CHAPTER FOUR: THE LURE OF KNOWING
Something was wrong with Aquilan. To Rhalyf who knew the king’s various moods as well as he knew his own, it was quite clear that Aquilan was out of sorts. And it wasn’t simply because of the weight of his office or the certainty of politics becoming the focus of most of his time from here on out. Nor was it the prospect of being hectored by the power-hungry Vesslan or the tiresome Elasha.
No, it was something deeper.
It had been growing ever since the announcement had been made that Aquilan would rule from Tyrael. Glorious Tyrael. The first human city to fall to the Leviathan and the first to be recovered from the dread creatures.
Why would that bother Aquilan so?
He had chosen to live there. He had tasked Vesslan with building the Eryas Palace on the human city’s bones. He had made a point that the way forward was there. Glorious Tyrael.
Aquilan delayed going there for months. And even now, when they were supposed to arrive before nightfall, Aquilan had taken the farthest gate and had sauntered along the empty roads, avoiding people like the plague, keeping away from glorious Tyrael and the future that he had carved out of dead Leviathans.
That Aquilan was both driven to Tyrael and wished to escape it was clear to Rhalyf. He just didn’t know why. And Rhalyf liked to know things. He more than liked to know them. He had to know them. Sometimes knowledge was the difference between life and death. He’d found that out nearly the hard way.
“Ah, Uncle, have we lost you?” Elasha asked uncertainly as she, too, noticed Aquilan’s distant stare and his silence. “I hope my question about the gates didn’t offend! I was just curious why you arrived by such a far gate from the palace. Don’t you want to get to your new home?”
The king snapped back to himself. His blue eyes were still troubled, but he tried to focus them on her and Rhalyf, to pretend as if he’d just been ruminating on cabbages or something. But that wasn’t it.
“I wanted to see the progress that has been made in restoring this land, which is considerable,” Aquilan lied. “That is why I took the longer way to Tyrael.”
Rhalyf knew he was lying. Not about the land being restored. They had done a good job of that. Trust Vesslan to move quickly to wipe out any trace of humanity’s former existence here as quickly as possible. He knew that Aquilan wasn’t at all of the same mind on that point, thinking that humanity would welcome being absorbed by the Aravae Empire just as many other species had been over the millennia. But that wasn’t what was occupying him Rhalyf was sure. He had to admit that it was a good lie though. It deflected Elasha to be sure. But not him.
“You wished to see their progress with your eyes closed, my king?” Rhalyf teased.
“My eyes have been mostly open on our travels, Rhalyf,” Aquilan laughed. But he still directed the conversation firmly away from wherever his thoughts had truly been as he remarked, “I see that nature has been helped to take its course.”
Aquilan tipped his head towards the ruins of one of the large decaying cities of the humans that could be seen in the distance. It had been named Chicago, he believed. The city had yet to be fully razed as there was a significant presence of Separatists near Tyrael.
The Separatists were humans who chose to live outside of the domed Aravae cities and, supposedly, Aravae law. They were a thorn in Vesslan’s side, which almost endeared Rhalyf towards them. That was because they were incredibly touchy when it came to “erasing human history” and “imposing the will of the Aravae'' upon everyone and everything. But there was no way that Vesslan would allow things to remain as they had been under human leadership. No, this land–this world and everything and everyone in it–belonged to the Empire now and the big Houses that Aquilan had promised it to.
Already, the city was being reclaimed by the land. There was greenery nearly everywhere. Plants sprouted from rooftops. Creeping vines wrapped around the sides of the buildings. Grass grew through the cracks in the streets and sidewalks, obscuring the rusting carcasses of humanity’s metal vehicles.
“Do you know that the Separatists still raid those cities for foodstuffs?” Elasha sounded horrified. “That food they store in metal and plastic?” She shuddered appreciatively. “The fact that it has not rotted away due to all the chemicals they have infused into it says enough about its editability.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Have you ever tried a Twinkie? It’s a golden sponge cake filled with whipped and sugared oil,” Rhalyf said.
