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Chapter #1 – Of Witches, Sorcerers, and Vampires

Lydia's green eyes flicked to the pendulum clock behind the bar for the millionth time – or it felt like the millionth. The meeting she had come here for should have happened an hour ago. She sighed heavily and glanced around the tavern from her seat at the bar. There were plenty of night-owl humans. She had noted about half a dozen vampires – all of them gathered around one of the billiards tables, raptly following what seemed to be an intense game. There were even a few wizards there from the only local wizard Grove who had tried to entice her over to join them. But she had seen no sorcerers.

Granted…she still was not sure why she was here to meet a sorcerer anyway. They were rarely friendly with witches. History proved that they had battled since ancient times. Witches had supposedly been given their power to combat the threat sorcerers posed. While some of their magic was similar, the sources of their powers were considered vastly different; as was the way they viewed the world. Witches were very religious, strove to create balance, and helped regular humans if called upon. Sorcerers, on the other hand, were known as greedy and manipulative and were believed to always be plotting some way to rule the world – which was one of the reasons their god had given the original sorcerers magic in the first place.

Yet, regardless of sorcerers' reputation for causing imbalance and long-standing hatred for witches, the high priestess of her Grove, Zorial, had sent her here to meet one from a local Sect. Apparently this sorcerer had some sort of important information that the high priestess could entrust no other in the Grove to obtain but Lydia. Not just because Lydia was the high priestess's attendant – the Grove's Maiden – but because she was also the Grove's Galynel scholar. As a scholar, she was the historian and primary teacher of such things to the Grove, but also the expert on the other magic-wielding races of the world. Thus, she had more knowledge about sorcerers than anyone else in the Grove – probably more than all of them combined.

Yes, that sort of made her "qualified" to come to this meeting beyond being the Grove Maiden, but all that knowledge she had made her keep returning to the same question she had been asking herself for hours… Why was she there to meet a sorcerer?

Sure, the local Sects and Groves were on…well, not quite amiable terms but they did not bother each other if they met on the streets like what happened in some cities. Still…she had never heard of an information exchange between the two groups before – here or elsewhere. It seemed strange to her. What was even stranger was that her high priestess had been rather vague about what she was supposed to be learning in this meeting.

Lydia's internal alarms had been going off ever since Zorial had told her of this meeting, but she had chalked it up to just being concerned about whom she was meeting. She had convinced herself that her high priestess would not be sending her into a dangerous situation. And now she felt all that worry in the beginning had been pointless since the meeting had never taken place.

With a snort, she finished off what was her third cup of tea since arriving then tapped her knuckles on the bar so the tavern owner a few feet away knew she was leaving, that he would see her place the money for the pot he had made her next to her cup. The man nodded to her respectfully and she returned the gesture as she stood.

As she headed to the door, one of the wizards tried to coax her into joining him but she was able to easily avoid his attempt to wine and dine her by saying she was her Grove's Maiden. Wizards always understood that status far better than other men. He frowned slightly but then kissed the back of her hand and wished the blessings of their three goddesses upon her. She returned the blessings with a smile and left.

The moment she was outside, however, she scowled. This had been an utter waste of time. Nearly half an hour to reach this tavern, over an hour waiting, and now another half hour back to the Grove once she hired a carriage. That was two hours she could have dedicated to something else around the Grove. She was sorely grateful that it was not close to the full moon – or even the new moon. If it had been, she would have needed to lay all her duties upon someone else, even if the young witch slated to be her successor could handle them herself.

She yawned as she made her way to the hiring stand for a carriage. This entire fruitless endeavor had exhausted her unbelievably. She was going to likely go straight to bed after she told Zorial about the failure of the sorcerer to show. Granted, it was only about two hours before dawn anyway so she would not be retiring terribly early.

Just like nearly all the other Galynels – the term used as a catchall for the races with magic – she slept during the day while normal mortals went about their lives. Granted, as a witch, the only thing that separated her from the "normal mortals" was considered her ability to use magic. Witches and wizards were the only race of Galynels who could be born to regular humans – just as witches could produce children without magic, though both were quite rare. But that fact put them on the fringes of Galynel society even as it gave them the most contact with the ordinary population of the world.

Usually in Vennholm even this late hour would not keep people – regular humans included – from being out, but it was terribly quiet tonight. People were growing more and more worried of late. For a month and a half now there had been absolutely no werewolf attacks or even sightings. Yes, they were most frequent around the full moon, but the silence from those predators in the region was more unnerving than a regular full moon night.

