Surfacing Ch. 10byEtaski©
Author's Notes: This story is erotic fantasy written by Etaski. I reserve the right to be listed as the author of this story, wherever it is posted. If found posted anywhere except Literotica.com with this note attached, this story is posted without my permission. (c) Etaski 2013
Yet another "Longest Chapter Yet!" A lot happens, a lot changes in this chapter; another where the tectonic plates are shifting. I had a great deal of fun writing this one; I'm happy to offer it as a winter holiday gift to you all. I hope you enjoy!
Kurn had kept far too fast of a pace for too long for me to be able to keep up my first time guiding a Surface mount. Before long I simply slowed down to a walk as my grey gelding blew air heavily out of his flared nostrils, righting myself back on the saddle again as I'd been sliding to one side despite my resistance.
Full gallops weren't as easy to maintain as the Ma'ab might make it seem.
"I'll scout ahead," Mathias said in passing, and I nodded acknowledgment though knew he would do it whether I agreed or not.
In this case, I agreed. Having Mathias between Kurn and me was preferable, as was a slower pace as my backside still healed. I'd taken that wellness pellet more or less in a panic after becoming aware in Cris's bed, thinking only to protect my baby, but I would have the fortunate benefit of the pellet soothing my raw netherhole by the afternoon. It would not chafe me for as long as it had Kurn when we'd crossed the midway, and I would not have to stand up in my stirrups.
Gavin pulled up alongside me as our mounts picked their way along the narrow road through the forest. Dew still covered the grasses and the air was cool for now but would warm up soon. We both had our hoods up to block the strengthening light as well as we could. We'd already climbed and descended plenty of hills and this was not the easiest route as the road contained nearly as many holes and washes as the one to Sarilis's Tower. No one had been doing much to maintain it in recent years, I could see the effects of the elements, and perhaps that spoke well of the location of our target.
"You will keep your sense open for auras?" I asked Gavin, and he nodded.
"This is not the best time to close it off," he remarked dryly.
"For threat, certainly," I said. "But also one that might not be a threat. At least to us, if we can find her first."
"One of yours whom you seek. How much magic does she use?"
"I'm glad you have the memory still. More than me, but less than you."
Gavin nodded in thought. The eight dead men were several horse-lengths behind us riding in a cluster, sparing me their unnatural proximity. They did not speak or even draw air, and they barely moved, never adjusting for a cramp or reaching for a tool or a drink of water, though their mounts still made quite a lot of noise. I noticed one of the Witch Hunter corpses was missing a hand somewhat above the wrist.
My mind slipped easily from recalling the cellar, where those men had been lying still just yesterday, to the ritual in the outbuilding not hours ago.
"I still wonder that Mathias has not slept," I said aloud.
"Taking a substance or a draught, I wager. He will fall hard later today. He may require one of us to watch him. Fortunately for him, we will not make the cult today."
I nodded. "Or he may sleep apart, as I did. Do you know what substance he might have taken?"
Gavin shrugged. "No. But Brom gave you a new potion, didn't he? He could do the same for a former employee."
"Or a present one."
I pondered more, even as I partook of a few handfuls of my own travel rations when my stomach growled; I would need to check out Brom's contributions a bit closer later on when we stopped for a rest. There was plenty from the inn on which I hadn't had the chance to think much yet, although Soul Drinker, now at a place at my belt, fortunately was not demanding that thought now. It seemed simply content to have left the inn.
Most present in my mind, which that had not been discussed aloud with anyone, was the sunburst brand on Gavin's back and what he'd done to Jacob.
"Why did you eat the heart?"
"The ritual requires it."
I arched a skeptic brow. "I have heard that before. I am not sure I believe it. More effective for show, is it not? To further torture the sacrifice, or to thrill those watching it?"
Gavin turned slowly to look at me, and it crossed my mind looking at that death mask that if there was even less of a performer for others than Gavin, I had not met one yet. Even Shyntre had more of an urge to show off his spells, and they were both bitter, highly magical males forced into submissive roles.
"Consuming the heart attuned the shard to my aura, Sirana," he explained. "This way I can hide its magical presence as I can hide my own, if necessary. Otherwise carrying it would draw the eye of every competent mage in the land."
"That powerful," I commented.
