This story is by Alice Griffin and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The fog almost felt alive as it writhed and coiled around everything it touched. Standing in there as its gossamer stroke clung to his very soul, Darius felt a numbing cold.
The silver rays of moonlight that bathed the cliff’s edge gave the mist an ethereal murkiness that even the light of his torch barely managed to illuminate farther than a few feet. The lick of the flame, a feeble source of heat.
Darius tightened his cloak in a futile attempt to conserve the little warm he still had left. Shifting his weight, he kept his eyes trained on the rim of the woods.
A crack seemed to echo through the air, and he stepped towards the source of the sound. There was no flickering shadow, nor any further sign of life, just the soft sound of wind rustling through the leaves.
Darius felt a pricking on the back of his neck and tightened his hold on the torch. The space in front of him remained empty.
“Why have you come here?” Darius froze at the whispered words spoken over his shoulder.
Darius turned around in a fast and jerky movement that almost had him tripping. A ragged gasp fled from his lips when the firelight illuminated an ashen mask that seemed to come out of the darkness.
Darius opened his mouth, and yet no words came out, the apparition tilted his head to the side in apparent confusion, but Darius still felt the weight of a calculating gaze.
“Do you need help finding your voice, son of Azurth?”
He bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood, the stab of pain sufficient to let him regain control of himself. Darius forced himself to relax his stance and let the fear melt into a calm facade. After all, this is who Darius had been anxiously waiting for.
“I wish to know but one thing.” His tongue darted out to wet his dry lips, “Will I succeed?”
There was no response.
As the silence prolonged, Darius felt the remains of his fear fade into annoyance.
“Did you hear me?” This time it was not a question. It was a demand.
“I heard you.”
Blue eyes glinted dangerously, and Darius took a step forward, coming closer to the specter in front of him. His hand twitched in the direction of his blade.
“Then answer me, oracle!” He spoke in a hard tone, enunciating each word slowly. “Will I become Emperor?”
Darius rested on the hilt of his sword and clenched it tightly, fighting down the urge to draw it and stab the impertinent creature.
“Is that all you have to say on the matter, enlightened one. No?” At the end of it, his voice dripped with sarcasm.
“It matters not what words are spoken. Your eyes will remain blind to a different path” The oracle took a graceful step back, spreading his arms. “Your future contains only death.”
In a flash, Darius dropped the torch on his hand and closed the distance between the two, wrapping his gloved hand around the oracle’s neck as his drawn sword hung at his side.
“You will deny me my fate and speak of it as if you were doing me a favor. So tell me, oracle,” he spat, tightening his hold at his collar and twisting. “How do I take my rightful place in the Argent Throne? And this time,” he drew up his short sword, pressing the edge under the oracle’s neck. “Don’t leave out a single detail.”
“As his highness commands.”
Darius bristled at the mocking tone, but before he could do anything about it, the oracle’s hands came to rest on his temples. Darius caught a hint of a faint violet glow before his surroundings faded away.
Darius found himself on a beach. He could feel the warmth of the sun caressing his face and taste the salty air.
He smelled the tangy scent of blood.
‘Armed legions cross the ocean, and Azurthian blood will stain the sand in a river of red.’
Darius let the sight sink into his gut, an achingly sick feeling swelling, constricting his throat and choking him.
There were bodies all around him.
It took a moment for Darius to realize that many of the fallen men sport the unmistakably blue from Azurth. The roaring lion crest present in the tainted blood armor.
Hands were suddenly on his shoulders, and he was pulled down. A knee hit him hard on the face, and he crumpled. A steel boot on his back pushed him harder into the sand, and the bitter edge of a blade was pressing behind his neck.
‘You will bow beneath the birds’ might.’
He turned towards his assailant with a glance that conveyed as much loathing as he could muster. The sun, behind the standing foe, blocked their features from his sight, but he could see a raven crest on the dark armor. Shoulders heaving with a breath he couldn’t quite catch, he closed his eyes and bowed his head.
The crown was ripped from his head, and he heard the sword arc before it cleaved into his neck.
A moment later, he stumbled back, sword falling to the ground carelessly, his hands raised to his neck, to reassure himself that what he saw was not real.
His hands were shaking, and his breaths came, busting out in short gasps, it took a moment, but he again felt the silky tendrils of the fog coil around him. The coldness now a welcome presence, a soothing reminder of exactly where he was.
Darius inhaled deeply and let the knowledge simmer in. His hands hung at his side, clenching and unclenching.
… Blind to a different path
His head snapped up towards the oracle as he remembered his previous words.
“Another path” Darius mutters, shaking his head to dispel the horrific images he had just seen.
“Show me!” he demanded, or at least he tried as his words came out choked and closer to begging.
Darius staggered forward, eyes darting to the ashen mask, searching for something not even he knew what it was.
“You mentioned another path!” He raised his hands to clench the oracle’s collar, pulling him forward until the mask was but a breath away from Darius’s face. “Show me!”
He felt the cold touch of the oracle’s hand on his temple, and his surroundings faded away again.
‘Then listen carefully Darius Smerdis.’
Darius blinks. He now stood in front of a silver throne, in his hands he held the crown he had always been promised. However, there was a boy he didn’t know sitting on the throne.
‘You shall never wear the silver crown, but you shall be the one to crown the emperor whose reign will bring forth a golden age.’
Darius swallowed the knot on his throat. His body moved towards the boy of its own accord. As he let the crown rest on his raven locks, his eyes caught the golden pin on the boy’s chest.
A bird with its wings spread.
A blink and he was again looking into the ivory mask.
Darius let go of the oracle, his hands still clenched on the oracle’s collar. They are now standing right at the edge of the cliffs. The mist had subsided enough to let him see the sky had started to lighten, the first signs of sunrise visible on the horizon.
He lets go, closing his eyes. He saw the beach again, and the black knight blade glinting in the sun. He squared his shoulders and nodded.
“Where do I find this boy?”
“You won’t.” The oracle said, “he will find you.”
“Good,” Darius said with a nod, his expression inscrutable. “Azurth thanks you for your service.”
In the space of a blink, Darius had pulled out a dagger and stabbed it in the middle of the oracle’s chest, his other hand holding his shoulder.
“And I thank you for your warning, I’ll take it to heart.” Darius twisted the blade and, with a firm shove, pushed the oracle over the edge. He glanced down, watching the oracle’s body disappear into the sea of trees. “But I’ll carve my own path.”
He turned around and picked up his torch and sword. A streak of light darted up from the abyss, its familiar violet glow went unseen.
There was much to plan.