The message arrived at dawn. No ordinary message; that just wasn’t Derek. Instead, as I leaned down to pick up a dropped knife in the kitchen, I suddenly heard his cool, clear voice cut the air.
“Big stuff.” He said. I immediately jumped and span around, my grip on the kitchen blade turning my knuckles white. Heart racing, my brain finally recognised it was simply Derek giving a message, and I closed my eyes.
His stern voice continued “Be ready tonight. Sundown…” I smiled and awaited more… “That’s all your getting.” I could imagine an impish grin crossing his usually stoic features…but it didn’t fit.
The rest of the day was trivial. As evening settled in I sat watching the flames in the hearth dance a merry dance, imagining I could see salamanders and elementals playing amongst the logs. Three sharp knocks shook my from my dozy musings and I got up to answer the door.
Derek’s face was smiling back at me. In the flickering light from the fire it looked rather ghoulish- the lines around his mouth and his dimpled cheeks amplified by the shadows of the hearth. His smile soon broke however, and he stepped inside, dragging his huge metal staff, and tugging on heavy blue mage robes as he stepped over the threshold.
“Do you have everything?” He looked at my bags, and then knelt down and began sifting through them.
“Wha-yes- what’s going on?” He stood up and looked at me, I could almost see magic crackling beneath his grey-green eyes as he stared. His perfectly white teeth flickered into a smile before his handsome face turned rather grave.
“It’s a long story,” His voice cut in “and an even longer journey. We’ll pick up Kath and Trent now and get going. Save your questions. Kath will surely know something of the disease.”
My mind was whirling. Vampires? I thought such things were merely legend. We’d fought monstrosities before; demonic cults, fiendish monsters, even dark elves, but...Vampires. I mechanically grabbed my bag and followed Derek out the door.
The journey to Trents house was filled with questions. Derek however acted as if he heard nothing as I followed the him through the streets, his metal staff clicking the cobbles like the ticking of some giant clock.
Trent greeted us at his door with a dazzling smile and immediately began compressing me into his chest in his usual manner before offering Derek a strong handshake. Derek, as usual, looked at the open hand with eyebrows raised and merely gave our good friend Trent a smile and an inclination of his hooded head.
Trent didn’t bring a pack and we left immediately; his body easily endures sleeping on the ground, even in the wilderness. Trent is a marvel. Strong as an Ox, yet intelligent, charming, and with a command over magics much different to the arcane studies of Derek or myself.
Trent dwarfed me as we walked briskly through the cold night air. At least six feet tall and broad, and wearing shockingly little considering the cool evening breeze. Sturdy leather boots, loose trousers and a sleeveless vest; all as black as his short cropped hair and starkly contrasting his ice blue eyes.
Trent asked me what the job was as we walked. I saw Derek glance over his shoulder and I didn’t say anything. Trent merely shrugged and started telling me a tale about how his last mercenary position. Just as he was describing a battle with nine wolves in the nearby Darkwood Forest, we left the village and found ourselves facing the very place he was describing.
“Kath A-Gel is meeting us here.” Derek pointed his staff towards a small path between the rows of densely packed tree’s, winding away like the tail of a kite, and taking sending my excitement to be adventuring again with it.. “Are you sure you both have everything you need?” I nodded, still peering tentatively into the gloomy forest, and Trent merely shrugged.
Derek nodded and cast a spell. After a few circular hand gestures the tip of his staff flared, giving birth to a ball of rolling golden light, it’s magical rays piercing the darkness and chasing away my fear. I created a similar orb and ordered it to hover a few feet in front of me.
Trent continued to tell me about the feral wolves he had encountered as we entered the deathly quiet forest. The immense tree’s flanking our small sliver of path like rows of proud knights guarding their liege. As Trent continued to apply various disgusting descriptions to the wolves he battled, I’m sure he saw my eyes searching the shadows with worry. Not that I’d have need to worry with Trent and Derek near, and Kath was also supposedly close by, but the chill night air had set my senses a-tingle, as well as Derek’s idea that we’d be facing Vampires.
“Anyway, back to the story, there were 2 left, surely doomed…oh…Looks like Kaths found us.” Trent pointed to Derek’s pool of light ahead. Sure enough, Kath now stood next to the mage, simply visible as a long hooded black cloak.
Before I could take in more of her appearance, my light began to sputter for seconds before completely extinguishing. Derek’s vanished too and we were thrown into darkness.