He turned to look forward again. "Only because of the particular potency within the soul."
"What did you make? What is its use?"
Gavin was quiet for several moments. "She has not told me, yet. First I was to prove I could do it."
"Your mistress presented the challenge and you did not question why?"
He looked at me again more sharply. "Were you able to question your queen why she tasked you to assassinate Sarilis?"
My queen; Ishuna. She had a name now. I smirked at the verbal crossing of blades. "Perhaps she simply told me why in my briefing, and I did not have to ask."
"Indeed. I would not think she told you her complete reasoning."
"You would be correct," I granted before I gave in to temptation to start bluffing him for entertainment. "Does that mean the Grey Maiden gave you even part of her reasons?"
The apprentice nodded. "I only need to work it out. I see elements, but not the mural."
Gavin was in a more stubborn "give and take" mood, which discouraged me asking outright what one of the "reasons" was the Grey Maiden had given him for drawing out and transforming Jacob's living soul. A trade was not so easy; there was no simple explanation for why Ishuna wanted Sarilis destroyed—too many connections all around that could not help but lead to a chase of questions down the black hole—and that very well might be the same with Gavin's mistress.
I could lie, of course, give something misleading, but to what purpose? How would it protect or benefit me? And should Gavin catch me in an ill-considered lie sometime later, would he continue being so open with his knowledge of the Surface, or would I have to doubt everything he said from then on? I was far from the City, and I was outside Brom's Inn. The same habits and thought patterns there would not help me with this Human scholar; I already knew that.
Perhaps it was not the best time to discuss it; I still needed to be aware of my surroundings and guide my own mount for once.
I breathed out, tired still from running my mind in circles with Cris-ri-phon, and found myself wincing, feeling sharp pain in my eyes as we passed out from beneath the trees onto a stretch of road completely open to the Sky and where the higher Sun finally struck the dirt. I was looking down, squinting, trying to adjust again, when I glanced over to Gavin again. And stared.
I only saw his hands holding his mare's reins, but I stared, wondering if the fast-changing shade of his skin was a trick of the light?
I pointed at his hands and he looked down. His expression was mostly hidden beneath his hood, but he shifted both reins to his right hand and lifted his left in front of his face, and I could see him studying his skin thoughtfully. It was darkening to ash-like grey, and getting darker with no signs of slowing.
"That is interesting."
"Does it hurt?"
He kept his hand out beneath the Sun's rays, and eventually after several score of steps taken by the horses, it eventually turned pitch black, darker than my own skin even—which at least still possessed a slightly grey-purple tone beneath direct light—and now matched his black fingernails and teeth. What was happening? My mount sensed my nervousness and side-stepped at least once from Gavin's mare and I had to split my concentration between him and the horse.
Gavin said nothing more, but when we passed beneath the shade of trees again he grunted, watching as his dry, slightly wrinkled skin began to lighten again, soon back to grey and then to the pale, near-translucent whiteness of before. His scent had not changed even as the color changed, I noticed this as the breeze shifted. As it had been in the inn, his scent was mostly what I recalled while riding double for weeks, but far less potent, as if he sweated very little now, if at all. I would have to watch as the Sun became warmer if his skin grew moist.
"That will get you burned alive as a devil at Manalar," I commented, as it was the first thing that came to mind. "It is as difficult to hide as my appearance."
Truly, a mage who turned from Moon-pale to void-black when exposed to direct Sunlight then shifted back to normal once shielded from the light? Was there anything more insulting to Musanlo's fanatical followers that the Grey Maiden could have done to her apprentice?
Gavin smiled, showing those black teeth again in stark contrast to a now-pale face. "True. But I think I shall never suffer sunburn again."
Was he jesting? "Uhm. You think that is what it means?"
He shrugged. "It is either the intent or a benefit, but I no longer feel the rays as I did. It will take further observation."
If that was the case, then...very well, yes, that was something of which I could be envious. No damage from Sun exposure? I clearly recalled peeling bits of grey, dead skin from my Sister'' backs after Rausery had fucked each of us naked on all fours, beneath the Sun for long enough to burn us.
