The evening sun waned and the sky slowly faded from bright orange to misty purple and finally to sullen blue. Gentle shadows began protruding from the corners of the uneven brick streets as dusk fell over the town. The evening air carried the sound of the waves lapping the shore at the feet of the surrounding hills. The villagers headed for their homes, their families, and the end of another day. Though it was a lovely evening, none were daring enough to dawdle. The townsfolk greeted each other as they passed, exchanging smiles and goodnights, but they did not stop to talk with one another. The ocean breeze blew in from the bottom of the town, guiding them safely on their way. It was Sunday, and that meant heading straight home.
The town of Acta overlooked the Sea of Silentium, also called The Deepening by the townspeople. The beach they called Starside. The sea was a rich dark blue, deep and quiet. There was no trade or commerce across this sea, for no one knew what lay on the other side. No one had ever come from across the sea, and no one had braved a voyage to reach the other side. The fishermen never sailed far from shore. The old men of the town told of unusual things that rested in the heart of The Deepening, and many sailors who had been blown a little ways out to sea had returned with accounts of things they could not be sure they had seen, telling their tales with whispers of awe. But the people of Acta did not fear the sea. On the contrary, they were proud of their quiet lives, of the sea that was theirs, and of their secluded city.
As the last light of day disappeared, the townsfolk marched through their houses, firmly closing the shutters against the windows. All flames and candles were extinguished except for a small fire in each hearth, which was all the light they dared use after sunset. The fathers quietly locked the doors, jiggling the handles to make sure they were shut fast and secure. Then all the families gathered round their fires, perhaps putting a small kettle on a hook above the fireplace to make a few cups of tea. Some took turns reading out of old, worn books. Some talked in soft conversation or hummed quietly to themselves. Some listened as fathers or grandfathers told stories to the children of when they themselves were young. No one ventured out for the rest of the night, and everyone was home by the time the sun sank behind the hills.
Everyone except Orian Lionheart.
Acta was built in a sloping valley between two hills, and its cascade of stone structures descended in terraces from the top of the ridge down to the shoreline. The crests of each hill were marked with identical towers which were built of the same grey marbled stone that the rest of the city was made from. The terraces were split by the white cobbled stones of the main avenue which was called Moontide, after the way the moonlight slowly spread down the avenue as it crested the hill and rose into the starry sky.
It was down the street called Moontide that Orian Lionheart was frantically running, doing his best not to lose his footing and go rolling down the slope. Orian had twelve years, a wild curiosity, and a careless disdain for rules. This particular night he had tarried too long around the eastern tower, watching the sunset behind the hills and letting daydreams of other places take his mind away. He had completely forgotten it was Sunday.
Orian rounded the corner onto his street at speed, almost slipping on a patch of loose rocks. He reached up to brush his black hair out of his eyes, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He sprinted toward his house, knowing he was likely running to certain doom in the form of his mother’s wrath. He was not surprised to see the door of his house standing wide open and her tall figure standing in the doorway. Her hands were on her hips and a scowl was on her face. Orian could feel her gaze burning into him as he ran the final few steps to the doorway and slipped past her into the house. His father, who was sitting in his chair by the fireplace, glanced up as Orian entered.
“See Aevum?” he said. “I told ye he’d be here soon.” His father gave Orian a subtle wink as he plopped down in front of the fire, trying to catch his breath.
“This happens almost every week, Darius,” Aevum said as she closed the door behind her.
“And every week he’s here on time.” Darius smiled down at his son. From the way his grandfather had talked about Darius, Orian guessed he had inherited his wild nature from his father.
“Do ye want some tea?” Orian looked up into the eyes of his mother. Even though her face was frowning, it couldn’t hide the smile in her eyes.
“Yes, mum,” said Orian, smiling back.
The sun sank behind the ridge of Acta, and the town was shrouded in darkness. Not a sound could be heard from one house to the next. No light could be seen, the fires in the hearths kept low and dim. Windows were shuttered, doors were locked.
Sunday nights. They always came on Sunday nights. Every week it was the same. They came with the regularity of the tide, the consistency of the moon. They had come for as long as Orian could remember, as long as his father could remember. From where they came and why, not a soul could tell.
