Dakartan

(no subject)

JP Suse & Chantal

(Highgate, backdated to mid January)

...."We roused our armies." Erlik sat down hard on a chair, sinking his
head into his hands. "The Khalakha demons from my Underworld. The
Torghut angels from his nirvana. And we met on the mortal plane, in what
is now called Calypsa, and we engaged in battle."

What?! That news shook Myradin out of his stupor, and he stared at
Erlik Khan in stunned shock for a moment. "Etherea was neutral ground, eh?"

"Middle ground." Erlik hadn't noticed how shocked Myradin was by this.
"We fought, and we fought bitterly. The nature of the army was that each
soul had flesh given to it, so death was possible. But of course, the
souls went nowhere. Ulgen was the first to cheat. Our numbers were so
even that we could not achieve any ground either way. He fetched his
Cup, and after that I was forced to fetch my Cauldron."

"What did those do?" Myradin asked. He leaned forward and paid close
attention to what Erlik was saying. This was pre-history he had never
known of.

"They gave life." Erlik laughed a hollow laugh. "They resurrected the
slain. To pour life from the Cup meant that the bodies rose at dawn with
new life and new blood to spill all over again. And at dusk, when night
fell, those bodies that had been placed in my Cauldron rose up and
climbed out and went to fight again. It became a war over the bodies of
the fallen, because... the Cup and the Cauldron gave life
indiscriminately. A Torghut who had earned nirvana could be transmuted
into a Khalakha and fall prey to a hundred years of penance. A Khalakha
with a thousand years outstanding of penance could immediately earn
nirvana."

"So we fought for the bodies, so that we could have the greater host and
finally overcome our enemy." Erlik was on his feet and pacing again,
staring at the floor, his long hair sweeping forward to hide most of his
expression. "And the blood of the demons and angels burned the earth
bare and stained the soil red and made the rivers run dark with blood."

Myradin stared and said nothing for a moment, taking in the enormity of
what Erlik had said. "What were the Cup and Cauldron originally supposed
to do?" he asked, finally. "Generally, restoring the dead to life is
supposed to be forbidden."

"I cannot tell you that, the same as I cannot tell you the name of the
one who smashed my arm. Such things are forbidden knowledge even among
the shamen of my people." Erlik turned dark intense eyes on Myradin.
"Some things are anaethema, because the knowledge changes you."

Myradin nodded slowly at that. "I understand." And his expression said
that he did, indeed.

"But the war ended." Erlik made a flat sweeping gesture with one hand,
still pacing to and fro, albeit unsteadily now. "Our little fray
dislodged a people who were warriors, and they traveled to the east and
began a great genocide against the Mhunggal. Our people died in the
hundreds, for they were divided and weak, and Ulgen and I noticed only
that we had more warriors for our own purposes.

"Then the interfering bitch stuck her spurs into the horse's side, her
and her infidel ka-tet." He spat the word 'infidel' now. "The Shadow
Dragon pulled us to task for our actions... and so did Kerij-e, whose
soul had been poisoned by the bitch so that she listened with favour to
her words."

Erlik glowered, his hands closing into tight angry fists at these memories.

Myradin paused. "In what way did this other woman poison Kerij-e's
mind?" he asked.

"She lied to her." Erlik hissed. "She fed her lies. She told her that
I did not love, that I could not love because I was not made to love.
That I was exterminating life on earth even as the bitch invaded MY
realm and lied to MY woman."

"One could give her the benefit of the doubt, regarding your nature,"
Myradin suggested. "Perhaps you weren't 'made to love,' but it's always
possible for a person to become more than they were at the
beginning--otherwise we'd have nothing to strive for. As for
exterminating life on earth--what effect was your war with Ulgen Khan
having on that life?"

"None of that matters now," Erlik said flatly, making another sweeping
gesture with his hand. "Kerij-e was destroyed because of her. I was
cast down because of her. But I knew vengeance before I died. I
smashed her head in and took her name from her. The bitch died
nameless, bleeding in the dirt, and you know, it's such a terribly
human emotion... I felt vindicated."

Erlik smiled peacefully.

"How could she die nameless? What does that mean?" Myradin asked.

"Names have power." Erlik leant back against the bookcase unsteadily.
"You know that is true."

"Yes," Myradin said.

"I peeled her name away from her, so that when she died, she felt no
release. She did not understand when the love of her life cradled her
in his arms. She did not hear his last words to her, because she did
not know who she was or why she was there. She felt no honour at the
reason she was dying, no joy at the impending release from her
suffering, She felt no love for him. She felt nothing except pain and
confusion and terror at the moment she died." Erlik closed his eyes,
and looked contented at the moment.

Myradin glared at Erlik Khan. It was a truism that no doctor ever liked
all of his patients. While Myradin had found, strangely enough, things
to like about Erlik Khan, it appeared that there was also plenty to
dislike. "And this accomplished what? Merely your satisfaction?" he
asked a trifle acidly.

"Mmmmmm." Erlik smiled sweetly. "And it was indeed satisfying, to
taste her terror as she passed through the veil. His sorrow at her going
was just as touching."

Why, Myradin wondered, did he feel as if he wanted to break the man in
two? He'd dealt with murderous patients objectively before. He'd never
known the woman Erlik felt such rage for--yet he had to restrain himself
from leaping to his feet, whipping out a non-existent sword, and
cleaving Erlik Khan in two with it. What in the hells is wrong with
me? It's not my place to judge him, only to heal him.
He repeated
that last phrase like a mantra, over and over, until he could regain his
calm. "There are better things in life than hatred."

"Not many." Erlik's body finally gave in to the massive amount of
alcohol he'd consumed, and Erlik first slumped against the bookcase and
then fell over as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Myradin let out a deep breath he hadn't realized he been holding. He
uncurled his hands from fists and noticed that a couple of his longer
fingernails had dug crescent-shaped depressions into his palms. He went
to the door of his office and asked Zeldon and Linnius to assist him in
getting Erlik into a bed. Erlik gave them no difficulty. He was quite
completely passed out and limp.

Myradin felt ready to become passed out and limp, himself. That
Elverson apple-jack was powerful stuff. He asked for a large pitcher of
water and a cup, in addition to other extraneous medical supplies, then
went to work cleaning Erlik's injury and looking him over with the
Stone's assistance.

Once he had drunk enough water to remove some of the fog from his mind,
Myradin let the Stone do its work and didn't interfere--because he was
in no fit condition to interfere. At last, Erlik's injury was healed,
and Myradin studied the problem of how to restore the body to Ilena's form.

The answer almost eluded him, until he realized that there was a way to
do it, related to the tattoo going up and down Erlik's arm. Yes...a
little mental pressure there, and...He 'pushed.'

In a very disconcerting way, Erlik became Ilena. The change was not
instantaneous; it began with the long silky black hair changing colour
and curling up to dark blonde. The pallor of the skin shifted, and then
he/she stirred a little and curves appeared, hips and breasts. The
lines of tattoo did not change, but in a minute or so Ilena lay on the
bed before him, as deeply unconscious as Erlik had been, and as
emaciated too.

Myradin watched the change, startled, yet fascinated at the same time.
"Might be that 'drunk' was the right state in which to watch that," he
muttered to himself and tried not to sway. "Well, my love, it's going
to be a while before your clothes don't sag on you, but we'll see what
we can do." He tucked the blankets around her and stroked her face
lightly with one finger. "Ilena?" he murmured, not really expecting a
response, but checking, just in case.

"... you'll sing with the dead instead...." She mumbled, turning her
face into his hand.

"I'd rather sing with the living and more than half-drunk," Myradin said
aloud as his lips curved into a smile.

"This is such a nice dream." Her grey eyes half opened and looked at
him. "But you know, Erlik, I'll fucking kill you if you wear his face
again."

Myradin's breath caught. Was she really awake? After all that
apple-jack? "Erlik has been put to bed," he replied, "with a healthy
dosing of Elverson's best apple squeezings. I'm not inclined to wake him
up, at the moment."

Ilena tried to sit bolt upright, made it about five degrees up and
promptly collapsed back onto the bed again. "Is this real? Is this now?"

"Depends on what you mean by 'now,'" Myradin told her. "I'm told it's
been about six months since you went into a trance in the Underways."
He lifted one of her hands and kissed it. "Welcome back."

"I dreamed you had an earring." Ilena chuckled, and lifted her hand to
her head. "Am I drunk?"

"Very. So am I," Myradin admitted. "I thought it might get Erlik to
talking--which it did. What he told me was pretty damned amazing. It
was history I'd never heard of."

Ilena pulled him down to lie beside her, putting her arms around him.
"Don't trust anything he says."

"I don't know if I dare lie down, love; I might just pass out beside
you," Myradin said with a yawn. That didn't stop him from joining her
on the bed, though. "Oh, I'm aware that some of what he told me is
colored by his own skewed perceptions. But the things he feels guilty
for--I don't think he colored those much."

"Stay, and sleep with me." She curled her fingers up against his face,
a very calm and contented look on her face. "Stay and keep me warm."

Myradin kissed her and pulled the covers up around them, then settled an
arm over her back. "I have no plans to go anywhere, for quite a
while." He stroked her hair. "I've missed you."

"Missed you so much." Ilena's expression softened a little and she
gazed at him as though she could never see enough of him. "I thought I
was dead at one point, and that I would never see you again. I thought
my heart was breaking."

"You came to me at one point--like a ghost. I wanted to warm you, and I
couldn't. I just wanted to hold you. Didn't care how cold you were."

She tucked her face in against his neck, and was very still for a few
moments, until the slight shaking of her thin shoulders betrayed the
fact she was crying.

Myradin rolled over farther, and pulled Ilena into his arms. He didn't
say anything at first, just held her close to him and kissed her hair.
"But you're not dead, and we are together. And I will always love you."

"I was so afraid." Ilena managed to say eventually, clinging to him
tightly. "I was so lonely."

"I wish I could have joined you, somehow," Myradin said. "I think a
time or two I may have, in dreams, but those were fleeting."

She was quiet for a moment, thinking. "You may have done. I did not
trust Erlik."

"You thought he was making you see an illusion?"

She nodded. "Before I learned his secret, I didn't know what was real
and what was not."

She slid her arms around him, touching his side lightly with her
fingertips.

"His secret...You mean the war?" Myradin lightly massaged Ilena's back.

