Tenth Walker, No Choice

To The End of Night

4. The straight and narrow

~

Rurbag hissed and pulled to the right, curved blade in hand -- too late -- the long, serrated knife bit into his side, clean through the worn leather, carving a path of searing heat across the skin. Too close. The circle shrunk further as the rabble closed in on them, eager for blood. Ufthak lifted the stained knife and licked it. Cheers turned into a roar, torn from dozens of throats.

A shout drowned out the crowd. "Hurry up an' finish off the bugger, Ufthak," more shouts of approval, "There's mouths to feed." Laughter followed.

Sweat dripped down, into his eyes, and Rurbag cursed under his breath, blinking once. The ugly whore-son before him blurred, and another flash of pain pierced his arm; muscles clenched and relaxed, and the sword slipped from fingers suddenly numb, before he tightened his grip on the hilt. Rurbag cursed again, louder. The crowd whistled and cheered, hungry for flesh -- his flesh.

"Finish him!"

Another slice of the blade. Ufthak grunted, "He's gonna beg first, this maggot." A strike to the right. Another grunt. "If I leave him his tongue."

Rurbag danced to the left; Ufthak left his side open. Who's the maggot now? Before the blade could slice into flesh, something hard hit his shoulder, then his arm. A rock. He lost his grip on the sword hilt.

"Kill 'im, Ufthak." Guritz. The little snaga hit him with a rock! "I'm hungry."

A blade pressed against Rurbag's throat. His heart thundering in is chest, he waited for the killing blow. Curse his stomach! He shouldn't have taken the last of the man-flesh -- the Mordor orcs had all of the sport, all of the meat, and all of the spoils. First and last.

Ufthak's attention shifted - Guritz shrunk and bent under his gaze. A growl rang out, followed by a snarled sentence, "Shut your meat hole, you flat nosed bastard."

Rurbag tensed, preparing for a blow.

Ufthak pushed Rurbag to the ground and crossed the short distance. Grabbing the smaller orc by the throat, he lifted him off the ground. "I do my own killin', maggot." Bones shifted and snapped -- the sound rang out through the cavern - Guritz fell and sprawled on the floor, head lolling to the side, twisted to face his back.

Rurbag smiled at the sight, his upper lip splitting, warm blood seeping down his chin - he caught the thick drops on his tongue. Metal and sweat, pain. Not sweet like man-blood. He straightened and met Ufthak's eyes, the color of iron, melted down for the forge. Clawed hands already fought to have their fill of flesh, over Guritz's corpse. At least he wouldn't rot in their bellies alone.

"Get up," Ufthak growled. "Orthanc filth." The symbol of the Eye stood out, tattooed across his cheek.

Rurbag barred his teeth - he would not be called an Isengard snaga - but took a step back. "I was born to a Mordor den, Ufthak," another step back, "same as you." He kept walking back - there was a hole in the ground behind him, deep and wide.

"You ain't one of us no more, shit-wit." Ufthak drew another long knife. "The wizard has all of you maggots by the short hairs," one step forward for every step back, "but I'm the leader here, and I say who has the last of the meat." Ufthak pointed at him with the knife. "And that ain't you, scum."

Rurbag kept an eye on the knife - Ufthak would throw it and throw it fast. The ugly whore-son could be counted on for that. Three more steps back. He didn't dare look back. How far 'til the chasm? A blurred motion registered; something flew over his head and wrapped around his throat, tight, burning - a rope.

"I've got him, Ufthak." Words spoken with a heavy lisp, around sharp teeth. "He's goin' nowhere."

Rurbag's hands reached for his throat, fingers trying to worm under the tight cord, failing to. Black spots danced before his eyes, his lungs burned. Air. He reached forward, grabbed the rope with both hands and pulled - it unwound and fell to the ground, one end still encircling his neck - he staggered back, drew in a mouthful of air and coughed. Pain erupted - a knife to the shoulder - the momentum drove him back further. His right foot met with air.

"The bugger's taking a tumble!" Feet ran towards him - to preserve the meat. Too late. He was already falling. And kept falling.

Rurbag squeezed his eyes shut. Bugger me sideways. What a stupid way to go.

Umph! He landed, hard. Ain't I dead? One eye hazarded a glance; up, then below. A strangled laugh escaped him - he'd landed on a ledge! And a ledge that led into a mining shaft from the looks of it. A small gateway, carved into the rock and framed by two support beams, stood not two feet away. He stifled laughter that threatened to burst out of him - orcs still shouted and moved above him. Better not to let them know he'd survived.