My heart began to race, thumping out a song of panic against my sternum, threatening to burst from my chest as the veins in my temples pounded their tune inside my skull. I felt suddenly naked in the darkness, as if a million pairs of eyes were upon me.
There are worse things than wolves in this forest. Rangers like Kath control the beasts…as I stood stock still on the tiny path, I felt as if I could feel an entire forest of beasts looking in at me with hungry red eyes, jaws dripping as saliva fell from wickedly pointed rows of teeth, each one sharper than a sword and just aching to puncture my frail body and crack and snap my bones to shards.
I could feel Trent next to me, looking in all directions as he shouted “Derek? Kath? Whats going on?”
Lifting quaking shaking fingers in front of me, I extracted some magic from the golden pool within my soul and began to form a light ball. My fingers betrayed me as they slipped sloppily through the gestures, and the spell energy merely dropped with a flat pop. I let out a gasp and looked around again, my eyes refusing to adjust to the sudden darkness, and the canopy of titans blocking the light from the moons above.
Straining my eyes for creatures I was sure I could feel surrounding me was useless. Over my heavy breathing and thumping pulse I began to hear them. The leaves of the tree’s nearby began to rustle, and the sound of snapping and rushing wind whistled through the canopy above me. I felt Trent move around, his back against mine. I could feel his arms moving around but I wasn’t sure of what he was doing, perhaps he was trying to active some of his more ancient magic.
Weaponless and wishing I was wearing the chain shirt in my pack., I forced another breath and raised my hands, slowing moving through the gestures to take a portion of magic, just a small one, and focus it’s energy into a spark. Breathing deeply and slowly, attempting to ignore the pictures as I began to imagine a variety of horrors descending from the tree’s. To my relief the smaller light was easier to manifest, and I was joined in the dark by a small orange spark above my palm. I let our a long breath and it quivered in the air, but fortunately didn’t depart.
The light only amplified my dread however, as the long shadows and flickering sights my eyes absorbed were somehow coalesced by my imagination to form giant black creatures, claws and arms reaching forward to tear my flesh. I was surrounded by ghostly titans, their long limbs pressing in on me, reaching forward to crush me to death and rattle the last breaths from my lungs. Between fearful gasps I forced more magic into the spark and increased the heat. Hoping to somehow defend myself should more than my imagination be at work here.
As the pool of light began to increase I realised the spectral giants were simply the tree’s, but the strange gusts of noise from the canopy hadn’t stopped.
I begin my next magical gesture, creating a weak shield around myself and Trent. Trent seemed to have relaxed already, his eyes casually searching for any threat. After a minute glaring between tree trunks for the monsters that I had certainly heard and felt, I finally broke the shield and heard Derek’s voice, looking to where he and Kath stood, standing under Derek’s reincarnated light orb.
“Are you two OK?”
“Yes” Trent called back. “What happened?” He said as we began moving carefully along the trail. All the while I fearfully glanced skyward, doubting the integrity of my previously ever-faithful magic. Relief flushed into my body as we joined to form a larger group.
Kath had her long curved scimitar drawn, it’s silver blade reflecting the light like a sliver of shining moonlight. She sheathed it without a sound as Derek completed a few general protection spells. I watched my light orb grow smaller and smaller as I stopped feeding it magic as Derek enhanced his own for the four of us. Kath gave me a small nod of greeting and I returned it with a warm smile, I saw her flawless pale face break into a similar smile, despite the previous incident things felt right as her smile reached her full brown eyes. Finally things were normal again and we were together.
The small moment of peace was broken by Trent’s thundering voice, shaking the birds from the tree’s nearby.
”Derek, what the hell was that? That’s never happened before! Does this contract have something to do with the forest?” He looked at Kath with a face blurred by confusion and anger. I saw Derek’s baffled, fearful, and possibly even quite hurt, face as he replied.
“I…I have no idea. That’s never happened before.” Derek looked at me for agreement. I shrugged, still glancing around the shadows behind my companions, even though I trusted Derek’s powerful wardings, it didn’t seem magic was our friend tonight.
”Would you tell us what this contract is?” Kath asked coolly, her melodic voice echoing between the tree’s. The three of us looked at Derek, who raised his hand to his forehead and rubbed his eyes with a sigh.
