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Trailblazers

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The ornate script on chronicle pages distorted, the longer you looked. A word emerged every now and then – a name, even – only to vanish in waves and ripples of ink.

Elsewhere, beyond the Breach, the same script remained firm in place. In Xadia’s Royal Library, a few tightly guarded books held a record of the great Aaravos' downfall. The capture and imprisonment of a Startouch high mage – who discovered and taught the unspeakable – written down and preserved as a warning.

Should a Pentarchian dark mage learn to break the spell and decipher the pages, they would learn of Aaravos' fascination with life, death and humankind. His pursuit of a new magic that left him breaching the boundaries of nature, keen and unrepentant.  Unrepentant even when led away in chains. Even before the Arcana Council, and the King.

"We, Startouch elves, are guardians of sacred knowledge", they would learn his words, spoken softly, with a smile. "What’s good of guarding knowledge if it's not expanded? What’s good of raising an entity by keeping it chained? Save your gratitude. I fulfilled my duty – and yours, in your stead."

Should a dark mage bring themselves to read on despite all binding charms, they would find no words spoken by Aaravos after that. They might notice fear, consuming the Chancellors and annalist alike, as the sealing spell was cast. An unease in the crowd when Aaravos was led to the enchanted mirror – an unease not relenting when he made no attempts to retaliate. They'd know he proceeded onwards with poise. Graceful and unflinching.

He eyed the crowd once more, lids heavy and head up high, as he melted into the glass.

One record diverged from the others, noting "Until we meet again" as Aaravos' final words.

This chronicle's secrets, too, were sealed by charms within the Pentarchy's borders – lest dark mages care to seek Aaravos' power. Guarded and taught solemnly within Xadia – lest elves forget.

***

A glum, stuffy dungeon somewhere in the Pentarchy's castles was hardly a favorable change after the Dragon King's spacious mountaintop abode – in normal circumstances. And yet, here Aaravos was, observing it with interest. Too many centuries of abundance can numb one to many things: wonder, hope, helpless rage. Especially when said abundance is out of reach, behind an impenetrable wall of glass. In a small library – part of a… home with an exit which looped back to the same room it led out of. In a predicament that lasted longer than it was supposed to. Moving to a new view distracted the tired mind – and removed a fair deal of frustration.

It also offered a contingency. One that would take an immense toll on Aaravos himself, but potentially unbind him.

Thunder had been slain, of course – this much Aaravos inferred without research. Unsurprising that humans would deliver. They were tenacious creatures, not held back by trifles, such as Xadian laws and armies. Dealing with humans had proven much more interesting in the past than stilted relations with Aaravos' fellow elves. There was no pretense of depth to their attempts at magic, no convoluted philosophy. No unorderly taboos, either – unlike the Moonshadows or Sunfires, who dealt death by illusions or magical forges, but wringed their hands as soon as death replaced an arcanum. Only unbridled pragmatism, a means to an end. Perhaps their meager life expectancy made them swift, adaptable – malleable for the right offerings.

Xadia did no service to trailblazers. Change in view meant softer ground.

Someone walked in. A human: wiry thing in courtly garments, step vigorous, but pale face as sullen as the dungeon around him. Or was it a dungeon? Non-magical architecture abounded in fortifications.

Aaravos felt a grin tug at his lips. Then he composed himself, leaned in and studied the human studying the mirror.

First, the man investigated the frame; his jawline tensed, uncovering the neck, as he tried to decipher its markings. Then he raised a hand and gingerly touched the surface. Transfixed, Aaravos raised a finger and slid it over the glass, where his palm lay. It felt frustratingly like glass; not that he expected otherwise.

The human ignored it.

He didn't see Aaravos, obviously. His dungeon was torch-lit and it took complete darkness to dispel the illusion. It looked, however, as if he had some suspicions about the mirror – and came prepared. Chin in palm, Aaravos observed an assortment of items procured on the table in front of him – of the glass. River mud, glowtoad bones, copper bowl, a burner. A jar of living fireflies. The grin was back on Aaravos' lips.

All utensils were adorably inadequate for the assumed purpose, but one fact remained. Aaravos had succeeded. His art thrived.

