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Gift From The Darkness
by Orakio of the Domes


The dull, monotonous tone woke Ayn from deep slumber. He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes, clearing the last remnants of unreality out of his mind. A voice just as dull and monotonous as the tone spoke from an intercom. It was obviously a cyborg. "A visitor has arrived at the gate, King Ayn. Shall I permit entry?"

"Sure, sure, why not," the king of Azura mumbled as he got up and stretched, dimly wondering who could've paid him a visit at this hour. Pale and milky starlight filtered in through the windows above, and it shone upon his bed, where Thea was still asleep. Deciding not to wake her up, he turned and exited. The bright lights of the antechamber were a great contrast to the eerie silhouettes of his chamber, and it took a while before the haziness in his eyes disappeared.

When it did, though, he stepped forward and took a small elevator down to the first floor, where his guest was no doubt waiting for him. To Ayn, who had grown up in a technologically backwards place, the marvel of all these ancient machines had seemed tremendous, overwhelming almost, when he had first settled down on Azura moon after defeating Siren. There were advanced computer terminals, visiphones, microwaves, and tons more! It took a while before either he or his wife got used to the convenience of his home.

More than once, he had thought back to his childhood days, and wondered what his old friends might have thought if they had seen him living in such splendidness and such grandeur. And then he would wince as he remembered that most of them had died in the massacre of five years earlier, when they had been driven from their kingdoms of Cille and Shushoran. After peace was finally regained, some of the survivors returned to their home countries, but most stayed on Azura, which seemed securely comforting after the harrowing events that could not be wiped from their minds.

Ayn stood patiently before an egg-shaped hatchway, waiting for the visitor to appear. He absently wondered if it was another one of Sari's surprise visits. Ever since he completed his journey to find the legendary land of Satellite, the queen of Landen had come several times just to stay with Ayn and Thea, for old times' sake, often showing up unexpectedly and leaving without notice.

It was quite unorthodox, and some people might even think it rude...but it was Sari's way, the king reflected wanly. He remembered the words she had spoken to him years ago when he had first confronted her in Landen's dungeon to retrieve the Power Topaz: "You won't get it without a fight!" Those words were so true of Sari's demeanor. Finally, after much deliberation, the hatchway opened with a slight hiss of escaping air, and out stepped a woman, who gracefully made her way towards Ayn. It was most definitely not the queen of Landen.

The woman wore a velvety magenta outfit with a cloak of the same color. Bronzed boots laced with gold at the edges contrasted her other clothing, and she wore fine jewelry all around. Ayn would've described the woman as tragically beautiful. Despite the luxurious appearance, her face seemed to be locked in eternal stillness, showing less emotion than a rock. Even without expression on her face, the king had to remind himself several times of the wonderful years of marriage with Thea. Her hair was a spectacular orange that shone in the lights, and gave off a faint fragrant smell. She spoke with a slight accent that Ayn seemed to find strangely alluring.

"Greetings, King Ayn," she said, a small smile creeping up on her face. "My name is Fatima."

"Hello," said Ayn, sounding apologetic for some reason. There was a loss of words. Then: "Is there anything I can do for you? If you're here for a tour of the moon, I'm afraid that the daily hours don't begin unt-"

Fatima interrupted the king, holding up a hand. "No, I am not here for anything of the sort. I come bearing gifts from my lord." Ayn raised an eyebrow, and watched as the woman produced a silvery talisman from her outfit -- a pendant -- and handed it to him. "My lord, of course, is the undying King Rulakir of Lashute, and he wishes to express a token of friendship, from one ruler to another. Perhaps in the future, his kingdom and yours can become allies."

"Lashute?" he murmured softly. "I don't think I've heard of that place..."

If Fatima heard him, she gave no sign of it. "Please remember that this is a gift, Ayn, son of Rhys." The king was obviously startled that his father's name was mentioned, but the woman paid no heed. "And remember," she continued. "the greatest scorn is a gift rejected." A shadow fell over the two for the briefest moment, and it was gone before either realized it was there. Stillness descended, and finally, Fatima said, "That is the end of my business here, I'm afraid. I was sent to do nothing more but give this small message of sorts, so I must be off now." With a grand flourish of her cloak, she was gone before Ayn had time to say anything else. The hatchway opened and closed, and there was only the talisman and the tangy, fragrant smell of the woman to proclaim that she had ever come here at all.

