The off-white stone of Xendoufell, the Mediator's Mountain, reflected the soft orange light radiating down from the sky. The air, slightly crisper than at the mountain's base, clung desperately to the last vestiges of Salamander breath, which warmed the summer wind. Salamander's don't live here on Xendoufell. I can't blame them. Most wouldn't want to stay on a rock near the homes of enemies who wish to slay and corrupt them. Keivyn reached back to fondle the end of his bow, slung over his back. For me, it just means a better perch to shoot the rotten bastards from.
A chill tongue of wind swept through the roughly hewn stair in the pale mountain, a protected corridor leading up to the crest. Rubbing his muscular arms against the cold, the Zemoth bowman directed his eyes ahead and above. At the very top of the stair, his guest waited, staring out over the crest in a mixture of horror and wonder.
Keivyn quickstepped up the stairs, swaying with practiced ease to keep his bow from snagging on any spurs of rock. Taking a deep breath to still his nerves and the consequent quivering, he walked up behind her and placed a calloused hand on the soft celadon skin of her elbow. Wysteria's face turned towards his, and he could see the tears brimming in her amber eyes, glittering in the fading light.
Xendoufell was the mountain range where Estrevaire was split in twain. On one side, the setting sun cast its gorgeous light over pale rocks. On the other side of the divide, there was no sun to speak of. That was Xungkarsis, the Tainted Lands. A rigid and visible dichotomy existed between the two lands best noticed at this outpost. He supposed seeing the fluffy clouds of a summer's evening being devoured by an ash-grey sky directly above you and smooth white stone beneath your feet become snarled, and black was somewhat disturbing. For Keivyn, however, the sight only brought him rage, seething, blinding rage.
Feeling the anger of his ancestors creeping into the back of his mind, Keivyn knew he had to shut them out. That wasn't why he'd come here on the cusp of sunset, with a perfect woman, far better prepared for the mountain's chill, with a woolen shift tied about her hips, ready to cover her thin, silky blouse when the chill took over the land. Soft leather gloves already adorned her hands. Fear not, lady, Keivyn thought, grinning to himself, I'll ensure you do not need that wool.
The man snaked his arm around Wysteria's waist, attempting to draw her close so that he could get a whiff of her scent. This woman had saved Estrevaire once, several years ago, alongside Keivyn and some of his closest allies. She had the money to afford any of the wealthiest woman's perfumes. Yet, despite that, she smelled of lye soap and honeycomb, homely aromas that brought to mind simple country living, something Keivyn had once aspired to. That was when he was a child, though. Now his goals were much, much loftier.
She squirmed a bit in his arm and cleared her throat. One bare, slender arm rose to shield her face, so she could observe the gritty black sand plain that stretched for miles into the distance of Xungkarsis. Less than three miles in lay a twisted, dilapidated village, continually smoldering.
"Those houses have been burning for years now," Keivyn explained to the woman in his grasp. "We're not sure how it continues to smoke, but we believe the twisted denizens of Xungkarsis get some sort of perverse pleasure from the sight. Once a month, groups of the rotten scum gather about the fuming ruins and scream into the air their hideous chants."
Wysteria shuddered. "Why did you bring me here, Keivyn? I enjoy the fresh, clean mountain air." Her nose twitched and wrinkled. "This whole mountain smells of soot, rot, and decomposition."
The Zemoth warrior looked down at the sweet woman next to him. "Every man and woman who devotes their life to protecting this realm, as you have, should know where their enemies come from. During our mission, we never pierced farther than the deepest depths of Hevethylin, which did hold a significant source of evil. But there is no greater darkness than that which resides in Xungkarsis. Just staring out over this hopeless, bleak plain should impress that upon your mind."
"How much do we know of the denizens of Xungkarsis?" Wysteria wondered aloud. "Are there any among them that are redeemable?"
Keivyn snorted. "The only good they can do the world is by dying. That is why the Dragon clan exists. We are here, on the cusp of nightfall, so that you can see the creatures that live here, and see Keivyn Desarian, your most valiant protector, send them to oblivion, where they belong."
Wysteria rolled her eyes. "Is that so? Did you steal me away from my home merely to give me a display of your strength? That seems rather self-serving, Keivyn. I know your power well enough. I watched your arrows pierce the hearts of many creatures in the fray of battle, as you provided protection and support for myself and Vali." Wysteria's voice warmed as she recalled Fennali fighting desperately to protect her. If Keivyn noticed the change, he didn't react.
"Well, perhaps that is the case," Keivyn said, his voice faltering. He couldn't very well tell Wysteria the real reason he'd brought her up here, why he'd snuck up earlier to prepare the guard shack for an overnight visitor. With someone like Wysteria, you didn't bluntly blurt those things out; you led up to them with subtle hints. "I just wanted to make sure that you knew that my bow is always yours. It's been a while since we've spoken, after all, and I can't have you forgetting me."
