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Mareth fell back in a swoon when I entered her home unannounced, almost falling across the banked fire in the hearth, and it took some doing to rouse her. When I'd revived her, she was pale, and the tears swept down her face in a torrent, washing away some of the grime that had accumulated there, unwashed until then. Moreover, the room was unswept and it was obvious she hadn't been keeping up with her other housework. She clung to me tightly enough to make breathing difficult as I retold my story, omitting not even the secrets Graemor had revealed, and by the time I finally ran out of words, she'd mastered herself enough to halt her tears and relax her grip on me until it was merely uncomfortably tight. I gently disengaged her arms and pulled her down beside me on the bench by the fire.
“And now, what must I do, beloved? Tomorrow, Graemor will bring his tale to the elders, and try to convince them to repeat the same strategy that has failed him repeatedly in the past.”
Mareth frowned, gazing worriedly into my eyes. “Amodai, he's right in at least one thing. Something in you has changed.”
I rose, throwing off the hand with which she gripped my arm. “Does no one believe me? All that's changed is that I half understand something I’ve never understood in the least before. And that I know Graemor is wrong, something I'd never considered possible.”
Mareth sighed, and looked away. In a quiet voice, she gently chided me. “And yet everything you say violates what we’ve been taught, and what Graemor claims. How can you be right and everyone else wrong?”
I knelt before her and gently turned her face back towards me. “All I know is that they're wrong. Can you at least trust me in that?”
Tears rose to her eyes. “I can support you in that.”
I didn’t miss her choice of words, but it wasn't something to pursue just then, for we were both weary. Without another word, we both moved to the bed, and fell into it together, scarcely awake enough to remove our boots and my outerwear. Mareth moved beneath the blankets until she was in my arms, and there she fell asleep, scant moments before I did.
In the morning, I woke, stiff and sore and with my right arm gone numb beneath Mareth. Ruefully, I also admitted that the unpleasant scent in my nostrils was coming in equal parts from both of us. Wrinkling my nose in distaste, glad that she wasn't awake to witness this impolitic gesture, I extricated my arm from beneath her and rose into the morning chill. Behind me, she murmured something incomprehensible in her sleep. I crossed to the door, collecting one of our large iron kettles in my left hand on my way, and stepped outside, just beginning to feel the pins and needles in my right arm. By the time I’d filled the kettle from the rain barrel, my right arm was in agony. But I ignored the pain, as I needed both hands to handle the weight of the water, and the effort of pulling the kettle from the water and hauling it back to our room seemed to help.
Once back inside, I gratefully set the handle of the kettle on the iron pole by the hearth, then swung the pole, its pivot squeaking in protest, over the fire so the kettle could warm. That done and my right arm beginning to feel normal once more, I laid a few sticks of kindling across the coals, blew on them gently until the coals flared and the kindling caught, then topped it with some larger pieces. That done, I went to the curtained room at the back of Mareth’s home and the chamber pot, as I’d suddenly become aware of an urgent necessity to use it.
When I returned, Mareth was awake and groggily moving about the room. Groggy though she was, she was still thinking more clearly than I was, for she’d dipped some water from the large kettle and set it to boiling tea at the opposite end of the hearth. I went to her wordlessly, not really awake enough myself to essay conversation, and she clung to me, this time in her familiar friendly manner. After a time, when the larger kettle had begun steaming, she smiled playfully at me and began tugging at my garments. I smiled back and helped her undress me, then returned the favor. We dipped the coarse washcloths she’d laid beside the kettle into the warm water and set about scrubbing each other, not shy to seek out each other’s most ticklish spots. By the time we were mostly clean, the garments at our feet were soaking wet, and neither of us was in any mood for washing.
Some time later, much more pleasantly groggy than we’d been earlier, we repeated the process somewhat more decorously, wiping away the fresher sweat with hotter water, gentler hands, and softer smiles. Afterwards, clad in fresh, dry clothing, we sat across the table from each other, not needing to say anything, content with each other and a simple breakfast of warmed cornbread, jam, and cheese, washed down by thick black tea that had steeped far too long while our attention was elsewhere.
