The clang of metal on metal resounded through the room as Sterahl batted Natsumi’s blade aside, before quickly bringing his own to rest a meagre few inches from her throat.
The Kitsune’s single tail twitched as she spoke. “I yield. This fight is yours, Sterahl.”
“Don’t pout so hard! Your swordplay is coming along nicely.”
“Not nicely enough to win against you.”
He considered the attractive young woman (who was yet 120-some years his senior) and laughed. “You have, I think, been spending too much time observing The Master’s newest student.”
Natsumi gave Sterahl a close look and cocked an eyebrow. “And what, exactly, do you mean by that?”
Sterahl raised his hands with a jovial chuckle. “Just that—and you should know this better than I—that you can’t expect to make massive progress in a meagre amount of time.”
“Bleh. I know you’re right, but watching Jiuthiera…” The woman gave an exasperated shrug. “That child advances in a week what should take a year it seems sometimes.”
“And that’s utterly terrifying.”
Natsumi rolled her eyes and sighed. “Sterahl, sooner or later you’re going to have to realise that she’s going to be the strongest of any of us.”
“I’m already fully aware. The child has surpassed my level in just 5 years, not even a tenth of the time I’ve been here. I just don’t think we should be teaching one of them, especially not one who learns so supernaturally fast.”
“One of what, Sterahl? She’s an Elf.” Natsumi said, matter-of-factly.
“No, she’s Elfin, the same way you’re Elfin. But just because her father is raising her to be Elfish hasn’t spectacularly changed her biology.”
“Sterahl, The Master has faith in her. Do you really claim to be wiser than a Deity?”
Raising a finger, Sterahl retorted. “Okay, for one, being a squillion years old doesn’t automatically make one super wise. Secondly, I might disagree, but I know the decision on whether to train anyone is The Master’s, better than most. I keep my peace around the child.”
“Okay, no, you keep your distance around Jiuthiera and she’s noticed. Do you realise she’s asked me, directly, why you refuse to give her a chance to prove herself?”
“Well part of it is because I really don’t think a 12 year-old who’s lost the entire first half of her life should have the insight to ask that kind of question.”
A new voice rang out. “Oh, I’d recognise the sound of that bickering anywhere.”
Sterahl and Natsumi both turned towards the new arrival, a raven-haired individual familiar to the both of them. Sterahl called to her. “Viela! Ho, cousin, how goes?”
Viela winced, and cast her gaze aside. “I’ve come to speak with The Master of the Rose.”
Sterahl flicked his gaze to Natsumi, but she just slightly shook her head; she had as little idea as he did what pained his cousin. “The Master is in session with the child currently, Viela.”
The Vashtera returned her gaze to meet her cousin’s. “Still not using Jiuthiera’s name, then?”
Sterahl’s bristly retort died aborning on his lips at her look, not a trace of humour to be found in her face. He hadn’t seen his cousin this serious since his teenage years, when he’d dragged himself and two other Dwarfs out of the Deep-Dark. “Viela, what’s going on?”
She looked away again, grabbing the back of her neck this time. After a few moments she sighed. “You’ll have to know eventually. You’re going to be best suited to dealing with this after all:
There’s a Vampire Insurrection.”
“Oh, that’s horrific” Natsumi exclaimed, her disgust writ large across her face.
For Sterahl’s part, he couldn’t speak; his mouth worked, but no sound emerged. He started making a series of vague gestures, before Natsumi interrupted, able to put into words what he wanted to convey. “We’ll take you to The Master. Something like this, especially with you here on official business takes precedence over our learning.”
They proceeded in silence. Viela was a regular enough appearance that other Disciples moved to greet her, but the collective looks on their faces warded everyone away. When Natsumi threw open the doors to the training hall The Master and Jiuthiera were in, The Master took one look at them and asked; “What has happened?”
Viela spoke. “Master of the Rose. On behalf of the Vashtera people and the Council of the Jendrestian Interpretation, we beseech you and your Disciples for aid. There is a Vampire Insurrection.”
For his part, The Master showed neither shock nor horror, simply closing his eyes and inclining his head. In the ensuing silence, Jiuthiera spoke up. “What is a Vampire Insurrection?”
“NOT a matter we should be discussing with a child, no matter WHO they are.”
The Master’s voice brought Sterahl’s head jerking around. The man raised a hand, a slight smile on his face. “All who seek to defend the people from the horrors of this world deserve to know the nature of those horrors. Yes, she is perhaps a bit young to be learning of this particular horror, but it is happening here and now, so she shall learn of it, here and now.”
“Jiuthiera, you know what Vampires are, yes?” asked Natsumi.
“Yes. Vashtera who disregard the infusion pact and take the blood they need directly from living people with the… tools that evolution gave them. They are considered a heinous evil, for whom the only possible punishment is execution.”
