Whenever I get around to turning these characters’ stories into a book, I might break these two scenes apart. For now, the first scene ties off the fraught relationship alluded to in “Son of Silvermoon” and “Crestfallen”, while the second helps explain why Croatius made the choice he did, abandoning his lover and son to the Illidari.
It’s a good feeling when I finally come to understand a difficult villain’s true motivations. It’s always those damn idealists, man: when they fall, they fall the hardest.Author’s Note
“Come to kill me, Evelos?”
A shadow detached itself from the wall, slowly, like water sliding down an oil-treated window. It paused up front of Croatius, reforming itself into an elf, but unlike most elves, its eyes didn’t glow in the dim light. He was like one of the Wretched instead – or like one possessed by the Shadow – dark holes where the eyes should have been.
“Ah, no,” said Croatius slowly. “My mistake. You are that other one, aren’t you?”
“I would not kill you,” said Evelos after a long moment of watching him. His voice was cold, with an alien cadence not like his old friend, and Croatius repressed a shiver. “I only wished to see who it is you truly were, now that I have this one’s sight.”
Croatius chuckled despite himself. “Ah, you always were too idealistic for your own good, Dark One.” Still, the Shadow-infused elf made him nervous, and he began walking swiftly for a brighter part of the Undercity labyrinth, beckoning the creature to follow. Evelos’ eyes sparked as they crossed out into the open, near the War Quarter where some daylight still trickled down from the sewer grates far overhead. As the darkness retreated, the flesh seemed to return to Evelos’ face and his eyes started glowing again, but they were a faint silver instead of the gold and blue that Croatius was accustomed to. The taint would never leave him, Croatius surmised.
The sin’dorei stood in a square of the grate’s lighting and relaxed under the faint light of the sun. He turned back to his follower and swept his arm wide like he was welcoming the Other. “There you are, Evelos. There is more light for you to see by here. Are you satisfied by what you ken?”
Evelos regarded him, but it was with a softer expression now. The lights moving behind his eyes were slower and smoother now, like indentations in snow that could barely be made out in the dim light of dusk. Only in the corners could Croatius make out the shadows of the beast now inside him.
“I don’t see anything that is changed,” said Evelos, and his voice was as normal as his elven form was. “I thought maybe the fel had corrupted you.” He lowered his eyes.
“Ah,” said Croatius, then masked his seriousness with a smile. “No, little has changed in me; you are correct. But why the deception, Dark One? You could always see souls, Evelos. You had no need to lurk in the Shadow to perceive me. We are not unlike in that gift, as in so many other things.”
“Yet it took coercion and an enchantment upon my mind to bring me down to your level,” snarled Evelos.
“Ah. A game of competing virtue, is it? A thin veil over the struggle for power between friends… Unfortunate. Still, if that is as you wish to play it, then riddle me this, Dark One… do you know what I always envied in you, Evelos?”
The other elf’s eyes flashed. “My command of the Light,” growled Evelos. “Now you’ve polluted that, I suppose you see us as even?”
“Incorrect.” Croatius stepped backwards out of the lit square, letting his eyes readjust back to the gloom. “Actually,” he went on softly, “what I envied was your ability to make light of everything.”
“Until now.” Evelos looked at his hands, scalded and chapped from his work with the Forsaken. He hadn’t been taking in mana regularly, and it was beginning to show in the paper-thin skin and the wrinkles on his face, as if from age.
Croatius squinted at him. “You are not as crippled as you think, Evelos. I was just as curious as the Magister Fallen, you see: whether it would be possible to break you by tainting your magic. What was the song you had learned to sing, I wondered, that protected your soul’s auspices so far? You who refused the mana of the fel.”
Evelos only scowled at him.
Croatius began to pace back and forth, not looking Evelos in the eye. He spoke to the Shadow beast in him just as much as to his old friend. “As I recall, we have been at odds ever since the Trials, Dark One. Yet I did not fail those Trials because I was weak, as everyone thought. Magic was as natural to me as breathing. How could I fail? I would tell myself, for years afterward, that the Master was only jealous of me and had set me up for a failure.”
“In a way, he had,” said Evelos coldly.
“Exactly, yes. Do you know what he told me, Evelos, that day he cast me from the school? My magic was too chaotic, he said. There was no clean, crisp, dividing line between my Ice magic and my Arcane, or my Fire magic… and my Light. It would get me into trouble some day, he said. He told me he was saving me from myself.” Croatius grinned crookedly. “You, Evelos, had no other magic but the Light. That made you lucky. Less plates to juggle, as it were. Yet I saw you employing the same techniques that would put me in such trouble with the masters – did you know, Evelos? — most elves can only see magic as a crude energy. A wave, a vibration of the air, an element on an academic chart; nothing more. But to you and I, Dark One… ah, we are special. You can hear the music, too, can’t you?”
