Chapter 202 - Vampire's Den

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The first place the mayor led the group to was a nearby section of forest that had burned down several years before.  Much of the flora had regrown during that time, but there were still a handful of burned and blackened stumps here and there.

“This isn’t it,” Adalgrim stated almost instantly upon arrival.  “This place makes for a poor hiding place, and any fire magic in the air that the forest fire may have produced has long since dissipated.”

“T’ be honest, I didn’t really think the monster would be ‘ere, either,” the mayor admitted.

“Then why show us?” Adalgrim asked.

“It’s on the way t’ a much likelier location: where we used t’ burn our dead,” the mayor responded.  “It’s a small mausoleum that ‘asn’t been used in years, not since we built a new place closer t’ the village.”

“Sounds promising,” Adalgrim replied with a vicious smile.

The mayor continued to lead them onward.  As they walked, Leon pulled out a finger-sized strip of mashed meat and bone, a special meal that the beastmasters had been providing him with to feed Anzu.  The young griffin happily swallowed it whole when Leon held it before him.

“Why doesn’t he ever do that with me?” Alix wondered aloud from just behind them with a hint of bitterness in her voice.  Even after a year of nearly always being in her presence, Anzu still refused to eat anything she gave him, despite being comfortable enough around her to snuggle and allow her to groom him.

Leon silently chuckled, but he didn’t have an answer to give her that he hadn’t already offered before.  He had imprinted on Anzu, and so the griffin considered Leon to be his parent—or family, at least, as Anzu could probably identify that he and Leon weren’t visually similar enough to be parent and child.

“I guess he knows that I’m just that much more likable,” Leon replied sarcastically.

“You know, that won’t come true no matter how many times you say it out loud,” Alix shot back with a playful grin.

“Really?” Leon asked with faux confusion and fear.  “Anzu, who do you like more?”

As if understanding Leon’s words, the rapidly growing griffin then rubbed itself against Leon’s legs, like a housecat.

With a smarmy smile, Leon glanced back at Alix.  After more than a year getting to know each other, she didn’t need Leon to remove his helmet to know his expression.  She responded by sticking out her tongue, leading them both to chuckle.

The two had a somewhat unique relationship compared to all the other squires and knights they had met, a fact that they were well aware of after a year at the Bull’s Horns.  That being said, they were close in age, they had a similar amount of battle experience, and Trajan had even promised Alix a place in his retinue after she achieved third-tier and Leon knighted her.  Of course, she knew that this was mostly a formality; almost all squires joined their knights’ units, usually under their direct command.  She didn’t honestly believe that her skills had impressed the Prince enough to make the offer out of a genuine desire to add her to his retinue.  Still, she was happy to receive the offer, as being in the retinue of a Prince was perhaps the single best job a soldier could land, and certainly not one a young woman from a nowhere town near the border ever expected to have.

So, with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be knight and squire for long, and that they’d probably be fighting side-by-side for a while longer, Leon and Alix relaxed around each other, and neither held the other to the expected standards of formality that other more noble knights might insist upon.

“We’re almost there,” the mayor announced, putting a severe dampener on the mood.  Leon and Alix immediately put on their serious faces and Anzu, noticing the change in demeanor, went from happily trotting along at Leon’s side to moving through the underbrush like he was stalking prey—though his bright white fur and feathers that stuck out in the underbrush of the forest ruined his attempts to be sneaky.

“There it is,” the mayor said, pointing to a small square kiln made of simple clay bricks, just large enough to hold half a dozen bodies.  There was a small unused and overgrown dirt path leading from the front all the way back to the village, but it could barely be seen anymore, making it clear just how little the villagers used this crematorium.

Adalgrim felt like this place was a little too small, but that was going merely by the place’s outside appearance, and he wasn’t going to take chances with a vampire.  He made a few hand gestures, and his squad spread out, surrounding the entire building.  Meanwhile, he, Leon, their squires, and two more members of his squad cautiously approached the door.  There weren’t any windows in the crematorium, so the only way in and out was the front door, an intimidating thing made entirely of iron and lightly enchanted to resist the heat of the crematory fires.  It didn’t seem locked, though, which was yet another sign that told Adalgrim his quarry wasn’t present.

