Croatius was meant to be a foil for Evelos from the get-go, the villain to his heroism, and I knew I wanted something special for him as his story slowly unfolded. He couldn’t just be another moustache-twirler, as I didn’t want to cheapen Evelos’ own mixed feelings about the role he plays in Evelos’ past. Instead I wanted Croatius to be sympathetic and realistic, the kind of villain that you might find yourself agreeing with, even over Evelos’ antics.
The first part of his backstory grew out of a cliche in fantasy fiction: that of the story’s “Chosen One” being revealed through a test of his or her magical powers. It turns out, though Croatius thinks he’s hot stuff (and he probably is or can be), he did not succeed at his test. And though I didn’t want him to descend into that other cliche of burning down his school in a rage, he certainly will have other, less-than-impressive ways of dealing with his disappointment…Author’s Note
Croatius waited in the hallway. Other young quel’dorei awaiting their trial stood on either side of him. Some were impassive. Some were clearly nervous, engaging in nervous habits like running their fingers along their lips, shifting from foot to foot, and one on the end was conjuring and dismissing a little firebird over and over again.
Croatius felt a little bubble of anxiety in his stomach, but he was determinedly ignoring it. The others making so clear their nerves were irritating to him, and he felt no empathy.
The quel’dorei next to him was called into their master’s study. He would be next. He gave a little sigh of relief. The quel’dorei passing the other way, just finished with the trial, was looking worn, but satisfied. Croatius met his eye and gave a little nod. Evelos smiled back. Croatius looked away.
Strain their long ears as they might, none of them could hear what was going on in the study. The older quel’dorei, who had already had their trial, were full of stories enough to make a lesser high elf vomit, and Croatius stay up at night thinking about it. Of course those were only stories, and his parents had assured him over and over he would come out on top. His magic was strong. He had been raised for this: conceived for this, even. He would prevail.
Croatius straightened when his name was called and strode into the study. He kept his back straight and fingers laced calmly together, thinking with pride how the others would see his cool manner and be impressed.
His master was waiting in the bare room. Croatius spared a glance around: he was used to seeing the study filled with books, a desk or two, and little arcane familiars flitting around the place: dusting the shelves, pulling books for their master, moving books from shelf to shelf in a filing system only they and their master seemed to understand.
Croatius focused on his posture and pivoted smartly towards his master. Lanlyth had his hands folded together, the knuckles just touching his chin.
“Command me,” Croatius said. He was trembling in excitement.
Lanlyth blinked his eyes slowly, like a tortoise, then flinging his hands wide, began.
Spells came at Croatius from all sides. Birds made of fire sank their claws into his shoulders; dragons made of ice swooped around him with wings of sleet and breathed frost upon his back. Croatius whipped back and forth, singing the incantations, slashing the dragons apart with blades of pure light, catching the birds in howling whirlwinds until their flames snuffed out. The magic came quickly and easily to his fingertips, as it always had.
Halfway through, he was beginning to enjoy himself. He could feel the power radiating from himself, and let it burn ever brighter, showing himself off to Lanlyth like a second sun. Giant worms of obsidian tried to coil about his feet, and he made himself float with a cantrip. Lanlyth tried to blow him wrong-side up with a sudden gust of wind, but he did a neat little backflip, landing beside his master with a bow.
Was this all Lanlyth could throw at him? This was easy. Croatius sighed and closed his eyes in delight as the power surged through him and around him, intoxicating as a dream.
When the magic finally stopped, he once again opened his eyes, smiling lazily at Lanlyth. His master was frowning. Perhaps because he could not find a spell to truly best Croatius?
Croatius took a bow, as was formal after a show of feat. “Did I please you, master?”
Lanlyth’s eyes narrowed a fraction. As the magic seeped from his limbs, back into the pool of power in his middle and into the latent ley lines of the room, its euphoria began to fade, and Croatius felt a sharp flip of anxiety.
Preposterous though. He knew had done his best, and his best was the best of the class.
“Fail,” said Lanlyth.
“I beg your pardon?” Croatius’ lazy smile slipped an inch. Perhaps Lanlyth was trying to have a jest at him.
“Fail,” Lanlyth repeated, then waved him off. “Don’t keep me waiting, boy.”
Croatius stared, first dismay, then anger, then confusion cycling through his mind. “But, ser…?”
“Move!” Lanlyth barked, and from long experience, Croatius knew not to press him. He left the room. His emotions roared so loud in his ears he almost forgot the scrutiny of the others. He paused to stand straight and flash a sneering smile back at them, as if to dare them to question his skills.
And to hide the truth for a little longer. He hadn’t passed the trial. It almost seemed surreal.
Croatius stood on the steps of his parents’ manor. The door was open (in reality, there was no door, only a warding spell attuned to let him and certain other quel’dorei through), but he hesitated to go inside. He had not opened the letter Lanlyth had sent home with him. He had thought briefly of magically altering it, to change those damning characters into others professing Lanlyth’s highest esteem, but he knew his father would see right through it. Lanlyth, too, had his ways of making sure no erstwhile apprentice tarnished his reputation by claiming credit where no credit was due.
