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Blood and Silver

by Rolo Kipp and Patryn of Elvenshae

August 24, 2000

The bloody dwarf felt despair welling when he saw how the canyon closed in to a dead end. Somewhere he had made the wrong turn that would cost him his life at least. Running forward, he looked desperately about to something he could use, the great notched steel ax in his hands useless against such evil. The silent, stalking creature gave a low chuckle from no more than a rock’s throw behind him.

"Poor mite. Have you lost your way? Is my home so bewildering for such a small, tender one?" It's voice goosepimpled up and down a strange, unnatural scale. The dwarf bared his teeth in fear and anger. He spun to put his back to some boulders and held his great ax before him in callused, blood-drenched hands.

Hundreds of feet above the dark, hidden land, with starlight and moonbeams streaming across silver wings, a lithe form reveled in the freedom of flight, his eyes half closed in pleasure. The wind whistled in his ears, an eerie counterpoint to the harmonic being hummed in his massive throat, as the ground sped past beneath him.

As he banked north to avoid the broken lands, a whiff of something foul and diseased curled across his nostrils. His emerald green eyes snapped fully open, suddenly alert, and his wings curled forward, slowing his flight. Hovering in place with great sweeps of his wings, Argentiel scanned the ground. Below him and to the west stretched the pain-wracked wrinkles of the Orcs’ Death Canyons. To the east, he could see the rocky red highlands begin their sloping run down into the fertile Fearith Valley. This was an inhospitable country, even to those who could fly. The treacherous channeled gusts of the canyons could toss a flyer high or slam him to earth with equally dreadful swiftness.

Still, the rumors of wealth to be found brought many here, all too many of whom found naught but an early grave. “Much like these souls below me.” mused the silver, for he had spotted the source of the stench that had been steadily growing stronger. What looked to be the remains of a small skirmish spread out below him. From the looks of it, the survivors had been in too great a hurry to bury their dead. The corpses had been lying in the sun and weather for a few days at least, and even at his height, the stench was unbearable.

Cautiously, Argentiel circled lower. To his surprise, a broken shape could be seen crawling with one arm to the northwest. A low rumbling growl came unbidden from his throat on seeing that the moving thing had been cleaved fully in two. Argentiel studied the rotting creature, noting the direction of its travel. Following the path thus picked out; he saw a box canyon, and the makings of a tragedy unfolding therein.

Draconic nostrils flared, scenting the night. The stench of the putrid beings he had flown over was there, but now other sensations reached him - dusty stone and tang of steel, mixed with sweat and fear, making the short humanoid a dwarf, and a worried one, at that. From the taller one… like a wave, the smells washed over him - blood and dust, earth and must. A foul concoction he had not smelt in ages, the silver knew the measure of this foe, and smiling a draconic smile, settled toward the ground out of sight.

With a soft flutter of settling wings and a whispered magic phrase, the bard settled his lyre in hand and loosened the rapier at his side. Striding nonchalantly around the turn of the canyon, the elf began strumming a merry tune, and singing strongly. He sang the Ballad of Ilsavil, Jester of Faralee, a particularly raucous drinking song detailing the “adventures” of a gnome who found himself lost in town one evening and was forced to take refuge in a brothel. With a little extra emphasis, it was enough to immediately get the attention of the creatures before him. With a look that would have been amusing on the face of any other being, the dead thing turned to the new arrival. Taking advantage of the foul thing’s fascination, the tone-deaf dwarf leveled a blow from his axe. The dwarf’s look of utter disbelief as the blade passed through its arm like sunlight through air was wiped away by an almost casual backhand. The dwarf went flying sideways through the air, to land crumpled at the base of a boulder.

Recovering from its initial surprise, the pale creature quickly sized up the approaching elf. “You have picked a poor time to arrive, minstrel. But no matter - the blood runs as quickly in your veins as any other. It has been so long since I have had a proper feast, and in one night two morsels offer themselves to me.” The next words from the fell being carried with them the weight of magical command. “You would do me a great service if you would stay in place.” With that, the creature extended its will, as it had done so many times in its unlife. The elf, suddenly, ceased his song. Fully expecting the impertinent elf to be magically enthralled, it turned to regard the dwarf, for his blood, seeping from a shallow wound above his eye, was calling to it ever stronger. Seeking to ensure the dwarf’s permanent unconsciousness, the monster stepped toward the dwarf, only to be stopped when, with a sudden blossom of pain, the tip of a sword emerged from his chest. Shocked and enraged, the dread creature spun around, yanking the slender blade from the hands of the elf, who seemed almost too willing to let it go. “You’ll find, I think,” remarked Argentiel with a wry grin, “that my blood runs a bit quicker than most.” The elf than began again his song, although this time there was something subtly different.

With a grimace of pain, the creature drew the blade from its fleshy sheath, and hurled it away. Re-appraising the bard, it knew now that this was no ordinary elf he faced. With an effort, he willed his torn flesh to knit, and the hole in his chest closed over. “You would best do well to be away from here, ever-young one. I have feasted often on the blood of your kind, and will not hesitate to do so again. Leave while I allow it.”

