The climax of the drama between the doomed elves Keil and Serena.
If logic is the doorway to coherence and order, then passion is the pathway into chaos.
Yet one cannot pursue a dream without passion. But if left wild and unchecked by logic, passion for one’s ambitions becomes a disease, distorting its host into the harbinger of despair.
One must learn the virtue of tempering the heat of passion with the ice of reason.
Only in this union can the harmonics of a great song be found.
Sadly, it is a song seldom played.
-From “Tragic Truths” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow
Chapter 5: Painful Passion
Darnok S’Ludos, Spurn’sal,
Twelve days later…
Keil stood alone in a secluded chamber within the upper level of Darnok S’Ludos. He stared out a large, faceless window that overlooked the desert spread before him, rolling on and on as far as the eye could see. The fading day’s heat danced upon the faraway dunes in menacing waves. A breeze came from the desert to whisper through his long locks of silver hair, stinging his face with beads of hot sand.
Serena had warned him of the thick silence that haunted the ancient fortress, but never had he imagined its power to make one feel so terribly alone. He inhaled a deep breath and continued to stare out into desolate panorama, as if attempting to thrust his vision through the blurred waves that the desert raised in quiet fury against the living world. Somewhere across that vast, empty distance waited Meithcael.
The Shadow Lord would come, he knew. The human’s patience was not eternal, and he would expect his honed and trained assassin to have completed his task of decimating the Order’s last voice of significance.
“Keil.” Her voice was a caress upon his pointed ears, soft but strong, possessing of a power he himself felt forever deprived of. He turned to look at her from over his shoulder, watching as she approached him. She walked with a grace that defied time, the fabric of her swishing, gray robes pouring from her body like the cascading water of an Amastrian waterfall. As she drew near to him, he temporarily lost his breath in awe of the dance of sunlight upon her crimson tresses. From beneath that veil of red hair, brilliant green eyes stared up at him. “What are you doing here? We have lessons that must be covered.”
He looked from her and to the desert beyond the exposed window. “I was trying to find time,” he murmured in a tone that mixed rebellious scorn with boundless sorrow.
The combination brought a brief look of pain into her eyes, but she quickly pushed it aside, regaining an air of composed superiority. “We haven’t the time for you to find more. Meithcael—”
“Would have expected me to have killed you by now,” the assassin coolly interrupted. “This has always been my argument, and you are always the one insisting that Meithcael would not anticipate my victory over you to be a quick one.” He turned to her, his eyes adopting the chilling quality of ice that had made him so feared in the arena back in the time before Meithcael’s ascension, back when Darnok Terien was more than a step from ruin. “Why the sudden change of mind, Serena?”
Serena turned away from him. “The heat must make you delirious to speak to me so,” she said evenly, a notable edge in her words.
He instantly regretted his callous attitude. Thoughts of Meithcael had wrought an anger in him, especially when coupled by the secret truths Serena had been sharing with him during their brief time together, time that she had reshaped from murderous design into a period of enlightenment and revelation to the young Shadow Warrior. With such ease had she convinced him to hear her voice, and to know truths which Meithcael would forever keep him blind to. Serena was his true Kressil now, though not a soul could ever know.
“Serena,” he started in an apologetic manner, but she whirled on him, her eyes full of that strong passion that had first captivated him, that had seduced him into making her his first and, at this point, only lover. The experiences shared with Serena were something that he hadn’t been able to enjoy with his lost Ayanala.
“You cannot be afraid of him!” she snapped suddenly. “We of the Inner Circle granted to him his coveted title of Overlord, and now he destroys us from within, but still must we remain devoid of fear! There is too much at stake—too much to be lost because we are afraid.” She spoke with such intensity, such desperate vigor that he felt his heart go out to her, though he would never admit it. Could never admit it.
