Stars flared around the Tower of Zot, every one of them ready to burst and spread their glittering dust onto the waiting earth. The cloudless sky somehow appeared ready to burst into the most violent of storms, despite the eerie calm that had descended, uninvited and unwelcomed, onto the world.
Kain Highwind stood erect on the tower balcony, a black silhouette against the darkness, blotting out the stars. It was a clear night, and calm. . . unnaturally calm. Usually the wind would blow, whistling and whirling around the smooth metal of the tower's walls. But there were no winds that night; there was only the blackness of the sky, the blazing light of a million stars, and the cold that radiated from the universe. All was silence.
It was the first silence that Kain had enjoyed in weeks, and it gave him a chance to collect his thoughts. . . or to try to collect his thoughts, a task that he feared doomed to failure. They were hopelessly scattered, lost in what had become a maelstrom of dark emotions and ruthless desires that grew stronger every day. Hell, it was getting harder and harder to think coherently. Golbez had often spoken disapprovingly of his carelessness, the foolish words that he would speak when he tried to offer his advice in the past few days. As much as Kain resented his jibes, he knew that they were true. He was becoming more and more disorganized, to the point that he would often stop in the middle of a sentence with furrowed brow and burning eyes, clutching the spear that he carried as if pain and confusion could be killed by a few swift thrusts. His mind was a twisted mass of hatred and chaos, jealousy and self-loathing, that he longed to turn away from his own thoughts, towards the man who richly deserved it.
Damn you, Cecil! The cowardly Dark Knight had misled the old King into making him into a captain of a fleet, and had misled Kain himself into his fall from grace... Kain burned at the thought of his betrayal, but at the root of the flames was an even more compelling spark, one that pushed all thoughts of mercy aside. Cecil was a whining fool. . . and yet he had the love of the beautiful, pale woman who struggled against the sharp steel cables that bound her.
He could see her clearly, an apparition floating in the night sky: her pale face drawn with terror, her limbs raw and bleeding from her struggles against her restraints. Her eyes were always closed, and tears ran down her face as she screamed for him. For the coward Cecil, who had the greatest of dark powers at his command, but was far too frightened to use them. Immortality had been within his grasp; he had not only been the future ruler of a kingdom, but he had been given the chance and potential to be a master of the dark magic that he had dabbled in as a Dark Knight. Yet, he had thrown power and honor away; he had chosen to live as a puppet, an unthinking slave to his conscience.
As for Kain... he had been so deluded by the liar that he had thrown his own honor away, to willingly walk the same road.
The seductive whispers of the maelstrom spoke to him, strengthening the resolve that had been created when Golbez had first opened his eyes. The marks of the anger that he bore burned, consuming him with a suffering beyond that of the body, feeding his need for revenge. Yes, he had been a fool; he had almost thrown away the ultimate power.
He had no intentions of making that mistake again. Nor did he intend to allow Cecil to go unpunished for his foolishness.
As for Rosa. . . the beautiful Rosa. . . he ached to show her that he was the better man. He was the one who deserved such loyalty, not a Dark Knight who sought to deny his own power. There had always been a trace of envy in his heart for them, but never had it been so -
The voice was cold and hard.. and yet it managed to be feminine.
The Dragoon didn't look back. He hardly had to; he knew who had interrupted him. There was only one woman in the tower that would dare approach him, if one could even call the Fiend of Wind a woman. "Valvalis." I might have known you'd come back.
"Is that the only greeting that I get from you, Kain?" She laughed quietly as she approached, her footsteps unhurried. "Gone on a mission for almost a week, and you have no desire to see me again. I thought I knew you better than that."
Inwardly he winced at the edge in her voice, and voiced a silent prayer that his face wasn't flushing. He did know her, far better than he'd wished to. . . at least in one sense. She had wasted little time when Golbez had brought him here. The memories of the first evening still sent a chill of desire and revulsion down his spine. "Why would you think that you mean anything to me, Fiend?" He tried to keep his voice cold and hard, hoping that she would leave him alone that night. He wanted nothing to do with her.
"Donāt play the fool, Dragoon. You know the answer to that," she answered obliquely as she finally walked to him, moving to stand in front of him. She was about a foot taller than Kain, golden skin glimmering in the starlight, golden hair cascading down her back and blowing in a nonexistent breeze.
Kain said nothing. Answering her would have required yet another admission of his own weakness. A few moments passed between them, and he could feel her hard, ageless eyes on his face, making it color with shame. He was not normally so embarrassed by such attentions. It was only the sudden loss of control that he always suffered in her presence that shamed him.
