Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief
By Leslie Ann Miller
Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story. This chapter makes reference to a rape in the past. No details are provided, but it is an important plot point.
CHAPTER 4: IN THE TUNNELS
They'd left Mole and his men well behind before they unbundled Wraith in an old miner's guardroom and untied her legs so that she could walk on her own. Her wrists were bound behind her back, and Keen held the other end of a rope tied around her neck.
"No tricks," Keen said, a black outline against the flickering torchlight.
Wraith could barely stand to look at her, the light hurt her eyes so badly. It was no wonder the humans found light to be such an effective weapon against her people. She was much more tolerant of light than most blackelves, but the torchlight was an agonizing intrusion upon her blessed darkness. How much worse must it be for most blackelf warriors? Blinding. As blinding to them as the darkness was to humans, and horribly painful as well.
"You'll die the moment those ropes come off your wrists, understand?" the warrior continued. "No magic."
Wraith said nothing.
"You're going to lead us," Keen continued. "Take us to where this Wraith may be, and we'll turn you loose. If we're attacked by blackelves or anything else, and you don't give us warning of the attack, the first thing I kill will be you. You live only as long as we do."
She shoved Wraith through the small doorway into the black passage beyond, a firm grip upon the rope around her neck.
Wraith was vaguely familiar with this section of tunnels. She'd been on scouting expeditions to this area when she'd been with the Queen's Guard. The guardroom marked the end of the human section of the tunnels. Beyond were shag passages and natural caves. The real threat would be from shags. They had a large colony nearby, and they would undoubtedly encounter hunting parties. Wraith would not fear the shags, save for being with the humans. Shags were stupid and easily avoided, but she could not use her stealth abilities tied as she was. The humans made far too much noise when they moved not to be noticed, even if they did not have torches acting as beacons. She knew that it was only a matter of time before they were attacked.
They had not gone far, in fact, when Wraith first heard signs of shag scouts. She heard their claws scraping on the stone far ahead and knew that two or three had spotted them.
"Why have you stopped?" Keen demanded.
Wraith nodded her head at the darkness in front of them.
"Is there something coming?"
Wraith nodded again.
Keen handed her rope and torch to Jewels. "Get behind us," Keen instructed. "If the blackelf tries anything during the fight, use your dagger and kill it."
Jewels swallowed hard, looking at Wraith with fear in her eyes, but she obediently drew her dagger out.
"Let's move back down the passage to that last wide area," Keen continued, waving them back the direction from which they'd come. "I'll have room to swing a sword there."
"Let me help you," Merlynn said. "There was room for two standing shoulder to shoulder."
"No, I need the space. You and Jewels stand behind me. Keep your torches lit. I'll need the light to see, and perhaps it will blind our opponent... or opponents."
The wait for the shag hunting party was a long one. Wraith was genuinely surprised that the humans didn't simply decide her warning was a lie and continue on. But Keen was patient, more patient than she would have guessed. The warrior stood in stance, sword in hand, shield raised for much longer than Wraith would have believed possible. Jewels, in fact, was leaning against the side of the tunnel and Merlynn was shifting restlessly when the first round of shag darts came hissing out of the darkness.
Keen gave a deafening shout, and Merlynn staggered backwards with a cry of pain, clutching her shoulder. Jewels screamed, dropping the rope binding Wraith, and then the shags came charging forward into the torchlight, cruel stone picks and hammers in hand, eyes gleaming red and pale gold.
Wraith knew they'd all die if she did not help eventually. Using the Talent, she quickly unbound her wrists. She slid to Merlynn's side as Keen wreaked a magnificent slaughter of shags.
The warrior held the narrow tunnel with skill and determination. Her sword strokes were sure and concise without any wasted motion or effort, and she used her small round shield with the ease of long practice. The bodies of her enemies piled in front of her. Wraith could feel the shags' fear of the human. It made them timid and vulnerable; Keen killed them quickly when they dared to attack.
Jewels cowered against the wall of the tunnel holding her sputtering torch. It impressed Wraith that she had not simply run away in terror.
