“Stop looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” Ithican asked.
“Like you lopped my ear yourself.” Sam said as he continued to sharpen his sword against a small rubbing stone.
“I practically did.”
“I can’t believe this is bothering you more than it is me.” Sam replied exasperated.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you’re never going to get anywhere in the Human world with your ear like that.”
“Don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Sam laughed. He put down the sharpening stone long enough to roll up the sleeve on his right arm, showing off the Goblin tattoo. “Besides Humans are quickly becoming my least favorite race.”
“I’m learning to live with myself.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Sam shrugged and went back to sharpening the weapon. Ithican went to continue but thought better of it. He searched the twilight forest with all his senses. If anyone was coming they were being incredibly stealthy about it. He looked around again, just to be sure there was nothing.
“Relax, Ith.” Sam advised.
“Sorry.” Ithican muttered.
“Don’t be sorry, just calm down. You’ve been acting so strange.”
“I know...I....” Ithican sighed. “Do you think it caught up with him?”
“Did what catch who?”
“The Dragon, and Dace.”
“Oh.” Sam smiled. “I hope so.”
“Sam!” Ithican chastised.
“What? The man was scum.”
“I know, but I still hate the idea of him getting eaten by a Dragon. No one deserves that.”
“The Dragon least of all!” Sam laughed. “He’ll have a stomach ache for months.”
“Seriously? Seriously: I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Ithican. Why should you care what happens to Dace? I’ve never known anyone as incapable of holding a grudge as you.”
Ithican didn’t respond. He reached into his pack and pulled out an apple. Leaning back against the rock he’d been using as a back rest he pulled out the Tarrin and cut off a slice. He held the slice just over his left shoulder. A large dark muzzle soon appeared and took the offered snack. The ebony horse nuzzled the side of Ithican’s face in an attempt to coax more of the apple away from him.
“Hey!” Ithican exclaimed as a large chestnut red horse reached over his other shoulder and, not about to be left out, took the rest of the apple.
They had taken two of Dace’s horses with them. The red Sam had been ridding hauled its prize back over to where the animals had been standing and munched on it contentedly. The black mare continued to inspect her new owner for any remaining eatables. Ithican reached up and scratched her wide jaw and affectionately rubbed his cheek against her soft fur. The mare’s black mane fell forward and mixed in perfectly with Ithican’s own dark hair.
“There’s nothing wrong with showing a little compassion every once in a while, Sam.” Ithican finally answered absent mindedly stroking the mare’s strong neck.
Sam snorted. “That’s not a term Dace understands.”
“Perhaps that’s because he didn’t have an exiled Elf to teach him.” Ithican smiled. “Not to mention to keep him out of trouble.”
“Keep him out of trouble, is that how it’s supposed to work?” Sam laughed. “I must have a defective Elf.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything...” Sam trailed off. He inspected the bright sword one last time and slid it back into its sheath. “Honestly, Ith, what is bothering you? You’ve been so jumpy lately.”
Ithican’s smiled faded. He pushed the affectionate horse away. She nickered at him but moved over to join the chestnut.
“I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt, let alone killed.” Ithican admitted. “I don’t know...I just feel like I’m being followed.”
“Followed?” Sam repeated looking around. “By who?”
Ithican woke chilled despite the summer sun that was already half way across the sky. He sat up and absently rubbed his skin. Sam was sitting with his back against a tree working to mend a shirt he’d ripped on a branch while they’d been ridding. The ink hadn’t washed out of his hair completely. Now his once blonde hair was an odd shade, almost light purple.
“What time is it?” Ithican asked slightly annoyed.
“Past I expect.” Sam replied without looking up.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I didn’t see any reason to. It’s not like we have anywhere to be.”
“Look, after all your talk of Death and Dace last night I figured some sleep might do you some good. You’ve always been high strung, but this is getting ridiculous.”
“Something isn’t right, can’t you feel it? It’s like we’re sleeping in a graveyard.”
“Are you even listening to yourself?” Sam asked after looking around the beautifully tranquil forest. “There is nothing ‘evil’ about this place. Even the horses are calm, and they’re supposed to have a sixth sense about that sort of thing.”
“I don’t feel welcome here.” Ithican said darkly.
“I hate to be the one to point this out, but you haven’t been welcome anywhere for as long as I’ve known you.”
“This is different.”
“I don’t se...” Sam suddenly yelped. He jerked his hand away from the shirt and shook it violently, having jabbed himself with the needle. “I hate sowing.” He muttered bitterly.
“Then be more careful when you ride.” Ithican advised mockingly, thankful for a chance to change the subject. He did feel a bit ridiculous for being so nervous.
Ithican stood up to stretch and quickly found a muzzle pressed against his lower back. He turned around and the black mare shoved him playfully, almost knocking Ithican back down to the ground. Sam laughed as he watch Ithican try and back away from the horse. Every step the Elf took back the horse took one forward.
“I think she likes you.”
“Great.” Ithican put his palm against her forehead and tried to push her back. “It’s like having a large curious shadow.”
“That would a perfect name for her.”
“What?” Ithican asked finally succeeding in getting the mare to go back over with red chestnut gelding.
“I thought we weren’t going to keep the horses. You’ve always set the horses we’ve ‘acquired’ free.”
“They had owners to get back to.” Sam explained with a shrug. He gave up on the shirt and put it away. “I’ve found horses to be more loyal than most people. Besides these two have been free to go for days, they’re not tethered to anything.”
“True.” Ithican looked over at the slim mare. She took it as an invitation to walk over. “’Shadow’ it is then.”
“All right, let’s go.” Sam got up and whistled sharply. The chestnut’s ears perked up and he trotted over. “I’m sure Takio could use a good run.”
“Dace named him ‘Takio’, this was his horse after all. It means something, but I don’t remember what.” Sam explained mounting the powerful animal. The horse had come with fine saddle of deer skin and silver fox fur. Sam had been right Takio wanted to run, and he had to keep the reins tight to keep him from doing so.
“Where exactly are we going?” Ithican asked after hoping up on Shadow’s bareback.
“Where do we ever go?”
“You got it.” Sam smiled. “There’s just one difference now.”
“Now we’re going nowhere fast.”
Shadow ran at a dead bolt speed, seemingly rejoicing in the chance to do so. Her long legs and light frame allowed her to fly up and over any obstacle in her way like a deer. Ithican quickly noticed that given the choice she always took the path that allowed her the most opportunity to jump.
While riding the graceful animal Ithican found it hard to keep his depressed mood. It would seem that even Death couldn’t match Shadow’s speed. Takio was having similar trouble, although fast he was built more for power. When Shadow found an overgrown road in the thick forest she push herself even harder.
Afraid that he and Sam would get too far separated Ithican pulled gently back on the reins to slow the animal. At first she ignored the request and kept barreling down the mossy road. However even a spirited horses can’t run forever. Shadow slowed to a walk. Her ribs heaved under Ithican and her hide was slicked down with sweat.
“I take it Wayln didn’t let you run all out very often?” Ithican joked with the animal patting her sleek neck. “Of course if he had I’d probably be dead now, you could have caught that Unicorn easily.”
Ithican had never explained to Sam exactly how he’d managed to escape from Wayln and the others. He wasn’t sure Sam would have even believed it. As far as Ithican knew no one had ever ridden a Unicorn before. They were famous for being untamable. Not that he had truly tamed it in any way. The animal had bolted and he had simple managed to hold on long enough to lose the Humans and their mundane horses.
“We should find you some water.”
Listening carefully over the sound of the panting horse Ithican tried to find a stream. The leaves rustling in the warm summer breeze sounded like whispers. Not too far away he could hear Takio’s heavy hoofbeats. Off to the left was the mellow sound of running water. Ithican briefly noticed that the one thing he couldn’t hear was any birds singing.
Knowing that Sam would easily spot Shadow’s hoofprints in the soft soil Ithican guided her back into the thick forest. A small clear brook ran near the long since abandoned road. Desperately needing a drink Shadow marched right towards the stream. When she was within a few feet of the water it suddenly became stained with crimson.
Ithican gasped and jerked back painfully on the reins. Confused Shadow brayed in protest. Ithican didn’t relent on his hold and forced the animal to slowly back away. He stared at the stream of bright blood that now ran through the peaceful forest in horror. Ithican was so transfixed that he didn’t even hear Takio and Sam come up behind them.
“What are you doing, Ith?” Sam asked.
“The stream...” Ithican turned to look at Sam.
“Yeah? You know once you lead a horse to water you’re supposed to let it drink.”
“No, can’t you...” Ithican stopped cold, when he had looked back at the brook he’d found it crystal clear once more.
Sam jumped down off of Takio and let the animal go to the gurgling water. When Sam went slightly upstream of Takio for a drink himself Ithican slid off Shadow’s wet back instantly. Sam had just put his hand in the water when Ithican seized his wrist and pulled him away from the cool brook.
“Don’t drink that!”
“What? Why not?”
Staring at the still clean water Ithican found that he couldn’t think of a believable answer to Sam’s question. Now free Shadow reached down and slurped at the refreshing stream. Ithican still didn’t trust it, the hair at the back of his neck was prickling and the tips of his ear burned painfully.
“Just keep away from the stream, please.” Ithican replied lamely. “There’s still water in the skins on Takio’s saddle.”
“Ith, I’ve never seen you afraid of water.”
“It’s not the water I’m afraid of.”
“Will you please stop pacing about?”
“I don’t want to stay here!” Ithican snarled.
“We don’t have much choice at the moment. It’s getting too dark, ridding in a forest this thick at night is dangerous.”
“There was a road...”
“For the hundredth time, Ith, there was no road. I’m still wondering how the horses managed to make their way through that thicket.” Sam looked down disapprovingly at his shirt sleeve which had practically been torn off, exposing the Goblin mark.
“Besides,” Sam interrupted “if, and I do mean if, Dace survived the last thing we want to do is any back tracking. He’s an excellent hunter, and he hates us more than, well, more than anything right about now.”
Ithican growled in frustration and sat down cross legged in the leaf litter. When he shivered with cold his long straight hair fell in front of his face. He absently played with it as a cat would. Sam rolled his sapphire eyes and shook his head in mock disapproval.
Usually Ithican’s distracted manor would irritate Sam more, but he was finding that nothing could disturb his mood. He felt as safe here as Ithican felt threatened. It truly was a breathtaking place. The dark green moss that hung from the limbs of the tall trees swayed in the warm breeze like silk drapes. Sam reached into his pack and pulled out the worn map.
