Varick stared down at the woman that lay in the bed before him. She was dying, he didn’t know how he knew that, and he didn’t question it. Just as he didn’t question what he was doing here. She was sleeping with her long hair spread out across the pillow like an ink spill. She stirred and opened light green eyes. Varick’s heart jumped at the sight of the pain in her expression. She smiled bravely.
“Do you think it will work?” She asked in a whisper.
“I don’t know.” Varick replied without truly knowing what he was talking about.
“What if it kills us both?”
“I’ll take that chance before losing you without a fight.”
Stepping forward Varick moved without thought. He brought a chair up to the side of the bed. On the night stand lay a deep bowl and an assortment of what looked like Medical Magi tools. He selected a long sliver rod that was hollow with a sharp point on one end. The Elf woman brought her slender arm out from under the covers and presented her wrist to him.
Varick hesitated, somehow he knew exactly what to do, but he was terrified to do it. She took his hand and squeezed it gently. A love he’d thought he’d never known washed over him and gave him the courage to proceed. He placed the bowl on the floor. Pressing the sharp end of the rod into the woman’s wrist he secured it into a vein. He placed her arm so that the blood would drip out of the end of the rod and into the bowl.
He no longer had any doubts about what he was doing, it had suddenly become clear. He worked quickly and as soon as the blood was flowing he picked up a strip of cloth and wrapped it around his own arm at the elbow. Using his teeth he pulled the knot tight so that the veins in his arm slowly became defined as they backed up with rich blood.
Varick was about to pierce into one of his own veins when the door to the small room opened. A long haired Wetland Elf stood frozen in the door frame. He stared at the scene in undisguised horror.
“Ithican,” he finally said “what are you doing?!”
“I, uh...” Varick stuttered.
“Brothers!” The Elf shouted. “Come quick! Help!”
Varick turned back to the woman and saw his fear reflected in her eyes. They didn’t have time for this interruption! Varick feverently tried to open his own vein once more. However, the brothers arrived. They stopped him and dragged him from the bed side. Varick fought bitterly against them, but they had him out numbered.
“Ith...” The Elf woman called weakly.
Varick stopped struggling and looked to see that bowl was now over flowing with oddly dark blood. He felt his skin turn to ice. He had to get free, they had to do the transfusion now!
“Llandra!” Varick cried her name.
With new strength he broke free from the brothers’ grip and went to stop the diseased blood from spilling from her delicate wrist. They were only supposed to remove a bowl full. He ripped the silver rod from her wrist and clamped his hand down on the wound to stanch the flow.
“No!” He screamed as the men pulled him away Llandra once again. “Please! You don’t understand, I’m trying to help her, please! Let me go!”
“Ithican!” Llandra cried desperately.
Varick fought bitterly against the hands that held him. He had to get to her, he could still save her! They didn’t know what they were doing by holding him back. As they dragged him out of the room he struggled to see her once more. Llandra was staring back at him -the blank stare of the dead. He had killed her, he had killed his own mate.
The weight of what he’d done crushed down on his heart and he started screaming. A new hand touched him, a warm touch that pressed down lightly on his shoulder -trying to calm him.
“Wake up, Ith, please.”
The Human’s voice snapped Varick out of the nightmare. He looked up with Ithican’s eyes and found Sam kneeling over him. Varick pushed him away and quickly stood. He walked a few feet and then leaned against a tree. He took a deep breath and tried to shake the memory of the vivid nightmare off.
Ithican’s dreams were starting to get annoying. Varick knew he couldn’t stay in this body forever, but he didn’t need forever to accomplish his goal. He had hoped that Ithican’s sprit wouldn’t wake in time to stop him. However it would seem that he had woken and he was starting to fight.
Varick shivered. Just a fever had plagued Ithican a cold threatened to freeze Varick’s heart. It grew worse daily, and at night Ithican tormented him with memories of his own past. This was not the first night he’d dreamt of Ithican’s dying wife. However, Varick wasn’t about to give in so easily. He had work to do.
“You’re nightmares are getting worse.” Sam said with concern.
“That’s none of your concern!” Varick snarled.
“I just want to help you, Ithican.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Sam sighed. “All right then, ‘Aristat’, you don’t have to tell me about them. It’s just if you don’t get some sleep soon, some peaceful sleep, it’s going to be the death of you.”
“Don’t worry about me.” Varick said coldly.
Sam didn’t reply. He watched as Ithican, or Aristat as he insisted on being called now, walked over to the small fire. The Elf sat down and stared into the flames. Ithican had changed so much in the past two weeks. He was becoming a stranger.
Ithican was also falling ill. He wouldn’t admit it, but Sam could see him suffer. He was always cold. Even now he wore a thick cloak and was practically touching the fire, despite the fact that winter was fast giving into spring. He had started eating meat again but it didn’t help, he was losing weight fast.
It was little things too. Like the simple fact that Ithican had cut his hair. He’d pulled it back in a ponytail and hack it off with the Tarrin blade so that now it fell in irregular locks that barely covered the tips of his ears. It shouldn’t matter how he wore his hair, but the messy cut somehow made him look dangerous.
Before they had been aimlessly walking across Nuearth, now Ithican had a bizarre obsession with traveling Northeast. Sam didn’t know what to make of any it other than the fact that he held the Slave Market personally responsible. He had said it before he’d even woken his captive friend.
‘He’ll never be the same again’.
“Damn that miserable Swamp Rat.” Varick muttered under his breath as an uncontrollable shiver seized the flesh he’d stolen. He’ll be the death of us both. He hugged his arms closer to his body and kept walking.
Sam saw his friend’s discomfort and unlatching his cloak he draped it over the Elf’s already overdressed shoulders. He didn’t really need it anyway, as far as he could tell winter had released everyone except Ithican from its icy grip. Varick flinched at the Human’s touch, but kept quiet.
“We should rest.” Sam offered.
“No, I have to keep moving.”
“We’ve been traveling practically nonstop for nearly three weeks, and you get sicker with every step. You need to be taken to a Medical Magi.”
“They can’t help me.”
“Of course they will, we have the proper Papers, and our gold is as good as anyone else’s.”
“It’s not that simple. You can’t just bring an Elf to a Human Magi.”
“Elven and Human medicine are entirely different crafts. They wouldn’t know what they were dealing with and they’d probably end up killing me.”
“We can’t be that different.”
“We are.” Varick said darkly.
“We should at least try, whatever this is it’s going to kill you anyway. You look half dead already.”
“I said forget it!” Varick snapped. “I will not willingly put myself into Human hands!”
“So that’s what this is about.” Sam retorted hotly. “You’d rather die out here than seek a Human’s help, is that it?”
“Do you blame me?” Varick asked in a false injured tone. He had seen his mistake. As much as he hated to admit it he would need Sam’s help later on. He couldn’t risk having him leave.
Before Sam could reply Varick reached up and tugged at the many layers of clothing that hugged his throat, exposing what lay beneath. Sam hissed at the sight of the ultrasteel chain that was still wrapped around Ithican’s neck like a poisonous serpent. They had been unable to remove it. Not that Varick minded. He wore it like a necklace of the finest gold -proof that he was right about Human intentions.
“Well?” Varick hissed with a smug smile. “Do you still think I’m being unreasonable?”
“No.” Sam sighed. “I’m sorry, you’re right. You have every reason to fear us.”
“’Fear you’?” Varick repeated with a chuckle. “I don’t think ’fear’ is the word I’d use...but that’s neither here nor there.”
Sam decided against questioning the odd turn of phrase. “Speaking of ‘here’ and ‘there’, where exactly is this ‘there’ that you are trying to get to? Where are we going that’s so important that we are pushing ourselves past exhaustion?”
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” Varick asked mockingly.
“We’re going to Nueyark.”
“Here, drink this.”
Varick looked up at the steaming drink Sam was offering him for breakfast. The three words together was more than Sam had said to him in two days. The Human had been acting strange ever since he’d been told of their destination. Varick had cursed himself the second he had said it. He had to admit to himself that he’d revealed his destination just to see the look on the Human’s face -which had been priceless.
“What is it?”
“Tea.” Sam looked around uncomfortably. “You look cold, I thought it might help.”
Varick was going to refuse, but it did sound inviting. He was learning to live with Ithican’s nightmares. However, if he didn’t find a way to heat his icy flesh sometime soon he’d be driven mad. Wrapping his hands around the hot mug he took a pull at the steaming liquid. When the bitter after taste hit him he tried to spit out the laced tea, but it was too late.
The drug worked quickly. Varick could already feel himself getting dizzy. He flung the rest of the ‘tea’ away. Furious he tried to spring at Sam, but he was losing control. Sam easily dodged Varick’s clumsy attack. He caught Varick as he started to fall and helped him to his knees.
“Traitor!” Varick spat, refusing to let go of consciousness.
“I’m sorry, Ithican, but I can’t just watch you die. I’m going to take you to someone who can help.”
“You better take me to my death!” Varick growled. “I won’t let this insult go unanswered!”
“You’re not yourself, you’ll be better when you wake. Trust me.”
“I’ll never trust you again!”
Varick shook his head violently and tried once more to stand. Sam would have been able to stop him even if he wasn’t succumbing to the tranquilizing agent. Despite the fact that he knew he couldn’t win Varick continued to struggle against the coming darkness. He quickly lost.
Sam laid Ithican’s vacant body down and ran a shaky hand through his blonde hair. He hadn’t thought that Ithican was going to fight so hard, and his last words had stung like acid. He gathered the Elf up in his arms. Before they had stopped for the night they’d passed a cross road that led to some little town.
“Forgive me, but someone there will be able to help you.” Sam explained. He couldn’t know that his friend’s injuries were beyond the skill of anyone on the Living Plane.
Varick was not surprised to find himself back in the diseased forest. Although it wasn’t really diseased, nor was it a forest. It was a place of his own creating. He’d been caught between Life and Death so long that he had learnt to craft the space to his own purposes. Varick looked down at his hands and was pleased to see that he looked like himself once again.
Looking around he saw that Ithican hadn’t learnt any of the same tricks. Varick was sure if he knew how to change his environment he would have by now. It also meant that he probably hadn’t discovered how to retake his flesh. Varick had been afraid that he would lose the fight once he succumb to the drug, but it would appear that the game was still open.
He knew Ithican had to be around here somewhere, he could feel his heat. Varick followed the warmth till he came to the glade where he had left Ithican sleeping. Ithican was sitting with his back against a wilted tree with his eyes closed. Varick was a bit shocked to see that all of the vegetation near the Elf was wilted and cooked. The rest of the forest was simply sickly, this patch had been scorched.
Varick didn’t even notice the ice crystals that formed on the leaves that touched his own skin. Standing on the other side of the small glade Varick suddenly wondered what would happen if he tried to kill Ithican in this place. Would it free him from the cold and allow him full dominion over what was left of Ithican’s life? Would it send them both to the Other Side? Or worse yet: trap them both here for the rest of eternity -together. Before he had time to contemplate it further Ithican opened his eyes.
