Notes: Yes, it is long. Just under 10, 000 words. Right now it's a stand alone, but considering doing more stories with the characters mentioned. Or at very least set in the same universe.
The sack was heavy, dripping cool water against his leg, and soaking through the layers of rolled up cotton on his knees. He dug his toes into the moist ground and used a low branch to pull himself up the incline. Many foolish young boys had fallen to their death on this steep cliff, and only the absolute foolhardy dared to slide down to prove their manhood. Most of those fools ended up on a stretcher in the clinic or worse—some had gotten themselves in such bad fixes they couldn't be saved and had drowned in the high-tide, screaming and shrieking the whole time. But nobody could hear them, not through the dirt and the canopy of trees that was so thick not a bird could fly or nest. Nestled between the cliffs was the calmest part of the river, deep and cool and the best sort of place to swim and laze. Not that he had ever come down here with the intent to laze; but to collect the pure samples of river rocks. They were smoothest here, softest and most pliable. But strong and immutable; once imbibed with power they would not leak or cast a glow. Granted the rocks that shifted and squelched inside the wet mesh sack were the plainest sort of rock available, but the plain-faced wore the best disguise of all. Nobody would stop for a second to look at the plain, but beauty attracted problems.
His fingers closed around the outcropping of stone, and he hauled himself on top of it, pausing belly-down on the warm rock to rest a moment and catch his breath. Carter was not old, not even on the cusp of age, really, he was young, steeped and filled with youth. But these jaunts—daily now that the itch had come back to his fingers and the need to be rid of the power—were always hardest this time of year. He made the daily trips, slid down the slope, dodging tree trunks and dangers, fell head first into the stream and spent hours hunting the best specimens because he had to. No other time of year would give him the satisfactory results that this time did. Just after spring, when the air was hot and heavy, but not quite summer. When summer came the stream would still be there, but it would be shallower except at high tide, and he wasn't as inclined to go rushing headfirst into a high tide. When he had caught his breath, he rolled onto his back, feeling the heavy weight of the bag stretch the belt around his waist. His hair was damp, but warm, and his face was covered in sweat again. So far up the cliff, the sunlight ripped through the thinner foliage and shone bright in his eyes.
There wasn't time to rest. Jeco was undoubtedly blundering something at the shop. A thief was undoubtedly setting off the alarms and he was sure a human would have wondered in by now, searching through the artifacts and relics of his kind, nosing around for whatever information they could use and sell back in their home town. Jeco thought the humans were harmless, he liked them, encouraged them and when he could sold them little bits of information. Humans had an insatiable appetite for information, for slander and gossip and unless they were contained by allowing the right information to slip through, they would overrun their own borders and invade wherever they thought they had the right. Funny thing, though, the humans didn't have the right to even step a toe into the land that didn't belong to them under the sanctioned agreements that stood for thousand and thousands of years. Tradition meant so little to the humans if it stood in the way of advancement.
Carter forced himself back to his feet and retrieved his bracing stick—the one he always left here on this rock—and started up the slope once more. It wasn't nearly as steep this far up and in just a few yards, he was back on stable ground, surrounded by a bevy of excited children that chittered and chattered and stuck out grubby, dirty fingers begging for whatever yummies they could get. He gave them a smile but didn't hand anything else out. They followed him as far as the town, hands out, whining and whimpering and batting their eyes, trying to be adorable, and it made him laugh, but he had nothing to give them. Once he reached the first building, the crowd dispersed and not even the most stubborn followed him back to his shop. It was a squat building, plain dirt brown, one window, a sign painted by his cousin—he had been pleased that Theronin could spell his name correctly and hadn't bothered to comment on how ugly the orange letters were, or how crooked. The door was propped open by a clay jar, and the jar was filled with bay leaves, filling the doorway with a cleansing scent. Inside the ceiling was low, the shelves were stocked solidly with little clay crocks filled with herbs and herbal mixes. The floor was piled with items the townsfolk wanted sold but didn't have the time to sell themselves. Customers were always thick in here, searching for whatever herbs they felt would suit their purposes best. Jeco was flirting with a little human girl. She was laughing, tucking her blond-streaked brown hair behind a round ear. Her eyes flitted to him, to the sack handing on his side. Jeco looked at him too, raising a hand in greeting and then turning his attention back to the human.
Carter gritted his teeth and tried very hard not to raise his voice and scream at the young apprentice. Jeco was to stay behind the counter, to maintain the air of a professional, and give even attention to anyone that needed it. He certainly wasn't supposed to flirt with the little pale humans that wandered into the shop. But Jeco was barely sixteen, hormone-bound, deeply in love with the exotic and for some reason that Carter had failed to realize, he fancied humans. Carter shook his wet hair, it fell from behind his ears and covered the front of his face. Nobody turned to look at him. Nobody even noticed him when Jeco was there—beautiful little apprentice that drew in so much business from the ladies, young and old, and Jeco who was pitied and loved and cooed over. Carter could gag to death on the sugar sweetness of the old ladies that worried over the young man. But it wasn't his place to dictate Jeco's private life, so Carter climbed the stairs behind the counter and slid into his workshop above the store.
