Black Bloods: Valesisa’s Vow

By Saleena Rini

Prologue:

 

“I promise.”

The young girl gulped down thick mouthfuls of humidity. A waterfall thundered thirty feet below her. A drip, drip, drip was echoing off the walls of the slimy cave. Even though she could usually see in the dark, everything was a shape, a shadow, a silhouette. And spinning. The potion moved sluggishly through her system, burning everywhere it touched. In her tormentor's hand rested the cure to her pain.

“It’s so simple, Valesia. Two words.” He crouched so close to her face that she could taste his vile breath. “I. Promise.” He slapped her twice across the cheek, hard. The whites of his eyes seemed to glow ominously. Like a giant rat, or a stalking werecat.

“Enough.” Her fearless brother finally stepped forward, the form of his body rippled and swayed as if it weren’t quite solid. “She’s too young.”

“She’s eight. She can ride a horse, wield a crossbow, and say her prayers. She can take her vow. Now, move aside, Talio.”

In Valesia’s fantasy world she saw her brother defying their father and his wicked ways, as she herself was doing. But he didn’t. He shifted in compliance, reclaiming his place in the corner.

The dew was collecting on her nearly bare body, beginning at the tips of her snowy hair and trickling down her shoulder, across her chest and down to her hip. The water pooled with the blood that was black. It seeped from her grotesque tattoos that her father had carved on her stomach, back, and upper thighs. She’d screamed, but no one could hear her, and no one near enough would care. It was a dark-elven ritual that they’d all gone through.

“Lolth, take you!” her father lashed out with the blade, this time parting the flesh of her cheek. This slit bled more than the rest of the intricate designs on her body because it was not a part of the

ceremony. The wound didn’t hurt so much as it frightened her. “I promise,” she squeaked through stubborn tears.

Her father, instantly calm, tipped her head back and poured the bottle’s contents down her throat. She choked and sputtered, but eventually got the copper-like sludge to go down. Her pain eased and her body quivered as Talio and their father traced each new scar on her body. Finally, her father reached up to the now smarting scar on her face and brushed his thumb against it, then kissed it tenderly.

“We leave for Korgam tomorrow.”

The rushing sound of the harried rapids mimicked the incessant pounding of Valesia’s heartbeat. The spray misted up and created a thin, sticky layer of condensation on her ashen gray face, even from as high as three hundred feet up.

“Val,” Ellywick began, squinting against the direct light of the blood-red, setting sun. “This is our last chance to get out of this deal. Our last chance to keep what morality we have left.”

Valesia twisted her youthful features into a sardonically mystified expression, her gleaming red eyes twinkling in the shadow cast on her face. “You’re afraid of lost morality? It’s so unlike you.”

Ellywick simply stared down the sloped edge of the hill, overlooking the swaying pines and birches. “It’s been a long time since we’ve last traveled together. Maybe I’ve grown wiser.”

“Then it sounds to me like your morality is already forfeit,” Valesia retorted hotly. Then, softer, “This is for my brother, Ellywick. I forsook any self preservation over a hundred years ago.”

Knowing that there was nothing she could say to change her tempered friend’s mind, she turned away and resumed the treacherous climb up the steep hill. “Then let’s get on with it.”

Valesia paused to think it through one last time. This whole thing was her fault, not Ellywick’s.

Why should her friend needlessly suffer the fate of Valesia’s own sins?

I shall never forsake the goddess. I shall never blaspheme her name. Lolth be with me.

Having made up her mind, she deftly picked her path through the brambles, large stones, and trickling brooks headed for the roaring river just below them. “Elly—”

Her three-foot-tall friend spun on her heel and reached up as high as she could to place her hand on Valesia’s shoulder. “I’m staying with you, Val. We’re going together.”

Valesia’s mouth stretched into a thin smile, laden with something the common folk would describe as unsettling or odd. “Watch out for them dark elves,” they would whisper to their children, “They’re queer folk, them. Don’t ever trust their smile, cause it ain’t never happy.”

The pair continued to labor their way up the slick deer-path until they finally came to a small hut that smelled of rotting fruits and blood. The setting sun swathed the ramshackled home in a macabre shade of red and erie gold flecks, which emphasized the splashes of gore and black cultic marks roughly carved into the walls. The walkway was fashioned of dark stone. Engraved runes chanted of an ancient, sinister spell that hasn’t been uttered in nearly a thousand years.

Valesia stifled a shiver and Ellywick caught her breath. For even though the place itself was ghastly and ominous, the elf standing in the doorway made it appear as a friendly, jolly tavern where flushed, chubby folks could dance and sing all night.

