The Dragon's Apprentice

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Chapter 2

Cormyr (11th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)

Haidée Salom did what she usually did when things were a mess at home. She skipped rocks along the Starwater River, trying and failing to send each missile all the way across to the King's Forest. Dawn brightened its surface with a golden sheen, reflecting the rising sun. Maybe, she thought, just maybe, she might make a raft and paddle out to the forest to go exploring, leaving the dull, dreary plains behind for a while...

Not that she would stay forever! Forests were much prettier than rural farmland, but they also hid Goblins, Elves, and who knew what else. She, as well as the rest of her family, were better off living on this side of the river.

Nonetheless, the Starwater was lovely, travelling east to skirt Eveningstar, the city closest to her, and to the west, much father across, leading to Arabel, which she had not seen but heard was good to visit this time of year. Out there was a whole world; south of the King's Forest was the Stormhorns, a steep range of mountains leading down near Suzail and the Dragonmere, where you could travel almost anywhere by ferry, Daerlun along the northern edge of the lake, and Westgate along the southern edge.

After that...who knew; well beyond Cormyr, no doubt.

She might walk tomorrow, after her chores, but not tonight. Father had told her she was to marry soon.

That seemed to make sense; just reaching her sixteenth year, she was well of age, and Esmer from town was a fine choice; his family, a prominent clan of winemakers, were far better off than the two of them, who lived off of the vegetables they grew in the yard. Esmer was no noble, but he was from respectable merchant stock. He had been looking for a bride, and a place to settle outside of town to build a second, smaller, more private vineyard, and Father had given him the rights to their small cottage and the lands around it. He would build a nicer house, a two-story affair, and they would live in it as the vineyard grew around them.

It sounded fairy-tale to a peasant like her; he was a striking young man, hair like golden wheat, and soft, poetic eyes the color of a clear sky. But she wished Father had asked her first. Was she not entitled to choosing who she wanted to marry? She had only met Esmer once; today, when they had signed the marriage certificate. He seemed alright, if a little dull...but what if they did not like each other after living together? What if he became withdrawn, or cruel?

What if she came to hate it here?

Tomorrow, she would be engaged. In a week, she would likely marry. In the next months, Esmer would build their home while she likely made him a child. This sudden lack of choice felt suffocating...

What would Mother have said?

Haidée sighed, then chastised herself; Mother had passed years ago. She could not depend on her advice anymore. She just had to think like Mother had.

She threw another stone, angrily, and it did not skip, striking the river and sinking immediately with a dull thud.

Better now than never. What might Mother say she should do?

"I should just go back home. Maybe tomorrow things will look better than they do now."

It wailed as it burned.

Pain, pain, pain. But hunger. It was hungry first.

It had to feed.

Yes, down, down, yes; it smelled meat. Sweet, juicy, tender meat. Feed. Feed. Then it would learn why it hurt. It ran on fours, its nails digging into the ground.

Yes, feed. It found a scent, faint but there.

Yes, feed. A female. A Human.

Yes, feed. The prey knew it was coming.

Yes, feed. It walked more quickly, then it began to run.

Yes, feed. She smelled so sweet, her fear so enticing.

Yes, feed. It caught her by the river.

Yes, feed. She screamed, tried to fight back.

Yes, feed. It tasted her flesh.

Yes, feed. So sweet.

It screamed, as they plunged into the water. Pain, pain, pain.

It paddled away, back onto land, and ran. It was no so hungry anymore.

It had to rest.

Yes, rest.

Esmer Tharen waited in the Salom homestead for his bride-to-be, sitting with her father in the main room with two mugs of steaming hot cider. The floor was simple planking, probably material deemed unfit for ship-building and sold in bulk. Still, it insulated nicely, as did the stacked and mortared logs that made up the walls. The layered stone furnace and fireplace burned hot that day, banishing the first signs of Leaffall chill.

"Haidée did not seem excited to see me yesterday." he said bluntly, knowing Tolon Salom well enough to know he preferred directness to tact.

"She was just shocked." Tolon replied in her defense, "Things happened quickly, as they are wont to do in these parts."

That hardly summed up the problem. Esmer put up a good front, but he was nervous about the engagement. He wanted out of Eveningstar, away from the concerns of the family. He just wanted to live well, with a loving wife and a home by the river. He had been watching Haidée for some time, seeing her grow into a fine young woman. Reaching the age of twenty himself, he was more than due to be wed, and he wanted this dark-haired, wild-eyed dreamer as his own.

