Author's Note: This chapter is dedicated to Minthis, who motivated me to continue writing Sorry it took so long, but better late than never, as they say.
Naramira grimaced in disgust as the dead crocodile fell to the ground. "I think it's your turn to skin it." Her purple-plated companion nodded and pulled a cruel-looking dagger from its hiding place in one of his greaves. "How many do you have, Azic? I've got about a full stack. That should be enough to get a good deal from the gypsies, don't you think?"
The dark-elf adeptly removed the crocodile hide from the carcass and added it to the stash in his satchel. "About the same. It should do, although I would have liked to have gotten a chance at old Lockjaw again." As he stood up from the sand, he inadvertently touched his side, as if the near-fatal injury he had received from the ancient crocodile was still causing him pain.
Naramira shuddered inwardly. Only a great deal of luck had helped them survive that attack. She still had shivers running down her spine whenever she saw a dark shadow in the shallow waters off the coast of the Ro desert, knowing that the nearly legendary beast still lurked somewhere beneath the waves. In her mind's eye, the image of Azic lying in the sand bleeding with the monster hunched over him still haunted her. In that second she didn't care that he was a dark-elf and a cleric of Innoruuk, she only saw her friend about to die.
"Nara, look!" Azic interrupted her reverie. Her gaze followed his and she saw a pillar of smoke rising into the air. It was coming from the gypsy encampment near the Oasis of Marr.
"We'd better go see if they need our help," she said. Her companion nodded grimly and they set off hurriedly in the direction of the Oasis.
The gypsy camp was a shambles. Wagons were overturned, possessions were scattered about, children were crying and the wounded were lying where they had fallen. After a pointed look from the enchantress, Azic prudently closed the visor on his helmet and grudgingly set about healing those in need, muttering invocations to his god in an inaudible whisper. Naramira wondered what she could do to help. She crossed over to where she could see the group's leader, a sun-browned woman who normally carried an air of confidence about her, sitting staring out over the dunes with a vacant look in her eyes.
"What happened here?" the enchantress asked. When she received no response, she touched the woman on the shoulder and, seeing her eyes come back into focus, repeated her question.
"A band of marauding orcs attacked us," the gypsy replied. "They caught us completely unawares. You have to help me!" She jumped up and would have run off if Naramira hadn't caught hold of her arm.
"We will help you," the enchantress said firmly. "Calm down and tell me what's wrong." She beckoned to Azic to have a look at the nasty cut running down the woman's face.
"Did they take anything of value?" the healer asked as the wound closed magically and left a pale white scar on the gypsy's bronzed skin.
"Yes!" the woman shouted. Then, with a visible effort, she forced herself to calm down, and continued: "Let me start from the beginning." She took a deep breath. "We were about to perform the water divination ceremony when they fell upon us with no warning. Usually they try to steal food or our stores of water, but this time they went right for the idol."
"An image of the great Rainkeeper, passed down from mother to daughter in our clan. We use it to invoke Karana to guide us towards fresh water. Perhaps the orcs thought they could do the same with it."
"Are you saying they can't?" Naramira asked.
"No," the gypsy answered. "The idol would be useless in the hands of someone not dedicated to the worship of Karana. And even if the orcs had converted, only my hands and those of my daughter have been imbued with the gift of its use." The look of despair returned to the woman's eyes.
"And where is your daughter?" Azic asked quietly.
"Gone. They took her with them."
Naramira sat down gratefully beneath the shade of a palm tree, took one of her boots off and emptied the sand out of it. She took a swig from her water bottle and offered it to Azic. The dark-elf was peering intently at the sand, pacing a few steps forward, then returning to the start and heading in another direction for a few steps. Finally he gave up and came to sit next to her, a frustrated frown on his face.
"They definitely came this way, but as soon as their tracks cross the orc highway I lose them. It's impossible to follow anyone in that jumble of prints."
"Difficult, yes. Impossible, no," a gruff voice said unexpectedly from behind them. The two companions jumped up and spun around to see a burly human warrior and a half-elf with his bow pointed at Azic's heart facing them. "We managed to find you, didn't we?"
