It was a damp evening in the Central Shroud. An ahriman
was skulking among the trees, making great effort to flap its leathery wings discreetly. It almost seemed as though it was looking for something - which was definitely unusual behavior for one of its kind.
Eventually, its careful search was interrupted by a sibilant voice coming from somewhere above, from high in the branches of the trees.
-If you're looking for aether to feed on, maggot, there is plenty around us.
The ahriman chuckled - a gargling sound similar to that of bubbling swamp - and turned its single eye towards the canopy of the forest.
-I am not. I am looking for prey, yes, yes. Master sent me. Perhaps my prey is... you?
There was a rustling of leaves, and out of a tree flew a tiny, fae-like silhouette, with ivory-white skin and hair that gleamed in the moonlight.
-Master said to find the Cloud
, not to eat the Cloud, but oh, how weak you look! What if just this once, Akoman did as he pleased?
The ahriman opened its mouth and a thick tongue came to slick its terrifying needle-like teeth. The small creature appeared unfazed.
-Oh please, spare me the impotent threats. I'm in this form only because it suits my designs. I am still the Cloud of Darkness; I could still devour you with a thought. Or make you my servant, if I so desired.
Akoman recoiled in fear and glowered mightily.
-I serve the Master only! And he is stronger than you!
-Is he now? That is not the impression I had when we met.
-You lie, growled the ahriman.
-Prove me wrong, then. Go. Fetch me your master.
With a hiss, Akoman disappeared in a puff of purple smoke that seemed to seep into the mossy ground.
-Good, said the Cloud to herself. Now we wait.***
Some time later, a Dunesfolk mage wearing green robes made his way to the very same spot in the Twelveswood. He was pale and gaunt and his steps had a heaviness that seemed very out of place for a lalafell his age.
Like the ahriman had done before, the man turned his gaze to the branches of the trees above. He spoke.
-Show yourself, Cloud. Let's end this game of cat and mouse.
Once more, the Cloud revealed herself.
-I doubt you could defeat me, mageling, she taunted. You look but an ilm from death's door.
-Perhaps I am, but you hardly look your usual self either. I think I could take you.
The mage shakily brandished his wooden staff, an air of determination painted on his exhausted features. The Cloud of Darkness tilted her head, amused.
-A destitute queen of the void against a dying white mage - hardly an exciting contest. Why not partake in a bit of conversation first?
-I have no wish to talk to you. The only reason you are in this world right now is because I lacked decisiveness before.
-Perhaps, mageling. And why, pray tell, do you think that was?
The lalafell was stunned silent.
-Hmm. Let me help you, then, since your own heart seems to elude you so. I think what happened is that you heard my offer - and considered it. I think you wish to live.
-O-Of course I wish to live! stuttered the little mage.
-Save yourself, then.
-You mean you won't. Why?
-I would have to become... s-something I loathe.
Exertion seemed to be catching up to the lalafell. He was exhaling in raspy gasps and appeared to struggle mightily to stay upright.
-Sit down, mageling. I will not attack you until our conversation is over.
-I'm not conversing with you.
-I think you'll find you already are.
The lalafell sat down in the moss.***
The Cloud of Darkness perched itself on a branch and watched the lalafellin mage. He looked truly spent, and could not stop his eyes from closing despite being in the presence of an enemy.
She let him rest for a little while - but not long. She could sense death was closing in on him.
-So, she said, breaking the sylvan stillness of the woods. Something you loathe. What would that be?
-I beg your pardon? replied the mage hoarsely, cracking his eyelids open.
-Earlier, you said you wouldn't save yourself because it would require becoming something you loathe. What is that something?
-Oh. A black mage.
-What, pray tell, is so loathsome about that?
He scoffed weakly.
-You're toying with me.
-Maybe. Humor me. Unless you feel well enough to fight now?
The lalafell pinched his lips.
-Fine. Well, they're evil. They are bringers of destruction and death, corrupted and twisted by their unholy pacts with the void...
