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Hi, I'm Dread. I'm going to give a detailed breakdown of this prologue and tell you how I think it can be improved. So first I'll start...


The room around Laurelei was a dark and dusty but elegant, circular chamber with a domed ceiling and several small alcoves branching off to the sides. The walls were made up entirely of shelves, each containing books upon books, almost all of them centuries older than Laurelei herself. The ceiling was a twinkling star map, detailing the position of the moons and the constellations above. Many other magical and scientific odds and ends filled every corner and cranny of the strange library but the most noticeable was the spherical crystal perched atop a small pedestal in the centre of the room.

The vampire princess was garbed in a new dress of red and white, and appeared to have washed and rested since separating from the others. She sat behind a small wooden table in the corner of the room. She stared straight ahead with her arms crossed over her chest and her mouth set in a straight line.

From pure exhaustion she'd fallen asleep in Gutterwink's captivity and awoke earlier that evening to find herself in a small room with fresh clothes and a ready made bath. It didn't take her long to wash and redress before exiting into this most curious chamber. And there she waited for what must have been close to an hour, though the lack of windows or clocks gave her no true method to measure the time. Indeed, she had no idea whether it was day or night at this very moment.

Her eyes continually flitted about the room and she had to resist the urge to investigate further. So many books and trinkets of interest but she knew she couldn't allow herself to get distracted by right now.

Fortunately, the suffocating silence was broken by the sound of footsteps down the hall. Unfortunately, the sound gave way to the visage of Count Orlov as he stepped through the threshold while wearing an all too pleased smile. He stood with perfect posture as always, one hand tucked behind his back, the other holding a small silver tray. Upon the tray sat two wine glasses and a bottle of blood. "Princess Lockhart," he said with a bow. "I do hope the dress fits well. My tailors didn't have your measurements and so, best guesses were made."

Laurelei donned a cold stare and neglected to respond.

Lifting his head, Orlov matched the princess's expression and then intensified it two-fold. "Well, in any case I am honoured to receive you in my private library."

"Recieve me?" she repeated. "I believe you meant to say, detain me."

In a single, smooth motion he took a seat across from her and placed the tray atop the table. “Now, now princess, can we not discuss this civilly?”

"Civility? Toward the man who had me stuffed in a sack and dragged all the way here? No, I don't believe that is appropriate. How civil do you think my father will be when he finds out?"

Orlov began calmly filling two glasses, sliding one toward Laurelei and taking one for himself. He cupped his hand under the bowl of the glass, his long, curved claws arching around it. "Are we still using the King as a shield? Even after recent events?"

Laurelei abstained from taking the drink and merely slid it off to the side. Her brow furrowed and lips pursed nervously. "I... I merely acted in self defence."

The count's face became one of mock regret and he shook his head in a chastising manner. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. You murdered a baron of Agares, my princess. I believe your position as heir of the kingdom may be called into question now that you've committed high treason. That is unless you have someone of sufficient rank to substantiate your claims." The count's eyes gleamed wickedly as he spoke before taking a short draught of his cup.

A sharp shiver ran through Laurelei's body and a strange, familiar haze filled her mind.

Orlov continued. "I am aware of many of the troubles you've encountered of late. I can make them go away. Providing you are cooperative."

She felt her feet shuffle against the soft rug below and she wrung her hands together nervously. "What do you mean?"

He eased back into his chair, laced his fingers together and ensured he made direct eye contact with his quarry. "I've already sent reports to your father concerning the situation. No doubt he's reading them as we speak. However, I can issue a retraction at any time. Were I to vouch for your innocence, that you were a captive and had no involvement in Yezhev's death, you may still rule this land one day. In fact, I am counting on it."

The idea sounded attractive enough to Laurelei. She wanted so badly to accept and just make it all go away but it didn't feel right. She'd be playing straight into his hand and be forced to return to her life at the castle and she knew she didn't want that. Yet the way Orlov put it, it sounded so much simpler, so much easier than her life had been the last several months.

"I'll begin penning my second report as soon as this conversation is through. Provided you adhere to one simple caveat," Orlov said.

Laurelei nodded slowly, calmly.

"Marriage. To me. You may maintain your claim to the throne and in exchange I gain one of my own."

For a split second, Laurelei made a sharp choking sound and stared back at Orlov with wide, unblinking eyes.

The count's own face was largely blank, his lip turned up in a miffed expression.

Neither party uttered a word for nearly half a minute until Laurelei shattered the silence. "Alucinor eyes," she said quietly.

"What?" Orlov replied, his head drawing back and his mouth tilting into a frown. "How could you possibly-?"

"It all makes sense now," she said, cutting him off mid-sentence. "You've been manipulating since the very beginning! You planted the idea in my mind to leave the castle. This was your plan all along! I'm impressed Orlov, I'd no idea you possessed the gift, though admittedly it does lose much of its effectiveness if anyone knew of its existence. The magic of suggestion is powerful but people are so much harder to maniplate when they know they're being manipulated."

"That's not possible," he mumbled through a sneer. "How could you have detected the Alucinor? It's hypnotism is subtle and implacable. It clouds the mind of the victim. You shouldn't even know of it's existence."

"You underestimate me, Orlov. I'll admit that you scholarly pedigree outclasses mine own but I've done no small amount of research on the subjects of magical hypnotism and dark gifts. All it took was just one more clue and all the pieces came together." She laughed softly to herself, proud of her own deduction. "Why would I suddenly be moved to so rash a decision as to leave the castle? I am a cautious person, scholarly and curious but never disobedient. A little prodding from my brother and the lord of secrets would never be enough to stir me to such foolish behaviour... My brother, I presume Atticus was involved in this master plan of yours as well?"

Orlov's eyes narrowed and he grew increasingly annoyed by the smug expression the princess wore in her little moment of victory. "What clue?" he asked coldly. "What could have possibly alerted you to my gift?"

Laurelei now drank freely of her cup, sipping down a small mouthful in celebration. "Simple. When you suggested I marry you, for the briefest of moments, I considered doing so. It was at this point that I realized some dark magic was at work."

"I won't be browbeaten by a dull child who doesn't even possess a gift of her own," he spat in a voice that was simultaneously calm and dripping with venom. "In spite of being only two generations removed from Mordica herself, your blood is inferior, exceedingly ordinary. It's pathetic and no doubt your father is ashamed of your weakness."

A flash of annoyance moved across her face as Orlov taunted her but it was quickly supplanted by a satisfied smile. "In any case, I am grateful."

"Grattitude? How unexpected."

"Of course I'm grateful. If you'd not hypnotized me, I'd never have left. Never have seen this kingdom for what it is." Laurelei bowed her head and smiled wistfully. "And I'd never have met Rolf."


"Yes, Rolf. He's man that's going to kill you. I do hope you enjoy the next day, maybe two. It's all you have left."

The count seemed more than a little amused at the suggestion, grinning and stroking his chin. "Oh how very cute, you actually believe that." Sliding out of his seat, Orlov paced around the room, his eyes scanning over the contents of his library. "We want the same things, you and I."

"We most certainly do not."

"Don't be so sure about that," he said as he whirled on his heel to face her once again. "Has your clever little mind started to contemplate why your brother and I are doing this?"

She thought about it for a moment before continuing. "Not quite. What you hope to gain is abundantly clear but my brother seems to prosper nothing from this arrangement."

"That is because this isn't how things were supposed to occur. The original plan ended with you being mauled to death by werewolves outside of Ulfenmoor."

Laurelei's lips parted slightly and she muttered under her breath. "But that means my own brother tied to... Why?" she said in a voice, suddenly rendered soft and sullen.

"To be king," Orlov said plainly. "But then you survived. Luckily for me, as you're far more useful alive than dead but Atticus wouldn't have it. No, if I wanted his cooperation, he was insistent that you die. Does that hurt to hear princess?"

She broke eye contact, staring into her glass. "Of course it does. We were never close but... He was my brother."

The count nodded solemnly. "I thought that might be the case. However, the truth is important from this point forward. No more deceptions. I believe reality will be persuasive enough. There is a very good reason I allied myself with your all too heartless brother. My goal, for nearing on a century now, has been to remove your father from power."

"Are you completely mad!? Suicidal!? You seek to challenge my father? No amount of spell or steel on this earth can kill him, he's... Practically a god!"

"Yes, that is the consensus on the matter but understand that I have my ways."