Natsumi nodded. “An Insurrection is what it is called when a Vampire takes things a decided step further than just… feeding on people. They also inject the people they feed on and others with their own blood, turning them into Vashtera.”
Jiuthiera frowned. “But wouldn’t-’
“They don’t prey on people from within the Communities. These monsters, they prey on nomads and wanderers. People who don’t KNOW about the infusion pact. All they know is that they will need to consume blood to keep living. Knowing no other way, they become Vampires too. But without, as you said, our evolutionary tools, people who are converted this way leave… a decided mess and they…” Sterahl trailed off, a pained look on his face.
Jiuthiera covered her mouth, a fair grasp of the horror being laid out before her. “And… what, then, happens to those people who feed, because they don’t know any other way?”
The look on her face said she already knew the answer, but Viela spoke it into the air regardless. “It’s as you said, the only possible punishment… is execution.”
The young girl closed her eyes, properly disgusted.
“They convert people who they know will leave a trail of bodies and chaos, allowing them to slip away and repeat the process again and again. It’s not the first time in my life that this has happened, unfortunately.” Natsumi said, shaking her head.
The Master spoke up once again. “And so the Vashtera come to me. This is, sadly, not an issue they can deal with on their own. As well, they are loath to put the Aurks in the firing line because they have no desire to see others infected, even if they do know of the infusion pact.”
“Why isn’t this an issue they can deal with themselves?” Jiuthiera asked, looking quizzically at Viela.
“Because, if we sent a Vashtera, or any number after this Vampire, or Vampires and the Vashtera were to die…”
“Ah, then the Vampires would have all the more blood with which to infect people.” Jiuthiera stopped, lost in thought. Slowly, she peered up at Sterahl.
“Then, if you won’t enlist the Aurks because you don’t want them to get infected and you won’t send a Vashtera because you don’t want to give more blood to infect with, is not the perfect man for the job standing before us?”
Sterahl started, while grins spread across both The Master’s and Natsumi’s faces as Jiuthiera continued. “He is both Vashtera and Aurk, yet bears the downsides of neither if sent on this quest, from what Natsumi has told me of him.”
Sterahl felt decidedly uncomfortable. “Why would…”
“Sterahl, I get it, okay? You see me as a threat and that’s not entirely misplaced.” The young girl said and started pacing back and forth.
“When the Great Threat drops on us, as we all know it will sooner rather than later, I could be a liability, turned to the other side. Master has placed his faith in me, as have Father and Natsumi and Viela and so many more.” she said, gesturing widely at the others in the room.
“You don’t have faith in me and for whatever reason, refuse to let me prove myself to you. But! I have watched you, I know what kind of person you are and I know how strong you are. You might not have faith in me, but I have faith in you.”
The Master chuckled. “Well, that is quite the glowing recommendation, wouldn’t you say, Viela Arunia? It happens to also be my recommendation: We will send Sterahl alone. Is this acceptable to you and those you speak for?”
“Yes, that is perfectly acceptable.” Viela said, bowing her head.
“Very well. What say you, Sterahl? Will you take on this ordeal?”
Sterahl inclined his head. “Of course, Master.”
“Excellent. Then speak with your cousin, learn where the Insurrection is occurring and off you go to deal with it.”
They approached the Aurks’ temporary barricade, where a pair of young guards became agitated at their approach. “Halt! Step no further!”
“We’re here to hold audience with your Commander.” Viela called, halting her advance.
“Yeah? Well you’ll not get it, Vampire filth!” Before Viela could get past her shock, or Sterahl direct the rage that roared through his chest, another figure came forth, belting the accusatory guard over his head with a mighty hand.
“You blithering idiot! Report back to basecamp immediately.”
“But, but Sir—”
“No buts! To accuse Vashtera of Vampirism without a shred of evidence, have you no shame? Sterahl, let’s have your back. Show this fool of a child who he’s talking to.”
Sterahl complied immediately, whirling on the spot and hiking up his Myrmidon so the rose emblazoned thereupon was obvious. The guard’s eyes widened and he tried to stammer something out, but the reprimanding woman just shook her head.
“Basecamp. Immediately. Report for disciplinary drills and an educator on Vashtera culture and people of import.”
The offending Aurk turned away with flushed cheeks and headed off. The Commander stood a mere few inches shy of eight feet with a solid, muscular build that was the prime specimen of an Aurk. Brilliant golden eyes peered out amidst the dusky green of her face, a modest pair of tusks breaking from her mouth. Fiery red hair framed her features and fell about her waist. Her features taken together, the Commander was someone anyone would recognise: Kiara, the Great Virtue of Justice.
“Lady Arunia, Sterahl, my deepest apologies.” The Aurk said, bowing her head deeply.
