Kazekiel masil-Kepar's attendance was required at a funeral.
One week prior, his aunt, Lady Pariv masil-Kepar, met her end in a most gruesome manner. Young Kaz had never greeted his aunt in person before, but he felt troubled by her passing nonetheless.
Perhaps, the boy reasoned somberly, the only good to come from the tragedy was his unexpected reunion with Lady-Consort Saiva masil-Kepar. The Lady-Consort was his mother. They had been living apart for the past six years. Not by choice.
His mother's wing in the Iman Vatteri Palace may not have been as luxurious as Lady-Consort Givenue's Hall of Golden Roses, nor did it possess the elegance of Grand-Consort Ariss' Crimsonwater Court, but, in Kaz's eyes, Silver Moon Hall remained the loveliest of them all.
Its plain sandstone walls were brightened by exotic paintings and tapestries scoured from all corners of the Empire. Hand-strung sea glass chandeliers glimmered from arched ceilings, and every desk, chair, bookshelf, and bedframe had been meticulously carved and crafted from Xuni blackwood into intricate works of art.
The thought and care that had been placed behind each minute detail didn't go unnoticed by Kaz—even though he wasn't supposed to harbor appreciation for the finer things in life. The boy had spent the better part of his ten years in exile at a remote monastery atop the Baswar Mountains, and he would've stayed there willingly if his father, the Commander Admiral of the Imperial Naval Forces, hadn't summoned him back to the palace to bid his aunt a final farewell.
From day one of his arrival, life in the Iman Vatteri Palace felt surreal. His mother was nothing but kind and affectionate and welcoming towards him, but no amount of exuberance or warmth on her part could reclaim the years that had been lost during their forced separation. The last time they saw each other, Kaz was still a pot-bellied green-eyed toddler. Now, he had grown into a tall lanky green-eyed boy, and the woman who had once carried him in her womb was practically a stranger.
In customary Sindori tradition, Kaz had been brought back to his mother's side for the mandated aksiv, a thirty day long ritual to guide deceased souls through Devas' gate into the sacred light. A monk-in-training, Kaz was tasked with leading the daily prayers for the masil-Kepar clan. As the weeks dragged on, he began counting down the days until his return to the monastery. He missed his masters and fellow brothers-in-training dearly.
On the twenty-ninth day of aksiv, however, an unfamiliar feeling settled over Kaz. It made his chest tight and empty. Kaz thought he would be more excited to leave the palace. Instead, his sadness only deepened when his mother paid an unannounced visit to his private quarters. He assumed she had come to discuss travel arrangements and say their goodbyes.
As she stood before him in her traditional Sindori vakti robes, Kaz tried to ingrain her face in his memory. He didn't know when he might see her next—or ever again at all. She had soft, delicate features framed by glossy dark brown hair and startlingly emerald green eyes. Her complexion was neither light nor dark. It fell somewhere in between. Kaz hadn't been around any females at the monastery, but he sensed that his mother was probably one of the comelier ones. Everyone he met at the palace kept complimenting him for taking after her beauty.
Kaz's eyes stung as he rose to greet her. He made an awkward attempt to bow in the way the servants had instructed him.
"Consort-Mother, I hope the day finds you in good health and even better spirits."
Gently, she flicked her wrist and murmured, "Rise, my son. No need for formalities when there is no audience."
Kaz's cheeks felt damp as the tears fell. A boy's heart could be such a fragile, fickle thing. He had been dreaming of returning to the monastery for weeks, but now the thought of parting with his mother became unbearable.
In a shaky voice, he stammered, "T-Tomorrow… will be the last day of aksiv… I suppose I should start packing my things."
"Aksiv has indeed come to an end," she said with a sad smile. "Alas, I do not wish for you to go."
His eyes widened in surprise. "Do you wish for me to stay?"
His mother nodded. "With all my heart."
Kaz blinked to fight back the tears.
She gazed at him steadily and asked, "Would you like to come back for good and live here with me in Silver Moon Hall?"
He glanced up sharply. "Is that even possible?"
