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«Sea of Death», Tim Waggoner

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Dark clouds covered the heavens, smothering both stars and moons, leaving the sea blacker than night, blacker than sin. The wind howled like the wailing of a thousand lost souls crying out their misery to a cold, uncaring world. A sleek sailing vessel-a one-masted sloop mounted on runners-moved swiftly across the dark water, cutting through the turbulent waves with ease and grace, as if she traveled over solid ice, her runners fitted with razor-sharp blades. Though the sloop traveled against the wind, her sail nevertheless billowed full, thanks to a torrent of air issuing from a metal containment ring mounted behind the sail. The ring glowed with an aura of sizzling blue-white energy, and the scent of hot metal lay acrid on the salty sea air.

At the prow of the vessel stood a figure draped in darkness, bone-white hands gripping the railing, ebon fingernails long and sharp as bird talons. She faced the wind, and though the frigid sea-spray struck her like pellets of ice, she didn't wince, didn't so much as blink, for her dead flesh felt nothing. She appeared to be cloaked in living shadow, tendrils of liquid darkness trailing behind her, undulating in the wind like the fronds of a strange undersea plant dancing at the mercy of a strong current.

Nathifa gazed into the night, and though her eyes were dead, still they saw-saw much farther than they ever had in life. She knew they were drawing near their destination, and her desiccated lips, which hadn't so much as twitched in all the hours she had stood motionless at the prow, now stretched into a slow smile, the movement cracking the layer of ice that had formed over her mouth during that time. Tiny shards of ice fell to the deck, taking bits of lip-flesh with them. Nathifa wasn't aware of the loss, and even if she had been, she wouldn't have cared. All she cared about-all she'd ever cared about, even back when she was alive-was satisfying her desires. And after over a century of patient, meticulous planning, she was now closer to her revenge than ever before. She had already gained possession of the golden dragonhead known as the Amahau, and on Demothi Island she would acquire the next item she needed. And after that…

"It shouldn't be much longer now."

A woman's voice, cold with a mocking edge. A new voice in Nathifa's undead existence, but one she had already grown to dislike. Nathifa responded without turning around.

"Indeed. It is as if you read my thoughts, Makala." Nathifa's voice was cold and hollow, like the inner chambers of an arctic tomb.

"Perhaps I did, lich."

Nathifa didn't move her body, but her head swiveled around to face Makala, rotating one hundred and eighty degrees like that of an owl. Nathifa no longer smiled. The woman who'd addressed her was medium height, with short blonde hair and fine, delicate features. Her pale skin was smooth, almost glossy like glazed pottery, and pinpoints of red light blazed within the depths of her eyes like crimson flame. She wore a red leather vest, brown leggings, boots, and a black cloak that fluttered behind her in the wind like the wings of a giant night raven. Makala carried a short sword belted around her waist, but steel was the least of her weapons. Ice crystals clung to her hair, skin, and clothing, but like Nathifa, she displayed no indication that she was aware of the cold, let alone bothered by it.

"Do not make sport of me, vampire." Nathifa's voice held a note of warning. "I can destroy you with a single whisper."

Makala smiled, revealing a pair of sharp incisors, and then bowed. "My apologies, Mistress. I meant no disrespect."

Makala raised her head and met Nathifa's gaze. Crimson light similar to that which smoldered in Makala's eyes burned bright within the hollow sockets of Nathifa's. Normally, a vampire would have been unable to withstand the intensity of a lich's gaze. But Makala didn't turn aside, didn't so much as blink… and she continued to smile with infuriating smugness. Nathifa wanted to spin around, lash out with a clawed hand, and rip the lower half of the woman's face to shreds. And she might have, except that she knew that Makala wasn't just a vampire. She carried another spirit within her, a dark entity of a kind Nathifa was unfamiliar with. It was this spirit that allowed Makala to endure the power of the lich's burning gaze without shrinking. And until Nathifa knew the full measure of Makala's strength, she would stay her hand.

Besides, she needed Makala's help in order to bring her vengeance to its final fruition. So let the vampire mock her for now. In the end, Nathifa would stand laughing over the woman's cold ashes as her spirit-as both of them-was swallowed by everlasting darkness.

Nathifa turned her head back around and looked out across the sea once more. "We shall reach Demothi Island well before dawn, if that's what you're worried about."

"I'm not worried. Didn't I tell you the Zephyr was a fast ship?"

"That you did," Nathifa said grudgingly. Once again, her dark mistress had provided, just as she had always done.

Makala went on. "I'm rather enjoying our journey. It's been some time since I found sea travel tolerable, let alone pleasant."

Vampires, while useful servants, possessed a number of weaknesses-aversion to sunlight and holy objects chief among them. They also had difficulty traveling across running water: even the smallest stream could give them trouble, causing discomfort and even pain. Passage across a river was worse, and sea travel was nearly impossible. Makala possessed a mystic obsidian sarcophagus that allowed vampires to endure sea travel as long as they remained sealed within. But Makala hadn't made use of the sarcophagus once during this entire voyage. She strode the deck with ease, displaying no signs of discomfort. No doubt another strength granted by the dark spirit housed within Makala's undead body. How many more might there be, Nathifa wondered, and the thought troubled her.

"It's a good thing that we're almost there," Makala said. "Your barghest could use a rest."

Nathifa turned away from the prow and glanced back toward the containment ring. A short orange-skinned creature with a bat-like face and large pointed ears sat upon a wooden chair behind the glowing metal ring. Skarm's left hand lay flat on a depression carved into one of the chair arms. The depression was formed in the shape of a slender, long-fingered hand larger than the goblin's. An elvish hand. The flesh-to-wood contact allowed whoever sat in the chair to control the wind elemental that had been bound to the containment ring. At Nathifa's order, Skarm had been keeping the elemental producing wind at full strength ever since they had departed the secluded cove near the city of Perhata. And while it took little mystic skill to control the elemental, it did require a certain amount of mental strength and life energy. It had been a while since Skarm had fed, and he'd never been especially gifted mentally. His eyes were weary, his cheeks hollow, and-though Nathifa couldn't make out any color in the darkness-she knew his normally orange complexion would be pale peach.

Skarm would need to rest soon. Otherwise, if he expended all the life energy he'd absorbed from his last prey, he would die and be useless. Well… even more useless than he already was, Nathifa thought.

She glanced at Makala. Vampires were undead, but they did feed upon the living.

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