Chapter 11
The Highwayman

Outside the Glacier, Arma

"Thieves come in two varieties. The first relies wholly on skill to gain spoils. They are masters of stealth and trickery. The second is depends on force. This brutal sort is quick to violence. Beating, kidnapping and killing are the tools of their trade. The saying 'honor among thieves' never applies to such as these."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The sun had barely begun to rise when the group broke camp and prepared to move out. While Stefan was unconscious yesterday, Mark and the others had buried Felix, making a simple, crude grave that hardly did the old knight justice. Mark made a point to pay his respects one last time before they set out.
When they stopped at Traders' Point, Mark found the parson from before and told him about Felix's death so he could pass the information along. Hopefully, the Crusader's Templar brethren would come to recover the body and transport it to a proper resting place. Mark also bought the materials to craft an improvised litter for Catherine. Before then, Stefan had simply carried her in his arms, but that would not be practical over the long distances they had to travel. This way Mark and Stefan could share the load and react more quickly to a call to arms. Stefan grudgingly accepted Mark's help in this, which the swordsman took as a sign of progress.
They reached the Hippolyta River five days later. The bridge that was cut down by the Amazons had already been replaced, evidence of how quickly the locals react to their raids. Not wanting to take any chance of repeating what happened last time, Teresa was put in the front of the group, holding up the arm with Nicoma's bracer until everyone had crossed. If there were any hunting parties roaming about, they acknowledged their bond-sister and kept their distance.
It was around noon the next day when the group arrived in Porto Sul. This time they were at a significant disadvantage. Felix was the only one who knew the local dialect well and could speak it fluently. However, Mark remembered what Felix had said about the port officials. They knew Imperial and Bannish, so it would not be impossible for them to communicate.
Mark also remembered Felix's lesson about strength in numbers. Although Teresa probably knew enough Imperial to get by, he would rather have her stay with Catherine. That left the Bannish speakers. Mark did not intend to bully the officials, but he realized the advantages of creating an intimidating presence. To that end, he chose Edward and Sonia to accompany him to the magistrate's office while the others waited outside.
Instead of seeing the magistrate, they were taken to one of his junior officials. The official bore a strong resemblance to a rat, both with his shifty demeanor and particularly his face: long nose, beady eyes, low forehead, and a thin mustache braided from his long whiskers. He had a scornful air about him, accentuated by his condescending, nasal tone. He initially tried to deter them by speaking in the local tongue.
Mark answered him in Imperial, "Surely you can do us the courtesy of speaking to us in the language that united humanity in the days of our ancestors."
"Very well then," the official said, reverting to Bannish, "what do you foreigners want?"
Glancing over his shoulder, Mark saw that Edward was holding his temper better than he expected. The disdain in the official's voice was obviously grating the Prince's pride.
Mark pulled out the contract signed by the magistrate and his signet. "A little more than a fortnight ago, we made a deal with the magistrate. He agreed to sign a waiver for us to charter a ship if we found out what was causing the disturbances among the herders in the North."
"And what was the cause?" the official asked. Mixing disbelief with scorn was all the more unnerving.
Mark kept his voice steady, betraying no emotion. "The rumors among the locals led us to the glacier. Within the glacier's tunnel system, we encountered a throwback from the Great War, an Ice Golem. We destroyed the creature and now we call on the magistrate to fulfill his part of the bargain."
The official sneered, "A fanciful story. And you expect me to believe such nonsense?"
"It's true!" Sonia exclaimed. "We killed the damned thing!"
"Is that so?"
Mark had to grab Edward's arm to keep it from throttling the haughty official. While struggling with Edward's arm, he picked up where he was before Sonia's interruption.
"The deal was to find the cause and we've gone beyond that. Are you going to honor the contract or not?"
"I see you are the secondary," the official said, looking at the contract, "but where is the primary, this Felix, son of Sergius?"
Mark released Edward's arm. For a moment, he just stood there silently before bowing his head.
"He... perished during our investigation."
"How convenient..." the official mused. "I hope you know, I would have to be a madman to believe your story, but it really does not matter what I think. The only one who can sign the waiver is the magistrate himself and he is currently in Scotia renegotiating our trade agreement. You have a choice. You can wait for him to return or try to meet him in Scotia. I doubt you will have much success in either case."
"How do we get to Scotia?" Mark asked, unsure whether or not he would get a straight answer.
Fortunately, the official was all too eager to get them out of his hair and far away from Porto Sul.
"Head east. It is upon the terraced mountain between Wilde's Woods and the Salamander Mountains. Follow the road for heaven's sake!"
As they turned to leave, the official could not resist adding another spiteful remark.
"Beware the bandits along the way. I would hate to hear the same story from a whole new set of faces."