She tilted her head slightly and winked. "Anything is possible, my son, if you are willing to make it happen."
"What would I need to do?"
His mother stood up abruptly and retrieved a large leather-bound book from a nearby desk. It looked very old. She returned to her seat and patted the armchair next to her.
"Come, Kazekiel, let us read a story together first. Then, I will tell you what must be done."
He shuffled over to sit beside her. She handed the book over to him. Kaz grunted as he placed it on his lap. The thing was heavier than he expected. Something other than faded ink and yellowing pages seemed to be hidden between the book covers.
Calmly and quietly, his mother said, "I need you to pay close attention to what I am about to tell you. This is a very ancient fairytale. Written when gods and demons still wandered among us. Not many people know of it. Only two copies were printed during Emperor Warwell I's reign. You are now holding the last remaining transcript in your hands."
Kaz furrowed his brow. "Where has the other one gone?"
"Some say it was burned during the Two Day Massacre at the Imperial Palace. Others claim it was stolen and smuggled to Ausicaa."
"Ausicaa? I have never heard of such a place."
"Ausicaa is a very small island off the northern coast of Levose. Remember it, my son, you may find yourself traveling there one day."
Kaz wrinkled his nose. "I have no interest in going to Ausicaa."
His mother laughed but said nothing. Kaz became distracted as he started flipping through the pages. He was surprised to find that the language of the text was not written in Sindori or Levish.
"What are these strange symbols? It looks like… gibberish."
An amused expression settled over his mother's face. "It is not gibberish, Kazekiel. Merely a dead language."
Kaz frowned. "How would we even know what is written then? Perhaps you should pick a different book."
His mother smiled mysteriously and took the book from him. Then, she began to read, "Many moons and many suns ago…"
There was a wolf who fell in love with a human girl. Every morning, she came to his forest to fetch water from the lake. From the shadows, the blue-eyed wolf watched her with longing. He learned of her favorite flower, the lilyvale blossoms that grew by the lake, and of her favorite fruit, the corberries that grew in the coolest part of the forest. He adored everything about her, the way she hummed as she strolled barefoot through the grass, the lightness in her laughter, and above all her gentleness with the forest creatures.
As the years passed, the young girl grew into a beautiful woman. The men from her village began lining up to court her with flowery sonnets and lavish presents, hoping to win her favor and claim her hand in marriage. The wolf couldn't bear to see her marry another. Most of them seemed wicked, craving only to possess her beauty without knowing her heart.
The wolf decided to act, but when he told his brothers and sisters that he wished to marry a human girl they barked and yipped in his face and told him, "Wolves and humans could never marry, you foolish pup! Go find yourself a she-wolf and forget about the human."
Try as he might to follow their advice, his feelings for the girl lingered on. He couldn't rest. He couldn't hunt. Desperate for love, the wolf snuck away from his pack on the eve of a full moon. He swam through icy rivers and crawled to the peak of the forbidden mountain to seek out the spirit in the shadows. He begged the spirit to change him into a human. The spirit agreed, and the wolf was too elated to notice the hungry gleam in the spirit's devil-black eyes as they forged their pact.
"I can fulfill your desire, but my powers are limited. You may only assume the guise of a man under the light of the moon. You will become a beast again between sunrise and sunset and should your beloved ever see you in your true form, my spell will be broken, and your soul will become mine to devour."
Love made the wolf reckless, and he didn't think twice about accepting the spirit's ominous bargain. Foolishly, he declared, "I'll risk anything to be with her! As long as we can be together, nothing else matters!"
A contract of souls was sealed between the wolf and the spirit, a glittering, golden promise that was likely too good to be true. The wolf didn't care. He was floating on a cloud of ecstasy. What he wanted most was now within reach. Spell or no spell, he believed that love would conquer all.
He was betting his soul on it.
