Ashram waited patiently as his companions prepared to leave. They were going to Flaim, where the kings of Lodoss were meeting, and Parn was leading them there.
"Just hope for your sake that this doesn't get me killed." Ashram muttered, as he gave Parn an unreadable look.
"What would you do if you got killed, Ashram?" Parn asked, taking the barb and throwing it back at the former Black Knight.
"Haunt you." Ashram replied, with much sarcasm. Etoh sighed and shook his head; he could see that the trip to Flaim was going to be interesting to say the least.
"Don't fight, children. I would rather not have to separate you two." Pirotess said, smirking when she got a twin set of deadpan looks from Parn and Ashram.
"We're not children." Parn grumbled, as Deedlit and Spark giggled at their expense.
"Funny, you sure look it to me…..In fact, compared to myself and Deedlit here, you both are barely even out of diapers!" Pirotess said, getting a somewhat caustic glare from Parn as a response. Ashram, on the other hand, chose to ignore the remark (but that didn't mean he wasn't embarrassed by what the Dark Elf had just said) and spurred his horse onward. Etoh could only chuckle as Ashram did what he could to salvage what remained of his self-esteem, and as Parn stewed over being called a 'toddler' by Pirotess and Deedlit.
"What say you about this, Etoh? Whose side are you on?" Deedlit asked, jokingly.
"Parn's side, of course. He's my friend, after all." Etoh replied, with his usual easygoing smile.
"Spoken like a man." Pirotess muttered, glaring in Ashram's direction when he mumbled something under his breath and picked up the pace. The rest of the day was spent riding through open fields and along paths, occasionally stopping to rest and relax along the way.
"It seems strange to travel through here now, without an army behind us, doesn't it?" Pirotess asked, sometime later, when they had stopped at the border of the desert.
"It does……but I think that is a change I can live with. As strange as this sounds, I am tired of fighting…….And I don't want to run the risk of losing you again like I did in Fire Dragon Mountain." Ashram murmured, as he reclined on a grassy knoll and gazed thoughtfully at the crystal blue sky above them. Pirotess sighed gently, and lay down next to him; resting her head on his chest while doing so.
"I understand. But, if it ever came down to it, I would sacrifice myself again to protect you." Pirotess promised.
"And I would do the same for you. Spark too, for that matter." Ashram admitted, as he held her close. For the briefest of moments, Pirotess felt Ashram's pulse quicken, and silently guessed that he was thinking of the implications of his vow. The moment was shattered, however, when a rather miffed High Elf looked down at them.
"Sheesh, you two! Get a room!" Deedlit snapped, irritably at the pair.
"What's your problem?" Pirotess asked, angry at first, then gave the other elf a sly smile.
"Uh-oh………….." Ashram thought, when he saw that look; somehow knowing that trouble was ahead.
"Are you…..jealous, Deedlit? Are you envious of the relationship I have with Ashram?" Pirotess purred, moving away smoothly when the former Black Knight moved quickly away from the both of them, trying his level best to hide his embarrassment as he did so. Deedlit growled softly as she tried to regain her composure.
"No! I am not!" Deedlit retorted, angrily.
"Could've fooled me." Pirotess said, coolly, snickering when the High Elf uttered a few choice words in Allanian and glared daggers into the Dark Elf. Etoh looked up when he heard Ashram enter on the other side of the glen he and Parn had decided on earlier, smiling knowingly when he saw the slightest of blushes on his still pale face.
"I take it that things have come to a head between our elfin friends?" Etoh asked, choosing his words carefully, since he knew said elves could hear him.
"To an extent…….and a certain point of view." Ashram replied, also careful in his choice of words; he didn't want to see the bad side of either woman.
"Ashram, do you want to continue using this pace to reach Flaim? Or do you want to move faster?" Parn asked, noticing that a troubled look still lingered in the other warrior's eyes.
"I am in no hurry to rush to my own death, Parn, but if we don't reach Flaim before sunset two days from now, someone may stop us." Ashram murmured, knowing Parn and Etoh knew exactly whom he'd meant by that.
"Karla………" Etoh said, speaking aloud the hated name.
"She might still have her sights on me to be the SwordBearer for SoulCrusher. If that is the case, then things are about to get violent again……….We'd best enjoy these peaceful moments, while they last." Ashram said, with a sigh. Parn could tell by the other man's tone of voice that he was tired of fighting, and just wanted some measure of peace. Yet, despite the strangeness of it all, Parn didn't find that hard to believe. The former Black Knight had quite literally been through hell and somehow survived to tell about it; and it was enough to make even the most hardened of warriors desire the quiet solitude the elves seemed to find for themselves.
"He's doing all he can to keep from going to war again. He isn't a pacifist, by any stretch of the imagination…..but he's willing to fight for the peace he seeks………Even if it is against a witch." Parn mused, looking up when he heard Spark's voice shout a little ways away from the glen.
"Ashram-san! Sir Parn! Priest-san!" Spark's voice cried, with a tinge of fear and urgency in it that made all three men jump to their feet.
"Spark!" Parn replied, as he grabbed his sword and as Ashram unsheathed his. Within moments, the three men and two elves were at the boy's side. The sight that greeted them wasn't pretty; there sat a badly injured Dark Elf with what appeared to be a High Elf child in his arms. He was hunched over the child somewhat, in an effort to protect her from harm by using his body as a shield.
"Ashram-san, Pirotess-san, is he…..?" Spark asked, as he glanced up at the two he considered his new parents.
"I……I can't tell from here. Let me see…….." Pirotess muttered, as she carefully approached. Ever so gently, she reached out and brushed the bloodstained cornsilk blond hair off of the tanned face, her touch getting a pained groan from the male elf in front of her.