Leon began to summon his power, letting it fill his body and ready him for battle, while from his soul realm he called forth his sword—he’d managed to get a handle on that power after about four months of practice, and he gained enough confidence in using it that his soul realm was where he stored his sword now.  His family’s deceptively simple and inornate weapon appeared in his hand with a flash of blue light, while Adalgrim beside him retrieved his own sword, and one of the soldiers accompanying them stood by the door.  With a nod from Adalgrim, the soldier kicked the door in and the others raced past him into the building.

The soldiers surged into the small building with no attempts at being subtle.  Leon and Alix’s swords were raised and Anzu was at their heels, ready to tear into anyone that threatened them.  However, the only room in the crematorium was deserted, devoid even of ash or dust.

“Yeah, this didn’t seem like the place, but we had to check,” Adalgrim said, following his statement up with a booming laugh.

Leon, Alix, and Anzu relaxed, though the latter needed Leon to scratch him on the head before his back straightened out and he retracted his wings.

Adalgrim looked around for a little while, but after not finding anything, he led the small group back outside.  “Nothing here,” he explained, putting the rest of the squad at ease.  “Is there anywhere else that might have a high concentration of fire magic?  Or at least, somewhere that would offer a good hiding place?” he asked the mayor.

The mayor thought for a moment and was about to answer in the negative, but then he suddenly caught himself as he realized something.  “There is actually, somethin’, Good Sir!  There are a bunch of old mines ‘bout five miles north of ‘ere!  They went dry couple centuries back, so they completely slipped my mind!”

“Abandoned mines?  You’re just telling us about those now?” Adalgrim asked in disbelief.

“Probably should’ve led with that information,” Leon drily remarked.  “Feels kind of like we wasted our time, now…”

“Terribly sorry, Good Sirs, my village ain’t been a minin’ town for a long time, it’s easy t’ forget they’re there!”

“Whatever, just take us there!” Adalgrim said.

“That’s… a long ways…” the mayor said dejectedly.  He wasn’t even a first-tier mage, and not a young man either, so his ‘about five miles’ would take all day.

“If time is of the essence, you could show us where to go on a map,” Leon suggested.  “If we can’t find the mines, we can always come back and have you lead us there…”

Adalgrim nodded his assent, as the weakest mages among their party were Alix and his own squire, both being at the second-tier.  They could travel those five miles in an hour or two, despite the rough and wild forest between them and their destination.

The mayor eagerly accepted the proposal, and in twenty minutes, the soldiers were marching off into the brush.  A short hour and a half later, the group arrived at the base of a series of shallow hills, every one with the entrance to a mineshaft built somewhere upon it.

“Oh this is going to be fun,” Leon said sarcastically once he reached the top of the first hill and saw the dozen or so mineshafts before them.  “We’re going to have to clear each and every one of these, aren’t we?”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Adalgrim said with a confident smile.  “How much did the Knight Academy teach you about identifying signs of demonic or vampiric activity?”

“Nothing at all,” Leon answered.  “They mostly focused on vampires themselves, rather than how to find them, and demons weren’t even touched on.”

“That’s a shame,” Adalgrim remarked with a frown.  “Well, no reason this can’t be a learning experience.  Reach out with your magic senses and inspect each of the mine entrances.”

Is it ‘senses’, plural? Or should it be singular?’ Leon asked himself.   With a shrug, he followed that up with ‘I suppose it doesn’t really matter…’

Leon did as instructed, projecting his magic power outward and feeling his spine resonate in response.  Over the past year, Trajan had him practicing this technique as much as possible, as his ability to project his senses using magic was one of the most versatile powers in a higher-tiered mage’s wheelhouse.  By now, Leon had gotten a good enough handle on the power that he could cover everything within about a hundred feet of him if he tried.  In this case, he saved power by not needing to see behind him and only needing to scan the mineshaft entrances.

His range could only cover about half of the entrances around the squad, but he could sense every little detail in them, down to the grain in the wood of the sealed doors.  He was about to ask what he was looking for when he sensed something strange coming from one of the entrances.  It was a familiar feeling, a few stray wisps of power that almost resembled Xaphan’s demonfire that he had frequently called upon.  It wasn’t an exact match, but he could say with some certainty that he had found where the vampire was hiding.

“I… think our vampire is hiding in there,” he said, pointing to the mineshaft in question.

“Not bad,” Adalgrim said with an impressed smile.  “You got that on your first try!”

