Hamar Noir by Benjamin Agar
Year: 2429 A.H.V (After Holy Victory)
Age: The Early Industra era.
Country: The Kingdom of Hamar.
'How many dead?' said Anargrin.
Sammil watched while Anargrin approached the balcony's edge, the elf swirling a glass of scotch. Anargrin leaned his elbow on the railing; his attention fell to the crowd funnelling through the street below the balcony. It was five thirty in the afternoon in Valtagan, the capital city of Hamar, so the people were commuting home.
'Five,' said Head Hunter Sammil as he followed Anargrin to the handrail. Sammil raised his head to look at the cave ceiling dozens of metres above. One of the vast, ancient lights jutted out overhead, like a large cloud in the sky.
'I haven't vampire hunted in a long time,' said Anargrin, turning to the Head Hunter and taking a sip of his drink. Even for an elf, Anargrin was handsome, high cheekboned, his features as sharp as his darting hazel eyes. But his battered, weary demeanour was evident, even to an untrained eye. His long brown hair pulled into a ragged ponytail and the purple bags beneath his almond-shaped eyes more distinct than usual.
'Not since your predecessor appointed me as an infiltrator,' said Anargrin. 'Then, as a senior agent since I joined forces with Emilia. That was a long time ago, although I can't-'
'That was thirty-three years ago, now,' said Sammil. 'I know you have moved on, but I must ask you to do this assignment.'
The elf nodded, shrugged and drooped his attention again to the crowd. Sammil knew Anargrin was looking down his nose at them, literally and figuratively. 'The Mindless masses,' 'the sheep' Anargrin and many Hunters called them, and to an extent, it was true. Usually, Anargrin did not allow such cynicism to rule him. But he was in a foul mood, and Sammil could not blame him for it.
'How is she, by the way?' said Sammil. 'Emilia.'
Anargrin's attention snapped back to Sammil, his face darkening for a moment.
'She'll live, just.'
Sammil frowned. Anargrin and his companion, the werewolf, Emilia had a few hours ago came back from an investigation into supposed troll activity in the Hamarian caves east of Valtagan. "Supposed" turned into "confirmed" when the troll and its goblin underlings ambushed Anargrin and Emilia during their investigation. The troll knocked Emilia unconscious before she could transform. But Anargrin still managed to single-handedly kill the troll, escape and carry Emilia for miles back to Valtagan. How he wasn't wearier and battered was beyond Sammil.
Sammil knew the veteran Hunter was smarting, both physically and mentally that Anargrin had taken a hit to his pride and was beating himself up for failing to detect the ambush.
'When did the killings start?' said Anargrin, interrupting Sammil's thoughts.
Sammil opened the dossier and pretended to study it. 'Three days after you and Emilia left for your, mission. He...or she has set up shop in the northeastern slums.'
'The Rule Enforcer reports say they are mostly male. Four male, one female. One elf, he was one of the males. The dwarf was the female and two human males. All in their mid to late twenties.'
'Hmm,' said Anargrin as he took another sip. 'Could be a female vampire or a homosexual male vampire. Wanting to prove themselves superior due to an inferiority complex for their gender or their sexuality. Probably human, doubt it was an elf or dwarf as they'd most likely gone for humans. But you never know, could be an experienced vampire trying to put off our profiling.'
Sammil smiled. 'I had thought of the same conclusion, Anargrin. I see you haven't lost your touch.'
Anargrin shrugged. 'It's basic profiling. Even an apprentice would figure that out.'
'Look, Anargrin. I know what you have been through, but that is no excuse to be so negative.'
'I'm merely stating fact. I know you're trying to make me feel better. But false platitudes just wear on me.'
'It wasn't...' Sammil sighed. 'Never mind. Anyway, I need you to be a ghost on this, Anargrin. If you go in waving your sigil our quarry will-'
'Disappear into the wind,' said Anargrin. 'Yes, got you. Have we been hired by the locals to track this vampire down?'
'No? What? Are we no longer mercenaries and become a charity, now? I would say about bloody time, but we do need to make money somehow. You become sentimental in your old age?'
'No,' Sammil repeated. 'I may as well tell you now. I'm sure you will find out sooner or later. We were hired by the church.'
Anargrin's eyes went as wide as saucers, and Sammil's expensive crystal glass almost slipped from his fingers. 'Well...well that's something different.'
'Something different, indeed,' said Sammil. 'Although, unlike you, I have access to all of our records and can tell you that it has happened. Once or twice, through the centuries.'
'How did that happen?' said Anargrin. The animosity the Church of Jaroai held for the Hunters was legendary the continent over.
'After the third murder, the Rule Enforcers brought it to the church, asked for their help,' said Sammil. 'You know, supposedly the church is meant to hunt vampires, it being their holy duty after all. But the high priest has decided to sit on it, procrastinating over making a decision to "endanger more lives." You know how passive-aggressive they can be. Ever since Arken's smear campaign.'
It sickened Sammil they could stand back and allow innocent people to die because of petty politics.
Anargrin's disgusted grimace indicated he felt the same.
'Yes,' said Sammil. 'So one of the more senior priests came to me in secret and hired us to stop it. He...paid a rather generous sum and don't let this go to your head, Anargrin. I promised him that I would get my very best on it.
Anargrin grinned. 'So, that's why I'm here.'
Sammil felt his patience wear thin again. 'It would've been Arken, but he's up in Sartarth, taking part in the fifty days of night.'
The elf glared at Sammil. Every year in the Arctic cold of north Sartarth, the sun lost in darkness for fifty days, it was a time which drew rogue vampires in droves. So dozens of Hunters and good vampires were sent to protect the people, for a fee, of course.
'That is a joke,' said Sammil.
Anargrin shook his head. 'It's good to hear there are a few Jaroaian priests with a conscience out there. I do hope he or she doesn't get in any trouble for hiring us if the priest's superiors find out.'
'Indeed,' said Sammil, handing Anargrin the dossier. 'Now, I must get back to my other duties, Anargrin. I trust that you are capable of reading this for any more information?'
Anargrin frowned and reached to take the file, but Sammil pulled it back.
'Are you sure you are up to this? If you are not, I can put another Hunter onto it. That would make my promise a lie. But it certainly wouldn't be the first, nor last time I have lied to a priest of Jaroai.'
Before Sammil could react, Anargrin snatched the file from his grasp.
'I'm up to it,' said Anargrin as he started flicking through it. 'Even if you are mostly sending me on this as a distraction from Emilia's condition.'
'Yeah,' said Anargrin, not even looking up. 'I'd thought so.'
Anargrin pushed his way through the crowded streets, ignoring his tail; it wasn't hard as they were no threat to him. And he'd the foresight to prepare just this situation, too. Everywhere around the large stone buildings loomed. The streets of ancient dwarven cities built like mazes, designed to be easily defended by only a few soldiers, and made to last. Every building was Spartan and square. In the millennia since the dwarves were conquered, the people of Hamar had tried to force life into the architecture, painting the walls in bright, almost garish colours and hanging streamers overhead. Plants seemed to decorate every window sill. Even dwarves decorated their houses, despite the disrespect it indicated to their ancestors.
The daylight was on the verge of dying, the lights above dimming to simulate the sunset. Even so, the stream of commuters hadn't abated.
