Unforgiven


In the Ruar Valley on the southwestern borders of the Empire squatted the small town of Boundary. Easily forgettable, it boasted a handful of inns and taverns, a couple of disease-infested brothels, a ramshackle market in its muddy town square and the remains of a gaming house that had burned down the previous summer. The rest of the town consisted of nondescript houses lived in by nondescript people, and ended abruptly on its eastern edge where the woods of protected Imperial huntsland began.

Through the late afternoon murk a lone figure hurried, cloak drawn tightly about her body against the miserable rain. She crossed the street, light steps barely raising a splash in the puddles as she made for the entrance to a quiet-looking tavern she and her fellow companions had agreed upon as a meeting place when they had split up to resupply earlier that day. Once under the shelter of the Grassy Knoll Inn and Tavern's porch, Soul pulled back her hood and shook her long mahogany hair free of her cloak collar, the lengthy strands that turned lighter at the ends settling gracefully about her long fay-like ears. It was a relief not to have to keep them hidden for once. Out here in the middle of nowhere, people weren't too picky about how you looked, provided you could pay your way. Not really playing attention to the 'No Weapons' sign above the door, she stepped inside.

The tavern was packed! From wall to badly plastered wall the bar room was crowded with what must have been half the town’s population. It was a surprise no one had climbed up onto the low beams crossing the gabled ceiling.

She edged through the crowd, peering through gaps between tightly-packed bodies to see what was going on. From what she could see it appeared everyone was gathered round a small, crudely constructed stage, empty save for a tall stool placed in the middle. Finally reaching the bar she had to wait a few minutes for the landlord to come to her. Usually her looks and the tattoo-like mark over her left eye got her noticed and served in seconds and she was wishing that were the case today. The atmosphere was quickly becoming unpleasantly warm and humid as the combined body heat of the crowd, plus their wet clothing made an uncomfortable contribution to the climate. It made her glad that her sense of smell in human form was nowhere near as strong as in her wereform.

At last the barman spotted her distinctive and attractive (which was more than could be said for most of the punters) features and his deeply lined face took on a less exasperated and surly expression than it had worn moments before, "Evenin' miss. Not see your face before - you're lucky to be here tonight. We've had this great bard visiting but tonight's the last night afore they move on. What'll ye be havin'?"

She ordered herself a cider and slid some coins across the counter before melting back into the thong. She found herself a place where she could just about see the stage and resigned herself to waiting for Shade to turn up. Lucky me, she thought as damp and smelly bodies jostled her from all sides, I'm sure seeing a bloke in tights with an out of tune lyre'll make being squished all worth while. Then she gave herself the equivalent of a mental slap for thinking something Blackjack would probably say. Not of the tallest stature, Soul had to stand on her toes to get a better view but apparently everyone else had the same idea. She found if she bobbed about a bit she could just about see the stage.

A sudden change in the noise level up ahead indicated that something was at last happening on the stage. To a chorus of whistles and cat-calls, a beautiful woman strode out of the back room and onto the stage. She was tall, taller than Soul (though the heels on her black leather buskins helped), and wore tight forest green trousers and a darker green tunic, pinched in at the waist to accent curves that did not need accenting. She moved with confidence, smiling at the audience and taking their leering in her stride. Before sitting, she whipped off her feathered cap, which matched the rest of the outfit, and gave a quick bow, long pure white hair flowing with the movement. It did not get in her eyes though as it was held back by a silver circlet with a deep magenta gem set in its centre. She appeared somewhere between twenty to thirty winters old, but Soul could not guess exactly where in that range she fell. Something about the woman's manner made her wish she'd slip on some spilt beer, break an ankle and be carried off stage, never to be seen again before Shade arrived. To add to this feeling, Soul was sure that when the bard swept the crowd with her gaze, her eyes had lingered just a fraction of a second too long on her. Then her train of thought was derailed by an interruption from behind.

"She's purdy, but not as much as you!" leered a drunken voice. Soul turned around and found herself eye to chest with a bulging tattooed hulk of a man. Her gaze followed his form up until she reached an ugly face, with an even worse smile full of cracked and yellowed teeth. A half ogre, she guessed. He gave her a wink that made her feel like she wanted to vomit on his shoes.

"How about a kiss, wench?" he said, puckering his lips. Although he was leaning down he still towered over her.

"Eww! How about you use that greasy pony tail of yours as a wick and set your head on fire instead?"

That did not go down well. More than capable of defending herself against the likes of this oaf Soul was tensing ready for close combat when the drunkard's gaze shifted past her. He paled, mumbled something that might have been an apology (or a stifled belch), then disappeared as far away as he could into the press.

