The Ritual of Umbra (Short Story)

What is the Ritual of Umbra?

The Ritual of Umbra is a short story set in the world of Incarnate, that I wrote for a university class but never actually showed anyone. It’s canon backstory for the world, and I suppose could even be some sort of prologue to the book, if I didn’t have an adverse reaction to useless prologues.

The Ritual of Umbra

God sent Zanathos to Cinaeris with a plan.

Less than five hundred years to bring out the best in these hopeless humans.

“When I return” God had said, “they shall be ready to serve my family in eternal glory.”

He’d stood upon the hill in his silver robes, shining in the light of the blue sun overhead. Zan could remember other worlds with stars of yellow, their skies much brighter than this one. There was not a cloud in the sky, yet it appeared as if somebody had placed a thin layer of cloth over it.

“The twin moons shall herald the new year at their brightest tonight.” Zan knew this would occur every once every twenty-four years. “After the twentieth cycle, I shall return.”

Twenty full-lunar cycles. Just under five hundred years to complete this impossible task. The shadows that stalked the humans corrupted them. God wanted them pure in twenty cycles.

Zanathos would do it in two.

The hovel infested village below had been only five hundred in number when he arrived. Now, they had over double that in under fifty years.

“You will be my mouthpiece, Zanathos. Teach them of good and evil. Exploration and nature. Fate, knowledge and balance. The domains of my children.” With that, God had vanished.

Chanting began outside.

Zan flicked open his eyes and was greeted by darkness. Yes, he decided, this is the true path. After all, what was the difference between bringing out the best, and expelling the worst? Both would lead to the same result.

Looking out of the window as he uncrossed his legs and stood, Zan saw the red moon rising above the horizon. The blue moon would rise half an hour later.

He stepped toward his desk, grabbing at an oil lamp he’d put out only an hour earlier. An hour of meditation in the darkness had cleared his head, banishing the doubts that plagued him. Zan opened his tinderbox and grabbed his flint and steel, inhaling deeply as he struck them to produce sparks. He concentrated on the air that left his lungs and lit the oil lamp.

Turning around and greeting his featureless shadow with a grimace, Zan took comfort in the fact that his plan would soon be complete. God would be pleased with him.

Outside, the chanting became louder, as villagers gathered for the ritual. They sung the first prayer he had taught them. The words had meant nothing. Merely a random combination of sounds which Zan had believed would work well together. His people had interpreted it to mean that without light there is no shadow, after a few sermons on the topic of good and evil.

Zanathos smiled and shrugged. Whatever got the point across.

The chanting accompanied him as he changed into his dark robes, devoid of ornaments, unlike his ceremonial robes. A shining piece of metal was the last thing he needed as he performed the ritual.

With still some time before the second moon, Zan took out a small mirror and studied his face. He’d aged greatly since that first day, decades earlier. God had promised that he would not die until after the twenty cycles had come, but apparently that did not mean he would remain in his prime, either. His skin now wrinkled where it had once been smooth, tied black hair turning grey. Perhaps he should shave it all off. He looked well for a man essentially eighty years old, given that he had come to this world in a body of thirty years.

Finally the chanting reached its peak as the blue moon crested the horizon. Both moons were full, just as they had been on this night twenty-four years earlier. And on the night that God had left him to lead.

Zanathos untied his hair, watching his shadow mimic the motions. Then he sighed and pulled up his hood, watching the featureless copy of himself transform into a silhouette of his cloak.

His chest grew heavy, his breathing slower. It was time.

On the way out of his home, he snuffed out the candle, smiling as the shadow of his clothing merged with the darkness.

He flung the door open from his hovel, taking in the scene before him.

Every member of their small society stood in a large circle before his home. They wore loose rags of brown and grey tattered cloth. Four torches stood on poles, lighting the town square. Four of his acolytes stood in their own dark robes, surrounding a small dais. In the middle was a stone column, simple and practical in design. Atop the column was a piece of black cloth surrounding a spherical object.

The torches cast the shadows of a thousand people onto the surrounding buildings. Their features flickering in the dim light. The air smelt of smoke.

Nobody looked at Zanathos as he descended the stairs, boots thumping into the wood. The crowd parted, allowing him to pass, then closed up again as he approached the dais.

Three stairs took him to the column. Zanathos stood before it and closed his eyes. He would give no speech. They all knew why they were here. They had waited years for this moment. The evil within each of them would be banished this night.

Zanathos looked to the sky as he gripped the black cloth. Two eyes—one red, one blue—stared at him. God’s oldest children would witness the Ritual of Umbra.

“Lights out,” he whispered, loud enough that only the acolytes would hear.

All became dark.

Zanathos did not allow his eyes to adjust to the moonslight. He pulled the cloth free.

Blinding light followed.

An orb of azure, a glass replica of the sun, sat on the column. Its light was brighter than the sun itself, casting harsh shadows throughout the village. He could see the faces of his people clearly now, watching with intent. Not one of them showed doubt.

With trembling hands, Zanathos reached out and held the sphere. It was cold to the touch. He wasn’t sure why he’d expected it to be warm. It was, after all, his own creation.

He wasn’t sure what to do next. A moment of panic crept up within him. What if they missed this chance? They would have to wait until the next lunar-cycle.

Out of instinct he sucked in all the air he could.

It didn’t happen the way he expected.

Everything went black again, as pain flared all across his body. Everything became silent, although he knew that outside of this pain, he was screaming. The scent of smoke disappeared, replaced by nothing. It felt as if his soul was being sucked up through his veins, then thrown into the air with his screams.

It only lasted a few seconds, but those seconds felt like countless cycles.

When it was over, his senses returned.

Before him sat the azure orb, now a fraction dimmer, he thought. Inside swirled a tiny black speck, streaking across the glass with purpose.

Curious, Zanathos thought, it should have been expelled outward, into the night. Instead, it was pulled into the orb, trapped.

He tapped the glass twice, then returned his attention to the crowd.

Let’s see if this worked.

Standing before the orb, his clothes cast a large shadow over a portion of the crowd. With one smooth motion, he threw aside his robes, allowing them to drop to the dais. The orb’s light expanded, passing through him and onto the crowd. Cloth wrapped from his thighs to his stomach still cast a shadow over them, but his dark figure was gone.

Zanathos was shadowless.

He grinned. “Who’s next?”

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