The fiery cloud was astonishingly bright for something that was so far away. Billowing up beyond the clouds, yet still climbing and rolling outwards from the initial area of the blast, the raging globe at the center of the inferno was quickly turning everything near it on the horizon into an unrecognizable holocaust of light and desolation.

 

"Vidtir…..what do you think that could possibly be over there?"

 

As Vidtir topped the rise they had been climbing he paused a moment and took in the heft of the thing. He pondered it and put his hand on Taiboin's shoulder. The two looked at each other, the first concerned and the second amused. Vidtir cracked his smile, ever charming, and motioned to the thing with his free hand, pulling Taiboin closer with the other. He opened his mouth to pose a question, and as he did the shockwave from the blast they were viewing crested the ridge they were standing on.

 

Acrid air, unnaturally scorched, blasted the two bodily, and with it came the sound of the explosion. It was as though all the volume given to each noise in an entire life was disseminated into a single shapeless moment with the echo of that impossibly loud sound riding itself like a wave, building quickly and then dissipating towards oblivion.

 

They both stood, stunned, until Vidtir turned to Taiboin and, with a laugh, continued.

 

"Welp! I suppose the most appropriate question now is; what do you think it sounded like my old friend?"

 

Taiboin looked at his companion, shocked by his mirth. He chose his words carefully and responded in his gravest tone.

 

"It sounded like death, Vidtir. Death rolling ever onwards into our world."

 

"O, come now. No need to be so grim. Here, let's keep going and I'll tell you what I think it was." he said playfully.

 

They began walking again, as they had been before, parallel to the view of the devastation, although that particular sight was quickly obstructed by the trees.

 

"Well?"​

 

"Well. I think it was a weapon. A human weapon."

 

"And how are you so sure?"

 

Vidtir looked over his shoulder, and let loose his smirk one last time.

 

 

"I'm not. But what else could it have been?"

 

 

Time crawled forward as the pair of quem moved deeper and deeper into the woods, getting further in both distance and thought from the disturbing scene out beyond the horizon. As the unnatural heat slowly dissipated into the calm of the taiga around them so too did the rangers return to their previous state.

 

Vidtir and Taiboin moved through the woods, quietly, blending in with the natural order of things, both of them at peace with the wilderness, but both still taught. As they progressed they scanned their surroundings for any sign of disturbance and any clue which might point them in the direction of their quarry.

 

Taiboin was biting his thumbnail, lost in a deep inwards concentration when he came to a stop, abruptly. His attention provoked, he focused his mind outwards and turned his thoughts towards this new discovery. Yes, this was indeed what he had been looking for. Off to the left, a few hundred yards. It was a subtle sensation, just a fraction of a feeling. If he had not been actively reaching out with his mind in an attempt to find it he surely would have passed it right by. He made doubly sure that he had it's location firmly set in his mind and reached out towards Vidtir.

 

Channeling his efforts through his right hand, he reached towards Vidtir's spirit, seeking the place in his mind that he associated with Taiboin and gently, ever so gently, he plucked the material that was that portion of his partner's essential being, sending out vibrations in waves like an immaterial music from an incorporeal string.

Vidtir whipped around, brought out of his own silent reverie in a spasmodic jolt, he had an arrow knocked in his bow, and a panicked look in his eyes. Clearly, Taiboin's touch had been a little too intense for him. He would have to remember to be gentler in the future. It had likely been quite some time since Vidtir had had any telepathic contact with another elf.

 

Taiboin brought his finger to his lips, motioning for silence. The sight of Taiboin completely fine and in no obvious danger seemed to calm Vidtir and he put the arrow and bow back from whence they had come. Taiboin signaled their new direction and Vidtir followed along, trailing Taiboin closer than before.

They walked in silence again, the unnatural stillness of the forest still eerily pervasive. Nothing broke that silence. No wind, nor animal, nor any natural sound could be heard and so they moved all the more slowly to be sure that they remained as quiet as the rest of the world. But eventually a noise did break the egregious hole in the forests soundscape and they could hear water, gently falling water.

The pair had been heading towards a fall. The water rained down from a rocky outcropping protruding slightly from the cliff face some 20 feet above them, and it formed a small pool which followed the barely perceptible slope of the land and slowly rolled down the hill, away from them and out into the woods.

Vidtir understood immediately once he felt the thing. His senses of the ethereal were nothing when compared to Taiboin's, still, even a dullard like him could sense the power of a place like this from the way his hairs pricked up and stood on end as he entered into the thing.

He took down his bow, and knocked a fresh arrow, placing himself between Taiboin and the stretch of forest they had just come from as Taiboin got to work. Taiboin walked closer to the pool and breathed in the fresh smell of the water as a light mist sprinkled his face. He once again focused himself and exhaled as he dropped to one knee. Taiboin meditated on the rhythm of his breathing and that of his surroundings as he splayed the fingers of his right hand, wide, and inhaled again as he moved his palm in front of his vision, closing his eyes as his hand crossed their path. Eyes closed, he turned to the world external, allowing the sound of the water to consume him and carry him away as he exhaled for the last time, slowly, and with this final action he stuck the tips of his fingers into the damp soil as he inhaled…. and Taiboin was gone. The luminous pulse was the life of the land and it radiated out in every conceivable direction from the central nerve of the ley line, moving through the countryside uninterrupted until it brushed up against the outstretched tips of branches stemming from other such powerful places of meeting and ……..

His eyes snapped open and he stood.

"It seems like they are going magickless."

"Are you sure Taiboin? You were only out for like… a second."

"No. I am quite sure Vidtir. There was nothing for me to follow up on. This ley line is exactly as it would be if quemer had never even lived in this region. No one has used any sort of environmental magic here in a long time."

"Well, if they think that's all it'll take to lose us that's good. It'll be all the easier to surprise them then. This may be more their area than ours now, but I doubt that fact will give them any significant advantage."

"What exactly do you mean by that, Vidtir?"

Vidtir stared at Taiboin for a moment, a look of quizzical bemusement playing across his features. Taiboin seemed to be legitimately unaware of Vidtir's meaning. Vidtir found that amusingly uncharacteristic; maybe he would get to play the tutor for once.

As Vidtir spoke the two began to retrace the path that had brought them to the small waterfall.

"They really let you come all the way out here without knowing the most basic thing about the area's history?"

"Well, I just didn't have much time between getting told I would be accompanying you out here and the end of my surveying mission in the Ulswhe Cavern System….. and I really needed to finish my research there….

And so I just…. I sort of….. ran out of time."

Taiboin smiled sheepishly, and scratched his head as he spoke, another of his absent minded fidgetings, much his nail biting. A slight red blush creeping across his cheeks, a subtle sign of his embarrassment over his decision to prioritize his own research over prepping for his upcoming mission. Good for Taiboin, Vidtir thought. Whatever he was studying in those caverns must have completely consumed all of Taiboin's attention if he chose to continue his research over preparing for the potentially life threatening circumstances that they would be facing on their current ranging mission. Vidtir was happy that his old partner had been able to enjoy his most recent stint of environmental research so thoroughly; that meant that Vidtir would get to take him down a peg as he would be literally schooling him (on their current predicament, at any rate).