There had been rumors that the region's High Lords' House across Lake Seletunn may have finally succeeding in culling the beasts, but Lydia knew that there would have been an announcement to that effect. Granted, even in the past in this and other regions, the quiet would not last long because another Clan would take over the range within a year or so. Others believed there was a deadly disease that was killing them off. No one was really sure. The situation had people wary but they did not really think much of it. She, however, feared that it was a sign of dark things to come.

The reason for her fear was because she had been learning of more and more strange goings-on of late. They were not really happening much in or around Vennholm so most people she knew were not aware of them, but she frequented the newsstand nearest the Grove and the owner often obtained papers from far-off cities because he liked staying knowledgeable about current events across the continent, even if the papers were usually a few days to a few weeks old by the time he got his hands on them.

When he had shown her some of the stories he had been reading in order to gain her insights, she too started to keep up with the goings-on because they were very worrying. The meeting she was supposed to have had with a sorcerer tonight to obtain some unknown information sort of fit into the category of unusual things she had been compiling for weeks. That list continued to grow weekly, if not daily.

It was not just in Vennholm, she had discovered just a week before, that there was silence from werewolf clans. Several other cities had undergone recent declines in their activity. None of the newspapers she had obtained had any new ideas as to the possible reason why. Still, police were making sure that people stayed vigilant, most especially nearest the full moon when the werewolf curse was its strongest.

While werewolves were the most common threat to regular human and were reported on with the most regularity, she had found snippets of other things that were beginning to make their silence seem almost trivial…and likely indicative of something major brewing.

The most ignored of these things was the rising tensions among the majority of Lords' Houses across the continent. While the most common explanation was of arguments over the questionable appointment of a new Lord or Lady by the Brysden – the ruler of the vampires and, effectively, the continent – she could not understand why it would be so widespread. Sure the Brysden was old – legend said he was the first vampire more than two thousand years earlier – and that made many believe he was growing senile, but she did not believe the number of "unqualified appointees" that she had read about would have become so abruptly common.

Also usually brushed aside were the increasing reports of wisps. Wisps were occurrences of trapped energy – either a soul or a piece of magic. While they could be natural occurrences, they were also created by darker magics that usually included a sacrifice. The frequency of them in recent months made her suspect the increase was connected to what the sorcerers were doing.

Sorcerers in many regions seemed to be conducting more and more frequent rituals that were leaving behind bloody messes. They often indulged in sacrificial rituals as a way to mock two of the goddesses that the witches worshipped but the number of mutilated bodies being found of late was finally starting to garner attention. Lydia knew that the increase in sacrifices was a sign that the sorcerers likely had a major, sinister plan in the works – she had learned that much from studying history.

The thing that seemed to be gaining the most attention in recent weeks, however, was the increases in daemon sightings. Daemons were spirits of air that could, nonetheless, ravage a human. They were insidious beings but were also, mercifully, uncommon. When attacks did occur, it was often in the country at farms or small towns. They rarely ventured into more heavily populated areas…until recently. The daemons traveled in packs, sucking the breath (and life) from young children – babies being their favorite targets. Women and handsome men were often known to be spirited away so that the daemons could "play" with them. What most people failed to remember, however, was the fact that daemons had been created by the same god the sorcerers paid homage to and the powerful ones could command those spirits.

Another thing that had recently come to her attention was reports of witches and wizards going missing. Some had been kidnapped. Some had been found murdered. Some had simply vanished from their Grove never to be seen again. There were few answers. It did not seem to worry most of her Sisters at her own Grove, though. They seemed to think the incidents were too far away to be concerned over. Sure, it might just be that she was being paranoid, but it worried her.

And she suddenly realized that it should have worried her more when she was snatched off the street as she passed the entrance to a small alley within sight of the hiring stand she was headed to. A cloth was immediately pressed over her nose and mouth as she was pulled into the darkness between two buildings.

At first she thought it was just some sleaze ball of a human going after what he thought was a lone woman, despite the fact she was dressed in the almost quintessential style of blouse and skirt that witches wore…then she recognized the scent of dittany and mugwort on the cloth. Together the two herbs were the most common herbs used among witches and wizards as incense for deep meditation and ritual trances. Smelling them nearly triggered the long-ingrained response in her to slip into an altered state of consciousness now. She could not allow that.

Breathing through her mouth to dampen the scent and lessen its affect on her, she began to struggle against the man who clearly knew what she was and had prepared for this assault. But her assailant was apparently not pleased with the fight she was putting up. He slammed her hard into one of the buildings that were on either side of the alley, knocking the air from her lungs and making her head ache from the impact.

He put his face, which was hidden with unnaturally deep shadows, right up to hers and said a harsh word to her that she did not understand but that had a push of magic behind it. This was another Galynel…one she did not want to have to deal with.