Anargrin checked his map. It took him a split second to see the crime scene was another block, east.
The last victim was human, and his body found only a few hours before Anargrin's arrival at the Hunter headquarters.
That made it the first place to investigate the others. Anargrin just hoped the Rule Enforcers hadn't stripped the crime scene too much, but knowing them... Anargrin couldn't just walk into the Rule Enforcer's precinct. But he needed to look at at least one of the bodies.
Anargrin sighed. So he needed to infiltrate it, this job was getting more and more complicated.
He found the alleyway and slipped from the mob down into its depths. The darkness endowed him, and his eyes adjusted in a second. Even before his enhancement by the Ritual, his natural low light vision would've pierced the dark with ease.
'Okay, Anargrin,' he said. 'Let's just hope you find something that'll quickly and easily lead you to the murderer.'
Again, Anargrin sighed. It was seldom so simple.
He inhaled through his nose and extended his senses. As a Hunter, he could sense the magical auras of others. Even those without magical potential had an aura, due to the radiation the world emitted — that radiation which seeped into every pore of everyone, everywhere. Even the Halflings gave off one despite being devoid of any magical potential. Well, excluding the Halflings that transformed into original vampires. People with magical potential gave off a stronger aura than ordinary people.
The priests of Jaroai could sense magical auras too. But Hunters and vampires could hide theirs. Both could reduce their auras, so they seemed average, or disguise them completely. Anargrin's senses were sharper than most. He felt the people who lived in the buildings around him, a good forty or more. Although the aura sense was limited: he couldn't tell emotion or speech, just their rough movement and location.
It'd saved his arse on countless occasions but had failed him in his last.
Sudden stinging coursed through his chest. He should've seen it coming. He should've known.
Anargrin shook it away. Now wasn't the time to dwell on that.
He found the end of the alley and stopped. His gaze wandered over the crime scene.
No sign of a struggle, no hint of blood: The lack of blood wasn't a surprise, the victim being drained of it. In a common crime, the absence of blood usually meant the murder took place someplace else. No sign of a struggle didn't mean anything either; even the weakest vampire was stronger than any mortal and most Hunters. No sign of a dragged body, but a vampire could carry a corpse from as far as it wanted with ease.
Anargrin looked up. Both buildings were twelve stories tall. The vampire could've dropped from the roof from either side and land, without injury. If the vampire had killed somewhere else, he could've carried the body from roof to roof. Even without enhanced strength, the close-knit rooftops of Valtagan were easy to traverse.
The Hunter sighed and rechecked the dossier. Nothing was found on the victims but their clothes. At the time of the report, the Rule Enforcers hadn't identified the latest victim. Just male, white, mid-twenties. The others had already identified and buried, Anargrin even had the details of the families, but that wouldn't help him. If he came to them asking questions and showing his sigil, it might blow his cover.
Anargrin had read through the dossier numerous times now, trying to find anything connecting the victims, but there was nothing. Their only commonalities were their approximate ages, living in the far northeast of the city and coming from poor families. Height and build varied, especially among the humans.
'Hello, there,' said a voice behind Anargrin. He didn't move, having already sensed the five auras entering the alley. He'd known about them the second they'd started tailing him, five blocks ago. They were good for simple street thugs but no match for Anargrin's senses.
'What's a little elfy like you doin' here?'
Anargrin clenched his teeth; crime was rife all through the slums of Valtagan, but the odds of being accosted was still smaller than most claim.
Anargrin turned to them, hands raised in supplication. There were five thugs total; four were big, brutish humans and one: an intimating looking dwarf. The humans towered over the short, slender Anargrin, their scowls almost apeish in aspect. Their stink hit Anargrin's sensitive nose, and he fought the urge to recoil.
'I-I am not looking for trouble,' he said. 'P-please. I haven't much. You are welcome to take it. Just, please don't hurt me.'
They laughed, then the one in the lead, their leader Anargrin assumed- punched at the elf's face. To Anargrin's enhanced mind, the man's fist seemed to arc in slow motion, and he fought the urge to dodge and counter. He had to wait for it to hit for what seemed like seconds before it finally connected his cheek.
Pain blossomed through Anargrin's face, and he stumbled, exaggerating the power of the blow.
'Gah!' cried Anargrin, clutching at his cheek.
The thug then grabbed Anargrin by the shirt and shoved him against the wall; making more pain erupt through his back.
'Now. We know you ain't local,' said the thug, his spittle hit Anargrin's face, and the stench of his breath made the Hunter's eyes water. 'We don't care who ya are. But we care you know us. We own this place; this is our territory. Ya got that, pretty boy?'
'O-of course, just please don't hurt me again.'
The thug's answer was a fist bashing into Anargrin's stomach. It knocked the wind from his lungs and bent him double forward.
He let go, and Anargrin sagged onto his arse, gasping.
'Take everything,' snarled the thug.
They took all of Anargrin's gold. Luckily he'd the foresight to only take a little from the Hunter funds, just in case this happened.
'Nice doin' business with ya,' said one of the thugs as they turned and walked away. Their laughter echoed through the alley.
Anargrin climbed to his feet and quickly regained his breath.
'The things I do for my job,' he growled through clenched teeth.
Anargrin sighed. At least he got something from this. The vampire seemed to be able to hide his tracks fucking well. That meant it was, at the very least, experienced.
He just hoped the gang didn't hold ties to this vampire, or that word of the strange elf hanging about in an alley that not long ago had contained a corpse, would spread too fast.
It wouldn't spread as fast as news of him taking down a bunch of brigands, though and Anargrin didn't want to kill them. They did what they did in the name of survival.
He wasn't going to find anything here. He didn't have a choice. He had to sneak into the Rule Enforcer precinct.
As he started to leave, a thought occurred to him. What if there was a connection between the victims?
It was a hunch, mere conjecture, but Anargrin trusted his instincts.
If he was right, that meant there might be more than one vampire. That meant, after centuries, the Cult had resurfaced.
Anargrin knelt on the roof of a ten-story habitat building, watching the Rule Enforcer precinct across the street. It was almost midnight, and most of the Enforcers had gone home. Only five auras moved through the structure.
The precinct was six stories tall, with orange tile roofing and small, wooden windows painted the same colour. The walls were yellow sandstone. It was the architecture of the day, warm and comforting. With soft corners and rough surfaces. Ironic: being a Rule Enforcer precinct.
Anargrin shivered and pulled the blanket around him tighter, his breath exhaling as steam. The cavern was a sauna compared to the desert, but not even the thick mountain walls could hold back the sub-zero temperature outside.
He didn't know the building's layout, but he knew the official protocol of the Hamarian Enforcers. After midnight they always had a skeleton crew of four, including one of the morticians. From studying the auras, the way they moved, Anargrin guessed the mortician was in the north-west wing on the fifth floor. He also knew they kept the bodies of murder victims for a minimum of two days in the chiller, so the victim was still there.
The large, oak doors of the precinct's main entrance opened, and a man stepped out. He descended the short marble staircase onto the sidewalk and started north.
Anargrin looked at his wrist timepiece; it was five minutes past midnight.
Again, he checked the position of the auras. It was all clear, and Anargrin sidled back and launched into a sprint. He jumped. His guts dropped as he fell. He allowed himself to fall as far as the fifth floor.
