“What’s wrong?” Theo asked Shannon.
“They have split up. Oirion and Ivan have been taken, I think.”
“What now, then? We go after Dave?”
“No, he is still free… we have to get Oirion and Ivan out.”
“Why…. again?” Theo asked, thinking of the army and the city under siege.
“Because Oirion is Oirion and Ivan is Ivan.”
“Oh, that’s some grand logic there. Let’s risk Shannon’s capture for Ivan cuz’ he’s Ivan and Oirion just cuz. Oh, that’s great, Shannon.”
“I have not put up with Oirion for the last six months to let him fall into Gerome’s hands now, and Ivan is a lot more than just a big, dumb Ezeeren. I am not certain who he is yet, but he is no small prize.”
“I’m not saying I don’t want to get them; I’m just asking for the bloody truth,” Theo said with an annoyed tone as he got up. He meant to mutter it to himself, but it came out rather clearly.
“I already told you the truth.”
“No, you haven’t,” Theo said. “You put up with Oirion in the beginning because he’s different than the others somehow, and Ivan is odd anyway you look at it… but now? You’re going to walk into a damn trap and likely hand both of us to Gerome for their sake. I want to know why, that’s all.”
“I don’t know,” Shannon said after a short struggle. “That make you feel better?”
Theo had to believe that Shannon was honest on that, and that it wasn’t easy for him.
“In one way… yes. If you don’t know, then Gerome won’t either. Let’s go then. How do we get inside the city? Or, are they in the camp?”
“City. I felt them go in through the shields.”
“So, how do we get in?”
“I don’t know.”
Theo sighed, turning his attention from Shannon. Putting his hands on his hips in a very Elven manner, he stood looking down at the great city of Xen-Sha. The towers and spires, the great arches, onion domes and fantastic lines were classic Elven and grand to look at. The light of the day hit the city in a way that caught the stained glass so favored by the elves and cast a sunset-like myriad of colors over the city. The city was spread out in a sweeping valley that was an ancient flood plain, but now was safely above the river. The river bent here, curving about the city as if the river was made to suit the Elven nature. Where the river ran along the far side, there was surely a forest and, Theo suspected, smaller gates, patrol doors, and maybe even boat ways.
He let his eyes scan the great city, the war damage, and the army camped around it. Somehow in all this there had to be a way in. How could it be that someone taken on the outside could get into the city? Was it not a real siege? He folded his arms over his chest. His mind ran over the battles that he knew about elves and the way they worked things out. It was a merchant plot that his mother had set up with Palcin that made him think of a tactic.
“There is a way in, and there’s a traitor at the gate,” he said, thinking out loud to himself. “We play both sides and we can get in. We just have to follow the trail that was used by Oirion and Ivan’s captors to the correct gate and then lie to manipulate the guards. Can you Lure your way in quietly?” He looked to Shannon.
“If you can cover my energy.”
“Good. Then we’ll just go in with word for the lord of the camp and work from there, get to the proper gate, and play it the other way as well.”
Shannon just shrugged, as if that was as good an idea as any. Theo felt his heart start to pound when Shannon left his seat in the grass to tear down their camp. He, Theo, did not just decide what to do over Shannon! That was insane. He walked back to the small camp site to watch Shannon quickly break it down and erase the evidence of their stay. He brushed his silks and tried to fix his hair a bit, then simply mounted up and moved to lead the way.
Theo hadn’t done a mind read in a very long time and, even then, only to spare himself serious punishment. He had never pried deeply, but he had the very bad feeling that he was going to need to now. He would have to know the name of the lord in the camp.
Shannon mounted as well and followed him, leading the pack horses like a good slave would. Theo worked to stay calm as he left the trees, riding at an easy pace toward the camp. It wasn’t long before the camp guards were riding out to meet them.
Theo was still pondering how he was going to pull it off when the elves reached him.
“Who are you and why do you dare to ride so boldly into the camp of Prince Ussha?” a camp guard demanded.
“Who am I?” Theo demanded, attempting to sound utterly insulted.
“Forgive him, Master,” Shannon said softly, using an accent so thick that the words sounded almost exotic. Theo glanced back as Shannon lifted his head demurely to the guard. “He is young and has not been informed on all things. I am certain that he meant no dishonor.”
Theo tried not to drop his jaw at the utter change in Shannon and at the way the elves squirmed under the sensual manner of the Purtan they were staring at.
Theo snapped his finger to draw them back to him in the same manner he had seen so many Elven lords insult underlings. He demanded their attention be on him, not his slave who had suddenly taken on the role of concubine.
“I will require a bath, clean clothes of suitable attire, and wine… if you wish my forgiveness.”
“Of course,” the captain stammered, straining under the skill of the vampire. Even Theo was feeling it whisper at him. He had to hide that he felt any of the soul-seducing power of the vampire lord that Shannon was. He knew he had to hide it, master it, and keep separate from it. There would be no belief he was the master if he showed even the slightest reaction to Shannon’s presence or alluring powers. He half swore, wondering if Shannon was testing him here out on the border of the camp where they still could escape easily. He cast his hand out with a wash of power that made the elves’ horses balk and dance, bringing them to attention. It also clearly washed away the evidence of the Lure.
The elf cleared his throat as his horse settled down and he tried to regained control of himself. The guard had failed to block or escape the Lure Shannon had woven into his soul. From now till death, that elf would desire no one else but Shannon. Poor fool. It showed on him and the others as well. All of them were short of breath, their eyes dilated, their nostrils flaring. Elves related power and rank to self-control… and for good reason; their physical give-aways were as obvious as an orcs. It was hard to seem a higher race with your lust so painfully obvious.
“Please, my Lord, this way.”
Theo lifted an eyebrow with contempt and let the guards escort him into the camp.
They circled around through the great army gathered about the city. Theo tried not to notice them too much or to show anything but utter ease and confidence; it was rather difficult, and he struggled with it the entire way.
He was very glad when they stopped outside a large tent. One of the captain’s men caught the reins of Theo’s horse to hold it. While the still-flustered captain was trying to dismount, Shannon was quickly off his horse, pulling Theo’s staff free and offering his hand and the staff. Theo took the hand, faking the need for assistance, and then took the staff.
“Forgive me, lord, but I must stand guard. Others will fetch you clothes as befits you.”
Theo didn’t reply and simply let Shannon take him into the bath tent. He knew the way it worked. He was raised as a prince, after all, and was well used to being bathed. It was, however, very odd to be bathed by Shannon with an Elven captain watching. He was worried about the details of his illusion, but dared not look. Elves were built a bit different than the races of men. Each race was slightly different, but elves even more so. It simply would not do to have more “down there” than an elf would. Elves did not wear their “jewels” on the outside and thought it a great weakness of the other races to do so.
He focused on trying to show his rank in every motion that he made. It was surreal to have Shannon pour water, to wash his hair – to do all the tasks that once had been done daily by the servants of his mother. The whole production went as if they had been doing it for years, and he was able to not think about it too much.
The elf watched from just inside the door as Shannon dressed Theo in the robes that had been brought – very nice garments, Theo had to admit – warm, layered, and very finely made. Shannon took his time doing Theo’s hair, twisting it in little braids and stringing in the few beads and crystals they had gathered for him from the pirates. Theo was rather impressed with the care and skill that Shannon put into his hair. He didn’t bother to even ask for a mirror, trusting in the skill of the Purtan.
As he rose, the meal arrived – fine, roasted bird of some sort, dried fruits and tea. He ate what he wanted, leaving nothing but a sip of tea and few bits of dried fruit. He knew that Shannon would be expected to eat his scraps and so left nothing that he felt Shannon would not want or eat by choice.
He gave his “slave” a moment to eat while he let his meal settle, then rose to go meet the prince. Now was the moment of truth. He had managed to get into the camp, place himself as rank, and to get the right clothes for the game he was about to play. Shannon stepped in behind him as they were led from the tent.
The walk wasn’t far, but enough that Theo caught up the hem of his robe to keep it out of the mud. A hot storm was rolling in, turning the chill of early spring here into dark, green clouds that would bring down hail if it was not dealt with. Thunder was already rolling and lightning flickered within the clouds above. On the ground it was oddly calm, though, and Theo almost smiled, thinking how that reflected his own state of mind right now: calm on the surface, but a brewing storm of emotion inside.
The guard opened the doorway to let them into the tent of the prince. Theo shook his robe down, trying to mimic Palcin in his disdain for the weather on his clothes. The prince sat in a fine chair at the end of the tent, looking as graceful and powerful as any that Theo had met. He took several steps forward before he bent his knee, trying to lower himself as smoothly as he could in a deep Elven bow. He rose with his hand to his chest.
“I am told you come with word for me,” the prince said, carefully not admitting that he didn’t know who Theo was or why he was here.
Theo knew, at that moment, that he was going to have to work magics to get through this. The elf was far from alone; he had guards hidden in illusion and there was something else about him.
“Indeed, your grace,” Theo said, looking up through his eyelashes in the submissive manner of the Elven male to his higher ranking lord. “Though, I would wish it whispered in private.”
Theo smiled knowingly. “This is not a light matter,” he said. “Truly, in private.”
The Prince waited a moment, then motioned. His eyes darted to Shannon, glanced at Theo, then back to Shannon.
“You do not send your servant away?”
“He is not of free will; he cannot be of any danger. Your men, however, you allow such freedom.” He gestured gracefully toward Shannon, inviting the prince to come look at Shannon. “Wish you a closer look?”
