Quick author's note: based on responses both from email and comments on the blog, it looks like most readers were in favor of the two remaining together for a time. So that's the path we're taking!
Despite Velor’s demands, Eleric remained as silent as a stone. Albeit a stone trembling with fear. Velor was just about to slit his throat and wash his hands of the mage when Eleric lifted his hand and pointed at Velor’s dagger. “Can’t talk,” he whispered.
Whoever this was, shadow didn’t like him. Velor’s grip on the dagger tightened as shadow demanded the mage’s blood. Though killing didn’t bother Velor, he didn’t take life wantonly. Shadow raged as Velor eased the blade away from Eleric’s throat, but Velor ignored the petulant outburst. It would settle in due time. It always did, even when its gifts weren’t honored with spilled blood.
He still held the mage tightly, though, and he focused his shadow-enhanced senses on Eleric. If he noticed any hint of danger, he’d follow through on his promise before the mage could act. “Talk.”
“I am who I say I am. My name is Eleric, and I’m an apprentice mage.”
“You’re no apprentice. Most masters only dream of having that kind of power.”
Eleric’s reply was so soft that even Velor, face pressed close, barely heard it. “Because most masters are fools.”
A bold belief, if Eleric was only an apprentice. “What path do you claim?”
Here, Eleric hesitated. He said, “I’d prefer not to tell you. It’s a secret that would endanger my life, and possibly those I care for.”
Shadow gnashed and snarled, causing Velor’s blood to boil and his grip to tighten again on the hilt of the dagger. In all his years of walking the path of shadow, Velor had felt nothing like it. What was it about this mage that angered it so? Eleric couldn’t lie to Velor. The assassin felt his pulse, noted his perspiration, and could smell the fear on him. Eleric told the truth, and Velor frightened him to where he was close to staining his pants. But he still didn’t want to part with the secret of his path.
The most straightforward solution would be to kill him. With a little pressure and one quick movement, it would all be over. Shadow still clamored for Eleric's life. It had switched from unbridled rage to sweet promises of power. It whispered of incredible advances along the path, all in exchange for one measly life. Velor’s eyes flicked over to the dead dragon, then back to Eleric. Such power had uses.
Shadow raged again, thrusting against his ribs like one of his organs was trying to escape. He felt sick, but he kept the edge of the dagger away from Eleric's throat.
“Why haven’t you killed me?” Eleric asked. “I can feel shadow demanding my death.”
“I’m debating. Why does it want you dead?”
Eleric's answer came without hesitation. “Because I’m out to kill it.”
Velor wasn’t prone to mirth. Laughter was a waste of time. But Eleric’s bold claim earned a grunt of amusement. “You’re an apprentice mage planning to kill a god?”
“More than one, actually.”
Again, Velor felt no hint of a lie. Eleric had become calmer, as though his promise to kill a god served as his own personal mantra. The mage felt more dangerous than before. Shadow was practically begging to take control of Velor’s arm. To fight it, Velor had to relax his grip on the path, putting him in more danger if Eleric tried to escape. But he wanted to know. He needed to know. This mage was far more interesting than a mere dragon.
Eleric questioned him again. “Why did you startle the dragon toward me? You're fast and strong enough to kill it yourself.”
“I wanted to see what you were capable of. Dragons have a refined sense of an individual’s power, so I figured you were strong enough to frighten it away when I heard the stories from the village. I wanted to see if your fear was an act.”
“What did you decide?”
Velor grimaced. If Eleric was on the path of illusions, he was the most advanced practitioner Velor had ever met. And if that was true, Velor was outclassed. But Velor was more certain than ever. Eleric was, without doubt, more than he seemed, but he wasn’t any more than he said. “When the moment came, you acted with courage.”
Eleric snorted. “It’s a lot easier when a dragon is charging you.”
Velor pulled his daggers away and sheathed them. Shadow screamed at him, but he let go of the path completely, and the screams became whispers in the background of his thoughts. "I disagree. Faced with a dragon, even the powerful often turn and run."
Eleric went and sat down in the same place he'd been when Velor had arrived. “Why spare me?”
“Not a quality shadow encourages in its adherents.”
Velor shook his head.
“That’s the second time someone has told me that tonight.”
Eleric looked around. “Not a very populated area.”
“It’s a long story.”
The two men stared at each other for a bit. Eventually, Velor took another step back. “If anyone asks, I killed the dragon.”
Eleric frowned. “Why?”
“Because that’s what the duke paid me to do.”
Velor feared Eleric would cause trouble, but Eleric grinned like a happy child. “Well, of course! Take all the credit you want. I do believe I owe you my life several times over. I have no need of the duke’s coin.”
Velor let his gaze travel over Eleric. The man was skin and bones, and his clothes were worn and patched several times over. Velor was impressed the clothes still had enough strength to stay in one piece. It was, Velor also realized, the first time Eleric had lied to him. And about this, of all things. “You’re a terrible liar. When was the last time you had a filling meal?”
“The people of Gandy filled my stomach and more.” Now that Eleric wasn't terrified of Velor, the smile never seemed to leave his face.
Eleric’s brief grimace was answer enough, but he put a brave face on it. The smile returned after just a moment. “Crossing the pass was a long and perilous journey. Despite my extensive preparations, I ran out of food and supplies long before I reached Gandy.”
Another lie. The pass was long, yes, but if he'd made extensive preparations, he'd be dressed in more than rags.
That Eleric would tell the truth for so long, only to lie about needing food and coin, struck a chord in Velor’s heart. Let the man keep his mysteries. He possessed an uncommon sense of honor, and Velor respected that. The assassin’s decision was made almost before he was aware of it. He gestured for Eleric to follow him. “Come on, let’s return to Gandy together, and we can inform them the dragon is dead. If you tell them I was the one who delivered the killing blow, I’ll buy you food and clothes. The duke was more than generous enough for that much.”
Eleric didn’t even argue. He fell into step behind Velor and the two braved the pass back to Gandy, leaving the dead dragon behind.
Read Chapter 7 here: