The passage back into the Greylands went much more quickly, perhaps because they were running. They stumbled into the taproom, tables and rafters empty now, and a howl like a thousand banshees close on their heels.
"I need a sword," Eliathanis said, empty hand flexing.
"And I need my lute," Naitachal said, which he had to admit sounded much less effective as a weapon, but the days were long past when he could draw a life-devouring black blade from his very soul.
"You both need to leave," said The Rat, though now he took the form of the innkeep. He stood before the front door, barring their path. "Question is, am I going to let you."
"I think you will," Naitachal said, and tossed him the coin he'd pulled from Miss Moggie's bag. It flashed like a tiny sun, warm gold amid so much chill, and hit the floor several feet short of the innkeep. The man dove after the rolling coin, and Naitachal and Eliathanis took the opportunity to run outside.
The ostler and his shark-toothed mob of stableboys stood in the yard with the horses. Eurosy's palfrey skittered and stamped, lips curled back over her teeth and eyes rolling white with fear. Star chewed on a bit of nothing, placid as ever and looking entirely bored by the proceedings.
Naitachal didn't even wait to bargain. He tossed another gold coin into the mass of stableboys, and they fell on it, fell on each other. He leapt atop Star. Eliathanis had already grabbed the palfrey's reins. He mounted her on the run.
Hooves tore up the turf as they raced down the road, away from the inn at the edge of the Dark Veil. That boundary didn't seem to have any effect on their pursuers. They burst through like the front of an angry storm. Naitachal dared to reach out with his Power, seeking the other boundary that would take them back into living realms, but all he could sense was death on every side, death coming for them.
"How far?" Eliathanis' question was more a movement of lips than sound, drowned out by the pounding of hooves and the screams pursuing them. Naitachal dared a glance over his shoulder. It was like a deadlier version of the dancing—mostly swirling mist, but glimpses of furious eyes white as curdled milk, skeletal hands reaching out, and ragged flesh shredding from black-bloated limbs as the tide gained on them.
"I don't know. Too far." Eurosy had brought them here, and the only way Naitachal knew to get back was to retrace the route she'd taken.
Something sharp pricked his leg. He raised a fist to beat back whatever had latched on to him before he realized it was a small, grey cat clawing him from his saddlebag.
"The coins. Scatter them," she hissed. "It won't hold them forever, but it will buy you time."
Naitachal nodded and gave Star his head so he could fish the bag out from under his belt. The mouth sagged, and coins scattered across the road in a rain of copper, silver, and gold.
True to the cat's word, the tide broke, roiled against itself as the shades stopped to collect every coin.
Naitachal emptied the bag and caught up with Eliathanis.
"That won't hold them for long," the White Elf noted.
"Next time, you can plan the rescue."
"Next time?" Naitachal's heart twisted at Eliathanis' soft smile and raised brow, but his words made Naitachal ill. There could be no next time. The cost this time had already been too high.
Eliathanis leaned across the gap between their horses, his fingers brushing Naitachal's knee, and somehow that both helped and made his guilt worse.
"We've a long ride ahead of us," he said grimly, and bent low over Star's neck.
They rode hard, and much longer than Naitachal expected it should take to get back to the main road. He reined up when they came to a crossroads, barren fields and mist-filled hollows stretching in all directions. "This is not the way we came. This is no place I've ever seen." And even his Power, when he let it brush against the world around them, came back with nothing but greyness and death.
A distant echo of screeches reached them, and Eliathanis had to fight his palfrey to keep her from bolting. "I believe that means we're running out of time."
Naitachal nodded and peered down each road, but they all looked the same to his eyes.
Except… almost drowned out by the screeches, he heard barking. "This way," he said, spurring Star, and hoping he hadn't imagined the sound.
Star reared up and skipped back when The Hound jumped from the mists, barking and circling, his red ears bouncing and his tail wagging fit to fly off. "This way! I know the way. It's this way!" He ran off through the fields.
Naitachal exchanged a glance with Eliathanis.
"You know it's never a good idea to leave the path," the White Elf said, even as he brought his mount around.
"And which part of this adventure has seemed a good idea to you so far?" Naitachal countered, and urged Star to follow The Hound.
