The Tale of Ser Eduart, Deathknight of the Jackal by Alysi
Winner for April 2023
The Tale of Ser Eduart
Deathknight of the Jackal
-- The Spring --
Every night the rains come. And every night, the butterflies take to hiding.
But not me. I wait.
While the other elfen warriors slumber, lost in their dreams caused by scattered stardust, I sit atop my steed, waiting for a thunder that rarely comes. When the lightning crackles, that is my sign to awaken and defend that which is my charge. The fae call it by one name, and thus it is the name that I use when I must speak of it: the Lo'varai Spring.
They say that a single sip of the waters will grant you an audience with the fae. Others say that the vibrant pink flowers floating on the surface can cure the deepest heartbreak. Or that if you pour a pitcher of its waters over a nearby stone, you will conjure a storm so great that no animal, living or dead, will be able to withstand its fury.
As the Spring's protector, I can neither confirm nor deny such fanastical tales.
I patrol the Dell, wondering if the butterflies will ever stay the night. If the rains won't send them fluttering away into the shadows of the night. But as always, the rain begins to fall, and they leave me alone.
Crack! Crash! Boom!
The thunder calls. A challenger approaches.
I ride my steed with great haste, wondering how someone was able to get past my guard. Perhaps I am getting sloppy, dreaming of butterflies as they were the Restless Himself, among us. Careless thoughts. I spur my steed onward, with great haste to the Spring. And there, kneeling while holding a stone pitcher, is a man.
He is tall and strong, wearing armor covered in barbs and spikes that makes his silhouette seem akin to a hulking demon instead of a man. Beams of moonlight sifting through the gaps in the trees illuminate a long, silver sword, shimmering with a tint of scarlet. And his back is turned to me...
Lightning courses through the sky once more, nullifying the moonlight as the wind whips up. Deer, wild boar, mice, owls - all manner of beasts rush past me with wild, fearful expressions. The fool actually did it.
"Who is the one who beckons this fateful storm? Whose hand has conjured the lightning and thunder that causes the Dell to quake in fear? Who holds a wish of death tonight, as payment for their transgressions?"
The man stands, turning towards me as he hears my voice booming through the trees.
"I am Ser Eduart," he responds. "A Deathknight from the Engine."
The rain pours down in earnest, forcing the man to speak louder lest the waters drown out his words.
"I wished to see if the stories were true."
Hmm. Even more of a fool than I had thought.
"To test the validity of the stories," I yell through the downpour. "You seek to only find answers through your own trials? Instead of attempting to learn through others who are familiar with the truth? And now the denizens here flee in fear of the storm you created, uprooted from their home just so you can satisfy your curiosity."
Droplets of rain cascade down his face. "My curiosity, yes. But also my bloodlust." With a shout nearly drowned out by the thunder, he rushes across the wet grass. As he nears, I can see a wildness in his eyes and his calculated determination in his movements. This is no amateur.
Hefting my spear, I press my heels into the horse's side twice in quick succession, and the stallion charges to meet my challenger. My spear is poised and leveled to strike this foolish knight and end this madness. We are nearly on top of him when he slides to his knees, bending backwards so that he's nearly parallel to the ground, using the slick ground to an uncharacteristic advantage as he slashes through the legs of my horse.
The beast buckles, throwing my spear off balance as I suddenly find myself hurtling through the air towards the Spring. Slender blades of grass fail to cushion my fall, and I skid several meters through the mud. I raise my gauntleted hand to wipe off a chunk of sod wedged in my helm. My horse lies on its side, rainwater diluting the blood from its broken legs.
"That won't be the only blood shed this evening, knight." My hand wraps tightly around the spear, twirling it once as I advance.
"Arrrghh!" My spear thrusts forward, stabbing nothing but raindrops my assailant deftly steps aside. I lift the iron haft of the spear to parry his counterstrike, and we begin to circle each other in the glade. His silence is off-putting.
Again, I thrust the spear, which the Deathknight grabs, pulling me forward into his waiting knee. Oxygen leaves my body as his knee connects a second time, forcing me to double over as his sword connects with the back of my platemail. My face meets the mud once more, but he does not press his advantage further.
