|Heart of Darkness
|A heavy fog hung low over Carthax.
Ledos pulled the collar of his cloak tighter across his neck and frowned. He’d never seen mist this thick in Carthax before. And he’d seen all kinds of weather here. He shivered, involuntarily, and again, the words of the fortune teller replayed in his head.
‘Thirteen seasons and a day shall pass, and darkness shall come upon a Thendran town. A creature of shadows and the night, one born of darkness and with blight, a creature scorned by some but loved by others…When your son sets foot in Thendran town on the day marked by the stars above, this creature will rip the heart from his chest.’
Stuff of nonsense. Babbling and dreams and nothing. But his parents had exchanged worried glances that night, long ago, in the fortune teller’s hut. Mentally (and completely in jest since he did not want to risk bringing down the anger of the gods on them), Ledos cursed them both - superstitious interfering busybodies. That’s why he’d left, changed his name, become a mercenary for hire. To earn respect. To make his own way in the world.
To prove that thrice-cursed prophecy wrong.
He’d come to Carthax many times before, and nothing had happened. Nothing at all. He was well-known here, well respected. He got nods from the locals, and heard stories - slightly exaggerated, of course - about his exploits. Yes, he’d visited Carthax many times before. It had been a long time since he’d seen his family. How long was it?
Ledos stopped dead in his tracks, cold realization dawning. Despite himself, he shivered in fear. It had been three years, three months, and a day - thirteen seasons and a day - since he’d left his home. And Carthax…well, Carthax was the capital of the province of Thendranor, was it not?
“Get a hold of yourself,” Ledos muttered, his voice falling flat in the fog. “Superstitions are for the weak and foolish.” He pulled his cape closer around himself, nevertheless - something about the fog was unnatural.
‘…darkness shall come…’
Oh, gods have mercy. Ledos shook himself. Weak and foolish! He reminded himself, and resumed his walk through town.
As he walked, he idly reached for the amulet his father had given him as a parting gift. A fist-shaped medallion made from pure gold. A family heirloom, one that showed him to be his father’s son. It wasn’t much - Ledos’ parents were sheepherders, barely able to get by, what with the strange weather, the bandits, and now those creatures coming out of the hills…
Ledos allowed himself one sliver of pity for his parents. After all, they had raised him… even if it was on omens and dreams and charms. He swore inwardly. If you wanted to live, take up a sword, and make your own destiny!
Ledos patted the longsword strapped to his waist like a hunter would pet a faithful hound. Soon, he’d have enough money to put an enchantment on it. Give it some extra bite for when he wanted to really bring down a foe. No creature would be able to stand against him then.
A creature of shadows and the night, one born of darkness and with blight…
“Excuse me, sera.”
Ledos yelped, and nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled. “Who’s there!” He barked. “Show yourself!” His hand was on the hilt of his sword.
A figure emerged from the mist, chuckling dryly. “Forgiveness, sera. Frighten you, Zenjin did not mean.” A mangy Khajiit stepped out from the mist. One of the creature’s eyes stared off to the left, while the other was focused hungrily on Ledos’ face. “Moment of sera’s time, this pitiful creature does ask.”
Ledos looked the beggar up and down. Pitiful creature was right. The Khajiit’s fur was mangy and mostly missing, revealing patches of skin that flaked and peeled. Its tail looked broken, twisted at an odd angle. An open sore on the creature’s neck oozed pus and blood. And every now and then, the Khajiit twitched involuntarily.
“A leper,” Ledos said, stepping back in disgust.
The cross-eyed Khajiit nodded, its head bobbing up and down like a toy on a string. It wrung its clawed hands together. “Foul pestilence indeed, Zenjin suffers. Aid for a Khajiit, Zenjin asks sera?” The Khajiit smiled in an effort to put the man more at ease, but looked more like it was entertaining the thought of tearing out Ledos’ throat.
“What do you want?” Ledos asked uneasily. Was it his imagination, or was the fog getting thicker?
“A few pieces of gold, Zenjin asks sera,” the Khajiit stretched out its arms towards Ledos. “Enter the temple, he must. Pay the healer he must.” The diseased Khajiit’s good eye suddenly glinted. “Pretty thing, this sera wears. Worth much gold, Zenjin asks?”
Ledos lifted his hand to protect his amulet. “No.” He frowned. “Not worth anything.”
“Shiny, shiny. Pretty, pretty.” The Khajiit advanced towards him, claws reaching for the amulet.
“Stay away from me, you filthy beast!” Ledos backed away, loath to draw his sword. If the poor creature was nothing more than a beggar, then he would have to run from the guards for striking an unarmed. Oh, by the gods, look at it! There would be no way a guard could arrest him for fighting this!
