Tattoo

Chris Van Deelen

Tattoo

Ronnath’s eyes snapped open upon hearing the scream, his hand snaking out to grab the compound bow he always kept at his side. As his hand touched the well-worn, magic-infused wood of the weapon, his heart was pounding a staccato against his rib-cage - like a fluttering bird trying to escape. Before he even knew it, he was on his feet and turning towards the scream, his body poised to run when he relaxed.

A few meters away, Cheonsa had burst from the stream, cold water cascading down her slim body. He saw she was smiling and was not in any danger. The young Tiefling was clad in a white tunic and short pants, which came down to her bony knees. It was the typical clothing she wore whenever they ventured a few hundred meters from the cabin they called home. The stream she was in ran very close to the rustic cabin, nestled in a natural clearing far from the well-travelled road. It was too narrow and shallow to make a good place to swim and play, but that never stopped the young girl. She loved to swim, especially in the hot summer months which were only a few weeks away.

When they wanted to enjoy the coolness of the stream in the height of summer, they found a deeper and wider location to the north, one which also happened to be an excellent spot for fishing, hiding fat trout and the occasional bottom-feeding Catfish.

Cheonsa noticed Ronnath was holding his bow, an arrow already nocked. Her father had the look of a man about to engage in battle. She realized she had startled him from his revere when she had screamed, not from pain or fright, but from the shock of the cold water. “Sorry daddy,” she pouted.

Although he was annoyed, he allowed his face to relax into a smile. “It’s okay, angel. You just startled me, that’s all,” Ronnath placed the arrow in the quiver and lowered the bow. He sat down and crossed his legs as the young Tiefling dove beneath the runoff swollen water, only to appear a few moments later a few meters away.

Technically this was the anniversary of the day he had finally adopted the young girl two years ago. Ronnath had taken to thinking it as her birthday, a celebration humans held in high esteem. In some ways he found it morbid how humans would celebrate the passage of years, bringing them closer to their end. It was not something Elves thought about all that often. Cheonsa was not human, at least not entirely, and anyone looking at the girl would see it too. She was growing so fast it took him by surprise. It seemed that every morning she was just a little taller, her horns a little longer and the hints of the beautiful woman she was destined to grow into all that much clearer.

She was already nearly two feet taller than when he first adopted her and her hair was nearly to her waist. Her horns had doubled in length and curved around her temples, pointing backwards. The most startling change had occurred only a few months ago, when her once pure-obsidian eyes had changed, literally overnight. When she had awoken and had come to the table, Ronnath was stopped cold in his tracks. The black was gone – her eyes were now the color of bright rubies, surrounded by white, the irises reminiscent of those of the great hunting cats he occasionally saw in the wilderness.

When Natheria had seen the change, she had gasped and dropped the bowls of fresh fruit she had cut for their breakfast, her slim hands going to her mouth to stifle the scream she felt bubbling up from deep inside her chest. Cheonsa saw the reaction of her father and her tutor and had ran crying from the small cabin. Ronnath was after her an instant later, although he could have easily let her go so he could track her later. It would have been child’s play for him to do so but he did not want to risk her running into any of the denizens which called the woods home.

It took him almost an hour to finally calm her and convince her there was nothing wrong, it was just how she had changed, and not for the worse. He wiped the tears from her startlingly red eyes and kissed the space between her horns and hugged her tightly, reassuring her nothing was wrong.

When they had returned to the cabin, Natheria had cleaned up the mess and had replaced the meal. She took the young Tiefling aside and apologized to her, cooing and stroking the girl’s long tresses and telling her how beautiful her eyes were, a reflection of her soul.  Ronnath had feared the comment would cause the young girl further distress, as she knew precisely what she was, where her heritage lay, but she only smiled and accepted the compliment.  

And it was true. The eyes, although slightly alien, were very beautiful to behold. Ronnath smiled inwardly, knowing his little girl was going to be a serious heart-breaker in only a matter of a couple of years, at the most.

A mere blink of an eye considering his long lifespan.

She was growing so fast, and he figured it was only a matter of months, not years, before she began to blossom into a woman. Ronnath did not know all that much about the Tieflings, especially how they aged, although he knew they typically lived about as long as the average human,  barring death from violence – which was very common among those born with the blood of fiends.

He leaned against a large tree and was content to watch his little girl play in the water.

***

A few hours later they returned to the cabin, hand in hand. It was a hot, sunny day, spring reluctantly giving way to summer, and Ronnath had foregone his usual attire, settling for tan tunic and pants. He was wearing his old and worn leather boots, which over the years had become as soft and supple as doe-skin, and he had replaced the soles numerous times. Ronnath knew the disapproving look Natheria gave him every time he put the boots on, but he chose to ignore her delicately upraised eyebrow. After all, it was not like she was his wife or anything. She was his daughter’s teacher.

The yard was filled with blooming flowers and the buzz of bees and other insects. The grass was green and neatly trimmed - something he had taken to doing as it seemed to please Cheonsa. There was a small and neat garden just behind the cabin, filled with growing vegetables and herbs. Along the small stream’s shore there were numerous berry bushes, which in a few months would be filled with fat bulbous fruit, ready to be harvested and eaten. Something he was looking forward to.

Cheonsa’s tutor, Natheria, was seated upon a log bench Ronnath had constructed when he had built the cabin. She held a book in her small delicate hands, and her legs were crossed demurely as she scanned the pages. Upon hearing their approach, she closed the book and waved, a smile turning an already beautiful face into something radiant.

It did not matter how many times he had seen her face, she always caused his heart to skip a beat. Her eyes were the same shade of blue on a perfectly cloudless day, bright and shining. The Elf had let her hair grow longer than it was when they had first met over a year ago, and she allowed it to flow like the snow over the peaks of mountains. Over the past few weeks her skin had grown several shades darker from exposure to the sun. He knew she would often leave and spend time on her own, and Ronnath always honor her wish for privacy as Natheria did with him and Cheonsa, and he was quite certain she enjoyed lying in the sun, naked as the day she entered the world. The thought of her body made his mouth water.

The temptation to follow and see her curvaceous figure unclothed was almost irresistible but he never dared to do so. It would break the trust between them and he had grown to respect her deeply enough he certainly would not want to disappoint her. Such a breach of trust might cause her to return to Waterdeep and abandon Cheonsa.

The little Tiefling girl had grown to love the Elf almost as much as she loved him, and she had even called her mommy once. Ronnath could still remember how silent the cabin had grown at the accidental slip of her tongue, and instead of getting angry, Natheria reached out and caressed Cheonsa’s cheek. They resumed the lesson and it was the last time the girl had made such a mistake.

Seeing Natheria’s smile, Ronnath wondered how her full lips would feel against his and the stirring in his stomach felt like a small animal trying to burrow through his guts. He smiled back, hoping his features did not betray the lust he felt.

“How was your swim?” Natheria asked as she placed the book on the bench and stood. She was wearing a light-green blouse, which billowed at the wrists, and a long greenish-blue skirt, trimmed with white along the edges and slit up the left side right to the hip, allowing for ease of movement. She was barefooted and moved with a grace which only Elves seem to possess.

“Kind of cold,” Cheonsa confessed and she ran up to hug Natheria. The girl was almost to the Elf’s chin, a clear indication of how much she had grown so tall over the past year.

Natheria planted a kiss between Cheonsa’s horns as she hugged the girl back. Ronnath felt a slight twinge of jealousy, as it was his habit of kissing the little girl in the same spot. He shook off the feeling, knowing it was completely irrational and if anything, he should be pleased the Elf had grown so fond of his daughter.

