Few things ever worried Phillip.
He need not fear death – he had already faced that once before. Dying his first death is what led him to his current undead existence. Dying again, he supposed, would not be so bad. He did not worry overmuch about his farm, although its care had taken a lot of time and attention. He trusted Elias – current situation aside – who had always managed the farm exceeding Phillip’s expectations. Which was why he let him take over the running of the farm without too much goading from Lucas.
He made a point of not worrying over the seasons either. Those came and went as surely as the day turned to night. Whether the rains were a few days late or not wasn’t really within his power to control. He dealt with every problem that came his way with generally a cool head and a calculated plan of action.
It seemed, however, that since his trip to Larenby, the list of things he had to worry about were steadily increasing. He had learned of the coming war against the monarchy set in motion by an as yet unknown character. He had also learned of creatures long thought to be extinct that he knew would change the tide of the war. He’d been enchanted by the most fascinating woman he had ever come across – and she came with a past heavier than he could possibly imagine.
Then his foreman had apparently run off with no word to anyone. Why Elias would do that was beyond him. He’d thought about this last, and most urgent, issue all the way to the farm. He still couldn’t guess why. Elias was a good and honest man. They had worked together for a while now and, having been gifted with living death, Phillip had interacted with a good many humans for several decades – enough to know the difference between a good man and one pretending he were so.
Which was why, as Elias himself came up the drive to greet him, Phillip was more puzzled than his foreman. The only reason he could think of, for someone to resort to such blatant deception, was that they wanted him out of the way – away from Larenby Manor.
But that made no sense. Very few people knew he was at the manor and fewer still knew about his farm and his workers. The only people, in fact, that he could think of, were Lucas and Paul. If it wasn’t either of them, then there had to be another, third party that he was not yet aware of. But more to the point, why would they want him to make the two-day trip away from the manor unless…
Leaving a bewildered Elias standing in the drive, he boarded the carriage once more and gave the driver hurried instructions to return to the manor post haste. His gut twisted as he sat back in the comfortable cushions. He drummed his fingers on his knee, a frown creasing his brow. If someone wanted him gone, that may have been because the manor was not going to be safe.
Paul had been called away that evening as well. At the time, he’d thought nothing of it and worries over Elias and his family had plagued his mind so he didn’t bother asking. Paul hadn’t volunteered the information either so he assumed it had been personal. But with both of them away… had Lucas been called away too? That would greatly decrease the number of people in the house who could defend it against attack if it came.
Lavinia was very capable but her children would be her one and only priority which, from his military experience, could leave her vulnerable rather than safe.
He had no idea what was going on but he hoped against all hope that he was wrong. He had to be wrong. If he wasn’t he feared what he might find when he got back to the grounds... and, thinking of a pair or pretty brown eyes with golden flecks, who he might not.
Most Overseers had a hidden room in their chosen homes that they could instantly teleport from one area to another. It was a hidden kind of magic saved only for the Overseers and the Graces who could transport entire Communes of Keepers from place to place. Tess had decorated the room to her liking when she had earned her title as Overseer.
The furnishings were comfortable and inviting. She had a large desk by the wall opposite the door. Behind that, four bookcases lined the walls, interspersed with the likenesses of the Graces themselves; the Grace of Courage, Tiberia the Brave; of Faith, Ayana the Benevolent; and of Wisdom, Indira the Just. Lanterns hung above each and the flames in them burned brightly, aided by a few extra herbs to scent the room. The rest of the walls were simply decorated with tribal pieces and a dream-catcher on either side of the door – all gifts from other Keepers and Overseers for her service over the years... and a few more sentimental pieces from her clan here and there.
To the left of the desk was a large fireplace and a roaring fire burned there now warming the room. The seats before the fireplace were both empty, the room’s only two occupants engaged in a serious discussion on the other end of it. Tess had placed an enchanted tree under a glass dome in the corner nearest the door where she raised a few creatures and grew most of her healing cures.
She had also placed a table there for plotting and creating maps, something she was rather adept at. Her maps helped her keep track of her Keepers – and a few other creatures she deemed of interest to her.
Most important to her was currently the young black slave woman Percy had brought in a few months ago. She hadn’t been able to mark the girl since she was not only one species as she had suspected. She had elected to send one of her own to follow up on her progress. That was the reason for the current meeting and she turned her wise old eyes to the woman standing on the woven rug in the middle of the room.
“Begin from the beginning. Tell me what happened.” Tess leaned back against the front of her desk waiting for the young woman’s reply. April stood clasping her hands before her. She laid a hand on her heart with a bow and then dropped it to her side as she straightened, in the customary salute owed to the Overseer.
“We were attacked. They came in the night. There was no warning that their attack was imminent. I went into the town a few times and even conferred with the Keepers I could find there but had no success in finding much information.”
Tess pursed her lips in thought.
“And who were these attackers?”
“Some were vampires. I used my daggers against them with success. The others…” here she paused remembering how she had sliced through one of the creatures only for him to heal before her very eyes. He was definitely vampire, but the silver in her blades hadn’t seemed to affect him like it did the others. She had only heard of creatures like those once in her life and that was in a boring history lesson of all the creatures that had ever existed. That she had to face one on the battlefield was something she had never imagined happening in her wildest dreams.
“Well, what about the others?” asked Tess snapping April back to the present. She took a deep breath before continuing.
“The others were Halflings, Overseer.”
Tess’ face was grim at that bit of news but she seemed unsurprised. That confused April to some extent. Did that mean that Tess had known about Halflings this whole time – and April had had to find that out the hard way?
“I take it you haven’t located the girl yet?” April shook her head in response.
“Not yet, but we received word from another Keeper in the area. She mentioned a small vampire party making their way to the docks. Among them was a black woman fitting Zahra’s description.”
