"Everything is in order my lord," said the soldier.
I nervously cleared my throat and tried to keep my thoughts calm; I didn't imagine for a moment that the person I would be escorting was the most important man to the supernatural population in all of Liscario.
It was because of this man, Edward Buckwin, that many of us were able to live in a city rather than out in the unforgiving wilderness. He was set apart from most humans because he was unafraid of any of us. In fact, he even dated a she-wolf despite knowing the risks it carried.
The mission was to escort him and another person of interest to the summit being held on Bleak Barrow Hill, the trading hub of the province. I wasn't entirely sure what the summit was about but considering that Buckwin was actually attempting to be there in person, it must be something significant.
He was also different from most humans because he was actually well received among district. Most of the tenants, which included creatures such as vampires, werewolves and even succubi, actually liked their Lord. That was an amazing achievement; humans weren't exactly the most loved species around.
The Lord of the Magical District turned to me before nodding.
"We're ready to leave now," he said.
"Did you ensure that it was an enclosed carriage?" I asked.
"As suggested Master Hunter," he replied.
I shook my head.
"You are the lord of this district, no formality is needed," I said.
"You hold my life in your hands after all so formality? Not particularly needed," he replied.
He adjusted his glasses and shrugged.
"Besides, I prefer to get to know everyone in my district on a personal level; knowing everyone gives me all the more reason to keep things running smoothly," he said with a chuckle.
I cracked a smile before gesturing to the carriage.
"Let's get going then shall we?"
It took a few minutes for the small convoy to assemble but I didn't have to wait long until the carriage began to move. It was quite luxurious; the seats were very soft and a pair of drink trays were on either side of us. Each had two bottles of champagne as well as a small icebox with two glasses each.
"Our first destination is the swamplands, we're to meet Lady Venestris and take her along to the summit," said Buckwin.
The name was all too familiar to us Hunters. Lady Venestris was second only to Queen Yeonja of the dryads and she was often the person who was selected to handle public affairs; the queen was often kept busy with other matters. She earned her reputation due to her unrivaled skill with a bow and as a result of that skill, she had the distinction of being one of the military advisors for Liscario. She was also the one who trained the majority of the marksmen in the district, which was amazing considering that she trained them in gunplay. Then again, dryads always had that supernatural perception to have unnaturally good aim with any ranged weapon.
"Haven't seen a dryad in a few years," I replied.
"The relations between Liscario and them have improved dramatically ever since your band helped defend their home from that circle of necromancers," explained Buckwin.
"A battle I most certainly remember," I mused.
"We're forever in your debt for doing that; without your assistance, we may never have convinced the dryads to trade with us and now, here we are about to discuss the terms of a full alliance," he said
He smiled before picking up one of the bottles.
"Champagne?" he asked.
"Gladly," I replied.
He removed the cork before filling two glasses and handing me one of them.
"Do you anticipate any kind of trouble along the way?" he asked.
"We have to travel through a swamp along the way but considering the dryad presence there, we should get through it all unscathed," I replied.
"I've heard rumors of some kind of creature composed entirely of moss lurking there," he said.
"They're simply swamp elementals; they are not hostile unless they are provoked," I explained.
Buckwin nodded slowly.
"Is there a library where people can read on all of these creatures?" he asked.
"The guild has one that's meant for the public but for the most part, Hunters have their own library that gets very specific," I replied.
He put a hand on his chin for a moment before taking another gulp of champagne.
"Do you think there's a creature that even the best of Hunters try to avoid?"
I put my hand to my chin and thought for a few moments.
"Dragons are rather dangerous...but they're very rare, less than ten in the world in fact," I replied.
"Like the attack that happened ten years ago?"
"That was a nearly one thousand year old dragon, so it was no surprise that it was so difficult to deal with,"
Buckwin shook his head.
"Liscario is still recovering from that battle...were it not for the Circle Of Sorceresses, we'd surely have perished," he said.
"Which was disbanded one month ago was it not?" I asked.
He nodded again.
"I didn't want it to be done, but the King's word is absolute," he said.
"...Sometimes I truly wonder if he has the best interests of Liscario in mind," I mumbled.
Buckwin placed a hand on my shoulder.
"Without the supernatural population in our city, I doubt that we'd have survived many of the disasters that have struck us," he said.