Or maybe he was not jealous of her kissing the girl like that. Maybe he was jealous of his daughter, as he longed to feel Natheria’s lips on his. Ronnath felt his face grow hot and he strode past and into the cabin, earning a peculiar look from his daughter and her tutor. “I’ll prepare a meal for us,” he said in way of explanation.

“No need,” Natheria stated casually as she let Cheonsa go. “It’s already finished.” 

With a sigh, Ronnath stopped and turned to face his daughter and the tutor. He managed to keep his face perfectly neutral as he spoke. “Natheria,” he began and stopped when the slender Elf lifted a hand to silence him.

“I know, I am here to teach Cheonsa, not to cook or clean, that is your job.” She recited, having heard it numerous times since she had come to live with them.

“Exactly,” Ronnath nodded his head. “Unless you don’t like me cooking,” he added.

Taking Cheonsa’s hand in hers, Natheria strode up to the Ranger and smiled. “Has it ever occurred to you I enjoy taking care of both of you?”

Ronnath blinked and raised one eyebrow as his face grew flushed again. He was certain she could see it under his darkly-tanned skin and it made him blush even more. At that very instant, he wished he was deep inside one of the numerous ruins that dotted the land, taking on a hoard of undead or outsiders rather than face the woman. Instead he cleared his throat. “To be honest? No it never did.”

To his surprise, Natheria reached out and gently stroked his face. “Well then think about it next time you decide to chide me for doing something for the two of you.” She strode past him into the cabin. Cheonsa looked over her shoulder and the young Tiefling girl was grinning from ear to ear. She mouthed the words ‘she likes you daddy!’

Ronnath swallowed and followed them.

***

The meal was excellent. Natheria had a way with the simplest ingredients, turning what Ronnath would have considered a barely adequate meal into something fit for the Lords of Waterdeep. The Elven woman had taken venison, cut it into strips and chunks, then used some of the older vegetables they had left over and mixed it with herbs and some spices.

She had even used the blood of the stag Ronnath had brought down a few days previous and cooked it with the meat, turning the meal into a rich, spicy repast they all indulged in. Ronnath was amazed at how good the food tasted, although he knew he should not have been. Every meal Natheria cooked for he and Cheonsa was excellent.

When they were finished, Natheria made to stand but Ronnath waved her down. “I’ll take care of this,” he waved at the dirty dishes. “You cooked, I’ll clean.”

“I’ll help!” Cheonsa added brightly, her tail swishing slightly behind her.

He chuckled. “Be glad to have it, angel.”

Although he did not let on, Ronnath could feel Natheria’s gaze on him as he set about cleaning the dishes. He handed each to Cheonsa, who carefully dried and then put them away. The chore only took about ten minutes to complete, and when they were finished, he tussled the young Tiefling’s hair. “You have lessons to study.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Aye daddy,” she grinned. “Thanks for lettin’ me go swimming first.”

“No, how are you supposed to answer?” He asked in mock sternness. Over the year both of them had radically changed the way they spoke, him far more so than the girl. It was also harder for him, considering his age and how long he had been used to speaking in such a gruff and clipped manner. They worked hard and would often correct one another when they spoke improperly.

“Right, sorry daddy. Letting me,” Cheonsa corrected herself.

Still seated at the table, Natheria barely suppressed a grin as she watched the interplay between father and daughter. “Go get your books, little one. We will spend the next few hours studying.”

“Okay!”

The cabin had grown rather warm over the past few hours so he opened the shutters to allow the fresh air inside. He heard the whickering of horse they kept in a small stable a dozen meters from the cabin and he realized he had neglected to feed the beasts.  “I’ll be back shortly,” he said, grabbing his bow and quiver. It did not matter if he was only a few meters from the cabin, he never went anywhere without the weapon. It was almost an extension of his body and he felt naked without it.

Upon reaching the stables, Ronnath opened the doors and allowed the three horses to saunter into the yard. The first to exit the small building constructed out of logs was a large brown and white dappled stallion, his personal mount. The house whinnied in greetings and bumped Ronnath’s chest with his soft nose, sniffing loudly for the treats the Elf typically carried. “Easy Sol,” Ronnath chastised the horse lightly as he reached into his tunic and pulled out several large pieces of fruit he had saved for just such an occasion. “Get greedy with me and you won’t be getting these,” he showed the fruit to the horse.

The big male reached out with his lips, exposing his teeth as he quested to reach the offering, but before he could even touch the treats, Ronnath had pulled his hand back. It snorted in annoyance and came forward, the lips still trying to snag the fruit and after a moment of hesitation, Ronnath held his hand forward so the horse could gobble the offering. It whinnied in pleasure as the chunks of fruit disappeared.

Behind the stallion, two more horses came through the gate. One was little more than a large pony, pure white and with big brown eyes. This was the horse he had purchased for Cheonsa, a young and gentle-tempered mare who Cheonsa had named Blizzard, even though she had never seen such an event. The last was a black and white-spotted mare. She was almost twice the size of the little horse, but was as calm and collected as a cool summer breeze during the hottest months of the year, and her name was quite fitting… she was named Wind.

Both mares came over and likewise nudged Ronnath, looking for their treats and he laughingly complied. He never left the cabin to tend to his mounts without taking the time to show them how much they were appreciated and needed. It helped form a bond between rider and mount, building a level of trust and intimacy.

He paused and looked from Sol to Wind, the black and white mare and then back at Sol. His eyes narrowed and the sniffed the air, as if testing the wind. “You didn’t,” he said and then patted Wind’s side, allowing his hand to run down her ribs and across the coarse hair on her withers. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he mumbled, feeling the life growing inside the mare.

Sol cocked his head and whinnied loudly, and Ronnath could have sworn the stallion was laughing. It was a risk, albeit a minor one, having a pair of mares around a Stallion, but geldings did not make good warhorses and he relied on the stallion when it came to combat.  “Well I guess we’ll have a foal in soon, won’t we?”

He set about mucking out the stalls, cleaning up the droppings and placing them behind the stable where they could dry out and be placed in the garden to help fertilize the small crops he had growing. By the time he was finished, he was drenched in sweat, as the day had grown quite hot. Stripping off his tunic, he ignored the buzzing of the tiny flies and other insects that were attracted by the moisture, or maybe the chemical pheromones produced by his body. They were annoying, but it was something he could easily deal with.

Several hours flew by without him really noticing the passage of time; he had been so busy with adding fresh hay to the stalls and ensuring the feedbags were full. Ronnath had spent time brushing down all three mounts and checking their horseshoes to ensure they were still fitted properly and no stones or other obstructions had managed to get lodged in between the metal and the hoof.

When he paused to take a drink, he realized he was not alone. After slacking his thirst, Ronnath poured the water from the bucket, dousing his head and torso. It felt wonderfully cool and he breathed in deeply before turning to face Natheria. “Aye?”

“We are running low on some supplies and I was hoping you would be willing to take us to Waterdeep,” she was standing with her back against the wall of the cabin, her arms crossed beneath her breasts. Her hair was loose, cascading like water over her shoulders.

Reaching up, Ronnath wiped the water from his eyes and nodded. “Aye we can do that, just make a list o’ what you need and we’ll leave in the morning.”

It was clear Natheria anticipated what he was going to say and she held out a small piece of parchment. He took it and scanned the list, one eyebrow rising slightly as he inventoried what she was requesting.

“Some of these are a bit… I don’t know, odd?”

She shrugged. “Cheonsa is learning and retaining what I teach her far faster than any other students I have had,” she walked up to him and stood only a few dozen centimeters away. Reaching out, she placed a small, soft hand against his wet chest.

