Until Dawn (1)

15 minutes, 55 seconds

As dusk was setting around them, their party of seven was rushing through the forest, a chill creeping into each of their bones as the shadows in the forest got longer and night started to close in on them.

‘The hero party,’ Eon had named them jokingly, but right in this moment, with his lungs burning as he took laboured breaths, Auriel was sharply reminded that heroes often died young.

“This forest has to end soon!” Ayescha called out, but even her determined voice was tipping over into desperation. “It was marked on the map, it will end soon!”

Hopefully, Auriel thought, wheezing, throwing himself forwards to not stay behind.

This forest spanning the entire valley between unsurpassable mountains, this forest that was said to swallow the people in it alive, this forest that had fallen victim to the Darkness long ago.

Eyes darting left and right, Auriel felt his skin tingle with panic as he noticed the thickness of the shadows dancing between the tree trunks. Soon, they would be strong enough to chase. 

“I can see it!” Vidal shouted from the beginning of their group. He was their fastest runner, wiry and persistent. Maybe he, at least, would make it to their destination.

“Come on,” Eon called out, looking back at Auriel, hand twitching into his direction as if to pull him along. “We’ll make it out of here, I promise!”

‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep,’ Auriel wanted to reply, but he focused on running instead. It took up all his energy.

Just as the tension around them became laden like the air itself was holding its breath, Auriel burst out of the forest as the tail end of their party and into the last light of the day.

“Come, come,” Eon urged him on, hand closing around Auriel’s arm, reassuring himself that the younger man was still there. Auriel was, for now.

Stumbling over his feet, heavy like lead, he took in his surroundings, before he gazed over his shoulder and froze.

“They aren’t staying there,” he whispered, catching Eon’s gaze with wide eyes, watching friend’s eyes wander over to the forest and widen in horror.

“KEEP MOVING, WE’RE NOT SAFE YET,” Eon yelled, and then he was dragging Auriel along with an iron grip, knuckles white.

Five confused faces changed into hectic panic, Ayescha gripping the straps of her backpack with a curse, and then they ran up the gentle slope of a hill, skittering and sliding in the wet grass.

“There’s- there’s a town!” Vidal yelled from the top of the hill, pointing down to whatever lay behind it. “We can seek shelter!”

Oh heaven, please, Auriel prayed, nauseous with exhaustion, and fought to keep his legs moving.

“Don’t slack, come, come, we’ll make it!” Eon wheezed. His fingers would certainly leave bruises.

They followed the others over the top and ran down the other side, taking care to stay upright, eyes fixed on the stone walls surrounding the town at the feet of the hill.

Auriel took in the gate in front of it, closed.

“What if it’s locked?!” Leyan panted, their wild hair fluttering behind them like a flag, running side by side with Roslyn, who struggled with the cooking equipment on her back.

“It can’t be,” Eon whispered as if to himself, and Auriel’s stomach tied itself into knots.

Of course, Vidal was the first to arrive, and Auriel saw him stumbling to a halt, only now noticing the dark, tall figure in front of the gate.

As they came closer, Vidal’s voice got louder, his gestures frantic.

The guard stayed unmoving, watching their arrival with a face hidden in the shadows.

His voice was deep, his tone finite, as he replied with a simple, “No entrance.”

“You’d deny us shelter from the Darkness?!” Ivain exclaimed, fury radiating off his imposing form, and Vidal glared.

Finally, Eon let go of Auriel’s arm throbbing with pain and came closer to their arguing friends. “What’s going on?”

Eyes flashing, Vidal turned around. “He won’t let us in. Says nobody is allowed to enter, not by day and not by night.”

“Listen,” Eon started and stepped forwards, but froze when the sound of a blade being pulled rang out.

“No. Entrance.” The guard remained motionless after that, not attacking any of them, even as Ivain and Leyan drew their own weapons; but the threat was unmistakable. They would need to fight their way inside if they wanted to pass, and it was unclear if they even had time for that.

Why is he outside? Auriel wondered, studying the guard. There aren’t fires around, he’s out in the open. Is he immune to the shadows?

