Darkening Sky, Chapter 11

  • Chapter 11

     

     

     

     

                    As a child, Aenir of Skywatch had enjoyed painting.

     

                    It had been one of the few things his mother allowed him, mainly because it brought back money. His mother had not been a pleasant woman – though Aenir did not hold a grudge against her for that. Raising a child alone required a firm hand, especially for one residing in the lower districts of the City. What he could never forgive her for was the skooma. She’d begun using when he was nine, and by the time he was eleven the entire neighbourhood knew him as the addict’s child.

     

                    His mother was not highborn or of good mage stock. In the Isles – Aenir still called the Isles just that in private – that might as well have meant that he was born Dunmer or Bosmer. He was second-rate. That was the notion drummed into his head since birth. And as a second-rate commoner, he’d counted himself lucky beyond any right he had to be, for his paintings had gained a following even among the higher districts. He had begun to dream that, perhaps one day, his work would catch the attention of those in Alinor.

     

                    And then Larethor of Shimmerene had ridden through town the year Aenir turned twenty.

     

                    He still remembered the sneer on the Twinstinger’s face when he returned home to find his mother naked in the bedroom, limbs broken, bleeding from between her legs. As if he was asking me what I’d do now.

     

                    He had flown at him with a cheese knife. Not for what had been done to his mother – it wasn’t the first time he had seen her in such a state, and he had learned not to care after the fifth time he had to go and pick her up from a skooma den. It’d been simple self-preservation, an instinct rising to the surface in response to this intruder in his house, but even so, Aenir had never been in a fight in his life. To this day he was not sure what had compelled him to attack.

     

                    Larethor had shattered his arm in four different places using only one hand, then bore him to the floor.

     

                    A fine thrust, for a child with no prior training, the Twinstinger had commented, feeling the gash Aenir had dealt him on his shoulder. Your hand moves without hesitation, as if taking a life were no greater matter than crushing an ant… yet here you wallow, wasting your time painting, of all things? I have something better in mind for a young mer with your talents.

     

                    Life had seemed to flash by after that point. Decades of personal instruction in the art of the spear, his work catching the attention of not just Alinor but all of Tamriel. Recruiting eleven others from all across the Isles. The mountains of bodies he had left rotting in the Great War, fighting alongside Larethor and his fellow Hornets. Then they had crossed the Shadeclaws.

     

                    Some of the other Hornets were bitter, the ones from noble families or rich military backgrounds especially. They had been the Dominion’s finest soldiers one day, the next they found themselves exiled outlaws. Aenir had been bothered too, but he’d resolved not to let it show. It might have been a long fall, but he remembered from where he had risen.

     

                    It helped that he was constantly being reminded, now that he was painting again.

     

                    I’d forgotten how calming this was, Aenir mused, selecting a new brush and dipping it with paint. Simply creating art, doing something that doesn’t involve war and combat and death and blood and…

     

                    And following the commands of a lunatic.

     

                    Aenir paused, making sure that his body language was perfectly still, then continued his work on the portrait’s hair, using a buffer of sleek polish above a layer of black paint to capture the play of light across the raven strands. His face was set like marble, betraying none of his innermost thoughts. It was an exercise that he had taken to since he began service in the Thalmor. His mind was the only place where he was truly free, and showing his superiors any trace of deviance could rob him even of that freedom. Aenir had never set foot inside a re-education camp, but he had met both the mages who worked in one and the mer who had been detained there. It was not an encounter he liked to think of.

     

                    Be that as it may, it was difficult to think of the Commander as anything other than a lunatic.

     

                    When the years pass, Aenir wondered. What will the history books make of me? Will they speak of me truthfully, as the mer swept up by forces too great to oppose? History has never been kind, though, and even less so to the defeated. Perhaps they will simply mark me as another of the Twinstinger’s mad subordinates.

     

                    And then he smiled inside at his own arrogance. As if I would ever rise to anything above a footnote.

     

                    He finished the portrait, one last touch of whitish grey to dull the lustre of those silver eyes, and rolled it up gently, setting off for Larethor’s chambers. He passed the makeshift training yard they had set up in the fort, where Karinae and Nerunae were sparring with shield and spear. He watched his Hornets for a while, shouting advice whenever the fight lulled, as was his responsibility as Captain.