“Welcome back, ‘Kin-Rin’ Varick.” Ithican greeted sarcastically.
“I see you figured that much out.” Varick sneered.
“I’ve figured out more than that.”
Ithican got up slowly and came to stand ten feet from Varick. For the moment the clashing of their contrasting temperatures kept them from approaching any closer. He snapped his fingers and sick jungle returned to life, except for the area at his own and Varick’s feet. That affliction was beyond either of their control.
“You can’t keep me here forever, Varick, the life is mine.”
“Life takes flesh and blood.” Varick retorted. “The flesh may be yours, but the blood belongs to me!”
“Yes! We should have both died, but you stole my blood and kept Death from us both! This is only fair, and no more than what you deserve!”
“You’re wrong. We should have both lived, I had no desire to kill you. Your hate led you to deceit and then to your own destruction, and to that of over a hundred Elves.”
“You chose that fate for us when you betrayed us to the Goblins!”
“You and your power hungry friends led them to death!” Ithican spat venomously. “And your blind ambition is going to destroy the rest of our race!”
“Never!” Varick felt a stab of ice as his temper flared. “I’m trying to save our kind, you just don’t see it.”
“I’ve seen into your heart, Varick, I know what you’re trying to accomplish by taking my flesh. You’ll start a War and tear Nuearth apart! The Elves won’t be able to win this, th...”
As he got angrier the fever that griped Ithican rose to an unbearable level. He stopped and stood panting for breath. Varick too felt the affects of their verbal assault. His frame shivered against the ice that was taking over his veins.
“This is foolish.” Varick forced himself to calm down. “We’ll destroy each other.”
“If that’s what it takes, so be it. I won’t let you start this War.”
“I don’t have to start it, it is coming no matter what happens to us. I’m just trying to give the Elves an edge. You should be on my side.”
“I will never be on your side.”
“Why not? I suffer, as you do. But it doesn’t have to be that way, we could help one another. Together we could be strong.”
Ithican managed to laugh. “I’d make you strong in the way a horse makes its rider fast -nothing more than a slave. Even if I can’t stop the War at least I can stop you. I’ll drive us both to our deaths before I help you.”
“You’re forgetting something.”
“There’s a third life at stake here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your dirty Human friend.” Varick’s smile widened when he saw the flash of fear that crossed Ithican’s features. “I know you haven’t figured out how to get back into your own flesh yet, when your body recovers from the drugs he’ll be at my mercy.”
“Leave Sam out of this!”
“Gladly. All you have to do is release me from this bone shattering cold. Think of it as doing yourself a favor as well, for it will ease your own fever.”
“And set you free to set Nuearth on fire? Forget it.”
“Don’t you see? Things have gone too far. Nuearth has too much bad blood, and the only way to ease the tension is to spill some of it.” Varick stepped closer and instantly felt his skin warming from being near his opposite.
“Help me,” Varick continued seductively “and I’ll let your friend live to at least fight and die with honor. Try and keep me under this spell and I’ll make sure that he suffers like no other before the end.”
“Best of all, he’ll believe that it’s your hand that torments him.”
Sam looked around the inn room and sighed. Ithican was laying peacefully on one of the beds. He hadn’t stirred in hours. For perhaps the hundredth time that night Sam pressed his hand against Ithican’s ivory throat to assure himself that the pulse beneath was still strong. It was, but that fact brought Sam little comfort. He’d only drugged him with some Feyas leaves that he’d found the day before, their affect shouldn’t last this long.
Perhaps the Medical Magi was right.
It hadn’t taken Sam long to reach the town. It was mid sized, although not particularly magically advanced. Sam walked up to the first person he came to and asked for directions to the town’s Medical Magi. The man had taken one look at the seemingly dead Elf in Sam’s arms and smiled.
“You won’t get much bounty for him dead.” The man had laughed.
If his arms hadn’t been full Sam would have killed him. He was in no mood for such jokes. The man had seen this in Sam’s burning glare.
“Where can I find a Medical Magi?” Sam had demanded.
“I don’t care.”
“Neither will he, not for an Elf. Don’t waste your time.”
“It’s my time to waste.”
The man had shrugged and given Sam simple directions. When Sam had entered into the small dark hospital the receptionist had started in surprise. She quickly composed herself and regarded the pair coolly.
“I need to see the Magi.”
“This is a Human clinic, we can’t do anything for an Elf.”
“’Can’t’ or ‘won’t’?!” Sam caught himself saying.
“I’m sorry, Sir...”
“What’s going on out here?” The resident Magi had heard Sam yelling.
“My friend is sick. We need your help.”
“Friend?” The doctor raised a skeptical eye brow, but he did walk over. He pressed his fingers against Ithican’s throat. Peeling back one of the Elf’s eye lids he shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, even if I did know anything about Elven medicine I don’t think there’d be any I could do.”
The Magi lifted one of Ithican’s limp arms by the wrist and touched Sam’s cheek with the icy hand. Sam flinched at the contact, he’d been shielded from the Elf’s chill by the layers of cloth that he wore and he hadn’t known how cold Ithican’s body had become. He knew Ithican had been acting chilled, but this was unnatural.
“His pulse is strong,” the Magi admitted “but he’s too far gone. He’s probably already dead, his heart just hasn’t figured it out yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just because the lights are on, doesn’t mean anyone’s home.”
“Well?” Varick mocked. “Will you help me? I have to admit that I’m almost hoping you’ll say ‘no’. I’ve wanted so much to kill you both ever since you wandered into Ramandas.”
“If I agree, how do I know that you won’t just live out your sick fantasies anyway? What assurance can you give me?”
Ithican made a brief noise of disgust.
“No, eh? I didn’t think so.” Varick paused. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll teach you how to be an observer. You can look into the Living Plane, but you can’t interact with it. It’s how I knew exactly when to insert the illusion with the Kin-Rin Doe. That wa...”
“I already know how to do that.”
Varick couldn’t hide his momentary surprise. Ithican was learning faster that he’d thought. “You do, do you?”
“How else would I know that you haven’t killed Sam already? And you can cut my hair as short as you want, it won’t keep you from looking like the Swamp Rat that I am.”
“You can’t blame me for trying.” Varick smiled sarcastically, he knew the Wetland Elves took great pride in their hair.
“Sam’s not going to trust you for much longer, he’s going to figure this out. You’re doing a miserable job pretending to be me.”
“I don’t have the stomach to be so pathetic!” Varick snarled. He rubbed his hands together trying to heat them. “Enough of this! I’m running out of patience, and you’re running out of time. Make your decision. Just keep in mind that he saved your life, you owe him this much.”
Ithican looked away, he hated it when Varick was right. He was having trouble thinking clearly. His fever had already risen past the point that would prove lethal to a living body. He was starting to believe what Varick had been saying. How could one man make or break a War that had been festering for so long? In the end there was only one life that he knew he could change for sure.
“Yes.” Ithican whispered.
“You agree?” Varick asked a bit shocked. “You’ll help me?”
“I do and I will.” Ithican replied not looking up. “But I don’t know how. I’m not causing your chill anymore than I’m causing my own fever.”
“Oh, I know that. You’re not causing it, I am.”
“What? Then why do you need me?”
“You’re the cure.” Varick shook his head. “I don’t have time to explain.”
Now that he had permission Varick walked up to Ithican. Their breath turned to fog between them as their competing temperatures collided. Varick had only one true limitation: he had to have willing prey. As Ithican had pointed out: ‘the life is mine’. He just hadn’t realized how right he was. When Varick reached out to touch Ithican he pulled away out of instinct.
“Don’t worry, ‘Ith’.” Varick said sweetly. “I’m not going to hurt you, quite the opposite in fact.”
Ithican wasn’t comforted. He kept a wary eye on Varick’s every move.
“Come now, trust me.” Varick tried to keep the frustration out of his voice. He had found himself unable to proceed when Ithican resisted. “You seemed to enjoy yourself the last time.”
It was the wrong choice of words.
Ithican gasped in a mix of realization and horror. He’d forgotten that the Elf maiden and Varick were one in the same. He took a step back from Varick and his cold aura. The resulting wash of heat was nothing compared to the crawling feeling that scuttled across his skin at the mere thought of being touch by Varick like that again.
“No,” Ithican backed further away “don’t touch me.”
Varick grit his teeth in frustration. “Ithic...”
“No!” Ithican snarled like a cornered animal. His breath came quick and shallow from a mix of fever and panic. “I didn’t know any better then, I do now, and I’m not going through it again!”
“Fine!” Varick spat. He suddenly held a blood stained Tarrin dagger. Varick turned and started to stalk off.
Ithican couldn’t see the sly smiled that touched Varick’s lips as he stopped. The Tarrin blade that he had conjured disappeared.
“Wait.” Ithican repeated.
“Why should I?” Varick turned and looked at Ithican expectantly.
Ithican kept his eyes averted to keep from losing what was left of his courage. Taking a deep breath he got down on his knees, knowing that if he didn’t he’d simply fall to them later. He tilted his head back, exposing his throat, and stared vacantly at the forest canopy above. For the first time Ithican noticed that he couldn’t see the sky through the trees. He absent mindedly wondered how light reached into the glade.
Varick just drank in the scene for a moment, enjoying the feeling of power. He wished that he had more time to savor the taste. However if someone didn’t get back to Ithican’s body soon they’d both lose. Ithican’s submissive posture allowed Varick to easily walk up to him.
Ithican closed his eyes as he felt the arctic approach. His pulse raced like a hummingbird’s as Varick held his hand inches away. Ithican wasn’t sure if Varick was waiting because he enjoyed seeing him like this or if he had fears of his own. Finding that the anticipation was worse than anything else Ithican seized Varick’s wrist and press the frosty hand against his burning heart.
Varick cried out and tried to pull away, momentarily forgetting that this was what he wanted. A powerful wash of what felt like adrenaline overwhelmed his system. Varick hadn’t had Ithican’s foresight and so he fell to his knees as the warmth of Ithican’s skin took a hold of his senses.
Ithican clutched Varick’s wrist so tightly he nearly broke it. Varick didn’t notice. He laughed weakly as his frame started to tremble. Varick threw his head back and bayed like a Werewolf to the full moons as his heart felt the pleasure of heat for the first time in weeks.
Last time he had been in control and had shielded himself from the effects of the forces they’d been playing with. Now Ithican had opened the metaphysical barrier between them with reckless abandon. The results cut right down to the center of the soul, and released something that the Living only ever taste the tiniest drop of -even in the spiraling heights of passion.
For his part Ithican was desperately trying to deny the sensation caused by Varick’s hand against his chest. He knew they were playing with something that they shouldn’t be, something they couldn’t possibly understand. It was dangerous, dangerous beyond mere Life and Death.
Despite the warning screaming in his mind Ithican couldn’t stop. Since he’d found himself trapped here he’d had a thirst that he couldn’t quench -until now. The cold soothed his parched throat in a way that no amount of water ever could. Ithican found himself wanting to push Varick away and pull him closer at the same time.
