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Oscuro

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Centuries ago, within a valley in the western shadows of the Vestroen mountain range, resided the three allied kingdoms of Gelo. They were ruled justly by benevolent kings and queens for as long as tales could tell, and people travelled far from the ends of the Dusk to reside there in harmony and tranquility.

Built along three opposing sides of the valley stood the sister kingdoms Cadere, Calere, and Cosa. Cadere was known for its high quality lumber and carpenters capable of making magnificent boats to cross the seas, while Calere was known for its lively mining community that dug deep into the earth and had built its economy off a very rare, powerful metal.

Cosa was much grander than its two sisters with a vast agricultural economy. They had superior leadership of the three kingdoms and led the alliance through troubled times, primarily against the shadowy reaches of the threat that lay beyond the valley. The Shadowlands were miles out from the Vestroen mountains, and Cosa was the shield against the blizzards and ever biting cold that tried to blow out from its deadly storm, the Vortice, that resided deep at the core where no humans were capable of venturing.

But there was more than just the snow, ice, and winds in the Shadowlands. Far beyond where the snow fell like a wall and the sun’s ray could not shine lived the Oscuro. The Oscuro were towering creatures of ice who resided within the darkness, covered in the white fur of the creatures that lived outside of the Gale’s reach.

The Oscuro roamed deep in their lands and only emerged during the dark hour if they sensed the call of enormous wealth gathered in a single location. They would come under the eclipse to raid in a wave of snow and ice, reaping all the riches for themselves and felling those foolish enough to stand in their path, before retreating to their dark world.

Sometimes the animals of the Shadowlands appear from the snow. Such creatures belonged to the Oscuro and harming them will bring forth a storm of their fury. The animals had fur white as the snow they came from and eyes of solid black. Though the Oscuro were not opposed to the notion of generosity, on occasion, an animal with a black mark on its hide would make its way into the open, the stain signaled that it was free for anyone to hunt and safe from the Oscuro’s laws.

Gelo’s allegiance was very careful of the Oscuro early on for they had faced the brunt of their wrath one too many times before. So the kingdoms avoid ruling as a means to gather riches and instead spread their wealth to one another, so that they would grow strong in societal harmony.

One fatefulday a greedy king came to power in Cosa and he demanded tithings. At first his nation was happy to give, but slowly over time the demand became more and more. The people struggled to reason with the king, but as his soul was poisoned by a most hateful want, their words fell upon deaf ears.

As the demand grew, Cosa grew sick and desperate. The cupidity began to spread like a plague, brother turned against brother, selfishness blinding eyes to those truly in need and many would die of starvation. The ones who could leave did so, and the kingdom slowly began to fall, and with it so did the Gelo alliance as the greed spread through the entire region.
Luce was the eldest child of six children but she stood out like a sore thumb when they all lined up. Each with hair like spun gold and eyes as deep as the ocean, except Luce, who’s fiery red curls could not be tamed, and the colour of the dusk emblazoned in her eyes.

Luce’s family was starving. If she was lucky she would find vegetables in the unkempt farms that had become abandoned outside the city, though she risked the wrath of Cosa’s guards for taking what was not hers. Often Luce toiled with odd jobs until her clothes and face were dirty and her body ached to aid her parents and feed her little siblings.

Most days the only way to get food was to hunt in the fields far outside of Cosa’s borders. The untamed land between Cosa and the Shadowlands was home to wildlife that was often free game, but you chanced unfortunate run ins with others who were equally as hungry and desperate, but you were also under threat of wandering too far towards the lands of the Oscuro.

It was a nerve wracking experience. Of course, alone with her thoughts, Luce remembered all the tales of the Oscuro, how they could rise out of the snow to drag you into an icy tomb. You were not supposed to be out here alone but it was better for her and her brothers to split up to better their chances of catching a meal.

Luck would not find her all afternoon, and she readied to head home when she happened across a pure white rabbit. Luce was supposed to avoid the creatures of the snow at all cost, but she had noticed how it did not freeze with intent to flee when its dark eyes spotted her.

Luce gathered her courage and moved forward to investigate. Perhaps it had a marred coat on the other side? There was color on its fur, but her stomach dropped when she realized it was not a black mark but blood from its foot stuck in a trap.

Luce’s heart wept for the rabbit. She did not know if it would live, but she did not wish to bring the Oscuro onto their kingdom if she let it die here. With gentle whispers Luce used her skinning knife to carefully free the rabbit’s broken foot. It remained there, watching her intently as it rightened its leg.

