THE SHADOW OF HISTORY - CHAPTER 1
The muffled sound of footsteps in the kitchen woke me from my light slumber. I rolled over and let out a soft grunt as my face collided with something hard and leathery.
“Huh?” I mumbled to myself and groggily opened my eyes.
It only took a moment for me to realize I had fallen asleep with my favourite book once again.
“Good morning to you too,” I greeted it with a tired smile. “But know that I’m still mad at you.”
I stretched my arms above my head before sitting up in bed. It was still early and sunlight had barely begun to light up my small room.
Again, I heard footsteps outside my door. My cousin, Phoebe, must be getting ready for the day. As soon as she turned fifteen and finished her preliminary studies she began apprenticing as a baker. It had been her dream as far as I could remember, and I was so happy to see how much joy it brought her. The only downside was that she needed to wake a couple hours before daybreak, so often she was already gone before anyone in the house had stirred. But since I was up early, perhaps I could make her favourite tea before she left for the day.
I crawled out of bed, slipped on my housecoat, then headed to the kitchen.
Phoebe let out a soft gasp and sharply spun around as she heard my door open, her wavy black hair whipping around her shoulders.
“Remus! You scared me!” She whispered then rushed over to me to playfully swat at my arm. “What are you doing up so early?”
“I had a dream that there was this large, clumsy elderbeast stomping about in our kitchen,” I said with a sly grin.
She gave my arm another smack. “Liar! I’m not that loud!” She said before her expression softened. “Honestly though, were you not sleeping well again? Or are you just really excited about today? It’s no fair, I wish we could go to your graduation too!”
“I wish I could take you,” I said, smiling as I watched the variety of emotions play across her face in quick succession.
University graduations were private affairs and considered a sacred rite of passage. They were held in an ancient chamber known as the Nemshi Hall. It was one of our oldest buildings from our early history, reported to be built a mere hundred years after the Divine Scriptures were written. Only esteemed members of the Church and University staff were granted access, barring events such as this. To be honest, although I was extremely excited about graduating, I was even more excited about the actual ceremony and gaining access to a piece of our history that was normally off-limits. My friends, Yanis and Patrick, were of course far more interested in the special guest appearance of Princess Vivienne. I’m sure she was going to be lovely, but I highly doubted she would be able to compare to the majesty of Nemshi Hall.
“How about I make you some of your favourite tea to make up for it? Auntie and uncle are planning to open the restaurant a little later so we can all have an early dinner together. It’s been a long time since we had a little celebration, I think the last time was last year when you started your apprenticeship.”
“I guess,” Phoebe replied with a pout before suddenly flashing me her radiant smile, like the sun bursting through a patch of clouds. “Oh! I could bring you back something special from the bakery!”
I smiled back at her. “I’d love that. Now go get ready, I’ll make your tea.”
She bounced out of the kitchen and into her room to do her hair and put on her uniform, not even bothering to completely close her door. I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle. She never did have a keen sense of propriety.
I had been living with my aunt and uncle since I was ten and thought of Phoebe as my little sister. Before that I lived with my parents and two older brothers on our farm which was a three hour walk from the city. My father had taught me basic studies when we had time after farm chores and it quickly became apparent that I was far more interested in reading than I was feeding the chickens. My mother contacted her sister and asked if they would take me in so that I could receive the best education in the capital city of Torrin. I owed my parents and my aunt and uncle so much for allowing this to happen, and I hoped I did them all proud by not only graduating from the University, but with top marks as well.
As quietly as I could I opened up the cupboard, gathering the herbs and spices from their little wooden jars that I had carefully labeled. I then took out the little metal measuring spoons and carefully collected the ingredients. I knew the recipe by heart and didn’t really need to measure it so precisely considering it was simply an herbal tea mix, but unlike the rest of my family I refused to simply eyeball the amounts. I couldn’t help myself. Even the wooden jars had to be put away in a specific order and made perfectly flush in order to satisfy this quirk of mine. Phoebe would often tease me about my obsessive “demonic” habits, going so far as to even call me “clean demon” when I was being particularly compulsive.
