DISCLAIMER: This story and these characters are mine. Of course, by "mine" I mean that they pull me out when they want to play, and put me away at the end of the day covered in dirt, scratches, and firecracker burns. They get a little rough at times. This particular bunch are particularly inconsiderate, often quite willing, even eager, to kill, maim, and destroy. Some of them are definitely not nice people. Therefore, expect moderately graphic violence, and one instance of attempted sexual assault. Fortunately, they're oddly willing to control their potty-mouths, saving their cursing for a variety of obscure languages. If you speak Orcish, though, watch out! Some of them are also quite keen on sex, and are not particularly concerned with the general shape, size, or colour of their cuddle-bunnies... within reason. Let's just say that at least it's all humanoid-humanoid. Possibly humanoid-humanoid-humanoid.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I can also neither confirm nor deny that something quite unpleasant will happen to a chicken. (And no, that does not have anything in particular to do with the cuddle-bunny part. Perverts.) Feedback: Bien sur! Sendeth thou thy words to psidraconis@mad.scientist.com Also, feel free to head on over to my website at web.mac.com/psidraconis for other stuff, my occasionally updated blog. Shameless plug alert: If you've enjoyed this, check out my novel Adeptus Major, from P.D. Publishing (www.pdpublishing.com/mykals.html). You can read an original draft on my website, where you can also find out where to buy it (writers love money almost as much as feedback).
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

To Be Unhuman
By Alex Mykals


Chapter 3

Tial shivered violently in the cold and tried to squirm her way even closer into the only source of warmth in the tiny, icy cell. Mereth shifted uncomfortably in her sleep before settling again, and Tial pressed herself closer against her friend's back. The half-Dwarf's constitution was much more suited to withstand the cold, but Tial's half-Elven metabolism was optimised for far warmer temperatures. Despite its location in the warmer north of the Imperium, Stylok was regularly blasted by frigid winds blown down off the Klios Range.

Tial shut her eyes tightly and pressed her face into Mereth's spine, unable to sleep as her mind kept replaying the events of the last hand of days.

The time initially after she had killed Lord Oannis was nearly a blank. She vaguely recalled standing over the body in shock, totally unable to believe that she had killed a man, much less a member of high nobility. Part of her had refused to accept that he really was dead. Tial had been frozen, standing completely unmoving for some unknown length of time.

Mereth had arrived at some point, concerned that her employee was taking so long on such a simple, routine task. Tial wasn't clear on the exact order of events after that, but she remembered Mereth trying to get her to leave, and three of the now-dead Lord's companions appearing abruptly at the mouth of the alley. A whirlwind of sound and colour followed, and she dimly remembered Mereth attempting to fight off men in the livery of the Town Patrol as they roughly slapped irons on the half-Elf, and receiving a blow to the face for her efforts that had knocked her to the ground. That much Tial now knew was real, as Mereth currently boasted a number of bruises, including painful blue and purple mottling that had swollen her left eye completely shut.

When Tial's mind had finally cleared, she and her friend were hosts of the Stylok city gaol, locked into a four-pace by two-pace cell, barely tall enough for Tial to stand up in, the only view of the outside world a tiny window that looked out just onto street level of a small courtyard. The steel bars on that window were rusted but solid; Mereth had tested them, and Dwarves were never mistaken about such things. An equally small brazier ostensibly provided heat, but in reality emitted more choking smoke than warmth, and they had agreed without speaking that lack of heat was preferable to lack of air.

The two of them had seen only three other people during that time: the gaoler who had regularly entered the cell with a large bowl of stew, which was surprisingly filling, if bland; and the local Lord and his personal guardsman, who had looked at the them with undisguised disgust and informed them that a trial had been held and sentences had been passed. Tial's protests that they had not even been present had been ignored, and the sentence had been read from an official-looking document with great relish.

In three days, Tial and Mereth would be taken to the executioner's square, their bodies would be covered in oil—carefully sparing their heads—and set aflame. The fire would burn the skin from their bodies, and they would remain alive and in agony until their heads were removed with the executioner's axe. These would be sent to Duke Parnas in payment for the life of his first-born.

Tial had desperately tried to convince the Lord that Mereth had had nothing to do with the murder—she didn't even bother trying to explain that her own actions were in self-defence—but to no avail. The Lord had sneered and spat, saying how disgusting it was that such pathetic Unhumans would attempt to protect each other from responsibility for a crime where they had obviously conspired to kill one of the noble men—noble Humans—of the land.

That had been the day before, and now Tial knew that she and Mereth would die in another two sunrises. She had been slightly surprised that it would take so long, but Mereth had grunted and vouched that the Lord was likely using the time to advertise their execution so that the most people would attend. That would mean that there would be more people to spread the word of how two evil Unhuman whores had received their justice after slaying one of their betters.

In the intervening time, Tial had played the "what if" game over and over. What if she had simply acceded to Oannis' advances the first evening? The ensuing dalliance would have been unpleasant, at the least, but hopefully would have been over quickly, and it was possible the Lord would have forgotten her, having attained his desired conquest. What if she had not fought back when he had assaulted her in the alley? Again, the results would have been painful, possibly life-threatening, but at least Mereth would not have been dragged into this fate.

The possibilities had swirled through Tial's mind constantly, until Mereth had finally told her to shut up, even though she had said nothing aloud.

"No fault," Mereth had rasped, scowling. "My choice."

Now Tial's mind had quieted as a resigned acceptance washed over her, and a tiny shameful part was grateful that she didn't have to undergo this ordeal alone. She wondered if Elves and Dwarves went to the same afterlife. Such a place would be… interesting, to say the least. She knew that some Human priests disputed the idea that Unhumans had souls, but both Dwarves and Elves—for that matter, even Orcs and Goblins supposedly—worshipped their own gods. Surely those deities would only be concerned if their subjects had souls?

She was finally dropping off to sleep, wondering what a Dwarf-Elf heaven would be like, and hoping that she could at least see Mereth there, when a sound intruded on her sleepy musings.

"Oy! Lass!"

Tial recognised the voice, and fuzzily wondered just when ugly Humans had been invited into her afterlife.

"Lass! Wake up, ye lazy wench!"

