Authors Notes: - If things don't match up its because the first part and the last part were written last… ;;
A soft creak in the floor boards was enough to snap Sorn awake, his mind however wasn't eager to process anything. He struggled for a dagger he'd placed under his pillow and pulled it out of its sheath. The blade flashed in the moonlight and he focused his uneven gaze on the intruder. The curtain that served as a door was pulled back and silhouetted in the same silver light that set his blade aglow perfectly illuminated Adwen.
She sleepily rubbed sleep from her eye and regarded him, unimpressed with his groggy defensive stance. "You react to everything in the same way, don't you?" Adwen asked, keeping her voice low.
"Of course," he responded, his voice even more rough than usual due to his utter exhaustion. Sorn reluctantly replaced the dagger under his pillow and looked at her sideways. "What do you want?"
"I wanted to talk to you." She whispered, his voice so low even he had a hard time hearing her.
His ear twitched and he made a beckoning motion. "Then get in here."
She looked up at him surprised and stopped wringing the curtain in her hand. Dropping it aside she let it slide over her body as she walked int. The course cotton clung to her more finely spun cotton shift, drawing the material close to her flesh. Sorn didn't attempt to hide his pleasure as he watched the line of her body briefly appear before being swallowed back up by the billowing white fabric. Adwen defensively crossed her arms over her breasts and stopped halfway to his bed.
"I didn't molest you last time; tonight's not going to be any different." Sorn said dryly.
"I just hate when you look at me like that." She mumbled, her head titled downward, avoiding his glowing gaze.
"You're a bad liar." He sneered, enjoying her discomfort.
Her cheeks reddened. "I'm not lying."
"Fine, what do you hate about my 'look'?" He demanded, leaning backward in bed, letting the sheets pool around his waist, reminding her that he always slept naked.
She shifted uncomfortably and looked towards the small window that supplied the room with the only real light. "It's just hungry… primitive."
"That's what I am to you, aren't I?"
"What do you mean?" Adwen asked in surprise, looking back to his face.
"I'm nothing more than a savage kurik." He stated with an audible sneer. "A beast who lives only to satisfy his primitive desires, correct?"
"You really have a low opinion of yourself." Adwen said shaking her head. "I don't think of you that way at all."
"Then how do you think of me?" Sorn demanded aggressively.
She sighed heavily, her narrow shoulders slumping. "I didn't come in here to talk to you about that."
"Just answer the question and we can get onto the real topic."
"Fine," she said glaring at him. "I think you're a jerk but at least you're usually honest, even though I think half the crap you say is just an act."
"An act?" His narrow eyebrow rose in amusement.
"At first I thought you and Jasper were completely different, now the more time I spend with you two the more I realize just how similar you are." She said with a low laugh. His eyes narrowed in annoyance but she kept talking. "Both of you are just acting, I don't know the real Sorn any more than I know the real Jasper, but at least I know that most of what you say is the truth. And despite it all… I trust you."
"And you don't trust the half-elf?" Sorn asked, surprise coloring his voice for a moment.
"No further than I could throw him." She answered wearily.
"Funny," he sneered. "I thought you were sweet on him."
Adwen sputtered for a moment but quickly recovered. "Sure, I sometimes find myself charmed by him and he is handsome but that doesn't mean I trust him."
Sorn looked away and snorted. "Why are you here anyway?"
"I was going to talk to Jasper first but when I went to his room it was empty, his bed hadn't even been touched."
"What?" Sorn said in surprise.
"I think he went somewhere but most of his things are still here, like his lute." She said with a helpless shrug. "So I came to talk to you instead, about him."
"What about him?" He asked, still distracted by thoughts of what kind of mischief the bard could be getting himself into.
"About the fact that I don't really trust him." She said. "When I first met him I felt he was perfectly honest but tonight is just one more thing that proves he isn't who we think he is."
"Correction, isn't who you thought he was." Sorn said.
"Ok, your right, I've been proven to be a naive fool." Adwen said rolling her eyes.
"Just as long as you realize it." Sorn said around a yawn.
Adwen huffed and put her hands on her hips angrily. "You're incorrigible."
"You're the one that's still here." He chuckled.
She opened and closed her mouth then spun around, putting her back to him. "You know Sorn, if you weren't such a jerk…"
"If I weren't such a jerk what?" He laughed bitterly. "We've been over this before. I don't even know why you're still teasing me."
"Teasing you?" She turned around and stared at him aghast. "Is that what you think I'm doing?"
"You're the one who keeps showing up at my door in the middle of the night wearing little more than a shirt, and by the way, in just the right light, I can see you nipples." Sorn remarked, pointing at her chest.
