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CALDORA: Chapter 14: Interlude


Raven, Lianna, Keramis, Lakai, Lowak, Sylvia, and Kadro set out from Freon at sunrise, resuming their trek along the Forestside Kingdom’s trade routes. The dusty road meandered through the same old cornfields, though the air was now tinged with the aroma of other crops growing nearby. Every now and then a flock of crows flew overhead, or the cornstalks rustled with the sounds of smaller creatures bustling among them. The party tread on in bored silence, some keeping their eyes on the horizon and others absorbed in their own thoughts.

Kadro rode mounted on his new horse. He had chastised himself before for mourning the loss of his old horse – his lifelong companion and the only being in the world he could bring himself to trust – because he had effectively convinced himself that any sense of sincere sentimentality towards another could blind him to more rational objectives. But now he was not so sure, and even found himself feeling guilty for his emotional numbness.

Last night’s conversation with Lakai got him thinking about a lot of things; all the rational mentality in the world could not stand in the face of heartfelt truth. It was getting harder and harder to deny the reality of the boy’s claims; he felt his constructs of the world crumbling as he pondered their origins. Were they based on genuine insight into how the world works, or were they simply an elaborate excuse serving to shield him from issues he would not dare confront? Did it take more courage to ignore these issues, or to overcome them? With an impending sense of dread, Kadro concluded that he did indeed stray far from his most cherished principles – honor, courage, and being true to oneself.

The mercenary mulled over how he let down himself and others, feeling utterly unredeemable and unworthy of redemption. He stared aimlessly at the ground as it passed under his horse’s hooves, oblivious to everything around him, flaunting a despondent aura of self-pity plainly visible to Lakai.

The faery boy averted his gaze from the depressing sight. Though he always meant well, he knew that his counsel often elicited these painful reactions, and in part he felt responsible for them. He was beginning to realize that others felt uncomfortable and vulnerable at the thought of somebody being able to see inside them so clearly, and made a mental note to reveal such delicate information more gradually in the future.

The sun was slowly setting in the west and the air was becoming chilly. With night approaching, the group started discussing preparations for camp.

Kadro momentarily snapped out of his reverie to offer a piece of advice. “I don’t think you should set up camp out in the open again. It may be the custom in Caldora, but that is not how we travel here. There are tiny villages dappling the countryside that give shelter to travelers that need lodging overnight. Anybody that values his life and wishes to traverse the wilderness will go from village to village, it’s just too dangerous otherwise.”

The rest agreed with his recommendation.

“There is a hamlet right over there,” Kadro pointed to the southwest, “I’d rather take my chances with the villagers than encounter the Wild Hunt again.”

There were no objections to the idea, and they steered their horses off the road, leading them across the cornfields in the direction of town. The stalks parted to reveal a stretch of farmland sowed with rows of fruits and vegetables. It was twilight now and a chilly breeze ruffled the ripening crops.

Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, the party saw a boy and girl playing in the brush. The children’s chatter turned to hushed whispers as they turned to gape curiously at the strangers, then swiftly scampered off towards the houses. Assuming the pair went to tell others of their arrival, Kadro suggested staying their horses and waiting to be greeted by the proper authorities.

It was not long before several figures walked out of the hamlet. As they came closer, it could be seen that these were three elderly women, their wrinkled forms cloaked in earth-toned shrouds held about them with frail fingers against the nippy wind.

            Without a moment’s hesitation, Kadro stepped forward to meet them. “Hail and well met, grandmothers,” he addressed the trio, “We wish to speak with the leader of this village. Could you please lead us to him, or call him to us?”

            They peered up at him from under their cowls, and scanned the rest of the group, exchanging muffled words. Keramis tried to hone in on their conversation, but even his acute elven hearing could not decipher their whisperings. One of the women finally replied, smiling amiably, “We are the head council, we make all the decisions here.”

            Caught off-guard, Kadro donned a puzzled frown. “You are?” he hesitated.

            Keramis hopped off his horse and boldly strode past the mercenary. “Good evening, ladies,” the elf dipped into an elegant bow before their hostesses, “Please excuse my companion’s manners. We are a group of travelers on our way to Iyutel who are looking for a place to stay the night and are wondering if you could spare any.”

            The women nodded agreeably.

            Sylvia stifled a chuckle, then, for no apparent reason, dropped to the ground in a fit of laughter. Lowak couldn’t help but sprout a wry grin.

