Gender: Male Age: 21 Location: N/A
|Introduction: Not my storie.. All credit Goes to Eric Storm.. reminder i am only posting this to read this on my Phone..|
Don followed quietly behind Neiela, who walked past the guards without a word. The guard at the door opened it for them, allowing them to enter the rough stone building unimpeded. The interior of the building was lit by an ethereal glow that Don could not locate; it seemed to emanate from the very air, yet it didn't cloud his vision. He stepped carefully, as the stone floor was rough and uneven.
Neiela led him to a long, winding stairway that descended, and headed down into the recesses of the building. He knew they were going below ground level, but how far was a mystery to him. The stairway curved in a wide spiral, and he couldn't see its bottom as he followed behind the Elf Queen.
By the time they reached the bottom of the stairwell, Don estimated they were a solid fifty feet below the building they had entered. They stood before a door with an ornate design on it. Neiela softly spoke some words, and the door clicked, and then creaked open slightly. She pushed on it, to open it wide, and then they entered a massive room. The glow was more brilliant in here, and Don saw glints of light off crystalline objects set into the walls.
"This is the Chamber of Eyes," Neiela said quietly. "In here rests the source of Elfin magic. By taking the Elf-crystal, the thief stole from us our ability to have any control over the magic, and it has been lost to us."
"Why weren't you actively looking for the Elf-crystal?" Don wanted to know.
"I was. No other Elf could have held it outside of this room. Of course, when I was captured, my search stopped."
"Oh. Now what do we do?"
"Give me the crystal." Don pulled the pouch out of his robe, and dumped the crystal into his hand. Here, in this room, the crystal glowed far more brightly, and he couldn't even look at it while he held it. He reached out and found Neiela's hand, and placed the crystal into her grasp.
As soon as Don's hand left the crystal, its light dimmed. It still glowed, but not nearly so brightly. Don was surprised by that, but it didn't seem to faze Neiela at all. She held the crystal tightly as she walked to the far side of the room. She walked up a short set of stairs, and stood before a fixture that stood on a pedestal, away from the wall. He heard her utter some words, but couldn't make any of them out. She reached out and affixed the Elf-crystal to the fixture.
Immediately, the light suffusing the room grew intensely bright for several seconds. Don had to close his eyes to avoid being blinded. He could feel the light dim, and he opened his eyes to see it shifting colors, through all the hues of the rainbow. Each of the glints of light he had seen now glowed brilliantly, and it was clear why this was called the Chamber of Eyes. Though they were mere crystals, each one seemed to be pointed directly at him, as if it was peering deep into his soul.
Neiela remained by the pedestal, only now she was kneeling, almost as if in prayer. Don noticed that the light from the crystals flowed upward, forming an almost-tangible river, and then continuing up, until it entered a shaft that led upward. Don could sense that the light was making it to the surface.
After a full minute, the light dimmed, returning to its previous calm shade of light blue. Neiela stepped down off the pedestal, and came back to him. "The Chamber wishes to speak with me alone. You must wait outside, at the bottom of the stairs."
Don nodded, and walked out the door. The door closed behind him without Neiela's help. He went and sat on one of the bottom steps to wait for her.
It wasn't long before Neiela came out of the chamber. She motioned for them to leave, and he followed her.
"Neiela, how did the thief manage to steal the Elf-crystal, all the way down here?"
"Once a year, the crystal is brought to the surface for a ceremony. The ceremony must take place in the noon sunlight. The thief managed to steal it from us at that time."
"It has happened before. It is a time of weakness for the Elves. Usually, we are able to protect ourselves, but occasionally, bad things happen during this time."
They made it to the top of the stairs, and then they walked outside. Don nearly stumbled, and could not breathe, as he looked around at what the city of Sheridan had been transformed into. All around him, there were buildings of the finest architecture, rising to the sky some thirty feet. All were highly decorated and glistening with the hand of magic.
"My god," he said in awe.
"Yes, it is brilliant. Of course, it's all an illusion, but an illusion so real you'd never be able to tell the difference. Even magicians can't tell."
The two walked in awe down the street, moving toward the largest building in the city, which now was very clearly a palace of lavish decoration. The building had gilded columns and shone with highly polished marble and granite. Neiela motioned him to follow her inside, which he did.
Rather than heading to the throne room, Neiela walked Don back to the kitchen, where the staff snapped to attention as she entered. She nodded at them and said, "We'd like some lunch, please."
"Yes, Your Highness," the kitchen staff said in unison. The two went over and sat at the small table. Don got the impression she ate in here a lot; the staff didn't seem all that nervous to have her here.
"I should tell you that the Chamber said thank you. Its magic is a living thing, and it felt incomplete without the final Elf-crystal in place."
"Well, it, and you, are welcome, though I must say we more or less stumbled across it."
"How did you find it?" she asked. Don's explanation of their little adventure took until the staff had served lunch. The staff departed to the other side of the room, to give them privacy, but be close enough if needed.
"Dan-Gelmer sounds very angry at you. Of course, easing his brother's suffering would make you his enemy. I'm surprised he hasn't been more active in coming after you."
"I am, too, but I'm rather thankful for it."
"Well, you still need to leave Zemlia Nov quickly. When you are gone, you won't have to worry about him anymore."
"But what about the rest of you?"
"We have had to deal with Dan-Gelmer for hundreds of years. I'm sure we will manage."