The human's hands worked lithely. More than once, Aaravos' eyebrows shot up at a clever connection of seemingly useless items that he had definitely not invented. He hadn’t been wrong in passing the art onto humans –fascinating and so, so resilient in their toil. Finally, the man’s eyes went black and his lips moved. How would the incantation sound if they could hear each other? Like a murmur, like steel? Or a song? There was a spark and everything went quiet.

It had been an impressive dispelling charm. Useless, but well cast. Just a little darkness to give him a nudge…

Aaravos couldn’t help but notice how the man’s broad shoulders slouched. He scrambled up, heaving shaky breaths, and faced the mirror again. A butterfly glamour he must have been wearing peeled away. He was practically falling apart, skin flaking around the nicely-shaped eyes.

This could present a risk.                                                     

Aaravos stood up. A plan was in order, but most of all – a moment of research.

***

The divination goblet swirled with reflections and patterns, forming in the starlight. Earthblood and Startouch magic, weakened miserably by the mirror’s confines, but still weaved together – and not just that. Aaravos enhanced the vision by using his own blood. Living things in his prison were at a shortage but it proved just enough to grant more accuracy. Dizzy with exhaustion from casting even such a simple enchantment, he still learned something.

The human from the mirror had been in charge of slaying Thunder.

He was the Katolis dukedom’s… kingdom’s regent in absentiam of the young king. While the military supported him in theory, he had next to no allies in matters of the art.

His name was Viren.

Aaravos tasted the name on his tongue and mouthed it under his breath; then, bemused by the act’s intimacy, considered his situation. It would be troublesome to navigate, but a regent was something to work with – a creature of clear ambitions that could be exchanged for freedom. A creature of spry mind.

Admittedly, at times Aaravos wondered how a spry mind could be so obtuse. The dungeon had seen a variety of spells, potions, countercharms – and not a single torch went out. Though, in all fairness, dragon charms couldn’t have possibly been obvious to a dark mage. Dark magic drew from blood, agnostic to the ebb and flow of light. Each spell he witnessed had been a display of creative simplicity either way. The human could prove of use once Aaravos is freed amidst a Xadian invasion – if he lived long enough.

For now, however, the only choice was taking it one step at a time.

One spell at a time, the human –Viren – wore off more and more, no trace of glamour or plain decorum by the end of casting. It took him longer to compose himself afterwards, but never once did he apply a lighter spell, a pre-written spell, one that took less power. He’d seethe with frustration and rage, but stand up, teeth grit, and start again.

Aaravos observed – burning with a frustration of his own, but mesmerized. Humans were like that, weren’t they? Rushing headfirst into oblivion. Tearing their bodies down for a short-lived thrill, in magic and in bed alike – frail things that still kept taking all you gave them. Not that it mattered, in a lifespan this short. So he would give and he would take: their nimble bodies and unruly lust, their hunger for knowledge, and their assistance, if need be.  

Another dispelling charm simmered around Viren and thickened the air. Then it froze, cracked in minuscule particles, fell apart and everything stilled. The human stared forward, mouth agape and color returning to his eyes. He heaved one slow breath, then another – and slammed both fists into the glass.

Aaravos flinched.

It made no sense, but he was taken by surprise.

Nothing happened. No shards flying in his face – just a defeated man on the other side, both shapely fists curled against the glass, a netting of veins under their skin translucent blue. Nothing would happen, obviously – extrapolating from Aaravos' side of the mirror, the glass tended to bounce right back into place when smashed in fury.

He spent a moment tracing a finger against the glass, along the human's veins, before getting bored and leaving.

That night, Aaravos dreamed of forfeiting control: of Viren’s hands, pale and dull-skinned, fisted around both his wrists, pinning him down. Dimming his starlight. Of Viren’s hips straddling his; mouth wandering all over his body in a frenzied want. The sensations felt exquisite; he could believe, he could recall that's how touch had felt years back. This, too, was a welcome change in the usual monotony of his dreams. A curious relief.

***

The Moonshadow prisoner incident came and went; so did a change of dungeon. Aaravos spared no thoughts or feelings for the Moonshadow, who had glared at the mirror with revulsion seconds before he was vanquished. Viren had barely made it out of the cell and that twinge of concern was back. There existed enchantments that sustained a human’s livelihood long enough, but here lay the wretched mirror’s predicament. Without the blood of an outsider and a binding pact, enchantments had no power.