“He destroys from within through his use of me,” was all Keil could say, a quiet whisper beneath the rustling of sand and dust. “What am I but a puppet with a sword? If preservation of this Order that you hold so dear to you is what you seek, Serena, then you must do away with me.”
“Ignorance!” she roared. It was her favored word of derision regarding him. “Again you mold yourself back into the role he would have you play! Why do you insist on forgetting all that I teach you? We have such precious little time, and you go a leap backwards after each step forward!” She shook her head, spraying scarlet locks this way and that.
He moved a hand to her shoulder, but she sharply pulled back and locked a firm glare upon him. “I grow so tired of this debate, Keil,” she murmured, her eyes losing their fire under the moisture of unbidden emotion. It was emotion he knew she wanted him to ignore, to neglect and forget. “You are so…so special…” She lifted a delicate hand to his cheek, gently rubbing where the sand had stung earlier. “You mastered the Sacred Trials. You found the revered bird of prophecy…”
Never far from the Shadow Warrior, and as if drawn by her mention of it, a raven’s caw suddenly split the air, followed by the flapping of wings. The bird flew in from the desert to perch itself against the window’s ledge. From its sleek head of black feathers, dark eyes looked from Serena to Keil, and then back again.
Serena returned the bird’s stare, her throat made abruptly dry by its presence. She turned away and lifted her gaze again to Keil’s pale visage. “No one has ever done as you have,” she said softly. “To have defeated the demon of the desert in combat, to have joined with the raven described in prophecy and myth…”
He interrupted her with a shake of his head. “The combat was not one of blades, Serena.”
“I know,” she quietly answered, her expression uncharacteristically sullen. “It was a battle waged on the grounds of desire, of emotion and passion. I remember your recital of it.” She looked so cold now, so hard and devoid of the warmth he knew her capable of. “I know that it was your passion that made you overcome the fears of that dark place. Passion for your lost love, your Ayanala.”
How strange, he mused as he watched her. She looked so sad, but there always appeared a flicker of sadness in her brilliant eyes whenever conversation traveled to talk of the Sacred Test….and of Ayanala Elasrinan. Absurd! Keil knew that he should name her feelings of jealousy for what he deemed they were, but Ayanala had died long before he had ever met Serena, long before even Meithcael had come upon him to set him onto the road to Darnok Terien and the pathway into shadow.
“Passion…passion…” he muttered with a shake of his head. “I was always taught by Meithcael to avoid passion, to avoid the cloud and fog it raises in the mind, the haze over judgment and discretion.”
“But had you adhered to those cold lessons, where then would we be?” Serena quietly murmured. “One of us would be a bloodied corpse upon silent stone.”
His eyes met hers and he murmured, “Passion becomes your greatest ally in this dark time of finality, it would seem.”
“Passion could be an even greater threat should you not return your leash upon it,” she warned. But then, to the pained, confused look in his eyes, she quickly added: “Passion opens doors, Keil. That is something that neither of us can ever deny—will never deny, I would hope. But some doors need be left sealed. You must replace your ice over this fire.” Her hand moved over his chest, as if to indicate the heart beating within his flesh. But if the allusion was indeed accurate, he knew that it was done unconsciously. Neither of them could bear to admit what truly dwelt within the beats of their hearts.
“If you do not,” Serena went on, “Meithcael will know. He expects you to mold yourself into icy resolution to serve in his puppet dance against time. One misstep is all it would take for him to realize that you are no longer his.”
“Am I then yours?” he dared to venture.
She hesitated, her hand swiftly slipping away from his bosom. “You belong to Darnok Terien, Keil,” she answered at last, though she no longer looked at him. “Meithcael has gone from that path. Now there is only you. You must remember what I have taught you; remember that this is not Darnok Terien…not the way it was meant to be.” She choked down what might have been a dry sob, but that would have been impossible. Serena would never sob, would never shed a single tear. Keil knew this!
And yet, as he stared at her now, he began to share her opinion of himself as ignorant.