"True, I suppose. Of course, I have no idea how long it will take us to get out of here. We don't really know where to go."
"You must travel to the Siratis Gates. You'll find Vernior there."
"How do you know that? I was told that no Elf had ever seen Vernior."
"I haven't. The Chamber told me. It is... a reward, to you, for helping it."
"Oh. Where are these Siratis Gates? Is it far from here?"
"No, but it will be a dangerous journey, and it will take you through some very unpleasant country. And it is Denonia's domain."
"Where isn't?" Don groused.
"True enough. She is becoming more and more powerful. I dare say that you will be fortunate to reach the Siratis Gates. Could you not... stay, in Sheridan, or elsewhere in Zemlia Nov?"
Don shook his head. "I've only been able to keep everyone going because they know we're going home. Gill would kill me if he thought I wasn't going to lead them home. Not literally, of course," he added hastily at the look on her face. "The others... would be just as upset. I dare say they'd run off without me, and try to make it home anyway. I can't let them go alone. I'm not sure how much help I'll be, but if we die, we die together."
Neiela nodded. "You are very loyal to your friends. You are a good magician, Don. Use your strengths, and you will make it out of here. I only regret that we won't be able to see each other again."
Don reached out and took her hand. "I'm sure there's a nice Elf prince out there just waiting to make your life happy."
Neiela smiled at him, but said nothing. They finished their lunch in silence.
Around mid-afternoon, the group was summoned to the palace. Don had been glad to be reunited with his sister, and with Annie, and he was glad to see that Julie was also beginning to have a little confidence in herself. He wondered if Annie had something to do with that, but he wasn't going to disparage any good thing on this trip.
The six walked into the palace, and were escorted directly into the throne room, which was now one of the most elegant rooms that Don had ever seen in person. The six walked in a two-up, four-back posture, with Don and Gill leading the girls, who had automatically fallen in behind them. As they approached the queen, Don looked over at Gill with a questioning glance. Gill nodded very slightly in answer.
The pair, reaching the bottom of the steps up to the throne, immediately dropped to one knee, bowing before the queen. There was something of a stir in the room; it was apparently not common for Humans to bow before an Elf. They heard the chuckle of amusement in Neiela's voice when she spoke, however.
"You may rise." As both teens rose from their kneeling posture, she said, "It has been a very long time since Humans and Elves have worked together in any meaningful way. When we took Zemlia Nov under our protection, the Humans were happy about it, with few exceptions. After the immediate danger passed, the Humans grew restless, and were less and less inclined to listen to our advice.
"Since we are not a warrior race, and were thus not willing to enforce our will upon others, the treaty between the Humans and the Elves fell into disuse. Since those times, we and they have not cooperated.
"The actions of these outsiders, who come to us from another land, teach us that there is still hope for the relations between our kind and theirs. These Humans have returned to us the Elf-crystal, and the use of magic."
"Not to mention our queen!" someone in the room shouted, to a resounding cheer. Neiela blushed, as it was not part of her prepared speech. She waited for the cheer to die down before continuing.
"For all they have done for us, it is only appropriate that we repay them in kind. Don White, Gill of the Blade, what do you request of us, in gratitude for your service to the Elfin Kingdom?"
Both of the boys were amused that Neiela refused to attempt to pronounce Gill's last name, Stelwicht. A silent thought traveled between them, and Gill nodded agreement.
"Your Majesty," Don began, "service is its own reward. We are glad that we were able to help, and honored to be of service to the queen. All we ask are some supplies and perhaps the loan of some transportation."
Queen Neiela nodded, having expected their request. She was glad she had judged Don correctly. "The supplies you need, you will have. We cannot, I'm afraid, provide you with transport. The only pack animals we possess are the wolves, and you are all much too large to ride them. Perhaps the nearby village of Sinclair, a Human village, would have the horses you would need to continue your journey. We may be able to provide you with some items with which to barter such transport."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. That would be... most kind," Don said, awkwardly. He wasn't used to this formal dialogue, and would have been just as happy to have foregone this little ceremony. The queen then got up from her throne and walked toward them. Standing two steps above him, and thus nearly equaling his height, she leaned over and kissed him once on each cheek. She then bowed slightly to both him and Gill, before motioning them to turn to face the audience, at which point a loud cheer erupted in the hall.
After the ceremony, Gill and Don got together to discuss what supplies they would need. Having decided that, Don left Gill to gather them, while he and Katie traveled to Sinclair to check on getting some horses. The walk took them an hour and a half, and it was beginning to get dark when they arrived.
As they walked along the market street of Sinclair, they could sense that people were whispering about them. Don figured it was Katie they were surprised by, or maybe the fact that she was in the company of a Human. Either way, it wasn't important to him unless it caused them grief. He needed to find someone who could rent or sell them horses. Finally, they came to the stables. A tall man with long black hair was brushing one of the animals when they arrived.
"Excuse me," Don said to the man. The tall man turned around, and his eyes widened at the sight of Katie. Still, it would have been impolite for him to comment, so he tried to focus on Don.
"Yes, sir, what can I do for you?"
"We need three horses, strong and fast as you've got."
"I have the horses you need. They do not come cheaply."
"I thought as much. What would be their cost? While I may not have anything with me to barter at the moment, I can get it."
"I see. Can I ask, is she a real Silver Elf?"
Don cocked an eyebrow at him, and then looked at his sister. "This is Katie. She's my sister. She's an Elfling."