     

                    ‘Karinae, watch your wrist. Try a more balanced grip for fast jabs against your sister’s iron defence.

     

                    ‘Nerunae, don’t rely too much on your shield. You have seven feet of reach from your spear. Use that reach!

     

                    ‘Be careful with that lunge. Your footwork was off-centre by just a few inches – enough to get you killed.

     

                    ‘What are you doing, Karinae? Don’t let your shield arm waver!

     

                    The sisters from Sunhold sparred for another fifteen minutes, and then he called for a stop. ‘Time for a break,’ Aenir said. ‘Don’t overexert yourself. Remember, we have to be able to move on a moment’s notice… and you two do look a bit tired. Just half an hour of rest, all right? Maybe dig up that moonshine you’ve been brewing.’

     

                    Karinae and Nerunae were smiling the tired but fulfilled smiles of training fatigue until he mentioned the moonshine. ‘Uh… Cap,’ Karinae gulped. ‘You… know about that? Eheheh.’

     

                    Nerunae slapped her face with an open palm.

     

                    Aenir winked, making a chugging motion with his hand, then turned to leave. Karinae and Nerunae’s guilty expressions flipped back up into reluctant grins.

     

                    He was grinning himself, but soon stopped as he made for the Commander’s room. That’s the thing your never understood, Larethor. Camaraderie between your troops. Treating them as your brothers and sisters, your own flesh and blood. The Twinstinger may have brought them together, but it was Aenir who turned the Hornets into a family. And he knew that he cared for the mer under his command more than Larethor ever could or would.

     

                    Not for the first time he entertained the thought of mutiny. Imagine… living a life free of his shadow. Of never having to put with his atrocities anymore. Of dealing with the mess he leaves behind. He knew that many of the other Hornets shared the same sentiment. We could all go home.

     

                    And then the voice of logic, as cold and unwelcome as it always was, broke in on his fantasy.

     

                    What will you do once you kill him, then? As far as Summerset is concerned, you’re all traitors. So what if you were only following orders? Do you think yourselves so valuable that you would just be accepted back with open arms?

     

                    Aenir felt his lips begin to tighten and forced them to relax. No.

     

                    We can never go back.

     

                    And as much as it shamed him to admit it, Larethor had always been the one with the plan. He might have been arrogant, and impossible to control, and lacking in common decency and sense, but it had always been him who set things in motion. What are the Hornets without him? After so many years, what can we do but follow orders? We can’t even tie our bootlaces without someone telling us how to do it.

     

                    And it’s not as if we stand a chance of beating him in open combat, even with all twelve Hornets combined.

     

                    The emotion spreading through his chest was equal parts bitterness and acceptance. Loyal soldiers to the end it is, then.

     

                    He knocked on the Twinstinger’s door. It opened with a creak, and Aenir had to ignore the urge to step back.

     

                    Larethor had let himself go. His hair hung down in greasy coils around his head and neck, and the crazed bloodshot gleam in his eyes that he only ever got in bloodshed and rape – very often the same thing,­ Aenir noted – now blazed constantly. What was left of his cheek was unpleasant in the extreme even to look at. Aenir could see traces of his breakfast sticking to the exposed teeth. Air whistled out from between the gaps of skin and bone whenever he exhaled, along with little flecks of drool. On bad days, the flecks would be accompanied by blood. The shinobi boy’s lightning had also seared the hair follicles on his right jawline shut, and Larethor had been neglecting to shave. The result was an ugly, ragged beard on only one side of his face.

     

                    ‘What is it?’ the Twinstinger rasped and winced, clapping a hand to his ruined mouth. Even speaking is agony for him. Aenir felt a surge of cruel satisfaction. How do your just desserts taste, Commander?

     

                    ‘Sir, the painting’s finished,’ he said respectfully, holding out the portrait. Larethor snatched it and threw it onto his bed. Aenir saw dozens of his previous work strewn out across the mattress and on the floorboards. All stiffened in the way canvas could only be stiffened… with adhesive.

     

                    ‘Was there anything else?’ Larethor asked, his swollen tongue mangling half of his sentence.

     

                    ‘The last group of mercenaries we baited onto Mount Furiya have all been killed, except for one Nord. He made it back to Skyrim. Word is spreading, sir. I don’t think we’ll be able to get more of them to “collect relics” for us.’

