The Eternal Nocturne continues with a young knight and a violent, heartbreaking tragedy
He stood in the rain, the storm’s winds howling around him. Across from him loomed a small, seemingly abandoned fortress. The cruelty of the years and the southern seasons had deformed the ancient keep into something reflective of children’s tales of ghosts and ghouls. But Desrik was unperturbed by the haunted appearance. The object of his desire was lurking within, that desire being vengeance.
Neither rain nor shadow would obstruct the course towards that end. He started towards the fortress, his eyes examining its jagged, unkempt surface from within the drenched fabric of his hood. The large pair of doors directly across from him would lead into the foyer, but he had no way of ramming the doors in, and so he carefully studied the walls.
The wind intensified into a wild banshee cry, pushing the storm’s downpour at an angle and striking through the folds of his cloak. A whinny from behind drew his attention back to his horse. The white beast had served him loyally, and only now, under weight of the dread looming before them, did it show any sign of protest.
He walked towards the faithful creature, giving it a gentle slap along the flank. “Go, Leala,” he murmured. “Be safe, old friend.”
The beast hesitated for a brief moment before taking the command to flee. Desrik watched it leave. Where he was going, he would need no mount to carry him back. There is no coming back.
He took in a breath and ran towards a place along the wall far from the doorway. Up he leapt, his booted feet scraping along jagged stones, his hands grabbing onto a horizontal pole that had perhaps once been used to bear a flag or banner. With consummate skill, he swung his body from the pole and onto another section of uneven stones. His feet ran along the slanted surface until his hands secured a hold on an outcropping of stone. Without pause, he continued to scale the wall, climbing and leaping in defiance of the storm’s savage downpour.
In a short time, he reached one of the few arched windows where glass remained in the stead of wooden boards. It was then that he hesitated.
Staring back at him from within the glass was a face he almost didn’t recognize. The once-smooth features had become haggard, worn by trials too terrible to reflect on. Beard growth peppered his cheeks and chin, and the eyes were hard and cold. Gone was the man who had been known for his warmth and kindness, replaced by this shadow born of ice and suffering.
My former self will not go unavenged, he silently promised the reflection. We will all be avenged, all of us who have suffered from this treachery and betrayal.
Without further hesitation, he unsheathed the straight sword worn at his hip, the traditional weapon of a Drudwyn Knight. Patience giving way to passion, he brought the exotic weapon around and into the window. Shards of glass shattered inward in a ferocious cascade, heralding his arrival as he rolled through the cleared archway. The foyer’s floor was a long drop down, but an old, faded tapestry clung to the wall by the window’s side. Without a moment’s pause, he plunged his sword into the fabric and leapt.
Fighting gravity’s fatal grasp, he slid down the wall, his sword tearing through the tapestry as he went, minimally slowing his rapid descent. The cloth, however, did not span the wall’s entire height, and so Desrik was forced to leap again, springing from the tapestry to grab onto a partially collapsed pillar standing in the foyer’s center. Perhaps once used for some decorative purpose, the pillar and those clustered around it had long ago lost all artistic appeal, though now they sufficiently served Desrik’s more practical needs. He flung himself from one pillar to another beside, sliding down its smooth length until he reached the ground.
On his feet again, he stripped the cloak from his shoulders, removing the burden of its wet weight. Knowing that this desperate quest would require the use of all his potential, all his training and skill as a knight of the revered order, he had opted against cumbersome armor and had settled on an outfit of dark fabrics to allow for greater maneuverability. The only noticeable weight spawned from the padded leather he wore over his chest and along his arms and lower legs.
He took in another breath and tossed his head back, flinging long wisps of bushy black hair from over his eyes. And then he started across the foyer, towards one of the two stairways that spiraled upwards.
Two figures emerged from the stairway directly ahead of him. They were dressed identically in form-fitting outfits of black, their faces shrouded within hoods that concealed all but their eyes. He had learned from previous, violent experience that they were trained in exotic arts similar to the Drudwyn. Yet he did not hesitate; he was the very best of the Drudwyn. And so it was with a near eager sense of rage that he ran to greet them with the tip of his sword.
He didn’t reach them before they could draw their swords, but such was his fury that he did not slow or pause. He ducked under the first man’s swipe from his right, twisting on the balls of his feet and bringing his own sword around in a cut for the second man’s hip.
