The Dragon's Apprentice

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Chapter 4

Cormyr (18th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)

"Faster!" Ryuu snapped, jabbing at the back of her leg with his practice sword, which was mercifully wrapped in thick cloth. Haidée gasped as it bruised her calf, and forced even more strength into each stride as she dashed circuits about her father's land, ducking and parrying her mentor's vicious attacks. Having never even held a sword, she assumed she fought well, gifted with instincts which drove her to thrust, flourish, parry, and riposte with relative confidence.

"You are faster than this, woman. Stop breathing! You don't need air, remember?"

She forced the air from her lungs, and, against her instinct, did not inhale more.

Again and again, their covered steel nonetheless rang with deafening retort. She wielded a short, double-edged sword with a plain guard, while he, favoring the dual wield style, brandished lengths of dull iron, for his own proper swords could kill her with a mere pinprick, enchanted to damage undead.

As new as she was to the condition, such enchantments were considerably amplified.

"You are slowly leaning inward, shortening your strides. Inch right; I will not allow you to get lazy in your footwork."

Grunting, Haidée shifted more weight to her right foot, grinning despite herself.

She had been fighting for hours now. Right after lifting stacks of firewood. She had sprinted for hours before that. And she wasn't tired, not even a little.

Haidée lifted her arms, elbows bent, and just managed to block the next swing, though the force of it slammed her own hands into her face. She regained her footing, dazed but not deterred, deflecting his assault.

He had already formally shown her basic techniques; she knew to keep herself moving, legs bent, always with a firm center of gravity. He had shoved her unceremoniously to the dirt several times to illustrate this. Now, she just needed to make these instincts an effort of conscious will. That way, she could premeditate her own attacks, and not merely react to Ryuu's.

She struck with the open palm of her hand, aiming for the space between two ribs. He struck that hand downward with a quick descending elbow. As he had shown her, every defense was preparation for an attack; his elbow snapped back up, for her nose, but she locked his arm back and away by wedging hers against it.

It was a bold move; with her own sword arm locked up, she needed to use her fists, and while Ryuu was not particularly large, he outweighed her by at least a good forty stones

In a moment's inspiration, she took him in the ribs with her knee, as his arm could not parry. He took one hit, and a second, but on the third he lifted her with their interlocked arms, and slammed her onto the ground.

She recovered quickly, careful not to breathe, lest it distract her, and rolled onto her feet.

Right into the path of his leading foot.

She came back to herself, looking up at the night sky.

"Not bad." Ryuu conceded, "But you repeated your attack too many times. Never become predictable, Haidée. You also could have twisted my arm, locked as it was with your own, and either grappled me to the ground, struck with your other fist, or better, your forehead. A broken nose would pacify an opponent quite well."

"But not my other leg?"

"No. Why?"

"Because one leg and then the other would disrupt my center of gravity?"

He smiled, and now more accustomed to his facial expressions, she recognized it easily, "Exactly; even the one was an educated risk; you usually need two feet on the ground when you are this close to an enemy. Fists, palms, elbows, and forehead, the last only with great need. Kicking is for dancers, not brawlers, and brawlers usually come out on top in these things."

Nodding, Haidée found her footing, and lifted her sword.

"Oh, and maybe not on me, but when you are in a proper fight, that position would have been ideal to lean in for a little chew. Your fangs are your weapons too. Go for the throat."

She had little to say to that. It was best not to consider.

"Good. Again. And be quick about it; I sense dawn approaching."

"Yes, Master."

He sat with Tolon in the room that had been purchased for him. At the man's insistence, they drank the strongest, heaviest ale on tap, and now on this forth stein, Alexander was thankful for this time in the cloister. Monks and friars were quite adept in brewing, and their faith did not condemn inebriation. Otherwise, he might very well have been under the table by now.

"I've lost them both." Tolon said flatly, his eyes glazed and bloodshot, "All I lived for, those two, and now I've lost them both."

Alexander found little in the texts of the faith that could assuage him, for his daughter was not dead, and thus, not reached her promised afterlife.

"She will outlast us all..." He eventually replied, "If Ryuu can be trusted."

"He can't be."

He sighed.

"I know."

"Go to her."

Alexander blinked. The ale had made his thoughts sluggish, and his tongue loose. Normally, he would not address such a sensitive topic in public view, especially because of the necessary secrecy of Haidée's survival.

"Go to her, priest." Tolon repeated, pleading, "I don't trust some bloo-...someone like that. Isn't natural. I'm not asking you to join up with them...just...keep an eye on her. Please."

Nodding, Alexander finished his ale, "I can't travel like this. In the morning, I'll go to the house. I'll stay with her until my final breath, if I can."

"I have you word?"

