It was a shambling structure, barely more than three guard towers strung together, and ugly, but he told me it had the high, rocky ground and good visibility for miles across the naked plains, so it’d make me a more decent seat than some “sunlight-dappled, rustic Elven tree somewhere prettier.”
He cloaked himself in shadows, drawing darkness to himself as a traveling magician might draw doves. Soon he appeared a shadow himself, and I felt his wink more than saw it. My task was to breach the top of the eastern tower and dispatch the guards.
As I took the top of the rampart, I heard voices. I pressed myself to the stone; flat as a riverfish, the rock cool on my breasts and thighs. Some kind of argument. Over a female. I listened carefully, waiting for the voices to turn away from my position. When they did, I vaulted over the top of the tower and took one, then the other, from behind with knife across the throat. My knife is silver. They died instantly.
It’s “eat or be eaten” as he told me. No second thoughts, no regrets. Or, if you have them, keep them for your most private dark moments in the night. He was going to give me all I needed to live my new life as a Vampire chieftan, and I would need to fight for it.
So I spilled their blood on the dark stone and pushed aside any doubt.
I descended the stairs, my heart pounding in my temples. Another guard I fought on the first landing; he was very young, and I was too quick for him.
When I reached the main floor of the tower I heard a voice. Mocking, dominant, deep, as it always was. I slid behind a ratty tapestry and waited.
“Bow to me and be spared. All I ask is you accept the chieftan that is my chosen,” the stranger’s voice rolled across the stone.
“We spit in the face of the ‘dread’ Mortifier!” said one brazen Ghet. “You have done nothing but sold our kind into slavery and used the blood of others to fuel your selfishness, your abnormality, your abomination.” The eloquence of this one inspired me to peek from behind the curtain. She was a matriarch, so old as to be going gray. She carried herself without fear. I looked at my stranger. His mouth twitched, and I could not say if it was regret or cold amusement.
“So be it,” he said. And that was that. The pride of these was no match for the magnitude of his black spells. He sucked their life from them as they stood, weakened them, and slaughtered them with his great sword. There were many, however, and as he covered his hands in blood, a demonlike figure materialized from an arcane doorway behind him. I put my hands to my throwing stars—the creature was horrible, and reeked of dark power. The stranger turned. The demon was black smoke and fire. I darted from my hiding place. I leapt, flinging my body between the demon and my stranger.
I felt the demon’s breath of flame begin to scorch my skin. I let fly my throwing stars. Then I felt the stranger’s cool hands on me, strong and sure. He threw me brutally to the side—I hit the wall and fell to the ground. The stranger breathed horrible words, dispatching the demon in a howl of rage. I shook my head, dazed.
When I rose, he smiled at me.
“Well done, Apprentice. But why martyr yourself to a demon’s hunger on account of me?” he said, his golden eyes flashing with irritation.
“My duty, nothing more. Shall we move on to the second tower, Master?”
“No regrets?” he stared past me, absently dabbing at his palms. The blood turned the kerchief to a froth of pink gore. I wondered if it was the same one from the night before.
“None, my Lord,” I answered. He nodded once, slowly, then tossed the fouled handkerchief on the ground as we advanced toward our next conquest.
The towers were mine, and they did have an excellent view. Zendikar stretched before me for miles and miles; red, gold, blue, deep green, stormy and black, dusty, swirling, ever-changing. The sun charged down upon us with hot whiteness. I had my seat, and he was free to go. The rest of the day was full of work and technicalities—auditing the prison block, the pantry, the armory. The fighting turned out to be the easy part.
“It is always that way,” the stranger said, throwing a rusty mace on top of the rusty pile already groaning in my arms. I staggered to keep my balance. “Fighting is easier than upkeep that is easier than remembering,” he muttered. “All of which is easier than sleeping.” A misshapen bludgeon clanked down onto the pile. “Take it all to the smithy. And get a smith in your ranks soon.”
“As you say, Master,” I gasped and stumbled off beneath my burden, cursing him and every last lace hankie under my breath.
That night we stood atop the middle tower. The ragged mountains of Akoum were a cold red in the distance. He hadn’t said a word all evening.
“Tell me why I cannot stay.” It was a command.
“Master. I asked you to save me,” I said. “You have.” I paused. The wind had changed and brought the scent of lavender and oiled leather to me. He said nothing, searching the horizon. I should have felt sorry for myself then, but I did not. I felt only sorrow for him. “I cannot follow you, my Lord, and you cannot stay. I understand.”
He turned to me, his eyes glowing.
“There is a dark time coming here,” he said, “You’ll prepare and will endure. You’ll prepare for the end of the world, or you are a fool. Do you understand?”
His eyes were bright, terrible, frigid gold. I backed away from him and bowed slightly.
“As you command,” I turned to go to down the stairs to my new home. I looked back over my shoulder. “I am no fool, as you know very well—Sorin.” It was the only time I ever called him by his name. I smiled at him, before descending into darkness.
It was like any other night, except it was the last. As we fell asleep, each to our own shadowed dreams, he gave me a lazy, peaceful wink. That is my last memory of him.
When I woke before dawn, I was alone. As was he.
A very fine dress of black silk lay folded next to my pillow. I cannot fathom where he got it from, but I think he enjoys that mystique. When I put my fingers to the dark fabric, it seemed alive—an invitation to a different time or place. I keep it in my pack, but have never worn it. The heat of the jungle and the dry air of the mountains mean there is no better attire than that of my new skin. Perhaps one day…I will have a use for the trappings of silk.
Some time after he departed, the Ancients were released by the idiocy of a female Elf. There were rumors of a white-haired dark stranger accompanying her. If it was he, I gather that his efforts in his obligation must have failed. It was—is—the darkest time in Zendikar’s recent history. The brood menace and the Ancients consume at a rate unprecedented and their hunger, unlike ours, can never be slaked, not even for a moment.
My name is Isoldreyn. It means “night’s palest bloom” in the ancient language of a plane called Innistrad. Where that is or what it’s like, I do not know. But I feel it must be full of its own terrible darkness, perhaps even more sinister and insidious than what we have seen here, for I saw it haunt the waking steps of my stranger and often felt it chill his restless sleep.
I have a small tribe now, made up of only those of our kind who will swear fealty to an ideal. I rule them through fairness and compassion as best I know how. But it is still a cruel and wild plane that we exist upon. Survival is paramount. In his honor we wear no paint or tribal markings, and we carry swords instead of double-blades. I am still called “pretty” though I bear many battle scars and there are dark shadows around my eyes from watching, waiting up at night for the next strike of the Eldrazi.
We do honor to every kill, seeking the old or the willing first and of course, the villains—murderers, madmen, rapists. We feed to sustain, not gorge. And I believe our Master will return one day, because he is sustained by what we stand for. Thus we survive for him, for our kind, and for all of Zendikar. I will face down Death here, as she deigns to come for me. I was never innocent, and I was never a fool. There is so much beauty in the interplay between light and shadow on the jungle floor.
We must tend our love now
Better chance to stop time first
As we tend the blood and earth
Than to slake the heart’s thirst
–Barony folk song