Story

Beyond the Twilight Gate

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This story features a child with a life-threatening illness and a bittersweet ending.
My dearest brother,

I know you miss me, but I can’t cure you by telling stories at your bedside. Though you’ve faced the fainting spells and sudden shivers bravely, these symptoms are too stubborn to be soothed with herbal tonics and a strong will. Your friends began to fade six days ago now, and their spirits have already left for the sweet meadows. I swear, though, I won’t let that happen to you.

If only I’d listened that night, you wouldn’t be ill. When you told me of the bright shadows that watched from the woods, eyes flickering, and the faint notes riding the breeze, I assumed you were playing. But you were earnest. I should have kept you closer. I shouldn’t have sent you out alone the next day. To my shame, I didn’t realize my mistake until I mentioned your words to Grandmother. She described how she had seen these watchers lurking in the trees the day your friends fell ill. She hadn’t mentioned it before because no one else ever saw such things. I rushed out to find you as soon as I learned this, but I was too late.

Now I must discover your cure. I’ve laced my boots, loaded my satchel, and even packed up half the scrolls in my library. I’m certain you would laugh if you saw me burdened so, but I may need to reference these scrolls before my quest is done. We may not have the answer to your strange illness, but surely the ones who lived here before us did. I must find more of their writings. I know, deciphering old scripts is my answer to every problem, but have I not been right many times? I’ll be right again – you’ll see.

Even though a journey is my only recourse, I could barely bring myself to leave you. I sat on the chair next to your bed, holding your hand until you fell into a fitful slumber. I crept away then, but on the threshold of our home, I stole a glance back. Your hand still rested on my chair, fingers grasping. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be where you reached. I beg fate to reveal that I didn’t surrender precious moments with you for naught.

While I can’t comfort you with my voice, I’ll write home as often as I find a courier to carry my letters. I’ll regale you with what knowledge I discover, which you’ve always loved to hear – or at least you’ve humored me by listening.

Now rest, little honey bee. I promise I will eat properly as I pursue my studies, as you are so fond of reminding me to do. In return, you must rest and drink whatever Grandmother brings you, sweet or vile. Delaying the tremors and seizing by a mere day could mean everything. Stay steadfast for me until I return.

With love,
Evaline


Dearest brother,

I’m not so far from you. Peer out toward the rising sun, and imagine me and my scrolls between the hickory trunks just over the next big hill. When you are well, I will take you to play in the valley here. Its floor is covered with curving stone walls, much of them broken and blanketed in moss. Once this place must have been a massive labyrinth; now it’s the perfect spot for a game of hide-and-seek. I daresay you’ll have the better of me.

The Daunics built these walls long ago. Perhaps you don’t remember their name, but I’ve often described them to you as our lost kin. They left for the same reason we came – pushed out by marauders, their villages burned and their temples torn down. They even shared some words with us. That’s what allowed me to learn their script, though in my years of studying them, I’ve found no one who converses in their tongue.

Since leaving your side, I’ve spent long hours peeling the green veils from their stones and tracing the symbols underneath. They carved the landscape and heavens into their stonework, a grander version of my own maps. These landscapes are why I’m here now. I hope that once I copy them onto parchment, they’ll lead me to a forgotten library, or a temple, or some other cache of their writings yet uncovered.

Yet as I trace the land, I’m awed at how much they loved the sky. The stars are charted here, as are the movements of the sun and the moon. No doubt this gave them a calendar for planting and harvest, but their devotion surpassed this. They believed the heavens might herald great events. I am reminded that the night you came to me with your fears, the moon had a blue sheen. It was so brilliant it gave the hills a faint glow, yet the stars seemed no dimmer by comparison. Was the night sky warning me of danger? If only I’d studied harder, maybe I would have heeded.

The village healers believe I’m following fancies, but I’m sure the Daunics knew of the bright shadows you saw. They lived here for untold centuries; they would have seen the phantoms creep down the slopes after their children. They wrote of all things they cherished; they would have recorded how to cure such illnesses.

With their wisdom, I will restore you.

Your loving sister,
Evaline


Sweet brother,

I’m at an inn now, a day’s journey away. I’ve unrolled my old scrolls and newly traced maps, concealing every bare spot of floor beam. Since the daylight has passed, I require half a dozen lamps to examine them all. I continually adjust my lamps, banishing the flickering shadows that cover some corner of paper, so I may ponder the patterns in full.

