It appeared that my unintelligible enunciations had been loud enough to rouse everyone from their beds, and it was Sir Greenhilt who scrambled out of his tent first, ancestral sword held ready to fight off a non-existent foe. He stopped when he saw only us - Miss Starshine standing with an arrow nocked and I on my knees in the sand – a look of confusion crossing his dark features. Miss Starshine came forward and tried to help me up, but I shrugged off her assistance. There was nothing wrong with me, I could stand on my own.
“Vaarsuvius, what the hell-“ Sir Greenhilt started to ask, but Miss Starshine shook her head sharply and his inquiry faltered. I scowled inwardly at the way they were acting, as though I was an upset child. I was a fully grown elf, decades older than any of them, and they should acknowledge it more often.
“V, are you okay?” Fear was still etched in her face, but now the fear was for me, not for herself and I felt a sudden stab of annoyance.
“I am quite alright.” I answered curtly, brushing residual sand off of my robes and meeting her concerned gaze with a defiant glare. Miss Starshine nodded, but she evidently did not believe me.
“I think you should go back to bed, V.”
I looked around to see that everyone else was returning to their tents, except for Sir Greenhilt who stood watching our exchange expressionlessly. I complied without another word, deciding that further protest would be futile, and re-entered my tent to see Blackwing looking at me questioningly.
“What was that all about?” He asked.
I lay down on my bedroll, facing away from him. “It is not important.”
“Was that you laughing like that?”
“I said it is not important!” I snarled, twisting around to glare at the pathetic ball of feathers. He shrunk back, burrowing down into the cloak as though it would shield him from my fury. I turned away again and lay back down.
From outside I could hear voices. “I don’t know. V was just curled up on the ground, making that noise.”
“There wasn’t anything else here?”
“Not that I could see.” There was a pause, the only audible sound a rustling as Blackwing craned his scrawny neck, trying to hear what else they had to say about me.
“I’m worried, Roy. First there was that thing with the uber-magic or whatever, then running off to fight Xykon alone. Then there was the thing with the ‘familiar’. Now this.”
“You think V’s losing it?”
“I think Vaarsuvius might not be in a fit state to adventure with us anymore. Being faced with the task that’s ahead of us is hardly going to be helping matters.”
“Maybe you’re right. But I think we should wait until morning until we make any decisions.”
“I suppose. ‘Night Roy.”
I lay there, my face flushed with anger and shame. Blackwing was silent. I was sure that he was thinking thoughts similar to the opinions my team members had expressed. As if the mangy animal had any right to think ill of its master in such a way.
“Maybe you should pull a few of his feathers out” the voice whispered on the edge of hearing. Well, maybe I should.
I emerged from the tent as soon as the sunlight could be seen through the canvass, to find that as usual I was the first to rise. After the night’s events I had once more fallen into a trance, lost in memories that surfaced, then slipped away between my fingers. I gazed across the dunes at the rising sun, the light tinted rose pink from some distant sand storm. The air was still cool, but the sun’s rays were already warm on my face and I enjoyed the feeling, knowing that once she ascended high enough to burn I would no longer be able to feel it, instead having been magically shielded from the heat.
“A red sunrise, how lovely.”
I twisted around in surprise, to see only Blackwing hopping out of the tent, stretching his wings. He saw me looking at him, and tilted his head to the side slightly. “What?” he questioned, eyeing me strangely. His voice was a coarse rasp, perfectly understandable but still animalistic and distinct.
I turned away. “Nothing.”
“Look, I’m not judging you. I know better than they do what you’ve been through recently and if you’re a bit stressed it’s perfectly understandable. I’m sure your team mates would be happy to help if you need some emotional support at the mo-“
“’Emotional support’?!” I exclaimed incredulously. “You think I have problems of the type that can be solved with a friendly conversation and a cup of tea?” I snorted humourlessly at the idea. “I care not for your misguided analysis of my mental state. There is nothing wrong with me, save that I am surrounded by people who will not respect my need for occasional solitude.”
For a moment, it seemed Blackwing would try to argue further, but he simply snapped his beak shut once with an exasperated clack and spread his wings. “I’m gonna go and fly around for a bit, see if I can see anything from higher up.” he said, rising into the air and quickly becoming just a black speck against the sky.
