A violent confrontation between two elven warriors
Ambition is the disease from which evil comes.
But without it we cannot hope to glimpse our dearest dreams.
It is the cause of dreams, as it gives the power needed to escape from the mold dictated by circumstance.
Without ambition, we are but puppets dancing to the tune of another’s song, prisoners to a fate we did not choose.
Yet, if left unchecked and wild, it makes prisoners of those without dreams of their own, pulling them into the mold of circumstance. Those without vision are doomed to serve those with it.
-From “Mournful Meditations” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow
Ruins of Ai’esla’dar, Elven Temple of Dreams...
The assassin walked up the jagged stone stairs leading up to the ruined shrine of Anthesia, elven goddess of Nature and Magic. Built by the elves of Shanakri, followers and advocates of Anthesia’s Great River, the temple had stood atop this hill for more than a century before having recently collapsed under the weight of a merciless storm. Even now the air was ripe with the violence of weather, the sky obscured by heavy clouds ready to burst with the tears of the heavens above.
He could not help but find the dreariness of the surrounding panorama to be somewhat appropriate, albeit in a melancholy fashion. His prey had fled to this place from the forest below, as if somehow thinking he would discover salvation this shattered skeleton of faded elven glory. The temple, he knew, was once called Ai’esla’dar by the elves of Shanakri, a name meaning “Beautiful Dream” when translated from Old Elven.
As he glanced up at the sky, observing the swirl of grey clouds hovering over the shattered pillars, he was overcome by a sudden sense of dread. And, for a moment, he hesitated. The raven perched atop his left shoulder gave a sharp caw of forceful encouragement, but the sound sent a shiver running along his spine, reinforcing his pause. He was the harbinger of death, bringing its dark shade here, to what was once a holy place. He felt the moisture dissipate in his throat, leaving a scorched desert in his mouth.
From beneath the brim of his hood, crystalline eyes of eerie blue continued to gaze up at the miserable heavens, as if searching for some sign of judgment or condemnation. He would soon turn this ancient place of dreams into a grave saturated in the blood born of nightmares. If the divine powers of the universe were at all outraged, they appeared content to merely let the storm speak on their behalf. Thunder rippled through the air, so forcefully that the elvish assassin felt his bones rattle.
As if irritated with its familiar’s reluctance to proceed, the black bird gave one more squawk before leaping into the air. Its magnificent wings spread wide, capturing a gust of wind, and it flung itself to the fractured summit of the nearest column. Still from his place along the slope of the hill, the assassin followed the bird’s path with eyes returning to icy resolve.
It was done now, he knew. The temple’s ruins had been defiled the instant the raven made contact with its sanctified stone. There was no point in further delaying the inevitable. He had only to converge on the ruins himself, find his prey, and wet the soil with the other elf’s blood.
Nonetheless, he still sighed.
A second breeze tugged at the folds of his black cloak, snatching strands of silver hair out from beneath the mouth of his hood. Dark folds fluttering around him, argent hair billowing over his eyes, he marched up the remaining distance and at last came to stand within the midst of the toppled pillars.
Shadows bathed the entire scene in a blanket so thick that it defied even the superior vision of the assassin’s elvish eyes. Keil took in a soft breath, tasting the rawness of the air around him, how ripe it was in waiting for the storm’s morbidly rapturous touch. He moved deeper into the shadows, hands hovering over the pommels of the enchanted swords worn at his hips.
Deeper and deeper he walked into the dismal embrace of ruined Ai’esla’dar. After his latest step, the air came alive with the warning squawk of the raven from somewhere above. Past experience with the mysterious creature’s near-prophetic foresight encouraged him to spin about in an instant, his short, curved swords already raised in defense.
Elvish steel crashed against elvish steel in a hissing fury of magical sparks. Keil pulled back, twisting himself to the left so as to avoid his adversary’s anticipated lunge. Sure enough, the other elf, similarly armed with twin swords, darted ahead in a thrust that might have proved fatal.