“I received a message from a Priest of Cyrodill two days ago. He knows my line of work and thought I might be interested in the case.” He stopped rubbing his eyes and dropped his hand to his side as he looked up, recalling the events. “He told me that his son went missing for meer hours, and was found dead in the attic of the house when a seeker spell was performed.” If we were no already silent, this news would have stunned us all into silence. It seemed as if the very tree’s that guarded the path leaned in to hear more. “The Order of Cyrodill dispatched aid to him and examined the body; determining that the boy had died of…of a vampires bite.”
”A what?! Vamp-Vampires don’t exist?!” Trent called, almost laughing at the Orders explanation.
“How many times have we fought creatures said not to exist.” Kath reminded him. Derek continued.
“The father has vowed to get revenge for his son, and I offered him aid in whatever way I could – we’re old friends, and I owed him a favour-” I saw Dereks eyes flick my way, presumably meaning this particular priest had healed Derek at some point. “I performed some magical searches on the house that proved inconclusive. However, whilst I was there the Priest himself received a message. Another child, a girl this time, once more fathered by a member of the Cyrodill clergy, had been found dead in a similar state.” My eyes widened. I heard Kath gasp. “That was yesterday. This morning I heard of another attack. A child of the Order once more. Worst part is that protection over this child was well fortified, especially considering her father is a High Priest, and can command magic most can only dream of. We now travel to the city where all this occured to investigate, Stapidus.
I shall re-open the portal I used during the last visit to save my magical energies, I was visiting Kath at the time. It is in a clearing we should come across soon, correct?” His eyes looked at Kath, mine and Trent’s followed. Kath nodded and smiled.
We continued down the path for a few moments before reaching a clearing, devoid of plant life. It was as if they shunned the ground and deemed it unworthy for inhabiting, the soil was loose under my boots as a result. Derek moved to the centre and began drawing a portal in the air.
As he did so I racked my brains for legends of vampires. I had nothing. The news was truly shocking. Dead children? Even talkative Trent had been silenced by the harrowing tail of dead youths. Something powerful must have been at work to kill three children unthwarted. I was brought back to reality by Derek’s cry.
“Attack!” His voice cut the air. His light evaporated and the fear that had previously vanished flooded back to me.
Drowned in blackness I froze again. This time they were closer. I could feel things moving around me, cold rushes in the air, I could hear the rustling of cloth and finally ghoulish scream pierced the night, shaking me to the core. Before I could begin creating light I was hit in the stomach by something, and sent flying through the air. Firey pain scorched my leg as I landed sprawling in the dirt far away from where I was standing previously.
Spitting soil from my mouth I looked to where I thought I had been standing. Derek’s light reappeared and I could see the mage leaning calmly upon his staff. Blood dripped from his mouth and down his chin like a child who’d been gorging on berries. He brought his other hand up and smeared the blood across his cheek, spiting some out of his mouth.
Trent was also within the light pool of Derek’s orb, his fists moving in circles, preparing for attack. I watched as the two were rushed again, this time clearly able to see the monster.
It was something wildly unnatural. A mass of twisting cloth and darkness swirling through the air. At one point it looked like it may have some deformed body beneath all the frayed black material, but it was quickly lost as it sifted around Derek’s light. Like many cloaks swirling in the night it suffocated the magic and darkness was reborn.
Derek was ready however, and the day was brought back in less than a second as another light appeared. He then split it into many sparks, each one flying away to form a large circle around Derek, Trent and the…It finally registered…It was a Wraith.
I still lay in the dirt, and finally managed to stumble to a standing position and have my hands obey me. I drew magic and shaped it into a shield around myself before I began limping towards Derek’s circle of lights.
The Wraith that had choked Derek’s first lamp was soon attacked by Trent. Bringing up his fast and powerful fist and hitting the spirit filled cloth. Trent’s eyes widened as the shadow creature absorbed the hit and began wrapping itself around his arm. I saw it growing in front of Trent’s paling face to form a towering humanoid figure twice Trent’s impressive height. It’s arm a swathe around Trent’s, I could see creatures coming from within the dark material, spider and insects making their way up Tent’s unclothed arm and biting his skin, red spots blossoming like rose petals lining the streets of Stapidus during the festival of love.
The Wraith wasn’t finished with Trent. Howling a tortured scream, It sent another other arm of darkness out from its body and it wrapped it around Trent’s throat, lifting his feet from the floor. Derek cried out and sent a bolt of blue magic at the creature from his staff, enough to send it tumbling through the air, however it took Trent with him. Both soared to land in a cloud of dust and black swirling cloth.
