Chapter 6 of a the book I'm working on. I'd appreciate any feedback you might have on it.
Althea, Loren, and Anju stared at Tarn. Loren had climbed to his feet after being knocked over when Tarn stood up quickly on the steps, and he now stood beside his partner.
“You’re joking, right?” Althea asked Tarn hopefully.
Loren raised an eyebrow and looked at her. “A death sentence from the High Priest of the Order of Samaryu is no joking matter, Althea,” he said seriously. “What did you do?”
Althea frowned at him. “Don’t you think I know that, Loren?” she replied sharply. “And I haven’t done anything! I have no idea why they would want me dead. He must have the wrong person.”
“I’m afraid not,” Tarn said gravely, dashing Althea’s hopes to pieces. He held his empty hand out towards them, palm face up. Tarn whispered a short phrase, and a small, translucent image of a redheaded swordswoman in black leather appeared, floating just above his hand. “This is the image of my target that Usiah gave me. As you can see, there is no mistake.”
Althea and Loren studied the image. “There’s no doubt about it,” Loren muttered grimly. “That’s definitely you, Althea.”
“Yes, it is. But why me? I haven’t done anything. I’m one of the good guys. Right?”
“Sure. I guess you are.”
Althea frowned at him again. “What do you mean, you guess I am?” she challenged.
He gave her a wry smile. “I’m just kidding, Althea. There’s no need to get upset. You’re definitely one of the good guys. I can’t think of any bad guys who would embrace that ideological nonsense of yours about not killing humans.”
Althea rolled her eyes. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Loren. This guy wants to kill me, and I’m unarmed. I left my sword in the pub.”
Althea saw the uncharacteristically serious, determined expression cross the elf’s face that she had noticed before. “Don’t worry, Althea,” Loren said. “He can want to kill you all he likes, but Anju and I won’t let him. We’ll always protect you. You know that, right?”
She smiled warmly. “I do. Thanks, Loren.”
Loren caught Anju’s eye and gave one slight nod. In one swift move, both elf and wolf stood in front of Althea, blocking her from Tarn. Anju snarled at the priest, showing him his sharp fangs. Loren glared at the young man with narrowed eyes and drew two daggers from the belt around his waist. With a dagger in each hand, he brandished the blades warningly at Tarn. “Make even the slightest threatening move toward Althea,” Loren told the priest in a cool, inimical tone that Althea had never heard the elf use before and which sent shivers down her spine, “and I promise you that, priest of Samaryu or not, you won’t live long enough to regret it.”
The look in the elf’s eyes and the tone of his voice gave Tarn chills. He could tell this was no ordinary elf. Although he looked like an elf, with his lithe body, pointed ears, and slanted, almond-shaped eyes, and his movements were characteristically quick and graceful, his actions and personality were anything but elvin. As far as Tarn knew, no elf would have engaged in such joking, good-natured banter with a human as this one had, and they certainly would not willingly risk their lives to protect a human. And that cold-blooded look in his eyes was definitely not elvin, Tarn thought. It looked more like the gaze of a trained killer. Just who is this elf? Tarn wondered. Well, whoever or whatever he is, I know I don’t stand a chance against him and the wolf. Even if I managed to get past one, the other would get me. And there’s absolutely no way I would ask Raven for help. Tarn looked the group over again, and his gaze rested on Althea. He had purposefully kept still during the chat between his target and the elf so he could learn a bit about them, and what he had learned had him puzzled. And her, he mused. There’s something about her that I can’t quite figure out. I think I’ll let her go for now. There’s still some time left to allow a bit of observation. From what I’ve learned here and earlier, she doesn’t strike me as the kind of person that Aerith would pick for her avatar, but for some reason she has. He paused in his musings as an idea struck him. And why would fate pair her up with this unusual elf, anyway? Or was it fate? Could it be that there might be some other way to stop Aerith’s rebirth, and they have some role to play in finding that solution? I must know more.
Tarn sighed and lowered his dagger slowly so as not to seem threatening. He closed his open palm, making the tiny image of Althea disappear. “Can we go inside?” he asked. “I wish to explain a few things to you.”
