He paused and looked back one last time. His throat caught and he clenched his fists.
In the fading twilight, the mountainside stretched down towards the pooling darkness of the land far below and the ocean beyond that. He knew that amidst the forests, farms lay nestled down there, villages and towns dotted around, and they all eventually touched the main roads that the Elementals had built. These ancient roads all led back to the centre of the Kingdom where the Rainbow Tower pierced the sky with the Emperor and his fire wizards staring down from it like cruel gods.
Far beyond the Kingdom, he had heard of untamed water wizards sailing the seas as unstoppable pirates. Across the opposite side of the continent and hiding under black clouds and thick smoke, the Foresaken Realm swirled with whispers of men and horses made of metal and an invisible fire that powered its heart. He had even heard of immortal demons leftover from the Great War that lurked in shadows and bartered with men.
But all of these were very distant and none of them had murdered his family.
His knuckles turned white and his eyes narrowed as he gazed down at the darkening land. Soot smudged his face and ash dusted his dark hair. He could feel those cruel bastards somewhere down there laughing behind their fiery banners and comfortable in their Emperor’s protection. He could still smell the smoke from the farm, hear his mother and sister’s screams and feel the heat from the fire as it consumed everything before it.
He sighed and unclenched his fists. They were wet; his fingernails had pierced his palms’ skin.
He cursed, wiped his hands off on his charred tunic, and turned back to his path through the mountains. If he kept going, he might eventually reach the Foresaken Realm on the far side of the mountains and the continent. No, his path lay nearer. There was nothing but darkness left behind him now, and–wiping away a tear–he no longer feared the darkness lurking ahead of him in these mountains.
“They call us The Mistakes, Lez Zuzaru,” a dark man whispered–although the cave deep in the mountains was black with little moonlight surviving it, the darkness clung to the man like a tangible entity, “We–They–were the Enian Zaru, the Life Elementals. All the fire, earth, water and air that forged this world could not breathe life into it. No, the Old Tales always forget that the other Enian needed the Zaru. For, what worth is a beautiful world if it is lifeless and barren? And then they banished Zaru and us–called us The Mistakes!–when the life inevitably brought change and they were not ready for it!”
“Please, Zaruná!” he threw himself to his knees and pushed his head to the cold cave floor, “Please, Sir! Please teach me the way of the Zaru! You are a necromancer, are you not? I can do–will do whatever it takes! Please–“
The Dark Man waved his hand and, despite the boy’s mouth opening and closing, sound no longer came out of it. His body felt strange like something else was touching it and a nearly invisible green glow began to fill the cave. Closing his now impotent mouth, the boy stood up and, with eyes wide open and terrified, he took a step backwards.
“You have no ná, boy,” the Dark Man whispered venomously, spitting the words out, “The elemental blood has watered down across the ages but you, boy, never had any in the first place. How can I teach you how to fly if you have no wings? How can I teach you any magic if you have no ná?”
The boy stopped stepping backwards and his shoulders slumped. His gaze fell to his dirty hands, and all the tears he had buried along with his family welled up and out of him.
“Yes!” the Dark Man whispered into his ear, suddenly behind him, “You want revenge. I can help you with that but there is a cost. A very, very high cost that most are not willing to pay. Boy, will you pay the cost?”
“Y-yes–” the boy stammered, “Yes! Whatever it is, I will pay it!”
“I thought you’d say that,” the Dark Man chuckled as his dagger slid under the boy’s rib cage and straight into his heart, “With your last thought, boy, think only of those you wish to have revenge upon…”
The Dark Man leaned up against the edge of his cave as the horror that used to be the boy shambled–oozing and tentacled–away from him, down the mountain road and towards its revenge.
The boy–or, at least, his body guided by his final thoughts–was now one of the Lez Zaros.; the ironically named, Lifeless Ones. Ironic, because all these near-immortal horrors were built from pure and utter life itself; unbridled and constrained by the other petty elements.
He had read in forbidden books how in the ancient world–before men’s kingdoms–the First War had been fought between the Elementals themselves. Life against the lifeless ones. The lands had swarmed with Lez Zaros; crawling, slithering, flapping and oozing against the original dictators, the Lez Enian Váv, or the Elemental Kings.
The Dark Man sighed and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Few knew how to make Lez Zaros anymore and fewer still had the power. And, for those few like him, it cost a great deal of energy. One day, the Life Elemental would find a way back into this world but, for now, her few loyal followers must keep her knowledge alive.
He turned and walked back into the cave, his hands and mind reaching out and filling the vacuum around him. Greenlight flowed out of and around him as the cave closed behind him. A lush, calm forest grew up around him with sweet-smelling, luminous flowers and gentle vines that knitted themselves into a comfortable bed.
He would sleep now. Perhaps for a year, maybe even a decade? Zaruná like him no longer aged so time was unimportant.
He would see what the boy had changed in the world by then but, he suspected, the real change was coming from elsewhere these days.
He had heard that the Foresaken Realm was running out of resources, its machines growing too large and its men too clever. Some had even started to raid into the Kingdom, consuming whole villages in their pursuit of resources. He had also heard that each subsequent generation of the elemental wizards–fire, earth, air and water–were seeing their bloodlines watered down and their magic fading. Spells were being forgotten and magical bloodlines that stretched uninterrupted back to the Elemental Kings were dying out. He had even heard that the Emperor’s son had no ná and would rule with the fire wizards behind him only in name.
Things were moving and the world was changing.
And, as the Dark Man lowered himself into his bed of soft vines, sweet-smelling flowers blooming around him, he smiled, thinking to himself of the unsuspecting fire wizards. They deserved the multitude of horrors lumbering towards them.
Life was change and, as long as the world kept changing, it remained alive.