Ronnath felt a thrill race across his body from where her hand rested and he prayed to Solonor it would not show. It had been far too long since he had bedded a woman, having taken to a life of celibacy since Natheria had come to live with him and Cheonsa. Her presence, the way she moved and spoke, and her intoxicating scent, he knew he was going to have to spend some time at one of the brothels in Waterdeep when they arrived. Gently he moved her hand from his chest. “True enough,” he granted. “But the other items?”

She stared into his soul, and then placed her hand back on his chest. She traced the muscles down to his navel, and he swallowed hard at the electrical sensation it sent through him. “For my personal use, after all, you said you would get me whatever I wanted.”

“Aye I did,” he stepped away from the woman and turned his back on her. Grabbing his tunic, he threw it on and slung his bow over his shoulder. He took a moment to adjust the quiver so it hung at the perfect angle and with swift, practiced movements; he tied his long hair into a pony tail before he turned to face her. “Please don’t,” he breathed.

Natheria’s beautiful eyes never wavered but she did not approach. “Why?”

Gods above the woman was blunt sometimes, and he found it refreshing and so frightening. At that very moment he wished he was facing down the large Magma dragon whose offspring he and his friends had killed years before. Instead of turning away, he met and held her gaze, his dark-brown eyes locking on with an intensity that was nearly physical. “You are here to teach me daughter. We built up a really good workin’ relationship, and ye have me gratitude with how much you clearly love me girl.”

Natheria stood and slowly crossed her arms under her breasts. Her face remained passive, but he could see the fire in her eyes. “And?” She asked in a voice as calm and as smooth as a windless spring morning.

“An’ by havin’ sex with ya, that would really make things awkward, that be why!” He threw up his hands in exasperation. He backed away several steps and shook his head. “I like the way things be right now, and I don’ want them to be changing!”

She matched his steps, closing the distance. “And you’re a good man, and I know how deeply you’re hurt. I can see it, although you’ve never really told me what caused it,” she reached out with one tentative hand, as one would who was trying to calm a frightened horse or animal.

He sighed and caught her outstretched hand by the wrist, holding her very gently. He was strong, far, far stronger than most elves his age, and he even put more than a few humans to shame. With little effort he could have snapped her wrist and ground the bones together, but he bit back on the thought, knowing it was the echoes of the demon who had once inhabited his body trying to plant the suggestions into his mind. He took a deep breath and sighed, choosing his words very carefully. “Natheria, you need to realize. I did something so horrible if it wasn’t for Cheonsa, I would have killed myself.”

If she was surprised or shocked by the simple statement, she did not let on. “I’ve seen you, I have had a year to get to know you and understand you,” she placed her other hand on top of his and gently applied pressure. “I have seen you leave in the middle of the night, to walk among the trees or just pray at your shrine. I’ve seen how you treat Cheonsa, how you see the girl and not the blood. An evil man would never treat her the way you have, or treat me for that matter.”

Ronnath stood there, transfixed by her words and the gentle touch of her hands. They were so soft, and yet possessed a strength all their own. “Natheria,” he began and sighed as he glanced to the cabin. He could see through one of the open shutters and Cheonsa was sitting at the table, playing with the stuffed dragon she had found nearly a year and half previous. No, not found… was given by a lost soul. “I have murdered hundreds of innocent people.”

Her only reaction was a slight increase of pressure on his wrist and hand, and her eyes furrowed slightly, but it was enough. “Tell me.” She half whispered her voice husky.

He did not know if it was from fear, or from compassion. A few people in his life knew what happened, and he had not told a soul the events which had transpired. It was a stain on his soul, something he knew he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for. As he held her gaze, he felt not judgement in her eyes, but the desire to understand, to learn and maybe, just maybe, to help him release the pain, maybe even forgive him. “It’s a long story.”

Finally the elven woman released his wrist but instead took his hand in hers. “Tell me,” she repeated.

He stole another look into the cabin and saw Cheonsa was still busy playing with both her stuff dolls now. When she got lost in her own little make-believe world, she could play contentedly for many hours. Ronnath figured he had the time, and much to his surprise, the desire to share the story with her.

A feeling he had not had in… well ever.

With a deep breath, Ronnath began.

***

Hours later the sun had slid beneath the horizon, plunging the world into cool darkness, only broken by the few candles Ronnath had lit around the cabin. Neither he nor Cheonsa needed light to see, as she was naturally gifted with darkvision, and his was from magic he carried, but Natheria needed at least a little light to enhance her vision. As she had earlier in the day, Natheria prepared the meal for the three of them and they ate together, like a family.

Ronnath was busy cleaning the plates while Natheria and Cheonsa spoke about the trip they were going to take to the city of splendors early next morning. He did not need to look at his daughter to see the tension in her young body – he could hear it in her voice. She did not want to go back to the city. It held too many unpleasant memories for her – and on more than one occasion someone had tried to hurt her.

Someone had tried to kill her.

Natheria did her best to calm the girl’s fears, speaking to her in low, gentle tones as she stroked Cheonsa’s hair. Eventually Cheonsa calmed and some of the tension flowed from the cabin.

Wiping his hands, he folded the rag and placed it on the counter before striding over to Natheria and Cheonsa. With a flourish, he scooped Cheonsa from her seat and tossed her into the air, eliciting a shriek of delight from the girl. More than a few times over the year Natheria offered to put the girl to bed, but it was one of the few things he would not give up. He fully understood in a few years Cheonsa would not want him tucking her in any more, and it was something inevitable, something he had no control over. Until then, he would keep this one little ritual his and his alone.

Ronnath carried Cheonsa under one arm, while tickling her with his other, causing the Tiefling to shriek louder and louder. Her gasps and giggles filled the small cabin with love, chasing away the darkness that threatened to encompass his soul every night. Her joy was a soothing balm, one he needed and cherished.

After all, it would be gone soon enough.

A minute later he had her lying in her bed and he pulled a thin sheet over her body, tucking it around her hips and legs. The cabin was still warm, although before sunrise she would probably need one of the heavier fur blankets he kept stored at the foot of her bed. Soon enough they would not need blankets, and would find sleeping in the cabin difficult. Then again, he discovered she never got too cold, nor too hot. It was part of her heritage after all.

“Daddy?”

“What is it, angel?”

Cheonsa clutched Mr. Smoke in one arm, stuffing the dragons head beneath her chin, while she hugged Jackie, the stuffed doll close to her side. She had the stuffed doll she named Jackie with her when Ronnath adopted her and would never leave the doll for more than a few seconds at a time. It was always within easy reach, even when she was swimming. “Are those bad men going to try and hurt me again?”

Inwardly Ronnath winced. He did not want her to think about such events, but at the same time he would never lie to her. That was a promise he had made to her, well that and he would always love her and protect her. With a sigh, he brushed a few stray strands of hair from her forehead and tucked them neatly behind her horn. “There is always a chance sweetheart, but if anyone tries, they’ll be off to meet their gods far sooner than they would like.”

“Just like you did with those men when Natheria came to live with us?”

“Aye.”

She reached out and grabbed hold of him, hugging him tightly. Even through his own tunic he could feel her heart beating like a frightened bird, its wings batting against the cage separating it from the freedom of the open sky. “Please daddy?”

“I love you Cheonsa, and I will die for you. I will give up everything for you, don’t ever forget that.”

She clung to him for long minutes and he held her, stroking her back and rocking back and forth as he would have with a baby. Eventually her fluttering heart calmed and she began to breath more steadily. “I love you too, daddy.” She finally let go and lay back on the bed, rearranging her stuffed toys and sighing.

Ronnath leaned forward and kissed her between the horns and then stroked her cheek with the back of his roughly-calloused hand. “Sleep well, angel,” he bade her as he stood. She nodded and closed her eyes. In less than a minute she was fast asleep.