The Cloud hummed pensively.
-So destruction and summoning voidsent, she summarized. Strange, but I seem to recall that mages of the White have found themselves responsible of both
- and yet, I don't see you repudiate them. How odd.
-H-How do you...?
-I am an ageless being, little one. The War of the Magi
is quite fresh in my memory.
-It's hardly the same! White magic is light, it's healing, it's life...
-Mayhaps, conceded the Cloud. But tell me this: is white magic always good?
The little mage pressed the back of his head against the large tree root he had been leaning against.
-...No, I suppose not, he answered begrudgingly.
-Then, though black magic is darkness, destruction and death... do you believe it to be always evil?
-Probably not. But even "mostly evil" would be too evil. You don't know the extent of my powers - I could do serious damage to the realm if I was corrupted enough. I don't want to become like Emperor Xande.
The Cloud could not repress a burst of laughter - it came out in a series of undignified high-pitched squeaks.
-You're laughing at me, said the lalafell, surprised.
-Why, yes. It's just... too rich. I will never not find mirth in the tales mortals tell themselves.
-What do you mean?
-It's very convenient, is all. A vain woman
performs bloody sacrifices in exchange for eternal youth? Why, she was corrupted by fiends! A mad emperor terrified of his own mortality seeks the destroy the world? The denizens of the void drove him to it!
-Your point, please.
-Mortals seek us out, not the other way around. We offer power at a price. They pay it willingly. Perhaps believing themselves tainted helps them give into their base instincts, but they seldom require much convincing.
-You make the voidsent sound positively upstanding. Surely you realize it's not so?
-Oh, we help the process along, of course, but make no mistake, corruption still flows from the inside out. No amount of dark whispers could single-handedly turn one such as yourself into one such as Xande. Evil is morality, not magic.
The lalafell sighed.
-I have a headache.***
-Look, we've been going back and forth for hours now, whined the lalafell. I understand what you're trying to do, even if I can't fully grasp why, but you won't change my mind. I won't take the Black.
-No, you're right. You won't, because you can't.
The lalafell cocked a sceptical eyebrow.
-I think I know where this is going - you're going to say that I can't take the Black because I already have it?
-How astute of you, mageling.
-And how absurd of you, fiend.
-Absurd, truly? Have you not already destroyed beings more powerful than any other in this realm
? Or made pacts with voidsent
? You have horrid taste, by the way, that ahriman is an atrocity.
-Better I die, then. If I can't avoid being a black mage, I can still refuse to live as one.
-What if I told you that your whole life, you've lived as one?
-...I would have to assume you're joking.
-And yet, I speak only the truth. The Black is an inborn talent, just like the White
. There's a saying I recall, from a long time ago...
The Cloud turned its pale face skywards.
-"Wheat is still wheat..."
-"...Even if people think it's grass in the beginning," finished the lalafell. Where did you learn this proverb?
-I wasn't always... I, too, did not choose to be what I am. No one does.
-I realize that, but I am not content to be fate's plaything.
-You don't have to be. Gods, mortals, voidsent; none are given a choice as to what they are, and yet, they have plenty of choices to make as to how they live.
The little mage drifted off, his face overtaken by a pained expression. Time was running out.
-Enough talk, announced the Cloud of Darkness with an air of authority. You have two options now, mageling. Go become what you already are, or die - by my hand, or this affliction of yours. Either way, stay here and your life ends.
A heavy silence fell on the forest, disturbed only by the lalafell's labored breathing.
-Fine, he finally said, barely louder than a whisper. I'll go to Ququruka. I'll go, but I still can't allow you to remain in this realm.
-You still mean to fight me? I'll kill you, you know.
-What if... what if I sent you back to the void?
-In this state? That will kill you faster.
-Come with me, then. Help me learn. When I'm strong enough, I will open a gate.
A satisfied smile spread on the face of Cloud.
-Yes. Yes, you will.