            “My name is Keramis,” he quickly added to detract the council from the Trickster Queen’s lunacy, “Over there is my aunt Lianna, and my cousin Trellion, and beside them is my brother Lakai. To my left is Kadro – no relation – and to the right is Lowak with his sister Sylvia,” he glanced at the girl giggling inanely on the floor, and audibly whispered to the grandmothers, “She’s not right in the head.” Though initially hostile to Lynn’s undercover ploy, Keramis was beginning to find the idea rather amusing.

            The ancient women smiled mysteriously, their eyes sparking with alertness far livelier than their age suggested them capable.

“We know who you are, elves,” said the first.

“And we know your purpose in these lands,” said the second.

“We have seen omens of you and of your arrival,” said the third.

Keramis was taken aback by the revelation, not quite sure if this new development was a good thing. His friends echoed his bewilderment.

            “My name is Nairebi,” the first council member introduced herself.

            “Mine is Teskana,” the second did likewise.

            “And mine is Alneva,” said the other.

            “It would be our pleasure and privilege to have you stay free of charge in our village, Tsuna, for as long as you like,” Nairebi told her guests.

            “On one condition,” Teskana added.

            They jointly pointed at Sylvia.

She can’t come inside,” Alneva said firmly.

Sylvia’s rolling and giggling stopped abruptly as she sprung clear off the ground with no aid of her limbs, like a puppet raised by invisible strings. The Trickster Queen hovered ominously in the air aglow with an eerie purple haze. Her eyes – swirling voids of darkness – cast a glare so fierce on her offenders that it chilled them to the bone.

Nevertheless, the council members stood their ground. “Begone from our village, vile trickster!” Alneva commanded.

Sylvia exploded in a bout of maniacal cackling. Her feet touched ground and she ran away haphazardly across the field, crops withering wherever she stepped. Stronger, colder wind blew past the gathered, whistling with otherworldly wails and forcing the elders to wrap their shawls tighter around them. Kadro felt the moans ring in his ears like buzzing mosquitoes.

“Ill omen,” Teskana muttered under her breath.

“Come along, now,” Nairebi dismissed her concern and motioned for the rest to follow.

Lowak shifted uneasily as he watched his guardian disappear into the night. He was not thrilled with the idea of stopping in Tsuna in the first place; staying in a close-knit community like that would expose him to quite a number of people – and he did not like being noticed. With his most reliable protection against Kadro gone, he was left in a very precarious position.

Keramis, too, was having second thoughts, but for a very different reason: there was nobody to watch the thief while they slept. His worries were eased when Lowak whispered anxious pleas to let him spend the night with the Trickster Queen. Politely excusing himself from the company, Keramis told the others that he’ll be back soon, explaining that he needed to take the boy to Sylvia and to discuss with her where to meet up the next day.

*          *            *

Tsuna was certainly a tiny hamlet: merely a handful of individual family cottages around an unremarkable village center designated by a homely tavern. But what the town lacked in grandeur it made up for with cozy atmosphere and hospitable residents.

A bonfire blazed brightly in the village square. Being the heart of the community, this place was used to hold town meetings and other neighborly gatherings. Young and old alike came to the firepit this night to hear exotic tales from far off lands. Children scooted over to the rim of the pit and their parents sat behind, all listening to Keramis’ stories of his many adventurous escapades in the North Forest.

Inside the tavern nearby food was already being prepared for the welcome feast in the visitors’ honor. As much as the staff tried to convince her otherwise, Lianna insisted on helping her hosts with the arrangements. It was not that she liked cooking, only that she was curious about how things were done in an agricultural society – a way of life alien to her homeland, where hunting and gathering was the norm.

The roof of the tavern was thatched with straw and the walls were made of slabs of earth, presumably supported by a wooden frame. Garlands of beads hung from the windows and doors, with various talismans strung into them; each cord tinkled ever so faintly against the other from the slightest disturbance. An abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables was spread over the table in the middle of the room, and several barmaids were busy preparing mouth-watering dishes from the ingredients. Even Nairebi and Alneva were here to lend a hand.

“I must say you reap an extraordinary harvest!” Lianna complimented, grinding some maize into a fine powder on a cutting-board.

“The Faery Folk bless our efforts with the fullness of nature’s bounty,” Nairebi replied with a grandmotherly smile.

Lianna smiled back and nodded in approval in her usual friendly manner, emptying the cornmeal into a bowl and getting another ear of corn to grate. After a pause, she finally mustered the courage to ask, “How did you know who we are?”

“We are the elders of this village,” Nairebi answered.

