The Thunder Peaks, Cormyr (21st of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
On the next night, just after sunset, Ryuu gathered his growing brood outside of the farmhouse. Both of them looked uneasy.
"Haidée." he began, "Just like we practiced."
Nodding, his pupil closed her eyes, clearing her lungs of air. She still unconsciously breathed, which annoyed him, but the effort of resisting it brought her to a state of complete focus, which would help her develop her powers in the short term. He'd fed her, using up much of the blood he'd harvested from the halls a mere tenday prior. They would have to find something worth eating in the thunder peaks, or things would get...awkward, with Alexander around.
He could feel the blood stirring in her, not her own but that she'd taken into herself. Blood was life, and in life, there was power. By infusing that power, it was possible for a Vampire or a Blood Mage to bend reality in interesting ways. And with the blessing of Kanchelsis, those alterations were more focused, more...specific.
A crimson aura surrounded her, like a shroud. It bled outward, into streamers of shadow. Her body began to grow faint...translucent. Her eyes burned red. She cried out, a horrified expression on her face, and her body broke apart, and a hundred dark-furred, shrieking bats exploded outward, carried up into the sky.
She hadn't cried out because of the transformation...and she hadn't been staring into space.
Ryuu turned, to find a male Human staring at the space she had occupied, his dark-rimmed eyes wide as coins.
" Haidée!?" he cried, taking a step into the clearing, before the man's eyes found him.
"Sorry friend, but you walked into something." Ryuu said dryly, "And I don't have the patience to explain. Alexander, it's time to go."
"You blackheart!" he cried, charging forward, "What have you done with-"
Ryuu broke apart into bats, and dragged the priest up with him, leaving the other Human alone in the glade.
Haidée intuited many angles, many fields of vision, and a feeling of weightlessness. She could smell earth, and something more organic. She could hear heartbeats, one rapid, one deathly faint. Alexander and Ryuu.
A Vampire had a heartbeat? It was too faint and too infrequent to keep someone alive, but it was there...
Maybe they were more alive than they thought, after all. It made her feel better.
But then she remembered what had happened right before her body had broken apart.
Esmer had seen her...
She heard the screeching of bats, and a sense of disconnect made it difficult to tell if they were her, or among Ryuu's swarm.
"It can't be helped, girl." Ryuu's voice echoed in her mind, "Let it be."
"Yes, Master." she heard herself say, and the sheer brokenness in it gave her pause. Maybe the marriage wouldn't have been such a bad thing, after all.
Too late for it now.
Her old life was over, and her new life beckoned. She had to focus on the task Ryuu had set for her; The Thunder Peaks.
It would get easier. It had to.
They set down a few hours before dawn, a thin line of blue on the horizon. Reforming into solidity, Ryuu knelt in a small clearing before the landmark known as Oversember Vale.
The ground was rough, patchy, with dry, coarse vegetation amid fields of rock. Small pools of water throughout festered or fed into subterranean river veins. To the northwest side of the valley, there was a line of stunted, scraggly trees that hugged the steep rock face.
"Foreboding territory." Alexander observed, still swaying with disorientation, keeping his distance from the girl, who was still eyeing him strangely, "No civilized sorts would reside up here."
"I think that is the idea." Haidée replied, downcast, and Ryuu clapped his hands, nodding.
"Exactly! Orcs and Goblins, Giants, maybe even a nest of Dragons!" he replied jovially, idly kicking a loose rock, "The possibilities! I positively adore this location already. It's such a shame we have to wait for nightfall to traverse freely. Oh well, in we go. Alexander...you can stay outside if you really want, but you're very easy to spot out there. If a Goblin shoots you in the back, it will be rather embarrassing to go hunt it down in recompense."
He made a show of considering, then, "I will follow you into the caves."
He patted the girl on the shoulder, but didn't make eye contact. Ryuu had no time for it. They had a final chance to say goodbye, if not entirely in words. It was more that most ever had.
"Alrighty then." Ryuu replied, taking stock of the caverns he'd spotted on the wing, "Eenie...meenie... miney...mo. That one. We'll try that one, just over the clearing. It looks deep."
With the sun rising behind them and the thirst bubbling up in her veins, Haidée followed her master into a deep cavern. Though it became impenetrably dark, she could still see clearly, and hissed when their Human companion lit a Glowball and cast a piercing luminescence. The air quickly became humid. There was a scent of mineral water, just detectable over Alexander's musk. In fact, she could still hear his heartbeat, and it made her legs weak. She licked the roof of her mouth.
Soon. Soon, she would...appease the thirst, and his proximity wouldn't bother her so much.
Deeper, deeper they went, a curious rumbling sound detectable over Alexander's faint breathing.
