This time, Keelath remained silent on the trip home, not even commenting when Evelos’ horse took a spook and ended up in the ditch alongside the road, except to calmly point out a low spot it could climb out from again. At first it felt odd, very odd, to Evelos, but he relaxed into it. It was if a tiny barrier had indeed come down between the two of them, and Keelath had stepped back to let Evelos find his own way.
For the first time, he could just enjoy the ride for what it was, without instructions and his father’s advice beating him around the head. The air was turning crisper, and there was a bite in the wind in the evenings when they stopped to set camp. Evelos found himself still tending to his horse and its tack as usual; admittedly the habit had been ingrained into him. It lightened his heart to see his father’s proud smile when he did so, too, but Keelath didn’t comment on that, either, true to his unspoken word.
The seventh day out saw them crossing the river into the southern woods of Quel’Thalas when Keelath suddenly pulled up, frowning.
“Does that look odd to you?”
It was the first real question he had asked Evelos in days, and, surprised, Evelos squinted.
“It almost looks as if the ferry…is on fire?” Evelos said, incredulous.
When he looked back, Keelath was gone. With a sharp cry and a kick of his heels, his father had urged Rosen forward, and the war-trained charger scarcely needed a second cue. With a shove from its powerful hind legs, it took off into a gallop, arching its neck so its horn, sharpened to a deadly point by Keelath’s daily ministrations, led the way like a lance. Keelath wrapped one hand in its mane and drew his sword with the other.
Evelos squeezed his own mount forward, but both he and this charger were decidedly less enthusiastic about it. He almost stopped short when he saw the lanky, green-skinned humanoid emerge from the ferry man’s tollhouse. The troll’s wicked blade was red with fresh blood; Evelos had seen blood plenty of times when Mirium’s mares were in labor, but it something altogether different to know this blood heralded the ending of a life rather than the beginning.
Keelath didn’t pause for an instant, turning his horse aside at the last moment so he could put the full power of his swing behind his blade without fear of taking Rosen’s head off. Instead it was the troll’s head flying through the air, landing with a soft squelch and the pattering of arterial blood.
“Come around to the other side, and let’s flank the rest of them!” Keelath called to him. Evelos almost didn’t recognize his father: his eyes were a-light with the glee and vengeance of the battle. In contrast, Evelos kept his knees from knocking only by the virtue of having to keep them tight around his horse to hold on.
“Come on, Tyrdan!” Keelath called again, and Evelos looked around wildly for his uncle, only to realize his father was so deep into it he had mistaken him for Tyrdan. Keelath would still be expecting backup, however, and Evelos gamely angled his mount around in the fashion indicated. He patted his bags for a weapon but only came up with the hatchet they used to chop the firewood. Well, it could be worse.
It soon became worse. Pulling his horse clumsily around the toll house with one hand on the reins, he came across the bodies of the tollman’s family, lying on their backs and blankly staring up at the sun, blood and unattached limbs around them. Evelos blanched. Keelath was a little further along, screaming with fury as he laid about into the troll raiding band. He was almost winning without Evelos.
Evelos’ charger gave a nervous whicker, and Evelos frankly agreed. He gripped his axe tighter to keep it from slipping out of his swiftly numbly fingers, and he squeezed his horse forward, but as if sensing his inner reluctance, the horse wouldn’t move.
As Evelos watched Keelath fight, time seemed to slow. Keeath cut down the troll menacing him on his far side, then turned to the one on his near side, the one closest to Evelos. Like a ballista shot, the troll jammed his spear up and through the elf. Keelath’s body jerked, head snapping forward and then back from the impact, his fierce snarl turning to an expression of surprise.
Evelos let out a wordless scream. Keelath looked at him, one fiery instant of consciousness before he gagged on his own blood and tumbled from the charger. As the trolls turned and ran towards Evelos, Evelos’ charger reared, almost unseating him, but also bringing him back to the present.