"Sheesh…. Ok. Well, essentially, for the past 2,000 years this area has been controlled by and was under the direct supervision of the Alfhar. This place, despite being inhabited, although sparsely, since the dawn of Quemer as a unique species was always mostly out of the way and underdeveloped. This part of the taiga has always remained a renowned primal sanctuary, although not necessarily intentionally, more due to the circumstances surrounding it's geographic location relative to the rest of elven society. When I say it was under our control I mean that it was barely under our control. So, when the clanne of Taatein decided to break away from our alliance, oh……"

It took Taiboin a moment to realize it but his partner was frantically trying to remember the starting date of the Taatein Uprising. He couldn't very well prod Taiboin for his overzealousness when it came to the magick structure of cave systems when he couldn't even remember the date of the largest event of modern quemer history could he? They had both not only lived through it but began their military careers and partnership during it, and yet somehow Vidtir had forgotten the date and he was attempting to chide Taiboin for his lack of knowledge of the histories of this region? Now Taiboin was the one to don an impish smirk.

"Three hundred and nineteen years ago" he offered.

"Of course. How could I have forgotten?!" Vidtir smacked himself on the forehead.

Taiboin simply continued to smile, enjoying the fact that he was the one providing the ribbing now, for once. It had been too long that they had been apart.

Vidtir resumed, "Well, since then not much has been happening out here. I know you haven't been in the field in a while, but realistically the situation way out here has been more or less consistent since then. We have some elves out here, and they're hiding in the woods. And that's it!

"That's it, huh?"

Despite the disturbing event that they had just been witness too, Taiboin was beginning to genuinely enjoy himself as they slipped back into the usual patterns of their old back and forth.

"For a guy who loves to study you sure haven't looked into our people's history in a while." Vidtir was right back on the offensive again.

"Well I can't study everything. There simply is insufficient time to gain complete knowledge of all subjects."

Taiboin had been enjoying these pleasantries a little too much, and so he dropped the ball. That wasn't a comeback, just a bland answer. No points for him.

"I had nearly forgotten. You're not really interested in the politics behind any of this tribal shit, are you?" Vidtir provided that contemptuous smirk yet again. "You're still interested in me though, right?"

Taiboin stopped midstride. He stared at Vidtir incredulous. "I mean, it seemed pretty clear from the way you nearly sent me flying with what I can only assume was the teensiest mental tap, that you still feel pretty strongly towards me, huh?"

Now ashamed, and embarrassed, livid and flustered Taiboin pursed his lips as though he were going to say something. He was trying to speak, but his seething emotions got the better of him. That bastard had the nerve to stand there and casually mock him, without a moment's hesitation!? To go straight from light banter to pouring salt all over him. It was too much. Vidtir had no way of knowing that Taiboin had been picking that wound, every day for the two months that he had known he would be reunited with Vidtir, he had kept digging that hole deeper and deeper until it was no longer a scar but a freshly bleeding gash, what little scab there had been vigorously torn off by Taiboin's own anxious and paranoid thoughts on the subject.

Taiboin reset his lower teeth with a soft, purposeful clack. And he had been so hopeful that they had moved beyond this.

Only after Taiboin began to walk towards him did Vidtir realize there was an issue. He quickly shifted gears and began to apologize.

"Taiboin…… I"

"No. That's enough talking. Let's keep moving."

Taiboin was not slowing but Vidtir refused to move, and Taiboin kept coming until he slammed into Vidtir bodily, the two quem bouncing off each other as Taiboin continued forwards until he had literally walked out of the uncomfortable conversation that was breaking open there and continued to move past Vidtir and deeper into the woods. Vidtir composed himself and ran after his partner who was quickly disappearing into the tree line.

"Taiboin! Taiboin! Wait! Taiboin, I didn't mean it! I'm sorry!"

Vidtir was now worried. Taiboin had gained the advantage on him. He was moving as fast as he could without breaking into a sprint, purposefully moving through thicker sections of the trees, away from the lighter clusters which they had been travelling through all day. That wouldn't necessarily have been a bad idea, as it would help to make tracking their movements more difficult (if they were indeed being tracked), but it not only helped to impede potential pursuants but it also made your partners going slower as well, and the rougher nature of Taiboin's current trajectory kept pushing Vidtir further and further behind him. The only reason that any of this could become potentially problematic is because they were not alone out here. Taiboin was a competent warrior, and an excellent ranger, clearly the better of the two when it came to most types of magick and ritual, but no amount of talent or skill would help Taiboin if he stumbled, blindly, into the middle of the camp of their Taatein quarry and their party happened to be as big as their intelligence said it was. Taiboin was likely to get himself ripped to shreds instead of the other way round, which was one of their potential goals.

 

Regardless of any of that, Taiboin's headlong trajectory was more stomping in a single direction than stealthy reconnaissance and it was dangerous.

Vidtir realized that Taiboin wasn't going to stop, at least until he himself was no longer stalked, and they couldn't have that.

So, Vidtir tried to reach out to Taiboin. Vidtir cleared his mind and focused his mind upon Taiboin. The rest of the scene before him lost its luster, and everything but Taiboin faded into the periphery of his vision and mind. The scene blackened, and then it was just Taiboin, running away into the night. Vidtir reached out to him.

Slowly, his grasping hand fell away, until all he had was one pointing finger. He got close, inches away, and with no ill will and general concern Vidtir reached out to poke Taiboin.

He wasn't aiming for anything in particular, he just wanted to refocus his partner, to get him to stop running and to look the fuck behind him. He was just trying to give him a general system shock, something quick, clean, and powerful. But as his finger touched Taiboin's back the complete opposite happened.

A nearly indiscernible wave moved out from the spot his finger had touched, neigh instantaneous, it ran its course, all the way up to Taiboin's head, and all the way down to his feet, the reverberation returned to its point of origin, and with a pop, not unlike the sound of a stone dropped swiftly into water, the waveform collapsed around Vidtir's finger and the world returned to him as bright and pain.

In the physical dimension, Vidtir had been reaching his hand out, just as he had in the spiritual. When his meta-physical finger had come into contact with his friends back he had locked himself into a feedback loop that terminated when the bad vibes Taiboin had been emanating ended as they shot into him through the contact point that was his finger.

He had yelped, he was sure. And he had been sent flying back as he had been blasted by the negative otherworldly force. So now, he found himself struggling to his feet through a haze of concussive pain and static. His vision was spinning, and it was blurred, but he was pretty sure he had lost Taiboin. Taiboin had not intended to blast him, of that he was sure. He must have just gotten into such a bad state so as to be putting out a lot of powerfully negative energies, and then Vidtir, being the person whom much of this negativity was the focus of, had opened himself up in the most prolific way possible and attempted to touch Taiboin's bristling soul. It was an accident, but a powerfully bad one. So why wasn't Taiboin here? He should have heard Vidtir hit the ground, even if he didn't really let out an unconscious yowl of some kind. The fact that he was not in the vicinity was bad.

Vidtir struggled through the magical haze and got too his feet, doing his best to shake it off, and focus it away. Where was Taiboin? Focus! And …..Nothing. Start smaller. The bow. The bow was made out of living wood. Reach for it. There!

