“Dra Keltran!” the sentry shouted, his startled cry causing the three remaining Tarrons in the group to look up from where they sat huddled about the fire. Seeing immediately what the lookout had, the called one rose hurriedly.
Heart lurching apprehensively into throat, Keltran took two short breaths to calm himself. An ancient meditative technique, which unfortunately helped very little as he studied the stranger emerging so nonchalantly out from the darkness of the perilous wilderness—only a few steps distant from their stunned sentry.
With a wink to the outer guard, he was past their defenses and within their camp.
Not that he could harm them, of course. Obviously weaponless without even a simple dagger hooked to his belt, the newcomer was quickly identified as belonging to the Race called Basik. One of the five major species of Drakkones, (the reptilian-like people derived from the common Drada’k ancestor, Drakkones were the dominant, intelligent beings of the planet) Basiks had evolved to inhabit the forest and plains regions. But unlike the majority of his people, namely farmers and shepherds, it was instantly apparent from his manner that this one was neither. Wide shouldered, standing a bit more than two meters, the man was of normal height for his race.
Keltran found it difficult to tell by the flickering glow of the firelight, but his coloring seemed to be one of the darker greens. Again, normal enough for his breed. His eyes, however... Red irised with burnished fleck of swirling gold, noticeable even at this distance, were...commanding, was the only word the tarron could think of at that moment to describe them.
Yet even more disturbing than the drakkone’s arresting eyes was his manner of dress. Homespun shirt and pants, serviceable, well broken-in scuffed leather boots and a plain leather vest of brown were all he wore. Not that there was anything unusual about the clothing in themselves, they were average enough for a commoner, although admittedly did appear to be somewhat worn and dusty; green tunic cuffs tattered along the edges, a roughly sewn patch upon one knee.
No, what made the garments so strange was the fact that they were all the basik wore. Because it was naahn, that extended ‘nighttime’ which occurred when the light of the twin suns was eclipsed from the world by the huge, asteroidal remnants of a long dead planet which circled between. It was a global darkness that would last for six naahn-parts, or sixty nuhz, during which time the world grew colder and colder, the land freezing solid until finally, all who wished to remain alive took precautions to do so.
This one took no such precautions as he strode confidently across the snow-dusted clearing towards them. And by his easy manner, it was clear to all the Tarrons heavily bundled in their furred hoods, gloves, and thick blue, silver-embroidered cloaks that he was not suffering. Nor, despite the worn condition of his too-light clothing did he appear the least bit intimidated by the fact that they were Tarrons he approached.
Closing the distance remaining between, the basik nodded his head in casual greeting, a mostly neutral cast set upon his well shaped face, the formality of the expression mitigated by the sardonic half-smile curling one side of his short, squarely tapered snout. That and the amused, expectant twinkle in his odd gold-flecked gaze.
Young, probably middle twenties—certainly no more than thirty, yet everything about the drakkone from stance to unwavering look expressed confidence. All in all, he was a gathering of incongruities.
Of their own accord Keltran’s eyes flicked to stare at the intriguing blue streak marking the basik’s left cheek along the upper ridge to below that eye, very noticeable now that the other stood so close. Tarron blood? He blinked and wondered in surprise. The color was right, but why just the one spot if he was a half-breed?
“Da-naahn’ki, Drai,” the basik said in a voice, which, while not excessively deep, did garner one’s immediate attention. Keltran blinked again, realizing he’d subconsciously expected the stranger’s voice to reverberate like his own even though he knew better. Only Tarrons had chambered throats, the trait evolved to deal with the cold, thin mountain air of their home. Odd mark aside, it was just the presence the man possessed which had made him expect it. “May one join your fire?”
Startled blinks from all the tarrons now at the way in which the question was spoken. Words civil and clear without hint of twang or country drawl, the tongue the man used with them was High Common. Again, not the language of your average, forest-dwelling basik. Obviously he had much more than a casual, peasant’s learning. The drakkone had to be of mixed decent, Keltran decided. Yet, on the wings of that conclusion knew just as certainly it wasn’t possible. How could the basik have come at them from the north if it were so? No one with even a hint of their blood would do it. Winds of the great mountain, no one could.
Poor appearances aside, this odd drakkone was a rapidly increasing mystery.
As leader of the quartet, Keltran bowed low and bobbed his head in return, “Good evening to you returned, Dra. You are indeed welcome among us.” The basik’s smile increased fractionally, turned cynical, but whatever it was he looked about to say did not pass his lips. Instead, he calmly turned and stretched his hands forth to the heat, the movement so indifferent, it was worse than if he’d done nothing.
For a tension-filled moment, the heavy silence marred only by the crackle of fire and the cries of unseen, naahn-time creatures, the group stayed that way: Two tarrons sitting rigidly upon stones by the fire, their leader standing nearby, daunted, uncertain, and the lone sentry who kept an equally wary watch upon the dark wilderness around them and the mysterious newcomer for danger.
And the newcomer...neither offered nor asked anything further. Just stood there, rubbing his hands slowly together, eyes squinting against the light.
Apprehensions mounting, finally, after many long minutes, the basik spoke.
“An unusual blaze you have built here, Drai.” And it was. Darr, a large, meter’s wide lichen found growing upon most draz vines was a common fuel source, first chopped into, then sprinkled with a combination of igniting powders to get it to kindle. For a long, heat producing fire, one made the cuts shallow so the burn would be slower, smoldering. If one required more light the chops would be made deeper, allowing the material to burn at a quicker rate.
This fire had been made for light. The hunter could see that not only had the darr sheaf been struck wide and deeply, but extra pieces had been added on top as well, making a painfully bright column which had been quite noticeable for some distance in the darkness.
A beacon fire.
Tilting his head, he amusedly noticed as the two seated figures glanced hurriedly at each other, but it was the standing one who’d greeted him, which answered.
“We were waiting for someone, Dra.”
“A bizarre place for a meeting. Unless you’re trying to call up ghosts,” the basik responded, a hint of humor coloring his voice. Or was it sarcasm? It was difficult to tell because none of the tarrons found that they could ‘read’ anything from this odd one beyond the tangible attitude portrayed.
Quick thoughts flashed between the four and the consensus was mutual: all they perceived was coldness. Not indifference, more a wall of shielding black...no, a void. An empty space giving nothing to reveal even a hint of what the basik felt, let alone thought. The only thing letting them know the man was present there among them was the fact that they could physically see him.
Intimidating, because even if, somehow, the stranger did have The Blood, the abilities of the two who sat with minds linked were not what one would call inconsiderable and should easily have been able to breach the mental barrier. Given the further fact that there were four of them combining their efforts, using different techniques and talents... Well, the situation was very disconcerting. Still, this being was obviously no ghost.
