The Second Choice
The Span of the Silver Hunger
As a fish cast upon the shore, Iofel twitches, gasping her last. Her blackened wings are clipped in places and missing large patches. Her eyes roll upward. Her lids close. Stripped of divine power moments ago, she felt mortality for the first time; three minutes later she died. Even mayflies live longer.
The cavern walls and smooth tiled floor extend beyond Iofel’s prostrate, bleeding form. A tingling energy seeps faster than blood from her corpse, washing over those in its way as it pours down the long corridor like an invisible stream. The air stinks of something slightly sweet and alchemical. And footfalls rebound off the walls before dying in darkness far away.
The tiled corridor continues, emptying into a giant span overlooking a dramatic fall. No rails or embankment guard the 10ft wide walkway, just open, stagnant air. Two figures wait at the far end of the span, the thin, heavily scarred Thelek and a sitting girl of eight, are held aloft by a few feet of stone over the massive, 1000ft fall. Lost in her own world, the girl plays with toys, spinning a copper top every few seconds and scrambling to pick up jacks, while Thelek watches something far beneath the span’s edge. Both are bathed in a silvery, rippling light; an effect similar to the sun cascading off a pool of pristine water. Yet, miles beneath the surface, no illumination comes from on high. Whatever the light source, it exists far below.
Thelek opens his palm and briefly glances at the symbol within, an open hand bearing a watchful eye, before clenching his fist and crushing it. “Triad, two then one,” he says without turning his back, his voice as sonorous and clear as when he took the guise of an Avowed Brother.
Dust trickles between his fingers as static builds throughout the cavern. Hair and skin become electrified moments before a shock wave explodes out from his hands. While loud, the wave washes over all without force, failing even to disturb the layer of silt lining the floor. The static abates and the the air, cavern, and world feels the same yet paradoxically different. Here the Light of Selune, the Mercy of Illmater seem farther away, as if masked by a series of darkening veils. Their spiritual presences are but rough, crude connections compared to the previous bonds felt between cleric and divine.
A cord of bright scarlet encircling his wrist and forearm, Thelek opens his hands, watching the last vestiges of his old holy symbol seep through his spread fingers. “Thought it would be bigger,” he confesses, turning to the group. “A race, twelve fanatics, and a thousand years of plans…. And it comes down to a girl, a bit of string, and a handful of dirt. Doesn’t seem right.
Aiden immediately began to charge forward. Training dictated a forward posture, shield in the front and weapon leveled above his shield ready to pierce. It was only a few steps the seemed like fields before he stopped with a horror stricken face. Caution had halted his assault. This wasn’t a sahuagin baron and his lackeys, nor an undead horde, nor a green dragon, but a thief holding a treasure as ransom. The highest of ransoms. The smell and surroundings diminished with his pity for the fallen servant.
“You son of a bitch! Give her back, let her be… how dare you!” Frightening and crude words that he meant but had never shouted with conviction. “You’re nothing but a liar and beguiler who takes the innocent who have suffered and now forces your own shortcomings on them. Give her back now demon! How the mighty divine servants have fallen indeed! You’re banter and bullshit has lead you here, and, like before, you cannot comprehend us. You do this for our sake but at our expense.”
“To the hells with you! This is what you wanted right? Not a choice for man but to see man take the other path, the one your master wouldn’t.” As Aiden stood there he dropped his shield to his side and gripped Sky Clearer tightly with one hand as if to take out his frustration on the handle. “Fine! I will kill you, your god, ALL the gods and even my Moonmaiden! That’s what you want to hear right? You want to build a world where we are devoid of, distant from, bereft of all love.” The blood was rushing to his head, like so many times before, but with a different effect. Thelek was the catalyst and the anticatalyst, he had snuck into Aiden’s home, deceived and worried his family, snatched Summer and caused her current mute disposition, and ignored so much that could have been avoided. “I can’t even find pity for you now and wouldn’t if I were a noble king or even a god. Give her back or the last thing you will feel is my hand on your throat before Ghaunadaur’s pet takes us both. GIVE HER BACK! Summer, move away from that man!”
