|The Night Warden LoR2
Author: LittleFireDragon PM
Sequel to Legend of Rin. A shady elf rogue named Rukh joins the group, his intentions unclear. Meanwhile, in the night, a cloaked figure watches the group as they try to solve a dragon's riddle. Pairings: CaleXOCRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Words: 13,821 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 4 - Published: 06-20-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5153245
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's note: Yes, I do self insert at one point. Never fear, it is only a cameo – I never appear again.
Also, I warn that Rin may or may not be slightly Sue-ish in this fic. Hey, it was what, my third story ever? At least I acknowledge it. On that note, carry on.
The cold night air was still in the moonless darkness. Only the stars shone dimly. A cloaked figure stood atop a cliff, looking down at the shadow-covered land below. The black robes and dark hood obscured the being, but long pointed ears poked out of slits in the hood, faintly lit by starlight. The being raised its hand rather ominously. A dark, winged creature fluttered down and landed on the outstretched fingers. The figure lowered its hand, turned, and walked down the hill, black cape flowing behind the sinister form.
Cale walked through the forest, Rin at his side. Birds chirped in the morning light. Pella and Richard followed, Benny leading the whole group.
"He should be back by now. He said he'd be here," she said.
"So what's this Krunch guy like?" Rintasha asked.
"He's wise," Cale said, smiling at the female elf by his side, "powerful, kind… I think you'll like him." Rin smiled at him. It had been only a few weeks since the battle of Lightsteel Mine, but things were calm once more. Still, the elves were itching for adventure. They looked around. Dew sparkled on the pale flowers of the woods, animals went about their business, and a golden light illuminated the world. At last, they came to the edge of the forest, meeting up with a grey minotaur.
"Hello, Krunch. How are you?" Benny asked.
"I'm fine, Gid. And what all did I miss?"
"You wouldn't believe what we've been through. I'll tell you about it all. How did things go with you and the Alazorians?"
"They've accepted my offer. Peace has been made," the mighty minotaur said with a sage nod. He turned to the other members of the group. Noticing Rin, he asked, "And who is this? Found yourself a girl, then, have you, Cale?" He grinned in a congratulatory and non-provocative way. Cale blushed vividly and reacted violently regardless.
"She's not my girlfriend!" He snapped angrily.
Benny shook her head and whispered to Krunch, "He's in denial about his feelings."
"Ah," Krunch whispered back with a somewhat amused grin, "I'll just humor him then."
The group sat around the campfire. Benny, Pella, Rin, and Cale told the story of the orbs, voices full of excitement, Krunch listening with interest.
"And then Cale crawled out on the wing of a flying dragon and ripped the arrow right out!" Rin said, grinning broadly at Cale.
"Well… it was nothing, really… I mean, you were depending on me, what else could I do?" he replied, "It was you who saved the day there. I would have died if it weren't for your flying skills."
"It was all of us," Benny pointed out, "although that was pretty impressive when you put the Sunblade through Gruffohr, Cale."
"Thanks," the elf said.
"Well," Krunch said thoughtfully, "it sounds like you've been through a lot. If you don't mind though, I'd like to drag you all somewhere else. I saw a castle on the way here, atop a hill."
Rin and Cale looked at each other.
"Relax, it can't have been the Dark Ones' castle," Pella said, "that was the other way!"
"You all get some sleep. We'll go tomorrow," the old cow said.
The group rose early, when the sky was still somewhat dark, and trekked across the fields, into another small grove of trees, toward the small castle on the horizon. It was not sinister or imposing, which was quite a change from the norm. A figure slipped out from around a tree. The elves jumped.
"Oh, sorry," the figure said, "did I startle you?" He was an elf, too! He was tall, strong-chested, very handsome, with long white hair – not blond like Cale's, actually white. He had dark eyes and wore black leather that showed off his wiry but athletic form. A black cape with red edges was wrapped around him, clasped with a simple silver buckle, without the fanciness of his fellow elf's signature cloak. His belt had metal studs in it, and two daggers, one on either side of his hips. A jet black hawk perched on his shoulder. He raised one hand, with a fingerless but long and wide black glove, palm up. He grinned and raised one eyebrow.
"I suppose I should introduce myself," he said, "of course, only if you are willing to do the same."
The group members looked at each other blankly, then slowly introduced themselves to the handsome white-haired elf.
"My name," he said, "is Rukh. Pleased to meet you."
"Something about him," Benny muttered to Krunch, "reminds me of Tah'vraay. Probably that grin of his."
"Where are you going, good Rukh?" Cale asked, attempting to be polite and not judge the man before he'd gotten to meet him properly.
"Wherever the winds take me," Rukh replied, still smirking, "if you don't mind, I suppose I could travel with you, yes?"
"Of course, I guess," Cale said, blinking at the rather sudden request. Rukh simply grinned and nodded.
They continued on their way, the new shadowy elf in tow. Rukh examined each of his new companions, looking over Rin twice. He looked at Cale thoughtfully, wondering how much money the blond elf had on him… Rukh's hand twitched toward his dagger, but he decided it wasn't worth the effort. Nah, probably doesn't have any cash anyway, he thought.
"There's something about that castle," Benny said, as they arrived at the door of the castle, looking up at it, "It's not scary, but… there's something… weird about it. It's kinda creepy, but… in a sad way, not a scary way."
"Yeah," Cale agreed, "I know what you mean."
They entered. The halls were dark and quiet. The castle was empty; there were no signs of life whatsoever. Crimson rugs and tapestries and banners decorated the ornate corridors. Candles sat in their stands but were not lit, however, the morning sun filtering in through the windows allowed the heroes to see. They wandered through the abandoned rooms. Somehow, even though the whole place was dusty and dark, and seemed like it had been a very long time since anyone lived there, the furniture, rugs, and decorations were in fairly good condition. Things were neglected and fading but not falling apart. Rukh rummaged through an old cabinet, pocketing a gold necklace he found.
"Hey!" Cale said, catching the rogue in the act, "put that back! That's not yours, that belongs to somebody!"
"Who cares?" the white-haired elf said over his shoulder, hands still in the dresser, "whoever it belongs to is long gone. It's mine now."
He and Cale glared at each other for several minutes before noticing that the others were moving on and rushing to catch up to them.
"You boys need to stop fighting," Krunch said over his shoulder, "it makes you both look immature."
"Shut your face, cow," Rukh muttered.
"What did you say?" the minotaur asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Nothing," the rogue said, smiling innocently.
They all froze as something rustled in the rafters above them. A dark shape with long legs, a lengthy tail, and massive black wings flew silently to the ground in front of them, landing without a sound in front of them, hunched over. Cale gave a small gasp and backed into the others, who also moved away from the mysterious winged animal.
It raised itself up to its normal height, about as tall as the elves. It then stepped forward, out of the shadows. It was a slender, bipedal dragon! Her scales were dark crimson, with orange along her back. Her body, from her hips to her neck, was like that of an elf, but her legs were triple-jointed like a wolf or a horse, and she had a reptilian tail. She was dressed in a brown, sleeveless leather shirt that did not cover her midriff, and a matching leather skirt that went down to her knees, about a third of the way down the legs. What had appeared to be a massive set of wings was actually a black cape that fastened directly in front of her neck, with tattered ends.
"Dragon?" Rin said, "Is that you, Dragon?"
Dragon wrapped her cloak around her. "Aye, it is me indeed. Greetings, champions, masters of arrow, fire, and steel.
I have been given a message for you by the Archmage,
Warning? Advice? Not I shall reveal.
The curtain falls, setting the stage.
An epic story unfolds from within the wolf's ears, the goal yet unknown.
Follow the Blade of Nocturne; it leads by its tip.
The great eagle, seeds of chaos has sown.
Unknowing heroes fall into the grip.
Not all is as it seems: right may be wrong and wrong may be right.
All shall make itself clear when Fenrir swallows the sun.
Sometimes the brightest light is visible only in the darkest of night.
Thus it was written and thus it shall be done."
"Curse you, Dragon! Why must you always speak in riddles!" Rin sort of screamed. Apparently she knew this creature, and was irritated with it.
"Because, Rintasha, I am what I am. The lion may mourn the lamb, but he must eat all the same.
You know me, I never tell too much; to me this life is all a game!