He coiled the rope and flung it over his shoulder -- something that he could use in the mines. Rurbag entered the tunnel, fingers tracing the rough stone wall. He stopped when they touched a metal band, encircling wood - a torch. His lips stretched into a smile.

One step after the other, into Moria; freedom beckoned.

~


A sound rang out through the sewers - that of running feet? - Hithriel startled and turned back, eyes searching in the flickering light. Nothing there.

"Hurry up." The sharp tone brooked no argument. "You're slowing me down." The woman Galliano would not call by name quickened their exhausting pace, making no more noise than the steady hum of the lights above. Hithriel swallowed. Galliano had moved like that, silent, graceful... as a predator.

He will find me.

A small part of Hithriel's mind rebelled at the thought, all too briefly; no shackles kept her bound to her captor now, but she felt them, binding her, as tightly as any wizard's spell would. Her heartbeat quickened, and she lengthened her stride. She trembled at the thought of him, still.

Always.

"So," the woman said, "What are you, then?" A smile carried in the voice, but not of the kind Hithriel would care to hear.

How to answer that question? To speak of the Firstborn in this place, a world where no man, woman or child had ever beheld the grace of the Eldar? The light of the Silmaril could not be seen amongst the blazing fire of these unknown stars. Gil-Estel. Her own star of hope had faded to nothing, and she'd crumbled. Fingers traced the insides of her wrists - habit now - to erase the evidence of her past despair. Can you hear me now?

Only silence answered, as it had many times before. A new sky for a new world... without the Valar?

"I will never see Cerin Amroth again, nor cup my palms to taste Nimrodel's sweet waters," Hithriel whispered, suddenly very sure. "My fëa will never reach the Undying Lands." The sharp sting of tears followed the words. "I will wither and die here, nothing left of me." The Halls of Mandos were lost to her, beyond her reach. Father had sat with her, beneeth the mallorn trees, grown tall and proud, and told her of Hador and Bëor, Tuor and Beren, wonder and sadness both in his voice. A gift of Man, he had called it. He would not call it a gift now - could not. She would not let him. Not while fear made her palms sweat, her blood chill. This fear of a mortal death. No. Less than that.

"That doesn't answer my question." the woman said, bending down to enter a smaller tunnel.

As Hithriel turned slightly to the left, she faced her own reflection -- a polished metal surface. It had been long since she last saw her own face, but she turned away.

More likely than not, the image would have only brought her more grief.

She knew what it would show - most of the light of the Eldar had slowly withered and died in her, since she had come to this place. She could feel it. A memory flickered in her mind's eye - her own blurred mirror-image, reflected in a large, ornamented washing bowl. A face she did not recognize stared up at her, diminished, mortal to her eyes. She'd shattered the bowl, and the image had gone.

If only the truth could shatter and disappear so easily.

Taking a deep breath, Hithriel followed the woman up another sewer shaft. What had the others called her? Kalista? The woman had been one of them, once. Traitor. Galliano hated her, this woman. Could Hithriel trust her because of it? She could not tell.

In the end, the words came regardless. "My world..." Hithriel stopped, shook her head and started again. "They brought me here, against my will - Dragonetti. Galliano. I know not how."

Kalista gave a small nod and started to climb the next ladder. "Go on."

Hithriel followed, one step behind. What good would telling the tale again do? "I walked through the woods of Lothl?rien," she heard herself say, "my home. Suddenly, a bright light enveloped me. Pleasant at first. Even though fear was ever present in the back of my mind, I felt safe in its embrace." Her throat tightened. "Then, the sensation changed. It was as though a thousand..." Her muscles tensed and relaxed, remembering the pain. "As though a thousand knives," she choked the words out, "were shredding me inside out. Drawing breath was impossible. No sound could be... could be heard. My vision turned red, but for a moment when I saw another figure part the haze and drift towards me. A man, and though I could not distinguish his features, I knew he was in pain as well." She'd thought to reach for him, but... "The pain intensified tenfold the closer he drew to me until..." How she had wished for him to be gone. "Suddenly, he could not be seen, and my pain had gone with him." Oh, what relief the absence of pain was!

A long silence followed. "What then?" At the opening above, a faint light called.