She closed her eyes and smiled at his touch. "No. Much more important
than that."

Myradin's eyes widened at Ilena, and he hazarded a guess. "Is it a way
to get him out of you?"

"Much more important than that." She opened her eyes, grinning at the
look on his face, and leant up close to whisper six words in his ear.

"He has no power over me."

Myradin smiled at Ilena and kissed her. "Good. Because I don't ever
want him to be able to use you again."

"He can't." She kissed him back slowly, gently. "Not now you helped me
back. I didn't trust him not to try some sort of trick if I was alone."

"Ah." Myradin gently kissed her neck. "Ah. I rather got the
impression that he wanted you to come back, that he was anxious for
you to."

"He doesn't know this world." She leant her head back, exposing more of
her neck. "He remembers it from when it was new, when Morgause was just
a man."

Myradin nodded, the combination of hard cider, warmth, and the nearness
of Ilena making him relax completely. "I don't think he knows how to
survive as a human--or at least doesn't know how to do it very well."
He stroked Ilena's hair. "Will you need to see Tiliq about him?"

"Yes... and no." She curled her fingers into his hair, caressing his
neck lightly. "I could cast him out of me, but that would destroy him.
I will not do that... he could have done the same to me, and he did
not. I owe him his existence."

"That seems fair enough," Myradin agreed. "And...even though he's still
very angry and blaming others for his own deeds...he's still able to
feel guilt and regret. There's hope for him. I wouldn't want him to be
destroyed."

"There's hope... but I can't tell Tiliq. Or any of the shamans." Moving
slowly, she crawled out of the men's garments, all far too big for her
now, that Erlik had been wearing.

Myradin helped her out of Erlik's clothes, then got out of his own.
"Why can't you?" he asked. "Would they try to destroy him? I figured
the Shadow Dragon had pretty much done to Erlik what he thought was
appropriate."

"Because I don't want the Black Hand arban following me around." Ilena
stared at her gaunt belly and the lines of her ribcage. "Dear me... I
am thin..."

Myradin had to burst out laughing. "They're not so bad, really." He
traced a fingertip down her neck. "And better thin than unconscious--or
looking like Erlik Khan," he said with a grin and kissed her.

She kissed him back without reserve, pulling him close to her and
running her hands down his back.

He kissed her in return with equal eagerness, grateful beyond belief to
have her warm, alive, and in his arms again after so long. "I don't
know how you're awake enough to do this, after everything he drank," he
murmured, laughing, as he kissed her.

"I'd want to make love with you even if I had only one hour left to
live," she whispered back fiercely. "I'd use my last breath for your
name."

"I would consider it a last hour spent in the best possible way, if it
were my last," Myradin said. "And I would take the memory of your kiss
with me, beyond the veil."
Dakartan

Myradin, NPC's:

(Mid-Daktremer)
The J'kar Mountains

Myradin's fond hopes of traveling with just bodyguards met with opposition--from the guards themselves. The current guard was not, they politely reminded Myradin, the Black Hand Arban. While three guards were sufficient--barely--to provide what they considered adequate protection, none of them were experienced enough mountaineers to want to risk traveling from Highgate in winter without someone who had more expertise. Myradin heeded their advice as he would have that of anyone in the Black Hand. There were times to overrule others and times to listen.

Zeldon, the guard captain, enlisted two of the Fianna to assist them through the mountains. Their names were Liam and Ewen, and they set about organizing the trip with quiet efficiency soon after they left from their initial meeting with Myradin.

The small group of travelers from Highgate had left three days before, heading south-southeast toward northern Dakarta. There was little point in attempting to travel by sea; L'Montaigne was nestled snugly in the mountains, and traveling overland would get them to their destination more quickly, once they reached the plans.

Reaching the plains, however, was a bear of a problem.
Dakartan

Myradin: A Letter from Home

Highgate, L'Montaigne
Mid-Daktremer

The letter was waiting for Myradin one afternoon when he returned from an inspection of Highgate's city walls. The city's masons had been hard at work in the bitter cold of a L'Montaignan winter, repairing damage from a four day-long blizzard that had left key parts of the walls with cracked and loosened stonework. The walls now looked quite stout, and Myradin would have dared siege engines to take the town. At the moment, though, winter was a strong enough deterrent.

The letter awaited him on his desk after he had warmed his hands at the fire. Myradin picked it up, curious. It had clearly been on the road for quite a while and passed through several hands. The vellum was frayed and smudged, and he could barely make out his own name written on the outside of it. The handwriting looked familiar, but the seal did not. Myradin carefully broke the seal and read.


Castelle, Dakarta
2nd Astumy

Dear Myradin,

I hope this finds you well and that it reaches you soon. I am at my wits' end, and I need your help.


Abruptly, Myradin recognized the smudged writing. It was from his sister, Irel.

This is about Settim. There is something wrong with him, Myradin, and I don't know how to put it into words. If I said I thought he was evil, would you call me fanciful? He is only just turned six, but--he frightens me. Father and Lord Alarique are the only people he listens to, anymore. I have tried being calm and firm; I have tried being vile. I haven't bothered to beg or plead with him because that would only show me to be weak and would make no useful impression on him.

Tarran used to be able to manage Settim, and he could do it with a mere look. Somehow, with simply a look, Tarran could put the fear of Morgause into this child. But Tarran isn't here, anymore. I can't discipline him, and Father won't--but then,
Settim acts like a Trinist angel when he's around Father, so my frustrations are not listened to.

He picks fights with my children, and he hurts them, Myradin. I won't have him in my home, anymore, and I dread going over to Father's to care for him.

Please come. You're a healer; perhaps you know of something that can be done to curb his cruelty? Perhaps a drug of some kind? He's inhuman; I've never seen the like, and I don't know what to do.

Please help me.

Irel


Myradin set the letter down, stunned--and horrified. She had written it the previous Astumy, and here it was, nearing the middle of Daktremer. Myradin frowned to himself. Irel always said Settim was a handful, but this is the first I've heard of outright cruelty. Why would Settim be cruel when he has a father who dotes on him? Because he can? What other reason could there be? It isn't as if the boy is being abused.

His attention turned to the date on the letter, and he grimaced. I haven't a hope of getting through the passes. I don't think the Lifestone can keep a man from freezing to death, either.

No, I cannot,
the Stone murmured into his thoughts.

It would be insane to travel right now. Myradin glanced out the window of his office at the snowy mountains plainly visible across the valley and the heavy, gray clouds overhead. Oh, bloody hell, I'm actually considering this. What exactly do I think I can do? I've never been a father; a duke, steward of a kingdom, yes, but those are far different from dealing with a child. But neither can I ignore this.

He would have to travel light, Myradin thought, with as little entourage as he could get away with. An entourage would never survive, and he detested all the fanfare, anyway.

Yes, travel light, with no more than three others. He sighed. I wish Ilena were here. But Ilena was off with her people, the In'ree, and he didn't expect to see her again for several months.

He let out a breath and began to pen a letter to Thane Harmisch. Usually, Myradin resided in Highgate during the winters, so Harmisch could spend those months in the Thaneland with the dwarves. He hoped the man would be willing to come.
Dakartan

Ephram, Linnius (NPC): To the Underways

(This post is set just after Erlik Khan/Ilena arrives in Highgate, after Ilena has been restored to her proper form.)

Ephram Young breathed the crisp mountain air and regarded the huge snowdrifts he and Linnius Tercel traveled through with resignation. The weather was clear and cold, had been for almost two weeks.

"It never used to snow quite this much on Seraph," he said.

"I'm afraid I don't know much about that place," Linnius
replied. "Magically-created, floating Isles seem as outre to me as the city underwater. I lived on Yllaris most of my life, and believe me, water is only for fishing or sailing in."

Ephram chuckled. "I never saw the ocean until the first time I flew over it on a roc." He sighed. "I must sound like a petulant child, but how much longer until we arrive? I've studied my copy of the map, but the terrain is incomprehensible. I don't know these mountains well enough to navigate."

Linnius pulled his copy of the map from inside his coat and studied it. "Another hour or two, give or take time spent wrestling with snowdrifts." He refolded the map and stuffed it back inside his coat. "I hope we can get there before that storm hits," he added with a glance at an approaching bank of heavy, dark clouds. "I don't much fancy traveling during a snowstorm."

Ephram nodded. "Neither do I." He could see their destination up ahead--had been able to see it for the last several days of travel. That didn't mean he had any clue of how to approach the entrance to the so-called 'Underways' on horseback, though. He had not known the members of the Black Hand Arban for very long before they'd left Highgate, but he had become well enough acquainted with them and their emotions to learn that they were guarded, reserved people, and that the way into their secret former home would not be easy to find.

But Duke Myradin had ordered him to find it, had ordered him to deliver a message that the woman named Ilena ib Roun was alive and convalescing in Highgate and that he and his guardsmen would guard her with their lives, if necessary.

Ephram counted himself among that number, though he was not strictly a member of the duke's bodyguard. If anything, he served more as a diplomat-at-large to the Fianna and others as needed, than anything else. But the mind-magic he'd been born with, which revealed others' emotions to him and had almost cost him his sanity five years before, had shown him the depth of love between the duke and Ilena.

Ephram believed--and suspected Myradin did, as well--that Ilena was not suited to the role of a duchess who garbed herself in expensive gowns and presided over court functions. Still, if any woman in the world could be said to be Myradin Glennis' choice for his wife, Ilena ib Roun was it, and his bodyguard knew it. They treated the In'ree woman as Duchess of Greenwall in all but name.

"So how can you stand the altitude here, Linnius, if you lived in Yllaris most of your--"

A sudden gust of wind and a crackle of thunder that sounded as if the sky were ripping itself apart overhead crashed around them, so loundly that Ephram could feel the vibrations of it. Their mountain ponies whinnied and shied, and the two men fought to calm them. Another sound came to their ears--an odd hissing, swishing, whispering sound, and they felt more vibrations, all around them. Then the ground began to move.

"Linnius, what the hell is--"

Linnius shot a glance up the mountan slope and swore. "Avalanche. Off the ponies; let them go!" He dismounted, and Ephram did as well. Then Linnius yanked Ephram belly-down onto the slab of snow as it slid down the mountainside, taking themselves and the shrieking ponies with it.

They didn't have time even to rope themselves to each other, and all Ephram could concentrate on was avoiding trees and boulders and grunting with the pain from the things his body did crash into on the snow-slab's way downslope.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.

