A red-ringed crescent moon shrouded by clouds peeked down upon the dark forest. Silence reigned, the warm summer wind but a whisper against the backdrop. A gently flickering light to the northwest disturbed the darkness, too close to be coming from the village half a league away. Dancing orange to vibrant yellow, it flared and fell with the breeze, fading slowly, leaving the black-shade cover of the ancient forest untouched. No one ventures here after dark, for this is the childs nightmare of ravening beasts and twisted corpses of the walking dead come to life. Only heroes and madmen walk these paths, in search of glory or death.
Heavy panting and pounding movement split the night. A twig snapped. The brush shakes as a figure crashes through it, trying to outpace the wind. Just managing to avoid crashing into trees, it tore through everything in its path, heedless to injury. It seemed to be going in circles half of the time. Never slowing, it ran 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 couldnt breathe to scream. Blood pounded in his ears as he ran. His injured arm and the scratches covering his legs were insignificant next to the fiery pain sweeping mind and heart. Unable to see beyond the red and black of rage and bleak emptiness. Body on the verge of collapse. He couldnt stop now
he could never stop. To sit was to see Anborns face again, alive, then flash to dead, staring eyes. He had to get away. Couldnt stand the screaming in his head, the boiling fury cold inside his chest. Run until he couldnt anymore--through the nine hells if he had to. Anything to escape the pyre hed left at the forests 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 hed believed it. He should not have been spared the knife--it should have been him bleeding out on the floor before his fathers 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 fathers 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.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldnt 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. But he knew too well that it wouldnt work. But maybe if he made himself small enough, hed 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 didnt 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 ancestors 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 couldnt rid himself of its metal. And there was another part of him that wanted more, craved being coated with it, wanted to lick the red warmth off a 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 didnt seem to matter. The rage was so seductive, so powerful
He fought, 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.
A strong hand, callused by long hours of sword use, caught his own by the wrist. The grip was firm, the warning clear. His own was wrapped around the glass of ale sitting across the table from him. He looked up to find vivid blue eyes staring into his. He dropped his gaze, focusing on the knot in the wood that adorned the tables edge. He rubbed the thumb of his free hand over it, the rough texture a sharp contrast to the smoother grain of the wood around it.
Now there, Koldaran; what have I told you bout that? Youve another year or twain yet before Ill let you drink like a man. Bad enough that youve got the height already; you could fool near everybody if you were of a mind to speak right. There was a hint of amusement in his mentor's voice, buried beneath the unpredictable mountain brogue that still marked his origins after more than a decade.
Aw, come on, Anborn. I dont care about fooling people--responsibility is no fun, anyway. I just want to know what the ale tastes like. I wont do nothing stupid. Swear.
Maybe not, but best that we dont tempt fate, eh? Give in once, youll do it again sure as the sun doesnt rise in the west.
Enough, Kol. You knew the answer before you asked. Yer only sixteen; too young fer that.
He muttered in the Elven that Anborn had taught him.
Anborn smacked him. Stop that. My upbringing has nothing to do with your not bein a man yet. No more nonsense. Dya want to practice or not? Cant afford to let your skills go slack
Then get a move on; we dont have all night.
They were in the Shady Veil for a meal and some rest after a hard days training in a field just 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 other races 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 silver eyes and dark violet hair, while Anborn easily blended in with other humans. He was built to power his way through a battlefield--solid muscle, about six inches taller than Kol. His brown hair and blue eyes were nothing special, but his commanding aura could not be ignored. And to see a "child of the nine hells" together with a human
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 hes definitely waiting for something
or someone. Maybe hidin. Hes too alert, well armed. He has at least one dagger hidden away--Id 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 fighters 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 things sure--thats one to keep an eye on. Any others?
Couple petty thieves, and that one over theres 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--a test and fun all wrapped up in one package. Growing up on the streets had forced Koldaran to be perceptive; those who didnt pay attention ended up ganked. Before hed met Anborn four years ago, hed 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 humans stood up, their companions trying to hold them back with little success. A punch was thrown, missing its intended target wildly. Most of the party struggled to stay on their feet; they were drunk enough that a good shove would send any of them to the floor, knocked senseless. One of the brawnier men tried to grab the shoulder of a would-be brawler and fell. 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 hawks eyes." Anborn reached up, touched the corner of his own eye, then slowly lowered his hand. "He catches ye, and well 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 hed 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. Soon almost everyone in the tavern was swinging at someone. Punches flew from every direction, and more than a few hilts flashed in the dim illumination. Men who'd heard the ruckus from outside ran through the door and joined in, filling the room. At this rate, it was only a matter of time before the town guard got involved.