"The haze parted, breath and life returned, and I found myself on the streets of this city of yours." Hithriel frowned at the memory. "I still remember how the first breath I drew in this world burned my lungs, how my ears ached from the unaccustomed noise. It is strange and dark, here. No light or beauty can be found."

Kalista paused - a head turned back, stopping Hithriel's breath in her throat with a look and a raised brow. "You don't say?" she drawled. One arm circled the metal perch of the ladder, keeping her steady, the other hung loosely down her side, closer to a dagger hilt than Hithriel might like. The tense silence dragged on. "Never mind," a whisper, "With the lot that held you..." Kalista's eyes left Hithriel's - suddenly, she could breathe again. Kalista moved up the ladder. "It's a miracle you don't have an even grimmer view on things."

Hithriel looked up. "I meant no insult..." She stopped, mid-sentence, and resumed her climb. Words would do her no good. "Where are we going?" she asked instead.

"This shaft connects the sewer system with an abandoned building. It has an old warehouse I use on and off. Not much there; a car and a change of clothes."

What then? "Where will you go?" Would she let her go? Would she make her follow?

A metal barrier, round and rusted from below, groaned and gave way as Kalista's hand pushed upwards. A gust of fresh air hit Hithriel in the face, and she looked up, past Kalista's shoulder, to the myriad of fading stars. The night sky loomed above, lit by the promise of dawn. The woman pulled herself up in a smooth motion, giving no answer, Hithriel following close behind her. A growl met her, half-way up.

A vampire, clothed in rags, stood not ten feet away, pale face drawn, skin rumpled and paper-thin, darkened veins showing. Wild, hungry eyes glowed in the dark. The -- awful -- stench of him carried in the air. He growled again and looked straight at her. Hithriel stepped down the ladder, ready to flee.

A hiss of metal rang out, a blade being drawn. "I'm in no mood for strays," Kalista said. "You are in my way." There could be no mistaking the threat in her voice.

The vampire stared ahead, uncomprehending. Did he even understand the words? His head moved once, in a violent shake; his hands covered his ears, then dropped to his sides. A drop of blood, no more, spilled from his gnawed lower lip, as if he had no more to spare. A being in torment. He howled and attacked, a small knife in his hand. Kalista swung the blade in a wide arch - it glinted silver, then darkened to black. Head cut off, he crumbled to ash -- the knife, still gripped by a blackened hand, following suit. No trace of it remained.

The stirring wind swept up the dust.

Vampires took everythingh with them in their last seconds. Selfish, even in death.

Stepping back, Kalista turned partially back to Hithriel. "What are you waiting for?" Three more quick steps and the woman was gripping her arm. "Move!" Kalista said, pointing at a large, metal door at the end of the ally. She looked down. "Dashtani." She spat the word out. The wind picked up and carried the lingering ash.

A feral. Hithriel shivered, suddenly cold, running her hands over upper arms, feeling tiny goose-bumps rise on her skin. Galliano had threatened to feed her to them once. Her eyes closed, she stopped a moment. Panic sneaked back in. Her unlikely companion glanced her way, impatient and nervous - then came to an abrupt halt, waiting, in silence... for her to compose herself? Unexpected, the gesture struck her as kindly. Eru help me, I am starved for kindness.

Hithriel shook her head, and the woman moved again, further down the dimly lit path. Hithriel walked faster, kept closer, despite her misgivings. The fear of what the darkness hid from sight outweighed even the fear of her.

Hithriel feared her so.

Hithriel studied her, Kalista's back turned, trying to find something, anything that would reassure her of her nature and intentions. She did not find it. She looked... ordinary. Dark hair tied at the back of the head, tightly at first, now threatening to spill out from its confines; rounded ears, mortal to Hithriel's eyes, though not the daughter of Man.

Am I my father's daughter yet? Or has this world robbed me of even that?

The woman... Hithriel thought of her instead. Thin in appearance, taller then her and, while the sleeveless shirt Kalista wore revealed subtly defined, lean muscle, nothing in the way she looked hinted at the strength she had displayed before. Vampires were deceptive that way.

Failed half-breed... Even less than that. Hithriel had heard Galliano sneer, and found herself wondering what the expression meant. And in truth, anybody Galliano Dragonetti abhorred with such a passion must have some shred of goodness in them. She saw a glimmer of hope in the thought.

