July 07 - September 15, 2000
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf crossover
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

[Disclaimer]

Hunters

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Prologue

Death is very dark, and very cold.

Zaknafein's swords slipped through nerveless fingers, and he knew this clearly. He had known this for several years ... or several centuries ... he could not remember. A day wrapped in the darkness of death seems like a century, an agony of boredom, blind fear, and sheer despair. It is why necromancy works, it is why spirits are willing to wander back to the mortal world to possess 'mediums' in dingy cellars and speak to their descendants.

Often than not, the spirits can sense what is wanted of them from the mediums, and do their utmost to comply...just for a while more in a warmer, brighter world.

The acid lake below was a putrescent green that bubbled grotesquely, and he was going to hit it in a few seconds...

No regrets.

In his mind he heard the mental scream of Malice, who saw her life, her plans, her world tumbling down, falling with him towards the acid.

It seemed such a long way away.

Time seemed to be passing with a leaden pace.

The acid would melt his flesh off his bones, then his bones into nothing ... Zaknafein knew this clearly.

This time, there would be no pain.

No regrets?

Then he would be back where spirits came from, cold, blinded by the darkness, never able to talk, because no sound would come out, able to move but never reaching anywhere, never finding anyone else, not even another spirit.

The first time, he had thought it was hell.

Then he had realized that it was just where all the dead went. So was not life pointless? No matter what you did, you would end up in the same place.

Where if you let yourself float, if you had no regrets...peace. You seemed to live in your own memories, floating in your subconscious. He had lived through his life again and again, and he found he neither hated it nor liked it, not any more.

And yet, when Malice called, he had sprung for the chance. Just a moment, he had told himself. Just a moment back in the light and warmth, and I'd go back. I know her tricks.

Nothing good would have come of it.

Perhaps not, but he was glad of the way it had ended.

Was he?

Before he impacted the surface of the lake, there was one, sickeningly, crystal-clear thought that screamed in his mind as he closed his eyes...

I do not want to die...

***

Just before Zaknafein touched the acid, as he released his thought, the edges of the lake blinked into an outline of silver, and the lake stopped bubbling abruptly, becoming a flat plane, then just as abruptly changed from green into a dark haze.

When Drizzt reached the edge of the walkway and looked down, tears blurring his eyes, Zaknafein had already passed out of his sight, except for his swords, which the acid ate at greedily. Already the lake was back to its normal state.

At the pitted bed of the lake lay a smooth, gleaming plaque, uneaten by the acid, words inscribed on it in an archaic language that was not of this world, in a neat column with six rows. A symbol like that of a gate on a bridge was carved neatly below the words.

The first row read 'Elfha-', the rest of the words scratched roughly off some time in the past. The other rows were similarly scarred, except for the last, which read:

'The Unformed'.

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Interlude

Perhaps the reader is wondering why there is an interlude so quickly, before the proper start of the story.

Actually, I do not like the word 'interlude'. It sounds like, and often is, the brief break of absolute relief in between long, involved, complex operas with fat people in odd clothing, high voices, and incomprehensible languages.

This is more of an explanation, and a space in which as the author, I can give you hints as to the next bits of the story, clear up questions on the prologue, and take up space until you scream "No more! Get on with the story!"

Someone once told me that books are insights into an author's mind. No doubt by this time you have concluded that I have a hell of a warped imagination. Overactive, as well, and cynical, the type of mind that would like Zaknafein-type characters, dislike Drizzt-like characters, and would create the occasional parody of 'well-known' classes of people, like Gamier, the paladin in 'Chronicle of Baldur's Gate', was a wholly sarcastic portrayal of paladins.

I don't like them much...but if I get into a flame on them now, this interlude would probably be longer than the story itself.

The only character whom I've ever been serious with most of the time is, of course, Zaknafein. I am sure some people out there who actually are aware of my stories wonder why I write so much Dark Elf and Zaknafein flicks.

One, I like Zaknafein. His character is entirely believable, neither evil nor good, not prone to regular bouts of angst, unpredictable (most of the time), cynical, practical, with a wicked feel that Jarlaxle and Entreri also possess. And he is handsome, an elf, and a damn good fighter to boot. Ha.

Actually, as to why I am going to write the following story, which would more or less be a crossover Zaknafein with Mercedes Lackey's SERRAted edge series, is because writing Urban fantasy seems more fun than 'normal' fantasy, and I like to try new things.

What exactly is the SERRAted edge world about will be explained later in the story to Zaknafein and the reader. Hopefully you will understand, and just as hopefully, Zak will. We never know.

Basically, what has happened now was that in exercising a strong mental shout that he did not want to die (who wants to? Discounting those poor people who think suicide is the best way out), Zaknafein has triggered a Gate. Gates are fixed portals in the Underhill, part of the SERRAted edge world, where magic is concentrated, and where elves (there) came from. I would like to believe that some of these Gates extend to other worlds.

Still, someone with a warped sense of humor (I plead Not Guilty...fingers crossed) installed a Gate in the form of an acid-lake. Such that anyone who Gated out from the Underhill would be instant reactant, or if he did manage to avoid this, instant dire-corby food. On the other hand, anyone who Gated in would land in the Unformed.

Hey, I'm Unseleighe material.

What is Unseleighe? You'd find out...later. Hopefully, so will Zak before he gets into such serious trouble that I can't think of a way to pull him out of.

Yes, I know I talk of characters as though they are separate beings and not brainchildren of someone's (warped) imagination. This is because, if you look at it one way, they exist on their own. They just don't exist here, because if they did, I am very sure Zak would have something strong and pointed to say about the few hundred messes that I wrote him into since last year.

Yes, I know I got him out of them, and in one piece, too.

Well, mostly one piece...I know he ended up once with an extra bit, that was a bit canine...

Backtrack.

How do these Gates work?

Normally in the Underhill, you need to have a significant grasp of magic. In the Underdark, the Gate was warped a little, such that the part about needing magic was...deleted, shall we say. You only need to really, really want to be someplace else other than what would happen to you if you tried to see if your body would react with corrosive acid.

Actually, this green acid could be a mixture of several acid and alkali powders, plus water. My brother once mixed all the chemicals available in his small 'laboratory', and this bubbling, dirty green mixture was produced, which near-instantly reduced iron wool to nothing.

What fun. Still, I am not getting to the point.

Anyway, in (rightfully) protesting that he did not want to die, Zak unwittingly triggered the Gate. Perhaps we can forgive Drizzt for not noticing that Zak's armor is not so heavy as to drag him immediately down into the acid. I mean, if a sword can float up, why not a foot or something?

Right, I'd get on with the story. Stop complaining. Zaknafein will now get into as much...situations as possible in five chapters (after which you'd hear from me again), most of which thought of while eating a Hershey's chocolate nugget (with almonds) then folding the gold wrapper into a paper crane.

Given any sort of square paper, my fingers would automatically fold it into a paper crane. No, I am not insane, and yes, I am quite sure of that fact.

Enjoy the story.

--Anya, Folder of Paper Cranes.

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Chapter 1: Black Sands

Zaknafein felt his skin tingle, and then a hollow feeling in his stomach at the apparent weightlessness.

Wha...?

There was a jolt, as if he had hit some invisible wall, though no pain, then he ploughed into compacted black sand at an alarming rate.

He felt very cold, and for a moment believed that he had re-entered the state of death, though in an entirely new way. Still, he had (thankfully) not enough experience with re-entering to know if there was only one way to well, be dead again.

Then he realized, with relief so overwhelming that his heart constricted, that his fingers were tingling in the cold. That had never happened in death, you felt it was cold, but did not suffer those small side effects like frostbite, nor did you react in any way but shiver.

Zaknafein pushed himself lightly to his feet, and realized that he could see. The light was dim and gray, not the warm gray of mouse fur, or the hard gray of steel, just a dull, intensely flat and boring gray. Infravision revealed nothing living for around him.

He had no idea why his hands were bleeding and hurting from the impact ... he certainly had not felt pain as a spirit-wraith. So perhaps he wasn't one any longer, which was good, he had to admit. At least now he was certainly not a creation of Lloth or her minions any longer, though, as an unpleasant consequence, he would feel pain.

Zak reflected a little on this as he took stock of his situation. How was it possible for him to suddenly change back to his mortal state? His correct mortal state, after all, was no longer in any shape to feel pain any more.

As if to prove this, his skin had a sharp feeling of being stretched, and then he blinked as the cuts closed, then faded to nothing. Ah, so he was not exactly Zin-carla any longer, but he was not exactly mortal, either.

He was on what looked like a plain on the Surface world. As he looked up, he could only see sheer darkness, and he stood on a bleak, flat plain of the black sand, which merged on the horizon with the sky.

Behind him was a white pitted arch, scarred with claw marks. Zaknafein was not an expert at this, but the marks did look old. Which meant whatever had made them could be long gone. Hopefully was long gone. It was apparently where he had come from, since the furrow of sand he had made when he landed started a short distance from it.

He had no intention of going back where he came from, so he ignored it.

Perhaps it was predictable that Zaknafein's next thought was not 'Where in the Nine Hells am I? ' but 'Damn, I lost my swords.'

We have to give him credit that his next thought was a short, rhetoric question on where the hell he was, and then he philosophically started to walk. After all, he reasoned, if you didn't know where you were, and there was nothing around for you to do, you bloody well make sure you go somewhere with more benefits, e.g., somewhere warmer.

One more irritating thing about this new 'body', Zak realized, was that his fingers were beginning to numb with the cold.

Zak was not used to cold. The Underdark, unless you had the intense bad luck to get involved in a mage war, was usually of stable temperature.

Still, he had been at the receiving end of some cold spells before, and he knew with absolute clarity that it was a possibility, if he didn't find warmth, his fingers would eventually suffer permanent damage, and he would not ever be able to hold a sword again.

On the black sand plain, a small white-haired figure began to run.

***

The beast stopped in its endless patrol of the black desert as the fur on its neck raised, informing it that someone, at last, had entered its domain.

With great bounds, it sped over the black plain, several centuries of experience bringing it to the Gate by which the someone, or something, had passed through.

Odd. This Gate, to its experience, had never even been touched by magic at all, such that it had assumed that it didn't work. A furrow of sand led from it, as if the something had shot through the Gate at a downward-pointing angle and at high speed, ploughed to a stop, then got up and walked off. Footprints showed the beast that the intruder was two-legged, and humanoid.

It sniffed the furrow, and found sharp, mouth-watering traces of blood, though so faint that it meant the intruder had not been injured seriously.

It would feed for the first time in a century...and perhaps, a small voice in its brain shouted hopefully, be released.

The beast began its hunt, in powerful strides, following the trail of footprints.

***

Zaknafein came to a halt at yet another clawed white arch, and considered it. Maybe it would lead somewhere other than the acid lake. Already he could hardly feel the tips of his fingers.

Still, if it did lead to the lake...Zaknafein unclasped his piwafwi and tentatively poked the edge through the arch.

