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Ridahne was lost. Lost in a swimming abyss of mismatched sounds and shapes that flowed outside the passage of time. She was outside the passage of time. Did that make her dead? If she was, she knew someone at least would be there to receive her. Keeper? She wondered, though she could not speak the word, as her lips felt heavy and numb, like things that did not belong to her. Of course they didn't. She was dead.

Dead.

The gravity of that really hit home. Darin would be alone now. She had done her duty insofar as she had protected the Seed Bearer from the Red Hand...or most of it. She couldn't speak for the lone archer who disappeared after her. But though she had won that small battle, there was so much ahead of Darin that Ridahne should have been there for. Hadn't Ravi told her not to throw her life away? She was not disposable, she had a job to do. Idiot. She should have done that differently but....how? What could she have done differently? She really didn't know.

Darin, if you're out there...I'm sorry. I tried....please forgive me...

And then she was aware of new sounds. Muffled, distorted things but they were new. Her awareness sharpened a little. Could that be the Keeper? She felt hands on her very physical, very alive body and realized with a shock she'd been wrong. Not dead. Dreaming. Her mind spun. She knew the four she fought were dead, which meant only one Red Hand was unaccounted for. The archer. A spike of fear rose up within her, and she pictured for a moment that he had captured Darin--or worse--and had now come back for her to finish the job and be free to do whatever wicked things he wanted. Whether Darin was alive or not, Ridahne knew that she would absolutely not stand for that, and no one but Darin would ever touch the Seed of Astra. Not on her watch.

Ridahne, who had been slack as Darin started to hoist her up, suddenly took in a breath, gave a strangled howl of rage that with her swollen throat was terrible to hear. The elf's legs came to life suddenly and she lurched to the side away from Darin, and one empty hand swung hard like it still had a knife in it. Thankfully she neither was holding a weapon, nor did her hand connect with anything but air. Her wounded leg gave out immediately but by sheer force she stayed up and swaying on the one leg like a drunkard, both fists clenched for a fight.

"NO. Not on my watch you son of a--" Her breath caught. That was not the archer. Ridahne's heart leapt in her chest and tears immediately sprang from her eyes. "Darin!" Whatever rage commanding her body to stand melted away immediately, and so did she. Ridahne dropped again, and her teary eyes went distant and blurry for a moment as she nearly lost consciousness again. And though she held onto consciousness like a drowning rat, her eyes did not sharpen again. "You're alive!" Her voice was a raspy squeak like she'd lost her voice due to illness. "The town...just south of here. Get help. You'll have to tie me to the saddle. Get my blades." Her eyes had drifted shut, but they snapped open suddenly. "The archer! What happened?"
Rohaan was a very good lockpick, exceptional really. Berlin had taught him everything he knew and Berlin was one amazing thief, plus he'd learned some things in his short hard life on his own. But he hadn't touched that door. The blonde smiled. "Windows, mate. People living in high towers think they're safe from the likes of me. But then, they've never met me." He laughed. But his mirth was sort of clipped short a bit when Xander called him tainted. It wasn't an insult, especially not coming from the partially transformed boy, who obviously really was tainted by the Darkness. Rohaan probably earned a bit of trust from that assumption...just...it wasn't true. Rohaan had been able to shift since he was a toddler, and he had not personally encountered a Dark creature until he was about five. There weren't many near his tiny island home, as they were far from the mainland. But the ocean has Dark depths, too. His father had been there to protect him then, and neither had been infected. No, Rohaan's and his father's shifting had nothing to do with the darkness. Yet people were so convinced otherwise.

Rohaan did not speak on this at the moment; what would he say anyway? Berlin, and subsequently his crew, were the first people to ever see him as anything more than tainted. They weren't the only ones, but that list was sadly few. He'd tried explaining once or twice before, but they'd always scoffed at him, or resented him more for trying to pretend he was normal and whole. He'd think of what to say to Xander eventually. The boy stepped forward and actually revealed his mutated arm; Rohaan inspected it with a mixture of fascination and pity. "That's really something, innit? I'll admit, I don't actually know much about infections like this. Does it erm, does it hurt? How's it feel?"