Holding her body in place with his own, the man pressed his forearm across her throat, pushing up to keep her mouth shut. Using his other hand, he placed the cloth over her nose again – forcing her to inhale the herbs scenting it. It was so hard to fight off her mind's desire to slip into a meditative state. Each breath carried that scent into her lungs, into her blood and her still-aching brain. She wanted to fight but she was finding it so hard to overcome lifelong training.

"You're not the prettiest Maiden I've ever seen, but you'll do. Not that your looks matter for what you're wanted for, just your power." He chuckled slightly. "Still…I hope I get to play with your body…afterward."

The smell was starting to be overpowering and her eyelids grew heavy. But then her mother's voice filled her mind and chided her for allowing her free will to be so easily overcome. It was a faint memory of something her mother had told her a few times in her childhood.

Though it was just a foggy memory, she desperately clung to the sound of her mother's voice and successfully used it to bring herself out of the stupor.

As the man continued to hold her against the wall – his breath falling over her ear as he chanted some spell over and over that did not seem to be causing her any problems – she focused on her signet ring on the middle finger of her right hand. Sigils representing each of the eight gods were engraved onto it. While witches did not usually call upon aid from more than their primary three goddesses – Yavorde, Jaiwen, and Dilanna – and never called upon Thulawe, each god was still important in the world and needed to be represented for balance.

At the moment, she focused on the sigil for Peurgin, the god of fire. She mentally called for help with the Song of Protective Fire and the ring began to grow warm against her skin. She was pretty sure it was also starting to glow faintly red with the power gathering there. Then, with a quick strike, she punched the ring against her attacker right below his ribs.

The force behind the hit was not strong but she knew what she had felt as only gentle warmth had likely been a searing heat to him. Between the surprise and the pain, it was enough that made him loosen his grip on her. The smell of burnt cloth and skin rose up between them.

In his moment of shock, she successfully fought her way free of him, knocking the cloth he had had to her face out of his hand as well. But as she tried to break into a sprint to get back onto the street, he fisted his hand around her long brown hair she had partially pulled back and yanked her back toward him, wrapping his arm around her and pinning her to his chest.

In too much of a panic now to focus on calling forth more of her fairly meager magic and knowing that she was not likely to be getting out of this situation on her own, she did what any fearful woman would do – she screamed as loudly and shrilly as she could.

Or she tried to.

No sound came from her throat. It actually felt like her throat constricted and she started to cough as the man slammed her into one of the buildings again. Now her head really hurt, as did her shoulder, which had taken a good bit of the second impact.

Her attacker held her by the throat with one of his hands while what she suddenly realized was magic continued to squeeze at her throat to prevent her from uttering any sounds. She could barely breath and feared she was about to pass out.

"Naughty little witch," he chastised her as he pulled off her signet ring with his free hand.

Once he had tossed the ring down the alley toward the street, he proceeded to locate her Moon Bag, which held an assortment of other items she could utilize for magic as well as various charms and vials of potions. She suddenly wondered why the charm she had asked one of her Sisters for had obviously not worked to protect her. Her situation also made her feel even more woefully inadequate than she had ever felt before. If only she was powerful enough to fully utilize the Songs that called the power of the elements to her so that she could shape it to her will unaided she would have surely already escaped.

After he had tossed aside her Moon Bag, her attacker removed his hand from her throat, at which time she tried her hardest to scream, to call for help, but all that came forth was a squeak. And the magic that had abated with his hand's removal caused her throat to tighten again. He clicked his tongue at her in an amused admonishment. Then he gently ran his hand over her hair which made her tremble.

"Quite willful, aren't you?" And he chuckled…an evil chuckle that made goose bumps rise all over her body.

Then the sorcerer – for it had to be a sorcerer with what he had said and from the particular sort of creeps he gave her – laid both his hands on top of her head. Slowly he ran his hands down, his thumbs brushing over her face. She was starting to feel groggy and disconnected with everything. She swayed as his hands continued downward, pulling a sleeping spell over her as he chanted softly, trailing his hands down over her entire body. This would be a deep sleep from the extent he was going to immerse her in it, she was sure of it.

Sweet goddesses…how had it come to this? Why her?

She fought to stay coherent. She stared intently at the wall across from her, fighting to not let her eyes drift close at all. She focused her mind on trying to figure out why he had not used this magic in the first place. Well, if he meant to take her anywhere, slinging her unconscious body over his shoulder would attract a lot of attention. The chanting earlier coupled with the mind-altering scent of meditation incense must have been an attempt to force her into a trance in which he could simply command her to follow him. Since he had not been able to do that, he went to Plan B – putting her into full unconsciousness.

