Elf Boy's Friends - X
"All right, young man. What was that all about? I appreciate your fingering a crooked gambler, but I have a feeling there is more to it than that."
"There is. Tonight I set in motion my plan to expose the killer in our midst."
"Are you talking about those five mysterious deaths? Those were murders?"
Corwin nodded. "Almost certainly the work of a life leech."
Corwin explained that a life leech was one of those very rare humans who enjoyed an indefinite life span at the expense of others. The leech's magical gift let him kill with a mere touch of his hands though he had to maintain contact for a few minutes to fully drain the life force of others and use it to restore his youth. The fact of multiple victims had thrown Corwin off at first. Life leeches usually fed only once every few years and then on only a single person, a youth or girl of their same gender. The infrequency of their kills helped them escape detection or even suspicion.
The marshall's description of the victims' appearance had suggested aging, but the medical practitioners and witnesses Corwin had talked to had told a somewhat different story. The victims' hair had not turned gray nor were their faces truly wrinkled, nor did they have age spots as with true senescence. Instead their faces looked sunken or drained, their whole being diminished.
"Do life leeches take pleasure from draining a victim? Is that why this monster has killed five times so far?"
"Perhaps, but a better guess is that his regenerative powers are failing. He can still kill with a touch or draw out the life force of his victims, but a single life no longer does as much for him. To fully rejuvenate he might need a dozen victims for each cycle. Maybe his cycle is shorter too."
"I see. So what is this plan of yours?"
"Simple. I have set a trap using myself as the bait. At the saloon I deliberately made myself conspicuous, wearing the armband of a magical healer and sussing out that cheat. You understand that the life force of a magical healer is much stronger than normal. That will tempt him to drain me. And my empathic powers are a threat. I might see through his mask of normalcy. I actually felt the leech's presence in the saloon, but I could not pick him out of the crowd. No question now that he knows about me. He will try to kill me very soon."
"Tonight. We three will return to the saloon to set the stage. After a couple of drinks I will peel away, ostensibly to catch up on my sleep while my friends continue socializing. Derry here will keep in touch with all of us via Mind Speech, including you Marshall. Now the killer might try to sneak in while I sleep or knock on the door on some pretext to get me to open it. When that happens Axel will teleport himself to my room. The two of us will capture or kill the leech. You and Derry will come up the stairs to block any attempt at escape."
Sigurdsson nodded. "If he tries to get past us, I'll hit him with a mild levin bolt, just enough to stun him. Still I have to ask: How does a giant-elf hybrid have telepathic powers in the first place?"
<When he is a shape shifter whose alternate form is that of a unicorn.> Derry told him telepathically, slipping out of his sarong and assuming his quadrupedal form, horn and all.
"Well I'll be damned." the marshall said amazed. "And you can teleport, can you Axel?"
Axel nodded. "And both Corwin and I will be armed with our carbines."
"And if our carbines don't intimidate him, my ball lightning will."
Corwin called up a single ball of lightning four feet wide which hummed and crackled menacingly.
"The most important thing Marshall is don't let him touch you with his bare hands." Axel cautioned. "Leave capturing him to me."
"Why you? Aren't you just as vulnerable to a life leech as anyone else?"
"No, I am immune to hostile magic, for reasons I do not care to disclose. The fewer who know… "
The Marshall's gaze went to Axel's throat.
"That's an ensorcelled amulet, isn't it?"
Axel confirmed the marshal's shrewd guess but asked Sigurdsson not to tell anyone else, not even his deputies. He agreed, saying:
"There is a whole lot more to you three than I ever suspected."
No plan survives contact with the main strength of the enemy, and Corwin's plan was no exception. The life leech set a fire in a dormitory as a distraction. In all the commotion, no one would hear Corwin's cries for help or the clash of weapons if it came to that. Nor would anyone mark or remember his own movements. Another advantage was that the fire and the crowd would draw the attention of the town marshall and his deputies.
The leech was resolved that Corwin would die this and provide him with the life force he needed to rejuvenate. Who knew? The life force of a Healer might even cure his problem and restore his fading powers. It was so unfair that after only four centuries of life, less than that of most elves, he had gone into decline. He now looked to be twenty years older than he ever had before.
The life leech knocked on Corwin's door, telling him though the closed door that the marshall had sent him and that his healing powers were needed to save a man wounded in a knife fight.