The metal gate cracked and groaned. Hithriel passed the threshold, blinked once at the unexpected light - a lit lamp, a silver glow - then focused on a large object covered with old, dusty cloth. Crates stacked one on top of the other filled the rest of the room, piled up close to the walls. Barred windows, partially covered with dark cloth, spread out, two at the time over the west wall. A large, tinted-glass window loomed above. Lamp light scattered about the room; particles of dust shimmered, dancing in the air. Even the spider webbings in the corners sparkled as mithril strands in the shadows, alight in her vision. The sight spoke of beauty to her eyes - it had been long since she had seen any.

Keeping her fast pace, Kalista crossed the distance to the center and yanked at the cloth - revealing the car. Opening the door, she reached in, pulled out a bag, and started to rummage through it. Pulling out a clean shirt, Kalista tossed the bag towards Hithriel - startled, she almost let it fall, but caught one strap with the tips of her fingers.

What does she want me to do with it? When no further instruction followed, she secured the straps on both her shoulders and a long one that went around her waist. Better not to provoke the woman's anger.

Meanwhile, Kalista changed out of her torn shirt and threw her weaponry to the backseat. "Do I have to spell everything out for you?" She slammed the door shut just as the last knife flew down. "There's a clean t-shirt and a pair of pants in there." She didn't turn around. "Change."

Hithriel bristled at the tone -- she'd had enough of vampire filth ordering her around -- but looked down and bit her lip, obedient against her will. Do not anger her. How Hithriel despised that voice in the moments when she could muster up the strength to care. Her right hand moved towards the clasp on her waist, but froze half-way. Dust settled on her sleeve, more falling from above - she looked up. What was this noise?

Kalista froze and looked up as well. "Well, damn."

Glass shattered and rained down on them, a shard cutting the side of Hithriel's raised arm. Feet made a soft thud as they landed on the floor of the warehouse; a pair made a louder sound - landing on metal, the roof of the car. Kalista jumped away, two knives in hand. Hithriel counted - three of them: two men and a woman. Vampires. No. She took a step back, then two more. Not yet.

Kalista fought the first pair; killed the man - he crumbled to dust, along with everything on him, clothes, guns and knives - and knocked the woman to her knees.

Hithriel kept moving back - and connected with a wall of flesh.

A voice rang out, "Hello, darlin'." Oh, sweet Elbereth! She fought to get away, but strong arms encircled her and held her; cold steel pressed against her skin, under her chin. "Bad girl." His lips touched her ear and nipped. "Galliano told me you'd be easy to find." She shivered and tried to shift away.

Kalista threw a knife -- up front and center -- the last male vampire dissapeared in a cloud of dust, the gun in his hand disolving to ash.

He cursed. "But not the kind of company you keep."

Crouching down, Kalista's hands gripped the sides of the woman's head - to break her neck?

Hithriel felt him stiffen; he drew in a breath. "Tell her to stop." Was that fear in his voice? The knife bit into flesh; warm moisture tickled at her skin. No! I will not fade to nothing.

Four more figures jumped down through the broken window, a dark haired woman among them, whirling a corded whip with shards of metal dangling off the ends.

The grip on her arm tightened. Hithriel thought no more and opened her mouth to speak.

~ ~ ~

Tark-filth. The Man who crossed over a small bridge, on the other, lower, side of the ravine, had that look about him. Dark hair, tall, with that cursed glow on him. Less than the Elves he'd seen, but still hard on the eyes; there could be no mistaking that. Rurbag's upper lip curled in distaste - the Man's kin had routed his den, killed any there, then chased him and his fellows, breathing down their necks, close all the way to soddin' Isengard - he spat and fingered the hilt of a knife, still coated in his own blood. The filth couldn't see him up here, but Rurbag had himself a view. Was the Tark alone? Flat on his stomach, Rurbag looked down, stretching his neck out, just as a dwarf appeared on the path.

The two met halfway and spoke, the Man gesturing westward.

Rurbag's hand worked its way under the tattered shirt he wore and clutched at a sliver pendant, a dwarf's pendant - Ufthak didn't know he took that - he'd thought all the Dwarves in Moria dead and rotting.

His breath caught in his throat as another figure stepped in line of sight - the wizard! The grey one! He'd seen him before, when he came to pay Sharkey a visit. Rurbag shivered, and crawled back from the edge. The Tark alone, he could handle, but not this. And they blocked his only way out, due west. Orcs, who would know he is to be killed on sight, patrolled the other tunnels. What could these maggots be doing in Moria?

