Taelord paced back and forth along the shaky battlements with an uncharacteristic feeling of contentment warming him deep inside, contrasted by a far more characteristic restlessness. The air was sweltering from the pyres of slain enemies, the comical blue creatures were busily fortifying the position against further encroachments by the scattered remnants of Ullar's forces, and he had an excellent victory report to hand in to Utgar on the morrow. Every gain in status, no matter how small it may be, or how great the cost in shed blood, was worthwhile. Today, for Taelord, the ultimate prize was just a little closer than it had been the day before.

It went without saying that he was a creature with a deepseated, heartfelt craving, and indeed, a need for brute, uncompromising power. All those who followed Utgar were likeminded in that respect.

But he was different.

He was special.

Wasn't the victory today proof of that? Had he not personally taken the head of one of Ullar's most brilliant elven champions, and placed it upon a pike? Did his very presence not inspire the weak little orcs to fight with an unheard of ferocity? Perhaps there were others who had more direct force in the form of ludicrously-oversized Marro mounts, but his spirit for battle was unquestionably the greatest. Every moment he was not slaughtering or ordering the next slaughter, his hunger burned inside him with agonizing impatience. Even now, in the aftermath of a great victory, he was pacing, pacing over the sight of the battle, looking over the torched piles of dead and knowing that it wasn't enough to satisfy him.

He was a great leader, but only one of many. Why should the likes of Grimnak and Ne-Gok-Sa and Esenwein be considered his equals?! The orcs were primitive, the Marro had no passion, and the Esenwein family was decadent and probably inbred. None of them knew the true scope of death in battle as he did. None of them held the noble power and strength of the kyrie as close to their hearts as he. It was maddening, to be placed alongside such wretches. That Utgar would even consider it appropriate, Taelord thought, placed the general's self-respect for their race under question.

As the squealing cries of grut slaves rang in his ears discordantly, the ever-present flames in his heart suddenly solidified with direction and purpose. A dark, ominous suggestion... but very tantalizing.

In his pacing, a new person was suddenly before him, in the middle of the route he'd already tread over a dozen times, leaning quite casually against a rough granite outcropping. At first he was ready to pick up the offending obstacle and throw it twenty feet to the ground as punishment for its folly, but then the pyre-smoke cleared and he saw the figure more clearly. Taelord halted dead in his tracks. The angular wings were the most obvious sign, distinct from that of a common kyrie's. But it was the shape of the head that caused the passion inside him to quiver and die down, tainted with caution. The head's smooth helmet, with its distinctive black horns.

"What are you doing here?" he called out without ceremony, very deliberately approaching no further, though it would have made conversation much easier. "If you wanted to generously offer your help, you're late, and as you can see, your presence is superfluous in any case," he added with some mild territorial anger. This was his battlefield. His success. She had had nothing to do with it.

She didn't take offense, which was very like her. Open hostility was something she saved only for people she intended to kill in the immediate future. Taelord would have preferred such a fate to her veiled threats and subtle condescension, and worst of all, her mocking attempts at pretending to be his equal.

"Oh, I know I have nothing to offer a mighty warrior and master tactician such as yourself," she replied. Almost sweetly, save for the dryness of it. She was laughing at him. She was always laughing at him, on the inside, where he could do nothing about it. "I just wanted to survey the results of the foray. You've done well for yourself. Is that High Lieutenant Moongrace's head on that pike over there?"

He snorted in disgust, unable to take praise from her when he knew she would only use it as a weapon against him later. "The elves are an unworthy of even being considered a challenge. Stringy, effeminate weaklings all. Ullar's Venocs are more entertainingly vicious, but too stupid and frail to last long in open territory. I'm wasting my time on these sad little creatures, so unworthy of death by kyrie steel."

She raised an eyebrow, leaning a little closer, attitude mock-casual. Very deliberately, he slid (not shuffled... a kyrie warrior did not shuffle!) back an exactly equal distance. It was awkward trying to seem as casual about it as she did, but then, he'd had plenty of practice, and his expression gave nothing away. The fires in his heart sputtered and hissed as though water had been thrown.

"Perhaps you'd prefer Jandar's metal-encased knights?" she suggested idly. "Or Vydar's mechanized apes. Einar certainly has numerous worthy foes to choose from, it would seem to me..."

"Bah!" he shouted in frustration, emotion getting away with him briefly. The sound of it rang throughout the area, and all over, orcs paused what they were doing to peer up at him nervously before getting back to work. "Worthless, all worthless, you know that as well as I."

"What makes them worthless?" She took a step closer. He took a step back.

"Any one general would have long ago been crushed by Utgar's forces, as commanded by me... and the others," he grudgingly added in a lower tone. "You know that. They only barely stand a chance together, their alliance the proof of their lack of worth. A true warrior can stand against twenty lesser men and succeed, as I have." He defied her to suggest that he had won the lethal tournament through luck. Should she dare have the gall, he knew exactly what to say to humiliate her. After all, her only true worth was a matter of incredible luck...

But she was more skilled in their little verbal jousts than that, and did not take the bait. "By that definition, then, it seems that the only worthwhile people for you to fight would be of our own numbers." She smiled crookedly. "Recent triumph's filled your head with overly lofty thoughts, Taelord."

