The Verangian quarter of the old city was alive with the bustle of street commerce floating on an undercurrent of back-alley deals and nefarious agendas. Maneuvering his way past a dense mass of people, Kane rounded a corner into possibly the seediest alley ever seen. A bevy of panhandlers, sickly beggars and shady hooded figures occupied the area and squalor had overcome the uneven cobblestones and dilapidated buildings.
He arrived at one particular building with a wooden door bearing an ominous looking symbol etched into its surface. With one hand on the door knob, he looked over his shoulder to a rooftop in the distance. Though it was at least half a mile away, he could see the sunlight’s glint reflecting off the telescopic scope of Tyris’s sniper rifle. If anyone were to follow Kane inside, Tyris would be the first to know. Additionally, Tyris had miniaturized the camera lens and microphone from her drone and concealed it within the top button of Kane’s vest. Through her eyepiece, she would see and hear everything.
Kane descended a flight of winding steps as the smell if incense filled his nostrils. Quickly looking through his mission book, he reviewed his objectives one last time.
Ever since they allied themselves with the Royal Vampires, it became apparent that to properly combat the Holy Land, Kane and Tyris had to help recruit new allies. After months of investigative work, they learned of an ancient order of former Dark Tower magicians called The Exiled living within the deepest recesses of the Verangian quarter. It was believed that beneath their headquarters was the entrance to a place known as the Vampire Sanctuary, where powerful ancient royal vampires have been hibernating to escape the war following their defeat.
Word on the street was that The Exiled would allow guests to visit the Sanctuary, but first they would have to pay a fee of 1000 gold pieces and pass a series of tests to ensure they were there purely to gain knowledge for themselves.
However, one of Kane’s informants told him that many who sought out The Exiled armed with the above information wound up vanishing forever. Only a select few have managed to pass all the trials and live to tell the tale. According to the informant, The Exiled got their name from being banished from the Dark Tower when they chose to dabble in magical arts deemed forbidden; blood magic, necromancy and such.
Kane would have to deceive The Exiled into giving him access to the Sanctuary, and from there find a way to get the vampires within to join him, or at the very worst reconnoiter the area for future assignments.
Kane reached the bottom of the stairs where another door stood. Dim red light glowed from behind the door as the smell of incense became overwhelming. Opening the door, he saw a room shrouded in darkness, save for red candles illuminating an ornate table where a hooded woman sat behind.
“Set the money on the counter next to you,” the woman said immediately. Remaining silent, Kane pulled out a bag of 1000 gold pieces and obeyed. “You have come here with a particular purpose, but you also have a particular nature. What is the nature behind your purpose?”
It seemed like a simple question, but Kane knew that his answer could have profound consequences.
“My nature for being here is purely selfish,” Kane said curtly.
“Very well,” the woman said, gesturing at the seat opposite her at the table, “Have a seat.”
As Kane sat down, the woman pushed a deck of cards towards him. “Please shuffle them for me.”
“My shuffling abilities aren’t very good,” Kane said half-humorously as he clumsily mixed the deck up. Even without the attuning effect of his potions, Kane could sense immense magical power within the cards emerging envelope his mind, as if to peruse the contents of his thoughts. He handed the deck back to the woman, who arranged them facedown across the table. She then flipped over the four cards at the top row one by one, which, from left to right, revealed themselves to be:
An upside down Judgement Card
“Your past and possible future,” the woman said without interpreting the cards. “Now we must know your true intentions for being here.”
As the woman prepared to lay out another set of four cards, Kane realized that his cover may be in danger of being blown. He had to do something, but without disrupting the reading.
He remembered the sensations he felt when shuffling the cards…the invading presence they had on his mind. Perhaps he could influence the reading by thinking very hard of something specific to deflect suspicion. He had to carefully consider this against the choices he’s made thus far; the magic in the room, let alone the cards, was volatile and could have unpredictable consequences if he made the wrong decision. Perhaps the answer lay within the sequence of images on the cards before him.
Kane poured the entirety of his concentration into his dearest partner, Tyris. From the earliest of days when they first met in the unit, through to the establishment of their monster hunting firm, to their near-fatal experience in Hawkmor. When rage and dark thoughts consumed his mind, as they were prone to do, Tyris would be there to pull him out into the light.
