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Chapter 01: The Gray Lady
Aija grabbed Trizryn's sleeve and pointed at the moon. "Did you see that?"
The pale elf turned to see what had alarmed the human, but whatever it was had already disappeared into the deep, dark sky.
"It was a dragon," she insisted when he registered doubt. "A dragon," she firmly repeated.
"I believe you," he answered, though it was obvious he had seen nothing. "But unless it comes this way, there's nothing we can do about it." Putting a hand to her back, he persuaded her to keep walking.
"Do you think it's the same one we saw at Min?"
"No. That one was trapped in your world."
"Do you think another gate has fallen?"
"Let's hope not."
The white mouse that traveled in Aija's pocket poked its nose out to sniff the air.
"It's okay, Henry," she spoke to her frightened little stowaway, cupping a protective hand over him. "The orcs are gone, and the dragon didn't land. We're safe." She glanced back up at the moon. "For now …"
The mouse turned tail and buried deep into the warmth of her pocket.
Aija and Trizryn fell silent as they retraced their steps to Krofton's Lodge through the glistening snow that blanketed the small elven town of Pranýa. Bundled in her new white veðrkylk with the hood up, they both hoped to keep her human face hidden from passing strangers. Her Caucasian skin was pink next to the bone-white skin tones of these eldritch people of lore. Trizryn's long, sharp ears were more typical of his race, including all the piercings he wore in them; but Aija's small, rounded ears disappeared beneath her short, sand-blond hair. Her eyes were more rounded and dull-green by comparison to the gem-like, vibrant colors of epicanthic elven eyes.
Trizryn's eyes were particularly unusual—each eye having two irises of gold and brown and a shine that reflected light like those of an animal. Because beneath that pale-skinned illusion he always wore in public, he was a dark elf. And more recently, that gold shine had turned red. He had also become a vampire.
She couldn't see his eyes now beneath the hood of the indigo veðrkylk she previously borrowed, but she could see the silver ring that pierced the left nostril of his white nose. And she could see the dark smear in the corner of his mouth that he missed while attempting to wash the orc blood from his face and hands. It was because of his feeding on the orcs that they were returning now, but the fledgling vampire was in no mood to offer apologies for what he had done.
The shop where they bought their supplies the previous night was closed now, but the lodge remained open. After stomping snow from their boots in the mud hall entrance, they headed into the dining room and approached the gray-skinned elf who was cleaning a recently used table.
Bárinthía paused at the sight of them, then did a double-take at the blood on the front of Trizryn's clothing. "Oh, no." Shaking her auburn head with disapproval, the waitress grabbed the tray of dirty dishes and took it to the bar. "No, no, no … What have you done?" Shoving the tray aside on the counter, she opened the pantry door on the far right and waited for them to enter. "I told you not to hunt in town," she reprimanded in hushed tones.
"The orc that took me the other night came back for me," Aija explained after the gray elf closed the door behind them. "And this time he wasn't alone."
"They were following us to our camp," Trizryn added. "Better to take them in a dark alley now than let them stab us in the back while we're sleeping."
Bárinthía's crimson eyes focused on the stains he wore. "Did you feed on any of them?"
He hesitated to answer. "One."
Her lips parted, and her brows rose. "One bloodless body is all it takes to open an investigation."
"Which is why we're giving you fair warning to hide any blood shipments before someone else finds the bodies."
"And you thought no one would notice you're roaming the streets covered in blood? You might as well post a sign on your chest that says, 'Vampire!'"
Trizryn frowned at her scolding. "I could have run into the forest, but I came back as a courtesy to you."
The waitress sighed heavily, realizing his risk. "Thanks … I suppose." Removing the ribbon holding her partially tied back hair, she finger-combed it as she paced in the small storage room. "You've got to dispose of the bodies. The inquisitors probably won't notice anything until morning. And they'll still have to find clues linking it to Kelrik and me before they bring the search here. But we'll have to send this shipment early, just in case." She regathered her hair in the ribbon, then gestured to his bloody tunic. "Cover that up and come with me."
Aija tried to help Trizryn situate his veðrkylk to cover the worst of the stains at the top of his chest and beneath his chin. Then, together, they followed the gray elf through the dining room and up the stairs to the third floor.
Compared to the second floor's long hall with boarding rooms, the third floor was more like an attic under the gables. There was only one door here. Bárinthía spoke clear enough to be heard on the other side as she knocked. "Special delivery."