Malcolm bore a strange smile reflecting both anger and happiness as he stared at the two figures directly ahead of him. The wretched fiend had at last been found! He would pay for his crimes against Ilmater, and the world at large! The suffering he forced others to bear would be avenged, and those slain could find peace at last! He felt a rage boiling inside, a violent impulse that would incite him to action against the atrocious defector. Malcolm readied his divine prayers to level at Thelek, taking special attention to spare the innocent to the beast’s side. Yet his confidence wavered when the little girl turned and showed a small smile.
The vision. The Banites of the vision, she was one of them! How could it be? His righteous fury was muffled by the overpowering confusion of the sight before him. The girl was young, too young to be the twisted conniver of the tale, but the resemblance was striking. It had to be a trick, a desperate attempt by the depraved fiend to make them waver from their righteous quest. But the girl gave no aura of evil, no indications of machinations or trickery in her eyes. A simple girl was all she appeared, but could it be that she was not part of this evil? That she could still be a righteous follower of the light? Could she still be converted to the cause of the Crying God in due time?
Or, in due time, would she fall into darkness to serve those that would oppress and destroy? A terribly chilling theory was gaining momentum in his mind. Aiden had once mentioned their odious quarry had the gift of foresight, to see the future as if beholding the reflection of a mirror. Could their foe have known of events yet to come, to capture one of the greatest tools of evil before her ruinous descent? The child looked so halcyon and yet it appeared fate dictated she would bring annihilation upon the good of the land. It could not be, such a thing was too wicked to even consider. Yet their foe knew no end of devious means to forward his goals; could this merely be part of his elaborate gambit?
Malcolm briefly emerged from his troubled thoughts to find Aiden engrossed in a fiery aspersion against Thelek. “To the hells with you! This is what you wanted, right?” Malcolm reflected that he had pursued this villain with a single minded determination. But… is that not how he always approached obstacles? Were they not all simply all oppressors that had to be purged from the world? There was no question that these tainted souls committed foul acts against the uncorrupted, but he had neglected to ever ask ‘Why’. It seemed so trivial before, as if their reasons would be a quotidian evil agenda to further their selfish designs. But why was this girl here? To what end could she possibly serve when the betrayer was so close to his long-belied intent? Was she truly to become the menace he had been led to believe?
Malcolm finally had to ask the question he had for so long unconsciously avoided: “Why? Why bring us here, entwine our fate to your decrepit plan and force us to play as your unwilling pawns?” His voice grew with fervor and intensity as he continued. “Why force us to kill, to manipulate us into always being exactly one step behind you? Is this some game? Some cruel final merriment before you overthrow the very divinity of the realms?” Malcolm’s prevailing fiery temper returned to him as he came to the crux of his fevered query. “Why bring us here merely to watch you commit such a blasphemous act? Why harbor an innocent girl and torture us with perverted visions of a tenuous future? If you have any sense of dignity or regard left, then TELL ME WHAT THIS IS ALL FOR YOU CONTEMPTUOUS DEFILER!”
Even before Thelek had Bent the Oxbow, Zioran’s blade was at the ready. The weapon rested easily on the shadar-kai’s shoulder. The blade ran almost parallel to the ground, with the weapon’s single razor edge pointing to the cavern’s ceiling. Beads of blood, those of a freshly fallen angel, crawled slowly down the length of the blade, their journey only slightly facilitated by gravity as they streaked the flat of the blade with a magnificent crimson. The stench of death upon that blade was already significant, but the fresh wet blood only helped exacerbate the smell.
The swordsman’s keen vision, halved as though it was, picked out the forms of Thelek and the other early, but he held his charge. This was not the type situation in which to lose one’s head. Fervently running with a sharp object at an immortal archangel wasn’t the best course of action. Besides, he mused, Thelek is a foe to be savored, like a fine wine. To rush is to spoil the experience. Yet, he could not help but feel the pull of battle for the brief moment that Aiden rushed forward, but still he proceeded slowly, sauntering slowly, savoring.