"An Elfling, you say? That is astonishing." The man stood for a long moment in thought, then he leaned forward. "My name is Tibob. Maybe you and I could talk privately for a moment?"
Don motioned for his sister to wait with the horses while he and Tibob moved toward the back of the stable.
"It is said, and I believe, that the hair of a Silver Elf is magical, and that a Silver Elfling can do wondrous things. For a sample of your sister's hair, you can have the three horses you want."
Don was surprised, but took only a second to consider. "I don't see as that's a problem. I'm sure she wouldn't mind a haircut..." Don saw an embarrassed look on the man's face. "What?"
"It... must be... her nether hair. The hair on her head is only useful to her. It is her nether hair which can help others."
It took Don a second to translate 'nether hair' into 'pubic hair'. His eyebrows arched in surprise.
"I know it may be an odd thing to have to request of your own sister..."
A smile spread across Don's face. "You'd be surprised. Is there any ritual necessary to collecting the hair?"
"Only a special lotion you should use to perform the removal. If you will wait here, I will retrieve it from the apothecary."
"I'll wait out with my sister."
"As you wish."
Don headed back out to wait with Katie. She had a questioning look on her face, but Don waved her off for the moment. They waited in silence while the man ran the errand. In a few minutes, he was back.
"This is what you need. When you have what I require, you may have the horses."
"Is there an inn here?" Don asked.
Tibob pointed down and across the street. "There. I dare say you will find their rates quite reasonable."
"Thank you. We will see you in the morning."
"Very well. Good day to you."
"And to you." Turning to his sister, he said, "C'mon. We need to get a room. Crap, I thought that guy was going to break out in 'thee's and 'thou's."
"What about the horses?"
"I'll tell you later. You hungry?"
"Then we should eat, which we can do at the inn."
The two shared a good meal of pork and vegetables and bread together. It was very pleasant, and it was the first time they had ever eaten alone, without the others around. It allowed them to just relax and be together. They chatted about not much; Katie told him about the things that had happened while he was gone from Sheridan, and Don related to her the story of his trip. They avoided discussing the future, since neither of them really had any idea about what was to come.
After dinner, they returned to their room. They had explained to the innkeeper that they only had enough money for a single room, which took care of the need to explain their relationship to him. He had merely grunted and shown them to their quarters.
Now, alone in the room, Katie stretched, trying to relax and ease some of the tension in her body. Don enjoyed the view as she raised her arms high above her head, which pulled her breasts up and pushed them tight against her shirt. He walked over to her and ran his hand along her bare midriff, leaning in to kiss her on the neck. Katie mewled, and then wrapped her arms around her brother tightly. She loved the feel of him against her.
The two remained like that for a few minutes, with Don's lips wandering over her neck and cheek, making their way up to her earlobe and sucking on it. Katie was writhing against him by now, and it was clear what she wanted. He figured now would be a good time to discuss their payment for the horses, since she would probably agree to anything at this point.
"Katie," Don said, stepping just slightly away from her, "we need to talk. In order to pay for the horses... we have to give him some of your pubic hair."
"What?" she said, shocked.
"It supposedly has some magical properties. Don't ask me what they are, but he said if we gave him your pubic hair, he'd give us the horses."
"I'm not letting him shave me, dammit!"
Don shook his head. "He won't. I will."
Katie's look changed at that. Having her own brother shave her private parts... she got chills just considering the idea. She ran her hand along his chest and said, "You'll be gentle?"
"I promise," he said with a smile, knowing he'd just won. Of course, he knew what she'd demand afterward, and he was fully ready to pay that price.
"I don't have any shaving stuff," she said.
"I do. I've got a straight razor, and the guy at the stable gave me a special lotion we're supposed to use for this. I hope it's not uncomfortable."
"Me, too. Well, let's get it over with, then."
Don nodded. He went into the bathroom to get a small bowl of hot water. How this inn made hot water, he didn't know, but now was no time to concern himself with it. He grabbed a rag, and returned to see his sister, completely naked, on the bed with her legs opened wide. That sight caused him urges that had nothing to do with the task at hand, and he had to remind himself that he would ultimately get to that part, but not right now.
He pulled the night stand over to where he could reach it, and then he sat on the bed. He dipped the rag in the water, and began to wash Katie's private area. He wasn't worried so much about dirt as he knew that the hot water would soften the hair and open the follicles, making the shave less painful. Katie wriggled slightly, and a soft moan escaped her lips. Don smiled, realizing just how ready she was.
Don picked up the bottle that Tibob had given him. He opened it, and smelled spearmint. He arched an eyebrow, but poured some of the lotion into his hand. He began massaging it into Katie's pubic hair, and her writhing increased.
"Does it burn?" he asked.
"Oh, god, no... but... Mm, it is warm..." There was a smile playing across Katie's face, occasionally replaced with an open-mouthed sigh. Don figured that was okay, and continued what he was doing. He could see that Katie was already dripping with arousal.
Picking up the razor, he said, "You're going to need to try to be still for this part, or I might accidentally nick you."
"If you do, you'll pay for it..." she said, a smile still firmly planted on her face. Don shrugged, and he set to work. He applied the blade very tenderly to Katie's skin, and pulled downward. Katie immediately groaned. He looked up at her, but her eyes were closed tightly, and it was clear that it was not pain she felt. He took the razor and wiped it off on a very soft cloth, which collected the hair and the lotion.
