Midway was a nation of peace and progress. Then the sun stopped rising.
Generations on, that land is known as the Dawnless Woods. It is a place of eternal night, wild magic, and monsters.
While its civilized neighbors avoid the place, one group of nomads stubbornly roams its western edge. The forest is a vital resource for them. Unfortunately, one of the native creatures is about to discover a valuable resource of its own...
Robin Priest glared at the moon as if it were the criminal he sought.
It shone bright and full that night, but seemed dim compared to the room he stood in. The inner dome of the observatory was made of mirror, and every brazier was blazing. He hadn’t designed this facility to be used this way; it would have baked a normal stargazer by now. The heat wasn’t nearly hot enough to ignore his commands, however.
The observatory’s ‘lens’ was mostly normal glass; manipulation of light was best left to a lightspeaker. A small portion had been cut to insert a proper lens, however, and it was through this that Robin directed the light to reflect off the moon and scan the forest.
He already knew where his prey was. Two of the physical elements gave him constant updates on the runner’s progress, but to catch him, Robin would need to see him. The observatory made imperceptible adjustments as Robin tried to marry the information from wind and earth with the light from this room, but the intense magnification made it look like he was soaring over the landscape at impossible speeds.
It wasn’t long before Robin found him speeding through a familiar lake. The Priest didn’t know how Johann managed to get so far so fast, but it wouldn’t matter now. Despite the fact that Johann was a waterspeaker - and waterspeakers could travel faster through water than on land - there would be no escape from a lightspeaker of Robin’s caliber.
The light from Robin’s fires would need about five seconds to reflect off the moon and back; this meant the image was roughly ten seconds old. Robin adjusted the angle to where he guessed Johann would exit the lake, then took a deep breath.
This made him nervous. If he missed the moon, he’d never come back again. The fact that the window showed the moon and the small lens displayed the forest was proof he wouldn’t miss, but the prospect was still frightening.
It wasn’t nearly frightening enough to match his hatred. Robin Priest scowled as he let the light take him.
As his being dissolved into pure energy and shot into the sky, so did his hatred dissolve into love. He felt affection for every particle of the world that shrank beneath him as he left it behind. In the two-odd seconds it took him to reach the moon, he boggled over how he could have been so angry with Johann. Sure, he’d wronged Robin, but didn’t Johann’s virtues compensate for that?
Robin ricocheted off the moon’s surface and back towards his home. Perhaps he’d forgive Johann after all. There must have been a good reason. They’d been friends for so long, why betray him now?
The light that carried him was tempted as they hit atmosphere; it was so in love with everything it touched that bits of it broke away to give itself to the upper wind. This was fine, so long as enough of it was left to bring Robin’s substance back to the surface intact. The light loved Robin even more than it loved Johann, so it would certainly resist temptation long enough to see him to safety.
Robin hit ground and became human once again. Despite the intense disorientation from this transition, Robin managed to cross his arms and resume his hateful scowl. His eyes blinked back into focus, and the hate came rushing back as quickly as he’d abandoned it, for the subject of that hatred stood a meager distance in front of him.
Johann was stunned by Robin’s arrival. He was shielding his eyes, and water still dripped off his arms. Robin took note of the oversight and planned his first attack.
“Why, Johann?” Robin asked, trying not to let his voice crack.
Johann responded by clasping his hands together. A moment later, Robin felt an impact against his forehead; a shot of pressurized water. He rubbed the sore spot and sighed, feeling even more enraged at Johann for insulting him with this prank instead of accepting this chance to explain himself.
“Must you?” Robin fought back tears. “Why won’t you tell me what I’ve done to deserve this? Why has my torment become your life’s only purpose? Make no mistake, if you don’t tell me, I will end it.”
Johann just grinned. Robin was astounded; his friend really did have a reason for his actions. There was something to be gained from Robin’s suffering, something he couldn’t achieve through dialogue. Robin couldn’t imagine what that might be, but from the water Johann was sneakily leeching from the lake, the Priest could tell that Johann believed this was his only option.
Robin wouldn’t wait to see what kind of trap Johann was preparing.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t have the patience to hear why you waited so long, why you passed on better opportunities to betray me, why you had to involve innocents, or what wrongs you believe you’ve suffered. You never bothered to dry yourself, and just like your crimes, that displays a complete lack of reason.”