“No.” The prince tore his eyes away. “You bring word?”
Theo could feel Shannon’s vampire magics whispering in the tent. It would back him up, but was not going to get to this man quickly. The elf shifted shields and both of them felt it.
“Tell your vampire to not take me for a fool. Control him or I will punish you both.”
Theo held up his hand. “Contain yourself,” he said in Norwen, without looking back. “Forgive me, Grace.” Theo bowed again, buying time and shifting his own magics. Clearly this elf was powerful and well trained. To have him know at once what Shannon was doing was a dangerous thing. At least Theo was now warned. “He enjoys the sport and I allow him his humor, as it amuses me at times.” He lowered his hand. “For such a finely-skilled puppet, I allow him games. It will not happen again.”
“What have you to say?” The elf demanded.
Theo looked up and caught the elf’s golden-green eyes. Hidden in those eyes was something that stirred with energy. It was unpleasant and made Theo’s shoulders tighten and his gut knot in fear of how far he might be forced to take this, and how close to the fine line of soul-invasion he was walking. Theo dropped all humor and let his smile vanish; he stood a bit more at attention.
“It would seem there is a traitor in your midst,” he said seriously. “Our Lord Gerome is most concerned. He is very unhappy with the state of the siege and had expected the battle to be settled by his arrival.” Theo had guessed wildly at the hints of emotions and energy that the elf held in his surface thoughts. If he was wrong, it would get ugly very quickly, but by the twitch and shift he suspected he had nailed the fears. “He sent me to get into the city and has set the right people in place to see to it without alerting your betrayer. You are to seek him out while I go in and work from the other side, pretending to be the said traitor. He has reason to believe that the traitor is unknown in person and, with us both in motion, we might yet have the city ready for his approaching arrival.”
The Prince nodded slightly. “Where might I look?”
“Our Lord fears the betrayer is in the priesthood,” Theo said, with as much sadness as he could. “Act swiftly; our Lord Gerome is not happy.”
“Of course. When do you plan to move?”
“At once, of course. Why else would I pause to eat on my way to you? The less time between our visit and our actions, the less time the betrayer has to hide and frame another.”
“Of course.” Ussha nodded slightly. Theo waited for the prince to stand. As he did, Theo spun out energy he rarely used – magics he had cut and carved into the skin of his forearms. He was a sorcerer, yes, but he had learned long ago that sometimes it was best to have his magic ready and reliable with only a motion. He needed to know for certain if he had played it right. The darkness that his magics revealed was not what he expected, and he had to spin harder and faster to be certain. He had rarely run into such deep willing submission to darkness. The rage he felt toward his mother sparked inside him. The elf had to forget his face at least.
Even as the elf moved closer to him in a gesture of parting friendship, Theo could feel the hints and whispers of the elf’s magic being raised. He could feel the tingle of it on his skin and, out of instinct to protect his identity, he moved. He stepped up and tapped the elf on the chest with a faster attack, stunning him a moment. The elf was stronger against this form of magic than Theo had thought, and Theo felt his attack almost slip and fail. He had never used it against anyone other than palace servants whom he did not want to report or reveal him. They had all been so stunned they didn’t recall anything, which gave him a few moments to escape. The elf, however, did not get even close to being that stunned. He was shocked, but little more. The elf’s own magics were scattered by Theo’s attack and that was good, but now Theo had a bigger problem than he wanted.
The elf was sided with Gerome and if that wasn’t enough reason to kill him, this elf was skilled and powerful in a very dark way. This was not anyone that Theo and Shannon wanted alive to report them. He acted without thought, moved without consideration as he slipped his hand through realms and grabbed a magic and a power he had tried to deny he even knew about. He stepped into it and slammed his palm against the elf’s chest, driving in a gremlin with as much force as a dagger. The elf staggered back, his eyes rolling as he fought for the control of his body. Theo took a stunned step back.
“Stay,” he ordered the gremlin, simply as he could. “We have to go,” he said to Shannon as he grabbed up his robe and strode from the tent. Growing sicker with every step, he could not believe he had just done that. His mother had tried for decades to so easily command a gremlin and, after trance and much work, still failed to do what he had just done.
“What gate,” he breathed to Shannon.
“West gate,” Shannon muttered back, keeping up as they strode through the camp. The guard escort hurried to catch up.
“My lord, where are you going?”
“The prince has orders for the most urgent matter,” Theo said, not looking over. “There is no time to waste. Return to your post. It does not concern you.”
Shannon moved ahead to shoulder elves out of the way as they neared the heavily guarded gate. They pushed through Ussha’s soldiers who were gathered about the gate and the bonfire that roared there. The elves all stood watching the storm that was gathering over them.
Just before the gatehouse door, there were three guards who did not look so pleased with things at all. It was understandable, being Elven guards from the inside, while the enemy was just yards away in a camped company. They could be easily overwhelmed, but this gate was small – too small for an army to get through, anyway. These elves would be magically keyed into the gate. Only they could open it and only if they wished to. The army gathered here were moved to guard this gate for fear that princes from within might try to escape, or even perhaps in response to the elves within the city taking prisoners.
The besiegers might not know who had been taken, but they surely knew someone had been caught at the riverbanks and hauled inside the great city. This gate seemed to the one closest to the river. A span of open ground was now the army’s camp, but had once been a field of some sort with the natural forest of the flood-plain just beyond this narrow strip of land. Theo tried not to think about it too much, but his mind kept dwelling on how close to the others he was, how Oirion and Ivan had been hauled across this field, how they others had to be camped nearby, worried and unable to help the two inside the city. Drawing in a deep breath, he forced himself to focus on the task at hand and play his part.
“Step aside,” Theo said. They didn’t move.
Shannon stepped a hair closer and spoke, just as thunder crashed above them. Theo didn’t even hear what was said, but one of the elves turned to unlock the gate door. The others moved to stop him, but Shannon put a hand on the shoulder of one and spoke softly in his ear. Theo felt the power; it made his breath catch a moment and his skin flush with heat. The elf all but fell back, weak with whatever lure that Shannon had breathed on him. The third was little better. Shannon was clearly no longer concerned with trying to hide his magic as before; rather, he wanted to get inside that city and he wanted in right now. Theo did not even try to cover the magic, knowing the gremlin would not likely be long within the prince and they would soon be hunted. The gate was opened and Shannon slipped in at once. Theo didn’t wait, but followed through immediately. He pulled it shut behind him and drove a lock spell on it. Inside, there were two more elves who sat a table. Behind them, the back wall appeared to be crumbled to rubble. Shannon pointed.
“Open the door.”
Theo stumbled and almost choked as the gremlin returned. It was fed and shivering with power. There had been no choice left to the creature but to kill the elf it had taken. Ussha had proved too strong-minded to be taken completely and the gremlin had not been able to hold him. If the Elven prince had been just a little less powerful, the gremlin would have taken him over – body and soul, slowly devouring him, but also giving Theo direct command of the man. This action would have been brutal, very dark and vile, but Theo might have had the chance to turn the elves outside the wall on each other.
Free to work his magics, forced to work his magics, Theo was rapidly learning he had all the powers his mother had so desperately dreamed of. Theo shivered. The prince would have been sucked dry and left quite dead. Such a magic would be felt once the gremlin left the body. Any sort of wizard the elves might have would be rushing in to check on the prince. Time was up; they needed to get well inside the city and hidden.
“Now!” Theo commanded, very certain that once the elf was discovered, Gerome would be alerted.
“There is no gate in here,” the elf said. Shannon lifted his hand with a cold motion which was responded to at once as the elf grabbed at his neck, choking.
“No gate,” the other said, clearly scared, backing away.
The elf in Shannon’s grip dropped. He hit the floor dead, his neck crushed, his face speckled with the burst blood vessels.
“We don’t have time for this,” Shannon said. “Open the gate.” Shannon normal cold manner had seemed to return and the elves were clearly terrified of him, but held their ground.
“There is no…”
Theo changed tactics to try to appeal to their loyalty to their prince inside.
“Before they come looking for us,” Theo said, “open the gate. Time is short. I must get in to see the prince.” As if to make his point, power slammed into the gate tower. The outer-gate door shuddered and the inner gate flashed and flushed under the illusion of rubble. Shannon was shocked as he realized that the power that had hit the tower was demonic. He gave Theo a quick shocked look, knowing it had been Theo who had summoned it up. Theo needed them to open the gate now, and he would use what he had to make it seem that they were under attack by Gerome.
“What did you do?” Shannon asked in Awens.
“The gate,” Theo pressed. The Aelf quickly moved; he turned and used his hand which was blood-keyed to the gate, opening it within a perfectly undamaged wall. He held it for them and stepped in after them, ducking in quickly as the power hit the door again.
In the far larger second chamber, the guard-tower guards were waiting with ready weapons.
“I have to see the prince,” Theo said at once, putting his hands up.
“This way.” One elf led them quickly as others turned to defend against the demonic attack, driving power back at it.
“What did you do?” Shannon asked Theo again.
Theo looked over, too sick to think about it. Behind them, a battle exploded with Elven priests sending down powerful magics from the tower tops as well. The guards led them quickly from the wall to a carriage that seemed to stand ready for messages. They stepped up, climbed inside, and were taken from the wall quickly. Theo’s magic had started a battle that was quickly joined by the army of Gerome to build an even better mask for them to hide behind. Any mark Shannon or Theo had made was rapidly lost in the explosions and bloodshed at the gate.