Most people would have leaped back and some would even pluck a coal from the fire and try to burn the lad on the spot. But not Rohaan. He kind of saw himself in Xander a bit. Looking at him once again reminded Rohaan of the night he'd met Berlin. Rohaan was a half-feral, starved, beaten thing at the time and had tried to pickpocket the sea captain. He was caught, but instead of beating him or shouting for the local guard, Berlin let him go and followed him. The man did not see a monster, he saw potential. So when his attempts to coax Rohaan to him with food were unsuccessful, and since they did not share a language to communicate with, Berlin captured him. It seemed a great injustice at the time, but Rohaan learned fast that it was the greatest gift he'd ever been given in his life. Xander's story was different in many ways, but Rohaan couldn't help but see an outcast in the lad, and himself a fellow outcast who could help him. After what Berlin had done for him, how could he refuse that gift to someone else?

Down in the common room, Rohaan mopped up the runny egg yolk with a chunk of bread with relish. But he'd been relatively silent. Thoughtful. Rohaan was a talkative sort usually, but he was still sort of hung up on Xander assuming he was cursed. Rohaan didn't really take it personally--Xander wouldn't know better. No one did, especially not a kid from a small hamlet. But it gnawed at him still. Probably because they were going to be traveling together for a while. Partners. Xander needed to understand the truth.

"We aren't tainted," he said, seemingly out of nowhere between bites of bread. "Shifters, I mean. I know that's what you've been told. But it's not true. Yggdrasil never paid any attention to us, cursed or otherwise. My people barely even believe in him, or at least not the ones from my tribe. We're a people. A whole culture with history and traditions. We have a language. Didn't know that, did you?" He smirked a little, pointing to each different food on his plate as he spoke unfamiliar words in a thick accent that made it clear where he came by his usually more subtle one. Rohaan sighed, a little defeated. He doubted Xander would really believe him anyway. Few did. "Doesn't matter, not really. But there's a lot you don't know."
Yeah no worries!


Tevira

She is a legend among sailors, rumored to be the queen of the sea. Of course, few actually believe she truly exists, but the legend of Tevira and other mermaids is a tradition as old as sailing itself. As the stories go, she is a marvel to behold, with hair like night, eyes like the dawn, and skin like fine porcelain. The legends vary about what color her scales are, according to the region. Some say they're dark blue, some say they're a deep green like crushed pine needles. Others say black and iridescent like the back of a beetle. All say that she is captivating, beyond compare, and mesmerizing to watch.

Sailors around Errandil have a deep love for the myth of Tevira and sometimes will wax poetic about supposed encounters heard 'from a friend of a friend'. Some tales speak of sailors being mysteriously saved after being tossed overboard by wild seas. Some tales tell how the arrogance of a cocky sailor would anger the mermaid and cause such wild storms. And yet there are tales that describe seasoned seamen, stout in body in mind, suddenly leaping overboard on foggy nights, claiming they were following a melodious tune. They were never seen again.

More practical men will attribute these tall-tales to dolphins or other whales that might take an interest in people, the fickle weather of the open sea, and spoiled rations driving men mad. Others are convinced that Tevira is out there and was sent by Yggdrasil to govern the seas. The truth is not known.

Tevira is known for both being benevolent and cruel, just like the sea itself. She is considered to be a true neutral entity with motivations of her own and little real care for the fate of Errandil's seagoing folk. Depictions of Tevira are common as figureheads on ships.
Rohaan laughed, his lapis and black eyes alight with real mirth. He was the kind of guy who was very obviously and visibly rough around the edges, and for good reason. Life had not been kind to him, and though he'd weathered whatever it threw at him, he did not do so without scars. Some literal, some metaphorical. But still, Rohaan was a generally jovial sort of man. And everything about him was relaxed, like at any moment if the roof caved in and the whole town lit on fire, it'd be no skin off his back. He projected a kind of untouchability, though it could also perhaps be called arrogance. Neither were wholly wrong, as he was jaded and experienced in many things, but did have a bit of an ego.

