17749 words (70 minute read)

Chapters seven - ten


The Southern continent was not much warmer, as Eithne had hoped it would be. Though, the icy wind died down as they got further away from the coast. The party had been travelling for seven days since getting off the ship. Croel and one other had chosen to return with the ship to Tomak. There were now only eight left in the party, ten if Eithne counted Darian and herself. Even though it had been a week, still no one spoke to her except Darian. The most she could get out of anyone else was an annoyed grunt or disapproving look. Of course, Eithne was not trying all that hard to make conversation. She completely understood why they did not want to speak to her, and she didn’t know what they would say to each other anyway. The days had been uneventful and quiet. None of the party was happy. However, Eithne suspected that Darian’s temper had subsided at least, which made her feel better.

The eighth day seemed as if it would be more of the same. They awoke in the early morning, and set out on the trail. Things changed abruptly around mid-morning. As the party was coming around a bend in the trail, a large horned demon stepped out in front of them. It held a hefty club that it was suggestively slapping into its big palm. The demon’s ugly yellow face sneered at them maliciously. Darian reined his horse to a halt and motioned for the rest of the party to stop behind him. There was a rustle behind them. Eithne turned around in her saddle to see three other demons step out of the forest. They were surrounded. Eithne had never seen a demon before, but knew enough about them from her reading to know that it was not a fair match. Even though they outnumbered the demons by six, the demons had the upper hand. Each demon stood at least seven feet tall, and brandished a wicked looking weapon. It was well known that demons were at least twice as strong as an elf, not to mention that they innately possessed special abilities that generally gave them the advantage in a fight. Eithne had read a lot about demons, and she had learned that some of them could even spit acid or had sharp needles that shot out of their skin. It was frightening. This was going to be Eithne’s first real fight, and it was very likely that she was going to die. Her heart began beating frantically and she swallowed hard.

“Give us your valuables, and we will let you pass unharmed.” The big yellow leader stated boldly in rough common.

Darian waited a few seconds before responding. “What if we refuse?” He spoke in the common tongue. The demon clearly did not speak elvish.

The sallow demon grinned, exposing black pointed teeth. “Then we take the valuables by force.” It’s eyes drifted to Eithne. “And probably have one of you for dinner.”

Eithne felt her stomach turn over. She had very strong feelings about becoming dinner. She was firmly against it.

Darian slowly drew his blade, and held it at the ready. The rest of the party did the same. Eithne tried not to shake as she drew her sword out of its sheath. She had never felt so terrified. It felt like she was going to be sick, and was certain that her bottom lip was quivering.

“Keep control of your mount. He’s going to spook when they come at us.” Darian whispered to Eithne. He could see how nervous and upset she was, and he needed her thinking clearly in order to survive this. “Stay close to me, and remain focused. You’ll get through this.”

Eithne wanted to thank him for that small comfort, but was not granted the opportunity. The demons rushed in on the party. The big yellow one came straight for Darian with its giant club. Darian reared his horse up on its hind legs and pummeled the demon back with its hooves. While the demon tried to evade the pummeling hooves, Darian used his sword to slash at its throat. His opponent stepped back so that the blade only scratched its chest. Darian pressed his advantage, and urged his horse forward.

At first, Eithne’s horse gave a shriek of panic and tried to rear. She was able to restrain the horse with great effort, then she got her bearing of the scene around her. None of the demons had gone immediately for her. They targeted the most formidable looking fighters first, so Eithne was able to assess her surroundings. It seemed almost calm at first. All around, everyone else was engaged in battle, but no one was attacking her. Suddenly, a demon with reddish brown skin and long, sharp talons on its fingers grabbed her thigh and tried to drag her from her horse. Eithne reacted quickly and brought her blade down hard on the demon’s wrist. Such a blow would have severed the hand of an elf or human, but demon bones were much thicker and harder. It cut into the bone, which was enough to make it let go. As soon as it did, Eithne turned her horse and tried to get to Darian’s side. Her attacker found a new target within seconds.

Darian was still battling the yellow leader, and he was doing well. It looked as though he was about to win when the demon brought its club hard on his horse’s forehead right between its eyes. The animal was dead instantly and fell limp taking Darian down with it. His leg was pinned beneath the dead beast, and for a moment, Darian was trapped. His opponent grinned its black pointed grin with vicious pleasure as the demon advanced with the intention of smashing Darian’s head in. The demon leader was practically salivating at the prospect of the kill. Eithne rushed up behind the demon, who was oblivious to her presence, and made a wild stab at the back of its neck. Her sword jutted out the front of the demon’s neck, and she looked on in horror as blue blood spurted from the wound. The yellow demon gurgled with shock, and fell to the ground dead.

In the meantime, Darian struggled out from under his dead horse. Before Eithne had even realized what she had done, he had dislodged her sword for her, wiped the blood from the blade and held it out for her to take, but she was too stunned to take her weapon. The fight was over. They had won, though not without a cost. Two of their men were dead, and another was seriously injured. Eithne was still in a state of shock for more than one reason. She had just survived her first fight, killed for the first time, and now she was seeing death in battle for the first time. Nothing she had ever read could have prepared her for the overwhelming despair that gripped her heart. She wanted to look away from the blank lifeless faces of people she used to know, but it was difficult. Then she felt her horse move beneath her. Darian had taken the reins and was leading her horse to where Proithen knelt over the injured Elrick.

“How bad is he?” Darian asked.

Proithen looked up and shook his head. Eithne came out of her daze and leaned over to get a better view of Elrick’s injury. He had been stabbed in the side, and was sweating feverishly. There must have been poison on the blade that stabbed him. She forgot her shock, and started thinking like a healer. She dismounted to help him, but as Eithne tried to stand her right leg gave out. Darian caught her as she fell, and frowned as he looked at her leg.

“You need attention too.” Darian said matter of factly. Eithne looked down at her leg, and saw three deep gashes above her knee where the demon had grabbed her. It must have been its sharp talons that caused the gashes. She wondered why she had not felt it before. Now that Eithne saw it, she felt the sting of pain, but chose to ignore it.

“I’ll take care of that later. Right now, I might be able to help Elrick.” Eithne said, and hoped that none of them heard the slight quiver in her voice. She really had no idea if she could help Elrick at all, but she had to try. She leaned on Darian’s arm as she knelt down to attend Elrick.

Proithen looked to Darian for approval. Darian nodded and handed down Eithne’s pack. She took out her waterskin, and put it to Elrick’s lips. Then, poured some water over his wound. Whatever the poison was, it was moving fast through his body. She needed to work quickly to try and combat the effects. The cut was clean at least. It would be easy to stitch closed. Eithne asked one of the other men nearby to search the dead demons for an antidote. If one of them carried a poison blade, then it only stood to reason that they would have an antidote in case of an accident. It was worth trying. She began preparing the needle and thread to close the wound. She was about to begin stitching when Proithen put his hand on hers to stop her. Eithne looked at Elrick, and realized that he had stopped breathing. Elrick was dead. Eithne pressed her lips and looked away to keep from crying. Proithen closed Elrick’s eyes and walked away.

Darian helped Eithne stand. “Come on, let’s take care of you next.”

Eithne nodded dumbly and allowed him to lead her over to a good sitting place. Darian told her to stretch her leg out straight, and then he used a knife to rip open her trousers around the gashes. If she were a man, he might have had her remove her birches in order to get a better look at the wound, but that was out of the question. This sort of contact made Eithne slightly uncomfortable. A man had never seen her bare legs, or touched them before, but there was nothing sexual about the contact. He took out his water skin and doused the gashes to wash away the blood. There was a lot more blood then Eithne thought there should be. After inspecting the cuts, he decided to stitch it closed. He gingerly took the needle and thread she still held in her hand to use on her wound. All was quiet while Darian concentrated on mending. The stitches pinched as he worked, but it was tolerable. Eithne watched what the others were doing while he worked. The rest of the men were rounding up the horses, and dragging the dead bodies off the trail as well as taking care of their own minor injuries. Darian’s horse was too heavy to move, but they collected his belongings from the dead animal and began loading them onto one of the horses whose previous master was now dead. The whole scene seemed rather mechanical and very depressing. She noticed that after other things were taken care of, the men started using their swords to dig out graves for their fallen comrades.

“Is it always like this?” Eithne asked in a small, almost childlike voice.

“This was a bad raid on us.” Darian answered without looking up or pausing in his work. “Those demons were tough. I’m actually glad that we only lost three. It doesn’t dull the pain of losing them however. I wish it did. Elrick wanted to marry when we returned…” His voice trailed off. Darian finished stitching the second gash and began work on the third. Eithne was surprised that it didn’t hurt more. Perhaps her body was simply numb.

“I owe you thanks.” Darian said after a quiet moment.

Eithne blinked at him. She didn’t know what he meant.

“You managed to save my life back there. Thank you.” He clarified.

Eithne was taken aback. She had not realized what she had done, but as she replayed the scene in her mind, she saw that it was true! It had been completely by chance. Of course, she was trying to help him, but she had not been sure of exactly what she was doing in the moment at all. It had been a lucky blow.