Soul turned round. Shade was standing behind her, replacing the patch over his tainted right eye. She saw a flash of that chilling tiny green pupil glowing in its sea of black just before it was hidden.

"Shade!" she smiled and kissed him, an action he happily returned. She used his use-name as they were amid strangers. Then she pushed him back, "I can take care of myself, you know" she admonished.

He just shrugged, "I know. But what kind of boyfriend would I be if I let that drunken mercenary leer all over you like that?"

She smiled in response then frowned and asked, "You know him?"

Shade shrugged, "Vaguely. His name's Kutsin. When I was with The Panther we had a run in with his group once as we were working opposite sides of a contract. I should ask him how those scars on his belly healed up some time." he added with a smirk, "Then again, he may not remember me. My hair was short back then, I didn't have these" he indicated the piercings in his eyebrow, bridge of his nose, his nostril and the tattoo round his left eye, "and then there's Raven..." he didn't need to finish that sentence. The soul-searing glare of his right eye, one of the outward signs of the dracoliche's presence was what had seen the drunken mercenary off.

Soul nodded. She did not really want to hear about anything involving Calisha a.k.a. The Panther (and Shade's werefeline ex) "Where's Blackjack, I thought he was with you?"

"I haven't seen him. He'll be along soon though I'm sure."

The strumming of a mandolin caused conversations to suddenly hush. For a woman of such looks in a dump such as this she was commanding a surprising amount of respect from the audience.

"Greetings, gentle folk. My name is Shal and I am here to take your minds away from this place for a short while." Her voice was as soft and melodious as her perfectly tuned instrument.

Soul found herself expecting any number of lewd replies from the clientele, but by some miracle none came! And again, as Shal looked round the room, Soul was sure her gaze rested a moment on her, then for even longer on Shade. She slid her arm round her lover and fellow Daemonslayer's waist. Shade seemed totally oblivious and thought she was offering him some of her rapidly warming cider.

"I'd like to bring you a selection of tales and songs that are a little different from the tired old yarns you normally hear from us storytellers. I'll begin with the 'Ballad of Dunthar'" Shal strummed a few notes then launched into song, her voice strong, warm and resonant.

"I haven't heard this one in years!" said Shade, looking pleasantly surprised for once, "And even back then it wasn't that common. I think the only time I heard it was when my sister-" A man who looked to be a farmhand standing on his right shushed him.

Throughout the bard's performance as she went from song to story to poem the whole bar room listened in rapt silence. Outside, the dreary afternoon faded into gloomy evening but inside time just seemed to stand still. All too soon she was announcing the next tale to be the penultimate part of the performance, "For your consideration, I would like to present you with a little-known tale: You have all heard the story of Telia; the Condemned Kingdom, the Land of the Harpies?", there was a general murmur of confirmation, "Well, here is the true tale of Princess Selenae, the Harpy Queen!"

Soul scowled, "We only just dealt with that feathered freak!" (*author's note: see 'Beauty is a Beast' - or whatever I decide to call the story when I write it*), "And she's doing it again!"

"Huh? Doing what?" asked Shade. He had not quite been paying attention and looked round to see who Soul was referring before realising she meant the bard.

"Look-" She checked herself a moment as a few meaningful glares from their neighbours indicated they were talking too loud, "Looking at you and smiling to herself," she finished in a whisper.

"Don't be so paranoid, Soul!" Shade whispered back. Soul thought that was rich coming from him of all people, "She was looking somewhere behind me."

Soul just pursed her lips and returned her attention to the stage, glowering at the woman there.


**********

Meanwhile, at the back of the tavern someone was greeting the subject matter of this current story with even less enthusiasm than Soul and Shade had.

"I hope this isn't the 'true version' I have a bad feeling that it's going to be," remarked Blackjack to the small red dragon sitting on his grey-furred right shoulder.

Garth shrugged. Lacking forelimbs his equivalent gesture was to bob his scarlet wings up and down, "Does it matter? She's already featured you, well, the old you in a story and a poem," the runt said quietly so surrounding ears would not hear.

"Yeah," the dragon replied, wrinkling the scars on his furless snout as he spoke from the side of his mouth, "But the difference is Shade and Soul are aware of those stories and where I fitted in as Bloodbane."

"Oh."

Blackjack narrowed his eyes and glared at the bard. There was something awry here. He had never been in a tavern, inn, pub or bar where the audience had seemed so enthralled, especially not by a travelling bard. There were no obvious charm spells in action as far as he could tell. It was definitely to do with that woman though. From where he stood he could see the back of Shade's blonde hair with the orange band tied round his head and had caught sight of one of Soul’s fay-like ears at one point, but there was a burly man with the looks of a half-ogre in the way. He decided that they could try and talk to the bard once the performance was over; perhaps at close quarters he'd be able to put his claw on what was unsettling him.