Althea and Loren looked at each other. The elf rolled his shoulders, indicating it was her decision. Taking a deep breath, she nodded her okay. Grabbing their packages, they led the way for the priest, with the wolf bringing up the rear.
* * *
Perched in bird form on a nearby roof, Raven watched in anticipation as Tarn met with the redheaded woman and the elf. When the dozing Tarn – in the thralls of a dream she had influenced with her magic powers – grabbed the elf in a rather tender embrace, she had to force herself not to laugh out loud and give herself away.
As the meeting escalated and appeared to be headed towards a violent confrontation, Raven grew excited and found herself eagerly hoping that Tarn would ask for her help. Those feelings quickly waned as the would-be brawl fizzled out like a wet torch and she cursed under her breath in frustration.
When the trio and the wolf headed into the tavern, Raven’s curiosity was raised. Not wanting to be left out of something interesting – and also seeing a possible chance of causing some mischief – she took flight and slipped silently inside the tavern before the door could close and found a perch in the rafters.
As she watched, Tarn took a seat at the nearest table while Althea and Loren took their packages into the kitchen area. The wolf, Anju, sat himself down beside Tarn and fixed his gaze unwaveringly on the priest. Tarn eyed the wolf in return, trying hard not to show any of the fear that the beast’s intense gaze created in him.
After a few minutes that seemed like forever to the priest, Loren and Althea returned from the kitchen area and joined Tarn at his table, placing dinner plates and utensils, a loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese, and a small hunk of cured beef on the table between the three of them. Then Althea left and made her way over to the bar.
“I’m afraid this’ll have to do for now,” Loren said as he began slicing meat, cheese, and bread. “Our supplies are still a bit limited. More is scheduled to be delivered tomorrow.”
“This is just fine, thank you,” Tarn said as he accepted a plate of food. “I’ve not had much to eat in the last few days besides travel rations.”
Althea returned then and passed around mugs of a dark amber liquid, then took a seat at the table. “Maarkessian brandywine,” she told the priest. “A perfect accompaniment for our first dinner in our new home, don’t you think? Just be careful, though. This stuff is normally strong to begin with, and it’s been sitting for ten years.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Tarn replied, then took a sip. “Delicious. And it does seem to have a bit of a kick to it.”
“And you,” Althea said, turning her attention to the elf who was just raising his mug to his lips, “try to go easy on the drink this time, all right? I’d prefer that you were lucid when we hear this priest’s story, Loren.”
“Yes, dear,” he replied with a wink and a good-natured smirk. Then he took a large gulp of brandywine, at which Althea rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.
“Why do I even bother,” she said. “You always just end up doing what you want anyway, despite what I tell you.”
Loren set his mug down and eyed Althea upon hearing her dejected tone. “That’s not true ,” he countered. “I’ve done what you’ve told me to lots of times.”
“I know. I know. But usually when you do, it’s when it’s convenient for you, or it’s under protest after I finally manage to badger you into doing it. It’d be nice if, once in a while, you would do something that I tell you to because I ask you to, and not because it’s convenient or because I made you do it.”
Loren just looked at her a moment, then picked up his mug again. “I’ll think about it,” he told her, and downed the rest of his drink in one shot. “But it wouldn’t be any fun,” he added, his words already starting to slur a little. “You’re rather cute when you’re upset, you know.” Then he sat his mug down and began to eat, pretending as if he hadn’t said anything.
Althea sat there and looked at him a moment, stunned. She felt her cheeks warming as a blush formed as she realized what he’d said. Then she took a large swallow of her own drink and began to eat, while trying to find a way to block out Loren’s words, which were echoing in her ears.
The exchange between the human and elf left Tarn feeling somewhat uncomfortable and a little embarrassed to have been a witness to it. But he couldn’t help but smile a little at how innocent and inexperienced the two seemed. With nothing to say at this point, and not wanting to ruin the mood, he ate his dinner in silence as well.