“Darnok Terien is not a cult founded solely upon violence and darkness,” Serena murmured, though she had incessantly imparted this lesson of history to him. “The Order has become distorted by time, distorted by those like Meithcael who have used it to further their own powers. Once, Darnok Terien was a haven to those who believed in defiance of what the Shanakri call ‘Nature’s Way,’ a means by which to cut past the preordained flow of destiny.” She shook her head and sighed heavily. “Meithcael would have the world’s last memory of us be that of a stain of shadow upon golden sand.”
“How am I to restore the Darnok Terien of your dreams, Serena?” Keil muttered. “How would this make me any less a puppet?”
“You make yourself a puppet!” she snapped, strength fully restored to her demeanor. “I have sensed how special you were when first Meithcael brought you to this citadel. The air of destiny is thick in you, but you refuse to feel it, ever so willing to adhere to the whims of others! Meithcael is puppet master only so long as he believes that the strings are his to command!” She exhaled in a heavy breath, her shoulders rising and falling with intake and release, and she turned away from him. “Why do you refuse to believe that the strings could be in your hands? I beseech you to restore Darnok Terien, to overcome Meithcael through patience and guile, not because I wish to put my own collar upon you, but because I want you to see. Open your eyes and look past the blindness you have allowed to be draped over you. That is what ancient Darnok Terien stood for.”
Though Keil could no longer see her face, a part of him knew that there were tears glittering in her eyes. So much passion…
He wanted only to reach out and touch her, hold her to him. But what comfort could he, a lowly Shadow Warrior, offer to the Voice of the Inner Circle? Centuries his senior, Serena was another master in this game of pawns and puppets.
But he couldn’t fully commit himself to that depraved view. There was a beauty in her, founded on her love for her beliefs. Once she had even whispered that she believed in him. Did that, he wonder, equate with love?
He stared at her as she held herself across from him, looking out the window as darkness began to fill the desert beyond. With a sigh of resignation, he walked towards her, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Serena,” he murmured with his lips brushing along her left ear.
“Shhh…” she bade him into silence while watching the faraway descent of the desert sun. She relaxed against him, sinking into his arms, and, for a moment, even she dared consider the implications of love.
“Passion is all we can ever have,” she whispered sadly into the growing darkness.
It is taught by the elves of Shanakri that the key to harmony is found in the ability to accept life and to be content with the direction of its flow. Only when we aspire for more do we rage against the currents and create from our struggles ripples that threaten to drown others in our passing.
-From “Mournful Meditations” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow
The Test of Time
Two Days Later…
Keil stared up at the ceiling above the bed. The air was hot, even with the sun having long departed from the outdoor sky. He inhaled a deep breath, nearly choking on the weight of it. His chest collapsed with an exhale, and he turned to his side, where Serena slept. Though shadows had emerged to bathe everything around them in a blanket of absolute darkness, a splash of moonlight had somehow managed to reach her from the window, showering her in the disturbing serenity reminiscent of death.
He suddenly sat up, shaking the thought from his mind. Tearing himself out from the bed, he pulled on a pair of trousers and reached for a jug of watered wine. Sweet moisture cascaded down onto his parched tongue in futile defiance against the dry heat. With a sigh, he turned back to the bed, to gaze upon the sight of Serena. He could see her breast rising and falling with intake and exhale of rhythmic breaths. The motions were almost hypnotic, and he discovered peace in simply watching her, appreciating her silent beauty.
An abrupt pounding at the apartment’s front door jerked him from his reverie, startling Serena into waking. She sat bolt upright, staring at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes. They both swung their heads down the hall, where the knocking intensified.
“Serena!” a voice called from the other side.
A wary frown creased her brow as she turned to Keil. “You must hide.”
Receiving a nod from him, she quickly gathered a robe about herself and started to the door. “Juran,” she murmured after peeling the door open just a crack, peering out at the dark-haired elf beyond.
