Blood in the Desert
A Tale by Aaron Canton
The sun blazed down over the dusty streets of downtown Hydor, and the slight breeze that blew through the square and kicked up the occasional puffs of sands did nothing whatsoever to lower the temperature of the desert city. Many of the stalls that lined the square made brisk business selling drinks and fruits which promised to cool off whoever consumed them. There was even one stall where a gnoll mage—an ancient beast whose hair had long since gone silver with age and whose fur was following suit—magically created bits of ice that were just the right shape to be dropped into a drink; judging from the size of the pile of coins in his stall, his merchandise was extremely popular. Despite all this, though, most of the gnolls who had gathered to do their weekly shopping were drenched in sweat.
One, however, sweated for a reason that had little to do with the desert weather.
Rayas brushed at her forehead with the back of her hand, managed to push a few beads of cold sweat and strands of dark hair away from her amber eyes, and tried not to shudder at the familiar chills of fear which swept through her whenever she was out in the open. Then she dropped her hand and made her way through the crowds in the hopes of reaching a butcher. If she could finish her shopping quickly, she thought, she could hurry back to the safety of her little home and stay there for the entire rest of the day. Yes, she could just stay home, where it was safe, where nothing was coming to get her…
Droplets of sweat continued to form on her forehead, and a deeper chill of pure terror gnawed at her. Rayas bit back a curse and pressed on, desperate to just grab whatever the nearest merchant had for sale.
Many gnolls filled the square as they haggled with vendors and chatted with each other, and Rayas had to push her way past a few to reach the closest food merchant. When she arrived there, she found that two other gnolls were laboriously inspecting the cuts of meat that they were considering buying. “Is this all you have?” asked one, a tall female gnoll whose outfit indicated she was an artisan of some kind.
“Yes,” said the merchant. Rayas distantly remembered that his name was Wassen and that he grazed livestock up in the foothills just behind Hydor proper. He was usually a reliable source for healthy, untainted meat, although the other customers seemed to think something was wrong with his selection at that time. “This is all for this week, I’m afraid. Not as much as usual, but there should still be enough for everyone who wants some.”
“What happened?” the other customer asked. Rayas saw that he was a male gnoll who was in the city guard, at least judging by the fancy sword dangling from his belt. “Did the others get sick?”
“Not exactly,” Wassen said in his usual drawl. “A few of my animals went missing. I’m pretty sure it’s rustlers of some kind, although I can’t remember the last time that we had any way out here. It’s not as though the desert is exactly full of cattle, so thieves tend to stay away.”
Rayas found herself pressing closer, desperate to hear the conversation even as she knew it would terrify her even more. Meanwhile, the guard said, “You should have told us. We could have sent someone up to look for them.”
Wassen shrugged. “I reported it to the city. Didn’t your commander send a patrol?”
“If so, I didn’t hear about it,” the guard said. “I’ll ask my captain.”
“Thanks.” Wassen grew pensive. “Odd thing is a couple of the cows that vanished were old milkers who were just about ready to lay down and die anyways. I can’t imagine them surviving the march to wherever rustlers go to resell stolen livestock; they’re probably already dead. No idea why those would be stolen unless the rustlers were total amateurs.”
Rayas realized she was breathing more quickly, almost to the point of hyperventilating. It was how it began the previous time, she thought before she could stop herself: the animals going missing, after which gnolls would start vanishing, and then…
“Was there something you wanted to buy, ma’am?” Wassen asked, looking directly at Rayas as he did so.
Rayas realized that she’d drawn so close to the others that she was practically on the artisan’s shoulder. She quickly stepped back, brushing a few more strands of sodden hair off her brow and then adjusting the red loincloth she wore. Her ancient necklace, all she’d managed to save from her village in western Iradel, rattled as the stones on it bumped against each other. “I was just looking for something to eat tonight,” she said.
“Well, anything here should do,” said Wassen. He gestured at the counter in front of him. Rayas saw the rows of sausages and other meats which had been salted and otherwise preserved so they could withstand the desert heat for a few hours. She’d still probably have to run the meat home to make sure it didn’t spoil before it got into her cool cellar, but she was planning on rushing right home anyways, so that didn’t matter. “What strikes your fancy?”
Rayas bent down a little so she could smell the meat, but then she recoiled, because it smelled off in a very distinctive way. She knew that scent, knew what it meant, knew that the problem was worse than she feared—
“What’s wrong?” Wassen asked, concerned. “The meat’s fine, so why did you jump back like that?”
The artisan sniffed the meat as well and then shook her head. “No, it’s not fine,” she said. “It smells…bloodless, if that makes sense. And now that I look at this sausage closely, it’s a bit pale.”
Wassen shrugged. “Yes, it’s slightly anemic, but sometimes cows do get a bit anemic,” he insisted. “I’ve never seen it happen to so many before, but I don’t think it should affect the quality of the meat. Besides, the other meat vendors here have the same problem, so it’s not just me.” He settled back in his chair. “I told the City Council about that too. They’re meeting later today to put together a team to investigate and find out what’s causing this.”
“I figure it’s the bad grazing conditions,” said the vendor in the next booth over, who had apparently been eavesdropping. “Not a lot of rain, so the grass is weak, so the cows can’t eat much and get thin-blooded. Things should clear up once we get some proper rain.”
Rayas wanted to yell at the gnoll that grazing conditions were the absolute last thing he should be concerned about, but she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t even speak. Suddenly she felt like her head was going to explode; if the situation was so bad that the food coming into Hydor was already tainted, the end was nigh. She stumbled back and, ignoring Wassen’s offer of help, turned, and fled back into the crowd—
Only to almost crash into a squadron of six gnolls in shining armor.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” one of the guards asked. He was tall and had a deep voice, and his shield had the insignia of a captain of the guard.
Rayas managed to jerkily nod her head. “Fine,” she lied. “Just heading home.” Then she paused. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “The guards don’t usually patrol downtown in armor like this.”
The guard captain arched an eyebrow. “A patrol went missing last night, so we’re out looking for them.”
“Missing?” repeated Rayas in a slow tone as horrible scenarios played out in her mind. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that they went on patrol, they didn’t come back, and nobody knows what happened to them,” the guard captain snapped. “Why, do you know something?”
Rayas hesitated. Nobody had listened to her the last time she’d tried to warn everyone, but maybe this gnoll would. He had a duty to listen to anything that might save his troops, didn’t he? “Well,” she ventured. “It could be vampire gnolls. Between the animals who are missing blood, the vanished patrols—”
The guard captain snorted. “Surely you’re joking. Vampires? Here, in Hydor? Why?”
“Wait, sir,” said another guard. “I think I know this one. She came to the council a few days ago and said the city was about to be attacked by vampires, but she had no evidence, so they kicked her out. She’s not right in the head.”
Rayas bit back an angry retort. “They didn’t listen to me, but maybe if you—”
“I’m not going on a wild-goose chase to hunt vampires!” said the captain. “If you have any real evidence, tell me or the council. Otherwise, stop wasting my time.”