The door was unlocked and opened by a small female elf whose skin was about the same shade of gray as the waitress. Her hair was as white as Trizryn's and worn in a braided bun that split and extended into two long braids down her back. But her most striking feature were her eyes—silver-and-white irises with a red, metallic shine.
"This is him," the waitress told the other gray elf.
The smaller female stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter. The room's interior was designed as a small apartment, no doubt belonging to Kelrik, even though he wasn't present at the moment. Lit only by the hearthfire, at least it was cozy and warm.
Bárinthía waited until everyone was inside, then shut the door. "Trizryn, I'd like you to meet—"
"The Gray Lady, I presume." The tall elf gave a partial bow, but was captivated by the unfamiliar woman's very familiar eyes.
The tiny tips of retracted fangs could be seen in place of her lateral incisors as she smiled. "Not what you expected?" Her speech bore a hint of foreign accent.
"Not exactly." He lowered his hood to his shoulders. "But not exactly surprised."
Aija was surprised. Not only was she not expecting another vampire, she assumed the Gray Lady would be more like Trizryn's former thief guild master, Nisala—a woman who exuded an air of exploitation for profit. This petite elf reminded her more of a kitten—harmless at first glance, but armed with hidden sharp things.
"There's been … an incident," Bárinthía admitted to her mistress. "We should move this shipment as soon as possible—tonight."
The Gray Lady walked a circle around Trizryn, studying him. After tugging the flap of his winter robe open to expose the blood on his tunic, she sniffed the stain with recognition, then tilted her chin toward Aija, puzzled. "A human?"
"It's a long story," Trizryn answered, making it clear he wasn't sharing details.
"Why feed from orcs if you travel with a human?"
"Aija is not food. She's a friend."
"All the more reason to feed from her. You wouldn't kill a friend, so there would be no bloodless bodies turning up in streets, invoking murder investigations." She turned away from her visitors toward the fire in the hearth. "I don't mind writing off a few bottles of blood as free samples for future customers, but I do mind if my shipment gets seized by inquisitors because of one fledgling's carelessness."
"Those orcs had to die."
Aija glanced up at the thief's bone-white face. His jaw was set, and there was no remorse in his expression.
The Gray Lady looked to her agent. "Bárí, help Kelrik take the cargo out to my cab. Tell him to keep an eye on it until I get there. I'll be down in a few minutes."
The waitress nodded and excused herself, once more closing the door behind them.
Standing by the mantle, the Gray Lady leaned back against the woodwork in a casual manner and crossed one ankle over the other. "We weren't scheduled to meet until tomorrow night. Now I need to clear out before sunrise. I guess we're both lucky I decided to come early. Before we discuss anything further, however, I want to see who I'm really dealing with. It's impolite to hide behind illusions, especially in the presence of other kindred."
"Is that why you go by 'The Gray Lady', instead of your true name?" Trizryn retorted.
Her smile was lost to a more severe expression. "I don't need a name in this land. It is as cold and unwelcoming as the people who live here."
Grasping Trizryn's sleeve, Aija gave it a tug to remind him to play nicely.
The thief sighed with disgust, but dropped the light elf illusion.
Aija knew he hated displaying his true nature to anyone, especially strangers. Illusion helped him blend with the majority of the population in this kingdom of light elves. Dropping that illusion used to reveal the raven-black skin of his dark elven heritage, but becoming a vampire had changed that.
Though the orc's fresh blood temporarily returned a blue undertone to his flesh, the rich, dark luster of his natural skin had faded to a dull, charcoal gray. His brown-and-gold double irises had washed out to gray and silver. And with sharp fangs and nails, his existence had mutated into something beyond that of an elf.
The Gray Lady quirked a brow and smiled. "Interesting. But Bárí told me you were a half-blood."
"My real father's identity is unknown to me, but my mother was a Thályn light elf."
The Gray Lady chuckled and folded her arms over her wolf-fur tunic. "Then I'd wager your Thályn mother didn't tell you everything about your birth mother."
Trizryn's eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?"
Aija could tell this was almost too bold of an insult for the rogue-prince to tolerate from a stranger, but he could not identify his mother as the Queen to counter the claim.
