Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chapter 25

XXV

When Namah entered the hovel which she called her home, they were ready for her.

Unfortunately for them, Namah was no unwise spring chicken, and was even more ready for them than they were for her. As the young man and woman lunged for her she thrust them against the walls on either side of the room using magic she hadn’t used for some time, idly considered in some corner of her mind. They both fixed her with gazes equal in fury and defiance, and Namah couldn’t help thinking that it was possible they were both marked for destiny.

“You nearly killed Xylic!” the girl yelled at Namah from her spot against the wall.

“He looks fine to me,” Namah replied.

“You’re going to have to let us go sometime, and when you do—“

“Then what? Are you going to bite the hand that feeds you, girl?” Namah grew a little short with the girl, although she actually didn’t feel short at all. “How long do you think it would have taken you to learn how to do what you just did if you’d gone to someone else? Do you know how they teach you in other schools? Carefully, mote by mote, making sure no one gets hurt and there’s no danger. Well, that’s not the world of healing. There’s danger, and it’s constant. You have to learn to deal with mortality, death, and the dying, and you have to be able to come through in a clinch. I taught you in six days what most other teachers would take six months to do, and you’re ungrateful for that?”

The girl merely withdrew her vocal opposition and resumed glaring. Namah took that as reluctant acceptance. She turned her attention to the young man, the elf. As she looked at him she saw his thoughts and understood him in a blink. She returned to the girl.

“Bactine, do you want to learn defensive magic?”

Bactine glanced down, and Namah knew her thoughts, too. The girl possessed a biting sort of anger within her, but it was a tool. A tool to mask emotion, and a tool of focus. Namah fell to wondering if that was healthy. She was talented, though; remarkably talented. Namah had actually expected to have to come in the next day and heal the elf before he had the chance to pass away, but she was determined to give Bactine all the time possible to fret herself into learning what she had to. When she’d sensed the girl using the drawing ability Namah had been genuinely surprised, and impressed. She didn’t plan on telling her any of that, though, and assumed the young pair would attempt to ambush her in her own hovel.

The idea made Namah chuckle.

“Is something funny?” glared Bactine from her plastered state against the wall, and Namah had to admit to herself more than one thing was funny at the moment. She recalled the magic and released them both.

“Will you teach Bactine the magic you know?” Xylic asked Namah, speaking for once. Bactine looked over at him, her face taking on a look of shock. He returned her look plainly, without chagrin.

“Son, that would take twenty years, and I don’t think we have that long,” replied Namah. She appraised them both. Yes, they were definitely on the verge of something. She could feel it around them like a tremor. They were unstable. She turned to Bactine. “But I’ll teach you however much you can grasp in a week.”

Namah had a feeling that would be a lot.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Chapter 24

XXIV

So ever since this morning, when Xylic had fallen unconscious the first time, Bactine had been struggling to make sense of Namah’s words.

She was tired by now; it’d been at least twelve hours that she’d been trying. Xylic was feverish, and his arm had swollen precariously. Occasionally he made a sound, but it was rarely something she could decipher. It didn’t matter anyway. There was only one thing Bactine could do to help him, and she had no idea how to do it. It frustrated her beyond reason.

“Take it,” Namah had simply said after Bactine had described the blackness she’d sensed inside of him. Bactine had tried to take it, but she had no idea how. By the time she grew frustrated enough to ask, Namah had gone, and hadn’t returned.

Xylic was dying, Bactine had been abandoned by the one person who could help, and the whole situation made her want to scream. The next time she saw Namah she was going to give her a piece of her mind, and verbally berate her into assisting Xylic somehow. Something –anything would be better than this horrible torture he was going through.

Regardless, Bactine spent a lot of time inside of Xylic because it helped with the pain, and she eventually grew to know him rather well. Now, at this desperate hour, she leaned over him as she had for the past several days and pressed her hand against his brow. Her other hand was on his chest and she was doing what had become automatic: Checking inside of him. The blackness had grown. It crept outward unnaturally, like ink in water; no pulse beating in its ravaging, soulless maw. The rest of his body was all light and warmth and sensual clockwork; and just as horrified by the ugly blackness as she was. She wanted to push it back, but was only able to observe. His body tried to push it back, but was waging a losing battle. The blackness laughed and shot out another inky-thin feeler.

It was infuriating.

As her fury ebbed, she found herself in a moment of curious sentiment. She moved her hand from his forehead to his cheek as she thought of the newly discovered grace that, now that she was aware of it, seemed to emanate subtly from him like a halo with the same pulse that ran through his body. He wasn’t quite as beautiful as Sangwine, but certainly not far off.

Well, she took that back. He was just different. Where Sangwine was all sparkling outward and wide-eyed, Xylic was withdrawn and cautious. Their coloring wasn’t that different, really. Xylic’s skin was a bit darker, Sangwine’s eyes a more pure blue, Xylic’s hair pale like sand where Sangwine’s was gold.

They are similar, thought Bactine, very similar. Her hand moved into his hair, synapses firing.

Suddenly she forgot entirely what she’d been thinking, or why her hand was in Xylic’s hair. She removed her hand and pulled up his bedcovering to his shoulders in a gentle move, then glanced around, feeling strangely blank.

The sickness. That was what she was doing.

She returned inside of him, feeling towards the sickness and melding with Xylic’s body like another part of him. It welcomed her, the push and pull of life embracing her, and sped her on closer to the illness in question. This time she came closer to it, prodding around it, feeling through the tear in his flesh, and then she pulled. It resisted. She pulled it again. It threatened to tear a larger whole in the being of Xylic if she continued.

This didn’t go over very well with Bactine. For one thing, she was being dictated to by gangrene. For another thing, it had been threatening Xylic long enough. Xylic, who was her best friend in the world. Her best friend in the world.

That was the breaker. Inside him and in her anger she swelled and became an even worse creature than the wretchedness and blackness, and she consumed it entirely with a golden maw, drawing it back with blurring speed, back through the veins of Xylic and through her hand, into herself and she absorbed it. Into herself, unfortunately. It screamed.

No, wait. That was Bactine screaming.

Xylic woke feeling slightly weak, but for the most part he was whole and hale and sat up immediately.

“Bactine!”