Don proceeded carefully, having to pause repeatedly because Katie simply could not keep still. When he got down around her pussy lips, he had to be more careful still. By the time he was done, Katie was moaning and rolling her hips. He put aside the shaving utensils, and looked down at his sister. Seeing her cunt cleanly shaven was interesting, and very arousing. Don quickly removed his own clothes, not that Katie noticed.
She did notice, however, when he climbed back onto the bed and positioned himself over her. She looked up into his eyes, and then down at where his dick was standing at the ready, about to enter her pussy.
"Do it, Big Brother," she said forcefully. Don pushed his way into her well-lubed hole, and Katie cried out in pleasure. She was still tight, and Don still had to take his time to fully penetrate. He finally was buried inside her to the hilt, and Katie was nearly bucking beneath him.
"Fuck me!" she cried. Don began moving his hips, sliding in and out of her hot pussy. There was no point in finesse; both of them were already fully aroused. He thrust deeply into her, moving rapidly. Katie was moaning and screaming out her joy, her hips rolling upward in time with his thrusts.
Don reached down and caressed his sister's tit, gently rolling her nipple between his fingers. Katie's body shuddered at that point, and she came. Her juices flooded his cock, and her back arched, pushing her tit tightly into his hand. Don kept thrusting throughout her orgasm, sending her as high as he could. He only stopped moving when she began to come down from her peak. He kept his cock inside her, but he rolled her onto her side, so that they could cuddle. The contractions of her cunt kept him rock hard, however.
When Katie finally settled down, she looked at her brother with something close to awe.
"God, that felt good. Hmm. Actually, it feels good, since you're still fucking me..." Katie giggled, and then she pushed her brother onto his back. She rolled with him, keeping his cock firmly inside of her. Now that she was on top, she began to ride him, her pace already a furious one.
Don reached up and took hold of Katie's rolling tits. He molded them and fondled them, sending shivers of pleasure throughout her body. Katie's pussy was doing similar things to his cock, rippling along his length as she rode him. His hips were already bucking up at her, pushing the pair higher and higher.
Don had managed to settle some from his aroused state, and so the pair were on roughly equal levels, riding the wave together. As Katie felt her wave about to crash, she leaned over, forcing herself against her brother's body and thrusting her tongue deep into his waiting mouth. As the two kissed, their waves crested, and crashed. Their bodies slammed tightly together, and the two thrashed about on the bed as their moans were lost in each other's mouth. The two rolled back and forth, lost in their passion, lost in each other.
After a while, they finally were able to settle down, and they once again returned to their sides, still holding each other tightly. Don's softening dick was still trapped in his sister's loving cunt, and they continued to kiss. Neither of them felt the need to separate. As their kissing died off, they remained tightly embraced, and they both eventually fell off to sleep, embraced by their sibling.
Don awoke to find his sister still lying beside him, and that was just fine with him. He wondered if she had gotten cold during the night, since they had not thought to cover themselves with a blanket. He reached down and caressed her ass, which didn't seem to be all that cold, so he figured she'd fared okay.
His caresses brought Kate to consciousness with a smile. She leaned back slightly to kiss her brother on the lips, snuggling even more tightly against him. The two cuddled until it was necessary for Don to get up and make a trip to the bathroom. They didn't really say much to each other, instead enjoying silent companionship. Don began to wonder what it would be like between them if and when they got out of here, but decided he shouldn't try to look that far ahead. He knew that trying to keep his eyes on the horizon only guaranteed that he would stumble over his own feet.
After cleaning up and getting breakfast, the couple headed back to the stables. They saw Tibob brushing out a tall, black horse with a silver mane. When he caught sight of the pair, he stopped and walked over to the fence.
"Do you have my payment?"
Don held out the cloth that he'd wiped the lotion and hair onto. "You never told me how to store it..."
"This is fine, lad." Tibob opened the wrappings, and Don was shocked to see that the lotion had dissolved the hair into a creamy silver substance. Tibob nodded approvingly. "Well, you lived up to your part. These three are the swiftest horses I have. Better watch out, though. The brown one's a little on the wild side."
"We'll let Susan ride that one," Don said to Katie, who smiled. Turning back to Tibob, Don said, "Thank you. We'll be taking our leave now. I hope you get... whatever it is you want... from that." Don indicated the cloth containing the silvery substance. Tibob chuckled as he led the three horses out of the corral. Don helped Katie up onto hers, and then he grabbed the leader rope for the wilder horse, known as Champ, before climbing up onto the black horse. Tibob waved to them as they headed out of Sinclair, hoping to make it back to Sheridan well before lunch.
The rest of the team was waiting for them when they rode into Sheridan, as were several of the Elves, who had apparently packaged a significant amount of supplies. Don led his horse, Nightwalker, up to where they were all standing, and climbed off.
"You think these supplies are going to be too much for the horses to carry along with us?" Gill asked immediately. Don looked over at the bundles, trying to divide them up into three piles in his mind. He then realized that it would make sense for Katie to fly as much as possible, and that meant that his horse, the largest of the three by a fair margin, could carry significantly more supplies.
"I think we'll do okay. The main trick will be getting the supplies to stay on the horse."
"We have ways to fix that," one of the Elves said. They set about tying the bundles together so that they would sit securely and comfortably on the horses' backs, while the team got out of their way and began to discuss their plans.