"By Ilmater himself, I shall not shirk this duty."

Ryuu lit the lump of dried herbs in the shallow bowl of his pipe, inhaling gently. While the substance was generally used to treat his patients, allowing them to relax and comfortably eat, today would be a good day to enjoy some. His little garden patch behind the yurt was blossoming nicely, and a third of it would just end up being wasted, anyway.

He sat beside Oki along the water's edge, watching the hatchlings from the next home over at play, while some of the villagers stacked the driest wood they could find into the communal pit in the heart of their territory, beside the river. The hatchlings amused themselves with a pair of domesticated red turtles, which promptly hid away into their shells until the hatchlings tired and left them be, in which they would sprout out to be menaced once more.

The air was festive, almost visibly so; everyone seemed impatient, expectant. Last night's kill was a huge boar; a ferocious beast that shared the forests of the oasis and ambushed unwary hunters, and it was being currently prepared in the chieftain's yurt, its edible organs salted, its prime, juicy meat readied for the feast.

Taking in another puff, the Lizardman returned to restringing his Harp, which he would play that night at the bonfire, a practice that would commemorate the meat that the hunters had claimed for the village. His favorite pastime next to reading his growing collection of romance novels, Ryuu had found himself fascinated with stringed instruments, which had prompted him to fashion this piece. He had crafted it from a massive lump of smooth driftwood he had found near the edges of the oasis (probably flotsam from an old raft used by the soft skins), carving out a vaguely bow-shaped body with a slim central groove lined with stretched hide, its many strings tied and treated intestine, which were in turn tightened by simple spools wedged into the body of the harp.

It was rough, to be sure, but with the materials he had, it was a fine instrument; durable and reliable. It made a low toned array of notes, but he had made each string slightly thicker or thinner, depending, allowing a wider range of sound. The Harpers of the north would have laughed at his attempt to duplicate their fabled songs, but he cared not. Oki loved his music, and often added her voice for a nice harmony. He, in turn, loved giving her a pastime beyond cleaning their abode and cooking the meat that he occasionally brought home from hunting.

That seemed to be the only task offered any respect in their village, though... Hunt, or gather, or fight off the occasional raiding party. That was all that earned any accolade. Not when he saved a hunter his foot when it got caught in some gnarly pair of jaws, or when his quick thinking identified symptoms as those of a poisoning when someone idly brushed against some of the more venomous flora of the oasis.

What a bother!

He was no hunter; anyone could hear him hefting his spear to strike, or stringing his bow to fire. He could run, and climb, sure enough, but he lacked speed and grace. He could carry home a few rodents, or maybe the detached tail of one of the tree lizards when he tried in vain to catch them, but that was all. His gift was in mending, healing. He was a shaman, and a musician, and sometimes a decent cook. Not something the village chieftain, or Oki's father, could appreciate.

Oh well...there were more important things to him than the respect of the village. All he wanted, all he needed, was Oki, and the family they would make together, in this place, which had served as home for the tribe for generations.

The river flowed between his feet, foaming as it descended from the north, emptying through the oasis down to the lake beside Hlondeth and terminating into the Vilhon Reach where soft skins and the Yuan-Ti roosted.

The further north one went, following the river, the greater the elevation, until the air itself became thin and the trees became sparse. He had been told stories about there being a barren range of mountains somewhere in that direction, but he had never seen them, never travelled more than a day or two from the village. There was rarely need to. Fruit grew in abundance from the trees, and there were several species of tuber that could be harvested near or in the water, which was clear enough to spot roaming seaborne predators. The thick canopy of trees held in most of the moisture, creating a warming mist that soothed the scales and the lungs.

It was a paradise, and one that they seldom left, and never for long.

He waited out the hours until nightfall, soaking his feet, testing his Harp and gutting star fruit and mango for their gooey insides, which would be roasted into the meat for a tangy flavor. He also drew a few clay bowls of water, and set them around the fire-pit. Oki, for her part, unpacked and distributed urns filled with tree sap that had fermented for about two hours, to which her friends had collected in the forest earlier in the day. This sap, slightly watered down, produced a sweet, aromatic wine. Another set of urns, having set for a full day, would serve as a more potent, sour drink, preferred by some of the elder males.

There was also a third set of sap urns, which had been steamed over a small fire, the fumes collected into a small dried stomach, naturally crystallizing into a thin film of sugar intended to glaze the meat, sweetening it further. Combined with the seeds he now supplied, it could make the meat of the latest kill tender and savory, packed with flavor.

There was a reason a successful hunt was considered an event!

Finishing his task and providing a bowl of fruit guts, Ryu cleaned his hands in the river, then readied his Harp and exhaled slowly, catching the eye of the rambunctious hatchlings almost instantly, and they practically knocked him over as they scrambled to take a seat beside him.