Vidtir clawed his forearm across the ground toward his bow, and having it in his hand he felt better. He knocked an arrow and inspected his surroundings. No enemies. The deluge of soul hatred was definitely what got him on the ground. Now, could he get up? Vidtir focused and raised himself to a kneeling position, fully drawing the arrow into its intended position. Things were still hazy, and his movements both physical and mental were still not too capacity but the visual tingling and negative artifacts had now mostly faded away. He did a visual circle of his surroundings again, this time making note of the direction he believed Taiboin had been heading off in. He moved slowly to a defensible position behind an ancient oak tree. He used a root for purchase as he stood and made a clear, bright bird whistle. There was no response. That was bad.

Vidtir started to move in the direction he had last seen Taiboin going, using one tree after another as cover, he was in full survival mode now. His mind started to clear, and yet everything was still off somehow. He didn't think he had been out for more than a few minutes, but everything he had seen so far pointed to things being very wrong up ahead. His senses were still dull. He couldn't feel the woods. He couldn't feel Taiboin. And all he was aware of was the growing sense of dread in the center of his being.

If his estimations of how long he had been unconscious for were anywhere close to correct he should have stumbled across Taiboin or his body by now. So what the fuck was going on? Vidtir had been going as quickly as the dictates of stealth and his poor condition would allow, but maybe he had missed something? He made each step deliberate. Every breath became an important consideration. Why weren't his sense back yet? That blast had been severe but he had been through worse and he had been able to feel the stream of life around him by this time back then. He had been able to feel his partner's essence. What was happening to him?

As Vidtir came around the stump of a particularly ancient and large oak he realized what it was. It was all external. His senses had come back, but they were being blocked. He locked in place. Horse stance at the knees, he dug his feet into the cold, frosty earth and rotated directly from the hip. One handed, he drew three more arrows, and held them all in place, ready to take the lives of as many of the attackers as he could, multitudes of whom he was sure would be waiting in the clearing ahead of him. But no attack came. He saw nothing. Still, the most important mystery had been solved. He couldn't feel anything either, and for that matter, neither could he hear anything. He was sure that this was the doing of magick once he entered the clearing. The world was dead to him inside that rough ring of trees. That was good. If the effects of the spell were so thoroughly localized that meant that the caster was likely near, possibly within the range of the effect themselves, and since he was not being attacked just yet, it was likely they were small in number. Or afraid.

 

While he was still concerned for Taiboin, Vidtir was beginning to find these odds rather interesting. He took a risk and stepped into the center of the rough circle. He exhaled. He started to turn in a slow circle, facing the trees, and likely, his eventual attackers.

"Come out!"

Nothing.

"I know

It was coming from behind him. Everything screamed at him. He had less time to react than he was hoping for from someone who would use so much deceptive magick. The surprise last minute attack made him quite sure they were trained in tactics, and combat as well.

Vidtir jumped forward and curled mid-air. The cessation of sensation had stopped but… what was going on here? Everything was assaulting him at once, continually. Anger, hatred, malevolent, violent intent…… and fear. And Taiboin. He was absolutely certain Taiboin was behind him. His senses were hyper sharp and combined with the view provided by the perspective shift of his mid-air somersault things were particularly confused. Taiboin was coming at him with a knife. Real? An illusion? Had Taiboin gone mad? If he did nothing there would certainly be steel in him before he could pass the tree line and plead off, assuming the trees could even be gotten through just now. So he did the only thing that made sense. He shot for Taiboin's feet. The cramped quarters of an aerial roll made aiming with all three of his knocked arrows nearly impossible, but he still managed to land two of his shots. He got the last few of Taiboin's toes to the right, and he pegged Taiboin clean through the meat of the foot on the left. That should buy him enough time to figure out the situation. It didn't.

As Vidtir hit the ground he completed the roll with a flick of the legs, sending him back to his feet almost instantly. He began to hear a loud shrieking behind him. The sound could best be described as a continuous and high pitched ululation. A whiny siren-like wailing, in other words. To the Taatein who was producing it, the sound was most likely considered a desperate life giving attempt at a battle cry. Vidtir needed to shut him up.

 

The Taatein prided themselves on their mixing of combat and culture, and a Taatein Death Cry was considered an honor to create, an honor which also just so happened to move quickly along the magickal currents of the landscape, into the ears of the closest Taatein who would be equally honored to provide back up to the brave, likely outnumbered, potentially dying, and almost certainly wounded soldier as fast as possible.

Vidtir did a hard pivot, throwing all the weight of his body into a turn, repositioning his bow and drawing another arrow as he moved, using the momentum of his turn to propel himself backwards in an attempt to sight his attacker and put as much distance between the two of them as he could manage in a single movement. He wasn't fast enough. The Taatein hit him.

It is never a good thing to be injured in combat but there are different degrees of injury. Vidtir did not intend to let his arrow fly as far afield as his opponents had. There was a deep cut on the right side of his face, and from the feeling of it, Vidtir was confident that he was missing a fair portion of his lower ear on that side as well. There was also a thin wooden shaft sprouting from the meat of his upper right arm. And there had been a third arrow, at least he was fairly confident there had been. The bastard had fired on him as he had been making that turn, so he wasn't completely sure, but ultimately, it didn't really matter. His opponent was weaponless, and through some combination of incompetence and fatigue had managed to fail to seriously injure his opponent as well as relinquish his hostage and reveal his position. Vidtir made sure that he did not get the chance to correct these mistakes.

The other elf had time to register that his shots had not been fatal, nor had they even disabled his target. He began to realize that, yes, indeed, he had really fucked up here, and that he should have gone with his gut feeling, which was now drowning out every other emotion on his face as Vidtir released his grasp, and sent his arrow flying. As the shaft entered him there was a dull creak and a thud, and the Taatein's fear exploded into pain and panic.

The Taatein collapsed to the ground, grasping at the shaft protruding unpleasantly from his ribcage as his strength left him.

Immediately after loosing, Vidtir made a rapid survey of the surrounding area. Where any more missiles or blades heading his way? Were there any other attackers in, or around the vicinity? Was there any other magick at play? Had their foes comrades, which he had summoned with that war cry, had time enough to arrive on the seen yet? No. The answer to all of these was no. The battle was at an apparent end. Taiboin.

Vidtir was on him before the focus he had gained from combat had time to dissolve. They had to get out of the clearing quickly, before any more Taatein arrived. Vidtir knew what he had to do, where he had to begin before they would be able to flee but his emotions overpowered him. When he got to Taiboin he grabbed him, and pulled his dumbstruck partner into a powerful and crushing bear hug. He began laughing and went to lift Taiboin off the ground.

"Stop! Vidtir!"

Vidtir came back to himself with that and he released Taiboin much more gently than he had embraced him.

"Right." Vidtir demurred as he looked at the wounds he needed to heal before they could get out of here. He was slowing. He could barely get out the words as he stared at "…. the…"

"The arrows. Yes." Taiboin lifted his face so their gazes met. A calm radiated from his eyes and Vidtir found himself focusing on that. He was being focused by it. Taiboin calmed and relaxed him and then spoke.