The cacophony behind them grew in volume, and a glance back showed a racing front of undead like floodwaters roaring over the land. Naitachal urged Star on despite the uneven terrain, with Eliathanis hard at his side, and the white streak of The Hound's body lighting their path.
"There, see? The trees, see?" The Hound barked, and with a lick of his old Power, Naitachal realized he could see a line where the mist thinned and color returned to the world. He pressed into Star's neck. The horse's stride lengthened as though he could sense it, too.
But then a horrible shriek came from right beside him, and Eliathanis and the palfrey went down in a churning mass of kicked-up mud and flailing limbs. Naitachal sawed on Star's reins, fighting momentum and panic to bring the horse about. The palfrey righted herself and raced past Naitachal, riderless.
"I'm fine. I'm fine!" He was caked in mud, but he'd managed to roll with his fall and stagger to his feet. He tossed a glance back at the flood racing across the field toward them.
Naitachal reached down a hand and pulled him up pillion. He urged Star on, promising him all the alfalfa he could gorge himself on if he just outran the undead horde nipping at their heels.
Eliathanis wrapped his arms about Naitachal's waist. They both watched the treeline grow closer, but not nearly quick enough, watched Eurosy's palfrey flicker and disappear beyond the border.
"Well, at least one of us is making it out alive." Eliathanis' breath was warm against his ear. Naitachal closed his eyes long enough to tap into his Power, then opened them again and concentrated on the border. If it came down to it… yes… for this, he would go back to what he'd once been.
He heard a bark, and a white shape zipped past him, running the wrong way. "Go! Go! I will stop them!" The Hound yipped.
A yowl of irritation emerged from Naitachal's saddlebags. "Show-off. I suppose that means I have to, as well. Gods save me from martyrs and heroes." Miss Moggie leapt from his saddlebags and darted up to The Hound's side. Together, the two tiny wights squared off to face the oncoming horde.
Eliathanis squeezed his arms tighter about Naitachal. Naitachal squeezed his thighs harder around Star. He closed his eyes and his heart against the howl and the hiss that echoed behind them as they reached the border and erupted out into the living world.
They rode another hour in the gloaming before they found a road, and another hour beyond that before they found the Moonstone Inn. The name alone was enough to indicate that they'd crossed the border into Elven lands, even if the great number of graceful, pointed-eared patrons did not. Naitachal kept his cowl up and his cloak close and let Eliathanis barter for a room and board and stabling for Star. He slipped up to the room as soon as he was able. The exhilaration of their mad escape had faded, leaving behind only guilt and questions and a strange reluctance to meet Eliathanis' eyes.
He'd shucked his cloak and settled into a good brood by the time Eliathanis came up to the room.
"You'll never guess who wandered into the stableyard while they were rubbing down Star," Eliathanis said, dropping the saddlebags next to the door. He was still a muddy mess, though it had mostly dried. His hair was matted with it, and a long smear of grey-cracked clay streaked down his cheek and neck.
And yet he was smiling. Naitachal blinked. "Hm?"
"The palfrey. Does she have a name?"
"I… don't know. I never caught it if she did. Usually it was just 'lackwit' and 'you poncy twit'."
Eliathanis chuckled and removed his arming coat. He tugged his mud-stiffened shirt over his head. "I'll have to come up with something better than that. What do you think of Hero as a name?"
"I think Cowardly Deserter might be more fitting. Or Glue." Naitachal watched Eliathanis move about the room, touching everything, examining it, eyes bright with restless energy. The light played over the pale skin of his chest that had escaped the worst of the mud, over back muscles that shifted and bunched and relaxed as he moved, full of energy. Full of life.
Naitachal wasn't quite sure what he'd expected to feel should he ever come to this moment, but it wasn't this deep gulf of separation. If anything, he felt even more lonely than he had before.
"I asked them to bring up a bath for this mud. I hope you don't mind. I suppose you could hide behind the door if you're really…" Eliathanis finally looked at him. Paused in his circuit, strode over, and knelt before him. "What is it?" he asked, hands gripping the arms of Naitachal's chair so that the Dark Elf couldn't slip away.
"I… don't know."
