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DARKNESS THAT BINDS - YA South Asian Dark Fantasy (first chapter)

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  • OPENING SCENE - Introduces antagonist, setting, tone, and a foreshadows the primary conflict.

I followed Mahl deeper into the jungle. Winds slapped the leaves into my face, and the torrent of rain threw sheets of freezing rain into my bones. I could not see the ground beneath me, only felt my sandals sink deep into the earth as I trudged through the muck, holding tight to the thin orrnah wrapped around my shoulders.

“We should stop, Ayni.” Her voice reached my ears despite the monsoon drowning out the sound of our sloshing steps and haggard breathing. How fortunate that I could hear Mahl’s voice, even in my head.

“Why?” I asked just as my kameez snagged onto something, and I tripped. I caught myself on the wet, peeling bark of a lohakath ironwood tree, its flared, surfaced roots the culprit of my fall. Wincing, I pushed myself upright, my palms feeling as if I had closed them over broken eggshells.

“That is why,” Mahl said. She sat at the base of a nearby tree. “The darkness might hide us from our enemies, but it also hides us from ourselves.”

I gritted my teeth, my chest heaving in a rush of sudden anger—at the sunlight I had to hide from because it beckoned the foul-mouthed children to me. At the nights I was forced to sleep on the cold, clay floor because I shouted at Mahl for being the reason they hated me. You are the last person to teach me about the dark.

A burst of flame erupted from the ground between us, granting me a look at Mahl. Even now, being swallowed by the darkness of this wet jungle with Ma’s wedding shawl flat against her head, Mahl looked beautiful.

“Mahl, how can we stop now? The bhooth are still after y—us.”

She shrugged. Irises glowing, she ran a hand over her dripping shawl to make it dry. As dry and glittery as the day our Ma wore it seventeen years ago. It was followed by an orange light running up the trunk of the tree she sat on—with a mighty shake, its leaves grew tenfold to cover her from the rain.

“You always think too much,” Mahl said as I shivered in my faded yellow shawl. “Bhooth are made of a type of fire that produces no smoke. The rain will keep us safe for now.” With the light of the fire, I could see a faint smile on her face.

I slumped down on the dampened root of the tree I had slipped on, wondering if the fire could be seen through the darkness of this typhoon, and pulled up my knees. It would never matter how pretty I was. Without magic, no one would call me beautiful. Or love me as they did her.

Mahl untied our abba’s hand-carved bow from its sling by her waist. Abba was an iron potter, and the bow was the only piece of woodwork he ever made. Mahl ran her fingers over the rough-cut edges, and her face softened in memory. She rubbed water that was not from the storm out of her eyes.

But I wrinkled my nose, feeling my stomach twist. Why did she not stay and fight if she cared so much for them? When the bhooth showed up on the horizon with the monsoon clouds half an hour ago, she scrambled for us to get out, leaving Ma and Abba behind. But a jaadukhor with strong magic could summon or control them—a jaadukhor like her.

“How can you stand yourself?” I hissed. Mahl looked up, her eyebrows furrowed. Mahl claimed to have foreseen this day in a dream, predicting the dark green of the sky and the thundering wingbeats of the khaw’wa we had just run from. In it, our parents would protect us by staying while we escaped. She called it a prophecy, and our parents believed her. “Are you now sorry you left our parents to die? Is that why you cry?” I swallowed hard against my tightening throat, knowing how harsh my words were. “Or is it because you are left in this wilderness without someone to brush your hair goodnight or bring you gifts from across Ondhokar?”

“Ayna!” she shouted, her pretty hazel-flecked eyes wide with disbelief. She even used my real name, not my nickname. “How dare you mock them at this hour?”

“Why not? You are a jaadukhor,” I almost spat at the word. Beautiful because you have magic. “You should have protected them instead of shedding tears as forceful as the sky.”

Mahl shifted her body away from me and clutched her covered elbows. “I refuse to speak to you,” she replied over her shoulder.

The smoke of her fire reminded me of the smoke that had trickled from the kitchen hearth—of the fish that had been laid out to dry this morning for dinner. Mahl had to be wrong. It did not make sense for bhooth, creatures that haunted abandoned spaces and roamed jungles or alleyways at night, to attack us for no reason at all.

“What good is your magic if you cannot save the people you care about?” I muttered, unable to stop myself. “How great of a daughter are you?”

She froze for a moment, then slowly turned back to face me.

“How could you believe I left them because I wanted to?” she cried. “How could you? I have never used my magic to harm anyone! I did not have the slightest idea as to what to do!”

