As they walked to Gandy, Velor learned another surprising fact about his new traveling companion. The mysterious mage both understood and respected the value of silence. Eleric felt no need to fill the cool night air with meaningless drivel, and he walked almost as softly as an adherent of shadow. The mage asked no questions and uttered no complaints, not even when Velor set a demanding pace.
He wanted to reach Gandy as soon as possible. A warm bed and a filling meal were his greatest desires. It was always the same after he invoked shadow. For all its gifts, it left him cold and empty after. Once he broke his fast and crawled under the covers for a few hours, he'd feel better.
Beyond his own needs, he wanted to know more about Eleric. The gods themselves had taken an interest in the mage, and he'd be a fool not to learn all he could in the short time they would travel together. The mage was so thin that after a mug or two of ale, his tongue should be loose enough to spill all the secrets he'd held on to so tightly in the mountains.
They reached the place where Velor had encountered the mysterious stranger as the first pale pinks of the sunrise colored the horizon. Velor looked around as they walked past, halfway expecting the old man to appear again out of thin air. But there was no sign of the stranger's previous visit, and nothing but a stiff northern breeze greeted them as they reached the top of the switchbacks. Velor studied his companion, but the mage seemed only interested in the meal waiting for him below. If he sensed any currents of power in this place, he gave no sign.
The journey down the switchbacks was far faster and easier than the climb up. Their descent took place in the first light of dawn, and it didn't go unobserved. By the time they reached the bottom, a fair number of Gandy's citizens had gathered to hear their tale. The hope burning bright in their eyes made Velor want to scream. They were pathetic.
Unable to change anything.
He clenched his fists and clamped his jaw shut.
Fortunately, Eleric had no trouble filling in for Velor. He spread his arms out wide as he approached the crowd, a smile on his face. The quiet and wary traveler vanished, replaced by a hero of the people. His expression brought matching grins of joy to the lips of the assembled crowd. They knew, without him having to say a word, what he'd accomplished.
"Friends!" Eleric's voice boomed across the crowd. Not magic, but the practiced projection of a veteran of the stage. "Velor and I have battled the dragon plaguing your lands, and though the fight was worthy of song, we have vanquished the beast! Velor struck the final blow, a cut of such quality I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes."
The news spread like fire through dry hay on a windy afternoon. Eleric had hardly finished the proclamation when the crowd converged on him, dozens of questions shouted in the space of a long breath. Eleric fielded the questions with the grace of a noble. He shook hands, nodded as strangers gave thanks, and took whatever coins were shoved at him. Velor heard Eleric mention his name repeatedly, but no questions, coins, or thanks came his way.
Velor stepped aside. With the rising of the sun, the last of his shadow-infused strength fled from his limbs. It didn't cripple him, but he felt the deep exhaustion in his feet and legs. One didn't climb and walk for miles, fight a dragon, and return in one night without feeling the exhaustion. A long bench beside a shop was unoccupied, and he sat down on one side, closing his eyes and taking a few moments to rest. No one approached.
Velor chuckled to himself as Eleric tried and failed to share the credit. By the time the crowd dispersed, Velor figured it was a coin toss between the town naming Eleric their eternal champion and renaming Gandy after him.
He more than halfway expected the mage to forget him, too, so he was surprised when a shadow blocked the sun from reaching him. Velor cracked open one eye. Eleric studied him. "Mind if I join you?"
Velor gestured to the empty half of the bench. Eleric sat down.
"I didn't think you were that strong in shadow."
"More a natural affinity for the skill than a display of aptitude."
"In a week, I doubt any of them will have the slightest memory of you."
"It's better that way."
Eleric didn't press. Most people would have. Velor liked that about the mage.
His emaciated companion jingled the coins in his pocket. "They were generous. I'd buy you that meal now."
Velor shook his head and stood up. "Told you I would, so I will. Save it for wherever you travel next. You killed the dragon anyhow, so it's rightfully yours."
"Shadow isn't exactly known for its generosity," Eleric said.