“Serena!” the visitor gasped before shoving himself in through the portal. His hair was disheveled and wild, his face strained with urgency. “We must take our leave of this place!” he blurted before she could chide him for his departure from decorum.
The urgent haste in his features gave her pause, stalling her anger in wake of terrible realization. Her throat became instantly dry, but she clung to the hope that time had not yet abandoned her. She struggled to find her voice, to demand to know what she feared she already knew. “What is happening?”
The other elf, a century her junior and a fellow member of the Inner Circle, shook his head in distress. “Meithcael!” he choked out. “He has come with the intention of violence!”
“No…” The word was little more than a whisper, and for a moment pain dwelled within her eyes. Before Juran could wonder at the unbidden emotion, she hastily turned away from him, her glance briefly flickering to the bedroom, where she knew Keil was listening.
“Eymalan and Sorin already lay lifeless, their blood spilled on the front steps down below,” Juran continued. “He is making his way through the citadel, from the arena.” He gripped her shoulders with both hands. “We must leave now, Serena! We dare not stand against him!”
It was a moment before Serena could regain her footing on the present, and when she did she shoved the other elf aside. “No,” she hissed. “I will not bend to the will of that tyrant. I will not grant him the pleasure of seeing me in flight.”
“Do not be foolish—” Juran started to argue when he felt the presence of peculiar power from somewhere behind. He slowly turned around, peering into the darkness of the bedchamber across from him.
Before Serena could stop him, he started forward, a magical light being cast from his hands to spray sudden illumination throughout the room. Before him, abandoned by the veil of shadows, Keil threw his arms over his face, shielding his eyes from the blast of light.
“Meithcael’s acolyte!” Juran gasped. “Serena! Run!” He gathered his hands before his chest, the fingers spread wide like the petals of a blossoming flower. Raw energy crackled and sparked between the fingertips, making his intention clear.
“Juran! No!” Serena cried from behind him, and that was when he realized that she hadn’t taken his advice. His gaze wandered from her tousled features to the half-naked assassin, and then to the unmade bed.
“You have thrown your lot in with these harbingers of destruction and desecration!” he sneered.
Across from him, Keil’s eyes flickered to where his swords were set beside the bed. They were well beyond his reach, however, as was the hope of escaping the other elf’s vengeance.
“Our fellows my have fallen victim to this deceit, but I will not!” Juran snarled. “If I cannot stand before Meithcael, then I shall have the pleasure of ridding from the world his prized student!” He snapped his hands forward, letting loose his magic.
Before Keil could react, a flash of light blazed before his eyes. When vision finally became more than a confusing haze, he beheld the sight of Juran’s corpse, a heap of smoldered flesh before him. Past the corpse, Serena had collapsed to her knees. Her body was trembling and she folded her arms around herself, as though she would break without support.
He understood then. She had stopped Juran the only way she could, and it had been to protect him. She had used her power against a colleague for the sake of preserving his life. He saw the torment in her eyes as she stared at the corpse, as she breathed in the burning stench of the other’s death.
He moved to her, gathering her in his arms and helping her up from the floor.
“I had to,” she whispered against him, over and over again.
Unsure of what to say, Keil murmured, “You saved me.”
She turned away from the corpse to meet his gaze. A strained smile unfurled along her lips, and she reached a hand to his face, as though needing that touch to be sure of his safety. Emotion shone in her eyes with such intensity that he was taken aback, his heart wanting to bare all to that look she gave him.
But the moment was gone and Serena had found her strength again. “We must dress,” she said while pulling away. “Time no longer waits for us.”
They quickly threw on traditional raiment, Serena in her grey robes and Keil in the black garb of a Shadow Warrior. Immediately after, Serena led him from her apartments and down the winding corridors of the citadel. There was haste in their every step, but it slowly occurred to Keil that the sounds of battle were growing louder, not fainter. He knew then that Serena was rushing towards confrontation rather than away from it.