Aware that his enemy had evaded him, and now a victim of overbalance, the other elf forced himself to the ground in a quick roll that saved him from the assassin’s subsequent attempt at decapitation. He swiftly sprang back up to his feet, turning to again face death’s messenger. He was as lithe as the assassin across from him, his dark eyes partially veiled by wisps of crimson hair that danced to the commands of the continual wind. His own wiry form was sheathed in an outfit of black, a mirror of Keil’s own, the standard raiment of a Shadow Warrior of Darnok Terien.
Though he had lost his cloak in the forest below, Rajem had managed to keep his swords, both decorated with the rune language of elven magic. Infused with the blessing of Darnok Terien, the blades would not break or wear, and could pierce any surface with the exception of similarly enchanted blades—such as those wielded by Keil himself.
“So you have found me, traitor,” Rajem muttered into the tension-strangled silence, his eyes fixing upon the silver-haired elf a glare filled with the condemnation the heavens themselves had neglected to provide. “Come to finish your Lord’s depraved design?”
Traitor. The word somehow managed to sink into Keil’s flesh, spreading a disease into his blood. He felt himself grimace, but he managed to return the other’s glare. “I obey the Overlord of Darnok Terien. I am loyal,” he objected while briskly closing the distance between them with a curt slash from his left.
Rajem flung himself beneath the strike, rolling again to come up by his enemy’s side. “Loyal?” he spat, incredulity and outrage contorting his aesthetic visage. “You slay—murder—your Darnok Terien brethren, fellow elves, to fulfill the commands of a human gone mad!” In accentuation of his fury, he came in with both blades, leading first with his right in a low thrust.
The assassin dipped the blade in his left hand, easily deflecting the opposite thrust, and pivoted away from the second attack. The sword in his right was sent in an arcing slash towards his opponent’s chest, but the other elf managed to quickly organize a defense, crossing his twin swords in an X formation that trapped Keil’s extended blade. Just as his adversary began to push forward with the intent to weigh down his imprisoned sword, the assassin peeled himself away, twirling to his right and putting a severed column between himself and the other elf.
“The Inner Circle itself appointed to him the title of Overlord,” Keil hissed while stalking around the column. “They saw in him the potential to create a masterpiece from the lore and wisdom of Darnok Terien. These deaths are merely a required step to ensure that his course is made real without unnecessary obstruction.”
Rajem gave an incomprehensible growl as he greeted his enemy at the other end of the pillar, his swords already slicing into the other’s defenses with lethal intent. “You speak like a bird trained to repeat the sophism of its master, blind and ignorant to the truths and tragedies buried in the deception,” he sneered, just before diving in at his foe again and again.
Keil’s swords worked in a simultaneous blur, each independent of the other’s movements but joined in the unity of rhythm. Right and left and right again, each blade struck against one of Rajem’s own in a furious cadence of shrieking steel. His adversary was relentless, however, possessed by a speed and cunning worthy of Darnok Terien’s most elite warriors. Even as their swords mercilessly continued to crash into one another, the red-haired elf stepped into the nimbus of sparking steel, snapping a foot out in a sweeping kick for the assassin’s nearest ankle.
So lost was he in the intertwining violence of their blades that Keil nearly stumbled, his struck foot having been jerked up from the ground. He pivoted on his opposite heel, inadvertently turning his back to his opponent even while instinctively ducking his head beneath a brutal slash. Silver strands of hair spilled about in wild disarray as he suddenly darted forward and onto the length of the column now in front of him. Right foot then left foot leapt upon the worn stone, and the assassin propelled himself into the air, spiraling over his adversary’s head, the folds of his cloak flapping madly in his wake.
His feet set down on the ground just behind Rajem in the next instant, and he immediately plunged forward with dual slashes. But the red-haired elf briskly dived to the side, leaving Keil’s swords to slice into the pillar, unleashing an explosion of brilliant sparks as the blades left their indentation in the hallowed stone.
Rajem, meanwhile, had twirled away to the left to leap atop a fractured pillar’s uneven peak, his swords already plunging down for a murderous bite at Keil’s head.
