CHAPTER THREE: BETRAYAL
Aethaden’s eyelids flew open. Something was very wrong. The first thing that was wrong was that his bedroom was inky dark. After the Council meeting and his talk with Halleden in the crypt, he’d agreed to take a rest, but his intent had been to leave for the human realm as soon as the sun had set. But it was far beyond that time.
Halleden was to have awoken me. Did he let me oversleep in the hopes that I wouldn’t go to the human realm tonight? He remembered his best friend’s horrified expression when he’d told him his plans. Aethaden grimaced. Yes, most likely he did.
He hadn’t expected Halleden to agree with his decision to go to the human realm, but he had expected his best friend to accept it. Part of him had not wanted to tell Halleden - or anyone at all - of his plans but he’d had to. And Halleden was the person he most trusted.
His best friend would have to cover for him while he was gone. While he was certain that once he got to the human realm that he would find his Blade quickly, in case it took longer than expected, Halleden would be the one to tell people he was deep in study and couldn’t be disturbed. And, if for some reason he didn’t return, Halleden would to go to Lord Ares and Lady Lethe. Their plan to take over the Valore would then be implemented.
Halleden is a good hearted friend, but he is a fool if he thinks that the dark will stop me. I must go. There is no choice. My Blade awaits me.
But the darkness was not the only thing wrong. He felt a light breeze and the scent of rain touch his face. His head shifted on the pillow and he looked towards the balcony doors. His bedroom was in a tower in the royal castle. He had always loved it for its privacy and the sense that he lived among the clouds. Outside, the sky was completely black other than a few sprinklings of stars that could be glimpsed between the curiously heavy clouds, indicating that full night rather than just twilight had fallen.
The balcony doors were also open rather than shut. Though he loved to have them open so that the air from outside would circulate through his room, Halleden had insisted on shutting them earlier so that the sunlight wouldn’t creep in and make his sleep restless. But now, the right door was open.
The curtains fluttered in the cool, air-soaked night breeze. A fork of lightning appeared in the sky. More flickered within the clouds ominously. There was a low rumble of thunder thereafter that raised the hair on the back of his neck. This storm would be powerful. Childhood fears of the great storms assaulted him for a moment. He remembered burying his head against his father’s chest when the wind howled. His father would speak softly to him, telling him it was okay, before kissing the top of his head. He had known that nothing could touch him so long as his parents were there.
But they were there no longer. And the thought of going out into that storm to seek the human realm caused a deep shudder to run through him. Part of him even considered delaying his departure until the next day. He didn’t have to go tonight, did he? But then he thought of the blood that had run from his nose.
Sickness was alien to the immortal Elves unless it was magically transmitted. Only lesser species grew ill. The longer he was without his Blade the sicker he would become, the lesser he would become. And then he thought of that missing hand. The hand of his Blade. His fingers flexed. He could almost feel it. He was almost not alone.
Lightning split the sky once more causing him to blink and squint. He heard the leaves on the trees of the forest that surrounded the castle rustling as the wind gusted through them. Rocks, precariously perched from earlier landslides, were disturbed and crashed down the mountainside. Another fork of electricity licked the mountainside. Then another and another. There would likely be forest fires caused by this storm. All the more reason to stay inside where he was safe and warm and cared for. He was so cozy and so tired. He closed his hands on the sheets, but they felt like they were empty. His Blade’s hand belonged there and it was not.
Maybe I can use its strength to help me summon the gate to the human realm.
The scent of ozone was suddenly very heavy in the air. It was a bitter, brittle smell that stung his nostrils. Aethaden frowned. Would he smell the lightning this keenly unless the very castle itself was hit by a strike? That hadn’t happened so why was the scent overwhelming him? And why wasn’t it coming from the open balcony doors, but instead coming from inside his own quarters.