But he had wanted to talk to her first, really talk to her, to find out what she was looking for.

But no. House Tharen of Cormyr, not yet risen to nobility but bearing serious ambitions to do so, had drafted up the certificate and personally propositioned the father the moment he had shown interest. They wanted a second vineyard off-site, and considered Tolon's land to be a fine property to purchase through marriage, without cost, might he add. His interest in Haidée had unintentionally been the first genuine service he had done for House Tharen.

He shrugged, sipping his cider; with some time, they could get to know each other. And he would not cut her father out of the deal, certainly. He would live well. And Esmer would make his daughter a fine manor, and she would in turn make him an heir, or two.

"What is that?" he asked, hearing something high-pitched outside. He heard something snap, maybe a small branch. Or it might have been his imagination.

"She must be back from her evening walk." Tolon said with a shrug, "Though it's a little early. I will greet her first; she doesn't like surprises, as you noticed."

Grinning uncomfortably, Esmer let him go, but the moment he opened the door, he drew in a sharp intake of breath.

"Gods! Get a rag and draw some water." Tolon said, "Now!"

She approached from the bank of the river, her clothes soaked through. She stumbled, her hair a tangled mess. She was covered in blood.

"Haidée!" he yelled, running as fast as he could with his shins. Esmer caught up quickly, and met her first.

"By the gods..." he gasped, forcing her down, "Be still, my dear. Tolon, her neck!"

He saw well enough; her roughspun dress was torn at the collar; the bridge of her neck and shoulder gushed blood, a deep, dark wound already festering with streaks of gangrene.

"I'll apply pressure to the wound." Esmer said, holding the cloth over it after soaking it with water. "Tolon, help me get her inside."

Together, they led her back into the house, and set her on the bed.

Gods, she was so pale...

"What did this?" he choked, crying as he did not when his wife had fallen ill.

Not her too... Not her too...

Haidée gulped, the rag stained red against her neck, "Goblin."

Ryuu waited out the daylight hours in a dusty corner of the Lonesome Tankard tavern and inn, nursing a mug of dry cider made from apples locally grown in Eveningstar's orchards and fermented somewhere nearby. Having walked the world, absorbing its varied customs, he had learned how to hide his condition well.

Unlike most of his kind, Ryuu was possessed of no crypt. He had a pinch of dust taken from his resting place in a pouch hanging from his neck, inside of his tunic, enchanted to serve as his "coffin". He could move anywhere with it, and likewise, needed not rest in a state akin to death as most of his kin did. He still slept every now and again; the body needed it not, but the mind was another matter.

But not today.

Today he was positively brimming with excitement. On his first night in Cormyr's darker side, he had seen an ancient Vampire, a Bodak, scores of lesser and moderate undead, and several juicy necromancers to feed on. He had stored the leftovers in a flask on his belt, a cousin to the bag of holding, and damn was he full from what he did drink!

He could not hide his grin as he took another long draught, more for appearances than anything else. He could barely taste its dry bitterness at all, though to a mortal, it likely would have been very potent.

"Vorel." he said smoothly, catching the attention of the serving maid, a young Human female, "What is your top shelf wine?"

She frowned at his appearance as much as his draconic honorific; Lizardfolk were exotic enough in this region, which was lucky, really, because their lack of knowledge on his race made it easier to pass as a mortal. He did not even have his hood up, and while he caught more than one puzzled stare, he gave them no cause for alarm.

"We have two wines grown by the Uskevran household in Stormweather Towers." she said finally, scratching her chin, "The first has a light and sweet taste with hints of wild berries. It is a lion piece for a glass, eight for the bottle. The second, a dry wine grown from white grapes, is three lions for a glass, a tricrown and a lion for the bottle. We also have a bubbly wine invented by the wizards of Longsaddle, one lion per glass or six per bottle, and a sparkling wine from Cormanthyr, but, between you and me, nobody buys it because it has no alcohol."

Lions were gold pieces, tricrowns were platinum. Top shelf indeed.

Ryuu considered for a moment, then, handing her a gold coin minted in Thay, "I will try a glass of that Uskevran red, I think. Sembians seem to know how to make wine properly, and I have had enough of wizard's brews from that Silvery Snail in Wheloon. Ugh; magic is not the way to a proper flavor!"

The lass eyed him, then the coin, frowning, "We can take foreign currency here, sir, but I would get all of that converted; outside of here, you will find we accept only Cormyrean mint".