The difference between the opposite forces in them had grown so strong that it took a while for the energy to settle itself out. Eventually they were both freed from their respective afflictions. The dam between them had broken, and the waters had equaled themselves out to become a calm lake once more.
Ithican had been concentrating so hard on his inner conflict that he didn’t even notice when it was finally over. Varick weakly tried to retrieve his hand from Ithican’s grip. Ithican snapped his eyes open and released his captive.
Varick laughed and ran his hand through Ithican’s long hair, in a manor that was too affectionate for Ithican’s taste. Risking touching him again Ithican pushed him away so violently that Varick fell back. Ithican hastily got to his feet and backed up against a tree, with his stomach violently revolting against him. He wanted more than anything to be sick, but he wasn’t about to give Varick further satisfaction. Varick sat up and smiled brightly.
“Damn!” Varick laughed. “That was... indescribable. Admit it, Ithican, you feel better.”
“Just leave! And don’t forget our deal.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Varick stood. “I’ll see you later.”
“Didn’t I tell you? This is only a temporary fix, your fever will steal the heat away from my soul again. But don’t worry, I’ll be back for more.”
“I never agreed to that!”
“Sure you did, you asked for some assurance that I wouldn’t kill the Human. And I won’t -as long as I still need you.” Varick licked his lips. “I’ll say ‘hi’ for you.”
Varick snapped his fingers and disappeared.
Sam jerked awake as a hand touched his shoulder. He almost fell out of the chair that he’d nodded off in. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and found Ithican waiting somewhat less than patiently for him.
“Ith?” Sam asked a bit shocked to see his friend standing. “God, I was starting to think that you were dead.”
“Not yet.” Varick replied with a grin. “Come on, let’s go.”
“I still have to get to Nueyark.” Varick headed for the door.
“Whoa, wait a minute!” Sam got up quickly and stood between Varick and the door. “You’ve been unconscious for nearly a day and now you just want to get up and head out on the road again? To Nueyark no less?”
“Exactly, I don’t have much time.”
“’Time’? Time for what?”
“To stop this War of course, what else?”
“Stop the...” Sam started to repeat. “What on Nuearth could be in that wretched city that could stop a Human/Elven War?”
“There’s someone there I have to...to talk to.”
“’Talk to’?” Sam shook his head sadly. “You must be feeling better, this is just like you, Ithican. Do you honestly think that anyone in Nueyark is going to listen to you? We’ll be lucky if you aren’t killed the second we get there. This is suicide.”
“I’m going, nothing you say is going to stop me.” Varick reached out and touched Sam’s arm. “The question is: are you coming with me?”
Sam had expected Ithican’s touch to still be chilled, but his hand was a warm as it should be. He sighed. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So you’ll come?”
“I knew I could count on you.” Varick smiled in a near convincing manor. “Let’s get out of here.”
The sun was just about to rise when they stepped out of the inn. Sam started to head towards the road out of town when he noticed that Ithican wasn’t following him. He turned and saw that the Elf had his eyes closed and was sniffing at the air like a dog.
“What are you doing?”
“We’ll never make it if we walk.” Varick replied still concentrating on the different scents in the air.
“We’ll never make it if we stand around like this. At the risk of repeating myself: what are you doing?”
“Looking for horses.”
“With your eyes closed?”
Varick ignored the comment and continued to sniff at the morning air for a few moments. Having found what he was searching for he opened his eyes. “This way, Human.”
Sam’s temper flared for a second, but he did follow the Elf. They continued on their coarse right out of the small town. Not to far into the woods they came to a clearing -a clearing that held a set of stables.
“How did you know this was here?” Sam asked surprised.
“Humans are so quick to dismiss their other sense.” Varick hissed.
“Of course, you could smell it. I should have known that.” Sam looked at the stables. “It’s the beginning of breeding season, no one is going to want to sell their horses now.”
“I have no interest in buying them.”
“You need to start getting some more sleep or something, you’re not very quick today.”
“Maybe if you started to make sense I’d be able to understand you better.” Sam snarled.
“Figure it out. It’s not that difficult.” Varick walked up to the stable doors. “After all, you’re the thief here.”
Sam flinched at being called a ‘thief’, despite the fact that it was true. “You want to steal these horses?”
Varick opened the stable door. “After you.”
When Sam stood his ground Varick shrugged and stepped inside. The stable held eight horses. In the last pen was a red bay stallion that was pawing at the ground. Varick pulled a halter off a peg on the wall. When he walked up to the horse it reared up and brayed.
“Good luck getting a saddle on that thing.” Sam commented as he stepped inside.
Varick made a noise of disgust. “I hate saddles.”
“Whatever. Ith, that horse is obviously wild, leave it. Let’s just take a pair of the mares.”
“His fear will make him faster.”
Varick opened the low gate into the pen. The horse nearly went insane. Varick smiled to himself. Even an animal had figured out that something wasn’t right with him faster than the Human. When the stallion went to bite the intruder he crunched down on the metal bit of the halter that Varick had placed in the animal’s way. He quickly slipped the rest of the halter on. In the same motion he snaked his hand into the animals thick mane and used the purchase to hoist himself up on its back.
The red bay protested, however, he quickly submitted to the tight hold Varick had on the reins. Being more skilled than mere horsemen the Forest Elves had taken to riding wild Elk Stag. After mastering such a craft even the most aggressive horse could be ridden. Most Elves captured one Elk and turned it into a life long steed. However Varick had seen it more as a sport. Once broken in the animals always lost their allure. In his life he had tamed and subsequently slaughtered dozens of the majestic beasts.
Varick forced the stallion to face the door. He kicked the animal hard on the back flank. With a cry of pain the horse exploded into motion and galloped out into the red morning light. Sam had finished saddling the mare and leapt up to take chase. However he pause long enough to leave two glittering emeralds in the hay of the stable.
Sam had vowed, not so long ago, to give up his title as ‘thief’.
“You’re late.” Varick sneered.
It had taken Varick four days to reach the outskirts of Nueyark. He had then been forced to wait two more days for Sam to arrive. He hadn’t been happy about having to delay, but he’d never get into the city alone. He would also need Sam’s expertise in lock picking once inside the walls.
“Where’s your horse?” Sam asked jumping down off the mare.
“I got rid of him.” Varick shrugged. In truth the animal had been ridden too hard and had collapsed about five miles outside Nueyark.
Sam decided against questioning further. His gaze went to the city that lay below the hills they were standing on. The tall spires of the Church dominated the Northern end of the city. Sam stared at the Temple wondering who lived there now. It felt like things were coming full circle. His once simple life had changed so much since the last time he’d approached this city.
“Come on,” Varick urged “it’s not far now.”
“How can you want to go there?” Sam asked. “Do you remember nothing of what happened?”
Varick balked, he didn’t know anything beyond the fact that Ithican had been here. Looking to the North where the towers lay he felt a slight spasm of panic. Without realizing what he was doing Varick ran his fingers through the white stain in Ithican’s hair -the flesh remembered if nothing else.
Snapping out of the subconscious memory Varick shook his head angrily. Ithican was getting stronger. He was learning how to impose fears on him. Varick smiled to himself -after all he believed in ‘turn about’ being fair play. He’d done the same thing to Ithican at the Slave Market. He’d pressed on the fear that Ithican had already felt, forcing him to lose control and show weakness.
“I try not to remember it.” Varick finally responded. “Can’t let the past keep us from the future.”
“I have a feeling that if we go down there your future is going to be cut extremely short.”
“You’re such a pessimist.”
“Funny, I used to say the same thing about you.”
“We were able to walk through the front gates last time, but now they’re guarded.”
“We’ll still be able use the front gate.” Varick assured Sam.
“I hope you don’t think you’ll be able to hide behind ‘Aristat’ as his Papers. This is Nueyark, Papers or no, Elves are not welcome here.”
“I’m counting on that fact.”
Varick went up to the nervous mare and removed the halter. With the sharp Tarrin he cut the leather rein free of the bit. He also cut the saddle from the animal and gave her a hard slap so that she ran off free.
“Hide this for me.” Varick handed Sam the Tarrin. He also gave him the leather strap.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Sam asked taking the rein. The Tarrin he tucked into the back of his sword belt.
Varick answered by putting his wrists together and holding them out to Sam.
“Ith, no.” Sam said finally understanding. “You can’t ask me to play the part of bounty hunter. It’s too risky.”
“The only way I’ll get into that city is if they think that I’m not coming willingly.”
“Sam,” Varick stopped him “trust me. This is important, we have to get into that city.”
Sam sighed. Without further protest he secured Varick’s wrist together with the leather strap. “If something goes wrong you’ll be defenseless.”
“Don’t be so sure about that.” Varick retorted smugly.
It was approaching midnight as the walked up to the main gates. Varick had been watching the city gate for the past few nights. So he knew that this was the least guarded watch. Before they were in sight of the lone guard Sam reached over and pulled Varick’s cloak hood up.
“Keep your head down.” Sam warned. “It’s late, he might just let us through without too many questions if he doesn’t know you’re Elven. Once inside I’ll let you go and we’ll head directly for Marina’s Inn. Got it?”
“Yes, Master.” Varick hissed sarcastically.
Sam flinched. “Don’t even kid about that.”
As they made their way up to the gates Sam tried to look confidant. Even though Ithican was the one who was bound he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was the one who was prisoner. They were almost upon the guard before he noticed the travelers. The guard was sitting with his back against the closed gate.
“What’s your business with Nueyark at this late hour?” The guard asked as he got to his feet. He stood a little taller than Sam and just as muscular.
“I’m simply bringing a criminal to Nueyark for judgment.”
The guard sighed. “As if our courts weren’t already busy enough with problems of our own.” The guard looked at Varick briefly. “Just take him out into the forest and let him pay for his crimes in blood. Nueyark has no more room for another miserable wretch of a jango.”
Varick jerked his head up at the insult, ‘jango’ was a term only prescribed to Humans. The guard gasped in shock when Varick’s eyes flashed luminescent in the bright tri-moons light.
“I’m no ‘jango’.” Varick hissed in an overly Elfish accent. He shook the cloak hood back and glared at the guard proudly.
“An Elf!” The guard had his sword drawn in a flash.
“Wait!” Sam stepped in between the two with his hands up in a placating manor. “Back off! This Elf if mine, and he’s no good to me dead.”
“Yours?” The guard repeated incredulously. “Are you trying to tell me that you caught an Elf in his prime on your own? I don’t think so. Not even the best bounty hunters go after Elves alone.”
“No, he’s right, Sam.” Varick interrupted. “That is a bit far fetched, we should have thought of that.”
Sam turned and stared at Varick in disbelief. Seeing that things were definitely not right the guard went to attack. Sam barely had time to see what happened. The guard lunged with his sword held high over his head. Varick whipped around and felled his larger opponent with a graceful high kick to his exposed throat.
