Some things you might want to know before jumping into this - 1) It's pretty long at over 5,000 words. 2) This is actually more like two stories woven into one, and there are frequent shifts between the two throughout the text. 3) These shifts are emphasized by jumps between third-person past tense and first-person present tense, and I often find that disorienting so I figured I'd give you a heads-up. 4) I ended up rewriting nearly all of the first-person portions after last weekend's session even though I think the first version flowed together better. I think at one point there was a more focused theme throughout the whole thing, but I simply couldn't finish the first version what with the way everything went down last week.
Anyhow, here it is:
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this note. Yet still each night I take it out and pore over every inch of it, as if something will be different, as if I will catch some new detail that I have missed in the past dozen readings. I am certain the others think I am a fool, either love-struck and confounded or wallowing in grief. The truth of the matter is that the directions in the note hardly matter to me; the note itself serves as a constant reminder of why I am doing all of this. In fact, every night I try to read it from beginning to end dozens of times without success because my mind wanders to various things, including those that happened more than a decade ago.
“Corellon, by your grace grant me the clarity to show all that I know to Re’ath Eirthaldul,” murmured Dhother Cyllennae to himself as he stood just outside the main hall of the church to Corellon Larethian. ‘That is all the favor I need,’ he silently added, before entering.
Immediately his eyes were drawn to the stern-looking priest Re’ath, who was visiting the city specifically for this purpose. Beside him sat the reason for this meeting of the elves, Elder Tradre. Of course, this was not his proper name, but whispers of Tradre considering retirement had existed since before Dhother was born a quarter century ago, and he had certainly not grown any younger in the intervening time. Re’ath himself must have been at least three, possibly four times older than Dhother, a difference that stood out as sharply as the contrast between Re’ath’s long gray mane and the short-cut blonde crown that Dhother bore. As Dhother approached, he got the reactions he had anticipated – Re’ath’s lip curling a miniscule amount, and Tradre beaming at the brightest young member of his flock.
Though Tradre’s mind had not grown addled in his advanced age, the duties of the head of the city’s church of Corellon had proven too much for his stamina of late, and his long-predicted retirement was fast-approaching. He would be replaced by his confidant, the second-ranking member of the local clergy, but the confidant’s position would thus be left open, and a replacement needed to be found. Thus, Re’ath had traveled here to oversee – or, it was more likely, to directly influence and control – the selection of a replacement, one who would in all likelihood live to assume the position that Tradre had once held as head of the church that they stood within.
As soon as Dhother had introduced himself, his testing began, with Re’ath measuring the extent of his knowledge of Corellon’s dogma. This was a test not only of his knowledge but also of his confidence, to recite and convey-
My head snaps up to look at Jonn, the warrior now looming over me with a perplexed and somewhat annoyed expression. “What?” I ask, admittedly sounding quite stupid.
“You keep muttering to yourself over and over. Something in elven.”
I blink. I blink again, my consciousness coming back to the here and now, and eventually conceded that yes, I had been, and so I apologize. But just when I turn my head back to the piece of parchment in my hand and re-read the first few words, Jonn speaks again. “What WERE you saying?”
“Ah…” I rub the back of his neck, embarrassed to have been caught talking to myself without being aware of it. “Sorry, I don’t really remember what I was actually say-“
“It was something like ‘Hey, Corellon! Fish are shelly too!’ …Except I don’t think that fish really are-"
“Hei-Corellon shar-shelevu,” I quickly correct, cringing at Jonn’s pronunciation – it sounds AWFUL, “it is how all prayers to Corellon begin. It means ‘Corellon, by your grace grant.’ "
“…Whatever we ask for afterwards, Jonn.”
“Oh. Well, that sounds pretty good. You can just ask your god for whatever you want.”
I try, very hard, not to cover my eyes in shame at his simplifying the meaning behind the words. I can’t manage to hold back a sigh, but nonetheless I try to explain, “It’s not really like that. It is, in a manner, something we say when we feel that we need good fortune, such as before a battle…or to succeed at a task that we absolutely must…”
The Cyllennae family, though not poor, were far from affluent. Both of Dhother’s parents were traveling traders, and so he rarely saw them, even growing up; instead, from the time he was but a child, he had been in the service of the Archduke Fihalnes Shaala, one of the richest and most powerful men in the community.
Even at this early age, Archduke Shaala had caught notice of Dhother’s brightness, and seen the potential for great things within him. In time, Dhother became aware of how the archduke perceived him, and this granted him enough boldness that he had asked for the archduke’s daughter’s hand in marriage four years earlier.
“I had been wondering when you were going to do this,” the archduke had said when he learned of Dhother’s intent, “after all, you haven’t gotten any better at hiding the way you look at Iliarel since you first came into my home. Nevertheless, you have my approval. I expect great things from you, Dhother Cyllennae. I expect that one day you will be this community’s most respected priest.”
On the surface, it was a grand compliment to a future son-in-law. In reality, it was the establishment of conditions under which Dhother would continue to have his approval. For years Dhother had waited and prepared for this day to come, when he would earn his place in the church of Corellon and begin his rise to position that Fihalnes desired he have – not for Dhother’s own sake, but for the benefits that would come from a family member high in the ranks in the clergy of Corellon. But none of this bothered Dhother – Iliarel was worth it all, and anyway, there was never a doubt in his mind that he would earn this position. He stood before his judges the picture of confidence, his unmarred face lightly pulled into a small, knowing smirk and the star of Corellon displayed proudly about his neck. ‘Truly,’ he thought, ‘none are more qualified than me.’
“What makes you more qualified than any other candidate who appears before me today?” Re’ath’s barbed question all at once sliced through Dhother’s momentary lapse into complacency. “I know of you, Dhother Cyllennae. You are practically a child next to half the others who have come before me, and you possess no authority even in your own home. So tell me – why should you be the one tasked with speaking the word of Corellon?”
Without thinking, Dhother spoke his answer immediately. “Because I know that it is my duty to serve in the name of the Ruler of all Elves! I am not blessed with the might of a soldier, the aim of an archer, or the craftiness of a politician, but I am as faithful to Corellon’s dogma as any other follower of the Protector and Preserver of Life!” He pulled the symbol of Corellon from his neck, and held it aloft, “And the proof of my faith and worthiness is the light that Corellon has blessed me with!” With those words, the symbol glimmered with a brilliant silver light, and instantly Re’ath was shocked into silence. It was all the middle-aged elf could do to prevent himself from gawking at the unexpected sight.
They are calling us heroes now. The soldiers of Redwolf can now celebrate after struggling against the Demon Baron’s armies for months, thanks to the successful strike we, ‘The Heroes of Wyrmwick,’ dealt to the easternmost tower under his domain. As the soldiers celebrate with what food and alcohol they can spare before they return home, frequently joined by my comrades, I ask to be left to myself and sit apart from the group.
I understand that in order to keep hold of our senses, we have to be able to appreciate victories however we can obtain them and however small they may be in the grand scope of things. Humans typically remember this more easily than elves, what with their shorter lifespans and necessarily greater lust for life, but it is not the racial difference that keeps me from joining in the celebration.
I’m rushing across the continent trying to tear down the black towers that plague its landscape, and I have no way of knowing whether anything I do has any effect. Will circling the Demon Baron’s castle eventually lead me into it? Will I even be able to function if I manage to reach it, or will I collapse under the oppressive aura it exudes once again? Questions like these weigh heavily on my mind, and whenever I turn to my faith for guidance, my worries are only alleviated by confusion. So as Dahl trembles with the excitement leftover from our tactical triumph, and Greig smirks in satisfaction from having saved the town that drove him to a life of exile, I look to the future and struggle to assure myself that our success can continue.