Ephram lay curled on the snow, shaking, for a good few miutes before he could work up the nerve to uncurl himself and look around. That snapped him out of the fit of unholy terror as he observed the pile of compacted snow and realized that Linnius was nowhere in sight.

"Linnius?" Nothing. "LINNIUS!"

Terror threatnened to consume him again, and Ephram fought it down. No time for that. I have to listen. He closed his eyes and lowered the mental shielding that he used to block others' emotions from his awareness.

Still nothing.

They can't all be dead, can they? Even the horses?

Ephram shuddered again. Dammit, I can do this. I will do this. I hunted down the most depraved criminals in Aurora and brought them to justice; I will hunt down Linnius and find him, or die trying.

A decision was not much to cling to, but it was all he had. Ephram ignored the storm winds as they began to whip over him, ignored the pelting of new snow on his face. He let down his barriers as far as he had ever been able to make them go.

A tiny, tiny spark of confusion, off to his right. Cold, So hard to breathe...

Cheran be praised! Ephram crawled the intervening distance over the snow, focused on his companion's barely-conscious thoughts. At last, he stopped, pulled the shovel from his backpack with cold-numbed fingers, and began digging.
  • Current Mood
    scared scared
Dakartan

Threads of the Past (Alma Mergen): Mandah Nar the Rising Sun

Threads of the past, a breath of time ago.
[The Altai Mountains, 10,000 years ago]


The moon had set, and the sun was rising.

The woman on the mountainside turned to the east, lifting her hands up
in ritual greeting. She served Mother Moon, yet the tattoos that curled
down her arms proclaimed her shaman to those who knew how to look. They
were black ink only on her smooth olive skin, no coloured inks at all;
and dragons coiled and roared across her arms and back against a
backdrop of mountains and horses and other totems of power to a shaman
of the Mhunggal.

And so she raised her arms and closed her eyes in respect to the rising
sun in the east, and felt the warmth of the sun course through her even
though the dawn dew still laid thick upon the ground here.

Behind her, the horses were cropping up the grass that grew here. It
was early spring and at this low altitude, the snow had melted and thick
lush grass was underfoot.

She pulled on a thick felt jacket, folded back the long sleeves and set
about her morning routine. Before long, diced onion was sizzling on a
thick iron griddle over her campfire, and she added fresh rabbit steaks
to the griddle with a small smile.

The winter just past had not been a particularly tough one. The
Mhunggal lived well in their winter retreat of Mount Xangai. It was not
a life of luxury; for winters never were, but it had not been
unpleasant. She had shot the rabbit this morning at a range at which
most other warriors of her people would not have been able to see; she
was sharp of eye and reflex.

The life had not been unpleasant, for all that fresh meat was a pleasant
change now.

The company had been.

She did not mourn the man who had been as a father to her for the last
fifteen years, for Berke Oyugun had died of nothing more traumatic than
old age and his souls had left his body in perfect peace. She had been
with him, in his last moments, and seen the smile in his eyes as Father
Sun came for his shaman and took him to the final judgments of life.
Afterwards, when the mortal shell that had once been Berke Oyugun had
been buried beneath the good earth, then had the trouble begun.

Her Clanlord had refused to recognise her as a shaman, though she went
to him as one. She had been trained as a shaman since she was little by
Burke Oyugun; it appeared against the Clanlord's wishes.

Instead of according her the respect and acknowledgement due, such as
Clanlords were required to give by tradition to their shaman, he had
thrown her down on his blankets and tried to force his attentions upon her.

The woman smiled a little as she turned the steaks over with the point
of her sharp dagger. The Clanlord had learned that some fruit was not
to be stolen, and she had walked out of his tent with her honour and
virginity still intact.

And she had kept on walking, apart from a brief denoucement to the
Council of Shamans. Burke Oyugun had believed for many years that the
balance of power between Clanlord and shaman had been twisted beyond
that which was intended; and it was a sentiment that many shared
silently in the space between their dreams.

They had no intention of trying to change things. The Council were too
deepset in tradition, fastset in what they had always known. They did
not stop to consider the future, for their Clanlords kept them too
involved in the present.

She had left her people. She had taken with her those things that were
hers by right, and those things of Burke Oyugun that he had willed to
her. Perhaps he had seen the imminent future before he had passed over,
or perhaps he had merely known how his Clanlord would be to the young
woman he left behind.

So it was that she had behind her a good string of six horses, one of
which was her packhorse and carrying a good felt ghur and those other
items that she possessed. Two of them were pure white, not a dark hair
from nose to tail; and these two had been hers since they had been
born. One she had named Hoit, North, and the other Umnu, South.
Between them, they had served her faithfully for many years.

The other four had been Berke Oyugun's, as had the felt tent they had
shared for as long as she could remember. She did not remember a time
before he had been there.

The smell of the cooking meat and onions made her feel even hungrier
than she was. She sat back on her heels on the warm blanketroll she had
spent the night in, and combed out her silken black hair with a comb
whittled from bone.

She was traveling west, and not aimlessly, either. She was going to
the mage school of the infidel. Something was weighing on her
shoulders. Despite Burke's endless preparation for the day he would
die, nothing could really have prepared her for the shame and rage she
felt to go unrecognised by her people.

Alma Mergen was going west, to the place the stonefeet called
Greenwall. She wanted to learn the ways of the infidel mages, so that
the cold places in her heart would be warmed. The snow was melting on
the Altai Mountains, but her heart felt cold, as if it would never thaw.

Her long black hair fell down like a curtain around her face, and she
sang to herself, her soft voice carrying a little way. One of her
horses, Unmu, lifted his head and neighed in a familiar way; well used
to the woman's voice.

She sang in the language of the Mhunggal, a language that flowed as
easily as the long scripts that made their written material so
distinctive.

Mandaj gardag naran shinghenee
Manataygaa hoyoulaa daa huo
Martagdashghuy gurvan jill bolsson bolovchigh
Mansuurahh noyrondoo hoyoulaa daa huo..</ Her voice rose and fell in traditional harmony for a while, and then she laughed to herself a little. The infidel at Greenwall would speak the common tongue of these lands. She could do with practise in that tongue, for she had not spoken it for a long while. "The rising sun will set, Also the fog. Unforgettable three years are already over, But I'm with you when I sleep." A love song that she sang as she had been taught, for Alma Mergen, shaman of the Mhunggal, had yet to know the love of a woman for a man. But for now, the song was pleasing enough, under the rising sun. (posted by Suse)
Dakartan

Erlik, Myradin: Bleeding for the Dancer (part 1)

JP by Chantal & Suse

(Highgate)

A knock sounded at the door to Myradin's office, and he glanced up
toward it, using the Stone's senses to inform him of who stood there.
"Come in, Darkill," he said, then paused in the letter he was writing to
Thane Harmisch.

The door opened, and Darkill R'Beq entered. The pale, blond guard from
Seraph paused a precise distance away from his desk and bowed slightly.
Myradin stifled a sigh. The man was...terribly precise. "Sir, the
guards at the gate have given me word of a man looking for you. I've
been down to observe him covertly. He rides a very tired-looking horse
and appears injured or ill. His clothing also seems similar to what I
remember the arban wearing. He says he has a message for you from
someone named Ilena."

Myradin's head jerked up at that. "Did he give a name?"

"Eiji of the Mountains," Darkill said.

Myradin frowned. That didn't sound like a typical In'ree name, though
perhaps 'of the Mountains' was a translation into Common. In any case,
he came from the mountains and was dressed as an In'ree. And the In'ree
were in the Underways. "I'll see him," Myradin said. "And tell Devenis
to bring some food in--_simple_ food," he added.

"Yes, my lord." Darkill bowed, then went out.

Erlik stood just inside the gate, fending off nips from the big horse at
his side, and waited patiently for one of these infidel fools to make
their mind up what to do with him.

His night's stay at the White Hawk had left him feeling a little more
refreshed; the gaunt hunger no longer gripped his belly in such a tight
grip. He was still exhausted though, and it showed in his face and eyes
the most.

A tall, silent, blond man appeared. "The Duke will see you, sir," he
said to Erlik. If you would like, we can have your horse fed and watered."

Erlik nodded briskly, then tacked on the word, "Please."

Darkill motioned for a stableboy to lead the palomino away, then led the
man called Eiji into the inner bailey, then inside Highgate Keep. Up a
flight of winding stairs--which Darkill took slowly, after a good look
at Eiji--and he knocked on a door.

Erlik stood tall and as proud as he could manage.

"Come in," Myradin said and gazed curiously at the stranger as Darkill
led him in. His eyes widened. The visitor had to be the
sickest-looking In'ree he had ever seen. He bowed slightly. ^Sain
bainuu,^ he said in greeting. ^We are far from the Underways. Please
come sit down,^ he added in In'ree, offering the man a seat on the couch.

Erlik watched Myradin with dark eyes. It was strange, but Erlik
couldn't feel the pull of the love that Ilena had for this man. He knew
that they were not ka and tet, that it was merely a love match, but yet
he had thought he would have felt the edge of it.

Instead, he merely felt a slight irritation at the sight of this man who
wore a braid in his hair in the In'ree manner.

Erlik nodded his head politely to Myradin, lifted a hand to rub at the
back of his neck, and moved across towards the couch that was being
offered. Pride was well and good, but his feet ached.

^I thank you for your welcome.^ Erlik spoke in fluid In'ree, but the
inflection of the words sounded more old fashioned than any dialect that
Myradin had heard spoken before. His dark eyes moved to the guard. ^I
bring you word from one who misses you.^

Myradin's eyes widened at the dialect the man spoke; it was like poetry,
almost. He wondered if Eiji might be a shaman--but why would one of
them leave his clan to carry a message that could be carried by someone
else? No, Eiji must not be a shaman. Perhaps a bard, instead. ^I
would be gladdened to hear the message, and I am grateful that you took
what must have been a difficult journey, to deliver it,^ Myradin replied.

^Minii neriig Erlik gedeg.^ Erlik watched Myradin carefully as he
introduced himself. Did Myradin know who he was, beyond the false name
given to his guards...

He turned his left palm upwards towards Myradin, the red rose inked in
the palm of his hand seeming to catch the light a little more than a
tattoo on olive skin should.