Following that thought and the view at the time...while I had only seen distant smears of snow atop a few higher peaks early in the Spring, I'd been taught of snow-blindness; like the surface of water, the Sun's light could be reflected up into the eyes for enough time to actually cause damage, like the first time I'd witnessed a Sunrise. Hot, burning, dry...it did seem rather stubborn that the light would find a way to hurt the eyes even when one was looking down at the ground in the opposite direction.
"No sunburn...even your eyes in the snow?" I asked. "Will you be black head to toe?"
Gavin seemed to be drawn away from whatever he had been pondering and shrugged. "I suppose I will see."
Then the corner of his mouth lifted, and he said in a muttered, more thoughtful voice, "'Ye shall know the shepherd, for he shall be as a light in the dark, but also the darkness in the light.'"
I shook my head; I'd heard him clearly, though I knew by now he did not expect others to hear more than a possible grumble at that decibel, and they would rarely ask him to repeat what he said. Even if they did, in most cases he would pretend he had said nothing at all.
Except with me.
"What do you say?" I prodded.
"An old passage from a tome I once read at the monastery. It seemed oddly appropriate."
It certainly seemed to suit a literal interpretation of that passage...
"What is a 'shepherd'?" I asked.
He looked at me, considering, before going back to watching the road. "A sheep herder."
Gavin started to smile as he had more often whenever our talk could halt completely just at my lack of vocabulary in unexpected areas. I suspected this was because he had learned to enjoy contemplating the truly mundane, to explain as if it was exotic.
To someone from far enough away, everything was exotic.
"Short, noisy, nervous livestock, good to eat and drink their milk, but also covered in a unique coat. We can shear off great chunks to spin into cloaks and blankets that keep us warm even when wet, if a bit smelly. It is called 'wool'. All of our cloaks are made of it."
"That is the smell, then," I mused. There were so many coming from one Human body, it was hard to tell at times. Then I chuckled at the description. "Short, noisy, and nervous?"
The necromancer nodded. "They need only one strong will to drive them. They follow each other otherwise and are bred to be docile. Aggressive rams—the males—are often culled so as not to breed more aggressive sheep."
I stared at him as the horse's hooves clopped. "Is that symbolism with intent?"
"I do not truly know."
Gavin was still smiling, though.
"Of what was the tome speaking?" I asked. "Was it a Manalar text or one of those not destroyed?"
His smile faded and he looked at me with irritation. "Your skill in questioning is rather remarkable at times. You come from odd directions to correct conclusions."
"Ha. One not destroyed." I grinned. "You were reading, what was it...heretical text. Ma'ab, from your mother?"
"No, not Ma'ab text," he said quickly, and abruptly shut his mouth again.
I pushed just one more time. "Spoils of war, though. That is what you said. Text found elsewhere and brought to the monastery. By whom? I cannot imagine it to be any other than your mother, come into her possession from Ma'ab movements."
Gavin ground his teeth. "I do not know, I was not yet born."
Still, I added, "I should like to have met your mother. She had a mind somehow to upset quite a lot of Musnalo's foundation, no?"
"It did not lead to a long life," he observed with forced aloofness.
"No...but she carried you. A Musanlo priest's son and disciple of the Grey Maiden."
I backed off then, knowing the boundaries well by now. Still, I would guess that Gavin would like to know just what his mother had been thinking, coupling with his father in the first place. I was beginning to wonder whether the "Patroness" had asked for a servant somehow, even if the Ma'ab witch had not been aware of it. It was not altogether unlike my Elder's "accidental" conception of a certain mage, as Elder Rausery had suggested it might have simply been the Valsharess wanting D'Shea to breed before she grew into an elder.
If the Greylords were powerful beings of another plane—an actual place that Innathi and Cris-ri-phon themselves knew about—but assisting the souls of other deities' followers...that did not make them deities as well, did it? More demi-gods. Perhaps such as Ishuna fancied herself, by now.
It did imply a certain connection of the Ma'ab to the Greylands, though. Wasn't that what Sarilis had hinted at his own dinner table? ...but then why had Kurn and Castis not reacted to his suggestion? Had I only imagined it, and Sarilis merely compared living struggles and war-loving races like the Ma'ab with "peaceful" passing from one plane to another?
Gavin's dreams and apparent pain did not seem to imply the Greylands were quiet and still...