“By the gods, have you actually let such poison pass your lips?” Elasha shook her head. “You will become mortal like them if you persist in consuming such food.”
Elasha’s reaction to what she thought was his disturbing enthusiasm for human “junk food” just egged him on, of course. He would think of other human delicacies to torture her with later.
Rhalyf tossed his head back and laughed. “If only it worked the other way and humans could live forever like we do!”
“Indeed, then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the human population taking a further nosedive if they were immortal,” Elasha sighed and tossed her head in annoyance. “It’s hardly a sure thing that humanity will survive long term. There may simply not be enough of them left.”
Aquilan grimaced. “We arrived far too late to save enough of them.”
Was this what was concerning his king? Did he still blame himself for what had happened to humanity? Trust Elasha to bring it up so callously!
“We arrived as fast as possible!” Elasha looked over at Aquilan with huge, shimmering eyes. “Convincing the Radiant Council to both reveal ourselves to the humans and go to war against the Leviathan for mere mortals? You and Father did the impossible, Uncle, when you achieved both things in record time no less!”
“Both of them did this?” Rhalyf lifted an eyebrow. “I believe your father argued against helping humans, Elasha.”
Elasha flushed. “Only in the beginning! But when he heard Uncle’s rousing words about saving mortal lives, he came around!”
That had not been what had roused Vesslan. It had been the possibility of ruling over yet another world and yet more people that had roused him to take Aquilan’s side of things. But Rhalyf actually agreed with her about the miraculousness of what Aquilan had done in convincing the council.
The Radiant Council was the governing body underneath Aquilan in charge of the Empire. While the Sun King could make most decisions unilaterally, a determination to go to war–let alone reveal the Sun Elves’ existence to mortals and leave the Lieran Plane–had to be approved by the council.
The council was made up of the most stuffy and self-important of the Aravae noble Houses. Those Houses with more members had more representatives on the council and; therefore, more votes. Aquilan had focused on these big Houses to join him in saving humanity by promising them future land and riches on Earth as their own. Rhalyf had been surprised at Aquilan’s ruthless strategy,
“My king, I am impressed that you would use the property of others to pay for your allies’ loyalty,” he’d joked after Aquilan had made his presentation to the first big House.
“The humans will surely share with us if we save them!” Aquilan defensively responded, his cheeks heating.
But Aquilan had known very well that he had not promised to ask the humans to share their land with the Aravae. No, the Houses would own that land. They might allow humans to remain upon it, but that would be their choice. Not humanity’s.
“I am not criticizing you at all!” Rhalyf held up a hand to indicate that he did not mean to offend. Truly, Aquilan was showing the sort of political leadership that Vesslan only dreamed of having. “It was the right call.”
“Yet why do I have a feeling that you should be criticizing me?” Aquilan sighed and shook his head. “Maybe I am criticizing myself. I gave away what is not mine to give.”
“Land and riches are of no use to the dead.” When Aquilan looked more grim at those words, Rhalyf put a hand on his king’s shoulder. “Aquilan, it was the only way enough Houses would agree to vote for your proposals. You recognized that people aren’t like you: willing to put themselves out there for the principle of the thing. You did what had to be done.”
“Did I do it for the principal, Rhalyf? Or because I undermined the delicate balance of the Under Dark in the first place and must atone for it?” Aquilan asked grimly.
“You didn’t. We didn’t.” Rhalyf’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “We only killed a handful of the Kindreth. How could that account for the Leviathan streaming into Earth? It couldn’t!”
“Rhalyf, nothing has ever passed between the Under Dark and Earth until now. Do you honestly think the Kindreth returning to the upper world for the first time in millennia and the breach between planes are not connected?” Aquilan’s expression was disbelieving.
“I have no reason to think they are except for the timeframe and even that is questionable. It’s not like the Leviathan came pouring out when we killed the Kindreth. It was over a decade later!”
