. He sensed, more than saw, the negative energy composing her being, and struck accordingly. He felt steel rebound off of the Dracolich's shadowy protection spell, weakened thanks to his apprentice but formidable still.

But now that he knew where to hit, Ryuu threw up a powerful disjoining. His spell, backed by even the indirect influence of his god, sheared through the Dracolich's conjured darkness, clearing the air. Propelled by his cloak, composed of Kachelsis' own essence, he was upon her, Hyosho and Kaminari a flurry of strokes, jabs, and thrusts, punctuated by blinding footwork that evaded the claws of the Dracolich. Her bony mask lunged toward, maw opened wide, and with his winged cloak, Ryuu propelled himself to the side as she discharged a breath of negative energy that would have rotted him to the core and stolen his essence.

Nearly expended on spells, he knew he had to make his strikes count. Her shadowy aura flickered in and out, nearly expired.

Careful to lead her away from his tribe, back towards the parapet overlooking the bridge below, the Vampire hurled his swords as she readied another breath attack, inhaling deeply, and they landed right in her eye sockets.

Aurgloroasa proceeded, unmindful, and he was forced to charge forward, and over, to reclaim his swords, landing a few strikes along her spinal column before her wings buffeted him off.

As they came to face each other, Haidée rushed in from the side, soundlessly, blade leading. It plunged hilt-deep in the Dracolich's side, and Aurgloroasa, unbothered by the wound, swatted her aside with her hind leg.

Or tried to; his apprentice leapt onto her upper thigh, retrieved her weapon, and plunged it in again, near the base of her spine.

Aurgloroasa roared, and a deeper darkness manifested around them. More Wraiths; incorporeal undead.

Haidée brandished her rod, spoke the word of fire in Draconic, and a gout of crimson shadowflame smote one and immolated it in a cloud of putrid smoke.

As they oriented on her, for Ryuu was occupied keeping a comparatively weakened and sluggish Aurgloroasa too occupied to mount an organized attack, his apprentice swiped her hand, and from her rod issued a cone-shaped arc of shadowflame, marring but not fully banishing the undead. Alexander, with a choked prayer to his god, called upon a bolt of silvery light that detonated in the cluster of Wraiths, which dissolved with pained moans. He collapsed afterward, spent.

Haidée, hiding from the blast in her cloak, didn't see her peril in time, and as Aurgloroasa buffeted her with tattered wings, the Dracolich arched her spine in a feline manner, hurling her upward. She tossed her rod to him just as their enemy twisted with blinding speed, and swatted her with her left wing, propelling her into a parapet, cracking it as the girl careened into it.

He heard several bones breaking, and then the Dracolich was upon him.

Their exchange was a stalemate; Ryuu fought well, scoring several cuts, but against so large an opponent, he dealt only superficial damage. But Aurgloroasa, with her claws, teeth, and breath attack, needed only make a single hit to grievously wound him. It took all of his unnatural agility and flexibility to keep one step ahead of her attacks.

Aurgloroasa swiped her left arm across, and Ryuu ducked underneath, rolling towards her ribs, before darting to the side as the Dracolich compensated and struck that space with her hind leg. Rising to find her facing him again, he leapt straight up, taking wing, just as her own talon-tipped pennons snapped forward, piercing them.

The appendages winked out as she barked a counterspell and obliterated the cloak of Kanchelsis, dropping him to the floor.

As she lunged forward to snap him up, Ryuu crosscut her bony mask, and the Dracolich shrieked, repelled by its undead-turning enchantments. The blades themselves started to rust, corroding from contact with her defiled remains.

Retreating, the cuts burning red with shadowflame, Aurgloroasa parried with her wand, and where his steel struck, thin jets of gold coins spurted out momentarily, raining down to clatter upon the stone floor. A golden trident, set with sapphires, tumbled to the floor to lodge head-down in the stone.

Heaving the wand like a maul, Ryuu was forced to leap aside as the tiles he had occupied shattered apart from the impact of Aurgloroasa's attack. He was forced to drop Hyosho in order to palm Haidée's tarnished silver rod.

Using the last spell in his wizardly repertoire, Ryuu used the rod and ignited the crosscut on her bony mask with additional shadowflame, sheathing his thinblade, and the Dracolich roared, blinded momentarily.

