AoS Chapter 1

Dark Days, Dark Dreams

It all started with darkness.

The darkness was endless and infinite, enveloping everything that lay in its path. The darkness was blinding. The silence was deafening. The grip of the darkness tightened around her, trying to rule her mind. She tried to fight it off. She wanted to scream, but the darkness put an icy hand on her mouth, freezing her lips shut. The darkness stole her air away. The darkness was suffocating.

Then, a flash of light.

Faint noises rose up from the depths of the darkness. Voices. She tried to turn, to search for the speaker, to search for the bringer of light, but the darkness tightened its grip. He breathed his cold air down on her face. It tried to sedate her. It was working. She had lost the feeling in her legs and feet a while ago. Now, the feeling of numbness crept towards her abdomen, freezing her.

Another flash of light and the darkness turned away for a split second. That was enough. That was all she needed. It was all the time she needed to escape the grip of the darkness and flee. But the darkness was endless. There was no up, there was no down. No right or left. She just fell into nothing. She fell and fell until something yanked her out of the blinding darkness and into the dim light of the setting sun.

Horses. Hooves of horses clattering on a cobblestone street. She was not there, in that carriage along with that man, woman and a little child she did not know. It felt like she was hovering above it, looking down on a scene of a play. She recognized the man, with his brown curls and rough beard. She recognized the woman, with her golden hair and silver eyes. Those two moons for eyes stared intensely at the little girl. She did not know that girl. She did not know her golden locks or deep brown eyes. She did not know why an expression of immense sadness covered her expressions. She did not want to know.

The child did not stare back at the woman. Her eyes were set on the horizon, the setting sun casting a golden hue on the brown of her irises. Tears stained the girls red cheeks. Why was that girl crying?

She wanted to comfort the girl. She wanted to reach out and touch her golden hair. She wanted to tell her everything would be alright. But it wouldn’t be alright. She knew it wouldn’t. She didn’t know why she knew. She didn’t remember why she knew. But she knew. She knew that when this white carriage reached its destination, something inevitable would happen.

In a daze, she lifted her hand. Slowly, she extended it toward the girl. Her hand trembled as it neared the girl’s. She started to shudder, and she knew darkness would be back for her. Only a bit further. Her body was trying to work against her, making her fingers tremble and her muscles twitch. She dared to cross the distance and when her fingertip touched the girl’s delicate white skin, something snapped into place inside her.

Her vision shifted all of a sudden, letting her watch through the eyes of the young girl. Her eyes followed the vast line of trees that cast a dark shadow upon these lands. The clouds above the treetops were colored in lush colors of pink and orange. Beautiful. Her eyes finally dared to shift to the woman   her mother.

“Are we almost there?” She asked. Her voice was soft and broken.

Her mother nodded and reached for her daughter’s hand. She didn’t pull away. Her father held her other hand, squeezing it reassuringly. She turned her attention back to the trees. They were gigantic, towering above anything else in this world. She was marveled by the beauty, but that feeling was pushed away by a strong feeling of hate. She would lose her mother to that forest. She would lose her mother to those Creatures of the Woods    those monsters   who ruled the humans by spreading fear through their lands. She hated them with a burning passion. Hate burned inside her little heart. Hate burned away the sense of beauty.

 

Cobblestones changed into the soft and uneven ground of the country side. They’d left the city of Xerron behind them and now moved closer and closer to the Woods. She heard the driver’s voice calling to his horses. They were growing restless as well. They probably sensed which dangers hid in the darkest shadows of the trees. She felt it too. Something inside her rose up, alongside her hatred. Something that tightened itself around her chest and throat. It made a shiver run down her spine, although it was one of the warmest days of the year. It didn’t take long before her entire body started shaking.