“The wisewomen,” Alneva clarified.

They could tell that Lianna did not quite understand what that meant.

“We do everything around here from predicting the weather, to foretelling the best planting times, to ensuring the fertility of the crops,” Nairebi elaborated.

“We are the healers, the advisors, the keepers of the myths,” Alneva added to the list, “We use our knowledge of herbal magic to create charms against nightmares, disease, bareness and the like. We are responsible for keeping track of the signs and omens we see in nature”

“These are all faery-given powers, of course,” Nairebi explained, “We live in close ties with the Sidhe and we know a Sidhe when we see one.”

“The Fae are easily slighted, and we try out best to stay on good terms with them – the village’s livelihood depends on it!” Alneva said in a more fearful tone, “You must understand, that is why we did not let your companion in. There is no place for her kind here.”

A questioning look lingered on the elders’ faces as they regarded Lianna, wanting to ask why she and the elves were associated with such a being. But no questions were asked – one does not question the Sidhe, only honor their presence.

Lianna acknowledged the unspoken query with a tight-lipped smile.

“Well then!” Nairebi broke the tension by switching subjects, “Time to go tell our friends outside that food is ready!”

The barmaids each picked up one of the food-laden dishes and proceeded to the main dining area to set the tables. Grateful for the interruption, Lianna dumped the last of the cornmeal into the bowl, grabbed a plate and headed out to help. Tablecloths were draped over the tables, ale was brought out from the cellar, and candles were lit to brighten the room.

After everything was ready, Lianna and a few waitresses went out from the tavern into the town square just in time to catch the end of Keramis’ story.

“And so after I locked the ogre in that same cell,” Keramis recounted, wide-eyed children hanging on his every word, “I rescued the faery princess from her iron prison and took her back to her people. The Faery Queen Felitsi was so grateful that she decided to reward me with a magical gift! Can you guess what that gift was?”

The youngsters shook their heads inquisitively.

“She gave me the ability to change shape!” the elf grinned as his face elongated into a canine snout and the rest of his body took on the lupine form with fluid grace. Only his eyes remained elven, though they now shone vibrant gold instead of blue. The wolf let out a long howl, then impishly wagged his tail and leaped through the fire, into the onlookers’ midst. His audience resounded with giddy laughter and jovial shrieks, scattering like a flock of startled birds. They were not afraid of the werewolf, for he chased after them like a big, playful dog and there was no malice to his demeanor.

“The Sidhe cursed you with lycanthropy, did they?” Teskana teased, brandishing a mortar and pestle, “We can fix you right up!”

Lycanthropy was regarded as a disease on Lossi, where it was rumored to manifest regardless of the victim’s will as an uncontrolled and often savage monstrosity, but on Caldora, werewolfism was a highly valued and sought-after shapeshifting ability. Keramis spun about to face the wisewoman with a defiant growl, barked in protest, and dashed away baying in dread, running in one big circle around the plaza.

Lianna looked on with an open smile while the barmaids giggled bashfully.

When the commotion subsided, Nairebi and Alneva began calling people into the tavern while Teskana went to fetch Raven and Lakai. Lianna managed to chase down Keramis along the edge of the square.

“It’s ok, they’re gone now,” Lianna scoffed, “Why don’t you come inside and tell me what you think of my cooking?”

“You made all that for me?” Keramis transformed to back to his elven shape, “I’m flattered.”

Lianna responded with a good-natured smirk. “Where’s Kadro?” she asked.

“Stayed over there the whole time,” the elf pointed towards the humanoid silhouette seated on a remote outcropping with his back to the firelight, staring vacantly into the darkened fields beyond.

“What’s with him?” Lianna folded her hands irritably, “He’s been acting like Raven the entire day.”

“Worse,” Keramis remarked, snickering, “Even Raven isn’t this moody.”

“Kadro!” Lianna called to the mercenary, “Stop being so melodramatic and come celebrate with us, it’ll be fun!”

But she got no reply; not even an acknowledgement of the offer.

Exchanging mutual shrugs, Keramis and Lianna proceeded to the tavern.

Kadro sat off in the shadows, sulking. ‘Moody’ was not the right term for it. Something was amiss – he was not usually prone to such depths of depression. His own gloom seemed to cling to him like thick muck and no amount of merriment could disperse it. But maybe a few drinks would.