Slowly, Aethaden scanned his circular bedchamber one inch at a time. He saw the silhouettes of the chairs by the fireplace. His books were stacked on the side table, ready to be thumbed through once more. The fireplace was unlit as it was summer and too warm for it. His light as air comforter was more than enough to keep him cool, but not cold, warm, but not hot.
His gaze passed on towards the arched doorway that led into his alchemical research lab. It was a smaller version of his larger lab on the lower floors. Here he brewed potions to aid in his health and energy. There was the sight bitter sting of distilled chemicals in the air, but it was nothing compared to the whiff of ozone he smelled coming directly from there. That was when he saw the silvery eyes staring back at him.
There was another fork of lightning. This one was so bright and bold it lit up the room and showed him the creature that observed him from the doorway of his alchemical laboratory.
He had never seen one in person, but his parents had described them to him in great detail. They appeared, at first, like lovely young girls dressed all in white, but when the lightning struck one could see the skull beneath the skin.
And that was what he saw.
A young wisp of a girl, hardly five feet tall, and slender as a reed stood in the doorway to his laboratory. She wore a diaphanous gown, also white, with a ragged hem as if she had been fleeing through the forest and caught it on branches and thorns. Her feet - pale as marble - were bare and she had dirty nails as if she’d been running in wet earth. Her eyes were the same silvery white as lightning and they glowed after the lightning dimmed and cast the room into darkness again. Those eyes stared at him unblinking. As the lightning struck he could see her skull beneath that thin as spider silk skin.
A death’s head.
Aethaden kept his breathing even. He did not jerk up. He did not show any physical acknowledgement of her. His mother had told him that the Storm Maidens were Riven priestesses that had been sacrificed in terrible rites. They went abroad during storms to find their victims. Those who met a storm maiden were found gray as ancient cloth with their eyes burned out of their sockets.
She would strike the moment she knew he was awake. This meant he had to do one thing. He had to close his eyes - the eyes she would burn out - in order to appear asleep and unaware. But he would lose sight of her. He wouldn’t know exactly where she was. His magic was still at a low ebb and he wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t sense him trying to see her magically anyways. But with the lightning strikes coming fast and furious, he had no choice. He shut his eyes just as there was another lightning bolt that split the sky wide. He saw the light through his eyelids and his mouth tightened with fear.
Was she nearer to the bed?
Had she stepped towards him on those dirty feet?
Was she reaching for him with those claw-like hands?
There was another low rumble of thunder that seemed to thrum in his bones. She was causing the storm’s strength to spiral up and up. His right hand slid beneath the mound of pillows and his fingers curled around the hilt of the wickedly sharp curved blade about twelve inches long he kept there. It’s name was Arthalash. His grandfather forged it in the Guardian’s fire. There was nothing it could not cut.
Normally, he was glad to have his tower rooms free of servants and attendants. It was his sacrosanct place, but never had he found a foe as formidable as a Storm Maiden in his bedchamber.
How did she get here? They have not been seen since my parent’s time! And then another thought hit him, And why is one here on the very night I plan to leave for the human realm? Perhaps that shadow on the stairs was not a trick of my eyes. Someone has betrayed me!
He breathed in and then out. The ozone smell was almost sickly in its intensity. The Storm Maiden was nearby. In one fluid movement, he opened his eyes, drew his curved blade out and slashed through the air. She was there.
Inches from him.
Her face had been leaning over his in a parody of a kiss.
He could smell death on her like old, rotten earth. The blade - enchanted with spells meant to kill beings such as her - sliced through her chest like it was made of old cloth. There was no resistance as black blood poured from her onto him. It was cold like bog water. Bile rose up in his throat, but he slashed her again.
Until it seemed impossible that there could be any more of her to cut. Her lips opened in a silent scream. Or rather, it wasn’t silent. When she “screamed” bolt after bolt after bolt of lightning struck the mountain. He saw flames erupt on the mountainside as dozens of trees were set on fire.
