Unknown to all but a select few, Elira had not been the only member of house Tarn to survive that night. One other had survived, the man who had seen the very beginning of this second war and vowed in a heart robbed of its innocence to exact his own revenge and right the wrongs that he had seen. In that twenty-year period, where Syllia carried out her guerrilla campaign laying waste to remote towns and villages and bringing together her scattered, captive brethren, the last heir of the house of Tarn had grown and forged himself with a single-minded purpose. He had survived the murder of his family, and he had vowed revenge on the murderer of his house… and with that vow came a conviction to restore the proper order.

Two wrongs did not make a right, and these causes could not be reconciled. Such were the chains wrought by bloodshed and suffering, the fetters of hate constraining souls and fates to a road that could bring only misery and death. This was the nature of the world, and no god or hero could change it.

The boy, Andrew Tarn, had been found by chance. A hunter tracking game near the Tarn estate – a poacher, really – had seen the light show in the manor, and the shouting and loud noises. Curious, he had sneaked close… and he had spied a dark form fleeing through the front gate garbed in aught but rags. A peasant, he had never seen one up close before… but he still recognized an elf when he saw one. Watching one in motion, elves moved nothing like humans. Humans twitched and jerked, sputtered and started, but the dark elf he saw that night flowed like poured water or spilling silk. He considered pegging her with an arrow in the leg and bringing her back to her masters for a reward. Elves were valuable family heirlooms, and if they weren’t kindly treated they were still much coveted. The return of a fleeing elf slave would usually net a fine sum.

But something had stayed the hunter’s hand, causing him to stop halfway from grasping an arrow, and he had kept to the shadows of the trees and let the elf pass. It saved his life… it meant that Syllia didn’t notice him as she vanished into the forest.

Taking a deep breath for a while and shaking off the odd nerves, he noticed eventually that the manor had gone dark and quiet… quiet, but for a single faint sound drifting from a half-open window, a sound that any ear not trained by many years in the wilderness would have missed. But the hunter caught it, and he approached the manor seeking its source. The door was open, and no guards stopped him.

All within were dead, or worse; all, but for a single boy… the last surviving heir of the house of Tarn. Little Andrew was found by the hunter, still sobbing over the tortured, half-naked form of his dead mother, and he was given such succor as a man like this could offer. The poacher listened to what Tarn said, babbling and tearful, of the noises he had heard, and of how he had found his mother lying like this before the slave, Syllia. The boy didn’t understand what had happened. At the time, he didn’t yet comprehend the atrocity that had been visited on him by that fey, vengeful hand. But the hunter understood, and he guessed enough of what had happened… and how fortunate he was to be alive.

“It seems she killed them all,” the hunter told little Andrew. “That dark elf slave of yours.”

“They’re… dead?” the boy repeated, looking into his mother’s blank eyes, seeing her loving countenance disfigured by an incomprehensible torment, seeing an Oathmark etched onto her brow. He understood, and yet he didn’t. But one thing stuck, at least. “She… killed them.”

He thought of the elf, Syllia, his father’s slave. He had never had a strong impression of the creature. He was young, and he had only a vague and extremely inaccurate notion of what it was that Syllia did around the house. But she had been theirs, a part of the household since long before he was born. As far as he knew or cared, she had been one of them. He had considered her a part of the family as much as a boy might consider one of his father’s hounds a part of the family… So he was confused and dismayed to learn of her treachery, as confused as he would have been to hear that his father’s favorite hunting dog had torn out his throat. But amid the confused roil of his emotions, one feeling rose above the rest to give him a sense of clarity, a sense of purpose.

Above sadness, above fear, above everything else rose a hot, swelling anger—hot now as a bonfire newly kindled, burning high and great and horrible in his belly. He was in shock, and he was too young, too weak, too naive to think of revenge in terms of revenge itself. Not that bluntly, nor that soberly. But he hated the elf. He hated Syllia, who had killed his mother and his father, his brothers and his sister, the butlers and the maids and the family’s friends. He was all alone in the world, and everything that had been his reality now lay in ruins, shattered. He was shaken to his core, and he was adrift.

