Mirceo retrieved his flask of blood mead from his trench coat. “Explain.”
“Harea’s pyramid fortress lies in the center of an enormous valley that he’s bespelled to prevent teleporting. Anyone who tries it will fail, then get swallowed by sand. That valley also happens to be where Wendigos congregate. Starving ones. There are hundreds of them.”
Wendigos were like zombies, but lightning fast. Mirceo had heard stories of just one decimating whole settlements of immortals. “We can handle them. I’m a master swordsman, remember?”
“Just to get in striking range, you’d have to evade the Wendigos, then cross the wasteland of sand that surrounds the pyramid. That stretch is filled with gulgs—living quicksand traps.”
“They sound dire. But we can scout the area, map out their locations, then avoid them.”
“You could. Except gulgs move within their territory. They can scent their prey and attack it. Say you got past those alive—without teleporting a single time—you’d still have to face a mystical boundary around the fortress and the sand scyllas.”
“Do I even want to know?”
“They’re gigantic tentacle creatures that burrow under the pyramid. If a trespasser gets too close, their tentacles shoot to the surface, dragging the unwary down to be eaten. The hope is that you suffocate in the sand before the digestion starts.”
Mirceo had heard of pleasanter scenarios. “I have a hard time believing this fortress is impenetrable. I come from an impenetrable realm.” At least until Lothaire made good on his promise to open the doors wide. “With a target in sight, there are sorcerers and witches who could circumvent these security measures.”
Cas shook his head. “Most of the ones who could get past the barriers won’t.”
“Out of respect for their brethren’s spells. Plus, those hex-hacks are likely to run into bounties on their own heads as well. None of them want to face the Gaolers.”
“What’s so scary about them?” Mirceo asked. “They sound like your typical Lorean gang.”
“They’re demigod wraiths who act as a type of Lore patrol. They quarantine contagious Loreans, capture any humans about to broadcast proof of our world, and dispatch evil immortals to lifelong torments.”
Caspion nodded. “Plague-stricken vampires, ghouls, zombies. There’s a reason why Wendigos haven’t overrun the mortal plane.”
“Where are these bounties taken?” Mirceo asked.
“No one knows for sure, but some whisper of an immortal prison.”
Mirceo stiffened. “Mortals put my uncle in such a place.” Even an ancient immortal like Lothaire had barely gotten out alive.
“This is supposed to be an entire dimension, but no one can confirm or deny its existence. Bottom line: The Gaolers are not the type of beings you want to come in contact with.”
“I have no fear of facing them. I’ve done no evil. Well, not an excessive amount of evil.” Mirceo shrugged. “You’ve outlined some considerable challenges to my bounty. More and more, this operation—or op, as we bounty hunters like to say—is beginning to sound like a heist. Fortunately for us, I am a vampire of many talents. Even nonsexual ones.”
“You’re not listening. . . .” Caspion pinched the bridge of his nose.
“How do you know so much about this?”
“Over the last five centuries, whenever I heard a hunter was going after Harea, I traced to edge of that valley to study the attempt. The Wendigos took out most. The gulgs got the rest. Only one—a winged volar demon—neared the pyramid’s mystical barrier. The scyllas snatched him down. These were all talented hunters, often men I knew. I watched them try, and I watched them die. And now you must participate in this hunt or you’ll be killed!” He stabbed his fingers through his tousled hair. “Mirceo, I can’t simply fix this for you.”
“So either way I’m damned?”
Caspion rasped, “Yes.”
“There, there.” He patted the demon’s shoulder. “If I’m on borrowed time, we should get going. One last adventure!”
Caspion’s eyes widened. “You impulsive, rash child, are you eager to die?”
“I did put some thought into this.” At the demon’s disbelieving look, he said, “I plan to float right past all the security protocols. The only danger would be in dying from boredom.”
“Arrogant leechling. What are you talking about?”
“Would a sorcerer have the foresight to protect against the abilities of a ‘mythical’ species? Dacians can turn themselves into mist. Now that you’ve blooded me, I can turn you as well.”
Caspion’s lips parted on a breath.
Mirceo grinned at his reaction. “Not such an impulsive leechling after all, am I?”
Recovering from his surprise, he said, “If you lost your focus like you did in that Forbearer skirmish, you’d be dead. I won’t always be able to protect you.”
Mirceo squared his shoulders. “I’ll hold my own, demon. You forget, I’m not asking you for permission. I am inviting you—on my op. Perhaps I should invite another hunter?” He turned toward the entrance of the tavern.
Making a sound of frustration, the demon traced in front of him. “Even if we somehow breached the fortress, we’d still have to subdue the sorcerer, and Harea is not just some random Poly warlord. I have mystical restraints that will dampen his magic, but until we shackle him, we’re at risk.”