When the blood of a loved one is spilled, where do you turn? Third draft--more to come.
|A red-ringed crescent moon shone down from a star-filled sky upon the still dark forest of Avengarre. Silence reigned in the clear summer night; the usual nocturnal creatures failed to bestir themselves. Even the warm wind barely rustled the ancient branches--the movement of the leaves but a whisper against the backdrop. The only thing that disturbed the darkness was a gently flickering light to the northwest, too close to be coming from the small town a league away. It danced orange to vibrant yellow, flaring and falling rhythmically with the breeze, but fading as each moment passed. Moments stretch like hours as the illumination beyond the forest’s bound slowly died back to nothing, leaving the shadows as they had been. No threat was presented from what lay beyond the tree line…these woods were, as always, untouchable.
It is quieter still beneath the long shadows cast by leaves and trunks that have seen many centuries pass. Little light filtered through the black-shade cover into this heart of the forest. The underbrush was thick with brambles and ivy. Anything could have been lurking out there, lying in wait for some unfortunate soul to cross its path before striking unseen. Local legend called this forest haunted or cursed, though it was hard to put credence in superstition on such a night as this. While gloomy, there was a strange sense of peace to be found here. The very stillness of the air, the light dew on random ivy leaves that twined up the thick tree trunks, even the distant whish of wind and a burbling streamlet nearby broke the menace into pieces. Imposing, yet soft--a place made for lovers’ trysts, yet no lovelorn couple would dare enter for fear of what might stalk them from behind the nearest tree. Gentle when beautiful, it was also the setting for a small child’s nightmares of ravening beasts or the twisted, broken corpses of the walking dead…the paths for heroes and madmen to walk in search of glory or death.
Something stirred, a violent ruckus splitting open the stillness. A twig snapped. Brush rattled. Rapid footsteps pounded the dry earth. If there were any living thing nearby, it would have seen only a blur as the man-sized figure rushed past, doing its best to outpace the wind. There was no discernible will or destination to the movement; the figure barely managed to avoid crashing into a tree several times, and simply tore through the less solid objects in his path, heedless to any injury that might have been done. It was fortunate that there was no path to follow, since it regularly veered off in random directions, seeming to go in circles at least half of the time. It never slowed, simply kept running as though the hounds of the Lord of the Nine Hells were on its tail.
When does it all end…?
An idle thought, useless as any other. It was far too late for thinking. He couldn’t breathe to scream the pain inside. Blood pounded in his ears as he ran, spilling from his injured arm and scratched legs to spatter the ground behind him. He didn’t notice. Fiery pain swept mind and heart, making physical agony insignificant. Unable to see beyond the red and black of rage and bleak emptiness. Body on the verge of collapse. He couldn’t stop now…he could never stop. To sit was to see Anborn‘s face again, alive, then flash to dead, staring eyes. He had to get away. Couldn’t stand the screaming in his head, the boiling fury cold inside his chest. Run until he couldn’t anymore--through the nine hells if he had to. Anything to escape the pyre he’d left at the forest’s edge. If it meant killing the gaping hole within, no price was too high.
Demon. With his reddish-brown skin, violet hair, straight horns, tail and solid silver orbs for eyes, people had called him that his entire life. This was the first time he’d believed it. Only a devil of the worst order could have done such a thing. He should not have been spared the knife--it should have been him bleeding out on the floor before his father’s eyes. Not the other way around. Why did life always take away the things that were most important when they had only just been found?
He hated it. The world should burn away with his father’s body. The tavern walls should have been washed in red with his vengeance against the humans--and then he could have followed honorably into the darkness. Everything in him burned to take out the dagger--all he had left of Anborn--and plunge it into his heart, where it should have gone before.
But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t escape. He saw it all again and again, unable to stop it. He tripped on a rock and fell to his knees, panting, not seeing the trees around him, barely noticing the oozing gashes along his arms and face. His clothing had protected most of his body, but his left tunic sleeve would be soaked in blood by now. He curled up into a ball, trying desperately to lose consciousness. Escape for just a little while to a world without feeling. A gray place, misted, closed away. Cloud the mind, make it all stop. Be in control. But he knew too well that it didn’t work. But maybe if he made himself small enough, he‘d simply disappear. It was difficult; at sixteen, he was already over six feet tall.
For an instant, he dared to look at where he was. The long shadows beneath the trees didn’t hinder his vision--he could see quite well in the night. The world wavered and shook. Harsh sounds filled the night, a heavy, ragged breathing that taunted him. Eyes peered from the night in accusation, laughing at him, demanding to know how this had happened. They would always be watching him now--he could ignore them before, when he was the watcher in the dark. But now the very gloom that flowed through him--the powers that some distant ancestor’s blood had given him over darkness and fire--mocked him. Everything he saw was stained red with the memory of blood. So much blood.
