She had found the patience to track the Prince's descent from the town of Ridge, and she waited until he had journeyed well into the Farmlands until returning to business.
But Blaire liked him. Denizens of her make did not surface very often, and when they did, she did not miss the opportunity of taking advantage of them.
Morning dawned upon the civilization that was once Ridge, only making the billowing clouds of smoke (now so large the buildings were no longer visible) all the more noticeable. What few survivors there had been had either escaped across the Sea by boat or into the countryside, where the luckier ones would most likely dredge up farms of their own to get by. Not that Blaire gave any of it a second thought. There were more urgent tasks commanding her attention.
Perched at the lip of the grass- and rock-strewn decline behind the town, facing almost directly north, she felt freedom tingle through her every sense. The sunlight caressing her face like molten gold and the shadows it cast simultaneously that slid coolly over her dark, striking features; the crisp morning wind curling around her and lifting her, ever so slightly; the squawking birds repelled slightly by the hordes of smoke sheets.
Tainted. All of it.
Blaire hated every peaceful, neat aspect of spring morning. Even as freedom coursed through her veins, something more malicious gripped her: serenity. Order. Or, rather, the distinct lack of chaos. Life was so extremely dull when the humans weren't forced to squabble for their lives while sanity spilled all around them…
Business. Less thinking, more action. She had business to attend to.
The chill breeze caused her hair to flutter animatedly around her, but she was oblivious to it as she rose above the typical layer of her functioning mind.
The call rang outwards in all directions of the heightened thought-plane. Emptiness was all that greeted her for a minute or so. Then Blaire felt the sign.
It was the faintest of vibrations issuing from somewhere miles away. Mouths stood between where she last heard the sound and then, as she stood solidly on the rock decline in concentration.
Come, my pet.
She could feel the rough textures of the minutes that slipped by almost as if she could reach out and stop them—or, preferably, speed them up. Not that one of Menathys's build needed much speeding up. Within minutes, a dark, fiery blur, ever familiar to Blaire's bloody-hued eyes, was streaking across the fields in massive bounds.
A hiss of satisfaction rattled from her teeth. Already it felt as if no time had passed since she had been streaming freely across the land atop her closest (and only) companion.
She lifted an arm wistfully when the monstrous beast pulled to an angry halt before her. Menathys. Blaire still reveled in the name. Menathys, the best of legend, Monster of the Ages. The untameable Menathys. Blaire chuckled audibly. Even if it had taken months—years—she had tracked down the demon they said only existed in myth. Not only found it, but trained it to respond to a master. Who better than her to demonstrate fealty to a beast that served none?
And here he stood, in all of his legendary glory. Menathys resembled a wolf more than anything else; an oversized, lithe and graceful wolf with a coat that varied color in a hundred different places whenever he shifted a muscle, the shades ranging from ash-like gray to a husky, bloody auburn. But perhaps the creature's most noticeable feature was the ivory. Two even rows of tusk-like spikes ran from its neck to its hind legs, stopping just before a swishing tail and allowing enough room for a custom-made saddle in the center of its broad back.
Blaire's hand wrapped around a tuft of fur behind the fiend's ear. She met the flame of hatred smoldering in its sharp eyes with a haughty grin. "Reunited at last," she cooed. "Our only problem now is…where is chaos calling?"
Menathys stared at its mistress for a moment longer, then turned to look intently at the horizon, almost exactly where the Prince of Nalraeda had vanished before.
"Precisely," said Blaire, flitting into the hand-crafted saddle in a number of deft steps.
He was staring.
Joan even had a feeling that he knew that she knew how he watched her, and it bothered—frightened—her even further that he did. Only when she caught him staring did she truly realize how little she knew of him, and just how harmful that status could turn out to be.
Like she had since leaving home, Joan felt as if the cloak draped over her shoulders weighed a hundred thousand times more than it did. The strange thing was, she hurt from it. Her collarbones ached almost as fiercely as her pounding head. The pain was almost everywhere, and all too real. She had hurt that night, too, when the jostling crowd shoved her—and the flames that came from nowhere—the glint of steel, the iron edge of fear sawing at her bones, then—
Her breathing stopped, then seemed to start going backwards, choking in short, ragged breaths at all of the wrong moments. Tears seared around the rims of her eyes as acid memories burst from where she had dammed them up, splashing through her veins, lighting her blood as if it were fresh oil; her lungs stopped working and blackness crept into the corners of her vision. Joan managed a strangled moan, clawed at her head until her fingernails bled.
