The Thunder Peaks, Cormyr (22nd of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
He felt Oki's body against his, her heartbeat.
Ryuu sighed, weary after the celebration and the feast of boar to commemorate the long night, the longest in the year. It had been a good night; he'd drank more than he cared to admit, and eaten far more than the patriarch thought he deserved.
What had woken him? Everything was so serene. So quiet.
Ryuu tensed, sat up, ear slits perked for the sounds of winged insects and their feathered predators.
But he smelled wood smoke. The fires had long since been quenched
Ryuu swallowed an involuntary hiss, and lightly shook his mate awake.
She tensed, eyed him confusedly, her pupils wide in the darkness.
"Oki..." he said quietly, for whispers carried further than a normal voice, "We are going to leave the yurt, and make for the patriarch's. Do you understand?"
She blinked, sobering. Her head cocked, listening as he had.
He crept along the interior, and gathered his bow and two arrows. Oki took his harp, for there was no other weapon.
Gently, very gently, he eased the flap of the yurt, and peered outside. There was a bright light, far in the distance. None of their kinsfolk had noticed yet. Drawing and arrow and nocking it, Ryu took the lead, Oki immediately behind, scanning for intruders.
Neither saw anything, but there was an unusual musk in the air. He eyed her, and they continued towards the patriarch's yurt, at the edge of the river.
In the span of a few more strides, a blinding light exploded near the communal fire pit, like a hundred suns, and he heard Oki scream before being deafened with the roar of a thousand waterfalls. Ryuu stumbled, disoriented, and he could clearly smell mammal in the air.
He blinked; thankfully, the light lingered and his eyes adjusted quickly to it, enough to pick out the lithe figures darting from the grass line.
"Come, now!" he cried, dragging her forward, towards the opposing tree line.
He stammered, horrified, to see a Humanoid with skin of dark oak and hair like polished obsidian. Its yellow eyes bored into him, and narrowed. It drew a recurve bow, the fletching level with its starkly pointed ears.
Ryuu had already drawn, and so he fired first.
He saw the elf collapse, struck through the neck, just as he heard a pained hiss behind him. Oki's claws dug deep into his shoulder.
Scores of Elves surrounded the camp, their fine curved blades bared. Confused, the Lizardfolk nonetheless quickly formed a defensive perimeter around the patriarch, armed with spears and clubs of wood, stone, and obsidian.
But those stumbling blindly from their yurts, however, had been cut down. Some moved, others did not.
"We have to go, Oki!" he gasped, trying to find somewhere, anywhere, to retreat to.
His heart skipped a beat when she did not reply. He turned to her, and she locked eyes with him, stunned.
Then he noticed the fletching sticking from her body, between the clavicle and collarbone. The thin line of blood issuing from her lips.
"Oki!" he cried, steadying her as she went limp, save for her hand on him. Her eyes darted, sightlessly.
He pulled into the nearest yurt, ignoring the Elves, the light, and everything else.
Not her, and not now!
He pulled her body back into their yurt, and assessed the damage.
Oki's breathing was wet and labored. The arrow had grazed a lung, but gods be praised, hadn't punctured it. Her left lung was only partially collapsed, and some air was flowing. But the wound bled profusely, despite his efforts to apply pressure with a rag.
The sounds of battle issued outside. He paid them no heed.
Against her cries of pain, Ryuu sat her up, and leaned her against a small stool, grimacing at the sight of the arrowhead poking from her shoulder blade. It was barbed, the material a silvery ore. It was not tied on, like theirs were, but bolted on roughly a quarter-length down the shaft, part of which was inside of her body, underneath. He couldn't cut off that end like it was. He'd have to remove the fletching and push it the rest of the way through. But he didn't have most of his tools on hand; there was nothing to saw it off.
