The faint glow of the moon and of the stars shone over the Woodlands of Liaport. Shadows crept between the huddling trees that rose and fell with the rugged land; small clifftops, rising crests and sunken valleys were remnants of the Valkar Mountains many leagues to the north.
Darkness shrouded the damp, soil floor, giving the shrieks and howls of lurking creatures full reign over the otherwise silent night. The never-ending fight for survival battled on through the woodland groves and raging rapids of the River Owk. Liaport was ancient. And so were the animals that lived there.
The already freezing wind sent a sudden chill through the wood. Unseen hands ravaged treetops and snatched away the withering leaves of the toughest of trees. The Triali season, the coldest season of the year, was quickly approaching and it wouldn’t be long before the forest was buried beneath a deep layer of ice and snow.
One tree, however, blossomed in the depths of the woodlands and was thriving in the cold. Standing in the centre of a sheltered clearing, where it was bathed in the light of the moon, an ancient Capun Tree swayed gently. Its yellow leaves were pale against the night. Dark scars laced its slender white trunk where the sap had been collected to stem fresh wounds and heal the sick.
Surrounded by the advancing wilderness, a burook soared from the darkness. Flapping its ruffled black wings, the bird rose higher into the midnight air. With a dive, it perched itself in the high boughs of the Capun Tree. Picking at its claws with its sharply curved beak, it eyed the night. Then, as the burook extended its rough feathers it squawked towards the sky, loud enough for all to hear. Before its echo faded, it took flight again, tearing some of the delicate amber leaves from the very top branch.
They whirled up into the crisp night air. Though, as the wind waned and they floated back down, a wrinkled fist lashed out from the shadows and snatched them away. A woman, short and stout, smiled a blackened smile and shoved the leaves into her pocket. Neglected and covered in soil, her coat was hardly enough to protect her from the cold, but she pulled it tighter around her bulky waist and flicked the hood across her matted hair. Her face was young, but there was enough wisdom in her eyes for a thousand lifetimes.
She grunted back at the sight of the frail tree before reaching down and pulling a large brown sack over her crooked shoulder. Inside, were three dead ulathu cubs. Their long, naked ears drooped out of the bag and flapped from side to side with every uneven step the woman took from the clearing. The Capun Tree was left alone.
In the heart of the wilderness, there was no path to guide her back home in safety. Ground-moss covered the floor, rocks and rotting branches blocked her way and the lumbering sounds of creaking trees masked the approaching predators of Liaport’s night.
Hours passed. The weight of the sack was bearing heavy on her old shoulders.
The woodlands had been her home for countless years and even though the murky darkness, and what was lurking within, no longer scared her, she still felt more at ease inside her cabin. So when she could finally see the distant glow of her home, nestled amongst the tight thickets, she heaved the sack higher and moved a little faster.
Trees towered at a great height above her hovel, which beckoned the woman home with the gentle glow of firelight. Like her waist, the circular cabin bulged outwards. The chimney leant askew and smoke rose in awkward plumes into the night. Vines grew from the hut’s foundations, wound up the stone and wormed their way inside through the gap just below the roof. The woman paused, long enough to drop the sack to the floor.
She bent down with a groan and pulled the first ulathu cub from the bag. She lifted it into the light. A few moments passed when she gazed into the large, long-clouded eyes of the infant carcass. Carefully, she stroked its fine fur before tying its fleshy ears in a tight knot around a line stretching across from the cabin to a nearby tree. The cub’s long legs hung downwards sadly and a few drops of blood dripped to the bare-mud floor below.
Just as she was tying the last to the line, a faint scratching caught her ear. She glanced over to her cabin. The door was ajar. Grumbling at the back of her throat, she spat downwards, hoisted herself up the few steps to the door and eased it open. It creaked, but not loudly enough to disturb a wild vunaki at the back of the room, clawing at the base of a heavy barrel.
The vunaki’s fur was the darkest shade of black, except for a faint grey tuft leading down its spine from the crown of its head. Its ears pointed forwards but pricked up every single time it scraped at the floor. Uneven grating echoed against the gentle crackle of firelight, which lit the room in a bath of warmth.
The woman moved inside.
Beneath her feet, the floorboards groaned. Only then did the vunaki flinch. It swung is head round to face the door, and face the woman. There was no light in the eyes of the creature; the firelight barely reflected from the darkness. It hissed loudly, arched its slender back and stood on the end of its paws. The woman ignored the vunaki’s warning and took a step forwards. Even though it was one of the smaller members of the edapar family, its fangs were still vicious and sharp. With a bound, it leapt in the other direction.
Spit sprayed across the room when the woman declared, “Aye, I’ll get yer this time.”
