Surrounded by umberwood trees, an old path cut through the drowned forest, although path might be a rather gracious assessment of the uneven stretch of dirt, intermingled with roots and overzealous bushes. The gushing rivers near the edges of the forest had quickly given way to the swampland that dotted the landscape in every direction.
The night was still early and this late in the year, the sky would remain a deep blue black for quite some time. Not that it mattered all that much, the canopy overhead was so thick that divining the position of the moon would devolve to naught but wild guessing.
"I don't like this one bit," said Karina, her hands planted defiantly on her hips.
"Of course you don't. You dislike everything I do," replied Laurelei.
"Well, so far your contributions to my life have been forcing me to abandon my home and fouling up months worth of spying. Am I to remain hopeful that you're due for a success?"
Laurelei stopped in place and angrily stamped her foot, only for her heel to sink into the mushy earth below. "I am offering you a significant opportunity here. How dreadfully ungrateful can you be!?"
The whole group came to a halt, Laurelei and Karina matching heated stares while the three men in the party deigned to observe for the time being.
"Ughhh..." Nigel groaned, burying his eyes behind his hand "All this yelling is terrible on my hangover."
"You really think this is going to work? That Orlov is just going to listen to you? That he'll just put an end to all the suffering he's spread across Dravina and hand over vampire secrets to a justiciar while he's at it? You must be awfully slow if you think that for even a moment, any of that is going to happen."
"Of course I don't think that!" she screamed back, her frustration bubbling over. "I am not so dull! I know full well that Orlov cannot be trusted. I encountered his personal assassin, attempting to kidnap me only a short time ago. I'm giving you a way in. If and when diplomacy fails, you have a very convenient distraction with which to spring your own little plan. If you thought you could succeed with two, you should have little trouble now with five."
"And why should I trust you?"
"What?" Laurelei replied, her eyes slowly widening.
"Why should I believe anything you've told me. All I know about you is that you're a vampire and that by your own admission, you killed that boy," she said, pointing to Rolf. "Now I'm supposed to put my life and my husband's in your hands?"
Laurelei went quiet, hands balled into fists and fangs clenched furiously. No words were exchanged between the two for several long moments and Laurelei merely stared at Karina with an expression that implied that she was currently trying to mentally will the woman to burst into flames.
"Hey, look!" said Miles. "Over by the bank, some rare herbs. Come along Laurelei and I'll teach a bit about alchemy."
"What? No, Miles, I was having a-," started Laurelei before being promptly interrupted.
"Now please," he said. Putting a hand on her shoulder, he gently guided her away and over to the edge of a nearby pond. The alchemist crouched down and began sifting through some nearby reeds. "So, I sense that you're not getting along well with Karina?"
"Mr. Haydn, that is the very definition of understatement. I have no idea what to even say to her. Every time I speak it's as if I've just kicked dirt in her face." Laurelei sighed deeply and stared at the still surface of the pond, examining Miles' reflection next to the empty space where hers would have been, if not for the vampirism.
Among the entire group, Miles was the only one who might've been able to pass as just an ordinary man. No curses or Justiciar uniforms to be found, just a man reaching his middle years and carrying a rather large bag of alchemical supplies. Of course, there was the addition of a crossbow. It was slung to his back by a leather strap and bore heavy wooden frame. It was different than its common brethren however, as it had a more mechanical aspect, bearing a metal case on its underside and a lever fastened on the weapon's right flank.
"I just don't understand what I've done to make her hate me so much."
"She doesn't hate you," said Miles, eyes still focused on his work. "In fact, I think she'd rather like you if circumstances were different. But my wife and I, we've had some encounters with your people. Things that go beyond the normal justiciar-vampire stuff. She's had a harder time letting go of it."
Her eyes shifted toward Miles and she lifted her brow, only slightly. "What do you mean? What kind of encounters?"
The alchemist pulled his hands from the water and rested them on his knees, meeting Laurelei's gaze. "I can't tell you. Certain things have to stay private until she's ready to talk about it. But you need to understand, she's a sweet woman. A loving woman. She just... doesn't know how to look past certain things."
"Apologies Mr. Haydn but I thought you wanted to discuss alchemy. What kind of herbs are you gathering?"
"Oh yes, the herbs. I believe they were of the imaginary variety."
"I beg your pardon but are you saying there's nothing here?"