I finally made it to the circle of lights and began to walk to Derek. Derek’s eyes widened as he looked at me, and I turned to see another Wraith rushing towards me. Smashing my shield to shards of useless magic, the foul being lifted me through the air, to drop me on top of Derek, ending his next spell.
I heard Trent scream and suddenly adrenalin surged through my body. We were in grave danger. The pain in my leg was ignored as I leaped up, grabbing Derek’s hand and lifting him too. Together we formed a strong ward about the both of us.
Meanwhile, Trent had been dragged choking and kicking from the light pool. “Trent is in a lot of trouble” Derek told me as he watched the second Wraith begin choking out the lights in his circle. I nodded and closed my eyes.
Safely ensconced in our powerful shield I was fully able to concentrate. I searched deep inside my mind for the magical connections I had forged with my friends for combat. Finding them, I opened my eyes, seeing familiar ropes of golden magic surrounding me. Tendrils left my body to dance around the air, as fine as a spider’s web. One strand looped up to insert itself in Derek’s brow. The other two streamed out of the light circle, one at an angle, flowing upwards, another directly to the right. I quickly assessed that the first was Kath, who prefers shooting arrows from afar, and the cord was golden, suggesting she was in no particular danger. The other cord however began to pulse wildly, gradually loosing its golden intensity and integrity, it began to disperse and drift away. Trent was in danger. I closed my eyes again and sent my awareness through the cord to Trent, hoping Derek would keep my sequestered in the double shield.
As My awareness reached Trent’s body I almost dropped concentration, his pain flowed through me, like stepping into an ice cold waterfall. The creature had seemingly grown multiple limbs and had wrapped them around many parts of the large man, preventing him from struggling as he was chocked against a tree. Foul insects bit and nibbled all over his body, sucking blood and injecting poisons to course through Trent’s veins. The creature moved closer, preparing to swallow poor Trent into the blackness of it’s heart. A hole in the tree’s allowed blue moonlight from above to shine through, illuminating the horror. Through Trent’s eyes I saw the main part of it’s mass part like two dark curtains, revealing complete and utter darkness between them. I could feel cold rising from the points of connection, seeking out Trent’s heart and soul, strangling and chocking the life away. I began working some magic, enforcing the fibres of his body.
Careful not to completely petrify him, I fortified the outer layers of skin on his body to resist the compression of the creature, and the bites of the insects. I could feel Trent’s fear subside as he felt my presence and knew he was being rescued. Not be me alone it seemed, as a burning arrow hit the Wraith in the back. Kath had joined the battle.
Two more arrows pierced the creature before it finally broke its hold. Limbs swirling wildly through the air to reform in a ball of dark cloth. I immediately removed the fortification magic, allowing Trent to move freely, and returned to my own body to help Derek.
Opening my eyes, it appeared Derek had left the shield and had a Wraith trapped in a globe of magic, the creature slammed the sides of the green glowing sphere suspended in the air, and Derek finally pointed his staff at the thing, causing the sphere to burst into purple flame and destroy the creature. Derek cried “Is –“
“Trent is fine. Kath appeared at the right time.”
”As usual” said Derek with a small smile. “I think there were only two. We should help the others.”
Outside the circle of lights two sparks floated like tiny stars in an endless blanket of sky. More began littering the area in that direction. Like a necklace of rubies spilt upon a black silk blanket.
Derek began expanding the circle of lights towards them until it was large enough to encompass Trent, who was fighting with his own ancient magic. Pummelling the Wraith that had attempted to kill him with endless fury. More enchanted red arrows found their way into the creature and it finally succumbed to the beating, falling to become a pile of dirty black cloth on the floor, insects fleeing from the material as it was no longer animated by evil life drinking spirit. Derek scorched them with a simple spell.
Kath appeared overhead, hopping from branch to branch in the dark canopy, before dropping down with ease, and securing her bow to her back. Trent began rubbing his neck and Derek was glancing around with eyebrows raised before extinguishing many of the light orbs, and reforming a shield for the group.
“I’m afraid I had to drop the shield to cast the portal, and they attacked.” I moved towards Derek and healed the cut on his lip as he spoke. I could sense that miraculously, no one else was hurt. Pain suddenly flared in my leg as the adrenalin washed away, but the wound was simply healed with my magic. We had survived another battle.
Kath spoke. “They should not be in the forest Derek. They are unholy creatures, and in all the years I’ve warded Darkwood, never have I met a Wraith. They were sent.”
