1. CROUCHED IN THE DARKNESS
…cozy, isn’t it…
~ Age of Ashes, year 301 ~
~ New Amazing Nightmare, year 1 ~
~ Aharra, Arm of Katharyaga ~
All his life he believed that colors had their meanings. It was a given.
Willay was shouting: “Lock the doors! Shut the blinds! Ragan, get inside! Quick!”
“Who did it?” Ragan glared around Ifhedde, their home village, ignoring his wife’s cries. “Who summoned Him?”
People were sprinting to their homes; slushy snow splashing under their feet. Old Lila grabbed her son and fled to the forest. Pointless. If He were after her, He’d get her. He always got what He wanted.
“I asked: who did it?”
All those familiar faces Ragan had seen every day since he’d been born; one of them belonged to a traitor.
Yellow for joy and new beginnings.
As He emerged from the forest, all shreds of doubt were gone. It was the Sinhail, and He was headed for Ifhedde.
Wooden doors, all alike, shut one after the other. Windows got covered by blinds, leaving only small cracks through which peeked frightened eyes.
Yet one door stood slightly ajar, untouched.
Ragan had lived his entire life in Ifhedde. There was not a crevice in the walls of those yellow houses that wasn’t etched in his memory. There was not a person living behind these walls whom he didn’t know like the back of his own hand.
Behind the open door that invited the nightmare lived his childhood friends.
A delicate white frill tied around the door handle was swaying gently in the wind. Ragan couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it before. That others hadn’t either. It was easy to miss treachery when you expected none.
Black for death and darkness.
As the sound of amecycles whirring reached his ears, Ragan felt rooted to the ground.
“Ragan!” Willay called. She was scared. She had seen Him before, she had seen what He could do. “Come on!”
Ragan should’ve listened and he knew that. He stood by the road looking towards the gate in a mixture of fear and anger; an unpleasant shiver ran through him as gusts of icy wind pierced his jacket. Someone grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him back towards his house. His legs barely obeyed.
Two men rode through the gate. Were the Sinhail in His right mind, He would be traveling with a small army. But He was fearless, and that, Ragan hoped, would soon become His undoing.
Purple for soul and eternity.
The amecycles sizzled and stopped. One of the riders jumped down – a boy, maybe fifteen years of age, no older. His claws betrayed his origin. Samedals were a savage race whom some believed hadn’t been created with the world, but had evolved later from wild animals.
The boy menacingly revealed his sharp fangs – or maybe he just smiled – at the few villagers who hadn’t made it to the cover of their homes. He took out the amethyst core from the vehicle and the headlights went out. “And I almost got to actually ride and actual horse,” he said, sounding discontented.
Its deep shades though, for evil, said to lurk inside every man.
The Sinhail turned his vehicle off. “Chattair,” he said to the boy, who nodded and handed him something.
The man’s feet met the ground with an unpleasant clink, as the silver soles of his high, gray boots hit the stones. A quiet, unnerving jingle filled the air. Ragan’s eyes travelled up His silhouette: white trousers, white shirt, white, fur-laced cloak. Tattered blood-tinted ribbon tied around His chest and up around His shoulder, from whence it fell down, tormented by the blowing wind. Its bottom edge seemed burnt. Ragan stopped right before his eyes reached the man’s face – he dared himself to look, but he couldn’t. He only just glimpsed the source of the sound – there was a strange metalling structure twining behind the Sinhail’s head.
Ragan stood with his head bowed down, like a pathetic coward, a lackey, ready to fawn at His feet, as all the others did - all the bravado and fury quashed by His proximity.
“Tanidala’s house?” the Sinhail asked nobody in particular.
Ragan twitched at the sound of His voice, as if each word spoken by Him was a curse spit into the air, ready to latch onto Ragan’s soul the moment he took the tainted air into his lungs.
Amongst the few who hadn’t made it into their homes and had frozen motionless outside, hoping His gaze wouldn’t fall on them, was Havi, their watchmaker. Havi fell onto one knee, and with head almost to the ground he pointed towards the half-open door. “T-that way, my lord,” he told the Sinhail.
Clink, clink, the stones sung under the silver, the sound of a recurring nightmare. Willay would wake up in the middle of the night to the faintest of metallic sounds, and rush to the windows to draw the curtains. And now, when she had to truly meet Him again, she could not hide – Ragan realized that it was her dragging him away. She had stayed outside because of him.
