When our children told us they were afraid, we inspired them. When they said they were confused, we were the light that guided and the darkness that soothed. When they cried out in pain, we gave them hope to carry on. We were certain that we shared in their hardships just as we revelled in their prosperity. We were wrong.
In that hour, what the eldest ones would soon declare as “the night of burning skies,” I came to know fear for the first time. The calm of the evening gave way to panic. My thoughts were singular and quiet, no longer interwoven with those of my kin. My form was left sundered, cut free from the web of life I had always known. Our essence, the essence of the world itself, was no more. After countless acts of guidance and compassion, I was left to suffer in solidarity. I was lost. My very core ached with grief, that I might never witness my partner or our children again.
It was inexplicable. This single moment showed us a similitude of terrifying mortality. There had been no warning or hint of this event; without a medium between us, my questions and cries all fell on deaf ears. Every second, every action stole away more of my own self, never to return. To continue on was to guarantee my own end, an inconceivable certainty, yet to sit idly by and wither away was pitiful. Luxordia, my complement, my eternal partner, was not near. Without mana to connect us, they were lost to me. As if by instinct, I set out to fill this sudden void.
By the morning after the cataclysm, I had wandered back to our settlement embedded into the base of a mountain. Beneath my large sandy paws, the earth felt cold and foreign, unyielding even to my weighty presence. In silence, I drifted through the vacant streets, climbing higher up the side of the rock toward the city’s peak. The penumbrals had long since returned to their homes to prepare for rest, their feline eyes ill-equipped for the radiance of day. Atop the city, I sat upon the cliff’s edge and shut my argent eyes, awaiting the first emberlings to come in search of morning’s sun.
“It’s been quite some time since we last spoke, Tenebria.”
The black spots across my fur surged with a dull blue glow as a croaking voice forced my eyes open and sent my tail into motion. Before me were half a dozen emberlings, the bearers of Luxordia’s likeness, each sprawled out upon a slate of stone. Their ragged bodies shifted into deep earthy tones, their chests expanded further with each breath, and their gaze remained soft in delight of newfound warmth.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Sabas. I regret that it has been so long since I visited last in the day.”
“You’ve just missed the last of the penumbrals, though I’m sure they wouldn’t mind staying up for you. Would you like me to have someone alert them?”
“No, I do not wish to cause any further concern. They are sure to have had a long night.” I lowered myself down, resting my head upon my forepaws so that my towering form did not obstruct the rising sun. “Are you all aware of what occurred last night?”
“I wish I wasn’t.” Another yawn-laden voice arose from the distance, followed by several tired mumbles in agreement, as more emberlings trudged up to the basking grounds.
“Just about all of us woke up from that racket.”
“Wasn’t just us that got disrupted. It was so bright that some of the penumbrals were practically blinded for a bit.”
“It was pretty!” A child ran up to me, outpacing her sluggish mother, kicking up a cloud of dust along the way. She knelt before me, bowed her head, and leapt back to her feet to return to her mother’s side. Her skin was still plain and smooth, a deep tan not unlike the mountain itself. In time, she would develop a coloured patterning like all the others: streaks of sunny yellows, bright watery blues, or vibrant crimson like the calamitous sky.
“My apologies for the disturbance, but I am glad to see you are all unharmed.”
“Were you the one that did it, Tenebria?” A penumbral man appeared along the mountain’s edge, careful to keep within the thinning shadows. He was not alone. Several of my children had heard of my arrival and faced the sunlight to greet me. “What exactly was that? It had us all pretty spooked.”
“With deepest regrets, I must admit that I have few answers for you,” I said, stalking with care around the lying emberlings toward those hiding in the shade. My stature eclipsed theirs even upon four paws, though I felt my form burning away as we spoke.
“Well, we figured some gods must have done it,” Sabas chimed in once more, his voice regaining its chipper tone and tempo as he rolled onto his back. “This war has been going on as long as I can remember. These attacks and battles have become so commonplace, just another fact of life.”
“Attack or no, the events of last night appear to have enacted great change. While I cannot surmise who is at fault, or why they have chosen to act in this way, I have been left weakened, disconnected from the world. I am sure the others all feel the same. The warring of my kind may be over at long last.”
The crowd erupted into a barrage of murmurs. More penumbrals, called out from their homes with squinted eyes, unable to glance up from their feet, ran into the congregation that formed around me.
“Everyone, quiet down.” Sabas stood up, his echoed voice cutting through the noise with ease. A single thud of his thick tail against his basking stone quieted the straggling whispers. “Our god is not finished speaking. You will all remember your manners and wait your turn.”