I cracked a smile and nodded gratefully.
"I can see why the population reveres you so," I said.
Buckwin raised his eyebrow before chuckling heartily.
"I'm interested in learning more about the supernatural that we live with...knowing every face in the district is something I'd like to do,"
"A step in the right direction, especially considering the only kind of creatures the king finds even remotely appealing are attractive ones," I replied.
Buckwin chuckled loudly before adjusting his glasses.
"He always had an obsession for attractive women...it also explains why he never bothered to remarry after his wife died,"
"I heard about that...must've been sad to watch it all unfold,"
"At the time, you Hunters were not as numerous and our alchemists were not as adept because they lacked the knowledge that your band brought to us,"
I poured another glass of champagne and looked away.
"You seem troubled, is everything well?" he asked.
"Worrying about my mother," I replied.
He raised an eyebrow.
"Is she ill?"
"...I wouldn't say it like that," I replied.
He put a hand on my shoulder.
"Should this trip go well, I'll be sure to have one of my court sorceresses take a look at her," he offered.
"That's kind of you my lord...but she only trusts me to do anything concerning her health so it will be something I handle on my own," I replied.
He didn't seem even remotely offended by my words and in retrospect, Lord Edward Buckwin was always an easygoing man so perhaps he found it funny.
Each district in was watched over by a designated lord, who is selected by the King of Liscario. Buckwin was the lord of the magic district, where all of the mages and alchemists were found as well as a great deal of the supernatural population. Not much of the normal population was aware of their presence, but those who were kept it all a secret in order to not scare the younger generation.
Buckwin was also the man who built the guild house, which was now the place of business for the Order Of Silverite or as what most people call us, Hunters.
"Tell me, just what are you? You aren't human because I can tell by the color of your eyes,"
I shook my head and sighed deeply, seeing no point in trying to lie to him.
"I'm...a dhamphir," I replied.
He smiled at me and placed a hand on my shoulder.
"I deal with the supernatural quite often my dear boy and believe me, I'm not afraid of any of you despite being only human myself," he said.
I felt slightly reassured now; Buckwin was a good man.
"Your mother...I can only think of a few vampires who live in the district so that can only mean that she is Camille Narmak, which makes you her son...Arvo is it?"
I smiled at him.
"You really are well informed my lord," I said.
"Oh please, call me Edward, I believe we've passed the need for formality,"
He held a hand out to me and slowly but surely, I shook it.
"I'm terribly sorry for taking you away from her for three days...is she going to be alright?" he asked.
"I had one of my friends arrange a supply of blood for her and I know she won't venture out during the day," I explained.
"She's not yet reached the age where the sun ceases to be a problem?"
"She hasn't yet reached a century, she's eighty five years old, turning eighty six next week," I replied.
He nodded slowly.
"I can't imagine that feeling pleasant, being unable to go outside and risking fainting...and showing humans that she's a vampire," he said.
He put a hand to his chin for a moment before smiling.
"Once we return to Liscario, I'll have my court sorceress work on an enchantment to allow her outside, at least until she's old enough to do so on her own...do you have an item to bind the spell to?" he asked.
"We'll take care of her; Camille has helped me in the past so it's only right that I repay her however I can," he said with a smile.
"I...don't have anything to repay you with,"
"Considering that you so graciously accepted the task of protecting Lady Venestris and I, not to mention all that you Hunters have done for us, it is the least I can do," he replied with a smile.
"Thank you my-...Edward," I stuttered.
He chuckled loudly.
"Lady Venestris, it's good to see you," said Edward.
"Likewise Lord Buckwin, I presume this is the Hunter who will be escorting us to the summit?" she asked.
He nodded slowly before holding a hand out towards me. The dryad turned to me, now smiling brightly. Buckwin wasn't joking when he said that she was a beautiful one.
She had long black hair with slightly green skin, obviously due to the fact that she was a dryad. However, if her skin tone was normal, no one would've been able to tell that she was a nymph. A werewolf, vampire or someone with a very heightened sense of smell would be able to tell; dryads always seemed to have an intoxicating, pleasant scent. She was very curvy, sporting an excellent figure and subtle muscle tone that would never betray her incredibly agility at a glance. Venestris was one of the most well known archers in the province, having defended her home on her own for nearly two hours with nothing but a supply of arrows and her bow. The scary part?