“It’s okay,” Luce coaxed gently as she pulled her favorite sash from her hair. It had lost its length over the years, time had made its ends thread bare and its vibrant orange and yellow colors fade, but it was firm and thick. She was able to scoop up the rabbit and bind its paw. “I know it is not much, but traps do not know which rabbit is safe to catch and our people are starving, so please, beg forgiveness from your masters on our behalf.”

Her words were sincere. She walked a good distance from the traps, closer to the Shadowlands, to set the rabbit down and encourage it towards its home. Careful of its broken leg, the rabbit hopped across the grass. It landed on the snow without breaking it's surface, looked back to her for just a moment, before skittering into the great darkness.

Luce went home hungry but she felt safer and slept well that night.

A week had passed of their family struggling when her father and brothers burst through the door excitedly. Father managed to take down an elk! He had dressed and skinned it in the fields before calling to his sons, needing to butcher it on site so it would be easier to bring home. It would weigh less without the bones, after all.

That night they ate like kings, and they could dry much of the meat to last longer. Luce hoped that perhaps things were finally looking up for them and shared tears of happiness with her sisters and mother.

No one went to bed hungry that night.

However the happiness would not last, for the next dark hour that came upon them caused panic as villagers awoke to melting snow all about the kingdom. Dread set in, whispers of the Oscuro spread like wildfire, and many attempted to douse out the rumours, fearful that saying their names would summon them.

A huntsman’s home had been raided but they were not hurt. They spoke of the towering creatures of ice that ripped the home apart, seemingly searching for something. When they found nothing they left. He spoke about how he saw his breath in the air, how their magic transformed the inside of his house into something akin to the Shadowlands.

People began to board up their homes in fear the Oscuro would come for them next. Others insisted the huntsman was drunk and it was just a gust from the Vortice that played with his addled mind.

The next dark hour, however, the Oscuro came again. The guards claimed it was just people riding in from the neighboring kingdom with another blast of the Vortice. This time the snow was thick outside Luce’s home and tracks led around the house.

Fearful, her family took extra precautions and would sleep in the space under the floorboards that night in anticipation for the next dark hour. All day they prepared and after her father finished moving the dresser in front of the door with her eldest brother they settled in to a sleepless, chilling night under the floor.

The windows rattled as the wind roared once the eclipse began. There was a noticeable drop in the temperature and Luce huddled in cold and fear with her family. Their previous efforts with their door did not work and soon the Oscuro were inside. Snow fell between the floorboards and Luce was certain the way the wood groaned they would fall and crush her whole family.

One spoke. Luce knew they spoke but she both heard yet didn’t hear them. It was such a strange sensation that left her ears ringing. A shuffling of feet before silence fell. The cold was so biting she was shivering, struggling to keep her teeth clenched so as not to make a sound.

Suddenly the trap door flung open and the family was staring up at two towering Oscuro. They were tall with skin of shimmering ice and glowing eyes that burned with a conflicting fire that stood out against their cold statures.

Her family were drug out roughly and thrown into the snow bank that was piling high in their home. Spikes of ice formed from the drift to keep them in their places. One of the Oscuro grabbed some of the elk meat drying off the wall to shake it at them.

“Who killed this?” The Oscuro’s voice cracked.

Luce’s brothers pointed to their father who was quickly dragged away from the others. A third Oscuro ducked into the home, carrying the pelt of a white elk that had blood stains on it. He held it aloft before the poacher as he was thrown to the floor at the Oscuro’s feet.

Luce’s father began to plead. Please! They were starving, they were desperate!

His cries echoed in the home as the ice was creeping up from his legs. Luce could not bare to stand idly by so she squirmed between the ice spikes and grabbed her father’s shoulders.

“Stop!” Luce cried. “Please, I will do anything to save my father from this mistake!”

The nearest Oscuro lifted a sword of ice, ready to cut her down, but the one with the pelt stopped them. This one stood out compared to the other two as his hair was kept short, rather than the longer cut of the others.

“Your father broke our laws,” the Oscuro’s voice held so much pressure on her ears but she stood bravely against it.

“I beg of you!” Luce dropped onto her hands and knees into the biting coldness that was still gathering at their feet.

Silence fell, even the rush of wind had ceased, and all became still.