The king, confused by the recent events, took time to study the pendant. Its gray-white hue made it seem incandescent, and the lights danced upon its surface. It didn't seem like anything priceless; in fact, he half thought that perhaps Fatima was a commoner who had bought it off the streets as a joke, to see if he'd actually keep it. But something about the woman told him that she was genuine, and after taking long looks at the pendant, he realized that it carried some of the same allure that its former keeper had. He found that he could not break his gaze, and only a yawn from behind him knocked him out of his trance-like state.

"Hi, hon," said Thea, still dressed in her robe. Deep circles were evident all around her eyes, and it was obvious that she needed more sleep. "Who was that?"

Ayn held up the pendant, and dangled it in the air. "Just a messenger." he said, not wanting to reveal the full nature of his feelings during the brief interaction. "Have you ever heard of a place called Lashute...?"

*     *     *     *     *

After relating the conversation back to his wife, Ayn sat and pondered about what meaning this gift held. It had to be more than what was just said; the whole ordeal just felt wrong somehow, and he was determined to find out what was nagging at him.

Thea, lips pursed, commented, "Throughout all my journeys and the lore Father taught me before he died, I don't recall ever hearing that name. Could it be a newly developed country that we hadn't heard about?"

"I don't know," replied the blue-haired king. "Fatima said she was the servant of the 'undying King Rulakir.' That's what strikes me as odd. Undying? Could that be a title, earned through battle or something, or something more? There's something bothering me about this. I'm trying to remember what it is, but it keeps on escaping me!"

The two were sitting on their bed, cross-legged. Thea had her eyes squinted, trying to make out some tiny words at the bottom of the pendant. The talisman had the visage of a hideously sharp sword engraved in it -- quite mundane, actually, but there were tiny little markings at the bottom that the queen of Azura thought might be words, or maybe runes of some sort. "Too bad Mieu and Wren aren't here!" she exclaimed with a sigh of frustration. "They would probably know about something like this."

Their former traveling companions and close friends had gone off on a small vacation, upon the request of the royal couple themselves. The cyborgs had been toiling non-stop ever since the defeat of Siren, and Ayn and Thea thought that they deserved a respite. Naturally, they chose Hazatak, in Aridia dome as their destination. "It's not much of a vacation," Mieu had told them. "But I haven't got the chance to fully interact with my fellows there ever since Rhys and I met. I'd like to catch up, and spend some time with other friends."

"Of course," added Wren. "If you need anything while we're away, use one of the visiphones, and we'll come as soon as possible. Your family is our priority." Thea had smiled and told them to go and enjoy themselves, and off they were. At this moment, though, she found herself wishing that one of them had stayed behind to decipher the mysterious pendant.

"Forget it," said Ayn, rubbing his eyes. "Let's not make too big a deal out of it. Just a gift, that's all." He leaned over and gave his wife a peck on the lips, and continued, "Besides, look at the time." He pointed at the clock hanging on the wall. "It's several hours until 'dawn,' and we need to rest. Tomorrow's another regular day on Azura!"

"Okay," replied the emerald-haired queen, quite eagerly. "I must admit that I'm still a little drowsy."

*     *     *     *     *

Thea's eyes fluttered open and she stared at the ceiling. Why couldn't she sleep all of a sudden? It was probably the excitement in the middle of the night that caused her body to refuse any rest. She had been tossing and turning ever since Ayn showed her the pendant, and had only dozed off for what seemed like a few minutes.

She stared at the ceiling contemplatively, and waited for her eyelids to get heavier. They didn't though. Glancing around the room, her breath was cut short as she saw something standing in the shadows. Feeling her pulse quicken, she reached out to wake Ayn up. What sort of madness is this? she thought. How could someone have come in without us knowing? It was very obviously a woman, dressed in long robe. Could it be that Fatima who delivered the talisman, waiting for her true assignment to be put into action?

The woman did not move. Tense moments later, Thea breathed a sigh of relief. It was all her imagination. What she thought was an intruder was actually one of her own dresses laid out on a chair across the room. Foolish woman, she told herself. How old are we now?

She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep. When she heard the scuffling sounds, though, she let out a shriek. The dress, now animated as if an invisible person were wearing it, had rose from its resting place and walked over to her bedside. "What is it, darling?" asked Ayn, alert at a possible threat. Thea's lips froze, and she couldn't do anything but point at the thing standing before her.