Nodding, though he was hardly listening, Ryuu leaned back in his chair, downing the last of his mug, listening to the din of conversation. The Lonesome Tankard, as was any tavern in any Human city, was a great way to receive news of anything important, though, obviously, its sources could not always be trusted.

Waterdeep was still being plagued by droughts. Sad, but not really his specialty. A portal supposedly opened north of Damara, near the Great Glacier, reportedly spewing ice demons. That might be worth inspection. There were fires sprouting up in Shadowdale, maybe demons as well, but he'd be damned if he was going to travel within a hundred leagues of the old haunts of Mystra's chosen.

His drink arrived, and he tipped a pair of silvers, earning an uneasy smile. He took a sip, and finding it satisfactory, dared a longer draught.

"So you heard about Tolon's daughter?" one drunk said at his table, his voice a little shaky from the two mugs he had downed since Ryuu had wandered in, "Hear she is bedridden, and her betrothed says she got bitten by some mad Goblin or something. They don't know what she has, but it doesn't look good. Be a shame, it would, if she went like her mother".

He leaned forward, thinking. Eveningstar was pretty close to the Haunted Halls. Could he have missed something?

Curious, Ryuu stood up, and approached the table, earning a few rotten looks.

"Eh? What you want, scaly?" one of them snapped, and he let a more amiable smile grace his lips before replying, "My apologies, good sirs, but I was wondering; did they catch this "Goblin"? I have to leave the city in the evening, for other parts, you see."

The Human, a farmer by the rough garb and his unshaved face, shrugged, "No. Damned thing got away."

He eyed Ryuu's sword belt, "You look fit enough to handle some stray beast. Get you gone."

"This Tolon fellow. Where does he live?"

The farmer was already back into his mug, and coughed, cider dribbling down his chin, "Still on about that? You know, for a scary looking fellow, you sure are a frightened li'l Halfling on the inside. Tolon's place is just out east, on the bank of the Starwater. So you know to stay away. Now leave us be. Just decent folk trying to enjoy a mug."

Bowing, Ryu set down his glass, and went up the stairs. He could find the place quickly, but he had to wait until late evening. He was not in the mood for a tan...

Another site. Another dead end.

Sirahani cursed her ill luck; it had taken centuries to isolate Cormyr as the only possible homeland for a very certain one of Tolenkov's underlings, and thus, the site of his necromantic research. But despite her efforts, she had not found even a trace of his works.

But she remained patient. Aurus had been a genius in manipulating negative energy, and small pockets of corruption would linger even now, manifesting as uniquely powerful undead. There were be a trace of his doings, most certainly.

And she would find it, the better to use his work to her own purposes.

Nightfall wasn't far now. She would travel further into Cormyr, drawn to areas saturated with unholy magic.

There were quite a few yet...

Alexander walked east out of Eveningstar in the fading light of dusk, his heavy heart weighing his steps at the loss of his friends.

But he could not wait and grieve. He had heard news of a woman in need of a healer...or...someone to give her the last rites. It was his duty, and he was in such a position that he could arrive within a day.

"I will return to that place." he decided, "I will recover the ashes of my friends, and I will inter them as they deserve."

"Sounds like a plan to me, Sunathaer." mused a voice to his side, and Alexander jumped, cursing.

He cursed again as he found Ryuu, his hood up, walking beside him, though he skirted the rays of dim orange sunlight that still shone through the canopy of the forest.

Alexander stopped, began to draw his Morningstar, but Ryuu waved dismissively, "Peace, Sunathaer. I could have pounced on you when you were sulking. I did not. A little confidence would be nice."

"You are a Vampire." he retorted, flummoxed.

Ryuu tut-tutted, scratching his chin, "This again? You become less interesting every time we talk."

"I find it hard to believe you are a friend to the living."

"If you must know, I've made many friends among the living." Ryuu parried, "My first was Vikrama, who so enjoyed riddles, although I must admit I owed the poor fellow much before he died. Not my fault, I assure you."

He shrugged.

"So, where are you heading?"

Alexander paused, then relaxed, resuming his walk, "None of your concern."

It would go away. Hopefully. He would not allow it to follow him to the child.

Ryuu eyed him oddly, keeping pace, before smiling, "Well, if I would are going to that poor girl to save the day. What a coincidence."

What? Had news spread so quickly? And what would Ryuu find of interest in this?

Alexander scowled, "You will stay well away from them."

He purposefully angled towards the thinnest concentrations of trees, onto the main road, forcing the Vampire to move more quickly and carefully to keep pace and avoid the setting sun. Aside from that infuriating grin, Ryuu gave no impression that he even noticed.

