I once had a brother. An older brother. I once had a family. A loving family. I once had a life and a childhood, a home, and carefulness. But in a single day, it all slipped away. Now, all that remains are two of my possessions: an obsidian dagger housing a fragment of a powerful artifact that can fulfill my deepest desire, and a choice upon which my future hinges. As I meet his gaze, those golden eyes beseech me with unwavering hope, as he is still believing that deep within my very soul, I am not a killer...
CHAPTER 1. THE GREAT NIGHT
"Mum, why can't we leave the house?" Ashula pressed her forehead against the glass, captivated by the floating lights in the sky.
She had tried to count them, but the floating lights—emerald and every conceivable shade of blue, rarely red and orange—kept sparking over neighbouring houses and fading too quickly. Her breath left a fleeting mark on the glass.
"Because it's dangerous, sweetheart," Lady Elvia replied. She sat in a corner, embroidering another doily, quietly humming a lullaby.
She focused intently on the silk fabric, occasionally snagging the thin needle to unravel knots. It seemed as if the golden and silver threads were leaping through tiny holes, intertwining into delicate patterns on their own. Ashula loved watching her mother's work, but tonight, all her attention was captured by the Darkness. Of course, she had seen the Great Night before, more than once. The Darkness was as familiar to Ashula as her mother's sewing. Still, she enjoyed the strange fluttering in her heart every time she peeked out of the window.
"I thought elves weren't afraid of anything!" Asher huffed. The boy was playing with a toy airship, using his mind to spin the tiny propeller, and the air currents to lift the vessel higher and higher towards the ceiling. "Dad goes out to meetings every day and nothing happens to him."
"Your father is a powerful adult wizard," Elvia said, waving her index finger. "He is capable of warding off any monster, any spawn of Darkness."
"Even a Shamah?"
Lady Elvia paused for a moment, the glittering threads hanging in mid-air before falling onto the embroidery hoop.
"Yes, even a Shamah," she said, putting aside her sewing to look at the children. "Better go play in the garden. Don't look out the windows too much, alright?"
"You're it, duckling!" Asher bounced over to the window and smacked Ashula on the back with all his might. She whimpered in pain, and he laughed with satisfaction.
"Don't bully your sister!" Elvia warned her son, before returning to her sewing.
Ashula didn't want to go to the garden, didn't want to play with her brother, but she had no choice. She had to be an obedient girl; otherwise, the Goddess would grow angry and plague her with terrible dreams. While Asher scampered through the broad corridors, he managed to knock a maid off her feet, who was carrying freshly laundered linens, and snatch a cake from Omixa's tray.
"Young master, don't be mischievous!" Omixa warned, furrowing her bushy eyebrows.
The only true marvel in all of Elvagar—and possibly the entire continent—Omixa was a favourite among all the neighbourhood children. She made the best paper toys and baked the tastiest pies and cakes. As Ashula walked past the tray, Omixa thrust a sweet treat into her hands and winked.
"To make it fair."
The glass doors to the garden were, as always, flung wide open. Soft light, pouring from crystals hidden in the walls, tinted the plants and paths a shade of blue.
"One shamah, two shamah... and the little gosling leads!" Asher bellowed, leaping behind a tamarisk covered in pink blooms.
With little enthusiasm, Ashula wandered between trees and bushes, seeking her brother in the undergrowth. A few times she clapped half-heartedly, and her brother replied, clapping from different corners of the garden. Asher never played fair: he'd change hideouts, conceal cards (if it was a board game), or ask complicated and lengthy words from the Holy Scripture—so she didn't even hope to win at least once.
The rhododendron bushes rustled, and Asher pounced on his sister's back, pushing her onto the path.
"Caught you, tasty little chick. Shamah has caught you and will eat you now!" Asher growled, imitating a huge dog.
"Stop it!" Ashula squirmed under her brother, finally pushed him off and sat under a bush. "Why do you scare me? You know I will have nightmares afterward."
"Gosling-coward," Asher pointed a finger at her. "Pathetic!"
"Hey, stop!" Ashula bristled, scooped up some soil with her palm and flung it into her brother's grinning face. "Don't call me that! I'm just still small..."
Asher wiped the dirt from his cheek with his shirt sleeve and glared at his sister.
