Sapphire and Pearl

Below is one of the pieces of fiction slated for inclusion in the Ten Candles fiction companion. As a note, this has not been edited yet, so there may be errors. This is just a preview. Enjoy!

 

Sapphire and Pearl
by Stephen Dewey

 

“Wait-- what?” Rona asked, finally breaking the silence.

The Guardian’s hands shook slightly, betraying its confusion, or perhaps even a reflection of concern. Not a drop spilled from either goblet, but the quiver was evident.

“Sir Fenris, this is no time for games,” spoke wildwalker Illian with sternness in his voice. The base of his gnarled staff ground nervously into the floor. “Speak again, and speak truly. The Guardian awaits. We have not come this far for jests and illusion.” The wildwalker’s tongue rolled off a brief curse for emphasis, but in that coveted tongue known only to him such that it sounded like nothing more than birdsong. 

“Speak,” Rona echoed.

Sir Fenris sighed, and raised his eyes to the Guardian once more. The Guardian was quite impressive. Tall as three men and bound in armor stitched and forged of true names and ancient verses. It was ethereal, the Guardian was, and therefore near transparent, as many spirits are. Fenris could see the patterns in the stone wall behind it. The torchlight was dulled by its form, but passed through all the same. The Guardian cast no more than a wisp’s shadow. 

“I choose darkness.” Sir Fenris spoke. The words rang for the second time off the great cathedral walls. 

“What in the shadehells Fen?!” Rona screamed. She continued on screaming, but the voice of the Guardian overtook her words, and drowned them.

Human. Every four hundred years, I am a-

“Yes, yes. I know. I am quite familiar with the tale.” Fenris interrupted. The Guardian and Rona both fell silent as he spoke on. Calm, as if his words were gilded with sense. “It has been oft repeated, the story. Every four centuries you are awakened, and the choice is offered. Whosoever reaches you, survives your trials, and earns your audience--to the first, and no others--here in your cathedral you offer a choice. Two chalices, one of peace and prosperity for the kingdoms, and one of eternal darkness.” The holy knight raised his hand, as if to plead with the spirit for silence. “We know. We all know.” 

Illian opened his mouth as Fenris spoke, but closed it quickly. His eyes still wide with the slow understanding of what was occurring. His raven companion whispered quietly into his ear. Rona fumed.

“So, here we are. Here I am. I bested your trials. I stand now before you. And I make my choice.” Fenris pointed a mailed finger at the silver chalice the Guardian held tightly in his right hand. “Darkness.” The chalice had engravings that reflected, Fenris imagined, the very first of all patterns. The inscriptions that existed before time itself had begun. Perhaps even the symbols and scripts that willed time into being. It was studded with sapphire and pearl. The liquid within glowed quietly.

The Guardian followed his gaze. It, perhaps, gripped the silver chalice even a bit more tightly. 

Perhaps this chalice is that of peace. You seem so certain, warrior. They of pure heart will know the truth of what I offer, but your heart is clouded. How can you be certain?

“Thankfully for me,” Fenris retorted, as if speaking to a child, “you don’t need a pure heart if you’ve read your history. It’s always been the silver chalice. You’d think a timeless Guardian would change it up once and awhile, unless of course they allowed their neutrality in the matter to waver a bit. Lucky for me you’re so invested. The silver holds darkness eternal. You know it, I know it. Illian had us practically recite it nightly just so we wouldn’t forget. Besides, you advocate peace so strongly, yet a time without war means little difference to the bloodthirst of mortals. Treaties hardly stop us from killing each other in the streets, or to quiet the workings of dark gods and their fanatical followers. Perhaps it is not as high and ivory the choice you make it out to be.” He extended his hand, beckoning. “So give it here. Let’s get this over then.”

The Guardian made no motion to do so. The silence clung weightily.

“What did she promise you?” Rona asked through gritted teeth. Her voice steady, but seething. 

“Who?”

“The unspoken. The child of burnt ashes. The nameless bride. The walker in darkness! Fen! You bloody know who I’m talking about!”

“Ah, Kora’iljran?” Rona and the wildwalker flinched when he spoke the name. The torches sputtered for a moment, before calming. “Yes, she has spoken to me. She has, I imagine, spoken to each of us in turn, just as she speaks to every hero who seeks the twin goblets, who embarks on the peacequest. Yes, she promised me many things. Wealth, and flesh, and drinks of nepenthe both sweet and forgetful. She promised me a voice in the darkness, one with which I could scream and sing and do a great many things that others will only dream of when eternal night takes hold. She promised me death, whenever I so wished it. Imagine, the only plea for death that she would actually grant, as the whole world ached for it. But no, my dear Rona, I did not take her promises, and I turned away her offerings. This isn’t for her.”

He had kept eyes on Rona’s blade, still sheathed at her waist. He was ready for her. Fenris had not, however, expected such stealth from the druid. He smelled the magic before it struck him. Impossible bluebells, so high upon the grey mountain, and the sweet rains of spring. There was a distant crack of thunder and then the vines came. 

Fenris’s armor, still blazoned with the divine heraldry of his goddess, shattered like porcelain as the vines struck him. The thorns were razors and tore without prejudice at gambeson and flesh. Where Fenris hit the ground, the stone floor buckled and cracked. As the holy knight regained his footing, the wildwalker abandoned subterfuge and redoubled the assault, druidic phrases pouring through his lips and filling the cathedral with the roar of mountain streams and a cacophony of crowsongs. This time as the vines came, Fenris was ready. His sword in hand, vines fell split and severed to the floor by the dozen. 