Riddle and rhyme are my trade,
And in my words, a debt is paid," Dragon said with a grin. With uncanny speed, she leapt back into the support beams, disappearing into the shadows.
"Grrr…." the elf growled, fists clenched in frustration, "I hate when she does that!"
There was silence for a moment.
"You know her?" Rukh asked.
"I have met her in the past," Rintasha said.
"You call her Dragon," Cale said, "doesn't she have a name?"
"Nobody knows her name, save for a select few, and they have vowed never to say it. I am not one of them. It does not matter. She is annoyingly vague anyway. She seems to have been around forever too." She shrugged. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. Dragon has given us a riddle. It would do us well to solve it. Though she's never told me anything this tough before."
"Great eagle," Krunch said, "sounds like she's talking about the sky city."
"Sky city?" Cale asked.
"A city in the clouds, built on magic. The city of mages," Pella said, "I heard of that."
"And how do you suggest we get there, old cow?" Benny asked.
"We take a flying ship."
"You heard me," the minotaur said with a wise smile.
The group was asleep around the campfire. A small, fuzzy animal with moth-like wings scampered over a tree like a squirrel, then suddenly took flight, vanishing into the night.
"How much farther do we have to go, old cow?" Benny asked.
"Quite a way. The ravine where the ship docks is some distance away from here."
"Tell me, furball," Rukh said, smirking, "are the people of this sky city rich?"
The minotaur knew better than to say anything to the thief. Eventually the rogue stopped paying attention to Krunch and started staring at Rin like a hawk watching a mouse. Cale, of course, noticed, and deliberately moved between the two other elves, shooting a nasty glare at Rukh over his shoulder momentarily. He then turned to Rin and smiled at her as though absolutely nothing had happened.
Richard walked over to Cale and whispered, "Can we keep him? I like this fellow's attitude."
Eventually they came to a cliff. A murmur of awe ran through the party as they stared at the great rift before them. Orange stone walls dropped down to a river, distant, sparkling at the bottom.
"It is here that we wait," Krunch stated, "I know someone of the Ancienthoof tribe who works on one of the flying ships."
"How come I've never heard of a flying ship?" Richard asked.
"They be unique to sky city, really," Pella said, knowingly.
"How do you know so much about the sky city?" Cale inquired, blinking.
"I once knew a mage, named Gwen, from sky city."
The elf glanced to the side. Rukh had slowly managed to move Rin a little ways from the group and was attempting to charm the lady, grinning in that self-confident, mischievous way of his. It irritated Cale to no end. He frowned and glared at the cocky rogue. He walked over and forced himself to be polite as he requested to speak to the shadowy elf away from the rest of the group. After leading him a short distance away, Cale turned to the man, no longer bothering to hide the stern and somewhat angry look on his face.
"Look, rogue," he said, prodding Rukh rather violently in the chest, "I don't know what you're up to, but you'd better not lay a hand on her, or I'll-"
"Or you'll what?" the white-haired elf interrupted, putting a hand on a dagger with a nasty grin.
"I'll… I'll… I'll break your jaw, if you're lucky. I'll break more than that if you're not!" Cale threatened, one fist raised.
"Boys," Benny yelled, "stop your schoolyard squabbling! The ship's going to dock!" The two elves glared into each other's eyes for a moment, before turning toward the priestess. She was pointing into the sky. The sun was low, but not near setting yet. Something that looked like a ship with wings was slowly making its way toward the ravine.
"Those two do not get along," Rintasha muttered.
"And I suspect you have something to do with it," Benny replied with a smirk.
The ship pulled in and stopped, floating in midair in the ravine. It was unlike any ocean-going ship any of them had ever seen. It had the same basic build, but on the deck there were no sails, only massive gears and pulleys and complicated machinery. From the sides of the ship, two massive wings protruded, webbed like bat wings, made from teal cloth stretched out over the orangey wood struts. The ship was very, very large.
"How do we get on it?" Benny asked, pointing out that the ship was in the middle of the ravine, the wings too long to allow it to get too close to the edges. Her question was answered when a board in the side of the ship extended to the full length of the wing and onto the rocky cliff edge; somehow the plank, longer than the width of the ship itself, had magically been stored inside.
"Hail!" Krunch yelled, waving to another minotaur on the ship. It waved back and approached along the plank with a sure-footedness that even Rin would not have had over that canyon. The minotaur was a female, but she was still larger than any member of the group besides Krunch. She was cream-colored with red-brown spots. Her mane and horns were black, and she kept the longer hair in the front in two short, thick braids. She was dressed in leather apparently made from reptile skins.
"Hail, friend. It has been a long time," she said, hands clasped behind her back. She stood straighter than Krunch, and was less muscular, but still not exactly feminine in form. Yet, her gender was still clear, which was more than Cale could honestly say.
Richard elbowed the elf in the ribs. "She's more masculine than you are."
"Shut up," Cale replied, glaring sideways at the warlock.
Krunch talked to the female minotaur about traveling on her ship, and she agreed with little resistance, unlike Tah'vraay. She even offered to take them in for free, but Cale insisted on paying her. She led them along the plank, hands clasped behind her back as she swaggered along the narrow piece of wood, giving the advice to "just don't look down".
"Thank you, good lady, for taking us on your… err… sky… ship… thing…" Cale said.
"Welcome aboard the Cloud Skipper. I'm Sky-Captain Calblanka Ancienthoof. Don't mind the purple draktor over there, he's our mascot Mahkah." The large draktor she mentioned was lying lazily on the upper deck, tail flicking, head raised, eyes partially closed.
"My name is Cale'anon Vatay. Pleased to meet you," Cale said with a bow, "but if I may ask, do you just… fly back and forth between the ravine and the city?"
"Of course not!" the Sky-Captain replied with a laugh, "The mages keep scrying orbs. They saw that someone was waiting, and sent a sky ship down."
"I'm Richard," the warlock said, in a failed attempt to intimidate the minotaur.
Rintasha, Pella, and Benny introduced themselves, but Rukh said nothing.
"That's Rukh," Cale said, pointing to the rogue, "keep an eye on him."
"Shut your face," the thief quipped.
Mages moved around on the deck, comprising about half the crew. Wizards of various races channeled spells into an assortment of devices. Some crew members tended to the adjustment of the wings, others turned large gear-wheels. Cogs and other contraptions spun and clicked and whirred on the flying machine's deck. Cale couldn't decide if the whole thing was a marvel of engineering or magic, or both. Slowly, the wings started to flap, and the ship set "sail" into the reddening sky.
The sky was cloudy, but not blanketed by the clouds. The ship's wings flapped slowly, propelling the magic flying ship through the sky, higher and higher, into the clouds. It was quite a strange sight, seeing the sun setting on a plain of clouds. They were illuminated with pinks and golds. Cale leaned on the railing at the edge of the ship, looking around in awe.
"This is so surreal! And so beautiful!" He glanced at Rin, who was at his side. "Of course, I've seen prettier things," he said, loudly enough for Rukh to hear him. At the conscious level, he was still in denial, but subconsciously, he wanted the rogue to know that the lady elf was his, and no thief, no matter how dashing, would steal her.
The rogue glanced down at his hip and partially drew the dagger from its sheath, contemplating the idea of assassinating Cale. No, no, that would get him kicked from the group… Though he could always make it look like an accident… No, the cleric was too suspicious. She'd catch on too quickly. No, he couldn't kill the blond elf. At least not yet. He looked at his rival for a few minutes with a small frown, then turned away, cape swishing around him, and walked down the deck of the ship, examining the machinery that drove the wondrous contraption he now stood upon. He realized suddenly that his cape was on fire. He spun to put it out. Still crouching with one hand on his knee, the other on the ground, he looked around alertly, eyes finally settling on a warlock.
"Do you have a death wish, warlock?" Rukh growled, glaring icily up at Richard, who only laughed. The rogue turned slightly red with anger. He whipped a dagger out of its sheath and threw it at the undead man, lodging the blade firmly in Richard's chest with a loud thud. The others in the area turned to look at him in confusion. Richard looked down at the blade, pulled it out, and handed it back to Rukh.
"Nice aim," he said, obviously trying to provoke the thief further.
