The Dusk Ember

Vesryn could only stare at the black wolf as he bounded away before she pushed herself to her feet and picked up her bow. So intrigued was she by his words that she didn’t hear her brother’s footsteps as he approached her from behind until he placed a hand on her shoulder.

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1. Chapter 1

 

Vesryn tensed from where she crouched behind a thicket of trees, her breath clouding before her. The chill of winter had spread throughout the region of Egristan, blanketing the world in snow. The frost that had accumulated upon the land had killed the crops weeks before the snow had fallen.

    Because their stores of grain were low, she’d resorted to going out on hunting trips to keep herself and her brother alive. It was why she’d followed the deer herds’ trail all the way to Eclia, armed with the bow and sheath of arrows crafted by her brother, who also accompanied her on this trip.

    She ground her teeth when she heard him clomping around a little ways behind her, searching for edible plants that they could use to stock up their food stores. He was fortunate that they were perched on a low outcrop a good distance from the herd, otherwise he would’ve alerted the deer to their presence and scared them off. And that, Vesryn knew, would not have ended well with her.

    “Syldan Ersys, with all that racket you are making, you are lucky, that we’re not within hearing range of those deer,” she hissed as she nocked an arrow into her bow.

    “You know that hunting isn’t exactly my specialty, Ves,”

    “And you’re fortunate that I love you so, otherwise I would have put an arrow in you long ago,” she muttered.

    Syldan gave her a crooked grin and shook his head.

    Just as she raised her bow to take aim, one of the bucks’ heads shot up suddenly. She held her breath as it swiveled its head around. It stood rigidly for a few moments before it bolted.

    For a moment she couldn’t understand why it took off. They were still upwind of the herd, and they were at a considerable distance. A few heartbeats later the rest of the herd raised their heads, stood still for a few moments, then followed after it with a thunder of hooves.

    She muttered a curse under her breath as she stood up and let her eyes rake across the field until she spotted the cause of the disturbance: a pack of wolves had emerged from the trees on the right and began to pursue the frightened deer.

    Teeth gritted, she turned to tell Syldan to fetch the horses, but saw that he was already heading toward them at a run. Casting a frustrated glance at the fleeing herd, she ran to the posts where their horses were tied and saw that her mount was already untied, much to her surprise. It was something Syldan rarely ever did, and she was grateful that he’d done it without waiting for her command.

    “Are we going after them?” he asked.

    “We are, but those wolves are going to be a problem. You go after the deer and I’ll take out those wolves,” she ordered. She didn’t wait for his reply as she shouldered her bow and mounted her horse.

    Vesryn knew that he was more than capable of handling himself. She was the one who taught him how to hunt, after all. Urging her horse into a gallop, she tore after the herd and headed for the right flank, where two of the wolves ran. Once she was four feet away, she took her bow and fired an arrow at the wolf closest to her.

    It yelped when the arrow pierced its shoulder and turned on her with a growl. Loading another arrow, she had barely pulled back on the drawstring before Syldan’s cry rang through the air.

    Vesryn, to your left!”

    She turned her head just as the black wolf that had flanked her leapt at her. Teeth gritted, she brought up her bow to fire at it, but it was too close. Its forepaws slammed into her shoulders and knocked her off her mount.

    The impact jarred her teeth and knocked the air from her lungs. The bow slipped from her fingers and landed on the ground a few feet to her right, but no matter how hard she strained to grab it, only her fingertips grazed the polished wood.

    A snarl from her left side pulled her gaze to where the wolf prowled back and forth, watching her with its lips pulled back in a snarl. And yet, there was something about this wolf that made her know, somewhere deep inside her, that it wouldn’t harm her. That, for some reason, it was capable of mercy.

    Could it be a shapeshifter? She wondered. She’d heard stories, rare and ancient stories, of how the mystic stone would grant power to those of a noble heart, but if it fell into the wrong hands, then those powers would warp and adhere to the treachery of the villain who possessed it, which in turn could be used to bring pain and suffering to those who have done no wrong.

    Gazing into the wolf’s silver-grey eyes, she slowly pushed herself onto her elbows, then froze, worried that movement might trigger it into attacking.  But it just stood there and watched her, no longer growling, no longer baring its teeth. Just staring at her with an intensity she couldn’t fathom.

    “You’re a Shifter, aren’t you?” she whispered softly.

    The wolf inclined its head, and she was surprised when a rich, male voice spoke in her head.