Cloth and blood splashed onto the floor, and Desrik quickly reversed his grip on his sword, catching the first man’s next slash in a brisk parry. Not losing momentum, he snapped one leg into the air, slamming his heel into the man’s neck. As his enemy went down, he followed to the ground, sinking to one knee and driving his blade deep into the man’s throat.
Not bothering to finish the remaining man, he took to the stairs, feet pumping, eyes narrowed, sword thirsty.
Two more figures converged on him, the first coming in with a wicked thrust. Desrik parried and twisted himself around in a complete circle to the right. He darted his sword up for the attacker’s head, but the other man managed to raise his own sword in time, and the blades screeched together in a horrible symphony.
Catching sight that the second figure was almost upon him, Desrik swiftly hammered his foot into his current opponent’s ankle. The man stumbled, and Desrik grabbed onto the back of his head in his free hand, ramming his face into the stone of the wall beside them. Turning around, letting the body crumple to the steps, he plunged his sword straight down, deflecting the newcomer’s incoming slash.
Rolling the locked blades up and around, he used his free hand to grasp onto this foe’s wrist, trying to wrestle the other’s weapon away. To facilitate the confiscation, he wheeled himself around on his heels and smashed his elbow into the side of the man’s hooded head. His adversary’s sword fell into his waiting clutches and, after slicing through his throat, Desrik continued his bloody ascent.
Three more of the black-garbed figures advanced on him at the next landing, swords held at the ready. It was almost as though they had expected this daring intrusion. It matters little, he bitterly mused. Death is what I came to find, and Death will not hide from me.
He ran towards them and dived into a roll, evading one man’s chop and coming up from behind. Slicing into the back of that man’s knees, Desrik twirled, catching another foe’s blade in the triangular, pointed crosspiece of his knight’s sword. Twisting the grip, he forced the other’s blade down, leaving him open for a pommel-strike to the face from his newest sword. Even as the second man started to reel back from the blow, Desrik spun and brought both his swords up over his face, crossing the blades to deflect the third man’s anticipated strike.
Knees bent, he pushed forward, launching the man back and into the wooden rail. Without relenting, he followed through, bringing the straight sword in his right hand down into his opponent’s sword, pinning it against the railing. With the sword in his left, he gave a sudden thrust into the man’s neck. Blood splashing onto him, he left the sword within the other’s flesh, lifted another sword from the ground, and carried on.
From the top of the spiraling stairway, another figure started towards him, his arm snapping back to hurl a knife. Surrendering to battle-honed instinct, Desrik dropped onto his shoulder, clearing the way for the dagger to slam into the stone behind him. Coming back up to his feet, he flung the sword in his left hand, watching in satisfaction as the blade smashed into the other’s face.
Soon he was at the top, where the two stairways joined in a single landing that extended into a long, dark corridor. His knight’s sword still held in the grip of his right hand, he continued onwards. As he walked down the hall, he didn’t so much hear as feel movement from behind. He brought his down from over his shoulder, catching his attacker’s blade before it could bite into his neck. He pushed his sword up against the other’s, pivoting on the balls of his feet as he did so, coming around to face his next assailant.
The hooded man came in with a lunge, but Desrik neatly stepped to the right and snapped his foot out for the other’s ankle. Balance lost, his attacker was now easy prey. Yet, just as he was about to drive his sword into the man’s head, he caught a reflection flashing from his blade.
He threw himself to the side, barely eluding the dagger that had been thrown from across the corridor. The slender blade sank deeply into the padding against his left bicep, earning a brief grunt of pain.
I won’t be stopped! Not now! Not yet! The thought was a scream inside his mind as he sprang back to his feet, grabbing his first assailant by the throat and pushing him in front as a shield of flesh. Another knife tore through the air, slicing into his captive’s chest, and then another slammed into the man’s shoulder. Each drew a muffled cry of agony.
Carrying the man’s dead weight, Desrik pushed on, determined to reach the knife-thrower. Another knife cut through his captive’s shoulder, coming dangerously close to bouncing into his eye. Cursing, he plucked the dagger out from his bicep and twirled himself around the dying body.
