Keil discovers unexpected passion with Serena
Chapter 3: The Voice of Reason
Spurn’alese Desert of the Shadow…
Darnok S’Ludos, the Citadel of Shadow, home to the outcast elves of Darnok Terien, had stood in the heart of the Spurna’else desert for more than a thousand years. The citadel proper, a massive spherical dome that had taken the painstaking labor of more than four hundred human slaves to shape and erect, was dwarfed by four soaring sentinel towers, each of them shaped in the likeness of robed and hooded elves.
It was from one of these towers that she walked, her heavy grey robes shielding her from the wrath of the fading desert sun. Blurred waves of heat danced upon the sands around her in a perpetual illustration of the desert’s hatred for creatures of flesh and water. Preserving what moisture remained in her throat, she continued towards the citadel, indifferent to the desert and its wrath.
Her walk was not a long one, for none of the four towers were positioned far from the central dome, and soon she was under the welcomed shade of the main hall. It was then that she sighed, for a breeze came in from the desert to whisper through the silent stones around her. So profound was the silence in the ancient fortress that the wind moaned in an echo around her, eerie and imploring, as if warning of death to come. Once that wind would have been drowned in the noise of gathering elves, by the battles Shadow Warriors waged in the citadel’s indoor arena, and by the sounds of lectures and diatribes hosted by venerable sages and masters of the Order.
Now only the silence lingered, brought here as if by the harsh desert wind itself, a creeping storm beseeched by the human Meithcael’s ascendancy to supreme power within the coterie. Serena resisted an unexpected shiver and pulled her robes tighter about her slender form. Without further delay, she began the climb up to the citadel’s highest level and to her personal quarters. Every upward step was a deeper and deeper plunge into the oppressive silence, until at last she could swear to hearing the dust settling upon the stone around her.
The elf sighed and forced her mind from such rumination. The promise of the past was gone, and all that remained was the dread of the present. She straightened her posture as she continued up the stairs, for while the citadel was no longer the flourishing haven it had once been, it was still home to Darnok Terien’s Inner Circle, and it would not do for any of those elderly elves to see anything but ice within her eyes. In this new age, enemies were aplenty, and the pretense of strength was as crucial as strength itself.
When at last within the privacy of her personal chambers, she exhaled a heavy sigh and removed the hood that kept her enchanting visage hidden from all but her most trusted associates—which were considerably few. Relief greeted her like a cool wind under a summer sun as she felt her long crimson locks spill down over her back and shoulders. She wanted nothing more than to shed herself of the cumbersome robe and wash the sweat from her pale flesh.
Moving further into the darkened chamber, she lit a lantern and started towards the bedroom. She then came to an abrupt halt, her fingers carefully setting the lantern down on a nearby table. Those trained in the ways of Darnok Terien possessed an understanding of the natural energies of the world around them. Through such tutelage, one was given the ability to perceive and detect the subtle inflections of magical power. Though her focus had previously been dedicated to inner contemplation, the lighting of the lantern had subconsciously allowed her awareness to gradually expand, and her senses were now ablaze with the caress of nearby power.
She remained silent, unmoving, all while fully aware that the intruder was even now starting towards her from behind. She felt for his aura, noting a subtle familiarity about it. A thin smile split her thin lips as recognition donned.
“Greetings, Keil Las’Demar.” Her voice, though soft and mild, was laced by the faintest hint of amusement.
A mere few feet behind her, the Shadow Warrior stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide with alarm. “How did you—”
“As your training has no doubt made you aware, any being of notable strength radiates a particular pulse in the great weave of this world’s energies.” She kept her back turned to him, the grin on her lips growing slightly. “And yours emits an ever so memorable melody.”
The assassin stiffened, his expression contorting with suspicion. “Why, pray tell, would you have memorized the nuances of my aura?”
It was then that she turned to him, her emerald eyes shimmering with renewed life. “I have taken an interest in you for some time now, dear Keil, since Meithcael first brought you here and sponsored your training in the Order.” Her gaze went to his, snatching onto his crystalline orbs and holding their stare. “That interest only doubled when it was rumored that Meithcael took you into the heart of the desert to confront the demon of the abyss and that you had surpassed the Test described in prophecy and myth.”