She was clutching her arm, which was swollen and gangrenous, bleeding and torn. Her face paled, and she looked on the edge of collapse. As she began to wobble and slide from her stool, Xylic caught her, pulled her to him, and she cried out again, since any movement sent searing pain throughout her arm and shoulder, as Xylic knew very well. He loosened his grip and her ragged breath brushed his shoulder.

“I did it,” she said to his shoulder, her voice weak and broken. She began to go limp in his arms and he stopped it, for no other reason that he strongly felt that she wouldn’t wake again if she slept now. He was fairly certain the only way to keep her awake was to cause her pain, as much as the idea made his stomach sink. Besides, he didn’t have much time to think about alternatives.

He tightened his grip on her arm, and she yelled wordlessly. Surprisingly, and he supposed because it surprised him because it was Bactine, she began to cry. He immediately felt horrible, but had an ultimate focus.

“You have to get rid of it,” he told her.

“I can’t,” she cried.

“Yes, you can,” he said to her, sounding completely certain, although he wasn’t at all.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes all strength and fury and weakness and anguish. He loved her, and it was agonizing for a multitude of reasons at this particular moment. On her face the expression of determination won out, and he sensed she had gone inside of herself, so to speak.

He had very little he could do, except hold her and prevent her from falling to the floor, and so that’s what he did, unconsciously avoiding her bleeding arm. She gradually fell into a sort of deep thought, her forehead on his shoulder and her hands somewhat painfully gripping his forearms, or more specifically, the skin on his forearms. He didn’t really mind, though, regardless of the pain. Anything was less than the past several days’ worth of agony.

“Remember what Namah said,” he told her. She looked up at him.

“What did she say?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “But I’d assumed she said something.”

She looked both amused and annoyed, but also in mortal pain. It would be an unusual mixture on anyone’s face. She shuddered and closed her eyes, her brow furrowed deeply and she began holding her breath.

“What are you doing?” asked Xylic, alarmed.

“Shutup!” she replied from her intense reverie, and her arm looked as if it might be a little less swollen. Then suddenly, it all swept away, as if into a vacuum. The swelling went away, the redness faded, the tear in her skin knit together until it was untorn satin. There was nothing to be done for the blood, though. It was still everywhere.

She released her held breath and gasped for air, and opened her eyes.

“I did it,” she said to him, and they were both suddenly wracked with smiles. An embrace came next, although the realities of everything else is never far behind, and it swiftly grew awkward, as Xylic was undressed to the waist and Bactine was sharing a bed with him.

“I can’t believe it. I did it,” she said, standing suddenly as Xylic went for his clothes.

“Do you think you could do it again?” he asked, pulling his shirt over his head.

“I do,” she said, her glowing jubilance outshining the side dish of awkward. “Xylic, was it horrible? I’m so sorry.”

“Well, it was horrible, yes,” he replied as he tied his jerkin. “But I suppose it was worth it in the end.”

He paused.

“You’re a healer, now, aren’t you,” he said.

She took that in ponderously.

“I suppose I am.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Chapter 23

XXIII

Al’bert always dressed very carefully in the morning. He never really thought about it, but it was something in which he found a distinct sort of pleasure. It was vanity, surely, but a vanity so engrained in the elven psyche that it wasn’t remotely considered vain by Al’bert; it was just a part of life. However, if someone were to call him vain he wouldn’t care at all.

So this particular morning, as he smoothed the clasp near the throat of his longcoat, one of his favorite noises in the world came from the mussed recesses of the bed at hand. It was the sort of noise a woman makes in the morning, when not displeased at all with the events of the night before. He glanced from himself in the mirror to the tumble of auburn hair which was currently the only evidence in plain sight that the girl existed and he grinned to himself.

His thoughts split in two directions as he straightened his cuffs. One part of his mind went to the fine make of his coat, and how he was chagrined that he had to be careful with it because there wasn’t similar quality of tailoring to be found anywhere near this human city. This was yet another way he found himself roughing it here among the humans of the world. The other direction his mind went was to Sangwine.

The girl had been a fair, pleasant conquest, and she’d told him everything she knew and possibly more than she knew. Al’bert now knew where Sangwine lived, when he was there, and where he went during the day. He had everything he needed to do what Fang had sent him to do.

Al’bert’s movements slowed as he considered this.

It was problematic, to say the least. Al’bert just didn’t want to kill Sangwine. Sangwine might have been a fairly annoying kid, sure, but he didn’t think he deserved to die. Well, none of the royal family deserved to die, but the way it goes is that when those at the top are removed, those below move up a rank. So with the death of the royal family, Al’bert’s father, le Duc du Fromage, moved up in royalty, as did the rest of the Fromages. It was a mixed blessing, one that required heartlessness to appreciate. Al’bert’s best bet was turning a blind eye, and doing what he must.

But if what he must required killing?

He sighed audibly, not knowing what he was doing.

What’s wrong? he heard the girl ask from behind.

He looked at her in the mirror as she was trussed with an angelic swirl of sheets and coverings which created a sort of strapless gown twisting to the edges of the bed. Her auburn hair stood out starkly against the white and her fair skin. He smiled at her.

Nothing at all, he replied, smoothing the front of his attire.

He paused.

Except one thing, he said to her, turning.

What is that? she asked him, tilting her head slightly.

I’ve run out of time, he said. I have to go, now.

She looked somewhat disappointed then asked, You have to go find him?

Al’bert caught himself before he hesitated too long.

Yes, he said simply, as he leaned over her to kiss her.

As he shut the door behind him, he realized he wasn’t going to find Sangwine. He didn’t know how long he could put Fang off, but he didn’t want to do it quite yet. Regarding the act of killing, he supposed the four people in his current service would have few qualms with killing the doomed prince. Well, the thief probably wouldn’t. Three of them, anyway. But it all came down to his orders, and Al’bert couldn’t shake the feeling that Sangwine’s blood would be on his hands no matter what he did.

There was also his family to consider. As they were a family aligned with Fang, as it were, it felt to Al’bert as if they were hostage to Fang’s dictatorship. If Al’bert were to perform too poorly he didn’t doubt that Fang would use members of his family as leverage to force a better performance out of him. He’d done it already with others. The Fromages had been treated differently than most, simply because Fang and Al’bert were best friends as children, but Fang was rapidly losing his humanity, as they say.