Leon’s face went red, and he was once again grateful that he hadn’t removed his helmet.

‘Perhaps I should have waited for him to tell me what to look for…’ he thought to himself.

“Well, I think I can sense some kind of fire magic coming from there,” he explained, as he felt that it needed an explanation.

“Your senses are sharp, that’s the place I would’ve guessed as well,” Adalgrim said.  The older knight then led the group onward, toward the mineshaft he and Leon had identified.  He didn’t stop to question Leon further and didn’t seem suspicious at all as to how Leon located the mineshaft so quickly, much to the younger man’s relief.

As they drew closer, Leon could sense the strands of demonfire much clearer, and took a few moments to study it; he hadn’t seen any demonic power aside from Xaphan’s before, and he was interested in seeing the differences, if there even were any to be seen.  He didn’t have the time for an in-depth study, though, but what he did see gave him a small measure of comfort.  The demonic fire magic he could sense in the air was barely any different to the fire magic he’d seen before when he was younger, and when he was training with Trajan’s other knights.  If he wasn’t already aware of what demonic fire felt like, he doubted he would’ve ever thought that what he sensed was any different to normal fire magic.

This lessened his fear of Adalgrim perceiving Xaphan’s power within him a little bit, but that didn’t mean he was about to let loose with a blast of demonfire, either.

“Let’s get this door open, then,” Adalgrim said.  He stepped forward, waving toward a soldier with a hatchet hanging from his belt, but when he touched the supposedly sealed door, it immediately swung open.  “What the…” Adalgrim muttered in confusion.

“I… guess the vampire does need to get outside somehow,” Leon said.

The boards that made the door look sealed were still there, but there was enough space for the soldiers to shimmy past if they wanted.  They didn’t want to, though, and the soldier with the hatchet took a few moments to remove the boards that were in their way.

And then they were in, descending into the darkness of the old mine.  The light and breezy atmosphere quickly turned tense and charged in the darkness of the mine, even though everyone was able to see well enough in the dark.  Alix gripped her sword tight enough to turn her knuckles white, while Anzu grew more and more nervous and jittery, constantly glancing back toward the rapidly shrinking light of the open door.

Leon himself wasn’t feeling comfortable descending into the ground, but he was comforted immensely with his sword back in hand.

The squad moved deeper into the mine.  There were a few forks, but each time Adalgrim was able to sense the demonic magic and lead them in the right direction—after leaving a marking on the wall so they could find their way out again, of course.  Still, the group only became more and more tense with every step.

The air grew still and cold as they pressed deeper.  The darkness weighed down on them, even though they could still see with a bit of applied magic.  Making matters worse, the aura of demonic magic grew thicker and more intense, until all but Leon felt it pressing down upon them.

Suddenly, the group turned a corner and were nearly blinded by the light of a small candle.  They had to hurry to throttle the magic flowing into their eyes before they could see again.

“We’re getting closer,” Adalgrim whispered, confirming what they all knew at that point.  “Keep an eye out for traps…”

The air began to grow warmer now, and they could hear a strange sound coming from up ahead.  After a few dozen more steps, they found that the sound was that of a man shouting in frustration.

“… isn’t it working?!  I’ve done everything asked of me!” cried the voice.

Rounding one last corner, the group found themselves looking down from wooden scaffolding into a small cavern.  There were a few boxes, tables, and a bed in the corner, but the most eye-catching thing was a massive bonfire in the center of the room.  The fire burned dark red, and despite its size, produced no smoke.

“Demonfire…” Leon whispered.

“Indeed,” confirmed Adalgrim.

Across the cavern lay four bodies, each upon a table.  Each one was shirtless, and the group could see that they all had similar holes and burn marks on their chests as the man the villagers had found abandoned in the forest.

Hunched over one of the bodies was the source of the cries of frustration: an inhumanly-pale figure, with little muscle to speak of and veins and arteries visible beneath his skin.  His bare back was covered in horrific scars as if someone had tried to burn him alive and failed.

The figure was pressing down on the chest of the body he was hunched over, doing something that was producing a lot of orange light.  Whatever he was doing didn’t seem to be working, as he only grew more and more frustrated and began to swear and curse as loudly as he could.

“Spread out, and let’s take him,” Adalgrim whispered.

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Chapter 203 - Fire Demon

Chapter 201 - Beginning the Investigation