This time Tial sat bolt upright as the loudly whispered insult finally registered. She looked around, seeing nothing, then up to the window. A dark shadow blocked out the dim light that usually leaked in.

"About ab'ngishdu time," the shadow hissed.

"K-Krev?" Tial whispered incredulously.

"Well, I sure ain't the ab'ngishdu Elf Goddess o' Love, lass. Still, would be willin' t' give it a try, we get ye out o' there." Tial had never been so happy to hear such a foul voice, but was still somehow happy she didn't know what ab'ngishdu meant. "I be guessin' ye do be wantin' out o' there, aye?"

"Of course!" Tial exclaimed, and then flinched at the loud sound. She lowered her voice, shaking Mereth roughly. The woman could sleep through a Demon summoning. "Mereth! Wake up!"

To her credit, when Mereth awoke, she woke instantly. "D'rl?"

Tial just nodded towards the window, knowing her friend would be able to see.

"Alright, lass, we be tryin' somethin' a little tricky, 'ere. Get way from the window. Syn Vel won't be pleased if ye end up bein' blowed t' bits by accident."

Krev moved away from the window, and Tial and Mereth hurried towards the door. At this point Tial didn't care if Krev and this "Syn Vel" were ultimately planning on selling her into slavery to Trolls, just as long as she got out of this particular hellhole.

Another shape eclipsed the window, and Tial briefly caught a glimpse of a sharply pointed ear. The Elf, Dalen, she conjectured with an odd lack of surprise. That strongly suggested that the Cloaked Man was somehow involved, although just how she couldn't guess.

There was a brief, murmured exchange outside the window, and then the Elf wrapped long, thin fingers around the bars. A moment later, a dim, coruscating aura began to writhe around his hands, and Tial almost cried out a warning. It was well-known that steel was a natural Power-sink to begin with, and most gaols were further fortified with other elements to enhance their resistance to Power manipulation. The lights around the Elf's hands expanded to wrap around the bars, and Tial's heart sank as they almost instantly disappeared into the metal as though being soaked up by a sponge. The Elf didn't seem to notice, as the light-show continued for another few moments, and then ceased.

The bars looked no different to Tial's eyes, considering the dim light, and she despaired when the Elf took his hands away and moved back. Nothing had changed.

There was another murmured conversation, and then new hands grasped the bars and pulled. Tial had been half-hoping that the steel would suddenly dissolve into dust, or even evaporate completely, but they appeared as solid as ever as the hands strained.

Then, with a soft, grinding noise, they began to shift. Tial inched closer, Mereth right behind her, and saw that while the metal remained as strong as ever, the stone in which it was set was crumbling like old pottery. Finally, with a crunch and scrape that seemed extremely loud, the bars popped out of their setting. There was a word that sounded like a curse outside as Krev nearly fell over backwards.

"She'murgu-ba," he murmured. Tial peered out the window and, in the light of Gyr's Eye she could see the scarred man sucking on the edge of his hand. Nearby, the Elf—Tial could see that it was Dalen—crouched, his eyes flickering around the courtyard constantly.

Krev saw her face in the opening and grinned. "Well met, lass. Give us a kiss."

Tial almost laughed out loud in relief. "You get us out of here, and I'll kiss both you and your wife," she whispered.

"Aye? I be holdin' ye t' that, lass." He turned to the side, addressing someone outside Tial's view. "Yer turn, My Lord."

As Tial examined the now bar-free window, her heart sank again. The metal impediment was gone, but the opening was still far too small to pass anyone smaller than a child. Tial was much too large to pass through, and while Mereth was short, she was still very stocky. She could only hope that their rescuers had a solution for this as well.

As Tial had been half-expecting, the newest figure to enter her field of vision was the Cloaked Man, still invisible under his hood. He didn't say anything to Tial, but the hood turned to Dalen, still crouching nearby. "Are you prepared?" he asked, and Tial almost wept at the calm, even voice.

Dalen nodded and ceased his vigilant lookout. He closed his eyes and his hands began moving slowly in hypnotic patterns as he murmured softly under his breath.

The Cloaked Man waited a moment before nodding and turning back to the prisoners. Reaching through the window, he held out his hand. In it, a tiny flame danced on a small, oil-soaked torch no longer than the Half-Elf's finger. "Place this in the middle of the cell," he instructed, and waited while Tial did so. The flame, small though it was, was nearly blinding after the hours in darkness. "Excellent. Now, take my hand, if you will," he bid Tial. Hesitantly, she did so, feeling warmth and strong fingers beneath the black glove. "This will be unpleasant," the Cloaked Man warned. "Hold your breath and try not to scream."

Tial nodded, and there was a pause. Then she felt a tingling in her palm, an itching sensation, like ants crawling under her skin, which quickly spread up her arm and then into her whole body. The creeping sensation was accompanied by tendrils that looked like normal shadows, except that they seemed to be cast by nothing she could see. Despite the Cloaked Man's instructions, she found herself gasping for breath, and was barely able to restrain herself from writhing to scratch her skin as the fingers of shadow-stuff sank into her skin. The tingling got worse and worse, an entire legion of termites running over and into her skin. As they did so, her vision tunnelled more and more.

Just when Tial couldn't bear the itching, burning any more, the sensation stopped, but she was already screaming.

Or trying to.

Not a sound emerged from her lips. The invisible insects had gone, to be replaced by a deep cold that reached right to Tial's soul. She wasn't shivering, however, and there was another moment's panic when she realised why she couldn't scream: she wasn't breathing, either. Tial's head spun to face Mereth, and then what her eyes were telling her registered.

The cell was no longer filled with darkness and gloom. Instead, Tial could see every object, every brick, every rivet on the door, with the clarity of a sunlit noon. The colours were odd, however, a strange negative effect, where the areas that had been lit were dark—the tiny fire at the centre of the room was pure black—while what had once been the deepest shadows almost glowed.