Testing the strings for clear notes, he started small, drawing out a sequence of notes beginning from the string closest to his body and the third string down, focusing near the end and the frets. Down, lengthening the duration of each note, he suddenly picked up the pace, setting a rhythmic beat with a flair of higher pitched notes at the end of each cluster of lower notes. Oki listened for a while, since he was still experimenting with this song and she had not heard it before, and then began to hum in tune, mimicking the pitch and frequency.

Now comfortable with the song he was playing, Ryu alternated between the three strings closest to him, using the thickest string to set a beat and the next two for the melody. The hatchlings watched with rapt awe, their little eyes wide. He joined his voice with Oki's, his gravelly hiss adding a complimentary undercurrent to her wordless vocals. And so their song continued for a time, as evening set in, and the feast was nearly underway.

Not only to celebrate the successful hunt, this night marked The Long Night, the winter solstice, and their revelry would continue till the sun peaked through the trees...

Ryuu watching his apprentice stir in her death-like stupor, curious but not alarmed. Most would not notice; her deathly, motionless pallor nearly perfectly matched that of a mundane corpse...but her eyelids vibrated slightly, akin to the wandering eyes of a dreamer.

He did not particularly enjoy the thought of the girl sharing his memories, especially those memories, but he abided. So much time had passed, it felt...nostalgic, to re-experience them. Oki's name had brought him to a state he had not felt in centuries, somewhere painful, but comfortably so.

Sometimes, he feared he would forget her entirely; so much more time had been spent undead than alive, and those choice decades in the warmth of the sun seemed more and more unreal.

No...he cherished the pains of his past, for it rooted him as the present did not. He sat beside the girl as she rested, his tireless vigil more a whim than anything inspired by compassion. Prolonging her life had constituted the first selfless act in centuries, and that was more than enough for him.

"You will not sleep as well?" Alexander asked, pensive. The Priest had returned a few hours ago, and against his insistence, would remain with them through the girl's training.

He said he'd made a promise to his god, so Ryuu hadn't really bothered to argue. It would just make things a little more difficult; Ryuu was more than able to control a fledgling to the extent of keeping her off his throat. And he was a priest, with a holy symbol. He had his own protection, no doubt, so long as he kept his faith.

And who knew; maybe it would be fun?

"No." he finally replied, "I don't need much. The older you get, the less connected you are to the needs of the physical."

"And how old are you, exactly?"

Ryuu eyed him, amused.

"I was just curious."

"Gauging my powers, are you? The better if you later need to catch me unawares."

Before Alexander could stammer a reply, Ryuu laughed, "Oh, ho! Had you there. Of course I expect you to try and kill me once or twice. But that won't be a problem. I am forgiving. Anyway...let me think..."

Actually, that was a good question; what was the point in counting?

"Ahh, so many adventures I sometimes forget their order; I hunted with the Order of the Risen Scepter in Mulhorand. They rather fancied my condition, because I returned from death without the aid of Orsis, their patron god. We sacked Sekras, though it was later rebuilt. That was...oh, two hundred years ago? I've seen a good two or three dragon rages. Netheril. I really couldn't say. My view of the world and its events was, in my youth."

The priest considered him, now visibly uneasy, but Ryuu could tell. His pulse had changed a little. He could hear it.

"I know, Alexander, I know. How can you comprehend someone who has lived so much, become so much? And with such temptation to follow darker paths..."

Ryuu considered for a moment, then, "Truth is you have the right of it. I wasn't always like I am now. Life isn't so convenient to always offer a choice. I died...well, I stopped living, in a moment of absolute despair and hopelessness, in terrible pain and utterly alone. Imagine that, and imagine the propensity of violence one would have under such circumstances if they arose in undeath, with the kind of power I wield?"

He laughed, but it was bitter, "What I was then and what I am and night. I did things that I now regret, as did those who came to follow me, driven by thoughts of vengeance. Eventually, it broke me, and I wandered alone for a time. I grew up, I think. I saw more of the world, and I saw that there was more to it than death. But I never forgot why I fought, back when I still fought for something."

Alexander didn't reply.

"Does that make you uncomfortable? Good. It will help you take my words better to heart. You really should listen to your elders, after all, and at my age, you could not comprehend the insight that time and experience has given me."

"You are right at the last, at least. I cannot imagine perspective of so many years."

Ryuu considered, scratching his chin, "Maybe I'll turn you then when your life is threatened, then."

"You jest, I am sure."

"Of course."

He intentionally said it in an ambiguous tone, the better to unnerve the man.

In truth, he intended no such thing.

A mortal priest among a pair of Vampires. It was indeed going to be interesting...

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