Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Soul in Shadow

On the darker side of the camp, one of the Elementals was not as asleep as she appeared to be. Silently, motionless through all of the conversation between Corundar and Azure, Lady Nix was awake and aware.

Awake, aware, and something she rarely was these days - emotional.

A cascade of feelings, burning through the range between fury to cold, ashen pity, passed through her heart as each word framed a friend's betrayal of them all and a mistake that might very well cost them all of their lives. The Master of Earth might not fear their former ally but Nix knew better. What Corundar lacked in common sense, Nix made up for in bitter reason. Right now, that power of deduction was pointing only one direction - death.

Nix knew death well. She was an incarnation of its most pervasive force; her power was negative energy, the dying of the light. In many ways, she was Akasha's opposite. In others, she was Akasha's other half. Together they created a circuit that gave both beginning and end to all things.

At this moment, she did not feel like a part of any circuit, and circle. She felt very alone and for the first time in years, very afraid. She'd not experienced dread like this when their father, Urathyme Liche, rose above them with all the destructive magic at his command. She had not been gripped by such panic as this when Vecna himself appeared before them to deliver his ultimatum. Even the presence of Tharuzdin, Mad God of Oblivion, did not leave her shaking as she was now. She was trembling, caught in the certainty that what Earth had done would be the burial of them all.

Once Corundar was back on his watch and paying her no attention, Nyx silently faded into her own shadow and transported a few hundred feet away into a larger one behind a rocky precipice. She needed to be alone with her thoughts; she needed to consider what was done, what was still yet to do, and wonder if there was in any way still hope. She feared the answer to that last question.

Years ago, she would have turned to her husband, the Gravelord, for advice. He was no longer with her; his existence had been the first to end with the rise of the new threat to Reality. He'd left to seek out a strange echo in the deepest parts of the Negative Plane and placed her in charge of their mutual control over all things Dark. She would never forget the moment she felt him in anguish. The moment she felt him die.

It tore at her heart and, until this very moment, she'd believed it had killed her inside. Since that instant when her soul had torn in half, she had truly thought she would never feel again. Even this quest to save Everything had been the result of inertia. Her companions were acting to preserve existence; she had merely been caught in their wake.

But now... Something changed. She was feeling. She was feeling too much. Hurt, betrayed, fury, sorrow, pain. When the Gravelord died, she had not wept.

Now tears were streaming down her face.

Was this all for Vertrius? No, surely not. She'd loved him, yes, but they all had. Was this because of fear? No. She was not afraid to die. In recent days, she'd almost wished it would happen just to make this terrible emptiness finally end. Was this because of Corundar? Not likely; she'd always known he'd someday do something terrible and doom them all. Stupidity as monolithic as his was an avalanche waiting to happen. This infuriated her, but his actions came as no real surprise.

Then why the tears? Why?

Troubled and bereft of answers, Lady Nyx did the one thing that always at least gave her another perspective. She reached back, drew her runeblade, and plunged it into the ground with its hilt jewels - its eye - facing her.

"Hello, Mancleaver."

The voice was soft, like the whisper of a killer professing his undying love over the bloodied ear of his latest victim. "At last you want to talk, my Lady."

She sighed. "It had been a while."

"Indeed it has. Long has it been since we tasted blood but longer still since we spoke. We were beginning to think my Lady had forgotten us entire."

She knew Mancleaver's hungers. It had only been a short time since she'd bathed his edge in dragon's vitae but for her ravenous sword, even an hour could feel like starvation. She considered apologizing but decided against it. Mancleaver was as manipulative in his way as she was in hers. Their pairing was a constant struggle for dominance, one in which she could show no weakness. Ever.

"You'll feast again soon, beloved. Perhaps on the blood and soul of an old friend." It hurt her to say that, but she knew it to be true.

The metallic ring of her blade's voice echoed serpent-like as its tone became almost intimate. "Yesss, Vertriusss. We told you he would turn on us, my Lady. They all will, one by one. Even now the shade of the past comes to extinguish all light. All life."

She knew her sword had a power of prophecy, one it used very infrequently. Was it foretelling now? "What do you mean, Mancleaver? Are you seeing the future?"

"We see nothing else, my Lady. Each moment in your life is a past second in ours. Your heartbeat we hear only in echo. Every word we speak to you is, to us, a eulogy. Present and future are coming together very soon, my Lady. These days may be your last."