Cale glared at the rogue mistrustingly, placed his hands lightly on Rintasha's shoulders, and guided her gently away from the angry, white-haired elf. "Don't go too near him," he muttered to Rin, "I don't trust him."
"I can take care of myself, Cale," she sighed. Cale opened his mouth to say something else, but wasn't sure what else it was he was afraid Rukh would do to Rin, besides hurt her physically. He knew there was something else, but wouldn't allow himself to figure it out. He shut his mouth and nodded silently.
Finally he replied simply with "Well… still…"
"Here we are!" Calblanka called. The two elves turned around. The ship's boarding plank was extended. There was a city before them, unlike any they'd ever seen. It rivaled even Kethenecia in brilliance, and blew it away in terms of sheer oddity. The roads were paved, neat, well-kept paths of golden-white brick. However, where there should have been ground around them, there were only clouds. The buildings were mostly cubes decorated with oddly elaborate arches, windowsills, and decorative columns with onion-dome roofs (to us, it might be said that they looked like a mix of the architecture of India and Rome), all made of stone the same color as the roads, decorated with the occasional teal or gold design. Even this sky city was not devoid of trees and bushes, however. The magic that ran strong here shaped parts of the clouds into plant-like forms, though they were still clearly made of white, fluffy clouds. People bustled about, more than half of them mages. The city was not crowded, but it didn't feel desolate. At first, the party remained on the paths, fearing falling through the clouds, until they saw a young mage chase her blue dragonling onto the fluffy, white ground, trying to catch her runaway familiar. Cale cautiously stepped onto the cloud, one foot at a time. A grin spread across his face when he realized they were enchanted and he could walk on them. He darted over to the dragonling and caught it by the neck. It was apparently too young to fly. It squirmed about in his hands.
"Here," he said, handing it to the human girl who'd been chasing it. She had long, honey-blonde hair, and she was wearing a royal blue robe with elegant gold filigree.
"Thank you, kind sir," she said, "it's not every day I meet such a kind elf."
"Yes," Cale muttered, "my race does have a rather bad reputation…" He looked around for Rukh so he could give him a meaningful look, but the rogue was nowhere to be seen. "My name is Cale'anon. Pleased to meet you."
"I'm Gwenivera Fenris."
"Gwen, huh? You know a dwarf called Pella?"
"Oh, you're a friend of Pella?"
"Indeed," the elf said, then called over his shoulder, "Pella, Gwen's here!"
The whole group came over, slowly, minus one missing rogue.
"Gwen! Good t' see ya, lass!" Pella said enthusiastically.
"Good to see you again, too, Pella! Who might all your companions be, besides Cale'anon here?"
Once more, they all introduced themselves.
"… Our rogue is missing," Rintasha said suddenly.
"I noticed that," Cale replied, "I don't like it when he's out of my sight. I can't make sure he doesn't get us all into deep trouble if I can't see him."
There was a general murmur of agreement in the party. Benny pointed to a black hawk sitting on the "branch" of a nearby "tree". Omen the hawk cawed hoarsely.
"He can't be far. Omen's here, and he never goes far from Rukh."
Cale shook his head. "Let him get into trouble. When they've put a bounty on his head, I'll be that much richer," he said, semi-sarcastically, "He isn't technically one of us, is he, anyway? He's just tagging along. None of us like him. Right? I mean, I can't be the only one who hates his- who… isn't too fond of him, I mean."
"You hate his guts," Benny said, "no need to hide that, Cale. We all know. I don't blame you."
"Erm," Gwen said, "welcome… to… sky city…. I guess?" She blinked a few times.
"Sorry about that," Krunch said with a laugh, "we've been having a bit of trouble with our rogue. Don't mind us."
"Where be the inn?" Pella asked, "It's almost night; we be needing a place to stay."
"I'll show you the way."
And so Gwenivera the young mage led the group to a cozy inn as the sun was setting. Along the way she pointed out interesting buildings: a wand shop, an exotic pets store, a flower stand, a forge.
The party checked into the inn, and all but the two elves sat at a large, round table, firelight adding a snug, merry atmosphere to the happy sky city. Cale turned to Rin.
"You know… if you're still missing your bat… I'm sure we can find something at the exotic pet store Gwen pointed out… If you'd like to come, I mean…"
Benny nudged Pella in the ribs, nodded toward the elves, and smiled.
"Alright," Rintasha replied with a smile. They stepped out of the inn. The town was nowhere near deserted, but most people were inside their homes. The elves walked side by side down the beautifully surreal town. The sky was still purple, but stars were beginning to come out. The city of mages was quiet and peaceful. Cale resisted the urge to hold Rin's hand, but gave her a few quick smiles. Eventually they entered the pet shop, which was soon to shut for the night. Dragonlings, draktors, wolf pups, tiger cubs, exotic snakes and lizards, and even a phoenix hatchling were for sale. The two elves looked around, smiling, eventually coming to a large grey bat with pale pink wings that hung upside down from a ring that was chained to the ceiling.
"What do you think of this one, Rin?"
Cale laughed. "You have an odd definition of cute."
"Well," she replied, also laughing, "what's your definition?"
"Hmm… you," he said, somewhat awkwardly. He blushed as he realized that he said that out loud. "I mean- Y-you know! Just… Heh…"
Rin giggled a bit and purchased the bat, which she named Thanatos. The two walked silently back toward the inn, when the flower stand caught Cale's eye. He stopped, pulled out a coin purse, smiled at the lady elf by his side, bought a rose, and handed it to her sheepishly, unable to look her in the eye for embarrassment.
"I… don't know what to say…!" she muttered, "… thank you…"
They both blushed brilliantly as they returned to the inn.
Meanwhile, Rukh looked around furtively. He dropped silently out of the rafters, glancing around, before walking hurriedly over to the book. The rogue reached out without a sound, lightly tapping the book's leather cover, in case there was an alarm spell on it. He shrunk back as if afraid it would bite him, then looked around. Nothing happened. He snickered, smiling smugly, and picked up the book with the ruby on the cover. The smile vanished as he tucked the precious tome under his cape. The thief looked around shiftily; he knew he should know better than to try to steal from warlocks, but it was just too tempting. So much dark power was contained in that volume… and Rukh wanted it all for himself.
Night had fallen. The stars surrounded sky city. A dark, cloaked figure stood atop one of the building's dome roofs. The black cloak of the figure rustled slightly in the faint breeze of the night. A large bat flew back to its master, landed on the outstretched gloved hand, and hung from the arm. An extra pair of eyes in the night, it was. Thanatos' purpose was unknown to the party.
Morning. Cale awoke in the fancy room he'd slept in. It had been luxury, the finest magewoven silks, the loveliest dyes, the deepest, most comfortable sleep he'd ever had. He yawned and stretched, completely re-energized. He stood, put his shirt, cape, and boots on, and went down the stairs to the main dining hall. Immediately his mood plummeted, for there was Rukh, sitting next to a rather irritated Rintasha, trying to smooth-talk her, while giving a huge, overconfident Hollywood grin.
"Oh," Rintasha quipped, "you are so good at being not impressive!"
"Hey, hey, come now, pretty thing, don't be that way," the rogue cooed. Cale's eyes narrowed. He cleared his throat and walked over to Rukh. He grabbed the rogue's throat and forced him to look at him.
"Didn't I tell you," the elf growled, "to leave her alone?"
Rukh made a strangled noise and attempted to pry Cale's hand off his throat. The blond elf gave the thief a death-glare, and the rogue responded with a snort. "None of your business, wimp…"
"Actually, yes, it is my business, and if you continue to cause trouble," Cale said, with a tone of authority, "I can and will kick you from the group." The two elven men glared into each others' eyes furiously.
Rintasha sighed. "Boys, please, stop! I'm sick of you two fighting all the time!" she snapped, trying to sound equally irritated at both of them, but her eyes said that she was thankful for what Cale had done. The blond elf backed off immediately, but continued to glare at his rival.
Rukh snorted. "I don't see what you think is so great about him, Rin," he muttered, before swaggering arrogantly out the door.
"What a jerk," Cale mumbled.
Rukh glanced around nervously, then swiftly made his way to a secluded place, pulled the book out of his cloak, and flipped it open. The writing glowed with an evil green light, stinging his eyes, as the pages burned his hands like weak acid. The rogue winced, but slowly opened his eyes and forced himself to read the cursed words. He could master these dark arts. Oh yes, the power would be his. The world would be his. Wealth would be his. Rin would be his.