Meanwhile, Anju sat beside Loren and gave an occasional whine to try to get his master to give him some food, too. Loren ignored him. After a few minutes, Anju got frustrated and jumped up and put his front paws on the table so he could try to get food off Loren’s plate. But Loren called him down, and when the wolf was back on the floor, he gave him a piece of food.
“You’re only reinforcing his bad behavior, you know,” Althea said.
“I know. But he’s not trying to steal from you, is he? What would you do if he tried that on you?”
“I don’t know. Call him down. Go somewhere else where he can’t reach my plate. Something. But I certainly wouldn’t reward him for trying.”
Loren shrugged, and the two resumed their dinner.
Up in the rafters, Raven sat and watched the others eat. The exchange between the elf and swordswoman had been mildly entertaining, but now she was bored. Eager for something to happen, she considered creating a little bit of mischief, despite her promise to the priest. But just before she could decide on what form of mischief, the trio finished their dinner.
With dinner over, Loren placed a plate of scraps on the floor for Anju, then got up and refreshed their mugs with more brandywine. As he resumed his seat at the table, Anju settled down beside him on the floor and once again eyed Tarn warily.
“Now then,” Loren said, addressing Tarn with his arms folded on the tabletop, “I believe you had something you wanted to tell us, priest. Correct?”
“Right,” Tarn replied, clasping his hands in front of him on the table. “Well, as I said earlier, my name is Tarn, and I’m a priest of Samaryu. On the orders of my superior, High Priest Usiah, I was sent to find and kill Miss Althea.”
“Yeah, we know that much,” Althea said as she lounged back in her chair. “But what we want to know is why.”
“I was just getting to that. You see, every thousand years, Aerith, the goddess of destruction, chooses a human woman to be her avatar, so that she might walk the land and bring chaos and destruction to the world.”
“Let me guess. You all think she’s chosen me, right?”
“Yes. There is a special group within the order of the priests of Samaryu whose duty is to watch and prepare for this time, so that Aerith may be prevented from taking flesh. I was trained to be the one sent out after Aerith’s chosen one. One day, a few weeks ago, I was summoned by High Priest Usiah and was told that the time for which I had been preparing had come, and he gave me the image of my target – you, Miss Althea.”
“But how do you all know it’s me?”
“I have only the word of High Priest Usiah, but I trust him to be correct in this matter. He has spent many long hours deep in meditation and prayer to learn this information, and if Samaryu says it is so, then it must be. And yet…”
“And yet?” Loren repeated expectantly.
Tarn sat quietly for a moment, trying to choose his words carefully. At last, he ran a hand through his brown hair, heaved a small sigh, and continued his story. “Well, you see, I seem to be in a bit of a predicament now, for I am finding myself to be somewhat confused. When I set out on my mission, I thought it to be a rather simple assignment - find Althea and kill her so that Aerith cannot use her body. But I will admit that, after Usiah showed me Althea’s image, I thought it a pity that such a pretty woman had to die…” He blushed slightly and cleared his throat. “Anyway, it seemed like a simple enough mission, and since the information came from Samaryu through Usiah, I thought it accurate. But when I found Althea, I found her in the company of two extraordinary…individuals. And now I find that I am perplexed and somewhat doubtful.”
“I don’t quite follow,” Loren said.
“My apologies. I am still trying to sort it out myself. What seems to be confusing me is that, after seeing you all earlier, I have begun to wonder why Althea was chosen, for she does not seem the type. And I am also wondering why she has an elf and a rather unusual wolf for her companions, for it seems particularly odd and makes me feel that there must be some greater reason than pure coincidence. However, I do know one thing for certain, and that is that Althea is Aerith’s chosen one. Usiah said it, and my dream the other night confirmed it.”
Althea sat up straight in her chair. “A…A dream?” she asked weakly and somewhat fearfully. “You…You had a dream about me and…and her?”
The odd tone of her voice caused the priest and elf to both look at Althea in surprise.
“Althea, are you all right?” Loren asked in concern as he saw her green eyes wide with fear. Instinctively, he grasped her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
“Yes, I’ve had a dream about you and Aerith,” Tarn told her. “Though it was more like a vision; a warning, if you will.”