The written materials I brought are more numerous than I imagined. In my hurry to gather everything I might need, I even grabbed a scroll I can’t read. And yes, there are scripts your quill-handed sister has not mastered yet, though this scroll is more curious than even an unlearned script. When I view it, I see nothing but blank parchment. But it’s not a fresh sheet waiting for new ink; it’s cracked with age and mottled with small stains and scratches. Perhaps it’s from the Daunics. Grandmother couldn’t say, and she’s the only one who could see the lettering on it.

Oh, my little bee, simply by virtue of listening, you aid my quest! Grandmother is the only one who sees the watchers without trouble, and she’s the one who could see the writing on this scroll. It’s a tentative connection, I’ll admit that, but a striking one.

Perhaps this is because of Grandmother’s twilight eyes, as I’ve come to think of them. Young as you are, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that Grandmother sight is not like ours. At midday she looks into the sun, never blinking at the fierce light. In deep night she fetches kindling from the forest, bearing no candle to light her way. At times I’ve caught her staring past the village, her gaze following something that moves over the foothills.

She wasn’t always this way. From what she has told me, she was gathering herbs on the windswept slopes years ago and turned home too late. The sun set and the shadows claimed her path. When dawn came, she was found on the eastern trade road, bruised and unconscious. She awoke to twilight, and she has seen twilight ever since.

Though Grandmother saw the hidden script on this aged parchment, alas, she couldn’t discern it well enough to copy it for me. Now I must discover what the scroll says, and I have only one chance: to gain my own twilight eyes.

I know whereabouts Grandmother went to pick herbs, and whereabouts she was found. I now have more maps from the Daunics, marked with places they held sacred. Perhaps I can discover the secrets of her lost night.

I must bid you goodnight, little honey bee, for I have work to do. I will write more when I can.

With love,
Evaline


Brother mine,

I almost dare not say it, but I think I’ve found where the twilight eyes are bestowed. I can’t be certain until I try to gain them, and as Grandmother might have lost some memories here, I thought it prudent to record my notes first.

I’m standing just out of sight of the eastern road, in a large nook carved high into the hillside. If Grandmother fell from this landing and rolled down the slope, she would have come to rest where the traders found her. But many travelers tumble, and they don’t see phantoms afterward. For that, I can only guess she stepped through the arch.

I struggle to describe how strange this hidden archway feels. It’s the skeleton of an entrance, the door long rotted away, the stones around it left behind. The cracked remains of a few steps kneel before it. The old doorway would be unremarkable, except it’s the last remnant of a missing structure. The rocky floor holds traces of walls that were torn down. Like a mourner in a field of fallen soldiers, the arch stands vigil alone. The moon rises through its gaping mouth.

I’ve studied structure after structure, all left in pieces. How has this arch remained intact? Did the Daunics place special importance on this entrance, using harder, thicker stone in its construction? Did they destroy the rest of this building themselves, hoping the marauders would overlook one useless doorway? Perhaps the Daunics planned to return to this place, but perished instead. Or maybe some unseen force preserves these stones: a last, stubborn tribute to long-dead days.

Curses! The wind has stolen several of my scrolls and given them to the road below. If I spare the time to climb down and gather them back up, it will be dark when I return. No matter, I’ll leave an extra note for the courier I paid to come by here. I’ll ask him to search the area for papers, in addition to your wayward sister, who may be lying on the slopes. Don’t worry, I believe Grandmother’s memory loss and injuries were caused by her fall, which I promise not to repeat. However, I’m prepared for any outcome. If I faint after crossing through the arch, the courier will find me, and I‘ll have careful notes to inform me of my mission.

The sun is setting behind me, a searing reflection of the rising moon. I must do what I came for. I pray that once I step through the archway, I’ll have the twilight eyes. I can’t know from here; I can only walk through and see.

Love,
Evaline


Sweet bee,

Rest easy; the archway hasn’t hurt me. Had I closed my eyes while stepping through, I might not have noticed anything. With them open, I can see the world around me has shifted. Before, it was sunset and moonrise. It is still – but a different sunset, a different moonrise. The sun is weaker yet warmer, amber of the deepest afternoon. The moon shines brighter and bluer in a sky that shimmers with stars. Under that sky, everything from the soaring peaks to my own figure bears opposing shadows, blue and gold silhouettes on either side.