"I thought the guardian of this place would be a greater challenge, fitting of raising my knightly status. But it seems I was wrong."
Anger welling up within me, I stand. While I breathe heavily, his demeanor is deathly calm and controlled.
For a third time, I advance, executing a well-practiced sequence of jabs and thrusts, forcing the Deathknight back as he prevents me from landing any meaningful blows. A rage fills me and my strikes become more reckless and wild, but still he does not seem phased. Finally, I manage to land a boot into his stomach and he reels backwards into the grass, dropping his blade. My eye darts briefly toward the Spring and my horse as I lift my spear to drive it into my challenger.
But I fail to see his knife.
In an instant, the cold metal is inside of me. Knees bend. I teeter in the rain, and he retrieves his sword.
"The Engine accepts your sacrifice."
And I know that this time the butterflies will not return.
-- The Warning --
At first I was upset that my husband perished.
And then I was more upset when I learned that he was bested so quickly.
Were we happy? Of course. He was the love of my life. We met at a young age and he swept me off my feet into a field of honeysuckle and daffodils. That's where we spent much of our time - outdoors enjoying nature. As he pursued his cavalier training, others took notice of his dual interests, and that's how he was recruited to guard the Spring.
It wasn't an easy transition, by any means. His station meant standing vigil all night protecting the Spring, and sleeping during the day when he returned. There were already precious few hours during the day, but now we had even less time together. He took his appointment incredibly seriously - as he should - and that meant that our days filled with sunshine and weaving crowns of flowers were behind us.
At least his watch has ended now.
When I heard the news from Elyssia, my handmaid, we watched out the window of our manor along the cliffs of the Shallach River, overlooking the Dell. The storm was terrible beyond reason. And when a cloaked figure emerged from the shadows at our door, rain slicking off him like a waterfall, I knew that it was his killer. You could sense the death around him.
He stood there for what seemed like hours as the downpour continued. Finally, I sent Elyssia down to see what he wanted or what we could give him to make him return from whence he came.
The man, Ser Eduart as I came to learn, sought our home, citing his victory over my husband as reason enough to stake his claim. And so I went out into the pouring rain to meet him, my own eyes still burning with the fresh tears of loss, to chastise him for daring to make such an absurd request without even letting a single moon pass.
It was obvious that this knight did not expect to be met with such hostility, and certainly not with this boisterousness out of a newly-minted widow.
"You're right, Sunniva. I should have waited. But due this manor will be mine, as it was rightfully earned."
"But you did not earn the right to remove those of us living here." My voice was loud, even against the stormy backdrop. "We have every right to remain here, even it it means living under your watchful fist."
Ser Eduart nodded. "Very well. I shall not force you out, but save for personal effects this manor and its contents and lands now belong to me."
In the following weeks, it became evident that Ser Eduart wasn't aware that, through his actions, he was now responsible for guarding the same spring that my husband once did. After much insistence, he agreed to take up the spring as his ward.
But the months passed and the Deathknight became agitated with a nocturnal life of guarding something whose properties he did not believe in. He would come back in the mornings grumbling and seething, feeling stuck in his position that he had put himself in. For Elyssia and I, it would seem like this would be an improvement of our situation; his complete focus was on the spring and not on us. In reality, this almost made it worse, making us feel like wraiths haunting the memory of a life that died without us.
One morning, Ser Eduart returned in a disturbingly chipper mood.
"I will be leaving today."
Obviously, this caught my interest. "What do you mean you are leaving? You won't be staying here any longer as you protect the Spring?"
He shook his head. "I'm done with the Spring. It's given me nothing but trouble and revealed none of its secrets."
This was quite the development. "If that is what you want. Although the Spring demands you return within a year or things will get much worse for you. If you think the privilege of guarding its secrets is a burden now, it's nothing compared to the tragedies that will befall you."
With a skeptical laugh and a wave of the hand, the Deathknight disregards my warning. "The original stories of the Spring lacked any semblance of truth. Why would yours dissuade me any differently?"
That night, he was gone.
-- The Madness --
The grinding Earth, the tumbling stones. Unyielding mountains in unequal measures, towering and falling and rising all at once. Glorious to witness among the dust and the dirt, even as these wings of stone cease their ability to carry me. The ground is much better, yes?