Rayas opened her mouth to yell something, but then she let it shut again because she couldn’t figure out what to say. She needed to find the words to make people take her seriously, but she couldn’t. That meant this guard wouldn’t listen to her any more than the council would. Then the vampires would come and turn everyone, and she…
She couldn’t even think of the horrible things that had happened after that. Instead, she remained silent. After a few moments the guards walked past her. “Hey, did you ever find out why Tendo didn’t show up today?” one of the guards asked as they passed.
“Yeah, he was in the infirmary,” said the captain. “He was tired and kind of pale, so they decided to keep him there for a day and let the clerics work on him. He’s not the only one either. It’s this damned heat; if we’re not careful, we’ll lose half our troops to heatstroke before we find those bandits who are stealing livestock…”
“It’s not heatstroke!” Rayas yelled, unable to stop herself. “That’s what happens when vampires start to turn someone! They drink their blood, the victim becomes weak and pale and…”
She realized everyone around her was staring at her. And then, as she stared at the crowd in the desperate hope they would take her seriously, they began to laugh.
“Are vampires even real?” one gnoll whispered to his friend. “I’ve never heard of them outside of children’s tales!”
“I think the heat got to her,” said an elderly female gnoll to her friend. “She needs to lie down.”
“Boo!” said someone right behind her. Rayas swiveled to see a young gnoll with an impish look in his eye. He waggled his hands at her and said, “Oh no! Here comes the vampire!”
And then Rayas ran.
She ran as fast as she could, knocking her way through other gnolls and almost crashing into a vendor with a vegetable pushcart before she managed to reach a deserted alley. It was slightly cooler than the square, if only because high walls blocked off the sun, but Rayas found herself sweating more. “They won’t listen,” she said, her voice heavy with bitterness. “They won’t listen to me no matter what I do.” She snorted. “I should have bitten that idiot. Made him see what it was like…”
But as much fun as it would be to embarrass or scare the gnoll who had terrified her, Rayas knew she didn’t have time for that. She had to do something. “I’m not going back to the square,” she said. “I’ll skip dinner tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll get food at first light, leave town, and…”
Her sentence trailed off. Where could she run? Where was there in the desert that the monsters wouldn’t pursue her? Could she make it over the mountains, and even if she did, would that be enough? Maybe she could flee all the way to another continent, but what if the vampires were able to pursue her there as well? Would they ever leave her alone?
“Excuse me, ma’am,” came a voice.
Rayas looked up to see a hooded gnoll stepping out from a small building and crossing the shaded alley to approach her. He was about half a foot taller than her and had a muscular frame as well as a sheathed scimitar sticking out of his belt. The hood cast a deep shadow on his face that made it hard to make out his eyes or his expression, and Rayas wondered if it was magical in some way. “Yes?” Rayas managed, failing to hide the quiver of terror in her voice. “What do you want?”
“I heard what you said earlier,” the gnoll added.
“You were there?” Rayas asked. “In the market?”
“In the council chambers,” the gnoll corrected. “I happened to be waiting in a side room while you spoke, and I could hear everything, Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that I believe you. With all the strange things that are going on, it makes sense that vampires are probably involved.”
“Really?” Rayas asked, daring to slightly release some of the tension in her body. “The council just laughed at me.”
“They’re a bunch of old fools,” said the cloaked gnoll. “But I see the truth.” He bowed. “My name is Vester. I work as security for some of the local merchants when they send caravans out across the desert. You know, to fight raiders and such.”
Well, Rayas thought, that explained the gnoll’s muscular body. “The vampire gnolls have done horrible things in the desert,” she said. “I came here hoping to escape them, but it didn’t work.”
“It is difficult to escape vampires, in my experience,” Vester agreed. “But I do know of one approach that often works.”
Rayas’s heart quickened. “What’s that?” she said eagerly.
And then Vester pulled off his hood to reveal blood-red eyes and fangs that jutted from his mouth. “Become one of them!” he hissed as he jumped forward.
Rayas froze up. Intellectually, she knew that she had fought vampires before. She’d fled from her home in western Iradel, after all. But even the thought of trying to remember those fights was so traumatizing that her mind flinched away, and she couldn’t remember a single way to fight back.
“We can’t have someone spilling our secrets before we’re ready!” said Vester as he advanced. Rayas instinctively darted back quicker than she would have thought possible, evading his first strike as she did so, but then her back hit the wall of the alley. He surged forward then and knocked her down before she could respond. “But don’t worry. Once you’re properly one of us, you’ll understand. I certainly did after I was turned in that desert ambush.” He knelt and sniffed Rayas’s neck, then pulled back, as if debating how precisely to bite her. Rayas cringed away and waited for the end that she had feared for many months.
“I don’t—” began Vester.
Then Rayas heard a squelching sound, and when she opened her eyes, she saw Vester staring down at a sword protruding from his chest where his heart must have been. Then he fell to his knees before turning to dust and blowing away.
When Rayas turned to one side, she saw something that she would never have imagined. A towering rhinotaur wearing golden armor was walking toward her while sheathing a sword with one hand. His other hand carried a huge battle-ax that shined even in the dim light of the alley.
“Thank you?” ventured Rayas to the rhinotaur who had saved her.
“Thank Cerox,” said the rhinotaur in a haughty voice. “I’m his paladin. When I strike, it is on his behalf.”
Rayas heard the pride in the rhinotaur’s voice and figured that, whatever he said, he wasn’t actually all that upset about being praised for killing the vampire. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
The paladin chuckled. “My name is Noth Vox, and Cerox sent me here to kill vampires,” he said. “You are Rayas, correct? Gnolls in the square said you claim to have information on them.”
Rayas knew that should have eased her mind, but something about the way Noth carried himself made her uneasy. She thought back to her former home and how her village’s most powerful warriors had become its biggest dangers once they’d been overwhelmed and turned. “I—” she began.
“So, you’re going to give it to me,” said Noth, in an arrogant tone that brooked no dissent. “Now.”
* * *
“I don’t really know much,” said Rayas.
Half an hour had passed since Rayas had almost been bitten by Vester. She’d managed to talk Noth into going back to her home so they wouldn’t have to talk about vampires in the street; for all they knew, she pointed out, other vampires might be hiding in the area and could hear them. Noth hadn’t seemed very worried about that, but he’d grudgingly agreed to follow her back to her abode. They took refuge in her small living room, sitting on ragged cushions, while Rayas looked up at the huge rhinotaur and tried to explain herself. “I just know the symptoms of when vampire gnolls start attacking a village,” she went on. “Missing and anemic animals, then missing and anemic gnolls. There’s nothing else it could be.”
Noth inclined his head. “But surely once you figured out that there were vampires around, you did something?” he prompted in an annoyed tone. “Did you begin putting a party together? Hunting for their strongholds? I need to know everything you did in case it affects my own plans.”
Rayas looked away from his eyes and lowered her head as a wave of shame hit her. “I tried to warn the council,” she said. “But they didn’t listen. They just said I was crazy and threw me out.”
