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Esperan's Tears - The River of Tears and Blood (Chapter Three)

Oraeon (Bryan Moffett)
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Dalanthanar pulled fiercely against the reins trying to regain control of his steed amidst the torrential rain, which was now blowing nearly perpendicular; a bolt of lightning had struck an ancient oak just a few feet away, splitting its trunk in twain and startling the horses. Dalanthanar's mount ceased bucking as he patted its neck, and whispered soothing words; promising Relad carrots and sugar beets if he would just cease his rearing.

Glancing about the young nobleman saw that the other members of his party had either regained control of the situation or, as in the case of one unfortunate blade- singer, been thrown to the ground. The two Singers had chosen to sit together under the canopy of the gaily- decorated wagon, and now were conversing in hushed tones that did not bode well. In clandestine fashion he drew his horse alongside the carriage and listened in as best he could. He barely caught the words "Troubling omen" over the howling of the wind, the force of which tore at the small group like a playful pack of wolves, pulling their cloaks taut against them and driving them first one way, then another, preventing any sort of comfort. He gave up hearing more of the conversation, and urged his mount forward, ineffectually pulling his cloak shut in an attempt to ward off the impinging cold-the fine elven material, usually impervious to the damp of the forest, was thoroughly soaked. The temperature had dropped drastically in the past six hours, until now there was ice forming in puddles along the roadside, and his mount emitted jets of steam wit every snort of its nostrils. It had been raining for 3 days & if the temperature continued to drop he didn't see how they could continue.

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Two more days passed before the weather began to finally improve. This seemed a good thing to Kayla, but Dalanthanar looked very morose. He jumped slightly as his twin sister spoke up, "Well, at least the weather is growing warmer; it's still chillier than a usual elven autumn, but not so harsh as it has been for the last three days. Look the sun is even starting to come out." Her twin raised his eyes to gaze at the deep murky heavens and found that the turbulent weather to which they had become so accustomed was finally ending. The sun broke free of clouds that had effectively shrouded the elven forest in murky darkness for the duration of the journey. Light cascaded down, creating a rainbow, and somewhere in the distance a songbird began to herald the long awaited return of the sun. Dalanthanar looked heavenward and could not but smile with appreciation at the blessed warmth that washed over his upturned face. He glanced about and saw that his elven compatriots were similarly enthralled by the sunlight.

Kayla laughed and that silver bell sound served to make even the bright new sunlight seem dull and diminished in comparison. Dalanthanar was grinning as well, seemingly forgetting his morose nature in light of their good fortune. It was then that she noted a sound masked by the wind and the rain, a roaring as though some beast waited ahead, she cocked her head and asked, "What is that sound?"

Morlanditha rode his horse close to the pair, "It's the river Ductafalthas-the River of Tears. That sound is Trevelane Falls, which means we are only a few hours from the bridge and our rendezvous with my people. They should take us the rest of the way. Within one week we will be in the Lunari capital of Luna'dest."

Dalanthanar started to speak when Lord Berbadasa suddenly cried, "Look! Yonder I spy a river of clearest blue! Ductafalthas, I could never forget its shores."

"Nor can I," murmured Lord Morlanditha, but no one but Dalanthanar heard his utterance for all eyes were focused on the coursing river ahead. It rushed through the forest with a fierce gurgle and in the distance the faint roaring of the falls could be heard; growing louder by the moment. It was a beautiful sight and quickened every elf's blood in spite of the cold and somber weather.

A small contingent of soldiers stood on the crest of an ancient bridge, its oaken frame battered by time and inclement weather. The soldiers waved in greeting to Dalanthanar's party and raised the Moon and World-tree standard of the Lunesti Empire, waving it high in the air. Dalanthanar could not help but feel pride in his people, these soldiers had stayed here upon this bridge for over a month and yet they remained as alert and vigilant as ever.

Morlanditha spurred his horse forward to meet his soldiers leaving the Solinari behind. From a distance they watched him converse with the soldiers. The discourse continued for a great many minutes and it was obvious some argument was undertaken by the wildly gesticulations of the participants.

Astagar drew his horse near Kayla's steed, ignoring Dalanthanar's angry glare, and spoke in hushed tones, "I don't like this, something doesn't feel right."

"I don't understand." Kayla asked, "What do you mean? All I see is an argument."

Astagar pointed to the heated argument, "That's exactly it." He explained, "Since when does a vaunted war hero argue with his troops particularly in front of the enemy."

"I agree," said Kayla who had moved up to overhear their conversation. "Why would they be arguing."

"You know how irascible the general is. I'm sure they didn't have their swords buckled right or some such non- sense," explained Kayla, trying to assuage Astagar's sudden paranoia.

Dalanthanar frowned and dark shadows passed over his face, at that moment the clouds occluded the sun and the rain began to fall once again. He pursed his lips and drew his hood low over his face before he spoke, "I don't like you much Solinari, but you may be right. I will speak to the Singer-something is wrong."