She placed her hands together and lowered her head contemplatively. "Well, things make a little more sense now. If your plan works you'd need someone capable of inheriting the throne, someone you could manipulate. Once I survived my brother's trap, you saw an opportunity for yourself. Marry me and you can rule yourself, removing Atticus as a variable. How very shrewd of you. But regardless of your claims to know a method of dethroning my father, which are false I assure you, what makes you believe you'd be any better at leading this nation than he is?"

"Leading it? No, I've no issue with his leadership, rather how he intends to cecede his rule."

"What are you talking about?"

Orlov trailed his index claw along the selection of books before him. "Tell me princess, does the term Mordica's Spire mean anything to you?"

She furrowed her brow and scoured her memories before concluding that it did not. "No, I cannot say that it does."

Orlov seemed to locate the tome he sought, sliding it off the shelf and placing it in the crook of his arm. "I would imagine so. But what do you know of Queen Mordica herself?"

"Is that a serious inquiry?" Laurelei asked with a scoff.

"Humour me."

She rolled her eyes but relented nonetheless. "Queen Mordica, master sorceress and mother of all vampires. She was the first of our kind and crafted the gifts we possess from ancient magic over 13 centuries ago."

Orlov nodded. "The basics. Tell me, how did she die?"

"Thee-hundred-forty-seven, the last year of the Mordican era. The first Kingdom of Agares had collapsed and the remainders of her army of first generation vampires, the dark children, clashed with the forces of Demonblood Wulforth. She died there, along with Wulforth and all of her children save for one. The first Kingdom fell and the post-Mordican era began. Two centuries later, Gustav Lockhart, the sole remaining dark child, would return and establish the second Kingdom of Agares before dubbing himself King Methuselah."

"Yes, the same story everyone believes." Orlov said.

"And no mention of this spire. Not once in all of my historical studies has any such a thing been mentioned. I know not what relevance this 'Mordica's Spire,' holds but it could hardly be of any import if I've never heard of it."

Taking the thick, leatherbound tome he'd collected and dropping it on the table before Laurelei, Orlov spoke up again. "My collected notes and historical accounts on the first fall of Agares. Mordica, her death and her spire feature prominently. I suggest you read it. You may find it enlightening. Until then, I'll be taking my leave."

Laurelei eyed the book, ancient and without adornment. Its pages fit loosely and the binding was worn but it still appeared highly readable. "So you'll be leaving me here unattented?"

"Of course. I am an accomadating host. Help yourself to my library and have a splendid evening. Each of these books contains secret knowledge, things that few eyes but mine have ever witnessed. I'm sure you'll enjoy your stay."

"You would simply allow me free reign over you secrets? Why?"

Orlov shrugged. "Allying yourself with me has it's benefits. Knowledge and secrets are my trade and I offer all I have and more to you. Regardless, you'll leave this library as my ally or you'll not leave it at all."

"What is to stop me from using my sigils to engineer an escape?"

"Common sense and the threat of death I assume." With that, Orlov disappeared through the threshold and into a corridor, leaving Laurelei in silence once again.

She flipped open to the first page and gave the contents a cursory glance. "Written in ancient Zarothi?" she thought to herself. "And Taphoset here, then Dravich further down. Even a little Ambrola mixed. He really didn't want this deciphered," she thought to herself. That night was spend pouring over the tome that Orlov had left her with and a few more once the first was finished. At the very least, her language studies were given a thorough refresher by evening's end.

Over the next twelve hours, a mountain of books had built up around her, along with various hastily scrawled notes and charts to detail her findings. A thorough night of feverish study and despite the circumstances, a sorely missed experience for the young princess. While the distinct lack of a coffin did prove a challenge at first, Laurelei eventually found herself sleeping peacefully amidst her work, head on the table and tomes sprawled out in every direction. She didn't awaken until the next evening when yet again the sound of footsteps came to her attention.

She shot up in her seat and made a desperate grab for her senses whilst habitually adjusting her appearance.

Orlov stood before her once more, now with a series of folded papers in hand. "You appeared to have made some progress. Tell me, are you pleased with what you've discovered."

Laurelei adopted a small frown and sat up straight in her seat. "You know as well as I do what these pages contain," she said in as serious a voice she could manage while barely just regaining consciousness. "And you know that I couldn't possibly be pleased with my findings."

"No sensible person would be."

"Would you still say this spire isn't of any import?"

Laurelei shook her head and rolled her eyes. "You are assuming it's real. I have no proof of that, only personal accounts and your own notes. It could all be fabricated."

"But from what you read, the possibility exists that is indeed real, correct?"

She sighed deeply and crossed her arms. "Upon cross referencing your notes with other more widely accepted historical accounts, along with related texts in your personal library I have discovered that yes, it is possible. Possible, not likely. But if so prominent an element in our history, why isn't this information more widely known, or at all?"

Orlov almost laughed at the statement. "Conservation of power. The Spire represents ultimate power and so only the royal court are made aware of its existence. In any event, we aren't the only ones who believe it could exist." Orlov deposited a small handful of papers in front of Laurelei, allowing them to mix in with the plethora already surrounding her.

"This is..." she said, trailing off as she examined the letters more closely. "My father's script and his personal seal."

"Indeed. Correspondance shared with me to discuss matters related to the spire. Specifically, his plans to utilize it."

A pit settled itself in Laurelei's stomach within instants. She began hurriedly scanning the letters to prove them false but the contents only deepened the sickly sensation building within her. "No. This isn't possible. My father's rule is hardly perfect but he would never do something so mad as this!"

"You give him far too much credit," said Orlov in a smooth, insidious voice.

"No!" she screamed back, slamming her hands on the table and jumping up to her feet. "My father may have disdain for the humans but he is still a man of reason, of nobility and honour!"

Orlov took a deep breath, steeled his expression and looked Laurelei straight in the eyes. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to show you this," he said. With a simple flick of his wrist, he produced a parchment and held it out to Laurelei. "A royal decree from your father. Sent out this morning."

Laurelei's eyes scanned the page, slowly and carefully. She found almost immediately that this two was indeed his script and an official missive from Castle Umbra.

"Citizens of The Kingdom of Agares. Four months ago, Princess Laurelei Marie Lockhart disappeared from the castle. In her absence, our king has been stricken with grief but has nobly maintained his duties as ruler of our land.

However, it has recently come to the attention of the Royal Court of Agares that Princess Laurelei has been reported as still alive and active in the province of Dravinia. On the 2nd day of Botis, the year 919AM, she has taken the life of Baron Drotz Yezhev of Dravinia while he was attempting to return her to Castle Umbra.

In light of this treason, Princess Laurelei is hence forth recognized as a traitor to the throne and has been deposed as the heir apparent of Agares. She is to be captured alive if possible but if she resists, she is to be executed as an enemy of the state."

By the time she'd reached the bottom of the page she could feel her cheeks getting hot and tears rolling down her cheeks. "You forged that. It's not real!" she screamed.

"You really want to believe that, don't you?" Orlov asked, simply folding up the page and tucking it away. "Unfortunately for you, your father is doesn't allow his personal feelings to affect his decisions as king. It's one of his finer traits."

"Shut up you snake! You rat! The spire, my father's letters, everything! You've made it all up and you'll suffer for it!"

"Yes, I fabricated over a dozen different books, centuries before you were born, in preparation for this moment, all to decieve you."

The girl shuddered, staring in confusion and desperation as yet more tears flowed down her face and dripped to the ground. She dropped backward into her chair and simply buried her face in her hands.

"I can make it stop," Orlov said in a calm voice.

"Go away," she whimpered into her palms.

"Anything I've done to wrong you has been in the interest of the greater good. Your father intends to destroy everything and everyone, all for his own power. This is why I've been plotting against him for centuries and if we work together, we can stop him from utilizing the spire. Don't you want that?" The count stepped around the table stood at Laurelei's side. "You're own brother plotted to have you killed, you're father sent out a kingdom wide order to make it so. I'm the only one who wants you to live. So long as you're allied with me, you'll have power, protection and a staunch ally in ensuring that Mordica's Spire is never harnessed."

She looked up from her hands, red-eyed and sombre looking. She made uneasy eye-contact with him and slowly, weakly shook her head. "Y-you're wrong," she said as she wiped her tears on her sleeve. "You're not the only one... My friends care about me. Rolf cares about me. He'll do whatever it takes to keep me safe."