She held back several platoons of elite infantry who were armed with guns and donned armor.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Arvo Narmak my lady," I replied with a respectful bow.
She smiled even more brightly.
"Liscarians are so well mannered!" she said.
"It took a little longer than anticipated to arrive here, we're terribly sorry for the tardiness," said Buckwin.
She shook her head.
"It's not a problem...though I'm afraid we'll have to put off our departure for the summit for a short while," she said.
I looked at her face to see deep worry.
"Has something happened?" asked Buckwin.
"One of my handmaidens went missing this morning and no one has been able to find her," she explained.
I stepped forward instinctively; I knew just how much dryads cared about their own kind. They shared a sisterhood like no other.
"I can help," I said.
She seemed a little reassured at my words.
"Do you know where she was last seen?" I asked.
"My scouts will show you the way...I would ordinarily track her with magic but for some reason, I cannot sense her," replied Venestris.
I nodded before turning to leave.
"I'll be back soon," I said.
She then handed me a necklace. From what I could tell, it was made almost entirely of the teeth of carnivores, except for the band which was some kind of sturdy cloth. I looked closer at the craftsmanship but my nostrils were filled with an incredible scent.
"Her name is Johanna, that was hers and you've no doubt caught her scent," she said.
"How did you know?" I asked.
She smiled and winked at me.
"I know a halfling when I see one...and is it not the main method in which you Hunters were trained to track?" she asked.
I laughed nervously before nodding.
"That necklace is also a ward that you can use to fend off anything that may attack you so I advise you not lose it," she said.
I nodded firmly.
"I will return as quickly as I can,"
"These swamplands are a lot more...tidy than I remember,"
I shook my head vigorously
"Need to focus, the handmaiden's life hangs in the balance...now then, let's see,"
I examined the environment, scanning for any trace of her whereabouts until I happened upon a patch of mud.
"Footprints...clearly a young woman's with no shoes, no older than twenty..."
The same intoxicating scent filled my nostrils once I leaned closer and took a whiff.
"Definitely Johanna...better follow the trail before it goes cold,"
I followed the trail of prints, even though they were already fading thanks to the humidity of the swamp and the ever growing moss. I followed it for a few minutes until I noticed a tree...with a dead man's body stuck on one of the branches. I also noticed two other dead men, one at the foot of the tree with a spear through his chest and the other with his head buried beneath the mud and vines pinning him to the ground.
"There was quite a struggle here,"
I first approached the man with the spear in his chest. I pulled it from his body before examining the tip.
"Wooden spear with an onyx edge, definitely dryad craftsmanship...whatever threw this has incredible strength for it to hit him hard enough to go right through his steel armor...no dryad I know is that strong,"
I looked up at the man who was impaled on the branches. The branch was jutting straight through his chest cavity and for some reason, there were claw marks on his face.
"Dryads are fast...but nowhere near strong enough to throw a fully grown man that high and with enough force to impale him, what did this couldn't have been the handmaiden...and these claw marks, where have I seen them before?"
I looked down at the man pinned to the ground with vines.
"Her scent is very strong on this one...he must've tried to grab her and she retaliated, knocking him down before chanting a spell to cause the vines to pin him to the ground with his head buried in the mud...his body being this cold means he suffocated quickly,"
I looked around for more tracks but much to my horror, I found a second set of tracks...ones that I didn't at all expect to find in a swampland.
"Large prints, almost like a big cat...but a second set of prints are a few feet apart from it and those look like a more humanoid set,"
I put my nose near to the prints and took a deep sniff. I shook my head and growled and the unpleasant stench.
"Manticore...no doubt about that stench...but what the hell are they doing here away from the mountains?"
A manticore was the unholy combination of dragon and lion that thankfully, lacked wings. They were capable of breathing fire and they were more than large enough to give a platoon of infantry trouble. The most terrifying part of a manticore however was their notorious aggression. The mere fact that a manticore was on the same trail as Johanna deeply worried me; they were very well known for their ability to track down their prey. In fact, they were probably among the best hunters on the planet.
I searched around frantically for a few minutes to try and catch Johanna's scent once more but this time, it was much stronger than before.