The assassin reacted with surprising celerity, lifting both his swords in a wall of flashing steel, and soon Rajem was forced from pressing the attack to swatting away slashes at his feet and legs. His feet were a blur in a bewildering dance with the assassin’s swords, until at last he managed to slam a heel down atop one of his enemy’s blades. Having his adversary trapped, although briefly, he quickly snapped his other heel out in a hard kick that caught the assassin in the shoulder.
He watched the other elf stumble back before leaping down from the fractured pillar. “Yes, Darnok Terien welcomed him, saw in him a potential like no other,” the red-haired warrior of Darnok Terien allowed while moving forward. “But he corrupted the gift bestowed upon him! He would fashion himself as a god, and he has made you so thoroughly depraved and deprived of sight that you willingly kill your own kin for his appeasement, that you willingly mold yourself into his angel of death and destruction!” Anger began to surge within him as he advanced step after step. “Do you not even question what he does? He orders you, his puppet assassin, to kill those who took him in, who in turn took you in under their care and tutelage! He stains you with the blood of innocents!”
“Innocents!” Keil snarled, though his voice was nearly drowned beneath a renewed blast of thunder. The stone ruins around them trembled, and the clouds above started to burst into a faint drizzle of rain. “He will create a new world,” he said while taking a step back. “A world without the perversity spread by the Empire of our people—an Empire that exiled Darnok Terien and all elves who opposed the doctrine of Anthesia and Her blasted River of Destiny!”
“He has you murdering elves!” Rajem roared, rushing in with both swords poised to drink in the other’s blood.
“I am not a murderer!” Keil growled, ducking under the first assault and pirouetting to his left. He sent a foot out in a swift, sweeping kick at his adversary’s ankles and, just as Rajem began to stumble forward, twisted himself in such a way as to slam the pommel of one sword between the other’s shoulders from behind.
Rajem hit the ground hard, and the assassin moved to tower over him, the folds of his cloak billowing in the currents of the raging wind. “I have seen elves murder—I have seen the corruption of our people under the rule of the Empire.” He hissed while watching his prey crawl back to his feet. “I have seen the death of innocence!”
“You have wrought the deaths of innocence!” Rajem accused, grief from recent loss pushing him forward with a thirst for violence. Their swords crashed together in a conflagration of magic light and the ear-splitting wail of steel on steel. Over and over again their swords hammered into one another while they both manipulated their feet in a meticulous choreography filled with quick pivots and abrupt twists.
“Nothing you have endured can justify this treachery—this support of his depravity!” Rajem growled over the hiss of elvish steel, the memory of his mentor, killed by this Shadow Warrior’s blades, still fresh in his mind. His anguish painted within his consciousness a panorama of rage and hate, fueling his death dance and intensifying the tempo of his sword song.
Above them both, the raven cawed almost excitedly from its perch, taking in the scene with what may have been wicked pleasure.
“Darnok Terien must be cleansed before the world at large can follow,” Keil answered to his opponent’s indictment, freely allowing the other elf to conquer step after step of precious ground. Yet even as his mind worked at composing his next act in this violent drama, he found himself wondering at how hollow his words had seemed to his pointed ears. Was he merely echoing sophistry Meithcael had once said to him, just as Rajem had accused?
“Cleansed?” Rajem’s voice pierced his mind, just before thunder once again sent ripples of shock through the earth, almost causing the combatants to stumble. “He means to destroy us!”
Keil fought to keep his breathing calm, forcing his mind to repress sensation and thoughts leading to anger. His eyes remained fixed upon his prey, on the obvious skill he demonstrated. “You were once Shanakri,” he said suddenly, over the grating embrace of their blades, “advocate of Anthesia and Her Great River.” He allowed himself a moment to glance about at their shattered surroundings. “From my understanding, Shanakri believe in adhering to the path laid out before them, as though everything follows a course wrought by the Divine, prearranged by Anthesia.”