The guard fell to the dust like a polled ox. Varick smiled and for a brief moment he was disappointed that Ithican had been born in Evergladrida. Had he been born of Lightland he would have been an amazing fighter. His body had the skill, it was his Swampland heart that made him weak.
“What the Hell was that?!” Sam asked angrily.
“I told you I wasn’t defenseless.”
“Impressive tricks aside, we’re you trying to get us caught?”
“He was never going to believe that you caught me without help. Elves are too quick for that. Anyway, it works out better this way, now no one will know there’s an Elf in Nueyark.”
“You don’t think he’s going to remember this when he wakes up?” Sam hissed sarcastically. “Everyone in the city is going to be looking for you!”
“He’s not going to wake up.”
Sam looked down at the guard for the first time. He had fallen on his side and was staring at nothing with sightless eyes. Blood trickled from his mouth, which was open wide in shock. The blow to his throat had crushed his trachea.
“Come on,” Varick urged “let’s get out of here before we’re seen.”
Sam looked away from the dead guard. When he looked up he saw Ithican standing with his tied wrist held out in a wordless command to be released. In the pale moons light he looked nothing like the young Elf Sam had lead here before. The change had nothing to do with the messy hair cut or the weight loss. It was all in his eyes. They’d grown dark, cold, and there was suddenly a world of scheming behind them.
“Sam,” Varick saw Sam hesitating to free him “I know you think I’m acting strange. But we can’t let one man stand in the way of our goal to save the lives of millions. I’ve finally learnt my lesson about these kinds of encounters and I’m acting accordingly.”
“And what lesson is that?”
“’Kill or be killed’.”
“This city reeks.” Varick complained. “I can hardly breath.”
“What?” Sam looked around the darkened empty streets of Nueyark as they made their way to Marina’s. “The streets are cleaner than most.”
“It has nothing to do with the streets.” Varick snarled.
“You mean it reeks of Humans.” Sam said through grit teeth.
“Yes, there’s that, but it’s more than just the physical Human presence. I can actually smell the hate and disdain that has soaked into the stone. There is a reason why us Non-Humans call this the ‘Dirty City’.”
“You speak of ‘Non-Humans’ as if the Elves considered themselves part of that group. From all I’ve seen the Elves don’t classify the rest of Nuearth into Human and Non-Human, but simply as Non-Elven.”
Varick shrugged. “So?”
“So, how many pure Human cities are there?” Sam asked rhetorically. “One, just this one. How many pure Elven cities are there? I’ll bet it’s every single one south of Lightland. That includes Evergladrida.”
“That’s because the other races separate themselves from us!”
“It’s because you separate yourselves!”
“Is that so?” Varick snarled.
“Why else would they banish their most loathsome criminals instead of executing th...” Realizing what he’d just said Sam stopped cold.
Varick had to strain to keep from laughing. Sam took his lack of response for a hurt silence.
“Ithican, I’m sorry, I...I didn’t mea...”
“No. You’re right.” Varick said in a mock injured tone. “They should have killed me, it would have been kinder. And it would have saved us all a lot of trouble.”
Sam had been meant to misunderstand those last words, and he did. Once again Varick had to work hard to suppressed his amusement.
“I...” Sam started.
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” Varick interrupted in a suddenly chipper voice. Despite the fun he was having he did not want to stand around the streets of Nueyark all night. “Let’s just get to the inn.”
“Are you sure you can handle Marina?”
“Just lead the way.” Varick responded, unsure of what Sam was referring to.
Sam didn’t question the fact that his friend didn’t know the way. He was just grateful for the change in subject. He made his way towards probably the only Elven friendly building in all of Nueyark. The entire city, it would seem, was sleeping and no one noticed the pair. When they entered the inn there was a sign on a small bell that instructed them to ring if they needed a room.
“This had better be important.” Marina muttered as she came into the front room rubbing the sleep out her eyes. “Sam!”
Despite his somewhat sour mood Sam couldn’t help but smiled as Marina enthusiastically wrapped her arms around him. “Sorry to wake you.”
“Don’t be silly!” She admonished. She looked over at Varick who was still standing by the door. “I see you brought tall, dark, and handsome with you.”
“What?” Varick asked taking a step back as Marina approached him.
Sam laughed as Marina embraced a very shocked Elf. Marina hadn’t changed a heartbeat in the time that they had been away. The Elf flushed and tried to back away further, but he had already back into the closed front door. Watching them Sam thought to himself that for the first time since Cantras Ithican was acting like himself.
Sam’s relief, however, was not long lived. Marina stretched up on her tiptoes to whisper something into Ithican’s ear. For a second Sam could have sworn that Ithican was going to strike her. Then he watched with growing concern as Ithican’s disgusted expression was replaced by a carnivorous grin.
The Elf brushed Marina’s golden hair away from her ear so he could whisper back to her. It was finally Marina’s turn to blush. She took Ithican’s right hand and whispered something else. The Elf’s smile widened.
“Don’t worry about that.” Varick said in a voice loud enough to be heard. He pulled something off his hand and tossed it to Sam, who caught it without thought. “Hold on to that for me.”
“Help yourself to anything at the bar,” Marina giggled as she went to lead her prey away “and take the keys to any room you want, they’re under the counter.”
Sam was speechless. The pair had been gone for a full minute before Sam was able to close his shock dropped jaw. Furrowing his brow he opened his hand to look at the object that Varick had tossed to him to keep safe.
It was Ithican’s wedding band.
“Are all Human women like that?” Varick asked Sam jokingly as he closed the room door behind him.
“She’s a rare one for sure.” Sam answered dryly, he’d been waiting for the Elf for over an hour.
“Well, she’s quite the filly.” Varick laughed. “Damn near killed me.”
Varick had missed the iciness in Sam’s response. He walked over to the sink. It took him a moment to figure out how to use the running water -a magic trick that the Elves had never bothered with. After rising the sweat out of his hair he buried his face in a towel.
Not expecting an attack it took Varick a second to figure out that the sudden pressure against his lower back was a sword blade. Moving slowly he dropped the towel and turned around. Sam allowed him that much freedom, but then quickly brought the weapon back into strike position. Varick looked down casually at the bright sword point resting on his, or rather Ithican’s, heart. He looked up at Sam and raised a questioning eye brow.
“You seem to know my name, but I don’t know yours.” Sam growled. “Who are you?”
“Now, now, is this any way to treat your friend?”
“You,” Sam spat “are not my friend! I don’t know what’s going on here, but it stops now!”
“Does it?” Varick smiled.
Varick reached up with one hand and grasped the blade. Not caring that the sharp steel was cutting into his hand he twisted the sword out of Sam’s hesitant grip easily. Within seconds he had the hilt in his own hand. In the process he tripped Sam and knocked him back to the floor. Standing over him Varick placed the weapon at Sam’s own chest. No matter how many times he saw it Sam was amazed by the speed with which the Elves could move.
“How was it,” Varick asked seriously “how was it that you Humans ever got the best of us?”
Sam said nothing.
“Answer me!” Varick snarled digging the sword point into Sam skin. “How did your kind make Slaves of the Elves when we are clearly superior?”
“By using your weaknesses against you.”
“Weaknesses?” Varick said indignantly. “What weaknesses?”
“Overconfidence for one.”
Varick was about to retort when his eye caught the glint of steel in Sam’s hand. He still had the Tarrin blade that Varick had given to him at the city gates. Varick swore under his breath. Sam brought the weapon up so that, although out of reach of the dagger form, the blade pointed at Varick’s stomach. It would only take Sam flipping the catch to kill.
“Do you even know how to use that?” Varick sneered condescendingly.
“Not really.” Sam admitted with a tight lipped smile. “So you’d better back off before we have an ‘accident’.”
Varick gritted his teeth in anger and defiantly applied more pressure to the weapon in Sam’s shoulder. When Sam didn’t flinch Varick yielded and pulled away. When he looked at the bright red sword point his skin flashed cold. It wasn’t that he minded the blood, it was Ithican who wasn’t happy with the turn in events.
Sam waited till Varick backed away before standing. He didn’t even bother trying to stop the slow leak of blood at his shoulder. Not quite sure how to proceed they both glared at each other in silence.
“Who are you?” Sam repeated breaking the increasing stillness.
“Well, I’m not Ithican.” Varick grinned. “I can assure you of that.”
“I already know that much.”
“It took you long enough to figure it out. I take it I went too far with the Human whore?” Varick asked casually. “Yes, yes. I should have known better.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about me overestimating Ithican’s love of Humans. I should have known that even he wouldn’t have gone that far. Although I have to admit it was fun.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered even if Marina was Elven, the man I know is far too loyal to his wife to act the way you do.”
“His wife? You mean the one he murdered?”
“Don’t tell me he didn’t tell you.” Varick smiled. He dropped Sam’s sword, he didn’t need it anymore. “He didn’t tell you how he got this?” Varick pulled on his shirt collar to display the oddly artistic scar.
“And who are you that you know about it?” Sam snarled.
“Ah, well, you see, Ithican and I have become very close lately. In fact you might say we’ve been inseparable since Ramandas.”
“Ramandas?” Sam repeated more to himself than to anyone else.
“That’s right.” Varick licked his lips while watching the Human’s ever expression. “Come on, say it, you know who I am. I know you do.”
“No,” Sam said dropping the Tarrin in shock “y...you’re dead!”
“Ithican thought the exact same thing.” Varick laughed. “You two are priceless.”
“How? I don’t understand.”
“Obviously.” Varick mocked. “I don’t have the time, nor the patients, to go into details.”
“But, you, I mean Ithican,” Sam was having a hard time wrapping his mind around this “he was fine...until...”
“Cantras?” Varick suggested.
Varick walked up to Sam so that they were nearly touching. Sam felt the unnatural chill that had crept back into Varick’s soul. Even Varick’s breath was icy as brushed past Sam’s skin. He wanted to pull away but found himself paralyzed. He had known something was wrong with his friend, but this was far stranger than anything he could have imagined. Varick leaned in closer to whisper directly into Sam’s ear to be sure that he had his full attention. Sam stayed perfectly still, almost mesmerized.
“You see, Sam Human,” Varick purred softly “I couldn’t do it on my own. It was the Human’s that pushed him to me, allowed me to steal this miserable Swamp Rat flesh. I needed someone to break his seemingly unbendable faith in the ‘good’ of Mankind. They did a marvelous job. He was so scared, Sam. Locked underground in the home of our ancestors, wearing their cruel jewelry, alone...”
“Stop.” Sam whispered. “What do you want?”
“I want you to help me. Such a simple thing, and then I’ll go.”
“Help you do what?”
“There is someone in Nueyark who I must kill. But I can’t get to him without your help.”
“Kill?” Sam snapped out of the near trance he’d fallen into. He couldn’t bring himself to touch Varick to push him away, but he did take a step back himself. “Haven’t you killed enough?”
“Are you saying you won’t help me?” Varick narrowed his dark eyes. “You do realize that I’m not asking this of you as a mere favour? You do know what’s held in the balance, don’t you?”