“What are you doing?” Ithican asked hesitantly.
“I thought I’d figure out where we are.”
“I don’t think I want to know.” Ithican grumbled.
Sam ignored the comment and hunted out Banthick. He traced a path west until he came to the river that the horses had been unable to cross. From there they’d been forced north, further north than even Sam had ever bothered to travel. Few people came this far because it was supposed to always be cold here. However Sam was finding it to be quite pleasant.
“We must be somewhere in or around Halvdreeds.”
“That’s what it says, it’s not really clear if that’s a territory, city, forest, or what. Just ‘Halvdreeds’. See?” Sam went to show Ithican the map but the Elf turned away.
“I told you: I don’t want to know.” Ithican said sharply.
Sam just shrugged and put the map away. He leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes. The light wind stirring in the leaves was amazingly soothing to listen to. Apparently Ithican’s sharp ears were hearing something else because the longer the silence between them lasted the more agitated he became. Ithican finally stood up and started pacing once again.
“Oh come on, Ithican,” Sam said half asleep “what’s the matter with you? I could stay here forever.”
“I’m leaving first thing in the morning.”
“Have you ever noticed that we never seem to be happy in the same place at the same time?” Sam chuckled.
“Then perhaps there’s a valid reason the races keep themselves separated after all.”
Ithican stared up at the trees sullenly. He hated the moss that hung off their branches like rotting flesh. The wind blew through it causing a scratching sound that chilled his skin despite the summer season. He shook his head to distract himself from the whispering of the dark forest.
Sam had been sleeping soundly for hours. He was lying on his back so that Ithican could see his still unhealed ear. It was supposed to be a symbol of pride, but it kind of made Sam look like a junk yard dog. Ithican smiled sadly remembering his eighteenth birthday when he had had his own ears cropped.
In a way it had been how he’d met Llandra. She was just a few days younger and it would be her turn next. She had come to nervously ask him if it hurt. Ithican had lied and said ‘no’, but promised to come hold her hands during it anyway. Only one thing had been able to separate them after that.
Ithican rubbed at his heart, but it didn’t help. He found that after three years it wasn’t any easier to live without her. Looking over at Sam he sighed, he regretted the last thing he had said to him about the races. It had been terribly ungrateful. After all Ithican couldn’t deny that Sam’s friendship was the only thing that kept him from suicide.
Racked with nervous energy Ithican got to his feet. Sleep was impossible, and just sitting around waiting for sunrise was only making things worse. Determined to find a body of water deep enough to swim in Ithican wandered off.
He walked aimlessly until he was far enough away from the sounds of Sam snoring lightly to hear the subtle ripple of water. Even still lakes make noise if you know what to listen for. Closing his eyes Ithican concentrated on the audio world. The sound of water was not what reached his ears first, however.
“Go away, Shadow.”
Shadow nickered and shoved him between the shoulder blades.
“I can’t hear anything with you breathing like th...”
Ithican didn’t finish because he could hear something. He tucked his hair behind his pointed ears and listened again -not trusting his first instinct as to what the noise was. However it was quite clear now that he was paying attention. He’d found water, just not in the form he’d been searching for.
Someone was crying.
The closer Ithican got the more distinct the noise became. Shadow did not make it very easy to approach the source of the weeping quietly. It was a the kind of sobbing you’d expect from a child. Coming to a small pond Ithican found that that was exactly what it was.
Sitting on a rock was a little girl, no more than five or six. She wore a white night gown that contrasted perfectly with her straight jet black hair. She didn’t notice Ithican and Shadow approach because she had her face buried in her tiny hands as she cried bitterly.
When Shadow neighed she jerked her tear stained face up. Ithican could have sworn her eyes flashed luminescent red, but she had light green eyes, and apparently his own eyes were playing tricks because she seemed to have light green skin to match.
“Hello.” Ithican greeted trying to sound friendly. “Are you lost?”
She stared at Ithican with open mouthed horror. She tried to speak, but she only managed a stuttered squeak.
“It’s all right,” Ithican assured putting his hands up so she could see his palms “I’m not going to hurt you. Where are you’re parents?”
“Pure-Breed! Pure-Breed!” The little girl screeched, having finally found her voice.
Startled Ithican turned and looked at Shadow. She was indeed a pure breed Arabian, but why that should cause the girl so much distress was beyond him. Ithican pushed Shadow away.
“Go on, Shadow, you’re frightening her. I guess she doesn’t like hor...”
The child jumped up off the rock and went running off into the forest as fast as her little legs could take her. Ithican noticed with alarm that the back of her white nightdress was stained with blood.
“Wait!” Ithican called after her.
Not wanting to lose sight of her Ithican took chase. Shadow ran a bit ahead of him to show that she was much better at this sort of thing, but Ithican didn’t want to scare the child further by running her down on horseback.
“Go back to Takio!” Ithican ordered.
When Shadow didn’t listen Ithican pulled out the Tarrin dagger. He flicked the blade out and slapped her hindquarters with the broadside of the weapon. Insulted Shadow finally veered away from him.
Ithican wasn’t sure how long or how far he chased the fleeting figure of the bloodstained girl. He was surprised that she could run so fast and decided that the blood couldn’t belong to her. The white and red of her nightgown stayed right at the edge of his vision as he tried to catch up. Although when he came to a small clearing bordered by a cliff face he lost sight of her.
Confused by her sudden disappearance Ithican turned around to see if she had back tracked somehow. Ithican’s heart almost failed him when he found that someone was standing right behind him. At first glance he thought it was Sam. However this man wasn’t as tall and his hair was a much brighter shade of purple. He sneered at Ithican.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there...” Ithican apologized awkwardly.
The man narrowed his sky blue eyes to mere slits. He had an old fashioned sword in his hand, it was thicker and heavier than the one Sam carried. Without a word and faster than most Humans he brought the blunt tip of the weapon up against Ithican’s stomach.
“I...um...” Ithican dropped the open Tarrin to show he wasn’t a threat. “Have you lost your daughter?”
Sam was yanked out of a deep sleep by an anguished, yet oddly musical, cry. He sat up slowly, pushing through the air like it had turned to water. Sam looked around the dim forest blearily, waiting for the sound to repeat itself. The stillness of the forest, however, remained unbroken.
“Ith, did you hear that?” Sam asked. “Ithican?”
Suddenly feeling the chill in the air that Ithican had been complaining about Sam discovered that his friend wasn’t near. Now fully awake he made the connection between the scream and Ithican’s voice. Sam jumped to his feet, but he didn’t know where to go. He hadn’t caught which direction the outburst had come from.
Takio neighed hesitantly and pawed at the soil. Sam rushed over to the animal. He picked up the horse’s halter on the way, but thought better of it. He climbed up onto Takio’s bareback.
“Find Shadow, take me to Shadow.”
Takio took a nervous step forward, not used to this kind of freedom. Sam urged Takio with a light kick to the ribs. Finally understanding what his rider wanted Takio took off through the forest that was slowly staining red as the sun threatened to rise. It felt like they rode for an hour before they found Shadow standing seemingly alone in a clearing that was bordered on one side by a vine covered cliff face.
“Shadow!” Sam called jumping down off Takio. “Where’s Ith...”
Sam froze and for a painful second his heart seemed to have done the same. Shadow had stepped back, revealing that she was being true to her name. Ithican was lying on his back on the moss covered ground struggling weakly with his arms wrapped tightly over is stomach. Unable to breath deeply he panted rapidly through clenched teeth.
The open Tarrin blade that lay near by lead Sam instantly to the conclusion that Ithican had been fighting. Despite the fact that there were no signs of a struggle it was clear that Ithican had been run through by someone. Sam knelt next to his friend sick to his stomach from the knowledge that there was probably nothing he could do to help.
Determined to try anyway Sam went to pull Ithican’s hands away from his stomach to survey the damage. When he touched him Ithican gasped like he’d just surfaced from the bottom of a deep cold lake. With speed that never failed to amaze Sam Ithican leap to his feet.
Still breathing heavily Ithican ripped open his shirt and stared down at himself. Years of living in the wild had pull his skin taunt across the delicately defined muscles of Ithican’s undeniably uninjured stomach. He rubbed at a spot just to the right of his navel, seemingly confused.
“You’re nightmares are getting out of hand again, Ithican.”
“That was no nightmare!” Ithican contradicted.
“Then what happened? What are you doing out here?”
Ithican ran a trembling hand through the white streak in his hair. “There was a little girl...she was hurt, I think...I followed her.” Ithican retold the events to himself disjointedly. “We came here and there was a man he...he looked a lot like you, blue eyes...purple hair. We talked briefly...he called me something I didn’t understand...I can’t remember because next...” He stopped and visibly shuddered.
Sam listened to Ithican ramble and sighed. Ithican was absent mindedly rubbing at his phantom injury once more. Sam got up and walked over to the distraught Elf. He took Ithican’s left wrist and pulled it towards him. Ithican didn’t offer any resistance as Sam inspected the inset of his elbow.
“What are you doing?” Ithican asked.
“For wha...” Ithican jerked his wrist violently away from Sam. “You’re looking for fresh neparine tracks! You don’t believe me, you think I’m chasing after more ‘Dragons’.”
“I know you still carry a vile of that stuff around.”
“I explained to you why.” Ithican growled angrily. “It’s the most powerful pain reliever known. One of these days one of us is going to run out of luck, and it will be the only thing we’ll be able to do for each other, short of slitting the sufferer’s throat. Which I don’t think I could do.”
“I just wanted to be sure. I know how addictive that stuff is, and you have a past with it...”
“I thought you trusted me more than this.”
“Try to look at this from my point of view, Ithican.” Sam snarled. “You’re always cold, you can’t sleep, you have racking stomach pains, and now you’re starting to hallucinate. What would you think if I started doing the same thing?”
“I’m not hallucinating, Sam. I’m not, I swear.” Ithican insisted almost pleadingly. “This can’t all be in my head. I talked to the girl, I felt that wound, ice cold steel pushing searing hot pain through me. It was like nothing I’ve ever experience, and I think we can both agree I’ve been through a lot.”
“Sam, I begged the Goddamed horse to kill me to escape it.”
Sam looked over at Shadow and Takio. They were both grazing calmly at the tufts of grass that reached up to the morning sun. Turning his attention back to Ithican he found him still in stark contrast to everyone else’s calm. His green eyes searched Sam for validation of his sanity.
