The mission goes awry; the human-orc alliance has heavily underestimated the strength of the enemy and Aberforth does not discover the truth until it’s too late. Though he exerts himself to his utmost, Llwrydd, the enemy general, is able to easily overpower him.
Aberforth crouched in the foliage just outside the clearing that housed the elven camp. His whole body was tense and he could imagine that the rest of his unit was similarly anxious.
It had taken them the better part of three days to get so deep into enemy territory and there hadn’t been a single moment they could afford complacency. The elves seemed to be everywhere, flitting amongst the trees with astonishing and unbelievable speed.
Aberforth, especially, had reason to be apprehensive. This was his chance to prove his mettle to the tribe and after all the effort it had taken to convince his father to let him lead the unit, he couldn’t afford to screw it up.
"Any moment now," whispered the human mage beside Aberforth. The man’s voice was hoarse and strained but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. As Aberforth understood, maintaining an enchantment as sophisticated as the one that rendered the unit invisible to the elves was taxing both on the mind and the body.
Another of the mages with the group had already sent word back to the human camp that the strike team was in position. All they had to do now was wait for the diversionary attack to start.
Once troops were pulled out of the camp to help defend the front, Aberforth and his team would strike and quickly dispose of the enemy general.
Every minute that passed with no movement was torturous. Despite the faint nip in the air, sweat beaded on Aberforth’s brow and his fingers trembled against the coarse bark of the tree he leaned against.
The tension was palpable. It was as if the world itself held its breath. And then, an elf ran into the camp and the inhabitants exploded into a flurry of activity.
"It’s time," said Aberforth.
As soon as the bulk of the elves were gone, Aberforth and his group made their way through the camp. The mages stayed behind to secure their escape route but the Redwolf men spread out among the tents to hopefully take down as many high-value targets as they could before they were noticed.
Aberforth himself made a beeline for the command tent. Despite the invisibility afforded him by the humans’ magic, he remained light and cautious on his feet. The last thing he needed was to recklessly give himself away.
To his surprise, there weren’t guards posted around the command tent. At first, he was relieved but the sensation didn’t last. It wasn’t right. Something was wrong.
He looked over his shoulder. He cast his gaze toward the spot at the edge of the clearing where the mages should have been.
He wondered if he should give the signal to retreat. It was probably the wise choice. Something felt off and there was no shame in taking a step back to live another day but the notion just didn’t sit right with him.
Aberforth swallowed his misgivings. They had come too far to turn back now. He and the rest would just have to adapt to the situation.
Turning his focus back to the task at hand, Aberforth stalked toward the front of the command tent. He took a deep breath, gathering mana from the environment into his body.
He channeled the tremendous force into his legs and his fist. Using the mana, he unleashed two abilities in rapid succession. First, he used [Somatic Arts: Step of the Wind] to turn his body as light as a breeze before bursting through the unattended tent flap.
In the heartbeat afterward, he ascertained the position of his opponent and threw his fist in that direction. A rippling wave of power lashed across the tent toward the target as he used the second ability: [Somatic Arts: Qi Projection].
There was a loud crack. For the briefest of moments, he thought he’d succeeded. The opponent’s neck had snapped, surely, he thought.
He was sorely mistaken.
The invisible pulse of energy rocketing straight across the tent with overwhelming force abruptly changed its trajectory, shooting up toward the roof of the tent instead. It punched straight through the canvas, leaving the tatters to flutter in the faint breeze.
Aberforth blanched. To think that an attack which he’d poured all his strength into could be deflected with all the apparent ease of a flick of the wrist. In that single instant, he understood: the opponent was far beyond anything he could hope to overcome at his level.
He should have considered the possibility of the opponent’s strength far eclipsing his own. It put to proof that despite his best efforts, there yet lingered a thread of arrogance in him.
Then again, even his father and Callaghan had failed to predict the enemy’s monstrous power. Their most generous assumptions fell far short, and for good reason. The enemy was strong beyond imagining.
Run, Aberforth thought to himself. In the face of overwhelming odds, retreat wasn’t a cowardly option.
