Before I begin the telling of this story, I feel I should let you know that I question its veracity. Even looking beyond that that I know to be in error, the whole of the tale appears dubitable at best, and you would do well to treat it as such. Indeed, on a subject such as this, it would seem wise ever to be skeptical of all that you hear, as all that you hear has likely passed through a hundred ears on its journey to your own and changed just that much along the way—and that does not even touch upon the probably suspect outbreak of whatever natter pulls at your lobes. Stories of the darkness that lies where the Northern Peaks and Eastern Forests meet abound in such a way across Mercanthia—and with such close but muddled relation in each account (‘I have a cousin who has a friend whose greatfather’ and the like)—that one can only assume the vast majority of them are all-out invention.
But this you are about to hear has, at least, claim to a morsel of truth, for it is told, in like manner, over all Ravella and in every manor. Though, therein lies its problem. For, in every manor, it is told as if that fal was the hero of the story; yet, the laws of time and space and souls—however bent they may be on other shores—would preclude that from being so. As such, I have decided here to relay the largely Dawnbright telling of this tale, for its geography seems to fall most in line with the known constrictions of reality.
So, without further ado and despite its questionable nature, I present to you, fellow travelers, the origin of Shadowken as it is told in Ravella, to those young ears that need hear it.
After all, the beasts must have come from somewhere or something, and while we know better than this yarn, I think you will find it is as fine and entertaining a guess as any other made by them of the world in which they live.
It was in the year after that they came. The longsnouts. Their stench. It is said that all the high families smelled them long before they ever saw them, as their odor rolled over the hills like a sky of dark clouds from the sea. And when finally they appeared, the valley wept, and its beauty was marred forever.
They set camp on their unfortunate hill, and soon, they set to building that atrocity they call home—a sure sign of unwelcome and disinvitation to any who could have been friend.
Then they started digging.
One could not have believed the noise. The howling. The striking. The loud echoes of the land as it moaned and begged them to stop. They did not, and the smoke soon followed. Plumes of ash and cinder wrought from wounds in the sides of mountains. It was disgraceful.
The Curs do not care about such things. They know not of beauty, of elegance. They know only crave and dig. And so they did.
Down and down, farther and farther, they dug. Their canid wantonness knowing no end to its thirst for the metals they prize. They dug, and the fires blazed. Until they dug too deep, and the fires were snuffed out.
The land shook in anger. It was felt all the way in Gail, where they are known to feel nothing, and mighty Thundercrash paused its deluge to note the violence with which the heart beneath the ground had struck back against the meddlesome and covetous muzzlers. They were buried by their greed.
Sadly, for you and me and all the world, they did not stay so. The canid love of digging, that which had got them into their trouble, set them free of it as well. Only, when the dust was cleared, it was realized that those who had been trapped had also been changed. The smoke and soot and blackness had had its way with them. They had breathed it into their lungs. They had worn it on their skin. They had lived in it for days. And they should have died from it. (And lucky so many would have been if they had.) Instead, they had sought refuge in their magic, and that turned out to be the greatest trap of all. For when they emerged into the light, they found they could not change back.
True was lost to them; true was no longer theirs to be.
As it would anyone, the loss of their true selves drove mad the beasts from under the mountain. And, having already given over to their animal halves for survival, it was easy for them to do so in escape. They ceased being folk. They came wild. And Curbinnis was made to pay for their lust of things material.
The captive souls turned on those that had liberated them from under the rock and soil, turned on them with teeth, and many a muzzler fell to the ground they had despoiled before the dark creatures could be wrangled.
The Curs tried to keep them. Mayhap, they even tried to help them. But then one of them offered a different solution to the snag they had tangled themselves in: Why cure them? Why risk ourselves and our own in a vain effort (which is just the sort of effort Curbinnis loves) when we could, instead, turn this trouble to our advantage by setting it loose upon those we despise? Why keep this curse to our borders when letting it cross to others would cause good for us in their sorrow?
So it was that those monsters first visited our hill.
The men on valley watch the day they came never saw them come. They did not come straightway. Not across the flat. Not over the Red. And they did not come in day at all. They did not come in light. They came behind the sun, from the East, and they came as shadows.