“Perhaps killing them is what shifted the balance in the Under Dark, which slowly but surely undermined things. And if that is the case, then I…” Here, Aquilan screwed his eyes shut before he whispered, “Then I am responsible for the deaths of millions.”
Rhalyf shook his head. Normally, he would not speak so openly of the Kindreth, let alone admit to knowing so much about them. But the king’s distress caused him to drop the pretense of ignorance. So he plowed headlong into it.
“The Kindreth wards are what has kept Earth safe. Not an army of Kindreth, or in the case of those we killed, a mere handful of them,” he argued.
Aquilan was shaking his head, but his eyes were open again so that was good as he answered, “We cannot know this.”
“On the contrary, I think we can. Or, at least, I can offer you a far more logical alternative as to what happened,” Rhalyf patiently explained. “Twenty or so Kindreth–no matter how powerful or determined, unless they were Vex himself–couldn’t keep the Leviathan horde in check, could they?”
Aquilan shook his head again, but he appeared far more thoughtful and less stiff. “No, I admit they could not.”
“We certainly wouldn’t have been able to kill them so easily if they were such a threat–”
“It was not easy to kill them, Rhalyf,” Aquilan pointed out dryly.
“Maybe not. But it wasn’t the most difficult battle we’ve faced either!”
Aquilan crossed his arms over his chest. “Fair enough. It was not.”
“So the wards are the more likely cause of keeping the Leviathan at bay, yes?” Rhalyf looked intently at Aquilan.
A slow nod. “Yes, I suppose that is more likely than not.”
“All right then! So since the Leviathan got through then something happened to the wards, but we didn’t touch those. But someone might have. And who is most likely to have done that?” Rhalyf rubbed his hands together, warming up to his argument.
Aquilan’s left eyebrow rose. “The Kindreth we fought and killed?”
“Exactly! These rogue Kindreth came up to the surface of the Under Dark. They might have even gone into the old cities where the wards are anchored. Isn’t it more likely that they disturbed the wards–likely unintentionally–and weakened that protection?”
Aquilan frowned and admitted, “I suppose that could be possible.”
“More than possible!” Rhalyf put an arm around Aquilan’s shoulders. “If there is any connection at all between those Kindreth and the Leviathan attack, that is likely it. Killing those Kindreth intruders was the right thing to do. It did not let the Leviathan out. It kept the Lieran Plane safe.”
Aquilan let out a breath through his teeth. “That last Kindreth to die claimed to be coming to warn us.”
Rhalyf had recognized the Kindreth who allegedly had a warning for the Sun King as Vulre Vultorus, Blood Knight to Lady Ashryn Zinsandoral. For a moment, he’d wondered if Vulre had recognized him, too. But if the Blood Knight had, he’d kept it to himself. It was the one good turn that bastard had ever done for Rhalyf. Yet Vulre’s last whispered words of vague warning were exactly the sort of nonsense he would have expected from any conquered Night Elf so he didn’t think Vulre’s words meant anything.
“Yes, but what exactly was he warning us of?” Rhalyf demanded.
“He did not say. You know this.”
“Exactly! And it wasn’t like we caught him on his last breath either. Yet despite this dire message he had to impart, he didn’t spit out whatever it was we were in danger of before he expired, did he? No, he did not. So it was a lie.” Rhalyf shook his head in disgust.
“That they would come to the Lieran Plane at all is so strange though,” Aquilan insisted. “They knew they’d find no friends among us. Not just because of our ancient enmity, but because…” Here Aquilan paused and swallowed. “My parents…”
“Yes, I know.”
Aquilan’s parents had perished at Kindreth hands.
Supposedly. Though I never heard of them reaching us with their peace mission. Anything could have slain them in the Under Dark and left no trace. But the Kindreth–the Aravae’s favorite boogey man–was blamed, Rhalyf
“So why would they come, Rhalyf? There must have been some reason for it! Some great reason!” Aquilan shook his head almost violently.
