In the cavernous office at the top of the black tower a solitary figure stood at the window, gazing out over the lights of the city without truly seeing them. He was not having a pleasant evening, which meant that any of his employees who were unwise enough to attempt to enter his presence would likewise not be having a pleasant evening. Fortunately for anyone who might find him- or herself in such an unenviable position, they were not capable of doing so. One simply did not approach the occupant of the top office without a prior request and a good reason, and tonight he was not responding to any communications.
In truth, most of the employees had gone home by this late hour; only the security force, some of the corporate deckers, and a few die-hard workaholics remained in the building, lending its corridors, which were rather somber by any reckoning, an air of eerie calm.
The figure pressed the palms of his hands against the armored glass and tried not to think too hard about what had been going on lately. Thinking about it only made him angry, and anger wasn't going to be of any use at all. Of course, he could take out his wrath on wayward employees and almost anyone else who irritated him, but even that after awhile became unsatisfying. The one against whom he really wanted to vent his feelings was out of his reach. That thought alone was sufficient to send him into a rage.
He tried to avoid that thought for that very reason, but today it seemed stubbornly determined to push its way to the forefront of his mind.
On his spartan obsidian desk was a datapad, and on the datapad was a report. It was one of many he received each day; he made it a point to read them all, because he liked to remain aware of every activity that affected his business, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. It was another source of anxiety (one of many) to his employees that he—or those who acted as his proxies—had detailed knowledge of everything from the highest-level decisions affecting the entire corporation to the lowest-level employee schedules, personnel actions, and supply requisitions. They wondered how he did it: even with a staff of truly staggering proportions, it still seemed to many that it would take more time than lofty corporate suit-types would want to waste to keep track of such minutiae.
He smiled a bit to himself.
If only they knew.
The thought amused him for a moment, taking his mind from the matter at hand, but as he turned around and his gaze fell again on the datapad his expression darkened once more. Picking it up in a swift gesture, he swung his arm back as if intending to fling the offending item across the room. For a second or two his arm hovered there, and then he slowly returned the datapad to the desk, forcing himself to look down at its screen.
It was the final report on the disposition of the ruined building in Seattle. The date on it was already two weeks old, meaning that whichever employee had been charged with sending it upstairs had managed to find reasons to sit on it for quite some time. For once, rarely, the man at the desk did not blame the hapless employee; everyone at the company headquarters (and probably most of those at the branch offices) knew about the disastrous affair that had occurred in Seattle six months ago, and, more importantly, they knew of its rumored effect on their boss. No one believed the official company line regarding the occurrence: it was just too farfetched, even to those well removed from the event, that faulty gas mains could have caused such a catastrophic destruction of a forty-three-story skyscraper in downtown Seattle. Not that any of them had checked, of course. If they had, they would have had no trouble finding that the corporation charged with providing natural gas to the greater Seattle area had reported no leaks or problems and, in fact, had just completed an inspection of that very area a mere five days prior to the destruction.
If they had checked, they might have found that.
They knew better, though. Those who sought to contradict, doubt, or investigate the official company line tended to have unfortunate things happen to them. Since the affair in Seattle didn't affect them, they chose (wisely) to merely accept what they were told and go on with their jobs.
Their boss was another matter. Nobody at headquarters knew why it was reputed that the simple mention of the Seattle affair was enough to send him into a rage; nobody was even sure where the rumor had gotten started, because certainly none among them was brave enough to test it. As far as they knew, he and his fellow faceless consortium members were simply angry that the building had been destroyed, killing some fifteen employees (mostly security guards) and twenty-some others in the process. True, that should have been enough to make anyone angry. But the company's insurance had covered the damages, compensated the loved ones of the employees and the others, and paid for the damage to the tower's neighbor, which had also been heavily affected. The broken tower had been razed long ago, and although the company retained ownership of the land on which it had stood, nothing had yet been erected in its place. Another mysterious rumor that no one could confirm or deny stated that the company did not plan to rebuild the tower, nor did it plan to resume business in Seattle. This had raised a few eyebrows, but that had been as far as it had gone. Slowly, life in the corporation had returned to normal.