Through some miracle, the fiery tempers of Sonia and Edward did not burst out on the official. However, they had barely passed the entry arch when both punched their respective walls angrily, cursing in unison.
"That worm!" Sonia growled. "I should've killed him where he stood!"
Edward added his own grumbling. "This is all your fault, you know. See what we could have avoided if we simply commandeered a ship!?"
Mark sighed. "Getting angry won't solve anything. I think we should head for Scotia. Who knows how long the deliberations could last?"
When they joined the rest of the group, they briefly discussed their next move. There were no objections to Mark's plan to try to meet the magistrate in Scotia. Unlike Gladius, they were not fugitives in Arma and could travel the roads without fear of capture. After spending the last of their reales to replenish their provisions, they set out.
Having spent so much time on the run, Mark had almost forgotten what it felt like to travel the roads as a free man, without fear of pursuers. He was actually able to appreciate the scenery for a change. As Arma was half a world away, it was little surprise that it bore little resemblance to the lands Mark knew in Gladius and Byrn. The fact that it was summer here was no small part of it. Felix had tried to explain it to everyone when they first arrived, how the sun's cycle about the terrestrial sphere affected the seasons and how the seasons were opposite in the North and South Hemispheres. Mark was the only one with the education to understand and even he had some difficulty with the concept, as his studies focused more on languages than natural philosophy.
Thinking of Felix's explanation highlighted his loss, the wealth of knowledge and experience taken from them. Still, no amount of mourning would bring him back. The only thing they could do was go forward.
After traveling for a few hours, the group came to a halt when several small daggers flew at them, sticking in the ground in front of Mark's feet. Mark and Stefan cautiously set down the litter, following the angle of the daggers to their source. Just to be safe, everyone drew their weapons and formed a defensive ring around the noncombatants.
A man rose out of the bushes on the side of the road, a man who could be easily mistaken for an aristocrat or at least a well-to-do thespian. He wore a fine green cloak over clothes of the same hue and quality and upon his head was puffy hat sporting the long tailfeather of an exotic bird. His raven-black mustache and goatee were neatly trimmed and waxed to fine points. His smile was confident and he thrust his chest out in pride.
"I am Roque," he declared, "the dreaded Green Bandit of Arma." Since it was obvious that they were foreigners, he had chosen to address them in Bannish. "If you part with your riches, I may find enough mercy in my heart to let you live."
"You can't be serious!" Sonia balked. "We have eight fighters to just one of you."
Roque grinned smugly.
"You think I am alone?" He laughed, sounding a little too theatrical to be taken seriously. "My men are getting rather skilled with their camouflage. I will have to double their cut of the spoils."
Jill whispered into Sonia's ear and then took aim at the bandit. Sonia returned Roque's grin.
"I call your bluff."
Roque's confidence did not falter.
"Perhaps I shall balance the scales. Like... this!"
With a flourish of his cape, he brandished an odd-looking flail. In a single crack of the flail, about a half dozen small daggers shot at them. With the most heavily-armored members of the group facing the bandit, the daggers bounced harmlessly off the shields and plates of their targets. Roque's face started to betray his unease. Sonia charged her weapon.
"Don't kill him," Mark said.
Sonia sighed. "Fine."
Pointing her rapier at Roque, the fencer slowly rolled her wrist, the blade drawing a small circle in the air. She started rotating faster and faster until the blade became a blur spinning in its narrow orbit. Roque was so taken off guard by the curious display that he did not even notice the glowing ring at his feet. With the blade now spinning as fast as humanly possible, Sonia abruptly thrust her arm upward. Fire spiraled around the unsuspecting bandit and pierced the heavens as a giant pillar of flame. They could hear Roque shrieking in terror from within the whirling vortex.
Mark was immediately incensed at Sonia's for ignoring his call to spare the bandit. "I told you not to kill him!" the swordsman yelled angrily.
"Calm down," Sonia said as she casually sheathed her rapier. "He won't die as long as he stays still." She raised her voice for the benefit of her victim. "You hear that? Stay still if you want to live!" She turned back to Mark. "Let's go. The spell only lasts a few minutes."
While the group walked away, Roque yelled at the top of his lungs. The proper manner of his speech was lost in his anger.
"You'll pay for this!" he howled. "You haven't seen the last of me! I'll have my revenge!"
Mark did not think the bandit's resolve would be so strong after he was released from the pillar, but the swordsman did not want to take any unnecessary risks. With Jill staying in the lead as usual, Jasper went to the rear of the group. His sharp eyes would catch anyone following them.
They had walked about half a mile when the pillar disappeared. Sonia assured them that while the burns Roque received would not be fatal, they would make pursuit extremely difficult. They would soon find out how determined the Green Bandit was about fulfilling his pledge for revenge.