Then he blinked.
Anargrin found he was in a room made up of large offices, each cordoned off by short varnished wooden walls and windows. The stink of tobacco smoke assailed his eyes and nose.
The 'blink' ability was exclusive to Hunters. It's exact origins and why only Hunters could do it was a mystery. What was known was that it allowed Hunters instantaneous teleportation over short distances. Five metres to be exact, but there was a 'cool down' of ten minutes before it can be used again. Anargrin had mastered blink beyond any other Hunter. During his decades of retirement, he'd practised and practised it. This constant repetition led him to be able to blink a maximum of ten metres and reduced the cooldown to five minutes. He could also blink with pinpoint accuracy and timing.
Anargrin extended his senses again, finding the auras of the remaining inhabitants.
Moving in instinctive silence, Anargrin worked his way through the building. Even without his aura sense, he would've been unmolested.
It took him about six minutes to find the room with the lone aura, and Anargrin couldn't help grin, his prediction proved correct. The sign on the door said: 'Mortician' in bold letters.
Anargrin pushed his back against the wall, racking his brains on how he should handle this. At times like this, he wished he could use magic. All Hunters were born with magical potential; they needed it to be able to go through the Ritual to become a Hunter. But ever since he was young, Anargrin had struggled with magic; he couldn't use even the most simple of spells. So he'd focused on the arts of swordplay, hand to hand combat and infiltration so he could outperform most other neophytes.
His blink had cooled down, but what would he do once he blinked inside? And even then he didn't know the layout of the room beyond. He grimaced and decided he could no longer be a ghost. He had to take a risk.
Anargrin knocked on the door.
'Hello?' called a voice, and Anargrin clenched his teeth. He'd hoped the mortician would just open the door.
Anargrin knocked again.
'Hello?' it said.
On a whim, Anargrin grabbed the doorknob and twisted it as if it was locked.
'I don't remember locking it. Hold on; I'll be there in a second.'
The aura seemed to stand and start toward the entrance.
Anargrin waited until the mortician was right behind the door, then blinked inside, behind the man.
He was much taller than Anargrin, so the elf struggled somewhat to wrap his arm around his neck. The man didn't have time to jump or cry out before Anargrin dragged him to the floor, and chocked him into unconsciousness.
'I'm sorry,' Anargrin hissed countless times as the mortician struggled, but he was weak, his hands as soft as cotton balls as he tried to prise Anargrin's arm from his throat.
While wiping the sweat off his brow, Anargrin got to his feet. He looked down at the man. He didn't deserve this, he was just doing his job, but what choice did Anargrin have? Let him trigger the alarm klaxons?
He had four minutes before the mortician regained consciousness. Anargrin had made sure the man's unconsciousness wouldn't last a second longer, as any longer it could cause brain damage due to lack of oxygen.
Anargrin turned and found the big, thick lead-lined door into the chiller.
He pulled it open and stepped inside. There were six bodies set on steel gurneys in the large, un-lit room — each hidden underneath a white sheet.
Shivering in the cold, he began pulling back the cloths from the faces of the cadavers.
The third was who he was looking for, according to the clipboard at the end of the gurney; his name was Danvel Kylt. He was a plain young human, with long blond hair and the typical pale complexion of Hamar's people. Two small black holes punched into his neck.
Anargrin slipped out his multi-tool pocket knife and flicked out the smallest blade. He took out a small sample flask, slipped the sheet off the corpse's feet and with careful precision, took a skin scraping off the back of the heel.
He placed the sample into the flask, screwed it closed then darted for the door.
The old grandfather clock's ticks seemed explosions in the silence. After some minutes, Sammil looked up from the paperwork scattered on his desk. They were in Sammil's large, well adorned and ornate office.
'The Devanworth Cult?' said the Head Hunter.
Anargrin nodded. 'There are very few connections between each victim but their ages, ages which usually are in line with when magical potential emerges.'
'Not usually, rarely,' said Sammil.
Anargrin shrugged. 'Yeah, a fifth of the time, but it explains much. Even if they weren't, they could've gone undetected due to their isolation and the church's disinterest of Hamar.'
'The Devanworth Cult was wiped out a century ago,' sighed Sammil. 'By you know who.'
Anargrin flinched and clenched his jaw, attention falling to the floor before he looked back to Sammil from under a hooded brow. 'We only had his word at their destruction. A word we can't trust any more due to his...betrayal.'
Sammil frowned. 'It wasn't just Kalthasin who took part in that raid. Hunters Debyl, Keril, Somer and Vakti. They corroborated his account.'
'And all of them are dead,'Anargrin said.
Sammil stared at Anargrin, his jaw twitching. 'What are you implying? Some conspiracy? You're paranoid. You of all people know how dangerous this job is. Do not be so ridiculous.'
'I bet...I bet you that that test will come back positive. That young man had magical potential.'
'Even if he did. It doesn't prove anything.'
The Devanworth Cult was sired vampires obsessed with drinking the blood of those with magical potential. Believing that it would activate their magical potential, but they were outliers. Insane, sired vampires envious of the magical ability of their original cousins.
Anargrin sighed. 'Yes, there might not be a conspiracy, but that doesn't mean the Cult isn't still active. Or it could be another cult with a similar belief.'
'All of this is just conjecture. I-'
Sammil was interrupted by a knock on the door.
'The results are ready, sir!' called a voice on the other side.
'Yes, please do come in, Jalek,' said Sammil.
It opened, and a dwarf entered. He was short, like all dwarves but not stocky. He was almost slender to an elven degree and clean shaven. He approached the desk in small shuffling steps and handed Sammil a piece of paper.
'Hi, Anargrin,' said Jalek as he turned and to leave.
'Hi,' said Anargrin, more interested in the paper. He'd been at the base for a day, waiting for the test to go through. All the time champing at the bit, fearing there would be another victim.
'Thank you, Jalek,' said Sammil as he started to read. It only took a few seconds for him to frown, sigh and toss it onto his desk. Anargrin smiled.
'Yes. Alright. It was positive,' said the Head Hunter. 'But this doesn't confirm anything. It could be a coincidence.'
'A coincidence?' said Anargrin, raising his eyebrows. 'Perhaps, but I doubt it.'
'It would only be confirmed if you went and tested all of the victims. But they are too far gone. You know what this is? It reeks of desperation.'
Anargrin shrugged. 'Yes. I won't bother to deny it; it's desperation. This vampire is too good at covering its tracks. Too good for me, perhaps even too good for detective Arken. I've got to try something. I know you're sceptical. I am too, but I've got to do something.'
'So? What are you going to do?' said Sammil. 'Reveal your magical potential and draw it out? Use yourself as bait for once? You seem to like to do that to others.'
The elf frowned. 'No, they don't drink the blood of Hunters, thinking us as 'tainted.' Illogical, idiotic. We are closer to the original vampires.'
'Whoever said such a foolish belief would have any logic to it?' said Sammil. 'Just look at the Jaroaian religion.'
Anargrin smiled. 'Indeed.'
He started for the exit.
'Where are you off to?'
Anargrin paused. 'To do what I always do. Finding bait. Wish me luck.'
'You'll need more than luck, Anargrin.'
'I know, but I've got a lot of skill too.'
'Always so arrogant,' sighed Sammil.