Her eyes flickered to his left shoulder, where sat his raven. “And it appears as though there was some truth to those rumors that said you gained from the Test a bond with an otherworldly creature” As if in response to her regards, the bird uttered a low caw, its sound resembling the rumbling growl of a forest wolf. The Shadow Warrior himself shifted about uncomfortably, as though feeling vulnerable beneath her scrutiny.
Serena smiled with intrigue flashing in her eyes before she turned away, starting towards the room that served as a private kitchen. She heard the soft whisper of his footfalls as he slowly followed after her. Reaching for a jug of water, she poured two cups and turned to pass one to him. “It is a dry, harsh place in which we live. Drink.”
With obvious hesitation, the intruder accepted the offering but kept the cup suspended in his grasp. Stifling a smirk, she lifted her own cup to her lips and drank deeply, disarming his fear of poison. Keil, his throat aching for moisture, followed suit and sipped gingerly from the cup’s precious contents.
Serena kept her eyes on him as he did so. “Tell me, Keil,” she said abruptly, “did you ever return to your home of Elirae L’Serenae?”
The question drew his eyes to hers, and there swirled in the faint blue of his gaze a cloud of confusion. He began to shake his head, his face becoming ashen. “Not since…” His tongue fumbled and he averted his gaze, seeking escape. “Not since…”
“Not since Meithcael gave you leave to claim your vengeance on those who killed your beloved?”
Now the assassin returned her stare, ice solidifying within his cerulean depths. His quiet fury was all too apparent, but he maintained his frozen composure, refusing to admit emotion.
“Do not be alarmed, Keil,” she murmured, her voice soothing in the heavy tension. “Remember that I have taken a special interest in you; I know of what happened in Elirae L’Serenae and how you used the talents taught by Meithcael and Darnok Terien to exact reprisal for the crimes done unto you.” After another sip from her cup, she gave a gentle shake of her head, allowing scarlet wisps of hair to cascade down over her fair face. “But that was another life, and we must focus on where we now stand in this particular moment in time, and the present is not without its own tragedies. For instance, I find myself perpetually unable to grasp why Meithcael would rise to power within our Order only to see it destroyed from within.”
Keil tensed. Serena was aware of Meithcael’s treachery! Not even the cool taste of water could quell the ache in his throat now. “You…you know?” he stammered, his fingers cautiously wandering down to his sheathed swords. If Serena was truly as powerful as he now suspected, it would take little effort for her to do away with him and relay the intrusion to her Inner Circle colleagues. Meithcael would be destroyed beneath their combined powers!
Seeing the apprehension creeping in from the corners of his eyes, Serena allowed a smile to return to her lips, but the mirth was sparse under the weight of cynicism. “Of course I know,” she answered, bitterness mingling with amusement upon her tongue. Her eyes narrowed upon him as she moved a step nearer, her mind never ceasing to measure the distance between his hands and his swords. “I know many things, Keil. I know he has killed through you, slaughtered those who had spoken against him, leaving in their wake a terrible vacuum of despair that I am now surrounded by. I only wish that I knew why.”
The assassin held her gaze and despite her admission of forbidden knowledge, he kept his hands at bay, his swords still in their scabbards. There was pain in her words, even if her face refused to betray anything of the sort. Nonetheless, there was something in her expression that reached out to him. Centuries his senior, Serena had been forced to relent to the aging touch of time, but it was a touch that added to her subtle splendor. Though her features were no longer round and smooth as that of a younger elf’s, the sharpness of her visage gave to her an air of natural command. She was someone worthy of respect, and perhaps even of fear.
Keil found his hands burdened with reluctance to complete the distance to his waiting swords, but when she said nothing more, he struggled to find his voice. “I…I do not know why he does these things, nor can I say what he desires.”