She gave a nervous laugh. “Well, neither one of us imagined that would happen. Anyway, after all you have risked for me, thanks is hardly in order.” Eithne was pleased with herself, but also embarrassed. So, she tried to make light of the situation.

“You saved my life, Eithne. Don’t dismiss the nobility of your actions. You have earned respect from more then just me this day.”

Darian’s words caused her to blush. She looked down at her hands clutched in her lap while he finished mending the gashes on her thigh.

After the burial of their three comrades, the party continued along the trail. The mood was silent and still, but Eithne noticed a change in the way the men acted toward her. They no longer ignored her, or gave her hard looks. It seemed that they were coming to accept her presence now that she had proven herself to a degree to be worthy of travelling with them. Some of them may have regarded her survival of the fight as sheer luck, even Eithne thought that was partially true, but she had saved Darian’s life. No matter how lucky she may be, the men no longer doubted her spirit, and that is what really mattered.

On the eleventh day of their journey into the Southern continent was horribly unpleasant. A freezing drizzle fell on the party, and slowly soaked into their skin. Everyone was miserable. The mood of the group was dark and grumpy. Eithne found nothing better to do then to mull over her own thoughts to distract herself from the icy cold. In her pondering, she came upon an unanswered question: Just where were they going anyway? Darian still had not told her, and she believed she had the right to know. Eithne kicked her horse forward and came up beside Darian. He nodded at her as she approached, but said nothing.

“Where are we going?” Eithne asked in low tones.

It was obvious to her that the question startled him, but he maintained his composure. “To the center of the Southern continent.” He replied frankly.

“What’s there?” She pressed.

“A network of caves. At least, that’s what I’m told.”

Eithne was getting tired of his game. “Darian, what is the point of this mission? I need to know, and you’re being indirect.” She said with a hint of impatience.

Darian eyed her with annoyance. “And you’re unruly, but I suppose you deserve more information.” He paused while he thought on how open he should be with her about the mission. He decided to tell her everything. Darian didn’t know why he felt such compulsion to communicate so openly with Eithne, but he wanted to confide in her. Despite her feisty attitude, he knew that she could be trusted. He took a quick look at the others to be sure that no one else was listening. “Have you ever heard of the Stone of Elissiyus?”

“I’ve heard the legend. Do you think it exists?” Eithne was surprised. Most people thought the legend was just that, and that the Stone of Elissiyus did not exist. It was said that, long before the Heavenly Wars, there lived an extremely powerful wizard named Elissiyus. He had foreseen the death of the gods, and so he imbued a large quartz gemstone with all of his powers in hopes that it could be used to ease the suffering of the world. It was said that whomever possessed the stone could do or have anything they wanted, even have the power to become a god themselves! Of course, in the wrong hands, the stone could create great evil. To combat this problem, the great wizard placed a charm on it wherein no one with evil intent toward the world or others, nor could any single person alone find it. There had been many stories of the stone’s location before, but since the world had changed so much, even those who believed that the Stone of Elissiyus existed, considered it to be lost.

“I have heard that the Stone of Elissiyus does exist, and that it is hidden in the caves at the center of this continent.” Darian stated plainly. Eithne noticed that he kept his voice very low and looked around to see if anyone else was listening to the conversation. The rest of the party seemed to be absorbed in their own thoughts, not paying any attention to them.

“But no one has ever seen the Stone of Elissiyus. Its existence was never confirmed. People aren’t even certain that Elissiyus himself existed.” Eithne couldn’t suppress her feeling that this mission may be all for nothing.

“Times are hard, Eithne. Crops are failing everywhere, and people are dying. There isn’t much left to believe in, but the stone has the potential to save us all. I have chosen to believe in it because something good has to be out there.” Darian spoke with soft conviction.

“You’re trying to save the world?!” Eithne exclaimed in a whisper.

Darian turned his head and met her eyes. “Somebody has to do something. I’m not the sort to sit idly by while everything around me slowly dies.”

Eithne felt admiration for him swell up inside her. She never knew how nobly ambitious and kind Darian was before this moment. She thought that he might be the best person she had ever known, or would ever know. “Do the others know what we are looking for?” She asked.

“I have told them we are looking for an ancient artifact that may help our people, but I have not mentioned the Stone of Elissiyus specifically. I would appreciate it if you did not tell them either.” Darian answered.

Eithne nodded her assent. She had no intention of saying anything to the rest of the party. She understood why Darian would want to keep that information secret. It could make their Captain seem like a desperate person. Though, these were desperate times.

They rode for a while in silence. Neither of them wished to continue discussing the subject in the company of others. Eithne longed to learn more about the mission. She wanted to know if there was more to the legend, and how Darian had acquired his information.

Eithne was about the broach a new topic of conversation when they came upon another traveller. The traveller wore a black hooded cloak, and was about the size of an elf or human, but they could not be sure what this traveller was. Demons came in all shapes and sizes. The traveller walked alone, and paid them no mind even though they must have heard the group of seven riders coming up behind them. Darian motioned for the party to stop. He rode up to the stranger on his own to see if they posed any threat to the group.

“Travelling alone is dangerous these days.” Darian stated in the common tongue as he approached and reined up his horse beside the traveller.

The traveller turned toward Darian, exposing his identity. He was an elf man with black hair and brown eyes. He had the look of a city elf, but Darian guessed that he had not lived in a city for a long while. His skin was tanned and his clothing was that of a nomad.

“I’ve learned to handle myself well enough.” The traveller responded in elvish.

“My name is Darian. My party and I are headed south. What is your name, friend?” Darian switched to speaking in elvish as well.

“I am called Aram. I am also headed south, but I do not wish to reveal my business.”

Darian nodded with understanding. He did not wish to reveal his business either. He liked Aram, and instinctively felt that he could be trusted. City elves and tribal elves rarely socialized, but there was no feud between them. “Why don’t you travel with us until our paths part? There is safety in numbers, and we would be glad for the fresh company.” Darian offered with a smile. “We even have a spare horse that you could ride.”

Aram was quite surprised at Darian’s offer. No one had ever shown him this courtesy before. He was pleased by the invitation and agreed to travel with Darian and his party for a while.

Darian called to have a horse brought over to Aram. Oddly, the animal seemed to spook a bit when Aram mounted up. The horse was definitely uneasy about its new rider. No one said anything, but Aram felt their confusion. Elves of all backgrounds were renowned for their ways with animals. Aram looked embarrassed and made an excuse about never having a gift with horses. The party accepted this well enough for the moment, and they all continued on the trail south together.


Eithne liked Aram. He was very quiet, but that meant he didn’t say anything unpleasant either. Also, she found him to be very handsome. His features were straight and delicate with deep brown eyes lined with thick lashes. His hair was a lustrous black that fell about his face in an unruly fashion and curled slightly at the ends. Aram was tall with a warrior’s build. Eithne guessed that he was a talented fighter, and wanted to ask him all sorts of questions about fighting techniques. When she did ask, Aram would humor her to an extent, but didn’t seem to like talking about himself, and would always cut the conversation short to avoid doing so. Still, he was willing to enlighten her more about combat then the rest of the men, and it pleased Eithne greatly. It seemed that city elves did not have the same social rules for women that tribal elves did.

Darian liked Aram as well. He wasn’t as chatty about it as Eithne, but he found himself enjoying the newcomer’s company, and that they had certain things in common. Also, Darian couldn’t quite explain it, but he felt a kinship with Aram. He suspected that the feeling was mutual. Though, Darian also sensed something else in his new friend. Aram was obviously a formidable fighter, he did not flaunt it, but it was clear. It was also obvious that he was keeping a great many secrets. This did not make Darian mistrust him, but, all the same, he was hiding something. The horse they lent him never warmed to him, even after several days. The other horses shied away when Aram was close too. Darian could not put his finger on it, but there was something darkly different about him.

The men had mixed feelings about their new companion. They accepted him into the group willingly enough, but didn’t seem to like his quiet attitude. They wanted to know more about who they were travelling with, and would even prod Aram with questions when the opportunity presented itself. The most any of them could get out of him was that he was one hundred twenty eight years old and had been raised in the elven city of Amara, but had been living on the road for sometime now. As far as anyone knew, the city of Amara had escaped devastation after the death of the gods, and so Aram’s reasons for leaving must have been of a personal nature. Some of the men even suspected that he was a fugitive who lived his life on the run, but Aram would nothing to confirm or deny this notion.

One night, after Aram had been travelling with the party for a week, Eithne lie awake in her bedroll. Darian appeared to be asleep only a few feet from her. Most everyone else in the party was awake. She could not see where Aram had gone, but knew he wasn’t close by as the others were talking about him.

“I still think we should voice our concerns to Captain Darian.” Said Finnis. “I just can’t trust him, and I don’t know why the Captain trusts that pretty boy either!”