“Are you cold, angel?” Her father asked. His voice was deep and rich. It was the voice that had read her the same bedtime stories over and over again, night after night. It brought some comfort, but still couldn’t drive away the eerie feeling hanging above them like a thick cloud. She shook her head, but he still wrapped a strong arm around her tiny shoulders. She had inherited the deep brown of his eyes, but her mother’s golden locks crowned her head. Those curls now framed her round face in a golden hue, catching the light of the setting sun. She leaned against her father’s chest, one hand still clasped it the soft ones of her mother. Her father bent down to kiss the top of her head. Her little hand firmly held on to his. She didn’t want to let go. She didn’t want to let either of them go, but she would have to. Those soft hands that held hers, that had treated her wounds or wiped away her tears so many times before, would never touch her again. After this night, never again would those hands swiftly usher a comb through her tangled hair. Never again would those fingers gently strum the strings of a lyre to create heavenly melodies. Never again would she be able to hold her. Never again. Her chest caved in, pressing down on her lungs and heart. This night, she would lose her mother to the heavy shadows of that terrible forest and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

It was a ritual. A stupid ritual demanded by the Creatures of the Woods − also called the Fey. Her father had told her about them. She had read stories about them. She had learned about them in school. Some people believed they only existed in what they call a Fairytale. But the people of their country knew they existed. They knew those tales were true. Their country − the country she hated for its rainy climate − lay closest to the Woods. Blessing or curse. She had been alright with the Woods when they’d lived a far distance away from them, in the capital city. But now that they neared those humongous trees, she wanted to get away as soon as possible − with her mother.

 

It was unfair. It was all so unfair. Why her mother? What had she or her family ever done to anger the Fey? She had lived as every old tale told her to. She had never been naughty, never disobeyed her parents, had always did her very best at school. . . Those tales had also taught her those Fey were cruel. In many cases, those monsters would soon claim the other parent, once one had been called as a Sacrifice. It was pure cruelty. It was done to torment children. It was to teach them to fear the Fey. It was to teach them to grovel in the dirt before their immortal feet−or paws. Every Sacrifice day since she’d heard the tale of the ritual at school, she’d been so immensely scared one of her parents would be called. Now that day had come. She wouldn’t go to school anymore. She would be branded as an Eranta − a Sacrifice’s family member. The calling of the Fey was a punishment for the child, but the parents had to pay for it. She knew she would lose her father in a few years. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to lose either of them. The worst thing was being constantly remembered it was her fault. She had once met a boy − an Erantos. Two thick scars had marked both his cheeks. One for each parent he had lost. The boy hadn’t seemed that bad to her. His eyes just seemed empty, like the shells she’d once picked up when at the beach. She fondly thought back of that memory of the day they’d gone to the shore and neatly tucked it away in a corner of her heart. She would not forget the good moments. That was where she stored all the good memories. This bad one that would be formed today would not belong there. She would throw him away into the deep darkness of her mind. She would stick out her tongue to the darkness, then and forget this ever happened. She would bring back her mother. Somehow. Maybe if she’d run into the Woods, she’d find one of those kind-hearted faeries everyone told stories about. They told stories of their beauty and fair heart. It was said they couldn’t lie. Those kind spirits would help her get back her mother, that was certain. She could only hope she wouldn’t cross paths with something as monstrous as a bear or wolf − or a dragon. She had always imagined the bad dragons ruled their Kingdom of Magic. They weren’t kind-hearted. They would burn villages and steal children. They were mad at the faeries also. The dragons were mad at the faeries because they were kind and truthful. The dragons were mad because they were jealous. She silently hoped that one day, the faeries would defeat the evil dragons and take back their beautiful kingdom of real sunshine. Maybe if they ruled, there would be no more Sacrifices. Maybe her father wouldn’t have to go. She would find a faerie, she vowed silently, and she would make them take their kingdom back. For her. For her father and mother. For all those other children who had to live with the disgrace of two scars on their cheeks.