“I knew you’d find me— sooner or later,” the tall, lanky, and altogether grotesque dark-elf drawled, dragging his rough and swollen tongue over a set of blackened razor teeth, raw flesh still clinging in their perverse grasp. “Then you’re finally desperate, hmm?”

“We’re here to make a deal,” Valesia responded shortly, gulping down a bit of stubborn bile. “Obviously,” the elf returned, “What is it you want?”

Valesia steeled herself just enough to hold the elf’s terrible, nightmarish gaze. “I need protection for my brother.”

The elf’s beady and pale eyes glowed wickedly. “And what is it you plan to offer me in return?”

Her breath hitched in her throat and she shuddered before looking the sick being in the eye once more and murmuring, “Anything.”

A gurgly chortle erupted from the drow’s chest. Out of his mouth leaked a crimson substance which dribbled down the front of his pointed, jutting chin. “You should have sold your soul to the devil, child, you’d be better off that way,” he droned menacingly. “Come inside, and we’ll talk business.”

The last thing either Ellywick or Valesia wanted to do was go inside the wretched house, but the elf had already disappeared through the lopsided doorway, so they had no choice but to follow. From the outside of the shack’s appearance, and the visage of the elf himself, Valesia was expecting nothing short of a horrifying, sludgy mess. However, this wasn’t so.

A crackling house fire seethed out a burning heat that warmed the entirety of the small living space. On the walls hung great broadswords and meticulous, expensive paintings of scantily dressed elves that caused Valesia to blush, as well as portraits of mighty men decorated from head to toe in gleaming armor. The home was lit by small covered lamps, intricate designs cut into their thin paper coverings. The living space was attached to a petite kitchen that smelled of herbs and smoked meat. In all, one might call it charming. Valesia just grimaced.

“Would you care for refreshments?”

“No,” she answered plainly. She wasn’t a fool, or at least that much of one.

A wry grin quirked his mouth and he gestured to a set of chairs next to the fire. “Trust only goes so far, hm? I understand.”

Valesia felt anger bubbling just beneath the surface of her collected demeanour, but she sat, as requested, as did Ellywick. However, the elf continued his pacing, appearing bizarrely tall and lanky as he did so.

“I don’t need money; I am as rich as I desire. I don’t need blackmail; I already know as much as I need to. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be in need of your service, but it just so happens that there might be an opening.”

So there it was. Valesia would become enslaved for her brother’s protection— again. She’d really expected no less.

Sins come with a weighty price. I will never sin. I will never forsake the Mother of the Night.

“I need an assassin,” the elf stated plainly. “I am too well known to be useful on the field anymore. Even figures that hardly resemble me are either beaten or cowered from. However, the job still needs to be done. If you kill for me, I’ll make sure your brother disappears. Off the grid, you could say.”

Valesia gazed into the fire, the flames dancing a hypnotic pattern, entrancing Valesia momentarily. “Is that the only ultimatum? I kill for you, or you don’t protect my brother?” it sounded too easy. Of course, Draemir had no way of knowing her past with the guild. Or at least, she hoped he didn’t.

The elf laughed a hearty, guttural laugh at that, and it made Valesia’s heart drop to her stomach. “You amuse me! If that were all, it would nearly make me decent, bearable, maybe even a human. You know we’re not that way.”

Valesia broke her gaze from the fire, now staring hard at her feet. Her stomach pitched at the thought of killing again making her feel relieved rather than sick. Draemir was right. They weren’t so different, no, their blood was the same. As it had been that night when she’d made her vow, collecting on the stool by her hip— her blood ran black.

Now Ellywick stood up, her stature looking ridiculous next to the oddly tall dark-elf. “Name your price, otherwise you’re wasting our time.”

Draemir’s lips curled in disgust and his gray face reddened slightly with rage. “Don’t try to pull one over on me, gnome! You wouldn’t be here if there was anybody else!”

The force of Draemir’s voice seemed to thrust Ellywick back into her chair, stunning her into silence. He let the stillness hang, only the crackling of the flames and the whistle of the kettle interrupted the menacing halt of time.

“You kill whom I wish, when I wish, how I wish, or your brother dies. Don’t question me, either. I may be singing a song that sounds as if I’m desperate, but I have plenty of assassins in plenty of places. You can not escape me. Is it a deal?”

So there it was, clear as day. Valesia was sure that there must be something she was missing, something that would make her regret scrawling her sharp signature on the dotted line. “Give me the contract.”