The bard kept his fingers dancing across his lyre’s strings, however, and smiled back at the vampire as he slowly began to circle around, conspicuously staying out of its reach. Every now and then, the bard would strike a note that seemed, somehow, not to fit the melody. “Am I to leave this poor dwarf for you then? I think not. And as for your claims that you have ‘oft feasted upon my kind,’ I doubt you greatly. In fact, you seem to have hardly eaten anything at all - you are nothing but pale skin and brittle bones.” Again, that strangely odd note.

“I warn you a last time, elf - leave this place while I allow it, or you will serve me forever.”

With a triumphant flourish, Argentiel struck again the note, and his musical spell was complete. The vampire, unaware until then of it’s casting, suddenly felt invisible chains binding him, drawing tight between himself and the stones at his feet. “Ah yes,” smiled the bard. “You are the best kind of audience - a captive one!” With a frown, “Until daybreak, at least. Until then I will serve you willingly, with songs and tales of evil vanquished and dead put to rest, for what else could you be seeking so far from your hole? “ The bard, singing merrily and ignoring the hissing of the vampire, moved towards the dwarf, who was showing signs of awakening.

The creature, realizing its danger, sunk into itself, and began to channel the ancient powers of blood and magic. For although it had been years since it had fed, and the hunger gnawed at it, it had walked the paths of the night for far longer than either the elf or the dwarf could imagine, and would continue to do so long after they were dust. It, in the centuries since its death, had faced worse foes and “lived” to tell the tale. The magic stirred at its command, at its rage, breaking its flesh into mist, and it found the chains of magic loosening. Taking fully the form of mist, the evil thing began to retreat back towards its cavern, and its collection of magic - only to be halted a few yards away, when the chains again tightened on it, an immaterial leash. Straining its might and magic against the sorcery of the elf, it was unable to advance any further. It did notice, however, that if it could move an equal amount in the opposite direction, the elf might be in reach…

Argentiel bent over the downed dwarf, and began to wipe the blood from his brow. Placing his hands over the wound, he began to sing a short melody, a song about the strength of stone, and the beauty of the cavern roof above. His hands began to glow with a green light, and the cut began to heal. As the wound closed, the bard sensed something behind him, and half-turned in time to catch the vampire’s clawed fist across his face. The monster’s other hand grasped the elf by the shoulder, and pulled him into the center of its bound circle. Argentiel tried to roll to his feet, but found himself pinned to the ground and facing the most dangerous foe possible - one who felt it had nothing to lose.

“I know not how you have done it, elf” snarled the creature, its fangs in the elf’s face, “but you have chained me here. I offered to let you leave in peace, but you refused. Now, you leave me no choice - free me or die, for if this is to be my final place, then it will be yours as well!”

With a sudden jerking motion, the bard tossed the wasted figure off him, and continued the move to rise to his feet. The monster landed in a heap some distance away, but flowed to its feet with unearthly speed. “Your last mistake, worm.”

“Hah! You come close to being right, yet I think the mistake was yours,” responded Argentiel. The pair then began to circle warily, the blood drinker unable to leave the circle, the song weaver unwilling to abandon the dwarf.

The battle was joined, ancient life against ancient death. Back and forth through the circle they lunged, both seeking, yet neither gaining, an advantage. They both moved with a speed far beyond mortal. Magical energies flashed back and forth, fire and ice, lightning and wind, charms and exorcisms. Superficial wounds were inflicted on each side. Soon blood dripped from a dozen small wounds on each side, bright and quick from the elf, black and fouled from the vampire.

Stirring groggily, the dwarf half opened his eyes, seeing the two before him. Never before had he seen such power displayed, nor such blurring speed, and he realized how hopeless his own struggle against the dead thing he had roused had been.

Inexplicably, the battle paused, two foes facing each other with new respect. Through still ringing ears, the dwarf heard the silence stretch until it was broken by the vampire’s whispering, hissing voice.

“It appears that I have truly underestimated you, elf.” The monster chuckled, the sound of dry leaves blowing in the wind. “I laugh to still call you that - you can hide the nature of your form through magic. Yes, hide it even from me. But your blood cannot lie - I can taste the years, smell the magic in your blood, elf. Or should I call you Windwalker?”