They sat in utter silence. There was dark and powerful magic stained in the carriage they were in. It might have been true that the prince of this city opposed Gerome, but he didn’t do it for the side of light and peace. This city was dark and clouded with magics. Things were bad and getting worse. It was going to take a lot of work to get through this leg of the journey. What had he stepped into? Why had he not listened to Cindie and taken the train? He looked out through the carriage window at the storm triggered by the fight at the wall. Lightning cracked down, hit a red dome tower and exploded off of it. Rain came with a sudden fury, causing the horses to rear and object, but the driver regained control and they were put back in motion.
Theo felt ill, cold, and terribly alone. In the span of a few hours he had touched on magic he did not even admit he knew about. He had done so with the power and speed that his mother had only dreamed of and that Gerome had been so certain he could. His heart was even too cold to pray for support or for cleansing. He sat silent, torn between who he was, what he had done and who he might become. There were no more lies, no more masks and denials. He had stepped out of that life and into one where he might well be known to be as terrible as Shannon himself.
“This is not good,” Shannon said softly.
Theo didn’t need to agree. This was not good on so many levels, Theo simply had no words.
The palace was stunning. Even Shannon would admit that. The inner hall that they were taken to was a true work of art in the nature of light. It came in from above and through the walls, but filtered through crystals, fine lacework of silver, and reflected off of mother-of-pearl that covered the walls of the room. In the midst of it all was the most beautiful elf that Theo had ever seen.
Prince Aulunashep wore the style of old, a toga that fell off stunning clasps on his shoulders, left his bare chest exposed, and was caught about the waist in a matching belt, with the length of it in long, flowing layers – the whole thing made to look like air and light. It reminded Theo of the way robes of power manifested in the other realms. Maybe that was the idea.
He wore a crown that appeared as cords of light spun around his head. He made the sharp features of the elves seem perfect. Theo found such beauty unlikely. His own mother was known to be one of the most stunning women alive, but her looks were not born of flesh, but sculpted of blood magic. He would expect no less of this elf.
Theo bowed as gracefully as his legs would allow, staying low for a moment before he rose again. The prince looked him over a bit, as one might look over a horse brought to him as a gift.
“You do not appear to be worthy of the battle you provoked on the wall,” the prince said, with typical Elven scorn and distaste, as he walked over to Theo to look at him more closely. He moved to look at Shannon. “You, on the other hand… it would make me wonder who is master here.”
Theo had a very bad feeling about this.
“I assure Your Grace, it is I who am in control,” Theo said. “The proof of my value is evident in my pet.”
“You would tell that you have captured a vampire?” the prince asked.
“I would,” Theo said.
“Even so, you cost me a gate and you dare to demand to see me… and you have nothing for me? Why are you here?”
“I came to offer my aid, for the moment, against Gerome,” Theo said, “at a small cost.”
“A small cost?” The elf half laughed. “You should be honored to serve me, and even more honored to merely speak to me. That is reward enough.”
“As you said, you cannot imagine that I could capture such a thing as a Purtan Vampire. That, alone, is proof that I have crossed the Barrier and come back. It is clear that you cannot read my shields and so know not who I am or what level of power I offer you.”
The prince looked at him sharply. Theo knew that he was walking a dangerous line, but if he didn’t, chances were that he was a dead man and Shannon would be left to try and escape, alone and undetected. If this elf was what he feared he might be, then it would be little worse than being in Gerome’s hands.
“You speak boldly,” he half growled. “I should have your soul for such.”
Theo dared to look over at him.
“You so quickly would take me as a fool, though I would offer you the soul of Prince Ussha?” Theo didn’t want to acknowledge, but he could feel an inner warning, shields he didn’t even know he had… a dragon warning perhaps? Dark magic was building to take him down, and he knew it
“Truly?” the elf asked, interested now.
Theo held out his hand. It was a small matter – this part he never had a problem with. He had done this for his mother a thousand times and had saved his own soul for it. He simply took Ussha’s soul from the gremlin. His gremlin willingly handed it over, like a happy dog dropping a ball for his master. The soul spun in Theo’s hand as wisps of smoke, slowly gathering and condensing in his palm into a small gray marble. He closed his hand around it.
“A small price is all that I ask. Nothing to you, I am sure.” He smiled slightly. “Several of my slaves have slipped past my guards, and I would have them back. Two of them seem to have snuck into your city to hide. Ussha for them and, in turn, I will happily aid you in a strike against Gerome. The human has no right here anyway, let alone daring to dictate to us.”
The prince looked Theo over again, as if trying to re-measure him, before he let his eyes fall to the hand that held the marble.
“I think we can work it.”
“More,” Theo said softly, as the elf reached for it. “This we Deal on, Brother,” he said seriously.
“You want to summon a demon now?” the elf half-laughed.
“No need,” Theo said. “I carry one with me. It keeps my pet in check. Deal,” he ordered Shannon. Shannon flinched, but stepped forward and offered his hand.
The elf looked from Theo to Shannon and took the Purtan’s hand.
“To trade me the soul for those I seek in your city… truce between us and our powers,” Theo said.
“So be it,” the elf said, clearly not expecting the demon or the Deal to be real or to take hold of him. The demonic power swirled out of Shannon’s hand, wrapping up around the elf’s arm like a serpent of burning black ice. The prince momentarily looked terrified, but then hid it as the power sank into his skin, leaving the serpent scar running up his arm. He jerked his hand from Shannon, who made no expression at all.
“Very well then,” the elf said. Theo handed over the soul of the prince who had served Gerome, and tried not to think about it too much. “Let us man our truce first and strike us a blow against Gerome.”
“Fair enough,” Theo said, not wanting to push too far. He had a truce, but it didn’t mean the elf would make his life easy or allow him to just go hunt the city for Ivan and Oirion. He might even set certain things in the way, to make it very hard to find them. Not to mention, he was a prince and an offense against him was still a crime, allowing him a way to remove them for it. “Carefully, Theo, carefully we go,” he thought to himself. This was not a good place to be, but at least he was a step closer to Oirion and to Ivan. God willing they would be together.
Oirion fought to wake up for some time before he opened his eyes. He knew that he was drugged; that alone could not be good. He roused just enough to get glimpses of things that made for uneasy dreams, and the only words he caught were Elven.
He knew he had to drop into a deep trance, in spite of the drugs and the lack of full consciousness, to try to purge his system. He had to fight for it, but he successfully slipped into the trance, drew up the energy to spin through himself and set to work ridding his body of drugs. Success was not necessarily a good idea. Pain slivered through him as he woke.
It was at that moment that he appreciated the hands of the Ulam Ar healers. They had tried to make his healing easier; the elves had not. They had gone in and kept him alive with no regard for his long-term welfare.
He groaned and tried to move, stabbing his back with pain. Ivan was at his side with a hand on his chest.
“Shan, bren,” Ivan whispered in Ezeeren. “Just lay back and try not to move,” he said in Purtan. Oirion looked at him, a bit amazed even through the pain; he had never heard Ivan speak anything other than the Common Tongue.
“Why are we alive?” he whispered.
Ivan glanced up before he spoke. “I think they plan to slave us out. I’m hoping they were impressed with our skill. Being a gladiator isn’t that bad. They have to feed you, at least, or you get too weak to win.” He leaned closer to Oirion’s ear. “I said that you got the ring from a priest who was with us and died a few months back… and I did what I could to hide you’re a priest. I don’t know if I have any power left, but for now, they think you’re just a human fighter. Keep it that way. You don’t want to go to Gerome. Even if they are Gerome’s enemies, they will be happy to ransom you to him, which would be very bad for you.
“You’re still alive and you have a friend who is with you.” Ivan patted Oirion’s shoulder. “And hey, they thought the boat was ours and left the area unsearched. The others got away.”
Oirion nodded and closed his eyes.
Later, when he woke, he felt only a little better. He looked over to try to find Ivan. The huge man sat on the floor of the stone room with his legs crossed and hands on his knees, palms up, his eyes closed. Oirion rolled up from the hard cot, biting back pain, to sit up. His back hurt, and his lungs felt tight, but he was alive. With his feet on the floor he leaned forward and looked at where they were.
They were in a cell that was small, not tall enough for Oirion to stand up in and barely enough for Ivan to sit upright. There was the cot he was sitting on and nothing else. The walls were stone on two sides with bars on the other two sides. The back wall of bars opened to another cell that was empty and the front opened to a hallway that was lit with torches.
Shifting to his knees, he sank to the floor. Sitting on his feet, he rested his hands, palm to palm sideways before his chest, and went into the meditation style that he and Jamie worked on together. It was not a priest method, but a standard meditation for lighter studies of magic.
His thoughts went to his lost partner and how he had looked forward to seeing Jamie in death, but was denied. He opened his heart, hoping perhaps that he might, at least, feel a whisper of the man.
What if the whole vampire thing was wrong, and somewhere, somehow, Jamie still lived? It was his hope.
His heart filled with a great sense of loss as he was desperately missing the bond and the company of a partner, but it was not for Jamie that it came to mind. It was for Shannon. That was so odd, he had to look at it again to be sure. The act of directing his focus to Shannon made everything spin and his balance was thrown off. Energy seemed to scatter and whirl, casting him into a whole new layer of himself that he had never even known was there.
All the loneliness and separation created by this place were gone. He was flooded with a sense of presence that was both welcome and dark. He could feel Shannon in a way that was rather terrifying in the moment. Most disturbing, it was not unwelcome and very oddly intimate. The power of it made all previous fears and weakness vanish, leaving him in a strange calmness, a calmness that left him with a conflicting sense of panic and religious fear towards it.
