This is what ended the war: the witch-king lusted after power and it was the death of him. How did the story go? Before Elehua became a witch, he was a man. Before he was a king, he was a commoner.
This is what the Scribes say:
Once there were three moons, three sisters: Ana, Laila and a third one, whose name is forgotten. Elehua lifted his eyes to skies and saw that they were beautiful and he yearned after them.
He went to the first one, who was blue and beautiful like the summer sea. “Give me your love,” he said, “give me your heart.” But Ana huffed and said, “You are but a manling. Your life is but a flicker in my eternal existence. What will I do when you die?”
“Give me a piece of your heart,” he said, “and I will never die. We will love each other for eternity.”
Ana sniffed and replied, “Let me think about it.”
Whilst she thought, Elehua approached the second sister. “From the moment I laid eyes on you,” he said, “your turquoise beauty has held me spellbound, lighting my way in this dark world. Pray, give me your love so that I may be close to you.”
Laila replied: “If I give you my love, my light will cease to shine.”
“Ah, and here I thought nothing could quench your light. I wonder if Ana’s light can ever be quenched. She offered me her love, but I refused her for you. But if you can’t give me your love...”
Laila bristled. “I will not suffer my sister to steal from me. Come tomorrow and I will give you my love.”
Finally, Elehua approached the last sister; she whose name is forgotten, whose light was pure white and crystalline. She was gentle and the least flambouyant of her sisters, and it was she whose light shone the brightest because all the colours of the world were contained in her white light.
“Most magnificent,” said Elehua, “I beg you. Give me a piece of your light that I may cherish it.”
“I am not so blind as my sisters to be swayed by your words,” she replied. “You love us not, you wicked man. You only want our power for your selfish deeds. But I’ll tell you something. It will take all the cunning you can muster and then some to rob me of my light. Begone!”
Ana and Laila, ever competitive, squabbled over Elehua like hens, each giving him more and more of their light to prove that their love was greater. They gave and gave until there was no more to give and their lights went out, until Elehua possessed all of their might and became the most powerful witch in the realm.
The soft sound of the pole slicing through the water was too loud to Sùr’s Faêl ears, and he found himself wincing every time Godo pulled it out to push the gondola farther down the canals. The canals were eerily silent. The silence was something sacrosanct, tangible, a herald of the ancient city of Kishi festooned under the rot of a thousand years.
He was home. How long had it been? Too long to matter. He’d stopped counting a long time ago. Time meant nothing to a Faêl; time was the one thing that was ever-present.
Even his companions were silent. The weight of the city bore down on all of them. But they smiled. They always smiled. Smiling helped with the pain, and the memories. Smiling helped them forget.
“How much farther?” Sùr asked, and though his voice was a whisper, it cut through the silence like a death knell.
“Until I can find a suitable place to dock,” answered Godo, pushing the pole into the water.
Sùr looked back into the swirling mists: white tendrils dancing like wraiths upon the black waters, whispering echoes of his past. Structures loomed out on both sides of the narrow canal: broken walls, half-submerged temples, halls and courtyards and fountains overgrown with grey-green moss. Once the city had been full of life and music and laughter. Once he had bathed in the fountains and eaten sweet melons in the courtyard; once he had splashed down the sparkling canals with his friends, laughter in his mouth.
But that was long ago, before the witch-king and the War of Erinle. That was when there had been three moons to light the night and a white sun to brighten the day. The moons were long destroyed and the sun did not deign to show her face. All that was left were memories and the sharp taste of salt in the back of his throat.
A bloodraven flew out of the mists, cawing and flapping, its talons reaching for his neck. Sùr seized the beast, and with a lazy flick of his hand snapped its neck. He tossed the bird into the canal, watching it sink until it vanished from sight. How many necks had he snapped like that? How many people had he killed? Sùr grimaced as the pain lanced up his spine and into the base of his skull. No. No use thinking about it. He forced himself to smile, breathing through his teeth as the pain subsided. His hand moved involuntarily into his pockets, reaching for the flask and the relief it held. He stopped himself just in time. It was a bad habit, one cultivated over a thousand years. But he had made his choice. He wouldn’t. Not anymore.
