Underhand Plotting

The corridor I got into was similar in design to the one that brought me to the hall area, having the same arc-like shape and ramping direction. However, this time it wasn't so long and so wobbling, and after crossing only about ten yards of what turned out to be its whole length, I was already inside the premise this passage-way led to.

The short ascent brought me into a circular chamber with a broad pillar erected right in its center that pierced both the floor and the ceiling of the place. This pillar has an odd fretted shape which made it look like a colossal drill forced through this chamber's very fundament.

But this unusual configuration was not what caught my attention as then I spotted something else at the distant side of the chamber that instantly came to the front of my vision. Showing from behind the pillar was a slightly scuffed banner of a vampire clan which insignia was familiar to me even after centuries spent in deranging torment in the waters of the Lake of the Dead. Though the color of the flag could not be discerned through the prism of the ghostly reality, the distinctive black symbol in the form of a winding serpent with a hammer-like head left me no room for the doubt that this was the mnemonic of the Rahabim – the tribe descending from my third younger brother, Rahab.

This was the only vampire clan which representatives had not yet been encountered by me after my rebirth, and to discover the traces of their existence in this strange place certainly felt very intriguing. The fact that I had not yet come across any of their brood throughout my long journey suggested that they like the Zephonim could have secluded themselves in some separate domain and stayed there, feeding on supplies of blood harvested from their human servants. In this regard, could the presence of this banner here mean that I was now on the territory of the Rahabim's dominion?

As curious as were all these questions, I very soon realized that it was all but useless to try to analyze them until I had at least a fragmentary understanding of what had become of the Rahabim and what could have brought any of them here in the first place. Therefore, I set aside all these inquiries for the time being and refocused on the matter at hand, which was finding my way out of this place.

This made me take another look at my surroundings, and when I did, I noticed that the chamber I was in now offered two various directions to go: one was a passage-way to the right of me, blocked by a set of grates, while the other one was a passage-way located to the left, which didn't seem to have anything fencing its way. Logic suggested that the first one was the right to go, since the fact that it was blocked had to be speaking of the importance of something it led to. Nonetheless, for some reason I could not explain, I was feeling compelled to go explore the left one instead. There was no solid argument I could bring in favor of such unlikely choice, except for only some deep visceral instinct telling me to do so. In the long last, even if my intuition failed me and I would find nothing worth my attention there, I would have no troubles coming back to this chamber and proceeding from here through the other tunnel. This idea was successful in convincing me to follow the call of my heart at last, so I stopped hesitating and headed for the left entrance.

The passage-way I picked to enter turned out to be a short "L"-shaped corridor that quickly ended, at once taking me to what appeared to be a balcony overlooking the outdoor area beyond this building. As soon as its bright sight struck my eyes, I hurriedly marched toward it, eager to see what kind of territory ranged outside and learn at least something about my current whereabouts.

Once I stepped on the balcony, my view was commanded to a vast coastal area spreading for many miles beneath. Most of its ground was formed by a broad pebbly beach ranging far to the north, the large cobblestones it consisted of being discernable even despite the nocturnal obscuration of the spirit world. At the distance of about fifty yards afore, the beach was starting to pass into some low cliffs and hills, some of which had a bit distorted outward due to the kaleidoscopic-like panorama of this dimension. The eastern part of the shore, in contrast, was represented by higher cliffs, which had every right to be proudly called mountains. And trending between those two rocky shore-sides was a slender river, formed by a tall waterfall looming far on the horizon.

But what came under my notice was not the river itself, but something that stood afloat of it. Resting on its translucent, insubstantial waters was some dark, massive, eerily elongated object that looked like some huge sea-creature to have come to the water's surface. After taking the measure of the thing, though, I reassured myself that it was no living being, but an inanimate object – a boat, to be precise. The word 'boat' seemed the most accurate one to describe this vessel as it had no sails to define it as a ship. What also counted in favor of this craft being a boat was the fact that it had a long chain mooring it to the coast, while ships were usually prevented from drifting by being connected to the bottom of the sea or whatever water-course they planed upon by anchors.

The boat was about thirty feet at length and ten feet at breadth, with its hind side being squared, bulky and topping, probably designed as a cabin of sorts, and its front side being low, elegant and tapering like a head of a bird. Both sides, however, had one similarity: each one of them carried a thin pole with a lantern attached to it, the fire inside them burning blue through the tinted brume of the spectral realm. The fact that the fire had not yet abated was a sign that the boat had arrived here not too long ago, which, indeed, afforded plenty of causes to grow suspicious.

