[quick author's note/rant]

Hello, one and all. I am glad to know that some people — ...well, two at least, to my knowledge — are enjoying my work. It's always nice to know that my stories are being read. ...This chapter sucks the big one, much worse than my first two, but I'm at a bit of a loss about what to do. It's really just another supporting chapter, to tie in the first two and help set up for the next. Believe me, Chapter IV shall be much better. ...I hope.

Please, leave a review, a critique, a shit on a shingle. Just say SOMETHING!

[end note/rant]

Chapter III

Rousing from an uneasy sleep, Dagger found herself crouched once again on the floor of her cell, swathed in the mysterious night. She panted and gasped, once again wiping the cold sweat from her eyes. Ever since she had arrived in Corona Haven, three days ago, as she was told, her days were tense and her nights even worse. Despite the strange serenity of the city, she could find no sleep without bloodcurdling nightmares.

The night was cool, a light fog clinging to the ground outside Dagger's window. Crickets chirped happily outside, enjoying their freedom. As Dagger closed her eyes, attempting sleep once again, she wished for nothing more than to revel with them. The past day had been wasted seeping and eating; after Kae'lith left, there was no one to talk to besides the walls. She had promised to return, yet the rest of the day had gone by without a glimpse of her presence. Had she forgotten already?

No, Dagger decided. Her sister would not have forgotten something like that. That forsaken lecher of a husband would have her hold up somewhere, trying to delay her leave. Kae needed her.

"And I need you," Dagger confessed grudgingly.

Finding sleep futile, Dagger looked about, searching for any sign of movement. In the darkest hour of the night, the prison seemed foreboding, sinister. Water dripped from the ceiling of her cell, trickling down to meet the cold floor. The hallways, murky and threatening, seemed to hold all the lies of the saint elves. Shadows leaped from corners, speaking in tongues. Like the rest of Arad'uun, this place was immersed in so much magic that Dagger found herself nearly choking from its presence.

The flicker of torchlight burst into view in the corner of Dagger's eye, stirring her from reflection. She kept ever so still, barely breathing. Light feet pattered over the dirt floor and kicked up dust. The echo of a closing door reverberated faintly, yet to Dagger it sounded like a thunderclap. A figure, silhouetted by the burn of the fire, slowly made its way across the vestibule. Its light breathing traveled through the cold room, oozing through Dagger's lungs. She shivered, feeling all the calm abhorrence and ire hidden in that breath. It felt as if thousands of tiny spiders were crawling up her skin.

Venturing to slightly open her eyes, Dagger could see the lithe form of Strafe Argrlich waltz across the floor, seeming to glide on downy wings. Her white face, illuminated by the torch, still bore many of the cuts and bruises of three nights past. though her eyelids were at half-mast, her ethereal beauty was still prominent at this hour. Strafe was dressed in little more than a silken nightshift, though the escort that followed her was heavily armored.

Her guard down, Dagger let a shiver crawl up her spine. Though she could not see his face in the darkness, Dagger knw once again it was him. Egän.

A third, older elf met them from down the corridor. Dagger recognized her as the captain of the prison guard. A ring of keys dangled at her side, brushing against her leather-clad side. She bore the same crest as Egän, yet she wore no armor or mail; instead, she wore a cloak carelessly tossed over a thin tunic and breeches. Her strawberry blonde hair was twisted up in an elaborate plait that threatened to break loose from its bindings.

She quickly closed the door behind her Matriarch and soldier, face etched with worry and insomnia. "Finally..." She breathed. "Is all well?"

"We were not followed, Amere. The city slumbers."

There was a moment of silence between the three as Amere breathed in relief. "But...where is—"

The door burst open before she could finish. A young boy stumbled in, his face sweating, his breath heavy. However, his face, concealed by a heavy hood, bore no sign of distress, unlike the others in the room.

"Artyn..." Strafe sneered, holding the torch to his face. "so nice if you to join us."

Egän clicked his tongue, shaking his head in the darkness. "I've still no clue why you decided to let him in the Circle, Matriarch...a child has no place among our ranks."

The corners of Strafe's mouth twitched into a grimace. "A child, no. But a married man, yes. As Kae'lith's consort, Dagger's legal brother-in-law, he has his own right to be here."

Defeated, Egän sighed, leaning against the wall. His eyebrows furrowed in dissatisfaction, yet he showed little sign of anger...or, at least held it in well. He placidly watched Artyn remove his hood, a smirk playing across the boy's face. Artyn always was one to love a quarrel, especially when he was the one to start it. His light eyes flickered around, landing right on Dagger. Her back arched as their eyes met, his cold aura reaching for her. Dagger shut her eyes, hoping he did not notice her consciousness. Feigning sleep was not the easiest task.

"Did you have any trouble getting here, Artyn?" Asked Amere.

Artyn snorted, stretching. "That wench of a wife kept asking questions when I got out of bed, but it was not anything I couldn't handle..."

Dagger clenched her fists so tightly that blood trickled down her palms.