She desperately reached out a hand to grasp Mereth's shoulder, and would have sobbed—if she'd had any breath—when her touch passed over her friend like smoke, without purchase. It came to her that there was a touch that she could feel, and she looked to where her other hand was still held securely in the Cloaked Man's. Her first reaction was to recoil, because the Cloaked Man was nothing but pure darkness, even deeper than the flame inside. Not a feature could be seen, his entire form purely that of a silhouette, a menacing figure lit from behind. Tial instinctively tried to pull away, but her hand could have been mortared to his. Instead, it was the black figure who gave a gentle pull, and Tial who went with him without even a hint of resistance. She flinched again as her head entered the tiny frame of the window, sure that her shoulders were far too wide to pass, but they slid through without even seeming to touch the sides. Her torso and hips followed, as she slid onto the ground outside with more ease than if she had been dragged through oil.

If she could breathe she would have been panting as she lay on the ground, hand still firmly in the grip of the Cloaked Man's. She tried to sit up, and almost panicked again when she couldn't. The Man's other hand was warm on her shoulder through the soul-deep chill, and his voice had an odd echoing quality as he spoke. "Gently, Lady." Despite her terror, the words were somehow comforting.

The the ants were back, running over her skin once more, this time in the opposite direction as they rushed from Tial's extremities towards and into the Cloaked Man's hands. The cold went with it, and the chill night air felt like an oven in comparison. She could breathe again, and she screamed.

Her cry was muffled by Krev's large hand, and she immediately collapsed into sobs, wrenching away and curling up on her side. She distantly felt gentle fingers stroking her head, and then a single digit touched her temple.

"Be calm," a quiet voice said, and Tial thought she could hear a hint of pain and sorrow in it.

Immediately a feeling of peace began to spread throughout her, pushing back the pain, confusion, and terror, allowing her thoughts to emerge once again. The fear was not really gone, just faded until a time when she could deal with it.

Sniffling, Tial sat up slowly, wiping her eyes and nose with her hand.

"Ye'll be fine, lass," Krev said in a hoarse whisper, his large hand oddly comforting on her shoulder. "Now, let's be gettin' yer pretty friend out o' that hole."

The Cloaked Man was already crouched by the barless window, whispering what Tial assumed were the same instructions to Mereth. A hand reached into the cell once again, and there was a pause for several heartbeats, during which Tial's sped up as she relived what her friend would be feeling inside. Then the Cloaked Man was pulling Mereth out of the hole, and this time Tial could see just how she had escaped.

What the Cloaked Man was pulling wasn't Mereth, but her shadow. The shadow of the Half-Dwarf's arm looked just like it should in the carefully shuttered light that Tial realised Krev was carrying, except that Mereth's arm was nowhere to be seen to cast it. Of course there was no friction as the shadow of the woman's stocky shoulders and body eased out of the window, and of course the window's narrowness was no impediment to their width; shadows ignored such three-dimensional restrictions.

Mereth's full shadow lay on the flagstones of the courtyard, one umbral hand still somehow held within the Cloaked Man's. Slowly at first, then with growing speed, colours began to appear, starting at her feet, and working their way up. At the same time, her corporeal body seemed to grow in some eye-twisting way from her umbral one, until the Half-Dwarf was fully solid once more. To her credit, she didn't make a noise, though her jaw was clenched tight enough to crack teeth.

"Not Dwarves," she grunted, and Tial nodded mentally in emphatic agreement.

It's not for Elves, either, she thought.

Their rescuers gave them little time to recover, encouraging them to their feet. Krev supported Tial's wobbly form, and Mereth tried to look as though she wasn't leaning too heavily on Dalen. Only the Cloaked Man stood alone, though he was careful to remain nearby.

There was a pause as a hand emerged from the cloak and made several odd gestures before Tial and Mereth. Tial barely sensed a feeling as though ice-cold fire trickled along her nerves, and then it was gone.

"Relax," Krev said quietly. "Smile. Ye're just a pair o' whores keepin' me drunken friend and meself company."

Before Tial could fully process the instructions, the odd group was making its way down the narrow street, not hurrying. This particular street was almost an alleyway, but soon enough they were turning onto the much more brightly-lit promenade that ran through the centre of the city. Tial tensed as they emerged not a hand of paces from a pair of strolling Town Patrolmen, but the two guards only smirked at them openly, not breaking stride. In her ear, Krev was enthusiastically expounding on his most recent exploits with some rescued victims of a Medani slave caravan, promising that all that practice would certainly make Tial's experiences of the night pleasant ones. Dalen was less boisterous, but was ostensibly leaning on Mereth—even though she barely came up to his chest—and whispering some supposedly ardent comments in her ear.

The only one out of place was the Cloaked Man. As soon as the Patrolmen came close, he gracefully slipped into a shadowed doorway, and before Tial's eyes he simply disappeared, melding into the shadow. It was so unexpected that Tial almost couldn't help staring right at the Man's hiding place, just barely managing to avert her gaze. Still, as soon as the guards passed by, she caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye as the Cloaked Man seemed to flow out of the shadows and once again begin strolling nonchalantly down the street.

The same procedure was repeated a few more times as the group approached the wall surrounding the city. They weren't heading for the main gates, Tial realised, but towards one of the smaller gates. She wondered how they were going to pass through in the middle of the night, but given the speed and efficiency with which her saviours had arranged matters so far, she felt reasonably confident that a six-pace-tall stone rampart would prove a minor obstacle.

Still, she was oddly disappointed when the mysterious process for passing the gate turned out to be simply a small pouch of coins that discreetly entered the gate guard's possession.

Then they were off, through the slums that hugged the wall and out across farmers' field towards the Gyfar Forest in the distance.

It was nearly dawn by the time the group finally came to a halt in a clearing. Tial was close to collapse, the exhilaration and terror of their daring escape having long since worn off, and now all she wanted to do was curl up under a tree and sleep. Even the novelty of being close to nature had faded; Tial had grown up with her mother in cities all her life, a very unusual circumstance for an Elven woman. There had always been the constant anxiety that they were running from something—what, Tial never found out.

Now that she had been in the forest for several waterchimes, she had discovered that it was cold, and dark, and wet, and home to hordes of insects. Frankly, she was beginning to doubt the sanity of her forest-dwelling Elven ancestors. There was probably some trick to alleviate the cold, darkness, and dampness, and she had vaguely heard of various salves that would repel insects, but it seemed none of them were available at the moment.

