Twenty minutes before the attack at the fortress...
Leathern wings glided down out of the midnight sky. Though massive in size, the crimson dragon was grace incarnate as it touched the earth with little more than a whisper of shifting stones. Its rider was even quieter; a fleeting shadow of silence and stealth. Even in plate armor, he only echoed a single breath as he moved from the beast's back onto the ground at its feet.
There, ahead of him, a lone figure lay covered in a blanket of flickering light. The radiance made his eyes narrow through the narrow slits in his adamant mask. Slowly, he crossed the short distance between them and stopped beside the sleeping Lady of the Winds.
Before he could reach her, his mind thundered with his mount's powerful thoughts. *You should hurry. Slaying her will cripple the others.*
Annoyed, he turned to face the dragon and stared into its eager, amber gaze. *I am well aware of what her death means. Do not think to tell me my duty, wyrm.* One hand balled into a tight, metal-adorned fist, a sign of his irritation.
The dragon, Sangwynn, snarled softly but backed away a few feet. He knew well that his rider was capable of great and terrible things, including killing him if he desired. Sangwynn was not sure the Maimed Lord would intervene to save him either; as a traitor to Takhesis, he was fortunate enough just to be alive. No sense pushing his bonded "master" before he was strong enough to destroy him. No, that delightful day would come. All in good time...
*Now be silent and keep watch. I trust you can plot my doom and keep your eyes open for our quarry's return at the same time?*
Sangwynn startled. The human insect could read his mind even when he wasn't sending? But... but... The Eye and the Hand had told him his rider was stripped of his magical powers, that he had lost them at the hands of the very beings they were here to kill. So how...?
*Obviously, reptile, it isn't magic. Now do as you are told, please.*
The human made no sense! He was always like this. One moment cold as a white's breath, the next as cordial as a devil at the bargaining table. Never losing his temper, but always on the edge of it. Confused and more than a little intimidated, the dragon withdrew to seek a higher perch for lookout.
That done, the armored knight turned back to Faile. He paused, hand on the pommel of his runesword, and stared at her. She'd been burned, and not by his dragon. The Lady of Air hadn't suffered these wounds at his hands; he was sure of that.
No, this fire could only have come from one place. Byrne. Swift and lithe, Faile would never have let anything else come close enough to hurt her. Not the Faile he knew, anyway.
Without meaning to, his lips parted and he began to whisper his thoughts. "So we have something else in common now. We both know what it is like to be burned by so-called friends." The last word dripped more venom than a medusa's tresses. He knelt down beside her as he spoke, one metal hand opening to touch her slumbering face.
"I should kill you quickly, like this. It would be a cleaner death than the others will get, and better than what awaits you at his hand if you are captured. V won't be pleased if I spare you."
For some reason, that thought amused him. Beneath his helm's wickedly carved mask, Vertrius smiled softly. "Seems like we've been here before, haven't we, love? I let you all live when my father Urathyme ordered your deaths all those years ago. Odd how time seems to echo for us both, isn't it?"
He flinched, his smile faltered, as he recalled the lashing he'd received for disobeying the Liche Lord back then. His own father had given him to his maralith commander for punishment. He could still feel the whip across his back, still had the dozen scars it left...
His hand traveled to Faile's throat, fingers closing around its graceful length. It wouldn't be diffiuclt, not with her like this under one of Akasha's healing shrouds. The magic was a powerful tool of life, but it had the drawback of keeping its subject asleep through nearly anything.
He snarled, biting back a sudden wave of tangled emotions with hate at their crest. He'd loved her so much, given up everything he'd been for her, and allied with the Elementals all out of his feelings for the Lady of Light. He gave her his heart and she'd given it back in pieces. Fury flickered in his chest and in his hand.
Instantly, he pulled back, shaken by the intensity of his reaction. His fist had nearly closed around Faile's throat; a spreading bruise showed where she'd almost been throttled to death. That wasn't what he'd wanted to do. Not to her! Not to one of the few who'd always treated him kindly. He couldn't kill her. He just couldn't...
Getting a reign on his emotions again, he stood up quickly and turned around. Not like this at least. If she died at his hand, it would be fairly, in battle. He was many things, not all of which he was proud of, but he was not an assassin. Vecna had plenty of those. Straightening his cloak, Vertrius walked away from Faile quickly. Others would die this night, but not her. Not now.
*Let's go,* he sent to Sangwynn as he mounted again. The dragon glanced once at the woman on the ground, slitting his pupils at the fact that she still breathed, but said nothing as he took to the air.
On a throne of woven corpses, a gaunt, nearly-skeletal figure watched his cat's paw with one gleaming eye. A thin whisper of amusement passed his remaining teeth as his face twisted in a rictus grin.
"So, my conflicted friend, you are not as cold as you pretend. Ah well... We'll just keep that as our little secret, shall we?"