"OK. I'll come right away." Corwin called then pulled on a cord he had rigged to open the latch from across the room.
A big man looking to be in his forties stepped into the room reaching for the boy he expected to be standing in the doorway.
He grabbed air.
Corwin was standing in the far corner with his carbine leveled. A red-headed youth armed with another carbine stood in the center of the room, careful to stay out of his friend's line of fire.
"Don't shoot. I surrender." he said, adding with a disarming grin: "I am willing to take my chances in court. You cannot prove a thing against me."
The leech didn't really dare face a court of justice. How would he explain his false claim that the marshall had sent him for Corwin to save a dying man?. Not only did he have ample opportunity for the murders and no alibis, an an empath would give the lie to his denials. No his outward confidence was just a tactic to put his enemies off their guard. Just wait till one or the other of them came within reach.
It was Axel who advanced to tie his wrists behind his back and then slip steel gauntlets over his hands. A blacksmith was standing by to rivet them around his wrists.
The leech let Axel get close then made his move. He grabbed Axel's bare arm and invoked his deadly power.
Nothing happened — till Axel kneed him in the groin.
In pain but still fully functional, the big man shoved Axel into Corwin's line of fire and made a break for the door only to impale himself on the unicorn's horn. Its monomolecular point sundered his ribs and pierced his heart, killing him instantly. Just to be sure, after the body slumped to the floor, Derry stomped on his head and crushed the skull.
Derry wanted the foul creature dead and had always intended to kill him straight out, no matter what the marshall or his own friends wanted.
<Killed while trying to escape. All proper and legal.>
"Was it really necessary to smash his skull too?" Axel asked.
<I had to make sure he stayed dead. Who knows how powerful the regenerative powers of a life leech might be? My own shapeshifter gift can regenerate a seriously damaged body, but not without a working circulatory system and brain. So if you ever need to kill a wir, present company excepted of course, decapitate him, though that takes a sharp blade and strong arm.>
"Not the way I'd do it." Axel told him. "In Amazonia I would jump next to a troll, put a hand to his head then jump away with just the head, leaving the rest of his body behind. My technique was efficient since it combined the kill stroke and the getaway. But don't get me started on war stories."
Corwin nodded. What was done was done.
The marshall and a deputy showed up a while later.
"There's your life leech, Marshall. He tried to kill me and Axel. When that plan failed, he turned to flee, but Derry killed him as he sought to escape. You can touch his body now that he is dead." Corwin told them.
"Maybe it's better this way." the marshall allowed. "He would always have been a threat to his jailers till the day he was executed."
The marshall was relieved that he did not have to keep a life leech incarcerated for even a few days, steel gauntlets or no. Good riddance to the fiend anyway.
They later learned that under the name of Lazlo Szeged the life leech worked for the night patrol hired by the businessmen's association in the commercial center. That gave him the opportunity to prowl around at night unsuspected and to approach strangers in the dark.
Corwin had a terrific story to tell: a tale of mystery and magic, mayhem and murder. It was sure to sell papers. Unfortunately the young reporter had no way to file his copy. No heliograph line or postal autogyro served the area. Fortunately Axel could teleport to the offices of the Capital Intelligencer and hand the story over to Corwin's editor. They would not only print it but put it out via the Altair's Press Association which linked the news-papers of the Commonwealth via the postal heliograph.
Next stop was the suite in a residential hotel he shared with his friends to drop off his and Corwin's dirty laundry and pick up replacements though Corwin's would be getting little use since he had to ride Derry while sky-clad. No one else was at home, so he left a note to tell the others that he had stopped by briefly. Corwin's story in the Capital Intelligencer would tell them what he and Corwin had been up to.
Axel was also carrying a letter from Derry to his folks about how he had fallen in with Corwin and Axel and would be traveling with them until they finally returned to the capital of the Commonwealth. Axel posted it via air mail. He then stopped by the Institute for a brief visit with Sir Willet, to fill him in and to arrange for any mail addressed to Derrionydd or Derry to be held at the institute to be called for, either in person or by Axel on his next hop, skip, and a jump visit to the capital.
Axel teleported back to Viborg and mounted Melody while Derry transformed to let Corwin mount him. After saying their goodbyes to Marshall Sigurdsson the three travelers headed out.
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