“Zhenya, relax: I will get that for you. Ah, I see some things never change!”
Alexei grasped the handle-less white cup resting atop the sturdy-yet-elegant oak nightstand to his right. The young winter eladrin had been in Sanctuary for about a week now, dutifully tending to his childhood training partner. While everyone in town had been surprisingly helpful, Alexei's limited facility with Common had made interacting with most of the citizens a formidable challenge. It was a relief to both his head and his soul to be in the company of one of his countrymen, even though the circumstances were far from good.
He centered the bottom of the cup in his palm and turned it a full three times to stir the special ginger tea inside. He'd made this infusion enough times to know that the bitterness of the leaves would be too much if they were taken in all at once. Satisfied, he carefully held the cup steady while his self-appointed charge drank. "There, that will help. Some good warmth from home, plus a blend I learned from a hermit last year. You won't feel much of anything soon!"
He turned to the large deep bowl on the chair to his left, and set a thick, clean cloth adrift in steaming liquid heady with the scent of witch hazel and clove. Setting two fingers lightly on the very surface of the water, he whispered something in Auran. The steam ceased instantly, replaced by veins of frost that crawled around the inside of the bowl like living things. He would let it sit now. In a few minutes, it would be ready. "Zhenya," he said hesitantly, "if it is too much now, I can wait for another time. But you did not tell me how you came to be alone in open country like…well, like this. What happened? And what were the chances of me finding you! Surely you have been dining on horseshoes every day since we last met!”
Evgeni gave him a slow smirk. Even that hurt now. "Or maybe I am just that cursed." He tried to sit up but gasped as a wave of blinding, breath-taking pain crashed over him. Alexei sprang out of his seat to catch him, and Evgeni resignedly accepted the eladrin's assistance, choosing to focus instead on simply trying to keep breathing. "Jokes aside, it is a miracle; and I am very grateful, Lyosha -- though I do not like that you have seen me this way. It is…."
"There is no need," Alexei interrupted, lightly touching Evgeni’s forearm. He had to make an extra effort to avoid reacting to how disturbingly frail it felt. He knew all too well how proud the drow was: a blow to his dignity would fester long after the physical wounds had healed, and never be forgotten or forgiven. “I am honored to be able to help, and pledge my skills to track down those responsible. This savagery cannot stand."
“Easy, Lyosha. What if I told you I asked for this."
Alexei blinked. “What?”
"Yes. There is a drow city – a more traditional one – not so very far from here. In the autumn, I went to ask a significant favor of them. The headmistress of the Academy agreed to my request; but the priestesses who came to visit warned to enjoy the first night, because it would be the last good one I would have for a long time. They were true to their word. First night was good. Very good. This is the consequences of the rest of the seven months." Evgeni closed his eyes and sighed lightly. “It was not the easiest winter."
"But how could they leave you like this?" Alexei frowned. "I do not mean to speak the obvious, but all these wounds…and so emaciated…Zhenya, you’re barely alive. It’s horrible."
"It was necessary. I got what I wanted; but I must heal naturally – with no magic – or everything is lost. It is a challenge, and I will meet it. Nothing else is acceptable. In all fairness, the headmistress did offer to send me back, but I refused. I believed I could make it.” Evgeni opened his eyes part way and half-smiled. “I was right. Just, maybe not how I expected."
"You have always been too stubborn," Alexei snorted, shaking his head. He wrung out the cloth he'd placed in the bowl, and gingerly bathed the countless swollen incisions and terrible bruises on Evgeni’s neck, arms, chest, back and legs with the cool liquid, careful to avoid adding any undue pressure. Meticulously measuring out lengths of fresh bandage, he applied a thin layer of pasty blue ointment to them from a stone jar balanced on his knee and set about re-dressing the wounds. "I don’t understand how it is that you survive."
"Maybe you look at it wrong, Lyosha," Evgeni mused. "Maybe it is why I survive. There is much to be said for having purpose in life; the stronger, the better. Yours seems to be treating you more kindly. What -- aside from horseshoes -- brings you so far from civilization?”