"A subterranean water vein." Ryuu explained, sensing her bewilderment, "Don't ask me how it flows up this high, but a body of water seems to run through part of the mountain to terminate into a waterfall. It's quite lovely, I'd imagine. But I wouldn't recommend going to a dip, though. Running water."
They stopped before a wide delve, marked with signs of recent habitation. A makeshift walkway of weathered planks bisected the delve, terminating into a ladder, which led straight down.
Across the delve, held aloft by a series of chains was a long, elegant linen banner. There was an emblem painstakingly woven into its fibers; a peal of flame with eyes, burning above black, reptilian claws. It made her uneasy just to look at it.
"The Cult of the Dragon..." Ryuu mused, eying it curiously, "Odd. I didn't know they operated in Cormyr. Not many dragons, unless you count the guards, and that's in name only. Hah. There's a joke there."
"Are they bad?" Haidée asked, feeling foolish but wanting to know regardless.
It was Alexander who answered, "They follow the teachings of a Lich who prophesized an age in which all the races were subjugated by undead dragons. Yes, indeed, they are."
"It's decided then. We will kill them all."
"Are they still here?"
He nodded, "They never leave their iconography behind. Religious reasons or some such. Since they will soon be vacating these grounds, it would be a shame to defy their creed by leaving it to molder here."
Ryuu waved his hand in a mystic pass, and the bottom corners of the banner began to burn. In moments, it was virtually incinerated, detaching from its rigging to descend weightlessly down the well.
"You know they will see that..."
Ryuu grinned, feral, "I prefer my prey with their blood up. It makes them taste better.
Ryuu had gone first, extending his claws and scaling straight down into the delve. Alexander belted his Glowball, sighing, and took the ladder.
Haidée didn't immediately follow. She had another trial to pass first.
"Like the swarm of bats..." Ryuu had instructed, "A Vampire can break apart into dense fog, impervious to conventional attacks. It is a useful talent, but alas, gravity takes effect. It is extremely difficult to fog to travel in any direction but down, or in the general direction of the wind."
Well, she was going down. It would be easy.
Haidée exhaled, slowly, building her focus. Everything she needed was in her, just like before. After becoming a Vampire, everything had begun to feel different. She was cognizant of the blood in her veins...but it didn't feel like it was really a part of her. Like she just had fluid sitting in her body. When she drew upon her new powers, that fluid heated, began to burn.
But instead of hurting, it felt energizing. Haidée imagined herself as a current of air.
Everything began to feel...heavy.
Her skin became porous. She held up her hands, and she could see through them. Even in the darkness, they bled shadows.
Then everything went dark; she could not see or hear anything, but she intuited tactile information that was...very different than the norm. She could feel the texture of rock, but spread over a great distance. She could feel the moisture in the air, about her "body" like a waxy membrane that was in motion, rather than static.
It was a singularly disorienting experience.
Haidée felt herself sinking, spilling down the ledge, flowing in and about herself. She reformed, dazed, and it took several moments to register the sounds of battle.
Drawing her sword, she dashed further into the cavern, ramping down into a wide antechamber fortified with worked stone. Roughly hewn furniture lay about haphazardly, and several banners akin to the one Ryuu had burned hung from the walls beside carved sconces. There was an altar, draped with additional banners, on which lay a large, ornate leather tome.
Alexander stood near the center of the space, living quarters maybe, brandishing a sun amulet, eldritch words pouring from his lips, and Ryuu spun his blades in elegant patterns as he dueled with strange, winged creatures with barbed tails.
Wyvern. Armless, dimwitted cousins to Dragons.
"Kill or die, child."
Her master eyed her from afar, grinning.
Haidée spun about, and behind her was one of the same creatures, its drooling maw lined with fangs.
She wasn't sure what had tipped her off to its presence, for it had moved silently, but didn't question her luck. She assumed a stance that would allow her to maneuver quickly, not yet committed to the attack. Let the beast come to her, and reveal its strength before she did.
It couldn't know she was a Vampire, or if it did, it wouldn't understand the significance. Certainly.
It hissed, reptilian pupils narrowing into thin slits, and the plume of its scaled scruff was the only warning she received before it lunged forward.
Her senses beyond that of a normal Human, it seemed slower than she had imagined, but then, she was too, to an extent. Still, she angled herself to the side, just out of its reach, planting the blade into its throat.
Or tried to; the honed metal only glanced off of its thick hide, putting her off balance.
Another hiss. There was a Wyvern behind her now.
Gasping, Haidée broke apart into bats, fleeing further into the antechamber before reforming in a crouch.