“Go away, leper!” Ledos drew his sword, his temper gone. “Before I have to strike you down!” The Khajiit’s eye remained fixed on the amulet, and a growl issued from its throat. Ledos refused to feel fear - this piece of refuse dared to threaten him! “Guards! Guards!”
The Khajiit continued to advance. “To Zenjin come, shiny thing!” It crooned, then hissed at Ledos, “Human must give shiny! To Zenjin it must belong!”
“Guards!” Ledos called one last time. He sensed he was being backed up against a wall. Gods, that was it! He swung his sword at the Khajiit, and felt a dim spark of satisfaction as he felt it slice through bone.
The cat reared back, hissing and howling in rage. It clutched its shrivelled hand, now minus several fingers. Its ears went back, and it growled. It lowered itself to its haunches, as though preparing to leap at him. Blood dripped from what was left of its fingers and pooled on the ground.
“Oh, gods, go away!” Ledos said, almost sobbing. He swung his sword in desperate arcs, forgetting all his training at the thought of catching the Khajiit’s horrible disease. No, a part of Ledos’ subconscious whispered, You’re more afraid of the Khajiit itself. And of the prophecy. “Stay away from me!”
And suddenly, the diseased beggar was gone.
“If I were you, I’d put that away,” a calm voice said, “The guards aren’t coming, but if someone saw you, they will be.”
Ledos looked up, and through the mist saw a warrior standing in front of him. From the way the warrior was wearing his armor, and from the way he carried himself, it was obvious that the warrior was an elf. Ledos felt a wave of shame was over him. Saved by an elf. And a dawn elf at that! How humiliating! From a slit in a horned mask, two intelligent ice-blue eyes stared out at him. “You look like you need a drink,” the elf’s voice commented with a laugh. “I’ve never seen a face so pale!”
“Watch your tongue, dawn elf,” Ledos snapped. “I’ll not have jokes made at my expense.”
“No?” The elven warrior tilted his head on one side, “You’d rather be attacked by a deranged leper in the mist? You’d rather be attacked by a creature who knows how to leap from shadow to shadow? You’d rather have a chat with a creature that knows how to use its claws and teeth better than you know how you use your own.” He pointed with his sword at Ledos’ crotch and wagged it derisively. “Well?”
Ledos opened his mouth to argue, then suddenly stopped. “What did you say?”
‘…born of darkness and with blight…scorned by some but loved by others…’
“I said–” But he got no further. With a yowl, Zenjin leapt from off the rooftops and landed on Ledos, and began clawing at his face. He screamed, and tried to raise up his sword, but the catman kicked him in the gut, winding him.
“MINE!” The Khajiit screeched. “MINE BE SHINY!” Ledos felt clawed hands wrap around his throat, and found himself eye-to-eye with the demented creature.
“By the gods!” The elf gasped. Ledos sensed he was trying to help him, but he was too busy trying to save his own skin. He dropped his sword and tried to pry the creature’s hands from around his neck. The pustule on the Khajiit’s neck burst, spraying Ledos’ face with pus. He nearly screamed as it went in his eyes, his mouth, but he couldn’t breathe…
This isn’t supposed to be how it ends! Ledos thought furiously. It’s supposed to tear the heart from my chest!
“Get off him, you–!” The warrior grabbed the cat around the waist, and tried to pull him away. But Zenjin kept a firm grip on Ledos’ neck, even as he was being pulled away. So the elf got a firmer hold around the cat’s ribcage, and began to squeeze. Wrapped in a crushing bear-hug, Zenjin began to struggle for it’s own life. It thrashed and hissed and spat, and tried to turn and scratch the warrior’s eyes out. But for the metal mask he wore, the creature might have succeeded.
Ledos gasped for air, wiped his face, and staggered to his feet. It was no illusion. The mist was getting thicker. All he could see was a vague writhing shape - he couldn’t tell which one was the warrior and which one was the creature.
“For heaven’s sake, pick up your sword!” The elf shouted.
Ledos did so, the adrenaline coursing through his body. Giving a short battlecry, he rushed forward.
At that instant, the Khajiit broke free of the warrior’s grasp and leapt for him, claws outstretched and fangs bared.
And Ledos remembered the prophecy. And he faltered.
The sword clattered on the stony ground. The Khajiit howled with triumph.
“NO!” shouted the warrior.
Zenjin looked up at the elf, his muzzle stained with blood. He grinned savagely, then loped off on all fours, silently, agilely, into the mist. The warrior let the leper go and ran to Ledos, as he hastily grabbed a small vial from his pack.