 

The carriage halted so suddenly it pulled her out of her thoughts. She was disorientated and instinctively, her eyes searched those of her mother. She wished she hadn’t done that. Her mother’s gray eyes were lined with silver as she slowly pulled her hands back. She gripped her mother’s hand, eyes wide and begging. Her mother shook her head lightly. Let go, her eyes said, please. They had said their goodbyes before they’d stepped into the carriage because they had known there wouldn’t be much time when they arrived. The door opened and she’d expected evening light to flood in, but it didn’t. Along the corners of the doors crept heavy shadows that seemed to reach out to her mother. As long as her mother stayed inside, she would be fine. As long as she didn’t step into those shadows she could still flee. But she did. Her hand moved to the edge of the door to ready herself to get out. The shadows licked her fingers and crept down towards her wrist. If her mother noticed it, she didn’t show it. Her eyes were fixated on her daughter and her lips were struggling to form the right sounds.

“I love you, Jeremiah”, she spoke, but not to her daughter. Her gaze was set on her husband, whose eyes were full of tears as well. He drew in a sharp breath and brought his hand to his mouth, to keep his lips from wobbling. He gave up when a tear rolled down his cheek and ended up in the dark hairs of his beard. I love you. He didn’t speak it out loud, at least not loud enough for his daughter to hear. His lips formed the words and her mother’s tears fell as well. They both leaned in, their foreheads leaning against each other’s. She turned her eyes away at the intimacy of her parents. She did not want to see them kiss. In the ten years she’d lived she’d seen them kiss countless of times, but this was different somehow. This was love. Silently, she hoped one day someone would love her as much her father loved her mother. She hoped that someone would look past the ugly scars of disgrace and love her. She wasn’t even sure her father would still love her after this. She was the reason her mother was been taken away from them, at last.

Then, a soft hand touched the cheek that would bear a scar tomorrow. Her mother’s teary eyes took her in completely as if trying to remember every detail. She was trying to print the image of her daughter into her head. Her daughter did the same. She would forever remember every line of her mother’s soft face, she promised herself. She would never forget the gray of her eyes or the gold of her hair that was also her own. Her mother took her face in her gentle hands, soft as clouds compared to the callused ones of her father’s. She pressed her down turned lips to her daughter’s forehead.

“I love you, Caeli”, she whispered, her voice even more broken than before. It wasn’t just a statement as it had been with her father. It was a promise. She silently promised she loved her and would still love her even though this was all her fault. She opened her mouth, but only a breath came out. The words she wanted to say didn’t reach her lips. They were stuck in the back of her throat and produced a soft whimpering sound. The tears did find their way down her cheeks. Her mother wiped them away, possibly for the last time ever. She pressed another kiss of promise to Caeli’s forehead, then both of her cheeks. Caeli was struck by numbness. She had dreaded this moment so much. Now it was here and there was nothing she could do. Her mother stroked Caeli’s golden hair one last time, squeezed her father’s hand one last time. This was goodbye, then.

 

She had let her mother step out of that carriage and into those shadows. She had let her. She had promised she wouldn’t let her. It isn’t your fault, a voice whispered in her head. Or was it her father? She didn’t know. She just stared at the path her mother was walking down. The driver was readying the horses again, ready to leave. She would not let them leave without her mother.

Before her father could do anything but throw out his arm in a desperate move to hold her back, she’d opened the carriage door and leaped out. Her feet touched the ground with a loud thud and she felt her ankle bend sideways. The pain bit down on her bones, but she didn’t let it stop her. The dark shadows seemed to whirl around her, twisting to face her. She faintly heard her father call out her name. Caeli. He begged her to come back. She wished she could. With every step she took that brought her closer to that forest, her heart seemed to shrink. She didn’t feel the pain in her leg anymore. She didn’t feel any pain. She only felt her own breath rushing out of her and her legs trying to move as fast as possible. She ran as if she was chased by a dragon and about to be eaten alive. The heat of her tears spread out over her cheeks as she pushed through shadows. Until she reached the field.

 

She stumbled to a halt, breaths coming out like ragged sobs. She stood frozen as she looked at her mother standing in the middle of it, surrounded by white flowers. The white petals of the flowers seemed to glow like stars in this dense shadow. They were stars against the night sky.