Once all the ingredients were collected I wrapped them up into a small, cloth bundle and placed them into Phoebe’s favourite mug before grabbing the kettle off the oven and pouring in the water.
Right on time, Phoebe emerged from her room in her long brown skirt, white blouse, and a bright smile spread across her darkly freckled face.
“Oh I can smell the perfection from here,” Phoebe said, grabbing the mug with both hands and inhaling the spicy scent. “Only you can make it just right.”
“It’s because I measure,” I said with a little smirk. “You could do it too.”
Phoebe shook her head and smiled. “Nope. Only a demon like you can be so me-tic-u-lous.”
I smiled. Every time I taught her a new word I learned at school she would fixate on it for days. Like a young puppy with a new toy it just wouldn’t let go. Ancestors, I was going to miss her.
I poured myself some tea as well and stood in comfortable silence shoulder to shoulder with my cousin against the kitchen counter. We didn’t like talking about it, but I knew both of us were wondering what would happen next now that I was graduating. A part of me wanted to apprentice at an apothecary as it would allow me to research, help people, and bring in a good income. But I was also attracted by the idea of becoming a professor so I could remain at the University surrounded by books, knowledge, and my favourite professors that I had grown very fond of. Either way, we knew I couldn’t stay with them for much longer. My uncle was very vocal about my lack of decisiveness and had asked more than once about when I planned on leaving their nest. I wished we got along better, for I had become quite close with my aunt and nearly inseparable from Phoebe. Outside of Yanis and Patrick she was my best friend.
“I’m really proud of you, Remus,” Phoebe said as she finished her tea and set her mug by the wash basin. “And no matter what you do after this I’ll be proud of you then too.”
I smiled down at her. “I know Phoebe. Thank you.”
“Good,” she said and gave me a quick, small hug. “But I better head off. I’ll see you for dinner!”
“See you then,” I said and saw her to the door, waving as she danced down the cobblestone street, the city only just beginning to awaken.
Once I was sure she was safely on her way I returned to my room to get myself ready for the day. As my eyes fell on the book still laying on my pillow, the warm, cozy feelings of a peaceful morning with my cousin drained from me and were replaced with a dull, gnawing anxiety.
Though I trusted Phoebe with nearly everything, Patrick and Yanis too, I couldn’t tell any of them about what was really causing my restlessness and lack of sleep the last couple months.
I sat down on my bed and picked up the well-worn book. The Divine Scriptures. It was the very first book I read to completion and nothing since had managed to come even close to capturing my interest and imagination. It was a difficult read at times, the content was often bizarre and the poetic style of the passages left things purposefully vague and cryptic. But it was the idea that it was written over six hundred years ago and contained the first and only compilation of our ancient folktales that really made this collection of writings so amazing to me.
Our history books tell us that it was Chief Arturius, later known as King Arturius, who gathered all the wisest men and cleverest women from many different clans to compile these primeval myths and form our written language. He believed he could use this collection of writings to end the fighting between the clans by fusing and distilling our greatest folktales into a uniting narrative and moral compass that we would all be able to understand. It would take many years to see his vision through, but peace eventually reigned supreme as his grandson, King Seren, formed our very first crude town which would eventually become our capital city, Torrin.
We were taught, of course, that the Scriptures were never meant to be taken as truth. Even at the time of writing people knew that these were simply wildly imaginative folktales. But though they were not true historical accounts, they held something far more important – the powerful magic of myth. For it is our myths, refined over hundreds, if not thousands of years, that contained invaluable moral wisdom.
