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Shadow Isles Ruins
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Short Story

The Echoes Left Behind

By Anthony Reynolds Lenné

Thresh shook his head, laughing. “We have what mortals have coveted since time immemorial—eternity.

Lore

Blood pooled beneath him, bright crimson against pristine white stone. His sword lay nearby, its blade broken. His killers stood around him, shadows on the periphery, but he saw nothing except her.

Her eyes stared into his own, without seeing. His blood-spattered face was reflected back at him. He was lying on his side. His breath was shallow, and weakening.

Her lifeless hand was cold, but he didn’t feel anything. A calmness descended upon him like a shroud. There was no pain, no fear, no doubt. Not any more.

His armored fingers tightened around her hand. He couldn’t be with her in life, but he would be with her in death.

For the first time in what seemed forever, he felt at peace…

“Hello, Ledros,” said a voice that shouldn’t be there.

Ledros… His name.

There was an evil, mocking laugh, and a clink of chains.

“I don’t know why you do this to yourself, but I have enjoyed seeing you suffer.”

Reality crashed over him like a tidal wave, threatening to drag him under.

The blood beneath him was centuries old, flaking and brown. The stone was not white, but black, and cracked. The sky was filled with turbulent, dark clouds lit from within by lightning.

And everywhere, the Black Mist coiled.

She was still there for a moment, and he clung to her, unwilling to let her go.

“My love,” he breathed, but then she faded, like ash on the wind, and he was left grasping at nothing.

He was dead.

And he was trapped here in this perpetual in-between.

Ledros rose, and picked up the shattered remnant of his sword.

He leveled the ghostly blade at the one who had shattered the illusion of his memory. The hateful spirit lurked in darkness, leering at him, eyes burning with cold flame. His cursed lantern sat on a smashed chunk of masonry nearby, radiating beams of deadlight, captive souls writhing within.

The Chain Warden. ThreshSquare Thresh.

Oh, how he hated him.

The cursed spirit had haunted him for what seemed like centuries, taunting him, mocking him. Now he had found his way here? This was his sanctuary, the only place he could feel even a fleeting moment of peace before the horror of his reality reasserted itself.

“Why are you here?” Ledros demanded. His voice was dull and hollow, as if he spoke from distance or time far away.

“You were lost for quite a while this time,” said Thresh. “Months. Perhaps years. I don’t keep track any more.”

Ledros lowered his blade, and took stock of his surroundings.

He remembered this place as it had been—white stone and shining gold bathed in sunlight. Protective white mist had wreathed the isles, resisting outsiders. When they had first landed, it seemed a land beloved by the gods—a place of wealth, and knowledge, and wonder, untouched by famine or war. It had just made it easier. There had been little resistance.

Now there was no sun. All was darkness. The ruptured, shattered remnants of the library loomed above, like some great, desiccated corpse. Chunks of stonework hung in mid-air, where they’d been blasted outward and locked in time. He had been a fool to think the gods had loved this place, for they had clearly forsaken it.

Every time he re-emerged from the unformed madness of the Black Mist and reformed, it was here, where his mortal body had fallen, so long ago. Every time it was the same. Nothing changed.

The one waiting for him was new, however. It was not a change he welcomed.

Out of habit, he reached for the pendant he always wore around his neck… but it was not there.

“No…” The corpse-light glowing within him flared brightly in rising panic.

“Such a pretty trinket,” said Thresh.

Ledros’ head snapped around, eyes blazing. Thresh held aloft a short chain, from which hung a delicate silver pendant engraved with two roses, their leaves and stalks wrapped around each other like a lovers’ embrace.

Anger surged within Ledros, hot and sudden, and his sword flared as he took a step toward Thresh. He’d been a big man in life, full of wrath and violence—the king’s champion, no less. He towered over Thresh.

“That… is… mine,” hissed Ledros.

The Chain Warden did not flee before him like the lesser spirits did. The death’s head that was his face was hard to read, but there was cruel amusement in his eyes.

“You’re an aberration, Ledros,” he said, still dangling the pendant before him. “Some might say we all are, but you’re different. You stand out. Here, you are the real abnormality.”