Tess nodded and leaned her head back to face the ceiling with a heavy sigh.
“We cannot lose that girl. It is of utmost importance that we find her and bring her back into the care of the Keepers.”
“If I may… why is she so important? There is something about her but nothing immediately comes to mind.” Tess chuckled as she looked at April. She had raised her since she was a child and April, ever-curious child, was now a soldier. If she had a little more of the information that was mostly kept in the circle of the Overseers of Shahrzad, perhaps her mission would be easier – or more dangerous.
All the same, she decided that she was going to tell April some of the truth.
“I’m glad you sensed that, else I wouldn’t be telling you any of this,” said Tess moving to her comfy chair near the fire and motioning for April to sit in the other. She made her way to the chair and sat waiting for Tess to continue.
“Zahra, that poor child, is much more than she seems. The only reason it might be hard for you to realise is because she is in transition now. Transition to becoming a Halfling, that is.”
April’s brows rose and her eyes widened in surprise.
“A Halfling?” she asked clearly surprised. Tess nodded grimly.
“She is in transition and capable of being utilised for good or for evil. That is why it is imperative that she comes back into the care of the Keepers so she isn’t destroyed according to vampire law. She shouldn’t even exist if that’s the case.”
April sat still absorbing the information. If Zahra was a Halfling, then that meant that she was extremely important to this whole situation. The unrest she’d heard about was mostly vampire-related and hadn’t pointed to any specific attack against the house. Having already seen the Halflings among the enemy’s fighters, she understood exactly what Tess was saying.
“But… she’s the first one we’ve interacted with in years. What’s so special about this one? And I barely killed three of them last night and nearly lost a limb trying,” she said with a gesture towards her bandaged arm where she’d received a nasty gash from one Halfling’s claws, “what will one untrained Halfling do against potential hoardes?”
Tess sighed and shut her eyes.
“That I can’t tell you yet. All you need to know is that she needs to return to us before she is tainted by the enemy. Is that understood?”
April huffed frustrated but replied in the affirmative.
“All will be revealed in time. For now, why don’t you go and get yourself a dose of pain tonic for that cut and I’ll look at it later.”
April made a face at that instruction and Tess laughed. She had never liked the pain tonic and it was made that way on purpose. Its bitter taste was meant as a lesson to all Keepers that seemed to be lost on the young. When she had advanced a little more, she would show her how to make a less horrible pain tonic. All April need do was learn her lesson.
After April left, Tess paced the room.
When she had contacted Sepphira, it had been to inform her that Zahra was in their midst and would need help. However, the news she got in return was grave indeed. The attack had left the house decimated and the family was nowhere to be seen. Further, Paul’s wife and children were also Halflings – something she had actually been amused to learn. Paul was as rigid an official as they came and he’d butted heads with her on several occasions.
Still, she had liked him and his family and it was a sad development that they were missing too.
Zahra, at least, was still alive somewhere and more Keepers were informing them of their whereabouts. The last known location was around the docks at the other end of town – the ones mainly used for ferrying people. The ones closest to her would be ferrying cargo and slaves in and out of the country.
Zahra would have come in on one of those ships. She hadn’t been treated well wherever she had ended up. The large gashes in her back had been medicated somewhat adequately and if she hadn’t been a Halfling, chances were that she would have caught some disease in the slave house Percy had found her in, and died. She shook her head and spat. Humanity could be cruel. Sometimes, she questioned her ability to protect them from themselves and outside threats, as was the mandate of the Order of Shahrzad, and still she chose to do her duty every time.
Cruelty was universal to all creatures; human, Keeper, Vampire… it didn’t matter.
She remembered the first time she ran into a Halfling, while training in her youth. He had been helping a child, saving him from a fire. It had been easy pointing him out since his energy was so very unique to her own. He had been young, perhaps in his very early twenties, newly transitioned and unsure of himself.
The consequence for his bravery, his punishment for existing, had been death. The Overseer before her had commanded that she end his life. She had followed her orders. She had felt that death marked on her soul for eternity. He had been the first of thirteen she had killed in her lifetime.
Only the Order of Shahrzad was aware of their existence and attempted to keep the rest of the world blind to their existence. The Order of Sybil, the oracles, might have known but they did not intervene as was their way. The Grace of Courage, Tess' leader was the one that commanded their actions anyway and her instructions were clear – kill every single one on sight. It was the only time Vampires and Keepers agreed on a single course of action.
But Zahra… Zahra had been so very different and Tess knew as surely as she knew her name, that she couldn’t do it. Zahra had looked weak, scared and confused that morning Percy had brought her in. Tess couldn’t, in good conscience, end her life even though a quick poison slipped into her medicine would have done the job and nobody would have been the wiser. By letting her live, she had set in motion events she could not yet foresee.
Sepphira knew about Halflings now meaning that the news would eventually make its way to the other Keepers. Perhaps the vampires would arm themselves accordingly. If their queen was as wise as she was purported to be, she would put those safety measures in place. By law, Keepers did not interfere in Vampire politics and vice versa. They founded a mutually beneficial relationship and that was it. This was her way of giving them all a nudge in the right direction, despite it being directly in violation of her Grace’s orders.
Tiberia would be livid when she found out.
There was no question that she would.
Perhaps the Oracles had already sensed it and, as was their way, they were allowing events to unfold as they would. Few things ever got past Ayana and her Keepers. She and Tiberia were always at odds about this; Ayana shared what knowledge was necessary for the work of the Keepers and Tiberia wanted, or rather felt that she needed all of it.
Perhaps too, the Oracles knew of Zahra’s true nature. Whatever the case, that was one secret she had been rather delighted to discover and would have to keep as close as possible for the girl’s own safety.