Aug. 11th, 2010

not_sinister: eli and nait forever (Default)
"Oh, hell," Lydia said.

For two full days they had been riding through forest so dense Kevin thought that any one of them could have followed the track—The trail had been so overgrown a horse's body could hardly have kept from breaking telltale branches; there had been no way for the kidnapper to avoid leaving a track, let alone to leave the trail. But the forest had been thinning for some time as the land grew increasingly more rocky.
And now they had broken out of forest altogether. The trail melted into a series of paths and one true road winding their way through a limestone wilderness, a time-eroded maze of tall, gray-white stone walls.

"Are we out of luck?" Kevin asked.

Lydia shrugged. "Can't follow a trace over solid rock! Still, it's not all rock ...."

She dismounted, searching with her face so close to the ground that the bardling was reminded of a hunting hound searching for an elusive scent.

"Yes ..." the woman said at last. "This way. I think."

They rode on, following the road, the only sounds the creak of saddle leather and the dick of their horses' hoofs against stone. Kevin glanced at Lydia, not at all happy about the uncertainty he saw on her face.

The walls of the gorge towered over them as they rode, weighing down his spirit. Staring up at the narrow slash of sky, Kevin couldn't shake the sense of being a very small, insignificant creature in the middle of a very small, insignificant party—Now that he wasn't so overwhelmed by the mere thought of adventure, he had to admit that five ... ah ... beings hardly seemed a big enough group to have any hope of success. Yet if the count had sent out any larger expeditions, the bardling hadn't seen any sign of them.

I don't understand that. 1 don't understand any of that! We don't even know for sure that whoever we're following actually has Charina!
Kevin sighed. None of his doubts were going to matter if he couldn't hold his team together long enough to accomplish something.
Team, ha! The last thing they were was a team. Oh, everyone was nicely polite to each other—if you ignored the subtle snipings of White and Dark Elf at each other, or the jibes of Lydia at these silly males, or the nasty little jokes of the fairy.

The bardling gritted his teeth. Tich'ki seemed to have decided he was the best butt for her humor she'd ever seen. She never said anything out-and-out hostile. Oh no, that would have been too simple! Instead, the fairy would wait till he'd finished practicing a particularly difficult melody on his lute, then ask innocently, "Are you going to actually play something now?" Or worse:
"When are you going to work some Bardic Magic?" knowing he was too scared of failure to risk trying another spell—

Or perhaps she would simply wonder aloud what it was like co be a leader when he hadn't really had a chance to be one.

Anything, Kevin thought, to undermine what little self-confidence he had left!

The only two who did seem to be getting along were Naitachal and Tich'ki. After that first night, Kevin was still keeping a wary eye on those two, but so far they hadn't done anything even remotely suspicious.

Except ... last night, there had been that bizarre whatever-it-had-been. Kevin frowned, remembering how he had caught the Dark Elf and the fairy huddling together mysteriously, so involved in what they were doing they hadn't even noticed him. The bardling had gotten close enough to hear Tich'ki urge, "Try it again." And Naitachal had actually responded with, "Pick a card, any card."

At that moment, they'd spotted him. The Dark Elf had suddenly straightened, looking important and mysterious, but Kevin could have sworn Naitachal was embarrassed. And hadn't he caught a glimpse of Tich'ki hastily hiding a fairy-size deck of cards?

Card tricks? A necromancer learning card tricks?

It made about as much sense as anything else so far.

"We're not still on Count Volmar's lands, are we?" Kevin asked warily—

"Hardly." Lydia glanced up at the sky, judging direction. "I'm pretty sure we're on the outskirts of crown lands. If we keep riding east like this, we'll probably wind up in the city of Westerin."

"If we get that far." Eliathanis glanced up at the steep, brooding walls on either side, his usually unreadable eyes glittering with uneasiness." I don't like this place. Anyone could be lurking up there."

"Claustrophobic elf!" Tich'ki taunted. "Scared of the shadows in his mind!"

The White Elf glared at her. "I'm not imagining things! Westerin is an important trading city, is it not? Thanks to the rocks, this must surely be one of the only roads available for anyone who wishes to reach the city from the west. What better place for an ambush?"