*          *            *

The bar was alive with cheerful mirth and casual chatting. All the residents of the village came together to celebrate the blessing that has befallen them. To think that the mighty Sidhe were in their midst, what a great privilege! It was rare for the Faeries to walk among mortals, and legend said they only did so in times of great strife to revive hope in the people with tidings of better days ahead. The populace proudly commemorated their company by showing off the very best of what the town had to offer, in heartfelt gratitude that their benefactors had not abandoned them.

The villagers did not realize that these were not the godly Sidhe of Elfame, and Keramis and Raven did not understand why everybody was being so awfully friendly. It did not really matter.

Kadro sullenly entered the tavern, untouched by the blithe music that filled the room. After a quick scan of the festivities, he walked over to a lone table in a less crowded part of the bar and slouched down in a chair.

Raven and Lakai had been away inspecting the party’s living arrangements, but now they sat at the counter discussing the matter with Keramis and Lianna. They have been allotted a vacant, multi-room cottage right on the fringes of town square that looked as though it used to be the house of a nobleman – a very generous gift indeed on the part of a poor farming village! Lianna explained to them the reasoning behind their lavish treatment and they unanimously agreed to play the part and make the best of the situation.

Waitresses passed drinks around the bar and the people partook of them gladly. Keramis drank down a cup of wine in one mouthful and asked for seconds.

A lively barmaid danced over to Kadro and offered him a glass of ale. He accepted, returning her smile with a long, empty gaze.

Raven politely declined the liquor; he never drank, prohibiting himself to cloud his sharp senses. Lakai tried some beer, but quickly resolved that he did not like the taste and gave it to Keramis, who was more than happy to finish it for him. Lianna thanked the hosts for her drink and took moderate sips from time to time.

Kadro called on the barmaid again to bring him more ale.

Though the party raged on, Raven and Lakai decided they better leave for bed so that they could get up early and gather the group’s things in the morning. Lianna stayed a bit longer, enjoying the gaiety from afar. Keramis noted that she was not her usual frisky self ever since Karaci’s death, and rightly assumed that she was in mourning. It saddened him to see his vivacious friend become consumed by a single-minded craving for revenge – it reminded him too much of Trellion’s state during the Kranti-Raven War. The elf could only guess at what went through her mind at the sight of all the blissfully dancing couples in the tavern, and did his best to divert her attention with lighthearted small talk. It was well into the night before she followed the drunken partygoers out into the town square as they tottered off to their homes.

Only Kadro, Keramis, and the few too drunk to care were left in the bar. The waitresses stayed overtime to serve those still conscious. The mercenary was calling for the same barmaid by name now. Neiruni didn’t even have to ask why, she simply ran to fetch him more ale. He had been calling on her the whole night, and though at first it was quite flattering, it was now beginning to bother her. Grabbing a glass, she exited the stall and made her way towards him.

Kadro met her with a blank stare and managed a cryptic smile of acknowledgement. But though his eyes were overcast with a drunken haze, there was an acute ferocity about his gaze that was more than unsettling. She smiled back nervously as he took the glass from her hand, curtsied, and rushed off to join the rest of the waitresses. Kadro’s line of sight remained fixed on the empty space where she had stood, before sluggishly tracing her path to a table on the opposite side of the bar.

The entire female staff of the tavern huddled about it, their voices resounding off the walls in ripples of giggling and laughter. They climbed onto the table and hoisted themselves up on stools, their full attention fixed on Keramis, who sat in the middle, sharing more North Forest anecdotes. The elf was leaning back in his chair with a barmaid draped on each shoulder, one playing with his hair and the other fiddling with the lacing on his tunic.

It was no secret – Keramis liked girls, and girls liked Keramis. It had always been this way. He deemed females the highest form of life known to man and revered each one as a goddess. He lived for the chance to see a bright smile light up a girl’s face. With honeyed tongue and flowery words he could melt the coldest of hearts, and his intoxicating gaze could arouse deep-seated passions. No woman felt neglected in his presence. Keramis possessed the ability to make a girl feel, if only for one night of wild pleasure, like the most important being in the whole world, and make that moment seem to last a blissful eternity.

Of course, different societies had different sexual etiquettes. Had the elf known about the way things were done on Lossi, he would probably think twice about engaging in casual lovemaking. On Caldora there was absolute equality between the sexes, no sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy came about by mutual emotional consent between two sincerely committed people. To be sure, monogamous relationships in Caldora were undeniably powerful, but until one found a twin soul to forge a meaningful spiritual bond with, lustful orgies of free consensual fun was the way to go. And not just with those of one’s own species, but a complete free-for-all! Since everybody were the descendents of the Earth Dragon they shared a wholly compatible genetic makeup and could successfully interbreed, giving birth to Caldora’s thriving biodiversity.