“Give it to me,” snarled Ledros, blade at the ready. “I will cut you down.”

“You could try,” said Thresh. He spoke mildly, but his eyes burned, eager for violence. He sighed. “But this gets us nowhere. Here. Take it. It means nothing to me.”

He tossed it away with a dismissive flick. Ledros caught it in one black gauntlet, his arm snapping out with a speed that belied his size. He opened his massive fist, inspecting the pendant. It was undamaged.

Ledros sheathed his blade and removed his spiked helm. His face was insubstantial, a ghostly echo of how he had appeared in life. A cold wind whipped across the blasted landscape, but he didn’t feel it.

He pulled the precious pendant over his head, and slipped his helmet back on.

“Don’t you ever wish to see an end to this vile existence, Chain Warden?” Ledros said. “To finally be at peace?”

Thresh shook his head, laughing. “We have what mortals have coveted since time immemorial—eternity.”

“It makes us prisoners.”

Thresh smirked, and turned away, the chains and hooks hanging from his belt clinking. His lantern drifted along beside him, though he didn’t so much as touch it.

“You cling so desperately to the past, even as it runs through your fingers, like sand in a timepiece,” said Thresh, “yet you’re blind to the wonder of what we have been given. It has made us gods.”

“It is a curse,” hissed Ledros.

“Run along then, sword-champion,” Thresh said, gesturing Ledros away, dismissively. “Go, find your paramour. Perhaps this time she’ll even remember you…”

Ledros became very still, eyes narrowing.

“Tell me something,” said Thresh. “You seek to save her, but from what? She does not seem tormented. You, however…”

“You walk a dangerous line, warden,” snarled Ledros.

“Is it for her sake you do this? Or your own?”

Thresh had said words to this effect before. He seemed intent on making a mockery of Ledros’ efforts.

“I am not one of your playthings, warden,” Ledros said. “Do not make the mistake of thinking you can toy with me.”

Thresh smiled, exposing the shark-like teeth of a predator.

“Of course not,” he said.

With a gesture, Thresh called his lantern. It came to him, swiftly, then hovered just below his outstretched taloned hand. In the lantern’s glowing deadlight, Ledros saw anguished faces, pressing against their confinement, before fading to be replaced by others—a horrific cavalcade of tormented souls. Thresh smiled, savoring their pain.

“I don’t need to torture you,” he said. “You do that to yourself.”

The Chain Warden stepped into the darkness, leaving Ledros utterly alone.

A hollow wind ripped through the shattered city, but he did not feel it.

He felt nothing but her.

She was hunting.

Ledros stepped into the mist, letting it flow around him. Then he shifted through it.

The Black Mist writhed around him, full of hate, anger, and fear, but he remained distinct from it, maintaining his sense of self. He was drawn toward her like a moth to candlelight, and just as unheeding of the danger. He whipped across what had once been the Blessed Isles, passing over wasted lands and the churning water of the straits dividing them. Wherever the Black Mist extended—reaching blindly, searching, always searching—he was able to go. This was their sunless prison.

Her burning presence within the darkness lured him on. She was close. Feeling the nearness of her, he stepped from the mist once more.

He stood in a blackened forest, the trees withered and dead, their branches dry and cracked. The echoes of leaves long since fallen rippled in the memory of a breeze far more gentle than the cold gale now howling through the dead forest.

He sensed movement in the trees. His heavy boots crunched on blackened soil as he began to stalk it.

His iron shield was strapped to his left arm, though he didn’t remember securing it there, and he drew his sword. The leather wrapped around its hilt had rotted long ago, and while the blade was broken a few feet above the hilt, the ghostly outline of its full length could still be seen, glowing softly. Shattered and corroded by the ravages of time, it was a shadow of its former majesty. It had been gifted to him by the king himself, back when his monarch was a man to be admired and loved.

The ground sloped sharply below, but he kept to the high ground, moving along a ridge marked with jutting stone and twisted roots. He could see them now—shadowy spirits borne upon spectral steeds, galloping through the glen below. They moved swiftly, weaving between the trees, east toward a sun that would never again rise over these shores.