As far as the attire of the vessel went, it appeared to be designed entirely of wood and metal, the layers of the two interlacing materials spread almost evenly along the whole hull of the boat. From what I knew, such construction style was meant to provide the craft with both mobility and durability at the same time – a combination usually pertaining to freight carriers. Apparently, this boat served for transportation of massive cargos, which seemed evermore likely judging by the numerous huge barrels stuffed on its deck. What was stored inside those barrels could only be found out in the world of the living, but, thankfully, at least this didn't represent a great issue as the portal to this dimension was glaring right on top of the boat's hind cabin. This kind of finding was as lucky as it was inconvenient, for emerging in the material realm on a spot like this could turn out to be very detrimental to my concealment, especially, if the boat's crew was still onboard or somewhere close by. But regardless of this apprehension, there was no other way for me to learn what was going on here. If this craft had truly come to this shore just erewhile, then whatever was taking place nearby was hardly just some mundane mess.

On that ground, I jumped down from the balcony on the pebbly beach below and made for the portal.

Once standing on the glaring spherical glade on top of the boat's cabin, I funneled my very being into the translocation to the material realm and then watched how the world around me responded with an explosive twist of its death-soaked space. The darkness of the spirit realm at once receded, giving place to the obtuse brightness of what turned out to be the early evening sunlight. The cliffs around me began to unbend from their warped spectral parodies, straightening themselves like a row of soldiers ordered to stay to attention. The same happened to the boat I got on, which distorted shape squirmed starkly right under my feet in retrieval of its original form. This flush was so abrupt it even rendered me giddy, almost pulling me off balance. With an effort I managed to keep my legs under me, and then, upon regaining my composure, I instantly sensed that my former solitude had just been infringed by someone's outside presence.

Together with the inflow of interplanar transition settling at last, beneath me, on the boat's deck emerged a human figure encased in full-plate heavy black armor – a garment I was more than familiar with after having seen it numerous times throughout my long journey. This was the uniform of the warriors of the Human Citadel - the vampire hunters, as my former kin preferred to call them - and I was undoubtedly looking at one of their kind right now. The armored human paced toward one of the barrels staged on the boat's deck, then grabbed it in his arms and carried it back to the gunwale of the boat, never caring to even look upwards where I was standing. As I watched him go, I saw that waiting for him on the shore side was another hunter, also black-armored, holding in his hands a traditional crossbow that the owners of such uniform were usually armed with. By lucky chance, he was standing with his back half-turned to me and didn't notice my sudden appearance either. Nonetheless, I decided not to take the chance of getting descried at the early going and quickly scratched at my flesh to wean off the loud flaming projection of the Soul Reaver's blade. Then, once my symbiotic weapon retracted inside me, I jumped off the cabin on the boat's deck, looking to hide more securely behind one of the barrels.

Unfortunately, the instant my feet touched the deck's surface, one of its planks screaked in the loudest and most ill-lucky way one could possibly imagine at such moment. Startled by this, I hastily hunkered behind the nearest barrel as tightly as I could and then bristled. There was a short period of silence to follow this heated second, which, however, felt like an eternity, until, finally, a voice was heard from behind me, asking,

"Did you hear that?"

My heart gave a jump at this phrase and I inwardly cursed at myself for my own clumsiness. Although I had no problems coming to clash with these hunters if needed, my goal was to investigate what was going on here first, and causing a whole scuffle before anything was even partially clear would not have been very helpful.

With tension I continued to wait for what was going to transpire next until another voice was heard replying,

"Hear what?"

Again silence befell for a brief moment, then the first orator that was probably the hunter that carried the barrel returned in a bit close-off tone,

"Never mind."

Thereupon recommenced the sounds of leaving footsteps and I happily took a sigh of relief, realizing that I had not been exposed at the long last. Still, I continued to sit nearly motionless and carefully listen to what was happening, not daring to break my cover yet.

"You seem tensed today, don't you?" The second colloquist was heard asking with a bit teasing intonation.

"That's because I am tensed," The other hunter responded petulantly, but honestly, "I'm having a bad feeling about this place."

His interlocutor chuckled.

"How so?" He asked laughingly. "We're on uninhabited terrain that is surrounded by water. No vampire scum can dare set its ugly foot on this land."

After this line, the sounds of footsteps ceased as if the hunter carrying the barrel had stopped in his tracks. Then I heard him reply,

"Say whatever you want, but I have an instinct, and it never tells me wrong. This territory reeks of hostility, and I will only take calm when we're done setting the explosives and can finally leave this cursed land for good."