He picked up the datapad and stared at it, noting that the sale of the land had finally been completed. It was the last step in getting the whole thing out of his mind. The Renraku subsidiary had not wanted to pay the price the land was worth, citing the apparent problems with the area's gas lines (problems which they, as well as almost everyone else, knew were nonexistent) and the seller's reluctance to reveal the true reason for the building's destruction. The negotiations had been slow and secretive, but finally the lawyers on both sides had managed to hammer out an agreement that was mutually acceptable and the documents had been signed.
Not by him, of course. He never got directly involved. But he was certainly aware of what had taken place, since the whole thing was contingent upon his approval.
The disposition of the matter had left him with mixed feelings. On the one side, he was glad to have it over with and to be rid of one of the last remaining reminders of his failure. One of the last ones over which he had control, anyway. The true last reminder of his failure still lived, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to change that fact. This knowledge formed the core of his rage.
There was nothing he could do.
He had accepted it at first—not that he had had a choice. The circumstances under which he had made the agreement were decidedly one-sided. He could have protested, naturally, but to do so would have been a grave error and possibly a life-threatening one. The one to whom he had given his word spoke softly, but his power was strong and his influence stronger still. Like it or not, he was bound by his word and that was that. The fact that he chafed more and more under the constraints as the months went by made little difference to anyone but him.
He was constrained, but the child—
His hand tightened on the datapad as he glared at it with eyes like chips of cold flint. With a whoosh, a gout of unearthly flame sprang up around the device, instantly reducing it to ashes, which then fell around the man's untouched hand to float down and cover the obsidian desk.
"Now, now. Such temper."
His head snapped up. Who had spoken? An intruder? Here? The last time that had occurred—
"You know," the newcomer said conversationally, "you're going to burst a blood vessel—or whatever it is you guys do—if you don't stop getting so paranoid." The voice was mocking, cheerful, unfamiliar.
The man behind the desk stepped forward, moving around its dark bulk to get a better look at the shadowy figure that had invaded his office uninvited.
It was an elf, that much was obvious. He stood in the doorway of the office, leaning on one side of the jamb with one foot rakishly propped halfway up the other side. He was somewhat unassuming-looking with longish light brown hair, pointed ears, and the tall thin build characteristic of his metatype, but his eyes were sharp and bright blue, twin lasers that missed nothing. His grin was wide and as mocking as his tone. Dressed in jeans, T-shirt and longcoat, he could have been one of any number of the denizens of the sprawl below.
Except for the fact that he had managed to get into this nearly impregnable office unannounced.
The man at the desk was not one for asking questions when confronted by strangers in places where strangers should not be. Raising his hands, he summoned a nimbus of magical energy and prepared to show the newcomer the folly of his ways.
"Uh-uh," the elf said, still grinning. He shook his finger like a schoolmarm at a recalcitrant student. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Stefan. At least not until you hear why I'm here."
The figure lowered his hand at the sound of his name. He had never seen this elf before. "Who are you?" he asked coldly. "How did you get up here?"
The elf dropped his foot from the doorjamb, but he still lounged somewhat indolently against the other side. "We all have our secrets, don't we? But you aren't asking the important questions. Who I am isn't really important. What's important is what I can do for you."
"I'm more concerned with how you got in here," Stefan said, raising his hand again. His tone remained cold and unyielding.
"In good time, my friend. In good time." The elf chuckled, a strange sound in the back of his throat. "But trust me—you'll want to hear this. I think after you listen to what I have to say, you'll be less anxious to flash-fry me." He indicated the desk. "So what do you say—can I sit down?"
Stefan considered for a moment. The elf was clearly not afraid of him, which might be a colossal bluff, or it might be that there were reasons for his lack of fear. The last time someone had come up here unannounced, it would have been unwise in the extreme to have attacked first and attempted to pick up the pieces later. "All right," he said, though his tone still did not change. "Sit. But speak quickly, for I have little patience with uninvited guests."
"Touchy," the elf said, clucking. He moved gracefully across the huge room and plopped down into one of the chairs in front of Stefan's desk. He looked as if he were strongly considering putting his feet up, but grinned instead and leaned back. His relaxed pose suggested that he was not intimidated in the slightest by Stefan's chilly gaze. For a moment, he merely regarded the man on the other side of the desk without comment.
Stefan lowered himself into the tall black leather chair behind the obsidian desk, his pose not at all casual or relaxed. He looked like a stern king waiting for his impudent subject to reveal the reason for requesting the audience. Behind him, the Boston skyline provided a brilliant backdrop through the floor-to-ceiling window.