"I know that your strength is beginning to leave you Vidtir. After all the shit you just went through that is perfectly acceptable, and we will make time to rest but right now, for both of our sakes, I need you at full capacity. I'm going to heal you some, but I am going to need you to return the favor once you get back to full health, or these foot wounds will never heal. Do you think you will be able to do that, Vidtir?"

Vidtir felt almost completely opposite of how he had during the fight. Between the induced trance from Taiboin, the damage he had taken, both physical and incorporeal, and the natural battle fatigue setting in Vidtir was the spitting image of a mellow individual. And he knew it. But what Taiboin was talking about was serious. He took a moment. He closed his eyes, and made sure that he fully grasped the implications of what Taiboin was saying. He opened his eyes and then his mouth and with as much gravity as a man who could have been mistaken for one drunk on blood loss could muster, he answered.

"Yes. I think I can do it."

"All right then. Hold on."

Taiboin took a moment to focus as well. He reached out to the circle of trees surrounding them. The bastard Taatein had bound Taiboin to himself by first binding himself to the ring of trees and sapping the life force of these ancient pines to blast Taiboin with a mental and physical assault until he was submissive, or at least disoriented, enough to be used as a puppet and shield, and the impression of that purposeful circle was still there, and so Taiboin reached out and grabbed ahold of it. He bound himself to it and, placing his hands upon the sides of Vidtir's head, fingers outstretched to allow for maximum surface contact, Taiboin bound Vidtir to him and began to pour the power of the surrounding thicket through himself, focusing it into healing energies which he released and channeled into his friends slackening form.

The sensation was powerful but not unpleasant. It began in Vidtir's feet, sprouting up from the ground and moving up into him until the feeling reached Taiboin's fingers on his skull, where it opened up and drifted back down through his core and extremities like pollen in the wind. It was a warmth, and a feeling of being whole and well. The sweat taste of a particularly pleasant summer breeze moved with the feeling as it played across his tongue. All in all he felt like he had just awoken in the most pleasant glade after having spent the night dancing under the stars, all of this on the most beautiful day of the season except he was the trees in that glade. He was touched by earth, and air, and sky, and sun, and Taiboin. Ever so gently on the tail of the sensation came the feeling of Taiboin guiding the energies through him, doing his best to fix Vidtir up, the magick he was working through himself had absorbed a hint of his caring and effort. Vidtir remembered then; he was supposed to return that effort.

He placed his hands against Taiboin's head and Vidtir returned the favor, allowing the excess energy to continue its flow from him and back into Taiboin. They stared at each other, as the magick worked its way into them and Vidtir saw some of the pain leave his friends eyes.

"Are you ready now?"

Taiboin was nervous for a moment but then nodded ascent. The two released their grasps upon each other and the pleasant drift and flow of the magick ceased. Vidtir nodded ascent back and then quickly stooped and ripped the arrows from his friend's feet.

Taiboin muffled a scream into a powerful grunt and sat down so that Vidtir could do what he could for his missing toes. His big toe and the next two were mostly gone on his right foot, and there was an arrow head sized hole in the middle of his left. A few poultices, and much salve later, and Taiboin was being helped out of the clearing, leaning much of his weight across Vidtir's shoulders.

A short distance from the clearing where all the action had occurred they came across a large free standing boulder. Vidtir sat Taiboin down on the flat of the large rock. A silent moment passed. Both elves were stoic, staring past each other, they took the short break to recuperate as best they could from all that had just happened to them. Things weren't going well. But they could be going much worse. Despite the positive effect the magick was still having on them, they were both beginning to feel a little tired but there was more work to do before they could rest. Taiboin took down his bow and began to toy with the string.

Vidtir straightened and spoke.

"Just holler if you notice any trouble coming, okay Taiboin?"

"Yup. I got it."

Vidtir took one last moment to collect himself and then walked back into the clearing.

The clearing was much worse off than Vidtir remembered it being. There had been a lot going on when he had entered it the first time, between the fighting, whatever type of magick the Taatein had used on Taiboin and himself, and the psychic blow he had suffered just before all of that he had been fairly messed up. Still, the way things looked now….

 

The tops of most of the trees were stripped and the bark of the oldest and weakest was preternaturally grey and brittle. It looked like the circle had been hit by a hard wind storm after all the trees had suffered fire damage. Everything from the plants to the earth looked varying shades of burnt, sick, or ashen. The plant life that was most strongly effected was extremely flaky. When one touched it the plant fiber crumbled and dusted like something pulled from a fire pit. The wind above the thicket was strong enough that the branches which were worst were slowly ashing, raining a pale dust down on the clearing, slowly covering the ground in a light layer of decay and filth.

 

And there, lying on the ground about ten feet in, slowly running out of air and blood, the dying Taatein completed the picture perfectly, exsanguinating in the middle of a pit of his own ruination. Shrieking and thrashing as he struggled to breath, he was sapping the last of the life-force from the clearing in a desperate attempt to live on. He must have known it was futile though. He hadn’t even tried to remove the arrow from his chest.

 

Vidtir approached the dying elf and placed his foot on his chest. He adopted an expression of cold disapproval as the Taatein stopped his violent gesticulations and stared up at Vidtir. The look in his eyes was one of uncontested panic and terror. For a moment, the prone elf didn’t seem to be sure of what he was seeing, the terror had him so thoroughly. Eventually, however, he understood. There was another elf standing on top of him. And that realization brought a new emotion into play in his expression; hope. Could this elf help me? Won’t you help me, friend? Vidtir felt for the poor bastard and that pleading stare made what he had to do all the more difficult, so he stopped it before it had time to get to him. He lifted his foot and stomped on the Taatein’s already damaged ribcage.

 

The Taatein screamed. He tried to roll away from the explosion in his chest but Vidtir had his foot back on him and began to press. The prone elf was in shambles. Violently, he tried to claw his way into the earth and away from this torture, all the while struggling to suck in air which only made it harder for him to breathe. Vidtir started to press harder, using his heel to dig into the area near the arrow where the bones where likely the most damaged.

 

The Taatein screamed again, but this time there were words in it. “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?!?”

As a response, Vidtir removed his foot from his ribs. The Taatein writhed for a few moments longer before the pain lessened and he realized that his wounds were no longer being exacerbated.

 

“We need information, friend. Will you answer some questions for me?”

 

Vidtir rotated his foot over the worst part of the Taatein’s ribs, implying what the cost of refusal might be, but the prone elf was oblivious. He stared at Vidtir with rage that exceeded his pain. Vidtir was sure that if he was not currently busy dying, this new intensity of feeling towards him would mean his death. The Taatein would use all of his magical talent to weaken, and then kill Vidtir. But he was far too weak himself to do anything but spear Vidtir with looks of vengeance at the moment. And so when he did not respond, after a few seconds, Vidtir crashed his heel back into the hell that was the prone elf’s broken, now shattering ribs.

 

He howled and flailed but Vidtir kept him prone with an application of pressure from his foot. As the Taatein calmed again, chest heaving laboriously, Vidtir let off, until he was only connected with the elf’s ribcage by the slightest touch.

 

“Tell me where your party was taking the Cube! Tell me how many strong you are! Tell me these two things and I will stop!”

 

The Taatein was shaking now, just as much from the trauma of Vidtir’s blows as from the rage they caused him.