Myradin started as the man said his name was 'Erlik' and showed him
Ilena's rose tattoo. Even a look with the Stone's aid showed him that
the body the man inhabited did not have Ilena's pattern--but it most
certainly did have her tattoo. Which meant, if he looked deeply
enough...Myradin decided not to look that deeply, just yet.

^You're welcome in my home, Erlik Khan--both of you,^ he said.

^You are not quite what I expected.^ Erlik grinned and leant back on
the couch, getting a good long look at Myradin, and winced a little and
sat up again as his side pained him.

A knock came at the door, and Darkill went to open it. A serving girl
entered with a platter of bread, cheese, sliced meat, and sliced
apples., along with a pitcher of tea. She set the tray down on the low
table in front of where the stranger and the duke sat.

Myradin shot Erlik a brief, amused smile. ^What _did_ you expect?^

Erlik was silent while the girl came into the room, nodding his head at
her politely and watching her leave the room.

^I thought you would be taller.^ Erlik replied calmly.

Myradin burst out into brief laughter. ^I always thought I would be
taller, too,^ he said with a wry smile. He let the laughter fade, then
gazed back at Erlik Khan. ^I realize your people set great store by
self-discipline and not giving in to pain, but I can see you're
injured. I'm a healer. May I tend you?^

^Self discipline is one thing. Pain is another entirely.^ Erlik
nodded, and started to take off his thick felt jacket and warm wool
shirt carefully.

^Why don't we do this in a place where you can lie down, and I can have
my supplies brought?^ Myradin suggested.

Erlik stood and bowed his head formally to Myradin. ^You are the healer.^

Myradin had gotten a glimpse of the wound and was amazed that Erlik
could indeed stand. Still, he had made it all the way into the Keep and
up the stairs. Myradin decided not to push things, though. ^Can you
make it up one level?^ he asked. ^There are rooms with beds, there.^

Erlik nodded again and followed Myradin, without letting his pain show
on his face. Being weak in front of Gwendydd had been one thing. Erlik
would rather rot in the pit of despair again than show weakness to this man.

Underneath the clothing, his upper body showed just how malnourished he
had become. Each rib stood out clearly. His left upper arm had been
broken and reset badly, and though Erlik was using it, it was slowly and
with great care. Great bruises flowered on his left shoulder, clearly
from more than one horse bite, and not gentle ones either.

The wound in his side had at least been tended to, although it was quite
clearly the most severe of his injuries and showed signs of heavy infection.

Myradin had been cataloguing the wounds in his mind as they went
upstairs, even the ones he couldn't see. He got Erlik into the first
empty bedrrom they reached, made sure the man was seated, then darted
out for medical supplies. He returned a few minutes later and began
setting things on a table beside the bed. "Care to tell me how you've
gotten into this condition?" Myradin asked. He removed the dressing
Gwendydd had applied and gave it an approving nod, then looked into the
knife wound. She'd done a good job.

Erlik twisted around a little to give Myradin better access to the wound
in his side. The tattoos flowed across his left arm as they had
Ilena's, and carried on to the stylised semblence of wings in black
lines down his back.

"Where would you like me to start?" Erlik asked. As with his spoken
In'ree, his common tongue was fluid and fluent, but he weighted words
differently.

^The horse bites and the state of starvation you're in, for starters,^
Myradin replied, choosing the two conditions which he thought were the
oddest for an In'ree to find himself in. ^Your people are usually
brilliant with horses, and they're able to find water in the middle of
the dry desert, as well as food. What happened?^

^Suhayl is not my horse.^ Erlik didn't shrug since it would have
interfered with Myradin's work. ^He did not like me. As to the
gauntness of my belly, it is entirely my own fault. I put Ilena into a
spirit sleep so that she could heal, after we had finished in the
Underways. She chose to defy me, and the sleep lasted six months.
After that she should have feasted to break her fast, and instead I
skinwalked her to the SkyBridge."

Erlik paused as though formulating his words. ^I waited a week for
Ilena to return to me, in the highest mountains, in the bitterest cold.
One that permitted me survival for her sake did not wish me well.^

"Why did you skinwalk her to the Skybridge without getting her fed,
first?" Myradin asked.

Erlik would have made a face if this man had not been an infidel.

^Because of the shamans.^ He said simply, as though that explained
everything.

"They would have realized who you are, and you didn't want them asking
questions?" Myradin surmised as he cleaned and debrided the knife wound.

Erlik was glad of the conversation, it kept him from swearing in pain.
^Exactly. If they thought what I think they will of the matter, then
Ilena would have had the Black Hand following her every footstep. I did
not expect things to go as they did. Ilena was supposed to step back
into her body at the SkyBridge. I did not know she would refuse me and
then leave me. I did not expect to have to request intercedence to keep
her body alive, and I did not expect to get my arm broken for my troubles.^

"I saw her as a wraith," Myradin said. He looked over the horse bites
and used the Stone's magic to clear them of infection. Then he paused
and glanced at Erlik. "How much do you know of my method of healing?
Has Ilena shared any of that with you?"

Erlik shook his head a little. "I have been as but shadows in the
corners of her mind. I would know, if she were with me, but she is
beyond my reach."

"All right," Myradin said. "Essentially, I can use magic for healing.
I've used the same skill on Ilena and her doomguard Taseh, before."

Erlik merely nodded. "Essentially, I am not a thing of life as I have
none of my own. However, this is still her flesh. The fact that I am
wearing it at the moment, that it looks like me, should not affect it."

Myradin gave Erlik a wry look for a moment, but nodded. "I've cleaned
the horse bites. I'll work on your knife wound, next, and then I'll
have to tackle your arm. I'll have to refracture it, as it hasn't set
straight."

Erlik closed his eyes and a kind of defeated look crossed his face.
"Very well."

Myradin went to work on the knife wound, sped the knitting back together
of skin and muscle. Fortunately, it had already been treated once
before, so Myradin simply added to Gwendydd's work. Soon, the wound was
nothing more than a pink scar on Erlik's side. Next, he healed the
worst of the horse bites. Then it came time to work on the arm.

"You should lie down while I refracture your arm," Myradin said. He
reached into his bag and pulled out a couple of osteopathic
instruments--a wedge and a small mallet--along with a scalpel and some
retractors.

Erlik gave Myradin a slightly suspicious look. "Which way up?"

"The anterior...ah, the inside part, up," Myradin told him.

Erlik laid down and glared at the ceiling, turning his arm as Myradin
directed.

Myradin dabbed Erlik's upper arm with whiskey, then looked at it with
the Stone to find the nerves. he selected the ones he wanted, then
numbed them. "Can you feel this?" he asked Erlik as he prodded the arm
with a surgical probe.

"A bit."

"Hm." Myradin frowned and studied the nerves again. Maybe he hadn't
numbed the correct ones?" He tapped Erlik's fingers. "Do you feel that?"

"Feel what?" Erlik frowned a bit.

"Well, that's odd," Myradin said. "the areas above and below the fracure
are numbed, but not the injury, itself." He muttered something under his
breath about 'ideosynratic neuroanatomy.' "I'm going to just go in. I
can't numb your arm any more than it already is. You might want to turn
your head, if that would make you a bit more comfortable."

"I've seen worse." Erlik stared steadfastly at the ceiling, his voice
and face stoically composed. "Better give me something to bite down on."

"Here you are." Myradin placed a thick strip of soft leather between
Erlik's jaws, then continued speaking to him, trying to distract him as
he made the incision and placed the retractors, to keep the wound open.

Erlik didn't so much as twitch a muscle, never mind flinch or react in
any other way. After a minute, beads of perspiration stood out on his
forehead, but he did not make a sound.

Being unaware of divine influence, the question that really niggled at
Myradin's brain was, 'Why is the wound hurting?' But he pushed it to the
back of his mind, to be dealt with later, and concentrated on
refracturing the break and resetting it as swiftly as possible. (more)

To his surprise, the bone refractured relatively easily. He recalled
that it had not been broken for long and that Erlik had been
malnourished, since then. That would explain it. He cut away the
tendrils of bone which had regrown and restored the two ends to the
shape of the original fracture, then held them together and let the
Stone do its work. Bone always took a lot longer to heal than anything
else. For this, he would simply make certain that the bone had begun to
knit back together well, then let nature do the rest. With the arm bone
healing, Myradin closed the wound, leaving a faint incision scar as he
usually did.

As soon as he could, Erlik rolled over, spat out the strap and seemed to
go straight into a blind fury at the nearest bit of furniture, kicking
it hard. Obscenities fell from his mouth in a bitter rain. The dialect
he was using was old and some of the words and phrases were no longer in
use, but Myradin managed to deciper something along the lines of ' woman
who sucks the manhood of a camel'. There were more along those lines
before Erlik gave the cupboard a last resounding kick and fell back to
sit on the edge of the bed. "Fuck me," he said slightly more calmly,
wiping the sweat from his forehead, "that hurt."

Myradin had tried to restrain him, but once it became clear that Erlik
simply meant to kick the cupboard into smithereens, Myradin decided to
let him. "Apparently, it did," he said to Erlik. "It wasn't supposed to."

Erlik looked at his hand, which was trembling. "It is not your doing, or
fault. The one who gave me the wound wanted to make sure I knew what it
felt like, the bitch."

Myradin's eyes widened. "I think I see," he said. "I've dealt with a
couple of wounds like that, before. At least yours was healable."

Erlik stretched his left arm out, made a fist, and bent his elbow again.
"It feels better. How about we go down to your office again, and let me
remember what alcohol tastes like?"

"It won't do much to dull the pain," Myradin said, "but it might get you
to a state in which you don't care, for a while." He cleaned his
instruments, then put them away and went back downstairs to his office
with Erlik.

Erlik pulled his shirt on loosely and sat back down on the couch,
helping himself to a slice of cold meat from the platter that had been
brought down earlier. "The mere taste will be enough to distract me. It
has been some time since I last had a drink that was not mountain water."

Erlik pulled his shirt on loosely and sat back down on the couch,
helping himself to a slice of cold meat from the platter that had been
brought down earlier. "Have you got anything that doesn't taste like
camel piss? If that's what whisky has come to since last I drank it,
then I'm not sure you infidel should be allowed to brew."

His tone of voice was light enough on the words 'you infidel' that it
was clear this was close to humour for Erlik.