“And after that?” Noth asked. “What were your next strategies?”
Rayas glanced toward the back of the room where a couple of bags were sitting open. A few items of clothing and some dried goods were poking out of one of them. Noth followed her gaze, then said in a contemptuous voice, “You were planning to run.”
“Yes,” admitted Rayas.
“Then who would stop the vampires?” Noth asked.
“Someone else,” Rayas said. “Anyone else. I don’t care, honestly, but I can’t do it myself.”
“Hmph.” Noth sighed. “So, you’re the coward I thought you were, then.”
“I’m no coward!” Rayas protested.
A slight smile crossed Noth’s face. “Really?” he asked. “Then tell me something. What do you do for a living here?”
“I help maintain the city,” Rayas said. “Cleaning the walkways, landscaping, things like that.”
“Ah.” Noth leaned back on his cushion. “A menial, low-paying job…but one that keeps you inside the city walls, to protect you from vampires coming over the horizon, but also out in the sunny streets, to protect you from vampires hiding in other buildings. You set up your entire life here to evade vampires instead of fighting them. And now that you know vampires are coming, your only thoughts are about how you can save yourself. That is cowardice, Rayas. Fortunately, my god has seen fit to send me here, and I will protect you and your city despite that.”
“Knowing that a fight is unwinnable is not cowardice,” snapped Rayas. “It’s just common sense. I’ve dealt with vampire gnolls before when they attacked my old village in the deserts of Iradel. It was a disaster.”
“Oh?” Noth asked. “Did you fight then? Or did you cower and hide, then sneak away when the real warriors were dead?”
Rayas’s ears drew back and her fur bristled. She wanted to argue with him, but whenever she tried to think of the fighting, her mind refused to do so. Unable to explain what she’d done, she just said, “I fought, but in the end, I had to run. Like I said, it was unwinnable.”
“Somehow I doubt that you really gave that fight your all,” Noth said.
Rayas couldn’t blame him for not believing her, since she knew he’d seen her cowering from Vester, but the comment still stung. She wanted to bite him and show him one tiny fraction of what it would be like to be attacked by a vampire, but she managed to catch herself before she did anything crazy.
Noth went on to say, “There’s no such thing as an unwinnable fight, at least for one who is blessed by the right god. Don’t you have any paladins here?”
“If we do, I’ve never met them,” said Rayas in as neutral a tone as she could manage. “And even mighty warriors can fall to vampires. My old village had fighters with decades of experience behind them. They didn’t make it.”
“Fighters are one thing,” said Noth with a dismissive wave of his hand. “A paladin blessed by Cerox is another. With his help, I will rid this city of its unholy attackers and save you all.”
“You and who else?” Rayas asked. “I assume your order sent a sufficient number of troops to wage such a war. Where are the others?”
“There are no others,” said Noth. “And my order is not involved. Cerox appeared in a vision and personally informed me of this problem, so I came on my own. I will slay all the vampires myself, with nothing but my holy blades and my god’s blessing.”
Rayas stared at him. “You didn’t even send a message to your order? You just went straight here?”
“Yes!” said Noth. “As a paladin does.”
“Have you even fought vampires before?” Rayas demanded. “Do you know how to fight them?”
Noth shrugged. “They are monsters. If I do enough damage to them, they will die, especially if I decapitate them or take their heart — that’s how I beat the one fighting you, remember? What else is there to know?”
“You are going to get yourself killed!” said Rayas. “Or turned! You have no idea how vampires fight; how hard they are when they come en masse. And if they do turn you, then the vampires will have a powerful new weapon to attack us with.”
“Cerox will never allow that,” said Noth. “And I do not fear death. Not like you.”
Rayas scowled. “What do you want with me, anyways?” she asked. “I have no money to pay you for saving me—”
“The favor of my god is all the boon I need,” said Noth pompously. “I don’t require any other rewards.”
“And I’ve told you all I know,” Rayas finished. “I can’t help you anymore.”
“Get me an audience with the council,” Noth said. “If I am to kill vampires, I need the authorities to know so they do not see me striking someone down. The last thing I need is someone sending the guards to arrest me. Once they give their blessing and tell the guards not to bother me, I can sweep the city and end this threat on my own.”
Rayas still thought that was an idiotic idea, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk the arrogant paladin out of it. “You could get any gnoll to help you with that,” she said.
“Another gnoll might be a vampire, and if I get into another fight before clearing things with the council, it could cause problems if I’m seen,” said Noth. “But I’m sure you aren’t turned. Otherwise, that last monster wouldn’t have had any reason to attack you.” He stood. “Take me to the council, Rayas. Just get me in the door. Then you can run away and resume hiding under a rock for the rest of your life.”
A growl almost forced its way out of Rayas’s throat before she caught herself, and she wanted nothing more than to bite out his throat, but she restrained herself. Her mouth was hurting for some reason and Rayas wondered if she was getting sick, which was of course the last thing she needed then. She debated ordering Noth to leave and then trying to get out of town before any illness that she did have got worse, but she doubted the arrogant paladin would obey.
And besides, she thought, if she could get Noth into the council, and he could get through to them, maybe they could help Noth defend the city. Maybe she could contribute in that way. Then, even if she was too terrified to even think of drawing a weapon, she could still be able to help.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll take you there, Noth. And then I hope never to see you again.”
The towering rhinotaur smirked at her. “Excellent,” he said. “On behalf of Cerox, I thank you for this service.”
Somehow Noth’s arrogance made Rayas’s teeth ache even more. “If you’re lucky,” she told him, “and if you somehow survive your attempt to fight a horde of vampires one-on-one, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. What’s more, you’ll agree with it.”
“Cerox would strike me down if I accepted your cowardice,” said Noth at once. “Enough talk. Take me to this council, Rayas.”
“As you wish,” Rayas said, and ushered him out of her home.
* * *
The City Council met in the tall, ancient mansion near the rear of Hydor, the one whose rooftop commanded a view of the entire settlement, the desert beyond, and even the foothills behind the city where the farmers grazed their livestock. That building had always made Rayas feel uneasy. She had initially dismissed her nervousness by telling herself that she knew firsthand just how useless a building’s thick walls, sturdy defenses, and magical wards carved into its stone surfaces would be in the face of a vampire gnoll invasion. As she approached the building with Noth, though, she was able to finally determine the real reason it unnerved her. “It’s too big,” she murmured.
“I’m sorry?” Noth asked her. The sun gleamed off his armor to the point where it was hard to look at him without squinting. “Did you say something?”
Rayas shook her head because she knew he wouldn’t understand. He couldn’t see that the council mansion was huge, far larger than the council needed it to be, and at least half of it had to be unoccupied. It was as if the building had been created for a much larger settlement which had been buried under the desert sands without a trace, leaving only the comparatively small city of Hydor behind. “It’s nothing,” she lied as she wondered if such a settlement really had existed, if its inhabitants had been wiped out by some monstrous attack, if their bodies were buried in the sand just a few inches or feet below her steps. “Nothing at all.”