"Yes, Rolf. The necronom you've been travelling with, correct?"

Laurelei nodded.

Orlov thought deeply on the matter, slowly, methodically scraping his claws together. "Are you willing to join forces in the interest of stopping your father's machinations?"

"...Yes," she said after a long stretch of silence.

"Then the necronom must die."

"What!?" she shot back. It felt as if all the breath had been sucked from her body and in that instant she felt the overwhelming urge to vomit.

"It is the only way. Someone must take responsibility for holding you captive and murdering Baron Yezhev. In order for the accounts to line up, it must be him. Otherwise we cannot reasonably absolve you of your actions."

Sadness, frustrations and shock all slowly morphed into white hot fury as Laurelei launched to her feet and glared furiously at Orlov. "I will not be absolved of anything then!"

"Do not be foolish," he replied.

"No, I shall be foolish. I shall also be loyal and grateful and I will bare my heart to the friends who've helped me make it this far! Rolf has protected me, fought for me, consoled me and guided me this whole journey. He has shown infinite kindness and patience with me when I deserved neither! I will not ally myself with you, regardless of the circumstances, if it means betraying him because I know that he would never, ever do the same to me!"

Any attempt Orlov had made at persuasiveness dissolved at that moment and he adopted a full-face scowl. "Then you invite ruin upon us all."
Rolf had so rarely in his life felt such a strong desire for a bath. His hair and clothes were smeared in slick black blood from the gill-men he'd been carving his way through. Now there were four of them dragging him through the mud and oozing saliva onto him. After far too much struggling, the necronom was denied any form of leverage point as there was a beast on each limb, carrying him by his wrists and ankles. A fifth followed the group, carrying Rolf's sword. He'd been pulled into the grimy swamp waters and been thoroughly caked in scum and muck before finally being hauled toward a cave entrance.

The cavernous mouth stood eight feet high and a stream, not even as high as Rolf's boots, gushed forth from within. If the the darkness of the night and sloping canopy above wasn't enough, it appeared nearly pitch black inside the cave and Rolf soon found himself enveloped in the darkness. With no sight he became keenly aware of the hissing breaths in his ears and the slimy bodies pressed against him from all sides.

This continued for another several minutes until finally the group rounded a corner and Rolf spied a flicker of light ahead. It grew into a glowing window and an image took shape beyond. The tunnel fed out into a large chamber alight with torches along the walls. The stone floor formed a ring around a deep, dark underground pond in the middle of the cavern. Shapes moved beneath the surface, yet more Gill-men, he imagined. Around the pond stood easily two dozen more of the creature sand at the sides the floor slanted sharply upwards with uneven grooves that formed a makeshift staircase. The stairs lead up to a wide stone balcony overlooking the basin below. The lip of the tunnel's exit prevented him from seeing anything higher but he could hear the hissing of countless more creatures within. Beyond the hissing he could swear he heard laughter, a taunting and snooty laugh, the same kind that the mayor's son used to make before Rolf punched him in the face.

The source become evident shortly as Rolf found himself thrust into the room ahead. Atop the balcony was a pair of familiar figures and a single new one. Miles and Nigel had arrived ahead of him and were still pinned by gill-men, two for Miles and six for Nigel. They had been forced onto their knees before a stranger, slumped in a throne of stone built into the cave wall itself. His body was bloated and slimy, sporting a voluminous belly draped by damp, water damaged robes of once fine quality. So enourmously fat was this man that his wobbling rolls spilled out over the edges of his chair and his multitude of chins completely engulfed his neck. His laughter sent ripples through his portly face and his lips parted to reveal gleaming white vampire fangs in his mouth. His skin peeled in places and took on a nearly blue hue, starkly contrasting those tiny red eyes. His sloping brow lead into a rapidly receding hairline, stringy strands of black pulled back into a ponytail.

"Nhnhnhn-Mehahahahhh!" he laughed. His blue lips formed a cruel smile and his heavy lidded eyes nearly dissapeared behind the smushed pockets of fat all over his face. "Oh piggy, piggy, say it again. It gets funnier each and every time!" he bellowed while he sifted through the pile of the pair's belongings beside his throne. Immediately visible were Nigel's mace Bellringer and Miles's crossbow and alchemical supplies.

Nigel let out an indignant snort and narrowed his eyes at the strange vampire. "Do not presume to give me orders!"

"Allow me to ask again," said the vampire. In his right hand he held a long, pole weapon of a sort. A four foot steel rod with a hook shaped blade at its head. Soon enough, the hook was around Mile's neck and pressed tightly against the flesh. "Say it, or I'll seek out new amusement by carving off this little man's head."

"...I am General Nigel Hawethrone," he said with a sigh.

"Ohhhohohohohhh!" the vampire laughed. "Ohohoh-hold on. I believe we have another arrival." Retracting his weapon he peeked toward the entrance and gestured for the gill-men to bring Rolf closer.

On their master's order, Rolf was carried up the stairs and thrown to the floor. Almost immediately after he hit the ground he scrambled to his feet and threw his arm back, ready to plant his fist right between the cackling vampire's jowls.

He didn't even attempt to pry himself from his seat and just grinned at Rolf as the boy was immediately piled on and pinned by the surrounding gill-men. "You must be the one I heard about in the reports." Rolf's sword was promptly deposited into the pile with the rest of the group's gear.

"Rrrraaaaggghhhhh! Get off, all of you! You smug bastard, I will put you through that chair!

"Oh, young man, save all that passion for when our guest of honour arrives. It will be quite the show, I assure you."

"Good to hear from you Rolf," said Miles as he turned to smile at the necronom. "I'm assuming you're the blurry shape at the bottom of all the other blurry shapes?" he said, blinking through his cracked spectacles. "A shame really. I pegged you as the rescuer for this one."

Rolf's growls died down to a grumble and he settled onto his knees. "Who the hell are you?" he asked the vampire.

"And how have you tamed these gill-men?" added Miles.

"And what do you want from us?" finished Nigel.

"So many questions, none of which I am obliged to answer. Suffice to say that I am without equal in generosity and I have allowed you to live for the duration of the evening. I'm sure Count Orlov will want to question all of you so until then you should be content to watch."

"You serve the Count?" asked Miles.

"Of course, I am a baron of Dravinia."

"Then why haven't I heard of you? Mind my saying but you bear a distinctive image and I, an educated man, bear no knowledge of any barons who match your description and neither have I heard of any that live in a cave and governs sub-human fish monsters."

The vampire sneered at Miles, his grip tightening around his weapon. "Your voice has begun to grate on me and if I am forced to listen to it any further I'll stop the outflow directly from the source!"

Miles looked to his companions and shrugged.

"Now," continued the vampire. "I know whom you purport to be," he said with a finger pointed toward Nigel. "And you are of no consequence and have lost the right to speak in my presence," he said, his finger aimed in Miles' direction. Finally his digit landed on Rolf. "But you... I've no idea who you are. Speak up boy. And I mean speak like a person, no growls or cursing if at all possible."

"My name is Hrodwulf Von Ziegel of Ulfenmoor."

Suddenly Rolf found the vampire's hook poised over his throat. "Tell me, Hrodwulf Von Ziegel of Ulfenmoor. What business do you have traveling with Princess Laurelei? Do it quickly, I am not known for my enduring patience."

Rolf grinned back at the threat and laughed under his breath. "I'm guessing you're known for you fat ass then?"

The vampire drew his head back, mouth agape and eyes wide. "You little wretch," he said in disbelief. "I will carve you into so many pieces that each of my gill-men will get a bite! Now answer my question!!!"

"Go to hell. I've killed two werewolves, died and lived to tell about it, crossed swords with a Justiciar, the assassin Gutterwink and the seven foot pig man over there." Rolf's smile broadened even further and his laughter grew louder. "And you want to know what's really scary? I've been told that I met face to face with a demon, let it possess me and forced that bastard back out of this world! So you don't scare me! You don't even come close."

The vampire didn't say another word, he merely sneered and reeled his weapon arm back, ready to carve Rolf's head from his body, at least to start with.

Then a burst of light stole his attention. Out of the tunnel, a massive gout of flame exploded into the main chamber, charring the two gill-men standing guard and depositing their blackened bodies in the pond.