Things were very different on Lossi. The rift of power between the genders ran painfully deep, with women holding little sway over society. Pregnancy was an involuntary matter, often brought about by rape – a concept unheard-of in Caldora. This was truly odd in a culture where the matron divinity was a goddess.

But not everybody had forgotten their spiritual roots. Small, isolated villages, like Tsuna, still worshiped the Lord and Lady of the Forest – the primal gods of fertility who birthed all others into being. They were matriarchal communities whose survival depended on year-round fertility rituals invoking the aid of the otherworldly Sidhe to ensure a good harvest. Everybody knew that those of elven descent amplified the power of fertility rites through kinship ties with the Fae, and so the girls of Tsuna competed for the opportunity to enrich the hamlet’s gene pool with elven blood. Little did they know Keramis was the wrong kind of elf.

*          *            *

It was not long before the barmaids lead him out of the tavern, leaving Neiruni in the bar all by herself. With an indignant sigh, she looked back over to the other side of the bar, where Kadro stared at her intently from the shadows. Suppressing a reflexive shudder, she calmly walked over to the counter and sat on a stool. She rested her chin against her palm, scanning aimlessly the silent, empty tavern. Time ticked away slowly out of sheer boredom, but eventually the dreaded call came again.

Neiruni perked up and slid off her seat, knowing full well what the man wanted but taking no ale keg along. She cautiously approached the mercenary, who was sitting slumped back in his chair, holding his cup with one hand while the other hung limply at his side. He looked up at her with eyes that could barely focus, and with great effort slurred the words “I want more.”

Neiruni bit her lip tentatively as she glanced to the empty mug, but did not move.

Kadro blinked several times, as if trying to register her response. “I said I want more ale, woman,” he demanded, and attempted to emphasize the point by banging the cup on the table, only managing to tip it over in the process.

Gaining courage from his apparent weakness, the barmaid reached for the cup, saying, “I think you’ve had just about enough ale for the night, you should go sleep.”

Vaguely interpreting the words as some kind of controlling command, Kadro’s hand grabbed hers before it even got near the cup. “You do not tell me what to do,” he said slowly as he sat up in his chair, “I will tell you what to do.”

Getting scared now, Neiruni retraced her steps. “Alright, I’ll go get you more ale,” the girl smiled and tried to wrench her hand free but his grip was surprisingly stronger than she had anticipated.

Kadro froze and stared past her for a long moment, lost in thought. “No,” he finally replied.

Hoping the man had finally come to his senses, the barmaid suggested, “Would you like me to take you to your quarters, then?”

“No,” he said calmly, and looked her straight in the eyes with chilling clarity, “I want something else.” Tightening his grip, he leaned in to kiss her.

Neiruni stiffened and turned away so that his lips barely brushed her cheek; she could smell the alcohol on his breath. Her rejection did not deter him, however, as he continued kissing down her neck and onto her shoulder. “I really think you should go home now,” she said in all seriousness.

“No,” Kadro mumbled absently, putting his free arm around her and progressively backing her into a corner.

Neiruni found herself pinned against the wall, with the man pressing uncomfortably closer. In a rush of panic, she shot a glance to the exit, and just as he was about to slide off the shoulder strap of her tunic, she kneed him hard in the groin. Kadro doubled over in pain, letting go of her hand, while the barmaid pushed him aside and dashed ahead. He tried to grab at her again, but only succeeded in grasping her shirt, the sleeve of which he ripped as the girl pulled free. She stumbled for the door, knocking over tables and chairs along the way to stall her assailant. Kadro lunged at her like a ravenous wolf.

Neiruni ran blindly outside, screaming her frantic cries for help to the empty starlit sky. Her fist instinct was to find aid, but who in the tiny, rural hamlet could stop a frenzied warrior? Kadro had already made it through the maze of furniture, tripped over the last chair but steadied himself upon the frame of the tavern’s doorway. Spotting his prey, he gave chase once again. With no other options before her, and knowing Keramis’ benevolence, Neiruni scampered across town square for the visitor’s cottage.

*          *           

Keramis could not imagine a sweeter slumber than now, cradled in his lover’s arms with his head resting lightly between her breasts, being rocked to sleep by the rise and fall of her chest. The warm bed sheets protected them from frosty drafts that wafted in through tiny cracks. So peaceful was it that he was truly surprised to have heard distant shouts muffled by the thick wooden walls.

