Alternate Chapter 21
Eva had a heavy heart, and told Vincent so in no uncertain terms. She was naturally suspicious of the Fool's dubious gifts and Vincent's physical transformations. The thought of her child's unholy bargain with the Fool was painful. Sarragin Vich would never have selected such a course of power. Nonetheless, she was relieved to be leaving the Fool's fortress at last.
The sight of the Fool's ears made Sasha burst into fits of sobbing. She was avenged, but the futility of such vengeance stunned her.
"Make the smarter decisions next time, okay?" she asked Vincent.
"What, I got the Fool's ears in exchange for yours, didn't I? Be happy. I just hurt one of my friends for your sake."
"Your new 'friend' spontaneously scarred my face."
"You make it sound like it's my fault. You were the one who wanted to come along in the first place."
"What's the point of two demon ears? I've been hurt."
At this point, there were many things Vincent wished to tell Sasha, but he reasoned that given her current mentality, arguing would be useless. "Let's drop the subject. I don't need this to escalate beyond what you can handle."
"I know you think you know what you are doing," murmured Sasha.
"Eva," said Vincent, "the vampires Von Daimler made their last stand at Schloss Waldeck. I know the location, let me guide you there."
"Wait," said Sasha, thinking. "If the vampires have been killed, there's hardly any chance of their corpses still being held there. The Confederacy should have incinerated their bodies to end the threat. I know of only one man who could possibly know the location of the ashes.
"Ha, I think I know the person you are talking about. Weren't you the one warning me against seeking out potentially dangerous necromancers?"
Vincent, Eva and Sasha flew for three days and three nights, returning to Illexmann's village. Using his freshly acquired power, Vincent channeled the classical melodies of speed through Eva, allowing her to travel much more swiftly than she could have done alone. The young necromancer's incomplete mastery led to a much rougher ride, however, and they were forced to take regular breaks to rest, and sleep.
On the third day, they caught sight of the quiet village, just one of the innumerable hamlets that dotted the rural areas of the Confederacy. It had been razed to the ground, and recently, for slow dying fires continued to burn hungrily. Skeletons of humans, skeletons of houses, and ashes were all that remained. The human skeletons shambled about aimlessly.
The approach was too much for Sasha to bear. Her home, the only home she had ever known had been reduced to something beneath dust. "It can't be," she whispered. "What happened? My family!"
"Don't look!" commanded Vincent, attempting to shield her from the carnage.
"No! Mum, dad…why?" screamed Sasha, struggling in horror. Her hysterical motion threatened to throw both her and Vincent off their precarious perch on the zombie dragon.
~I can't control her!~ shouted Vincent.
~She'll fall off at this rate,~ warned Eva. ~Do something fast.~
Vincent put her to sleep. ~Thank goodness.~
As Eva began her descent to the village, a massive dragon rose up to meet them. The sight was staggering. ~Shiv,~ said Eva, instinctively halting her descent and flapping hard to gain altitude. ~A dragon, here? It will try to kill me. Protect Sasha, and hold on to her tight. We must get away as quickly as we can.~
~I'm a match for any dragon,~ said Vincent grimly.
This was, strictly speaking, a lie. There still existed ancient dragons that would eat this fledging necromancer without blinking. But it was true that Vincent and Eva, together, could kill the large black dragon flying swiftly up to meet them. Vincent spread deep magic through Eva's body, strengthening, protecting her, making her form even more lethal than it already was, until her scales hissed with energy and her eyes flared a brilliant red with murderous intent.
~Okay.~ said Eva. ~So we fight. You could have just said that.~
As the dragon closed it, it became clear to Vincent and Eva that a charred, skeletal creature rode atop the dragon. Eva easily identified Kain. ~It's Kain,~ she said, with mingled trepidation and surprise.
~Ah, your brother. He must be looking for you. Probably out for a taste of my brain as a side dish. But I'm surprised you can't see something quite apparent for yourself, Eva.~ Eva's undead rhythm froze in shock. ~Yes, you see it now. Kain is dead. Illexmann rides him.~
"Vincent! It is me, Illexmann. Get away from here!" Illexmann croaked, his voice magically amplified.
~KAIN!~ screamed Eva. ~Oh, Kain! Oh, no. Oh. Why?~
"We need to talk to you," replied Vincent, patting Eva consolingly.
Illexmann was watching out for, and caught sight of Sasha's limp form. "I see I am too late. Follow me. We have to get some distance away from here."