Finally! Some peace and quiet!
My mood suddenly having lightened considerably, I brought my spellbooks and components out of the tent and settled down on the sand to prepare spells. As soon as the rest of them awoke I wouldn’t have a moments respite while I was in their company. I resolved to enjoy it while I could.
They had, of course, all voted against my continued contribution to the quest. Even the dwarf - whom I had begun to hope was somewhat reasonable - insisted I relinquish my participation ‘fer yer own good’. Some small part of me may have realised that my behaviour the previous night had been somewhat peculiar, but it was a slight transgression compared to their own eccentric vices, and a singular one following a long history of nothing but diligent dedication to the same cause for which we all toiled. Perhaps I should have been more insistent; after all, the successfulness of their quest would decide the fate of the entire world - a world in which I currently resided. But if I must be honest, I admit I had long since tired of their company, and having to constantly refrain from showing them painfully and exactly what I felt of them was wearing my patience somewhat thin.
But calling me insane? I was laughable; I found myself grinning at the absurdity of it.
I could always scry on them and rejoin the party at a later point, assuming they did not eventually realise their mistake themselves and take the initiative in contacting me, something which I knew them to be perfectly capable of doing. If anyone were to regret this decision - I reassured myself as a packed away my spellbooks and scrolls - it would be them. I would be the one to get the last laugh, I thought, chuckling softly.
Sir Greenhilt approached me as we concluded packing the tents, giving me an odd look. “We’ll take you to the next settlement” He said. “And we’ll find someone to provide any help you need from there.” What does he think I am?
“Thank you for your concern.” I replied sourly, “But I am well able to make my own arrangements and I will be departing present company shortly.” I had prepared a Flight spell that morning for this exact purpose.
“V, we’d be happier if we left you somewhere we know you’ll be safe.”
Have they all forgotten the magnitude of the power I wield? He was looking at me with concern that would normally be reserved for an invalid, and suddenly the desire gripped me to send a Fireball directly into his face. I imagined him screaming in pain, his flesh shrivelling and cracking, peeling away from charred bone. Something of this must have shown in my expression because he hastily backed away from me. A wise decision. I turned back to the half dismantled tent and finished folding it and packing it into a neat bundle.
However, despite their faults, I had travelled with them for long enough that I would not leave without a farewell. Especially to Miss Starshine, whom - despite our recent disputes – I had counted as a friend for longer than I had any of the others. With this in mind, I walked over to where they were gathering, Blackwing perched respectably on my shoulder and my head held high. I would not allow them to pity me.
She turned to face me, looking worried. “Roy said you weren’t travelling with us to the next town. Why not V?”
“Because I am obviously no longer wanted here!” I exclaimed, gesturing wildly and almost knocking my familiar off of his makeshift perch. Everyone was watching now, but they were not deserving of my attention and so I ignored them. “Goodbye, Miss Starshine. I hope we meet again once you have come to realise that our parting was ill advised.” I turned on heel and strode off, effectively silencing further conversation. As I flew off into the air, I heard her shouting something; her own goodbye perhaps, or maybe a plea for me to remain with them. I did not look back, nor did I stop to listen.
I travelled in this fashion for the rest of the day, stopping only once in the heat of the sun to refill my water supply from a small oasis, and also to allow Blackwing to rest. When not travelling on my shoulder, he had spent the journey flying alongside me, and the inhospitable environment seemed to discomfort him more than it did me. Several times he had attempted to converse with me, either through concern or boredom. Each time I had shrugged off his attention until his attempts ceased altogether. Instead, we flew on in silence but for the whistling of the wind as it rushed past heralding us to our destination.
We reached a settlement as night was beginning to fall, for which I was grateful because I had no wish to spend another night out in the desert. It was a small town, like Sandsedge a large proportion of it consisted of tents, although these were clustered around more permanent dwellings. I began looking for accommodation for the night.
It was some time later that Haerta reappeared, suddenly there as I lay in a room at an inn staring up at the cracks in the ceiling. It was a subtle shift in the air, the feeling of someone else being present; I knew it wasn’t Blackwing because I’d kicked him out of my room earlier when he once more began trying to talk to me, shutting the door against his voice. Hearta was lounging beside me on the narrow bed, and I could feel her breath on my neck.