"She's arrived!" the vampire cried in elation. Using no small effort he pushed himself out of his throne with a wet, sucking noise and finally a pop as he freed his rounded body from his seat. His gill-men surged toward the tunnel in teeming mass but he quickly heeled them. "Hold! Do not touch her!"

From within the smoking maw, Karina appeared with her sword in one hand and Laurelei's trunk in the other. Without an instant's pause she furiously impaled the nearest gill-man and the others frantically retreated.

"Darling!" cried Miles. "Oh my beautiful wife, It's been hours since I beheld your loveliness. Hours!"

"Hush handsome, I'm rescuing you."

On the justiciar's heels, Laurelei followed with her spell book hovering effortlessly at her side. "Well, that's enough of that. Onto the more pressing matter, precisely who are you?" she asked, with a gloved finger pointed straight toward the mysterious vampire across the room.

"Baron Drotz Yezhev."

Laurelei's brow furrowed and a little frown appeared on her face. "Do not lie to me. I am aware of the nobility in this kingdom and we do not count anyone quite so bedraggled as yourself among our number."

"I tend to handle my duties from here and avoid normal political annoyances, though I assure you my title is quite real." Yezhev unleashed a high pitched cackle and spread his arms out in a theatrical fashion. As if on command, the water rippled. Gently at first but then the whole pond began to move. It whirled violently in a torrential eddy and suddenly each and every gill-men turned toward the pool. They dropped to their knees and lowered their heads, hissing one sharp note in unison. "But why only be a baron out there when here I am a god!" cried Yezhev.

"I see," Laurelei said slowly.

"Now, my lovely princess," he said, slowly licking his lips. "Give yourself over and come along quietly to Castle Golodomor. Otherwise I'll begin throwing your companions here into the pool with all my hungry little devotees. I’ll be starting with the necronom. I'm sure with enough bites, they'll get to his heart eventually."

Laurelei's hand tensed up, readying to reach for her book at any moment. "No," she replied sternly. "I order you to release them immediately. If and when I go to Castle Golodomor it will be on my terms, when I choose to and decidedly absent of your company."

"Very well." Yezhev merely snapped his sausage fingers and the quartet of gill-men on Rolf hauled him up to his feet and collectively hurled him over the edge.

The moment the creatures began to move, Laurelei's hand snapped up, ripped a page from her book and hurled it toward the surface of the water. It touched down with an azure shimmer that spread across the pond in a ring, stretching out in all directions. In its wake it left the water crystallized in a misty sheet of ice. The once praying gill-men all recoiled in unison and looked toward their master with expecting glances.

Rolf gasped as he made contact, smacking face first into the frozen pane and landing in a heap. "Arrrgghh! Dammit!" he roared and ground his fist into the ice. When he lifted his head he spotted Laurelei and Karina dashing across the slippery surface toward him. Both women slid to a stop at his side and he climbed up to his knees with a grumpy expression. "That was your plan!?"

"It worked," said Laurelei.

"It hurt!"

"Well at least you're alive!"

"That is debatable!"

"Ahem!" said Yezhev from above. He stared down at the trio with a disapproving glare. "Is that all you people do? Bicker with each other, make your little jests and act all precious? Because if you're quite finished I have two more hostages!" With a simple gesture toward Miles, the gill-men who held him gave him a mighty shove toward Yezhev. He immediately forced the mostly blind alchemist to his knees, wrapped his hooked blade around his neck and braced a heavy foot between his shoulder blades. "Now come along, or I handle this a touch more directly!"

The vampire princess grew quiet, staring up at the scene before her with a discerning glare.

"Laurelei," said Miles in a surprisingly calm voice. "I know this may be asking a lot but please don't let him cut off my head."

"Mr.Haydn I..." said Laurelei, trailing off.

"Laurelei please. Trust me," he replied.

She stared back at him with that blade against his throat. She watched him smile at her when he had no reason to. “I do," she replied.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked to see Rolf at her side. "Are you sure about this Laurel?"

She nodded. "What choice do I have?"

She started toward the edge of the lake and Rolf and Karina made to follow her.

"No!" Yezhev barked. "She comes alone."

"Like hell she does," Rolf shot back.

Laurelei shook her head motioned for Rolf to stay back. "No, it's fine. I'll go alone."

Rolf looked away and reflexively cracked his knuckles. "Dammit," he said with resignation.

In solitude she walked along the frozen surface of the pond and came to its edge. Gill-men parted to allow her passage and gave her wide berth as she mounted the stairs. Climbing one by one, she came to stand just a few metres from Yezhev. "Now release Mr.Haydn," she said curtly.

"Not yet," the baron replied. "Place your tome on the ground. No clever little spells out of you today."

Begrudgingly, Laurelei removed the strap from her shoulder and dropped the heavy book to the floor with a loud 'thump'. "Are you happy?"

The baron smile tauntingly and removed his hook from around Miles' neck. "Of course. Now come along, we have a-!" Yezhev stopped in mid-sentence as he heard a strange sizzle at his feet. Eyes drifting down he spotted Miles under his boot as expected but with a little smirk and a strange, mechanical looking sphere in his hand, emitting bright sparks and plumes of smoke. "What!?" he cried as the device exploded into a grey cloud.

Both men were almost immediately enveloped in a swirl of smoke and frantic cries. Miles abruptly rolled out of the chaos and matched gazes with Laurelei.

"How?" she asked.

"Smoke bomb, sleight of hand, hidden pockets and a distraction," he replied in rapid fashion while disposing of his battered spectacles. He promptly replaced them with a fresh pair and shot to his feet, dashing toward his piled belongings.

Laurelei followed suit and snatched up her spellbook.

With all his companions in relative safety, Nigel struggled with renewed vigour. His head jerked from left to right in violent fashion and before any of the gill-men knew what had happened, the beast on Nigel's right shoulder had a long, curved tusk jammed into its face. The gill-men shrieked and recoiled, leaving only six of the things to pin down the pig man. He swung his right arm and lifted two of the monsters off their feet with enough force to hurl them across cavern. Three others still attempted to hold on but were promptly persuaded to release their grip with a series of hard jabs from Nigel's now free hand.

From within the cloud, Yezhev stepped out with a whirl of his hook and a foul sneer. “You little bitch!” he bellowed. He moved far faster than one would ever expect given his size, arm extended and hand reaching.

Spell book flipped open, she reached for a page only to have the book struck from her hand. His hook left a long slash along the leather bound face of her grimoire and tossed it into the air. Her weapon, her only form of defence, hit the ground with a smack, nearly ten metres away.

He was within arm’s reach, bearing down on her and ready to snatch her by the throat when a huge fist swung over her head and smacked Yezhev across the face with such force that his bloated body was swept aside and over the balcony, hurtling to the icy pond below. There was a distinctive slapping sound as his corpulent frame landed back first on the ice and sent a web of narrow cracks stretching out from the point of impact.

He lie on the surface of the lake and stared up at the stalagmites with wide, unblinking eyes before exhaling a long, breathless groan. “Ohhhh…”

There were gill-men surrounding Laurelei and encroaching quickly but she was pulled from their range when Nigel’s hand scooped her up and deposited her on his shoulder.

“Hold on!” he cried as he stomped the nearest gill-man into an inky smear.

Laurelei nodded but she could find little purchase atop Nigel’s shoulder. Instead she made herself keenly aware of her balance at all times.

Miles darted around Nigel’s legs, crossbow strapped to his back and Laurelei’s tome in his hands. “Catch,” he said as he tossed the book toward its master.

With just a tap of her finger as the book was sailing toward her, it flickered in azure light and took to floating at her side as usual.

Meanwhile, Nigel made his way toward Yezhev’s throne, trampling over any gill-men in his way. With three of the creatures pummeled under hoof, the general retrieved his massive mace, lifting it as if it weighed no more than a child’s toy. It rested in his hand for no more than a few seconds before he whirled to face the incoming flood of gill-men and slammed his weapon through Yezhev’s throne.

The stone chair crumbled on impact and little chunks of stone and clouds of dust were sprayed everywhere.

Miles appeared at Nigel’s side with his crossbow at the ready, panning it over the multitude of monsters ahead. “Well, we appear to be surrounded.”

The pig man looked longingly at the head of his weapon and a big smile spread over of his snout. “Not for long.”

Back on the frozen pond, Yezhev was starting to move again. He rolled over with numerous grumbles and no small amount of effort.

