The last time we spoke, I talked about the life changing day I had in Stonehaven. I arrived a young orphan with no real history to discovering that I had great wealth, a surviving uncle, and even a mansion! It was a lot for a young boy to take in, but I was pretty excited about these revelations. The historians had given me instructions, pointing me along a simple map of the city that would lead to a tavern where Maron Sepher, my uncle, was supposedly waiting for me to arrive. From what the note said, he was staying in a place nestled within the same area where the Udarian Academy of Magic Users would be centered.
I wasn’t aware at the time of the incredible tension between Stonehaven’s citizens and the concept of magical abilities. In many ways, the average person here had come to blame the use of magic for all of their problems. It was believed that our ability to touch the aether had led to the Yunai invasions, and naturally, that meant we carried some of the blame for the destruction of countless towns and cities. It wasn’t exactly a fair worldview, but that was the state of affairs. As a result, magic users and friends of said users spent most of their time living in their own district of Stonehaven. Here, they weren’t viewed with suspicious glares or forced to overhear quiet insults. Anyone that came to this quarter of the city knew what they were and why they were there. In an attempt to mark themselves as allies to others, many of the newer buildings in the area had adopted a deep purple shade of paint for their shingles and wood trim, alerting friend and foe alike that they were, indeed, friendly to the magical folk.
When I reached the area, focused on meeting my uncle, I was oblivious to all of this. I came upon a small bar with an upstairs inn and assumed that this must be the place where Maron was waiting. I wasn’t aware that the black shingles on the roof projected a very different message.
When I stepped inside, the temperature dropped significantly. It wasn’t just a little, either. It was sudden and potent. I looked around and saw the blue ice flames licking the stone hearth at the end of the room. I had heard of these fires before, but never seen one in Udiria. They absorbed heat rather than expelling it, and the result was a room that would cool, just as it would warm in a traditional fire. I was so enraptured by the flickering blue light that I stepped closer to it without thinking. No one was at the front desk as I passed by, so I assumed they’d return soon.
I stepped closer and felt the room getting even colder. I started to shiver as I stood there, realizing that the flame was actually pulling my own heat from my body as I approached. I took a step back and collided with someone in the process.
“Oh!” I shouted. “I’m so sorry!”
The person I had impacted was a woman. She looked at me with a mixture of disgruntled confusion and looked me over for a moment, as I did the same. She wore a black plunge dress, which accentuated her figure and, honestly, looked somewhat uncomfortable to wear, and her maple skin tone showed that she was likely not a local to Stonehaven, as she did not match the pale complexions of the other citizens he had seen on his way here. She had curly black hair, and her eyes were practically glowing with a red hue in the iris.
“It’s not polite to stare,” she finally said, her hand touching my chin and lifting my face so that I was looking her in the eyes. I blushed, trying not to feel shame about the whole situation. She and I made eye contact for several seconds before she pursed her lips and touched a finger to her cheek. I saw her fingernails had been sharpened enough to cut through flesh, making me all the more nervous at the situation I had wondered into. “What are you doing here, kid?”
“I-uh-I was looking for some friends,” I answered.
“Sure. You got any names?”
I stumbled over my words. “Yes, uh, Lady Sonea is—”
The woman’s face turned to a look of disappointment. “Drat. Udirian student?”
“Not exactly,” I replied. “My family came from here.”
“You’re at the wrong place. You want the fancy looking tavern with the purple roof.”
“Oh. Of course. I am so sorry.”
“Yes. Be on your way.”
“I am sorry again, uh, for staring at your outfit and running into you. I just haven’t… well I’m not used to anything here in Stonehaven. You’re not really what I’m used to seeing when folks talk about Udirian magic users.”
The woman raised a curious eyebrow. “Seeing someone like me shocks you?”
“I have never seen someone wear anything quite so revealing.”
The woman chuckled and snapped a finger. Suddenly the plunge in her neckline sewed itself shut. I tried not to blush again, but my cheeks were burning by now “Innocent youth,” she added. “I’ll be more mindful of your limited experiences in the future.”