Alexei grinned. "I might ask you the same question. I kept hearing rumors of a terrible disturbance up here, possibly involving unnatural creatures. There are also strange stories about places that have suddenly gone mad, almost as if reality itself had changed overnight. I know better than to ignore such things: even if the common folk have the cause wrong, there is always something behind the effect. So I came to investigate, and to resolve anything I can. It's what I do, after all."
"Ah, little Lyosha, ever the brave monster-hunter. It is no wonder your family was not so eager to have you at court: you would have most of the officials' heads on your wall as trophies by now. How is...the other thing?"
Alexei's smile faded. "The Mark. Yes. We have made an uneasy peace with each other for the time being, though I cannot ever say with any certainty how long it will last. I am still reluctant to use it, and will only do so if there is no other choice and I am alone. The solitude of my calling is a blessing I did not know I would need so greatly, and even more so as the two of us have grown."
"Do you still hear it?"
"Yes. It whispers still. But I cannot always understand it. The languages it uses change. Sometimes it speaks in Sylvan, sometimes in what I am reasonably certain is old Elven. But at other times, it speaks in a language I have never heard. Maybe it is two. The sounds are so strange, I am mostly thankful I do not understand."
"Mostly?" Evgeni raised both eyebrows and immediately regretted it.
"Well, yes. Imagine if it had tried to tell me you were out there," Alexei returned. "You still would be. It sounds bad, but I cannot disregard the possibility that what it is saying when I don't understand it is important. Or, at the very least, helpful in some way. Not that it's necessarily either of those when I do understand it."
"Meh. Reminds me of a few people I have met," Evgeni snorted.
"Yes, about that: what are you doing way out here? Surely this isn't home now? I cannot imagine there would be much demand for your trade, especially since it would be so much easier to simply let an enemy die of boredom."
"More likely to die from lack of good liquor, which is a crueler fate. It's a long story, Lyosha --"
"Fortunately, you have a long recovery ahead of you."
Evgeni opened his eyes just enough to shoot Alexei a scowl. "AS I was saying, it's a long story. I got myself into a ridiculous mess about a decade ago. Accepted a job that turned out to be more of a babysitting assignment...for some 'babies' who happened to be fighting a cult, a bunch of demon-things, and then a god that wanted to eat the world. Don't look at me like that; it's true. Anyway, about a year ago, an old dwarf wanted to make a new city here. Hudwick, a good friend --"
"Friend?" Alexei nearly choked on the word. "You have a friend? Do they know this?"
"Shut face. You nearly die with someone enough times, it happens. As I was saying, Hudwick decided to take a job helping to get the place settled and going, so I came along. He is a good one, but also good at getting in trouble. Someone sensible had to watch his back. I am also here to complete a contract. I finally met my mark. It will not be an easy task, but that is none of my concern. Only that the job gets done, and done right."
"Ah, now that sounds much more like the drow I know. Whatever they did to you this winter, they did not extinguish the flame. It's an excellent sign. You are as relentless and strong as any bear in Shiva Don."
"I feel more like I was chewed by a bear."
"Do not worry: it won't last. I will see you through this." Alexei placed the last bandage and took a moment to admire the intricacy of his handiwork. He grasped Evgeni's hand and carefully eased him back down into bed. "In a few weeks, you will be better than ever."
"Thank you, Lyosha. In return, I will tell you the truth about the things you have been hearing. My team here, and that other one in the mountains to the west, have met with all of it firsthand."
Alexei twisted his mouth in thought. "Not now, Zhenya," he said at last. He drew the bedsheets back over Evgeni, then rose and collected the bowl, cloth, and teacup. "Rest now. It is important that you do so. There will be plenty of time for stories later."
Evgeni nodded and sank into the exhaustion he'd been fighting to ignore. Alexei's paste was already numbing the pain, replacing it with a steady, cold sensation that was easier to tolerate by tens. The eladrin was right: it would be a long recovery, longer than he understood. But Evgeni was feeling a little bit better about it already.
"Zhenya" is the familiar form "Evgeni".
"Lyosha" is the familiar form of "Alexei".
Alexei doesn't speak much Common, so this entire conversation goes down in their native Rusky. (^ - ^)