"So," the elf said, grinning. "How's your brother these days?"
For a moment the words did not register on Stefan. He stared at the elf, the chill in his eyes dropping a few more degrees as his hands gripped the arms of his chair. He took a deep breath. "My brother is not the reason you have come," he finally said in a tight voice.
The elf shrugged. "Bad subject, I see. But don't be too sure about why I've come."
"If this is some sort of misguided attempt at extortion—" Stefan began, rising.
"You do always think the worst, don't you?" the elf asked, rolling his eyes. "Extortion? On the contrary. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've come because I want to help you."
"Help me?" Stefan resumed his seat, slowly. "What could you possibly do to help me?" Contempt joined the chill in his voice.
"You'd be surprised." Suddenly the elf's demeanor grew more serious and the mocking went out of his eyes. "Let's just say that we have—mutually coinciding goals."
Stefan leaned back and watched the elf suspiciously over steepled fingers. "Oh?"
The elf nodded. "There is something that I want that you can help me to get, and in turn I can then help you to get something that you desire very much."
"Don't speak in riddles," Stefan snapped. "It seems a common affliction of your race: the love of the sound of your own voices."
The elf raised a finger and some of the mocking was back. "Uh-uh, Stefan," he reproached. "As I said before, don't discount my offer until you hear it. I merely want to ensure that it is presented in the—proper light, you see. When you've heard it all, I don't think you'll begrudge me a bit of theatrics in the telling."
Stefan did not reply; he merely leaned back in his chair and continued to watch the elf.
"I'll take that as a positive response," the elf said. Again the mocking was gone. "There is a situation that you would very much like to—deal with, is there not?"
"Situation," Stefan said. "Possibly..." His eyes narrowed. "Who sent you here?"
"No one sent me here." The elf smiled a wolfish, predatory smile. "I came because I heard that there's a matter you'd like to take care of, and that there's something standing in the way of your doing that. I'd simply like to offer my services as a—troubleshooter." He seemed somehow amused by the statement.
"Indeed," Stefan said emotionlessly. "And what is it that has given you such an idea?"
The elf shrugged. "I hear things. When you've been around as long as I have, information tends to come your way. That is, of course, if you're listening in the right places."
"And—what right places are those?"
"Seattle, for one."
Stefan's gaze grew a bit sharper. "What is it that you have heard in Seattle?"
"Terrible accident," the elf said in a offhand tone. "Something about a gas main breaking under a skyscraper. Big explosion. Tragedy. Lots of people killed. Wonder what could have caused a perfectly healthy gas main to blow like that? Most inconvenient, wouldn't you say?"
"You know that was my building," Stefan said coldly. "You're still speaking in circles. I suggest that you rediscover your point and make some haste in reaching it. My patience is not endless."
Again the elf shrugged, unruffled by Stefan's implied threat. "Heard some more rumors," he said. "Discounted, of course. Can't take the word of a drunk. They don't know what they're seeing."
Stefan leaned forward. "Go on..."
"Well," the elf said, meeting his eyes, "if you read the right papers, seems that there was a quote from one of the people on the scene, who says that she saw a giant winged creature flying away from the scene of the collapse. Wonder who that could have been? Never heard of Seattle having a giant bat problem, have you?"
"What do you want?" Stefan's features darkened with anger at this impudent elf who insisted on dancing around whatever subject he had come to discuss.
"It's simple. I want to help you. With your—family difficulties." The elf grinned. "I want to help you deal with your brother. Once and for all."
Stefan glared at him. This entire conversation was taking a very strange turn. "What do you know of my brother?"
"Oh, I know a lot about your brother. I know he's been a thorn in your side for a very long time. And I know that due to—certain constraints—you're unable to do anything about him, despite the fact that he and his little friends made you look like an utter fool a few months ago." The grin did not leave the elf's face; apparently he was unaware of the degree to which he was goading Stefan. Or else he didn't care.
"What," Stefan said slowly, taking deep breaths to center himself against the rage as his hands gripped the edges of the desk, "do you have to do with my brother? Assuming that you are correct in your assessment, why would you wish to help me?"
The elf spread his hands. "Maybe I have my own reasons," he said. Before Stefan could speak up, he continued, "I'm sure you know there's been no love between your kind and mine for—a long while. Much longer than you and your dear little brother have been going—er—tooth and claw, so to speak."