“Ithican wouldn’t want me trading in his life for one of another.”
“That’s very selfless of you both, and I even believe it. However,” Varick paused long enough to run his hands through Ithican’s butchered hair “it’s not Ithican’s life we’re bargaining over here. I would never insult you by tempting you with stakes so low. No, I hold something more precious than his misery filled life in my hands.”
“What more could you possibly have?”
“I have his soul.” Varick said simply. “Fail me and I will see to it personally that he never makes it to the Other Side. I have the power to keep death from him, as he tried to keep it from me. It will be a torment that will last till the end of Time itself and perhaps beyond.”
Sam didn’t reply for a long time. He didn’t know if what Varick was saying was true or not. He wasn’t really sure that he believed any of this in the fist place, it seemed so absurd. At the same time he had to ask himself if one man’s life was worth risking another’s soul, especially when the life was that of a stranger and the soul was that of a loyal friend.
“Who are we going to kill?”
“Excellent decision, Sam, very wise. As for who, I think I’ll keep that my little secret for a little longer.”
“Whatever, just leave Ithican out of this.”
“He’s as safe as you are.”
Sam looked up at the tall spires of the Church. He wasn’t sure what it was that brought him here. Varick had asked to be left alone today and that suited Sam just fine. Now that he knew for a fact that it wasn’t Ithican so many little things sprung to his attention. Things that should have told him that this was another man long before things had gone this far.
It was too late now, the damage had been done. He’d let the quintessential wolf in lambs clothing loose into the ‘Dirty City’. Not knowing what else to do Sam had decided to simply wander the streets aimlessly. Eventually he found himself at the Temple’s courtyard.
Walking up the steps to the large open double doors he hesitated to go inside. Stepping inside the foyer anyway he found an empty weapons rack immediately to his right. Unbuckling his sword belt he left it at the Temple’s gates. Sam smiled when he noted that the weapons rack was unguarded, after all who would dare steal from the Church?
If Sam had been hoping that lighting would strike him down, he was disappointed. The interior of the Temple was just as he remembered. A spacious front room of pure white marble greeted guests of the Church. To his right was a passage way that lead to a grand staircase that he wished he’d never climbed.
Sam walked away from the stairs and over to the archway that was embedded in the left wall. The room that it lead to was far more extravagant than any he’d ever seen. The marble walls were covered with delicately woven tapestries and braziers that held waterfalls of fresh flowers. The floor had places to sit and reflect, with a fountain of clear gurgling water in the center. It was a public place, but it was early on a Monday morning and there wasn’t anyone else here.
They all have lives, jobs, families... Sam thought bitterly to himself.
By the far wall sat more than a dozen life-size statues. One that caught Sam’s eye was of a woman made of a crimson stone. Sam walked up to this and studied it. She held in her stony grip a winged staff that had two serpents wrapped around it. Sam didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t understand any of the icons around him.
“I have no right to seek solace here.” Sam said to the deaf statue.
“You have every right to be here.”
Sam jumped at the voice and spun around. His hand automatically went for his sword which he quickly discovered wasn’t there. An older man, hundred and fifty perhaps two hundred years old, had joined him in the room. Sam’s eyes darted around, looking for the nearest exit.
“It’s all right, son.” The silver haired man said with a smile. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I’m just a little jumpy.”
“Having trouble telling friend from foe lately, eh?”
“How do you know that?” Sam asked shocked.
“Someone must have done that to you.” The man pointed to Sam’s shoulder where his once white shirt was now blood stained. “And I see that you’ve come to stand before Caduceusia, Saint of Medicine.”
“I didn’t know what the statue was of.” Sam admitted.
“That’s okay, she brought you here anyway.” The man studied Sam for a moment. “I haven’t seen you before, have you ever been to the Temple?”
“Once.” Sam looked around nervously again. “Listen...”
“Dalest, Paul Dalest.” The man supplied his name freely.
“Dalest, I should really be leaving. I don’t belong here.”
“Everyone is welcome here.”
“Yes, and if you’ll allow me to I’ll tend to your shoulder.”
“You’re a Medical Magi?”
“Among other things.” Dalest smiled cryptically. “A wound like that can easily become infected, you never know what’s growing on those weapons.”
“I keep my sword clean.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’m here to listen.”
“No, you can’t help me.”
“No one will every be able to aid you if you don’t even let them try. You might not be of the Church, but something drew you here today. Even if I can’t ease your mind, I know I can alleviate your physical pain.”
Sam looked at Dalest. The older man suddenly seemed so wise. Sam started to wonder if maybe he could help. After all if anyone could do something about a possession it would be the men of God. Also, as much as he hated to admit it, his shoulder did burn.
“All right.” Sam sighed.
“Excellent. Follow me.”
Dalest lead Sam back through a passage that came to a small room that smelt strongly of various Magi potions. In the center of the room was a thick metal table. Dalest saw the young man hesitating once more.
“You never told me your name.” Dalest said.
“All right then, Samaricus, if you’ll just sit on the table and take off that blood soaked rag I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Sam did as he was told. He grimaced as he pulled the shirt away from the wound. He hadn’t tended to it after his confrontation with Varick and the blood had dried the cotton to the cut. It wasn’t a serious injury, it would have healed itself in a few months, but this way it would be cured in a few weeks.
“You have a lot of scars.” Dalest commented as he took the shirt away from Sam.
“Looks like I’ll have one more.”
“Probably, and I’m guessing you’ll have more than that by the time you’re my age.” Dalest walked back over to the door. “Talic.” He called. A young man appeared almost instantly The Magi gave him the shirt. “Take this and find me something clean in the same size. Thank you.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Sam protested.
“The Church has wealth enough to share.” Dalest said with a shrug.
Much to Sam’s relief the conversation came to an end as Dalest went to work. He cleaned and stitched the shallow wound closed using talents handed down by so many generations of Medical Magi that no one remembered where the knowledge came from. When he was done Sam moved the shoulder and found that it was almost as good as new.
“You are a powerful Magi. Thank you for your help.”
“I still feel that there is something else that is bothering you. Are you sure there is nothing else I can do for you?”
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but why are you doing all this? Why are you helping me? I’m not even of the Church.”
“As I said before: ‘everyone is welcome here’. And besides -it is my job.”
“Yes.” Dalest smiled brightly. “After all, I am the High Priest.”
Varick paced the small room torn by indecision. He had been rash and he was paying the price for that now. He hugged his arms close to his body even though he knew that it would do nothing to warm him. Varick shivered and cursed out loud.
The fact that Ithican had figured out how to drop his temperature so quickly meant that he was slowly learning the tricks needed to regain control. Varick had discovered that Life was like energy and it only wanted to flow in a certain direction. Working against the natural direction and moving from Death to Life was like making water flow up hill. It could be done, but it required energy and that energy had to come from somewhere.
In this case he had been stealing that it from Ithican. However, the heat that kept Varick alive fled him. Just like when the water reaches the top of the hill it slides easily down the other side. As for Ithican, putting his Life on pause caused a build up of energy, which was causing his unbearable fever.
In order to steal more of that heat Varick would have to go back and face Ithican again, and if Ithican knew how to get back into the Living Plan Varick would have no chance to win again. Varick was horrified by the thought that he may himself be subject to the torment that he had told Sam he’d inflict on Ithican. Varick did not want to be stuck In Between for the rest of Time.
Varick growled in frustration. He was so close, yet it would take a few days to get everything ready and he knew he wouldn’t make it that long. There was a very powerful man in Nueyark. Superstitious as it may be Varick knew that the Elves hesitated to declare War because of him.
It was why they had gone, against the judgment of the Elven Courts, to capture Ramandas. The plan from the beginning was to get at this man and jump start the Courts into War that would end any Human threat forever.
First, however, Varick would have to find the courage to fight Ithican.
“Well, no time like the present.”
Varick laid down on one of the beds. Taking a deep breath he rolled his eyes back and entered into the misty forest. Walking through the lush growth he made his way back to the small glade. However when he got there the only evidence of Ithican was a pair of boots and a discarded shirt.
Puzzled for a moment Varick closed his eyes and listened to what his other senses had to say. The clear sound of splashing and the mellow smell of water was coming from his right. Pushing through the vegetation he came to a large clear pool. Varick rolled his eyes in disgust. Ithican was swimming around like a dolphin without a care.
Varick couldn’t suppress the flash of fear at a sudden thought -does Ithican know I can’t swim? He shook his head to clear the absurd idea. Varick told himself that there was no way that Ithican could have found a way to look into his mind and glean such information. Ithican has his back turned and hadn’t noticed that he had company. When he ducked beneath the surface once again Varick got an idea.
Carefully going down to the water’s edge Varick touched his hand to the pool. As he expected the surface of the warm water froze solid. He chuckled to himself as Ithican encountered the sheet of ice.
However the Wetland Elf didn’t panic at being unable to reach the air like Varick thought he would. Ithican simply rolled over and placed his palms against the barrier and quickly melted it. When he came up he didn’t even gasp for breath.
“That was a bit childish, don’t you think?” Ithican asked calmly treading water.
Varick just shrugged. He tried to change the scenery to something a bit more terrestrial, but found he was no longer able to control the environment. Barely hiding his anger he took a step away from the slippery pool edge.
“Get out of the water, Ithican.” Varick demanded. “You’re wasting my time.”
“Your time? The only ‘time’ you have is what you steal from me.”
“Does the water cool your burring blood?” Varick sneered. “No? I didn’t think so. We still need each other. Now get out of that pool before I go back to the Living Plan and do something rash!”
Ithican narrowed his bright green eyes in annoyance. He leisurely swam closer till he came to stand in waist deep water. As his body touched the air the water that dripped from him turned to steam and evaporated. In moments even his hair was dry. However he did not come out to stand on the dry bank with Varick.
“You have to do something for me first.” Ithican stated firmly.
“And if I refuse?”
“I’ll let us both be driven mad.” Ithican replied with a shrug.
Varick grit his teeth, but composed himself quickly. “All right. What do you want?”
“I want you to promise me that you won’t hurt Sam.”
“I already told you I wouldn’t.”
“No.” Ithican shook his head. “No, you told me that you wouldn’t kill him. That’s not enough for me anymore.”
Varick paused and thought back to his exact words and found that Ithican was right. But why should such a small distinction matter? “You’re up to something.” Varick stated suspiciously.
“And what if I am?”
Varick almost charged into the deadly water to physically confront the smug Swamp Rat. To just knock him to the ground once was all he wanted right now. Trying to control himself Varick closed his eyes and thought back to when he’d first drawn Ithican’s blood in the Tarrin duel that he’d ultimately lost. Ithican still bore a large scar down his forearm from the hit. Varick used the memory of the hot splash of blood and the cry of pain to calm him now.
“Okay, fine.” Varick finally replied in an icy tone.
“Say the words.”
Varick bared his teeth in a disgusted snarl. “I will get you for this humiliation, Ithican, if it is the last thing I do.”
