It was only a nightmare, yet every detail of the dream held Darren's mind like a neck-tight rope, and the miserable skies covering the hills only yanked the rope tighter. Darren tried to push his memories of the dream away, but they kept returning, mingled with memories of the first two dreams to consume his mind.
The boy stuck his fingers in his ears, trying not to hear the constant drumming of raindrops against the roof, or the irritating whistling sound of the wind as it rolled across the mud-encrusted hillsides. He peered out the window, but because the hills were thickly blanketed with black storm clouds, the only light source was the continuous lightning. In such dimness, he could barely even see the fenced off area of the adjacent downward hillside. The area had been used for growing crops before the arrival of the Darkstorm-now it was utterly barren, as was all the land in the Ageran Hills.
Darren shut his eyes, desperately trying to remember what the Ageran Hills had been like only a few months ago. When the loud crowing of the roosters woke Darren, he would squint his eyes to adjust to the sharp sunlight beaming through the window. Then he would look outside and see a thick wall of cornstalks towering over the smaller tomato plants and wheat grasses. But beyond all these vegetables, grown on the hill that Darren was atop, he had a view of the undulating meadowland that he called home. He could see over half a mile away, where his neighbors, Farmer Jina and Farmer Riven, had a significantly larger farm.
The Ageran Hills had had a warm climate throughout the year, with very small seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall. Naturally, Darren and his uncle Ilsodar had been taken aback when a series of rainy, stormy days had come, forcing them to lock up the animals in the barn. Darren had waited impatiently for the sun to return as the storm clouds became denser, letting less and less sunlight penetrate through them. By the end of one week of constant rain, Ilsodar decided that they needed to harvest the crops they could before all the plants died. By the end of two miserable weeks, some crops were in storage and the rest were dead, drowned in the building mud. Darren and Ilsodar, who were hardly religious, started to pray to Shen and Agrinon for sunlight to return. Three of their five chickens and their cow all died in the next months, diseased by the cold and darkness of the cramped barnhouse space. During those months, few visitors came by, but the ones that did, either their closest neighbors or travelers who needed shelter, generally called the terrible change in climate "the Darkstorm," claiming that it was sent by the gods to punish humanity for their sins. Ilsodar called these claims ridiculous, and told Darren not to mull over them.
But Darren did mull over them, every day, because he needed a satisfying explanation for such a horrible storm that had appeared out of nowhere and remained over the Ageran Hills for a period of over five months, still continuing. He had not been raised to believe that the gods, if they even existed, had complete control over everyone or everything, but what other rational explanation was there for the Darkstorm?
Darren did remember one strange woman who had stopped by for shelter a couple months ago. She had said that the Darkstorm was "a result of dark and powerful magick." Ilsodar had quickly told Darren not to listen to her nonsense, as her mind had probably been affected by the constant darkness of the weather.
Darren put his thoughts to rest as he pushed himself off of his saggy hay bed and slowly stood up. He stretched his arms against the rotting wooden wall of his cramped, musty room. There were not that many things in the room, but what was there took up a lot of space-a bed, a table, and a bureau of clothes, all built by Ilsodar. On the table sat some half-melted candles, old books, wet and dirty clothes, and a statue of a naked woman wrapped with cornstalks. She was Agrinon, the hill-goddess of farming. Darren rarely prayed to her, but kept the statue anyway.
Darren dressed himself in some tattered clothing-it was difficult to keep clothes undamaged while working on the farm. On top of his bureau was a candle clock, a somewhat rare device that Ilsodar had brought all the way from the West Colonies. Ten nails had fallen from the candle as the wax had dripped, indicating that it was between four and five in the morning. Too early, he thought.
He opened his door and stepped into the main room of the house, a crowded combined living room, dining room, and kitchen. Ilsodar was boiling some eggs in the small fireplace, the only part of his house made of brick. Ilsodar did not look exhausted or feeble, but the creases across his face, like the rings of color on the surface of a tree stump, revealed the many years that he had lived in the world. There was quite a contrast between Ilsodar's long, somewhat disheveled gray hair and beard and Darren's short coffee-colored hair and mere hints of whiskers. Ilsodar's skin tone was also much darker than Darren's, a sign of the old man's western blood. Darren and Ilsodar had the same slender body build, but the most obvious resemblance between them was their passionate blue eyes.
"Why are you up so early?" Darren asked.