Kane couldn’t tell if it was just him or not, but he felt something in the air change. The woman then flipped the next row of cards one by one, which revealed themselves to be:
The High Priestess
Knight of Swords
The woman seemed slightly troubled by these cards, and for the first time, looked Kane straight in the eyes. She did so for several seconds, while Kane sat resolutely and returned her stare in kind, not saying or doing anything. After a while, the concern faded from her face and her demeanour became more welcoming.
“We believe in sharing our gift with those who share our ideals,” the woman said. “And I must say that we don’t encounter your kind very often.”
“And what kind is that?”
“The cards give the answers better than spoken language can,” she replied. “If you are worthy of our gift, then they are no different than words on paper.”
The candles around the room began to glow more vibrantly.
“Would you care to share with us what you see in them?” said the woman.
Kane had to give an interpretation of the four cards that matched whatever interpretation The Exiled had derived. His memory of tarot cards was rusty and he briefly contemplated the general meanings behind these cards before giving an answer. He reminded himself that it had to be an interpretation that matched The Exiled’s interpretation, and not necessarily his own.
Kane could just about make out a smile forming on the woman’s face as he told her his interpretation. The candles around the room glowed brighter than ever.
“We’re glad you see things as we do,” the woman said. She then stood up and slowly paced around the room. “Knowledge is the greatest power attainable by anyone. Which is why the most tyrannical of governments succeeded not through violence, but through the withholding or manipulation of knowledge from those they were meant to serve. You are here because you seek that which has been kept from you. From all of us.”
The air around the room got warmer.
“Have you ever held up a coin to your eye and wondered if there was something on the other side that was being kept from you?” The woman said, “Have you ever wondered if the reality you could perceive was something else entirely, but only when you weren’t looking?”
Confusion slowly crept into Kane’s mind, along with a mild headache. Not quite what he thought the Vampire Sanctuary would be described like.
“Those who share our perspective, the wolves among the sheep, deserve to know the truth of what lies beyond.”
Kane’s headache suddenly tripled in magnitude. He winced and leaned forward, rapidly losing the strength to even sit up straight.
From her camera eye, Tyris saw the image from Kane’s button camera distort and black out. Even though they were supposed to maintain radio silence, the situation appeared to be going south. “Kane? I’ve lost your visual. What’s happening?” Tyris said.
Tyris looked through her sniper rifle’s scope and, much to her horror, saw a squad of Holy Land soldiers stacked up against the entrance to The Exiled’s lair. How they suddenly appeared without her seeing their approach was perplexing.
“Kane, get out of there now, Gunmen are closing in on you.” Tyris said as she took aim at the lead soldier’s head.
She heard a sound behind her. She instinctively lunged to the side just as a gunshot rang out, shattering the lens of her rifle scope. Tyris stood up and saw the Vengeance Paladin, pistol aimed directly at her. How the hell did the Holy Land find out?
The Vengeance Paladin continued firing. There was nowhere to hide on this rooftop; Tyris jumped off, falling nearly 20 feet to another rooftop below. She deflected the force of the landing by rolling forward. Vengeance leaned over the parapet and fired at her, but Tyris was quicker on her feet. The bullets narrowly missed, and Tyris continued leaping from rooftop to rooftop in an attempt to escape.
Vengeance reloaded and gave chase with frightening speed, sprinting like an Olympic athlete. Tyris attempted to throw her off her trail by zig zagging across the rooftops, but she eventually came to a dead end; the rooftop she was now on led to a long drop to the street below. It looked to be a fall of at least 40 feet. If she controlled her fall, she could decisively escape Vengeance, but risk serious injury from such a height.
However, on the other side of the rooftop was another building with a small window. Tyris could perhaps leap across and crash through it instead, but the distance between the two buildings was considerable and the drop to the ground on this side of the building as even greater; at least 60 feet. One miscalculation would prove fatal.
Finally, Tyris could instead try to ambush Vengeance. There was a small alcove nearby; she could hide inside it and wait for Vengeance to walk past, then attack her at close range. Tyris had nothing but a dagger at her disposal; she would have to hope that her knife-fighting skills were better than Vengeance’s.
Kane awoke from what felt like a very long sleep. His mind groggy and vision blurry, it took him a moment to regain his senses. He pushed himself off the floor and immediately felt cold glass pressing against his hand. He sat up and looked around. He was no longer in The Exiled’s Lair.
Instead, surrounding him was an infinite ethereal plane that defied basic laws of physics and reality; a soundless place with millions of stars in the distance and floating crystal formations gliding across like clouds. As incredible and unreal as it was, Kane was certain this was no dream.