Myradin nodded at Linnius and Caris to leave him alone with his guest,
and they departed. "I have something better," he said, "apple-jack from
Elverson. This will warm you up and put hair on your chest, all at the
same time." Myradin opened a cupboard, pulling out a jug and two
glasses. "Turambar's people make an excellent brew." He poured a
glassful for Erlik and handed it to him, then poured one for himself. He
shut the cupboard and brought the jug over to the table, to save them
the trouble of walking.

"Turumbar." Erlik said the name slowly as though savouring it, then
shook his head. "Elverson?"

"He's in charge of the lands southwest of here, in the southern plains
of Calypsa," Myradin explained. He's an ex-mercenary. Very level-headed,
doesn't stand on ceremony. I like him."

"Ah." Erlik looked contemplative, as though he was filing these tidbits
of knowledge for future reference. "The world has changed."

It suddenly occurred to Myradin that he was sitting across from a man
whose spirit was at least as old as the Stone. He shivered for a moment.
"Yes, it has--a great deal."

Erlik took a long drink of apple-jack and smiled in appreciation. "Now
this, this is worth waiting for."

"The cider and apple doughnuts they make down there aren't bad, either,"
Myradin said, after a blissful sip of his own.

"I think I may have to pay them a visit at some point." Erlik picked an
apple off the tray of food and crunched into it. "Depending on Ilena, of
course."

"Mm...Yes," Myradin said. He gazed at Erlik. "What is the situation with
her? "She visited me as a wraith, a few weeks ago. Said she was
traveling as a disembodied spirit, like a ghost. Has she returned to her
body, yet? How much longer can she exist in that state?"

Erlik tapped his temple, tilting his head forward a little so that the
braid woven into his hair behind his left ear swayed against his cheek.
"She's here, but she's far in. If I wasn't skinwalking, she'd be back in
spirit torpor again."

"Being in her own head is better than being out of it, I guess," Myradin
said. "Did you have a message for me, or was that mainly a ruse to get
past the guards?"

"She said about three words to me. SkyBridge, Highgate and 'now'. I knew
you were in Highgate - I thought she might take over once I got here..."
Erlik sighed and took another long drink of apple-jack. "I may have been
wrong."

"That would have made sense," Myradin agreed. "I wonder why she didn't?"
He took another swallow of apple-jack and mulled that question over.

"I don't know." Erlik shook his head. "She is a mystery to me. But then,
aren't all women?"

"A mystery to you? You've been living in her mind for...how long?"
Myradin asked.

"Since you and she went through the Underways, with her Bannerman and
the woman who serves Mista." Erlik returned calmly, topping up his
glass. "Her Bannerman set me free from the pit when he called down
Father Sun. What I did then was out of desperation. I had been in the
pit for a long time. By his nature, I could not save myself through the
Bannerman. I could not use the priestess because of whom she serves. I
could not use you because you are already occupied. She was the only one
there."

Erlik took another long drink and looked sideways at Myradin with his
black eyes and those small silver smudges near the pupils. "That does
not mean that I was a voyeur. Yes, I was desperate for life. Yes, I
still am. But I will not take it by destroying hers. Even now, right
here in your office, I could solve my problems at a single stroke. But I
will not."

"It would probably feel like killing a part of yourself, after this long
a time," Myradin said slowly."

"I love her." Erlik's tone of voice did not change. "I will not harm
her. If she hates me, then I will find a new host. It is as simple as that."

"If it were as simple as that, I think Ilena would have booted you out,
by now," Myradin said after a moment. He took a longer swallow of the
apple-jack.

"She has the power to. If she can go where I cannot reach her, she has
the power to evict me." Erlik knocked back half his glass, and regarded
the remnants with a morose look. "Ever has love been my downfall."

"It certainly isn't easy," Myradin said, remembering his sister Ellien
and Dare. "I guess nothing worth having ever is."

Erlik finished his drink and stared at the empty glass. He lifted his
left hand and curled a finger around the braid in his hair; a glossy
black raven feather tucked into the folds of glossy black hair. "We give
it all. We give everything we have and then we bleed for what we still
do not have."

"And even then, it sometimes isn't enough," Myradin murmured.

Erlik tapped the glass with a fingernail. "I'll trade you memory for
memory, if you have anything stronger than this to dull the pain."

"You _are_ looking for punishment," Myradin said, shaking his head.
"Well, let me see what I've got." He went back to the liquor cabinet
and hunted around, then finally pulled out a glass bottle of
crystal-clear liquid. "This is as strong as it comes--200 proof," he
told Erlik as he brought the bottle over to him and poured a little into
each of their glasses. "This'll probably remove the inner lining of
your throat--but you won't care."

The man sniffed at the liquid in the glass. "Mmmmmm. I can smell it's
good. How about you start, while I get a little of this into my system."

"What--memories of all the girls I've loved, before?" Myradin echoed.
He took a tiny sip of the apple-jack/pure grain alcohol mixture in his
glass and coughed at the fire that seared down his throat. "I think I'd
rather not delve into the goings-on about my sisters, so...Dare," he
decided with the firmness of one becoming drunk. "Dareanna
McDeggers--Coar mercenary, demoness, adoptive mother, and wild woman.
I'll bet you'd like her."

"Sounds like she could kick arse." Erlik gave him a sideways look.

"Oh, she could--can," Myradin told him with a smile. "Her brother is
Ilena's ka'tet. Nice guy, but not very stable. Anyway, there's all
sorts of weird shit that Dare's mixed up in--some sort of family curse
that meant she had to serve time in Hell, and when she came out, she was
a demon. I fell for her before that, though."

"Derrick." Erlik said, rolling his eyes slightly. "I know him."

"Real piece of work, Derrick," Myradin agreed. "You just want to whup
him upside the head and make him see sense, but he never does. "Anyway,
one of the things I admired about Dare was her loyalty to her family.
I'd never known anything like that. Couldn't even imagine anything like
that. It opened my eyes to a few things."

"Didn't you get that, in the swamps?" Erlik was trying hard not to talk
down to Myradin now, which was something.

"I came from Castelle. Morgausite family. My father and next-younger
brother are priests," Muradin said after another sip of the alcohol
mixture in his glass. This time, his throat's nerve endings had been
burned away, so he didn't feel it going down, as much.
Chantal: "There was no sense of family loyalty. I left as soon as I could."

"Morgause, that poxy little man." Erlik made a disgusted look. "So she
intrigued you..."

Myradin smiled. "Yes, she intrigued me. Dare is a fighter, through and
through. She just has this one little problem, though. She thinks she
has to protect people from it, if she's mixed up in dangerous things.
But instead of telling you this and giving you the chance to say you're
willing to take the risk--she just leaves. She left and was gone
several months, almost a year. It was a long time. She dreamwalked to
me once, and she was blind. Couldn't do a damned thing for her."

"Love her still?"

Myradin nodded. "Yeah. But we've grown apart. After the undead came
to Highgate, and Ilena and her people helped fight them off, I saw what
the difference was between her and Ilena, and I chose Ilena. Haven't
looked back."

"What was the difference, to you?"

Myradin scowled at Erlik Khan. "Bastard, asking me to explain something
complex when I'm drunk off my ass." He smiled a moment, then leaned
back to ponder it. "Ilena and Dare both have honor, but Ilena's is
different, more mature than Dare's," he said at last. "I may be wrong,
but I felt as if, had I asked Dare to come help fight off the undead,
she would have come because she likes a good excuse to fight. That
wasn't the impression I got from Ilena. Ilena talks merrily about
enjoying a good fight, but I telt as if she understood more deeply what
I was doing, why I came back here, why I decided to take the reins, why
I wanted to fight off the undead. Even though she doesn't like me being
in a stonefoot place, she understod and supported my reasons for doing so.

"There's just a...solidity in Ilena that Dareanna doesn't have."

Erlik took his first sip of everclear and tilted his head back, to let
it run down his throat in liquid fire.

"She is strong. All the way to the bone, she is strong. But she's
strong like a mountain willow... she bends, so far that sometimes she
thinks she is breaking, but she never will. She's a child of my
people. She has mountain water in her blood and snow cold in her anger."

"Like the old Mhunggal, then?" Myradin asked.

"Hah!" Erlik slapped his knee jovially. "You remember our dream
flight. Yes. She is the spirit of our old kingdoms, come again."

Myradin mulled over that comment and kept his thoughts to himself. "She
certainly seems as comfortable in the mountains as she does in the
desert," he agreed. "I never would have expected that."

"She is... Ilena." Erlik said simply, and drank more everclear.

"Does what she puts her mind to," Myradin said.

Erlik nodded. "And then some."

Myradin took another small sip of his drink. "Has she said under what
conditions she'll deal with you?"

Erlik shook his head. "She hasn't said much of anything. I offered her
a return to her own body, and she would not take it. She said... that I
was uninvited, and she wanted time to consider."

"Ah. So it's the mere fact of your being there that she's displeased
with." Myradin fell silent for a moment. "That gives you a hard row to
hoe."

"I could leave her." Erlik took another long drink. "I don't know if
she could make it back in control by herself. It might kill her."

Myradin looked at him. "How?"

"How could I leave her, or kill her?" Erlik closed his eyes and leant
his head back against the couch.

"I'm more worried about how your leaving could kill her," Myradin said.

"Because right now her spirit is so far from me that I cannot feel her.
She is not with me, except in the loosest of ties to her body. If I
were to leave her body, I do not know if she would know I had gone.
Without a spirit, her body will die." Erlik explained calmly.

Myradin nodded. "I've seen a few cases like that, yes. Had to pull a
couple of people back, who had gone in too far. It's tricky." He
paused. "There's also the problem that, if you don't have a body,
_you'll_ die, right?"

Erlik just nodded his head without opening his eyes. "I'll fade again,
over a matter of some weeks. Without a host, I will pass into nothing
now that the magic of the pit has been destroyed."

"So Ilena is faced with a dilemma," Myradin said. "She wants you out,
but for you to leave, you would have to do to someone else what you have
done to her, and she won't have that--unless there were a way for you to
ask permission of someone to be your host."

"No," Erlik shook his head. "There is no dilemma. I will leave, and
be a half forgotten memory on the breeze. And so it would end, so I
would end. The Great Erlik Khan, cast down a thousand years ago when
the Lifestone was still new, for making a war over the one mortal woman
and for murdering a second. I will end, and end willingly for Ilena,
but I will not risk her in the process."

