Pyralis Wycliff picked halfheartedly at his food. It was good, he supposed. Seasoned vegetables, fresh baked bread, roasted duck, and other dishes were piled on the table, a feast fit for royalty.
Fitting, he acknowledged, since his family was royalty. And annoying, too, for he would give anything not to be.
“Stop fidgeting,” his mother Silvia admonished. She sat rigidly in her seat, chin raised up as if the sensible bun on the back of her head was throwing off the balance of her head’s perch on her neck.
“Sorry,” Pyralis muttered. He looked over at his younger sister Aethia, her long brown hair tied back and posture imitating her mother’s. He sighed. Pyralis could remember playing with her when they were younger, swearing they’d never become as quiet and solemn as their parents. I’d rather go outside the walls than act all ‘proper’, Aethia had giggled. Pyralis smiled sadly at the memory. And now, at sixteen, she was a lady-in-training or whatever they called it. They had no names for the rulers of Esmira; they weren’t called Queen or King, but were just...rulers. They were the Wycliffs, the last of the elves in the city. The people turned to them to lead, for whatever reason.
For a long moment, there was silence at the table, save for the clinking of silverware off of china. Finally, Aethia broke the silence, “Where’s father today?”
“He had some business to attend to,” Silvia answered. After a pause, she glanced over at Pyralis. “In fact, Pyralis, I would have expected you to accompany him. You are to be leaning the ways of the kingdom.”
Pyralis pushed his vegetables around his plate. “I am,” he said. “Just not during dinner.”
His mother gave him a disapproving look. “Problems in Esmira don’t always wait for you to finish your meal.”
He sighed. His mother knew full well that he had absolutely no interest in ruling. Pyralis didn’t want to succeed his father when the time came; he didn’t want to be stuck in a stifling castle, having boring meetings and making boring decisions. Not that the surrounding village held much of interest, but he resisted anyway. “May I be excused?” he asked.
Silvia smiled, probably thinking that he was headed off to help his father. “Of course.”
Pyralis pushed back his plate and stood up, brushing some bread crumbs off of his plain brown tunic, the mark of royalty in Esmira. Brown. How extravagant. Instead of seeking out his father whom he knew was taking care of a dispute between two farmers, Pyralis went for a stroll around the castle walls.
They were tall, so tall they seemed to touch the sky. The stones used to build the walls were rough and gray, the color that seemed to permeate the city. It was as if color had been bled out of Esmira, and they were left with only shades of gray, and a bit of plant life here and there. The villagers’ clothes were a sensible gray, as were all of the buildings. The roads were gray, the horses were gray, and today even the weather was cooperating - the cloud cover casting a gray haze over the sky.
Pyralis sighed. He wasn’t made for this monotonous confinement, he just knew it. He was an elf, a thin, agile hunter with an incredible aptitude for archery. But what was there to hunt within the walls?
As Pyralis walked past the bard, he heard him play a familiar song, one used to warn children against any ideas that might spring into their curious heads. He could remember his nursemaid singing it to him whenever he asked what was outside of the castle walls. “Beauty,” she would answer. “Terrible, cursed beauty.” And then she would sing the song.
Down down, the spiral fades,
falling to the devil.
Trapped by the King of Spades,
Burn with threat’ning evil.
Beauty is his and only so,
allowed before no other.
Trapped, see the feeling grow,
and soon begin to smother.
Run, run, and look not back,
Beauty is naught but his trap.
Hide, hide, or he will attack,
Your life is his, free to snap.
Your soul he will steal, will take,
Twist, turn, devour.
See no beauty, for your sake,
Else be marked by Devil’s pow’r.
No one knew for sure what waited outside the walls. It was assumed to be a sight of such staggering beauty that whoever looked upon it would surely be damned. In the history of Esmira, no one has risked looking out beyond the castle walls, save for the Guardian in the highest tower of the castle. He could see the surrounding area, far past the walls, but that was his job. Initially, he had taken the job as a lookout, but had since become nothing but a recluse. The Guardian never left his tower, never spoke to anyone. Food was sent up to him and that was it.