"We're supposed to head for the Siratis Gates." Don opened a map, and pointed to them. "On horseback, only a few days from here. The question, of course, is whether or not we'll be able to do the entire thing on horseback... you know what happened to our last set of horses."
"Yeah. And there's the question of what Denonia will do to slow us down. She's got to be after us. I don't know why she is, though. What the hell did we ever do to her?"
Don shrugged. "I doubt we'll ever figure that out. Anyway, is everything ready for us to get going?"
Gill looked over to see that the Elves had finished up. "I guess."
"Good. By the way, you and Susan are stuck with Champ. He's a bit wild. I figured, since Susan was the only rider among us..."
Gill nodded. "Yeah, I'll let her keep it under control."
The girls had essentially removed themselves from this planning meeting until Don and Gill had come to their decision. Katie quickly went to her brother's side when the boys separated.
"You going to be okay flying most of the time, Katie?"
"Sure. It's not really tiring. It's a lot better than walking... and riding." She giggled, which was a noise he hadn't heard from her in a while. He gave her a hug and a kiss, before turning to the other girls, who had come up to talk with him. "Your horse is named Cloud." This was an obvious name, given the horse's light gray coloration. "He's pretty docile, so you shouldn't have any troubles."
The two girls nodded, resigned to the idea of being back on a horse. He pulled out the map and showed them where they were going, and where they planned to stop for the night.
"That assumes we get going soon, and don't run into problems, though."
"When have we not run into problems?" Gill said, coming back into the conversation.
"I hear you. All the more reason to get our asses in gear."
"True. Okay, let's saddle up, then."
It was at this point that Don realized that Neiela was standing off to the side, waiting to wish them farewell. He walked over to her, and knelt, so that he wouldn't be towering over her.
"I guess this is good-bye, Your Majesty."
Neiela embraced him, and then gave him a kiss. "Good luck. I hope you find the dragon."
"Thank you so much for the supplies."
"It was the least we could do. Thank you for all your help. Have a safe journey."
"Somehow," Don said, rising, "I don't think that's entirely up to us."
The team rode purposefully through the forest, following the path the map said led to the Siratis Gates. Katie flew alongside her brother's horse, occasionally flying up above the trees to take a look ahead. She didn't see anything that should trouble them, but none of them was going to relax.
They stopped for lunch in a small meadow, to allow the horses to eat and drink from a pond there. They talked about how soon they might be out of Zemlia Nov.
"What do you figure, Don?"
"Two days from now, if nothing goes wrong."
"Which it will," Julie chimed in worriedly.
"Probably," Don agreed.
"And if it does?" Gill asked.
"Then there's no telling. We've got enough food with us for four more days of travel. We'll have to hope that's enough, or we'll be back to roughing it."
"How far do you expect to go tonight?"
Don pulled out the map, and unfolded it. He pointed to a clearing next to a river. "I'd like to get to here tonight. It shouldn't be a strain on the horses. How about you, Katie?"
"Yes, but how are you feeling?" Don asked. Everyone laughed, while Katie stuck her tongue out at him.
"What do you think we'll run into?" Gill asked.
"Dan-Gelmer, at least. He's not done with us. And something tells me he knows where we're going."
"You think the Elves snitched on us?" Annie asked.
Don shook his head. "No. I think he probably knows where Vernior is, too. He's a dragon, after all."
Annie nodded in surprise. "I hadn't thought of that."
"So we're likely to have to fight our way to the Gates," Gill said with determination. "We can handle that."
Don gave Gill a hairy eyeball. "Fine, you can lead the charge!"
Gill drew his sword theatrically. "Tally-ho!"
The group laughed again. They all felt more settled about their journey now that they had some idea of where they were going. Don picked up the remainder of his things, and put them away. "We need to get going if we're going to make camp by sundown. I don't want to travel at night."
They all agreed, and in only a few moments, they had packed up their lunch remains, and were back on their way.
As the afternoon wore on, the team started to ride into a thicker portion of the forest. Though none of them really had any rational reason to, they each became more anxious, and more alert. They couldn't see as far now, and Katie made more frequent trips both upward, and ahead of them, to see if she could spot trouble. Don didn't like that, but didn't see any other option, either.
Despite all their alertness, when the attack happened, it was a complete surprise to them. Katie was on her way back from another trip forward, and she screamed at something she saw behind them. Don pulled his horse to a stop, and turned to see what was wrong.
What he saw was, at first, very confusing. He saw a mass of wings and necks and tails, brightly colored in pinks, lavenders, and violets. It took him a long moment to realize that this was a swarm of wyverns.
I thought wyverns were bigger than this... what the fuck am I saying! These will be bad enough!
As he thought it, the attack began. The mini-wyverns swarmed around Julie and Annie, knocking them off their horse. Both of them tumbled to the ground, and tried to get up. Julie managed it, running forward, toward the others. As she passed Don, he hopped down off his horse. He could see that Annie was just now getting up. He cast a spell of bright lights to try to confuse the wyverns. This worked, but it unfortunately disoriented almost everyone else, as well. Annie was staggering, and Gill slipped getting off his horse, falling face first into the mud. That would have been funny any other time, but now Don was merely concerned that he would be attacked. An energy spell zapped the two mini-wyverns that tried it before Gill was able to rise.
Gill drew his sword as Susan let loose with her first arrow. A high-pitched squeal indicated that Susan had found her mark. Gill swiped viciously, taking out three of the little devils, but there were countless more of them remaining. They continued to swarm, though they seemed to be avoiding Don, who was zapping them left and right with short but powerful blasts.