Ellywick sucked in a breath, but held her tongue as Valesia slit the tip of her index finger right along the scar that was already stenciled there. Blood pooled immediately, but Valesia didn’t so much as grimace. She stoically smeared her oath onto the paper. She was an assassin for the man who was sidled with Hades, with Satan, or with Apep, with Kuk, whomever was the true devil. As a matter of fact, whichever it was probably answered to Draemir.

Draemir’s lips curled into self-appreciative amusement, revealing his knife-like teeth. “Well, it just so happens the first contract has already come in. It’s from your prior employers… oh, yes, I know all about that… anyhow, I hope you don’t find it too much trouble…”

Valesia’s palms became slick, and she impatiently swiped them on her flex pants, the last thing she kept from the guild..

“It’s Darcy. You’ve met, I presume?”

No. Valesia stood abruptly to stare Draemir straight in the eye, certain he was only saying it to get a rise out of her. She could smell the putrid blood on his warm breath. She could see his red-stained tongue, typically cream colored. But it was his eyes that revealed the truth...He was serious.

“Actually,” he continued conversationally, “There’s a contract out on both of you, but I’d like to fantasize that I’m merciful, even if I’m only a businessman. Only one of you has to die in my little deal.”

Valesia couldn’t breathe.

“You have forty-eight hours to find him and kill him without getting caught. If you could avoid suspicion altogether, that would be wonderful, but I doubt you can manage it. You can’t even ask about the weather these days without some critique. They’re not wrong of course, but I prefer people dumb, don’t you?”

Let me be cursed if I ever forsake you. I will honor Lolth in all my ways.

Valesia didn’t respond, because she was too worried that he could hear her thundering heartbeat through her fabrics.

“You’re right,” he said dismissively, “I’m rambling. Your time starts now.”

Valesia looked outside the window and saw that the sun had just disappeared behind the hillcrest. She had until the second sundown to murder her best friend. The only person who loved her through her plight for Talio. Talio. Was he ever going to stop costing her? Without another word she rose and walked out the front door into the heinous yard.

 

Subconsciously she lifted the dagger strapped behind her thigh out of its concealed sheath and began to flip it end over end. She tossed it up, caught it lightly on the tip of her index finger, and sent it back into the air to catch it on the opposite. That’s how she was, a dagger, never still for long, always sailing through the air.

Her ghostly white hair flipped and snapped in the gusting wind, her hood billowing behind her as she descended the treacherous hill. Ellywick followed, finding the climb down much easier than the climb

up. It seemed as if it were a moment before they were standing on the battered and rotten rope-bridge dangling precariously over the roaring rapids. The tide had risen now, and no sane being would dare cross the river as the foam and waves crashed onto the unsteady bridge more often than they missed it. Anyone who dared try and cross it now would get soaked if they were lucky, or likely sucked under, never to be heard from again.

“Stay here,” Valesia said, turning to her shivering friend. The spray had already dampened them past a chill, and the poor gnome couldn’t stop trembling. “It’s too dark for you, and you’ll get blasted right off.”

“I-I- t-told yo-u-u,” she said, her teeth chattering all the while. “I-I’m with you.” “Ellywick,” Valesia groaned with longsuffering.

“Valesia,” Ellywick mimicked. “I’m coming.”

Valesia sighed and knelt, one knee pressed into the overly damp soil while her other foot rested on the wobbling bridge. “Then climb on.” The gnome didn’t protest, rather she clambered onto her friend’s back and clung to her narrow shoulders. Valesia swayed uncertainly, found her balance, and began making her way across the fifty-foot-long bridge. It wouldn’t have been too arduous a journey for a sure-footed elf like her, but with the gnome on her back and the shifty, rotting wood of the rope bridge it took twice as long, soaking both Valesia and Ellywick in the process.

Once on the other side, the dripping water turned to blood. The stuff sprinkled thickly off of the delicate tips of her fingers, pooling on the already saturated ground. Her hair streamed the essence of someone’s life, trailing it down the back of her dress, snaking around the back of her ankle where it found its eternal resting place.

Valesia bit back a screech, but held her tongue because she deserved this. She deserved to bathe in the blood she’d spilled.

“Valesia.” Darcy’s silky-smoothe croon thrummed against Valesia’s eardrum, but rather than calming her it vexed her more. Darcy was her next kill. Darcy, the only inherently good dark elf, was her next hit.

I break my vow! Curse Lolth and let me die!

The prospect threatened to bring Valesia to her knees. Would the hereditary blackness of her blood ever thin? Not with her, obviously.

“Valesia.” Darcy’s voice had taken on a pleading tone. Don’t kill me, it begged. Valesia raised her thin, weak hand that was still covered in her crimson transgressions. She was to strike him and exile him from this earth. She had to, for Talio. A dark elf through and through, though hunted for her sake. A debt she would be paying until her own sought demise.