     

                    ‘That’s fine. How many groups did we manage to get onto the mountain?’

     

                    ‘Twelve, sir.’

     

                    ‘The Shadeclaws would begin to suspect something if they weren’t already. Let’s move on. Cross-reference the locations of where the mercenaries went missing on the map. Be sure to factor in our own escape route.’

     

                    ‘Sir,’ Aenir nodded, and paused. ‘And the next stage of the plan?’

     

                    Larethor was turning back to the portrait on his bed, his hands moving towards his trousers, taking off his belt. He turned back around to stare at Aenir sideways. From this angle, the wound on his cheek looked like a perpetual grin. The Twinstinger clacked his teeth, and the left side of his mouth stretched out to match his right.

     

                    ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ve found the perfect tribe.’


     

                    Trapped.

     

                    Trapped under a mountain of debris.

     

                    Trapped under a mountain of debris, the crushing weight around him, suffocating him, squeezing his breath from his body in little gasps-

     

                    Ambarro roared a roar of denial and swept his bo into the dummy’s head, smashing the wooden skull into splinters. Continuing with his motion, he took one hand off the staff and flung a fireball straight into the dummy to his left, then dove through the explosion of flame and wood fragments and thrust his bo forward into the neck of the dummy behind it, snapping its head off. He took quick step to the right, pivoting and springing, both hands on his bo now, and split another dummy’s skull open.

     

                    There were thirty-six more dummies behind the ruins of the four, arrayed in nine rows. Ambarro’s movements quickened, whirling from staff to shuriken to staff to fireball to shuriken to fireball to staff to fireball to staff.

     

                    Not good enough.

     

                    One dummy keeled over, a shuriken buried between its eyes, and before it had time to hit the ground, Ambarro sent another whizzing into the dummy behind it. Both dummies fell and he dashed between them, rebounding off the wall to smash down vertically on yet another dummy, then battered the dummy in front of him to the floor and, using his staff as leverage, flipped feet-first into two dummies to the right, his boots taking their heads clean off.

     

                    Not good enough.

     

                    As he somersaulted upright in mid-air, he reached for the black flames, just as he had tried to when he was buried under the tower in the mercenaries’ fort. The flames laughed in his face just as they had back then, flaring bright orange. Ambarro screamed with frustration. He kept the fire as he landed, channelling them into the first four feet of the rokushakubo and spinning in an arc, the billowing flames on his staff tearing a trail behind them as he decimated two entire rows of dummies. The eight humanoid targets fell, cleaved lengthwise in half, collapsing into burning wreckage.

     

                    Still not good enough!

     

                    He sped from dummy to dummy, not caring any more about conserving his strength. By the time the last dummy fell, he was shaking slightly. The bell on the timepiece rang and he looked over, taking a deep breath.

     

                    Zero zero, twenty-six, sixteen.

     

                    Almost half a minute. Still more than two seconds below Harrow’s time.

     

                    ‘Damn it,’ Ambarro muttered, slinging his staff back onto his back. The training field was empty. He raised his voice. ‘Damn it!’

     

                    He walked past the timepiece, still showing his performance on the six rotating dials, mocking him. He raised a fist. ‘DAMN-’

     

                    Grunting, he forced himself to stay calm. He wasn’t a child anymore. I’ve killed more people than most Legionnaires do in a lifetime. I don’t get to throw tantrums.

     

                    He tapped the knuckles on his closed fist lightly on the wall. ‘Damn it.’

     

                    ‘Ambarro-to?’ Diia had walked out of the dojo into the field, probably drawn by his yell earlier. ‘Are you all right?’

     

                    ‘I’m fine,’ Ambarro said brusquely, brushing past her.

     

                    ‘You can always talk to me about anything, you know.’

     

                    He could see the gentle smile on her face without even looking behind him. Sighing, he sat down on his haunches.

     

                    ‘I-’ Ambarro opened his mouth, then closed it again. I’m weak, he had wanted to say. I’m not good enough. And I hate it.

     

                    But the words stuck in his throat. Saying them out loud would only make him feel worse, and he was too proud to admit it, especially to Diia, of all people.

     

                    And yet that only made him more ashamed. Shinobi don’t need pride. As if he needed more proof that he was a terrible one.