"Tevira's tits boy! Don't you remember what I told you?" He made a mock-disapproving clicking noise with his tongue. "When I said I was the dirtiest and the rottenest of thieves, I wasn't blowing smoke. Nor was I kidding when I said I was a shapeshifter." Something occurred to Rohaan and he studied the fumbling boy as he scrambled to hide himself, though he didn't need to. Rohaan was curious and would ask about the arm in his own time, but he was undaunted. Unlike most people, he lived his life in the quiet places of the world where decent folk did not dwell, and where Dark things roamed. Unlike most people, Rohaan had lived his life being treated as if he was of the Darkness. A boy with an infected arm was a curiosity and a misfortune. That was all.

"You don't really believe me, do you? Or maybe you do now--go on, inspect the door. I'm a decent lock pick but I assure you I didn't pick that one. But you didn't last night, did you? I'm curious to know what you do believe. Perhaps I can enlighten you on some things." Rohaan shrugged nonchalantly. Xander could tell him he was a demon straight from Hell and Rohaan wouldn't be much offended. He'd heard it all before anyway.

Xander still seemed somewhat flustered even as he hid away the knife and suggested they go down for their meal. Rohaan laughed again. "You ain't traveled much have you? Or maybe it's just me. Ain't nothing light gonna be about my breakfast, no sir! I'm an opportunist at heart, always have been. Living on the streets will do that to a kid. But hang on a moment." Rohaan reached out a hand and clapped it on the boy's shoulder. The shoulder concealed by the cloak. And those eyes of his drilled right into Xander's. "Let's straighten something out here right quick. I saw that thing, Xander." His eyes shifted to where his arm lay under the cloak. "I ain't gonna hang you, boy. You don't have to hide from me like a first-time whore." Rohaan smiled. "Now, I'm mighty curious as to how you came by that, but I ain't gonna press. And if you can stomach traipsing Errandil with a black-blooded thief, I don't think your arm is going to bother me, kid." Rohaan's tone touched on serious for a moment before he playfully slapped his back. "We're partners now after all, aren't we? We ain't got use for secrets. Now c'mon, I smell toast."

Rohaan went downstairs, but as he did so he turned up his hood. He wanted breakfast, not a beat-down. After a quick word with the innkeeper and an exchange of coin, Rohaan seated himself with a plate full of plump sausages, a fried egg, a slab of very fresh bread with some equally fresh butter, and a bit of cold chicken from the night before. Absolute heaven! Rohaan did not often get the luxury of hot food on a plate and to actually get it was a real treat.
Faced the Darkness in the eye, had he? Rohaan found that to be odd and noteworthy. Most people didn't survive to tell about it unless they were guardsmen, mercenaries, or....well, him. He'd seen a few dwarves that got a kick out of hunting them down, though Rohaan supposed they could be lumped in with 'guardsmen' in their own way. Rohaan lived on the road and sometimes off it; he had to deal with various Dark creatures often enough, and he was well equipped to face them. But this kid was no shapeshifter, no mercenary, and no fully fledged guardsman. Rohaan itched to know the story but he wasn't about to ask it just yet. Patience. They had only just met each other after all, and it was never a good idea to ask too many questions up front. He'd save that for later.

Interestingly enough, the boy took up his offer. Rohaan's surprise at this was in no way veiled or disguised; the man blinked at the boy with raised eyebrows. Rohaan had just spelled out every reason he should turn the other way and run, and yet this one decided he was worth sticking around. And without hesitation, too. There had been times in his life when a desperate person would bend the rules a bit to get some help from him in one little thing or another, but they always hummed and hawed about it, squirmed and eventually with some disgust they would agree. But with reluctance and disdain. And while Rohaan liked knowing he at least had useful skills to offer, it was nice for once to be accepted without so much cursing and scowling.

He laughed, and it was relaxed and merry. "Alright kid. You got yourself a deal."