He attempted to hock a giant glob of bloody spittle in Vidtir’s general direction, but his faculties were beginning to fail him. All he managed to do was to cover himself from lip to chin in dark, half curdled blood, with only the smallest amount reaching Vidtir’s shoe. There was no actual spittle to speak of.

 

Vidtir drew up his leg as if to respond with another crushing blow, and the Taatein shrunk into the dirt, fully expecting and preparing for the pain. But it didn’t come. Instead Vidtir stepped to the side going to one knee, and positioning himself so that his head was directly over the prone elf’s own.

 

Vidtir spoke with a melancholy now, intonating sad benevolence. “I am going to be frank with you. I do not have the time to keep this up. Your friends

 

The Taatein smiled and grinned his now bloody smile and shouted over Vidtir. “YES! My company will soon be here! They will find me here, like this, and they will rain down death upon you!”

 

The effort required for that little soliloquy was too much. The Taatein started to cough violently, struggled to breathe, and, wheezing, rolled into a spasming series of body wracking coughs, spitting up more blood. He wheezed and shook constantly now. Vidtir began again during one such fit.

 

“Yes…. I’m sure they will. So I will have to be going. But before I do I think that we could both help each other out. Answer my questions. And I’ll help you make an end to this. Surely, you don’t have the strength to finish it yourself and I can’t believe anyone, even a Taatein as foolhardy as you, would want to suffer like this for long.”

 

The Taatein finished his spasm by laughing in response to Vidtir’s proposal, which of course brought on another bloody fit. He spit more blood, now an act of petty defiance. His response came between gasping attempts for breathe.

 

“I…. could never. I am a Taatein. You…. Could never….. make me….. betray my brothers.”

 

Vidtir sighed.

 

“I was worried you would say something like that. I will try to reason with you one more time then. Despite all that.”

 

Vidtir withdrew his knife from it’s sheathe, and pushed the tip gently into the ground, placing it next to the Taatein’s face. As he spoke he left the blade in the ground to emphasize his point.

 

“I’m sure that under normal circumstances I would be able to get nothing from you, and that you would die shrieking to tell your friends exactly where you were and in a case like that I would just finish you off and be done with it. But this situation is different. You have damned yourself to a hypothetical eternity of living torment. You’re too weak to pull out that arrow, or else you would have already done it, and then you might have a small chance of surviving this. But without removing it you’re damned to die. But you fucked up. You bound yourself to this circle of trees, my friend, and you’ve begun to drain all of the life force from them.

 

Based on your condition, I don’t think that was a conscious decision either, I think as your body began to shut down and your mind was over powered by emotions you reached out and touched the circle which you were still bound to and in your frenzy you began to pull out everything it had left. But the arrow is still in you, and there is no way it’s coming out. Under normal circumstances you might already be dead, but at maximum, untreated, you would be dead, for certain, within minutes. But you have all of that magic flowing through you, trying to heal you. But it can’t because you have an arrow in your fucking chest. You’re going to suffer in ever building agony until the life you stole from this circle of yours finally runs out, and so you will be wishing I had killed you for hours, or even days, dying every single moment but unable to finally go. I’m more than willing to help you with that. We don’t care about your companions. We just want our Cube back. I swear to you that we will do them no harm, and I will give you sweet release. Just tell me what I need to know.”

 

The Taatein was looking at the knife angrily as Vidtir spoke, but he was not as sure in his hatred as he had been before Vidtir began. His resolve was weakening.

 

“You…. Bastard. Use that knife….. and kill yourself. My friends will finish the job.”

 

Vidtir sighed again as he got up. He withdrew his knife and slowly sheathed it.

 

“Fine. I told you I’d leave and I meant it. I’ll have my partner erect a glamour to make sure that your friends leave you in peace. I hope you enjoy your incredibly slow death, friend.”

 

And with that Vidtir walked out of the circle. He did so deliberately and slowly giving the Taatein every chance to respond. By the time he reached the circles edge he was sure that his efforts had been a wasted. The Taatein was muling to himself in his place on the ground, trying too little avail, to silence his dying noises until his hated enemy had gone. Vidtir was almost to Taiboin and his rock when he thought he heard the Taatein shout something. He walked slowly and deliberately back into the circle.

 

The Taatein stared at him, weeping and bleeding, hatred losing out to unbearable pain. He spoke again.

 

“Do you….. do you promise to leave them alone? To try…. To try and not hurt them…. If I tell you?”

Vidtir smiled sadly.

 

“I will do my best. There are no promises in life, and this is worse than life, it’s war. But I will do my best. I’d rather not have to risk getting myself killed in a fight if I can help it. So? Will you tell me?”

 

And he did. Through a constant stream of bloody mucus and tears he did. And then Vidtir stopped all of it with a swift stroke of his blade.

 

“Did you get anything out of him?” Taiboin asked as he hopped down off of his rock. He now limped a little when he walked, trying to avoid putting pressure on the ball of one foot and the front of the other.

 

Vidtir sheathed his blade, now clean, and approached.

 

“I did. I was surprised, but I did. He said that they were taking it to a cave system near here. It shouldn’t be hard to find; humans put some type of building over the entrance.”

 

“I see. I couldn’t sense them before because the location they chose is likely a dead spot, then. Now that I know what I am looking for though…..” Taiboin closed his eyes, searching. He opened them almost immediately. He still hadn’t been able to find it. There was only one thing left to do.

 

“Back to the ley line?” Vidtir asked.

 

“And quickly. Before any of his friends show up.”

 

Vidtir snickered, and Taiboin led the way.

 

It took Taiboin a little longer to find what he was looking for once they reached the ley line then it had before. He snapped his eyes open the same as usual though, and despite everything they had just been through he was as sharp as ever. Taiboin had scored some additional information; Vidtir could tell by his disapproving look that it was not good, though.

 

“What is it, Taiboin?”

 

“Well, I found our destination, and I found some of the Taatein as well.”

 

“And?”

 

Taiboin sighed. “There was never any real risk of us encountering them. The mouth of the cave system is about half of the rest of the day away. They aren’t going slow, but they aren’t rushing either.”

 

“That sounds like a good thing.”

 

“It would be. But I cannot get a count on them Vidtir. I can sense their location, but they are managing to obscure anything further. It seems that the bastard we just fought wasn’t the only one in their group with some experience in combat magick. I’d say that there are no more than four heading towards where they lost track of their friend, but like I said, I cannot be sure. We seem to be up against a pretty elite group here, Vidtir.”

 

Taiboin looked as worried as he sounded.

 

Vidtir tried to reassure him. “That’s why they sent us though; we’re the best!”

 

Taiboin lightened up a little. Sarcasm crept into his voice. “Oh, I’m sure! What I am trying to say is that between the skills of that Taatein we just fought, and what I can glean from the behavior of his companions who are coming to recover him, it seems very likely that they left at least a decent amount of their best in those caves. And since it is a hole in the natural landscape, I cannot tell how many they left with this “Cube”.

 

And I don’t like that. Not at all. Still, there is only one thing to be done about it. We have to make sure we get there before that search party returns.”

 

Vidtir jumped into action stumbling with the sudden, intentional sharp change in direction; and he started to walk off into the distance. “Well what are you waiting for? Let’s get going!”