Ilsodar looked at Darren and smiled. "I should ask the same of you."
"Nightmares," said Darren.
"Same ones as every night?" Ilsodar asked.
Darren sighed. "Each night, the dreams feel realer and realer. That's what makes them so… horrible."
"The Darkstorm is getting to your mind," said Ilsodar. "It's getting to mine too."
Darren squeezed by the table in the center of the room to access to the kitchen cabinet. "I see you went to the barnhouse for some eggs."
"Wasn't pleasant," said Ilsodar. Usually, Darren would wake up first, so he would be the one to walk through mud and rain to the barnhouse, where the grains and dried vegetables were stored and the chickens were kept. He was glad not to have to do that this morning.
Darren put some plates and silverware on the table. "You mind if I look in the storeroom for some books?" Darren asked.
"I brought up some books for you," Ilsodar said, pointing to a stack that sat near the bathroom door.
"I was actually wondering if you had any books on dreams," said Darren. "I'd like to understand these recurring nightmares."
Ilsodar put a hard-boiled egg on Darren's plate. "I might have the right book somewhere up there," he said. "You want me to look with you?"
"I'll be fine," said Darren while he removed the shell from his egg. He quickly and silently ate it, then took off from the table, grabbing one of the tall blue candles that was lighting the room. He opened a small door, then climbed up a narrow staircase that took him into the attic, where there was a mess of boxes and books, some in piles and some just scattered over the hay floor. He placed the candlestick on top of a large box, making sure it was stable there so as to prevent burning down the house.
Very few farmers in the Ageran Hills had as many books as Ilsodar-few had any books at all. Darren occasionally questioned Ilsodar about where the hundreds of books had come from, but Ilsodar always became evasive about the subject. But whatever reason the books were here, Darren was thankful, because lately reading had been one of the only ways for him to occupy himself.
Darren spent a long time rummaging through all the books. He found a few philosophical books with short passages about dreams, but nothing that pertained to Darren's recurring nightmares. He got distracted looking at interesting novels that had nothing to do with dreams, and thus the search took a long time. After about two hours he was quite discouraged, pretty sure that he had searched through all the books, about ready to give up. But then he stumbled over a book, The Journey to Tarfur, buried beneath the hay. He started randomly tearing up the hay floor until he found a couple more books, entitled Worship of Ignar and A Primer on Magick. The latter was a relatively attractive book, with a purple cloth cover and bound with golden ribbons.
Curious as to what the book was about, Darren opened it and read the introductory page.
The gods created the world, and they continue to watch over the world, but they cannot directly alter the world, for that would result in chaos. Rather, the gods alter the world by giving their human followers extraordinary powers-powers that can break the ordinary laws of physics, collectively called magick. Sorcery, the study of using magick, is an incredibly complex area of knowledge-a man could spend his whole life studying one school of magick without mastering it. But for those completely unfamiliar with magick, this book will provide a necessary introduction.
Darren looked up from the book, wondering if it had been written as a joke or parody. Perhaps it was written by a cult that believed that magick was the cause of the Darkstorm, as the woman who had stopped by a couple months ago had. But I know it doesn't exist. That's what Uncle Ilsodar said, and he knows what he's talking about. Darren continued reading.
Because magick is a gift from the gods, it has no known limits. Obviously, some spells are significantly more difficult to cast than others, and unlimited magick-the use of magick without spells-is so advanced that few sorcerers even try it, and those that do often cause horrible accidents with their uncontrolled power. But when used properly, magick can do incredible things, from creating rips in the fabric of the world to destroying large armies in one single blow to controlling the climate of the entire world.
Darren closed the book, feeling cold inside. Ilsodar wouldn't have lied to me, he thought, but inside he wanted magick to exist because it could provide a rational explanation for the Darkstorm. Rational, except that the entire premise of magick was ridiculous. It was not even magick itself that was so ridiculous, but the idea that it had existed for Darren's whole life and he had never known about it. He had read about it in fairy-tale stories, and he had heard a woman speak about it, but if it existed he would have probably seen physical evidence of it. But I have, Darren thought. I've seen the Darkstorm.