Keeling over in the grass, she clamped two hands to her mouth and screamed. She never wanted to open her eyes, never ever again…
Then, hesitantly, fingertips touched her shoulder, but she was numb to the concern ebbing from them. Minutes passed and the hand did not move, nor did her breath seem to return.
Finally, eventually, numbness consumed some of the pain—softened it—barely. Some of the fire in her veins hardened into poisonous lead, keeping her weighted heavily to the ground. Each fiber of her body yelled and tugged in a different direction, but each conveyed the same message. Anywhere but here. Dead, if death kills memories.
The prospect seemed so appealing that Joan found herself opening her eyes. Pain wouldn't be a factor; nothing could be worse than…
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the image her imagination had concocted to represent Prince Nathan's face floated into her head. Hatred, confusion, rage, agony, revenge, duty: all filled her so strongly, so suddenly, that her body seemed to inflate, and Joan found herself upright, face slick with a sheen of tears. Damn. How had they gotten there?
She didn't have time to ponder. Before her squatted Fabian. His hand hadn't left its place on her upper back. His face, typically so calculating yet unreadable, was washed an empty curiosity, brows narrowing and eyes taking on a mystified squinting quality.
Emotion filled every one of Joan's nerves, every emotion it was feasible to feel, along with the ones that weren't. Words struggled through her strangled esophagus, through the veil of tears. "Stop staring at me," she said.
Fabian's face became wary and he dropped his hand. After giving her a lengthy look, as if she were some rare plant specimen he'd never before encountered, he moved to the edge of the cliff—their chosen stopping point—with an uncertain, almost wistful gait.
Rearranging her body, Joan bent her knees in her sitting position and planted her elbows on them, dropping her face to her hands. In the full day they'd traveled since Korgoroth she hadn't broken down like this once, only tensing until the immense soreness passed while she kept a silent trot. What was it that caused this outbreak? Why now?
The elven woman had ridden, unconscious, on Fabian's horse with him the entire day. Up close, Joan wouldn't even allow herself to gaze upon the elf's angelic features and flawless proportions. Because up close, everything was twice as beautiful. The silvery sheen emanating from her skin, the russet tones of her hair in the sun, the clean, irresistible scent surrounding her; she was everything Joan wasn't.
So Joan distracted herself b perusing Fabian's map of the nation—or at least, as best as she could on a rushing steed. Almost none of the locations made any sense to her, as maps were never quite required back in Lingorath. She also assumed Fabian had better knowledge of where the best information could be acquired. Finally, as they drew closer to the River Arros, she suggested they stop to gather their bearings before continuing. Fabian fully agreed, so, minutes later, they emerged from the woods into a clear area where the grass eventually gave way to tanned stone forming a sheer cliff. A good deal farther down, where the precipice connected with the ground, the trees thinned out a bit, spreading wide until they were stopped by the dark, winding snake that was the Arros.
Once they arrived at the Cliffside, then sure that no dark elves pursued them, the light elf prisoner awoke. She offered no words, just perched on the edge of the cliff, light as a feather.
Gulping down deep lung-fuls of air, Joan attempted to stand now that she had almost fully recovered from her collapse. They had to settle upon a destination or further risk her sanity.
Fabian stood at the cliff's edge, a ways away from the freed elf. Joan allowed herself a quick glance at her then walked slowly to Fabian's side.
"I don't trust you," she choked, matter-of-fact. "I don't know you."
Fabian's eyes just danced along the Arros as he contemplated every bend in its path. Sometime between Joan's breakdown and then his face had grown stoic. It was unreadable to her. Her throat closed again as the seconds passed, and the elf did not look over to witness the conversation; Joan couldn't make out her face from where she was positioned.
After a while Fabian spoke, saying, "Maybe we can follow the river. Find a village. I'd like to see a few more reactions, gather a bit more information."
Joan's throat still wasn't cooperating properly. It made her feel weak, somehow, insignificant. "We don't have time." Her words were slightly hoarse. "For all we know, Nathan could be on his way already, he could already know—"
"Why?" Fabian suddenly shot at her, spinning on his heel to directly face her. It wasn't exactly anger she saw on his face, more…frustration, frustration at something he couldn't figure out, a puzzle mysteriously missing its last piece. "Why are you doing it? For power? Fame?"
Joan, eyes wide, faltered backwards a step. Her brain raced at one million miles an hour, and then in the rush of a moment she thought: He knows. Oh Aedris, he knew! Fear clutched at her insides with bristling icy fingers. Of course. He knew.