The party sat around a table.
"Perhaps I was wrong," Krunch muttered.
"I don't know where to go from here," Benny said, "none of us do."
"Maybe this isn't what Dragon meant," Rin suggested, "perhaps we're supposed to find some kind of giant wolf? 'An epic story unfolds from within the wolf's ears, the goal yet unknown,' she said."
"Within the wolf's ears?" Richard asked, one eyebrow raised, "how do we get inside a wolf's ears? Oh, oh! I could burn it, then stand on its ears! That would work!"
"I don't think that's what she meant, warlock," Pella said with a laugh.
"Maybe we need to find the sword… But I don't know where to find it," Cale said with a sigh.
"Maybe we should just wait," Rin suggested.
The sun was setting. A dark creature with moth-like wings flitted through the sky. Cale pointed it out.
"A faegryph!" Rintasha exclaimed. The creature flew over and landed on her hand. It was black and fuzzy, with blue and black butterfly wings, a blue beak, and blue claws. It chirped. Then it suddenly flew away, doubling back several times, chirping.
"It wants us to follow it, I think," Cale said, blinking.
"Perhaps," Benny muttered.
Richard lit the creature on fire, but it put itself out easily with magic.
"Richard!" Cale snapped. The faegryph began to fly away again. Cale chased after it, the rest of the group quickly following.
The faegryph led them right back to the docks of the sky ships.
"Right back where we started," Pella observed.
"Maybe it's trying to get us back on track," Benny said.
"I wouldn't doubt it," Rin agreed. She watched the fuzzy creature as it landed on one of the docked ships. Calblanka was shockingly still there, even that late. Evidently she was about to call it a night.
"Captain," Krunch called out, "we need your services."
"It's late, friend," she replied.
"It's rather important."
"It's gone…" Cale muttered, looking for the faegryph.
"Perhaps we should split up and look for it," Rukh suggested.
"Right," he replied with a nod, "you, Pella, and Richard go one way, I'll go with Benny, Rin, and Krunch."
"How about you take the dwarf and I'll go with Rintasha?" the rogue suggested with a sly smile.
"Uh, well I liked Cale's idea…" Rin began.
"Oh, come now, pretty thing, don't be that way! You know you want to come with me," the thief said with an overconfident smirk.
Benny cleared her throat. "How about I go with Cale and Krunch, you go with Richard, and Pella and Rin go together?"
"I second that motion. We could create vast swaths of destroyed land, working together, rogue," Richard said, spreading his arms wide. Rukh grunted.
The elf, the cleric, and the minotaur set off in the night, seeking the mysterious fae-creature that had obviously wanted to take them somewhere. Cale was not happy about being separated from Rin, but it was better than knowing she would have been with Rukh.
"I heard something," Benny called. Her companions were at her side quickly. She led them to a clearing in the forest they'd been exploring. The moonlit grasses flowed like ocean waves in a soft breeze. Cale suddenly pointed up at a cliff overlooking the clearing, with a quiet gasp. A dark, cloaked, hooded figure with pointed ears was standing on the rocky outcrop. All three of them saw it for a moment before it realized that the beings it had been watching were now watching it instead. The figure turned and hurried away with a swoosh of a cape. Cale ran after it, but it had vanished into the night.
"Huh," the elf muttered, "who was that?"
Benny mumbled something unintelligible, and only grunted when Krunch questioned her. "Let's continue. We have to find that fae-thingy, right?"
They searched onward, looking for the beautiful creature with the stained-glass wings. Finally, Cale hissed over his shoulder, "Here!" He pushed a branch aside; a black gryphon with ebon-and-cobalt butterfly wings that opened and closed on the downy back in the night air, glimmering in the moonlight, was revealed, clinging to a tree like some kind of lizard. It turned its head and gazed at Cale with large, crystalline eyes like star sapphires. It seemed to look calmly, gently, right into his soul. It suddenly took flight, but didn't go far. Instead it circled round the elf, fluttering a short distance away before stopping and twirling about, waiting for its ground-bound followers to catch up. It led them on a winding path, gathering other members of the group, one at a time. Apparently the other two groups had been separated. First Rin, then Richard, followed by Pella, and at last, Rukh. Reunited, they followed the creature. It led them on and on, toward a mountain range, two snowcapped peaks standing taller than the rest.
"Wolf's Ears," Krunch muttered.
"Didn't Dragon say something like 'from within a wolf's ears an epic story unfolds' or something?" Rukh asked, one eyebrow raised.
"You're right, she did," Rin said.
"Then this," Benny stated, "is where it begins."
The faegryph led them to the base of the Wolf's Ears mountain range. Its job complete, it spiraled up into the sky, the stars glittering through its four, fine, elegant wings, long navy blue tail flowing behind it, shining brightly. It disappeared into the night. The group stared up at it for a moment, wondering what to do next.
"Come on," Cale said, "let's set up camp. It's led us where we need to go."
"You lot set up camp," Rukh said flatly, holding up his hand and using his thumb to wipe some dirt off his fingernail, "I'm going to go get some water from that stream we crossed."
"Yes Your Arrogance," Cale snapped bitterly, setting up a fire. He glared at the rogue as he swaggered away in that conceited way of his. The blond elf mumbled a few rather nasty names as he went about his work.
The rogue knelt by the stream, cupping his hands and gathering some of the cold, clear water. He drank it, and when he had quenched his thirst, he decided not to go back to the camp just yet. He sat with his back against a tree, pulling the book from its place between his hip and his belt, where it had been hidden by his cape. He opened it up and winced in pain, shutting his eyes. He forced them open. The book was burning his hand without leaving any marks, but it was as though he were on fire! To look at the words printed on the cursed pages scorched his eyes, hurting like hell but not damaging them. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open. He slammed the book shut and put his hands over his eyes, breathing hard in excruciating pain. And yet, he was smiling. He had felt power coursing through him, power as strong as the pain. He couldn't help it; he had to open the book again. He was ripped apart by hurt, and yet he could not bring his eyes away from the words that seemed to have been burned into the page, still smoldering there, only the embers at the edge of the charcoal-colored words were not red but green. They glowed with evil fire. They were the most intense feelings Rukh had ever experienced, the pain and the power. It was addictively painful, and painfully addictive. He read hungrily as far as he could. One line in particular caught his attention; he whispered it aloud.
"In the belly of the Iron Beast lies Power,
In its Power lies Wealth."
Rukh couldn't read any more. The pain was overwhelming. The thief slammed the book shut, put it back in its place on his belt, and panted as though he'd just been tortured. He stood, stumbled to the stream, fell to his knees, and splashed his face with cold water. He sighed, trembling, not from fear but a mixture of excitement and pushing his body past its physical limits. He stayed there to regain his composure before returning to the group, trying to act as normal as possible.
They began the long climb up Wolf's Ears. The air got colder, the ground got steeper. It gradually began to snow. Before long, they were up to almost their knees in snow. Rukh didn't even squint, though the brightness of the snow and the stinging wind were both hurting his eyes; he'd felt worse pain. Cale, however, was squinting, his head lowered, cape wrapped around him as he trudged through the snow. Richard melted the snow around him, so had no trouble walking. However, he refused to let anyone walk behind or near him, just so he could watch them suffer. Krunch put a furry cloak around Benny's shoulders.
"Do any of you have any idea what we're doing after we get to the top of the mountain?" the cleric asked impatiently.
"Dragon g-gave us a riddle an-and the g-gryph led us h-h-here. It'll all m-make itself cl-clear," Rin replied, shivering. Dragonscale armor was well suited to battle, but was near useless for keeping out the cold, and her cape was more decorative than anything else. Cale moved closer to her and held one side of his cape out, allowing her to walk right next to him, putting one arm around her with the warm cloak, in an attempt to share it with her.
"When Fenrir swallows the sun," he said, in response to her earlier statement, "she said 'all will make itself clear when Fenrir swallows the sun'; what do you think she meant?"
"Perhaps we need to get a giant animal to eat the sun!" Richard exclaimed in excitement.
"I doubt it," Krunch said.