Her mind played back the scene, witnessed all too fully despite the thick darkness. It was about fifty years since she had denounced the drow demon. Her parents had been killed at the hand of a demented priest, and she and her brother lived in poverty in the capital city. Even though Talio was still a worshiper of Lolth, he stomached her existence and provided what he could. He ended up being caught stealing from the palace and placed in prison on an order of execution. The only reason that he was alive now was because she joined the local thieves guild. She was on a mission for them when she'd made her first kill. She leveled the crossbow, her feet planted firmly against the rough wooden planks. Her eyes met the wandering eyes of the child, clutching her ratted bear, her pale dress slipping off her shoulder. “Hello?” her sweet voice called. It was the last thing her mouth would ever utter before a bolt ripped into her petite chest, the blow knocking her back. The bolt jerked her limp body forward once it had thunked securely into her flesh, so her face hit the ground, deforming her soft, rounded features. Valesia had turned away, not regarding the miniature fallen body. This picture wasn’t totally right, she had shot the five-year-old in the head, but the blood blooming over her chest was much more difficult to watch.

“Valesia!”

Thunder struck in the distance and Darcy’s voice transformed into Elly’s. The blood on her hands and in her hair faded until the drops were transparent once more. Valesia’s breath was thick and ragged. It was raining. Why was it raining? Lightning flashed in a jagged line across the black sky, blinding her momentarily. The sudden light caused her intense pain, like a burn.

“Valesia, we have to go. We shouldn’t have done this. I know a guy…”

 

Valesia held up a halting hand, and Ellywick allowed her words to die away. Another blast of thunder rang throughout the sky, drowning out the sound of the river and causing the ground to quake ever-so-slightly. It was getting closer.

“Talio is my blood, and my blood runs black. Let’s go find Darcy.”

 

Her tone was so certain, so sinister, that Ellywick backed a single step away. At that moment she had no doubt that Valesia would kill her, too. They weren’t friends. Dark elves didn’t have friends. They simply had allies. She nodded once, not trusting her voice.

The pair worked their way east, heading for Korgam, the one place Valesia had sworn she’d never set foot again. They had to get there by early morning. For one, Trevton would expect her at night, as that was their typical way. Secondly, if they waited too long they wouldn’t be able to ride back in time.

They snagged a couple horses (well, Valesia got a horse, Ellywick demanded a pony) from a neighboring village and rode their steeds to the ground. They arrived at the massive, beautiful capital with an hour to spare, and the sun had not yet risen above the gleaming towers where the wizards and the clerics resided. There was seldom a soul on the streets except for guards and those who were attempting to skirt them. The guild rats peeked from behind corners and slunk across streets, deftly observing each occurance and conversation. The battle school was running drills by the light of sconces and torches. The faint clank, clank, clank of dulled sword striking dulled sword with precision permeated the otherwise still air.

“Why Darcy?” Ellywick asked, breaking the chilly silence. “Why you?”

“Must you ask unanswerable questions?” Valesia sighed. A beat passed before Valesia turned to her friend. “Trevton is cruel, that’s why. He may be a human, but his blood is black, too.” Elywick didn’t know her full past with the guild, and Valesia planned to keep it that way.

The sun was casting a warm glow on the streets now, and the merchants were setting up their carts in the way. The general of the school was barking orders now and the clanking stopped. They were running out of time.

Valesia turned so that she was standing squarely in front of her friend, halting her movement. “You’re not coming.”

Elywick smiled endearingly and attempted to continue on. “Right, yes I am.”

“You’re not hearing me, friend,” Valesia said, flashing a grin of her own. She palmed three gold coins and pressed them into Ellywick’s hand. “Take these. Give them to the stable master. We need fresh horses. Meet me there with them, we ride long and hard.”

Ellywick folded her arms across her chest and scuffled her feet indignantly. “Three gold is hardly going to purchase two horses that can manage to stand, let alone run.”

Valesia reached into her thieves pocket and withdrew an amulet. It was a spider, but it’s legs were mangled and spread, the fangs glittered with venom, but the drow standing above it showed no fear. She had a gleaming dagger in one hand and a shining star in the other. Valesia passed this to her friend as well. “Give this to him and he’ll take the gold. He owes me a debt.”

At that, she receded into the few shadows that remained. The cover was more than ample for a dark-elf thief. Even Ellywick had to squint to see her. Sighing, she turned to the stables and began making her way. Although, she wasn’t holding her breath for Valesia’s attendance. Whether the guild fulfilled their hit on her, or she had to make an escape out the back, Ellywick wasn’t likely to ever see her friend again.