She finally collapsed, falling onto him and then sliding to the floor in a dirty heap. He leaped from his bed, bare chest coated in her blood. It made his skin tingle and he feared what it was doing to him. Blade still out, he hustled towards his bathroom, not bothering to call for help. No one was near enough to help him and he didn’t want to risk anyone else. There were no other Storm Maidens in his bedchamber but other things could be making their way up the tower.
Water was pumped in an unending stream into a washing chamber. It flowed onto a stone floor and disappeared into a drain. He stepped beneath the waterfall like flow and scrubbed the black filth off of his bare chest. He stripped off his silk pants and left them wadded in a corner. Finally clean, he dried himself off and swiftly redressed in his light armor: green and gold greaves over heavy leather boots, articulated breastplate and forearm guards, over dark blue leggings and an undershirt. A crimson sash and a gray cloak completed his ensemble. He was not returning to sleep that night. After he assured himself the castle was clear of foul creatures, he would be leaving for the human realm.
If whoever sent that Storm Maiden thought it would stop me from finding my Blade, they are wrong. I am more determined than ever.
He sheathed the curved blade as he reached towards Nocht - his gray wooden magical staff of retribution - that was set in its case on the wall. The staff immediately came into his hand and the gnarled root-like structure at the top of it glowed blue briefly. The gray wood felt soft and smooth against his palm. It was made from the driftwood of an ancient sailing vessel where all lives had been lost. Their deaths had imbued the wood with their anguish and anger. It was a powerful staff, one that struck down foes with only the fury of the unfinished could do and drained its wielder’s life with every use. He never wielded it for that reason. But it had one other attribute that he had to have. It could open the way to the human realm.
He headed towards the door that led to the stairs. He followed the curled, stone steps from his bedchamber along the outside of the tower. He magically muffled his footsteps so that none would hear him coming. As he neared the very bottom of the stairs, he heard Halleden’s voice. Relief coursed through him as Halleden’s tone was not strained or afraid or in pain. His best friend hadn’t been attacked then. But there was something odd in Halleden’s tone. Something almost furtive. It stopped him from calling out and letting Halleden know he was there and what had happened with the Storm Maiden. Aethaden stopped at the foot of the stairs,pressed himself against the wall by the doorway and listened.
“... can’t let this happen!” Halleden was saying, his voice tight with emotion.
Then the rumble of Ares’ voice broke in, “No, it would be a disaster.”
Aethaden stiffened. What is he doing in the castle?
“He’s so desperate! He would have to be to even suggest going there, but …” There was a strangled almost sob from Halleden. “I had to tell you. He has to be stopped.”
Aethaden knew what the subject matter of this conversation was even as his heart seemed to go cold as stone in his chest. It was about him. Him going to the human realm. Halleden had betrayed his trust and revealed his plans to Ares of all people. Another betrayal. A deeper betrayal.
And it wasn’t just Ares who Halleden had told his plans to.
Lethe’s incisive, clipped voice, broke in, “You were right to do so. You haven’t betrayed his trust, Halleden, so much as saved him from committing suicide.”
Halleden’s voice dripped with barely concealed dislike, “Forgive me if your views on honor and betrayal give me no solace.”
“Then let me echo her words, Halleden,” Ares assured him.
“I have never broken an oath with him! But I couldn’t … I just couldn’t let him go to that terrible place,” Halleden cried.
“No, of course not. And there is no chance that any Blades are left there. But imagine if there were!” Lethe let out a snort of derision. “What kind of creatures would they be? The Blades are Riven. They would have devolved back into the evil beings we know them all to be without the uplifting light of the Undriels!”
Aethaden gritted his teeth. The Blades were Riven who had broken off from the main horde, convinced that the endless war between the Valore and the Riven was destroying both their people’s. By binding the Undriels and the Blades together, that allowed the Valore to have the upper hand and keep their lands free of the Riven’s foul creations like the Storm Maidens and other terrible beings. But some speculated that the Blades had been uplifted by the experience by the Undriels. His parents had told him that such talk was racist and wrong and not true. Yet it did not surprise him to hear Lethe believing that particular rumor.