After quite some time, the blizzard died down, as they came to a rather flat area between the two large peaks. Krunch gathered what would he could get and set up a camp fire. They all huddled around it as the sky began to turn red and purple; the stars began to come out. Cale and Rin were still sharing the cape, the lady elf pressed against her ally's side, his arms around her.
"And you say you're not in love," Richard taunted.
"It- It's for warmth," Cale stammered, blushing.
"You just keep telling yourself that, Cale," Benny laughed. Rukh glared at the two elves jealously. There was an awkward silence, until Cale suddenly leapt up.
"When Fenrir swallows the sun! Of course!" He exclaimed, as though he'd had some kind of revelation!
"What do you mean?" Pella asked, confused.
The elf pointed at the setting sun, a huge grin on his face. "The sun is setting on Wolf's Ears mountain range! Wolf's ears! They're like a giant wolf, and the sun is going down behind it! When Fenrir swallows the sun!" he said, spreading his arms wide, smiling broadly, "Dragon meant that things would become clear when the sun set over Wolf's Ears! We just have to wait for everything to 'make itself clear', now!"
"Cale, I had no idea you had such hidden intelligence." Benny grinned and folded her arms over her chest.
"Was that a compliment or an insult?"
The night came over the world like a great blanket, the stars glittering bright in the cloudless sky. Cale stood with his back to the rest of the group, without his cape (Rin was wearing it; she needed it more than him), looking at the bright specks of light in the sky, deep in thought. He snapped out of it when he heard Rukh speaking to Rin.
"Come now, pretty thing, don't be that way!" the rogue cooed. Cale was beginning to hate that phrase with a passion. He cleared his throat.
"Rukh, could I speak to you for a moment?"
"Why shou-" the thief began. He suddenly realized that it could possibly be a chance to push his annoying rival off a cliff and make it look like an accident. He closed his eyes for a moment as he thought, before opening them again and looking as calmly and nonaggressively at Cale as he could. "Alright."
The two elves walked away, resisting the urge to rip each other's throats out. They were both trying to remain civil, Cale more so than Rukh. When they were far enough away to not be heard, Cale turned suddenly toward the rogue with a death-glare in his eyes.
"Alright, rogue, you leave Rin alone! I'm sick of you going after her all the time!"
Rukh folded his arms over his chest and grinned as he leaned against a snowy tree. "You're just jealous. Why else would you act this way?"
"Because I care about her! Unlike you!"
Rukh snorted. Cale continued angrily.
"You don't care about her! If I thought… if I thought there was any chance at all that she'd be happy with you… I'd back off… I want what would make her happy. But I know she could never be happy with you; you'd only hurt her, and I won't let you do that. This is your final warning, rogue, you leave her alone or you'll have Cale'anon Vatay to deal with."
The assassin had no comeback. He merely snorted and tried to aggravate his rival. "So you finally admit you're in love with her? About time. Not even man enough to admit your feelings for a woman? Pathetic."
Cale first turned red, then looked furious. "Yes, I do love her! And that's more than you could ever say!" he snarled. Quickly, the elf added, "And if you tell anyone I said that, I'll kill you…"
Rukh merely laughed and paraded off, away from the camp. It was all Cale could do to keep from breaking the rogue's jaw then and there. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. Never had he met anyone he hated so much as this stinking thief.
Cale returned to the group. He continued looking at the stars.
"I heard no arrows being fired or blades clashing," Benny said, "which is good, I think."
"Our battle was verbal," the elf mumbled. He yawned and lay down in the area around the fire that had been cleared of snow. He shivered a bit. Rintasha was lying on her side, facing him, a little ways away, Cale's cloak still over her like a blanket. She opened her eyes and looked at him. She got up and walked over to him, lying down again right by his side, partially for warmth, and partially just to be near him. She put his cloak over both of them, put her head on his shoulder, and quickly fell asleep. Cale yawned and his eyelids drooped. He turned his head and looked sideways at Rin with a small smile; he had almost fallen asleep when he noticed the stars. Some of the trees, and the mountain, obscured certain stars and emphasized others. The elf sleepily noticed a pattern.
That constellation there… looks almost like a sword, heh, he thought, wait… Sword… Uh… Blade of Nocturne… his fuzzy, half asleep brain was rather slow to register. He closed his eyes, and then it hit him. He was suddenly wide awake. Forgetting that Rin was sleeping next to him, he sat up abruptly, waking the girl.
"That's it! It's not a sword at all!" He exclaimed. Rin mumbled something unintelligible. Benny opened one eye and glared at him. Richard set his foot on fire, causing him to hop around and yelp before putting it out.
"What revelation have you had now, Smart One?" Rukh muttered sarcastically, glaring at Cale. The rogue sat up.
"Aye, do tell," Pella grumbled.
"Err," the elf said awkwardly. He had not meant to wake everyone. He just pointed at the constellation. "Look there, between the trees! It looks just like a sword, doesn't it? I mean, the stars!"
There was silence, as everyone stared at the sky where he was pointing. Cale turned slightly red when nobody seemed to see it. Finally Krunch spoke.
"Indeed, it does, Pinky. And this is important, why?"
"The Blade of Nocturne! It isn't a sword we're looking for at all! It's a constellation! When Fenrir swallows the sun, all shall make itself clear: follow the Blade of Nocturne, it leads by its tip!" the elf explained, "look how the sword-constellation points down, and the brightest star is at the tip of the blade! We could only notice the constellation here because of the trees and mountains! It only made itself clear because 'Fenrir swallowed the sun', and now that we have the 'Blade of Nocturne', we can follow the tip!"
"That's the crazi-" Benny began, "actually…. You're right! That makes sense! You're brilliant! … Who are you and what have you done with Cale'anon Vatay?"
Rukh snickered. Cale just sighed and folded his arms over his chest.
"Ha, ha. So funny I forgot to laugh…"
"Lie down and get some sleep," Rintasha said, "tomorrow evening, we'll follow your star."
"I suppose that means we will no longer be doing much traveling during the day?" Benny asked.
"Correct, Gid," the minotaur said with a nod, "now let's all get some sleep."
Cale lay down again, put his arm around Rin, and the two elves settled back into their original position, right next to each other. It did not take long for them both to fall asleep.
Benny slowly opened her eyes. The snow in the morning light glimmered pink and gold, blindingly bright. She rose to her feet, shaking some snow off, and relit the campfire that had gone out during the night. The warmth slowly woke her friends, and as soon as they were fully aware, they agreed to travel as far down the mountain in the direction that Cale had indicated the previous night as they could. The journey down the slope was much easier than the trip upwards. The air grew warmer, the snow, thinner, the mood of the party, lighter. Finally, it was warm.
Rin gave Cale's cloak back to him. "Here, I don't need this anymore."
"No, keep it!" he offered with a smile.
She just shook her head and smiled. "No, Cale. This is yours. It's your signature cape. You keep it."
"Well, if you insist," he laughed.
"I do insist. I'm going hunting now, I'll be back later. Thanatos, come!" She waited for a few minutes before the bat found its way to its master. Then the two of them vanished into the forest. Cale looked at her as she left, semi-aware that he was smiling.
"So," Pella said, "what do you think we be looking for?"
"I don't know," Cale said. Rukh muttered something under his breath. The blond elf looked at him. "You know something we don't, rogue?"
"Nope," he replied casually, whistling a random tune and leaning on a fallen log, hands behind his head, chest puffed up in that proud way of his. His falcon flew in with a dead rat hanging from its beak. Omen landed on the ground and began tearing at its prey.
Richard looked at the evil-looking bird with the blood covered head. "Awwww, isn't it cute?"
That night, before everyone had regrouped, a dark, cloaked figure stood on the branch of a tree, hand on the trunk, looking out at the newly risen crescent moon. It held out a hand as a dark, winged animal flew into view. The creature landed on the outstretched hand, its four glasslike wings illuminated by the moon.
"Good job," the figure whispered to the faegryph, its voice unidentifiable. The shady silhouette looked around, jerked its hand so the gryph would fly away, crouched on the tree branch, and leapt down silently, vanishing into the night, cape swirling behind it.
Benny returned first, then Rin, then Cale, then Rukh. After everyone was back, they ate, and finally set out in the direction of Cale's Star.
"It's strange," the blond elf said, "we've been on this quest for quite some time and we still don't even know what we're questing for!"