One of the servants–a real, living, breathing one, and not one of the familiars–passed through the front hall, and Croatius forced himself to act like he had just attained the front step. He passed through the doorway, shuddering slightly as he always did as the cold wall of magic pressed around him, as if trying to squeeze his secrets out of him, and then letting him out on the other side with a faint pop. The servant bowed her way out of the room immediately, and Croatius ignored her, as was proper. He stamped extra hard on the graceful ramp leading to his father’s study, as if trying to stamp out his thoughts on what he faced there.
His father was deep in his books. Again, Croatius considered dishonoring himself, perhaps dropping the letter into the fireplace and convincing his father that Lanlyth had forgotten to have one sent along home with him. He also considered placing the letter on the corner of his father’s desk and escaping to his own quarters before his father could pick it up.
Like trying to tamper with the letter, neither of these measures would have held his father’s scrutiny off forever, so Croatius instead stood in front of his desk, tapped his heels to the floor, then bowed low. “Ser.”
He stood, nervous, as his father slowly finished his chapter and looked up at him. The quel’dorei extended a hand and Croatius put the scroll in it. He stared straight ahead while his father painstakingly broke the seal, drew the letter from its casing, and read.
“You failed?” Though carefully kept low, his father’s voice was like thunder. Croatius shivered. “Is this your idea of a joke?”
Croatius swallowed, still staring at a spot on the wall. “It is no mistake, Father. I did fail.”
His father stared at him, before suddenly crumpling the letter in his fist and flinging it at Croatius’ feet. Croatius dropped his eyes to meet his father’s, but that was a mistake. The quel’dorei begun flinging other things from the table at him–quills and papers, a book, and one inkwell that shattered against him, leaving a long dark and wet smear down the front of his expensive robes.
It was done without shouting, and besides the jerks of his father’s hands with each fling, without much violence either. Croatius had watched this elf tear Amani apart with his magic, raising buildings and burning the very stone itself at the Council’s bidding. He didn’t move, however. He knew that would just make it worse.
When the projectiles didn’t succeed in affecting him, his father slumped back in his chair and began muttering under his breath, cursing Croatius in the old language. Croatius knew the words. He had studied the language well, night after night. He schooled himself back to staring at the spot on the wall, waiting for the tirade to be over.
“Get out,” his father finally hissed, and Croatius needed no more urging. Despite himself, he forced himself to walk the distance to the entrance with his head high and stance proud.
He earned another inkwell in the back for his trouble.
Guaerelyn would always tell when he was upset. Her hands caressed his bare back as they lay together in his bed. He stared stonily at the wall. Her best efforts to arouse him had failed; his thoughts were far away–as far away as they could get without having to think about the day’s events too much.
“We’ll be able to spend more time together,” Guaerelyn offered. With a sigh she lay down beside him, one arm draped across his shoulders. She worked her tongue and lips down one of his long ears.
For once, Croatius pulled away, looking down at her.
For once, she blushed on meeting his passionless gaze, and as if with an afterthought, drew the blanket back up to her neck.
“I will probably have to leave Silvermoon,” he told her.
“No. You could always take an apprenticeship with one of the other magi, couldn’t you? One less demanding than Lanlyth.”
Croatius angrily turned over, so his back was to her. “I would be the oldest apprentice in the city. It’d be unbearable.”
“Oh, Croatius, you’re being insufferable again.” Her tone wasn’t all kind. Croatius ignored her. He wanted to ignore everybody.
Her hand on his back again. He flinched. That she knew of his failure suddenly gnawed at him, and so he pushed her away in the only way he knew how.
“I don’t want to see you anymore,” he told the wall.
Croatius’ eyes unfocused, and it was like someone else was saying the words. His breath was calm in his chest. “You bore me, Guaerelyn. Our exploits have no longer been entertaining. Perhaps you are getting old? Either way, I think I would be better off seeking someone else.”
Croatius hadn’t altogether been expecting the slap, and he flinched as her palm snapped across the back of his head. He stayed where he was though, staring at the wall and listening as she got up off the bed and began dressing, jerking the cloth tight as if this replaced shouted words. She said not a thing to him as she left.
Croatius closed his eyes as the silence of the open lake beyond his balcony filled his chambers. He breathed a soft sigh of relief, bedding down deeper into his pillows. The blanket’s tassels annoyed him though, and a few minutes later found him flinging them off and sitting up. Instead he crossed over to his dressing table and began sponging his face in preparation for his evening meditations. He caught his own dour expression, and paused a moment to scrutinize his gently glowing blue eyes and the shadows under them.
“I will leave,” he told his reflection. It seemed to nod back at him as he confirmed his words to himself, but didn’t quite hide the uncertainty as he set the washcloth back in the basin. Annoyed, he turned his gaze back up at the mirror. He scowled at himself and sat straighter.
“You are a son of the Houses of Silvermoon,” he told himself sternly. He then snarled, mimicking his father. “Act like it.”
His reflection stared stonily back. Finally Croatius nodded in approval, took a long breath,then rose to rearrange himself on his prayer rug outside on the balcony. He kept his thoughts faraway, thinking of the distant future, rather than the immediate…
His shame today rankled within him, but he would use that shame to grow ever greater. He vowed such, turning it into a mantra. He would never be so dishonored again.