by Marwa Hijazi
In the springtime, grass cloaks the tree roots like skin shrouds veins. An-Nur watches the emerald blades flinch beneath the cool breeze. The end of her long, silver veil flutters and ripples in the wind.
A dagger is plunged into her breast.
A hot pool of blood oozes, staining her pale brown dress.
A chorus of warbling birds cuts through the air. An-Nur lifts her bowed head towards the curling ocean, peering past the clusters of trees and over the cliffside. The sun begins to crawl over the horizon, arms stretched out in rays to split the darkness of the sky.
There’s a torrential whooshing in her skull. A drum thumps in her chest.
An-Nur begins to hum a prayer to greet her goddess; a low, vibrating note that sits in her throat. She fidgets with her prayer beads; a set of small, glass spheres that make a light, tinkling noise as they slide against one another. From the beads hangs her sacred symbol– Vitath’s symbol.
An-Nur untangles the string of beads from her wrist and re-wraps them along the gaps between her fingers. She lays the wooden symbol in the middle of her palm, tracing the intricate sun etchings with her thumb.
Her gaze finds the ocean again, where brilliant rays make the waters glitter as they steep the earth in light and warmth.
An-Nur reaches for the hilt. She tugs. The dagger pulls free.
She doesn’t hear the squelching of her flesh over the rhythmic pounding in her head.
Her body becomes her heartbeat.
An unbidden thought cleaves An-Nur’s focus on her prayer: warmth has a face. A disarming smile, a scar on the cleft of his chin, and dark, attentive eyes.
Warmth has a name.
An-Nur’s meditative hum wavers as an invisible fist tightens around her throat.
She wanders to a time where she still memorises the scars on Kareem’s brown skin, to where they hide hysterical laughs beneath each other’s hands to remain quiet for their sleeping child.
Their daughter. Silem.
An-Nur grabs the attacker by his jerkin.
She sinks the dagger into his temple.
His jaw slackens. His eyes roll backwards.
An-Nur’s prayer falters as she chases the echoes of Silem’s laughter. The warm beads between An-Nur’s fingers become Silem’s curly hair; stubborn and tangled as she weaves them into a braid.
They keep An-Nur safe– keep their home warm.
She clings onto the corpse as she surges towards the crowd of attackers– all wearing black uniforms that conceal everything but their eyes, making them blend into the night.
No. No, it isn’t warm.
It’s hot. Blistering, scorching, scalding, all-consuming.
Fire that heaves like a greedy spirit, that climbs the ceiling of An-Nur’s cottage and curls over the floorboards.
Arrows fly into An-Nur’s human shield.
She lifts a hand to summon a sphere of light and lobs it towards the line-up of soldiers.
The light splits off into jagged, amber rays.
It tears limbs from bodies.
The flames cloud An-Nur’s mind, as it always does. It seeps into the gaps of her memories from that night until only sweltering heat remains. Why can’t she remember?
She desperately searches the flames for lost memories until, once more, she’s on a field that was once green– peering towards the horror awaiting her.
Two burning stakes. Two bodies.
An-Nur is caught in a flurrying vision of bodies dropping around her, until her hands are wrapped around a man’s neck.
She doesn’t see his eyes bulge through her tears.
The voice grabs her like thousands of desperate hands, hauling her from her misery.
An-Nur’s eyes snap open. Vall kneels before her; black hair tied up to expose her freckled cheeks and doe-like eyes.
“Vall?” An-Nur’s voice wobbles. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Priestess Haara,” the young girl replies quietly, wringing her hands. “She’s had a fit again.”
She raises her hands to a figure who swings their sword in an arc.
Twin beams of light emerge from An-Nur’s palms, searing into their eyes.
An-Nur releases her sacred symbol from a clenching fist. The symbol of Vitath is now indented into her reddened skin. The symbol of life.
They die with their battle cry.
Behind her, an enraged woman screams.
An-Nur turns and shoots an arm out to grip her by her jaw.
Her head throbs– as it always does at the thought of Kareem and Silem. Swallowing the pain, An-Nur nods to Vall, gathers her robes, and stands. The young girl takes off up the hill.
An-Nur glances back to where she had knelt on the grass, guilt curling in her stomach. Another morning prayer disrupted by grief.
Head bowed, she exits the garden. She follows the cobblestone path winding up to the Church, dodging the small tufts of white flowers that emerge from the cracks in the stone.
Light bursts from An-Nur’s hand. The woman’s head explodes.
Blood spatters onto An-Nur’s face.
To An-Nur’s left, in the near distance, the Palace of Semetre’s golden domes flash unabashedly in the wake of the sunrise. She climbs a set of stone steps and approaches the Church’s ivory doors.
An-Nur’s heart staggers as she watches a crowd of anxious-looking church visitors being urged outside by a handful of priestesses. One of them, Priestess Carinth, stands by one of the open doors, scanning the crowd.
When the young woman meets An-Nur’s eyes, relief floods her face.
An-Nur turns to the herd of attackers. There are at least fifty.
More file out from the woods.
Carinth gives a weak nod to An-Nur, who greets her before stepping into the familiar ivory hall– complete with fluted pillars and a vaulted ceiling, paired with golden arches and a glittering image of Vitath, her arms outstretched.
Daylight catches on the floor-to-ceiling strips of stained-glass windows, projecting yellow hues and geometric images of the sun onto the Church floor.
An-Nur finds a swarm of hushed priests and priestesses gathered at the church’s centre.