Aiden’s words gave Zioran pause. Certainly they were fierce, but there was something more to them. The swordsman had been traveling with the group long enough to recognize the difference between simple righteous anger and personal fury. His brow furrowed, distending the scars covering his face momentarily as he scoured his brain for the reasoning behind Aiden’s fervor; but the answer came with the name. Summer. His eye went wide for a moment with the recognition. That cunning fiend, the swordsman mused with a grin.
What part does she play in all of this, I wonder…? The thought repeated in his mind once or twice as he looked between himself and the end of the platform.
He turned, however, pulled from his thought, at Malcolm’s growing tirade, looking at the angry man for a moment, stripping the zealous language from his speech before considering the question. Then he turned back again. His sword made a gentle swoosh in the air and the force of the movement plucked a few crimson droplets from his blade. Eying his yellow-eyed doppelganger, he spoke. “None of this journey has been without reason. We are to decide our fate for ourselves. It has always been about choice – though what that choice is now, I could only guess.”
Regdar looks on with wonder trying to figure out what Thelek was planning to do with this girl and also wondering who she was to Aiden, judging by his reaction to seeing her she was obviously important to him. Then Regdar’s mind went to the vision of the Banite woman and he noticed the resemblance, could that vision have been from the future, or some kind of a trick. “Thelek enough with these games we have come here to put an end to this.” Regdar looks around at his companions.
(Hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes with the quickness of events but the five minute timer on the Oxbow makes philosophical bantering problematic and will only dilute the intensity. Charge in at your own peril. Expect another post or two before things get hairy… and remember have epic fun…. say it now or forever hold your tongue)
Silver light plays across Thelek’s face as he listens, taking the rage and frustration vented forth against him as one would a moderate wind. Statuesque he waits for the storm to pass, just another phenomenon to be endured.
“Reign yourself priest,” Thelek warns politely and without threat, “The next few moments will live forever. Don’t let rage decide the course.”
“You’re nothing but a liar and beguiler who takes the innocent who have suffered and now forces your own shortcomings on them.”
“Innocent?” Thelek askes, glancing at the girl. “Summer hand me one of your toys,” he says, his voice softening as he kneels close. “Just one,” he asks, “Show them you understand.” Without notice, Summer continues to play. No wider than a broom handle, her tiny arm reaches for the spinning top before Thelek picks up the toy and shows it to her. He waves it in front of her eyes before lightly tossing it into the precipice. Summer pauses… and reaches for a tin soldier instead.
“No cries, no whining for food, water, or family. She feels nothing,” Thelek said, standing up to his full height. “Summer died on the Annie’s Song when you failed to stop the monsters from taking her family. Fear and horror ate the shy, little girl whole, leaving but a hollow shell to fester and grown within. You know as well I what’s to become of Summer’s remains. Bane will come, whispering, and the darkness will listen. To escape fear, she’ll make herself feared.”
“Fine! I will kill you, your god, ALL the gods and even my Moonmaiden! That’s what you want to hear right? You want to build a world where we are devoid of, distant from, bereft of all love.”
“Keep your Moonmaiden. You again confuse means with motive. Keep all the gods, all your crutches if you possess the fortitude the Crying Lord lacked. Summer is gone. Yet, this girl will bring the winter. Killing a dragon before it eats is not murder; yet mercy will stain your hands with the blood of its every slaughter. The girl is the walking dead. Ebonscour was forged to release damned souls. Use it, prove Ilmater’s coddling has not robbed you of manhood and I’ll spare your Hobbled God,”
Thelek’s hands brush against the cord. He raises and twists his forearm, tightening the red sash against the wire thin veins and muscles held beneath layers of tightened flesh. His fist clenches and relaxes and again clenches and relaxes in time, feeling and securing the end of the cord between two long, scared fingers. “Or,” he says, his gold eye flashing bright as a cat’s caught in lantern’s light, “Believe in fairy tale endings as he did. Keep thinking you can save her, subvert her nature, teach her to mingle with sheep. Yet if you take but one thing from my past, know how immeasurably difficult fate is to thwart. For the sake of an empty girl, what race would you sacrifice?”