Naitachal gave him a wan smile, but couldn't find it in himself to make a joke. He rubbed his hands over his face, as much to avoid Eliathanis' gaze as anything. "I'm tired."
Eliathanis tugged his hands away, holding them tight in his lap and peering up at him until it felt harder to avoid his eyes than to just meet them.
What he saw in those spring-green eyes made him tremble. Years apart, and yet nobody could make him feel so known as Eliathanis did. And wasn't that part of the problem?
"If I told you that you mustn't blame yourself for Eurosy's choice, would it do any good?" he asked.
Naitachal couldn't seem to catch his full breath. "Probably not."
"Then should I blame myself? It was my life she traded hers for."
"No," Naitachal said. How could he explain a guilt he didn't quite understand himself?
"Then why this?" Eliathanis touched the furrow between Naitachal's brows, the downturned corner of his mouth.
"Your every protest against this was that you didn't wish to lose me to what I'd once been. And now… I…"
"I don't see emptiness here. If anything, they're too full." Eliathanis's fingers brushed across Naitachal's brows. Naitachal's eyes fluttered closed under the soft touch.
"I don't think this is something words can fix."
Eliathanis lifted Naitachal's hand to his lips. "Then perhaps I should simply kiss you and hold you and pester you later when I've found a sword and can do so properly."
Naitachal spread his fingers across Eliathanis' lower lip. "You're all muddy."
Eliathanis rose up on his knees, pulling Naitachal down to meet him halfway. "That's what the bath is for."
His kiss tasted sweet as a spring thaw, his cool lips quickly warming under Naitachal's. Naitachal groaned and slid out of his chair to press against Eliathanis, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest, groin-to-groin. He slid his hands, palms flat, up that warm, muscled back, and dug his fingers into firm shoulders hard enough to make Eliathanis grunt and break the kiss.
"You will tell me if I go too fast," Eliathanis said. His fingers threaded through Naitachal's hair, scraped across his, skin and held his head so he couldn't look away. "You will tell me if you need aught else. For me, it has only been a day since you were kissing me and promising me later, but you have changed much in our time apart. I fear I only just started to understand you, and now you've slipped away again."
Naitachal's fingers pressed into his shoulders, so solid and real and here, and he just wanted to forget everything else and pound himself against that solid flesh. "I haven't slipped anywhere. I am here."
"Then be here." Eliathanis kissed him then. Hard, but not nearly hard enough.
Naitachal shoved him back, and followed him to the floor when Eliathanis' fingers tightened and tugged at his hair. He kissed Eliathanis hard enough to bruise, ground his hips against the other elf's, and it still wasn't enough. His arms were trapped beneath Eliathanis' back, bones grinding against the wooden floorboards under their combined weight, and that wasn't enough, either.
Eliathanis bent a leg around Naitachal's hips and used the shift in leverage to roll them over so that he was on top. He grabbed at the claws shredding his shoulders and pinned them above Naitachal's head. Naitachal considered himself fit enough, but he was no match for a battle-trained warrior like Eliathanis. He struggled and kicked, but Eliathanis pinned him harder, twisted their legs together so that all of Naitachal's struggles only resulted in grinding his hard cock against Eliathanis' solidly-muscled thigh and why in nine hells hadn't they bothered to strip down before they started wrestling?
Logistics. Everything came down to that.
Eliathanis seemed to be thinking along the same lines. He broke their kiss and lifted his head. "If I loose my grip to strip off your clothes, will you stop fighting?"
Naitachal grinned, wild and wicked. "No." He didn't have hands free to press against Eliathanis' cock, so he settled for rolling his hip in that general area. From the eye-glazed, slack-jawed shudder he received in response, he rather thought he'd hit his mark.
"Very well then." Eliathanis buried his face against Naitachal's throat, nipping and kissing along the shadowed hollows of skin. Naitachal strained, arched his back as much as Eliathanis' weight would allow. The other elf's teeth were sharp, but not sharp enough.
"Harder," he grunted.
"You won't be happy until I draw blood, will you?"
No, Naitachal thought. "One way to find out," he said.