A familiar scream pierces the silence. The entire room seems to jolt, and gasps reverberate throughout the hall. An-Nur’s blood is spiked with a coldness. Another mournful shriek compels her into motion despite the pain of her tightening chest.
It isn’t An-Nur’s intention to run.
She moves towards the sea of grey garments, and someone turns at the sound of her approach.
Lios’ watery eyes find hers, and An-Nur watches as he runs his hand over his wispy beard. Clearing his throat, he demands the crowd take their leave.
She will shower them with their blood. Their flesh will melt into the earth.
The sound of shuffling feet and swishing robes follow. An-Nur focuses on anything but the eyes that are on her. She clutches her warm prayer beads and kisses her sacred symbol.
Many priestesses nod to An-Nur as they file out of the Church. Some touch her shoulder as they pass, murmuring prayers.
They will not forget their pain– not over a thousand lifetimes.
“Priestess Haara was about to lead congregation,” Lios whispers tiredly. “She insisted that she was feeling better after last week, when you last helped her.”
As the crowd clears, An-Nur’s eyes find a trembling figure kneeling on the floor, hunched over to sob into her chest. An-Nur can’t help but notice that the ceremonial robes are too big on Priestess Haara. Or maybe she’s too small.
The elderly woman’s arms are restrained by two struggling Priests. An-Nur notes the blood beneath her broken fingernails.
The sight is awful. It reconjures a familiar image of An-Nur, watching herself from above as she lay across the remains of her family; attempting to breathe life into them again by invoking their names, over and over.
For Kareem. For Silem.
“An-Nur,” Lios prompts.
The priestess blinks, recalling where she is.
“Priestess Haara?” she whispers gently, reaching out a hand.
An-Nur raises her arms and bellows her incantation.
The fire behind her roars louder.
She sucks in a deep breath, feeling the flames hurtle towards her in a torrent of aggression.
Haara’s head tips back. Her curtain of grey hair parts, revealing the scratch marks that had cut a bloody path down her cheeks. The blood mixes with the tears that pour from her milky white eyes. An-Nur watches her lips as she hisses something.
She kneels before the woman, taking her red, clammy hands from the grips of the priests.
Haara continues to blubber. “…Watcher of Dawn….Bringer of Light…the King is dead…Oh Vitath, have mercy…”
An-Nur draws a hand to the woman’s bloodied cheek, hushing her.
Fire bends to her will, arcing in great waves that brighten the twilight sky.
She doesn’t need to search Haara’s mind to know the image that haunts her. A year ago, the old Priestess had witnessed the King of Semetre die in this hall. As he had knelt before Vitath’s altar, he was obliterated by a wrathful explosion of Vitath’s pure Light; an unperceivable, divine force. Everyone had looked away, except for Haara. Yet, Vitath had spared her.
An-Nur can’t revel in the pained screeches that come.
Her eyes are drawn back to the stakes that burn in the field.
An-Nur’s stomach squeezes as Haara collapses into a fit of sobs again. She lets go of Haara’s hands and catches her face.
“Breathe…” An-Nur encourages softly. Haara’s white eyes anxiously search the air.
An-Nur moves the thumb of her right hand from Haara’s cheek to the centre of her forehead.
Deepening her breathing, she searches for the light that lies dormant in her chest. An-Nur whispers her incantation, and the warmth swells upwards. She straightens her arm to make an easy path for the spell to travel.
Phantom-like, An-Nur weaves between the corpses, trailing gore.
She occasionally steps on limp arms and hands.
Some fingers snap beneath her boots.
Behind An-Nur, her burning home continues to collapse.
She can’t turn to watch.
Focusing on the point of contact between her skin and Haara’s, An-Nur exhales. A vibrating beam of heat shoots down her arm and to her fingers.
She wanders to the corpses that still burn, to her husband and daughter.
An-Nur doesn’t fall to her knees. Her body would break.
An orange glow ripples around Haara’s forehead, turning the skin slightly translucent and illuminating the thin, blue veins along her temples.
The blind woman’s brow immediately relaxes and she slumps forward onto An-Nur’s shoulder, breathing evenly.
The priestess strokes Haara’s hair. “You’re safe…”
She raises a shaking hand.
Her voice emits from outside of her body as she wills the flames to extinguish.
An-Nur closes her eyes. She reaches for Vitath’s Light that now pulses around her; the familiar warmth that envelops her every day.
An-Nur prays to understand why. Why couldn’t she reach her family sooner on that night? Why couldn’t she stop it? And why couldn’t she remember the moments between her discovery of her burning home, and when she lay wailing upon the scorched earth at sunrise?
Exhaustion and darkness consume An-Nur’s vision.
She collapses onto the field.
Shakily, An-Nur lifts her sacred symbol to her lips. Warmth encircles her.
This is the way that Vitath works: where something is given, something must be taken.
The thought brings no bitterness, no disdain. It simply is.
It may be a mercy that An-Nur cannot recall that entire night. Perhaps, the veil between her and the truth is better left unparted.
This time, An-Nur can keep the tears at bay as she kisses Haara’s forehead.
When An-Nur wakes, the sun is rising; ringed by the fire and black smoke that still curls from the cottage’s thatched roof.
She crawls to the stakes, spitting prayers and pleads, and grips the smouldering wood for support as she stands.
Bones. Only bones remain.
Fire and daylight flank her hunched silhouette; like an explosion of waves that divide as they crash into a rock face. Like wings.
She slumps to the ground, hands curling around the grass blackened by blood.
For the first time in her life, An-Nur curses the sunrise.
Based on an RPG world created by