They moved as one, like a hunting party… yet they were the ones being hunted.

Ledros broke into a run, keeping pace with them.

A voice echoed through the trees.

“We come for you, betrayers…”

It spoke not as a single voice, but rather a score or more of them, layered and overlapping, a legion of souls speaking as one. The strongest of them was one he knew well.

Ledros quickened his pace, running fast and low. The riders below had been forced to weave around massive stone formations and the boles of ancient, desiccated trees. It slowed them, while the ridge he ran was straight. He quickly outpaced them and drew ahead of the hunted spirits.

Ledros turned abruptly, stepping over the edge of a sheer cliff. He landed in a crouch at the base, some thirty feet below, the earth cracking beneath him.

He stood within a narrow defile, where the natural contours of the land had created a funnel. The riders would have to come through.

With blade drawn, he waited.

The first of the horsemen appeared, riding at a gallop, a being of spirit and twisted metal—a vile mockery of the once-proud knights of the Iron Order. They were nothing to him now, just hateful fragments of the men they had once been.

A dark lance, its tip jagged and hooked, was clasped in the knight’s mailed grip, and great curling horns extended from his helm. Seeing Ledros, he wrenched his mount violently to the side, making it snarl and spit. Its hooves were wreathed in shadow, and it seemed not to touch the ground at all.

Had Ledros killed this one before? Or had he been one of those that had survived his rampage, and killed him?

The other riders appeared, pulling their steeds up short.

“Stand aside, bladesman,” one hissed.

“We have no quarrel with you,” said another.

“Our quarrel will last until the end of time itself,” growled Ledros.

“So be it,” snarled another of the deathly knights. “Ride him down!”

“You shouldn’t have stopped,” said Ledros, a smirk playing on his lips. “That was an error.”

One of the knights was hurled from his saddle, a glowing spear impaling him. His steed turned to smoke as he hit the ground. The knight screamed as he followed it into nothingness, condemned to join the Black Mist once more. No spirit went to that darkness willingly.

“She’s here!” roared the lead rider, dragging his steed around to face the new threat.

There was confusion among the others, caught somewhere between the desire to turn and fight, and to flee in panic.

They’d have been better off taking their chances at riding him down. At least a few might have escaped. Against her, all would be returned to the mist.

Another knight was ripped from the saddle, a spear hurled from the mist taking him in the chest.

Then she appeared, loping from the gloom like a lioness on the hunt, her eyes burning with predatory light.

KalistaSquare Kalista.

Ledros’ gaze was instantly drawn to the ethereal speartips protruding from her back, and he felt a pang in the core of his being, as sharp as the blades that had ended his own life.

Kalista padded forward, a spectral spear clasped in one hand. A knight charged her, hook-bladed lance lowered, but she rolled lightly out of the way. Coming to one knee, she hurled her spear, impaling the knight as he rode past. Even as she threw, she was moving toward her next enemy.

She flexed her hand, and a new weapon materialized in her grasp.

A sword flashed down at her, but Kalista avoided it expertly, slapping the blade aside with the haft of her spear, before swaying away from the flailing hooves of the knight’s steed. Leaping from a blackened rock, she twisted in the air and drove her spear down into the rider’s chest, banishing him to darkness. She landed in perfect balance, eyes locked to her next victim.

Ledros had never met a woman as strong as Kalista in life. In death, she was unstoppable.

While the others focused on her, two of the knights charged Ledros, belatedly seeking to escape Kalista’s methodical slaughter. Stepping sideward at the last moment, Ledros slammed his heavy shield into the steed of the first, knocking the spectral beast to the ground, legs kicking, and sending its rider flying from the saddle.

The lance of the second knight took Ledros in the side, punching through his armor and snapping halfway down its length. Nevertheless, Ledros retained his feet and spun, lashing out with his blade. He struck through the neck of the knight’s steed, a blow that would have decapitated the beast had it been made of flesh and bone. Instead, it exploded into nothing with a keening scream. Its rider crashed to the ground.