With great skill Shal span the tale of a beautiful but vain princess who tried 'valiantly' (Blackjack inserted the inverted commas himself.) to rid her kingdom, Telia, of fell beasts and of dragons (the dracosvulf snorted at that, acutely aware of how this 'true' version was omitting the fact said dragons were Lawful metallic dragons, not prismatic Chaos ones! Also no mention was made of the 'ugly tax' she'd levied on the peasant classes) and of the terrible retribution visited upon her by Syrax Bloodbane. She spoke of the dread dragon in a dramatically low voice, as though in fear the despoiler of legend might still hear and enact the same vengeance upon them! And finally the tale finished with her fall into madness, as her foolish vanity would not die even though her body had been transmogrified into a hideous aberration of nature.

Blackjack's heart sank, "I reckon you're going to have some explaining to do!" said Garth with a vindictive cackle.

"I reckon you should shut up, Garth." he replied. Blackjack loathed explaining himself. "Go to the stables and check on Knightmare." he added. The dragon gave a little snort and flew off, causing surprised people to duck and swear as he swooped low to fly out of an open window.

For her final number, Shal launched into a beautiful song of gentle but haunting melodies about a friendship between two warriors that was destroyed by secrets and mistrust, leading to their ruination. There was hardly a dry eye in the room as the last melancholy chord faded into silence.

Blackjack’s eyes were most definitely not amongst the teary number. They were angry. It was as though she knew he'd kept his involvement with Selenae to himself and then finished off with a finger-wagging injection of morality on trust and friendship just to drive the nail in further. Blackjack started pushing forward into the crowd as the bard said her thank-you’s and left the stage. He was no believer in 'coincidence' and he wanted to know more about this Shal.


**********

The strange spell upon the audience ended the moment the bard left the stage. Soul and Shade looked at each other, standing still like a small island in the sea of bodies heading for the door. Shade was silent and angry looking. Soul spoke her mind first, "Blackjack created the Harpy Queen?" she said, voicing the disbelief both of them were feeling, "Why the hell didn't he tell us?"

"Maybe it was among some of the memories he still can't get at thanks to Shine." suggested Shade but the tone of his voice indicated he was not convinced.

"You believe that?"

"Not really. No."

"I think we need to have words with him. I hope he was here for that little revelation." Soul sad angrily, looking about and scanned the thinning crowd. She saw the clawed tops of a pair of black leathery wings and the tips of a pair of black ivory horns headed toward them, "There he is." Soul started forward ahead of Shade who was finishing off her cider and got halfway across the distance before suddenly finding an unpleasantly familiar beer gut blocking her way. She followed the hairy trail revealed by an open shirt up to the half-ogre's face glaring down at her, considerably more sober than before. She quickly tried to side-step but he had some friends with him. There were four of them, all human (although they barely smelled it). He grabbed her arm.

"I'll bet your boyfriend thinks I've forgotten who he is. Well I haven't. And none of us've forgot the contract he cost us." Growled Kutsin. Grabbing her collar he roughly hauled her up onto her tiptoes so that she was almost face to face with him.

"No. I haven't. I see you're a lot braver with your friends behind you. Now let her go." Shade’s voice came from beyond Soul’s line of sight. His tone was level but icy.

Kutsin just smiled and pushed Soul into the grasp of one of his comrades behind him. This man, sporting a ruddy complexion, balding head and thick red beard suddenly produced a knife and held it to her throat. The blade started to glow and she wisely stopped struggling as she felt its point burn hot against her flesh. It felt as though it was sucking the strength from her.

Still smiling Kutsin said, "A fine silver knife that, Shade - dwarf-crafted, you know. After last time I dealt with you werefreaks I learned not to take chances. I thought your girl might be one of your kind." he spat.

As often happened with altercations in public places, a circle of interested parties out looking for free entertainment was forming around the mercenaries and the two lycanthropes. The participants ignored them.

"What do you want?" growled Shade.

"I was thinking that since you cost me so much money and I'm sure you don't have that much on you right now, I'd take 'compensation' from you, in a manner of speaking." He said, adding the last bit in the way common to people trying to sound more intelligent than they actually are, "...In the form of her blood. Kill 'er!" the mercernary instructed.

"No!" Shade surged forward thinking only of stopping that knife, but the half-ogre knocked him down. As he hit the ground Shade saw, almost in slow motion, a bead of blood welling up as the bearded man began to pierce his love’s exposed vulnerable flesh with the knife. Then the movement stopped and the man's face froze. A trickle of blood dribbled from his lips and down his chin to become lost in the tangle of his beard. Then very slowly he toppled sideways and hit the floor, dead. Behind him stood Blackjack, licking clean the slender blade of his stiletto knife.