Then, as he leaned down to continue dragging his hand down over her hips, the haze in her mind seemed to actually diminish, much to her astonishment. But then her eyes widened as she caught sight of a brilliant silver blade, shining with its own pale white light. Had her throat not been constricted, she would have surely screamed. Then she realized that blade was not meant for her; it was for her attacker.

The long, thin blade pierced right through the sorcerer's back and emerged from his chest. The man shouted in pain and frustration, removing his hands from her and trying to turn to get at the sword's wielder. The magic he had been working on Lydia was broken – as was the magic that had kept his face hidden in shadows. Granted, even with the magic removed she did not recognize him, knew she would not have since she knew no sorcerers.

Full clarity washed back into Lydia's mind a moment later and she was grateful for it…until the wielder of that strangely shining sword lifted the sorcerer off the ground with amazing strength and flung him down the alley and off the sword. Her attacker tried to regain his footing but stumbled and ended up collapsing. Silence followed a few seconds later. She looked between the motionless body and the man whom she truly hoped was her savior. She hoped it even more when the sword-wielder turned back to her, his eyes shining just perceptibly in the light from his sword.

Not wanting to look the man in the eyes, she continued to gaze at the sword for a moment longer. She realized she was not frightened by it. Quite to the contrary, it seemed like a soothing magic poured from it and the gentle light it emitted was a comfort in the dark alley. She also noticed that not a single drop of blood dirtied the blade. Taking a deep breath, she slowly looked up to the face of her rescuer…and when she finally realized what her rescuer was, she collapsed to the ground.

It made his slightly worried expression turn more serious. "You're not hurt are you?"

Dumbly, Lydia shook her head at his gentle, concerned question.

Tonight had just been one surprise after another. First her high priestess sends her on a crazy task to gather information from a sorcerer. Second, she is attacked on her way back home from the time-wasting venture. Third…third she had been saved from a horrible fate by a vampire…one with a graceful, captivating voice.

Dear goddesses, she had never been this close to a vampire before. He was near enough that he could easily swoop down and take her blood if he so wished. And she found herself hoping he did so wish.

His skin was nearly milk-white and his hair was jet black with strands of fiery red throughout – both indicative of his status as a Born vampire, not one of the rare Changed who retained both their original skin, eye, and hair color. That also meant the irises of his eyes were black, nearly indistinguishable from his pupils. His face was as graceful and captivating as his voice had been. He was tall and as slender as all Born vampires, though she could also tell he had some muscles. Granted, he had to be strong considering what he had been able to do with her attacker.

In her stunned state, she found it hard to not just present her neck to him. She had always dreamt of having a Vampire's Kiss place upon her. That desire was one of the things that had gotten her interested in learning about the other Galynels in the first place.

After nearly a minute of silence between them, the vampire chuckled and grinned, revealing his fangs. "I don't believe I am truly worthy of being stared at with such apparent open-mouthed wonder as you seem to be giving me." He bent down to one knee and held out his left hand. In it was her signet ring. "I do believe this is yours."

Again, she nodded mutely, which garnered another smile from her rescuer. He gently took her hand in his and slipped the ring onto the correct finger. But he did not withdraw his hand from hers when it was done. He studied her closely in silence for a while before finally saying: "I shall escort you back to your Grove."

She struggled to get her voice to work this time but it was little more than a hoarse whisper and it was hard to speak at all. "N-no. I…I sh-shan't trou-ble you with s-such a ta-sk, Sir. Th-ank you."

But he looked at her with a narrowed gaze; his hand squeezed hers just a fraction. She knew that he knew she needed the help. Trouble was…she did not want to worry her Grove Sisters with her being escorted home by a vampire. They were basically the rulers of the city – like was the case nearly everywhere else on the continent – and if she was sighted with one there would be far too many questions.

"I insist upon it, dear witch, for your –"

He did not finish his statement as he quickly whirled to the side, sword arching toward a target…at the same moment something sliced into her right side. She let out a choked scream as she fell sideways to the ground. The pain radiated from the wound that had suddenly appeared, burning more than anything else she had ever known. It was surely some magical wound. Did that mean there was another sorcerer or…?

Just before the pain overtook her and she slipped into unconsciousness, she saw the vampire and sorcerer that had originally attacked her engaged in a battle in the confined space of the alley. It was over quickly, though, when the vampire cleanly cut the sorcerer's head off. But, gods, how had he not died, or at least been incapacitated, from his earlier wound?

No matter, she thought as darkness welcomed her, he's dead now.

After all, she did not know of any creature that could survive a decapitation. It could probably even kill the Brysden…if you actually could manage to get that close to him and surprise him.