Then an unfamiliar voice broke in, and Fabian snapped out of his funk instantaneously. His expression was simply…ordinary. And in that second, Joan felt sure that he had no idea. Her secret was still in one piece—she was still in one piece. False alarm bounced under her skin.
"Maybe," the new voice cut in, rich and beautiful but like a shard of biting ice all the same, "She's doing it because it is what's right. Maybe she's doing it for her country."
Both Joan and Fabian's eyes were glued to the elf as she kicked her legs up from where they had been dangling over the cliff. In one lithe movement she was on her feet, and in another she was poised coldly before Fabian, oddly close—almost protectively so—to Joan. And though Joan couldn't completely see the former prisoner's attributes from her current angle, she could clearly feel the radiance of the elf's skin in the sun as her hair billowed out behind her, fully revealed her features. Fabian's obvious attempt at remaining impassive gave Joan confidence, for some reason.
"You do not know what we speak of," he said.
"Oh." Now the woman's tone was dry, but just as cold. "So you weren't discussing your attempt to steal the Sacred Blade from Aedris's Gateway?"
Joan hadn't before noticed the short sword clutched in Fabian's grip, and only then did she realize, as if her brain had been numb, how large of a threat the elf could pose. Panic fluttered somewhere within her, but her body refused to move at first. She paused, torn. Fabian's outbreak had caught her off-guard. How was it to be even possible to anticipate his true opinions of her?
As if she were made of lead, Joan moved one foot after another until she stood (however uncomfortably) behind Fabian. "Fabian," she said, "Fabian…let's talk."
The two did not break their stony staring battle. Discomfort squirmed in Joan's stomach.
He lowered the sword to his side without sheathing it. The contest between man and elf came to an end, and the unbroken frost within the woman's eyes vanished within a moment, only to be replaced by, Joan noted in surprise, poorly suppressed pools of deep, pure pain. It was evident she was weakened by her capture; perhaps she was weary of fighting losing battles. Kind of like Joan.
"Why…have you rescued me?" The line seemed like a falter in the elf's defense, so laden with confusion and misery as it was. Thankfully, Fabian did not take advantage of the slip. Pain resonated through the area. Somehow, it felt…mutual.
"It was her idea," murmured Fabian, as if he still disagreed with the concept.
"You two are partners?"
Fabian turned slightly to look at Joan, and as she met his dangerous teel eyes, she realized that she didn't know what the elf meant.
"Companions," Joan clarified with a nod.
The woman nodded. "I feel secrets," she said. "They keep you apart, but then, it could be easier that way."
The silence that passed was awkwardly pregnant. Obviously, the elf felt it her duty to end it.
"I am Ilyena Vensvinaea of Ellis Arden. I was taken by the dark ones, and convinced them to be content with my captive—for them to be on their way without harming my people. I…was hoping they would dispose of me, if not quickly than quietly."
"You wanted to die?" Joan said.
Ilyena's look was heavily laden with emotions Joan couldn't discern. "I will never forgive you for saving me."
Surprise trembled through Joan. In a way, she felt hurt, as if her good deed had been rebuffed. All that effort…
The elf pivoted away from them, stepped up to the ledge. "The dark ones of my kind were held in an enchanted prison in my home. I visited them daily to ensure the enchantments were working properly. I was the only one trusted to do it, as they said I had the best shot of all the lower class. In all of my visits, one dark elf caught my attention. I…loved him. But I couldn't have him. And living without him—it's as good as dying."
Joan could almost feel the woman's suffering within herself as she was wrapped up in her spellbinding voice.
Ilyena then concluded, twisting back to face them through a sheet of fluttering auburn locks, "I do not know your intentions, but I will assist you to Ethen, for the good of the nation."
Fabian froze instantly.
"For too long this nation has lain half dead," she continued
with force. Her next words came out as a whisper. "If my efforts
can go nowhere else, they will go with you. The Gods have already
willed that they not vanish entirely," she said.
"We travel not for the Gods," Fabian retorted.
"Then for whom do you travel?"
Ourselves, Joan thought. She rubbed her shoulder with subtle, soft movements. Words did not make their way through her mass confusion. No! part of her screamed. Having another body around every minute of the day would make one more person to know everything if she slipped—when she slipped…
Yet a different side of her, a more hospitable side, welcomed the presence of another female in the journey. And she would feel safer with a trained, experienced elf in the company. As for the motives…Joan didn't know more about Fabian than Ilyena, per se.