There was a moment of stunned silence amid the mercenaries and onlookers. Although wyrds and half-beasts were fairly common out here in the wilds, very few of those present had seen a humanoid as frightening as this before and the result of his surprise attack took a few seconds to register. Blackjack studied Kutsin. Along with elves, dwarves, hssaar, giants and trolls he did not particularly like ogres either. Nor did he like half ogres. But he did know how to piss them off. "You’re an ugly son of a bitch, aren’t you? What was your mother? A troll?" he smirked.

Kutsin’s face turned went livid. A rumble of anger rose in his chest to become a furious bellow. With an inarticulate roar he launched at Blackjack, hands outstretched and fingers clawed to wring the life out of this insouciant dragonkin’s neck.

This appeared to be the cue for an entire Underworld of chaos to break loose.

Knocked aside by Kutsin’s charge, Shade twisted mid-fall and kicked one of the mercenary’s legs out from under him, sending him stumbling off balance then sprawling into the crowd. This started its own series of pushing and shoving. Two of the remaining henchmen charged Blackjack at the same time. One of them received a smart kick to the groin from a very angry Soul while the other somehow found himself running straight into a heavy porcelain tankard Blackjack just happened to be swinging in the opposite direction. It connected with a loud 'clunk' and the mercenary staggered away, wobbling from side to side before keeling over onto a table.

By now Shade was back on his feet and the third mercenary found himself outnumbered two werewolves, one... demon, possibly for all he knew, to one. He turned to flee but quickly recovered when Kutsin appeared behind him. The minor 'pushing and shoving' incident his fall had sparked off was now a full-blown punch up giving rise to other altercations all of its own. With a roar Kutsin grabbed a table and hurled it at Shade and Blackjack. They easily dodged aside and it landed on a female ranwulf's foot instead. The hulking canid yelped and her particularly large mate snarled, shouted something in its barbarian tongue then charged, clearing the distance between it and Kutsin in two bounds, skittling aside anyone it his path. The pair went down in a mess of flailing punches. Yelling encouragement to her mate, the female limped over and joined in too.

The mercenary Soul had kicked was up again, but Shade floored him with a sharp left hook. The last one Soul took out from behind by bashing him over the head with a chair.

By now there was pandemonium all around. People were shouting and screaming, things were being thrown, glass was breaking and fists were flying. Something about fights in drinking houses was infectious. It was the same in pubs, bars, inns and taverns the world over.

"Let's get to the stables, Soul!" Shade said. After tonight's little revelation they were not in the mood to hang about and enjoy the 'atmosphere'.

Seeing them leaving, Blackjack tried to get to them as he still wanted to investigate that bard. Dodging upturned tables and flailing bodies, he had to stop when a fight between the surly rotund serving wench he'd bought a drink from earlier and an equally plump brunette woman whose thickly caked makeup suggested she was a whore blundered into his path. The chaos was too thick here for him to get round them so he grabbed each by the scruff of the neck and hauled them apart to make way, "Out of my way you fat hags!" he snarled. The serving wench squirmed free and ran off while the brunette burst into hysterics about her broken nose.

"My face! Look what she did to my face!"

“It's not that bad - you were ugly anyway. Now get out of my way." Blackjack said, genuinely believing if he pointed out that she had not actually lost anything (true enough in her case) then she'd feel better.

That stopped the tears. The woman gasped in outrage then hit him. Not caring much about receiving a slap Blackjack didn't try too hard to deflect the blow as he tried to get past her. However the Daemonslayer had failed to notice she was holding the barmaid's solid wooden tray in her hand until it was too late. Next thing he knew he was on the floor seeing stars and spitting out teeth as she flounced off.

"Right" he growled, getting up and pulling out a loose molar, "That's the last time I try to say a kind word to anyone!" Drawing breath he let out a resounding bellow that sent brawlers scrambling from his path. Those few fool enough to remain between him and the door were pushed, shoved, hurled or kicked aside as he steamed through.

Outside he stood and sniffed, not even flinching as a chair followed by a screaming dwarf came smashing out the window next to him. Catching Soul and Shade’s scents he strode after them, forgetting about the bard for now.


**********

Blackjack caught up with the other Daemonslayers round the back of the inn in the stables. By now he was holding some torn cloth to his mouth where his gums were still bleeding.

"You know" he lisped through his broken teeth, "I'd be really annoyed if I didn't know these'd grow back by next week."