Ledros smashed the ghostly warrior backward with a heavy blow of his shield as he rose, hurling him onto the point of Kalista’s spear. Her hunt, her kill.

Ledros sheathed his blade, and watched as she destroyed the last of the spirits.

Tall and lean, Kalista was in constant motion. Her enemies had been martial templars whose skill at arms was legendary, yet she moved among them effortlessly, side-stepping lance thrusts and sword strikes, dispatching each in turn.

Then it was done, and the only two left standing were Kalista and Ledros.

“Kalista?” he said.

She turned her gaze upon him, but there was no hint of recognition in her eyes. Her expression was stern, as it ever had been in life. She regarded him coldly, unblinking.

“We are the Spear of Vengeance,” she replied in that voice that was not hers alone.

“You are Kalista, Spear of the Argent Throne,” said Ledros.

He knew the words she would speak next before she even opened her mouth. It was the same every time.

“We are retribution,” said Kalista. “Speak your pledge, or begone.”

“You were niece to the king I served in life,” said Ledros. “We are… acquainted with each other.”

Kalista regarded him for a moment, then she turned and strode away.

“Our task is unfinished,” she said, without looking back. “The betrayers will suffer our wrath.”

“Your task can never be finished,” said Ledros, hurrying to keep pace. “You are trapped in a never-ending spiral! I am here to help you.”

“The guilty shall be punished,” said Kalista, continuing to march back through the trees.

“You remember this, don’t you?” said Ledros, drawing the pendant from around his neck. That gave her pause, as it always did. It was the one thing Ledros had discovered that could break through her fugue, even if only for a moment. He just needed to figure out how to extend that moment…

Kalista came to a halt, cocking her head to one side as she looked at the delicate pendant. She reached for it, but stopped herself before she touched it.

“I tried to give this to you once,” said Ledros. “You refused it.”

Uncertainty touched her eyes.

“We… I… remember,” she said.

She looked at him—actually saw him.

“Ledros,” she said. Her voice was her own now, and for a moment she was the woman he remembered. The woman he’d loved. Her features softened, ever so slightly. “I could never have given you what you wanted.”

“I understand,” said Ledros, “even if I didn’t at the time.”

Kalista looked around, as if only now becoming aware of her surroundings. She looked at her hands, glowing from within and as insubstantial as smoke. Ledros saw confusion, then anguish play across her face. Then her features hardened.

“Would that I had never brought him here,” said Kalista. “All this could have been averted.”

“It was not your fault,” said Ledros. “I knew madness had claimed him. I could have ended it before it came to this. No one would have questioned his death. No one would have mourned him.”

“He wasn’t always that way,” said Kalista.

“No, but the man we knew died long before all this,” Ledros said, gesturing around him.

“…We have a task to complete.”

Hope stirred within him. It was an unfamiliar feeling.

“Whatever it is, we will complete it together, just as…” he said, but his words petered out as he realized his error.

The cold mask had dropped over her features, and she turned and strode away. Despair clutched at Ledros.

He’d failed again, just as he had so many times before.

He saw himself in the early years after the Ruination, stalking the spirits of those who had killed her in life, convinced that destroying them would free her. It hadn’t. He’d spent countless years pursuing that goal, but it had amounted to nothing.

He saw himself felling the arrogant cavalry captain, HecarimSquare Hecarim, hacking his head from his shoulders and rendering him back to the mist. That one had struck Kalista the final, fatal blow, and had long toiled, seeking his end. Time and again they fought, as the years, and decades, and centuries rolled by, and the unseen stars turned overhead. But Hecarim was strong of will, and he returned from the Black Mist, of course, each time more monstrous than the last.

Either way, it changed nothing. Kalista became steadily more lost as she absorbed the vengeful spirits of the mortals who pledged themselves to her, seeking her aid against their own betrayers.

Once, he had brought Kalista face to face with Hecarim, a feat that had taken dozens of lesser deaths to achieve. He had believed that was the key to finally setting her free, and he’d rejoiced as he saw the now monstrous creature Hecarim skewered, a dozen spears piercing his towering frame… but banishing him to the darkness had done nothing. A moment of satisfaction, and then it was past.