Red for love and healing.
Ragan grabbed Willay’s hands and freed himself from her grip. “Go home,” he said. “He’s not looking, go.”
“What are you doing?”
“I will watch over Tani and Leveru,” Ragan whispered. “Go!” He pushed her towards their home.
Willay threw him a desperate glance, then gave into her fright, and ran to the house. She would never convince him to come with, she surely knew it. Not when his dearest friends could be in danger.
But were they in danger? What could Sinhail possibly want from them? And, more importantly, what could they want from Him? He had not wandered into Ifhedde by accident. He had been summoned.
It made no sense.
The fanged boy suddenly turned towards Willay, and Ragan’s heart skipped a beat. He was ready to jump to her defense, but Chattair lost interest in her as soon as she disappeared behind the closed door.
There was a sound, an almost melodic buzz. The boy took out his encome and brought the communication device to his ear. “Coming, sir, I was just making sure everything was… in order,” he said, then looked around in a leisurely manner, pausing, for just a moment, on every person remaining outside. To frighten. To control.
Green for cathartic grief and rising from ashes.
Then he was on his way to the house and Ragan, against all reason, followed him.
“You got a death wish or something?” Chattair didn’t bother to stop or even look at him. “I can hear your wheezing behind me.”
“What do you want from Tanidala and Leveru?” Ragan asked.
Chattair turned to face him, cocking his head to the side. Straight brown hair swayed with the movement and fell onto his eyes. “A curious one, are you?”
“Have they done something to offend the Sinhail? Please, I’m sure we can… find a way to talk?” The weakness of his own voice disgusted Ragan. He was talking to a damned lackey, a kid.
“Why, of course not.” The boy showed his teeth. “They’ve got a deal to strike.”
Ragan took a step back, uneasy. “A deal?”
“Wasn’t that you who screamed about the summons just now? How daft are you exactly? Anyway, none of your business, really.” The samedal waved a hand at him. “Do I look like a peasant proxy?” With a huff he turned to follow his master.
“I need to see them.”
The boy shrugged. “Watch me care. But if you make a mess, you’ll become a mess yourself.”
Ragan grabbed him by the sleeve.
Chattair turned and caught Ragan’s arm, squeezing it painfully. “What?” Surprise mixed with amusement on his face.
With a tug, Ragan freed his arm and took a step back, raising his hands up. He didn’t want to provoke a fight; those claws could rip his throat out in one swipe. “Does He force you to follow Him?” he asked the boy. “Do you need help?”
Chattair laughed. “I am his servant, not his slave, you fool. Just get out of the way like the rest of your peasant friends.” He turned to go, but then looked back and added: “And don’t, for a second, think that there’s anything you can do if he doesn’t allow it.”
Blue for sorrow, but also freedom and peace of mind.
It was not really a choice, Ragan couldn’t just ignore the situation and go home, no matter how strange is was getting. He followed the Sinhail’s servant into the house, trying his hardest not to make another sound.
Though he’d dined here just yesterday, the place suddenly felt foreign. The walls painted in bright shade of orange, the old flowery carpet on the floor. Four windows that normally let in plenty of light, were all closed now, and the low-hanging ceiling lamp, alongside the open door, was the only source of light.
Tanidala sat on the floor in the living room, with her back pressed against the wall, her knees up to her chin and encircled defensively by her arms. She was chewing at a strand of her long bright hair.
The Sinhail stood a few steps away looking a book case.
“He’s in the basement,” Tani said quietly. Her voice quivered, but she didn’t stutter once. “I drugged him, but I wasn’t strong enough to bring him out. Do you wish to do it there, my lord?”
“No,” the Sinhail said. “Chattair, bring him upstairs.”
“What is he doing here?” The Sinhail’s eyes hadn’t landed on Ragan once, but He seemed well aware of the unrequested presence.
The samedal shrugged again. “He wanted to see this woman and I thought it might be entertaining. Wish me to remove him?”
Ragan felt his heart jump to his throat, unsure of how the wild servant would interpret that answer, but Chattair nodded and moved towards the basement. “I’ll be right back then,” he said. Though he had that savagery about him, his accent and eloquence spoke of education. Which was odd, as most of his race were lucky to be slaves nowadays, especially since an Arena B had been built on the isle.