I put on a mask of determination when I am around them, so that none of them see how afraid I am. I thought after experiencing death that I could never feel so afraid again, but before such a daunting scenario, I cannot help but fear that the sloppy handwriting before my eyes will be the last words I receive from her. As long as that feeling persists, I won’t smile and laugh even after the most inspiring victories – not until I’ve walked into that hellish place and come out with her by my side.
“Tell me about the examination,” Iliarel commanded as soon as Dhother had walked through the door, “What did Re’ath Eirthaldul think of you?”
The wide smile on her husband’s face could have told her all she needed to know, but Dhother was eager to share the details anyway. “He was skeptical at first, but I put all of his doubts to rest. You should have seen it – I shocked him into silence.”
“Good,” Iliarel smiled easily and primly before turning away after barely a second, but the brief, pleased look was enough to send Dhother’s already high spirits into the stratosphere. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some important matters to attend to, so I must prepare to leave.”
“Leave?” Dhother asked incredulously, and protested, “But I have just returned! Can we not take at least a little time to celebrate the good news?”
“You will recall that you have your duties to return to as well,” Iliarel reminded sternly, waving to a nearby desk that was almost submerged in documents. “I have been dealing with some of your clerical work at Father’s request so that you would have the time to appear before Re’ath, but this forced me to reschedule some of my other plans today and can hardly afford another lost minute. I must be punctual, Dhother – I have an appearance to maintain.”
Dhother nodded his head, having lost the debate before it could even begin, and sighed heavily. “You are right, of course, Iliarel.” For the briefest moment, Iliarel flashed him a pleased smirk before heading into her dressing room. Dhother had just spoken a phrase that he had often had to repeat in her presence, from the time he had been tasked with being her playmate when they were both children. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same, was all Dhother could conclude from this.
While Iliarel prepared herself for her afternoon visits to the families that shared close relationships with Shaalas, Dhother tried to finish the work she had taken up in his stead. Tried to. It became apparent to him after he had read the first paragraph of the first document five times without absorbing any of the information it contained that he was distracted, and within a few minutes he got up and followed after his wife. Though she was immersed in fastening the elegant gown about her body, it took only a moment for Iliarel to notice his presence. “It isn’t very proper of you to watch me dressing,” she chastised, “and just think of what you might be tempted to do.”
“I fail to see the harm,” Dhother answered casually.
“Well, besides the near certainty of my being late, and the possibility that some servant or other passerby will happen upon us behaving like amorous fools, there is also the slim chance that our family would gain a new member unex-”
“I want us to have children, Iliarel,” Dhother cut her off, and approached her from behind. “I want to have a family, and I want to be allowed to love you without having to worry so much about whether the timing is right. Why do you think I wanted to marry you?”
“Children should come later, Dhother,” Iliarel stated without turning to look at him. “You are still in the service of Father, it would reflect badly on us to have a child before you stand more independently.”
“The position is as good as mine, I have told you,” he replied. Sick of her being more involved in her preparations than in their conversation, he placed one hand on her shoulder and used the other to sweep a lock of her auburn hair of her ear, ‘accidentally’ brushing his thumb over the pointed tip.
Iliarel did not even tense at the gesture, she merely turned to look at him when she was done putting on her jewelry. She glanced directly over her eyes, furrowed her brow slightly, and said, “You need to trim your bangs, they’re getting a bit too long. You know how that distracts me.” This got her a sigh of frustration from Dhother, but she pressed by him so that she could be on her way. “Remember Dhother – we have appearances to maintain. I will see you tonight.”
There is a heavy stone in my chest where my heart should be.
My recklessness has killed a man who tried in his last days to help us in the best way he could. I did not strike him down, but I tempted the dagger that pierced his heart.