Licking her lips most enchantingly to collect the last few crumbs, Mareth gazed up at me with concern growing in her eyes, and our shared mood broke that easily. “You’ll be going to confront Graemor now?”
I nodded, feeling my stomach knot. “I see no other choice.”
“Can’t you? Can you not just sit in silence and support him?”
“How can I?”
“I can sit in silence.”
“This is different. I must go and speak the truth as I know it.”
“Even at the cost of a friend and mentor?”
I licked my lips. “Graemor always respected our independence, even if he never let it sway his decisions."
"In that much, you're alike."
I watched her face for a moment, but she kept it carefully blank. "I can hope that part of him hasn’t changed and that the cost won’t be as high as you fear.”
Her face tensed in that way it always did when she was trying to hold back her tears. “But you have changed, else you’d never oppose him. Some of us feel there are things more important than the need to be heard.”
With that, she pushed back her chair and fled to the back room before I could stop her. I waited a time, hoping she’d return, but she sat there in silence long enough that I eventually took the hint and left, wordlessly, wondering just what message I’d missed and how such a fine start to the morning had gone so wrong, so fast.
I walked slowly to the Councilhouse, ignoring the surprised glances of the few townsfolk who were out and about town at this late hour; most were already hard at work in the fields or their workshops, so I met nobody I knew well enough I would have felt obliged to stop and explain my absence and my return.
The door of the small stone building was closed, which meant that none of the elders had arrived yet; once Council was in session, the door would be open to anyone who wanted to listen to the proceedings. Unperturbed, I squatted by the door with the patience of a hunter—the patience that Graemor had taught us, I recalled with a jolt—and sent my mind into that far-off place I’d learned to seek when I had waiting ahead of me and unpleasant thoughts or deeds I’d no desire to face.
Footsteps brought me out of that trance, and I rose smoothly to a standing position, obscurely proud that I’d risen with scarcely a tremor in my knees. The footsteps rounded the corner, and Talmin appeared, walking slowly and wearily as if she’d slept not a moment all night. When I caught a closer look at her eyes, I was certain she’d spent her night far from bed.
“A good morning to you, Amodai, and the blessing of the Light upon you.”
“And you, dear friend.” We hugged each other, and when we stepped back from that embrace, I basked in her weary smile. We’d drifted apart somewhat these past few years since coming to Haven, she lost in her devotions and me lost in my own escapes, but there was still an old, very comfortable bond between us.
I laughed as she yawned widely enough for the hinge of her jaw to crack. “You’ve been up all night, fool of a priestess—don’t deny it!”
She returned my laugh, and some life returned to her eyes. “Guilty as charged. But you—you rogue!—I’d say you’ve slept the peaceful sleep of a sinner.”
“Guilty as charged.”
Before we could continue our exchange, her smile abruptly faded. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw our three elders—Ramath, Tereni, and Saera—approaching, the two men flanking Graemor and Saera hobbling slowly along a few steps behind, head cocked sideways as if to help her listen. Talmin’s voice sounded quietly in my ear. “Amodai, I’m glad you came. Graemor and I disagree on a good many things, and I’ll need your support. I can count on your support, can’t I?”
I turned and met her eyes again, reading with some surprise a poorly concealed fear. “Have you any doubt?”
That brought the smile partway back, in time for her to greet the three elders with a reasonable pretense of eagerness. I missed their initial exchange of greetings, for behind the newcomers came my fellow Rangers, walking in a tight group. Even as I began to rush over to them, something in their manner halted me. Though at first there’d been the eager, joyful looks I’d expected to see in their eyes, that changed as they drew closer. Graemor shot a glance at them over his shoulder, and they averted their eyes and would no longer look upon me. Only Bethan risked a smile, and I was taken aback at the unguarded joy in her eyes and the frown it awoke in Graemor. The grim look on Graemor’s face told me all I needed to know about what had happened before their arrival.