But Keen would tire soon and then the shags would grow bold again. Though she could easily escape herself, now, Wraith knew she had to do something to protect Merlynn. The healer had been wounded with a poison dart, and she would die without help. This was her chance to repay her debt to the human.
She stood up so the shags could see her easily, and summoned the energy to her body. She was still weak from the whipping as well as the long days of uncomfortable captivity, but she had enough strength to use her Talent to wrench the sword out of the leading shag's clawed fist and slam it to the ground. It bellowed in surprised fear as it saw her shadowy figure behind Keen. Bellowing again, it turned and fled. The shags had not expected to face a blackelf with the Talent this close to the Outerworld, and the attack quickly dissolved into panic and confusion.
Few blackelves were ever born with Talent, and most of those were descended of royal blood. Except in Wraith's case, they were given the best training, the best weapons and armor. The blackelf histories were filled with stories about the heroic deeds of Talented warriors and nobles. The ability to move objects with the mind was a powerful, deadly weapon in battle, and the shags knew it, and feared it.
Keen stepped forward to press her enemy, taking advantage of their sudden chaos. They turned and fled almost as one, their hairy forms quickly melting into the heavy darkness.
Keen watched them go with satisfaction, leaning on her sword amongst the bloody bodies surrounding her. Wraith fell weakly to her knees by Merlynn's side and fumbled to find a pulse in the healer's neck.
"You!" Keen suddenly bellowed behind her.
Wraith looked up to see the warrior staring at her in shock and anger.
"Get away from her!" she shouted, lifting her sword, charging.
Wraith ducked the warrior's first swing and rolled to one side as she swung again. The sword clanged loudly as it struck the floor of the tunnel. Wraith dived between Keen's legs, somersaulted, and came up standing behind her, panting. Using the Talent was exhausting mentally and physically, and she had little energy to spare.
"Wait!" she gasped, almost choking on the unfamiliar word.
Keen whirled, and Wraith dodged the wild arc of her blade.
She held up her hands in what she hoped was a gesture of peace. "Please," she said, "I have done nothing!"
Keen feinted with her sword, and Wraith flinched.
"You damnable monster," Keen growled, and Wraith shuddered to see the red battle lust in her eyes, "You could speak all along!"
She grabbed the torch from Jewels' hand and thrust it at Wraith. Blinded, she stumbled backwards, tripping over the body of a dead shag. She fell on her back and her head bounced off the cold stone. When she finally refocused her eyes, Keen was standing over her bathed in blinding radiance, sword raised for the killing blow, a vision from her worst nightmare.
"I can help Merlynn!" she whispered desperately.
"I know cure for shag poison," she said, her tongue tripping awkwardly over the human words. "Let me help!"
The tip of Keen's sword dropped to her neck. "Why should you want to help us?"
"I owe her my life," Wraith answered. It was true, and she dearly hoped her sincerity could be heard in her voice.
"I have no reason to trust you!" Keen grated between clenched teeth.
Wraith closed her eyes. "You have no choice," she whispered. "Merlynn will die if not..."
Keen's face was a mask of anguish. She glanced back at her stricken friend. When she looked again at Wraith, the battle lust was gone from her eyes. Wraith felt her warring emotions: doubt, indecision, hatred, despair, but most of all, a horrible fear that Merlynn would die. Keen could not bear the thought of watching her friend die the slow, agonizing death of shag poison. "Swear it," she said finally. "Swear upon your life, your gods, and everything you hold dear that you will help her."
Wraith winced. The human could not have asked a more terrible thing of her. It served only to remind her of everything she had never had, and everything she would never have. "I cannot swear this oath," she whispered.
"Why not?!" Keen demanded angrily.
Wraith smiled bitterly. "My life is not my own, my gods despise me, and I have nothing to hold dear. The oath would have no power."
"Gods above," Keen swore, "There must be something!"
"My honor," Wraith said at last. "I swear upon my honor."