Nyx closed her eyes, nodding in agreement. She had been feeling the same way. Her power over destruction gave her something of a precognitive sense where death was concerned. Lately, that ability had been clouding her vision. Their demise was at hand. It was not unavoidable but the circumstances were inevitable. Soon, for better or more likely worse, they would all face the Void.

"Who brings our end, beloved?" She already knew the answer.

"We see a heart from the past, broken and reforged in ice. We see a traitor in your midst. We see a house divided and a fatal regret. Beware, my Lady." She had never heard her vicious companion speak so clearly or give up its advice so easily. The coming pain truly had to be dire if Mancleaver was being so helpful. "Beware the blaze at your back."

She nodded once and stood up, crossing the drained earth to draw forth her sword from it. Mancleaver always took a price for its aid; this night the barren circle of gray, now-lifeless soil paid for the augury. "Thank you, beloved. I will heed your..."

The blade twisted gently in her hand, nicking her cheek and drawing a touch of crimson in its own, homicidally affectionate way. "We could just skip ahead and kill all the men in their sleep. Let us start with the lummox, my Lady. There is much blood in him."

She couldn't help but chuckle darkly all the way back to camp...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A Communion of Pain

He watched them as they slept. Guard duty was usually his first, so Corundar was used to being awake while everyone else caught what precious rest they could find. He didn't really need to sleep and he preferred the quiet of the lookout's post. He loved watching the sun rise each day so this arrangement actually worked out well.

Or at least, it used to work out well. Now, when all was silent around him, the voice of his own conscience was anything but.

And tonight, he had company for his guilt. Azure was 'meditating', which was to say he was wide awake and staring at him with his unwavering, sea green eyes. So. Unnerving.

"They all blame me, don't they?"

The elf's answer was quick, almost automatic. "Shouldn't they?"

"I did what I had to do."

"The typical defense of the despot."

Corundar sighed. "You blame me too?"

"I don't blame anyone. Blame and fault are frames of reference, signposts on the road to truth."

"And that means?" He was in no mood for the sea elf's riddles.

"It means you are responsible for what occurred marginally more than the rest of us. Nothing more, nothing less."

Corundar seized on that. "So I am not the only one to blame here?"

Azure nodded slightly, his arms and legs still folded in deep thought. "Of course. Diverting the godly energies of Athas was not something we could have done without a consensus. Vertrius undoubtedly knows that as well, which is why he rightly finds us all at fault for his condition."

"Hey now!" Corundar's raised voice caused Nyx, sleeping nearby, to shift uncomfortably and Byrne, lying next to her, to lash out in her sleep with an imaginary axe. He stayed quiet long enough for them to both settle down before continuing. "I didn't make the white-haired bastard join up with V. He did that all on his own."

"On that, my boulder-skulled companion, I cannot dispute your point."

"Bloody hells, Az. Can't you ever just say, 'you're right'?"

The pale blue fae looked at him curiously. "I thought I just did."

Corundar passed his hand dismissively in the air between them. "Bah. Skip it." In return, Azure nodded and settled back into a contemplative state. After watching him for a moment and not feeling relaxed or consoled in the slightest, he spoke again. "Az?"

The elf, showing only the dimmest expression of annoyance, opened one eye again. "Yes, Corundar?"

"If I am not at fault here, why is everyone so damn mad at me?"

Azure looked at him fully and spread his hands in a 'look here' gesture. "You seem to misunderstand, my stony counterpart. I said you were not the reason our former ally has turned to serving a dark power. But to say that you are faultless in this situation would be a grave overstatement."

It took Corundar a while to digest that and make sense of Azure's words. The Lord of Earth was by no means unintelligent, but his mind worked at a different speed than the Scion of the Seas. It took him longer to think things through. He wasn't stupid, but he could be slow. "Wait. Then what am I at fault for, blue boy?"

"I can only tell you what I perceive, Corundar."

The big man shrugged. "It would be a whole lot more than anyone else is telling me."

Azure nodded. "An accurate statement, to be sure. All right, but keep in mind that this is my opinion based on observations and previous conversations. It may be partially or even wholly incorrect. Are we agreed on that?"

Another dismissive wave. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Just spill."