Grateful that his senses did not betray him, Keramis slipped out of bed, donned his clothing and weapons, and tiptoed towards the door. The elf heard the outside door burst open and chaotic footsteps stampede into the cottage, closely followed by a second set of footsteps. The clamor got imminently louder, mixed with wall collisions and sporadic screams. Irium, the village girl, had already sat up, startled, pulling the covers about herself. Keramis put a finger to his lips to quiet her, and opened his door.

In the hallway he saw the mercenary wrestling a barmaid to the ground, trying futilely to gag her hysterical shrieks and restrain her as she writhed and kicked on the floor. Kadro didn’t know what hit him, only remembered it being fast and hard, having enough force to knock his head backwards into the floor with the rest of his body following.

Keramis didn’t care if he snapped the man’s neck with that kick, he didn’t even understand what was going on, his only concern was the welfare of the girl. Her hair was disheveled, her clothes torn, and she was notably bruised in several places both from her own clumsiness and from Kadro’s assault. Immediately he raised her to her feet, and while she still struggled against him in a blind frenzy, she quickly came to her senses and gazed openly into her rescuer’s beautiful, though profoundly concerned, face. Keramis hugged her trembling form protectively, whispering soothing words of comfort into her ear.

Off to the side he heard Kadro stir with a disgruntled groan, and the jingle of chain-mail told him that the warrior was up. Keramis gently swung the barmaid around behind him and put some distance between himself and the bounty hunter. The mercenary stood on shaky feet, still rubbing the back of his head and nursing his injured jaw. The hit had apparently knocked the drunken haze back into him.

Wiping away a splatter of blood with his sleeve, Kadro’s overcast eyes met the elf’s accusatory stare. “What’s your problem?” the warrior snorted.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Keramis asked as evenly and calmly as he could under the circumstances. Normally he wouldn’t give the man a chance to explain, but the complete strangeness of it all left him off-guard and sincerely curious as to what was going through the pitiful drunk’s mind.

Irium, swathed in bed sheets, opened the door a crack and cautiously peeked out from inside the room.

Kadro beamed a smug grin at the elf, indicating the maiden, “You’ve had your share, let me have mine.”

Keramis stood dumbfounded before the scenario clicked in this head. Appalled, his eyes seethed with amber fire and he drew his daggers, “The lady said ‘no’.” He felt the barmaid grip tighter onto his shoulder.

Now it was Kadro’s turn to look dumbfounded. “So?” he chuckled crudely, “That tavern wench should be happy somebody took interest in her!”

The elf lunged at him before he finished the sentence. Neiruni had expected as much, and was quick to put her arms around him from behind, telling him to let it be. Keramis froze in place at her command, scowling at Kadro with bared fangs, his entire body tensed to strike. Neiruni felt an odd sort of sympathy for the man, and realized that if she let the elf go he would rip him to shreds. Not knowing how long she could keep the werewolf at bay, she closed her eyes and wrapped her arms about him tighter, his low growling sending tremors through them both. Feeling he had sufficiently stared Kadro down, Keramis backed off.

But the mercenary didn’t know when to stop. “See?!” he exclaimed, “She’s doing it again!”

“Thank her for saving your life,” the elf hissed through his teeth.

“Can’t you see that the little witch has brainwashed you already?!” Kadro laughed hysterically, obviously beyond coherence.

Keramis let out an exasperated sigh, giving up all hope that there was any method to this madness. He shook his head and put away his daggers, “What are you babbling about, fool?”

“Women!” Kadro went wide-eyed and emphatically pointed first at Neiruni, and then Irium, who shut the door with a frightened gasp.

Keramis raised an eyebrow.

Raven and Lianna were already surveying the scene from their doorways.

Although Lakai’s door remained deceptively closed, he had been leaning against it the entire time, fighting desperately to stay conscious for his heart was racing so fast he thought it would burst. He was awoken by pangs of fear and rage that swept through the house as soon as Neiruni and Kadro tumbled inside, and could not help but stay awake, experiencing every excruciating moment of the incident firsthand. But he knew something the elf did not: Kadro was possessed.

Lianna, too, noticed ghostly trickster lights dancing in his eyes.

“Life is a struggle for power between good and evil,” the bounty hunter said as he looked back at Keramis, “Oh and I tell you, evil will use all at its disposal to gain the upper hand!

“It will mask itself in pretty illusions, disguise itself with beauty and frailty, beguile you with sweet talk and numb your reason until you can’t help but bend to its will,” he continued as he paced up and down the hallway, the words flowing far freer than one would expect from a mere drunk, “But once it is certain it has lulled you into its clutches, it will tear out your heart and leave you to rot!