“I believed that once,” Rajem admitted, his brows twitching in suspicion, his advance slowly beginning to falter. “But I left the Shanakri for the liberty of choice exercised by Darnok Terien.”
“We are all prisoners of choice, aren’t we?” Keil muttered, easily pulling back so that the two of them were now circling one another.
“You allow yourself to be imprisoned, my fellow Shadow Warrior.”
The assassin felt a laugh threatening to escape his lips. “And you? How have you come to be here, in the grip of death, if not by the force of a greater power’s will?”
Rajem stood straighter, his eyes locking onto Keil’s. “I am here because I choose to try and stop you and the vileness perpetrated by your human master. But if I am to be brought before death’s door, then that will indeed be done by the choice of another—by you. Yet it is I who chooses to allow you that choice.”
Keil, still circling his adversary, scowled with thinly veiled incredulity. “You have become lost in the madness of too much philosophy. If you are to die here, it is because you are the weaker of us two.” Before the other elf could respond, he added in a cold whisper of his breath: “And there is no doubt of that, as there is no hope for you.”
Rajem closed his eyes, feeling the weight of the words that had been hurled at him, weighing them against his inner resolve. When next thunder tore through the heavens, cutting the clouds above so that the rainfall they bled onto the earth exacerbated into a savage downpour, the red-haired elf opened his eyes and smiled with disturbing serenity. “There is always hope, so long as there are those who choose to believe in it, to dare dream of it.”
“This is no dream—this is real!” Keil snarled over the roar of pouring rain. He darted ahead, the sword in his left snapping out in a vicious slash, from which Rajem predictably stepped aside—and into the path of his second blade.
The sword in his right crashed hard into that held in his victim’s opposite hand, and he knew that the force had been sufficient to numb the other’s arm. Before Rajem could recover, Keil pivoted himself on the ball of his right foot and drove his left heel into his foe’s gut. The other elf reeled straight back into the pillar behind him.
The impact drew a harsh cry from the red-haired elf, and his numbed hand lost its grip on the sword it had been wielding. Grimacing, he forced his feet to stay under him and managed to keep himself from falling over. Armed now with a single sword, he looked at his cloaked enemy, who suddenly appeared as some forlorn, nightmarish wraith forged by the darkness of the storm around them. Collecting his wits and his breath, he murmured into that darkness, “This indeed real, my fellow Shadow Warrior, but it is a reality built upon our own choices.”
“And what a sad choice yours was,” Keil sneered as he dove in with a reintroduction to violence. His adversary fought valiantly, but the ultimate outcome was inevitable. Keil never failed, and Rajem could not begin to equal his prowess or raw power. Their swords were as much a haze from the sheer speed of their savagery as much as from the dense sheets of rain pouring down atop them.
Just as Keil was beginning to taste the familiar flavor of approaching victory, a flavor hinted at by his opponent’s slowing rhythm, the other elf said something that shook him down to his core: “At least the choice was mine own.”
Even as the words left his tongue, Rajem’s single blade rolled over that in Keil’s right, darting up to meet the subsequent slash the assassin sent from his left. Too late, Keil felt his same arm quivering from the impact of the blow. But before his adversary could exploit the temporary vulnerability, the assassin lashed out with a ferocious downward cut from his right.
The magical blade bit into the flesh of the other elf’s wrist, sinking deeper and deeper until bone and veins had split to make way for open air. Keil watched with a detached mind as Rajem toppled to his knees, struggling not to scream as he clutched at the bloodied stump his right hand had been reduced to.
Watching the other elf’s struggle, feeling as though he could hear the other’s mind silently questioning the beliefs that had brought him to this doomed place, the assassin found himself hesitating once again. He turned away, lowering his gaze to the ground, where he saw the relentless downpour of rain was washing the stream of blood from the stone at their feet. The weight he felt in his heart just then was almost unbearable.
A sharp squawk from the raven, somehow strong enough to be heard over the howling storm, forced him back into the present.
“Take pleasure in the fact that your suffering will end here, my fellow Shadow Warrior,” he whispered while coming to stand over his victim, “whereas mine…mine will persist for an eternity.”