There were three parts to the Divine Scriptures – The Summoning, The Spawn of Sin, and The Reckoning. They recounted the story of how we once lived in a paradise of nine kingdoms. It was the good nature of man and woman which maintained this paradise and kept the gateway to the dark world beyond sealed. But over time the citizens became restless, ungrateful, and forgetful of their good fortune. The dark nature that lurked inside their hearts began to stir. Impulses of selfishness, vengeance, greed, and dominance overtook the people, and their foolish, short-sighted decisions eventually caused the opening of the gateway. From there the two Scourge Elderbeasts, Elydritas and Dorogondra, entered our world and brought destruction, ravaging and cursing our northern lands.
The Spawn of Elydritas were later named “faeries”, and the Spawn of Dorogondra were named “demons”. Each elderbeast and their spawn represented opposite halves of the imbalance that corrupts the human heart. Any humans that entered the cursed lands were either consumed or transformed into Sin themselves.
As a child I was horrified but perversely fascinated by the events in the first two parts. Of course some of these feelings still remained, but as I got older I became more interested in the stories found in The Reckoning, where humans attempted to fight back against the expanding forces of the faeries and demons. Perhaps it was because even more than the first two parts, I found the exploration of human psychology very compelling on a personal level. It also contained more detailed passages, perhaps unnecessarily detailed for a book that was simply meant to serve as moralistic teachings.
I was brave enough to mention that idea in passing to Yanis and Patrick, but they simply said that this level of detail was likely needed to keep people’s attention. Stories had always been used as vessels of information and the more real the tales felt, the easier they would be to remember and understand.
I had to agree with them on that. The psychological importance of making the stories interesting and easy to remember made sense. And I probably would have let it all go, if not for one passage that stuck out like a single book jutting out of an otherwise perfect row. I’d read it so many times now I was sure it was branded into my mind forever:
“Into the mighty hands of Xanos, the Slayer, we placed the hope of humanity. A divine sword whose history knows only blood. The sacrifices made to give it life forever etched into the very heart of the blade. Christened with the prayers of ten thousand voices, we named it Caelmourn, and so cursed it with the impossible burden of turning back time.”
Why this passage irked me so much was a matter of strange happenstance. I had recently read a story from the monthly paper brought in from Athmere which reported that fifteen miners travelled up Mount Rathmoon looking for ensper – an extraordinarily rare and precious metal. But there was good reason why most avoided excursions up this mountain – only nine of them made it back alive and with only a meager amount of ensper to show for their deadly effort. Still, they were able to sell that small amount to a renowned jeweler for a small fortune and none of them needed to work for years after.
Then, three days later, Professor Marius asked us to discuss the section of the Scriptures that contained the passage about the making of Caelmourn in our theology class.
“...a sword whose history knows only blood… forever etched into the heart of the blade.”
I couldn’t get it out of my head that there was some connection between this excerpt and the precious metal that those fifteen sacrificed their very lives to obtain. After all, it was rumored that part of what made ensper so desirable was the unique quality of its streaks of brilliant red that were revealed only when bathed under the full moon light of our small moon, Lyssa.
However, if it truly was ensper that was referenced in the Caelmourn story, it opened up a giant abyss of questions that made me horribly uneasy. After all, ensper was notoriously difficult to work with and required specialized tools and blacksmiths with years of experience and explicit knowledge of the metal, things that should not have even entered into the human imagination six hundred years ago when the Divine Scriptures were written. We were barely working with bronze at the time. Perhaps our ancestors had access to ensper which inspired the creation of this part of the myth. Or maybe it was a complete coincidence, and the “blood” etched in the blade had nothing to do with the strange metal. But if the sword really did exist, and was made with ensper as I hypothesized, it would completely undermine large parts of our written history.
Of course I knew making this connection was a stretch. There was no way to prove this, aside from finding Caelmourn itself, a sword that was likely complete fiction. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the passage was too specific to simply be a coincidence. And if Caelmourn was real, what else in the Scriptures might be true? My stomach churned at the thought.
“Let it go,” I muttered under my breath and picked up the leather book and placed it on my tiny desk so I could make my bed. Whether I was right or wrong mattered little if my taboo and heretical ideas somehow hurt my family and friends. They had all been so good to me, and I couldn’t put them at risk over this outlandish hypothesis of mine. And selfishly, I had no wish to be sent back to the farm and be tortured by my brutish elder brothers who maybe had half a brain between them.