The basik bit his lip and cleared his throat, the noise that issued sounding suspiciously like a chuckle. A rather knowing chuckle at that, Keltran privately opinioned.
Then the stranger recovered himself and continued, “Or is it that you’re part of a, ah...exploration team, and are awaiting the return of the rest of your party, Drai?” Drex glanced over at the Tarron, regarding the other’s thin, tapering features mildly. As usual of his race, the drakkone was blue in color, some, but not much iridescence about the little hide that could be discerned under the cold-warding garments. Rising to full height the leader of the quartet, like the rest of them, would be a head taller than himself, however Drex was far from intimidated.
Smiling affably, he continued, “Your pardon, Drai, but none of you have the look of Sage Guild about you. Besides which,” he drawled, voice lowering, “I know for a fact that those of Tllez-moi only send non-Tarrons to these parts for their…hmmm…research projects.”
Keltran cleared his throat, thrumming slightly in the face of the basik’s odd, glittering gaze. A distinctly knowing gaze, the Tarron thought once more.
“Actually, Dra, we are waiting for a Hunter. One who has made his home in this area.”
“A Hunter?” The hunter chuckled softly. “Now, good Dra, what sort of a drakkone would make his home here?” He gestured with an ungloved hand out into the darkness towards the immediate north, where if it were light, they would be able to see the first odd trees that marked the border of the Tzuugh lands. Like he could see them quite clearly now: tall, column-straight, reaching high into the night sky with their antlering branches covered in needle-like, green foliage. Their symmetry was jarring to minds accustomed to spiraling vine jungles. In fact, this was the only place on the planet were growths such as these occurred.
Glancing back, red eyes narrowed in further amusement, keenly noting the rippling movement of several cloaks as Tarron wings beneath shifted uneasily. The hunter’s nose twitched at the rising fear smell. No indeed, the lords of the mountains never sent their own, only the “lesser races” like his, the Ssaiss, Dekann, or an occasion Zarome here for their bidding. Simply put, Tarrons who entered that northern land died. Always. And never was their end clean or simple.
Such knowledge brought one comfort at times.
Keltran again cleared his throat nervously. “Nevertheless, we were told by the villagers of Tresko, to the south, that here is the place to find this one. This...Basik, that we seek.”
“Those of Tresko sent you here?” Drex wasn’t very surprised at the information, but admitted he was relieved that it was obtained in such an ordinary way. The abilities of some of the Winged Race went far beyond simple thought-thieves like the two he could sense trying to reach him. Idiots. They had no idea the thinness of the ice they skated. Or the danger of that which laid in waiting just below. That they even sought contact was enough to inform him they had no idea of what he was. Them and the sentry, anyway.
“Yes. Yet strangely,” Keltran’s brown eyes were studying him pensively, “the one we wished to locate, although the description matched, did not posses the name of him whom I have been charged to find and bring back to the mountain.”
“Ah.” The basik nodded, but said nothing more.
The leader of the Tarrons frowned slightly. “In fact, they used a name which I found oddly familiar, although this one does not remember from where.”
“So much for non-Tarrons being entered into the history texts,” the hunter mumbled under his breath.
Then he asked louder, “And what name did those at Tresko give this obviously mad basik?”
“The hunter, who’s description you yourself match, Dra, and whom I might add, this one personally recognizes the face of, calls himself Drexus Tavosn.”
“Be that as it may,” Drex shrugged, “you did not come here seeking one called by that name.”
Keltran shook his head cautiously, the matter no longer a question. Quelling an instinctive inner voice that was screaming he was closer to dying in this moment than any previous in his life, the Tarron raised his head and opened his hand. His life did not matter, only his orders.
“Yet, you are who I have been sent for, are you not, Dra Hunter?”
“That would depend, I think,” the basik challenged, voice growing deeper. “Sent for by whom?”
“By my master, His High Lord Celtinkital Tramiski.”
Broad shoulders drooping in resignation, the hunter closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
Laid, set, and sprung. A trap for him indeed.
“I am that which you seek.”
They talked alone together, off to the side while the others struck the makeshift camp and prepared for departure.
“And why does the lord wish to see me after all this time?” Drex asked quietly from where he leaned resigned against a supportive vine trank. Not a large draz, this. Nothing like the ones found in the southern jungles he remembered and sorely missed. Those majestic growths spanned kilometers, some large enough to hold towns in their lofty curves. He sighed softly, arms crossed and folded to his chest. No, none of the vines growing this close to the hell-lands were thicker beyond which a couple drakkones hand-in-hand could reach around.
Then the hunter dismissed the pointless mussing. His brace may be a spindly thing, but at least it was a draz.
The starved should not complain of their scraps.
Toe of a boot digging into the frozen earth distractedly, Drex pondered the current situation. He recognized this one now, this Keltran, manservant to the Great Tarron, Celtinkital. And considering even the little that this one knew about him, had seen, it was a wonder the drakkone was able to stand here talking so calmly. Such loyalty one could not help but respect.
Of course, it could still all be an elaborate trap to destroy him, the hunter snorted. After all, hadn’t Drexus himself killed that very lord’s sister?
The manservant, hands folded deeply within wide, fur trimmed sleeves, was shaking his head slowly.
“I do not know the answer to your question, Dra Drashone. Only that he has asked for you to come.”
Drex nodded, acknowledging the expected answer and the pseudonym he once again went by. He’d been foolish with the villagers, he realized that now. But never had he presumed anyone would ever come looking for him. Except to put him down like a rabid animal, of course. But that hope hadn’t panned out...
Anyway, it had seemed safe enough, Tresko being as small as it was and so distant from everything. Everything, that is, except the hellish Tzuugh lands which all drakkones feared. Not that Drexus was in hiding. No, the basik’s only fear was that someone from his past—or more appropriately, the time before—would hear and recognize it. And that would lead to too many awkward questions. Because if the tragic truth ever reached any of those he cared for...
Oh, lovely Ressa-Dso. Mastin, my brave lad. How much I miss you both. I'm so sorry. Please, forgive me...
He closed his eyes briefly against the pain of old losses. The years since had not seen the anguish lessened, only more manageable to push aside.
“It doesn’t matter, Dra,” Drex said, waving off his query. “I said I’d come back with you and I will. Only first, you must excuse me for a short while. I’ve a few things I must gather from the place where I sleep. It won’t take me long.” A small snort. “I don’t have much.”
Both drakkones instinctively glanced up as the first flakes of snow drifted down from the black sky. From the pattern, the hunter knew the squall would be over briefly. They usually were this early in the naahn.
