My Lady, the child that gives this to you will lead you to us. His mother entrusted him to our care. Kindly protect his life.
As soon as I read all the words, the note burst into flame and was consumed in an instant, like magician’s flash paper on Earth. Tiana’s nerves were good enough that I didn’t jump in surprise, which probably made it look like I had done it with Fairy Magic. That was what I read in the eyes of the other three people in the room.
“What is going on in here?” demanded a man’s voice. A moment later, the master pushed the curtain covering Ana’s doorway aside and looked in.
“I apologize, Good Sir,” I said with a bow of the head. “It was an intruder but… he is sent by the friend I was looking for. He chose poorly in how to give me a message.”
I put my knife back in the sheath and ruffled the boy’s hair. He still looked terrified of me.
I expected the master to be angry about the disturbance, but he didn’t throw me out and he allowed the boy to sleep on a blanket on the floor. He even became borderline friendly. I had the impression that I had earned some sort of respect. Not exactly sure how.
Ana woke us before dawn, when she had to rise to prepare the tavern for breakfast. Waking me came close to triggering an accident. She was very close to me, only wearing a thin sleeping gown, and my body delivered a solid warning in that moment that I was in need of blood again. The long flight had sapped me, just like before.
The master– he finally introduced himself as Brogan– fed us the same basic barley gruel breakfast that he, Ana and Aure ate, then we were on our way in the early dawn.
For the record, I overcame the urge to steal Aure. I properly left her with mama, where she belongs.
I will leave to the imagination what kind of looks we received from the denizens of the early morning as the shopkeepers were getting their storefronts opened up and vendors were making their first deliveries. Just consider that they were watching a woman in armor with a sword on her hip marching along behind a terrified child and it should become clear.
But the boy, Lute, didn’t collapse like he kept seeming like he might. He led me into a rabbit warren of back streets that appeared to have been carved by squatters out of the remains of former mansions and their grounds, then down a stairway to what may have once been a network of storage cellars. The illumination was an occasional magic lantern, but Lute had no trouble navigating through the dim corridors. Myself? Vampire Sight, remember?
At last, we arrived at particular door. Lute tapped on it and waited.
I put the locator pendant to my forehead, and saw a pink light moving toward the doorway, then rising to about Melione forehead height… then the door cracked open.
Melione smiled upon seeing me, but my own reaction was problematic. The instant I saw her, I again became aware of how hungry my vampire side was becoming.
She may have been about to say something to me, but Lute dashed in, around to her backside, and wrapped his arms around her, apparently intent on using Melione as a shield.
I smiled my apology and said, “I think I scared him a little.”
# # #
Uncle Arken really was in bad shape. Melione had laid him out on the collapsible cot she normally used– the rest of the hero’s party used just a bedroll, but her hatred of bugs when camping was enough to make it worth it to her to carry the thing. She had him under a blanket that covered most of the bandages, but underneath, he was a scarred, maimed mess. I really don’t want to get into details, but we can start with how his right leg was missing below the knee and he had massive burns over most of his torso, not to mention a gut wound and a damaged eye.
He’s an elve. Even this much would eventually heal. But, the key word was ‘eventually’. Melione was applying Healing magic to him multiple times a day, to accelerate his recovery, pretty much emptying herself of available mana each time, but thanks to how slowly they grow in the first place, Elves also heal slowly. Much of his body had been, frankly, roasted. Mostly, Melione’s treatments were just keeping him from dying so he could heal naturally. It would be weeks before he would even be healthy enough to begin regenerating his leg.
His mind was completely sharp, though. The first thing out of his mouth was the observation, “You had your armor remade.”
“So I could fly in it. The thing with the dragon showed me it was a necessity.”
It might expose too much with respect to blocking weapons, but it would have been a lot better at resisting the jaws of that beast than my tunic was.
“That’s how you got here so soon,” he nodded.
While Melione and Lute went out to fetch some bread for breakfast, I sat on the floor at Arken’s bedside and learned the situation. The party had gone dungeon-diving in the Carael Mines after they arrived in Cara Ita, pursuing a demon rumor they had heard from the other side of the border.
Ryuu had clashed with a group of greater goblins holding humans captive in the mine. He had only been able to save Lute and his mother. The party attempted to take them back to the surface, but on the way a demon of some nature had attacked, and it had adventurers assisting it.
It split the party into two groups, with Arken, Melione and the freed mother and child being forced to retreat. The mother was an adventurer, but she was badly injured, so the only fighting strength had been Arken and Lute…
“That kid? Seriously?”
“He’s more a scout than anything, My Lady, but he did an excellent job protecting Melione and his mother once he had a weapon.”
‘Scout’ is an adventurer’s term in this world for the roles called ‘thief’ or ‘assassin’ in RPGs. Since she’s a huntress by trade, Brigitte’s primary role in Ryuu’s party is scout. I tried to picture it, but all I could see was the brat who shivered in his sandals while looking at me. I shook my head.
“We were cornered in a dead-end when the demon attacked us the last time. I tried to fend it off, but… you can see the result. It was all I could do to cast the return-to-base spell on our group while Melione protected us with her barrier. Then we immediately abandoned our base and retreated to here.”
“How? In the shape you’re in…” I glanced at his leg.
“I used a glammer limb spell. My magic just barely got me this far, but Lute helped us lose them in the warren that he brought you through. Apparently this is was his and his mother’s place.”
“Why did you run?”
“The same adventurers that were serving the demon had been supposed witnesses that the local lord introduced to us. It was their ‘eyewitness report’ that we had been following. They were clearly working with the demon, and we can’t discount the possibility that the lord is also an accomplice. Although we don’t know what the goal is.”
“So what do you know about the other three?”
“The response from their locators shows that they are still wearing them, and alive. But they aren’t returning, for some reason. It has been eight days now. I tried to get in contact with an elven friend first, then finally accepted that I had to send for you. I honestly did not want to do so, after how they treated you.”
“This is the kid’s home?” I looked around, rubbing the back of my neck. I wanted to change the subject now that it had touched on the party breakup.
The place appeared to be, to put it bluntly, a rat-infested hole. At some point it may have a pantry or storage room of the mansion, judging from the long, skinny layout.
I saw him giving me a wry smile.
“What happened to Lute’s mother?”
“She died before the last attack. We had no choice but to abandon the body, I’m afraid.”
I shuddered. “That’s horrible. “
By now, some monster had dragged her off to its lair and eaten her. Monsters are voracious eaters. Likely even her head and bones would be crushed and consumed. To be destroyed utterly, to leave no trace behind… I shuddered at the idea.
“It happens often during mine expeditions, My Lady.”
Let me explain something here. The term ‘dungeon’ that I know from RPGs is not used on Huade. Or rather, it means a kind of prison, not a place for adventurers to explore. Most of the places that resemble RPG dungeons here are former or even currently working mines. Ancient ruins and natural caverns also develop dungeon-like qualities, but there are fewer of such places, so the term ‘mine expedition’ is used instead of ‘dungeon dive’.
A passing thought about Melione and Lute returning with breakfast brought another twinge of my vampiric hunger pangs. I shuddered a bit. “Uncle Arken, I need to go looking for a brothel, again.”
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