"Kain." Valvalis laughed quietly. "Won't you even look at me?" She took his face in her hand and pulled his eyes to meet hers; they did, though they were unwilling. "You've picked a cold night to be standing here alone." And it was cold, although Kain had barely noticed, lost in his angry daydreams. "I only came to keep you company."
Damn you and your lies! Kain came close to voicing his thoughts, but he stopped himself in time, for he knew that they could easily be the death of him. He was standing alone with her, on a tower that reached above the clouds... and she had no need to fear the fall to the earth. She was the air itself, and he was not strong enough to fight her, at least, not then. But once his master held the Dark Crystal of Wind...
"I'm surprised that your... owner down there is allowing a weak human to brave this cold. Surely he still finds you useful-"
"Shut up!" The words exploded from Kain before he knew what he was saying. "He's not my 'owner.' You know nothing!"
"Not your owner? Then what do you consider him to be, human?" She mocked him, her quiet voice belying the cruel look in her eyes - but the cold stare that Kain fixed her with was no less cruel. His caution was forgotten in the face of that insult.
"Golbez is my master, and my teacher. He's taught me much about power; he's shown me just how much of a fool my 'friend' was, how deeply I had been deceived. I follow him... to learn. That's my reason; isn't it enough?" Kain tried to look away, angry at her for some reason he couldn't define, but she still held him. "I still have more to learn."
"So you say." Kain didn't dignify the woman's words with a response, yet she continued, encouraged by his silence, it seemed. "Is that the only reason, Kain? I don't think that it is. I think there's something else keeping you here."
"Damnable Fiend!" Kain's eyes flashed. "You're nothing but one of our tools. You have no right to -"
"It's her, isn't it." She made no response to his insults, except for those calm words. Kain stopped in mid-sentence, eyes stormy. The Fiend laughed, her golden hair whirling of its own volition to engulf both of them in a flowing vortex. "Foolish mortal," she purred, slipping one hand beneath the Dragoon's chin. "What can that poor sniveler down there offer you that I cannot? Do you think that I would allow anyone to keep me a prisoner in this tower? You claim to respect power, and yet you stand here and pine over this weakling who doesn't even have the strength to save herself."
"Enough, Valvalis." Kain felt his jaw clenching tightly against harsher words. This inhuman fiend had no right to speak of his angel in that way. . .
"Enough? I think not." She laughed at his anger, letting one hand trail seductively over the front of the front of the dark blue breastplate that he wore. "You presume to give me orders, Kain? Do you know what you are? You are nothing - nothing but an insignificant worm, a tool that Golbez will discard as soon as he finds the eight crystals and awakens the Giant. Your days are numbered, mortal."
"Then why are you wasting your time with me, you monster?" Monster. . . and whore. "If I'm doomed to die as you say-"
"Because I want to help you." Glittering golden eyes bored into angry green ones as she held his gaze. "You must know that I can save you, Dragoon. Golbez may be our master here and now, but even the crystals can't control us forever. We are the forces of nature. We are timeless, ageless - and someday we will break those bonds, destroy our masters, no longer to be held to the heels of mortals." The hand under his chin tilted it, raised his mouth to hers.
The kiss was rough and violent, like the vortex that wrapped around the two, keeping Kain a prisoner in her arms. Despite his revulsion, he felt his arms wrap themselves around the slender woman-shape of the elemental Fiend, felt his body shiver for an instant as it responded to her embrace. Am I so weak, then. . . ?
After what seemed like an eternity she broke away, calculating eyes staring again into his. "And once that happens I can save you, Kain. I can make you a true warrior of the air, one that men will fear and worship. You will be immortal. . . and we will be together until the death of this planet. I can offer you everything - don't you understand? Everything."
He didn't answer at once. His mind was full of his hatred of this creature who held him in her grasp, and disgust towards his own body for betraying his lust for her. Valvalis was a monster, a Fiend, one of the four born beside the world at the very beginning of time. . . but her body was that of a young, beautiful woman, clad only in the barest straps of cloth. Her face was harsh, manipulative and full of a one-sided desire, but her hands were firm against his chin and cheek, and her skin smooth and supple under the gloved hands that had slipped around her waist. "Why?" he whispered harshly, glaring into her face. He hated being mastered like this, being at her mercy. Once he had been able to resist.. offers like this; what had changed?