Knightmare had poked his head out of his stall at the far end of the building, jaw working as he chewed on a rat he'd just snapped up. To avoid raising questions, the beast could keep a glamour spell - making him appear as a black stallion - in action almost indefinitely. As they were in a public stable and it was still only early evening, he was using the spell now. Seeing the expressions on the others' faces he decided to finish the snack then go back to contemplating the bale of hay in the rack behind him where Garth was sitting. The small dragon helpfully pulled the unfortunate rodent's tail out from where it was stuck between the dire unicorn's fangs.

Much closer, Soul was strapping on Gor's saddle. Behind the hump of the huge feline's shoulders Shade was checking through the Steed's saddle bags, the magically created war horse standing obediently still as usual. Saying nothing, he continued silently with what he was doing.

Soul's hands however paused in their work, "Why didn't you tell us?" she spoke tersely.

"Tell you what, Meccha?" asked Blackjack innocently.

"Don't play dumb, you know that doesn't wash here. Why didn't you tell us about Selenae?"

The dracosvulf briefly considered using the old 'I thought you knew' routine, but the story the bard had told was not well known, especially not the true version. He sighed and leaned against one of the thick wooden pillars supporting the roof and took the rag away from his face. He looked at the dark bloodstains on it and the holes where the acidic ichor was eating through the material, then up at the female werewolf again, "I didn't tell you because I didn't see what difference it would have made. The Harpy Queen is real. She can't die. And that's all any of us needed to know back in Telia."

"But you're the one who cursed her! You created that monster!"

"Again, what difference does that make? There's only one way to lift the curse she's under and none of us are qualified. And as far as I’m concerned, the fewer people that know about my involvement, the better. If she'd recognised me or found out Bloodbane and I are one and the same, there's no way we'd have escaped her clutches as easily as we did!" replied the cursed dragon. He did not appreciated having to justify himself in the slightest, but kept his voice cool and level.

"'Easily'?!" Soul scoffed in disbelief and Blackjack recognised her expression as the sort worn by someone about to launch into a rant. And a lengthy one at that. He rolled his eyes and looked away as though bored already. But Shade suddenly spoke up while she was still drawing breath.

"That's not the point, Black'. You knew more about what we were up against than us. That feathered mentalist bitch had me captured and did her best to kill Meccha! Never mind the fact Selenae is your fault - we should have been able to trust you to not withhold information on a situation we were all facing together! Syrax," Shade used his friend's real name to make sure he was still listening, "all three of us are Daemonslayers - you and I even took a Blood Oath! We're pitted against more than we can imagine and here you are keeping information to yourself that could have been vital! If you don't trust us then how can we trust you?"

The dragon looked taken aback at the outburst. So did Soul, for that matter. Shade gave him a meaningful glare as he swung himself easily into the Steed's saddle. In the meantime Soul had finished getting Gor ready for travel and pulled herself up onto the gorrta's back.

"F'lair, it's not that-" Blackjack began in protest but he was interrupted.

"Just don't, Blackjack. I don't want to hear it." Shade sounded as tired as he felt inside. He urged the Steed into a trot and passed out into the rainy night outside. Pulling her hood up Soul wordlessly followed without looking back.

Blackjack said nothing for about a minute as he just stood, staring after the others. Then with a gutteral snarl and a frightening turn of speed he struck out and put his fist straight through the pillar beside him. Fortunately the roof did not collapse, but the other pillars creaked amongst themselves as they took the extra weight.

Knightmare poked his head out of his stall again; mouth full of straw this time, Garth perched between his ears. Blackjack glared at the long equine face regarding him, "What're you looking at?" he growled. Then he stalked out into the rain himself. When he got out of the stable yard onto the road he looked first in the direction Shade and Soul's tracks went: South. Then he turned on his heel and walked the other way.


************************

"Pah! Human cattle!" 'Shal' thought to herself as the noises of the continuing brawl in the room below drifted up through the floor. She checked her room to ensure no trace of her short stay was left, thankful that the information her peers had given her was correct. "I don't think I could have stood for performing for such filth one more night; someone of my power, of my position, having to act as an entertainer!" she spat. Still, the Traitor and his two friends had turned up as the Wyrth had predicted and her work was done.

As she cast the teleportation spell, she decided she would be having the slaves prepare a long scented bath once she got home. She felt almost sordid being around and having to interact with such lowly creatures as humans and she felt very glad she'd only spent a few years of her life being one before her Ascension. Then she and all trace of her presence in Boundary was gone.


*************************

Later that evening, in a tavern on the other side of town, Blackjack heard an announcement that did not make him happy. Raising his eyes from the empty glass he fixed the barkeep with a stare that made the man wish he could go back in time and cut out his own tongue rather than call time as he had just done. He felt the colour drain from his face as the dracosvulf, still holding his gaze, placed one clawed hand then the other flat on the bar and hauled himself to his feet, wings half spreading with the motion, making him appear even more demonic and menacing than usual.