“Thank you, Sabas. I am unsure how, but my senses tell me that mana has been sealed away, perhaps removed from the world altogether. Of course, this means my kind can no longer war, and it brings me great joy to know you will all be safe from their rampant displays of power. However, such an act will surely bring about rippling consequences that I cannot foresee. Ultimately, without our lifeblood, I am not sure what will become of my kind.”
“And Luxordia?” Sabas shouted over the growing discord within the crowd.
“Their fate is, of course, the same. I pray that they visit you soon, but that which connected us has been lost and I can sense them no longer. When last I was aware, Luxordia was southwest of here, travelling to another city of your brethren.” I crept with a deep reluctance toward the cliff’s edge, my addled mind at war with itself. The confusion in their eyes begged me to stay, but my legs demanded I move on. “I am sorry, my children. I truly wish this day had not come, but I believe that you can prosper in this new era. Please know that you are all loved by us both. Continue on in our image and hold close our ideals. In this way, we will never truly be gone.”
My form took me across the land without plan or forethought. I knew not where I was headed or where I had been, instead consumed by a singular need. The settlements I passed through each reacted in kind; countless faces terrorized my mind, their expressions pallid and warped by uncertainty and shock. Onward I travelled, a harbinger of grief, weighted by the burden of a thousand questions I could not answer and wishes I could not fulfill.
Upon the fields at sundown, the rosy sky a gentler reflection of the horrors now a fortnight past, a trio of avians had begun to set up for the night. Though my footsteps remained soft in the long grasses, my now blackened form alerted them to my presence. With practised movements, they abandoned their supplies and took to the skies.
“I mean you no harm, children of Caevo.”
“You… you must be Tenebria,” the smallest of the three returned to the ground with grace and motioned for the others to follow. She ducked her head, pressing her short beak against her white chest feathers. “Our deepest apologies for our disrespect. And for you to honour us with our own language… Please, forgive us.”
“On the contrary, my current form is not best suited for this meeting. If I could spare the power to mark myself different from a mere beast, I know you would not have thought to flee.”
“So it’s true, then?” The male avian stepped forward, his bright golden plumage setting him apart from his female companions. “All of you really are dying?”
“I wish it were not so,” I said, looking up to meet his face. “You three must have gathered much information recently. Tell me, what have you heard?”
“The two of us have spent our time in and around the humans not far from here,” he said, gesturing toward the white-chested one. “We’ve heard a lot, but I think you’ll want to know what she saw first.”
The third avian took a timid step forward, her feathers a multitude of rich browns. “I-It is an honour, T-Tenebria,” she said, her eyes glued to the ground. “I have known your people for many years and heard countless tales of your kindness.”
“What is your name, child?”
“They — I-I mean, your people from the southern jungle — they call me Coco.”
“And what is it you have seen, Coco?”
“I didn’t see it perfectly, I-I was too scared to stay for long. It was horrible. It might have been a god, but they looked just like a statue.”
“Do you know whom it was you saw?”
She looked up to meet my stare before darting back away. Sitting down, I lowered my eyes to the ground, waiting for her to continue. The feathers upon her chest ruffled as she breathed deep once, twice, a third time. When she spoke again, her voice was steady and melodic, a well-practised persona.
“What I saw was an immense figure with a human’s face towering above even the trees, reaching up as if grasping at the passing clouds. Their eyes were hollow, their face twisted in rage, or perhaps in pain. Their entire form, frozen mid-act, was devoid of all colour, ashen like the ruined ground at their feet.”
“The land beneath them was lifeless, too?”
“Everything around had been laid to ruin, like a fire had ravaged the entire scene and left nothing untouched. The ground sunk beneath the weight of the stone god. The woods had been picked clean of all life. Even the trees themselves were shrivelled and grey. I could not stay for fear of suffocation as the air was choked with dust that flaked from every surface.”
“I see. Thank you, Coco. It is an incredible image you conjure. Caevo must have been overjoyed by your songs in the past.” She bowed her head further and stepped back, her puffed feathers settling down and the trembling in her legs returning. I felt the same rumbling pervading my whole being as my mind was wracked by a now undeniable truth. “And the two of you, you say you have spent time with the humans? What have you come to know?”
“It’s been quite strange lately. The humans are afraid of what happened that night — I think we all are — but they’re celebrating, too. And panicked. It seems no one really knows how to react to everything going on. They seem a bit lost without their pantheon. I know it’s going to be quite different for us without Caevo.”
“They’re saying that the elves are all gone now, too,” the man said. “I’m still not sure what that means.”
“They are not the only thing missing from this world. Our lifeblood has been stripped away as well.”