The heavy shutters were open and air and light flooded through the cramped attic. His bed, and Jeco's pile of pillows were in the far corner, pressed against the front wall of the shop. The tables that Carter worked on were shoved into the opposite corners, and he hefted the bag onto the broadest table, dumping the contents out where the sun and air would dry them. After he cleaned them he would inspect all the rocks one last time, every facet would be examined and graded. The whole process took months of dedicated work. It took patience that he did not have, but forced himself to find in these moments when he worked. The last set was dry, but wouldn't be ready for cleaning until tomorrow morning. Those he had just cleaned two days prior were lying out on the short table against the west wall. He sat on the stool and ran his fingers over the water-polished stones. Plain, flat gray, not even shiny but so smooth to the touch. So soft, like newborn skin. He closed his fist around one, rose it to his eyes. The plainest rock, but not a crack, not a crevice or a chip. It fit easily into his palm, grew warm next to his skin. And as he concentrated on it, feeling it and seeing it, breathing in the earth-scent of it; he became aware of the power inside of him, and around him, rushing and ebbing, like a tide sweeping along all the lines of his control. The rock was there, receptive, and through his palm, through the pores in his hands, he felt the power, imbibing it deep into the core of this flat rock. It was hot now, burning his palm, flaying open the scars, but he held it still, felt music rising in his mind, the ebb and flow of power as it took hold of him. Magic. Beauty. All the power the world offered, all the world's power, harness, controlled, corralled and passed into a simple rock. He could toss it back into the river and not a soul would find it, not a soul would use it. Carter closed his other hand over it, stopped the flood of power, and with meticulous precision tied off the line that connected the rock to him. He signed it with his spirit and etched his mark into it, far deep below the surface where only a person capable of accessing such a magnitude of power could see it.
Jeco's feet where heavy and loud on the wooden steps, and his breath was fast and loud as he burst into the workroom. His face was flushed with youth and enthusiasm, his fingers curled and his chest puffed out in pride. Coins jingled in his pocket, expectation lit his eyes, and he remembered only at the last moment to bow his head as he rushed to Carter's side. "Sir," he said, "Sir, could I have the afternoon free?"
Carter rolled the rock between his palms, felt it cool and then rose it back to sniff it, the same earth-scent, the same shineless gray smoothness. Without looking at Jeco, who shifted from foot to foot in the ageless dance of youth, he pulled the locked box from under the table and opened it so he could deposit the freshly-made power source within. The box was heavy, filled to the brim with similar brown and gray river rocks. If Jeco understood what he was doing, the apprentice surely didn't show it. But then, Jeco was the son of a smart Elf, and thus would fall into utter obscurity if not careful. Intelligence, beauty and true genius skipped over generations. Jeco's father was a smart Elf, but he was not pretty; Jeco was pretty but neither smart nor genius. Carter looked at him, at his stained shirt and breeches, wondered what it was about this blundering little idiot that everyone found so absolutely endearing, and decided for his own sake of mind, that allowing him to leave might be the best sort of action. "And in return for this afternoon?"
"I'll sweep and dust," Jeco said promptly. He stopped shifting from foot to foot, and smoothed down his shirt with dirty fingers. The shop was filled with dirt and dust, from ceiling to floor, and the very mention of cleaning normally sent Jeco screaming and running. But if he was volunteering himself for the torture, Carter certainly wasn't going to point out that this little round-eared human girl wasn't worth it.
"Very well," Carter said. He stood and grabbed his hat from a hook just next to the stairs. After it was securely on, he descended back into the storeroom, where there was a line of customers standing and looking highly harassed. It took a great deal of restraint and the persistent reminder that Jeco was going to clean the room to keep him from grabbing his apprentice by the scruff and dragging his girl-chasing dirty-shirted lazy self back in here. But the customers were polite—painfully polite, for they always seemed to be on edge around him. Too aware that was more than capable of finding and punishing anyone that tried to shoplift from his store. He sold only the highest quality herbs and crockery, he was respected for that, but that didn't protect him from thievery. No, only his extensive alarm systems allowed him any peace of mind about his products. Slowly, one by one, the customers paid and clutched their new property as they hesitantly passed through the doorway.
It had been two months since the last shop-lifter attempted to walk through the threshold. He had been caught in four different alarms, and unfortunately had been electrocuted. He was still around, hiding his head—it was permanently bald, and one of his ears was now severely malformed—no serious damage was done, but enough of a spectacle was made that all thieves were sufficiently warned away. Carter didn't sell a single product that was necessary for the preservation of life—if he sold bread or meat then his systems would have been far less severe, for even he understood that some thievery was necessary. But his products were all luxuries. Nobody needed luxuries.