He could feel the way it felt to be Shannon in the tight leather and the long robe. He could feel how Shannon’s skin felt. It was tight, painful, and stiff, as if he had dry skin that threatened to crack at any motion. It burned in low, constant pain. The pain was nothing new; it simply was. More than that, for one moment, he felt how strong Shannon was…. not only in body, but how strong and disciplined his power was. It was locked and held with a strength that Oirion was utterly humbled by.
In that one split moment, he knew for certain that Shannon was close, and Shannon was not going to leave without them. He felt it all in a fraction of time so short that he didn’t even have time to catch his breath. It was all that the trance would allow, as the shock of it was too much, and then he was back in the cell. The feeling remained in his mind like a dream one just can’t shake.
He drew a deep breath of relief and bowed his head. However Shannon had done it, he had made sure they knew he was near and they were not about to stay this locked up. Just survive and get into a position to be found…. that was all they had to. He looked over to Ivan and nodded.
“They’re close,” he whispered in Purtan to the big man whose head almost reached the ceiling of the cell.
“I know. He’d never abandon you.”
“You know who. I do believe he has a crush on you. Behaves like a thirteen year-old picking fights with the girl he favors.” He grinned, “Purtans are that way sometimes.”
“That is ludicrous,” Oirion muttered. “He just doesn’t want us talking about him.”
“Whatever you say,” Ivan chuckled.
Assuming that Oirion was still drugged, the elves spoke openly in front of him. It took him some time to slowly figure out what they were saying; he had not studied Elven since he was a child. He was able to tell that they were not so sure he was going to be able to breathe well, but they figured that he would make a good sacrificial victim if nothing else. Human blood from off-continent was always prized. The Elven guards spoke of it outside the cage, between the cage keeper and the slave trader. The trader looked Oirion over and folded his arms over his chest.
They were talking about the value of blood against fighters, from what Oirion could tell. He thought they were talking about Ivan. Then, he was grabbed and pulled out by three elves. A fourth elf snapped a metal band on his wrists. Ivan was gestured to follow them. Oirion moved without much contest. Even if he got free, there was nowhere to go, no way to escape the whole of this place. It made no sense to even try, to risk getting separated from Ivan, with Shannon on the move.
The hallway led past cages that were mostly full of elves, beaten and broken. The hall led out and up a ramp to a great open area with rows of benches above. Oirion had seen the coliseum of Ulam Bac and, while this was impressive, especially after days in the dark little cage, this place was small; probably owned by the man who stood back watching.
They pushed Ivan forward and stabbed a sword into the ground at his feet, then another for Oirion. They pushed Oirion toward Ivan. An elf spoke poorly and pointed.
“Kill him,” he ordered. Oirion knew this was going to hurt, and that he would have one chance to prove just where he stood. He moved faster than they thought he was able to. He grabbed the sword out of the ground, spun, and stabbed the man who spoke, driving it into his chest. He ran the slender sword right though his ribs and into the heart, in one quick stab. Stepping to the side, Oirion pulled the sword out smoothly. His speed and motion were unbroken, splattering the trail of blood from that heart wound against the next victim. He sliced the second elf across the throat. Still carrying through with the fluid attack, he purposely made the blood from his sword hit the third elf in the eyes, slowing the elf’s reaction just enough that he was able to drive the sword into the elf’s chest. It did not get deep enough to kill the elf before the band he wore let itself be known. Oirion was brought up short. The magic grabbed him and locked him in place.
“Not a good idea,” Ivan said. “You just killed our translator. They won’t like that.”
Oirion jerked his body forward, sent his shoulder at the elf who stood, shocked, looking at the sword in his chest. Fighting the power of the magic cuffs that bound his wrists, Oirion pressed the blade another three inches into him, right into his heart. The owner of the area snapped his fingers and the pain that shot though Oirion was incredible.
He could not even tell where it was coming from or how to block it. He still fought it. After the last few months, his pain tolerance had grown a bit and he was able to keep his feet. Then, with a back spasm, he dropped to a knee.
The elf relaxed the pain and again ordered him to kill the giant. Oirion stabbed the sword into the ground and looked at the man who assumed to own him.
“I passed your test. I will not fight him.” he said in as sloppy of Elven as he could. It wasn’t their dialect, but it was close enough to get the message through.
The elf raised his eye brow. “Yes, you will,” he said. He snapped his fingers and the pain hit again. It tried to force his body to move. Oirion did have a trick against that. It was one of those things you learn as a Hunter, to keep from being moved by vampires or other warped creatures. He locked his fingers and held. It was a simple energy trick that looped the magic away.
“He won’t have you kill me. I’m worth too much. Just fight,” Ivan said. “If you’re too strong, you can’t be sold. He’ll have to break you, and the harder you fight the magic, the deeper it goes. Just fake it,” Ivan said.
Oirion twitched and, while he was not at all happy about it, he jerked himself up and let the spell move him to grab the sword and spin, leaping at Ivan, who met him with sword up. They had a short spar until Oirion’s back sent him staggering and falling aside. Ivan stopped and stepped on the blade, stopping the fight. He knelt and put a hand on Oirion’s back.
“No,” Oirion pushed himself up with pain, “I feel like my spine is splintering apart.”
Ivan helped him up as the elf watched. The elf nodded.
“Now you pass my test,” he said. “Sell him as a guard, limit his fight time, and warn those who buy that these two will be trouble if they are together.”
Oirion tried to look though the tears in his eyes, wanting terribly to kill that elf.
Shifting ever so slightly, Shannon eased the ache in the skin about his shoulders. His skin was not skin at all under his leather, but it was the best imitation a demon could make. It served its purpose well enough. However, with the battles, the burns, and now the constant assault of the storms that blasted out from the nomads’ battlefield, he was in pain. His skin was too dry and was threatening to crack. If that happened, he would have no choice but to find energy. That could be a problem right now.
He had no idea just how powerful the prince that hosted them was, but the demonic Deal had given him an insight. It was better than dealing with Gerome only in that the prince had no personal vendetta against them. He looked to where Theo sat in the window, looking very pretty in his Elven silks, his hair brushed out and scruffy beard removed from his cheeks.
The Prince of Awens had changed a great deal over the last few months; he didn’t look a boy any more, but neither did he look to have any of the magics that Shannon had seen him use.
A gremlin? Had Shannon actually seen Theo command a gremlin? The idea was both terrifying and exciting. How could Theo hide such power? Control it? If he could, might he not be able to somehow find a way to kill Gerome? Perhaps Theo could end the hell Shannon lived in. Then again, Theo was so afraid of power and so shy of rank. Everything about Theo seemed all of a sudden to be like a great misunderstanding.
“What are you thinking?” Shannon surprised himself by asking Theo out loud. He had been wondering what his pretty little escort was thinking of as he gazed out the window.
Theo blinked and tilted his head ever so slightly to the side. He cleared his throat a little.
“I knew a man once,” he said. “He explained that many use rules to cling to and so gain a control of self that they would not normally have when under extreme pressure. Not all rules apply to all men, because each soul has a different tolerance. He was talking about the Rules of Need: how a vampire must ask permission of his Source, how children are simply off-limits, and that to break such rules was a call to be dealt with by the king himself.” Theo folded his arms over his chest, holding his elbows. “Black magics are very seductive,” he added. “Men are lured in, rush into things too fast, and are devoured. Great souls are reduced to wailing shadows of nothing but the memory of failure and pain. The trick is to know: is the magic luring you in, or are you are in control.” He looked over slowly. “How do you know?”
Shannon had not expected such a question or such an insight from Theo. It was a very powerful thing to ask or to think of.
It was also a thing best not spoken of in a place likely rigged with ways to hear what they said. Shannon had no doubt that they were being listened to, if not watched.
“Rules of Conduct,” he said simply. Theo looked back to the window and the storm that was blowing in out of the north.
“Gerome will know we are here as soon as he gets close. I think it would be a good idea to hit him before he gets here. For now, the storms are going to be throwing all of his magics off. I was just wondering how best to strike.” Theo rose with a graceful motion that made Shannon actually lift an eyebrow. Theo might be a lot of things, but graceful was not a word Shannon would have ever used.
“His power comes from his demons.”
“Of course it does.” Theo almost laughed as he moved to pour himself a glass of wine. “He’s a lousy wizard and certainly not the best example of humanity on any level. The question that remains is: what was the Deal that he made. Until I know that, there is really no way to truly bring him down.” He set the wine down. “I suppose, though, it is not really my task to figure out the attack. I will aid the prince to the best of my abilities and, at least, knock that skeleton of a man to hell.” He took a sip of wine as the door opened without a knock or sound. Theo didn’t even look startled at all. He finished his drink without any attempt to do more than look at who had entered.
“You have been summoned to the war room.”
Theo gestured Shannon to follow and they both went with the elf that had come to guide them.
It wasn’t far, their room having been chosen, more than likely, to put them close to the chamber. The war room was a great space in the top of one of the onion-shaped domes. It was well-lit and heated with magic. The walls were more glass than anything else, giving a stunning view of the city and the siege outside.
The storm had hit, blocking much of the landscape beyond, but to the north of the city the river was visible. It snaked along, whispering reminders of the lost friends who were out in the storm, as Theo and Shannon stood in silk. Lightning flickered in various colors, building up and discharging upward as it strengthened against the attempts of the elves to turn it back. Theo watched a moment, stunned at the stupidity of the elves. Their efforts were only making the storm that much worse. He looked to the great table in the center of the room and the waiting war lords.