“And I’m sure it will be.” Ithican smiled. “I’m still waiting.”
Varick flashed a sickeningly sweet smiled right back. “I, Varick of Lightland, home of the High Forest Elves, do solemnly promise not to hurt Sam Human.”
“A little melodramatic, but it will do.”
As Ithican rose out of the pool and willingly stepped towards him Varick couldn’t help but feel that he’d just made a terrible mistake.
Sam returned to the inn with a heavy heart and a lot on his mind. He wasn’t really used to putting this much thought into anything. Sam’s biggest worry used to be where his next meal was coming from. Now he found himself with troubles that he couldn’t even begin to understand.
Walking into the room Sam found one more thing to worry about. Ithican was stretched out on one of the beds, or at least his body was. It didn’t take more than a glance to see that ‘no one was home’. His half open eyes showed only white and his ribs hardly stirred with breath. Relaxing in the unnatural sleep he looked so much like the man Sam knew that he felt he should just be able to wake him.
“Where are you?” Sam asked the soulless half-corpse mournfully. “I need to talk to you. I don’t know what to do.”
Sam sighed, knowing that he was just wasting his breath. Several times he’d almost told Dalest of his problems, but in the end he decided that the High Priest couldn’t be trusted. Sam walked over and touched Ithican’s forehead with the back of his hand. Finding him ice cold Sam got the feeling that Varick still had the upper hand.
It was two hours before Varick animated Ithican’s flesh once more. Sam had spent most of the time sitting in a chair across the room just sightlessly staring at the Elf. He found that he didn’t even have the will to go seek comfort in alcohol. Varick didn’t look much better off. He sat up and rubbed his temples like he had a headache. Looking up and suddenly finding Sam in the room he sneered in disgust.
“Where have you been?” Varick demanded.
“What do you care?”
“Just answer me.”
Sam’s muscles tensed as his temper flared. “I don’t have to answer to you.”
“Watch your step, Human!” Varick snarled flushing with anger.
Sam stood and paced a short path back and forth. He had wanted to fight Varick from the second they’d met and he was finding that urge near impossible to resist now despite the lamb skin. “What makes you like this?!”
“’What makes *me* like this?’!” Varick repeated incredulously. He jumped up off the bed and stood with his fist clenched. “How about your kind keeping mine in chains!”
Sam looked at Varick like he was speaking a different language. “I...yo...th..” Sam sputtered in frustration. “That was two thousand years ago! Two thousand! Even Dragons don’t have memories that long!”
“We don’t have to have memories!” Varick cried. “We feel it to this day! We are hated and mistrusted everywhere we go!”
“That’s not true! Many Elves live and trade in the Human territories.”
Varick made a noise of disgust. “Plains Elves, they have no shame, they’re practically Human themselves.”
“What gives you the right to look down on the Plains Elves?” Sam hissed. “How can you expect the Humans to treat you as equals when you can’t even treat each other that way. Who are you to despise them or Ithican for being from the Wetlands for that matter?”
“Ithican is a traitor!”
“He’s a traitor?! What about you?”
“What?!” Varick started to pant with the effort of restraining himself. “How dare you accuse me!”
“Things were fine until you and your bloodthirsty friends attacked the Goblins. Sure there was racism and distrust, but let me be the first to tell you that most Humans hate and distrust one another as well. It’s just the way things are. It was you that forced the Humans to treat the Elven race like terrorist! Did the Elven Courts even know what you doing?”
“The Courts are weak.” Varick sneered. “They will realize that we were justified when the War is over.”
“They’ll all be dead when the War is over! The Elves will never survive this, they don’t have the technology, Human magic is too strong.”
The rage that washed over the Elf surprised even Varick himself. He fancied that even the edges of his vision were stained red. He pounced on Sam and grabbed the front of his shirt. Varick pulled his fist back ready to strike, however he stayed his hand. He fought to restrain his anger so hard that he trembled. Varick could feel Ithican pressing on his anger the same way he’d enhanced Ithican’s fear, but he couldn’t figure out why.
Sam watched in confusion as Varick bit down on his own lip so hard that it started to bleed freely. He looked like a ravenous lion that was being held back from reaching a meal. Varick forced himself to release his hold on Sam’s shirt. He backed away, keeping his eyes locked on Sam. Still shaking he pulled at his hair like a madman. Varick’s harsh laugh tainted with hysteria sent a chill down Sam’s spine.
“Why are you doing this?!” Varick asked through gritted teeth as he sank to his knees.
“I’m not doing anything.” Sam took a step towards Varick instinctively. “What’s happening? Calm down.”
“I can’t!” Varick cried. He looked up at Sam with undisguised loathing. “You’re friend is playing a very dangerous game.”
“You’re completely insane, do you know that?”
“I think it’s Ithican who’s lost it.”
“He’s trying to make me kill you.”
“Feel better?” Sam asked sarcastically.
The room was in shambles. Varick had destroyed just about everything. Varick glared at Sam and punched yet another hole in the wall. Sam was sure that at any moment Marina was going to come up here in a rage about the destruction and noise. Then he’d have two of them to deal with.
Varick finally gave up on trying to work out his frustrations on the inanimate. He threw on his cloak and grabbed the Tarrin. Sam quickly went to stand by the door to keep him from leaving. He went to draw his sword only to find that he didn’t have it with him. Sam cursed under his breath. He’d been so preoccupied when he’d left the Temple that he’d never recovered it from the weapons rack. He was so used to it just being there.
“Where are you going?” Sam asked trying to stall.
“I have to kill someone.” Varick answered honestly. “And I’m not about to do Ithican any favors by making it you.”
“Favors? Why does he want to kill me?”
“I don’t know!” Varick snapped irritably. “I don’t know what makes him do any of the things he does! He’s crazy.”
“That makes two of you, maybe even three of us.”
Varick pushed past Sam and headed out into the hall. Not knowing what else to do Sam followed him. Catching up with the Elf Sam quickly reached out and pulled Varick’s cloak hood up. Varick had almost stepped into the streets of Nueyark without remembering to hide his Elven features.
It was getting late in the evening and few people wandered the streets of this neighborhood after dark. Varick hurried down the back alleys like he knew where he was. In fact he did know, he and Narigard had studied maps of Nueyark for months. Sam didn’t know the city as well, but it didn’t take him long to figure out where they were going.
They approached the Temple from the East where there was a small grove of trees that acted as a place for reflection. Varick slunk into the shadows of the trees. He had been running with a speed that Sam couldn’t match so it took the Human a moment to catch up.
“What are we doing here?”
“I told you I had to kill someone, and I can’t get into the Temple without you.”
“Who could you possibly be after in there?”
“The High Priest, of course.”
“The High Priest?” Sam asked horrified. “Why?”
“Because he’s becoming too powerful.” Varick turned to Sam and smiled. “Don’t worry, he deserves this. Even Ithican would agree. His hate of the Elves runs amazingly deep.”
“I can’t imagine Dalest hating anyone.”
“Yeah, you know, the High Priest, the man you want to kill. Any of this sounding familiar?”
“The High Priest’s name is Jager, Jager Trillesti.”
Sam stared at Varick for a second and then laughed. “Good luck trying to kill him.”
“Just unlock the door to his chambers and I’ll do the rest, I’m not afraid of him.”
“Very few people fear him these days.”
“You can’t kill Jager. He’s already dead.”
“Impossible!” Varick hissed.
“Trust me, I was there.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I can prove it.”
Sam ran through the miniature forest towards the back courtyard. Varick growled, but he did follow. They came to a low wall that surrounded a large mausoleum of white marble and gold gliding. Sam pulled out a small lock pick that he always carried and worked at the simple mechanism. The lock gave way easily and Sam pushed the heavy door open.
“After you.” Sam mocked.
Varick’s anger flashed again, but he controlled himself and stepped inside. The tomb was surprisingly clean and well lit. The walls were pockmarked with alcoves that held ornate caskets made of various stones. Sam made his way down the hall past these older graves. When he came to caskets that appeared more recent he started to slowly read the names.
“Here we are.” Sam said triumphantly after a few minutes search. “See for yourself.”
Varick hesitated for a moment, fearing a trap. Sam saw this and stepped to the side. Varick came up and read the name plate below the blue marble casket. He read the name a few times trying to make himself believe it.
“No,” Varick whispered “this can’t be right. If Jager was dead the Elves would have attacked by now, Zari assured us that he was the only thing standing in our way. We risked everything...”
“For nothing.” Sam finished. “Did it ever occur to you that there was a reason why only a handful of Elves were willing to attack the Goblins? If the Elves truly wanted a War they wouldn’t let one man stand in the way.”
“You know nothing of the Elves!”
“I know you’re making things worse for them! Even if one side ends up slaughtering the other, there can be no winners. Give up this madness!”
Varick would have killed Sam that second, but he had a better idea. The Human, as much as Varick hated to admit it, had a point. Apparently the only brave Elves left on Nuearth had died along side him at the hands of a traitor. In a way that freed him from the need to be careful. Even if he couldn’t get the Elves to attack the Humans he knew for certain that he could get the Humans to strike first and force the Elves into a War.
May the strongest side win!
This time of night there would still be plenty of people wandering around in the Temple, and they’d all be as defenseless as kittens. As he turned to leave he wondered how many people Sam would let him kill before trying to put him to death himself. That’s when the real fun could start.
“Where are you going?!”
Sam caught up with Varick and grabbed onto his shoulder. Varick pulled away violently. The physical contact made him forget his fear of giving into the rage that Ithican was pressing on him. Not wanting to kill the pesky Human right away he whipped around and struck him across the face with his bare hand. Sam didn’t even flinch, however when he rubbed the back of his hand across his lip it streaked with blood.
Varick instantly saw his mistake, but it was too late.
Not expecting the Varick to collapse Sam was barely fast enough to catch him. The Tarrin slipped from the Elf’s relaxed grip and clattered to the floor. Sam didn’t even have time to put the Elf down on the floor before his eyes snapped open. However, they were not the dark glassy orbs that Sam had grown accustom to.
Ithican could not respond. He coughed violently and held on to Sam like he was afraid that he’d fall back into the Abyss. He started to recover from the transition back into Life and brought his rebelling lungs under his control. Sam kept Ithican on his feet although it quickly became clear that he was not going to be able to stand on his own.
Sam helped him to the floor so he could sit with back up against one of the crypts. Sitting on the floor himself Sam watched his friend nervously. Ithican shook his head and looked around for a moment to get his bearings. His emerald gaze fell on Sam and he gave him a weak smile, removing any doubts Sam may have had as to whether this was friend or foe.
“Long time no see, eh Sam?” Ithican quipped, trying to sound light hearted.
“Varick broke his promise. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“What?” Sam shook his head. “I have to admit, Ith, I don’t understand any of this.”
“No, stop, don’t even try to explain. I’m just glad to be rid of him.”