Once the customers were gone, Carter was left alone in the room, with so little light and such thick air. The combination of so many different scents made the room hazy in the fading afternoon light. He waited until the dinner bell rang, and then closed the door, flipped the black-lettered sign on the door, and retreated back upstairs. Jeco never ate here; there was always a date or a matron that was more than willing to take pity on his poor, thin waist and fill him up. Carter didn't care; he could fix himself something quick and eat it just as well by himself. The rocks were drying and he didn't feel that there was enough patience left in him to fill another one. Exhaustion weighed on him—a reminder that power dragged youth out of him forcibly, and he lay down on his bed, rested his head on the pillow, stared up at the ceiling. Loneliness had ceased to grip him the moment he realized he had inherited his uncle's genius. Thero the great Necromancer, had three sons. Two were long dead, one was left—Theronin, and the boy was as thick as a brick house, slow as sap in the winter, and he drooled if his head was propped upright at all times. Theronin wasn't pitied or cared for except by those with direct blood ties to him. Carter's other cousins—three beautiful young ladies—were appointed for the task of caretaker. Theronin had inherited the worst curse an elf could ever wish for—he was the son of a genius, the son of a legend. No elf wanted to have that curse. Carter's own father—he could not even remember his name—had fallen in obscurity years ago and died somewhere, was buried in an unmarked grave. The only thing memorable about him was his wife and she too was gone now.
Loneliness didn't bother Carter, but he sometimes felt very alone. One elf in a town of elves, and he had enough power at his fingertips to level the world. He could set time backward, relive his life and change all his mistakes. He could change the course of Elf and Human history. But while that power was there, he didn't have the ability to use it. What he needed was someone who could access and use the power he had collected. That someone would have to be so closely tied to Carter that it would likely mean a lifetime marriage or bonding. Nothing less would suffice; their individual energy signatures would have to mesh so perfectly as to become one, such a thing was highly unusual.
He pulled his hat off and draped it across the post of his bed, ran his fingers through his thick dark hair, and ruffled it. Water made his hair curl, brushes made it straight again. Sunlight streaked it light brown, and darkness made it nearly black. His eyes were brown—except when he wore green, then they turned hazel-green. His face was as plain as his shop—he didn't own a single mirror, but Jeco did. The very few times Carter had ever risked looking into one he was disgusted with what he saw and decided that his happiness would never be hinged on some ridiculous arbitrary social standard. He would be himself and be content with that.
Just as he settled into his bed, belly down, and closed his eyes, there came three sharp taps to the door. Carter rose again, begrudged ever giving into the incessant pleading of the whiny addicts, and descended the stairs once more to open the front door and allow the hooded figures to slip in. They didn't say anything, he didn't bother to point them in the right direction. Instead, they bowed their heads, ducking and moving silently, grabbed the crocks off the shelf that were left unlabeled and unsold, then like obedient children, they stood in line next to the counter and waited for him to collect their payment. Three taps meant the addicts had come to collect their monthly supply of addiction. Those that bought from him retained a bit of respect from the community, they were pitied and helped. Although the addicts themselves certainly didn't realize it; Carter laced their addictions through with the necessary herbs to make them healthy and normal. Eventually the herbs would help them to give up their addictions while at the same time make it so that they sought out only that particular herb in the future should they lapse into addiction again.
Jeco returned as the last of them were leaving. He was grinning, and with a great flourish he closed the door and flipped the locks. His blond hair was ruffled, his teeth were perfectly straight and clean. In fact, with the exception of a blood-bruise on his neck he had returned from the fray relatively unharmed. Not unusual, but humans tended to deal with Jeco's advances less gracefully than Felfs—female elfs, a new age term and the stupidest thing Carter had ever heard of. But the feminists wanted to be referred to as Felfs and he could not argue. "A mighty good evenin' to you, Sir," Jeco said.
"It seems to have agreed with you well enough."
No more was said. Jeco just laughed and skipped up the stairs, pulling off his stained shirt as he went, and by the time Carter had ascended the wooden steps, his apprentice was already snuggled deep in his nest of pillows and well on his way to sleeping.
The next morning there was rain, and the candles were lit in the shop, the door left closed, but the sign turned to announce that they were, in fact, open. The window was opened—to allow the cool wind to blow in, but also to take the cloying dust out. True to his promise, Jeco was sweeping the floor and dusting the innumerous shelves. There was a happy skip in his step and a lilting, annoying happy ring to his singing. With a talent as strong as that, one would have assumed that Jeco would apprenticed himself to an artisan, to a singer who could make him famous and rich and well-known in both the elf and human world. But no, Jeco had bound himself to Carter. That too, brought a great deal of speculation and gossip to the town. For why would an elf who hadn't even achieved the ripe age of thirty need an apprentice? Thirty was the age of maturity; the age of respect and prominence. Any elf that turned thirty was accepted by the community and celebrated, they were announced to the world as a master of their craft and rewarded with apprentices. Even those that fell into obscurity were special on their thirtieth birthday. The tradition had been handed down across the eons for as long as any historian could trace. The nearest anyone could come to the reason why thirty was the age of respect was that Ciero the Brave had achieved the age when he first conquered these lands, and thus won all the respect of elf-kind. Granted, they lived for extended lifetimes, sometimes gracing the four-century mark, but thirty was the year even the oldest patrons remembered.