"You are probably thinking what I am; something might have gotten out of the halls. And if she is suddenly ill from a bite..."

"You did this?!"

"Certainly not. I was in the Lonesome Tankard all day, drinking. You can ask the bartender and the serving wench. I am very...ahem, memorable."

When this was over, Alexander knew he would do exactly that. Vampires were creatures of deceit.

"Vampires can get drunk?"

"Not really. It was just better than hiding in a crypt or something."

"Well then, what do you think happened?"

Ryuu paused, frowning, then, "Well, if I had to guess; the villagers said it was a Goblin that bit her, so it was not a true Vampire like myself. A feral, maybe, driven mad by experimentation, or maybe a Ghoul; a Vampire Familiar, that got loose and wandered off. Then again, it really might have been a Goblin, and she might have caught a mundane illness. I have seen odder things happen."

"That, I do not doubt."

The Vampire laughed, a deep belly chortle laced with a raspy hiss, "You have a sense of humor after all. Tell me, Sunathaer, from where do you hail?"

"Westgate." Alexander replied, not really meaning to. The path became more uneven and rocky. The forest thickened, and Ryuu was again uncomfortably close, "Why do you keep calling me that?"

"Calling you what?"


"It is our word for one touched by the gods. A cleric, or some such, in your tongue." Ryuu replied, "So...a denizen from Westgate with a chip on your shoulder. I will guess you hail from noble stock."

"None of your business."

"Okay, definitely from noble stock. A family with poor reputation, but great wealth."


"That or you are an outcast in your family, or perhaps both."

"I never-"

"This family did not originate in Westgate. It came from somewhere else."

"Alright, damn you!" Alexander snapped, "My name is Alexander Mallyth. My family came from Tethyr."

Ryuu scratched his chin, "Sounds familiar. Didn't they get stripped of their noble status for engaging in organized crime?"

"That was over four hundred years ago."

"I'm sure they cleaned up their act by now."

"They did not."

"And so you joined a cloister, seeking some grand purpose in your life, but failed to find it completely. You could account for yourself and your actions, but not your family's. Hence, the hostility at my line of questioning."

"I am hostile because you are a Vampire, and I do not like you."'

Ryuu chuckled, "Well said.", motioning to the path, "So what is the plan?"

"The plan is you leave."

"That isn't much of a plan."

"Why not?"

"Because I am a Vampire. Who better to consult on a potential Vampire bite?"

He eyed the creature, wanting desperately to attack it or chase it off but unable to deny its logic. It could have killed him twice now. It was not an immediate threat.

"Fine, just stay out of my way. I will not allow you to bring harm to anyone in there."

"Of course, my friend, of course."

Tolon heard a knock on the door, and sighed wearily, thanking the gods that someone had arrived in time. He rushed to it, rushing in his case as smooth a hobble as he could muster with his shins, and opened it, finding a welcome sight. A young man robed in grey stood there. He looked in his middling years, maybe a decade older than Esmer. His shaven face and short hair gave him a stark, almost militaristic bearing, but his dark eyes were nonetheless gentle and reserved. He looked like a man who smiled often, though presently he only looked concerned.

He wore a tabard, marked by the symbol of...Ilmater? It was a rack, a torture implement. That looked like Ilmater's symbol, as odd as it was.

"Hello, good sir." the man said in a soft voice, "My name is Alexander, and I am a servant of Ilmater. I have heard rumors of an injured woman in these parts."

"...and we came here to help." added a second voice in a smooth, sinuous voice, and he strained to see the man in the priest's shadow, unnoticed until now. A figure, cloaked in white. A scarf hid his face, but Tolon thought he saw a silver brooch in the shape of a rose. Lathander's symbol.

Good, another priest.

Tolon nodded, "Come inside, please. Both of you. I invite you into my home."

The man in the white cloak tensed at those last six words, but did as he bade. He didn't introduce himself, but Tolon didn't care, if he was here to help as well.

His daughter, his Haidée, lay in her bed, murmuring in her sleep.

She was so pale...

Her pupils were dilated, wide as saucers. She perspired heavily, though her skin was gooseflesh; the signs of a fever, though one worse than any he had ever seen. The deep wounds in her shoulder were wrapped; they had been made by serration, not punctures. The fiend that had marked her had twisted its head mid-bite, tearing flesh and grazing her bone. It had been a terrible wound, all the more with whatever infection it propagated.

He had no idea what to do. This was no common fever. What was happening to his child?

The priest in grey knelt at her bedside, taking her hand in his. She did not stir.