Overall, however, there was nothing to be done for it. Circumstances were what they were, and Al’bert would eventually do what he had to do, when he had to do it.

For now, though, he would stall.

As he thought this last thought, he’d arrived at the fairly pleasant inn where he and the rest of his party were staying. The morning was brisk and lovely, and as he turned into the common room, he saw the four sitting at a table. Al’ice was looking for him, and as their eyes met, he made sure to act as if everything was quite normal and perfect. The Wiz, who had been ruminating over a steaming cup of coffee in the direction of the bored others, spoke first.

So, have you found him? he asked.

Quite nearly, said Al’bert cheerfully. Perhaps today I’ll stumble across what I’m looking for.

The girl didn’t know? asked Wiz, knowing full well Al’bert didn’t desire him to bring up the girl in front of Al’ice. Al’bert made a mental note to chastise Wiz later, as Al’ice in turn feigned nonchalant tea consumption.

No, said Al’bert dryly. She didn’t know.

Then why did you…”

Al’bert coughed loudly, and Wiz took the hint at last. He rolled his eyes and ignored the rest of whatever Al’bert or anyone else might do, and absorbed himself broodily in scribbling notes into a tiny notebook next to his coffee mug. Steev was too moronic to care about what was going on, the thief looked nervous as always, and Al’ice continued to act uninterested and nonchalant. Al’bert knew he was probably going to have to perform some damage control later with Al’ice.

As he moved to sit beside her at the table, she stood up and left. Al’bert ignored this pointedly.

It should only be a few more days, he told the rest. Maybe a week.

A few of them looked bored. Well, the two that weren’t drawing algebraic shapes in a notebook and completely ignoring everything he was saying looked bored.

At most a fortnight, finished Al’bert, to no one in particular.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chapter 21, 22

*** edited Ch 21 end and Ch 22 added ***


XXI

Bactine leaned over the cot where Xylic lay feverish, wiping his brow with a wet cloth, and brushing his unruly bangs from his forehead.

He’s gone gangrenous, you know, said Namah impartially, as she busied herself with something entirely useless. Bactine suspected it was needlepoint.

Yes, thank you for the update, replied Bactine irritably, her attention focused intently on Xylic. It’d been several days since Namah had suddenly stabbed Xylic, and he’d gradually grown weaker until today he flitted in and out of consciousness. That must have been a filthy knife.

At first, Bactine had the initial thought to leave and find help, but realizing that she couldn’t drag Xylic through the moor and forest back to civilization in time made her feel helpless, and she also suspected Namah wouldn’t let her leave, anyway. Actually, she suspected highly that Namah knew exactly what she was doing, which made Bactine sick to her stomach.

So from the initial stabbing, Namah had begun her lessons with Bactine, and Xylic was her test subject. Right after, as Xylic was bleeding all over the floor, Namah had handed Bactine cloth and instructed her how to dress a wound properly. It infuriated Bactine to no end that Namah seemed to have no empathy whatsoever for Xylic’s obviously pain-riddled plight. She wondered if that’s what happened to healers after so many years of seeing pain. Regardless, Bactine followed her instructions as perfectly as she could, entirely forgetting to be embarrassed as she removed Xylic’s cloak, jerkin and shirt in her concern for his well-being.

Namah had used a powerful magic on Xylic, which rendered him completely useless. She later told Bactine it was a spell which increased the pain tenfold, precisely for the purpose of keeping a wounded enemy subdued. When Bactine objected, Namah mentioned that Xylic had been ready to attack her with his weapons, and she was only a weak old woman, after all. Bactine didn’t believe there was anything weak about Namah, but reluctantly saw her point. Besides, Bactine realized she was entirely at the mercy of Namah, in order to save Xylic’s life.

Following the instruction on wound dressing, Namah began to teach her how to see inside of someone physically, in a mental way. She started with merely touching Xylic, and trying to sense him. Bactine would put her hand on him again and again, seeing nothing, until finally Namah hit her on the back of the head and demanded she concentrate. Something about that angered Bactine to no end, and that anger focused her like a razor.

She put her hand on him, and slid inside, through her hand, sensing him. The blood coursing through his veins with heat; the stolid heartbeat; the rush of air through his lungs, like the wind in the tops of pines. She drew back in shock, pulled her hand away, and caught her breath.

Namah smiled, although when Namah smiled, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

Later that night, when Namah was outside gathering some kind of horrible substance, Bactine busied herself with changing Xylic’s dressing. The coverings were pulled up to his shoulders, but his arms were outside, and he looked weak, as his brow was consistently covered in a sheen of sweat.

Does it hurt badly? asked Bactine quietly.

Yes, said Xylic. Bactine sighed, looking equal parts angry and compassionate in two different directions.

I’m going to figure out how to heal you, she said, and then added: Soon.

Well, either that or I’m going to die, he said, not seeming entirely opposed to the idea. She gripped his arm in protest, causing him to wince, and then she jumped, yanking her hand from his arm.

Oh, sorry! she said, blushing. She then fell into a furious reverie.

I hate her, she said, and then she thought.

I hate her, she said again, more resolved. Xylic was quiet and resigned. Bactine looked him over, then moved closer, being cautious about not gripping his arm.

I made a sort of breakthrough today, she told him. I was able to see inside of you.

Xylic looked curiously disturbed for a moment.

And what did you see? he asked after a time.

It wasn’t exactly anything I saw.., she said, It was what I felt.

Then what did you feel, he asked, putting a bit more emphasis on feel than was necessary. She glanced wryly at him.

Your heartbeat, she said.

You can feel that any time you’d like, he said, and he took her hand and placed it over his heart in order to illustrate.

It was not meant to be a meaningful action, but something about it touched Bactine. There he was, looking up at her from his wretched state, entirely put into such a state due to his charity in bringing her here, and she felt his heart beat, again and again. Again it beat, and the percussive, warm nature of it ran through her arm as she sunk into him without a thought, feeling him with another beat; feeling the coursing back and forth of the blood within him like the volley of sea grass courses with the tide beneath the ocean’s surface. She was caught; her eyes were locked with his, but her mind was in a million places; all of them belonging to him. Warmth and glow flowed through her hand into him, and she found it.