It did not seem to come out through the other side, and a flat dark haze formed, rippling, as if he had poked the cloak through water.

He pulled back the cloak and examined the edge closely. It seemed perfectly fine, not burned, not corroded, not wet. Zak gambled, then thrust his hand at the space.

Seconds later he picked himself up from a shorter furrow in the black sand, shaking his hand until the sharp charge that had lanced into it faded away.

Zak walked around the arch, then gingerly thrust his hand at it again. Maybe, he thought, I was facing the wrong way the other time.

This time he was half-prepared for the shock, managing to do a neat flip in mid air and land in a crouch.

So, did the...portal only let things through that were not alive?

Zak kicked some sand at the Gate, and the sand passed right through.

Apparently it would let things through that were not alive and magical in nature, then.

As he irritably considered trying to figure out the Gate or just moving on, he suddenly threw himself to the side.

One could call this a warrior's intuition, or a sixth sense ... but Zak would have said that only an idiot wouldn't hear the faintest sound of sand being crushed under someone's feet, then the tiny scrape as someone, or something, prepared to pounce.

Still, Zak found most of the people he had met in his long life idiots in one way or another. He cursed, then leaped again as the something pounced again.

Zak risked a backward glance as the beast snarled its frustration, and swallowed as he started to run again, though managing, through great determination and some ignominious hopping, to free his boot knife. This was very bad...dagger versus claws and teeth. Even Jarlaxle wouldn't bet on me in the outcome.

A massive, cat-like body covered with tawny-gold fur, the large head featuring crushing jaws decked in yellowed, dagger-like teeth, the eyes orange, slitted, and insanely angry. The paws were five-toed, and ended (Zak saw with a sinking feeling) with very, very sharp claws. The head of the beast was completely framed in long, silky, tawny gold hair that flowed down to its shoulders.

Runrunrunrunrunrun!

The beast hit the ground with a shower of sand, enough force (if Zak had been unfortunate enough as to be under the blow) to break a certain dark elf's backbone. And then tear out said dark elf's throat, then eat mentioned dark elf for lunch. Or breakfast, or dinner.

Zak cursed his bad luck, his wild imagination, and the fact that he could not possibly run fast enough or far enough to lose the giant cat, and that there was no place as far as he could see to hide and then had to jump again and accelerate around the Gate. He had a sudden idea.

He felt an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach, and a rush of adrenaline, finding (to his dismay) that he was actually enjoying the danger...

Stupid elf! Move!

Zak stopped abruptly as the beast clawed itself to a halt from its latest pounce, then quickly bent and swiped a handful of the sand into the creature's features. It screamed its rage, and Zak took the opportunity to leg it to the other side of the Gate, such that the beast was directly in front of it ... through the Gate.

While it shook the sand out of its eyes and turned with dangerous grace and a deadly, infuriated snarl, Zak threw yet another handful of sand at it.

The sand passed through the Gate without interference to sting the beast's face. Maddened with rage, the beast sprang ... through the Gate, then Zak blinked away spots as the magic charge curled and lanced through the beast while its scream was now filled with pain, smashing it down onto the sand with great force. Odd, that looked more painful for it than it did for me.

Quickly, Zak raced around to the creature before it could recover, then held the knife with both hands.

It had recovered enough to turn its hate-filled, hungry eyes to him...then it screamed for the last time as Zak drove the knife between its eyes, into its brain.

***

Release, sighed the small voice.

Finally.

Unseen to Zaknafein, the wisps of a soul drifted out of the unseeing eyes, then dissipated slowly, but not quickly enough for a final, if not exactly complete thought:

I know something you do not, Slayer of the Beast...for in release you yourself will...

Then it shivered, as it felt itself warping...

Beginning to change...

The accursed necklace, thankfully, was gone, and nothing held it to this dimension any longer...it felt a chord of pain as it was ripped from the body, then saw nothing but darkness, and felt nothing but the cold.

***

For a moment, Zak believed that the creature was not going to die, and he was in worse trouble than before ... because there was no blood when the knife smashed into its head.

Then the life in its eyes disappeared, and he breathed a very deep sigh of relief and sat down, hard, on the ground, closing his eyes to try and get his heart to slow down and stop trying to jump out of his chest.

Zak got up finally and tried to remove the knife from the forehead of the beast, and realized that his fingers felt more tender than usual from the cold. His feet were more or less comfortable in his boots, and his armor, cloak and trousers made up for most of his body. His ears were cold, and his cheeks were flushed, but he didn't need them to defend himself.

So, first priority was hands. Hands would be warm in gloves. However, there were no gloves around here...

Zak's eyes fell to the creature's claws, and he grimaced. Okay, problem solved, though with nothing to cure the skin around here, it would certainly start to stink after a while.

Better than if your fingers drop right off, he argued. With a sigh, he wrenched out the knife, and began to skin the creature, measuring roughly how much of the paw he would need, then inexpertly cut at the skin.

If Zak had not been feeling so numbed with the cold and the shock, he would have noticed a few things: one, that the skin seemed to peel easily away from his knife, so he cut a finer pair of 'gloves' than he would have, two, his knife slit skin from muscle and flesh far easier than he should have expected.

However, he did notice that there was no blood, when he finally cut out two paws that there was no smell other than a slight scent of animal musk, and when he tried them on...

Zak's eyes widened as the skinned paws rippled, then seemed to fit onto his hands, though the 'toes', or 'fingers' were of course wider and larger than his 'normal' hand.

Eh?

He flexed his 'paws' a little, and found that it was an exact fit, such that it moved without pulling at his hand, and even the ends fitted seamlessly onto his skin...wait a minute.

Zak tried to remove the 'gloves', and found that it was not possible. He might as well, he concluded irritably, try to remove his own skin.

Damnation.

Still, if he flicked his hand in this way, as he soon found, the sharp claws somehow came sliding out, as if...as if the paw had merged with his hands.

Zak's first thoughts about this are unprintable.

His second thoughts were that he had, finally, acquired another sort of weapon, his hands weren't cold anymore, and, as he proved from picking up the dropped knife with ease and sliding it into his boot, the paw worked nearly as easily as fingers.

So, he should still be able to hold a sword with his normal skill, and anyone who came close enough would get a very nasty surprise.

This, however, would not help him if he stayed here forever. Zak was not the sort whom would sit down and ask himself why this happened, and what side effects there could possibly be. His idea was that this would only depress him, get nothing done, and since he had no inkling of what would happen, he might as well wait till it did, then deal with it.

He began to lope off in the direction he had been running in.

If he had paid a little more attention to the carcass (Zak's opinion of a carcass is, if it is dead, too bad. Watch if it is going to revive [he has had some really bad experiences], then look briefly through clothing for valuables, then leave it to rot), he would have noticed that around the beast's neck suddenly appeared a necklace of a leather string, with the pendant a sharp tooth, obviously from the same animal, though it had no teeth missing from its gaping mouth.

If he had watched a little longer, though by this time he was quite a distance away, he would have noticed that the body slowly but surely became more man-like, though it was still irrevocably in the grasp of death.

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Chapter 2: Hunted

Zaknafein walked on for what seemed to be hours; perhaps days, but he did not feel particularly hungry. Gradually, the black sands faded to a more normal brown, and it got warmer and warmer until it stabilized around the normal Underdark temperature.

There was, quite obviously, something seriously wrong about this place, but in comparison to the state of Death, Zak found it perfectly fine, if getting a trifle boring.

However, he reasoned, if exciting meant being chased around by giant cats, he'd much prefer boring.

It also seemed to get more and more misty; such that vision over three feet was impaired. Whether this affected infravision was not particularly known, since Zak could not 'see' anything in the infrared around him. It suited him for the time being ... dark elves were not particularly the most welcomed of the races, even to their own kin.

The mist was also strange. It was neither damp nor cold, nor did it make your skin corrode (Zak has, as mentioned before, some very bad experiences). It did not have any feel to it, such that if he closed his eyes, he would have no idea it actually existed around him.

It roiled around, as if trying to form shapes, but Zak could neither see nor hear any such living things around him, and ignored this effect. Which was, as he later found out, lucky for him ... the Unformed mists were physical manifestations of raw magic in the Underhill, and they tried to take forms given to them by those whom did not know this effect. Hence, if you thought you saw a million-legged fire-breathing monster next to you, there was a high chance of it actually appearing.

Thankfully for him, Zaknafein did not believe (at that time) that mist could actually form such shapes, and he would not have particularly cared if he did. Zaknafein's mind was, most of the time, completely under his control, probably with imaginary prods, straps and chains, which is more than can be said for some people.

This has been theorized to be a form of natural selection. Zaknafein was a warrior in a very hostile society. Hence, for him to have lived four centuries, he must be a very good warrior indeed, and actually use his brains in the correct manner. If he were to suddenly start to wonder about the existence of life halfway through a sword-fight, it is quite possible he may slacken in concentration, and die of metal poisoning (a sword through the heart or some other major organ/part).

Wandering alone in a vast expanse of sand does give a good prerogative to cogitation, however. Right now, Zaknafein's main thought was that he missed his swords...and he felt very vulnerable without a weight on his hips.

Not for the first time, he considered the paws. They certainly looked startlingly vibrant in their tawny hues on his ebon skin, and the fur was certainly not what he would have expected cat fur to be ... it was silky and not fluffy or fuzzy.

Absently, he began to scratch (no claws out) at the merging point of fur and skin on one of his hands as he began to lay out possibilities.

One, since he had not as yet felt hungry, he might not need to eat or drink.

Two, if there were any other beasts like that cat-like one out there, there was a high chance that he would die, or be torn into pieces. Even if that did not cause him to die, it would be a pretty close thing, especially if he was eaten. He doubted if he could recombine, if that was what was going to happen, if he was being digested in something's stomach.

Three, although he had no wish to return to the Underdark as yet, he certainly did not want to spend the rest of his life, if he was living now, wandering on an apparently endless desert.

First things first ... Zak craved a sword. He had nearly forgotten what it was like to fight without a pair ... swords had been his companion and comfort for four centuries, and he even slept near a pair. He had grown used to, if not actually holding his pair, having them at hand's reach.

One could call this a security blanket.

However, Zaknafein was not to his knowledge with a lack of self-esteem, but had that admirable quality of warriors to know his limits, and so normally did not feel depressed enough about his own abilities as to require some sort of outside comfort. But still...

What was that?

There was a faint screeching noise that seemed to become clearer now as he moved. Apparently the sound of his boots on the sand had masked it to him before.

What makes these sort of sounds?

Zaknafein had the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that the noise was not straight ahead, but at an angle, upwards.

So, whatever was making these sounds is a bird. Several birds, at that, considering the sound. Of course, he should not discount corbies, dakshakas and so on, but...

To approach, or to walk quickly and unobtrusively in another direction?

There were more of the sounds, as if the birds were swooping at something, then the noises seemed to now be straight in front of him. The birds had landed, apparently.