"The Crying God preserve us." he whispered, eyes closed, "Allow me to understand the suffering of this woman, your servant, that I might give aid and end her suffering."

For a time, nothing. The fires of the hearth crackled. Haidée moaned in her sleep, and Tolon shifted uneasily.

Then, something appeared on the back of Haidée's wrist. A marking in black. A symbol, like a wheel formed of arrows, but barbed and menacing. A lidless eye with a narrow slit."

"Shit." exclaimed the man in the white cloak, leaning over the bed. The priest in grey started, then eyed his fellow with barely concealed hostility. "What is it? I do not know this symbol."

"Kanchelsis..." he replied, "...a demigod reigning over the 487th layer of the Abyss. The first and master of Vampires."

Tolon blanched, and felt his heart break. He wept, horrified.

His girl...his little girl...

"So it is true, then." the priest replied sadly, "Something must have escaped the Haunted Halls, and attacked this woman. We are to blame."

"Aye, and the issue is twofold; the beast roams free. It has to be dealt with." the second priest, the one with the rose brooch, replied, throwing off his hood.

Tolon nearly grabbed the axe in the corner; it was a hideous monster covered in pale grey scales, which eyed him with visible amusement.

"Ease." it replied, lifting its hands in a gesture of surrender, "I just need a sample of its saliva. Did you clean the wound?"

Tolon nodded, dimly.

"Do you still have the rag?"

Again Tolon nodded.

"May I see it, please?"

Grimacing, he obliged, leaning over the wash basin and collecting the soiled rags he'd used before binding the wound in gauze. They were almost completely soaked through with her blood.

Before he could do anything, the creature took them, pressed them against his nose, and inhaled.

"I have it." the creature replied after a few moments, nodding, handing back the rags, though Tolon dropped them back into the bucket the moment they touched his hands.

What in the hells was this thing?

"You see what you can do for the girl." it said, "I will take care of the Feral."

"And how will you prove that to me?" the priest snapped, to which it smiled, "I can bring back its head, if you want. Unless it is a certain species, it will not disintegrate into ash upon death".

At the priest's consent, the creature walked out his door, and darted into the night.

Ryuu trotted out of eyeshot of the cabin, and became as a flight of bats, scattering himself to track down his prey.

It was not because he particularly cared if anyone else fell prey to it, but the Haunted Halls should have been over and done with. He did not like leaving business unfinished, and besides, if a Vampire spread its condition wide enough, it might alert all of Cormyr to be on the lookout. And he did not want to be bothered with such nonsense.

Sniffing the air with a hundred noses, the Vampire began to search for a trail.

Alexander healed the girl's wounds, as a start, channeling Ilmater's cleansing light. The grazed bone smoothened out, the muscle re-knit itself over it, and a fresh layer of skin grew to seal the wound. It might weaken the infection to deprive it of its initial point, so he needed to try before attacking the illness itself.

"Lord Ilmater, guide my hand." he prayed, her father beside him, hand in his, "That I may cleanse this poor soul of her suffering. Give me the strength to banish her afflictions."

Spells burned into his mind, gifted directly from the Crying God and precisely selected for his task; the power to banish illness, the power to shear through magical curses. The power to directly commune with Ilmater's realm, and, should he fail, transport her soul directly into the afterlife it provided.

He did not consider that last grim implication. Without preamble, he began to cast.

Pain, pain, pain.

But hunger.

It was hungry first. It had to feed.

Yes, down, down, yes; it smelled meat. Sweet, juicy, tender meat.

Yes, Feed. Feed.

Then it would learn why it hurt.

It ran on fours, its nails digging into the ground.

Yes, feed. It found a scent, faint but there.

Yes, feed. It was small, so small, but so sweet. It was somewhere; it could follow the food, but not catch it. Run, yes, run faster. Catch it. Eat it.

Yes, feed.

Ryuu baited his prey with a low flying bat, steering it into a wide clearing near the river. It had taken a few hours to find it; the Ghoul had wandered far indeed. Morning was now well under way.

A mindless beast, it acted as expected, lumbering after a source of food without cunning. With the Starwater, he would not need to worry about the thing escaping, not that it would anyway.

He perched himself, all of himself, on the lowest hanging branch of the trees on the opposite end of the river, in plain view of the beast.

Reforming and taking a close look, he knew it was a Ghoul, though, in retrospect, he might have easily mistaken it for a Goblin as well. Little more than an enthralled Zombie with a diluted strain of vampirism, the Ghoul inherited a Vampire's weaknesses, especially sunlight. It, utterly without self preservation, had walked in the light of the sun in its blind hunt for food, roasting its flesh in the process. It was slow, in no small part due to its injuries.