Another sneering snort was heard in return to his tirade, but I was no longer placing emphasis on this as I started spacing out the last part of the hunter's message. Setting explosives? What in the world did he mean by that? Were these hunters here trying to blow up something? And if they did, what could it possibly be? And did all these barrels stacked on this boat have to do with that?

Caught in the maze of all these questions, I picked the one that was the easiest to check empirically right now and unclenched the thumb talon on my left hand. Then I gently forced it into one of the barrels I was hiding behind. The augmented claw of the arachnid-like Zephonim that I inherited from drinking the soul of their father easily pierced through the wooden carcass of the barrel at the very first touch, and once it did, something black and pulverized instantly began to cascade from the newly made hole in it. One needn't have had any special knowledge of the blasting compounds to recognize the distinctive external view and smell of what could only be the gunpowder. To maintain the experimental integrity, I then poked holes in a few more barrels standing nearby, and all of them turned out to have exactly the same content as the first one. So this hunter that mentioned those explosives truly meant what he said. This boat was force fed with blasting substance that would suffice to detonate an entire mountain if wanted. But what could it be that these hunters were looking to implode with so much gunpowder? And, more importantly, why would there ever be a need for such stern measures? Apparently, the only way to find out was to continue ferreting out this mystery.

With my apprehension of getting descried now superseded by my desire to learn the truth, I drew closer to the boat's gunwale and carefully peered out of it to see the shore-side. The first thing to come into my view was the figure of the hunter with the barrel slowly clumping along the shingled ground toward the far side of the coast. As I looked on, I saw that there were more two more warriors standing sentinel on his path, both stationed near some broad embayment in one of the distant mountains that looked like an entrance to a grotto. One of these warriors was an ordinary black-armored crossbowman, but the other one looked different than any of the hunters I had met this far. He was head and shoulders taller than the arbalester beside him and was draped in big, long green cloak with a hood. This cloak of his was so wraparound that it completely enfolded his entire torso together with the arms and thighs, and the only part of his body that showed from under it was his sabaton-booted feet. Also, protruding from his shoulders were two angular scythe-like blades that looked like oversized wing bones. All in all, this warrior's guise was weird to say the least, and for an instant it made me wonder if he even related to the vampire hunters in the first place. However, judging by how easily he seemed to be holding around that arbalester by his side, I realized this could hardly be any other way round. Too bad that over such distance there was no way to overhear what these two could be talking about, but even without making the details, it was not hard to deduce that it had to do with what was taking place here. The epicenter of this whole mess with setting explosives was clearly tied somewhere around those two hunters and that cave they guarded, so in order to straighten out this tangle, I would have to get closer to this area.

Having set myself this task, I turned away from the gunwale and started slowly and cautiously crawling my way to the opposite end of the boat's deck. In order to get on the shore, I had to sneak behind the back of the hunter standing sentry over the boat, so I kept my body as low to the ground as possible, making sure not an inch thereof accidentally showed out from above the deck's edge.

After snaking my way between the barrels with gunpowder to the snout of the craft, I again curdled up to the gunwale and nattily leaned out of it to check if it was still safe. By lucky chance, the sentinel crossbowman still stood with his back turned to the boat, obviously unsuspicious that the danger could possibly come from the water-side. Had I been a lurking assassin, this man would have had to pay dearly for such levity of his, but to his fortunate, I wasn't one, so I just quietly rose up and leapt off the boat toward the brink of the shore, spreading my broken wings wide for a soft and silent landing.

Upon touching the pebbly surface of the coast, I quickly hunkered behind the nearest hillock and then cautiously looked out of it to reassure myself that I had not been spotted. Much to my relief, the crossbowman cordoning the boat showed no signs of alertness, his posture remaining unchanged and his gaze still being cast ahead of him.

Realizing that my presence had stayed concealed from his view, I put down my guard and redirected my sight to the two other hunters at the far side of the coast. By the moment I decided to take another look at them, their duo was already being approached by the black-armored warrior carrying the barrel of gunpowder. The packed arbalester seemed to be heading for that cave-like entrance at the bottom of the mountain, but at the supreme moment before walking in there, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned his head to the two hunters standing to the left of him. All three of them continued to stand like this for about ten more seconds, probably having a short conversation, until the crossbowman with the barrel in his hands shook his head as if disgruntled by something and then began to walk away from the pass leading into the cave. There seemed as if he had just been told not to take the explosive to that grotto, and all the effort he had put into carrying it all the way from the boat turned out to be in vain.