“This is stupid,” Ivain growled, quick to anger and under immense pressure, and lifted his sword.

It didn’t even take two seconds before it clattered to the ground, Vidal and Ayescha exclaiming in shock and jumping back. None of them had anticipated the speed and precision of the guard, moving fluidly despite his bulk, before returning to his original position.

“Like I said. No entrance by day, no entrance by night.”

“What about dusk and dawn?” Auriel murmured, holding his breath when the face of the guard turned towards him.

There was no reply, only a heavy gaze, palpable even as the man’s eyes remained hidden in the shadows.

“If we can’t get inside, we need to go right now,” Leyan pointed out, voice shaky, and Roslyn whimpered as she noticed the shadows running down the hill, Darkness thick as syrup.

Leyan looked up to the horizon, and Auriel followed their gaze, just in time to see the sun vanish from sight, taking the last light with it.

“Fuck,” Eon breathed, and then chaos erupted as they started running again, away from the guard that calmly remained in place as the Darkness washed over the land.

As soon as the shadows had them, the screaming started inside Auriel’s head. He gasped, grimacing while he ran, but he felt the cold settle into his bones, sinking deeper, dripping through his skeleton until it reached his heart.

Why are you even here? he despaired, pressing his hands to his waist against the side stitches. You’re not part of a hero party, you knew this would go badly!

Shaking his head against the intrusive thoughts, he stumbled for a second, before catching himself and scurrying on, clutching the straps of his backpack. His bow shifted and nudged his butt, only serving to remind him that he wasn’t even able to shoot the enemy while the Darkness ate them up from the inside.

In front of him, Eon desperately clasped Roslyn’s hand, who was already crying, sobs shaking her lithe body.

For once, Auriel wasn’t the tail end. Ivain ran behind him, bringing up the rear with his jaw clenched, sword in his hand again, useless.

There were no paths surrounding the town, no predetermined routes for carts, so the ground was uneven. Nature was surprisingly wild around them, growing unhindered, and more than once, Auriel’s clothes got caught in a bush or he stumbled, not even able to make out over what.

“Come on, kid,” Ivain ground out, helping him up and ushering him forwards again.

“Why are we even running?” Auriel panted, feeling himself falling behind. There just wasn’t any more energy in his body, his legs were so tired. His entire body hurt. “We don’t know where to go anyway.”

Ivain didn’t reply, just clenched his jaw harder.

“Come on!” Ayescha called out from somewhere to their right, and Auriel saw that she pointed towards… the forest. “There are caves somewhere near! They’re marked on my map!”

“You want us to go back in there?!” Vidal snapped, and Auriel winced at the hysteria he could hear in his voice. Vidal always was the one to tip over the edge first. “Absolutely not! What if one of us tries to string themselves up on a tree? I won’t have a night like this again!”

The screams in Auriel’s mind intensified, laughter tittering through the air in a breeze.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, but nobody heard him.

“Would you rather stay out in the open to be killed in your sleep?” Ayescha challenged, voice sharp. “Let them squeeze your heart until it gives out eventually?!”

“My heart gives out even quicker if we’re surrounded by Darkness in a goddamn cursed forest!” Vidal bellowed.

Auriel closed his eyes, pressing the balls of his hands to his temples. The screams just wouldn’t let up, and he felt a high, distressed noise building in his throat. He swallowed it down, though – the others were struggling enough. He didn’t always want to worry them.

Because that was what he did, wasn’t it? Worrying them about not eating properly even when he had cooked the food, about not being able to keep their harsh speed the whole day, about breaking down at night, once the Darkness had settled in.

And what did he have to offer in return? Tracking skills that were only useful by daylight because he was half-blind at night, the occasional hunting of prey with Ivain, and mediocre cooking skills that were not even close to Leyan and Roslyn’s.

“How far away are the caves?” Eon asked, voice rough as he kept a close eye on Roslyn, who was crouching down next to him, still sobbing.