Tossing and turning, the soil churns over itself, swallowing the grubs and the other things that crawl on their bellies. Always reshaping into a better, more perfect form.
And yet, the Earth isn't able to consume everything it seems. This man, stumbling over stone and cliff, wild as the rocks that slide and eyes run rampant with torment. He is a knight of some kind, yes? The armor is recognizable but vastly out of care. As if he thinks it to be grafted to his skin but still seeks to tear it from himself.
A curious thing indeed, yes?
Even as I get closer, I can't discern what this strange man is doing. His gaunt face screams starvation but his unkempt hair screams paranoia. And his mouth screams...screams. Why has he come to grovel in the dirt to which he will return someday? Or is it his hope to end the madness inside and have his homecoming early?
This is a man who has lost everything, yes?
But wait. This armor seems so familiar because it is. There's just so much dirt and grime clinging, desperate to be carried anywhere but here, but there really is no mistaking that this is a Deathknight. How does a Deathknight fall this far from the service of the Lords and Lady, instead wailing amongst the Mountains in a reverie of their namesake?
Without some direction, this will be his grave. He will not be the same, but perhaps one day he will return to his former glory.
Although the Earth is hungry, yes? We could just ignore him until his tired corpse is swallowed by the maw of the Mountain, as is the inevitability of all things. Lord Brom would agree, I'm sure of it. And the lindwyrms might be content to gnaw on the bones, if any remain.
Or perhaps...the Earth will make an example of him. Reshape him, yes? Return this broken body to the ground and form a superior one from the clay it creates. He is mostly dirt already, it would only take a few moments...
And there it goes. The Earth must have been starving for something other than rocks and stone. It was fun while it lasted, watching him stumble about without knowing that his end was near. Nothing left to keep my attention, yes? To dust he has returned.
Or...wait. What's this, rising from the bowels of the Mountains? It does appear that the Earthen Caretakers have other plans for this one. And dare I say, the stone looks good on him.
-- The Jackal --
The Blasted Lands have been my home for as long as I can remember. Most see it as a barren place where everything is doomed to die and where life is squandered. Everybody fights for every scrap that they have -the rams, the scorpions, the dogs, the bobcats, and us...the jackals.
It's all ripe for the taking, and only the bold survive here. And those who wander through here not knowing how to tell a mound of sand from a gravedigger pit, well, they deserve to fall in.
Speaking of, here comes a man now. Ah, he has an aura about him that oozes confidence but oftentimes that's a pitfall just waiting to happen. He's practically strutting across the cracked ground. Does he even see the mound? This will be delightful.
The gravedigger bursts from the ground but the man snaps into action, drawing a blade quicker than most eyes can track and slicing towards the predatory creature. As the ground gives way and begins to fall into the gravedigger's domain, the sword is already buried in its skull.
Oh my, that was...impressive? Let me get a bit closer to inspect this strong human.
As I patter around the hole, the man looks up at me. He yanks his bloody sword from the gravedigger skull and hoists himself back up. Even though I'm a bit larger than the others in the pack, he still towers over me.
"You are awfully curious, don't you think? Never seen a Stonelord before?"
Stonelord? The spiked armour says Deathknight, but he says Stonelord. Could this be a new era in the supremacy of the Engine? A wielder of a blade with mastery over the powers of stone and demons would be quite the force indeed. Someone who would want for nothing. Bold.
A survivor. And more.
I lower my head down, arching my back in a concave fashion in a bowing motion towards this Stonelord. Slowly, the man bends down, picking up some of the rusty silt in his fingers, crushing it. He rubs the dust between eyes, marking me with the sign of Earth.
"I shall call you Aya. We are bonded together now, you and I."
Despite my history of survival and distrust, this man feels much different than the people I have encountered before. There is something about him that makes me feel as though we are connected through the very ground we tread upon. This will be favorable; a mutual relationship.
Great things are in our future.
-- The Return --
It's been well over a year since I left Sunniva and the estate. I should have heeded her warnings, but frankly, I felt that it was nothing more than outdated superstition on her part. To this day, I still do not understand why so many seek to tap into the Spring's powers, considering that I have yet to see any benefits manifest from its waters.