Rajem found the strength to lift his gaze to Keil’s own. His face was silent, paling, but the eyes maintained their fire, along with the addition of something new…disappointment.
The assassin turned away, even while driving the edge of one sword down and into the other’s neck. He did not savor the kill. As soon as the blow was delivered, he turned himself around, allowing the continual rain to clean the blood from his blades before returning them to their sheaths.
With that done, he used both hands to ceremoniously pull his hood again up over his head, swallowing his argent hair in shadow. The raven fluttered down from its column perch and resumed its place atop his shoulder. Without a sound, shrouded within the hostile obscurity of the storm, he simply started away from the ruins, trying his best to not gaze up at the heavens less they present him with further signs of judgment.
He was becoming most disheartened by playing the role of the abject assassin. It was time to see his mentor. It was time to confront Meithcael, Overlord of Darnok Terien.
Identity is often forged through circumstance, forced and molded to fit a precise shape.
Those who ascend beyond circumstance forge for themselves their own identities, their own shape.
One must always be conscious of the role circumstance would have him play and the role he desires himself to fill. Adherence to circumstance, avoidance of defiance to its current, creates the most dreaded role of all…
…That of the slave.
-From “Repugnant Revelations” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow
Playing the Role
The Spire of the Storm,
He walked through the narrow corridor of the Tower’s uppermost level, bathed in a darkness that was disturbed only by the intermittent flashes of lightning from the windows spanning the length of both walls. The Tower, constructed on the very edge of the expansive Aragrach jungles, was a tangible testament of his mentor’s power. Built of solid black stone, it loomed over the sprawling wilderness with such intimidating ferocity that the local tribes often referred to it as the Spire of the Storm.
Thunder was still a distant rumbling from faraway, but the folds of his cloak remained wet with the wrath of the fading storm. Shrouded in dreariness and misery, Keil marched on to the other end of the chamber, where waited his mentor and sponsor in the Order of Darnok Terien.
The human stood with his back turned to the approaching elf, his gaze fixed on the window before him, on the wilderness unfurling beyond. Lightning flashed, outlining his broad form, a nightmarish silhouette against a backdrop of savage illumination. Even at this distance, still several feet away, Keil could feel the poignant power pouring from the man’s flesh, wafting into the air with all the subtlety of a corpse’s rotting stench. He felt his limbs stiffen as he drew near to that terrifying power, to the sorcerer from which it pulsed. But time had forced him to become accustomed to the unease inflicted by his mentor’s presence, and so he managed to close the remaining distance and smoothly drop down to one knee.
He bowed his head, masking his pale face beneath a veil of silver hair. “Kressil.” The word poured from his lips in a gentle whisper, a title from Old Elven given in reference to a respected superior, from disciple to master.
Meithcael remained motionless, a statue of utter darkness obscuring a window into a world of light. This close, Keil could see the smooth, brown skin of his shaved scalp, the outline of muscles concealed beneath the thin fabric of his robes. Having achieved the power to defy the will of Time itself, Meithcael appeared as a man in his prime, age having long ago lost all meaning to him.
At last, he turned to behold his elvish visitor, and Keil instinctively kept his gaze down at the stone floor. To stare into the dark pools of Meithcael’s eyes almost felt as though one were staring out from reality and into the universe’s greatest perversion, into a world made twisted by madness and from which all good dreams had long ago fled.
“You have returned,” the sorcerer murmured in the local tongue, his voice a sultry whisper in the oppressive darkness.
His head still bowed, Keil answered in the same language: “Altiera and her Shadow Warrior disciple Rajem shall no longer threaten your designs, Kressil.”
“There was no doubt of your success, my Shadow Warrior.” Meithcael fully turned from the window now, gathering his hands beneath the small of his back, and stared down at the kneeling elf. “You never fail, Keil, and now the pieces have again been moved, arranged in a path designed to grant us the liberty we both so desire. Can you not feel it, freedom’s tender caress upon the flesh of your soul?”