Carter was in his workshop, smoothing his hand over another completed power-source, soothing the burned skin of his palm by rubbing it with the rock, and the power collected therein was enough to heal him. The healing was innate; all the rocks would heal him, automatically through contact. That was a good excuse for creating what would otherwise just be regarded as a foolhardy act of stupidity. Yes, he had great power, and yes, if he could use it he would one day be considered a genius. But as it stood Carter was just collecting power—more than enough to level the world—and should it fall into the wrong hands, well then he would be remembered as a bane on elf-kind and his name would be slandered for all time.
Exhaustion weighed on his bones again, and he forced himself back to his feet and clamored down the stairs. There was nobody there but Jeco, and his broom, so Carter stepped out onto the street. Rain and cold air met him immediately, and the water plastered his hair down over his skin. Only a few children were left playing in the street. They were skipping rope and singing praises to the rain—as it got them out of school and yard work. Theronin was there too, jumping and hopping with them, standing out in a crowd of little ones because he was nearly Jeco's age, and still just as stupid as a brick. His mind didn't work like others, and even in the rain, you could see the drool on his chin. Carter wondered if there were a way to fix him sometimes, a way to make Theronin's brain work right, to keep him from acting like a four year old little. But that sort of intricate work would take more patience that Carter could ever hope to possess. Here, in the rain, from this distance, the thought of Theronin achieving thirty was as absurd as supposing Carter would sprout wings and fly. Mao and Lao stepped out of a dress shop, holding their parcels tight to their chests, and with a stern, pitiless call, Theronin left the group of littles and shuffled after his cousins.
With a heavy sigh—full of regret for he couldn't take responsibility for Theronin—Carter turned back to open the door to his shop. The slightest movement caught his eye, and he looked up. Bare inches from his nose were two wide open eyes, staring at him from a human face, round ears pertly pink in the cold rain, and she was suspended there by wires. He pulled his lips back in a mirthless smile, and wrapped his hand around the last wire that held her, with a pull she was a tangle of limbs on the ground, and he dragged her into the shop. Not an elf in the bunch would stand for her now, not a single one would risk their life to say that she had not intended to steal something from him. Nobody hung upside down off the side of a building for any reason other than thievery, and since there was nothing of worth in his workroom except the rocks, it was safe to assume somehow this little human had gotten a wind of the power he was collecting.
Jeco stopped singing when the little human fell into the middle of the floor, skidding in a puddle of her own making, and washing up just at the apprentice's feet. It was the same little human that had been flirting with Jeco the night before; the dirty minx.
"What are you doing here?" Carter demanded, "Why are you here?"
Her hand was bleeding—and he could have cared less, but Jeco was already moving to get a clean rag. Her face was flushing red now, and her round ears were still plainly visible, even as wisps of her hair curled out of the tight thong holding her hair back. "Obviously you're not going to believe anything that I say!" she snapped, "What kind of a man grabs someone like that anyway?"
"The sort of man that's being robbed, I'd say," Carter returned.
Jeco took the human's hand in his own and soothed away the angry hurt with a rag and some scented healing water. Not that Carter would have approved of the use, but at least if the little thief was healthy she could work off her attempted robbery. Emptiness struck Carter suddenly, as he looked at the woman's round ears, and he was so very aware that he was alone again. More than alone, he had been robbed; not an attempt, but in fact, should he go upstairs and look, he would find that his collection of precious rocks were gone.
Without a word to Jeco, Carter turned and vaulted up the stairs, moving so quickly it felt as if he were lifted on a wind, and when he fell to his knees at the low table, the locked box of rocks was gone. In its place was a simple round marble. Shiny, glass with a ribbon of color. All the rocks that had been on his work tables were smashed to dust, and a marble was set on each pile of dust. Anger flooded through Carter, and rage, fed by the power that flowed but would not ebb. He felt it burning him, felt the backlash of his own anger as it turned to white flames. All around him, he could feel the heat, building and building, and all he could think of was the little human girl down there on his floor, simpering in the arms of Jeco, in the arms of the very elf she had seduced to get to the rocks. Jeco knew what Carter was doing, as an apprentice he was privy to the information. And the little minx had used him. Carter couldn't recall descending the stairs, but suddenly, he was on the ground floor, and he felt the earth churn under his feet. Felt the power as it crested inside of him, and flames rose from inside him, they enveloped him, and danced and burned all around.
"You filthy, whoring human!" he shouted, "Thieving, worthless minx!"
"I didn't take your stinking rocks," she snapped, "They were gone when I got there."
This information was irrelevant in the face of his anger, and Carter lashed out, grabbing her hand away from Jeco, pulling her upright onto her feet. He could feel the power obeying his will, wrapping around her, drawing her in a complex web of ties and chains, and he leaned very close to her. "It is your life-debt to me, human. Until I have every rock back in my possession, you will serve me in whatever way I wish. Should you attempt to leave you will die."