Johann tilted his head to one side, confused, but his expression quickly became one of agony. He dropped to his knees and hugged himself as the ice began to form. No magician could control another person’s heat, but the energy in the water that soaked Johann was fair game. By siphoning it out, Robin could indirectly freeze Johann to death. The ice would be excruciating as it froze to his skin, but Robin knew he was giving his former friend a better death than he deserved.
Robin stumbled as the earth sagged beneath him. Startled, he shuffled backward and looked to his feet. It was shallow, but the land had abandoned its natural cohesion and formed a pool of quicksand.
He didn’t notice the howling wind until he regained his balance. Johann was being buffeted by a sustained gust of warm air. Robin could feel the acceleration of heat transferring from air to ice as the crystals softened and fell away from Johann.
Water, air, heat, and earth. Robin frowned as he recounted the elements required to cast these spells.
“So you can speak to more than just the waters,” Robin observed, once the wind subsided. “More lies, though I suppose I should respect how well and how long you told them.”
“Consider it a compliment, Priest,” Johann replied with a smirk. “I obviously wouldn’t have run if I thought you’d be easy, but I’m capable of besting you in combat. I will, if I must.”
“Don’t insult me, you weren’t trying to escape.” Robin shook his head. “Forget it, I’m tired of your manipulations. If you have a backup plan, set it in motion. I’m about to start mine.”
“Don’t pretend you knew this would happen, that we’d be here now. You couldn’t have prepared a trap here, in this specific place. If you could divine the future, you’d have stopped me before we got here.”
“No, I can’t see the future. And I didn’t. This wasn’t for you, but now it is. Stop me if you can.”
Robin understood why Johann would believe he was bluffing. This was something he’d prepared for a much bigger emergency. He’d spent ten years - ten years disguised as an innocent pilgrimage - preparing his nation for a foreign invasion.
A war in Midway was unlikely, but ten years wasn’t even a real sacrifice for a sorcerer like him. As long as war was possible, Robin Priest felt responsible for the protection of his flock. One decade of work had guaranteed their safety from covetous strangers.
Robin was about to use those preparations. It would be like mobilizing an army to stomp a lone scorpion, an overreaction he knew he would regret. He knew it, but that wouldn’t stop him. He began.
Johann yelled something, but the words drowned as the world erupted in sound. The wind roared through the mountains and trees, and the lake began to steam. Dust and clumps of soil pelted both wizards as they were ripped from the ground and thrown high into the sky, where Priest’s clouds began to obscure the moon and stars. Entire groves of trees and the countless strains of lesser fauna sank into the ground to merge into a new, single species, one that quickly sprouted and grew to hundreds of times the size of the old trees.
The landscape reshaped itself according to instructions Robin Priest gave it during the ten years he wandered his homeland. The elements had been waiting and preparing ever since. His army answered the call to stomp this single scorpion.
Johann finally heeded Robin’s advice. He drew a dagger from his belt and trudged forward, shielding his face from the storm with his free arm. As lake and earth continued to feed the thickening clouds, as the trees grew to pierce them, and until no more light could find its way from heaven to earth, the two wizards clashed.
It was sloppy and ugly; neither was used to combat when every element in their environment was already tapped. Neither combatant suffered anything worse than a bruise or scrape by the time the light was gone.
Robin masked a sigh of relief and manipulated his eyes. The forest reappeared around him, painted in the colors of heat. In this new environment, he had options that would normally be unthinkable.
“This is your plan? You think me afraid of the dark, Priest? I can still see you!” Johann’s head - a blob of red, orange, and green - turned to look at Robin. The Priest wasn’t surprised that Johann could also see by heat. It wouldn’t matter.
“Goodbye, Johann,” Robin called. “I wish you would have just lied forever.”
Air, Earth, Water, Electricity, Light, Fire, and Life; seven elements. Three were physical and four were energy. Anyone would be confused by the asymmetry. Was that really all there was to existence? Robin Priest had been able to prove there was more. Luckily, until this moment, the eighth element was his secret. It was too dangerous, and thanks to the forest’s transformation, Robin could rest assured that Johann would only know of it the moment before his death.
The distance between them was unfathomable, but it meant nothing. The eighth element heeded his call, reluctant as always. The heat retreated from the air around its arrival, creating a sphere of complete darkness, even for eyes that saw heat.
Johann swayed, like he’d lost his balance, and then his feet lifted off the ground. He pitched towards the black orb, falling past the ground as though it were the face of a cliff he’d walked off.