At any rate, I should be focusing on my graduation. Regardless of the torment my favorite book was putting me through, I was truly excited to be recognized for my efforts and be rewarded with the rare opportunity to see real history, the Nemshi Hall.
With these more grounded, happier thoughts filling my head I finished getting ready and went back to the kitchen to prepare breakfast soup. I had just finished eating my portion and was heading out the door when my aunt and uncle emerged from their room.
“Oh, I was so worried we had missed you!” Aunt Greta said and rushed over to me, giving me a tight hug. “You have fun at your graduation, dear.”
I hugged her back. “Thank you, auntie, I will,” I said then looked to my uncle.
He took a deep breath then nodded to me, extending a hand. “Congratulations, Remus. You’ve done the family proud.”
I did my best to keep my jaw from dropping and quickly grabbed his hand, my bones nearly getting crushed under his firm grip, but it was worth it to have his acknowledgement.
“Now get going,” he said gruffly, obviously trying to move past the momentary show of affection.
“Of course. See you two later!” I called out as I headed into the city streets that were now very well awake.
We lived in a nice, middle class neighbourhood just east of the University. You could always tell how rich the area was by how many windows there were on the buildings. For example, our little home boasted four windows, one for each room except for the water closet. I was always grateful for the luxury. Winters were especially tough when you could only rely on the oven and lanterns for light indoors.
I was nearly at the University when I heard two familiar voices calling my name.
“Remus! Wait up!”
I turned and laughed as Patrick ran right into me, swinging his arms around my shoulders in a wild, playful hug. Though all of us were excited and proud to be graduating, it meant a lot more to Patrick. He came from a poor family who had put all their hopes and expectations onto him.
“This is it! As soon as I get that scroll I’m good to go. They accepted my application at the University to become a novice librarian!”
My eyes went wide before I let out a whoop of laughter and hugged Patrick back. Had I been stronger I would have picked him right up and twirled him around. “Yes! Ancestors be praised!”
Yanis jumped onto us and soon we were a wobbling, laughing mess of limbs.
“What about you, Yanis?” I asked as we disentangled ourselves and resumed travel to the University.
“Well…” Yanis started and then scratched at the back of his neck, a nervous habit he’d had ever since I knew him.
“Come on,” I said, nudging his ribs with my elbow. “You can tell us.”
He sighed. “Fine, but I don’t want you judging me for it. You know how I’ve been helping my little brother and his friends with their studying?”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well one of them told his mom that he wished I was his teacher and it got me thinking that maybe that’s what I’d like to do – teach at one of the local public schools. I know it’s not as impressive as working at the University, but I’ve really grown attached to these little guys.”
Patrick laughed. “Why in limbo would you think we’d ever make fun of you for that? You worry way too much about other people’s opinions. Besides, women will go crazy for you. A man with a secure income who gets along with kids? You’ve got it made.”
“He worries because his family will think he’s too good for a local school and should be aiming for the University. Rich families get stuck on these things no matter how much they say they believe in the Scriptures and how everyone, no matter their station, will be part of the Divine Heritage if they are true to their calling. Just tell your parents and grandfather you feel like this is the best way for you to become an honourable ancestor. Shaping the youngest minds of tomorrow is no less a noble cause! And besides, you know exactly the standards they need to meet to get into University since you graduated from there yourself. Parents will be flocking to your school in order to have their children be taught by you once they know this, I’m sure of it,” I said, giving Yanis’ shoulder a squeeze.
Yanis grinned at me and shook his head. “I need to invite you over for dinner so you can say all that to my family. I have no idea how you do that, turning situations upside down and all around so that somehow you win in the end.”
I chuckled and shook my head in return. “I’m really not trying to do that. I truly believe what I’m saying, Yanis. And if you need me to come for dinner, I certainly won’t say no to rich people food.”