To that, Serena’s face brightened with a smile, and she treated his ears to the melody of her laughter. “You!” she exclaimed as her laughter rippled through her small frame. “I did not expect you to know!” She shook her head, chortling still. When the laughter subsided, she met his gaze, her eyes alight with amusement. “Do you even know what it is that you desire?”
His tongue failed to conceive a response, and all he could do was stare at her in helpless silence.
Serena gave a gentle wave of her hand, hoping to put him at ease. “You are here to serve your master, correct?”
Keil hesitated, unsure of how best to answer. Ultimately, he understood that there was little he could now conceal from the female, and so he gave a nod of his hooded head. “I was sent to eliminate the possible threat you pose to him.”
She watched him, and he felt the weight of her eyes boring into his, as though seeing into his mind and unfurling its contents like the pages of a book. “But that is not what you desire,” she murmured.
As before, Keil could manage no response, and even the raven took its leave from this confrontation, leaping from his shoulder and into the rafters above.
Keeping her eyes on him, Serena offered in explanation: “If you had desired my death, you would have drawn your swords in the attempt to see that desire realized.” Seeing the uncertainty swelling within him, she continued: “Your reputation precedes you, Keil. You are now the champion Shadow Warrior, and furthermore, you are familiar with the dark bird of legend.” Her hand gestured to the mentioned avian. “Surely you could have killed me should you have wanted to.” She stared at him now with an eyebrow cocked and a grin adorning her lips.
The assassin tensed, a frown falling over his brow. “And what makes you think that such is not my desire?” he whispered to her while taking a step forward, drawing to himself an air of menace. “I am a disciple of Darnok Terien. It has been stressed in my teachings that an acolyte of the Order must always remain loyal to his master—even if at the expense of his own life.” His pale eyes narrowed upon her. “Do you dare accuse me of treachery, Voice of the Inner Circle?”
Serena met his gaze, unwavering and indomitable. “I do not know, Shadow Warrior. Is it the indictment of treachery against Meithcael from which you cower, or treachery against something greater?” She exhaled in a sharp, derisive huff, her eyes never leaving his. “You tell me.”
Confused by her challenge, the assassin faltered, his advance again coming to a stop. Seeing his misery, Serena sighed and let her shoulders fall. “Tell me, Keil, why, after you have accomplished so much, would you still serve Meithcael? You defeated the last Shadow Warrior champion, becoming the greatest warrior this Order now has. You overcame the mythical Test in the wastelands of the desert, possibly catching sight of a power never before realized by mortal minds. Surely you cannot see yourself as beneath Meithcael! He is but a human drunk on power, made reckless by ambitions founded on madness!”
Keil didn’t dare offer a response to that, and in the following silence, the rapid beating of his own heart thundered over and over again in his ears, drowning all thoughts. He only hoped that his face was as unreadable as it needed to be, that nothing in his expression would betray his doubts.
But then Serena laughed and he knew that she had seen through him. “Ah! So the champion does work in accordance to his own designs!” she declared with a smile.
He quickly shook his head, fearful of having allowed such leverage to fall into the female’s hands. But there was no use in denying it now—he had become a puppet attached to another’s strings.
Seeing the near-panic in his eyes, Serena chuckled and moved towards him, offering a caress of her hand against his cheek. “My, you are adorable, I will grant you that. Ignorant, but adorable.”
Keil stiffened beneath her touch but again failed to compose words. Instead, he merely stared at her, his eyes cold.
Exhaling in a soft breath, Serena let her hand fall to her side and turned away, starting towards a window at the other end of the chamber. “So tell me, Keil,” she quietly muttered while staring out across the expansive dunes, “why is it that a loyal disciple of Darnok Terien would contemplate betraying his master?”
Keil felt an unasked question in the air, as if Serena had truly yearned to know how the Order had come to such a point where no one could be trusted and where betrayal had become as commonplace as stray beads of desert sand. He stared after her, watching as the moon’s pale glow silhouetted her against the oval window. Her crimson hair glittered beneath streams of silver, giving her an almost ethereal appearance.