"Nothing whatsoever, I just wanted to have a little chat with you, Lady Lockhart. Don't let yourself get too upset by Karina's words. They come from a place of pain and it's really not about you." He pushed himself to his feet, adjusted his pack and gestured for Laurelei to follow. "Come on, let's head back. I'll have a talk with Karina soon and we'll straighten everything out once we can make camp somewhere." He turned to leave but promptly stopped in place when he realized she wasn't following. "Laurelei?"
"Mr. Haydn, not to gloss over our conversation but I believe there's a somewhat more pressing issue. What is that?" she asked as she pointed into the swamp.
Miles stepped closer and pushed his glasses up on his nose, focusing hard on the scene ahead. At first, it appeared only as a large swath of blackness but within a few moments he could make out a shape with a pair of gleaming yellow eyes. It appeared to be the upper part of something's head. Dark green and slick with slime, bearing thick, scaled skin. It glided through the water, drawing closer by the second and it wasn't alone More eyes sprang from the darkness and four more pairs emerged.
"Gill-men," he muttered under his breath. "Let's head back, now. We need to keep moving before they get any closer."
Laurelei nodded in agreement. She'd read of the creatures in her studies, only minimally. They wouldn't hunt people too far beyond their territory but were fierce and aggressive with anything that got too close. Though it was peculiar to see so many grouped together at one time.
The pair hurried away from the water's edge and returned to their companions. Karina opened her mouth to say something but Miles was already speaking before she could manage. "No time, we need to hurry. There's a cluster of around half a dozen gill-men coming this way. I'd rather not engage them at the moment."
"Impossible," said Karina with a shake of her head. "Gill-men are solitary hunters and they never come this far out. They make their homes near the middle of the forest."
"Darling, the scientist in my heart agrees with you but the realist in there just saw them coming this way."
In that moment, Rolf finally broke his silence and stepped into the conversation. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw the blade at a moment's notice. "Hold on a minute, what the hell is a gill-man?"
"Well," said Miles in a deliberate manner. "It is a man... with gills. And scales and claws and fins and some very pointy teeth. If that has sufficiently answered your question, let's hurry this along."
Rolf nodded and the group turned to head further down the path. They only took a few short steps before spotting the array of bright yellow eyes just up ahead. Four of the creatures stood on the path, over six and a half feet tall with broad bodies and long limps. Their fishy forms loped forward, hitting the ground with loud slaps of their long webbed feet.
Everyone drew their weapons and Laurelei was already sifting through her book and scribbling out fresh sigils.
Miles peered back toward their flanks, spotting two more groups of similar size coming from the left and right. “This isn’t right, Gill-men are ambush hunters. They pounce and drown their prey,” he said in an exasperated voice. “They’re circling us but why? They don’t move in groups and they certainly don’t attack people. Chase them away, kill if threatened, definitely not this.”
“No choice but to fight?” asked Rolf with his cleaver at the ready.
“At this rate, running is out of the question but dying is still an option,” replied the alchemist.
The decision came about quietly and simultaneously as the group leaped into action.
The first group to charge was the four blocking the road. Miles instinctively moved to left and Karina took the right. He braced and readied his crossbow, centering it on the nearer of the two creatures on his side. At only twenty metres, a simple shot. With a squeeze of the trigger, his bowgun let out a satisfying twang and loosed a heavy bolt. It lodged itself squarely between the eyes of his target. The creature gurgled and tumbled out of its wild charge, flopping wetly to the ground.
Weapon held at the ready, he pulled back on the lever. The device let out a light, mechanical thunk and in only a moment a new bolt had been readied. However, the second gill-man had closed the distance frighteningly fast and was already within striking distance. It reached out with both arms and hissed ferociously. Miles tried to move back as he released his next bolt but didn't quite get out of range. His attack landed solidly in the chest but the newly limp body of the charging creature slammed into Miles and knocked him off his feet. He let out a groan, the wind knocked from his body and before he knew it, he was on his back with the three hundred some pound body of a gill-man bearing down on him.
Karina took up a fencer's pose, one hand on her blade and the other held aloft. The charge came and was swiftly neutralized as the justiciar ducked and extended her leg, twirling with the agility and grace of a skilled dancer. The first attacker stumbled past her and the second found its legs taken over from under it by Karina's sweep. Just as the first was righting itself, it met with a flurry of steel. Her hand was a blur as her sword flicked left and right, biting out chasms of flesh from the creature's body. In a few moments it stood with long gashes up and down its frame from its feet to its face, black ooze dripping from each of its dozen or so new orifices.