It was clear to Wraith that Keen did not believe that blackelves had any honor. But it was equally clear that she had no choice but to accept. She stepped back. "Do it then."
Wraith climbed to her feet, careful not to slip in the pools of blood. "I swear upon my honor that I help Merlynn," she whispered.
"I need a dagger," Wraith said, holding out her hand.
"Must cut wound... suck out poison. Quickly!"
"I'll do it," the warrior growled, kneeling beside her wounded friend. She kept one eye on Wraith as she pulled the dart out of Merlynn's shoulder and sliced her tunic to get to bare skin. She then made a small incision with her dagger where the dart had punctured the healer's skin, and sucked on the wound.
"Don't swallow it," Wraith cautioned, and Keen spat out a mouthful of blood.
"So help me, if this is for naught, you bloodsucking beast..." Keen muttered, wiping the blood from her mouth.
"I go get...." What was the human word for antidote? ".... thing to help," Wraith said. She thought for a moment. Jewels was still huddled against the wall. Her eyes were closed behind her thick spectacles as if she was too afraid to watch, or perhaps was praying for courage and help. The torch in her hands was shaking so badly that Wraith wondered how she managed to hold it at all. They could not stay here. The shags might return, or some other monster might be attracted by the scent of fresh blood. Worse things than shags were known to prowl these tunnels, things which fed upon the living as well as the dead.
"Go to back to last cave," she instructed. "Hide there. Keep Merlynn warm, and give her water. She must drink. Must... lots. I will meet you when I have ...thing."
Keen was clearly unhappy, but she nodded.
Wraith smiled, turned, and flew down the tunnel after the shags. She knew of a spot nearby where some moss could be found. In its unboiled state it made an effective poultice for drawing the poison from the wound, and it had properties that neutralized the poison itself when consumed in small quantities.
It did not take her long to find some of the gray growth clinging to the walls of a damp crevasse. The crevasse was the source of an underground spring. On a level beneath this, it dripped into a small lake. Quickly she scraped the moss into a corner of the blanket she was wearing, gathering enough for a large poultice. She then turned and ran back towards the humans.
She slowed her pace when the cave came in sight. Had Keen followed her directions and gone there? While she had not been gone too long, it must have seemed an eternity to the humans. There was no light shining. She approached cautiously and silently.
Finally, she heard Merlynn moan quietly, though it was muffled as if by a hand. Wraith stepped into the cave and looked for the humans. Keen was cowering behind a boulder to one side, holding Merlynn in her arms. Her face was wet with silent tears. Jewels sat with her back against a wall, unlighted torch by her side. Her chin was resting on her knees, and she kept dabbing her eyes with a corner of her sleeve.
"I'm here," Wraith said, and both humans jumped in startled fear.
"Light, Jewels," Keen said, and Wraith saw the girl fumbling with a flint.
Wraith sighed and waited until the girl successfully lit the torch.
Keen stood stiffly and looked past her down the tunnel as if expecting to see an army of blackelves come charging forward.
She stared at Wraith. "You came back," she said numbly.
Keen had not expected her to come back. The fact stung Wraith deeply. While the human had never shown her any semblance of kindness or consideration, she realized that she had hoped the warrior would trust her word of honor. "I gave my word," she said softly, holding out the moss.
Keen wiped her face with the back of her hand and shook her head. Then she took the bits of moss from the blanket and returned to Merlynn's side. "What do I do?" she asked.
"Put it on wound," Wraith instructed. "And have her… eat… a small bit."
Keen packed the moss on Merlynn's wounded shoulder, then opened her mouth and a placed a pinch on her tongue.
"Swallow, Merlynn," she said, her hand on the healer's cheek.
The healer moaned, but swallowed obediently. Shag poison caused fever in the victim. If left untreated, the person would burn up. Merlynn's face was flushed and sweaty, and Wraith prayed that they were not too late.
Keen was praying, too. Her head was bowed, her eyes were closed, and her hands held Merlynn's tightly.
"She...she's going to be all right, n-now, isn't she?" Jewels asked hesitantly.