The king, seeing this bizarre twist of reality, rolled off the bed instinctively and pulled his wife with him. They landed on the floor with a thud.

The animated dress advanced upon the two, floating effortlessly over the bed. Thea, nearly in tears, raised a trembling finger and spoke a single word: "Foi!" A flame appeared at the tip of her finger, and it grew hot and bright within a few seconds. Then, it shot straight forward, like a dart, into the dress. Under normal circumstances, the dress would've been incinerated.

The flame passed right through as if the gown didn't exist. Instead, it collided with the wall and left a large, ashen char. Thea yelped as she saw this, scrabbling to move even closer to Ayn. The two were fearful, uncertain of what would happen next. But just like that, the dress fell limp to their bed, and whatever eldritch spirit had possessed it earlier was no longer there.

*     *     *     *     *

"I don't want to think about it," dreaded Thea. "All I know is that it's somehow related to that pendant the Fatima woman gave you! Even you said that something about it felt wrong! Call it a hunch, but the pendant had something to do with that dress coming alive!"

"Maybe," said Ayn. "But what of this Lashute?" He pronounced the name several times to himself again, softly, trying to coax whatever was nagging him to come out.

Ayn opened his mouth to say a few reassuring words, but was interrupted by a hideous roaring from outside the chamber. A moment later, a massive claw destroyed the door. The claw had yellowing nails, and was connected to a green and yellow striped hand. A moment later, the rest of the body emerged, and a hideous creature that looked like a cross between a moos, a blotter, and a dreidon stepped into the chamber.

The king's eyes widened. "What in the name of Laya?" The beast took no notice. In fact, it brushed itself off, and bowed cordially, quite different than it had been moments earlier, when it had smashed the door down in a bloodthirsty frenzy.

"Hello," it said.

"Hello," said Ayn, too stunned to react naturally. Thea, too, had forgotten all about protecting themselves and had her eyes locked on the creature.

"I'm the grumbler," said the creature. "I like to eat Layan princes who don't listen to their elders. Especially blue-haired ponytailed Layan princes named Ayn." No longer in his state of shock, Ayn grasped for a nearby pocketknife and flung it at the creature. The knife embedded itself in the thing's eye, but it plucked it out effortlessly. Not a trace of blood.

"Please don't do that," said the grumbler. "It kind of stings. Oh, I can't eat you now, remember? I'll be back at noon to claim my prize." It smiled, baring its two rows of sharp teeth. "I really must go. I'll see you later!"

The grumbler strode out of the room, through the hole he had made in the door. Before Ayn or Thea got the chance to express their shock, it popped its head back in and said, "One more thing: could you eat a few apples before that time? They make human flesh just so much more tender. Thanks!" It smiled once more, and its grinning head began to dissolve like a mist.

The hole in the door disappeared along with it, and there was nothing there to show that the beast had existed.

*     *     *     *     *

"...and I would get smart with my teachers when I was small," said Ayn. "so they cooked up a creature called the grumbler, who was supposed to eat me if I didn't behave in my classes. This was when I was six or seven. I remember being terrified of the grumbler, and being extra kind during all my lessons." He shook his head. "When I grew older, I knew that such a thing didn't exist, but who would've thought that it'd come back to haunt me now!"

Thea swallowed, eyeing her husband doubtfully. "But why can't he eat you until noon?"

"Oh," chuckled Ayn, who seemed to have dismissed everything he had seen. "Noon was my lunch break, and it was during that time that the grumbler would come and find me if I misbehaved. At least that's what my teachers told me."

Thea shook her head and sighed. "This is all crazy. You're telling me that a fictional creature from your childhood is stalking us. What about the dress? And the weird disappearing act, and the door that repaired itself?"

Ayn's gaze was wistful, and he stared at the door as if expecting the answer to be written there. "Well...what if the whole thing was an illusion?"

"What?"

The king of Azura snapped his fingers. "That's it!" He turned to look at Thea. "What if the stone had something to do with it? Say it embodied some mysticism that allowed it to fabricate from the roots of our deepest fears. Then it would all make sense! It must be a powerful hallucination or something like it. That's why none of the cyborgs have come to investigate the noises we heard as the grumbler tore down the door and that's why the door's still there!"

A realization dawned on Thea as she listened patiently to her husband's words.

"I get it now! When I was a child, I never left my clothes hanging up in my room, because I used to wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that someone was in there with me! What we've been seeing are tricks that have played on us, based around childhood nightmares!" Ayn nodded enthusiastically.

