Author: Tim Knight

Title: Silver And Gold

Copyright: September 2002
Rating: PG-13 (fight scenes, nekkid girl <get your minds out of the gutter!>)
Keywords: Forgotten Realms/Ravenloft.

Spoilers:
Buffy: Season 2 until Phases.
Highlander: Season 5 until Season finale. Richie Ryan lives.
Chronicles of Wanderer: In The Pale Moonlight/Born To Raise Hellmouth.

Summary: Shawukay Redarrow comes face to face with one of Ravenloft's oldest and most powerful denizens. No more spoilers <G>.

Legalese:
All characters except those noted below with their respective rights, properties, and copyrights are the property of the respective creators, authors, owners, producers and agencies. These characters are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended or meant, and no money will be made from this story. This story may be copied in its entirety, and may be distributed as long as all copyright information remains.

The character Shaw Hunter is mine. Anyone wishing to use her may contact me at doobytim@aol.com.

Author's notes:
For continuity's sake, I am putting down three different times, in order to coordinate exactly where this story takes place, for those fans of the Wandererverse (Earth time), Forgotten Realms (Dale Reckoning), and Ravenloft (Common Year).

Here they are:
Wandererverse/Earth Time: March 1991, about six months before the events in Libyan Liberty.
Forgotten Realms/Dale Reckoning: Ches (March) 1362 Dale Reckoning. This story takes place sometime about six months to a year after the events involving the Horde in the Forgotten Realms stories which culminated in Crusade, where King Azoun IV killed the FR answer to Genghis Khan. Also, its around this time that the events in the book Elfshadow, by Elaine Cunningham, take place.
Ravenloft: 731 Common Year, nine years before the Grand Conjunction of Ravenloft Canon.

Dedications:
To Steve, Dark Lord of Pantovichovia, who lets us have our fun while plugging away at the eagerly awaited Slayer Run Trilogy.
To Jack, Most Evil One (hey, he's a lawyer; he'd make Dracula cower in fear!!!), for working ye olde editorial mojo on yonder tale.
To all those readers who asked me about this; this is for you.

Here are the changes from your regular shows:

Buffy:
Due to her drowning death at the hands of the Master, Buffy is Immortal.
Passion and Becoming never took place, so Jenny and Kendra are still alive and well. Kendra is attending UC Sunnydale.
Faith is a good kid, and living with Joyce and Buffy.

Forgotten Realms:
Nothing that I can see, as this story takes place completely in Ravenloft.

Ravenloft:
One annoying thing about most Ravenloft novels is that you don't know exactly when they take place. All that I know is that by our continuity, it takes place about nine years before the Grand Conjunction.


Silver And Gold

(No, This Is Not A Story About The Evil Version Of The Singing Snowman From Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer!)

Valachan
Ravenloft
12 March 1991

He jumped with a start, the bestial roar sending chills through his body. He was slightly surprised that anything could still do that at his age. With years of well-honed experience, both in the ways of combat and what walked this world, his right hand immediately dropped to the well-worn leather hilt of the longsword on his hip.

The man froze and listened hard in an attempt to determine where the cat's call had originated. Another cry sounded and he broke into a run, dashing through the woods with the speed unique to his kind.

*****

The roars were farther off than he'd imagined; it took him a full five minutes to reach the battle site. As the furious roars pounded against his eardrums, the silent observer used the abundant cover and his knowledge of the forests to keep himself hidden from view.

The sight that greeted his astonished eyes was something to behold.

A single, cloaked female stood with her back against a tree, fending off two large cats, a tiger and panther, with a single sword whose blade was limned in white fire. A quick glance across the rest of the area revealed a man's body lying on the round, his head sitting on its side four feet away.

The woman fighter looked less than frightened; if anything, the tension of her body hinted that she was seething in rage. The cats cautiously approached on her flanks, strategically cutting off any escape, which he knew hinted that these cats were no natural creatures. The girl apparently knew this as well; she refused to commit to attacking either feline.

<As soon as she does, the other will pounce,> he deduced with a shiver. He scanned the combatants, wondering who was on the side of good, if any. He had some doubts; he'd been here for years and knew better than most what lurked in the darkness. Still, a small nagging seed of doubt called to him. The girl had killed a man that he could tell had been one of the walking dead. So, he decided to take the chance that she was one of those rare sources of light in a dark land.

However, just as he decided to aid her, the one he intended to help ran out of options.

The panther, having run out of patience, leaped. The small, hooded figure proved to be somewhat nimble herself, effectively dodging the ebon-furred predator. She rolled to her feet and tried to defend herself against what he knew would come next. The unnatural tiger launched its body over that of her companion in the attempt to flush the warrior out of her defensive position.

As agile as the woman appeared to be, there was just no way for her to evade the flying jungle beast. He watched with a sick feeling at the mental image of the tiger ripping this woman apart. But he was very surprised when the woman, rather than try to run, held her sword up with both hands and braced herself for the impact as the four hundred pound bulk engulfed her thin form in a bundle of orange and black fur.

The two crashed to the ground and his inhumanly sharp hearing picked up the unmistakable sound of cracking bones before the tiger let out a tremendous, agonized scream.

<She's wounded,> the man thought grimly. He stood and charged into the fray, intent on saving the girl if he could.

He drew his sword on the run, angling toward the panther, which began shimmering as it returned to his vampiric form. He relished the look of total shock that rippled over the man's face. The undead human tried to draw the rapier at his side but he was far too late. The creature howled as his arm was struck by tempered steel.

An accompanying howl came from the girl at that very instant. A slight glance revealed a gruesome sight; the tiger's maw had clamped down on the woman's left arm, while her rear claws raked her victim's body from her torso down along her legs, forcing fresh screams from the woman's throat.

Spurred on by her peril, the would-be rescuer turned back to his opponent, intent on finishing him quickly. The vampire tried to back away, finally succeeding in drawing his slim blade. The man laughed upon realizing that this one's weapon was more for ornamentation than for defending oneself.

He decided to take advantage of this common failing amongst vampires; their belief that their powers and the horror their reputations spread among the general populace would cower any mere mortals they'd encountered.

<But I am not your typical mortal,> he mused with a shade of humor.

He brought the sword across in a level arc, forcing the vampire to defend himself. A shower of sparks exploded across the combatants' fields of vision. The blood drinker barely had time to notice that his gentleman's blade had been broken off before the follow up strike bit deeply into his neck, severed bone and muscle, and completed its grisly work.

Declining to devote any more time or energy to the now deceased servant of Valachan's master, the victorious warrior turned to try and beat off the female vampire, who'd ceased her mauling of the girl and was completing her own transformation. He could see the cold fury in her eyes as they appraised each other.

The porcelain-skinned vampire angrily barked, "You will pay for that, foolish mortal!"

A pity. If she weren't an evil, blood-consuming corpse, the dark-robed redheaded woman might have been more attractive to him. As it was, he needed to drive her off or, more preferably, end her existence.

"Yes, I'm quite sure I will," he said, quite seriously. "They do say that no good deed goes unpunished."

The woman's lips twisted in annoyance. "Bastard."

He started to move, hoping to interpose himself between the two females, one a fanged, upright cadaver, the other a wounded, bleeding girl. The coppery scent of fresh blood assaulted his nostrils, making him grimace.

Rather than blindly attack him, the vampire's arms began weaving and her mouth started chanting unintelligible syllables. Eyes widening in shock, he had no time to think up a new strategy before the vampire extended her hand at him. Three beams of light shot from her fingers and unerringly wound their way into the evading fighter. The impacts sent him tumbling to the soft earth of the forest floor, leaves crackling under the weight of his body. His sword slipped from his grasp, leaving him unarmed.

As he tried to shake off the agony coursing through his lithe form, caused by the magic missiles, the fighter felt something hard pressing into his back. Reaching for it, hoping that it was his sword, he felt a torrent of relief when his hand closed over the familiar and welcome feel of a sword hilt.

Rolling to his feet in the hopes of making the vampire mage miss her next spell, the man came to his feet, brandishing the enchanted sword that had been ripped out of the grasp of the recipient of his aid. He overcame his surprise at the power he could sense in the weapon and stared at his foe, feeling a new wave of shock wash over him as his eyes fell upon the trembling form before him.

The mage, shivering from the effort of casting her spell, tried to scramble away, sputtering, "Stay back!"

The warrior's hands tightened around the leather-wrapped hilt of his borrowed blade. <Obviously, she was more wounded than I thought.> "After you tried to kill this poor girl, you expect mercy? Hardly fair, Valachanian."

"B-b-but that blade is DEATH to our kind! she shrieked in terror. She continued to scramble back on her haunches but to no avail.

"If this blade is death to vampires," he said, aware of the likely effect having his face illuminated by the pure white flames might have on the magic-user, "then I can see why that woman carries it. Very wise of her."

The she-vampire began chanting again, haltingly, in a desperate attempt to get off another spell to ward him off. With a calm that defied the situation, the warrior silently rammed the blade into her chest, directly through her unbeating heart. She screamed anew as the weapon's potent enchantments did their work. Her agonized shrieks were worse when she was in her human form.

A brilliant white light sheathed the creature in a blinding glow for a few seconds before it vanished, the undead mage along with it. Although surprised by the effect, his mind set that consideration aside. Someone's life depended on him remaining focused.

Using the harmless flames as illumination to guide his sight, he ran the faint light up and down the girl's body. His stomach contracted at the sight of her torn clothing and the deep red stains beginning to drench her chest, stomach, left arm, and both of her legs. He quickly ripped off her sword belt and removed her scabbard. He wrapped the belt around her left leg, which was bleeding more heavily than the other.

<It must have clawed through an artery,> he worriedly thought. As he tied off the belt as tight as he could, his spirits plummeted at how much blood covered his hands.

Lacking the supplies to even begin treating her properly, he swiftly gathered his sword and sheathed it. He replaced the girl's magical weapon and shoved it through his belt. Stooping over, the man effortlessly yet gingerly lifted her small body up and fled into the night, lest any other vampires in the area catch the scent of her blood in the air and come a-calling.

*****

He stared at the young girl, still attempting to assimilate everything he'd seen in the last four hours. He admitted to himself, he'd never thought she'd survive the hour-long trip to the cave he used as his home these days. Indeed, at one point her breathing (which had been shallow at best) had stopped completely. Just as resignation that his efforts had been in vain began to dawn on him, her chest had again begun to rise and fall. After getting her into the cave and out of the cold night air, he'd started a fire in the side room he usually used for sleeping.

As the light cast by the fire flickered over the child's ravaged form, he recalled the steps in treating her wounds. First he'd removed her cloak and ripped away her bloody clothing. After getting over the surprise that the girl was a half-elf, as revealed by the ears hidden by her wavy black hair and her pale, cream-colored complexion, he'd gotten another; the multitude of old scars that marred her back.

He recalled the revulsion he'd felt over the fact that someone could have harmed this child in such a manner, even after the atrocities he'd seen during his life. What else awed him was that the girl couldn't be more than forty or forty-five winters old.

His eyes flicked up and down her still body, trying to be sure the bleeding had stopped completely. He still couldn't understand how, after carefully watching her, her body seemed to be on the mend, actually healing before his very eyes, albeit with agonizing slowness.

He again cursed himself for lacking anything in the way of field dressings. He'd barely had enough of her clothes free of being soaked in her own blood to wash out the wicked gashes caused by the tiger's claws and teeth. After laying out her cloak on the stone floor, he'd gently set the tiny elf woman down and covered her with a blanket, one he rarely used, to keep her warm.

Now that he had her settled, all that he could do was wait to see when, or if, she would regain consciousness. In the meantime, he had a few small tasks to occupy himself.

The first was determined by his catching the scent of blood mixed with water. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and sighed. He walked over to the pile of ruined clothing and picked it up. Staring at the drenched deerskin, the fighter turned and walked out of the small room, making a mental note to throw the blood soaked water out of the bowl and to clean it out. He sighed again as he walked; his stomach grumbled and reminded him of how hungry he was.

*****

The sun had come and gone again before she began to stir. After finishing his tasks the previous night, he'd taken up a silent vigil over the wounded girl until he simply couldn't stay awake anymore. A few hours of rest had done wonders for him, but he could only wish the same could be said for the half-elf he'd rescued.

His attention was drawn by the soft moans coming from her throat, low sounds of someone in a serious pain. He watched as her head tossed back and forth; sweat beading on her cloud-colored forehead. The young woman's body started to twitch and her right hand slowly came up to her eyes. As he watched awareness return to the woman, he tried to become relaxed in hopes of reassuring her that she was in no danger.

Suddenly, she awakened fully. She bolted up into a sitting position, her head darting back and forth. That rapid movement cost her, as she had to close her eyes and shake off what the man assumed was a wave of dizziness.

He sighed in happy relief. {Well met, young ranger.}

The half-elf's face turned abruptly, fixating on him. Her bleary eyes widened in shock before her left hand slowly went to her neck, obviously to feel for a pulse. She shivered more than a bit as she felt the blood pumping through her veins.

{I assure you, you're quite alive,} he softly said, in an attempt to lower the tension. {Although I must admit, I am surprised by that fact.} He arched a wry eyebrow at the weak ranger. {Your breathing literally stopped for a few moments while I brought you here, then began again of its own accord. I feared you lost.}

Her eyes became slightly clearer as she overcame her surprise at seeing him. {The vampires?} she inquired warily.

{No longer alive, in any sense of the word,} he replied, saddened by the icy hate in her voice. {Your sword proved quite useful in destroying the female vampire.}

She blinked at his admission that he'd killed those who'd trapped her. She looked down at herself, apparently gauging the extent of her injuries for the first time. He did the same, still in the dark as to her accelerated healing.

She suddenly jerked her head up to face him. Her eyes flashed in anger while her cheeks turned a darker shade of blue. She brought the blanket up to cover her chest and snapped, "Have you seen enough?!?

He felt a twinge of irritation at her insinuation. Just as archly as his patient, the man said, "Even if we discount the fact that you are a bit young for me, Mielikkian, there was little else I could do to tend your injuries without cutting away your clothes, which were ruined in any case." He shrugged. "Be glad I was even able to save your cloak and boots. At the time, I would have wagered that there was more blood on your clothes than left in your body."

*****

Shawukay's mind whirled in confusion, and being weak and dizzy from blood loss certainly wasn't helping her any. She remembered the vampire mage had used an invisibility spell on herself and the other two to catch her unawares, even though she hadn't been hunting any vampires at the time. She also recalled the pain erupting through her body as the tiger's natural weapons ripped her open like a skinning knife. Now, upon awakening from what her apparent rescuer described as a temporary coma, she learned that the vampires were dead by this man's hand, she was sorely wounded (she did not want to think of what the garish cuts had looked like to begin with!), and of all the beings shed ever encountered, the last one shed ever expect to save someone like her. . . .