Pyralis had always wanted to see what was beyond the walls. Perhaps it would be worth it to become a recluse, just for the tiniest glimpse of what was out there, even at the risk of losing his soul. He wondered if the Guardian would mind sharing the view. Maybe he was getting lonely up there, after all those years of solitude. Maybe he would appreciate a little company...
Before Pyralis lost his nerve, he raced to the castle on light feet, burning with a suddenly renewed passion and curiosity. Why hadn’t he thought to go to the Guardian’s tower sooner? Of course, the elders say he is cursed, but that wouldn’t affect Pyralis, would it? He slipped into the castle and maneuvered the corridors with expert ease. He knew every inch of this place, except for the Guardian’s tower. Pyralis raced silently through the halls, coming to a stop just before the door which led up to the tower.
Two guards stood ready at either side of the door, which was not a usual sight for Esmira. It was an incredibly peaceful city, on the whole. They did have a regiment of guards, but they generally performed other tasks until they were needed. In all of Pyralis’s life, he had never seen them in action, which was a good thing, he supposed.
Pyralis looked around the corner and raised his hands in the direction of the guards. “Elnani sobrum.” He felt the tingle of magic leave his palms and the guards slumped down in sleep. With a grin at the wonders of his elven magic, Pyralis scooped up the keyring from the guard to his right and unlocked the door. He placed the ring right back where he found it, hoping that when they awoke they would assume that they had dozed off.
Taking a deep breath, Pyralis pushed open the door and stepped inside. He faced a narrow, twisting staircase that led up to the tower. It was dark and lit with magical torches that never burnt out. With his first tentative step, Pyralis started the climb.
By the time he reached the top, Pyralis’s legs were burning and his face was flushed. It was a tall tower. He came to a stop, panting, in front of a closed door. After taking a moment to compose himself, Pyralis raised his hand to knock, but before he could, the door swung open. He let his hand drop slowly and stepped inside the room.
The room was fairly large, circular, and also empty. A set of glass doors blocked by sheer curtains led to a wrap around balcony, and the rest of the decor was, predictably, gray. There was a bed, a table, a few chairs, but nothing exceptional. A hole was cut in the wall, exposing a pulley system for supplies. It wasn’t nearly as mysterious as Pyralis had expected. In fact, the room looked much like his own. The door closed and Pyralis jumped.
“I have been expecting you,” a voice said from the shadows.
Pyralis whirled. “Y-you have?”
A man in a gray cloak stepped out of the corner and shrugged. “Well, okay, not you in particular. I’ve been expecting someone. Or hoping for someone, anyway. Do you know how lonely it is to be stuck in a tower with everyone thinking you’re cursed? Extraordinarily boring.”
Pyralis simply blinked at him. He was fairly tall, and his voice was smooth as silk, but that was all Pyralis could make out. The Guardian had the hood of his cloak pulled up, obscuring his face. He waved an arm. “By all means, have a seat. Would you like something to drink?”
“N-no, thanks,” Pyralis said. He sat stiffly in a wooden chair at the table. The Guardian sat across from him, keeping his head bent down. There was a long moment of silence. “How did you know I was coming?”
“It was bound to happen eventually, wasn’t it?” he replied. “Eventually someone would get curious about me, about the tower, and about what I’ve seen. I take it that’s why you’re here?”
Pyralis nodded. The Guardian clasped his gloved hands on the table. “Curiosity. I started out much like you. Young, thirsty for knowledge. Overconfident. Then, I crossed the wrong people and ended up here. Nice, huh?” He shook his head. “And now I’m ostracized because everyone thinks I’m cursed for seeing beauty.”
“Are you?” Pyralis couldn’t help but ask.
“Of course not,” the man scoffed. “If that myth were true, the entire world would be cursed.”