When they reached the mansion, a grizzled old gnoll who was standing on guard duty glanced at Rayas. “Not you again,” he groaned. “Didn’t you get your fill of being laughed at by the council last week?”
“I have new information,” Rayas said in a tight, clipped tone. “This rhinotaur is Noth Vox, paladin of Cerox. He claims that his god has warned him of dangers in our midst that must be fought, lest they destroy us all. The council must be made aware of this.”
The old gnoll sent Noth an unimpressed look. “How do I know he’s really a paladin?”
Noth smiled slightly, then whispered a few words in a tongue Rayas did not know as he hefted his battle-ax high. The battle-ax began to glow with a strange power and Rayas found she could barely look at it. Then Noth swung the weapon at a boulder which had been set by the mansion’s door as part of a rock garden, and the blade easily cleaved it in two.
Rayas gasped and cringed away before she could stop herself. At the same time, the gnoll guard’s mouth dropped. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll tell the council you’re here.”
He hurried inside while Noth casually wiped a few pebbles off of his battle-ax and asked, “Are all residents of Hydor as scared as you and him?”
Rayas glowered at Noth and did not answer.
The other gnoll came back a few moments later and said, “The council will see you now. This way, please.”
He led Rayas and Noth into the mansion and shut the door behind them, blocking out the intense desert sun. The temperature dropped almost immediately, and Rayas sighed in relief as she looked around the foyer. While the outside of the building was constructed of hardy stone that had presumably been mined from a local quarry, the inside—or at least this part of it—was made of materials which were nearly impossible to get in the desert. The walls were lined with wood, for instance, and the cushions of the two chairs against the opposite wall were covered with soft, silky fabric that Rayas had never even seen before.
“Fancy place,” said Noth in a contemptuous tone.
“This way, please,” said the old gnoll as he led Rayas and Noth deeper into the building.
The hallway they traveled down was also lined with wood, and every few feet Rayas and Noth passed a table with gorgeous flowers, elegant feathers, or some other kind of display which had probably cost more than Rayas earned in a year. The gnoll stopped by one old door with gold and silver embossing on the surface. “They are expecting you,” he said as he pushed the door open. “You may state your business.”
Rayas had seen the council room when she’d first tried to warn Hydor’s leaders about the vampire gnoll threat, of course, but it still took her breath away to lay eyes on it again. The large room had an impressive round table in its center; the table looked to be made of a single circular piece of wood, and Rayas couldn’t imagine how much it had cost to find a tree of that size, cut it down, and ship a single plank of it back to Hydor. Around the table, several chairs glittered with gems fixed in their bases, and dark cushions sat upon them, looking luxurious despite their age. Little chairs and tables lined the walls of the room, the latter of which held flowers, carafes of water, and even plates of fruit.
When Rayas looked above the table she saw a few cloths, each dyed a cool blue, purple, or dark green, that dangled down from the ceiling. The cloths seemed to bring the roof closer to the floor, giving the room the feel of a cool basement that was shielded from the heat and sun of the outdoors. And then there were the ancient sconces in the walls, each carved from a different precious stone and each carrying a little torch. The torchlight was just enough to illuminate the room but no more; this kept the council members just barely visible without amplifying the heat in the room.
Rayas had no idea how the council could afford this; Hydor wasn’t big enough of a trading or industrial center to be able to afford these luxury items. Then she found herself wondering if all the expensive things had been bought long ago, perhaps by that other, larger settlement she thought might have existed, and if the Council was just going through the motions and parasitically living off the sustenance that their predecessors had built up. They were like another type of vampire, she considered, and then she tried hard not to think of it again.
“What do you want?” complained one of the council members, an elderly gnoll named Vasya. She was short in stature, and her mane and fur were streaked with white, which only seemed to highlight the long scar on her right cheek. She wore a fancy purple robe which seemed too voluminous for her slight frame, and she held a small scepter which denoted her position as the leader of the council. “We have heard your wild tales already, Rayas. We don’t need to hear them again.”
“The tales are not wild,” said Noth before Rayas could speak. “I am a paladin of Cerox named Noth Vox, and my god has commanded me to come to this city and drive out the vampires. Therefore, there must be vampires here, or my god would not have made such a command.”
“Perhaps you imagined it,” said another council member. “You would not be the first paladin to think his god was speaking when it was really your own mind.”
A third gnoll said, “Besides, the prophecies of a rhinotaur deity are hardly germane in a city of gnolls. There is a reason we have no temple to Cerox in this city, paladin. We obtain protection from our own gods, and as they’ve not sent us any warnings of danger, I see no reason to panic.”
Noth frowned. “I have already encountered a vampire in your city. This threat is no figment of Rayas’s imagination. It is real and must be dealt with!”
The council murmured and its youngest member, a gnoll named Hevaston, leaned forward. “Really?” he asked. “You’ve actually seen a vampire in Hydor? Where is he?”
“I fought and defeated him,” said Noth. “But there are surely more. I need all the information you have on these monsters.”
“We have no such information,” drawled Vasya, “because there are no vampires. Rayas is seeing things that are not there.”
Hevaston frowned. “But if this paladin really saw one—”
“He could be lying,” Vasya said. “Perhaps Rayas hired an actor to try to convince us of her story, since her first attempt failed. Or he could be deluded. Either way, he has no proof.”
“You should at least look!” Rayas demanded. “If I’m wrong, fine, I’m wrong, but if Noth and I are right, the city needs to know so someone can do something!”
“Enough of this,” said Vasya as she rose. “There is nothing to be done. Hevaston, see me in my private office; we need to talk. The rest of you are dismissed.”
Rayas sighed to herself. Now there was really nothing to be done but to flee, she thought.
Then Noth said, “Excuse me, but I’ve come a very long way and I’m quite exhausted from the journey. I don’t suppose I could stay a few minutes to have some water and cool down?”
“Fine,” said Vasya. “The door guard will show you out when you are ready.” She turned on her heel and walked toward a distant door, with Hevaston following. The other council members filed out in a hurry, as if eager to get out of the ancient room.
Rayas slumped into a small chair on the side of the room while Noth drank from a crystal carafe of water. “Let’s go talk to that leader again,” he said. “Maybe we can convince her when she’s alone and doesn’t need to posture for the others.”
“I really don’t think that’s likely,” said Rayas.
Noth ignored her and strode toward the door that Vasya had gone through. Sighing, Rayas hurried after him. She arrived there just as Noth reached the door and shoved it open—
To see Vasya crouching over Hevaston’s prone form, her mouth open, with sharp fangs buried in Hevaston’s neck.
Her head flashed up and she locked red, bloodshot eyes with Rayas and Noth for a moment before she sneered at them. “Die, then!” she yelled as she sprang up onto an ancient wooden desk faster than Rayas would have thought possible.
“I think I know why she didn’t want the other council members to support a vampire hunt,” drawled Noth as he drew his battle-ax. “Rayas, get back. You won’t be any good here.”