“Listen and listen well!” he walked up to the elf and peered at him with conviction, “For I tell you that the root of all evil in this world is woman!”

Keramis opened his mouth to comment on how absurd that sounded in the man’s current predicament.

“Yes, women!” Kadro cut him off, throwing his hands in the air to emphasize the point as he marched back across the hallway, “Lying, cheating, deceitful whores, all of them!” he turned around, “What? You don’t believe me? You need only look around you to see that they are to blame for all misfortune in the land! Onedia is a woman!” he pointed out triumphantly, “That treacherous temptress! The bringer of pain and strife whom all women take after!

“So weak and helpless and yet they drive men insane, making us do things that defy logic,” Kadro stopped in mid-stride, his eyes seeming to look inward, “Is it true that the strong rule the weak?” he asked himself softly, “They rule me, does that make me weak? No,” he paused thoughtfully, “No, that can’t be right.”

Kadro looked up to glare at Neiruni, “They think they can walk all over me? Manipulate me?? Control me???” he raved, taking a step towards her with every question, “Well they have another thing coming!”

Keramis flashed a confident smirk as he casually twirled out his daggers once again and took an offensive stance, fixing his bloodthirsty gaze on the approaching mercenary.

“They will rule me?” Kadro clenched his fists, “NO! I will rule them!”

“You ungrateful, pathetic bastard!” Lianna interrupted, her normally sympathetic face clouded with wrath, “These people welcome you with open arms, is this how you repay them? And then you have the nerve to insult those that gave you life?! I’ll give you a beating that’ll make you wish you’d never been born!”

“Raven, control your woman,” Kadro said absently, never taking his eyes off his target, “before she gets hurt.”

“She’s not the one I’m worried about,” Trellion smiled in amusement, backing away with upraised hands.

Lianna, who had her weapons drawn from the start, lashed her barbed whip forebodingly.

Keramis’ smirk spread into a mocking grin. He would gladly beat the living daylights out of the man, but he appreciated the irony of Lianna’s fight.

Kadro barely had time to turn around before the whip came whistling in to coil about his sword arm. Though the chain mail guarded against the barbs sinking into his skin, he got yanked forward, sliding across the floor towards the woman. Lianna raised her gleaming short sword high overhead, and the warrior knew he had to act fast. Acting purely on reflex, he rolled out of the way, hearing the sword cut harmlessly into the floor behind him. The bounty hunter quickly got to his feet, and used the leverage of the whip to swing his opponent into a nearby wall.

Kadro wasted no time in pulling out his long sword while the woman stumbled to the side. But Lianna recovered quickly, and with an audible growl, gave the whip a sharp tug so that it uncurled from his wrist, twisting the chain mail and leaving rough scratches in its place.

The mercenary flexed his right hand painfully, but knew that fighting with his left would do him no good. Tossing the sword into his freed hand, Kadro looked around for some protection. Luckily for him, the walls of the hallway were lined with ornate shields.

Lianna figured his next move and took a mock step forward, a teasing grin widening across her face when he jumped back warily. Kadro made a run for the nearest shield and the woman gave chase after. The mercenary got there first, ripped the shield off the wall, and brought it up to block her incoming blade. Seeing his opportunity, he thrust out with his own sword, but Lianna deftly danced away from it, keeping her back to his shield, and slammed her elbow hard into his ribs as she came around to the side.

Kadro tottered in the direction of the blow, limping slightly on his left leg. He regained composure swiftly, hoisting his shield high and holding his sword steady. As grateful as he was to have it at all, he had to admit that the decorative shield was most uncomfortable and heavy.

“Stop hiding and fight, coward!” Lianna cackled, lashing her whip playfully against his armored legs.

Kadro squinted and blinked several times to clear up his vision, for it seemed to him that he kept lapsing in and out of a drunken haze. He could not let his enemy in on his weakness, however, and charged her straight on, shield leading. He missed entirely when she moved aside and spun about to trip him as he ran past. Kadro lurched forward but was able to retain his balance against the wall in time to avoid a powerful hack aimed at his back.

Lianna pressed on, following up her initial attack with a series of fierce slashes. Though he skillfully maneuvered his sword to intercept the hits, the warrior was progressively forced to wade backwards. He wanted to get a counter strike in but her relentless assault left him no option except to stay on the defensive. Neither of them were tiring, but Kadro noticed his reflexes getting dangerously slow. Feeling himself being backed into a corner, he decided to risk taking the offensive and kicked out at her torso.