Still, it was impressive that the girl had managed to escape it.

Sitting cross-legged, Ryuu watched from the shade as the Ghoul ran into the water, and immediately tumbled sideways. As running water touched undead flesh, it dissolved, as if in acid.

Awed, he looked on, tail darting.

By the time the Ghoul rounded the bend in the river two bowshots down, there was little of it left save a pile of mush.

"Hrast!" he cursed, striking himself in the face, "I forgot Alexander wanted its head. Poor help I am!"

His task nonetheless complete, Ryuu decided to take a leisurely stroll back. There was a beaver damn a small walk downstream. He would take his time.

Uncharacteristically somber, Ryuu considered the girl, and sighed.

The priest would need this time to figure out that the blessing of Kanchelsis did not bend to the will of other gods...

Alexander heard Ryuu enter.

He was gloating; he could have entered silently if he wanted to. The Vampire stood beside him, eyeing the girl.

"There is nothing more I can do." he said flatly, "I can wake her for a time offer her last rights, but little else."

He had failed. He had exhausted everything but the Crying God's final tribute. And he did not have the heart to cast it yet.

Ryuu nodded.

"You knew this already."

Again, Ryuu nodded.

"Then why did you say nothing?!" he snapped, eyeing the fiend.

"There is something we can do." Ryuu replied coolly, ignoring his anger and eyeing the girl with something resembling embarrassment, "But I wanted you to try first, so you understood where we stood on things. So you could understand that there is no other way."

"What? Please, tell me?" Tolon snapped, sweat beading his brow, his eyes wide, "If you can help my Haidée, than do it! I beg you! Whatever you are, you must have a measure of sympathy in your heart."

Ryuu nodded, for once serious.

"I hesitate to speak it...but the lass deserves it; a Ghoul transmits its condition like a disease, similar but more basic than a Vampire might. Nonetheless, the rate of infection and nature of the ailment, part illness, part magical curse, it virtually identical. The bite of a Vampire, however, is more pure, more refined, more powerful. Becoming a Vampire changes the body far more than becoming a Ghoul might entail."

He paused, shrugging, "One can offset the other. She can avoid becoming a Ghoul, with the bite and the blood of a powerful Vampire."

He eyed Tolon, and now his expression was unreadable, "She needs my blood."

The man stood rigid, snarling.

He reached for the axe.

Alexander drew his Morningstar.

"Ease, fools." Ryuu replied, holding up his hand, "It is not your decision to make, nor is it my own. Only she can speak for her sake. Alexander, you said you could wake her?"

He should not say it. He could not say it.

"Alexander..." Ryuu chided, "I will be sure she knows what I am suggesting, but I will not let you two buffoons interfere. If I really wanted to, I could tear the lot of you to ribbons and you, Sunathaer, know this. Wake her up".

"You will not touch my daughter, you monster!" Tolon snarled, lifting his axe and lunging forward.

Ryuu caught his arm, as effortlessly as subduing a child, and locked eyes with him. He went rigid.

Alexander knew what was happening; a Vampire could charm its prey with a hypnotic gaze. It was generally how they fed. He tightened his grip on his weapon.

But Ryuu did not bite him. He set the man down, leaving him dazed and unresponsive, then turned to the girl.

His back was rigid. His tail was tightly curled to rest against his leg, pointing forward. He hissed, but it didn't sound aggressive.

"Alexander... Wake. Her. Up."

There was darkness all around her. She saw streaks of rot, rivulets of blood. She heard laughter, though it also sounded like enormous stones grating against each other.

But then Haidée stirred from sleep, her temples pounding in her head.

It was so hot...wait, no, it was cold. Was it? Someone rubbed her forehead with a damp cloth, and she heard someone moaning.

Oh. It was her...

"Can you hear me?" whispered a sibilant but gentle voice, "Say nothing. Just, squeeze my hand."

She felt someone's hand in hers, so she tried just that.

"Good. Now, try to open your eyes."

She managed; she was in Father's bed. And...

"Shhh...." the monster sitting over it whispered, "You are fine. My name is Ryuu. Look, your father is over there."

She strained to look around it, and did see her father, eyeing her dimly with an expression she had not seen since Ma had passed.

"I am here as well, Haidée." a man in grey said, maybe a friar, like the men at the chapel of Lathander in Eveningstar. It was odd, but she could not help but notice how cute he was; he had a lean face, clean and shaven, with a strong, imperial nose and chin, and the deepest, saddest eyes she had ever seen.