Rolf watched the baron get to his feet, more than a little surprised that he’d actually managed such a feat. “Damn, he’s actually getting up after that. I assumed he was at least unconscious, if not dead.”

“You don’t get to be a baron in the vampire court if you don’t have at least some measure of power,” replied Karina, her sword drawn from its sheath.

Yezhev let out a low growl and stared back at the two fighters in his path. “I have had quite enough of you!” he spat. Suddenly he screamed and threw his hands into the air, “Die!” A tremor traveled through the pond and huge cracks appeared in the surface. Freezing water exploded from below and ripped the once solid sheet of ice into several dozen floes.

With the already slippery footing rocking back and forth, threatening to dump Rolf and Karina into the freezing water below, their situation had abruptly become perilous. Karina seemed adept at maintaining her balance but Rolf found himself stumbling and slipping everywhere before finally landing solidly on his back.

He managed to claw his way back up and gain a semblance of composure, though he was hardly in any position to mount any offence. “You go left and I’ll go right. We can attack from either side and-”

“Shut up,” said Karina. “You’ll be useless here and I’m not going to let you die in a battle against this buffoon. Go up and help the others, I’ll kill Yezhev myself.”

“Are you sure you can handle him?”

“Don’t ask questions, just go!”

Rolf nodded and thought to himself that this Justiciar was starting to remind him of a certain other red-haired woman back in Ulfenmoor. Without another word he ran to the edge of the ice sheet and grabbed hold of the cave wall. It didn't take long for him to find handholds and begin climbing to the upper level where his friends were battling the ever growing horde of gill-men.

Karina stood at the ready, her posture and stance mimicking a dancer more than a fencer. “How are you doing this?”

Yezhev sneered at her and chuckled to himself. “Are you so dense? This is my vampiric gift! My Arqueus Ranimus, the soul of the drowned!” With that he threw his hands in the air and a sudden wave arose from the water in front of Karina. It crashed down over her floe but she was gone before it could make contact. She sprang from her position, across the gap and landed in a graceful slide on the next chunk of ice.

“No! You will drown!” he screamed and stretched his arms wide, splitting her newest raft in two with a mighty stream of high pressure water from below.

Karina pirouetted from the path of the attack and found herself on the left half of the split. With the agility of a cat she bounced from one icy landing to another and each one was sunk, split or flipped by the baron, never quite quick enough to catch her. Finally she landed across from him on the largest of the ice floes he’d cut out for himself. Only half a dozen metres separated them now.

With a lunge and thrust she struck at him but he swatted her sword aside with his hook. He returned with a swing of his own and missed wildly as she ducked under the sweep and unleashed a flurry of slashes. Her blade created a net of steel around her opponent. He parried as best he could and found himself pushed back further and further until his heels touched the edges of his platform. While he managed to deflect a decent amount of her attacks, several got through and scored deep, thin cuts up and down his body. Each cut elicited a high pitched whine or yelp as it scored through one layer of fat after another but his combat performance was mostly unaffected.

“You are excellent madam justiciar. Yes, a fine swordsmaiden indeed,” said Yezhev as he locked his blade against hers.

“Don’t flatter me. The less I have to hear from your disgusting mouth, the better.”

“Not another word then,” he said before breathing in deeply. Suddenly his throat bulged out like a sort of frog and his head made a bizarre jerking motion.

Karina tried to disengage and draw back but it was too late. Yezhev heaved forward and spewed a stream of warm, slimy liquid. It landed square in Karina’s face and splattered across her hair, hat and the collar and shoulders of her coat. It smelled foul and the viscous goop clouded her vision. Staggering and stumbling away kept her sword up and tried to rub the vile slime away with her free hand, all the while gagging hard and trying not to vomit.

Yezhev howled and screamed as he charged his opponent and swung his hook in a horizontal arc. Just barely she managed to weave and let the blade pass over her but he was already recovering and striking at her ankles. In one smooth motion she arched her back and transitioned her dodge into an effortless, one handed cartwheel. Flipping into a crouch she slid back along the ice to give herself some breathing room,  but Yezhev was already conjuring a follow-up. He swept his arm into the air and at his command a mighty wave roiled up from beneath the pond and crashed down across Karina’s half of the ice floe.

She couldn't even right herself out of her slide fast enough, let alone get out of the way. In an instant she was hit by the freezing wave and thrown to the floor. The water was chillingly cold and soaked her from top to bottom. Once the wave had passed she found herself lying on her side and shivering a the very of the ice floe, her sword hand empty and the weapon spotted below the surface and slowly sinking deeper and deeper.

Yezhev’s cruel taunting laughter filled her ears and with hair matted all over her face and skin drained of colour, she got back up to feet.

“Nyahahah! Where’s your sword, woman?”

Karina remained silent, simply wiping her hair from her eyes and smiling too herself.

“Mhmhmm. Give up now and I’ll let you live in my service. You’re a little older than I’d like but I could use a pretty little concubine in these lonely caves. Maybe I’ll even let you have the gift of vampirism if you behave yourself.”

Her head turned gradually toward him, eyes narrowed and mouth smirking confidently. “You think I carry a sword because I need one?”

Yezhev tilted his head back and set his once gawking, laughing mouth into a hard frown. “What are you blathering about now?”

“I carry a sword, as an act of mercy. My sword is to give my opponents a chance.” Hand raised, Karina revealed a series of flickering white orbs around her hand, her lips parting and uttering strange, unintelligible whispers.

“Karina!” Miles shouted above the hissing and fighting and that filled the cavern. “Stop Karina, you can’t!”

Karina appeared indifferent to her husband’s cries and continued on, muttering a chant under her breath.

“Stop that right now!” Yezhev screamed to no affect. “No!”  He rushed toward with his hook held overhead and ready to swing down as if using an ax to split wood.

“Myetch Zhatz!” cried Karina and in a blinding flash she suddenly held in her hands a blade of white, heatless flame. With a single stroke she parried the baron’s attack and sliced clean through his weapon in the process.

With the entire upper half of his pole-hook clattering on the ground, he stumbled back and squealed in terror. Karina watched him with cold eyes and a little smirk. Only then did he notice the dark black veins creeping up the right side of her face. They pulsed under her skin and greyed the nearby flesh.

“Die,” she said calmly. Suddenly her hand was a flurry and the weightless blade darted across Yezhev’s body. As fast as her attacks had once been, it all paled in comparison to this, her hand moving so quick it was like a blur and her weapon becoming an array of intermingling white streaks in the air. Every blow forced him back further and further and in but a few seconds he stood at the far edge of the platform with multiple gashes on every foot of flesh. Each wound emitted white flames and there were so many that he resembled a lantern aglow in the night. With one final thrust she jammed the blade into his throat and released, letting it dissipate into residual little luminescent spheres.

Yezhev’s body briefly stood in place until Karina lifted a hand and ever so slightly pressed her finger to his forehead and pushed him back. He toppled over and crashed into the water, sinking below until he became a dark silhouette and eventually vanished altogether.

With only a mere wave of her hand, her sword rose up from the water and floated gently into her grasp. Her blade sheathe, she skipped across the ice floes and to the pond’s edge, finally touching down on solid ground. She stood in place, stock still for a few moments and then all once she collapsed into a heap on the stone floor.

“Karina!” Miles cried as he clambered over a pile of gill-men corpses to reach the path down to his wife. He was at her side in seconds and dropped his knees, pulling her cold, shivering body into his lap. “You’re alright,” he whispered to her, his arms cradling her to his chest and his hands brushing limp, wet hair from her face. The black veins had darkened and intensified, covering the right side of her face from neckline to hairline.

The others were at his soon after, sheathing their weapons and appearing tired but largely uninjured.

“What happened to her?” asked Rolf.

“It’s complicated, I’ll explain as I work. Right now I need something warm for her to wear because she needs out of these wet, freezing clothes immediately.”

Nigel took that as a cue and shrugged off his large fur cloak. It was thick, warm and easily big enough to encompass Karina’s entire body twice over. He laid it out on the cavern floor, just next to Miles.

“Thank you. Now, gentleman, I’d appreciate it if you’d look away.”

“Yeah, we understand. We’ll go scout around for any more gill-men that might still be alive,” said Rolf as he and Nigel made their way to the far side of the cave.

