Just a quick warning before you dive in and have your brain leak out of your ears: I'm painfully out of practice. That's why I'm posting, really, to get opinions and advice so I can get back on track. Yeah.
Also... I feel bad about posting here, since it's pushing all the RP threads down, but there's nowhere else to put it. Maybe there should be separate sub-boards for writing and RP-games?
Snow has fallen heavily this week. The normally green and yellow fields are hidden in a thick layer of cold, white dust - as are the thatched rooftops and the golden bricks of Castle Meridell. Itâ€™s a beautiful sight to behold, but for me it means only one thing - the return of winter.
Winter is a harsh season for us, and not just because of the cold. No crops grow in frozen fields, no fish swim beneath the surface of frozen ponds, and many of the poorer people starve before spring returns.
Somehow, Iâ€™ve made it through nine winters out here, and I fully intend to get through nine more, if I have to. But, somehow, I donâ€™t think it will come to that. This year, I will face my fears and go back to where I belong. This year is a year of closure, for me and many others with the memory of what happened at the old house, all those years ago.
The very thing Iâ€™ve been trying to forget since the day it happened, but never will â€“ because itâ€™s burned into me. Itâ€™s irrevocable. And, as much as I hate to admit to it, the whole thing was entirely my fault.
It was very early on the morning of the first day of Hunting, 2005. It was also the day my life would change forever. My excitement had left me sleepless during the night, but I still felt full of life and happiness and energy because everything was just right with the world, and I assumed that that would always be so; it had to be.
I hurtled down the halls, still wearing my night-dress, almost knocking over the antique vase as I went. Normally I would have been loath to rush; it was discouraged in the upper class, to say the least. On the other hand, it was my birthday, and I was expecting a <i>very</i> special present.
I had seen the gift already, waiting in my parents room â€“ though I dare not admit it to them. It was a magnificent, magical mirror â€“ one with shining crystalline glass and minutely shaped filigree-gold edges that depicted a number of scenes in wonderful detail. Every inch of it had a story to tell. Naturally, I wondered where it had come from; but briefly - my mind was consumed with other matters.
It was no surprise when, as the old arched doorway swung open to reveal the familiar splendour of the central hall, the mirror was there waiting for me. Stood beside it were my two parents, wearing identical, royal grins; I couldnâ€™t help joining them.
"Happy birthday, Mirage," my father laughed. I peered at the mirror with intent; it was obviously full of magic, even a pet with no knowledge of such things would have felt it. Energy seemed to cascade outwards from it, invisible and yet unmistakeably real.
"We gathered our funds together to buy you one big present this year. We know you've wanted a magical mirror for a long time now."
"Thank you," I said, realising how much it must have cost them. "It means so much to me."
I meant what I said. This strange looking-glass was my pride and joy. Mirrors, even of the common variety, are said to have magical powers â€“ and standing in that room, with that particular mirror, one found it very easy to believe this.
â€œBreakfast is served!â€ came the cry from the kitchens, and an elderly red Krawk strolled into view, carrying a silver tray laden with food. She, too, was wearing a grin, although it was not quite royal.
â€œThank you kindly, Evra,â€ I said, making an effort to be polite.
Breakfast was muffins with white chocolate syrup and asparagus â€“ a true delicacy, although many say itâ€™s an acquired taste. I ate three servings before deciding to leave room for the cake, which Evra was busy baking in the kitchen.
Right on cue, a sharp, echoing knock ran through the room. It would be our friends, of course, coming for the party. I stood up to answer the door, but mother was faster, and before long every seat at the table was filled. Many of the faces were unfamiliar to me, but I made a point of smiling and nodding at each guest as if they were my closest friends.
They all brought gifts of their own - only small ones, but nice things, like Draik eggs and rare paint brushes. I thanked them all with a polite smile, and carried the things up to my room to store with the treasure I had been given the previous year.
For the rest of the morning, I danced and ate chocolate and had a lot of fun, but I never forgot the mirror, which stood patiently in one corner of the hall. None of the guests seemed to have noticed the thing at all.
Finally, as morning gave way into afternoon, the elderly Krawk reappeared. Her face was almost completely hidden by the most enormous cake I had ever seen. It was covered in fresh, sliced strawberries; thick, sticky rivers of treacle and chocolate coated them and (as a final touch) a set of thirteen silver candles perched on the very top tier.
â€œWow, Evra! I think this just may be the best cake youâ€™ve ever served!â€
â€œWonderful job on the chocolate.â€
â€œAre those strawberries grown here in Meridell? I simply--â€
Silence fell as the cake was lowered to the table. After a moment, the candles lit themselves and everyone took a fresh, white plate from the tray. I was still thinking about the mirror.
â€œIs something wrong, dear?â€ I looked up to see who had posed the question. It was my mother, Ardelia; the queen of this small village on the outskirts of Meridell, and her face was twisted with fake concern. She knew I was fine, or would be when I had a plate of the cake; but she had to ask, anyway.
â€œNo. Iâ€™m just thinking.â€ She looked at me strangely, as if Iâ€™d told her I wanted a battle duck for dinner rather than chocolate cake.
