The Ruins of Githal – Year 1464
Dust and brick.
All around, destruction stretched as far as the eye could see.
Three weeks ago, Githal was a glorious citadel that took up a third of the western region, now it was laid to ruin. Buildings lay torn upon the ground, the dark coverings of banners and awnings were now reduced to streaks of ripped fabric. Remnants of broken wood and stones were scattered about the area. The grass, once endless and green, now revealed the rocky dirt beneath it.
Ashlyn walked through what seemed like a desert. A pestering wind kicked up the dust and sent it flying in violent swirls, so she wrapped her shawl around her face to keep the sand out. She moved against the wind, her white mage's robes flailing and fluttering.
"Ashlyn, come back here!" The voice of her mentor echoed. "We need you to tend to the wounded!"
Annael meant well, but from her place she wasn't able to see what Ashlyn was chasing. In the distance there was a dark figure amidst a hot haze, too small to make out. Perhaps it was just a displaced structure, but the chances of that were hard to accept. Most of the fallen structures were closer to the ruins.
But this? This object laid on its own, far away from the destruction site. Ashlyn reasoned it could be a person.
When she came to it, she found that the mysterious figure was indeed a person, a human boy lying unconscious on the scorched ground. His head was bald and his body seemed to have taken massive damage in the siege. Dark streaks made the veins along his arms, legs, and chest seem poisoned. Ashlyn could tell he had been affected by some form of magic, though, she had never seen or studied a genre like this. A few impact wounds had disfigured the boy’s torso and ribs, making him that much more grotesque to look at. For moments, she feared she gazed upon a corpse, but the faint movement in his chest told her otherwise.
"Ah!" Panicking, Ashlyn knelt down beside the victim and pulled out one of her healing vials. She poured a few drops into the boy's mouth and waited. There was no quick response, save for the easing of his breath. She leaned in close to his ear. "Can you hear me? Wake up, will you? We need to get you to a healing tent."
But the boy did not wake at the sound of her voice. After giving it several more moments, Ashlyn decided to report what she had found to her overseers. She ran back to her campsite, calling to Annael.
"I found someone!" she shouted, pointing to the emptiness outside the ruins. "He's in bad condition!"
Annael turned to her young, thirteen-year-old pupil. At the moment, she was tending to another victim laying on a cot. The tent was already full of injured victims: native men, women, and children who had been affected by the siege upon their home.
"Is it an Ithunil?" Annael asked.
"I think so," Ashlyn replied, "but I can't carry him by myself."
"Very well." Annael nodded, signaling to her other volunteers. "Find a place for a newcomer, we'll see what can be done."
Once the boy was placed on a recovery cot, Ashlyn helped as Annael and the other healers worked on him. Hours went by, and no one came forward to claim the boy. It was as Ashlyn feared; the boy was alone in the world. Despite how injured and unconscious he was, Ashlyn could feel the dark aura that entrapped him. He had no one, she could sense it.
Though there were other patients that needed tending to, Ashlyn felt compelled to stay by the boy's side. He appeared to be young, perhaps no older than thirteen. Many Ithunil survivors had been ripped from their families, including innocent children like this stranger. Ashlyn tried to imagine what it was like to lose everything in a single day.
Where would the survivors go? Where would the orphans end up?
She feared for when the boy woke, for the moment he realized his life was now an empty one. Perhaps it would be better if he passed quietly in his sleep rather than face the life that now encroached him.
Late into the evening, Annael approached Ashlyn who had long since fallen asleep near the boy's cot. The stars glittered in the sky above Githal—one for each lost soul.
"Ashlyn?" Annael stirred her young apprentice.
When Ashlyn opened her eyes, she blinked at her mentor, a kind elven mage with dark hair and hazel eyes.
"What is it?" The girl yawned.
"The boy is stable for now. He seemed to have taken a fatal amount of magic damage, and yet he is alive." Annael came closer and bent to Ashlyn's level. "Tell me the truth now: did you touch him?"
"No," Ashlyn shook her head, "I—I gave him a potion but I was gentle."
"You would do well to stay away from him until his body is back in alignment. I won't have you toying around with the bazjur."
"Ashlyn..." The elf sighed while sitting down. "I hoped you would learn of this when you were older. The magic I have taught you is pure and untainted, but there is a rare form of blood magic that corrupts our world. We call it the bazjur. The dark elves find no shame in wielding it; in fact, I am beginning to understand precisely how King Baldemar managed to destroy Githal to begin with. A warrior people such as the Ithunil could not have been overpowered so quickly without great magical aid."
"He used the bazjur against them," Ashlyn understood.
"I believe so. This boy you found...he is not in a viable condition. I suspect he might have been too close to the center of the attack. I feel the need to warn you: our efforts to help him are good, but he may not survive for much longer. That much exposure to the bazjur is fatal for most any creature."
Ashlyn bent her chin forward. "I understand."
It was not the news she had hoped to hear, but she couldn't bring herself to let the boy die alone. Nameless. Even now he was so weak and vulnerable. Staring at him, Ashlyn could feel the torment within the boy's soul, such anger and fear.
If he ever did wake, he would need someone to calm his soul. And Ashlyn was quite adept at that.
Lorianthil – The City of Tauros
The boy woke up in a white recovery bed. Above him, a ceiling made of flat marble slowly came into focus. Light streamed through a glass window beside him.
“Agh.” He shielded his eyes, not used to being in such well-lit surroundings. It hurt his ribs to sit up, but he needed proof that he was alive; he needed proof this was not a dream.
He did not see the girl sitting to his left. Her voice made him jump.