The surviving beast was pushing its way back to its feet and preparing to lunge at its target's back, only to receive and forceful smash in the temple from the pommel of Karina's sword, landed with precision and power despite the fact that she'd not even turned to face her target. Flat on its back, it could only watch as the woman whirled around and struck a lethal slash across its throat.
Laurelei and Rolf took up the right flank and Nigel covered the left. Two of the monsters were making a line for the vampire princess but that number was swiftly reduced to one when she let loosed a page from her book. The torn slip of paper ignited in mid-air and burst into a blinding flash as it connected with a gill-man’s chest. What remained was a smoky black husk.
The force of the spell sent the accompanying attacker into a headlong stumble where it met Rolf’s steel. He swung the blade in a horizontal arc, sweeping it over Laurelei’s head and smashing it right through the creature’s shoulder, splitting the clavicle and collarbone in half, lodging itself in the chest cavity.
“Three more coming, Rolf. I’ll need time for another spell. Hold them.”
“On it!” he growled as he pulled on his blade, only to find it wouldn’t budge. He looked frantically toward the three gill-men incoming and tried again. “I said, on it!” he braced his foot against his first target’s chest and pulled back. The blade moved a bit but it was still jammed in too deep and the enemies were too close. “Dammit!” he said with resignation. "No choice then. Rrrraaaaggghhhh!" he roared as he charged in bare-handed.
Three Gil-Men stood before Nigel and he scoffed. With one overhead smash he crushed the right-most creature into a motionless, broken mass in a black pool of ooze. The nearest attempted to attack but received a swift hoof to the chest and was sent arcing backwards and crashing into the lake from where it came. The third managed to get a swing in, stroking its ilk-covered claws across Nigel’s belly. It left four, long cuts along the pig’s barrel shaped torso, not that he noticed. Effortlessly he snatched up the creature and hurled it straight up into the air. It hissed and howled and then fell quiet when it was swatted from the air by Nigel’s mace, driven back into the ground with a multitude of snaps and crunches.
“Hmph, weaklings,” he snorted. With his first three targets down, he slumped against the nearest tree and dropped to his backside.
“Nigel!” Laurelei yelled while frantically drawing up her next spell. “What are you doing!?”
“Trying to sleep this off. Miles’ generosity has left me with a throbbing headache.”
“Sleeping! You will do no such thing, get up this instant. There are more coming!”
“I handled my side. You can take care of yours and we'll be done with this.”
“Rrrggh! Damnit Nigel!” With a final stroke she finished the sigil and ripped it from the book. “Rolf, stand aside!”
The necronom held his ground as best he could, trading blows with a trio of gill-men. He was hard pressed to avoid three sets of claws at a time but he’d done a decent job of keeping them staggered with hard elbows, kicks and jabs. At Laurelei’s command, he dived left and cleared a path between her and the gill-men.
She held the page out and in a flash of light a torrent of wind burst forth. It cut through the air with a sharp whistle and hit with the force of a hurricane, sweeping the three targets up into the air as their bodies twisted and flailed for purchase. In a single blast they sailed past the canopy and disappeared among the branches.
“More on the way!” Rolf said, getting back to his feet.
Approaching from the right flank was no less than another eight gill-men, with who knows how many more behind them.
“Curses!” said Laurelei. She kicked at the dirt in frustration and evaluated her options. A quick peak over her shoulder informed her that more had gathered on the road and the numbers were growing increasingly difficult for Karina to contend with. Meanwhile she could hear Nigel bellowing from the opposite flank.
A horde of fourteen gill-men had pounced upon him, their combined strength and mass pinning him despite a violent struggle and loud, squealing protests.
“I can do something,” said Laurelei more trying to reassure herself than anything else. “A sigil or a spell of some kind. Just give me a little more time.”
Rolf was at her side now, wrenching his sword free from gill-man’s chest. “Nobody’s getting through me. Count on it.” With that, he rushed toward the swelling mass of fish monsters, flailing his blade and howling like a madman.