Prince Aulunashep sat at the head of the table on a gold throne, his robe more to accent his body than hide it. His pose played along well with the robe. It did not sit well with Theo; he knew elves too well, and playing seduction games with a dark prince was not something that he wanted to even begin to do. Inside, he shrank, afraid of how this was looking and the fact that he might have to play or have Shannon step in and play consort for him. He did his best to hold his pose and play the role of an Elven master.
All he had wanted to do was run away and be a farmer or something. Not this! He ached for the highland pastures of Awens and the sounds of the herdsmen drums over the hills. God, he wanted to just go home. He could hide out there in the tall grass, at the foot of the mountains and learn to live off the land. Instead, he was here, playing and dealing with a man who made his mother look little more than capable.
“I take it you have a personal dislike of Gerome,” the prince said smoothly.
“He has gotten in my way and stepped on my toes a time or two. I wish to return the favor.” Theo said as arrogantly as he could. He caught his silk skirts and moved to take a seat at the table. He did not ask or look around; as such a master as he claimed to be would do, he took the seat near the prince. He did so as smoothly as he could, praying it was enough.
“From what I can gather, his power is limited here,” said an elf who sat to the prince’s right and across the table from Theo. He spoke in almost a purr, trying to seem grand and wise, but he seemed to Theo to be a desperate fool trying to get close to the prince. “The Barrier seems to cut off his full Ring. Only a few of the demons he has can get through. His greater power comes in that he has armies, and they, in turn, feed what demons he does have. The more his armies are cut down, the weaker he gets.”
“Then the nomads have done a service for once,” Theo almost laughed. He took a sip of the wine.
“You witnessed the battle?” the prince asked, clearly interested.
“Not too closely, but yes,” he said. “I would not pass up a chance to see such a conflict. I would have thought you would have Mirrored it out as well.”
“What is it to me what he does to a dozen nomads?”
“Ah, but look outside.” Theo gestured to the storm that chose that wonderful moment to crush the magics holding it back and hit the tower hard enough to make it shudder. Snow drove against it for one moment before the hail began to pound the glass. “Gerome was crushed.” He looked back to the prince. “His army was nearly wiped out to the man. Those who fled are, even now, being hunted down or driven into Sphinxen forests.”
“Do you not know?” Theo asked.
The elf took that as the insult Theo played it to be, in true Elven fashion.
“The Shaman summoned their God. Rather impressive. Even I was awed, I admit.”
“Their god?” the prince asked, not so sure he believed it.
“What else would you presume could rise up against Gerome and, not only turn a zombie army on its own master, but crush Gerome’s many legions with but a few thousand human nomads?” He leaned forward on the table with one elbow, talking only to the prince as he had so often seen Ulric do when talking of his conquests. “If the gods have turned against Gerome, his power will falter, demons will leave his horde… demons that might well be dealt with, to learn his weaknesses.”
“Indeed,” the prince said, clearly liking the idea. “For today…” he was interrupted as lightning hit the tower, making the lights, the wards, and the floor shudder. He carried on, trying to ignore it, “he is moving in from the east, his army is massing just over the hill, out of sight. The storms have made his magics falter and we see him.” It was his turn to lean forward. “I have meant to summon a Titan against him, but have not had enough time to gather the power needed. With your aid, we can.”
Theo almost dropped his drink, but set it down carefully to avoid doing just that. He leaned back, feeling his chest go utterly cold.
“You have a Summons Chart for a Titan?”
“I do. Trust me; it was not easy to gain.”
“I am sure not,” Theo said. “That is no small task. To aid you as I can is one thing; to risk such a magic…” he rubbed at his smooth chin. “But to hit Gerome so heavily…” he let himself seem to spin off into thought. How could he get out of this? To unleash a Titan was madness and so offensively morally wrong that Theo was not sure he could make himself be part of it. “I will have to consider,” he said, after as long as he could fake being calm and thoughtful.
“We do not have much time,” the prince said. “If Gerome breaks into the city, he will have the chance to gain far too much in loot alone.”
“Yes, I understand,” Theo said a bit sharply. “Do not take me for a fool, not as one who is unaware of with whom he deals. On the other hand, I do not know the source of the summons, and I have seen them go wrong in my time.” He stood as if terribly offended. “I will have to consider it carefully. I will let you know. In the meantime, why don’t you stop having your men try to hold back the anger of a god. Instead, turn it, deflect it at Gerome’s army so you don’t destroy your city before he even gets here.” As he said this, another round of hail slammed into the tower so hard that the sound was enough to end any hope of talking. Theo didn’t wait and headed out through the door with Shannon at his heel.
He would have been lost, but Shannon got them back to the room without any mistakes. He opened the door to let Theo in, only to find that the prince had beaten them there. Shannon closed the door softly as Theo stood, waiting, trying not to shake and be ill.
“I did not mean to insult you,” the prince said. “I simply wish to take him down.”
“As do I,” Theo said with bitter honesty. “I do not wish, however, to be the toy of a Titan. I also would advise you to not show such lack of self-control in front of your council.”
“Lack of self-control?”
“You are too eager to jump into such a summons and you are too concerned for Gerome’s presence. You hardly present an aura of confident power. Not only that, but a prince should not display himself like a cheap whore.” Theo gestured to the robe.
“You cannot deny, it fits me well,” the prince said with an arrogant trust in his appearance and the effect it would have.
Theo lifted an eyebrow, trying to use ‘Shannon-like’ silence to say a great deal. The prince almost faltered.
“Together we have the power,” he said, taking a step toward Theo.
“We have a truce,” Theo said, solid and cold. “I promised to aid you as I could, but by no means does that mean I must do something I deem unwise. There is no “together.” If you even hope for such, you should act the master you are, not like a foolish child.”
“Now you begin to insult me.”
“No,” Theo said as firmly as he could, praying his voice did not crack. His insides were roaring with emotion, making him feel ready to vomit. The storm outside and the flickering lights, magics, and energies weren’t helping. “I am trying to teach you.”
“You are no son of Ulric,” the prince said. “Who are you, truly? No mere merchant’s son would dare talk to me so.”
“Who I am is of no matter now. I will get what I came for and aid you if I can, then be gone. I would rather you remain on your feet and put the fear of the elves into that man.” He spat it out, making it clear what man he spoke of.
“Consider the Titan. It would crush him.” Prince Aulunashep strode for the door, leaving Theo and Shannon alone. Theo almost fell over, so sick that he wasn’t sure he would make it to a good place to throw up. Shannon put a hand on his shoulder.
The storm of emotions slowed and dropped away.
“There will be no scans worth taking in this weather,” Shannon said softly. “We should go out and search on foot. This might take awhile.”
Theo nodded. “I need a cloak.”
The Elven holding cells in the auction house were almost like silos, in Oirion’s mind. They were round with a back door leading to a common yard where a number of them adjoined one another. Each cell had similar types of slaves, Oirion noticed, as many slaves were being sorted into cells. The group that he was put in with was all fighters of some level or another. None of them were as impressive as Ivan, though, and Oirion was certain that, on a normal day, he himself would be far better than any of them.
Not all of them were the same race of elves as the lords in this area, but were dark-skinned elves from some other area. Ivan, Oirion, and some goblin-like creature were the only non-Elven races in the cell. Poor Ivan towered over them all and would not last long. He was just too impressive. Oirion had heard human children talk of having a pet giant; surely Elven children would delight in such a thing as well.
All of them were stripped to short, white kilts belted with a simple rope. They all had their wrists bound to the walls with leather belts, providing some security for the buyers. At each door, a guard stood to either side, holding rods linked to the binding spells in the bracelets and collars all slaves wore. They were very effective tools of control.
The round rooms had no ceiling, just a hub of bars that spider-webbed out, letting the rain mist down on them. Another storm had just passed, offering a short window for buying and selling before the next storm slammed into them. The elves had tried to tarp the roofs to keep the hail from injuring their property, but after the last day, the tarps were shredded and everyone caught outside was bruised from the hailstorm. Oirion and his lot had been hauled into stone cells a short distance away within the complex, but most slaves were not worth so much as to bother with moving them.
The week had started off badly and gotten worse, both with the weather and the captivity. Ivan had escaped purchase several times by pretending to be retarded or insane. The spells did not bind well to the mentally unstable, and Ivan was having good luck faking it – just enough to make the buyers think they were being cheated in the truth of what he was. It was a good ploy, and Oirion had to be impressed with the big man’s acting skills.
Others in the ring had been bought and sold, and more were brought in. Oirion had been jabbed and looked at from every angle. His teeth had been inspected, revealing his age; it had gotten him passed over many times. He felt rather like a horse being valued by the wear in his mouth. He had thought his teeth nice, over all, and had never thought of them as being worn down.
Oirion was a wizard and his real age simply didn’t show. Not to mention, he had been living with a healer for the last forty years of his life, usually sleeping in the same bedroom. He was in excellent condition, all things considered, but he did have scars and he had worn teeth, according to the elves. He was getting a bit offended at being so rapidly discarded while Ivan appeared so attention worthy.
When he discovered why he was being ignored, it made his bad day worse. He recognized that one of the first to visit was the servant of a prince, and Oirion had been marked as “of interest”. This servant had been the last elf to talk to the guards about him. He quickly got the feeling that no one wanted to offend the prince that the elf worked for by trying to outbid the prince.