I had no more time to ponder this, for Ramath unlocked the Councilhouse door and passed within, followed by the other elders, and Talmin seized my elbow and propelled me in ahead of Graemor, who essayed a cold, pitying smile as I passed before him. I returned it as best I could, and I knew from the look in his eyes and the softening of his gaze that my uncertainty must have been plain on my own face.
Ramath and Tereni seated themselves on the long bench atop the dais at the end of the room, the morning light spilling in through the window behind them and into our faces. Saera joined them after a slight but distinct pause, then turned to face them, awaiting their lead, though nominally she led the Council. Tereni’s shadowed face looked even older than his true age, the wound that had crippled him and cast him from the life of a farmer into his present role weighing heavily upon him today. We sat before them on low stools, me on one side and Graemor a short distance away, with the Rangers in a silent group behind him. Talmin sat beside Saera, who took up the pen and scroll with which she'd record what was said. Seeing that she was ready, Ramath spoke, her voice strong and rich in that silent room.
“By the Light that safeguards and guides us, I declare this session of the Council to be open. Let it be recorded that we have convened on the request of Graemor, Captain of the Rangers and defender of Haven against Shadow. Graemor, you have told us repeatedly of the peril that faces us. Does everyone here know your story?” He cast his eyes slowly around the room, meeting each gaze and not moving on until he’d collected a nod or a whispered yes from each person. “Very well, then. What would you have the Council do?”
Talmin rose, pre-empting the Ranger captain. “You have heard our defender’s words, but not mine. May I speak, that all may learn what I have discovered?”
Tereni’s voice was thin and reedy next to the priestess’s deeper tones. “You know that you are always welcome to speak before us, Talmin, even if your position does not formally entitle you to such. What must we know?”
Talmin bowed her head in thanks. “First, a confession and an apology. As you know, I never fully completed my training in the priesthood. After my mentor died prematurely, there was no way for me to leave my duties here and return to the main Temple to complete that training. Though it be no fault of my own, still circumstances have left me unprepared for my role.”
“Nonetheless, you have filled it well, and have matured in the role.” Talmin blushed beneath the warmth of Saera’s compliment, then continued stubbornly.
“The apology is because I may have failed to teach you, my people, everything you needed to know of Shadow and Light.” She cast a sidelong glance towards Graemor, who was watching with keen attention now, then turned back to the elders. “I have spent the past night studying books and scrolls that were left to me by my mentor, and that I'd never until now had time to read. I pray you’ll forgive me if I speak carelessly, for I’m exhausted both by my labors and by the burden that has fallen upon me.”
The young priestess yawned and went on. “Like you, I have been raised to fear Shadow as the very antithesis of Light and thus as the manifest enemy of each child of Light. Never until Amodai’s return had I been given reason to question that teaching.” She turned to me and smiled, and I felt all eyes in the room turn upon me as I returned that smile. “And now I find myself confused, uncertain which way to turn. Would that I had someone older and wiser to consult!
“What I have never taught, and what the priestesses who tended the Light here before me evidently never taught, was that Shadow is not evil.” Graemor snorted and began a rebuttal, but Ramath silenced him with a hard look. “I say this again, for it is crucial that you understand: Shadow is not evil.”
Graemor could no longer contain himself, and spoke before Talmin could gather her thoughts again, ignoring Ramath’s glare. “Yet do not all our scriptures tell us that Shadow is the enemy of Light?”
Talmin took a deep breath, and drew herself up to her full height. “They do say that, and I do not dispute it. Yet today, you and I are no less enemies than Shadow and Light, and despite that, neither of us is evil. The books and scrolls I examined last night tell a very different story, a story of the joining of Shadow and Light to create our world and ourselves. If this is correct—and what Amodai told us last night suggests that it is—then we are not truly children of Light, but rather children of both Light and Shadow.”
“Blasphemy!” Graemor interrupted in a flat, cold voice. “What you say is apocryphal, else why would it not have been taught by the old priestess, your mentor?”
Talmin looked uncertain for a moment, then rallied and continued. “Because such teachings are complex and confusing, and thus difficult for most of us to understand? Because priestesses are human too, and have our own biases?”
Graemor scowled. “And your bias is becoming clear, Priestess. But continue.”