Pyralis’s eyes grew wide. “You mean there are more people out there beyond the walls?” he asked in surprise.
The Guardian gave a light chuckle. “You have no idea. Such a sheltered life you’ve led. Imagine this city grown a hundredfold and that’s not even enough.The world is bigger still.”
Pyralis was enraptured. He leaned forward. “Will you tell me about it?” he asked eagerly.
The man nodded towards the door and when he spoke, Pyralis could hear the smile in his voice. “Go look for yourself. Look how far the world stretches.”
Turning his head towards the door, Pyralis hesitated. “And I won’t be cursed, will I?”
“No. That is a myth. It’s necessary for the people here to believe, but for you... You are different, I know that much. Go see for yourself.”
At first, Pyralis moved slowly, uncertainly, but his pace quickened with every step he took, drawing him closer to the balcony. He pulled open the doors and stepped out onto the stone ledge and was immediately rendered breathless.
The sun was setting, spilling blood red light that bled into orange and cast an array of colors throughout the sky. Of course, Pyralis had seen the sunset before, but never like this. He’d never seen it towering above so many trees that his eyes couldn’t find the edge. To his left stretched a glistening blue lake that flowed off into the horizon and cast a reflection of the orange sunset. The castle walls and village looked so tiny and nondescript when compared to the beauti-
Beautiful. That was the only way to describe it. Pyralis had seen beauty. Despite what the Guardian had said, he gripped the railing, waiting for some terrible repercussion to manifest. Nothing happened. A dark figure appeared at Pyralis’s elbow, and he jerked, but it was only the Guardian, who laughed. “Mistake me for the devil? Not the first time, I’ll admit.”
Pyralis didn’t reply. He wasn’t capable of forming words at the moment.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” the Guardian said. “See that white spot over there?” he asked, pointing. Pyralis followed his finger and identified the tiny speck of white in the distance. His eyes weren’t used to looking so far out. “That’s the White Kingdom. It’s at least ten times the size of Esmira.”
Pyralis frowned. “It looks so tiny.”
“It’s very far away.” They stood for a moment in silence, and Pyralis realized that the Guardian wasn’t nearly as creepy and enigmatic as he had expected. If anything, he seemed pretty normal, albeit lonely. “Come back inside, there some things I must tell you.”
“What things?” Pyralis asked, following him inside and shutting the balcony doors.
The Guardian’s voice turned sad. “I’m afraid you can’t just go back to living your life the way you have been, not after this.”
There was a sudden pit in the bottom of Pyralis’s stomach. “What do you mean?”
After a tense pause, he replied, “I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier.”
“What do you mean?” Pyralis asked again, almost angry.
The Guardian lifted his head a fraction of an inch, but his face was still bathed in shadows. “Do you really think that you could happily continue living the way you have been, confined in these walls, now that you have seen what lies beyond?”
Pyralis didn’t answer.
“Beauty isn’t the curse. The curse is knowledge, curiosity, restlessness. How could you possibly be content knowing that there is a whole world out there to explore?” The Guardian shook his head. “You are a child. You have your whole life ahead of you. If I have judged you correctly, you’ll never be content living it out here, not now. Maybe you never would have been, but we don’t know that.”
“I’m not a child. I’m eighteen,” Pyralis said.
“For an elf who will live hundreds of years?” the Guardian asked. “You are a child.” Pyralis frowned, but didn’t contradict him. “And now you see why it is essential that the people of Esmira believe that beauty is cursed. Fear of glimpsing it deters their curiosity, their desire to look beyond the walls. If they realized that the world out there was vast and hospitable...” he shook his head.
“What’s wrong with that?” Pyralis asked. “Why are we all trapped in here?”
The Guardian turned away. “By rights, everyone in here should share my title. You are all guardians.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you to. I’ll tell you about it, if you want,” the Guardian offered. “But it has to remain a very, very closely kept secret.”
“Tell me about what?” Pyralis asked with interest.
“The Tears of Dawn.”