Valesia ghosted through the streets, even her fellow thieves, though few and far between in the daylight, didn’t take any notice of her. At last she ducked through the narrow opening between two abandoned houses and stood on the heavy cedar door that lay there. She stomped the passcode and stood back, waiting for the hatch to open. She slipped a dagger, it’s blade twisted so as to inflict maximum damage, out of its sheath and crouched in the shadows, waiting for the answerer.

One of three people would flip open the trapdoor. Edward, the only one who ever truly cared about her, would be the preferable choice. Or it could be Trevton. He was also in charge of admitting guild rats sometimes, though he was the head guildman, so he rarely lowered himself to such dealings. The only reason he would is if he’d caught wind that she might try to come back. He was for sure the one who ordered the hit. Then, it could be Darcy… That would be both the easiest and the hardest of all. If it was him, she could stick him instantly. He wouldn’t even feel pain or surprise. Then, she’d run, not even taking a second glance his way.

Valesia’s lips warmed at the intimate memory of the last time she’d seen Darcy… it was possible that he’d told someone, who would have told Trevton, who would expect Valesia to come back for sentimental purposes. If he only could see her now. A thrill of grief shot through her chest, shocking her. Her knees collapsed from under her and she sprawled in the dirt, her elbow resting over the unsanded wood of the door, which would open at any moment. Startled, she sat up and scrambled back into her little patch of darkness. Just in time, too, because the door swung open…

And from behind her a thin, cold hand clapped over her mouth and jerked her backwards, back between the abandoned houses and about fifty feet down the street into a seperate alleyway before Valesia came back to herself and swung a fist at the attacker’s jaw. The strike connected so hard that their jaw popped audibly, and she was flung onto the damp dirt, scraping her chin in the rubble. She flew back to her feet, her hand searching for her dagger, but she realized she must have dropped it at some point, probably never to be found again.

“What are you doing? Trying to get yourself killed?”

Valesia froze as the nimble figure threw his hood back to reveal a young drow. His blanched eyebrows arched interrogatively, his lips twisted into an incredulous expression. Her pulse quickened, blocking her throat from speaking. Darcy.

“Well? Trevton has a hit out on you! He found out somehow. Hello?”

Valesia realized that her mouth was gaping and her eyes were vacant. She recomposed herself, palming a dart already dipped in poison. “I know,” she answered plainly. “I’m handling it.”

“By knocking on the front door? You’re lucky I saw you and followed you. Trevton’s been guarding ever since you left.”

Valesia’s cheeks warmed and she balled her empty fist. “I’m not a child in need of your protection. I told you, I’m handling it.” She enunciated every syllable and spoke in a falsely pitched voice, as if explaining something to a youngling. “Why would you follow me? ”

Darcy rested his torso against the mossy brick, crossing one leg over the other and yawning. “I wanted to see what you were up to. I never thought you’d come back here. What with Talio and the guild and the law…”

Valesia held up her hand, though not the one holding the dart. “Alright, I get it. Would you keep it down?”

“No one can hear us.”

“I knocked on the devil’s door.”

Darcy let out an obliviously joyful laugh. “He never comes out. Probably figured it was one of the street mice who figured out the secret knock. Not really that difficult to learn. So, what are you really here for?”

Valesia worked her jaw, but no words came out. What was she supposed to say? “I was sent to kill you and I have to do it because the help that you gave me a year ago wasn’t enough.” No. Was she

even supposed to speak at all? She could stick him now, when he was least expecting it. It would be a mercy. But she couldn’t, not here. Besides, her knife was lost. She could see one hanging in a back sheath on his belt, but she couldn’t snatch it without Darcy probably killing her first. “I need to speak with you,” Valesia managed at last. It wasn’t much of a cover up, but Darcy wouldn’t expect her to lie to him.

“Why can’t we just?...

“Come,” she said, taking his hand. Darcy had little choice but to follow as she tugged him along, creeping in the shadows. Valesia cast a glance behind her every once in a while, but no one was following them, or even paying them any mind. She led him through the winding back-alleys, a route all guild members knew well. On rare occasions you’d see some youngster panickedly spinning round and round in a slow circle, lost beyond his wits. Usually they’d caught a glimpse of a guild member disappearing into the twisted paths and decided to follow them, losing them only after they were so deep in the bowels of the city that they had no hope of finding their way out again. This fact was also why the paths were littered with bones.

