Blood had never been so dark.
Blood of light, drawn by shadows.
It dripped from skin and stone, no longer kept by flesh and veins. From the tips of her fingers it fell to the ground, joining the blood of her children, who lay scattered across the throne room. White creatures, children of light, last of their kind, who had given their lives to protect their creator. Yet it had not been enough.
The floor was a shadowed crimson that hid the white marble below. The light of the rising sun reflected on it, casting a scarlet rainbow upon the lifeless faces.
Above them towered the throne, the Lady of Light seated upon it, her empty eyes watching the abyss forever.
Only moments ago, she had realized she had failed her people as she watched the shadows crawl into the room, ending the lives of her children.
Only moments ago, she had surrendered to death once again.
Only moments ago, her last breath had left her lips. Now she sat on her throne like a statue, her crown circling on the ground, catching the light that fell through the high windows and radiating it in a dazzling display before it finally stopped moving and the sound faded, so only the sound of dripping blood was left.
Only she had seen the eyes of her murderer, only she had known who would come from the depths of the shadows.
A tiny snowflake slowly drifted down through the cold and icy air and landed peacefully in a sea of crimson. The empty eyes of the dead stared at it as it melted away in the warmth of the blood, while black leather boots lightly stepped through it.
“Please, I beg you, I will never speak of this, I will run and never come back. I promise! I promise!” one man cried with a trembling voice. He sat on his knees between his fallen brothers and sisters, all covered in blood. The figure stopped in front of him and remained silent before it softly said, “Don’t beg, it makes you weak.”
As soon as the man looked up to see the face his throat was slit by her spear, and he fell to the ground, joining the other corpses. The figure took off her hood and revealed the face of a woman, an Ilunari. Her eyes a bright violet, hair as black as a raven’s feathers falling down to her knees, her skin as pale as the snow around her. It couldn’t be said how old she was, she looked like she had just matured but Ilunari were blessed with eternal youth so it was easy to be deceived.
She looked around, trying to find her bag that she had dropped when she was attacked. Earlier that day she had gone to a nearby trading village, Grun’Udul, to trade the few things she collected during her hunts that week. It wasn’t much and perhaps she was better off keeping it for herself but she liked to eat something other than her everyday boar and winterroot. Spring was around the corner anyway so life would return to the woods as soon as the snow had fully melted.
Silence surrounded her, the snow absorbing any sound, as she searched for her bag and walked home. She knew she would have to come back to this place to burn the corpses, she didn’t want to draw any predators this close to her home. After a few moments she found her bag, covered in snow and blood, and walked back home.
Her thoughts ran wild, she had heard rumors in the village that could change everything. Traders had spoken of the death of Varne, the king of the Shadow Lands, and of his son Xere, who was crowned the new king on the same day. King Egìl, ruler of the Shining Lands had sent word out to all the races of the Shining Lands that this would change the course of the war. Now that a new king sat upon the Throne of Darkness, Egìl would gather their forces and launch a new attack to finally bring an end to the War of Shattered Light. He had comforted his people with the promise that they were far stronger and more experienced than this boy king, seemingly forgetting that Xere was older than the war itself, an Ilunari born centuries before the war started, and thus had walked this world far longer than Egìl. Egìl claimed to have been granted immortality until he had avenged Nuana, Guardian of Light. He had been the one to find her corpse after she was murdered, ascending from human king to King of the Shining Lands within a moment. The Shining Lands had rallied behind him, sending their armies toward the border, just in time to receive the armies of the Shadow Lands. For years it had been a bloodbath, the war had been back and forth, taking a toll on both Lands, but eventually it settled. War became occasional battles to defend the border and was more of a tension between the Lands than anything, but now with king Varne dead the War of Shattered Light would bloom again.
A cold and towering wall stood before her. With her hand on the stone she walked along the rock, found the entrance and slipped inside. Almost immediately she came back outside, now without the bag, angry at herself for not immediately cleaning up the bodies.