"I know a half-blood when I see one. And you, my dear, are no half-blood. Bárí is a half-blood. But before this change took you, you were a full-blood dark elf … just like me." She approached Trizryn and lifted his right hand, lacing her small, slender fingers between his. Both elves were the same dull, charcoal gray.
Aija also noted that their eyes had the same light-reflecting design.
Trizryn frowned at this unimportant diversion and withdrew his hand. "I used to be an operative for Nisala's guild in Brinnan's undercity. I need safe passage into the Deep Warrens. She referred me to Kelrik because she'd heard he did business with a dark elf. Can you help me, or not?"
The Gray Lady returned to stand against the mantle. "That depends on why you wish to go into the warrens and how far."
"Some of our ancient gates into other worlds are crumbling. My friends and I have reason to believe they're connected to an underground vault that might be responsible for the surface damage. We have documents that might offer an explanation, but we can't read them. We think they're written in some kind of dark elven language or code. We were hoping someone in Rólundór could help. And if so, I'd like to see these vaults for myself."
The small dark elf scratched her chin thoughtfully. "Are you ready to leave now? Or do you need time to prepare? It's quite the journey."
"I have friends I need to make arrangements with first. And I need to get rid of a tracking device." He showed her the dull-blue summoning gem embedded in the heel of his left palm. "I have the original spell that binds me to it, but I need a mage capable of undoing this type of magic."
The Gray Lady came away from the hearth once more and took his left hand to examine the gem. "I know exactly what this is. They're used to control slaves. Are you a runaway?"
"No," the rogue-prince answered, insulted again. "Slavery no longer exists in our kingdom, but the Derra Eirlyn still uses this kind of magic to control prisoners."
"You were a prisoner?"
"I didn't escape from anything. I was framed for something I didn't do. But I did my time in the dungeon, they released me under the management of a summoner, and now my summoner is dead. I want this thing out of my body."
Her lips pursed as if she still doubted him, but she looked again at the magical gem in his hand. "Well, Elvolyn or Távaló might be able to do it. Távaló's a pain in the ass, but he's good with enchanted trinkets. I often bring some of his creations up here to exchange for goods that are hard to find underground."
"Like bottled blood?"
Aija gave his sleeve another tug to remind him to mind his manners.
The Gray Lady smirked at the sardonic remark. "Blood is plentiful underground. Faerie and dryad blood, however … that's a challenge to find in the Deep Warrens." Her lips parted with subtle desire as she looked to Aija. "Human blood is even more rare."
Trizryn frowned again and pulled Aija back a step.
It seemed silly to hide her features, when her identity was clearly known. Aija lowered her hood to her shoulders. "Yet you don't seem surprised to see me. Neither did Bárinthía."
"Don't mistake acceptance to mean we are not surprised." The dark elf seemed fascinated for a moment by the human's face, but then her gaze shifted back to Trizryn. "Besides passage to the warrens, Bárí said you wanted information on someone."
The rogue-prince's expression darkened. "Two days ago, a dark elf named Ilisram killed my sister and some good friends. I need to find out who he is. And then … I want his head," he added in a quiet, menacing tone.
The Gray Lady registered an unhappy expression at this news. "Well, I couldn't find anything on short notice, but someone else in the warrens might know of him. We can ask around when we get there."
"He's holding hostages. I don't want to miss my chance to go to the warrens, but—"
"But hostages can't afford to wait for your return."
"My friends and I need to take him down before he harms anyone else, but his warriors outnumber us, and he uses tactics we don't understand. We need to find allies, but we don't know how long that will take … or if it will be enough."
"Where is he holding these hostages?"
"An underground ruin called Absin'navad. Traveling on land, by foot, it's about four days from here, beneath Blaihk Uðr Fýól. It used to be a dark elf temple. Those that managed to escape said he used necromancy to summon spirits to his aid."
"A common battle tactic among our kind."
"An illegal practice among the elves of light."
The Gray Lady snorted at his tone. "Do you really consider yourself one of them?"
"I was born and bred in light, and disturbing souls at rest is a disgrace."
"And yet they bound your soul to a summoning gem to enslave you while you lived. Your precious elves of light are no different from the best and worst among all of us. You've never even seen the elves of your homeland in the depths of this world, have you," she guessed. "You've never walked among us."
Trizryn's brows drew together at the challenge. "The Kingdom of Aesethna is my homeland. Brinnan is the city of my birth. There is nothing for me below the surface."