"What do you want from us?" Naramira asked. Their assailants were almost as mismatched a pair as she and her dark-elf friend were. The warrior was dressed in rough leather, an iron battle-axe in one hand and a studded shield strapped to his back. His hair was matted and his face lined with scars. The enchantress grimaced as she caught a whiff of old sweat and fish breath emanating from him. His companion, on the other hand, was meticulously groomed. Garments of green cloth, more practical than rich, were well-fitted, his shoulder-length brown hair gleamed in the sun and the sword sheathed at his side looked costly. Although his aim never wavered and his focus was still set with deadly intent, she thought she saw a spark of humour in his brown eyes.
"Oh, the usual," the human replied. "For you to put life and limb on the line while we walk away with the spoils."
"We appreciate your honesty," Azic replied dryly. "What makes you think we'll help you?"
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way, your choice. The easy way is for you to cooperate, slaughter everything in sight and acquire the prize. Then we kill you in turn and go our merry way. Or if you prefer the hard way, we can kill you now and do all the work ourselves. Either way, we win and you lose."
Naramira tensed as Azic's fists clenched and black sparks started shooting towards him. She quickly cast a shield over herself. "This could get ugly!"
"Relax, dark-elf," the half-elf said quietly. He shifted his aim to point at the enchantress. "Or the woman dies."
"Do you think I care?" Azic laughed derisively. A bolt of lightning fell from the sky, blocked just in time by the warrior's shield. The half-elf loosed his arrow. Naramira ducked and swore as it sped past her, her magical shield sizzling at the close contact. She stuck her hand into her satchel and pulled out a sparkling stein. An aura of power immediately enveloped her.
"Enough!" she shouted. She slammed her will against all three and saw them staggering under the blow. "You!" she pointed at the half-elf. "Put your bow down, I don't appreciate being shot at. You!" she turned her grimace on the warrior. "You will help us free the gypsy girl and get back the idol. The only way to do that is to work together. We'll do this myway." Azic sniggered at the surprise on their attackers' faces. She snapped at him: "And you! Calm down for a second and help me reason with these people. We'll talk about this later."
Three suitably chastened men stared at her. She returned the stein to her satchel, smoothed down her robe and took a calming breath. "Here's what we're going to do."
"What are they doing?" Naramira whispered.
The four reluctant companions were hidden behind a large outcropping of rock, spying on a group of battle-scarred orcs. The half-elf's tracking skills had not been overestimated by his fragrant friend and he had led them effortlessly across the orc highway, straight to where the marauding clan was now encamped. The kidnapped gypsy girl was tied to a totem pole, her eyes wide with fright, the idol of Karana by her feet. The orcs were all sitting in a circle around their hostage, ominously quiet with the exception of four shamans who were working themselves into a blood frenzy by slashing their own arms and legs and spattering the blood alternatingly across the young woman and the idol.
"I've seen this ritual before," Azic replied. "It's a corruption of an ancient invocation to Rallos Zek and it's never ended well for the hostage. My guess is they're trying to transfer her powers to them. And judging by the state those shamans are in, we don't have much time."
"Let's do this, then," the warrior said, unstrapping his axe. "While their attention is focussed on the ritual."
Naramira quickly imbued her companions with extra strength and speed, feeling her heart starting to race as her stamina was magically enhanced. An unusual itching sensation made her look at her arms and she gasped as she saw it take on a brownish cast. She touched her skin tentatively, it was cool and hard as wood. The half-elf was grinning at her. "A little extra protection for the lady." An instant later his own skin was covered in thistly spikes.
What followed was a blur of action. The warrior rushed at the orcs, his axe swinging in wide arcs, two of the creatures falling dead at his feet before they had even noticed they were under attack. Azic joined the fray, hacking at the startled orcs with his morning star, bolts of lightning falling from the sky at his behest. While the enchantress focussed on mesmerising the four shamans, the ranger standing by her side picked off any other orcs careless enough to come within range of his deadly aim.
