Aerelian felt the fangs of the pijavica snag on his left shoulder, perforating his Imperial-issue tunic. Blood began to drip, if only for a moment before it was all licked away.
He thrashed and kicked, rolling in the dirt. The monster’s silhouette in the torchlight was truer to its form than the image of a girl before him. Her hair was lilac, her skin was dark and healthy. Pillowy lips clasped around his wound. Though he thrashed and wriggled, her movements were nothing but graceful, mesmerizing. The only trait betraying her nature was her eyes. Bright red and filled with bloodlust. Deep within them was a mirror of soulless void, like a bottomless well of oil and gore.
Aerelian felt the stake he’d carried clatter to the floor against a stone. He rolled around as the beauty floated over him. Her shadow raged and scurried, tore and ripped; all in complete opposition to her angelic movements.
He reached blindly for the stake, his eyes locked onto hers. Finally his hand gripped something smooth and hard. As he tried to clutch it, his index nail on his left hand caught a snag and snapped. He gritted his teeth as he pushed his full force into her heart with his weapon. But it was not the stake he had grabbed, but the stone.
Aerelian cursed in elvish as he dealt the blow. Numerous shards from the stone turned to fine dust against her mystical skin. Her dress went unruffled as the blast sent her back.
It was not enough to kill her, or even wound her, but at least his eyes were free. He willed them shut and muttered the incantation. A classic one, even kids could practice it– elven kids, anyway.
He heard the dust move. No sounds of fabric rubbing together, no huffs of breath, or thudding of footsteps. Pijavicas were silent creatures and this one was about to slash his throat open when Aerelian finished his chant. He spread his fingers apart on both hands, blood draining off his left. He opened his eyes and saw the pijavica’s face just before his, like a lover waiting to be kissed. Her expression, caught mid-kill, turned to horror as either one of his hands clamped around her shoulders.
The creature screeched as flames erupted from under her flesh beneath each shoulder. The unholy sound echoed down the halls of the mine.
The pijavica’s mouth hung open as her expression softened. Her lilac hair turned golden, then red as the fire burned her form to cinders.
Aerelian released the corpse as its legs disintegrated. The only thing remaining after the fight was its doll-like head, its expression serene. Through the ashes, the body slithered and unfolded. The true form became apparent as the illusion simmered away. A blackened body of a gargoyle with the head of a doll lay before him, no smaller than five meters long.
Aerelian coughed up dust and blood. He stood there heaving, clutching his shoulder. He glanced down at his cracked fingernail. The wound was completely cauterized over from the burn. First degree burns spread across his hands, pink, even in the torchlight.
“Take your potion,” said a voice. It was deep, like two stones grating together. Aerelian looked up to see the bounty hunter before him, his steel armor dented and bloodied. He was holding a mirror. In it was a semi-transparent image of an elf. Cropped orange hair lay disheveled upon his head. He had the makings of thin facial hair and a skinny form. The image of Aerelianwas fading away slowly.
“Take your potion. Doesn’t look good to ride into town carrying my employer’s ‘ead.”
Aerelian shook free from shock. His hands fumbled into his travel satchel and produced a bottle with cyan ichor. Glittering lights swirled around in the brew. He popped the cork and chugged the whole thing down, only pausing to cough out a glob or two in the process.
When finished, he glanced back up to see the mirror image of himself return to full opacity. The hunter, evidently satisfied, pocketed the mirror.
“Thank you,” said Aerelian. “I hadn’t even realized that I’d been bit. If you’d–”
“‘Nough. Hand me yer bag.”
Aerelian cocked an eyebrow and smiled mildly. Still, he obeyed and tossed the mercenary his satchel.
“Right, so you’re ten miles out from the nearest village. On foot, it’d take me a day without a mount. You… gee, I dunno.”
“Dunwick, why do I get the impression you’re leaving me?” asked Aerelian.
“Worse than that, boss, yer gettin’ robbed.”
