Islands of Fire and Crystal
A mysterious Twilight healer
Kirstaera is a Solar Exalted healer. She is so beautiful that she must hide her face to avoid attention… and recognition. She has purple hair and eyes and wears silken robes and veils.
Before the coming of the death soldiers, a girl named Nalaedriel flourished in her family home in a small but prosperous town. Surrounded by scores of loving relatives, she grew into an ethereally beautiful young woman, who possessed intellect, charm, and a kind heart. She was rather tall with a soft, curving figure, almond shaped violent eyes and a cascade of luxurious silken violet hair. She continually thirsted for knowledge, but aside from reading and writing, she was schooled in things considered practical for a young lady, such as etiquette and how to run a large household and manage servants.
When Nalaedriel was but fifteen years old, the massive army of a powerful Deathlord invaded her town. The forces were lead by the Deathlord’s champion and favorite, an merciless deathknight known as the Knight Resplendent in Splinters of Bone and Ivory. After a furious but futile struggle, the city was completely decimated and practically everyone was butchered.
Nalaedriel watched as the deathknight slaughtered her entire family. But when it was Nalaedriel’s turn to be put to the sword, The Knight Resplendant gazed into her wide, tear-bejeweled violet eyes and hesitated at her calm, brave countenance. Instead of killing the girl, he took her with him to the Shadowlands. He pressed her to drink a potion that made her fall into a deep sleep, and upon waking, to forget all of the horrors she has witnessed. He merely told her that she had been “rescued.” (And in his mind, he spoke the truth.) Then, he married her in a solemn ceremony witnessed by the armies of the dead, in which the bride wore a gown of black silk beaded with onyx and her own tears.
Horrified and grieving for her family, she fell into despair, silent at the side of her husband as he committed atrocity after atrocity in his fanatical zeal to his Deathlord. Raining death upon the innocent “so their souls may be saved, reborn to the glorious paradise of the Shadowlands,” he embarked on military assaults for months at a time, leaving Nalaedriel behind at his fortress in the diseased heart of the Shadowlands. The fortress was carved of jagged, rough onyx amid a black, barren landscape where everything was dead and twisted, heavily guarded by the bloating, rotting corpses of the deathsoilders. The Shadowlands was populated by these walking corpse-soldiers and by the countless ghostly souls of the dead. The few living humans vied for the Deathlord’s favor, deeply entrenched in darkness and sadism.
The Knight Resplendent existed in state between life and death. Through tall, strong, and darkly handsome, his skin possessed a corpselike greyish-white pallor and he extruded the faint smell of dry decay. He did not partake of human food or wine; he devoured the flesh and blood of his victims and reveled in it. He luxuriated in his wife’s warmth and he shared her bed often. Nalaedriel abhorred and even feared him. He treated Nalaedriel with a cool kindness, but his touch was cold and his embraces were like ice. His seed was blighted, and Nalaedriel suffered two miscarriages in the first year of their marriage. She carried her third pregnancy almost to full term, but the infant was born dead. The ghosts of the tiny beings haunted her, filling her nights with their harrowing crying.
At last, The Knight Resplendent asked the death priests to work their dark magick for his young wife. She was stricken – the creation of life was completely unnatural to them. The pregnancy was very difficult, and Nalaedriel feared that she would die brining the infant into the world. But she lived, as did the child, a son. He was born with a caul, his little body sickly and spindle-thin. Nalaedriel named their son “Tristan,” meaning, “sorrow.” The child was destined to become a Shadowland warrior, and it was The Knight Resplendent’s hope that his son would prove his worth in battle and his loyalty to the Deathlord, and become an Exalted. Nalaedriel feared for her son and devoted all of her love to him, seeking to shelter the gentle, timid child from the horrors of the Shadowlands.
Three years passed, and Nalaedriel’s health slowly withered, for every time her husband shared her bed, he unwittingly drained part of her life away. When she learned that she was with child again, The Knight Resplendent feared for her health, and had a fate-seeker come and swing a pendulum over Nalaedriel’s still flat belly. A live child, a girl. The Knight Resplendent urged her to quit herself of it. Nalaedriel refused.
But this pregnancy was different. Her health bloomed, her cheeks flushed, her appetite flourished. She felt a warm glow deep within her, a vibrant energy. At first she thought it was the child growing inside her. But as the months passed, she realized that the feeling was something else. Her daughter was born healthy, plump, and rose pink. Her husband was amazed and grateful. He named their daughter “Banwynn”, or “Treasure.” Nalaedriel’s milk, which had been so scarce with her son, flowed like honey. She absorbed herself in her children. They were her only happiness amid the pit of the Shadowlands.
Nalaedriel was barely twenty-one when her husband moved his family to a city he had just annihilated. The stink of death was everywhere, the bodies of innocent townspeople moldering in great rotting heaps. The last of the Dragon-Blooded, which had fought so bravely for their city, were being tortured: impaled, torn to pieces, thrown alive onto bonfires. Their screams hung heavy in the air and the grey sky rained blood and ash. The ghosts of the dead were being sorted; the rebellious forced into the great forges and melted down for soulsteel.
Nalaedriel was aghast. Never had she seen such wanton cruelty, not even the slaying of her own family, whom she had never, ever forgiven The Knight Resplendent for butchering with such detachment and cruelty. Then The Knight Resplendent told his wife that their seven-year-old son was becoming too soft, too weak. It was time to take the child away from her. It was time he began his training as a deathknight.