"You're in for it now!" he growled, and pounced on Ashula, grabbing at her braids.
For a moment, she and her brother had turned into a ball of arms, knees, and teeth. The children growled at each other like puppies, rolling down the path, dirtying their silk attire.
"Hey, what's going on here? Stop it right now!" Omixa stomped so hard that the gravel scattered under the bushes. She flew up and grabbed Asher by the collar, pulling him away from his sister. "Don't you know that fighting is bad? Just you wait, I'll tell everything to your mother!"
"No need, Omixa, we won't do it anymore," Asher promised (lied), snivelling.
"Oh, you most certainly will! There's no controlling you, young sir. If you were my son, I'd give you a good tug on the ears for upsetting your sister."
Asher broke free from the giantess's grasping fingers.
"But I'm not your son, I'm your master! So you can't do anything to me, old lady!" He stuck out his tongue, spun on his heels and dashed towards the doors.
"Just you wait, you little scamp! When I catch up to you, you'll get a good talking-to from 'grandma'!"
Omixa didn't chase after him. Instead, she turned to Ashula and helped her to her feet, carefully brushing off the dirt that had stuck to her dress.
"Are you alright, child, not scratched? I don't know what to do with that little rascal. He has no control... His masters spoil him, spoil him undeservingly," Omixa nodded, tutted, and put her hands on her hips. "He'll turn into a rake, and then we'll all have trouble with him!"
Ashula wiped her tears, smearing dirt on her cheeks. Omixa bent down and scooped her up into her arms, easily lifting her off the ground. Of course, for a powerhouse like her, Ashula was probably as light as a pillow.
"Let's go, dearie, you need to be washed and changed," the giantess cooed. "And then we'll go to the kitchen. I'll warm up some milk for you and give you some tamarisk honey..."
When the house became quiet and everyone fell asleep, Ashula unwrapped the silk canopy and jumped out of bed. She slid to the door and peeked into the empty corridor. Father and mother were sleeping; the housekeepers and helpers were sleeping; her brother was sleeping in the next room; Kudlan was sleeping in the chimney, growling in his sleep. The Fire-eye curled up into a golden ball nearby. The great hall was dimly lit, and outside the tall windows was Darkness. She breathed a sigh of relief, afraid that the spirit-guardian would try to stop her or wake the adults. Ashula flew down the stairs, tiptoed to the front gate, gently opened it, and slipped through the gap.
The first thing she felt, or rather didn't feel, was the wind. A thick cool jelly hung overhead, and an unusual smell made her nose itch. The scents of flowers and trees mixed with a hint of ozone, which came from lightning in a storm. So this is what the Great Night was like! Goosebumps popped up on her skin, and her hair stood on end. Her heart clenched in her chest; a strong, thrilling feeling flooded it. A marvelous blend of fascination and fear.
Ashula walked down the narrow path through the sleeping garden. Everything around seemed bluish-green: the marble slabs under her feet, the trees and flowers, the wrought-iron fence. The sky overhead was black. The Moon—the silver Eye of the Goddess—was nowhere to be seen. The darkness was aglow with multicolored floating lights. Flashes of green, blue, and red cut through the starless void every minute. It was so beautiful that Ashula stopped for a moment to marvel at the spectacle. Bright colors splashed like ripples on water, undulating in waves. It seemed as if giant luminous snakes were performing a sacred dance.
Ashula ran past the fence and drowsily wandered through the sleepy streets. Of course, the neighbors were asleep. The windows of the houses were black, but the walls glowed blue, and some grass behind the ornamental fences in the gardens glowed dimly green. It felt like she was in a fairy tale. Why did mom forbid leaving the house during the Dark Days? Why were only adults allowed to walk the streets? Ashula couldn't understand. But she knew for sure that even adults didn't dare to go beyond the wall. They whispered about the chimeras—monsters more terrifying than the most fierce nightmare, hunting in the darkness from outside.
Far ahead towered the white wall of Elvagar. Smooth and sturdy, it was several thousand years old. Like the walls in the houses, the wall glowed pale blue, and on the crenellated top, giant crystals glistened. They were the ones that gave birth to these marvelous floating lights dancing over the city.