As the crossbowman with the barrel finally started trudging away from the cavern I continued to process the learned. So that cave in the mountain truly had to do with what the hunters were plotting here, even though it was not yet clear what kind of nuisance there was about it that it had to be removed with the use of explosives. That was bringing me back to the necessity of getting closer to the cave area and exploring everything in detail, but as I started revolving around this option, I quickly realized there was one considerable hindrance to it. While this terrain might have been thickly covered in ridges, the coast itself was almost squeaky clean, having no foothills or ground knolls to hide behind when making the way to the distant mountains. This completely eliminated the possibility of sneaking behind the hunters' backs without getting detected. Entering the spirit world was also no solution, for the only conduit to the material realm in this area was the one on top of the boat's cabin, and I strongly doubted it would just change its location after those few minutes I had spent on the plane of reality. Someway, somehow I needed to slip past the guards while still being in the world of the living and having no concealment to cover my stealth.

The black-armored warrior was already starting to cover the second third of his distance while I still kept on sorting out the variants and options of my dilemma. It was vital to devise something as soon as possible, for there was no knowing to what these hunters were going to do with these explosives and how soon they were going to do this. With so much blasting force involved, the situation could get out of control at any moment, and I still had little but no understanding of what this whole scheme of theirs was even aimed at. If only there had been a way to approach that cavern not on foot…

Suddenly, as my mind walked over this alternative, my glance unwittingly shifted to the fence of mountains boxing this territory. Just until recently I would have regarded these jagged, bulky cliffs only as a part of the local landscape, but now that I correlated their sight with the idea that had visited me, I started to regard them as something more. Though an ordinary traveler in my place would have probably seen these rocky formations only as obstructions to his progress, I rather began to see them as an opportunity instead, for I just caught myself recalling that I possessed some talent an ordinary traveler did not. That talent was, of course, the arachnid ability to scale vertical surfaces which I inherited from reaping the soul of my second youngest brother, Zephon. I had not thought about this earlier, but aside from walking the ground, I could also get to the opposite end of the coast by climbing my way through the cliffs along its perimeter. This would certainly take more time and force than coming there on foot, but if I was looking to stay latent from the hunters' sight, it was my only chance. I just hoped I could make it fast enough like this, before these humans launched the next phase of whatever mad plan they were nurturing here.

Latching onto this idea, I prudently crawled back from the hillock I was hiding behind toward the nearest cliff in the rear, never ceasing to glance back at the sentinel hunter by the boat every now and then. Once I was end-to-end with the rocky protrusions behind me, sheltered by the shades they cast, I clung to the lateral side of the mountain that adjoined the water and began to climb. Compared to the members of the Zephonim clan that had been mastering this skill for eons, I could hardly call myself an experienced cragsman. Yet, after the ascent I had taken on the mountain leading to the Tomb of the Sarafan and several other occasions where I had to apply for this rare ability, using it now no longer felt so foreign and uncustomary. My moves finally began to lose their former tentativeness and my body started becoming far more used to this spider-like felinity. So I continued to clamber up this summit, covetously anticipating that precious moment when I would lastly gain some positional superiority over the hunters on the shore.

After reaching the mountain's peak at last, I quickly found the broadest rock shelve to take up a comfortable position on and perched upon it. Then I ranged my view over the vast landscape lying beneath, watching the humans on the shore like an eagle watching its prey. Though the climbing up this arête seemed to have taken me relatively long, I realized I hadn't actually risen to any conventionally great height, for the figures of the hunters below still seemed to bulk quite large from this vantage point. The mountains abutting upon the water side were lower than the ones in the depth of this terrain and therefore offered more chances for the hunters to spot me here. That made it evermore necessary to scale my way to the higher cliffs not only for the sake of speeding up my progress, but for the sake of ensuring my covertness as well.

Once through with investigating the situation below, I climbed off the rocky brow I was sitting on and crept behind the flipside of the mountain's peak to continue stay hooded from the hunters' eyes. Then I focused my gander on the ridges lying ahead, trying to figure out how I could now ascend them the quickest way possible. The mountains here were interconnected by low-hill isthmuses that grew at their very bottoms and hardly rose for more than thirty feet over the ground. And if I was to migrate from mountain to mountain by crossing these isthmuses, I would always have to descend to the very root of each ridge after having already risen to its top, which would certainly not be very time efficient. A less tedious option was to glide the distance between the neighboring mountains on my wings, but this could be harmful to my disguise as there would be nothing to cover me while I would be in mid-air. Clearly, I was between a rock and a hard place in this situation, having to make a choice in favor of either speed or stealth. Unless, of course, I would find the golden mean here…

