Tethys raced along the gloomy road. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, but she kept running. They were behind her, not far. The devas pursued silently, remorselessly. Only the two vampirs laughed at her as they bounded after her. Tethys dimly wondered how they had the wind left to laugh.
If she could reach Popolion, she'd be safe. She could rest. The poporis could protect her and the federation contingent would listen to her. They had to. A sharp crack from behind made her stomach plummet. She glanced back and saw one of the vampirs much too close for comfort.
"Where are you going, sorcerer?" The vampir's urbane tones clashed with his leaping gait. "If it makes you feel any better, by all means run. I like my blood served hot, with just a hint of fear."
Tethys wanted to snarl something defiant but she couldn't waste the air. The vampirs wanted her angry; they wanted her to squander her strength. She couldn't afford it—the secret was too big to die with her.
Tethys rounded a corner and saw a chance to escape. The slope was steep and covered in the creepy vegetation common to the Vale of the Fang; treacherous, but she might lose her pursuers. She leaped up onto the incline, fingers digging in for more traction. Her fingernails peeled back against the loam and gravel but terror overrode the pain. She scrambled as high as she dared and froze. Her heart still beat a rapid dance against her ribs and her lungs burned, but she held her breath. The predators were right behind her. If she kept silent and they didn't look up, she might have a chance.
The devas took slow, deliberate steps as they silently stalked Tethys. The vampirs clenched their canes in their white-knuckled fists and hissed their agitation.
Go on, Tethys urged. You know it's a trick but it's a trick further down the road. Keep moving. As a sorcerer, Tethys preferred to rely on her own power, yet she and her colleagues had been quickly humbled by the vampirs. Tonight, the prey needed protection from the hunters and Tethys was prepared to humble herself further. She murmured a brief, desperate prayer to Velik. Goddess of the Hunt, confound these creatures and let me complete my mission.
Whether Velik intervened or the vampirs simply had other plans, they snarled a command at the devas and the group took off again.
Tethys waited as long as she could before her breath escaped in an explosive gasp. She had a chance now. She scrambled up the slope, ignoring the thorns biting into her flesh and the burning pain in her strained muscles. She worked her way up along the escarpment, just outside the crumbling walls of the vampirs' manor. There were guardians on the other side of the ancient stone, but the climb was too difficult to look for another route. The ridge was far above the road and offered good concealment. Tethys forced her burning muscles into action. She couldn’t stop, couldn’t rest. Determination and duty kept her upright and running. As Tethys pushed through the thorny bushes and snaring vines, she clung to one thought—alert the Mysterium to the treachery she’d uncovered. One foot in front of the other.
Popolion was close. If she could make it there, the vampirs couldn't stop her. She just had to keep going. . . .
Several hours and a handful of magical scrolls later, Tethys stood in the antechamber to Master Caleth’s sanctum. Caleth’s aide, Risart, glowered at her. He seemed particularly offended by the smudges of blood and mud and the tatters her fine robes were in.
“Magister Caleth is extremely busy,” Risart said. “This one is certain he would be delighted to speak with such an illustrious junior member of our order, but it may be a while. There is adequate time to wash away the stains of travel and don fresh garments.”
Tethys stormed up to the adjutant, so close that her nose pressed against his. She knew high elves craved their space, felt Risart tense and watched a tic shudder his left cheek. “This one,” she snarled, “has fought tooth and nail to bring word to Magister Caleth. If this one,” she thumped Risart’s chest, “doesn’t let me pass, I’ll beat you half to death and throw you out the window. We’ll see if you can fly before you splatter on the streets of Allemantheia.”
The tendons in Risart’s neck strained for a moment. “Very well,” he bit out. “One moment.” He walked over to the ornate doors and stuck his head inside. “Magister Caleth? The adept has returned. She demands an audience.”
Tethys couldn’t make out the reply but Risart’s head bowed once and he opened the door for her. “Proceed,” he said through gritted teeth.
Without a word, Tethys walked past Risart and into Caleth’s sanctum. Bright and airy, the chamber had a commanding view of the High Elf city. Knick knacks from around the world decorated the shelves of tomes and scrolls. Caleth sat behind an ornate blackwood desk, shuffling through a veritable sea of parchment. Caleth glanced at the young woman, then leaped to his feet.
"Caleth is surprised to see you, Tethys, particularly in this state. What befell you?" He seemed shocked by her appearance.
“Forgive me, magister, but I have news that cannot wait.” Tethys reached into the deep cuff of her sleeve and pulled out a small vial. The liquid inside glowed an eerie green through the thick glass.