I shut my eyes briefly at her cracked voice. But when I opened them, I felt a seed’s weight of anger still lodged in my chest. Every spell you cast hurt me. Every time you used your magic to impress our parents and the other villagers, you buried me deeper into their hate.

I turned away from her and unsheathed the sword given to me. The only thing Abba and Ma left to me. The hilt was the only thing fashionable about the sword, colored a dark gold with inscriptions that Abba had engraved himself. I glared at it, letting out my anger on the sword as I squeezed its hilt, grateful to the Almighty for the rain that hid my hot, frustrated tears. I had thought this sword was a treasure—placing my right hand on my chest and feeling my heart beat louder than usual when I visited the sword sheathed in the house cellar. I used to think it was greeting me. Now, the sword only served as a reminder of that wretched house. Not even the flames from Mahl’s fire reflected on its tarnished steel.

“Ayni,” Mahl said. Her voice sounded far.

“What?” I growled, throwing my sword away in a fit of disgust. Why did I even seek something from Ma and Abba? Why, when I grew up pretending it did not hurt when they stepped over me so they could kiss her goodnight?

“Someone is coming. Hide!”

I looked up, surveying the sudden silence of the jungle. All I could see were trees and shrubs of flowering small teasel bent with moisture, with neither a sign of Mahl nor of the fire she had started. I could even see the faintest blue of the sky from the gaps in the lohakath ironwood canopy.

When had the rain stopped?

I reached to grab the hilt of my sword, but a swift-moving boot pinned the blade to the ground. With a gasp, I looked up and saw a knight, his armored tunic glowing silver at the edges behind a golden shield. His dark brown eyes—bright with magic—widened behind his closed helmet as they met mine. I slid the sword out from under his foot in his momentary shock and stood.

No, the rain had not stopped. I realized with deepening fear at just how powerful this knight was. It only stopped in the area above us.

“A girl with a sword in the middle of the jungle,” he said, flexing his fingers over the hilt of his own sword. It glowed, just like Mahl’s bow, when she touched it. “I hope you are not looking for trouble.”

I took a half step back. I barely knew the basics of swordplay. How could I think of challenging a knight? And one with magic strong enough to control the weather, too? But I raised my sword into a fighting position and widened my stance to stay on the defensive.

“I could say the same about you,” I hoped to talk him into leaving us alone. Where was Mahl anyway?

Just as I thought of her, the sound of someone approaching the knight from behind stopped him from replying. We both turned to see Mahl, her bow drawn and taut.

She released the arrow without hesitation, and it found its place in the knight’s left arm with an explosion of sparkles when it made contact. He dropped his sword, staggered back, and then fell to his knees before me. He grasped his wounded arm with his free arm; his eyes grew a fierce glow. But nothing he did was helping, and the magic from the arrow began to spiral out from his wound to trap him in place.

Mahl met my gaze while my heart remained pounding with adrenaline. She flipped her hair over her shoulder, and the reflective bits on the sheer red orrnah pinned over her head shimmered.

“Are you okay, Ayni? It looked like you needed help.”

I dug the heel of my boot into the ground to stop myself from replying. Mahl’s words reminded me of the only time she followed me down to the cellar. Afraid of the dark and all the dusty stuff that collected on the floor and the crates of our abba’s unused goods, it was the place I could be at peace from her. But that day, Mahl followed me in. Her eyes, with orange light trickling out of them, had darted to all the dark corners of the room and the floating spider webs, and then the entire cellar became bright. The dust and the cobwebs disappeared, and all the crates lost all their earthen smell. The flame from my candle had been blown out and replaced by several of her floating ones. In an instant, she had cleared away all the dark I had enjoyed without hesitation for the sake of her comfort. It took a year for the cellar to return the way I wanted—for the darkness to come back and accept me.

The knight looked up at Mahl, and I absently wiped my cheek, feeling eclipsed by the evident awe in his eyes as he observed her. Despite so little of his face being visible, I could tell that the area around his eyes was lighter than the actual color of his skin.

I walked forward to put my sword on his shoulder, angling it to have the sharp side at his throat.

“Why have you come here?” I demanded. “Who sent you?”

He looked over at me and slowly moved his hand from his wound to place it over his chest.

“I come here by order of His Royal Majesty.”

I inhaled sharply, immediately dropping the sword from his throat. The king himself?

Mahl’s eyes widened at his answer, and she lowered her weapon.

I regained my composure fast enough to ask, “Why would the king send you to a random forest in the middle of a storm?”

“His Majesty was aware of the rumors that a girl with powerful magic existed in this province,” the knight answered. “But we were told not to intervene until you reached a suitable age to fulfill the prophecy against the Saya Reaper.”