The slave trader arrived with the servant elf and the prince, who was easily recognizable, by not only his clothes, but his hair and his stance as well. He entered the ring, his silks shedding water as it trailed on the ground. Oirion couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same magic that Shannon used to keep his clothes so clean.
The prince stood studying Oirion, like one might look at a piece of art he wasn’t sure he cared to buy.
“This one is from outside the Barrier, Your Highness,” the owner said. “He is not very gifted in power, but he is… or shall I say, was a great fighter. He would do well to train others. He has a very strong will, though, and he does speak elven, if poorly. He is older than he would seem at first look, but then, he has Purtan blood. That much, I have told no one. He is more Purtan than human, in fact, and that, in itself, may make him worth a bit more to you.”
“He looks broken,” the prince said.
“He is stronger than he looks. I think the damp makes his scars ache. We caught him on the road and had to heal a lung injury that should have killed him. He took out nine trained border guards, with one lung full of blood; he and the big one there, they make a powerful team. It was not an easy catch.”
The prince glanced at Ivan, but went back to Oirion.
“Interesting, but not what I am looking for.” He left them, and then the real sale began. Oirion always wondered how things might have gone if he had been purchased at that moment.
He thought the trouble was almost over, but he was seriously wrong. With the prince no longer interested, others began to return to look him over. Bids were made almost at once. Elves came up to look at him closer, to inspect him from every angle; his patience at being jerked around and looked at didn’t last too much longer.
One elf jerked him around and meant to bend him over for whatever inspection he had in mind, and Oirion simply reacted. He brought his elbow back in a simple sharp jab. It sent the elf stumbling back, his nose broken and bleeding, his eyes watering. Oirion wanted to kick him in the chest, but stood with as calm and blank a face as he could. The bleeding elf shouted at the guard, who just shook his head.
“I saw nothing,” the guard said, with a perfectly straight face.
The elf was offended, angered, and left shouting. The guard chuckled and turned his back on Oirion.
The next man to lay a hand on Oirion got punched hard and fast, right in the chest. Oirion was rather impressed as the elf dropped dead; he did not even need magic to amp the hit. He looked from the dead elf at his feet to the guard who had for a moment turned his back to Oirion. Oirion hadn’t meant to crush the elf’s heart, but then he was a Hunter and trained to kill.
Ivan swore in various languages.
The guard looked at Oirion in startled surprise. The man beside Oirion barely hid a snicker and covered it with a cough. Oirion shrugged.
The fact that he got away with it a number of times made him feel a little better, but Ivan got more upset every time. It was after several such incidents that the owner came in. He grabbed Oirion by the chin.
“If you want to be a trouble maker, I will sell you to those who find amusement in such things. One more and I switch what cell you’re in.” He shoved Oirion back and left, clearly upset.
There were several visits that went fairly well. Oirion was trying to be well-behaved so he might end up going wherever Ivan went, but it ended rather quickly when an Elven man reached under his kilt. Oirion moved without thought and blasted the man in the temple with an elbow. The elf staggered back and held his eyes for a moment.
“Oirion!” Ivan shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”
“He grabbed my…” He never got to finish as the guards moved. They had him jerked off the wall and pulled out of the room without even a word.
He was drug across the yard, through the crowd, and locked in up in a cell with a sphinxen male and an elf. The elf had his hair shaved off and his palms burned.
The sphinx was a fantastic looking creature. He lifted his cat eyes as Oirion was drug in. The Sphinx had obviously been beaten; his hair was cut short, his teeth had been busted out of his mouth, and his finger tips had been chopped off. He was still bleeding from the injuries to his hands and mouth. He let blood dribble out of his mouth to the floor.
Oirion was bound to the wall, not with leather, but spelled chains. The guards here were not at all like the two that had been at the other cell. Oirion was rather certain they were rough-handed on purpose. The two that had been his guards he saw posted outside the door, while the two who worked here stood inside. That was not a good sign as far as Oirion was concerned. It was likely to teach the two guards first-hand what happens to such men as Oirion, so that no such thing would be allowed to happen again.
In no time at all, those who frequented this cell began to trickle through. They ignored Oirion at first, but then a few began to take closer looks. Some inspected him; none were interested in his teeth, but inspected him with magic scans and crystals.
One elf used a cane to lift his face and inspect his eyes. Several sent servants up to stab him with needles that they either stuck into little pouches that were quickly taken away, or the elves would feel the needle their fingertips. One ran the needle between his lips, as if tasting it, and seemed curious for a moment, but moved on. Oirion couldn’t help but begin to have a growing fear that he was on the blood-magic list. Surely, sooner or later, one of them would see though whatever magic was hiding him at all. Whatever Ivan had done seemed to be holding, but it was just matter of time, and he knew it.
It was almost dark when the one that Oirion never forgot came in. He was not alone; he came with servants, unmistakably a prince. He reminded Oirion of a snake in the way that he moved and the narrow, unblinking eyes that seemed to be all black, without white or iris. He was so unlike the prince that had come earlier, it was hard to imagine they were the same race.
The elf walked up and ran a finger down Oirion’s cheek. Oirion jerked his head away. The sphinx hissed… a warning that Oirion should have heeded. The elf just stepped closer and grabbed Oirion by the chin. Oirion felt blood magic emanating from the man, even through Ivan’s shields. He had two choices: to fight or to gag. To gag would say far too much. It would be better to be punished by guards than to be taken by this man. To hide that he was a priest, he brought his elbow up and hit the elf in the temple. The elf was knocked back, but he barely seemed to feel it at all. And he didn’t leave. That just confirmed Oirion’s fear of the man’s power.
He merely looked at Oirion. With the slightest nod, he moved back as his guards moved in. Oirion was unbound from the wall to be rebound with gold cuffs that had been brought in. In the moment of freedom he had no choice but to act; he was not a lamb to the slaughter. He managed to kill two of the guards before he was hit with a staff that sent such power through him that he felt as if he was held in a lightning bolt.
His knees buckled and he was hit with the staff again across his back. He dropped to his hands with terrifying flashbacks of his childhood throwing his mind into utter disorientation. He gagged on the black magic and the reality of the nightmare, even as he realized that the elf was not about to stop. He was going to taste before he bought. The magic was being used to draw up and reveal his emotional power. It was a test to see if he had enough energy within him to be a good victim for blood magics. If he broke, his priesthood would blaze through and he would be worse than dead.
Oirion spit stomach bile; he felt like the fat, helpless little boy he had been once.
One of the guards grabbed Oirion’s throat and held it, crushing his voice out, letting him barely breathe. His arms were twisted back to either side, each by one guard. Oirion almost brought up magics to simply turn his attackers to ash, but the power that Ivan had put in place blocked him, and he was helpless. He choked on tears as he realized he had no magic and no power. He couldn’t guard himself from the blows to come; he couldn’t even move.
The prince punched Oirion in the head several times, then had him jerked up and held, so he could punch him in the scar on his back. Oirion’s knees buckled again and all his weight hit his shoulders, nearly tearing them out of the sockets. The guards jerked in perfect timing to add pain to the fall.
They jerked him up to his feet, kicking them apart as the prince moved in for his real motive.
“I take it you plan to buy him then?” a calm voice demanded.
There was hesitation in the men who held Oirion; he felt it in the tension in their bodies. He was blind with the beating and sick to his stomach, but his mind was still working. The brief moment of hesitation in the elves about him allowed him to regain some self-control.
“I didn’t think your father wanted to spend that much money,” another man said, with an almost amused tone.
Oirion was released. He dropped forward, coughing for air.
“He killed two of my servants,” the elf said.
“Outside this door, it is posted: Approach at Your Own Risk,” the owner said. “It is there for a reason.”
“He dared to strike me.”
“I don’t think he cares much.” The owner walked over and looked down at Oirion, who was coughing and still on his knees, trying to settle his insides and his emotions. “So that is a ‘yes’ to buying him?”
“Certainly not! I have no use for such a creature… and I suggest you learn to break your pets better,” the elf snarled.
The elf stood before Orion and shook his head. “Fool,” he said, as he turned and swept out.
Oirion looked over at his retreat through swelling eyes. He sank forward, holding his head, feeling old, frail, and weak.
It had been bold, but it would buy Theo some time to think about how to get out of this mess. He felt sick, utterly alone, like he had so many times standing there at the brink of the abyss, knowing that if he didn’t do what was demanded, there would be torture. He had hoped to find Ivan and Oirion quickly and to escape, but two days now, and they had not found hint of either.
There were, however, three positive things that Theo could think of: one – that he had not been cornered by Prince Aulunashep; another – that he now knew Aulunashep’s name, it was written everywhere and whispered with fear by the servants and slaves, he no longer had to pretend he knew the prince; the third was that he and Shannon had not been found out yet. He folded his arms over his shoulders and tried to breathe. He knew that the elves were watching his every move. Even if they were not seen and he could not find what magics were used, he had no doubt they were watched at every moment in every place they went. The best he could do was to keep playing the role and say nothing.
Another storm had risen up, but today the elves had finally figured out how to crudely turn the magics aside. Theo was impressed with some of the magics of these elves, but much of what the elves beyond the barrier knew and used seemed to have been lost by the elves here. That only made it harder to know what to expect and how to block it.
“They treat it like real weather,” Shannon said softly from just over Theo’s shoulder. Theo almost jumped, but was too startled to.
“A pity and a waste, really,” Theo replied.