A blood pact would frighten a younger elf with more to lose, no doubt. It had frightened the Moonshadow. The Council must have assumed it would always work as a deterrent.

More futile, exhausting dark magic sessions ensued. They failed to captivate Aaravos now that the freshness was gone, so he took to watching Viren sleep afterwards – and reading. He knew all books by heart, but skimming through pages helped him focus on combining solutions, quickening the course of events.

At the very least, it helped him pass time until one day, when something shifted in the library’s appearance. Something disappeared. Slowly, carefully navigating his stare away from the bookshelf, he managed to see.

All torches were extinguished. The room behind the mirror became pitch-black.

And Viren sat upwards with wide eyes.

Millennia of life and centuries in confinement taught patience. Aaravos did not stop what he was doing, nor did he grace the human with attention. Let him get used to seeing an elf in the mirror; let his guard lower. They all needed time to get accustomed before a spell could be cast. Deer, humans. Facing the mirror, Aaravos began stacking books to be read. In split second, he caught Viren’s breath hitching.

It became a small ritual. He would use the library as intended: for reading. Never for looking.

Viren would always sit in a chair across the dungeon, as if he never moved. Aaravos would feel his burning gaze, but never acknowledge.

He would give Viren new angles of himself to study. Profile, hands, crook of his neck.

A disadvantage being that Aaravos himself was deprived of sights, until Viren inevitably fell asleep where he sat.

The day he finally saw Viren relax in his chair was when he caved. Making a spectacle of extinguishing the fireplace – the mirror’s true properties were best left to his knowledge alone – he paced forth, careful and catlike.

Viren’s reaction did not disappoint: he tensed, sprang up and fixed his gaze on Aaravos’ face. His mouth formed a pleasant “o” instead of gracelessly falling slack. There might have been some word uttered, which Aaravos failed to catch.

 But he never cowered.

It was time to instruct him on the blood pact.

***

Viren rejected the blood pact.

Not only that; he threw a cloth of sorts over the mirror on his side. The apprehension was uncalled for and left Aaravos staring out a hole in the cloth for longer than necessary.  Something ineffable stirred in him and remained when he was already moving on with his daily routine.

The human had seemed curious. Sensible.

Satisfying curiosity made sense. Communicating made sense. Not this.

Aaravos dreamed again. This time, his own hands were on Viren, splayed on the bed, defiance in his eyes turning to want. His own hand on Viren’s face, pouring light all over his skin. He sank down to the crook of Viren’s neck, bit in, marked him with stars; sank between Viren’s legs and pounded into him, claiming what was to claim. Viren climaxed voicelessly – not like Aaravos had heard any voice to imagine  – but when they lay together afterwards, his eyes overflowed with starlight and want.

The dream did nothing to that ineffable sensation.

This setback was temporary. Viren would come to. If not, other opportunities would arise, now that the mirror found its way to Katolis. Other humans: more curious, more willing, comparably skilled. His restlessness made as much sense as Viren’s rejection of the blood pact.

Wanting something was an odd feeling. It had happened in the past, but always took him by surprise.

The following several days were measured – on Aaravos’ end – by regularly scowling at the unwanted textile addition to his library mirror, and even more dreams of Viren, with and without his glamour on, submitting to him or taking his body on command. On Viren’s end, the same days must have been measured by some turmoil or other.

At least judging by the crease forming between his eyebrows, when he next appeared and removed the cloth.

Setting aside the small array of conflicting emotions – triumph, annoyance and, strangest of all, impatience – Aaravos beamed and stepped to the mirror, as if he had never left. All blood pact utensils lay at hand, untouched from the last time. Once again, he raised each tool up so the human remembers: one by one, twirling them between his fingers, pausing when necessary. Viren took the sight in, apprehension not entirely gone from his eyes.

It would vanish soon enough.

Like a new, but oddly familiar breath of air rushing through the library, the future laid out in his sight; every step and action clear. A new trail to blaze, past the barrier of glass. Sun, warm on his face, vastness of air and the sea of sounds.  Arcana reconnecting, pulsing in the world’s core and flowing through his body. And finally, claiming what he wanted: the deepest connection that a blood pact entailed. Filling him with touch: as short-lived as a human’s existence, but burning, visceral, alive. Resonant with a long-forgotten sound of voice.

“Speak”, he would say, “so I can hear you”.