The weight of imminent disaster hung above them as if by a thread, but he followed along, unable to escape. It was some time before Serena came to a stop, and Keil soon realized that she had brought them to a level directly above the citadel’s indoor arena. He moved towards the single rail and looked down into the sandpit below. He had never seen the arena from this vantage, as his station had kept him either within spectator tiers or in the actual battlegrounds. This, he figured, was where the Inner Circle observed the contests that had once been waged below.
The contest occurring now was one observed only by the greedy eyes of death. Swallowing against the lump in his throat, he gazed down past the rail, to the end of the arena in which Meithcael stood, staff in hand. Three Shadow Warriors converged on him, swords glimmering with magical fury.
From somewhere above, the raven cawed, and Keil turned away, unable to bear witness to the slaughter he knew would follow. He did not need his eyes to tell him that no elf below could stand against the human’s unsurpassable power. As soon as he turned, he heard the roar of powers being unleashed; the death cries of elves a painful requiem in his ears.
A sudden tug at his arm returned his attention to Serena. The pain in the air was only emphasized by the expression in her soft face.
“We must flee this place,” he hissed under his breath, taking her arm in his hand.
“No, Keil.” She moved from his grasp, her expression oddly solemn. Saturated in sudden silence, she started towards an overpass that extended from this end of the arena to the next. From up here, he could see more elves rushing at Meithcael, rushing to the fate he had authored for them.
As he followed Serena towards the center of the overpass, it occurred to him that should Meithcael glance up, they would be exposed to him. Time slowed to a crawl, as if extending this moment of horror to savor in its foul taste.
“Draw your swords.” Serena’s voice broke through the haze in his mind, soft but commanding. He did as she asked and looked at her, his eyes searching her face for the enlightenment she had always offered.
But there was no answer there, no ray of sunlight to cut into the shroud of darkness. Instead, she bowed her head, keeping her gaze apart from his. “Keil, you must kill me.” She glanced up only to see the distress written in his face, and she provided a gesture to indicate the arena entire. “You must do it here, Keil, where Meithcael can both witness my demise and your commitment to the future he has shaped.”
“No!” The word resonated in his skull like thunder, and it was a moment before he realized that it had come from his own tongue. He shook his head, his eyes wild with passion. “I will not do this! To what end must we bow to the will of Meithcael and the savagery of his ambitions?”
“Keil…” Her voice cracked, solid stone split by sudden pain, and she reached her hand to his chest, relishing in the way he felt, in the rhythmic beats of his heart. But still she kept her eyes from his, her head lowered so that waves of hair veiled her face. “Meithcael will not relent until he is certain that my demise is complete. But more than that, Darnok Terien must survive, and you are the only one that can ensure that. You are the only one I can trust to share my dream and see it fulfilled.”
He moved a hand to her chin, but she pulled away. “If Meithcael sees me dead by your hands, he will have no reason to suspect you of harboring true enlightenment, of having a vision separate from his own. He will believe that you are loyal to him, a puppet to his continual madness.”
Fury blossomed in his chest, and it was all he could do to not scream. “You are asking me to abandon the lessons that you taught me—to forget of the power in passion! You are asking me to forsake what I feel for the ice of a role I never again want to play!” He shook his head. “I will not do this!”
At last she lifted her gaze to him, and he saw the tears in her eyes, the quiet sorrow that must’ve come from her very soul. “If we are to end this chaos, then you must, Keil!” She moved to him, cupping his face in the palm of one hand. “I do not ask that you forget your passion, only that you hide it. Turn to it to remember the dream we share, but bury it beneath ice and stone so that Meithcael is kept blind to it. Not all dreams can be announced before their time is ripe, Keil. Sometimes we have to believe that our dreams will endure and flourish despite the tests of time.”