She sighed. She wasn't accustomed to having to worry about where she put her trust.
"That's out of the question." Turning, Fabian scanned the trees, searching for where the horses had been tethered.
But no one had the time to respond, as in seconds, men were surging out of the trees and onto the expanse of grass.
The approach was so sudden and silent that Joan didn't have the time to react—but of course, she was the only one. Fabian had slid into a deadly battle position with his short sword; Ilyena, meanwhile, had stealthily plucked a dagger form an inner pocket of Fabian's green cloak. An icy glare transferred from man to elf, then they set their focus entirely on the intruders.
First off, it reassured Joan that not a single one of them—about a dozen had leaked from the forest—look more threateningly potent as Fabian himself. All wore mismatched, home-sewn working clothes, clutching pitchforks and even beaten swords inexpertly in hand. Grime and wariness lined their faces as they stalked forward in cautious crouches.
"What do we have here? Servants of the throne?"
The voice came from an older farmer form the back, who carried a wood axe.
Joan stopped breathing.
It was him, the farmer man she had seen in Ridge the night she ran away, the one from Lingorath; from home. He had recognized her that night, she was sure of it. His alien expression couldn't have meant anything else…
After a short minute the band had formed a rugged semi-circle around the three, still not relaxing from their battle stances. It was Fabian who took the liberty of replying.
"Our business will remain ours," he said coldly, his eyes flitting toward Joan.
The sun flashed across steel as the men of the band shifted in their positions; apparently Joan wasn't the only one who had trouble trusting her shady companion. Never taking her eyes off of the familiar farmer, Joan melted into Fabian's shadow so as not to be noticed. Simultaneously, the farmer who had spoken sidled up to the man at the head of the pack, someone in possession of one of the nicer swords. He had graying hair, a thick jaw, and plenty of muscle built up for any purpose but combat. The farmer shot edgy glances Joan's way as he muttered to his assumed leader in a dark whisper. Could it be that he'd recognized her?
A still moment limed past as the two farmland natives conferred clearly after a few slow breaths, Fabian could take no more of it.
He tilted his sword slowly so the light washing over it slid in and out of place, somehow making the action seem threatening. "We'll be moving along. If you're looking for a word of advice on your crops, then I'd suggest seeking a nearby town. My tip, however," he said, inclining his chin, "would be to use toys in harvesting them better fit for the job. I've heard reaping corn with a long sword is quite a messy job—"
"Ach, shut up!" spat the thick-jawed countryman. "Grab them," he then muttered to the rest of them. With a round of hearty grunts the men were upon them.
The butt end of a pitchfork arced up, around—it was set to land halfway-precisely on Fabian's exposed shoulder. The countryman descending upon them was quicker than any had anticipated. Rolling his body in an expert maneuver, Fabian dodged the shot, at the same time throwing his attacker off balance. Fabian knocked him past with a ram of his sword's hilt and turned to confront other advancing fighters.
Joan watched the scene in blurry concern. Fabian, his back to her, was striking men to the ground with the trim movements of a dancer trained in combat. Next to him the assorted farmers and millworkers and such looked like bumbling—
A hand grabbed a fistful of Joan's shoulder, and she felt herself being swung around for her opponent to catch a better grip of her.
It was the first attacker, the one Fabian had shoved behind him. In her delirious panic phase, Joan hadn't even taken him into account. Now, he reached for her other arm, almost in slow motion…
And then a dark streak—Joan's mind barely recognized it as Ilyena's leg—soared out of nowhere in a graceful arc, but before it could even make contact, Fabian had sent another two men to the ground (presumably unconscious), whirled around, and kicked the attacker to his knees. The point of his short sword flicked in and out of his heart so quickly that Joan didn't realize what had happened until it whipped around to carefully slice fully through the man's neck.
Fabian turned around, perhaps to verify Joan's welfare, perhaps not, his chest pumping out small, strong breaths. Her gaze moved from him to the band leader in the background, whose thick jaw now lay slack. Semiconsciously tasting each letter as if it were a new revelation: MURDERER.
Before he could turn back to defend himself, Fabian was overtaken by four furious, muscled men, and she all but handed herself over to them as she saw Ilyena collapse to the ground with all her energy spent, still mystified by the all-too-familiar spectacle Fabian had just performed.
Two summoning were occurring in Korgoroth, though one wasn't in the least bit like the other.