Aerelian's eyes widened. He spread his hands out and recited another incantation. Sparks splayed before his fingertips, crackling across the floor toward Dunwick.
Sparks dazzled off of Dunwick’s armor. The bounty hunter nodded approvingly, “Yeah, pretty.”
A steel gauntlet collided with Aerelian's head. He lay flat on the dirt floor. He tasted blood.
Dunwick tapped an amulet around his neck, “Didn’t think I’d take a job without some insurance?” Without effort, Dunwick’s sword arm flashed and a splay of ash and blood poofed out below him. He reached down and lifted the decapitated head.
Aerelian's mouth hung open as Dunwick pocketed the vamp’s head. “Got a bounty on this one. The others, not so much.” He gestured back to several other gargoyle corpses splayed throughout the mine.
“But– but I haven’t paid you yet!” cried Aerelian.
“Got all I need right here, thank you.” he raised the two bags, one dripping vampiric blood onto the dirt. “‘Promised to get you to the Wilderhills. Well, yer here.”
Dunwick turned round and strode away, ignoring Aerelian’s protests.
“How am I supposed to even get to Gryffinloft? Where the hells are we?”
From somewhere in the mine, Dunwick called, “‘Luck with all that!”
* * *
Though the elixir eliminated the threat of vampirism, the threat of bleeding out was all too real for Aerelian. His cauterization of his finger wound was entirely accidental. He was not a mercenary nor a soldier. This land was wild and now even his bodyguard had abandoned him.
He had studied illusionary magic, practical magic, and physik… but he’d never learned to dress a wound.
Aerelian would be dead by blood loss or infection if he wasn’t careful in his efforts to seal the puncture.
Slowly, he unraveled his tunic at the collar, removing his scarf and unbuttoning his undershirt.
The puncture was more of a gash, he realized. And the gash was bleeding profusely.
He grimaced. His hand quivered up as he outstretched his fingers. He stumbled over the words several times as he tried to recite the incantation. Finally, he reached the trigger word:
His hand was engulfed in fire. Before he could think about what he was doing, he pressed his palm to his shoulder.
He remembered screaming before blacking out completely.
* * *
Aerelian woke up sore all over. His legs had it terribly, but there was pain radiating from his neck, shoulder, and right hand. He blinked several times, expelling the tears that had welled there.
From somewhere down the halls of the mine, he heard the chirping of birds. He tried to focus on that while struggling to his feet. He patted about himself to search for a mirror and found none. It had been left in his bag. The same bag Dunwick had stolen.
He sighed and limped in the direction of the sounds of birds. The torches on the walls were almost all completely burnt out.
He’d entered these mines through the Southwestern opening, but the diagrams he’d seen back in the capitol indicated there would be another entrance through the Northeast end. That must have been where Dunwick had headed off to– he wouldn’t dare admit to robbing an Emissary of the Imperial Mage Guild, but he also wouldn’t want to risk being caught across the Imperial border without his employer.
No, they would both be going to the Wilderhills. Aerelian wasn’t sure he had the strength to make it as far as Gryffinloft, but he had to try.
As if to push him further, screeches echoed from deeper within the mines. From the South end.
No turning back, Aerelian hobbled out in the direction of his exit…
* * *
Wind sliced through Aerelian’s cloak like icicles. Frost encrusted what little facial hair he had. His elven ears grew bright red with a concerning tinge of purple forming at their tips.
He’d managed to fend off freezing to death so far with the smallest amount of fire he’d dared to conjure. Since his self-cauterization, he found it much harder to focus when casting anything with fire. The word, Infernus etched itself somewhere into each of his nightmares in the spare moments he managed to catch sleep.
The Wilderlands were heavily forested and mountainous. Fauna in the area was scarce and Aerelian knew nothing about foraging for food.
His only silver lining in the whole ordeal was that he managed to burn away any chance of infection. Still, as the snot in his nose leaked onto his upper lip, he felt a cold coming along.