It was filthy, wretched, and disrupted the flow within him. The rest of his body wrung against it, pushing at it, slowly trying to overwhelm it and subdue it, eroding it away until the time when he could be whole again.

But the filth was growing.

Bactine didn’t know what to do, so she lifted her hand from his chest. His hand fell away from hers and he looked away.

I will heal you, Xylic, she said. I just don’t know how, yet.

He looked back to her and spoke.

When you do that, he said, meaning looking inside of him, It doesn’t hurt as much.

Do you want me to do it again? she asked.

Please…” he replied simply, after hesitation.

Bactine was relieved that there was at least something she could do, which was positive, in this sordid situation. She put her hands on him and thought deeply, and then he sighed.

It wasn’t long at all before Xylic fell asleep. Bactine sat in concentration, realizing the pain had deprived him of sleep for some time, at least of the deep sleep one requires for recovery. He hadn’t complained, she noted. At least, not much. Most of his complaint was channeled into some unpleasant and choice things he had to say about Namah, when she was out, of course.

She took this opportunity to clandestinely regard him in detail.

As he slept, he looked different. Normally he had a consistently brooding look upon his face, combined with a look that was sharp, causing anyone who thought to get more than a glance at him not to linger. He pushed everyone away with his countenance, like an invisible barrier. Now, though, his face was calm, peaceful, resilient. His features were fine; his mouth was delicate; his skin slightly golden, and his hair brilliant blonde. He was Bactine suddenly realized beautiful.

She wondered why she’d never noticed it before.

She continued looking inside of him for as long as she could manage it.

XXII

Namah entered plainly, and glanced to the pair near the end of the room. The young man was sleeping deeply, it looked like, and the young woman was asleep too, her arms folded over his chest, and her weight in a precarious-looking angle as her weight was balanced between stool she was sitting on and him.

Young love, said Namah to herself, taking on a silly grin.

Nothing better to teach the girl with, she thought to herself. Her eyes swept over them again, this time more calculating, and she moved towards them with her theories on her mind.

From the instant that fellow walked out of the moor to her front step, she had sensed something different about him, but if what she thought he was turned out to be correct, she wondered what he was doing here. She hadn’t seen one of his kind of many years.

As she approached them, she knew his features were just slightly too delicate to be human. However, she was a woman bent on proving her theories, and so she put her fingers into his unruly hair, feeling until there it was; his ear was long, and as her finger touched the point, he woke with a start.

He gave her a look so fierce and threatening that she recoiled, even though in a practical sense she knew fully well he was too weak to do anything but stare. His body was instantly stiff, and his whole arm was wrapped around the shoulders of the girl, as if in protection.

Namah dropped her hand to her side and fixed him with a stern look. He obviously didn’t want anyone to know what he was, but Namah couldn’t fathom why what would be. She found herself wondering why an elf would be an outcast, and integrated among humans. Why he would fear anyone should know? In the way he held the girl and shook slightly, Namah realized the girl didn’t know, and he didn’t want her to find out. So be it. She raised her chin slightly.

I will keep your secret, she deigned.

He gave her no reply.

But she will find out on her own, she continued. Very soon.

His glare shattered and he glanced upwards at the ceiling, his breath shallow. Namah watched this odd fellow curiously, with his changing moods and roiling storms. She felt compassion, although she resolved not to show it. Besides, it was somewhat amusing, the idea that this fellow was an elf and under this girl’s nose for, oh she judged it’d been quite some time they’d known each other, and the girl had no idea what he was. Either she was supremely dense, or he was a master at hiding it, or a little of both.

Namah considered.

I can make it so she doesn’t notice for now, she said to him, and lifted a magical hand.

The elf’s eyes widened, and she pondered their color. Sea-green. She hadn’t seen that color in a long time. She took the fact that he wasn’t glaring at her any longer as affirmation for her to continue, and so she did, weaving her hand and drawing it back.

A trail of white mist fell from Namah’s hand, shifted, and blew back and forth like dandelion seeds until it gradually fell upon Bactine. She sighed against Xylic’s chest and slept on.

Now, let her sleep so she can save your life in the morning, said Namah to the elf, and she turned swiftly away to focus entirely on her roots and globules.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chapter 20

XX

Al’bert sat at a table with Wiz, lazily considering what sort of step he should take next.

“You mentioned your Father,” said Wiz conversationally, stirring some kind of oddly steaming concoction in a mug on the table in front of him with a thin stick. Al’bert didn’t bother to ask what it might be because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Al’bert shifted languidly.

“I got a letter from him yesterday morning,” he said, although he was hesitant to relay the contents of the letter, since they brought him a small measure of disturbance.

“Hmn,” said Wiz indifferently, stirring away. The concoction began to spark.

Al’bert looked around at the dive they were currently in. It was a hole in the wall, and not the sort of place that Al’bert had suspected Sangwine to hang around in, but it was only in these lower parts of town that he’d heard any tell of someone who would even vaguely resemble the doomed Prince.

And what stories he had heard! Al’bert couldn’t help but find a sort of humorous delight in the prospect of Sangwine actually fighting for his keep. He’d always been such a stuffy, proper sort. How humiliating it must be. Al’bert smiled.

A young wench with auburn hair and hazel eyes passed by carrying a serving tray and wearing a lacy apron.

“Ah, miss,” called Al’bert, stopping her.

She looked at him.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

He handed her a small, folded parchment and said, “Maybe.”

She gave him a dubious glance, looked slightly annoyed, and went on her way. However, she did pocket the parchment.

The Wiz glanced at Al’bert, sparking concoction briefly forgotten.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” said Al’bert. “And is woman’s greatest weakness.”

“How did your father say things are in Schloeffelonia?” asked Wiz, who had begun poking his concoction with the thin stick instead of stirring it, as it had thickened exceedingly. Al’bert sincerely hoped he didn’t plan to ingest it.

“They’re… different,” said Al’bert cautiously. “Fang has decided it’s time the elven nation goes on the offensive.”

“That’s a different philosophy,” said Wiz.

“Quite,” said Al’bert, and to be honest, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. The wealth was there, yes, and he supposed with the elven mages at Fang’s disposal the power was there, too. However, Al’bert was a man of feelings, and something about this just felt wrong.

“Has the elven nation ever attacked anyone?” asked Wiz.