Eithne smirked at the term ‘pretty boy’, remembering how she had been called that when she had disguised herself as a boy for the try-outs.

“I agree he can’t be trusted, but he has to be leaving soon. He’s only supposed to travel with us for as long as we are going in the same direction. It’s absurd to think he would be going to the same place that we are. Let’s just wait for him to leave.” Proithen urged. He did not like Aram either, but also had complete trust in Captain Darian.

“Is it so absurd to think that he’s going to the same place?” Countered Finnis. “What if he’s after the same artifact? Just because our mission is secret doesn’t mean that others aren’t after the same thing. I think we should tell him to bugger off before he steals the artifact from us!”

“I agree with Finnis. I don’t think that Captain Darian has been himself lately, and we need to talk some sense into him. Look at us! He already has us travelling with a woman who thinks she’s a man, and now this stranger! Something is wrong with him.” Dal said in a heated whisper. They were all keeping their voices down so not to wake the others that were sleeping.

It hurt Eithne to hear the men talk about Darian that way. She had always known Darian to command the utmost respect from his men. That they doubted him was quite a blow. She glanced at Darian again to see if he really were asleep. He was lying on his side facing her, and he did not betray any signs of wakefulness. Eithne was glad. It would hurt him to hear what they were saying about him. She pretended to roll over in her sleep to see if she could locate Aram. The men paused in their conversation as she moved, but resumed quickly. Eithne still could not find Aram. His bedroll was laid out, but he was not in it. She was tempted to get up and find him, but perhaps he was seeking solitude. Besides, she didn’t want the others to know that she heard their conversation. Eithne closed her eyes and tried to sleep.

Aram was not far from the camp. He sat on a boulder looking up through an opening in the treetops. It was a clear and starry night, and he liked feeling the fresh cold air in his lungs. He could hear every word of conversation between Dal, Finnis and Proithen, and was not in the least bit surprised by what they said. Aram was not used to being made welcome. His secretive nature put off most people, and if he were honest with himself, he had begun making a habit of putting them off anyway. It had been years since he had been invited to travel with anyone, and his first instinct had been to reject the offer, but there was something about Darian that made him accept. Aram felt that they had some common connection somehow, and even felt trust. If Aram’s circumstances had been different, he would have considered himself to have found a friend. He liked Eithne as well. She was very odd for a tribal elf woman, but clever and personable. He also felt that she didn’t judge him. Perhaps it was because she was a bit of an outcast herself, but it was a good feeling not to be looked upon with judgment. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself companionship of other elves, and truly enjoyed the company, but he would part ways with them tomorrow morning. He could not stay. It was obvious that Aram was not wanted by the rest of the party. Also, he feared that Finnis was correct about them all being after the same thing. Aram had to admit that he had also expected to part ways before this and found it uncanny that Darian also seemed to be headed for the caves. Aram could not be sure just how many had heard the rumor about the Stone of Elissiyus. He sighed and starred up at the nearly full moon, listening to the men’s faint conversation back at the camp. He wondered if Darian was awake to hear it.

The next morning, Aram packed his gear and told Darian that he was leaving. Darian was disappointed.

“You know, you don’t have to leave on account of those three.” Darian offered in low tones. “You’re more then welcome to continue with us if it suits you.”

Aram found himself smiling, which he rarely did. “Thank you, but I must head west from here.”

“Well then, I wish you the best of luck. I hope our paths cross again someday, my friend.” Darian held out his hand.

Aram gripped his hand with gratitude. “I truly hope we meet again as well. Thank you.”

Aram said a brief good-bye to Eithne, who was equally sorry to see him go. He did not bother with the rest of the party, as they were happy to be rid of him. At least they wouldn’t be staging a mutiny because of him now. Aram headed west out of sight, then resumed his course south, through the forest. He would stay off the trail from now on to avoid meeting Darian’s group again.

Aram travelled alone for two days and found a decent spot to camp on the second night. He would be at the caves by mid morning tomorrow, and hoped to get a good night’s rest before then. He had no idea what could be lurking in the caves. He also hoped to get an early start. It was possible that Darian could reach the Stone of Elissiyus before him, and Aram did not want that to happen. He needed the stone for something very important to him. Something that would change his entire existence, make it better. However, Aram mused that after his need of the stone had been fulfilled, he would give it to Darian. Aram only wanted one thing, and was not the type who wished to be beholden of great power. He preferred a quiet life.

Aram heard a twig snap underfoot. Someone was near his campsite. Aram did not douse his fire, as whoever it was would have already seen it. Dousing it would only let them know that he had detected their presence. Instead, he slowly rose from his position, drew one of his daggers and stealthily began tracking the noise. About thirty feet out he came up behind the figure of a short, humanoid female. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to sneak up on him or sneak past him. Either way, he wasn’t going to wait to find out. Aram rushed up behind her silently and put his dagger to her throat.

“Why hello there, Wolfie!” She said in a womanly voice. “I guess I should have known you would get the drop on me.”

Aram was startled by her reaction. It was actually friendly and charming. Except for the “wolfie” part. He didn’t appreciate that at all. He wasn’t even sure what to do with her for a moment he was so taken aback. Who in their right mind responds that way to a stranger who just put a dagger to your throat? Aram decided to take her back to his camp for interrogation and security. He could tell that she as neither elf nor human. He could smell what she was, a demon. Aram began roughly escorting her in the proper direction.

“You know, there’s no need to be like this. I don’t have any plans to hurt you. I was just hoping for a little company is all.” The she demon protested verbally, but she made no attempt to get away, or reach for her sword, which gave some credit to her words. Still, Aram made a habit of not trusting strangers who try to sneak up on you in the middle of the night.

Once at his camp, Aram took away all of her weapons and bound her wrists and ankles. He realized that she was actually rather beautiful once he could see her face. The only clues to her demon heritage were a pair of black curling horns emerging from a thick mane of violet hair. Other than those features, one could swear that she was a city elf by her appearance. She had deep blue eyes that were almond shaped, a small button nose, full lips and sun kissed skin. Her body was also quite alluring. She was petite and curvy with full breasts, which her low cut blouse only accentuated. Aram had to keep himself from starring.

“Wolfie, stop starring! You’re making me blush.” She said coyly and smiled at him.

Aram wondered if this was her true form or just an illusion.

“Stop calling me wolfie. Now, who are you and what were you doing sneaking around my camp?” Aram demanded.

“Well, even though you’re being a little rude, I will answer because it’s what polite people do. My name is Yocelin, and I already told you that I was just looking for some company. I thought that since we are both sort of outcasts it would be a welcome idea. I guess I was wrong.” She smiled politely back at him, as if she were having a civil conversation in a sitting parlor, not tied up in the middle of the forest. “What is your name if you don’t want me to call you wolfie?”

“Why so anxious for company? Also, is that your true face?” Aram ignored her inquiry for his name.

Yocelin rolled her eyes and made a little sigh. She was getting frustrated with him. “Well, nobody likes to be alone all the time, do they? Besides, I will need a companion for tomorrow, and thought you might need me too.” She smiled enticingly. “Oh, and of course this is my true form! Don’t you think I would have gotten rid of the horns otherwise? I know that you can smell what I am just as much as I can smell what you are.”

“Why should I need your help tomorrow? How long have you been following me?” Aram did not like the idea that she had possibly been tracking him for some time without him realizing it.

“I’m not answering another question until I know your name.” Yocelin stated plainly and stuck her chin out sharply.

Aram did not want to tell her his name out of principle, but what harm would it do? It wasn’t as if he were known anywhere, or wanted for anything. He always did his best to go unnoticed and had become quite successful at it. “You may call me Aram.” He conceded in a stubborn tone. “Now answer my questions.”

Yocelin smiled brightly at him. “Aram, it’s nice to meet you. Regarding why we would need each other tomorrow, I assume that you are also seeking what is hidden in those caves. Well, the legend says that no individual person can find it; you have to have a companion. Seeing as we are both alone, I thought we could help each other out. I only need one thing and then the stone is yours.” She kept smiling as she spoke in a very persuasive way.

Aram had forgotten about that part of the legend until she mentioned it. There was no way to know if it were really necessary to have a companion, but it was better to be safe than sorry he supposed. He studied her more closely as he blinked at him, waiting for his reply. She didn’t look like much, but was still a demon and that meant that she was probably full of surprises. Aram knew that he was stronger than her physically, but that didn’t merit taking undue risks. Also, Yocelin appeared to be cunning. Who knew what else she may be planning? Aram decided on his course of action.

“Alright, we will go into the caves together tomorrow.” He said.

“That’s a relief!” Yocelin beamed. Then, she realized that he made no move to untie her. “Well, what are you waiting for?”

“I didn’t say I would untie you. We can go into the caves together with you as my prisoner.” Aram said matter of factly.

Yocelin made a little huffing sound. “I’ll just wriggle out of these ropes. You don’t think that I haven’t been tied up before, do you? Elves and humans alike hate me because my horns give away my heritage, and other demons hate me because I look like an elf. People have been tying me up to take me prisoner or kill me for most of my life, and, well, I’ve gotten away every time obviously. So, you should just save me the trouble and untie me now. I promise to be very good. I won’t go anywhere, and we both know that you’re stronger than me.” She looked at him expectantly.