"It is strange, isn't it?" Rin said.
"I'm sure there's cash in it for me, so I'm good!" Rukh said somewhat cheerfully.
"I'm bored!" Richard moaned. Cale suddenly grinned evilly and went over to the warlock. He whispered something in his ear and they both had that same glint in their eyes: the glint that could only spell trouble. When the rogue wasn't looking, the undead set him on fire. For the first time in front of the group, Rukh freaked out, flailing his arms and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Cale was doubled over in hysterical laughter, tears running down his cheeks. Everyone else was at least snickering. Finally Rukh managed to put out the flames and looked absolutely mortified. He said not a word for the rest of the night. Cale, on the other hand, was wearing a satisfied smirk for the entire duration of the trip. When nobody was looking he gave Richard a double thumbs up, and the warlock returned the gesture.
Several nights, they continued onward. At last, a gloomy, ominous castle came into sight.
"What's it with us and running into dark, creepy castles?" Cale asked.
"No idea," Rintasha said, "want Thanatos to scout it?"
"He can't tell us anything," Krunch pointed out.
"Oh, but he can," the huntress said, "if you know how to speak his language!"
Cale raised an eyebrow skeptically. "You speak Bat?"
"In a way." The girl winked. "Thanatos, come!" The bat swooped out of the sky and landed on Rin's arm, hanging upside down. He was very light for a creature with a four and a half foot wingspan. "Go in the castle, and look around. If anything dangerous is inside, squeak four times when you return. If it's safe, squeak only twice. If you're not sure, squeak thrice. Alright?"
The bat squeaked in acknowledgment, then took flight and entered the castle through a window.
Thanatos flew down the hallways. Not a torch was lit. Not a soul was there. The giant bat hovered in several rooms, before finally coming to a room with a lock on it. He landed on the wall, but nothing happened, so he took flight again. He flew up a set of stairs, turned a corner, and came to a room with a desk. Thanatos noisily landed on the desk, crawled on all fours over to a strange medallion of black and red metal, and cocked his head, examining it. He touched it gingerly with one wing-claw, squeaking in pain as the medal burned him. He pulled his wing-claw back, studying the object further. He noticed the black string tied to it in a loop. The bat picked up the string in his jaws and lifted the medallion. He then took flight out the window and soared back to his master.
"What is it Thanatos?" Rintasha asked, extending her arm for her pet to land on. He swung down into an upside down pose facing away from her, then lifted his head up backwards, looking at her right-side-up. He shook the medallion until the elf took it from his jaws, then he squeaked twice in quick succession. He then added a third, softer squeak, as if to say "err… I think…"
"Blood Iron," Rin said, holding the medallion up by the string, "the same stuff as those horrid collars the Dark Ones wore." She shuddered, remembering the choker they'd put on her.
"So is this a Dark One's castle?" Cale asked.
"The Dark Ones," mumbled Rukh, thoughtfully.
"What was that?" Rin asked.
"Didn't we destroy all the Dark Ones?" the blond elf inquired.
"I thought so," the lady replied, "but there could be a handful left. Or this could be a now abandoned fortress."
"Aye," the dwarf said, "deserted, likely."
"Only one way to find out," Krunch stated wisely.
"Alright then, Old Cow, lead the way," Benny said.
The whole group marched up to the sinister castle with the great double-doors. The minotaur put his full weight against them, then shoved with all his might. He groaned, but slowly, the doors creaked and moved. He got between them, and shoved outward with both hands to open the gate the rest of the way. "Forward," he said, smiling.
The castle was dark. Rin pulled out an arrow and dipped it in the bottle of tar, handing it to Richard in her usual routine. He ignited it and gave it back to her. Thanatos flew behind them as they wandered through the halls. Eventually they came to a locked door. Rin examined it, holding the torch close enough to see the lock clearly.
"Combination lock," she said, "of course… There could be thousands of combinations on this thing. We'll be here for days if we try to open it."
"Have the rogue look at it," Benny suggested.
Rukh stretched and rubbed the back of his head, closing his eyes and sighing casually. "Well," he said, "I suppose I could." He shrugged and opened his eyes. He knelt by the door, looking at the lock for a few minutes. He lifted it, examining the bottom, probing at the hole; he put it to his ear and turned the knob a bit to listen to the sounds it made; he observed the dimensions of the lock carefully. After a moment of study, he said, "I found the combo."
"Oh? What is it?" Cale asked.
Rukh pulled out a dagger and stuck the tip in the hole in the bottom of the lock. "The combo is 'knife'," he stated, as the lock clicked open.
The group stepped inside. Cale gasped and pointed. "Look!" he whispered urgently. There, chained to the wall by his wrists, was a limp elf who looked vaguely similar to Cale when he was being tortured, but much older. His hair was golden, clearly once the same shade as Rin's, but now beginning to grey. His head hung down and his face was hidden behind the long hair. He was wearing black armor on his chest and legs, with crimson leaf-like decorations. His gloves, spaulders, belt, and boots were brilliant gold with similar red decorations. He had a tattered black and red cape on. He looked both regal and tragic. The elf was clearly starving. Rintasha's face went pale and she gasped. The elf lifted his head, revealing a tired and aged but handsome face.
"Father!" Rin cried out. She ran to the shackled man.
"Ri-Rintasha…?" he said weakly, looking shocked, "But… but how… you look just like you did ten… years ago… when the Dark Ones captured me…"
"You've been here for ten years? As for my looking the same, let's just say there was time travel involved and I skipped those same ten years." She tried to unlock the cuffs, and finally ordered Rukh to do it with such a tone of authority that he decided to let her boss him around a bit. He picked the locks and Rin's father slumped to the ground before weakly standing with his daughter's help.
"Please explain to me what all has happened…"
"We will," Rintasha assured her father, "after we get you back to camp! We'll have introductions and stories then!"
Rin's father had finished eagerly eating the apple he'd been offered. He sat by the fire, and asked again for introductions.
"Well," Rintasha began, "long story short, you apparently were captured when I was waiting for you in the mine, and I would have been killed, except that my friends here found my journal and sword and decided to change my fate, so they opened a portal back to ten years ago, and pulled me back with them, so in essence I skipped those ten years." She gestured at her party members. "These are the friends who saved me, except the minotaur and the elf with white hair. They were not involved."
"I'm Richard," the warlock said.
"My name is Benny."
"I be Pella."
"Greetings. I am Krunch Bloodrage."
The rogue hesitated before stating, "I am Rukh."
Cale opened his mouth to speak. It was very awkward to be meeting Rin's father. "Uh… I'm Cale'anon Vatay."
Richard looked at him for a moment before turning back to the man. He pointed sideways at the somewhat stunned Cale. "He's dating your daughter."
"I am not!" Cale cried out indignantly.
The older elf blinked a few times and decided to merely introduce himself, and ask no questions. "I am Elan Dragonblade. I thank you for rescuing my daughter."
The following day was entirely dedicated to nursing Elan back to health. However, as the sun fell low over the horizon, the group made the mistake of leaving him alone there with Rukh.
"Alright then, old man," the rogue said, "you tell me: do you know anything about the Iron Beast?"
Elan shuddered. "Not that thing!"
Rukh put his dagger to Elan's throat. "You know of the Beast? Where is it? Tell me where it is!"
"It-It's in the underground forge connected to the castle by a tunnel! What's the meaning of this, boy?"
Rukh sheathed his dagger. "Oh, I have my own rhyme and reason." He swaggered off into the forest.
Cale and Benny returned shortly after. "Where's Rukh?" Cale asked, a sinking feeling in his gut.
"Your friend pulled a knife on me and demanded to know the location of the Iron Beast!"
"What? He pulled a knife on you? Damn! I knew I should never have let him into the group! That filthy, evil, scoundrel of an elf!" Cale yelled, furious. He'd had enough of Rukh. "First, he treats me like trash, then he starts harassing Rin-"
"Good thing you were there to protect her," Benny mumbled.
"- and now this? Rukh, you son of a motherless ogre!" Cale shook his fist in the air. "I've had enough of your troublemaking!" He panted for a few minutes, then regained his composure. "I apologize, Sir Elan, for my outburst. That rogue has been causing trouble ever since we met him, and that's just the straw that broke the camel's back…"
The rest of the group came back, except Rukh, and – alarmingly – Rin. Cale began to pace about, agitated.