The next evening, beneath the silvery light of the moon, a handsome blue-eyed man traveled to the village where his beloved lived. He confessed his love and presented her with a bouquet of lilyvale blossoms and a basket of hand-picked corberries. Touched by the sincerity of his words and such lovingly prepared gifts, the girl was taken by a sense of familiarity—as though they weren't strangers, but rather old friends who shared a sweetness and understanding fostered over years. In time, she, too, fell deeply in love. Their wedding day became the happiest day of her life. The bride remained blissfully unaware of the curse that ruled over her new husband.
He built a small cottage for them by the lake, and they moved in together. Every morning, her husband would leave to hunt and fish and gather wood. She wouldn't see him again until dark, but, during his absence, a parade of forest animals would shower her with flowers plucked from the furthest reaches of the forest. Her husband would return to their chambers every night at sundown. He always held her as they slept, whispering sweet nothings into her ear and telling her how much he cherished her. For a while, this tenderness between them was enough to carry her through the lonesome hours between sunrise to sundown.
Little by little, however, the girl grew restless. The mystery behind her husband's whereabouts during the day was always on her mind. One night, she gathered up the courage to confront him when he returned home. She stalled him at the door and wouldn't let him pass.
In a quiet but dignified voice, she asked, "My love, why do you only visit me upon nightfall? Do you not wish to see me during the day?"
Her husband remained silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, his eyes filled with sadness and regret. "This is the only way we can be together, my darling. Please don't ask me about this again. If you love me, then you must trust me in this."
His reply was not at all what she hoped to hear, yet, the girl loved her husband with all her heart, and so she honored his request without another word. She wanted to trust in his reasoning for not telling her the truth. But, as summer changed to fall, and fall changed to winter, the girl's feelings of loneliness and unhappiness did not fade away. If anything, they only grew stronger, consuming her thoughts from sunrise to sunset.
One cold winter's night, she laid wide awake in her husband's embrace, unable to sleep. In the twilight hours preceding dawn, she felt her husband press a gentle kiss upon her cheek as his body slipped away from the warmth of their bed. Moments later, she rolled out of bed to follow him. As she stepped outside their cottage, the girl caught a glimpse of the morning sun as it surfaced upon the horizon. The wintry air was sharp and crisp. Her husband's figure quickly disappeared into the forest.
Running after him, she called out, "Wait, darling, wait for me!"
The first rays of sunlight burst through the trees. Her husband turned to her with a look of horror on his face. Then, in a beastly voice she could barely recognize, he roared, "Do not come any closer! Look away, quickly!"
There was a blinding flash of light, and the girl paled as she witnessed her husband's dark hair spill all over his body, changing into a wolfish gray. His fingers and toes disappeared as his palms and feet grew into monstrous paws. Soon, there was nothing left of her husband except a large gray wolf, staring back at her with eerily familiar blue eyes. His soulful gaze was filled with human-like remorse.
In a trembling voice, she whispered, "Who…who are you? What have you done with my husband?"
The wolf parted his mouth to speak, only to find he had lost the ability to form words. The poor creature could only throw his head up and release a heart-wrenching howl. In this moment, the girl realized the wolf and her husband were one and the same. Crumpling to the ground in despair, her whole body shook uncontrollably as her eyes flooded with bitter tears.
"Oh, my darling! This is all my fault, I'm so sorry I didn't listen, I'm so very sorry…"
The wolf knew it was too late. He could feel the presence of the evil spirit, hovering over him like a ravenous shadow. The ground beneath him began to ripple and shake as a large gaping hole enveloped his body. He tried to leap away, clawing at the ground frantically, but the hellish mouth was too hungry and too powerful, swallowing him into the depths of hell in a heartbeat. As darkness engulfed him, the last thing he saw was the image of his wife racing towards him, her arms outstretched and her voice crying out to him, desperately trying to save him…
Kaz's mother shut the book with a soft thud. "I fear that is all the time we have for today."
"Must we stop now?" Kaz exclaimed in disappointment. "Please! Just a little more."
His mother smiled again, though, this time there was less warmth in her eyes.
"My dear sweet Kazekiel, if you follow everything I say from this moment on, then I promise we shall have all the time in the world to read stories together."