It started at the horseyards, where extra men had been put to stay the recent wandering of stock. It started with the screams of a mare. The snouts had come for our mounts, so to remove our advantage. But the wickedness of them they sent was not satisfied with thief or kill. They were satisfied only in bite and gnaw and feast. Our horses, our majestic breed, they turned to feed. And that was how they were found.
Our greatfather, Chaucer Dawnbright, he was on the grounds with his men—the Lords of the other high fals tucked warmly away in their beds, and he and his hurried to the yelling of the mare. They came upon a trail of blood and followed it to where the canid beast had stopped to start its dinner. It did not quit its meal upon their arrival. It just stared at them from dense and glassy eyes and went on feasting. It cared not for their presence. It cared not for their numbers. It cared not, even, for how they roared and threw stones at its hide. It simply fed.
Chaucer and his men gave up their threats when they saw they had no effect. They changed full and attacked the beast. But they were turned back. The shadows behind the cursed canid showed eyes and grew legs, and the sky filled with an unholy howling. Then our brave Ravellan men were assailed by the dark.
It was only Chaucer and one other to evade death, and only just.
All the Town was waked by the racket. Alarms were raised, soldiers abandoned the Red to climb the hill, and Chaucer called all of fal Dawnbright from their rest, servant and blood alike. They did not know what they fought. They could not see what came. There was only Chaucer running toward them and the black of night at his heels.
Many Dawnbright were lost then. Most, the signified sort. It was a dark night on the hill, and growing darker, for once past our fal’s land, all Ravella would open to the uncaring cruelty of Curbinnis. So our fal fought, even as they were torn, even as they were ended, even to their leaving breath. But Chaucer could see their cause was failing. He could see their overwhelming was inevitable.
He watched one of his men fall to shadow, the one other to have survived the first encounter, and he ran to him with a torch from back of the manor. He knelt beside him, in time to catch the last shine in the man’s eyes, and before he could close them, he saw the night descending upon them both. He swung his torch at the glinting teeth that sought to pierce his flesh. It exploded in spark against the black maw, and the muzzler it struck was sent moaning and rolling. Chaucer went after it in all-passion, flame and claw, and the dark beast showed its first sign of quaver, staring at and shirking from the light burning in Chaucer’s heart and hand.
Another of his men rallied to him, and he tossed that one his torch before grabbing another for himself. They lunged at the longsnout beast from both sides. It snapped back at them, but never close enough to frighten. It confounded by the torches, Chaucer spotted an opportunity and burned the beast on its back. Its tail was set ablaze. Snarling, it tried biting it off, turning mad circles of flame and shadow, while Chaucer and his man sliced at it and gashed its fiendish fur. Then, with a wail of strain and gargle, it fled.
Chaucer and the one he was with called to others to grab the torches, to use them as club and sword, but the fal and theirs were too spread and too caught in the fight to hear or heed their words. So Chaucer did the only thing that was left to him; he called for the sacrifice that would save his people and all Ravella.
“Burn the vines! Set fire to them all!”
They lit the vineyard. They burned the Dawnbright lands.
They set fire and drove away the shadows.
Our vines were gone. And more. But Ravella was saved.
The Shadowken were driven back to the East, but their way home had been closed to them. Curbinnis had forsaken those they had created and cursed. So the beasts made a home of the darkest and most inhospitable corner they could find, the only that could suit them. They made a home of pit and thorn, where their darkness could belong. And there they lurk. Waiting. Waiting for the time when their hunger overcomes them and they must return to this hill, for whatever food they can find—be it horse, pig, or felly.
In that, they are no different from all canids—they want and want, until they take and take. But, thanks to our greatfather and those brave men of Ravella, we know that we need not fear the shadows of men or beasts—we need only shine a light on them.
So heed me well, young one of the forest and hill, and keep with you these lessons…
Steer clear of thorns, for you know not what they hide.
Seek not the dark, for it will always find you first.
Stay in the light, for the light is as home.
And do not dig, for digging is for those discontented with their lives as they are, and discontent is a disease.
So love what you have.
And want for nothing that is not yours.