Run? Fight? If Keelath couldn’t win, there was no way he could survive! The charger seemed to come to the same conclusion, wheeling under him with the velocity only a spooked horse could muster. Evelos next felt a jarring impact as his shoulder struck the ground.
Another horse screamed—Rosen was still in the fight, at least. His sharp cloven hooves snapped another troll into the ground, and the charger impaled a fourth on its down-stroke. Evelos threw himself to the side as the last two trolls came running up, slamming their clubs into the mud where he had just been lying with wet squelches. He kicked at them, but missed, beat at them with the axe, but missed with that too, as one caught his head with its ugly two-toed foot and sent the weapon flying nervelessly from his hand.
Then the other troll took him bore down on him with a wide grin. Evelos closed his eyes shut tight and waited to feel the pain of its spear, still wet with his father’s blood, burrowing into his abdomen. Was this how it would all end?
Evelos opened his eyes as Rosen charged the trolls from behind, tapping one deceptively lightly with its horn and then lashing out with a hoof to throw the creature on the ground. The other troll kicked Evelos away with a wild warcry, and Evelos somehow managed to roll to his feet—not having the axe to get tangled up probably helped him.
Rosen whinnied, and Evelos turned back around. The last troll had the charger by its horn, and like a bull with its nose ring on the end of a pole, it could do nothing to reach the troll.
Before he was fully cognizant of what he was doing, Evelos leapt on the troll’s back and wrapped his arms around its neck. The creature was so tall: it was like when Evelos had been a toddler and his father had been giving him a pony-back ride. The thought made him scream, and he kept screaming as he tightened his arms, trying not to think what was happening under him as he choked the troll to death.
He only knew he succeeded when he tumbled to the ground again, landing on his already injured shoulder. Above him, Rosen snorted and nudged him with a soft nose. Evelos just pushed his face further into the mud of the riverbank and tried not to cry.
Rosen’s whicker had him looking up again. The charger pumped its head and dug at the ground with a forehoof urgently. Evelos stared at the horse blankly, then with more recognition as Rosen turned to snort in a different direction—and when something that wasn’t a troll groaned back in response.
Evelos yelped as he tried to use his injured shoulder to rise, and instead crawled over to his father with one arm clutched to his chest. Keelath rolled his head sightlessly in Evelos’ direction at the sound of his approach, his expression awash with agony. Heartened by the presence of a response at least, Evelos peeled Keelath’s arm away from his stomach, then just as quickly shoved it back and turned away as he was sick.
When Evelos finally had the courage to look back, his sight was blurry with tears.
“I’m sorry—I’m so sorry, Dad! If I was just a little quicker—“
“Eve…” Keelath’s eyes were barely open, rolled into his skull from pain. He beckoned at Evelos weakly with his free hand. “The Light. Use the Light.”
Evelos stared at him. “I can’t!” he burst out. “I don’t have the will for magic! The Trials proved that…”
Keelath stared at him, then let his head fall back limply. He wasn’t dead yet, though, letting out a moan that climbed to a shriek as he pushed his fist into his gut to try to staunch the bleeding by himself.
Blinded again by tears, Evelos pressed both sets of knuckles on top of his, trying to help, but the warm, wet flow of blood between his fingers told him how futile it was. “No,” Evelos cried. “Just hold on a little longer, Dad. I can go find someone to help. I know I can!”
“You… help…” wheezed Keelath.
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” Evelos stammered, even though he did.
Keelath pulled his fist from his stomach. It was covered with blood. Arm shaking, he dropped it hard on Evelos’ shoulder, then dragged his fingers to Evelos’ chest. “You.” The fingers dug into him, and Keelath shuddered.
Evelos took his father’s hand in his. Keelath just gave him a look, before dropping his head and turning it away.
Evelos swiped at his tears, angry at his lack of use, leaving blood streaking his cheek. Yet crying wasn’t going to help. Even on the back of Rosen, he’d never make it to the nearest settlement before his father passed away. Yet the wound was too deep for anything besides magic.