She ambled closer, holding out her bony, grime-covered hands. The vunaki darted beneath her legs, and jumped up onto a cabinet behind the woman with nimble footing. She stumbled as she tried to turn, and had to steady herself on a large vat of foul smelling tree sap.
Glancing down to between the barrel and the wall, she noticed a long length of metal tubing. She reached out, as slowly and subtly as she could, and took hold of its rough, rusted surface. The vunaki had very little time to react when she twisted round, fist clenched, and swung the pipe down into the top of the cabinet.
Pain echoed through the woodlands. The vunaki crumpled to the floor with a broken leg.
The woman growled and smiled.
Blood traced the vunaki’s slow retreat to the door. It whimpered and wailed, dragging its broken body towards the coldness of the wild shadows beyond the cabin. The woman prodded the creature’s shattered chest for a second time. “Go on, get outta here,” she hollered.
Wounded and alone, the vunaki returned to Liaport. It would be easy prey for the creatures – primal and evil – that called the shadows their home. Its whimpers faded and the woman dropped the bloodied pipe to the ground. She shuffled to the door, slammed it shut, and slid across the heavy lock with a dull clunk.
She turned back. For a few seconds she lost her thoughts to the light of the fire, burning with ageless beauty in the centre of the room on a stone plinth. The heart of the flames surrounded her mind and body and welcomed her home. The shadows of Liaport were always present, but so too were the warming flames of the fire.
Life returned to her body. She took off her coat, revealing tattered grey robes, hung it on the back of the door and ambled over to the darkest corner of the cabin.
For the last few nights, something in the air was changing. It was a feeling she remembered from far in her past: back to a time where her joy was overshadowed with dread. The feeling in her heart forewarned her of some dark secret, long lost to the world.
She bent down beside a large, darkwood set of drawers. The bottom drawer was filled with various scraps of cloth, which she rummaged through with growing anxiety. Each time she lifted a piece and rubbed it between her fingers, she threw it behind her and grumbled, “Where is it?”
In panic, she pulled the drawer off its rails and upturned it. Cloth washed the floor and spilled out into the cabin. “I know there’s some left…”
One by one, she scoured the pile.
She looked up, inadvertently, when a small shred of fabric caught her eye. Trapped behind the drawer and wedged at the back of the cabinet was a small patch of cloth, which shone unnaturally in the flickering light of the fire. She pulled it loose.
It was the last fragment of the Cloak of Armaru, a long forgotten Leader of Truaine, the world the woman called home. The mysterious Trall’ut gave the Cloak to him, as a gift, said to contain the power of Sight. He used it with wisdom and valour, to guide his people into an age of prosperity and true values. When he died, the Cloak was placed in his Crypt, a tomb hidden to all but those who knew his secrets.
After tonight, the Cloak would finally be destroyed.
But there was more than just ancient attire in the woman’s home. Her cabin was filled with all manner of relics and trinkets from every Age of Truaine. Decorations littered every corner, chronicling the Years of Sancut, the Rising from Darkness over eighteen thousand years ago, to the present day. Her collection had grown so vast that it had burst from the cupboards and shelves, onto the floor and into a small cellar below the cabin.
The shelves were stacked full of small, ornately carved boxes, containing the most precious of treasures. Maps and fading tapestries hung from the walls and depicted battles long since over. Crates lined all corners, broken and unable to hold their contents. Various chimes and nightcatchers hung from wooden overhead beams, carefully built to let the heat of the fire rise from the centre of the room and let smoke billow into the dark. Flames spread sprawling shadows throughout the cabin and created darkness between old boxes, where forgotten charms had fallen.
She pushed the last scrap of the Cloak into her breast pocket and took an old wax candle off a nearby shelf. When she rubbed the wick between her fingers, it ignited.
Bending down was awkward, but she managed to bare it long enough to brush stray leaves away to uncover a hidden trapdoor. Its hinges squealed when she pulled on the small metal ring that revealed a bowed ladder below. Resting the trapdoor against a crate, she gazed into the damp darkness of her cellar.
As soon as she reached the bottom, she lifted her candle and faced her trove. Much like the cabin above, it was small and crammed with relics and odd boxes. Before she could become too overwhelmed by the smell of stagnant water, she rushed to find what she sought.
She reached over to an assortment of jars and, mumbling, read the faded labels aloud, “Po’raivo, Jennica Oil, Arpi Scar… ah, Hukum Bark.”
After placing the candle down on the shelf, she took the jar in both hands. The lid held strong with a mossy growth, but eventually she pried it open. With the Cloak laid out on her palm, she sprinkled some of the ground bark into the middle of the fabric. When she was satisfied she had enough, she folded the Cloak back up and replaced it to her pocket.
She returned the jar to the others and lifted the candle back off the shelf.