“Always,” said Evelos, still not looking up. “My mother first taught me to feel the Light by singing its hymns to me.”
Croatius nodded, though with a slight scowl, like he had tasted something bitter. “The Light would always represent but purity to the others, like a hot and distant sun.” He looked up at the sewer grates. “But to those such as we, the Light is music, a pattern of colors and sounds that shifts in balance with itself – not as quickly and erratically as the Fel, but nearly so. Manifesting it is chasing that pattern: moving with it, making its beauty become manifest on Azeroth through our deeds.”
“You ensnared me with the Light’s song,” Evelos accused. “As long as I heard it, it repeated the control spell over and over in my head. With Magister Fallen’s help, I’ve finally learned how to block it out.”
“Oh, yes. Who do you think gave Master Krest the dog for that experiment? You block it by listening now to other tunes, Evelos. Those melodies that I sensitized you towards. To the Void.” Croatius smiled. “Your salvation was my doing, Dark One.”
Evelos looked at him, and Croatius tensed, expecting this to finally be the moment they’d face off… yet, Evelos’ stiff shoulders only gradually fell, and he looked lost and resigned rather than angry. Croatius closed his eyes.
“Why?” Evelos asked in a tiny voice. “I do not understand why you’d do this at all.”
Croatius snarled. So close to enlightenment, and yet… he cast his gaze back up at the grate.“Each element has a different rhythm to its movement, Evelos. I have always believed it was possible, if one were powerful enough, that you could combine them all into the perfect symphony, the one true chord of the world.” He licked his lips. His mouth was unexpectedly dry. “I dreamed of it, sometimes,” he murmured. “I would see… glimpses of it, in other peoples’ eyes. Yet whenever I tried to recreate it myself, it would fall like ashes from my hands.” His bitter smirk grew. “I used to think, Evelos, that I must be intended for something great, being able to see that beauty as I was. Yet it never did manifest. Always my power bit at me, turned the others against me. Mud upon smoke upon ash. So it must have been false, I thought…”
“No. I saw it sometimes, too,” Evelos countered. “In you. When you were deep in thought, I saw Light’s grace in your eyes….”
“You see souls like I do.” Croatius took a deep breath, finally looked at him. “That was the other thing I envied in you, you know. You could always see the best in everyone… and you had an upbringing that never broke you of that naivety.” His lip curled.
Evelos shifted his weight. “The Void is beautiful, in its way,” he agreed, “and I can see its purpose in the great weave. I can only imagine what the other elements must look like to you. Yet, I think, Croatius, you missed the lesson for all that you opened yourself to the Shadow. Perhaps you could have created that masterpiece you see, if you would’ve forgiven yourself of imperfection first.”
Croatius cut him off with a sharp laugh. “Huh! See? And there you are! You always were the naive one, Evelos. The song demands perfection, or it does not come. To think otherwise is…” He grunted in irritation. “You couldn’t possibly understand if you haven’t been where I have been, but nevertheless, I’ll show you. Watch.”
Evelos squinted, distrusting, and Croatius held up his hand. It took a few attempts, reaching down into the rusty space inside of him where that kind of energy lay, hidden behind mental lock and key. He drew it up, blew on it with the tenderness of kindling a flame, and his hand began to glow with a soft, white light.
“As you see, I can still call on it, Evelos. They say this, the Light, is the energy that mends what is broken. In the end, though, it was too weak for my purposes. It held no healing, no answers to my questions — or anyone else’s.”
“You’re only disappointed,” said Evelos coolly, “because the weak one was you, not the Light.”
Croatius snarled and gripped his hand shut. The light went out. “Ah, that stings,” he said, keeping his voice as light-hearted, faintly mocking. “Did you mean to hurt me? You are correct, of course. We, as mortals, are flawed. My mother believed if she could be cleansed before the Light, it’d all wash out of her like wine spots from a blouse. Pathetic! She spent most of her days in the cathedral, compounding her sins of sloth with that of pride. Father was more practical, believing he could reach it if he went through the Shadowlands. Each time he killed a servant, it opened the door, and he saw a little more of that path. Do you know how often he showed that to me, Evelos? Have you seen the winding path, Dark One?”
Evelos swallowed hard, and the elf gave a shake of his head. “I knew your father was a madman, Croatius, and I’ve… always been sorry for you because of it.”
“No!” said Croatius, snarling. So close, so close… “It’s I who am sorry for the rest of you! We saw through that pretty outer layer of life, through the gaudy makeup on your faces and down into your dead, burnt-out eyes. The world is only a machine, Evelos; our sympathies only the hallucinations of mortal minds that cannot comprehend it. Yes, I am weak and foolish; you are right. A bit of flesh clothed around what was once perfect, but at least I see that corruption and do not deny it like a sheep coddled towards its doom.”
