Dominion of Darkness by deleyna | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Awakening

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Nian

Nian hated climbing this mountain. The old wizard pulled his flowing cape closer against the cold and tied his horse to a tree. He cursed the Shadows for choosing such a remote spot for his wife’s tomb.

With a deep sigh that was more a growl, Nian tackled the long climb. He hadn’t needed a lantern on this trail for years, having become so accustomed to walking it in darkness that it held little danger for him. Besides, no cliff could inflict near the damage his own shortsightedness had caused.

By the Light! When had this trail become so long? It hadn’t seemed so far when he was young and in love. He’d bounded up the mountain then, unfazed by the pre-dawn cold. He’d come often at first, over forty years ago. Hopeful, until he learned that the enchantment could only be broken by the first Light of spring. Then the grueling hike became soul wrenching, with nothing but despair awaiting him at the summit. Now he trudged up the side of the mountain just before dawn on the bitter last night of winter.

He paused against a tree to catch his breath and watched his exhale turn to mist and drift away to nothingness. Someday soon, maybe the Master would allow him the same escape.

He’d been such a fool in his youth, oblivious to the tortures of time. The enchantment had seemed the perfect escape. Asleep together in the tomb, they would have become nothing more than a tragic tale. Two lovers buried on their wedding day. All would believe they’d taken their lives to avoid the King’s rule.

When they awakened, they would have fled to the northern kingdom where their past could not follow. They would have been free to build a new life together.

The mountain cave should have been the first point on their journey to freedom, not an endless prison for his love.

Fool that he’d been, Nian hadn’t imagined he would awaken before Elainya. Hadn’t imagined growing old without her. Hadn’t imagined being sent to betray her.

He hadn’t imagined the consequences of trusting a demon.

The Shadow Lord had played on Nian’s naive passion and trapped them both. Elainya in her endless sleep, Nian in a life of servitude. Would this never end?

The horizon showed the faintest tinge of the rapidly approaching dawn. A bird greeted the light with a song until it sensed his approach and flew away with a chirp of fear.

Nian forced himself to walk faster, although he couldn’t fathom why. This dawn would be just like all the others he’d spent in the cave over the years — years when love and longing had powered his steps. Duty dragged him to watch over her, but duty had been replaced by dread.

Now he came only because he had no choice.

The wind moaned in the valley below, giving voice to his unspoken dread.

He was old — too old to be chasing after maidens, bewitching or bewitched. And she was young, beautifully young — too young to want the old man he’d become.

A faint light crept over the eastern mountains just as he reached the cave. He pushed through the overhanging brambles, pulled the vines aside, and allowed the first Light of spring into the cave. Elainya was still there, of course, as was the latest in the succession of her feline guardians, this one little more than a furry kitten.

Elainya had not changed since she was placed here over eighty years ago. Nian stood next to the slab and allowed himself a moment to dream of what their lives could have been like. Frozen in her last moment of purity, she was an unchanging reminder of what he’d lost, the embodiment of youthful stupidity, innocence, and ignorance. Impetuous. Rash. Elainya represented all that he had come to abhor.

The Light skittered along the floor, causing spiders and mice to run deeper into the shadows. Nian glanced down at the ray. Just like it had on each one of the more than forty occasions he’d witnessed this moment, the Light would note her waiting presence and then move on down the mountain to work its magic elsewhere, abandoning Nian to his regret.

Today, however, the Light hesitated … lingered. It seemed almost playful. As if it intended to stay.

The cave began to pulse with warmth, and Nian stepped into the shadows to watch the ray gather strength, afraid even to hope. The Light wavered over an empty stone slab, highlighting tiny particles of dust dancing to the echoes of music long silenced. Nian recognized the song the musicians had been playing down the hall when he had cast the spell. His wedding song. His wedding gift to his wife.

The presence within the sunbeam focused on him, and his pulse quickened. He knew what the Shadow Lord would do to someone he hated. How would the Light respond?

He drew a ragged breath. “I am here as the Shadow Lord’s representative,” he said. My right. My duty.

Accepting his presence, the Light moved on to the slab where Elainya lay.

Its glow passed through her long white veil and caressed the delicate curves of her body. She was gowned in fine white linen with golden filaments that entranced the Light.

This was … new.

The ray raced along the flowing gown, pausing on the jewel set into the hilt of a knife hung at her side. The sapphire was so deep that the Light disappeared briefly and then pulled itself away.

Nian watched, transfixed, stunned by the sheer power. The Light wove its way up her gown to the pale hands crossed over her heart.