Julie hunkered down behind Don, and Katie dropped down to cover her. Annie, meanwhile, was still disoriented, and the creatures were viciously buzzing her. She couldn't get her bearings enough to use any of her skills, and merely swatted at the beasts as they whizzed past her head. Each was roughly the size of a housecat, but resembled a dragon without front legs. They squealed and screeched as Don, Susan, and Gill took them out by the numbers. It seemed, though, that there was an endless supply of them.
Suddenly, three of the beasts slammed into Annie from behind, knocking her down. One of them sunk its teeth deep into her neck. She screamed in pain, and that caught Don's attention, though he'd been looking the other way when the assault happened.
Don was furious now, and his spell reflected that. The three creatures on Annie's back were vaporized, along with any of them within a five-foot radius of her. Before Don could recast the spell to blast more of them, the swarm scattered back into the trees, leaving behind bruised and battered people, and a lot of echoing screeches. For now, the danger was over.
Don immediately went over to Annie. She was struggling to get to her feet, but he stopped her.
"Don't move. Let me look at that bite." Don bent to examine the bite, which was deep and oozing blood. He didn't want to stop the bleeding too soon; he knew that the bleeding could wash out infection, and he really had few other methods for doing so. He didn't see anything really wrong, so he called Julie over.
"See if you can bandage that without strangling her, okay?" he said, trying to lighten the mood. Julie smiled at him, and nodded. He went to check on his sister, who was fine, and then to make sure the others were all right, before returning to Annie's side.
"Sorry I couldn't catch that in time," he told her.
"It's okay," she said, her eyes closed in obvious pain. "I would have been all right, but I think I hit my head when I fell off the horse. I'm still woozy." She raised her hand to her head, but couldn't find any bumps to indicate where she might have hurt herself.
"You going to be able to travel, or..."
"I'll be all right. Just give me a few minutes."
"Okay. Jules, you stay with her."
"You know it."
He gave Annie a gentle hug, and he kissed Julie on the cheek, then returned to talk to the others.
"We'll have to wait here... give it a half-hour. She's got a doozy of a headache."
"I can imagine. My head don't exactly feel wonderful," Gill said, rubbing a sore spot on his forehead.
"Next time learn how to dismount a horse," Don said with a chuckle. Gill grumbled at him good-naturedly, and then went to sit on a rock.
"Is she going to be okay, Donny?" Kate asked.
"I don't know for sure. I hope so. We'll just have to see. If she's got a concussion, it'll clear in a day or so. We'll need to take it easy until then, though. This will slow us down."
"But you expected that."
"Yeah. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though."
After some rest and a little water, Annie felt well enough that she didn't want to delay them any more than she had. Julie and Don both helped her up onto her horse, and Don made sure that Julie was capable of keeping her safe. He trotted back to his own horse and mounted quickly. With one more look back to check everyone, he kneed Nightwalker into a walk. They had been traveling at a trot, but he didn't want to risk it with Annie's problems.
It wasn't very long before Julie called up to him to stop, and he reined in his horse. Julie moved her horse past Susan and Gill, and up to Don. Before she said anything, it was obvious to him that something was wrong.
"Annie?" he asked, concerned. Her complexion was pale, and she looked as if she was barely conscious. She turned to look at him, but he could see the confusion written on her face. "Annie, can you hear me?"
Annie nodded, but her motor skills were obviously impaired. Don looked around, and decided that this was not a good place for them to stop or spend any amount of time. They were still too close to mini-wyvern territory, and there was no way to shelter properly here.
"Keep a tight grip on her Julie. We're going to keep moving until I can find us a place that's safer than here. We'll go slow. You stay between me and Gill." Julie nodded, and Don set off again, keeping to a walk and frequently looking back to see how Annie was faring. That doesn't look like she just hit her head. Something else is going on, but what?
About an hour later, with sunset still over an hour away, Don stopped. They had entered a small clearing, and there was soft grass and water close by. He immediately got off his horse, which stepped away from him to munch on grass. He moved back to Julie's horse, and tried to help Annie off the horse. Her coordination was so shot that she fell into his arms. Don grunted at the sudden weight, and he had to struggle not to drop her. She was so weak that she couldn't even wrap her arms around his neck. At this point, he was growing increasingly worried.
Don carried Annie to a soft patch of grass, and laid her down. He took the dressing off her neck, and peeled back the cotton cloth that had covered her wound. Immediately he stepped back. The stench was overpowering. He could see that the skin around her wound was already beginning to rot away.
Venom. It hadn't occurred to Don that the wyverns might be poisonous. It was obviously a nasty poison, a neurotoxin. The problem was that he had no way to cure it. He'd learned a bit of healing magic, but nothing he'd learned would heal a continuing problem. Unless he could clear the poison out of her body, he had no way to make her better. He didn't know whether it would be better to let the wound breathe, or cover it up. For the sake of everyone else, he covered it back up.
Julie was already at his side, and he looked up at her.
"Is she gonna be okay?" she asked nervously.
"I don't know," he said honestly. "I've got to get things together so we can camp here. Stay with her."
About an hour later, Don came back to sit down beside Julie, who was cradling Annie's head in her lap. He stroked Annie's hair, getting no reaction whatsoever.
"I should have protected her more. She fell off the horse, and I should have caught her, or something."