“All right, Ithican. Real or imagined, let’s just get out of here.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Sam snorted in frustration. “I can’t win with you, Ith.”
“I’m not leaving until I figure out what’s going on here. Something terrible is happening.”
“All the more reason to leave.”
“No, that man accused me of something and I need to know who is actually behind it.”
“Accused you? Of what?”
“Killing his children.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Tracks.” Ithican replied simply. “The ground is soft, at least that man had to have left some.”
“Ithican, may I point out that if there actually had been someone else here you’d be dead.”
Ithican ignored the comment and kept searching around carefully. Sam was about to protest further, or at the very least call the Elf crazy, but he thought better of it. He went to lean against the vine encrusted cliff face to wait for Ithican to work this out of his system. Not expecting the vegetation to give way Sam lost his balance and fell backwards out of sight.
Sam pushed his way back through the wall of vines. He attempted to act as if nothing had happened, but he was forced to pull a few stray leaves out of his purplish hair. He expected Ithican to laugh at his lack of grace or at the very least smile.
Ithican, however, was just staring at the vine curtain. He walked up to it and slashed at the inoffensive foliage with his Tarrin. The vines fell in a tangled heap of inanimate snakes, revealing the entrance to a cave.
“They must have gone in there.” Ithican whispered peering into the dark depths.
“Do you really want to follow them if they did?” Sam asked with a hint of impatiens. “I know how claustrophobic you are.”
“If she’s hurt...”
Annoyed at his irrational fear Ithican took a nervous step inside. He swallowed hard, at least the Nymph caverns had been natural, this was obviously manmade. The passageway was narrow, just enough room for two to walk side by each. He heard Sam follow him at a casual pace.
“This place must be thousands of years old.” Sam commented.
“What makes you think that?”
Sam brushed some cobwebs away from a large lever that was embedded in the wall. With a bit of effort he flipped the ultrasteel switch up with a loud snap and a small spray of spark. Ithican winced at the sudden dim light that chased the darkness away along the long tunnel.
“Don’t worry, it’s just an electricity spell.” Sam explained. “No one knows how to create them anymore. Only ancient cities like Cantras even have them anymore, and their Magi just maintain the spells.”
“Human magic.” Ithican said distrustingly. “Elves never messed with electricity, we rarely need extra light.”
“True, of course neither do Hobgoblins, they see better than Elves, and unless I’m mistaken this tunnel looks like their work. They’re really the only ones who burrow into rock, other than Dwarves and this passage is too tall to be made by Dwarves.”
“But if Hobgoblins built it why would they string it with lights?”
“I don’t know.”
Ithican took one last look back at the bright entrance and then started down into the cold depths. Sam followed wordlessly. He knew how powerful Ithican’s curiosity could be, and there wouldn’t be a moments peace until he’d proven to himself that there was nothing here.
The passage followed winding path back into the cliff. It started to branch off into a more and more complicated system of catacombs. Ithican chose the path like he knew where he was going and kept a close watch on the ground. Sam quickly became bored and started looking around for anything of interest.
Sam stopped when he came across a thin vein of gold that was embedded in the wall like a glittering map of a serpentine river. He ran his fingers against the cold metal casually. It wasn’t a large enough vein to be worth anything, but it was always interesting to see gold in its natural form.
“All right, Ith, I think we can both agree that I’ve humored you long enough.” Sam said while still tracing the golden thread. “There is nothing here, besides have you noticed that you only see this stuff when we get separated? ...Ithican?”
Sam turned his attention away from the wall and found himself alone. He could have sworn that Ithican was right behind him. The bizarre sixth sense that let’s you know when someone is close was still telling him that someone was near. However the dusty floor only held one set of tracks.
Ithican had wandered off again.
It hadn’t even occurred to Ithican that Sam wasn’t taking any of this seriously. So when he found himself alone his first thoughts were that something had gone wrong, and not that Sam had simply become distracted.
Ithican went to turn back when a soft noise floated down the passageway ahead of him. It was the sound of a woman singing. He momentarily forgot about finding Sam and slowly walked towards the melody.
As he listened longer Ithican recognized the tune as an Elven lullaby as old as time. The passage ahead had rows of archways that held no doors. Each lead to a small room. The signing was coming from a few archways down.
Approaching as quietly as his pounding heart would allow Ithican cautiously looked into the room. There was a woman sitting on the floor leaning against the back wall. In her arms she cradled a young boy, probably only three. They both had golden yellow hair.
She didn’t seem to notice Ithican and kept signing the lullaby quietly. Ithican was about to interrupt her when her song degraded into heartbroken sobbing. She pulled the child away from her breast to lay him down on the cold stone floor. Ithican couldn’t suppress a gasp of horror as he saw that mother and child were both soaked in blood.
Ithican rushed in to help but he was already too late. The boy had obviously been stabbed in the chest and had probably died instantly. Without even noticing the intruder the woman brought out a knife and with a shaking hand she slashed open her own wrist.
Ithican leapt forward to stop the bleeding, however he halted as the woman looked up at him with pure hate burning in her green eyes. She snarled at him and gathered the dead boy in her bleeding arms.
“Surprised that our blood is red as well?!” She screamed accusingly. “Half of mine is yours!”
Shocked and confused Ithican backed against the wall by the archway. He didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. Her ruined wrist was finally leaking her body of life and as she stared to pass out for the last time she smiled with cruel satisfaction.
Something on the wall gave way as Ithican pressed against it. He had thought that the archways were doorless, but he’d been wrong. Panels that were depressed into either side of the archway slid shut with a snap, plunging the tiny room into a darkness that blinded even Ithican’s sharp sight.
Finding himself locked behind stone Ithican’s claustrophobia struck him like a jolt from an electricity spell. The velvety darkness somehow made the air impossible to breath and brought the stone walls in closer. Suddenly sick with fear Ithican sank to the floor with the dying woman’s hysterical laughter ringing in the confined space.
Sam followed his own prints back through the still tunnel. Every once in a while the walls would glitter once again with a streak of gold. It didn’t take much mental skill to figure out that this had once been a mine. Although there didn’t seem to be much of the precious metal left.
Sam stopped when he came to a place he didn’t remember. The passageway crossed with another forming four possible directions to travel. The worst part about it was that none of them held any tracks in the layer of dust, not even his own. Looking back Sam noticed with alarm that there were no tracks behind him now either.
Lifting his foot the print that he was standing it quickly filled in with more dust. Putting his hand down by the ground he found that the air wasn’t as still as he thought. A small current was flowing across the floor -filling in his and Ithican’s tracks.
At first glance none of the passages seem to have been used in a long time, but looking closer he could see tiny barefoot prints running away from him to the right. Before deciding to follow them Sam rubbed an arrow into the dirty wall in the direction he’d been traveling so that he would know which way he’d been going if he had to turn back.
The prints were going in the opposite direction of the breeze which meant there was probably another way out ahead. The small footprints lead down a twisting path and then opened into a large room. Sam sneezed violently as he stepped inside. The floor had about two feet of dust on it. Stepping into the sandy stuff something brittle snapped under Sam’s boot.
He reached down into the dirt and picked up what looked like a broken leg bone. He turned the ancient thing over in his hand and it crumbled into a powder. He drew out his sword and swept it in an arc down across the hidden floor. More bone fragments turned up in the dust. Looking around Sam realized that the entire floor could be covered in remains.
An empty archway at the far end of the room was letting in the cool breeze. The door couldn’t have always been open because even now the draft was dispersing the dust back down the passage. Soon the floor in here would be blown clean.
Sam walked over and looked out, crushing many unseen objects on the way. Outside there was a beautiful day. He looked up and down the cliff face, but it was impossible to tell how far from the original entrance he was.
“Ithican?” Sam called.
He waited a second and then whistled for Takio. When the horse didn’t answer his call either he turned to go back into the mine. A strong wind sprang up which filled the room with a gray cloud of dust. The leaves on the trees outside rattled violently.
Sam spun around at the voice, but the forest seemed deserted.
“Who’s there?” Sam demanded.
“An Elf and a Human, they’re dangerous.”
“What? No, we...” Sam shook his head, he was not going to argue with the air.
“Yes, the Human wants blood, and the Elves can’t be trusted.”
“I trust him with my life!” Sam growled defensively, forgetting himself.
“So did we.”
Sam ran a shaky hand through his hair, his imagination was getting as bad as Ithican’s. The wind that had kicked up died down just as quickly as it had come. He looked outside once more, but there was no one in sight. If they were hiding they had done an amazing job at throwing their voice. The speaker had sounded like they were right behind him.
He waited breathlessly for the mysterious voice to repeat itself. A long minute passed by without a sound. Angry at himself for being drawn into Ithican’s paranoia he marched back into the cave. He hadn’t made it halfway across the room when Ithican’s distance muted voice shattered the sudden still.
“Ithican!” Sam called back running back down the passageway. “Where are you?!”
Ithican didn’t respond. The mine had fallen silent again other than a thumping noise that Sam at first mistook for his own heart. He quickly figured out that it was Ithican beating his hand against a door. It was like a nightmare trying to find where the Elf had gotten himself locked into. The way that the noise bounced off the stone kept Sam from pinpointing the sound.
Sam finally came across a passageway that had been disturbed by Ithican. It lead to a row of archways, one of which was shut. There was a small depressible panel next to the door that Sam pressed. The door split open automatically. Ithican scrambled out and made to run off.
Sam grabbed onto Ithican’s upper arm and kept him from dashing away and getting lost again. Ithican struggled to get away, but even frightened he found himself no match against Sam’s strength. Ithican gave up on escape, but still trembled violently. His pupils were dilated so wide that his eyes looked black.
“You’re all right, Ith. It’s okay, the doors are magic. I should have explained that to you before. There’s a button next to them that makes them open and close.”
“No,” Ithican shook his head stubbornly “she locked me in there with her!”
“The wo...” Ithican stopped.
The room was empty.
Ithican forgot his fear momentarily and stepped back into the small storage chamber. He went over to where the woman had slaughtered herself over her dead child. On the floor was the knife she had used to open her wrist. However it was so old and rusted that it fell apart when he picked it up.
“Come on, Ith, let’s get you outside.”
Ithican nodded and dropped the broken knife. The second exit that Sam had found was much closer than the one they’d entered through so Sam lead Ithican that way. When they got outside Ithican seemed to be lost in thought, although he had stopped shaking.
“I don’t understand.” Ithican admitted.
“Neither do I.”
