Sidescene: Heart of Darkness

I am a clever man. I have studied magic in all its forms. I have invented cloaks that hide and boots that quiet. I have awakened beasts and stone alike. I have lived and died many times.

Decades ago, as elves track time, I lived just north of a large human city. There I continued my studies of magic, broken up only by my body’s needs and my admittedly curious hobby of gathering relics from the fall of Angharradh. Having always been intrigued by humanity, I took on a human staff. Cooks and cleaners mostly, as well as a steward loyal beyond his end, and a lab assistant named Marie.

Though she could not always grasp the multidimensional geometries of the Art I wrestled with, Marie did begin to know me. As our time together grew longer I found the intricacies of magic far less interesting than those of her mind. She could both infuriate me with a word and intoxicate me with a glance and I loved her for it. Marie became the fire that burned within me and soon we became wedded. Her belly began to grow and though it was not my first creation, this new life, I knew, would be my greatest.

With all of her strength and passion I had forgotten how weak the mortal form was. Marie gave her life to our daughter Maggie nine months after our wedding. She did not believe in resurrection saying that it was ‘unnatural.’ I respected her choice, but I was lost without her. Lost to the darkness and the cold that replaced her fire.

And poor Maggie. I knew nothing of raising a child and I escaped into my lab for increasingly longer bouts. Though I saw her every night for dinner, at least for the first several years, it was my steward and the staff that really raised Maggie. Eventually I could not stand to be with her. I hated her for what she had taken from me and felt shame for what I had taken from her. We rarely spoke more than passing pleasantries, but sometimes I would watch quietly from the gallery as she danced in the neglected ballroom. She had the grace of an elf and the strength of a human. I thought she was happy—she looked happy when she danced. I didn’t know how many tears she shed when I was not around and I was not around a lot. In the end, her dancing was all we shared, but it was not enough. She wanted a life that staying with me could not provide. One morning she was gone, leaving only a note saying “I still love you.” She never came home and my eyes would never see her again.

It was time for my life to end. The pain was too much for that mortal form to bear. I left my loyal steward my home and entombed myself beneath it. I died holding a note I hoped my daughter would someday find. It contained my last thoughts before I moved on: “I’m sorry Maggie, it wasn’t worth it.” My Art and my toys were meaningless without her.

Decades passed before I returned to the mortal realms. I busied myself with celestial politics and the games of immortals. That terrible life, one of so many, became little more than a distant memory.

Recently, as I track time, I was in a human city watching ballet. The elegance and mathematics of dance have always reminded me of the Art and helped focus my mind when my work was at an impasse. It is then that I saw her. Maggie or Magdalena as she was now known. The distant memories of that life returned to my mind like a fireball. I should have been able to push them aside, but the depth of the pain made them stronger. I sat entranced, watching my daughter dance, seeing the aura of happiness surrounding her. I was a celestial being; she would not have recognized me even if I were visible, but none of that mattered. She was dancing and she was happy.

I should have left then. That life had ended a long time ago and it was unseemly to be drawn into it again. I was so consumed by the merging of joy and regret that I did not even sense the first of the reapers. The city was burning so quickly no warning came. The building next door collapsed through the rear wall of the stage killing my daughter. I saw the reaper standing amid the rubble with Maggie’s stupefied spirit when I realized the breadth of my failure. She was one of the faithless. I could see the entirety of her life within her. She blamed the gods for her mother’s death and my withdrawal. Cursed them for the struggles of her youth. She would see no heaven, be claimed by no god. Her soul would be delivered to Hell where she would be tortured until she became a demon or was consumed by one.

I begged the reaper to give me Maggie’s soul, but reapers are immune to the cries of mourners just as they are immune to even godly magic. Nevertheless, she was my daughter and I am a clever man. I have studied magic in all its forms. I have awakened beasts and stone alike. And like those beasts and that stone, I offered her what my daughter left me to find all those years ago: the chance to grow and be more than what she was. I gave her the ability to break the rules and all she had to do was start by giving me my daughter. I still don’t know if it was my magic or something within the reaper herself, but she accepted my offer and disappeared leaving my daughter’s soul behind.

Unfortunately I could not keep my daughter with me for long. Someone would soon find out what I had done and try to set things right. I moved north to a land where humans and elves live in peace and found a woman close to giving birth. I could see waves of joy emanating from the couple over the anticipation of their first child. I looked at my daughter one last time before placing her into the unborn infant. She would belong to this family and remember nothing of the life we had shared. She would have a second chance with parents that loved her. I wondered if she would ever find dance again, but I vowed to finally leave that life behind.

I also wondered what happened to the reaper I had changed. Celestial beings are what they are and, as a rule, do not grow beyond their limits. That power is reserved for mortals, who have all the possibilities of the universe open to them. What would she do with that power? My curiosity was piqued, but it would be some time before I discovered just what horror I had unleashed.

It is said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Little did I know this was the trap my reaper would fall into. With the ability to grow and change she now realized just how powerless she was compared to other beings. For the first time she knew jealousy, which taught her rage, which taught her murder. She killed an angel and absorbed its powers. Then she lusted for more.

The Raven Queen, as she called herself, had worked for the gods and now she wanted to be one. But gods have followers and so she devised a plan. She began to reap souls for herself, creating an army. She scoured the world for the most evil souls she could find and reaped them to become her generals. Her armies attacked the realms of Orcus and Kiaransalee, both gods of the undead, and staked claim to open areas of the Plane of Shadow. Then she found the darkest soul of all, unclaimed by anyone for there was barely anything left of it. This soul had ruled an empire before and now he would help create and lead one for her. She created a plague that would spread across the mortal realms starting from her new Emperor. It would cause millions to die and thousands to rise up as undead followers. It would be an almost overnight immortal empire upon the mortal plane.

With her Emperor returned to Earth and the Shadowfell plague beginning to spread, she opened a rift to her realm on the Plane of Shadow. As the empire expanded so too did the rift. It grew so large that the magics of shadow and creation twisted around each other until the Veil was born. A border within which the Material Plane was being overwritten by its umbral counterpart. Time itself twisted and is altered within the Veil. While only a year passed outside, nearly twenty passed within. Any that had a will to fight back have given up by now and a new generation of mortal slaves willingly serve the Emperor and the Raven Queen, never having known any other life.

The Raven Queen is strong and only getting stronger. With each passing day the empire grows and the Veil widens. Millions are dead and more will follow. My despair and selfishness caused this and I will find a way to stop her. I am, after all, a clever man..

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