Myradin nodded. "But if a body could be found..." He paused as an idea
occurred to him. But it was only the barest notion of an idea, still
hazy in his mind.

"So few possibilities. So very few souls of the right nature to accept
another of my kind." Erlik opened an eye, saw he had some everclear
left, and drank it. "I figure if I get drunk enough, then I'll fall
asleep and when I wake up there will be jiggly bits and a woman in
charge again..."

By this point, Myradin was drunk enough to giggle. "Jiggly bits...!"

"Well have you ever tried wearing ..." Erlik's hand waved vaguely over
his chest. "... they'd get in the way! And you don't even want to
_ask_ about the monthly thing."

"I'm a healer; I know about the monthly thing." Myradin made a face.
"I don't know how women stand it."

Erlik shuddered. "I often wish I had not fallen in love."

"Why?" Myradin asked. He decided that another drink might make Erlik's
statement clearer.

Erlik took a long drink from his refilled glass. "Because it was my
undoing. For love, I brought an army of Khalakha daemons from my realm
to this, and we waged war on the Torghut. What you would call ... angels."

For a fuzzy moment, Myradin wondered what all of this had to do with
menstrual periods. Then he shook himself out of the stupor enough to
realize that Erlik was saying something important. "Why for love?" he
asked, a bit more alertly.

"Kerij-e." Erlik said the name slowly, and the reverence with which he
said it gave the name the lustre of diamonds. "Kerij-e. She was a
mortal soul destined for Eternal Blue Heaven, yet I took pity on her. I
gave her a life that she would otherwise not have known; and I did
everything I could to stop Ulgen Khan taking her..."

Who is Ulgen Khan?" Myradin asked. "And why did you take pity on
Kerij-e? What was her misfortune?"

"Ulgen Khan is my brother, curse him. He ruled the Eternal Blue
Heavens, he ruled Yuehe Doidu as I ruled Allara Doidu, the Underworld."
Erlik drank more everclear, obviously not used to being able to tell how
drunk he was. "She died. She killed herself, for her father slaved her
to a marriage she did not want and her lover rescued her. They were
caught, and her lover was executed. She slit her wrists and bled to
death in a mountain stream. She had no life of her own, and that which
she did have was taken from her too soon."

"Might she possibly have wanted to join her lover in Yuehe Doidu?"
Myradin asked.

"It's not like that." Erlik shook his head in some annoyance. "There
is no individuality in Mongke Tengri, in Eternal Blue Heaven. It is
nirvana. There is nothing except perpetual bliss."

Myradin blinked, with his glass of apple-jack and everclear paused
halfway to his lips. "She'd have lost her sense of self, there?"

Erlik nodded. "All those ami souls that go to Mongke Tengri do. It is
heaven. There is no individual sensation there. You do not walk across
a green field under the good sky and feel pleasure. You simply feel
pleasure. That is all, for as long as the Torghut angels sleep."

"The religion I was raised in doesn't have much of a concept of
'heaven,'" Myradin said. "From the changes I've seen in Dare, Hell is
very real. But I have no idea what a 'heaven' would be like, at all."

"Hell is always much more important than heaven, it usually hurts
more." Erlik leant his head back against the back of the couch and
looked up at the ceiling. "It is much more complex to rule the
Underworld. Each soul must have a different penance, and to achieve
that it is necessary to create dimensions within dimensions. That is
what I did for Kerij-e. I made her a place of the mountains where she
could live as she would have done. All that she wanted was hers."

"A place that seemed as large to her as she might want?"

Erlik nodded. "A place that had all she could want. I could have
recreated her entire culture for her, but she chose to be alone, apart
from visits from me. Her people had hurt her so badly, she did not wish
to be reminded of all she had left behind..."

Myradin tried to get himself back on track. "So she lived in this place
you created for her. And Ulgen has some book like Azrael's that told
him she wasn't where she was meant to be?"

"He found out." Erlik slammed his glass down on the table and got to
his feet, pacing to and fro unsteadily. "I don't know how. He demanded
her back. I refused. We loved by then. And so we went to war."

"What'd you tell Kerija--I mean Kerij-e, when you first took her into
Allara Doidu?" Myradin asked, trying to think through the fuzziness of
the alcohol.

"The truth. She knew who I was. She knew she had died, and why, and
how. I did not keep anything from her."

"You told her you loved her?" Myradin decided that he shouldn't drink
anymore. Maybe Erlik could stand, but Myradin wasn't certain that _he_
still could.

"I didn't. Not at first." Erlik closed his eyes momentarily and nearly
fell over, and jerked his eyes open to steady himself quickly. "I was
not made to love. The love came later. She was with me for many
years. But yes, when there was love, I told her. By then she gave me
the same in return."

"But Ulgen started a war over it? Damn." Myradin shook his head.
"What happened?"

"We roused our armies." Erlik sat down hard on a chair, sinking his
head into his hands. "The Khalakha demons from my Underworld. The
Torghut angels from his nirvana. And we met on the mortal plane, in
what is now called Calypsa, and we engaged in battle."

~What?!~ That news shook Myradin out of his stupor, and he stared at
Erlik Khan in stunned shock for a moment. "Etherea was neutral ground, eh?"

"Middle ground." Erlik hadn't noticed how shocked Myradin was by this.
"We fought, and we fought bitterly. The nature of the army was that
each soul had flesh given to it, so death was possible. But of course,
the souls went nowhere. Ulgen was the first to cheat. Our numbers were
so even that we could not achieve any ground either way. He fetched his
Cup, and after that I was forced to fetch my Cauldron."

"What did those do?" Myradin asked. He leaned forward and paid close
attention to what Erlik was saying. This was pre-history he had never
known of.

"They gave life." Erlik laughed a hollow laugh. "They resurrected the
slain. To pour life from the Cup meant that the bodies rose at dawn
with new life and new blood to spill all over again. And at dusk, when
night fell, those bodies that had been placed in my Cauldron rose up and
climbed out and went to fight again. It became a war over the bodies of
the fallen, because... the Cup and the Cauldron gave life
indiscriminately. A Torghut who had earned nirvana could be transmuted
into a Khalakha and fall prey to a hundred years of penance. A Khalakha
with a thousand years outstanding of penance could immediately earn
nirvana."

"So we fought for the bodies, so that we could have the greater host and
finally overcome our enemy." Erlik was on his feet and pacing again,
staring at the floor, his long hair sweeping forward to hide most of his
expression. "And the blood of the demons and angels burned the earth
bare and stained the soil red and made the rivers run dark with blood."

Myradin stared and said nothing for a moment, taking in the enormity of
what Erlik had said. "What were the Cup and Cauldron originally
supposed to do?" he asked, finally. "Generally, restoring the dead to
life is supposed to be forbidden."

"I cannot tell you that, the same as I cannot tell you the name of the
one who smashed my arm. Such things are forbidden knowledge even among
the shamen of my people." Erlik turned dark intense eyes on Myradin.
"Some things are anaethema, because the knowledge changes you."

Myradin nodded slowly at that. "I understand." And his expression said
that he did, indeed.

(to be continued...)
Dakartan

My Traditional, Winter Snow Gripe

Nodtremer 24

It's been ages since I last wrote in my journal. Partly, it's because L'Montaigne has been keeping me busy. Partly, becauseI just haven't felt like writing, lately.

But the passes are all snowed in, now. It's winter; everything is snowed in and will be this way until early Arolu, probably. I can't go anywhere unless I want to freeze my ass off, so I might as well write. At least the ink isn't frozen--yet.

I'm not sure which is worse--Dakartan mud, or L'Montaignan snow.

The only time I feel really warm is during arms practice in the mornings and evenings. The Black Hand arban withdrew with the rest of the In'ree into the Underways last spring. Practicing with the new Guard is interesting, because I am learning a lot of different fighting styles from the new people in my guard.

I still want to call them my arban, but I won't. I reserve that term for the members of the Black Hand.

Two of the new people are from Seraph--Caris Thorn and Darkill R'Beq. They're...knightly and religious, which is an interesting change from the guards I've had serving me, before. Another new guard member is named Linnius Tercel, who the arban actually recommended when he applied. He's an older fellow; looks to be in his late forties or early fifties. But damn, he can still fight as if he were twenty.

And then, there's Zeldon Trevayne, a refugee from Rompel...who gives me the crawls. He's half-elven, 6'3", if he's an inch, black-haired, moves like an assassin, and exudes that kind of aura. Not murderous, exactly, just...very calm, very swift, very deadly. He gave Merkid and Berkedei a run for their money, when he tried out. And then, there's his sword, which is what really gives me the crawls. Sheathed or unsheathed, I'm aware of it. How Zeldon keeps that sword under control, I don't know, but I'm very aware that he has to.

I've finally found myself a seneschal--a fellow named Ephram Young, also from Seraph. Originally, he was just going to be a member of my Guard. But after a couple of days on duty, he started telling me things about some of the people who work with me--things which allowed me to work more smoothly with them and them with each other. So, the last time Thane Harmisch went back to Abrie'ton, I made him Kingdom Seneschal and Young Ducal Seneschal. We'll see how this works.

It's getting dark outside; nearing time for arms practice. Will write more, later.
  • Current Mood
    cold cold
Dakartan

(Ilena) Erlik: Bound by the Life You Left Behind

(The Marches)

It was late in the year to be travelling this high up in the mountains.
Erlik Khan did not think twice about it. He had some very clear
objectives, but was entirely uncertain how to accomplish them.

In fact, he really had only one clear objective: to
coax/bully/threaten/tempt Ilena ib Roun out of the spirit world where
she had chosen to isolate herself. Whether either of them liked it or
not, she was needed. The world was turning and the time of prophecies
was slowly rising. Erlik needed her to be his vessel; he needed her to
carry on the way she had before. He had his own reasons for not wanting
to be out and about wearing his own face.

For the first day, he really did enjoy being mortal again. For close to
a thousand years he had been trapped in spirit form and the thrill of
being able to usurp Ilena's mind to control her body sometimes had been
pure ecstacy every time he indulged. With Ilena refusing to inhabit her
own body, it seemed only fair that he should be able to walk in her skin
for a while.