The scent choked him, covering him, staining him forever with its cruel taint. He could taste it. He spat, but couldn’t rid himself of its metal. And there was another part of him that wanted more, craved being coated with it again, wanted to lick the red warmth off the blade that had inflicted pain and death. This other self--without remorse. How long would he survive in a sea of stolen life? How long before he was consumed by the rage and struck, again and again, until there was nothing left to kill? Friend, foe or innocent bystander, it didn’t seem to matter. The rage was so seductive, so powerful…and alien.
He fought it, but last night flooded back all at once, inserting him back into the moment. Plunged into the nightmare once again, betrayed by his mind. Drowning in the madness, he fell.
“Can I try the ale, Anborn?”
“Now there, Koldaran; what have I told you ’bout that? You’ve another year or twain yet before I’ll let you drink like a man. Bad enough that you’ve got the height already; you could fool near everybody if you were of a mind to speak right.”
“I don’t care about most of it--I just want to know what it tastes like. I won’t do nothing stupid.”
“Maybe not, but best that we don’t tempt fate, eh? Give in once, you’ll do it again sure as the sun doesn’t rise in the west.”
“Enough, Kol. You knew the answer before you asked. Yer only sixteen; too young fer that.”
He muttered in Elven.
Anborn smacked the side of his head. “Stop that. My upbringing has nothing to do with your not bein’ a man yet. No more nonsense. D’ya want to practice or not? Can‘t afford to let your skills go slack…y‘know that.”
“Then get a move on; we don’t have all night.”
They were in the Shady Veil for a meal and some rest after a hard day’s training in the fighting arts in the fields outside of town. The room was dimly lit, but the clientele seemed mostly respectable…to the outward observer. The people sitting at the tables around them were mostly human, with a few dwarves and halflings mixed in. Most sat alone or with one other person, though there was a group of seven in the far corner…and all of them were more than a little drunk, judging by the slurred speech and hesitation with which they moved.
They made an odd pair--Koldaran vibrant with his skin and hair, while Anborn faded into the background with more normal coloring. He was built to power his way through a battlefield--solid muscle, about six and a half feet tall. His brown hair and blue eyes were nothing special, but his commanding aura could not be ignored. And to see a child of hell together with a human…rare indeed.
Kol scanned the faces of the people nearby quickly, not focusing on any one too long. He could have been merely glancing around the room; only the careful eye would spot the scrutiny for what it was. He met the gaze of a few; most of them turned away immediately. A few even held onto holy symbols or made warding gestures against evil. Everywhere he went it was the same; his kind were not well liked.
After watching the crowd for a few minutes, he tipped his head toward a middle-aged, nondescript human who appeared to be poring over his drink. “That one,” he said quietly. “No thief, but he’s definitely waiting for something…or someone. Maybe hidin’. He’s too alert, well armed. He has at least one dagger hidden away--I‘d bet on more than that. Knows too well how to use ‘em, too. I can almost smell the blood on him. Hired blade, maybe?”
“Well spotted. He does have the fighter‘s look, and a good un at that. He might just be a merc or assassin; ya want to be sure, go find yerself a wizard or cleric to get in his mind. One thing’s sure--that’s one to keep an eye on. Any others?”
“Couple petty thieves, and that one over there’s going to look for some entertainment if he gets any more ale in him. Not real skilled or smart, but strong. Could be a problem if he starts up--looks to be near limit.”
“Truer words never spoken.”
This was an old game for them--a test and fun all wrapped up in one package. Growing up on the streets had forced Koldaran to be perceptive; those who didn’t pay attention ended up ganked. Before he’d met Anborn four years ago, he’d never thought it could be sport--not when survival rode on seeing the signs.
An argument that had been quietly escalating in the corner finally turned into a shouting match. Two of the more drunk ones stood up, their companions trying to hold them back with little success. One of them swung, missing wildly; most of the party swayed where they stood. One of the brawnier individuals tried to grab the shoulder of the one getting physical and fell where he stood. He looked up at his companions, bewildered.
Kol laughed. He loved watching drunkards getting into trouble--easy pickings. He looked sharply at their belt pouches, trying to see if they had anything worth risking a few blows for.