Well. He had not much idea how big the birds are ... it would be interesting to be driven away from his course by birds not bigger than his hands. However, if the birds were actually bigger...

Zaknafein had some small knowledge of aerodynamics, meaning that only birds of a certain size could actually fly. This was especially since there was no apparent wind in this place.

Hence, whatever those birds were, they should be of manageable size. Hopefully. And he might have something to eat...though Zak found the idea of eating something raw still revolting.

There was the unpleasant vision that in a while; he might be hungry enough such that this would not seem such a disgusting prospect after all.

Zak walked on, more cautiously now.

I wish I had a sword, he thought repeatedly and irritably to himself. It wouldn't work much against birds, but at least he'd feel more dressed.

If wishes were priestesses we wouldn't need males...a sword!

The birds were worrying at a half-rotted corpse, which became clearer as he approached, dressed in some sort of ancient bronze armor, unembossed, with a tattered, plain red cloak.

Zak quickly clapped a hand over his nose when the smell hit him ... the rather familiar but still objectionable stench of decaying flesh; overripe, gagging...he took several deep breaths (with his mouth).

Decaying muscles and tendons still draped over some of the bones, making the features a sight, which was not for those of weak stomachs.

The birds themselves were offensive to look at ... nearly skin over bones, with dark blood-red eyes, a cruelly hooked beak, and a neck that as bald, showing pink skin in a grotesque comparison with the dirty black feathers. He quickly dropped the idea of eating them. The feathers themselves looked very odd...unrealistically sharp-edged. The birds, however, were only knee-height to Zaknafein, and backed away as he approached.

The corpse was lying in a very unnatural angle, and it was quite clear that its back had been broken, though its position made it seem as though it had been running before it fell down. In one outflung hand was a sword.

Zak felt faintly disappointed.

The sword was immense, with a blade roughly four feet in length, and an ornate hilt of alien design, made of the same metal as the blade itself, in fact, as Zak went for a closer look, of the same unbroken piece of metal that the blade had been made of.

There was a large stone on the pommel of the hilt, though it did not look like a precious stone. Probably a lynx gem, or something ... Zaknafein was not an expert on these sort of things. There were no carvings on the blade at all, something which Zak was thankful for. He had a feeling they made a sword more fragile, especially if they were deeper than scratches and done on the blade itself.

Gingerly, he freed it of the corpse and held it in both hands, anticipating the weight.

There was some weight, but the sword was somehow remarkably balanced, such that he hardly felt it dragging at his arms at all.

Magicked?

It should be, Zak realized, as he examined the sword closer. It looked as though it had been forged of pure iron. Pure iron, by itself, was soft and useless as a sword. And yet the blade seemed as hard as adamantite.

The edge was not dulled, nor was it rusty ... rusting easily and quickly was a trait of iron, which made it unpopular for the make of weapons in the Underdark. Besides, it was less durable than adamantite.

The birds hopped backwards, squawking in alarm, when he gave the sword a few experimental swings.

He had to hold it with two hands, and though he was not unfamiliar to this type of sword fighting by any means, he found it inconvenient and less flexible.

Technically, you could also deal more damage with a large sword than two small swords, but that was if you had been gifted with a lot of strength, which Zak had not been.

And as for a scabbard...

Zaknafein found that the corpse clutched that in the other hand, though stupidly, there were no straps for wearing it on the back or at the hip.

Apparently it was just for sheathing the sword, and for easy holding...this was made of metal, though of some sort he had never seen before ... it seemed nearly weightless.

How idiotic. Why couldn't the maker of the sword use this sort of metal for the sword, instead of using it for the scabbard? The scabbard did look as though it was a made set for the sword, having the same sort of gems as that on the pommel on it, and fitting exactly.

By some dint of squirming, he was able to fit the scabbard firmly to him by his belt, though it was still a little uncomfortable.

Ignoring the birds, which were quite obviously carrion-feeders and not about to bother him, he walked on.

Again, Zak can be forgiven for overlooking a few points ... one, that the bone structure of the corpse had some fundamental errors ... there were no joints, for one.

It did look exactly like what someone, unversed in anything but the most basic anatomy, would have actually created. On the other hand, the armor was quite superbly made, fitting the corpse seamlessly, and did look as though it had been comfortable.

***

Zaknafein was beginning to have a distinctly bad feeling.

He did find that the mist was beginning to clear ... now visibility had heightened significantly, though still not as much as he would have liked. The light was still a dull gray, though the horizon could now be perceived as a uniform, dead white.

There were the occasional groves of dead trees (we will call them trees here for the sake of comprehension, though Zak would more probably call them some sort of odd, tall type of fungus), leafless and somehow blackened, as if by fire, though there were no marks on the ground around them.

Then there was the sound of a horn, blown some distance away. Zak froze automatically, and looked around warily.

What was that?

He seemed to have been asking himself that question quite frequently, up to date, he realized wryly.

Zaknafein drew the sword carefully and soundlessly, then continued to walk, holding it in his hands in an 'at ease' position. Which for any dark elf meant that 'at ease' could change to 'stabbing at enemy through the heart' in less time than it would take someone to pronounce the old Do'Urden name.

Whatever it is, I hope it will not bother me.

As if to frustrate this, the horn took on an entirely different set of notes, and Zak began to hear a sound like the howl of nigouar (sort of like Underdark wolves), though more baleful, and had a whipped-like quality that he would associate with slaves.

It also did not sound like nigouar in which the howls of the Underdark wolves quite obviously served to communicate with each other only. These howls sounded as though they were merely used to cry out a message to any unfortunate creatures that they found on these sands, crying out promised pain and death.

Ah, damn.

Zak considered climbing up one of the taller dead trees, and then he began to see the outlines of the creatures, approaching at an obscene speed.

Behind the creatures were more outlines of what were obviously their masters ... riding on rothe-like, tall creatures (horses, but Zak wasn't to know this), and holding what looked like spears.

This was very bad news indeed ... Zaknafein knew that although swords could chop through spears, several spears thrown at once could get lucky.

Still, the things were approaching too fast for him to be able to run and get away ... and he would rather not turn his back to them, as he had a sudden vision of a elf so studded with spears in his back that he resembled a pin cushion.

The nigouar-like creatures (hounds, actually, but Zak could plead ignorance as well) were faster than the riders, and Zak saw them more clearly. They were larger than the Underdark wolves, blockier in build...but also looked as though they were made of skin draped on bone, a deep black in color with mad eyes.

The riders had stopped a distance back, as though assuming the hounds would take care of him.

There was, Zak admitted to himself wryly, a high chance of that happening.

The first of the creatures leaped, and Zak reacted instantly ... stepping forward to brace for the impact, and thrusting upwards ... impaling the animal on his blade, then violently shaking it such that the body landed on some of its pack.

At least the creatures bled ... though it was a viscous, black substance that oozed from what should have been a mortal wound. On a normal creature. Zak's eyes widened...already the creature was getting up as if nothing happened...but the pack, maddened by blood lust and the scent of blood, howled in unison, some of them even leaping on and tearing apart the wounded animal.

Zaknafein shuddered, then backed slowly, swinging at another hound, bracing himself for the impact ... then blinked as the sword neatly sheared through the creature's head. He overbalanced, and nearly fell over, but yet another creature pounced on him, knocking him down, the strange sword flying away from his hands.

I will not panic...

Fine, Zak thought to himself, he did have one more surprise. He curled his fingers and slashed as he thought a cat would move...the claws seemed to change in color for the brief moment as it connected with the giant creature's head, and he also jerked his knee up quickly.

This actually seemed to hurt the creature more than the sword had hurt the first one he had damaged ... it squealed in pain. But Zaknafein had no time to speculate.

The double move managed to knock the creature off him, but there were more hounds where that came from...Zak weighed his chances, then quickly turned and leaped, the claws extended.

He managed to get enough of a grip on the nearest tree to climb quickly upwards out of the jumping creatures, and take a breather. The claws had obviously not been for the use of climbing trees this strenuously, and were beginning to hurt dully, as though he had tried to pull them out.

Then his heart nearly stopped when a spear embedded itself in a branch behind him, quivering from the impact.

Damn, I forgot about the riders.

The riders were much closer now, and were calling off the creatures. They were all in black ... wearing strange armor ... furred, long capes, primitive clothing, and helmets that completely covered their features. The rothe-like creatures they sat on were much taller than actual rothe ... and had fangs in the place of teeth, as well as hollows were eyes should be.

There was one rider that seemed to be the leader ... he had an open-faced helmet fixed with some sort of horns, that branched out to end in sharp tips. The reader would know these horns to be stag antlers, and would forgive Zak for not knowing what they are.

All of them held spears, especially the leader ... though his was larger than the rest.

Well, more could play at the game. Zak managed to pull the spear loose from the tree, and held it in the correct manner, then pulled back and released in a swift motion.

The spear hit the leader neatly, the spearhead emerging through the other side, on more or less the exact spot where the heart should be. Zak was idly congratulating himself on a difficult shot well done, when the leader closed thin, skeletal hands on the shaft, and pulled out the spear.

What in the Nine Hells?

Zaknafein quickly moved into a thicker part of the tree ... it would be harder for the spears to actually get past the branches to hit him here.

This was probably someone's nightmare. For a moment, Zak wished it was his ... then he would have a chance to wake up before it came to a predictable end.

The riders appeared to be holding some sort of conference, and a few more spears were thrown in his direction, though as he expected, they did not pass quite as easily through the branches of the burnt tree. And he was dexterous enough to catch or deflect those that would have hit him.

He had no intention of standing up and throwing the spears back at them...it would make him more exposed. And if the rest of the riders were anything like their leader, it wouldn't make any difference, anyway.

So...stalemate?

The riders seemed to have made some kind of decision, but Zak could not begin to decipher their language. The leader turned to stare at him, and Zak forced himself to raise a mocking eyebrow in the face of a gaunt, cruel-featured skeleton-like feature.

The leader then said something harsh and guttural, then pointed down at the ground. Zak felt as though he had been stretched, then pulled apart into millions of pieces...then he landed hard on his rump on the ground. He shook his head violently to clear the feeling that he should be retching violently right now, then stared.

The riders were not attacking, and made a harsh sound at the creatures, which settled down, whining.

Ah ha, a fair chance, was it?

Zak rolled quickly as more spears thudded into where he had been sitting, and his groping hands closed on his sword hilt, oddly close to him. More fair chances? Yet another roll found him near enough to one of the rothe-like creatures, and he swung the large sword.

The sword laid open the rothe-like creature's neck, causing it to make a pain-filled squeal, and buck. Zak wrinkled his nose as the foul smell from the wound and the creature's breath washed over him, but it did serve to unseat the rider.