Eliathanis bit down hard into the muscle at the curve of neck to shoulder. Perhaps not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough to bruise. Naitachal's head fell back against the floorboards with a thunk and a whimper. His fingers flexed into helpless curls. He barely noticed when Eliathanis released his wrists, barely noticed when that sharp bite softened into suckling pressure. He did notice when the cooler air of the room brushed over his hips, his thighs, his cock, but Eliathanis bit hard again, teeth clamping around the straining tendon of Naitachal's neck, and Naitachal's eyes fluttered closed on another whimper. He thrust his hips into space—at some point, Eliathanis had untwined their legs. Naitachal was no longer pinned by anything but Eliathanis' teeth at his throat.
It was enough.
Eliathanis relaxed his bite and sat up. He touched Naitachal's abused skin with gentle fingers. His chuckle was little more than a thrum in his chest. "I could suck you hard all night, and it wouldn't leave so much as a mark," he murmured, finger tracing down the line of bites, waking little flares of pain-memory that had Naitachal twitching.
He cleared his throat and found his voice. "There are so many ways that could be taken."
Eliathanis slid his finger between his lips in suggestive promise. "And I intend to explore all of them now that we have the time."
Naitachal stilled. His languor dissipated like mist in the Greylands. A tingle passed over his scalp, a tightening, like his skull was too great for his skin.
"Oh no. You will not undo all my hard work with more brooding." Eliathanis lifted Naitachal's leg and pressed his wet finger inside.
Pain flashed through Naitachal, and surprise, and the urge to clench tight, driving away all other thoughts. He should relax, but he didn't want to. "More," he whispered, tightening around Eliathanis' finger. His nails dug into the wooden floor at his sides.
"In time," Eliathanis said, holding his hand still. He trailed his free hand down the leg propped up against his chest, a gesture meant to sooth when soothing was the last thing Naitachal wanted. "There'll be oils with the bath—"
"I don't want oils. I want you. Inside me. Now."
Eliathanis withdrew his finger and stroked Naitachal's hip. "I won't be how you punish yourself, my friend."
Naitachal shook his head, closing his eyes against the empathy in Eliathanis' gaze. "It's not punishment I need. It's…" He fell silent, searching for the right word, the word he needed to convince not Eliathanis, but himself.
"What?" Eliathanis' question was as soft and insubstantial as a wisp in the Greylands.
"Affirmation," Naitachal said, remembering those first kisses from so long ago, kisses exchanged in stolen time, kisses taken in defiance of danger. He met Eliathanis' eyes. "I need to know you're here. I need to feel you, beyond doubt."
"Ah." Eliathanis' lips pressed into a line. His brow furrowed. He nodded. "In that case…"
He spread Naitachal's legs wide and surged inside.
Pain. Pain and fullness and yes, Yes, YES. Naitachal's cry lodged somewhere in his throat, only emerging as a series of huffed, shuddering breaths as he forced himself to relax into the pain instead of tightening against it. He hooked his ankle at Eliathanis' shoulder, wrapped his other leg around Eliathanis' hip, pressing his heel into the other elf's backside. He opened himself as fully as he could to Eliathanis' invasion, wanting him, welcoming him. He was full of Eliathanis, his head, his heart, his cock, balls, and ass, and he didn't care if there was no poetry to that as long as it was true.
His gasps finally emerged on a sob. He pressed the back of his hand to his lips to keep from breaking down into more sobs.
Eliathanis' weight pressed Naitachal's leg down. He shuddered, cock fully-hilted inside Naitachal. He turned his head and pressed a kiss against Naitachal's calf. "Gods, this isn't going to last long," he muttered.
Naitachal could only nod, too afraid of what might come out if he tried to speak. Instead, he touched Eliathanis' belly just above where their bodies joined. Eliathanis turned his lips away from Naitachal's leg to look down at him, and he was such a mess that Naitachal couldn't help but smile Dried mud still caked the lower locks of Eliathanis' hair, streaked his face and arms where it hadn't flaked away during their wrestling or been wetted again by sweat.
Naitachal's smile became a smirk. "And here I'd heard mud golems were known for their stamina," he drawled.