He took in a deep breath and slowly started towards her. “He has deceived me, as I am certain you know. He would have me believe that overcoming the trials of the desert and becoming familiar with the raven was nothing more than a display of his quality as a teacher and mentor.” He hesitated for a moment, for what next he was about to say hadn’t been articulated to anyone before. “But the raven told me otherwise. It unveiled to me secret truths Meithcael would forever keep me blind to.”
“So it’s true!” Serena breathed, turning around to face him, her eyes wide with amazement. “You do share a connection with the bird—just as the ancient texts suggested!” Her hands opened and closed into fists at her sides, baring her enthusiasm. “Tell me, what other truths have been exhumed to you?”
Keil held her gaze for a moment longer before at last shaking his head. “There is nothing more than the knowledge that Meithcael has wrought around us a kingdom of deception.” He swallowed lightly before again meeting her eyes. “Do you intend to kill me? You can either do so by yourself, by summoning the aid of your peers, or by merely revealing my confession to Meithcael. You have many options, my lady; I am but a puppet in your clutches.”
The cool, plaintive tone of his voice gave Serena pause. It was as though he had become little more than a shell of death built around an empty void that cared for nothing anymore. She moved a hand to his chin and favored him with a kind smile. “No, Keil, I have no intention of betraying your trust.” Seeing puzzlement lighting his eyes, she chuckled. “Yes, trust, for that is what you gave me when you admitted all this to me, and trust is something we have so little of in this day, made all the more precious by its scarcity.”
She moved her hand from his chin and down to his chest, feeling the rhythmic beating of his heart. Looking up at him, she asked, “Why do you suppose you extended your trust to me?”
Frustration gripped him, squeezing him from inside. “I…I do not know.”
“You were sent here to kill me,” she went on, her voice a peaceful whisper against his ears. “But you did not. So tell me, Keil, what is it that you desire? What are the dreams and ambitions that torment your soul?”
He bowed his head, as if seeking some escape from her gaze and from the light of the moon outside, attempting to conceal himself in shadows that were a step beyond his reach. “My only ambition is to no longer kill, to no longer be an instrument of death and tragedy.”
“Yet such is the course laid out before you,” she murmured, pressing both of her hands against his chest and forcing him to look at her. “You will kill again, Keil…and you must kill me.”
The sudden shock distorting his face was almost unbearable to behold, but Serena forced herself on: “If you do not follow this course through to its end, Meithcael will become aware of your treachery.”
“Why?” he demanded, staring at her with incredulity thick in his eyes. All of this was so unreal! First Meithcael had gone mad with dreams of power, destroying the order he had just recently gained power over, and now Serena V’Lakan was offering her life for his protection! Into what abyss had logic and sanity fled to?
Before she could answer, he pushed her away from him, sickened by the convoluted mess of the world around him. “I will not kill you,” he hissed, determined to tear himself apart from the role of the assassin. He unsheathed his swords, tossing both of them to the side, granting Serena the opportunity to end this.
She chuckled softly, watching him with a glimmer of fascination in her eyes. “You disappoint me, Keil,” she said at last. “Judging by how many of our number Meithcael has eradicated through you, I would have thought you to be a more cunning adversary. However, you are relentless in demonstrating your ignorance to me.”
She exhaled in a heavy breath before continuing in a more gentle voice: “There are many ways to overcome an adversary, Keil, as there are many ways to indeed overcome tragedy.” Her gaze wandered to the fallen swords. “Without a sword, a warrior is still a warrior. When a sword is fallen, the warrior always has his—”
“Body,” he interjected, reciting one of the quotes from his training as a Shadow Warrior. “If the blade is lost, hand or foot could become as deadly a weapon as any sword.”
Serena smiled. “There is always a multitude of avenues open to one whose mind is drenched in knowledge.”
“And there is the realm of mystics from which one can draw greater strength,” Keil, his eyes closed, continued to recite.
“One does not always need mystics to overcome despair, Keil,” she murmured. “Sometimes all we need is something that exists within our own hearts. Determination and strength of will, for instance.”