"Don't say something like that!" Lydia snapped. "It's bad—"
A savage shout from overhead cut into her words.
"—luck," she finished ironically, whipping out her sword.

Kevin didn't have a chance to act, to think, before a heavy body hurtled into him, hurting him from his horse.

My lute!

The bardling twisted frantically sideways to save it as he fell, by luck slamming into earth rather than rock, mail shirt bruising his ribs. Aching and breathless, Kevin struggled to draw his sword, handicapped by the lute case's strap. The bandit's face leered into his own, foul-smelling and ugly as an ogre—and as deadly. Kevin saw the man raise the dub that was going to bash out his brains, but he couldn't get the stupid sword free—

So the bardling did the only thing he could, smashing his fist up into the ugly face.
Ow! Oh—damn!

He hadn't been able to get much force into the blow, not tying sprawled on the ground, but it was enough to send pain flaming up his arm, because he'd connected with the man's battered helmet, not his face. The bandit grunted in surprise, falling back just enough for the bardling to wriggle free. He squirmed out of the lute case, leaving the instrument safe—please, let it be safe! —behind a rock.

As Kevin frantically tugged at the hilt of his sword, the weapon came free of its scabbard so suddenly he nearly dropped it Hearing the bandit rushing him, the bardling whirled—and the man impaled himself on the blade.

For what seemed like an eternity Kevin stared helplessly into his foe's disbelieving eyes, too horrified to move. Then those eyes glazed and the bandit slowly sagged, nearly dragging the sword from Kevin's hand. The bardling swallowed hard and pulled the blade free, trying not to look at the blood darkening it, trying not to think about how dreadfully easily metal had slid into flesh. His hand still throbbed with pain, and part of his mind was yammering, It's broken, it has to be broken! But it wasn't, not if he could grip the Sword hilt so tightly, and there wasn't any time to worry about what other damage he might have done.

Panting, Kevin glanced wildly about. For one confused moment he was reminded of a dog pack dragging down its prey. But these dogs were armed with clubs, knives, and homemade spears—and this prey was fighting back. Lydia, swearing fiercely, sword Hashing, still sat her horse, caking advantage of its greater height, or trying to: the confused, frightened animal, unused to battle, was more of a hindrance than a help. At least its frantic whirling and kicking kept anyone from closing with the woman—Tich'ki, her wings a blur, darted in and out of the battle with waspish speed, her spear jabbing savagely at bandit eyes. The two elves had given up their mounts and stood fighting back to back. White and Dark forgetting their differences for the moment—Eliathanis' blade shone dear silver, mere human blood unable to stain it, while Naitachal—

Kevin stared. Naitachal was wielding a night-black sword that seemed to swallow up the light and that laughed softly every time it struck a foe. After the first few blows, the bandits, understandably, cringed away, putting themselves within Lydia's reach.

He didn't have that sword before, I know he didn‘t!

But the sight of that eerie sorcery reminded the bardling that he, too, had some combat magic. Granted, the song-spell wasn't strong enough to hurt anyone. All it could do was confuse a foe's attack. But surely that would help—if the magic would only work for him—
No, no, there wasn't time to doubt! Kevin dove for his lute, for a moment terrified that his bruised hand wasn't going to let him play. Forcing his stiff fingers over the strings, he started at full speed into the opening bars. His voice was almost too dry for song, rasping out desperately, and he knew that even if he did summon his Bardic Magic, it wasn't going to last long. It didn't even seem to be coming out right! But something was happening, because the whole battle was beginning to glow a faint but very real blue.
Oh, great. All I'm doing is making pretty colors!

"Damned sorcerer!" a voice muttered. Before Kevin could turn, a harsh arm was about his throat, choking him. The bardling lost his grip on the lute, heard it hit the ground—

Please, please, don't let it break!

He kicked back and felt his boot hit bone. The bandit swore, losing his strangling grip. Kevin felt a jolt against his already sore ribs as the man tried to stab him but hit the mail shirt instead. The bardling pulled free, lunging for his sword, then cried out in pain as the bandit kicked it viciously away, tearing the hilt from Kevin's aching hand. The sword came to rest wedged between two rocks. Kevin and the bandit both scuffled after it, but the bandit got there first, stomping down hard. Tb the bardling's horror, the sword snapped halfway up the blade.
For a moment. Kevin and his foe stared at each other, frozen. Then the bandit slowly grinned, revealing a mouthful of ugly teeth.
"Too bad, boy. I win, you lose!"