“Yet there were two rituals. What Twelve borrowed is now returned,” Thelek steps behind Summer to the span’s edge. One foot would send him plummeting into the metallic abyss. He raises his arms and voice in unison, his speech shattering the cavern’s stillness, “Golurark, I came as agreed. Awaken, old foe, and consume all till the world be done. Goruk grr gorum.”
Finishing the words inscribed on the homage stone, lancets of light dig and slice outward from his chest, severing skin in twelve, vicious gouges. As light tears his chest open from inside, Thelek struggles to stifle a scream. His features contort into a grotesque parody of a face, scars bunching together to look like rows of scabrous bark, before his defeated lungs open and vent a scream that rebounds off the far wall and gathers in intensity until shattering the massive struts holding the span aloft. Thelekanos the Fallen collapses as the pale light empties from his body and descends beneath, feeding the monstrosity below. His scream dies as hairline fractures creep through the ancient stonework.
“Chose,” Thelek says, visibly weakened, “Less Ghaunadar’s dog take us all.”
“So you say to choose between the death of you and Ilmater or the girl that you say will bring about such evils and destruction?” Regdar looks from the girl to Thelek. “I see only one choice and that is to choice, if we choose to give up the girl’s life there is nothing to stop you from just doing this all over again since you would still have your life seeing as how without Ilmater’s death you are immortal. So if you are asking me my choice it’s the only one we are able to make, the only one that you won’t just undo when you so choose to.” Regdar tightens his grip on his Mace and slowly brings back his arm readying an attack as small lightning bolts can be seen striking along his mace and electricity can be felt increasing in the very air about him.
“Shut your mouth you failed daemon! She isn’t damned, dead, or hollow. And if she grows to be a lion then it will be a righteous one, not some evil vessel. I would sacrifice all the races to bet on her rather than gamble on you.”
It wasn’t untill hearing Redgar’s calmness that he remembered that none remain who were there that night except himself and Zioran. He glared at Thelek as if to do him serious harm with his stare. “You have lived so many lifetimes, yet you are nothing more than a blind doomsayer and a fool. These moments won’t live forever, they will pass and I will move on, with her, and you will remain where you belong, in our memories. And if a black hand comes for her then I will sever it.” Aiden pointed Sky Clearer at Thelek, “I will direct my blade at the throat of the God responsible and every one of his ilk.” Aiden looked sideways to catch a glimpse of his companions, thinking and taking stock of friends and foe. ”Zioran wants Thelek’s head, I’m sure of it. Redgar has a strong sense of family and has never spoke truer words! He wouldnt kill a younger sibling, not if there was a chance. And Malcom, if there is any conviction in that man towards his God then he will stand by Illmater’s original decision… all of them wouldn’t… probably.” Whether true or not, it was all Aiden could do to convince himself that Summer would be spared from having any chance at life taken away by Thelek.
He stabbed Sky Clearer into the ground, taking note of the significant distance between Summer and himself. He took a few steps forward, “Choose? Then I choose you to die. You would even suggest that I take her life to secure mine? Ridiculous! I will give her my life and she will know friendship, family, love, and peace. All the things YOU want to deny her.” His steps quickened into a walk. “Don’t call her damned, her name is Summer Jomeran and you don’t know a thing about any of us!”
Adien’s walk had developed into a full run. The feeling of thunder in the air had never felt as pleasing as he thought, ”Thank you Redgar, I’m glad to know you and Jett have more in common then I ever knew.”
Every ounce of his plate armor felt like it was damning him to fail again, like he failed Emmiven and Lora, and now Summer twice over.