This is the sight I came seeking, but alas, I’m no closer to reading the Daunics’ parchment. Grandmother wasn’t wrong; letters cover it from top to tail, but now I know why she couldn’t trace the words for me. They are faint. So faint I can’t tell where one letter ceases and another takes its place. Even if I were born to this language I might not understand these words. As it is, I have no hope of reading them.

I am loathe to admit that I have wasted a day in my search for your cure. Time is precious; I should turn back immediately and start my search over, but haven’t yet brought myself to do so. Even unreadable, the faint lines call to me, much like a loved one shaking me from slumber. I’ve been turning the page over and over. I can just discern pale drawings, similar to others I have found in stonework. Perhaps I may still gain something from this discovery.

One of the sketches is their symbol for the moon. I’m sure of this one, for I’ve seen it many times. To my eyes this moon shines blue amidst the yellowing parchment, but it could be no more than the strange light and my desperate wishes. After staring closely at another drawing, I believe it shows a doorway. One with the wood door still in place, for the archway is shaded with vertical strokes. I struggle to make out a third illustration. It depicts a figure, hand in hand with a smaller figure – a child? My mind races to what this might mean, but these are only theories, and a good scholar doesn’t mistake her desires for truth. I must learn more.

In my restlessness, I’ve circled the arch thrice now. The heavens look no different on its other side. But if I walk back through the way I came… yes, the sky returns to its old self. I can guess what this means: the Daunics never intended for someone to fall into twilight forever. When a Daunic walked into the building, they were given the twilight, and when they walked out, it was taken back. This place must have been a temple. Within its borders, the Daunics could have watched the heavens without squinting or straining.

So the archway casts the twilight over those who enter. What might happen if I enter, step over the missing walls, and enter again? The doorway wasn’t meant for this, but if twice twilight helps me read the scroll… I’ll try it. Don’t fret, love, the archway didn’t hurt me the first time, so surely it won’t hurt me the second.


I’ve done it, little bee. I now stand in twice twilight, where the moon blooms brighter and the sun dies like an ember. The air feels thick, brushing the little hairs on my arms and neck, tickling my skin. My steps are light; I wonder if the wind might carry me away. This wouldn’t hurt me, I promise, for the landscape is strangely altered. What was a steep slope is now a soft incline. The hills spread before me have the same peaks, yet also bear new crevices into lightless depths. Tiny gold lights hover near them. The breeze that sweeps up the hillside is flowery, and bell-like notes ride on it. They almost form a melody, some song I have long forgotten.

Curiously, the missing walls of the temple have grown back somewhat; waist-high shadows stand in their place. These shadows look near solid, but I can step through them without difficulty. While I dare not spare the time from my present quest, later I might return and sketch them. Perhaps I can witness the ghostly traces of other fallen buildings. I would love to see how the labyrinth appears under these strange skies.

The arch fascinates me most of all – it glows blue and gold at once, but not an even glow. It is as though the stones are built from a swarm of the tiniest fireflies. When I look from outside the old walls, a shadowy curtain rests within the arch, veiling what lies in thrice twilight. That is, except for a single round hole. This hole slowly moves, so the moon may always peer through at me.

I am ill at ease here, but my gamble worked – at least partially. The words on the parchment are darker now, dark enough that I may read snippets of the Daunics’ wisdom. They describe how their cities were broken and their people fled. Yet their priests… I can’t make it out. Thankfully I can discern passages near the moon symbol, and I was right as to the color. The words describe a blue… eclipse? Conjunction? Some time when moon and stars are brighter than ever before. And the priests crafted doorways, doorways that open and close as the heavens move. On the back side of the parchment, it tells of children, or of their births, or of… alas! Even in twice twilight I can’t read it.

Now I must choose whether to turn twice to thrice. The notes on the wind have grown louder as I’ve studied here. The trees rustle as though something pushes through them, something on its way to me. My muscles tense, ready to run back to the skies I know. I don’t like the dark veil that covers the archway. I can’t tell what I might find on the other side.

If I don’t succeed here, where will I go next? How long will it take? I’m ashamed to admit that even with all my studies, I can’t think of another way to discover your cure. Perhaps I could find one, but time is against us. Your feverish tremors must be worsening day by day; I need a solution before you are overcome. And here I stand, with essential knowledge mere steps away.