He apparently thought she'd had time enough to ponder what he'd told her, because he struck up another conversation in the Common tongue. "How are you feeling?"

Still wary of the man, the Forestarm took her time in answering. At length, she had to admit she couldn't even stand up. "I do not think I can even reach a standing position at this point," she said, her eyes hooded and waiting for his reaction. <Just because I cannot stand does not mean I cannot hit you with magic.> But for now, she decided to keep that little tidbit to herself.

He sighed at her suspicions and his face became sympathetic. "You can stay here if you wish, at least until you recover sufficiently to move on." His face lowered to scan the crackling fire. "It would be nice to talk to someone from Abeir-Toril once again."

Shawukay winced, feeling a chord of loneliness herself, although her benefactor had failed to see it. <How long. . .>

She almost asked him how long he'd been trapped on this world, but stopped. She didn't know how far she could trust him; the only thing working in his favor thus far was that he'd admitted to using Soulreaver against the vampires. If he were evil, he'd have received a very nasty surprise.

Her eyes furrowed in consideration. <On the other hand, if he had not used the sword, I might be dead.>

That wasn't a pleasant alternative, in her opinion. She decided to confront one of the issues confusing her. She licked her lips and made sure her chest was fully covered. "I appreciate your aid, sir, but I have to admit, I am somewhat. . . surprised that one such as you would go to this much effort on my behalf."

The man stiffened and favored her with a cautious look. "Why is that, ranger?"

Shawukay spelled it out, based on her own experiences. "I am N'Tel'Quess, am I not?"

She wondered why he blinked; was it her statement or the matter-of-fact way she'd said it? His golden hued face became very tight. "I am not like that, young ranger. I always enjoyed the company of other races, especially humans or silver elves like yourself."

She didn't let her guard down much, but allowed the truth of his words, combined with the fact that he'd wielded her sword, to sink in. She relaxed a bit, but only a little. "My apologies then. I have little experience with Ar'Tel'Quessir who do not look down upon me or the Teu'Tel'Quessir in general."

"Fools, all of them," he added with a "harrumph." With mock disgust, he sighed, "And I am related to some of them."

Shawukay resisted the urge to laugh at his joke; she was still confused about this situation. Instead, she let her lips form a tight line. "Perhaps we could start over, this time with introductions." She locked her eyes on those of the gold elf. "Shawukay Redarrow of Deepingdale."

One corner of the other Faerunian's mouth quirked. "Well met, Shawukay of Deepingdale," he said graciously. He bowed from his sitting position. "Jander Sunstar of Evermeet."

"Well met, Jander." Shawukay looked around the small room. "Not the typical abode of one of the Gold People."

He seemed to take the comment in stride. "Rangers are often simple folk."

*****

He felt her surprise at her statement. She looked at his chest. "You are a ranger."

"I call to Lathander, not Mielikki," Jander answered in understanding; she was wondering if he wore the unicorn's head over his heart like she did. He hadn't removed her holy symbol when treating her wounds. His eyes softened a bit. "I apologize for the meager accommodations, but in this land, one must make do."

The half-elf only nodded in return. Jander sensed some emotional pain, deep down and buried. <I wonder if she still seeks a way home.> "You are safe here, Shawukay. I swear by Lathander, I will not harm you or seek any form of payment for my aid." Her face flushed and he chuckled. "I merely saved your life tonight, silver elf. I had no ulterior motives other than to rid this world of some undead."

The gold elf stood up and pretended to ignore the way the wary but weak woman moved into a bit of a crouch. "Shawukay, your wounds are healing, but you were almost ripped completely to shreds by that vampiress. As it stands, you cannot possibly defend yourself, let alone aid me if anyone happened upon my home. Please, rest and let yourself heal." He felt her hazel eyes following his every move as he stooped over and picked up his sword. "I'll gather some food and make some stew or something. That way, you can eat and regain your strength. I'll see you when you wake again."

He walked out, giving her the privacy she needed in her current state of health and undress.

*****

Shawukay just kept watching the doorway, weighing what little she knew about this Jander Sunstar. He was not evil, which was rare enough on this nameless plane of existence. She wondered, <Is my problem with him that he is a reminder of home?> She felt an ache six years old as she thought about Toril. A tired sigh later, the forty-six year old ranger resolved to apologize to this strange gold elf when she woke up again, at least for insulting him. She still didn't trust him; six years in this Abyss had left her looking for dangers in every shadow. It was the only way to stay alive here. <If only he were not so Goddess-blasted. . . handsome. . .>

Keeping half an eye on the doorway to ensure that Sunstar wasn't peeking in on her, she settled herself on the cloak and laid back down, much of her body protesting in pain.

Stifling any cry louder than a soft moan, Shawukay rolled over on her side and let sleep beat her into easy submission.

*****

The smells of burning wood and food cooking wafted above her, slowly rousing her from her deep, healing sleep. Shawukay's mind quietly brought her back into a state of awareness and remembrance flooded her mind. She slowly opened her eyes and saw light flickering off the cave walls.

She wondered if she should see what the gold elf Jander was up to, or if she should just fall back asleep, which in her current state sounded just as appealing.

Her limited trust in the elf and a protesting stomach made the decision to stay awake somewhat easy for her. As she turned over, she groaned in pain once again, even though the cuts and damage to her body had diminished a bit more. She slowly rolled over and saw Jander crouching over the fire, tending a pot of some sort.

His hearing was just as sharp as hers. He heard her turning over and glanced up at her. "Good afternoon, Shawukay," he said carefully. She could hear concern in his voice. "Are you feeling any better?"

The Daleswoman decided that lying on her side was not the way to talk to the elf that'd saved her life. She slowly worked her way into a kneeling position and wrapped the blanket around her upper torso in order to keep from embarrassing herself. "I am alive. As for feeling better, I think that is somewhat relative at this point."

Jander's eyes narrowed just the slightest, but he apparently realized she wasn't jesting. "True. I suppose you're right." He did his best to look her over in the professional manner of a healer. "You are still healing much faster than I would expect anyone to from being mauled by a jungle cat."

Her brows furrowed as she realized that he was just as suspicious of her as she was of him. She debated whether or not to reveal this particular secret, but decided that to give him a truthful answer might relieve some of the tension between them. < Not to mention that I am still incapable of physically stopping him from doing anything.> She held up her right hand and showed off the gold ring on her third finger, its single black star sapphire gleaming in the firelight. "My ring is enchanted. It lets me heal at an accelerated rate."

Jander's eyes fell on the ring and Shawukay could see a flash of. . . something in those amber irises. The look faded. "Yes. I knew someone with such a ring once. Thank Lathander I did not remove it in my ignorance."

"It was about the only thing that you did not remove, she flippantly said before she could think better of it.

The Ar'Tel'Quessir's teeth gritted as he fought to keep from snapping at her. He turned back to the cooking food and muttered, "For someone so young, silver elf, you are quite a prude."

"And like most gold elves," she shot back, "you lack a sense of humor."

The spoon in his hands clanged against the pot as he dropped it. He turned on her and she saw some genuine anger in his eyes. She couldn't help but tense and call a spell to her mind, should she need it.

"I had a sense of humor, Daleswoman," he said sharply, eyes gleaming. "But when you have been in this world as long as I have, you sometimes have to sacrifice some things if you want to survive."

*****

The half-elf's sarcastic remark hadn't been meant to be accusatory, but Jander hated the reminders of his past this girl brought to the forefront of his mind. He whirled so he didn't have to stare at her.

He started stirring the stew he was making from a rabbit he'd killed and vegetables from the garden he kept outside. A tense, uncomfortable silence passed between the two before a soft question pierced the gloom.

"How long?"

He stopped and turned back to her. He saw a mix of curiosity and sympathy in those almond-shaped, hazel eyes. He blinked a couple times and asked, "What?"

Shawukay again asked him, "How long have you been here?"

That was a question he couldn't really answer. He thought about it and instead of giving her a solid answer, he had to ask her, "What year is it?" Upon her puzzled frown, he elaborated. "What year is it by Dale Reckoning?"

"It would be Ches, in the year 1362." He was surprised she was so exact; she couldn't have been here too long herself if she remembered the Faerunian calendar so precisely. She mustve have divined what he was going to ask her. Her eyes dropped to stare at the floor. I have been here between six and seven years.

<She still hopes to find a way back home,> he realized. He could see the hope that still fought for life within her soul, but also the way it held on by a thread or two. "There are tales of those who escape this place, Shawukay. I have never found any way back, but then again, I have never searched for them. I have spent too much time simply trying to keep myself from becoming like those we killed last night."

Her face rose to peer back at him. He saw the flash of anger cross her features and understood all too well the reason for her hatred of things undead. "Who did they take from you?" he asked quietly.

"My grandparents," she answered simply, without any emotion.

<No, she has emotions. But she's buried them so she does not have to let go of them.> He knew that feeling all too well. He finally answered as best he could. "I have been here much longer, Shawukay Redarrow. I have seen more than you have of this place. Much more."

*****

She noted the way his voice cracked at the last. He turned around and started working on the food again. She slowly unwrapped the blanket and threw it around her back, pulling it around herself again and wrapping herself in its warmth. "You lost someone as well."

He stopped. "Yes."

She knew he wouldn't be forthcoming with more information. So instead she just sat there, not able to think of anything else to say. Finally Sunstar picked up a bowl and started spooning stew into it. He turned around and slowly walked over to her, crouching in front of her. His eyes had softened a bit, his anger and sadness fading.

He offered her the bowl. "Here. It is not the finest cuisine of Waterdeep, but it will keep you alive and help your body mend itself."

Her mouth started watering, but she nevertheless carefully moved her hands from under the blanket to take it. "Thank you," she said, not looking him in the face. "What about you? Are you not hungry as well?"

He took an instant to answer. "I ate earlier." She glanced up at him and saw the unreadable cast to his face. "I was awake, so I fed. The stew is more for you; I do not eat. . . meat."

She glanced at the full pot and back at him. "Are you certain?"

*****

He stared at her for a few seconds, wondering why she was asking him this. <If she knew. . .> It was once he looked at the expectant look in her eyes that he realized what she really wanted.

<Someone to talk to. Someone from. . .> He felt a chill run down his spine. <Someone from home.>

He realized that she was, in a way, like him. She was alone. In this world of darkness, anything obviously not human was regarded with suspicion or worse. And for someone like her, a ranger who devoted her life to protecting the innocent. . . <To wage a losing battle against the evils of this plane and to be regarded with the same looks as those you fight? It must be hard.>

Yes, she was alone and like him, would do anything, however unconsciously, to keep any ray of light in her existence. He considered the request and found that he'd already made his decision; he wouldn't refuse it. He wanted an end to his loneliness, even if it were only temporary.

*****

Shawukay went through three bowls of the stew before she felt full. She finally put the bowl down and whispered, "Thank you. The stew was good."

Jander grunted softly and picked the bowl up. She watched his graceful movements as he stood up and walked over to the stew pot. With one hand, he picked the pot up off the fire and put it off to the side. He placed a lid over the pot, probably to keep the stew from going stale.

She shifted herself, going from a kneeling position to cross-legged, which was more comfortable for her. Taking care to make sure the blanket was properly situated, she waited for the gold elf to sit down and continue their discussion.

She thought about the details they'd shared so far. Jander had been born on Evermeet and eventually decided to adventure on mainland Faerun, whereas she could only wonder what the island home of the Tel'Quessir was like. He talked about the first time he'd been to the Dalelands, as part of an adventuring group called the Silver Six. She didn't know the name, which meant they had been from before her birth. That wasn't so strange, as Jander appeared to be about two hundred winters. Still, she found herself wanting to know more about him.

She'd told him much about her early life, save for one thing; being Called by Mielikki as a child. Some hidden instinct, from where she wasn't sure, told her to keep that to herself until she was more certain about him. One thing that she did know for certain; they shared a passion for the flute. So for a good half-hour or so, their talk had gone from their lives to discussing the musical styles of Evermeet, the Dalelands, and Waterdeep. But eventually Jander had stopped and she could see the old pain in his eyes again. So, she'd reluctantly dropped the subject.

He sat back down and stared at her. "So you are a Harper," he said, apparently wanting to go back to less painful territory.

"Fourth generation," she confirmed, letting a little bit of pride come into her voice despite her disappointment in the loss of discussing music. She glanced at her cloak, where her pin was attached. "I never doubted that I would join Those Who Harp."

"Tell me," he requested, tangible curiosity in his voice, "what was your first mission?"

Her stomach dropped with that question. Her face and heart became like stone and she saw the sudden cold fire in her eyes took him aback. With a low, dangerous voice, she snarled, "THAT. . . is something I do not discuss, Jander Sunstar."

She started looking around, wishing there was a way to leave the room, but she knew she was still to weak to move much, if at all. Instead, she settled for staring at the floor and weakly saying, "I am tired."

Sunstar waited a few seconds before replying, although what he said surprised her. "I am sorry, Shawukay. I do not want to bring up bad memories. I was merely curious, that is all." She listened to his clothes shifting and looked up just in time to see him walking through the entrance to the room. She opened her mouth to similarly apologize, but too late. He disappeared into the other room, the last sign of him a flickering, receding shadow on the wall.

She sat there watching the doorway for several moments, hoping he would return so that she could give him her apology.

*****

Jander started packing up his weapons, preparing to go out and make sure none of Von Kharkov's vampire servants had traced him or the half-elf back here. As he was sheathing his sword, his ears picked up the sound of Shawukay clearing her throat.

He turned to her, keeping his face neutral. He looked at the small ranger standing there, the blanket wrapped around most of her body, leaning against the cave wall to support herself.

"You should not be standing up," he said warningly, with the concern a healer has for a patient. He collected himself and asked, "What is it, Shawukay?"

"I wanted to apologize." Her eyes dropped to the floor before she looked back at him, a sharp pang of sadness showing in her face. "I had no right to be angry with you. . . especially after helping me. It is just. . ."

"Something happened on that mission." He'd figured that much out.

She nodded jerkily before swallowing. "You saw the scars," she said needlessly. Before he could think of a diplomatic answer, she added, "I lost a child that day. And much more."

His face softened and he hoped his eyes conveyed his sympathy. "I'm sorry, young one."

She didn't comment on that but rather on his preparations. "Where are you going?"

Jander jerked his head towards the mouth of the cave. "I want to be sure that those vampires do not have any friends that get the idea of trying to track us here. It was difficult enough to defeat those three."

Her eyes became as hard as granite. "I see your point," she admitted. She glanced around until her eyes fell on something. "You should take Soulreaver."

<Her sword?> he wondered. "I wouldn't think of using your weapon without your permission, Shawukay. I only used it the other night by happenstance. I am glad it was effective against the vampire, but still, it is your weapon."