Nothing had changed.

Just another failure added to his growing tally.

At one point, despair drove him toward self destruction. The purity of the one sunrise he’d seen since the blood had ceased coursing through his veins burned him, his intangible body dissipating like vapor. Guilt at leaving Kalista behind clawed at him, but in that agony he had rejoiced, daring to believe he’d finally found release.

Even in seeking final oblivion, he had failed, and he’d been condemned to the madness of the Black Mist once more.

All the moments preceding his banishment blurred together in a never-ending cavalcade of horror and defeat.

He roared as a RyzeSquare purple-skinned sorcerer cast him back to the darkness, tearing him asunder with runic magics.The savage joy he’d felt as he joined the slaughter in the streets of a festering harbor city overrun with the Black Mist gave way to sudden pain as he was blasted to nothingness by the faith of indigenous witches.

He laughed as a sword impaled him on its length, but his amusement turned to agony as the blade burst into searing light, burning with the intensity of the sun.

Again and again and again he’d been condemned back to the nightmarish Black Mist, but always he’d returned. Every time, he returned to a land locked in stasis, waking in the same place, the same way.

A being of lesser will would have succumbed to insanity long ago, as so many of the spirits had. But not him. Failure clung to him, but his will was as iron. His stubborn determination to free her kept him going. That was what ensured he came back, over and over again.

Snapping back to the present, Ledros watched Kalista stalk away from him, intent on her unending mission.

A creeping melancholia settled within him. Was it all for nothing?

Was Thresh right? Was his attempt to free her from her path of retribution actually selfish?

She was sleepwalking through this nightmare, unaware of its true horrors. Would she thank him were he to wake her? Perhaps she would despise him, wishing he had let her be.

Ledros shook his head, trying to dislodge the insidious notion, even as a vision of Thresh—smiling, predatory—appeared in his mind.

“Get out of my head,” he snarled, cursing Thresh.

A new idea came to him suddenly, banishing his lingering doubts and fears. There was something he hadn’t tried, something he’d never considered until now.

“Kalista,” he called.

She did not heed him, and continued on her way, her step unrelenting.

He loosened his sword belt, and cast his scabbarded blade to the ground. He wouldn’t need it any more.

“I betrayed you,” he called out.

She stopped, her head whipping around, unblinking eyes locking on to him.

“I should have stepped forward as soon as the order was given,” Ledros continued. “I knew Hecarim was looking for any excuse to be rid of you. You’d always been the king’s favorite. It all happened so fast, but I should have been faster. We could have faced them, back to back. We could have cut our way through them and been free, together! I betrayed you with my inaction, Kalista. I failed you.”

Kalista’s eyes narrowed

“Betrayer,” she intoned.

An ethereal spear manifested in her grasp, and she began marching toward him.

Ledros unstrapped his shield and threw it aside as she broke into a loping run. He opened his arms wide, welcoming what was to come.

The first spear drove him back a step as it impaled him.

His had been the true betrayal. He’d loved her, even if he’d only spoken those words aloud alone, in the darkness of night…

A second spear drove through him, hurled with tremendous force. He staggered, but stubbornly remained standing.

He had not stepped in to stop her being murdered. He was her real betrayer.

Her third spear plunged through him, and now he dropped to both knees. He smiled, even as his strength leached from him.

Yes, this was it. This was what would finally break her from that awful, unending spiral. He was sure of it.

“Finish it,” he said, looking up at her. “Finish it, and be free.”

They stared at each other for a moment, a pair of undying spirits, their insubstantial forms rippling with deathless energy. In that moment, Ledros felt only love. In his mind’s eye, he saw her as she had been in life—regal, beautiful, strong.

“Death to all betrayers,” she said, and ran him through.

Ledros’ vision wavered as his form began to come apart, yet he saw Kalista’s expression change, the impassive mask dropping, replaced with dawning horror.

“Ledros?” she said, her voice now her own.

Her eyes were wide, and seemed to fill with shimmering tears. She rushed to be beside him as Ledros fell.