Looking back, he saw the tarron still wore a puzzled expression at his choice of words.
“From your home, Dra?”
Still leaning, Drex laughed forcefully, the sound harsh, lacking any trace of humor. “No, good Dra. I said the place where I sleep.” Red eyes gazed sadly into the distance as he added softly, “I do not have a home.”
Wearing leather gloves, a thick brown cloak, (the hood of which he kept thrown back) and holding a rather beat looking sack in one hand, Drex stared up—way up—at the shuffling, hissing, saddled animal towering above.
He glanced wryly over at the nearby tarron—the straining, wing flapping drakkone barely managing to keep his own footing, let alone hold onto the snorting beast’s bridal, and raised his brows sardonically.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” The tarron was too busy even to shake his head, being so involved as he was in not getting killed at the moment.
Keltran, already mounted upon his own colossal beast, answered for him.
“It is not so bad once you get up, Dra,” the manservant called down assuredly. Then as if to disprove his point, Keltran’s mount suddenly shied away again, causing the rider to turn the animal in tight, earth-tearing circles until it was once more under control.
“If I get up.” Drex eyed the empty saddle set between a pair of thick, claw-tipped, membrane-less pseudo-wings that were dangerously lashing through the air, shook his head and snorted. He’d never ridden a common dlostaik before, let alone a thing like this monster. And the beast was huge. Why, the massive trunk-like legs of the bipedal creature even bent were longer than the hunter stood tall. Clearly all it would take was one stomp of a broad, three-toed foot to crush a drakkone to jelly. Or one slash of a pseudo-wing to split him clean through.
Black, the animal’s smooth, hairless hide was thick, rippling constantly with the motion of strong muscles beneath. And the ktidlostaik, larger, mountain-raised cousin to the other riding animal, seemed as upset with the prospect as the basik about the partnership as it hissed, growled, and swiped its shorter forepaws out again challengingly.
Drex exhaled poignantly. None of the other drakkones had had this problem, but even their animals, which appeared a little bit more docile, hadn’t wanted to come near him either. Only this violent brute, which he’d been told had been given the amusing title of Vrekk, hadn’t immediately reared back upon sniffing him and tried to bolt.
No. As the monster’s name implied, ‘Fang’ only wanted to eat him. Or at the very least, bite his head off, Drex mused as the tarron handler was lifted with a yelping cry into the air.
“Oh, kax-it!” he muttered exasperated, stepping forward to yank the helpless fool back down by the ankles before he was slammed against anything and crippled. Drex dropped the rescued one tumbling to the ground, “Give me the bloody rope.” Grinding his teeth in frustration, the hunter snatched the dangerously whipping tether from the air.
Before the animal could escape or attack, he gave a powerful jerk, snapping the startled beast’s muscular head down to his eye level. Grabbing a firm hold upon the halter, he stared directly into the creature’s right eye, only able to see the one at this range because the animal’s head was five times as wide as his own.
Ignoring the snarling muzzle full of dagger-like teeth which threatened to bite through the chest it pressed against, the Hunter narrowed his eyes and glared into that green, cat-like orb that didn’t reflect him, his own terribly white and strong teeth bared as he growled back menacingly.
After a solid minute of locked and contesting wills the giant beast began to tremble. A moment more and the ktidlostaik’s entire body sagged loosely as it tilted up its chin to offer its throat, whuffeling submissively over the drakkone who had beaten it.
Blinking, Drex pulled away, a dark half-smile upon his face.
“That’s more like it,” he snorted in satisfaction, giving one more meaningful yank before releasing his grip. The beast didn’t so much as shuffle a foot when Drex turned away.
As he scooped up his dropped bag, the hunter noticed the other drakkones were all staring at him in terrified awe.
“Well,” he snarled irritably at the openmouthed assembly of blue gawkers. “How the Tzuughin-hell do I get up on the bastard, then?”
Tllez-moi: Mountain kingdom and ancestral home of the Tarrons. A vast ridge of towering stone beyond which the eye could see, topped by a majestic, craggy summit. Centuries and untold generations had seen the inhabitants working, shaping and expanding natural tunnels and caverns till the hollow mountain metropolis was one of the greatest achievements and wonders of the world.
Not just Tarrons lived here though. The population, numbering in the thousands, consisted of members from all the Races. Left unsaid, Tllez-moi was the understood capital of Drakkone society. People came from all across the lands to study here. Scholars, healers, philosophers, poets and musicians, the winged race had evolved the arts to an exquisite degree, safe as they were from global temperature shifts and predators, within their thriving stone shell.
A place of mysticism as well as science, the Tarrons of Tllez-moi devoted their lives to understanding the world, themselves, and the universal forces within it all.
From where he sat, mounted aloft on the huge black beast, the red-eyed hunter gazed upwards into the twinkling lights of the distant peak. Brown cloak snow covered and worn, Drexus Tavosn held the reins in a death grip, wanting to choke on all the lies.
The two of them entered the lord’s apartment to a flurry of servants’ activity.
As Keltran smiled and exchanged semi-formal bows with those well known to him, Drex glanced around the foyer and huffed quietly. Paneled arching walls with carved motifs of entwined draz vines and flowers overhead, etched crystal wall scones spouting braided drapings of golden glow-moss, enameled vases on pedestals to either side of the doorway, brightly woven carpet beneath… Vines, even the air was decorated with the heady mixture of incense and servants’ perfume. He huffed again and shook his head. After spending the last few years of his existence in a barren cave, the difference was almost too surreal to take in. –And the reason he was fighting back laughter at the staff’s consternation upon getting a good look at him.
Keltran handed over his outer garments to an awaiting ssaiss woman dressed in livery of turquoise and gold silks. Wordlessly, remaining pointedly unintroduced, Drex did the same, the hunter not keeping the wry quirk of a smile from his face at her pale, shocked expression upon being given such a poor cloak. One would have thought he’d just tossed her the rotting corpse of a skrall the way she held it from her with minimal contact between delicate, ginger-orange fingers.
Yet the sardonic hilarity he found in the situation was short lived as a loud, swift tapping mixed with a sliding sound issued from an inner hallway and drew nearer.
Hearing the approach, all the house servants’ activity increased; hurriedly moving the two’s baggage to the side before lining up as a far larger drakkone than any of them, Ssaiss, Tarron, or Basik, entered the foyer with a grin and overjoyed hazel eyes.
“Keltran!” the lord boomed loudly, the deep, reverberating words thrumming around and through them. Leaning heavily upon a thick cane of polished draz wood, the Great Tarron reached an arm out to encircle the other, bestowing a firm patting on the shoulder, “Welcome back, my friend. This one is glad to see you safely returned. Very glad indeed!”