Miles continued. “Laurelei, I need to put together some medicine for Karina. I would ask that you undress her.”

“M-Me!?” Laurelei stammered. “I-I couldn't… Of course, it needs to be done.”

Miles laid Karina out on the cloak and then began assembling his alchemy kit. Meanwhile, Laurelei got to work and removing Karina’s bulky Justiciar coat. It wasn't easy for Laurelei to move Karina’s body around, considering the size difference. Not only that but Karina felt like she was covered from head to toe in lean, wiry muscle. Once she’d wrangled the coat off, Laurelei set about removing the neck scarves of the Justiciar uniform and then she spotted something strange. The skin on her neck and collar was a strange hue, blackened and streaked with dark purple. It stood mostly to the right but it hardly cut an even line. It receded and extended up and down the length of her neck and entire torso as Laurelei soon discovered. The marks covered the whole right side of her body, arms, hands, legs, chest, feet and everything in between. The woman had always dressed in such a manner that her whole body was concealed but now Laurelei witnessed her flesh, covered in scabs and sores, and things started to become clear to her.

“The miasma,” she muttered as she turned to Miles. “Karina was infected by it and that’s why she…” she trailed off into silence and averted her eyes from Miles’ face. His sad eyes and void expression as he tried to concentrate on his work were too much for her to look at.

“Yes Laurelei. That is why my wife hates vampires. Part of it at least.” He’d just finished up his concoction and filled a syringe with if before edging over to Karina’s shivering form. Calmly and precisely, he inserted the needle into her neck, slowly injecting the clear fluid into her. “When it first happened, I managed to treat the effects quickly enough to keep it from spreading to her whole body but the damage had already been done. Unfortunately, the miasma isn't a normal poison, it’s magical in nature and there’s only so much I can do with science and medicine. She’d get by well enough if not for the fact that her own magic appears to aggravate the poison.”

With the medicine injected, the flesh on her face started to return to normal, slowly but surely. Miles then wrapped her up in the cloak and lifted her into his arms, her head braced against his shoulder.

“I think I understand. This is why you’re always telling her you think she’s beautiful and how much you love her. You don’t want her to feel ashamed of her infections,” said Laurelei.

“No,” Miles replied flatly. “I tell her she’s beautiful because she’s my wife, I love her and she is. What kind of miserable husband doesn't tell his wife how beautiful she is at every possible moment?”

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.

“What, why!?”

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?"

She nodded.

"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."
The South of Agares was never easy to traverse considering the vast, mountainous terrain, weekly storms and ill trodden paths. It was only made worse so late in the year, the latter days of the month of Murmux waning and the cold weather intensifying. The snow had yet to fall in any earnest and the early morning sun warmed the high pass as much as could be hoped and so the lone carriage hurried along.

The dirt road winded left and right around boulders and thick tree walls as they sprang up. For the sake of the horses, the driver sighed with relief when he spotted the plateau up ahead. A leathery, grey skinned necronom garbed in a black cloak held the reins of the fine carriage. It was a solidly built vehicle with the royal insignia of the Lockhart family emblazoned on the door.

Cresting the hill, the driver's brow furrowed at the sight ahead and he pulled back on the straps, bringing the horses full stop. There was a small chasm in the path, which was to be expected, however the normally solid if not a touch aged bridge had seemingly collapsed. Not more than a few metres in, the whole thing was smashed and splintered to pieces. "Now when the hell did this happen!"  he grumbled as he threw down the reins in exasperation and climbed out of his seat. His old, long deceased bones creaked as he climb down to the ground and hobbled over to the little disaster.

"Nobody could post a damn sign at some point," he said, muttering curses under his breath. Standing at the edge of the bridge, he looked upon the wreckage with curiosity. He'd assumed inclement weather but he'd not heard any particular storms in the area. The wood showed no scorch marks, ruling out a stray bolt of lightning. No stray trees appeared to have crashed through the middle either. While harumphing and gathering his robes he turned back to the carriage with suddenly he felt a solid thunk in the centre of his chest. His eyes flashed down to spot a crossbow bolt planeted just to the right of his heart, a fact he was all too greatful for. He didn't have long to express that gratitude as the force of the bolt sent him stumbling backward and before he knew it, he'd lost his feet and was dropping like a stone into the gap below, his pained cries echoing off the walls and disappearing into the darkness.

At the side of the road a man perched upon a boulder, crossbow braced against his shoulder. He was a middle aged dressed in mostly simple peasants clothes and simple leather armour with a sword on his belt. "Now!" he bellowed, discarding his crossbow and leaping to the road with sword in hand.

At his call, just over a dozen armed men and women surged out from the surrounding trees. Several held freshly lit torches, in spite of the clear sunlight, leather skins sloshing with oil hitched to their hips.

"Burn the carriage, force them into the sun!" screamed their leader. His words were accompanied by the sudden crack of thunder and all at once the sky darkened. It was as if the sun had been doused like a lamp as the black clouds swirled above the mountain and blotted out the light. Rain came down in thick sheets, some phantom flood gates in sky had been released and within moments the clear morning had become a dreadful storm.

The assailants were drenched, stalling for briefly as they were buffeted by sudden winds and fond their boots filling up with rainwater.

"Ignore the strorm!" cried the commander. The next to leave his mouth however was a gout of his own blood and a gurgling scream. The arrow had been arced perfectly, ignoring wind and rain it sailed through the air and landed square in the unlucky man's trachea. All eyes shot to the source, Orso Khan standing next to the carriage after rolling out the window and loosing the arrow in question before his feet touched the ground. Another shaft was already notched and the lumpy, malformed face of the vampire was a sombre mask.

While his face was ugly in every sense of the word, the weapon in his hand was a thing of beauty. A finely curved composite bow of elegant craftsmanship and carved with foreign symbols, patterns and characters from a language not one person Orso had met in this country could speak. "Run away and live. Please." He spoke as if he had a mouthful of pebbles, slurring and lisping through broken teeth and half paralytic lips. Of course his accent didn't help the matter much. Half Vatrussian and the other half was something implacably foreign.

Only seconds later did a volley of crossbow fire fly toward the vampire but he was gone before they could make contact. He slipped out of their path and atop the carriage, each bolt piercing the side of the vehicle with a rhythmic punch. Orso returned fire with much greater success, landing three arrows in three hearts in just a few short seconds before vanishing on the otherside of the carriage where yet more attackers awaited him.

Three men, all charging him with swords. He dropped his bow, deftly avoided their thrusts and moved around to their left flank. He proceeded dispatch the first with a precise palm strike to the jaw, the resutling snap and scream giving the other two pause. In an instant, Orso spun around delivered a downward strike with his heel, fracturing his second opponent's fingers and sending his sword to the ground.

The third attacker shoved his companion out of the way and swung wildly but in that insant the vampire was gone. Orso leaped and kicked off the side of the of the carriage, passing over his opponent's near shoulder, wrapping an arm around the throat and locking him in a tight headlock. The man struggling against Orso's strength but it was useless. Despite his seemingly smaller build, the vampire was startlingly powerful and his lock was perfect. He turned his body and dropped to one knee, forcing the man off his feet and spine first across a raised knee. Yet another nauseating snap erupted and the man was unconscious before he could even scream.

On the other side of the carriage, a torchbearer rushed the door as he tore the cap from his oil-skin. He held it aloft, ready to smother the vehicle in its contents when the door flew open and smacked him chest, throwing his back nearly two meteres and dropping him on his back. Out stepped Baron Gregor, still dressed in his finest court coat and ruffles. In his left hand he held a wide headed battleaxe, crowned with the head of a bat and its blades spread out in the shape of wings in flight.

He sneered at the dazed figure on the ground before him oncoming attackers while ceaselessly marching forward. One woman carelessly charged in from the side, only for the baron to stroke the blade of his axe across her ribs with enough force to drop her on the road side in a rapidly expanding pool of red.

The crossbowmen on the edge had reloaded their weapons and trained them on the target. Grimm seeed ill-concerned with the attacks as he regarded them with a callous glare. He adust his footing and seemed to grind the heel of his shoe into the dirt. At that moment, violent tremors shook the earth beneath their feet. They all attempted to fire on the baron but the shaking forced their aims wide, the ground around him and the carriage at his back were promptly being peppered with yet more bolts.