“Beyond,” a voice from behind said. Kane looked behind to see the card reader.
“What the hell is this?” Kane said as he stood up.
“The other side of the coin,” said the woman. “Neither hell, as you say, nor heaven.”
Kane turned away from the woman, and where there used to be nothing but space now stood a massive crystal tower that stretched to infinity. “Is this…the Sanctuary?”
“If that is what you wish to call it,” said the woman. “You may explore as you please, but do not remove or disrupt anything. The rift we have opened shall return us shortly, so make the most of this gift.”
Kane made his way inside the tower, with the woman keeping a distance as she followed him in. The inside seemed much larger than what it looked like from the outside, with vast crystal formations lining the walls and long passageways that spiralled upwards. As amazing as it all seemed, Kane gradually realized that this was not the Vampire Sanctuary he had heard about. “Tyris…are you seeing this?” he whispered. No response.
He heard footsteps in the distance. He cautiously reached into his coat and gripped his Colt 1911, chambered with anti-ethereal hollow point rounds, and proceeded. He saw a young girl dressed in a school uniform pacing around aimlessly, a confused look on her face.
“Have you seen my brother?” she said. “Have you seen him, mister?”
“Your brother?” Kane said.
“He was with…that woman…the vampire…” the girl replied.
“Who are you? Are there others here like you?” Kane said. Without replying, the girl turned around and walked away, fading away into nothing.
His curiosity firing on all cylinders, Kane whipped out his notebook and began writing vigorously, taking notes of this remarkable place. He reached down to chip off a chunk of crystal for examination, but remembered what the woman said. It was at this point that his earpiece crackled back to life.
“Tyris. Are you there? Can you hear me?”
“Kane,” a female voice said. It wasn’t Tyris. “The Holy Land has not forgotten what you did at Hawkmor. But there is redemption for you yet.”
Horror gripped Kane’s heart. “Where’s Tyris?” He said sternly.
“In our…care,” the voice said. “Even the gravest of sinners are not beyond forgiveness. You have done what none of our agents have managed, so we will make this simple. The Exiled woman you are with. Kill her. Kill her and we will free your companion and the Holy Land shall forget about what happened at Hawkmor.”
“I want to speak to Tyris!”
“You are in no position to bargain. Kill the Exiled woman. The Holy Land honors all deals.”
Kane paced around furiously. “Even if I do as you ask, I’ll be trapped here.”
“No. The temporary state The Exiled have created shall revert, no matter what. Do as we say. You will not like what comes next if you disobey.”
The line went dead. If there was a perfect definition of being caught between a rock and a hard place, Kane was living it. He could see the woman waiting for him in the tower’s main foyer; he had to decide what to do quickly.
Completely exposed on a flat rooftop, Tyris was left with little choice but to follow the potentially least painful option. She leaned over the edge; it was a straight drop to the street below. She ripped off her headset and tossed it on the floor; a fall from that height could shatter the eye lens and blind her.
At that point Vengeance rounded the corner and fired at Tyris. Tyris threw herself over the edge just as a bullet grazed her shoulder. She tried to slow her fall by scraping against the side of the building, but the speed of her fall caused her to bounce and smash her head against the opposite building. The impact came hard and fast, with her prosthetic leg absorbing much of the impact. The reinforced steel buckled and split open as Tyris’s body slammed into the cobblestone, fracturing several ribs and her collarbone.
The adrenaline still rushing in her veins, Tyris used her arms to quickly drag herself to the doorstep of a nearby home. The door opened and a terrified woman and her son grabbed Tyris and pulled her inside their home.
From way up high, Vengeance looked over the rooftop’s edge, pistol at the ready. Tyris was nowhere to be seen below. She silently cursed to herself, but as she turned around to leave, saw her headset lying on the floor.
Kane elected to ignore Vengeance’s threat. With no evidence that she truly had Tyris in her custody, Kane had no reason to believe she was being entirely truthful. Tyris could have escaped, dropping her headset, or she could be dead. Either way, Tyris would never speak to Kane again if he compromised the mission because of her.
He continued to explore the tower, perusing historical artifacts long thought to have been lost to the fires of war and conquest. Then he came to a large chamber with ornate decorations etched into the walls. A mausoleum stood at the center of the chamber. Kane approached it and peered closely to see a woman sealed inside beneath thick plate glass, cradling a bow. It appeared that she was still breathing.