Despite his impending death, Johann seemed entranced by the object hiding in the black. He actually reached for it as it pulled him in, accelerating his own death by a fraction of a second just so he could satisfy his curiosity sooner.
The darkness pulverized the bone and compressed the flesh, sucking Johann in like a diner sucks an oyster from its shell. Robin immediately released the spell, shivering a little as he watched a frigid powder - all that remained of Johann - sprinkle down to lose itself in the barren soil.
The complete absence of light meant that any potential witness would need a way to see in the dark, and Robin knew of no method that could help them understand what they saw. Besides, the enormous trees would require them to get close enough for Robin to know they’d seen something, and that would enable him to act.
That didn’t matter. Without proper light, there would be no way to understand. One would have to touch it, and that would instantly kill them. Robin could turn his thoughts to reversing the forest’s transformation…
“Magnificent!” Johann exclaimed from behind him, his tone of admiration. “Truly, Priest, you surpassed my expectations.”
Robin turned around slowly, begging his senses to be wrong; yet there he was. Johann, whole and healthy, grinned and walked towards him. His arms were outstretched, as if he intended to embrace Robin.
“How did you know where to look?” Johann was beaming. “How did you come into contact? How did you manage to study something so distant and so dangerous?”
Robin slumped to his knees. It was over. Robin Priest was a legend here, known as the only master of all seven of the known elements. The fact that Johann survived meant he knew things even Robin didn’t. Not only had Johann hidden the fact that he was more than just a waterspeaker, he had managed to hide a potential that dwarfed a legend’s.
Robin considered for a moment. Was he certain this was really Johann?
“Ah,” the enemy rubbed the back of his head. “I suppose I wouldn’t have needed to go to such extremes if you’d just tell whoever asked.”
Far too late, Robin finally understood. He’d been such a fool. In his agony, he hadn’t been able to make sense of why someone would go to so much trouble just to torture him. The answer was simple, a tactic as old as theater: to learn a person’s deepest secrets, you must push them to the edge of madness.
Like a desperate, stupid beast, Robin had used his deepest secret to lash out at his aggressor. If only he’d realized, he could have just let Johann push him into the abyss. Instead...
“A straight transaction, then?” Johann, or whoever this person was, continued. “Information for information?”
Robin scoffed at the prospect. There was no way he’d agree to that. He’d done this lunatic enough favors, had dealt enough damage for one lifetime. When this conversation was over, Robin was convinced he would be killed, and Midway was doomed to slowly starve under this impenetrable darkness - his darkness.
The only choice he had left was whether he would empower his killer with even more knowledge. While Robin had never met anyone as capable as he was, at least until today, there must be more of them out there. The world was too vast for him to stand alone at the top. The same was true for this magician.
Whether his avenger came tomorrow or in six generations, Robin certainly wouldn’t make their job any harder than it had to be. Even if it was information his killer was now empowered to find on his own, Robin would force him to make that extra effort, no matter how menial.
Robin sighed and let the fatigue take over. His last labor, that transformation of this landscape into a permanent night, had been a bad one. He hoped that someone could make some eventual good of it.
1. Were you entertained?
2. Was there tension/suspense? In other words, did you feel the kind of stress or curiosity that kept you reading Harry Potter/The Da Vinci Code/your favorite books?
3. Did you understand what was going on? Not behind the scenes, mind you; hopefully it's obvious that there are things I'm not going to tell you yet, events that are referenced but not explained. Did you understand what was happening in the present? To put it another way, did you feel like you could follow the action?
I'ma harp a bit on this point this time. Robin Priest uses two spells against Johann(?) here: one he prepared over 10 years as a blanket defense for Midland (against any foreign invasion and any tactic), and then the spell consisting of the 8th element that appears to kill Johann(?) by pulling him in and crushing him.
It's important that the reader understands these are two different spells; he transformed the landscape in order to prevent any unlikely bystanders from gaining a clue about the 8th element, which was what he used to kill Johann(?). It's important to understand it was the first spell that transformed the environment into what eventually becomes known as "the Dawnless Woods."
So, did you understand that these spells were separate?
4. Did you ever struggle with the language? Was there ever a time you couldn't determine a word's meaning without looking it up? It's fine if you could tell what it meant from the context of the words around it.
5. This one may not be fair, but if you had stumbled upon this post by accident, would you have suspected it was me who wrote it? Was it obviously amateur, or could you believe it was written by a professional?