He strode forward once more and the shaking stopped. On his way by he reached down, grabbed the still prone torchbearer by the throat and lifted him into the air with such ease that you'd think the grown man in his grip were but an infant. Barely sparing him a though he hurled the body toward the nearby chasm. His body smacked into the surface of what remained of the bridge and limply rolled the rest of the way into the pit.

"Swords out men! He can't stop us all at once!" cried one of the remaining warriors.

Gregor stood his ground, smirking and tightening his grip on the haft of his axe. "And you actually believe that, don't you?" he said in a gravelly voice.

The heavy thud of another figure touched down at Gregor's side as Orso lept from the top of the cart and joined his ally, bow held at the ready.

"You leave any alive?" asked the bigger vampire, calmly cracking his knuckles in preparation.

Orso nodded.

"Good. Now we won't need to hold back on this batch."

Inside the coach, Atticus leaned back in the cushy seats and slowly sipped blood from a wineglass while listening to the chorus of screams and clashes from outside. He smiled and crossed a leg over his knee and relaxed as if the clamour of battle beyond his carriage was a sweet symphony of some sort.

Seated across from the prince was Count Orlov, fingers steepled and elbows resting against his knees as he frowned deeply.

"An untimely interruption," said Atticus, feigning concern. "I believe we'll need to continue this conversation at a later time."

"Indeed we will," replied the count, before vanishing in a small flicker of pale blue light.

Once the cacophony had died down to a few sobs and whimpers, Atticus set his glass aside and leaned toward the ajar door. "Bring me a survivor. No preferences, just so long as it can still speak."

A few seconds later and Grimm stomped toward the door, dragging a man by the collar. He forced the human to his knees at the edge of the carriage's threshold and slammed him face first into the floor.

"You have a lot to answer for," said Atticus, barely sparing the man a glace. "Look what you did to me carriage!" He gestured toward the numerous bolts that punctured the exterior and poked into the inside of coach. "Not to mention my bridge. Honestly, you humans just go about destroying the infrastucture that I so generously comission and then call me a monster. Ungrateful is what it is, damned ungrateful."

The prisoner seethed through broken teeth and struggled to look Atticus in the eye from his position. "Are you planning on talking me to death? Because if I get the choice I'd prefer a more traditional form of execution."

"Mm, you're a smart mouthed one. And of course, you had to open that clever mouth of yours, didn't you? A Dravich accent, you're just handing me this interrogation," said the prince.

"I've lived in Riega for years now. My accent won't tell you anything."

"Is that so?" asked Atticus. "Grimm, what are his injuries?"

"A few missing teeth, some bruises and a broken a hand. Orso was gentle with this one."

"Show me the hand."

Gregor obeyed, gripping the man's arm and laying it across the floor. The hand in question was black and bent, several fingers twisted at unnatural angles and two knuckles violently impacted in the rest of hand.

"Now, I've gotten tired of watching his bleed in my carriage so I'm going to speed this along by showing what happens when you lie to me." Slowly he uncrossed his leg and placed the heel of his shoe against man's hand, then ground it deep into the injured appendage.

The screaming was instant and terrible. He emptied his lungs as he howled in pain and struggling vainly against Gregor's vastly superior strength. "AAAAAAAAGGGGHHH!"

"Now!" Atticus growled, lifting his foot. "There is a notably large group of organized, well armed and violent dissidents Dravinia right now and today I am attacked by a very clearly Dravinian assailant who's group is large, organized and well armed. Tell me again how that is supposed to be a simple coincidence and I will force feed you every bone in that hand, one by one."

In between deep breaths and wincing groans, the man managed to utter out another sentence. "Do whatever you want, I won't tell you anything."

"You're probably right. However, the fact that you feel the need to hide anything at all, only validates my point. Gregor, I want you to take those crossbows they attack us with and nail him to the side of the carriage. He'll make a fine deterrent for any future assailants who might consider themselves brave. Use as many bolts as you can find, I don't want him falling off on the trip home."

The man's eyes were wide with shock as Gregor bowed and yanked him from the coach. Within a few minutes, the sound of yet more screams filled the air and Atticus smiled at the bloody boltheads that punched through the wall and into the interior, one after another while busily refilling his glass. "It appears I'll be visiting Orlov a little sooner than I anticipated."
Inside an exquisite black coffin, Atticus Lockheart awoke to the sounds hundreds of stomping feet and mixed voices. Immediately his expression turned sour at the disturbance.

"My prince," cried a man from outside. "Dusk has come and we've broken for camp. We are awaiting orders."

With a light push, the prince swung open the door to his coffin and stepped into the moonlight. His resting place stood vertically, mounted upright and fasted in place to an extravagant chariot. Four wheeled and crafted of smooth, ornate oak, draped with silks and bearing the banner of his house, the chariot was drawn by two massive, black war horses. The coffin was set into the back of the vehicle where a small path lead to a high-backed, cushioned throne. It had only just pulled to a stop where it was surrounded by bustling soldiers and a small army of necronoms with coffins mounted on their backs. A collection of horses were halted nearby and a saddlebags full of blood rations was promptly unloaded and passed between gathering sodliers.

The prince donned a very slight frown as he regarded the man who'd woke him. His dark eyes were narrowed to cold slits and his skin was near white as milk, reflecting the moonlight above. He was dressed in ruffles and a fine, navy blue frock coat. "Report," he said coolly as he brushed a lock of white-gold hair from his forehead and swept the quickly gathering snowflakes from atop his shoulders. "I detest being so far North."

The soldier lifted his head from a low bow and spoke loudly to raise his voice above the din of the camp. "We are only an hour outside of the mercenary village of Fulzhev. In addition, Madam Yana has returned from Proelli. She awaits in your private tent."

"Prepare the men to move on Fulzhev on my order and ready my armour. The King's orders are to swiftly and bloodily deal with any sign of rebellion." With a dismissive wave he shooed the man away, never even bothering to make eye contact. "It's bad enough I have to come all the way out here to keep an eye on things but now father has me playing tax collector. What nonsense."

Dismounting his carriage, Atticus made his way through the camp and toward the sole tent therein, prepared for his private meetings. Two guards stood outside the entrance but Atticus dismissed them immediately. Inside the tent stood two of his retainers, the vampire Orso Kahn and the dark haired woman, Madam Yana. Orso had a recurve bow and quiver strapped to his back and Yana wore no visible weapons as usual. She looked at her lord as he entered but then quickly averted her gaze.

"Orso, keep guard outside the tent," said Atticus in a gravely serious voice.

With his head bowed deeply and deliberately avoiding eye contact, Orso slipped past Atticus and took up his post just outside the tent.

The instant that Orso left the tent, Atticus titlted his head back and looked down his nose at Yana. His eyes were an icy glare, alight with a fury completely absent from the rest of his face. "We have a problem," he said in a seething breath.

From inside the tent came three resonating slaps. Each blow sent a fearful wince through Orso's body as he listened from outside. There were no screams of pain or cries for mercy. Not a sound save for the loud, open hand strikes.

Atticus flexed his fingers gently, his back turned on the woman. She bore a large red mark on the side of her face and blood trickled from her lip but her experession was steely as ever and gave no indication of pain or even discomfort. She looked at Atticus just as she did before, with nothing but admiration for her prince.

"Tell me darlling, what were your orders?"

Yana took a knee and stared at her feet, bare soles and toes, ankles and shins wrapped in purple cloth. "I was to rally the tribes of the Wolfwood into an attack on Ulfenmoor. Amidst the chaos I would kill Princess Laurelei and the world would ascribe her death to an unfortunate accident, my prince."

"Correct. Yet I've heard word over the preceding months that the Princess is still alive. Of course I dismissed it as wishful nonsense because my darling Yana would never be so careless. Yet as the days go by, word gets louder that she yet lives and so here we are. I come all the way out to Ossium to keep an eye on this situation, all under the guise of monitoring rebel activity in the area and now I've recieved word from Count Orlov that his own personal assassin has reported my sister is without a doubt still alive."

"I had assumed her death was assured when her carriage was ransacked."

Atticus strode around the edge of the tent in a circle until he came to stand at Yana's side and placed a hand on her bare shoulder. "Why retreat? You were not to relent until my sister had been torn to pieces."

"Dragana Molotova and the Wolfsguard sir."

Atticus appeared unfazed by the name.

"As far as my people are concerned, she is Death itself. We were forced into an early retreat as any sway I possessed over them was gone once our numbers had been reduced by more than half."