“Oi! I better be invited too! I’m half the reason you managed to survive University,” Patrick chimed in, getting us all to laugh again.
We kept up our lively banter all the way to the University and joined all the other graduating men and women from our year in the main entrance. From there we only had to wait ten more minutes before a handful of our professors arrived, including my favourite, Professor Marius. I spoke of him so highly and so often Phoebe often teased that I was in love with him. I would never admit it to her, but I admired the man so deeply that I was considering becoming a professor myself partly so that I could stay in close contact with him. Though I didn’t often get to speak with him privately, the times I had over the last three years had always been the highlight of my month. I had never met a man who was as patient, insightful, or intelligent as him. If I could become even half the man he was, I’d consider myself worthy to join the Divine Heritage.
“Congratulations, young scholars,” said Cardinal Clarence, one of the University administrators. “We are honoured to be adding you to the prestigious legacy of the University. As promised, we will now lead you to one of our ancient chambers, the Nemshi Hall, to carry out the ceremony. Please remember this is a part of our collective history, so be exceptionally kind to the walls and floors.”
Then we were ushered through the corridors none of us had been in before. Any remnants of anxiety I had felt from this morning were completely swept away by anticipatory excitement. I had been waiting for this moment for so long, and I couldn’t believe it was nearly upon me.
We stopped in front of two pitch black double doors and Cardinal Clarence paused to pull a large iron key out of his robe pocket and unlock them. Two professors held the doors open as we continued inside. As we shuffled passed the doors I couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t appear to be painted. Where did they get this strange, dark wood from?
My stomach lurched. The Black Forest.
No. I was jumping to conclusions again. The Black Forest was an endless expanse of trees that surrounded our world. And as the namesake suggested, it was rumored that the bark of the trees absorbed nearly all light, making the color as deep and dark as obsidian. The Black Forest was mentioned many times in the Scriptures, but mostly as an area of taboo. There would be no need to venerate that place by incorporating it into the architecture of these sacred halls. I must have been mistaken. And like many of my outlandish thoughts, I needed to let it go.
When we finally entered the hall I let out an audible gasp. The room was lit by rows and rows of tall, black candelabra, and the floor and walls were made entirely of polished white marble that seemed to emit an ethereal glow. Along the edges of the wall there was a band of engravings at eye level that encircled the entire room. Everything seemed too perfect to be real. I’d never seen so much untarnished marble before. It was incredible. But still, it was nothing compared to what I saw as I looked up to the ceiling.
The last time I felt so moved was when I finished reading the Scriptures for the first time. I could feel tears of awe beginning to well in my eyes as I took in the scene above us. Though terrifying, there was no denying the beauty of seeing the two fearsome elderbeasts, Elydritas and Dorogondra, locked in their eternal battle. I had seen depictions of them before as they were a common theme amongst artists and poets, but I had never seen their ferocity and power depicted so vividly. In this moment, they felt more real than the people standing beside me in this very hall.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“You’re looking in the wrong spot,” Yanis whispered back to me. “She’s here! Princess Vivienne!”
I tore my eyes away from the ceiling and looked to the front of the room. As promised, standing with two other Cardinals, was the princess. She wore a beautiful deep purple dress that complimented her dark brown skin perfectly. Her long black hair was tied in a fashionable, but still rather practical, braid that hung down over her right shoulder. The few small pieces of jewelry she wore twinkled like stars against the backdrop of her dark complexion.
“Oh come on, you’re not moved?” Yanis asked, eyes wide.
“She is lovely, but we only have a few minutes before the ceremony begins and I plan on investigating this room thoroughly. I may never get to see it again.”
“You may never see her again!”
“There are parades. I’ll see her,” I said and wandered over to one of the walls to investigate the intricate carvings that spanned the whole wall. Yes, the princess was undoubtedly beautiful, but I was far more interested in this ancient room. I couldn’t get over the idea that my ancestors from five hundred years ago had stood in the very same spot I was standing in now. It was as if they were here with me, in this very room, enveloping me in a golden presence that filled me with feelings of love and pride in our collective history.