She had seen how her family had been torn apart by the Darkness, a traumatized, young woman with an endless pool of grief and sadness; the Darkness always hit her hard. Shadows danced in her shoulder long hair, and Eon aggressively brushed them off. It was good that he was so protective of his dearest; she would have been lost a long while ago otherwise.

“I can’t tell exactly, but maybe half an hour?”

“That’s too long,” Eon breathed, inhaling sharply and closing his eyes, swaying on his feet.

Auriel watched him, a faint ringing in his ears as he tried to keep the scream inside that was lodged in his throat.

He knew it was the Darkness, knew it would pass once dawn arrived, but again, he couldn’t help but think that he contributed so little; was so useless most of the time.

How, he wondered, furrowing his brows to concentrate, How is that guard doing it? How does he keep them away? 

“I can’t risk us getting separated between the trees,” Eon stated quietly, and silence fell over them, a deep sadness as they remembered how they had already suffered; the friend they had lost.

Leyan whimpered, burying their face in their hands.

“Let’s keep moving,” Eon continued, voice tired. “Until we can’t keep upright anymore. Then we’ll make a fire, hope that it doesn’t draw predators, and pray that dawn comes quickly.”

“If we all make it ‘til then,” Vidal laughed, a cynic sound, and turned away from them. He continued laughing, completely hysterical, until Ivain sighed and stalked over to him, squeezing the other man to his side tightly.

That seemed to help, at least for the moment.

In the end, they had collapsed not too far away, making a makeshift pile of sleeping mats in front of a small fire, their movements practiced efficiency.

Eon had stared into the flames, waiting for everyone to settle, fingering the vial beneath his shirt; the reason they were here, on this journey, in the first place. The Light.

Their leader carried a spark of Light with him that directly stemmed from the Fire of Life in the royal palace, that blue-white manifestation of Light that fueled magic and blessed the land and people. Auriel had seen it once, as a child, when his mother had brought him along for a street festival, years before she had passed away.

Because the Darkness had become stronger, stretching over their kingdom like a disease, the Fire of Life was barely enough to grant people in the capital protection. Light had become rare and with it magic, which made the battle against the Darkness so much more difficult.

Eon had been chosen to bring the spark of Light over the border, where magicians would be able to use it against the Darkness. And even though they all knew that this was the very reason to move forwards and don’t give up hope, it was a twisted thing in its own way, to have Light so close and yet be haunted by the Darkness every single night. Maybe the shadows could sense that they carried the spark and tried to stop them.

When everyone but Auriel and Eon was shivering through a restless sleep, Eon turned to him, expression conflicted in the orange light of the fire.

“Do you regret meeting me, sometimes?” he asked.

Maybe Auriel should have expected it; the Darkness also got to their leader, after all. But Eon always seemed so strong, so decisive, that it was easy to forget.

He shook his head, a small smile playing around his lips. “Why do you think that?”

Eon sighed, reaching out his hand to stroke a golden curl out of Auriel’s eyes. He was so tactile, always needing to reassure himself with a physical touch that they were still there, still alive. Auriel understood that.

“If you hadn’t hidden me from the hunters that day,” Eon answered, gaze returning to the fire, “they wouldn’t have burned down your village in search of me. If I hadn’t left you no choice but to follow me, you never would’ve entered that cursed forest. You never would’ve-”

“Eon,” Auriel interrupted, scooting closer and leaning into the older man’s side. “Stop it. You didn’t burn down my village, you know that. The hunters did. Maybe the shadows made them more aggressive, who knows. And if you hadn’t taken me with you, I would have burned with them.”

I hid you. That’s why they burned the village down, his mind whispered, and the screams increased in volume, sounds of agony and pleading.

He whimpered, tearing up, and Eon shushed him, hugging him to his body.

“It’s okay. The night will pass. It always does.”

After a moment, and they both possibly had fallen asleep during it, Auriel mumbled, “I really wonder how he does it.”

“Who?” Eon mumbled back, pulling Auriel down with him, right in the middle of the pile of bodies. Always protected, from the outside and himself.

“The guard.” Auriel’s eyelids were too heavy to open, and he was shivering from the chill. “He jus’ stood there. Let the shadows come.”