If it had been anyone else, anyone else save for Utgar himself, he would have strode up to her and struck her for daring to use his name in such a familiar, insulting way. But it wasn't anyone else. And so he stood in place, knees locked solidly, grinding his teeth.

Yelling was a poor substitute. "Don't think to read my mind as though you were Marro, bitch!" he hissed sharply over the distance. Her face remained unaltered, still smiling. Not even a blink. "My thoughts and desires are mine alone, and are better than to be shared with the likes of you."

Two steps closer on her part. Two steps back on his. Her smile widened a bit to show her teeth, then vanished entirely.

She pretended to clean her wingfeathers, not even deigning to look at him now. "So high strung, my fellow kyrie. In more than one way eventually, if you aren't careful. Come now, let's talk plain, since neither of us fools the other. Both of us know that inside you there's a fire that won't be quenched till every knee in Valhalla bends to you in submission, even though we both know that that is an impossibility. You are yourself quite... unworthy. You scorn Ullar's people, but even Ullar is a general for a reason, whereas you are merely a high-placed lackey. For a reason."

Was it fear, he felt at such unfamiliar frankness? That unfamiliar tight feeling in his chest? Possibly, though he was loathe to admit it. The smoke from the burning dead was making his eyes water. "I serve for my own reasons, as long as I choose to serve and no longer," he said shortly. "That's all."

"I'm glad, and our general shares my gladness, at your hunger at dominance through battle," she said with the most polite tone she'd ever used towards him in their acquaintance. "But don't think that you can ever be a leader such as Utgar. He has a quality you simply... lack."

"And what would that be?" he asked steadily. She knew more of Utgar than most. There were rumors of blood flowing between her and the general... or other things. Her opinion was not necessarily valid, but it could be a useful weapon. And Taelord was always on the lookout for more weapons.

Silently, she took a very deliberate step towards him. He tried his best to back away again without it seeming unnatural, but her eyes pierced through him and he knew she knew.

"Why do you not come closer? It would be easier to talk." Her voice was almost friendly. He longed to kill her, and place her head next to that of the Moongrace elf. What new game was she playing now, to ask such a foolish question?!

"Have you not mocked me enough this day?! You know very well that I have no desire to gamble with my life for no reason!"

"But the odds are quite in your favor, my friend. There's barely any risk at all. Only a small one. An infinitesimal chance, one might say..."

"Infinitesimal or not, no sane kyrie would take that risk! I have no need to prove myself to you!"

She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Sanity. There is an interesting concept. I think to be truly great, one must abandon it." The musing expression vanished, and was replaced by something cold and fanatical that pinned Taelord down where he stood. "You think yourself better than all others. All others. And you strive so desperately to prove it. But Taelord, can't you see your great limitation? Perhaps you are more sophisticated than the orcs, and passionate than the Marro, and disciplined than the Esenweins. Perhaps you are, indeed, a perfect warrior, as you delude yourself into believing. But even with these things, you still have a fear that rules you. As long as we have spoken to one another, you have never allowed yourself to come close to me. Because of that infinitesimal chance of the dice rolling poorly for you. You are like most others in that respect. But our general is different. You have seen him clasp my shoulder, you have seen him brush dust and blood from my face, and he has never requested that I remove my helmet, my precious treasure, my one claim to worthiness in battle."

"Undoubtedly he has some means of controlling the helm so that it does not strike out against him," Taelord muttered, speaking thoughts that were widely believed by many of Utgar's followers, but only whispered furtively lest it anger their terrible leader. "You ask me to believe that he risks his life uncaringly?"

"Believe it or not as you wish, I am telling you it is so. Utgar simply... does not care. He will risk all to gain all, and that is why he leads us, who value our wretched lives so greatly. You and I are nothing next to him. Death is nothing to him, for he has already conquered it more thoroughly than the walking corpses ever could. There is no longer anything left in this world, or any other, that he fears."

The inner fire stirred dangerously. Caution and paranoia had given way to black, boiling hate. A hate that had lain concealed in him for too long, and Taelord couldn't stop it from bubbling over, this once. "Cease clouding the air with your lies, idiot woman. Perhaps Utgar has blinded you into believing he is greater than any one of us, but I know him for what he is! No better than I! Just more fortunate!"

"Prove your words truth, then," she taunted him, swaying as she stepped closer. He retreated in equal measure. "Come closer. Strike me, as you've so longed to do. A slap, a great blow, perhaps even a sword in my chest? Prove yourself Utgar's equal, take the risk to satisfy your hate of me."

She had backed him up against a wall. There was nowhere else to walk back to. Trembling with rage and shame, he took flight, hovering safely out near the field. "Enough games, get back to our master and send word of my victory! I have great works to accomplish that you delay me from achieving, wench!"

Fullthroated laughter rang from her, and she took to the air as well, smug and content in the result of their conversation, willingly retreating without a word more. He could only gaze at her figure with helpless ire as it shrank into the distance, wishing a thousand horrible fates on her head.

The chance was infinitesimal.

But he could not bring himself to take it.

He never could.

At that moment, he hated Runa so passionately it was almost like a kind of dark joy.