Two Hunters, Part 4
Nell followed a comfortable distance behind Culvir to confront the owner. They were in a forced state of relaxation; both of them had experience with enthralled humans. The rules regarding them in the association were pretty clear: If possible, kill the source of the problem and the rest will fall into place. The fact that Nell’s assailant had been immune to magic led them to believe they were up against a lord, or worse. They didn’t need to consult to know that.
Batreese polished drink glasses merrily in the small tavern portion of the inn. He noticed them and grinned. “Oh? Need a winding down drink?”
“Sure,” Nell said, “Something strong.”
“Water,” Culvir said. He shot a glare at Nell as she sidled up to a barstool.
Batreese nodded, placed a pair of glasses on the counter and started rifling through his stock. “Do you find the room satisfactory?”
“It’s fine.” Culvir said.
Batreese produced a bottle of whiskey and poured it nearly to the brim. He left the bottle next to the glass.
Nell downed the shot-glass quickly and let out a content sigh. “You have good tastes in booze.”
“Thank you,” He grinned he pulled out a skin of water and poured out Culvir’s glass. “I could tell, you are not novice when it comes to drinking. I think this will stir passions without leaving you with the nasty hangover yes?”
Culvir sputtered his water to Nell’s amusement.
“We might need to hold off a night or two for that.” Nell said, she poured herself another glass.
Culvir cleared his throat. “We’re looking for vampires. We believe they might have found a way into your inn. We were attacked in our room.”
Batreese’s eyes widened. “What? Why have you told me that everything was fine then? This is a terrible thing!”
“You asked if there was anything wrong with the room. There isn’t.” Culvir said, “Besides, we’re fine. We’re professionals. Or I am anyway; I can’t speak for my drunk of a partner.”
Nell shrugged one shoulder.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on her.” Batreese tightened his face into a frown. “I had a niece like her. Beautiful girl she was…”
“Was?” Culvir raised a brow behind his glasses.
“She is dead now. She passed peacefully in her sleep.” The innkeeper lowered his eyes to his glass.
“What does that have to do with her?” Culvir slammed a fist on the bar.
Batreese jumped, his eyes to Nell. An apologetic expression sat on his brow.
“It’s fine, I’m past that part of it.” Nell smiled softly then took another drink. “I’m twenty six, if I’ve lasted this long, I’m not about to keel over.”
“That is a relief.” Batreese clapped. “And you look so young!”
“But about the vampires,” Nell said, “Is there a way someone could get into the inn without you seeing them? I don’t think you have anything to do with them. You’re too sweet.”
“Hm. I have a basement where I keep bed materials and such. You are free to investigate.” He led them to the entrance. Culvir found signs of forced entry and a passage behind piled materials.
“How exciting!” Batreese said.
“How long have you owned this inn?” Nell peered into the passage.
“Four years. Well, and some, I’ve owned it for a few months and—“
“It matches up.” Culvir folded his arms. “This is why we’re here, go back with Batreese and get the guards. I’m doing this alone.”
Nell frowned. “What? We can’t leave the other people in the inn to—“
“What?!” Batreese’s eyes widened.
“I’m sorry. But they’ve been dead for close to a week. You’re under the influence of a vampire, you just don’t realize it.” Culvir jabbed a finger at the owner. “This is fairly common, so I don’t hold you responsible.”
“That is ridiculous. I am having full control of myself. You are mistaken! And my tenants? Dead? That is even more ridi—“
“You make it habit to take food to rooms when they don’t come down to eat, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Batreese said without hesitance.
“You don’t find that odd?”Culvir ran a hand along the edge of the entranceway. “It’s fairly common for tenants to come down and eat breakfast if you have a kitchen, which you do. Your food was even good. I broke into one of the rooms, the beds have been tended and the rooms cleaned. But their corpses have grown stale. You’ve been serving dead people.”
A hush fell around the quiet cellar. Batreese’s eyes fell to the floor with a haunted expression. The truth of it danced in his eyes.
Nell put a hand on his shoulder. “But he’s not completely controlled. He can go and get the guards. I’m coming with you.”
“Ridiculous.” Culvir shook his head. “I understand why you’d want to help in the Inn but I’m going to sneak in. I can’t have you slowing me down.”
“I won’t, and we won’t be sneaking. I’m going to be your captive.” Nell lifted her head. “Why do you think Okiir sent me to work with you?”
“My… captive?” Culvir reddened.
“”They’re going to be able to tell who you are right away, not to mention they can smell you.” Nell prodded him in the stomach. “Our best bet is to let them think we’re surrendering, you can use me as an offering. We can use the fact that—“
“No.” Culvir pushed away her hand. “This is why you were drinking? To bolster your nerve to sacrifice yourself? I’m not accepting that. We do this my way.”
“But it’s not going to work,” Nell said, “If you go in there alone, you are going to die.”
“Not before I get to the bottom of this. At the very least we’ll know how many there are. I have methods of getting information out even if I can’t.”
“And it’s all right if you sacrifice yourself? You’re a hypocrite.”
“No, I’m not. My odds of success are simply low not—“
“They won’t kill me,” Nell said firmly, “We both know this. All I have to do is threaten to kill myself if they hurt you. You don’t want to admit it, but Okiir knew more about this than he let on. Why else would he send the two of us?”
“Damn it.” Culvir struck the frame of the passage. “Fine then, we’ll compromise. You go in alone.”
Nell turned her head to one side. “…I don’t understand.”
“Who’s going to know if those guys didn’t kill one of us? I’m going to improvise.” Culvir peeled off his coat and tossed it aside. “Batreese, if anyone asks. I’m dead. Got it?”
