Shadows of Nibarra
Death is Light as a Feather
The blade was six feet long, enameled black, with the silvery, slightly shimmering edges exposed. Engraved into the enamel were patterns of raven feathers, which seemed to shift and flutter when they were in the corner of your eye. The crosspiece was made of the same enameled silver, and cast in the form of four feathers whose shafts met at the hilt’s center, twining together to form the spiral pattern that ran the length of the grip. The pommel held a single black crystal the size and shape of a raven’s egg.
In all, it was a beautiful weapon, a fact Kellister would have better appreciated had it not been sunk two feet deep into his stomach.
“What a shame that the Queen takes no servants from the ranks of the dead. You could temper the extent of your failure in the afterlife. Alas.” The apostate paladin punctuated his mocking words with a twist of the sword, sending apocalyptic pain through Kellister’s body. The elf shuddered, spasmed, and then lay still. The paladin leaned down and whispered “Rest now, young fool. ‘Death is light as a feather,’ after all.
“Throw his body onto the pile. It will make an excellent servant.” As his undead slaves shuffled to obey, the paladin yanked his sword free, and turned back to the bloodstained altar to continue his profane ritual.
In darkness, Kellister drifted through memory. He seemed to watch himself from a great distance, as the events which lead to his death replayed themselves.
He saw his robing ceremony, where he was advanced from humble novice to the rank of Robe-bearer, qualified to speak the catechism to the novices and learn some of the secrets of the Raven Queen, but not yet allowed to fight in her name. He saw flashes of his life at the monastery – training with the Swordbearers, assisting in the tutoring of novices, the million small rhythms of life that almost helped to soothe the burning fire of revenge he held in his heart.
He saw the day Abbot Carantock ordered him to begin his seeking. The winter’s dim light of dawn permeated the cloister as the Abbot and Kellister walked side by side. They had been discussing Kellister’s training assignments for the next month, when the Abbot abruptly changed the subject.
“Are you enjoying your role as a Robe-bearer, my son?”
“The robes chafe some, Abbot.”
“The feathers remind us of whom we serve, but they do leave something to be desired when it comes to comfort. But, of course, you speak metaphorically as well as literally.” Kellister gave a sharp nod in response. “Your eagerness to move on to Sword-bearer is obvious. This is the point at which I should give you a lengthy and rather tedious lecture on how one’s time as a Robe-bearer is intended to instill patience, and tame the wild heart which brought you to us in the first place.”
Kellister cocked an eyebrow. “But you are not going to.”
“No.” The Abbot shook his head slowly. The pair walked in silence for a few moments, and the Abbot turned onto a path which led to one of the monastery’s many cliffside overlooks. A low stone wall ran along the edge of the cliff, and the Abbot sat on it, heedless of the chasm below.
“I had hoped we would have more time to develop your more…contemplative aspects, but it seems events conspire against me. Do you remember the delegation from the Knights of Winter that visited last month?”
“The paladins? I did not meet them, but of course I knew they were here. Everyone did. What does that have to do with me?”
“Patience. I know you have learned enough of that virtue to allow an old man the pleasure of unfolding his tale as he wishes. You know that our relations with the Raven Queen’s vanguard warriors are uneasy at the best of time. Our order tends to see them as boorish, preening, power-hungry, and altogether too concerned with the temporal world. They see us as…well…”
“Effete intellectual assassins?”
“Well, we are assassins, Kellister. But your adjectives are apt. In any case, the holy warriors of the Queen came here for a bit of a theological debate. It seems that they felt that the Queen’s will would be best served if some of our relics were in their hands, and said that ‘rather than molder in some vault, they should be used to advance the Queen’s great crusade.’ I admit I was unable to restrain a bit of a chuckle at that last word. As if the Queen concerns herself with the vicissitudes of mortal empires. I suspect it was rather undiplomatic of me, as the debate went rather poorly.
“But more importantly, I was uneasy with their requests due to some foreboding I could not define. The paladins knew all the proper rituals and etiquette, but there was something wrong about them. I sent them away empty handed, with them spitting curses and vowing that the Queen would see me right and such nonsense. But then yesterday during an inventory of the vaults we discovered that one of the artifacts the paladins sought is missing.”
“What was it?”
Carantock gave a sad half-smile. “I’m disappointed in you, my son. Have you forgotten the beginning of our conversation already? It was a sword, Kellister, of course. A sword that I now fear is being used for purposes quite opposed to the Queen’s will.”