“Hmmm,” Eon hummed, shifting to reach out for Roslyn, drawing her close. She whimpered even in her sleep, squirming. “Dunno.”

Hours later, but not long enough for dawn to have arrived yet, Auriel was jolted out of sleep by his own scream.

His heart stuttered and squeezed like a fist of ice was clamped around it, and he wheezed, ringing for air.

Leyan startled awake next to him, shooting upright. “Auriel! Auriel, breathe! My god, breathe!” they cried out, hugging him close, trying to share their body warmth with him. “Eon! Hey! Everyone wake up, we need to move!”

Caught in his own bubble of screams and coldness, Auriel released another scream, the smell of burned wood reaching his nose.

“NO!” he yelled, jumping up and slapping himself, trying to get rid of the hallucination. “Not tonight, not tonight, not tonight!” he howled, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Noooo,” he groaned again, digging his fingernails into his hands, wincing at the sharp pain, but it helped.

“We need to get him somewhere safe,” Leyan pleaded, taking Auriel’s hands in an iron grip. “Eon, we need the protection of the caves! Like Ayescha said…” they trailed off, eyes widening in dawning horror. “Where is she?”

“Fuck,” Eon breathed, their night camp as good as packed up. “Fuck! She has our map.”

“We’re going to die,” Vidal started laughing again, scratching his nails over his cheeks.

“I’ll search for her. Ivain, Vidal, you come with me. Leyan, watch over Auriel and Roslyn. They’re in no way to go near the forest until we have the map! Keep the fire going.”

“Don’t go,” Roslyn exclaimed, rushing forwards to clutch Eon’s hand. “Take me with you. Don’t leave me alone with the voices, with the cries…”

“I can’t,” Eon murmured, kissing her gently. “The forest is too dangerous, especially because of the voices and cries. Wait here for me, okay? And keep an eye on the kid,” he smiled.

There was a wobbly quality to his voice as he glanced at Auriel, who stood motionlessly in the darkness, hands still in Leyan’s vice grip.

And then they were gone.

And they won’t come back, the shadows whispered.

Auriel shook his head. Of course they would come back. With Ayescha. With their map and the way to the caves.

“Come here,” Leyan guided Auriel to the fire, forcing him to sit down and drink a sip of wine to warm him up. “I know the screams are hard, I can’t even imagine how that is. At least I only have self-hate and a running, mocking commentary,” they joked, and Auriel really didn’t know how Leyan still managed to keep a clear head.

“I want it to stop,” he whispered, and Leyan nodded. They had small branches and leaves stuck in their hair, and Auriel smiled. Tomorrow, he would bully Leyan into letting him brush their hair and braiding it.

“I know. But for now, let’s wait here at the fire. Roslyn, are you coming, too?” Leyan asked, turning around before they stilled completely.

Confused, Auriel turned, too, eyes wandering over the dark landscape, squinting. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” Leyan whispered, fear dawning on their face. “Oh no.”

And so the night became one of those nights.

Auriel promised Leyan to be good and wait at the fire while they searched for Roslyn, who had probably chased after Eon when Leyan hadn’t been looking.

And as Auriel sat there, alone with the shadows and the squeezing around his heart, he realized that he had only two options: it was either dying here because he felt it, felt that he would not reach dawn this time, or running and seeking the help of the only person he knew where to find – the guard that could withstand the shadows.

Taking a deep breath, Auriel stood up.

He hesitated, observing the black treeline not far away, listening hard for any sound. But there was nothing; only his own breathing and the screams in his head.

Hands trembling, he shouldered his backpack, quiver, and bow, and then he ran.

Princie

Hey there, I'm Nat! I'm the author behind princesandfrogs, and as you can probably guess, I really love writing. So I thought why not share some of my original content here, in this quiet corner of the internet :3 If you'd like to take glimpses through the keyhole of my world, you're welcome to stay! Get yourself a nice cup of tea, and here we go!

There are 2 comments .

  1. hello! what a wonderful start! as always your worldbuilding is exquisite. can’t wait for more! thank you and jiayou!!!

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