Ithican looked away and closed his eyes. His breathing was getting ragged again. Sam noticed with alarm that sweat was starting to bead Ithican’s skin. When he reached out to touch him Ithican involuntarily jerked away. It had been a long time since anyone’s touch had brought him anything other than pain or humiliation.
“It’s all right, Ithican.”
“No, it isn’t. Varick won’t be defeated so easily. We’re still one, the blood is still his. I pressured his anger to force him into a mistake, but I went too far. He doesn’t even care which side wins anymore. I drove him insane.”
“Varick has been insane since the day we crossed his cursed path. Anyway none of that matters, you’re here now.”
“Not for long. I can hear him screaming in fury right now. I can’t fight him, not forever. He’ll get loose and he’ll go on a murder spree that will infuriate the Humans into erasing the Elves off the face of Nuearth out of sheer vengeance. And knowing him he’ll let me rot in a Nueyark prison cell until I’m executed for his crimes. I can’t face any of that, Sam.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re not going to do anything.”
Before Sam knew what was happening Ithican had the Tarrin in one hand with the razor sharp blade pressed against the wrist of the other.
“I’m sorry it had to end like this, Sam.”
“What are you doing?!”
“Giving Varick back what is rightfully his.”
The High Priest sighed and let his gaze wander to the city outside his high window. It was getting late, but he was far from tired. His thought were locked on Sam at the moment. He wished he’d been able to get the secretive young man to talk with him.
Dalest had a burning suspicion that he knew all about the events at Ramandas. When Talic had confirmed for him that the shirt the man had been wearing was of Forest Elf make he felt his suspicions were confirmed. A man bearing the mark of Goblin bravery and wearing Elven dress was too much of a coincidence. He must have been there.
It wouldn’t matter so much to Dalest if it wasn’t for fact that for the first time in literately thousands of years a group of Elves had been invited to Nueyark. They were ambassadors from the highest Elven Courts and they were coming to negotiate a last effort for peace. Joining them would be ambassadors from the various Human Governments as well.
They had all eventually agreed to meet at the Temple. The Church was the only uniting factor between the Human Governments so for them it was neutral territory. It hadn’t been so easy to convince the Elves to come to Nueyark, but the Humans had the advantage because it was the Elves that had come to them.
They were coming to talk about these Papers sanctions that had been set in place. It was coming to the point where it was starting to destroy the economic stability of more than just the Plains Elves’ territories. The Elves did not have the technology that the Humans had, but they had come to depend on the products of that magic. At the same time the Humans were starting to suffer from a lack of raw materials, but those effects would take longer to become critical.
Neither side had ever really realized how much they needed the other.
However, no one could ignore the fact that the Elves had attacked Ramandas, despite the fact that they denied it. Although the Human Governments had agreed to keep the attack secrete and just wait to see what happened it was the spark that set the Papers Law into action. This way they could keep their eye on any mass of Elves that might be planning a similar attack on a Human town. When the Elves saw what the Humans were doing they had simply followed suit.
Dalest had been against the sanctions, but had been unable to stop them. Even after reports had come in that Ramandas was nothing but cinder the heads of the Government said that the Papers was the only way of ‘protecting their own’. If he only knew for a fact what had transpired in the shabby coastal town he’d at least have a chance of reversing the damage. It just seemed so strange that the Forest Elves should be held under siege and then defeated by a small band of Goblins.
“There has to be more to this story.” Dalest muttered to himself. “If the Forest Elves had wanted Ramandas, they’d have it.” He mused out loud, following Ithican’s logic. “So why don’t they?”
Talic had urged him to have Sam hunted down and brought back to the Church so they could explain the situation. However, Dalest knew that was hopeless. Sam had obviously been on the side of the Goblins, it was their honorary mark he wore. After what the Elves had done there would be no way he’d be willing to help stop a War with them. He was probably eager to eradicate them as they had done with peaceful Goblins.
“They were surprisingly good neighbors, we should have helped them.” Dalest sighed. He had a habit of talking to himself when stressed.
Dalest was just about to give up on the whole thing for now and go to bed when there was an urgent knock at his door.
Talic burst into the room white as a sheet. “That man is back!”
Talic nodded quickly. He looked around nervously. “He has a dead Elf with him.”
“Well, a dying one at any rate.”
Dalest was up and rushing down the hallway before Talic could explain further. When Dalest got halfway down the stairs he could hear Sam yelling in the front entrance room. He couldn’t hear the words, but it was clear that the man was angry. He prayed to God that this wasn’t one of the ambassadors that may have arrived early. If it was War would be upon them by morning.
When Dalest arrived at the archway to the room where all the commotion was he stopped cold. The Human was holding the Elf like a sick child. He had managed to wrap one hand around the Elf’s wrist and was holding it so hard Dalest feared he was breaking it. The Elf didn’t care, he was obviously unconscious. The High Priest saw all this only after he got over the shock of seeing all the blood, the pair was soaked in it.
“There is nothing we can do...” One of the Temple disciples was trying to explain.
“W...what’s going on here?!” Dalest finally demanded.
Sam instantly turned to him. “You told me everyone was welcome here, everyone! Why should an Elf be an exception?!”
The High Priest was caught off guard by the accusation. “You want our help?”
“Yes, of course!” Sam cried, frustrated. “Please, he’s dying!”
Dalest didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but at the same time he knew that he didn’t have time to think about it. He saw now why Sam was holding onto the Elf’s wrist. With every heartbeat more blood seeped from between Sam’s fingers. Someone had slit the Elf’s wrist open.
“I’m not trained in Elven medicine.” Dalest admitted. “But I’ll do what I can.”
“That’s all I’m asking for.”
Stepping into the exam room with Sam for the second time that day Dalest saw that he was still hesitant to trust. However he had no other options. Sam put the Elf on the table and let Dalest work, although he kept the Elf’s uninjured hand held in his own.
The High Priest still didn’t understand how a Goblin marked Human could also be friends with an Elf. However, there was no way that the concern etched in his face was false. Dalest worked quickly to repair the damage and save the Elf from further blood loss, but he could already see that it was a lost cause.
This could be the beginning of the end, Dalest thought to himself darkly. This was certainly not one of the ambassadors, but if they found out that an Elf was slain here they would turn back and cut off any hope of negotiations. They wouldn’t care what the circumstances were. Not everyone wanted to prevent this War, and word that the Elf was here was probably already buzzing around the whole Temple. Someone would tell them.
“You never told me his name.” Dalest stated, trying to keep his mind off what might happen.
“Ithican. Ithican of Evergladrida.”
“A Wetland Elf?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Well, we don’t have time for that. Tell me, how much blood has Ithican lost?”
Sam balked at question. He looked down at his hands, his shirt, the table, the floor, Ithican himself...there was blood everywhere. “This isn’t even half of it.” Sam lamented.
“I was afraid of that.” Dalest sighed. “I can stop the bleeding, unfortunately any second now he’s going to go into hypovolemic shock.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that he isn’t going to have enough blood to keep his heart pumping.”
“Take some of mine.” Sam said instantly.
“That won’t work.”
“I need an Elven donor. Humans and Elves are too different.”
“I refuse to believe that!” Sam stated angrily. “Please, just try, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“With the amount of blood Ithican’s going to need I might end up killing you both.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
Ithican relaxed in the clear pool letting the water support him completely. The sound dampening affect of the water kept even the slightest noise from reaching his keen ears. The stillness was something that Ithican rarely experienced and it was wonderful. He wasn’t even sure if he was bothering to breath anymore.
Sighing in contentment for the first time since he’d left the Wetlands Ithican abandoned any cares he may have had. The troubles of the world were no longer his. For a moment Ithican wondered why people feared Death so much. As far as he was concerned it was the best thing that had happened to him in months.
Ithican was about to slip peacefully into oblivion when a chill swept over the pool like an evil spirit. Ithican’s blood boiled as tiny ice crystals that were forming on the surface pricked at his skin. Making a split second decision he moved with quickness that even his Elven reflexes would not have been able to match in Life.
Ithican spun around and leapt up onto the pool’s bank with a drawn Tarrin already in hand. Crying in rage at being disturbed Ithican faced his intruder -determined to draw more than his own blood this time. He knew it was futile to try and kill Varick, but at least he could get the message across that he wanted to be left alone. Before the water that streamed off him had cleared itself from his eyes Ithican brought the curved tip of the Tarrin to the interloper’s throat.
However when his vision cleared he found that the figure held by the Tarrin was not Varick. Eyes so light that they were almost colourless regarded Ithican calmly. For his part Ithican was so shocked that he could only stare back helplessly. Finally realizing what he was doing Ithican dropped the Tarrin, which disappeared before it ever hit the ground.
Ithican found himself at a lost for words for a moment. He stared at the Elven woman as if he’d never seen her before. She was far more beautiful than he remembered. Of course the last time he’d seen her she had been dying.
“Llandra?” He said the name awkwardly, it had been a long time since he’d used it.
“Ithican.” She greeted simply.
“I...I’ve missed you so much.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Ithican took a hesitant step forward.
“And it wasn’t yours either.” Llandra replied taking a step back. “What is my fault was not leaving you completely.”
“I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter now.”
“Yes, Ithican, it does.” Llandra reached out to touch her husband but she stopped herself.
“How could it?” Ithican asked confused. He didn’t dare draw nearer to her when he could see that she feared to touch him herself. “How could anything matter in Death?”
“That’s where you’re mistaken. This isn’t Death. You of all people should know that. This is just a way point, the space In Between the two extremes. You and Varick...”
“Varick?” Ithican looked around nervously.
“Don’t worry, he’s not here.” Llandra managed to smile. “When you slit your wrist he was so terrified of being stuck here with you for the rest of Time that he fled to the Other Side.”
“My company is that bad, eh?” Ithican smiled briefly. “I knew that the only way I’d ever be rid of him was to flush his blood out.”
“It was your own blood that you spilt, Ithican.”
“No, I drank his blood when I should have left us both to die.”
“It was Varick’s own fire and driving hate that allowed him to stay In Between. And it was a long list of very unusual circumstances that allowed him to steal your flesh. Drinking from Varick had nothing to with that, other than making you believe that it could happen. After all you never drank mine and it hasn’t prevented me from tormenting you.”
“Varick is the only one who’s been tormenting me. You haven’t done anything wrong, I just can’t live without you.”
“I was just as unwilling as Varick to leave you. And you haven’t known a moments rest since because of it. I keep you’re nightmares vivid because you can always feel me a step away from you. I shouldn’t have done it, but I knew what they were going to do you when I died. I fought against the natural order to stay here and try to protect you.”
Llandra dared to take a step closer. Ithican fought against the deep chill of having her near. He wanted so much to hold her, but something he couldn’t explain prevented him. Llandra lightly brushed at the white mark in Ithican’s hair so gently that he couldn’t even feel the contact. When he realized what she was doing he made the connection.
“You killed Jager.” Ithican whispered unable to keep the horror out of his voice.
Llandra pulled her hand away sharply. With a touch of pride in her light green eyes she nodded.