The roughly circular opening in the trees where they came to a stop looked little different from any of the countless others they had passed through on the way. Krev helped Tial down onto a fallen log. "How be ye, lass?" he asked, his ugly face peering into hers.

"Well enough, I suppose," Tial replied. She looked up as Dalen guided Mereth over to sit next to them and smiled wanly. The Elf gave a thin smile and crossed the clearing, where he began pulling cleverly-concealed bags out of the undergrowth.

"Good." Krev stood up. "I be makin' a fire. But first…" He glanced around to see the Cloaked Man standing nearby, looking almost sinister in the pre-dawn shadows. "'Ere now, let's be getting' rid o' this get-up," he said.

The Cloaked Man seemed to hesitate. "Is that wise, do you think?" He nodded almost imperceptibly towards Tial and Mereth.

Krev shrugged. "If they be choosin' t' run, so be it. Their choice, my lord. 'Tis yer honour we be holdin'. If they be runnin', the debt be paid."

The Cloaked Man sighed softly. "So be it," he echoed. "And cease to call me 'my lord.'"

Without further delay he raised a hand and made a gesture as though pulling some unseen material from Krev's from. As his hand moved, shadow followed it, tiny little tastes of blackness that seemed to echo strangely in Tial's ears before flowing back into the more natural shadows of his body. For a moment nothing happened, and then another play of shadow caught Tial's attention, almost lost in the pre-dawn darkness. She looked over at where it was flickering over Krev's face and hands, and gasped.

Before her eyes, the man's features changed. No, that wasn't quite accurate. Absolutely nothing actually changed, but her perception shifted slightly, seeming to come into focus for the first time, even though she had never realised his face was out of focus before. Back in her room at the Five Willows there had been a certain knot in the wood of the wall, and if she looked at it in just the right way, she could make out a knight on horseback. This felt similar.

Krev's face shifted disconcertingly. His pronounced brow and jutting jaw became more evident, and the dimensions of his ears changed, becoming both larger and more bottom-heavy. The width of his nose became more obvious, while at the same time it flattened, the nostrils widening. The hue of his skin altered to become darker and greyer. His already impressive build was enhanced to truly massive proportions, and for the first time Tial noticed that his teeth were sharp and jagged. The scar across his face writhed, becoming a sharp-edged tattoo inked in black and red.

The entire process took heartbeats, and when it was over, an Orc stood in beside her in the clearing.

Tial stared, dimly aware of Mereth's hand painfully gripping her arm, and the half-Dwarf's low, gravelly swearing. Some portion of her mind that was still operating managed to consider that if Krev was an Orc, then Dalen must be…

Her head whipped to the side, more than half-dreading the sight of whatever had replaced the handsome Elf. Tial could only stare as the lean figure continued to sort through the packs he had extracted, completely unchanged. He appeared to show no surprise or concern whatsoever that his companion was actually one of his racial enemies. Elves had been battling Orcs for centuries, fighting back the monsters who were constantly slaughtering hundreds indiscriminately in Human and Elves settlements. For an Elf and an Orc to be within a hundred paces of each other and not be locked in mortal combat was… inconceivable. Yet here they were.

The dread and fascination that had gripped Tial almost made her forget the third member of the impossible band, and a barely heard noise had her head whipping back spasmodically.

For a moment all she saw was the same dark, mysterious figure, completely concealed by his cloak, the silver claw clasp at the front gleaming in a stray patch of light. Then the cloak seemed to shift subtly, its underlying structure changing. The silver clasp at the front parted of its own volition, allowing the garment to fall open. Tial waited for the man to push back the hood, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the hood split down the middle, folding back from his head, and as it did so the front of the cloak gaped open. Rather than falling to the ground, the cloak continued to open, now parting down the back. In a matter of moments the "cloak" had transformed completely. The two claws of the "clasp," now far separated, twisted slightly, taking their place with a series of others at the end of a series of long, thin, finger-like bones. The "fabric" in between those bones shook itself, just as midnight-black as it had ever been, and a pair of huge, bat-like wings stretched to their full extension.

Tial's eyes traced down to the base of those wings, hypnotised, to where they joined with slim, muscular shoulders. It looked like they passed through openings cut in the back of a simple, dark green tunic. That tunic covered a body that was completely, unambiguously, feminine. Breasts filled out the garment above a flat belly and long, well-muscled legs encased in tight-fitting black trousers. Feet were slipped into high-topped boots of some kind of scaly hide. There was something wrapped around one of those legs, something that Tial first thought was a thick, black rope, until it uncoiled itself of its own volition to become a long, twitching tail that lashed about as though excited to be freed of its imprisonment.

Tial watched, unable to look away, as the… being proceeded to strip off the black gloves on its… her… hands, revealing skin that was just as black as the wings, and fingers tipped with sharp-looking silvery claws. One of those hands rose to bury itself in its owner's hair, and Tial's gaze followed.

The… person's… head was also night-black, and as unmistakably feminine as her body. Strong, angular features might have been beautiful if they weren't so disconcerting. Short, shimmering hair, as silver as a new-minted coin, crowned the face, starkly emphasizing the lack of eyebrows. In their place, a row of short, blunt spikes, like tiny horns and a black, oily colour, swept towards the sides. Tall, delicate ears, pointed as an Elf's, bracketed her face. Her mouth was slightly open to reveal even white teeth, unremarkable except for the canines, which were visibly sharp and long as a knuckle.

The creature's eyes were closed as fingers ruffled short hair in a painfully Human gesture, and when they opened Tial was bizarrely shocked to see that they were a plain, quite unspectacular brown.

The person somehow sensed Tial's unwavering stare and met her eyes. A slight smile tugged at inky lips, and Tial flinched back, shocked by the dissonance of such Human eyes and a Human expression on such an Unhuman face. The face shuttered instantly, eyes going cold, and its owner turned with a final shake of her wings to head over to her Elven companion. The wings folded to form something resembling a high-collared cape, and the tail continued to whip back and forth as if it had a mind of its own.

"Impressive, ain't she?"

The low tones, even more rough than before—or was she only perceiving them differently?—made Tial flinch again. Somehow she had managed to completely forget the fact that she was a few paces from an Orc in the spectacle of seeing the Cloaked Man's transformation into whatever he… she… it was. After that, a mere Unhuman savage was incredibly banal.