As I began to ponder this idea, I remembered the latest chain of hurdles I had to pass on my way to this territory. The most memorable and risky of them was certainly the last one when I had to take that long soar over the deep hall area without even being able to properly hold one of my wings as my right hand was inextricably bound to the projection of the wraith blade. I could have been sitting stuck on the bottom of this hall right now if only I hadn't twigged to take that sharp dive at the end of my flight and use its force to retrieve my altitude, which then allowed me to reach the platform I was after. That was when I fathomed that even on broken wings, there was still a way for me to control my flying and even gain additional height that could not always be provided by the take-off points that I started from. And now that I was looking at the cliffs in front of me and the distance I needed to cover, I conceived that I could put this new knowledge of mine to some good use yet another time. With that, I quit hold of the rocky surface I adhered to and jumped all the way down.

The jagged knags of the mountain I leapt off rapidly swept past me as I plunged downwards head first, holding the dribs of my wings at the ready but not yet spreading them. But once my swooping carcass started approaching the rills of the isthmus at the mountain's base, I finally opened my tattered membranes out and prepared for my downfall to become converted into a flight.

When I was trying the same inside those premises that had brought me here, I was on the plane of the dead world, having no natural air-force to enhance my gliding and not being able to even grab my right wing properly. But now that there were no more of those impairments to impede me again, the resulting effect I was able to achieve turned out to be far stronger than that ambivalent experience I had had before. The intense wind-flow of an open-air space filled my wings with so much tension that it almost turned them inside out. Then my bulk was gruffly shoved upwards by the created air-draft and all the distance I had fallen down before that moment was almost immediately recovered in one mighty looping ascent. It might have been a bit less secure way of moving from mountain to mountain than simply climbing them, but it still allowed me to remain shielded by the rocky out-thrusts during most of my flight, which wouldn't have been possible if I had simply taken a leap from the peak of the previous cliff. Not to mention, it was a much faster method, too.

As the force of the air-stream carrying my body began to cease, I released the grip of my wings and clung to the relief of the hill in front of me. This lift-off I had taken was so blistering that I could barely assess how high it had managed to get me, so I had to look about me to figure out my newest position. After taking in the expanses of space spreading above and beneath me, I saw that I had arrowed to about half the height of the mountain I was on now, which was, indeed, a notable achievement. The rest of the distance would have to be clambered, though, but it was still a better option than swarming up the entire mountain together with the isthmus at its bottom. And if such scheme could work with the remaining summits to conquer, then I was almost fully confident I could reach the far end of the shore both promptly and inconspicuously.

With my newly invented game-plan now assayed and worked out, I started surmounting all the next barrows on my path just the way I surmounted the previous one: first scaling the pinnacle of one mountain, then leaping off it all the way down to gain acceleration and glide my way upwards to the other one. The deeper I kept wading into this saddle the higher were the mountains getting, including the isthmuses at their feet that connected them. At some point, they started becoming so tall and so prominent that there was no more need to dive too deep in order to stay shrouded by their ridges while gliding, so I just began to leap from one mountain peak to another one, knowing for certain that at such altitude, I'd still be beyond the hunters' field of vision.

After having traversed about six or seven mountains like this, I finally started to come close to the area of the grotto I had been meaning to reach all long. Having been so focused on staying furtive and keeping from falling off the rough cliffs, I almost overlooked the moment of getting so close to it. But once my sense of vigilance came back to me, I stopped galloping over the rocky protrusions for an instant and took the time to study the scenery I was approaching.

The black-armored crossbowman and that strange hunter in a green cloak with crooked shoulder blades were still stationed around the entrance to the cave, even though the general activity around this place appeared to have recessed. The barrels with gunpowder were no longer being carried to the cave and back, and as I shifted my gaze to the hunters' boat at the opposite end of the coast, I saw that the crossbowman that used to be dragging those barrels from one end of the shore to the other had now joined his partner in keeping the ward of the freight carrier. The hunters seemed to be through with unloading the explosives from their craft, but for some reason, they were not hurrying to detonate them yet. Perhaps, they were waiting for some right moment to do this, but what exactly constituted this moment still remained to be seen. And if I was looking to unravel their plans before this entire island was blown up to hell, I couldn't have the luxury of biding my time until something monumental finally transpired. I needed to infiltrate the very core area of the hunters' mission and find out for myself what it was all about that they were doing here.