Orian sat on the wood floor underneath a shuttered window with his back to the wall. He stared into the glowing red embers of the fire under the mantle, absent-mindedly curling his black hair around one of his fingers. His cup of tea sat beside him, almost empty. In between wandering thoughts, his ears caught snippets of what his father was reading, a book of ancient poems that had been in the family for generations. The words were lyrical and almost magical, and Orian could feel his eyelids getting heavier, drooping down until only the soft blur of the fire could get through. All was silence.
There was a nearly imperceptible skip in the rhythm of his father’s voice as a single distant note gently pierced the silence of the world outside. It was a strangely high, infinitely soft note, sounding forth as though it was calling through the fold of the next world and into this one, beckoning to those who would listen.
“Come away from the window, Orian, dear,” his mother said quietly from across the room. But Orian hadn’t heard her. Instead, he twisted around, kneeling in front of the window. The cool night air was seeping through the cracks in the shutters, and Orian could just see the moonlit street through them. He held his breath, straining his ears. The note continued, shifting, phasing in, flowing on. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. Orian waited, listening for what seemed like eternity, his fingers resting upon the cold stone windowsill, squinting through the narrow slits of the shutters. The note drew on, becoming softer and gentler until it faded from his ears.
The tension left his body, his heart slowed, and his breath came again. Every week it was the same. Nothing changed. They came and they went, and the next morning they were forgotten. By everyone but him. Orian was about to obey his mother and turn away when a shadow emerged, falling against the wall across the street. His nerves jumped as he watched the shadow glide gracefully across the stone, followed by others.
“Orian...” he heard his mother whisper.
Suddenly a dark figure came into view. It passed, followed by another, and another, each one casting the same long shadow across Orian’s eyes. All he could see were their silhouettes. They were tall, dark shapes, draped in wispy, smoky robes. They continued to pass until Orian lost count. There could be heard no footsteps against the cracked and crumbled brick of the streets, no whisper of voices among them, no hiss of garments dragging the ground. There was only the alternating glow of moonlight and shadow as their silent procession passed down the street.
“Orian,” his mother said again, more urgently.
“Let him be, Aevum,” Darius said to her quietly.
Orian was transfixed as the figures passed by. He had always wondered what they were, why they came. But he never saw more than shapes and shadows, silhouettes and silence. He watched their amorphous robes, their hooded heads pass by, one by one, the identical repetition of light and shadow playing on and on before his eyes.
Then there was a shift in the light, the shape of one of the shadows changed in an instant, and suddenly one figure was staring straight into Orian’s eyes. The silhouette had barely changed. It was still just darkness and moonlight. But now, where there had been only a dark oval for a head, a pair of glowing red spots burned out at Orian.
He gasped and fell back from the window, the blood draining from his face.
He felt strong hands help him up, and he turned to face his father. “Alright, boy?” his father asked softly. Orian nodded. “Mayhaps that’s enough window-gazing for one evening, aye?” His father bent, and picked up Orian’s tea cup, handing it to him.
Orian took it. “Aye, father,” he said.
His mother refilled his cup, giving him a small kiss on the cheek. “Off to bed with ye, now,” she said firmly.
Orian padded softly up the wooden stairs, one or two creaking as he went. He set his tea on the bedside table, forgotten, and walked to the window overlooking the street below. Through the cracks of the shutters he could see that the procession had gone, passed away down the lonely street.
Perhaps it was the absence of them that made his mind up for him, or the emptiness of the streets. He paused for a single moment, the cogs of his mind in motion. Then before he knew what he was doing, he opened the shutters wide, letting the night breeze blow in.
He knew his mother would worry herself to death. He knew his father would search the city high and low for him. He knew no one had ever tried this before. But he also knew he had to do this. He had to.
Knowing how much it would hurt his parents if he left without word, he scribbled a brief note on a piece of parchment and placed it on his bed:
Dear Mum and Papa,
I have to go.
I have to find out what they are.
I know I have to.
I promise I’ll return.
I can’t keep wondering for the rest of my life...
My Deepest Love,
He didn’t know what else to write. He had no idea where he was going, or where he would end up. And though he had already made the promise, he knew it was a promise he couldn’t be certain of keeping. But what was done was done. It seemed to Orian that he was in the midst of one of the stories from his father’s books. Like he was part of a story that had already been written. And once ink has been set to paper, it cannot be unwritten. His path was set before him. So without looking back, Orian swung his legs over the stone sill of the window and stepped out into the wild night.