“You talk too much.” Aram responded flatly, and laid out his bedroll to get some sleep.

Yocelin made a frustrated groan. So, that’s how it was going to be. She had truly been hoping for some companionship, and friendly conversation. It looked like she was just getting an uncomfortable night and the silent treatment.

Aram came over and checked the ropes to be sure that they were still intact. He even added some extra knots to be safe. Yocelin followed his movements with her eyes, looking peeved. He ignored her expression and went to his bedroll, lay down and went to sleep. He was just drifting off when Yocelin loudly announced: “I’m cold.”

Aram sat up and glared at her.

“I can’t believe that you would treat me like this!” She continued. “You must know what it feels like to have no one want you because of what you are, even though you’re a perfectly nice person! It’s horrible that you can do these things to me without even thinking twice about it. Even though you must know exactly how terrible it feels!” Yocelin very much disliked this particular injustice that she was being dealt.

“You said you could get out of them anyway. So, why don’t you fix your own problem?” Aram responded shortly. Though, he did know how it felt to be treated that way, and it was terrible. Still, he wasn’t sure if he could trust her. Something told him that he probably could trust her, but he wasn’t in the mood to take chances.

“It’s not that I can’t do it, but the principle of the matter. You need to have a little bit of trust in me if we are going to find the stone together.” Yocelin appealed.

Now that was a valid point, Aram had to admit. He stood and went over to her. He knelt beside her and looked her in the eye. Yocelin looked back and did not waiver. After a moment, Aram took out his dagger and cut her bonds.

Yocelin smiled and leaned into him with a slight giggle. “I’m adopting you.” She said and touched the tip of his nose with her finger.

Aram jerked his head back. “Did I just untie a crazy person?”

Yocelin laughed. “Of course, I’m not crazy! It’s just something I do when I decide that I like someone enough to be their friend. When I said that I’m adopting you, I mean that I will now take care of you as my friend.” She kept smiling.

“It’s still a bit loony.” Aram said and went back to his bedroll. She had thrown him off, and it was obvious. She was a strange woman. “Just go to sleep now.” He rolled over and tried to rest.

Yocelin didn’t care what he thought. She got her things prepared for the night and went to sleep.

When Aram woke the next morning Yocelin was gone. He had no idea when she had snuck away, but he was very irritated about it. He had actually trusted her to stay after her pretty speech last night. He was a fool for thinking that she would keep her word. Though, Aram supposed it didn’t really matter. He could very well find the stone by himself, without her. Aram quickly packed up his belongings and headed for the caves, trying very hard not to think about the part of the legend that said that no single person alone could find the Stone of Elissiyus.

Aram was not far from the campsite when he came upon something curious. There was a small package wrapped in a piece of black cloth and tied with a blue ribbon. It was very odd, but unthreatening. Perhaps some other traveller had dropped it, perhaps Yocelin. The little parcel did remind him of her somehow. Aram bent and picked it up. There was something solid inside. He shrugged and pulled the ribbon loose. The package contained a dead sparrow. Its neck had very recently been snapped. He wrinkled his nose at it, confused and a little appalled. Dead things didn’t bother him, but it was very queer to find a dead bird giftwrapped in the middle of the forest. Aram dropped the sparrow where he found it, and continued on his way.

As he continued to the caves, Aram found several more black cloth packages, all containing similar “gifts.” A dead squirrel, dead chipmunk, more dead birds, etc… Another person may have been deeply disturbed by this morbid breadcrumb trail, but Aram was simply annoyed. He had a very good idea who was leaving presents for him.

There was no sign of Yocelin when Aram got to the caves, but he could smell that she was close. He approached cautiously and drew his sword as he walked. If Yocelin had wanted him dead, she had had opportunity enough, but he didn’t know just how crazy she really was. She could be the sort who enjoyed playing with her food before devouring it. Just as Aram was about to enter the caves, he saw something move off to his right. He turned slowly, and started to look around a large boulder. Yocelin stood from her hiding place and face him with a smile.

“I shouldn’t even try to hide from you.” She said in her charming voice. “Did you like your presents?”

Aram studied her for any sign of aggression. She was relaxed with an open and friendly demeanor. Her sword was at her hip, but she showed no indication of using it.

“Why did you leave without me this morning?” Aram asked irritably.

“So that I could leave you the presents, of course! I thought it would be nice to have lunch together once you caught up with me.” Yocelin answered as if her intentions were obvious.

“Lunch?” Aram was perplexed.

Yoceliin held up a freshly killed squirrel by its tail. “I’m a demon. What do you expect me to eat? I thought that you might like to eat the same things given your situation.”

Aram understood now. Demons were carnivores that generally preferred their meals raw, so it made sense that Yocelin would view dead birds and rodents as tasty morsels. He still thought that she was probably a little crazy, but sweet in a way and not a real danger to him. In fact, it seemed that she was trying her best to befriend him. It was odd.

“I don’t eat like that.” Aram returned plainly.

His response sounded a little rude to Yocelin, and she pouted. “So you didn’t like your presents?”

“No.” Aram was not overly concerned with her feelings.

Yocelin sighed and looked crestfallen for a few seconds. Then she brightened again, smiled at him and shrugged as if to redeem herself from the disappointment. She took a seat on the ground and began getting some items out of her pack. Aram watched her with curiosity as she took out a knife, fork, napkin, and flat smooth piece of wood. She placed the squirrel carcass on the piece of wood, and arranged all of the items in front of her for dining. She looked up expectantly at Aram.

He looked back at her with confusion. “What?”

“Aren’t we going to have lunch? I don’t want to go looking for the stone on an empty stomach.” Yocelin continued to look at him with pleasant expectation.

Aram considered being stubborn about sitting to have a meal with her, for it was his inclination. However, there was nothing to be gained by being stubborn in this instance. It wasn’t as if she were forcing him to eat the dead things she had left along the way for him. It seemed that she was genuine about wanting to enjoy a meal together. Aram resigned himself to the situation and slowly sat down across from Yocelin. They sort of starred at each other for a moment, not sure what the other was going to do next. Then, Yocelin laid her napkin across her lap, picked up the knife and fork, and began cutting small pieces from the squirrel carcass and politely eating them. Aram went into his pack and took out some dried meat. They sat in silence for a while. Each doing a visual study of the other. Aram did find Yocelin to be very strange, but intriguing. It was no surprise for a demon to be eating raw meat. It was simply the usual diet for demons, but it was the way she ate that intrigued him. Most demons made a disgusting display by eating their meals alive, ripping into them with bare hands and blood squirting out. Yocelin had given the squirrel a quick and humane death by breaking its neck before eating it. Then she ate her meal with surprising etiquette. She was polite and even dainty, cutting her food and taking small bites. Perhaps she was not a full-blooded demon. Such offspring were extremely rare, and usually only a product of rape. Demons and other humanoids weren’t generally attracted to each other. It was very strange for a demon to find an elf or human physically attractive, so any kind of sexual contact that might occur was almost always out of cruelty or anger.

Yocelin looked up at him and smiled. “Aren’t you going to eat, or do you enjoy watching others more?”

Suddenly Aram remembered the dried meat in his hand. He began to eat without speaking and looked away from her. He must have been starring again.

Yocelin tried her best to draw Aram into conversation during the rest of lunch, but he would have none of it. She got the feeling that she confused him, and until he was certain about her in some way, he would remain a generally silent companion. Yocelin was not deterred by his coldness. On the contrary, it almost endeared him to her. She viewed him as someone in desperate need of a friend, though he would never admit to such an emotion, and Yocelin saw him as a wonderful candidate for her friendship. It appeared that he was a loner by choice. She was a loner too, but out of rejection. She was of an extremely sociable nature and craved the company of others. She was determined to make a new friend in Aram, and she suspected he needed one.

After eating, which did not take long, the pair of them continued on into the caves. It was a dangerous place, so both entered with weapons drawn and senses alert. They had no idea who or what may be lurking in the darkness.