Stefan nodded once, imperiously. "So then why help me? I would think that it would be in the best interests of you and your kind to see discord among mine."
"Normally you'd be right," the elf said. "Absolutely. Quite a show. But now—" he paused a moment, as if considering how he wanted to continue "—I have other, more pressing concerns. As I told you, we have coinciding interests." Again he paused. "You see, it isn't your brother I'm interested in at all, but rather the reason why you have been prevented from—showing him the error of his ways."
"I don't wish to play any more word games, elf," Stefan said. His grip on the desk had loosened somewhat, but the chill had not left his eyes. "Tell me why you have come, or go."
"All right—if that's the way you want to do it." The elf sounded almost disappointed. "Your kind never was any fun. No sense of humor whatsoever. No wonder you're no fun at parties." He sat up a little straighter and leaned forward in his chair. "I want your brother's keeper."
Stefan stared at him. "You want—?"
"I want Telanwyr."
There was no sign of mocking in the elf's tone now; he spoke the three words simply, without inflection, as if he were commenting on the weather or the state of the stock market. Stefan did not think it was possible for his uninvited visitor to surprise him now, but the elf had managed nonetheless. Still, he recovered quickly, inwardly cursing himself that he had allowed any reaction to reach his face. "You—want him," he said slowly. "For what purpose?"
"I want to kill him."
For the second time, Stefan had to fight to keep his astonishment from his face. Did this elf have any comprehension of what he was suggesting? "That is absurd," he said, standing. "Obviously you are delusional. I will give you one final opportunity to leave here before I take steps to have you removed."
"Why is it absurd?" the elf asked without moving. "It's been done before. With far greater than he, as I recall. And recently, even."
"What do you know of that?" Stefan asked, once more fixing his cold stare on the visitor.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Except that it happened. It wasn't exactly a secret, after all. Someone must have done it."
"But not you."
The elf shook his head. "No. I'm not insane. And besides, I had no particular animosity against that one. Why put myself out when there's nothing to be gained from it?"
Stefan moved over by the window and looked out over the Boston skyline. "Why Telanwyr, then?" He was not, of course, considering cooperation with this mysterious elf in anything so rash and foolhardy, but he did want to hear the story behind the plan. Information was power, and the more information he had about his guest and his motivations, the more comfortable he would be. He was accustomed to being the one in control of any interchange in which he was involved. The elf's mocking self assurance was making him uneasy.
"I think that I will keep my reasons to myself," the elf said. "They aren't important to what we're discussing. All that you need to know is that if I achieve my goal, you are then free to achieve yours." He shrugged. "If you really must have something to help you decide, I will tell you that I have carried this desire for longer than you have lived. Believe me, I have thought this through quite thoroughly. Your—difficulties with your brother have merely provided me the means by which I might finally accomplish my desire, while helping you accomplish yours."
"You are asking me to aid you in murder," Stefan said, still in information-gathering mode. "What is it that makes you think I will do such a thing, even if it were to then give me free access to my brother? Why would I not simply go to Telanwyr and tell him that you seek to kill him? Why should I not show more loyalty to one of my own kind than to an unfamiliar stranger?" He smiled, but there was no mirth in it. "Perhaps in gratitude he might release me from the oath I have sworn to him."
The elf shrugged. "He might," he admitted. There was something strange in his eyes as he regarded Stefan. "Anything's possible. I can never be truly certain of what your kind might do. But I know him better than you do, and I don't think that's something he would consider. Deep down, I don't think you do either. He and your brother have been friends for a very long time—that much you do know. Think about it, Stefan—you go to him and tell him I'm planning to kill him. He thanks you for the information, takes steps to prevent me from doing so, and doesn't release you from the oath. Why would he give you your brother's life in exchange for his own? The life of his prized student, his great hope for the future?" His voice changed subtly, taking on a lower, more persuasive undercurrent. "Where would that leave you then? Exactly where you were before, except with no one like me there to help you. And meanwhile, your brother grows older, stronger, more powerful, and farther out of your reach." He paused for effect, then murmured, "He has great potential, Stefan. Greater than you do, should you care to acknowledge the fact. Your goals will not be attainable forever. You must seize your opportunity when it presents itself, or live forever with the consequences of your lack of action."