"What is that?" Caleth asked.
"An insidious draught—it overwhelms the vampirs' control of their bloodlust.” Tethys paused. “They're feeding on sentients."
Caleth appeared aghast. "Impossible. The vampirs drink the blood of beasts. They raise them for that very purpose."
"No longer." Tethys sighed. "Mencius and Nazkiir were both killed by vampirs—drained dry in moments."
Caleth stared hard at her, making her uncomfortable. Tethys couldn’t tell if he didn’t believe her or if he couldn’t believe someone would brew something so evil. "How is this substance involved?"
"I found cauldrons of it. I don't know if the effect is short-lived or if a great deal is required, but the vampirs attacked us when we stumbled across them." Tethys rubbed her throat. "I beg your pardon, but could I have something to drink?"
Caleth stared at her a moment, then bowed his head. "Of course. Apologies for the discourtesy." The elf walked over to the corner table and touched the side of a fluted copper kettle. It began to vibrate, and the sound of bubbling liquid filled the silence.
"There's more," Tethys said. She knew the magister wouldn’t like her next piece of news. "At least one member of the Mysterium is involved."
Caleth’s expression was congenial, but his eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Are you certain?"
"I didn't see anyone, but the vampirs spoke of him. They've struck some sort of deal—some secrets of blood magic in exchange for assistance brewing this concoction." Tethys knew many arcanists in the Mysterium coveted blood magic. Her warning would carry the ring of truth.
Caleth stood silently, watched the steaming kettle. After a long moment, he reached into several jars and put together the ingredients for the tea, mixing them with precision a pinch at a time. "These are serious accusations," he said after a few moments. "Do you have any proof? Something we can take before the council?"
Tethys shook her head. "Nothing, aside from what I saw and heard. It makes sense, though! How many of our order have longed to grasp the power of blood magic? Many gods struggle to possess it. Why should we be different?"
Caleth sighed. "Why indeed?" He poured the tea into a tall, ornamental glass and handed it to the exhausted young woman. "Let me know if it's too sweet."
Tethys sipped and sighed gratefully. The tea refreshed her aching limbs and weary spirit.
Caleth studied her for a moment, then spoke again. "I'm afraid the matter is quite complex, Tethys. A great deal is at stake, much more than the esoteric power of blood magic."
Tethys frowned and swayed. Caleth noted the change and nodded once.
"You said 'I'," Tethys murmured thickly. Her mind felt fuzzy and her vision blurred. "And 'me.' I thought elves never spoke like that."
"The time for formalities is past, I'm afraid. My vision of the future requires direct action, bold leadership—even sacrifice. I’ve little time for the endless courtesies and pretenses to which we Children of Karas are so prone. I saw an opportunity—and seized it!
“You see, the vampir aristocrats are so narcissistic. When someone advanced the idea of turning Poporia over to them, they were thrilled. But how to sway the other vampirs? You'd need something to guarantee their behavior. You'd need to control them—or control their fate.
"Naturally, when I was approached I was skeptical, but in the end I agreed. The formula I provided is ancient—older than every nation. It spreads quickly, but the cure is beyond all but a few. And for that not only did I earn a tremendous sum of gold but, as you suspected, some secrets of blood magic as well."
Tethys shook her head as she staggered on her feet. The delicate glass fell from her numb fingers, shattered on the floor. "You poisoned me! You're . . . a traitor?"
Caleth gently grabbed the woman by the arm and guided her to a chair. "Do sit down. You'll feel much more comfortable. The poison is painless but not immediate, I'm afraid. The taste is quite pleasant, however. The antidote tastes dreadful." The high elf stood back and watched her. "It's for the best, my dear. Your death will be the last anyone hears of this—until the federation comes to us, hat in hand, begging for our aid. And we'll give it. We'll send researchers and arcanists to study this 'strange malady.' Our foothold will be secured, and all for the price of a few choice ingredients and some tiresome vampirs." Caleth paused and frowned. "And you, of course. I am sorry about that, but the secret must be maintained."
His words sounded dimmer and farther away the longer she listened. Tethys tried to keep her eyelids open, but they grew heavier by the moment.
Caleth's eyes shifted to the beautiful map of the word on his wall. Red dots marked key locations, vital to the Mysterium's success. He walked over and added another dot just east of Popolion.
"We seek power and the secrets of old," Caleth murmured, recalling the charter of the Mysterium, "knowing the price we must pay . . . or rather, you must pay."
But Tethys never heard him.