"Take it easy. Can you tell me who you are and who the child is?" Pirotess asked, as the male elf slowly became aware of his surroundings.
"My name is Erufailon……..the child's name is Leaf." The male elf whispered, as he focused his gaze on her, his eyes widening when his vision cleared enough to reveal who she was to him.
"Erufailon…oh gods! What in the name of the Nine happened to you?! Who attacked you and why?!?" Pirotess asked, as recognition and alarm, then anger, appeared on her face.
"Nee-san…they appeared from nowhere…They weren't elves……but they weren't goblins either…They felt more like wraiths……" Erufailon gasped, looking up in some surprise when Etoh began murmuring a healing spell under his breath, as he kneeled alongside him.
"That would explain why that 'elf's' corpse disappeared after I killed it." Ashram muttered, remembering what Pirotess had told him.
"It does, indeed." Deedlit agreed; seeming shaken by what they had learned so far….but the news was about to get much worse.
"A-Ashram-sama….One of them….had SoulCrusher….H-he's….the new SwordBearer….but his control….over it….wasn't as complete….as yours'….or as Beld-sama's…..had been." Erufailon managed, from between winces, as Etoh's healing spell began to take effect.
"You're sure of this?" Parn questioned, uneasily; exchanging glances with Ashram as he knelt beside the injured Dark Elf, as well. Erufailon nodded.
"Damn her to hell….Karla is stepping up her plans." Ashram growled, as he watched Erufailon finally relinquish his hold on consciousness, and as Etoh doubled his efforts to save his life; watching as Deedlit carefully picked up the High Elf child, and wrapped her in her cloak while doing so.
"But this proves that she isn't going after you to be the Bearer for SoulCrusher, anymore." Parn murmured, as he watched both Deedlit and Pirotess set up camp; knowing that they were going to have to wait quite a while for Erufailon's wounds to be healed, Etoh's strength to return afterwards, and for Leaf to awaken.
"It's the fact that she didn't, that troubles me now….As well as the fact that the creature she had chosen, doesn't have full control over the sword yet…." Ashram growled, his pale eyes narrowing as he spoke, "The more I hear, the less I like where the situation is going."
"So, what do you suggest? We can't move right now, since Etoh's focusing most of his strength on saving Pirotess' brother." Deedlit said, as she gave the former Black Knight a scrutinizing look….An expression that was returned in all honesty.
"We head for Flaim as soon as it is safe to do so. Though we might have to stop in one of the towns along the way, to get Ashram some new armor and a better sword." Parn stated, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that more fighting was just ahead.
"There may not be any time for that." Ashram said, then looked gravely at Pirotess, "As soon as it is safe to move your brother, we're moving on."
"Then let me help with the wounds, as well." A familiar voice offered, as its' owner appeared beside them.
"Priest Hobb?! What're you doing so far away from the outpost?!" Parn nearly yelped; stunned that the other priest had been following them the entire time, without their realizing it.
"I had the feeling, after you left, that something was about to happen….I'm glad I'd decided to follow up on it, this time!" Hobb murmured, seeming relieved when he saw that the combined healing spells were working on the young Dark Elf.
"'This time'?" Deedlit, Parn, and Etoh wondered, as they exchanged confused glances, yet getting an idea of what he was talking about, when they saw the expression on Ashram's face.
"Hobb must have predicted the cataclysm on Marmo….yet hadn't been able to go there himself, because of what was happening there." Parn mused, feeling some relief, despite himself, when the younger Dark Elf started breathing a little easier.
As swiftly as they dared, they rode for the nearest town.
"Parn, how are you going to explain Ashram's presence? I don't think anyone else is going to listen to him, or believe that he isn't out to conquer Lodoss, just by his own word alone!" Deedlit said, uneasily, as she glanced back at the former knight. It didn't take even an elf's keen senses to know that the other warrior was equally as on edge as they were….possibly even moreso. He had no armor, his sword was a standard issue blade that a normal civilian would use, and he still wasn't completely well yet. All of these factors, as well as the fact that Pirotess and Spark were going into harm's way right beside him, worried him greatly.
"Well, well! Look what the winds blew in! Long time, no see, Parn! Deedlit! Etoh!" a woman's voice called, cheerfully; startling the group into looking up, and catching sight of the speaker, and the man standing beside her.
"Shiris!" Parn yelped, in response, as the female mercenary jumped down from the short wall, and approached them.
"Shiris, don't take another step." Orson warned, when he'd realized who the other riders with Parn were; gripping his sword carefully, when he had.
"Huh? What the….?!" Shiris began to ask, then looked up again…..and straight into the eyes of Ashram himself.
"Holy Marfa, Falis, and Mairi! What the hell are you doing here?!" Shiris nearly screamed, as all the color fled from her face, and as she backpedaled away from him as fast as her feet could go.
"Do you want to hear the short version or the long version?" Ashram responded, his expression bordering on deadpan, as he spoke.
"Long version." Shiris replied, boldly (from behind Orson, of course). She was further confused when the Black Knight merely looked at Parn, and said, "Have at it."
"Thanks." Parn muttered, with almost an exasperated sigh, before beginning to explain all that had happened before meeting up with the mercenaries there….Knowing from experience that this was going to take some time to explain, because of Shiris' hotheaded nature, and the questions she undoubtedly had….But would he have enough time to tell his friends everything?
I LIVE!!!! Ahem….Took me a while to get back to this one, didn't it? Well, I just wanted to let everybody know that I haven't given up on it yet! Might need some help on the next few chapters, though, since I have no idea of where this story is going now (but it sure as hell is NOT going to Crystania! That much I CAN say!). Anyway, for those of you who are still following the story itself, thanks for not giving up, and for your patience! I'll try to have another chapter out soon, that's a promise!