“Why aren’t they attacking us both, or if it’s the Elves they hate why do they stop when you’re near?”
“Okay, now I really don’t understand. What are you talking about, who’s ‘they’?”
“Please tell me you didn’t just say ‘sprits’, as in ghosts.”
“Ithican, that’s crazy. There are no spirits.”
“Yes there are.” Ithican smiled weakly. “Angry ones.”
“You can’t be seri...”
The calm sunny day was ripped open by a blood curdling scream. Sam nearly leapt out of his skin, but Ithican listened to the cry passively. The outburst was followed by several more cries of fear mixed with anger.
“See?” Ithican said with a shrug.
“Help me!” The screaming voice struggled to form words. “Please, hel...”
“I don’t believe it!” Sam growled angrily.
“You can hear it now too?”
“Of course I can hear it!” Sam spat. “Ithican, don’t you recognize that voice?!”
Ithican gave Sam a confused look.
“That’s no spirit, that’s Dace.”
“I should have know that Dace would be too crafty to be brought down by a Dragon pup!” Sam growled drawing his sword.
“Sam, what are you doing?”
Sam smiled mischievously. “I’m going to go help him.”
“Sam, this is no place for bloodshed...”
“Stay out of this, Ithican!” Sam snarled. “In fact, just stay here!”
Sam didn’t even bother to look back to see if Ithican had listened to him as he stalked off. He knew Dace well enough to know that if he had hunted them down this far he’d keep after them forever. Sam wasn’t about to wait around for Dace to try and get his throat while he slept...again.
Sam had originally left Dace’s ‘company’ because he had tried to murder him one night after seeing the Goblin mark on his arm for the first time. Dace had been drunk and got it into his head that Sam was a spy.
That had been twenty years ago. In all that time it had never occurred to Sam to seek out revenge for the humiliation of being run out of a thief’s camp. Now Sam found himself so furious for backing down that the tip of his cut ear burned painfully.
Dace was still screaming about something as Sam approached. The forest suddenly gave way to a clearing that held the remains of stone built town. Half the buildings had collapsed in on themselves, although others seemed in relatively good shape for their apparent age.
Keeping alert for any of Dace’s cohorts that may also have survived the Dragon’s vengeance Sam made his way through the abandoned streets. In the middle of town was an over grown square where Sam found Dace. Dace had his own sword already drawn and he was swinging wildly at nothing.
“Dace!” Sam roared.
Dace swung so hard at the air that he spun himself around. When he regained his balance he looked around like he’d lost something suddenly. He stood shaking violently until he caught sight of Sam.
“Stay away from me you Goddamn Half-Breed!” Dace screamed.
“Insults aren’t getting you out of this one, Dace!”
Sam wadded through the tall grass intent on getting Dace’s blood. The Human wants blood...Sam thought of the voice he’d heard and smiled. Dace made a very uncharacteristic yelp of fear. Dropping his weapon Dace retreated into one of the larger standing houses.
“Why did you hunt me down, if you don’t want to fight?!” Sam demanded chasing after Dace into the house. “Not very brave when you’re not surrounded by y...”
Sam froze. The inside of the house had been gutted out and for the most part only contained dirt. Dace was backed up against the far wall with a look of abject horror plastered across his ashen face. However he was not looking at Sam. His eyes were fixed on the air in front of him.
Confused Sam watched as Dace started to claw at his own throat till he was bleeding. Doubling over in what must have been pain Dace screamed his voice raw. Sam didn’t know what to do, if this was an act of some sort it was a very convincing one.
“No! Stop, please!” Dace begged to no one. “Do...”
Dace ended his plea with a sharp gasp and clutched his stomach the same way Ithican had. He dropped to his knees and from there to floor. Sam cringed as Dace arched his back in agony so violently that Sam heard it break.
In the silence that followed Sam found that he couldn’t even breath. He just stared at the twisted dead body in shock. His stomach had managed to tie itself into a very firm knot. Sam didn’t even hear Ithican enter the room.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself.” Ithican hissed.
“I..., he...” Sam was too stunned to continue. He turned and found Ithican’s face was tearstained.
“No one deserves to die in such pain, I heard everything. I would have thought you’d have more mercy that that.” Ithican said icily.
“I didn’t touch him!” Sam protested. “Look!” Sam held up his clean sword. “I don’t know what happened to him.”
Ithican looked at the bright sword with a momentarily look of confusion. He looked over at Dace. His light brown hair was plastered with sweat and his gray eyes were locked on nothing.
“Pure-Breed...” Ithican muttered to himself. “’Half of mine is yours’... Pure...”
“That’s it! That’s why they’re not attacking you, they think you’re one of them!”
“What are you rambling about, Ith?”
“I know why the races separate themselves.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“They separate themselves because they paid a terrible price when they didn’t! Think about it, Sam, imagine how the races would react if they found out that cross-breeding were possible, and that a handful of people were doing it!”
“Ith, that isn’t possible.”
“What if it was?” Ithican retorted quickly. “Imagine someone as strong as you, and as quick as me, perhaps even some Goblin endurance thrown in. They’d be amazingly powerful, a new race formed from the old ones that would be able to quickly rise above the rest.”
“Ithican slow down. Even if you could mix the races who’s to say the children would get the best traits of all the races. You could just as easily end up with all the weaknesses.”
“Do you think the pure races would take that chance? What race wouldn’t fight to keep its own line pure? No, I bet you they just came here and slaughtered everyone.”
“You’re not making any sense!”
“I’m telling you Sam the spirits I’ve seen here, I thought they were Human, but I wasn’t sure, they were all unusual somehow. They were all Mixed-Breeds, and they attacked Dace and I because we’re Pure and they obviously fear us.”
“Then why don’t they attack me? I’m...”
“Have you looked in a mirror lately, Sam?”
Sam looked at Ithican like he was insane. He went to answer, but Ithican snatched a hold of his wrist and dragged him into the next room. There was a grime covered mirror mounted on the stained wall. Ithican rubbed a clean space in the glass.
“Look at yourself.” Ithican offered.
Rolling his eyes Sam humored Ithican and stepped in front of the mirror. For a long moment he didn’t recognize the person who looked back at him. Ithican had not told him that the ink had not come out of his hair completely. Sam was looking at a man with purple Goblin hair, a pointed Elven ear, and bright blue Human eyes. His torn shirt showing off the Goblin tattoo completed the picture.
“You look like a man having a serious identity crisis.”
“Dace...he...he didn’t recognize me either...” Sam shook his head. “No, this is too crazy.”
“Any crazier than Varick stealing my body? Sam, there is a world between here and the next. Trust me, I’ve been there.”
“Say I believe this. Why do they leave you alone when I’m around while they tore Dace apart?”
“Maybe because you wanted him dead.”
Ithican looked at the window and noticed that the sun was going down. The darker it got the higher the hackles at the back of neck stood up. Outside he could hear voices, Human and Elven by the accents. They were talking in hushed voices, sounded like they were giving each other orders.
“I think we’re about to find out what happened here.”
“That can’t be a good thing.”
“No, probably not. I have a feeling we’re about to have a very educational night, Sam.”
“Let me go!”
Ithican fought bitterly against the strong grip that held his arms behind his back. The chaos in the streets around him was unbelievable. Ithican had been unable to stay in the abandoned building listening to the screaming and had eventually come out to see what was happening.
Sam had tried to stop him, but Ithican was too quick to be caught when he was paying attention. He wouldn’t have been captured now if it wasn’t for the distraction of the horror around him. It had been easy enough to come to the cold conclusion that there had been a slaughter here, it was another thing all together to witness it.
It seemed like the fighting had been going on forever and got more confusing as the seconds passed. There were Elves and Humans everywhere. They attacked every Mixed-Breed they came across, however they also turned on each other any chance they got.
More than once Ithican had seen what had to be full blooded Elves and Humans rush to the aid of one of the Mixed only to then be cut down by the very person they’d saved. It was impossible to tell who was on what side and as a result the battle turned in on itself as fear and self-defense transformed into anger and bloodlust.
Ithican had started out as a passive observer, with nothing more than a burning curiosity to know what had happened. He had told himself this wasn’t real, these people had been dead for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Eventually the constant sight of gore and the endless ear piercing screams turned the mirage into an oasis in his mind.
Renewing his efforts to free himself Ithican continued to scream warnings to people who couldn’t hear him and who couldn’t be saved even if they could. The fate of everyone here was already sealed in the pages of a history that could not be rewritten. As his captor pulled him back Ithican expected to feel cold steel force its way into his warm flesh as he’d seen done to so many others already.
“Stop this!” A rough voice hissed in Ithican’s ear.
“I can’t!” Ithican cried desperately. “I wish I could!”
“Of course you can!”
“No! I didn’t start this!” Ithican’s heart raced as it occurred to him that as a Pure-Breed they would think he was responsible for all this.
The man growled like he was barely containing his temper. He switched his grip to hold both Ithican’s wrist in one hand. Ithican cried out in panic as the man covered his eyes with a calloused hand. Under the best circumstances he didn’t take well to being blinded.
“Ithican, listen to...”
“How do you know my name?!”
“Because I’m your best friend!”
“Of course, there’s no one else here. Now if you’ll calm down I’ll let you go.”
Ithican didn’t reply but he did relax physically as well as he was able. Sam slowly released him and took a step back. Ithican looked leerily around and had to admit that once again the streets were empty. He rubbed at his wrists.
“Why did grab me like that?” Ithican asked accusingly.
“Because you didn’t seem to be able to hear me, and the way you were carrying on I thought you were going to hurt yourself. You were starting to act like Dace...”
“That’s because we both have the same problem.” Ithican interrupted.
“That’s what I’m afraid of, look we have to get you to a Medical Magi quickly. Unfortunately there probably isn’t one in Banthick or else Dace would have gone to him.”
“There was nothing wrong with Dace that a Magi could have fixed.”
“Yes there was.” Sam insisted. “I know you think it was ghosts or something, but I looked at his body closer and he had a set of puncture wounds in his arm. Dragon teeth marks. He had Dragon Madness.”
“Dragon Madness is a myth.”
“No, their saliva is poisonous and it drives people insane with the racking pains it causes. He was just in the latter stages of it when we found him.”
“Even if that’s true, I wasn’t bit so I don’t have Dragon Madness.”
“You might not have been bit, but you told me how it helped you escape. There must have been drool all over those bars, if you rubbed it against a cut...”
“No, Sam, I’m not mad.”
“You will be soon. Dragon bite or no.”
