6.09.2017

Short Story: "In the City of Eternal Night" (Part I)


Part I
By: Eve Estelle

Quick links: Part I | Part II

Within the silent halls leading to the city's heart, two wary voices could be heard speaking to one another, low susurrations in the air as they slowly made their way deeper into the time-worn splendor of the ancient capital. They paid no mind to the resting shadows that were cast upon every wall and surface, long accustomed to the strange hue lent to the silver stone whose illumination appeared hushed in the lamplight. Their murmurs and quiet footsteps disturbed the surrounding stillness.

"The spirits are restless," said the caretaker. "Something's wrong."

The other glanced at her. The words seemed to trouble him. "So I've noticed. Has nothing changed regarding communication? Have you been able to --"

"No. Nothing," she interrupted, wholly bewildered. "They don't speak. They don't even seem capable of acknowledging another's presence. But these days this entire place just feels... agitated."

The other nodded. "There are more of them than I've ever seen. Used to be just one or two would phase in and out every couple of days, but now it's every couple of hours." Performing the action likely out of habit, he scanned the area around them, eyes alert and watchful. "Still, they appear to remain harmless."

"We had better hope they stay that way, warden. Just keep it quiet. There's no telling what danger we'd be putting the townspeople in if word about this spread."


Sylvaine stepped forth from the whispering boughs of the aging deciduous forest, her secondary home among the wildlands, green but withering foliage rustling beneath her feet. In her left hand she held her bow and quiver, having removed the latter from her back after another gameless hunt. She strode forward with long, quick steps, but soon realized that she was alone in the darkness. Sylvaine paused briefly, turning her Payne's gray eyes back towards the trees, and let out a series of short, whistling calls. She stood patiently, waiting, until a gentle whooshing sound preceded the four, eight black talons that landed nimbly upon her shoulder, and that were attached to a pair of strong, feathered feet.

"There you are, Medwyn," she said, stroking the owl's soft plumage as it tilted its head and emitted a low rumble of happiness. "Thought you'd gotten lost; but no, never you, huh?" She smiled at the bird, who continued to purr, becoming a large ball of fluffy white and smoke-colored feathers as it perched in contentment.

Sylvaine gazed out into the shining night, at the stretch of land that appeared so insignificant from her vantage point, but that was dotted by village homes and farm houses, and brightly lit shops and walkways that weaved through every public area, connecting residents, traders and the gardens. It was a vast and humbling landscape that inspired feelings of awe in all who stood atop the distant hills, but in the huntress it also stirred feelings of unease, as her thoughts turned to the magnificent city looming high above the little town that rested in its shadow. Sections of the town were defined only by the moon's illumination, and as she watched, the lights of one municipal building flickered and died out.

The rugged trail gained a thin layer of rock and pebble as one approached the village limits, before it transitioned into flat, decorative stone. On her walk back through the town, Sylvaine passed several small patches of cultivated land where crops were beginning to fail despite the best efforts of their sowers to keep them strong, healthy, and vibrant. Plant leaves grew faint in color, and shriveled vines lay limp, sprawled across fences and the ground. There was a chill in the air, yet this was not the sole cause of the shiver that ran down her spine. Brisk days and cold nights had come to be the norm in these parts; but no one could explain why the region's warmth seemed to be fading. Medwyn, still crouched on her shoulder, shook out his barred plumage to ward off the colder air and better retain his own heat. The two ambled onward beneath the ornamental dogwoods and blossoming magnolias, until Sylvaine stopped, pausing once more to consider the unoccupied, solemn city that stood large and intimidating just beyond, rising above the village like an ancient protector.

"Not a protector," she muttered to herself. "A prison guard." She studied the massive stone walls in the distance and took another look around herself, at the atrophic state of her homeland. With a troubled mind, she returned her gaze to the city. "Something is wrong in this town, and I've got this nagging feeling that old place is part of it." Constant bombardments of thought after thought containing potential hows or whys and how-to-fix-its, and this was the only one to pop up again and again, to stick in her mind. With one last thoughtful glance, she turned to leave, changing course from the main walkway and taking a side path instead.

A small house of unpolished gray marble soon came into view, and a lanky man stood to its side, examining a thick, dark green vine that was in the process of taking over a tree in his yard. He glanced up to see her walking towards him.

"It won't stop growing," he said as she approached, a curious expression on his face. "I've trimmed it repeatedly, and yet you wouldn't even know it."

The level of seriousness in his tone brought a smile to Sylvaine's lips. "Shanahan, are you stressing over an invasive vine? You keep a beautiful home, but I never took you for the manicured lawn type."

"No -- no, definitely not," he shook his head, still deep in thought. "Too much work. But this," he gestured at the vine, "doesn't make any sense. Everything else out here is dying, withering away, while this seems to thrive in the land's deteriorating conditions." He sighed, seemingly at a loss.

"That's actually why I'm here," she told him, the smile gone from her features. "Well, part of that is why I'm here." She shook her head in an effort to clear it. "What's going on... It's unusual, to say the least. Something smells rotten, and I have a hunch I'd like to follow up on. You're the unofficial history of that old city, in a way." She nodded in the specified direction. "You've done all kinds of digging into its long past. Have you ever found any connections between it and what's been happening?"