The Black King finally ceased his pacing in the throne room for long enough to bark at Morden to fetch the newest prisoner from confinement in the now-dusty holding cells. Meanwhile, a darker force drew its most faithful servant to it so as to inform her of the task ahead. Both had devised plans of great measure. Both could only guess the outcome.
"Nara…" The name rattled out of the supernatural darkness tucked in a forgotten underground armory, shaking its way aboveground and through the broken city. Naarrrraaaa…
Within minutes a thick, hunched figure stood before it. Were the bundles shawls and cloaks removed, one would find themselves facing a dark elf of positively minute proportions, but no one dared to see what was hidden within her folds of cloth…
"Erus," she said in a cold reverence, "My Lord…"
The words hung as an offering, still in the air between them until they fluttered, then fell.
"There is a girl," Erus started, already planting images in his servant's mind. "The Prince will come to hate and fear her, and, in time, she poses a potential threat to even us."
"But…but she's so hard to read—"
"Were she any other household chore girl I could cut the thread of her life with a swish of a fingernail. But she is exempt from destiny. She is, essentially, fateless."
A thoughtful silence passed as each probed their mind for possibilities, dangers.
At long last Nara said, "Perhaps…" and trailed off.
"Highly doubtful," mused Erus, the Shadow of Korgoroth, but his subordinate was just warming up.
"Fate is created for those who were born without purpose—even all the heroes of the ages. They aren't born to be something, they're meant to be something. Maybe—"
"If someone's being was so immersed in its destiny, he or she could be…untraceable."
"Fate," Nara pressed, "is changeable. You of all know that. You read it day to day. Let's say someone isn't destined to be something, she just…is."
Nara's eyes rooted through the blackness ahead, searching for approval, searching for additions to her theory.
However, all she received was, "I have a task for you, Nara. It does involve…her. You must leave as soon as possible."
Nara inclined her head. "I'm ready."
The Black King was like a statue, complete with craggy shadows that danced haughtily in the candlelight. He had chosen the altar room over the throne room for their interrogation solely for the effect of intimidation; perhaps the boy would crack sooner under the looming presence of the deity…or maybe he could sense the lack thereof. After every other elf exited the room, leaving the criminal (called Aerith) the king ,and Morden, who folded into a corner of dense shadows. The king planned for this task to be strictly private—better for the citizens to not ask questions that would lead to the Shadow—and the temple was possibly the best location to do just that.
The elf chained before the altar was bruised in many places public and private, with cuts and bite marks running the length of his pale, exposed back, so that they simply appeared nasty extensions of his trailing tattoos. He was positioned on his knees rigidly, head bowed in obvious pain and exhaustion.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself, Aerith Van'Dera?" The Black King waited a beat before continuing. "I frown upon your choices, Van'Dera. You have made yourself a disgrace to your people, to your city and to your nation. You have pledged yourself to a mortal enemy, defied your king's orders. You have deserted your people in a time of victory, at a time when you should desire our company the most. You deserted us as we traveled back to our homeland, only to team up with bandits and ruin our sacrifice, our last gesture to the Gods in hope of winning their guidance. I hope you understand the weight of your mistakes."
The heavy speech rolled to a stop, and all got the sense of a parent scolding a child. The king perhaps realized the foolishness of the comparison and dove into a more urgent climate.
"You wouldn't make a decent sacrifice, and I see no point in killing you without wresting some worth from you. Thus, I am sending you on a crucial mission—a two-part mission."
Foreboding swelled throughout the room. It was stifling.
The Black King went on, "Seek out Nathanian Aslgavith and kill him with maximum swiftness. Once you have completed that, I expect you to find your light-elven lover—what was her name?—and destroy her, also."
Morden was astonished. "Suicidal," he said.
His king shot him a sharp look. "You question my decisions, advisor? He will be in need of a companion, I suppose, to keep him in line. And to live long enough to fulfill his mission. In fact—you partner—Valeria, I believe—should make the perfect guide—"
"What?!" yelled Morden, now hoarse. His façade broke open and washed over with fury at the playful glint in his lord's eye born of stress and maliciousness beyond compare. "You wouldn't." His words were venom spearing through the room at a thousand leagues a second.
"She is already informed, and more than willing to serve her king, an attitude that is obviously growing more sparse by the day. You have disappointed me, Morden," said the king. "What say you, Aerith Van'Dera? Do you accept?"
The prisoner before the altar raised his sad and hateful eyes, saying nothing, for everyone present knew he had had no choice from the beginning.