Adwen pulled back sharply, covering her breasts with her arms. For a moment she could do little more than stammer in anger and embarrassment. When she finally composted herself she turned and stormed out of his room. Without a door to slam her heated exit lacked the punch it would have had otherwise.
Sorn yawned and lay back down, happy to be ride of the crazy woman who haunted his waking moments as well as his sleeping.
Dawn came with little fanfare banishing with it the fears that had hung over the village the entire night. Light stubbornly piercing through Sorn's eyelids woke him and he sat up, looking around the small unadorned room he'd spend the night in. Still fully clothed and clutching his sword in his hand he felt more than a little foolish. He rolled out of bed and stepped into the hall and looked around. From what he could hear his companions were still sleeping, though they were down one.
Sorn walked to the edge of the hut and looked out over the village. The suns rays continued to spread across the ground, illuminating the peaceful circle of huts surrounding the main central one he stood in. As it crept westward it suddenly illuminated a familiar figure walking towards him. It was the bard.
He shook his head and leaned against the wall beside him and warily watched the approaching half-elf. Jasper paused under him and rest his hand on a rung of the ladder leading up.
"Good morning Sorn." He said in his every friendly tone.
"What were you doing out there?" Sorn demanded.
"Well… I couldn't sleep so I figured I'd go investigate." Jasper shrugged and started to climb up the ladder. He sensed movement above his head and paused, looking up.
Sorn reached forward and grabbed Jasper by the back of his vest, bodily hauling him up over the lip of the floor he pinned him down and placed a dagger against his throat. Jasper froze and stared up at him in shock. He held his arms out wide, hands open palms up, just to make sure the kurik didn't think he was reaching for something.
"What? What is it?"
"What did you find?" Sorn asked.
"Nothing! I sear! I went to where they said the creatures were coming from, I found a cemetery. I left a gift to Lord Death; I asked that he forgive the village for whatever they had done wrong." Jasper shrugged slightly. "Maybe it worked…?"
"You were terrified last night, what happened to all that fear? Why did you suddenly get so brave?"
"I don't know why you can't trust me Sorn." Jasper said sadly, gazing into Sorn's eyes.
"Because I know you're lying to us, I know you're trying to manipulate Adwen and I know you're hiding something." He hissed in response.
Jasper reached down and gently wrapped his hand around Sorn's wrist. "I swear to you, on my life, I wasn't up to anything nefarious, I was just trying to help these villagers."
"How noble of you," Sorn spat, getting to his feet and hauling the bard up with him. He deposited Jasper on his feet and sheathed the dagger. "I will discover your secret."
Jasper bowed his head and moved aside, he avoided the kurik's accusing, probing gaze as he passed. He waited until Sorn had disappeared back into his room before he moved. Walking past their rooms he moved to the center of the building and climbed a ladder that led up into the loft where the elder had slept. Now fully awake the old man was watching him. Jasper paused and hugged the top part of the ladder, staring at him with a wry lopsided smile.
"What do you want bard?" The elder asked, still sitting amid the blankets he'd slept in.
"The threat is gone; they will no longer plague your village." Jasper announced in a low voice.
The old man's brow furrowed as he regarded the half-elf. "And if I am to believe you: why?"
Jasper glanced over his shoulder, down at the hall where his friends were staying. After a long moment he looked back to the elder. "Just know that your people are now safe, and that you would be wise to pay proper homage to your dead and to their Lord." With that cryptic comment the bard slid down the ladder and retreated into his room.
While the old man considered his words the others began to wake. From below Rig and his female friend stirred slowly and yawned. Above them Adwen left the warm sheets with great reluctance, but was eager to enjoy breakfast. Sorn, having made his bed, was already gathering his things together and back in his armor. Jasper only stayed in his room long enough to gather his things, though having not slept that night he didn't need to make his bed. Ukino was the last of them to leave his room and join them for breakfast.
Their host provided them with a sizable meal, but didn't join them for it. He ate with the few villagers that had spent the night with him up in the loft. His guests weren't concerned with his absence and ate their meal, consisting of boiled eggs, dry bread, and oatmeal, in silence.
Though they had all, save Jasper, had a full nights sleep they were still exhausted from their travels and previous sleepless nights. Though tempted to stay another night Sorn showed his insistence on traveling on by quietly leaving the breakfast table and heading below to join Rig, Raol and the bird-woman.
Adwen watched him go and sighed heavily. "Dangerous or not I'll miss sleeping in a bed."
"They'll be more beds soon enough." Jasper assured her, patting her on the shoulder as he passed to follow the kurik.