Althea held tightly to Loren’s hand, drawing comfort and strength from his support and the knowledge that he was there for her. She took a deep breath and calmed herself, then addressed Tarn with a steadier voice. “Could you tell me what you saw?”
Tarn and Loren both eyed her questioningly, given her previous reaction.
“You sure about that, Althea?” Loren asked with concern.
Althea, still keeping a tight grip on the elf’s hand, nodded.
“Very well,” Tarn said. “If you’re certain you want to hear what I saw, I’ll tell you.” He closed his eyes and recalled the dream. “It’s late afternoon in a forest clearing. You’re standing at the edge of the clearing, watching a man with graying brown hair fighting a group of orcs. You call out to him.”
“Master Liam,” Althea said softly, her eyes focused on the priest in surprise - the dream sounded very familiar.
“Yes, that’s what you said,” Tarn confirmed. “The orcs managed to beat the man to the ground. Then there was a whistle, and the orcs stepped away from him. A cloaked figure stepped from the opposite side of the clearing and walked up to the man on the ground, then laughed as it ran a sword through his chest. Then the figure lowered the hood of its cloak, revealing it to be you, except for the eyes. The eyes…”
“…were entirely black,” Althea finished weakly. “And she said it was ‘time to awaken’.”
Tarn’s blue eyes opened and regarded Althea. “So, you had the same dream, it seems. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Loren looked from Althea to the priest. “But what does it mean?” he asked, confused. “And how could you both have the same dream?”
“I’m not quite sure what the dream means,” Althea said. “It’s an incident that happened many years ago. Except the end is different.” She picked up her mug of brandywine and took a big swallow. “It was when I was fifteen. I had been Master Liam’s apprentice for a couple of years. He’d taken me on after I ran away from the orphanage, and he’d become like a father to me. He taught me how to be a monster hunter. Anyway, one day he was hired to get rid of a group of orcs in the forest. We decided to split up to cover more ground. When I caught the sound of battle, I ran towards it as fast as I could. But I got there too late. I took care of the remaining orcs, but Master Liam was already dead. After that, I hunted monster alone, until Loren and I met.
“I had thought that the dream was my subconscious trying to tell me that I was blaming myself for what happened to Master Liam, but I didn’t know why it would bring that incident up all of a sudden, since I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, and the other Althea’s words make no sense in that context.”
“Of course not,” Tarn said. “That was Aerith. She invaded your mind while you slept, pulled out a very emotional memory, and adapted it into a dream so that she could communicate her message to you.”
“But what kind of message is ‘it is time to awaken’? And how did you have the same dream?”
“I figure Aerith showed me the dream to let me know that time is running out for me to stop her, to tell me that she is preparing to make her move. As for the meaning of her words, they are a declaration of her intent to use your body – to ‘awaken’ here in this world in your body. That’s probably also why she appeared in your dream looking like you.”
Althea and Loren sat silently, absorbing everything Tarn had told them. Suddenly, Althea slipped her hand from Loren’s and stood up quickly, startling Anju and the others.
“Damn it!” she said loudly as she slapped her hands down on the tabletop. “It’s not fair! It’s just no fair! Why me? And why now? I just bought this place! I’m finally about to make my dream reality, and this happens! It’s...It’s just not fair!”
Her body began to shake slightly, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Loren hopped up from his chair, hurried over to her and hugged her tightly. She turned her face into his shoulder and cried. Anju came over, laid down beside them, and whined softly in sympathy.
“It’s all right, Althea,” Loren said softly. “It’s all right. I’m here. Everything will be all right. We’ll figure out something to take care of this. You’ll see.” As she continued to cry in his arms, the elf turned his attention to the priest. “What can we do to stop this Aerith character?”
Tarn watched the pair for a minute. “Well,” he replied at last, “killing Althea would be the most expedient way.”
“I’m sure it would,” Loren said flatly. “However, that is not an acceptable option. So what other options are there? I’m sure there must be something that we can do that does not involve my partner dying.”