We heard a horse's canter coming toward us before too much longer, and as I suspected, it was Mathias returning down the path. He lifted a weapon-free arm as a hale as he slowed some distance from us. I gestured for him to come closer. No one spoke as his horse walked up to join us; we didn't want to have to shout. He offered a bow of his head in greeting.
"Kurn has cooled off now. They are walking the mounts and will meet us at a landmark ahead for the midday meal."
I nodded and we continued on, Mathias glancing back more than once at the eight undead following us on horseback.
"I am grateful they aren't stepping on our heels, necromancer."
"No reason to be surrounded yet, perhaps," Gavin muttered, not outwardly acknowledging the fact that Mathias had not called him an apprentice as before. Perhaps he still saw himself as one with a Greylord shadowing him and disturbing his sleep.
"Do tell me why Lord Brom calls you a skin hunter, Mathias," I said, since we were choosing names. "I've been most curious."
The unremarkable-looking Man chuckled. "It is another name for a bounty hunter, making captures for payment, but more to do with trophies that prove a death. Live captures are more in demand in some areas, but in others, dead is just as good."
I shook my head slightly. "Mm, perhaps. I think there must be more."
He turned to look at me with eyes and expression that appeared somewhat as I had seen him on our earlier journey, but still more like the Mathias in the outbuilding—perhaps because I knew to look for it, or he did not see reason to hide it in accepting company.
"Well. I believe you saw my favorite type of live capture. A great deal of skin is involved."
I nodded. "And from whom did you learn such interrogation skills?"
Mathias glanced at Gavin, who was paying very little attention to us, either pondering a puzzle in his mind or seeming to hear more than just our voices and the sounds of the horses and forest. I was reminded of what my ally had said about seeing spirits and hearing voices.
"Some from my lord father, I think your companion knew that."
The Man focused on me and smiled in a much more familiar way, bringing to the fore of our minds the fact that he had been allowed to press his fingers into my body and pleasure me further with his mouth in pursuit of that interrogation.
"But I think you have a better guess, don't you, Sirana?"
"The sorcerer," I said.
"Correct. Did you experience a few... similarities between us?"
I smirked as his knowing expression and direct gaze, as if he was probing my soft spots as he had Jacob.
"Brom learned well from my elders. It makes sense he would take a few students himself."
The surprise was clear as Mathias straightened in his saddle. "What?"
"Your employer was a pupil once himself, if you can imagine. To my race."
"Hm," Mathias grunted as he frowned in thought. "That explains a few things."
"Of course. I know he wants you to watch me. Did he give you a reason?"
"Quite clear in the way he kissed you, I would think."
Sadly, it was. "But also more complex."
He shrugged. "So you say. Anyone can make it more complex, but the base desire is not. It is why I always make my captures, sooner or later."
That was essentially the mindset of many in the Sisterhood; he just did not have the longevity in the game. It was interesting for me to contemplate; what was "patient" for him might be "too soon" for an Elder, but either way for a novice... At the same time, there was always serendipity and opportunity, and being able to tell judge those against impatience and temptation...and this was so no matter the age.
"What are you to do for Brom, then?"
Mathias smiled. "Watch your back against the Ma'ab. See our mission complete."
"And see that I return?"
The skin hunter smiled. "Or simply pass on your sincere regards."
I did not believe that. Brom had already set a compulsion on Mathias once to return out into the rainstorm to retrieve me, bringing me back on his own horse. Of course, now that I had the forewarning, it would not be so easy to repeat...but Mathias did not necessarily know his own intentions where his employer was concerned.
However, the first two reasons were the same that Gavin had overheard. Mathias was being as truthful as he could be, for now. Coupled with returning my sapphire without Kurn seeing...clearly he was showing a desire to be allies.
"What reward do you receive?" I tested.
"I've already had it."
"The Witch Hunter?"
I challenged that, even as it was what Gavin had said as well.
"What is your drive for following through if it becomes too dangerous for you, if your reward has already been satisfied?"
After all, Gavin was right to doubt my own drive to help him if my pregnancy became too advanced before we could return to Sarilis.
Mathias gazed at me with that slightly disconnected expression. "Pure fascination, I suppose. Especially as I hear now my own training has its roots in your timeless race. You seemed pleased with me at the time, Sirana. Did I do well, then?"