Here it paused again. The wedding ring had taken him months of work, carefully forging the gold to hold the two stones: a blue sapphire for Elainya, and a blood-red ruby for himself. The Light shunned the ruby and danced within the sapphire.

The ray flickered on the gilt embroidery of her bodice and traced a gold ribbon woven into her long, brown braid. The veil could not hide Elainya’s beauty. Nian barely dared to breathe.

The Light was fighting against the spell. Bringing her back to life.

The cave was full of Light now, shoving aside the shadows that had held Elainya captive for eighty years. “Finally, she is ours,” the shadows seemed to whisper. “Ours!”

The veil over her face stirred. A finger twitched.

An icy shiver trembled through him. This was Light magic, pure magic, more powerful than anything he could summon.

Soon his master would possess that power. Elainya would awaken at last.

Elainya.

He looked down at the age-lined hand he’d unconsciously lifted toward her body. She expected to wake to the embrace of her lover. Instead, she would shrink from the scratch of a stranger’s grizzled beard, the gnarled fingers. The enshrouding shadows that owned his soul.

Her husband was dead, devoured by the curse of time.

He felt the familiar shadow’s presence beside him but did not turn. For this moment, Elainya was a creature of Light. In his master’s presence, he dared not acknowledge the beauty he saw before him. She seemed frail and young and innocent — too innocent for what lay ahead.

And he couldn’t save her.

The Shadow Lord had come, and the woman he had once loved was waking. Nian had to play his part.

Color returned to her lips. Her eyes opened with a piercing blue glow that reminded him of the gems she wore. Elainya’s eyes widened and the ray vanished.

Only a dim haze remained in the cave. Nian stepped to her side and gently removed the dust-laden veil that had enshrouded her. He longed to touch her, but he didn’t dare, lest she feel the darkness within him. He stepped back, leaving her to struggle upright on her own.

The shadows massed and swirled, reclaiming the cave, and filling it with laughter that rang like thousands of calling gulls. Nian cringed and took another step backwards.

This would not do. He was the Shadow Lord’s representative. He was here to greet Elainya on behalf of his master, not to fear her. She wasn’t even aware of who she was yet.

As the laughter intensified, she began to cry. The sight of her tears gave him the strength he lacked.

Nian stepped out of the shadows, with all of the power of the Shadow Lord drawn about him like the black cape he wore. “Be silent!” he ordered, and the laughter ceased. He inclined his head slightly in her direction. “I apologize, my dear. They have no manners.”

The slight tremble in her shoulders claimed his attention until his eyes met hers.

“Thank you.” Her voice was a dry whisper, weak from ages of silence.

Why hadn’t he thought to bring her some water? He fumbled with the flask on his belt and held it for her to take a sip.

She choked on the potent spirits. “I’m a Draska. I can’t drink that.”

“I have nothing else to offer you. It isn’t poison.” He took a long drink, grateful for the strength that warmed his blood. “I am also Draska.”

She looked him over from his gray hair to the gnarled hands that returned the flask to its carrying pouch. He saw the echoes of Light magic sparkle and die in those twin sapphires. She stared at his face for a long moment. “I do not know you.”

He wiped a drop of ale from his lips.

“You would not. You’ve been asleep for a long time. I come from the North, from Solitude. My name is Nian. I have been sent by the Shadow Lord to greet you and welcome you to your new life.”

She looked at her surroundings and found herself nose to nose with a spider that hung from the ceiling. With a squeak, she jerked away and fell off the bier to land in a heap of rumpled finery on the floor.

Nian frowned. He was not handling this well. Of course, the girl would be disoriented. Probably in pain as well, but as a healer, she’d be able to mask that.

He stepped to her aid. “Let me help you up, Elainya.”

“No. I’m fine. Just startled.” She refused the hand he offered and pulled herself up, using the marble slab for balance. The tactile contact with the real world seemed to strengthen her.

She focused on him and then swept the room with her gaze. For a moment, her eyes closed. When they opened, she stared with determination at the other bier. Her movements were stiff, but her gaze never left her goal as she staggered across the cave. She placed her hands on the stone, and all hope that the greeting would go smoothly vanished.

“Dren. Where is Dren?” She reacted as if the stone had burned her. She traced a line in the deep dust that covered the slab.

“Drenil will never be far from you. Right now, you need food and rest. There will be plenty of time to answer your questions. If you will come with me, I will explain everything.”

“No. You’ll explain now.”