"Where is she?" he muttered.
"Do you think… Rukh…" Benny said slowly, to avoid provoking any kind of snapping reaction from Cale.
"Yes, yes," he muttered, still pacing, "I'm beginning to worry that myself… I know he can't be trusted and they're the only two missing. I'm beginning to worry he's done something terrible to her…"
"If he has," Elan said, standing up, "I'll give him the blade! Wait… I… don't… have a… blade… anymore…"
"If you know where to get some metal, Pella can forge one for you," Krunch offered.
"F-forge? No! Not here!"
"What's the matter?" Benny asked, confused.
"Wait a… what's that Iron Beast you mentioned?"
"The Iron Beast," Elan said, shuddering, "is a giant furnace in the shape of a great dragon. Its inside is an inferno, and they use it to forge their cursed Blood Iron into whatever shapes they need. The Dark Ones worshipped it… I was lucky; some of the other prisoners they took during the last decade were thrown inside the Beast." He cringed. "Their screams… Oh gods, their screams…"
The group simply stared at him in horror. Cale broke the silence. "Whatever Rukh wants with this Iron Beast, it can't be good. And you told him where it was?"
"Yes… There's a tunnel in the castle, it leads to the forge…"
"Then we will go there," the younger elf said with a tone of finality and authority, "we're going to go there, find out what Rukh's up to, rescue Rintasha, and end that scoundrel's troublemaking once and for all!" He slammed a fist into the palm of his other hand. Elan nodded.
"That's a rather direct approach, Pinky," Krunch pointed out.
"Yes, it's suicidal!" Richard exclaimed, "… I like it!"
The rogue had not taken long to find the tunnel, and was quickly down it, chuckling. Oh, the power he would hold! He just needed to figure out what it was he was supposed to do with this Iron Beast. It was getting very hot. Rukh wiped sweat from his brow. At last, the hall opened up into a vast cavern with a small opening at the top, all lit with red light. In the center and back of the room sat a great statue of a dragon, made of iron. Its chest was a furnace door, and crimson flames glowed within, smoke pouring out of the slits in the door. The dragon's toothless, stylized, open maw, its fiery eyes, and blazing nostrils also glowed from inside with red fire and smoke. The Beast's pose was sitting, proud and angry, tail wrapped around it, expression on its face fierce. Its cheeks were covered in thorn like scales, as were its elbows. It had no wings. The heat from inside it was immense.
Rukh wiped more sweat from his forehead and pulled out the dark book. He opened it to where he'd left off. He nearly fell to his kneels in pain as he began reading again. The first few sentences were always the most painful. He forced himself to keep going, reading the cursed words and at last, he came to the spell he was looking for. A nasty smile spread on his lips.
"Here be a sword!" Pella called over her shoulder. The group stopped rummaging through the castle in their search for anything that could possibly be useful.
"I don't trust it," Cale said, as the dwarf gingerly pulled it by its hilt into sight, "it's black with red runes. Anything and everything I've seen before that was colored that way has hurt me in some way, shape, or form before."
"I'm not too keen on Blood Iron either," Elan stated, walking over to take the sword, "but at this point my daughter is in danger and I'll use any weapon available."
"Be careful, Elan," Benny muttered.
Richard emerged from a cabinet, decked out in Blood Iron "jewelry", if it could be called that: necklaces of demonic symbols made from the cursed metal, bracelets with runes of power, rings, even a collar. In his best "girly" voice, the warlock exclaimed, "Don't I look fabulous? I think this Blood Iron is so me!"
The group collectively facepalmed. Suddenly a loud roar shook the castle.
"What in the nine hells was that?" Elan exclaimed.
"Nothing in my nine hells makes that sound," Richard said, putting a finger to where his lips would be if he weren't wearing a mask, "I want it! It's just what I've been looking for to add that extra little element of horror!"
Rukh shut the book and looked up at the newly animated Iron Dragon, eyes wide. "Oh gods, what have I gotten myself into? Have I gone beyond what I can handle?" he asked himself, his confidence, for once, faltering for a moment. The Iron Beast stood over him, looking down at the white-haired elf that had managed what the Dark Ones could not do. It hissed, making the sound of creaking metal and whistling steam. Smoke poured out of the glowing jaws, eyes, and nostrils.
The rogue pulled himself together. Standing tall and proud, chest puffed up, he glared up at the monster. "Bow before your master, Beast!" he ordered. Much to his shock and delight, it did what he told it to, lowering itself to its chest and hind feet, in a form of a bow. Rukh threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh my gods," the young blond elf whispered, as he peeked into the chamber. The older elf at his side was pale in the face. In fact, Richard was the only one who did not seem frightened. The warlock was looking quite giddy; he obviously liked the looks of the Iron Beast.
"I don't know if we can- … No. We must. Rin could be in danger."
"You care about her almost as much as I do," Elan said.
"She's my closest friend."
"And more!" Richard added.
"She is not!"
"Boys!" the aged warrior snapped, "this is no time for such fighting!"
"Right," Cale agreed. With that, he stepped into the chamber. "Rukh!"
The rogue spun around. When he saw Cale, he grinned maliciously. "Cale'anon Vatay. I hoped you'd show up."
"What have you done with Rintasha?" The blond elf drew his swords and continued walking toward the thief.
"You fool," Rukh said, "you're walking toward a man who controls the most powerful creature of all time! You're walking into your death. Not that I have a problem with that. You've been long overdue to meet my daggers…"
"I can say the same of you and my swords. What have you done with Rin?"
"I didn't do anything with your girlfriend."
"Then where is she?" Cale growled fiercely, still advancing.
"How should I know?" Rukh asked, perfectly calm, arms folded over his chest. Cale's friends began to come out into the chamber.
"No!" the elf said, turning (but keeping one eye on his foe) and pointing one of his swords at his friends, "the rogue is mine! Stay back! I have been waiting to kill this man for quite some time…"
"What a pity then, that you won't be able to."
Moonlight shone in through the opening in the ceiling, contrasting sharply with the red glow of the Iron Dragon that patiently awaited orders from its master.
The two elves circled around each other, each with both blades drawn. Suddenly, Rukh leapt backwards, away from Cale. "Beast, attack him!" he ordered, then added, "But don't kill him, I want that pleasure myself."
The Dragon pounced like a giant cat, swiping Cale with its claw with enough force to knock the breath out of him as he hit the ground and render him helpless, but not to kill him or knock him out. The blond elf gasped for air. He froze when he looked up and saw Rukh standing over him, both knives ready. Cale glanced both ways. His swords had gone flying; he was disarmed!
Suddenly a dark, cloaked figure dropped in through the hole in the ceiling. It landed on one knee, one foot, and one hand, head down. It stood, black cape flowing. Rukh spun around. The figure pulled its hood down. Everyone in the area gasped.
"Rintasha?" Cale yelped in shock!
"The one and only!" she said.
"I am the Night Warden, Cale, protector of the night! No time for explanations now! Now is the time to fight! Call Uru!"
"What? You mean I still command him?"
"Of course, now call him!"
Cale focused his thoughts on calling Uru, and shouted the mighty dragon's name. A voice echoed in his mind: "I come, Cale'anon."
Rin pointed her sword at the group, then spun around and redirected her blade toward the Iron Dragon. "Charge!"
Elan was the first to react. He charged into battle with a war-cry and fought by his daughter's side, as they had often done, many years ago. They slashed at the Beast, but did little damage to its metallic hide. Cale was up and fighting Rukh again. He couldn't help but notice and admire Elan's skill in battle. It was no wonder Rin was a dragonslayer! With a father like that, who wouldn't be a great warrior? Clearly, Elan was an experienced fighter, attacking with a skill that would make Cale look like a novice.
The other party members charged in after the aged fighter, inspired by his bravery and dedication. They all focused on the mighty Iron Dragon. They did damage it, but it was not enough. They had to hold it off until Uru arrived.
Meanwhile, Cale and Rukh circled around eachother. The rogue stabbed at Cale, who used the hilt of his sword to block the stab and catch the dagger in such a way that the thief would have to make himself vulnerable to return to a position from which he could fight. Or so Cale thought. Rukh dropped to the floor, rolled around to the side, leaping backwards onto his feet at the blond elf's side. He tried to make another stab, but the young hero spun around and made slashing motions with his swords, keeping the rogue at bay! The two stopped stabbing and slashing for a moment and started circling again, trying to find a place to strike.