Detriments, on the other hand, hit me in a much more personal way. I did not take Sunniva's warning seriously, and by casting my duty aside, madness befell me. It is possible that I was in this state for an extended period of time, but I should really be dead. If not for the compassion of Earth, my story would have reached its conclusion.
Instead, I was given a second chance to fulfill my duty to the Engine. Cleansed of my mental afflictions and rebuilt from the Mountains, I knew that I didn't want to waste the opportunity that I was given. This meant fulfilling my oath and my duty to the Spring.
With Aya at my side, I am now ready to return to Sunniva and restore myself as the Spring's guardian.
Before I even arrive at the manor, I see a black plume of smoke billowing on the horizon. I begin to jog, fearing the worst. At long last, I crest over the hill and see the entire estate engulfed in flame, and the azure banners of Paladins, no doubt proselytizing through an ironic baptism of fire.
I spur Aya onwards, hoping that there are still survivors. The first few Celestines are caught unawares, not expecting a combatant to emerge from their flank to thwart their advance. But after the first lay victim to my blade, their death rattles alert the others. They begin to surround us in the courtyard. Blade held at the ready, I brace myself.
The first charges with an axe, lifting it high overhead. It's easy to step underneath and slice laterally across his stomach before turning to face the next. As we engage, our blades clashing a fiery and reflective reverie, a third attacker connects with his pommel in my back. My knee drops to the ground, hoping to withstand both blows at once.
Suddenly Aya comes to life, leaping onto one of the assailants, pinning them to the ground. In a flurry of jaws and slobber, the Paladin's light is extinguished. This allows me to fully block the other attack, pressing my advantage to force them backwards. A bash from their shield repels my advance, creating separation.
It matters not to Earth.
Without warning, the ground beneath the Paladin rises up in a stony pillar, lifting them from their feet and sending them hurtling into the ground. Disarmed, they reach their untimely end quickly and without fanfare.
My chest heaves. Mere seconds have passed but it feels like eternity. It's good to be back.
Without wasting any further time, I gesture towards the jackal and we head towards the manor proper. I wipe my blade off on a now-useless Paladin standard, leaving silty pebbles to mingle with the blood like a gritty, crimson paste as it smears across the fabric. The entire building is swallowed by flame.
"Stay here Aya."
I dip my head below the smoke as I step through the doorway, yelling into the inferno. "Sunniva! Elyssia!" The hungrily licking flames answer with a crackling pop, but there is no evidence that anybody living remains. A year ago these people meant nothing to me, and yet I still feel as though I've failed an obligation to them, just as much as I failed mine with the Spring.
Turning back to the jackal, a sigh escapes my lips. The bodycount is in my favor, yes, but the scales are not even.
My head whips around to the trees where the voice originated. There, two figures stand partially obscured by the foliage.
"I thought you had perished. Why did they come? To what end?"
Sunniva shakes her head. "They thought we had secrets about the Spring. Even with nobody standing vigil, it seems that the Spring's magics are dormant. Or perhaps, because of it."
After how I treated this people, any hope for a relationship other than mutual acknowledgement is impossible. "I'm...glad you're alright. I should have listened to you, and heeded your warning. Instead, I let my selfishness get the better of me."
The fire continues to crackle and the sickly acrid smoke blossoms upwards into the sky, the burnished amber light of Father Sun's descent unable to pierce its cloud.
"This is where I leave you for now. But I will return in the morning."
Their eyes show disapproval, as if nothing has changed.
"To help you rebuild. Until you are made whole once more. I will rest my head elsewhere, but I owe you that much, at least."
Both Sunniva and Elyssia seem confused as they look to each other.
"Aya here will stay with you and keep watch. She's an adept hunter too, so use the fire that's already here."
A simple nod, and I turn towards the woods. Night casts its umbral cloak over the Basin as the nocturnal creatures awake from their slumber. The ground is dry, cracked, and parched. But as I near the Spring, the brown gives way to green.
It seems so innocent a thing.
I place a hand on the hilt of my sword as darkness overtakes the land. The gentle patter of raindrops joins the chorus of crickets and owls, delicately falling on the trees. Cool and crisp, the waters do little to wash away the Earth clinging to my armour.
A solitary butterfly lands on my gauntlet.