Keen did not answer.
"If she has enough to drink, and the fever not go too high, she will be well again," Wraith said. She felt obliged to answer since Keen's silence was caused by her distrust of what she thought was a blackelf cure.
Keen looked up sharply. "And what about us?" she asked.
Wraith did not understand what she meant.
"What about us?" Keen repeated. "Did you tell your people that we are here? Will they come to kill us?"
Such a thought had never occurred to Wraith. To tell her people would have been certain death for herself as well as for the humans. But Keen did not know that. And it was natural for Keen to be worried. Wraith shook her head.
"Will you go to them now?"
Wraith smiled at the warrior's persistence. "Will you stop me?"
"That depends," Keen said quietly. "It was my quest that brought us here. My name is written on the King's scroll. Merlynn's and Jewels' are not. You have no quarrel with them, I think. I'll go with you, willingly, to your people, to your judgement, if you'll let them go."
Jewels gasped. "No Keen!"
Keen silenced her with a glance.
Wraith was astonished. She'd never expected such an offer from the human. She was as surprised and touched by it as she had been by Merlynn's willingness to trust her. It was noble. Keen was willing to sacrifice herself to save her two friends. She shook her head again. "I will not go to them," she whispered.
Keen's eyes narrowed. "Do you want me to die in the tunnels trying to get there, then? Very well. But I would ask you in the name of Merlynn's Goddess to help these two escape."
Jewels stood up. "No, Keen. I-I won't let you do it. You c-can't just leave us behind!"
Keen smiled sadly. "Jewels, I can't let you come."
"You can't stop us."
"I can, and will, if you force my hand."
They glared at each other.
Wraith sighed heavily. "If you abandon your quest, I take you all safely to the surface."
Jewels looked at Keen hopefully, but the warrior shook her head vehemently. "I am a woman of my word, blackelf. I swore I would find this Wraith and kill it, or die in the attempt. And I will do one or the other."
Wraith shuddered. There was no way to solve the dilemma. One of them would have to die. While she had no fondness for Keen, it felt dishonorable to let her wander off to her death in ignorance, while she herself knew the truth. It felt like...like murder. Passive murder. The humans had proven themselves to be worthy individuals. Keen was noble enough to sacrifice herself for her friends. And the Gods condemned murder. Wraith felt ill, and cursed her gods for putting her in such an impossible situation. What could she do?! She was faced with a choice of death or dishonor!
No. There had to be another way. Time. Perhaps when Merlynn was awake she could persuade Keen to break her word. Or perhaps something else would happen to change the situation. Perhaps she could find a way to initiate an honorable fight with Keen, a fight to the death, but with both parties armed, governed by a mutual set of rules. Or perhaps the shags would return and Keen would die defending her friends, thereby freeing Wraith of responsibility. But no, the shags were a real threat, and she knew it. If she said nothing now, she would still be responsible. "You do what you must," she whispered. "But I lead you to a safe cave, for now. You are not safe here. Shags may come. Or worse."
Surprisingly, Keen submitted to this suggestion without protest. Wraith supposed she did not want to return to the humans' tunnels for fear of being ridiculed for failing in her quest. The warrior gently wrapped the healer's shoulder with bandages from her pack, and Wraith carried the torch while Keen and Jewels carried Merlynn between them. She led them back by smaller, twisting tunnels, a maze that only one from Home could follow without getting lost. She had familiarized herself with the route after being Out-cast.
By the time they crawled through the tiny opening to the surface cavern, they all were weary. Keen was limping badly, Jewels was drooping like a wilted flower, and Wraith was feeling her bruises and cuts with every step. Merlynn was still unconscious, but her fever had gone down. Wraith was confident that the healer would recover.
Keen snorted with satisfaction as she examined the small cave. The outside entrance was small and high up the wall. An untidy pile of boulders provided a natural staircase to the opening. The floor of the cave, though slanting at one side, was composed of the relatively flat and smooth surface of a single sheet of rock. It was covered with a thin layer of sand. The walls were pocked with nooks and crannies, but as a whole it was relatively snug and dry.