“Windwalker…” mouthed the dwarf, unsure of its meaning…

The bard bowed with a flourish, “My call name is Argentiel, Old Thirster, for all the good it will do you. You know that I cannot allow you to survive this meeting. And so named, let us hold back no measure of our power!” The elf’s eyes, bright and flashing green a moment ago, hardened into emerald fire. His lithe arms thickened, claws erupting from delicate fingers. The vampire, with a scream of sudden comprehension and fear, leapt at the not-elf, fingers extended like talons. With a fluid motion, Argentiel raised his arms, and the vampire was impaled. Futilely, it beat against Argentiel’s swelling arms, his hardening, silver-scaled chest, drawing more blood but causing no real damage. With the blood rage upon it, the monster attempted to pull itself closer to the bards lengthening neck, succeeding only in impaling itself further. The dragon’s clawed hand emerged through the vampire’s back, dripping gore and the dirt of the grave. With a final, Hysterical laugh of madness, the vampire gazed into the emerald eyes, and spit. Argentiel, never one to miss a chance at poetic justice, spat back. His steaming breath coated boulders all around with white and covered the blood-drinker with flashing crystals of ice. With a final surge of enormous power, the dragon squeezed and shattered the creature. As the parts fell tinkling to the ground, they melted into fragments of mist. Still bound by the bard’s magic, the tiny clouds moved aimlessly and slowly dispersed.

With a ripple-like shudder, the elf returned to form. Collecting his rapier and lyre, he approached the dwarf. His voice calm and magically soothing “Open your eyes, Stoneborn. I know you are awake. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to why you were here alone, and so late in the season.”

With a grunt, the dwarf stood and made a great show of dusting himself off. “Oh aye then - me name’s K’raston Deepdelving, an’ ye have me thanks an’ me father’s thanks fer the slaying o’ that beast. A foul one he was, eh? I won’t be askin’ how ye did it - wise enough I am fer to know some things ain’t meant to be known, e’en by those who uncover secrets fer their livin’.” The bard smiled, for although he had traveled this world for generations, he had seldom met a stone delver so long winded. He gave the dwarf his head, though, in anticipation that he would eventually get to the point. “Which, o’ course,” continued K’raston, “is me job. I fin’ the lost, as it were. Old treasures, fergottin’ places. Which is where I was when I stumbled upon him. A cavern that holds… Well, I think it be the Raven’s himself!”

Skeptical, the silver studied the dwarf. “You have found Raven’s Tomb? And it was inhabited by a vampire? This I must see for myself. Take me there, friend.”

Frowning, the dwarf grumbled something unintelligible. When the bard raised his eyebrow in response, the dwarf gave a sigh that came from the depths of the earth itself. “Aye - I can see it’s me life I owe, and debts I do repay. Were it not fer yer comin’, I wouldn’t ‘a been able to keep it fer myself, so I lose nothing in this bargain. But mind you it wasn’t just a vampire - but a vampire and ‘is retainers, which I sent back to their graves. Me father didna’ raise no elf, beggin’ yer pardon, and had the vampire felt the blade of me axe, well…I’ll tell ye where it ‘tis, but I’ve no mind to mess about there further…”

· · · · ·

Argentiel could see how the crevice had been hidden. In any light at all, it would have appeared only a shadow of the jagged overhang. Only a dwarf, seeing it in the darkness after his own torch guttered out, would have spotted it.

Holding the silver strings of his lyre against his chest to protect it, he turned slightly sideways and entered the corrupt stench of the narrow crack,

Not more than three paces inside the crack widened out. With a smooth, practiced motion, the bard turned his lyre and sang a snatch of song about summer evenings and fireflies. Seemingly from the stone itself, points of light and a warm scented air gathered around him.

By this dim light, he made out the moldering lair of the creature. In the center was an aisle formed of throne-like ancient wooden chairs. Some few were overturned. Here must the rotting dead have sat in eternal thrall to their dread master. Behind this rotten gauntlet the ragged tatters of rich tapestries, their scenes indecipherable, yet somehow still disturbing. At the far end rose a red byre, trimmed in gold. Around this empty platform were the chests the dwarf had mentioned.

Argentiel walked between the sentinel chairs, strumming softly a protective hum, surrounded by dancing blinking light and the air of a remembered summer. As he came close he could see the outline of two missing chests in the dust of centuries and he smiled at the untrusting secrecy of the dwarf. Thankful the young one had been, but undoubtedly he had kept a bit of fortune for himself.

Then he frowned. The legends say that the very face of fear guarded the Raven’s Tomb, and that failure to overcome this guardian would result in “life eternal”. On the face of it, this Tomb, with its fearful occupant could indeed be the Raven’s. Falling to the vampire would have resulted in a sort of eternal life… but it did not seem right. And now… Where was the arms and armor of the Twin Empire? Indeed, the vampire had worn no armor at all; much less that crafted by dwarves to elven design. And where was the Great Weapon itself, fabled Scarlet Rage?

Glancing to the entrance crack to ensure the dwarf had not followed after; Argentiel made a gesture and spoke a word of true seeing. Nothing was changed, save that the rags upon the walls lost their sick, disturbing menace. This was a rich Tomb of a prince of the undead, but that was all it was.

Well, Argentiel was not particularly greedy, as these things went, so the four chests would satisfy him. He kicked a chest lightly and rotten wood crumbled, spilling gold and copper coins over the floor. A red spark drew his attention and he stooped to grab a large cut ruby. Stirring the coins he could see there was gold and copper only, with a few more red jewels. This was the hoard of one who shunned silver.

A tension the bard had not recognized drained away and he grinned. Without further ado he set about collecting every last copper for his own hoard. 

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