“You returned.” I stated by way of a greeting.
At that she laughed, rolling on top of me and effectively trapping me under her warm weight.
“I never left” she said, pressing her lips to mine and I squirmed - suddenly apprehensive - raising my hands to her shoulders to push her away. But she was having none of that; she caught my wrists and pinned them up above my head, forced a thigh between my legs. And laughed: a thick syrupy sound that seemed to come from deep in her throat. As before, it was contagious, and I found myself laughing loudly too, at least until she bit my lip sharply and told me to shut up.
“You’ll attract someone’s attention, just like you did last night.” she hissed as I gingerly felt my injured lip with my tongue, the coppery taste of blood seeping into my mouth.
“You were laughing too.” I protested, and maybe the pain was clearing my mind a little because I was suddenly wondering what exactly was going on. I tried to tug my wrists free, but her grip was like an iron vice.
“They’ll hear you laughing, but they won’t hear me.” She reassured. The ever logical part of my mind tried to consider the implications of that; could it be some side effect of the Soul Splice that tied me to this damned soul? Was it my training in matters of the arcane? But my attention ultimately drifted to a different question.
“Why are you here?” I heard myself ask.
She let go of my wrists, propping herself up on one arm and wiping a trickle of blood away from my mouth with a slender finger. The finger went to her mouth and she licked the red smear off with a flick of her tongue. Her eyes were still fixed on mine.
“Because you need me, sweetie. All this travelling around with insufferably good people has impaired your ability to act in your own interests.” A hand trailed down my neck to the clasp of my cloak, unfastened it. “You’re a mess; you spent months in fruitless search for that rogue, and where did that get you? No-one has even thanked you for your efforts. I would never have tolerated that. ”
“You would never have adventured with a group such as them.” I argued, which brought about another laugh. I struggled to stay silent.
“True, maybe. But don’t be so quick to discount what a healthy sense of self-preservation can prompt you to do. Their quest is hardly unimportant. Of course, they’re no longer allowing you to help, and after it cost you so much…”
A wave of grief washed over me, and I tensed, fighting back the emotions. She was right of course; having given up my family now meant so much less because the cause for which I had left them was denied to me. I tried to reason with myself that I had furthered the goals of the Order significantly, but the fact remained that I was no longer actively participating. “I had to leave them, I –I couldn’t have stayed.”
“Hey, it’s okay.” She cooed, tugging open the collar of my robe and lowering her head to my neck. “You made a sensible decision. But you can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself; now you’ve got a chance to take back what you lost. And you’ve got me to help you.”
The tongue drawing swirling patterns on my throat was making it had to concentrate. “You think I should try to… regain the love of my mate?” I said disbelievingly. She chuckled at that, and this time I couldn’t resist allowing a similar noise to escape me. However she made no effort to silence me.
“Something like that.” She said lifting her head momentarily to give a smile that showed a row of oddly sharp teeth.
“How-“ I began to ask, but my question turned into a moan as she writhed against me, a moan muffled by soft lips. She took the opportunity to slip her tongue into my partly open mouth. If I had had any further questions, they were quickly forgotten.
I was suddenly aware that I was cold, and that I was alone. I tugged at the rough blankets I lay on, pulling them up to cover my bare skin and curled up into a ball, hugging my knees to my chest and shivering. For a moment, I could hear nothing except my own breathing, and I struggled to recall where I was. But slowly my ears began to pick up sounds from the outside world, and memories surged back. Memories of anger, of despair, of warm flesh against warm flesh…
I raised my head, clenching my teeth to stop them chattering, and gazed around the small room. Just as the warmth she had provided was gone as though it had never been, so was the necromancer herself.
All I could think of was that I didn’t want to be alone, didn’t want to be lost in the silence, I needed something tangible to focus on. I opened my mouth, my throat suddenly dry and my voice cracking. “H-Hearta?”
“Shhh.” The ghostly touch of a hand brushed across my face, cool and soft and warm and real and I sunk back down onto the bed.
I tried to raise my head again, but my whole body felt impossibly heavy, even my eyelids drifted shut against my will.
On the edge on consciousness I heard a whisper.
“I never did.”