For a moment he considered sitting down on his comfortable chair and slipping into the restive state all elves shared, but it had been a long day and he had skipped out on his archery practice for far too long. He really was not feeling tired at any rate and so he quietly strode through the cabin and snatched up his quiver and bow. The temperature had dropped so it was pleasantly cool. Soon beads of moisture would begin to gather on the grass and leaves, and there was already a few patches of mist starting to gather in low points on the ground, like lost souls gathering at the entrance to the underworld.

A few dozen meters from the entrance of the cabin he had set up a archery stand with numerous targets, varying in size and ranges. With the fluid ease of years of practice, he drew, pulled and fired arrow after arrow into the targets. Every single shot hit its mark, in some cases, blowing right through the target to continue until it hit the tree or brush behind.

Ronnath grinned. They were simple targets, not the complexity of a living – or in some cases, unloving targets he was used to firing at. Most of the time when he used the bow, his target was trying to get out of the way or doing its damned best to strike at him as well.

It felt good to use his weapon, to feel the thrumming of the string as it released the missile. Soon enough sweat began to trickle down his head and back, and he could feel the tension building in his muscles as he continued to draw and fire.

Other than hunting to keep meat on the table for him, Cheonsa and Natheria, he had not drawn his bow in true anger in over a year. Ronnath feared his aim was no longer as sure as it had been at this time a year ago, but he hoped with the daily practice he would not have lost too much of his edge.

At last when his quiver had been depleted, he stopped to catch his breath.  He knew Natheria was near, had heard her soft foot-falls through the short underbrush, and her quiet, steady breathing as she watched him practice. Most nights she did just that, stood away and as she thought, unseen, but he always detected her presence. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he stuffed the rag into his belt and began to walk down range to gather his arrows. To his surprise, he heard her footsteps following a few meters behind.

He stopped suddenly but kept his back to the woman. “Natheria, please go back to the cabin. I don’t like Cheonsa alone like this.”

There was a sharp intake of breath and a soft sigh. “She is fine,” Natheria whispered.

“Ye don’t nee…. You don’t need to talk so quietly. That girl can sleep through almost anything and it’s not like we’re going to wake up the neighbors,” he chuckled. “Why are you following me?” Ronnath asked as he turned around to face the woman. “Most of the time you just watch from afar and then return to the cabin.”

Her face turned a shade of red, one he could see clearly in the darkness. She was still wearing the same clothing as he had on earlier during the day, but had left the top buttons of her tunic open, revealing the soft smoothness of her breasts. “We need to speak, and I thought helping you retrieve your arrows would be a good time to do so.”

Ronnath nearly laughed at the absurdity of the statement. She could not see! He could, as well as if it was a brightly lit day, but she needed at least a little light. “Natheria, just go back to the cabin. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

“Gathering your arrows, it can wait.”

He sighed. Of course he had hundreds if not thousands of arrows stashed back at and around the cabin. If there was one thing, he was prepared at all times for possible attack; although he was glad his preparedness had never been required. “Alright, speak your mind,” he told her a little more harshly than he had intended as he strode up to her, the bow held firmly in one fist.

“You said you were terrified of being possessed by a demon or an outsider again, correct?” She crossed her arms under her breasts, pushing them up to a tiny degree, pushing the fabric of her tunic tantalizingly apart.

“Aye it is my greatest fear. One demon destroyed so many lives, using my hand and skill to do so.” Ronnath half growled, feeling his shame and anger in equal measures. Suddenly he was not so pleased with the fact he had shared the secret with her.

“I may know of a way you could prevent this from happening,” she said softly and then uncrossed her arms so as to place one soft, cool hand on his wrist. Natheria stepped closer until they were only a few dozen centimeters from one another. “Are you interested in hearing what I have to say?”

He could feel the heat radiating from her body. Ronnath could detect her womanly scent in each breath he took and he felt slightly light-headed. “Aye,” he managed to say without squeaking.

“I know of a priestess of Sehanine Moonbow,” she said, placing her other hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently, the touch as soft as the caress of a butterfly’s wing. “She can help you.”

Ronnath furrowed his brow upon hearing the name of the mysterious and elusive Elven goddess. He knew very little about the goddess, other than in a small way he paid homage to her every time he destroyed one of the undead abominations. “How?”

“If you have the gold, she can craft a token for you, a simple protection against evil. It will greatly increase the odds of you successfully resisting attempts at possession,” Natheria took her hand from his shoulder and traced his jawline with one finger. “There are other benefits as well.”

He could not help himself. Ronnath’s eyes closed as she touched his jaw, running her finger along his chin. The mere presence of her soft touch sent electrical currents through his face, and he fought to keep from groaning aloud. Instead, he blew out his cheeks and nodded, breaking the spell. “Aye I know, I’ve had priests and those who use divine magic on me in the past. I never knew it could help protect against that sort of dark magic.”

Still holding his hand, she pulled it towards her and placed it on her side, just above her hip. He could feel the warmth radiating through her tunic and it was delicious. “A few thousand gold, and she will craft it for you.”

The temptation to pull his hand away was there, but he wanted to feel her, to touch and caress her so much it was almost painful. Tentatively he pulled her in closer, until they were touching. She did not resist. In the darkness he could still see her face, the radiant smile which shone with warmth. “That might clean me out,” he told her, leaning forward slightly so their mouths were only a few centimeters apart.

“She owes me a few favors,” Natheria said, wrapping her arms around his narrow waist. “I’m sure we can work out some sort of agreement which you can afford,” the elven woman told him as she stood on her tiptoes and brushed her lips against his.

The clothing began to fall and as she pushed him on his back, straddling him, the last coherent thought he had was ‘how in the abyss can a priestess owe favors to a tutor?’

***

Before the sun crested the horizon, Ronnath had bathed and saddled the three horses. The night had been wonderfully long and although he was feeling a little exhausted, he knew it was worth every minute of lost rest. Sol, the big Stallion kept looking at him as he cinched the saddle in place and secured the saddlebags. “What?”

The horse actually rolled his big brown eyes and shook his mane as he nickered softly. The stallion bumped against him lightly with his shoulder and Ronnath did not have to use his divine magic to understand what the horse was trying to impart. “Aye I did, and so what? It’s not like you didn’t do the same with the mare!”

Sol twisted his long neck and bumped Ronnath hard enough to knock the Ranger back several paces, causing him to laugh. He swatted the stallions forehead with a hand and pushed back. “Get yer mind outta the gutter!”

The two mares watched on impassively at the play between the Elf and stallion. Soon enough Ronnath had the bags secured and he left them open so they could put the provisions and supplies they required for the journey to Waterdeep.

He was just finishing saddling Wind when the first rays of dawn were cresting the distant horizon to the east. The few clouds which hung low in the sky were a brilliant flame-red, turning to a deep gold the closer they were to the edge of the world. How many mornings had he stood and watched the sun come up? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Ronnath did not honestly know. With a contented sigh, he turned back to his work. When the last buckle had been secured,  Ronnath sensed Natheria’s presence. “Good morning,” he greeted the tutor.

“And a fine morning it is,” she replied, stepping up to him and taking his face in her hands. She kissed him softly and let her lips linger for several long seconds, her eyes closed in remembrance of the pleasure they shared through the night. “And here you said sex would complicate things,” she chuckled slyly as she finally broke the contact.”

“Aye it certainly will,” he said, feeling the heat rushing to his face and nether-regions. “But I’m guessing it will be worth the trouble.”

She raised one eyebrow as she placed a hand on her hip and tilted her head to the right. “Trouble?”

“And worth it,” he leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I see you were busy,” he nodded towards a bag she was carrying in her other hand. It was a clear attempt to disarm a potentially awkward moment, and he decided to take advantage of it.