Anborn caught him looking and gripped his arm, halting him. “None of that now. Too many people as will jump in if you try it. Good skill to keep in reserve, but pick your place and time. See that?” he said, pointing to the owner of the bar. “That ’un knows his way around a brawl, and has t’ hawk‘s eyes." He reached up, touched the corner of his own eye, then slowly lowered his hand. "He catches ye, and we’ll both be out. Want to pilfer their things, meet ’em on the street.”
Koldaran crossed his arms, settling back to watch. “Very well…but only ’cuz you say so.”
“Good choice, lad.”
The human slumped on the wooden floor woke up. He roared, claiming that his companion had “pushed” him. Kol snorted as he rolled to his feet, wading into the impending fight. He got his hands on the one whom he’d tried to grab and shoved him into a nearby table. The two dwarves sitting there sprang to their feet, cursing in an unintelligible tongue. They, too, plunged into the melee.
The owner of the establishment tried to stop it, but got drawn in as well. Slowly but surely, everyone in the tavern was swinging at someone. Punches flew from every direction, and more than a few hilts flashed in the dim illumination. It was only a matter of time before the town guard got involved.
Anborn shook his head. “See, lad? This is why I won’t let ya have that ale. Once the drink’s in ya, control goes out the door…and you’re wild enough as is. Come on now, time to leave. We’d best not be here when the guards get here; I’ve no wish to be dragged to no cell.”
They walked carefully through the crowd, dodging off-target blows as they headed upstairs to their room. There were bodies flying now as the stronger people tossed their opponents into the air. Jostled from all sides, they continued forward.
A drunken shout caught Kol’s attention. It was hard to hear above the din, but not impossible for someone with infernal blood flowing through his veins. It sounded like “demonborn scum”. He turned around, and his eyes widened. A blood-crazed block of a man was bearing down on him, holding a wicked-looking short sword heading straight for his heart. He could hear him better now: “Die, devil’s brat! I’ll send ya to Asmodeus who sired ya, all merciful-like. Best thing for y‘ens, sending ya beck to hell; keep y’ez all from harming innocent folk!”
The man--he had to be a barbarian--was fast for his size, nearly upon him. He stared into the man’s eyes, the manic gleam of madness rendering him immobile. Time slowed down. Another shout from behind him couldn’t take his arrested attention from his death. He wondered what death would feel like. Was there anyone waiting for him on the other side? Were the parents he’d never known awaiting him?
There was no panic, nor regret. He’d seen death too often on the streets for it to hold any power over him. And wasn’t it right that he should die at the hands of a human? His race had been like them once, centuries ago. Anborn had told him a few tales of the Azaris, ancient once-human empire ruled in the name of the dark powers. His people.
Anborn. The one person who had looked beyond the skin to see the person. He’d never once treated him any different. He tried to turn around, say goodbye…but he was knocked to the ground before he could. Had the barbarian already struck? Was he dead?
Knocked prone, blinded by light spots and deafened by the ruckus, he tried to focus for his last few moments in the world. He shivered; there was no pain. The gods must have decided to show mercy after all.
“Koldaran…get up. Let’s go.”
Anborn had his hand outstretched, the barbarian unconscious on the floor behind him. Reaching up in wonder, Kol let himself be pulled to his feet. Wobbling a bit, he put a hand on Anborn’s hip to steady himself. After a moment, he followed him up the stairs. There was something wrong with his hand though…it felt wet. He held it up to a nearby window, using the fading light to see what stained his hand.
It was visibly red.
Shaking, he reached out, touching Anborn’s shoulder. He was rigid, barely standing. Even now, he slumped toward the floor, relying on the wall for support. Koldaran caught him just as he lost his balance completely. No wound on his back, so he looked down at his mentor’s midsection. Could see the knife wound that had sliced through the leather jerkin, and the barest hint of…something…protruding out of the wound.
He shuddered and looked away, not wanting to think about it. But he knew.
“Anborn! Anborn, I’ve got you. Let’s get to the room, and I’ll go for help.”
“Too…late. Caught me…in the gut. Death blow.” His voice was strained. Blood splattered to the floor behind him; Koldaran could barely see that it had soaked the white undershirt that Anborn always wore beneath the leather or chain.
“Krazchet!” It was the one word of Draconic that he knew, a vile curse indeed. He’d only heard it used once, in a back alley. A male in human form had held a silver-scaled woman with a cut throat, blood spilling from a wound that, even at the age of eight, Koldaran could tell would be fatal. He would never forget the anguish and rage in that single word. “You‘ll be fine; just hang on to me. I won’t let you die, father…I won’t!”
“What…did I tell you about calling me that? I told you…I‘m nobody‘s parent. Gauntlet doesn‘t fit me…never did.”