Anborn shook his head. See, lad? This is why I wont let ya have that ale. Once the drinks in ya, control goes out the door
and youre wild enough as is. Come on now, time to leave. Wed best not be here when the guards get here; Ive 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, Koldaran in front, Anborn a step behind and to the left. There were bodies flying as the stronger people tossed their opponents into the air. Jostled from all sides, they continued forward; the crush of people made it hard to move with any speed.
A drunken shout caught Kols 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 at a full charge, holding a wicked-looking short sword heading straight for his heart. His half-trained instincts whispered that the blade was three feet away, but it might as well have been three inches. The barbarian was fast for his size, barreling through the melee, knocking anything in his path to the side. Several of the people who had been so dislodged weren't likely to be walking away without help. Most of the sober people were trying to get out of the way, though he caught sight of a few adjacent to him reaching for their own weapons while glaring daggers at him. As if this mess had been his fault.
He ripped his attention away from his surroundings and back to the blade. Not enough time to dodge, with people swarming around as they were. Even if he moved, he had nowhere to go. Pressed from all sides No matter what he did, something vital would be struck--if not the heart, the lungs or a major artery in the neck or chest. A heart wound would be the easiest way to go. No bleeding out, no suffocation. Anborn had told him too much about various types of battlefield injuries for him to court such a slow death.
He could hear the man better now: Die, brat! Ill send ya back to the divvil who sired ya, all merciful-like. Best thing for yens, sending ya beck to hell; keep yez all from harming innocent folk!
He stared into the mans eyes, the manic gleam of them rendering him immobile. Time slowed down. Another shout from behind him couldnt 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 hed never known awaiting him, or were they just like everyone else?
There was no panic, nor regret. Hed seen death too often on the streets for it to hold any power over him. And wasnt it right that he should die at the hands of a human? He could have been like them...just another human, if not for his ancestors. Anborn had told him a few tales of Azaris, the empire ruled in the name of the dark powers. Thousands of souls thrown to evil for the illusion of power. This was him. Never wanted, never needed by anyone. Reviled. Cursed, for being born. Used and thrown away. Except...
Anborn. The one person who had looked beyond the skin to see the person. Hed 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 this it?
Knocked prone, blinded and deafened, he tried to focus for his last few moments in the world. He shivered, expecting agony...but there was no pain.
get up. Lets 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 Anborns 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 Anborns 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 injury on his back, so he looked down at his mentors midsection. Could see the knife wound that had sliced through the leather jerkin, and the barest hint of
protruding out of the wound.
He shuddered and looked away, not wanting to think about it. But he knew.
Anborn! Anborn, Ive got you. Lets get to the room, and Ill go for help.
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 shirt that Anborn always wore beneath the leather or chain.
Krazchet! It was the one word of Draconic that he knew. He'd only heard it spoken once, years ago--and would never forget the rage behind it, nor the anguish. Youll be fine; just hang on to me. I wont let you die, father
did I tell you about calling me that? I told you
Im nobodys parent. Gauntlet doesnt fit me
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. Im
going to find a cleric. Someone will save--
He snarled. Im getting you help!
want it. It is
Swearing in Elven, he returned to the side of the bed. Why didnt you let me die? Why wont you let me save you? I cant do this--
Just the one word, but it got his attention. Koldaran looked down at a face covered in sweat, twisted in pain, but the blue eyes were clear and hard as adamantine. But there was a hint of affection in that steady gaze that he had seen only when his mentor didn't think he was looking. 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.
"D'ya...remember what I said, Kol? I didn't tell ye at the time, but this is part of the bargain. It's my time, lad...you know what to do.
Just over a year ago, they had declared themselves brothers in arms, sharing a bit of each others blood. It was as close to Anborn as Kol was allowed to be. He hadn't hesitated, but he'd never considered what he might be called on to do as Anborn's brother...or what Anborn might have to do for him. The unspoken promise--the salvation of the battlefield. The last gift of one warrior to another.
