“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves.”
-Confucius, Ancient Chinese Proverb
Syllia had made only one mistake in her whole long campaign of vengeance. She had taken only real misstep in all of about three hundred years of planning, laboring, running, fighting, and killing. The righteous justice she strove to inflict upon her people’s oppressors could not be stopped by anything in heaven or earth, except for that one miscalculation, that one moment of doubt and hesitation.
Her only mistake hadn’t been to kill someone. It had been to spare someone.
She should have killed him when she had the chance. She should have hardened her heart and done the deed that night, when she had already stained her hands so red with the blood of her hated masters. She should have been colder, she should have been sterner, she should have been crueler and more ruthless… But even hate had its limits, and even the bitterest and coldest heart could still be moved by pity in a moment of weakness. She had stayed her hand when she saw the child, and she had spared him. She knew not why, even to this day. Had it been a sense of justice, perhaps? Some shadow of kindheartedness that survived through those centuries of degradation and abuse? Syllia didn’t know.
She had hated them. She had hated them with every fiber of her being. But even that hatred had quailed in the face of an innocent child, and even the cold calculus of a long brooded and plotted revenge could not have deadened her heart to that stirring of… she knew not what. But it had held her hand, and it had made her turn away and leave him there as the last living of heir of that damned, accursed, bloodstained house.
Those wide, staring eyes were still burned into her memory even now, twenty years after the fact. The deed had been done… she had burst her bonds and begun her long, careful campaign against the persecutors and tormentors of her captive, disenfranchised people… and she could still see that little boy, barely even a toddler, uncomprehendingly grasping his dead mother’s hand and ineloquently imploring the woman with whines of “Mama… Mama…” She could still see those clear gray eyes looking at her, the same eyes as all his family. They were the eyes she had feared and hated and cursed with all her furious resentment, the eyes she had hoped to close forever and never see again.
But those very eyes now looked at her like things of naked steel.
That scared little boy now a man of full stature, tall and grim and fierce. He was the spitting image of his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather, yet he was also as unlike them as a stranger. Where their faces had been full and fleshed out, their forms not fat but well-fed and given to ease, he was lean and wiry, with shadowed eyes and corded muscle and a figure that wasted not one ounce of flesh on needless fluff. He had a hungry look, icy with hate and hardened by suffering, intense with a deadly determination. He was here for her, and he was ready for her.
He was ready, and she was not.
“No…!” Syllia gasped, the dark elf taking a step back in her tent. “You…?! How was this possible? Where were her guards?
The elf shook her head. Even without her guards and her followers, she had her own magic, her own power. There were no human mages who could compare with her any longer, and she felt no magic from the man before her. That unhappy, forlorn scion of her detested late masters would not be able to overpower her. She could easily defeat him. She could easily kill him.
But now, as when first she spared him, something stopped Syllia. Then, it had been something like pity. Now, she felt it as fear.
She was stunned by the sight of the man, shaken by those eyes, eyes she had been taught by hundreds of years of suffering and pain and solitude to fear and obey even though she resented them. It had taken her so much steeling of the nerves and so many decades of stored up hate to finally overcome those eyes and free herself from bondage, and even then, only by acting before she could think about what she was doing. Now, caught at unawares after twenty years of grim liberty, she beheld them anew with a virgin dread, as helpless before that cold, clear, steely glare as she had been when this man’s great-great-great-grandfather first took her from her mother and broke her.
Syllia was paralyzed by a fear that overpowered her hate. On her brow, she felt the brand of her Oathmark itching, and for an instant of utter terror, she knew doubt. If he knew her Oathword, it was over. Already he was opening his mouth, and he drew in breath. If he made to speak the key to her lock, to re-anchor the chain she torn from its moorings, she knew, horribly certain, that she did not now have time to strike him down before he spoke the word and laid her low. Even her swiftest spell would need one chanted syllable, and in the time it took her to draw the breath to give her magic shape, he could utter the dread command to bind her once more and topple all her pride and power and vengeful machinations.
That moment of hesitation, that instant of fear and doubt, would be her undoing.
He spoke, and he moved, and Syllia’s folly was made clear to her as he laid his hands upon her with an iron grip and fixed her eyes with awful, penetrating stare.
“I hate you,” he growled, his voice a nearly breathless rasp. It was no magical command. This was not the word of power graven upon her brow, not that awful utterance the absolute dread of which had been branded centuries of pain and humiliation into her bosom… yet it seized her all the same, like a sorcerous invocation working upon her mind and sinews, rendering her powerless at the sight of his eyes and the feel of his hands and the sound of his growling voice. She quailed in his grasp like a neophyte thrall, made fearful and helpless just long enough with centennial recollections of humiliation and torment for him to throw her down and straddle her, pinning her irresistibly, inescapably beneath him. “I’m going to make you pay. I’m going to end this.”
Long years of memory cascaded over Syllia, as black and dismal as a winter flood, and her mind reach back through the centuries, back to the beginning, as she tried in her anger and despair to make sense of what was happening.
She remembered it all. She remembered the tale as her masters had taught her — the only knowledge they had given her, meant to deepen her submission and justify her abuse. She remembered, and she lay in shock as the last vengeful scion of her murdered masters bared her dark skin and held her powerless beneath him.
It had started nearly a thousand years ago, centuries and centuries before she had ever been born…