Quickly, Zak sheathed the sword, then hastily leaped onto the creature's back, claws digging in as he attempted to sit on the saddle. It shrieked, and bucked again, but Zak dug his claws in more deeply and held on with his knees, grimly, knowing that he wouldn't have this chance again. Then it shot into a gallop, crying its pain and rage, frantically throwing itself from side to side occasionally to try and unseat Zaknafein.

This made him a harder target to hit, something that he would be thankful for later. At the moment, Zak devoted all his energies to holding on.

There was a confused shout behind him, then another sounding of the horn, and the sound of pursuit. Occasionally, spears would whistle past them, one even grazing the rothe-like creature on the flank, making it run faster.

Still, the creature under him was clearly more afraid of him now, and it ran on, beginning to outdistance the nigouar-like creatures and the rothe-like ones, then it reached the next grove of trees, and out of instinct, rammed the side of its body against a sizeable tree.

Zak cried out as his leg shattered, and the creature, sensing that he would now have a deeper difficulty holding on, bucked sharply, sending Zak flying over its lowered head, and crashing into another tree. It pranced forward, baring its fangs, then...

Music?

Zak seemed to hear a trill of pure, clear notes, which if he had any Bardic education, would have identified as A major. The rothe-like creature was flung back to land in a tangled heap of limbs, shrilling its distress and anger.

More notes, and a distortion, then a gray, flat plane of haze just taller than he was and as wide as a Gate opened in front of him, then an arm emerged, signaling frantically for him to enter.

Zaknafein hesitated. If the thing inside the Gate was hostile, he could be in worse trouble. The arm at least looked as though it belonged to a human, or an elf, though it was covered with a long, black satin sleeve, and black, soft leather gloves. However...

The horn sounded again, closer, this time, and Zak made his decision as he saw, in his mind, a certain dark elf being torn to bits by the pack, or being speared and cut to pieces. He pulled himself to his feet with the help of claws and the tree trunk he had landed on, and half-fell, half staggered through the Gate, which closed behind him.

[top]

Chapter 3: Tulan

Zaknafein fell into a kneeling position once he made it across the Gate ... the inch or so that he had fallen when passing through jolted his broken leg painfully.

More music.

The melody was jerkier now, as if terminating something, played in a wailing sort of crescendo, then terminated abruptly.

Zaknafein flinched as something wet and sticky brushed against his cheek, and automatically curled his fingers into an imitation of a claw, slashing at the culprit, a throbbing snarl building in his throat.

What am I doing?

The creature leaped back quickly, barking excitedly. This one looked more like nigouar than the others that he had damaged in the tree groves, though it seemed strangely more friendly. The coat was rich gold, long and silky, and the ears did not stand up but were large patches of skin that flopped down on both sides of the graceful head. The long tail wagged furiously, and the creature's lips curled into what looked like an ingratiating grin.

Zak blinked, then looked around. He was, apparently, in a forest (Again, Zak would have just called it a fungi/mushroom grove). Above him was sky ... Zak recognized this from a Surface-world expedition he had headed two centuries ago. It was 'night' and bright white flecks dotted the soft darkness.

In the short fraction of a second that Zak took to acknowledge these facts, he turned his attention to his rescuer.

He looked like an elf, but not like any sort of elf Zak had seen. He was taller than any elf, though rather gaunt in appearance, did at least meet the outer appearance of a standard elf ... handsome and muscular. This elf, however, seemed to have rugged features other than the normal delicate visage, though he also had the ears that tapered to points, half-hidden in the long hair.

His skin was also sable-dark as Zaknafein's, though his hair, instead of white, was a deep black as well. The elf wore a black satin shirt, and trousers of the same hue, tucked into boots with string (laces, actually) tied into an intricate knot. Black leather gloves contrasted with the vibrant brown of an instrument that he balanced on his shoulder (we shall stop more guessing ... the instrument is in actuality a violin). A thin rapier made of bronze or some similar metal hung from his waist.

The elf had bright green eyes, slitted like a cat. As Zak watched, hand on the hilt of his sword, the elf bowed mockingly.

Um?

Well, even though the stranger had bad dress sense (even Zak would know that wearing black on black skin does not go well.), he did save the life of Yours Truly.

"Thank you," Zak spoke first, without much sincerity. He was of the opinion that people did not really deserve thanks until he had ascertained whether they had rescued him from the bottom of their heart or whether they had ulterior motives. Since the latter was usually the case, Zak often did not thank people with much honesty either.

The other elf cocked his head at Zak curiously, then spoke in a language that Zak found, to his irritation, that he could not understand.

Hey, that did not even sound like drow at all.

Zak made the sign for thanks in hand signals, but the other elf shrugged at him, then patted the nigouar-like creature affectionately. It wagged its tail estatically.

Time to play the guessing game.

Rolling his eyes to the sky for patience, Zak tried the goblin tongue, then the duergar tongue, then stopped when the other elf raised one elegant hand. He spoke, gesturing as he did so, and Zak noted references to his sword, his hands, and his leg.

That could be, Zak decided wearily, anything from the other elf wanting to help him, or the other elf deciding that he was an injured demon that should be killed on another ground using his own weapon. Damn.

As a precaution, Zak drew his sword painfully, then stabbed it into the ground, half-raising himself with it as a support. The elf drew back in alarm, gesturing more wildly at the sword now.

He is afraid of the sword?

This could be to Zak's advantage, he knew. Zak was debating on whether to assume the other elf was trying to help him, and put away the offending sword, or to use the sword, threaten the other elf with it, and force the other elf to help him, when a sharp pain shot into his head.

It felt as though something had hammered a hole into his skull ... it ached intensely, such that Zak clapped his hands on his head. He saw that the other elf had his fingers pressed to his temples as if in concentration.

Magery?

Something seemed to be writhing through his head, slimy and hideous, starkly pale worms eating through his mind, leaving burning trails of dirty yellow. Zak turned over and retched, curling into a tight ball and clawing at his hair, aware that he was screaming, without any thought of male pride, in agony and in fury.

Zak felt as though he was being repeatably and brutally violated, as something brushed over and seemed to read all his memories, blatantly, then another final burst of pain as if something was forced into his head, and he spiraled into thankful oblivion.

***

"But it's a fantasy, not a reality

And it's good for me you have no idea..."

Strains of music and the voice of an angel seemed to seep through the darkness, and Zak woke up lazily, slowly, then tried to stretch. Pain burned through his leg, pushing him to wakefulness so fast that spots danced across his eyes.

"That I'm walking through the clouds

When you're looking at me,

Oh, you're awake." The face of the elf peered at him, too close for comfort, and then disappeared as Zak swiped viciously at him, claws unsheathed.

Hey, I can understand him.

Zak blinked, forced himself into a sitting position, and stared. He was in an airy room lit with the soft light of candles, which burned with a comforting, pleasant smell. The color scheme was mostly from soft yellow ochre to azo yellow to ivory, and was tastefully distributed. Rough walls of ochre contrasted neatly with the ivory sofas, and the wooden table, raw sienna draperies, plush carmine carpet whose color looked natural.

It did not look like any room that he had seen before, though it was also the most comfortable-looking room he had ever been in.

"That is no way to treat your rescuer," the other elf was saying, though with an amused smile. "I mean, I go to all the trouble to construct a gate even with that nasty sword warping magic around it, and the first thing you do after I Heal your leg is to try and disembowel me. I ask you."

Zak kept his eyes on the elf, and warily took an inventory. Item, armor, piwafwi, miscellaneous clothing, check. No sword, no scabbard, damn. He unsheathed the claws from his other hand.

"There you go again." The elf sighed. "And we have to talk about those claws, too. How they ended up on your hands, for one."

Zak realized, with a mounting headache, that the elf was not speaking the drow tongue but his own tongue, and he, Zak, could somehow understand him. And maybe...

"What in the Nine Hells did you do to me?" Zak snarled, trying out the alien syllables. He felt as though he had spoken this haphazard tongue all his life, as the words came to him that quickly and easily.

"Well sorry, but we did not understand each other, and I hate playing charades," the elf drawled. "So I sent a psychic probe into you, having to aim such that it'd swerve over the Cold Iron and into your head, duplicated my ability in the language, then forced it into your memories. Unfortunately, I must confess to looking at some of your mind in the process. You didn't have a very good life, did you?"

A hundred snappish retorts rose into his mind, but what Zak actually did was to start forward, with the intention of doing some serious bodily harm to the other elf. But he raised the violin to his shoulder, coaxing out some chords, and Zak felt as though he had been strapped to the sofa, frozen in position.

"I apologize if it hurt," the elf went on, "I expected you to have at least some shielding, and all that Cold Iron was interfering with my outside probes. So I just sent it with enough force to break through a medium-range shield...how was I to know you were completely open?"

"Open?" Zak began blankly, trying to struggle. He could, he realized sourly, wiggle his toes, but that was about it.

"Pathetic," the elf sighed. "Aren't you a mage? Don't you know what shielding is?"

"I am not a mage," Zak snapped. "I am, for one, not wearing any heavy robes nor holding any staves, and if I were a mage I would have at least cast some sort of spell at you now."

"I had been wondering," the elf nodded. "Still, if you're not a mage, however did you manage to create things in the Unformed? Along with your body..."

"I did not create anything," Zak said, scowling, "And I certainly did not create my body."

"Yeah, right," the elf smirked. "How do you explain your sword, then? And you can't fool me, Mister ... I have mage-Sight, and you're quite obviously a ghost. And yet you are inhabiting a solid form, which is also your actual form."

"I found the sword," Zak bit out, though he tried not to let the other elf's more-superior-than-thou attitude get to him, "As to this form, it was sort of created, yes, but not by me. Which, if you had been taking a jaunt through my head, you would have noticed."

"I didn't stay too long," the elf shrugged. "I prefer not to soak other people's memories into my head. I have enough of my own. As to finding the sword...well, let me put it this way. A few hours ago I was jolted awake by a mage-quake originating from the Underdark. Fine, so I took a 'look' through a scrying-mirror, because that much magical discharge so close to a Gate to my territory is not a good thing most of the time. And what do I find? There's suddenly a core of Cold Iron in the Unformed, screwing up the scrying."

"Your point is?" Zak raised an eyebrow. Maybe he could irritate the other elf enough for him to lose control of the holding-spell, whatever it was.

"This Cold Iron hadn't been there, in my experience, for the past few centuries that I've been stuck here. So, for it to show up there without any other fluxes that would signify a Gate, it means that it had just been created," the elf ignored his question, "Only a really good mage can create things of use in the Unformed. It's an area of raw magic, you see, potential waiting to happen. And one thing that warps it is Cold Iron. So, only a mage of incredible power can force the Unformed to actually coalesce into something of Cold Iron."

"I'm not a mage," Zak repeated.

"Mage-Sight tells me you can use magic," the other elf commented.

"All elves can," Zak said, "Faerie fire."

"Huh?" the elf blinked. "Yes, I suppose you have a point. Still, only the very, very talented can create things in the Unformed. And they're all High Court. And I am very sure I have not heard of any dark elves which look like you that are High Court."

