Chapter One: Voices in the Flames

The rough wood of the empty wine barrels tugged at the fibers of the back of Xilhh's crimson wool tunic. He hunched over and winced in pain as he sat on the dusty ground, hugging his knees in a futile attempt to bring himself comfort. The loud, bragging voices of his assailants floated to his ears from the other side of the street. Despite what his instincts urged, he knew he must not move, he must not run. Such foolish action would only draw their attention.

Years of almost daily repetition had taught Xilhh how to best evade his cruelest peers. He was fortunate that those who decided to go so far as to subject him to physical abuse were not the most intelligent in Tocarma, so he was often able to find an adequate number of hiding places. If they did manage to locate him, they never granted him mercy. Only pain.

As their voices faded off into the distance, Xilhh felt it now safe to emerge from his alleyway refuge. It never ceased to amaze him that, though the streets were well populated at this hour, not one citizen stopped to aid him. Nearly everyone distrusted Xilhh merely because of his parentage. The peoples of Aetheria and Maurinia always mistrusted, even loathed each other, ever since the Imperial Wars that founded the two countries. Xilhh, whose parents hailed from both these lands, could find no welcome in either race. The Aetherians were known throughout for their bright golden locks, their icy-blue eyes, and their rosy complexions. The Maurinians were known for their ebony curtains of hair, their blood-red eyes, their grey, sun-starved skins, and furthermore their lack of kindness and compassion. Xilhh resembled neither of these peoples. While his neck-length hair and his eyes were that of Maurinia, his skin and empathy were of Aetheria. Because of this, Xilhh was forever excluded from society. Because of this, Xilhh was an outcast.

He ambled slowly down the street, dusting off his clothes and flinching each time his hand passed a bruise or cut. Brushing back his hair, he felt a cut on his forehead from when he tripped and fell into the alleyway. His lip was swollen and tender where it bled. Leaning against one of the wooden balcony supports that stood before a shop doorway, Xilhh glanced upward at the darkening skies. It was nightfall. He had hidden from his pursuers for the entire day.

The streets began to grow quiet as travelers and marketgoers retreated to their homes for the evening. Moonlight shone onto the roofs of the humble, nearly identical timber buildings, giving them a blue gleam in the night. Xilhh found his house with ease nevertheless, and hesitated before he limped through the doorway. His father would not be pleased with his appearance.

The warm atmosphere of the parlor immediately lifted Xilhh's trampled spirits. A crackling fire roared in the hearth, and the wall sconces had recently been replenished with fresh candles. Xilhh collapsed onto one of the numerous cushioned chairs and sighed deeply with exhaustion. He looked to an inner doorway as the sound of footsteps grew nearer.

"Ah, Xilhh, you're finally back—What on earth happened to you?" His father spluttered, utterly shocked by his son's numerous injuries. Xilhh gestured wordlessly out the window, towards the street. "Again? Honestly, I just don't understand why this keeps happening." He shrugged and sat on the chair opposite. "Why is everyone in this town so intolerant of differences in appearance?" He looked at Xilhh, "Will you be alright?"

"I'm fine. It's not exactly a unique occurrence, after all." He grinned weakly. Despite his strong beliefs, his father was powerless to influence the citizens of Tocarma to accept Xilhh into their midst. He had never been able to stop the hurt. They fell into an awkward silence, looking desperately around the room for something to inspire conversation.

"Do…" his father began hesitantly, "Do you still have those…those visions? Nightmares, I mean?" Xilhh flinched at the memory. He had not discussed this with his father for some time.

"I'm really not in the mood to talk about it." Xilhh countered. The dark circles under his eyes were the only indication of the nightmare that had plagued his sleep for past fortnights. Visions of a town drowning in flames, overrun by soldiers in black, its citizens slaughtered mercilessly. No matter how hard he tried, Xilhh found he could not prevent these dreams from coming. He even tried evading sleep altogether, staying awake night after night, but inevitably he would fall asleep and be forced to stand idly by and watch the destruction.

"Your mother used to have nightmares like that when we first met." His father cut into his reverie, "Her dreams would always come true. She was one of the few remaining true seers." Xilhh dropped his gaze to his boots, the black leather shining in the firelight. Yet another memory he wished to suppress. His mother had left them when Xilhh was very young. Now, only he and his father remained in Tocarma.

"Again, I'd rather not discuss it. I'm not at all in the mood."

His father nodded understandingly and stood up from his seat. "I'll go get some poultices for those cuts and bruises, and tea for the spirit." Xilhh rubbed his hands together nervously, watching the tall Aetherian man retreat from the lounge. He knew his father was only trying to be helpful by talking about the dreams, but Xilhh just could not think about it anymore. The idea that his dreams could come true like his mother's did…

Get out!

Xilhh froze. Where had that voice come from? He scanned the room for an intruder, but found none.

You must escape, now! Go!

He stood up, throwing back curtains to reveal the speaker, though there was no one there. Running his fingers through his hair, he could feel the instinctive panic rising in his chest. A low, disembodied muttering began to fill the room.

"Who's there?" he demanded, his voice rising, "Show yourself!"

Run! Save yourself!

Stay and you will perish!

"What on earth is going on?" His father stood framed in the doorway, but Xilhh just sprinted straight past him into his bedroom, bolting the door shut behind him. Retreating to the far corner, he cringed as the voices increased tenfold, their urgency infinitely multiplied. He clutched his head in his hands, unable to hear the pounding at his door through the clamor in his mind.

Get out!

Stay and you will die!

"Leave me alone!" The voices did not heed his cries. They continued to press in on him, never leaving him a moment's peace, "Why does this have to happen to me? Shut UP!" Suddenly the hammering at the door broke through and Xilhh could hear his father shouting at him, sounding extremely distressed.

"Xilhh, what's going on? Let me in!"

"I-I-I'm fine, father." Xilhh said shakily, the air suddenly lacking the presence of disembodied voices until…

It is too late.

The sound of an explosion roared from the distance, followed by crumbling stone and terrified screams. Xilhh darted to his window and flung open the shutters, leaning out to see his village under siege by an army of ebony-clad soldiers—Maurinians. Just as Xilhh was about to go warn his father, he heard shouts from the next room, his father scream, then the swish and thud of a sword.

Refusing to wait and see what had happened, Xilhh vaulted over the edge of his balcony, collapsing on the ground below. Before he could run, he was immediately surrounded by a group of the mercenaries, and though he fought with all his strength, he was pinned to the ground, unable to move. The last thing to meet Xilhh's gaze was the darkness of the roughly woven black sack tugged violently over his head.