 

Taiboin chuckled. “You don’t even know which direction it is.”

 

Vidtir kept walking. “Well then show me, magick man.”

 

Taiboin sped up and took the lead as they headed towards the enemy encampment, keeping a steady and brisk pace.

They kept their speed but after sometime they returned to their initial mode of travel, carefully stalking through the woods, constantly in a state of semi-concentration, on the lookout for any hint of their foes. Part of this was due to their route taking them away from the refreshing boon that was the ley line’s magic, but it was mostly more mundane than that. The location of the enemy position was quite a ways away, and after everything they had been through the two simply could not continue at top speed while maintaining enough environmental awareness to ensure that they would not be ambushed again.

“This “Cube” better be worth all this trouble. Why is it so important Vidtir? Do you know what it does?”

Taiboin surprised Vidtir with this question. “I wish I did, I feel shitty not being able to give you any info about it. All I was told is that this thing, or as it is formally known, the Cube

Taiboin snorted and gaped. “Is it really just called The Cube?”

“Haha. Yeah. That’s what they told me. When I received my orders all the info that came with them was that we were being sent to retrieve a powerful artifact known simply as the Cube which a small band of Taatein had stolen when they ambushed a caravan which was transporting it to it’s new home in one of the Alfhar’s more recently claimed territories.”

“Jeez. You think they are keeping us in the dark intentionally, or they just don’t know much about this thing themselves?” Taiboin asked.

Vidtir tried on a smile, not quite charming, more apologetic then anything.

“I couldn’t say. Since I got so little I just assumed that they dumped all of the information in your lap.”

“Well. They didn’t.”

With that gruff response the two slipped back into silence. It was different this time, more than just the intentional quite of two hunters, this was somehow larger, more awkward and palpable than before. Taiboin was still upset, Vidtir could see that after observing him for a moment, so, he tried to broach the issue gently, but it came out strained.

“Taiboin…. About earlier.”

The younger elf stiffened immediately. There was silence for a moment, the two still plodding along as Vidtir tried to gauge his partner’s response. Both Vidtir and Taiboin had received a decent amount of punishment that day. Both quem were missing some flesh and each of them had received a fair deal of ephemeral trouncing as well. But when Taiboin responded to Vidtir, there were bruises in his expression, deeper and darker than the majority of the scars they had won by fighting that day. These were wounds that had been brooded over.

Vidtir had fucked up. And Taiboin felt like it was all his own fault. When he finally spoke, his response was stiff and stilted as Taiboin struggled to keep his hurt from overwhelming his words.

“Just…. let it go, my friend. I fucked up. I let something small and petty almost get us both killed and I am very sorry for that. It was all my fault, so just…. let’s move on please. You have got nothing to apologize for.”

Taiboin dropped his gaze and continued forward. They had been tracing parallel paths about fifteen feet away from each other as they crept through the trees and underbrush, ever onwards towards the enemy stronghold. While maintaining their stealth, Vidtir closed the gap, until he was walking right beside his partner. Taiboin made every effort to ignore this sudden intrusion and still act as though his partner was five solid tree lengths away. Vidtir placed his hand on Taiboin’s shoulder. Taiboin continued to look straight ahead.

“Taiboin!” No response. “Taiboin, I was a real asshole to you earlier. I’m the one who fucked up and I’m the one who needs to apologize and I won’t feel right until I can make peace between us.”

Still looking determinedly forwards a response came from Taiboin in a sallow and monotone voice.

“We are slowly approaching the Taatein encampment. We should be there in no more than a half an hour. We really do not have time to be bickering like this Vidtir. We should both be focusing our energies and getting ourselves ready for the next possible encounter. Now if you could please just give me some space….”

Vidtir was incredulous. And angry. It was clear Vidtir had gone too far in mocking Taiboin’s feelings towards him earlier and that he had hit a raw nerve at exactly the worst possible moment. But Taiboin was a soldier, and his partner, and he was supposed to be the smarter and more logical of the two. Did he really intend to simmer in his own negative feelings and trudge his way through their next inevitable encounter with the Taatein? If so then whatever bad happened next might actually be his fault.

Vidtir shoved Taiboin. That seemed to do the trick. Taiboin was now the one with an expression of shocked incredulity featuring a hint of genuine anger. He looked like he had just been slapped out of a particularly deep and meaningful moment of trance induced contemplation.

“Dammit, Taiboin! Just listen to me for a fucking moment. What I said earlier….. I am really, legitimately sorry about that Taiboin. My time with you means a lot to me. Taiboin, you mean a lot to me. And I’m really glad to be out in the field with you again, man. I couldn’t ask for a better partner and I hope you know that I would never try to purposefully mock you about that. I know I get carried away a lot and that comment just sort of slipped out….. Everything that happened earlier was all my fault. That was really shitty of me and….. I’m sorry.”

Taiboin stared straight into the ground, considering the earth intensely, cheeks red and flushed with heat and blood. Vidtir was almost as flustered as his now silent partner. He couldn’t stand it, he needed a response.

“Well?”

Eyes hard, not quite liquid, and brimming with sad discontent bore tremulously into Vidtir.

“Thank you, Vidtir, my friend. I accept your apology. I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but that was equally as much my fuck up as it was yours. And I am well aware of how you feel about me…… but I am happy to be out in the field with you again. I will need a few moments to compose myself before we breach the Taatein encampment…. Soooo….. I’ll take the forward position for the remainder of our trek, if that is all right with you. Be sure to ready yourself.”

Vidtir considered this as Taiboin moved ahead twenty feet, before continuing as they had been before, only now, alone, and out in front. Vidtir had likely just given one of the worst apologies in quemer history. In mocking his partners infatuation with him Vidtir had possibly ruined their relationship, and cost each of them some small amount of flesh. Fuck.

Their relationship had been a little rocky ever since Taiboin had admitted his longing for Vidtir around 400 years or so ago. Taiboin had seemed to think that Vidtir was upset or uncomfortable with the idea, but Vidtir felt quite the opposite. Taiboin’s want for Vidtir seemed like a logical extension of their existing relationship from where he was sitting, and while he had no interest in Taiboin in a romantic way, Taiboin was Vidtir’s ranging partner and there was little two quemer could share and be closer than this. An elf and his weapon of choice were rarely so intimately intertwined, so Vidtir thought of Taiboin’s romantic interest as a badge of honor, a symbol of how powerful their relationship was, and generally found the concept touching, and although unrequited he still found the idea of Taiboin pining after him kind of amusing. And that is where the trouble had started.

Vidtir was a quem of jokes, and good spirits, and so eventually Taiboin mistook his feelings of amusement for ones of disdain or displeasure. They had been slowly drifting apart since then as each mission they were assigned to together happened to leave them little time to correct course, and things just seemed to get more difficult and confused each time they were briefly stationed together again. This was the first time they had been on assignment together in at least 50 years. Maybe Taiboin had built up some false hope that THIS time his longing would no longer remain unrequited, Vidtir had no way too know for sure, but Taiboin must have been thinking about this aspect of their relationship a fair deal leading up to this mission for one of Vidtir’s shitty offhand jokes to hurt him so deeply. Both quem had really hoped that this would be the long-time-no-see reunion where they really managed to straighten all their shit out and patch themselves up, so things, requited or no, could get better from here. Instead Vidtir found himself staring, for the second time in a single day at his ranging partner’s grief stricken form stumbling away from him towards an unknown and actively hateful enemy… But Taiboin was right; they both needed to refocus themselves and gather their wits about them if they intended to get through this next encounter alive. Taiboin was right, and they both had to drop this and focus on the mission. Vidtir knew he was right. But as he started moving after his partner no part of him felt good about leaving things as they were… but for both their sakes he reluctantly dropped the issue and followed along behind him.