“Food for the road,” she handed it to him. “Shall I get Cheonsa?” Natheria nodded her head towards the cabin.

“Aye,” Ronnath agreed. “Rouse my little angel, by the time she is dressed, we’ll be ready to go.”

Natheria nodded and turned towards the cabin. She was about to leave the stables when she paused with one hand on the frame of the wooden structure. “I enjoyed last night,” she said as she looked back at him. “I would like it if we did that more often.”

He still had his reservations, but Ronnath nodded, a smile slowly crossing his usually harsh features. “Aye, so would I.”

With a little more sashay in her hips, Natheria sauntered over to the cabin, singing a low, soft tune in elvish as she walked.

Ronnath went to work on saddling the little mare which was Cheonsa’s. It took less than half the time for him to accomplish the task compared to the other two and by the time he was finished, Cheonsa was running towards him, her arms outstretched as she smiled. When she collided with him, Ronnath was a little surprised that her weight and momentum had managed to off balance him by the smallest degree. He could have sworn she did not weigh as much now as she had yesterday.

“Well met, daddy!”

“Aye, angel, well met. Are you ready to go?” He kissed her between her horns and hugged her before placing her on the ground.

“Aye I am, and so are Jackie and Mr. Smoke!” She declared, holding up her stuffed dolls and showing they were wearing the crude but lovingly crafted travel cloaks she had fashioned for them.

Knowing how much it meant to his daughter, Ronnath knelt before her and put on a serious expression as he gently took the stuffed dragon toy from her hands. “Mr. Smoke, are you ready to guard Cheonsa with your mighty dragon strength?” He used one finger to nod the toy’s head back and forth and he smiled grimly. “I put her in your capable claws then,” and he handed the toy back.

“What about Jackie?” She asked holding out the second doll to him.

He regarded the doll gravely. All the years she had owned the stuffed doll, he had never asked her if Jackie was a boy or a girl. “Jackie, do you solemnly swear to protect Cheonsa from the bad people who would want to harm her?”

This time Cheonsa bobbed the doll up and down and giggled. “She does daddy, she’s gonna use spells an’ such to protect me!”

Ronnath raised an eyebrow. “Oh so Jackie’s a she, and let’s see…” he cupped his chin in thought. “She is a sorcerer!”

Cheonsa nodded, the smile never wavering from her face. Her cat-like, ruby-red eyes glowed brightly in the early morning sunshine. “Aye daddy an’ she is a powerful sorcerer at that!”

“I’m glad to hear we’re under the protection of such a powerful spell-slinger and a deadly dragon,” Natheria announced as she closed the cabin door and approached them. She was wearing a pair of tan doe-skin breeches, a matching tunic, as well as a travel cloak and gloves. Sometime after their rather active and passion-filled night, she had found the time to wash her body and her hair, and it shone like the frost on the leaves in the early morning light.

“Indeed,” Ronnath agreed, scooping the girl up and settling her in the saddle on the little pony Cheonsa had named Blizzard. He placed the reigns in her hands and stroked the side of the pony’s neck, feeling it shiver slightly beneath his touch. It was not fear, it was pleasure. The pony had taken a liking to Cheonsa and she loved it with all her heart.

After taking a moment to make sure the saddle was properly secured, he swatted the pony on the rump and it trotted out of the stable and came to a halt a few meters beyond the entrance. As Ronnath turned to help Natheria into her saddle, she was waiting, one foot in the stirrup and the other grabbing hold of the saddle horn. He purposefully placed his hand on her rear as he helped her get settled in the saddle.

Natheria looked at him and said in all seriousness; “Aren’t we getting a little familiar.”

He felt his cheeks redden and when she laughed, the heat coming from his face could have melted a glacier. Still he managed to smile at her, enjoying her little joke at his expense. “Careful Natheria, next time it could be a swat.”

“Promises, promises.”

Not wanting Cheonsa to see his face, he turned away to grab Sol’s bridle. He led the big stallion out of the stables and then closed the door behind them, securing it. It would be several days before they returned, and he did not want any of the local deer or other herbivores sneaking in and eating all the feed he had stored for the colder months.

Ronnath took one last look around the cabin and the outlying buildings to make sure everything was secure before he finally mounted Sol. The stallion did not need any prompting and together the small band made its way through the underbrush towards the distant city of Waterdeep.

***

The day had begun partially cloudy but by the time they reached the gates to the city of splendors, the sky had become thick with dark storm clouds, pregnant with rain. When they were only a few hundred meters from the gates the first drops began to pound the earth around them, kicking up small puffs of dust with each impact.

Secretly, Ronnath was pleased with the turn in the weather; it meant Cheonsa could wear her hood without drawing any unwanted attention. Glancing over his shoulder at his daughter, he saw she had the hood in place, and pulled down low to cover her face as best she could. The girl also had taken the time to wrap her tail around her waist, keeping it likewise hidden from view.

The guards barely gave the trio a glance, stopping the big Elf only long enough to ask what business they had in the city, and to ensure they were carrying the capital to back up their claims.

A flash of gold and a few gemstones was all it took and they were allowed to pass. Once through the gates, Ronnath slowed Sol enough so Cheonsa and Natheria were riding next to him, one on either side. “Before we go and pick up the supplies we need, where is this priestess?” He asked, his eyes alert and watching all those around them. He was not too concerned about attack, but when it came to Cheonsa, he never wanted to let his guard down.

“She resides near the city of the dead,” the white-haired elven woman answered.

Although it should not have, the remark took him by surprise. “What does she do?”

“Think about it, Ronnath. She’s a priestess to a goddess who has a passion for destroying the abominations that are the undead,” she pointed looked at him before continuing. “As you do.”

He felt himself blushing again under the gentle rebuke. She was far more intelligent than he was, although she never was condescending towards him because of it. It was not that Ronnath was not smart; he was of what many considered to be average, if not slightly above average intelligence. “Aye I should have thought of that.”

They made the trek through the city and found an inn on the outskirts of the city of the dead. By this time the streets had grown noticeably dark, and with the thick, grey clouds unleashing the torrential downpour, dusk descended far sooner than it should have.

The inn they chose was one of the more reputable establishments, and it came with a well maintained and staffed stable. After dismounting, he handed the stable-hands a single gold coin, which was the equivalent of a day’s wage for them in order to properly tend and care for his mounts.

Without removing their hoods, they entered the inn and he quickly secured a single room with a pair of beds. The inn keep kept attempting to see beneath Cheonsa’s hood, but both Natheria and Ronnath continuously repositioned themselves between the human and the Tiefling, never allowing the man a good look. Reluctantly the keep took the offered coin and they went upstairs, finding the room and once it was secured, they took off their cloaks and shook them out.

Cheonsa was quiet, far more quiet than he was used to, and he understood why. She had been raised in an orphanage inside the city, almost next door to a brothel. A Thayan wizard had captured him, her and two of his companions in order to try and discover the secret behind their abilities – powers which set them aside from the typical folk which took to the lands in search of adventure and wealth.

Then there was the encounter with the Ghoul and its hungry Halfling companion, and of course just a year before when a group of men and women tried to kill her, claiming she was the spawn of the evil god Cyric.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small satchel. It crinkled at his touch and the little Tiefling’s eyes lit up at the sound. Her dour face likewise blossomed into a huge smile as she instantly recognized what he was holding.

“Daddy, you said we were all out!” She rushed over to him and snatched the small satchel out of his hand, pulling it open to reveal the sweet treasure hidden inside.

He grinned and caressed the back of her head with one hand as he tossed his still-damp cloak on the peg next to the door. “Thank Natheria, she hid it away, knowing there would be a time you needed it.”

“Thank you!” Cheonsa cried and popped one of the hard pieces of flavored candy into her mouth. Her cat-like red eyes closed in pleasure as she sucked at the candy, the saliva in her mouth unlocking the sweet flavor.

