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  • Ryen folded up his copy of the Red City News and pushed it off to the side of the counter. He picked up his mug. Trouble stirring again. That long war with Vandrovic had hardly ended, and now...this. Never a lasting moment of peace. Still, he had to admit: the "Blood Crusade" was a fantastic name.

    He took a long sip from his mug. Elisabeth would probably show her face again. Last he checked, she was still trying to cure Pervil. To try and make peace with the dragons. Undo the alliance that Vandrovic worked so hard to create. In the meantime, there was no telling what that Ice Spirit was up to. Or, Dragon Spirit now. Would the dragons still rally to his cause? Likely.

    If anything, the Spirit was more of a...projection of Vandrovic's hatred. Killing Vandrovic was supposed to have stopped the Spirit. Or so they had thought. Vandrovic never really died, not completely. His willpower was so strong, not even death could restrain it. What powerful magic that must've taken...to infuse another being with his very essence.

    Of course, all that was only true if Elphina was to be believed. No one had seen the Spirit since the battle. With any luck, the dragons and the vampires wouldn't still be working together. Not after that crushing defeat at Marali.

    Ryen looked up from his drink, and swept the pub with his eyes. It looked the same as it always did on these chilly Welif evenings. There was the lone man seated in the corner by the window with the view of the sea. The rowdy group of friends sharing stories and laughing around the fire. The odd traveler or two at the bar, keeping to themselves. The bard playing softly in the back. It was a good place to get away, or to blow off steam. He hadn't even seen Elisabeth here for a number of moons.

    But oh, Elisabeth. There was a time, not too long ago, when he would've liked nothing more than to char her to ashes with a nice fireball. Oh, wait. He had tried that once. He might as well have thrown his shoe at her. Infuriating woman. Well, at least it was satisfying.

    And then there was Charlotte. Boy, was that a mess. He really never should've agreed to babysit her. She was a nice girl and all, but he just wasn't cut out for the job. Not like Drac. Ah, Dracilus...he and the girl had gotten along famously. Hell, Drac was the reason that Ryen had got caught up in that whole affair.

    But all that was behind him now. Life was free again. Mostly. As long as you didn't count his studies.

    "Bah." Ryen hailed Buckthorn for another drink. To Hell with his studies.
     

  • "Hey, Ol' Buckthorn!" Ryen lumbered over to his old spot at the bar, and slammed a few coins down on the countertop. "Anything up lately?"

    "Nah, not really." Buckthorn brought a mug to the tap.

    "With times like these... no news is good news!"

    Buckthorn slammed the mug on the counter with a grin, before turning back to whatever it was he was preparing on the stove. Some sort of garlic dish, judging by the sharp aroma.

    Mug in hand, Ryen cast a quick glance over his shoulder. It was a quiet evening in the Dead Hayate. No one else present, other than the crusty old man waiting by the door. Though he didn't know the man's name, Ryen recognized him from nights before. Hard to forget a man who has only one ear and a tattoo of a serpent encircling his neck.

    That serpent would be the symbol of Hannibal the Terrible's crew, of course. Gramps over there was probably stopping by to pick up another consignment of rum. There was a time when these sorts of exchanges would happen only in the hours just before sunset, when the town was blanketed with heavy fog... and when the prying eyes were fast asleep. But tonight, the skies were clear. And it was still pretty darn early. The stars and the moon – nearly full, now – shone brightly through the window.

    Ryen took a large swig from his drink. He no longer puzzled over the lack of secrecy. Just as he no longer wondered why the patrols from Mirith had stopped coming to town. Life was...simpler now. Somehow, though, he wasn't sure that he liked it.

    He really needed to get back to Brigobaen, find himself something more productive to do. For one thing, there was still much to learn about the new uses of black magic. About the ability to cleanse oneself of the Consumption. Next time he was in Gast, he was going to force himself to make the voyage to the temple. It wasn't that long of a trip, really. He had just been putting it off since... well, since a long time ago. In fact, the last time he could remember being in the great library was with Charlotte, Shivani and Gregg.

    Ryen couldn't help but let out a quiet laugh. That was the day they were trying to teach the girl about druid magic. And, more to the point, it was the day he tricked Charlotte into going green. No regrets there. Starting somebody off with a proper sense of fashion was of the utmost importance. Especially when that somebody's mother wore nothing but horrendous shades of red.

    "Hah." Ryen stood up and brought the last of the ale to his lips. He placed the mug gently on the counter and strolled to the door. The other patron was gone, no doubt having slipped out while Ryen was lost in thought. He opened up the door, and a crisp gust of wind came to greet him.

    "Be seein' ye next week!" Buckthorn called out from behind the counter.

    "Right... we'll see."
     

  • Even before he turned the corner, Jedd could sense that his manhunt was coming to an end, at long last. He had spent the better part of the waning moon in seedy taverns and unfamiliar inns, with nothing to show for it but a newly acquired aversion to chirashizushi. And now here he was in the quiet, dimly lit libraries of Brigobaen. He would've been angry if it wasn't so laughable. But indeed, there at the far side of the room sat Ryen himself, nose buried in a book. To his side was a nearly empty glass of milk, and a plate of what appeared to be gingerbread cookies.

    Jedd approached the table. "Hello there!"

    Ryen's eyes flashed up at the fighter for a brief moment, before falling back to the page. A second later, they shot right back up and his mouth fell open, lips moving ever so slightly as if trying to form words.

    "I've got to hand it to you," Jedd said, reaching for a cookie. "Of all the places where I thought I might find you, this was last on the list."