The prince shook his head but nonetheless offered his hand to Yana. "I expect failure from others. Never from you, never again. Understand?"

Yana nodded solemnly and took his hand, slowly rising to her feet.

When Yana and Atticus exited the tent, Orso flashed a few hand signals to a group of necronoms nearby. Immediately they closed around Atticus and he separated himself from the others. Within moments they had removed his coat and started clasping his obsidian plate armour to his body, locking everything into place and ensuring it would stay there. A crimson cloak was wrapped over his shoulders and if not for the near constant look of smug contemptment for everything around him, Atticus would've appeared every bit the image of handsome knight readying for battle as seen in a painting. Indeed, an artist would be hard pressed to find ways to embelish on his elegant and graceful features. At last an attendant placed a black spear in the prince's hand and he was free to return to his chariot.

"Ready to move on Yezhev in three minutes!" Yana declared, stirring the camp to action.

Atop his throne the prine lounged and lead the small battallion. His chin rested on his knuckles and his spear was lain against the arm of his chair. At his side, stood Madam Yana and Orso marched alongside his master's chariot.

"Yana, what news do you have from Proelli?" said Atticus.

"Baron Grimm is managing things effectively while you are away, my prince, but are you sure it's wise to leave him in control for so long?"

"Of course. He is a competent administrator and his loyalty will never be in question. After all, when he betrayed my brother he had an excellent reason." Atticus ran his tongue over his fangs abd grinned to himself, savouring the statement before finishing it off,  "...and that reason is still within my grasp."

Suddenly Orso's hand shot up and his misshapen lips parted to utter a single word. "Spy." He pointed into the trees at the roadside where a young woman was perched between the branches. She had concealed herself relatively well, going unnoticed until only a few dozen metres separated her from the others but now Atticus had set his sights upon her.

With wide eyes she stared back, knowing she'd been spotted but having no sense of what to do about it. Her ochre hair was pulled under a dark green kerchief and she was dressed in simple leather armour with a light plate over her breast. A shield rested on her back and a longsword at her hip.

"Kill her," said Atticus.

The girl let out a gasp of fear and by the time she'd finished there was an arrow betwixt her ribs and Orso's bowstring sang. The blow elicited a sharp howl and the girl dropped from the trees and into the brush and snowdrifts at the roadside. She hit with a solid thunk and disappeared into the bushes. Her boots stuck out onto the roadside and twitched in pain, accompanied by groans through clenched teeth.

A curved, utterly pleased smile stretched over Atticus's face. "Orso, finish it."

He said nothing but nodded and split from the marching group. Into the trees he stepped and after a brief, muted moment, the twang of his bow filled the air again and the body fell still. He emerged from beyongd the trees after a brief moment, his bow strapped to his back and his quiver full again.

The march continued unhindered and the group closed in further on the town of Fulzhev. It more closely resembled a military base than a town, filled with broad, muscular people and bare bones housing. Still, the usual signs of a village were in place. Children, taverns and smithees filled the village like any other. There were small forts and armories everywhere, vastly outnumbering the tradehouses, schools, churches and bakeries that might've been in their place.

The villagers had gathered to meet the incoming force, all armed, armoured and angry looking, though Atticus was unsure if this was a special case for his arrival or not. By the time his cart pulled to a stop at the edge of town and his men began to take a wide crescent formation around it, the villager's leader had stepped to the front of the crowd. Fulzhev was called the mercenary village for good reason. The entire town was settled by surviving warriors from the rebellion just over two decades ago. Men and women who knew nothing but fighting and so continued to ply their trade in their meagre fashion.

"Greetings," said the village leader, a big, moustached man with greying hair and a pair of hand axes in his belt. He dressed in heavy hide and thick plate in strategic locations, his arms covered in more scars than most people had years of life to brag about. "I know why you're here and you can turn around now. You're not getting anything from us anymore."

Atticus slowly rose to his feet, spear in hand he stepp toward the edge of his chariot. "You do not deny then that you have refused your due taxes to the Royal Kingdom of Agares?"

"No, there will be no more taxes in Fulzhev. I'll tell you exactly what I told the last tax collector before we threw him out of town. We fought and watched our brothers die to be free of your ilk. I'll join them in the afterlife before I bow to you again."

Atticus rolled his eyes at the man before dropping to the ground and toward him. "Tell me your name sir?"

"Captain Valdemars Ozolins."

"Well then Captain Valdemars Ozolins, I have advice for you." Atticus leaned in close and locked his gaze with Valdemars'. All emotion, all his charm and frivolity vanished, just leaving a blank but somehow intensely venemous face. "Next time you open your filthy peasant mouth you should know who the hell you're speaking to," he whispered.

Before Valdemars could even blink, even think about reaching for his weapon, Atticus had jammed his steel plated palm into the captain's throat. The force was so great that the huge man reeled back and spat up a mouthful of blood. Atticus whirled his spear in a rapid circle and thrust forward with absolute precision. The head of his spear punched straight through Valdemars chest plate and skewered him through the heart. With a swift boot he knocked the man from the end of his spear and sent his limp body straight into the ground, gasping its final, desperate breaths.

The villagers stood strong, weapons drawn and at the ready. Their numbers were slightly greater than that of the vampires own but they didn't make a direct move, only standing their ground.

"Now," said Atticus, smiling again and strutting forward with a flourish of his spear. "Who's in charge after him?"

The crowd was quiet for a time, hushed whispers traded between them but after nearly a minute another man stepped forward. His head was sheered bald and his chin covered in grey stubble. "The Captain's daughter, Eda. She's out scouting right now."

"In all likelihood I already killed her on my way up. Unless you have multiple young ladies spying on me."

The man winced deeply and clenched his fist. "Then that would put me in charge for the time."

"Good, then listen carefully and more closely than your predecessor. We are willing to put this ugliness behind us under the following conditions. In 24 hours I will return and at that time you will provide double the normal taxes in blood and lox. If any among you oppose this tax, I will kill you and double the taxes again everytime I need to bloody my spear." The prince didn't even bother to await a response. Instead he turned with a flourish of his cloak and began a slow saunter back to his men. "Farewell and enjoy your new position. Serve in it well and you'll live to see your precious sun again."
So, after some delicate thought, I'll be doing some revisions on Guul'Zaroth. Largely, I'm changing some names. To sum up, Guul'Zaroth is based a lot of Germanic and Eastern European folklore and many of the names and places reflect this. Many do not. A lot of the names are mythological references and there is some Latin in there which I excuse as being drawn from the secret vampire language, Zarothi. For instance, Methuselah's name is Latin for 'He who brings death.' However, I find myself running into some inconsistencies. Many characters have names of Celtic and even Hebrew origins.

When I first started planning the story I just gave characters names that I thought suited them but all the characters I created later in the writing process have distinctly Eastern European and Germanic names. This inconsistency made me uncomfortable, so I'm changing them. Don't be surprised when, going forward certain names are changed. 


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Jaykob Storey
Artist | Professional | Literature
I'm an aspiring writer and lover of storytelling and fiction in all its forms. My first novel, 'Grimoire,' comes out in 2016. I look forward to producing more content and developing as a writer.

I primarily consider myself a fantasy writer and humorist.

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LifeIsARazorBlade Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014
Your critique was the  best feedback I have received for my writing, since I joined DA over 12 years ago on my old account.

I sincerely appreciate the time you took to assess and respond. You have no idea. That made my day. Sincerely, you rule.

- mids
Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Professional Writer
You're doing right by me with all this. Too many people just don't appreciate the hard work that goes into a detailed critique, and just get grumpy because I didn't give them a better review. Knowing that you appreciate it is encouraging and makes me want to do more critiques.
LifeIsARazorBlade Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014
Accepting criticism is the only way, as artists, that people grow and learn. I am tired of 'oooh neato'. I want someone to rip me a new orifice, so I can see my work outside my own egocentric view, and learn a bit.

You represent a trend that is sorely lacking on here, and it is nice to know it exists.
Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2014  Professional Writer
Good to hear and good luck.
jennystokes Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Professional General Artist
Happy Birthday Jaykob.
Big hugs
Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you, I appreciate it.
jennystokes Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013  Professional General Artist
Metarex12 Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Student General Artist
Happy Birthday!
Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Professional Writer
TheLibertasLeague Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for joining EpicMuse!
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