Looking up, she saw that the Orc had not, in fact, been a hallucination as she had been unconsciously hoping, and she shrank back again, absurdly grateful for Mereth's presence beside her. The Orc grinned toothily, seeming to revel in the reaction to its grotesque appearance. The tattoo across its face, which seemed even more horrific than the scar, bent into a wavy line. "Don't worry, lass," it growled. "We ain't gonna be cookin' ye tonight. Ain't got the spices t' do it proper." It licked its lips dramatically. "I'll send Dalen over t' ye, an' he can ask if ye be wantin' t' be boiled or roasted." The Orc laughed loudly and gratingly as it strolled off. "If ye be wantin' t' run away, now be the time!" it tossed back over its shoulder.

Tial was sure her eyes were about to fall out—It would make them easier to cook, her mind thought hysterically—her eyelids were so wide. She glanced down beside her, and was absurdly pleased that even Mereth's hard-faced stoicism had crumbled completely, the half-Dwarf's face pale and sweaty as she panted slightly. Dwarves and Orcs warred just as frequently as Elves and Orcs did, and Tial wondered what deeply-buried racial instinct was fighting to the fore of Mereth's mind.

Across the clearing there was some conversation taking place, and the direction of many of the gestures made it obvious who the topic of discussion was. Finally, Dalen stood and began to walk their way. Behind him, the Orc spoke to the winged creature for a moment more and then disappeared into the trees.

The Elf had acquired a long, slim sword on one hip, and a dagger on the other, and was settling an unstrung crossbow and quiver of bolts on his back. He had a small bag in his hand. Tial still more than half-expected him to have changed in some way, to have transformed into some terrible monster, but he was still the same graceful, aloof, handsome Elf he had always been. He crouched down on his heels in front of Tial and Mereth and a faint hint of compassion could be seen in his eyes, although his tone was still cool and distant.

"Krev thought you would prefer to speak with me," he began without preamble. "He thought you might like a… 'friendly face.'"

"Its name is really Krev?" Tial asked. It seemed a singularly irrelevant question, but it was all her mind could grasp hold of at the moment.

Dalen's expression froze for several heartbeats, and then thawed with obvious effort. "Yes. His name is Krev, in the short form. His full name is Krev'mar'ak to non-Clan. He is willing to be referred to as Krev."

Tial didn't know what "non-Clan" meant, but the icy rebuke in the Elf's voice was clear, and she winced like a scolded child.

"Sorry," she whispered. "His name is Krev." Dalen nodded. "And, uh… her? What is… What should I call her?" Her eyes cut across to the… woman picking through the packs across the clearing.

"She is Syn Vel." Dalen paused, seemed about to add more, and then shrugged, a mere dip of his shoulders.

"And, er… what is she?" Tial desperately tried to keep her tone apologetic, but she simply couldn't keep herself from asking the question.

The Elf shrugged again. "She is Syn Vel," he repeated, his voice and face inscrutable. "If she wishes you to know more she will tell you." He paused again. "Just know that she feels she owes you an honour-debt, and has put herself in your service until that debt is fulfilled."

Tial blinked in shock.

"What now?" Mereth asked, speaking up for the first time, forestalling Tial's next question.

"Now you have a choice," Dalen said calmly. "Should you have kith or kin who would shelter you, we shall endeavour to deliver you safely to their presence. Should you have none, it may be possible to establish you in some other township. Should neither of these be acceptable, you may choose to seek comfort and safety amongst our… community."

"My tavern?" Mereth grunted, seemingly oblivious to the options.

"I'm afraid returning to Stylok would be… inadvisable," Dalen replied. "The Five Willows has already been confiscated by the Lord and torn down." Mereth's face was like stone. "The destruction was meant as a sop to appease Duke Parnas, along with the title to the land on which the tavern stood, and your deaths."

Tial's breath caught, and she fought back tears. The Five Willows had been home to her for much of her life, the other workers the closest things to family she'd had since her mother had died. All of her friends and possessions, meagre though both had been, had been there, and the thought of all of it, gone…

"We have been able to determine that all of your employees have so far survived and gone underground," Dalen continued, and Tial felt relief from Mereth that matched her own. "It seems likely that, being Human, they will escape the Lord's vengeance and establish themselves in other employment." The Elf held out the bag he had been holding, and Mereth took it. "One of our… acquaintances was able to recover a few of your personal possessions that had been seized. Not everything, unfortunately, but as much as was possible."

Mereth tipped the bag's contents into her lap, and Tial's eyes sifted through the assortment that tumbled out. There wasn't much: an assortment of cheap jewellery, the "gems" made of coloured glass; a minor charm Mereth had paid dearly for that had proven remarkably effective at repelling vermin—the non-Human kind, at least; a razor-sharp dagger that the tavern owner had acquired sometime in her past; three pretty combs of carved bone; and a variety of other knick-knacks. There was also a small pouch that clinked when Mereth picked it up. She looked inside and her eyes widened. Tial recognised the pouch itself. It was where Mereth had kept her total savings, a handful of gold coins and a few gems. The fact that these… people had not only rescued it, but were freely returning it, was mind-boggling. Granted, it wasn't a huge fortune, but it was more than many people would ever have.

"It was not practical to smuggle out many of your larger possessions. Our acquaintance was able to get a reasonable price for what else he could, and we have added it to your coins," Dalen was explaining.

Mereth was holding the pouch with shaking hands. She reached in and stared at the coins that lay on her palm, and then looked up at the Elf. "Owe you," she said, making as if to hand him the money, but he shook his head.

"I claim no debt," he said softly. "It is Syn Vel who feels beholden to you, and it is between her and yourselves that any debt must be settled. Krev was acting in support of her honour, so any debt between them must be acknowledged privately. I think it unlikely that a debt does, in fact, exist, but such is not my place to determine."

"Oh," Tial said, involuntarily looking over at the woman in question, who had taken a seat on a stump, wings partly open behind her, and was intently examining a number of small, sharp objects, pointedly ignoring the conversation taking place. "So we owe… her?"

Dalen shrugged again. "Syn Vel believes that the debt is in your favour. Should you believe that you honourably owe her, it may be that your debts will cancel. It is not my place to determine," he repeated.