“Lord.” The manservant returned the embrace unconsciously. Then hurriedly pulled away, a chagrined cast to his features as he recalled the onlookers and his station. “Lord Celtinkital, please...”
The towering drakkone smiled cheerfully, although the young lord’s voice held a clear note of exasperation. “Oh bother it, my friend. Do not be like that,” he chided. “By Created, one would think that two who grew up so close together could set aside their reserve as adults. Winds, but whatever happened to the boy who would engage in battles of flying mud at the swimming lake?”
Keltran blushed dark indigo and cleared his throat uncomfortably, “He remains, lord, however, that one comprehends such engagements are not appropriate at all locations and moments. This, your reception area, being one of them.”
Hazel eyes banked in aggravated understanding. “So be it. However, only because this is a particular moment.” Celtinkital turned and raised his voice to the remaining servants, “Out now, all of you. Enough with your flustering and leave us be. I am quite capable of seeing to my own guest, thank you. Go about your business. Elsewhere.”
Drex, who’d stood by frozen in silence during the exchange, watched as the trio of ssaiss, the woman and two men, bowed hurriedly and disappeared without further comment. In the brief moment of respite left in the swirling, perfumed wake of meters of flowing gold silks and turquoise robes, the Hunter studied the master of this opulent residence with a range of strong emotions, none of them pleasant.
The Lord Celtinkital was a Great Tarron, as opposed to the common breed like Keltran. The rarest of drakkones, every Great Tarron was a member of royalty, simply for existing. Shimmering cobalt blue with highlights of gold along the brows, standing head and shoulders over the basik, he was dressed in a simple, but expensively cut robe of sea-green silk. The looseness of the draping garment allowed the immense wings he possessed, limbs sprouting from shoulders and extending his full body length to drag tips upon the floor, to remain unhindered. Drex knew that beneath the robes, this being, also unlike any other of the Drakkone races, possessed a tail to balance the weight of his lengthy neck and long, angular head.
If one were a fool he’d be envious of the lord his wings. Drexus was anything but. Those immense, falsely delicate looking turquoise appendages did not grant this being freedom of the air—only locked him and the rest of his special kind firmer to the earth. In fact, unlike the last time the two had met, Celtinkital, who was not yet mid-thirty, had to use that cane not to walk, but support himself upright. The hunter knew that given a few more years of unstopped growth, this majestic drakkone would be unable to have even that dignity, and would be forced to move about on all fours like an animal, dragging himself along beneath their oppressive weight.
With sharply up-swinging brows creasing into something unreadable, Celtinkital turned and nodded formally to his guest. His voice soft, Drex still tensed apprehensively, feeling the mystical timber of it vibrate upon things deep within him. Things he did not want to remember. More, things he did not want to feel.
“Drashone Vox,” the lord greeted solemnly. “This one extends appreciation that you chose to accept his invitation. It is hoped that we are well-met again?” Neither of them extended a hand to the other. Or made any sudden moves in the tense silence which followed the welcome.
Gazing up into those warm, hazel eyes, Drex stood in contemplation of the Great Tarron for many long moments. It was good the other had small changes like the cane about him. Made it easier to separate the current from past. Well-met? It was greater wonder that the both of them had survived even this long in the other’s presence. Each of them had parted with deep wounds. And he asks if we are well-met?
At long length, turning and rubbing the back of his neck, the hunter shook his head bemused and sighed quietly.
“Yes,” he replied, surprising himself as he spoke. “I believe we are at that, Tarron lord. Damn me again if I know why.” Gazing back his eyes were calm. And yet, although bitter humor had become almost second nature to him, Drex could not form even the tiniest of smiles, half or not.
Celtinkital blinked and exhaled, revealing despite his size and powers that he also felt unease in this meeting he’d sought. It was not so hard to assume that the Great Tarron had been having thoughts similar to the basik’s.
“It is well. Come,” he said politely, turning with care upon the cane until he faced back the way he’d arrived. “Let us go to a place where we can make ourselves more comfortable. There is much in which this one would wish to discuss with you.”
The lord smiled at his manservant, asking as he did so, “Keltran, I know you have just arrived home, my friend, yet for me, would you see to it that special refreshment is brought to our honored guest? I know of no other so competent as you to which I may assign this delicate task.” He glanced back at the hunter inquiringly as the manservant bowed; Keltran’s face paling, but impassive except for a slight nervous tick to one eye.
Drex nodded minutely at his host. “Such would be appreciated after the long journey, Lord Celtinkital,” he admitted softly.
“See to it, my friend.” Keltran nodded and took a different direction when they reached the entryway to the apartment proper, leaving the two, massive Tarron Lord and travel dust coated Basik Hunter, to make their way silently alone together, walking like equals side by side down the spacious, gilded hallway.
Celtinkital gestured for his guest to proceed him through an awaiting, open door.
Drex did so without comment, entering slowly the large, high ceilinged circular space which was clearly the young lord’s study; the room’s central defining item a large, curved and ornately be’scrolled desk. Over three meters long, the cream marble top was arranged with assorted quills, parchment and other desk-type things.
Spread throughout the rest of study were a handful of inviting chairs, small tables and pedestals, some displaying figurines, others bare. Yet the room’s overall predominant feature were the books. Rows upon rows of them, the gathering of scrolls and bound manuscripts lined the room from floor to ceiling almost completely. There was a welcoming fire crackling cheerfully in the opposing wall’s fireplace. Aromatics had been added, completing the genteel setting.
The lord motioned for his guest to take a chair positioned comfortably before the blaze. Drex did so, feeling a stirring he’d not had in a long time as he only semi-idly wondered how many of the books were writ in the Common tongue; respectfully aware of the quiet dignity the lord used as he lay, stomach down, upon his own, specially constructed lounge nearby and sighed in relief.
No, the hunter was not envious of those beautiful wings, the wealth, home, or even the overwhelming amount of books this Great Tarron possessed. There was only one thing Drexus was jealous of the other for. That same, wondrous, warm bright thing the basik coveted which belonged to everyone else around but him...
For the first time in years Drex felt disturbed by the presence of another. Not fear, yet distinctly uncomfortable. Especially being back as he was in this particular place—a home belonging to a high lord of Tllez-moi—after so long. Both Celtinkital and his apartment here in the mountain kingdom brought afresh painful memories, ones the basik wished would stay still and buried.
As that analogy arose, Drex closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge between them wearily. Far, far too many horrible memories here. He wondered not for the first time why in hell he had come.