Darren sat immobile for a long while, considering all the possibilities if magick did exist, but also wondering how it possibly could. After a few minutes he thrust his arms forward and flicked his wrists, momentarily expecting something to happen. Why did I do that? he wondered. Then he remembered often making the same gesture as a young child. He had been an incredibly imaginative little boy who had spent most of his day running across the grasslands wildly, pretending, perhaps believing, that he was a dragonslayer or a unicorn rider or a powerful sorcerer. When he used to flick his wrists, he was pretending to throw fireballs, something he had heard about in stories.
What did it mean now that Darren had flicked his wrists again? That he wanted to believe in magick? Or that he actually did?
This is all ridiculous, Darren thought. Ilsodar told me that magick does not exist. And Ilsodar has never lied to me. I should go downstairs and ask him about this nonsense book right now.
Darren did not want to ask his uncle about it, for some reason. He wanted to finish reading the book and accept that it might plant bizarre ideas in his brain. Ilsodar would not want me to read it.
Darren started to put some books back in boxes, attempting to create at least a little bit of order in the room of complete chaos. Then he picked up A Primer on Magick and tried to hold it discreetly so that Ilsodar would not notice as he carried it to his room.
* * *
Although the book repeatedly said that it was only introducing the concepts involved in magick, what was written was more complex than anything Darren's mind could have invented. The book discussed the components of spells, including rune languages, body movement, specialized materials, and occasionally sacrifice. It also mentioned magical energy, which all sorcerers required to accept power from the gods. Magical energy, usually obtained from large underground energy pools, came in twelve different forms, each of which corresponded to a different discipline of magic. Darren read about each of the disciplines, but the one that most interested him was skymagick, which could possibly have been used to create the Darkstorm.
The book went into depth about runes and magical languages, which sorcerers used to specify the effects for their spells. Many of the languages were not only used for spells but for communication-magical languages often expressed thoughts and ideas better than spoken words could. Some basic runes were inscribed into the book-each one was an odd arrangement of colored markings crossed over each other.
He got to a section about Animor, the language of souls, which one could use to speak to his or her inner self. When Darren rubbed his fingers over the Animorian runes, sounds rose inside of him, loud but gentle. Darren first thought that these sounds were nothing more than the wind, but then identified the sounds as words-whispers-in an archaic language. Strangely, the sounds soothed Darren. He felt as if a heavy load of worries and troubles was being lifted from his back. He removed his fingers from the runes; the whispers stopped and the soothing feeling ended. Darren touched the runes a few more times and had the same results. Maybe I'm imagining this, he thought.
He reluctantly took a break from reading to boil some tomato soup for dinner. While he and Ilsodar ate, the old man asked if Darren had found any books that explained his dreams.
"Not really," Darren said. "I found another… interesting book."
"Really?" asked Ilsodar. "What about?"
Darren almost answered truthfully, but decided not to, unsure how his uncle would react. "Nothing important." Darren cleared his place and left the table.
He went to his room and lit a candle, then sat down on his bed and continued reading A Primer on Magick. He was so fascinated by it that he could not put it down, even as he became quite tired from a long day of thinking. When he finally finished it, there were still so many thoughts raging within him.
He put out his candle and stared out the window at the darkness of the land, the horrible sight that he had awoken to. He put his mind into the darkness, into the dreary winds and raindrops falling to their doom. All his conflicting thoughts about magick were scattered into the landscape around him-all he could think about was the misery that was the Darkstorm.
He shut his eyes and slowly fell into the first of his three recurring dreams, which began with the scent of honey everywhere and a constant buzzing in the air. There was a colony of vibrant bumblebees living in a serene, secluded hive. The bees led simple lives, gathering nectar and feeding their queen, but desired nothing more. Darren felt their contentment as if it were his own.
A monstrous forest bear wanted to devour the sweetness of the hive, to drain it of all its life. Darren, too, felt the bear's feral hunger as if it were his own, and was confused. Was he the bear or the bees? As the bear pounced onto the hive, thrashing its dagger-like claws into the nectar and bees, Darren felt extreme pain. He quickly opened his eyes.
His clothes were torn apart, scattered over the dirty floor. Darren looked at his skin and found no scratch, yet he smelled blood in every direction. Almost uncontrollably, he closed his eyes and fell back into his dream.
The hive was breaking; the bees spiraled through the air chaotically. While the bear continued to slam his sharp claws into the crumbling hive, they flew in various directions, not making any effort to attack the bear. The bear bit into the honeycomb, and Darren screamed in pain. He bolted up again and saw that there were large gashes in his skin-he was bleeding. He still heard the sounds of buzzing and growling, even in a conscious state.