Wraith watched warily as the humans took over her Home. It was the closest thing she had to Home, now, anyway. If it had not been for winter she would never have left. It was good to be back, but she had never dreamed of sharing the place with three humans. No good could come of it. What had she been thinking to bring them here? Better to have taken them back to the human mines.
She extinguished the torch in the sand. There was enough light coming from outside for the humans to see. Rocks and trees on one of Mt. Greysmoke's northern sides prevented any direct sunlight from entering, but some grayish green light filtered down through the small opening. She settled into a dark corner as the humans lay Merlynn gently on the floor. Keen gave the healer another drink of water and covered her with a cloak. "Get some sleep, Jewels," she told the girl. "You look exhausted."
"I won't go to sleep until you p-promise you won't leave."
Keen rolled her eyes. "I'm too tired to go anywhere right now, Jewels. But I promise I won't leave while you're asleep. Will that do?"
Jewels nodded gratefully and flopped down in the middle of the floor near Merlynn. She fell asleep almost instantly.
Keen watched her protectively for a moment, then sat down beside Merlynn and folded her own cloak into a pillow for the healer's head. When she looked up again, her eyes met Wraith's.
She scowled. "I don't trust you," she said.
Wraith did not answer. There was nothing to be said.
"Blackelves are notoriously tricky," Keen continued. "I just can't figure out what game you're playing. Why are you helping us? And if you're really so willing to help us, why won't you take me to the blackelf kingdom?"
The human was being open and honest with her. Keen was trying to let her know how she felt, and she was hoping that Wraith would clarify her own position. Keen was, in effect, treating her like a real person. She felt another momentary stab of fear, but brushed it aside. The human deserved an answer. "I help because I owe Merlynn my life. I am unwilling to take you to blackelf Home because I am forbidden to do so."
"Forbidden?" Keen echoed. "What do you mean?"
Wraith shrugged. "Humans are not allowed in blackelf Home. They are considered evil."
Keen flushed angrily. "Evil?!" she repeated. "HUMANS are considered evil?! Gods be damned! That's a fine way to twist the truth!"
Wraith smiled bitterly. "You kill us. You invade our territory and steal our treasure. Rocks, stones, jewels and gems, minerals and ores...all the bounty Inside was given to us by the gods as reward for giving up the Out."
"Nonsense!" Keen scoffed.
Wraith did not argue. She had no reason to defend blackelves, really. They had whipped her as badly as the humans had. She drew up her knees sadly. Perhaps there was little difference between humans and blackelves after all.
They sat there in silence for a moment, regarding each other cautiously. Finally Keen rubbed the scar on her forehead and sighed. "Well," she said slowly, "I suppose you have reason enough to hate me. I didn't expect you to come back. And Jewels told me that it was you who scared away the shags."
It was almost an apology, and Wraith was startled to receive it. She considered her response carefully. To say the wrong thing now could alienate the warrior for good. "Blackelves and shags are always enemies," she said.
Keen harrumphed. "So you chose between the lesser of two evils? Shags destroyed my village, and I learned to fight by killing them."
"Perhaps shags are our only true enemy," Wraith suggested, desperately hoping the human would agree. She did not want to be Keen's enemy.
"Perhaps," the warrior said, pursing her lips in a frown. "It sounds nice, anyway. Shags and old age." She stretched her arms and legs painfully. Her knee popped audibly, and she grimaced. "At least with shags you have something to stick a sword into. But then, you probably wouldn't know about old age, would you? Legend has it that blackelves don't age."
Wraith smiled. "Blackelves live longer than humans, but not forever."
"So how old are you? Fifty years? Sixty? Two hundred?"
"Years?" Wraith asked. "I do not know. We do not measure time by seasons as you. We measure time by layers on the Queen's Pillars. Each drop of water adds to latest layer on the pillar. Time is measured by number of drops and by thickness of layer. I am very young. Perhaps younger than you."