Just as she turned to leave, something glowed in the far corner of the cellar. She closed her eyes and hoped that the light at the back of the shelf would fade and leave her in peace. It didn’t. She stared at it for several seconds, certain now that something in the air was changing. The feeling returned to her with double the intensity as before. Dread twisted her stomach.
The light reminded her of the darkest time in her life. She had hidden the object underground for a reason. It was the only thing in her collection she couldn’t explain. It contained a beauty that could taint the hearts of the bravest and a power that could tempt the minds of the wisest. She didn’t have the ability to control it. She only knew one man who could.
The ladder creaked. The trapdoor swung shut. The candle went out.
Dread was settled deeply in her mind.
It took a moment for her to regain her composure and settle her quivering legs. She took a breath into the depths of her lungs and sighed as if to purge the fear from her thoughts. Slowly, she pulled the Cloak back from her pocket and placed it on a nearby table, beside a short length of green twine.
She made her way around the fire and returned to her coat, hanging on the back of the door. She delved into the pocket and drew out several of the leaves from the Capun Tree. But, as she hobbled back to the table, she crushed them in her hand. With a delicate shake, she sprinkled them across the bark, already resting on the fabric. Using the twine, spun from the vines outside, she tied the corners of the Cloak together to create a small bag. She knotted the twine tightly and grunted.
The last thing she did before coming to the fireside was dunk the bottom half of the bag into a bucket of sap beneath her desk. She gazed at the thick, orange liquid coating the bag for a second before tossing it into the flames. It disappeared from sight as the blaze engulfed the small capsule.
No sooner had she done so, violent wind shook the cabin. Where the flames were once gentle, fire erupted into the air. She was knocked back by a surge of heat and tumbled to the floor. Through oily hair, she looked on in horror.
Wind rocked the cabin, pitching the roof from side to side. At any moment, she thought it was going to fall. Flames scorched the floorboards beyond the protection of the plinth, forcing the woman to scramble backwards to avoid being burnt. She clambered under the desk and cowered in fear. This wasn’t the first time she had used the Cloak in this way, but never before had it been this violent.
Something was different this time.
The flames licked at the ceiling and, through the heat of her blind confusion, she stared at a vision within the heart of the fire.
She saw a star. She saw it falling from the far reaches of the sky.
It streaked over Truaine, shining ever more brightly as it streamed through the high atmosphere. Light danced around inside the rock until it jolted and veered off course. With the force of a hundred suns, it crashed into the ground, uprooting trees and devastating the landscape for many leagues. Light pierced through the flames from the heart of the fallen star and blinded the woman to its might.
The fire raged on in the hearth and crackling sparks leapt from within the flames. The beams above caught alight in the blaze, and were soon aglow with burrowing orange embers and white ash. The woman fought against her mind’s will to stare into the soul of the fire, but she couldn’t resist.
Beyond what seemed like the brightness of day, beyond the world she knew, beyond everything, were they eyes of a demon. Staring down at her through eyes throbbing with rage, its evil swept through the curtain of heat and managed to blacken the flames and turn day into night. The demon longed for revenge, to feed its hunger and quench its satisfaction.
She cowered beneath the table in fear, and cried out for the first time in all the years she’d lived in Liaport. Sweat dribbled down her brow. The cabin shook again in the sudden storm of black flames, which was devouring everything around her. Relics fell and shattered. Tapestries unravelled and burned. Her breath was stolen.
But she managed to look back at the fire at one final image.
Smoke rose from huge fires that burnt through the night, lighting the great capital city of Siale in insatiable flames. Townsfolk were running from their homes, screaming and shouting with all the fear their hearts could bear. Blood ran through the streets, and seeped into the River Owk that ran through the city. The water stained red. Even the prestigious Regallum, the royal palace, was ablaze with dark black smoke that veiled the city under an eternal shroud.
The cabin shuddered as the beams holding up the ceiling groaned with the heat of the fire. The woman looked up, just as the largest beam gave way to the flames and let the heavy, wooden roof collapse inwards, burying her inside a fiery coffin.
She closed her eyes and covered her head with her hands.
But in the moments that followed there was no explosion of light as she imagined. There was no searing sense of pain as the fire consumed what was left of her life. She tried to slow her breathing, which was loud in her ears, and listen.
She opened her eyes.
She saw her cabin just as it was. The beam across the ceiling held strong and the fire was nothing but a few gentle flames, lapping around the logs at the centre of the plinth. Above all else, there was silence.
But even though there was no sign of what had happened, she couldn’t forget the things she’d seen. The vision in the heart of the fire. The Cloak of Armaru was said to contain the power of Sight: the gift of future visions.
The woman had seen exactly that.
And she was terrified.