Ashula ran to the waterfall that softly rumbled somewhere west of the main square. There was a gap in the wall and a narrow path leading to the old temple. She loved that temple very much and didn't understand why the priests no longer used it. Without hesitation, Ashula crawled through the wall and, holding onto the damp, rough stone, hopped over the precipice via a bridge.
In the reflections of the floating lights, the water took on a fabulous azure hue, and far beneath her feet, foamy greenish clouds splashed against sharp peaks. With each step, the magical glow of Elvagar dimmed. The lights from the crystals dwindled; the darkness thickened. Outside, beyond the walls, the world seemed unusually empty and dim.
With each step, Ashula's heart fluttered harder. She slowed down, hunched under her thin nightshirt. It turned out that even the air outside was much colder. And she felt someone's watchful gaze on her. As if someone was watching her every move, hearing her every breath. Ashula looked around but saw no movement in the darkness. She hesitated. Should she stop? Perhaps it would be better to go home? She had seen enough of the Darkness for the first walk. What if a monster appeared?
But ahead appeared the luminescent specter of the old temple. The forgotten sanctuary of the Goddess, the size of a chapel, beckoned her like a moth to the flame. Ashula resolutely stepped towards the pointed gate and plunged inside. She felt relief when the cold dark jelly of Darkness remained behind.
The temple was quiet, cozy, and warm. The marble slabs emitted a faint blue glow. The tall columns that held the colored glass dome glowed the same way. In the center of the temple stood a statue of the Goddess. Like a spellbinding pearl cast from moonlight, the Goddess in a long white peplos gracefully froze, leaning on her knee, reaching out to the sun, incredibly delicate and beautiful in mortal likeness.
Ashula clasped her hands together and whispered a prayer. First, she felt a foreign presence, then, looking closely, she realized she was not the only visitor in the temple.
To the right of the altar stood a tall, slender man, his attention fixed on the marble face of the Goddess. His attire was peculiar; his silver-white hair shone like fresh snow, and his skin held an almost bluish pallor, as if it had never been touched by sunlight. Upon realizing he was not an elf, Ashula darted into the shadows. The stranger, turning his head, allowed the elongated golden eyes that outshone the magical crystals to scan the room, his vertical pupils reminiscent of a snake's.
"Is anyone there?" echoed a pleasant baritone, reverberating under the temple's high arches.
Covering her mouth with her hand, Ashula trembled in the shadows. Having quickly swept his gaze over the temple, the man redirected his attention to the Goddess. He clasped his hands in prayer and whispered:
"I came to Elvagar, dear, as you commanded... Anarun assured me that the country is as peaceful as it was a hundred years ago. I maintained that the elves would not break the terms of our agreement. What then, my love, has unsettled you?" He sighed heavily, lowering his hand. "I have dutifully fulfilled your requests over these years. I executed every command, Elin. Why then have you ceased to appear in my dreams?"
Surprise gaped Ashula's mouth wide. Did this stranger genuinely expect a response from the Goddess? Never in her life had she heard that the statue could speak to anyone. Was this stranger some sort of priest? Her mother had mentioned that only priests could decipher the holy words of the elves.
Suddenly, the branches behind her rustled. Startled, Ashula spun around. A tall black figure obstructed the lit rectangle of the doorway. After a moment's hesitation, a monster lumbered into the temple, heavy steps echoing ominously... A cry escaped Ashula as she momentarily forgot about the stranger by the statue of the Goddess. The monster resembled a pale, skinny man with no face, his armless hands swinging aimlessly with each step, tapering off into sharp points. His bare torso seemed as if it was molded from wax.
The monster surveyed the area and purposefully advanced toward the corner where Ashula hid. Its porcelain head twitched erratically from side to side, the skin on its face starting to fissure and split. In the place where a mouth should have been, a jagged, dark crevice formed.
With a gasp, Ashula burst out of her hiding place and collided with the stranger. He gripped her shoulders, steadying her, while keeping his gaze locked on the approaching monster.
"What a peculiar scarecrow," the stranger remarked, shifting his attention to Ashula for the first time. "What brings you here, child?"
Ashula had no time to respond. The scarecrow, or whatever creature it was, opened its cavernous maw and released a roar so powerful it caused the temple walls to tremble. Fearful, Ashula covered her ears while the stranger merely narrowed his golden eyes and crinkled his pale nose.