"Only a fool would be afraid of you," she responded. Then she ripped her wrist away from him and turned, striding toward the door like a proud stallion. But she was nothing more to him now than a cur, and he yanked the chains that bound her to him, chains that she could not see, and could never escape. Like a tethered animal she was jerked back, and her legs gave out as she clawed at the tightening bonds. Her scream was thick in the room, like Jeco's yelling, but Carter didn't care. This little human had robbed him, and he would have her life. She jerked and turned, her eyes caught his, and in a silent prayer, she begged him for his pity, submitted to him, fell before him and in this act bled out all his anger.
Now there was only the knowledge of failure, and the terrible, terrible regret. He sank to his knees on the floor, and then covered his eyes as tears fell from them. His hair was curling all around his face, and he could feel it lifting back, tightening as it dried. Jeco was still there, hovering and unsure, for he had thought himself apprenticed to an obscure, and now suddenly found that he was in the presence of a genius, of a magic.
"You're human," the woman breathed, "Look at your ears!"
Carter didn't bother to raise his head, didn't to look at her. She was beneath him now, beneath his worries. He felt the tenable, concealed chains that tied her to him, and he no longer had the power or the anger to loosen or dispel them. In his moment of rage, he had sworn her to him in such a fashion that nobody could break the bond until he gathered enough anger and purpose to do it himself. He had shackled himself to this human girl, and now she was staring at him like a sideshow gawker.
"He's not human," Jeco snapped. As the apprentice it would be considered disrespectful not to defend his master, and Jeco was a great observer of tradition—when it suited him. "He is an elf. His mother was human."
The girl sneered, and then tried to move away again, but the chains tightened around her, and she was forced to inch closer in order to loosen them. "I didn't take your rocks," she repeated, "I told you that they were already gone. Now could you let me go?"
Carter looked up, wiped his eyes on his hand, and stared at her. She was small featured, tiny and so thin and bony he almost expected to find that he had broken her. But her eyes shone through with a determination and will that was absolutely unbreakable. "No," he whispered, "I cannot let you go. I don't have the ability to do that."
"But you just did this!" she shouted, shaking her arms and rattling the invisible bonds. He could hear the disturbances like the clanking of metal, but she could only feel the tightening grip of manacles on her thin wrists. "Why can't you undo it?"
"Because I don't know how!" he shouted, "Why must you humans questions everything you're told?"
"I have a name," she hissed, "It's Hannah."
Jeco was still standing there, shifting in his little dance of impatience, and he was clearly unable to decide what he should be doing now. The direct course of action would be to defend his master in all accounts, to curse the human as a fool and tell her that the only way to be free would be to fulfill her life-debt, but on the other hand, there may never be a way to fulfill such a debt. She did not take the rocks, and it wasn't necessarily true that she knew where they were.
"I'll call you what I want, human," Carter replied. He climbed to his feet, felt the weariness of so much energy and he leaned on Jeco, trusting his apprentice to make the appropriate decision and carry him up the stairs. Like a good boy, Jeco did just that, and the human followed, jerking and scratching against the chains that held her. She glowered at the end of his bed, leaning her back against the foot of the mattresses, and he rolled onto his stomach, buried his face in the pillow. She could wait; the human could not leave his side, not even when he was sleeping and not consciously in control of the bonds.
It was midnight when he woke, or else very close to midnight. The human had crawled into Jeco's nest of pillows and was sleeping while the apprentice was brushing the dust into a dirt pan and tidying up the area of the crime. With a bare jerk of the chains, Hannah was on her feet and stumbling over to Carter's side. Her inelegant yelp was all the warning he got before she fell into him. Once he kicked her off and she was again on the floor, he looked at her very closely. "What do you know about who took my stones?"
"Only that a mage named Herro wanted them."
"Is he man or elf?"
"Elf, I would assume. Aren't you all the ones that always have the names that end in O? Or most of you anyway? I never met the man. As far as I know, nobody has ever met him. And before you ask, I have on idea how he knew you had them." She crossed her arms over her chest, and frowned at him.
Herro. Carter leaned back on the bed. Most elves knew their history as well as the historians, but he couldn't recall any elf named Herro. There had been one named Huro, one named Hearin. They were ancient though, and it was highly unlikely that such legends as that would chose to return. Once a legend it was most commonly accepted that the spirits moved on to greatness in the other-realms. But this Herro character didn't sound familiar to Carter. Of course, he could have been considered an obscure, and thus forgotten. "How did you hear of this?"
"He sent me a letter."
"So you are a thief by trade," Carter said.
"I've been known to acquire items that are difficult to locate, sir, but I don't take them without permission."
Carter would have smacked her for the rudeness, but then she could have cried out and told all her brothers and sisters that the elves were cruel. Considering he already had enslaved her, brutality would likely paint him twice the monster he was. "And whose permission did you acquire to take the stones? Jeco's? He doesn't have the authority to give you the permission you would need."
"They didn't tell me who the damn things belonged to. Only that they would be here, in this shop, and that I needed to have them by a certain day."
"Master," Jeco said. He shuffled closer, biting his lower lip, and then bowed his head in respect. "Couldn't you release the energy, sir? If you tied it all back to you, couldn't you call it back? Wouldn't that make the stones worthless, sir?"