Anargrin suppressed his magical presence and, under cover of night, darted from roof top to roof top searching for a sign of someone, anyone with magical potential.
It was all in silence, all intuitive, having done this for nigh on seventy years now his mind couldn't help wander, wander back...
His view drifted from the grim rooftops of Valtagan to a small cave. Emilia was one second walking in front of him, the next she was flying off her feet and smashing against the cave wall. Then she hit the ground, lifeless and limp. The booming, echoing laughter hurt Anargrin's ears, and like a spectre, the troll emerged from the shadows. It was three metres tall, and its scaly hide was the same shades of brown and grey as the cave walls. Its elongated snout jutted another metre from its hunched shoulders. Its lipless mouth filled with rotting, razor-sharp teeth that stuck out in odd angles. Its large eyes bulged on the top of its head, angling to the sides. Its legs were short to a ridiculous degree- but its arms were almost as long as it was tall. How it'd managed to deceive Anargrin's sharp senses was beyond him.
In a flash of white light, Anargrin summoned his sword, and to its credit, the troll didn't bandy words as it summoned its goblins. A good two dozen of the hunched diminutive creatures appeared between Anargrin and the troll.
'Kill,' said the troll and, snarling and hooting, the goblins surged forwards.
Anargrin was snapped back to reality as he sensed it and he slid to a stop.
He'd found it, someone with magical potential.
'Lucky me,' he sneered and started south.
Anargrin crouched on the rooftop of a three-story habitat block, looking down at the small, dilapidated house across the street. It wasn't a dwarven structure as it made of wood, wood which was near to rotten, the once green paint cracked and damaged after years of disrepair.
In his search, he'd also gone south, far south, deep into the south-eastern slums — at least twenty kilometres from the vampire's initial feeding ground.
The aura wasn't much stronger than average, which indicated an early onset of magical potential. Usually, in children about seven to ten years old, this made Anargrin hesitant.
Anargrin sighed and blinked back his weariness. It was three in the morning, but he couldn't wait any longer. He tried to steel himself, he had to do this, or else others will die, but if the child died, he would never forgive himself. Sometimes the ends did justify the means. Could this be one of those times?
Anargrin wasn't sure. He exhaled, there was only one way to find out, and he leapt off the roof.
The knocking waked Solen; his eyelids felt like they'd been glued together and he didn't bother trying to open them.
'Honey,' said Falin, as she rolled in the bed. 'There's someone at the door.'
'Just ignore it, they'll go away,' said Solen. 'Who in their right mind would knock at this time?'
'No one,' said Falin. 'All the more reason to answer, they might need our help.'
'But what if it's someone who's going to barge in and murder us?'
'Then you'll stop them,' said Falin.
'How do you know that?'
'Because you'll have to. I have faith in you, Solen. Unlike that arsehole, Jaroai.'
Solen let out a groan, forced his eyes open and slipped out of bed.
He stepped out into the hallway and flinched in fright when he found Kelth, poking her head from her room. She stared at him, her beautiful, large eyes so much like her mothers were wide with fear.
'Kelthy,' said Solen. 'Did the knocking wake you up?'
The little elf girl pursed her lips and nodded.
'Go back to bed, Kelthy. Your daddy will take care of it.'
Kelth didn't seem convinced, which upset Solen more than it should've.
'Bed,' he snapped.
Kelth slipped into her room, tears in her eyes and slammed the door shut.
'I'm sorry, Kelthy. I mean to-'
The knocking interrupted Solen, and he moved on with a growl.
'I'm coming. I'm coming. Jaroai, damn it.'
Solen wanted to use worse words but held his tongue.
He burst into the kitchen, snatched up a knife and approached the door.
'Yes, yes! I'm here,' Solen yelled through the door. 'What the hell do you want?'
'I-I'm sorry,' said the voice. 'I'm sorry to have woken you so early, but I need to talk.'
'Why?' said Solen. 'You're fucking lucky I'm not human and need more sleep.'
'Sorry,' said the voice, and there was a metallic tap on the window beside the door. Solen's heart sank as he saw it was a sheathed sword. A sheathed sword with the sigil of the Hunters on it.
'Please stop apologising, sir,' said Falin as she took the kettle hanging from over the crackling fire.
'I'm sorry,' said the Hunter, sitting at the table. 'And please call me Anargrin.'
'All right, Anargrin,' said Solen. 'What brings a Hunter to our door?'
'Investigation,' said Anargrin. 'I am investigating into a vampire that has set up shop in the area.'
'Shit? Really?' said Solen. 'We-we haven't heard of any attacks yet.'
'It hasn't struck yet,' said the Hunter. 'We received an anonymous tip that it's a rather infamous one. One which, for some reason or another, exclusively targets elf children.'
A surge of fear hit Solen, and he shared a glance with Falin.
Anargrin sighed. 'And we have further evidence that it's going to target your-'
Anargrin straightened, his attention over Solen's shoulder and Solen turned to see Kelth in the kitchen entrance.
'Kelth,' said Solen. 'Go to bed.'
'A-a vampire?' said Kelth, ignoring Solen, her attention on Anargrin.
Both Solen and Falin turned to Anargrin, unsure on what to say to the terrified little girl and for a second Solen was shocked to see there were tears in the Hunter's eyes.
'Yes,' he said. 'I'm afraid so. I'm sorry. You weren't supposed to hear that you must be very scared.'
Kelth stepped out of the doorway, and to Solen's further shock, there wasn't a hint of fear on the little girl's face.
'I'm not scared. Are you a Hunter?'
'My name is Kelth, Mr Hunter. What's yours?'
'Anargrin...My name is Anargrin Kelth. It's good to meet you.'
'You are going to protect us.'
'I...I'm going to try.'
'No, you will. I can tell you will, Mr Hunter.'
'Please, just call me Anargrin, Kelth.'
''Kay, Mr Anargrin. I'm going to bed. I'm tired. Night.'
With that, she slipped back into the hall and out of sight.
'I...I need for you to stay here, at home for the next few days,' said Anargrin after a long pause. 'I will watch your house for its approach. And stop it.'
Falin nodded. 'Thank you, Anargrin. We appreciate this, thank you.'
Solen nodded too. Kelth had faith in this Anargrin. Ever since she was very young, she had a skill at reading people. She was so good that Solen had come to trust her instinct more than his own. But, something didn't sit well with Solen. The Hunter's intentions seemed good, but he couldn't help feeling there was something the Hunter wasn't telling them.
Falin finished making the Hunter's tea and placed it on the table in front of Anargrin.
'If you ever need anything, please ask,' said Falin.
'Thank you, ma'am,' said Anargrin as he took a sip of his tea. 'But I should be good.'
'I appreciate this, I do, Sir Hunter,' said Solen. 'But if we have to stay here, how can we earn a living or get food if we're stuck here? I'll lose my job at the quarry and Falin's...'
Falin and Solen shared a look.
'You must understand, Anargrin,' said Falin. 'We can't survive just on Solen's money. I have too...I need too...'
Anargrin nodded, his eyes watered with sympathy. It made anger well in Solen's guts.
How could this stranger begin to understand? Begin to know how Solen had to deal with Falin's work night after night? How Solen had to put up with the unwanted knowledge that his beautiful wife was so popular with the clientèle? This Anargrin shouldn't have had any idea, but somehow he did.