“In any event, there are teachings I would perhaps have understood better had I completed my studies. I concede Graemor’s point that what I read may indeed be apocryphal, though the fact that these texts were lovingly preserved in the Temple library and even recopied when they grew too faded suggests they are every bit as holy as more familiar scriptures, else why would they not have been destroyed? That tells me they contain aspects of a larger truth, whatever that truth may be. And one of those aspects that is clear to me is that we are children of both Light and Shadow, and that the shadowcreatures Graemor would have us fight are nothing less than our kin. That being the case, it would be a terrible thing if we were to take up arms against them and slay our kin out of nothing more than misguided fear.”
Graemor shook his head sadly, pity in his eyes. “It's all well and good to argue from moldy old scrolls and mouse-gnawed books, but I argue from personal experience. As you all know,” he continued, his eyes on mine, warning me not to speak, “my village was overrun by Shadow, and every last man, woman, and child was either slain or turned into one of Them.” There was a painful intensity in his voice, and the muscles on his face were tight with the effort to rein in his emotions. “I spent some unknowable time at the mercy of Shadow, tormented and played with until they saw fit to release me once more into Light. When I'd regained my own form, I came here to establish the Rangers and prepare Haven to defend itself should Shadow ever come to our doorsteps. And now it has done so, and my preparations have proven wise.”
Talmin sat wearily. “So you say, but what evidence have we that Shadow is evil?”
Graemor smiled a cold smile of triumph. “Would you call it a good thing that Shadow takes our farmers from their fields and slays them? That apart from the small circle of Light around Haven, we are cut off from all other settlements, including the one you and your friend Amodai came from?”
I felt an old, half-remembered pain clutch at my heart as I remembered the day I’d realized my parents, brothers, sisters, and other kin were gone into Shadow, never to be seen again. Had I wanted to rebut Graemor’s words, it would have been beyond my power, and I was briefly grateful that it was not my time to speak. But Talmin, pleading in her voice, would not leave me in that state.
“I cannot answer your questions, and indeed, what you say speaks strongly to my own fears, but there is one who can answer. Amodai... you too have been captive of Shadow for a time, and you too have been returned to us. You claim that what I have read is true? Now is the time to convince us.”
Every eye in the room was upon me, but those of two people in particular held me: Talmin’s plea for support could not go unanswered, yet the warning in Graemor’s eye could not go unheeded. Torn between them, I felt myself reeling, unable to regain my composure let alone talk. I was spared the necessity by Tereni’s kindly voice.
“There is no need to force the lad. Everyone here knows his tale, do we not?”
I began to relax, but it was premature. Bethan’s clear voice rang out, strong and confident. “I have heard what Graemor told us, but I want to hear Amodai’s own words.” At Graemor’s look of shock, the confidence vanished from her voice and she forced her eyes upon me with a painful intensity. “Amodai, tell us what happened to you.”
Despite myself, I found myself rising. I saw Talmin’s obvious relief, Graemor’s growing anger, but it was Bethan I looked upon, and her desperation somehow banished my fears. For a moment, my mind was clear, sharp, and hard, free of any traces of confusion, and into it came the image of Mother. A warmth spread within me, akin to the warmth of the Light when I returned from a sojourn in Shadow, and I found myself able to talk freely.
“What Graemor tells us is true.” I ignored Talmin’s grunt of surprise and Graemor’s fierce look of pride, and continued, gazing into Bethan’s face, grown suddenly vulnerable. “Shadow has indeed become our enemy. Yet that need not be so.” I told them of my encounter with Mother as best I could, trying with all my heart to make them feel what I had felt when she came for me and took me away from Shadow. My gaze still locked on Bethan, I could not see how others were reacting, but I knew that she at least now believed me.
“As Talmin says, we are children of both Light and Shadow, though I have no understanding of how this may be. If that were not so, how could we Rangers travel in Shadow and be transformed by it, yet without losing our humanity?”
“And yet they steal us away from the Light and slay us,” Graemor said bitterly.