"Fighting the undead is why it was forged," she countered easily, her eyes fixed on the longsword. His eyes followed hers, taking in the Espruar word carved into the crossguard.

<Fighting the undead?> he thought with concern. < Then how. . .> "That is. . . surprising."

The Daleswoman nodded before yawning. "A benefit that I make use of often on this plane," she sighed. Again, Jander heard that longing for home.

"I'll be back as quickly as I can," he offered as he moved to replace his blade with the magical one. As he picked up the weapon, somewhat gingerly this time, he turned back to her and stared at her, a new question coming to his mind. "Did you have a camp near the spot where I rescued you?"

To his disappointment, she shook her head in disgust. "Not very close. It is at least five hours north of there. I was looking for any form of game; deer, fowl, or the like. My supply of meat was running low."

He nodded in understanding, but felt some frustration like she did. "So I do not have enough time to get your supplies and bring them here." <I could have if I had started out sooner,> he sighed to himself.

"Supplies like clothing," she said irritably, echoing his thoughts.

Jander favored her with a look, despite knowing her irritation was not meant for him. "Especially clothing," he said, giving her a shot of his own sarcasm. "I know you would like that."

"You have no idea how much," she retorted, turning around and stiffly walking back into the room.

Jander just shook his head in annoyance at how stubborn this ranger could be. <Daleswomen,> he muttered.

*****

Shawukay awoke and felt that the heat in the room had become sweltering. Indeed, she felt sweat beading all over her body. She slowly opened one eye and gazed at the fire, which had fresh wood, and a great deal of it, serving as its fuel. Painfully sitting up and looking around, she saw no sign of the sunrise elf. She blinked a few times and brought a trim, muscular arm up to wipe the beading perspiration off of her forehead.

Looking around again, her eyes glossed over the stew pot, causing her stomach to grumble. <Later,> she decided. She wanted to check on her companion first.

She stood very slowly, ensuring that she wouldn't just topple over before doing anything more complicated. While not the most graceful or steady she'd ever been, it would suffice for now. <But for how long?> she groaned at the aches and stiffness.

Once she was sure she wouldn't pass out, she turned her attention back to tracking down her host. Giving one last look around the room, Shawukay noticed something she'd missed during her first sweep; lying near where her head had rested was some clothing and her boots.

The stiff-legged Harper walked over and dropped the blanket to the cave floor. She stifled a gasp as she bent over, the scabbed over cuts threatening to split open. She picked up the cloth and let it ravel open. Her eyes looked over the simple, long sleeve dove gray dress now in her hands.

The wool garment puzzled her, mainly because she couldn't begin to imagine where Sunstar had gotten it from.

"Nor do I want to," she mumbled. Then again, wounded, undressed half-elves could hardly be choosers.

*****

She found Jander standing at the entrance to the cave, while a smaller fire was burning in the center of the larger room. Once out of the nearly overwhelming heat of the room she'd been resting in thus far, she felt the dampness in the air as a gentle breeze flowed in through the opening.

"Rain," she guessed, knowing she was right.

Jander nodded grimly without looking. "A storm, possibly a large one. Thank the Gods it feels natural."

She didn't argue with his assessment. She limped into the main room and watched the shadows cast by the firelight dancing on the walls. She folded her arms and watched the other for a few moments. "Is something wrong?"

He finally turned toward her, firelight reflecting in his amber eyes. He looked her up and down before talking. He ran a slim-fingered hand through his fine, golden-colored hair. "I had to go to the village south of here. It is closer than your campsite." He waved a hand in her direction. "I was able to obtain the dress, some food, and other essentials." He shuffled his feet. "If the storm passes by soon enough, I can try to get to your campsite and bring your belongings here."

She didn't thank him for his generosity, mostly because she had a nagging idea in her mind. "You bought this dress? Why not buy something more suited for a ranger, let alone this environment?"

Jander favored her with an irritated look. "You know why, Shawukay."

Her eyes narrowed as he all but confirmed her suspicion. "You stole it," she said accusingly.

*****

Jander sighed in exasperation. <How did I know she would make an issue of this?> The warrior from Evermeet left his post by the entrance and leaned against the wall, a set look to his face. "Shawukay, please keep in your righteous mind two things. First and foremost, we are not on Abeir-Toril. Things are very different on this plane. Secondly, three nights ago we killed three vampire servants of Ulric Von Kharkov, the ruler of Valachan. The authorities, if they have noticed those vampires missing, will be on alert. I could hardly make my presence known to the public this soon, as I would be marked as an outsider. The vampires might make the logical assumption and track us down."

He knew he'd scored a point with his argument. <She is still young, but she needs to understand how differently things work here. The things she does for people will not go unnoticed, or thanked, very often.> "Before you give me a counterargument, let me give you another reason to accept this."

He waved a hand toward the outside. "By stealing the items, I avoid having the villagers possibly face retribution for aiding those who killed friends of their oppressors. What do you think will happen when they find their property missing?"

"They should report the thefts."

"And what do you think the vampires who are the hidden power in Valachan will take as their priority; finding their missing comrades, or finding someone who stole a loaf of bread or three?" he finished.

He watched the quick calculations flashing through her eyes. It didn't take him long to know he had won the argument. Still, she didn't just allow the matter to pass quietly.

"I still do not approve, Jander."

The gold elf rolled his eyes and scoffed, "And of course, you have never stolen anything in your lifetime?"

He wasn't surprised when she was both offended and reluctant. He folded his arms imperiously. "You have."

"That was different," she said, defiantly meeting his stare.

"How?" he prodded.

"He was a Zhentarim courier," the younger fighter said without hesitation. Her shoulders shrugged a bit. "Stealing his papers allowed me to help other Harper Agents stop a Zhent plot to take over a small trading center. I know at least ten to fifteen lives were saved because of it."

He allowed himself a slight grin. "Very well, that is different. But have you ever stolen anything else, that was not involved in such an action?"

Now she arched an eyebrow, smiling a bit herself. "Not since I was a child of thirteen or so, no."

He moaned in defeat. "Fine!" She started to laugh, so he spitted her with a glare as a nasty idea formed in his mind. "But to clear your conscience, give the dress back to me and I will return it this night."

That stopped her laughter dead in her mouth. <And dead is something I am an expert on.> He held a hand out and made a "come here" gesture. "Come now, Shawukay. I thought you didn't approve of my stealing it."

He felt a surge of satisfaction as her jaw clenched. He wondered if he was just imagining the sound of her teeth grinding into powder, or if that was real. Either way, he enjoyed her frustration. Finally, she turned and limped into the back room, cursing under her breath and, however unknowingly, making Jander's jaw drop in utter mortification.

<Where in the name of Lathander does a ranger from the Dales learn to swear like a Waterdeep sailor?!?>

*****

"Shawukay?"

Silence greeted Jander's call. Caution and worry firing his instincts, the elven warrior froze his body to focus his senses on the inside of the cave. His keen eyes registered the flickers of light and shadow caused by the still burning fire. The "snap-hiss" of crackling embers being spit forth assault his hearing. And his olfactory sense picked up the odor still cast off by smoke flowing from the burning wood. But there was still too much moisture in the air from the previous night's rain to detect Shawukay.

He rushed in, drawing her sword and throwing the soggy belongings it had taken him precious time, time he'd had to leave the half-elf alone, to find. As the bundle dropped to the ground with a wet "thud," Jander called out again. No answer.

His blood running cold, which was something of a feat in itself, Sunstar charged into the second room. The fire was a little lower, making the room slightly cooler. The fires of the gold elf's borrowed blade paled in comparison to those of the campfire.

His instincts were slightly quelled by the signs that hinted that Shawukay was safe; the neatly folded blanket, the smoothed out cloak, and the stew pot laid out over the fire.

A quick, deep sniff told Jander that the stew had only just begun to warm. It couldn't have been more than thirty minutes ago that the child had set it up.

A wistful sigh escaped his throat. <Probably so that we could share it when I got back. I am two hours earlier than I expected.>

A shake of his head brought him out of the pleasant imagery. Jander walked into the main room again and used his senses once more. They didn't prove up to the task, which told him that more acute senses were called for. With but a second's concentration, Jander Sunstar began to change. Golden hair sprouted from his body, covering his skin and clothing. His legs bent backwards and toenails lengthened into claws. Fingers became furred and the skin on his fingertips became toughened pads. Finally, his nose and jaw elongated, his teeth sharpened. In bare seconds, a large, golden-furred timber wolf had replaced the gold elf of Evermeet.

Jander's rational mind worked with his lupine instincts to separate Shawukay's scent from the flood of information assaulting his nose. He huffed in satisfaction seconds later. He loped outside, tracking his absent patient.

*****

The wolf's first stop was his garden. Three seconds of confusion was easily replaced by the sight and smells of uprooted weeds, displaced earth, and juices running from plants whose bounty had been recently picked.

<She picked them,> Jander reasoned. He felt slightly reassured, but he was committed to locating her. So he raised his snout to the wind and sniffed resolutely.

There; coming from the east. The scent of someone. Having smelled Shawukay's scent, body, and especially her blood, that first night, the elven and wolfen Janders instantly agreed; she'd gone that way.

With a canine sneeze, Jander willed himself to change back. While he was still miffed about her being out in the open, especially in her physical condition, the son of Evermeet nonetheless felt a bit embarrassed. <Here I am, thinking the worst, and instead she's probably washing vegetables.>

With a light admonition that he needn't be paranoid every second of his existence, Jander stated down the path to the pond that was his source of water.

But, just in case, Sunstar kept Soulreaver out. Just because one didn't have to be paranoid did not mean one could be foolish.

*****

He gasped, then stood there, hidden by a clump of bushes, seething in anger.

<How can that child be so Gods damned FOOLISH?!? >

The man watched Shawukay with a rising amount of ire. Of all the things to do out in the open, alone, and undefended. . .

The ranger stood there, completely nude, waist-deep in the pond, totally oblivious!

She'd had the sense to bring a pair of silver-bladed daggers with her, but they'd do her no good sitting on the rock next to the water. He shook his head in frustration again before watching over her, careful to keep Soulreaver's light hidden by his cloak.

The bather's back was to him and he again saw the old set of wounds that crisscrossed it. Shawukay dipped her cupped hands into the water and bent over at the waist. She splashed her face, caressing her cheeks and then washing each arm, taking time over the parts of her body that were still marred by healing wounds.

She lowered herself into a kneeling position and dipped her head under the water, soaking her hair. She slowly reared herself, stretching her lithe body, her wet locks glistening in the moonlight. By the way she came up, Jander saw that she wasn't totally reckless; she'd minimized the splashes and other noises she made in her ablutions. He could tell that she was very thorough about cleaning her wounds, which would in fact save him from an awkward position with her later.

His approval was tempered, however, by the fact that she knew as well as he that it simply wasn't safe out here. He started to approach the pond in order to let her know he'd returned, drawing the sword to light his way.

As he brushed by a tree, his shoulder grazed a low hanging branch. The noise caused by the contact was low, but enough that it registered to an elf's hearing.

Or a half-elf's.

Shawukay immediately stopped her bathing and whirled, giving Jander an unfettered view of her torso, down to her stomach. He saw the hostile gleam in her eyes as she reacted instinctively and chanted in a very familiar way.

Taking a second to overcome his shock at the girl being a spell caster, Jander dove to the side with desperate haste, hoping that the sparse cover provided by the bushes and trees would obscure him from her targeting.

He waited for whatever magic Shawukay was going to unleash to fill his world with pain for a few seconds. The pitch of her voice rose to a crescendo and ended.

The next thing Jander heard was the sound of someone sloshing around in the water and a loud splash that could only be someone hitting the water, preparing to swim or dive to safety.

Realization set in and Jander, barely stifling his desire to choke the child senseless, stood up. . .

. . . and found himself surrounded by flames extending twenty feet in every direction.

*****

<This would be so much easier if the Lady would give me just one healing spell. . .> Shawukay lamented as she painfully pushed her way under the pond's surface. While it was a bit too shallow to put much distance between herself and the one targeting her, it still allowed her to take advantage of her diversionary spell and buy time for her to come up with a strategy to survive.

She swam about forty feet, angling further along the near shoreline. It wasn't her first choice, but her protesting muscles simply wouldn't let her go any further. As she broke the surface, body screaming in silent agony, she saw that her spell was still in effect. She carefully brought herself ashore and crept toward the spot from where she'd heard the noises.

She reviewed her few options and knew she was in no shape for a prolonged confrontation. All she had were a few spells that could cause problems for vampire, provided one chose their order properly.

Straining her hearing to the utmost and scanning the woods with her eyes, the Forestarm couldn't make out anything that did not belong here. Worry tied her stomach in knots and she debated whether or not to return to the slight safety of the water.

There! She heard rustling in the bushes at the edge of her spell effect. Shawukay's lips thinned into a grim line. She didn't have time to run, so for better or worse, she had to make a stand.

She prayed again, calling on Mielikki's grace. The spell took effect and a scimitar composed of divine fire appeared in the ranger's right hand. She slowly approached the fire and poised herself to fight.

As the sounds came closer to the edge of her first spell, she tensed to strike until the tip of a fire-enshrouded longsword peeked out into the open.

Shawukay moaned and dispelled the flame blade. Jander apparently took that as her permission to walk out in safety.

"Faerie fire is a good strategy," he began. Holding up her own sword, he added, "Unless you've encountered it before."

She folded her arms under her chest. "And you, of course, knew it to be faerie fire immediately."

His eyes flashed and nostrils flared. "No, for all of twenty seconds I thought I was going to go the way of beef on a spit. But while your coloring of the fire was most convincing, sound and smell were not part of the spell. A dead giveaway for some."

Shawukay felt her cheeks flushing. "I could not use real fire to burn a forest."

"Agreed, of course," the gold elf told her. His stance became slightly less irritated. "But you had me concerned. I thought Von Kharkov's lackeys might have tracked us down here and. . . taken you."

The young woman blinked, then a crooked smile touched her lips. "Your concern is touching, Sunstar."

*****

Jander turned around and shook his head. "Shawukay, this isn't funny. It is dangerous out here, and you are foolishly risking exposure." He started walking up the path back to the cave. "Now get dressed and come back inside. I brought your possessions."

"Sunstar."

The elf stopped at the fiery timbre of Shawukay's voice. He turned around and could tell that his guest was absolutely livid.

"What. . ."

"How long were you out there?" she demanded, hands on hips.

Jander didn't see the problem. "Only a few moments. Why. . ."

His query was killed in his throat when Shawukay exploded into a diatribe of Elvish, telling him in exact, painful, exquisite detail, what a gold elven pervert could do with her sword. The fact that it was anatomically impossible apparently carried no weight with her. She finally ended her tirade and stormed off, stiffly making her way back to the pond to gather her property.