Stefan gripped the edge of the desk again. Potential! Rage welled up in his heart as the hated word got in there and burned. Potential—that was always what all the elders had said of the child. He had potential. He had within him the seeds of greatness. When he reached adulthood he would surely be numbered among the legends of their kind. How tired Stefan was of hearing such things!
How much he had wanted to hear them in reference to himself.
"How do you even know of my agreement with Telanwyr?" he said through clenched teeth. "It is not in his nature to share such information with anyone, let alone one such as yourself. And especially not if your enmity extends back as far as you claim it does."
"As I said before," the elf replied with his maddening smile, "I hear things. Many things. You of all people should be familiar with that. I make it a point to stay on top of things that affect me."
"You aren't going to answer, in other words."
"Right. My sources are no more relevant than the reasons for my desires."
"All right, then," Stefan said, "Let us talk of what is relevant." He still did not have the information he needed regarding the elf's motivations, so he would probe further. Let the foolish elf think that he would aid him, and lead him on long enough that he would eventually reveal his plans. Contrary to what the elf had said, Stefan had faith that if the information was presented in the proper light (that is to say, withheld until the correct agreements were in place), then Telanwyr would have no choice but to concede to his terms. In Stefan's mind, saving one's own skin took on far greater value than any friendships or prior agreements—especially given that the child didn't even know of the agreement Stefan had made with Telanwyr. Undoubtedly being kept in ignorance by his old mentor to avoid the shame of knowing he was being protected, Stefan was sure. But when faced with the choice between obtaining information that would prevent his own assassination and saving the child, Telanwyr would choose the former. Anyone with any common sense would. However, before Stefan could make such a proposal, he had to have more information about what the elf intended to do. "Assuming that I were to consider your offer," he said carefully, "what would you ask of me? If you possess such power that you can enter my domain without my knowledge—and that you can even consider the thing you are intending to do—then what need do you have for me?"
The strange light in the elf's gaze became a bit more pronounced as he fixed his blue eyes on Stefan. "You may rest easy, Stefan: I have no need for you to be directly involved in the act. I have that part well in hand. Your contribution would be only as a—a means to deliver Telanwyr to the appointed place, where I will have made my preparations."
"How am I to do that?" Stefan asked. "You must know that I am not numbered among those for whom he has a high level of trust and esteem." That was apparently the understatement of the year, given the way Telanwyr had treated him on their last meeting.
"I doubt that is true," the elf said. "I have watched him for many years, you remember. I think that he has a higher regard for you than you might think. He is, after all, essentially an honorable being, and therefore does not hold grudges and hatreds for long. You have never done anything to him, other than threaten his precious student—and he has dealt with that. He has no more reason to distrust you, does he?"
Stefan considered that. It was—barely—possible that the elf spoke the truth. He had never had much to do with Telanwyr, especially not after—no. I will not think of that. The older one had always been much more interested in his brother as a student (there was that potential word again), but had never shown anything more sinister than a polite indifference toward Stefan. Am I confusing his indifference for dislike? And if so, then perhaps I should end this conversation now and determine my options before I—
It was almost as if the elf could read his mind. "Stefan," he said soothingly, "don't do this to yourself. I told you before—it's not Telanwyr you have to worry about. Yes, maybe he doesn't mean you the ill will that you might think he does, but he certainly hasn't paid any attention to you over all these years, has he? Don't concern yourself with him. Your life will be no different with him or without him. But think of how you'll feel when that brother of yours is gone—especially when you know that you've done it yourself. This will give you a chance to wipe the slate clean. No one will have to know of your failure. Think of it—once you've taken care of him, there'll be no one left to protect those friends of his. Surely you remember what they've done to you, don't you?" In a gesture that seemed almost an afterthought, the elf rubbed his eye with one long-fingered hand. The other eye never left Stefan.