Malcolm was, for perhaps the first time in his adult life, at a loss for words. He had seen the little girl’s reaction and saw the truth to the traitor’s words. His fire, after a brief resurgence, was quelled once more and he felt cold without the confidence that spurned him forward. Questions, such torturous questions! They were a curse that now beset him to no end. It was as if after years of silence they formed a mighty chorus damming him to indecision and inaction.
Malcolm turned to his side and looked for Lora to guide him before realizing his mistake. Lora… she had come so close to their goal, to be snuffed out minutes before coming to the quest’s end. The principles of Illmater dictated that he suffer and bear the pain as all suffering was for a reason. But her death seemed unfair, she had served his will faithfully only to be denied the victory at hand! He could no longer look to Lora for guidance, but… could he look to Illmater either? By Illmater’s teachings he should end the fallen servant to remove his treacherous influences from the world. But would that not leave those who depend upon Illmater’s daily blessings without any aid? Would not Illmater’s death be far worse than any machination of a disgruntled servant?
He looked around at his companions, hoping for some wizened reassurance on a course of action. To his left Zioran looked on with a quiet determination, a perplexing gaze leveled at Thelek. To his right stood Regdar, weapon drawn and a heavy grimace adorning his features. These details, however, were lost on Malcolm as all he noted was Aiden with an unquenchable fire in his eyes. The man was solely focused with a determination of ending the foe. Aiden’s anger consumed him, making him appear as almost an animal caught in a battle for supremacy. Was this what he himself always embodied, a barely checked rage that served only to destroy? He wished Lora was here. So sure of herself, she always seemed to know the best course of action. But he was alone now. He had to start thinking before acting instead of relying upon others to curb his zeal.
As Aiden started to move, unsheathing his blade with a murderous tint to his eyes, Malcolm knew that Thelek’s trap had been sprung. They would kill him, and in turn kill Illmater. But why, why kill the god who had tried to prevent such evil deeds? It wouldn’t matter why if Aiden succeeded; he had to be stopped from committing the ultimate evil. Action without thought was aimless, but reflection without resolve was meaningless. He had thought long enough; now was the time for action bolstered by reason.
Malcolm ran into a sprint, putting all of his energy into closing the distance before it was too late. When he was but a few meters from Thelek and the girl, he spun around and stretched him arms to block the way. “Do you know what you are attempting to commit? What foul acts you are intending to proceed with? If you would kill Illmater, the one this quest was to save, then what was the point of it all? You say this is for the good of all, but this deed will doom the world to unchecked suffering! If you are truly meaning to end the Crying God, then you must suffer the same fate upon me, for I cannot live in this world which you intend to create!”
As all of this was happening between the close end and the far end of the cantilevered platform, the chaos, the shouting, and Thelek’s ritual, the Shadar-kai swordsman watched with growing anticipation. The shadows around him deepened, almost seeming to flicker, as though they moved to an invisible pulse. His pulse, fueled by adrenaline, quickened in the face of the impending battle. For him, the tension in the room was not merely an emotion, but he could feel its effect physically; it was as though it tightened his muscles, causing them to be twitchy and hyper responsive. The pit of nerves in his stomach churned, and he had long accepted the feeling, using it as an affirmation of life – a sensation appreciated for the mere sake of sensation.
This heightened emotional and physical state was, for Zioran, for any shadar-kai, pure bliss. It was a slap to the face of the depressive nature induced by the fusion of the shadow and material planes. This was the only way to buck grey nothingness which pervaded his existence. But it was still swiftly escalating, racing like his own deafening pulse, soon to crescendo in an explosion emotional and physical violence. He was nearly drunk with the feeling, but still needed more, desperately craved this sensation as an addict craves a substance of choice.
Time slowed to a crawl, dilating and widening within Zioran’s mind, Aiden and Malcolm ran ahead. Aiden’s heavy footfalls thundering against the stone platform, each one an eternity apart as he moved. Malcolm, shouting syllables far too slowly pronounced to be understood following in the same slow fashion. Zioran turned his head to follow the pair with his eye, not hearing, but understanding, Malcolm’s plea, “If you are truly meaning to end the Crying God, then you must suffer the same fate upon me, for I cannot live in this world which you intend to create!”