Though every warrior instinct in him clamored for what was sure to be the fight of his life, he was more than just a warrior. He was the champion of the Redwolf. He was the hope of his tribe. The likely successor of his father.
He had duties to his people—to their allies. Strength would only take him so far. He had to learn to lead, to put the needs of others before him.
To that end, he needed to get word back to the others. The army had to know that the elven general wasn’t someone to be trifled with. Maybe then, they could prepare some sort of countermeasure.
It didn’t matter if he was the one that managed to get back to relay the information. All that mattered was that someone did.
He had to signal the mages.
Just as Aberforth was about to turn tail and flee using his [Somatic Arts: Step of the Wind], he froze. A crushing pressure beset him from all sides, making it nigh-impossible to breathe.
The mana in the air churned and roiled as if it had come to life and a single sibilant voice cut through the cacophonous din of shifting energies. "Leaving so soon? But I was hoping you might stay and entertain me a while yet…" it said playfully.
Aberforth struggled against his invisible bindings but quickly realized the futility of the effort. He stopped. He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. It was better to conserve energy so he would have the strength to take advantage of any potential opening.
When he opened his eyes again, he gasped. The space around him was changing. The dirt under his toes slowly turned to cool, smooth stone. The tent disappeared, revealing a starry night sky that stretched on to the horizon, illuminated by a full moon perched directly overhead.
The elf had transported him to a stone platform. Beyond the ornately carved circle of masonry was nothing but a precipitous drop into an inky sea far below.
Realization hit like a rutting stag. Aberforth’s heart near-seized in his chest. He knew what this was. It was different from the stories but it was unmistakable, a height of prowess most people could only ever dream of aspiring to.
This was the result of enlightenment and insight into the truths of the cosmos, the ability to temporarily cleave a portion of the world from the fabric of reality and impose one’s will onto it: [Sovereign Esoterica: Absolute Domain]
"You have courage," said the elf, a bemused glimmer in its bright purple eyes. Its lips pulled into a thin line and curled into a twisted smile as its hungry gaze raked up and down along Aberforth’s body. "I admire that."
In the terrible light of the bloated moon overhead, the slender figure had all the cast of a dark and vengeful god. Its androgynous features possessed an unearthly and feral beauty the moonlight only served to enhance.
The elf wore little in the way of clothing. It had a tight leather choker with a pink gemstone over its throat. Adorning its chest was a leather harness with a metal ring over its left breast for the straps to loop around.
Though the elf was androgynous in appearance, Aberforth found definitive proof the elf was a man. As his gaze wandered down the elf’s torso, his eyes were drawn to the sizable bulge between its legs.
The elf wore little more than a leather thong around his waist. The bulk of it was comprised of the pouch that cradled the elf’s manhood. The rest of the leather was in the inch-thick straps that held the pouch in place. If there were any less leather involved, Aberforth might well have struggled to call the garment anything besides a leather scrap.
"I see fire in your eyes. I do like that," said the elf. He smirked. "The stronger you resist, the sweeter the moment of your surrender, after all."
Surrender. It was a word Aberforth refused to acknowledge. "N-never," he managed to growl despite the pressure restricting him from every direction.
The elf smirked. "We’ll see about that," he said. The pressure threatening to crush Aberforth under its weight relented. "I will give you a chance. All you need do is land one strike on me."
Aberforth took a deep breath. The air was crisp and cool. It was refreshing, even, especially now that the pressure merely held him in place.
Aberforth considered the challenge. The elf would have never proposed it if he thought Aberforth had a chance to win. But it was an opportunity, one Aberforth absolutely had to take for the sake of his people.
One strike. That was all he needed—one strike. It was going to be difficult, he had no doubt, but if he put all his wits and skill and strength to the task, maybe it was possible.
"I’ll land more than one," said Aberforth through gritted teeth.
The elf grinned broadly, his pointed fangs gleaming in the light of the moon. "Very well. If we are to fight, then I would know who you are."
Aberforth rolled his shoulders as he felt the restrictions on him loosen. He straightened himself, cracking his neck as he rose to stand head and shoulders taller than the elf. "You first," he said.