“It’s alright,” the soothing, feminine voice said. The boy sensed this stranger’s hand reaching out for him, and he flinched.
“Don’t touch me!” he whimpered. “What have I done?”
“Nothing,” the girl assured him. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Where am I? What am I doing here?”
“We—we found you outside the ruins, brought you to Tauros so you could make a better recovery. Will you not even look at me?”
The boy hesitated. His eyes were still adjusting to the brightness, but he was curious to know this person who now spoke to him. Touched his shoulder. He let down his guard and took in the sight of a young girl—probably about his age—with silky brown hair clamped into a braided bun. Her eyes were a piercing golden-brown and her face held a universe of warm beauty. Never had he seen such a face; ripe with innocence. Not only was the girl gentle-looking and lovely, she wore a well-made dress and gold earrings that tasseled down the sides of her cheeks. She was probably a high-born.
A handful of questions struck the boy’s mind but the one he voiced was, “Who are you?”
“I’m Ashlyn,” she answered, leaning in to get a better look, but just as she leaned forward, the boy angled himself backward. He had never been so close to another human before, let alone a female. The way she scanned him was uncomfortable, as though she looked beyond flesh and peered into his very being. He probably seemed like a monstrous creature to her: pale, scrawny, underfed. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Damien.” He paused, felt his own breath catching. “Are…you going to take me back?”
“Back to Githal? No. There’s nothing to go back to.” Ashlyn adjusted in her seat. “Do you have a family, Damien? Anyone who survived the attack? Perhaps we could escort you to them.”
“Family,” he scoffed. “I don’t have any family.”
“That’s what I feared.” She sighed, and she seemed genuinely sad to hear it.
Damien would have taken time to explain more, but he became lost in his own mind while glancing out the window. There was no way this was real. Any moment, Baldemar would appear and dispel this clever illusion. This place…this girl…it was all too lovely to be true.
Moments passed, and soon the girl spoke again, drawing Damien back to face her.
“What are you looking at?”
Damien tapped the glass of his window. So solid, so convincing. If his captors expected him to play along then he would. “You said you found me in Githal?” He grinned. “What was I supposedly doing there?”
“You—you don’t remember?”
He shook his head, taking a moment to scan his new surroundings. It appeared he was in an infirmary of some sort. The area was lined with beds on each side of the aisle, the place beamed with natural light. It was nothing of the dark chamber Damien had grown accustomed to.
“The last thing I remember is being in my room as usual. Not like I can just get up and leave.”
Ashlyn tilted her head, confused.
“Ëolnir?” Damien prompted. “If you’re saying I somehow escaped, then you must be crazy.”
“You’re not in Ëolnir anymore,” she told him. “You’re in a safe place.”
“Am I?” he winced. “Like I can believe anything you say. This is a trick, an illusion.”
“It’s not,” she assured him. “You came very close to death and we rescued you. I’m glad you’re finally awake, I’ve been wanting to see your eyes, hear your voice.”
Damien stared at her, unconvinced. If it were true, that would mean he really did escape his prison and simply had no memory of the feat. “Wait.” He rubbed his chin, his cheeks, his forehead. There was a small chance it was real. But why couldn’t he remember?
“You mean to tell me this isn’t an illusion he’s pulled over my eyes?” Damien scanned the girl’s features some more. Her skin was more pink than his, but her hair was much like his own: a dark brunette. Damien lowered his head, folded his weak arms. “Or maybe it is. Maybe he just wants me to feel safe for the time being.”
Ashlyn squinted. “Who wants you to feel safe?”
The name seemed to make her freeze in terror, like it often did to outsiders.
“As in…King Baldemar?”
Damien nodded. “Maybe he’s come up with a new way to torment me. You are very pretty.”
“This is no trick, I promise you,” she said. “Right now you’re in Tauros, far away from Ëolnir. Baldemar cannot touch you, not if I have something to say about it.”
Hearing that, Damien relaxed against his headboard and rested his hands on his stomach. Looking down, he noticed the dark-colored veins along his bare chest and arms. His magic scars were often easy to ignore, but seeing them now, how severe they were, he had to wonder just what amount of strain his body had been pushed to. Ashlyn seemed to be struck by the scars also. She stared as if she understood what Damien was thinking in that very moment.
“Are you still in pain?” she asked.
Damien looked away. “I’m used to it.”
“I take it you can somehow withstand fatal amounts of the bazjur?”
“Sorry. Dark magic. It seems you’re stronger against it than most humans. That’s very interesting.”
“Oh.” He dipped his head. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Which is why you survived. You’re a lucky one, Damien.”
“No, I’m definitely not. My life is…my life is horrible.”
Ashlyn reached out, making him flinch and put his guard up. He decided the girl was not a threat, but that didn’t mean he had to like her.
“You are not going back there,” she said. “You realize that? You might be an orphan, but at least you’re free. We can take you anywhere you wish to go, just name it.”
“You keep saying ‘we’…?”
“The mages and I. Once Annael says you’re fit to travel—"
“You’re a mage?” He interrupted, not caring for Ashlyn’s giddy demeanor.
“What, are you scared of mages?”
“Yes. Most mages just try to hurt me—or worse.”
“I’m not here to hurt you.” She offered him a kind smile, one that made Damien sink even more onto his feathered pillow.
“Ohhh, just go away,” he said, watching as Ashlyn brushed off his sourness and got to her feet.
“Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
As if he were going to wait anywhere else. He could barely move!
When the girl was gone, Damien stared at the doorway longer than he deemed necessary. For whatever reason, he was content to obey her wish.