When the time comes, I die by your hand.
No! I wont do it...I
I cant. You are my family
how can you ask this of me? I dont want this--you can still live if you just try--
He sighed and looked through him, eyes unfocused. The
Skylord brought you back to me. I
saved you this time
my brother. Its--your turn to live now.
I cant...I dont want--
No more of that. Theres
nothing left to say. Honor the ancient ways. Kill me."
I wont do it!
already too late. Damage...too widespread. Poisoned...I can feel it. Please
do this for me. I dont
want to linger in pain like you did. I saw
too much death. Im done. Death has been my life
I fear it not.
By the nine hells, no
dont ask me for this.
Ill do it myself.
Anborn came back to himself just a little. He reached up, touched his face. You feel it
dont you? Your nature hungers for death. Your aim
is deadly true. Time you learned to use it. He reached back and struck him, hard. Kols 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.
its awake. Whats always been in ya all along is growin now. Cant run from your heritage, my boy. You're
a weapon, Kol." Anborn paused, struggling to breathe. One hand clenched at his side, the other trying in vain to slow the bleeding. After a minute or so, he finally managed to take a deep breath and continue, his voice weaker than before. The light in his blue eyes dimmed slightly.
"Power...over fire and darkness, but yalready know that. Anger is in your blood. Youve felt it--Ive seen the glow in yer eyes, times youve been pushed too hard. Use that strength now. Use your rage.
Struggling to speak through the sound he couldnt believe came from his throat, Kol rasped out, Dont
Biggest mistake a body can do is denying what they are. Youre 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, dont forget where you came from. Now. Strike hard and true, son. Send me on.
Lifting the dagger involuntarily, he steadied it above Anborns heart. The other hand reached out and swept the medallion that Anborn never took off to the side--still touching his mentors flesh, but giving him a clear path to the heart. His mind 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 wouldnt. He couldnt do this. But his right hand--his body--wasnt listening.
Seeing the dagger start to move, Anborn sighed. 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.
Anborns last words, spoken just before the final strike, haunted him almost as much as the relief in his eyes those last few seconds. Dont
let this kill you.
He didnt know how long hed sat by the body, frozen, still holding the dagger. Time held no meaning; he couldnt have moved if hed wanted to. Eventually, hed wrapped Anborns still form in sheets and carried it out off the inn. No one had seen him leave, and the streets had been deserted. Hed walked out of the gates unchallenged, and went to the training ground theyd used the day before, within two miles of the forests edge.
It was nearly dawn when he reached it, so hed waited until night fell again before sending his fathers body to the sky. As he watched the mortal form of the only family hed ever known be consumed, hed found the same dagger and opened his own left wrist, holding it over the flames. Hed 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 hadnt 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, and it took 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 wouldnt let it. Couldnt 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, couldnt grasp the significance of any of it. It just came.
How could you? How could you? Whyd you leave me here? You should have let me die; nobody wants me. You were everything--you saved me, and for what? S that all Im worth to you...let me kill you when youve 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?
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.
Hed met Anborn for the first time when he was about twelve. Hed been pinned to a wall in the shadows of a nameless alley after hed 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 wasnt anyones 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 hadnt truly changed. But hed been picked up and dusted off when hed heard that he had no family. Anborn wasnt in the habit of killin those who were looking to die, or so hed said. Taken him up, fed him, made him safe for the first time. Hed 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 hed get whapped with a stick if he didnt 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 hadnt been fast enough, hadnt managed to take his opponents by surprise and put katar to throat?
But Anborns pride in his success the first time hed fought a bigger, older man and won had made it all right. Hed worshipped this man who'd seen him for what he could be instead of what he was. He didnt hurt him. He hadnt judged. Anborn
the only one whod ever mattered. His mentor. His savior. His father. All he had, everything hed ever wanted to be. How could he be dead? Impossible. He couldnt 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 hed left the streets for good.
Yave ganked me, know that? Live now
that whatchu want frummat? Whats lef now, huh? Ytell meh righ now whats left! Not doin this
not lone. Yget 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. Couldnt 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 didnt want to move anymore. Didnt want to breathe
he couldnt stand the red haze. Oblivion called
or maybe it was hell. He didnt 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 wasnt spoken aloud; his voice was gone. He had no strength left to speak.
Why did you leave me