Godo coaxed the gondola into the broken remains of the pier where he tethered the bow to the jutting post. Half of the city was submerged in water and what little was not sloped terribly, listing under the weight of a thousand years. In one fluid motion, Sùr leapt onto the sloping pier and watched as Enor and Azra, stepping from the gondola, hefted the stone coffin unto their shoulders. It was heavy, and what was inside was heavier still, but Faêls never lacked for strength; even aging dying Faêls such as them.
“Wait,” he said as they carried it past him. “Open it. I want her to see. I want her to see her home.”
Enor and Azra exchanged a glance, that eerie smile on their faces. That is what I must look like, Sùr thought. My heart is heavy and I’m smiling like a blasted fool.
They set down the coffin, and the pier sank dangerously. Enor ran his fingers around the edges and pried open the seal with a resounding crack. Azra pulled aside the stone cover to reveal Shiera, marble-white and serene in death.
Sùr knelt and lifted her out of the coffin, feeling the pain lance through his spine as he looked down at his wife. She was stiff, a statue of hard crystalline salt, frozen in the position she had been when she died. Her eyes that had been gold in life were white and unblinking and unseeing in death. But her lips were curled in a smile. A true smile, not the grimace they were forced to wear to keep the pain at bay. In the moment of her death, finally, finally, she had known true peace.
“Look, Shiera,” he said softly, “I brought you home, just as you requested.” It had been fifty years since they had set out from the Barrenlands, fifty years since she had died. Yet the pain was as fresh as yesterday. And though they had been expecting it, watching everyday as another part of her froze into solid salt, nothing could have prepared him for the final moment when her eyes had turned, when she exhaled, her final gust of breath like wind in a barren desert.
But it had been her choice.
The arrow pierced Sùr’s throat. He yanked it out, more annoyed than hurt, his eyes searching through the din and chaos of battle for the man who had fired it. It was no use; arrows whistled past; rains of death. He laughed as his blood filled his mouth, poured down the wound in his neck. When will they learn? he thought. When will they learn that their weapons cannot hurt us?
Two foes screamed as they rushed him, impaling themselves on his outstretched hands. He ripped their still-thumping hearts from their chests—through bone and sinew and chain mail—and tossed them aside, a feeling of immense pleasure washing over him. The defenders of Erinle fought valiantly, swinging maces and swords and morningstars, screaming as the Faêls fell upon them.
The field was a ghastly sight, bodies impaled upon spikes; the blood ran red, red, a deep crimson. The last remaining moon looked down on them, a sparkling white obelisk. Pillars of smoke billowed to the purple skies like wraiths from Apadi.
It was beautiful. Never had Sùr beheld such beauty. In the distance the wall looked to be breached; the Faêls poured into the city like a wave of death, massacring everyone who stood in their path. He could join them, but the wall was better. It was more thrilling to scale the wall.
He ran, the wind whipping through his hair; he ran, naked but for the strip of clothing around his waist—
The wall was high, near nine hundred feet, etched out of fused blackstone and supposedly imbued with powers to ward off Faêls. Not this Faêl.
Sùr scaled it in seconds, his hands and feet a blur as he sped up the crumbling wall. He reached the top and gazed at the city below. Erinle, the last stronghold, was in ruins. A shadow fell on him; he heard the beating of leathery wings and turned to see Elehua on his beast.
“Find them,” said the witch-king. “End them.”
Sùr nodded once and fell off the wall.
He swallowed on the pier, the sharp taste of salt in his mouth.
“Sùr,” said Azra, his boyish face twisted with concern. “Sùr, I think there’s someone else here.”
Sùr looked up from Shiera’s salt-stone face and forced himself to smile. “What?”
“I... I saw something moving in the mists.”