Rohaan watched Xander go, planted himself at one of the larger tables to ply some local news and some casual chat out of the men there, then eventually retired himself. He had come here for a bed, after all, and boy did he get one. By decent folk's standards it was lumpy and thin, but to him it was like an entire mountain of fluffy down. He slept soundly and heavily until early morning. He meant to sleep in a bit later but someone else was moving about and making enough noise to keep him up, so he left the Inn and did a bit of a walk around the tiny settlement. During this walk, he pilfered a small bag of coin and a slim, small knife, which he brought back to the inn.

Rohaan did not, however, use the door. He took note of the fact that the window to the room he reasoned was Xander's was ajar (the nights were getting warmer after all). And, making sure no one was around to see him, he changed shape into a raven and flew up through the window and into the room. The blue-eyed bird hopped from the sill and then shifted into the shape of Rohaan. His hood was off this time, and his shoulder length blonde curls were a bit of a mess where they'd come out of his ponytail in his sleep. And as always, his eyes were bright against his olive-tone skin. Rohaan gave a cheeky grin. "Knock knock. The old man's about to serve breakfast downstairs. And I brought you something." The thief took a sheathed knife, sleek and flat, from his belt and offered it out to Xander. "Dunno if you had a weapon already, but figured even if you did, a hidden one is better than two visible ones. Find a comfortable place to stash that and don't be caught without it, and you'll be alright. Just uh...maybe keep it less visible until this place is behind you. Wouldn't want someone to confuse you for a thief."
There was a lot of blood on Ridahne's leg. It did not slow her down. In fact, it only served to fuel her battle-rage and in the moment, she could hardly register the pain of it. She felt heat only, a dull burning sensation that buzzed somewhere at the back of her mind. She was relieved to hear Talbot gallop away, knowing that his rider would be far safer on the run than standing firm like she was doing. There was never any shame in playing to one's strengths, and Ridahne knew that hers were best used right here, absorbing the attention of these people long enough for Darin to get away. But the archer had fled with her. She inwardly cursed but had no choice but to continue the fight with the other two.

Hrendi kept back and watched with a smug grin on his face, but his two mates came at Ridahne relentlessly. They lacked the hesitation of Mark and his human companions and had far more skill and strength than any of them too. It had actually been a while since she'd encountered an opponent as skilled as they were, and in any other circumstance she would have congratulated them on their hard work and praised their skill. But not now. Now, they were dead men. Two against one was a hard fight, but Ridahne had been trained for this. Not only was she precise and quick, but she was calm enough to really think through the situation, read their body language, and exploit any faults she found. She saw an opening and delivered a swift kick between the legs to the man, though before she could follow up the crippling blow with a more fatal one of her own, the woman with the broadsword brought down a heavy swing and Ridahne was forced to dance out of the way.

The man was down for a few moments so she had space to focus on the woman. She was well armored and strong, and her sword had far better reach. But she was slow. Her moves, by nature, had to be sort of 'heralded' by her body language and so if Ridahne paid attention, she could predict what she was going to do. The woman made another heavy swing, Ridahne slapped away the blade with her knife and while the woman was recovering, Ridahne's sword swept down to cut off one of the woman's hands. It came away cleanly. The woman screamed; she could not wield the broadsword with one hand, so as a last resort she hurled it at Ridahne. The blade spun around in a dangerous arc like the hand of a compass and was too large to avoid. Ridahne tried to block it, but there was only so much of the massive blade she could block and part of it swung around to clip her in the side. The blade bit deep into her, but not fatally, as it had lost a lot of momentum due to Ridahne's efforts to block it. The Azurei howled as her side burned, but she leapt at the woman fiercely. The Eluri had picked up a stone and thrown that at her too, and it struck Ridahne in her ribs with a painful crack. However, the woman was soon impaled by Ridahne's knife and could not gloat over her hit for long.