Darren closed his eyes and felt nourishment as the bear scooped nectar from the hive. But it was still hungry-it wanted more. It dug its claws deeper and deeper into the home of the bees, killing masses of them. The bees were in chaos; Darren's mind was in chaos. So many emotions stirred through his head! Darren felt the bees' unending sorrow as they watched each other die. But the queen bee, the soul of the hive, did not mourn-she struggled to regain control of her hive. She called out, telling her bees to use their last strength against the bear, to destroy the evil that had destroyed their hive. But Darren still felt the bear's instinctive desire to destroy the bees and extract all of their sweet honey.
The queen made a series of noises that sounded more like whispers than buzzes. Darren now identified these sounds as similar to the ones he had heard when rubbing the Animorian runes. For whatever reason, the queen was speaking the language of souls.
The queen rocketed toward the bear. The bear thrashed forward with its huge arms, knocking the bee down into the ground, then angrily stabbed its claws into the dirt, soon tearing off the queen's left wing. Darren felt extraordinary pain and opened his eyes, only to find the bear right in front of him, tearing apart his skin like paper. It had long and messy brown fur hanging to the floor, sword-sharp claws long enough to tear Darren's heart out, and blood-dripping fangs hanging out of its mouth like elephant's tusks. While ripping through Darren's ribcage, the bear let out roars as loud as volcanic explosions, shaking its head back and forth as if it was trying to terrify everything in every direction. The bear showed off its claws and fangs, clearly its most prized possessions, while attacking Darren.
Darren was so overcome with fear that he could do nothing while his flesh was torn apart. He concentrated, trying to hear the sounds of the queen bee clearly. She was speaking to Darren's soul! Or maybe from Darren's soul! The queen bee and bear fought violently until the queen made her final blow into the bear's heart, releasing her mighty stinger's poison.
Drooling blood, the bear growled in Darren's face. Darren could hardly stand to look down at his chest and stomach, where he found that half his veins and bones were missing. He was empty-he was dying. He cried in agony, but faintly heard the Animorian whispers of the queen bee. The words relaxed Darren, and he felt strength and hope bubble inside him. He jumped up wildly and punched and kicked the bear.
Without her vital stinger, the queen bee died, leaving the once-great bee colony nothing more than scattered ruins. But the poisoned bear, against all odds, collapsed and died as well.
Darren, collapsing back in his bed, looked around him and saw the bear, dead or otherwise, nowhere. Realizing he had lost a fatal amount of blood, he peered out the window at his nightmarish world, filled with a darkness so great that he was almost happy he would soon die and leave the world forever.
Darren sat at the dining room table tiredly. His mind was a mess of thoughts about his dreams, magick, and the Darkstorm. Darren first considered that everything that had happened the previous night was a result of some powerful magick, but nothing in the book he had read even remotely described what had happened to him. Magick's existence did not make any kind of sense in Darren's mind because he knew he would have heard about such a phenomenon earlier in his life if it truly existed. But if magick did not exist, what explanation was there for Darren's dream seemingly coming to life and almost killing him? And what explanation was there for him being alive now after seemingly being fatally wounded the previous night? Darren tried another line of thought, that everything that had happened during the previous day was all some crazy dream that his on-the-verge-of-insane mind had come up with. He almost believed that, except that he had found A Primer on Magick sitting by his hay bed shortly after waking up. So whether or not he chose to accept it, yesterday had happened.
Darren stubbornly decided that he was not going to talk to Ilsodar about what had happened yesterday, largely because he worried that Ilsodar would think he was crazy. I am crazy. I must be.
Ilsodar finally walked out of his bedroom at about seven in the morning. "You look horrible, Darren."
"Thanks," Darren said with a fake grin.
"Anything I can do?"
Darren held his head in his hands. "Everything's just so… confusing."
Ilsodar sat down on a chair. "Talk to me, Darren. What's happening?"
"I don't know," Darren said. "Maybe it's just the Darkstorm. It's making me crazy. I just… Everything was so much clearer when there was light shining down on me. I would do anything in the world just to see daylight again."
Ilsodar smiled. "I hope you wouldn't, Darren. There are things more important than light."
Darren stared at his uncle bewilderedly.
"Morality," Ilsodar said. "Benevolence. Love. These things will always be the most important to me, and I hope to you as well."