“I didn’t mean… I am sorry. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Indeed,” she said with a nod. “Are you a magic user? Do you attend the Academy?”
“Oh, not yet.”
The woman’s face brightened somewhat, as if I’d sparked some glimmer of hope. “Tell me then, young one, what’s your name?”
“Sionis Sepher,” I answered proudly.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Sepher,” she said with a gentle voice, extending a hand. “My name is Kaellax.”
I tried to respond, but as I reached out to take her hand, the room grew immeasurably colder around me. I watched her face fade away and suddenly I was in a twisted nightmare.
I stood in the middle of a road, rain falling and screams echoing all around me. In front of me I saw a woman with a knife in her chest, she looked terrified, yet somehow strong in her determination not to show it.
“Run, Sionis Sepher,” she said. “Go as fast as you can!”
I didn’t want to go. I felt my heart aching and agony filling my body. I wanted to cry, to scream and resist, but staring at her face I knew I had to do as she said. I turned to run, to escape, but the agony continued to grow. I saw a creature there, a humanoid made of metal and flesh. I saw them, words came to my mind like mad whispers, but I couldn’t understand. It was madness and it filled my brain in an instant. I thought I might die, right then and there, but it all suddenly snapped away, leaving me back on the floor of the small bar my hands slapped to the side of my head.
“Foolish!” Kaellax growled as she knelt beside me and helped me onto my back. “You can’t just do that to people, you foolish damnation!”
Embarrassed and concerned, I quickly rolled over on the floor to stand back up, but that was when I saw it. It was a creature born of shadows and blue swirling energy. It stood with a roughly humanoid stature, but everything about this creature felt off, twisted with a kind of magic that I had never felt before.
Kaellax saw the terror on my face and glanced over her shoulder, looking at the creature as well.
“Can you see that?” she asked.
I nodded once.
“Why can he see you?” she asked, facing the terrible being.
There was silence for a moment, then she groaned. “Side effects of him touching your mind,” she said at last. “He’ll fade from view soon.”
“What happened to me?” I asked through my chattering teeth.
“You were touched by a Yunai,” she explained, sounding sympathetic. “I’m afraid my friend here can be overzealous in his desire to see and understand us. He reached into your mind. For what it’s worth he has apologized a few times, and he offers condolences about your mother.”
“That is a Yunai?” I asked, scrambling backward. “You’re working with them?”
“I’m a Shadowspeaker,” Kaellax replied, like it was a simple fact that I should understand.
“What is a Shadowspeaker?” I asked, my eyes not daring to leave the dark entity that stood in the room, not moving, not really present here despite what I could see.
“The Yunai come from a place we call the land of shadows, or the shadow realm, or a variety of other names that likely say the same thing. The point is, if we assume that creature is a shadow being, and I am what we call a Shadowspeaker, it’s safe to assume that I… care to quess?”
“You can communicate with the Yunai,” I said, feeling a bit agitated. “So tell it to go away.”
“I can speak to the Yunai, but that doesn’t mean I can control it. I can influence it, try to sway it to my will, but it’s not always perfect.”
“So you’re just playing with fire,” I replied. “Waiting to get burned.”
“Ironic, coming from the grandson of a Flamecaller.”
I turned to look at Kaellax, stunned by her knowledge. “You know me?”
“I know of the Sepher family,” she replied. “Everyone in Stonehaven knows about your family.”
I looked back toward the Yunai, but the being was gone. I jumped again, my eyes darting around trying ot find the creature that had vanished.
“He’s still there,” Kaellax said calmly. “You just can’t see him anymore. He’s not really here at all. You were looking through the veil of the twisting aether.”
“So that really was a Yunai?”
“The Udirians don’t talk about Shadowspeakers or anything like what I witnessed.”
“It’s taboo,” Kaellax admitted, waving a dismissive hand. “Forbidden in the minds of soldiers, but not in the legal documentation of the King. We exist as a military asset of Stonehaven, even if we’re the outcasts.”
“So you’re allowed to exist, but only in hiding?”
She nodded. “A less than glamorous existence, but an existence none the less.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked.
“Very,” she replied. “Dangerous and exciting. Powerful. Wonderful.”