Derek’s eyebrows rose. “Perhaps.”
“Who knows we’re working to find the Vampire?” Trent asked.
“No one, surely Derek?” I said.
Derek put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes. “The Order of Cyrodill knows. My friend had to inform them, but I doubt they’d send unholy creatures to kill us.” I bit my lip in worry. Kath tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears as she began to speak.
“If the Order knows, perhaps it is the Order who is behind it all. I- Look just listen” Kath said as we all opened our mouths to protest. Although no friends of the Order particularly, it was unlikely a holy man would be killing children. “We know little of the Order, and it may not be a difficult to infiltrate as you imagine.” I shrugged and looked at Trent, who did the same. All three of us turned to Derek, who screwed up his eyes in concentration.
“Perhaps Kath. But that doesn’t change our next actions. I shall attempt to re-open the portal once more. Be on the look out for any more attackers as I do so.”
I dropped my shield so that it wouldn’t interfere with Derek’s portal magic. We moved away as he began re-establishing his portal, until finally a circle was cut into the air, ringed by purple runes unreadable even to my eyes. It enclosed a room with a fire and some lounge chairs. Kath and Trent stepped through. I lifted me foot and prepared myself for the unwelcome sensation of walking through a cloud, and Derek followed, closing the portal on the other side.
“Ah. Wasn’t too difficult was it. We are on the top floor of the Three Sisters Lodge in the city of Stapidus, so, we’re not far from home, but portals make for quicker travel. There are beds in all the rooms and I assure you it is quite secure, so no watch tonight. See you in the morning.” Derek said briskly. I could see the strain lines on his face, the shields he had to erect upon me were very strong and had taken a toll on him. It was however, a necessity due to my vulernable state when tending to others through the life-cords.
An obviously exhausted Derek opened a nearby door and entered what was presumably his room. I bid goodnight to the others, a little shakey after our encounter with the Wraiths, and went to my own.
It was a small room, but quaint and well furnished and lit by a candle. The wooden floor didn’t creaked as I moved towards the bed, throwing my pack onto the floor with a thump and rubbing my shoulders. Perhaps I’d been out of the adventuring business for too long. I took off my shoes and sank into the bed, tired after all the excitement and falling instantly into a deep sleep.
Twisted tendrils of terrifying darkness tore through the skies. I tried to run, to hide, but I was surrounded by emptiness, a barren landscape of scorched earth as far as the eye could see. Manic laughter filled my head, screamed so loud that it threatened to shatter my skull. I knelt on the earth, shaking. The Wraiths were getting closer. “DEREK” I cried, but there was no answer. I looked through the life-cords. They were close.
The Wraith was here. I felt its icy touch upon my soul, searing it with freezing cold pain. I curled into a ball on the dry earth as its spirit infested cloth surrounded me, enveloping me and drawing me into the blackness of it’s heart. It flayed my soul. I closed my eyes, wishing the pain to end…suddenly it did. I heard a voice echo inside my skull, a voice filled with pain and cold, evil and darkness, manic laughter and terrified sorrow at the same time. The voice spoke.
“You are mine” it said. I opened my mouth to reply. Surrounded by blackness. “Think, don’t speak” it said. I understood.
LET ME GO
“You are mine”
THIS IS A DREAM. I WAS IN THE TAVERN! I screamed back. The voice merely laughed, the laughter of the insane.
Suddenly the blackness was gone. I was once more in the endless scorched field. I wasn’t looking through my eyes this time. I was looking at me. Fully clothed, moving around the field. Stumbling like a new born lamb learning how to walk.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
“Watch.” The voice said. Suddenly I could see the life-cords stretching from me like the strands of a spiders web. My body began moving along one, until it ended.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
“Killing your friends. The Order instructs me…and your friend Derek lead you right into my lair.” I heard Kath cry out, a scream that tore at my heartstrings and my soul. I shared her pain, and woke with a start.
I opened my eyes to darkness. Fear surged through my body as the dream pain began to fade, the shock remained however, and I was covered in sweat. Where was the candle? I raised my hands and drew magic instantly to send the darkness away. In my shocked state a burst of flame rose from my palm and bleached the room red for a second. I tried again, creating a more controlled orb of light this time. As the orb blossomed into existence I could see that it wasn’t as I first imagined. The room was red.
I was not covered in sweat. I was covered in blood.
My scream shook the building.