The hunter laid a hand on his shoulder. He was a solitary man, eschewing the company of society for a lonely life in the wilderness, and he was blunt and indelicate, but he attempted to console Andrew the best he could. “Someone will put her down, once she’s found. When they learn she killed her masters, there’ll be a bounty put out, and…”

The look on Andrew’s face stopped the hunter. “Don’t kill her.”

The man faltered, not sure how to take that. “She isn’t safe to keep around, boy. Not if she could kill a whole manor full of people like that. Imperial battlemages will deal with her. They’ll have to put her down and make an example of her. I’m sorry if you’re fond of the creature, but she’s no better than a mad dog, now.”

“No…” Andrew was young, only a child, and he barely understood the weight of what he was saying. But he had nothing left but this one conviction, this one bitter resolution. “I will hurt her. She is mine.”

“You can’t deal with her, boy…” the hunter laughed. “You don’t even come up to my knee.”

But Andrew wouldn’t be persuaded. He was only a child, too young to know what he was committing himself to. But he wouldn’t back down. Even as young as he was, he asserted his rights as Syllia’s last lawful claimant, refusing to hand her to anyone else.

The hunter relented at length, rationalizing it to himself as he did so. “…Fine,” he said at last. “I won’t tell anyone. Maybe she’ll avoid humans and go into the wild. But if she does, you’ll never find her again. Not unless you were an even finer tracker than me.”

“Then teach me to find her,” Andrew said. “Teach me to be a better tracker than you.”

The hunter could have refused. He could have dismissed this, brought Andrew to a trustworthy caretaker, and gone back on his word and told the authorities. But something in the lad’s eyes struck a chord in the hunter, and he nodded.

He was detached enough from society to feel no special responsibility to report the incident. Surely someone else would see her before long, and she would be caught and collared and interrogated… Long before the boy could ever dream of confronting the elf, he was sure, she would be found and dealt with, whether or not she was reported. Hell, it was as likely as not that she would get lost and starve in the wild. Elf or not, she was a slave with no survival skills and likely enough no knowledge of the outside world. Even if she had been able to kill the inhabitants of the manor, even if she had seemingly done so with powerful magic, that didn’t mean she would know how to feed herself or how to find her way in the trackless wilderness.

And the hunter understood far better than most how likely it was for the elf to meet such an end. So, no, despite his initial inclinations, he was not bothered about not reporting the elf, and he wasn’t unwilling to humor the lad’s request. He was a loner and a little dishonest, and he didn’t want to explain to authorities what he had been doing on the Tarn family’s estate that brought him to discover little Andrew. He would rather not be forced to confess to poaching game on the Tarn family’s land. Also… he was simply moved by that look in the lad’s eye. He liked that look, and he figured that the boy wouldn’t have anywhere else to go.

So the hunter took Andrew under his wing, and for the next seven years, he taught Andrew everything he knew. The boy grew quickly, and by his tenth birthday he had surpassed the hunter in his craft. Andrew had kept an ear open in all that time, ever listening for news of Syllia. The years only hardened him in his resolve to punish her, and the more time that passed without news of her capture – for that would surely have been a story worth telling far and wide, once she was made to disclose the means of her escape – the more he was convinced that he would be the only one able to bring her in. But the hunter always dismissed him when he brought it up, the old man convinced that the elf had died in the wilderness long ago.

But when Andrew turned twelve, they made what should have been a routine, semi-monthly stop in the village of Byway, only to find it empty. Empty, that was, of living men. The dead, however, were plentiful, bloated and moldering and ridden with maggots. Some looked to have been gnawed upon by scavenging beasts, and others had a look of being carved up and dined on by less animal predators. There were no livestock, but many bones, and signs of feast and slaughter and orgies macabre. The village had been small, with less than fifty inhabitants, and it was out of the way. Andrew and the hunter were perhaps the first to discover what had happened to Byway. And they had no evidence of what had definitely happened, only suspicions.

But Andrew was sure.

