It was well after dark when Nari returned from her backyard adventures with her best friend, Finn Reilly.
Finn was nine years old, nearly a year younger than Nari. He lived around the corner from her, their backyards kitty-corner from one another. He was a small, red-headed boy prone to freckles and tripping over his own feet.
He had knocked on the back door after breakfast, as he did nearly every Saturday morning. Together, he and Nari raced through their backyards, laughing and squealing as kids do. They had been on a safari, searching for a rare black lion. Then they were trekking through a rain forest, looking for the Iguazu Falls. After lunch, they were in the desert sands of Egypt, looking for lost tombs. Trying to avoid a deadly booby trap, Finn tripped on his shoelaces and took a tumble, getting grass stains on his play jeans.
Abandoning her search for King Tut, Nari returned to their backyard and lay on the grass beside him. They spent the next few hours staring up at the sky, gazing at the clouds, and eventually falling asleep.
"Where did you guys go today?" Nari's mother asked, eager to hear all about their excursions. She relayed the story with detail and enthusiasm, waving her hands about as she told of Finn's near death experience with the booby trap. But her mother had gotten a far-away look in her eyes, as if she had stopped listening. Nari trailed off, concerned and wondering why her mom had lost interest.
"Is everything okay, mom?" she asked.
Her mother looked up, startled; her mind had clearly been somewhere else. "Yes, dear. I'm fine. You should go to bed, darling. It's late."
Nari nodded, still unconvinced, but didn't argue. She was pretty tired. "Will you tell me the story again?"
Once upon a time, her mother began softly, after they had put away the dishes and tucked Nari in. Her mother was sitting on the side of the bed, gently combing through her hair with practiced fingers. And in a place far, far away, there was a realm where people lived in harmony with the land, and with the natural magic that roamed freely. For a long time, there was peace and prosperity. It was not by any means a perfect world, but it was safe and happy, and bad things rarely ever happened.
But happen, they did. It was a terrible summer for those people. A long drought turned the fields to sand, and famine was sweeping through the country side. Parents starved as they struggled to provide scraps for their children, and even the wealthier folk suffered the effects. It was a very dark time for them.
Life carried on this way for more than a year. A woman died giving birth to her son, leaving him grievously disfigured. Though no one would go so far as to abandon him to his fate, they found it hard to look upon him, and to find love for such a hideous creature--for that was what he was. His name was Ružan.
Ružan grew up never knowing what it felt like to be loved or held. His lack of beauty and perfection left him without friends, and this made him empty inside. As he grew older, he began to understand just why it was, exactly, that people feared him. Even the magic, so free upon the land, would not bless him.
As he grew into a broken man, he was consumed with the thought that if he could just fix his face, people would love him. He sought a darker magic, and mastered powers unknown to anyone else. This darker magic corrupted him.
Eventually, he found a spell to fix his horrible, ugly face. And fix it he did. But the process was gruesome, and violent. Bad things happened in this world sometimes, but nothing quite like this.
Though the people no longer saw Ružan as ugly on the outside, they could feel his ugliness within. And still they shunned him.
Lonely, and his heart hollow, Ružan tried to compensate for the emptiness he felt by marrying a young woman. But she would not love him. People believe that he killed her with his dark magic, but no one is really sure what happened to her. After that, he spent years gathering his power. No one wanted to take him seriously. But before long, he was too powerful to reckon with. He enslaved the realm and built himself an empire. People may not love him, but they would surely respect his power. He saw to that.
Ružan was a ruthless ruler, and the dark magic made him cold, bitter, and capricious. He was subject to violent mood swings, and his blood lust was insatiable. He headed his own inquisition, torturing and killing anyone he thought might stand in his way. The people, to survive, learned to say anything Ružan wanted to hear.
Ružan’s darkness swept through the realm, now more like a graveyard rather than a kingdom. The sun was forbidden to shine too brightly, and the land was dying. Ružan’s shadows were everywhere—a silent pair of eyes and ears. Sometimes they took shape, doing his bidding whenever they were told to. The Shadow Kids they were called—children could never be trusted with secrets.