When I attacked the mad mage, I felt something that I have not in a long time, if ever. It was different from any other reckless act I have committed. When I attacked Owayne with the Staff of Zalelah, I felt cold fear and desperation; when I smote Felbrigg with Corellon’s holy light, I felt that I was delivering justice. When I attacked Ghadi…I carried these feelings in minute amounts, but mostly I felt cold fury and malice. When I looked at him, all I could see was the red fire in my own eyes that could only be extinguished by the monster’s blood. Not righteous fury, not a desire for justice or retribution, but a beast’s snarling demand for vengeance and death at any cost.
With my back turned on the others, huddled some distance away from them, I hold the note in my hands and try not to clutch my fists in self-hatred. Though I have missed her every night, this is one for which I am glad that I cannot see her. How could I ever tell her that the forefront thought in my mind as I threw holy light at the bastard was not how he had contributed to the deaths of countless innocents, but that he had played a role in her abduction?
If the others do not think me a fool now, then they should – who else but a fool would cause the death of one he called an ally?
“I ask that you withdraw your candidacy and give up the position to another,” Re’ath stated bluntly. He sat behind a desk in the back of the church of Corellon, staring intently across it at the standing Dhother.
“…Have I misheard you, or did you just ask me to-”
“You have not, and I did,” Re’ath was evidently not in the mood to dance around the matter. “Listen carefully, Dhother Cyllennae, because you do not as of yet fully understand the situation you stand in – you could better serve the will of Corellon if you chose not to accept the position.”
Dhother narrowed his eyes and bit back his indignation from showing itself on his face as he answered. “With all due respect, Re’ath Eirthaldul, I have prepared myself for ten years, nearly half my life to gain this opportunity, and you are asking me to throw it away now after my years of dedication. You are correct – I do not understand the situation. If you do not want me to become a priest to this church, you wield the power to assign another instead of me. Why ask me to give up?”
“Because if you do not, then I cannot in good conscious deny the church one of your talents,” Re’ath remarked, and now it was Dhother’s turn to be shocked into silence. “I doubted your abilities and character during your test, but you have proven my first impressions wrong. But there was another observation I made during the test that has driven me to make this request, and now I must share the revelation with you.” He produced a thick stick – well, not really a stick, but it was not large enough to be a club – and laid it on the desk. Dhother peered more closely at it, and recognized it as a rod, engraved with various runes but not bearing any holy symbols upon its body.
“This is a warlock’s weapon,” Dhother eventually realized, recognizing the object as a rod that channeled an arcane mage’s power.
“Partially correct,” Re’ath nodded. Then, he ordered Dhother to pick it up. He did so without argument, but with a perplexed look on his face. “Now do what you did during your test.”
“But this is a warlock’s weapon,” Dhother repeated, “it does not carry the symbol of Corellon upon it, how can it manifest his power?”
“Just try,” Re’ath said, patiently. And so, to appease him, Dhother concentrated. He closed his eyes, and mentally recited a prayer, repeating it in his head until he felt the object growing warm in his hand. When he opened its eyes, the runes on the rod were burning silver, the entire object burning with power.
Dhother looked up from the tool, horrified, and saw Re’ath smiling triumphantly. “You are indeed blessed by our creator, but it is not with a talent for manipulating the divine magic of priests,” he explained, and pointed at Dhother’s chest. “You carry a fragment of Corellon Larethian’s essence inside you. You have been entrusted, since birth with carrying out his will. Clerics study and recite prayers to invoke his power, but you need only practice to bring out the power that you carry within yourself.”