“You’re most welcome Cheonsa,” she replied with a smile nearly as wide as the child’s. Instead of throwing her cloak like Ronnath had, she took hers and Cheonsa’s and hung them on the provided pegs. With her hands on her hips, she looked around the small but comfortably appointed room. There were two beds, a small writing table, two stuffed chairs and the room had its own fireplace. It was currently cold and dark, but it was still more than warm enough, even with the rain they did not need to light it.

“Are you two hungry?” Ronnath picked up Cheonsa and made biting motions at her hands holding the candy. She giggled and clutched the small package to her chest, and then finally grabbed him by the chin to pop one of the candies into his mouth.

“Aye I could use something to eat,” Natheria confessed. She watched the man and his adopted daughter and could not help but marvel at the resemblance between the two. The Tiefling girl had long, tapered ears much like those of an elf, and where Ronnath’s pointed slightly up, hers were straighter. Then there was the overall shape of her nose and eyes. If she did not know otherwise, she could have sworn the girl was in fact his biological daughter.

Putting the girl on the edge of the bed, he tussled her hair and crossed the room, grabbing his cloak. “I’ll see if the innkeeper has anything available, if not I’ll go out and buy us some food.”

“I can do that if you wish,” Natheria offered.

He shook his head. “No, stay with Cheonsa. I’ll return within ninety minutes,” he tossed his cloak over his shoulders and secured the clasp, although he did not bother putting the hood up. A moment later, he closed the door and made his way to the front hall of the inn. Most places like this did in fact offer food, but there were a few which did not.  When he spoke to the innkeeper, the man was more than willing to have the cooks prepare a meal for him and his companions. The amount the man charged could have paid for the three of them to eat for the next three days, but the inn keep assured the food was top quality and Ronnath would be hard-pressed to find better fare anywhere in the city.

The Ranger smirked but held his tongue as he passed the coins over to the man, who quickly pocketed the currency and disappeared into the back of the inn. Ronnath could already hear the man shouting orders to the cooks and servants even before the door finished closing behind him.

He sat on one of the many chairs strategically placed around the front hall of the inn and leaned back until his hair touched the wall itself. The inn was a little more pricey than he was typically used to – by the abyss it was luxurious compared to what he was used to, but he did not mind. Everywhere he looked the wood was polished and lovingly maintained. A large exotic rug covered the floor in front of the counter where the inn keep plied his trade, and there were various weapons and even a few stuffed monster heads on display.

Ronnath chided himself for not having noticed the displays earlier as he stood up and walked over to the closest trophy. It was that of a large, fish-like creature, something he had not seen before. Even in death, the monster had huge, black eyes which had once held an alien intellect and they seemed to stare right back at him. Then it hit him. Only a few months ago he and Thorn had run into a group of the creatures. Reaching up, he tapped his finger on his chin, trying to recall the name.

“That’s a Kuo Toa,” claimed a voice from only a few meters behind him. Ronnath had to consciously control his hands as he went to pull out the sword he carried as a spare weapon. Slowly and acting nonchalantly, he turned to face the speaker. “Aye, a companion of mine, we killed a number of these beasties beneath the streets a few months back,” he said and then caught sight of the speaker.

She was tall, even taller than he was, but slender as a promise. The woman had slivery-white tresses, which flowed around her face, constantly in motion as if blown by an unseen breeze. The ears were sharply defined and pointed up and to the back. She was wearing a long, white dress, too clingy to be called a robe, but not fancy enough to be considered fine evening wear. Her eyes were a pale blue, and her skin was the color of moonlight on a bubbling brook.

And she was breathtakingly beautiful.

“You are Ronnath?” The woman asked quietly.

It took him the better part of a minute to get the words out. “Aye, that be me, who be you?”

“A friend of Natheria,” she said, smiling. “I knew she was coming and that you would be with her,” she not so much as walked, but glided across the floor until she was less than a meter form him. “She brought you here to ask a boon of me,” she reached up and gently cupped his face, turning it so she could study the right side of his face.

Almost angrily, he grabbed her hand and pulled it away. Even through the gloves he habitually wore, he could have sworn he felt an electrical current running through her soft, cool flesh. “Don’ be touchin’ me without me permission,” he growled.

If the woman was offended, she gave no sign. Instead she bowed her head slightly and nodded. “You have my apology,” she offered and looked back at him.

“It’s alright,” he said, looking away, feeling embarrassed from both his reaction, as well as slipping back into the clipped manner of speech he had been used to using for so many years. A second later, he allowed his eyes to return to his face, and then something struck him and he nearly reeled back. The elf maiden was beautiful, although she probably had a good century or more on him in years. That was not what caught his attention however, it was her face. The features were so familiar it was all but impossible not to see the resemblance. “You’re Natheria’s mother!”

This caused the elf to laugh. It was soft and musical, and she could have easily had taken the life as a bard, making plenty of coin entertaining those with her songs. “Close my young Ranger, but not quite,” her eyes twinkled with merriment.

It was his turn to laugh; he was not young, not by human standards. In fact he was over a century old but he knew that elves considered him to be barely a child. “No one has called me young in decades.”

“You’re but a mere babe compared to me,” she answered, still smiling. “Natheria is my younger sister.”

“Sorry,” he said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

Her smile was wide and genuine. “None taken. I will assume she is up with your daughter?” She made a gesture towards the ceiling.

“Aye, I came down to get some food for us.”

“Do you mind if I go up now?”

His eyes narrowed. “Aye I do. You can wait here with me until the food is ready.”

This seemed to take her by surprise. “Why is that?”

Over the past couple of years, Ronnath had been stabbed in the back more than once by people he thought were supposed to be allies, or at the least, friendly. Although the resemblance was uncanny, for all he knew this woman could be an agent of the Thayan wizard. “Because I don’t trust you,” he stated bluntly.

To his surprise, she nodded and did not seem to take offense. “As you wish,” she said.

Before he could reply, the door leading to the back of the inn opened and the inn keeper had a tray piled with steaming food. A look of surprise appeared when he saw the woman standing with Ronnath, but he quickly composed himself. “Are ye needing a room?” He asked, placing the tray on the countertop.

“No,” she replied and looked at the fare and nodded as if satisfied. “I’m with Ronnath.”

The inn keep’s eyes narrowed slightly. “If you’re planning on bringing more guests, it’s going to cost you extra.”

Without thinking about it, Ronnath tossed the man a couple more gold coins as he gathered the tray. It was heavier than it looked, but that meant little to the Ranger. He was far stronger than he looked. “That should cover it then,” he stated, not asked as he turned his back on the inn keep and led the way upstairs.

The woman followed, a few meters behind him, not speaking. Less than a minute later, he used his boot to gently knock on the door and it was opened almost instantly by Cheonsa. Her eyes were wide and her smile lit up the room like a sunrise, right until the second she spotted the elf walking behind him. She did not slam the door, but retreated into the room as she grabbed her cloak from the wall and threw it on.

“Orina!” Cried Natheria as soon as she spotted the woman.

The elf’s smile was almost as bright as that of Cheonsa’s, and in three easy strides, the two elves embraced. “It is good to see you, little sister!”

Ronnath used his leg to close the door behind him and then he placed the tray of food on the small desk. “She just came outta nowhere,” he explained as he grabbed a chicken-leg and began to pull the meat from it.

Cheonsa relaxed, although she kept the hood up over her head, hiding her from view. She looked from Natheria to the newcomer and back again, before throwing a glance at her father, the look demanding answers.

Ronnath gave his girl a miniscule shrug and waved one hand at the two embracing elves.