'I do,' he said. 'Don't worry, I will provide you with the supplies you need, for as long as you need. We must keep this secret until this is finished and once it is, I will personally tell your employers the why and how of your absence. This, I swear.'
Solen nodded; he hoped it'd be enough.
'Thank you, Anargrin,' said Falin.
'No,' said Anargrin, smiling. 'Thank you, Falin.'
Falin smiled back before her attention fell to the floor and all of a sudden, Solen found he liked the Hunter a little less.
Anargrin left the elven couple and headed north. There he subtly spread the rumour of little Kelth's magical potential. The entire time the lump in his throat made it hard to breathe. He didn't want to do this. If he failed, an innocent girl and her family would die. Solen and Falin were kind, genuine people they didn't deserve to such a fate.
He was playing with their lives. He had to make sure it wouldn't kill them, even if he had to die in the process.
There were other problems, too. Despite church propaganda, most vampires weren't complete monsters, even those that went rogue could have a set of ethics. Killing young men and women was one thing; a child was another. But many threw out morality altogether, revelling in the hunt and the kill.
Anargrin wasn't sure which he hoped for.
Another conundrum was that those rumours of a magical child were also going to attract the attention of the church.
Night had fallen when he arrived back at the house and started to stalk the shadows and the rooftops. An arduous task, it made him wish Emilia was here. Back in his solo days, he had no problem with it. Yet again he wondered, why had the troll targeted Emilia? Did it know she was a werewolf?
It could've been an educated guess, that the seemingly innocent teenage girl was hiding something. Trolls were intelligent creatures, so it wasn't without the realms of reality.
Anargrin had gone against Sammil's order to 'shadow the case.' The Head-Hunter wouldn't be happy, despite Anargrin taking measures to keep his presence quiet. Anargrin wasn't afraid to break the rules. He needed to know the family and have a good idea of the layout of their house. Information is easier to obtain if he showed his sigil.
Yet, he regretted it. It would've been easier to use them if he'd kept ignorant, thought of Kelth's family as just a part of the mindless masses.
Some Hunters would have no problem with that. Some would even let the vampire kill Kelth's family then 'rescue' her and bring her to the nearest coven.
Anargrin had what was called a strong sense of empathy. It was a strength and a weakness. It allowed him to place himself in someone's metaphorical shoes, understand them and the way they thought. It allowed him to manipulate people. But it made him care.
Not just that Falin was beautiful and Anargrin always had a foolish weakness for a pretty face. He felt sorry for her, having to sell her body in the name of survival. Anargrin felt sorry for Solen who had to live with the knowledge his wife bedded by other men. He felt sorry for poor Kelth having to be brought up in such poverty.
He felt sorry for all three for they would soon be separated if they weren't killed.
He could only hope it wouldn't end in tragedy.
Anargrin had to wait for two days until the vampire arrived.
It was about two 2 AM when Anargrin knelt upon the same hab block he had when he'd first found the family when he saw the tall, gaunt figure stride along the street.
Anargrin's enhanced vision pierced the dark with ease. The vampire was a once-human male. A handsome man with slicked back brown hair and a pencil moustache. He was well groomed, his clothes on par with male fashion trend of the time: a poofy white shirt and tight khaki pants. The vampire's eyes were a slight red, indicating his low light vision. The vampire's pale, gaunt stretched skin was indicative of his kind. It wasn't just that which gave the man away: it was the way he walked, it was a strange, stiff gait. To Anargrin, it was as obvious as day, but the untrained eye wouldn't notice. It was disturbing, a subtle off. The vampire also walked with the hyper-confidence of a seasoned killer.
Anargrin clenched his teeth and crouched closer to the thatched roof, unsure whether he should thank his luck or curse it. The vampire hadn't even bothered to hide his aura. The vampire's brazen disregard indicated a trap. Anargrin remembered his theory that the Cult might be involved, so he might not be alone.
This train of thought was gone the second the vampire peeled off the path and began to approach the family's door.
Anargrin lunged off the roof while summoning his sword in a blaze of white light.
Then, a few centimetres off the road. Anargrin blinked.
Anargrin reappeared behind the vampire, slashing for the beheading. In the last millisecond, the vampire knelt, and Anargrin's blade flew through the air. The vampire drew a sword from beneath his coat and spun, cutting diagonally up at Anargrin's stomach. The Hunter leapt out the way and stumbled a metre more in his desperate abandon.
The vampire smiled and stood.
'Nice try, Hunter,' he said as he extended his fangs. 'But I am just too good.'
Anargrin grimaced, and they started to circle each other. The vampire's footwork was impeccable. But what made Anargrin uneasy was the vampire's long sword. It was a beautiful, ornate thing. Its hilt made of gold. There was something very familiar about it, but Anargrin couldn't understand why. It was worn but well maintained, indicating it could be older than even Anargrin. How the vampire got his hands on such a weapon, Anargrin could only guess and none of those guesses boded well.
That coupled with the vampire's superior strength and constitution...
Anargrin had underestimated his quarry.
'Did you think I would not see this for a trap?' said the vampire. 'Did you think me a fool?'
'Well,' said Anargrin. 'You are here.'
The vampire laughed. 'Indeed, I am. Then I suppose us both to be fools. But who is more the fool? The fool who stepped into a trap, knowing it to be a trap? Or the fool who set it thinking it would work despite it being so obvious? A trap that has failed.'
'It hasn't failed yet,' said Anargrin.
'It will,' said the vampire. 'Once I kill you and feed upon the sweet, sweet blood of the magical elf girl. Oh, how I look forward to it.'
The vampire lunged, faster than the mortal eye could follow. Anargrin sidestepped the thrust and countered with a cross-slash.
The vampire leaned beneath it and threw a side kick at Anargrin's skull. Anargrin tilted aside and slashed vertically upward, forcing the vampire to flow back. Anargrin followed with a diagonal slice. The vampire parried it and riposted into an upward vertical slash. Anargrin slipped aside and darted back of the vampire's stab.
Again they started to circle, and Anargrin cursed beneath his breath. He didn't know how long he could keep this up. Despite his enhancement, Anargrin was still affected by fatigue and pain, but his opponent was immune to both.
'I must say that I am impressed,' said the vampire. 'It has been a long, long time since anyone has lasted so long against my blade.'
Anargrin wasn't surprised.
'The Devanworth Cult,' said Anargrin.
The vampire's brow furrowed in bemusement.
Anargrin knew then; this vampire had no idea what he was talking about, that he was just one of the freakish few who enjoyed the taste of the blood of those with magical potential. A simpler explanation Anargrin hadn't considered in his foolishness.
He decided not to elaborate and with a snarl, darted at the vampire, slashing.
Solen awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in the bed so fast it woke Falin.
'Did you hear that?' he said.
'Hear what?' said Falin.
Solen leapt onto his feet and stormed into the kitchen. He looked out the window and reeled. Two figures fought in the street; they were blurs of unimaginable speed, so fast Solen could barely make out that they both wielded swords. It was the Hunter, battling a tall, pale male human.
It was the vampire, and it caused cold terror to clasp his heart.
He spun to find Kelth approaching from the hallway.
'Kelth. What are you doing awake?'
'I heard you wake up, dad,' she said and looked out the window.