Dhother stood speechless, equally stunned by the power he had discovered as well as the truth he felt ringing in Re’ath’s words. Somehow, he instinctively knew that this was the truth – Re’ath was not attempting to trick him, nor trying to find an excuse to deny him priesthood. “Then why-”
“Your name,” Re’ath suddenly said, cutting Dhother off, “it comes from dho, for ‘falcon,’ and the ending –ther, for ‘protector.’ So I am presenting you an opportunity to live up to your namesake – leave this city with me. Learn to live up to your potential. Then bless this world not with another passive priest but with a divine soldier who can seek out and purge it of enemies to Corellon. You can be a sheltered pigeon, a local figurehead, or you can be a fierce falcon who grants such pigeons the safety to carry on as they please.” He leaned back, took a breath, and relaxed his posture after the pointed speech. “I do understand what this position means to you, Dhother Cyllennae, and so I will not deny it to you. Nor will I attempt to persuade you any further, because you must not be pressured into taking up this task. It must be your choice, and yours alone. Please, take some time to make your decision.”
Dhother spent the next several days making up his mind. But in his heart, he had made the decision before Re’ath had even finished talking.
Truly I am the picture of arrogance. Twice I have refused to leave a socially inept orphan in the care of someone who could find her a place to live while I trek across a desert into the fortress of a demonic ruler. And yet, hear she lies beside me, a mere day’s walk from the black castle that looms on the horizon. Somehow, I am still certain that she is safer here than in the care of the insane persons she would otherwise be in the company of.
I’m trying to save Harley for so many reasons – pity, duty, love…and desperation. Truly, this girl needs help, but I have come to gradually realize how important it is to me that I save her. I don’t need to be the only one to help her, but I wanted to so much that I refused to acknowledge this. I need to do something right. I need to succeed at something important. Grief and guilt and the frustration of all my recent failures are clouding my judgment, and in truth, I feel that if I let my thoughts dwell on how to act next instead of boldly rushing forward, I’ll break down under the pressure.
My eyes drift away from the note and dwell on Harley’s sleeping form. She’s a peculiar child to be sure, but I see no malevolence in her, only naïveté, even if she carries a real skull around, as if it were a doll. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a child cling to something so bizarre. I refocus my gaze, taking it from the skull clutched in Harley’s hands to the note clutched in my own. People have an odd habit of placing unprecedented value on all manner of objects, I decide.
After some thought, I have decided that if I am tasking myself with saving this child, then I must not do it half-heartedly, regardless of my reasons for doing so. I WILL protect this child, from anyone and everyone, from anything and everything. If Lolth herself so much as contemplates harming this girl, then the spider woman will feel the tear of my talons across her damned face. Harley is under my protection.
Dhother had anticipated Fihalnes being disappointed. He had not anticipated Iliarel being so incredibly furious.
“You said it was as good as yours!” she shouted in face. “And you gave it up!?”
Dhother rubbed his cheek, which still stung with pain. “I cannot deny my duty.”
“Yes you can,” Iliarel spat, “it is easy! You simply say ‘no’ to Eirthaldul and take your rightful spot in the clergy. That’s what we’ve wanted for years.”
“I would not simply be denying Re’ath, I would be denying Corellon himself!” Dhother exclaimed, angered by her words. “To put my desires, even the desires of my family before the will of the creator of our people would be absurdly selfish!”
“To renege on your promise to my father would be absurdly selfish!” Iliarel shot back. “You know he would never have approved of our marriage if he knew you would just give up on the chance to become a priest!”
“Listen, I was as surprised as you are, but-”
“I am not surprised,” Iliarel cut Dhother off, venom leaking into her voice, “you have always been such an idealist, Dhother. You keep on ignoring the realities of our positions, you keep forgetting your place, and you let that old man’s words make you do it again! He put illusions of glory in your head and you fell for them!”
“…Why are you reacting like this?” Dhother inquired, honestly at a loss, “I know your father’s approval is important to you – it is important to me as well, but can you not see that this is important too? I will make things up to him, you know I am capable of that, but for once I must place the position of our family second.”
Iliarel sneered at Dhother. “You have no right to claim loyalty to my family any longer. If you leave to pursue this fantasy of yours, do not expect me to be waiting for you.”
