The Vault, Chapter 1:
The Royal Palace of Brenthi lay sprawled in the center of the ruins of the city like a corpse. The windows, shattered. Ashes from a fire from months ago when Brenthi was under siege streaked the white walls. At least, we didn’t have to worry about getting through the once mighty gates, for they were annihilated, their remnants in splinters all over the front courtyard.
I led the other two Seekers, Taishille and Miskhemo as we moved into the remains of the king’s palace quietly, not saying a word. We didn’t know if it was day or night. The blood red sun hung in the ink of the sky as it had ever since the Vampyr invasion so long ago. It didn’t really matter. We couldn’t expect refuge from the vampires at any time. So we were on the lookout for any sound, any movement.
We moved through staterooms and ballrooms, great halls and intimate salons, all strewn with broken furniture, shattered statuary, and tattered tapestries which drifted in the almost imperceptible draft. There was no sound except our footfall, and we tread very softly.
Taishille nodded as I gestured towards a wide alabaster staircase which led down to the palace chapel. Compared to the rest of the palace, it seemed initially relatively untouched. Then we smelled death and found the remains of the people who had sought shelter there. The vampires may not like holy places, but they have infinite patience, and the refugees were trapped without food or water. Their suffering must have been – no, there was no time to dwell on it. We had to find what we were looking for and get out, lest we join them and their fate.
The chapel altar had been cracked, and the undead had braved the holy place just long enough to scrawl profane and mocking words all over the walls and columns. I confess I feared that they had ventured in and destroyed The Amulet of the Vadabar. It would have been of no value to them, but the creatures loved to pillage anything of beauty.
“There,” Taishille whispered, touching a rune engraved in the wall.
Miskhemo and I pulled two chisels and two hammers out of our packs. It was an act that couldn’t be done quietly, so we knew more than ever, we needed to act quickly before we attracted attention. We broke into the hollow space behind the rune with twenty blows which echoed like an alarm through the sacristy. Taishille reached into the cavity and pulled out the relic, half-buried in dust. She wiped it clean and with a glance told us it was what we were after. A necklace of a delicate gold filigree, no doubt Dwarven wrought, with a glistening yellow gem.
If we entered the palace at a creeping pace, we left it in a dash. All around us we could hear sounds, scampering feet, snarls of hunger. I directed Miskhemo and Taishille away from the great hall where I could hear the creatures gathering and down the servants’ corridor. We reached a small sitting room where the single picture window had been shattered. We were halfway to it when I saw the clawed hand grip the frame from the outside. The vampire pulled itself in, a disheveled gray-haired male who bared his fangs as his dark eyes flashed.
Miskhemo did not hesitate. He drew his blade and charged, meeting the creature’s chest with steel before it had a chance to dodge out of the way. It lurched at him, giving me an unguarded moment to swing my own sword and divorce its head from its neck. The creature’s head thumped to the floor with a wet thud. As we barreled out the window, I turned and saw it still blinking and growling in its puddle of blood.
I knew from many similar raids in other cities to steer us clear of the wider boulevards and parks where we could be ambushed and overwhelmed. We ran down alleyways, over broken walls, and only met with small groups of vampires which we were able to elude or dispatch with our swords. Within an hour, we had escaped Brenthi into the hills, scrambling over and past boulders that littered the base of the Paentrian Mountains. I led them up a steep, narrow path only favored by goats, and we didn’t stop until the black spires of Brenthi had disappeared below the clouds.
The Paerentians had been my hunting ground since I was a boy, long before the invasion, so I knew just where to go: a small wooded plateau surrounded by tall, narrow spires of rock. I left Miskhemo and Taishille to set up camp, while I did what I did best, and tracked some game. In no time, I returned with three rabbits to cook.
“What is the Vandabar?” I asked as we began our small feast. “And what’s so special about his amulet worth us getting it?”
Taishille arched an eyebrow, as if to say “Why do you care?”
“I’m curious,” I shrugged. They knew I was not born into the Seekers but came to the order after the Vampyr nation came to reign on Uuld. I did not understand their ways, but they had found me useful fetching the artifacts they were collecting. In return, I was rewarded with whatever I needed. In the world as it was, it was hard to get anything civilization once offered. A safe place to rest, steelsmiths to sharpen your blade, food, companionship.
“Not a person, the Vandabar are a group of ancient prophets,” Taishille explained. “Thousands of years ago, they foresaw the coming of the Pale King and wrote of the omens for which we must watch. They crafted the amulet to grant their visions to future generations.”
“If it had been used instead of locked away by the fool king of Brenthi, all this,” Miskhemo gestured broadly, as if to encompass the world around us. “All this might not have happened.”
Our conversation fell silent. After eating, we put out the fire and went to sleep under the red sun surrounded by darkness.
Strange images haunted my dreams that night. A house with peeling green paint, dark except for a flickering candle in an upstairs window. A bat with a broken wing, chirping piteously, suddenly devoured by a serpent. A white tower enveloped in flame. A snail leaving a trail of slime as it traveled up a vine with pale pink blossoms. A filthy, wrinkled cloth dotted with flecks of gold.
On wakening, the three of us packed up and began the journey east towards the Vault, the secure, hidden temple and repository of the Seekers. I didn’t lead them on the easiest route, but one which the vampires were least likely to frequent, or even have found. The creatures might be conquerors, but they were essentially scavengers, inhabiting the shells of the old world. Terrain that man had found inhospitable was equally undesirable to them.
I had rope to help us belay the steep cliff sides and treacherous crevasses along the way. Miskhemo and Taishille were not mountaineers, but they were each strong and agile, and we made good progress.
There were mountain villages between us and the Vault, but I took us on a path to avoid them. The only settlement we couldn’t avoid completely was a small mining hamlet called Arjvid’s End clustered along one shore of a large lake which had once been the cone of a mighty volcano, long extinct. I led them along the opposite shore, but our path was blocked by an avalanche we couldn’t pass. Reluctantly, we had to circle back and we entered through the open gate of Arjvid’s End.
The dirt path between the buildings were empty, as we expected, but we moved quietly, not daring to say a word. A few carrion birds picking through the bodies of livestock barely acknowledged us as we passed. As we reached the eastern gates, I heard Taishille gasp. I turned to see what she was looking at. Instantly, I grasped what she was staring at, something right out of the world of dreams.
To be continued…