She turned, whipping her tail across, but Ryuu dashed over to claim the trident, leapt over it, onto her back, and thrust the weapon into the space between her vertebrae the stalactite had hit. Again, again, again, he struck furiously, his strength that of an Ogre, and the weapon, possessed of unknown enchantments, passed through the shadow aura and bit into bone. Its sapphires turned to onyx and rubies as they actually drew in the negative energy she was hemorrhaging in palpable waves.

With a final burst of his god's strength, he infused his body with the aura of Kanchelsis himself, and beneath such mass, the Dracolich crumpled. Her body collapsed on the edges of the temple walls, her head over the parapet. Ryuu took the trident in an executioner's grip, pointed head down, shaft up.


"I will not be bested by the likes of you, lesser creature!"Aurgloroasa cried, her roars desperate, panicked, "I am Aurgloroasa! I am eternal!"

Ryuu struck a final time, and her head fully detached from her body with a dry snapping like bark, and spiraled down, colliding with the bridge below and splintering it with a thunderous retort. It struck again, against something hard, further down, muted by distance, and again, and again.

Her body twitched, and went limp, the aura of shadows dispersing, revealing a blackened skeleton.

"Don't give a shit..." Ryuu hissed, holding up his weapon, a golden trident of elegant design, "And it looks like that attitude served me well."


Now that the cavern had stopped spinning, Haidée took a tentative first step, drained. Her skin somehow looked a shade paler.

"Haidée!" Esmer yelled behind her, and she turned to see him stumbling toward her, before being stopped by Alexander.

She was grateful for that; the smell of his open wounds made his proximity unbearable.

Troubled, she offered him a nonetheless reassuring smile and turned away, to Ryuu, examining the Dracolich's body.

Something shiny, unseen beforehand, hung from the stump of her neck. A star sapphire, the size of a fist and chiseled into a finely tapered, three sided length, the gem hung from a golden frame, its chain links reinforced iron. Ryuu split them apart, and took hold of the gem.

"Her phylactery." Alexander gasped, winded, holding his broken arm tightly, "Destroy it."

Ryuu shook his head.

"No. I think her phylactery had already been destroyed, or at least severely damaged. That was why she was so sluggish at first. I cannot sense a pocket of negative energy here dense enough to constitute such an artifact."

"How do you know for sure?"

"I'm the necromancer here, and this is no phylactery. More like a loun stone, but different somehow." Ryuu noted, curious, "Charged with magic. Loaded with enchantment. I'll find a use for this, I think."

He eyed his trident, "And this too, I think."

He deposited the weapon in a small pouch at his belt; somehow, the weapon slid into it without resistance, and never touched the other side of its material. A bag of holding, maybe. He also gave her back her spell rod, and she hung it from her own belt.

King Emerlin III approached them, manifesting from the ether, with his pike in hand.

Haidée tensed, as did the others. But not Ryuu.

"I know this stone." The spirit replied, "Yeh hold the totem of one of our most revered Enchanters, Stonesoul Rudrin. It will alter existing portals and power inactive ones, for a time. Use it on the limestone gate in the lower levels to return to the surface. Speak the word, "Olaramorndin." Be well and get yeh gone, outsider."

When the last of the dwarven kings departed, a great silence filled the ruins. The arcane crystals dimmed, and it became nearly impossible to see even with her darkvision.

"I can't see."

"No shit. Let's get out of here."


Epilogue

Cormyr (28th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)


While they couldn't tunnel out of Thunderholme, Ryuu had led them down through the lower temple to an inactive portal, after gathering the few coins and trinkets scattered about. Too confined to be used by the Dracolich, it was housed in a small room, no doubt a defense from an armed force gathering in abundance from the other side. Powering it with the gem that had hung from Aurgloroasa's neck, they stepped through at his insistence, leaving Thunderholme behind.

Haidée knew nothing for a period of time; only darkness, and a feeling like falling. Eventually, she completed her stride and found herself in a small glade. It was a beautiful place, with dappled sunlight reaching down through the eaves of gigantic trees covered in moss, a muted orange in color. The humid air was dense with winged insects, the noises of which drowned out all other ambience.

Behind her, a glowing stone arch went inert, and before her, there was a small village of shingle-roofed log cabins and huts. Its inhabitants had already taken notice of them. A few scrambled away, calling for the guards.

"Well, that's much better." Esmer noted, looking up, "An open sky and a fresh breeze. Let us not descend into dwarven delves for a time, please."