<She probably thinks my ears have been sufficiently assaulted.> Jander knew this round of cursing was different from her disliking the necessity of accepting the clothes he'd purloined for her earlier.

No, the use of Espruar had been entirely for his "benefit."

*****

He was sitting in the smaller room when she finally walked in, wearing the dress he'd gotten her. Jander kept his silence as she walked over to where she'd been sleeping and sat down, drawing her knees up to her chest and clasping her arms around her legs.

She kept her eyes on the floor for several seconds before saying, "I am sorry for being angry, Jander. You were right about the danger."

"Yes," he answered, keeping his voice calm. He got up and walked over to the fire. He took the lid off of the stew pot and began stirring the contents again as the rich bouquet of smells wafted into his nose. "I did not intend to catch you as I did, child; I was more concerned about finding you alive."

"I realized that, once I thought about it," her voice sounded, coming out contrite. A weary sigh echoed through the room. "I hate this."

He turned back to her, food forgotten. "What do you hate?"

She realized she might have spoken rashly. Still, she looked him in the eyes. He could see the frustration written across her face. "I hate being a near invalid and having to depend on someone else. It is. . ." She dropped her eyes to the floor. "It is hard for me to let anyone do things for me."

"You have been by yourself for some time," he told her, walking away from the fire and sitting on the floor in front of her. "I know how you feel, Shawukay. The anger of your loss, the pain in your heart, when they are combined with the evil nature of this world. . ." He let his eyes show his feelings for his dear Ana. "It is much easier to keep yourself alone, because to do otherwise opens you to the possibility of betrayal, or to go through losing someone else." He closed his eyes and bowed his head. "So you keep yourself away from people, so you need not risk having your heart ripped open again."

"You have done the same thing?" she asked uneasily. "Kept yourself alone?"

Evidently, his words found more than one chink in the armor she'd encased her heart in. But he knew she deserved a truthful answer. "Partly, it is because evil takes people on this world with such terrible frequency. But mostly, it is so I do not have to watch those who do survive grow old and die while I go on." When she looked at him, he ran his right hand through his hair, showing off the large, pointed ear. "Shawukay, I am a full-blooded elf. Like you, I would outlive any friends of human heritage. I would even outlive you; my lifespan would be three times yours."

"It is easier, isn't it?" she asked in a tiny voice, sounding much like the child she truly was.

<Even though she has hard experience to counter that attitude.> One caused by his fully elven perspective. He reached a hand out and gripped her upper arm. "It is easier, yes. But occasionally, one must seek some form of companionship, or seek other people, even if only to know one isn't alone. If you are lucky, you might find friendship amongst them. There are risks, especially in this place, but in the end, I have always found the memories of those friendships to be a salve on cold, lonely nights when you are surrounded by nothing but the trees and animals."

He stood up, keeping her conflicted hazel orbs locked into his amber eyes. "Don't be afraid to seek friendship, Shawukay, even though such chances come rarely. I, for one, am more afraid of what might happen if I did not seek others from time to time. I might stay alive, but I think my soul would not."

He turned back to the stew pot and started filling her bowl.

"I could do that," she protested softly. He heard her shifting to stand up. "You do not have to wait on me hand and foot. I hate that."

Keeping his hands to his task, he turned his golden face to her and smiled. "You are injured, and I do not mind physical labor. And if it will help you forgive me for watching your bath, so much the better."

Her eyes flashed for a second before she got the jest. She gave him a curt nod and began to sit down, only validating his assessment with the slow, agonizing way she sat down.

He stopped filling her bowl. "You aggravated the injuries with your swim and tired yourself with the spells." When she declined to argue, he decided to broach that subject. "Why did you keep the fact that you are a cleric secret?"

The half-elf leaned back against the wall, laying her legs straight out and closing her eyes so she wouldn't have to look at his accusatory face, but also in sheer exhaustion as the earlier adrenaline rush left her.

"I did not trust you at first," she said in a hollow voice, interrupted by a loud yawn she tried to hide behind a fist. Now she looked at him, her eyes bleary. "But after that, it was simply because I have either been sleeping or we have been talking of other things."

With the total lack of guile in her voice, Jander was convinced. "All right," he conceded, "but how powerful are you?"

"Not powerful enough to turn vampires," she said with a shrug, one that wasn't as nonchalant as she tried to make it appear. "But I can destroy skeletons or zombies with little trouble."

"Good, good," he said approvingly, although he wondered about what she was hiding. "So you can cast mid-level spells." She nodded once, and he felt the weight that had been on his shoulders all night lift slightly. "If I had known about this earlier, I would not have worried so much about leaving you alone tonight."

He handed her the bowl, which she took, her arms trembling only slightly compared to two nights ago. "Child, eat slowly. I don't want you to get sick because you devoured something best savored."

Shawukay sniffed and stared at the bowl. "I mean no offense, Jander, but your cooking is not that outstanding in stature."

He chuckled at her sarcasm. "My apologies, oh noble gourmet, but I am out of practice when it comes to seven-course feasts."

The ranger laughed, a bright smile on her face. It was the first time she'd shown such emotion since he'd rescued her. It did his heart good. He smiled back at her. "When you're done, if you feel up to it, we can go through your possessions to make sure they aren't too damaged."

"You want to go through my things?" she asked. "How voyeuristic."

He'd started to turn away, but groaned at her comment. He turned on her but when he saw her stuffing stew into her mouth, he caught hold of the way one mischievous eye was locked in his direction, waiting for his response.

"Just eat your dinner," he sighed, trying not to smile at her wit; it would probably encourage her. <But would that be such a bad thing?>

*****

It was when he realized an hour had passed and he'd sorted all of her belongings by himself, that he walked back into the room to check up on her and see if she wanted to see that most of her property could be salvaged.

He started to call her name but stopped when he saw her. After taking in the sight, he smiled appreciably.

He reflected that it wasn't the fact that she had neatly folded the dress she'd blamed him for stealing, or the way she respectfully had rinsed out the bowl and set the pot back in its proper place, or even the innocent fact that she used one arm to keep her blanket in place so as not to show off something by accident while using the other to prop her head up for comfort.

No, what made him happy was the quiet, peaceful look on her face as she slept. One that bespoke of trust and feeling safe.

Feeling a surge of gratitude for this half-elven child's unknowing endorsement of him, the gold elf turned and walked out, preparing to settle down for some rest himself.

He'd earned it, in more ways than one.

*****

Jander sat up and stretched. Once he'd worked the stiffness out of his joints, the newly awakened gold elf threw on his boots, gloves, and cloak before going to check on his guest. A quick glance through the doorway told him it was still daylight outside. < Good. There are still a couple of hours before the sun falls.>

He slowly walked up to the entrance to his usual sleeping room, taking care not to make any noise in case Shawukay was still slumbering. He peeked his head in the doorway but saw that she was gone. His initial reaction was the same as the previous night; concern and tension. But again, he saw that she'd arranged things neatly, so he fought down his nerves and decided to make a quick check outside, hoping she was nearby.

The fighter belted on the sword Shawukay had loaned him and marched through the cave entrance, moving at a brisk pace. As the sunlight hit him and made him squint, Jander focused on his acute sense of hearing, hoping to pick up stray sounds that might give him reassurance that the Daleswoman hadn't gotten into any trouble.

His shoulders slumped in relief when he heard a soft, alto voice muttering nearby. Jander silently made his way over toward a tall oak and saw her, sitting cross-legged on the ground, giving prayers to her Goddess. <Probably praying for spells,> he deduced. It made sense; she'd used some of her reserves last night while trying to frighten him out of his wits.

Assured that she was all right for now, Jander started back to the cave. He didn't think Shawukay would stop right at that moment, but he still did not want her to see the look of sorrow that had crossed his face, threatening to spill a tear or two.

After all, with her spells replenished, surely she'd be leaving tonight. One stronger healing spell would be enough to wipe away enough of her remaining injuries, allowing her to travel under her own power. Despite the tension they'd had and the small arguments waged between them, Jander regretted her impending departure.

He walked back into the cave and out of the daylight. He started packing her possessions. It was the least he could do; she'd probably want an early start, however he might wish differently.

*****

Shawukay walked back into the cave, moving slowly so as to minimize the shooting pain that drove through her legs with every step. However, she was in somewhat better spirits now; taking another (uninterrupted) bath, the sun shining down on her shoulders, had been just the thing she needed.

She stopped at the entrance and tilted her head. <Well, almost what I needed,> she groused. The Lady had given her a number of new spells to replace those cast last night, but for some reason known only to Her, Shawukay still had no spells that would let her improve her body's condition. It was a mystery to her, but she didn't question the Lady's judgment. If it was Her will, so be it. She snorted. <Perhaps she is teaching me a lesson in humility, to better appreciate what Her gifts do for me and others.>

She shrugged the thought off and stepped into the cave, feeling the trapped heat and welcoming it after the cold water of the pond. She glanced over toward her things and stopped; rather than being laid out like they had been when she'd gone to pray and bathe, they were packed together. She turned her head toward the smaller room and saw Jander standing there, a strange look on his face.

"Jander, what is the meaning of this?" she asked, nodding toward her gear.

"You were praying to Mielikki," he said, apparently evading the issue. She nodded and started to answer, but he cut in before she could vocalize. "You have spells and will be leaving."

Her mouth opened a bit as she realized his assumption. She blushed a bit and cast her eyes downward. "Actually. . . I might not be." She swiftly amended that. "Unless you want me to leave."

The gold elf seemed to be caught off guard. "I-I don't understand. All you have to do is cast a healing spell and. . ." He apparently caught onto what she was saying and she looked back at him. That attractive, fey face was knitted in confusion. "She did not grant you a single spell to let you heal yourself?"

"Apparently, She thinks it is better that I heal naturally, or with no aid other than my ring," she admitted with a simple shrug of her shoulders. As he tried to absorb that comment, she couldn't help herself. "That, or She approves of the company I keep these days."

Jander snorted and shook his head. "I hardly think that the case, Shawukay."

"I was trying to be polite," she innocently quipped, a smile tugging at her lips. She folded her arms and cocked her head. "You admit to seeing my devotions, please tell me you did not spy on my. . . other activities."

"No." THAT response came out colder than Deepingdale in wintertime. Her grin widened until she had to turn away or else lose herself in laughter. She bent over her possessions and asked, "With your permission, might I lay my things out again?"

When he didn't answer, her grin faded and she turned her head to face him. She saw the look on his face but couldn't understand it, which made her worried. "Jander?"

*****

Jander tried to assimilate what the girl had just asked him. It wasn't that he wanted her to leave; he didn't. Not only because of her still less-than-peak condition, but also because he liked the company. He had not been lying about the memories of his friends, and now she was asking him if she could stay.

It wasn't just a rational consideration for her health. No, he found he wanted her company, even though he knew it could only be temporary at best. So, he was intent to keep that company as long as she wanted to give it to him.

"Of course you may," he finally answered, looking into those expectant eyes. The way her thick black hair, having been pulled back into a ponytail, framed her white face, made her look even younger than he knew her to be. His lips came together and the elf nodded lightly. "I wouldn't want you to leave yet, Shawukay. You're still healing and. . . I hate the thought of us parting ways just yet."

She smiled and continued looking at him while her hands began untying her bundle. "Good. I do not like the idea either." She seemed to realize something and her cheeks turned a deeper shade of blue, although he couldn't understand why. She glanced down at her belongings. "Like you told me, it is good to have someone from Toril to talk to again."

"Even though you hate having him do things for you?" he asked, trying to gently needle her.

She stopped and actually seemed to consider the question. She finally said, without looking at him, "That depends on what he does."

He didn't know how to take the noncommittal comment. He stepped down into the main room and gazed at her. "What do you mean, child?"

She reached into her things and pulled something out. A faraway look came into her eyes as the firelight reflected in them. She reached out with one hand, holding something out for him. "I mean something like this."

He stared at the object for a few seconds before a sad smile came to his face, one that reflected itself on the half-elf's lips. He reached out and took the slim piece of carved wood. He spent a few moments looking it over, admiring the simple yet fine quality of the item.

He glanced at his guest and quietly asked, "Something like this, eh?"

"Yes," Shawukay said, nodding at the songhorn in his hands. "Something like that."

He nodded and turned toward the bedroom, waiting for Shawukay to stand up and join him. "I think you should know, Shawukay, that I am somewhat out of practice. I wouldn't want to offend your ears."

"Jander, just play whatever comes to mind," she said with an "offended" air. He caught the sidelong look she gave him. "After all, I am a musician, not a critic."

"Thank the Gods for that."

*****

Shawukay walked down the path leading to the pond, humming one of Jander's flute tunes to herself as the setting afternoon sun warmed her pale skin. She reveled in the feeling, which was slightly more comfortable than the chilly mornings of this time of year. She also reflected that on this world, people such as she or Jander adjusted their lifestyles so that they were active at the same time as those who thrived at night.

<If you have no home and sleep during the night, you might not wake up the next morning,> she reminded herself. She hadn't had as much trouble changing her cycles of activity after arriving here; after all, ten years of Harper missions had seen her changing her lifestyle quite often.

The Forestarm arrived at the pond and started tugging at her clothes. As she pulled off her tunic, she thought about the last three days. Jander had proven just how skilled he was with the songhorn, playing for hours without pause until he realized that he'd accidentally lulled her to sleep. Compared to him, she was just a moderately gifted amateur. <But I do not mind,> she had decided. He was good and she appreciated fine music wherever she found it. <Because it is one thing that I have not seen corrupted by this Goddess blasted plane.>

That was one of the reasons she spent most of her time in Kartakass. Besides being heavily forested, the natives of that country lived for singing and playing music. Quite simply, the better one was at those arts, the higher they were regarded by their countrymen. She'd used that fact to her advantage more than once, trading some of the flute pieces she'd learned from Grandmother or others in Faerun for supplies, or simply to earn some extra coin. You never knew when gold or silver coins could come in handy.

But Jander. . . Shawukay shook her head. If he came to Kartakass, he would make quite the impression, at least for his music alone. She didn't know how well he sang, but it had to be better than her own voice. <Cats rutting sound better than me,> she thought with a tiny grin.

She sat down on the rock adjacent to the pond and started removing her boots. As she unlaced the bindings, the half-elf thought about seeing Jander lying in the main part of the cave. Not for the first time in her life, she wondered what it was like to go into reverie, the state that was the elven equivalent of sleep. Where humans and half-elves like her truly slept and dreamed, the People replayed the memories of their lives in a dream-like state.

And as much as she wanted to talk more with him, she knew that one did not disturb an elf in reverie except under the most dire of circumstances. She set her boots off to the side, away from any possible splashing she might cause. As she stood again and began to untie the laces of her deerskin trousers, the young woman felt a rush of anger at herself for the sadness she'd caused Jander last night. They'd been talking about events on Faerun until the time she'd been transported to this forsaken place, when he unknowingly dropped a hint as to how long he had indeed been here.