"Very young," Keen repeated absently, rubbing her forehead again. "Merlynn and Jewels… Jewels is sixteen, maybe seventeen or eighteen at most. I don't care about myself, blackelf. I've lived my life. But I don't want to see them die. I hadn't thought about them, only my own honor. Sometimes I don't think. But I am now. If there's a merciful bone in your body, help me. Tell them you'll only take one of us to the caverns. Something. Anything. Help me persuade them to give it up."
"I would rather persuade you," Wraith said seriously.
Keen shook her head. "Death before dishonor. I cannot."
The words sent a chill up Wraith's spine. "Death before dishonor," she whispered to herself. Gods how she wished she could say it with as much courage as Keen.
Keen watched her closely. "Think about it," she said. "Kill me in my sleep if you have to. But spare Merlynn and Jewels. Please."
Death before dishonor. The phrase kept repeating itself in Wraith's mind long after Keen began to snore. Death before dishonor. Yes, the human was right.
Could she kill Keen honorably? Certainly, not in her sleep. And if she accepted the premise that as a half human, it was wrong for her to kill her own kind, she was left in quite a quandry. Blackelves did not kill other blackelves, and while she knew that humans often killed other humans, she did not want to risk her immortal soul by being responsible for the human's death.
But did she have the courage to die? If she knew she had earned a place in the Gods' Hall, yes. But she did not know. If her gods despised her as much as her mother did, her soul would be rejected. She would become her namesake: wraith, the evil soul, unclaimed by gods. Or perhaps this was the test to prove her worthiness. She would never be claimed if she died with dishonor. Of that she was sure.
So, perhaps she would have to find the courage, then, to tell Keen who she was, and die with honor, without the humans' blood tainting her soul.
Perhaps it would not be such a hard thing. Her life as an Outcast was not much worth living. The loneliness was unbearable. And the constant fear... The struggle to find food outside with the great black nothingness overhead.... It would not be hard to leave that behind. She had considered killing herself before. Only the fear of being unclaimed by her gods had kept her from it. Somehow, she would tell Keen. Her decision made, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
She woke again to the sound of voices. Keen was leaning over her, shaking her shoulder gently.
"Are you hungry?" Keen asked. She was holding a bowl in her hands.
Wraith was very hungry, but she remembered the rabbit stew. She shook her head no, and sat up sleepily, brushing the sand from her skin. It was nighttime outside. Someone had relit the torch and set it in a crack in the wall.
Keen shrugged. "Suit yourself."
Merlynn was sitting up weakly, leaning against the opposite wall, looking at her bowl as if trying to decide whether or not it was going to fight back. She looked pale and groggy and still slightly feverish, but she was obviously much better than before. She smiled at Wraith crookedly, and Wraith tried to smile back.
Jewels was sitting on one of the boulders below the outside entrance. She was eating voraciously. Keen settled down on the floor beside her and handed her the extra bowl.
"Thank you," Jewels said politely.
Keen grunted, and they ate in silence for several minutes.
"So when do we try again?" Merlynn asked quietly.
Keen froze. "What do you mean?" she asked gruffly.
Merlynn shrugged, then made a face as if the action hurt. "When do we try again? I know you better, my friend, than to think you've forgotten your quest."
Keen flushed. "There's not going to be `an again'."
Jewels stopped eating.
Merlynn set her bowl down in her lap. "You're planning on going on alone, aren't you?"
Keen's eyes narrowed. "Yes," she said, and her voice dared Merlynn to argue further.
The healer was undaunted. "You can't do that."
"You can't stop me."
"And you can't stop us from following."
"Don't be fools!" Keen growled.
"To the very depths of Death's Dungeon, I said," Merlynn insisted. "And I meant it."
"Well, you almost made it!" Keen exploded. "Dammit, Merlynn! Don't you see that it's easier for me to go on alone than knowing that I drag you to your deaths with me!"
"That's terribly selfish of you," Merlynn said calmly. "Jewels and I can choose our own deaths."