They landed on a field many miles away, out of sight of the village.
The necromancers dismounted, leaving the zombie dragons a little apart. Illexmann was the first to tell his story, for it was more urgent.
"I had no choice," croaked Illexmann. "I have been discreet all these years. No one suspected I was anything more than a lonely old man. I kept the cover for eight years, with you working under me. Even when Eva came down, it was midnight and no one noticed. My secret was safe, and with it, the village. Then a fool dragon arrived at midday and landed at my front door. Instantly, the whole town became witnesses."
"I took immediate action and killed everyone. I am not ready for war with the Confederacy. The witch hunters would be breathing down my neck otherwise. I am already a marked man in their eyes. Look to your girl, the truth is too dark. Above all she must be sheltered, as long as possible."
Understanding appeared in Vincent's eyes. "Sasha's family?"
Illexmann shook his skull. "I can't even remember her name let alone which family she belonged to. I wouldn't have spared them in any case. I'm not sure she can handle such a tragedy."
Vincent thought briefly of the previous justice he had exacted on Sasha's behalf. Vengeance again? He sighed inwardly.
"If I had known you were coming here I would have warned you," crackled Illexmann. "I hope you don't mind telling whatever lies you need to tell her, but this is for the best."
"Yes I mind," said Vincent. "Yes, it is for the best. This is so messed up!"
"You soon learn to think beyond such inconsequential matters, while still devoting the necessary attention to them. This is the only way for the road you have chosen. Are you going to weep for each enemy you leave bloodless on the ground, or cry when innocents burn and cities fall? You cannot live like this forever."
Fair enough, thought Vincent. "I see you have changed a lot since I was gone."
"A lot of change can happen all at once," replied Illexmann. "That which doesn't kill you hurts you considerably. I have been roasted by dragon breath. I don't think much remains of me that is recognizably human."
"Illexmann, you have found power of your own."
"I have always been powerful," croaked Illexmann. "Sarragin Vich's texts merely cemented and sustained the knowledge and strength I acquired through the years. I would probably have stayed in the village for several more years, but Kain arrived. The baptism of fire means I can no longer hide."
"You are blind, too," said Vincent. He noticed that Illexmann crushed wildflowers underfoot with each step.
"And deaf as well, and without the senses of touch, taste and smell. It is not so bad. Residual magic gives me something approximating awareness well enough. But I can't distinguish a flower from a stick."
"I can still read and sense the world. It gives me a headache if I attempt to stare at something though. My brain has not acclimatized to the lack of colour and shadow in this new vision. This sensory deprivation means I am not properly connected to the physical world any longer."
Illexmann cupped his hands gently together, and opened them to reveal them filled with black ash, his own flesh. "This is fear in a handful of dust. My body itself is dust. Give me three weeks. If I do not get used to it, I'll kill myself before I go completely insane."
"Compared to you, I got off easy," remarked Vincent.
"Ah, but you are bound to a demon in exchange. It is an interesting bargain you have struck. Make sure you use your power in a way which is meaningful to you, before you become nothing more than a blunt instrument in the Fool's hands."
"I have but one task to fulfill, and then I will be the Fool's equal."
Illexmann thought. "You can find the Vampires von Daimler in the inner keeps of Mannheim. The creatures got off easily. Their forerunners were all reduced to ash, blessed, and scattered to the four winds. As the last of their kind, the von Daimlers have been preserved for research. I can give you the directions to Mannheim. I lack the exact information of the town and the castle, and in my present state I have no means of gathering more."
Illexmann continued. "The vampire corpses are heavily guarded. Mannheim maintains a constant full strength garrison, with reserves and the ability to call for swift Confederate aid. You lack the connections and experience for subtlety and deceit, thus two choices are open to you. You can attempt to infiltrate the castle personally, or you can attempt to launch a swift assault to capture Mannheim before reinforcements arrive.
"Thanks, this information is more than enough. What are you going to do?"
"Discretion is no longer as great a concern for me. I'll move into the mountains and extend my strength. I wanted eternal life, and I have it now, under circumstances that make eternal life futile. I'll rest for a time and regain my priorities. Here's a simple tune you can play on the Melodies of Magic, should you ever need me for assistance or advice."
"Hey, Illexmann," asked Vincent. "Are we friends?"
"Yes, why not? See how close our zombie dragons are, we may as well be brothers."