"Mm," Mereth hummed. Without another word, she reached into the pouch and picked out a small object, which she silently handed to Tial.

Tial's breath caught as she took it. The large ring, formed intricately in the shape of a Dragon, was the last direct link she had to her mother. Even though the item would have fetched a considerable sum from any jewellery merchant, she had never seriously considered it. Instead, it had remained hidden behind a loose panel in her room, except for the times she would sneak it out and hold it when she felt particularly alone. Her mother had never said where it had come from, but had promised it would come in useful when she most needed it. When Tial had been a child she had dreamed that the ring would come alive somehow when she was in great danger, or summon some great hero on a draconic steed to bear her away. As time had passed she had come to look on the ring as a kind of "last chance" token; if ever she became so desperate that she had to sell it, it would still be her saviour, albeit in a more mundane manner.

The half-Elf stared at the ring for a moment, and then slowly and deliberately slipped it on her finger. For a moment she felt as though the ring had somehow had a hand in her most recent affairs, summoning aid when she most needed it. The fanciful moment passed, but the brief surge of confidence remained. Whatever happened, she and Mereth would survive, and between them they would be able to handle Elves, Orcs, and… whatever Syn Vel was.

Before she could thank him, Dalen's head came up slightly, as though listening. A moment later Tial heard it too: a faint crashing and crunching that got louder, as if something was making its way ponderously through the forest, unconcerned with any destruction it was making.

"Our transportation has arrived," Dalen said mildly.

A moment later, Krev emerged from the woods in the same place he had disappeared. He was leading four creatures like nothing Tial had ever seen before. Over the years she had seen countless horses, and even more donkeys and oxen, all used as mounts. Once she had even seen a mastodon, the frighteningly large mount of a visiting Ambassador from the frozen lands to the south. None of them compared to these… beasts.

They were reptilian in overall appearance, but far outstripped the small scurrying lizards that were common in the area. Standing on their hind legs, these creatures were taller than a man, although as Tial watched, one of them dropped down to all fours for a moment to investigate something on the ground. Whatever it found didn't survive long, because with a lightning-fast strike the reptile snatched the poor animal with terrifyingly large, razor-sharp teeth. The only sign they were in any way domesticated were the leather bridles by which Krev was leading them. They varied in colour from a burnished bronze to a dirty brownish-green, and when one of them looked across the clearing at her, Tial saw that its eyes were a surprising metallic green colour, and possessed of a curiosity and intelligence at least the equal of any horse.

"Ride that?" Mereth asked incredulously, as Syn Vel stood without a word and began to help the Orc fit the mounts with cunningly-designed saddles and harness.

"Certainly," Dalen agreed. "Horses tend not to thrive where we live. These are mush'lu-ua-me'esh." The word—Tial was beginning to suspect it was the Orcish tongue—was jarring coming among the Elf's smooth, even tones. He looked down at the two women, and Tial could vaguely detect a subtle humour in his eyes. "Whose aid would you prefer while riding?"

There had been some discussion between Tial and Mereth, as well as a time trying in vain to convince Dalen and Krev that the women would be more than happy to walk—something which was only too true—but ultimately they had ended up in the same pairs they had fallen into during their flight from Stylok. Both of them had felt trepidation about riding with the Orc, but neither could consider joining Syn Vel, the woman's alien appearance and aura repelling them both. Mereth was sitting before Dalen on his beast, a dark grey mush'lu-ua named Zasha, while Tial was sitting stiffly in front of Krev, his massive arms on either side of her while he held the reins of the grey-green Grek'naz.

Syn Vel was seated on the bronze lizard, which was slightly smaller than the rest, and which the winged woman had treated with surprising gentleness and affection. Now she was the most bizarre-looking of the lot, her wings partially spread for balance, bringing them in whenever needed to pass between trees. If she were to lie down on the beast, the two of them would look almost exactly like Tial imagined a Dragon would appear.

The mush'lu-ua-me'esh were remarkably comfortable mounts. Tial had only ridden a horse a few times before, but this was nothing like that rough, jolting ride. Instead the creatures seemed almost to flow across the ground, standing upright most of the time, but dropping to all fours over rougher terrain or thicker underbrush. That sleek movement was now the bane of Mereth's existence, and the group had been forced to halt several times so that the half-Dwarf could be sick.

Eventually the novelty of the ride had worn off, and Tial had ceased trying to ignore that there was an Orc behind her, and had instead chosen to concentrate on that fact.

What do I know about Orcs? she asked herself. I've never met one before… until now, I suppose. I just know what the mercenaries at the tavern said, and the old stories and legends. They're all pretty unambiguous. Without exception, the tales painted Orcs as brutish, savage Unhumans, their culture, such as it was, dedicated largely to slaughter and destruction. They were the barely intelligent slaves of Demons and evil Magi, often taking payment in the flesh of their enemies. They raided isolated farmsteads, logging camps, mining villages, and even the occasional larger town. They avoided large-scale battles, being cowardly at heart, although the Elves slowly reclaiming the Red Waste had been fighting them on a near-constant basis for centuries. The last major Human conflict had occurred just after Tial had been born; the Final Orc War had driven them almost completely from the Imperium. If there was one thing everyone agreed upon, it was that if Orcs were in the area, nobody was safe until they were all dead.

None of this matched what Tial had seen of Krev's behaviour. This… person was reasonably articulate, if somewhat crude, was constantly laughing, was obviously loyal to his companions, and had slaughtered no villages in the time she had known him. She had seen no Human flesh among his possessions, despite his loud descriptions of the best way to cook other people—"Ye know, lass, I ain't ever be eatin' half-Elf before. Can ye be tellin' me how much fat per stone-weight ye be havin'?"—and the most exotic skin he was wearing appeared to come from some kind of reptile. He was obviously capable of violence, as evidenced by the wickedly barbed pick strapped to his back, but then half the Human population carried a weapon of one sort or another.

Tial was slowly and grudgingly coming to the conclusion that none of Krev's behaviour was an act, except for his outrageously bloodthirsty speech, and she was wondering whether this Orc was an anomaly, or—a much more disturbing idea—the tales of Orcish society as a whole were something less than accurate. There was no way to know at the moment, and Tial was certainly not about to ask directly.