"She's not far from here...I hope the manticore didn't kill her; they're not known for kindness,"
I took off into a sprint, leaping into the trees and making my way towards the source of the scent. I continued to ponder reasons as to why they would travel nearly fifty miles to a swamp; they weren't territorial enough to want to leave the mountains but at the same time, they're notoriously vicious. Perhaps they were driven from their home?
"Didn't come prepared to fight a manticore...the best I can do is slow it down with anesthetic darts to get an opening to escape with Johanna; killing it won't be easy and I'm sure it has a family, best to escape without a fight than to endanger the other dryads,"
I stopped once I began to hear a heartbeat. As I drew closer, I closed my eyes and focused solely on my hearing. Unlike all the other Hunters in the Order, I was the only one who was a dhamphir and because of my vampiric senses, heartbeats was the way I trained myself to track most of my targets down.
Just as I suspected, there were two heartbeats.
"Both are frantic...but the one with the deeper tone must mean that's the manticore...Johanna is alive but the manticore is not very far from her,"
I stopped once I noticed the opening of a cave. Surely enough, a dryad was there, tied to a wooden post by her hands. She was almost completely naked, with only a torn tunic covering her chest and what remained of some leggings to cover her womanhood. She was bleeding...and I felt my heart rate increase. I could feel my body crying out for me to go down there and do what comes naturally...but I knew if I did that, this summit would never happen. In fact, it could mean war between the dryads and us.
"Can't let this stop me...once I give her one of these poultices, she should heal right up but I need to stay in control...sometimes I wish I didn't know how delicious dryad blood tasted,"
I waited for the second heartbeat to get a short distance away before I revealed myself. I approached her before taking out my knife and cutting her bonds.
"Who...are you?" she panted.
"A Hunter, Lady Venestris sent me to find you," I replied.
I took a small bottle out of my bag and handed it to her.
"Drink this, it will heal your wounds," I said.
She nodded as I stepped away, panting heavily at the scent of her blood. Once I heard her stop drinking, I took the bottle back from her and surely enough, the wounds sealed before my eyes. I looked away, still being tempted tremendously by the sight of her blood.
"What was that?" she asked.
"A healing poultice," I groaned.
She tried to approach me but I immediately held up a hand.
"Please go into the lake and wash yourself off," I said.
"Is something wrong?"
I answered her question by turning to her and revealing my eyes. She flinched for a moment and immediately made her way to the water behind her before rubbing the blood off of her skin. I moved away from her, trying desperately to calm down...but the more I tried, the more difficult it became.
"I...haven't fed in nearly a month...that's what I get for trying to live the "normal" life,"
"I'm...very sorry Hunter," she said.
I turned around to see that she was now completely clean and the scent of her blood had died down tremendously, instead being replaced with her own strong scent. I had to take a moment to regain my composure before my vampiric side finally stopped tempting me.
I held out my hand to her.
"Let's get out of here before the manticore comes back," I said.
Much to my surprise, she shook her head.
"The manticore didn't take me here of its own accord...someone is controlling it," she explained.
I raised an eyebrow.
"What makes you so sure?"
"A manticore would never attack a dryad because of the relationship we have with animals; our songs soothe them and this manticore traveled all this distance for a reason...a reason that I think I have discovered," she replied.
I raised an eyebrow and put a hand to my chin.
"What reason is that?"
"I believe there's a sorcerer who's been controlling the manticores...this is the third one this week that I've come across and I've never seen them in the fifty years I've been hunting in this swamp," she continued.
I was glad to see that I wasn't the only one trying to put two and two together.
"Any ideas as to where he might be?"
She nodded before pointing to the cave.
"He's in this cave...I've been tracking him for several days and I managed to break his hold over one of the manticores with a song, it took me here and he had some imps come outside and tie me up," she explained.
I cursed under my breath; this was a sorcerer capable of summoning demons in addition to being able to mind control creatures as powerful as manticores. This man, was no ordinary sorcerer.
"Let's get to the bottom of this then shall we?"
Before I went however, I removed a cloak from my bag and handed it to her. She looked at me almost in confusion and it was then that I remembered that dryads didn't really have a sense of modesty; walking around completely naked was quite normal for them.
"What's this for?" she asked.
"To keep you warm," I replied.
She shrugged casually before donning it. Once she did, I led her inside. As we went deeper into the cave, she began to struggle due to her inability to see in the darkness. With my vampiric senses, seeing in the dark was natural but for a dryad, it was one of the worst feelings imaginable. I then held her hand.