He squinted in that direction. Once he would have been able to see through the mists and darkness, but all he saw now were the faint suggestion of shapes and the fickle conjuring of his failing—no, renewing – mind. Maybe that was what Azra saw; his mind conjuring things. Shiera had gone through a similar process when she stopped taking the omi. It was bound to happen.
“Come on.” He shifted Shiera in his hands and led the way.
Familiar, half-forgotten sights loomed out of the mists: the temple of Sango; a white baobab, which in its prime had been bone-white and teeming with magnificent golden leaves, now a barren swollen carcass, its limbs blackened and heavy and twisted. It was a terrible thing. Formidable. And he felt a shudder run down his spine. Bloodravens roosted on its branches, their red eyes pinpricks in the dark, watching their ragged band with cold malice. The cold was biting on his skin, the ground wet under his bare feet.
Godo sidled up to him. “Forgive me, Sùr, but do you think this is a good place to lay her to rest?”
“It is what she wanted.”
Godo was silent, although Sùr could sense he had something to say.
“Speak your mind.”
“It’s just... I don’t understand why we had to come all this way. The city seems... wrong.”
“The world has been wrong for a long time. We have been wrong for a long time.” It was a vague answer, a parry. To be honest, Sur did not understand either why she had insisted on being buried here, in Kishi. But she had made it very clear that she didn’t want to be buried anywhere else.
The whites of Godo’s eyes shone through the darkness. What was that in them? Trepidation? Or fear? Sùr sighed. Sometimes he forgot that Godo was just human. “I’ve seen too much to fear anything. But you can stay by the gondola if you’d rather not come. I can ask Azra—”
“Of course I’ll come. I owe her that.”
After Elehua’s disappearance, Sùr had taken control of a legion of Faêls, terrorizing the northern territories as he sought to carry out Elehua’s edict to the letter. Shiera had been one of the first Faêls Elehua created, and even in her dying years she had remained stronger than most. She had descended on them as they slaughtered Godo’s entire village and saved him from certain death. Delivered Godo from his hands. It would have taken nothing for her to kill him like she killed the rest, but for some reason she stopped. Sùr still remembered her, wild and spattered with the blood of over seventy Faêls, her eyes wide with rage.
“Give me the boy,” she’d said even as his comrades fled, leaving him alone with her, leaving him to his fate.
Sùr had pressed the young Godo to himself, two fingers at the base of his skull. All he had to do was push. A quick jab, and he would shatter the boy’s skull like an egg. “What is he to you? He’s just a little manling.”
“You were a manling once,” she said, “but you don’t remember.”
He laughed at her. “Foolish woman. I was never a manling. I have always been greater and better...”
She stalked him, her eyes never quite leaving his face. He wondered vaguely if he would be able to kill the boy before she got to him. He knew she was fast. But how fast?
“What you are,” she said, “is an abomination.”
“Why are you doing this? Still hunting? Elehua, he is no more; he is long dead and gone and you should free yourself of his hold.”
“The witch-king cannot be killed. He is—”
“No, Sùr,” she said, and he started.
“How do you know my name?”
She smiled then, and he felt something—something strange... a flicker of familiarity. “I know you. All that you were, all that you could be. Now remember. Remember Kishi.”
Kishi. Pain lanced through his skull, blinding white and unbearable. He cried out, dropping to one knee. Godo slipped out of his grasp and ran, his small feet pattering on the stones. The pain, gods, it was unbearable. He dropped to his back, tears streaming from his eyes as images flashed through his mind. Images that were foreign and yet familiar. Another life; another time.
Shiera’s face filled his vision, her hair falling over his face. She placed a tender bloody hand on his chest. “Yes... remember.”
And then he remembered. In bits and pieces and fragments as she starved him of the omi. He raged and cursed, chained in the dungeon as she bled it from his system. The pain was blinding, but eventually he remembered.
He remembered everything.
Wild tendrils grew in the crypt, crawling through the cracks in the stone walls and draping the sarcophagi so that they looked, for a moment, like garden hedges sheared into shapes. In the centre a great white baobab had torn through the floor, its huge white limbs embracing the weathered pillars while its roots impaled the once magnificent columns. The slope of the crypt forced them into a trot to the centre, where behind the looming white tree pooled a small mass of water. The smell of rot was rife in the air.