“So that Yunai… it helps you fight other Yunai?”
“It’s… complicated,” Kaellax replied. “There’s more to the story than a simple us versus them.”
I was about to ask for more information when I felt a presence in the room that had not been there moments before. The ripples in the dark magic that filled the bar was like a breath of fresh air for my senses. I felt like a dark dream, no matter how interesting it was, had just ended.
“Sionis?” the familiar voice of Lady Sonea asked.
I turned and saw her in the doorway. She looked like she was ready for battle. Her staff was in hand and the friendly smile was gone. Sonea looked angry. She looked like she had crossed the threshold with the full intention of fighting her way back out. I looked back to Kaellax and saw the exact opposite. She was relaxed, if not disappointed, with Sonea’s sudden appearance.
“Welcome, Lady Sonea,” she said with a casual smile. “So great to see you again.”
“Stand down,” Sonea said. “Send it away.”
Kaellax frowned. “Oh come now, he’s not bothering anyone.”
“Did it touch you, Sionis?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, but it was an accident.”
“Nothing is an accident with this one,” Sonea replied. “Come on Sepher, let’s go.”
I actually hesitated. I don’t know for sure if it was because I actually wanted to stay and learn more about the Yunai, or if I was just worried moving might cause Keallax to lash out at me, or perhaps she had me bound there with some kind of dark magic, but I know that I did not move at first.
“Oh, go along Sepher,” Kaellax said calmly. “You should be on your way.”
With her words, I felt like I was free to escape. I walked forward, tried to thank her for… not killing me I guess, and then headed outside with Lady Sonea next to me.
We didn’t talk for several minutes as we walked, but when we were a good distance from the bar, I felt Sonea slow and start to look me over.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You’re lucky,” Sonea replied. “Shadowspeakers are dangerous. They’re not to be trusted.”
“Because they work with the Yunai?” I asked. “How have I gone this long without hearing anything about this kind of dark magic? If someone like Kaellax can use the Yunai to protect people, why wouldn’t we want student mastering that work?”
“Because they enjoy using it,” Sonea corrected. “We all do dangerous things and meddle in power we don’t fully understand. That is what makes us stronger and more dangerous as a magical entity. The difference is discovering when something is too dangerous or too unstable. When you understand that more harm than good can come from your decisions, that is when you step away from what you are using. Shadowspeakers don’t do this. They find comfort in the dark powers they manipulate. In time, they become twisted by it. I can guarantee you, young Sepher, that Shadowspeakers do great and powerful things to aid us, but if you deal with them long enough, they will betray you. You may be lucky and only suffer a small wound, but other Udirians have fallen to their tricks and lost their lives in the process.
“Why are they allowed to be here then?”
“Technically, they aren’t, but they are powerful and deadly. The Lords of Stonehaven know that trying to root them out will only lead to more damage than good in the the magic-using community. They are, for now at least, a necessary evil.”
“Does Udiria have Shadowspeakers too?”
“They do,” she admitted. “The magic is forbidden in the Academy, and the practice is frowned upon inside the city walls, but yes, they exist and operate even in Udiria. Students just like Kaellax have fallen away from the true reason we practice magic.”
. “Wait,” I stopped, looking at Sonea. “You know Kaellax?”
Sonea deflated. “I did. That was a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, realizing I had asked a personal question. “I didn’t realize—”
“Don’t be sorry,” she replied. “Come, Sionis. It’s time you met your Uncle.”
We walked a short ways through the Mage Quarter until we came to another, much larger, tavern. This one looked far more welcoming from the outside, with candles burning in lanterns and lively chatter taking place outside in the courtyard. Sonea took the lead, leading me inside and looking around for a moment before she offered a wide smile and marched through the crowd. I followed her up a set of stairs to where several tables were empty. At the back corner we found him, an older man with thick black hair and a scruffy beard. He was dressed like a worker of the fields, not like a mansion-owning business man, but when he smiled and waved to me I felt my fear and tension melting away. The icy cold experience with Kaellax had made me think that my uncle might also be a dark and twisted individual.
I could not have been more wrong.