He'd been shocked to learn that King Zoar had been murdered forty years before. What had rocked her host to the core was that it had been one of his own people, a gold elf, who had had performed the assassination. Shawukay didn't know much more than that, as she had only been five or six at the time. But she knew enough to want to kick herself for causing Sunstar such emotional trauma.

Shawukay thought about the look of shame that had come to Jander's eyes over the news. She'd hated it, because she knew she had caused it. She stepped into the cool water, moving forward so it rose higher and higher against her body. The ranger started washing herself, thinking about what she knew about her host.

He was a good man, of that she was sure, even if he sometimes tried to hide it behind that cool, supposedly elven mask of indifference. She would have ascribed it to the length of time he'd been on this horrible plane, as she knew it had hardened her as well. But she could see the elven traits in him; the deep emotions, the sense of timelessness that she often saw in full-blooded elves, and most of all, that innate love of beauty, whether in the arts or in nature.

He kept a garden, for Goddess' sakes! Not just the vegetables, which were of fine quality, but also flowers, especially those night roses of his. Despite knowing that they were native to the plane they were trapped on, she still found them strangely attractive. That Jander kept them well tended spoke of his own liking of the black-petaled flowers.

She started to wash herself down, taking her time simply because she could. She just went through the motions of cleaning herself, thinking more about Jander than her task. She thought about the golden hair that complemented his amber eyes and similarly golden skin. While she considered herself much closer to her human side than the elven one, Shawukay admitted to some attraction to the fey appearance Jander had. She was also very conscious about how she looked when next to him, so. . . human.

<But he does not seem to have a problem with that.> The problem she did see was how young he thought her to be. She felt a smile on her lips as she wondered what the look on his face would be if she told him about some of her experiences working for Those Who Harp, like. . . the three month long mission in Waterdeep. <He might cough himself to death. Especially if I. . . neglect to tell him, at least at first, that I only worked as a barmaid.>

Shawukay decided to do just that; she needed something to talk about tonight. With a joyful laugh, Shawukay decided muscles be damned and dove full length into the pond, stroking her way for a swim just for the Arvandor of it.

*****

The look on Jander's face was everything she'd hoped it would be.

His amber eyes were as large and round as gold pieces, and the chasm created by his open mouth was most impressive. She didn't comment on it; instead, she kept as much of a straight face as she could and turned away, so that he would not see the glee dancing in her eyes.

She "busied" herself with pulling out some dried venison from her supplies and helping herself to an early dinner. < I apologize, Sunstar, but I can only eat so much rabbit stew before craving something else.>

Finally, the native of Evermeet found a portion of his voice. "Y-You. . ." he stammered uneasily, "w-worked. . . in a p-pleasure h-hall. . . in W-Waterdeep?"

"Yes," she innocently answered before biting off a piece of deer meat. She let the silence and his agony build until she swallowed. "For three months." She cocked an eyebrow. "Jander?"

The stunned gold elf dryly whispered, "You worked at a p-pleasure h-hall in W-Waterdeep when you were only th-thirty-three?!?"

"I learned a great deal about the demands of being a barmaid in those three months," she said with a nonchalant shrug. She sat down and crossed her legs, tearing off another chunk of jerky. She waited to see how long it would take him to realize he had been had.

"I cannot believe the Harpers would make a child. . ." he thundered, his righteous fury building until her last statement caught up to him.

*****

Jander froze in his growing anger at Harper tactics until Shawukay's comment about barmaids slid past his emotions and into the rational part of his mind. He stopped to think about that for a few moments and let his eyes fall on the girl, who seemed expectant about his response.

"A barmaid?" he asked, trying to ensure that he had indeed heard correctly.

Her left eye twitched a bit. "Yes, Jander. A barmaid."

For some reason, that eye movement made him suspicious. He'd had a long time to fine tune his instincts and learn how to read people by their posture and movements. He used those skills now, taking in the stony, cream-colored face, the flickering traces of amusement in her light green eyes, and the lips drawn into a tight, thin line. All in all, an innocent expression.

Far too innocent.

Understanding rushed into his brain as her game caught up to him. He stumbled back a bit before catching himself and moaning to the Gods. "Shawukay!"

*****

The half-elf let her laughter flow freely, letting Jander know she was only having a joke at his expense. The lingering aches and pains of her injuries faded for a bit, forgotten as she engaged in banter with the golden-skinned adventurer.

After his initial outburst, Jander seemed to lose his anger toward the Harpers and shook his head, chuckling softly to show he was a good sport about the trick. Her laughter faded but she maintained her smile as she studied Jander's face. The combination of how his eyes twinkled and the way his mouth formed its own good-natured smile, made him look even more handsome. She felt an unfamiliar rush of good spirit in finding out that this land hadn't totally destroyed his sense of humor.

She started when he suddenly looked at her and asked, "So you spent three months serving drinks and food?"

She nodded with a light grin, letting her eyes fall to the cave floor as she remembered that particular time. "Yes," she said fondly. "I learned a great deal, both about bartending and. . . other things."

Jander's laugh brought her head back up. "What?" she demanded.

"You're trying to scandalize me again, aren't you," he said with a smile that she found heart warming.

She shook her head, letting him know she was reminiscing rather than making jokes. "Jander, I made many friends on that mission. After my time there was done, I regretted leaving them. But. . ."

Jander picked up where she had left off. "You are a child of the forest."

She just nodded in reply. "Yes." She glanced at the welcome fire keeping the nighttime cold at bay. Watching the flames dance and flicker, she muttered, "But even so, living in such a large city like Waterdeep would be better than the lives we have to live now, on this world."

She was so lost in thought, her eyes watching the crackling flames, that she jumped when Jander laid a hand on her shoulder. She hadn't even noticed his movement. She started but he simply gave her a gentle, supportive squeeze. She saw the sadness in his own eyes.

"I understand," he said softly, his golden voice sounding like a gentle summer breeze. "But do not lose yourself in sorrow, child. It is the same as being consumed by hate or anger, which will let this land get its claws into you. Trust me, I know this more than most."

She stared into his amber eyes for several seconds, lost in the old sadness and the gentleness he showed toward her in her condition. She nervously licked her lips. "But you said remembering happier times would help me."

"If you remember them as they should be remembered," he countered with an accompanying squeeze of her shoulder, "and not as something you've lost."

He smiled at her, which made her flush like a child. She hated the loss of control, but he just gave her a final pat on the shoulder and walked over to his gear. As he picked up a small hunting bow, he glanced back at her. "I will try to scare up a deer or some partridge," he said with the confidence that bespoke of his skills as a hunter. "By the way you devour that venison, I'd say you've had enough of stew."

She couldn't help but let her lips curve upward. She averted her eyes and mumbled, "No offense to your cooking."

"None taken," he chuckled. He slung a quiver of arrows over his right shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Try to rest a bit if you want, or you can gather some more wood for the fires. That way, we can cook any game I manage to find."

"All right," the ranger heartily agreed. The thought of freshly cooked venison especially made her mouth water. As he started to leave, she called his name. He turned that angular face back to look at her. "When I remember my times as a barmaid, does that include the misadventures I could have done without at the time?"

"Like what?" the sunrise elf asked, looking quite puzzled.

"Being strapped into a chair in the pleasure hall's dungeon with two doppelgangers for company comes to mind."

She shot a triumphant smirk at the sour look that came across his face and strode into the other room to get her cloak before going out into the cold.

<Goddess, even now Dornias' influence comes in handy at times. . .>

*****

Jander walked his way through the woods, traveling down paths commonly used by the animals of this region. He hadn't had any luck in finding any signs of any game, though. He sighed; even his elven patience had its limits.

<If I don't spot anything in the next hour or so,> he thought, taking a few seconds to gauge how far the quarter moon had risen, <then I will just have to settle for trying to take down a couple of fowl. It will last Shawukay long enough for me to scrounge up something else.>

He started walking again, moving silently using skills he'd learned and honed over his lifetime. He checked the trail for tracks and spoor, he checked the trees for buck rubs, and used every trick he'd learned, both on Evermeet and Faerun, to find something to feed his friend and himself. After three-quarters of his self-imposed one-hour limit had expired, he gave up and fell back to using other, more esoteric abilities.

He instinctively glanced around despite being certain there was no one else in the area; it was force of habit. Shaking off his paranoia, Jander willed himself to change into his lupine shape. As the shift completed, the timber wolf that stood in place of the elven warrior sniffed the air, hoping his more acute senses would compensate for his earlier lack of success. After a few seconds, the canine froze.

He smelled two things in the air. One was the aroma of fur one found on jungle cats. The other was the scent of death.

In Valachan, such a combination only came from one source. The majestic lupus growled and moved deeper into the woods, hoping against hope that the presence he'd detected was only a coincidence.

*****

Jander's hopes died when he spotted one of the vampires holding the broken rapier he'd left behind a week or ago. What was worse was that there were three vampires in all; two males, both in human form, and one female in the form of a black panther, sniffing the ground and trying to track down whoever had killed their compatriots.

The gold elf's jaw clenched. The trail was nearly a tenday old; the frequent rains should have eliminated it completely. Yet somehow these three were following it. To the man's mind, that could only be accomplished by one means; sorcery.

Likely they'd used magic to summon one of the vampire's spirits and questioned it to find out who their killers were. If so, that would give them quite an advantage in finding him and the child. If so, the only reasons the sniffing cat hadn't detected him were because be was both on the right side of the wind and high in the leafy boughs of one of the trees that made up this forest.

But still, he couldn't count on that kind of safety where magic was involved. He decided to wait to see if they would pass him by before thinking of what action to take. He listened to their conversation, one of the males talking to the panther and telling her what direction to take in her tracking. Definitely, he was the one who'd used the spells to get this far in their efforts.

Jander glanced between the man and the female cat, furiously thinking which to strike first. If he attacked the cat, it would eliminate their tracker and force them to find another, starting from scratch. However, it left him open to any offensive magics the mage might have. If he struck the mage first, he'd be lucky to take him in one strike. It would also leave him open to the fury of a she-panther, a creature he couldn't fight as wolf or elf. Still, either scenario left him with a third Valachanian vampire to deal with, which was not something he relished in the best of times.

He glanced at the mage again and selected him as the more dangerous target. However, his quick mind made him realize he had to even the odds first. He began to formulate a plan using the preferred elven method of fighting when in their element; the forest.

Jander drew two arrows from his quiver and set them on the branch next to him. He picked one up as he flawlessly drew his hunting bow off of his shoulder. The sunrise elf slipped the notch into the bowstring and brought his powerful arm back, extending the other so that he could get as much draw as possible. Old habits made him wait until he was certain of his shot. Tense seconds passed by as the undead female stalked ever closer to the range at which the Lathanderite could be sure of striking his target. Centuries old instinct shouted "NOW!" and he let loose the feathered shaft without conscious thought. He was already bringing the second missile up to the weapon and his ears registered the straining creak of cherry wood even as the cat's howl registered in his mind.

The second arrow flew off into the night, guided both by Jander's keen night vision and the cat's unknowingly helpful cries of pain. The arrows wouldn't do any permanent damage, as they weren't magical, but they'd give him the confusion he needed to enact the true objective of his attack.

Without even thinking about it, Jander started making his way through the canopy of the forest, using old skills to keep himself hidden as he moved to put himself where he needed to be to perform the second half of his attack. He kept half an eye on the trio, the smallest corner of his mind telling him that the vampires were trying to recover from the unexpected assault and to determine exactly where the attack had come from. By the way the four-legged creature was twisting in pain, wooden shafts sticking out of her right shoulder and left haunch, that was going to be very difficult without the use of the mage's skills.

Jander's intention was to ensure the magic-user wouldn't get that chance.

He adjusted his movements to two things; the cat's shifting back to her humanoid form and the leader beginning to chant so that he could uncover the bowman. Jander let a grim warrior's smile form as the rush of the impending chaos he was going to unleash aided his focus.

As soon as the elf was perched above the wizard's position, he took in the others' locations with the briefest of glances, ensuring that they wouldn't be able to intercept his quick strike. Escaping would be another matter, but he was confident of his abilities against these younglings. He slowly reached down and gripped Shawukay's weapon by the hilt and drew it halfway, ever so slowly drawing the weapon out as to keep the sliding sound from reaching the vampires' ears.

Once he was satisfied he'd reached a safe point, he let himself fall forward, dropping to the ground behind the slick-haired vampire mage. Jander fell without a cry, something he found unnecessary in a true fighter. The only sounds that accompanied his descent were the sound of his current weapon sliding completely free of its sheath and the rush of wind that filled his ears until he reached the ground.

His feral instincts taking over, Jander knew the vampire was alerted by the sound of his landing, but he was operating on instinct and speed rather than conscious thought. The mage whirled around with the speed given him by undeath, but his surprise betrayed him as Jander brought the ancient weapon he carried back to strike.

For all the blood drinker's inhuman speed, Jander Sunstar was faster.

He swung with all of his considerable might, the tiniest part of rational thought in the back of his mind allowing him the fantasy of being a mighty elven defender of Myth Drannor, where Soulreaver had been forged a millennium earlier, striking down a threat to that greatest of elven cities. The real world, however, erupted in a shower of splattering skin and blood as the fiery elven steel passed through undead flesh like a butcher's knife through slices of ham.

The mage's head spun in place, turning upside down before beginning to fall to the ground. Jander was already spinning around to face the other two vampires, his eyes gleaming in the night and probably unsettling even these nighttime predators. To his dismay, the female was undisturbed, already shifting back into her cat form in order to use the panther's formidable claws and fangs against him. The other, despite his initial hesitance, drew a pair of short swords and took up an aggressive stance, ready to fight.

Jander's blood sang with the bloodlust one of elven blood felt when confronted with the undead, but his rational mind stayed his hand, making him think about how to proceed. He had to delay the remaining two creatures until he could make an escape, hoping to lead them in a hopeless chase before eluding them and returning to the cave in safety.

It wasn't until the evil, ear-splitting scream pierced the still forest night that he realized that he wasn't the only one who had attacking on his mind.

Sunstar didn't even have time to react before waves of agony ripped through his head, caused by sharp claws ripping into his scalp and face, only missing his eyes by chance. The elven warrior somehow kept the magic sword in his hands as he realized that the three vampires hadn't been alone. As what he belatedly realized were a raptor's talons ripped even deeper holds into his flesh, and wings continued to buffet him in a nearly successful attempt to keep him disoriented, Jander wildly took one swing with Soulreaver, hoping that somehow he might deal a wound to the screaming eagle "perched" upon his body.