The Beast roared and suddenly Benny flew between the two elves. Both of them looked in the direction she had been moving in. She was lying limp against a wall; the Iron Dragon had swiped her. Cale glanced to his side. Rin took a running start, leapt up, using her father's shoulders as a temporary step, and flung herself onto the Beast's back. It turned and tried to get her off, but she was clinging to the spines on its back. She repeatedly slammed her dagger against a thinner part of the metal on its back, making a nasty dent but not cutting it. Thus distracted, the monster couldn't hurt anyone else. Krunch slammed against its shoulder, leaving a huge dent with the sound of creaking metal. The Dragon roared and tried to bite him with its flaming jaws, but Pella distracted it with an axe to the side of the head. Cale turned back just in time to see Rukh coming at him with a knife. He ducked and brought his sword straight up, aiming for the rogue's throat. The thief leapt backwards, but the blond elf slashed at him and cut him across the chest.
"You think you can kill a man with blows like that?" Rukh taunted.
"Oh, no, most of the time I just kill mercifully and quickly. You, rogue, deserve a slow and bloody death."
"I would put you through the same, but I have no time for such petty games!" Rukh said, dodging a slash from Cale's sword and slicing the blond elf's wrist.
"He says, as he spends quite some time fighting me! I must be a good warrior to keep someone fighting so long. Either that or you're just not skilled enough to get a good blow in!"
"Look who's talking!"
"Oh, what a clever comeback! I never would have thought of that," Cale said sarcastically, parrying a blow from the rogue's knife, "Touché, Rukh, touché!"
"This is not a battle of the wits, Cale'anon Vatay; if it were I would have won ages ago."
A dark shadow passed over the opening, the moonlight was blocked for a moment. There was the sound of wings whooshing through the air, and a thud, and a roar. Uru had arrived!
"You're not the only one who commands a dragon, Rukh!" Cale said, grinning.
"No dragon of flesh can stand against the Beast! Let your dragon charge forth! I will enjoy dragon-steak tonight!"
"On the contrary," Cale said, making a thrust with his blade and almost stabbing the rogue through the heart, "I am sure Elan will enjoy a new sword made of fine Iron!"
Uru roared; Cale's allies got out of the way; the dragon charged toward its Iron counterpart. The two dragons met like fighting housecats, both in the air, all claws. Uru was on top, biting into the metal neck, punching holes in the thick hide! The Beast kicked out with its hind claws, leaving huge, bleeding gashes in Uru's leg. He reeled back, roaring. The Iron Beast rose to its feet and returned the roar. The two dragons repeatedly rose up onto their back legs, slashing and swiping with their front talons like giant, scaly bears.
Rukh lunged at Cale with both knives. The young hero could do nothing to defend himself but put his blades straight out in front of his chest and hope the length of his swords would keep the rogue from ripping his body open. He winced. Rukh had not been expecting the move and it was too late to stop moving. He turned sideways, slashing his arm on one of the swords, but not impaling himself. He hit Cale with a thump, knocking them both to the ground. He tried to get to his feet but Cale was faster. He was halfway up when the blond elf growled, "Don't move, rogue." He glanced up. Cale had a sword to the back of his neck. The thief snarled defiantly but knew he was unable to get out of the situation.
"Beast, aid your master!" he commanded. The Iron Dragon tried to follow his order, but Uru caught it by the flank, leaving long slashes that went all the way through the metal. It turned to fight back, as Cale raised his sword to kill the rogue. Uru let out a blast of flame so hot it melted the outer layer of the Beast's metal skin! The creature roared in pain and threw back its head. Its throat was exposed! Uru lunged forward and bit down. A sharp shriek escaped the Beast as it thrashed about. The tail of the mighty Iron Monster gave Rin a sharp smack, sending her flying. It roared again as Uru tightened his jaws, crushing the throat of the Beast. He forced it to the ground, and when he let go it did not get up.
Cale brought his sword down.
"Curse you!" Rukh shouted. And then the blade struck his neck, killing him instantly. He collapsed on the ground. Cale, breathing hard, glared down at the corpse. For once, it felt good to kill.
Benny stood up weakly. Krunch and Pella were tending to her. Elan was with Rin, who was lying still on the ground.
"Rintasha!" Cale cried out, running over and kneeling by the girl. He took her hand in his and looked horrified. "No, no, don't be dead! Don't be dead! Rintasha! Without you… You are the reason I continue fighting… Without you, nothing would be the same! I couldn't go on! Not without you! Without you, the sunlight would have no meaning, the stars would be devoid of beauty, I could never feel happiness ever again! Without you, I-" His voice broke and he trailed off. He let out a sob. Rin's eyes opened slowly.
"Don't stop now, Cale, you were just getting really sweet!"
"You're alive!" He yelled, lifting her up into his arms and hugging her tightly.
"You think a mere dragon could kill me? Cale, you crazy fool, dragons are what I have specifically trained to fight against my whole life. No dragon would take me down," she said with a smile. He simply held her, unable to say anything.
Elan looked at the young elves. This Cale'anon, he's a good man, he thought, smiling approvingly, I couldn't have chosen a better one for my daughter. He's the kind that Rin needs.
After a moment, the two young ones stood up. Rin unbuttoned her black robe and took it off. She was wearing her usual dragonscale armor beneath it.
"Come on, let's bury Rukh and set up a camp. Down here is a good place," she said.
"Do we have to bury him? Can't we just throw him in a lake?" Cale asked bitterly.
"Yes, Cale, we do have to give him a proper burial."
"Well….. I suppose you're right…"
There were no tears shed at Rukh's "funeral", which involved digging a hole in the ground by a tree, throwing him in, burying him, and carving his name roughly in the tree trunk. The group returned to the cavern, where Uru bid them farewell. They needed no campfire; the Iron Beast provided heat from its still-flaming core.
"What was that you said earlier about being the Night Warden?"
Elan answered rather than Rin. "Over a decade ago, we used to adventure together, usually at night. Her outfit changed many times until it became the dragonscale armor that you know her in today. At one point, she had just tamed Mortanos the bat, who I see has been replaced-"
"He died," Rin interrupted, "my new one is Thanatos."
"Ah. Anyway," Rin's father said to Cale, "she had her bat, and at the time, had a pet moth as well. Further, she was wearing black armor at that time. With all these connections to the night, she declared herself a protector of the night. I gave her the title of Night Warden, and that is what others who were helped in the night came to know her as."
"Usually I don't interfere, and keep my true identity separate from my cloaked one, and try to be a silent protector, but I can't always do that. Just don't go running around telling everyone who the Night Warden is, okay Cale?" the dragonslayer said, putting her arms around the young hero. He smiled.
"Of course, Rin." He hugged her tightly.
"Say your goodbyes, Rin," Elan said.
"What!" she and Cale cried at the same time.
"You and I must take care of things that have been neglected for ten years. You need to help your old man restore his – or perhaps even build a new – home. It was vacant for a decade. I understand you care about your friends deeply, especially young Cale, but your family duty comes first."
Rin hung her head sadly. "I understand, Father…"
Cale simply looked heartbroken.
"We'll leave for home tomorrow."
The sun was rising. Rin was acting somewhat depressed, and Cale was going nuts from seeing her so miserable. Finally the two of them walked off on their own.
"So, you won't be back for a long time, will you, Rin?"
"No, I don't think I will," she said sadly, hugging Cale.
"You will come back someday though, right? … Won't you?"
"Of course I will…" she mumbled, burying her face in his shoulder. He put his arms around her.
"Uh… Nevermind." Cale couldn't bring himself to say what he wanted to tell her, at least not with words. She lifted her head and they looked into each other's eyes. It was then that they had their second kiss, longer and more loving than the first, capes swirling about the two embracing elves.
"Goodbye, Rin…" Cale whispered, when the kiss ended at last.
"Farewell Cale… Stay safe…"
Rin turned toward the camp when she heard her father calling for her. She looked into Cale's eyes, hugged him one more time, and then departed. Cale sighed. But, he thought, someday… someday she'll be back.