It had been a day and a half since he’d awoken in the mine. Before then, there was no telling how much time had passed.
The Gryffinloft Guild would be expecting his arrival in a day or two, giving him not nearly enough time to rough it on foot.
Several times, Aerelian managed to spot a deer. A flame arrow, conjured with an infernal spell, might have done the trick to maim, if not kill an elk or two. But not even for the life of him could he manage to cast it.
It was merciful luck on the evening of the second day that Aerelian stumbled upon a shelter, its chimney alight. He was so cold, so numb, that he didn’t feel his feet carrying him forward. He floated in through the front door and heard soft whispers welcome him.
It was at that moment that Aerelian realized that this was no mercy of the mortal realm. He’d passed on and made court with one of the Wildergods of man. He resigned his fate as he collapsed on the cabin’s floor, vaguely aware that the whispers that had welcomed him sounded an awful lot like startled screaming.
* * *
Aerelian struggled to sit up. He was in a bed in a cabin. An unfamiliar face looked across the room at him. She was sitting in a chair with a crossbow trained upon him.
He managed a gruff, “hello” before relapsing into a coughing fit.
“I wouldn’t bother with niceties. You broke into my house yesterday afternoon. You were starving and frostbitten.”
Aerelian reached for the cup beside the bed and drank heartily. It was good fortune to find that it was warm water. He’d drunk nothing but snow for the past two days.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude… I wasn’t myself.”
The woman raised an auburn eyebrow. “And who might that be?”
“Well…” he glanced at her crossbow. She’d better like what he’d have to say. The Wilderlands were full of insurrectionists and anti-imperials. “I am a scholar. I study magicks and the like.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Where from?”
Lying was likely to get him shot. He dropped his eyes and sighed, “Cyrdrey.”
At the sound of the Imperial capital's name, the woman looked as though she’d shoot Aerelian. However, she stayed her hand. “I appreciate the honesty.” She nodded, “What is your name?”
“Highborn,” she spat.
He nodded slowly, eyeing the crossbow.
She brushed her hazel hair behind her right ear. An elven ear. “The make of your breed doesn’t matter down here. High, low… we’re all just elves to the humans.” She lowered the crossbow. “Daegis.”
Aerelian relieved a sigh. “Thank you for not shooting me, Daegis.”
“And saving your life,” she added.
“And saving my life,” he chuckled.
The two sat around chatting. Aerelian had many questions to answer before she hung the crossbow back up. He took note of the many bows and arrows she’d hung up beside it.
She fed him porridge and tea, warming his long-frosted insides.
“This tea is alchemical, isn’t it?” he asked.
She nodded. “My brother healed people while he served. I picked up a few tricks.”
For the first time, Aerelian noticed the tattoos across her exposed forearms and neck. “You served too.”
Her expression hardened. “I did.”
Aerelian shifted uncomfortably.
“Your strength is coming back,” said Daegis. She gestured to the bow. “Ever shoot before?”
Aerelian shook his head. “A little at the academy but…”
“Come.” She opened the door for him.
* * *
Aerelian’s legs were stiff from bed and the cold. Though he stretched, the tension would not leave.
Daegis handed him a bow. The yew wood was oiled green with golden etchings across the upper and lower limbs. If there was any question about Daegis’s origins, the characteristic weapon of the Wilder Elves gave it away.
As a Ulmarii Elf, taking lessons from a lowborn was more than looked down upon, it was taboo. However, as a scholar, it was a treat.
Daegis had set up targets in the trees, up the hills, and buried in ravines some distance away. Many of Daegis’s arrows hit home before Aerelian even realized there had been a target positioned there.
When it came time for him to shoot, Aerelian protested.
“You aren’t going to find food between here and Antler’s Crest unless you know how to shoot a bow.”
He knew she was right. Still, he protested until she finally grabbed his arms and straddled him into position.