If Krev was confusing, the rest of Tial's companions were equally so.

Dalen was probably the most "normal" of the lot. Elves were a rare sight in the Imperium, but not unheard-of, so there was a familiarity of a sort about him. He was just as cool and outwardly unemotional as any of the few other Elves Tial had met, and there was absolutely nothing odd about him physically. On the other hand, Elves and Orcs were mortal enemies, and by all rights he and Krev should have slaughtered each other long since. Instead, there was an unmistakable companionship between them, a loyalty and even an affection that appeared to be entirely genuine. Krev had been teasing the Elf almost constantly—when he wasn't expounding recipes for roast Dwarf with gravy—about someone called "Gardine," and what this individual would do to Dalen when they all returned "home." From what Tial could gather, this "Gardine" had been pursuing Dalen romantically for some time, and part of the reason the Elf was on this mission was to get away from her. Or him; Tial couldn't quite tell.

Yet if Krev was confusing, and Dalen was almost normal, Syn Vel was utterly mysterious. She hardly spoke except to give some quiet instructions, which Dalen and Krev obeyed instantly. The obedience and loyalty they showed her was evident, but she was more than some aloof leader to them. The loyalty on Krev's part appeared to border on outright devotion, his interactions with her more like a brother than anything else. Dalen was less demonstrative, but even his friendship was clear.

Physically, she remained startlingly alien. Her wings and tail moved like the apparently natural extensions of her body that they were, to the point that Tial had been shocked to see Syn Vel using her tail to help lift one of the packs onto the beast they were using as a pack animal. Wings, tail, horns, teeth, claws… all of them combined to something that surely could not be natural. Tial had speculated about the woman's exotic past. She had heard tales of magical experiments gone awry, of Power-mad Magi deliberately creating abominations in their laboratories, even of certain locations in the landscape where chaotic surges of Power could warp and twist creatures into bizarre forms. The exotic lands far to the east were rumoured to dabble in Bodymorphing frequently, creating useful, grotesque, or simply unique forms almost at will.

When one added the obvious command of Power she possessed, the night-black woman took on an aura of extreme Unhumanity, far beyond that of a mere Orc.

Tial's mind was still worrying about everything when the smooth motion of the mush'lu-ua, combined with the warmth behind her, and the exhaustion of her sleepless night in flight from the city, lulled her to sleep.

It was much later when the lack of motion awoke Tial. She blinked sleepily about her, noting the light that had taken on the golden hue of early evening. Suddenly she realised that she had fallen asleep slumped comfortably against the Orc behind her and sat bolt upright. Their mount chose that moment to crouch down, almost throwing her off completely. A large, strong hand grabbed her arm and prevented her from tumbling to the ground, until Tial jerked away reflexively.

"Careful, lass. Wouldn't do t' have ye be breakin' yer neck after all the work we done already." Whatever Krev thought of her aversion, none of it showed in his rumbling voice.

The mush'lu-ua sank down fully with a final chirp, front legs folded under its body like a gigantic cat.

"Off we go, lass," Krev instructed, and Tial looked around, seeing that Syn Vel was already off her steed, and Mereth had collapsed to the ground like a wet sack. Scrambling to the ground, Tial groaned as her legs immediately cramped up, and she almost fell. She didn't even object when her companion helped her to her feet. "Walk it off, lass."

Obediently, Tial took a few tottering steps, feeling her muscles scream at her in defiance, blissfully thankful when they loosened a little. She put her nascent mobility to use in crossing over to Mereth with agonising slowness. Her friend was still prone on the ground, her eyes closed.

"Kill me," the half-Dwarf growled without opening her eyes.

"And here I thought Dwarves were supposed to be tough," Tial chided, absurdly grateful that someone was more miserable than she was.

Mereth looked up dourly. "Half-Dwarf," she spat. "Half-Human."

Tial finally managed to coax Mereth to her feet, and together they walked out the stiffness, leaning together like a couple of crippled beggars. Meanwhile, the rest of the group began setting up a camp with smooth efficiency.

"'Ere, lasses," Krev called. "Make some use o' yerselves. We be needin' firewood."

Grumbling under her breath, wondering if all this "being rescued" business was really worthwhile, Tial ventured a short distance into the surrounding forest with Mereth and began to gather fallen branches. Eventually they returned, fully loaded, to the camp, where a fire was already started, and Dalen was doing quite familiar things with foodstuffs. Silently, they dropped their wood near the fire, and then retreated, sitting close together several paces away.

Dinner was a very silent affair. Dalen and Syn Vel seemed to be naturally quiet, and even Krev's normal garrulousness appeared to have been blunted by exhaustion. The meal was plain, unassuming, and the most delicious one Tial had ever tasted. It also featured a total lack of recognisable Human meat, although by this time Tial wasn't sure she would have cared had they been roasting a whole Human on a spit, apple in its mouth and all.

Tial and Mereth sat a little apart from the others, and tensed slightly when Krev wandered over to them. He was chewing on some kind of dried meat, and as he sat he held out a piece.

"Jerky?" he offered. "It be Gnome."

Tial, who had been hesitantly reaching out, jerked her hand back, almost missing the evilly humorous glint in the Orc's eye. For a moment she worried that she was so able to recognise such Human characteristics in someone Unhuman.

Krev laughed. "A joke, lass," he chortled. "Don't ye worry. It be really mush'khur."

"And what, precisely, is mush… mush'khur?" Tial asked suspiciously.

The Orc ripped off another piece of jerky and chewed it thoughtfully. "In yer tongue? Canyon lizard, I be thinkin'."

Tial's hand remained far from the proffered meat, but Mereth reached out and took a piece. She was likely trying to make up for her very un-Dwarfish weakness earlier, because she stared Krev in the eye as she took a large bite and chewed determinedly. Krev grinned widely, an impressive and somewhat intimidating sight coming from someone with as large a mouth and so many prominent teeth.

"Food from Orcs," Mereth muttered. "Mother'd die. Kill me, then die."

"Then we just won't be tellin' 'er," Krev said in a stage whisper, winking at her.