The shamans howled inside that corner of Naramira's mind where she kept their wills captive. The battle inside her head was almost as violent as the one raging around her, her hostages straining against her compulsion with all their might. One of them ripped free and, before she had time to enchant him again, struck her with a force that sent her flying backwards. She shook her head, dazed by the fall, and realised she had lost her control over the other three shamans as well. As she stumbled back onto her feet, roots twisted up from the ground and she found herself tied to the spot. Three of the shamans charged towards her, while the last one was advancing on the gypsy girl.
Naramira struggled against her bonds, the roots were twisted around her legs and arms and she couldn't reach her dirk to cut herself loose. Lightning hit one of the advancing orcs and its corpse fell to the ground a smoking, charred husk. The other two were almost upon her, their fangs bared and their sacrificial knives at the ready. The enchantress hit the closest orc with a Sanity Warp. It fell to the ground in terror, clawing at its eyes. One more orc to go, but the enchantress was out of time. Bright rainbow colours fluxed around her in a last desperate attempt.
She heard the half-elf swearing loudly and the ringing of steel as he unsheathed the sword hanging from his side. As the colours ebbed, Naramira had time to turn her head before warm blood spattered across her. She looked back to see the ranger standing across the body of the dead shaman, his jagged-toothed blade dripping red. "Where did he get that sword?"
"Nara!" Azic's call drew her attention back to the battle. The gypsy girl had been cut loose and the cleric was bent over her comatose body, his hands bathed in a golden light. The remains of dead orcs were scattered around the totem pole, among them the mauled corpse of the last shaman, but the warrior still had his hands full trying to keep the rest of the marauders at bay. Naramira quickly mesmerised his assailants while the ranger waded into the back of the group with his fearsome-looking sword.
When the last orc fell, she ran towards her friend. "How is she?"
Azic grinned. "Alive and well." He helped the girl to her feet and watched in bemusement as she rushed towards the blood-spattered warrior and fell into his arms. "And quite smitten with her rescuer, it seems." Three faces smiled at the warrior, whose bewilderment was only matched by the tenderness with which he put his arms protectively around the young woman.
Naramira wasn't paying much attention to the water divination ceremony. Her gaze kept wandering to the young woman they had rescued and Naramira couldn't help but smile at the adoration with which the girl was looking at the warrior. The man had undergone an incredible transformation since their return to the gypsy camp. He had bathed and shaved and found some clean clothes, and although he was still scarred from many battles, he looked more rugged than unkempt now. "But the biggest change is hardly his physical appearance," the enchantress mused. The warrior's face lighted up as the gypsy girl finished her part of the ritual and went to stand by his side. "He looks… content." She could hardly believe he was the same man that had so callously talked about acquiring the prize at the cost of their lives. His admiration for the young woman was clearly as genuine as her idolisation of him.
While Naramira was still pondering the unexpected turn of events, the ranger came to stand by her side. "You're her, aren't you?" he asked. He smiled at her confusion. "You're the enchantress I've heard so much about."
Naramira searched his face for any hints. And then the answer dawned on her. "That's Jaldore's sword. You're his brother?" She laughed in surprise as he nodded.
"My name is Silvanus," he finally introduced himself.
"This is hardly the way I pictured we would meet someday," Naramira admitted. She studied his face for any resemblance to her paladin friend. "You have the same eyes, but other than that you don't look anything alike. How did you know it was me?"
"Jaldore has told me much about you, and it seems like none of it was exaggerated." She blushed at his appreciative gaze. Then his smile turned to a frown. "But he never mentioned your dark-elf companion."
Naramira shrugged. "It's a recent development, Jaldore doesn't know of our friendship yet. I don't know how to explain it. I have trouble understanding it myself sometimes. But Azic is a good person, even if he doesn't know it yet."
"Are you sure?" Silvanus asked doubtfully, eyeing the cleric who was standing off to one side, fascinated by the ritual being performed by the gypsies. "He didn't seem too worried when I threatened your life."
"I trust him," was all she replied. She smiled at her friend as he looked their way, as if he had overheard their conversation. His expression was unreadable, that purple-eyed gaze as unnerving as ever. For the hundredth time she wondered what had prompted him to save her life that day, he had never been forthcoming about his reasons. She shrugged again, pushing her worries aside. "I trust him."