"Why?" asked Darren.
Ilsodar did not answer Darren directly. "Let me tell you a story that I heard as a boy, about a young woman named Elania."
Darren listened patiently.
"Elania lived on the continent of Aciescolub during the time when Oriathon, the Demon of Darkness, created a dark shadow over her land. Over the years, her world became even darker than ours is now, until it was almost completely absent of any light. Everyone lived in great despair, including Elania. Elania was one of the few that fought this darkness-her life was devoted to saving others from it.
"One day, Elania found the Great Staircase of Az-Ur, shining with blue light. She followed it into through the clouds above, until she reached the Blue Moon, a source of light so powerful that it gives bliss to any being, freeing them from all fear and despair. In this way, Elania escaped the suffering that the rest of the population endured.
"Elania saw the people below searching for light-some began to seek the Staircase of Az-Ur. But Elania, consumed by the Blue Moon's light, decided to do nothing to save the people from their misery. She tried to forget the world below and live alone in her blissful world.
"She eventually found herself unable to stay so ignorant-she started paying closer attention to the suffering people as they came closer to finding the staircase. She worried that they take the light and bliss away from her. As her anxieties grew, she began to craft plans to protect the Blue Moon from other travelers. Using the Blue Moon's power, she concealed the Great Staircase so that no one could find it, and created a monster to guard the moon. No one could reach it, and everyone on the continent died."
Ilsodar stopped talking, but Darren still looked for more. "And… what next?"
"Next? There is no next. That's the end of the story."
"I don't get it. What's the point?"
"Light isn't everything," said Ilsodar. "It may be an age of terrible darkness, but that does not undermine the importance of helping others. And I'm not telling you this for nothing-I imagine that a time will come when you must choose between your own happiness and the happiness of others."
Darren nodded. "I'm exhausted. I'm going to rest now."
Ilsodar watched Darren get up. "You sure there's nothing else wrong?"
"I'll be alright," said Darren. Then a thought occurred. "That story was completely made up, right?"
"What do you think?" said Ilsodar.
Darren sighed and returned to his room.
* * *
The calmness of the seawater was shattered by a tidal wave as it ripped through the ocean. The wave absorbed all the waters that stood in its way, becoming larger and fiercer every moment. A fleet of ships from the western shores moved through the waters, on their way to war, unaware of the dooming wave that rushed toward them. By the time the wave faced the innocent ships, it had grown taller than all of the ships combined. The wave laughed at the measly ships, soon to swallow them all in a swift gulp. The ships only realized their fate when the wave's terrible shadow fell over them. Then they cowered in complete terror and helplessness, because there was nothing they could do to prevent their unfortunate destruction.
The forceful water of the wave crushed each ship into a chaos of broken wood and flesh of the shipmates, which was absorbed into the waves' crest. The wave felt joy as it overpowered the weak fleet. As the destruction continued, the ships stop feeling fear-they instead felt pain, not for themselves but for one another. The ships had sailed together for years, and now they were watching each other be destroyed.
All the ships were gone within seconds, except for one. One ship, the smallest of them all, faced the huge tidal wave. The ship, instead of cowering, rode forward with all its force into the center of the wave. The ship and the water ferociously wrestled with each other until ship fragments and water flew everywhere in a violent explosion.
Darren's eyes opened and he found he was drowning in the explosion of water. Water was beneath and above him, forcing itself down his mouth and nose. He could not breathe! He tried to swim upward, to get a breath of air, but there was water in every direction. It was coming from everywhere, coming from nowhere, leaking from Darren's dream into the real world. "Help me!" he tried to yell, but only bubbles came from his mouth. I'm going to die, he thought. I'm going to die.
Then he felt a hand against his leg, and soon realized that Ilsodar was tugging it. Darren's mind settled down. The battle was over-the last ship and the tidal wave had destroyed each other, and now the seas were calming down. When Ilsodar pulled Darren out of the water, he took a breath of air so large that his lungs almost exploded as air rushed in them. "What… what's happening?" he gasped.
Ilsodar had opened the door to Darren's room, allowing all the water to drain throughout the house. Darren and Ilsodar were now standing in less than an inch of water. "You tell me," said Ilsodar.
"Am I dreaming?" he asked.
Ilsodar held Darren's arm and took him over to a dining chair in the main room of the house. "No, you're not dreaming. Sit down, Darren."