He was thin, but fit, a heavy spiked mace in his belt, alongside an amulet, maybe a talisman or charm.

His expression was somehow even more foreboding than her father's.

"What is it?" she asked, clearing her throat and smiling weakly, "What's wrong?"

Ryuu frowned, "I need you to listen to me very carefully, Haidée. Can you do that for me?"

Nervous, shivering, she nodded.

Alexander watched the emotions, genuine emotions, play across Ryuu's face.

He wasn't sure what to make of this, any of this.

Ryuu was a monster. Alexander should have killed it in the halls.

But now it showed compassion for this girl; it had nothing to gain. Ryuu did not strike him as the sort who would favor taking a minion.

"The creature that bit you was no Goblin. It was a Ghoul. There is no cure; unless we act now, you will become a Ghoul as well. You will hunt. You will kill. You will feed, on the flesh of mortals. There are only two ways we can help you. Do you understand?"

Now shaking for a reason beyond her fever, the girl nodded.

"One; you die. I will have my friend here perform your last rites, and...sanctify you, afterwards. This way, you will not rise in undeath. Your soul will find its way to whatever god you worship."

"But, I-"

"You have one chance to survive this, but I cannot say what will happen to you, in spirit. My condition, my curse, is something that changes people; they are not quite the same after, not ever. But you encountered a Feral. You, a simple farmhand, and you lived to tell the tale. You show promise. You might be strong enough to continue on."

He squeezed her hand, "I can take away your ailment by replacing it. I can make you a Vampire like me."

She squirmed in his grip, but she was weak from illness, and he was iron.

Yes, Ryuu was a monster. He might not always have been; from what he knew the Lizardfolk from the Vilhon Reach were hardly civilized, but they were not Orcs or Drow or Demons either.

But he was a monster now. He was a Vampire.

And he suggested turning this woman, this innocent woman, into a Vampire as well.

"You will not be able to return here; I will not have your father or anyone else harmed because you could not contain yourself. You will not see your father for many years, if at all."

Her eyes went wide as saucers.

"But you will live; aye, you will become strong, strong enough to weather this burden and this world. I will take you on as my apprentice. I will help you endure this curse, and make it your own. Hells, in time, you will think it a boon. If you are strong enough..."

"But I am going to live here. Father told me I-I am to marry Esmer in Eveningstar, that w-we were going to grow grapes for the winemakers right in the yard. I-I...-"

"I am sorry, Haidée. I wish there was more that I or my friend could do. But you have a choice to make. Dying is easy. People do it all the time. Can you take account for your choices? Can you get back on your feet? Are you strong enough to live with this?"

Alexander tightened his grip on his Morningstar. He had to do something. He had to stop this.

Ilmater, show him another way...

"You will feel not the bite of steel or iron. You will never tire. You will never age, never fall sick, though you will hunger. Always. It will try to break you, this hunger. It will seek to imbalance you, to make you abandon your ideals, the person you were before. In the uncountable ages of your life, you may even forget who you were completely. What is a few choice decades against centuries? Millennia?"

The girl eyed her father, whose eyes shone with tears. She whimpered, too weak for sobs.

"You will outlive anyone you have even known; even the Elves will fall and decay where you will not. You will find common ground only with your kind, Shades, Dragons, or the gods themselves, and at any point, you may count one or all as your allies, and they in turn will fear and respect you as such."

Ilmater, show him the way... What must he do?

"But I have lived with this, aye. It is something you can get used to, something you can learn to find peace with, and even enjoy. It is a life, even in undeath, Haidée. I would not describe it so unless I thought you had a chance."

"So what will it be? Do you choose death, or life? Are you willing to fight for a second chance? Or is the price of eternity too steep? I will not judge you, either way, though the world might."

It was her choice...

He could not intervene.

Alexander covered his face in his hands; if Ryuu had not killed him, had saved his life, had done all of these things with no ulterior motive save his own amusement, than perhaps his soul had remained relatively intact. Perhaps hers could as well. He did not approve, but his hands were tied.

Tolon, likewise, did nothing. He was still pale with shock and grief, sitting on the floor and watching numbly as his daughter, by the looks of things, his only remaining kin, decided her fate.

With nothing else that he could do, Alexander sat down beside him, and lay a hand on his shoulder.

"This is all I can do?" she asked, stricken, and Ryuu nodded.

"It's not fair."