"What is High Court, what is the Unformed, and what are you talking about?" Zak said slowly.

The other elf blinked. "You don't know?"

"If I did, I would not ask," Zak said patiently, as if talking to a child. The other elf glared briefly at him, then shrugged.

"Where was the last spot you were before you came...here?" the elf waved his hand vaguely.

"The Underdark," Zak said cautiously. He did not want to reveal too much yet, and was quite content to let the other elf talk first.

"Where?" the elf frowned, "Um. More generally, do you know you are in the Underhill?"

"No," Zak found he could shake his head. "We're under a hill? "

"Oh dear." The elf touched his forehead theatrically. "Very well, you are quite obviously from another world. Maybe all those science fiction movies have their merits, after all...though if you are not a mage, however did you manage to..."

"The sword did appear at a fortuitous time," Zak recalled carefully. "Just when I was ah, wishing very hard for one."

"Hmm. Well, I read before that someone of strong enough will can force the Unformed...did you specify a sword that will be effective against most things that you would encounter?" the elf frowned.

"Is that not what all swords should be like?" Zak shrugged. Apparently the spell allowed small movements, but he couldn't as yet move his fingers close enough to get to his boot knife.

"Interesting. Most interesting," the elf muttered. "Hmm. I would think that you did unknowingly will the sword into existence. Since you have, as I last saw, a very suspicious mind that would regard a sword in the middle of nowhere as a trap, your unconscious sort of tweaked it such that you 'found' the sword, as I looked later, in the grasp of a corpse."

"The Unformed adds twists of its own, hence the odd carrion birds, and the bronze armor, which from the sight of your armor, I doubt you could have thought of. However, the corpse, when I looked closer, was certainly ah...incomplete, and so most probably of your make. However, it is basically the corpse of a dark elf, but not like any that you can find here."

Zak shrugged. It was a move that was bound to irritate someone sooner or later, but the elf seemed unfazed. "I suppose I would have to explain. My name is Tulan, also known as the Black Bard."

Tulan seemed to be waiting for some sort of recognition, but Zak gave him a cool stare, not wanting to reveal his own name as yet.

"You haven't heard of me? Maybe your story has some truth, after all," Tulan grinned outrageously. "This proves to be most entertaining. Right, I'd release you if you stop trying to kill me."

Zak shrugged again.

"I want your word for it," Tulan waved one hand vaguely. "Last I checked, I was still Unseleighe Sidhe, and unfortunately I know quite a few of these sort of tricks."

"You have my word for it," Zak mumbled. Tulan inclined his head, then played a few notes on his violin. Zaknafein shook himself, then stretched, and winced at the pain.

"Didn't you say you healed the leg?" he inquired, running fingers gingerly on it.

"As in I managed to knit the bones together, yes," Tulan said, "I'm not a natural Healer, and I also can't be bothered to expend too much magic on you, and oddly, you heal remarkably quickly. It'd hurt for a while more," he added unnecessarily. "Now. What's your name?"

"Zaknafein," Zak settled back onto the pillows, and reconsidered his options. He was probably under the power of this 'Tulan', whom was a self-proclaimed dark elf, but could possibly not have the same sort of characteristics as 'normal' dark elves.

Tulan had some sort of magic, which was not only depressingly effective, it was also unlike any sort of magic that Zak had encountered before. This magic also did not seem to take very long to cast, and certainly would take shorter than the time taken by Zak to get off the couch, unsheathe claws, move to Tulan, and slash out his throat.

"How graphic," Tulan shuddered dramatically. Zak narrowed his eyes.

"Get out of my mind," he growled. Maliciously, he filled his thoughts with Tulan dying in several remarkably painful and prolonged ways.

"It'd give me some warning if you attempt to attack me," Tulan smirked, apparently not bothered by the images. "And I've seen all those before."

"Why am I not surprised," Zak said casually.

Tulan grinned impishly. "Now, I suppose I have to give you a debriefing about this world, since we'd be together for some time."

"Eh?" Zaknafein blinked, from where he had been idly measuring the distance to Tulan, and the proximity of any weapons or items that could be improvised to serve as such.

"I have been trapped here by the late Madoc Skean for... I can't remember how many centuries, but long enough to get seriously bored," Tulan said, walking over and sitting down on the table. Zak shifted slightly, and the elf held up the violin. "Ah-ah. Your word, remember?"

"I wouldn't kill you even if I hadn't given you my word," Zaknafein commented. "I would need you to get out of here, would I not?"

"Very practical," the elf murmured.

"However, I was going to see how many pieces I can cut off you before you get me out of here," Zak added, as neutrally as if he had been speaking about sword play techniques.

He had kept his mind quite firmly on the rather neutral image of himself exercising troops in the Underdark, but now he sprang forward, ignoring his throbbing leg. Long fingers curled around Tulan's neck in a strangle hold, his other hand knocked the violin out of Tulan's hands, then neatly freed his boot knife.

Tulan merely looked bored.

Wha...?

Zaknafein slammed into the opposite wall, nearly blacking out from the impact, his ears ringing with a harmony that seemed to be playing directly inside his head. He sank down to the floor slowly, his hand wiping away a trace of blood from his jaw.

I think I bit my cheek.

"That never fails to impress warriors," Tulan's boots appeared in front of him. "Had enough?"

Zak coughed, and scrutinized his bloodied spit with mild fascination.

"Really, some people..." Zak hit the wall again, harder this time, and the breath was forced out of his lungs. "I mean, I save you, I heal you, and then you try repeatedly to hurt me. As for that violin, it had better not be damaged ... it's an original Stradivarius..."

Zaknafein forced himself to breathe levelly before looking up again. Tulan was picking up his violin, and examining it minutely.

"Good for you it's unscratched," Tulan commented. "I paid a lot of money for that one, and I'm very fond of it."

Zaknafein reconsidered his options. Forcing Tulan to do anything, apparently, would be out of the question until he found out more about the other elf's magic. And besides, he did not have anything he really wanted to do now...other than doing some long-lasting and hopefully permanent harm to Tulan.

"I am feeling merciful today, however," Tulan continued, walking towards him. "So, truce?"

Tulan put out his hand towards Zak, and Zak flinched away until he realized that the hand was an offer to help him up.

Warily, he accepted, grudgingly sheathing his claws. There would always be a later.

[top]

Chapter 4: Silent Sea

Tulan was beginning to have second thoughts about the entire business. Although, as he had earlier observed in the Unformed and subsequently via mind-probe, his new 'companion' was highly skilled in fighting, was resourceful, and was also intelligent. He had somehow overlooked the fact that Zaknafein could also be incredibly annoying when holding a grudge.

So far, Tulan recalled, as he grimly knocked on Zak's door, Zaknafein had figured out television, taken an unbelievably long time to figure out sanitation (of which till today Tulan is of the mind that Zak did this on purpose), figured out the kitchen and the rest of the house, including how to use the servants.

The first was unfortunate, because...

Tulan muttered irritably as Zaknafein either conveniently 'could not hear' him knock, or really could not, considering the amount of muffled but loud music coming from his room.

"Hall, open the door," he said. It had been two centuries, and he still felt self-conscious utilizing this property of the house, or Hall.

The door obligingly clicked open, and as the music blared out into the corridor, Tulan winced and clapped his hands over his sensitive ears.

"Lift me up,

When the sun is shining..."

"Off!" he yelled at the television. Thankfully, the television obeyed. Tulan sighed when he surveyed what had originally been a neat guestroom. Somehow, even with a severe lack of furniture, books and papers, the room still managed to give a certain 'war-zone' look normally only achieved by humans between the ages of thirteen to nineteen, and after that, bachelors.

Someway, much of the weapons in the limited armory had ended up on and under the room's only table, which also had a (thankfully) disconnected stereo system. As it was, the stereo itself was mysteriously upside down, wires drooping forlornly by its sides, and the speakers propped up a quiver of mostly broken arrows and a heavy crossbow.

The electric clamp-on lamp on the table had been left alone, though the black dream-catcher on it was the worse for wear ... daggers pinned three of its feathers to the wall.

The dartboard hanging on the wardrobe set in the wall had obviously not been designed for throwing knives, though Zaknafein, finding a lack of darts (he somehow did not view darts with Velcro ends as darts), had apparently overlooked this fact. Certainly Tulan did not wish to find out if these throwing knives had also affixed the dartboard to the wardrobe.

Most of the pillows available on sofas and couches in the Hall were on the bed, which was facing the small color-television set. Sprawled like a starfish on a particularly soft head of coral was Zaknafein, one eyebrow raised, a wicked grin plastered on his face.

"Really, you should do something about the state of your room," Tulan began, realized he sounded more or less like his mother, then closed his mouth.

Zak shrugged. "It's my room."

"And as for watching MTV all day at top volume...I am surprised you can even hear anything I'm saying now," Tulan muttered. For the first time in a long while, he was beginning to regret the installation of a custom-made, expensive generator in the Hall. No iron, and yet managed electricity and helped with the piping system...and the Hall had quite easily absorbed it into itself, too.

Sometimes Tulan felt that the Hall was a living creature, which conformed to the 'mind' of its owner. The rooms all changed as his tastes changed ... once from a High Court like luxury, to a simpler Victorian England style, to oriental, then this more 'modern' look. That in itself made the Hall a perfect home, though Tulan resented the fact that he was trapped inside it by Madoc Skean and Keighvin Silverhair. Fine, he himself hadn't been any sort of angel by rights ... he did kill the predecessor of the Hall, after all ... but he hadn't deserved being stuck here for the rest of his life. He could name half a dozen more in the Courts that were more dangerous than he was.

Though none of them were Bards, yes. Perhaps Madoc and Keighvin had uncharacteristically cooperated to lock him in the Hall and its estates just because they had been afraid of Bardic magic, which was admittedly powerful, being a type of creative magic. And also technically not warped by iron, though if you combined innate and Bardic magic, it would be.

But still...

His dog, whimsically called Ahriman, padded up to him from the living room, peered inside at Zaknafein, and whimpered. In only a few days, Zaknafein had somehow managed to put the fear of God (metaphorically speaking) into the normally militantly good-natured animal. Ahriman had once tried to befriend a wolverine, after all...but Tulan decided he really did not want to know what Zak did.

"Is there anything else you would like to say to me?" Zaknafein inquired, somehow managing to convey polite interest, sarcasm, and not-you-again overtones.

If I only didn't need him that much...Tulan shook himself mentally. It was totally unlike the Black Bard to lose his temper, and he was not going to start now.

"One, I do require listening space to practice my violin," Tulan said calmly, "Hence, if you're not going to turn the volume down on the television, I am going to get the Hall to disconnect it."

Zak chuckled, and Tulan gritted his teeth. "Two, we have a 'job' to do now, if you remember."

"Ah...the 'Tamachi' demon, was it?" Zaknafein twirled a shuriken around his fingers, somehow managing not to cut himself.