The younger elf gave a slow nod of his head. “As well as logic and control.”
“And let us not forget passion.”
Keil’s eyes snapped open and he looked at her with a scowl contorting his brow. “There cannot be passion alongside logic and control,” he argued. “Passion is the fog that blinds reason; it is a hindrance.”
Serena met his gaze and gently shook her head. “There is danger in passion, yes, and I do not doubt that it was passion for his dreams that brought Meithcael to the pinnacle of evil upon which he now stands, but there is strength in it as well.”
“It blinds,” the assassin insisted.
Serena smiled patiently. “Passion is a mysterious thing, Keil.” She closed her eyes, her mind again wandering back through her memories, feeling the pain of days gone, of glory faded and lost. “It empowers one to accomplish great things, to do the impossible. Passion was…is the foundation of Darnok Terien, the passion to believe in the power of oneself, the passion to reach for dreams that would otherwise be unattainable.”
Before Keil could again supply his retort, Serena moved to him, pressing her fingertip to his lips. Such was the desperation in her eyes that he succumbed to silence. “Do not allow Meithcael to obscure this truth from you, Keil—do not allow him to fool you into thinking that survival and success are wrought only through ice.”
He sighed and again closed his eyes, trying to sort through the haze in his mind. “I do not want to be a slave to a destiny I have no say in.”
“You do not have to be! Passion is the strength we need to cling to in order to do the unexpected. Passion and life itself are synonymous in that they are both unpredictable, free to change, denying of any set course!”
“Passion,” Keil murmured, the word trembling from his lips as he felt his inner ice melting under the promise of Serena’s exhumed truth.
She knew that she would receive no further argument from him, for their mouths were suddenly lost in the unexpected passion of a heated kiss.
It is not enough to dream, or to aspire to be somewhere or someone that you presently are not. Knowledge and truth are the seeds from which dreams truly grow.
Without either, the dream dissolves as sand tossed in the wind.
If we are to build our dreams, we must gather the stone that can never be breached;
We must gather knowledge, and forge from that the foundation of our own greatness.
-From “Mournful Meditations” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow.
Seeds of the Future
Keil awoke to find himself in a soft bed. He delayed in opening his eyes, wanting to savor this moment in unexpected nirvana. There was peace in the air of the likes he could not recall having felt in so many years, and waking in and of itself was a painful affront to such tranquil bliss. But waking could no more be denied than the threat of doom hanging over him, a blasting realization of what he had done.
“Ah, and has our precious Shadow Warrior awaken at last?” a cheerful voice murmured from his side, suddenly alerting him to the sensation of warmth coming from beside him. His eyes snapped open and he looked to his right, where Serena laid with her head supported upon one arm, staring up at him with brilliant emerald eyes.
He found himself momentarily unable to look away from her, admiring the subtle beauty in which her long, red hair cascaded down the sides of her face to create a disheveled appearance that made her seem all the more splendid.
Noticing his stare, she smiled with a laugh ready to leap from her lips. “You act as though this was your first time.” When color flushed to his pallid cheeks, her eyes brightened with understanding, and she moved her hand to his face in a soothing caress. “My, you are precious.”
Before he could muster a reply, she eased herself out from under the blankets, uncaring of her nudity as she made her way from the bed and to the private kitchen. Keil, in his modesty, hastily gathered the blankets about his own naked body, granting himself at least some measure of security.
When Serena returned to the bedchamber with a cup of steaming tisane in hand, she took a moment to consider the sight before her. There he was, sitting up in the bed with the sheets bundled up around him. She cocked her head to the side with amusement before taking a sip from her cup. “It has been some time seen I have seen such innocence from an acolyte of Darnok Terien.”
A deep frown settled over the younger elf’s brow. “Innocence?” His mind reeled back to weeks before, to his fatal confrontation with the unfortunate Rajem. “There is no such quality in me.”
“But there is,” Serena insisted, “residing right alongside your perpetual ignorance.”