Who or what is the Saya Reaper?

“Attacking unsuspecting young women does not seem like something a king’s trained knight would do,” I said instead.

“I apologize for the first impression, miss. Lady Mahl is expected to be a girl with amber eyes and sun-scorched hair and with magic.” The knight looked at my wet, midnight-black hair I had braided into a crown over my head. “I saw you with a weapon drawn and assumed you to be a rogue bandit.”

“But how do you know she is the Mahl you are looking for?” I insisted. “Surely, other girls with magic in Ondhokar might fit your description.”

“Indeed, there are others with magic.” The knight turned his attention back to stare wistfully at Mahl. “But never have I come across a magic wielder with powers to overcome my own. I know she is the jaadukhor I seek.”

Mahl nodded at his words, but I winced.

“I think our best hope is to meet the king. We will be safer with him than on our own.” She blew on her bow, and it disappeared out of sight.

At her display of magic, I pursed my lips. I also did not like the idea of traveling with a stranger, even if he had magic and permission from the king. But I knew Mahl’s eagerness was linked to the knight’s words of a prophecy. Our parents’ death fulfilled one—and she needed another. I sheathed my sword.

“What of this arrow?” the knight questioned with a frown. “I cannot remove it. Or move, for that matter.”

“Ayni can heal it,” Mahl replied. “We are going to the Rajghor, I believe?”

The knight nodded.

I scoffed at her words. I could not heal him. It was a game she played with me, trying to make me feel as if I possessed magic. With her back turned, her eyes would glow, and she would wipe her hands to let the magic in her arrow reverse its harm.

“I can heal it,” I said under my breath, kneeling on the muddy ground to remove the arrow. It came out like a pin, and I wiped my hand over his arm in a quick motion. Both the wound and the arrow were now gone.

The knight stood, nodded a quick thank-you in my direction, and put away his sword.

“You two must be from Fau’ladeya?” he asked. Mahl nodded. “Are you two leaving with your family’s permission?”

Mahl glanced at me. I made a face at her. If she was so quick to trust the knight, she might as well answer all his questions.

“Yes,” she began, biting her lower lip. The knight leaned closer a fraction, waiting for her to go on. “Something happened, and we are on our own now.”

The knight’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment of silence on his part, he nodded in acceptance of her vague statement.

“So, it will not be a trouble if I escort you to the Rajghor, yes?” Mahl gave a slight nod at his question. “Then please, follow me.” He motioned with his hand for her to walk after him.

But just as he took another step, Mahl curled her fingers into a fist and brought it to her chest. The knight staggered back, holding his throat.

“I would like to warn you, though,” she said, walking to stand in front of him. Her eyes blazed with magic, tendrils of orange light emanating from her irises. “If you are not the man you say you are, you have made a grave mistake trying to fool me.” Mahl dropped her hand, and the knight bent over, coughing. She stood with her shoulders arched back and head held high as he dropped to one knee. Sweeping a hand over his chest in servitude, he bowed his head to her.

“You have my word, Your Ladyship.”

Seeing a knight of the king become obedient so quickly to her made me stiffen.

With a nod, Mahl took a step back and allowed the knight to continue leading her to where he had left his horse. He stopped to wave a hand in the air, sparks of white appearing in the direction of his movement. The horse shook its head, and we finally heard its whinny and the slosh of its hooves against the wet ground.

The bulky palomino horse was attached to a decorated passenger box with curtains and tassels along its curtained doorway, large enough to carry a single person. With the knight’s help, Mahl stepped into it. Once she settled in, the knight made a move to mount the palomino.

I stared at them, stunned, before feeling the resentment creep in. How quickly they had forgotten I was here, too. I finally turned with my back to them and began walking. I tried to breathe out the hurt in my chest. I did not need any gallant knight to escort me—I knew the way to the Rajghor because Abba kept all his maps of Ondhokar in the cellar. The main road would lead me right to it. And I knew we were not far from the main road either since the jungles of Fau’ladeya ran alongside it.

But after several steps, I realized that going to the Rajghor was futile. The king wanted Mahl, not me.

“Ayni!” I heard Mahl yell after me, breaking me from my thoughts.

I ignored her and felt the first downpour as I walked out of the knight’s magic range.

“Ayni!” she called again. “Ayna!” This time, she used my real name.

With a huff, I turned around to face her growing silhouette approaching me, angry tears in my eyes. Tears I knew she would not be able to see.

“If you are to meet the king, go meet him! Who am I to join you?” I saw Mahl halt at my words, and I turned around and quickened my pace to get away from her.

While I had no place to go, at least splitting ways meant Mahl would no longer get in my way.

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