“What have I done?” she breathed.

He wanted to reassure her, but no words came forth.

I did this for you.

Darkness crashed in, and tendrils of mist reached to claim him.

Kalista reached out to comfort him, but her fingers passed through his dissolving form. Her mouth moved, but he could not hear her over the roaring madness of the Black Mist.

His armor fell to the ground and turned to dust, along with his sword. Blind terror beckoned, but he went into it gladly.

Dimly, he registered the pale specter of Thresh, watching from the shadows with his fixed, hungry smile. Even the Chain Warden’s unwanted presence could not dampen Ledros’ moment of victory.

He’d done it. He had freed her.

It was over.

Blind, all-consuming terror.

Incandescent, uncontrollable rage.

Claustrophobic horror, cloying and choking.

And behind it all was the insatiable hunger—the yearning to feed on warmth and life, to draw more souls into darkness.

The cacophony was deafening—a million screaming, tortured souls, writhing and roiling in shared torment.

This was the Black Mist.

And only the strongest of souls could escape its grasp. Only those with unfinished business.

Blood pooled beneath him, bright crimson against pristine white stone. His sword lay nearby, its blade broken. His killers stood around him, shadows on the periphery, but he saw nothing except her.

Her eyes stared into his own, without seeing. His blood-spattered face was reflected back at him. He was lying on his side. His breath was shallow, and weakening.

Her lifeless hand was cold, but he didn’t feel anything. A calmness descended upon him like a shroud. There was no pain, no fear, no doubt. Not any more.

His armored fingers tightened around her hand. He couldn’t be with her in life, but he would be with her in death.

For the first time in what seemed forever, he felt at peace…

No. Something was not right.

Reality crashed in.

None of this was real. This was but an echo left behind, the residual pain of his death, hundreds of lifetimes earlier.

Thankfully, the Chain Warden was not here to mock him.

How long had it been, this time? There was no way to know. Decades, or a few minutes—it could have been either, and yet it hardly mattered. Nothing changed in this vile realm of stasis.

Then he remembered, and hope surged through him. It was not a sensation he was familiar with, but it blossomed like the first bud of a seemingly dead tree after rainfall.

He turned, and she was there, and for a moment he knew joy, true joy. She was herself again, and she had come to him!

Then he saw her expression. The cold, severe mask, the lack of recognition in her eyes. The hope inside him withered and died.

Kalista stared past him, her head cocked, as if listening to something only she could hear.

“We accept your pledge,” she said, before turning and stepping into the mist.

Then she was gone.

Reaching out with his will, Ledros felt her now far away. Someone had called to her, from a distant continent to the north-west. Someone else who had traded their soul for a promise of vengeance against whoever had wronged them. They knew not what horror awaited.

Bitterness and bile filled Ledros. He cursed himself, twisting his hatred inward.

There was no hope. He knew that now. He’d been a fool to think otherwise.

She was trapped for eternity, as were they all. Only pride and stubbornness had made him think he could solve it, like a riddle, for all these years.

Pride and stubbornness—traits that were as much his bane in death as they had been in life, it seemed.

The cursed Chain Warden was right. It was a selfish desire to free her, he saw that now. Kalista may not be herself, but at least she was not tormented like he was. At least she had purpose.

Ledros yanked the pendant from around his neck, shattering the links of its thin chain. He hurled it into the mist.

To even hope for anything more was foolishness. There could be no peace, not unless the curse that held these isles in its foetid grasp was broken.

“And so, I must end it,” Ledros said.

Oblivion called.

Thresh stepped from the darkness. He glanced around, ensuring he was alone. Then he knelt and picked up the discarded silver pendant.

The fool had been so close. He was on the brink of bringing her back… and now, after countless centuries of trying, he had abandoned his task, at the very moment of success.

Thresh smiled, cruelly. He liked seeing hope wither and die, like blighted fruit upon the vine, as what could have been sweet turned to poison. It amused him.

He opened his lantern, and tossed the pendant within. Then he stepped back into the darkness, and faded from view.

After a time, the rattle of his chains faded, and he was gone.

References

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