With enough struggling, Miles forced the dead gill-man off and took a deep breath of relief. That breath transformed itself into a scream of fear as the dead creature was almost immediately supplanted by a live one. Its hands clutched his shoulders tightly and he cringed at seeing those needle-like drawing ever-closer. With a flick of his wrist he produced a dagger from his sleeve and jammed it between the thing’s ribs. The attack accomplished little aside from angering the beast. With a spittle spewing roar it slammed its forehead into Miles’ nose, cracking his spectacles in the process and sending a rapid stream of hot blood pouring over his lips and down his chin.
“Karina!” he cried.
The beast lifted him into the air and hurled him further up the road where he smacked into the dirt path and was almost immediately surrounded by more of the creatures.
Just as Miles left its grasp, the point of a sword pierced through its back and out of its chest. Karina ripped her blood slaked blade from the wound and turned her attention toward the ever expanding crowd of monsters.
A horde of gill-men stood between Karina and her husband, all hissing and advancing with just enough care not to march straight into the sting of the justiciar’s sword. There were seven of the things encroaching on her, spreading out and attempting to encircle her.
“Damn!” she cursed, wanting desperately to rush through their line and get to Miles but such an act would be little more than suicide. “Miles!” she cried over the ever present seething exhalations of the monsters around her. To her left she saw Nigel being dragged toward the swamps by an increasing large cluster of gill-men and to her right she saw Rolf's wild struggling and relentless attacks giving way to the sheer mass of the beasts. His sword was ripped his hands and his body was pinned as he too was pulled into the swamps.
Meanwhile Laurelei stood only a few metres away, frantically scribbling in her tome while sparing short, fretting glances toward her companions. “No, no, no!” she yelled, grip tightening so hard around her brush that Karina thought it might snap in half at any moment.
Gritting her teeth, Karina let out a long, low breath. Her lips parted and moved in silence, then grew to a whisper. Left hand raised, she slowly gestured side to side, her fingers performing an intricate sequence of movements as if tapping on the keys of an invisible piano. Little beads of light formed around her hand and traced her motions, creating streaks of white illumination with every motion. “Myetch…”
“Don’t!” cried Miles, his voice cutting her off and growing distant.
She caught a short glimpse of him, his cry drawing her gaze. It looked as if he was being dragged away by a pair of creatures, still conscious and alive as he was pulled up the road and behind a wall of trees. “It’s too risky! Karina please, don’t do it!” His voice faded further and grew muffled, his words from the point forward too difficult to make out.
Karina fell silent, frustration washing over her hand trembling. “Urgh!” she grunted, clenching her hand into a fist and dispersing the magical energies. “With steel alone then!” Sword raised, she took note of the force she stood against, mind searching desperately for an advantage to exploit but there was none to be found. Her knees bent and she readied her blade in a thrusting position, poised to lunge through the wall of gill-men if need be. Then she felt a small hand clutch hers and she looked down to spot Laurelei at her side, staring up at her.
“Wait!” said Laurelei.
Without another moment’s hesitation, Laurelei raised her left hand. Between her fingers was a torn page bearing an illuminated sigil. With a swift, downward stroke she planted the page against the earth and a rumbling quake ensued. Before Karina knew what was happening, huge roots burst forth from the earth in a ring around herself and Laurelei, roughly three metres across. They stretched upwards and circled around one another and within seconds they sprouted leaves and delicate white flowers. The thick roots criss-crossed over one another and formed a lattice around the two before sprouting branches and a thick canopy at the top.
“What is this!?” said Karina, back to Laurelei’s as the gill-men beset the forested fortress on all sides.
Their flailing arms reached through gaps between the roots and swung at the air. Their teeth gnawed uselessly at the defenses and they pounded against it with their fists.
“A sigil, one of the more complicated I’ve crafted. It will keep them out for as long as we require.”
Deciding it was best to multi-task in a situation like this, Karina took to thrusting her blade between the roots and skewering the build-up of gill-men through the hearts and eyes, one at a time. “We’re trapped in here! You’re just going to let them take my husband, your men?”
“Of course not!” Laurelei shot back. “I would never-!” Before she could finish the though, a wet, powerful hand clutched her by the shoulder and she let out a gasp.
Its claws shredded through the fabric of her dress and dug into her flesh, piercing the skin and sending little trails of blood streaming down her arm. It yanked back with all its might and slammed her into the wall of roots, swiftly knocking the wind from her body.