"I've always found it to be honest, though."
They walked to the same inn Velor had visited the day before. Merchants and guards bustled about, preparing wagons for the long-delayed journey. The pair had delivered the news early enough in the day the most ambitious of merchants would have little difficulty reaching the outpost at the top of the switchbacks by nightfall. Vast riches danced in their greedy gazes as they imagined the demand for their wares once they crossed the pass. Velor ignored them all, and none noticed him.
Eleric patiently endured another round of thanks, but Velor saw him lick his lips as the scents from the inn's kitchen drifted over them. Velor waited until Eleric finished with the merchants, then they entered together.
The innkeeper looked like he had mixed feelings about Eleric's return, but when Velor flashed his coin in the innkeeper's direction, all doubts faded. He welcomed them and directed them to a corner booth. They had drinks in front of them a moment later. Velor's first sip washed away all the concerns the long night had introduced. He planned on eating and drinking his fill, then he would take a long nap in one of the nicer rooms the merchants had recently abandoned. If any of his concerns remained upon his waking, he would deal with them then.
He took another long pull. The ale here was good. His chosen profession carried more risk than most, but it weighed down his pockets with coin. He brought death wherever he traveled, so he fought hard not to forget the pleasures of life.
Across the table, Eleric enjoyed his own drink. Though he basked in the town's attention, Velor noted the way his eyes darted around the room, and how they shot to the door whenever it opened. Velor didn't ask, and Eleric volunteered nothing. The assassin assumed that if he asked now, Eleric's guard would go up, and he'd stop drinking.
His own study of the room revealed little. It was a scene of barely controlled chaos as the merchants scrambled to organize their guards and drivers. No one had known whether the endeavor to kill the dragon would succeed, but none would waste a moment now that the pass was clear. Amid the madness, their table received plenty of stares, but that was no more than Velor expected. Everyone in the town knew who they were.
What most interested Velor was how Eleric handled the attention. The mage returned grateful nods and waves, but his smile seemed forced and he drank his ale faster every time the front door opened and closed. Velor swirled the remainder of his ale and considered the facts. Even if Eleric didn't divulge his secrets, Velor started to piece together the reason the mage had dared the pass unopposed.
They both finished their first mugs before they started on their food. After the long night, the ale hit Velor harder than he expected. He called for another round, promising it would be his last. While they waited, they started on the food. Velor, who never had much of an appetite, picked his way through the meal as though searching for traps. Eleric, on the other hand, was a conquering army laying waste to an unprepared enemy.
Their next drinks arrived, and Velor had half his gone in one swig. Eleric was too distracted by his food to notice. Velor gestured at a pair of Eleric's admirers. "You're a proper hero."
"Only thanks to you. Otherwise, I might still be sitting on that rock, too scared to move."
"Have you considered staying? You could start a pleasant life here. Pretty sure I met a woman who wanted to marry you on my first pass through."
Eleric looked down at his mostly empty plate. "I won't deny the temptation, but there are places I need to go."
Velor finished his ale before Eleric started his second. It made him sloppy. "What are you running from?"
As soon as he asked, he knew he'd made a mistake. Eleric's face hardened, and the friendly mage vanished. Eleric stared hard at him, then stood up. "Excuse me," he said. The fake smile returned, and he went to another table that was calling for him to visit.
Velor swore. It had been too soon.
He glanced over at Eleric's untouched ale. He reached out, grabbed it, and drank half in one gulp. As soon as he swallowed, he knew he'd made an even greater mistake.
The ale had been poisoned. Crooked arrowroot, he thought. A good choice against anyone who followed a path. The channels in his body closed as his muscles tensed and froze. The poison hit so fast he didn't even have time to call out for help. No one noticed as he struggled for breath.
He cursed his stupidity. To have suffered so much, only to die with so little accomplished. It was no wonder shadow didn't want him.
His vision darkened as his lungs stopped pulling air into his body. His last thought, before his world faded to black, was bitter.
He was going to die because someone had tried to assassinate the new hero of this town.
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