“You’re wrong,” said Evelos calmly. “There is also love and kindness in this world. It wouldn’t exist without our mortal passion.”
Croatius snorted derisively. “I suppose some things cannot ever be beaten out of slaves…” He crossed his arms. “Like the others, you are useless to me.”
Evelos regarded him. Croatius expected to see the Shadow beast in there, raging at his defiance, but the eyes were only the eyes of his friend now, the gold starting to shine through the silver, at least a little bit.
“I came here to do one other thing, actually,” Evelos said finally, “whether I could come to understand you or not. Opening me up to the Shadow, Croatius… opened me to just how much we’ve all suffered. I never quite saw it before; I am naive, I suppose, like you say. …I wanted to correct for what I did not do in the past, that day in the bell tower. I want to help you.”
“Help me?” Croatius raised an eyebrow. “After all I’ve done to you? All the depravities you’ve witnessed – been forced to, by my hand?” His smile was half smirk and half snarl.
“Yes.” Evelos rubbed his face, then ran one finger along the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He grimaced but straightened.
Croatius took a step away; the shattered glass had melted and reformed. “What are you doing?” he snapped out.
“My magic is strained, so this might take some years to truly manifest,” said Evelos. He put a hand to his chest and drew out a bit of the Light, weak and tendriled. Fore and middle finger pressed together, he made a circle in the air. The Light swung outward, surrounding the two of them.
Croatius stiffened. The songs were faint, but they were playing, triumphant notes striking through the melody of control he had woven into Evelos’ mind. They rang like a high singer on glass, and his ears felt like they would burst.
Evelos looked at him, looked through him, eyes all of gold now. The Shadow beast had fled, or was crouching somewhere deep out of sight, and something greater coursed through the quel’dorei now. “I bless you, Croatius, under the will of the Light,” Evelos sang, and the words echoed in the Light’s song. “I know your birth family left much to be desired. I was lucky, to have the family I did.” The eyes winked out briefly, as Evelos repressed a shudder of old grief. Then they were back, boring through Croatius again. “So, I pray to the Light you one day find your love, Croatius Runefire, and either the children or the ancestors to restore it to you in full.”
“Ah, so that always was the difference,” Croatius whispered, shutting his eyes and steeling himself for pain. He probably deserved it. “You never had any doubt.”
“I had a lot of doubt, Croatius. I only had the pride – to think that I could overcome it alone – beaten out of me,” said Evelos with a little smile. “Master Krest was a fated choice of colleagues, Magister Runefire. We are all Fallen, but the way is held open for us by the music and the one who guides it. One day, Croatius, I hope that you can perceive that path as I do.”
The old memories swirled around his mind as Croatius held the infant, no longer bawling, but staring up at him with green eyes not quite demonic in their intensity. Croatius repressed a shudder for Adena’s sake, who was looking tiredly up at him with her vague, soulless smile.
That too, unnerved him, and he quickly put the baby Col’sil back in her arms so she had something else to focus on.
“Isn’t he wonderful?” she purred, curling around the child.
“A mother’s love,” Croatius remarked. Only an illusion, he thought.
“And a father’s love!” Adena added, and like always, he could never quite tell if she did it on purpose or not: either saying those words to provoke him or because some part of her really believed in him. He put a hand on her forehead, and even for Adena she felt too hot, nearly feverish.
“We should get you to a healer,” said Croatius. “I do not know how being a demon hunter changes one’s experiences of childbirth, but I do not think you are well.”
“We can do it tomorrow,” said Adena lazily. “I’m too tired now.”
“Oh, Croaty. You’re always so serious!”
Croatius looked away. The songs of magic curled around the edges of the room, and in them, he saw the Light: remnants of Evelos’ blessing, from long ago. The strident notes were softer now, yet steadily growing in intensity: a rising tide of music, that would overwhelm him if he didn’t stay ahead of it, like a tumbling boulder heralding an avalanche.
“Anything else would be a lie,” he told Adena. She stared at him as he picked her up, and she felt much too light, even with the baby still clasped in her arms.
He had to counteract that old curse immediately, Croatius thought. That was his first priority, after he tended to Adena. Evelos was right about one thing: the magic he had used on Croatius was incredibly strong, and Croatius foresaw himself falling to it, like Adena falling to her drink, lulled asleep to the harshness of the world by the siren’s call of passion. Evelos had always meant well, but Croatius sensed his doom if the spell came to pass.
Perhaps it would not be a bad thing, he reflected in some small part of him — that the rest of him bullied into silence when he was not too distracted. Adena’s willingness to plunge herself into life up to her neck was what had always attracted him to her, but he still couldn’t see her passion as anything but a pretty lie that they might tell each other at night, rather than the reality of the world.
On some level, he sensed she saw it too, and that was the reason for the drink.
“Where are we going?” asked Adena sleepily, jarring into his thoughts.