The hunter dismissed it as the work of bandits, albeit it a touch hesitantly when he looked upon some of the signs of worse savagery — the remnants of cruelties far beyond the malice of any mere brigand. He was especially disturbed by the sight of seven decaying men hung from the branches of the highest tree, riddled with arrows like they had been used for target practice, and by the remains of three naked young maidens lying in the center of the village with horseshoe nails rammed through through feet. The nails had partly fused with the bones of their heels, suggesting that they had been compelled to dance with the red-hot nails jammed into their soles until they died. Most of the dead men looked to have been castrated, either while they were still alive or shortly after death. It was a brutal, ghastly scene, and they had to have been the first to discover it. If anyone else had come across it, they would have certainly heard report before now of the atrocities visited upon Bywater by its unknown assailants. The bodies would have buried, at the very least.

The old man was shaken by what they found, and when Andrew voiced his suspicion that it was the work of his family’s escaped slave, the hunter dismissed it at once. Not now, perhaps, because he believed it impossible, but because he did not want to accept responsibility for having not reported her years ago. He insisted that Syllia was dead, that it had to have been the work of bandits or raiders, and that they could not have done anything to stop it. But Andrew was unconvinced, and it wasn’t much longer before he parted ways with the old man.

He had learned all that he could in the hunter’s company, and while he was grateful for how the man had looked after him, he knew that he would need to learn more and get stronger if he wanted to stop Syllia. So Andrew wandered the countryside for the next seven years, learning what skills he could, gaining what experience was within his reach, and he kept an eye out for news of more occurrences like the rape of Bywater. He learned of the mysterious fate of the village of Dunloch, and he heard of similar incidents at Graymont, Highwater, Southing, and Bitter Creek.

Solitude hardened Andrew, and learning of the mysterious atrocities that had befallen those remote villages, he grew cold and distant. He grew to manhood and knew various maidens, a hard life leaving him aloof and enigmatic, dark and intense. He experienced the pleasures of the flesh and the anguish of the heart. At times he sought solace in a woman’s arms only to find it inadequate, too tepid and too shallow to make him forget, and at other times he was beseeched and implored to stay by some lusty maid who had been smitten by his grim appearance and his purposeful stride.

And through it all, his hatred grew.

It was the elves fault the world was like this, he knew. He passed more than one desperate whore, forced to make do with scraps. All those rich enough to pay one had an elf. All those that that could not buy an elf barely had enough to pay the desperate. Whores in this kingdom were lean, desperate things… and she had seen more than whom had needed to allow men to do horrible, disfiguring things to her in order to eat that week. The elves were demons, succubi from hell temping good men into evil… they were a blight on the world.

They had to be destroyed.

At the end of those seven years of errantry, Andrew was a man. Hearkening to the news of increasing incidents and disappearances in the wilderness, of more villages and small towns being found ruined and ransacked, he set out on the trail of his quarry. But it was a long and treacherous road, and he could not walk its full length unsupported. Yet there were those who took note of the tales of a grim, gray-eyed young man wandering the outskirts of the empire. One woman noticed the rumors of increasingly savage rape and pillaging.

The empire was vast, and its centers of power were yet oblivious to the deeds going on in the boondocks. It was old and tired and corrupt, its armies rusty and shrunken, its officers lazy and fat. Few were competent, and still fewer were diligent, but eventually this dull, ponderous, weathered behemoth began to suspect that something was happening. A decade and a half after Syllia’s flight, it finally came to the attention of the imperial court that there was something strange afoot. But even then, there was much doubt, much skepticism, and few were willing to consider the worst possibilities. Many dismissed it, and some outright denied it, but a canny, ambitious few were more insightful, more credulous.

And Elira sought out the young vagrant, the man who claimed to be her half brother and the scion of the house of Tarn.