Clutching tighter onto the crag I was clinging to, I began to thoroughly scrutinize the landscape around the cave in order to calculate my next move. Right now I was about thirty feet above the ground, which was too high to be able to overhear the conversation between the two hunters near the cave, yet low enough for them to be able to target me here. Although the mortals did not possess the enhanced senses of smell, sight or hearing like those of the vampires, my experience in dealing with them throughout my adventure had taught me not to underestimate their warrior skills and instincts. I might have narrowly escaped being exposed by them moments ago, but the same would hardly work for the second time in a row, which meant that I couldn't break my cover yet. Therefore, if I was to shorten the distance between me and the grotto area, I had to make sure I still remained securely hidden behind the rocky snouts just like I'd been this entire time.

Luckily, the local landform offered a perfect opportunity for this as the cave's formation happened to be passing right into another mountain isthmus. This rocky bridge did not stand as low to the ground as the ones on the opposite side of the coast, but it was still the lowest podium of all around the grotto area. And like the rest of the ridges here, it had plenty of jutting brows to lie snug behind while spying on the hunters in the vicinity. After summing up all these facts, I lastly perceived what my next destination point should be. With that understanding assumed, I skirted to the flip-side of the mountain and started scaling my way down to its bottom.

By the time I got level with the isthmus I was intending to creep upon, the first aftersounds of the hunters' dialogue already became audible to me. Yet, it was only after I climbed on this prominence and found the right spot to lie in wait on that I began to make out the exact words of their conversation.

"Are you still positive that this is a good idea?" The first voice was heard asking, "No offense to your tactical scheming, but wouldn't it be safer just to get rid of the artifact?"

The reply to this line didn't come at once, but when it did, its intonation abundantly showed that its seeming delay in coming was not because of lack of arguments.

"No offense to your concerns, but you like almost everybody else fail to see the big picture here." The other interlocutor returned in a bit lukewarm and haughty tone. For some reason, I instantly got a feeling that it was that odd-looking hunter in a green cloak to whom this arrogant voice belonged.

"Getting rid of the artifact would surely be simpler, with that I agree," The second hunter proceeded meanwhile, still brimming with complacence in every word he uttered, "But what difference will it make, then? Destroying it will merely leave both us and the vampires standing on the very same spot we're standing now in this conflict. And where we are standing now, we are still losing miserably."

Another short pause followed, but its purpose was clearly the one of emphasizing the point.

"If we are looking to win this war, we have to start making headway," He declared with so much thrust as he was addressing an entire crowd of people, "And for that, we ought to claim the artifact for ourselves."

This mortal seemed to be sincerely passionate about what he was orating, but I was also catching the notes of something else in his voice. There was more than just passion to these aspirations he was so fervently articulating. I had already heard similar rhetorics from various people I had come to know both in my life and afterlife, and I was always able to capture the distinctive hints of what could only be fanaticism. Whatever it was that he was talking about, I couldn't shake the feeling that he had some personal interest in it. This observation made me want to get a broader picture of what was going on, so I charily crept a few feet closer to the edge of the isthmus to be able not to just hear, but to see the conferring hunters.

As I peered out of the teeth-like fence of crags, the discussion between the warriors continued.

"But what if the human mind is not prepared for such arcane knowledge?" The human that happened to be the black-armored arbalester asked his congener again, still sounding not fully convinced by his previous inspirational speech.

This proved my guess that all those pretentious phrases about 'claiming the artifact' came out of the mouth of that weird-looking hunter in a green cloak, whose unusual guise I could now discern in a bit greater detail. Though there was still no way to distinguish his hood-hidden face over such a distance, I managed to take a note that both his sabatons and his shoulder blades had a bronze color and were most likely made of it, too. Also, where his cloak fell into parts, more bronze-like fragments showed open, indicating that underneath this aureate sagum, there was still a full suit of armory worn by him.

"We shall never fathom what the human mind is truly prepared for until we test its potential," the green-cloaked hunter stated, the tones of concern in his voice becoming more and more sensible, "The nature together with its laws of evolution has put humanity at an unfair disadvantage before the vampires by undeservedly providing their despicable kind with the gifts that allowed them to bring this world to its knees. And if we are ever going to rectify this mistake, then what we were not granted, we should take!"

The crossbowman, however, was still not willing to accept his philosophy.

"But why do we have to resort to uncovering some forbidden blasphemous truths for this?" He put another question to his fellow hunter. "Why can't we just prevail over the vampires the way we had always done – by continuing to develop our technology and science?"

In response to this inquiry, the green-cloaked warrior that had been standing half turned to his companion during this entire discourse finally turned to face him, twisting on his feet so sharply that his cloak even flapped behind him.