Eva was distraught, inconsolable. Her brother had suffered a fate worse than death. She glowered at the zombie dragon beside her. Kain took no notice.
Monstrous, he exuded a maleficient aura both splendid and terrible. The great wounds and scars he had sustained in life meant nothing now, for he was now sustained by the vitality of eternity. Decay had just begun to set in, causing trickles of ooze to run ceaselessly down his huge flanks and taint his claws. His single eye was a lucent pearl of cloudy black, staring sightlessly ahead.
Eva found it hard to imagine something so horrible. Kain was a dead thing, with dead eyes. Illexmann had raised him as a zombie dragon and had bestowed upon him instinct, but not intellect. There was just enough semblance of his old self to make the form before her a grotesque parody. The thought worked her into frenzy. Eva understood at once the loathing dragons had for zombies of their kind. She itched to rip the dragon abomination apart.
He had been her hope, she realized. Kain was the last tie to the living world, a symbol of promise and what she might have been, had she not been stolen away by the masters of death. He saw her as family despite all. He might have done magnificent things worthy of a young dragon in his prime.
But, the pity of it. The pity of it clung like slime to her ruby heart. ~Oh, Kain.~
The zombie dragon turned. ~Yes I know. What the heaven, huh?~ asked Kain.
Eva's ruby eyes flickered in astonishment. But her lights soon dimmed, as her brother turned away again sightlessly. I imagined it, thought Eva to herself. He is dead, and further gone than I am.
Eva and Vincent were close by when she woke again. "I saw the village, destroyed," choked Sasha. "I thought everyone was dead."
"Sasha, listen," said Vincent, hugging her. "A dragon attacked the village. Illexmann slew him while protecting the populace."
"The fight was fierce. I was unable to prevent the village's destruction," croaked Illexmann. "I could not even protect myself."
"Illexmann held off the dragon long enough to give the village a reasonable chance for survival. He made sure that your family was among the group who escaped."
"Why haven't they returned?" asked Sasha, already crying.
Vincent kept his face carefully expressionless. ~Illexmann, think of something.~
"The survivors fled in different directions. Fear of the dragon prevents them from coming back," Illexmann. "It is understandable. There is nothing for them to return to. They will likely seek out their relatives, or seek redress from the Confederacy."
"Tell them it is safe. Tell them to come back!" said Sasha.
Vincent comforted her awkwardly, embarrassed both by her outburst and by his own act of comforting. "Get a hold of yourself. It is not like they are dead… or anything."
"We have to find them," cried Sasha. "We have to find them."
This was an alarming turn of events. Vincent held his breath as he carefully considered his response.
"Illexmann, I am bound to complete the Fool's favour," he said at last. "Until it is done, I do not have the freedom to search for Sasha's family. I have a favour to ask of you."
"I know the favour you will ask of me," croaked Illexmann. "It can be done. To the best of my ability, I will find Sasha's family."
"Sasha," said Vincent, "will you stay with Illexmann until your family is found, or will you come with me to Mannheim?"
"I…I…" said Sasha.
"But I must warn you," continued Vincent. "I have no idea how long away I will be, and I refuse to make any empty promise that I will even return."
"Oh," cried Sasha.
"And where I am going, is where I am forced to go. I do not have the strength to protect you. I can see that well enough from the encounter with the Fool. It was innocent and naïve to think I could bring you along." Vincent hugged her cordially. "Perhaps you must stay. Stay, okay? Thank you for your time with me. Eva, let's go."
"Wait! Don't do this to me!" she shouted, refusing to let go. "You're crazy! What do you think you're doing?"
"I don't have the strength to look you in the eye. I can't explain it. I'm deeply ashamed. It's clear that I am drawing you into disaster and what I said about being able to protect you, is a lie. If you come with me, I promise you pain, and death."
"I don't understand," said Sasha. "How can you expect me to?"
"You are a liability. My fear for you outweighs…I love you. If you are to be hurt, I refuse to let it be my fault. It would be best if you could simply fade out of my life entirely."
"Is this about the Fool? About my ear? Am I so ugly to you now?" asked Sasha. "Disgusting!"
"I cannot prove that this not the case. It's complicated!"
"Get away from me."
"That was my plan. I don't see why I have to be so nice when all I am supposed to do is make you angry enough to stay. It is for your own good, too."
"Who are you to judge?"
"I'm nobody, really. Nobody at all." Vincent pushed her away. There really was no good way to do this.
"I'm not through with you!"