The man was back up again. Disoriented by the low-blow, he was not as formidable as he once was. Ridahne was breathing hard but snarled at him and spat. He circled her for a moment, and just when he tensed up to charge and strike at her, Ridahne was bowled to the ground by Hrendi, who had decided finally to join the fight. The force knocked her sword out of her hand, but the left still clutched her knife. She managed to turn over but then both men were on top of her, pinning her down with their combined weight. She screamed, a sound like a feral animal, and struggled with every ounce of energy she had left. Hrendi was on her chest, on her broken rib with his hands around her neck, squeezing with both hands. The other man had her hands, one of which was still squeezing her knife like it was a lifeline. For a moment, she was completely stuck, and she might have been bested had it not been for Mitaja. The cat leaped out of the shadows and went straight for the man's throat. He had not seen her and had no defense against her, so the cat viciously and easily bit into and tore out the throat of the still screaming elf, leaving Ridahne free to deal with Hrendi.

Her vision was already growing black and fuzzy. She barely had the strength left to lift her blade even once to plunge it into Hrendi, and he retaliated by bashing her head into the ground with stunning force once, twice, three times. She stabbed him again and he faltered a little, his grip on her throat loosening enough that she could draw in a painful, raspy breath. She bucked, kicking him off of her, and as he struggled to right himself she leaped on top of him and stabbed him six times in the chest. The last five were not necessary; he was already dead. But it didn't matter to her.

He lay still. The once tumultuous patch of road was now eerily silent except for the painful rasps of Ridahne's labored breaths. Absolutely spent, starved of air and rapidly losing blood, Ridahne collapsed in the brush beside the road. She was so, so dizzy. But she had to get to Darin. She HAD to. By nothing except sheer force of will, she made one arm reach out and claw into the soil and drag her broken body along as one leg feebly pushed. Once only she managed this, and then for a moment lost consciousness. When she came to again, it was only a few minutes later. Mitaja was licking her face fervently between distressed yowls. Ridahne just felt numb. This was it, she was sure. She would die here on the road, but Darin now only had to contend with the archer. If she'd protected her from anything, anything at all, then she'd done the best she could.

"Mitaja..." her voice was a hoarse, wispy croak. "Darin...protect...Darin..." The cat hesitated but did eventually disappear into the gloom. Ridahne sighed. Mitaja would find her. They'd be okay. And as much as she wanted to get up, mount Tsura and follow, she knew she was spent. Ridahne thought of her mother. She thought of the warm days spent on the beach as a girl, combing the sands with her mother for pretty shells. She thought of the song that her mother would always sing to her at night under the stars by the fire. And as the numbness began to set in, Ridahne spent her little remaining strength rasping out the song in a gasping whisper. The last thought she had before unconsciousness took her was that she'd seen this before. With Ravi at the Farm, she'd seen her own death after all, and only realized it about halfway through the song. The only anxiety she held was wondering about Darin. She needed to just get up, and if she could do that then she could find the Seed Bearer....but she was...just...so...t i r e d....

---

The night deepened. Time passed, but then it seemed like an eternity had gone by since Darin had fled with Talbot. Ridahne did not come. The animals began timidly speaking again, little insects made hesitant chirping sounds and every so often there was a gentle rustle of leaves made by a creature that would rather remain unseen. But still, Ridahne did not come. Mitaja did. Her glowing green eyes shone first, and the cat bounded towards Darin with both grace and speed. But something about the way the cat's black-ringed tail twitched and swished gave her a rather harried look. The cat yowled loudly, once, twice, circling around Darin's legs a few times before actively leaning on her as if pushing her forward. The cat would take a few steps back in the direction she'd come, stop, look back at Darin, circle her once, and do it again. The message was abundantly clear: Darin was to follow. And it was urgent.

--

At a distance, the only evidence that Mitaja had come to the right spot was Tsura, standing restlessly just beside the road. On closer inspection, there were bodies that littered the area. The lantern that Hrendi had once held reflected off glinting dark blood on leaves, grass, and bodies from where it lay discarded. One body had a torn open throat, and from the blood on Mitaja's face it was easy to guess his fate. But one form lay just beside where Tsura stood guard over it; there was a knife still clutched in her hand while the other was still motionlessly clawing at the dirt in the direction Darin and Talbot had fled. Her dark wavy hair was matted with blood at the back, and around her right leg and the left side of her abdomen was a pool of blood. Everything in this clearing seemed to be stained with red, but even so, her clothes were still obviously blue.