“Very well, you will be given an opportunity to cleanse your family of such crimes.” The other two Oscuro left, leaving just him to address her. “You are to be tasked with obtaining us pieces of the sun thrice, fit for a Queen. Succeed and I will forgive this bane. Fail and I will kill you and your family.”

“Of course,” Luce hastily agreed.

“Should you flee we will kill everyone in our path to hunt you down. We will return in three days for the first gift,” and he turned to leave the home, the snow and ice began to recede, freeing her father.

Luce stood up and ran to the door to see the Oscuro mounting magnificent steeds, far taller than any elk with antlers large and wide as if shields.

“How can I obtain pieces of the sun when I am a poor woman?” she asked.

The Oscuro reached into his coat and drew out a small coin purse, tossing it to her. Wordlessly they turned their elk and ran out on the sudden wind, out of the town, back to the Shadowlands.

Only once they were gone would Luce open the bag. The coins were a strange material, almost like silver but it caught any bit of light in a brilliant flash. Touching it gave a warm, tingling sensation, like holding magic between her fingers. She had heard rumors of stella d'argento, but much like many tales of the Oscuro it was difficult to discern myth from truth. The coins were magical, dangerous, said to feed on the desire in people’s hearts.

She sealed the bag quickly and rushed inside to gather her things. If she were to give three pieces of sun she needed help and left her father in the care of her family.

All past the dark hour Luce banged on doors of craftsmen. It felt like she knocked on a hundred artisan doors until she finally found someone who could help her. They were a jewelsmith acquainted with how to use fire and forgery in magical ways.

The jewelsmith was dazzled by the magical coins and eagerly agreed to make whatever Luce wanted. She requested a ring that would look as if the sun’s rays were contained within. A challenge, but one the smith was willing to conduct, and thus asked her to return in two days. With the rare magical metal imported in from Calere he used it in an alloy to craft a ring that would not melt. Along its core it appeared as if fire was held behind glass. It radiated light far more than she imagined, and it was so pleasantly warm in her hand.

She took it to her family to show and in quiet awe they appreciated the amazing craftsmanship. However they did not think they should give it to the Oscuro, instead they began to suggest that perhaps they could use it to run away from here. Luce reminded them of the Oscuro’s words, but her family insisted that would not happen as the Gale keeps them to the darkness.

Luce did not listen to their wants and instead would go wait outside the gate. Once the eclipse fully cast the sky into darkness did the winds from the Shadowlands pick up. This time the Oscuro rode alone on his towering beast, ignoring the guards cowering in the gate towers behind Luce.

“Do you have the first piece of the sun?”

Luce presented the ring to him. He took it to inspect it. It shone brilliantly in the darkness as if he held fire in his hand. She could not tell if it was acceptable, though he seemed interested in the light. Finally he pocketed the ring and drew out a bag larger than the first and handed it to her.

“This time you will have six days.”

He was gone into the darkness as quickly as he had come.

Luce returned home so she could finally sleep.

She awoke the next morning to her family fawning over the stella d'argento. Luce quickly snatched it from them, grabbing any spare pieces to tuck back into the bag.

Once again her family pleaded with her to use the money as a means to run away, and once more she declined. She did not wish to anger the Oscuro and have them tear cities apart looking for them. She ignored their chiding of how the Gale would keep them away and left to find the jewelsmith.

The jewelsmith was eager to see her again, excited about the magical silver. Apparently he had cast some into jewelry and already it was gaining traction with the wealthy so he hoped she had more. She did, and in exchange for it, she desired a necklace that held the sun’s warmth. He agreed, but such craftsmanship would take time. He would need five days, and so five days she would give.

In that time her family persistently begged her to change her mind, repeatedly telling her how this was a chance for a new life, but she always disagreed. She ignored their insults of calling her selfish as she understood it was their desperation speaking out and that the power of the stella d'argento was strong. She forgave them even at their worst.

In five days, she returned to the smith and he laid out a beautiful necklace. Made from the same rare metals as the ring, the jewelsmith had intricately wove the metals to interlink and create the design of a sun. The necklace was long, falling over the shoulders and chest of the wearer. Luce found it was quite hot to the touch, but not so hot as to burn her.

Happily she thanked the jewelsmith, but she would not show the necklace to her family. She worried for their minds and instead she safely stored the necklace under her pillow until the dark hour where she was to meet the Oscuro.

He arrived just as he did before, leaving a cascade of snow in his wake across the fields.

This time he seemed surprised at the heat exuding from the necklace. He turned the large piece this way and that between his hands before he carefully wrapped it into his cloak.