Through his drunken haze Blackjack wondered why the barkeep looked so terrified as he reached into his waistcoat, took out a purse he had swiped during the fight earlier and slid it across the bar. Then he remembered he didn't actually care what people felt or why and, swaying slightly, pointed himself in the direction of the door and left.

 

Outside the rain was still pouring down: drumming on the rooftops, spilling over from gutters and running down the street in a river of mud and filth. Blackjack stood under the eaves of the tavern's roof looking out at the deluge. He reached to pull his hood up before realising he had left his cloak in the stable with Knightmare and cursed quietly, breath condensing in the cold air. Then another problem posed itself: where in the Abyss was Knightmare stabled?

Cursing again, this time against himself for drinking too much and against Boundary for being such a latrine, he stalked off in what he hoped to be the correct direction.


***********************

Shade watched the play of sparks as they rose from the campfire, swirling helplessly amid the smoke and thermals on their short-lived and ultimately doomed journey upward toward the thick canopy of the trees. He still felt angry at Blackjack but the edge had gone from the feeling as he tried to see things from his friend's perspective. Blackjack was not human; he was a black dragon - trapped in the form of a dracosvulf, but still a dragon - and as such he did not think like a human (or near-human in Shade and Soul's cases) so how could his actions be judged by human standards?

His attention was diverted when he felt Soul shiver in his arms where she sat on the ground between his legs. He had lent her his cloak as, although he preferred to keep all his senses operating to maintain at least a resemblance to feeling alive, he had made himself forget to register the sensation of being cold for the time being.

"I'm kinda wishing we'd stayed in Boundary." she said after a while, pulling her and Shade's cloaks higher about her neck.

"Me too. I was angry though, I needed to get away to think."

"I know. I'm still pretty pissed about Black's attitude too, but the idea of a nice warm, dry room at an inn's squashing that feeling a bit now." The two lycanthropes had ridden for a couple of hours down the main road leading south from Boundary. Finally getting fed up of looking for a roadside inn and they had settled for a spot just inside the woods where the ground was relatively dry as the cover provided by the trees was thick enough to keep most of the rain off.

"So. Get anywhere with your thinking?" She asked, turning to look at him rather than the fire.

Shade was still looking into its burning heart, the red light reflected brightly in his eye and the warm glow of the flames lent some colour to his ashen skin. He nodded and began slowly, as though testing the words himself as he spoke them "I don't think it's that he doesn't trust us with the things he knows, I think he just didn't ... see how his actions would look from our point of view."

"That's nothing new!" Soul replied with a little laugh.

The two Daemonslayers sat in comfortable silence for a while. Shade was biting his lower lip, pressing just hard enough for his sharp canines to leave indentations without actually breaking the skin.

"What's eating you?" Soul asked. For some reason that habit of his always got slightly on her nerves.

"Huh?"

"You're chewing your lip. You always do that when something's bothering you."

"I do?" This was news to Shade - he hadn't even noticed what he was doing, "That bard, Shal. There was something not quite right about her." And something familiar too, but that sense was too vague to mention and he had already blamed it on the fact 'Shal' was the nickname he and his younger brother Ged had called their older sister, Sha'ala. When they were all still alive, that was.

"Yeah. She seemed too...perfect." Soul said, struggling to find the right word for it, "That and I'm sure she kept looking at us. We probably should have investigated."

Shade agreed but he did not fancy going back and chance running into Blackjack as he still was not quite in the mood to deal with the dragon. Then he looked thoughtful, brown eyebrows drawing together in concern "I'm surprised he hasn't caught up with us yet."

"He's a big dragon-wolfy creature now. I'm sure he can take care of himself." There were another few minutes of silence, broken only by the crackling and popping of the fire and the occasional echoing call of night birds away in the woods somewhere, "You're doing it again."

Shade looked embarrassed this time - again he had not realised he was chewing his lip. "I don't know what to think, Mech'" he said, voice sad and tired, "I've known Blackjack for years now and I thought I could trust him to at least be honest about important information but now... Selenae almost killed you."

"But she didn't." She quickly pointed out.

"I know," Shade gave her a quick kiss on the forehead then continued, "but if he could keep the fact that he actually created her and therefore knows how to lift the curse - to make her vulnerable again - a secret then it makes me wonder... What else is he hiding?"

Soul had no answer to that. They returned their gazes to the fire, wishing its dancing flames could consume their disquieting thoughts.


***********************

"Not this way, then." Blackjack said to himself. He had taken a turn down a blind alley and realised there were no stables down here. He was becoming really rather annoyed. Both with himself and with the fact the alleyway kept swimming about in front of him. He cursed the dwarves for inventing Firewater then turned to backtrack. The road he had turned off led out of the town and straight into the woods and there definitely weren't any stables there, so he would have to turn left to get back into town.