Rhalyf’s stomach had twisted at those words, because he knew why they had. Or, at least, he guessed what it was. It was likely the same reason he had: desperation. Absolute and complete desperation and having nowhere else to go. But he could not tell Aquilan the truth.
“Do not let a few whispered words unsettle you, Aquilan. You are not responsible for the emergence of the Levithan,” he assured the king. “It was Kindreth magic that kept the Leviathan at bay and it was Kindreth magic failing that allowed them to escape.”
Yet he knew that Aquilan hadn’t completely accepted his argument. But Rhalyf was certain he was right
Well, mostly certain.
Oh, hells, it didn’t matter!
It wasn’t as if Aquilan would have ever knowingly hurt the mortals so he couldn’t have the guilt of it. Besides, it was over and done. One thing that Rhalyf knew better than anybody was that once a thing was done, one couldn’t undo it. No matter what. So one just had to go forward. Not dwell in the past. In a past that was just as over as that original thing that had ended it.
Now, in the present that held so many possibilities, Rhalyf watched as Aquilan smiled softly at Elasha and said to her, “Both things may be true, Elasha. That I performed a miracle, but it was still not enough.”
She opened and closed her mouth before finally muttering, “Why did those damned Kindreth not destroy the Leviathan long ago when they marched deeper into the Under Dark?”
Rhalyf wanted to sigh. He could have explained that it simply hadn’t been necessary. When King Vex had led the Kindreth farther into the Under Dark seeking greater magics, abandoning cities that had lasted hundreds of millennia, none had stood before them, certainly not some flame-eyed shadows. No, the Leviathan and many other creatures had only moved in once the Night Elves had moved on.
But he didn’t like to even mention the Kindreth around her, because she would latch onto the Neres family history and its connection with the Night Elves. A connection that was much more direct in his case. So this time he acted as if he had no knowledge about the Sun Elves’ most dreaded, ancient enemy and kept his mouth shut.
“There is a delicate ecosystem, Elasha, in the Under Dark. To get rid of one creature might just let something worse take its place,” Aquilan answered her.
Aquilan’s eyes looked haunted. He was definitely thinking about whose fault it was that the Leviathan had come.
Wanting to save him from those thoughts, Rhalyf asked, “Why is your twin, Darcassan, not with us today, Elasha? I would have thought him eager to have the king’s ear, especially since he doesn’t believe the Leviathan are done with us.”
“Which is exactly why Father did not allow him to come.” Elasha’s jaw tightened. “He would have raved the whole time if Father had not kept him home.”
“What would he have raved about?” Aquilan asked, frowning.
Rhalyf didn’t like Darcassan any better than he liked Elasha. Darcassan might not be as narrow-minded as his sister, but he was high strung and known to fixate on things.
“I would not bore you with it now, because he’s sure to talk about it for ages when we arrive.” Elasha rolled her eyes.
“Prepare me so that I might have things to say to ease his mind,” Aquilan requested.
“I don’t know if that’s possible. His beliefs are not based upon logic.” She let out a long breath and then added, “Basically, he’s convinced that the Leviathan are massing in the Under Dark, preparing for another invasion of Earth. That their numbers are far larger than we understand and we’ll be overwhelmed unless we do something about it.”
“We have killed enough of them that they can’t mass let alone overwhelm us,” Aquilan pointed out.
“He says that there could be endless amounts of them as no one truly knows how they procreate. Perhaps they simply split and split again.” Elasha shook her head as if disagreeing with her own words. “In any event, he thinks the only way to truly defeat them is to enter the Under Dark and destroy their nests.”
“The Under Dark? Ah, yes, where there is no light! I can definitely see the Sun Elves fighting down there to great success!” Rhalyf chuckled.
The Leviathan were fearsome foes, though they were hardly the worst the Under Dark had to offer. But they seemed to have no limit as to their ferocity and sheer joy in killing much like the Kindreth. Only wielding the light against them had turned the tides of the war. So going into the Under Dark to confront them was a non-starter for the Aravae. Without the Sun’s additional power to their magic, the Leviathan would, indeed, overwhelm the Sun Elves’ forces.