Relad's hooves thudded into the earth ominously as he drew closer to the Singer, who was bundling himself under a thick fur cloak and grumbling about the change in weather. He was beginning to raise his hand in greeting when Morlanditha and his guards mounted their steeds & raced off the bridge. He saw Berbadasa's troops reflexively reach for their swords, and then tentatively withdraw them-after all this was the enemy no longer. The Lunari rangers moved across the open field with unnatural speed and Dalanthanar felt a chill run up his spine. Panicked he shouted, "Draw your blades you dim witted Solinari! It's an ambush!" and began to draw his own blade reflexively.

The Solinari looked about in confusion, but the clack of his blade being drawn from its scabbard spurred them to action, as their own blades flew to hand and cut the air with a high pitched whine. Morlanditha and his men road down the hillside undaunted. The Singers began prayer-songs in preparation for the traitorous assault. But inexplicably Morlanditha and his men pulled up short. The general raised his hands showing that he carried no blade and shouted, "Why do you draw arms? Did you think we meant to attack?"

The Singer and the bladesingers looked around in embarrassment, there was awkward silence until Singer Neh'lathas shouted, "Nay good General, we are merely anxious being this close to a foreign border." He shot a disapproving look at Dalanthanar, "And one of your own men put us on our guard."

Dalanthanar saw the Generals disapproving gaze turn towards him, and turned his attention toward clumsily sheathing his blade. As, with trembling hands, he aligned the blade to the opening, he felt a three fingered hand grip his forearm. Looking to his left he saw Astagar staring straight ahead his eyes feverish and panicked his horse's reigns clutched white knuckled in his left hand.

He followed the acolytes gaze to where Morlanditha and one of the soldiers were approaching the Singer, who was apologizing profusely to the smiling general. "What is it?"

Astagar looked at him and his eyes were wide, "No footprints. . .they leave no footprints. And none of them are wet."

Kayla whispered, "He's right, it's a spell."

Dalanthanar frantically searched his mind for the words of a spell he had found in the library, in an ancient tome by Havershan the Great on the rudiments of dispelling illusions. He knew the spell was beyond his abilities but he was desperate. He seized the passing flows of fire to disperse the shadows of illusion, and spirit to strengthen his own sight. He felt the warm rush of magick fill him and for a moment was almost swept up in the beauty of it all. Urgently needing to regain control he began to chant the words from the book-all eyes turned to him.

As the words completed Dalanthanar felt the sudden rush of energy pound into his head and then burst forth from his eyes like a river bursting a damn. He felt a trickle of something wet and hot burn down his cheek and knew instinctively it was blood, as he swooned on his horse. But all this was of little consequence as the reality suddenly ripped like fabric before him. The soldiers shattered like so many crystal shards, revealing course lanky bodies covered in hair and black iron armour. Their faces were that of wolves, though twisted with pain and hatred greater than any natural creature could express. These were beastmen, creatures of children's nightmares; things that only came and ate you if you were bad.

They were nothing compared to the monstrosity that stood before the singer. It was as though a little bit of darkness had been given something akin to life. A hooded black cloak, tattered and threadbare formed a vaguely humanoid body, the cloak pooled on the ground disguising any legs; from ragged sleeves there extended two metal gauntlets dark and serrated-spikes for knuckles and daggers for fingers. In one of these gauntlets was clutched a blade of the darkest black steel, a blade that seemed to absorb what little light pierced the clouds above. The blade arched up swallowing a glint of lightning and down serpent fast, and the Singer's head arched across the clearing bouncing in the mud. Dalanthanar screamed his denial, "No!"

The Hood turned towards him and Dalanthanar felt his body go numb. The orifice was an empty void. He felt himself inexorably drawn into that bottomless pool of midnight. He tried to move, to scream, to flee but found his body unresponsive. His reverie was broken as his horse fell under the weight of a beastman. Relad struck the ground heavily and a burning pain shot through Dalanthanar's knee. He lay on his back stunned as the malformed shape of a beastman rose over him dripping with the freezing rain, one malformed hand clasped the haft of a cruel axe. Dalanthanar threw his arms up frantically in a futile attempt to protect himself. The beastman smiled and began to raise his axe for the finishing blow, but paused suddenly, unexpectedly, as a perplexed expression crossed its distorted features. The beastman suddenly fell to the side and Dalanthanar saw the smiling visage of General Morlanditha.

The General laughed, "I do believe I told you I would give you my support if you completed this journey intact. Do try to stay intact."

Dalanthanar shoved himself out of the mud, and dropped to hands and knees as pain shot through his knee. As the cold mud splashed against his face he saw the General spin about cutting down a Solinari who had turned his back on the General to engage one of the monstrosity-the general's face was a mask of hatred.