Desperate, Ryu flexed his jaw, which could clamp down with the strength of an alligator's, and breathed deeply, preparing to bite the shaft and break it. He couldn't stop the bleeding until the arrow was removed, and he'd have to make a few incisions to make sure the arrow would break at the proper angle; backward, against her shoulder blade, and not forward or inward, towards the lung.
He was ready. He locked eyes with his mate. His were watering, and hers were unfocused.
"Be still, my love..."
She didn't reply.
The ring of metal on wood, and something softer, grew more distant. As before, he paid it no heed.
"Be still, Oki!" he cried again, taking his other arrowhead in hand like a scalpel, as she gasped, horrified, legs splayed.
"Ryuu..." she wheezed, choking on blood, "...the eggs..."
World Serpent, no...
He cursed, foully. He couldn't handle this too.
"Damn it all!" he cried, hastily making the cuts he needed to ensure the arrow would snap the right way, before biting down. He held her shoulder and neck tightly, and bit down in the shaft, snapping his head.
The shaft cracked, bent, but didn't fully separate.
Oki shrieked, dimly, as if she knew she were in pain but not exactly how.
He twisted his head again, and it broke off.
Her scales were plumed, the pores beneath them exposed to the air.
He didn't have much time. The contractions or the loss of blood would kill her if he didn't patch the wound. He leaned her forward again, his mouth filled with splinters, and pulled from the opposite end, drawing it a finger's length.
He felt an unseen barb further down the shaft lodge in her shoulder blade.
"Shit!" He screamed, pure animal frustration, "Shit, Shit, Shit!"
The nascent Elves had made their arrows specifically so they would be impossible to remove in this manner!
"Ryuu..." Oki moaned, her eyes rimmed with red, "I can't..."
"Be still, my love..." he moaned, defeated, "I will fix this. I have to fix this..."
The sounds outside the yurt abated entirely.
"Save them." she replied, a hand on her belly, "Save them."
"I w-will try again." He said, choked, "I can still-"
She moaned, a contraction striking her abruptly.
"Please, sun on my scales..." Oki replied, cognizant for the moment, "Keep them safe for me."
So much blood. He had to stop the bleeding. He crushed the rag against the wound, "No, I can still-"
"Please..." she begged, her eyelids growing milky and translucent.
He still had the arrowhead.
He knew where to cut. He'd been forced to do this before.
He doubled over, sobbing.
There had to be a way.
He reached for the arrow in her flesh.
He kissed her, deeply, like the knights of his chapbooks did, "Forgive me, Sun of my Scales."
He steeled himself and lay her flat on her back. He pulled apart his own arrow. All he needed was the tip.
Oki nodded, delirious, panting. A red foam issued from her lips.
Ryuu said a prayer to Semuanya of the World Serpent, and leaned down, blade leading...
Haidée startled awake. The campfire had burned low. Alexander lay opposite to her, facing away. Ryuu was idly stoking the flames with a stick.
"What manner of Elves were those?" she blurted, the blood memory still fresh in her mind.
He tensed, turned to appraise her with a carefully neutral expression. His eyes glowed like burning coals in the dim lighting.
"Ssri-tel-quessir." he replied, "You know them as Drow, or Dark Elves, but that was how they looked before the descent. A raiding party, you see."
He looked away.
"What happened to Oki?"
He said nothing.
Haidée went to him, but made no contact. She knew he wouldn't appreciate it, not in that moment.
"I was able to save her egg." Ryuu said, then shrugged, "They found me like that...over her. They let me bury her. I guess that was a small consideration, considering. Eh? The rest that had died they burned. And those that lived..."
He winced, as if in pain, "You will learn the truth of it soon enough, I am sure, if this ridiculous vision runs its course."
He looked away, distant.
"I tried to raise her, you know."
"...No. Oki. I tried to raise her from the dead. I'm also a necromancer, you see."
"You didn't succeed?"