Dhother felt something shatter deep in the pit of his stomach. “…Iliarel…are you really saying-”
“Don’t be a fool, Dhother. I know you’ve seen the way people look at me – the girl who married the commoner! But I bore all of that contempt and disgrace because I believed in your potential, just as Father did! If you’re going to throw that away and run off to some faraway land, who do you think will forever be known as the maiden whose commoner husband abandoned her? No - if you leave me, then you leave me.”
And just like that, the entire weight of the choice changed, and Dhother’s spirit sank. He wanted to say to her that if he had been told that pursuing this chance would mean abandoning her forever, then he would never have taken it. He wanted to tell her that he had thought that he could convince Fihalnes that his unique abilities would bring different, but still present benefits to the family. Instead he could only say, “You would force me to make that choice?”
“To a more sensible person, there would hardly be a choice at all. But that’s just the way you are, isn’t it?” Iliarel shook her head, and stalked to the front door, flinging it wide open. “Dedicate yourself to another foolish undertaking if you so desire, but things are different now than when we were children, Dhother. You should have realized long ago that you could not be my husband without sacrificing something, and yet you act the same as when we were friends.”
“I have ac-!?” Dhother reeled at the boldness of Iliarel’s proclamation, and prepared to rebut by citing the conversation they had had previously. “You are the one who said that we should not be intimate, even after years of-” It was not Dhother’s most verbally coherent day, but this time the sentence died in his mouth because of a revelation, not due to a sudden shock or a rude interruption. Iliarel had, after all, always been mindful of her family’s social standing; she was truly and obviously her father’s daughter, and it was common knowledge to those familiar with both that their minds often worked the same way. Iliarel had not wanted Dhother to win the position for the sake of appeasing her father, he realized.
For a single instant, Dhother thought he saw a glimmer of regret in Iliarel’s eye, but when he tried to focus on it, it was gone. In any case, it was too late now, for both their minds were made up and things could not return to the way that they had been. So Dhother left their home, leaving Iliarel with only the words, “I am sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
Eventually, Iliarel’s reply came, but it was so quiet and Dhother had walked far enough away that he was almost certain he had imagined it. “May Corellon protect you.”
“…I will undergo the complete ritual and become the Firstborn.”
I’ve never been the best at reading her words and actions, but this time she is making it easy for me. Additionally, since the time we first reunited, I have begun to understand why I have connected her note with memories of my past. “…Alright then.”
“…Are you okay with that?”
And because the memories are so fresh in my mind, I understand why she is so concerned with my opinion on the matter. Because I know what it is like to care for a person deeply enough to wish for their approval on everything. Reading the letter and reliving my memories have given me insight into her feelings for me.
And mine for her.
My thoughts have wandered away from the subject we’re supposed to be discussing, and the subject they’ve wandered to has made me flustered. I clumsily voice my desire to support her – pathetic – by bringing up the end of my past relationship – idiotic – and how I don’t wish to subject her to that strain – slightly better.
“…Are you saying you love me?”
Well of course she’d see through that. And my denial is so haphazard and transparent it might as well be an affirmation, so of course she rubs her victory – somehow this is a victory for her over me – in my face and we start to argue like children.
As if to make up for this, we end up kissing in a way that is anything but childlike.
Reading her note had made me realize that I had fallen in love, and falling in love had made me remember how it felt to fall out of love. In the intervening years I hadn’t realized the emptiness that experience had left within me; likewise, I hadn’t realized that it had been filled back up in her presence, until she was gone. But now is not the time to be thinking about such things.
I have failed many times in the last few weeks. I should have been stronger, smarter, more reliable, more patient, and simply better overall. I should have done all manner of things differently. Future encounters loom on the horizon, and still I do not know if we can emerge victorious over the tremendous strength our foes have demonstrated. Even the present is filled with uncertainties, and I have no idea what we should do next. But there are times in life when we must stop worrying about the future and regretting the past, and enjoy the present for however short a time we can.
My lips are joined with Caitlin’s for the first time, and I am happier than I can remember being in a long, long while.