Other than making him dead.

Ufthak might let him live if he came back with news this big. Meat for the boys, and an offering for... Flame and shadow. Rurbag let a smile form on his face, lips stretching over teeth. They might even toss some man-flesh his way. And what choice did he have? He wouldn't last long alone.

Better hurry, then.


~~~


The vampire tried to escape Kalista's grasp. One sharp twist and the heat under her fingers -- borrowed heat -- would die out. The fear that accompanied the heat, searing her skin, her mind, would be gone as well. Good.

Before Kalista could snap the vampire's neck, a familiar voice froze her in place.

"S... stop. Please."

Kalista turned in the direction of the voice. Hithriel. A knife pressed at the base of the girl's throat, droplets of blood seeping out. The thin blade looked sharp, cold, and deadly - characteristics it shared with its owner. Some of his more endearing traits.

"I'd do what the lady here says if I were you. You wouldn't want me to... slip, now would you?"

As smug as she remembered him. Kalista's knee connected with the female vampire's head, then let go and took a step forward... The knife pressed down harder - beads of moisture, bright red, dripped down, smearing across marble skin - he grabbed Hithriel by the back of the neck with his other hand, almost lifting her off the ground. Hithriel emitted a low, pained sound. Head dipping down, he licked at the new blood - the impulse to do the same overtook her; he caught her eye. Did it show on her face? The way his full lips stretched into a knowing smirk was answer enough.

"She's a tasty little treat. I don't suppose you'd had some?" His face smoothing out, all traces of amusement gone, he gave her a thoughtful look. "No, I don't suppose you did. It's been a while, Kal."

Don't call me that. Stomping down her anger, Kalista cocked her head to the side and favored him with her coldest expression.

"Darius. How horrible to see you again."

With a growl, he lifted Hithriel higher. Her feet jerked and twitched as he dangled her through the air like a kitten. The blade shifted so that the tip rested directly beneath her right eye.

"Now, now... Be polite. You wouldn't want me to get angry, would you? Our friend here would regret it."

So he wanted to talk. Fine by her, considering they still had the upper hand. In fact, why Darius didn't drill her full of holes when all this started was beyond her. Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth she decided to go along with it. She didn't have much of a choice anyway.

"All right, I'm game." Her hands went up to cross over her chest - she willed them down. "What do you want, bastard?"

Before she could even regret the last word, the knife edged closer to Hithriel's unprotected eye. Now the tip of it played against the ends of her eyelashes. Kalista saw her stop breathing and freeze.

His lips curled in an unpleasant, angry smile. "Didn't I tell you to be polite? Look what you're making me do. Apologize. Or she loses an eye."

Always so dramatic. "What do you want, Darius?" Kalista repeated, unwilling to play his game. Not this time.

His eyes narrowed, but the knife lowered slightly all the same. Darius -- the Clan's second -- wouldn't disfigure one of Galliano's current pets. Not if he could avoid it.

"What do I want?" Darius asked. "Nothing much. I want you to let this go. Go to your car, get in and drive away. Forget this ever happened."

Kalista fought not to show her reaction. She couldn't have heard it right.

He continued. "You're not the one we're after tonight."

The tone was that of easy dismissal; as if he hadn't trained her himself, hadn't taught her all - no, not all - she knew. Darius should know better. Did he think she'd leave the girl and let Galliano have the last laugh? Give him the satisfaction of seeing her fleeing, her tail tucked between her legs? The metal of her only knife felt cold against the skin of her lower back. Kalista glanced in the direction of the main door. She should take him up on his offer.

Hithriel's eyes widened, their desperate gaze locking on hers - nothing but utter hopelessness there. Sorry, hon. She had no reason whatsoever to put herself out on the line for the girl. Walk away and live to fight another day. They wouldn't kill her, Hithriel. Darius had his orders, and those were not simply to track down an escaped familiar and snap her neck, or he would have done so by now. That much was obvious. If they sent Darius after her, Hithriel must be of some importance to Galliano.

No, the girl wasn't in any immediate danger. Not from Darius. Later, though... then she might wish that he'd killed her now, quick and clean. Or as quick and clean a death Darius knew how to give. No mercy, no regrets, he'd said. It's our way.