Viela had still not quite recovered from the shock of the brazen accusation, so Sterahl spoke up. “Lady Kiara, sir, we thank you for your swift reprimand. While we cannot say that guard can be forgiven, with a situation as tense as this one is, his slander can, at least, be forgotten.”
Viela finished composing herself and nodded in agreement. “As my cousin says.”
“I will be sure to pass your leniency on to that guard. We shouldn’t have a boy standing guard over such a location, but until such time as more able-bodied Keepers arrive, we’re using the Neophytes to complete round-clock schedules.”
Kiara gestured for them to follow her as she headed towards a tent. Inside, laid out on a table was a general map of the area: a high-walled, small, forested valley, each exit marked with barricades and nearby basecamps.
“Your Vampire’s in there,” Kiara said, gesturing to the forest portion of the valley. “Just the one. Last we knew, there was also a Dveztil Katcha troupe in there too.”
“Poor souls…” Viela muttered.
“So,” Kiara crossed her arms and spoke blandly, “I can’t imagine you’re going in there, Lady Arunia. I take it we’re all just counting on Sterahl here?”
Her voice gave Viela pause. “Is there an issue with that, Grand Justice?”
“Issue? Oh no, no issue. Why, if the Master of the Rose deigns to send just one of my men on such a dangerous mission, who am I to argue?”
Kiara’s deadpan delivery earned a startled look from Viela, but a chuckle from Sterahl. “Making light, even in this situation, Lady Kiara?”
Slowly, a smile tugged at the corners of the Aurk’s mouth before she erupted into a full-bellied laugh that seemed to shake the tent. “I apologise, Lady Arunia. No, there’s no issue. Sterahl’s a fine Keeper and a Disciple of the Rose to boot. If you’re sending him in alone, it’s because you believe he’s up to the task. So do I, or I’d refuse to let him pass alone, Rose Master’s directive or no.”
She let out a sharp whistle and the other guard from the barricade soon stuck his head into the tent. “You’re to let Sterahl in and out through the barricade as he pleases.”
The guard nodded his head and vanished. “Lady Arunia, I hate to burden you, but we’re suddenly short-handed here and I forgot to tell that idiot boy to send on a replacement—I doubt he has the presence of mind to do anything more than I told him to. Would you kindly attend the barricade with Neophyte Karm while I return to the basecamp and organise proper relief?”
“Oh,” Viela blinked, taken aback slightly by the request, “Uh, of course, Grand Justice.”
Kiara smiled warmly at the other woman. “Thank you. I’ll be off then.”
After Kiara left, a mischievous smile played across Viela’s face as she looked at her cousin.
“What?” Sterahl asked, attempting to feign ignorance.
“When were you going to tell us you’d caught the eye of one of the Great Virtues, oh cousin of mine?”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re on about, Viela.” He quipped innocently.
“Uh-huh. There’s certainly no reason why you’re just ‘Sterahl’ instead of ‘Keeper Kelolst’, or why she’s ‘Lady Kiara’ instead of ‘Grand Justice’.”
Sterahl ducked his head and—hard though it were to tell with his complexion—blushed furiously.
Viela let out a pleasant, light laugh. “Oh, Natsumi and I are going to give you no end of this, cousin.”
“Oh, go keep the Neophyte company, you. I’ve got a Vampire to hunt.” Sterahl all but spat, his expression turning serious.
Viela’s smile disappeared in an instant, the levity instilled on the situation dispelled completely.
They headed out to the barricade where Neophyte Karm bowed to Viela. “An honour to have you assist me, Lady Haematologist.”
Sterahl cautiously moved into the forest, Kelkeraz held ahead of him. As he went further, a smell assaulted his nostrils; the scent of decaying bodies. He soon came to a small clearing and the source—Dveztil Katcha corpses splayed atop one another, the scene gruesome enough that he knew it was likely not the direct work of the Vashteran Vampire.
Suddenly, there was screaming from behind him and Sterahl whirled, thrusting Kelkeraz forwards. The Dveztil Katcha, crimson dripping from its chin, leapt, all but impaling itself on the outstretched blade. It let out a brief, choked noise and clawed feebly at him, before finally it fell still.
Sterahl forced the now lifeless body off his sword, grimacing. Whoever you were… I’m so sorry this happened to you…
Self-assured, malevolent laughter rang out and Sterahl snapped up to look at an approaching figure, slowly clapping.
“Very well done, brother. Very succinct.” The voice was low, dripping with unrestrained malignance.
“You are no brother of mine.” Sterahl retorted. He didn’t want to waste time on talk, but he had to be sure this was the Vampire. The Vashtera before him was almost unnaturally pale, bloodshot green eyes sitting above a malicious grin. He was garbed in little more than rags, yet his short, brown hair seemed somewhat cared for.