“Indeed, such a person would never be accepted here and especially not as a bonded Blade to our king,” Ares murmured. “It would completely unravel the Undriel’s rules and our society.”
“I know. Oh, Gods, what have I done though? Betraying him like this --”
“Lord Morgana! Lord Etoren! Lady Noor!” he heard the captain of the guards call out to the three royal retainers. There was the thud of booted feet as he and two others raced up to them. “The fire is alight! The storm is raging out of control! And some claim … some claim …” Aethaden swore he heard the guard captain actually swallow, “Some claim to have seen Black Riders and Rail Hounds!”
Aethaden was stunned again. First, a Storm Maiden and now ghostly riders clad in black armor with flaming swords and their alleged companions, the dreaded Rail Hounds, huge hounds, nearly the size of cattle, that had muzzles wreathed in fire. Their bite was a combination of fire and acid and utterly deadly.
He heard the ring of Lethe’s blade as she unsheathed it. “Show me where these creatures have been spotted!”
She did not lack in courage. He had to give her that, if little else. Aethaden wanted to join them. He thought of raising his voice, alerting them to his presence, and demanding to go after the dread creatures. But he hesitated.
These beings are only here because of me. If I leave, I will draw them away from my people. I will lead them on a merry chase to the human realm where they will die.
“Halleden, you go up and stay with the king. Lethe and I will attend to the rest,” Ares ordered, the bark of command in his voice.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Halleden breathlessly answered.
Aethaden heard the others race off. Halleden’s light steps came towards him. He stiffened. But he knew what he must do. There was no reasoning with Halleden about what he had to do. His best friend had betrayed him, sharing his plans, and attempting to keep him from finding his Blade. He was not so much angry as sad. He had never struck at Halleden except in practice.
This would not be practice.
In a moment, his best friend appeared in the arched doorway. He did not see Aethaden as the Elven King used Nocht to send his best friend into unconsciousness. He caught Halleden before he hit the ground and eased him down to the stone floor. He then dragged him out of sight behind some barrels behind the stairs.
He caressed Halleden’s cheek. “Forgive me, my friend. But you are wrong. What I am doing is the right thing or attacks like these will just continue. I will return with my Blade and sweep all the darkness from this land as my parents did before me and their parents before them.”
He straightened and pulled the hood over his head before swiftly exiting the tower and heading towards the stables. He used only a small bit of glamour magic that made his guards and servants simply not notice him. They were all abuzz with the news of Rail Hounds and Black Riders to look too carefully at another person in their midst - just another guard going out to fight the fires. He passed by them as they babbled news, rumors and their fears to each other.
“... big as a mare the hound was! And the Rider’s horse breathed fire, too!”
“I heard that the Riders just had to touch their flaming swords to the trees to set them alight!”
“Their bite causes instant death. Took a child, they did!”
“No! Not a child!”
“You heard just one? I heard it was the whole family!”
Aethaden sped up. He had to get out of the castle. He had to lead the Riders and Hounds away. It seemed clear that there was at least one of each out there. Perhaps more.
This the only way I can keep you safe, he murmured silently to those he past. I’m not abandoning you in your time of need. I am leading them away from you.
He prayed that was true. But he knew that if he did not leave now, tonight, that Halleden, Ares and Lethe would make sure he never could go. They would be pronouncing a death sentence on him and who knew what else. If Storm Maidens, Black Riders and Rail Hounds were loose that meant the Riven were not dead and gone. They were planning to come back.
He took a final right down a hallway that led into the back of the stables. He pressed his shoulder against the door and opened it as slowly and softly as possible. The door always creaked and Bor, the stable boy, slept nearby. He was a light sleeper, too. Aethaden didn’t want to involve the child in his escape if he could help it.