"Correct," Tulan said, absently patting Ahriman, "He was last sighted on the Silent Sea."

"Stupid name," Zak commented, rolling off the bed with the grace of an offended cat. Tulan frowned slightly as Zak's hand-paws grasped the silk-wrapped bundle on the foot of the bed. One day he would have to make an effort to understand those paws...er, hands. Apparently it was the skin of the manifestation of the zodiac Leo, and the claws seemed to morph into the material that would most hurt the...ah, victim.

However, Zaknafein seemed to have cat-like tendencies, especially when waking up, or when operating at a less-than-aware state. Tulan made a mental note to consider this later.

He watched with mild fascination as Zaknafein made an impressive number of knives disappear into his clothing, then slipped a few shuriken into his arm bands. The things weren't iron of any sort ... just some sort of bronze or copper with silver, but traditionally, very, very sharp.

"I have to figure out how to get a rifle," Tulan muttered.

"What?" Zak inquired, stepping forward. Ahriman backed away, whining, then the retriever's nerve broke, and it ran off.

"I'd show you when I find one," Tulan sighed, "It'd be better than hefting that iron sword around, and at least it would be long-range. I'm very sure that that much iron can still be sensed even through all the warding and the silk."

Zak shrugged, following Tulan out of the Hall. For all its grand name, only one room would fit all the visions of grandeur and tapestries and weapons hanging on walls that someone might think of ... the 'audience room'. It was, oddly, the one room that never changed for any Master, as if it was the heart of the Hall itself.

Iron didn't seem to affect the Hall itself much, but spells cast inside, unless totally necessary, usually went awry.

From the outside, the Hall looked like an old, slightly Tudor-style mansion, neat and impeccable in gray and white, draped with ivy and other climbing plants that were perpetually in flower. The trees that lined the driveway of carefully laid bits of granite-marble did change with some sort of fixed season ... from leafless in winter somewhere, to flowering in spring, verdant in green cloaks in summer, then to a blaze of red and gold in autumn. The temperature changed accordingly as well, something that was occasionally inconvenient.

The driveway led to the tall, ornate and useless gate (even a child could climb it), joined to equally, at first sight, useless walls so covered in climbing plants that all color of the original wall had disappeared. However, any intruder trying to climb the vines would be in for a wicked surprise...they animated and would hold down any climber. Occasionally the Master of the Hall would leave the climber there ... the vines could not be cut by any weapon, and would only release the climber on request by the Master, which explained the odd overgrown skeleton.

The walls bound in a large garden of soft turf, with a swimming pool inlaid with black marble (Tulan found this slightly tasteless, but couldn't change it. Apparently the Hall had its private quirks). Sometimes waterfowl could be found in the pool, but the water never seemed to be fouled, and was always warm enough for a comfortable swim. Still, it was not very funny to be dive-bombed by sea eagles, and Tulan never went swimming at night anymore if he could help it. Stupid bats.

Outside the walls would be the Forest, with its impossible trees and impossible creatures. The trees were all flourishing, even though...well, normally a forest would not contain pines, deciduous trees and tropical trees together.

The creatures would not be considered impossible for Underhill creatures, but they were a mixed lot. There were 'normal' creatures like squirrels, and 'not normal' ones like the odd unicorn. Living together.

If there were any aggressive animals in there, they usually did not bother Tulan. Still, he did not wander very far into the forest if he could help it. One would never know what one would find...

The forest was an effective 'wall' to the outside. Outgoing Gates (Gates for someone to go out of the holding) normally went to wrong places, exploded, or simply did not form. Ingoing Gates did, very well indeed. However, as demonstrated earlier...a caster could put an arm and a similarly small appendage through an ingoing Gate.

There was, to Tulan's knowledge, four working Outgoing Gates in the forest, permanent ones, but Madoc Skean and Keighvin Silverhair had somehow managed to Change them such that the mage who wanted to get out would have to be holding an item forged of pure iron. This effectively kept Tulan in the holding...until Zaknafein.

The forest seemed to shift, opening up a clear pathway as Tulan thought of the Gate he had in mind. Tulan did not feel very comfortable with Zaknafein walking behind him, but he did know he had to somehow gain Zak's trust, sooner or later. Even if he was not fond of the Hall and wished to leave forever, he had become so accustomed to drawing his innate magics from it that he probably could not leave it for very long if he wanted to.

And the only way to actually get out again and again would require the help of the strange 'drow', as Zak called his race.

The forest, Tulan knew, was somewhat of a fairytale in itself. There were absolutely no way those bright, pretty flowers would be able to grow healthily on the path so shaded by the tall trees. And...

Zaknafein scowled as the fairies came flitting out from the trees. "Not them again," he sighed. Each fairy was about as tall as one of Tulan's fingers, dressed in transparent clothing...and all females. Either the males were exceedingly rare, or didn't appear, or didn't exist. They giggled, sang with sweet voices in wordless songs, and ... this was the part that irritated Zaknafein the most ... tried to drape flowers and ribbons from somewhere on the elves.

Tulan smiled widely as they appeared then tipped his hat stylishly at them. The fairies tittered like birds, their transparent butterfly wings small blurs of color as they circled and swooped around and on the elves.

Zaknafein swiped half-heartedly at them, but they were, as he was very much aware of, impossibly quick. "Git!" he managed to shake off an offensively pink ribbon, only for two fairies to drape a glaring blue one on his ear.

"Pests," Zak muttered darkly, pulling off the blue ribbon and fending off a green one. Those nearest to him giggled and redoubled their efforts. They were not the least bothered by the presence of iron, one even settling down on the silk-wrapped bundle for a moment to comb her hair with a comb with teeth as thin as an eyelash.

"Actually," Tulan said cheerfully, "I find them more beautiful than all the elven ladies I have seen in the High Court." The ones around him squealed in joy at the extravagant praise, then one plucked at his violin string. Obligingly, Tulan began to play a quick madrigal, and the fairies seized each other's hands to dance in the air.

"That is a relief," Zak sighed, disentangling the ribbons from his hair and dumping them on the path, where they (perhaps not surprisingly) dissolved into gold specks that blew away in the gentle breeze. "You should consider netting up the paths, Tulan."

"Not possible, I'm afraid," Tulan grinned wolfishly, enjoying Zaknafein's discomfort. He chuckled as some of the fairies swooped in to kiss the tips of Zak's ears, twittering in amusement when he snarled at them. He had a suspicion that their 'infatuation' with Zak was partly because they knew they annoyed the drow immensely, while he, Tulan, merely felt that they were one of the more endearing aspects of his Holding. And partly because Zaknafein was very handsome in an elegant way...and there was something, Tulan decided wryly, about weapons and warriors that attracted females.

Eventually they reached the small grassy hill, which marked a site of a Gate, and the fairies threw a few last blossoms at them before waving madly and in some cases, upside down.

"Good riddance!" Zak yelled back at them as he followed Tulan up the hill. They giggled, blew kisses, and melted back into the Forest.

***

The Gate had been set to hunting grounds, neutral ones. This was emphasized by its structure ... two long spears stabbed in the ground which somehow managed to balance, on their blunt ends, the ends of the antlers on a skull of a formidable stag. Probably magic or some really tough glue ... the Gate was firmly and unshakably fixed on the ground.

Zaknafein removed the entire scabbard, and stuck it through the Gate. There was some small resistance, as if he was pushing the thing through jelly.

Through extensive experimentation, they had discovered that it was not particularly necessary to uncover the sword when Gating, which was just as well or their presence would be announced every time they Gated. Still, Tulan could not even touch the sword's scabbard or the silk-wrapped hilt without intense pain.

Tulan concentrated, changing the focus of his magic to conform to the warping ability of the iron. He didn't need Bardic magic to activate a permanent Gate, which was just as well, since he wouldn't really know how to.

He focused finally on the Gate, 'feeling' out the positions until he found the one he was looking for. He tended to visualize them as a corridor with doors ... one door to one position. There were other ways of doing it, of course, but he felt this was the easiest and he was used to this way.

Calling up power from the Hall ... he didn't want to use his own 'personal' store of power as yet ... he automatically pictured himself opening the door with 'Silent Sea' engraved neatly on it, then regretted immediately.

The magical 'slap' knocked him sprawling. Muttering to himself, Tulan stood up. Zaknafein gave him a mildly questioning look.

"Force of habit," Tulan admitted, then concentrated again, this time picturing Zaknafein, sword in hand, opening the door, while a small blue 'thread' linked the drow to himself. This would focus Zak as the opening-force...

The stag's eyes suddenly glowed a dull red as the Gate was invoked successfully, and Tulan quickly followed Zak through.

***

Zaknafein looked around casually as Tulan finished 'turning off' the Gate in the Silent Sea. A rather useful Bardic spell enabled him to 'see' in daylight, or what passed as daylight in the Underhill, though he still got mild headaches when the light was too strong.

Like now. The Silent Sea was not a sea of any sort, but a desert with gentle dunes. He could, however, understand how it got its name ... no winds blew, and the air itself seemed uncomfortably still. The place seemed totally lifeless ... and as he scrutinized their surroundings, he could not see this 'Tamachi' anywhere, and it was beginning to get unbearably hot.

"Are you sure you have the right place?" Zak asked, his voice seeming unnaturally loud.

"I'm sure," Tulan looked faintly annoyed. "He could be hiding himself, though. Doesn't take much effort to hold a chameleon spell in this sort of monocolor place."

Zak decided (correctly) that a chameleon spell was a spell that 'fitted' the spellcaster or the person on the receiving end to the same color as the surroundings, then sighed. "So how are we supposed to find it?"

"Footprints?" Tulan gestured at the sand vaguely. "Tamachi can't fly...I hope."

"You do not even know?" Zak exploded.

"There's no need to get upset about it," Tulan whispered. "And lower your volume."

"Why? If it attracts the demon's attention, well and good....and there does not seem to be any living thing for miles that would even hear us." Zaknafein folded his arms stubbornly. As if to disprove this statement, the elves felt a small vibration on the ground.

"Zaknafein," Tulan said quietly, "Have you even wondered why the Hunting Gate has a position here? If there were no creatures to be had?"

"What kind of creatures?" Zak asked. The elves looked at each other, then looked down at their feet.

"Burrowing ones," Tulan said acidly.

Oh, shi...

Zaknafein yanked Tulan to the side of the Gate when the... thing burst through the soft sand inches from where they had been standing, with only a gentle hiss of the sand being sucked down and thrown up into the air, then, carried on by its momentum, it hit the Gate.

It looked, Zak found as he got up shakily, like an immense worm as think as a tree, the visible end a gashing maw of rows of teeth. It twitched violently and screeched as the magic streaked through it then sank back into the sand.

"Like that," Tulan was gasping for breath. "Thanks, by the way."

"If you die, I won't be able to get out of here," Zak shrugged. "And I certainly do not want to get stuck in a place with these creatures."