Darren looked at his uncle hopelessly as he took a seat. "How? How does anything make sense?"
"I'm not sure if I understand things myself," Ilsodar said.
"Tell me this," Darren said dejectedly. "Magick… is it real?"
Ilsodar took a deep sigh. "I suppose I can't hide it from you any longer."
"I already found out about it," said Darren angrily. "Through one of your books. A Primer on Magick."
Ilsodar nodded. "I should have thought as much."
"How could you hide this from me?" Darren shouted. "My whole life, you've been telling me that magick doesn't exist, that I shouldn't believe in such nonsense. My whole life, you've been lying to me! Was I the only person in the universe not to know about this little phenomenon?"
"No. Very few farmers in the Ageran Hills know about magick, or at least very few choose to acknowledge it. Sorcery, and the study of it, has been banned in the hills ever since settlers first came here from Basilcolub."
"Why?" Darren asked.
"The people who came here wanted to escape from the complications of magick," said Ilsodar. "Most came to live a farming life, but a few formed a secret society that would protect the Ageran Hills from sorcery, whether it be good or evil. This group also protects all knowledge of magick, any spellbooks or magical items, from the rest of the population. That's why many who live in the Ageran Hills today do not even know magick exists. And the rules of the Ageran Hills, the only rules there are, prohibit people from discussing magick."
"The rules can go to Tarfur!" Darren yelled. "I'm your nephew! How could not tell me?"
"When you were young, I brought you here because I didn't want to have to raise you in a place where you could be harmed by magick," Ilsodar said. "And I didn't want to have to deal with magick either. I came here to forget all the difficulties I once had in my days of sorcery. I lied to you to protect you-I would never have wished you any harm."
The softness with which Ilsodar spoke made Darren want to forgive his uncle, but he could not yet let go of his burning anger. He sat down on his soaked bed and looked away from Ilsodar.
"Maybe you'll feel better if you understand things better," Ilsodar said. "Let me help you… understand."
Darren looked at the floor. "What is the Darkstorm? What is it really?"
Ilsodar stroked his beard. "The Darkstorm came from the depths of the South Sea. I know that its purpose is to destroy-to make the world into a dark void, where no change or emotion exists. Powerful sorcerers brought it here, although I don't know why. I do know that the storm has been prophesized for years, although no one was prepared for it to come. And supposedly, the storm will eventually kill everyone on the continent of Mordicolub, except for perhaps a small handful."
Darren's prior anger toward Ilsodar drained from his body, replaced by fear. "Are… Are we going to die, Uncle Ilsodar?"
Ilsodar gave no answer. "I would like to know where that water came from."
Darren swallowed. "Last night, I was dreaming the first of my dreams, the one with bees and a bear. And then the bear came to life, and attacked me. And just now when I fell asleep, I was dreaming the second of my dreams, with ships and a destructive tidal wave. But the water… It exploded, right out of my dream. And then I was drowning, and then…" A tear fell from Darren's eye.
Ilsodar sat down on a chair, next to his nephew. "You told me about the dreams, a long while ago. But I'd like to hear them again."
As Darren slowly explained each of his three dreams to Ilsodar, the old man grew tenser. Darren looked at his uncle's expression, which Ilsodar was clearly trying to keep blank but was having a difficult time doing so. Darren paused in his explanations a few times, but all Ilsodar would say was, "Continue."
When Darren finally finished telling his third dream, he anxiously waited for Ilsodar to say something, but the old man just stared into space for a while. "So?" Darren interrupted the silence. "What do the dreams mean?"
Ilsodar looked at Darren sadly. "You won't want to hear this."
"What are you talking about?" Darren demanded.
"I told you that the Darkstorm would kill everyone on the continent, except for a small handful."
"You said that was prophesized."
"Yes," Ilsodar said. "Unfortunately, so much of the Darkstorm Prophecy has come true that I'd be damned to Tarfur if the whole thing didn't play out. Who will live and who will die in the Darkstorm has already been chosen, by, as much as I hate to say the word…" Ilsodar paused. "Destiny. When I first heard your dreams, I did not take them for anything special, but now I see that they are signs-signs that you-"
"I'm going to die?" Darren said fearfully.
"You're going to live," Ilsodar said. "You're one of the Chosen, the Twelve Chosen, destined to survive the doom that awaits everyone else."