Both Vidtir and Taiboin were aware of human society but neither were at all familiar with it and so when Taiboin walked out of the woods into the clearing that surrounded the human construction he stood, struck by how alien the building was. Vidtir arrived not long after him and had a similar reaction.

Most quemer buildings were crafted out of the land, the trees, the rock, whatever nature happened to be placed in the area where elves wanted to build something. This thing was as unlike quemer buildings as they could have imagined. The humans had transported all sorts of building materials to this site, torn up the earth, cleared all of the trees and then planted giant sheets of metal over and around the site of the caves to create a short squat shed like building made of raw sheets of iron and metal. The thing had clearly been disused for some time, but even so, nature had only been able to reclaim so much. There were vines and leaves all over the thing, and rust was blooming almost everywhere but the structure of the building was nearly uncompromised.

The two looked at each other and Taiboin signaled to Vidtir. No talking. No magic. I’ll lead. Vidtir was going to question him on this, he was better at stealth and archery, so he usually lead in potential combat situations. But then he understood that was the point. Taiboin would catch them off guard with magic when combat was joined allowing Vidtir to finish them off. He nodded, and the two went in.

The inside was even stranger to the two. The main room felt even smaller once you were inside it; the whole thing was jam packed with all types of foreign man made machines, desks with screens, knobs, and dials, all arranged in long aisles and rows which slowed their progress. Giant rectangular hulks with rotting tape hanging off of them stood along the walls in monolithic columns. There was one area where the environment had won and there was a gentle stream of daylight pouring in towards the back of the room, onto a large raised dais area which featured more of the screened desks with wiring and paper printouts scattered across the tables and floors.

Taiboin signaled. No one here. You see anything?

Vidtir, shook his head.

Taiboin signaled further instructions. Let’s move to the caves.

And so they did.

At the back of the room, beyond the raised platform, was what had been a natural entrance to the cave system. The humans had blocked it off with two gigantic metal doors. Strips of eroding yellow marked with black dashes ran along the top and bottom of the thing and the handles on either side were as big as either elf. But neither of them needed to concern themselves with the mechanisms of the doors. The Taatein or the humans before them had left the gigantic things open just a crack but just a crack for such an oversized entrance was more than enough and the quemer snuck on through.

The two hunkered down and began to move as one, side to side and back to back they covered every possible blind spot as they moved deeper and deeper into the cave system, further from the trappings of humanity, away from the multitudinous stacks of eroding boxes and crates that cluttered the space near the cave entrance, all the time on the lookout for their Taatein foe. They finally found them in a chamber some ways in, having followed the metal rails the humans had implanted in the ground until Taiboin signaled to move into a side chamber.

They had placed the Cube on a natural outcropping of the cave wall and were both idly chatting as Vidtir and Taiboin approached. The Taatein were sitting on the ground, bows out, but neither at attention. They could have easily seen the two elves sneaking towards them, they had a full view of the pathway into their chamber but were both deeply involved in the much more interesting activity of whatever conversation they were having than the dull and endless task of guard duty and as such Taiboin had noticed them before they had noticed him. He immediately placed a glamour over Vidtir and himself.

There was some light in the chamber but not much. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to think about setting and what light was coming through the cracks in the cave ceiling was mostly pooling on the floor at the end of two large rays diagonal to the equally large holes producing them. Everything else was only slightly brighter than twilight.

Taiboin had reached out and gathered some of that darkness, and now it played like a lite sheet over the both of them. Aided by the natural darkness of the chamber the two snuck to within feet of the Taatein before loosing upon them.

Vidtir and Taiboin made it count. They downed the Taatein with a single shot each and in doing so Taiboin dismissed the darkness. They grabbed the Cube, turned around and headed back out.

Vidtir was starting to sympathize with Taiboin. Now that he had it in his hands he wasn’t sure this little thing had been worth all the trouble. He had really enjoyed having all of both of his ears and he had sacrificed a large chunk of one of them for this?

The “Cube” was the most non-descript version of it’s namesake that Vidtir had ever seen. Being a powerful magical artifact he had expected there to be some binding ruins, some magical scrit, something. But the Cube was a simple black cube. It wasn’t quite night black, more the colour of black earth once wet, the thing was of an insignificant weight. He could certainly feel it in his hands but it had little heft to it. And as far as Vidtir could tell the object had no more secrets to offer. Even when he concentrated on it it didn’t seem particularly powerful. Alas. It appeared to just be a dull, cube shaped block of inert material. At least it was in their possession now. The most annoying part of the job was done.

He looked at Taiboin and the two shared a warm smile as they pressed through the final doors which led back out to the taiga. And in front of them, at the edge of the clearing, stood the members of the Taatein search party, all five of them.

Things happened extremely fast after that. Everyone was caught off guard. The Taatein didn’t expect to encounter intruders leaving their encampment, nor did Vidtir and Taiboin expect to see the search party immediately outside of it. This lead to an incredibly brief stale mate. Both parties were simultaneously confused and shocked and so for the briefest of instances nothing happened as both groups just stared at each other. And then Vidtir broke the piece.

“MOVE!” Vidtir shouted. And so everyone did.

The Taatein all drew bows, except for one. They were all standing in a rough line at the edge of the clearing, as though they had been walking next to each other before they stopped to gawk just beyond the trees. Now they began to break. Two of them moved to block the one not drawing, kneeling down in front of him, as the other two, the ones on the ends, started to move away from the center.

As Vidtir yelled he too was moving. His was the first arrow fired. It buried itself in the chest of one of the elves defending the bowless one as Vidtir began to jump to his right.

Taiboin was the slowest to move. Several arrows were flying by the time he got his bow in position and by the time he had his own arrow knocked the first had hit Vidtir. The two from the Taatein on the ends missed him, but the one from the guard that was still standing buried itself in Vidtir’s side. What would have otherwise not been a serious injury became one as the bowless elf closed his outstretched hand into a fist and the arrow, now in Vidtir, moved. The rough wood of the shaft trembled and jumped forward, pushing deeper into Vidtir as the wood splintered and grew punching its way into Vidtir’s vital organs.

“NO!” Taiboin shouted. He loosed. The gap Vidtir had created by downing the one guard was enough for Taiboin to get his shot through and he hit the magic using bastard, low, on the left, and in the gut. Gripping his bow hard, focusing on the energy flowing through it, and the kindred wood he had just planted in that piece of shit standing across the clearing from him, he returned the favor, tenfold. The wood was fed by Taiboin’s rage as well as the life force of his bow and it greedily consumed the Taatein’s innards. He shrieked as leaves and bark began to shoot out of his stomach, the rapidly growing sapling nearly cutting him in half.

