The cave is nearly silent as I touch down. I scan the surroundings, every sense honed to detect danger, centuries of use. The wards are undisturbed. Nothing of notice, except that the silence is nearly absolute now. A hearbeat, the soft swish of air reluctantly being drawn into lungs, the walls of the cavern amplifying it ever so slightly. No more subtle splashing of liquid on stone as the blood trickles into crevices. No more whimpering, ragged, sobbing breaths, either.
I move further. The purple cast from the sky through the entrance fades to an absence of light. As I expected, the torches have burned out by now. I can see their withered husks wedged in between the stones where I had left them. I spread my haul out on the cavern floor. Luminescent crystals.
Impenetrable darkness is a foreign concept to me, something the tactician in me recognises and understands intellectually, without imagining the sensation. My vision focuses freely on the stones, the stalactites, the ceiling, every detail sharp and visible. The blood has dried by now, the sickly glow of the crystals casts it black. Further away from the light source, it is disappointingly colourless, but there. I do not need light to see.
But I need light to be seen. The crystals should prove sufficient.
I slip further into the cavern and deposit the crystals along the walls. I look on in distaste at the bare floor, but in the last months I have learned to tolerate sleeping on naked stone.
The thought of why I have to tolerate this used to bring cold anger with it. I had welcomed it, absorbed it, allowed it to seep into my bones and my limbs and muscles and into my breath, every time it arose. Anger is powerful, fury is invigorating. After centuries of acting out the same practiced, comfortable routine, it made me feel more alive than ever. It reminded me of my youth, so long ago, when it was all about the sky and the water and every new life snuffed out made me feel like no power in the world could stop me.
For far more justified reasons, I still feel that way. Especially now.
The anger was riveting, but I no longer feel its flicker. It has been replaced by acceptance and the warm glow of satisfaction. I can almost imagine that I still feel that puny weight in my stomach, taste the blood and tears in my mouth, after so many hours. Nonsense, of course.
I briefly reach down and run my tongue against the floor, where the stones gleam black in the dim light. Salty and tangy, familiar but special. I happily allow myself to relive those moments.
I do not feel much anger now. Amusement, certainly. Satisfaction. The elation of victory, like so long ago in my youth, that primal joy of the first hunt. But most of all, anticipation, like moving on to new ground and not knowing what I'll find, only that there's undoubtedly much to be found.
Ironically, I feel free now. No bonds of responsibility. An ageless body, all the power in the world, and as much time as I wish to take. What shall I do? I can do anything. Make it last months, years, decades, even. Come up with different things every day. The possibilities are endless.
In the dim glow of the crystals, I cross to the center of the chamber, not bothering to muffle my heavy footsteps. I receive no reaction.
“I have returned,” I state, my voice resounding through the cavern. “I hope you didn't take my absence too hard.”
More silence, but I did not expect it otherwise.
“I brought you a gift.”
It is soft and yielding in my grasp as I push it forward, soft leather dried and tanned and sewn together into the skillful semblance of a head garment, its design not unlike what I have seen human pirates and frilly nobles wear. Instead of the customary feather, a stream of hair adorns it, like a horse's tail set in a general's helmet. The glow of the crystals gives the silky green locks a surreal tinge, stained with black, dried blood I deliberately decided not to wash out.
I push it forward so that the hair brushes skin, prickling softly under eyelids squeezed shut tightly and glued together with dried tears. There's the instinctive, shuddering inhalation of the odour, the odour of freshly tanned leather and dried blood and the lingering residue of the scent held when still dearly loved and alive - flour and warm milk and wet soil in the garden - and even though I know few creatures share my sense of smell, it is obviously enough, and I delight in the shudder that wrecks through its body as the elf twitches and curls even tighter into itself, the heavy manacles scraping the ground at the brief movement.
I bow down over the figure sprawled on the cavern floor, taking in and savouring the helpless, fetal position, the disheveled mop of hair, dried sweat caking it to ashen skin, the torn robes, baggy and seeming to swallow up the thin arms and legs. Powerless. Defeated. Too broken even for defiance, all the anger and hatred for me having been screamed out along with the pleas and threats and desperate appeals to every virtue and vice it could think of until it had all ceased to matter.
A violent end, so saturated with intense pain and such powerful emotions. One does not depart to rest after such a thing as that. I expect the ghost to start appearing in a matter of days, searching, hating, suffering in sorrow.
I look down into its face. Haggard, drained, dead, belying the warm blood still pulsing steadily underneath. This is that to which I reduce those who dare pose themselves as my enemies. Pathetic, and more beautiful to my eyes than the treasure hoard of the Fivefold Mother herself.
“You are defeated, elf,” I speak, my voice rumbling through the hollow cavern. “You thought yourself powerful, but I have shown you that you have no power. You thought yourself good, but I have made you feel my plight and think of yourself as a monster. You thought yourself a wizard, but your magic has no meaning. You thought yourself a mate and a parent, a member of your party of adventurers, a friend and a companion, intelligent, pragmatic, strong, unyielding, useful, reliable, functional, not alone. You thought yourself many things, but I have made you into nothing. I have destroyed every aspect of you, every shred of identity that mattered. And I will continue to destroy.”
With a mouthed 'telekinesis' I force the straps of metal onto the elf's limp fingers, tightening the coils until blood seeps from underneath, and the elf's voice is hoarse as it groans in pain, no barriers of pride or defiance remaining, and then the body shudders as each of the four broken limbs begins to mend, slowly and torturously.
“We are in a cavern not far from the place you have been trying to reach all these months, Azure City. You will now be as inaccessible to scrying and divination as the person you were searching for has been. The people you thought of as friends before you left them will think you dead. If they attempt to find you, they will fail. No oracle will help them. No one will come to save you – and thus your hope is destroyed as well. Or do you not feel hope, as submerged in your despair and self-loathing as you seem to be? Perhaps it is merely the shock. I am sure you will relive it every time you trance for the rest of your life, elf, and do not make the mistake of hoping it to be brief. The Ring of Regeneration and the Ring of Sustenance I have just given you to wear will keep you alive. You will live for as long as I want you to live. Weeks, months, years, decades, centuries – and if you come to the end of your natural life span, and I still wish you to live, then you will live, elf, because you are mine now, and you have no purpose or identity beyond that which I give you.”
I reach down and my tongue shoots out, running down the elf's face almost tenderly and the elf squirms in pain as the trails of acid burn into a pale cheek. The skin is salty with tears.
I breathe down into the elf's face and growl so quietly my voice only carries for a few feet.
“We have all the time in the world, elf, and there is nothing I would not do to you simply because I can. Resign yourself to it – or not, it gives you no power either way.”
My fangs tear at the robes, scraping gashes into the skin that heal almost immediately. From the gems lodged securely between my scales, the children must be watching.
I cannot believe I'd ever considered leaving the elf alone.