The swords in his hands felt unbearably heavy, and he glanced down to where Meithcael stood in a mess of burned bodies. Still more elves were coming to challenge him, but the human finally glanced up. There was no fear in Keil, for he knew that Meithcael could not hear the words coming from Serena to him. He saw the man smile and suspected that Meithcael was merely waiting now. He would keep the others occupied while his puppet assassin eliminated the true threat to his grand designs. He was lost to reality, made prisoner by the violence of his ambitions.
Keil shuddered, feeling as though he had come to the edge of a precipice. To step away would be to return to the role Meithcael had written for him. To plunge all the way forward would be to drown his sanity in a manner similar to what Meithcael had done to his own. And then there was Serena, beseeching him to find the balance necessary to walk the edge without falling or fleeing.
He turned from the battle and to Serena. The tears in her eyes were given free reign now, and all he wanted to do was wipe them away. But the swords were still in his hands.
“I will not kill you,” he said suddenly, and with that he threw the weapons over the ledge and into the sandpit.
“Keil!” Her cry was one of anger and outrage, yet she rushed to him, throwing her arms around him and burying her face in his chest. “You have to…you have to!”
He wrapped her in his arms and glanced down again, where Meithcael was no doubt wondering at why his assassin’s swords were now in the sand with him. The chaos dominating the human’s mind had probably given him the illusion that Serena had rushed him and that the two were now entangled in a violent struggle. Keil sighed, grateful that the arrival of more Shadow Warriors kept Meithcael from understanding their embrace for what it was.
He felt Serena turn rigid in his arms, and he looked down at her as she slowly peeled herself away from him. “Time was not kind to us, my dearest,” she murmured, her voice barely audible over the sounds of battle. “But I know you will not fail me, Keil. You never fail.” She gave him a small, brave smile, even while drawing a dagger from within her robes.
His eyes instantly widened, and he started towards her, but time had again proved itself more enemy than ally. She plunged the dagger into her breast and stumbled. Through the shock and agony, she managed to look up at him and mouth the word, “Goodbye.”
And then she fell, deliberately delivering herself to Meithcael, and securing for Keil time with which to see their dreams realized. Even though he knew he couldn’t possibly reach her, he leapt at her in a futile attempt to keep her body in his arms—to keep her in his life. But he was denied both as her body tumbled down the side of the overpass to land in a puff of dust and sand before Meithcael.
Even from this high up, Keil could hear the words Meithcael spoke to her as he towered over her prone body: “Lady V’Lakan, such a shame that this was the fate that awaited you at the end of your centuries. Time is not so kind to those unwilling to bend to its will.”
He saw Serena turn to look up at the human, and his heart twisted inside of his chest, screaming at him to jump down after her, to stand between her and Meithcael. But the raven swooped down from its perch, setting its talons into his shoulder and keeping him still.
“Why do you smile, Serena?” he heard Meitchael murmur.
There was a sputtering cough from Serena before she managed to answer: “What you have become is something time will destroy little by little, and I smile at the thought of your atrophy, at the ultimate judgment awaiting your tainted soul.”
“Defiant to the end,” the sorcerer hissed, before lifting a single hand over her body.
Every muscle in Keil’s body twitched, raging against the ice he was forcing himself to hide beneath. But no layers of stone or ice could stop the shriek that tore itself from his throat as Meithcael unleashed death upon Serena. The raven echoed his scream with a fierce cry, but the sounds of agony were buried beneath the roar of the human’s magic.
All Keil could do was stare down at another victim of one’s unending ambition.
We must walk always with our eyes open, aware of this world and the dreams within it. To do otherwise is to risk overshadowing the dreams of others with that of our own and to steal from them their right at identity.
We all are nothing without our dreams, but we are made terrible when our dreams dominate us.
It is crucial that our eyes are always open to the reality of circumstance and that we never dare walk with our eyes closed; lest we condemn ourselves to a world forever dark.
-From “Tragic Truths” by the Dreamer of the Bloodied Blade and Shadow of Sorrow