“Do you think they’re the ones that did it? The elves, I mean. They could use your power, or some of it at least, couldn’t they? The humans always said the elves were power-hungry—”
“The humans have mimicked much of what their leaders tell them, though I cannot attest to the veracity of such claims. Perhaps now, they… Well, regardless, while it is true that the children of mana could wield it, their abilities are merely a fraction of our own. I cannot imagine mortal hands amassing power enough to accomplish such a feat. However, I also find it difficult to understand my own kin placing a knife against all our throats. It seems the three of you may have more information than I.”
“So there’s nothing you can do to fix it?” Coco said, her beady eyes shimmering in the last light of day. “You’re really… all of you are really dying?”
“Unfortunately so,” I said, returning to my feet. The dark of night was quick to obscure my black fur, leaving two shining pale eyes alone to mark my presence. “I shall impede upon your evening no longer. If I may, though I believe it is still quite premature to return for your festivities, I would urge that you visit your creator again before it is too late.”
“We’ve abandoned our home at Caevo’s behest as of the last Recounting. They warned us about some danger in the area years ago now. Even the people down in Crater have all moved on. We all said our goodbyes to Caevo when we set out. There’s nothing more to say until next year.”
“Caevo must be delighted to know their children continue on in their name as you have. I am very glad to have met you all.”
Through day and night, I raced ever forward, my isolated mind an echo chamber of fears. The lands around declared themselves intact, and the mortals did not complain of any changes, yet the world I knew was no more. Mana springs had dried and crystal-filled caverns lay barren. The lake where Luxordia and I first declared our union, untouched by all but our kind, had been drained of its lustre. Flora had spread into these places in mere days. It was inevitable that other life would inherit our spaces in due time.
When I crossed into the desert, the ground soft beneath my night sky, my goal became clear to me. My shrunken paws continued on, the sand blending with my dulled fur, until it was in sight at last: the birthplace of our people. It would be our final resting place. My limbs grew weary, and still my partner’s presence eluded me, but it mattered not. The oasis was the single option before me as I felt my life drawing to a close.
Upon the path leading up to the city’s walls, a lone figure came into view. He travelled by starlight with little more than tattered clothing and a pack that sagged against his back. His name was Erasmo, and he had left the desert city with his emberling partner years ago.
“Do you mind if I walk with you, young one?”
“Of course not, Tenebria.” He squinted through the gusting winds and stinging sands. “I can’t see you very well through all this. I don’t suppose you can manage the storm for me?”
“It would be done had I the strength left. My apologies, Erasmo.”
“That’s alright, I figured as much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen winds like these this close to the city. It was even worse farther out along the path. I was lucky to come across a safe house to board up for the day back there. I guess it really is true, then, about the gods?” My sullen answer was swept off into the dark and only the sound of whipping sands remained. “You know, I’m kind of surprised you remember me. I know I really shouldn’t be, but I always thought I’d be forgotten once I left.”
“Never,” I shouted above the wind, craning up to see his face. He stopped and braced his thin hood against a fierce gale, grimacing all the while. “Would you mind if I sat upon your shoulder? I have not the power to calm the storm, and my legs have begun to sink into the sands, but I may be able to protect you from further harm.”
He lowered down to one knee, bowing with a reverence learned from his parents in his youth. My diminutive form fit well upon his broad shoulder, my tail curled against the nape of his neck. Without the need to move, I gave effort to diverting the winds around us as he carried on toward the dim lights ahead.
“We may not frequent the many communities and regions beyond those of your ancestral homes, but Luxordia and I cherish each of our children, even those who choose to leave. You are free to decide your own life, to sow the seeds of our labour wherever you see fit.”
“I… thank you, Tenebria.”
“You are also free to return at any time, though I intuit you are here only to visit. Your partner, Roxana, has she not come to visit as well?”
“No, and I have to get back to her as soon as I can. She just gave birth about two months ago now.”
“That is most wonderful news. Is the newborn—”
“A dawn child? Yeah. Eliana’s her name. Looks just like her mother with beautiful dark skin, but she’s already so soft and her tail is short like mine.”
“Most wonderful news, indeed. Send my blessings to them when you return. The oasis may be as far as I can go.”
“You know, I might not have believed it when I first heard the news, but the humans are really struggling. They have a very different relationship with their pantheon, almost the opposite of what we have with you two. When they did whatever they did that night… the aftermath was chaos. Once news hit the streets that their gods were leaving them, it seemed like no one knew what to do anymore. Everyone was in denial for a long time. I think some of ’em still are.”
“You mean to say that group was responsible for this?”