"Once we pass the mountains and travel through the valley beyond." Ukino added.
Adwen looked at him, groaned and pulled herself upright with great visible reluctance. Shouldering her gear she trudged after the bard, giving one more moan of protest.
Down below Rig and his friend were standing beside Raol and Sorn, patiently waiting for the rest to join them. Once the entire group had gathered they left the village. No one came out to watch them go and the villagers only gave them cursory glances as they went about their morning tasks.
Long shadows stretched between the mountains, leaving the pass between them to the valley beyond cool and dark. The rocky surface of the narrow passage was covered with brightly colored hardy lichen and a few scraggly nearly leafless silver-gray bushes. After the village disappeared behind the bends and curves of the road the sense of life and activity went with it. The wind quickly became the only source of movement around them, encouraging a feeling of isolation that already surrounded them. Nary a bird, insect or lizard seemed to inhabit the terrain around them.
"My, this is a cheery place." Jasper announced and the wind almost instantly swallowed up his words. His usually amiable expression seemed to be waning.
"Maybe it's just the mountains but…" Adwen paused and turned around, looking back the way they came. "I feel… uneasy."
"I am sure it's just the mountains." Rig, who was walking along behind her said with an encouraging smile.
"With the lack of traders there will be no bandits in this area and there aren't many natural creatures that would bother us," Sorn said stiffly, dismissing her concerns with cold logic. "We are in little danger."
"How optimistic of you." Jasper teased him.
Sorn ignored the bard and walked slightly faster, overcoming Jasper to take the lead. Adwen silently considered his words for a few moments, then voiced a new worry: "But what about the creatures that would bother us?"
The kurik sighed and glanced back at her. "There aren't many and none that I know of in this area."
"There are dragons." Jasper corrected him.
Adwen's face went ashen. "Dragons?"
"Feral dragons almost never attack groups." Sorn said, glaring at Jasper while he spoke.
Jasper shrugged, holding up his hands. "I'm just saying."
"Just don't." Sorn snapped.
"Alright, alright." The bard sighed and dropped his arms to his side, shaking his head dramatically.
Adwen took a deep breath and said: "So, after these mountains, what's next?"
"To the east of us we will see Mt. Palidor, which is the home to both my kind and a nation of dwarves." Rig said, pointing in a north eastern direction. "Mt. Palidor is an impressive sight, something I am eager to witness after being away for so long."
"Why are we only headed towards the Dragon Knights then?" Adwen asked, looking towards their leader. "Shouldn't we also try to warn the dwarves and trolls?"
"Rig can answer that one for you himself." Sorn responded.
Adwen looked back towards the troll curiously and was surprised to see a sad expression on his face. He took a deep breath and sighed heavily. "The dwarves are only concerned with matters having to do with them and the mountain. They could simply seal themselves away in the mountain for hundreds of years, it wouldn't be much of a change from their current way of living."
"And your people?" She asked gently.
"There are not many of us and… well." He stroked his horns self-consciously. "We are rather… Well, let me just say it is more than a little rare that I left home."
"He's trying to say, in a polite way, that his kind care little more than other races." Jasper said, but quickly added. "For good reason, after all they are feared and rare enough that the death of one is a catastrophe."
"Oh…" Adwen mumbled then quickly changed the subject. "So, after we see Mt. Palidor, then what?"
"We will see the dragon cliffs, a small range of mountains with a volcano crowning them, they Dragon Knights reside in, on and around the volcano." Jasper said.
"That doesn't sound like a very safe place to live." Adwen said in concern.
"The geomancers, the only type of mages allowed to live within the Dragon Knights kingdom, harness the power of the volcano and use it to power the city." Jasper explained.
"Power the city?" Adwen said in puzzlement.
The previously uninterested Sorn's ears perked up in interest at this point, though he didn't turn his head to watch the bard speak.
"Yes." Jasper said eagerly, getting into the role of storyteller. "Strings of light line the buildings of every street, a warm red glow pulsing from within their glass spheres, water is pumped up from deep within the earth, granting every home their own private source of running water. Mills powered not by wind or water, grind the grains harvested from the valley below into flour," he took a deep breath and smiled at them. "It's really quite impressive."
"It sounds like it!" Adwen said enthusiastically. "Now I can't wait to see it."
"Beyond the mountains to the east of us is also the largest forest in all of Savari." Jasper said, making a sweeping motion westward. "The trees are so massive, legend speaks of cities in their branches. Where races of winged humans and elves live in harmony with each other but are hostile to any outsiders."