Keen blustered, but she realized that Merlynn was not going to be intimidated by her anger. She tried a different approach. "It would be pointless for all of us to die. I am responsible for Jewels. I will not have her death on my hands."
Jewels lips curled into a ghost of a smile. "D-don't deceive yourself. M-my...my chances of l-living are as good in the b-blackelf tunnels as they are outside."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Keen said. "You saw what it was like down there. It would only get worse the farther in we went."
Jewels shook her head. "No. That's, that's not what I meant. You see...I...I haven't done you any favors, K-Keen. I...I'm sorry. But when you f-found me, those men...they, they weren't trying to rob me. They were trying to…. to throw me off the b-bridge."
"What?!" Merlynn asked in horror.
Jewels nodded and pushed her spectacles back up her nose with a shaking hand. "You see...you see... I... I... I'm one of the Six."
The color drained from Keen's face, and Merlynn's head fell back faintly.
"You...you understand now, why I c-can't go back."
Keen stood up and faced her. "Oh Jewels," she breathed.
"No," Jewels said holding up a hand. "That's, that's not all."
"There's more?" Keen asked with dread.
Jewels laughed, or choked, Wraith couldn't tell which. The girl smothered it with her hand.
"I...I am s-so sorry Keen. Oh Merlynn...I...I've put you both in t-terrible danger...I thought that...that with the quest it wouldn't matter...that, that we'd all die to-together..."
"What are you talking about?" Keen asked.
Jewels closed her eyes as if she couldn't bear to watch Keen's face. "My, my real n-name is Elianna. P-Princess Elianna."
Merlynn's head hit the wall with an audible thump, and Keen stood thunderstruck.
"I don't think I heard you correctly," the warrior said huskily.
"I am Princess Elianna B-Blackmace," Jewels repeated.
In the long silence that followed, Merlynn suddenly giggled. "I'm delirious," she said. "I have to be delirious."
Keen felt the healer's forehead with the back of her hand. "Gods above, you probably are. Go back to sleep, Merlynn, you need more rest."
"And miss this?" the healer smiled.
Keen groaned and turned back to Jewels. "Of all the strays in Gideon City, I had to pick you."
Jewels covered her face. "I'm sorry Keen. I'm so, so sorry! I-I shouldn't have told you!"
"Gods above," Keen repeated, shaking her head. "Gods above, what have I done?"
Jewels sobbed into her hands, and Keen grimaced. "Of course you had to tell me," the warrior said softly. "It, it just comes of something of a surprise, that's all."
"It...it doesn't matter who I am, does it?" Jewels pleaded. "If...If I go back they'll k-kill me!"
"They'll have to go through me first," Keen vowed. "Your Highness," she added, kneeling awkwardly in front of her.
"No!" Jewels said. "No. That title came to me through D-Duke Blackmace. But he's n-not my real father. The King is. I'm a bastard, Keen. A-And they b-both want me dead! I just want to b-be Jewels. That's all I ever want to be from now on. Promise me you won't treat me any d-different? I just want to be Jewels."
Keen shook her head again. "Of course," she whispered. "That's all any of us ever want, to be ourselves and be remembered for it. Oh Jewels, Fate has dealt us a sorry hand. I suppose that we have no choice but to play it out, now. But we'll have an adventure that the bards will sing about before it's all over."
Jewels wiped her face and sniffed. "Does that mean we go on t-together?"
Keen nodded. "We go on together."
Jewels threw her arms around Keen's shoulders and gave the warrior a hug.
Keen held the girl tightly for a moment, then carefully pulled back.
Wraith watched as they regarded each other in silence, facing the reality of the situation. It was something she had already done. It occured to her that if she could pick three friends, human, blackelf, shag or otherwise, she would choose friends like these three humans before her. They were honorable, trustworthy, and loyal. They loved each other enough to die for each other - and with each other. They were true to their causes and beliefs. It didn't matter that they had ugly white skin and ate terrible- tasting green plants. They were everything Wraith had ever wished she could have had the chance to be.
And Merlynn had been kind to her. That kindness meant everything. She would not let Merlynn, or her friends, die in the black tunnels of their nightmares.