Ignoring him, he fumbled with the door to their room. Opening it, he rushed in, laying Anborn on the bed. He sank to the floor, trying not to panic. There was so much blood…and something in him answered it. A fire kindled within his veins, and his senses sharpened. Something in him wanted this--gloried in it. He had never hated himself more.
He got up quickly. “I’m…going to find a cleric. Someone will save--”
He snarled. “I’m getting you help!”
“Don’t…want it. It is…my time.”
Swearing in Elven, he returned to the side of the bed. “Why didn’t you let me die? Why won’t you let me save you? I can’t do this--”
Just the one word, but it got his attention. Anborn reached over, his every movement a strain, and took his right hand. His weapon hand. He opened it, and placed a bejeweled dagger in it before closing his hand over it and covering it with his own.
“Kol, d’ya remember the pact we made? I’m calling it in now. It‘s my time.”
Just over a year ago, they had declared themselves brothers, sharing a bit of each other’s blood. It was the closest tie that Anborn would allow him. At the same time, they’d made a promise.
“When the time comes, I die by your hand.”
“No! I won’t do it! I…I can’t. You are my family…Anborn…how can you ask this of me? I don’t want this--you can still live if you just try--”
He sighed. “Did I ever tell you why I named you Koldaran? You reminded me so much of him…my younger brother. He…died, a long time ago. We were fighting in the same battle. I lived; he didn’t.”
“But what does that--”
“Just listen. When I saw his body--I died. Until I met you, I’d been dead since then. You brought me back to life, gave me…a second chance. It was like having him…back again. Bahamut sent you to me, and now--now you can live in his place.”
“I can’t! I don’t want--”
“No more of that. There’s…nothing left to say. Now, do as you promised. Kill me."
“I won’t do it!”
“Lad, I’m dying. Unless you can find a cleric within five minutes, it will be too late. Please…do this for me. I don’t…want to linger in pain like my brother did. I saw…too much of this kinda death. My life is over. I’m done. Death has been my life…I‘m ready for it to end. I fear it not.”
“By the nine hells, no…don’t ask me for this.”
“Fine. Then…I’ll do it myself.”
Anborn reached up, touched his face. “You feel it, don’t you? Your nature hungers for the death of your enemies. It will make your strikes more accurate in battle. You can use that.” He reached back and struck him, hard. Kol’s head snapped back, and he reeled where he sat. The spark in his blood woke up, turning into an inferno. He palmed the dagger, gripped the handle more tightly. A low, rumbling growl filled the room.
“There…it’s awake. What’s always been in ya is alive and growin’ now. Demonkyn--children of Azaris, whose ancestors sold themselves to the nine hells in exchange for the power to control the empire for all of time. Bound their ancestors; every generation breeds true. Ya can’t run from your heritage, my boy. It makes you special, Kol…makes you deadly. Gives you power over fire and darkness, but y‘already know that. Anger is a part of you…it’s in your blood. You’ve felt it--I’ve seen the glow in yer eyes, times you’ve been pushed too hard. Use that strength now. Use your rage.”
Struggling to speak through the sound he couldn‘t believe came from his throat, Kol rasped out, “Don’t…want this.”
“Biggest mistake a body can do is denying what they are. You’re not a killer, Kol…but you are a fighter. You strike from the shadows, and nothing’ stands in your way. Taught you all I have to offer. Follow your own code, don’t forget where you came from. Now. Strike hard and true, son. Send me on.”
Lifting the dagger almost involuntarily, he steadied it above Anborn‘s heart. His mind and heart warred with his body, fighting for control. Though the screaming in his head never stopped, the roar of the inferno would not be denied. There was yet another voice in him that wanted to pull his own weapon--the katar--and turn Anborn over. Slit his throat from behind, then stab him in the heart for good measure. Watch the coarse white linen turn red, then turn him back and look into the dead blue eyes. No. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t do this. But his right hand--his body--wasn’t listening.
Seeing the dagger start to move, Anborn sighed in relief. “Good lad. I will be with you always, right here.” There was the faintest hint of regret in his voice as he touched his own chest, then reached out to touch him. But he dropped his hand, unable to hold it up for more than a few seconds. Not enough time.
Kol raised the dagger…and slammed it home. Blood had spattered his face and hands, spraying over him like thick red mist.
Anborn’s last words haunted him. “Don’t…let this kill you.”
He didn’t know how long he’d sat by the body, frozen, still holding the dagger. Time held no meaning; he couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. Eventually, he’d wrapped Anborn’s still form in sheets and carried it out off the inn. No one had seen him leave, and the streets had been deserted. He’d walked out of the gates unchallenged, and went to the training ground they’d used the day before, within two miles of the forest‘s edge.