“It’s nearly sunrise again.”
“Ithican, when was the last time you slept?”
“This is impossible.” Ithican muttered to himself.
He stared up at the stone ceiling and sighed. The rain lashing at the ancient windows should have lulled him easily to sleep, but the sudden change in the weather disturbed him. Although in a way it worked to his advantage. He had been trying to convince Sam to stay a little longer anyway.
Sam hadn’t been falling for it, but then the storm had hit -forcing them back inside. It wasn’t that Sam wasn’t used to being out in the rain and Ithican certainly didn’t mind getting wet. It was the lightning that kept Ithican from being able to travel in the storm. Ithican closed his eyes just before a potentially painful flash of light streaked into the room. Sometimes his sharp senses caused him more trouble than good.
He reached up and rubbed at a small cut in his shoulder. It hadn’t been bothering him until he’d had time to think about what Sam had said about Dragon Madness. Ithican pulled his hand away from the mark and firmly put the idea out of his mind. He told himself that he’d probably received the minor injury ridding Shadow anyway. Turning his thoughts to the horses he hoped they’d found some shelter.
An uncomfortably loud crack of thunder pealed out. It felt like Mother Nature was making sure that Ithican remained wide awake despite being devastatingly tired. It didn’t help to have the terrors of the previous night flash across his mind every time he closed eyes. He was seriously beginning to wonder if he’d ever sleep again.
Sam did not seem to be having similar problems. He slept peacefully, at ease knowing Ithican wouldn’t be able to wander off while the storm raged. Although Ithican noted that Sam had laid down in front of the door like a guard dog. Ithican smiled, Sam meant well. Although they had never met Sam and Llandra agreed on one thing: the only person they felt Ithican truly needed to be protected from was himself.
Ithican rolled over onto his side and pulled his dark hair over his face to keep the lightning out. He hadn’t thought he’d fallen asleep, but it seemed like only moments had passed before he could no longer hear the rain beat uselessly against the pletek-glass window. He sat up and found Sam was still sleeping.
He knew he probably shouldn’t but Ithican quietly got up and went over to the window. The ancient mechanism protested as Ithican opened the window, but it slid easily enough. He found that there were advantages to being Elven, Ithican’s shoulders were about half as broad as Sam’s so he had no trouble getting out through the small window.
More determined than ever to figure out what caused the blood bath Ithican stepped into the seemingly deserted streets. This time however it wasn’t panicked screaming that broke the silence first, rather the clear sound of good natured laughter.
Ithican hadn’t seen the events leading up to the attack before. He slunk around in the shadows until he came across an outdoor party of some sort set up in the town square. Hiding behind one of the many trees he watched quietly.
There were people of all descriptions milling about drinking and eating heavily. Each one seemed to have a unique combination of characteristics. It was clear that there was more than just Human, Elf, and Goblin mixed into the group’s blood.
In the center was a group of men sitting at a large horseshoe shaped table. At the crest of the horseshoe sat five Mixed-Breed men. What was surprised Ithican was that on one side of the table sat eight Elves, and on the other was nine full blooded Humans. Looking more carefully at the other guests he found a pocket of about twenty Elves talking with one another and looking around nervously.
“Now, wait, wait!” The most ornately dressed Mixed at the table laughed drunkenly. He had Elven facial features, but his long straight hair was butter blonde. “I’ll get this right, I will. Let’s see...” He gave his full attention to the nearest Forest Elf who smiled brightly. “Don’t tell me...”
“Come on, Avistar,” one of the Humans teased “you can do this.”
“Yaster?” Avistar asked the Elf hesitantly.
The Elf shook his head and the others laughed uproariously. Avistar flushed slightly and made a noise of frustration.
“I’ll never get this right!” Avistar said throwing his hands up in surrender. “One of you is ‘Yaster’.”
“That would be me.” An Elf sitting near the end of the table admitted.
“Don’t feel bad, Tymion,” a brown haired Human said, correctly addressing the first Elf “he can’t tell the difference between us Humans either, none of them can.”
“It’s all right, Evanin, I’m just impressed that they’re able to at least distinguish Elf from Human.” Tymion replied with a weak smile.
“Not me,” a black haired man laughed “I’ve been called ‘Elf’ ever since we got here.”
“Hey,” another Mixed with deep green skin said in mock indignity “it’s not our fault! All you Pure Breeds look the same.”’
“Behave, Maklie!” Avistar admonished. “Besides, I guess we’re all family now anyway.”
“We can’t thank you enough for taking us in.” Tymion said seriously.
“Not a problem. We can always use fresh blood, and we haven’t had very many new comers in generation, I don’t think we’ve had any Elven additions in close to a thousand years.” Avistar chuckled naively. “It’s almost like your kind’s not free to travel anymore.”
Tymion shot Evanin a pained look.
“Um...Avistar...” Evanin started awkwardly. “They’re not.”
A worried expression fell over Evanin’s face. “What do you know of the world outside these woods?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.” Avistar admitted with a shrug. “We’ve gotten so used to the quiet life up here. In fact I only know of one of us who’s had the slightest desire to travel. It’s practically tradition for us to stay isolated. When the hunting party saw you wandering around lost it took some heavy debate to agree to contact you.”
“Why did you?” Tymion asked.
“Like I said we don’t get much new blood. We have to be very careful not to inbreed too heavily. The winters here are so harsh that we don’t see very many people. We were actually thinking of sending someone out to see if anyone wanted to join us up here.”
“That’s not a good idea.” Evanin said quickly.
“Because we won’t be treated any better than the Elves.” A gravely voice suddenly cut in.
The voice sent a painfully cold chill down Ithican’s spine. The owner was a powerful mix of the three main races. His bright purple hair clashed painfully with his sky blue eyes. Ithican recognized him instantly. It was the man who had run him through -an event that Ithican was not going to soon forget, even though technically never happened.
“Kiro!” Avistar cried happily. “I was wondering where you were. Everyone this is my half brother, Kiro. He’s our resident traveler, I think he’s been further out into the forest than any of us. In fact he’s been out for the past few weeks. Kiro this is Ty...”
“You’re a fool, Avistar!” Kiro snapped his face etched with hate. “I couldn’t believe my ears when Varista told me you had brought strangers here! These Pure Breeds bring great danger with them.”
“What are you rambling about?”
“These Elves are not mere wanders, and these Humans aren’t their friends.”
“They’re runaways!” Kiro roared. “And they’re going to bring the wrath of both races down on us!”
“Runaways?” Avistar repeated still not understanding. “What do you mean by that?”
“Ask him!” Kiro hissed pointing at Tymion.
There was a long pause where no one dared to speak. Ithican had to strain to hear Tymion’s reply.
“Slaves,” Tymion whispered “we’re runaway slaves. Evanin and the others helped us escape.”
“We’re Liberators, or thieves depending how you look at it.” Evanin added sadly. “The Humans will kill us both if we’re found, I thought you knew.”
“We couldn’t go into the Southlands because the Elves would kill Evanin and the rest without question.” Tymion explained. “We didn’t think anyone would look for us this far north.”
“You were badly mistaken, Tymion.” A new voice hissed.
Ithican flinched at the condescending tone in the cold voice that had entered the ever complicated gathering. He had to inched a bit out of his hiding place to see who it belonged to. He found that a very large Human had joined them. He reminded Ithican shockingly of Dace, mainly because of the disgusted look in his slate gray eyes.
Tymion gasped sharply and to Ithican it looked like the Elf came close to passing out. The rest of the party had already come to a complete stand still when Kiro had entered, however, now the silence was deafening. Tymion looked back and found that the new comer’s friends had already encircled the square. The Mixed had separated themselves from the terrified Elves instinctively.
“Mm...Master, please,” Tymion leapt up, crawled over the table and scrambled to kneel at the Human’s feet “this is my fault, I talked the others into escaping. Forgive them, t...they wanted to turn back and I w...wouldn’t let them...please, don’t hurt them...we’ll come back peacefully.”
The Human smiled with sick satisfaction. “You won’t do this again.”
“No, Master, no, of cour...”
Tymion’s fawning was cut short by the strong Human reaching down into Tymion’s shirt and grabbing a hold of the choke chain he still wore. He jerked on the collar hard enough to lift Tymion off his knees.
“That wasn’t a question!” He snarled. “If you weren’t so expensive I’d beat you to death right here, so don...”
Avistar had jumped over the table himself and was threatening the Human with a sharp dinner knife, having left his sword at home. The Master released Tymion and kicked him in the chest to knock him back. Everyone was staring at the pair holding their breath, with the exception of Kiro. He was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
“What the Hell are you?” The Human sneered at Avistar, a few of the Humans that had come with him snickered.
“My ancestors are irrelevant right now, and if you plan on having any descendants of your own I’d suggest that you leave.”
“I’m not leaving until I have back what’s mine.”
“There not yours anymore, Hastrod.” Evanin snarled.
“I’d hold my tongue if I were you, Evanin!” Hastrod retorted hotly. “I swear I will have you hanged for this.”
“I don’t know who yo...” Avistar started.
“No, Avistar, don’t...” Tymion got to his feet and pushed Avistar away. “You can’t fight them, there’s too many, and they’re too strong. Please, if you leave Evanin and the others we’ll come peacefully.”
“You’re in no position to be bargaining.” The Hastrod chuckled. He turned to Avistar and sneered. “Just be glad that I don’t have any need for extra labour, you look like you’ve got more than enough Slave in your veins.”
“Suddenly it’s not the Elven blood I’m ashamed of.”
Hastrod went red with rage for a moment then visibly collected himself. He reached out and grabbed Tymion’s chain once more. He yanked the Elf close and whispered in his ear. Tymion’s already light coloured skin turned pure alabaster and tears slipped down his face from his emerald eyes.
“No...please, Master, I can’t...leave them.”
“Kill these Mongrels!” The Hastrod ordered. “Any Elf found not on our side will find themselves locked in the deepest level of Cantras Slave Market as a Brokyoke!”
Even Ithican panicked at the threat. Brokyoke was a termed used for Elves that were returned to a Slave Market as unsellable. They either became unwilling contestants in blood sports, or worse: lab rats for the Market’s torturers seeking new methods to break the Elves sprits more effectively.
The threat worked just as the Human knew it would. The chaos that ensued was instantaneous and all encompassing. Fueled by fear most of the Elves attacked the Mixed while a few turned on their former Masters. Evanin cried out in pure rage and went to attack the Hastrod, but quickly ended up fighting with one of the other Elves that was already half-mad with fright.