Elasha sent him an odd look. “Need I remind you that you are a Sun Elf and would be one of those forces, Lord Neres?”
Rhalyf tried to recover, “Yes, what I meant was that it would be–”
“Foolish,” Aquilan cut in with a frown. “Darcassan worries we would be overwhelmed here, yet I know that we would most certainly be overwhelmed in the Under Dark without the protection of the Sun. Many would die. Far more than already have. And what would it accomplish? Our goal is not to extinguish every single Leviathan’s life. It is simply to drive them back where they belong and protect humanity. We have achieved those goals. And if the Leviathan foolishly dare return, we will destroy them utterly.”
“Very well said, my king!” Rhalyf nodded.
“Darcassan understands our weakness in the Under Dark, which is why…” Here, she paused and nibbled at her lower lip, “Well, he believes that we should go to the ruins of Illithor and–and take whatever weapons remain there to use against them.”
Rhalyf drew in a strangled breath as he whispered the name of the most ancient Kindreth city, “Illithor?”
It was the first Kindreth city in the Under Dark and their former capitol. Spellbooks, weapons, and riches that King Vex had not been able to take with them on their journey down below were said to still remain there. These treasures were enchanted, of course, with spells that would strip the flesh and take the souls of any who dared try to steal them. People like Darcassan. And likely even him. But still the siren song of powerful magics called to Rhalyf. Illithor’s wards kept its location hidden from all but King Vex so it was impossible that Darcassan could ever find it.
“Darcassan wishes us to use Kindreth Blood Weapons?” Aquilan’s voice was hushed and filled with a Sun Elf’s horror of such things, focusing not on the city, but its contents.
Blood Weapons were a Kindreth’s most powerful offense and defense. Lament, Rhalyf’s Blood Weapon, appeared as a stark black and white tattoo along the outside of his left leg. It pulsed as he thought of it. Firmly, he drew his mind from it. It wouldn’t do for Lament to appear in his hand at that moment. Even someone as dense as Elasha would recognize that Summon. He’d already caught Aquilan looking at it speculatively in the past. But the king’s love for him had likely caused him to not ask questions to which he did not wish the true answers.
“I told you that he was raving, didn’t I?” Elasha shook her head again. “He’s consumed with it, Uncle! He thinks of nothing else. Father caught him heading out to the ruins of that nearby human city to find a rift that would take him to Illithor.”
Rhalyf let out a snort. “A rift to Illithor? How does he expect that to happen? Illithor was warded to remain hidden by Vex himself! No one–certainly not the Leviathan or Darcassan, for that matter–could find it, let alone open a rift from it!”
He spoke without thinking and a sudden cold sweat dotted his upper lip as he realized what words had left his lips. He gritted his teeth and reminded himself he was to be unaware of all things Kindreth, but here he was, blathering on about things that few, but the most devoted scholars would know. Luckily, neither Aquilan or Elasha seemed to notice his mistake.
It’s the king’s sadness! I am speaking too openly in the hopes of easing his conscience. But I am just revealing too much.
Elasha just shrugged helplessly. “It’s all absurd! But he claims that one of the humans who survived the original Leviathan attack saw Illithor through one of the rifts.”
Aquilan tensed as she mentioned one of the three survivors. Rhalyf mentally tucked that into the back of his mind. He had been surprised that the king had never asked to meet those three humans who had managed to avoid death before they had arrived on the scene. It would have been a political coup to meet with the survivors. They would, undoubtedly, be grateful for Aquilan’s heroic actions in saving their lives. He was rather curious himself how they’d managed to stay alive until Aquilan arrived. It all seemed so unlikely considering humans were completely unable to defend themselves against Leviathan. But those three had made it through.
