"I am disappointed."
The voice followed him as Vertrius soared across the dark gray sky on dragon back, lightning crashing down all around him. His moon-white mount was unafraid of the raging tempest, roaring defiantly each time the clouds above sent arcs of brilliant death to shatter the land below.
"I did what I said I'd do, my lord." Vertrius was inwardly cringing, knowing damned well he had left the job unfinished. Still, one did not admit defeat to the Lord of Whispers. Ever. Doing so was tantamount to asking for execution. "I said I would bring them low for you and I have. Send an army of your rotting minions to finish them off and they will trouble you no more."
"I will take your impudent advice into consideration." It had been impudent but Vertrius also knew the only way to survive long in Vecna's service was to always maintain strength of personality. Will was the only thing that separated lieutenants from lackeys.
And where the Maimed One was concerned, lackeys generally forfeited their pulse upon demotion to that state.
"But the fact remains that you were given a second chance at your life under very strict rules. Rules that you have now broken, have you not?"
Vecna's mental 'voice' was preternaturally quiet and calm, almost sibilant. That was the most disconcerting thing about dealing with the Eye and the Hand - he never lost his temper. Even when he was tearing someone's soul apart, he remained relaxed, almost jovial with the tormented and with anyone unfortunate enough to bear witness.
"Forgive me but I do not see how this is the case, my lord." It was a bold move, calling Vecna on a matter of nuance, but the alternative was getting ripped to shreds by the godstorm all around him. He was fully aware of the knife's edge and how deeply it would cut if it descended. "I acted fully within my bounds."
For a moment, the clouds held their deadly, electrical breath. The storm grew quiet, so much so that Vertrius could not help but wonder if they were, in fact, inhaling to expel a torrent of lightning so massive that there would naught left of him when it was through. Even his ashes would be destroyed, he and his dragon blasted into fine vapor before his next heartbeat.
"Explain how you come to this... conclusion." The god's tone was unmistakable even in its placidity. He had one chance to make his case and if it failed to convince, his moment's imagining would become bitter, brutal reality.
He took a deep breath before continuing, a technically futile act since the entire conversation was taking place in his mind. He would be heard, judged and quite possibly convicted within the court of thought. If found wanting, he would be executed without a single word ever being spoken, a fitting fate for a minion of the Lord of Whispers, he supposed. At least his beloved mount would never know the doom that befell her. She would fly on, ignorant of his failing her until the lightning ended them both.
"Your contract with me stipulates that I be your instrument in dealing with the Elementals, using my special knowledge of their skills and weaknesses to ensure that they do not interfere with your plans." That was the first part of his argument, a simple stating of the facts. As the dragon beneath him started its descent toward their current lair amid the violent peaks below, he steadied his nerves and moved on to the particulars.
"I agreed to strike at them in that regard at any time and place of your choosing, my lord. Is that not correct?" He had to watch his tone. Too apologetic and he would sound weak. Too haughty and he would earn the Lich Lord's wrath out of spite. There had to be a balance, strong while remaining deferential.
"You are correct, but what is your point? They yet live. You failed to slay any of them and one in particular was never even harmed."
Vertrius took another deep breath as his mount navigated the dangerous mountain gap that led to their roost, an abandoned fortress that had once housed giants and their titanic hunting rocs. This next argument would make or break him; if he was to win his survival, this was where it would happen.
"With all due respect, my lord, you are incorrect." Then quickly, before Vecna could take offense, "May I explain?"
"You had best do so extremely well."
"I simply mean to say, my lord, that the Lady Faile may have been left untouched by my weapons but she is far from unharmed. In her case, I am her weakness. She is as disabled at this moment as the rest. I was brought back to serve your interests and so I believe I have."
The pause gave him reason to hope.
"Yet none of them are dead. You failed in your attack."
"Not so, my lord. I humbly submit that you never actually said I had to kill them." Vertrius waited for that point to sink in. Vecna was a very lawful being in his way; the fact that death had never been stipulated might carry some wait. Even so, it was best to make a stronger argument. "Further, I would like to note that what could be a better service than to weaken them and leave them vulnerable? In sparing them, have I not saved the pleasure of the kill for you?"
Another pause, this one lasting long enough for his beautiful white dragoness to land and fold her wings. Nearby, he could see his other companion, the massive red that served him as steed and her as mate. The crimson dragon was winging towards them, obviously glad to see them both alive.
"You are as eloquent as you are cunning. I have chosen well in you, Vertrius d'Urathym." The sky above the aged stone castle thundered once more in warning. "I shall spare you for now but in the future, I expect the edge of your sword, not its flat."
"Am I clear?"
Vertrius bowed to the churning black heavens. "Of course, sir. I am only watching out for your best interests." Before he could say anything else, his attention was caught by the frantic snarls of the red and the concerned trilling of his white. They were obviously upset about something and, in his partial understanding of their tongue, he could make out that it has something to do with the rookery below.
Racing after them, his conversation with Lord Vecna momentarily forgotten, he reached the huge basalt chamber where his mated pair of dragons had placed their small clutch of eggs. There, where the nest of coins and jewels had been gathered, a strange dark shape was hunched with one long tentacle around each of the five smooth, leathern orbs. A shadowy barrier flickered over the nesting site, a hemisphere of powerful black magic that crackled ominously.
Vertrius shouted for the panicked dragons to get away from the sphere, stopping them just short of making what he feared would be instantly fatal contact. "My lord?!" he questioned angrily. "Is this your doing?"
The answer came almost sweetly, a gentle echo in his mind. "Of course. You desired the eggs remain safe and so I sent a keeper to watch over them. As long as we can avoid any more surprise interpretations of my orders, I assure they they will remain so."
Vertrius felt his stomach lurch as Vecna recalled his own words to him. "After all, I am only watching out for your best interests..."