Believing she had him pinned, Lianna didn’t expect the sudden change of tactics. The kick caught her squarely in the stomach and sent her reeling back a few steps. Unnerved, she flayed her whip out to wrap around the bounty hunter’s long sword, and jerked it out of his grasp, watching as it clanged to the floor on the other side of the hallway.

Kadro rubbed his eyes with his shield hand for what he thought was a split second, but time appeared to flow faster in the outside world for when he looked up his sword was gone. What’s worse, the woman was on the offensive again. He hastily shifted his shield to full-frontal defense, blindly deflecting the flurry of wild sword swings that came his way. Keeping the heavy shield aloft while it was being hammered by his opponent weighed him down to a crouch, and he looked around for a way – any way – to get her off. Utilizing what strength he had left Kadro pushed off the floor, using the shield to sweep the woman along in an arc and propel her into the adjacent wall.

Lianna sensed the air leave her lungs on impact, and felt as if her shoulder was being ground farther through the wall. Squirming around, she managed to get her legs free enough to kick at his knee. The mercenary’s leg buckled and he limped backwards, releasing her from the press. Lianna rushed at the disoriented warrior and rammed herself against his sagging shield at an angle that drove it straight into his face.

Kadro staggered away from the woman, letting the shield slide off his arm. He pawed at his broken nose and stared incredulously at the blood on his hands before toppling to the floor, unconscious. Lianna watched with detached interest as a trickster wriggled out of the man’s body, snarled, spat, and flashed her a myriad of terrifying faces in one breath, then flit away through the ceiling.

“Ah, it’s gone,” she affirmed, sheathing her weapons and marching back towards her room.

“What’s gone?” Raven inquired as she walked by.

“He was possessed,” she answered matter-of-factly, “the trickster is gone.”

“But if he was possessed, why did you–” he began to ask, his own experiences with possession coming back to him.

“Possession is no excuse for his actions,” Lianna eyed him indignantly, “Spirits can’t make you do anything against your will. They only help you manifest your darkest fantasies.”

She watched for a reaction, but Raven remained impassive. Smiling knowingly, she entered her room and closed the door. Trellion swallowed hard and lowered his gaze when she left; that remark hurt him more than she had intended.

Keramis tended to Neiruni, who was still shaking from the encounter. Her expression was rather blank and she didn’t say a word the whole time; he guessed she was still in shock. In any case, she seemed at a loss for what to do and, hoping it would make her feel safer, he invited her to stay with him for the night. She agreed and let the elf lead her into his room.

She stayed aside while Keramis quietly explained the circumstances to Irium, who was completely understanding about it, and with a courteous nod at Neiruni, gathered her things and made for the exit. The waitress backed herself into a corner, too embarrassed to respond. Keramis and the village girl exchanged some more whispers at the door before Irium left, tracing her hand along the elf’s cheek in a gesture of farewell. He then turned to the barmaid, a warm smile lighting up his face, and offered her to sleep on his bed. Neiruni hesitated, but compelled herself to climb up onto it. To her relief, Keramis curled up to sleep on the floor at her feet.

Raven’s gaze wandered back to Kadro’s inert form. He knew what possession was like, and knew what horrors one was capable of committing under its influence. It may have been true that it only encouraged one to manifest desires which have already existed in the deepest, darkest parts of the soul, but that did not diminish the sincere guilt and regret felt by the perpetrator in the aftermath. In that sense, Trellion felt that Kadro and him were on common ground, and if he didn’t give sympathy to the man, no one would.

With a resigned sigh, Raven walked up to the fallen warrior, lifted him from the ground, dragged him to his room, and dumped him on the bed. That done, he went back to his own room to sleep for what little time he had before daybreak.

Lakai lay restless in his bed – he blamed the entire episode on himself. If he had not prodded Kadro about his insecurities, if he had not done things so abruptly, then maybe the mercenary would not have gotten so hopelessly drunk and depressed, thereby opening himself up for possession. He knew of Kadro’s animosity towards women and should’ve known better than to give in to his own biases and point fingers at Onedia as the source of the world’s problems. He scolded himself for implying the bounty hunter could displace responsibility from himself once again. Lakai was certain it was his fault – Kadro’s referral to Onedia in his ravings confirmed it.

Keramis lay on the floor, awoken now and then by Neiruni crying softly in her sleep.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:59:16 -0700 .


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