He hurled the dagger across the distance, and while the knife-thrower was momentarily distracted, he abandoned his captive and ran forward. Before the other man could reorient himself, Desrik was in the air, both feet colliding with his foe’s breast. He met the ground on his shoulders and instantly sprang up, slamming one foot out in a hard kick to other’s face. Hearing the sickening crunch of breaking cartilage, Desrik discarded his adversary and rushed onward.
Another figure leapt at him from the shadows, shoving him hard against the wall to his left. He grunted, his hand losing its grasp on his sword. The other man brought a knee up into his gut, and then an elbow down into his head. Desrik met the floor in a vicious thud, but he maintained enough sense to roll, escaping what could have been a paralyzing kick.
On his back, he snapped both feet into his attacker’s legs, applying pressure from different angles and tripping the other man. Soon they were both rolling on the stone floor, fists pounding away into one another. One particularly fierce punch launched Desrik back, and he stumbled onto his feet, shaking his head while vision blurred behind a nimbus of stars.
His senses returned in time to warn him of the other man charging towards him. He sprang to the side, fluidly grabbing onto the man’s head and shoving his face into the window by their side. The glass splintered and cracked before finally shattering, and still Desrik continued the brutal motions until the ensuing screams had bled away into nothingness and his fingers had become drenched in the sticky warmth of blood.
Desrik stumbled back, staring at the twitching, dying body and the blood coating his hand. How did it come to this? How far have I fallen? The thoughts came unbidden, came unwanted and without warning. They threatened to restore a clarity that he did not need right now, that he could not bear to feel.
Soon it will end, soon it will be over, he told himself, fighting against an inner wave of despair. This was the only way, he knew. He had no other option available to him. The knighthood had been played as a pawn in an elaborate scheme, and all that remained to him now was the course of the drastic, of the desperate.
I’m the only one left.
Fresh pain blossomed in his heart, and he limped towards his fallen sword, scooping it up and moving on.
They came at him again and again, until the violence was absolute, until it had become a world of its own. Desrik’s reality had transformed itself into the cruel harmony of parry, slash, and thrust. Feeling was lost beneath desire, and anger was a thing more radiant than the daytime sun. The persistent screech of clashing steel was now his anthem, the requiem he composed for all those he met within his damned place.
At the end of the corridor, he kicked the two, arched doors inward, and he stalked forward with all the menace of a predator ready to pounce, ready to bring death to all in his way.
The chamber awaiting him was long but wide, its furnishings sparse. Old paintings hung from the walls, and decorative statues and vases littered the dusty floor. Windows spanned the length of both walls, flooding the interior with the pale, intermittent glow of flashing lightning from outside. Across from him was a large seat that should have been occupied by the one responsible for this chaos. But the seat was empty, devoid of everything but the cobwebs of time.
No! He needs to be here! He needs to die!
He noticed a stirring in the shadows far to his right. Eyes narrowed, he called into the chamber: “Where is he? Where is Galas?”
“Galas?” a figure murmured from the darkness, its voice masculine, mocking. “Did you really think to find him here? To stop him like this?”
“Where is he?” Desrik demanded, taking a deliberate step forward. Thunder roared from the storm outside, briefly shaking the keep’s walls as if to accentuate the intensity of his fury.
“He is not here, but it would please him to know that it was you who had come for him.” The mockery was thick now, full of caustic amusement. “The greatest of the knights, their champion, now reduced to something no better than Galas himself. How painfully…tragic.”
Desrik knew he was being baited to anger, but knowledge was no longer strong enough to save him. He felt his inability to resist his outrage. “We are nothing alike! He wandered from the path, broke his oaths.”
“Yes, he is Fallen, and now so are you.”
Desrik faltered, becoming again aware of the blood sullying his hands and body. It is true, he admitted to himself. I am now among the Fallen, the shamed and forsaken. He swallowed into a dry mouth, feeling the weight of his trials, of mistakes made because he trusted too much.
“You are abandoned now, alone,” the figure snarled from the shadows. “No longer are you a tool of Heaven’s justice.”
Desrik’s eyes went to his sword, the last remaining symbol of his affiliation with the Drudwyn. The last testament to the person he once was, the hero he had been. That person deserved more than to fade away into misery and darkness. That person deserved to be avenged, to avenge all those who had suffered and lost.