With that, the man leaped at him. Kevin scrambled to his feet, looking frantically about for another weapon. Out of the corner of his eye, the bardling saw the bandit's knife flash again, this time aimed at his unprotected neck. He twisted about, just barely managing to catch the man's wrist in time.

But I... can't ... hold him ... he's just ...too strong ...
The bandit continued to grin. Slowly he began bending the bardling's wrists back and back ... Kevin gasped as renewed pain shot through his bruised hand, and lost his grip. The knife began its plunge—

But then the bandit froze as a dark-skinned hand closed on his neck. The man's eyes widened, gaping in sudden blind horror. As Kevin stared in sheer disbelief, he saw the man's hair fade from black to gray to white. The leathery skin sagged, wrinkled. The bandit let the bardling go so suddenly Kevin fell, dragging himself frantically away as what had been a living man a moment before crumbled to ancient dust.

Naitachal stood revealed, eyes still blazing red from the force of his spell. But in those eerie eyes, Kevin saw such bitter despair that for a moment the bardling could do nothing but stare in helpless fascination. Then, with a quick flip of his wrist, me Dark Elf pulled up the hood of his black cloak, hiding his face.

Only then did Kevin realize what was happening around them. That last horrific sorcery had been coo much for what was left of the bandit gang. Yelling in terror, they fled back down the gorge. Lydia started to knee her horse after them, then reined the animal in again.
"Nah," she muttered. "Not worth it. Everyone all right?"

Tich'ki fluttered to a landing behind Lydia. Cleaning her spear with a scrap of cloth from a bandit's tunic, she grinned fiercely. "No problems here."

"I am unhurt." Eliathanis was disheveled, golden hair wild, cloak gashed and elven mail darkly stained, but his voice was as calmly formal as ever.

"And I," added Naitachal softly. "What of you, Kevin?"

The bardling snatched up his fallen lute, examining it carefully, then let out a sigh of relief. "It's only scratched a little."
"Yes, bardling, but what of you? I saw how carefully you moved your hand."

Reaction set in, as abruptly as though the words had been a spell. Kevin clutched the lute to him. trying to hide his sudden trembling, realizing only now how narrowly he'd escaped permanently damaging his fingers. Powers, oh Powers, Master Aidan had been right to warn him. He'd come so close to ending his Bardic career before it had started ....

"It's nothing," the bardling said gruffly. ‘Just a bruise." He retrieved what was left of his sword, glancing ruefully at the fragments, then slipping them back into their scabbard. "C-come on, let's get out of here before the bandits recover."

"They're not going to recover so quickly!" Tich'ki jeered, pointing with her spear at crumpled bodies. "But the boy's right. Let's go."
"Wait," Eliathanis said softly, approaching the Dark Elf. Naitachal stiffened, murmuring something in the elvish tongue that was plainly a wary question, but the White Elf shook his head. "No. Let the humans understand this as well. Naitachal, I have always believed that the Nithathil, the Dark Elves, hated life, that they cared nothing for any but themselves."

"Well?"
"You had no need to risk yourself guarding my back. Yet you did. You had no need to risk yourself saving the bardling. Yet you did."
"What are you trying to say, Eliathanis?"

"Just that I..." The fair skin reddened. "I may have been too hasty in judging you."
He held out a hand. The Dark Elf hesitated for a long moment, then raised his own hand. As they pressed palm to palm in the elvish version of a handshake, Tich'ki snickered.

"Touching," she said. "Now. can we please get going?"
A lilting call in the elvish language coaxed the strayed horses back to them. As they rode off, Kevin resolutely refused to look at the dissipating mound of dust that had been a living man.