Darius cocked his head to the right, letting Hithriel's feet touch the ground once, before he jerked her up again. "You're not moving," he said. "And this one time deal is about to expire." His eyebrow twitched, once, subtly - intentionally? - Kalista lips parted and she sucked in a breath. "Go." The old nervous tick from his younger days; it signified conflict, strong emotions. He'd told her about it - after a night of booze and... She didn't like to dwell on it.

"Go," he repeated. "I won't say it again."

The woman armed with the Roman whip, standing to his left, shifted uneasily and touched his shoulder. The touch carried an air of familiarity - of intimacy. Interesting.

"Darius," she said, her tone firm and even. "Galliano told us to..."

He brushed her hand away, catching the skin and cutting it with sharp fingernails. Kalista smelled the woman's blood rise up and spill before the wounds closed. The woman - was her name Reyna? - stepped back, bowing her head once in deference. But her eyes told a different story. The other vampires looked just about as satisfied with his offer. What was Darius doing? Was he giving her a chance for old times' sake, or... No. He wasn't the sentimental type.

"And if I don't?" The words left her mouth before she could clamp it shut.

The answer was simple enough. "You die," he said. "If I'm feeling generous." His eyebrow twitched again - he wanted her to leave and leave now. Why?

My morbid curiosity will be the death of me yet.

Kalista took one step forward - the sound of drawn blades and guns being cocked rang out - Darius held out a hand, and the weapons lowered. If it could, her heart would have fluttered and clenched in a staccato beat. A partially barred window, boarded with rotted wood caught her eye. Ten... no, fifteen paces away. She could make that distance.

"You know," Kalista drawled, "Galliano insists on his orders being carried out in a very literal manner." A shake of the head. "Not big on creative interpretation."

A blurry motion registered in her peripheral vision - the vampire beside her, the one she had knocked out, began to stir, rose to one knee, but groaned, fell back and stilled.

Kalista continued, "The last underling that tried to show initiative... the one who led the last hunting party Galliano sent my way." She paused to see Darius' frown deepen. "I hear he's still alive. Or still screaming, in any case. So, what prompted this... change of heart?

Thoughtful, Darius relaxed his hold on Hithriel. The knife traveled down the girl's face and neck in a slow arch and finally lingered on her collar bone where he began to draw lazy circles. Something subtle changed in his bearing. "You still have someone on the inside," he said, not asking - telling. No twitch or contradicting hint accompanied the words. Damn. Time for diversionary tactics.

Kalista bit her lower lip and ran her tongue over it, drawing his attention there. Darius was nothing if not predictable - if you knew how to push his buttons. "Don't get your panties in a twist," she said. "I don't need anyone to tell me what a sadistic son of a bitch Galliano is. Or that he likes sharing the experience with you." Her head tilted down; her eyes locked on his. "Among other things." The vampires shifted - that got their attention. "Nice that you two butchers keep so close. It's kind of sweet, really... in a perverted and twisted way."

Never speak of Galliano's bed-habits - the unspoken rule among the Clan. Like any other vampire leader, Galliano didn't exactly encourage details about his private life becoming public knowledge - he had far too many enemies for that. The vampires around Darius murmured; Reyna stiffened. Good. He smiled; his face a convincing mask of amusement, contradicted by the icy glint of his eyes. One sharp gesture from him, and the others stilled, their attention shifting back to her.

Darius didn't get off track so easily. She should have remembered that.

"Who's the rat?" he asked. "One of the familiars," a glance around him, "or one of us?"

Kalista opened her mouth to answer when a sudden, burning pain erupted. Sharp fingernails clawed into her leg, tearing through flesh and muscle - the female vampire had managed to sneak up on her. Through the pain, Kalista recoiled, kicking with her other leg. A knife flew past her head on the swing. Dropping into a crouch, she grabbed hold of the female's arm, twisted it and pulled her to the front, making her into a living shield. The vampire hissed when a bullet hit her in the shoulder, the momentum behind it making Kalista take a step back.

"Stop!" Darius caught Reyna's hand, making her drop a throwing knife. Darius' voice. He sounded... panicked. Hiding behind the female's body, Kalista frowned. She'd never heard that tone of voice from him before.