"Stay close to me," I said.
She responded by squeezing my hand slightly but for some reason tensed for a moment. Her heartbeat indicated fear.
"I'm not going to hurt you Johanna, I've sworn my oath as a Hunter to never harm an innocent and that's exactly what I intend to live by," I said.
"It's not that...I've just never met a vampire before...and I have a few friends in Liscario who tell me how difficult it is for a vampire to be around a dryad," she replied.
I nodded slowly.
"Dryad blood is considered the best tasting by most vampires...but I don't allow myself to succumb to the thirst," I said.
"It looked difficult for you to ignore it before," she said.
I shook my head.
"I'll be fine for now...we'll worry about me later, right now, we need to find this sorcerer and take care of him," I said.
As we edged closer, I began to hear the heartbeat of a human.
"It's frantic...almost as if he's excited,"
I took Johanna to a safe place and gave her one of my belts of throwing knives.
"I'm hoping that you will not need it...but just in case," I said.
"Do you Hunters carry everything with you?" she asked in disbelief.
I cracked a smile and shook my head.
"Only what we think we'll need for a contract...stay here,"
I made my way swiftly towards the source of the heartbeat until finally, I found him kneeling in the middle of a circle of power. Sorcerers usually drew large circles like this in order to use it as a focus for their power. With a circle drawn with the best reagents, one sorcerer was capable of doing incredible things provided they had the knowledge to use it.
"Didn't bring anything to deal with a mage...I'm gonna have to catch him by surprise,""
I drew several of my throwing knives and took aim but as soon as I did, I heard the roar of a manticore. I put my knives back into my belt, cursed under my breath that I was so slow to strike.
"I won't be able to fight them both...gonna have to retreat for now and come back later,"
I turned around to leave, but I heard the sorcerer begin to chant a spell.
"Aether of nature, grant my minions the gift of flight!"
The sorcerer's voice was loud and much to my astonishment, the manticore stepped forward and fell to the ground, screeching in agony. Wings began to form on its back, jutting out and making grotesque bone-cracking noises until finally, full sized wings had completely formed on its back.
"Everything is progressing as planned," he said.
The manticore approached its controller and allowed him to pet it on its head.
"All of your kind will soon possess the gift you have received...and then we will be ready to take this swamp in the name of Gossimer,"
I clenched my fists, knowing full well what this meant. Gossimer was preparing to make a move...but why kill the dryads? It was then that I realized the reasoning. The dryads would never know that it was Gossimer's doing because they would assume that the entire ordeal as a result of the dwarves in the mountains driving the manticores away from their homes. Giving them wings could be explained as a sudden evolutionary spurt, which wasn't uncommon in this world. The worst part is that the dryads may even blame Liscario for not taking precautionary measures. The hope of an alliance...would collapse.
I was sure that Gossimer was up to something but for some reason, I always kept it at the back of my mind; Liscario was in no state to be fighting a war so I was sure the King tried to take measures to avoid that from happening. Evidently...I was wrong.
I cursed under my breath as I made my way back to Johanna.
"Lady Venestris needs to know about this...so her people can prepare,"
Thankfully, Johanna was right where I left her, though she looked almost completely drained for some reason.
"Are you alright?" I asked.
"I don't know...I suddenly feel...exhausted..."
She fainted but I caught her before she could hit the ground. I examined her skin to see that it was more pale than usual.
"The sorcerer must've a great deal of the magic that binds the dryads to this place...that probably means the others are feeling the same way,"
I picked her up in my arms before making my way outside. I followed the tracks I made on the way here to reach the scouts and once I arrived, they all ran to me in relief that I had found the handmaiden. Two of them took her from my arms while one of them bowed to me graciously.
"Thank you Hunter...she was very important to us all," she said.
"You're welcome, is Lady Venestris still here?" I asked.
"Yes, she is with your lord in the carriage," she replied.
"I presume you all suddenly felt a sudden drain of energy?" I asked.
The scout put a finger to her chin and shrugged.
"I did feel slightly tired for no reason a few minutes ago, but I thought it was due to all the running I've been doing today," she replied.
"There is a sorcerer in a cave not far from here...he must've channeled the spell your queen cast on the land in order to use his own spell," I explained.
