CLAW AND BLADE
27th January 2006
momaw@nhvt.net

Rain soaked through the hood of his cloak, tickled through his hair, trickled down his face. It was a warm and thorough rain, gentle and steady, intensifying the autumn scent of rotting leaves on the ground. A good type of rain for growing crops or for watching from the comfort of one's home. It fell almost perfectly vertically with not a breath of wind.

But it wouldn't wash the blood from his hands.

Occasional flashes of lightning flickered high in the clouds, muted by their gray mass, but none came to earth. Distant thunder rumbled contentedly. The sort of thunder that was harmless and calming, a pleasant backdrop to the hiss of rain on uncountable slick leaves.

But it wouldn't mask the sound of angry pursuit.

The ground was soft and saturated, full of water. His boots were also full of water, and feet were slowly being rubbed raw against the leather. Every weary step squished quietly as he planted it. Mud reached to mid-calf from accidental explorations of deep pools hidden beneath floating debris.

But that was nothing compared to the numbness of his hand clenched around the dagger's hilt.

He stopped to examine the weapon. He vaguely knew that he'd done this many times already, but couldn't seem to recall when. Every glance was fresh and fascinating. The dull, aged spine, deeply notched once where it had taken some blow. The freshly dressed edges danced in the last rays of the sun, every miniscule track of the whetstone turning itself to catch the light for his inspection.

The rain had perversely decided to wash the blade, but not the exhausted claw that held it. Or was held by it? His hand wouldn't obey the instruction to slide the dagger back into its accustomed home on his belt. Attraction turned to irritation and a frown carved itself into his lips.

Using his other hand, and a nearby branch to lever against, he slowly pried open the fingers, tangy from prolonged contact with the steel. The blade dangled reluctantly and finally fell. He stared down at it as it swam half-submerged in a pool of sodden moss. Green and white, nature and innocence.

Sounds of pursuit were growing louder again, drawing his hooded head to look back at the way he'd come. It was impossible that they could track him in such rain and such light, but they mocked possibility and hunted him steadily. [i]They must have dogs. Torches. Magic?[/i] His frown settled itself deeper and invited a sneer to join it. [i]Magic.[/i]

The cause of his problems. The enemy. It turned decent people into puppets and tools, and made some more powerful than others on a whim. The thing that smiled quietly to itself in a dark corner as society attempted to go on under its gaze.

Turning back, he hesitated for a moment, but the familiar metal called to him like a desperate lover nearly stranded on the pier. The claw stopped down and held it, comforted it. He firmly instructed the claw to put the blade to bed, and after a brief struggle it did, reluctantly.

The ground began to rise slowly under his feet, growing drier. The trees grew further apart, the undergrowth meaner. He sensed the space opening up as he exited the small forest. Autumn leaves faded to a drier, bland smell of grass and gravel. The ground was rockier here, and would hide his track somewhat. A single tormented sob escaped through clenched teeth designed to prevent such things: who needs tracks when you have magic?

A yellow square of light gradually materialized through the rain, turning from indistinct glow to a splintery window frame with thick, crude glass. He edged to one side and risked a quick dart to look inside. One person, seated on a low stool before the fire, working with something in their hands.

The claw had already stroked the blade, tense and wistful as it waited for permission to pull her forth. He glanced down at them for a moment, considering, but decided that he would try other routes first.

Two deliberate blows boomed dully on the silvered but still solid door. He paced himself so as not to seem frantic or dangerous. Long experience had taught him that people were much more cooperative if they were not alarmed. After a few seconds of faint noise, a drawbar shifted inside and the door was opened a short span by the stirrup of a crossbow.

He calmed the claw, and held his hand out slowly, palm up, showing that neither of them held anything. This didn't seem to appease the crossbow, so he lifted the sides of his cloak and revealed the contents. The sleeping dagger on one side, and a small purse of hardened leather on the other. The crossbow admitted that this didn't threaten it much, and retreated inside, beckoning for him to follow.