At that moment, the gray kitten placed itself between her feet and faced Nian with a spit and a hiss, every inch of fur standing straight out from its body. He looked from the snarling kitten to the willful young woman and suppressed a laugh. “You will not give me orders, girl.”

“You come from the Shadow Lord, you said?”

“My master, and now yours as well.”

“I am no one’s servant.”

“You met only once, long ago. You may remember a traveler that came to the castle shortly before your wedding. He assisted in your escape.”

He would have sworn she could not be any paler than when she lay sleeping, but now the blood drained from her face and she collapsed against the marble. Her voice was weak, barely reaching his ears. “Lord Fenshad was the Shadow Lord?”

As if conjured by her naming, the shadows in the room swirled and took corporeal form. Nian stepped back, gladly surrendering the meeting to his master.

He hadn’t felt like such an inept since his own first meeting with the master. Remembering that meeting, his eyes took in the girl’s proud stance, and fear clutched at his heart. She would show proper deference, wouldn’t she?

Nian hadn’t. He’d had no idea of the torture the master could invoke with only a twist of his sadistic lips.

The Shadow Lord never aged, having no actual body. Nian had seen him use this favored appearance to enchant women over the years: handsome, eyes dark and deceptively kind. But those black circles of mystery had no effect on Elainya at that moment.

“Where is my husband?” She stepped toward the master as if she could be a threat to him.

The cave walls rumbled ominously, causing a shower of dirt to fall near the entrance.

Nian badly wanted to be elsewhere. He couldn’t just stand by and watch, though. “My lord, she’s very young.”

“Not too young to show respect,” the master growled.

“She has not regained her wits. Please, my lord, let me take her to Aurora. I’ll explain everything to her there. Give her time, and she will honor you for the gifts you have bestowed.” He was sweating, the effort of confronting the master draining him more than the long early-morning hike.

The kitten leapt onto the slab and crouched behind the girl.

Elainya gathered the kitten to her chest, tucking its head under her chin.

The shaking of the cave stopped and the Shadow Lord turned to scrutinize Nian. For a moment, the master was silent. An echo of the pain of his own waking brushed the corners of Nian’s mind. He prepared himself for the torment and was startled when the master withdrew.

“Nian, you are a sentimental old fool. Still, you have served me well and ask very little. I will grant you the” — he paused and spread his hands in mock graciousness — “kindness you request. But get your apprentice under control before my generosity is exhausted.” The master’s tone was amused. Playful. Feral.

Nian bowed. “Thank you, my lord. I will not fail you.”

With a swirl of shadow and leaves, the body of the master dissolved, but his presence still ruled the cave.

Nian took a moment to focus his thoughts.

Elainya glared at him in a silence he doubted would last very long. She held the squirming kitten close, its frantic struggles to escape a contrast to her stillness.

“Come outside.” Nian left the dank cave and breathed deeply of the clean air.

Elainya followed, her movements stiff. “Why do I feel like I should be grateful?”

“Because you’re a young fool who was just spared an extremely painful lesson. Never question the master.”

She set the kitten down and it bounded into the forest. He watched the girl take in her surroundings. There was a desperation to her searching that touched his heart. Of course she would be looking for Drenil. How Dren had wanted to be here!

They stood on an outcropping, with the entire world seemingly spread before them. His eyes followed a distant bird as it searched for easy prey. “I knew him, long ago. Drenil was a brave man. He saved my life.”

“Was?”

In the brief silence that followed, Nian was sure he could count her heartbeats. Two, three. Four. “Drenil died over forty years ago, Elainya.”

She fell as if invisible strings holding her upright had suddenly been cut. She wrapped her arms around her knees and trembled, silent only for a moment. “No!” she screamed. “I don’t believe you.” The circling bird darted upward and flew to quieter hunting.

“I’m sorry. He asked me to watch for your wakening, and I have been here faithfully ever since.”

“We were married in the Draska tradition. I’m a healer. I know about the linking of souls. He can’t be dead, because I am alive.”

“The Shadow Lord was present at your wedding, presided over your linking. Even though you didn’t know who he was at the time, nevertheless his presence controlled the outcome.” Her eyes were unfocused, her breath coming in short, shallow gasps. “You were entranced when Drenil died.”

Elainya drifted back to the present, nailing him with a stony gaze. “Thus you escaped sharing his death,” he lied.

“I can remedy that,” she said. She drew her knife faster than he would have thought possible.