He continued, "Let her go, Kal," calm, composed, more like himself again. But the words made no sense - let her go? This vampire? Kalista took a breath and filled her lungs with the female's scent. Young - scared - probably of no particular use to either Darius or Galliano. Personal importance? No. She radiated tension, that of someone who had botched up badly, nothing else; a touch on the cool skin of her wrist told Kalista as much. The female, this child, didn't mean anything to Darius, or he to her. What was it, then?

Hithriel drew a shuddering breath, as Darius' fingers clawed into her shoulder. Blood stains appeared on the thin, white material of her shirt. Kalista stopped guessing. Whatever it was, it gave her something to bargain with.

"Let her go, or I kill the girl," Darius said, replacing the knife at Hithriel's throat with his hand. Choking sounds rang out, and Hithriel clawed at his flesh with her nails, her eyes bulging out. Reyna's arm twitched, as if to grab him, before settling down her side, fingers closing into a fist around the worn leather of her coat.

The reaction confirmed it - a bluff, if ever she'd heard one. Darius didn't breathe without Galliano's approval. Ignoring the sounds, Kalista ran her right hand down the female's side until she came to the weapons' belt and unsheathed a blade, smiling at the reassuring feel of cold metal against the skin of her palm.

Pressing the tip to the side of the vampire's neck, she said, "How about this instead? You let me and Hithriel go, turn around and run like hell." If she pushed forward, grabbed the hilt with both hands, she could cut off the female's head before Darius could do anything to stop her. Kalista tightened her hold on the vampire's arm - the bones creaked and shifted under the pressure. "And she," a nod towards her captive, "lives to see another sunset."

He shook his head; a strand of dark hair came loose and fell on Hithriel's shoulder - Kalista remembered how soft it had felt beneath her fingers, once, a lifetime ago. A lifetime of mistakes.

Darius' eyes flashed - Kalista knew that look. She'd just made another mistake. "You know her name." He sounded disappointed. "Forgot everything I taught you?" He set the girl down, his hand leaving her throat - Hithriel gasped for breath - one more shake of the head. "There is always more than one way to win."

In a quick motion that human eyes would not have been able to follow, Darius took her left arm and twisted it. A loud scream echoed through the warehouse. When he let go of her arm, it fell limply down her side, at an odd angle. Broken.

"Galliano said he wanted her back alive." He didn't even raise his voice. "Not in one piece. Now, that's one bone. She has 205 left. You can kill Bri once," a pause, "Let's see who holds out longer."

Kalista believed him. Silence descended on the room, interrupted only by the sound of Hithriel's ragged breathing. Another stand-off. What now? Not much else to do -- cut her losses, kill this 'Bri' and see to getting out of this mess. Her body shifted, preparing to push and cut - Bri tensed against her. Did she recognize the maneuver? Probably, if Darius trained her as well.

"The collar," Bri said, in a concentrated whisper, for her ears only. Among vampires, you had to learn to keep your secrets. Collar? "My inside pocket. Take it."

Darius frowned and leaned forward.

Whatever it was, the vampire wasn't lying. Take it. How? Kalista needed both hands exactly where they were. "Show me," she ordered. The blade pressed harder, the tip of it entering the flesh.

After a moment's hesitation, Bri's free hand sneaked into a large pocket and pulled out an item - Darius spat out a loud curse - a small metal collar. Glyphs Kalista didn't recognize spread out across its entire surface, interlinked by wires that charged and glowed, radiating energy. Bri's hand moved to alter the angle. A small screen on the inside of the collar displayed a changing series of numbers - a clock running backwards.

Kalista read it out loud, "1 minute, 35 seconds."

Darius swallowed, his Adam apple bobbing up and down. "Give it to me." A strange urgency sneaked into his tone. "You don't want to be near that, Kal. Trust me."

Not by any stretch of the imagination. Kalista remembered - markings bruised Hithriel's neck: scratches and contusions a heavy collar would make - a glance confirmed it.

"Give it to me!" he repeated. His voice rose, for the first time in her memory.

1 minute, 23 seconds.

A bomb? No. Darius would have just told her to disarm it - of what use could a threat neither wanted to back up be? What, then?

Kalista allowed the blade to cut into Bri's neck a fraction more. "What do we have here?" she asked. "Magic? Technology?" She frowned. "Both?" She felt Bri starting to relax against her, the vampire's left foot edging out, leg bending at the knee. She would try to throw her off. Kalista pushed up the arm in her grip, snapping the bone at the elbow. "I wouldn't do that if I were you." With grudging respect, Kalista noted that Bri didn't make a sound.

