Guest-Posted by Ian, a Friend and Supporter of Standish Writes
His knees hit the cold stone floor with a painful thump as he bent his head submissively to the High Priest, Kayne. As he listened, a light shone harshly through the stained-glass windows, illuminating the figure before him.
“True greatness comes from a purity of soul, mind and body,” the priest began, as he had many times before. “Those with impurity of body and soul must therefore work thrice as hard as their kinsmen to please the gods.”
Eld bowed his head further in agreement, his neck aching slightly, but it was nothing he wasn’t used to. The purification the High Priest alluded to involved rigorous methods designed to elevate the impure, therefore preventing the decline of the village as a whole. Once completed, it wouldn’t matter if Eld was the offspring of a human female and a now-outcast Elven noble. He would become an accepted member of the village, no longer shunned for his heritage. He would be loved.
His purification had been going on for fifteen years.
As the High Priest finished the final rite of the day, he lifted an intricate bowl of gilded silver from the altar and carried it over to Eld. A sickly red liquid swashed back and forth inside it. Eld took the bowl with both hands and drank slowly as the High Priest traced the Church’s symbol in the air: an infinity symbol with an X-shape crossing the center.
The drink had no distinct taste, but ran like liquid fire down his throat. It had cleansing properties, burning away the impurities inside his body. Most often it left him nauseous, and gave him cramps in his lower abdomen. He finished it all, though, and placed the empty bowl before him, bowing his head again.
“Stand, Eld,” said the High Priest. Eld felt a hand placed on his arm, guiding him gently up to his feet. He kept his gaze averted downward. “You have achieved a decade and a half of repentance and purification. This is no small feat, but you must remain strong, for there is still further to go.”
Eld felt his heart sink; each year, the High Priest had spoken similar words. Always a great achievement, but never enough to meet the required level of purity. He nodded numbly as the High Priest assured him it wouldn’t be much longer, and of course he would be there every step of the way.
“Of course, High One,” Eld said.
“We’ll begin the Renewal first thing in the morning, then,” the High Priest said, and beckoned for Eld’s usual escorts to guide him back to his chambers. He bowed, and allowed himself to be taken roughly by the arms. Unlike High Priest Kayne, they made little effort to veil their distaste for his existence. The pupils of their hazel eyes swallowed all warmth from the air. They brought him through the stone archway to the dark depths beneath the Church.
Shoved into the chamber, Eld stumbled and fell to the rough, hay-strewn floor. The steel door clanged shut behind him, the key turning heavily in the lock. In a few moments, he was alone.
He got up stiffly, shuffled to the cot – little more than a wooden board and a cloth stuffed with sharp hay. The burning sensation in his throat had subsided, but soon the elixir would begin working against his insides, tearing away the impurities. He collapsed on his side, staring at the black metal of room’s entrance. His shoulder blades ached, lacerated and bruised from earlier that morning. His blistered hands stung to touch, with small cuts open across his palm. He blew softly to cool them, feeling only slight relief. He wished he could numb the pain.
Hanging on the bed post was a mirror, little more than a shard of glass, that he often used to groom himself before meeting the High Priest. He reached for it tenderly, and looked at his face. His hair was a light chestnut, like his mother’s; his father’s hazel, Elven eyes stared back at him. His ears weren’t round, but neither were they as sharp like those of the Sun Elves around him. He grimaced, High Priest Kayne’s words echoing in the back of his mind.
“Those with tainted heritage must redeem themselves in view of the gods; they must repent for the sin of their blood – the purity of the village must be maintained.”
Eld had heard the words, but as shown by today’s ultimate ritual, marking the end of a cycle, his efforts would never be enough. He grit his teeth, a pang of anguish welling up inside him. His human half acting out again; he had done much to suppress that side of him in his younger years. But now, at age 30, he faced the despair, the futility. He gave into it, silently so as not to alert the guards; he raged inside his mind, slamming his fists into the bedding. The tears that ran down his face stung the nicks and scratches on his cheeks.
After a few moments, he settled down again, tear stains on his face. His stomach churned, his abdomen had begun cramping. There it would stay until the next morning, which showed no sign of appearing soon. No light shone from under the door, and the barred window let only cold starlight through. He cursed his existence. If only he had been born pure.