Hastrod went for the first available target which happened to be Avistar himself. Having very little to lose Tymion threw himself between them. Tymion grabbed the sword blade with both hands and yanked at it with all his strength. He successfully pulled it away from the shocked Human, at the price of driving it deep into his own stomach.
Ithican kept in his hiding place watching once again as the battle degraded once again into tooth and nail. Avistar and Hastrod were now locked in a grueling fight while the Elves basically tore at anything that moved. Like Avistar it was clear that the rest Mixed Breeds couldn’t tell the difference between the Elves and Humans on their side and the ones against them.
Having finally seen more than enough Ithican went to go back to the one person who could stop this or at least stop him from seeing it. Sam was probably still sleeping peacefully. He turned to leave when he caught sight of the little girl in the white nightgown running past on the other side of the bloody town square.
Instantly forgetting that he had decided to leave well enough alone Ithican started to make his way towards wood where he knew she was running to. He hadn’t made it very far before a familiar grip landed on his shoulder and hauled him back.
“I don’t have time for this, Sam!” Ithican snarled irritably.
Ithican cried out in pain as his wrist was violently jerk up behind his back. He went to turn around to protest the rough treatment, but found himself not quite quick enough. With both hands now caught in an increasingly tight grip Ithican growled in frustration.
“You’re hurting me.”
“What?” Ithican’s heart jumped, it had not been Sam’s voice.
“I’m disappointed in you,” Kiro hissed “I thought Elves were supposed to be harder to catch.”
When Sam woke he noticed instantly that the rain had finally stopped. Armed with that information it came as no shock to find that Ithican wasn’t there. He got up slowly and walked over to the open window. It was still dark out, but the clouds had passed and the tri-moonslight was bright.
The wet ground had Ithican’s track sunk into it. He had obviously gone back to the main square once again. Sam growled, he was getting tired of tracking Ithican down like a runaway. If he thought for a second that the Elf was in his right mind he wouldn’t have gone after him.
Unable to get out the window Sam walked quickly through the ancient living room towards the building’s main entrance. He glanced apprehensively at the spot where Dace had come to his violent end. Sam stopped so suddenly that he almost tripped over himself.
Dace’s body was missing.
Sam stared at the spot for a long time trying figure out what had happened. He couldn’t imagine Ithican having any reason to moved him. Besides, Ithican couldn’t have moved Dace even if he wanted to.
Dace weighed more than Sam did, there probably wasn’t an Elf alive that would be strong enough to take Dace anywhere he didn’t want to go. Considering Dace was dead, it was unlikely that he had gone anywhere willingly.
Suddenly fearful that Ithican wasn’t as crazy as Sam had originally suspected he bolted out of the house and up towards the dilapidated town square. Ithican wasn’t there, but his tracks were.
Sam followed the footprints into the woods up towards the mines. Halfway back to the tunnels the ground suddenly displayed signs of a struggle. The problem was that there were no tracks leading away from the fight, and there was only one set of tracks leading to it. The only sign that Ithican had even been involved was the discarded Tarrin blade that lay a few yards away.
“It’s a never ending battle...” Sam sighed picking up the abandoned Elven weapon.
“Tell me about it.”
Sam spun around and at first he didn’t see anyone. It wasn’t until he looked down that he found the voice’s owner. In the leaf litter at the base of an almost impossibly large and gnarled tree sat an Elf and a Human.
“Who are you?” Sam demanded.
“.....!” The Human snarled silently.
The Human gave Sam a sour look and tapped on the Elf’s shoulder. The Elf leaned closer so that the Human could whisper in his ear. The Elf listened attentively as if even he had to strain to hear the words. The Elf smiled brightly and chuckled.
“Sorry,” the Elf apologized “even after all these years my friend is not used to his...condition. I won’t repeat what he said, it was quite rude.”
The Human snorted derisively.
“What is going on here?” Sam growled taking a step back.
“History repeating itself I guess.” The Elf shrugged, and then winced as if in pain. He already had his arms wrapped around his stomach so he simply hugged tighter.
The Human looked at the Elf with genuine concern. He leaned in to talk to the Elf once more. They looked like school boys swapping secretes. The Elf seemed to forget his pain while listening. When the Human was done he glared venomously at Sam once more.
“No, it’s not him.” The Elf said assuringly.
The Human hissed something else in the Elf’s ear.
“You’re right they could be brothers.” The Elf replied. “I guess I could just ask.” The Elf turned his attention to Sam. “Are you on our side?”
“I don’t even know you.” Sam protested.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for my friend.”
The Human made a strangled noise of triumph.
“I see.” The Elf said slowly suddenly sharing the Human’s disgust. “Well, he’s not here.”
“Do you know where he is, then?”
“Why should we tell you? You’re just going to help him.”
“That was the plan.” Sam admitted.
“Well, he doesn’t need your help.” The Elf snarled. “He’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself.”
“No, I think he might be sick. I have to find him.”
“He’s sick all right. Killed his own wife, and for what?”
“He didn’t ki...wait, how do you know about that?” Sam demanded.
“You didn’t think we’d figure out what really happened that night? That it was his fault? He lied to you, he sold you out, and we have to pay for it along with the rest! Two thousand years and you Mix...” The Elf stopped when the Human jabbed him in the ribs. “What?”
The Human whispered something to the Elf urgently.
“Are you sure?” The Elf replied.
The Human nodded.
“But that would mean...no, he can’t be.” The Elf stopped and looked at Sam like he’d never seen him before. “How did you die?”
The Human gave the Elf a pained look and shook his head sadly.
“Don’t look at me like that, how was I supposed to know?” The Elf said angrily. He turned to Sam and sighed. “There was an Elf here with white in his hair, is that who you are looking for?”
Sam nodded automatically. He wasn’t sure of what was going on, but he was sure that it wasn’t good.
“Ah, that explains a few things.” The Elf muttered to himself. “I didn’t think I’d seen that Elf before, he must have been alive as well. We would have helped him if we thought there was any point. You must forgive us, we don’t often see travelers. In fact I can’t even remember the last time...”
Sam stopped cold. Slowly he looked up into the tree that the pair was leaning against. Up on the lowest branch a length of rope swung freely in the gentle breeze. Sam looked back at the pair and cried out in shock as he realized why the Human couldn’t talk -his throat had been crushed when he’d been hung for his crimes. The Elf saw the recognition on Sam face and confirmed his fears by taking his hands away from his stomach showing the blood that still seeped from the ancient wound.
“It took me a long time to figure how to cut him down from there.” The Elf said sadly.
The Human buzzed in the Elf’s ear once more.
“Evanin is right,” the Elf relayed “I don’t know what he’s up to know, but if you don’t find Kiro soon your friend is going to end up like us.”
“Insane?” Sam asked shakily.
Ithican woke slowly and instantly regretted doing so. His temple throbbed painfully, touching it gingerly he found it sticky with blood. Although Ithican had no one to blame for the injury but himself. At one point he’d managed to twist himself free of Kiro’s unsettling grip and instead of trying to run away he turned on the long since dead Mixed Breed.
Kiro was either quicker than Ithican thought, or truly wasn’t there because when Ithican charged him he ended up smacking into a tree. He had staggered back and really didn’t remember much after that. Ithican did recall Kiro laughing at him.
Opening his eyes Ithican found himself staring into a set of glassy gray orbs. It took him a moment to figure out what he was looking at in the dim light. When he did realize he scrambled to his feet and tried to back away from Dace’s lifeless corpse.
“Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you.”
Ithican’s heart faltered once more, and if it gave out on him completely the next time someone startled him he would not be surprised. Avistar was sitting against the far wall of the small room. His wrists were secured above his head by a chain that had been nailed into the stone for that exact purpose.
“You know me?” Avistar asked mildly surprised.
“Sort of. I saw what happened, or at least part of it.” Ithican took a step towards the captive Mixed.
“I just want to help you.”
“You can’t help me, and I hate being touched by the living.” Avistar shuddered.
“How did you end up here?”
“The same way you did. Kiro.”
“But he’s your brother, isn’t he?”
“Half brother.” Avistar corrected coldly. “And all traitor. He’s the one who lead the Human Masters here. He had been going out into their world more and more, and he despised the idea of bringing in outsiders.”
“He should have known that they wouldn’t be satisfied just taking the Elves.”
“Oh he knew that.” Avistar said awkwardly trying to shrug. “He had no intention of letting us survive. Before the battle he had already murdered most of the women and children, including his own wife.”
“What?!” Ithican stared at Avistar’s impassive expression in horror. “Why?”
“You are a curious one, aren’t you?”
“I just want to understand.”
“I’d think you’d be more concerned about getting out of here. Kiro is just waiting for you to wake up, he’ll be back soon.”
Ithican looked around and with a cold flash he noticed for the first time that he was trapped back in the mine. Where ever the door was it blended in so perfectly with the hewn stone walls that he couldn’t see it. Ithican swallowed convulsively as he started to find it hard to breath.
“What’s your name?” Avistar asked softly.
“Ith...Ithican.” The Elf answered distractedly.
“Ithican, look at me.”
It took Ithican a moment to tear his eyes away from the stone around him. However he obeyed the request. Avistar’s orange eyes glittered brightly with unshed tears. He smiled weakly.
“That’s better.” Avistar said gently. “In all the years that Kiro had been dragging victims down here you are the first one who has ever reacted to me with anything other than fear or hate, let alone talked to me. Therefore I’m going to give you some advice, and I suggest you take it.”
“Yes. If I were you I’d kill myself as quickly as I could.”
“Slit your wrist now, while you still have a chance.”
“I’ve already tried that once, and it was more than enough.”
“You don’t understand. Kiro is going to be coming back here, and...he’s done this before...it’s terrible. Trust me, do us both a favor and don’t put yourself through it.”
“This is crazy. What does he want from me?”
“It’s not you he’s after, it’s me.” Avistar answered sadly. “He brings in the corpses of the people he continues to kill, and forces me to watch him torture the ones he catches alive.”
“Because he wants me to stop this.”
“You’re still full of questions.” Avistar chuckled. “He wants me to stop us from living this night over and over again. It’s driving those of us who have figured out that we’re dead insane. Kiro above all. The rest of them just keep playing it like it’s real again. It’s hard to explain to the living, it’s like time doesn’t follow any of the rules anymore.”
“And he thinks you’re the one doing this?”
“And let me guess: you’re not.”