She stood up. "You do not need to search the tunnels," she said softly, and the humans looked at her in surprise, as if they'd forgotten her existence. "The one you seek is not there," she continued, forcing herself to say the words. "Blackelves have black eyes," she explained meeting Merlynn's gray eyes. "I am Wraith, half human, the one you seek."
She watched as they took in her words.
The emotions flitted across their faces in rapid succession and Wraith felt them almost as if they were her own. Merlynn's eyes flew wide in astonishment, then narrowed in denial, then intensified in horror.
It took Jewels a moment to understand, and when she did, she stared at Wraith in wonder. It was wonder mixed with delight, and her delight puzzled Wraith.
Keen, on the other hand, felt surprise, then sudden hope, and finally disbelief. She picked up her sword and ran a finger down the blade, testing its sharpness. "I don't believe you," she said. "It's too easy. Why are you protecting it?"
Wraith felt her heart sink. She had confessed. Keen should kill her quickly.
Keen took a step forward. "Well? Why are you protecting this Wraith?"
Wraith shook her head, unable to find the words.
"There is nothing you can do to stop us from going forward," Keen warned. "We will go on. If I have to fight you first, then so be it."
Wraith looked at Merlynn desperately. "I am prepared to die," she whispered. "But you must not go on! It would do no good. I AM Wraith!"
Merlynn wiped her forehead feverishly. "Keen, I think she's telling the truth..."
"Then I'd have to kill her, Merlynn," Keen said, not wanting to believe it.
Wraith was surprised, and touched, by the warrior's reluctance. "It is all right," she said softly. "Death before dishonor. I cannot let you die trying to find me. I will not have your deaths staining my soul."
"Are you mad?!" Keen asked angrily. "Why didn't you LEAVE when you had the chance?! Gods be damned, we're HUNTING you!"
Wraith felt her own anger rising. This was too much. It was too much to ask that she have to beg the humans to kill her! "Yes," she hissed. "And now you have found me. Kill me quickly!"
"No!" Jewels and Merlynn said at the same time.
"You can't do it, Keen," Merlynn said. "She saved our lives!"
"I have to do it, I swore an oath."
"No, Keen, you can't!" Jewels objected. "Don't you see, she said she's half human. That's why her name is with the Six. She must be a bastard, too. She's my half sister! You c-can't kill her!"
The statement stunned Wraith. She'd never thought beyond the evil human who had raped her mother. It had never occurred to her that she might have human relatives. Half sister! Suddenly, she understood Jewels' wonder and delight. She shared it. Jewels was her half sister!
Keen swore fluently under her breath. "And what about my oath?!" she demanded. "What about my honor?"
"You swore your oath to an evil man," Merlynn said, "To do an evil act. The gods will not judge you harshly for breaking it."
"No," Keen shook her head. "An oath is an oath. By the strength of my sword, I said. I can't break it until the gods themselves tell me otherwise."
"It my wish..." Wraith began, but did not finish the sentence. She felt the first shift deep Inside. The rocks were groaning under some great strain, some tremendous force. She held her breath in terror. Never, never had she felt such raw power threatening to burst free. Her whole body tingled as the first waves trickled outward.
Suddenly, the earth heaved and shifted in a deafening roar. Keen was thrown off her feet, and Jewels slipped off her rock and went sprawling on the sandy floor. Merlynn covered her head with her arms as a shower of sand and small stones fell from overhead.
Wraith stood unmoved as the stone floor rippled under her feet. The raw energy coursed through her nerves like fire. The tiny patch of night sky barely visible through the outside opening exploded in a fiery orange light, mocking the burning in her veins.
Then, as quickly as it came, it passed. The power was venting itself elsewhere, and Wraith's blood chilled to ice. She didn't need to look outside to know what happened. She knew what Jewels would see when the girl scampered up the rocks to peer out.
"K-Keen?" the girl stammered as the warrior climbed slowly to her feet. "I...I think M-Mount Dragonfire just erupted!"
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