"Because you are one of my creatures." She kissed him again, lightly this time. "Because I don't want Golbez to kill one of my own."
Your creature... "I'm not your creature," he whispered harshly. One hand tightened, his steel gauntlet biting into her flesh; he could barely conceal a smile of grim satisfaction as she drew away with a silent gasp. "All of my ancestors have been warriors. We don't allow the likes of you to control us."
The deep, blazing golden eyes flashed with a wild anger, making a sudden, unwelcome fear rise in the pit of his stomach - but just as quickly the anger faded, and was replaced with calm, pitying amusement. "Such a spirited human," she murmured softly. The winds that surrounded them grew stronger, the vortex pulling him more tightly against her; they started to rise into the air above the tower, held there by the Fiend of Wind's power. "That insolence of yours won't save you, you know. You'll still face Golbez's torments, once you've outlived your usefulness to him. Please, Kain. Let me save you, or you'll die in the darkness."
"I'd rather die in that darkness than become one of your monsters, Valvalis." But his words lacked conviction; he knew very well that she spoke the truth. The intent had been in Golbez's eyes, in those few unguarded moments when he'd allowed it to show. More and more it had been in the patronizing insults, the cold cruelty that he had regarded him with at the slightest lapse of judgement. "You'd make me less than a man-"
"Never. I'll make you more than a man, more powerful than anyone else in this world."
She tempted him - deeply. But he couldnāt let her see that! "And what can you do? Golbez is still controlling you, no matter how powerful you say you will be someday." Curling his lips, he tried to put a sneer into his half-whispered taunts. "Do you plan to rebel if he tries to kill me, as you say he will? You're a fool if you think that I believe that you consider me worth your existence."
"You've heard nothing I've told you, Kain - you're the same as any child. Golbez may be able to attack us, he may be able to hurt us, and he may even be able to defeat us. But he cannot destroy us! He believes that he's bound us to him, that proud fool - he doesn't realize that we'll soon stand ready to break free, while he's too busy with his games of conquest." She frowned at him, her face a mask of frustration - another mask that he hated, and longed to break. "I want you to break free with us. Why do you protest? You surely don't believe the lies you tell me about respecting your master; I've seen your face when he reprimands you. You can't deny that you want your freedom."
"You're not offering freedom. You want to be my new master; do you think me to be a fool?"
They were going in circles, and they both knew it. Valvalis didnāt speak again right away, as she stared into his eyes, still mocking him. One finger traced the angular lines of his face, and he felt the slightest tremor run through his body as she leaned towards him again. "Listen to me," she whispered, her voice like the gentle breeze that blew through the trees. "You know the truth..."
For a few instants, all he could feel was the press of her lips on his own. His thoughts of anger were shattered for those brief moments, despite the self-loathing he had felt towards this weakness before; they seemed to wash away. Kain closed his eyes, suddenly aware of the wrongness of the situation. He was a willing prisoner, but still a prisoner; he was a man who fought to win a woman who would die for another man, a fool who was allowing his own jealousy to consume him and warp him into something other than human. A man who was allowing his weaknesses to control him...
What are you doing here, Kain? Why are you letting this go on!?
The voice of his subconscious, left ignored for days on end, screamed in the silence of his mind. What..? His own thoughts were feeble by comparison.
Stop lying to yourself! The voice was loud, strident and angry. . . almost like his father's voice had been, when he was only a child. You're being a damned fool, don't you see that!? Think about it! You're blaming someone else for your own decisions! You CHOSE to walk out of that castle! You chose to take that fall with Cecil, and now you're trying to push the consequences off onto him! You can't hide from your own bad judgements, Kain! You'll end up dead when these people get tired of using your weaknesses to control you, because you can't face up to them yourself!
No, he thought feebly, trying to defend himself against his own thoughts. I'm a Dragoon; I can't allow myself to give in to weakness.
Damn it all, boy, don't you understand? There's no shame in facing weakness! The only shame is in denying it, like you're doing now! If you weren't so desperate to run away from your own insecurities, you'd be free now - but no, you have to try to hide behind someone else!
For a moment, the perpetual storm of anger was lifted - and it was like having a blade removed from his still-beating heart. Everything was perfectly clear, and the truth of the words he spoke to himself were revealed. He saw Golbez's teachings as nothing more than orders, used to manipulate him into being his slave and doing the base work that he didn't feel was fit to dirty his own hands with. He saw himself the slave to the passions that he had tried so hard to suppress, knowing that only the cold men could kill without mercy. Worse, others had seen how easy he was to manipulate, and were trying to use him, like a pawn in an endless game, to spite their enemies - because why else would the Fiend of Wind be so desperate to take him? She had admitted no love towards Golbez, only unwilling servitude.