“Of course not! Do you honestly think I want to spend the rest of Eternity nailed to this wall?”
“Well, having me kill myself isn’t going to solve that problem either. We just have to figure out who keeps this nightmare going.”
“It could be anybody, so many died.”
“Yes, but someone must be causing this...someone who can’t let go...” Ithican was starting to talk to himself more than anyone else. “...someone more confused than the rest...perhaps too...”
“Sorry, just thinking out loud. Not that it’s really helping.”
“You’re out of time anyway.”
“For an Elf you get distracted from your senses awfully easily.”
Ithican was about to protest when he heard what Avistar was talking about. In the hall outside was the soft sound of footsteps. Ithican’s heart raced, he’d almost forgotten that Kiro still wanted him dead. He looked at Dace and shivered.
“Where’s the door?” Ithican whispered.
“To your right.”
Ithican looked closer and could just make out the seam that the door made with the wall. He crouched down just to the side of the door like a cat ready to pounce. Kiro was quick like an Elf and as strong as Sam so the only advantage Ithican had at the moment was surprise.
‘Of course,’ Ithican thought to himself bitterly ‘what am I going to do? Kill him, again?’
Ithican didn’t have time to think things through. When the door slid open the only thing he saw clearly was the bright steel he had to protect himself against. Kiro was not a fast as Ithican had feared. The element of surprise worked greatly in his favor and he had the intruder’s sword in his own hand in a flash.
Without pausing long enough to allow Kiro to recover Ithican managed to trip him so that it didn’t take much force to knock him back to the ground. Ithican got on top of the heavier framed man even though he knew he had no hope of being able to pin him down. Ithican had a fist full of shirt and the sword held up like a dagger before he realized his mistake.
“Remind me again why I keep coming to find you.” Sam asked in an exasperated tone.
“Sam, I’m sorry...I thought...never mind.” Ithican got up and helped Sam to his feet. “How did you find me?”
“Easily enough. I just thought to myself: where’s the last place you’d want to be, and then looked there first.”
“Sounds logical enough.”
“It works nine time out of ten with you.” Sam looked into the room. “Who’s that?”
“You can see him?”
“Yes.” Sam shook his head sadly. “Your disease must be infectious.”
“Don’t mind him, Avistar,” Ithican apologized “Sam here doesn’t even believe what he can see.”
“That can be a powerful defense.” Avistar said seriously.
“Avistar?” Sam asked.
“That would be me.”
“Someone is looking for you, but she said she can’t come in here.”
“She?” Ithican asked and then snapped his fingers as if giving sound effects to the puzzle snapping into place. “It’s her, she’s the one, too young to understand, too much Elven blood to come in here...”
“Ith, what are you talking about?”
“Avistar,” Ithican said ignoring Sam “do you have a daughter?”
“I...I did. But she...”
“Is the one causing all this.”
“I’m no good with kids, Ith. You should go.”
“I can’t, she’s terrified of me.”
“All right, all right.” Sam grumbled. “But just for the record I think this is insane.”
“Maybe.” Ithican shrugged.
“What are you going to do in the meantime?”
“I’m going to go find Kiro.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“Something still doesn’t quite fit, I still don’t know why Kiro decided to turn on everyone like that.”
“Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor?”
“Yeah, the theory that the simplest solution is usually the correct one.”
“That’s right. And in this situation I think the simplest answer is that Kiro is a raging homicidal psychopath.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” Ithican smiled. “He can’t hurt me.”
“What makes you believe that?”
“Because I no longer believe that he can, and denial can be a powerful defense.”
Sam would have protested further but he knew from experience that there was no talking sense into the young Elf when he was acting like this. Sam pulled Ithican’s lost Tarrin dagger out of the back of his sword belt and handed it to him.
“You need to learn to keep a better hold of this thing.”
“I’ll try.” Ithican promised taking the weapon back. “I’ll met you back here by the horses in a hour.”
“I won’t hold my breath over either one of those promises.”
Ithican laughed and took off back into the mines. He seemed to have defeated his fear of tight spaces and sprits all in one breath. Shadow came up behind Sam and shoved him. Sam turned around and Shadow nickered accusingly at him.
“Hey, this isn’t my fault. I’d rather be ridding out of here as well.”
Shadow snorted and walked back over to Takio swishing her tail in irritation.
Sam briefly contemplated just waiting at the cave entrance for the hour and just telling Ithican he couldn’t find Avistar’s daughter. Knowing that Ithican would never fall for such a transparent lie Sam walked off towards the pond where he’d first seen her. The dawn was just breaking which helped Sam find his way easily. He could not wander around in the dark as effectively as his friend.
The little girl was exactly where she should be. She was sitting on a rock next to the deep pond in her bloodstained nightdress. Sam just watched her cry for a moment. He couldn’t figure out why he could suddenly see the sprits, or whatever they were, but now that he could they seemed so real. The girl looked up with reddened green eyes and smiled weakly at Sam.
“I...I can’t swim.” She stammered.
Sam noticed for the first time that her hair was damp and realized what must have happened to her.
“What’s your name?” Sam asked although he already knew the answer.
“Sarista, that’s pretty name. I’m Sam, I’m going to try and help you, okay?”
Sarista thought about it for a second. She rubbed the back of her hand across her face to try and stop the tears. Drying her hands on her stain gown she stood up. Sarista held out her hand expectantly. Hesitating slightly Sam took her tiny hand in his own as gently as he could. Her touch caused his skin to tingle slightly, like a mild electrical shock.
“You were here before.” She said as if she had trouble remembering the last time they talked.
“That’s right. Come on, let’s go.”
“I want to show you something.” She said shyly.
“I’m supposed to...”
“No, please, let me take you somewhere first.”
“All right.” Sam agreed awkwardly when he saw her on the edge of tears once more.
Sarista smiled brightly. If it wasn’t for her lightly green tinted skin she’d look just like any other Elf child. She lead Sam back through the forest towards the ancient mine. Sam was surprised to find that that was exactly where she was taking him. She stood at the entrance and chewed nervously on her lower lip.
“I know you’re scared of being undergrou...”
“I’m not scared of that.” Sarista said defiantly. “I used to play here all the time, Goblins love caves...but one day I found something, I showed my father and he told me I wasn’t to come back here. But I did anyway, and...and that’s...why...”
Sarista started crying again, but she quickly composed herself. She looked to be about eight to ten years old, but Sam couldn’t help but feel that she was much older somehow. She straighten her back and went to take a step into the tunnel. She hesitated and looked up at Sam.
“There...” She started awkwardly. “There’s an Elf in here, he...he found me by the pond...”
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from him.” Sam assured her unable to hide a smile.
Sarista nodded and stepped into the mine. At first Sam thought that she was going to lead them right back to where Avistar was. However half was there she stopped and turned to what looked like a blank wall. She reached up and touched a spot on the wall. When nothing happened she stamped her barefoot in frustration.
“Put your hand on the wall right here.” She instructed.
Sam sighed, but did as he was told. He instinctively jumped back when a panel door slid open with a creak of protest as the ancient mechanism reacted to his touch. The tunnel beyond was only lit by some form of bioluminescent fungus. Sam could just make out the faint glow, but it wasn’t enough to allow him to see.
Sarista did not seem to have the same problems and she walked into the dark without hesitating. She kept a tight hold on Sam’s hand and lead him on. The catacombs twisted and turned, but Sarista seemed to know exactly where she was going.
Every time they came to a turn Sam reached out and rubbed a clear spot in the thick dust and fungus that clung to the wall. He couldn’t see the marks he was making, but it made him feel better to know that they were there. If Sarista left him, he’d have little hope of finding his way back. The little Mixed didn’t seem to realize this, and lead him as if he already knew where he was going.
“This is it.” She whispered coming to a stop. “Behind that door.”
Sam reached out blindly and felt a half open sliding door. Apparently the mechanism on this one was broken. Applying some brute force the door gave way with a bit of effort.
“What is that stuff?” Sarista asked in a hushed voice.
He peered into the velvety darkness, but his Human eyes weren’t sharp enough. “I don’t know.” Sam answered honestly.
“My father didn’t know either.” She said slightly disappointed. “He told me that it was probably way down here for a reason and to leave it alone. But I was so curious...”
“I wonder where you get that from.” Sam muttered to himself.
“I brought some of it to my Uncle, he’s the only one I know who’s ever traveled anywhere.”
“Did he know?”
“He seemed to, but he told me he didn’t. He asked me where I got it, if there was more, and if anyone else knew...I...I had no reason not to tell him...I told him my father knew and that there was a whole room full of it...”
“Your Uncle, is that Kiro?”
“Yes.” She confirmed. “A month or so later the Pures came. There was going to be a big party and I wanted to go, my father said I was too young. But I snuck out anyway, I went the long way around the town through the forest. When I made it out into the town square everyone was fighting with the new Pure Breeds. I ran up here because I thought I’d be safe.”
“Do you know that Elves are afraid of caves and Humans can’t see well in the dark?”
“Really? Weird, no I just thought it was a good place to hide.” Sarista brightened for a second, but then her voice dropped once more. “My father must have had the same thought, he was here, I could hear him talking to someone. The man talking to him was so angry I didn’t know his voice...they started shouting...I snuck up to the door to listen, and then my father...someone was hurting him.
I ran to get help, but everyone I found was dead already. So I took a knife off one of the dead and went back. Father stopped screaming just as I came to the door, it opened on its own and I...I...it was...Kir”
Sam gasped sharply as Sarista wrapped her thin arms around his waist and buried her face in his shirt. The sudden contact sent an unpleasant shiver up his spine and he had to fight not to pull away. Sarista didn’t seem to notice and simply wept bitterly.
“Why?” She whimpered. “What’s so special about this room? I don’t understand...”
“Hush,” Sam said soothingly stroking the child’s cold hair “it doesn’t matter now.”
“No. Come on, lead me back to the main passage and I’ll take you back to your father.”
“But my father’s dead.”
“Well...so are you.”
“Where did he go?” Kiro snarled.
Ithican had made his way back to where Avistar lay trapped and was listen to him and Kiro argue. At first they had been talking about him, but the longer Ithican listened the more the conversation seemed to degrade into an argument that the pair had rehearsed many times before.
“I never told you anything in life,” Avistar retorted in a bored voice “what makes you think I’m going to help you now?”
“Maybe if you had things wouldn’t have gone this far! I had asked nicely.”
“I stand by my decision, whatever is down in that cellar is evil! I can feel it even now.”