Tarn stared at the elf and swordswoman as he considered the problem for a moment. “Well,” he finally said, “there may be one way. Mind you, I’m stressing the word ‘may’.”
“Whatever it is, we’ll do it,” Loren replied, echoing Althea’s excited determination of the other day when she addressed the magistrate.
“Very well. I will need think on it a few minutes, to make sure of my surmise. Your friend there seems to have fallen asleep in your arms. Why don’t you take her up to bed, then meet me back here so we can discuss this futher.”
Loren nodded, swept Althea up in his arms, and carried his partner upstairs.
When Loren returned from getting Althea settled into bed, he found the priest still sitting at the table, with his eyes focused on the bar and a look of surprise on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Loren asked as he sat down at the table. Anju settled down on the floor next him with a yawn and rested his chin on his paws.
Tarn jumped slightly in his chair, the elf’s sudden voice having startled him. “Oh, uh, nothing,” he said, turning to face Loren. “I just thought I saw something over there. That’s all.”
“Oh?” Loren asked, deeply interested. “Like what?”
Tarn waved a hand dismissively. “Forget about it. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
Tarn sighed. “Well, alright. I saw – or thought I saw – a man standing behind the bar. He was there for a second, then was gone.”
“Really? What did he look like?”
“He seemed to be in his late forties, maybe. He had short, dark hair, a white shirt, brown pants, and a stained apron. He smiled, waved hello, then vanished.”
Loren laughed hearitly. “This is great!” he cried out. “Terrific! I dare Althea to call me crazy, now!”
Tarn stared at the elf, his brow creased in bewilderment. “I....I beg your pardon?”
“I saw him myself, yesterday,” Loren explained. “But Althea thought I was hallucinating. You see, she doesn’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ghosts? You mean, this place is haunted?”
“Supposedly, according to the townsfolk. The man we saw is – according to rumor – the original owner, Smitty, who died accidentally while trying to stop a brawl that had broken out. But I wouldn’t worry too much about him. He’s harmless.”
“I’m surprised to hear you speak so calmly about it. I thought elves didn’t like ghosts, that they were considered unnatural.”
“Oh, we don’t like them. Just ask Althea. I gave her a hard time about buying this place. But I think that, as long as old Smitty stays harmless, I’ll be able to deal with his presence.”
Tarn nodded thoughtfully. “You are a rather intriguing elf, Loren, if I may say so. Very atypical, you are. May I ask why that is?”
“You mean, why do I share company with a human, and why is my behavior more human than elf?”
“Yes. I find myself very curious about it.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but it’s not something I like to talk about. Not even to Althea, ans she’s asked me many times to tell her.”
“I see. Fair enough.”
The two sat silenlty a moment, contemplating each other. “So,” Loren finally said, “what’s this idea of yours to help Althea?”
The priest took a moment to compose his response. “It is obvious that you care for your partner, and I heard you promise earlier to always protect her, so I feel that I ought to warn you that the undertaking, should you agree to it, will not be an easy one, and will most likely put Althea in even more danger than she is now.”
“But it will still give us a chance to stop Aerith and help Althea, right?”
“It’s a small chance, but if it works out, then yes, it very well could.”
“Then we’ll do it, whatever it is. I don’t care how dangerous it might be. I don’t want to lose Althea. She’s the closest thing to family I have, and I’ve sworn to myself to protect her, no matter the cost.”
Tarn gave a slight nod. “Very well. Then I shall tell you what my idea is.”
“I’m all ears, so to speak.”
“First, seeing as you are her protector, you should be made aware of the fact that I am not the only person who has been searching for Althea. I just happened to find her first.”
“So who else wants her?”
“Aerith, of course. She will need Althea when the time comes, so she will have sent out a search party or two of priests and soldiers to track her down and capture her, and to hold her until time for the ritual.”
“Yes. The ritual is what will allow Aerith to take over Althea’s body. This is the crux of my idea. If we want to stop Aerith and save Althea from becoming her avatar, we must prevent this ritual from happening.”
“Ok. Now I think I’m beginning to understand why you said it would not be an easy undertaking.”