The moment the boy disappeared down the staircase, Ragan looked at Tanidala, but she refused to look up at him. With one hand she started to trace winding patterns on her long skirt. The green fabric, sprawled across the floor, contrasted with the dark wood.
Green. Why was she wearing green?
“Tani, what’s going on?” Ragan asked her.
He tried hard to pretend the Sinhail was not here, just to keep his thoughts focused. What if he just pulled out a gun and shot Him right now? The man wasn’t looking. Why wasn’t he looking? Did He believe that everyone was too scared to ever try to oppose Him? Could He be that arrogant?
But Ragan didn’t have a gun at hand, so first things first, he had to understand what was going on here, and he could swear it was nothing good. “What are you doing?” he asked Tanidala. “What do you mean drugged him, Tani? Who did you drug?”
Tanidala’s head twitched to the side in a tic.
Sounds of struggle and a grunt of pain came from the stairway. The Sinhail turned from the bookshelf and scratched His eyebrow.
“You are sure, then,” he said to Tanidala.
“Yes, my lord. I am certain.”
For the first time her eyes fell on Ragan, and she seemed to bite her tongue before saying something more. Ragan’s stomach twisted. What was he missing? Had someone forced her to summon Him? Something was very wrong here.
“How do you know where Demera is?” the Sinhail asked, and Tanidala turned away, her eyes again finding the patterns on her clothes.
“I’ve heard of it from a dear friend of mine…” she said. “I… I know I’m betraying his trust, I know, but I can’t live like this anymore, I can’t… I can’t die like this! It’s an item, right? He said it… looked…”
“Y-yes…” she said. “So it doesn’t feel? It won’t know what you do with it… it won’t understand it, right?”
“It is an item. Nothing, but an illusion of humanity.”
She nodded. “But s-he… i-it talked to my friend. Asked for directions… Had a purpose… It seemed to be frightened, he told me, how can it work like this? I don’t understand…”
“It was created by a brilliant woman, one of the greatest mages walking this world. The illusion is stunning, but it is still just a creation of magic,” the Sinhail said. “Do you know where it is now?”
Ragan was surprised that He would answer Tanidala’s questions. His voice was calm, collected, a sharp contrast to expectations. This was not how a nightmare ought to sound.
Tanidala was trying to compose herself, her head twitched a few times as if she wanted to look at Him when she spoke, but she never did. So He had come here for this Demera thing then. What was it? What could He possibly want?
“Yes, I know where it is,” Tani said.
The sounds of struggle got louder, and Tanidala squeaked as her husband sprawled to the top of the stairs, falling down, and getting kicked forward again by Chattair.
“Move it!” the boy said and huffed, “or I’ll have to drag you again!” His claws were bloodied and one glance at Leveru’s upper arms told the story. His yellow shirt had been torn, and the flesh underneath cut in gashes; the sleeves were soaking. Leveru himself looked drugged and was not cooperative. Completely bewildered, he didn’t seem to be understanding what was happening to him.
Tanidala looked like she was trying to become one with the wall, tried to get as far away from them all as she could. Ragan got queasy at the sight of red draining from Leveru’s open wounds.
The Sinhail waved His hand and Chattair dropped the drugged man to the floor, then crouched down panting – Leveru was a big man.
The Sinhail stepped closer to the curled up Tani; his white cloak rustled as he crouched down before her. With his left hand he rose her face up, and that’s when she lost it. Her body started shuddering and she began taking quick gasps of air, trying to stop her sobs from coming out.
“Tell me. Quietly,” He said, and leant in closer. The metallic structure that twined over His shoulder and behind His head, reminiscent of a thorn vine with a crescent-shaped piece between the branches, rang like a small wind chime. Ragan couldn’t keep his eyes off the sight Sinhail’s slender fingers as they rested on his friend’s chin. Tanidala’s lips moved, but Ragan didn’t hear the whispered words.
The Sinhail let go of her and stood up. “Good,” He said. “Hold him,” He told Chattair, and walked over to Leveru.
“Tani!” Ragan screamed in realization. This was a part of the Sinhail’s deal? “Tani, what are you doing!”
Chattair snarled at Ragan in caricature of a grin. His claws dug deeper into Leveru’s arms and the man cried out in pain.