Well, not entirely in _her_ skin. It would have been disrespectful to
merely take over her female form. Being female had never really been
that high on his priority list. And she had been right, curse her.
Erlik did love Ilena in a strange way. He could have left her at any
point; but he had chosen and marked her as his vessel by giving her his
tattoos to wear on her skin. He took care of her flesh the way he had
taken care of her spirit before.

He was a skinwalker now, the body he was in was his own but it was still
essentially hers. He had once seen a child's rag doll, that was a girl
with long hair made of strips of felt but when you turned it over and
turned it inside out, it was a boy doll instead. That was how he had
crafted this form out of hers; carefully and with the uttermost respect
so that when Ilena chose to return her choice of form could be flipped
inside out and back to her own form.

Erlik liked this freedom. For a short time, he could even see himself
liking the fact that he could wear a mortal shell of flesh that had his
own face. It was good to feel again. To feel the wind in his hair, the
texture of the garments he had borrowed against his skin, the feel of a
good leather saddle and a good horse under him, the grained leather of
the reins in his hands.

To look on the world with his own eyes rather than through Ilena's was
truly magnificent again. This was the Old Kingdom of the Mhunggal,
before the Fianna had come and driven the remnants of that people into
the desert; where they would set aside the name Mhunggal and take the
name In'ree instead. These mountain ranges had once belonged
unequivocably to his people, and as he rode he felt a strange pain in
his heart.

He reined in the great stallion and rubbed one hand across his ribcage.
Was he sick? He dismounted and filled his waterskin from a stream. He
had to break a thin layer of ice to do so and he let his fingers skate
across the ice before he did so, revelling in the new sensation in his
fingertips.

He drank deep of the icy mountain water, and ate some of the hard beef
tack that he'd added to the saddlebag along with the waterskin.

The pain in his heart did not ease. It was with some stunned amazement
that Erlik slowly realised that it was not a physical pain at all.

The fact that his people had been slaughtered in the hundreds all those
centuries ago, and driven from these ancestral lands in the first place,
had been Erlik's fault. Long had he known that the original blame laid
with him, and yet it had never made him feel ill before.

How curious.

He checked the hooves of the horse automatically before he mounted again
and rode on.

The route he was taking was one away from the Sacred Mountain under
which the Underways was located. It wasn't that Erlik didn't still love
his people, which he did; but he was quite anxious for the shamans not
to get involved. Or should he say, he was quite anxious for the shamans
not to get involved before Erlik was back in control. Erlik didn't
think it would help to have other people involved in what was after all
a personal dispute between himself and Ilena.

Instead he was going somewhere that he knew Ilena liked as much as he
did himself, and hoped to draw her out there.

He loved this country. He loved this land. The man and the horse rode
along the edge of a deep chasm in the powdery snow, and far below him
there was the distant green of a valley meadow where the snow had not
yet fallen. He saw a rabbit, its fur mostly white now. He could have
killed it with a shot from his bow, but he chose not to. He was
enjoying watching it too much.

He reined in the stallion once to watch two birds wheeling overhead.
Had he wanted he could have looked at it with eyes of his spirit and
seen how they glided between and amongst the threads of the great web of
life, and read omens into that flight. Erlik chose to look at them with
his own human eyes and admire the turn and flick of each wing.

At nightfall he made camp for the sake of the horse needing to rest, and
brushed aside some of the snow so that the stallion could graze on
frozen grass. It wasn't until he'd fashioned himself a fire and sat
down in his blanketroll that Erlik realised how tired he was.

In fact, he was so exhausted that he rolled himself up in the blankets
and fell asleep before he'd even stopped to consider that he was hungry.

He dreamed, for the first time in a thousand years.

He saw her face again, for the first time in a thousand years.

Her name on his lips.

She looked up at him. She knew him as Eiji, for it made them feel more
at ease with their arrangement. She could not speak the name Erlik
without feeling a sense of being overawed, for she knew that she had
been but a mere mortal and that he was a god. She knew that she had
died, for she herself had cut her own wrists in a matter of honour and
bled out into a stream in one of these mountain valleys. It was for the
honour that she had displayed in taking her own life that had weighed
her soul towards Eternal Blue Heaven, but it was for the tragedy of her
short life that Erlik had interfered in the natural balance of things.

Instead of ascending to mindless bliss and nirvana, Erlik had taken her
soul down to the Underworld where he ruled. There he oversaw the
penance of all the souls that became demons, and there he held absolute
power. So it was that when the woman first opened her dark eyes after
they had closed in death; they had been sitting in a traditional felt
gerof the Mhunggal.

She had been sitting in the east of the ger and he on the west as was
traditional. Both were wearing typical clothing of the Mhunggal
people. Her hair was long and loose around her shoulders, his was bound
back in a warrior's queue as had been his habit back then.

"Is this heaven or hell?" She had asked him calmly.

"Neither." Erlik had replied. "This is for you."

"I do not understand."

"You have suffered much and died with great honour." He had explained
simply. "You did not deserve the life that you led. You deserved
better, and so it is my gift to you."

She looked around the ger and out through the open tent flap in the
south of the tent. "Am I to be alone here?"

"I can populate this place if you wish."

She considered this. "No. My people caused the pain in my life. I
have no wish to be reminded of that now."

He stood up to leave. "You will find what you wish for."

"Stay." She said softly. "I would have your company a while longer, my
lord."

Then she blushed and lowered her eyes as if realising for the first time
who she was speaking to.

Erlik sat back down. "You may call me Erlik, if you wish."

"My lord, I do not think..."

"Then choose another name for me." His voice was gentle. "I have done
this for you. If you wish me to spend time with you I would prefer it
as an equal rather than a god."

"May I call you Eiji?"

"You may."

She had lifted her eyes and smiled at him, and Erlik had been captivated...

In the mortal realm, several years had passed by while she remained in
his domain. He could not spend all of his time with her, she knew and
understood this. Towards the end, he could spend very little time with
her at all because he was doing absolutely everything in his power to
prevent Ulgen Khan from stealing her from him. But whenever he could,
Erlik had dropped into that part of his domain where she lived in the
uplands with her horses and her tent.

Whatever she wished for, she found; but she continually amazed him.
Rather than wishing for a wooden comb, she wished for herself a sharp
knife and went for a walk, where eventually she would find a branch of
mountain ash that would suit to be carved. Instead of wishing for food,
she made herself a bow and arrows and went out to hunt deer. The end
result was always the same, but she truly made the most of this second
chance at life and immersed herself totally in the ins and outs of daily
life.

The dread Lord of the Underworld, the fearsome Erlik Khan who would ride
at the head of the army of the Khalakha daemons when the end of days
came, fell in love. And though he was immortal god incarnate and she
was mortal soul shriven of her flesh, she loved him in return.

Erlik Khan had not been made to know love, and yet he had grown beyond
the bounds of that which he had been created for.

He was in love with a mortal woman, and would not turn her soul over to
his sibling god Ulgen.

And so the two sibling gods made war, light and dark, heaven and hell,
each shaking forth their own armies to war. Those angels that were the
Torghut, roused from their blissful nirvana in Mongke Tengri upper world
Yuehe Doidu, could not enter the Underworld. Likewise, those daemons
that were the Khalakha, from the lower world Allara Doidu, could not
enter Mongke Tengri.

And so they made war in the mortal realm and by doing so triggered a
chain of events that would result in the soul of the woman he loved
being sundered apart for all eternity.


Erlik Khan, wrapped in his blankets on the mountainside, woke from his
dreams screaming her name.

Kerij-e.


*****


You used to captivate me
By your resonating light
Now I'm bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts
My once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away
All the sanity in me

These wounds won't seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There's just too much that time cannot erase

....

I've tried so hard to tell myself that you're gone
But though you're still with me
I've been alone all along
Dakartan

Ilena/Erlik: Waking

"Better a handful of dates, and content with them, than to own the Gate
of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel."
In'ree saying.

*****

Tiliq walked through the labyrinthine paths of the Underways with an
easy tread. The old shaman was starting to slow his pace a little with
the onset of old age. Today he was walking with the children, and they
were going down to leave flowers.

He looked around them as they went. It never failed to amaze him every
day that the In'ree were living in the ancient place of the ancestors
again. Long ago these caves and passages had been carved out of the
living stone, partly by hard work and partly by magic, and long ago the
In'ree had lived here before they had even been the In'ree. This had
been the winter home of those people, centuries ago. There were living
caves and meeting caves, caves for their herds and their horses, sunning
galleries on the unassailable peaks of the Sacred Mountain and the great
atrium that cut through every level of the Underways, bringing light and
sight of the sky to the people of sun and sky.

It had fallen to their enemies one autumn, and that had been the year
when those people had set the last of their armies against the enemy.
The survivors had fled into the desert where they became the In'ree of
today; and the underground caves and passages had remained under the
Burqan-qaldun, the Sacred Mountain.

As the centuries passed, evil had taken root in the deep ways. In the
great atrium where once the sun had poured down, aligned to winter
solstice, the evil dwelt; the spider at the middle of the web of traps,
lies and deceit. Only in recent years had any dared tread the paths
through the Underways; and they had been only four people on a desperate
trek to try and save any survivors of the undead rising in Highgate.

One of those four people had been a Doomguard, a Sunchild - a warrior of
the spirit as well as the flesh. Only his intervention had saved them on
that trek, for he had called down the light of Father Sun to free them
from the trap of the pit.

Sadness creased the old shaman's face as he thought about Taseh, and he
did not let his thoughts dwell there too long.

Three years later, Ilena ib Roun had come back to her adopted people in
the deep desert, and she had spoken to the shamans with a voice that was
not entirely hers nor yet entirely mortal. War was coming to the desert
and if the In'ree were to become involved they would have been destroyed
as a tribe.

Their home was no longer safe. They would have been the victims of
merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The time had come. The Great Khan did not yet walk among them, for those
prophecies remained unfulfilled.

But they returned to the mountains. As once they had fled the mountains
to escape the genocide of the enemy, so now they turned our backs to the
desert to escape being caught in the crossfire of a war that was not theirs.

They packed up our felt tents and drew their clans into one great clan,
and together as one people they rode out of the shifting sands and
returned to the slopes of their ancestral lands.

The scattered hill folk gave no resistance. When they arrived on the
borders of they ancestral lands, they fled before them as the hot desert
wind did before a sandstorm.

They were home.