â€œOkay, dear. You can tell me if anything worries you,â€ she promised, as she always had, and (I felt sure) always would do, even when I was eighty and she a hundred.
The rest of the party seemed to pass without event. Slowly, the guests began to thin until eventually, only three remained. All three were Aishas, just as we were; two noblemen and one noblewoman. I didnâ€™t trust them. Something about them triggered a kind of sixth sense in me â€“ something about the way they exchanged glances, perhaps, or something in the way they laughed â€“ it gave me the chills, anyway.
The evening grew long, and my parents had retired to the sitting room with a cup of frosted borovan apiece. I was sure the Aishas were gone by now, that I was alone in the house, and it felt safe to approach my new mirror again.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I would see in the next few seconds; but I was ignorant then, and (it pains me to think) I would have remained so for the rest of my life - if only the image that revealed itself to me, in the background of the world within the mirror, had been too blurred for me to see.
Taking small, careful steps, I drew closer and closer to the mirror. My reflection became clear in the surface, and it didnâ€™t look like me at all. The Aisha in the mirror had a drawn, fearful face and wide, staring eyes; her fur was longer and darker, and her clothes were â€“ for lack of a better word â€“ filthy rags.
This was bad enough â€“ I wondered if, perhaps, the mirror was showing me something that had happened in a past life. An involuntary shiver worked its way down my spine. Then I saw another thing that rendered the first irrelevant. Just behind one of the ornate chairs sat aâ€¦ thing with jet black fur and bulging, fiery eyes. It crouched low and stock still, as if it meant to spring on the next person to make a sudden movement.
I felt my heart catch in my throat as I turned to face the beast, but it was gone; all I saw was a series of deep claw-marks etched into the marble flooring where it had been crouched.
â€œWho are you?â€ I called, trying to keep the fear from my voice and not quite managing it. â€œShow yourself! I do not want to have to bring my parents into this, butâ€”â€œ
A deep, guttural shriek sounded from somewhere above me. Instinctively, I ducked under the stone table. I expected to hear a thud; when none came, I tentatively crept back into the dim candlelight. I smelt the breath of the thing in the air, but it was gone. It had to be.
â€œIsâ€¦is anyone there?â€ I squeaked. The only reply was my own voice. My instincts had proven right; it really was gone - gone to haunt some other, less fortunate family.
â€œDonâ€™t be so sure about that.â€ Recoiling, I almost went back under the table, then decided against it. Some things have to be faced, rather than ignored; I sensed that this was one of them.
â€œTell me where you are,â€ I hissed. â€œMy parents will have a fit when they see what you did to the floor!â€ A deep, contemptuous laugh shook the ceiling of the room, sending down a shower of dust. Suddenly, the air was full of what sounded like wings beating.
â€œI can do a lot worse than that, princess. If I was really trying, there would be nothing left of this house or of you.â€
â€œStop toying with me and get out of our house!â€
â€œYou know nothing of what I am or what youâ€™re getting yourself mixed up in. I came for the mirror specifically, but if you argue with meâ€¦â€
I felt suddenly faint. This thing, I felt sure, dealt in magic of the worst kind possible â€“ and somehow this realization moved me into a state of fear so intense that I felt like a spectator of some kind, floating far above and watching the scene unfold. I watched as my legs picked themselves up and began to run. Run, run, run. A heavy rain was falling outside, almost in slow motion; for once, I didnâ€™t care that my fur would be ruined. The great door swung open with an almost ominous creak, and I was free.
The ground beneath me was soft with mud and water. Twice I slipped and fell into a puddle, but I never stopped, never looked back. I knew what I would see, and I didnâ€™t want to; it was a reminder of my cowardice and foolishness.
A voice, alien and distant, broke into my consciousness. It was a rough, deep voice, sounded like a Lupe.
â€œWhy, look whoâ€™s mixing with the commoners!â€
There was a thick, braying laugh from the same direction. I staggered towards it.
â€œThereâ€™s troubleâ€¦ at the palaceâ€¦â€ I panted out.
â€œDown this end of town, thereâ€™s always trouble,â€ the voice replied. There was no trace of laughter there now. â€œItâ€™s not like you ever cared about that. None of you did. Why should <i>I</i> bother about <i>your</i> business?â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ I started, then cut my thought off halfway through. It was no good.
â€œFairâ€™s fair,â€ the voice muttered. I just kept on walking. As I went, a crowd formed behind me â€“ some concerned, some curious, some jeering and laughing. I must have walked for miles. Eventually, the rain slowed to a stop, and the clouds brightened to a fluffy white.
I turned and faced them; they fell quiet, as if they had only just realised I was there. The house I grew up in was a distant blur on the horizon. It looked dark and fuzzy, as if it were melting into the sky.
â€œWhat are you running from?â€
This voice was small, trembling, and seemed to be coming from the ground. Looking down, I saw a red Cybunny clothed in a humble cloth dress. I decided it wouldnâ€™t hurt to tell her.