“Gerome will attack the city soon and will likely have the weather turned to his benefit. He is much better at it.” Shannon put his hands on Theo’s shoulders in a very unlikely, soft manner. Theo was rather certain at that point that Shannon knew something and was reacting to cover it somehow, or hide it, or let Theo know. Theo had no choice but to play along.
“As long as I have what I want, I really am not concerned with how Gerome attacks. I will throw my own attack at him. I’d rather say nothing of what that will be, than risk a spy warning him. The fact that the west gate was opened so easily for us gives plenty of proof that the locals are not as devoted to their prince as much as he might think. They are a rather unreliable crowd. I cannot pass up this chance to hit Gerome. It will fulfill my Deal and, hopefully, will stagger him back a good step.”
“You can’t beat him. No army in the world can.”
“I know,” Theo said with a terrible sadness at that undeniable truth. It would take an army from other realms to take down Gerome. An army he, Theo, could raise if he wanted…. only he might get as lost to it as Gerome was and end up no better. One evil is no better than another.
“You know, one day this prince might challenge you. You give him a great deal, you risk a great deal.”
“One day, you might challenge me,” Theo said, playing the role. “Do not counsel me against the very thing that allows you to stand where you are at this very moment.”
“I merely suggest caution.”
“I am well aware of what is at risk,” Theo said, switching to Purtan.
Shannon shifted a bit closer and whispered so softly that Theo was not sure if he had whispered at all, or if he had used the softest telepathy Theo had ever encountered.
“One of his warlocks plans to betray you in the Summons. Do not do it at any cost.”
Theo almost responded, but the door behind opened, catching them standing very close together.
“What?” he demanded, with as much annoyance as he could portray in his voice.
“Prince Aulunashep has asked you to council.”
Theo drew a sharp breath.
Theo spun around Shannon to look at the young elf in the door. The master he played to be would kill that youth. That was likely why he had been sent. The boy was expendable. The young elf was clearly aware of it and very scared. He bowed, his hands trembling at his sides, his sweat showing through his thin cotton tunic and on his face.
Shannon put a hand on Theo’s arm.
“Mercy for the boy,” he said.
Theo jerked his arm away. It seemed an odd favor, but it spared Theo having to kill the young elf.
“You best have a reason,” he said, just before he strode forward. Outside the door, several guards waited to escort Theo to the prince. Theo tried to ignore that Shannon had not come at once. He did not like being separated at all but, then again, it was likely Shannon had need of the boy for reasons Theo didn’t want to think about.
They didn’t meet in the tower above, as Theo would have expected, but rather in a stone hall that was as flat and gray as any human castle. It was, however, not cold. The heat was created by magic, and there was a lot of it. The power emanated from the floor, almost as if it was on fire. It made everyone’s robes shift and swirl about their legs with the rising heat plumes.
Prince Aulunashep waited with his council.
“Well?” he demanded. “Let us Summons.”
“No,” Theo said, feeling Shannon ghost in behind him.
“No?” the prince asked, as if not surprised – as if something was confirmed. “Why would a master of the power that you claim not even wish to look at my Summons and simply discard it. Your gift was rather nice but, on the other hand, a number of powers here call you into question. We did not see you with Ussha or see you handle the power needed to Draw it. It could be faked, certainly by one who travels with a creature such as a demon-held Purtan.”
Theo felt about ready to have a heart attack.
“You have a lot of talk, for a man who is bound to Truce.”
“I am, yes, and my powers and my men but… I am not the only prince here.” He gestured as two elves pushed back their hoods. One of them made Theo almost recoil; his eyes were utterly black. Only once had Theo seen such eyes, and it had not been good.
Theo felt Shannon shift closer, almost as if he pushed into him in an odd way. Theo did all that he could to not sway forward.
Bad was getting worse very quickly.
“I call you to duel,” the newly revealed prince said. “If you can win, then we will accept your truce; if not, you will suffer for it.”
There was simply no way Theo could deny. He felt very ill, his stomach in knots. It was rare for a prince to share a city with anyone of equal power. Something very dark was going on for both these elves to be working together.
“You all surprise me. Gerome is at your walls and yet you waste your time and lives to test me?” He almost laughed. “I had thought that Gerome’s hold here was simply due to luck on his side. I see now that it is stupidity on your parts. I will give you a chance to pull back,” he said as, despite it all, he cast his hand down, bringing out his Gremlin.
The gremlin landed like a pouncing feline, looking something like a cross between a dragon and a cat. Theo tried not to look at it; he was certain it would make him panic. It did, however, have the effect that he wanted. Prince Aulunashep stepped back, his eyes big. The gremlin snarled; acid dripped off his teeth, burning the floor.
“Your pet does not scare me,” the other said. “It is, however, very cute.” He tossed his hand forward and sent out a gremlin of his own. This one was far larger and wreathed in black smoke. The power of it made several of the elves in the hall stagger back, choking on the toxic fumes. However, it didn’t stand before the prince who challenged Theo; it stood to the side, almost beside him.
Theo shook his head. That gremlin was not owned by this prince who thought to take him on. Someone else had summoned it up; it owned the elf, not the other way around.
“Poor child,” Theo said to him, truly sorry for him. “I pity you.”
The prince, who was about to die one way or another, looked up and snarled; his eyes had returned to normal – the mark of a true necromancer removed.
Theo understood now why Aulunashep allowed this second prince in his city. The question was if Aulunashep was his own master or, like this prince, a puppet to another.
“I hold the challenge,” The puppet prince said. “It is I who pity you; such weak power.”
The elven-controlled gremlin moved to attack. Theo threw up his arms with an instinctive defense. His mother had taught him well on that level, at least. He had learned to take her attacks and, while pretending that they hit, either control the magic or let it pass harmlessly. He had mastered that trick early on, in more than one realm.
He had also fought such gremlins before. They were without the control of their masters and would take any lack of submission as a personal insult, usually losing their tempers.
The attack came and Theo stepped back, out of one realm into another, splitting himself so that his body was left in one, his soul in another. It was something the gremlin did not expect, rendering his attack little more than a hard shove on either realm.
Theo spun aside and back into himself as Theo’s own gremlin attacked the other. One against the other, there was no chance for either gremlin to fully overcome the other, but that was not the point. In the moment of distraction, Theo sent a single bolt of dark blue energy, in both realms, at the prince. The elven-controlled gremlin did exactly what Theo thought it would; it pulled its ward into the sub-realm. The prince was pulled from the path of one bolt and placed right into the path of the other. Unable to avoid the bolt, he was killed instantly. His soul was severed and set free; his body staggered back, hollow and lifeless.
Theo looked at the shocked gremlin. It whirled at him, rage burning in its eyes now. That trick would not work again. This attack would be serious.
With a shout, Theo grabbed hold of the ball of power that he hid within his chest and so rarely even thought about, releasing it into the room. He did it without even thinking; he was in battle mode, his life as the son of a black sorceress taking over. Everything went utterly black. Waves of distortion swirled and roared about him as he brought up even deeper powers. Theo felt the last keys slip into place; he had to open the door, he had to become the passage. He shouted in rage at the fate of things, at his mother, at every moment that had brought him to that point.
He knew that to stop now would kill him. His soul and heart rebelled against the magics he was using and what he was doing. It had taken him decades to wash away and hide the stain of such magics, but here he was openly using what he detested so much. For a flicker of a moment Theo almost pulled back, but in that instant he felt the elf’s gremlin’s thought. In the distortion of the magics Theo had released, it saw Shannon as what and who Shannon truly was and moved to take the down Prince of Purt. Theo had no choice but to silence the gremlin and protect the secret.
The great power he had only begun to summon up at that point roared through him, through his chest, turning him inside out and leaving him trembling from both pain and pressure, as a form that was more smoke than creature blasted out of him and attacked the gremlin. The massive black smoke moved like a million ribbons swirling around an unseen form, binding the gremlin, who began to scream. The screaming didn’t bother Theo, but the elves fell to their knees, holding their ears.
Theo was utterly calm, without emotion, stripped of everything but power and control. Without fear, he let his Summons consume the gremlin. How long it took did not matter; to Theo, time had stopped.
When the gremlin was no more, slowly the ribbons gathered and came to stand before Theo. The form of a man was barely visible through the constant swirling. Theo felt nothing. Like mist in the sun, the shadow burned off into nothing, leaving them all oddly silent, except for the sobbing elves.
The room was cold, so cold that his breath froze on the air. Theo could see in the total darkness as clear as day, his vision colored with the energies and heat of all living things.
Prince Aulunashep lifted his blood-shot eyes, his face tear-streaked. Blood was trickling from his ears and his face looked burned.
Theo moved. These elves were his enemies. They were blood-mages and warlocks. They fed on the pain of others and he would not let them live. He stepped forward and waved his hand toward them. Shards of black ice flew through the air and into them, shredding their clothes and bodies as they sliced clean through. The elves collapsed into heaps of mangled flesh and bone. One alone he could not hit; the Deal was still binding with Prince Aulunashep.
The prince stayed on his knees, sobbing.
“I am done with you,” Theo said before turning. Even as he turned, the power began to slip. He made sure not to look directly at Shannon, not for fear of what he would see, but what Shannon might see.
Shannon turned slowly and followed Theo out of the hall. They had to get out of the palace before the man who had owned that gremlin woke from whatever trance he was that allowed him to summon a gremlin in the manner that he had. The gremlin’s master would be in pain and suffering from the defeat, but he would be alive and very angry. They had to find Oirion and Ivan now!