The pair descended a staircase that led to the sewers under the sewers. The true intestines of the city. If the paths were the bowels, this was the piss pot. Smelled like it, too. The only good thing about the place was that it was the purest dark you could find anywhere. Valesia’s eyes could finally relax. “Just a bit farther,” Valesia muttered, her voice bouncing eerily off the smoothe pillars and towering walls.

They walked in a straight line for about three more minutes before descending yet another set of steps. She’d never been this low before, but she knew that few else had either. Darcy’s body would never be found unless someone was directed to it. Edward had told her about it two years ago when she asked where the best place to hide a body would be. It felt suffocating, pressurized. “We’re here.”

“But why?” Darcy asked again.

The echo given off by Darcy’s voice resembled the aggressive hiss of a spider. One of those massive spiders that her family hypnotized when she was young. They were used to torture prisoners as a

entertainment for Lolth. She shivered. She’d forsaken Lolth long ago, denying her teachings, but it reminded her that she was on a goddess’s hit list, too, and gods don’t generally miss.

I forsake my oath!

But your blood is still black, black as a moonless night. You’ll ssserve me even in rebellion!

Was fate always going to be against her? She chose not to kill Darcy’s friend for the guild, so now Darcy himself must die by her hand. It seemed so unfair. Of course, the gods, no matter which one of the dark elf demons she’d worshiped, all agreed that life wasn’t made to be fair. Life is chaos. The only way to survive is to be chaotic.

Even in rebellion!

Darcy approached her, reading her like a book as he was always able to. “Valesia, what’s wrong?” The gentle tone in the dark elf's voice made it feel like he was the one stabbing her. The ice was melting away, and Valesia knew if she didn’t do it now, it would remain undone.

“I just—missed you,” she lied easily. Her words had the desired effect. Darcy immediately wrapped her in his arms. She almost didn’t get a hold on the dagger but it slipped from its sheath and she gripped it firmly, refusing to let it leave her her grasp. Then, she hugged him with all her might, plunging the dagger through his back, right into his heart. His gasp resounded in her ears and bounced around her jumbled head. His weight in her arms was heavier than lifting a mountain. The bloodied dagger slipped from her grasp as she clung to him.

Valesia, trembling, laid his limp, wheezing body on the cold stone ground. Valesia crumbled, her vision spotty as the smell of blood permeated the air around them. There was no escaping it. The pressure seemed to be increasing, and she pressed her palms to her head as it throbbed.

Suddenly her eyesight cleared as Darcy coughed weakly and gazed at her like a sad puppy.

Confusion outlined his barely-tinted face. What choked Valesia the most was that his blood was red… just like hers.

“Darcy…” tears streamed down her face, like a torrent in the middle of summer. It was uncomfortable and confusing and not the least bit expected. Her tears mingled with Darcy’s life essence that pooled around him.

“Why?” he choked out, blood spraying her face. She didn’t wipe it away. His eyes closed without waiting for her answer. His body went completely slack and one last warm breath whispered out of his soul.

“I had to… for Talio…” she said, but he could no longer hear her. Desperately she realized that Darcy could not be her sacrifice or she’d be appeasing the gods she forsook. No longer would she be the brave anomaly, she’d fit right in with the rest of her kin. Too late.

You’ll always serve the goddess! It is written in your nature!

But maybe not. She reached into a concealed pocket located on the inside of her cloak and uncorked the bottle within.

She stretched out two tentative fingers towards Darcy’s neck. This would only work if he still had a pulse. The throb was dull and agonizingly slow but it was there. She emptied the contents of the bottle down Darcy’s throat and clamped his mouth shut. She waited one second. Two. On the third Darcy sat up, sputtering. He grimaced and moaned, obviously still in pain, but alive. He collapsed back onto the ground, his eyes closing lazily, but only to sleep.

Valesia squeezed the expensive, miniscule bottle so tightly in her hand that it burst, the shards piercing her tender skin. The last bits of the rare healing potion, meant for herself, mended the cuts that the glass had made.

Talio would die. Ellywick would die. She would die. Then, Darcy would die, too. No contract would go incompleted, not in the long run.

She stood, regarding Darcy for what would likely be the last time, and walked back the way she’d come.

She had to get to Edward without Trevton catching her. No easy feat, considering Trevton was evidently on guard duty until she came crawling back.

She stole one last glance at the drow, still encircled by the blood that the potion was replenishing. His eyes darted beneath his eyelids and his narrow chest rose and fell with each meager breath. The knife lay at his side, hilt and blade alike painted in his gore. She strided over to it and snatched it up, fiddling contemplatively. Then, she knelt, her knees dampening as she placed the blade in his hand. She lifted his arm to his chest, the dagger over his heart. He’d wake up like this, and he’d know she spared him. Out of the pocket where she’d retrieved the potion, she took the genuine amulet. It’s appearance was that of the one she’d given to Ellywick for the stablemaster, but this one was made out of pure obsidian mixed with flecks of diamond. It was worth a small fortune. She hoped it was enough to get Darcy by, and for him to forgive her for...everything.