"Ever practical," Tulan commented, standing up then involuntarily looked down again as a now-familiar vibration caused the grains around his feet to jiggle madly.

"On my count," Zak said softly.

One...

"Zak..." Tulan began, as the grains now began to bounce and jerk.

Two...

"Now!" Zak dived to the side, rolling up to his feet and drawing the iron sword in a smooth move, then swung in a practiced motion. He noticed with some relief that Tulan seemed to be all right ... the elf was raising his violin to his shoulder.

Up...then down and accelerate in a circular fashion, then impact...

The iron sword sliced easily through the worm's soft body and Zaknafein tried not to shy away as dark red blood spurted out onto his armor. The worm shrieked, then keened louder when Tulan began to play a series of repetitive, high chords.

Zaknafein cut into the worm again and again until his wrists and arms began to ache a little, until it stopped thrashing and was still.

Tulan stopped playing, breathing hard. "That was too close," he began.

"Down!" Zak shouted, flipping a throwing knife onto his hand. Tulan unhesitatingly obeyed. The knife flew straight and true ... into the side of an ugly, snarling creature that had swooped down on the Bard.

Tulan rolled away and got to his knees, playing a chord Zak recognized. The creature was flung away to smash into the soft sand, though not hard enough to knock it out.

"Tamachi," Tulan blinked, as Zaknafein vaulted the still length of the worm to his side.

The creature was man-shaped, though bulky and lacking proper legs. Its chest was grotesquely wide and heavily muscled, and feathers sprouted from horribly long arms, the wings having the largest wingspan Zaknafein had ever seen. The 'legs' and the 'hands' ended in long talons.

The face had been painted as if it had been a mask ... one had once probably been a pleasant human visage was now lashed with gaudy blue, black and red stripes on a stark white background, the eyes marked with sharp-tipped strokes, and fangs outlined on the edges of a painfully red-lipped mouth.

The hair had been dyed a bright orange, and gathered into a high ponytail. Two feathers seemed to sprout from the ears, as long as a wing.

"He's as big as a small airplane," Tulan breathed.

Whatever an airplane was, Zaknafein didn't really wish to ask at that time. He was already running forward, ready to swing the iron sword and hoping he wouldn't dislocate his wrists...

Tamachi looked up at him and hissed. The feathers from his ears shot forward, wrapping tightly around him and the sword and hoisting him up into the air. The feathers seemed as tough as adamantite, and slowly constricted, crushing him...

Tulan! Do something!

"I can't banish him if he's holding you!" Tulan shouted from somewhere beneath him. Dimly, Zak could hear the sounds of a rapier deflecting the talons, and he acted quickly. Dropping the sword ... the iron didn't seem to affect Tamachi ... he unsheathed the claws, curling his wrists painfully to scratch at the binding, even kicking the feathers. He winced as he deeply scratched his own wrists. Obviously rather futile...

He arched his hand, straining, and managed to slip out a shuriken. Deftly, he caught it with his right hand, and sighted quickly, trying to push back the darkness that threatened to engulf him. He flicked his wrist, and the shuriken streaked down, and burned into Tamachi's chest. There weren't any flames or sort, but the skin and flesh seemed to dissolve, sucking the shuriken in further.

With a shrill cry, Tamachi let go of Zaknafein, and the drow fell ignominiously down to land on Tulan. It scrabbled at its chest, rending its flesh with its talons in its agony, but finally collapsed.

"Damn...are you trying to break my back?" Tulan pushed him off then watched the body begin to decay rapidly. "I suppose we don't even need to banish him," the Bard said quietly. "Odd. I didn't know demons were allergic to silver. Or maybe bronze, or copper. Good shot, though." He added, as the body dissolved into a damp, colorless patch of the sand, including the feathers.

"I was aiming for the head," Zak admitted.

[top]

Chapter 5: Ellyn

"This could get tiresome," Zak said, sitting down on a rock to catch his breath. He watched as Tulan carefully (if one could be in this sort of business) decapitated the staked vampire, then slipped the ghastly trophy into a small sack of Holding. The silver thread around the neck tied itself into a knot.

"Is that so?" Tulan's voice was decidedly neutral. "Well, it's a job. And I can't picture you spending the rest of your life working as a bartender or suchlike in the Underhill."

"That is true," Zaknafein admitted. These mercenaring or assassinating 'jobs' were mostly made up of irregular periods of lazing in Tulan's Hall, and then short periods of planning, then even shorter periods of confrontation. Certainly more entertaining than the job of a weaponmaster, and better (to him) than taking up a 'mundane' job.

He did not particularly understand why Tulan insisted on payment in small, old-looking, rectangular papers. Apparently they were a sort of money...

"Why?" Tulan inquired, not looking up as he packed his beloved violin into the travelling case, "Because they're genuine human money."

"And that is?" Zaknafein had become more or less used to Tulan's psychic abilities. It did prove useful sometimes...though just as often the Bard's prying ways annoyed him.

Tulan chuckled. "Zak, I'm an elf-mage. If I wanted gold or paltry gems, I can ken them. It's simple."

"Ken?" Zak asked.

"It's one of the commonest spells involving innate magic," Tulan shrugged. "Take a gold nugget, study it hard enough, then duplicate it. Easy. Or if I wanted to, I can even make my own...Bardic magic's creative magic."

"Why not ken the money?" Zak inquired, rubbing his hands in the cold. They were in one of the more 'stereotype', as Tulan put it, landscapes. Trees grew sparsely on dark gravel, the fallen logs and rocks sticking up like skeletal hands. A sparse, damp mist hung miserably in the air. Even the Gate was depressing ... a charred, pitted arch that wasn't even a decent color ... more like stained off-white.

"Humans are smart," Tulan shrugged. "They don't really like new notes...not those whom I do business with, anyway. And they tend to notice if all your notes all have the same numbers."

"If you can create things, why do you need to deal with humans? What do they have to offer?" Zak pointed out.

Tulan grinned. "Well, I can create things, yes, but it takes a lot of effort. My fingers would probably fall off first before I can play up something as simple as a bicycle, let alone that electrical generator we have in the Hall. Also, I would need to know intimately how the created thing works and where every single bit goes and works...like if I were to create a watch now, it wouldn't work, because I don't know where all the gears go."

"I shall pretend I understood that," Zak said dryly.

"And as for supplies..." Tulan ignored the jibe, "I don't create them. I just don't know how all the cells and all that fit together...even if I were to create a cherry now, it'd probably be like wax, or something, and taste like it too. The Hall doesn't create the food either...all our supplies come from a complicated agreement involved with a certain secretive company outside Underhill. Human-run."

Zak frowned at this. "How? I mean, to get a cup of wine in the Hall, I just ask for it, and sooner or later one of those pair of hands appear to give it to me."

The 'hands' were the servants in the Hall ... they hadn't existed before Tulan became Master, so the Bard was probably their inspiration. They were semi-transparent and white, and were capable of many tasks like making a bed, fetching food, and even making a limited selection of simple dishes.

"I told you it's complicated," Tulan said. "Now, I suppose we can go back now?"

"About time," Zak responded, standing up.

I think I will follow with this assassinating business until I find something better.

Still, Zak knew, as he watched Tulan begin the opening chords for the invocation of the Gate, 'something better' would be difficult to find. Now he had the occasional 'job' with which to exercise himself physically and mentally, and also comfortable lodging, even though the food was not as good as that served in House Do'Urden, it was much better than what he had eaten as a child and a commoner.

There were disadvantages, yes; Tulan being one of them, but he could bear with them. The advantages far overruled the disadvantages. Pragmatically, Zak knew he was lucky to have arrangements like these and that Tulan was important to the arrangements (he didn't know if killing Tulan would or would not cause the Hall to stop working), and therefore, he wouldn't kill the elf. As long as this arrangement continued, that is. Until he found a better one.

Zaknafein did not forget people who smashed him into walls very quickly, nor did he forgive very easily.

***

Ellyn curled up on her bed after switching on the radio and cranking up the volume to as high as she dared and locking the door. It was no use ... even if she closed her windows and stuck her fingers in her ears, she could still hear the quarrelling.

The voices of her parents downstairs were getting louder, which meant that the quarrel was soon reaching a climax. Ellyn felt uncomfortable ... she always did when her parents shouted at each other. It was so unnatural, so wrong.

Savage Garden's Affirmation. 'Normally', Ellyn would be singing along, at the top of her voice. Now she hardly noticed the lyrics.

She still couldn't believe this was happening to her.

"I believe we place our happiness in other people's hands..."

Right, Ellyn. Take a deep breath. You know that this sort of matter is quite common here. You know, statistically, that you're not the only kid who has this kind of family problem...

That didn't make her feel any better. If anything, Ellyn felt worse. Now she felt like a number, a helpless statistic that nonetheless knew exactly what was going to happen...

People in school had talked about this. It usually started with the shouting, then when one of them or both of them start to drink, watch out. Then one day they'd take you to one side and say, "We know this will be hard for you, but your mother and I..."

No, she wouldn't think of that. She wouldn't dream of that happening.

At least they didn't hit her, as some people she knew were.

Her father drank. She knew ... he smelled of alcohol, strong alcohol. Her mother...when not shouting at her father or off at her job, would unbearably 'fuss' her ... look at her homework, give endless talks on her grades and How to Study, Don't you Know that Doing Schoolwork Alone won't Be Enough...

"I believe you don't know what you've got until you say goodbye..."

In a way, that was even worse than what her father was doing. Ellyn felt constricted, under the now nearly-relentless pressure on her by her mother, and under the distinct feeling that I know how this will end.

I don't want it to end this way, Ellyn told herself fiercely, eyes squeezing shut against the tears that threatened to well up. I don't want it to.

Why me?

There was a horrifying surreality about this...it seemed like one of the novels Ellyn was fond of reading.

Please let this be a dream...I'm only fifteen...

"I believe that family is worth more than..."

Then her mother's strident voice cut through the music and all of Ellyn's precautions. "That's it! I can't... I want a divorce!"

Somewhere, nearly theatrically, a door slammed.

This is unreal, Ellyn told herself. I don't believe... my God. Oh my god. Please, let this be a dream... any moment now I should wake up shaking, sweating, but this won't be real...

Please let someone up there be listening to me, Ellyn clenched her fists. If there is anyone up there, she added rebelliously. She didn't much belief in the hereafter and Heaven much anymore, not after all this business started, and no amount of praying and reading the bible and going to church herself had done anything...

Someone, please help me!

Sorry, lass.

Ellyn gulped, then closed her eyes. "Ash?"

Yes, lass?

Ellyn blinked back the tears, hope flaring inside her. "You're back. And you're not real. Hence this isn't real..."

As I said, lass, I'm sorry.