“Foolish paladin,” Vasya hissed. She extended claw-like fingers at Noth and bared her gleaming fangs. “There are more of us in this building, let alone this city. You cannot fight us all alone.”
Noth laughed. “With Cerox behind me, I can fight anything—”
Then Vasya sprang forward and smashed into Rayas, knocking her into Noth hard enough that they stumbled back into the council meeting room. Rayas, operating on instinct and some half-remembered memory of her fight in western Iradel, rolled to one side and then sprang to her feet in a single, smooth motion. Her eyes widened as Vasya approached her. Noth, she saw in the corner of her eye, glanced in another direction, possibly having sensed vampires approaching from some other hallway. But whatever he was doing, he was distracted, which meant she was on her own.
Rayas felt a horrible chill of fear as Vasya approached. “Not again,” she whimpered. “Not again, not again, not again!”
Vasya clawed at Rayas, and Rayas stumbled backward. Her mind felt like it was breaking apart. Her teeth ached horribly, she was so mad about Noth’s contempt that she wanted to bite him again, and now memories from that horrible battle in her former home flooded back. She could see herself fighting through hordes of vampires, some of whom had been her friends and fellow warriors before they were turned, orworn down through sheer numbers. She—
Vasya swung her scepter at Rayas. Dimly remembering how she’d survived a similar attack in western Iradel, Rayas dropped down to her knees, so the blow passed over her head. Then she jumped forward and slammed her shoulder into Vasya’s gut, relying on her larger size to knock back the tiny vampiric gnoll. Vasya indeed stumbled backward, and Rayas took the chance to glance behind her, where she saw Noth sweeping his gleaming battle-ax at two vampire gnolls who were dressed like town guards. “We’re doomed,” she managed.
“You certainly are!” laughed Vasya as she jumped forward again.
Rayas managed to block Vasya’s next blow with one of the ornate council chairs, then seized one of the torches from a sconce on the wall. She had beaten a vampire back in her former home like that, she thought as her memories continued to return, and she swung the torch at Vasya in a rapid pattern that forced the vampire away. “Just like I remember,” she hissed, recalling a similar scene from her fight back there. “I’ve done this before.”
Vasya tried to dodge around Rayas, but Rayas managed to singe her enemy with the torch, and she hissed in pain. Rayas dropped into a combat stance—
A figure lurched out of Vasya’s office and grabbed at her. It was Hevaston, Rayas saw, and though he had been turned only moments ago, he had the same blood-red eyes and gleaming fangs as every other vampire gnoll. He was the closer threat then, and so Rayas swiveled, dropped back, slipped under his extended arms, and jammed the flaming torch into his neck.
Hevaston screamed as he was dispatched, but then Vasya hit Rayas with her scepter. Rayas stumbled and Vasya was able to grab her from behind and drag her to the ground. “Die!” Vasya roared. “I want to taste your blood!”
Rayas struggled in vain but couldn’t break the ancient vampire gnoll’s grasp. Vasya bent down over Rayas, smelled her neck, and then—
“What’s this?” Vasya whispered. “Already bitten?”
Rayas froze. That couldn’t be, she thought. Everyone whose blood was drunk by vampires either died or became one of them. She was neither dead nor undead, so she couldn’t have been bitten.
Except Vasya’s words seemed to unlock one more memory in her traumatized mind. She saw herself faltering in battle against the vampire leader, saw him using his psychic powers to force her back, saw him biting into her neck—just as, with the last of her strength, she had stabbed him in the side with her sword. The vampire leader had been knocked away, Rayas had been able to escape, and all thoughts of the battle had fled from her mind.
“She must have run far away from the master,” mused Vasya to herself. She stroked Rayas’s cheek almost lovingly. “That’s why she didn’t turn when she was bit. Oh, but the master is here, and I can sense that her turning continues. She will be one of us and serve the master within a few hours.”
“I will not!” whispered Rayas in a feeble voice.
“Vasya laughed. “You have no choice—”
And then her head went flying, cleaved off by Noth’s massive battle-ax.
Rayas gasped for air and pushed herself up. She saw all the vampires were defeated, strewn across the council chamber. Noth had a few more dents in his gleaming armor, but he was otherwise unscathed. “You won!” she said.
“Of course I won,” said Noth in a tone of perfect arrogance. “Not everyone is like you, Rayas. Some of us are brave.”
Rayas shut her eyes as she felt an overpowering urge to jump onto Noth, to bite out his throat, to kill him and drink his blood—and then she wondered if that was really just her own aggravation with him, or if the vampire ”master” Vasya had spoken of was already influencing her.
If so, given how strong the urges were getting, she might indeed lose herself completely within hours. Maybe less.
Rayas slumped down and Noth smirked at her. “Yes, I think it’s better if you stay here. I’ll finish this on my own.”
“I thought you needed my help to find the vampire warren,” said Rayas.
“It’s clear that you won’t be helpful,” said Noth. “You weren’t of any use in this fight, after all. Besides, the vampires know I’m here now, so I’m certain they’ll attack me as I go through the city. I’ll deal with them as they come.”
He began to leave, but Rayas forced herself to get up and yell, “You can’t fight them on your own!” She took a breath. “I tried, back in my village. I remember now—I was my village’s greatest warrior; if anyone could do it, I could.” She shut her eyes for a moment at the memories she hadn’t been able to think of since that horrible battle, the ones which she was only now recovering. She remembered all the training she’d done, all the drills, all the exercises—and how useless they had all been against the vampire horde. “But I still lost. No single warrior can—”
Noth scowled at her. “Wrong,” he interrupted. “A single warrior can take on a vampire army, if he’s backed by a strong arm, a powerful blade, and the god of war. A coward can’t, though, and what you’ve shown me these past few hours is that you’re a coward. I don’t need the help of anyone, especially you.” He sneered at Rayas, then walked off.
Rayas glowered as Noth left. She wasn’t a coward, she thought. Her fear was perfectly rational. And that wasn’t even considering the thoughts building in the back of her head, the urges to give up, to give in to the corruption she now knew was spreading through her veins, to bite Noth and make him a vampire because it wasn’t like they could be fought anyway so she might as well join them now…
It took all her strength not to give into that insane urge. By the time she had quelled it, Noth had left.
* * *
Rayas sat alone in the deserted council chamber. She knew that eventually somebody would come in, see the remains of the fight (Hevaston’s corpse, at least, had not crumbled to dust like the others, possibly because he had been turned so recently), and try to arrest her. But nobody had come yet, and so she remained on the ground.
Maybe she should have just died back home, she thought. She could have gone to a warrior’s death, died a hero, and never known the terror that had engulfed her for the most recent span of her life. Even the chaos of battle had been nothing like the paranoia which had consumed Rayas since reaching Hydor and the encroaching terror of the prior few days. Those days had been spent cowering in her quarters, rushing out only when she had to buy provisions or work and then hurrying back inside the moment she could afford to. They had been worse than any death could be.
And besides, she noted, if she had died then she wouldn’t be in the situation where she slowly turned into a vampire herself and could betray her city at any time. What if she found Noth again and was overwhelmed by the urge to bite him? Either he’d kill her, or she’d bring him down, and then Hydor would truly be defenseless.