Ridahne.

The elf was unconscious and her labored breath was shallow, but she was alive. Barely. Purplish marks were already blossoming around her neck where she'd been choked, her left side was wet and red, and the broken-off arrow was still in her thigh. Even her inked face was smeared with blood, though whether it had come from her or one of her fallen enemies was unclear. The scene was solemn and gruesome.
Rohaan smiled, but it faded quickly. This kid needed to know what he was in for. And Rohaan wasn't so sure he did. There was the matter of survival out in the wilderness with all the Dark creatures out there, and some that were as plain and untainted as a lamb and yet just as wicked, if not worse for knowing better. Rohaan was well acquainted with those sorts, and he had the scars to show for it. But he could help with that, Rohaan had been dealing with those sorts of problems since he was a boy. No, what bothered the shapeshifter was the fact that the kid did not know who he was, and did not seem to know what he was either. He would not have someone who wanted to destroy the darkness find out halfway through the journey that he was a grayblood. Rohaan was not of the Darkness, and neither were his people, but that didn't stop most people from believing that.

"Understand something, Xander. It's going to be dangerous. I think you know that, and that's good. Believe me when I say I sympathize with your cause and I want to help you. And I can. I will. But first you have to know who you're taking up with. If we part ways here and you learn nothing else from me, learn this: be wary of people, Xander. Not all of them are good. And not all the good ones are who you think they'll be. Protect yourself. Because very few people in this world will do it for you."

Rohaan tipped his mug all the way back and tipped his chair back a bit on its hind legs to reach over and set his empty mug on a nearby table. "My name is Rheoaan Rohaan Rio Ja'aisen and I'm a black-blooded shapeshifter with at least one warrant out for my arrest in almost every kingdom. I was raised by pirates, and it's entirely possible I've killed more men than you know." He shrugged casually. "Dunno how many people you know but...you get the idea. I'm a compulsive pickpocket and I have a loose moral compass. Now, I'm not a complete degenerate monster and I'm not of the Darkness, despite what people would have you believe. But if none of that bothers you, and you're willing to bring me along with the understanding that I'll bring some logistical problems, I'll see to it your sister gets that medicine, and that you live to tell the tale. You don't have to decide now. Sleep on it if you want, I'll be here. I want hot breakfast." He grinned a little and shrugged.

"I got me a bunk in the big common room. Top one next to the window, if you need to find me for any reason." He stretched out, folding his hands across his chest as he enjoyed the heat of the fire.
Post is up. Feel free to play any of the baddies and do as you like with them.

Also, some bad news, my hands (mostly the left) are not doing well--again. Some days, typing is hard, so I might not get particularly long/frequent posts for a while. I am also going to ask about surgery on Friday with my DR so that might be on the horizon too, which will make posting understandably difficult. Probably won't stop me from one-handed pecking at the keys so I can do SOMETHING with myself if that happens, but they might be significantly paired down.
Ridahne had a fierce gleam in her eyes as she looked around them, searching for any sign, any movement, any new noise. Nothing. When they had encountered Mark, she had been rather cavalier about him. At least, until he approached them and then she was downright sour. But he had not seemed so much of a monster then as Darin had said he was. Besides, there were few humans that could match her skill with a blade, as the fact was that anyone who'd held a blade for as long as she had could no longer lift one. But this was different. For one, she had seen and touched the Tree. She was Seed Chained and therefore bound to it, and that sharpened a sense in her she didn't even know she had until now. But she had it. What was more, these were possibly Eluri, and that shifted the odds a bit. While the Eluri as a whole were never known for their skills in combat, that did not mean that no individuals studied the craft.