Directly in the path of their breath attacks; a gout of flame and icy vapor respectively. The ice hit first; she was lucky it did, because she wasn't hindered by it, and the hoarfrost coating her skin and clothing blunted the fire as it struck. Still, she backpedaled, scorched.
With their wings unable to fully extend in the confines of the cave, her attackers charged her again, the one with the icy breath first.
This time, she aimed for its eye, and felt the sickening impact as she drove her sword halfway to the hilt.
Pulling it free, and because she couldn't afford to check if its thrashing was a death throe, Haidée retreated, faster and more agile that she could ever be in life. Her nails, sharp and black, dug into the stone as she leaped backward, arresting her retreat, for she could see a hole in the beast's clumsy defenses.
A voice that was not Alexander's echoed from the camber, and her body froze in place. The wyvern charged her unimpeded.
Ryuu felt the weave being drawn for a wizardly spell, and knowing Alexander to be purely the clerical sort, he had singled on the dragon cultist just before he froze his pupil in place with a binding.
A wizard. Good. If he had been a priest, his magic could have turned the girl to ash, young to the brood as she was.
Ryuu completed his own spell; a potent ray of necromantic energy.
But instead of the Human, he aimed for the Wyvern, and from his fingertip, a thin line of dark energy lanced forward, struck the dragonkin, and stopped its heart. It collapsed at the girl's feet, already quite dead.
Pitting Haidée against a wizardly spell so early in her training would be unfair, especially under such duress.
Advancing on the Human, Ryuu was already casting when he heard Haidée shriek behind him, felt the rush of displaced air as she leapt forward with prodigious speed, and bowled the Human over, colliding bodily and crushing him against the far wall. Lacking a blade, she clubbed him in the temple, twice, thrice, screaming, and he went still.
Alexander's voice reached an apex, and from his hand a glorious column of golden flame burst from the floor, and smote the scaled mask of one of the few remaining Wyvern. It shrieked, then toppled, its face charred, smoke issuing from its emptied sockets. It twitched, and went still.
He took the last two with his spell; a forking arc of crimson energy that penetrated their scales, and ripped the lifeblood from their bodies in a grisly fountain. The secondary effect of the spell drew that blood to him, and Ryuu hissed in satisfaction, absorbing the feast through the pores of his skin.
It had taken months and many ruined wardrobes to perfect that spell.
Surveying the cavern for side passages, and seeing several, Ryuu cast again, invoking walls of cartilage. Nearly spent, but satisfied that he would know if anyone would try and enter the room unannounced, he walked casually to the girl, who still crouched over her prey.
She hadn't fed, and she was trembling.
"Impressive." he conceded, still grinning, "I hadn't expected you to resist a binding."
Illusions may not work on undead, but a binding was just as potent, overcome with strength of will. That she could do it while the caster yet lived was an impressive feat.
His grin faded when she looked to him.
"I didn't beat his compulsion." Haidée replied, tears in her eyes, her entire body tense, "All...all I could think of was how he smelled, how I could hear his heartbeat and see the veins on his throat. All I wanted was to eat him."
Ryuu nodded, though he was a little troubled. He had forgotten how powerful the thirst was at first.
"Do it. Why do you hesitate?"
Her expression soured further.
"You have to eat...or die, Haidée." Ryuu insisted, unwilling to humor her sentimentality any longer, "Kill or die."
That's what it came down to. She had fed off him enough. It was time to take a life.
The Vampire felt Alexander to his side. Watchful. Expectant.
The girl didn't seem to notice. She was looking at the prone cultist, oblivious.
Haidée shook her head "It is wrong, Master. It is evil."
Alexander's heartbeat changed. His pulse quickened.
"Feeding isn't any different than it was before; life can only exist by consuming life. You eat a cow, and you have to kill it first." Ryuu replied, kneeling at her side, "If that is evil, than all life is evil. So be it."
He turned her face to his, "Because life is evil doesn't mean we shouldn't live it. All of us. We do as we must. We kill, we eat, because we want to live, and are afraid to die."
She wept. She clutched the man's black robe, her claws digging into his skin.
She stopped crying, though her body still shook. She leaned down, her face level with the unconscious cultist.
"I'm sorry." she said, her voice strained, "I'm so sorry."
She bit his throat, and Ryuu waited as she drank her fill. The man grew pale.
An older Vampire, one with experience, could feed on a person without killing, or even causing much harm. Transmission of the condition required ritual, after all, so the prey might not even notice, save for the puncture marks, which healed quickly.
But the first true feeding was always lethal.
The cultist went very still, and still she fed.
Eventually, she disengaged, a thin line of blood issuing from her lips.
Haidée wiped it away with her sleeve, and as she rose, the girl wouldn't look him in the eye.