Adwen shook her head and smiled ruefully. "Living in Erich I sometimes forget there was a whole world out there."
"That's why you left." Rig said.
She nodded. "Yeah, that and…" her voice trailed off and she briefly glanced towards Sorn before looked back to the troll. "I didn't like how everyday my world kept getting smaller and smaller… more like a prison."
"You do realize that some people would kill to live in your gilded cage? Right?" Sorn said harshly. "To suffer so lavishly as you did."
"I don't have any illusions about how hard or easy my life was Sorn," Adwen said angrily. "And don't think for a moment that I don't realize how lucky I am, that when I go home, it'll still be there and just as easy as before. I know other people have it much harder."
"Home is not a physical thing." Jasper suddenly interjected. Adwen gave him an odd look at he smiled at her gently. "A home isn't a roof over your head and a coffer full of coin, it's being somewhere where you feel safe and loved. Home is more the people your with than the place you are."
"That's… really sweet." She said with a smile.
The ever silent Ukino walked pasted the group, even passing Sorn. He briefly met the kurik's eyes as he passed and continued on ahead, moving fast enough that he quickly left them behind. Taking the silent cue Sorn went after him, relinquishing Raol's reins to a startled Adwen. Once he was beside the swordsman he looked back to make sure they were out of earshot.
"What is it?" He asked, meeting the human's almost luminescent eyes.
"I will not be able to follow you into the Knights keep." Ukino said, reaching into his coat for his pipe.
"Why not?" The kurik demanded, giving him a wary look.
"I am… known to them and not in a way I would like." He said withdrawing the graceful metal pipe.
"You are the most honorable person I know." Sorn said in a rare moment of open emotional honesty. "How could you possibly be their enemy?"
"I did not say I was their enemy." Ukino corrected him, dropping a scant amount of the fine tobacco he had left into the pipe.
The swordsman sighed and fished around his pockets for a match. "Please Sorn, you trust me and I trust you. Just… know that I will not be able to accompany you within the keep. I will be there at the city, I won't leave."
Sorn glanced over his shoulder then stared at him intently. "Then who is going to speak to them?"
"Why not you?" Ukino asked, finally locating a match and striking it against his sheath.
The kurik watched him silently light his pipe and shook his head. "I'm not good with diplomacy."
"Then the bard." Ukino suggested. "He mentioned that he has been there before."
"I don't like the idea of relying on that half-elf for anything." Sorn snorted, briefly baring his teeth at just the thought.
"You do not give him enough credit." The swordsman said smoothly, puffing contently on his pipe.
The fragrant smoke circled around their heads and Sorn watched as wisps of it faded to nothing in the air above them. He sighed and glared at his companion. "Perhaps you give him too much credit."
"You hate him because he is everything you are not, he hates you because you are malicious a vile to him. Out of the two of you I am more sympathetic to him." Before Sorn could protest Ukino waved away his coming words and said: "Yes he lies and hides who he truly is, but we all have our secrets, though you pretend to hide nothing that is also a front. Your deception is almost as obvious as his yet you fault him for being false."
"Why does everyone want to talk about me and Jasper." Sorn said, rubbing his eyes.
"Because," Ukino stated. "The others give us nothing to talk about."
"What about that strange bird-woman?" Sorn said, waving back in her direction. "We don't even know her name, what she is or where she's from."
"Because she doesn't know our language." Ukino pointed out. "And besides, all she does is perch on the trolls shoulder like a well trained parrot."
Sorn growled and groaned in frustration. "Fine, I will see if the bard can manage it."
"Though, if you prefer," Ukino offered. "The others and I could talk about the obvious relationship between you and Adwen, or perhaps the one between her and the bard."
Sorn snarled at the swordsman. "I get it. Now you can shut up."
"I am merely illustrating a point."
"I like you better when you don't talk." The kurik snapped, dropping back to the rest of the group and snatching Raol's reins from Adwen's hand.
Ukino kept his position far ahead of the group, the pleasant smell from his pipe trailing along behind him. They passed, now in heavy silence, through the remainder of the passage. Almost abruptly the now familiar rocky walls surrounding them dropped away. The respite was fairly brief though, as more hills and rocks rose before them. As the path dipped and twisted, to their left they were greeted by the distant sight of the ocean.
They only paused briefly at the sun's zenith to enjoy lunch, normal conversations commenced, though Sorn and Ukino kept out of them. Even Rig's friend chirped in, rather literally, and sang a few brief notes, prompting the bard to counter with his hastily drawn flute. The pair engaged in something near a competition, trilling and warbling out graceful tones.