The only thing left to him was the Light.
Evelos has never cast a spell before. He knew the theory—it was one of the things his parents quizzed him on at dinner—but praying to the Light and having it answer were two different things. His father had always said the Light favored the bold, which Evelos certainly wasn’t, so he had never even tried.
But now, he had no choice!
Evelos put his knuckles to the wound again, trying not to gag as they disappeared into the abdominal cavity from the enormity of the wound. He leaned into them to try to put pressure on the bleeding, and his father made a horrible, gurgling grunt in response.
Evelos tried to call on the Light then, to feel its warmth coursing through him, but there was only the cold air of autumn and the heat of Keelath’s blood.
With another effort, his father lifted his arm again and clutched Evelos’ wrist. “I believe in you,” he whispered, and Evelos heard it as if his father were speaking next to his ear. “You just have to believe in yourself too…”
Evelos did! Didn’t he? Maybe he didn’t. What use was thinking about it? Evelos closed his eyes and imagined the spell working. Maybe it was like stage fright, and if he faked being confident, suddenly he would be, for real…
Something shifted, and at first Evelos thought it was his hands as Keelath’s guts continued to slip outside his body. Then he realized the slip was in himself, in his perception. Keelath’s face appeared lit from below rather than above. Evelos looked down.
Evelos’ hands were glowing, fitful at first, then more and more strongly as he looked at them and realized what he was doing. Like a riverbank in flood season, his inner resistance to the heady power of the magic fell away piece by piece, until he felt the Light flowing freely through him and into his father. It was impersonal and deeply personal at the same time, like a divine creature was watching him and thinking alien thoughts about him even as he felt those same thoughts reflected in his own head. His hands had been inside Keelath, and then they weren’t, and he instead felt the hard, corded muscles of the paladin swell back to life under his fingers.
He looked up, and Keelath was smiling at him. The same Light, the same benevolence and power, was reflected in the older elf’s eyes.
Above them, Rosen snorted, but the charger had seen Keelath work plenty of Light magic before and only pawed at the ground a little more as Keelath rose slowly to his knees.
Evelos took his hands away, marveling at his father’s perfectly healed flesh, but the magic still swirled inside him, begging for more release. He stood and walked back to the tollman’s family. Barely thinking about what he was doing, only knowing what to do deep inside, he stitched their ravaged bodies back together with themagic, breathing life back into them one by one until they sat up, just as awed as he was.
Then Evelos turned to the trolls, and paused.
He could feel the Light sloshing about inside him, bucking like an energetic charger, and like a charger, he could feel its capacity for both charity and violence. He could burn the trolls with the power of the Light, to keep them from regenerating and reviving ever again. Or…
The image came to him unbidden, of the disbelief in the troll’s eyes when Rosen impaled it, and again the desperate thrashing when Evelos had crushed the other’s windpipe with his small arms. Savages or not, he had never wanted to feel the loss of life as keenly as he had then. He couldn’t understand the troll’s motives for wanting the elves dead, and yet, even as his mother taught him that the spider kept the flies from the horses, or the dragonhawk pulled its prey in two and devoured it with a quick snap of its mighty beak, there was something intelligible, maybe even sympathetic, in that as well.
And the Light continued to flow through him, enveloping him in its love.
He opened his arms to the Light and to the trolls. He felt the power flow from him and connect inside of them, setting their ills to rights and even soothing their maddened emotions.
Why did they have to fight at all? Evelos wondered. If they all could just see their oneness of soul now, as he did…
Perhaps if he could make them see…yes…
He channeled the Light harder, and like a river forced down a canyon, its flow grew swift and violent. Its incandescence now stung his eyes, and even when he closed them, its searing heat battered his insides. He was going to lose it! Was it too much? …or perhaps too little? The scintillating river invited him to lay down in it, to lose himself and become a part of it, to become the ultimate avatar of the Light–
“Evelos, that’s enough,” said Keelath sharply, again right in his ear.