Something savory simmered in a hammered bronze kettle atop the fire, rich with spice and meat. The fire was not drafting well due to the stilness of the air, and a faint haze of smoke hung in the single-room building. The warmth, smell, and flickering glow combined to build the feeling of a home. He analyzed the feeling for a moment, then discarded it as not useful.

"What brings you out on such a night? The rain, the dark, surely it cannot be pleasant to travel." His host bent to disarm his crossbow, then hung it from a post and returned to the fireplace.

"I fear I am lost." [i]Lost...[/i]. "I didn't mean to be here at such an hour, in such conditions." He shook his cloak, soaking the straw on the floor.

"Lost, yes, surely. To have come so far from the road. I don't get many visitors."

"I have pressing business, even so. Could you direct me? Staying would be pleasant but is not possible," he lied smoothly, adding the necessary amounts of distress and regret.

"What could be of such importance? It grows blacker and more treacherous by the minute."

The voice was calm and polite, but the question stared at him with predatory intensity. The claw picked up on the tension and slowly eased toward the blade, making no noise to alert the figure leaning over the fire to stir the kettle.

"I have some associates that are expecting me."

"Yes, your associates. They should nearly be here by now, I think."

An arc of water droplets sprayed out as the dagger leapt from its sheath, drawing his body forward into a well-practiced movement. A movement that would end with a firm and decisive thrust into the back of the calmly malevolent voice. A movement that was, abruptly and puzzlingly, halted before it could be completed.

The blade shivered, the claw clenched, every muscle in his body strained, but nothing moved. The figure stirred the kettle for a moment, then turned.

"I've already seen that technique. Do you have anything else?"

"You..." Even in the dim and indistinct illumination reflecting back from the far corners of the room, the features could not be mistaken. "But I-- no. NO!"

"Yes, exactly, 'I'. Even for an assasin of your talents, I am not such an easy person to kill. But 'you' makes for more interesting conversation. You are puzzled. You are angry. You are afraid. You are not yet wondering what I will do with you, but that thought will come shortly."

His face read like a novice's manual, his self revealed, he knew that he had failed. Failed to complete the task. Failed his trainers. Failed to survive. Muscles relaxed, acknowledging futility, but still nothing moved. "I can only hope that you do it quickly. I do not like being a mouse. Quick and decisive, that is my nature."

Adregore turned his head slightly as if considering. "I can appreciate your viewpoint. Magic is the same way, in truth. There is much study, and patience, and sometimes trial. But in the end, the will is firm and the invocation swift. I do not doubt your nature, I doubt your sanity."

Clenched teeth failed to stop another sob from escaping. He tried to counter the failure with a laugh, but it sounded fragile even to him. The feeling of home returned, battered by the voice of a thousand angry instructors demanding that he pay attention, but it huddled defensively and refused to leave.

"Truly, I do not hate you. I know what you are. Or rather, what you have been shaped into. I feel only sadness." Adregore advanced a step, and gently eased the blade from his hand, which found itself surprised to not resist. Dull steel revolved in the firelight, bright edges, worn grip, dented bronze pommel, dull steel, around it went.

"I give you a choice. Two options lay before you. One will lead to certain death, but is quick and decisive. One leads to uncertain death, but is slow and fraught with the unknown. You may choose to leave here with myself, or your associates. I was not struck down by your hand, but they believe that I was: a mistake that I will not correct at this time, if you choose to leave with them. The nightmare will end for you, with rope, or stone, or fire."

He turned and tossed the dagger he held into the fire as demonstration. Sweat-stained leather steamed slightly for a moment, then caught, and curled like a dying insect. The metal itself resisted for now, but soon enough it would succumb to the heat. Adregore turned back.

"Or you may choose to leave here with me. I will conduct you safely to the imperial prison. You will be locked and held, as you must, but no more than you must. You cannot be held accountable for things you have done not of your own free will. I would do what is within my power on your behalf."

A faint sound of angry and frenzied feet could be heard outside, coming swiftly closer. They both listened for a moment.