The alleyway's exit was blocked.

"Well, well, well. What have we got here?"

The dracosvulf's eyes successfully focussed on the monolithic form of Kutsin the half-ogre. Behind him, filling out the rest of the width of the entrance stood his three remaining mercenary cronies, all laughing with the 'hur hur hur' typical of those with more meat than brain in their heads. The figures drifted out of focus again. That wasn't even funny, Blackjack thought. Why are those neuronally challenged primates laughing? He stood his ground, swaying slightly as he considered his options as they advanced. The alley was too narrow for him to take flight, there was no way he could scale the walls in his current condition and he couldn't remember what he'd done with his knives. Hmm.

"You and your mates killed Scuzha! We're gonna do you for that!" snarled Kutsin, displeased by the apparent lack of concern Blackjack was showing for his situation.

Blackjack was seeing two groups of mercenaries now, "Sorry, but I'm not that way inclined. You're not even my species!"

Apparently innuendo was wasted here as his reply only caused neolithic uni-brows to knot in confusion. They probably can't even spell the word, he thought to himself. Kutsin quickly got his cohorts' attention again, "Lads! Get the frekkit!" He stood back, arms folded as the others rushed past.

Blackjack ducked the first punch, stumbled backward out of reach of another, lost his balance causing him to inadvertently side-step the second's lunge and, thinking the way might be clearer now, tried to step round one of the two images he was seeing of the third mercenary.

In hindsight even Blackjack would admit that this move was poorly executed as he stepped straight into the brick wall disguised as a human he'd been trying to avoid. The man grabbed him by the lapels of his waistcoat, shrieked in pain and let go; blood running from punctured hands and lacerated fingers. Blackjack smirked. It had been hard work sewing those fish-hooks and razor blades under his lapels - it was good to see his efforts were 'appreciated'. Not wasting any longer enjoying the effects of his handiwork, Blackjack threw a right-hook that caught the injured human right under his jaw. The dracosvulf felt a great sense of satisfaction at the grating sensation he felt through his knuckles as several of the man's teeth shattered and blood dribbled from his mouth as the blow also caught his tongue between his teeth. He stumbled off, whimpering and clutching bloody hands to bloodied face.

"Judd! He was proud o'them teeth, you bastard!" the half ogre charged forward and Blackjack tensed, ready to dodge but someone grabbed him from behind, pinned his arms to his sides. They were stood between his wings where it was hard for Blackjack to articulate said limbs to reach him. Kutsin landed a solid blow in his stomach.

Blackjack gasped and doubled over as the breath was knocked out of him and the contents of his stomach made an attempt to escape (but failed). He sent a spasm down his back and the retractable spines hidden in his bony back-plates popped up. The man holding him screamed and tore himself away, arms flailing as he stumbled, blood spraying from the deep puncture wounds down the midline of his body until he collapsed, dead.

Kutsin and Blackjack watched his dying spasms: one with a look of pure anger on his face, the latter with a gleeful smile at all the lovely red stuff flying about. Then they turned to face each other again. Less certain now, the remaining uninjured henchmen were stood behind the half ogre.

"Oops." Blackjack gave him a gap-toothed grin. Kutsin smiled icily back, then struck him with a lightning-fast blow, catching the dracosvulf across the side of his head with a mailed fist.

Blackjack's knees gave way and he fell over backwards, landing unceremoniously in the mud. His ears were ringing and the world, which was going a funny red colour, was spinning too madly for him to even sit up, let alone stand. He groaned, closed his eyes then opened them again. The half ogre was standing over him, reaching down with one huge meaty fist.

Having seen one of his comrades make the mistake already, the Kutsin grabbed Blackjack by the front of his sleeveless jacket rather than the lapels and held him up to eye-level. The dragon's wings hung limply as the huge man hefted him easily with one arm - no mean feat considering the Daemonslayer weighed in at well over 200 pounds. The action barely made the half-ogre’s biceps bulge.

Through his punch drunk and alcohol-induced stupor, Blackjack vaguely noticed his feet weren't even touching the ground. More pressing than this however were the waves of nausea sweeping out from his stomach. Peering blearily through the rivulets of blood and dirty rainwater trickling into his eyes, he met the pale brown-green eyes of the enraged Kutsin.