Night had fallen over the dark, winter woods and she took a different path than the one she took on the way home, wary of any danger that might have lurked in the shadows. Her steps were quick and silent, like the wind and shadows of the forest. When she arrived at the bloodbath, she crouched toward some half-dead bushes on the side. Crows were flocking around the bodies and some lunar moths fluttered above the blood. She always loved those moths, they fascinated her in some way. They were rare and lived only in these forests. Their wings were a pale white, almost glowing in the darkness of night. They looked stunningly beautiful yet lived by drinking the blood of the dead. One never saw them anywhere but near fresh blood. She did not see any signs of danger and sighed when she realized the task ahead. She was tired but it had to be done. There were ten bodies which meant a big pile of wood. Not too far away a tree had fallen down during the harsh winter. It would be perfect to build a pile so she brought its wood to the bodies. It was heavy work but she didn’t stop until she had built a pyre with the trees and bushes. She had built a little staircase to be able to lift the bodies upon the pyre. After looting the bodies, she removed their armor to sell or salvage and hid everything useful in a nearby bush. When she searched the young man who had begged her for mercy she found a letter. It was sealed with the royal seal of the Shadow Lands so she assumed it was sent by King Xere. The seal was an eight-pointed star within a woven circle made out of black wax. She put it away quickly and removed his armor. After she had put all the bodies on a pile and lit the pyre, she watched the flames. The fire grew and grew, consuming the flesh of the dead as it spread the horrid stench of burning flesh. With a sigh her hand reached into her coat and found the letter. She stared at the seal a little while, doubting if she would break it, not sure if she wanted to know what it said. A quick snap and the seal was broken. She could still throw it in the fire, never read it, be done with it. But something inside of her had hope, hope that she would finally be done hiding, waiting until she could complete the task she was given so long ago. She closed her eyes and sighed as she took a deep breath, readying herself to read the letter. The crackling of the fire was the only thing that broke the silence as she read it.
Come back to the Shadow Lands.
He is dead, but I assume you have already heard the news. I now sit upon the Throne of Darkness and I am no longer subject to his ways. We are preparing for war, gathering whatever forces we have left to fight what I hope to be the final battle. The Shadow Lands need you now more than ever, I need you. It is no secret that you were send away all those years ago and that you will hide from the world until you complete the task that was given you, I simply ask you to hide here, in the Dark Palace. Perhaps we can mend the bond that was broken so long ago. I am afraid of this war, and I can see the people are too. We stand no chance against the full force of the Light; however, you might be able to turn the tides and save this world from destruction. The people here no longer hate you and they will no longer hunt you as they once did, I promise this to you. I assume you will read this letter after you killed my people, but you don’t need their help to get to me.
Hopefully you will come back to me and give me a chance to make the Shadow Lands your home once again.
Ruler of the Shadow Lands and King of Darkness.
Her face was as cold as the air surrounding her. A lonely tear ran down her cheek and fell in the snow, frozen before it hit the ground. She stared into the fire for a while, dreaming of what her life could be, before throwing the letter into it. The flames quickly devoured the paper, leaving nothing but ashes.
The words haunted her thoughts as memories from her past emerged. She had never let any of these feelings take control but right now they had taken over.
The night had taken all the warmth of the day and she knew she had to go back. If she didn’t the cold or some creature would take her soon enough.
Back inside the cave she started a fire to chase the cold away and cook some food. She roasted some of the boar she had hunted last week and as soon as the fat started sizzling her stomach cried out for something to eat. She ate quickly, knowing she wasn’t done for today and sleep had to wait a little longer, no matter how tired she was. After she finished, she walked to the back of the cave. The light of the fire could barely reach back here. She sat down right at the border where shadow battled light and cut her hand with her spear. Blood dripped down on the stone and the world around her shifted.
The cave fell apart in darkness and an endless field covered in twilight emerged from that darkness, Elebok, the realm of Passage. It was filled with flowing grass, little blue and white flowers and countless stepping-stones leading to trees, lakes and past the horizon. It was eerily beautiful for a place that guided the dead into the afterlife. The fields went as far as her eyes could see until it seemed like there was no end to the ocean of green, blue and white. Naka pushed herself up and grabbed her spear. In front of her walked a young boy, a human. He carefully moved from one stone to another, walking the same path Naka needed to walk. The stones lead to a silver-leafed tree towering in the distance. She followed the boy, watching him jump from stone to stone, not paying mind to anything around him. She felt sorry for him. He probably had no clue where he was and where he was going, he had probably even forgotten how he got here, forgotten that he had died.