“You want me to lie?” The owner frowned.
“You’ve been doing it for the past week. Does it really matter that you weren’t doing it on purpose?” Cluvir unbuckled his belt and offered it to him. “This should be proof enough, outside of its practical use, it’s certainly memorable.”
“That’s for sure,” Nell rolled her eyes. She found herself glad to see him rid of it. There was not a single piece of the belt made of the same color or material. Against the blacks and browns of his armor it look like a bag of assorted fruit had exploded on it.
“This is… a remarkable belt. Is it special?” Batreese turned it in his meaty hands.
“Yes.” Culvir said, “If you’re wearing it you can’t be struck by conventional wielded weapons. It’s useless against things thrown or shot at you though. It also can’t stop punches or kicks.”
“Sort of seems like cheating.” Nell said coyly.
Batreese bowed politely and hurried out of the cellar. Culvir watched him carefully as he ran.
“For the record, I don’t need it. It’s a tool. It comes in handy when I need to sleep in the field.” Culvir pulled a case from under his arm, seemingly out of thin air.
“You can use magic?” Nell gasped.
“I can activate it. That’s it. These are all relics. Gifts mostly.” He set the case down and revealed a band on his upper arm. “A thieves closet, it’s probably the most useful of any of them.”
He pulled off his glasses held his arm out. The distortion seemed barely visible and near impossible to detect until he tightened his arm to activate it. The glasses slipped through and vanished. He opened his case and pulled out a thin flimsy fabric.
“I took this just in case; it should still have the residue of their influence.” When held to his face, the fabric clung and changed him. Even with her keen connection to magic she would have never known it to be Culvir at all.
He cleared his throat. “Whatcha think? Convincin’ huh?”
Nell nodded, quietly impressed. “It changes your voice too?”
“No,” Culvir said. His eyes narrowed. “That’s just practice and hard work. In the hands of a moron, these things are just toys.”
“Take this too.” Nell offered her arch-wand to him. “It’ll be more convincing if you didn’t think to bring it.”
“Good point,” He slipped it away. “Not like mindless cronies would see the worth of a magic stick.
Nell put her hands out, together. “Remember to not be gentle with me. It won’t be convincing otherwise. You should probably tear off some of my clothes too.”
“Uh… You think that’s necessary?” Culvir looked her over hesitantly.
“That was a joke,” she said, “Well… it was meant as one. If you really want to—“
“I’ll pass.” Culvir clapped his hands around her wrists and began to bind them with steel wire. She winced, his speed startled her, but the bindings weren’t uncomfortable. The steel was soft, malleable, and allowed skin to breathe.
“You used this to tie up the others didn’t you?” Nell said, inspecting her bindings closely. “I told you not to go easy on me.”
“Prisoners don’t get to choose their method of capture,” Culvir said, “Besides you don’t deserve to be mistreated any more than you already have been.”
He tapped a finger on the middle of her choker. “You’re not being sacrificed; you’re just being used as bait. I promise. All this will be over when I drive my dagger through the vampire lord’s heart.”
“But… that really would be suicide.” Nell frowned.
“Not if you help me take out his followers afterwards. I imagine they’re going to be very angry about that.” He grinned, even without it being his face; she could see his awkward charm through it. She found herself staring at him, past the mask.
Nell raised her bound hands to his cheeks. “You know… you’re nothing like the boys at the Association say you are…”
“What do you mean?” Culvir narrowed his eyes.
“Well… I guess that’s not entirely right… you are uptight, pushy, and take your work entirely too seriously. That part is spot on, but you’re only doing that because you’re looking out for everyone.”
He looked away annoyed, but made no move to wrench free of her hands. “You can never take this job too seriously. If I don’t, who will?”
“What do they say about me?” Nell pulled his face back to her.
“Nothing I’m going to repeat.” Culvir growled. “And nothing that’s…”
“What if it was true? Would you hate me?” Nell kept her eyes fixed on him.
“No,” he said, “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Nell leaned forward, closed her eyes, and pressed her lips against his. She lingered for a moment; she could feel his tension , his surprise, and savored it. No one deserved to throw away their lives and not feel appreciated, especially not a foolish boy like Culvir; a boy that claimed to be a man.
She pulled back and smiled. He looked thunderstruck, and the expression he made told her he did not make it habit to play kissing games. “Now you have a reason to survive this, I just wanted to get that out of my system.”
Culvir regained his composure and cleared his throat. She could see him trying to formulate some sort of excuse. Some sort of explanation as to how pointless her actions were. Instead he surprised her, and kissed her back.
His hands rested neatly on her shoulders and gave urgency to the kiss. Her eyes were wide open, shocked by the revelation and melted into his embrace. Her eyes fell shut, transported her to a more innocent time when kisses meant so much more.
Her lips parted and she drank in his warmth, his need for her. Her head spun, and she remembered briefly what it meant to be drunk again. Her worries, her fears, her lost hopes were genuinely shelved for that fleeting moment.
Culvir pulled away and her eyes fluttered open and Culvir stared at her, blushing deep red with his bright blue eyes. She hadn’t remembered him taking off that hideous mask, but he had. She found him to be beautiful.
Nell blushed herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been flustered under the effects of alcohol. It was as if he had sobered her with a second kiss.
“I… think I need a drink.” She said timidly.
“I’ll allow it.” Culvir said sheepishly. “Just… after all this… I want you to quit.”
Nell nodded and hurried up the stairs to the bar, she had almost forgotten her hands were bound. She fumbled with the bottle and scooped it up, pressing it against her lips and downing its contents. It had been full save the two glasses she had drained from it.
…and she needed every last drop of courage she could get.