Again, Ryuu nodded. His expression, while inhuman and difficult to read, softened visibly.

"It never is. I'm so sorry."

She looked away, to the wall behind her, opposite him. Alexander could no longer read her expression.

"Would it be such a bad thing...?" she asked, her voice breaking, "I would go to my mother. To Granfa. To all the rest of my family before me."

Ryuu said nothing.

She looked back, to face them. Her eyes, dark lidded against her pale skin and tinged with red, were nonetheless resolved.

"I want to live." Haidée finally replied, visibly terrified but determined, "I'm scared of being...something that isn't me, but I'm not ready! I'm not ready to die!"

Her hands still shook, but they gripped the blankets tightly, and her gaze did not waver as Ryuu nodded, "I understand. There is no guilt to that."

"Very well." the Vampire nodded, and, while his back was turned, Alexander watched him remove his torc, revealing odd markings starting at the bridge of his neck and shoulders, and then slip off his layered tunic.

Alexander gasped, his grip on Tolon tightening.

Ryuu's scales were deeply pitted in long but deep canyons all across the surface of his back, crisscrossing repeatedly in intricate overlapping layers.

Lash marks.

Some were nearly healed, little more than pale grey lines, and others were barely scabbed over, the scales surrounded them pressed up and revealing puffy, irritated skin. A few bled lightly. He could see the beginning lengths of several all along the small of the back, presumably ending somewhere in the upper thighs and buttocks. In certain regions along the lower back there were deeper, darker wounds, the scales...seared? Burning brands, perhaps?

Someone had mercilessly whipped him, over an extended period, all the while burning his flesh with hot iron and jabbing him with small edged implements. All of these wounds were improperly angled for self-inflictions. Their presence made no sense. On a Vampire, they should have regenerated with feeding.

Ryuu drew a small knife, and casually sliced open the muscle bridging his neck and clavicle. Against such injuries, such a thing must not have overly bothered him. His blood, oddly thick and dark, almost like tar, seeped from the wound. He held the incision open with the flat of two fingers.

"I am going to perform a rite of my own." Ryuu continued, either uncaring or unaware of Alexander's scrutiny, "A rite nearly as old as the world itself; a prayer of sorts to Kanchelsis. A rite that will burn away the Ghoul's pestilence. You must do as I say, and not resist. Are you ready?"

Looking to her father, Haidée nearly lost her composure, but nodded, biting her lip.

"Good. I want you to bite my neck, here." he said, lifting her partially out of bed in a parody of an embrace. "Bite hard; you need some of my blood. Try not to gag on it."

Gods, save them.

Minutes passed, as the girl lay there, too afraid to act but too afraid to push him away. Ryuu had to keep the wound peeled open, as Alexander could see it was already beginning to regenerate. He'd fed, very recently.

Eventually, she complied, and Alexander and her father alike grimaced at the wet impact of her teeth sinking into him. She whimpered, but he heard a wet lapping sound follow it.

Gods, forgive them.

"Drink some, but let the rest linger in your mouth." Ryu instructed, waiting a few moments, then letting her lean back with an outstretched arm, he drew up her hand, bearing her wrist.

Gods, forgive him.

He opened his mouth wide, revealing a full set of pointed teeth, but a pair were longer than the rest.


Ilmater, forgive him...

Ryuu sank his fangs into Haidée's wrist, and the faint suckling sound nearly drove Tolon into hysterics. Alexander had no choice but to restrain him, but, in his peripheral vision, he saw Ryuu embrace the girl one final time, and force her into a kiss, intermingling their blood.

He looked away after that, unable to bear more...

The girl was fast asleep.

Soon, her condition would deteriorate, and she would experience death, hardening with rigor mortis. Then, two days hence, she would rise.

Ryuu turned to the others, saw Alexander's expression, and grinned, slipping his tunic back on and wiping the blood from his mouth, and then Haidée's.

"Well then..." he said.

"Well, then..." Alexander replied shakily.

He eyed the father, who looked insensate.

"Take him to Eveningstar." Ryuu ordered, weary, handing over ten gold pieces, "Board him at either the House of the Morning chapel or the Lonesome Tankard for two weeks. He can have all the hard drink he wants tonight; he will need it. Stop him afterward, though. I want him out of the bottle by the time you return. On the morning of the fifteenth day hence, you can return him here; we will be gone by then. If he wants to settle inside the city, you will find fifteen platinum coins in a false panel under the shelf there. I'll pay for his permanent lodgings. Now get lost; ...I need to rest up a bit. That was harder than it looked."

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