â€œThereâ€™s been trouble up at the house,â€ I said again. â€œSomethingâ€¦ I donâ€™t know what it wasâ€¦ broke in and started wrecking things.â€ When I looked up, half the crowd was looking at me intently.
â€œI donâ€™t know what it was becauseâ€¦ wellâ€¦ I only saw it for a moment. In the mirror I got for my birthday. When I looked round it wasnâ€™t there, but I heard the voiceâ€¦â€ I trailed off, shuddering. No one was listening by that point. I was almost relieved; the way I told it sounded fake, a story made up on the spot, although (as you and I both know) it was nothing of the sort.
A scream cleaved the air and I resisted the urge to cover my ears.
â€œFire! Thereâ€™s a fire at the Palace!â€
At the back of the crowd, someone (probably the owner of the voice that had screamed) was pointing frantically. Surely enough, when I dared to look up, I saw that the house had melted into the sky in a thick, dark plume of smoke.
Panic ensued. Several pets started toward the palace carrying buckets of water in both paws; I should have told them, there and then, that they stood no chance of getting there in time. I had an idea that they would carry on regardless, so I held my silence.
â€œWhat shall we do?â€ one mother asked, her children gathering around her like lost sheep. â€œThat palace has stood since ancient times. It cannot be destroyed.â€
â€œIt can,â€ I said, startled at the quaver in my own voice. As if to prove my point, there was a dull, distant thud, and part of the building appeared to give way. I knew it was hopeless. My eyes grew wet with tears, but I could not cry in front of these people â€“ I was a symbol of hope to them, as my ancestors had been before me.
So I started to retreat. I snuck under a wheelbarrow and curled up in the hay that had fallen beneath it. They would not find me here. That night I slept hardly a wink, and when I did sleep, I dreamed the smell of smoke and dark clouds on the horizon and the screaming and the rancid smell of fearâ€”
Morning had broken. The first light of the sun crept over the land, casting fresh shadows in the valleys and behind the barns. It was time to crawl out and face reality again.
I pulled myself out of the hiding place. My fur was soaked with dew. Shivering, I shook most of it off and peered around the side of the building.
â€œThere she is!â€
I raced out to meet the villagers, but as I drew closer I began to see the fury. It was rising to the surface like a tiny bubble of air, growing and swelling and finally bursting.
â€œHow could you, Mirage! How could you!â€
â€œItâ€™s gone. Everything is gone. I hope youâ€™re happy.â€ This time, I could not hold my tears.
â€œNo, of course Iâ€™m not! How could you say such a thing?â€
â€œYou tell me! You did it!â€
It all became clear. They thought I had started the fire, then run down to the village telling tales!
â€œI have told you all I know,â€ I said calmly. â€œThere is no need to jump to conclusions.â€
â€œYou lied to us,â€ said one of them. â€œI can tell when someone is lying to me, and I donâ€™t like it.â€ Surprisingly, the crowd raised a murmur of assent.
â€œIf you donâ€™t trust me, then there is no point in my staying here another moment. Just remember that you walk with demons, and one day they will surface, and then youâ€™ll regret doubting me.â€
â€œAnd donâ€™t come back.â€ This last was the Cybunny child. There was something unsettling about her eyes, something I had not seen previously, and I unconsciously moved backwards.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, I wonâ€™t.â€ I turned my back and walked off, tears still in my eyes and threatening to pour again, but I held it in. In the years since, Iâ€™ve become quite good at that. You just have to shut it out, shut everything out and pretend itâ€™s not happening for a short while.
â€œYouâ€™re lucky we donâ€™t report you!â€ They called after me. â€œYou should have burned with your parents!â€
That last one almost made me turn around and rush back at them, charge them with gleaming eyes, knock them to the ground. I didnâ€™t. I just kept walking.
I know, I promised not to return. There are some promises you cannot keep. This is one of them. I worked under the cover of nightfall, ears tuned to the sound of approaching feet and faraway voices, and I finally made it.
Suddenly I realise I donâ€™t know why I came. Have I forgotten? Twisted, charred blocks of stone still stand at the foundation of the building, lonely sentinels that have weathered millennia and are now, finally, defeated. I want to take my eyes off it and run, but they seem to be glued there.
Am I looking for something? I wonder. Something almost forgotten in everything else that has happened. Old pieces of wood turn to ash as I walk through them and drift away on the breeze. Everything is gone, I know that, I knew. Why did I come here? Was it hope? How foolish of me.
Then I see it. Lying there, unobtrusively, in all the destruction â€“ one tiny piece of life. Specifically, a tiny shard of magical mirror. I reach out for it, carefully, and hold it out before me.
In the remains of the mirror, I see myself. I am dressed finely, wearing my best silk dress, with the magestic scenery of the old hall behind me. I am crying, but I look happy, and wave to myself from the other side of the world in the mirror.
â€œIf only it had happened that way,â€ I thought aloud. â€œBut then, things never do, do they?â€ My laugh, now a harsh, humourless bark, has a certain resonance in the desolation of the ruin. In fact, as I placed the piece of mirror in one pocket and turned to leave, I could have sworn I heard it echo back to me, as if from the ceiling of the hall that no longer exists.