Stefan tensed, wondering if the elf had deliberately chosen to bring up the topic most likely to enrage him. His brother's so-called "friends" were the focus of almost as much of his hatred as was his brother himself. It was another subject he tried not to think about because it was guaranteed to cloud his judgment. The "friends"—why would his brother even consider any such as those to be worthy of his time, let alone of his friendship?—had been instrumental in Stefan's failure. The five of them, including the woman to which his brother seemed particularly attached, had turned the tide of the great battle at the top of the now-destroyed Seattle building. He had not thought it possible, but they had managed to hurt him. To pierce him with their tiny firearms and their tiny arrows, and to cover his face with acid carried by an agent that had delivered it through his barriers and into his eyes. That one, the one with the acid, had very nearly blinded him. If he hadn't chosen to retreat and find a place where he could heal the damage quickly, he might have lost his sight. He had never forgiven the human for that. He had never forgiven any of them: the other human, the mage who had protected his brother with a barrier; the troll who had penetrated his armor with his machine-gun fire; the elf sniper who had drawn first blood; the woman with her bow, who had pierced his eye at the same time the acid had eaten away at him. He had left them alone, mostly because of his promise to Telanwyr, and partly because his pride refused to allow him to rouse himself sufficiently to exact revenge on a group as insignificant as they were. But if Telanwyr were no more—
Again the elf seemed to pick up on his thoughts. "It's a win-win situation, Stefan," he said persuasively. "Picture it—your brother at your mercy, and his little pets ripe for the taking. You could take your time with them, make them suffer like they made you suffer. You could do whatever you liked with them, and there wouldn't be anything they could do about it. Would you pass up an opportunity to take your revenge on those who have humiliated you? What would happen if others were to find out the real story behind your fight in Seattle? Would you want others—others of your kind, even—leaning the truth about your failure?"
Stefan nodded slowly. The elf's words sounded reasonable. If he had been thinking a bit more objectively, he might have noticed the continuing, very subtle changes in the elf's tone: it had grown lower, slower, more hypnotic. The blue eyes never left his face, the strange light in them growing and swirling like there was something lurking behind them.
Stefan did not notice any of this, however. His mind was occupied with considering scenarios involving the manner in which he would finally be rid of his brother once and for all. In truth, despite his humiliation at the hands of the small ones, they were almost inconsequential to him. He could afford to let them live, once his brother was gone. Their lives were so short that they would be dead before he noticed them anyway. But his brother— "Yes..." he said, not even aware that he had spoken.
"Yes," the elf agreed in the same hypnotic tone. "No more will you have to hear of his promise. No longer will you have to hear of how he is great while you live in shame based on things that happened millennia ago. No more will he lord it over you that he was given opportunities that you never had the chance to enjoy. And all it takes for this to be is for you to let me help you. Will you let me help you, Stefan?"
It had been many years since anyone had considered the possibility that Stefan might have a conscience. Ever since he had awakened to this world several years ago, he had used his power and his intelligence and his cunning to get what he wanted, never paying any heed to the small ones he had to exploit to get it. They didn't matter. Their only purpose for existence was to be used by their betters, at least in Stefan's mind. The fact that he was larger, stronger, more magically adept, and possessed of a mind that allowed him to stay several steps ahead of even the most skilled members of the small races told Stefan that his destiny was to rule. Sometimes, when it suited his purposes and he was feeling magnanimous, he could be a benevolent ruler—this was evidenced by the successful business ventures he headed that produced great wealth not only for him but for those who (unwittingly) worked for him. But like another of his kind who was far older and far more adept at the same pursuits, Stefan did not react kindly to anyone who wronged or slighted him—even if the wrong or slight was only perceived rather than genuine. He had stopped counting the number of small ones he had killed or caused to be killed because he had tired of them or because he had discovered them to be plotting against him. The disappearances kept the others in line: he hadn't had an incident since Seattle, and he had definitely been listening. Naturally, no one ever found the bodies, which kept the others guessing even more. If they had known what had become of some of their fellows, Stefan knew, most of his employees would have run away in a screaming panic and caused him a great deal of trouble. No, it had been better to keep some things to himself—such as the source of some of his meals.
Now, however, as he listened to the elf's seductive words, he found to his surprise that a tiny voice in a part of his mind that he did not even know he possessed was raising itself to be heard. Yes, it was true that he hated his brother. It was true that if he were given the opportunity to kill him, he would take it without question. But what the elf was proposing was that he participate in the murder of one of his own kind with whom he had no feud. Killing small ones was one thing, but killing another like himself—not to mention and older and more powerful other—was something different entirely. "I think—" he started, and then paused.
"Yes?" the elf prompted, leaning forward. There was a half-smile on his face that gave his long, thin face a decidedly macabre aspect. "What do you think, Stefan?"