“Not that I know of,” said Al’bert. “So I suppose it should take everyone quite unawares.”

“Fang is an adroit fellow, isn’t he,” said Wiz casually as he turned the mug, and the concoction slid out onto the table, maintaining its gelatinous form. Now Al’bert was vaguely disturbed that Wiz might consume it with a fork and knife.

“Yes, he is,” said Al’bert distractedly. The Wiz snapped his fingers, and his forefinger began to glow. He then touched the top of the gelatinous mass with his finger, and it grew animated, folded into itself, then somehow gained an abstract posture. It seemed alive. The conversation died as Al’bert found himself transfixed.

The Wiz glanced at Al’bert and said, “It’s a golem; a lousy one. I never was very good with them.”

He sighed and then smashed it with a spoon.

Al’bert tried not to wince visibly. The clock struck ten, and he stood.

“If you’ll pardon me, I’ve some business to attend to.”

He cast Wiz a brief smile and left the table, exiting the dive to the derelict promenade outside. There was some greenery, roses, growing along a trellis, which were cast silver and blue in the wan moon’s light. It wasn’t exactly a balcony, but more of a high dais, where someone at least tried to bring beauty into this filthy human world. He leaned on a partial railing that surrounded the precipice and breathed, finding his breath was warm enough to create a puff of mist in the night air.

Fang had changed. His father’s letter disturbed him greatly. Fang required all the elven houses to contribute heavily to the war effort, which war Al’bert saw as pointless in the first place. Fang especially leaned on Al’bert’s family, since they were one of the wealthiest in the entire nation, and even though his father made it sound like they were having a fabulous time (most likely due to the possibility of interception), Al’bert could read between the lines. This wasn’t the first time Al’bert wondered if Fang had lost his grip on reason.

Regardless, he would do what he had to in order to keep his family in good standing. That was paramount in importance to the Fromages. Whatever else happened was not his concern, or his liability. He’d just keep telling himself that.

He heard a quiet noise behind him and turned to see the girl with auburn hair standing there, holding the parchment. She looked the very model of dubious.

Meet me on the balcony at ten?” she asked him, repeating the words of the parchment. “Honestly, that’s the lousiest come-on I’ve ever received.”

Al’bert grinned.

“Then why are you here?” he asked.

“The sheer depraved ineptitude drove me to pity,” she said flippantly, although he could tell there was humor underneath her chilly exterior. She was intrigued, and he knew it, even if she wasn’t consciously aware of it yet. She looked around, taking in the roses, the railing, and finally the vast expanse of night sky. He watched each move, expression, and sound she made, cataloguing each automatically, sorting them into subjects, analyzing them individually, putting them back together into a cohesive whole, and he did it all instinctively with split second timing.

This was his talent; taking love and turning it into a mathematical equation.

She stood by the railing and turned to him.

“So what did you want?” she asked him.

He hesitated, furthering the depth of his mystery. She watched him, and he gave her time to take in his good-looks, which at the moment he was shading with a tinge of enigmatic restlessness. Only a tinge, though.

“There’s someone I’m looking for,” he said. “And I think you might be able to help me.”

She said nothing, so he went on.

“An elf,” he said.

“You mean besides you,” she said.

He really wanted to say something sarcastic, but that wouldn’t have worked out the way he wanted, so instead he glanced at her, then looked away, his back to the railing. He took on a subtly tortured countenance and sighed into the night. He heard her move closer, out of curiosity. Her hand touched his arm, and at this he quirked a tiny smile for himself only, since he was looking away and supposedly full of angst.

“Are you alright?” she asked him.

He exhaled and turned to her, moving within the turn to decrease the space between them significantly and put his hand over hers in what should seem like a spontaneous, instinctive action, and fixed her with a meaningful gaze.

“It’s very important that I find him,” he said to her, and then he did it. It was almost like breathing, except within his mind. All he had to do is focus on someone intently, and then release however much of his will he wanted to in order to bring that person under his suggestion. With her, he wanted to use as little as possible, because she wasn’t too horribly dull. However, at the same time, he liked doing it; it was almost addictive. It felt good.

So with his voice there came a tiny twinge, and her breathing increased slightly. He took note.

He squeezed her hand more tightly and moved closer, treating it like an impulsive act, until he was close enough to kiss her.

“Have you met an elf recently?” he asked her quietly, although the timbre of his voice and the movements of his body were in another conversation entirely.

He gave her a sincere, open look, as if he felt this passionately about finding the elf. In actuality, he sort of wanted to take his time finding Sangwine, because finding him would mean figuring out what to do about the killing him problem.

“No,” she said, with an unsure voice, and captured by his sudden affection. “I don’t think so… well, there is this one fellow…”

“Yes?” he asked, and he gazed at her as a prompt to go on while he moved her hand from his arm to his chest.

“He’s beautiful,” she said thoughtfully, and then her eyes looked more solidly at Al’bert. “Like you…”

He smiled at that, making sure to give his smile a touch of humility. Not that he was.

“… except different,” she finished. That part gave Al’bert pause, and he found himself wondering what was so different. It slightly irritated him.

“Go on,” he said, sending her another twinge of glamour in his annoyance.

She sighed languidly, and then she went on.

“I didn’t think he might be an elf, but he was more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said, then added with a small pout, “He wouldn’t let me touch him.”

Al’bert’s eyebrows rose, and he took advantage of her faraway look to roll his eyes. Sangwine always was a complete and utter prude. Well, Al’bert didn’t plan on being so foolish.

“He must be mad,” said Al’bert to the girl. “To refuse the touch of a woman so beautiful.”

She looked at his expression for affirmation of his words, and he thought he probably pulled it off. In any case, he didn’t waste any time allowing the seams to show by leaning forward in order to kiss her.

She pulled back at the last instant with a sharp inhale.

“What are you doing?” she asked him suddenly. She looked affronted, but the degree of flush in her cheeks told him she’d be willingly in his arms within the next eight minutes. Seven and a half, if he was really on top of his game.

He abruptly pulled entirely away from her, allowing the chill night air to fill the space between them, and then he went to the railing. He’d play feast or famine. This lass just needed contrast to realize what it is she really wants.