“Mom.” It was only a whisper, nothing more than a sound drifting on her breath, but her mother heard. She turned with a sad smile.

“I told you not to follow me, Caeli.”

The white flowers where placed as if in a pattern. She traced the gracious lines like a constellation with her eyes. The symbol of swirls was etched into her memory, then. It flashed in her vision when her eyelids fell close. It flashed so viciously and bright her eyes immediately opened again. She had never been meant to see this.

Her lips wobbled.

“I can’t let them take you, mom.”

“Caeli”, she sighed. It wasn’t a sigh of annoyance, but a sigh of sadness. The mother struggled to keep her arms at her sides. They were aching to reach out to her daughter and embrace her. “We talked about this, angel. You know why I have to go.”

Caeli knew, but chose to forget. Her mind picked out the next words with careful fingers, placing them in her mouth only because it was the right thing to say.

“I am sorry, mommy.” Tears streamed from her brown eyes again. It was all it took for her mother to drop to her knees and open her arms for her daughter. Caeli ran to her, even though she knew what she was doing was forbidden. She wanted that moment to last forever. She wanted to stay in the circle of her mother’s embrace for eternity. A scent prickled her nose. The sweet scent of roses. Her mother never left their home without it, not even when she was to be taken away by the Fey, it seemed. Her mother’s hand was buried in her golden locks and Caeli felt the absence of a silver ring on her finger. She must’ve left it at home for her dad. So that he might’ve had something to remember her by. Her mother had given her that very perfume and it meant more to her than anything else in this world.

A cold wind rustled the leaves as if it was inpatient. Her mother released her and looked back with shock in her eyes. She tried to shield Caeli from seeing it. Caeli still saw and was petrified. Burning eyes emerged from the darkness. The white flowers around them started to glow brighter and it brought tears to her eyes. It blinded her so she wouldn’t be able to see the face of the silhouette that seemed to tower over them.

“It is time for you to come with us.” The voice was cold and haunting. It made a chill creep over Caeli’s spine, made her want to crawl away and scream. His voice would haunt her nightmares for a long time. Through the black spots that started to cover her vision, through the emerging darkness, she could make out burning red eyes of the speaker. They were fixed on her, not on her mother. “You must tell your daughter to leave”, he ordered.

Her mother obeyed silently and started to break away from her, but Caeli refused to let go of her mother’s hand. She refused to let her mother go, even though all burning eyes were fixed on her.

“Caeli,” her mother whispered with a broken voice, “you must let me go now. It’s not your fault, angel. Remember that.”

She nodded. She understood. She didn’t let go. The red-eyed monster was growing restless in the shadows, as well as the other burning eyes. They all stared at her. It made her cringe.

“You must come with us, now”, the monster with the red eyes spoke, its voice on edge. They were losing their patience.

“Please,” her mother pleaded to the shadows, “don’t hurt my daughter.”

Then, she turned back to Caeli and when she saw the look in her mother’s eyes, she let go. She saw such immense grief and sadness and she was only making it worse by trying to keep her here. She let go of her mother’s hand. She let her go.

“I love you too, mommy”, she whispered to her mother one last time. Her mother smiled and even though it was a sad one, it seemed to brighten up the shadows. Then she turned.

She started to walk away from her and into the shadows. The eyes disappeared and silhouettes took hold of her. Caeli bit her lip to keep herself from running after her.

She reminded herself it was for a good cause. She reminded herself this sacrifice would bring the people a year of safety and one day of sunshine. The brightest and warmest day of the year, when the sun wasn’t hidden away behind mist or clouds. She used to like that day, but not anymore. Not after today.

Her eyes still burned as she watched her mother until she was gone–completely enveloped by the shadows. The flowers lost their burning intensity and the eyes were gone as well. The field was empty. This was her chance. They were gone now, but maybe she could still catch up to them. Maybe she could find a faerie as she’d planned. She started, but was immediately held back. She looked up to see who she thought would be her father. She was wrong. Two eyes like emeralds looked down at her. The boy’s ears ended in elegant points. A faerie. She wanted to ask him to help her, but as his lips moved and pronounced words she could not understand, her eyelids began to drop. She felt like she was falling. She was falling into the depths of darkness. She saw those emerald eyes, heard her father shout her name one last time before darkness took her vision away.