He considered her question with a look of pleasant surprise, his interest clearly piqued. "Yes," he answered, "I have. But you sure you're not just smelling the dead leaves?" He grinned humorously, quickly sobering. "Most information pertaining to the city's history has been stashed away inside its walls, however, unreachable in our time -- so I've only been able to obtain pieces of the full story." Signaling for her to follow him, they headed inside the house, which was a cozy little study. Shanahan crossed the room to a desk, several papers strewn across its surface, lit by a burning candle. He picked up a blue book.

"A couple thousand years ago, an ancient people were flourishing. That city was their capital and stronghold -- one well fit for the lords that made up its population," he explained, scanning the book's pages for key points. "It was formally known as Se'alune -- though any attempts to translate the name have proved fruitless, due to how little we understand about their language and culture. Colloquially, it has simply come to be called the City of Night, as it's believed that the ruling body, to ensure the life and prominence of their civilization, built a structure at the heart of their grand metropolis; in essence, it was a sort of contingency plan in the case of their demise." He flipped through, searching for a specific page. "Upon their fall, the structure would activate, plunging the city and its surroundings into eternal night -- one that they, supposedly from the realm of spirit, could use as a lifeline. The structure sustains everything within the limits of this artificial night, harnessing the moonlight and amplifying its qualities in order to provide the necessary elements lost from the sun; such as warmth, nutrients, et cetera."

Sylvaine furrowed her brow in thought as he paused, giving her a look that conveyed the question, 'Maybe this is what we're searching for?' She pursed her lips, the gears turning in her head. "But they fell centuries ago. If that's true, why are we only now encountering problems? How would that even work, using moonlight as a power source? And that's even ignoring the idea of ghosts."

"Well, the moon's brilliance is simply reflected sunlight, so it could theoretically provide the needed ingredients -- but not near enough to sustain life." He let out another lengthy sigh. "Much of what we know lies in the realm of mythology, I'm afraid. And, unfortunately, that's about the extent of my knowledge. The city's involved, but exactly how or why... I couldn't tell you."

"They've never let you in? Not even to study its strange history?"

"No, it's very rare that anyone goes in there," he replied with a shake of his head. "The only people officially allowed entrance are the wardens -- the guards, and the caretaker who oversees their duties and assures the ruins are maintained -- which, by the way, I think is an unfair title considering how well the place has endured the years." He shrugged, dismissing the train of thought. "But that's how it has been classified, and so it remains empty. Devoid of life, at least of the kind with eyes to appreciate its ageless beauty. For now, it appears it lives on like the shell of a masterpiece... Or a chest without a key."

She stood for a minute, staring at the desk in silence. In her head, Shanahan's words were clicking, opening doors to thoughts she had visited many times already; but as a lonely trickle is lost in a flood, each eye cast over the water stirs to the surface something new. "A key makes for the simplest way in," she granted, "but it is far from the only way. I think I know how I could get inside." Having already prepared a defense for her plan, the quizzical look that Shanahan gave her came as no surprise. In response, she added, "Medwyn will scout ahead for me. The city is massive; if there were guards posted at every point of possible entry, one would think there'd be a lot more people coming and going. Someone would notice. Because among the dozens of other reasons for there to be exits and new arrivals, replacements would have to happen occasionally. And yet, no one ever sees anything. I need to see what's happening in there."

Mulling over her words, he bobbed his head in acknowledgement. "I know you," he said, unease evident in his expression. "You won't rest until that itch is scratched. But I would rather you didn't go alone; in the case that you do get spotted, I will be there, armed with an elaborate excuse as to why we're trespassing upon prohibited grounds. Sound all right?" He placed the book back on the desk, shaking off any sign of apprehension, and turned to give a proper greeting to the owl asleep on his guest's shoulder.

"Always good to see you, Medwyn. Looks like you're in good hands."

Sylvaine smiled. "He's my eyes and ears when I'm out hunting. My mother used to read me old stories when I was a kid, all about the falconers who trained and hunted alongside their namesakes. Perhaps I'm simply biased, but falcons, hawks, even eagles -- dear Medwyn beats them all."

"A few hundred years of endless dark has certainly lent much to the owl. They've been able to adapt much better than the others." Shanahan stepped back from gently scratching the bird's head. "I'll be ready to leave within the hour."

With a nod, she slowly walked towards the door. "Meet me on the city's outskirts. There are enough trees there that we'll have decent cover, and we should have a safe path figured out by the time you arrive." She paused, looking back. "And thanks for this. You're risking yourself when you don't need to be."

He gave her a hint of a small smile. "Like you said, there's an unholy smell drifting through the air these days, and I have the unsettling feeling that it's got little to do with the fading flora."

* * *


2 comments:

  1. Definitely sounds like a good story. Can't wait to read part two to find out what happens next!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading, Raney! Hope you enjoy Part II! :)

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