Just to be on the safe side, the group did not stop until a few hours past sunset and set up camp atop a hill to give them a better view of anyone trying to approach them. As usual, Mark volunteered for the first watch. They did not risk a fire to avoid catching the attention of Roque or any other bandits. Holding his dagger in one hand and his quill in the other, Mark wrote in his journal by the light of the Gems.
By accident, he noticed some movement near Edward. The dim light provided by his dagger was enough to make out the silhouette of Adrienne crouched down by Edward and holding up the Prince's bare forearm to her mouth. Mark could scarcely make out what she was doing. After a few moments, she carefully lowered Edward's arm to the ground, hastily wrapped it in cloth and rolled down the sleeve of his shirt and hauberk. For the final touch, she reaffixed his vambrace and slid his gauntlet over his hand, making it look like he had never been disturbed.
As if Adrienne sensed she was being watched, her head turned to Mark, sending a chill down his spine. Her eyes glowed with an unnatural light, like a wolf or some other animal. Before he knew what had happened, she was only inches from his face.
"What did you see?" she hissed.
"W-what are you?" Mark stammered.
Adrienne's hand shot out and clutched his throat. Even if he wanted to cry out, her grip was too tight for him to make any noise. She gave him a hard, piercing look. It seemed like she was paying serious thought to the idea of silencing him, permanently. Her body tensed, making Mark's heart skip a beat. He knew she was too fast for him to defend himself. If she decided to kill him, there would be nothing he could do to stop her.
Surprisingly, she did not take the opportunity to snap his neck or tear out his throat. She simply sighed, releasing the tension in muscles poised for action.
"Killing you would be a waste," she said. "You're too valuable in the fight against Randwulf." She looked around at the others sleeping, stopping a little longer at Edward. "You aren't as bad as some of them," she said, releasing Mark from her grip. "I suppose I can trust you with the truth. You've probably noticed that I'm not quite normal. I try not to make it to obvious, but it's hard to hide. I'm a lot stronger and faster that the rest of you. There's a reason for that. You see, I'm not an ordinary human. I'm a dhampir..."
"Dhampir?"
"As in half-vampire."
Vampire... Recalling the terrifying folktales he had heard as a boy in Arita, Mark frantically pulled out the cross from under his shirt. Adrienne did not appreciate this response in the least. Scowling at him, she batted his hand away.
"Don't be childish. I'm not a full vampire. The rules aren't the same for me."
"Then what exactly is a dhampir?" Mark asked, doing his best to limit the quaking of his voice. "What are the rules for you?"
"Like I said, dhampir are halfbreeds," Adrienne replied. "My mother was a vampire and my father was human. Dhampir aren't as powerful as full-bloods, but they're also less vulnerable. Sunlight and water hurt me, but they can't kill me. Silver is poisonous, but only the deepest cuts are any real threat."
"What about garlic?"
She sniffed. "It turns my stomach, but that's about it."
"Blood?"
"My body can't tolerate water, and it's not easy for me to digest normal food. Blood is my main sustenance. It doesn't take much to make the thirst go away. I don't have to drink so much that I kill my host. That's just wasteful."
"Why Edward?"
"He's a big man," Adrienne said with a shrug. "More blood." A grin crossed her pale lips. "Besides, all that liquor seeps into his blood. I like to get drunk, too, you know."
"Will he... change?" Mark asked warily.
Adrienne shook her head. "Only full vampires can turn others."
After taking a moment to take in all that he had just been told, Mark unhinged his vambrace and pulled back his sleeve. He held up his arm to her.
"If you have to feed off of us, take from me alone."
Adrienne stared at him blankly.
"How chivalrous..." Her eyes ran up the length of his exposed forearm. "Very well, I accept your offer. But it'll only be a taste this time. Expect to be weakened a bit in the future."
She took hold of his forearm at the wrist and the elbow, her grip like iron claws. She opened her mouth, exposing her long fangs. Mark winced as her fangs sank into his arm. She sucked briefly and then wrapped the wound as soon as she released him. Her tongue ran across her lips.
"Your blood is... sweet, familiar." She nodded approvingly. "This may not be such a bad deal after all." She stood up, glancing back at Mark over her shoulder. "You sleep. I'll take the watch from here."
Mark's eyes were fixed on his forearm. He could not tell if he was dreaming or awake. His eyes lost focus. He did not even feel his body hit the ground. Even as everything else faded away, Catherine's voice spoke to his mind.
That was reckless of you, Mark. Did you even see any sign of change in Edward? I know it is your nature to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others and I know I cannot dissuade you, but be careful. There is little I can do for you until I break this spell.
He fought to remember everything that had happened, but the tide of the unconsciousness overcame him. He feared he would forget it all by morning, but maybe that was exactly the way Adrienne wanted it.