The swordsman was already in motion. His limbs moved into action like molasses as he swung the massive blade from his shoulder. The last few drops of uncoagulated crimson were thrown from the blade, creeping through the air in graceful arcs. The shadows about him churned, and grew. They gained what seemed to be a texture and mass, as fog can seem to possess, wrapping him in an embrace as they did so. The shadowy fog spread from Zioran’s center to his limbs and down the length of his blade, as might a fire spread when touched to an accelerant. Unlike fire, however, the roiling shadow did not persist upon Zioran. Instead, as it spread, the areas previously covered simply vanished as though completely consumed. What happened in an instant seemed like an eternity for him in his present state of mind. The turbid shadows washed over him like a wave, causing him to vanish.
Within less time than it takes for the blink of an eye, a shadowy arm materialized draped over Malcolm’s shoulder. Whispy tendrils of shadow evaporated from the arm as quickly as it had been subsumed only an instant before. The razor edge of a massive blade was held to his neck. The crescendo was here, and perception and time came racing back together for Zioran with a rush unlike anything he had felt in years. Holding the blade to Malcolm’s neck, he leaned towards the man. “I accept the terms of your death.” And then, he sliced.
Malcolm focused on his compatriots, waiting to see their reaction to his stand. He attempted to read their expressions but he could sense no change in their intent. The only occurrence he noted was upon Zioran’s face. Was it… satisfaction? Left with little time to contemplate this Zioran faded from the world leaving no clue as to where he currently resided. Instantly a blade rested upon Malcolm’s neck, almost as if tempting him to try to escape what was coming. Could it be the wretched traitor staging a final attempt to crumble his resolve? A voice told him otherwise: “I accept the terms of your death.” Zioran?
His world dissolved into a swirling pool of red as he felt a burning pain that threatened to black out his senses. Malcolm collapsed to the ground, his hands instinctively clutching his neck hoping to stem the tide of blood flowing from the fresh wound. Murky shapes moved around him in a predatory manner, instilling a terror like he had not felt in his lifetime. His eyes darted wildly from side to side, hoping to see some salvation from the madness that was plaguing him. But all he saw were devils dancing about him in maniacal glee. They were about to destroy the world, and all he could do was watch in horror.
“A devoted man you’ll slay.” Thelek says, attempting to understand the sudden betrayal, “Yet a girl who brings nothing but ruin is worth preserving? Worth killing a friend for?” Thelek gasps in pain as he pushes himself into a sitting position, his knees and legs under his body. He laughs. The sound is anything but amused. Bitter irony and disappointment fills his voice. “Do you fight to save her… or to kill me?” he asks.
Thelek looks down at the dark satin rug, feeling the weave against his hands. The thread is bare and faded with age. His head tilts, lost in thought, till sighting one of Summer’s toys. A metal soldier. He picks it up, uncaring of the peril rushing at him. “Pawns,” he says, “Just pawns.” He sets the soldier next to Summer. She slowly reaches out and returns it with the others.
Thelek rises to his feet in a quick, jerking lurch. His body sways unsteadily, but he finds his center of gravity. “Until the hand is severed,” he says, shadows gathering around his palm, “We’re stuck playing games.”
The cavern trembles. The light flickers, disturbed. The span vibrates as the light below begins to pulse with movement. Slow but definite. The Silver moves… so to must it hunger.
A sword of pure shadow emerges from Thelekanos’ outstretched hand. The dire blade absorbs light, sending a dark pallor across the former archangel’s face. Thelek glances at the blade. “Black,” he says, saddened. His eye lingers but for a moment and his face, bathed in black light, hardens. “Come,” he implores, clenching his fist and tightening the cord wrapped around his forearm, “Slay those more deserving.”