Keil turned away from her, looking now through the window across from him, beyond which the rays of the morning sun bathed the desert sands in a vengeful glow. “How can you deem me innocent, Serena?” he muttered with acid dripping from his voice. “I have killed—murdered. And for what but to fulfill a purpose I have no passion for?”
Though touched by his reference to passion, she allowed a quiet sigh to escape her. “Our beliefs forge our reality, Keil,” she said at last, keeping her eyes focused on him. “You believe that you are something abhorrent because you were forced to take lives—and yes, I say forced.”
He did not return her gaze, but she knew she had caught his attention—indeed that she had always held it. After another sip of her tea, she moved to the bed and took a seat upon the very end. When the silence persisted, she offered a hand to his nearest leg, if only for the gentle contact alone. “You believe yourself to be evil, Keil, something worthy of disdain, and from that grows your ignorance. You refuse to see beyond the immediate horizon, to gaze upon the world entire.”
She crawled closer to him, using her free hand to brush away the bundled sheets and clearing a path. “In reality, it was not by your own choice that you were submerged into these terrible situations. But the weight of guilt will remain inescapable until you take the reins over your own course.”
He looked at her now, a frown contorting his brow. “I…I am not certain I understand.”
Serena smiled at him. “So at last you begin to see yourself as ignorant as I believe you are, hmm?” The music of her laughter greeted his ears, but there was no mockery in it. When it subsided, she stared at him with sudden sympathy in her eyes. “Meithcael would have you believe that you are nothing more than his servant, entirely dependent upon his dreams and ambitions. But you know that there is a falsehood lurking in that.”
Receiving a nod, she continued: “Keil, you are innocent, a victim caught in a play beyond your comprehension. Meithcael would never have you thinking of yourself in a good light; thus, he degrades you to playing the role of the abject assassin. But you are more than that, and you must believe that you are more.”
He sighed and began to climb from the bed when her hand moved to his chest, stopping him. “Meithcael will grow suspicious should I not report to him,” he explained.
“Nonsense,” she said with a nearly mischievous grin. “Meithcael will give you plenty of time to deal with me. He will not be so foolish as to underestimate me.”
His eyes slowly narrowed upon her. “So all this,” he said while waving his hand in a broad gesture, “is but a diversion to prolong your life, to turn me against Meithael? You—”
Her fingertip pushed against his lips, silencing him from further accusations. “Do be silent, Ignorant One.” The humor was gone from her voice, leaving it dry and rigid, and Keil couldn’t help but think that he had genuinely offended her. But if such was the case, she concealed her pain beneath a faint smile. “This is no diversion, Keil,” she said while shaking her head. “Darnok Terien must survive, and you are the only one capable of ensuring that.”
She looked away from him, but he caught a glimpse of sadness flashing in the green of her eyes. The burden of her predicament was suddenly overwhelming, and he couldn’t bear to see her suffer it alone. “What can I do, Serena?” he managed to ask.
She returned her gaze to his, and the sorrow he had witnessed a moment earlier was gone beneath a face of stone. “Meithcael will destroy Darnok Terien, Keil. You are the only hope for the Order’s survival. He will not suspect you of treachery, and we must keep it that way.” She moved suddenly, relaxing her head upon his bare chest. A small smile split her lips as she felt the hesitant touch of his fingers in her hair. “He will keep you deprived from knowledge and wisdom,” she murmured against him. “He will have you remain ignorant to the greater truths of the world so that you will forever be a slave to his whim.”
He swallowed hard, but words failed him.
Sensing his unease, Serena slowly looked up at him. “You can learn, Keil,” she advised. “Together, we can shove a wealth of wisdom into that stubborn head of yours, feeding you the seeds of power.” She hesitated abruptly and pulled herself up into a sitting posture. “But…you must accept me as a new mentor, and you must believe with all your heart what I will teach you.”
He saw in her eyes the desperation she tried to hide, the fear he knew she would deny. And he wanted to take it all away, to remove from the world the weight of Meithcael’s suffocating nightmare.
Finding his voice, he answered: “I am ready to believe.”