It made him sick - suddenly and uncontrollably sick. All he could think about doing at that moment was rushing down to challenge Golbez, to avenge himself on him, to show that he wasn't the weakling that could be so easily controlled - to die a free man, rather than a servant who had exhausted his usefulness. It would not be suicide - suicide was a coward's escape. This would be the last stand of a warrior. There was no other way to escape with his freedom; there were others who sought to use him as much as Golbez had...
No, a voice whispered - or was it two voices? But one was much quieter than the other, more frantic as it darted through his mind. The other voice spoke without fear, a seductive whisper, darker than the night around him.
No, it continued. You're not here to hide - don't listen to those lies. You know why you're here. Not to hide - but to show. To show someone their wrongdoings. Look, Kain. He looked - and his heart stopped as he stared. He saw Rosa's face, floating in the light of a thousand stars, a serene smile on her face - for him. But there was a shadow over her lovely smile, the shadow of the coward who stood beside her.
The visions floated before his eyes - Rosa and Cecil in a tender moment, holding each other under the stars, looking in each others' eyes... and his mind added other images, of the beautiful Rosa following Cecil to ruin, just as Kain had. Of her downfall at his hands. How could he bear the thought; how could he allow it to happen?
Yes, the seductive darkness whispered. Think of her, think of the love you've desired from her for all of these years. She's promised to someone who is unworthy of her, isn't she? Your angel.. and she's turned into a coward's little whore. He's tricked her, just as he tricked you so long ago.
It was exactly what he wanted to believe. Part of him still screamed for him to listen, to face up to his own weaknesses and overcome them instead of drowning his insecurities in this vendetta... but that part grew dimmer and dimmer, lost in the litany of rage that had consumed him since he'd been brought to Zot. His family had been proud and strong. He couldn't face the thought of weakness...
He deserves this. You must show him who the better man is. He deserves more than you could ever do to him. You must destroy him, Kain. Show him that his life is worth nothing in your hands. Redeem yourself for being cast away with him!
Yes. Yes, he would redeem himself. He would destroy Cecil so utterly, the fool would ache for death.
The golden Fiend was still staring into his eyes, the smug smile disappearing. "Golbez. . . this spell is too powerful, damn you . .."
"What..?" Kain hadn't heard her words, lost as he was in his thoughts. He'd only heard his master's name.
The woman's golden eyes closed, her face suddenly heavy with a thousand years of sorrow. "You lie to yourself, Kain. The idea that Golbez is your teacher, nothing more... that is nothing but a lie that he has told you, one that you've repeated until you believe it. And as for the weakling -"
Kain struggled in her arms as she spoke of Rosa, still wrapped in his righteous fury, but he could do nothing "- as for her, you know what he'll do to her, don't you? You know very well that he won't allow you to have her as your reward." And again, part of him did know. It was a very dim voice that spoke the truth, not enough to persuade the rest of the necessity of breaking free of Golbez, but it was there, and it created yet more weakness in his mind.
The harshness was gone, the pain that had flickered in her face when he had grabbed her before back again, with still more sadness. She looked at him with eyes that called out to him desperately, that pleaded with him to listen to her. What happened to your strength, you monster? He looked her in those pathetic eyes, boiling with anger for what she had begun inside of him, and not sure why it was anger. "Please, Kain," she said softly. "Don't betray us - don't betray me. I will see you fighting by my side... or I will destroy you. I won't allow Golbez to kill you; I'd sooner kill you myself than see you die by his hand. But you will stay here... and someday you will listen to me..."
"I hate you," he whispered as she pulled him closer. Yes, he did hate her.. and himself, and Cecil, and for a brief moment he even hated the beautiful angel that tried so hard to deny his superiority... for an instant, hatred of the entire world flared in his chest, struggling against the sword that pierced his heart with anger.
Her only response was to pull her mouth down onto his, desperately kissing him. The Dragoon made no struggles, knowing that the accursed charm she was capable of casting over him - a plaything given to her by their master, perhaps - would remain strong and unbroken, no matter what he did. He had learned that long before, and so he submitted to her attempts, burning with a hatred that encompassed them both.
And the stars around them disappeared, as if out of respect for the Fiend of the Air, leaving no witnesses to their folly.