Eithne’s mother’s hands shook as she starred sorrowfully down at the letter her youngest daughter had written. She had read it over at least twenty times since she found it. The paper was becoming worn, and the ink smudged with tears. The tone of the letter was remorseful and loving, but her child had still gone away. Why did she have to leave at all? Eithne had written that she could not abide by the rules of their society and be happy. Her mother did not understand, could not bring herself to comprehend why life in the village was so suffocating to Eithne. She had always known that Eithne was different from the other girls. She was bright and beautiful, and could have been popular if she wanted to be, but she did not. Eithne preferred shutting herself inside her room and reading books for hours. Sometimes, when her mother went to check on her, she would find Eithne missing and the window in her bedroom open. Her mother would panic, and send her father out to find her, but then, later, she would find her sitting in her room reading again as if she had never left. Her mother would question her incessantly about where she went without saying anything. Sometimes, Eithne would claim that she had never left her room. Other times, she would say that she went out for a walk because it was a nice day, never saying why she didn’t exit through the front door. Her mother always suspected that Eithne was up to something, but she could not imagine what. In her highest hopes, she had thought that Eithne may have a friend that she was being secretive about, but that was not the reason. Eithne had explained her absences in the letter. The real reason was that she had taught herself how to use a sword and she was sneaking off to practice. Her mother was not angry when she read the explanation she was terrified. What would the tribal council do to her beloved daughter if they found out? Knowing that Eithne learned to fight with a weapon tainted the idea of her return, for if she ever came back, she would be found guilty of horrible crimes, and then what would come of her? Her mother felt a new batch of tears welling up in her eyes, and wept openly. She had been crying ever since she found her daughter missing. Eithne’s father and Rosalin had been crying too. Their once happy household was now in mourning for their lost daughter.

“Mum! Mum! A letter arrived from Captain Darian! You have to read it, Mum!” Rosalin burst into the room clutching a letter in her hands. Her father was not far behind her looking equally anxious.

“Rosalin, I love you, but I cannot read a letter from your suitor. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I just can’t right now.” Mother replied. She did not bother to wipe the tears from her face. She had cried so much the past couple of weeks that she no longer cared how she looked. Her reddish blond hair was pulled back in a disheveled bun, and her dress haphazardly put on. She used to take such great care in her appearance. It didn’t matter anymore.

“You should read the letter, Dear.” Father prompted gently. Seeing his beloved wife in such pain hurt him. He did not show it, but he was perhaps in the most pain over Eithne running away. He mourned his youngest daughter, and mourned what it did to his wife and oldest daughter. His grass green eyes were hollow and worn with worry, and he barely slept, but he suffered in silence. He could not burden his wife and oldest daughter with his emotions. They needed him to be their strength.

Mother gazed at her family blankly.

“I’ll read it to you!” Rosalin offered hastily. “You need to hear what it says, Mum.”

Mother nodded dumbly. Perhaps a letter from Rosalin’s suitor would cheer her up.

Rosalin, who had also done her fair share a crying for her sister recently, sat on the bed and cleared her throat before reading the letter: “Dear Alfrey Family, I must write to inform you that your daughter, Eithne has followed my party and I to the town of Tomak. I have tried to reason with her, and persuade her to go home, but she will not. So, I have taken the responsibility of caring for her. I cannot send her back with one of my men, for she will certainly get away from them easily, nor can I defer from my mission. Therefore, Eithne is coming with my party to the Southern continent. Please know that I will do all in my power to keep your daughter safe and return her to you. For now, Eithne is in excellent health and doing well. I will continue to write you letters to keep you updated. I promise to protect her. Kindest Regards, Captain Darian MacAllow.”

Rosalin sniffed as she read the letter and did her best to keep herself from crying again. She looked at her mother with hope. “Did you hear that, Mum? Captain Darian is with her, and caring for her. Eithne will be alright. We even know where she is! Eithne will come home to us soon!”

Mother burst into tears all over again, but this time they were tears of relief. Her daughter was alive, and being protected by a trusted friend. She could allow herself to hope that Eithne would be returned to her safely. She would be able to kiss her daughter again someday.


It was early morning when Darian and his party approached the cave entrance. It was just before sunrise, the light was dim and dusty. Darian had arrived as he wanted to and was pleased with the progress. He had no idea where in the caves the Stone of Elissiyus may lie, and hoped that they would have luck enough to find it before nightfall. He did not wish to spend a night in the caves. It was a very dangerous place where one always had to be on guard.

Before entering the caves, everyone dismounted, unsaddled and tethered their horses. The caves were no place for the animals. The horses were left with long tethers so they had the opportunity to graze about and feel somewhat unrestricted. The cave network wasn’t so large that they would be gone for more then a day or so. After the horses were cared for, the men went about lighting the torches they had made yesterday. Elves had better night vision than humans, but still required light in order to see clearly. The rays of the sun were just beginning to pierce through the dawn as the party entered the inky darkness of the caves. Eithne followed close behind Darian, and remained quiet. There was a silent tension in the air. The party walked for a while with no consequence, and everyone became more relaxed in the new environment.

After some time had passed, Proithen approached Darian and spoke to him in hushed tones. “Those two are up to something.”

Darian nodded. “You mean Dal and Finnis? I’ve noticed.”

“Sir, I’m worried about their intentions. They might try and take the artifact for themselves!” Proithen whispered urgently.

“It’s probable. They are both greedy and power hungry. Luckily, they don’t know what artifact we are looking for in here.” Darian responded nonchalantly.

“Well, none of us know exactly what the artifact is except for you, Sir, but we all know it must be powerful. Don’t you think that’s enough?”

Darian nodded slowly. Proithen was honorable and intelligent. He liked that about him very much. In fact, Darian fully intended to make him an officer in his guard once they returned. “I appreciate your concern, Proithen, but there is little to do about it right now. We will keep a sharp eye on Dal and Finnis for the time being.”

Proithen nodded his concurrence with the Captain’s decision and glanced back at Dal and Finnis. They were whispering to each other again. The other men probably took it as innocent conversation, but Proithen felt that they were plotting something.

Darian stopped and held up his hand in a military fashion for everyone to halt. The party obeyed silently. He drew his sword and crept forward to look around the corner. He thought he had heard a sort of rustling and didn’t want to walk blindly into a monster. A monster was indeed what he saw when Darian rounded the corner. There was a cave worm just around the bend, and that wasn’t good. Cave worms were massive beasts with lumpy tubular bodies of a dark brown color. The head, if you could call it a head, erupted into a plumage of rubbery feeling antennae with a circular mouth filled with sharp rows of teeth at the center of the mass. They had no eyes, for cave worms relied on touch and sound alone. In fact, it was lucky that it had not heard the party approach. The worm seemed to be concentrated on devouring whatever it had just killed. Darian was thankful for the creature’s distraction. Cave worms had a nasty reputation for being ravenous and very aggressive. It would be foolish to try to go around it. Darian came back and motioned for the party to follow him back the way they had come. He also gestured with a finger to his lips to keep quiet. All obeyed and followed him silently. Darian backtracked to a tunnel they had passed earlier and took it instead. He made a mental note of which way they went and hoped that the rest of the party tried to do the same. He had no idea where the Stone of Elissiyus was hidden in the caves, so it didn’t really matter which direction they travelled so long as they generally headed toward the center of the cave network. Darian made the assumption that when Elissiyus had hidden his stone that he had put it at the center, where it would be most difficult to find. There was a great fear of getting lost in the caves, but Darian had to push that fear out of his mind and be a confident leader.

More time passed as they wandered through the caves, and the party was beginning to get nervous. They needed a better course of action, and Darian didn’t have one. He had approached the village soothsayer several times before embarking on the mission in hopes of gaining some magical means of locating the stone, but none could be found. Magic, like the rest of the world, was declining and not nearly as potent as it once was. Since the death of the gods, those who relied on magic found themselves struggling. So, Darian had been forced to go into the caves with no real direction. He hated the feeling, but there was nothing to be done except to keep searching.

“Sir?” Dal inquired. “Haven’t we been in this tunnel before?”

Darian grit his teeth at the snide question. Even though they were wandering, he had trying to do so in a systematic manner, and was quite certain that they were not going in circles. “No, we have not.” He replied plainly. “I am keeping track of where we have been.”

“Sir, I can’t help but notice that you have no map. So, forgive me, I can’t help but be nervous down here.” Dal continued, trying to sound subordinate and helpful, but Darian knew exactly what he was getting at. Dal was going to suggest the party split up and search separately for the artifact. That way, he and Finnis could easily get away from the group to carry out whatever they had planned.

“No one knows exactly where in these caves the artifact is hidden. Therefore, there would be no map. I am taking a systematic approach to exploring the caves, so don’t worry. We are safe as long as we are together as a group.” Darian did not enjoy explaining himself, but he felt that he needed to in order to cut Dal off. As much as he knew it would be folly to separate the rest of the men may be too anxious and support the proposition to split up.

Dal became quiet, but continued to exchange looks with Finnis that Darian did not like. They were still thinking of separating from the group somehow. He wondered if they had figured out that they were looking for the Stone of Elissiyus. It wasn’t so far fetched that they could deduce what the artifact was since anyone who bothered to inquire could have heard the same rumors about the stone.

A moment later, Eithne stepped up beside Darian. “I think we are going the right way.” She said with confidence.

Darian cocked an eyebrow at her perplexed by her statement. “Oh? Why is that?”

She shrugged. “It may sound stupid, but I actually feel that we are headed in the right direction now. We weren’t when we first entered, but after we backtracked and took the other tunnel to avoid the worm, I’ve felt very good about our direction.”

Darian allowed himself a small musing smile. Her support was comforting. “Woman’s intuition?”

Eithne smiled and cocked her head to the side as she looked up at him. “Maybe.”