They had almost reached the silver-leafed tree. It was quite impressive, reaching high into the clouded skies above. Its blood-red roots rose above them, surrounding them with the gnarled wood. Naka’s spear was made from the same wood as the tree, although it was more polished so it was more vibrantly crimson. The trunk was so thick and high that there could be an entire city inside and there would still be space left and it was covered in delicate leaves the size of a hand, which seemed forged of starlight. Naka glanced at the leaves and sighed, she was tired and had absolutely no desire to be here but it was necessary. The boy disappeared in the crowd of others who now joined this branching path, that was like a river that grew as small streams merged themselves with it. As they got closer to the trunk the stones were bigger and formed more of a road instead of a path of stepping-stones. The path was now filled with people of every race from both the Shining Lands as well as the Shadow Lands. In death they were all equal, no matter where one was born or who one may have served. The tip of her spear glowed brighter now. It had been glowing since she took her first soul with it, but now, she only saw it glow if a new soul had been taken.
Finally, she reached the base of the tree. A male figure turned around, wearing a long, hooded robe of pure white. The hood revealed only his thin lips and his chin, his muscles twisted underneath the robe as he moved.
“Naka, I see you have come to visit us again. You have brought Nárymm, of course.” His voice was deep and calm.
She just nodded and kept silent.
“I am glad that you come to deliver these souls so soon. They don’t deserve to wander that world like that. How many have you brought this time?” he continued.
Naka simply kneeled and handed over her spear as she said, “Master Irion.”
The Master took it and observed it for a while. “One even begged for mercy you could have shown.” Naka remained kneeling and silent while he spoke, she knew she was to be judged for every soul she took and someday she would need to pay the price. The spear now floated between his hands, slowly spinning around as small swirls of light flowed out of its tip, into the bark of the tree, pulsating through it, into the leaves. The glow faded from the spear and the Master handed it back to her. She nodded as she took the spear in her hands, thanking him. A feeling of safety came over her, even though nobody would harm her here she liked to have a weapon to defend herself. The Master continued while his gaze moved to the distance, overlooking the paths around the tree.
“Someone from your past passed through here, but I take it you have heard that already,” he said and Naka’s face turned to stone.
“Yes,” she simply replied.
The Master seemed to look closely at her, completely seeing through everything. Naka felt naked and exposed, she knew nothing could be hidden from him. That was something she learned the hard way. After a while he turned away, seeming to have noticed she had no desire to speak of this.
“Thank you, Master. I have no further business here so I will go back now,” she said firmly.
The Master turned around and opened his mouth but as he began his sentence a loud thunder echoed across the fields. Strong winds blew across the grass, the earth shook and the skies appeared to burn. All the souls stopped and looked at the sky, wailing and screaming in confusion. Naka had no idea what was happening, she had never seen this before. The Master too looked up as what seemed to be a star fell from the sky and landed between the roots of the tree. They ran toward it, the sea of people moving apart as they pushed through. Between the roots of the tree lay a large circular stone with engravings on its edge, symbols that she hadn’t seen in a long time, symbols as old as the world. The roots were untouched by the impact of the fallen star. In the middle of the stone flew the star, a silver wisp, bright and the size of Naka. It looked like the swirls that had left Nárymm but much, much stronger.
Naka could feel its power vibrating in her soul and body, embedding a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability inside of her. It was as if it knew everything, not just about her but about everything.
Men and women in white robes like the Master’s gathered at the edge of the stone and in the surrounding roots. The Master slowly stepped into the circle and kneeled in front of the silver wisp. After a long silence he stood up and stepped away. With a raised voice he addressed the surrounding men and women, his voice echoed between the roots.
“Follow the roots and find any wandering souls. We cannot have any mayhem here no matter what. I’ll take care of this.” They all nodded and disappeared one by one until only Naka, the Master and the silver wisp were left.
“It wishes to speak with you, Naka. Leave Nárymm with me.”