“I don’t know,” he said in a distracted way, and then ran a hand through his hair. He noticed from the corner of his eye that she crossed her arms against the cold. “I’ve been on this quest for so long, sometimes it feels like I’ve lost all reason. Each day is the same, I try to find him, and every night ends with emptiness…”

He went on for a while like this, spouting lines of an angst-ridden man, half of the time not really sure what whatever he was saying meant, but it sounded good. After all, he delivered them like a tortured man opening his soul, and it worked quite well.

By the end of his speech, she was standing at his elbow looking very compassionate. He waited in anticipatory silence for her to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, and he knew it was all downhill from there. One last move.

He turned to face her, allowing the famine to end. She moved in and touched his chest, and then looked up into his face.

“I can help you,” she said. “I’ve spoken with him, I know his name; I know where he lives.”

He took her arms as a feigned impulse and gazed at her with hope, excitement, disbelief, and a couple of other assorted spices tossed in the mélange. Whatever.

“You will?” he asked, knowing full well the answer to this question thirty minutes ago.

She blushed at his proximity, but didn’t object at all as she nodded to him.

He released a breath and allowed them both to fall into the heady trance of anticipation that precedes a kiss. After waiting the precisely perfect amount of time, he kissed her, and was delighted to find she trembled slightly at his touch.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chapter 19

XIX

Suffice it to say Bactine didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. It wasn’t so bad, she thought to herself, because all of that mess only happened just a few hours before morning. The light would come soon enough, and even if Xylic didn’t return, she’d be able to see, anyway, and then she’d just go on.

Before she could go on, though, she smelled the smoke from a fire, and realized in the wan pre-dawn light that Xylic had built one nearby. Hesitant to approach him, but too curious not to, she did it anyway.

Sidling out from behind a tree, she saw that he’d gathered a remarkable amount of wood for the fire he was now kindling. Looking around, she wondered why he’d bothered to build a fire at all. It wasn’t cold, and she didn’t think he planned to do any cooking.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” he said, fully intent on tending the fire.

There was no more added to the conversation for at least an entire minute, which really made it feel like ten.

Bactine cleared her throat, thinking to say something, but was unclear as to what. Xylic talked instead.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

“I think so,” she replied.

“We should be there by this afternoon, and then I’ll leave once you’re settled,” he said, snuffing out the fire he was so carefully tending just a moment earlier. There was something stiffly casual about his behavior, as if it was forced, but he was doing a good job of nearly masking it. Bactine felt the best course would be to follow suit.

“That sounds good,” she said, instantly feeling like her reply was ridiculous and moronic. It had to be obvious to him that she wasn’t at ease. If it wasn’t before, it surely was now. She huffed and pulled her cloak more tightly around herself in the dawn’s chill.

Xylic rose, picked up their things, and walked. Bactine followed.

For the rest of the morning, they made a few painful attempts at small talk. The problem was, there were quite a lot of things they should have talked about, but neither one was courageous enough to broach the subject. Bactine recalled a few hours into the morning that they’d forgotten to eat breakfast, but she surely didn’t feel like eating, and he didn’t seem as if his mind was on food, either. At last, around noontime, they reached a moor.

It was the sort of moor where everything hangs limp in the lack of breeze, and there’s a constant miasma skulking for the first few feet from the soggy ground. Bactine’s boots and half of her skirt were entirely hidden, and she looked over at Xylic, who seemed to be hovering in the air, since anything beneath his knees was lost to the mists. He was looking at her, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing she was.

“How in the world are we supposed to keep from falling in the bog in this mist?” Bactine asked incredulously.

Xylic looked around, thinking deeply. He walked over to a nearby tree, and broke off a long branch, then proceeded to tear the small twigs from it, making a sort of staff. When he was pleased with whatever it was he was doing with that branch, he looked over at Bactine, seeming somewhat hesitant to continue.

“You’ll have to stay near me,” he said, as if he thought she would recoil at the idea.

“That’s fine,” she said, and moved near him immediately to show her vote of confidence.

It was nothing if not awkward, but she made a very strong attempt to act professional about the whole situation. Slowly they traversed the moor, as he used the staff to test the ground before them, and she stayed close behind so as not to stray into a sidelong dip. Eventually, through equal parts him and her, she was holding his arm as he used the other to search the fog. As there is only so long awkwardness can continue in the face of basic necessity, in due time she was completely comfortable holding onto him, and standing in such close quarters. He seemed to have lost his unease in the task at hand as well.

At last they reached something in the center of the moor, which seemed to be an area of more or less sturdy earth. Upon this piece of earth was a shack, built upon stilts and slightly leaning. There was a rope ladder which led from the ground to the front precipice, which in turn led to a door.

If you could call it a door. It was a piece of fabric strung across an opening.

Xylic and Bactine exchanged glances, quite aware of each other’s thoughts.

“Mum did say this particular teacher was…um… affordable,” Bactine mentioned.

She was fairly certain Xylic was about to offer his condolences, when the cry of a crow echoed in an absurdly loud manner from the direction of the shack, startling them both. Following this outcry, the heretofore unseen crow burst from behind the fabric door and flew to land at Xylic and Bactine’s feet. It looked at them both. Really looked.

Bactine was a little unnerved. She didn’t even know crows liked hanging around in bogs. In addition, the crow looked very intelligent, and she didn’t like that at all. It cocked it’s little bird head sideways. Xylic shifted.

“Shall we climb?” he offered.

Bactine looked down at her skirts and said, “After you.”

They both moved, and as they did, the crow hopped to intercept them, standing between them and the ladder. They moved again, and the crow blocked them again. Bactine glanced over at Xylic, and she saw something in his eyes. It was something comfortable, and something she knew. They both bolted in opposite directions, confusing the crow, who became frozen in indecision. They made swiftly for the ladder once there was no hope that a simple crow could overtake them and met there, breathless.

Sure, it was exciting, even if all they did was outsmart a bird.

At the top of the ladder, Bactine tried to figure out how to knock on a piece of fabric. Instead she chose the vocal route.

“Hello?” she ventured.

The fabric curtain shot aside immediately, and a very small, wiry old woman was standing there, coiled and tight, ready to spring forth and scratch the eyes out of the world’s face, should it become necessary.

“Who are you?” the old woman demanded.