Croatius closed his eyes. Maybe he was cursed to see the full truth, but he could spare her from that pain, at least.
“You are going to the Shadowmoon Valley, my dear. The fel there should help you recuperate.”
“Oh, goodie! …but I’m much too tired to hunt demons with you, Croatius. Can’t we do it tomorrow?”
“It is fine to be tired, Adena, but you must be strong now. You’ll be staying there quite a while to regain your strength.”
“How can I be strong now if I also have to regain my strength for quite a while?”
Croatius didn’t answer. It wasn’t a long walk to the Court of Sun, and he drew on the fel to speed the way. When he finally reached their destination, setting Adena carefully down on a bench just inside the portal room, she was beginning to catch on to that something was not right. Her eyes were very wide as he specified his intended destination to the portal mage on duty.
“But you’ll be coming with me, Croaty, won’t you?”
Croatius didn’t meet her eyes. “I do this for your own good.”
Adena softened. Croatius hadn’t been quick enough – brave enough – in severing the bond, and she still trusted him. His flaw. “And when I come back, you can hold Col’sil some more,” Adena went on, happy again, or at least her tone was.
“When you come back, yes,” Croatius lied.
“He can catch up on his strength in Shadowmoon Valley, too,” she said as her eyes slipped shut. Her voice grew husky. “He’s strong with the fel. He’ll be a son you can be proud of.”
It stung. Croatius stared at her, squinted at her. Did she truly know? “I don’t want to be proud of him,” he growled.
Adena’s eyes flared open. “What do you mean? All fathers want to be proud of their sons!”
Croatius swallowed dryly, concocted another lie. “No, what I meant is that… I’d rather love him for who he is, no matter how imperfect.”
Adena swallowed it and relaxed back. “Oh Croaty, you really mean that, don’t you?”
She slept through the instructions Croatius made to the portal mage. It would cost him a small fortune, but in the end, the mage agreed to his plans and began to set up the magic. Adena didn’t wake through the opening of the portal.
The clashing songs of fel and arcane blared all around as the rift to Shadowmoon widened, and Croatius could just smell the brimstone of the lava-torn valley across the veil. He saw the Light curving all around too, in and out of the portal, around Adena, around himself – like manacles about his ankles. The mage barely noticed as Croatius quickly worked to reweave it, placing the Light all around the child instead.
“For you’ll need that protection, where you’re going,” he muttered.
Col’sil opened his eyes and watched, not taking his gaze off Croatius even as Croatius gently lifted both him and Adena and set them down on the other side of the portal at the mage’s nod. The Black Temple was hardly a league in the distance, and Croatius shot up a flare of fel, marking their location for the demon hunters Croatius knew would be watching.
The songs continued to bend and twist around him, disturbed by his meddling, threatening to tangle into something worthy of an Old God’s tentacles. He could still stay one step ahead if he were quick. The child’s eyes were bright and clear as he silently watched Croatius slip back through the portal, abandoning both mother and child to their fate.
“Croatius…?” Adena’s call sounded almost lucid, lined with fear.
The portal slammed shut, and the music burst in its wake. Croatius staggered, trying to decipher the complicated patterns: all the futures that were born in that instant of betrayal. The Shadow was much stronger now, curving around each note and gumming up the melody, and it was discordant without the Light to balance it.
He had failed again to manifest the perfect music. The flaw, the handful of wrong notes, had chased him all the way from his father before him; Croatius recognized the rising swell as his, with its cruel jangle that threatened to shiver apart the beat. Croatius blanched again and hurried from the room.
“Wards,” he muttered. “She’ll be back in days. I’ll need wards all around the manor.”
The notes fell to shards fell to pieces of glass across the floor. Fragments of eyes stared at him from all around, lined his pockets as soulgems. Croatius pressed himself into an alcove, out of sight of mortal eyes, and muttered a mantra until his breath calmed and he could project serenity again.
“The world is a machine. The world is but a machine, and if the world is a machine, then I am in control, so long as I learn the parts — so long as I make the parts and fit them in their places.”
He stepped out of the alcove.
“I make the parts. I make this world. I make this world for myself. I direct the songs as they should be. Heaven be manifest on Azeroth!
“Heaven, heaven as a machine…”
Those weren’t the right words, but he couldn’t hold onto the thought. When he stepped out into the open air, the spring sunlight pierced his eyes like arrows. Stillness took him; even the songs of magic had stopped as he tried to regain his train of thought.
“Heaven within my grasp…”
No one was around. He reached out to Adena reflexively, but she wasn’t there.
“Too used to that,” he chided himself. “Always hanging off of me, that woman. Guh!”
He stood for a moment longer, counting his heartbeats, a conductor’s tapping without an orchestra to follow. The only machine he couldn’t master was the one behind his eyes. He pulled up his hood against the late spring frost, and Croatius trudged home to his father’s manor.