Dalanthanar heard a scream from his left and glancing over saw that Astagar was frantically parrying a beastman's serrated sword, while another drug his sister by her hair across the muddy earth. His eyes crystallized into blue gemstones as he seized more magic. Throwing his left hand outward his fingers splayed wide, he spit forth a phrase in the ancient tongue and a three azure darts of energy lanced from his finger tips and struck the beastman in the eyes blinding the monster. His sister took the opportunity to jerk free, she ran about ten feet before she was pulled to the ground by another mortally wounded creature, who managed to grasp her ankle while holding in his own insides. She began to kick frantically at the dazed creatures snout. Dalanthanar's vision closed to a pin-point as the pain in his head became almost unbearable. Suddenly a foot struck his mid-section, lifting him off the ground and throwing him into the icy river.

He lay there gasping, trying to draw breath and felt a grating sensation in his side-his ribs were no doubt broken. He rolled onto his side as a foot struck the mud near his head. From where he lay he could watch as Morlanditha and Berbadasa fought, blades swirling like silver winds through the air, clashing together with the dull sound of ironwood on ironwood. Berbadasa gave ground as the General's blows came in, fury and hatred etched upon the scarred elf's visage. Berbadasa's face was locked deep in concentration but calm, his eyes suddenly flared wide as he stepped upon a slippery rock and fell into the water no more than 10 feet from Dalanthanar. Sparring no time to gloat Morlanditha drove his blade into his counterparts chest. As the Solinari lord screamed the General pressed all his weight on the blade driving it all the way through the other elf's thin frame. He then began to twist the blade between his hands as his rival jerked spastically, clawing at the hilt. When at last the Solinari quit twitching the general removed his blade. From between the legs of the beastman that towered over him, he could watch the grinning general slowly. . .casually clean his blade on the others tunic.

Dalanthanar seized the water magic that flowed about him and hurled them into the beastmans gut, chilling them with flows of air at the last moment. Shards of ice eviscerated the creature, as it howled in pain & fell backwards into the river, turning the water about Dalanthanar a sanguine hue. Lurching to his feet Dalanthanar staggered for the shore and the sword he had dropped. Grasping its hilt in trembling fingers he painfully rose the blade, ignoring the stars that filled his with each ragged breath.

"General!" even to Dalanthanar's ears his voice sounded rasping and weak. Ignoring the weakness he heard there, he took a faltering step toward the battle scarred elf. Morlanditha turned to Dalanthanar & lowered his blade, so that its tip rested in the crimson wash that lapped about his ankles.

The general frowned at Dalanthanar, "Don't make me kill you boy. I owe your father my life. Put down your sword and you can return home with me, together we can save the Lunari people from their own cowardice."

"What cowardice! All I hear are the death cries of elves! Elves you betrayed! You are the coward!"

The general shook his head sadly, and when he spoke his voice was cold and dead, "When Barbadasa captured my son and his men, he had my son tortured to find our camp. After they could get no information from him they hung him in the public square for the carrion to feast. They killed and defiled my son. Do you think his cries or mine were any less deserving?"

"This is your last chance, boy. Put down your sword. We can both return and tell the Moonsinger that they betrayed us and made off with the Tear. Or I can return alone and you can rot here far from your ancestral home," the general raised his sword and pointed it at Dalanthanar, his other hand clasp behind his back as though at a parade. "This is final boy, so think carefully."

Dalanthanar dropped into a low crouch, grunting at the grating of his broken ribs, and began to inch towards the general. Morlanditha shook his head sadly & stood stationary with his blade outstretched. The elven boy rushed forward swinging to knock the blade aside, but finding instead the frigid morning air as the generals sword circled under Dalanthanar's blade. The boy weakened and off balance crashed heavily into the general's chest. Dalanthanar jerked free of the general's embrace and stumbled backwards, falling heavily upon the rocky-river bed. He panicked as water filled his nostrils & inhaled deeply. The cold burn of the water rushed through his body. He burst out of the water coughing & sputtering. He lay on the shore gasping for breath for some seconds, before a foot pressed on his shoulder & flipped him onto his back.

Looking up he saw the general's sad scarred face staring down at him, rivets of rain marking his face in a thousand tiny diamonds as a sudden flash of lightning lit the scene behind him. The beastmen were hacking repeatedly at obviously still elven bodies, & it seemed the entire shore was formed of tributaries of elven blood. He watched with odd detachment as the figure in the tattered robe carve its way through the remaining bladesingers, its movements unnaturally fast, its blade unnaturally sharp; cleaving through armor and flesh alike with an ease most unsettling.

Dalanthanar sagged back to the earth defeated. He began coughing uncontrollably and brought his hand to his mouth as he started to gag upon its new contents. His hand came away bloody. He stared at his extremity with a macabre fascination and slowly looked down to his chest where he saw the thin hilt of a dagger protruding.

Morlanditha sighed, "You should have been more wary of my other hand. A pity you would have made a fine bladesinger."


Esperan's Tears Chapter 3: The River of Tears and Blood © Oraeon (Bryan Moffett)

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