“There,” said Sùr, pointing to an alcove. “Clear it out.”
He turned to Shiera as Enor and Azra began to rip the tendrils choking up the alcove. “I will join you soon my dear.” he muttered. It would take him some fifty more years of abstinence from the omi. Even now he could feel the salt in the back of his throat, the uncertainty in his gait as the salt-stone claimed his right toes. He had relapsed when she died; the pain had been too much to bear. And from time to time he found his hand straying to his flask, aching for just one sip. One sweet, sweet sip—
The blow took him in the back of the head. He flew forward, bouncing on the uneven ground before he skidded to a stop at the foot of the tree. Sùr sat up, momentarily dazed, darts of pain ripping through his eyes. He touched a hand to the back of his head and grimaced at the thick red blood on his fingertips. His skull was caved in. Such a blow would have killed an ordinary man.
Godo stood grinning at him, standing over Enor’s and Azra’s cold and rapidly calcifying corpses. Their faces were identical masks of surprise and there were holes in their temples, as though something had been yanked out.
Sùr did not understand what was happening. “Godo...” he groaned, staggering to his feet. “What is this?” Even as his eyes roved all over, searching for another alternative, Sùr knew it was a futile effort; his answer stood right before him.
Godo stepped over the corpses. There was something in his eyes that Sùr did not like. Something crazed and maniacal and familiar. And in that instant, Sùr knew he who he was.
“Elehua.” He breathed.
On Godo’s face, the witch-king smiled a terrible smile. “You were always very quick, Sùr. I like that about you.”
A myriad of thoughts raced through Sùr’s mind. “But... how? You were a boy. I... I almost killed you.”
“Come, now, Sùr,” said Elehua, “you don’t really think you would have killed me.” He pointed his bludgeon at the frozen salt-statue that was Shiera. “She would have killed you... she should have, I told her to, but she was always so strong-willed.”
Sùr shook his head in confusion. “Shiera? Why?”
Elehua smiled. “So I can have her light.”
Sùr felt something cold slide down his throat. “Shiera is... is not...” ...the third sister, whose name is forgotten.
“Shiera is much more than meets the eye. Why do you think the war began? Why do you think I made you and your ilk? Shiera’s children were the least of my concerns. Those ibejis I ordered you and your brethren to hunt down were not my concern. What was it she said? ‘It will take all the cunning you can muster and then some to rob me of my light.’ Yes. I knew she wouldn’t give it up so easily, so why not trick her out of it?
“I knew it was only a matter of time before she came to help her children, her worshippers. I banked on her coming, and when she came, oh... I was ready. Turning her into a Faêl was easy. Too easy. But that was because she had hidden her light. I realized this too late of course. When I turned her into a Faêl, she did not remember who or what she was, but that was the least of my troubles at the time. Turning her into a Faêl, as you know, very nearly destroyed me. My... spirit was rent from my body, and for many years I floated in that endless void between realms, barely existing.”
He leaned and grinned down at Sùr. “But then I found her. I started whispering to her about stopping her intake of the omi. Of course she thought it was her own idea. For years I whispered, and pointed her in my direction, where finally I was able to take the form of a young boy. It was infuriating, really, watching her die and the both of you mope over each other. I had expected once she regained her memories she would go running to where she had hidden her light. But Shiera has always been cunning. Smarter, yes, than her two sisters.
“You see, I wondered why she insisted on being buried here. It was a mystery to me, and I’ve spent every day of fifty years since her death puzzling out the answer. But now I know why. This was where she landed when she came, here in Kishi. She didn’t hide her light, at least not in the way I thought. It had always been with her, cloaked. That was what caused me to lose my form when I turned her into a Faêl. But now I know where it is, and I will claim it for myself.”
Elehua dropped to one knee; produced a Sithan dagger, its black blade shimmering with effervescence. He cupped Shiera’s head, aimed the dagger at her eye—
“What are you doing?”