“If I am no longer the tool of justice, then you may regard me as the sword of vengeance,” he hissed, just before launching himself into the shadows.
The figure reeled back, revealing himself to dim light as another man shrouded in the same outfit as previous adversaries. His sword darted up in answer to Desrik’s advance, and soon the two were joined in the savagery of unbridled violence. Around and around they moved, their bodies intertwining and undulating as swords flashed dangerously close to flesh.
Desrik dipped his sword low, attempting to trap the other’s blade within the triangular points of his crosspiece, but his adversary was wary and quick. The other man neatly avoided the trap and spun around, bringing his sword around in a slash for the knight’s head.
Desrik dropped to his left and twisted his body, snapping a foot out at his opponent’s ankles. The other man tripped but met the floor in a fluid roll and sprang back up, twirling as he leapt, sending a foot to crash into Desrik’s chest.
The knight stumbled back into an old statue, the impact raining a cloud of dust down over his shoulders. Shaking his head, he brought his enemy within his sights and narrowed his eyes, preparing himself for another clash. Yet, instead of charging at him, he noticed that the other man was staring past him, towards the doorway.
Desrik cautiously moved away from the statue, stealing a brief glance at the door. A second figure stood there, dressed identically to the first, all but eyes hidden beneath hood and cloth.
“Tell me,” the first man said, his voice smug, “why was it that the Drudwyn’s greatest knight was was unable to protect the Iridanian princess in his care? Getting to her was so surprisingly easy.”
Aricia. He was being baited again he knew, but he was unable to stop the flood of pain and grief that washed over his heart. I cared for her…She loved me…
The pain of memory brought with it fresh rage, and he no longer cared for caution. This man simply did not deserve to even speak of the princess.
He ran forward, his sword leading his charge.
His enemy expertly spun to the side, parrying Desrik’s assault. “How was it so easy to get past you?” he continued with his verbal torment. “How did you fail with so little difficulty?”
Because I loved Shareena. I was distracted, foolish. He couldn’t help but think of the poor peasant girl he had helped on his first journey to Iridan, how she had indebted herself to his service despite his protests. Over time, he had found himself charmed by her shy mannerisms, by her modesty and subtle beauty. Because of that, he had failed in his duty to protect Aricia, and an assassin of this wretched place had gotten to her.
Though the assassin ultimately failed was a moot point. Aricia had been wounded, and Desrik had come here, to see every last person within this old fortress weep red blood upon his sword.
His blade smashing against that of his adversary’s, he suddenly pulled back, reminding himself of the second figure by the door. He stole a quick glance in that direction and was surprised to find that the newcomer had yet to advance. The other man almost seemed hesitant, even though Desrik had clearly been distracted by emotion.
What does he wait for? Emotion has become my bane, the crack through which weakness creeps into my soul. He felt tears in his eyes, but he forced the anguish from his mind, shoving it aside to make way for the clarity of pure rage. It was all he had left.
“The princess will die,” the first man was saying, teasing, tormenting. “And these kingdoms, these peoples that your knighthood has protected for generations, will all crumble away, broken by a war you were too weak to prevent.”
Desrik couldn’t take it any more. “How can you care so little for so many lives?” he nearly screamed. “Galas meddles in powers beyond his understanding, twisting and deforming the laws between life and death—and all for what?”
His adversary merely shrugged. “It matters little to us. Death is our trade.”
“Wretched assassins!” Desrik spat. “Death is no longer only your trade—it is your visitor this night!” Heedless of the second figure, he again launched himself at his foe, needing to see the other man dead, needing to feel his blade plunging again and again into the other’s flesh.
Up, down, around and around, Desrik’s sword worked in a frantic blur, desperate to drink from wet blood. He slammed his blade hard into his enemy’s, forcing an opening for his elbow to smash into the other’s face. His enemy stumbled and unleashed a wild slash that landed directly into Desrik’s crosspiece, the impact snapping the sword from his grasp.
Before the man could seize the advantage, Desrik brought a closed fist into the other’s face, sending him toppling into a statue. As the other fell, he quickly turned around and started for his fallen sword.