"The time for choosing is upon you. You do not have long."

A thousand conflicting pieces of thought and emotion battled in his mind, locked in a deadly melee, heaving and struggling for dominance. Alternatively he screamed at one side to release him, and pleaded with the other to take him, take him from what he dimly recognized as madness. Had always recognized, on some level.

His masters sat with shadowed faces, every edge of their combined silhouette implying dark purpose, every word speaking grim duty, every movement suggested fatal punishment for failure. At their command he had suffered years in the school of deprivation, technique, abuse, and darkness. It was hard to separate one course from another. But above all else, loyalty.

And fighting against them, one quiet face lit by the fire, sad eyes trying to read his tormented ones.

"I cannot. It is demanded... it is pledged..." A tear rolled down his cheek. The grim masters rallied around their standard, silent and terrible, cutting him to ribbons for his display of weakness. The quiet face closed its sad eyes for a long moment, then bowed and nodded.

"I am so sorry, for what fate has built for you. May it be quick, as you had hoped."

Violent blows shook the door in its frame, demanding entrance. The bar held for the moment. Adregore took a deep breath, and slung a satchel around his body. Its exoticly spicy interior yielded a pinch of this, a few wisps of that. A muttered word the mage supplied himself.

Justice had an axe, which it began using as the mage faded into mist. He was almost completely gone when the door surrendered and split, spraying hard chunks of wood halfway across the room. A kick lifted the bar from its braces, and a determined shoulder cleared the rubble. Justice entered, angry hands and coarse rope reaching for the paralyzed assassin.

Without conscious thought, he screamed the name.

-----

It was dark here. Dark, dank and chilled, with condensation on a hard floor of mortared flagstone. He had a wooly smelling blanket, though. Hands clutched it fiercely, held it to his cheek, but he did not know whether the hands were trying to soak up his bitter tears or to somehow infuse the welcoming, safe feel of the felted cloth.

A small noise made him look up, dart backward, instinctively finding the corner of the room farthest from the pair of figures and their torch. Every muscle tensed as he searched for a threat, every sense attuned to the slightest sound, sight, even the very air currents. No dagger was at his belt, only adding to his state of alarm. The place was unfamiliar, his mission was unknown, he had no tools.

"You see?" A familiar masculine voice.

"Yes. You were right. I had no idea that they had any who were... so far advanced. What you did was right." A woman, voice uncommonly deep for her sex, precise but not unkindly.

"So you agree? You'll do whatever can be done?"

"I should consider myself as vile as the ones who did this, if I didn't make an attempt, any attempt, to undo the hurt."

"Then I will leave you. It will be a long process, I know."

The masculine voice ended the conversation, and came closer. The claw tightened into a shape that could be used for destroying a man or mer's fragile neck, in the absence of another tool. But when the voice conjured a handful of brightness, and the face lit, confusion halted the attack.

He knew this person. Or at least this face. Could you know a face without knowing a person? He laughed nervously, trying to piece the problem together. The face smiled as it observed him slipping away from the edge of lethal intent. It was a strange smile, as if fueled by something other than calculated will.

"You have chosen well."

"Who?"

"Who? I am Adregore the mage. Do you not remember me?"

He shook his head, trying to force something meaningful to fall from the mass of chaos that nearly filled it to bursting. "No, me. Who..." Sudden realization struck him, and he asked with new intensity. "Who am I!"

There was no mission, so nobody had told him who he was. He had no escape route to flee from the loss of identity, and no training that told him what to do without the mission. What was he supposed to do? Where was he going? Panic chased itself from one stage of futility to another, trying to find some place where he could build a foundation.

Murmuring soft and soothing words, the almost-remembered face touched his forehead with cool fingers. His mind split, the chaos and panic going somewhere else, leaving him with a small but clear space to work in.

"You are whatever you choose to be. From this day forth, you are born again. Choose a name, choose a path. If your future choices are as sound as one you have already made, things will be well."

Adregore the mage embraced the man who was once the one who tried to kill him. But that man was already gone.