“I had heard you had taken a job as a private tutor,” Orina told her sister as they broke the embrace. “And I received word only at moonrise you were in the city. Why didn’t you come directly to me?”

Still clutching her sister’s arms, Natheria gave a tiny shrug of her own. “Cheonsa was exhausted from the day’s journey here and we wanted to see you after we’ve had a chance to rest and clean up.”

“Wait,” Ronnath said as he grabbed a fresh dinner roll and handed it to Cheonsa, who took it and began nibbling on the still-warm bread. “You said you just got word of us arriving? Who told you?” He demanded, his voice more harsh than he had intended.

Orina tapped a beautifully fashioned symbol lying between her small breasts. It was crafted from the purist of silver and depicted a half shroud over a full moon. “Sehanine sent me your image and location during my moonrise prayers.”

He was not the most religious of men, but he did worship the goddess Mielikki, and he knew the goddess granted him special favor now and again in his never-ending battle against the undead and outsiders. As such it was not difficult for him to believe Natheria’s sister would have been given insight on their arrival. He blew out his cheeks and relaxed. “Cheonsa, you don’t need to remain covered.”

Almost reluctantly, the girl reached up and pulled the cloak from her head. She refused to look at the stranger who had arrived, even though the woman claimed she was Natheria’s sister. “Daddy, can I have some chicken?”

Seeing the tension, he strode over and scooped her up into his arms, smiling. “You can have whatever you want, my angel,” he held out the half-eaten drumtick to the girl, who took it, all the while keeping her face averted from Orina.

“A Tiefling,” Orina commented without inflection. She returned her attention to her sister. “I’m proud of you, baby sister.”

All three turned their attention on the newcomer, Ronnath’s eyes narrowing in anticipation of the anger he was certain he was about to feel.

“How so?” Natheria asked, genuinely curious.

“You see her for what she is, a little girl who needs love and understanding,” she waved a hand towards Cheonsa.

Upon hearing the words, Cheonsa looked directly at her, the young Tiefling’s red, cat-like eyes never blinking.

“Aye that is true, I love the girl like she was my own,” Natheria replied, looking upon the girl with unhidden affection.

“And you seem to have grown rather fond of her father as well,” Orina grinned knowingly at Ronnath and the back at her sister.

The ranger felt his face flush; realizing somehow the elf knew exactly what had transpired barely a day ago. “Well she is a good woman, and I’ve done what I can to provide shelter and food as she has been teaching me girl,” he cleared his throat. “I mean, as she has been teaching my daughter.”

The older elven woman nodded and then took one of the empty seats. “I knew you were here, and where you were staying, but what I am curious about is why you wanted to see me?” She crossed her legs demurely and smoothed out the hems of her dress.

Ronnath gently placed his daughter on the floor next to him and when she looked at the food and then back at him, he nodded, giving her permission to dig in. And she did just that with gusto, almost causing him to laugh. “It’s a bit of a complicated story,” he began.

Much to his surprise, Cheonsa stood in front of him, her mouth half-filled with chicken, and spoke up. “My daddy wants some protection from position,” she announced proudly.

This time it was Natheria who started to laugh, which only grew louder when she saw the look of confusion on the little girl’s face. “You meant to say,” she managed to choke out between giggles, “Possession!”

Cheonsa turned redder than her usual complexion and she nodded. “Aye, that. My daddy wants you to give him protection from possession,” she swallowed and repeated the sentence again, her small hands on her hips.

“I’ll assume you want such a thing permanent?” Orina asked, although she had an odd look in her eyes as she looked over the Ranger.

“Aye, but I want something that is not easily lost or taken away,” he confessed and then took a deep breath. “I’ve been possessed by a shadow demon in the past, and my soul has been tainted by the experience.

Orina continued to study him intently, and then she nodded. “I cannot detect any taint on you,” she said a moment later, smiling. “In fact, rarely have I seen such a soul like yours, one which radiates such goodness.”

“Wait,” Ronnath stammered, “What? What in the Abyss are you talking about?”

“It’s simple,” the elf stood up and came to stand in front of him as her younger sister watched on. “I used my magic to see into your heart, and you have regrets, but the way you treat people, your love for your daughter, and for that matter, my sister, your very morals, they speak volumes.”

“Now hold on,” both he and Natheria said at the same time, and when they met each other’s eyes, they could not help but laugh. Shaking his head in both humor and embarrassment, Ronnath continued. “I do care about your sister, but I never said I loved her,” he regretted the words the second they left his mouth.

“And I don’t love him either?” Natheria asked, and then realized she had said it as a question and not a statement. When she realized how it came out, she did a double face-palm.

“You two can lie all you wish, but in your hearts you know this to be true,” Orina laughed lightly. “Although a wood elf and a moon elf? That’s not something you see every day,” her eyes continued to twinkle. “I wonder what your baby will look like?”

Cheonsa beamed. “Baby? You’re gonna give me a little brother or sister?” She clapped her hands in glee, sending bits of chicken everywhere.

“You’re not helping,” Ronnath groaned. “Look, can you help me or not?” He said, barely keeping the desperation out of his voice, his faux pau already forgotten.

Reaching out, Orina traced a strange pattern from his temple down to his jawline with one slender finger on the right side of his face. “Aye, I certainly can,” she said. “Are you adverse to a tattoo?”

He blinked and even though her finger no longer touched his face, he could feel the residual energy left behind from the contact. “Uh… I guess not, as long as it is protection from evil, and something which can’t be taken away from me.”

“Daddy, are you an’ Natheria gonna give me a baby brother or sister?” Cheonsa said even more loudly than before.

“No!” Both he and Natheria practically shouted at the same time. When Natheria saw the look on Cheonsa’s face, she softened her tone and reached out for the girl. Cheonsa shied away, looking hurt.

“It was not something we planned on doing,” Natheria confessed and sighed. “Maybe in a few years, but it’s too soon for that.”

Sensing the tension building to the breaking point, Orina cleared her throat. “Well then, why don’t we get started?” She asked, looking at the Ranger and then to her sister, a knowing smile creasing her beautiful face.

“Hold on a second, you can do that here?” Ronnath asked incredulously.

“Do what, make me a baby sister or brother?” Cheonsa said gleefully.

“You’re not helping,” Ronnath groaned.

“Indeed I can,” Orina chuckled and then looked at the young Tiefling girl. “Not what you are hoping for though,” she indicated Ronnath. I’m going to make a very special drawing on your daddy’s face, and that will help protect him from becoming possessed.

“But you can’t help him give me a baby brother or sister?” She pouted.

Ronnath turned and bit his tongue, as he did not want to laugh in front of his daughter. She was just too young to understand, but the way she was maturing, she would figure it out all on her own soon enough.

“No, that I can’t do. That is entirely up to your daddy and my little sister,” Orina confessed and then her hands moved in an elaborate pattern, strange words issuing from her throat.

Cheonsa watched wide-eyed as the woman wove her magic and there was a bright flash of light and suddenly a small table covered in ink-pots and needles appeared before the elven woman.

“When did you learn to do that?” Natheria asked, her voice reflecting the wonder in her eyes.

“Oh, a few decades back,” Orina began to arrange the various needles on the cloth-draped table. She picked up a single small pot and lifted the lid. A bright silvery-blue glow emanated from the pot and she nodded in satisfaction. “All seems to be in order, are you ready?”

Ronnath blinked. He had intended on getting some magic to protect him from potential possession in the future, especially considering how often he dealt with the undead and more recently, outsiders like demons and devils. This was so sudden and unexpected, the really did not know what to say. “Uh, okay?”

“Go an’ get the art done daddy,” Cheonsa encouraged him as she grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the waiting elf, “And after I want you and Natheria to help make a baby brother or sister for me!”