"Now," he began. Apparently of its own accord, Blackjack's gaze drifted down from regarding the strange way Kutsin's pierced ears were clipped at the tops to the man's mouth as he spoke, noticing the unhealthy teeth festering in diseased gums. Bits of food were wedged between the stumps. The wave of putrid breath, carrying a mixture of scents including stale beer, low quality bremulen leaf cigarettes, rotted meat, vomit and topped off with halitosis worse than a ghoul's assailed his sensitive nostrils. He found himself starting to gag slightly, making it difficult to pay attention to his captor's threats, "What was that you said about my mother?"

Blackjack frowned a little and looked off to the left, trying to remember where the near-human's mother came into all this, "My apologies. That particular reference escapes me at thish exshact point in ... er ... what's the word?" he slurred, holding up his right hand, index finger pointing upward at nothing in particular, like someone making an important point.

"Time?" snarled Kutsin.

"Yeah. That's it."

"Well you'll have plenty of time to think about it 'cos we're gonna gut you real slow, like."

"'Like'? Like what?"

"SHUT UP you frekkit!" snarled the mercenary, shaking him. This transpired to be a very unwise move.

Blackjack's eyes narrowed at Kutsin's second use of the racially inaccurate slur. He was no wyrd! But his stomach took action before his brain could. With a single convulsion he vomited loudly into the half ogre's face and down the man's chest.

Kutsin's screams were silenced quickly into a dying gurgle as the powerful stomach acids ate through his throat, along with the rest of his face and chest. Blackjack was dropped back into the puddle as the corpse fell, twitching and convulsing before finally becoming still.

The remaining mercenaries looked from the grisly remains of their leader to the Daemonslayer struggling to his feet, to the remains again, once more to the Daemonslayer, then turned and ran.

Having waved a fist and made various threatening noises at their rapidly retreating backs, Blackjack stumbled out of the alley, turned right by mistake and spent the next few minutes crashing about in the woods, wondering how the town had suddenly become so overgrown. After a while he tripped on a root, landed in a thick patch of bracken and decided this was as good a place as any to pass out.


********************

The dawn chorus of birdsong accompanying the rising of the suns Mired and Derim somewhere behind the layer of clouds came and went. By mid-morning it was no longer raining, but the weather was still grey and dreary.

From his vantage point between Knightmare's ears, just behind the silver spiral horn sprouting up from the equine's forehead, Garth looked down at the muddy and bloodied form sprawled in the bracken thicket their tracking skills had led them to. The trail had not been hard for them to follow. "So," began the tiny dragon, "You had fun last night?"

Blackjack slitted his eyes open and looked up from where he lay sprawled on his back. He had been conscious for at least an hour but the thudding pain in his head that flared in intensity with his pulse when he tried to move had discouraged him from the idea of getting up. The light however muted by the thick cloud cover, still hurt his eyes. He closed them again and the afterimage of the silhouette of equine head and hatchling-sized dragon against the sky danced on his reluctant retinas. The dire unicorn had dropped his glamour spell and now held his true appearance - that of a powerful black unicorn seemingly crossed with a red dragon. The round white pupils of his red eyes regarded Blackjack patiently.

"I don't remember anything after the stables," he lied, voice hoarse.

"Oh really?" Garth peered down his snout at him. A fact known to no one beyond those present (and a few other dragons) was that, despite all appearances, the runt was older (though he had never said by how much) than the black dragon lying in front of him. Young 'uns, he thought. "Do you think the mess in the alleyway might jog your memory?"

Blackjack changed the subject, "What're you doing here?"

Knightmare's horn glowed with a soft white light and Blackjack suddenly experienced a stream of images and emotions that were not his own running through his mind. He was left with the understanding that after the two had become fed up waiting for him to come back to the stable, Garth had (with some difficulty) loaded up their gear and gone looking for him.

"How caring of you," Blackjack muttered, the usual edge of sarcasm back in his voice. Then he pulled himself upright, carefully so as to avoid any sudden movements; his head hurt too much to deal with any of them right now. As did his stomach, "The others didn't come back last night?" he asked, leaning on Knightmare's flank as he built himself up for the next move. Kutsin's final blow had come close to breaking his jaw, so talking hurt too. Grabbing one of Knightmare's wings with one hand and one of the red spikes growing up through the beast's flowing black mane with the other he pulled himself into the saddle.

Garth turned around on his perch, "No. We'd better not go through the Boundary. I think the town guard, such as it is, has some, uh, questions for you."

"Like whether I'd prefer oak gallows or pine and what colour blindfold would I like?"

"Pretty much, yeah. You look like shit, by the way."

"Thanks. I suppose that's another bit of the Empire we can strike off out list of places to go for our holidays." He steered Knightmare onto the woodland road and after riding a suitable distance from the village urged him upward, holding his stomach as the dire unicorn lurched into the sky, hooves flaming as they struck the air, "Right. Let's find the others."

fin


All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2004 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2004

Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.