"I never fail when it comes to the wrong decision." Ryuu said, "I bound her spirit, about forty years later. Had a blood offering to make her a new body. She refused. It violated the will of the World Serpent, who lords over all reptiles. I didn't choose to live after...what had happened. The choice was robbed of me. She had the choice. She refused."
"The will of our god." Ryuu explained, "All things form a great wheel. Ever turning, each end is a new beginning for another. When a follower of the World Serpent dies, they live anew as something else belonging to the World Serpent. To take a new life without the World Serpent...it would be heresy. And that isn't enough for her, even now. When a soul bonds with another, one cannot begin that cycle without the other. So she waited for me, in the in-between. She waits for me still, to begin the new cycle."
"I am sorry, Master."
"I know you are. But it is what it is. Nothing to consider, really."
"You want to go to her."
He said nothing.
"But you couldn't." Haidée continued, unable to stop, "Your duty to your child prevented it. And now that you're-"
"Shut it!" Ryuu hissed, turning, eyes wild but glistening with unspent tears, "Because I made you my apprentice doesn't mean I won't paint this cave red with what's left of you!"
He looked back, "What's dead is dead. What is, is. That's all that matters. That's all that ever mattered, and all that ever will. Drop the issue. You have much more important matters to ponder in the coming days."
Downcast, Haidée said no more.
That was a wound that, like those across his back, had never healed.
Alexander hoped that Ilmater would forgive him this deception, but he had kept silent during the entire exchange.
He hoped Ryuu would too, because he knew enough of Vampires to know that they could hear a person's pulse, and determine their level of wakefulness.
"Right then, I think we're all rested up." Ryuu said disdainfully, "Up and at 'em. We have more to do, and I'd rather not do it here. Maybe we'll try-
Esmer checked and double-checked his work. The inscription was perfect, as far as he could tell, traced right out of the tome his cousin had afforded him to cast this spell.
While he was no wizard, he was an excellent scribe, and he'd prepared a particular cantrip from the divination school with ingredients prepared beforehand. Termed scrying, he could use a focal point, in this case, a small mirror in his left hand, to survey his betrothed wherever she currently was. He could then command the spell to assess her location and pinpoint it to him. His pack, and a weathered sword of fine iron rested against the well, ready for use, as was his horse stabled below.
He didn't understand what had happened, but he knew that he and poor, poor Tolon had been deceived by that vile priest and his monstrous ally. If Haidée was still alive, it would be Esmer's duty to rescue her, with his wizardly cousin's help, of course.
Most imagined wizardly types poring over esoteric tomes and conjuring mystra's weave with a flourish of their fingertips. A ritual spell was a little different; it drew from the very cosmic forces to produce a carefully controlled effect. Anyone could use a ritual spell, provided everything was accounted for.
A scrap of her tunic, marred with blood, stood at the center of a small thamaturgic circle, inlaid with silver powder, and a secondary mixture containing the powdered eye of hawk, nitric acid, copper, and zinc.
As he finalized the spell, an ochre light emanated from the circle of runes, and a loud humming filled the room, as the latent magical energies manifested.
The mirror swirled, turning pitch black, before he noticed a small, flickering light.
Haidée sat near a smoldering flame in a dark chamber, clothed in ill-fitting leathers and a weathered cloak. Her eyes, a deep, unnatural maroon, widened in confusion, then narrowed in suspicion. She glanced about, perplexed, before something else entered his field of view.
"Child's play." a soft, sibilant voice echoed in his head, "I've outwitted archmages, you little shit! You really think a rote divination would go unnoticed?"
Something went wrong. The runes flared red, and began to flow like liquid, forming a new pattern. Pushing himself back, horrified, Esmer's fingers closed around the hilt of his sword just when something grabbed his foot, and pulled him forward, into the circle.
There was a rush of motion, of displaced air, and he landed hard, air blasted from his lungs.
A woman gasped, and steel unsheathed.
The change in lighting was so dramatic that Esmer was blinded, stabbing wildly with his sword.