The Shadow Lord’s spell immobilized her. Nian could see her muscles straining to complete the killing stroke she’d intended, but the master’s power was something she could not escape.

Nian knelt down in front of her, grateful that the master felt no need to do more than demonstrate her weakness. He gently took the knife from the girl’s hand.

“No, you can’t. You made a bargain. The Shadow Lord would provide you with a new life, in exchange for your service.”

“I made that bargain with a traveler. He would get us to safety and then we would help him with a land deal he was working on. That was all.” Her tone reminded Nian of a lynx he had once trapped in a canyon during a hunt. Not a safe animal to turn his back on, even if he was a Draska.

“It’s time to help, but first you must learn to show the master proper respect.” He transferred her knife to his left hand and looked into the depths of her eyes, willing his words to reach deep into her soul. “You cannot fight him, Elainya. Service can be a blessing. He has given you great gifts you do not even know of yet. He asks little, but you must not defy him. Do you understand?”

He tried to project a sense of danger into her mind but found her thoughts too full of confusion for clarity. She wasn’t rational.

By the Light, he hoped the spell hadn’t left her damaged permanently. He gripped her shoulder hard enough to leave a bruise and forced her to meet his gaze. Forced her to see the meaning of the words he didn’t dare speak aloud. “Elainya, do you understand?” he asked.

“Yes,” she whispered. He felt the master release his hold on the girl, and she lowered her hands.

“Good. We will go to Aurora, then, so I can see to your training.” His worn-out knees trembled as he stood, and he reached toward the rock face for support.

In his moment of instability, Elainya stood and dashed into the forest, leaving him alone on the ridge, holding her knife, feeling like a fool. The master took form beside him. He gazed after the girl like a starving raptor.

“My lord, forgive me.”

The Shadow Lord laughed and the shadows danced around him. “Nothing to forgive, Nian. Leave her to me for now. I want to let her get this rebellion out of her system. I’ll enjoy teaching her that obedience is the smart path. Go back to your duties. She’ll return to your side as surely as day follows night.”

Nian bowed and headed back down the mountain. If he were lucky, Elainya would fall off a cliff. An accidental death would be a kindness.

Elainya

There is no pain in freezing, only in thawing.

My body ached and throbbed, at last forcing me to stop my headlong rush into the woods.

Drenil was dead.

The thought echoed through my heart, threatened to overwhelm me. I’d been allowed to escape. The demon would be watching. Observing. Waiting. This was not the time for mourning. I blinked the tears away.

There was a bend in the path, giving me an unhindered view across the valley and up the mountain to where the castle stood in the distance. The once-familiar view was breathtaking. The castle still dominated the golden dawn, the sharp-edged stonework in better repair than I remembered. The eastern watchtower was new, added in the years I’d lost. Where the pass opened out further down the mountain, the town had grown. New walls added another layer of fortification. Why add walls in a land renowned for peace?

The air smelled of cold night rains and earth ripped from its winter slumber by eager farmers. It was spring. Above everything, Sun’s Apex shone with first light, reflected off its untouchable snow-covered peaks.

The kitten I’d seen earlier in the cave crept out of the bushes. I picked it up and ruffled its silky fur. It looked almost like the companion cat I’d kept with me at the castle, only this one was much younger, its mental voice not developed yet. I sensed excitement and playfulness as its tiny blue eyes met mine.

I looked southward for the morning fires of Aurora, but saw only the ancient Draska forests. I longed to fall into my mother’s arms and let her stroke the pain away, but she had been dead for many years. How many, I had no way to know.

Her death had left the opening that I had filled in the King’s court. At least she had not witnessed what a fool I’d been.

For the briefest moment as I wrestled with the Shadow Lord’s spell, I thought I’d felt Dren’s touch. That brief contact with Dren was a comfort, as thready as the terrified beating of my heart. Now it was gone, sealed off behind walls of stone.

I took a deep breath and let the fear wash over and past me. Useless distraction. At least I remembered that much of my training.

I petted the kitten and my ring sparkled, the ruby glowing still with the warmth of a vow. I caressed this small piece of my past’s puzzle before taking a hesitant step. Somewhere, Drenil was alive. I had to believe that. Maybe everything the wizard had said was a lie.

The Lord of Darkness wanted me to go to Aurora in obedience. So that was the one place I could not go. I’d fled the castle yesterday and years ago. I could seek shelter at the castle. The Shadow Lord would not expect me to return there.

There had to be a way out of this bargain. If not, then I would just have to arrange a convenient death.

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