“Well, I dunno. That’s what the humans are saying, anyway. From what I hear, their gods told them that the elves were gone, that the wars were over and they’d finally won. The humans are celebrating it, saying their gods wiped out their foe. It seems crazy to me.”
“It sounds well in line with the rest of their doctrines. To even think of such an act…” Erasmo braced himself again as another gale beat against us, and my eyes shone like the stars as I redirected all but a gentle breeze around his head.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about the elves, even before I left home, and a lot about the humans, too. Terrible acts of war, pillaging, thievery. Worse, even. But most of the humans I’ve met are so… normal. We’ve made a lot of friends and most of them have accepted us with open arms. Did you ever meet the elves, Tenebria?”
“Some of them, yes. Not many.”
“What were they like?”
“Curious. Youthful, even in old age. I suppose you all were just the same when we had just formed you.”
“Do you think they’re still alive somewhere?”
“I would hope so. I feel they were created for a reason, though just as the other gods and I know not our purpose, they had not yet the chance to discover theirs.”
“Do you think things will go back to normal someday? I mean, the wars are over and mana isn’t a worry anymore, but the world is clearly not right. These storms aren’t normal. There were sinkholes that ate up some of the marking posts on the way in. A friend of mine said that some of the trees in his orchard are dying out, too. And of course, you…”
“I would like very much for all this to have never happened, but it is not the way of the world to return to what was. Even we cannot say what the future will hold.”
“Well, for now, you’d best go and speak with everyone. I’m sure they’ll want to see you. Even if you can’t predict the future, they’re gonna want you to try.”
Many centuries ago, we created the first generation of a new people. These primordial penumbrals and emberlings, now long gone but kept alive through books and family names, were born as a symbol of harmony and of the balance that existed between our disparate natures. The desert oasis where they were born became a holy site, respected and kept pure through the ages. It was a place of sacrament and remembrance, of life and death, of joy and sadness. There was no locale more fit for our end. In this new era, our children would look on upon where we last stood and honour the bonds we had formed.
After presenting my final speech to our children in the desert, giving them our blessing for prosperity, I dashed across the sands toward the ring of lush greenery that embraced our ceremonial waters. My form fizzled as I struggled to hold on longer, my frantic mind desperate for any sensation of them. I felt myself unravelling, being swept away by the waning winds. They were not here. What if they had already passed, and I had not seen them off? What if it was too late?
“Tenebria, are you there?”
A trembling voice carried out across the breeze put pause to my distress. I gathered what little energy I had remaining and attempted my previous form, but to no avail. It was possible, however distasteful, to draw more mana from the world at my feet, but to sully our people’s most revered grounds was unthinkable.
“I am still here, my child.” Scrambling together what little mana remained within me, I conjured a new image. Several dozen blinking fireflies took my place, their lethargic dancing tracing out my former shape like a constellation in motion. Above the center of the oasis spring I sat, bubbling with anticipation.
“I’m sorry to come without notice, and I know you wished not to be followed, but…” She paused, still doubled over her gnarled cane with shallow breaths, her legs shaking beneath her. “Tenebria, I have never questioned you before. But this… I can’t — no, I won’t accept it. I don’t mean to imply deceit, but there must be some knowledge you’re keeping from us. You can’t possibly…”
“Graciana.” My voice emanated from my core, even weaker than the aged woman before me. “Come, take a seat. I believe I have time still to talk.”
She moved with a furious determination toward the water’s edge and lowered herself down to her knees, gripping her cane across her lap. Her spotted brown coat had thinned and her eyes had dulled, but she looked to me no different than when she first came alone to the oasis some fifty fleeting years ago. I walked along the water’s surface toward its edge, my firefly eyes locked with hers.
“Your form… I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you, Graciana. Now tell me, what is it that ails you?”
“What you said back there, what you told all of us… It can’t possibly be real. You and Luxordia… Are they here as well?”
“I am afraid not.” For a moment, each firefly lingered in darkness.
“So you don’t know for sure, then. Maybe it’s just… Maybe you’re not…”
“It is alright, my child.”
“No, it isn’t!” Her cry faded out into the night as she folded into herself with violent sobs. I drifted to her and came to rest at her side, powerless to ease her sorrow. Silence nestled into the sands.
“It is true that the gods, Luxordia and I included, are not long for this world. Our lifeblood is no longer. But you, our children, can continue on.”
“But how could I… Without you? I have done everything in your name.”
“Gracie, beloved child. I have much enjoyed your company these many years, but you know that you are not bound to our will or our desires. Your life has always been your own, and you have lived well even in the times when we were not around. Though we may not be present to witness you any longer, you must know that, as our child, we are always with you in spirit.”