    Ryen finally let out a sharp laugh. "I'm surprised it was even on the list."

    "To be fair, the list was quite long. But the hour is late – allow me to get straight to the point. I need your help with something. Recently, I've had some unfortunate encounters, of the vampiric sort."

    "No wonder you look paler than usual."

    "Ha-ha, very funny." Jedd strolled over to a nearby bookshelf and pretended to thumb through the volumes. "Now," he said, looking back at Ryen, "it's no secret that you're a close friend of the vampires, and tha—"

    "Close friend of the vampires? Me?" Ryen rolled his eyes. "You must've gotten me mixed up with Drac. I just helped him out with some babysitting chores here and there."

    "Well, I'm not at all surprised to hear that Dracilus is involved in this, but I'm no fool. There's more to this story than meets the eye." Jedd swung his pack over his shoulder and unearthed a parcel, setting it firmly on the table.

    His brother stared at the parcel with a blank face. "What is...?"

    "It's for you."

    Ryen tore through the packaging, tossing the scraps of paper to the floor. Suddenly he was motionless. There on the table was a dusty old robe that had once been bright green, but was now a drab olive. And sitting on top of it was a wizard hat of the same hue, wrinkled beyond repair.

    "These...are mine." Ryen continued to stare at the pile of clothing. "Were mine. When did you..." The wizard trailed off.

    "It was in Vandrovic's last days," Jedd said, pulling up a chair. "Siegal and I had come down to the city to help repel another invasion. The dragons were badly outnumbered right from the start, and had no chance of winning. But they still fought, and they fought hard. Of course, it was all a ruse. While we were occupied at the west gate, Vandrovic entered the city unchallenged. He had launched that entire invasion just to distract us, so that he could kidnap the city's most esteemed guest. And that guest would be none other than the little vampire girl, Charlotte herself."

    Ryen sat up straight. "No one ever told me about this."

    "You were probably just not listening."

    "Heh."

    "Unfortunately for Vandrovic," Jedd went on, "Charlotte had fled the city some time before. The dragons left empty-handed, and the girl resurfaced later that day. That was when I first met her. And, well..."

    Jedd paused to take a bite out of the last cookie sitting on the table, and to buy himself some time. Careful phrasing would be key, especially at this critical juncture in the tale.

    "Well?" Ryen said, crossing his arms. "C'mon already!"

    "Well, we told Charlotte that she was no longer safe within the walls of Mirith. She took this as a, um, command for her to leave the city, and so off she ran, quick as a pixie."

    "And you just let her go?"

    "Of course not! We spent some ridiculous amount of time walking all over the continent – and beyond – trying to find her. Eventually, we found her hiding in a pixie commune, not far from this temple. If it wasn't for Siegal and his bond with pixiekind, we might not have ever been able to convince the girl to return."

    "Great. Just great." Ryen breathed a heavy sigh. "I didn't realize you were skilled at spooking children."

    Jedd removed himself from his chair and took a few steps toward the door. Doubtless, Ry had been out running with pirates or other folk of ill repute, instead of watching over his ward on that day. But the fighter restrained himself from calling his brother out.

    It was beginning to be quite the familiar refrain. So many of his friends and family had gone down the path of least resistance, forsaken their integrity, become outlaws. But Jedd could never renounce them, even though every fiber of his being cried out for him to do so. No, he was weak in this regard. In any case, today he had a mission to accomplish.

    Jedd turned back around. "Before she ran away, she left a package at the bank, saying it belonged to you. Now, it has made its way back to the original owner." He gestured toward the clothing.

    "Sure took you long enough."

    "Hmm. It has been almost three years now. To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten about it until just recently." That is, he'd forgotten about it until that witch Elphina had returned, and with her, all of his misgivings about the vampires.

    "Right," Ryen said, his voice subdued. "But the package...I wonder why."

    "I couldn't tell you. I don't pretend to understand a thing about her."

    "Clearly."

    A silence descended upon the room. After a few moments, Ryen coughed and began to twirl a piece of chalk between his fingers.

    "Well then." Jedd made his way back to the table and took a seat facing the wall. "There is one more thing to tell. I was staying in Andris, not too long ago, when I had my second encounter with Charlotte. Nothing much came of the meeting, but there was one curiosity: she was wearing robes of green."

    "Wait, what?"

    "Indeed. And oh, she had a matching hat on, too. From what I understand, she's been forcing her uncle to buy her everything the tailors have to offer." Jedd stole a glance at his brother, whose face was starting to light up. "Ry, I fear you've created a monster!"

    At this, Ryen burst out laughing and hurled his piece of chalk at Jedd, hitting him right between the eyes. "Bloody right I have!"

    Jedd laughed quietly to himself, rubbing his forehead. "In any case," he said, "It seems you are closer to the vampires than you might think. And so here is what I ask of you. Surely you must know of the Blood Crusade, and the threat they continue to pose to us all. We are poorly equipped to fight them, as we are lacking in one crucial commodity: knowledge. You, however, are well-positioned to mitigate this deficit."

    "Okay, okay, I'll help. But I still say you've got the wrong guy. Drac's the one for the job."

    "Believe me, if I ever find him, you'll be the first to know."

    "I better be." Suddenly, Ryen jumped to his feet, dusted off his robes, and grabbed Jedd's shoulder. "And you. You owe me one, big time."

    "That, I can abide."

    "Lovely. Anyways, I've got a lot of sleep to catch up on."

    "Yes, and I had best be on my way."

    "Right." Ryen snatched the pile of clothing up from the table and marched towards the door. "Later, brother."

    "So long...brother."
     

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