My name is Drear Dark, and I have quite a story to share. At the time I’m writing this, the year is 1670 N.E.—that’s New Era—and the world is vastly different from the time I grew up. Most people, whether they lament the current state of the world or revel in it, have no idea how it came to be this way. There are rumors and theories, and certain people have been vilified. But I know all of it—the total truth. I’ve spent years tracking the ripples back to their origins, where dozens of individuals lived out their lives without knowing what they would eventually contribute to.
This is not my story. It’s theirs. And we’ll start with where I think it all began—with Missy Seeger, as she travels farther from her hometown than she’s ever been, in the summer of 1632, just after she turned eighteen.
The Aleutia blacksmith guild for which Missy worked had a bundle that needed to be delivered to the guild in Taellyn. It was a four-day walk from Aleutia to Taellyn, the capital city of Pithea. They could have used the Ophaela Network, which had at least one station in all but the smallest towns and could transport people and objects from one station to another in mere seconds. However, the fee for sending such a large bundle through the network would have been prohibitive, so they chose to have it delivered in person. Missy was the one chosen for that task.
At first, she walked briskly and her heart raced wildly at the excitement of the adventure ahead of her. Shortly after she left her hometown of Aleutia and entered the forest that blanketed much of her part of the country, she was already in unfamiliar territory. She glanced back often at the small, wooden cart that she was pulling, to make sure the bundle she was delivering and the provisions for her trip were still tucked safely inside. With some conscious effort, she slowed down a little after a while, to avoid wearing herself out. She would be walking all day, after all. Her destination by the first night was Aldra, a tiny village that existed almost exclusively to shelter Pitheans traveling between the town of Drayune and the southeast corner of the island country, where Aleutia was located.
When she reached Aldra, she was still so energized, she wished she could continue through the night. But she couldn’t do that with the meager amount of physical and Power training she’d had, even if it meant reaching Taellyn sooner. The forest was simply too dangerous at night. She took a room at the small village inn and slept as well as she could. Then she woke early for another day of travel.
Drayune was the principal city of the southeast territory, which bore the same name. Anyone traveling from Aleutia to Taellyn would pass through Drayune, making the principal city Missy’s destination on the second day of her journey.
As the summer sun began to sink behind the trees on that second day, she took out her map and estimated that she was about an hour from Drayune. The thought of still being in the woods when the sky grew dark motivated her to quicken her pace.
A few minutes later, an unexpected and inexplicable whisper made her stop in her tracks. She had been practically running by then. She looked around her, but saw no one. Straining her ears to hear the sound again, she realized something that sent chills through her body. There was no noise at all—no chirping of birds, no buzzing of insects, no calls of the nocturnal wildlife that should have been emerging at the time. The forest was silent.
Listening intently as she was, another sudden whisper nearby startled her all the more. “Stop!” the voice hissed. “Don’t go that way.”
“What?” she whispered. Her eyes darted all around her, looking for the source of the voice. Instinctively, her hand moved to the hilt of the dagger on her belt, though she couldn’t imagine what she would do with it.
A person appeared where there had been just a voice. Missy’s entire body started in surprise, but she consciously refrained from drawing her dagger.
“Wolves,” the stranger offered as explanation.
Missy stared at the slim, red-headed teen in front of her for a few seconds, trying to process both what he’d said and his sudden appearance. “There are no wolves in this part of the forest,” she finally insisted.
“There are now. Madness.” His eyes watched her closely; his body was tense and controlled.
Missy took a step backward, but doubted his sincerity. Maybe he was trying to scare her with a tale of maddened beasts in such a picturesque, quiet forest. She hadn’t seen any wolves.
Then she heard a low growl that sounded like it was right behind her. The young man grabbed her arm and pulled her off the path and behind a large tree. His grip hurt, but she was too scared to protest. He pointed towards the west.
“There’s a pack of them,” he said quietly. “They’re only about ten yards that way. If you followed the path, you would’ve run right into them.” He lifted the arm he was still holding and glanced at the wristband she wore. “You’re not militia.”
“No,” she confirmed.
“You need to leave this forest immediately then,” he said, peering around the tree they’d sought safety behind. “Are you headed to Drayune?”
“No, Taellyn,” she informed him, trying to speak without making any noise.
“But you will go through Drayune on the way, yes?”
“Oh, yeah! Yes, of course.” Her cheeks warmed at the misunderstanding.
“Forget the path. Head straight north, and you’ll reach town faster. Tell the first guard you see about the wolves. Tell them it’s the Madness.”
They heard movement down the path.
“Go!” he urged.
He ran out from behind the tree and started yelling at the wolves. In response, there was a chorus of snarls and growls that compelled Missy to follow his command. She ran as fast as she could in the direction he’d indicated. From his startling entrance, she knew his combat training was that of a Shadow, and a quick glance at the badge on his wristband had confirmed it. He didn’t look old enough to be further than initiate training. Missy could only assume that he would be forced to disappear again once the beasts attacked him. She had to be as far away as possible when that happened.
She ran until her lungs felt like they were going to explode, and then she ran some more. She was off the path, so it was difficult terrain, especially with the cart she was towing. It was purely fear and adrenaline that drove her as she fought gravity, the thick underbrush, and her own feet in an attempt to stay upright. Leaves and branches grabbed at her arms and face, but she ignored everything except the snarls of the wolves that still sounded like they were only a few feet away. She didn’t know how far away she needed to get, but after about ten or fifteen minutes, the burning in her chest was too much to bear. Her hands and arms were also beginning to ache from dragging the wooden cart over the weeds and rocks. Still she kept moving, but at a slower pace.
When she started passing small buildings—homes and barns, mostly—she knew she had reached the outskirts of Drayune. She finally felt like she was safe again and hurried into town to make her report.