Xylic and Bactine had both unconsciously leaned back at the old woman’s appearance, sort of like one leans away from being too close to a spitting cat. Bactine realized what she had done, and corrected herself so as to not hurt the old woman’s feelings, which were surely very tender beneath that coat of horrible, horrible venom.

“Bactine Gallagher,” said Bactine, in a quiet, weak voice.

“What took you so long?” the old woman demanded.

“Um,” began Bactine.

“Don’t stammer around me!” spat the old woman.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Bactine.

“Don’t call me ma’am, either! It makes me sound like a matron,” the old woman said. “I’m no matron, not yours, or anyone else’s. So don’t go asking for it!”

“Yes…” unfortunately Bactine had to trail off here, because she had no idea how to address this old woman.

“Call me Namah,” she said.

“Yes, Namah,” Bactine replied.

“Now, come in,” said Namah, holding the fabric door aside. She gave Xylic an appraising look, then added, “Both of you.”

Once they were inside, Namah seemed to grow quite a lot more hospitable. She offered them seats; there were only two, and she set herself to making tea. Namah was undoubtedly abrasive and harsh, but her tea smelled wonderful. She unceremoniously landed two mugs of tea on the table, spilling no small amount of contents on the table’s surface as she did so. Xylic and Bactine took them with polite fear.

“So,” said Namah. “What do you want?”

“I want to learn healing magic,” said Bactine, unsure, since she thought this had already been arranged. Namah seemed irritated by her reply. She began chopping something that looked like yams with a very big knife.

“Is that all?” said Namah, chopping vigorously.

Bactine wasn’t really sure how to reply to that.

“Healing magic. Is that all?” Namah stopped chopping and looked over at Bactine pointedly.

“I think so?” Bactine replied.

Namah turned to stand in front of both Bactine and Xylic, still holding the large knife in her hand. She gave Bactine a long, hard look, one of those looks that old people use to evaluate the worth of youth.

“Fine,” she said at last. “I’ll show you how to heal.”

With speed unexpected in anyone beyond the age of twenty, Namah curved with unstoppable spry and plunged her knife into the depths of Xylic’s left arm. He cried out and dropped the mug in his hand, which crashed to the ground and broke into several pieces at the same moment Bactine screamed in shock and disbelief at the blade buried to the hilt in Xylic. Namah yanked the knife free with a smattering of blood and Xylic moved in defense, reaching for his own blade at his side. The old woman threw the knife to the floor and held out her hands, rendering Xylic impotent with an unseen force and he fell, clutching the chair beside Bactine with his whole arm, his breath haggard and his brow wet. Bactine’s own mug of tea fell and rolled across the floor as she knocked over her own chair trying to hold Xylic in a mindless attempt at stopping whatever mad dream this was. She cast a wild, agonized glance at Namah.

“Now, heal him,” said Namah.

Chapter 18

XVIII

Sangwine continued the sword fights in the lower quarter, not only because it gave him what he wanted to survive, but because it gave him something to do. However, as a precautionary measure, he took to wearing a porcelain mask when he fought.

He realized this probably only made him more memorable, and didn’t quite hide what he was, but with his hair braided in a particularly ear-concealing fashion, he could be mistaken for… well. An extraordinarily pretty young human man. Maybe.

He also went so far as to ask the man running the fights to conceal his elfin nature, but didn’t go into details as to why. The man was remarkably curious, and even required a bribe to go along with it, but seeing as how Sangwine was bringing in a great deal of profits, he was more agreeable than he usually would have been.

If pressed, Sangwine would be forced to admit that he found the idea of being a mysterious masked swordsman rather attractive, because he had always been a person drawn to vaguely romantic ideas. He was a dreamer, as it were. Or at least, so his Aunt Ellinya would have said. Countless were the times in the past that she had to pull him back from his daydreams to focus on the task at hand. She was always patient, though.

Sangwine sighed.

Tonight he’d fought someone faster, who fought with two blades; one being a long rapier, the other something shorter and thicker for parrying and defense. He was glad they were finally putting some effort into giving him someone challenging to fight, although there wasn’t much to this one, either. The fellow was a roughly educated swordfighter. He’d never had any sort of formal training, Sangwine could tell. So as long as this man relied on his field education, there would always be holes in his technique. Sangwine found those holes, took advantage of them, and brought him swiftly to defeat.

The speed of a human can never match the speed of an elf, anyway.

So now he wound his solitary way to the room he’d let, this one being out of the way and discreet, but near the café he preferred, and found something new at his doorstep. It was a young woman.

“Hello,” she said. She had auburn hair and hazel eyes, and was in the very bloom of youth.

“Hello,” he replied. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” she said, smiling at him. Her hand moved in a way that drew attention to the dress she was wearing, which was a remarkably rich shade of red. “They said you like red,” she said.

How did they know I like red? Sangwine found himself wondering.

She was a lovely young woman, of course, but Sangwine would sooner wallow in a mud puddle as let a human touch him romantically.

“Well, yes, I do like red. Thank you,” he said oddly, and moved to unlock his door, which she was partially blocking with herself. He tried to be polite in the matter, but she seemed oblivious… or waiting for something. He really had no idea.

“Ah, pardon me, my… ah… lock is behind your arm,” he said.

She sighed languidly.

“You sword fight like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “What is your name?”

“I don’t have a name,” he replied enigmatically, still attempting to politely unlock his door, but failing. She ignored his unwillingness to part with his name and went on.

“The way you move… it’s so beautiful,” she said. “And deadly at the same time! It’s a devastating combination of grace and fire.”

He paused, somewhat interested in having his ego padded, and also curiously fascinated at how this human seemed to be waxing poetic in a very clumsy way in order to describe him. She gave him a look, and he remembered what she was here for.

“Thank you,” he said shortly. “Now, if you’ll kindly move, I’d like to-“

“Don’t you like girls?” she asked point-blank. He was aghast.

“Of course I do!” he said, affronted at the idea of his masculinity and orientation being questioned.

“You don’t think I’m pretty?” she asked. “Is that it?”

“You’re very pretty,” he replied, although he instantly felt condescending from the way he said it. “You’re just- it’s just…”

He really had nothing else to say about it, that he wanted to relay to this woman.

“What is your name?” she asked again.