Just as his last energies seemed to give out and his body felt too drained to move, he was given what he needed. Energy was fed to him by his gremlin, one who was seeking reward and to please his master like any good pet. Theo reacted just as he had as a child, as a good master would to any pet, with a touch of affection.
Oirion wasn’t so sure that he could take much more abuse. Ever since he had landed on this forbidden continent, he had gotten nothing but abuse; every time he turned around he was getting hit again. After the beating at the hands of the prince, he wasn’t in any shape to do much. He had trouble even getting up; his slow motion got him jerked up by guard after guard. The jolting certainly didn’t help. He’d been hit with canes, zapped with magic shock, and stabbed with a number of needles. The other two that were with him received the same. The elf was bought several days later, late in the evening. Oirion bowed his head and tried to pray for the man’s soul. When one left this cell, his fate was bound to be very bad.
The sphinx spent that evening singing softly as the sun set. He did not eat the bowl of soup that was provided. He just sat back against the wall and sang softly.
Oirion closed his eyes and was glad for the song. It helped him to forget about the pain. He wondered about Ivan; were they really here to stay or might they yet escape? He drifted to sleep sometime in the night. When he woke at dawn, the sphinx was dead, a peaceful look on his face. Oirion didn’t move, despite the pouring rain, until he was motioned up by the guard. After the sphinx was removed, the sale began again. They brought in a wild looking elf who appeared to have been drug through the mud.
He knew it was going to be another day of abuse, and he was right about that. One buyer hit him hard enough in the thigh with a cane that they had to call in a healer to mend the broken bone.
This healing was much worse than the Ulam Ar healings. He was exhausted and still had tears on his face when another prince entered. Oirion glanced up, but did not bother to do more. He did not want another beating and showing any sign of strength seemed to entice such.
The prince gestured to Oirion. “What is his story?” he asked. “He does not look dangerous.”
“He is trouble, your Highness. He’s killed six since he was bound, and that’s not counting my own guards. He was a skilled fighter, but I fear that he has serious injuries to his spine, skull, and head. The binding spells do not hold very well and his pain tolerance is extremely high. He is strong-willed and, while he speaks a bit of Elven, he is not one that I recommend. For those reasons, as well as the fact that he was traveling with the Ezeeren you bought. They took out a full troop of guards, him with a bleeding lung. I can’t, in good mind, suggest either. I understand the use of the Giant as a pet, but this one is nothing but trouble.”
The prince walked over with a soft grace that Oirion had only seen a few times in his life. Different than Shannon’s type of elegant motion, this was almost as if he walked in another realm all together. He was a beautiful prince with fine, fair features, softer than most elves, a bit short, but well built, and his hair was a soft gold that was very pretty. In the sunlight, he must have been stunning with the gems that were strung in his hair, catching the light. He took Oirion’s chin on one finger and raised it to look at his face. Oirion tried to focus, but couldn’t do much more than wince and blink as the rain splattered him in the face.
“What is with his energy?” the prince asked.
“He had a broken leg; my healers mended it but moments before you arrived.”
Oirion pulled his head away.
“He was with the Ezeeren, was he?” the elf asked. “What relationship did they hold?”
“They did not want to fight each other and he resisted most firmly, but… he was broken.”
“Hmm.” The elf took Oirion’s chin again and turned his face back with a very odd gentleness for the sort that would shop here. “So, he came from beyond the Barrier, did he?” the prince asked.
“Yes,” the other said slowly.
Oirion almost pulled away, but if this elf had Ivan, then the place Oirion wanted to be was in this man’s pocket. He started to look away, but the hand tightened and kept him from doing so.
“He is older than he would look at first glance,” the elf said. “He is part Purtan. The bloodline holds his age.”
“Fantastic,” the prince admired. “Another Purtan. I have to say; I am not so happy about his injuries, but I want him none-the-less, and I do not want your healers to mess with him further. I will use my own; that way I can be assured that it is done to the standard I desire.” He turned from Oirion and looked at the owner. “Now, about the price; shall we go have wine and discuss it while you have him washed and dressed in something a bit more… weather suitable? Some travel clothes, perhaps?”
Oirion had no idea who the prince was that he was delivered to, but the elf sat with elegant beauty. He had a glass of wine that dangled from his fingertips as he leaned back from the table.
The gown was as beautiful as his hair and gems. His eyes turned to Oirion, who was getting more uneasy about the situation as the moments passed.
The previous owner was there and, also, a fat elf sitting off to the side, drinking wine and looking rather pleased with himself. The prince had a guard standing close behind him as well. He was handsome enough, as he was Purtan, but looked rather plain next to his master.
“You speak a bit?” the prince asked him slowly.
“A bit,” Oirion returned, making his accent as bad as he could, but still be understandable. The elf smiled, amused.
“Come here then, and kneel.” He gestured to the floor. “I will share my meal.”
“I’m not hungry,” Oirion lied.
“I warned you that he was stubborn and strong-willed,” the owner said.
“Of course he is. Come here,” he told Oirion. “You will not like it if I have to get up to bring you here.”
Oirion thought of his back and how easy he’d be taken down right now; as able as the guard looked, Oirion knew he had no choice. He moved slowly toward the elf, but stopped just out of reach. The prince smiled.
“Please, kneel down and rest before you hurt yourself,” he said, gesturing to the floor again. “I will have quite enough healing to do on you as it is. I do not need you to make it worse.”
Oirion was simply too stubborn to kneel, even if he was not sure how long his knees would hold him up. The elf rose, set his glass down, and stood before Oirion.
He grabbed Oirion with surprising speed and jerked down on the front of his tunic. The jerk was all it took; Oirion fell to his hands and knees. The elf lifted Oirion’s chin in his hand and sank down to look at him.
“My mercy has its limits and obedience has its rewards. Choose to obey and you will do well; choose not to and I’ll not be the one to break you. I have a vampire for that task. If he happens to feed on you a little, it only hurts for a few years.” He rose and retook his seat.
“About that,” the owner asked. “Grabbus was telling me you have a vampire as a pet. Are you mad?”
The elf laughed. “You cannot imagine the rewards. Not only is he rather handy in such tasks as breaking the stubborn and defiant, he is also a nice toy during the hours of the night. The light is a problem though. It is not so easy to find safe places to remove the shields he must wear, but over all, he is my favorite toy yet.”
Oirion was too sore to hear much more and just sank into a light trance, trying to escape the pain. He woke from it only when he was pulled up to his feet by the guard. They moved through the darkness to a carriage. He was so sore that he could barely climb into it. Guards hauled him up into the carriage where Ivan’s big arms caught hold of him, aiding him in. Oirion just fell into the giant-of-a-man crammed into the small space.
“You alright, Oirion?” he asked.
“No,” Oirion groaned, not even trying to get up into the seat. It was good to just kneel on the floor, leaning against the support of a friend.
“You see, not all is bad; we are back together.” Ivan put his big warm hand on Oirion’s back, trying to warm the chill away. “The prince who bought us seems of a decent sort. Maybe he will arrange to have you well healed. ”
“Oh God, no more healings!” Oirion rested his head on Ivan’s knee as the carriage moved forward, leaving the market behind.
“My poor, stupid, stubborn friend.” Ivan picked him up like a child and drew him into the seat. Oirion tried to stay conscious, but couldn’t. He dropped off into sleep as soon as Ivan got settled.
Thunder woke Oirion just as a storm began to drive against the carriage. Ivan had a warm arm around him, like a great shawl.
“We stopped a bit ago,” Ivan said softly, “to shelter from the storm, I think. Something of a great deal of power has happened and has set off storms in a whole new way.”
Oirion pushed himself up to look out the small window. It was dark beyond, with no lamps, windows, or sky to be seen. There was only Ivan in the dark. Lightning flickered, filling the sky with a shocking, green light. Oirion could see that they were parked under a bridge with a river raging past, not far beyond the wheels of the carriage. His eyes were left blind in the moment that followed.
“Are we in the city?”
“I think so.”
“There’s a river out there.”
“I’m not sure it’s supposed to be there. I don’t know, Oirion. It isn’t even night; the storm is just that bad. Like I said, something terrible has happened.”
The door opened to a hooded man holding up a small, covered lamp.
“Let’s go,” the man said. “Hurry.”
Oirion was not about to hurry, even if he could. The hooded man offered his hand.
“Can you walk?” he asked, concerned.
“I don’t know,” Oirion said honestly, as he winced with the pain of moving.
“We have to move,” another said from outside, his soft voice one that Oirion recognized at once… Shannon! Hope flooded him. There was a hint of urgency to the voice, and Oirion struggled to move faster as he caught at the offered hand. He didn’t know who else was there, but he knew Shannon was there and had not abandoned him to the hell of the captivity he had been trapped in. Ivan helped the best he could, lifting him out of the carriage and into the rain where Shannon was quick to throw a heavy cloak around him.
Shannon moved Oirion along as if he could see just fine in the utter blackness of the storm. Oirion smelled the horse before he was picked up by Ivan and put in the saddle. The small lamp bounced about, bobbing oddly, as the others moved to mount up. His horse was uneasy, but stayed still, snorting a little; very well behaved, all things considered. A magic of Shannon’s, no doubt.
“If you can’t ride, let me know and I will belt you on,” Shannon said. “We have to move now. He is closing in on us.”
Oirion didn’t want to think anymore or feel anymore; he just trusted and gripped the saddle as Shannon took the horse’s lead rope. Both man and horse had to trust Shannon in the dark. Maybe it was for the best; if Oirion could not see, hopefully the armies around them would not see them either.