She handed the Master the spear once more and he stepped away from the stone circle. Naka moved closer to the edge of the circle but hesitated to step in it. She could feel the power, beckoning, drawing her in, almost calling for her as it lured her in. Nothing happened when she stepped into it. Then a voice, more beautiful than anything she had ever experienced filled her mind.
Her eyes were tied to the silver wisp as it spoke, which nearly blinded her but somehow it didn’t trouble her.
“Naka, there is no need to fear me. I know everything about you, I saw the moment you were born and I have seen the moment you will die. Long ago you received a task and it is time you complete that task. Find me and we will set it in motion. Perhaps you can lay down your burden once and for all.”
A single image flashed through her mind. A tree of dark wood, rising high from a massive lake of silver water, its leaves a pale grey and green. A tree she had hoped to never see again.
“You know where to go, you know who to find. They will let you enter and lead you to where you need to be, I will make sure of it. Now go, there can be no more waiting, the time has come for you to play your part.”
Naka was thrown back to the edge of the stone circle as the wisp disappeared with a flash of light. The skies roared once more before they became calm again.
The Master helped her back on her feet.
“I, I don’t understand,” Naka said. “Who was that? How did it know?”
The Master sat down on the roots of the tree, gesturing to a spot beside him.
“Come sit with me Naka. I cannot tell you who it was, for at this moment, nobody knows for sure. Did it tell you it was time?”
Naka nodded, lost in thought, wondering how he could know about her task.
“Then it is happening sooner than I expected.” Master Irion fell silent for a moment before he stood up and handed her Nárymm. “I hoped you would have more time but it seems you will have visitors in a few moments. You should hurry or you will return here sooner than you would like, and this time not voluntarily.” Naka grabbed her spear and bolted for the path. But before she jumped over the thick roots, she turned around. “Thank you, Master Irion,” she said.
She ran as fast as she could to the end of the path, which was crowded with both normal and white robed people. Several had strayed from the paths and were screaming and sobbing in the sea of grass. She could see the end of the path and jumped for it.
Her body was thrown into the cave and she growled as she stood up. “Great,” she said, dusting herself off. She started to grab the necessary things, food, water, clothes. There wasn’t much of value besides Nárymm and her life so it was easy for her to leave it all behind. The image still flashed through her mind, she would have to go to the Dan’um, to the heart of the Emerald Woods, east of the Scorching Marshes. It would be a long journey but maybe it would be her last.
Suddenly she stopped. Voices were speaking near the entrance of the cave. They had found her. Lights shifted and she suddenly realized she had been gone for the entire night. Somehow she always forgot time was different in other realms. She couldn’t escape when they were at the entrance. She cursed softly. How could she have been so stupid to hide somewhere with just one entrance? Yes, it was hard to find, but it was only a matter of time before someone worked it out. She pushed herself into a crack in the wall and hoped they would walk past her. The crack was near the entrance so she figured that once they had entered, she could run outside and maybe would live long enough to escape. As they entered Naka held her breath, she tried to push herself further into the crack while observing the people who entered. They wore armor she did not recognise at all. It was all black except for a circle of white dots on the left shoulder. Most of them were human except for two Kir’in, with their typical long, black hair, emerald eyes and long fangs, and a Laretu, his skin like red clay and four ram-like horns that were polished and clad in iron spikes. Only the Laretu would be a challenge to outrun but she trusted her own skills enough, she might even win the fight against the group but she didn’t want to take the chance.