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Eliathanis growled. He shifted his weight. Naitachal's snicker caught on a gasp. His cock twitched, knocking against Eliathanis' hard abdomen. Pain and pleasure were both just sensations that demanded submission. Naitachal dug his fingers into Eliathanis' hips and urged his friend on.
Eliathanis obliged, small movements building into longer, more confident thrusts. He braced one hand on the floor and wrapped the other around Naitachal's cock, stroking in counterpoint to his rhythm.
Naitachal arched into each stroke, pressed down against each thrust. Eliathanis had been right in his prediction that they wouldn't last long, but it was Naitachal who broke first. His entire body flexed and tightened, orgasmic surges that wracked him into spewing again and again into the cup of Eliathanis' hand. Naitachal tightened, trying to hold on to that mindless abandon as long as he could.
Eliathanis grunted and stilled, every muscle taught as a bowstring and hard as steel. He finished, pumping in hard, fast thrusts, and Naitachal squeezed around him, milking him for every last drop of pleasure.
Eliathanis collapsed atop him, skin sweat-slick and gritty. Naitachal pressed his cheek against Eliathanis' heated one, wrapped his arms around the shivering elf, and held him tight.
How long they lay like that, Naitachal couldn't say. Long enough for their breathing to steady and their sweat to dry and their bodies to cool. Long enough for Eliathanis to grow soft and slip out, though Naitachal still ached with the memory of being stretched and full.
Long enough for the bath to come. They stirred at the timid knock on the door. Eliathanis groaned and staggered to his feet. His trews were bunched somewhere below his hips. Naitachal hadn't realized that Eliathanis hadn't even managed to get fully undressed. For some reason, the thought made him smile.
"Are you just going to lay there, naked and grinning like a loon?" Eliathanis asked, pulling his trews up and fastening only enough hooks to satisfy modesty. Powers, he looked delicious. Naitachal decided that mussed should be Eliathanis' natural state.
"Just throw my cloak over me. They'll never notice."
"They might when they try to set the tub atop you. Get up, you useless lunk. Hide or don't, but I am getting my bath. One moment!" he yelled at the door when the latch clicked. The door didn't open, and Naitachal finally submitted to Eliathanis' tugs and prods. He rose, dragging his cloak around his nakedness and hunching over in a chair in the corner like he was dyspeptic.
When really, he was fighting laughter. Especially when one of the four maids setting and filling the bath noticed him, noticed his obsidian skin and silver hair, and almost fell into the steaming tub with a startled Eep!
"All is fine," Eliathanis said, steadying the young elven girl with a hand under her arm. "He's with me."
"But… but…" the girl sputtered.
"Shocking, isn't it?" Naitachal drawled, because clearly Eliathanis needed his help. Although from the way Eliathanis glared at him, Naitachal wondered if his help was appreciated. "That I would deign to keep such company. Only look at that mud."
Apparently, a speaking Dark Elf was too much for them. The maids fled shortly after that.
"Are you trying to spoil my bath?"
Naitachal rose and wandered over to the cold tray the maids had also bought. Meats and cheeses, mostly, but also a small selection of fruit. He popped a berry into his mouth. "Towels, soap, hot water and more for rinsing. You have everything you need. They were just lingering to ogle." Naitachal did a bit of ogling himself. He even added a bit of a leer for good measure.
Eliathanis' skin washed pink, making Naitachal smile. He'd feared that familiarity and debauchery would cure his friend of that delightful tendency. He stroked a finger down Eliathanis' pink cheek. "I hope you never lose this," he whispered.
Eliathanis grimaced and grabbed Naitachal's finger, but only so he could nip at it. "While I hope that someday you are cured of your perverse urge to needle me," he said, though Naitachal suspected that was a lie, especially when Eliathanis shoved his trews down and kicked them aside. He was half hard again already, his pale pink cock jutting and bobbing as if it were just as offended as its owner.
"Are you going to stand there all night staring and smirking, or are you going to join me?" Eliathanis snapped, stepping into the steaming water.
Naitachal let his cloak slide from his shoulders. "With such a gracious invitation, how could I possibly refuse?" he drawled, stepping into the bath behind Eliathanis. He cupped the other elf's chin and angled his face around, stopping Eliathanis' retort with a kiss.