“What a ridiculous notion,” someone said behind him.
Eld started, and turned to look. But there was only a stone brick wall.
“Purity is just a tool people use to claim authority over others,” the voice said. Eld turned back toward the door. No one was there. As it spoke again, he felt a shudder, as though it came from inside his own head. “Just because you have human heritage doesn’t make you any less pure. It doesn’t make you any less worthy.”
A strange sensation crept over Eld’s heart. Static buzzed lowly in his ears, but the voice remained clear.
“What gives them the right to dictate who you should be, who you are inside? They go on and on about their silly little gods, speaking for them without having even a notion of what it’s all really about. They’ve abandoned the ways of their ancestors, the freedom of their people. It makes me sick.”
The static felt louder somehow. Eld shivered again, but this time it was from the cold breeze the blew in from the window.
“If you want to be worthy, you have to prove yourself, this much is true. If you want power, you have to strive for it. Your heritage is what makes you strong, but to think that purity of blood is the only path is imbecilic.”
Eld exhaled slowly, his breath crystalizing into small clouds in the air. The voice was feminine now, he was sure of it. It was as if it were getting closer to him. It whispered some more.
“Why should you have to put up with those fools any longer? Their inane rituals, the way that so-called High Priest prattles on, waving redemption in front of you like a carrot on a stick.”
The static became louder, Eld’s heart beating faster. His temples were pounding. But he felt himself agreeing with the voice.
“I can give you real strength,” it promised. Out of the darkness, something began to take shape. It shone with a icy blue light: a six-pointed snowflake, twinkling in the starlight, but as big as the mirror in Eld’s hand. A hand which now bled steadily from clutching the sharp glass.
“The power to claim your own worth.”
The static roared. His body shook in the cold, the breeze turning into what seemed like a gust.
“You just need to reach out and take it.”
Eld lifted his hand, but he felt the voice as though its owner were shaking its head, chastising him.
“Your other hand. The one covered in blood.”
He looked down and saw the stain that had spread on the cot from the hand that clutches the mirror fragment. He dropped it, and raised his fingertips to the snowflake. He was shivering violently now. His fist closed around it, the light shining through his fingers. His hand numbed.
“Show them what you’re worth, Eld.”
His body throbbed coldly, and wave of pins-and-needles rode up his arm, his skin changing from tan to pale. The wave rolled over his whole body. The light in his hand never dimmed, but when he opened it, the crystal had been replaced by a crackling blue energy.
His nausea long since passed, Eld sat up, staring at his hand. His eyesight was dark at the edges. He looked up, slowly, toward the door.
“Show them what they’ve turned you into.”
He pointed his hand, and pushed.
He woke up to the howling of wind. He squinted his eyes, and blinked. The sky was a mix of purple and blue. The sun was just below the horizon, but it was getting brighter. Twilight before dawn.
He was standing in shadowy, snow-covered field, dotted with small mounds of stone. The trees around him had leaves covered in frost, some frozen completely. They clinked together as a gust of wind played with the branches. As he looked closer, he saw some glinting in the snow. He trudged slowly towards it, barely realizing he felt not even the slightest chill from the wind. He bent down and lifted up a large piece of stained glass that lay among a pile of frosted rubble. A crack ran through an infinity symbol crossed by an X-shape. He tilted the glass so that it reflected his face: icy blue eyes shone back at him, a pale face framed by silvery white hair; a faint blue glow seemed to emanate from it. And over his shoulder, the glimpse of a shadow with a toothy grin.
He dropped the window fragment in the snow and looked around him, his surroundings becoming clear with familiarity. His breath caught in his chest as he realized what had happened.
Something bumped against the edge of his awareness, and faint static hummed in his ears again. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” the voice echoed in his mind.
The sun broke over the mountain tops, steaming sunlight across the field. Snow blew like sand across the drifts, and icicles hung from branches with frozen leaves. Shadows dappled the ground, forming vaguely hexagonal, snowflake patterns. As Eld gazed at them, and then over to the frozen ruins, he felt a tide of calm wash over him. Calm, and something he hadn’t felt in an age: a sense of contentment.
A blue arc of eldritch power coursed across his palms. The voice spoke to him, amusement creeping into it.
“Oh, yes, this is going to be fun.”