It took Darren a moment to understand why this fate was so unfortunate, but when he did, his mind was overcome with emotion. Everyone else would die, but Darren would live. Ilsodar would die, but Darren would live. He would be alone and afraid, surrounded by darkness. "No," Darren said. "If you're going to die, so am I. But you're not going to die, Uncle Ilsodar. We're both going to live on-we're both going to be happy. We make our own destinies! Nothing is set is stone-that's what you've taught me."
Ilsodar made a sad smile, holding out his hands. "My arms are weak, Darren. Our destinies are not set in stone, but I'm not strong enough to carve myself a different destiny, no matter how sharp a knife I'm given. I'm forced to accept the one that the gods, or whoever decides these things, gave me."
"I'm strong enough!" Darren cried. "I don't have to survive! I can kill myself-I'll die before living on without you!"
Darren breathed heavily, shocked at his own words. Ilsodar looked as if he had expected Darren to say that. "Sometimes being strong means following your destiny rather than trying to fight it."
"Why should I?" Darren screamed. What he hated most was how much sense Ilsodar was making. Looking back, he had been happier when he had been so clueless about everything. "You're wrong about this! You don't even know what you're talking about! How can you know this just from hearing about my stupid dreams?"
Ilsodar sighed. "The Darkstorm Prophecy, if I remember correctly, says that each of the Twelve Chosen will receive visions of their destiny, and that these visions will become realer and realer to each Chosen until they finally accept their destiny. In your dreams, there is a large powerful force destroying everyone, but only one survives to destroy the force. The dreams may not be a literal translation of what will actually happen, but they are quite clearly signs of things to come. And just as the prophecy says, your dreams have become increasingly real to you each night, until last night and this morning, when your first two dreams became so real that-"
"What's the frigging point of this?" Darren shouted, starting to cry. "I don't want to be a Chosen!"
"I would imagine not."
Darren got up from his seat and ran toward his room.
"Darren, let me talk to you," called Ilsodar.
"Leave me alone!" the boy shouted, slamming the door to his room shut.
* * *
The nighttime sky was peacefully shared by thousands of tiny stars. No star asked for more than it had-they were all content to be with each other. But as dawn approached, the stars saw the sun rising from below, and they were scared. The sun was one thousand times larger than all the stars combined, and with its wrathful flames it could quickly burn away the stars of night. The stars flew away from the path of the sun, hoping to avoid an encounter with it, but the sun wanted control over the entire sky.
The sun's red-hot fire engulfed the stars around it, reducing them to ash. It shot out huge solar flares to finish off the stars that were fleeing from it. The sun dominated the skies with its wild fury-it would remain in the skies forever, never to let night return. It would, except that there was one star, a tiny shooting star, that flew in circles around the sun, dodging its mighty flares. The star flew into the center of the sun, creating an explosion of radiation that destroyed both the sun and the star.
Darren was lying in mud when Ilsodar shook his shoulders to wake him up. He smelt suffocating smoke before he opened his eyes. He sat up and saw that he was about ten feet away from his house, which was being engulfed by towers of furious amber-red flames. Some farmers, neighbors of Darren's whom he had not seen for months, stood around the fire, splashing it with large buckets of water in a nearly hopeless attempt to put it out. I did this, Darren thought, hypnotized by the sight.
"Damn it, Darren, move!" Ilsodar shouted, aggravated. He grabbed Darren's hand and pulled him up. "Grab a bucket!" Darren, staring at their burning house in awe, walked over to Farmer Jina, a plump old woman with dark brown skin, who was standing only five feet away from the flames. She wore mud-covered raggedy pants and a thick white cotton sweater. She held five buckets with her hands, three with her teeth, and two under her huge armpits.
"Can I have one?" Darren asked.
"Aaa!" Jina screamed, dropping three buckets from her mouth. "Ya' scared the hell out of me," she said in her native hill-farmer accent, one which neither Darren nor Ilsodar had. "Damn it, ya' made me spill. Now I 'ave to fill them all over 'gain."
As Farmer Jina refilled the buckets with mud and rainwater, Darren stared back into the raging flames and lost himself again. Jina snapped him out of his spaciness with a strong slap. "Get to work splashin' the fire. Don't tell me I dropped my buckets for nothin'! Pick one up!"
Darren grabbed a bucket. "What's the point of this? We'll never put the fire out!"