"Because that's exactly the same pathetic delusion the Sarafan Order used to believe in!" He snapped, his former self-righteous equanimity now bested by emotions, "Technology… Science… Look at where it has brought them at the long last! Because of this shortsighted approach, they failed to exterminate the vampire plague for good and protect the future generations of mankind! Because of them, we're now forced to bear this wretched, meager existence, fighting for survival on a dying wasteland against insentient abominations! The Sarafan funneled all their naïve hopes into their own efforts sufficing to overpower the vampires, but in reality, they only waged a war they knew they couldn't win."

After this gruff expulsion of anger, the green-cloaked hunter recollected himself and proceeded in his former measured, prideful voice,

"However, we are going to succeed where the Sarafan failed – ironically, by taking the thing that was buried in the depths of these caverns just like their dead bodies."

Once he finished this part of his message, I was immediately overtaken by an ardent, chafing sense of visitation. An artifact buried in the depths of the caverns together with the corpses of the Sarafan Generals… Could it be that he was referring to the telekinesis relic that I acquired after defeating Morlock? And if he was, did that mean that these hunters here were after it? But how did they know about its existence? And, more importantly, what did all these explosives have to do with their plans for claiming it for themselves?

This chain of rapidly emerging questions within my mind was intercepted by the apparition of two more vampire hunters walking out of the grotto's exit. Both were encased in black armor, but only one of them was a crossbowman. The other warrior carried a pack of doubled black containers with a hose slung across its back – a device I recognized to be a flamethrower, similar to the one I used to incinerate Zephon inside his lair in the Silenced Cathedral.

After stepping out of the cave, the warrior with the crossbow addressed himself to the man in a green cloak,

"Another pack of explosives has been set up, Captain Hinrad. Please give your order to proceed with setting up the rest of the explosives."

"No need to set up more explosives, brothers," The green-cloaked hunter whose name appeared to be 'Hinrad' declined, "That will serve."

The two black-armored warriors exchanged glances, the looks of puzzlement on their faces probably hiding underneath the helmets.

"Are you certain of that, commander?" The one with the flamethrower asked him then, "It's only half of the compounds we have unloaded from our freighter."

"Yes, I am certain of that," Hinrad replied stoically, "One half is exactly how much we need for this."

"But according to Professor Lorenzo's calculations, we need everything we brought here to be able to blow up the caverns…"

"Professor Lorenzo does not lead this mission – I do! And you will follow my orders!" Hinrad interrupted him sternly, "The plans have changed: we are not going to blow up the caverns where the artifact is hidden – we're merely going to inundate them. Now go back to the freighter and tell the rest to start making the blasting fuse. By the end of this day, our goal here will have been accomplished."

A short moment of silence ensued thereafter, until the two black-armored hunters finally resigned themselves to the authority and one of them replied meekly,

"As you command, Captain."

Then the two warriors started stumping their way toward the other end of the coast where their boat was moored while I started to dwell on all the new insights that this, Hinrad, had just unknowingly revealed to me.

At last, the shattered pieces of this mosaic of a mystery began to shape together. The subject of these hunters' concern truly was the relic with the essence of telekinesis embedded therein. Heaven knew how the mortals were able to learn about a secret as ancient and obscure as this, but somehow they did, and now they seemed to be intent not just upon divulging it, but deriving a profit wherefrom. Apparently, their initial plan was to destroy the relic by burying it under the rubbles of imploded mountain so it did not fall into the hands of their lifelong adversaries, the vampires. But thanks to the ambition of their fanatical commander, they decided to only waterlog the caverns, thus sparing themselves the chance of taking hold of the artifact which would become inaccessible to their vampire adversaries.

They must have already tried this before, for now I conceived that those submersed premises I had discovered in the underground catacombs beneath the Tomb of the Sarafan must have become inundated as a result of the very same actions. That also explained that abrupt landslide I had so narrowly survived inside the mausoleum's shrine. I should have guessed from the outset that the seism alone could not have just up and ruined an entire burial vault that had been able to withstand it for entire centuries. Instead, it must have been the aftershock of these humans' plan already showing its first signs at that time.

But the most ludicrous part of all this was that these hunters had no foggiest idea that the efforts they were applying now were already wasted, for the artifact they wanted to take possession of had already been found and absorbed by me just erewhile ago. It almost made me want to take it to the open now and tell them avow that their opportunity had passed. Yet, joking aside, what was I to do right now that I figured out the plans of these hunters here? Was I supposed to make them stop creating evermore mess than they had already created, or was I supposed to ignore this whole situation due to its insignificance and just continue my way?