     

                    ‘Ambarro-to?’ Diia repeated softy. She sat down beside him.

     

                    ‘Have you noticed,’ Ambarro said after a while. ‘That whenever it really counts, we’re never there for him?’

     

                    ‘That’s not true,’ Diia replied immediately. ‘We’ve helped Harrow-to more times than I can count, and the reverse is true as well. Where did you get this idea, Ambarro-to?’

     

                    Ambarro chuckled mirthlessly. ‘Do you remember our first assassination? Where we went after the skooma lord? I got him captured on just the first night we were in Cyrodiil. And he had to complete the kill all on his own. When he was dying from Rendanshu, all we could do was wait outside his room. When he had to deal with the Twinstinger, we were knocked out cold by one single mage. And then the same thing happened this last mission… with that Imperial and his explosions. Buried alive under a mile of stone. Helpless.’

     

                    He crushed a fistful of snow in his folded palms, pressing them together until it melted. ‘I hate,’ he said in a venomous whisper. ‘Being helpless.’

     

                    Diia huddled closer to him, looking concerned. ‘You weren’t like this on the way back or when we visited Lencius-do.’

     

                    ‘I didn’t want the others to see me like this,’ Ambarro said quietly. ‘I guess… some part of me must have enjoyed being special, being able to take the Black Flask. Maybe even a bit of idiot pride at being the Shikabanegami’s grandson, sharing his powerful blood. To have reality crash down around me like that – well, it carries a heavier weight than those rocks ever could. But reality is reality, I suppose. No avoiding it. I’ve always been the slowest in the class.’

     

                    Diia looked at his score on the timepiece, then back at him. She laughed, incredulity written all over her face. ‘Twenty-six point sixteen seconds is the second fastest time in the class, Ambarro-to.’

     

                    ‘You know what I meant,’ Ambarro growled. But a hint of playfulness had returned to his voice. ‘And no. I refuse to let you cheer me up.’

     

                    ‘And I refuse to not let you let me cheer you up.’ Diia was smiling. She had noticed his change of tone too. ‘And why is being proud of Takarro-ri a bad thing? He’s the grandmaster! You’re lucky to have him for a grandfather.’

     

                    ‘And yet I continue to shame his legacy.’

     

                    ‘Nonsense,’ Diia said sharply. ‘I don’t think Takarro-ri has ever been ashamed of you, and you would never give him reason to be, Ambarro-to.’

     

                    Ambarro’s lips twitched. It was getting hard to hide his own smile now.

     

                    ‘And one last thing,’ Diia murmured, hugging one arm around his waist and resting her head on his shoulder. ‘You are special, Ambarro-to. But that never had anything to do with your blood.’

     

                    ‘Damn it,’ Ambarro said again, and grinned at her ruefully. ‘You can’t just let me stay mopey and brooding, can you?’

     

                    ‘No,’ Diia giggled.

     

                    ‘All right, fine.’ Ambarro made a show of frowning. ‘Then let’s hear it! In exactly what ways you find me special?’

     

                    He spent the remainder of the morning studying the blooming red on her nose and ears.

     

     

     

     

     

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Comments

3 Comments   |   The Lorc of Flowers and 2 others like this.
  • KaiserSoSay
    KaiserSoSay   ·  November 23
    So what does the Twinstinger actually do with those paintings? Fap material? 


    I love the irony that Ambarro – despite having access to the Black Flask – thinks himself as useless. *chants Useless! Useless! Useless!*
    Feels ...  more
  • The Lorc of Flowers
    The Lorc of Flowers   ·  November 23
    Well, I already told you that I really dig this idea to explore the perspective of one of Twinstinger's officers, and this Aenir's backstory...I don't know, but he seems like a very relatable character, you know? A regular guy who got trapped in between p...  more
    • A Shadow Under the Moons
      A Shadow Under the Moons
      The Lorc of Flowers
      The Lorc of Flowers
      The Lorc of Flowers
      Well, I already told you that I really dig this idea to explore the perspective of one of Twinstinger's officers, and this Aenir's backstory...I don't know, but he seems like a very relatable character, you know? A regular guy who got trapped in between p...  more
        ·  November 23
      Yeah, that 'just-trying-to-do-my-job' mentality is one many people can sympathise with. And so is the 'I-hate-my-boss' mentality XD