    You are correct, dear huntress. I am a shapeshifter, but I am unable to shift back into the man I once was.

    “Why not? I thought that you could keep your abilities if the mystic stone grants it to you,”

    She bristled when she heard his harsh laughter resonating within her mind, and almost opened her mouth to fire a retort when he spoke again, this time in a softer tone.

    You misunderstand, fair huntress. We are able to keep our abilities as long as the stone is protected, but that is no longer the case. If you are a shapeshifter and are in your secondary form when the stone is shattered, then you remain in that form until you can find all of the pieces, put them back together, and restore it to its original location.

    Vesryn could only stare in awe. So her assumptions were correct. He was a shifter. Before she could say anything, his ears swiveled and he turned his head, sniffing the air.

    Your brother’s coming back. I must go.

    He turned around, but halted when she called out to him.

    “Wait! Who are you? Why didn’t your friend attack me when I shot him?”

    He didn’t attack you because I ordered him not to. And if you wish to know my name and who I am, then you must return here at moonrise tonight. Come alone, and do not tell anyone. If you break this promise, then I’ll have no choice but to mete out your punishment for injuring my packmate. Normally, I would not be so forgiving to a human, but I will make an exception for you since you were not seeking to destroy us. Consider my sparing of your life as an act of mercy.

    Vesryn could only stare at the black wolf as he bounded away before she pushed herself to her feet and picked up her bow. So intrigued was she by his words that she didn’t hear her brother’s footsteps as he approached her from behind until he placed a hand on her shoulder, making her jump.

    “Vesryn, are you alright?” he asked, following her gaze.

    “I’m okay, Syldan. The wolves are gone,” she replied.

    His gaze snapped back to her sharply at her words.

    “Wait, you didn’t kill them?” he whispered in shock. She didn’t answer him as she slipped her bow onto her back and began to walk back to her horse. Syldan, perplexed by her actions, quickened his pace to catch up to her and seized her wrist, forcing her to stop and face him.

    “Vesryn, how could you do such a thing? These animals are predators, they don’t care for human lives!” he said, his voice taut.

    “You’re wrong, Syldan!” hissed Vesryn. She wrenched her hand from his grip, her gaze alight with anger.

    “They’re not normal wolves, they’re Shifters! The wolf I was talking to said that he can’t shift into his mortal form because the mystic stone was shattered!”

    Her brother scoffed.

    “So now you’re believing in this nonsense? The stories that we’ve heard are nothing more than legends. Even if you think he spoke to you, it’s just a voice in your head that’s trying to make you think otherwise,” spat Syldan, his voice rising.

    There was such a frigid tone in his voice that Vesryn hadn’t known she’d stepped away from him until her ankle bumped into a large rock.

    Is that really what he thinks? She wondered. The legends had always fascinated her as a child, and for a long time she had grown up with such a strong belief in those legends that she had hoped, had dreamed, to see with her own eyes the mystic stone and the statues of the three warriors who had saved the kingdoms from ruin. To stand upon the battleground where the great swordsman Alistair had almost died at the hands of his enemy, only to have the mystic stone transfer its energy into his wyvern necklace and sustain him long enough to defeat the warlord.

    “You know just as well as I do that Alistair, Kyne, and Askr were real, and if it hadn’t been for them, if it hadn’t been for Alistair’s sacrifice, then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our freedoms," she exclaimed, throwing her arms out as she turned in a slow circle gesturing to the world around them.

    “We’re able to live in peace because they were able to defeat the person who wanted to take it from us. And it was because of the nobility in Alistair’s heart that the mystic stone gave him the power, and the strength, he needed in order to take down Vidar,”

    He didn’t say anything to her as they made their way to a tree where he’d tied their horses. Vesryn was mildly surprised at seeing her horse again, then remembered how it had kept on running in the same direction her brother had gone. He must have caught the reins and soothed it long enough to bring it back.

    When she looked over at her brother’s horse, she noticed the large, white-tailed buck draped across his saddle. It was big enough to last them a couple of weeks, which was far longer than the small, miserable pheasants that Renna normally came home with if the hunt wasn’t very successful.

    She let a small smile flit across her lips as she slipped her bow onto her back and mounted her horse. Even though it had taken them a long time to finally reach the herd, she knew that their efforts had paid off very well.