“And Varick.” Ithican continued. “I never even thought about it, but there was no way he could have flipped the catch on a Tarrin if he was holding it wrong.”
“That’s right. It took almost every last drop of heat I had left, but I killed them both, and I’d do it again.” Llandra smiled. “In the end the only person I’m having trouble saving you from is yourself.”
“It’s too late to save me from that.”
“No, like I said before this isn’t Death. You can still go back, Ithican.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You must.” Llandra insisted. “You still have a long life ahead of you.”
“No.” Ithican shook his head like a stubborn child. “I don’t want to go back to a world of hate and strife. Now that you’ve died I have nothing to live for.”
“I know a certain Human who would be very hurt to hear you say that.”
“Sam would understand.”
“I think we both know that he wouldn’t.”
“That’s only because he doesn’t know what it is like to live everyday with the pain of having lost someone.”
“He will learn quickly.”
Ithican ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “You can’t ask me to choose between you and him. No matter how much Sam means to me he will always lose that fight. He is the best friend I’ve ever had, but you are my wife, you are my love.”
“And I always will be. But I’m not asking you to chose between us.”
“The what are you asking for?”
“I’m asking for you to not give up your goal to end this War between our kind and Sam’s.”
“I sacrificed myself to stop Varick. Isn’t that enough?”
“You stopped the man, but in doing so you may have accomplish his mission.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If an Elf dies in the High Temple of Nueyark the Elves will take vengeance.”
“No, as far as the Elves are concerned I’m nothing more than an outcast Swamp Rat. No one will care.”
“That may be true, but is it worth the risk?”
Ithican didn’t reply. He looked away from Llandra’s questioning stare. The scar on his heart burnt like the day he’d received it. When Llandra took his hand he flinched at the painfully icy touch. With a deft movement she stole the golden wedding band that he wore as a symbol of his loss.
“Whatever you choose,” she said softly “I don’t want you to mourn me any longer. I have to go to the Other Side, I’ve stayed here longer than I should have. But, before you follow me blindly I want you to ask yourself one question.”
“Shouldn’t a cause worth dying for also be one worth living for?”
Ithican fought with protesting ribs for breath. He swallowed convulsively against a dry throat and tried to convince himself that he’d made the right decision. Knowing that his eyes would sting painfully in the light Ithican kept them closed. He depended on his other senses to try and tell him where he was.
A part of him feared that this had all been some sort of psychotic episode and he’d find himself still imprisoned underground in Cantras. However now that his breathing was calming down he could tell that the air here held none of the claustrophobic qualities of the Slave Market. In fact a light breeze fluttered past him like a butterfly, bringing with it the natural incense of flowers.
There were no sounds to give him any clue as to what was happening. The stillness that even lacked the singing of birds did give him the impression that it was early morning, dawn perhaps. Trusting that the light wouldn’t be too harsh this early Ithican opened his eyes. It took a few moments for them to focus, but they adjusted quickly.
Pushing against the soft bed he was laying on Ithican sat up slowly. Looking around he found himself alone in a small, yet obviously wealthy, room. The morning light and the cool fresh air were reaching him through a large window to his left that had flowing multi layered gauzy curtains that took the sharp edge off the morning sun.
Having trouble remembering exactly what had happened Ithican inspected his injured wrist. It had been wrapped with almost an artistic touch. Experimentally rotating his wrist he was surprised to find that it still had full range of motion. Tarrin daggers were sharp and he had been determined to slay himself. It would have taken a Magi of great skill to just stop the bleeding, let alone repair the damage.
The sound of a key grating in a lock quicken Ithican’s already unsteady pulse. He thought to himself that if someone had to use a key to get in that meant that he would have been unable to get out. It had never occurred to Ithican that despite the rich decor that this might still be a prison. He knew better than most that looks could be deceiving, and that whether made of mahogany or ultrasteel -a locked door was a locked door.
The man that entered started in shock at seeing the conscious Elf. The pair stared at each other for a moment without recognizing one another.
“Ithican, you’re awake!”
“You look terrible.” Ithican had never seen Sam so pale.
“Me?” Sam replied indignantly. “I’m not the one who’s been half-dead for three days.”
“Long ones.” Sam walked over to the small table and retrieved a glass. “Here, drink this.”
“It isn’t rice brandy, is it?” Ithican asked remembering Sam’s idea of a cure-all.
“No,” Sam laughed “don’t worry it’s just water. Dalest told me that if you did wake it would be important to get you drinking.”
Ithican still hesitated, but he did take the glass. “What happened?”
“Nothing short of a miracle.” A new voice chimed in.
Sam started in surprise. He turned and found that Dalest had joined them.
“Ithican, this is...Paul Dalest...” Sam swallowed hard. “High Priest of Nueyark.”
“It’s a pleasure to met you, Ithican of Evergladrida.” Dalest said holding out his hand. “I didn’t think I was going to get the chance.”
Ithican visibly shied away from the High Priest’s greeting. Seeing the wariness in the Elf’s bright eyes Dalest put his hand down. Sam shifted his weight uncomfortably.
“It’s all right, Ithican.” Sam said, trying to break the silence. “He saved your life.”
“No.” Dalest shook his head. “If anyone’s going to take the blame for that it’s going to be you, Sam. It was your blood...”
“His blood?” Ithican interrupted.
“Not as different as everyone would like to believe.” Dalest said with a wink. “Do you two have any idea what you’ve proven?”
“No.” The pair said in union.
“You’ve proven that the two races used to be one.”
“I don’t understand.” Ithican admitted.
“Have either of you every hear of DNA?”
Sam had heard Jager use those letters before, but he wasn’t about to admit it.
“No? Not surprising.” Dalest continued. “It’s a lost art. DNA is the Code of Life. It is a set of instructions that is locked in our blood that determines what we will become: blue or brown eyed, blonde or red haired...Human or Elf. It’s found in all living creatures from mice to Dragons.”
“I can’t say that that really clears things up.” Ithican said.
“A long time ago mankind was able to read this Code. It was written down in a text that detailed the sequence for all of the intelligent races of Nuearth. Supposedly what the text revealed was that every single race has a full set of normal Human DNA. What separated the races was tiny pieces of extra DNA, strange pieces that really didn’t seem to fit. The theory was that back in the mists of time a virus attacked the Human race and divided us.”
“Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” Sam asked even though he didn’t quite understand it himself.
“No one knows about it because the text was lost, and until now there was no way to know if it was true or not anyway.”
“How do you know about it?” Ithican asked suspiciously.
Dalest paused for a moment. He walked over and closed the door and continued in a low tone. “The text was lost for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. It was recently found, but it fell into the wrong hands.”
“The wrong hands?” Sam asked.
“My predecessor, a man named Jager.”
Sam tensed at the name of the deranged Priest. The word had an immediate impact on Ithican as well. They both tried to hide their reaction, however, Dalest couldn’t help but notice the flash of panic that had washed over the pair.
“I see you have heard of him. That’s not surprising. He made no secrete of his hate for what he called the ‘Ruined Races’. He should have never been allowed to rise so high in the Church, but he was power hungry and at the time I wanted to focus on my medicine, feeling that I could do more good that way.
In any case, I’m not even sure how he found the half finished text, but it was probably somewhere in the Church Library. He brought the ancient book to me in hopes that I could help him decipher it. I read it, and explained it to him, but I have to admit that I didn’t believe it and I told him as much.”
“He believed it?”
“Yes, in fact it became his obsession. That’s why he called the other races ‘Ruined’. He felt that they were impure. I told him the whole idea was ridiculous, the text wasn’t even finished. He got it in his mind to finish it and started to study the other races intensively.”
“But why?” Sam was caught up in the story. “Why would he want to prove that the races are the same when he hated them so much?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure. My theory is...” Dalest trailed off. He suddenly looked at Ithican like he’d never noticed him before. A look of concentration fell over his face as he stared at the white mark in the Elf’s hair.
Ithican had already felt uncomfortable with the conversation, and finding himself the center of the Priest’s attention wasn’t helping. Ithican ran a shaky hand through his hair self-consciously. He flinched when he felt how short Varick had cut it.
“Dalest?” Sam asked. He touched the High Priest shoulder which snapped him out of whatever thoughts he was having.
“A weapon.” Dalest said suddenly. “My theory is that he was trying to develop a weapon to use against the other races based on this foreign DNA. He didn’t want to unite the races, he wanted to destroy them. In the end the madness ended up only killing him.”
“He was found dead in his chambers a few months ago. There were shards of some mechanical device everywhere. He had been toying with magic that was far to powerful for his skill and it had backfired on him. As for the text, he took it with him. All I found of it was a charred leather cover, it had been cast into the fire. Which was probably for the best.”
“’For the best’?” Sam repeated. He had destroyed that book, at the time he had seen it only as evil, now he wasn’t so sure. “It could have united the races...”
“We don’t need it anymore.” Dalest said with smile. “We have all the proof we need.”
“Sam,” Ithican went to explain “we are the proof. If the races hadn’t been one at some point in time your blood would have never worked in my veins. I...I’d be dead.”
“That’s right.” Dalest agreed. “Ithican’s life means more than I think even he knows. This Medical revelation along with what you’ve told me of the events at Ramandas, Sam, is going to pull the Humans and Elves back from the brink of War.”
Ithican and Sam stared at each other for a second in shock.
“Even if people do believe that we were once the same it still isn’t going to change the fact that Elves and Humans are different now.” Ithican said pessimistically. “Even if our blood is the same our cultures will keep us apart.”
“That’s true, it is not going to make us all love one another unconditionally.” Dalest said undisturbed. “However, it is going to give us all something to think about before we decide to start slitting each other’s throats. Ambassadors from both sides will be here tomorrow, and with all this new information I know we can work something out.”
“Good luck.” Ithican said darkly.
“Despite our failure in the past the Governments can work this out now, thanks to you both. We should have known to look to the common man for the answers. Not that there’s much ‘common’ about either one of you.” Dalest smiled. “Don’t worry about it, you need your rest for now.”
Ithican watched Dalest leave with his head positively swimming with thing he didn’t understand. The only thing he could grasp at the moment was the Llandra had been right: all he’d had to do to achieve his goal was to live. Although he still wondered if he could handle it. Death or whatever it had been had been so relaxing, and seeing Llandra only made her absents harder. He rubbed his hand that bore his ring and was shocked to find it was missing.
“If you’re looking for your ring, it’s around your neck.”
Ithican reached up and found that the ultrasteel slave collar had been replaced by a sliver necklace. The chain held his ring just about level with his heart.
“Varick had given it to me when...” Sam stopped awkwardly. “Anyway, I didn’t know what to do with it. I knew you’d want it back, but it didn’t seem right putting it back on your hand myself...”
“It’s all right, Sam. I don’t want to wear it there anymore anyway.”
“It’s good to have you back, Ith.” Sam said awkwardly.
Ithican looked up at Sam and managed to smile.
“It’s good to be back, Sam.”