Strafe chuckled, teasing a lock of gold hair around her finger. "I still can't understand why she is still so attached to that abomination. The killing of their parents and countless others...destruction of cities...corrupting even the Assassin's Guild! Were Dagger my own flesh and blood, I would have tracked her down and annihilated her the minute she came within my eyes."

Amere shrugged. "It has been tried, Matriarch. Corona Haven has sent out an innumerable amount of warriors, all of Arad'uun even more. But it just seems like it cannot be done. Dagger evades — not to mention slaughters — every single person sent after her. It is as if she has unearthed the ancient immortality that even the elves thirst for." Amere eventually giggled nervously, the keys at her side chiming. "But it seems our inexorable eradicator is finally going to get what she deserves."

They know I've awoken, Dagger convinced herself, they must. They're just trying to lure me into an outburst so that they can tantalize me even more...

"The question is," Artyn though aloud, "how to dispose of her?"

All turned to Strafe, who took a deep breath and pulled a slice of tattered parchment from her pocket. She unfolded it mechanically, her eyes shimmering over the words.

"I always despised our pacifistic customs, now even more. I spent most of today in the ancient library, searching through tome after tome for some kind of death sentence. Archaic as they might be, the laws that our gods set upon us still preside. We cannot kill Dagger by our own hands, no matter what the transgression."

"Like you would be the one to slit her throat yourself," Egän mumbled from his perch in the shadows.

"Nor would you," Artyn crowed.

The soldier rose, fists clenched. His face showed nothing but malice for the boy that stood before him.

"And I suppose you would be the one to do it?" He fumed. "You, Artyn, who cannot even try to share anything with a naïve, lost woman besides your bed? Who must beat into her the respect and love that you think you deserve?!"

"I would be a better choice than someone like you!" Artyn's voice climbed higher, louder, with ever word he spoke. "If you ask me, I would say that you are still attached to the were elf that lies in the corner of that cell!"

"That is well enough!" Strafe hissed, clasping Egän's broad shoulder and Artyn's willowy one. "If anyone were to hear us, to hear a temperamental general brawling with a snappy little boy, then our gathering would be for nigh!"

Egän's fire extinguished, and he sunk back, once again leaning against the wall.

Strafe tossed her head to the side indignantly, continuing. "As I was saying, there is no way that we can execute Dagger without being condemned ourselves." She sighed as if the matter was as simple as an everyday decision. "But...The summer solstice draws frighteningly near, and we have yet to find any other for the ritual."

"Solstice?" Amere repeated. "That gives us two days. But why wait? Why," Amere's nervous face lit up with a smirk as she pulled a knife from her boot. "when we can slay her right now?"

Dagger nearly jumped in shock as she heard that telltale metallic clang. She knew immediately what it was. The Edge of Acrimony...it could only be. The blade sung to her, although this song was of discord and cacophony. In the hands of a stranger, the Edge mourned, aching for Dagger's hands. In the hands of a stranger, Dagger ached too.

As Strafe's eyes caught the familiar glint of the blade, she gasped, wringing her hands together.

"How...how did you get that?" She stammered.

Amere shrugged, a foreign confidence seeming to shroud her. "T'was simple. When Egän brought her to me in the soldier's hall three nights ago, my men and I discreetly carried her here, to the prison. We were given orders to plunder all of the possessions she carried. ...And behold — the very tool used to slaughter so many of the helpless. It is still tainted fresh with their blood!"

A hissing sound emitted from between Strafe's gritted teeth, and she snatched the dagger from Amere's hands. "How dare you steal this! This is not for you to wield, foolish woman! You cannot imagine what forces you are tampering with..." Strafe turned toward Artyn, pressing the cool blade into his hands. "I am intrusting you with this. The Edge should be in Kae'lith's care, as she is closest to Dagger's bloodline. But you must make sure she never touches it. Never, Artyn!"

Smirking with pride, Artyn's fingers wrapped around the hilt of the Edge, and he nodded. Dagger nearly moaned in pain as he touched the knife; his fingers were like light graces of caustic.

Amere scowled, and suddenly it seemed that Artyn suddenly had many more people to watch out for.

"As I was saying," Strafe muttered, "we have not yet found a proper sacrifice, and since our numbers are already beginning to dwindle, I did a bit of research in the annex." She held the paper closer to the torch. All moved closer, looking at the page. As they read, each face became illuminated with fear.

"No," Egän breathed, "there is no way you can do that to her."

"Even she does not deserve such a sentence!" Amere exclaimed.

Strafe nodded. "It is what must be done. ...It is that time of the year, at any rate."

Another moment of silence washed over the four, mouths agape as they all fumbled for something to say.

It is what must be done," Artyn said understandingly, echoed by Amere and Strafe. Egän, his eyes downcast, gave a dispassionate grunt.

"Then it is settled." Strafe stated. "On the day of the summer solstice, when the sun reaches the horizon, Dagger shall be executed on acts of manslaughter, attempted murder, and larceny."

And with that, the four nodded, filing one by one out the door. Dagger was left alone, save for the silence and the chilling premonition of her death. Two days did not seem like a long time to live, and for once, she regretted not taking her mother's advice.

"We only are who we choose to be," Dagger echoed, "and we must not let who we are condemn us."