"Because you know nothing of it."
"My father didn't exactly stick around to tell me bedtime stories about where he came from," he acridly responded, losing patience with this topic.
The Gray Lady backed away with a smirk, glanced at Aija, then reached into the pocket of her veðrkylk draped on one of the chairs by the hearth. Removing a folded scrap, she offered it to Trizryn.
As he unfolded it, Aija saw it was a map drawn in black, glittery ink on some kind of soft leather.
"Is this a map to the warrens?" he asked.
"It's a treasure map enchanted with a clairvoyant spell. It can lead you anywhere you want to go, including the warrens. Do you have something to write with?"
Aija removed her book bag from her shoulder and retrieved the paper and stylus Trizryn had bought for her.
The female dark elf accepted the implements, moved to an end table, and started writing. "I have to deliver this shipment of blood before it is linked to your murders, so I can't wait for you to free your hostages. However, when you're ready to bring your documents to the warrens, copy my name in the map's margin. Be specific. Íenthé Við-Ránduíl. I'm an agent for Húss Záks-Hýarta."
When she finished, she handed the paper and stylus back to Aija, but continued speaking to Trizryn. "The map will lead you to me. The price for my service is ten hearts from your surface hunts. Preserve them with frost moss so they stay fresh."
"Hearts? Like animal hearts?" Aija clarified, wary of such a request.
"Animal, elven, troll … orc …" The female vampire cast a glance to the stains on Trizryn's clothing. "I'm not picky, as long as they are elf-size or larger. No trow, though. They are easy enough to find in the upper reaches of the subterranean passages."
"What are the hearts for?"
"It depends on what kinds of hearts you bring me and how fresh they are." Íenthé looked again to Trizryn. "The treasure map will be revoked at the end of the moon's cycle, so don't even think about selling it to pad your pockets. Or at the very least, don't sell it to someone who might send henchmen after you when it disappears. It's not my map. It's a tattoo from a battle mage who used to be a pirate. He controls the enchantment."
Aija could tell now that the mysterious item was indeed magical ink inscribed on a large piece of flesh. But the flesh was golden-tan, not bone-white.
"An elf from the western deserts," Trizryn guessed. "A sand pirate."
With a shudder, Aija turned away from the skin map to put her writing supplies, along with Íenthé's note, back into her bag.
"Only now he lives underground with us." The female dark elf sat down in the chair and tucked her fingers under the knees of her purple leggings. "He's the same elf who might be able to rid you of your little gem, so I'd take care of his map, if I were you. Oh, and bring the human at your own risk. As I said, human blood is a rare delicacy. You wouldn't want her falling into the wrong hands. Especially if she hasn't been well-seasoned."
"Seasoned?" Aija was getting annoyed at being referred to as an object again.
Íenthé shrugged. "Well, it's obvious that he's marked you, but are you trained?"
"He's marked me?" Incensed, Aija turned away from Íenthé to face Trizryn. "You marked me? That sounds even worse than being seasoned."
He was offended at her offense. "I'd apologize, except I don't even know what that means."
Íenthé snorted in amusement. "Didn't your sire teach you anything after he turned you?"
"I wasn't turned; I was cursed," Trizryn answered.
The female vampire blinked in surprise, then laughed. "That's impossible."
"Yet here I am." He gave a sweeping gesture of sarcasm.
"A vampire can only be made by another vampire." She assumed an air of mock formality. "As a mother nurtures her unborn child with her own blood, a vampire nurtures his chosen mortals with his blood and magic until they can be reborn as immortals themselves." But then Íenthé relaxed and slouched in her chair. "Not all vampires are fortunate to have good sires, but all of us do have them."
Trizryn set his hands on the arms of her chair and leaned forward, meeting her face-to-face. "I was stabbed in the back with a poisoned dagger. Aija tried to save me by drawing the poison from the wound, but she ended up tainting herself with my blood, and I died. But then I came back on my own. I had no idea what had become of me until I started craving blood. Does that sound to you like I was turned?"
One of Íenthé's white brows quirked again. "No, but to have been created by a curse, you would have to be quite old—ancient, in fact. The creation of an original vampire—a vampire lord—requires the blood of a dragon. And dragons have been extinct for ages."
His eyes narrowed with skepticism. "How do you know that?"