Recognizing the woman, he pulled out his notebook and flipped through the section containing dossiers of various Royal Vampires. He found the page he was looking for and the picture matched the woman he saw before him: Elder Eunice.
His heart raced. Revered for her exceptional archery and powerful magic, Elder Eunice would make a powerful ally. If there was just one Royal Vampire he could bring back to the real world, it had to be her.
Kane reached into his vial belt and mixed a concoction that would melt the glass. He poured the resulting liquid around the frame and watched it bubble as it worked its way in. A minute later, the glass was melted through and Kane carefully removed it, releasing a wave of cold air from within. He pulled out an adrenaline autoinjector and applied it to Eunice’s arm in order to awaken her more rapidly, then reached in to carry her out.
“She grew tired of her sentence and elected to spend the rest of eternity in there,” said a voice from behind him. Kane drew his pistol and turned to see a woman dressed in celestial armor before him, armed with a painful looking sword; presumably the tower’s guardian. “I’m afraid that for violating The Exiled’s agreement, your sentence is going to be more…permanent.”
Kane didn’t try to talk his way out; he was caught red-handed and had to do something. The guardian didn’t seem deterred by the fact that she had a sword and Kane had a gun, but then again she didn’t know that his gun was loaded with bullets specifically designed to kill beings like her. He had to decide what to do.
Kane remembered the tarot cards back at the Exiled’s Lair; The Knight of Cups and Death in particular. The Exiled may have thought it represented his history, but Kane always knew it wasn’t just that; it was his present. His future. And everything that he and Tyris would always bring wherever they went.
His Colt 1911 crackled with fury as he fired twice at the guardian. The guardian flinched, then look down to see two bullet wounds in her belly. She looked at Kane emotionlessly and began advancing towards him, sword at the ready. “Mortal weapons are of no use against me.”
Kane cracked a faint smile. “I know.”
The guardian felt something rumbling in her. Before she had time to properly react, her belly violently exploded, splashing the immaculate chamber with blood and entrails while shearing her body in half.
Kane holstered his pistol and grabbed Eunice, hoisting her over his shoulder. As he ran out of the chamber, he briefly glanced at the guardian’s severed upper body. Her eyes fixated on him with a cold, accusatory glare.
Meanwhile, the adrenaline he injected into her had begun to take effect and Eunice groaned loudly as Kane made a beeline for the tower lobby.
“What-Who are you?” Eunice asked.
“I’m getting you out of here. Keep it together.”
After a short sprint, Kane arrived at the lobby, where the Exiled woman was waiting. The air around the lobby was rippling vigorously; the rift was about to close.
“Who is that? What have you done?!” the woman shrieked, dropping her serene demeanor for the first time.
Kane drew his 1911 and pointed it at the woman’s face. “We are returning to where we came from and you’re not going to do anything funny!” Kane said, letting an awake Eunice down so she could stand on her own.
The woman was aghast at Kane’s outrageous behavior, but as she stared down the barrel of his gun, she knew there was nothing she could do about it.
“We TRUSTED YOU!” she shouted as the rift closed, enveloping them in a brilliant light.
Kane snapped awake once more to find himself back at The Exiled’s Lair, which was now filled with a squad of startled Holy Land soldiers standing over a pile of dead Exiled acolytes. The Exiled woman’s day couldn’t get much worse.
“Holy Land!!” she screamed.
“There they are! Attack!” one of the soldiers shouted.
Kane’s instincts kicked in and he rapidly dispatched the two closest Gunmen with a single headshot each. He was about to take out a third one when the remaining Gunmen exploded in a flash of purple light. The Exiled’s Lair was now decorated with bones, internal organs, bits of shattered armor and gallons of blood, which dripped from the ceiling. Elder Eunice lowered her bow as its residual dark energy cooled off. She scooped some of the blood on the walls with her hand and tasted it for the first time in an eternity. Kane was most impressed.
“Elder Eunice,” Kane said, “I know you have many questions, but the Holy Land will be sending reinforcements. We must first seek refuge, and from there I will tell you everything.”
Eunice breathed in deeply and felt the wooden walls with her hands. A sense of relief washed over her. She had many questions, but one thing she was certain of: she was finally free. She looked at Kane and nodded.
The Exiled woman, now covered in blood and entrails, was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Kane grabbed her by the arm and the three of them fled The Exiled’s Lair.
With the Holy Land hot on their trail and Tyris missing, Kane had his work cut out for him, but he finally gained an ally few were capable of boasting of: A Royal Vampire.