“Have you nothing to say?” the lord finally asked after a quarter-nuhz of wordless silence.
The hunter glanced up at him and shrugged, “I see you are still in good health, Dra.”
Celtinkital laughed softly, the sound sharpening the ghosts in the basik’s mind, making him wince.
“Small pleasantries? So be it, my friend.”
Drex’s brows snapped down in annoyance, “Don’t call me that, Tarron.”
“But you said we were well-met.” The lord blinked inquiringly at him.
The hunter shifted his gaze back to the fire, squinting a little, but it was a safer view, that which the consuming flames offered.
“I thought we were.” Drex stared at his clenched fists and snarled thickly, “But my coming here was a mistake. I hate this place. You’ve no idea what it took to walk the tunnels without so calmly.”
Celtinkital closed his eyes sadly.
“So, you still bear us ill will.”
“Not you, Tarron lord,” Drex assured him. “Nor do I hold you to that particular offer you made years ago. I’ve had time to think more clearly about such things. A lot of time. I understand the pretense for what it was.”
Now it was the Great Tarron’s turn to frown.
“It is not often that this one is called a liar, Dra Vox.”
“And you were not called one by me, Dra. I only think it better to say you meant it as a helping gesture. A...kindness.” He cleared his throat. “Not to be taken further than the moment.”
“I see,” the lord murmured.
Before he could continue, an announcing clap in the doorway interrupted. Celtinkital waved for his manservant and accompanying maid to bring forth the assorted bottles, carafe, and golden crystal goblet filled trays.
The service was left and maid sent away, the door to be closed behind her. Keltran, meanwhile, went about silently depositing the appropriate combinations to those about the room before relaxing himself tiredly in a chair by his master’s side, still wearing his travel clothes.
Drex did not reach for the lidded carafe that had been placed on the small lacquered table next to him although he could smell its drawing contents clearly. Noting the way his fingers were scratching the armrests edgily, he made them relax, and for distraction, perused the nearest wall of book for legible titles, keenly aware when the lord and his servant began sipping their wine and how they watched him.
“Are you not hungry?” Celtinkital inquired politely.
The basik abruptly turned and grinned, displaying two rows of startlingly white, perfect teeth.
“Always.” But the expression was banished quickly, relieving both the lord and his servant who had uncontrollably flinched.
The hunter’s gold-flecked eyes contained bitter amusement as he added, “However, it’s more manageable these days. I will not put you through the distress.”
“The only distress should be ours, that you, my invited guest, feel so burdened. Please.” Celtinkital raised his own glass to his lips and waited pointedly.
Without further hesitation Drex poured the distinctive, thick red liquid himself, Keltran not up to the task, the servant having turned his face queasily away. The lord continued to watch, but calmly, nothing of clinical interest or disgust in his soft hazel eyes as the cup was filled.
Staring at each other, they sipped in tandem. Yet despite himself, Drex’s lids slid shut and he continued to drink until the cup was drained dry.
Holding the goblet from him in a slightly trembling hand, it was a full minute before he felt it safe to raise his head and open them again.
“Manageable,” the vampire pronounced thickly. “But only just barely.”
“Yes,” Celtinkital murmured in understanding, gazing sadly into the other’s blazing, completely red eyes. Blood-flushed eyes. The Great Tarron opened and raised his wings. “We all of us have our burdens, do we not, my friend?”
Drex shook his head slowly, placing the empty goblet carefully back on the table by his elbow, “Some weights don’t compare. Like consciences. Still, all of us must carry them alone. Particularly the latter.”
“Is this the reason you went...north?” the lord asked gently.
Instead of answering, the hunter slid narrowed eyes towards Keltran, who, silent until now, had sat up, perhaps suddenly remembering something he shouldn’t.
“Lord,” the manservant began, “when we found this one,” he indicated the hunter, “the Dra went by another name than that which you gave me.”
Celtinkital arched an angled brow thoughtfully at his visitor.
“Is this correct?” The basik nodded, shifting uncomfortably.
Keltran was looking back and forth between them when he blurted: “Drexus Tavosn, Lord, that was the name.” The servant’s brows crinkled, “Was that not the Hunter whom led the expedition to gain the cure for the plague, and died in the Tzuugh before—
“Keltran.” Celtinkital cut off further speculation. “You seem very tired from your journey, my friend. You should retire to your quarters for a while and rest.” The servant swiftly rose and bowed at the command, although it was clear he was uncomfortable leaving his friend and master all alone with the strange one. As much as he was relieved he could get away from his lord’s ‘guest’.
After he had gone: “So, what has brought about this change?” Celtinkital asked softly.
The basik lifted a hand nonchalantly, though he was feeling anything but. “It has been over two years. Almost three in fact. In that time, I’ve had to come to grips with many things about myself. Found I can’t deny who I am, no matter how much I wish it otherwise.” Drex smiled darkly. “Even before the Tzuugh that was something I was accustomed to dealing with. Just took me a little while to remember how.”
The lord tilted his head, looking pleased, “You do seem to have improved…”
He barked out a laugh knowing the wealthy, silk be’robed tarron wasn’t making comment upon his attire. Destiny’s whim, it seemed, would have him always return looking a beggar. Fate, Drexus knew, was the oddest humored of all tricksters.
With an abortive snort he hurriedly calmed himself, waving an apology for his rudeness.
Celtinkital took the outburst in stride.
“Indeed. I think it is that you have healed, Drexus.”
Dark humor abruptly vanished. Lip curled up, displaying an unnaturally sharp tooth, “It took me a year to claw my way back out of madness, Tarron Lord. Another spent screaming. What I’ve gained since has been hard won.” The basik with the blood-flushed eyes finished somberly, “I had much to learn.”
“Learned in the Tzuugh?” Came the quiet inquiry.
Drex drew in a long, deep breath and exhaled it very slowly.
“In the Tzuugh,” he acknowledged. Memories and thoughts of that time clamored in his head. Where should he begin? Words were useless. How to describe to this living one sitting so foolishly close the tearing agony of the Hunger, his overwhelming guilt...the bouts of insane rage? The hatred of everything and one—including himself. The utter loneliness. The final loss of all hope? It was impossible. There was no way this comfort-emanating being could possibly understand anything about...
Face clouding, Drex gripped the armrests of his chair, mindful not to shatter the wood as with a start, he suddenly realized the reason he’d come. That he was a bigger fool than the Tarron. Saw the real trap he’d walked into which had nothing to do with his destruction. The unacknowledged bait he’d swallowed whole without hesitation.
The hunter growled in self-disgust. He’d returned to this gilded-stone world of dark plots and fatal betrayals because he could no longer stand the loneliness.