Azure shifted into a more relaxed posture, one that only required a slight amount of contortion. "On Athas, when the power of that world's long-slain deities was released following our sundering of the Primal Ziggaraut, you took hold of that energy first and chose to be the one responsible for its guidance."

Corundar nodded. "It was mostly Earth energy; I figured I was the best choice."

"No argument, but when you learned that you could not internalize the power yourself without binding your essence to Athas, you decided to send it elsewhere."

He nodded again. "I had to do something. It would have faded and been wasted forever if I'd waited much longer."

"Also no argument. But when you came to us for help in directing the energies, you failed to inform us of something very important, didn't you?"

Corundar visibly cringed. It wasn't common expression on a face as massive and stoic as his; it seemed utterly out of place. "You... you know about that? How could you know about that, Azure?"

The elf with sea-foam tresses shifted to gaze directly up into Corundar's averted gaze. "Come now. The flow of energy is my domain. Did you really think I wouldn't see that it had somewhere else it could go besides a living host?"

Now he looked worried. "Damn it, Az; I was afraid the power would disappear if I sent it into Athas itself. That much energy with that planet so ruined and wasted... It could have been disastrous! It could have been the end of that world! I couldn't let that happen, not when there was someone else to contain it, someone who could keep my homeworld safe!"

Azure raised an eyebrow even as Corundar's louder voice made the others stir once more. They waited, eyes locked and breath held, as sleep reclaimed their friends. Then, when it was safe to converse again, the Lord of Water spoke softly, "Your world? So we are out with it at last."

Corundar grumbled. Damn the sea flit and his word games. "Fine. Yeah, I admit it. I didn't want the planet I came from destroyed. We all gave up a lot for what's happened to us. Why couldn't Vertrius do the same?" Then, one fist clenching tightly, "He's been nothing but undead weight since we met him."

The elf sighed and reached up to lay one hand on the big man's much larger one, closed in silent violence as it was. "You do not really mean that."

Corundar's shoulders slumped in defeat. "What does it matter? I screwed up good this time, Az. They aren't going to trust me any more. Not after this."

Blue face expressionless as he spoke, Azure answered in a quiet whisper. "Should they?"

There was no immediate answer. Before Azure could prompt him again, the heavy silence was broken by Corundar's voice, sounding far more subdued than he'd ever heard it before. "Do you?"

Azure thought a long time before replying. "I trust your heart, Corundar. I trust your bravery and I trust your willingness to give all you have to the task before us. I trust that you would fight and die before seeing any one of us hurt."

After a few moments, the same voice said wearily, "But?"

"But I cannot say honestly that I trust your judgment. You did not lie to us but you withheld information for your own ends. If we had all known the full truth, it is doubtful Vertrius would be our enemy now and we could have worked together to prevent Athas from collapsing under the weight of all that divine energy."

Corundar started to protest and found himself utterly without something to say. He'd simply not thought of that possibility; he had never considered using their combined powers to keep his home stable while it absorbed the godly essence he'd forced into Vertrius. It... it was such a simple idea. Elegant. Effective. Why hadn't he thought of it?

As if he was reading Corundar's mind, Azure continued. "You have always guarded us, Corundar, but you do not see us as equals. We are your little siblings, to be protected and guided through the travails of your dangerous life." The hand on his never wavered; Azure's tone was neither condemning nor harsh - just ruthlessly candid. "You still think like the warlord you used to be."

The Lord of Earth sat down heavily, his massive frame all but giving out. There was only one thing left to say. "You're... right."

No, there was something else. "And I'm sorry."

Azure shook his head and returned to his own sleeping mat. "I do not need your apology, though I appreciate the effort you have gone through to reach the point where you could offer it."

Corundar looked up at him. "But..."

His aqueous friend favored him with a rare half-smile. "I do not require it, but the others most certainly do. I suggest you use the rest of your guard shift to practice. I doubt the words will come easily."

He nodded, breathing deeply. "Az? Do you think they'll listen? Do you really think it'll matter what I say?"

Just before slipping into a deep trance, Azure replied with his last words of the night. "Honestly, Corundar. Does that make a difference?"

And for the first time in his short life, Corundar found himself fearing the coming dawn more than he did the possibility of attack by Vecna's forces. A rampaging army of bloodthirsty, unstoppable creatures could be just past the edge of their campfire and he wouldn't have been concerned.

Hells, compared to facing his friends int he morning? They'd have been welcome.