“Ah, but we’re all brothers of the blood, are we not? Us and every Vashtera there is. Look here; I tried sharing our gift, but these dumb Katcha—”
Sterahl had heard enough, he was sure now. The Vampire was startled as Kelkeraz sprung forth, ready to strike a monster from the world.
Then, time began to slow to a crawl.
The Vampire’s shock bled into horror over what seemed like half a lifetime, before all became still; no sound, no movement. Sterahl remained aware but his body was frozen.
Then, at the edge of his vision, a figure appeared, its appearance unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
Bearing the standard form was where any similarities to other races ended. Its body was a sea of light crashing against an ocean of darkness, the two swirling into one another, but never quite mixing. Twin galaxies swirled in the middle of its ‘face’, what Sterahl could only assume were its eyes. The top of its ‘head’ was devoid of anything one might call hair and it had garbed itself in a cloak of purest shadows.
“Hello there, Sterahl,” Its voice rang out in the sound of a million different men, from pre-teen soprano to the ancient bass.
“I am The Observer. So, you track down the Vampire and you kill it in all of five minutes,” The creature raised its arms and shook its head, its galaxy eyes briefly winking out. “Speaks to your capabilities, but doesn’t much make for a good story. So how about this? Let’s have the outcome of this conflict rest on the outcome of another.”
The thing snapped its fingers and the world bled from around them, losing first all colour, then all definition, until pure nothingness surrounded them. Sterahl found himself as bewildered by this strange entity as he was enraptured by the ebb and flow of its body.
“Oh and just a heads up—you’re being dropped into a war.”
The creature snapped its fingers again and suddenly Sterahl was falling.
Within only a few seconds ground came rushing up to meet him. Sterahl tumbled forwards in an ungraceful roll, looking up to find himself in a realm of stark contrast. Legions of black and white dichotomy plunged into an empty sky, while around him that same contrariety sprawled away in a thousand different directions.
Looking around, faces he knew, from both present and past, glided by, paying him no heed; Kiara, Viela, Natsumi, Jiuthiera, the Master, Starlt, Karom and more. Sterahl tried calling out to the passing figures, but they continued ignoring him. There was a distinct something off about them that unnerved him, so he resolved to pay them as much heed as they were paying him.
“Well Sterahl, a strange entity has dropped you off in a strange place,” he muttered to himself. “First thing’s first, is making sure things work how they should.”
Checking over his scrap-dagger, he was relieved to find that it had survived his sudden entry into this world intact. He let off a slicer into the air that went the few feet he would normally expect. He concentrated winds into the scrap-dagger with the same effort he was used to.
Sterahl turned, took a step and the world fell out from beneath him. He was sure he shouted in his surprise, but no sound rang out as he found himself suddenly suspended in void. Slowly there was a great buildup of heat that oppressed his form, until it was snatched away by jaws of cold.
Then Sterahl found himself standing in a whole new world.
A tree, short for how thick it was, dominated the scene, especially as its blossoms caught alight and fell to the ground. As light and shadow danced across walls hemming them in, Sterahl ran his eyes over the other people standing in this place with him and his mouth went dry.
They’re all… A cold pit of iron settled in his stomach. A glance up at the full moon shining back proved they weren’t Alerians, but he knew the real answer deep in his core. Suddenly, symbols flashed above his own and everyone else’s heads and he took stock of this new information, wondering idly what the symbols even stood for.
Two… allies. Three enemies. That entity said this was a war… But six combatants does not a war make. Unless this battlefield is just one tiny corner of it.
He stopped to take closer stock of the people he was sharing the space with, even as his skin crawled to look at them.
Three women to the right, two men to the left… Perhaps we are to fight and kill, then thrown elsewhere to fight and kill some more.
Suddenly, a grand cacophony of voices erupted from the tree.
Perish in flames, huh. Not exactly my idea of a good time…
He glanced to the right, then the left. Ally, enemy, ally… Or two enemies. In a perfect world, I think those furthest two would fight each other, while we four fight two on two… But this is no perfect world. If I was dumped here unceremoniously, no reason to expect it’s not the same for the rest of them. No guarantee our ‘sides’ will mean anything to anyone.
I’ll just have to hope my… ally doesn’t stab me in the back. He advanced, slowly, towards the two men, cautious of whatever they might pull out.
A war, huh? Well, Natsumi always said there was nothing discrete about the way I use Kelkeraz…
Slowly, he took a few deep breaths to steady himself, before affixing a grin to his face, unsteady though it were. “Greetings gentlemen! What say you fine lads and I throw down, hey?”
He twirled Kelkeraz lightly around a couple of fingers, then tightened his grip on the sword. Perhaps trying to goad two of them into fighting me isn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, especially when I’ve little more than hope that my ostensible allies won’t turn on me themselves.