He’d had about enough embarrassment for this night, and even though he was trying to spare the feelings of this obviously misled young woman, he resented being in this situation at all. If Fang hadn’t gone and ruined everything, he’d never be in this situation. He’d be at home, with his family, waiting to be paired with whatever high-bred elven maiden his family deemed quality enough for … well, that sounded lousy, too.

He exhaled and leaned a shoulder wearily against the doorframe.

“My name is Sangwine,” he told her. She smiled warmly at him.

“What a curious name,” she said.

“What’s yours?” he asked.

“Maisy,” she said.

“And you call my name odd?” he said to her.

“What?” she replied with a smile. “My name is boring. There’s a Maisy on every corner here, don’t you know that?”

“No…” he said.

“No, because you’re obviously not from around here, are you,” she said.

“I’m not,” he relented.

She studied him for a long moment, wherein he felt a measure of embarrassment and so moved to return his attention to unlocking his door. Her hand found his arm, to stop him.

“Don’t touch me,” he said.

She recoiled, and he felt a tinge of remorse for being harsh.

“…please,” he added posthumously, then quickly entered his room and shut the door.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chapter 17


XVII


That night Bactine had lots of dreams.

Maybe it was something about sleeping in that forest. Maybe the forest had special powers. She never was sure, but she had all kinds of dreams that night. But there was one that was quite a lot more memorable above all the others, and that’s because it was about him.

She’d just gotten done dreaming about a quixotic unicorn when she was plunged into a dream about sitting in a lecture. It wasn’t particularly exciting, until she saw him there, beside her. The lecture was dull. It was alchemy, which Bactine never cared for, thinking it was mostly for people of inept social ability. She was sitting beside him, he being Sangwine of course, and he was busily taking notes.

He would be that sort of person, she thought to herself wryly, not really even sure what she meant by that, and suddenly realized the lecturer was going to be evaluating her on her notes at the end of the class, which was almost over. She looked down at the blank page in front of her, and felt a surge of panic and shame at her failure.

Looking over at Sangwine, she remembered he’d helped her out countless times. In fact, she’d looked off of his work so many times it should be shameful, although she found no shame in it at all. For one, she enjoyed it, because it gave her a reason to have direct contact with him, and for another, it was endearing, because he always was willing to help her. Thirdly, it gave her the low-spark thrill of doing something only slightly naughty, and getting away with it. And besides, his hard working astute nature was, well… cute.

This time was a little different. Sangwine gave her what she needed, and then, as is the way with dreams, she suddenly recalled another entire facet of the story, and that was chemistry. Namely, it was the chemistry between the two of them.

It was wildly powerful, even though in the dream she wasn’t even remotely aware of it three seconds before, but had been building through a series of lectures for months and months. It had been strung tighter and tighter until there were only two options left; string it even tighter until it twists and breaks, or pluck it and let the sound blissfully resonate at last, completely blind to what might follow after.

In this case the lecturer droned on, the tables and parchments and quills grew dark and distant, and Sangwine was there beside her and their eyes met as she plucked the string; the resonance sounded, probably B-flat; the vibrations and richness of sound echoed through them both as they reached a singularity of understanding between them. It’s following this when two people kiss for the first time, after wanting to for a long time.

So that’s what she did; she kissed him, but it really wasn’t that easy. Firstly, she had all of the thoughts flying through her mind about kissing him, but not believing that she could really kiss him, but knowing she was because he was there, and she was obviously going to kiss him, but she still couldn’t believe it. Her thoughts proved to be very distracting. But when push comes to shove, in the kissing world, those thoughts fall away and the primary language of communication becomes abstract and expressive; an art form full of hues and contrasts and timbre. Especially in dreams, where nothing is tangible, but everything is touchable.

One moment she was moving but suspended in anticipation, and the next blithely tasting the cautious affection of his red mouth. There was something familiar about him; and she moved again, both torn with the want of more of this cool draught of water and the weakness of overwhelmed senses, and as he then moved in tandem with her, she was suddenly struck dumb and lost and breathless with a thousand motes of light.

Strawberries, almost. He tasted like them… almost. This blurred through her thoughts, more as a patch of random color than anything coherent. As he took matters into his own hands kiss-wise, in a divinely passionate way, she was driven to the very cusp of the proverbial losing-it-entirely, but before that could happen she pulled back with an audible gasp.

Her gasp echoed through the night air, and she suddenly realized she was awake, and she suddenly realized shortly after that that the person she had been kissing was Xylic.

“Oh cripes!” she exclaimed, practically leaping away from him. She flew to the nearest tree and pressed her back to it, sitting with her cloak wrapped around her, as if it would create more distance between them. He didn’t move very much, not compared to her. He only brought his hands to his face and let out a sort of slow exhale.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she found herself saying again and again, feeling a bizarre mixture of excitement, shock, and embarrassment. He sat up, and oddly he let his hood fall to his shoulders as he sat. It was rather dark, and Bactine couldn’t see much, but she found herself thinking for the first time he had hair in a fine color. An unusual color. She supposed she’d never seen anyone with hair that particular gold and sandy shade of blonde before. She wondered if that’s why he always wore the hood; to blend in instead of standing out. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew he was looking at her through the darkness. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell if he was so quiet because he was still half asleep, or if he was harboring the so-livid-I’m-calm anger.

“I was dreaming,” she said lamely.

“What were you dreaming about?” he asked somewhat quietly. She didn’t expect that reply, and stole a moment to think about it. She felt, for some reason, guilty about the prospect of telling him that she was dreaming about Sangwine.

“I was dreaming about… I don’t know,” she said, lying poorly. “I always forget my dreams the moment I wake up.”

There was a long pause.

“You’re lying,” he said.

Bactine blinked. Even if he knew she was lying, she didn’t expect to be outright called out for it. She was chagrined, but still a little disoriented from what had just happened between them. Some of those felt-but-not-seen motes of light still hung in the air, clinging stubbornly to the last vestiges of the short-term memory of the senses. If she let herself dwell on it, she would catch her breath, so she forced herself not to dwell on it.

She sighed, and decided she’d cooperate.

“Sangwine,” she said. “I dreamt I kissed Sangwine.”

He sat there for a moment, then stood. He raised his hood, and began to leave.

“Where are you going?” Bactine asked.

He seemed like he was going to say something, but he didn’t. He just left.

Bactine sat the rest of the night and wondered if he would come back.