The move, while desperate, worked beyond his wildest dreams. The bird, probably having seen the blade's effect on the mage, dislodged itself and flew off rather than risk being cloven in half. Jander, flowing blood obscuring his vision, reacted on instinct when he heard the roar of a panther lost in bloodlust. He knew the cat leapt at him, felt it pass through him, and used his instincts to the change to the one form that could possibly help him get away.

The golden wolf made another appearance and sped off into the night, the change having healed some of the damage dealt out by the eagle that he knew could only be one being.

Lady Adelaide, first and foremost servant of Ulric Von Kharkov, vampire Lord of Valachan.

A female vampire, and one that was capable of negating whatever advantages Jander had over most other vampires, for two simple reasons. The first, and most easily recognizable, was that unlike the other vampires of Valachan, who changed into jungle cats, Adelaide's "animal" form was that of a large golden eagle, whose keen eyesight could likely track him through any gaps in the forest canopy, allowing the vampires on the ground to watch her and keep on his trail.

The second reason was not so obvious, but likely more dangerous to him, as she could prepare other vampires to counter whatever advantages an elven warrior would have against them, even in their own domain.

Adelaide, like Jander, was an elf.

*****

Shawukay was tending the fire in the main room, absently poking at the blaze with a stick while she waited for Jander to return. She gazed at the flames, hating the very thought of him being out there alone.

<He can take care of himself,> she scolded herself. She dropped the stick and drew her legs underneath her body. Nervously rubbing her hands along her thighs, she uncomfortably thought, < He is over two hundred years old! He can defeat a vampire or two.>

He'd done just that when he rescued her. Still, it didn't make her any less uneasy.

The cleric decided to calm herself in a way that had worked in the past. She shifted and settled down on her rump. She crossed her legs, placed her hands on her thighs, and closed her eyes.

Diving deeper into her own consciousness, Shawukay sought to commune with her Mother.

*****

The haunting echo of a wolf's howl shattered her inner peace like a child's ball through a glass window. Shawukay felt herself "thrown" back into the physical world and her eyes snapped open in alarm.

Shaking off the brief disorientation caused by the violent expulsion from her trance-like state, the Daleswoman leaped to her feet and moved to grab her bow and quiver to deal with whatever was coming, something she knew couldn't be natural.

After all, wolves did not exist in Valachan.

The fact that her arrows were tipped by silver heads doubled her chances, as werewolves were especially vulnerable to silver weapons. And if all else failed, this day she carried magic that could be well used in battle.

<Let them come,> she thought grimly.

She moved as briskly as she was able, still hampered by a slight limp. She stopped at the cave entrance to await the coming creature. She nocked an arrow and pulled back slightly on the bowstring. She did not have to wait long.

A blue-colored shape ran into the opening in front of the cave. Her senses screamed, <VAMPIRE!>

Before she could draw back and let her missile fly, the angry screech of an eagle assaulted her sensitive hearing. The surprise made her hesitate, which in turn saved the wolf some undeserved pain.

The undead canine suddenly shifted, growing taller and bipedal. The hatred the half-elf carried for the blood drinking undead was replaced by cold, icy horror when she realized that the vampire carried a flaming, enchanted sword.

Soulreaver.

The vampire was Jander.

The dawning truth filled her heart with fear, sadness, and betrayal. But before she could strike the gold elf down, she noted the streaks of red playing across his blue shape. He was wounded.

Conflicting urges to finish him off or to tend her friend's injuries held her revenge long enough for the vampires trailing him to appear from out of the woods. Instinctively grateful for the appearance of enemies she could bring herself to wreak havoc on, the ranger hastily aimed and let fly at a vampire in the form of a black panther.

A yowl sounded through the night as her projectile struck home. Shawukay let a feral grin form. While the arrows weren't likely to kill the vampires unless she hit them in the heart, the blessings she'd long ago put on them would make the undead hurt like the Abyss.

The felines began changing into their human forms, which gave Shawukay time to act. She drew another arrow and pulled back, her arms straining against the sudden tension. As soon as the pair finished their own transformations, she drew a bead on the male, who carried a short sword in each hand.

She knew, from her own training, how dangerous the two-handed style could be.

If the rushing blood in her veins hadn't put her into the mode of knowing that this was a life or death struggle, she might have been insulted by how easy the shot was, given the ridiculously short range. But instead, the Hunter of the Harp just let her fingers do their simple work, with devastating results.

The shaft unerringly pierced the swordsman's chest, lifting him off the ground and making him drop his weapons. He landed on his back and shrieked like a wounded beast, which was exactly what he was in the ranger's mind. He reached up to grab at the deadly shaft protruding from his chest, but his spasmodic efforts only succeeded in breaking it off at the base, leaving the wood in his unbeating heart. His thrashings began to dwindle, but he was already in the realms of the forgotten.

Revulsion for waging an emotional war with the loyalty she felt for the only friend she had in the world, Shawukay drew another arrow and fitted it into place. She brought the longbow to bear, but Jander and the she-vampire were now locked in a sword duel, Soulreaver's enchanted flames leaving white streaks dancing across her field of vision. She waited with patience that only came to her during the hunt, waiting for the slightest opening that her archery skills could exploit.

As Jander and the other blood drinker engaged in their deadly dance, the eagle that had to be the source of the earlier cry swooped down into view, trying to strike at the elf fighting with her sword. The very instant the blue shade of the bird's outline betrayed its undead status, the girl adjusted her aim and fired.

The arrow missed because of the hasty shot, but it still distracted the raptor enough to force it to frantically brake its descent. With the wild flutter of wings, the unnatural bird of prey hastened to escape Shawukay's range.

The half-elf, not taking any chances, drew yet another shaft and stepped from the cave. She was on automatic pilot now; she stood as close to the cave rock as possible to negate any chance of being attacked from behind while still being able to use her bow, but she also maximized her avenues of fire to do what she could to even the odds against her and Jander's opponents.

The female warrior flawlessly set the arrow into the bowstring and brought the weapon up, her eyes never leaving the battlefield. She drew a bead on the human woman and shifted in time with her movements, hoping against hope that Jander would back off just enough to give her the chance she needed to finish this fight. His reckoning, however it would unfold, could come after she'd ensured their survival.

She used her eyes for that task, but her warrior instincts still sharpened her already acute hearing enough to hear the flutter of wings approaching. Prioritizing on the fly, Shawukay turned to her right with elven coordination to spy the eagle. The bird started to brake in preparation for landing but the girl was too fast. She fired her longbow and the shot was dead on target for the raptor's feathered breast. Unfortunately, while her aim was true, the shot simply wasn't fast enough.

The arrow sped into a misty fog and disappeared from view. Shawukay knew that her bow was not the way to fight in the close quarters that she now found herself in. But, lacking her primary melee weapon and not possessed of a flame blade spell to use in substitution, Shawukay was short of options. She drew another shaft and pulled back, aiming at the shifting cloud of white fog, awaiting her chance.

The cloud of mist coalesced into a feminine body, delicate of form yet possessed of an inner power that bespoke of long experience. Shawukay recognized the lines of the body, especially the gossamer coif of hair, that marked one of her mother's people. It took only the briefest of heartbeats to overcome the notation of that information and file it away.

But in battle, the briefest of heartbeats could spell disaster.

Shawukay felt the burst of magic flare before she could release her volley. Her initial reaction was to wince under the mental barrage battering the wall of defenses guarding her mind, a contest between the elven female's power and her own innate, but ultimately limited, resistance to such magics granted to her by her mother's blood.

As the arcane waves of power continued to beat at the red wall of her emotions and willpower, Shawukay's hands slowly began easing their hold on her weapon, the tension in her muscles vanishing as the ranger let her guard down.

*****

Jander blocked another slash from the woman's sword and set up a counteroffensive of his own. He was impressed despite himself; this human, despite being young compared to him, had the skill to make up for her lesser strength, speed, and experience. In short, it was just enough to be a threat to him.

The elven fighter also had another advantage, the weapon he carried; not only was it heavily enchanted to fight beings like himself and the woman in front of him, but apparently it carried a reputation, based on whatever information the now dead mage had gleaned from the spirits of the vampires he and Shawukay had killed in their first meeting. The woman's caution made her hesitant and wary.

What kept Jander from taking advantage of her caution were his own injuries. The cat forms had raked him more than once, and only by using his ability to turn to mist or into a bat had he made his getaways. He'd had to be careful not to be struck down by Adelaide's talons while in bat form, but in the end he'd made it back here, although it wasn't his first choice.

But he knew Shawukay's clerical magic was the only thing that might equalize this fight.

She wasn't using it at first, as she fell back on her archery skills to deliver wounds to the vampires by shooting them with blessed arrows. Once she'd sent the twin-sword bearer to the ground, he knew his opponent would be the she-cat. They continued to dance around, looking for any openings that would lead them to victory.

So far, the female had nicked him twice but his rapid healing minimized those injuries. The gold elf had scored one hit, too shallow for the sword's disruption powers to affect his foe. Jander heard the rustle of wings but couldn't afford to take his eyes off of the human woman facing him over colliding steel. His faith in Shawukay was rewarded when the eagle that was Von Kharkov's servant squawked in surprise mere instants after a sharp "twang" reported an arrow streaking toward her. He smiled at the rude awakening she'd surely received from the child.

He sent a complicated three-strike riposte darting in at his foe, trying to get her to over-commit. She deftly deflected two of the strikes and darted back from the third, not allowing herself to be drawn in.

She smirked at him. "Why did you kill some of your own kind to save that pathetic whelp?"

"You would not understand even if I explained it to you in short words," he countered with a snarl. She sent a crosscut at his neck but he ducked it and came back up with a spinning slash that she blocked in return. "To understand this would require having a shred of your soul left."

"Like you?" she laughed mockingly. She tried an overhead chop to gain some leverage on him, but he tried a tactic he'd used on more than one occasion, to good effect.

He shifted into mist, letting her lifeless blade pass through what had been a solid body. As she lost her balance from the sudden lack of resistance, he flowed behind her and solidified. He drew the sword back and jabbed forward, intent on taking her from behind.

The human learned too quickly for Jander's tastes; his weapon passed through a black cloud that matched the vampire's tresses and he backed off rather than let her pull the same trick. However, his heart froze at the sight his new perspective gave him.

Adelaide had landed and changed into her true form. In front of her, far too close to her for Jander's peace of mind, was Shawukay, whose face was going blank as she brought her bow down, unknowingly dropping the arrow to the ground next to her. Jander Sunstar snarled, letting his vampiric instincts rise from under the tight control he always fought to keep.

His eyes blazed red in a way that had nothing to do with his dark vision, and his fangs flashed as his lips peeled back into an unholy snarl. He brought the Myth Drannan blade back in preparation to charge, but before he took three steps to close the too great distance between him and the women, the black cloud of undeath reformed in front of him, sword set to strike. Jander swung with all his might, channeling his frustration and heart sickness into a mighty blow meant to send this grinning fiend to her properly deserved afterlife.

A cackling, mocking laugh coincided with the flying sparks and sound of grating metal that signaled a successful defense.

Jander's heart sank as he was forced to focus on himself and not the girl whose precious friendship he needed more than unlife itself.

*****

Adelaide's hunger raged against the way she kept it at bay. The half-breed was beautiful! She knew this! Her ceaseless hunger demanded she devour the woman before her this instant! She let her power rise and reach out to ensnare the little girl trying so hard to shoot her fellow servants of Ulric with that finely crafted longbow.

The elf appreciated beauty more than anything, and more than anyone, but not just because of her race. Like all elves, it was part of her being, imbued in the very fabric of her spirit. But unlike the outlander elf she'd been sent to kill, despite his heavenly appearance, this half-elven babe was of interest of her.

After all, she still breathed.

The woman smiled underneath her veil as her charming powers erupted over the pretty, petite archer. She raised the level of power once it appeared that the morsel's paltry half-breed resistance was not going to save her. Even through the covering over her eyes, Adelaide's night vision watched the release of tension that betrayed the girl's mind being overcome.

She smiled even more as she slowly moved closer to the girl, still cautious despite the presence of that golden man fighting her fellow. She believed Zarikalli had more than enough skill to take the male vampire. Adelaide stopped and raised her hands, lifting her veil away to lock her eyes onto her target and complete her domination. She focused as the girl's right hand dropped the deadly arrow from it. It dangled on her fingertips for a second before sliding off and soundlessly hitting the earth beneath their feet. The child's left hand fell limp at her side, barely clutching the bow that was, in its way, as attractive as the woman who wielded it with such deadly intent.

Adelaide continued to watch the girl, keeping her eyes peeled on the half-elf's. Unlike her usual victims, mostly young attractive human males, the still girl in front of her interested her in another way. Having been born, raised, and turned on this world, Adelaide didn't drink blood or drain life energy like most vampires. As an elf brought across here, Von Kharkov's favored servant fed by draining the beauty of living beings. And standing her before her was a morsel that felt to her to have the potential to be a rare feast.

And perhaps, Adelaide thought with a trace of longing desire, a potential companion. It was lonely, being the only lady of darkness in Valachan capable of soaring on the night winds. She glossed over the image presented before her, a cascade of red, yellow, and orange indicating a living, breathing beauty, and silently wondered how she would look once she brought her under the light of a torch or blazing fire in Ulric's fireplace. Licking her lips at the impending taste of this delicious morsel, Adelaide refocused her eyes on the half-elf and moved forward, confident in her ability to bind the girl's mind under several layers of unbreakable mental chains.

She smiled, knowing the girl had to be truly under her control as she didn't even react or recoil from her scarred visage. She glanced up and down at the paralyzed, relaxed figure in front of her. With her purring, elven voice Adelaide said, "My darling little girl, why do you carry that bow? You do not wish to hurt me."

The girl didn't answer verbally, but her left hand slowly but surely released the longbow, letting it fall to the earth. Despite herself, Adelaide winced; she hoped the well-crafted instrument of war wasn't marred by the impact. After all, beauty was beauty.

Her lips parted and she licked her lips, her tongue darting out between her fangs. She would have to drain and feed the babe to bring her across, but that could be done after she'd fed herself. After all, making a childe was a process best savored.

Drawing herself up in preparation to partake of her feast, Adelaide was stunned when the girl suddenly tensed and began talking in an unknown language, as if praying. . .

The charisma drainer's eyes widened in disbelief as the reddish orange form in front of her raised her hand. She was unable to react or cast a spell to defend herself before her world was consumed in light, fire, and the stench of burning flesh.

*****

Shawukay played the game as long as she could, knowing that the vampire would think she was under her control. It wasn't just that vampires were arrogant to the last; she gambled that the typical elven attitude toward those not of pure blood would serve to increase it tenfold. It wasn't easy, fighting down her instincts to attack, but sometimes, it was not the physical weaknesses you played into your favor.