If he is even asleep with all of this excitement. A bright, curious child like him would likely wish to catch sight of a Rail Hound or Black Rider. I hope he is not successful.
Aethaden opened the door only so wide as he needed it to slip through. The light from the hallway sliced through some of the stable’s darkness, but he quickly shut the door behind him and night fell again. There were only two lamps lit at night by the stable’s exit. But inside the darkness almost had a heft. It was a soft blanket.
Aethaden stood there a moment, letting his eyes fully adjust to the dark, before he moved. He didn’t wish to bump into anything like a broom or bucket and wake not only the stable boy but other servants, too. He could have used magic in the past to simply see in the dark as easily as he would in the day. But he had to conserve all of his strength to summon the portal to Earth.
Once he was sure he could see, he glanced over at the small bed the stable boy used. It was empty. The coverlet was thrown back as if in haste. Aethaden grimaced. The child had gone out to see what all the fuss was about.
I hope you stay safe, little one.
Aethaden quickly went over to the wall and took down his saddle, pad, girth and bridle. He would not have time to properly brush his beloved horse, Anam, or pick the horse’s hooves. There would hardly be time to ensure that the pad was facing the right direction and fully covering Anam’s withers.
Aethaden approached Anam’s stall. The white as frost mare was awake and whinnied her greeting to him. She tossed her head in excitement, knowing that they were going out for a ride. Midnight rides were a favorite of hers. He opened the stall gate and she walked out and positioned herself so that he could tack her up properly. He ran a hand down her forehead and kissed her pink nose. She made another happy whinny at his touch and he spoke softly of his love for her. Soon, he was in the saddle and could feel her quivering between his thighs. He patted her neck.
“Anam, I need you to be very brave. We are going to a place where none have ever returned. But you and I will … with my Blade,” he told her. She whinnied softly and pawed the ground giving her approval of this dangerous journey. “Good. I knew that you would understand.”
With that he urged her into a walk out of the stables and into the courtyard. Though the sky was being ripped apart by lightning and the ground was shaking with thunder, no rain was falling.
Another Storm Maiden out there?
He glanced up at the clouds. They parted for a moment and showed him the moon. It was blood red. A Riven moon. Chunks of ice formed in his belly. He lightly kicked Anam’s flanks and turned her towards the path out of the courtyard and into the woods. He would travel down the winding road to the valley floor below before he used Nocht to go to the human realm. That would lead any evil creatures away from the castle and surrounding towns.
He hunkered low over Anam’s back and soon she was galloping past the startled guards who were still at their posts by the gate that led out into the woods. They had all been staring anxiously out of the gate and not thinking to look behind them. They scattered out of his way like falling leaves. He heard frantic calls for him to stop, to come back, that it wasn’t safe.
I know it is not safe, my people. This is the only way to end this conflict.
Aethaden rode on. The road seemed to last forever as he went down switchback after switchback towards the valley floor. Smoke drifted across his path from burning trees. The heavy scent of burning leaves and wood was heavy and he drew the cloak up over his mouth. He urged Anam to go faster.
It was then that he heard the baying of Rail Hounds and the dread high-pitched wail of the Black Riders.
“The King!” they hissed, their voices overlapping in a terrible melody. “There he is! Ride! Ride! Ride!”
Aethaden glanced back over his shoulder. Three Black Riders - twice as large as he was with horses to match - followed by over half a dozen blazing Rail Hounds were only fifty feet away. He would not make it to the valley. He would not make it another hundred feet. He had to summon the portal to the human realm now.
He’d slung Nocht over his back but now he reached and grabbed it. He immediately felt it start to draw the life from him as the top of it glowed a hypnotic blue. He pointed it towards the path ahead of him and saw a swirling opening appear. It seemed like his life was streaming towards that opening. All of him was going through it, into it, being extinguished by it.
“Take me to my Blade,” he told it. “Take me to Earth.”