Written by Jeff Lee
Zara woke to the smell of the sea, the snap of sailcloth, and a sensation of motion. Her head pounded. Something in her mouth, a gag. She attempted to sit up, but found herself unable to move, let alone feel, her arms. They were behind her, and securely bound. Her legs also bound together at the ankles. She opened her eyes, her tiefling sight taking in the details of her current location even on a moonless night, everything in shades of grays and silver.
She was lying in the bottom of a small sailboat. At the aft of the boat, manning the tiller with one hand, the other holding a line tied to the boom of the sail, was Suisan Kinnon. Antipaladin. Zara had sworn to find and capture the woman, to bring her to the Church to stand trial, or to bring back her body. The woman wore her armor now, her sword belt lying on the bottom of the boat at her feet. Long, curling hair, red by daylight, was like gray fog in Zara’s darkvision. Kinnon noticed she was awake, and gave her a toothy smile.
“Good evening! I was afraid you would sleep the whole trip. You were starting to stir on the trip down to the docks. Luckily, I always carry some extract of blue lotus with me. A few drops on your tongue and you were out again. I had to dose you twice more before it was dark enough to take the boat out. I was afraid you might sleep the whole trip. Then I’d have no one to speak with to pass the time.
Poisoned! The harridan had poisoned her! That explained the dull ache in her head and the dry mouth worse than what a few hours chewing on a rag would produce. Zara glared and mumbled through the gag. She’d happily share some words with her captor if she could speak. Suisan nodded in placation, twisting the boom rope around a cleat attached to the gunwale, then tying the tiller into its current position.
“Just a moment. You’ll want water. Also, you’ll want to keep your voice down. If we’re caught by the patrols out of Dwyer, they’ll kill us both. If we’re caught by the Imperial Blockade, I’ll kill you before they sink us. Just so we’re clear.” She gave Zara another brilliant, white smile before removing the gag. Then she produced a skin and held it to Zara’s mouth to drink. The water was warm, tasted of leather, and was the most delicious thing Zara could remember drinking in a week. Suisan was generous with the water, letting the cleric drink her fill before sealing the skin and placing it aside.
“Where are you taking me?” Zara demanded.
“To the Confederacy,” Suisan replied. She didn’t bother with Zara’s bonds, simply slouched back against the aft end again, taking back control of the boom and tiller. Zara sat agape, staring at her until she could find words again.
“What? To Reis? Why?”
“Isn’t that where you wanted to take me in the first place? If you’d had your way, we’d be doing exactly this, only with me tied up at the bottom of the boat.”
“Well, yes, but…why?”
Suisan clucked her tongue, shaking her head in a slow, exaggerated movement. “I thought you were wise, Amne Isa Zara. You disappoint me.”
“You know me?”
“Yes. It took me a while to remember. You were there when I raided that wayside temple along the road in the Wyldlands. Chased me all the way to the river. Explains why you were so eager to be the one who captured me.”
“I was, yes. But I barely saw caught a glimpse of you escaping as my group arrived. You mean to say you remember me?”
“Yes. Well, no, not really. I went through your things and read the letters from your curate, who mentioned the incident. I do vaguely remember a brightly dressed tiefling with a polearm though.”
Zara struggled to prop herself into a sitting position. Suisan made no motion to assist. Eventually, she gave up, settling for lying on her side, so at least the pressure was off one of her arms. She glared at her captor.
“You killed several good people there. Some of them were friends of mine. I relish the chance to see you tried and hanged.”
“No redemption for me, then?”
“You’re an antipaladin sworn to bloody Khayne,” Zara shot back. “You’re a murderer, a thief, and now—now you’re a worse monster than you’ve ever been.”
“Ah. Now we reach the point where I can explain the situation you find yourself in,” Suisan said. Zara snorted in response.
“Really? Do tell.”
“The killings your curate accuses me of committing. Did you know there are also murders among Khayne’s faithful? Some rather promising clergy have been slaughtered.”
“Excuse me if I don’t mourn them.”
“I don’t expect you to. I expect you to be reasonable enough to understand that these killings were committed by the same thing that’s been eviscerating the clergy of the Sanguine Lord as well. Do you think I’d be responsible for that?”
“I was planning on taking you at the inn,” Zara replied. “Those assassins got there ahead of me. Who were they?”
“Bully boys for the Temple of Khayne.”
“You’re practically…well, whatever would pass for a saint in your perversion of a religion. Yet they seem eager to kill you. So why should I wonder about you slaughtering some of your own?” Suisan bared her teeth in response, more of a snarl than a smile.
“Because, idiot, you obviously know little about the worship of Khayne. The Brotherhood of Khayne in Bal aren’t the same as the Khaynites in Unthara. There are schisms, conflicts. I left the island on bad terms with the high priest there. The Brotherhood may laud my devotion, but the Untharans would just as soon kill me. I’d slaughter them by the dozens, just to prove my worth over theirs, but the followers in the Wyldlands, the Brotherhood, they’re my people, and my people are dying, as are yours.”
“You were seen at the locations of three of the last four slayings of our clergy. One guard reported seeing you fleeing the scene with a bared, bloody blade!”