Eithne and Darain continued walking next to each other in comfortable silence, each happy with the positive feeling their small conversation had invoked.

Suddenly, a large cave worm emerged from a tributary tunnel only mere feet in front of the party! They all immediately halted and Darian held up his hand for silence. If the worm did not hear them, perhaps it would turn away and they could avoid a conflict. All were stone still as the worm hesitated, half out of the tunnel. It was huge and bulky, taking up almost the entire width of the tunnel with its girth. They could not yet see how long it was, but Darian guessed it to be at least twenty feet in length.

The worm had sensed movement as it emerged from the tunnel, and it was certain that prey was nearby, but whatever it was, the prey was keeping still and silent. Not letting its presence be known. The worm could be patient, for it was a skilled hunter. It was also very hungry. Food was difficult to come by in this environment, so the worm hesitated, its feelers wriggling in anticipation of movement.

Darian knew that they were probably going to have to fight the beast now. It was not aware of the party’s present position, but the animal clearly knew that they were nearby. It was simply waiting on a sign of their presence. He would have to do something, but what? Darian’s entire body tensed as he tried to think about what course of action would be best. They could charge the beast and try to gain the upper hand. It was still only about halfway through the tunnel, so it would be at a disadvantage. His other options were to run further down the tunnel, let the worm gain some ground, then turn and fight, which was ridiculous. They could also try to just run away, but the chances of out running it were slim to none. Darian had never fought a cave worm before, but he had heard that they were much faster then their cumbersome looking bodies suggested. Running would do no good. They were going to have to charge. It was the best option. The horrible part was that Darian was not sure how to kill it. It was too thick to slice through, had no head to chop off, and any vital organs were probably protected by a thick hide and fat. They were simply going to have to stab at the worm until it bled out…hopefully.

Darian was about to give the signal to charge when he noticed Eithne bending down slowly next to him. The worm wriggled its feelers in her direction, but she moved too slowly and soundlessly to merit a real reaction. She picked up a rock the size of her fist and threw it down one of the adjourning tunnels. The clattering of the rock against stone walls distracted the beast immediately! It bolted after the source of the sound with surprising speed. Eithne heaved a deep breath of relief. Darian grinned at her cleverness.

Roth, one of the party, was so thrilled with the tactic that he cried out: “Excellent work, girl!” It was a warmly meant gesture that brought the worm zooming back to them.

“Dammit Roth!” Darian yelled as he simultaneously drew his sword and pushed Eithne behind him.

The worm was huge and aggressive. It attacked with a roar as it thrust its disgusting head at the party and tried to snap its mouth of razor sharp teeth around Darian. He stabbed into the mass of antennae with his sword and the worm reared back more in shock then pain. It lashed back just as quickly by using its bulky body like a club and slamming itself down upon the party. Roth paid a heavy price for his exclamation as he was crushed beneath the worm’s body. Roth died instantly. The rest of the party managed to scramble out of the way in time, but had to keep moving as the enraged worm continued to use its body again and again to club the party. As the beast employed its tactic, the party continued to dodge and tried to stab at it with their weapons. It was extremely tiresome for the opponents, but neither side would give up. The worm would not stop until all of them, or it was dead. There was no choice but to keep on fighting and stabbing at the beast. Darian tried to make Eithne back away from the fray for her own safety, but she would not. He wished he had the opportunity to tell her to stay out of the fight, that it was for her own protection, but everything was happening too quickly and there was no time for words. Thankfully, she was quick, agile, and exercised extreme caution. At least she wasn’t the type to try and claim glory. Darian could do nothing else but to try and stay close to her so that he could protect her as best as he was able.

The fight was long and hectic, but finally the party was able to injure the worm badly enough so that it bled out. The huge creature let out a strangled moan and slumped onto the ground. The party stood for a long moment, swords at the ready and panting from exhaustion to be sure it wouldn’t rise up again to try and pummel them. The worm was still. Several of them stabbed it several more times for good measure, then they relaxed.

“Is everyone alright?” Darian’s voice rang out clearly.

“Bruised and tired, Sir, but I think we made it through just fine.” Clemen answered. The other men all grunted in agreement with his words.

“Eithne?” Darian turned to see if she was unharmed. She stood, covered in sticky worm blood like the rest of them, sword still in hand with her head down and shoulders slumped. She looked upset. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

Eithne shook her head and looked up at him with sadness in her eyes. “Roth isn’t alright.” She said simply.

Darian felt a sudden shock of loss as the realization hit him that Roth had died in the fight, crushed beneath the worm’s massive body. He glanced over at his remains. It was not a pretty sight. Roth’s body had been smashed flat; his face was no longer recognizable and there was a pool of thick blood and guts around his flattened corpse. Darian was thankful for the darkness of the caves, so they did not have to see every detail.

“He was kind and supportive of me.” Eithne said quietly. “Because he was trying to be nice to me, he got killed…” She looked as though she were on the verge of tears. She was starring at Roth’s body.

Darian walked over to her and gripped her shoulders. “Eithne, look at me.” He commanded. He did not want her starring at the body. She met his gaze. “It’s not your fault that Roth is dead. Yes, he did something nice for you, but he shouldn’t have shouted. He knew better. You can’t blame yourself for these things. If you start blaming yourself the burden will become too heavy to bear. Honor and respect those who have fallen, but never blame yourself.”

Eithne seemed to understand him, for he saw something in her face change and she nodded firmly.

“Sir!” Proithen’s alarmed voice cut through the moment. “Dal and Finnis are missing!”

Darian released Eithne and whirled around to survey what was left of their party. The only body on the ground was Roth. Dal and Finnis were not among those left standing. They had run off sometime during the fight in order to seek the stone on their own! Darian swore under his breath. How could they desert their comrades in the middle of a fight for their own selfish greed? It felt like everything was falling apart.

Aram and Yocelin had been investigating the caves for several hours in silence, and Yocelin was tired of it. They had managed to avoid any dangers in the caves so far, which was good, but it was also boring. She needed more stimulation. Aram might enjoy the quiet, but Yocelin did not, and she felt that there had been enough of it.

“So do you have any idea where we are going? Because I’ve just been following my instincts.” Yocelin thought the question would be a good conversation starter.

Aram shrugged. “To be honest, I’ve been trying to get to the center of the cave network. That seems like the most logical place that Elissiyus would have hidden the stone.” His tone had a sort of finality to it that meant that he didn’t wish to continue talking. Yocelin would have none of that.

“Well, I have no idea how close we are to the center of this place, but I feel good about our direction so far.” She said in a very cheerful voice. “Don’t you agree?”

Aram grunted in reply, which was a passive attempt at silencing her, but he would have no luck there.

“So,” Yocelin continued undaunted. “Do you think there’s anyone else in here looking for the stone?”


Yocelin stopped walking abruptly. She was surprised by the strong confirmation in his voice. “You know there’s someone else in here looking for the stone right now?!”

“Yes.” Aram answered simply and continued walking on ahead.

“Now just hold on a second!” Yocelin commanded firmly. Aram did not stop walking. She caught up and came up next to him. “How do you know that and why didn’t you tell me before now?”

“It wasn’t important. It’s not as if their presence makes a difference.” Aram did not look at her and did not break his stride.

“Well, what if we run into them, or they get to the stone before us? Just how many other people are in here anyway?” She retorted flustered by how calm he was about the situation and that he had kept the information from her.

Aram could tell that she wasn’t going to let this go, and he wished he had never answered her question in the first place. He resigned himself to have this conversation. He would try to make it as short as possible. “I met a group of elves on my way here, and it was obvious to me that they were also seeking the Stone of Elissiyus. Though, we never spoke of where either of us was going. They probably entered the caves around the same time we did, only a little further to the east.”

Yocelin crossed her arms and gave him a firm look. Aram had possibly jeopardized their search! Well, she supposed not really. He had not divulged any details to the other group, and it really was a game of chance finding the stone. Now it just seemed more like a race. She didn’t particularly like the competition, so Yocelin decided to think on what they would do if they encountered the other group.

Aram didn’t know how it happened, but Yocelin was quiet again. He was thankful.

After a couple more hours of wandering, Aram was becoming frustrated with their lack of progress. He and Yocelin had managed to evade several cave worms, and other possible threats, but no stone. They had not seen any others who were searching for the stone. Yocelin faded in between being talkative and being silent. Her periods of silence were generally brought about by Aram’s lack of participation in the conversation. He felt as though they were getting nowhere fast, and he did not like it. In fact, he was getting frustrated and worried that they had been beaten to the prize. He let out a sigh of frustration, which made Yocelin give him a quizzical look.

“What’s wrong?” She inquired. “Are you getting upset that we haven’t found the stone yet?”

Aram shot her an annoyed look that she had grown quite used to over their time together, and was therefore unfazed.

“If you talk to me you would probably feel better.” Yocelin coaxed sweetly.

Aram didn’t feel like confiding in anyone, but knew she wouldn’t leave him alone until he talked. “I’m just frustrated about the stone, and I’m beginning to think we are lost.”