“Gods, how pathetic I’ve become,” he mused aloud. Then, “All right, I’ll talk. But only after you stop that crap you’re trying on me. It won’t work. I’m not as gullible as I once was.”
Because he was a Great Tarron Lord, Celtinkital did not affect puzzlement or ask what the basik was talking about. Nor did he verbally deny a thing upon being caught, only ceased the flow of trusting emotions immediately. Real or affectation, with a Tarron one never knew. Drex sneered inside as the barriers rose again about the lord—who also hadn’t apologized for the attempt at manipulation to gain his trust. A Tarron Lord indeed. Just as his sister had been a Lady.
The murderous bitch.
Drex grit his teeth and began, ignoring the groan of cracking wood beneath his talon-budding fingers.
“When I left you that naahn, it didn’t take very long to realize once I was out that I had no place to go, no life to return to. Not as the being I’d become—Drashone Vox. So I returned to the Tzuugh and sought out the place where I...”
“The place of your transformation?” the lord supplied softly when the words trailed off.
The vampire lifted his eyes, the look within them piercing and cold. “Let’s be plain about it,” he growled harshly to the tarron as well as himself. “I mean the place where I died and became this gods damned monster.”
Celtinkital looked hurriedly away.
“You sought a way to end your affliction?”
Drex dropped his eyes to the floor. “Something like that,” he admitted vaguely.
“And was there anything that could help you there? Any trails of a cure?” Celtinkital inflected the final word pointedly, not wanting to contemplate any other possibility of what the basik may have wished to find. His reverberating voice was brimming with compassion, the intensity of the emotion filling the very air. Not directed emanations as like moments ago, just his voice.
Drex closed his eyes, amazed that this great, powerful yet gentle being could feel such for the likes of him. No matter how long he...existed, the basik knew he’d never understand Tarrons.
Drex shook his head kindly. “Nothing, Tarron lord. I found nothing at all.”
“I also, have spent much of my time searching for a way to help you, friend Drexus,” Celtinkital said a while later.
Drex bolted up straight. “Is this why you’ve called me back? Have you found something?”
The Great Tarron shook his head, dashing his hopes. “Unfortunately, I admit to not yet discovered anything in the records or elsewhere—yet. But I will keep looking. I promise you this, Dra.”
“No need.” Celty smiled briefly.
However, he quickly grew serious again. “No, the reason I asked you here is that there is a...problem.”
“What sort of problem?”
The Tarron eyed his guest as he said: “Drakkones are being killed.”
“Not by me,” Drex answered too quickly. Then flushed in embarrassment as the lord continued to stare. “Not by me, Dra,” he repeated more slowly. “I’ve killed no one since...” He trailed off and looked away.
Celtinkital sighed painfully. “Yes. Yes, I know,” he murmured in understanding, both of that which had been stated and that which remained unsaid between them.
Glancing back at the lord who himself now gazed with bitter memories into the fire, Drex wondered anew at this being. Their places reversed, would he have been so reserved and accepting of the murderer of a loved one? No. No way in Tzuughin-hell. Yet this one, this Lord Celtinkital did so. And more, the Great Tarron truly cared and honestly sought to help him. Such kindness was not an easy thing for Drex to deal with. He’d never experienced such from anyone... Even before his death.
“Why?” he asked the lord quietly, forcing himself to repeat the request more loudly when there was no immediate response.
Celtinkital continued to gaze into the flames.
“My honor,” he breathed at last. “The honor of my family, and of the one responsible for so much misery. The need to put things right.”
“You must know,” the hunter looked at him, “that I do not regret what I did.” No, Drexus didn’t regret that death at all. Twyzalia had tricked him, used him, and finally betrayed him. Him and so many helpless innocents.
A brief shutting of the eyes brought forth the image of her, the way she’d stood that night so regally at the top of the wide stairwell. Flowing layers of gossamer silver and blue silk, the gems upon tapering fingers sparkled like stars when the lady moved, gestures graceful as any lover’s dance...
All a shame. Insanity alone drove Twyzalia; a bright-eyed prophet with regards no further than herself. Ruthless, she’s used her Tzuugh crystal-enhanced powers to force a servant to kill his own wife—to slash her throat before their eyes. She’s done it for a distraction, nothing more. A chance to gain herself time to escape the vengeful vampire.
It hadn’t worked.
Blood-soaked, the dying servant woman’s as well as his own from a failed attack by another of the lady’s close conspirators, Drex had caught the Great Tarron there on the cliff edge. And there, one final time had she tricked him, taking upon herself the aspect of the woman Drexus loved.
But Drashone had seen through the ruse. The part which was no longer Drexus Tavosn had torn aside the illusion and attacked as Twyzalia had turned to leap off the cliff, wings swept wide for gliding.
Drex stared mesmerized at the flames, the flickering light casting strangely angled highlights over his features. Years later and it was still too clear. How the stench of blood and charred flesh mixed with the lady’s soft of perfume. The sound of cloth tearing. He could feel his talons sinking through skin and tendon to wrench her wings close. Her scream battering as physical as the wind that rushed past and the stones which tore and crushed; the both of them broken, plummeted down and down as the burning dawn-light exploded upon them…
“Truly?” Celty glanced at his fiend of a guest, seeing the answer in those strange, ruby eyes slowly turning upon him. “Truly.” He sighed bitterly to himself. “And you do not know how it pains me to admit I understand.”
“Then how are you even able to look at me?” Drex wanted to know, eyes still dancing with flame glow. “Despite your understanding, I am the killer of your sister. And I remember quite clearly you saying you would never forgive me for it. –Even as you helped me escape.” His chest hitched sharply. Oh, far too many sharp, bitter memories! So much pain experienced in this mountain castle. So many things lost. Lives destroyed. Blood upon so many hands; upon his own hands. Wrongs that could never be put right.
Fists clenched trembling, he snarled, “The dead will never have justice, whatever you claim to understand. Forget what I said earlier—I hate you for not destroying this body when you had the chance! Find a cure? The tzuugh you can. How does one make a silent heart beat again? Bring heat once more to dead flesh? Tell me, Tarron Lord, the real truth is my continued existence is your revenge. My suffering gives you satisfaction.”
“Never,” Celtinkital said thickly. “Never. Furthermore, the only one deserving retaliation is myself for being so blind. For not realizing what was going on right beneath my wings…”
Throat trembling, the Great Tarron’s words grew thicker, “No, all this one comprehends is that the hurt we did to each other, Drexus Tavosn, binds us deeply. Our paths are now linked inextricably. I do not know if I can even explain it to myself, Dra, just that it is so.”