Keil shivered, nearly losing focus in the seductive warmth of his mentor’s vision, in the promise of undoing all wrongs in this world and remaking from the ruins a paradise. He looked down at himself, dressed still in the black raiment of a Shadow Warrior, and he felt the power of his new station in life, a savage strength occupying his veins that hadn’t been there before Meithcael’s tutelage.
The sorcerer had turned him from flotsam drifting in the River of Destiny to a charging warship capable of dictating his own course in the flow of life. His own course…
He was suddenly plucked out from the reverie of perceived power by the fluttering of wings. Glancing up, he saw the raven taking a perch in the rafters above. Reminded of his earlier disdain for his current role, he shifted his eyes onto Meithcael, but the sorcerer had already returned his regards to the window.
“We are closer…ever so close,” the human whispered, his eyes on the distant storm clouds riding the horizon. “Yet certain tasks remain unfinished.” He turned to glance briefly at the young elf. “The Voice of the Inner Circle must be silenced before it can rally forces against me.”
Keil felt his heart quicken, felt the weight of the raven’s eyes staring down at him, scrutinizing his reaction. He swallowed down a gasp but failed to conceal the shock from his face. “You…you mean the Speaker?”
“Yes,” the sorcerer murmured. “Serena V’Lakan mustn’t be allowed to assemble the other lords against me. Silence her.”
The elf sucked in a deep breath and tried in vain to wipe the incredulity from his expression. Meithcael’s dark gaze focused upon him, reading the morbid astonishment that lingered in his pale eyes, and there came to the man’s sun-kissed brow the crinkle of a frown.
“Your tongue tempts you to use it, so do so,” the human invited, his voice a purr of deceitful tranquility.
Keil knew there was no use in resisting, and memory of Rajem’s accusations spurred him to give voice to his mounting doubts. “With respect, Kressil,” he murmured, bowing his head again but keeping his eyes on the man, “you are the Order’s chosen Master, Overlord to all other lords of the shade…” He hesitated, his throat having become suddenly dry. “Why then,” he managed to continue, “do you seek to destroy that which you struggled so hard to reign over? Why tear asunder what you now control?”
The sorcerer’s eyes gleamed with secret intrigue and again the elf felt victim to an assault on his senses. Meithcael was as a sun wrapped in moonlight, a sacrilege to all things that had come before, the eclipse that gave reason for the heavens themselves to tremble.
“We ride the storm, Keil,” the human muttered, his voice soft and distant, “and its winds are ever changing. If we are to forge destiny, create a path apart from that arranged by the stars and the Divine, then we can allow no room for intervention. We can tolerate no potential for obstruction.” He turned once more to the window, his eyes going again to the raging clouds on the horizon. “The elf lords of Darnok Terien endured my presence in their convent because I provided them with a source of amusement and fascination. But now that they see that I have torn myself from their status quo, risen to a power unimaginable to their narrow minds, they will attempt to hinder my course. They no longer see a human lost in the midst of elvish lore, but a whirlwind that will forever leave its tracks in the desert sand.”
It was all Keil could do to remain silent and motionless, to ignore the tumult churning within his gut. How could this be? How could they have done so much, come so far, only to ultimately reach nothing? What was the point of attaining the title of Overlord if the sorcerer had to destroy the order to savor in his victory? Without the order there was no purpose for the title! It didn’t make sense! What was the purpose for any of this?
Rajem’s words whispered in his mind, a quiet utterance of tragic truth: “He would fashion himself as a god…” Keil swallowed into an arid throat, but the murdered warrior’s voice persisted in his skull, a relentless ghost of memory. “He means to destroy us all…”
“You will stand as the rock wall between me and their treachery, never failing in your defense of the grand design,” Meithcael was saying, now moving from the window to start towards his personal chambers. Keil remained still, too shocked do anything more than stare after him.
As he faded into the welling shadows, the sorcerer murmured over his shoulder, “You do, after all, play so well the role of the assassin.”
And then the assassin was alone, the sounds of distant thunder his only companion in the darkness.