“Hold the arrow like this. Yes, there– No! Don’t let it dip so far forward or else you are going to… drop it.”
They tried again. And again. Finally, Aerelian managed, through an onslaught of giggling, to hold the arrow still enough to draw back the string.
“Are you even aiming yet?” asked Daegis.
“Uh… doesn’t that part come after I’ve drawn–” His finger slipped and the drawstring let loose. The arrow flew off wildly into the trees.
Daegis sighed. “I’ll get it.”
With the grace of a cat, she bounded through the snow so quickly, Aerelian wondered if she’d even made contact with the forest floor below. With acrobatic poise, she climbed the well-spaced branches of the fir tree nearest to them. From there on, Aerelian only spotted auburn shadows, dancing between the trees until a soft crunch came from behind him. He let out a startled cry as an arrow gently tapped into his exposed right side.
“Dead,” said Daegis playfully. She retracted the arrow and handed it back to him, “They really don’t teach Ulmarii kids any survival skills, do they?”
Aerelian blushed. “Look, if interpreting ancient texts or committing spells to memory could get me food–”
Daegis laughed, “Alright, settle down. I need a few more shots from you.”
He hesitated but finally resigned back into position. This time, he aimed first, selecting an easy target not but fifteen meters away. He drew back, exhaled, and missed.
“Alright, I really need the practice,” he admitted.
* * *
They went on like this for hours. Daegis lent him a finger guard when his skin turned raw from the practice. Mercifully, three arrows hit the targets, but the rest were lost.
“I should charge you by the arrow at this point,” said Daegis.
Aerelian rubbed at his sore arms. “I would pay you but my bodyguard robbed me coming through the pass.”
She raised a hand, “Figures. Ulmarii aren’t welcome here.”
They stood in silence as the snow began to fall again, like infinite cherry blossoms from Cyrdrey’s gardens.
“My brother loved the snow,” said Daegis, finally.
Aerelian glanced at her. Her freckled nose was turning pink. He gestured to her cabin and together they walked back in.
“You said your brother served,” said Aerelian. “Is he off fighting now?”
“No,” Daegis said softly. “He died when two Ulmarii drunks killed him for sport.” There was rage in her eyes and Aerelian thought it best to drop the subject, but she continued.
“I live out here now… Gryffinloft was our home before Crydrey claimed it.” She rested her head on her chin, her eyes unfocused. “We fought for the Empire, of course. But that didn’t change the way Imperials saw us. Wilderkin.”
Aerelian cleared his throat. “I’m… I’m sorry. That’s not me, I–” he dropped his gaze.
Daegis stood, snapping out of her reverie. “You can take his bow,” she nodded at the yew in Aerelian’s hands. “It’s a long walk, but you can make it to Antler’s Crest by nightfall if you hurry.” She placed a full quiver into his other hand. “Whatever you kill, you eat.”
“I…” Aerelian stood there dumbly with his mouth agape. “I don’t understand. Was it something I said?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. After a while she sighed and closed her eyes. “You seem nice, Aerelian. But we can’t be friends. I know that you’re a scholar, probably off to Gryffinloft to collect the precious spells and lore before the war comes through here and razes it all to hell. I used to fight for the Empire, but now I have a place of my own. I won’t allow it on my doorstep. I won’t allow it in my home.”
She folded her arms. “You can correct me if I’m wrong and stay. Otherwise… it’s time to go.”
Aerelian said nothing. He took one last look at the cozy cabin and then took his leave. “Goodbye, Daegis.”
* * *
That night, an elf entered into Antler’s Crest. He had no food and no money. He pawned off a yew bow for fifty coins and bought a carriage into Gryffinloft. Three weeks later, he would take safe passage with a cart full of tomes and scrolls into Cyrdrey and then to the Empire beyond.
That elf never stopped back into Antler’s Crest nor the Wilderhills around it.