'Jaroai,' said Kelth, reeling. 'Is that-that the vampire?'
Solen didn't answer; he couldn't, he was so in awe. his eyes had adjusted, and he could somewhat follow the fight now. Solin was just a miner; he'd never even seen a sword until this night. He'd heard of the Hunters. That they were skilled and powerful, but he never imagined they were that good, that fast.
What the hell was this Anargrin? He was no average elf — no normal mortal.
What the hell was a Hunter?
Solen knew he should get Falin and Kelth and run out into the night. But what good would it do? That vampire was beyond anything Solen imagined.
If it won there was no point in running, it would catch them no matter what they did.
And kill them.
Anargrin parried yet another killing blow. The parry's timing and precession were perfect; it had to be or else he'd be sent stumbling or worse, disarmed by the vampire's superior power.
Anargrin sidestepped a thrust, then weaved under a horizontal cut and cursed beneath his breath. He could sense them now. Many of the locals were awake, watching the fight.
Anargrin danced and darted through a flurry of thrusts, then riposted into a downward, diagonal slice. The vampire attempted to back-peddle, but he wasn't fast enough, and Anargrin cut across his chest. Blackened muscle and black ichor burst from the wound.
The vampire just laughed and threw a front kick that sent Anargrin stepping. Anargrin had cut the bastard numerous times now, but none would even slow the vampire.
Anargrin slid from a slash aimed at his leg and parried a stab. He riposted with an upward cut for the vampire's elbow. But the vampire pulled his arm back, and Anargrin missed by less than a millimetre. Anargrin dashed forward, into a horizontal cut. The vampire ducked it and threw a hook punch at Anargrin's throat. Anargrin weaved from its path and cut diagonally upward, sending the vampire reeling back.
The pause caused the fatigue to hit Anargrin. his instincts screamed he'd been at this for three minutes now, he'd never taken part in such a long duel.
'Who are you?' Anargrin said.
The vampire barked out a laugh. 'Do you think I am so foolish that I would give you my name?'
'What? Are you afraid you'll lose?'
'I am not going to fall for such petty baiting, Hunter. I am old enough and wise enough, not to. So do not even try.'
Anargrin frowned, then lunged and cut, causing the vampire to slide back. Anargrin flowed on, into a vertical over-slice the vampire parried. Anargrin ducked the cross-cut counter then sidestepped the vampire's thrust. Anargrin lunged away from the vampire's low slice, then darted away a few metres more.
He couldn't keep this up much longer, but he needed to last another two minutes.
The vampire charged into a stab, Anargrin slid aside of it and parried the following horizontal slash.
Anargrin's counter was a diagonal cut that forced the vampire back again. Anargrin shuffled to gain more space racking his thoughts to figure a way to delay the fight, to live long enough.
His first thought was to run and hide, but the vampire's vision could pierce the darkness with ease and, even if Anargrin managed it, the bastard might start killing innocents to lure Anargrin from hiding.
So Anargrin clenched his teeth and held his ground, despite his limbs beginning to ache, his heart leaping in his throat and his muscles feeling like they were made of silk.
The vampire barked a laugh.
'Are you tiring, little elf?' the vampire sneered. 'You Hunters are so much better than mortals but yet so very normal. Although there is one thing I do find confusing, you have just used your sword. All you Hunters are supposed to have magical potential, why have you not used it? I know your kind do not use magic often, wishing to hide it from the church. Resorting to it only in times of desperation, but the stench of desperation comes off you like the aura from a priest.'
Anargrin didn't reply, unwilling to admit his infamous inability to use magic.
The vampire licked his teeth with a slug-like tongue then without a further word, charged.
Anargrin was one of the greatest swordsmen amongst the Hunters, perhaps the greatest of the day. But in a fight such as this, skill wasn't enough. Anargrin landed wound after wound on the vampire, many lethal to an average person, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't land the decapitating cut or cripple a limb. The vampire was too quick, too cunning.
They traded slash after slash, parry, riposte. Thrust, slice, cut. Dodging, darting, ducking. All at least a few dozen times a second.
They lunged and leapt. They fought from one end of the street to the other.
Despite the ever-encroaching exhaustion, pain flaring in Anargrin's limbs and every breath a struggle, the vampire didn't land a single blow.
But Anargrin was too slow to avoid the vampire's kick, he tried to weave it, but the edge of the vampire's boot caught his shoulder. Blinding pain coursed through his arm, and he was sent spinning, writhing to the stone ground.
Anargrin's vision blurred, but his instinct made him roll, dodging by a hair's width the sword stabbing for his heart.
Anargrin clambered into a kneel and spun to smash aside a slash. His pain-addled mind made him punch out, smashing his fist against the vampire's gut.
The vampire laughed and backhanded Anargrin across the face. Anargrin saw stars, and he was sent to the ground again, his bottom lip tearing open and agony burst in his cheek.
'I have to say that I am impressed, Hunter,' said the vampire. 'I must admit that you are better than I at the sword if I were mortal, I would be dead many times over. But I am not mortal and all your fighting, all your desperate abandon is for nought. Yet you should be proud, little elf, it has been centuries since I have been so hard pressed. So do not despair, you have fought well. You should feel proud, but now it ends. You have failed.'
The vampire raised his sword.
Anargrin grinned with bloody teeth. 'I'd like to thank you, vampire.'
The vampire's brow furrowed. 'Thank me for what?'
'Thank you for your little pep talk; it gave me the precious seconds I needed.'
Before the vampire could reply, Anargrin blinked behind him and with a single slash, separated the vampire's head from his shoulders.
Anargrin stumbled, and he burst out in laughter. It rang out through the street. His laugh wasn't humorous; it was in relief and disbelief that his plan had somehow worked, that such a fight ended in such an anticlimax.
It took him a few seconds to find his sanity and to realise that to the watchers; he must've seemed like a madman.
He shook away the exhaustion and began toward Kelth's house.
His mission wasn't over yet.
Solen and Falin ran out into the street and helped Anargrin into the house.
They brought the exhausted, beaten Hunter to the table and Anargrin slumped into a chair.
'Kelth. Go to bed,' Solen snapped.
It caused Kelth to flinch, then with tears in her eyes, she stormed to her room.
'Do you need a healer, Anargrin?' said Falin.
'No,' gasped Anargrin. 'I'll be fine, just give me some time.'
Solen and Falin exchanged a look.
'You're incredible,' said Falin sounding as awed as Solen felt.
Anargrin laughed. 'No, I'm just a lucky, cheating bastard. But anything and everything to win.'
Solen and Falin didn't say anything.
'And not just a cheating bastard, but a lying one too.'
'What do you mean?' said Falin.
'I-,' Anargrin paused. 'I wasn't entirely honest with you. I'm sorry.'
'What are you apologising for?' said Solen. 'You saved us from that vampire. You risked-'
'In all honesty, you wouldn't have been at such risk if it wasn't for me,' Anargrin said. 'We haven't much time. That vampire was here because I had lured him here. By using your daughter as bait.'
Solen was unable to say anything, confusion overtaking him.
'His hunting ground was in the north,' said Anargrin. 'I was assigned to hunt him down and...and during my investigation, I found out that...'
The Hunter trailed off, looking uncertain. 'That it was likely the vampire was targeting people with magical potential.'