I can’t go home to watch as you fade away. That leaves me with no choice but to go on.


I stand in the twilight temple. Its walls stretch above me, unbroken, dark and gleaming in the blue light. A stairway circles upward through an open crescent in the ceiling. Tall windows line the walls around me, and a door stands open in back, looking upon a gentle path to the valley floor. Through the windows I see the foothills, changed yet still familiar. I was mistaken when I wrote of shadowed crevices in the hills before. They’re not shadows, but black structures like this one. The tiny lights are now glowing wisps, bobbing up and down as they travel slowly over the landscape.

The heavy air prickles, and the wind brings not only notes, but song. The melody is one I’ve sung to you often, the lullaby of sun and waterfall, yet the words are different, the beat twisting. It’s been growing louder as the glowing wisps approach. As they grow nearer, the lights coalesce into gold silhouettes. Singers with shining eyes. Watchers. Daunics.

Yes, the Daunic priests dwell here. They were the bright shadows you saw when you went out to play. They’ll reach me soon, and I can’t run back through the archway, for the shadowy veil is now as solid as stone. All that’s left of the opening is a circle about the size of my fist, a hole through which the sun’s last light shines. Even now it creeps toward the edge of the doorway. I hurry to put down words before my chance is gone, though the ink I brought is faint to my eyes, revealed only by the dying sun.

The Daunics must not have known their words would be invisible to us, that I would have to join them to read their message in full. It describes how when the marauders came, the priests fled through the archway. They knew they would be trapped here, but they believed their people would return and free them. They waited as the heavens moved and their old stonework crumbled further. Once they finally accepted that their people had left forever, they did the only thing they could – they wrote to us, the new caretakers of their lands. Perhaps they’ve always been writing to us, and only this parchment was recognized for what it was.

After reading their message, I now understand that when the moon shines blue in the sky, the twilight is near. This is the only time the veil on the archway may be lifted, and it is rare and  fleeting. So the Daunics are using a ritual to keep the twilight close for longer, improving their odds of being freed. This ritual requires people outside the twilight to serve as anchors, and only children can be seen here. So the priests have followed you and included you in these rituals. They bound you between two worlds drifting apart, pulling your spirit toward the twilight.

The Daunics filled this blank-seeming parchment with instructions for freeing them from this place, instructions no one in the twilight can follow, and no one outside it can read. As I am trapped here as well, copying their words in my sun-blessed ink and sending them to you is my only chance of escape. But I won’t do it. The priests know what’s happening to you and your friends. Every time they perform their ritual, they’re choosing to harm you. I don’t care that they’re lost and desperate. Once they are among us, they may become desperate again. Given their strange knowledge, who could stop them from preying on you then? If remaining in this bright night is the cost of protecting you, I will pay it.

Before my time runs out, I must tell you how to protect yourself and the others. Go to the old labyrinth in the next valley over, the one I visited to trace my maps. The walls may look broken to you, but in the deep twilight, all the Duanic ruins are as new. As I am trapped by these strange stones, the Daunic priests cannot reach through the dark, solid walls. Hide with the other children in this vast maze, and they will not find you before they must renew their ritual. Your spirit will come unbound, and the twilight will drift away again, preventing them from using you further. After one night in the depths of the ruin, you’ll surely be safe from the watchers forever after.

Oh, my little sweet bee, I’m so sorry that I won’t see you again. I wanted to take you back to the ruins to play. I planned to teach you of the old languages and our history. Now our chance is gone. While I can’t be there with you, I’ll think of you for as long as I last. For my sake, live happily. Enjoy what the gracious earth gives you. Tell stories by the stars. Hold your loved ones close. Remember me at twilight, but don’t come looking.

What little time I had is gone; I must push this paper through the sun’s window. Outside, the breeze still feels strong, strong enough to carry one more parchment down to the trade road.

As I pray to the skies, I release my hope to the wind.

Always,
Evaline

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    A great story which really makes use of the epistolary format. I really enjoyed the read!

  2. Kieran

    So sad! I hadn’t thought that the sickness would be a magic spell, though.
    Very interesting, and very brave of Evaline to sacrifice herself for her brother.

  3. April

    Touching.

    I wanted it to end differently, but it engaged me throughout. Well done.

  4. Circe

    This is beautiful.

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