Occasionally, the psychological blind spots were the way to go. While she continued to feel the vampire's enchanting claws washing over her, something was missing from the attack that made it unable to breach her mental shields, let alone subdue her. When the elven woman raised her veil and stared back at Shawukay, intensifying the blue glow of that dead face, Shawukay knew why her mind was free.

The vampire couldn't use its charm gaze against someone who couldn't meet her gaze. Against someone who viewed the vampires' world in shades of heat, not light. In short, the vampire couldn't make the Shawukay meet her gaze because. . . Shawukay couldn't see her eyes.

Somehow sensing that the eagle-changing vampire had lowered her guard, Shawukay's mind and instincts jointly screamed, < NOW!> She began praying.

Shock rippled over that elven outline, visible even in the infrared spectrum. Shawukay finished her prayer and pointed her right hand at her foe, focusing her will and casting her most powerful spell.

A concentrated beam of divinely created, narrowly focused sunlight fired from Shawukay and struck the vampire in her firm stomach. The half-elf smiled wickedly as her victim began to wail in agony and fall to the ground in a heap. Shawukay turned and ran back to her waiting longbow, gripping it up on the run and turned back to the remaining battle taking place before her.

*****

<Pain! Agony!>

Adelaide's focus spiraled down into a narrow line of fear and agony. The bitch had struck her down with sunlight! The vampire felt her flesh burning away, smelled the odor of cooking skin and muscle. Lacking any wizardly spells to undo the brat's deadly magic, the Lady of Castle Pantara was left only one choice. She tuned out the pain and burning.

The effort was damned near impossible. It hurt so much. . .

Elven flesh, once beautiful but now ruined, twisted and shrank. Feathers replaced her once-fine hair, boots shifted into sharp talons. Adelaide took wing, erratically making her way to the one spot nearby that might save her beautiful body before the half-girl's unholy fire took her into the final death.

*****

Shawukay heard the weak, uneven flutter of wings and turned around, shocked that her victim still lived. Before she could call up another spell to stop her once and for all, the flame-enshrouded eagle flew up and away, leaving the ranger cursing her stupidity for not making sure the vampire had been permanently downed.

She stared at the shrinking ball of feathered fire, fervently hoping that unlike the phoenix she resembled in miniature, the woman would not rise from whatever ashes were her remains.

*****

Jander and his counterpart circled rapidly, throwing blows and counterblows with rapidity. One of the few things Jander saw as a benefit to his undead state was nearly unlimited stamina; he could literally fight for hours at a stretch.

It did not please him to see the tables turned by a vampiric opponent who matched him in the fighting arts. His mind scrambled to find a way to end this contest. He was at a standstill, but he had to save Shawukay before she paid the price for his lack of victory.

A piercing scream shook both fighters, causing them to stop concentrating solely on ending the other's undead lives. Jander saw the uncertainty flicker across the she-corpse's face for the same reason he was sure triumph was flashing across his own.

The scream was not that of a young half-elf.

The vampires brought their defenses back up but now the fight had taken a dramatic, dangerous twist. Now, the female wasn't fighting to kill Jander. Now, she was fighting for the same reason Jander was.

To survive.

With the stakes and odds so drastically changed, Jander moved to ensure that she wouldn't win against them. He moved onto the offensive, striking with all his skills and strength. Even when on the total defense, the Valachani's prowess was a match for his greater experience. Jander knew that if she regained the initiative, she would ensure that his young friend could not join the fight on his behalf.

That thought angered him. <Enough is enough.> If he couldn't overcome the woman with skill, and if she would not use common sense to see she was outnumbered, then he had to use another method. One that went against everything he'd ever been taught.

Jander waited for her to bring her blade around on a backswing and charged, roaring at the top of his lungs and barreling in straight at her.

His evil foe's eyes lit up in triumph; he'd just made the most obvious of blunders! She swung her sword around in a whistling arc, moonlight gleaming off the incoming blade. The blow was meant to take Jander's head, but she didn't understand.

That was exactly what he wanted her to do.

Jander waited until the very last instant to change into a cloud of mist. Like before, the woman overcompensated but this time, she did so too much. As she wobbled, the vampiress focused keeping her sword in her hands under control. She didn't think to change back into mist.

Unlike the first such try, Jander didn't flow behind her. No, he formed back in the very spot he'd been in. He brought Soulreaver up in a two handed grip and drove the mighty weapon into the woman's spinal column. The blade sunk in far more easily than nonmagical weapons would have and pierced the Valachani's heart. She tried to scream but she uttered no sound. Her limbs went limp and her lifeless body was engulfed by the magic of the Elven Gods.

Once again wondering how a vampire could be allowed to wield such a weapon, Jander held the sword in place until the vampire faded from this world. Once she was well and truly damned, and no threat to him or the one friend he had in this world, Jander's emotions began to calm themselves.

With it brought fresh reminders that he hadn't gone unscathed. Even with vampiric healing, those wounds hurt like the Nine Hells. <The price of believing yourself above injury.> He glanced at the sword in his hands. <Or final, indisputable death.>

The realization that he now had to wage another battle, one to somehow bring Shawukay to see that he was not a monster, destroyed any joy he felt at saving their lives just now.

*****

Shawukay watched the battle unfold and, ultimately, end with Jander's victory. She hastily plucked an arrow from her quiver and fitted it in place. Swallowing at what she would likely have to do next, kill this vampire who had kept her in ignorance of what he was, perhaps to save her for himself. . . or worse. . .

<Never,> she vowed, aiming at Jander's back and holding the shot. She'd give him one chance to explain. After that. . .

The anger at what she was as his betrayal and the fading adrenaline of combat made her sick. She began to shake a bit and forced her body to hold on that much longer. Jander started to turn around, his own wounds slowing the gold elf down.

She could only wait and hope he didn't escape her first shot. Because she and he both had to know, she would not get a second.

*****

Jander stiffly turned around, the wounds in his belly and left shoulder already knitting themselves back together. He wasn't surprised at what he saw, but his heart still sank to the depths of his stomach.

Shawukay's bow, nocked with an arrow blessed by Mielikki's power, was now aimed at his heart. He could easily change into mist before the shaft hit its mark, but chose not to do so. If there was any chance that he could convince her, to show that he was not the monster the others were. . .

"Shawukay," he said, his voice cracked and pleading.

The half-elven child's voice was thick with hate. "You are a vampire," she all but growled.

The gold elf bowed his head. "Yes."

He expected to feel the sharp jabbing pain of a silver-tipped arrowhead erupting in his heart. He kept his eyes down, waiting to see quivering feathers sticking out of his chest. Instead, a single word was uttered.

"Shirak."

Light filled the area, making Jander's eyes switch from his night vision to the normal sight most beings used in the daytime. He looked up and saw Shawukay standing there, her muscular arms pulling for all they were worth to keep the longbow aimed at him. It only took the merest of glances to see she was barely holding on; her arms trembled, her forehead was beading with sweat, and her knees were rigidly locked.

Again, he softly uttered her name. "Shawukay. . ."

"Why?" she said, a slight touch of confusion edging in with the anger that had fed her actions in the fight. Her almond-shaped eyes narrowed in icy coolness. "What was your plan? To heal me and then drain me? To fatten me up like some prize sow? To. . ." Now she brought the bow back all the way. Jander could almost feel the sensation of the fletching tickling her blue-tinged cheekbone. The ranger hissed, "To make me like you?!?"

Jander didn't move, not to dodge, not to save himself. All he did was tell her the truth. The saddened son of Faerun faced her glare. "I did it because you were in danger."

Her trembling increased. Jander could tell that her first instinct was to fire; anger, hatred, and betrayal were flashing across the youngster's face. Yet still, something held her back. He continued to stare into her eyes, knowing that he had just lost the first friend he'd had in decades.

Shawukay's aim didn't waver as her cold voice demanded, "Why did you not drain me when you had the chance? I was all but helpless."

Anger at her assumption made him growl. "That was never my intention!" he shouted, first in anger then in desperation. His fists curled as he protested, "Shawukay, I saved you because I could not bear to see you ripped apart by those vampires!"

"And afterwards? Why act as if I meant anything to you as something more than a meal!"

His throat tightened as he answered the wrathful girl. "Because you needed someplace to heal. And. . ." He paused, hoping that she would see the painful truth of his existence. He softly wept, "I wanted an end to the loneliness, even. . . even if for only one blessed night. I. . . I hoped to have a friend to care about again."

Jander fell silent; there was nothing else he could say. Shawukay's trembling increased as the silent, heart-rending seconds ticked by. The longer the silence lasted, the more Jander's heart fell into a pit of hopelessness.

The released was so sudden it caught even the elf by surprise. The soft "twang" of a snapping bowstring didn't even give him enough warning to react, if such had ever been his intention.

Even so, Shawukay's shot missed him by a good four feet, sailing off into the night with only the light crackle of leaves being clipped by the shaft to indicate its trajectory.

Jander only watched Shawukay, the girl he'd saved and come to care about as the first friend who'd eased his eternal existence, in so many years.

The girl dropped to her knees, shaking like a leaf in a summer gale. Her hands gripped the longbow her grandfather had carved for her. However, she made no move to draw another arrow.

Jander started forward to help the half-elf to her feet, but was stopped when her head came back up, eyes blazing with mistrust.

The look faded momentarily, but came back a bit. In a small, child-like voice, she told him, "Do not touch me."

His heart went cold at her demand, but he nevertheless respected it. Jander just bowed his head and sadly walked by and into the cave, giving her a wide berth. Once he entered, he consigned the short time of happiness that had ended to the past.

*****

<What in the name of the Mother is happening?!?> Shawukay's voice screamed.

She couldn't understand. Jander was a vampire. He couldn't be what he seemed to be. But some small parts of her conscience kept her from following her first instinct; the instinct that told her to go into the cave and end the existence of a monster like the one that had taken her family from her.

Is Jander a monster? That voice questioned her.

<He is a vampire!> she cried, tears of frustration blurring her vision.

Yet he fought for you, was the even, gentle reply.

Shawukay's hands gripped her beloved bow so tightly that her knuckles became even whiter. The loneliness inside of her shouted, < An elf would rather bed a drow than exist as undead!>

Yet baelnorns, undead elves, guard the remains and relics of their ancestors and descendants, cooed a wiser voice.

<He is a vampire! They are evil!>

Even though she mentally shouted that to the four winds, she didn't believe it. She couldn't believe a lie, nor could she lie to herself.

Jander was a vampire.

But he was not evil.

Soulreaver had proved that. His use of it, his mere touch of it, showed that the gold elf, although a vampire, although not a living being, was still a man.

<He is not a monster.>

Shawukay's hands unclenched, letting the bow fall a few inches to the ground. She sat there, silent and alone, rocked to the very fabric of her soul.

She'd wanted to kill him. She was still afraid of him. She'd seen too many vampires, had to fight for her survival too many times, to put aside her feelings. Even for. . .

<Even for someone I care about,> she conceded, feeling very alone again. < I cannot do it, even for. . . even for a friend.>

That knowledge would haunt her for some time to come.

*****

He looked up at her when her shadow fell across the wall in the smaller room.

"You are leaving," he said needlessly. She had her pack at her feet, her bow over her shoulder. All that was missing was her sword; obviously she wanted it back.

He slowly stood so as not to make her feel more threatened. He picked up the longsword she'd so easily allowed him to use only days before and walked forward, offering it to her, hilt-first.

Shawukay reached out and slowly curled her fingers around the leather-wrapped hilt. She waited for him to move his hand away before she sheathed it without a word.

He backed away, wondering if she was going to just turn and leave or use her clerical powers on him. He suspected it would be the latter.

Instead, Shawukay looked into his eyes, locking them into her stare. After a few moments she said, "I know you are not evil, Jander."

He blinked in surprise, not comprehending why she'd say that. Still, the vampire dared to hope that she wouldn't hate him for what he was. "How do you know that?" he asked despite his fears.

Her left hand unconsciously reached up and ran along the runes carved into the guard. "Soulreaver cannot be touched by those who are evil, let alone wielded by them." Jander could hear the conflict that knowledge was causing the little one. It matched the conflict in her haunted eyes.

She didn't back away despite the anger she had, keeping her feelings for the undead under tight control for the moment. "This blade carries the power of Bladesingers and priests of the Seldarine. It was wielded by a son of the House of Amarillis in the defense of Myth Drannor. Anyone of evil bent who so much as grips it is electrocuted. So I. . ." She looked away, but not before the elf could see the regrets in her eyes. "I know you are not evil."

She started to turn away. He called her name. "Shawukay."

The half-elf whirled back, her raven-colored curls flying about. "I--- What?" she said, her voice tight.

"I. . ." He stopped before collecting himself. He tried to find his voice. But in the end, all he could say was, "I am sorry I cannot be what you want me to be. But please, please do not hate me for being something I did not choose to be."

A flicker of surprise crossed her face, followed by shame. She closed her eyes to avoid looking at him. She whispered, "I do not hate you. But. . ."

He said what the young woman could not bring herself to say. "But you are afraid of me."

She started to turn around. "I am sorry," she muttered dismally.

He reached forward and gripped her shoulder. "Shawukay, please," he begged her, "do not leave. Not like this."

"I-I have to," she said, flinching under his cold grip. "It is not safe here."

The man's hand slipped off in shock and grief. "You. . . you still think I would. . ."

She turned around, disbelief on her face. "Do not tell me you are going to stay here! They are going to return, Jander!"

Jander's mouth opened as he realized what she meant. He knew she was right. <Adelaide escaped. If will take her a few days to heal and make it back to Castle Pantara.> He also realized that when she returned, she would bring powerful help. But he also saw, and knew in his heart, that Shawukay still cared about him.

"You are right," he regretfully admitted. He wasn't happy about it; he'd made a home in this forest. He sighed, resigning himself to the inevitable. "I will pack my belongings and leave this night."

She nodded, seeming to accept his promise. Still, the gold elf sensed some uncertainty in her posture. She only said, "Good."

She then turned and walked out of the room with a slight limp, leaving the vampire well and truly alone.

*****

Jander hefted his pack once more as he left his latest home for the last time. He stepped out into the crisp night air and raised his eyes to look at the stars. The innate love of the natural wonders of the world sang in his soul, providing some slight balm for the pain in his weary heart.

Bringing his eyes back down, he started to move forward but stopped when he saw that he wasn't alone. Sitting on a boulder not twenty feet from the cave, her outline lit by one of her light spells, was Shawukay.

She didn't seem to notice him, engrossed as she was in her task. Jander noted that she'd taken off her normal garb and exchanged it for a long-sleeve, one-piece cotton dress dyed a lush green color, the hue of wet leaves. The wrist cuffs and the neckline were colored the yellow of the sun. The neckline was not quite scandalous for someone her age; it showed off her collarbones and part of her upper chest but wasn't risqué. She'd used a velvet ribbon of the same green color to bind her hair at the nape of her neck, catching it into a simplistic yet very long tail.