"Julie, you were falling yourself at the time. There was nothing you could have done at all to save her. If there's anyone to blame for this, it's me. I could have used that spell immediately, but I was saving my strength, not wanting to use it all up on a couple attacks. If I'd used that spell first, there wouldn't have been enough of them to be a problem. So, no, it wasn't your fault, it was mine."
"You couldn't know, Don."
"Couldn't know what? That this place is dangerous? We've had every warning of that we could get. No, Jules, I fucked up big time, and Annie's paying the price for it."
Julie reached out to caress Don's cheek. He smiled slightly, but was too upset to react in any greater way.
"You need to go help Katie make dinner," he finally said.
"She can't make it alone this once?" Julie asked, clearly not wanting to leave Annie's side.
"Not if you want to be able to eat it," he responded. Julie managed a little giggle. "I'll stay with her." He leaned over and kissed Julie softly, and embraced her. The two stayed like that for a long moment before Julie slipped out from under Annie, letting Don take her place. She got up, and looked down at Annie once more for a full minute before finally turning to go.
Don stroked Annie's hair continuously, unaware of the passage of time. After several long minutes, Annie's eyes opened, and she struggled to focus on the face above her. Don kept stroking her hair, and smiled at her. He could tell she was trying to form words, and he leaned down slightly to hear her.
"Am I going to die now?" she managed to whisper out over three breaths.
An instant lump formed in Don's throat, and he was temporarily unable to speak. He finally managed to croak out, "No." Annie smiled ever so slightly at him, in a way he didn't understand, and then she closed her eyes again. It was only her ragged breathing that assured him that she had not passed away on the spot.
It was a long, tense, and mostly sleepless night for the team. Julie and Don huddled together, watching over Annie while the others kept watch for any further dangers that might come their way. When morning broke, it was a shock to Don, who had only managed to doze throughout the night. Looking down, he could see how much worse Annie looked, and he knew that if he didn't find an answer today, she wasn't going to survive.
The team moved to get their breakfast together, all of them a little slow in moving, for each was tired and groggy. It took an entire minute before they noticed they had company.
Gill whirled when he heard Susan gasp, his sword almost leaping to his hand. Don had also turned with a raised arm, an energy ball ready to leave his hand. Both of them were just looking for someone to lash out at, and any stranger was likely to do at this point.
The elderly gnome before them raised his hands immediately in supplication. "I mean you no harm," he said in a soft tone. "I am a traveler along this path. I didn't mean to startle you."
Don closed his hand around the energy ball, and lowered his arm. It took Gill a moment longer to sheathe his sword. The gnome came further into the clearing to squint at the group. His eyesight was apparently failing him.
"You are travelers, also?"
"Yes," Don answered. "Please excuse our somewhat cold welcome, but we've had something of a bad journey."
The gnome nodded, and then he saw Annie lying on the ground, shivering. "Your lady friend looks to be quite ill."
"She was bitten by a wyvern... a very small wyvern."
The gnome's eyes widened. "You must treat her immediately! When was she bitten?"
"Yesterday afternoon. We'd like to treat her, but we don't know how."
"You must go to the Sacred Swamp. There you can retrieve a magical medicine for her."
Don opened his map, but did not find anything labeled a swamp on it. "Where is the Sacred Swamp?"
"I will tell you, for... breakfast."
Don nodded. "Fair enough. Julie, could you make the man some food?"
The team was moving as fast as they could. Don was now holding Annie on his horse. He didn't think Julie would be strong enough to hold her at the pace they were now traveling, which was rather fast. The Sacred Swamp was a couple hours of riding, and Annie was getting worse by the minute. It wasn't a very big swamp, but they had to make their way to the very center of it, and it was much slower going once the horses had to walk through muck rather than gallop on easy trails.
Finally, the horses came around a corner, and Nightwalker reared up. It was only through the greatest concentration that Don was able to keep himself and Annie on the horse. He couldn't much blame Nightwalker; right before them was a rather large, resting dragon. Don prepared a spell, but didn't raise his hand. He wouldn't fight unless he had to, and the dragon had not yet moved, though it did turn its head to look at them.
"You have come for the potion, yes?" the dragon hissed.
"Yes. This young woman was bitten by a wyvern. We were told the potion could cure her."
"It can, it can! But there is a price to be paid. Nothing in the Sacred Swamp is ever free."
Don climbed down off Nightwalker, and then pulled Annie off into his arms. He set her down on a solid patch of ground.
"What is it you want, dragon?"
"It is not what I want. I am merely a guardian of the potion. The Swamp demands its due."
"Then what is it the Swamp wants?"
The dragon lifted itself from its lying position, and stepped aside. With one of its forelimbs, it pointed to a tree some four hundred feet away. "In a nook in that tree, you will find the potion of life that you seek."
"But...?" Don asked, waiting for the catch.
"But no one that has ever gone in there has ever come out again. The Swamp will take your life in exchange for the potion."
"Whoa, whoa, wait a goddamned minute!" Gill said, stepping forward. Don held him back.
"There is no other way?" Don asked the dragon.
"There is not. From the looks of her, your friend will not make it out of the Swamp alive without the potion."
Don's expression hardened, and it was clear he was thinking things over. Gill was aghast at the very idea.
"Don, are you nuts? That's just a trade of one life for another! Where's the benefit to that? I mean, I don't want to see her die, either, but I sure as hell don't want to see my best friend die!"
"There's a difference, though," Don said, obviously having come to a decision.