 

She fell and fell and fell. Until she hit the cold rock ground. It shattered all her bones, stole all of her air and left her motionless. She couldn’t move. She didn’t want to move. If she stayed perfectly still, perhaps darkness would not find her. So she didn’t move. She didn’t even dare to breathe. One moment, it was like she wasn’t on that cold ground anymore. It was as if she could feel a soft mattress under her fingers, see light filtered through her closed eyelids, hear voices talking to her. A pulse surged through her. Her fingers started to tingle. They were waking up. She tried so desperately to move one of them. It must’ve worked, because she could faintly feel a hand in hers and hear a voice that told her to do that again. She tried to do it, but loosened a breath in the process. Darkness had heard it and it was coming for her again.

It loomed over her and grinned widely. The ground seemed to have turned into ice again. Ice bit into her skin. She knew what the darkness was showing her. He was showing her her worst memories. When the Darkness knew she had figured it out, he roared and let loose a stream of awful forgotten memories. They all flashed before her eyes. She didn’t want to look at them, but darkness made her watch, turning her face with an icy hand. He made her watch and ripped open old wounds in the process, letting her bleed out. Most of the moments passed in a blur, but left their mark just like all others. She saw humiliation, she saw anger, she saw sadness. As they neared the grand finale she knew the darkness had in store for her, the memories started to play out again. She was forced to watch through them. She saw her losing a fight multiple times. She saw a queen sitting on a throne while a young princess grinned at her. She almost felt the dull blade against her cheek to brand her as an Eranta. She saw two people in the hay of a decrepit barn. She saw her first kiss and more. She heard the laughter of the boys as they mocked her, called her a whore. She saw their grins as they traded the money they’d bet on her. She felt the feeling of betrayal all over again. She saw a boy with silver hair knocking into them, fighting for her honor. She saw how they had almost killed him. She saw how she’d wept in shame next to his body, but he didn’t once call her out for what she’d done.

The memories built up and up like a giant crescendo and when time came, the darkness pulled out his true masterpiece. He presented it to her in all of its glory. The pain was sharper than any blade she had ever encountered. It stabbed clean through her heart and just like her blood, her tears started to fall to the ground as well. Darkness picked her up, then and she knew where he was taking her. She didn’t want it. She tried to stay perfectly still again.

 

She didn’t want to move.

She didn’t.

She couldn’t.

She couldn’t move.

It took her minutes, if not much longer to get the feeling in her fingers back. What had happened to her? Something hid beneath the surface of her thoughts, waiting like a predator to come shooting up and kill its prey. When it did surface, the word bit down on her heart. Poison. Her father had poisoned her. She knew why. Why else would he poison her if not to spare her from the pain of losing him? She hadn’t even been able to say goodbye properly.

She could move her fingers, now and she used them to dig her nails into her leg. She needed to get her blood flowing. She needed to go after him. After an eternity in a couple of minutes, she could finally move again. She swayed like a drunken man on her legs, but kept her balance enough to make it to the room next to hers. A boy with silver hair lay just as motionless on his bed.

“Airean”, she called. He didn’t react to the sound. She walked up to him and shook him, slapped him. Nothing worked. There was no time to wake him up. She slowly made her way outside, but when she saw a letter with the seal of a raven on the kitchen table, she broke into a run. She knew where to go. The Field of Sacrifice wasn’t that far from her home. Her father and she had moved there for his new job. Her father. She ran faster and forced her body to deny it was still poisoned. She was on the path to the field, the path she’d ran down before, seven years before. This time, when she entered the field, there was no one there except heavy shadows. The white flowers had lost their glow. She didn’t know what to do.

