Robert N. Charrette

Never trust an elf


'Pain is a useful tool, Mr. Kern.' The muscles of Kern's neck complained as he turned his head to look at the speaker, who was tall and thin, suspiciously thin. Kern could distinguish little else because of the way the other man stood silhouetted against the light. Squinting against the glare, he made out the elongated shape of the man's ears and the slant of his eyes, and knew that this was no man but an elf. Kern spat at him, but the sputum sizzled and vanished without ever touching either the impeccable suit or the dark skin of the elf. Protective magic, no doubt.

'An unnecessary display, Mr. Kern.' Those dark, slanted eyes twinkled for a moment. 'I am aware of your antipathy.'

Kern was restrained in some fashion he could not see, but nothing seemed to restrain his voice. 'Slot yourself, elf.'

'My name is Urdli, Mr. Kern.' That didn't mean anything to Kern. The name might not even be real. The face certainly wasn't familiar. The sure thing was that this Urdli had Kern at a severe disadvantage. But that could change.

'We are going to get to know each other quite well, Mr. Kern. Or rather, 7 am going to get to know you. Through pain, I will come to know you.' 'Know thyself, weedeater.' 'A clever play on Aristotle's maxim, Mr. Kern. Perhaps you will be comforted to know that this course will not be without pain for me as well.' Somehow Kern doubted that. 'My heart bleeds.'

'Not yet, Mr. Kern. Not yet.' The elf's matter-of-fact tone seemed a promise that Kern's offhanded remark might become a literal truth. Kern's body tried to shudder, but was balked. Neither could he act on his desire to leap up and run. Though he could sense his limbs well enough, he had not the slightest command over them. He was helpless, held immobile by the elf's magic.

Well, at least the elf had left him his mind and his voice. Too bad he wasn't a magician himself. But then, Kern supposed, the elf would not have left him his voice.

'You're looking for trouble messing with me, weed-eater. Don't you know who I am?'

'Of course I do, Mr. Kern. That is why you are here.'

Kern felt a strange sensation on his feet. A light touch, then another, and another. The sensation spread, flowing up his legs like worms crawling over his flesh. There seemed to be dozens of them squirming invisibly over him. The phantom slithering advanced past his knees, up his thighs, and then the first of the ghostly worms reached his crotch. Then they all bit him, and he screamed. The ghost worms vanished at his shout. The pain they had caused was minor; Kern had been as much surprised as hurt. He was in darkness, and he realized that time had passed. Opening his eyes, he stared venomously at the elf. Urdli regarded him blandly as if he were some sort of experiment.

'You have a strong will for a mundane human, Mr. Kern. Your master chose well.'

'If you know who I work for, then you know you're in deep drek.'

The hint of a smile touched Urdli's wide-lipped mouth. 'Do not comfort yourself with the false hope that you will be rescued, Mr. Kern. No one knows

that we have you. Your associates at Saeder-Krupp believe you dead.'

Kern told himself that the elf s assertion was unlikely. His people would know, wouldn't they? Suddenly he wasn't sure. How could he be? He didn't remember much of his capture. A flash and some thunder, or maybe the loud noises echoing in his head had come from gunfire. He remembered Eunice screaming, her face all bloody. Was she still alive, too, another of the elf's prisoners? They'd been on a trip. Obviously, they had not reached their destination. His people had to know he had been taken. 'They'll come for me.'

'As I said, Mr. Kern, a false hope. To them you are no more. Your only hope of life lies in cooperation.'

Not bloody likely. If Saeder-Krupp thought him dead, he might as well be dead. Without the support of his corporation, he had no protection and no one to avenge him. This elf would have no fear of killing Kern once he got what he wanted. No matter what hints Urdli threw out of letting Kern live if he cooperated, Kern could tell that the elf was lying. If he had intended to permit his captive to live, he would never have started with torture.

As if the thought had given them birth, new ghost worms began to crawl up Kern's legs. This time they touched his hands as well, curling around his fingers and slithering up his arms. He tried to steel himself for their bite, but they only continued crawling. Another moment, and he readied himself again, certain the time had come, but still they just crawled. It was a cruel game, but he played it anyway. When they finally bit, he had no time to feel surprise that he had misjudged the timing. He only had time for the pain. The darkness and dissociation came again. He knew time had passed. He had been thinking of his job with

Saeder-Krupp. His own thoughts, or the results of Ur-dli's probings? Had he talked? If so, about what?

When he opened his eyes again, another elf was present. Kern didn't remember his arrival.

This new elf was neither as tall nor as thin as Urdli, but he would never be mistaken for an ordinary human. His face was handsome, almost beautiful. His hair was spun of fine silver, his eyes a molten gold, and his fair skin almost alabaster in its sheeri and tone. He had that ageless look of the classic elven meta-type. He might have stepped from a fairy tale save that, like Urdli, he wore a business suit of the most fashionable cut.

Kern didn't want to believe that he recognized this elf. The implications were too much.

The worms came again, squirming up his limbs. 'Strip him.' It was the new elf who spoke. 'You are impatient,' Urdli said, his tone that of a teacher's commenting on a student's performance. 'Maybe I just don't like playing with him.' 'Playing?' Urdli turned to his companion and the worms vanished. 'I am not playing. There is an order to all things, even to what we do here.'

'Just hurry up,' the silver-haired elf snapped, his expression stony.

'If I were to 'hurry up,' the knowledge this man carries might be damaged. He is only a human, after all.'

'We must know.' 'And we shall,' Urdli assured him. 'Soon,' the newcomer insisted. Annoyance crept into Urdli's voice. 'Would you care to do this yourself?'

The silver hair was barely ruffled when its owner shook his head. 'You have far more experience in these matters.'

'Then perhaps you will trust me to know the best course.'

The fair-skinned elf said nothing. Instead he turned and stalked from the room.

Kern watched the retreating back of Glasgian Oak-forest, Prince of Tir Tairngire. Glasgian was son and heir to Prince Aithne, a prominent member of the Tir Tairngire Council of Princes. If Glasgian's presence meant the council was involved, there would be only one release for Kern. Death. His last hope for salvation departed with Prince Glasgian.

The worms returned.


Glasgian did not like waiting, but he liked being present even less. Three days passed before he reen-tered the darkened chamber. A long time of enforced patience, considering the nature of the information the man could provide. And, given the possibility that an investigation could uncover their deception, time might be in short supply. If the master of Saeder-Krupp became suspicious, he would act and they would lose the prize. The sooner they had what they wanted from this Saeder-Krupp tool, the sooner they could act and, thereby, avoid any interference from the tool's owner.

He found Urdli stripped naked and sitting in the center of a chalked circle. The Australian elf no longer looked like a dapper businessman; rather he looked like an aborigine from some old vid documentary of the last century. On thongs around his neck and waist he wore bones and other scavengings of the natural world. More danced on bracelets when he waved his arms. Stripes and whorls of ocher and drab gray stood out against the darkness of

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