Three Irons

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10. Dark Hearts

The Cleric strode ahead of the Stranger around a bend in the catacombs under the steady glow from the luminous fungi. They passed another set of ancient remains resting in a hollow space in a wall. Unlike many of the others they had encountered thus far, this one had claw-like hands that gripped a scorched wooden stake in the heart of its tattered rags.

She stopped at the feet of the skeleton. “What is it about you that worries the girl so?”

The Stranger crossed his bulky arms. “It’s not me so much as it is what I am and possess.”

Her smiling green eyes found his. “What are you?” She leaned against the cool stone. “Are you another of the unholy?”

His bitter features grew colder. “Why do you have any interest?”

“I’m a healer. I can sense the good in people.”

He scoffed. “I suppose you think you sense something in me?”

She nodded.

He lowered his gray eyes to the puddle at his feet. “I’m a half-breed, part human---part creature. I’ve always been an outcast.”

A mask of disappointment spread over her. “Not a vampire.”

The Stranger shook his head.

The Cleric inched closer. “The sunlight and fire?”

He shrank their gap. “Neither affect me.” His defenses against her softened.

“How did you get to be part creature?”

He scratched his scalp. “Not sure. I’ve read in obscure texts and scrolls that a ritual is capable of creating something like me.” The Stranger peered into her soul. “I’ve assumed that was my origin.” His tone shifted. “Tell me. What’s your story?”

The Cleric shrugged. “Not much to tell. I grew tired of the killing and turned to a clean slate in the healing arts.”

He hummed through a contemplative nod. “A warrior. You’ve seen combat?”

“Not quite.” She collected her long braids and draped it over a shoulder.

“You said---”

She beat him to the point, “---that I grew tired of the killing. Yes. I’ve never seen battle.”

He stroked his chin. “Curious.”

The Cleric ran a finger over her slender arm. “I don’t know how much I should divulge.”

He stepped into the puddle. “I’ll likely be dead by sunrise. Don’t see how it matters.”

Her chest deflated. There was something behind his gray stare she couldn’t resist. “I made a living out of murder.”

The whites in the Stranger’s eyes grew.

“I got so good at my profession that I was contracted to kill the Empress and her husband while they were away on holiday.” She sucked in a nervous breath. “I got close, but couldn’t finish the job.” A peaceful release. “Never told anyone that before.”

“Now you live in solitude in the mountains, atoning for the sins of your past.”

She nodded. “Something less poetic, but yes.” Her gaze fell to the remains between them. “You said that they hate sunlight.”

His head bobbed.

She tilted her head toward the skeleton. “Are they vampires?”

“No.” His guise soured at the sight of the undead. “These things consume to remain on this plane, but yearn to control time.” The Stranger turned his attention to something around the next corner.

The Cleric turned and followed. A faint blue glow pulsed along the wall of the next corridor.

“The more they consume,” he said, leading them into down the hall and into a shallow antechamber, “the more time they control.”

An altar sat in the room’s heart. A tiny disemboweled corpse lay upon its flat stone surface.

The Cleric gasped and covered her lips. “Please don’t tell me…”

The Stranger drew his dagger and poked at the lifeless form. “A suckling pig.”

She moved to the glowing runes on the wall above the sacrifice. “And these?”

He strode to her and examined them. “It’s in their tongue.” He leaned in closer. “Portal. Power eternal.” He stepped away and looked to her. “Someone opened the gate.”

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