As she strode from the dank and shrouded stinkhole, a new resolve blossomed in her chest, like a rose. A deep, red rose with lots of thorns. A rose that smelled of costly perfume and poisoned all those who brushed its delicate petals with their fingertips.

She’d kill Trevton. Then Draemir. Then she’d shrink back into the shadows, not to cower, but to

 

hunt.

 

Blackness eternal!

 

Lolth damn her then.

The trek back passed as a blur. Some friendly old fat man attempted to beckon her closer to observe his falsely fresh fish, a bent woman tried to snatch her hand, promising to relate her fortune. Valesia paid them no mind, rather she kept her eyes forward. Once she got nearer to the guild she watched for her dagger, but it was nowhere to be found. All she had was the dart that she’d held earlier, but the poison was mild, only built to put those who found themselves at its mercy to sleep. It might do for a moment, but Trevton was resistant to poison, and his goons would surely pounce on her before she could get away.

At last she stood, facing the narrow opening between the houses. She checked the ground for anything that she could use as a weapon. There was a splintered piece of a broken cartwheel, a shard of glass from a bottle of Tronk, and a bent piece of scrap metal, so small and deformed that the snobbish blacksmith likely threw it away. This, this sharp bit of steel no larger than her middle finger, would be her weapon. She’d stick it in his throat, watch him splutter and gasp as he drowned in his own blood, and then find a weapon somewhere in the guild armory and ride to Draemir before one of his cohorts could give him the news.

Her knees knocked together rebelliously and the world seemed to dip and plunge all around her. She gripped the makeshift weapon so tightly that it sliced into her fingers. She forced herself to take those few steps forward, stomp out the code, and then crouch in the shadows. Her heartbeat raced and her palms slickened. The door didn’t swing open this time, but rather pushed up slowly, calculated.

“Is it done?” Trevton’s voice sounded like the groan of a dragon, deep and rattling. Valesia made no sound. “Is she dead?”

Valesia barely kept herself from gasping. Especially when Darcy responded, “Yes. She’s dead,” from behind her. She spun around. Darcy was still pale, his skin the shade of a mild rain cloud rather than wet clay. His tone was so convincing, so broken yet final, that Valesia questioned if she was actually the one they were talking about. Darcy held a finger to his lips and said, “Valesia’s debt has been paid.”

The door swung open all the way, and to keep Trevton from seeing her he stepped into the full light, blocking her from his view.

Trevton climbed out and regarded Darcy. Seemingly satisfied he gestured to his person. “Well, is there any proof besides your word?”

Darcy retrieved her amulet and her dagger from his own inner pocket, his being located on the inside of his trousers. “She would have never given this willingly,” he said, passing the twisted blade, then the necklace, “And she never would have let this pass into another’s hand unless she were dead.”

Trevton smiled, relieved. “Well done, Darcy. Come elf!”

Darcy took a step forward, confused, but Trevton waved him off. “No, not you. Come up here!” Out of the hole emerged Draemir in the flesh. He appeared thinner here, very out of his element.

His eyes flicked her way, and Valesia’s breath caught in her chest, but she said nothing. How could he have ridden faster, harder? How could he be here so quickly? It wasn’t possible.

Draemir made a nearly imperceptible nod towards Darcy, then her amulet. “You promised,” he seemed to say. Her fingers flitted to the cultish scars on her abdomen, grooves that would eternally define her. “Unfortunately, I don’t keep my promises.” That’s what she thought in her head, but with her actions she silently flashed the metal, stood up slowly, still allowing Darcy’s figure to conceal her, and then leapt around him and attacked the dark drow. The snide demon who couldn’t be here, not really.

Her front was lined up squarely with Draemir’s, and she launched herself up so that her legs encircled his waist. She wrapped one arm around his neck and leaned back slightly for leverage while she thrust the rusted metal into his carotid artery. Bright red blood spurted from the wound in rapid bursts, leading her to conclude that he was, in fact by some miracle, here in the weak, mortal flesh. Draemir’s eyes barely had time to widen in surprise as he collapsed to the ground, Valesia pulling her weapon out of the side of his neck and plunging it into his throat.

Edward launched himself at her, the twisted dagger in his white-knuckled grip. Valesia flung herself from Draemir’s prone body and rolled to face the enraged man. “I thought you said she was dead!” he screeched, turning to Darcy. “Finish the job, you bastard!”