“Oh for the love of…” Ronnath groaned.

Natheria turned away as he had, trying not to laugh, but her shoulders were shaking with silent mirth.

“Aye, why don’t you two get to work on that for your daughter?” Orina said deadpanned as she picked waved a hand at the bed. “Take your tunic off and lay down.”

Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, Ronnath did as bade. He stripped off his tunic and when Natheria held out her hand to take it, he could not help but notice the tears of mirth streaking down her beet-red face. She was both highly entertained and embarrassed by what the young Tiefling had said… and more so with how much her sister was encouraging it.

“Why do I need my tunic off?” Ronnath asked as he lay down.

Cheonsa went to the foot of the bed and began to pull his boots off. “Daddy, you tol’ me never to wear my boots to bed, so why are you doin’ that?”

“Sorry angel,” he replied. “Kind of forgot.”

Orina’s eyes twinkled in merriment. It was clear the older elf was enjoying the interaction between the three. “I just wanted to see your chest,” she winked.

The ranger groaned; “Mielikki preserve me…”

Without further discussion, the older elf dipped the first of the needles into the glowing ink and began to work.

***

During the proceeding hours, Cheonsa had fallen asleep, nestled in Natheria’s arms, leaning her head against the woman’s breasts. Natheria watched on until the exhaustion from the trip finally took its toll and she too, slipped into her meditative trance while her sister worked. Just after sunrise, the girl and her tutor awoke, both feeling somewhat refreshed, but famished. They dug into the remains of the meal and she announced they would head into the merchant ward in order to procure the goods they needed for the cabin.

Ronnath had reservations about allowing the two of them to leave his sight, but Orina shook her head and indicated they should go. The Ranger, overprotective of his adopted daughter was about to argue. Orina insisted her sister and his daughter would be safe.

“How?” He demanded.

“I trust my goddess,” Orina stated as she continued to work on his tattoo. “As I saw your arrival, I see both returning before we are finished, safe and sound.”

Ronnath could not move his head, but he could see Natheria standing nearby, and it was obvious from the look on her face she trusted her sister implicitly, and so he decided to trust her as well. “Just be careful, please?”

“We will,” Natheria promised and much to his surprised, she leaned in and kissed him on the lips quickly before pulling back, blushing slightly.

“Do you want anything daddy?” Cheonsa asked him, and a second later she kissed him on the cheek. “I saved up some coin, and would like to get you something.”

“Surprise me,” he told her, grinning.

“Okay!”

After grabbing their travelling cloaks, they departed the room, leaving Ronnath and Orina alone. He looked longingly at the door, knowing their leaving without him to protect them went against his nature. He had promised never to let Cheonsa out of his sight, and that extended to the elf tutor as well.

“Trust in my vision,” Orina chided him softly. “I would never steer my sister or your daughter down a dangerous path.”

“Adopted daughter,” he corrected.

Orina only smiled as she continued to work, leaving the Ranger to wonder what she meant by that.

Receiving the tattoo was nowhere near as painful as Ronnath had expected, and he suspected Orina had used some of her magic to deaden the pain. The pattern she wove was complex and the ink burned with a purifying fire, which seemed to fill his entire being, not just his face. He found it oddly… relaxing. A feeling of peace and contentment flowed out from the ink, easing the ever-present soul-deep ache he had been feeling from the moment he had awoken after the demon had relented and given him back control of his body.

“I find it quite entertaining you and my baby sister are denying the way you feel towards one another,” she said as she dipped another needle into the inkpot.

“It’s not that,” Ronnath began and then sighed. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply before continuing. “Actually yes, it is just that. I’ve wanted your sister since the moment I laid eyes on her.”

Orina paused, one white eyebrow raised in amusement. “But instead of acting, you decided to wait and let time pass,” she answered for him. “How elvish of you.”

Ronnath’s eyes snapped open, but he remained perfectly still. “What is that supposed to mean?” He asked waspishly.

She did not answer as she used the magic-infused ink to fill in another section of the tattoo, murmuring another incantation beneath her breath. A few minutes later, she nodded in satisfaction and placed the needle on the table. “It means you’re trying too hard to act like an elf. I know you were raised by humans and somehow you feel like you’re not really an Elf. You believe that acting on your impulse and desire would be an insult to my sister.”

He stared up at her for several seconds before speaking. “Aye – and there was the fact I did not want to taint or tarnish the relationship between her and I,” he told her. “I respect your sister far too much.”

She cupped his chin in one hand and examined her work before running her fingers along the elaborate pattern. “Now that,” she grinned impishly, “is a truly honest answers,” the grin softened into a gentle, knowing smile. “Have you ever considered by not acting upon your impulse you might be showing disrespect to your human parents?”

He blinked. “No, that never occurred to me.

“Think about it,” she told him. She Stood and stretched her arms above her head and sighed. “Oh and we’re done.”

As if on que, the door opened, revealing Cheonsa and Natheria. They had several bundles between them and they entered looking tired by content.

Ronnath sat up and touched his face. It did not feel any different than it had before, although he could sense the power beneath his fingertips, ready to be activated at a simple thought. “I thought it would take a lot longer.”

Natheria and his daughter came over to look at the tattoo. The Elf tutor nodded in approval as Cheonsa squealed in delight, “It looks really pretty on you daddy!”

“Aye,” agreed Natheria, “It becomes you.”

Sensing what he was about to ask, Orina held up a small silver mirror. Ronnath took it and held it up so he could see her handiwork. He had to admit it did hold a great deal of appeal to him, and he liked how the tattoo seemed to pulse in time to his heartbeat, a soft, golden hue that reminded him of first rays of sunlight, peering over the horizon.

“Did you get everything you needed?” Ronnath asked, handing the mirror back to the Priestess and grabbing his tunic.

“We still have a little more shopping to do,” Natheria informed him, “But I think we managed to get most of the staples you wrote down.

Reaching into the tunic, Ronnath pulled out a small purse. It did not jingle the way a coin-purse would, instead it sounded like it contained a number of rocks. He tossed it to Orina who caught it with one hand, the other she used to dismiss the tray of tattooing tools.

“There is no need for this,” she said, holding the purse, eyeing it skeptically.

“I insist. I would have paid that anyhow to get some local mage or sorcerer to create an item I could have used,” Ronnath said as he knelt so Cheonsa could touch the elaborate, glowing tattoo on his face. “Tell me this won’t be glowin’ all the time,” he indicated her handy work.

Orina opened the purse and dumped the contents into her open palm. There was a scattering of precious gems, some quite valuable, glinting in the evening light shining through the window. “No, by this time tomorrow the magic will have been fully absorbed into the tattoo. It will only glow if you wish it to, or when you activate it. Just think about activating the protection, and it will happen.”

“Thank you sister,” Natheria embraced the older elf.

“Aye, thank you!” Cheonsa echoed, bowing deeply before the woman.

“You’re welcome,” Orina answered, as she returned her sisters embrace. “Please stop by and visit me before you return to the wilds.”

“I promise I’ll bring her by before we leave,” Ronnath vowed. He reached up and touched the tattoo again, almost unconsciously.

The older Elf poured the gemstones from her palm back into the purse and then placing it in her dress. “Before I forget,” she smoothed out the wrinkles which had accumulated during the long hours. “You can use the power in the tattoo but once a day, and it will only last a short period of time, so use it wisely.”

This caused Ronnath to stiffen. “I don’t know when I’ll be potentially possessed, so that makes it kind of useless,” he growled.

“Oh, that…” Orina grinned. “As long as you have the tattoo, you will always be protected from that, fear not.”

Ronnath relaxed. “Sorry, and thank you.”

“I’m sure it will prove to be quite handy, and you are welcome.”

End