“Tenebria, please, there must be something you can do. I can’t stand the thought of never speaking to you again, knowing you won’t be coming back.”
“You have much to live for yet, Gracie. Your son tells me he has given you a grandchild.” My many blinking lights began to dim as the horizon was painted with burgeoning colour.
“My son? You… When did you speak with Erasmo?”
“We met in the desert. Without his aid, I might not have been able to reach the city in time. You should be quite proud of the man he has become. He told me his partner has given birth to a dawn child, a girl named Eliana.”
“I never thought… Well, I suppose that’s why he kept insisting I go live with him in that damned city. He sent me letters almost every week, but he never gave up his secret. So much like his father that way. I had to ask him to stop. He didn’t understand that I could never leave this place, or leave you. But…”
“It is as I have said, child. Though there is a time to mourn, this is also a time of jubilee. The world is yours, so go. Be with your family. The child deserves to know her family and its history, and I know few others better equipped to pass on such knowledge than yourself.”
“I will, but I want her to know you as well. And Luxordia, too.”
The sun crested the distant dunes, leaving Graciana to shield her weary eyes. From within the growing rays, a red-bellied bird flew with battered wings into the bushes that surrounded us. My many buzzing lights were aglow, each racing with reinvigorated fervour. The leaves rustled and Luxordia wriggled out toward the water, their form changed to a slender white gecko, a paltry shadow of their true glory.
“The sun is rising, child. You should return to your home before you can no longer find your way.” Luxordia’s voice enveloped me as they moved across the spring’s surface toward its center. I moved at once to join them. “Tenebria, I am sorry it has taken me so long to arrive.”
“I thought you had already gone, that I would never be with you again. There is little time left, but I am glad to spend the last of it with you.”
Our forms shifted in synchrony, rising up above the spring as the sun rose to greet a new dawn. The quivering in my core melted away and my mind returned to whisper quiet as I drew what little remained of myself into a singular image one final time. Without speaking, we returned together to the memory of our first meeting; Luxordia’s elegant orange and yellow butterfly wings complimented the vivid blues and violets adorning my ragged moth form.
“Wait!” Graciana shouted up at us and the stricken faces of our children impressed upon me once more.
“There is nothing more we can do, Graciana,” Luxordia said. “We have no power left to help you. Our lifeblood shows no sign of returning and there is no other hope for us without it.”
“But what if it does come back? What if this isn’t the end?” Driving her cane into the sands, Graciana shot up to her feet. Her eyes glistened like a flame, watering against the growing daylight. “You have always given us hope since the days of our first-born ancestors. You have protected us from the fires of war and guided us through the darkest nights. Since I was just a girl, you have told me that you would always be here for us. When my son was born, you were there to grant your blessings; when my husband passed, you were there to comfort us.”
“Gracie, we know you are upset, but the world has changed. It wants us alive no longer.”
“It sounds like you’re the ones that don’t want to live!” Her ears straightened backward as her voice rung out around us. Still her eyes were pried open, filled with tears that streamed down her face. “What am I to tell my granddaughter when she’s grown? That I was spoiled by our creators, loved by them, but that she can never hope to know the same? Should I tell her that you gave up when things got difficult, that you didn’t even try to meet her? You have given us hope for so long, so why do you have none now?”
Silence. Not even the winds could conjure an adequate retort. She was right.
“I know you’re tired. You’ve spent weeks and the last of your energy to look after us, to make sure we will all be okay. I appreciate it, I do, but Eliana deserves more than a speech she’ll never hear. We all deserve more, and that includes the both of you. Please. Just as you have always asked of us, I ask that you not give up. Have some hope. You’ve always told me that you cannot know what the future will hold, so why have you decided that it doesn’t have room for you?”
“Maybe… maybe there is something we can do.” A sense of clarity settled upon my mind again, a feeling I had thought lost since that night. Thousands of eyes flashed through my memories, the faces of each of our children. They were not consumed by unconquerable sadness, but instead filled with resolve and a determination to overcome, to live. Alone, I had learned of confusion and defeat; I thought that to be mortal meant accepting that which could not be changed. In this moment, I was taught what it meant to push through that fear, to stand again, to believe.
“If we remain here, unmoving, unthinking…” I turned back to Luxordia, our forms holding on by a thread. “It is possible our lives may not be forfeit. We cannot regenerate ourselves yet, but should that day come, there might still be something left of us to revive.”
“And if that day never comes?”
“Then I will stay with you here, asleep, for all of time.” We pressed deeper into each other, bound to break at any moment. “Thank you, Graciana de Motescuro. Should fate allow, we will meet you again. We will tell your descendants of the hope you have given us, of the one who became a light for us in our darkest night.”