“You can’t reverse it! Ever!” Ragan couldn’t believe it, she wouldn’t do it. There was no way. There couldn’t be. “Tanidala?”
The Sinhail looked straight at him for the first time and Ragan’s gaze instinctively darted down. His legs felt like jelly, but he found no anger in the man’s eyes – boredom, slight annoyance if any, that was all. Ragan scurried away and Sinhail turned back to Leveru. He raised his right hand – the Phantom, made not of flesh but raw, crimson energy. He closed his eyes and the Phantom’s hue darkened, then faded into purple.
“No! No, please! Don’t do this!” Leveru seemed to be coming back to his wits. No drug could hold his mind captive in the face of what was about to happen. He tried struggling out of Chattair’s grasp, but the more Leveru moved the more the claws cut his skin. “Tani! Tani, help me! Tanidala? He’s going to wreck my soul, this isn’t a fucking joke! Tanidala!” He thrashed about, fear getting the better of pain.
“No,” she said back to Leveru, her voice suddenly filled with power. “Do you think what you were doing to me was a joke? It’s wasn’t. It wasn’t! You get what you deserve now.” She spat her words with venom, then her voice broke again, and she slouched down. “All these years, no more,” she whispered. “You don’t have the power to hurt me anymore… You won’t have the eternity to scare me with. You won’t torment me forever, because I… I’m not yours anymore. He’s breaking the bond! He’s breaking it, and I will be free of you!”
“You–” Leveru’s words died in his throat as the Phantom nested in his chest.
Ragan backed into the wall with a thump. Tanidala whimpered and closed her eyes.
This was it.
The Sinhail’s hand was inside Leveru’s chest, touching the core of his soul. It was happening. To Leveru. A man Ragan had known for so long.
“Tani…” Ragan whispered in shock.
Not even a whimper, a shadow of a scream, left Leveru’s lips as they twitched spasmodically. Chattair was holding Leveru’s body still, his face contorted in effort to keep the heavy man steady. Blood was dripping to the ground.
Leveru was the first of the three of them to look the Sinhail right in the eye.
The Sinhail bent his head down. His arm twisted and a swirl of purple energy surrounded it, then surged right into Leveru.
For a long moment, everything, but the reflection of light flickering over the metallic surface of the bizarre structure Sinhail wore, was still.
Ragan wanted to move, to do something, but he simply couldn’t.
Then the Sinhail jerked the Phantom out of His victim, straightened up, and turned to Tanidala. “Done. Finish him off.”
“W-what?” she asked.
Chattair let go of the man and shook the blood off his hands, then wiped them on the wall. Leveru fell down on his arms. He was looking somewhere ahead, his gaze unfocused, his features twisted in a grimace that reflected agonizing shock more than pain.
“The bond is broken.” Chattair walked over to Tanidala. “You are free, your souls are connected no more, and his took the damage. Now, you know the rules.” He took a gun from his belt, then handed it to her.
Tanidala looked at it blinking, but not moving an inch. “I-I… I understand, but…”
“He’s your responsibility now.”
Her eyes were hazed, she was barely keeping conscious, she tried to stand up but crumpled back onto the ground, grasping her head.
“She’s hyperventilating.” Chattair frowned, watching her struggle. “I don’t think she’ll be able to do it.”
The Sinhail sighed and reached for the long bronze sword resting on his back. He pressed a hand to the blade and a delicate stream of energy slithered alongside its edge. Then He made one, swift move.
Blood splattered all over the floor and walls. A quiet thump was heard as the head rolled to the floor, followed by the body sliding down the wall.
That was it. The lump that blocked his throat and the stone that kept him in place were gone. “W-what have you done!” he screamed, his voice screeching with shock, his eyes following in morbid disbelief what remained of the man he’d played cards with just yesterday.
“Rules.” The Sinhail held the blade in front of Himself. From His hand came another swirl of energy, and as it enfolded the blade, blood seemed to fall off of it. He put the sword back in the sheath, dark and lifeless the moment he released it.
“A broken soul cannot stay in this world,” Chattair said. “She knew the rules. You all do.”
“Fuck you and your rules!” Ragan cried out. “You killed him! You– you! You cut off his head!”