Carter heaved a sigh, and silently prayed to all nine of the Gods of Wisdom for patience. If only the process were as simple as his apprentice made it sound. "And what would I do with such power, Jeco? Where would I put it? I've been collecting those stones since I was thirteen. That's half my life."
"Create something," Hannah whispered, "Create something from nothing, the amount of energy that would take would certain be more than enough to drain the stones to the point of worthlessness. Think of what Herro would do to the thief that presents him with a box of dust." She grinned a bit, "Whatever you do; you only have a few days to do it in."
"Oh, that would make you more famous than Ciero, sir. You would be remembered as Carter, the Architect. You could create anything, sir." Jeco was already humming a song of tribute, and he was tapping his feet to the rhythm, Carter could feel his dreams, the fantastical visions of Jeco's own fame as the composer of songs.
"I can't do that," Carter said.
"Why not?" Hannah demanded. Her brashness was out-distanced only by her lack of feminism. From her place at his feet, she was blithely demanding he explain his every failing to her, and the audacity of it struck him like a sour tart.
"I don't answer to you, human," he snapped.
"You most certainly do, half-human! I'm not the one that tied you to me; you did it. So until you let me go, you most certainly will answer to me." She climbed to her feet and glared down at him, challenging him so plainly Jeco pulled back and sucked in a breath.
Carter said nothing. How could he admit to this mere woman that he was incapable of manipulating the energy that he controlled? How could he tell her when he had kept it secret from everyone else he had ever met? Not even his uncle had known he did not possess the ability of manipulation. He was limited only to creating energy sources and chains. All else was beyond him. But to admit that to his little tomboy, to this thief… That he couldn't bear to do. Not even if it meant the end of the world.
"Look, I didn't take your
damn stones, and I didn't even really want to.
But this Herro character seemed like the sort of person that would make
your life very difficult if you refused him, and I wasn't exactly going to send
him back a note that says 'gee no thanks' if you know what I mean. So what was I supposed to do, come up to you
and say 'Mr. Carter, sir, I'm sorry but there is a raving lunatic that wants
some river stones of yours, would you please send them to him, post
haste?' Would that make you feel
Jeco moved forward then. "Yes, maybe you should have. What is he going to do to you now? You've reveled who he is, you've told us what he's after and you've failed him completely. What do you suppose he would do to you if he could get his hands on you? You're just lucky he's not going to be able to break through master Carter's chains."
"Whatever," she said.
Carter was tired again. There was no solution to this malady, not yet. But it would come to him. He would discover it, because he was destined to be genius, a great one, one to be remembered. Not at all like his father, whose name not even those with the best memory could recall. He would be like Thero and Ciero, the great ones. If he could not be great than he would channel all that energy through himself tomorrow and die.
"Cater! Cater!" Theronin was trailing behind him like an obedient puppy, drooling out of the corner of his mouth and spitting out the best imitation of Carter's name he could manage. The rain was still falling, just as it had been for the past two days. The little human was still trailing him; though honestly he could hardly blame her persistence on anyone but himself. The chains that were meant to be a punishment to her were becoming just the opposite.
"Cater!" Theronin screeched. He jogged, tripping over his own long feet, and grabbed Carter's shoulders to keep from falling to the ground. The momentum propelled them forward, and it took all his physical strength to keep from tumbling head first down the incline. It wasn't the same ridge he used to collect rocks, but it was the second most treacherous, and he wasn't looking forward to a mad dash. He paused at the even length of ground and turned to face his three companions. Jeco was there to defend the little human from any sort of angry outburst.
"Cater," Theronin asked, spitting happily into the air, "Wat we do?" Then he giggled and threw open his arms, allowing the wind and rain to catch him and direct his fall. He landed in the underbrush, and giggled again, loudly, looking up at his cousin with an adoring gaze, full of laughter and mirth and youth. "Wat we do here?"
Hannah—as the human demanded she be called, and after having been on the receiving end of her particular talents, he assumed it would be wise to call her what she wished—was once again gnashing her teeth in annoyance. "You cannot be considering this seriously. It's murder, Carter. Even a half-human would be able to see that."
"He's an elf," Jeco said staunchly. It was easy for Jeco, as clear as black and white, no gray area. True, Carter didn't have an elf name—thanks to his human mother—and he didn't have the curved, steeple ears, he didn't have the rich skin tone or the song-bird voice. But he had the face, the eyes, and the genius to be coddled and considered one of the elves.
"Well excuse me, but I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. I assumed that he had an inkling of compassion," Hannah replied dryly.
"Of course he has compassion, and he has understanding and he has sympathy for your kind!" Jeco said, "But an elf can only endure so much of you humans before he realizes that you're petty and concerned only with your own preservation. You're standing here, yelling at him for offering his cousin a chance to be remembered for all time as the savior of elf and mankind. He's giving up his own chance to be remembered as a genius and handing it all to Theronin!"