The elf’s eyes gleamed. "I am Llwrydd. Humble servant of Ymrion. Guardian of the Western Boughs. Scion of the House of Moonlight. And from this day, until the end of your days, your god."
Heat welled in the core of Aberforth’s being. His heart pounded against his chest, blood rushing through his veins as he thumped his chest and roared. "I am Aberforth Strongjaw! Son of Desmund the Red Wolf! Student of Callaghan Boarbreaker! Chosen Champion of my Tribe! And today, your downfall."
"This will be fun," said Llwrydd, a devilish glint in his eyes. "What weapon would you like?"
Aberforth lowered himself into a fighting stance. "I am my best weapon," he said.
Llwrydd seemed impressed. "Marvellous," he whispered, conjuring two short-bladed weapons with rings that looped around his index fingers. Flourishing them before clutching the hilts in such a way that only the blade showed out the sides of his fists, Llwrydd beckoned. "Come. Show me the strength of your will!"
Aberforth did not waste time trying to find the scope of his enemy’s power. He assumed it was greater than even he could imagine. Instead, he pushed himself to his limits from the beginning.
Using [Exalted Somatic Arts: Mountain-Striding Steps], he threw himself across the arena at Llwrydd. There was no force behind the movement. What he needed was proximity and he got it.
Aberforth redirected his momentum into an attack as soon as he was close enough. Augmenting his fist with mana, he struck with enough force to shatter steel: [Exalted Somatic Arts: Mountain-Splitter]
Llwrydd made no attempt to avoid neither the initial movement nor the subsequent attack. Reacting with nigh-impossible speed, he caught Aberforth’s fist, stopping the momentum of the blow in its tracks.
He smirked as the moon overhead gleamed. Aberforth cried out as the force of his [Exalted Somatic Arts: Mountain-Splitter] was redirected into his body.
Aberforth felt bones splintering along the length of his arm and up his shoulder. Waves of energy tore at his insides, forcing him to cough up blood as he sank to his knees.
The injuries he sustained were nothing short of catastrophic. He wheezed, pain wracking his body as he realized he’d managed to fracture a few ribs, too.
If Llwrydd didn’t kill him, the damage the redirected blow had done to his body would make short work of him soon.
Just as Aberforth felt faint, mana surged into his body. It was cool and cruel, entirely alien to the mana he was used to handling, but it did the job. His flesh mended itself and if anything, seemed to grow even stronger.
Llwrydd leered at him. "Is that all you’ve got?" he said. "I had hoped you would be more entertaining, what with all that fire inside you."
Aberforth lunged to his feet and flowed swiftly into a flurry of blows that would have devastated any other foe—but not Llwrydd.
"Yes!" Llwrydd hissed. "That’s it! Burn bright for me, dear thing. Lay bare your limits that I might break them for you."
Aberforth redoubled his effort, sweating from the exertion as every strike and feint was flawlessly parried. The two of them made their way around the arena, locked in the semblance of a dance—a brutal, vicious, and frenetic dance.
Despite himself, Aberforth felt an odd sense of tranquility as he poured himself into the fight. Even though his life hung in the balance.
"Do you feel it? The freedom that can only be found in the heat of combat, the serenity that accompanies treading the knife-edge between life and death?" said Llwrydd.
Aberforth grinned. "I do," he said, feeling a surge of strength inside him as the strange mana of Llwrydd’s Domain flooded into his body. He called attention to it. "I almost feel as if you want me to break free."
He shivered as Llwrydd managed to slip past his attacks and caress the side of his face. "What I want is for you to entertain me with your struggle. The harder you fight, the better."
Aberforth bared his teeth. "You might regret that," he said, taking a more active role in the flow of mana and drinking it greedily into his body. He groaned, warmth spreading from his core as he grew stronger and stronger.
Llwrydd grinned. "I am certain I won’t," he said.
Instead of exhaustion or fatigue, all Aberforth felt as the fight dragged on was excitement. He had never been so tested. Llwrydd forced him to the limits of his capabilities, forced him to apply everything he’d learned.
Slowly, understanding began to develop. Aberforth felt his limits loosen, the bottleneck in his development slipping.