“Very good. One more, and you will have paid off your father’s crimes. This time you will have nine days.”

Luce accepted the next pouch, so big she needed both hands to be able to carry it. She was worried about her family running away with any riches she had in her possession. One more gift and they would be safe and would never have to worry again. Once home she found a place in the woodshed to hide the bag, carefully placing it behind the old sack of sawdust before she went inside to sleep.

In the morning her family was all in a rush to get affairs in order. They were determined to move and Luce could not understand why. She left them to their hurrying and went to speak to the jewelsmith. This time she decided she would like something that was as nurturing as the sun could be, but the jewelsmith was unsure about the idea. He told her to return tomorrow as he should have drafted some plans by then.

When Luce arrived back home she found her family packing.

“Where are you going?” She asked.

“We are going to move to Sombre. It’s much farther from the Shadowlands so the Oscuro will never find us,” her mother insisted.

“But we are so close! Just one more gift and father’s crimes will be forgiven!” Luce pleaded.

“Child, we could buy a kingdom with the silver you have brought home today!” Her father exclaimed.

Luce frowned and asked where the money was. Her father would not tell her, nor anyone else. Over the next day they fought. She tried everything to find the silver, but they prevented her every step of the way.

Once everything was packed in a cart the next morning Luce was encouraged to join them.

She declined. Her tears felt hot rolling down her cheeks while she watched her family leave her behind, never looking back.

For the next six days Luce struggled on her own. She tried everything she could think of to come up with the money or something she could somehow make to be a third piece of sun. She sought help from the village but no kindness was to be found. She did not have any of the stella d'argento she was rumored to have, and it was because of her father the Oscuro came and threatened their lives. She would not be helped by anyone.

On the ninth day’s dark hour Luce made her way far outside the gate. She did not wish for anyone to watch her final moments. Bereft, she gazed through the darkness with a lantern at her feet, and waited.

At last he came, regal as ever, atop his mount. There was an eagerness to his gaze this time. “So, it is the final hour, what have you done for the last piece?”

Luce folded her hands in front of her skirts and bowed.

“I’m sorry. I could not obtain a third piece of sun. My family stole the money you gave to have it made and have left. I have tried everything to recuperate the losses, but it was my fault the money was found.” She took a deep breath, struggling to stop her voice from shaking, and faced him fully. "I acknowledge I could not meet the conditions of our agreement and I will accept my death.”

The Oscuro watched her soundlessy before he climbed off his beast and limped towards her.

Fear swelled within her as he approached. She shut her eyes tightly, awaiting whatever weapon or magic he would use to end her life.

“What would you have given, had things not gone awry?”

Taken aback, Luce opened her eyes to watch him. His expression was shockingly soft and curious. “I wanted to give something that would have been nurturing, as the sun helps grow our plants.”

“I see. And there is nothing you could give that would fit that interpretation?”

“I… I do not believe I do.” Her eyes fell to the snow gathering at her feet.

Silence drifted between them for what felt like hours until, finally, a cold hand touched her chin to encourage her to look up.

“Would you offer yourself to me?”

Luce was shocked, but did not dare pull from his touch. “Me? Why me?”

“You said you wanted your third gift to be nurturing, and I do not know any more deserving of that description than you.” He released her chin as he produced a faded and worn yellow and orange sash from his cloak.

“My sash! But, how did you-?”

“You had already given me your kindness before. If the sun is nurturing, bright, and warm, then you are all three, and I would accept you as a gift to becoming my bride.”

Luce was wonderstruck. “But- how can I live in the Shadowlands? I am just a human…”

“We will protect you, and you will be our sun, to shine upon us every day.”

Luce’s gaze dropped in deliberation, before she looked behind herself back towards the kingdom of her birth. Moments passed, then she smiled up to the Oscuro. “I would like to present myself as a gift for you. To nurture as the sun does.”

For the first time a genuine smile broke across his icy features and from his cloak he produced the ring and necklace for her to wear. He draped his cloak about her shoulders and climbed his mount with her. Together they disappeared into the darkness of the Shadowlands.

Luce’s family, however, were not blessed with such luck, for the magical silver festered that same horrible greed not just within their hearts, but in those around them. Riots broke out, lives were lost, and in time the once great Gelo alliance fell to its own avarice. Once the last humans left and valley stood still did the Shadowlands shift to claim it as their own, nestling ever closer to the Vestroen mountains.