'I don't understand,' said Falin.
Anargrin sighed. 'The Church claims that, two thousand four hundred and fifteen years ago, when we were conquered and enslaved by the humans, that the avatar of Jaroai took from us the gift of magical potential. That is a lie like many things they claim. We elves still can have it. The dwarves can still have it. I have it.'
'Kelth has it.'
'What?' said Solen.
Anargrin looked at them with weariness, but it wasn't from the fight.
'You may think it isn't true that if it were true, there would be elven priests. That-'
'No, Anargrin,' Falin said. 'I believe you. Solen and I have never been churchgoers. Neither of us has believed in Jaroai. And ever since she was born, I had felt there was something special about Kelth, something different.'
Falin gave Solen a grim glance. 'I also used to have a brother, an older brother, who when I was very young, he was...taken by the Church. For decades we have wondered why. Now we understand why.
Anargrin's gaze met Falin's, and he nodded.
'Why?' said Solen, wishing to interrupt it. 'Why then aren't their elf and dwarf priests of Jaroai?'
'They still take elven and dwarven children,' said Anargrin. 'They took me too, so many years ago now. The Church takes then to serve in their main cathedrals and churches, indentured servants as-'
'As slaves,' said Solen.
Anargrin's gaze met his and nodded. 'For all intents and purposes, yes.'
Solen wanted to say that was impossible, that the treaty of Angara had outlawed slavery. But he couldn't, he knew deep down the Hunter was telling the truth.
Then came the anger.
'So, you used my Kelth as bait?' Solen said. 'Used us. Risked our lives.'
Anargrin's attention fell to the floor. 'I did. I'm sorry, I...I...I won't make excuses. You have every right to be angry, but there is something else.'
'What else?' Solen roared. 'What else could make this worse? How can you be so callous? So ruthless? What the hell is wrong with you?'
'There is a lot wrong with me,' said Anargrin. 'And I can understand-'
'No! You cannot begin to understand. Have you ever had a child, Hunter?'
'Kelth is my life. She is our life. And to know that her life was put in unnecessary danger is maddening. To know-'
'Please, Solen,' said Falin. 'I am angry, too. But please let him talk.'
Solen sneered, his anger at Anargrin replaced by rage at Falin. But he stayed silent, and he folded his arms, glaring at Anargrin.
Anargrin sighed. 'I'm sorry, but it gets worse, and again, it's all my fault. To draw in the vampire, I had to spread the rumour of Kelth's magical potential. Rumours which I'm sure to have caught the attention of the Church.'
There was a pause.
'They will be here soon,' said Anargrin. 'Here to take Kelth and-'
'Force her into slavery,' said Solen.
'Yes,' said Anargrin. 'But I can save her.'
'How?' said Falin.
'If you would allow it, I can take her. Take her to the Hunters where she will receive an education, where she won't be scrubbing floors for the entirety of her long life. A future-'
'What, to become like you?' said Solen. 'I knew. I knew there was something you weren't telling us right from the start. Get the hell out.'
Anargrin looked at Solen with tearful eyes; then, with one smooth movement, he got up.
'I'm sorry,' he said and went to leave but paused in the door. 'I might be wrong, the Church mightn't know, they may not come. For your sake, I hope they don't.'
Then he left.
While blinking back his tiredness, trying to ignore his stiff, achy limbs and his throbbing bruises, Anargrin waited and hated himself. He'd hoped they'd allow him to take poor Kelth but knew they wouldn't so, when he left, he'd hidden his aura, climbed onto the hab block roof and watched. He'd watched as Solen and Falin went to bed. If he'd just told the truth from the start, it might've been different.
But it was too late for that now, so he had to resort to manipulation again. He didn't want to, but he wasn't going to let Kelth be forced into slavery.
So he waited and didn't have to for long before he sensed the priest's powerful presence as he approached from the north.
Anargrin watched as the young priest in his gaudy robes with his staff with an eight-pointed star at its tip, stalked into view. The zealotry, the arrogance seemed to radiate from his every pore, somehow even stronger than his incredible magical aura.
Anargrin clenched his teeth; he didn't like this.
Not at all.
The priest smashed his fist on the door with unnecessary violence.
Due to them being already awake, it didn't take long for Solen to open the door.
'What do you want?' Demanded the elf, he was trying to sound defiant, but there was fear in his tone. The miner's courage had impressed Anargrin, and he couldn't help be impressed even more.
'That is no way to address a holy man of Jaroai,' snarled the priest. 'Let me in.'
He shoved Solen aside and stormed inside.
Anargrin grimaced, then lunged into the open air.
Falin stepped into the hallway and was almost elbowed off her feet by the priest for her efforts.
Solen followed him, his eyes met Falin's and they went after the priest, into Kelth's room.
They found the priest trying to pull Kelth from under her bed.
'You are coming with me.'
Kelth just screamed.
'Leave her alone,' Falin yelled.
The priest rounded on them.
'Get your child under control.'
'No,' said Falin. 'Get out of my house. Leave my daughter alone.'
The priest laughed. 'You cannot order me around, elf. I am your better. And you will get your daughter under control. Now.'
'Why?' demanded Falin, she knew of the powers of the priests of Jaroai and fear thumped through her, but she fought it. 'Why do you want to take my daughter?'
'You do not need to know, elf. You need to accept that I am taking your daughter. Now help me.'
Solen slipped past and stood between the priest and Kelth's bed.
'You won't take my daughter,' he yelled. 'I don't care if you're the avatar himself. Now leave us alone.'
The priest seemed taken aback by Solen's defiance as he gaped for a few seconds before rage burst through his youthful features.
'Leave you alone? Leave you alone? You think that you, an elf, have the right to demand anything from me? I speak the word of Jaroai! I am his will made manifest. You will show me the respect I deserve. Get out of my way.'
'No, I will not let my daughter be forced into slavery.'
The priest straightened.
'What did you just say?'
'I-,' Solen stammered.
'What did you just say?' the priest roared, and fire erupted up his arms.
Solen stumbled back, and Falin threw herself at the priest's back. Somehow the priest knew she was coming and he backhanded Falin to the floor. Solen snarled and punched the priest in the face. The priest reeled then smashed his staff into the side of Solen's skull, sending him sprawling.
'I do not know how you know that, but it doesn't matter. I was hoping that I would not have to do this. But, if needs must.'
Then the fire blazed from the priest so strong it was almost white, the heat was horrific, but Falin didn't look away. Despite the pain, she climbed to her feet and threw herself at the priest again; she didn't care that he would kill her, what mattered was Kelth.
Falin screamed as the priest flourished his arm, concentrated fire roaring along its length.
The tip of a sword burst from the priest's chest in a spray of blood causing Falin to stop. The blade slid out of the priest's torso and with wide, bulging eyes, he fell to his knees, revealing Anargrin, his bloody sword held at his side.
Anargrin stared at Falin with tearful eyes as the priest fell flat on his face and blood began to pool on the floor.
'I'm sorry,' said Anargrin. 'I'm so, so sorry.'
Falin ran to Solen.
'Solen. Solen,' she cried, as she knelt over him, fighting back the tears. She tilted his head to see the ragged, bloody wound in his skull. his eyelids flickered, and he groaned.
'Oh Jaroai,' she gasped.