“I have yet to explain the truly difficult part. According to my studies, there are two magical items required to perform the ritual and allow Aerith into this world. Now, if we are to do this, we will need to get these items and destroy them before Aerith’s high priests can get hold of them – and of Althea.”
“That doesn’t sound too difficult,” Loren said hopefully.
“The items have been lost since Aerith’s last attempt one thousand years ago.”
“Oh. That could raise the difficulty factor a bit.”
“You think so?” Tarn replied sarcastically.
The two sat quietly for a few moments, the seriousness and difficulty of the task at hand leaving them speechless. Finally, the lateness of the day and the brandywine caught up to them, and Loren found himself yawning. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right,” Tarn replied with a wave of his hand. “I’m getting tired myself. Perhaps we should retire for the night. We can discuss this some more in the morning.”
“Good idea. And Althea should be feeling well enough to be able to join in the discussion. Seeing as how this directly concerns her anyway, she really should know about all of this.”
“Yes, of course. You’re right. She should be made aware of this.”
Loren stood up, followed by Anju and the priest. “There is a guest room upstairs you’re welcome to use, if you haven’t already made lodging arrangements.”
“Thank you. I have not made any other arrangements, since I came straight here once I reached the city. So I believe I will accept your offer.”
“Very well. It’s the first door on the left. I’m going to check on Althea before I turn in.”
“All right. Thank you again. Good night.”
Tarn made his way upstairs and entered the guestroom. Loren and Anju followed him up and went to Althea’s room.
“Althea?” Loren said softly as he entered her room. Anju stayed back by the door. The room was dark, but there was enough moonlight leaking in from the curtained window to allow Loren to see clearly with his elven sight that Althea was sleeping fitfully. He could also hear her muttering in her sleep. He walked quietly over to the bed and knelt beside it. “Althea?” he whispered.
“Loren...” she murmurred in her sleep. In her fitful slumber she turned over to face him. “Loren, don’t go.” The tone of her voice sounded desperate to him. He wondered what she was dreaming. From her fitful sleep, he figured she was having another nightmare. As he watched her, her fitfulness seemed to become more frantic, and her muttering grew louder. “No, don’t leave me! Please!” He saw tears trickle down her cheek. “No, no! Don’t die! Loren!”
Loren started to reach out for her but, before he could, Althea’s eyes snapped open. As soon as she saw him, she sat up and, still crying, threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around him in a fierce hug. Loren’s arms wrapped around her in return. “Shh,” he said softly. “It’s all right. It was just a bad dream. That’s all.”
“I...I know,” she managed to say through her tears. “But it seemed so real. And...And the overwhelming feeling of lonliness...of being all alone...”
“You’re not alone, Althea. I’m here. I’ll always be here for you.”
“I promise. I’ll never leave you, Althea.”
They knelt there quietly for a moment, just holding each other. “Loren?” Althea eventually ventured to asked softy.
“Yes, Althea?” he replied in kind.
“Will...Will you stay here with me tonight?”
“If you want.”
“Thank you.” And with a contented sigh, Althea fell asleep in his arms.
Still holding her, he carefully sat down on the floor and leaned back against the side of the bed. He gently kissed the top of her head, then fell asleep himself.
Anju, who had watched the whole thing silently from the doorway, quietly padded
across to the floor, settled down beside the couple, and went to sleep.
Raven had watched from the rafters of the pub while Tarn explained things to the elf called Loren and human woman named Althea, and while Tarn discussed things together with Loren after Althea had gone to bed. When Tarn and the elf themselves retired, she considered things. She decided she would tag along when Tarn and the others left to try to help Althea, since it promised to be interesting and exciting - and she was certain she would be able to find an opportunity to cause some mischief at some point. But for the time being, she wondered if she should try to spend the night in Tarn’s room. As much as the idea appealed to her, he might not like it, and if he got upset with her, there might be some noise that would attract unwanted attention from the others, especially from the wolf. She decided it would probably be better to remain where she was until a better time came to reveal herself. So, remaining in bird form, she tucked her head under a wing and went to sleep up in the rafters.