“Don’t you dare die on me!” he hissed at Ledos. He opened his mouth forcibly and poured the contents of the vial down his throat. “Don’t you dare die!”
After a few moments, he sat up and coughed, then gasped for air.
“Praise Odion!” The elf smiled. “You’re alive!”
“That stuff tasted foul, stranger.”
The warrior rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome.” He slid his mask off and shook his hair free. “I need a drink. What about you? It’ll be on me.” He put the helmet under his arm.
Ledos sat up, blinking. “I don’t understand,” He stammered, patting his hands over his chest. “The prophecy said that–”
“Hold up,” the warrior frowned at him, “Prophecy?”
Ledos looked up at the elf. “I was supposed to die.” He bit his lip, then staggered to his feet. The elf handed him his sword. His hand shook as he received it.
“What did the prophecy say, exactly?” the warrior asked him, cautiously.
“That a creature of shadows and the night, scorned by some but loved by others, would rip the heart from my chest.” Ledos’ eyes widened. “I was dead, wasn’t I? That potion you gave me…brought me back to life?” He stared in wide-eyed wonder at the warrior. “I owe you my life, sera.” He started to kneel, but the elf stopped him.
“Nys, lad,” the elf said with a chuckle, “I didn’t save your life. That potion I gave you was a cure for whatever diseases that thing might’ve given you.” He winced. “That would not be pretty.”
“Then…” Ledos frowned. “My heart…”
The elf tilted his head to one side, considering. “What was that beggar after?”
“Money,” Ledos said, “So he could go to the healer…” He stopped, and his eyes widened. “No, he wanted my amulet!” Ledos reached for it, but it was gone. He swore. “That bi’shou stole my amulet!”
The elf seemed faintly amused. “Even in the mist, I could see it was shaped like a fist. Most human hearts are the size - sometimes even the shape - of a fist. I should know - I’ve seen a lot in my time as a mercenary. Does that answer any questions?”
‘…this creature will rip the heart from his chest.’
The warrior smiled, and extended his hand. “I’m Tinuviel, by the way. The offer for a drink still stands, stranger.”
Ledos stared, still stunned with his recent brush with death. “My name is Ledos, sera.” He smiled back at the warrior, and felt the fear of the prophecy vanish. “I think I’ll take you up on your offer.”
Tinuviel smiled, and a dimple showed. Ledos smiled back - he had to admit, the warrior was rather fetching…for a dawn elf.
“Well, come on then,” he turned and started walking through the mist, “I know where we can get Nethran rum at half-price.”
Ledos laughed, then followed behind him.
His father had saved his life. That amulet, that family heirloom, had fulfilled the prophecy. Hastily, Ledos sent up a prayer to any and every god that was listening - for the amulet, for Tinuviel’s intervention… and most of all, that the prophecy did not have the literal meaning that his parents had feared.
“Are you coming or not?” Tinuviel called over his shoulder. He flicked his hips at him as he opened the door to a tavern and slid inside.
After a moment’s minor inflection, Ledos sent up another quick prayer, then grinned and followed behind his companion.
* * *
“Shiny, shiny, shiny…” Zenjin sang to himself as he swung the amulet back and forth in front of his good eye. He grinned. His ribs were bruised, three of his fingers had been cut off, and the sore on his neck had not stopped bleeding. But he’d finally gotten what he wanted. Something special to call his very own.
“Belong to Zenjin, you do,” he told the fist-shaped amulet as he slipped it over his head. “Take you from me, no-one shall.”
He smiled lopsidedly as the amulet slid over to his heart. He poked it with one of his good claws. “Shiny, shiny…belong to Zenjin…”
A shadow fell across Zenjin’s hiding place. He looked up, hissing, his ears flat against his skull. “Hsss! Be there be who! Steal my shiny, have you come! HSSS!” What was left of his fur stood up.
The wind seemed to die. Silence reigned as a misty fog crept in.
The mist seemed to get thicker and thicker. Zenjin hissed again and again, each time with less force and enthusiasm.
“Be gone, you must!” He whimpered. “Belong to me, this does!”
THAT IS NOT YOUR AMULET.
A dark shadow materialized just above the Khajiit’s head. A shadow cloaked in darkness. It peered down at him.
YOU ARE CERTAIN IT IS YOURS?
Zenjin hissed at the shadow, having something visible to focus his rage on. “My shiny! Take it you won’t! Belongs to Zenjin! Always has, always will!”
REALLY? WELL, IN THAT CASE…
Zenjin screamed as the shadow swooped down and ripped the heart from his chest.