Darcy unsheathed his own dagger, covered in his own blood. He took a hesitant step toward Valesia, but winced. Valesia stood very still. If Trevton tried to kill her, she’d fight until she sighed her last breath, but she deserved to die by Darcy’s hand. In fact, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

A few lazy flies suckled on Draemir’s blood as it caked in the dust. Other than that, there was no movement. Even the tree didn’t so much as sway in the blistering and breezeless heat. The scent of death stung Valesia’s nose and eyes, but she stood. Trevton seemed to be under the impression that he had somehow won. A stupid grin was plastered to his grimy and dirty features. An obscene hunger beamed from his eyes as he looked to Valesia, then to Darcy, and back.

Darcy scrutinized Valesia with a relentless gaze. To the outside man, it might have seemed as if his face was blank, his thoughts impenetrable, but Valesia saw through the stone. The twitch of his eyebrow meant he was angry. The slight downturn of his lip meant he was sad, perhaps regretful. The glint in his eye spoke of mischief brewing. His eyes flicked over each part of her, ending on her soul.

Even though she could read him better than perhaps anyone, she could tell that he was genuinely grim about this decision.

Even though Darcy was a ‘good drow’ there were certain laws inscribed on his every fiber. That meant justice, obedience, a way to always be looking out for yourself. Emotion was an illusion, a trap to keep you from success. Sentiment was a false, untrustworthy force produced by fluffy and delicate gods. Darcy had to know that he should kill her. For honor, for justice, for safety and self gain. He took another step closer.

Valesia helped him. She too shuffled forward. She forced her arms to remain at her sides, hanging loosely and partly away from her body so that Darcy had access to whichever lethal point that he desired.

You will always serve me in the end.

They kept taking baby steps forward, slowly closing the space. Trevton said nothing. Finally they were so close that she could smell the blood, sweat, and dirt that clung to him like perfume. His pale blue

eyes clouded over as he raised the dagger and pulled her in. He was going to stick her where she’d stabbed him. Her fingers found the dried blood on the back of his own shirt and she gripped the knot in her fist. A hissing voice in her consciousness told her that she should have left him to die, but the true, strong Valesia in her spat in the voice’s face and stood strong. She buried her face in Darcy’s neck, his long hair tickling her face. She braced.

Death was warm. She’d expected it to be cold and sharp. She’d expected stillness, silence, maybe Lolth spitting venom into her eyes. Not this.

She felt a jerk, a pierce, and then she started to suffocate. Her body still felt present, though it was slipping. There wasn’t pain, but there was lots of adrenaline. The comfort of Darcy’s shoulder was taken from her, but she swore she wouldn’t look in his eyes. After a moment, however, she couldn’t help it.

There was too much movement, too much wetness. When she came back to herself she was shocked to find Darcy pressed against her, her body against one of the walls of the house. His lips were locked over hers, and his body writhed with passion. Behind him lay Trevton’s still body, a hole through his throat.

Caught up in the emotion of the moment, seeing two of her worst tormentors dead, and the fact that she herself was still alive against all odds, she returned Darcy’s affections twofold. Time itself seemed to cease as they explored each other, tentatively, carefully, never quite crossing the line of regret. In the end, they both ended up on the ground, Valesia resting on Darcy’s chest, dozing lightly. Darcy fiddled with her hair as the sun began to set at last.

“You have to go,” he mumbled as he gently rolled her petite frame off of himself. “What do you mean?” she asked, replacing her shirt and thieve’s vest. “They’re dead.”

“You know that they probably aren’t the only people who are going to want us dead. We’re dynamic, Val.”

“I could stay…”

Darcy planted one last sad kiss one her lips before turning away and slipping down the hatch.

Valesia began to move towards the stables where Ellywick would be waiting. Darcy was right. She didn’t belong here. The capitol would hunt her for messing up a job. Draemir’s goons would hunt her for killing their master. Talio would be hunted. She had to get back to him.

Darcy would be okay.

She reached up to catch a drop of blood from falling from her lip where Darcy had bit her on accident. It was red. Of course it was. She’d beaten the goddess tonight. Her vow, her skin, her heritage, none of it defined her. Her blood was red. She was humanoid.

Ellywick said nothing as Valesia mounted the handsome horse that the stable master had given her and spurred him on. They would ride until they dropped. Her genuine amulet thudded on her chest at each stride, the twisted dagger pinching her side. She didn’t know how they got there. She fantasized that maybe it was a god who was actually good and mighty who cared for her who’d put them back. She laughed freely into the night.

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