Kellister turned from the Abbot and looked out towards the windy peaks on the other side of the chasm. His heart raced at the prospect of hunting down the sword and its thief, as he was sure the Abbot would direct him to do.
“And you wish me to retrieve it.”
The Abbot’s voice was strained. “No, Kellister. I desperately wish that I could keep you here, and prevent you from pursuing these thieves. But that is not the Queen’s will.” Kellister turned back in surprise. “She appeared to me this morning, as I prayed for guidance. I had a vision of such clarity as I have not experienced in quite some time. It was a vision of your destiny. She directs that you must seek the sword and punish those responsible.”
“Then why do you hesitate? I have long known my destiny is to serve her.”
The Abbot’s eyes were glistening now, and he looked away from his young charge. “Because that is not all that she revealed to me about your destiny. She also showed me that this sword will claim your life.”
Kellister sat on the wall next to his teacher, and looked back at the walls of the monastery, his home now for several years. “The first thing you taught me, Abbot, was our motto. Our duty is heavy as a mountain, but our death is as light as a feather.” He put his hand on Carantock’s shoulder. “When do I leave?”
Darkness swirled back in, and Kellister watched himself departing the monastery on his quest, seeking out the apostate paladins and bringing them their destinies, one by one. Following the trail of the sword as its power was perverted to the ends of Orcus, whom the paladins now served. Until, finally, a confrontation in a darkened cavern with a bloodstained altar at its heart, and the final, fatal thrust. And then silence.
It seemed that he floated for a long time. Then it seemed that there was a pricking on his right shoulder. He wasn’t sure when it started. Possibly it had been there all along. With what felt like agonizing slowness, he turned his head to the right to see a beady black eye regarding him. The eye belonged to a black bird standing on his shoulder, a bird that seemed very familiar. He groped in his mind for the bird’s name, but came up empty. Eventually he croaked at it, “I know you.”
“Yes” replied the bird. It’s voice, incongruously, was a soft, feminine voice, but one edged with age and wisdom. “We have met before, once. I came to you in a period of great trial. Do you remember?”
He struggled to think clearly. He felt strong surges of pain and anger, but he could not remember. He could not even remember his name. “No. But I remember you, somehow.”
“We are linked, young one, though you do not yet know how. I aided you once, and now I will aid you again.”
“Because it is your destiny that you will aid me in return. Someday, in my time of uttermost peril, you will be my sword. Until then, you will serve me and I, in turn, will protect you.”
“What must I do?”
“For now, young one, you must rise and claim what is rightfully yours. For it is not yet your destiny to die.”
“Yes, I remember now. I must get the sword.”
“Yes. Awake now, and claim the sword.” The voice and the bird began to fade, as pain and light began to return.
“Wait! The sword! It was supposed to kill me!”
Barely above a whisper, the voice returned. “And so it will, young one. But not yet.”
And Kellister returned in agony and rage.
Kellister bit down a scream of agony as consciousness returned. Making only the tiniest movements of his head, he looked around the small cavern. He was lying atop a pile of bodies, victims of the fallen paladin who knelt at the altar in the center of the chamber. The paladin had his back to Kellister, in the midst of some profane ritual, and the black sword was propped against the stone next to him. The undead servants shuffled around the outskirts of the chamber, but none had yet noticed the elf’s movements.
Mouthing a silent prayer to the Raven Queen, Kellister slid stealthily off the pile. His wound pulsed with pain, but he also felt a wave of energy propping up his limbs and propelling him onward. He crept closer to the paladin and the fatal sword, until he was within arm’s reach of both. As he grasped the hilt, an almost electric surge rushed through his body, and he straightened with the blade in hand as the paladin finally turned and noticed him.
“No, NO!” the heretic cried as Kellister drove the blade downward, piercing the paladin’s stomach in a mirror image of the wound Kellister still carried.
“It is true that my Queen has little use for the souls she collects. What a pity that Orcus will certainly find a use for yours.” Momentary terror registered on the paladin’s face, before it slackened with death. Their master slain, the undead servants collapsed. Kellister turned without a word, and headed back towards the light.
Weeks later, Abbot Carantock rushed to the gate at the word of an approaching traveler bearing an immense sword upon his back. As soon as he could see Kellister’s face, he gave a small cry and rushed forward to embrace him. He then looked into Kellister’s face with wonder.
“I don’t understand. How…?”
”’My duty is as heavy as a mountain, but my death is as light as a feather.’ And now I carry both upon my back.” Kellister then gave his teacher a huge grin, clapped him on the back, and walked back into his home.
And Kellister and his sword Feather were never thereafter parted.