"How far have we travelled today?" Tial asked, changing the subject.

"'Bout twenty spans," the Orc replied, and Tial blinked in surprise. Twenty spans was a respectable distance for a man to ride on a horse in a day along the roads. The same distance through thick forest and over rough ground was unprecedented, and Tial eyed the mush'lu-ua-me'esh with new respect.

"How far until we get to… where we're going?"

"Depends. Another day 'til we be gettin' t' yer choice-point. If ye be choosin' t' head t' another city, maybe a hand o' days. If ye be choosin' t' come with us, another double-hand."

"So we have to decide by dawn of the day after tomorrow at the latest?" Tial asked.

"An-na," Krev said, nodding. "O' course, ye'll be wantin' t' be discussin' yer debts wi' Syn Vel first," he added, and Tial tensed.

"With Syn Vel?" she echoed weakly.

"Nothin' t' be afraid of, lass." Krev grinned again. "She only goes on a murd'rous rampage once an Eye."

Tial swallowed, not particularly comforted. In the light of the fire, the winged woman looked particularly terrifying. "Now?" she squeaked.

Krev shrugged. "Good a time as any."

Tial smiled weakly, and then gathered her courage and stood. Resolutely she crept around the fire, coming to a stop by the black-skinned woman, who had watched her approach with an intensity that made Tial shiver. Wings rustled, and the tip of her black tail twitched back and forth, seemingly of its own volition.

"Er… May I…" Tial's voice broke embarrassingly, and she cleared her throat. "May I sit?"

"As you will, Lady." The voice, which had sounded so incongruous coming from the Cloaked Man, was still quiet, calm, and courteous.

Tial folded herself down. There were several heartbeats of uncomfortable silence.

"Thank you for rescuing us," Tial whispered finally.

"You are welcome, Lady," Syn Vel said, her voice almost as soft. She shook her head. "It was a debt of honour that I was bound to fulfill."

Tial frowned. "I'm not a lady."

Syn Vel simply nodded. "If you wish, I shall no longer style you such. I merely wish to express my respect, and it would give me satisfaction to do so."

Tial's gaze flashed to the woman's face, but she could detect no mockery in those exotic features. "Oh. If you really wish…" Her voice trailed off uncertainly.

Syn Vel simply nodded and waved a clawed hand in an accepting gesture.

Tial was momentarily distracted by those dull silver claws, but managed to pull herself back to the topic at hand. "About this debt. I don't really see how you owe us anything. If anything, we owe you our lives."

Syn Vel shook her head, and her tail lashed. "The debt exists, Lady," she said. "I am in part responsible for your unfortunate situation. Had I properly clouded Warmaster Oannis' mind, after accepting shu'dab-ubara, he would have not assaulted you. That you were then forced to slay him to defend yourself precipitated your plight, thus placing me in the direct line of responsibility."

"Er… shu… shu'dab…"

"Shu'dab-ubara." Syn Vel cocked her head to the side. "You might say… temporary protectorship. I initiated and accepted the defence of your person, thus taking responsibility for any deliberate misfortune you experienced from the event."

"Oh. So because you protected me from Oannis," Tial said slowly, trying to make sure she understood, "and you were not around to protect me a second time, and I had to kill him, you owe me? For being thrown in prison?"

Syn Vel considered a moment, and then nodded. "In essence, you are correct, Lady. Also as a linear consequence of that event, you and Mistress Mereth lost many of your possessions, as well as your home and the source of your livelihood. The debt therefore encompasses her as well." The woman's words were precise and formal, and Tial knew she was trying to explain the logic behind her actions as clearly as possible.

"You, er, clouded Oannis' mind, but he shook it off. But that wasn't your fault. He had a charm of some sort that protected him."

For the first time, Syn Vel showed surprise. "Indeed." She thought silently for a moment. "It is a mitigating circumstance," she finally murmured, "yet it would have been possible—Indeed, it behoved me to have taken extra care to deal with such a possibility." She shook her head. "The debt still exists."

"Oh." The soft tone of Syn Vel's voice masked an iron certainty underneath, and Tial knew there was no arguing. "Well, you already saved me from being executed, so could we consider that… payment for my assault?"

Her companion considered. "In both circumstances, the risk, even the certainty of great harm to your person did exist." Syn Vel nodded. "If you honourably consider it such, we may consider that portion of the debt paid, Lady. The remaining debt, regarding the loss of your material livelihood and property, remains."

"I do," Tial said firmly, nodding. "As for our 'livelihood'…" She hesitated. "Is this why you want to, ah, establish us in another city?"

"It is. I am bound to restore to you and Mistress Mereth a home and means of support. I have sufficient… contacts to facilitate this."

Tial wondered what Syn Vel meant by "contacts." "Dalen said something about going with you to your… home," she said uncertainly.

Syn Vel looked uncomfortable. "Indeed?" she murmured almost inaudibly. Then she looked up again. "It is… an option, Lady. You would be welcome in our community, and I would be honoured to vouch shelter and sustenance for you. It may not be… comfortable for you, however."

Tial frowned. "Are there other… people like…" She glanced surreptitiously across the fire to where Krev appeared to be regaling Mereth with some tale, which the other woman was bearing with visible ill-grace.

"People like Krev'mar'ak?" Syn Vel completed, bitterness colouring her voice. "Yes. We are an accepting group."

Tial shivered at the iciness, vaguely wishing for the near-warmth that had been in the woman's tone. Now her wings were rigid, and her tail was lashing irritably. "I'm sorry," Tial whispered meekly, looking down.

"It is…" A pause. "Your reaction is…" Syn Vel appeared to be searching for words. "Your reaction is… typical, Lady," she said finally. "It is an indication that you may be… uncomfortable returning to my home."

The finality in the sentence showed that the topic had obviously been dropped, and Tial was happy to let it lie. "Krev said you would reach our 'choice-point' tomorrow evening. So we have a day to decide?"

"It need not be a rigid timetable," Syn Vel said. "A delay would be reasonable should you request such."

"Alright," Tial said. "I'll, uh… We'll let you know."

"As you will, Lady," Syn Vel agreed, nodding graciously. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to request Mistress Mereth's company for me at her convenience?"

"I will."

To Be Continued

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