“Why did I do any of this?” she muttered to herself as her head sank into her lap. “Noth’s right; I’m just a worthless coward now. So why did I fight? Why did I live?”
Of course, when she thought about it, she knew why she’d fought. Her parents had been guards who had saved her village from a massive bandit army that had been passing through the area on the way to lay siege to some large city in the grasslands beyond the desert. The bandits had demanded all the gnoll village’s food and supplies for their journey, and when they were turned down, they’d attacked. Rayas’s parents had led the battle and driven off the bandits despite being outnumbered several times over, and when Rayas had truly understood the great thing that they had done, she had known she wanted to be someone who could do the same.
And so, she’d trained relentlessly, working to become a mighty warrior, and she’d even won a few battles against random bandits, monsters, and hostile tribes. But then the vampires had come, and she’d lost. She’d barely been able to escape after holding off the vampires until…
Rayas frowned. What had she held the vampires off for? Her memories showed her fighting in the deserted center of town. There was nobody around but vampires and bodies. What had she been doing?
Then she remembered. Her and the few other guards who’d survived the initial attack had bundled the civilians—children, elders, helpless farmers and artisans, everyone who couldn’t fight—into the wagons and sent them out, then launched their rearguard action. Even after her fellow warriors were dead, Rayas had fought on and held up the vampires by herself, preventing them from attacking the fleeing gnolls. She’d only turned to run when she knew enough time had passed that the vampires would not be able to catch the other villagers. Then the vampire master had shown up and bitten her, and Rayas had barely escaped with her life, but the fact remained: she’d saved her people.
Rayas smiled bitterly at the old memory. She’d loved the idea of protecting her tribe, she’d loved how she’d saved them from the various minor threats she’d dealt with, and—as terrifying as the vampires had been— she’d even loved being able to stop them from hurting many of those she cared about. But now she couldn’t do any of that, because like Noth said, she was a worthless coward. She could never protect anyone again.
Or could she?
Rayas looked down at her hands again, and then turned to see Hevaston’s body. She’d beaten him, and new as he was, he’d still had the vampire advantages of strength, speed, and a bevy of magic powers. She still had it in her to kill vampires; the trauma of battle hadn’t taken that from her. She could help if only she wasn’t so scared.
But then again, she thought, she’d been scared in her first fight with vampires too. She just hadn’t let it stop her because she’d had people to protect. And there were gnolls to protect here too. She might not be as close to them as she’d been to those of her tribe, but she still liked them—the guards who kept them safe, the merchants who sold the supplies she needed, the farmers who worked in the lonely foothills to provision the town—and she wanted to protect them. If she chose to fight on their behalf, maybe she could do something to help them. Assuming she didn’t become a full-blown vampire first, of course.
“But if I can stop the master before I fully turn, maybe I won’t turn at all,” Rayas murmured. She wasn’t sure if it worked like that, but it wouldn’t surprise her. If the master vampire’s proximity really was affecting Rayas, then possibly killing him would get rid of that effect.
She was still for a moment longer, and then with a greater effort than she’d ever expended since arriving in Hydor, Rayas forced herself off the floor. “Noth was right,” she said. “I was a coward. But I’m not going to be anymore.” She took a deep breath. “I swear it.”
Then Rayas picked up a sword that one of the dead vampires had been using and tested its weight in her hands; it was almost the same size as the blade she’d used back in Iradel, and when she swung it she found the motions came naturally. Her memories were back now and she could remember every sword-drill and stance that she’d ever learned. She could use this blade, she thought. She could protect people—
A powerful wave of cold bloodlust swept over Rayas, who almost bent double fighting the urge to track down the nearest gnoll, drink her blood, and turn her. When she straightened again, her face was drawn and determined. “If I’m going to do something, I have to be fast,” she muttered. “Before I turn.” She took a breath. “I need to find Noth.”
She tucked the sword into her belt and ran out the door.
Noth turned out not to be difficult to find. She had only gone a couple of blocks from the council mansion when she heard the distant sounds of battle, and it took her almost no time at all to find the abandoned store the noises were coming from and to kick in its door. Hot sunlight blasted into the store’s foyer, incinerating one of the two vampire gnolls who was in the room, and Rayas easily leapt into the shadow the other vampire was hiding in and stabbed him through the heart with her blade. As he died she was already running into the next room.
“Die, fiends!” Noth yelled as he battled what looked like a dozen vampire gnolls. A few discarded cloaks and sets of clothes on the ground indicated that Noth had already killed some vampires who had crumbled to dust, but many more remained, and Rayas saw that Noth’s motions were starting to slow. Of course, she thought; he was wearing heavy armor and wielding a massive battle-ax, so as strong as he was, he had to be tiring. But she could save him, she thought. Or at least, she could try.
Rayas let out a fierce yell and charged into the fray, her sword decapitating two vampire gnolls almost before the others had known she was there. Noth shot her a glance. “I need no help!” he said in an angry voice.
“I’ve fought them before. Trust me, you need help!” Rayas shot back.
As some of the vampire gnolls turned to fight Rayas, she felt cold terror rising in her body again, but this time she was able to hold on to her memories of battle and use them to drive herself forward. She knew how to do this, she thought, and she would do her best. Even if part of her was screaming to hide under a rock again, she would not let herself be pushed back.
The next few minutes were full of wild battle, with Rayas frantically slashed at her enemies while also dodging or blocking their own blows. Once she felt the mental presence of the master pushing on her to drop her weapon, or better yet, join the others who were attacking Noth, but with a surge of will she managed to fend it off and instead used her sword to kill one of the stronger vampires. Noth slammed his ax through the head of a vampire that was attacking him, then almost idly crushed another against the wall with a powerful blow of his fists. “Leave!” he yelled. “Cerox is the only support I need, and—”
A flicker of motion from above caused Raysa to glance up, where she saw a shadowy figure dropping down from the ceiling. It was a muscular vampire gnoll, and it landed perfectly on Noth’s back. Noth lunged at it but it easily evaded him before chanting something and grabbing the golden collar which protected Noth’s neck. It vanished and the vampire gnoll lunged its fangs at Noth’s unprotected jugular.
Then Rayas threw her sword and skewered the vampire in the head.
The vampire’s body went flying away, and even as Noth cleaved through the remaining vampires around him, he gaped at Rayas. Then he yelled, “Duck!” and Rayas dropped down just in time to avoid a blow form one of the last few surviving vampire gnolls. Noth leapt forward and killed the attacker, and then Rayas sprang up to slay one last vampire gnoll that was running at Noth’s back.
She and Noth then looked around, but nobody attacked them; they had won the fight. After a few moments, Rayas slowly said, “That one vampire gnoll who dropped on you would have killed you if I hadn’t been in here.”
Noth glared at her but said nothing.
“You need help,” Rayas said. “Otherwise you can’t complete the mission. And that’s what your god wants, right? The vampire gnolls to be purged from Hydor?”