“That’s what I thought.” She replied too cheerfully. “But we can’t be that lost as we are getting closer to an exit. Can’t you smell the fresh air?”

Aram had not noticed it before, but now that she mentioned it, he could smell fresh air wafting in their direction, which of course meant that they were headed for an exit from the cave network. He saw this as bad news, and could not understand why Yocelin seemed so happy about it. They needed to get to the center of the network to find the stone. “We need to take another direction.” He said with authority.

“Nope.” Yocelin answered.

“Are you giving up?” Aram was confused. She was a confounding person.

“Nope.” This time she gave him an infuriating smile and put some extra bounce in her step.

“Then why don’t you want to change direction?” Aram demanded coldly. He was getting angrier by the second, and she was only provoking him.

“Because I think that we are already going the right way to find the stone.” Yocelin continued to smile and bounce like it was a child’s game.

“How can we be headed in the right direction? Would you have hidden the stone in an easy to find location?” Aram spoke at a raised volume.

“Nope.” Yocelin answered with a grin.

Now Aram was furious with her and felt the animal within him begin to boil up to the surface. Aram was usually in excellent control of his inner wolf, but somehow Yocelin brought it out in him.

“Did you just growl at me?” Yocelin exclaimed, but she wasn’t afraid, she was amused. To make matters worse she laughed.

In a fury Aram grabbed her by the arms with lightening speed and slammed her up against the cave wall. “I demand that you explain yourself immediately.” He growled through gritted teeth. Aram did not like playing games.

“My, my, such a temper!” Yocelin started to be playful, but quickly decided to explain when his grip tightened. “Alright, calm down. The reason I think we’re headed in the correct direction is because I just have this inexplicable feeling that we are. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s almost like I can sense the stone’s power and am drawn to it.” She looked into his eyes and could see that this explanation did not satisfy him. That, and he did not release her or loosen his grip. She sighed and decided to give a more rational explanation, even though she had already given her reasons. “Also, from a rational viewpoint, you and I may have hidden the stone at the center of these caves, but would Elissiyus have done that? He was a wizard and a scholar, not a warrior. Why should he put himself in undue danger by traipsing all over these caves when he could just throw some extra enchantments on his precious stone and leave it not far from where he entered the network? Not to mention, pretty much anyone looking for the stone would assume it’s at the center. Hardly anyone would think to look near the exit.”

Aram starred at her hard for a moment, and then released her slowly. “Fine. We will keep going this way for now. I suppose we can just turn around if the stone isn’t where you ‘feel’ it to be.”

“Wonderful!” Yocelin said with a confident smile as she brushed past him flipping her purple hair. She was completely unfazed by being cornered by a werewolf mere seconds ago.

Aram fell into step beside her again. “And stop doing that annoying thing that you do.” He grumbled.

“You know, you’re kind of cute when you think you’re in charge.” Yocelin responded flirtatiously.

“That. That’s what needs to stop.”

Yocelin was pleased with herself and grinned as she walked with her cheerful bounce while Aram brooded next to her. She was just about to make a happy comment when another noise sounded in the tunnel. It sounded like a man crying out in pain far ahead in the tunnel. Had Yocelin not been a demon and Aram not been a werewolf neither would have been able to hear it, but they did. They did not need to communicate what to do next. Without even looking at each other they broke into a run. Both had a very bad feeling that someone had just beaten them to the Stone of Elissiyus!

Darian thought that things were not going well. Dal and Finnis had deserted, Roth was dead, and he had the feeling that they were nowhere near the center of the cave network, which is where he thought he wanted to be. Proithen had suggested that they track Dal and Finnis down before continuing their search for the artifact, but the stone was Darian’s first priority. He did not feel like wasting time on greedy fools. It stung him deeply that they deserted the way they did just leaving their comrades during a fight. It was cowardly and wrong. Darian would not forgive them if he ever found either one of them. At least he could feel secure about the loyalty of Proithen, Clemen and Eithne. They were all that remained of his party now. The mission was beginning to feel like a disaster.

“Darian?” Eithne’s soft voice interrupted his dark thoughts. He turned his face toward her to show that he was listening. “This may sound silly, but if it doesn’t make any difference to you, could we take that next tunnel?” Eithne requested.

Darian raised his eyebrows at her intrigued by the request. “Why?”

Eithne shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. “I just think that it’s the right way. I guess you could call it women’s intuition.”

Darian gave her a concentrated look, which she may have mistaken as scrutiny, for she seemed to shrink back from him. After a few seconds of thought, Darian had decided. “Well, there would be no harm in following your intuition, I suppose. One way is as good as another right now.”

Eithne beamed back at him and it made Darian feel warm inside. Some of the negative emotions he had been harboring seemed to wash away. He smiled back at her and they turned down the tunnel that she had suggested.

Proithen watched the exchange between the Captain and Eithne. He was beginning to understand why Captain Darian had allowed her to come along on the mission. He seemed to have a soft spot for the girl. Proithen knew that Darian had interest in marrying Eithne’s sister, so he reasoned that perhaps Darian felt a sort of ‘big brother’ affection for her. Either way, Proithen had to admit that the journey had been more entertaining with her along. She seemed to brighten the mood even though all else was going so poorly. However, Proithen couldn’t shake the feeling that Dal and Finnis should be pursued. Maybe he just wanted some vengeance, but what they did went against everything he believed in. An honorable warrior should never desert his comrades. It was cowardly and wrong. He felt that they needed to be brought to justice.

Suddenly a shout pierced through the silence! It sounded like a man who was in pain or fighting for something. It immediately occurred to all of them that Dal and Finnis had found the artifact and were now fighting over it. That, or perhaps there was a supernatural guardian they were fighting. There was another shout this time from a different man. The party began running down the tunnel as fast as they could toward the source. As they got closer, Eithne found that she was feeling as if they were getting closer to the stone. It felt like she was playing the “getting warmer” game she and her sister would play as children. There was a sort of warmth inside of her glowing brighter and brighter the further she ran in this direction. There was more shouting. It sounded much clearer now, and Eithne thought she recognized the voices of Finnis and Dal. She pushed herself to move faster. Those greedy cowards had the stone and were probably fighting over it right now. They were closing in on the source of the noise when the shouting suddenly ceased.

Moments later the party burst into a cavern, and found Darian’s worst fear: an empty alter where the Stone of Elissiyus had been resting shortly before. Dal and Finnis had managed to break through whatever defenses had been in place and steal the stone away. Darian cursed under his breath and began looking for a sign to see which way they had gone. There were three other tunnels that branched off from the chamber. It was almost impossible to know which one they had taken.

Just then two figures came running through one of the other tunnels and skidded to a halt just inside the chamber.

“You’re friends, I presume?” Said a purple haired she-demon in a cordial voice. Her companion, who ignored her comment, was none other then Aram.

Tense seconds ticked by while each group starred at one another. Neither knew what to do or say at first. Then, Aram spoke: “Who took the stone?”

Aram directed the question to Darian, who was regarding him with a confused mixture of gladness and distrust. The distrust Aram was well familiar with, it was the gladness that made Aram realize he was also very glad to see Darian again, even under the awkward circumstances.

“Aram!” Eithne cried out. “What are you doing here?” Her tone was that of greeting someone on the street casually. It made Aram feel good not to be looked upon negatively, but he maintained his outward stoicism.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Aram replied. “We were all after the same thing, and it appears that we were all beaten to it.”

“Oh…” Eithne replied meekly and looked down at her feet.

“Who is your companion?” Darian’s expression was dark as he regarded the she-demon. It was blatant that he did not approve of Aram’s new friend.

“Hello, my name is Yocelin.” The she-demon replied. She was pleased to be noticed. “Aram and I ran into each other the other day and decided to look for the Stone of Elissiyus together. We’re very good friends now.” She punctuated her statement with a radiant smile.

“We’re not friends.” Aram growled at her. “This is a temporary business agreement.”

Yocelin used her hand to block her mouth from Aram’s view and mouthed the words “best friends” at Darian and his party.

Aram ignored her, as did Darian.

“Strange to find you in the company of a demon.” Darian stated suspiciously.

It was a hurtful statement, and Aram could not blame him for it. He did not know how to respond either. A tension filled silence began to build between the two groups.

Eithne hated the feeling growing in the chamber, and she did not like the way that Darian was treating Aram. She regarded Yocelin. Yes, Yocelin was a demon, but she really didn’t seem bad at all. In fact, she looked like an elf, except for her horns, and seemed very pleasant. Eithne looked at Proithen and Clemen. They were glaring suspiciously at Aram and Yocelin. She decided that the silence needed to be broken.

“Hi Yocelin, I’m Eithne.” Eithne said as cheerfully as she could without sounding false. “It’s nice to meet you, and it’s good to see you too, Aram.”

Everyone else in the chamber was so surprised by her outburst that they all faltered a bit and lowered their weapons slightly.