It took a few moments to get over both her change and her presence. He was simply shocked to see her still here. Trying to reconcile this shocking development, he simply remained silent as she completed her change.

The Forestarm was donning a pair of leather moccasins, going through the process of wrapping the laces around her calf muscles before tying them off just below the knee. She grunted in satisfaction and stood up, letting the dress fall about three inches above her ankles. Jander still had caught the flash of a sheath tied under the lace on her left leg.

She looked over and their eyes met. She blinked a few times and Jander knew she was again trying to sort out the warring emotions inside her heart.

"Shawukay?" he asked, trying to think of why she'd stayed. "Why are you still here?"

Her eyes were more than a bit uncertain, but she told him, "I was waiting for you."

The vampire couldn't believe it! She'd walked out in a way that made him assume she would try to put as much distance between them as she could before dawn.

"Why?" he asked, wondering what her reasons were.

She rubbed a loose, curling strand of hair out of her eyes, buying time to answer. The child drew a deep breath and gave her answer.

"You are headed east, into Sithicus," she started. He nodded in agreement; besides being the closest border, it also boasted the largest elven population in the Core. "I am going back to Kartakass, and I will have to pass through Sithicus to get there." She shuffled her feet a bit, shifting her eyes to gaze at the forest floor. "Also, neither of us can handle these Valachan vampires alone. We stand a better chance of survival together."

Her answer made perfect sense in every respect. He also knew the other reasons. "Shawukay," he said, hope flaring inside his chest, "thank you. For not fleeing."

The tiniest bit of indignation flashed in the ranger's hazel eyes. "I stand by my friends, Sunstar."

He was surprised, yet also joyful, at the steel and strength in her declaration. He felt pink-tinged tears forming. "Shawukay. . ."

The living child seemed just as tense as he was, but in her case she was fighting her own emotions. Her eyes darted around as she fidgeted. Jander thought perhaps she stayed out of a sense of obligation for saving her life. "Shawukay, if you do not want to be in my company because I am a vampire. . ."

Her eyes flashed with pain, her eyelids fluttering a bit. She turned her back to him and hugged herself, running her hands up and down her sleeves. Her head went up to gaze at the sky.

"Do you know what tonight is?" she asked.

The sudden question caught him by surprise, even though he was used to her quicksilver moods by now. "No," he confessed with an unseen shrug. "When you are. . ." He stumbled before going on. "The nights blur together over the years. One is much the same as another when you are alone."

She slowly turned her head around, her hair blocking part of her profile. "It is the spring equinox, Jander."

Having been a ranger himself, he now realized why she'd changed into the dress, for reasons other than appearing to be something other than the grim warrior she was. <Hiding in plain sight, as it were.> He especially recognized the significance of the color scheme. He actually smiled. "It is a holy night."

She nodded and turned one hundred eighty degrees, looking him up and down. At length, she whispered, "And while I do not have the time or inclination to celebrate it as it should be, I still feel the need to observe it." She faltered but looked directly at him, letting her feelings beam through her eyes. "And. . . I do not want to observe it alone. Not this time."

Jander felt his tears increasing their flow. "You don't?"

*****

Shawukay licked her lips and stared at Jander, doing what she could to memorize every last detail of that too beautiful face. Even knowing the truth, it helped her to think of him as a gold elf first, and a vampire second.

<Even if I wish I could think of him only as an elf,> the thought with guilt stinging her heart. Still, she knew she had made the right decision by staying, even if it went against her experience in this place.

Finally, the woman quietly told him, "No. . . like you, I. . . I want an end to the loneliness, even if it is only for a few nights more." Shaukay's face softened. "I am sorry it cannot be more, but. . ." She turned to pick up her pack, so she would not have to face him. "It is not you, Jander. It is me. I. . . I cannot change how I feel, not yet."

She stood up, hoping he would understand. His dark, intense eyes were brimming with pink tears, but they were filled with understanding and compassion. He didn't blame her.

<Goddess, how long. . .> She swallowed the lingering fear she felt of him and bravely walked up to him, no longer keeping her distance. He seemed confused as she reached up and gently stroked his left cheek. She didn't flinch from the cold skin; instead, she compared the contrast between his golden skin and her pale fingers.

Wanting to know, she gazed into his eyes. "How long, Jander?" she quietly asked. "How long have you been trapped on this world?"

He kept his eyes on her as he replied. "Well over two centuries, child."

She felt her mouth open in shock. Her hand dropped as she bleated, "How. . . how have you stayed true to yourself? How do you. . . how do you do it?"

*****

Jander knew the true, underlying reason she asked him that question. He caught her falling hand in his own and gently squeezed it. His heart soared when she returned the gesture.

"I have often asked myself the same thing," he said to the child in front of him. "But I do know this, Shawukay; if I can do it, you can as well. You can remain the woman you want to be."

She broke his gaze and loosened her grip on his hand. He released it, not wanting to discomfort her any more than she already had been.

"Shawukay," he said softly, bringing her head back up, "I want to thank you."

The befuddled ranger cocked her head. "Why?"

"When you told me about Soulreaver, how it repels the very touch of evil, you showed me that there is still hope for me as well." He gave a passing glance to the sword lying propped against the boulder. "I. . . I am still myself, and not a monster."

"Monsters do not keep rose gardens," the moonchild said brusquely, folding her arms and glaring at him. "Monsters would not risk their life to save me. And a monster would not make me feel like such a novice with the songhorn!"

Jander broke out in laughter, joined by his friend. While it was a bit strained, it at least marked that they still regarded each other highly, and favorably. It was more than either had had in a long time. They laughed together for a few moments, then Jander reluctantly turned his mind back to business.

"We must leave now if we are to make any real progress to the border," he reminded her. "Adelaide will recover enough from your sunray to travel within two to three days."

The young girl nodded and picked up her equipment. As she prepared to follow his lead, he sent one last, lingering gaze at the cave.

He was going to miss this place.

*****

The Mielikkian was anxious to move but allowed the gold elf his moment of reflection; after all, he was losing his home because of her. She also hated the idea of fleeing, especially knowing that she could not stay in Jander's company.

The anger and hatred still bubbled beneath the surface of her mind, but it seemed to her that it might have lessened a bit. She gave the cave a final look as well. To Jander it was paradise lost. But to her, it was where she'd made the first friend of any stripe since being marooned in this evil place. It was also, in a way, a place of healing. For her still mending wounds. . .

. . . and perhaps, for part of a wounded soul.

*****

Sithicus
At the border with Kartakass
Ravenloft
2 April 1991

Shawukay and Jander peered across the imaginary boundary that separated Soth's domain from the forested nation of Kartakass. She lamented their impending separation, but she simply couldn't change who she was so soon.

They looked at the forest that beckoned to both of them, even though it would be welcoming only Shawukay back into its leafy embrace. Her heart rose at the sight of the closest thing she had to a permanent place on this world, but the feelings were tempered by the moment coming to her and her sole friend.

It had taken them three days to make it over the border and into territory not hostile to them. That first night, Jander's strange ability to withstand the sun's deadly rays for up to a full sixty minutes had enabled them to find shelter within an abandoned iron mine. She didn't care that he'd had another twenty or thirty minutes before risking destruction; her heart had been in her throat the entire time. It was a saddening finish to their "observance" of the spring equinox, which had consisted of two main themes; taking enough time from their flight to appreciate the beauty of the forest and the stars, and to begin talking about things they still didn't know about each other.

During their periods of walking, or during their waking hours before and after sleeping, the two Faerunians had shared more of their life stories.

Jander told her about the Silver Six, his adventuring party which had been decimated by the vampiric incursion that changed Merrydale into Daggerdale. He spoke with fond memories of his comrades, especially their famed battle alongside the famed Hellriders of Elturel against the mother of all evil dragons, Tiamat herself.

He told her about his beloved Ana, who in reality was Tatyana, the woman for whom Strahd von Zarovich had embraced his cursed immortality. She felt the pain along with him, listening intently to his story of finding her in an insane asylum in Waterdeep, her mind broken by the horror of her brother-to-be killing her fiancée, and the shock of being transported between worlds from her homeworld to Toril. Shawukay found herself feeling a fraction of the grief he felt over finding out that Strahd, his supposed friend, had been the very man responsible for the death of the woman they, however ironically, had both lost their hearts to.

Shawukay told him of her past; growing up in Deepingdale, moving to Mistledale, and the deaths of her family near Elversult. She gave him the details of her Harper career, especially the mission in Waterdeep, which brought laughter to both their lonely hearts. Then she reached the chance encounter with Aunsaular, and how it had changed everything.

Still, he didn't judge her, which made all the difference. Instead, he reiterated his own struggle to subdue the darkness inside of himself as an example of how she could someday overcome the emotions that made her seek out the undead to destroy them as a release for her own pain.

Finally, the moment neither wanted, yet both knew had to be, was upon them. Shawukay tried not to show any fear now, because it would only hurt her and Jander more.

She turned her head to look at that handsome, golden face one last time. "Jander. . ."

"It is time," he said stoically, a brave front belied by the tears forming in his eyes.

She nodded, looking down at the pouches tied to her belt. She reached for two of them and untied the laces securing them to her slim waist. "Jander, I check at taverns in Skald and Harmonia at least once every two moons. If you ever decide to visit Kartakass, or to. . ." She blushed again. "To settle there, please, leave me a message."

"I will," he promised, sounding touched by her request.

She looked back at him and turned ninety degrees, so she could look at him straight on. "I have something for you, Jander." She held up the pouches by their ties and waited for him to hold his hands up.

"What?" he asked, confused by her actions.

She let a sad smile form. Setting the first bag in his right hand, she told him, "This one has pollens and seeds from your garden. I. . ." She stopped and glanced away toward the Kartakan woods. "I cost you your home, Jander," she whispered tightly. "I could not bear to leave you without something from it. So. . ."

"You gathered enough for me to start my garden anew," he realized, to which she nodded.

"Wherever that turns out to be," she finished.

*****

Jander smiled in appreciation. Only an elf, or someone who lived their lives devoted to nature, like this little ranger, would think of something like this. He took the bag and tied it to his own sword belt. "I will grow you some roses. I know you liked them."

"True," she said with what Jander was surprised to recognize as a streak of shyness. Her flushing face only reinforced his opinion. A flicker of impatience crossed her countenance. "Will you take the other bag, please?"

Chuckling at her restlessness and keeping a remark about young elves to himself, he took the other one and quirked the corner of his mouth. "And what is this, Shawukay?"

She fixed him with a soft look of sympathy. "The songhorn."

His smile vanished. She was giving him her flute?!? He started to shake his head, but before he could give the pouch back, Shawukay firmly closed her hands over his and pushed it back.

"No. It is yours now," she said firmly. Jander could tell that this was more than a gift. She was giving up something precious to her.

"But why?" he asked in disbelief. "Child, this is part of you, part of your life. How can you give it away so easily?"

It was then that he saw that this wasn't easy for her. It was very hard on her. But she was still determined to do it. She paused, her hands still cradling his cold flesh. "Do you remember what you told me?" she asked quietly, looking at their joined hands. "You said that sometimes, one must sacrifice things to survive in this place."

"Yes," he thought with pangs of grief. He'd sacrificed much in the last two centuries. But he didn't see what this had to do with her giving up what might be her most prized possession. "I don't. . ."

"Sometimes," she said, her eyes becoming rife with the same determination she'd had when they fought Adelaide and her allies. "Sometimes, one has to sacrifice something to help another survive. Whether in body, mind, or. . ."

"Soul," he finished, now understanding the reason for her gift. He gently took the bag and nodded to her. "I will keep it safe for you."

"I do not want you to keep it safe, Sunstar," the young girl admonished him, "I want you to play it. I want you to keep your memories of our time together pleasant. Perhaps even enough. . . to forget that I am not the person I wish I could be."

"Perhaps in the future," he said. For some reason, he found himself believing in her, as she and the Gods who had lent their power to her sword, apparently did in him.

He saw the doubts and regrets flicker through those expressive hazel eyes, but he saw something more. The dawning of something he chose to believe was hope.

She only said, "Perhaps, Jander. Perhaps." She backed up a bit, puzzling him. That is, until she raised her hands, palms outward, and gave him a smile that sang with the pain of separation.

In her Dales-accented tongue, Shawukay said, {Sweet water and light laughter until next, Jander Sunstar.}

The unique parting expression of the Tel'Quessir made his lips split wide. He returned her gesture and spoke in his pure, Evermeet Elvish. {Sweet water and light laughter until next we meet, Shawukay Redarrow.}

"You are certain we will meet again?" she asked wryly, arching a thin, ebony eyebrow.

"I am certain of it. Do you doubt this?" When she seemed uncertain, he sighed. "Typical." She frowned at him but he smirked at her. "Always living in the present, never looking to the future, and pessimistically at that! Typical silver elf behavior."

Her eyes flashed and she snorted in faux disdain. "Arrogant elitist, thinking so little of me. How typical. . . of a gold elf!"

Both adventurers shared one last, joyful laugh until the moment that was at hand could no longer be delayed. Jander held his hand out to clasp the girl's in the manner of adventurers. Shawukay stared at it for a second, then somewhat impulsively moved up and put her arms around his body, hugging him despite the tenseness he felt in the gesture.

She was afraid of him, but she cared more about him than herself. The mark of a friend he hoped to see again. {Good luck, Jander.}

{Take care of yourself, little one,} he whispered, carefully returning her last, friendly gesture.

Breaking apart and sharing one final, parting look that spoke volumes to both, Jander and Shawukay both turned to go their separate ways.

Neither looked back, silently promising not to bruise their hearts any worse.

*****

Shawukay walked east, entering the woods and heading toward one of the stashes of supplies she usually kept scattered across the countryside. It was only about three hours away, and it would provide her with meat, water, and fresh clothes. Still, she walked slowly, knowing in her heart that she would take a while longer than three hours to get there.

For some reason, time just didn't seem as important tonight.

Smiling to herself, she started humming a tune she and Jander had shared during their trip. It wasn't on the songhorn like every other time he or she had played it, but the reason for that was a good one.

<Watch over him,> she prayed to Mielikki and whatever good Gods might take pity on him. <Please.>

*****

Jander walked south, toward a small, abandoned village where he might find shelter for a while. He thought about what he would do when he settled down for the night. He didn't plan to stay long, but he might linger in order to think about some long-term plans. Glancing down at his belt, he smiled. <Why not take my time planning? I have time and something to with which to occupy it. > Yes, be might be alone tonight, but because of her gift, the night wouldn't be empty.

After all, for the first time in a long time, he found that he had something to look forward to.

The future. And friendship.

The End

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