"Yes. I remember." Her words were so soft, barely audible and yet they were harder and sharper than broken glass. "I feel it too." Differently of course, but she did feel it. There was a wrongness she could not ignore, something that made her teeth itch. "I don't think we'll get to camp tonight. We will make a stand one way or another." Ridahne sidled Tsura directly beside Darin so she could lean in close. "You may command me, Seed Bearer, but this is my territory here. If I tell you to run, you run. No questions asked. No matter what. If you can, you will take Talbot with you." It was beginning to darken in earnest, even more so under the leaves. "If that happens, and we're separated, meet back here, but be sure they've gone first. For now we--"

Something tightened in her stomach as the feeling of unease intensified. "We make our stand right here. They're coming."

It was not an immediate thing. They did not burst out of the gloom as soon as she'd spoken. Instead, the two had time to prepare themselves a little. Ridahne dismounted and removed one knife from its sheath with her left hand. The right, her sword-arm, she kept empty...for now. Timing was everything. Mitaja sat with her back facing her handler, yellow eyes shining in the darkness, tail twitching. And there was at once a breath of unbearable tension, immediately broken by the sound of approaching feet.

There were four. They were all tall and slim and light on their feet, but none had the dark skin of the Orosi or the tattoos of the Azurei. Eluri. There were three men and a woman, though the woman was taller and broader than any of the men. She had a very large broadsword across her back. One man had a strung bow in his hands; he hung near the back. The other two had curved, naked swords. Aside from their weapons, they did not look like a malevolent bunch at first glance. Like Mark and his gang, they looked relatively inconspicuous, but they were unmistakably unwholesome. One of the sword bearing men held a lantern; he held it high.

"Is this the one they call Torzinei?" The woman lifted her chin, inspecting Ridahne, then nodded. Clearly, she knew something of Azurian customs. "Ah, the Azurei traitor. We've heard news of you, murderer, but we have waited a long time to meet you. Very long. It's a pleasure to see you in the flesh."
Ridahne felt a chill. They hadn't just heard of her, they'd seen her. "You sound disappointed," she sneered. "Do I not live up to the rumors?"
The elf's eyes drifted to Darin knowingly. "No. You don't. And neither does your....friend. But I'm far from disappointed, Torzinei. You've done just as I hoped you would. Just as I saw you would."

Mitaja, who had once been by her master's side, was gone. She had slunk away out of the light and had melted into the nearby shadows. Ridahne gave her knife a twirl in her hand, letting the light catch on its surface and glint menacingly.

The man grinned. "Come now, are we savages?" He laughed, but there was no joy in it. "We have not introduced ourselves!"
"No need. You already know me."
"Yes, we do. Let me introduce myself, I am Hrendi of the Red Hand, and these are my associates. But tell me, who is this friend of yours, Torzinei?" It was a rhetorical question; by his tone, he already knew, but he just wanted to squeeze it out of them.
Ridahne sneered, showing teeth. And with disdain she said, "my associate."
Hrendi laughed mirthlessly. "How ungracious to your host. You are a a guest here, both of you, and you ought to have better manners. Though I'm not sure what I expected from the sand rat who killed her own Sol." He really was disappointed then when he didn't get a rise out of Ridahne. So he turned his attention to Darin again and smiled cloyingly. "I'm not sure what I expected from the Seed Bearer, either, but I did expect...more."

"Enough!" Ridahne's voice was a clap of thunder in the silence. "You already know how this is going to end, so why don't we finish it? Come here, if any of you are brave enough to face me. I will show you Azurei steel." Ridahne reached behind her and drew her falchion with slow relish, letting the soft whisper of the leather against the steel fill the air between them. Ridahne spared only a second to look at Darin, and to throw them off, she spoke in poorly accented Siren. "Go! NOW." Ridahne took a breath, adjusted her grip on both her blades, and dropped into a fighting stance. But as she did, a sleek arrow came forth from the darkness and struck her in the right thigh with a wet thump. Ridahne howled, but it was more a war cry than a shout of pain, and with a heavy swipe of her knife she cut the remaining shaft, leaving only a broken, bloodied nub. Furious, she charged Hrendi but he stepped back and let the other swordsman engage her first, along with the broadsword-bearing woman. His prize was not the elf.

The wood, once quiet with the emptiness of unnatural silence, was now filled with grunts and growls and the ring of steel on steel in the darkness.
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