Soon my companions' excited clatter quiets down, as all retreat to their own packs and getting ready for the long day ahead of us. A very, very long way awaits us. Cypher, who no longer needs to gather his things, curls up in the corner with his sword in his paws, and covers himself with new wings. I watch him out of the corner of my eye. O Boccob, what a beautiful creature he has become! The blue dragon, Riantasala, was awesomely menacing and beautiful, in a way, but Cypher - even if he is a very young dragon, whose scales have but begun to shimmer silver... I find myself remembering why I'd bothered to study the arts of transmutation at all, back before I was aware of their true usefulness, I still harbor a dream to rise into the sky on silver wings...
But the little dragon does not look too happy. No suprise there. My companions' reaction to the paladin-bard awakening in his new form was to conceal surprise with joking. I have nothing against the human sense of humor, really, but it can be harsh sometimes. Especially when the jokers forget - or do not know - that the return of the soul to the body is a painful and difficult ordeal.
I've already packed my backpack. Might as well deal with this now.
"Cypher?" I speak in Draconic. Luckily, we're the only two in our group who know the language.
The little dragon raises his head. "Yes?"
"Forgive." Oh, the tongue of the dragons... Even a simple request for pardon sounds like an order! "I believe that was unpleasant."
Cypher shoots me a look of surprise.
"It's all right." He nods. "But I am surprised that it is you who have come to apologize."
I glance at the neighboring rooms, where my companions currently are.
"You shouldn't be." I reply. "I just don't think our companions would have found such joking unpleasant, really. Their humor is always like that, and they would not have minded being targeted by it. I would have."
I hadn't dared come close even when we had been resurrecting Katarina, despite the fact that it was a safe place and a joyful time, and her own temple, and all that. Such moments were too intensely personal. But here we had been forced to stay close, for fear of the dangers of the abandoned city, where you never know when an enemy might find you. So we stood in a semicircle, and waited for danger, and to awaken under our cold glares must have been... How did Cypher say? "Am in al-Zaraq or in the caliph's zoo?" I had nothing to reply to that. I still don't.
But his strange ressurection turned out to be true, and our suspicions out of place. I'll not gather enough courage to explain them to Cypher. It must be too unpleasant when you and your god are suspected of something far from probable for your alignment.
While I ponder that, Cypher says, "But you displayed far less unhealthy curiosity than the others."
"I had no need to." I smirk. "They did my work for me... Anyway, I'm sorry."
The dragon nods, and curls up again, muttering something under his breath. He's forgotten how well elves can hear, apparently.
"They might have known about this virtue called compassion."
A chill runs down my spine. The last thing we need here is a quarrel. It's unlikely, but... I'd never have dared to descened into a cursed city without loyal friends at my back. A quarrel would kill all of us.
No. Never. I won't let it.
It had been a long day, and now, as the captured mage and her associate rest in prison, guarded by zombies - er, good warriors that arise to defend at the sign of need, I mean - and as their spellbooks rest in my backpack, the first trophies of their kind, I need to prepare spells. The problem is - I can't really think about magic right now. Something else is eating up my mind.
I've nearly pinpointed what the problem is. That... Attitude. It's doesn't fit well into my head. Utterly human: no elf - except, possibly, the greys - would ever be quite this cold. But I can't shake the feeling that I am misunderstanding something. The two people with such an attitude whom I know well are also the two kindest people I know.
It boggles the mind.
Fai gives a quiet snort as he turns in his sleep. Ever since our two companions were swept away by the magic of their royal blood and the need of their country - incidentally, leaving us in need of a cleric and a rogue, and no less than in the middle of an underground cursed city! - we've had a different watch order. Fai takes first watch, I take second, and Cypher takes third.
It is too dark to see, but I know the paladin-turned-dragon now reclines near the exit window, staring intently at outside world. A regal creature, no less, even though barely more than a wyrmling. His features are not fully formed yet, and yet he is absolutely breathtaking. An elfling's wish come true. One of the few things that I've always wanted to do was to take the form of a silver dragon some day. If only for a short while, to rest on the wind, to walk on the clouds!..
I do not envy him and his transformation, however. The ways of the good gods are only somewhat less harsh than those of the evil gods, though he would not agree. He would probably try to explain, though. My other companions would not understand. Katarina lives like she does because of her own inner nature: she was born a chosen of the Sun, and she is his child in spirit and deed. She is the Sun's ray, she can be no other. For Cypher, as far as I am aware of, it was a choice to dedicate himself to the dragon god, despite of his heritage - a choice that took quite a bit of soul-searching and probably doubt. So he is better equipped to explain how cold...
The coldness grips my heart with a sudden and razor-sharp clearness. I hear my own voice before I can stop it, a harsh whisper: "Gods, I hate you all who think with honor instead of common sense... You make me feel as helpless as an elfling."
"Why?" Cypher whispers. His draconic voice carries, though, and my hearing is keen. So is his. We shall not wake Fai.
"There is no persuading you." There is a bitterness in my mouth.
"Well, common sense is good." The dragon says with a laugh. "But I'm trying to be a hero. not a commoner, if you know what I mean."
"There are so many things wrong with that argument, you know?" I say as dryly as I can. Being a hero is exactly the problem. Those who try always end up with so many utterly unheroic consequences.
"Sure." He replies mildly.
Hm. Say what you mean outright, elf, or be silent? Is that what you mean?
Might as well, since I brought the topic up.