"Gotta stop it from spreadin'," Jina said. "Till some heavy rain comes to put the fire out." It was now only drizzling.
"That could take days," Darren said, tossing the dirty water from his bucket onto the flames.
"That's less than the time it will take for ya' to shut ya' wise little mouth," Jina snorted. Darren decided to stay quiet while he continued to splash water over the fire.
As Darren's arms tired, he turned his attention to the fire rather than the movements of his body. The flames were so fascinating, flickering back and forth angrily but harmoniously. After a couple of minutes, Darren dropped his buckets. Jina slapped Darren a few times, but he was in an unbreakable trance.
"Give up!" Ilsodar shouted to all the farmers. "Go back to your homes-this is a hopeless battle. Do not jeopardize your safety by staying around here."
"Ya' comin'?" Jina shouted to Darren. "Ya' 'ome's gone, boy. Time to move; ya' and ya' uncle can stay with me and old Riven for a while."
Darren just stood in place, enthralled. He remembered being these furious flames, being the terrible sun that burnt up the stars. He remembered being the last star, all alone, plummeting into the center of the sun to destroy it. Immersed in these dreams, he lost reality and madly charged into the fire.
His clothes burnt to shreds and he realized how little protection he had against the oncoming wave of heat as it nearly melted his organs. He felt as if his skin was falling off and all of his tissues were spilling out-blood was gushing out of every scratch and opening on his body. Brown and black scorches appeared over him-he was being toasted alive! His hands and feet would be reduced to coal and his brain cooked like an egg.
The ongoing wind sped up unnaturally and rotated around the fire intensely, making smaller and smaller rotations until it became a tiny but powerful tornado in the center of the fire. Black cumulus clouds were sucked down into the whirlwind from the sky, forming a spiral of rapidly rotating fog that snatched up everything within a nearby radius like a frog's tongue would flies. The tornado first ate up all the raging flames, then the duststorm remaining from Ilsodar's house, and finally the large leftover chunks of the house. Many of these flying chunks-pieces of the roof, window panes, couch cushions, shelves-rotated around the tornado a couple of times before they were violently thrown into the ground. When the hill-folk saw this terrifying tower of wind, they began running in random directions chaotically.
Darren's body, drenched in blood, was left half-buried in the ground at the tornado's base. Barely alive, he managed to stay conscious. He wondered if it was a coincidence that the twister had come just in time to save him from burning up. Darren almost felt that he had somehow willed the tornado to come toward him, even as he had been daydreaming about the sun and stars.
The winds of the tornado passed over Darren, sweeping away the blood and dirt off of Darren. The wind is healing me. Darren was able to hold onto the ground as the wind tugged on him for a few minutes, but eventually let go and flew many feet upward. He looked down and saw his uncle, screaming loudly and clawing upward like a wild lion. The view of Ilsodar disappeared as Darren spun rapidly around the twister a couple times.
The twister threw Darren down violently. He made a couple tumbles through the mud like a drunken gymnast before his body came to a complete stop, again at the foot of the tornado. The tornado, about to drive right through Darren and rip apart his body, miraculously jumped up and levitated in the air for a few moments over Darren. I'm controlling it! I'm controlling it! But whatever magical efforts Darren was making to hold up the tornado failed as it came crashing down on him and Ilsodar.
They were in the heart of the twister, surrounded by spiraling black fog that formed a seemingly infinitely high tower. Everything in the heart was calm as a pond-even Darren and Ilsodar stood as statues in the center. But this small circle of calmness was surrounded by rings of violent wind. Darren heard Animorian whispers inside him louder than ever but still unclear in meaning.
Darren noticed short humanoid creatures crouching in the rings of darkness. The creatures had devilish skull-shaped heads and blood-red beaming eyes, emanating vibes of evil unlike any Darren had felt before. Just by being in their presence, Darren could tell that this was a dark, malevolent race, most likely working to spread the darkness of the Darkstorm. And they wanted Darren dead or worse-he could sense that just from the look in their eyes.
Ilsodar embraced Darren, who was about to collapse with fear. The old man grabbed a tiny sphere, shining with bright light, from his pocket. He tossed the sphere in the air, yelling, "Be gone, creatures of darkness!" When the sphere hit the ground, there was an explosion of light. Darren felt a wave of compassion pass through him, and he squeezed Ilsodar even tighter.
"I love you," Darren told his uncle. Then the boy fell unconscious.