Images flashed through Stefan's mind. He did not know where they had originated, but it did not occur to him to question them. Images of his past. Images of his shame, his humiliation, and of the constant presence of his brother—always there, always held up to him as something to which to aspire. Images of the small ones, of the battle, of he himself, limping away from the ruined building, half-blind, in defeat. The small voice tried once again to speak up and be heard, but the images washed over it, drowning it like the waves of the ocean over the tiny boat of a child. "I think—" he said again, in a voice that sounded strange to him, as if it was not quite his, "—I think that I can help you."
"Excellent!" The elf grinned, but then his face quickly sobered. "I'm glad to hear it. But Stefan, I think we need to clarify something here—It is not you who are helping me. It is I who am helping you. Surely you understand that, don't you?"
Stefan didn't; not quite. There was an odd feeling of fogginess, a lightness in his head that was making it hard to hold on to any idea that didn't directly involve the elf's words. Somehow this seemed normal, so he did not question it or fight against it. "You—asked—"
"No, no," the elf said, shaking his head vigorously. "I merely came to offer you my help. It's very important that you understand that before we can go any further. My disagreement with Telanwyr, as I said, goes back to before you were born; I could have chosen to deal with it at just about any point. But naturally I have other concerns that have commanded my attention—as, certainly do you—so I have not pursued it. Until now, that is. When I found out about your situation, I said to myself, You know, there's a chance for me to deal with my problem and help someone out in the process. So that's why I contacted you." He leaned in a little more. "Do you see that, Stefan? I contacted you because I want to help you deal with your brother. I am only removing the roadblock that prevents you from doing so."
Stefan nodded mechanically, but still something managed to penetrate the fog. "What do you want?" he asked hoarsely.
The elf's smile grew approving, and just a touch nasty. "Ah, then we do understand each other," he said. "Good. That will make it all that much easier."
"What do you want?" Stefan repeated. Part of his mind was trying to cut through the strange feelings that had taken hold of him, but every time he tried, the images returned bringing the rage with them.
The elf propped his elbows on the edge of Stefan's desk and placed his chin in his cupped hands. He was still grinning. "I want a favor," he said.
Stefan paused. Warning bells were going off in his head, but they were far away and indistinct compared to the images. "A—favor?"
"Yes. Just a simple thing. A little nothing, really. Just a token gesture to show me that you're grateful for what I've done for you." The strange shapes lurking behind the elf's eyes began to take slightly more distinct form, but Stefan did not appear to notice them.
The elf shrugged. "Don't know yet. I'll let you know when I come up with something. You'll—'owe me one,' I believe is how the humans say it."
At this point the warning bells in Stefan's head managed to get loud enough that they were noticeable even through the haze. "I—can't—," he said. The voice was telling him that the elf's request ran counter to every shred of common sense in his being. Owing an unspecified favor to be claimed whenever it struck the recipient's fancy? And to an elf? The red haze of anger began to overcome the gray fog. "No," he said in a stronger voice. "Out of the question. If you desire something, name your price and I will consider it."
"Suit yourself," the elf said indifferently, rising. His expression was now one of unconcern coupled with annoyance. "I guess you don't want my help after all. That's fine." He shook his head ruefully. "Try to help someone, and this is what you get. I should have known—your kind can't accept help from anyone. It's beneath your pride or something. Well, then—good luck with your brother." Turning, he started to walk out of the room.
Stefan let him get almost to the door before he spoke. "Wait."
The elf stopped, but did not turn. Stefan did not see the smirk on his face. "What? Have you changed your mind?"
As it was, the elf did not see the smirk on Stefan's face, either. He carefully composed his features into his normal look of imperious disregard before the elf could turn around. "I was—hasty," he said. "Perhaps I might reconsider the matter."
"Really?" the elf asked as if he didn't care one way or the other. He still didn't turn around.
"Yes. Come back, and we will discuss it." Stefan smiled to himself, although he was somewhat annoyed that he had had to allow the elf his little show before the answer had come to him. His brain was functioning much more clearly now; whatever the fog had been, it had apparently disappeared without a trace, leaving him with the obvious answer. What difference did it make if he were to make the elf a promise of a future favor? In reality, that course of action was playing right into his plans. A favor now would require him to do something—perhaps something he did not want to do. But a favor later—
—a favor later had to have a living recipient to be of any use at all.