As Aberforth’s newfound insight began to take shape, Llwrydd grinned. The wild light in his eyes burned brighter—as if Aberforth’s forthcoming breakthrough was what he’d been waiting for the whole time.
Epiphany struck with all the beauty of the sunrise. Pushed to his limits, which yet proved inadequate for the challenge before him, Aberforth exerted all his will to break through and seized new heights of potential.
Aberforth roared, his assault redoubling in intensity as he finally managed to push Llwrydd back. Mana surged into his body and pooled in his core as the sweat on his skin boiled away into delicate curls of steam.
With every breath he took, his grasp of his newfound Exegesis grew stronger. Mana coalesced into visible wisps around him, shimmering gold against the midnight-blue backdrop of the sky.
The space between the two glowed with a faint golden light as the mana gathered in Aberforth’s fists. Power surged inside him, the mana suffusing his body. In contrast to the cold mana of Llwrydd’s Absolute Domain, this mana was warm, like the embrace of the sun.
"I will not bend to you!" Aberforth declared, executing the very first technique of his new Exegesis—[Celestial Esoterica: Prominence]—as the mana gathered into his hand.
Light erupted from Aberforth’s fist. It was as a sun, radiant and blinding. It drowned out the light of the stars and the moon overhead, casting the sea below in soft golden hues.
The light was so bright Aberforth could not see but he felt his fist impact something. A loud clap like thunder reverberated through the space of Llwrydd’s absolute domain, making the platform tremble.
A circular shockwave burst from the point of impact, cracking the stone underfoot and sending chips of masonry flying into the air. Far below, the sea frothed as the shockwave cut through the waves.
Moments later, the overwhelming radiance faded, reduced to thread-like loops of golden light and lingering mana that rose from the surface of Aberforth’s skin. To his dismay, his fist was soundly caught in Llwrydd’s hand and the elf had suffered not even the slightest hint of injury.
"Well done," said Llwrydd as if he were talking to a child. "Good effort but, unfortunately, not good enough."
Aberforth fumed, fury burning inside of him as he gathered more mana into himself. He launched into another new technique—[Celestial Esoterica: Starshower]—and attacked Llwrydd with a flurry of blows.
"I think I’ve seen enough," said Llwrydd as he effortlessly dodged the attacks. "You are worthy to be mine." With a flicker of silver and shadow, he disappeared from sight.
Even the barest hint of Llwrydd’s presence evaporated. It was as if he’d dissolved into thin air and not even the augmented senses Aberforth’s new Exegesis afforded him could track the elf’s movements.
Aberforth lowered himself into a defensive position. He slowly turned around, eyes and ears searching for even the slightest warning that Llwrydd was about to attack.
He gathered the mana in his core and spread it through his body. [Celestial Esoterica: Starlight Shroud] made his skin take on a faint gold sheen, the mana reinforcing his flesh to be as tough as the scales on a dragon’s back.
"Cute," said a voice that came from seemingly everywhere.
Llwrydd laughed. "Impressive, even. But woefully inefficient."
Aberforth’s blood ran cold. Llwrydd’s presence had returned but it was all around him. It shifted like sand swirling in the wind, everywhere all at once.
His determination faltered. The warmth of his mana sputtered. The more Llwrydd’s power seeped into the air around him, the tighter the cold knot of despair in Aberforth’s stomach tied itself.
Aberforth’s newfound Exegesis had propelled him to new heights. It was the culmination of all his skill and knowledge, everything he’d painstakingly cultivated, and still it wasn’t enough.
The Celestial Esoterica should have allowed him to stand head and shoulders taller than any of his tribe’s legendary heroes but in the face of Llwrydd’s cataclysmic might he felt like little more than a bug under heel.
It was over, Aberforth realized. He had lost. He had nothing more to give. He’d transcended his limits and still found himself wanting.
The strength left his limbs as he felt the stitches on his armor unravel. The thick pieces of leather and metal fell from this torso, landing on the ground around him with a thud as he lowered his arms.