Ryuu nodded, sated as well, "Well enough. I think we've cleared this place out. We can check in a bit to make sure. I'll clear the bodies, and we can have a nice r&r."
"Shouldn't there be more?" Alexander, ever observant, ...observed, and Ryuu nodded, "I think this lout was the stablehand of sorts; the rooms beyond this chamber feel...empty. I sense no life. The cult must be out on a covert operation, or maybe a small raid with more Wyvern. If they show up...great. If not, I don't feel much like waiting for them. I'll collapse the cave so they have nothing to come back to, but otherwise, I'm not up to bothering with them."
Now looking to his apprentice, Ryuu had a thought, then shrugged, reaching into his belt pouch, "You did well, Haidée. I reward good effort, as much as success, and this was both."
She finally met his gaze, confused.
"You are fine enough with a blade, but there is much, much more I can teach you. Tomorrow, I will teach you magical theory, and it will help if you have a good focal device. So here you go."
He found the wrapped cloth, and unwound it, revealing the rosy quartz rod he had recovered from the Haunted Halls. With time to inspect it, he'd imagined it well suited for her, and had been waiting for the right moment.
Well, that seemed like now.
She reached for it, uncertain, holding it in a limp grip, as if afraid it would damage her hand.
"It's not silver, like I'd originally thought, but mithril, which is much better. Probably belonged to some itinerant elven wizard."
"What does it do?"
"Whatever you want it to." Ryuu clarified, "It's not a wand, that casts a predetermined spell powered by enchantment. It's a more passive enchantment, one that will amplify spells and augment them with certain effects."
"What kind of effects?" Alexander asked, as interested as she was.
"Who knows?" Ryuu asked, "I haven't tested it much. The blood in my body is augmentation enough for any wizardly spell. But young Haidée isn't so dense with energy as I am. The rod will be an excellent learning tool. Just don't let it be your crutch, girl. You have power all your own. Don't forget it."
"I won't, Master."
They made camp right there in the antechamber, a bonfire of the cultist's furniture and banners lighting it and providing warmth. Ryuu meditated atop the altar, probably intended for sacrifices.
Haidée toyed with the rod he had given her, entranced by its silvery luster, and the fine cut of its gem.
Alexander prayed over the body of the man she'd fed upon, after Ryuu had staked and beheaded it, just in case. Though the man had served an evil cause, the priest consecrated the remains and wished his soul a speedy voyage to whatever afterlife his deeds had warranted.
That done, he prepared his own meal over the fire, pre-cooked, seasoned poultry soaking in a hastily made broth of water and salt.
Infusing with the chicken's juices, he tested the broth, and satisfied, he broke apart the meat and stirred it, making a basic stew. Haidée finally seemed to notice, and took a seat on the other side of the fire.
"Do you want any stew?" he asked, offering the bowl, " Let me know if you want any, I will share."
She sniffed at it, "It smells really good. Papa made something like that every now and again, but he never used enough seasoning."
She looked away, "I could go for some of his right now."
Nonplussed, Alexander ate his meal, "There is no place for regrets. They weight the heart, and divert one's sight from what is, and what can be. Everything happens as it happens. There is a peace in that."
The girl nodded, "It smells the same as before, but I have no urge to eat it. The soup is the same as it always was, I'm just the one that's different now."
"Yes." he conceded, "But not like you think."
She stared at him, perplexed.
He smiled, "You didn't notice? You were hungry enough to break through a wizardly spell; it could be said that your senses had taken leave of you. But at no time did it ever occur to you that I was closer to where you were in those moments than the cultist. It never occurred to you to attack me instead. Your very instincts are in line with your conscious wishes. You're still you; an innocent young woman finding her way in this world. Your options may have narrowed, or they may have opened more than you realize. Different, yes, but not worse. Not at all."
He reached around the fire, and held out his hand, "So, I thank you, for not lunging at me instead, like a thoughtless monster would. Like an opportunistic Vampire would."
Eyes wide, she took his hand, and squeezed it, "Thank you, Alexander. That means a great deal to me."
"Not at all." Alexander laughed, "The spiritual well-being of this little group is my concern, after all. The compulsion of any goodly priest.
"Oh, bother." Ryuu groaned, still on the altar, "Go to bed, you. I'm not letting you doze through the evening hours, remember, and it's nearly daybreak."
Nodding, Alexander finished his meal, "Remember, Haidée, that you are not alone. I am here. As is Ryuu. If you need anything..."
She nodded, "I'll let you know. I'm sorry, it's just..."
"I know. Good n-...umm, day, I guess. I should retire. I will do so after I commune with Ilmater. Hope he doesn't mind the lapse; this new schedule had left me a little unmoored."