He smiled at her, and the scent of him had her looking away, red-faced. Sweat. Musk. A little something else, maybe.

It wasn't his pulse or his blood, for once.

"Yeah, I guess. Still, lots of fun there. And we did some good, too. That should keep Alexander happy." Ryuu said, chuckling at the priest, who said nothing.

"What exactly happened to you, Master?"

He eyed her, and his mirth faded, "With the whole dying thing? Well, you see... Kanchelsis healed me. And..."

His hand rubbed the back of his head, as he looked away, "I think he named me his chosen. That'll make the whole death thing a little tricky."

She had no reply forthcoming.

"Even in this, there is a path." Alexander said, "You have done a great thing this day. You slew a Dracolich before she could unearth the dead of Thunderholme and invade Cormyr. You've saved many lives."

"Maybe." Ryuu shrugged, "Liches are tough to kill. I can't be certain she won't resurrect by another means. Still, that would take a long time, even by my reckoning. And it was yesterday, genius. A whole day has come and gone. Don't you see the sunset?"

"I thought it was a sunrise." Alexander protested, crossing his arms, "Still, it was a mighty feat."

"Yeah." Ryuu agreed, smug, "It was, wasn't it? I should petition the monarch of Cormyr, whoever it is right now, to abdicate to me for saving their sorry hide. The bards will sing praise of my deeds until the end of days."

"I don't see that happening."

"Well, it's a good dream. Where to now?"

It was Haidée herself who replied, without realizing, "That Elf escaped. Said something about the blood of a god. That's reason to worry."

Ryuu grinned, "The dashing heroes off to a new quest? A grand Vampire conspiracy? The blood of a god? Sure, I'm game. About time we finally got the plot rolling, as they say. Enough piddling about."

He beckoned to the fields before them, and then the mountains behind them, "I like this world too much to let some dusty old hag to mess it up by elevating a new Blood God. Even if it is just the stuff of chapbooks!"

"Where then, Master?"

Ryuu made a show of considering, "To Suzail. I can look into my old contacts in the Union of Eclipses. And the three of you can get a nice wash. You need it."

Haidée considered the drying blood caking her armor, imagining the same was true all over her body, and shrugged, "You were the one that bled on me, though."

"Fine, I'll pay the launder. Let's go."

They were stopped within ten paces towards the village by a trio of armed guards, who accosted them with weapons bared. They eyed her armor, still covered in drying blood, uneasily.

"Halt! Speak your identities and your business!" snapped one of them, a middle-aged man with a white beard barked atop a spotted Destrier, scowling.

Ryuu held up his hands in surrender, "Travelers. I am Ryuu, the constipated fellow is Alexander, priest of Ilmater, and the young couple are Esmer and Haidée. As for intentions that kind of depends. Where are we?"

"Dhedluk." the guardsman replied, still uneasy but not so visibly so, "The portal behind you leads to an area near the court buildings at Castle Obarskyr. But I'm going to guess that's not where you came from."

"Nope. Portal magic is fun that way."

"Then take the path southeast of here. A short forest trail called the Ranger's Way, to Waymoot in the southwest and Starwater Road north. There is nothing for you here."

"Hey..." Ryuu said, "What happened to Cormyrean hospitality?"

"You are not a citizen and you are not in the dragons. You're lucky I don't check your paperwork, or whose blood is coating your friend there. Now get going."

At that, the men-at-arms turned tail, and her master shrugged.

"Whatever, back to Eveningstar. You can pay a visit to your old man, discreetly, and we can resupply. I'll buy you a lute or a harp or something. With all that loot from Thunderholme, I think you've earned it. A portal focus! And a clearly powerful enchanted weapon...I love it!"

He eyed the gem, no doubt worth a sizable pile of coin just for its material, with open admiration.

"Thank you, Master."

He guffawed, and turned towards the road. Nothing for it, she fell in line, beside Esmer, and Alexander went after him.

She felt Esmer's hand lock with hers, and it felt warm, human. She smiled, throwing down her hood when the sun fell below the horizon and its painful rays no longer bothered her.

Here, on this journey, beside her friends, she, too felt human. Maybe there was some hope for her after all. Maybe there was some hope for them.

"To my father, then. And then the road." she said, listening to the songs of winged insects and birds of the Cormyrean countryside, "I can't wait."


To Be Continued



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