Self-possessed once more, Drex returned to the study of flame, politely blocking out the lord’s quiet sobs while he did so.
“So,” Celtinkital said after a long swallow of wine. “So.”
“Yes.” The hunter nodded. Then, “You were going to tell me why I was plucked from my elected exile.”
“The deaths of drakkones.” The lord stirred upon his lounge uneasily, “A great many tragedies have occurred over the past year in the southlands, Drexus. A great many.”
“What manner of deaths? And what do they have to do with me?”
“Nothing as yet, my friend. Though, it is my hope that as Hunter, you can bring an end to them.”
“Explain the situation.” Drex sat, elbow resting on the chair arm, chin in hand, finger absently stroking the odd strip of blue along the cheekbone beneath his left eye, the only one of its kind on his entire dark, draz emerald green body.
“We have reports that fifteen drakkones have been killed so far. All basiks. Two Rangers, a few homesteaders, some villagers who had been working alone in their fields. The details of the attacks are sketchy, however, it appears that only a small group of creatures are responsible for them all.”
“What sort of creatures? Not skralls—you don’t even have to say it.” The hunter glanced at him, “Any blind idiot can tell from the remains of the kill if it was one of those damned things. Not considering the fact a skrall would take out the whole village. And the homesteads. And the entire, bloody Ranger stati... Huh.” Drex abruptly shifted and cleared his throat roughly. He chopped his hand impatiently, “Still, I don’t like how you’ve inflected the word, Tarron Lord.”
“This one is regretful of that,” Celtinkital said grimly. “Yet the truth is that we do not know.”
Drex narrowed his eyes. “We? You mean drakkones in general or those residing in this lofty stone mountain?” Then he sat up straighter, a chilling thought occurring. “You know though, don’t you? Great draz-gods, don’t tell me the killings are being done by things like me!”
“No! You are the only one, thanks be the Created. –Oh. I mean, no.” The lord recovered himself quickly upon seeing the amusement flash across his guest’s face. “I assure you, Dra Drexus, the murders are being done by animals, albeit,” he added strained, “very special animals.”
The hunter closed his eyes and grimaced. “Oh gods...” he breathed in sudden comprehension.
“Yes,” Celtinkital said gravely. “The survivors of T-t-t...” He coughed and cleared his throat. “Twyzalia’s—mad experiments.”
Drex leaned back in his chair wearily, “I thought all those your sister had poisoned with the Element oil from the Tzuugh had been seen to? Vines twisting, don’t tell me the antidote didn’t work.” He laughed painfully, “Not after everything I traded to get it.”
The Tarron bowed his head.
“You know it worked, Drexus. To all those it was administered to in time.” He glanced at his guest sadly, “You left so quickly that I never had the chance to tell you I tried several derivatives upon your body while it was in stasis, recovering from the...fall. Alas, all you did was expel them again most violently. Even the draughts mixed with the fheg blood. Poor Keltran,” Celtinkital tittered, face grown pale, wings twitching. “His was the task to administer that which you needed to heal the damage. Including the blend containing the antidote. Gods, this one would have fainted to be covered as he was when it came back out! Yet never mind. Suffice to say that hundreds were saved because of your sacrifice, Dra Drexus. All those stricken in the mountain and most in the land surrounding. For the communities outside, our healers did their best trying to locate those driven mad. However...”
“However, it’s a big world out there in the draz lands, isn’t it?” murmured the hunter.
“Yes. It was thought that anyone who did not succumb to the toxin would be killed by wild animals, or perish during naahn.”
The vampire was looking at him wryly, “But you know that not all of us were, Dra.”
“Yours is a unique case, Drexus Tavosn,” Celtinkital reminded him unnecessarily. “You did not fall prey to the contaminated drinking waters…”
“No,” Drex snorted disgustedly, “I just got my damned neck broken in a land tremor while going after the kax-be-riddled cure. –Landing my dying self right into a whole pool of that hell-spawned sludge. Died and woke up this cursed thing that nothing can help!”
The tarron looked away.
“As I said once before, my friend, my people owe you a great debt.”
“Yeah, some honor. Cut the kax-rot, Tarron Lord. It took your man Keltran, whom I should thank for his service, a third of a naahn to remember why my old name was vaguely familiar.” The hunter growled, eyes glittering dangerously, “Debt my tail. Friend my ass. No, I get the feeling I’m to be called upon every time one of you needs their garbage cleaned up. Why else forsake your bloody sacred Tarron duty and let me continue to ‘live’?” Celtinkital’s mouth had popped open. Stunned, the lord stared at him and tried to talk, but nothing would come out.
Rising from his chair, Drex filled his goblet with some of his host’s wine, the vampire’s own special carafe being long emptied. He glanced up with an ironic sneer as he poured, their faces less than half a meter away, “You think I didn’t notice the empty tunnels Good Dra Keltran brought me through were without guards and lighting? Ha, many more social visits to the lofty denizens in this worm-riddled castle and I’ll have toured all the secret passageways.”
Chuckling, he walked along the nearest wall of books, sipping idly as Celtinkital remained silent, recovering. Bastard’s probable never been talked to so in his life. Huh, there’s reason they keep us crass basiks restricted from the upper levels, Drex thought wryly, blinking as sensitive tongue tingled from picking up a trace of the goblet’s previous contents. Hm, doesn’t mix too badly. Then: Dammit, but is everything here in Tarronei and Ssaiss?
“So,” he snorted after a while, returning to his chair. “Why exactly has this great privilege been bestowed upon my oh so humble self? As I told you before, Tarron Lord, I haven’t killed anyone as of late. And I’m not going to do it even at your request. Find yourself another murderer. Shouldn’t be too hard. Huh, just look up some of your sister’s followers. Castle must be rotted to the core with ‘em.”
“But that is not what this one meant at all!” Celtinkital at last managed to exclaim, ignoring the scornful barb. The Great Tarron’s chambered throat thrummed out the words in his distress, “No, I only thought that your hunting skills as a tracker would be useful.
“You see, Dra Drexus, we have made several attempts to find those responsible and bring them back here for help, yet they continue to elude us. Have killed several other Hunters who tried, not knowing the truth of that which they sought. However, this one believed that with your special abilities you could protect yourself and—
“You called them animals,” Drex reminded him harshly.
The tarron looked pained, “Well, they are...have become so, I mean...”
“Rot. Kaxworm-riddle it. The oil did transform them in some ways, then. Deeper than simple insanity, am I right?”
“Yes,” Celtinkital admitted. “I myself have seen the...changes wrought.”
