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«Sea of Death», Tim Waggoner

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Might the stolen blood that flowed through her veins be suitable to sustain Skarm, at least for a short time? Nathifa knew that the vampiric taint carried by Makala's blood would have no effect on Skarm since he was a barghest. And as he was already bound to Nathifa, drinking Makala's blood wouldn't grant her mystic control of him.

The lich smiled, impressed anew by her dark mistress's wisdom at sending the vampire to her.

"Makala, I want you to give Skarm a measure of your blood, enough to restore his strength until we reach Demothi Island."

The vampire looked at Nathifa for a long moment, face as expressionless as a marble statue. Nathifa thought that the woman might defy her, but in the end Makala simply inclined her head, turned, and began making her way sternward.

Satisfied that the pecking order had been re-established-for the time being, at least-Nathifa faced into the wind once more and gazed out into the darkness with eyes of flickering crimson flame.

 

The dark shape of Demothi Island hove into view. Cold, desolate, barren, and rocky, it was a place of death and evil, though not entirely uninhabited. The island claimed one resident, and it was he whom they had come to collect.

They sailed toward the island's western side, and Nathifa noted the wreckage of a ship just off shore. The vessel had been reduced little more than splintered planks now, thanks to the constant pounding of the waves, and within a few more days, perhaps a week at most, there would be no sign left that the craft had ever existed.

"Have you been here before?"

Nathifa hadn't been aware of Makala's approach. She turned to face the vampire, ancient neck bones grinding and cracking.

"I have never set foot on the island, but I did see it once before, many years ago. When I was mortal." Though she had been undead far longer than she had drawn breath, Nathifa's memories of her previous life were as clear and sharp as ever.

"My brothers and I sailed past Demothi when we first discovered the gulf. I wanted to investigate, but both Kolbyr and Perhata convinced me that we should avoid it. Even from a distance, we could sense the evil emanating from the place." She smiled. "Of course, that was part of what intrigued me, but I deferred to my brothers."

Perhata and Kolbyr… the mortal bodies of her brothers were long dead, but their memories lived within her still. Memories of love, adventure, and conquest, but most of all of betrayal. Kolbyr's betrayal. After all these years, after everything Nathifa had sacrificed, she was close to finally achieving her revenge against her hated brother.

You killed my husband, Kolbyr, killed my son… all because you were too selfish to allow my child-your nephew-to become the heir you couldn't produce. Everything we built… everything you took from me… soon it will lie in ruins, and your name will become a curse upon the lips of all who inhabit the Principalities, until at last your name fades from all memory… even one as long as mine.

With a start, Nathifa became aware of Makala looking at her with a bemused expression. She feared Makala might take her momentary lapse as a sign of weakness, so to cover she said, "Tell Skarm to take us in."

Makala nodded, glanced down at the soarwood railing, and smirked before she turned and walked back to the barghest. Nathifa looked down to see what had amused the vampire so and saw that, in her anger, she'd gripped the railing so hard that her talon-fingers had dug deep furrows into the wood.

A loss of control. Another sign of weakness. One that she could ill afford with Makala and her evil spirit about.

Lady, guide me, she prayed.

Hollow laughter came in reply, but Nathifa told herself it was simply an auditory illusion caused by the howling wind and the pounding surf, nothing more.

 

At the stern of the Zephyr, Skarm grunted as he lifted the vessel's anchor. In his present form he possessed no more strength than an ordinary goblin, but this was the best shape for him to use when he needed to perform manual labor-which, as Nathifa's servant, he had to do more often than he liked. In wolf shape, he had no hands, and while as a true barghest, he did have opposable thumbs, his spine wasn't designed for standing upright. The anchor felt as if it weighed a ton or more, and sharp pain shot through his lower back as he tossed it over the aft railing, rope playing out behind. His muscles quivered, weak as jelly, and despite the thick fur cloak that he wore-made of wolfskin, of course-he couldn't stop shivering. Commanding the Zephyr's wind elemental had taken a great deal out of him, and though the vampire's blood, as bitter and foul-tasting as it was, had restored a certain measure of his strength, it hadn't been nearly enough. He would've liked nothing better than to crawl into the sloop's small cabin, curl up on a pallet and sleep for a decade or two. But not only wouldn't Nathifa permit him a moment's rest, she'd punish him severely for so much as asking. He had no choice but to keep going and hope he didn't drop from exhaustion, for if he did, Nathifa would most likely slay him and simply transfer his duties to her new servant.

Not for the first time, Skarm thought back to his life before he'd become the lich's slave-roaming free among the Hoarfrost Mountains, preying on unwary hunters and travelers, devouring sweet flesh and guzzling hot blood. But then one day he'd felt drawn to a series of caves located in the foothills just beyond the mountains. He'd tried to resist the pull, but he could not. He had no choice but to enter, and once he'd made his way through the tunnels to the cave system's main chamber, he discovered Nathifa waiting for him. Ever since that moment, Skarm had been the lich's slave, and he knew he would remain so until the day he died. He supposed there were worse lives for a barghest to lead, but offhand he couldn't think of any.


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