"Ooh...little peeping birdy wants a scrap, does he? I should-"
"Esmer?" Haidée asked, "Gods, what did you do, Master?"
His eyesight adjusted, and he found his feet. He was in that camp he had scried, somewhere underground. The priest was there, staring dumbfounded, and the snake-fiend advanced with a pair of elegant silvery blades.
It paused, confused, "Oh yes, the betrothed, was it? You didn't strike me as a wizardly type, as clumsy as your efforts were."
"You will release Haidée at once!" he demanded, with more bluster than he actually felt, brandishing his sword.
"Adorable." it said, hissing, though it sounded somehow like laughter, "The noble prince come to save the damsel from the dragon's lair. Like one of those chapbooks I so delighted in, in my youth."
"Esmer, what were you thinking?" Haidée asked, interposing between them, "I-..."
She looked away, then back to him, her eyes a deep red color, which burned like coals in the dim lighting, "It's complicated."
"Oooo...." the creature chimed in, "This looks personal, Alexander. We should leave them alone."
Neither the creature nor the priest stepped away; the former looked amused, the latter distressed.
What in the nine hells was going on?
"Haidée..." he pleaded, "Tell me. Why did these men lead me to believe you were dead? What has happened to you?"
She blinked, "They did? I guess that's best. I can't go back, Esmer. Not like this."
She held a hand up to her face, and only then did he notice how deathly pale she was, "It was for your protection. I...I can't be trusted right now."
"You did not want to marry me?"
Her composure shattered at his words, and her indecision broke his heart.
Then, her expression softened, "I think I would have grown into it, Esmer. I think I would have very much loved a home shared with you."
She frowned, downcast, "It cannot be now. I'm no longer Human. Ryuu saved my life by making me a Vampire like him."
The word evoked grim storybook tales meant to frighten children; of looming castles and dark crypts.
"He saved me, Esmer." She repeated, almost pleading, "But the thirst. Its...I can't live like I did before. He's been teaching me how to fight, how to survive, without killing anyone. I wanted to stay, to...see how things came to be. But I couldn't stay there. Not without risking hurting someone I love. My father, or..."
What a monster he he was...
"This was my doing."
"The stress from the engagement." he clarified, abashed, "If you hadn't gone to the water that day..."
"No, Esmer." Haidée replied sternly, "Nobody can be blamed for this. What happens, happens. What is, is. All that matters is what we do now."
"Then I will go with you." he replied without hesitation.
"Are you kidding me?" Ryuu cursed, "It's bad enough with Sir-Painfully-Conscientious over here, you really expect me to-"
"Please, Master." she asked, turning to him, "If I could handle not eating Alexander, surely I can-"
"It's not the same, girl. A lover is much more tempting. That power, that energy, that is love...it has odd effects on a condition like ours. You'll go mad and try to feed on him, and then what?"
"I will not allow myself to harm him."
"And I will not allow myself to be harmed by her, just as I will not allow her to come to harm." Esmer added, "You could use me."
"Back me up, priest." he said, turning to the man, "Cast a charm on this bungler and let me send him on his way. I know if I teleport him out he'll just get himself killed trying to chase us down!"
But the priest shook his head, "This can help the girl maintain her humanity. I will bless an article of faith for him to repel her if need be, but I see no reason not to bring him along, if that is his wish."
Ryuu rolled his eyes, groaning, "Oh fine, and baby makes four. We're getting quite the clique going; a nobleman, a farmer's daughter, a priest, and an ages-old Vampire. Maybe we can form a musical troupe, though Alexander needs to use a wind instrument. His unfettered voice drives me positively crazy. Anyway, fine, moving on!"
"Where will we go now?"
"Let me worry about that. Boy, I hope you looked up at birds soaring overhead and wondered what it's like to fly. Cause that's the only way you're getting down this mountain in an expedient enough fashion. That, or I can just boot your insufferable arse right off the peak!"