“Seen...? Oh. You mean you dreamt about them,” Drex stated. He remembered experiencing firsthand some of this one’s mystical powers. Didn’t conceal the quick, nasty grin, knowing how unpleasant it must have been for the tarron. Alright, some burdens did compare. He took another sip, pleased at the thought.
Celtinkital was speaking, “Unfortunately, I have. Though as with all other things the Tzuugh has influenced, the images were unclear. Faint and distorted.” The lord shuddered, “Yet even the little I saw was horrifying.”
“So?” Drex asked exasperated, “Are you going to tell me what I’m going up against?”
“Drada-kish,” the tarron whispered with another violent shiver.
It took Drexus Tavosn a moment to realize the lord wasn’t talking about him.
“I don’t understand.”
“Drada-kish. Only, not like...not like you were considered, Drexus. Not normal drakkones born with ancestral instincts. Not one with a heightened awareness of nature and its systems of survival. But real Drada-kish. Real throwbacks. Brutish beings harkening back to a primal version of the drakkone races. Not the Drada’k, but something in-between. Distorted creatures without mind.”
“How many?” the Hunter asked quietly.
The lord shivered again.
“Great Creator help us all, I just do not know...”
“So, I’m to lead these healers into the draz after the creatures, keep them from being torn to shreds, avoid revealing what I am for fear they’d have no choice, but to justly do such to me—and you can’t tell me where the twisted things are?” Drex rumbled disgustedly while pouring them both more wine. He’d pulled his chair closer to make the repetitive task easier.
“The challenge shall be good for you, my friend. Besides, it will not be the first time you have traveled with others clandestinely.”
“Don’t change the subject by getting me depressed.” Snorting, Drex took a long swallow. Then waved a hand vaguely, “Why can’t you find them?”
“You grant this one more ability than he possesses, Dra.” Celtinkital bowed his head humbly.
“Really?” Drex was unconvinced. “Then how was it you were able to track me down?”
The Tarron smiled mischievously.
“A simple matter of an educated guess, Dra Hunter. You see, we of the mountain try to keep ourselves very informed of events without…”
“You mean you’ve spies everywhere,” the hunter retorted.
Celty laughed, “Not exactly. We Tarrons simply observe the world around us, hoping to comprehend all the wonder that is the Great Created. Although, perhaps in this affair, one admits you are close enough to the truth. In any case, for some time now, there has been talk about a particular little hamlet to the northeast, which has recently increased some of its trade goods. Certain, ahem, special items: resins and small wooden sculptures of a type which can only originate from one source.”
“Tresko.” Drex let loose a wry chuckle, a sudden smug, secretive twinkle in his eyes. He sat back, crossing outstretched legs at the ankles. “Yes, I’ve been dealing with them,” he admitted. “Nothing much, just getting the odd tzuughi limb, resin, small nuggets of amber and so forth for the craftsmen. Which reminds me. While we’re at it, I always did want to tell you scholars there’s more twisted cave systems in the Tzuugh than your records say. ‘Nothing but solid ground’ be’damned. Rot-all the good your maps did for us.” A disgusted snort as he rubbed his neck pointedly.
Dismissing the matter with a gesturing wave at the closed doors, the hunter looked at his host humorously, “I did note upon entering your modest little dwelling here, Lord Great Tarron, a certain, shall we say, familiar tang to the air?”
Celtinkital pursed his lips. “Curse your nose. Tzuughi resin happens to make an excellent meditative incense. We have been using such for generations.”
“You’re whole apartment must be in a constant state of meditation then,” the basik huffed dryly. Idly twirling the goblet stem between green fingers, eyes tracing a crack that had appeared in the dry leather of his boot, Drex shrugged absently, “Still, it’s a pleasant smell. Sort of strange that something so beautiful can come even from hell. Gives one a certain tiny amount of hope, in a way.”
“Perhaps,” the lord inflected meaningfully, “That is why it is.”
The vampire blinked. “Maybe. But more to the point, the dangers only a deranged few are willing or able to face to procure it makes the substance very expensive, and allowed only to a select elite.” Grinning sardonically, “I’m greatly surprised they told you where to find me, Dra. Even if the request was from a Great Tarron Lord, I’m the only one can enter that place with impunity. Vines, you must have paid the village elders very well.”
Celtinkital cast a wry glance down at his guest’s threadbare appearance, “In spite of the danger, it does not look like they paid you very well, friend Drexus.”
The hunter drew a finger along a small patch in his vest, shrugging indifferently, “Truth be told, I never asked for much. Since my change I really don’t require a lot—certainly not clothing for visitors or fancy affairs. The occasional ale in the tavern, a new shirt here and there.” He glanced up, eyes glittering as he added, “Food, I catch myself. Though admittedly,” Drex dropped the grin and shrugged again, “I found myself going into the village for the necessary company, appallingly lacking in social graces though it is.”
The basik nodded, “Yes. I tried at first to keep away from others, but I...grew too distant.” He raised his hand, unable to explain.
“You needed others to stay drakkone?” the tarron hesitated.
Drex nodded. “Exactly. I need thinking beings around me to stay sane.”
“Don’t we all?” Celtinkital remarked airily.
The hunter shook his head slowly, a dark shadow crossing his features, “I find I need it like blood. I discovered the hard way that if I stayed too long in the presence of only animals my mind...attuned to them.”
“It sounds like you have had some interesting experiences these past two-and-a-half years, my friend. Care to tell me about it?”
The vampire’s face went mask-like.
“I don’t believe that particular tale told would be a kindness to either of us, Dra.”
Celtinkital accepted the information without comment.
Suddenly, Drex covered his mouth and snorted.
“What is it?”
“Just that…” He bit his lip, trying to keep from snickering louder, “One of those craftsman I mentioned wanted to try his hand at jewelry. Seems he’d once heard something about the odd types of minerals found in the Tzuugh. Just a legend, mind.”
“Oh?” the lord asked tensely as the hunter continued to shudder in poorly contained hilarity.
Drex nodded, the gold flecks in his eyes twinkling brightly. “Yes, he wanted me to try to find these certain, ah, blackish crystals—
“What?!” Celtinkital squawked in horror, wings jerking straight out with a snap. “Created save us, if even the tiniest shard got out it would be worse than the plague! Just holding a piece drives people insane. And if a cluster ever reached a densely populated area... Jewelry! Gods, please, tell me you didn’t...!” He pleaded faintly as the hunter covered his eyes and giggled harder, whole body shaking.
“Hell no! I t-told him to get ‘em himself. And where he could stick them if he did.”
The vampire doubled up, gasping loudly through his laughter: “And that was before the bastard offered me the first piece he’d make!”
After a brief, startled second, the Great Tarron Lord hysterically joined him.