"I'll admit, I was surprised when you contacted me to go on this trip," Wysteria turned away from the sight of Xungkarsis, which grated at her very soul. The shadow of the Tainted Lands was the opposite of the jade element; the light inextricably tied within her. "The guards around my property occasionally noticed you slinking around the area a few times. I didn't think anything of it at first. I figured you were tracking some elemental creature that had escaped and was endangering the local settlements. But the druids never received any reports, and it bothered me that you didn't visit to inform me of any danger to my home or friends. What were you doing around my property, Keivyn?"
"Isn't it obvious, Wysteria?" the Zemoth wondered with a winsome grin. "I was checking in to ensure your safety. Verily, I couldn't merely abandon you after so many months standing by your side! Our duties and different lives kept us apart, but I still longed to protect you. You are here to see this truth with your own two eyes." He winked. "Rewards aren't necessary, but if you deem me worthy of one, I won't deny you." Well, that didn't last long. Keivyn had never been a patient man, and Wysteria was a keen woman. He could already see the minute movements of her muscles as she contemplated what he'd just said. Her mouth worked silently as she formed a reply.
"Keivyn," she finally said, trailing off softly.
"Yes, Wysteria, go forth and light my darkness with your words!" He grasped for her hands, but she yanked them out of his reach.
"You have stalked me as if I was your prey, watching me from hidden spots for years now. Then you drag me to the top of a mountain to see the desolate fringe where creatures live who wish to despoil the beauty of my homeland. I believe that you and I have very different definitions of what is romantic."
"In Zemoth society, bringing your intended on a hunting trip is the pinnacle of courtship," Keivyn admitted. "If this does not please you, I have other activities prepared."
"I am not Zemoth, Keivyn. Perhaps you should have considered that before choosing the method of your proposition." She sighed, almost regretfully. "You are too late, anyhow."
"Whatever do you mean?" Keivyn snarled, locking his arm tighter about Wysteria's waist.
The slender, beautiful girl took hold of the glove on her right hand and pulled it off, presenting the bare hand for Keivyn's inspection. In the dying light of the setting sun, the Zemoth saw the faint glimmer of a gold band wrapped around the base of Wysteria's fourth finger. "I am wed these past ten months, my faithful warrior."
"What is the name of the person who has stolen you from me?" Keivyn asked tightly, his voice incorporating the insect-like buzz of a Zemoth about to initiate his hunting capabilities. "I don't appreciate thieves." He tried to inject some humor into the last statement, but it only came out sounding bitter.
"Someone we both know quite well," Wysteria began.
"Clearly, you know them well, if they've been sharing your bed for nearly a full year," the bowman interrupted, growing angry. "Is it Brynhildr? I always respected the man, but his penchant for granting mercy at the worst times must have irked others save myself."
"No, it isn't Brynn." Wysteria frowned, as she could almost see the pulsing vein on the bowman's forehead. "He is soon to be celebrating the birth of his first child with Cilerys. Meanwhile, I am happily married to Fennali, my dearest friend since I was a child, many times longer than I've known you." She paused and stared at him, indignantly. "You and I barely held functional conversations in our time. I respected your strength and gladly welcomed your protection for myself and my allies, but you cannot think that what little you did would be enough to spark the flame of love in my heart."
Keivyn was appalled by the words Wysteria spoke. How many times had the two of them sat on the crenelations of a keep tower, arms around each other, speaking soft words. Zero, the sensible and honest voice in the back of his head said. She tells the truth. All of these instances you recall were dreams, carried on your desire for her touch, to hear her laugh directed at you, and not Brynhildr, your friend then, but also her love. "You are a being infused with the bright power of Jade, the most potent poison to the creatures of the Tainted Lands. You and I would make a perfect match, two weapons against the evil encroaching over the land."
Wysteria was silent for several moments. "Tell me, Keivyn," she said, at last, disengaging herself from his arm. "Do you even truly love me, as Brynhildr once did, and as Vali does now?"
"What a preposterous question! How dare you ask me that?" Keivyn roared.
"I dare because of what you just said. I think back on the conversations we did have, sparse though they were. Every word you spoke was underlain with curses towards the creatures of Xungkarsis." She interposed a hand between her and his waiting retort. "I am not condoning their actions. I agree that they are monsters. I merely fear that you have allowed your hate for them to override everything. You say you are in love with me, but I don't think that's the case. All the puzzle pieces are finally come together now. You pursued me out of lust borne twofold—one of the physical variety and the other of your need for blood. I was never unaware of your stares when you thought I'd not notice. I thought nothing of them then, for I was occupied with my duties and my love with Brynhildr. But moreover, you think of me as a tool, something that can be used to rid the world of the Tainted Lands. Do you know who else tried something like that? Faye Souldancer's parents. History knows how well that worked. You can see now that Xungkarsis isn't any worse for wear after all of their efforts. So, when your plan to use me as a weapon would ultimately fail, you'd turn to me for succor. When bloodlust failed, I would serve as a receptacle for your desirous, so-called 'love.' I want to believe that I am incorrect in my insight, but I need to hear it from you. Do my words ring true?"