So she did the most dangerous thing possible; she ran into the Woods. She prayed to non-existing gods that she wouldn’t meet a faerie. So she ran through the dense forest with its gigantic trees and everything began blurring around her. Her vision was blurring and her head throbbed. She stumbled, feeling the skin of her knee rip open. She stood up and kept running. Her shirt had been completely ruined by a bush of thorns and blood trickled down her arm. She heard noises, she saw monsters from the corners of her eyes, but she didn’t pay attention to it. She kept running. Heavens, she didn’t even know where she was running to. She couldn’t orientate herself. She had stopped to try and search which way to go and that had been a fatal mistake. Something tackled her from behind. It pinned her to the ground, his talons digging into her shoulders. She didn’t scream. She tried to get loose, bet everything resulted in more pain. As a last effort, because she knew her attacker was coming down to rip out her throat, she grabbed her hunting knife from her belt. It was the knife her father had given her just that day. It seemed like an eternity ago. She plunged the blade backwards and heard the monster bark in pain. He released her for a moment and that was enough. She staggered out from under the beast and started to run. She only looked back once to see a wolf fighting to get the dagger out of its neck. She hoped he would die. If not, he would surely come after her.

Her pace slowed down a great bit. Her body remembered the poison and all her new wounds hurt like hell. She staggered onwards and noticed with a vision that was turning dark at the edges, that the forest grew less dense. She was reaching the tree line. She didn’t know whether to be happy or to be afraid.

She’d reached the end of the forest, but now faced something even more terrifying. An open field. On the other side, the forest continued. She had to cross this. She swallowed. She shook her head to fight off the spider webs inside it. And she started running again. Her breaths came way too short and her heart was racing. She tried not to stumble, but her knees were starting to buckle under her. The field stretched out for ever. She wasn’t even halfway. It seemed like she was running for hours and the forest on the other side didn’t seem to get any closer. She felt like a mouse in between these rows of giant trees.

She had almost reached it. She had almost reached the other side, when a wall of fire surrounded her. So this was a guarded border, then. She was like a trapped animal. A mouse in a trap. She needed to get out of here. She needed to get away and find her father. On the other side of the fire, there were creatures. Her heart skipped a couple of beats. They were going to kill her. She was going to die.

She heard voices. She would’ve loved to understand what they said, but her ears were ringing. She dropped to her knees and doubled over from the unbearable pain that came washing over her. Wave after wave after wave. Her vision was ebbing away with those waves, but she could still see the fire, that couldn’t have been natural, disappear and silhouettes step through the smoke. All faces were lost to her, except their burning eyes. Some burned gold, others blue. And others were like two emeralds.

Emeralds.

She knew those eyes. She had looked into them year after year during training. An older, stifled memory surfaced. The memory of those eyes singing her to sleep when she’d been ten. He had hidden that memory from her. He had lied to her, even though he shouldn’t have been able to. He had disguised himself as a mortal. He had been her friend.

Devon approached her and there was worry in his immortal eyes. He knelt before her and she wanted to inch away from him.

“It’s alright, Caeli. You can go to sleep now.” His voice broke through the ringing in her ears. She felt her mind being covered by the blanket of his spell and she didn’t mind. A part of her thanked him for taking away the pain. A part of her still trusted him.

So she let herself descend into the sweet painless sleep and wished she would never wake up again. She had lost everything.

Her descend was more gentle this time, as if she was floating on a cloud that would softly put her down on the earth. She was dying. She smiled.

She hadn’t prepared for the river at the bottom of her fall. The strong current sucked her under. The Darkness didn’t come for her this time. This river of thoughts held her under, drowning her. She remembered everything, now. Even the good memories. All thoughts, all feelings, all memories; they all came back to her while she was drowning. She fought for air; she fought to get to the surface. As she did, she felt her blood pulsate through her. She moved her fingers, even though the thick waters of sleep still coated them. She was fighting. She wanted to surface. She wanted to breathe.

And then there it was. Finally. The relieving breath. Life.

And she opened her eyes.

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