“Ragan, stop!” Tanidala said. “It’s my fault! I couldn’t…”
“No, no, no! It’s enough! Enough of your tyranny, enough of the fear and terror!” Ragan pointed towards the Sinhail. “Enough of my wife fearing the mere jingle of metal because of you!”
The Sinhail brushed the corner of His lips in slight amusement, otherwise unfazed by Ragan’s outburst. This man looked no more than thirty. The moment Ragan realized it, he felt a surge of power inside – he had brought his eyes up. He was facing the Sinhail.
“Go,” the man said. “I have things to take care of.”
“Don’t belittle me, you evil bastard, don’t ignore me,” Ragan said. “You think you’re so high and mighty? You think you can rule us all forever? Have us obey your every bidding?” he ended with a yell.
The Sinhail shrugged as if the question of people’s obedience didn’t concern him at all. “Anything else? Or will you step aside now?”
“Ragan, stop this!” This time it was Havi, who ran up to him and dragged him outside. “Forgive him, my lord, please I beg of you, he has a fever! He doesn’t know what he’s saying, he never saw blood in his life, it’s gone to his head! Please, forgive him and forgive us for letting him bother you! Please, my lord…”
“I’ll go fire up my amec.” Chattair pushed through the commotion.
The Sinhail stepped outside, following his servant.
But Ragan wasn’t done. He would not be ignored and treated like a fussing child. Maybe nobody had had the courage to stand up to this monster before, but someone had to now. For Willay and her sister, for… for Leveru. Ragan squeezed his eyes shut and held back an urge to vomit as the sight of beheading assaulted his mind again.
The Sinhail could’ve shot Leveru, but He chose to decapitate him. He chose to. Why?
“He. Was. My. Friend! He was a human being! And you slaughtered him like a pig!” Ragan yelled. “How dare you come to my home and play god!” He freed his arms from Havi’s grasp, then turned and ripped the gun out of Tanidala’s hands. The Sinhail was stupid after all. “Stay still!”
The man turned around slowly, still amused. He was at gunpoint and he was smiling. He was fucking insane.
Ragan didn’t wait; he aimed, pressed the trigger, and prayed to gods he wouldn’t miss. He had one chance. One.
The bullet fell to the ground. What? Ragan squeezed his eyes shut and shot again. And again. This couldn’t be happening.
Clink, sizzle, clink.
“Why isn’t it working? What are you!”
“Human, only smart,” came a simple answer from right before him.
Ragan opened his eyes and saw the Sinhail standing right in front of him. He took a step back and bumped into the doorframe.
Next second he found himself paralyzed, but not from fear or panic. He really couldn’t move. He willed himself to, but he just couldn’t. His legs shook under him. The useless gun fell out of his numb fingers, and landed in the wet snow. The Phantom was barely touching the skin on Ragan’s neck, but he felt the energy spread inside him, frying his nerves, devouring his body.
Silence. All that surrounded the two of them was this terrible, dragging silence.
Until He spoke, voice like ice: “Twenty-three hours. Use them to say your goodbyes, for the only healer able to heal this curse is… how did dear Asantra put it?” He looked up as if trying to remember something, but a corner of his lips rose up playfully. “Oh yes, dead.” He laughed, and it was a bitter laugh.
The moment the warlock’s hand left Ragan’s skin, his body collapsed to the ground. He gasped for the air he’d been denied.
“Farewell, people of Ifhedde,” the Sinhail said.
“Curse..?” Ragan asked. “You couldn’t have cursed me by a mere touch. It’s physically impossible!”
The nightmare in white did not reply. Instead he turned towards his amecycle, followed by the frightened gazes of people peeking from behind the window blinds.
Soon, the whirring of the vehicles died in the distance.
They were gone, as quickly as they’d come.
“Thank gods.” Ragan heard a quiet, wistful whisper from one of the elder villagers. He wasn’t even sure whose voice it was. All sounds seemed muffled and distant. “Thank gods, he chose to be merciful. Thank gods he chose to just kill you.”
And white, white was the color of purity and prevailing hope.
That is, until He’d come.
In the world post Madram Quor Efiere, redefined by the Sinhail, where a man’s soul – once eternal – could be broken to bits, white had changed its meaning like no other color could.
In this age, so perversely named the New Amazing Nightmare, white had become the color of Fear.