That night, after her husband had finished lying with her, he fell into an exhausted sleep in her bed, his cold cheek against her breast. She reached down to his discarded pile of armor and clothing and felt for his dagger. Did he not always say that true death was mercy? She closed her eyes, letting out a deep, wrenching sigh. Her slender fingers closed around the hilt, the blade long and sharp and forged of soulsteel. Still she hesitated. But he was a monster, truly, and the image of her family hacked to pieces flooded back to her, the sound of their anguished screams as The Knight Resplendent butchered them.
She sank the dagger deep into his heart.
His eyes flew open, his mouth opened as if to scream. He choked instead on his own blood. Nalaedriel made the mistake of looking into his eyes. She braced herself for hatred, murderous rage. But not for the sight of his brown eyes brimming with tears, horror-struck with betrayal. “Nal…” he croaked. He touched his heart, and stretched his bloody fingers out to her, silently accusing her.
She pulled the dagger out of his breast, wiping it off on the bedclothes. A dam broke inside her heart, and for the first time, she felt a glimmer of warmth for him. Her eyes spilled over. “Forgive me, I had to. Your Lord cannot have our son,” she whispered. She placed her hand on his brow. “Good-bye.”
Nalaedriel’s hand pulsed, and a silken heat suddenly emanated from it. Her fingers glowed with a pinkish-purplish light, and she grew dizzy as she felt the energy drain from her. To her utter shock, the gaping wound in her husband’s chest began to close.
Nalaedriel roused her children and ran for her life, using the escape tunnels her husband had shown her in case of a siege. The deathknights, of course, were waiting for her outside the fortress. They raised their weapons. She drew her children behind her, and clumsily wielded her husband’s dagger. She would die protecting them.
“Leave us alone,” she snarled. Like an exploding star, a sudden cornea of blinding golden light burst from her, shot through with violent crimsons and blues and violets. The vivid visage of a unicorn, twelve-feet high, reared and cantered behind her. A golden mark, a half-filled circle, burned on her brow. The deathknights were awe-struck, impotently unable to attack.
Nalaedriel fled into the woods with her children. The deathknights recovered within minutes, and scoured the land for her. But they never found her.
A year later, a strange, beautiful woman arrived at the city of Lookshy, with two wide-eyed children and fresh papers declaring her to be a widow. She was a healer. A very powerful healer. None died under her care. She was very careful never to heal anyone too quickly, lest anyone guess what she really was. She became comfortably wealthy, with a beautiful villa surrounded by gardens, orchards, and a stable. She employed a cheerfully plump, elderly woman as a housemaid and cook. Her little boy and girl had the best tutor. She charged the rich what they could afford. She treated the poor for free. Her talent and compassion became very well known throughout the countryside. Too well known for her comfort level. She called herself Kirstaera.
At first the prosperous and beautiful widow was courted relentlessly, but the attention was soon directed towards more responsive targets. She was, by all accounts, most devoted to her family, if somewhat nervous and overprotective. Both of her children had her pale porcelain skin and violet hair and eyes, but her son was tall and gaunt with awkwardly long, spindly limbs. Her daughter was plumper, with a more cheerful air. Both of the children were quiet and painfully shy, and clung to their mother.
Two years later, in the dead of winter, a mortally injured man was found in the woods, twenty miles away from the city. He had a plain face and long chestnut brown hair. He had been hunting, for his short bow and a quiver of game arrows were recovered nearby. He had obviously been trying to fight something monstrously powerful very recently, for there were giant tracks in the snow and blood was splattered everywhere. A sword was clenched in his hand. He had been struck down in the snow, the back of his skull smashed in, his vertebrae crushed. The only thing that had kept him alive was the snow, which prevented his brain from swelling and had dramatically lowered his body temperature, locking his system into a state of hibernation.
Kirstaera confined herself with the man for a fortnight, knitting bone, mending flesh. She fought for his life and she won. She was the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. They were brown, like her husband’s, but his skin was warm. His name was Hayden. He could not recall what had happened to him. All he could remember was the horrible sense of being watched, of being stalked before the attack, and Hayden was a brave man; he had been a solider who knew the horrors of battle. Kirstaera confided to him that she knew how it felt to be hunted. Hayden had knelt at her feet and vowed to protect her and her family. Kirstaera assured him that such a display of gratitude was not necessary, and urged him to leave Lookshy and seek his fortune elsewhere. But he stayed on, and at length Kirstaera gave up trying to persuade him.
The solider became a personal valet of sorts, caring for the horses and other animals, making household repairs, and other assorted mundane tasks. He guarded the family well, and Kirstaera was grateful to him, although she felt vaguely guilty for interrupting the course of his life. But he never complained. Kirstaera taught him the rudiments of conventional medicine, and he assisted her in the sick room. He began to guess at what she really was, but he never spoke of it.
At her insistence, Hayden taught her how to shoot and use a blade, and Kirstaera tried to ignore the heat of his body as he pressed close to her, adjusting her stance, correcting her aim. She was a fast learner. Her dexterity and grace in melee amazed him, but what she excelled at archery. She outshot him, her speed, accuracy, and distance quickly surpassing his. He was humbled, but she seemed pleased. He offered to teach her son. She agreed, if he would also instruct her daughter. He readily consented; he enjoyed the presence of the two children. Her daughter adored him. Her son was civil but jealous, although the child himself did not understand why.
All was well for three more years until the neighboring city of Thorns was decimated by a Deathlord without warning, and sucked into the Shadowlands. Kirstaera was called to accompany the Lookshy soldiers on a scouting mission as close to Thorns as they dared. There were no survivors.
Kirstaera was panic-stricken. She liquidated her assets and sold off her property. She made arrangements to journey with the next guild caravan North. Her fear disturbed Hayden, who promised her that he would stay with her family. Kirstaera did not attempt to talk him out of it, although she knew that the mortal man was no match against an Exalted adversary.