By instinct, Fenris let a prayer escape his lips. Illian’s voice, deep and woodland, filled the hall with a laugh in response.

“You think the Lightmother will heed your prayers now?” The old druid mocked, vines relentlessly crashing against Fenris. Verdant waves breaking on the shore of his blade. “You have abandoned your calling, defiler. Here, you are just a man.”

Fenris laughed, parrying each attack the wildwalker sent at him. “The Lightmother didn’t teach me everything, old man.” The knight waded through the vines with great speed, the yards between him and Illian melting away by the second. 

And she was there, like a shadow.

As Fenris spun, his cloak a whirling blur of wool, his swordblade caught nothing but a few strands of her hair. Rona’s knife, however, found his chest. Like thread through a needle, Rona knew well where every rib laid, and where they parted she buried the dagger to it’s hilt. 

There was stillness, for a while, before Fenris’s sword clattered to the floor. 

“How?” Rona stammered. 

Fenris seemed equally surprised, looking down at the dagger so planted into his heart. 

“What in the shadehells are you!” 

Fenris blinked, as if just as uncertain. His fingers gingerly touched the pommel of the dagger, the shock of its impact still washing over him. 

“As I said,” Illian explained, “just a man. This is not Fenris’s doing, is it?”

No.

“Why are you doing this? Why protect him?” Rona pleaded.

This warrior speaks the stories true. To the first who has reached me, to this warrior, a choice has been offered. A question has been asked which must be answered. This is a truth of the world. So long as he has not chosen, he will live. He must live, even if only to answer. After he drinks deep of the goblet he has chosen, you may do as you wish with him. It will no longer be of concern.

“Spirit, please.” Rona stepped towards the Guardian. She took one knee before it, and the Guardian listened. “If Fenris drinks from that goblet, if you allow this, it does not matter what comes after, because nothing will come. This world will burn. All worlds. Night will come, and we shall know nothing but silence and dark. You say the outcome of this is not your concern, but I know that is not true. I know you wish us peace. I know you have reveled in our prosperity, and have thought kindly of us. But this creature you would honor with your oaths and offering? The path he seeks would see your cathedral fallen, and even the spirit realm crumbled, decayed, and forgotten. We came to this holy place as one. Do not throw it all away, just because this monster was the first to cross the threshold.”

“She speaks with a pure heart,” Illian spoke simply, his raven nodding enthusiastically upon his shoulder. “Release this corrupted knight from your protections, Guardian. Let us be done with this.”

The Guardian’s hands trembled, and Fenris smiled. He pulled the dagger from his chest, and let it fall to the stone floor. He laughed, with a touch of madness, before it turned to a pained coughing fit. 

“He can’t.” Fenris coughed. “Beg if you wish, but he can’t.” 

The raven crowed. Rona sunk down onto both knees, head hung in bewilderment. Illian stood, his druid’s staff no longer sprouting forth vine or arcane summoning. The Guardian simply observed.

“You see, he can’t. He wants to, but he can’t, because all of this - this ritual, this contract. It’s not just with us. There are very ancient, very binding, very forgotten rules at play here. An oath made long, long ago. A history no one would possibly expect either of you to comprehend.” Fenris sheathed his sword and cast the splinters of what was his shield to one side. It clattered on the stone floor. “You believe that this eternal darkness, this night-to-come is Kora’iljran’s domain?” He scoffed. “I am certain that she does too. But this binding, these goblets, this choice? They were here long before she was.”

“You offer riddles as your justification? You hand eternity over to her for the ramblings of corrupted madness?” The druid spoke pointedly, as if his words were thorns.

“I speak truth Druid. I do not hand eternity over to Kora’iljran. She, from her divine seat, may preside over darkness and night, but the darkness and night that I call forth will not kneel before her despite what she believes. It will erupt over this existence and consume mortal and spirit and god and goddess alike. They who were locked away and consigned to endless imprisonment behind a turnkey spirit and a goblet of silver, They who once devoured stars and soared among them, unbound and unstoppable. I hand eternity to Them.”

He reached his hand forward, and the Guardian offered no resistance. The goblet was heavy in his hand. The glow of the liquid illuminated his features. There was no doubt in them. 

“But why, Fenris?” Rona stood, and turned. Fury and sorrow both, twins in her eyes. “Why would you do this?”

“Because They are nothing. They are not good. They are not evil. They simply are. Primordial and eternal, and hungry.” The knight placed his free hand upon the dagger’s wound in his chest, and closed his eyes. Rona and Illian both stepped back in near shock as divine light filled his hand and the wound stitched closed. His injuries vanished, as remnants of a dream upon waking. 

“The Lightmother? I don’t --” Illian stammered.

“The Scrolls of Grace speak simply, my oncefriend druid.” He recited the words by memory, as though they were written on his heart. “Do not balk in your pursuit of righteousness. Let not servants of darkness corrupt or deter you. Rest not until evil has been burned from every corner of this world.” He sighed deeply, looking into the goblet’s glow. “You would think that countless centuries of peace, and relentless decisions made right here where I stand to postpone the inevitable night would keep the darkness at bay. And yet it thrives. It twists and corrupts and strengthens and grows in the hearts and minds of humankind. You may call me foolish, but you cannot call me wrong.”

And they could not.

He prayed. “Lightmother of Grace. I offer you, myself, and this world as martyrs. I offer eternity in sacrifice to bring a true and final end to all you oppose. Whatever comes, let Them come without evil in Their hearts. Let Them come only with purpose.”

He drank deeply of the goblet.

And They did.