"How do you not know it? The fact that vampires are the sons and daughters of the ancient dragon cults is common knowledge among dark elves." Her cat-like eyes narrowed in return. "Have the surface elves forgotten history, or do they just choose to ignore it?"
"Light elves are well-versed in history. Vampires aren't exactly historical material." Trizryn crouched before Íenthé with a frustrated sigh, then looked up at her. "Please, if you could just help us find some answers. Can Aija get rid of the taint?"
Íenthé gave a mild sigh of concession. "Living bodies continually produce new blood cells, so vampire blood can sustain itself in mortals for a very long time. But, if she doesn't drink from you ever again, eventually her body will break down the foreign substance and destroy it."
"So, she can survive this?"
"As long as she doesn't die with tainted blood in her system. Otherwise, she will resurrect as a proper fledgling. Maybe you yourself drank tainted blood and didn't know it. That happened to someone else I know. A scorned lover poisoned his wine with tainted blood. Changed his life forever."
Trizryn backed away to give that unexpected possibility some thought.
Íenthé watched the fledgling vampire for a moment, then looked to Aija standing quietly behind him. Rising from her chair, the female vampire took Aija's hands. "A living companion is considered 'seasoned' when she has absorbed enough of her sire's blood to be well-trained at using his magic," she explained. "To an alchemist or a healer, all elven blood is the same. But to a vampire, each person's blood is unique. The taint of his blood marks yours, so it offers some measure of protection from other vampires."
"Other vampires stay away?" Aija asked.
"They stay away, and you become resistant to thrall magic. In return, the companion's blood gives the sire life and health, while also satisfying his more carnal tastes," she added with a wink.
Aija's vision suddenly, drastically darkened. Íenthé was sharing her extended night vision, just as Trizryn often did, only she took it one step further into the vampire's predatory sight. The female dark elf turned Aija's wrists over so she could see her own red energy and exaggerated blood pulsing through her veins. Íenthé's energy, by contrast, was pale blue. Her fingers felt cool, and she had no visible pulse.
"The sire's bond is like a symbiosis," the blood smuggler continued. "Both the vampire and the living companion benefit, but it requires them to watch over each others' most vulnerable aspects. A vampire is most vulnerable when sleeping and feeding, which is why the sire must choose his fledglings with great care. If what Trizryn says is true, you were not chosen with care. But it sounds like you are fortunate to at least have a sire who looks out for you." Íenthé allowed Aija's vision to return to normal, then released her wrists as the rogue-prince drew near.
"Is there any cure for someone who has already …" Aija paused and looked to Trizryn. It was still hard to acknowledge that he had actually died from that stab wound.
"Not that I know of." Íenthé lifted her veðrkylk from the back of the chair and slipped her arms into the voluminous sleeves. "We can discuss this more when you come to the warrens. Right now, thanks to your little indiscretion, I must move my blood supply out of town while I still can."
Pulling her hood over her head to hide her startling features from passers-by, she continued speaking to Trizryn. "I'll ask Távaló to extend the enchantment on the map, but if I were you I'd make the most of it while you have it, just in case he's not in the mood to entertain my whims. Don't forget the hearts. Meanwhile, I wish you good hunting for this … Ilisram. If you find him, bleed him dry for me, too. Renegade raids give all dark elves a bad name, and we prefer to deserve our reputations based on our own good or bad intentions."
With that, the Gray Lady excused herself with a bow, opened the door, and left them standing before the hearth fire.
Trizryn looked confused, angry, and frustrated … lost.
A long moment of silence passed before Aija spoke. "Are you okay?"
The rogue-prince gave a mild snort. "Why wouldn't I be? I've spent my whole life hiding behind illusions and keeping secrets, and now some complete stranger tells me I don't even know who I am." The calm manner in which he said it was almost disturbing.
Trizryn attempted to cover up his blood-stained tunic again before heading out again. "You should probably stay here until I clean up my mess. I can come back for you, and then we need to get back to camp."
"It might go faster if I help."
He looked like he was about to insist that she stay out of harm's way, but instead he exhaled and recast his pale illusion. The dark elf's chameleon-like ability to change his appearance with a mere thought still fascinated Aija, just like the first time she saw him do it. Drawing their hoods back over their heads, they went downstairs. But as they left Krofton's Lodge, Aija felt they were leaving with more questions than they had before they came.