To Keivyn, Wysteria looked like a frightened hare, ready to bolt at any twitch. The bowman's throat was dry and tight with a combination of unrequited lust and fury. "You make it sound so disreputable, my sweet Wysteria."
"I am not your Wysteria. If I belong to anyone, it is my wife, Fennali Restansi. Luckily, I have with her a mutualistic, genuinely loving relationship, not anything akin to ownership. I'm sorry, Keivyn Desarian. I don't wish to hurt you because your aid in our battle was greatly valued. Anger is flooding for your soul; I can feel it. Don't allow it to overcome you. I know you to be an honorable man, Sir, so I didn't fear following you up to this rocky spur alone. And for that same reason, I feel safe turning my back on you and returning from whence I came." Pleading tears leaped into her eyes. "Don't make me regret this choice."
Keivyn thrust out his hand. "You cannot go!" he cried. "'Tis sunset already, and the Crossing shall soon begin. The mountain pass may not be safe for much longer. And that's beside the suffusing shadow that shall conceal your path!"
"I have developed methods of protecting myself, though I am grateful for your concern. Though hatred and lust may drive you, your honor remains to redeem, Keivyn. We shall part as friends on this evening, nothing more, and nothing less."
Wysteria began to stride back down the mountain spur's incline, towards the set of stairs carved there for Dragon Clan sentries. But before she could reach it, the air shuddered with the sound of a creaking screech, frightening enough to curdle blood and milk alike.
"You are too late!" Keivyn hissed. He beckoned her over to the ledge, hunkering down and motioning for her to do the same. Looking down over the ridge, Wysteria could see countless numbers of pitch-black creatures rising from the sand below, red eyes providing the only pinpoint of their location. The knight placed a hand on her back, holding her down, chest against the ridge. "The night is when they rise, the spawn of corruption. Those weaker members of whatever writhing pecking order they've developed in that hellish land."
"What are they doing? And why only the weaker ones?"
Keivyn laughed harshly. "The lesser beings, who spend their days in the sand, and nights by the fringe can only survive at night." Wysteria heard the creak of wood to her left. "As for what they're doing here. They are lining themselves up to be sent back to oblivion. With a twang, an arrow flew away from the approaching night, towards the unchanging dullness of Xungkarsis. It was bizarre seeing the gloaming of twilight on one side of the sky, touching the routine grey on the other, like a thunderhead too strong to be denied. A monstrous scream pierced the air, as one creature died and disintegrated on the sand. "At this time, some of these monsters cross into Estrevaire proper," Keivyn explained, nocking another arrow. " Others return home through the various passages, a few of which lead out to the surface. By the mandates placed upon us, we are merely supposed to observe, but they make such tempting targets. I can't resist." Almost grinding his teeth at this point, Keivyn launched another two arrows into the sky, aiming at a shuffling bundle of oily blackness that had crawled from a tunnel less than a hundred feet from where he and Wysteria crouched.
Two more screeching bodies collapsed, Wysteria grimacing at their sickening calls. But then, something made her ears perk up, a familiar sound from her years in Yiqi-Soire. Barely more than a peep, but the plaintive cry was unmistakable. When the woman's eyes scanned the writhing mass, she saw a flash of white flesh adorned with silver. Keivyn was readying another shot. Following the track the arrow would follow... It was aimed right at the crying figure, tangled up in the already dead monsters!
Wysteria pushed Keivyn's arms out of line, forcing the arrow to go wide. The Zemoth cursed. "What in the blazes is wrong with you?" he cried, but Wysteria was already sliding down the sloping stone wall.
"That's not a Tainted one," she yelled back, running for the pile.
Keivyn watched as she gingerly moved the still arms and extricated...a child. He couldn't have been more than ten, his face mottled with dirt and blood from a gash on his head. His clothing was torn nearly to shreds, and one arm was exposed, revealing a simple silver chain bracelet. Dragon Clan make, for sure.
But more importantly to Keivyn... "Step away from the snot-nosed rat. The creatures have already bit him. Look, see his arm and the blackened veins! Before long, he will be one of them." The soldier raised his bow again. "I say again, step away. If you try to protect him." Keivyn hesitated. His body still burned for this woman. "I will have to slay you." A perfect example of if I can't have you, nobody will.
"You will not shoot me. I know you couldn't stomach the thought," Wysteria replied coldly. "That you'd even think of slaying a captive child because he was touched by these beasts, it sickens me!" Her eyes glinted furiously upon her return up the ledge, the child in tow. "I am leaving, Keivyn Desarian. Don't follow or speak to me again until you've reevaluated your morals. Farewell."
She stomped past, and down the stairs, leaving the passion-fueled heart of the Zemoth frozen with her loss.