Laurelei winced deeply and tried to scream but it came out as nothing more than a forceful heave. She watched as Karina spun around and lunged forward, thrusting her blade with near surgical precision just above and to the left of Laurelei’s head. She plunged the point of her weapon straight through the monster’s heart. Its grip released immediately and it slumped against the wall.
Laurelei dropped to her knees and coughed hard. She took in a long breath, regaining a small measure of composure, and pushed herself to her feet. Her shoulder felt hot and wet as she dabbed it with her fingertips and drew her hand back to find the white gloves stained red. The sight of her own blood made her feel sick to her stomach and so she refocused her attention toward Karina. “Th-thank you.”
She didn’t answer. With her back to Laurelei, she continued to eliminate any gill-men still clinging to the edges of their fortress. Within a few minutes the creatures seemed to be giving up and those that didn’t received a quick stab through a vital organ or two. Most of them seemed to know what was going to happen if they kept it up and abandoned their efforts.
“You let them get away with my husband,” said Karina as she reached into her coat, drew out a small cloth and carefully wiped the blood from her sword before sheathing it.
“You’re not the only one concerned. They took my friends,” replied Laurelei.
“That is not the same!” The woman yelled and shot Laurelei a hard glare over her shoulder. “Stop pretending you care about that boy! You killed him and turned him into a corpse puppet to serve your interests. They took away your tool, not your love! I gave up the Shepherds, my whole family for Miles! Don’t try and compare your situation to mine!”
“Shut up!” Laurelei screamed back. “You shut your mouth, you don’t know anything! Everyone keeps reminding me, telling me that I killed him but they don’t know! They don’t know what happened that night and they don’t know how I feel!”
“You said it yourself, you killed him!”
“Because I was scared!”
Things suddenly grew very quiet and very still. Both ladies stared at one another, neither one moving or saying a word for close to half a minute.
Laurelei broke eye contact and took to staring at her shoes as she continued. “I… I was afraid of him. I woke up in the woods, alone, surrounded by bodies and I’d… never been outside the castle before. Then a bloody man, wielding a sword staggered toward me and I panicked.”
Karina furrowed her brow and leaned back against the inner wall of the fortress.
“I spent hours, crying over his body, trying to draw every last bit of knowledge about necromancy I’d ever learned in a desperate attempt to undo what I’d done to him. So don’t you dare tell me how I should feel about Rolf. He’s my friend and I will not let anything happen to him, not tonight or ever!”
Instinctively she reached up and pulled the brim of her hat down over her eyes. “…Does he know about this?” she asked in a voice so different from only moments ago. What was once harsh and angry was now soft and gentle.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “He can’t know... If he did, he'd keave me.”
"Why? I don't understand?"
"Because I can end the spell on his heart at any time and turn him back into a lifeless corpse. If he knows what really happened and that I wouldn't actually do it. Well, he wouldn't follow me if he didn't have to."
“You’re wrong,” said Karina, actually flashing a smile toward Laurelei. “I’ve seen the way he looks out for you. The way he throws himself headlong into danger to keep you safe. He wants to protect you.”
Laurelei stared at Karina, her mouth agape as if she were about to speak but no words came.
“And you want to protect him too, right? You had a plan when you put us in here so tell me, what do we do?”
“W-well,” she started, stammering a little. "The gill-men weren't trying to kill us. They had Miles, Rolf and Nigel pinned and they dragged them off alive. It would have been easier to just tear their throats and kill them first, correct?"
Karina nodded, cringing slightly at the newly conjured mental image of her husband's death.
Laurelei move a hand toward her tome, hanging to her shoulder with a leather strap and adorned with a variety of pouches and loops. From iside a small pocket she produced a folded square of paper and held it up to Karina. "So long as Rolf's alive, I can track him with this."
Karina took the square of paper and carefully unfolded it to reveal Laurelei's compass sigil, the ornate eight-way pattern written in the necronom's blood. The Western facing arrow was illuminated in red.
"With any luck, Rolf and the others will all be together."
Karina nodded slowly, placing her chin on her knuckles. "If we're careful, we'll have the element of surprise this time."
"Karina," Laurelei asked, her voice lowering slightly. "Could I ask you a question now?"
"You were about to cast a spell. I heard the incantations, I felt the energy. Then you stopped. Is magic not an integral part of what makes a justiciar? Why stop?"
Karina pulled her hat down over her eyes and her lips straightened into a firm line. "That... is private," she said in a cool voice. "I'll be holding onto my secrets for just a little longer."