"I see. He's not particularly thrilled to see me," the man muttered, shoving Ashula behind him. "Stay hidden, child!"
But Ashula stumbled and fell to the floor before she could hide. The scarecrow, its spindly legs flexing like vines, emitted a bone-chilling screech and lunged at the stranger. Undeterred, the man defended himself with his forearms. The sleeves of his black armor split apart, and from his arms emerged white, curved blades, reminiscent of a stag beetle's mandibles.
Like a creature skewered on a spit, the stranger impaled the scarecrow on his blades, effortlessly maintaining distance from its face. Then, with a swift motion, he flung the monster against the opposite wall. The force of impact caused the scarecrow's resilient body to crumple, and it slumped helplessly in the corner.
What astonishing strength! Ashula watched the stranger in stunned disbelief, her mouth hanging open. He straightened, dropped his arms, and quickly approached the defeated scarecrow. Bending over it, he prepared to deliver the final blow. Ashula understood what was about to transpire but couldn't tear her gaze away in time. The scarecrow seemed to sense its impending demise, thrashing with renewed desperation while producing an eerie, high-pitched squeal. With a swift and calculated motion, the stranger decapitated the monster.
The pale body released a hissing sound, and from its narrow neck gushed a plume of black smoke. It was as though the Darkness itself were pouring out from the wound, swirling and wrapping the pale figure in a thick smoky shroud that seeped from every pore. The scarecrow's body shrunk before her eyes, bubbling and hissing as it melted into a heap of charred rags. The stranger sighed and glanced around.
"Are you unharmed, child?" He flicked the viscous residue off his blade, and his arm resumed its normal appearance in an instant.
Finally regaining her composure, Ashula shuffled back against the wall, hugging herself as she trembled.
"Hush, little one. Breathe, just breathe," he reassured, squatting on his haunches and extending his hands in a calming gesture. "I mean you no harm, I swear."
"Shama... shama..." Ashula stammered, as her vision began to swim and fade into blackness.
He managed to catch her just a moment before she would have collapsed. For a while, Ashula experienced only a sensation of warmth and gentle swaying, as though cradled. She even heard a pleasant humming - a lullaby or perhaps a children's song. Then a sweet floral scent tickled her nose, and the swaying ceased.
"What are you doing here?" Her father's voice sliced through the dim light, and she swayed again.
"Is this your daughter?"
"Ashula... By the Heavens! Where... where did you find her?"
"What a lovely name. She was hiding in the Temple of Elin. She's quite the brave little one, not frightened by the dark. A scarecrow entered the temple. It was fortunate I was present; otherwise, she may not have survived. Please, take her and keep a watchful eye."
"Did... did Elin summon you?" Her father whispered, his voice quaking either from fear or reverence.
Lord Anarun heaved a heavy sigh, his voice adopting a dry timbre characteristic of his authoritative orders or reprimands towards Asher for yet another mischief.
"Of late, the Darkness has been spewing out an increasing number of monstrosities. Each one more ferocious and ravenous than the last, proliferating like a plague," he ground his teeth in frustration. "And those senile fools in the Tower choose to turn a blind eye! They feign ignorance, pretending as if nothing is amiss. They've ceased dispatching hunters on hunts. Instead, the hunters now track down those who incur the Tower's displeasure—rebels and dissidents—as if that takes precedence over combating the monsters."
"Remember, these monsters were once mortals... Are you suggesting the Darkness is spawning new chimeras?"
"With each passing night. Every Great Night sees the arrival of new, unknown types at our walls. We've devised a classification system to track these mutations."
"You must understand, Anarun, that shamahs don't meddle in the Tower's affairs. As long as the Tower adheres to the terms of the Agreement."
Shamahs… Did he say "shamahs"? Could he possibly be a shamah? Ashula stirred in her father's arms.
"Ah, it appears your daughter can hear us."
"Sweetheart, are you alright?"
"Sha... mah..." Ashula stammered, her body trembling as if seized by fever, and she let out a soft whimper.
"Did she genuinely overhear us? And now, what am I to do… What should I tell her?" The father was utterly flummoxed.
A warm, affable chuckle broke the tense silence.
"Nothing. Simply tell her it was merely a dream. A frightful dream."