1 minute, 5 seconds.

Hithriel screamed again, arm broken in two places now. Their eyes met, and Kalista read the unspoken plea in them. Help me. Easier said then done.

"Kal." A tremor carried in Darius' voice. Acted or real? "You're digging your own grave."

I clawed my way out of one a long time ago. And he had waited there, arm extended. Kalista felt a twinge of guilt.

Darius glanced at the other vampires and nodded. The weapons in their hands rose and pointed at her. "What's more, you're digging mine." The undertone of sadness in his voice was real enough. "I'm sorry, Kal." He moved, and the knife that had pressed against Hithriel's skin flew out of his hand, precise, and hit Bri's wrist, making a wet sound as it entered. The collar dropped from her hand and hit the ground.

"Cover fire!" he yelled and ran towards her, Hithriel dragging behind him. A barrage of gun-fire went off. Kalista hid behind Bri's body best she could, but bullets still grazed her; one her leg, the other her shoulder. Her shield of flesh shook with each hit, soaking, heating her front with blood.

31 seconds.

In the reflection of one of the windows, Kalista saw Hithriel, a scant few feet away. Darius wanted that collar - above all - she'd find a way to use that. Slicing at the weapon's belt, Kalista gripped it in her left hand and pulled. Giving the now limp weight draped over her a sharp push to the side, Kalista kicked at the metal ring with all the momentum that she could manage. One of the bullets went through the Kevlar at the wrong place, and Bri crumbled under her fingers, leaving a dusty residue on them. Throwing herself down, Kalista went into a roll - once, twice, until her back touched the splintered wood of a heavy maintenance crate. The belt slid from her hand - leaving a gun in it. She still gripped the hilt of a blade in the other. The collar landed with a muffled thud.

20 seconds.

"Get that!" Darius' voice, fear resonating in it, "Now!" The gun-fire ended, replaced by the sound of running feet. Kalista straightened, quick, and looked over the top of the crate. Darius dragged Hithriel to where the other vampires rushed, still gripping her upper arm with one hand. I could make a run for it, now. She reached for the last knife, hidden next to her lower back, and threw it instead. It hit Darius' shoulder, low enough to make him let go, high enough not to kill. Kalista tried not to think to hard about the why. Free, Hithriel shouted and ran towards her.

10 seconds.

Darius stood, not following, frozen in place. What was he waiting for? A shadow fell on her - Kalista twisted and blocked a sudden attack from behind. Rayna. The vampire lashed out with the whip, the metal biting into Kalista's cheek to the bone, narrowly missing the eye. Kalista jumped back, out of reach; leveling the barrel of the gun with Rayna's chest, she pulled the trigger. The vampire exploded in a cloud of dust with a shriek.

4 seconds.

With a curse, Darius turned away, sprinting to the boarded window. Over his shoulder he yelled, "Run!" before throwing himself through a barrier of wood and glass. Was the shout meant for her? Kalista didn't know, but listened all the same. Who knew what that collar actually did? She wasn't about to take any more chances.

1 second.

"Come on." Her hand closed around Hithriel's arm.

0 seconds.

The world flashed white. Then red. And it was as though a thousand knives were shredding her inside out.


~~~


The sound of rumbling thunder echoed through the dark - inside of Moria? - Rurbag looked up. The cavern wall above folded in on itself, opening to reveal the blackest of dark, a spatter of light inside; a sprinkle of stars. The floor beneath Rurbag's feet shook once, making him push back, bracing himself against the wall. What was this... magic? The opening pulsed, the dark grew. Rurbag's throat dried, and he tried to mold himself into the wall.

Another rumble of thunder, another pulse, and... nothing. The cavern returned to normal, along with Rurbag's breathing. Wait. That sprinkling of light...

Screaming bodies fell down, into a chasm to Rurbag's right, scattered, except two intertwined figures. Rurbag stood still a moment, gaping, then shook off his confusion - fear he wouldn't admit to - with a forced shake of the head, and laughed. His luck had taken a turn for the better again. Strange or not, news of more man-flesh in the mines could only get him back on Ufthak's good side.

I might get to keep my hide yet.

~


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: Pen 52

Status: Beta

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: General

Last Updated: 07/02/07

Original Post: 06/06/06

Back to challenge: Tenth Walker, No Choice

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