Elasha continued, “Evidently, the human was so struck by this alleged vision that he asked to speak to Glass Scholar Neldor Loravye about it. Though everyone agrees that a terrified human is highly unlikely to be a reliable witness, Darcassan is positive it’s true. He’s mad as I said. Just mad.”
It can’t be true. Truly cannot be. And yet…
He thought of Illithor’s soaring black towers, its light as air bridges, and hushed temples. He’d never been there. He was too young by an age, being born when the Kindreth had settled far deeper in the Under Dark. But he’d read about it in the forbidden books his parents had tried to hide from him. His fingers had traced the intricate illustrations and he swore that sometimes he walked those winding streets in his dreams.
For Illithor was a Vex city. Hewn from the rock and soaked in the Night King’s own blood and magic, it called to all of the Vex bloodline. There were tales of his kin trying to make their way back to it. All died on the way, of course. For a wild moment on his journey from the Under Dark to the Lieran Plane, Rhalyf had considered trying to find it, too.
Illithor was a poisonous daydream. A siren song of death. And he’d turned his steps to the Neres family and from there to here: the king’s best friend and a luxurious life of few cares and plenty of carnal delights. He was glad that he hadn’t sought out Illithor, but had come here instead. This was the dream. Illithor was a nightmare.
But he snapped away from those dangerous thoughts as he caught sight of several dust trails in the distance. “Ah, it appears we have some visitors.”
Aquilan looked at where his gaze was pointed. The dust trails were heading in their direction at a rapid pace. Rhalyf let magic fill the air around him. It snapped and buzzed like a coming storm. He felt that familiar lust for battle fill him.
“Separatists,” Elasha hissed and her right hand dropped to the hilt of her sword, Meremel. “What could they possibly be thinking trying to intercept us like this?”
Rhalyf knew that the wicked curved blade called Meremel was enchanted with fire and ice magic. It was not Aravae-make, but Kindreth as were most of the powerful enchanted weapons the Aravae wielded. Not that she knew that fact. Nor would she appreciate knowing it. She’d probably drop Meremel as if it were contaminated. Rhalyf considered telling her just that in order to watch the conflict it would cause her: protect the king or drop the dirty Night Elf sword? Not that she was needed to protect Aquilan. Not only was Aquilan quite capable of protecting himself, Rhalyf was there. And he would never let anything happen to the Sun King.
“By the gods, are they using those polluting, disgusting machines to intercept us? They break the law and come at the king in this way? The nerve of them!” Elasha cried. The Separatists were driving towards them in motorized vehicles powered by oil drilled from the earth and refined into a noxious fuel. “Father said you would meet with them in time, Uncle, but the Separatists have evidently decided to take matters into their own grubby hands.”
“Grubby?” Rhalyf’s lips twitched. “I don’t think that it is very politic of you, Elasha, to refer to humans–even these disloyal Separatists–as grubby.”
Elasha tossed her head in annoyance. “Well, I wouldn’t say it to their faces! I mean… you know what I mean!”
He did. So did Aquilan from the disapproving frown he shot her.
Yes, my king, he thought, she and that bastard Vesslan are just as narrow-minded and grasping as I’ve told you. If only you weren’t so honorable and would use their weaknesses against them. Or let me do so for you. But no. At least, not yet. Just spend a few weeks in Vesslan’s grubby presence and you might change your mind.
Rhalyf pulled back on Silveril’s reins until the animal came to a halt. The horse danced nervously underneath him. It didn’t like the noise the human machines made. Rhalyf smiled as he always did when there was danger or violence–or, better yet, both–in the offing.
It was his nature.
But he forced it down. For the Aravae did not like killing as much as the Kindreth did. And he was an Aravae now. At least on the outside. His fingers stroked the pendant he wore around his neck. It anchored the spell that kept his white hair and red eyes firmly hidden and protected him from the relentless Sun.
Aquilan’s eyes narrowed. “I believe they’ve come here to speak with me. Let’s hear what they have to say, shall we?”