She nodded slowly before gesturing towards the cart. With reluctance, I made my way over to it...
"This is very disheartening news..." said Buckwin.
"What can be done about this ordeal?" asked Venestris.
I shook my head.
"Both of you have to attend the summit; not showing up will leave a lasting impression so I suggest that we send word back to Liscario," I replied.
"The military isn't equipped to fight such a powerful sorcerer without causing widespread destruction to the swamplands, which could hurt the dryads even further," explained Buckwin.
"In addition to that, I felt the temporary drain of energy that the sorcerer used to cast a spell...if he's powerful enough to cause manticores to evolve wings within seconds, not to mention have the knowledge to tap into a spell cast by Queen Yeonja? This man cannot be allowed to continue," said Venetris.
I placed a hand on my chin.
"I could return to the Order and let them know, bring other Hunters to help with this," I said.
"That wouldn't be wise either; they're needed in the city should anything happen whilst we are gone...we're on our own," said Buckwin.
I cursed under my breath, regretting highly that I didn't come more prepared for the ordeal.
"So what are our options?" I asked.
"Several of my scouts can go with you to the cave to provide cover; if Johanna was able to get one of the manticores to return to normal and spare her, there's no reason any of the elders can't do the same," explained Venestris.
"A few of the convoy's members could also come with you," suggested Buckwin.
I shook my head.
"They should remain here to protect the two of you," I said.
Venestris was about to retort but Buckwin gave her a sincere look.
"Without the two of us, there can't be a summit," he said.
She reluctantly conceded before looking to me.
"Take Bellis, Liona and Aria with you, they are the best archers short of the Queen's guard," she said.
The three dryads then joined us, bowing obediently to Venestris.
"We will do our best my lady," said one of them.
"Assist the Hunter however he sees fit...be cautious, all of you," she said.
I turned to the three of them, feeling a little daunted due to the fact that I now had to face the temptation of not biting three dryads. I shook my head and turned back to Lady Venestris.
"Would it be possible for me to speak with the queen?" I asked.
Venestris looked at me as if I were insane.
"I don't know if she would have an audience right now; she was tending to some matters concerning our own mages," she explained.
I looked at her in confusion.
"Queen Yeonja is our best sorceress and she's likely on par with the sorcerers in the magical district of Liscario, I have no doubts that she likely felt the drain and she's now working tirelessly to restore the spell," she said.
"It's all the more reason to speak to her; none of us are equipped to take on a sorcerer of that caliber...who knows what other spells he can conjure,"
"So it is my advice that you seek?"
Everyone looked around in panic for a moment. The dryads then immediately got down on one knee and held their heads down.
"...Queen Yeonja?" I asked.
"Yes Master Hunter, I hear you seek an audience with me?"
"How are you speaking with us all right now?"
"I'm linked to all living things residing within this swamp so I'm aware of most of what's happened, though my suspicions about that cave are now confirmed,"
I put a hand on my chin.
"That circle he was sitting on must've been what was blocking you from seeing," I deduced.
"Correct," she replied.
I shook my head and sighed deeply.
"I don't know if we will be enough to face him and his army of manticores...I'm no sorcerer so your assistance with the matter would be helpful," I said.
Venestris looked at me in disgust.
"How dare you make such a request to our queen!" she snapped.
"Calm yourself Venestris, the Hunter is right to be cautious; magic is not something to be trifled with and often times, steel and arrows alone will not best it,"
I suddenly began to feel information flood into my mind, so much so that it began to hurt.
"I now know where the cave is, I shall meet you there but come alone; I will not risk my scouts with such a matter,"
Her previously pleasant voice was now serious. So serious that it actually sent chills down my spine.
"I'm terribly sorry for the informality milady," I said.
"I've met your mother in the past Master Hunter, I take no offense to your request...though I do wish things did not escalate to the point where I have to reveal myself,"
"I won't let anything happen to you,"
I have no idea why I suddenly spurted that out but much to my relief, she laughed softly.
"I will see you shortly, be quick so we can resolve this matter before the summit,"
Her presence suddenly vanished without a trace. I looked to Buckwin and he nodded.
"We may have to go to the summit without you should you take too long...do you know the way?" he asked.
"I will find my way there if you are gone," I replied.
He placed a hand on my shoulder.