It was nearly dawn when he reached it, so he’d waited until night fell again before sending his father’s body to the sky. As he watched the mortal form of the only family he’d ever known be consumed, he’d found the same dagger and opened his own left wrist, holding it over the flames. He’d been hoping that his cursed blood would catch fire and spread to the rest of his body, eating him alive, burning it all away. But his infernal nature had turned back the flames. He had suffered only mild burns, even when he stuck his hand directly into the blaze. He hadn’t bothered to bind the wound before fear and pain lashed him into movement, filling him with the need to escape. If he could just get away…none of this would be real.
A howl of inhuman rage filled the night. It went on and on, taking Kol a moment to realize that it was coming from him. The rumble in his body told him it was so, though it sounded…wrong. Dark. Evil. But slowly it changed, taking on an edge of anguish that never managed to take over. He wouldn’t let it. Couldn’t think anymore. When it finally died, words took its place as he lashed out, his tail and fist smacking the ground hard. He barely understood what he was saying, couldn’t grasp the significance of any of it. It just came.
“How could you? How could you? Why’d you leave me here? You said we were brothers…you’d be here, always. What now! Where will you be when I call you now, father? I need you. You should have let me die; nobody wants me. You were everything--you saved me, and for what? So you could die? ‘S that all I’m worth to you? Die by my hands when you’ve had enough?”
One hand dug into his scored arm, making it bleed faster. He was getting light-headed, dizzy. Could he follow him after all? Might he die too?
Memories flashed through his mind. Six years old, and already knowing that he was hungry and alone. No one saw him sitting just out of sight, in the dark shadows of a city street. People dying all around him, and he might join them at any time.
He’d met Anborn for the first time when he was about twelve. He’d been pinned to a wall in the shadows of a nameless alley after he’d tried to gank the older man for his money. He remembered being held off the ground, an arm over his throat and a sword at his stomach. Asked why he was trying to slit his throat, ‘cuz it wasn‘t anyone‘s notion of honorable. Kol had dared him to do his worst; there was nothing to live for. Most everyone would be grateful if he died--even now, it hadn’t truly changed. But he’d been picked up and dusted off when he‘d heard that he had no family. Anborn wasn’t in the habit of killin’ those who were looking to die, or so he‘d said. Taken him up, fed him, made him safe for the first time. He’d given him the name Koldaran soon after.
He had spent twenty minutes staring at a katar in the market one time. Anborn had seen his interest and walked him away…only to present it to him after the evening meal and told him that it was time he learned how to use a “real weapon”. Then came long hours spent learning how to use it, the aches in his body, the exhausted sleep that he could barely wake from.
He remembered the broken bones. The games in stealth, where he’d get whapped with a stick if he didn’t get past Anborn undetected to take the knife or the apple that was behind him. Then moving onward to playing with a blade. How many times had he ended up on the ground, bleeding, because he hadn’t been fast enough, hadn’t managed to take his opponents by surprise and put katar to throat?
But Anborn’s pride in his success the first time he’d fought a bigger, older man and won had made it all right. He’d worshipped this man who’d saved him, seen him for what he could be. He didn’t hurt him for being different. He hadn’t judged, treating him the same as he’d treated any other person. Anborn…the only one who’d ever mattered. His mentor. His savior. His father. All he had, everything he’d ever wanted to be, Anborn had been. How could he be dead? Impossible. He couldn’t die…he was supposed to live forever.
The words kept spilling unintelligibly. Like his blood. So much blood. His speech changed, becoming crude. Harsh. Reverting to the way it had been years before, before he‘d left the streets for good.
“Ya‘ve ganked me, know that? Live now…that whatchu want frummat? What’s lef’ now, huh? Y’tell meh righ’ now what’s left! Not doin‘ this…not ‘lone. Y‘get back here righ‘ now, damn ‘tall!” His voice echoed, bouncing off the trees. There was no reply, and there never would be.
Collapsing to the ground with every part of him shorted out. Couldn’t feel anything, but he still ached so much. Nothing left in him, just emptiness. So cold…it was all ice. What was left? Why should he stay? The fuzziness was worse now when he opened his eyes; he didn‘t want to move anymore. Didn’t want to breathe…he couldn’t stand the red haze. Oblivion called…or maybe it was hell. He didn’t care, as long as he could see Anborn again.
Darkness pulled at him. Just before he fell into it, he felt something wet trail down his cheek. A voice came from far away, and it sounded like his own. But he knew on some level that it wasn’t spoken aloud; his voice was gone. He had no strength left to speak.
Why did you leave me…