Llwrydd had cut through every single stitch, and undone every buckle, but had left the material untouched. Aberforth had been none the wiser until his clothing had literally fallen apart. The speed and precision with which Llwrydd must have attacked defied comprehension.
Aberforth had to laugh. It was absurd. To think he’d seen himself as strong, as powerful. He watched as his breeches fell apart, his boots. He was nothing.
In the blink of an eye, all the scattered bits of metal, leather, and cloth disappeared from sight. A heartbeat later, they reappeared in concentric arcs in front of Aberforth, neatly arranged by size, shape, and material.
He sank to his knees, feeling numb. He lowered his gaze to the stone of the platform and saw Llwrydd’s feet come into view. "Fine," he muttered. "I’ve lost. Kill me."
He shivered as he felt slender fingers caress his chin. He didn’t fight as his head was forcefully tilted up. He looked into Llwrydd’s bright purple eyes, bereft of his earlier defiance. "Go on, then," he whispered.
"What?" said Llwrydd in mock indignation. "Did you really think I would just off you?"
Aberforth said nothing.
Llwrydd clicked his tongue. "It would be a waste to get rid of such a fine specimen," he said.
Aberforth sighed as Llwrydd forced him to tilt his head from side to side. "To what end?" he said. "I am of no use to you. You are so powerful I cannot even imagine the distance between you and me. What could you possibly hope to gain from me?"
Llwrydd laughed. It was a cold and brittle sound that sent chills down Aberforth’s spine. Those deep purple eyes seemed to glow as they bored into his own. "Don’t presume to know what I find valuable, boy," Llwrydd sneered.
Aberforth’s cheeks warmed. He felt… ashamed. Not in the way a warrior might feel when defeated by his enemy, but more in the way a chastised child might feel.
"I-I didn’t mean to—" he started, only to catch himself halfway through. There was no need for him to apologize. Not to his enemy. And he certainly didn’t have to explain himself.
Llwrydd chuckled. "And you ought think more highly of yourself," he said, forcing Aberforth to look up into his eyes again. "No pet of mine would debase themselves by groveling at feet other than my own."
"Pet?" said Aberforth. The very notion of being an elf’s pet offended him on a fundamental level. He railed against it with every fiber of his being but he was so spent he couldn’t muster the outrage.
Llwrydd stroked the side of Aberforth’s face with his thumb. "You should be honored," he said with a smirk. "I only accept the strong, and even then only the ones with great potential."
Aberforth frowned. "I am no man’s pet," he growled, calling upon the dregs of his resistance.
"Then is it not fortuitous I am no mere man?" said Llwrydd, the corner of his mouth curling in an arrogant little smirk.
A chill ran down Aberforth’s spine like ice-cold water poured down his back. His skin tingled. His stomach churned. "I-I belong to no one."
"For now, perhaps," said Llwrydd. "But not forever."
Aberforth gritted his teeth. "I won’t give you what you want," he said.
Llwrydd laughed. "I think you will find that I need no permission—least of all from the likes of you."
A low growl bubbled up out of Aberforth’s throat but he couldn’t refute what Llwrydd said. As powerful as the elf was, Aberforth’s opinion likely mattered not.
"There it is," said Llwrydd, baring his teeth in a feral little grin. "There is the delectable fire I saw in you. To be defiant in the face of overwhelming odds. To spit in the face of peril and cling to dignity until the very end."
Aberforth said nothing. He didn’t want to give the elf the satisfaction. He met those purple eyes steadily, despite the unease he felt at Llwrydd’s piercing gaze.
"Yes…" Llwrydd murmured to himself. "Yes. I do think you will do."
Goosebumps broke out on Aberforth’s skin as Llwrydd crouched down and placed a hand on his chest.
"You asked what I could possibly want from you?" Llwrydd said, his fangs gleaming in the moonlight as he bared his teeth.
Aberforth froze as Llwrydd leaned in to whisper in his ear. Chills ran down his spine as the elf spoke in a low and sultry tone. "I want your body," Llwrydd murmured.
"M-my body?" Aberforth blurted out before he could stop himself.
Llwrydd chuckled. "Yes," he said. "Your body. Your strength. My other toys all break so easily but I have the feeling you won’t."