To the bardling's relief, the gorge widened again after a short time of uneasy riding, the stone walls dropping off into a tangle of greenery. Dazed by shock and exhaustion, he sank into a weary stupor, clinging blindly to the saddle, barely aware of the world around him.
"Hey, Kevin! Kevin!"
Lydia was calling him. The bardling roused himself, realizing with a start that night had stolen up on them. They were stopped in the middle of a small meadow, their horses grabbing greedily at the lush weeds and grass. "We're stopping for the night?"

"I think that's a good idea, boy, don't you?"

Oh, he did, indeed.
Lydia, experienced traveler and adventurer that she was, carried a pouch of healing herbs with which she treated everyone's cuts and bruises, including the bardling's sore hand.

"Now let's try to get some sleep," she ordered after they'd finished a brief meal of cold rabbit and stale bread. "It's been one hell of a tiring day!"

But for all his weariness, Kevin couldn't sleep. He kept seeing death, and blood, and a man dying on the point of his sword, another man withering to dust .... At last he moved away from the others to sit wrapped in darkness without and within.

After a time a shadow stirred: Naitachal, moving silently to join him.
"What's wrong, Kevin?" the Dark Elf asked softly.
"Nothing. I just can't sleep."
"You're still thinking of the battle, aren't you?"
"No—Yes—" The bardling broke off with a choked little gasp. "Naitachal, t-this isn't going to mean much to you, I mean you're a Dark Elf and a necromancer, you're used to death and all that, but I... killed a man today."
"So you did."
Kevin stiffened at the casual reply. "That really doesn't mean anything to you, does it?"
"Oh, it does." It was the barest whisper. " I cannot remember the first time I was forced to take a life. But 1 have never totally forgotten the horror of it"
"You c-can't remember? How could you not remember—"

"Kevin, I don't know how much you know of my people. Humans tell some truly bizarre stories about the Nithathil, those you call the Dark Elves. But one thing they say of us is quite true: we are indeed raised without love, without anything that might weaken us. I was singled out early in my childhood as one who held sorcerous promise. That means only one thing to the Nithathil. For all the years of my life I have studied dark magic, the magic of death. Necromancy, as you call it. But ... ah. Powers, I am so very weary of it!"
Kevin glanced at the Dark Elfin surprise. "Then I was right, wasn't I? You were every bit as horrified as I was when that bandit died from—from age."

"When I killed him, you mean? That life-draining spell is called Archahai Necrawch, Spectre Touch in your language." Naitachal shuddered, ever so faintly. "It is a very dark thing, indeed. But there wasn't much time to act, not with that knife about to slay you, and I couldn't think of any other way to save you."

"You had a ... sword."

"A Death Sword, Kevin, a temporary thing drawn from sorcery's heart. You heard its joy in taking life, did you not? That soft and empty laughter? I couldn't run the risk of even scratching you with it."

Hearing the bitter self-loathing in the Dark Elf's voice, the bardling cried, "I don't understand! If you don't want to work death-spells, why do it? Why not try something else?"

"There is nothing else, not for one of my kind. Not yet, at any rate," the Dark Elf added softly. "I meant it when I told you 1 intended to prove my people had nothing to do with the stealing of Count Volmar's niece—Love or hate, they are my people. But I have no intention of ever returning to them."

"What will you do?"

"Aye, bardling! I don't know, not yet." Naitachal paused. "You don't know how I envy you."

"Me?"

"You know what you want from life. You have the joy that is your music, and with it, the promise of bright, happy, living magic."

"I don't understand! Surely your people have music, too? I mean, they're elves, and I thought all elves—"

"We are not like the other elven races. We alone have no music."

"No music! B-but that's terrible!"

"Oh, it is. Listening to your songs, bardling, has been untold delight for me." The Dark Elf gave a soft, rueful laugh. "Ay me. Here I try to help you, and end up telling you my problems instead!"

Kevin blinked, all at once realizing that somewhere during this strange conversation, the specter of the bandit he'd killed had ceased to haunt him. "You have helped."

"Misery loving company, eh?" Whatever else he might be, Naitachal was still Dark Elf enough to be ashamed of showing weakness. "Ah, enough of this!" he said abruptly, getting to his feet. "The night is late, boy. Go get some sleep."

But then Naitachal paused, teeth flashing in a sudden grin. "And if you tell anyone about this conversation," he said, a touch too lightly, "I shall deny it all!"

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