“Yes,” Noth said slowly. He seemed to be fighting with himself. Then he finally said, “Fine. You can fight by my side. And… thank you.”
Rayas inclined her head.
“What made you decide to fight?” Noth asked her.
Rayas hesitated. “I remembered what was really important to me,” she said. “And I got tired of being the coward you said I was, so I decided to be different. At least for this one last fight.”
Noth waved off the compliment, then paused. “Last fight?” he asked. “Do you think you won’t survive it?”
Rayas looked at Noth, and then an almost overwhelming pressure hit her. She had to run forward, had to bite him, had to rip out his throat and bring him to the master as a newborn vampire, to—
“Rayas!” Noth’s voice cut through Rayas’s thoughts, and she realized that she was gripping a stone column hard enough that her hand hurt. But it had been enough to stop her from attacking Noth, so she wasn’t going to complain. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” said Rayas. She took a breath and wondered how much longer she’d be able to fight off the master. “And I hope we both survive this fight, but that’s not the point right now. We have to hurry. Any ideas?”
Noth nodded. “One of the vampires here didn’t die. Just after you and I took everyone else down I saw him sneaking out the back. I bet he’s running back to his base for help. If we hurry we can track him there and kill the master.”
“Then let’s go,” said Rayas. She grabbed her sword and hurried out the back door, Noth running close behind her.
* * *
Noth and Rayas left the building and saw a single set of footprints leading away. The wind was kicking up enough dust that the footprints would have been erased were they more than a few minutes old, so Rayas felt confident in assuming they could only have been made from the one vampire gnoll that had escaped. Noth agreed and followed Rayas as they pursued the trail.
The footprints led through a maze of passages and alleys before ending at a small doorway which was set into a stone structure that had no obvious purpose. Noth shoved the door open and glanced inside. “Stairs going down,” he announced. “Looks like it’s a deep descent. What’s under this city?”
“I don’t know,” Rayas said. “I’ve never been down there.” She was reminded once again of her idea that Hydor had once been inhabited by someone else. Maybe those inhabitants, whoever they were, had made this mysterious subterranean part of the city.
There were unlit torches in sconces within the structure. Noth raised his battle-ax, shouted a holy word, and struck the tips of the torches with it. The torches flashed with divine energy and then blazed to life. Noth smiled and passed one to Rayas before taking the other and leading the way down the stairs.
The air was dry and musty as the two descended, and Rayas noted that the temperature was dropping more rapidly than she would have guessed, but she kept her wits about her and didn’t panic at the oddities. The stairs ended after a few hundred steps and the two found themselves in an old stone tunnel. Far in the distance there seemed to be some kind of chamber; light flickered from it, but it was a low, almost haunting light that showed nothing of the room beyond.
Rayas and Noth approached the distant chamber as quietly as they could. Rayas caught herself glancing at Noth and could feel an almost tangible pressure to get close to him so she could bite him, but she did all she could to ignore it.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Noth murmured to her. “You look pale.”
“I’m fine,” Rayas insisted.
“You weren’t bitten back in that store, were you?” Noth asked. “Or in the council chamber?”
“No,” Rayas said. “I wasn’t bitten in the store or the council chamber.” It was not, technically, a lie, since her bite had been from long before then. “Let’s just keep going.”
When they reached the chamber, Rayas froze as her old fear reared up again. She could see dozens of vampire gnolls in the room, some sleeping and a few feeding from anemic corpses. In the center was a small throne upon which a tall, broad-shouldered vampire gnoll sat. He was muscular and wore heavy armor, but his helmet was off and Rayas could see the telltale red eyes and protruding fangs which gave his true nature away. Plus, Rayas could see something else too. She could see, in the dim half-light coming from faint crystals set within the room’s walls, that this was the same vampire gnoll who had led the group that had attacked her village.
This was the master.
Before Rayas or Noth could do anything, the vampire leader lightly hopped to his feet as if his armor weighed nothing. He held a massive mace at his side, Rayas noted, and it was covered in strange sigils. “We have guests,” the master vampire noted. “You must be the famed paladin of Cerox I’ve heard so much about.”
Noth smirked. “I am he, and I am here to slay you,” he said.
The master vampire chuckled. “You would try to slay Moklang, master vampire of the desert?” he asked. “Bold. And as for your gnoll companion… ah.” Moklang smiled. “The one that got away.”
Rayas flushed. “I ran when we fought in Iradel,” she acknowledged. “This time I won’t run. One of us isn’t leaving this room alive.”
“I am already not alive,” said Moklang. “But I know what you mean.” His eyes gleamed. “I have overwhelming forces and access to magical powers the likes of which neither of you can comprehend. Why not give in to your inevitable loss and surrender now? I promise your fate will be much more pleasant than the alternative.”
“Us losing to you is hardly inevitable,” said Noth. “We will triumph.”
“No paladin, no matter how strong, can slay me,” said Moklang.
Noth chuckled. “Even were that true, I am not alone,” he said. “I have help.”
“Help who failed to stop me the last time?” Moklang laughed before turning to Rayas. “And as for you… surely by now you must know the fate that will befall you. In minutes, perhaps.”
Rayas growled. “Even if I were to fall in just a few minutes, I would use every breath until then to stop you,” she said.
“Brave words from someone who spends most of her time hiding,” Moklang noted, and Rayas wondered if he’d had her under observation. Was she some kind of pet project of his? She shuddered at the thought.
“Enough of this,” said Noth. “I see no reason for more words.” He raised his battle-ax. “Let us fight!”
The vampires surged forward, Rayas drew her own blade, and the battle was on.
Most of the enemies rushed at Noth, but one vampire gnoll leapt at Rayas with an unholy shriek. Rayas feinted and spun around him, using a move that she’d come up with herself and perfected while still a warrior in Iradel, and took his head off with her blade before he could recover and turn to face her. Then she spun further and blocked the blow of another monster who had charged at her back. When the vampire gnoll pressed his weapon, a heavy iron cudgel, against hers, Rayas shifted her balance to one foot and kicked the monster squarely in his kneecap. His leg gave out, he sank down, and Rayas killed him the very next instant.
Noth, meanwhile, was charging toward Moklang and smashing through anything that got in his way. A few vampires were beginning to regroup behind him, so Rayas hurried forward and fought to clear them from his back. “I’m here!” she called to Noth as she took down a tall, blood-bloated vampire gnoll that had been rearing back to strike at the rhinotaur. “Keep going!”
Noth gave a bright, vibrant cheer as his ax cleaved through another enemy. “I will never stop!”
Then Moklang brought up his hand and chanted something, and Rayas almost doubled over as some kind of psychic force hit her. She was consumed with thoughts of tackling Noth, biting him, and turning him at last. “No…” she hissed, managing to swing her sword hard enough to drive back a vampire that had tried to attack her while she was stunned. “I won’t…”
She could hear Moklang’s voice in her head. “Of course you will,” it said. “You have no choice. The battle is lost. I control too much of you for you to hold out any longer, and without you, the paladin will fall. I have won. Give in.”