Continuing on after the meal and musical exchange they left behind the rocky valley and entered the first mountain pass. Cresting the highest point, surrounded by a bitterly cold wind, they could see both the massive sight of Mt. Palidor and the Dragon Knight's volcano. Small, delicate puffs of white smoke gently drifted from within the massive yawning crater top and surrounding the black lips of the mountain, carved into the side of the mountain itself, was the keep of the Dragon Knights. At the base of the mountain, already visible against the failing light of the sun was the city. Red lights flickered to light as the sun faded over the western horizon, twinkling like demon eyes against the black face of the mountain.
"It's beautiful." Adwen whispered, pulling her verdant cloak tightly around her shoulders.
"And terrifying." Rig added. She nodded quietly in agreement.
"I can see some caves from here." Sorn said, pointing down the side of the bluff they were standing on. "We'll camp there."
"Unless their occupied." Jasper said.
"Very well, you and I will scout to make sure they're clear." Sorn said, motioning for the bard to follow him as he jumped down the rocky mountain side, moving as nimbly as a rock goat.
"I really need to learn to shut up." The bard mused ruefully, following, and showing for once the kurik was more graceful at something than he was.
Adwen looked from the retreating shapes of the men back to the twinkling light of the distant city. "Warm bath… bed… fresh clothes. It's like a distant dream."
"We will be there soon enough." Rig said, patting her on the back.
"I'm so sore, I don't even want to train tonight." She protested, sitting down on a nearby rock and rubbing her ankles.
"You still should," Ukino said, sitting behind her, putting his back against hers. "You have a long way to go."
"That's almost like a nice version of what Sorn would say." She grumbled dejectedly.
"Well, he is not here to say it." The swordsman shrugged.
"I suppose you're right." She sighed, leaning back against him.
"You will rest well tonight." He reassured her.
"I can't wait." Adwen whispered, closing her eyes.
Rig sat down and gently moved his friend from his shoulder to the ground beside him. Not wanting to be too far from him she huddled into his side. He sighed and placed his arm around her. "We really must figure out what to do with you."
Ukino glanced over and suggested. "Perhaps she can be trained to use a weapon."
"Yes, but what kind?" Rig said helplessly, staring down at her. "She is so fragile and slender, I fear she will hurt herself just trying to wield a sword."
"A bow then?" Ukino said. "Her arms are exceptionally long, I am sure she would be a good bowman."
Rig nodded. "It's worth a try."
A small sound at Ukino's back distracted him from their conversation. He turned his head and found Adwen was slumped limply against him, her head lolled against his shoulder. She was sound asleep.
He sighed. "She is still very unused to the road."
"She pushes herself harder than necessary." Rig said, shaking his head. "I think she is trying to keep up with Sorn."
"A task even I find difficult." The swordsman stated, briefly rubbing his sore feet.
"I think only Jasper can keep pace with him." Rig joked with a toothy grin.
"Shush," Ukino said. "We mustn't let Sorn overhear such a comment. Despite it's truth."
"Overhear what?" Sorn's faint voice floated up from below them.
"Nothing." Rig said quickly with a small laugh.
The kurik and bard climbed the side of the mountain and paused just below them. "Come down," Sorn said. "The cave is clear."
"Wake up milady." Ukino whispered, nudging Adwen.
She moaned in protest and sat up with a start. "Huh!? Oh… I guess I fell asleep…" Adwen rubbed her eyes sleepily and stood up with a stretch and a yawn.
"No time for sleep just yet!" Jasper teased her from below. "We've training to do."
Adwen held back her protests and picked her way down the side of the mountain. Rig picked up Raol and carried the horse gingerly down to the lip of the cave and sat the horse down just inside the entrance. The horse shook himself off indignantly, not please with being carried around. Sorn went to his horse's side and stroked his nose, gently speaking to him in elven. Jasper rolled his eyes and walked past the pair, motioning for Adwen to follow him.
"I spotted a place where we can fight, though you'll have to be careful, one wrong move and we'll have to send for Rig to patch you up." He teased her as he led the way.
"You may be the one who needs patching." Adwen taunted back with an evil smile.
"Oh, I see you recover quick." He quipped at her with a playful wink.
"You may be laughing now but that'll change in a few minutes." Adwen warned him with a grin.
"Oh just shut up and fight." Sorn groaned, walking into the cave.
The pair laughed and descended down to a wide flat rock to spar on. Within the cave Rig went about setting up camp, though he had to bend over to move about freely. His little companion scampered around him, trying to help as best she could. Sorn ignored them both and unrolled his bed, collapsing into it, with his back to the room and almost instantly fell asleep.