Before I could ponder any of these questions, my train of thoughts got interrupted again, but this time, not by the hunters beneath. A distant hoarse animalistic roar was suddenly heard from somewhere on the opposite side of the shore, at once giving me a feeling of alarm. The human warriors below me also alerted to this sound and almost synchronically turned their heads to behold the events in the distance. From the position I had taken, there was no way for me to see what was taking place there, but it quickly became clear that it was nothing good as in the following instant, the strange growling noises interspersed with terrified screams of the sentinel hunters stationed there,

"Good Lord Almighty, what are these things?!"

"They're coming right out of the water!"

The four hunters near the cave immediately stirred a peg, drawing their weapons at the ready and preparing to rush to their brothers-in-arms' aid.

"What's going on there?" One of the crossbowmen asked worriedly.

"I don't know, but it looks like they've been ambushed!" The other one returned.

"Our comrades are in danger, brothers! We mush come to their help right now!" Their green-cloaked leader exclaimed then in his usual pompous tone.

Quickly all four hunters began to race their way to their partners' rescue as I also started scrambling out of my hidden place, striving to descry the source of the occurred panic in the distance. Although I had been doing my best to keep a low profile this entire time, now that things had taken such a sharp turn, there seemed I would have to make my presence known at last. However, if the sounds of this mysterious havoc taking place near the hunters' boat were any indication, it was even likely that my sudden turn-up would not be the biggest of the shocks these hunters were going to experience today.

Wasting no more time, I leapt off the cliff I was lurking upon and hurried to follow the running hunters, who by that moment had already made half the distance toward their water-craft. The area around their boat was still in chaos, even though I could not yet tell what exactly was happening there. The only things visible from afar were the hectic fountain-like splashes of water and the frantic moves of the guarding hunters slashing with their weapons at something that seemed to be somewhere at the very edge of the shore. Evidently, there was a battle transpiring, but the identity of the combatants opposing the vampire hunters remained a total enigma for now. But the most disturbing and affraying part of this whole panorama were those inscrutable guttural, wet growls that kept getting louder with every pace I made. I had never heard such bizarre noises ever before in my entire existence, and the mere idea of what kind of horrendous beasts they could possibly belong to was dismaying already.

At some point, the brutish roars abruptly gave way to the more familiar, yet no less unsettling shrieks of pain and horror that could only be emitted by humans. They did not last long, though, and shortly thereafter, the sounds of carnage ceased all at once and the air of the terrain grew still again. However, this suddenly befallen silence felt far more frightening than the previous cacophony of battle noises ever did.

Then I saw how the cohort of hunters running before me briskly skidded to a stop right in front of the shore's verge. I instantly stopped as well and skulked behind one of the rock snouts at the distance of about ten yards away from their group, trying to observe what it was that halted them so curtly. The four hunters seemed to have started examining the tideland area in puzzlement, probably looking for the traces of either their two comrades or that massacre that had been ensuing here just moments away, but probably being able find neither.

After several seconds of this dumbfounded scanning of this zone, one of the humans finally voiced his perplexity by asking,

"Where are they?"

The answer to the warrior's question came almost immediately when all of a sudden, a body dressed in heavy black armor, which, however, was already missing a few of its pieces by that moment, came to the water's surface. Without delaying a second, the four hunters determinedly dashed to their comrade's aid, grabbing him by the legs and dragging him back to safety. But just as they moved the unfeeling bulk for one solitary foot off its spot, the most terrible and macabre sight abruptly unfolded before their eyes. From out of nowhere, the water around the hunter's body thickly filled with red as if someone had just poured an entire gallon of blood there. Then the upper part of the mortal's carcass showed from under the watery prism and the ghastliness of the spectacle surrounding it had at once been taken to an even more horrid level. The vampire hunter's body turned out to be missing its head.

At the sight of this, all four mortals pulled back in utter shock and awe, their battle-tried hearts of brave warriors simply unable to handle the pernicious truth presented before them. But just when there seemed that nothing could ever outmatch the hideousness of this moment, an even more nightmarish thing happened. The small area of the still watery waste behind the hunter's decapitated cadaver suddenly grew restless, and then… something began to emerge from it. The thing that slowly came to the surface was obviously the author of what happened to the poor vampire hunter, and as it manifested completely, the trepidation from discovering its appearance did not leave unfazed not only the four humans standing on its way, but me as well…

Author's note (Yes, that's right, this time I'm putting this thing at the end):

I would like to note that the character of Professor Lorenzo briefly mentioned in one of the lines is NOT my creation, but the one of a very talented writer and LoK specialist, Kojiokida2, who was very generous to share it with me. All rights to it are reserved to him. I'm only using it for the sake of my novelization's consistency with his continuation of the LoK saga.