Rayas felt her trauma-infused pessimism returning. How many times in the past few days had she thought there was no possible chance to defeat the vampires? How many times had she wanted to run away, or just give up, hide, and hope they didn’t find her? The situation was hopeless and resistance was pointless, just like the fight in Iradel had been pointless…
But then Rayas grit her teeth. “No,” she hissed. “It wasn’t pointless.”
Of course it was, Moklang’s voice whispered. She’d been bitten. She’d almost died. She’d had to run.
“I got them out!” growled Rayas as she fought through the fog in time to block the blow of another vampire and then to cut her sword deep into his leg, causing him to howl in pain. “I saved the civilians! That mattered!”
If she was still the terrified, despondent gnoll she’d been the previous day, Rayas thought, Moklang’s attack would have worked. But she wasn’t. She knew better now, and she wasn’t going to give in to the monster as long as she had a scrap of strength in her.
“My fight mattered!” hissed Rayas as she forced herself to approach Moklang again. He gaped and stumbled backward, clearly stunned. “My battle mattered, and the lives I saved mattered! And this fight matters too!” She lunged at him.
Moklang waved his mace, its sigils glowed, and Rayas’s blade bounced off some kind of invisible barrier a few inches from his face. “You will die!” he snarled. “In minutes!”
“Until then, I fight!” Rayas responded. “And I—”
“Rayas!” Noth cried out. “Help!”
Rayas swiveled to see Noth being pressed by four tall, muscular vampires. She rushed to him and took down the first one moments before he could stab Noth, then smashed her body into the second one and stabbed him in the heart while he tried to recover. Noth drove back the other two vampires, but then Rayas heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Moklang approaching with his mace held high—
And Noth swung his holy battle-ax. It hit the magical barrier that Moklang had summoned with his mace, and the barrier shattered with an audible crash. The mace shuddered in Moklang’s grip and blasted out strange, dark sparks of energy before the sigils faded. “No!” gasped Moklang. “No holy magic can—”
“Mine can!” Noth roared.
Moklang drew a curved dagger from somewhere within his armor and leapt at Noth. Rayas tensed as she saw that the vampire gnoll master had left his side exposed to her while he attacked. Noth stepped forward, as if to take the opportunity to attack… but then he paused and instead slammed his ax into one of the muscular vampires who had just lunged at Rayas.
Leaving Rayas the chance to kill the monster who had destroyed her village.
Rayas shouted and slammed her sword into Moklang’s neck as he passed her. The vampire screamed and thrashed, but Rayas bore him to the ground and put all her weight on the blade until it finally cut through. “DIE!” she screamed.
“This isn’t over!” gasped Moklang’s severed head even as his body began to decay into dust. “This desert will be ours! Saveon will be ours! All life…”
And then his head crumbled away too, and he was gone.
Rayas gasped as she felt a cruel, cold presence leaving her, and moments later she felt more balanced and stable than she had in a very long time. She smiled at the feeling, and then grinned as she saw the other vampire gnolls in the room which hadn’t died yet begin to crumble as well. It looked like killing the master really did get rid of the minions—
“Wait!” called Noth as he pointed at the far wall. “That one isn’t dying!”
Rayas’s gaze snapped to where Noth was pointing, and she saw a husky vampire sneer at her before fleeing into another tunnel. The two gave chase down another incredibly long hallway, but the vampire was fast and it was all they could do to keep pace with him. Then the monster reached an old stone door and slammed through it.
Rayas arrived at the door just before Noth and looked outside to see foothills whose paths were shadowed by tall mountains. “I think we’re outside of town,” she said. The heat didn’t feel so bad to her anymore, and she wondered if that was because she no longer wanted to hide inside her dark, cold home in fear of the monsters. She pushed that thought aside, as something to be considered later, and added, “If we keep going we’ll hit the mountains. That last vampire must have fled there”
Noth grunted. “If he really did run away, that probably means he couldn’t call on any more reinforcements in town. Looks like the vampire infestation is done with, unless that one comes back.”
“I wonder how he survived when the other vampires died?” Rayas mused.
“He must have a different master,” Noth answered. “That would also explain what the guy you killed meant when he said things weren’t over. He was a master, but he might have been subordinate to another master.”
“And the survivor was some guy sent by the more powerful master to keep an eye on him,” Rayas muttered. “So he’ll get back and tell whoever is really leading the vampires that their team failed and Hydor is still free.”
She felt a strange mix of emotions. On the one hand, she had protected her new city and its people, purged the taint within herself, and avenged the dead gnolls from her Iradel village. On the other hand, the enemy was still out there, no doubt already trying to gather more strength. And who knew what else the vampires were trying? Was Theria at risk? Other settlements? All the world?
“And what happened to the older settlement which used to live in Hydor?” Rayas wondered to herself. “If it existed at all, if I’m right about that… was it destroyed? Did the vampire gnolls ruin it?” It wouldn’t be impossible, she thought, since vampires could live forever. It was entirely possible that the vampire gnolls had roamed Saveon for ages, destroying societies and cities before being forced back to lick their wounds and plan their next assault.
But this time, Rayas vowed, there would be no next assault. They would be destroyed in their entirety.
Noth sighed to himself. “I think this is where we part, then. My mission won’t be over until this entire group of vampire gnolls is purged once and for all.” He paused. “Thank you for fighting with me. You were… helpful. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise. I’m sorry I said otherwise before.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Rayas. “I’m sorry I wasn’t useful during our first couple fights. But I’m over that. From now on, I’m going to be able to fight these guys.” She took a breath and then looked Noth in the eye. “Bearing that in mind, what would you say if I asked to travel with you?”
“Me?” Noth blinked. “Why?”
“Because I want to protect my people, and that requires tracking down and destroying these vampire gnolls for good. Since you’re doing that anyways, I’d like to come along.” Rayas smiled. “Besides, I’m done hiding in my house and hoping the monsters don’t find me. This time I want to bring the fight to them so they never do this to anyone else. So is it alright with you—and Cerox, I guess—if I come along?”
Noth smiled. “I’d be honored,” he said. “And I’m sure Cerox wouldn’t mind me having someone to help me accomplish my holy mission.” He clapped Rayas on the back almost hard enough to knock her over. “Welcome aboard.”
“I know a few stalls in the market that should still be open,” Rayas said. “We can get some supplies and leave as soon as you want.”
“That sounds perfect to me,” Noth responded. “But first let’s search that chamber we just left. There might be clues as to where their base is.”
Rayas felt light and free as she followed Noth back toward the tunnel. Her fear and trauma weren’t gone, exactly, but she had them under control. She could do this.
She’d protect the gnolls, and everyone else, in Saveon. She would serve her people with everything she had. And she would never again, she promised herself, give in to despair. Victory was possible. In fact, with a few mighty warriors on a righteous mission, it might even be probable.
“Rayas!” called Noth as he reached the tunnel entrance. “Are you coming?”
“Of course,” said Rayas, and she hurried to join him in beginning the next phase of their quest.
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