It was at this moment of utter vulnerability that the newcomer decided to intervene. He placed himself directly in between Desrik and his sword. Yet, to Desrik’s curiosity, this new enemy didn’t draw his own sword. Instead, the figure extended a hand, the fingers waving in invitation for an honorable contest without weapons.
Desrik was momentarily stunned by this show of nobility, but he eagerly accepted the invitation. He came in with a punch from his right while simultaneously launching a lower strike from his left. The first blow was cleanly intercepted by a blocking arm, and the second was neatly batted aside by the other arm. Desrik wasted no time in thrusting his knee hard into the other’s gut.
The figure spun and snapped his leg out in a kick for the knight’s head. Desrik pivoted and came in again with fist after fist. Their arms locked in a haze of motion, each combatant in turn striking and countering, deflecting and dodging.
Desrik’s right fist dived in for his enemy’s abdomen, but the other man’s opposite hand neatly slapped the attack downwards, even as he twisted to the side, bringing his leg around in a second kick. The heel crashed into Desrik’s shoulder, shoving him back.
He whirled as he stumbled, extending his own leg in a return kick. His foot crashed into the other’s ribs, and they both met the ground in a hard roll. Coming back to his feet, ignoring the reaching fingers of pain writhing throughout his body, Desrik stared at his opponent. There was something about the other man’s motions, a natural grace that felt somehow familiar. Though slightly shorter than himself, his adversary matched him move for move, as though able to anticipate everything Desrik would do. As though he’s fought me before, learned my techniques!
He didn’t have time for further scrutiny, however. A glance over his shoulder indicated that his first adversary had regained his composure and was clearly annoyed that his companion hadn’t simply drawn his sword to cut Desrik down with ease.
Urgency rising within him, Desrik dove in at his present enemy, content to let his anger guide him. See through my rage if you dare!
Strike for strike, the other man continued to match him, but Desrik was gaining ground with every breath, with every painful strike and counter. When they were at last close enough, he slammed his left arm downward, crashing it into both of his opponent’s own arms, and he pivoted in from his right, driving that same-sided fist into the other’s chest.
Soft! He felt something within the other’s shirt cushion his blow, though it clearly left his enemy in pain, gasping for air. Breasts? His eyes widened. “Who are—?”
As he started the question, the woman’s eyes dilated from within her hood. He wasted no time in diving to the side, evading a slash from behind. Rolling along the floor, he snatched his sword back up and sprang to his feet, turning to greet his initial adversary.
The other man hurriedly closed the distance between them, starting again the aching melody of their screeching sword song. Slowed by previous wounds, Desrik just narrowly managed to move aside from a thrust to his abdomen. This has to end! He felt the tempo of his anger wearing thin beneath the constant onslaught of grief and anguish.
Growling in desperate fury, he forced himself a step forward, applying enough pressure to roll his sword around and over his enemy’s. He continued the motion, flinging his opponent’s sword out wide. The other’s defenses momentarily exposed, Desrik reversed his grip, shoving his pommel into his enemy’s gut and then twisting his sword around so that the blade tore through and into his shoulder.
The other man collapsed with a sudden cry, all but waiting for the death strike. But before Desrik could deliver that fatal stroke, the woman advanced, her sword flashing between them. He was forced back, away from the kill that he needed to taste, to feel.
The woman continued her vicious assault, her sword batting against his, her feet and legs pivoting and bending in the elaborate choreography of a masterful dance. Each motion was clean and crisp, full of a beauty that even Desrik found himself admiring.
As they built their rhythm, composing their bloody masterpiece, Desrik realized why her movements were so familiar. Her! She was the assassin who had made the first, albeit failed, attempt on Aricia’s life. Desrik had confronted her within the grounds of the Iridan palace, and the violence she had unleashed upon him then had been nothing short of startling.
But there was something absent this time, as though the assassin was mysteriously beset by reluctance. It didn’t matter. She had tried to kill Aricia and was a member of the abominable group that had persistently plagued the dear princess’s life with the threat of untimely death. This was the end, and Desrik could not make himself care whether he survived or not. He committed himself fully to the battle, devoted entirely on the assassin’s death and destruction, on seeing her body torn to pieces by his blade.
He met her next thrust with a quick parry, flipping his sword about in an even quicker riposte. The blade darted into her guard, stealing a brief bite into the flesh of her stomach. She grunted but twirled, driving her sword into his while slamming a heel into his knee.