“Find her,” the only woman said. She was human and emitted a certain dominance. Her face was cold and thin, hardened by endless war and discipline. Her black hair bound in a tight ponytail, she was missing one eye and instead there was a black gem in her socket that seemed to see everything. Naka recognized the woman as one of the secret commanders of Egìl, it had been Naka who had taken out her eye the last time they hunted her. The others started to search through the cave very thoroughly, turning everything inside out. The woman stood in front of the entrance, just beside the crack where Naka hid, and observed everything with a watchful eye. Adrenaline rushed through Naka’s veins, one chance was all she had and if she failed, they would take her or kill her. Either way, she would not have it. She could run outside and toward the south, she would go toward the river Asal. If they followed her she could lose them there, it was tricky to cross the river, but luckily, she had figured it out last year. Even if they didn’t chase her, she would go that way, she could end her tracks there and continue to Murra, the Laretu capital. She would need supplies after all for her journey. The woman now moved further into the cave, out of Naka’s sight. This could be the only chance she would get, it would be a matter of time until they found her. She clenched her fist around Nárymm and took a deep breath. She slowly moved toward the edge of the crack and looked around the corner. They were in the back of the cave, searching through the last things. She bolted to the exit as fast as she could, hoping they were too late to notice. But as she reached the exit, she could hear the woman shout behind her. The morning sun blinded her but she ran into the woods. Her path led through the shadows, knowing that the sun was melting the snow and turning the soil into mud which would slow her down significantly. As an Ilunari her steps barely dented the snow, leaving almost no tracks. Behind her she could hear somebody falling, probably after getting their feet stuck in the soggy mud. But there was no time to enjoy his stupidity. The sharp sound of a bow releasing an arrow cut through the morning air and Naka started zigzagging between the trees. More arrows appeared in trees around her. This was not the first chase she had been in but this one was different, these people were trained to do nothing but hunting down their prey, and they were good at it. Naka jumped over a fallen tree, knowing she was close to the river. Its roars could be heard already. She realized she was not supposed to hear it already. Too soon. It was spring.
“By the Guardians,” she whispered. After the letter from King Xere her thoughts had been all over the place, and now she had forgotten that during spring the river grew wider, almost tripled in size, especially after such a harsh winter like this one. She had no idea if she would survive crossing it now. The path she needed to take was dangerous at normal times, now it would almost be suicidal to cross it. She knew where to place her feet, the river was almost as deep as normal, it mainly grew wider in spring. The waters would be rougher and dangerously cold. An arrow skimmed her arm and she pushed her legs to run faster. If she could be there a little sooner, she would have more time to cross. She couldn’t dodge the arrows when crossing, so she needed as much as a head start as possible. Only a few footsteps could be heard behind her, somehow she felt like the woman was right behind her but she had no time to look back. Naka reached the Asal, immediately searching for the stones, which started almost two meters into the swollen river. The currents dragged at her feet as she waded into the icy water, the cold shocking her muscles. Her whole body resisted but she pushed it further into the wet cold. With difficulty she reached the first stone and climbed on top of it. She was dripping wet all the way up to her waist and it took her a lot of effort not to start shivering. The other stones lay just below the surface but could be seen all the way to the other side. There were a lot of stones but one could only cross the river if they stepped on the right stones. The others either moved or were too slippery, and if someone stepped on them the waters would embrace them, their corpse would be lost to the waters forever. She had crossed half the river when her hunters appeared at the edge of the forest. Most of them immediately followed her and tried to get to the first stones but only one made it out of the water. The woman remained at the edge, her black eye piercing across the river. The last man carefully picked the stones he stood on. Naka had not stopped and was almost at the other side now. She heard the man scream when he fell into the cold embrace of the Asal, leaving only the woman to hunt her. Naka stood on the last stone, ready to leap to the bank of the river when a fiery pain cut through her right leg. Her feet slipped as she jumped and within moments, she was submerged in the icy waters. Her hands could barely grab the roots of a tree to prevent her from being dragged down the stream. When she climbed out of the river, she saw the handle of a dagger sticking out of her leg, on the other side the tip came out of her leg again. She looked up. From across the river the woman looked at her with an emotionless face before she disappeared back into the forest. Naka crawled into the woods, leaving the knife in until she could properly take care of it. She ripped a piece of cloth from her shirt and wringed it to get the water out. After that she took off her leather gloves and put one between her teeth. She took a deep breath and quickly pulled out the knife. She cursed at the sharp pain and the blood pouring out of the wound. She had to be quick now. She bound the cloth carefully around her wound biting down on the glove hard enough to puncture the leather. Her breathing was heavy as she let herself fall on the moss behind her. The sun was rising high above her and she closed her eyes, steadying her breath. She would have to get moving, she had no desire to be found by her hunters anytime soon and Murra was only hours away. She had just scrambled to her feet when a young, female voice behind her spoke.
“There you are.”