"That explains how the gown animated itself, and I'm positive it's that damned pendant's fault!"

"Ayn, we have to destroy it now!" The queen stood up quickly and went over to her nightstand, where the gift hung, swaying silently as if secretly enjoying the situation. Thea picked it up, and looked at it for a moment.

Then, she clasped her hand around it, closed her eyes, and said, "Foi." Flames of extraordinary colors began to appear around her hands, and they swept across the rock. These flames would've been enough to melt steel normally, but it had no effect whatsoever now. Thea's eyes remained closed and her jaw was clenched as she sought to increase the intensity of the technique. No luck.

Finally, the flames died down, and her eyes opened. She threw the pendant down to the ground. "Stupid, stupid!" she chided herself. Turning to her husband, she said, "If this rock is that powerful, then why in the world would we be able to destroy it as easily as casting a simple Foi?"

She sat down on the mattress, facing away from Ayn. "What now?" Nobody answered. "Ayn?"

The king hadn't been paying attention. His face was white as a sheet, and he looked like he had seen a ghost. "I just remembered where I had heard the name Lashute before." He was still sitting on the floor in his robe. Thea turned around to look at him. "Frey -- you know, Frey, right?"

Thea nodded. He was a noble that had resided with their family long before even Cille and Shushoran had been destroyed. Ayn continued: "He became a teacher of sorts to me when I grew older, and taught me some things about the Devastation War. Lashute was a place he spoke very little about; all he said was that it once was Orakio's headquarters."

"What?!"

"That's all I know about it, actually. It would give a motive for the 'gift,' I suppose -- after all, some Orakians still have prejudices against our people. But what doesn't fit in with the rest of the puzzle is wh-"

SILENCE. boomed a voice in their heads. The royal couple looked at each other, and then around the room, but there was no one in plain sight. Then, a bright halo of snow-white fringed with light blue appeared near the door. It slid downwards, first revealing a face, then a torso, and legs. It vanished when it touched the floor. Standing still as a statue was Fatima.

The stony look on her face that had oddly attracted Ayn earlier now terrified and disgusted him. "Ayn?" asked Thea in a quivering voice. Her eyes were locked on the intruder.

"I said SILENCE!!" spat Fatima, now speaking. Ayn flung himself over to Thea's side on the bed, holding her back protectively. Fatima began advancing on the two, slowly but surely like a cat cornering its prey. She smiled evilly at them. "My precious king, how are you?"

Ayn said nothing. "Begone, you foul incantatrix! I will have no interaction with you or your deceitful kingdom!"

"Such harsh words," replied Fatima. The smile was still there. She let the hood of her cloak fall back to her shoulders. "coming from one whose father betrayed his country and his people!" Ayn opened his mouth to say something, but Fatima just laughed. "Now, dear Ayn, why have you rejected our gift? Did I not warn you against such things?"

"This...'gift,'" said Ayn, struggling to keep his composure. "is merely a tool of your hellish witchcraft!" He stared the woman long and hard in the eye, as if to prove that she wasn't an illusion like the previous encounters. "Leave now, and I shall spare you from the hands of my cyborgs!"

"You really think I'm afraid of your pathetic mechanical toys?" A nasty glint appeared in her eye. "Fool." She turned to Thea. "And you, green-haired one, why did you try to destroy the pendant? Was it not precious enough for your demands, sprouted from a lifetime of spoiling and pampering?"

"Enough!" shouted Ayn. His fear had been vanquished completely by rage. How could this woman just appear and insult his father, his wife, his kingdom? He stood in one fluid motion and lunged at her with arms outstretched. She sidestepped the attack effortlessly.

"This is truly a sad sight, king of Azura," As she spoke, she began to rise into the air. "I have no words for you nor your moon, either. If you have chosen to reject a gift from my king, then it shall be so." She held out a hand, as if seeking a handshake. But instead, the pendant, lying on the floor, rose into the air and found its way to her like a magnet. "In the future," Fatima concluded, steely gaze in her eye. "if we ever cross paths again, we shall be enemies. Goodbye."

And with that last word, she began to fade away slowly like a mist, leaving Ayn and Thea alone in the room once again, lost in their confusion and fear. The queen hurried to her husband's side and embraced him. She didn't let go for a long time. The two of them held on to each other for dear life, shivering in the night. "Oh, Ayn..."

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