“It’s not evil, it’s power. And my only chance to get out of this Godforsaken mishap of a town!”
“No one was stopping you from leaving!”
“My very birth keeps me chained here!” Kiro growled. “What our ancestors did to us was nothing short of criminal!”
“So you betrayed the rest of us as punishment?! Or was it a mercy killing?”
“Call it a slaughter of convenience.” Kiro replied casually. “When I couldn’t convince your daughter to show me the way I knew I’d have to at least kill you. When I found you’d let those runaways into our borders it just gave me the perfect opportunity to get rid of the evidence of my heritage.”
“The Pures don’t even think cross breeding is possible. Outwardly I’m only a dye job away from looking Human. With the help of the contents of that room I could rule over them.”
“Power,” Avistar spat “disgusting!”
“You illustrate my point perfectly, Avistar. Our Mixed blood makes us superior to the Pures in so many ways, but it has one main fault. Our blood is watered down, we lack the one thing that has made the Human race better and more powerful than the rest -ambition. They have the ambition to get what they want at any cost.”
“That isn’t a race characteristic, it’s the main quality of a madman.”
“Mad...” Kiro started indignantly. “Wait a minute, stop, stop. How many times have we had this pathetic conversation? I’m not having it again.”
“You started it.” Avistar mocked sarcastically like a defiant younger sibling.
Ithican heard another set of muted voices back towards the cave entrance. He’d almost forgotten that he had sent Sam to get Sarista. If they came back and Kiro was still here things probably wouldn’t go well. Taking a deep breath Ithican decided that now was as good a time as any to test out his theory.
“I don’t see why you have to keep killing.” Avistar sighed.
“Because he’s bored,” Ithican answered conversationally “and it gives him a thrill.”
Kiro whipped around and smiled brightly when he saw the Elf leaning against the entrance way. He drew out his heavy sword that was still battled stained from two thousand years ago. Watching the Mixed Breed’s powerful frame approach Ithican began to think that disbelieving in Kiro was going to be easier said than done.
“You’re absolutely correct.” Kiro admitted calmly. “Think you can offer me some sport?”
“Catch me if you can.” Ithican winked at Kiro and took off deeper into the mine.
“Believe me I can.” Kiro laughed.
Ithican drew Kiro away from Avistar easily. Kiro had quick reflexes, but he was still weighted down with a heavy build. When he’d gained enough of a lead Ithican slipped into a large room. Listening at the door he heard Kiro run past. He had decided that he really didn’t need to fight Kiro, he just had to keep him distracted from Avistar long enough for Sam to bring Sarista to him. According to theory all the sprits would slip over to the Other Side if Sarista was happy.
“Very clever, Elf.”
Turning around Ithican found Kiro already in the room he was hiding in. Ithican couldn’t hide his surprise, there was only one door in or out and he was standing in front of it. Kiro laughed mockingly at him. Ithican had forgotten that Kiro didn’t have to play by any of the usual rules.
“That wasn’t very sporting of you.” Ithican chastised.
“Well, I’m not really into the chasing aspect of Cat and Mouse.”
Kiro lunged forward aiming for Ithican’s heart. Ithican managed to react quickly enough to avoid injury on the first pass. Kiro recovered quickly and slashed savagely at him again. Ithican had tucked the Tarrin into the back of his belt so it was easily retrieved. He extended the blade and started to earnestly defend himself.
After a few minutes of fighting blood had yet to be drawn. Kiro fought with both finesse and power, but Ithican remained a step ahead of him because Kiro never used both of his advantages at the same time. It was like the Mixed couldn’t decide where his true strength lay. Although Kiro struck with such forces that Ithican knew that the stamina behind his own skill would run out first.
“Elves fight better when they’re not half starved and beaten their whole lives.” Kiro admitted in an acidic tone.
“I’ll take that as a complement.”
“You shouldn’t.” Kiro spat, losing his patients. “It just means your kind was too weak minded to stay out of chains.”
Ithican anticipated Kiro to renew his assault after his last words and already had the Tarrin up in a defensive position. Kiro raised his thick blade up over his head and brought it down hard. Ithican braced against the impact of the steel colliding, but it didn’t work out that way.
Kiro bent the rules once more and his sword slipped right through the Tarrin and sunk into the top of Ithican’s shoulder. Ithican cried out in shock and was forced to one knee by the sheer force of the blow. Kiro pried his weapon out of Ithican’s collar bone. Ithican dropped the Tarrin to hold the sliced muscle together.
“Of course the Humans didn’t exactly play fair when it came to catching Elves...so I don’t see why I should either.” Kiro laughed. He casually admired his work with a critical eye. “I bet that really hurts.”
“No.” Ithican whispered.
“No, it doesn’t.” Ithican panted.
“You’re not very convincing.” Kiro mocked.
Ithican struggled back to his feet. Kiro didn’t back down, but he didn’t attack either. Ithican fought against the voice in his head that pleading with him to just pass out. He took this hand away from the hot wound and held it up to Kiro defiantly to show them both that it was clean. Ithican smiled, he had successfully talked himself out of Kiro’s delusion.
“You’re not half as powerful as you think you are,” Ithican hissed “you never were -not even in life.”
Kiro did not react to the insult the way Ithican thought he would. Kiro looked Ithican over for a second. He grinned and sheathed his sword. When he took a step closer Ithican instinctively took a step back and found that he was up against the wall.
“You’re very clever for an Elf.” Kiro finally said. “But it’s still no wonder how the Humans got the upper hand, being clever is not enough to survive in this world.”
“I don’t think you’re in any position to be telling me what it takes to survive.” Ithican retorted, trying to keep his confidence.
Kiro’s eyes gleamed bright with suppressed amusement. It wasn’t until the temperature in the room took a nose dive that Ithican realized his mistake. Kiro had the discarded Tarrin in his hand before Ithican even had a chance to stop him. Now armed with a real weapon he could do true damage.
“You really need to learn how to keep a hold of this thing.” Kiro chastised sarcastically.
“Thanks for the tip.”
“The Elves have tried to keep it a secrete,” Kiro said casually “but I know your greatest weakness. Those lightning nerves of yours keep your thoughts practically one step ahead of reality...”
Kiro paused and brought the Tarrin’s curved tip to rest on Ithican’s chest. Ithican flinched at the ice cold touch. Kiro savored the moment for a while before continuing.
“As a result you get distracted so easily.” Kiro sneered. “Which makes you easy prey. It’s a shame that you don’t have a Master to look after you and keep you out of trouble.”
Sensing that Kiro had finally tired of their game Ithican closed his eyes tightly. He held his breath fearing that it was his last. The sharp sound of the Tarrin clattering to the floor snapped his eyes open once more.
He was alone.
The Tarrin lay harmlessly at his feet dripping with condensation from the heat returning to the unnaturally chilled metal. Ithican smiled and made a mental note to ask Sam what had taken him so long to get Sarista and Avistar together. As much as he hated to admit it Ithican had forgotten that Sam was actively trying to end the nightmare.
Kiro was right the Elves did have a shameful weakness that they desperately tried to hide. Everything happened so quickly in their mind that they often left out the details and that tended towards making mistakes. To compensate the Elves had formed tightly knitted societies so they could watch over one another. It wasn’t a serious condition and far from a disability, but an Elf on his own was still at a distinct disadvantage.
“But I don’t need a Master,” Ithican snarled at nothing “I have a friend.”
“We can’t leave yet Shadow, we have to wait for Sam.” Ithican told the impatient horse. “Where is he anyway?”
They had agreed to meet by the horses in an hour. It was hard for Ithican to judge how much time he’d spent with Kiro, but he reasoned that it had to have been at least two hours since he and Sam had split up. He had already gone through the mine once and his fear was that every time he left this spot Sam came and then left in search of him.
They could chase each other’s tails for hours playing that game if their timing was off. Ithican waited another ten minutes before forgetting, or rather actively deciding to ignore, his resolve to stay. He stepped back into the mine and started walking slowly. He had already returned to all the places he’d seen sprits, and there were none left.
Everyone had vanished, and apparently Sam had gone with them. Ithican walked past a darkened passage and stopped. He hadn’t wasted his time with it before because he knew that Sam wouldn’t have been able to see his hand in front of his face down there. Running out of places to look Ithican decided he’d check it out anyway.
The passage sloped down gently which made the air grow steadily danker. The bizarre fungus that grew in places along the wall was more than enough to light the way. When he came to a fork in the tunnel he found himself facing a difficult choice.
Ithican randomly chose the tunnel to the right and started down it. There was nothing special the passageway which made Ithican uneasy. Quickly backtracking he tested out the left hand option. Looking at the wall inside the passage Ithican smiled brightly.
The smeared mark that Sam had made blindly was clearly visible to Ithican’s eyes. He hurried down the tunnel, every turn that he came to Sam had faithfully scratched out another marker. Eventually he found Sam sitting on the floor with his back against the wall.
“There you are.”
Sam jumped slightly and then looked vaguely in Ithican’s direction. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Sorry, what are you doing down here?”
“Waiting for you, obviously.” Sam stood up and stretched.
“You have such faith in me.”
“You haven’t let me down yet, have you?” Sam smiled. “Although it took you long enough to find me.”
“Well, I didn’t figure you’d be wandering around blind in the dark.” Ithican retorted with mock irritation. “At the risk of repeating myself: what are you doing down here?”
“Sarista lead me down here to show me something.”
“And Kiro accuses me of getting sidetracked.” Ithican muttered.
“Nothing, go on.”
“I kind of let it slip that she was dead and she left. I figured you find the marks I’d left eventually.”
“What did she want to show you?”
“That’s a good question, one which I can’t answer.”
“Because I can’t see.”
“Whatever it is, it’s what Kiro was after apparently. It’s through the doorway at the end of the hall. Sarista was afraid of it so I figured it would be best not hang too close.”
Ithican looked down the hall he saw the doorway, but he couldn’t see into the room from here. Avistar had said something about it as well, something about it being evil. Ithican walked towards the door and Sam followed by the sounds of his footsteps.
When Ithican stopped suddenly Sam knocked into him. Ithican hardly noticed, he was staring at the room in disbelief. Sam heard him make a distinct noise of pure disgust. He tried to see into the room once more, but even after all this time in the dark he couldn’t make anything out.
“All those people, for this...I should have known.” Ithican muttered angrily to himself. “Avistar was right.”
“What is it?”
“The root of all evil.”
“Gold, Sam, it’s gold.”