—and brought it down. Bright sparks rose off the point of impact, spraying off in colourful divergent lines. Elehua raised the dagger again and Sùr lunged for him. He waved a lazy hand, barely looking at Sùr. The force of the magic knocked Sùr off his tangent, sending him crashing into the wall where a huge tree branch snatched his leg, coiling around him like a great white snake. He struggled against the branch, ripping it into two with a resounding crack.
The crypt came alive.
Vines slithered over each other like a thousand writhing snakes, curling around his ankles, his neck, his arms. Sùr snatched and ripped them off him, snarling and howling in anger even as the witch-king savaged Shiera’s body. The great white baobab was the greatest snake of all; its white limbs and roots lashed out and whipped him mercilessly. Still Sùr fought, his Faêl strength lending him much needed advantage. A huge limb curled around his neck, lifted him off his feet, and slapped him hard into a pillar, even as other limbs speedily pinned his struggling form. He could hardly breathe. The tree was choking him, choking—
“Elehua! STOP IT!”
The witch-king attacked Shiera’s corpse, stabbing at her eye until his hands were nothing but a blur amidst the shower of colourful sparks. Shiera’s body had begun to glow; a single spot of white light bled, spreading throughout her body until it was a luminescent piece of crystalline statue.
(the moon, the white moon, that is what it looked like)
A flash of white light rent the air as Shiera’s eye popped out of her socket—except it wasn’t an eye; it was a bright stone gem, glowing as white as the rest of her body. Elehua seized it as it came hurtling down and slapped it into his eye socket.
That was when Godo’s body melted away, peeling off like honey to pool around Elehua’s feet as he revealed himself in his true form. The witch-king presented a terrible image: horribly emaciated, his skin blue and stretched over corded muscles. Runes covered every inch of his body, and what was most terrible were his eyes. There were six sockets in his face, five of them filled with glowing gemstones—blue sapphire, turquoise, and the crystalline white of Shiera’s light. Thin white hair shot out the back of his skull, billowing in the wind. He curled and flapped, jerking and stretching to reveal himself in all his revolting magnificence. He brought down the dagger one last time and drove it through Shiera’s skull.
Her head shattered into a thousand pieces of white crystal. The wind was a great scythe that took off the roofs of the crypt in one clinical stroke. The huge weathered columns crashed to the floor in puffs of putrid dust and boulders, and the great white baobab gave an earthly, eerily human groan as its roots came tearing out of the ground and it keeled over. Sùr was screaming. His leg was twisted underneath him in an impossible position and his torso was crushed beneath the bestial trunk of the baobab, the tree’s gaunt fingers scratching at his face.
But he wasn’t screaming alone.
Elehua was screaming. The sound was inhuman and bloodcurdling. Sùr turned his head to see the witch-king tearing at his eyes, at the brilliantly glowing gemstones in the sockets. He was ensconced in a massive colourful vortex. It spun and spun around him in a ball of white, red, yellow, orange, turquoise. There were shapes in the vortex; iridescent wraiths, barely there, just a suggestion of a form or two or three. Three shapes, dancing around the screaming witch-king.
The ache in Sùr’s bones told him he was human again. He pushed himself to his feet, untangling himself from the dead vines and tendrils. The great white baobab was a looming carcass behind him. But in the centre of it was a single green stalk. Slender and supple with life, it rose like a phoenix amidst the sea of decay and death around it. Sùr stared dumbfounded for a few moments, hardly able to believe his eyes. A plant.
He started towards it, then stopped when a baby’s gurgling drew his attention. The baby was wrapped in leaves, chubby arms and legs flailing in the air. Sur picked it up and it quieted, looking up at him through big brown eyes. For a moment, Sùr thought he saw three light spots deep in the pools of the baby’s eyes until he realized that they were reflections. He looked up and smiled at the sight of the three moons in the sky, turquoise, blue sapphire, and crystal white, their brilliant wash of colours lighting a sky which had known darkness for a thousand years.