1 – A Dead Man’s Visit

The dead man pinned to the door of my family’s small home sent my mother wailing. The spear going through his chest was as strange as his wide eyes, pupils so wide that I couldn’t tell what color his irises were. The Devil, a man whose name the village elders refused to say, had been sending minions, dark as shadows, for 2 years, starting when I was 6 years old. But never before had it sent a body.

The Devil’s visits always began with darkness. The whole village, every carriage and horse, every magic-fueled lantern, every door and window would seem to disappear from outside our small cottage. Strange sounds would ring in my ears.

I’d look back to see my father holding my mother, whose eyes showed pure terror as her mind was transported back to a time before I was born, to stories told by her parents and grandparent about a time when Levashka troops, led by the Devil, began their eradication of the Arash people. Back to being a child in a seemingly safe Arash village, suddenly pillaged and burnt to the ground, while the Levashka gloated about the immortality that they were earning. The Arash at the other end of their actions earned rape, humiliation, terror, and death.

My mother’s eyes, thrown violently back to that past, for a moment forgot her resiliency, her multiple escapes, and even the years of general safety she had enjoyed in this remote village of Arash refugees.

My father remembered it all, and yet had not succumbed to fear. As the darkness reached the door of our home, he held on to her as if trying to hold onto her sanity as well.

A long, dark, empty silence followed, then would end with a loud bang against our door. My father would slowly approach the handle and pull the door open, revealing only darkness beyond. Curious, I would sneak after him to see what was happening. Sometimes my mother would trap me in her panicking arms, other times I’d escape her grasp.

Once on the eve of each new season, a shadowed hand would then reach from the darkness outside, pushing a letter into my father’s reluctant grasp. And then it was gone.

This night, over two years since the visits began, the Devil sent a new message, more grim and more demanding. I’d seen a dead body before when one of our elders passed away the year before, but this was different. Not only did this man look incredibly different from the Arash that I was surrounded by, but his face was twisted in horror.

With my mother sobbing and my father still in shock, I inched my way closer, not afraid but instead curious. My father’s hands shook as he reached out to the spear piercing the man’s back and ripped a piece of paper wrapped around the end. He suddenly saw me and slammed the door shut.

He didn’t say anything, didn’t admonish me. He merely looked at me with a furrowed brow before heading to his study. I followed him, evading my mother’s reaching arms.

“Is it from the Devil?” I asked.

“It’s not your concern,” my father replied as he approached his desk.

“Why is it contacting you?”

I already knew the answer, or at least a part of the answer.

“It’s to build that Sanctuary thing for it?” I continued. “Is it because you do magic?”

He was opening drawers in the dresser next to his desk, searching for something specific. When he found it, he held it up to the lamp next to him, a clear jar of special ink that I only remember him using for this purpose.

“I don’t do magic, Danae,” he said. “I’m an architect.”

He was digging through another drawer now, and I knew that he was looking for his special papers, which had been enchanted with protection spells by the town elders.

“But your buildings have magic. Is that why it wants you?”

He found the paper, but sighed deeply before pulling it out. He placed the stack onto his desk and turned to me.

Before answering, he looked down at the paper from the Devil. He tore it into small pieces, spoke quiet words that I recognized as a spell, and threw the pieces into the lantern. Each piece glowed blue, then red, then disintegrated into nothing.

“I’m gifted in weaving spells into architectural designs,” he finally said. “It wants me to use my knowledge to protect it.”

“But it leads the Levashka forces against the Arash.”

He nodded.

“You’ve been dedicating yourself to your study, I see,” he said with a gentle smile. “To agree to this is to doom our people. But to deny it may endanger our entire village.”

“Elder Alon said that we’re protected here because of your design,” I said.

“I hope so,” he replied.

He put a hand on my shoulder and sat down at his desk.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“What I’ve done for 2 years. Continue to stall.”

The elders had no guidance to give my father when they visited the next day, though they did have things to say. The body was gone when we awoke, replaced with dark black ash that the elders had gathered around to inspect.

“The ash of war,” Elder Shikma said.

I was still yawning in my nightgown, but I wasn’t going to miss out on all the fuss. I wiggled from Mother’s grasp as she tried to brush my hair with one hand and pull a coat over me with the other. I took the coat from her and wriggled it on over my unkempt, wavy curls.

“And you’re sure it was Levashka?” Elder Erez asked.

“Yes, of course,” Father assured them. “Stabbed through the ribs with a spear. His feet dragged the ground when I opened the door. You can still see the drag marks.”

He pointed toward the doorway that I was running out from.

“It was real, yet a vision,” Elder Alon spoke up. “It was carried on the wind.”

They all turned their attention to zir. Elder Alon was the oldest and most respected of the elders. They swore that ze was a child when the war started, though I never believed that ze was over a hundred years old.

“This all began when a man of great economic strength turned to evil,” Elder Alon recited.

It was a story that ze told often. The words varied, but the message never did, and we all believed it as fact, despite it seeming quite ludicrous.

“He lost everything and blamed the Arash people and our magic for the failing power of the prevailing upper class.

“Slowly, he began a war, first against just those Arash who knew magic, then the rest. He called us inferior and renamed the known lands the Levashka Empire.

“The Devil used black ash to mark our homes for death. It was sent as a warning to heed his demands.”

Elder Alon claimed that the Devil was still alive, and believed that it was the one who sent Father the letters. The letters were not signed, so we believed zir.

“Are we still safe here?” Elder Erez asked.

“There’s nowhere else for us to go,” Elder Shikma commented.

I suddenly realized that others from our village had come from their homes and were gathering around. They began murmuring to each other in fear.

“Now, now,” Father said. “Our protections are still holding. I believe that Elder Alon is saying that the Devil has still not found us. The ash followed the wind to us.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Elder Alon confirmed. “It’s not magic, but a more elementary principle of Nature that was used to attract the ash to your home.”

I had no idea what this meant, and looking around, it didn’t seem like anyone else did either. But as always, that didn’t stop Elder Alon from continuing.

“The Devil is not human, has no physical connection to our world. He is a demon inhabiting a vessel, using godly powers that he chooses to hide.”

Ze stomped a foot into the ash.

“Begone, foul beast! Your time in this world was never meant to be.”

I crossed my arms and turned my head away. It was always disconcerting when Elder Alon became like this, although I didn’t understand why at the time.

“You are not welcome in these lands!” ze continued, voice growing louder and stronger. “And someday you will not be welcome in this realm either. Hate cannot be sustained forever, and where will your power come from then?”

Noone stopped zir, but Elder Erez did put a hand to zir shoulder. That was enough to bring zir back to the present moment and go quiet.

“Disperse the ash,” Elder Shikma said. “Send it back into the wind.”

“Let this be a reminder of the importance of your lessons,” Elder Erez said, making eye contact with the few children of the village. I was reminded. Every fiber of me was reminded.

The magic of our village was weak compared to what Arash magic once was, at least that’s what they told us during our lessons. But our parents still taught us to speak and write in the ancient tongue.

My father was especially skilled at teaching, and I always felt that I was somewhat of a favorite of the Elders for how quickly I picked up spells. I lifted my head with pride at how well I kept up with my lessons, but no one acknowledged me, so I crossed my arms back over my chest and stomped back inside, where I was forced to submit to Mother’s hairbrush. She smiled gently and spoke gentle words in stark contrast to the pain of pushing through knots, but I stayed quiet because I could feel that her hands were still trembling from the horror of the night before.

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