Yes, Stefan thought. He will play nicely into my plans. He will eliminate Telanwyr, and then I will eliminate him. He may be powerful, but I am more powerful, and he will not be expecting my betrayal. He was quite pleased with himself—pleased enough that he did not think to question that he was now (contrary to his opinions less than half an hour previously) fully accepting of the idea that he would participate in the murder of one of his own kind. "Sit down," he said, forcing his voice into a neutral tone.
The elf slowly did so. "You're not wasting my time, are you, Stefan?" he asked, his eyes narrowed. "I do so hate having my time wasted."
"As do I," Stefan assured him. He was feeling much more in control of the conversation now, so he could afford to be gracious. He paused a moment. "I grant you your favor," he said at last. "To be claimed when you desire it."
The elf smiled again. The strange shifting shapes in his blue eyes were positively roiling now, but still Stefan did not seem to notice. "Good," he said. "Then we can continue. Let's, as they say, shake on it." He rose from his chair and extended his hand across the desk.
Stefan did not like to touch people when it was not necessary, but this time seemed an exception. With some reluctance he also rose and grasped the elf's bony hand. A brief tingle of something passed between them, but it was barely enough to be noticeable. The elf, however, appeared pleased by the gesture. "Then it's sealed," he said cheerfully.
"What do you plan to do?" Stefan sat back down in his chair.
"Oh, I won't tell you that. It's safer that way. As I said, there's really no need for you to get involved beyond getting him to the spot where I need him to be. And it needs to be soon. He's a crafty one, that Telanwyr, and I don't want to take any chances that he might discover anything before we're ready."
"Tell me what you wish me to do."
The elf gazed at him for a moment, then pulled something from his pocket. "It's best if we don't keep in direct contact anymore after this meeting. I don't think Telanwyr has been keeping an eye on you—and I'm certain he isn't keeping one on me—but that could change and ruin everything." He placed the object he had taken from his pocket on the desk, halfway between himself and Stefan.
It was a small statuette, about five centimeters tall, depicting an exquisitely carved, tightly coiled eastern dragon. Made of some sort of veined red stonelike material, the figure had eyes made of two red gems that seemed to glow with a mysterious inner light. "What is that?" Stefan asked, regarding it suspiciously.
"A crude communication device," the elf said. "It's a minor, single-purpose magical item, and very well shielded. I don't want to take the chance that our communications are being monitored. I have a similar device. Keep that with you, and I will use it to inform you when I have finished my preparations." He indicated the statuette as if he expected Stefan to do something with it.
Stefan, after a moment, reached across the desk and picked up the figure. He felt the same slight tingle he had experienced when he had shaken the elf's hand, but again it did not alarm him. He slipped the statuette into the pocket of his suit jacket.
"All right," the elf said. "When you've been informed, at that point you will do the following—"
The elf carefully outlined Stefan's part of the plan, never taking his eyes from him as he spoke. As he continued, a slow, unwholesome smile spread across Stefan's face while he nodded in agreement. He had been concerned that the elf's plan would be sloppy or not thought through completely, but from what he was hearing, he did not have anything to worry about. The only thing that the elf did not tell him was how he actually planned to do the deed, but that was probably for the best. What he did not know, he could not be somehow forced to reveal.
When he had finished, the elf rose. "I'll be going now," he said with an odd smile. "I've gotten everything I need. I'll be in touch." With a nod and a mock salute, he turned on his heels and strode briskly out of the room without further farewell.
Stefan remained seated behind his obsidian desk, staring for a long time at the door through which the elf had departed. After several minutes, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the tiny idol, examining it. It was very beautiful—intricately carved and obviously very old. Shifting his perceptions to the astral plane, he found it to be much the same as the elf had described it: a minor item. The eyes glowed a little more brightly on the astral, but it was otherwise unremarkable.
Yes, this will work nicely, he thought as he shifted back to the material plane and turned the chair around to look out over the brilliant late-night skyline. I will at last be rid of my brother, and Telanwyr will regret that he ever involved himself in a conflict that is not his. And then, when all is completed, I will crush the impudent elf who had the audacity to attempt to cast bargains with his superiors. A favor, indeed! He will see what becomes of those who fall out of my favor.
So pleased was he at his cleverness that he did not even notice that he was holding the statuette in both hands, rubbing his fingers over it with motions that were very much like the caresses of a lover.
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.