Some part of him was burning, but in a perverse way, he enjoyed it. It was only the pain of purification, and he turned to his father to say this–
“Evelos! I said that was enough! …help me bring him out of it! He’ll fry himself from the inside out.”
Like someone cutting the wick of a candle, the font of power inside him suddenly stopped giving off its light. The world crashed back on him, and it was cold and cruel and real. He felt his connection to the trolls withering and dying, then to the tollman’s family, and then—
“No! No, don’t do this! Give it back! Father will die if I can’t heal him! Give it back!” He thrashed around, trying to hit away the hands that were taking his magic. On his head. They were on his head, now inside it—
“Easy, Evelos! I am here. Easy. You saved me, or rather you didn’t have to, for I was never in danger. Do you understand, lad? Shh, shh.”
Someone was sponging his forehead with ice—no, just a cloth dipped in ice-cold water, or so it felt to him. Evelos seized around the other elf’s hands, but even as he touched them, he knew who they belonged to.
“See?” Keelath said. “Nothing to worry about. Just a bad dream–almost.”
“Was it a dream?” Evelos thought, but then realized he had said it too as his father chuckled in response.
“Maybe for me. You passed the Trials, my boy, and with flying colors.”
Evelos loosened his grip on his father’s hands. The sponging didn’t feel so cold now, and the world around him was slowly returning to normalcy. He was lying in a bed in the Silvermoon inn. The red-haired magister was keeping vigil by the door, leaned up against the jamb. She raised her eyebrows at Evelos when Evelos stared at her.
An illusion. Of course. They had never let him out of the Trials at all. Keelath had never almost died. He had never used the Light.
Or had he? He looked at his hands. They still glowed faintly.
And Keelath was sitting beside him, beaming away. “You have the Light in you, son, and a powerful punch yours packs, indeed! We will still have to train you up a little bit to keep you from falling into it like that again, but all in good time–”
“But the weapons—Dad, I won’t ever be a paladin like you,” Evelos said desperately, still trying to sort through his confused memories.
“No,” Keelath agreed. “Perhaps as a priest or a monk, or something of that nature. It doesn’t matter. There is still plenty of time to decide.”
“I just hope you will keep him far away from the front lines,” remarked the magister drolly. “Healing trolls? Really? I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve had to run that particular scenario a lot.”
Evelos looked back at Keelath at that admittance, but his father’s smile didn’t waver. “Are you still proud of me?” Evelos asked in a tiny voice.
“Very,” Keelath confirmed.
“And is this real? At last?” he asked, looking over at the magister. He had seen so many different forms of both her and his father that he didn’t know what to think anymore.
The magister nodded with a sigh. “Yes. No more tricks. You made it through the gauntlet. Congratulations.” Her voice, as always, was monotone and faintly sarcastic.
Evelos lay back in bed, trying to process it all. Yet as his thoughts chased themselves around in his head, he looked back up at Keelath, and suddenly realized it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter what was to come, or if he had to go through anymore Trials after this. Just like he hadn’t chosen a weapon, he didn’t have to choose a path now. Evelos placed a hand over the warm glow in his chest, where Keelath had touched him when he had still been—Evelos didn’t want to think of that. Regardless, the Light’s power still burned inside of Evelos, where once he thought there was only the empty echo of a coward and a dullard.
But, he thought with a glance at his father and a shared smile, his gift of the Light only made sense. He was a Sunwalker. It was almost his birthright.
Keelath squeezed Evelos’ hand tight, still going over plans out loud: of schools to enroll him in, of pilgrimages he would need to take, of different techniques he wanted to teach him. Evelos sighed and let his father have his fun. He would have to dissuade him from most of the plans in the future, but that could wait until later.
A Sunwalker–just the healing kind, rather than the smiting kind who rode into battle on horseback. Like his mother. Finally starting to relax, Evelos laid back in bed again, hand loosely atop his father’s. Keelath squeezed it, and the Light kindled between them.