His leg trembled and he collapsed into a kneeling posture. Sheer instinct guided his sword around behind his head, blocking a chop meant for his neck. He pushed his blade up, shoving her sword into an involuntary climb. In that same instant, he reversed his grip and blindly stabbed behind him.
He felt the penetration, felt the weight of her body hovering mere inches above his shoulders.
His eyes snapped wide open as he heard her voice. No! He couldn’t be sure whether the scream had been an explosion within his head or a cry torn from his throat.
He pulled his blade clear of her stomach and turned, watching in helpless shock as her body fell to the ground. From within her hood, her dark eyes stared up at him, and they now suddenly looked painfully recognizable.
“No…no…No!” Upon coming here, he had thought it impossible to feel greater pain than what he had already been exposed to. But now he knew that the world was capable of making anything cruel all too possible.
“Des—” she gasped, and a dark blotch appeared on the cloth covering her mouth. Blood.
He didn’t know what to do. He stared at her, his emotions pulled taut from outrage to panic. Somehow, though, he managed to hear the advancing footfalls of his first opponent.
His heart broken and battered, it was with pure emptiness of feeling that he moved aside, dodging a thrust and countering with a slash. His sword smashed into the other man’s, and both blades collided with the window along the wall beside them, shattering the glass. Lightning flashed, and Desrik broke away from the embrace of steel, wheeling himself around on the balls of his feet. Around he went, his sword coming in too fast for the other man to defend against.
Steel bit into cloth and flesh, severing neck from body. The man’s head rolled from his shoulders in a bloody spray, falling straight out the broken window and to the storm beyond.
Still silent and unfeeling, Desrik simply dropped his sword and fell to his knees before the woman. She was shaking now, and so he was careful in unwrapping the hood from her face.
When the cloth fell away, he felt his heart plummet inside of him. Shareena’s exotic, lovely features stared up at him. Red spittle wept from her mouth, merging with the clear tears that cascaded down from her eyes, along the smooth curve of her cheeks. Her dark hair had been bunched up to help conceal her femininity.
Her eyes met his, and the look inside of those dark orbs introduced him to a whole new world of grief.
All this time…it was her. She was how they got to Aricia. Because of me, because of my foolishness. I trusted you! He wanted to scream, he wanted to sob. “Why?” he choked out; it was all he could actually manage to do.
“Loyalties,” she muttered, her eyes staring into his, as if wanting to drink in every last contour of his face. She rested her head within his arms, laying against him while rain from the shattered window poured over them, drenching them in cruel coldness. “I was with them…before you.” Her voice was strained, its strength fast fading.
He shook his head and soon found himself unable—unwilling—to keep his lip from quivering. Tears fell freely from his eyes as he held her against him. “Save your strength, Shareena,” he murmured, though he knew as well as she did that there was no point to such advice. Death’s banquet was not yet over for this night.
“It…it was supposed to be…easy…” she went on, heedless of his request, needing to share this with him, unwilling to part with him without having unveiled the entirety of her heart.
“Deceiving me?” he hissed, instantly regretting it the moment he spoke the words.
She didn’t flinch. She merely trembled in his embrace, crying freely, if softly. “Yes.” She closed her eyes, and Desrik’s heart fell even lower, grabbed by renewed panic. But she opened them again. “But it was hard…so hard. I…I love…”
He didn’t want to hear it. He couldn’t bear to hear it. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to purse her lips with a forefinger. His finger came back wet with blood, and his agony was intensified tenfold.
“Don’t leave me!” he blurted, not caring of the weakness he now exposed. How did we come to this? How did we get here? “Please…you’re all I have now.” He held her tighter, weeping and feeling a part of him starting to die along with her.
“I’m…so…so…sorry.” Her voice cracked, and his heart broke a little more.
Lightning flashed out the window, and thunder roared. The pool of rainwater had grown around them, soaking their bodies. Still he held her in the futile attempt of giving warmth, of offering life.
Apart from the raging storm, silence slowly came to prevail over the chamber. Desrik kept his eyes closed, his arms around Shareena’s lifeless head.
It felt like an eternity had come and gone before he found the strength to whisper into the dreadful silence, “I love you, too.”