"Well excuse for not understand the fine distinction between murder and grandeur," Hannah hissed. She crossed her arms over her chest and sneered at all three of them. Her anger sparked around them, like fireballs, and sparklers blew through the trees, hooting and cooing like birds.
"Cater?" Theronin whispered, he scooted closer to Carter's legs, and held out his hand. "Cater, want." He made an impatient little noise in the back of his throat and then whined, like a puppy.
Carter handed the marbles to Theronin, and knelt in front of him. "Your father could scry for people, can you see who left these?" He rested his hand on Theronin's head, on his greasy, dirty hair and concentrated on the ebb and flow of energy, pressing just enough into the ruin of his cousin's mind to activate some dormant instinct. It would not benefit anyone but Carter in the future, but it would give a reason to Theronin's existence; and considering his cousin was apprenticed aged with no real talents; a reason to live would be the difference between life and death. Even as Carter sank his power into the tangled webs of Theronin's mind, he could feel Hannah digging deeper into his power, nestling down inside of his subconscious where she didn't belong.
"Men," Theronin whispered, "Big men. With axes… And a warlock. He wants to kill. He wants to rule. Cater?" Then came the puppy whine, a tear, and the drool on his cousin's chin dried and for the first time, his dull eyes were perfectly clear. "Why they hate us?" But the assault on his mind proved to great, and Theronin's eyes clouded, his tongue lolled out of his lax lips and he folded down to the ground, unconscious and unknowing.
Carter heaved a sigh and turned to look at Hannah. She was still standing there, seething and broiling in her indignant rage. As a human she would never understand the stock and elf put in their legend; she would never understand the need for true immortality in a world where life extended so far. It was no deficiency in her; just a difference in cultures and a veil of prejudice that extended all the way back to Ciero the Brave. "Can you use power of is all of this," he motioned up at the fireworks and twirlers with his left hand, "Just a fancy display?"
"If I could use power don't you think I would have done something to you by now?" Her frown grew tighter and more grim, her look more sour.
Carter would have liked to point out that he had been on the receiving end of her temper tantrum, and she had very nearly rendered him incapable of reproducing, but he felt that a reminder of her tantrum would bring about a reprisal. "I ask because you seem to be doing a great deal subconsciously. Whoever this Herro character is he is going to need to be stopped."
"Oh, and you're the elf for this job because you want the glory for it?" Her self-righteousness would have put even the most ardent felf to shame, for she possessed this conviction in such quantities that it was unthinkable.
"I'm the elf for the job because it's my fault. Those stones contain more power than you're likely to ever see, and I still have more within me that needs an outlet. Now, if you will kindly descend from your cloud, I would ask you again: Can you manipulate power or not?"
Jeco was nearly dancing a ceremonial chant in his place at her side. Even his hands were shaking in his nervousness, and once again, the young apprentice found himself in the inescapable position of trying to be kind to the human and defending the honor and integrity of the Elfs.
"If I am manipulating it, I don't know how I'm doing it. I just focus on something and it usually makes its way to me."
"Make your decision now, human, are you capable of doing more than spouting off your mouth? I haven't really got the time to stand here and argue with you. That power has to be dispelled and the only person in the world that can do it is me; and guess what? You're tied to me. Whatever happens to this elf, happens to you."
Her lips pulled back over her pearly white teeth; her cheeks flushed with anger and her eyes were deadly focused on him. He could feel the chains changing, become more fluid, becoming a live conduit. She was drawing from him again; without even knowing it, she was using him as a power source and he didn't know if he had the nerve to be offended. Standing here right before him was a potential legend; a woman that possessed such great ability but didn't have the slightest clue how to manipulate it. Lucky, lucky Carter, for he had sealed himself to her with a curse that she could never fulfill. Once he released the energy from those stones he would never hold them again; they would return to dust and she would never be able to give them back. She was his forever, and he was part of her.
"Ready?" he whispered.
Her scream of rage was his answer, and just as he felt her rip through the wires connecting him, he pulled on the signatures he left in the stones. They burst, gave way to a great flood of energy, of power. It was raw and hot and burning through him, rushing like a flash flood through the valley and he could scarcely breath. Pain had become not a sensation but a reality; a way of life, and he could do nothing but feel it—in its entirety, utterly. He became pain, became this live, twisting serpent of pain. All at once, there was the great rush, things moved around him, and he couldn't see, for he was no blind. Fingers closed on the stones—he could feel them, claw like hands, covered in metal and cotton, and as he released the power, the hand tightened on dust. Anger flooded through him, more anger than he could feel, more than he could sustain.
Herro was there. There. Right before him, and Carter was blind, deaf, a bumbling baby suddenly, wrapped in a womb of pain, living only through the wires that tied him to a stubborn human. She was still standing, glowing, burning, white flames were bursting around her. Trees were shifting, changing to stone and brick, moving and building. A monument, a sacrifice. He didn't know; his world was all black. But Herro was there—the monster, part human, part elf, part something they had never seen, never dreamed off. The transmuted flesh of a spectator; an incubus, a demon. A warlock with such immense talent and yet no power at all.