 

    The sun had set by the time they reached the modest village where they lived. Here the houses were just big enough to house four people at the maximum, and bore a simple complexion compared to the elaborate cottages that sat within the gates of the kingdom of Traeld, where the wealthier patrons lived.

    She let out a relieved sigh once they stepped through the threshold and into the house. All she wanted to do was collapse into her bed and sleep, but decided that if she was going back to Eclia to meet with the Shifter, then she should at least wash the sweat and feeling of grime from her body.

    Stepping into the washroom, she made sure the door was locked before turning on the faucet. She switched it off once the tub was close to brimming and undressed before stepping into the warm water, which she was grateful for after having been out in the cold winter air.

    She laid back to soak her hair thoroughly before taking a bar of lilac soap. After scrubbing every inch of her skin until it felt raw, she lathered the soap into her hair. Digging her fingers into her scalp, she massaged and scrubbed it for awhile before she decided it was clean enough and dunked her head into the water as she cleaned herself up.

    Once she was done with her bath, she stepped out of the tub and dried herself off with a towel before reaching for the clean set of undergarments and the midnight blue nightgown she had placed on the sink. Wringing out her hair, she studied herself in the mirror.

    Vesryn had always wondered who she resembled the most in her family. With midnight hair, fair skin, and silver-blue eyes, she knew that her appearance was a stark contrast compared to that of her parents. Her father’s hair had been brown and his eyes grey, while her mother’s hair had been blond, and her eyes green.

    She ran a wooden comb through her shoulder-length hair, and once it was free of the tangles and knots, set the comb on the sink before picking up the brown pants and white tunic from where she’d discarded them for her bath. She made a mental note to wash them tomorrow.

    After setting the clothes in a basket, she retrieved her bow and arrows from where she’d left them by the door and set them by her nightstand upon entering her room. She had absolutely no intention of leaving them behind, especially when she was going to travel through the forest at night.

    Walking over to her wardrobe, she opened it and pulled out a black tunic and pants, but paused when her fingers brushed against the dark green cloak that was nearly hidden amidst the rest of her clothing.

    With a slight frown on her face, she folded her outfit and set it atop her bed before she walked back and ran the edge of the cloak between her fingers. It was silken beneath her touch, and felt like it had been made out of the finest materials. But as she allowed her hand to travel along the back, her breath caught when she felt the embroidered pattern on the back.

    Her mind racing, she slowly pulled it out until she could make out the hood. A part of her was nervous to glance at the stitching on the back, while another part of her whispered at her to look at it, to recognize it. Remember it.

    With her heart in her throat, she took a deep breath, turned it over…

    ...and almost dropped it when she caught sight of the insignia.

    Hands shaking, Vesryn could only gaze in utter shock and confusion at the golden arrows that crossed each other over the shield-a sigil that belonged to the Huntsman’s Guard-a sigil that brought only pain every time she looked at it.

    It was why she had crammed it so deeply amongst her clothing. Because every time she saw it, it reminded her of her father. Of the man, who, many years ago, had set out to the Gniym mountains to hunt down the wyvern that had been picking off livestock. On the king’s orders, he had set out with some of the kings’ soldiers during the harshest of winters, but was never heard from since.

    When she had received the news via letter, she had stared at the words in disbelief. Being only thirteen at the time, she hadn’t fully understood the kind of danger her father faced every time he went on his hunts, and hadn’t understood why her father would gather both herself and Syldan into his arms and tell them he loved them.

    Each day, she would climb out of bed early just to look out the window, to see if she could hear the clopping of hooves and catch a glimpse of her father as he led his stallion to the stables behind their house like he always did-but found herself greeted by nothing but the winter wind.

    And each night, she would curl up into a ball on her bed and stare at her father’s cloak from where it hung on a hook in the hallway. She would lie there in the darkness, reduced to a hollow shell of the girl she had once been. When she should have screamed, when she should have showed some sort of emotion, she was silent. Numb.

    Whatever hope she’d had of her father returning, it had extinguished like the candle on her nightstand. And it was when that hope had faded that she realized she had to provide for herself and her brother. To go out every morning and hunt for food like her father had done.

    If her father were still alive, if he could see her now, he would be proud of the young woman his daughter had grown into. He might even tell her that she was different from the lively young girl she had once been. She wouldn’t have been surprised. His death had changed her, so much that there wasn’t a shred of joy in her heart. There was nothing left but the ice, and she didn’t know if she would ever allow herself to feel anything else again.

 

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