Elira listened to Andrew’s tale, and in his account knew the truth of his words… he was her half brother. There was a lethal threat growing in the core of the empire. The Inquisition was interested in his tale. It didn’t not matter to most of them how many villages had been destroyed, except in how it increased the credibility of this threat, and they did not care how many people had died, except that it would make Syllia’s defeat that much more worthy of reward. They were cold, cynical, ambitious… and in Elira, Andrew found someone who’s hatred for Syllia matched his own. If it was true that this was all being done by the same elf slave that had murdered his family — and as the months passed, more tales came to their ears that seemingly testified to Andrew’s account and vindicated his long-held suspicions — then he would be the one most perfectly positioned to end it. And with each year that passed, it became more certain. Before long, Syllia proclaimed her open defiance to the empire, and she and her army made their existence known, taking one of the great old fortresses from the time of the war and butchering its garrison.

His half sister gave him the support of the Inquisition. They have him food and shelter. They train him to fight, to sneak, to kill. And passed from their father’s mouth to Elira’s ears and now to Andrew, Elira gave him the most critical secret she possessed… Syllia’s Oathword, the the magical word that only he trigger. One day at a time, Elira groomed him to become the bane of the elf leader.

The attacks were swift, coordinated perfectly and prepared for many years in advance. With all the fierce desperation of a slave revolt and the slow-building stratagems of the old elven generals, gathering secret momentum for decades before unleashing a swift, irresistible onslaught, Syllia’s forces made their opposition to the empire plain. Nineteen years after her escape, it became clear that Syllia had grown to be a potentially existential threat to the empire, and already she was aiming for the throat. Her forces grew with every conquest, taking in the captive elves and fostering in them a fervor of purpose, a fanatical devotion to Syllia. She could not erase their Oathmarks, but by all reports she was rewriting them to become their sole keeper, protecting her followers from recapture.

Andrew’s patrons saw as things became more dire, and over the next two years they taught him and prepared him while the empire’s forces suffered one defeat after another. What armies humanity had were small and scattered, and they could not muster enough strength to crush the elves. Not quick enough. If they’d been aware sooner, maybe… but the ruling class had missed the signs, or ignored them, until it was much too late, and now they paid the price for their complacency. Soon, it became clear that if Syllia was not stopped, the empire would fall, and humanity would suffer far worse retribution than it had dealt to the elves so many centuries ago.

Andrew knew the truth of it… he had seen it that night with his own eyes, could see it in his minds eye each time he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Syllia would not leave humans alive as a slave race. She would not give them the chance she had been given. She was merciless, and she was unstoppable. The elves now were not as the elves of old. Their culture had been erased, and they had not the lore or the civilizing pride of their ancient societies. No morality had been instilled into them but that of fear and pain, domination and submission, and they had no reason to be merciful, no reason to value mercy or extend it to the horrible Other that had subjugated and tormented them for centuries. Stripped of their old religions and cultures and enflamed by Syllia’s relentless drive for vengeance, they were as barbarians, tribally egoistic and capricious, exacting cruel retribution without any moderating influence of higher moral teachings.

They would not stop unless they were stopped by another. They had no law but reverence for their savior, and fealty to her. On some level, Andrew understood the irony. In humanity’s contempt, their masters had reduced them to the level of beasts, and as beasts now they were – savage and relentless, filling their foes with dread.

But he would not fear them. There was still one who could overthrow them and bring them back to heel. As he saw it, this was only just. To Andrew, it seemed clear that elves did not deserve freedom. He did not fear them, and he did not pity them.

He only hated them, and most of all he hated their so-called goddess.

He was mankind’s last champion, and none but his patrons even knew who he was. Syllia had only one weakness, one inclosable seem in her armor. And through that weakness, she was the weakness of all her army. Her Oathmark alone, she could not rewrite… and so she alone could still be reclaimed by a master of the bloodline who held the right to her Oathword. Andrew was the last of the house of Tarn, the last to hold the right to claim her, and through her, he could subdue her entire army.

On the twenty-sixth year after Syllia’s escape, seven years by seven years by seven years since Andrew was orphaned, he made his way into the camp of the enemy, who journeyed to take capital and conquer the empire.

If he failed, it would be the end for humanity. If he succeeded, elves would never again have the chance to overthrow their masters. There would be no peaceful reconciliation. There could be no forgiveness or atonement.

There was only fear and hate, only subjugation or destruction. One would rise, the other would fall.

No other outcome was possible.

Chapter 5

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