"So I'm hallucinating? God, Ash, I haven't 'spoken' to you since I was ten..." Ellyn argued, then fought back the urge to giggle. She was arguing with a figment of her imagination. Ash was an imaginary friend, someone whom she'd talked to since six years of age, when he'd disappeared. She remembered her mother and father smiling at her when she stubbornly claimed that Ash, or Ashalon, was an angel who watched over her. And that he liked chocolate pudding, so could she take some more upstairs?

You stopped Listening when you were ten. Now you're Open again... and you have been spending a lot of time trying to get attention from Us. Then you called.

"You're really an angel?" Ellyn sniffed.

Maybe you think this is a hallucination brought on by trauma, since it does seem to be happening very conveniently. But it isn't. Wake up to the world, Ellyn. You don't have any control over what is going to happen.

"If you're an angel, then tell me, why does God allow all this to happen?" Ellyn asked stubbornly. "Why did He let the Holocaust happen, or the Crusades?"

I'm not an angel, lass. I am not even sure if there is a God. You must take it on Faith, I believe.

"You told me you were," Ellyn accused. "When I was six."

No, lass. You thought I was an angel, since my natural form appeared to be a human with wings.

"Then what are you?" Ellyn wailed. "What is happening to me? If this is real, then what else is real? What else is not real?" She cried then, for her broken world, for herself, and for the shattering of illusions, and for all she did not understand.

Lass, poor lass...I am real. So are you, and so is that table, and so is that chair. What is not real is your belief that there will always Something that will influence your luck, that everything will be all right. Make your own luck, lass.

"I don't believe you," Ellyn said.

Then I will make you believe.

A soft white glow blurred into existence over the table then grew larger and less substantial, then abruptly seemed to flow inward and outward at the same time. A man seemed to sit on the table, immense hawk's wings folded neatly, with folded hands and crossed legs, wearing a plain white robe that one could only see in those medieval movies.

"I can see the wall through you," Ellyn said slowly, backing up on her bed.

Because I am not truly here, nor can I truly be anywhere.

"What are you?" Ellyn whispered.

The man shrugged. It is not important. But it is good to know that you have the Sight.

"I have what?" Ellyn blinked, then started to laugh, hysterical laughter, then her throat was choked with sobs. The man seemed to wait politely for her to get a grip on herself, then nodded at her.

You can see me. Tell me, what do you see around me?

Ellyn was going to say that she could see through him, then she frowned. Around the insubstantial figure was a faint aura, red-brown-orange-yellow, flickering and changing, which seemed to grow stronger as she concentrated.

You can see my aura.

"Yes, I can," Ellyn said woodenly, feeling another incoming bout of mild hysterics, then squashing the inclination quickly. I'd look like one of those 'teens' on TV if I gave in, she told herself fiercely. Those people who only seem to be able to cry, slap people, and have near-magnetic attractions via their wrists to the nearest sharp slashing weapon.

Tell me, lass...do you want to stay in your home? With your family? Or would you like to leave this place, maybe leave this world, forever?

"I don't want to stay here," Ellyn said, and knew, with a resigned feeling, that it was true. "I don't think I'd miss them much any more...but leave? Forever? Do you mean suicide?"

Why do teenagers think that the only way out is suicide?

"That's not true..." Ellyn said automatically, reverting subconsciously to her 'mask' she used when on a debate, then smiled rather sheepishly.

Good to see you are waking up, lass. No, I do not mean suicide. Tell me, lass...do you believe in magic?

"God, this sounds like one of those fantasy movies..." Ellyn said, then bit her lip. "All right, I know I am being dense, but what you are asking is a bit much for me to handle..."

I have faith in you, lass. Do you believe in magic?

"I would love to," Ellyn began to chew her lip. "But now I don't know what I believe in anymore. I mean, a few months ago everything was..."

I know it is hard for you, lass. But you must face your facts, even if they do not suit you. That is a major flaw in humans, did you know? They tend to delude themselves very easily and unconsciously. You could continue like this for years, lass ... thinking that everything is going to be all right, thinking that everything is not real, until you fall in yourself and collapse mentally.

"I know, Ash," Ellyn bowed her head. "I'm sorry."

Do not blame yourself, lass.

"Thanks," Ellyn took a deep breath. "All right. I believe in magic."

With all your heart?

"I don't see the point of this, but yes. I would like to leave this world. I hate my life, I hate school, I hate my mother's lectures...and don't tell me that I will regret it if I leave. I don't care ... this isn't some dumb movie where the kid runs home in the end to loving parents. I don't believe that sort of thing happens. This is real life. I don't believe that running away for a while will solve all my problems at home. In any case, I believe that the problems will just get worse, and give my parents another excuse to scream at each other."

"I would like to believe in fantasy. I would like to believe that dragons and unicorns and fairies are real, and that a wave of a wand or a kiss from a prince can solve all my problems. I wish...I wish magic is real, hence I believe in it and have believed in it probably even before I read my first book..."

Ellyn took a sobbing breath, then looked straight into the Ash's eyes.

She saw what seemed suspiciously like amusement, and a fond twinkle.

Very well, lass. Then I may help you.

"How?" Ellyn sat up straight.

I cannot fix what is broken...but I can make a replacement. Fare thee well, lass. We shall meet again.

Ash disappeared from her table. Ellyn blinked, then rubbed her eyes and blinked again. What the hell happened?

Oh great, she thought. Now I'm going bonkers...

Then her eyes fell on the table.

Where Ash had been sitting on, there was now a large sunflower that she certainly had not seen before...it was a pure white instead of the normal yellow-gold...

And soft pearls of dew sat like so many perfect diamonds on the soft petals, even though it was in the middle of the afternoon.

***

Sod you, Tulan.

Zaknafein decided early on that the iron sword, although remarkably effective against his opponents, was straining his already injured wrists. The scratches were taking their time to heal...

He was fighting, at one go, six swordsmen. Although all of them only held one sword in one hand (oddly), and wore robes that looked as though would be encumbering them, they were fast. They dodged with depressing ease, and also made use of their feet in the fight...he had to dodge and parry both unarmed and sword attacks.

Two were down already, at least ... one felled by a neat stab with a dagger, the other by a lucky stroke with the iron blade. One thing at least ... they didn't seem very used to fighting in a group, and sometimes got into each other's way...

He held the swords from the fallen swordsmen. Whatever they were made of, they were certainly more comfortable to use than the iron broadsword, and remarkably well made.

Zaknafein also found, to his initial dismay that they knew and were able to counter most of the routines that he had used so far, and even used a few which he was not personally familiar with, and had to counter with instinct and the 'luck' born from four centuries of practice. Then he found that that was all they knew.

Zak began to use a tactic that was troublesome in that it required some thought before launching, but effective in that it was nearly impossible for your opponent to anticipate, if you were fast enough...

So, first swords low and angling up, as if to slip through his defense...Zak saw the smirk on his opponent's face, then knew rather than felt his opponent curl his leg back as if to strike, lowering his defense as he did so...

Abruptly Zak changed the move, using his momentum to slash one sword back, then forward, turning his other hand to deflect the predictable kick. He felt a small wash of satisfaction as his first sword stabbed through his opponent's neck, and at the surprised expression on his opponent's face.

It didn't last long. Zaknafein ducked a high sword stroke instead of parrying, by dropping down abruptly to pivot on one hand, wincing at the pain in his wrist, body parallel to the ground, legs sweeping the swordsman off his feet, then rolling on instinct.

A blade clashed into the ground where he had been, but Zaknafein, as calculated, had already stopped with deadly grace close enough to the swordsman who was getting up to cross one sword over the man's neck.

No, not human, exactly. Not elf, either ... some sort of new humanoid, Zak decided absently. Human-like, human-sized, but with eyes that were all pupil and impossibly slanted, oddly rounded faces that contrasted with a slender body.

He could hear Tulan playing a very fast series of notes on his violin, and also the chanting of the mage the Bard was facing off. So far there, a more or less equal match...

And the most irksome thing, Zak found, as he parried a nasty stab, was that their intended target was just standing on the top of a few steps at the entrance to this stupid temple, of which they were currently fighting on the courtyard...

The target wore strange robes, with some sort of long orange-gold cloth draped over his shoulders and chest over yellow robes, such that the target looked as though he was wearing a curtain. As much as Zak could discern, he was only holding a plain fan. And watching everything rather philosophically, making no move to interfere.

At least his moves seemed to be confusing the swordsmen. Drow fought to kill, without beauty, swift and fierce.

These people...fought as though dancing, their moves like liquid, slightly exaggerated, as if displaying, whirling and twirling. Even their kicks looked choreographed.

How silly.

One thing Zak had learnt pretty early was not to show your back to your opponent. He gave the swordsman closest to him a demonstration in this important rule by impaling the man through the back when the man turned, apparently trying to gain momentum or something.

They fought some sort of standard fighting rules...yes, with lots of moves and counters, but Zak began to see some flaws.

If they kicked, they only tried for his body. If they used their swords, they only tried for his sword...

Right. Zaknafein parried a slash from the swordsman closest to him, but instead of using the impact to swing his sword away and back for another try, he slashed his sword down, using the sword of his opponent as a guide ... and laid open the man's hand.

Oh well, that didn't work. His opponent, other than a startled curse, didn't drop his sword.

Zak shrugged philosophically, then threw up his other sword. His opponent instinctively looked up at the flipping blade, and Zak took advantage of the moment to unsheathe the claws of that hand and slash over his opponent's eyes.

This time, the swordsman did drop his sword, his hands going to his face with a pained cry. Zaknafein caught the sword expertly as it dropped, then neatly thrust through the swordsman.

Amateurs.

However, the last swordsman took advantage of this move to cut open his arm. Zak muttered an oath, abandoned the sword, and parried the next stroke with his other sword.

He anticipated the thrust, and flipped up his remaining sword. This swordsman was better ... he didn't look up.

However, Zak caught the thrusting blade between his palms, allowing the force to push him back other than let the blade go through his chest. Then he forced it back with a sharp move that angled the sword up to the swordsman's face, breaking the man's nose with an audible sound. As the man staggered back, Zak's leg hooked up the falling sword, flipping it back to his hand.

Bah...I won't even bother to use a sword. And anyway, the cut's healing nicely.

Zak dropped the sword and picked up throwing knives in both hands. He flung the first knife, calculating its throw such that it would pass near the man's head, but not hitting.

As he suspected, the man used his sword to deflect the knife, but this stroke carried the sword just too far away to parry another knife, thrown immediately after the first, in time.

Zaknafein looked up after retrieving his knives, found that Tulan was more or less finishing off the mage, then picked up two swords, turning to face their target.

I should be able to get there before he can run very far...

Zak ran, swords held low, towards their target, which, impossibly, just continued to fan himself.

"Zak, no!" Tulan yelled behind him. But their target had whipped the fan in front of him, and moved his hand from side to side in wide sweeps, as if trying to fan Zak away...

What in the Nine Hells?

A cold, biting, shrieking wind rose out of the still air, seeming to catch hold of him, pulling him up off the ground...and the world blurred around him.

[next page]

Lledrith RavenWolf

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