'Mummy?' said Kelth. 'Is daddy going to be alright?'
'I don't know,' said Falin.
'Put pressure on the wound,' said Anargrin.
Falin rounded on him. 'Why do you care? This is because of you.'
Anargrin's gaze fell to the floor. 'I know...I didn't want this, and now it's worse. Not all priests were like this one, Falin. I was hoping this would end peacefully. The church has much power, even in Hamar. You must leave. You must run.'
'You have to leave before they get word. They will track you down. I can help you with that. We can help you with that.'
'So you want us to leave? Abandon our lives! Just like that?' said Falin. 'Are you insane?'
'I don't want you too. But if you want to live, you must. The Hunters can arrange a new identity for you, in a new place. We will provide you with funds and a new home-'
'And what about Kelth?' said Falin, though she already knew.
'You...you need to let us take her,' said Anargrin. 'If you don't, I assure you the church will come again, and they will force her into slavery for the rest of her long years.'
'It...It would have been just a matter of time before they found her, wouldn't it?' said Falin.
Anargrin nodded. 'Even if you refuse, you must come with me, back to our headquarters. There Solen will get the medical attention he needs. Please. I beg you.'
Falin sighed, looked at poor Solen then to Kelth.
Kelth's tear-filled eyes met hers, and she gave Falin a nod, then Falin enveloped her in a hug. Sobbing into Falin's chest.
Falin held Kelth with the ferocity only a mother could and turned back to Anargrin.
'You win, Hunter,' she said. 'I hope you're happy.'
Anargrin's gaze said he was anything but.
For hours Anargrin sat next to Emilia's bed and waited. His mind was a whirl with thoughts, his eyes wanting to shut every second.
'Anargrin?' said the voice which forced him awake although he hadn't known he was sleeping. In a millisecond he was on his feet, sword summoned to his hand, its edge a millimetre from Emilia's throat. Emilia didn't even flinch, having been long used to Anargrin's rampant paranoia.
'Sorry,' said Anargrin, and sheathed his sword as he sat back down.
'Need...water,' she said, her usually soft voice croaking from her throat.
Anargrin nodded, picked up the jug on the table beside him and poured her a glass.
Emilia drank it down, requested more and Anargrin refilled it.
'You seem upset,' Emilia said as she sipped.
Anargrin fought the sudden onset of tears.
'I can read you like a book, Anargrin,' said Emilia. 'I've known you for long enough that I can see through your training at hiding emotion.'
'I'm not really trying, in all honesty,' said Anargrin.
'How long have I been out?'
'About a week.'
Emilia sighed. She was almost fifty-eight but still seemed a pretty girl in her late teens, her features so soft she seemed almost exaggerated in her youthful femininity. The 'gift' of lycanthropy had extended her lifespan. Most would label it a curse, but she thought it a gift. Only Emilia could see the bright side in everything. Her long blonde hair fell to her slender shoulders in ringlets, and her large bright blue eyes gazed at him sidelong with sympathy.
'What's wrong, Anargrin?' she said.
He told her everything, right from after the troll ambushed them. It all came out in a flood.
Once he finished, there was a long silence.
'Wow,' she said.
'I ruined their family. I stole their daughter,' said Anargrin. 'Was it worth it?'
Emilia frowned. 'I know it's hard, Anargrin. But you killed the vampire, stopping it from ever killing any more innocent people and that little girl isn't going to be forced into slavery-'
'I know that Emilia, I do. It's just that it happened in the first place. We've done this for centuries, taking the children kidnapped by the church. 'We rescue the kidnapped' we claim. But after this...After this, it just doesn't seem right. Her mother and father loved her so much, Emilia. Her mother loved her so much that she was willing to sell her body so she can provide for her. Why? Why is it that she had to be ripped from her family? To be forced into becoming a neophyte in a coven or into indentured servitude for the church? It isn't fair; it isn't right.'
Emilia just stared at him.
'We don't rescue the kidnapped, Emilia. We kidnap the kidnapped.'
'And what about you?' said Emilia. 'If the Hunters hadn't taken you; you wouldn't have been there to take down that vampire. You wouldn't have saved me from those werewolves. That Kelth girl would've been forced into spending the rest of her centuries of a life toiling endlessly at one of their cathedrals.'
Anargrin sighed and hung his head into his hands. 'I was rescued. But that's me. To the other children, to Kelth, perhaps, not so much. All because we were gifted with the curse of magical potential. Are we the good guys, Emilia? Really?'
'Yep,' said Emilia without hesitation.
'Because you are fighting for a day, that it will no longer happen. So that people with magical potential can be free. Do you know what'd happen if the Hunters stopped? It'd mean the church would have even more power. Every country, not just Camaria and Iritain, would still be executing non-believers. Shit. I doubt the elves and dwarves would have ever been freed. You are the one always spouting the virtues of logic and reason. And that stuff's just logical.'
'Just because it's logical, doesn't mean it's ethical, Emilia.'
Emilia sighed and nodded. 'Yep. Yep. Maybe so. But it's a necessary evil, Anargrin. I don't like it either, but what else can we do? Somehow kill every priest, even the good ones? Then murder everyone else who disagrees with us? That's most of the people on the continent, you know. If not, somehow force the people to change their hearts and minds overnight?'
There was a long pause.
'So...so, the end justifies the means, then?' said Anargrin.
Emilia pursed her lips and shrugged. 'Maybe, hopefully. We'll see if it does, one day.'
Anargrin frowned. 'If we manage to live long enough.'
Emilia rolled her eyes and sighed, but in good humour. 'Yes, Anargrin. If we live long enough.'
Anargrin didn't say anything, she was right, but it still seemed like they were kidnapping the kidnapped; forcing children into a life they might not want.
'I'm sorry, Emilia,' he said.
'Sorry for what?'
'Sorry that I didn't detect the troll's ambush. I should've seen it coming.'
Emilia shrugged. 'And I should've smelled it out, but we were only midway through our investigation, and neither of us predicted the troll would go on the offence so quick. It was both our failing. I'm just glad neither of us was killed. No one is perfect, Anargrin. And least of all you.'
Anargrin laughed for the first time in days. 'You keep saying that and it might one day come true.'
'If you were perfect, I wouldn't be able to kick your arse.'
'What? Even in werewolf form, you don't stand a chance.'
'Alright,' said Emilia. 'Let's go the training cages now and see-'
She started to get up but stopped with a pained hiss.
'Perhaps...a little later, then,' said Anargrin.
'Perhaps so,' sighed Emilia.
They laughed, but it did nothing to abate the rolling in Anargrin's guts. He hoped that Solen and Falin were going to be happy in their new life.
But he doubted it.
'You know how you could make up for missing the troll?' said Emilia.
'I thought we were both taking responsibility for that?'
'Hey. You didn't get your noggin bashed into a wall, Anargrin. You're taking a bit more, I think.'
Anargrin sighed. 'Okay. And let me guess, you want to go shopping, and for me to carry all your blasted bags.'
Emilia grinned. 'Yep.'
Anargrin sighed, but he still couldn't help smile, even as another thought hit him. A thought that sent icy, stinging shivering up his spine.
Emilia was correct, but that was just what the Hunters believed was right.
But weren't the church just doing the very same?
Publication Date: 06-30-2019
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