Yocelin was the only one not taken aback. She was eager to exchange pleasantries. “Thank you, Eithne! I think I like you very much.”

Eithne beamed at the open and friendly words. She was about to respond when she felt Darian’s iron grip on her arm, and was somewhat violently jerked closer to him.

“Eithne,” Darian said in low tones through gritted teeth. “What are you doing?” He was giving her his hard steely glare, which did intimidate Eithne fairly well.

She gave him a sheepish grin and did her best to keep eye contact. “Um…being friendly.”

“And why are you being friendly to a demon?”

“Well, she seems perfectly nice, and she can’t be all bad if Aram agreed to travel with her.” Eithne swallowed and continued to suffer under his glare while he scrutinized her answer. Then, the rebellious side of her found some reckless courage. After all, she was already in trouble, so why not take it all the way. “Also, I don’t think you should he acting so coldly toward Aram. He’s a friend and deserves a warm welcome, not your scrutiny. Besides, I’ve read a lot about demons and they are just like any other humanoid race on Raashan. Their cultural practices may be different from ours, but that doesn’t make all demons evil.”

Darian’s grip on her tightened and the furrow in his brow deepened. Why would she choose now to be such a brat? He did not understand her reasoning at all. This was a delicate situation and she was making small talk like it was nothing! Proithen cleared his throat out of awkwardness. Neither he nor Clemen could believe that Eithne was speaking to Captain Darian that way.

“If I may,” Yocelin’s voice rang out. “While all of you are standing around judging me and rebuking Eithne, whomever took the stone is getting away.”

Aram was so preoccupied in the moment that he didn’t realize that they had been losing precious time! He stood straight, surveyed the chamber trying to decipher which way the culprits had gone. He sensed that they had run through the tunnel to his right. Aram gave Darian a nod of acknowledgement and took off after those that stole the stone. Not missing a beat, Yocelin gave a cheerful wave and ran after him.

Darian understood Aram’s meaning and did not waste time. He immediately released Eithne and pursued Aram and Yocelin down the tunnel. Eithne, Proithen and Clemen all followed instantly.

It wasn’t long before they all emerged from the caves into the forest outside. The sudden flash of sunlight blinded them. It seemed to be late afternoon. They had been exploring the caves for most of the day. Aram did not take time to speak with anyone as their eyes adjusted to the light. He quickly assessed the appropriate direction and continued his pursuit not bothering to notice if the others were following him.

Eithne and Darian were right behind Yocelin and Aram in the race with Proithen and Clemen coming up the rear. Eithne ran beside Darian, keeping up with his fevered pace. She looked at him, wondering exactly what he was planning on doing if they caught Dal or Finnis. Aram was in the lead, so chances were he would catch them first, and it wouldn’t be Darian’s decision at all. Darian would not like that. It was very strange day.

“So,” Eithne inquired between breathes as they ran. “What happens if we actually catch them?”

Darian shot her an angry look. He had had quite enough of her today. “You’re being uppity today.”

“And you’re more of an intolerant bigot then I thought!” Eithne decided that she feeling very uppity actually. Besides, she had the recent realization that Darian would not really punish her beyond a firm grip and harsh words. That they were chasing after Dal and Finnis only made her feel her adrenaline more. She was in a reckless sort of mood anyway.

“What did you just say to me? Did you just call me a bigot?” Darian’s tone was low and angry; his chiseled features became harder. Why was she doing this to him right now? He was angry about so many things, and it was as if she was doing her best to bring it all to the surface.

Eithne saw how angry Darian was becoming, and she was still a little scared of him despite her mood, so she looked away for a few seconds. Though, she had gone too far already. Darian was giving her a glacial glare. She had pushed this argument, and now they were going to have it no matter how inappropriate the situation might be. Though they were speeding through the forest, neither of them broke their pace for the quarrel.

“Okay fine.” Eithne conceded. “I didn’t like the way you treated Aram and his new companion. You acted like the two of you never had any sort of good relationship! It was very hurtful how you treated him.”

“Let’s get a couple things straight.” Darian said with harsh condescension and great authority. “First of all, you have no right to reprimand me. I am your superior, and you will obey my orders without question as we agreed. Second, the exchange that took place in there was extremely brief. I was shocked to find Aram in the company of a demon. I had thought better of him. Be grateful you are here at all and know your place.”

Half of Eithne wanted nothing better than to retort with the full force of her anger, just throw everything she could think of right back in his face whether it was valid or not. The other half knew better. It killed her to admit it, but Darian was right. It wasn’t her place to tell him how to treat Aram. She knew she would come to regret it if she pushed him any further, so she told her feisty side that she was too out of breath to keep talking and running at the same time, and swallowed the urge to talk back to him. It was difficult, but to say anything now would only serve to make him more upset, and now was not the time. She turned her face forward and concentrated on the chase.

Darian could see from her defiant expression that Eithne had not been cowed into subordination. Her cheeks were flushed pink and her full lips were set in a hard line. It was the firey anger in her bright green eyes that said it all though. He knew this wasn’t over. It was only a brief respite from the fight. She would bring it up again. Darian realized that the problem with Eithne was her temper. She was easily riled when it came to people she liked or respected, and he knew that Eithne had come to like Aram very much in the short time they had spent together. She might even have a crush on him. The notion that Eithne might have a crush on Aram panged Darian a little, but he ignored the emotion. Right now, he was still too mad at her to think about that. He turned his mind to the business at hand: Retrieving the Stone of Elissiyus from the traitors. Then, Darian felt himself become even angrier with Eithne when he realized that her question of what would happen if they actually caught up with Dal and Finnis was valid. He wouldn’t be speaking with her for a while.

Aram came to a sudden stop. The sun had dipped below the horizon quickly, as it sometimes did unexpectedly these days, and it was already dark. As the others all stopped behind him, the darkness made it difficult for them to see why Aram halted.

“Well, he’s dead.” Yoceliin made the matter of fact remark as she looked at the body at Arams’ feet. “Friend of yours?” Yocelin asked Darian as he tried to see what she was talking about.

“It’s Dal.” Aram stated plainly and stepped aside for the others to see.

Dal had been bludgeoned in the back of his head. His expression was blankly stunned. Finnis must have carried on with the stone after taking out his immediate competition. Darian was very angry and saddened at the same time. It upset him greatly that Finnis would allow greed to degenerate him so much to kill his friend. They all stood around looking at the corpse fro a quiet moment. Eithne had to look away after a bit to keep herself from crying. So much had happened today, and Dal’s murder was a lot to manage on top of everything else. Proithen and Clemen stood in silence processing mentally just how many of their comrades had died on this mission. Darian bent down and shut Dal’s eyes.

Aram allowed enough time to pass before saying what was on his mind. When he felt it was appropriate, he motioned to Darian that he wanted to speak with him privately. Darian nodded and the two of them stepped away from the group.

“Forgive me if this sounds cross, but we are never going to retrieve the Stone of Elissiyus this way. He has too much of a head start at this point.” Aram said.

Darian nodded in agreement. “And we have all confirmed that we are after the same thing, so what are we going to do about it? I don’t wish to work against you.”

“Nor I against you.” Aram responded. He was relieved to hear that Darian felt that way. “Perhaps we could team up for the time being to retrieve the stone? Then we could all take turns with our use of it once we have found it.”

Darian liked the idea of joining forces. The concept of sharing was simple, but adults rarely considered it under such circumstances. Greed and selfishness usually won, but Darian was not that sort of person and he did not think that Aram was either. He trusted Aram to keep his word, but he did not trust the she demon at all. “What about your new companion?”

Aram shook his head. “She will do whatever pleases her. If she wants to tag along there is no stopping her. To her credit, she doesn’t mean any of us harm, and is honest enough. Yocelin does not exhibit the bloodlust that some other demons demonstrate. In fact, she had done nothing but be nice and try to befriend me ever since we met. It gets tiresome.”

“That sounds like a fair assessment.” Darian’s voice trailed off. He did have to try and be even handed about this arrangement, but demons always left a bad taste in his mouth. Most everything he knew about demons was bad. He looked over at Yocelin, and wasn’t sure that he liked what he saw. Eithne was talking quietly with her. The she demon even seemed to be comforting her. Clemen and Proithen stood apart from the women, clearly unhappy with Yocelin’s presence.

“Will your men be agreeable to joining forces? The only person left that they seem to have any respect for is you.” Aram’s observation was true.

Darian breathed out and shrugged. “They have dealt with so many loses and surprises on this mission, and I have no idea how they will take the idea of working together. I will not insist that they come along. It needs to be their choice.”

“Do you think they are ready to give up and go home?”

“I honestly don’t know what they want. The least I can do is to let them choose for themselves.” Darian’s eyes did not leave Eithne as he spoke. “Eithne will come with us though. It’s the only way I can be certain of her safety. She does not want to go home anyway.”

Aram nodded. “So we are in agreement about joining together to find the stone?”

“Yes, we have an accord.” Darian held his hand out to shake on the agreement. Aram took it firmly and they shook on their new partnership.