“Oh, really? Give that guard a promotion. Oh wait, never mind. He’s a bigger idiot than you are. Have you seen the bodies? Do you know how they were killed?”
Zara paused. She had arrived to the curate’s call at the last murder. She had viewed the body.
“One. He was ripped apart. Disemboweled.”
“Think I did that with my sword, do you? Or maybe you think I tore him apart in righteous frenzy, with my bare hands? I was there, and at the others, because I was tracking the killer. The blood on my sword was because I’d gotten close enough to actually cut the bastard. It got away from me though. Thanks to my time in Unthara, where I called in a few favors, I know where to find the killer. I’m going to catch it and kill it. You’re going to help me.”
Zara laughed. The laughter bubbled up, a hysterical edge to it. It was cut short when Suisan kicked out with one long leg, her boot catching the cleric across the side of the head, stifling the mirth she couldn’t contain.
“Quiet! I’m serious about getting caught by the blockade. I want your help, but I’ll do without if Khayne wills it. And if you piss me off enough to kill you, then I’ll take that as divine providence.”
Zara shook off the kick, allowing a few more chuckles to escape. Despite the laughter, her gaze was hard, dark brows drawn together as she stared back at her captor.
“Why? What do you need me for? And what makes you think I would work with you, murderer of my colleagues, my friends?”
Suisan drew herself up in the back of the boat. She didn’t answer right away. She spent long moments scanning the water, adjusting their course slightly. When she looked back at Zara, the look on her face could only be described as pensive.
“Do you know what a Khaynite is? I don’t mean in the sense of a worshiper of Khayne. This is older, closer to my god than any mere human could be.” Her gaze was heavy, searching.
“You speak of the First Ones,” Zara replied. “The Khaynites were one of those elder races that enslaved humanity and the other young races, in ages past. Legend says— “
“To the Abyss with legends,” spat Suisan, cutting her off. The First Ones are living reality. They fled, long ago. They’ve also returned. The Brotherhood of Khayne knows of them, has had dealings with them on occasion. I’m lying. We don’t deal with them. Any cults that traffic with a Khaynite must be subservient, or they will be brought to heel. Khaynites are…unnerving.”
Zara stared back at Suisan, trying to imagine something that would unnerve such a brutal, unabashed killer as the one seated before her as she waited for the antipaladin to continue.
“Khaynites are so named because they claim descent from the Bloody God himself. They act like it, too. Superior to everyone and everything, even the other First Ones. They answer to no one, not even one another, except in greater numbers, and even then…” Suisan trailed off a moment. To Zara, there was incredulity in the woman’s voice, perhaps a bit of awe, and even…admiration?
“They are about power and domination. They have no social structures like we do. Everything revolves around devotion to Khayne and domination of everything around them. What they cannot dominate, they destroy.”
“You’re saying that the murderer is a Khaynite?”
“Worse. Has no one in your church commented on the lack of blood despite the carnage? That all the victims were found outside, beyond the sanctity of the temple? Or that their necks were broken as well as torn open? Looks like you’re all too eager to string me up for these murders to pay attention to details.” The antipaladin paused, staring out over the water a moment, before continuing. When she did, she turned a stony stare at the cleric.
“It’s a Khaynite that has been made a vampire.” When Suisan realized that Zara, open-mouthed, had no comment to this, she continued.
“Some fool vampire priest was feuding with one of these things. He turned it. As you know, vampires typically have control of their spawn. Turns out, that isn’t the case with a Khaynite made a vampire. Who knew? So, the new vampire ripped off his sire’s head, drank him dry, and went on its merry way.”
“Why is it killing followers of the Sanguine Lord? And why murder followers of its own faith?”
“Perhaps it holds a grudge. That seems likely with a Khaynite. The vampire was a priest in the Brotherhood. Maybe some of your people got wind of a new vampire, tried to hunt it down. Or maybe the thing is just completely insane and killing everyone that annoys it. For fun. I don’t think it will give us time to ask it when we track it down.”
“A First One. And a vampire.”
There was a long moment of silence, broken when Zara spoke again.
“I will help you destroy this thing. You have my word, in the name of the Green Mother, Makash, and on my vows to the Sanguine Lord.”
Suisan secured the tiller and boom again, then drew a dagger. Zara tensed, but the woman merely rolled her over and cut her bonds. Hot pins and needles stabbed the cleric’s arms as the blood began to flow again unrestricted. Suisan reached into a pocket of her tunic, tossed something to the floor of the boat near Zara. It hit with a thunk and jingle of chain.
“You’ll want that back. You’ll need it.”
Zara picked up the necklace. A tall, triangular piece of polished malachite, edged in gold, hung from a golden chain. The Green Mountain, symbol of Makash, Venerate of the Sanguine Lord. Her holy symbol. Zara placed it back around her neck, hand clutched on the symbol as she lifted a silent prayer to the Green Mother. Then she turned to her unlikely ally.
“Tell me everything you know,” she demanded.
Suisan went back to the tiller and complied. Her reports on the thing, its victims, and the information of its whereabouts took most of the trip back to the mainland.