"I guess the one thing I've never been able to understand is how it is possible to put the fates of those you fight higher than the fates of those you fight alongside with. It is how it sometimes looks from the outside, and yet I... I can't say it's exactly true, something stops me. I really do not understand. Could you explain?"
"Do you really need saving?"
I hold the quick "no" that rather betrays the truth of the matter: that all adventurers need saving, and often. Where would I have been without Katarina's shield, Fai's blasts, Jelita's bow, Cypher's sword? Where would they have been without my magic and expertise?
Not on this plane, certainly.
But it is not about us.
"I'm talking about the general tendency. It is somewhat of a given for me that it is a priority to save the lives of those who are on your side as opposed to your enemies. One must watch over one's own first."
"Is that about the general tendency, as well?" He sounds a bit worried now.
"Naturally." The fit of emotion has passed, luckily, and I can speak calmly and truthfully. "I can't get it through my head that human honor has you all put your enemies first."
"It is more important for me to preserve those innocent lives that I am defending." Cypher says. "Human honor does not put one's enemies first. It might sound like a paradox, but it's really care for your own and yourself."
I nod, and the coldness in my chest looses its hold somewhat.
"I did have the feeling that I'm approaching this somehow wrongly. Would you care to explain?"
He is silent for a time, conceiving an answer. I wait, hoping to quench the sickening, poisonous feeling in my soul,
"Well, look here. Imagine... Orcs." Why does it always have to be orcs in these conversations, I wonder? "The gruffest, most primitive warriors you can find." О Lord of Knowledge, for a former bard he is certainly clueless about orcs. At least about their epic tales of bravery and so on. Absolute nonsense, but they explain a lot about the orcs. "Imagine they go into your forest and get shot down from behind a tree. What do the rest of them think? 'Dey wer anfair cawards! Elvs ar pansees! We c'n teik 'em!'" The parody of the orcish accent is amusing, though. "And they gather a warband again, and they go attack again. And again take a few of your people with them as they die. And what happens when those same orcs meet a bunch of men on the open battlefield? They get beat up fair and square, and their reaction is predictable. They respect our strength, and are far less eager to mount an attack again. It's ten years of peace at least, until a new generation breeds."
Now, where do I start taking this mess apart?
"Actually, that's not the way they react to our traps. All they know is that if they enter this forest - they die. It breeds simple fear. We need nothing more, really."
"That's a human reaction." He points out. "What would an orc do?"
"Even the most barbaric creatures know fear." I can't help but smile here. Yes indeed. Even the most savage brute wavers before certain doom, and the fear is that much greater when you do not know which direction doom lies.
"Re-eally." The dragon drawls sceptically. "Then why are you under constant attack?"
"You must have misunderstood me when we spoke earlier. We are under 'constant' attack only by our own standards. Like you, we get waves of orcs after a new generation grows up."
"You might have given them a demonstrative thrashing once and for all."
I shrug. "We probably could have, but genocide isn't really to our liking." When is Cypher going to understand: elves do not fight to defeat? That you *can't* fight to defeat when there are ten of them and only one of you?
"And just imagine an encounter between... Hmmm... The drow and the paladins? When the drow understand just how limited the paladins were in their options and that they *still* won? They'll just think, 'Hey, there's a lot of *other* places you can get slaves!'"
I've not heard much of the drow. A mere legend to my generation. But if the old stories are at all true, I don't know what chance would a paladin stand. Drow do not fight fairly, not any more than we do. And I've heard they routinely use a lot of nasty things we cannot use aboveground for fear of spoiling our own habitat.
"No, I can't imagine that." I reply. "And, anyway, your calculations require one tiny condition..."
"Agreed." He nods. "The victory of love and light for our part. But that's a necessary condition for all calculations of the aftermath, isn't it?"
"True, but that's the crux of it. You seem to think might will always be on your side. Enough might to win with a handicap."
"All of our battle plans take that into account... Wait! Elf, I've got it! I know the difference between us!"
He sounds so excited, and... Truthful. Even before he says whatever it is he got, I feel like he is right. But I try to remain unmoved. "Hmm?"
"Every adult elf is a combatant, right?"
"Well, yes. Moreover, even those in their fifties will fight when necessary. Nine or ten year olds, by your reckoning."
"That's it." Cypher says. "There are no professional warriors, no separate caste where these concepts could have originated. Naturally, an armed people has neither time nor use for 'warrior's honor.'"
That's... Almost plausible.
"Sounds good." I say skeptically. "But why didn't the entire people become a 'warrior's caste' of a sort?"
But we are, I understand suddenly. I remember how my father's decision - to never let me learn weaponry beyond the simple knife, which any forest-dweller learns anyhow - had backfired when I'd gone to live in Sirfain, where even the other mage's apprentices knew the rapier and bow. I'm passable at weapons now, but never quite caught up with them, and I will never forget their looks when I learned with children fifty years my juniors.
"Because a people has much more to do than war. Our warriors spend their whole lives fighting or preparing for war. You can't afford that. Your warriors, not counting the forest guards, blade dancers and such, are the artist, the builder, the musician who picks up a bow because it is war and necessary. The warrior of a human race is just that - a warrior."
"I did say 'of a sort'..." I grumble softly. "But I understand. We do not learn all of war. We learn that of war which will help non-professionals survive in certain conditions."
"Exactly." He says smugly. Still, he has reason to be: that was an admirable insight.
We fall silent for a time, and then, after an idle exchange about garrisons and human warriors, I hear him slip off into sleep.