"Annie didn't get to choose. She's my responsibility, Gill. I asked her to come with us. If she hadn't been with us, she might have been safe."
"I doubt it. Look, she would have had to travel these roads to find Vernior..."
"What if she decided just to stay in Zemlia Nov? Paul did. You don't see him stuck dying in the middle of some stupid swamp..."
Gill had no answer to that. He stared hard at his friend. "There's nothing I can say to change your mind, is there." It was not a question.
"No." Don turned and walked the few steps to his sister. She already had tears in her eyes. "When she wakes up, Katie... tell her what happened. I love you."
"Donny!" She wrapped her arms tightly around him for a long moment. Then, unwillingly, she let go as Don gently pushed her away. He turned to face Julie.
"Take care of Annie for me, would you?" He leaned in and kissed her. She kissed back, wrapping her arms around him tightly. The kiss lasted for a long moment, before they both broke it off.
Finally, Don turned to the dragon. Before his resolve left him, he nodded. "How do I do this?"
"You will find going in is not terribly difficult. It is the coming out that you will have a problem with."
Don nodded, and waded into the darker portion of the swamp. The ground did, in fact, seem somewhat firmer here, though it was very bumpy and tangled with roots and low-growing plants. He fought his way through this tough material, working hard to reach the tree at the center of the swamp.
After several minutes, he finally reached it. He had to walk all the way around the tree to the other side before he found the nook, but sure enough, there was a flask of yellow liquid there, with a heavy stopper on the container.
Good, I won't spill it that way.
Don took the container out of the nook, and he could hear the change in the swamp immediately. While there had been crickets and birds chirping, now there was silence. Don looked around nervously. He was deathly afraid at this point, but he'd walked into this situation with his eyes open; a luxury that Annie had not had. He took a deep breath and began walking out of the swamp, holding the flask high for the others to see.
The going was much rougher on the way out. The ground had turned soft and mushy, and his feet sank into it about four inches with each step. He couldn't tell for sure, but it almost seemed as if he was sinking just slightly deeper as he went.
It turned out not to matter, as he stepped around one plant only to find a vine suddenly coiling around his leg. Soon, another vine had his other leg, and he could no longer walk or move his lower body.
The dragon, seeing his difficulty, called out, "If you drop the flask, the Sacred Swamp will let you live."
Don ignored him, trying to tug at his legs. He was only sixty or seventy feet from the others. He struggled, hoping he could beat the odds and make it out alive. After a minute of struggling, during which he had been pulled another foot deeper into the muck, he realized that he didn't have a chance. There was only one thing for him to do.
"Katie, CATCH!" Don hauled his arm back, and with the strongest throw he could muster, he flung the potion toward the group. He knew his throw would be off, and he definitely did not want the flask to break. Katie leapt for it, catching it about fifteen feet off the ground. She got it safely back to the others, and they uncorked it. Don watched as Julie poured the liquid very carefully into Annie's mouth. It took a full two minutes for her to swallow all of it, during which time, Don had sunk another two feet. He was buried beyond his waist now, and all that was left was for him to wait for the end.
The rest of the team turned to watch in horror as their friend, their leader, was sucked under. The dragon lay on the ground, watching impassively as events unfolded. Don could see the tears in everyone's eyes, though he was strangely relaxed about the whole thing now. Perhaps the swamp contained some kind of toxin that was inhibiting his nervous system, or perhaps he had simply resigned himself to this fate.
For you, Annie, he thought to himself. I'm sorry I got you into this.
At about that point, the dragon raised its head. Don only had his head and arms above the surface now. The dragon lifted off and flew at an impossible speed, circling around the big tree in the center of the swamp, and heading back toward the group.
"Hold your arms up, boy!" the dragon hissed. Don raised his hands as high as he could, and the dragon grasped them on his way by. The muck pulled and tugged at Don, and he worried that his shoulders would be dislocated, but with a final effort, the dragon pulled him free. Don held on for dear life, not wanting to fall back into what was probably a very angry swamp at this point.
Short seconds later, the dragon dumped Don unceremoniously on the ground, and then landed back in the spot he had been laying initially. Don, sputtering and very confused, stared at them all, and then back at the dragon.
"Why did you save me? I thought the Swamp had to have a life."
"It was a test, you see," the dragon hissed. "What the Swamp really requires is the devotion necessary to give up your life for that of another. No entity of light or kindness could ever require your death just to save that of another. As your friend said, there is nothing good in that form of trade. However, if the potion were readily available to just anyone, then how would anyone ever die here? The cost of the potion must seem very high, or there would be no end of people coming here to use it. I warn you, traveler; tell no one of this secret, or the effects of the potion will instantly be reversed. That is the final price you must pay for your friend's life."
"That's a price I can live with," Don said. The others nodded in agreement.
"Your friend will recover in a day or so. I suggest that you take her somewhere to rest. The village of Mintauri is on your way, just outside the Sacred Swamp."
"Thank you," Katie said to the dragon.
"I am just performing my duties, Elfling. Good luck to you all."
The team, relieved that all of them were leaving the Sacred Swamp alive, got on their horses and rode out, turning to wave at the dragon. It was only an hour's ride before Mintauri was in their view, and they rode slowly into town, hoping to find the inn.
As they tied the horses outside the inn, Don looked around with a slightly new perspective. If what we'd been told was the truth, I would never have seen this village, or anything else ever again. Life is good.
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