By this time another volley from both sides had been fired. Vidtir hit the Taatein who had hit him, twice. But neither arrow hit vitals. One lodged right below his collar bone to the left and the other made it into his right thigh.

His returning arrows were more accurate than Vidtir’s and as Vidtir hit the ground the enemy archers shaft landed square in the middle of Vidtir’s chest right between his ribcage and solar plexus. The two on the ends missed again, but they had been able to move closer. With 5 feet less between them and Vidtir and Taiboin, they were unlikely to miss again.

Taiboin was out of both time and options. He killed his bow. He plundered its remaining life force and smashed the Taatein in front of him with all the energy he had. The Taatein stopped. And then he started screaming. With nothing directly inside or near the Taatein for Taiboin to focus on the only option left was to try and force all of that energy into the elf himself. And so he focused all of that into the most damaging place possible; his bones. The Taatein’s bones quickly began to enlarge and grow, the bones in his legs piercing through his feet and sticking him to the ground, he was ripped apart as his own body took the energy that Taiboin was feeding it and used it to grow his bones to double their natural size. In seconds there was white, and red, and bone, and blood and fat, protruding at all angles from the man, with most of the devastation featuring little tiny leaves and bark on the end of it.

Vidtir fired the arrow he had knocked and took the Taatein on the right high in the throat, just below the chin, leaving the arrow to protrude from the back of the elf’s neck. Blood scattered everywhere behind him. As the Taatein went down he let his knocked arrow free of his dying hand and it hit Vidtir. Lying on the ground as he was he made quite the target, even for a mostly dead man who’s shot was primarily a reflex and that arrow struck him near his left hip, hitting bone just as the Taatein who fired it hit the ground.

That left only one Taatein standing, the second guardian. As Taiboin and Vidtir had finished off the two in front of them this last Taatein had gotten to his feet and had knocked another arrow as he had begun to back away.

Taiboin ran towards him, juking past the stationary grotesquery he had created in front of him. The Taatein tracked Taiboin with his bow as he approached. Taiboin drew his knife and as he did so the Taatein began to do his war shout. As he did, Taiboin began to scream. He yelled with all the rage he had left in him and put the last of his strength into it. He added all the power that his anger had afforded him, what little there was left, into his scream. The air shimmered as this shout reached the Taatein and as it did he loosed. The energy in the shout was meant to disorient. When it hit the last Taatein the sound of the world was gone and all he could hear and feel was the hatred in Taiboin’s voice as he bared down upon him, knife in hand. The sound beat into him and forced him to cringe with the pain of it. This was just enough to mess up his shot. With Taiboin a few feet away he juked to the left as the Taatein loosed, and the arrow scraped through his ribs, entering him high on the right side of his body.

A moment later and Taiboin plunged his knife deep into the Taatein. He fell and Taiboin fell on top of him stabbing him repeatedly in the chest, in and out of his heart, where the knife had pierced him with the first blow. The Taatein was dead before he hit the ground, but Taiboin was unable to stop and continued to plunge his blade in and out of the lifeless body until fatigue set in and he fell back onto the ground and off of the last member of the Taatein party, his frenzy finally at an end.

Gasping for air and weeping Taiboin called out to his partner. “Vidtir! Vidtir, are you all right Vidtir?”

Silence. Deafening, unending silence. And then after a moment, faintly, and with much effort, Vidtir managed a choked response.

“Hah!” The effort of the laugh made him wretch. He choked on his own blood as he was trying to spit it out.

 

When Vidtir finally gained control of himself he finished. “You wish! Hah.”

Vidtir sounded like shit, but for now, he was alive, and that was all that mattered.

“Stay where you are Vidtir! I’m coming for you!”

Vidtir laughed again and broke into another violent and bloody coughing fit.

Taiboin braced himself. He wrapped his hands around the shaft of the arrow in him and ripped it out. He shrieked. The pain was awful, but tolerable, until the arrow head scratched against his chipped ribs on the way out. Then it became blinding. Luckily the arrow was already on its way out at that point and after a moment Taiboin had finished the job. He thrashed around for a moment beating his pain into the dirt, and then he rolled onto his hands and knees, and stumbled to his feet. He plodded his way over to where Vidtir lay and collapsed onto his knees in front of him.

The two stared at each other for a moment each of them exhausted and one of them dying. They burst into morbid laughter. They laughed until they cried. And then Vidtir was gripping his chest in between the arrows as he spat up blood again.

“Taiboin…..”

Taiboin shushed him.

“Shut up Vidtir. I’m getting you out of here.”

Taiboin grabbed Vidtir by the under arms and began to pull. Vidtir protested weakly.

“Agh. Please… no.”

He coughed violently.

“I’m dead Taiboin. Leave me. Go.”

His voice was thin and meek.

“Heh. At least quit dragging me, fuck, does this hurt. Oh….”

He began moaning.

“Fat chance you bastard. I need the pain to keep you conscious. I’m gonna drag you for another minute yet.”

And so he did. Taiboin dragged Vidtir as long as he could, and then collapsed against a rock and dragged Vidtir into his lap. They had only managed to make it a short way up the hill they had come down to get here.

“Vidtir….. Are you still with me Vidtir?”

Vidtir croaked.

“… Yes. I’m here Taiboin.”

“Good.”

They sat together like that in the stillness for some time until Taiboin noticed a wetness on his friends face. Taiboin realized he was crying and his tears were dripping onto Vidtir. He used the liquid to try and clean some of the blood from his friend’s lower jaw with little success.

“Taiboin…..”

Vidtir was only able to whisper now.

“Yes, Vidtir?”

“Can you come a little closer? I’d like to give you something.”

“The fuck are you talking about Vidtir? Be quite, save your strength.”

At this Vidtir struggled to get up. All that he could manage was to get his elbows underneath him. He shook the whole time with the effort of it.

“Taiboin…. I want give you what I never could when I was alive…please know that I’m sorry…..”

He used the last of his meager strength to wrap his left arm around the back of Taiboin’s head and brought their faces together. Vidtir kissed Taiboin. They held that position, lips pressed together, blood, saliva, sweat, and tears all mixed until Vidtir eventually went limp and stopped breathing. After a long, long time Taiboin released Vidtir and let his corpse fall back into his lap. He couldn’t see anything any longer. The light was beginning to fade and the sun would be setting soon, and his tears were flowing freely.

He looked at the body of his lifelong partner and spoke to it.

“But you idiot…. I need you alive….”

There was nothing left to do. Taiboin sat like that and stared blindly into the distance.

Taiboin only noticed it on a subconscious level at first, but he quickly registered an odd whistling noise. He couldn’t place it. And it continued to grow and grow until the shrill sound filled the world around him. And then he saw where it was coming from.

He only had a few moments to realize what was going on but something was rapidly falling out of the sky. From where Taiboin was sitting it looked like it was going to impact the ground near the site of the human building. And he was right. And it did.

Taiboin watched as the astoundingly large explosion, that fire, and violence, and light; the same holocaust of wind and noise that he and Vidtir had seen earlier that day erupted just a few miles distant. Taiboin sat and watched in wonder and with somber acceptance as he waited for the cloud of roiling death to roll over and then finally engulf him.

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