Ilena led us then, although she was no Khan, for she spoke with a voice
that sometimes was not of this world. They were concerned for her, in
those weeks of travel, the shamans; but they said little to her. She
kept herself apart and looked at them with eyes that knew too much
sometimes. They trusted in our gods, for their powers told us that no
harm to their people would come from her or the thing that lived within
her soul.

The Kanum Kotan was no home to the enemy as it had been to the In'ree
once. A great evil had taken root in that place in ages past and it had
brooked no other to live there.

That too was past due for change.

Ilena led them to the entrance to the Kanum Kotan, high up on the slopes
of the Burqan-qaldun; and they went inside. Not the people at first,
just the shamans and Ilena leading the way as though she knew every inch
of the way.

It was a haunted place, and yet the spirits that crowded the very air in
those catacombs shied away from her. Her own spirit shed no light as
would the spirit of a Doomguard, and yet she walked tall and silent in
the place of the dead.

The shamans knew then who was walking in her shadow, though they did not
voice it.

She took them to the great circular pit that had been cut into the stone
all those ages ago, worked from magic and hard labour both. They filed
into that place where the great evil coiled in shadows that they could
see with mortal eyes, and Tiliq would have been lying if he said now
that there was one among those experienced shamans who was not afraid.

And yet the woman who had brought them there was not afraid.

She stood there on the edge of the pit, and closed her eyes and spread
out her hands and Tiliq swore to Father Sun and Mother Moon that the
evil in the pit had shied away from her. She stood there, holding it
down, until the shamans could move around the edges of the pit and begin
their magic.

They called on Father Sun and Mother Moon and they sang down the light
as they had not done before in living memory.

Above, in the skies, there was a great eclipse. Both sun and moon came
into the sky at the same time. The light of both were eclipsed by each
other, and then both shone down as one into the atrium-pit.

The shadows screamed as they were burned out of existence, for a new
wind was blowing through that old place.

That same day the shamans brought the rest of the people into the old
home of their ancestors and they set about learning the ways through it,
settling each clan down into living quarters.

But of Ilena, the story did not end there.

They did not find her there when the light from the magic and the gods'
love had faded; and they did not question this. Some things were meant
to be.

They found her three days later on the lowest level, in the lowest chamber.

There was an altar there, meant to take offerings.

Ilena was curled on the stone slab, in the dust that was formed from
long withered flowers and fruit, amidst the bones of what had once been
a man long centuries before.

She was sleeping.

To the infidel it might appear that she was in a coma, but to those who
knew of the ways of the spirit, it was as clear as day. Her body was
merely sleeping while her spirit flew.

They did not think it was right to move her.

And so they had left her there, in the place that she had chosen,
although they covered her with a blanket against the chill of the stone.

Three days later she was still sleeping.

Gently they checked her physical body, for the body is not meant to live
on without the spirit, but all was well. That which took her onto the
paths of the spirit she had not been trained for had forged a sound link
between the body and the soul. When the time came, Ilena would be able
to return safely to her own form. As with all deep torpors caused by the
flight of the spirit, she still breathed in a very shallow way, and her
heart still beat very slowly.

They replaced her clothes with a soft robe, and brushed the tangles of
war and magic out of her hair, and left her where she knew her body
would be waiting when she chose to return.

The children took offerings down to that place now, and looked at the
dreaming one with wonder.

A shaman always went down with the children and lead the short prayer to
their gods, Father Sun and Mother Moon, that was always voiced. They had
left flowers and fruit today. Tiliq had smoothed out her long honey
blonde curls over her shoulders absently, although she had not moved
since he had first settled her hair there six months ago.

Six months she had been sleeping, and the shamans were beginning to
doubt that she would ever return.

*****

In the spirit realm, Ilena had been travelling. She had had an argument
with the dark spirit that infested her own soul, six months ago. He had
brought her down here after the magic was done, because she had not been
trained to handle such power yet. Her own spirit had been left in bloody
tatters after the working, and he had brought her here to heal.

During that healing time, she had slid further into the spirit realm
than he had intended her to; and she had met him. They had argued. She
wanted to hear the truth from him and he refused.

"You know the truth." He had said, exasperated, and stood up.

"I want to hear it from you. I need to hear it from you. I can't bear to
put words to these thoughts. That is your responsibility." Ilena had
insisted.

"No." He had walked off, casting the last words over his shoulder as he
went. "If you want it, find it. If you want me, you must find me. Then,
maybe, I will tell you what it is you seek to know."

When given two options, it was the In'ree way to take the third. Instead
of submitting to him or giving up, Ilena had straightened her sash and
stormed off to undertake her own spirit quest to understand him.

Instead she had learned something far more valuable. She had learned to
understand herself, and in doing so had gained vital insight into him.
The quest took her six months to complete but in that time she had
relived the important times of her life in great depth.

When she returned from that quest, she knew where to find the dark
spirit in her.

"Erlik Khan." She said to him. "There are liberties and there are
liberties. You used me as your vessel for three years without so much as
a by your leave. And then," her tone became distinctly frosty, "you gave
away my fucking dog."

She hit him, a good solid blow to the chin and he went down like a sack
of stunned and amazed rice. He got back up slowly, wiping a trickle of
blood away from his mouth. She had not been able to hurt him in this
realm before.

"You had to choose the third option." He said bitterly, rubbing his jaw.
"Gods, woman, who made you so stubborn?"

"You did." She hissed.

He chose not to answer this.

"All you had to do was lower your pride and follow me," he continued.
His voice was calm but there was a hint of anger in his voice. "All you
had to do was give in or give up."

She stood my ground before him. "The day I do that is the day I roll
over and die."

"Let it go, Ilena." Erlik took a soft step towards her. "Your spirit
quest has caused enough grief. While you have journeyed, six months have
passed. It is past time for the prophecy to come to pass. Let me love you."

"You already do love me." Ilena stepped up close to him and poked him in
the chest with a finger. "You cannot help but love me. You have lived in
my life for three years. You have given me nightmares and that makes you
feel guilt. You have helped to save the lives of those that I love, so
that I did not grieve."

He said nothing, so she continued on.

"You needed a mortal home to live in when you were freed from the pit
but now… now you have regained enough of your power that you could have
left me at any time after we left Senai in Lypse." Ilena stood back half
a step and met his gaze. "You chose to stay with me, even when Derrick
and I together meant that I could command you."

He lifted his hands and turned them so that he could stroke the back of
his fingers down her cheeks. "Here in this place, I can be anyone you
want, Ilena. Here, you could love me and believe easily that you were
with Myradin or Derrick."

His hands went to her shoulders, brushing aside her long curls. "Let me
console you, Ilena. Let me become part of you. Love me, fear me, do as I
say and I will be your slave."

His voice was very gentle, very beguiling.

Ilena just looked at him.

"You have no power over me," she said flatly.

Ilena turned and walked away from him.

There was a stunned silence from behind her.

"Ilena." Erlik said.

She kept walking.

"Ilena!" Erlik snapped.

She kept on walking.

"Ilena?" Erlik queried.

"Get lost, Erlik." Ilena tossed the words over her shoulder. "I'm going
away for a while. Do what you bloody well please. I'd like to see how
far you can get without me."

And then he was gone, because she did not wish him here in this place.
This was her spirit and Ilena was doing what she damn well wanted to.

Sand crunched under her boots. This desert wasn't real. Ilena knew that
it existed only in her dream, but it was her dream and Erlik could not
find her here no matter how hard he tried. She knew that in her dream,
she could spend as long as she liked here.

And just over that dream ridge there was a dream oasis and a dream tent.
She was going to have a little bit of peace for a while, and let Erlik
just go hang for all she cared.

*****

Tiliq took the children back to the living levels of the Underways,
never once guessing that things were changing in the small room that
housed the sleeping woman's form.

To be more precise, she was changing.

At the moment the room was empty of all save the woman laid out under
the white blanket of softest white wool.

Her long honey blonde curls were spread out over her shoulders neatly.
Her chest lifted and fell with infinitesimal slowness. She had been in
the deep spirit torpor for six months as her spirit healed. The shamans
were not sure if she would ever wake.

The long curls began to darken and straighten. Slowly, very slowly, her
entire form began to change. The only thing that remained the same was
the tattoos on her skin.

After a period of several hours, a man's form laid under the softest
white blanket of wool. He was typically In'ree in colouring. His skin
was olive hued. His hair was long and midnight black, a rough braid
drawn back behind the left ear into which was plaited a glossy raven
feather.

The inked patterns on his skin were the same as hers had been. Long
curls of black etched into his back to make stylised wings; and carried
on curling in intricate loops and whorls down his left arm to his wrist.
In the palm of his left hand, a red ink rose bloomed.

When they opened, his eyes were black, with the faintest of silver
smudges in his pupils.

He sat up and stretched, and stepped down from the altar and stretched
the cricks out of his back. He looked down at his naked form and nodded
approvingly. If she was going to make him wear her skin, then he was
going to wear it in a style all his own.

He could feel this body wasn't really his. The pattern deep below the
surface was still hers, although it was fully male now. He could just
about handle walking in a mortal form again, never mind all the
complications which came with being female. He could still feel Ilena in
the back of his spirit, like a thorn in his side.

He was particularly angry at her at that moment. He had given her a
choice between accepting him and getting rid of him, and she'd chosen to
gain control over him.

Bloody mortals.

And because of that choice she had kept him with her in a spirit torpor
for six months. Erlik had already spent close on a thousand years
twiddling his spiritual thumbs in the Underways. He had things that
needed to be done. He needed her to be out there walking about and
learning things, not laying on a stone slab like some martyred
sacrifice. And now? Now she was sulking! Who had given her the right to
sulk off into the spirit world and lock him out of it and leave him to
fend for himself?

Bloody women.

Several hours later, the man stood at the exit of the Underways. He had
Ilena's weaponry that he'd found in a corner in the small room. He was
wearing some clothes that he'd found airing on a washing line, and he
had the reins of a palomino stallion in his hand.

Ilena's stallion Suhayl had been the only one that had allowed him to
catch and harness him without making too much fuss.

All in all, he had managed to go completely unremarked upon by any of
the In'ree. After all, he was just one of many men; if he didn't let
anyone look too closely at his eyes.

Erlik Khan stood looking out across the Marches, and enjoyed the feel of
the cold wind in his hair. He had not walked the earth in mortal flesh
for nearly a thousand years.

He mounted the horse and nudged it into a fast trot.


*****
(posted by Suse)