If only I had closed my eyes and focused on that feeling, then perhaps I would have never noticed those markings.
But I did notice. And a spark of recognition ignited my mind.
I frowned as I walked over to them, half hoping I was mistaken. But I wasn’t. The two symbols – Faerie and Demon, were etched into the ancient walls of Nemshi Hall. I had seen them often enough at the festivals where shamans and witches from far outside of the city would come to sell their strange wares, including warding charms to protect against “faeries and demons” with those exact symbols.
The air suddenly felt suffocating. Thick. Filling my lungs with such heaviness I could no longer breathe.
My mind raced, trying to come up with hasty explanations as to why I would see those symbols here in an ancient hall of the Church. But my gut had already arrived at the conclusion that had been gnawing the back of my mind for months.
My eyes were darting right and left and soon my feet were moving just as frantically as I all but ran along the length of the wall. All of these “designs” were equally spaced as if separated by invisible rectangles aside from the occasional thin vertical line. The faerie and demon symbols that I had spotted initially showed up a few times more, but never in any sort of pattern. This wasn’t simply a beautiful design. It was–
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Remus? What are you doing? It’s time to sit down,” Yanis said.
I could feel myself swaying. The room was starting to spin as fast as the thoughts in my head. “It’s real, Yanis. Oh ancestors, it’s a language. Can’t you see? Our entire history, it’s a lie. Why would King Arturius need to invent an alphabet if we already had one?”
“Don’t tell me you’re on about that again! You need to calm down, Remus, it’s the day of our graduation. Now is not the time to be weaving conspiracy theories,” Patrick said.
“Don’t tell me to calm down, Patrick!” I said, unable to contain the volume of my voice. “What else have they lied to us about? The Scriptures? Faeries and demons? If they lied about this there’s no telling what they’re hiding from us!”
I looked between my best friends, their expressions a mix of fear and concern, as if I was transforming into a Spawn of Sin right before their very eyes.
The rich, but gentle voice cut through the commotion.
I turned to see Professor Marius looking at me with a concerned frown. He walked forward, pushing aside Yanis and Patrick with his silent, authoritative presence, and looked me over before laying a hand on my forehead.
“You have a bit of a fever,” Professor Marius said. “It seems the stress of exams has finally caught up to our top scholar. I doubt the excitement of the graduation ceremony is helping either, is it, Remus?”
Only then did I notice the worried eyes of my friends, then past them to all the people starting to notice the disturbance I was making. I needed to get out of here before I made matters worse.
“Yes, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t feeling well this morning either, but I didn’t want to miss this.”
“You should have said something!” Patrick said.
“It’s alright. I’ll take you back to my office and we’ll have a special little ceremony afterward in private,” Professor Marius said.
I bowed to him and my friends. “Forgive me. I should have been honest about how I was feeling.”
“It’s okay, Remus,” Yanis said. “Go get some air. We’ll talk after.”
I nodded and let Professor Marius lead me out, grateful for his steadying arm around my shoulders.
We were quiet as we walked through the corridors and to his familiar little office with the small window, perfectly tidy bookshelves, and empty desk save for a ready pot of ink, paper, and quills.
He sat me down in one of the chairs and knelt down in front of me.
“I hope you forgive me for lying. You don’t actually have a fever, Remus, but I wasn’t sure what else to say to make you come with me. You looked very distressed and your friends’ concern seemed to have no effect on you. What happened?”
Though I had a feeling Professor Marius would hear me out if I told him my insane theory, and have the decency to keep it between us, I still wasn’t sure if I should tell him the truth and risk losing whatever good opinion he had of me. He had also offered me a perfectly reasonable out – I was overstressed and overexcited by the past few weeks. It was true I had barely been sleeping after all.
1) Tell Marius the truth about what was troubling him. (Winner!)
2) Go along with the lie.
Head on over to our discord to vote!