Hannah drew the power inside herself and lashed out in fury, encompassing the warlock, drawing Herro into a weave of power and changing his misshapen flesh into something even more hideous. Carter reached out, looking for Theronin's unconscious body, looking for Jeco, trying to touch anything that tied him to the real world. But pain and blindness held him in their thrall, and he could nothing but feel Hannah as she fashioned countless staves, ripping and tearing with them, attack this monster, Herro, and still the stones were sending endless waves of power through him. There was no ebb, only the flow, growing higher and higher until his whole body was consumed by it.
Then, all in a moment, he felt his body give out. Blackness changed from what he could see, to what he was, and he had no memory but Hannah's echoing scream.
Years had not changed the legend; years had not changed the moments, the memories, or the pain. Years had not given him back what he had lost in the grove, not restored to him all that he had given up for the preservation of life. Years could not restore his sight; could not give life back to Theronin. Years did not change what horror was frozen forever, pierced through with staves and captured in solid, immutable stone. Herro—the villain, the incubus and killer of children, Herro the bane of the North, was forever captured in the monument that was built of Carter's power and Hannah's anger. Herro, as Carter had been told in the passing years, had been the warlock that controlled the lands to the north of the human settlements. He had eaten the flesh of the unknown's children. His death had made Hannah and Carter legends that surpassed the grandeur of Ciero the Brave.
But Theronin had still died there, and was still lying there, in a crumple mess of limbs, like a sleeping babe, cast in the same stone and molten metal as Herro. The trees that had swayed and fallen under the waves of power were still caught, the grand, sprawling halls still sparkled. The names of the obscure ones were still etched into the walls—and for that matter, where had Hannah gotten the knowledge of the forgotten ones?
Jeco was famous for his compositions of the heroic date, and he had loved to sing out praises of his master, Carter, and of his dearest Hannah. He sang of her courage, of her manipulation—the sort of which all Sorceress, Mages and Witches aspired to but could not attain. Hannah was a Master, a supreme in her art. Never trained, never realized, a former thief that was life-bound and life-indebted to Carter. And Carter, the man of legends, was a blind half-elf who ran a shop, who sold addictions to the addicts and regard himself with no more grandeur this day than he had so many days ago when he had climbed the ridge carrying a sack full of river rocks.
Fame was a hollow victory.
"It hasn't changed," Hannah said. He couldn't see her, but he was sure her arms were crossed tightly over her chest, her face was set in a scowl, and her mind bristled with dislike and yet a fondness for him that had grown reluctantly over the many years. "Why do we still come here? It hasn't changed."
Carter wanted to quip, 'neither have you' and despite the honesty, he couldn't find it in him to speak the words. She and he stood as the immutable stone, immortal in the truest sense of the word. He looked back on his youth—though truthfully he was perpetually struggling with the many afflictions of youth—and he thought of himself as a brash idiot. He thought of all the stones, all the power he had manifested, all the many, many mistakes he had made. Thought of how stupid he had been to collect so much of the energy of earth and life into such meaningless little shapes, and how idiotic he had been for assuming nobody would find them. He had thrown himself head-first into the greatest pursuit of elf-kind, true immortality He faced all the dangers, and yet, he stood here undeserving of the reward and bearing the scars of a punishment that wasn't grand enough. "To remind us," he answered her, "To remind us why we can never make this mistake again."
Her huff was the only reply. "One day I'll slap the brood right out of you. It wasn't a mistake, Carter. We helped free an entire race of their worst villain. Herro was eating their children."
"We killed Theronin. We destroyed a whole forest, we corrupted life and disrupted the natural order of…"
"Shut up. For an elf you've got a heavy set of morals, there. We didn't disrupt anything. Theronin was going to die someday, you said so yourself. And he died a hero's death, and is remembered forever and ever not as an obscure name on a wall, but as a man who helped to save a race, as a man who gave way to the greatest show of power your people, my people or Herro's victims ever knew."
"How many years?" The sunlight was warm here, on the edge of the monument. Though he had never seen it with his eyes, he knew that it was crystallized white stone. That it shone in the sunlight and stretched from one end of the valley to the other, that the trees that were blown back in the battle were still leaning there, encased forever, that Herro and Theronin were also still there, and he wanted so badly to see it. He held onto the hope that one day sight would be returned to him; and he could see the benefits of his foolhardy bravado. He was no more wise or brave than those idiots that had fallen into the basin and drown in the high-tide. It was only luck and fate that saved him; only Hannah's innate sense of manipulation that kept the whole world from dying that day.
"Eight hundred," Hannah whispered into the grove.
"Maybe we will never die." He could still feel the wires that bound her to him, and likewise him to her. The chains had changed that day, and it had no longer been his domination of her, but also her control of him. Power moved between them constantly, freely, like wind and water. Any use she found was done, any little luxury was indulged. He bore all the power in the world; like leech that drew it from the surface, and only Hannah had the means to lay it back down.
"I'm sure one day you'll brood yourself to death," Hannah assured him. "I mean, with any amount of luck, anyway."
Please leave me a little note that says you read it. Please? *pleady puppy dog eyes*