I shook my head, seeking words that would protect the old Ranger’s secret yet still make the truth known. “There are those among them who have been hunted by us, and those who have been slain. Why would the survivors bear us any love? But even that does not justify what they do. What is most important is that they want us to share in the glory of Shadow, which is our birthright.” I turned my eyes upon our elders, and saw the doubt and fear in their faces.
“Or they wish to seduce us into believing that to be the case,” Graemor continued. “Amodai, I do not doubt in the slightest that you believe what you say, but you are young and inexperienced in the ways of warfare. Would it not be easier to destroy us by gaining and betraying our trust than by meeting us in open battle? Moreover, I know from my own terrible past that too long spent in Shadow will damage one’s mind for a time, and the healing is oft long. Can you tell us for certain that you are now healed, and can speak with your own thoughts rather than the thoughts of those who took you from us?”
I shook my head in denial. “Think what you may of the Shadowbeast who took me; I cannot speak for his motives. But I can say that Mother cannot be our enemy. She was a creature of Light to a greater extent than even we are. It cannot be otherwise, unless Shadow has acquired the power to take on the aspect of Light. And if that is so, we cannot hope to resist such power.”
Graemor momentarily lost his look of confidence, as if I’d scored a telling blow, and the haunted look that had accompanied his confession last night stared out for all to see, but all eyes were still on me in that moment. Then, all at once, the Ranger’s smile returned and his uncertainty faded. “Perhaps you're right. Or perhaps what you saw was nothing but an illusion intended to deceive you—and through you, us—that you accepted at face value because you were too tired and beset by their evil deceptions to think otherwise.”
Ramath cleared her throat. “Could what he says be true, Amodai?” I hesitated, suddenly unsure, and she asked again. “Amodai?”
“Yes. It could be true. But Graemor’s conclusion simply feels wrong to me.”
Talmin spoke before Graemor could speak. “And whatever you may think of Amodai’s feeling, we cannot argue with what has been written. Though there is no mention of any Mother in scripture, the forgotten scrolls I read last night make it clear that there is truth to what Amodai says. If that is so—”
Tereni’s reedy voice broke in. “Yet can we afford to take the chance that Amodai is wrong? Mistake me not, I don’t doubt that our young Ranger is sincere in what he says, and I acknowledge the diligent service he has given us since Graemor came. But despite what he says, can we afford to risk the lives of every living being in Haven on speculation that contradicts everything we've been taught our whole lives?” Saera’s eyes showed fear, and she nodded her agreement.
“I think not.” Ramath’s voice was strong and calm. “We've heard the arguments on both sides, and speaking for the Council of elders”—her eyes caught those of Saera before she continued—“it's our duty to accept Graemor’s warning and prepare ourselves for conflict.”
“But—” Talmin and I exclaimed as if in a single voice.
“The matter is settled. We do not prohibit you from striving for evidence that will convince us Graemor is wrong, but until that evidence is available, we must err on the side of caution. Graemor? Set about such preparations as you feel are wise. You shall have whatever support you need.”
Graemor stayed behind with Mikali to discuss the details of his preparations with the elders, while Talmin dutifully recorded the information for posterity, doubt evident on her face. When I stepped outside to breathe the still-fresh morning air, I was immediately ambushed by the remaining Rangers. When they’d done hugging me and pounding me on the back, I was left with the pleasant weight of Bethan’s arm around my waist and the others grinning awkwardly at me, a mixture of pleasure at my return and worry that I hadn’t stood with them during Graemor’s speech.
Unconsciously, we all deferred to Bareni. “Good to have you back, Amodai. Don’t go doing that again. You can’t imagine what you put us through, Graemor particularly.”
“I always thought it’d be me who’d go first,” Methema continued, the look in his eyes making me wonder whether he felt that saying it might invoke that fate.
“It will be, Meth, it will be. Anyway, I knew it wasn’t going to be Amodai.” There was the usual acid in Ranali’s voice where Methema was concerned, but there was also something else I didn’t quite recognize. Bareni’s eyes narrowed for an instant, then he smiled again, eyes and mouth both joining in that expression.
“Forget him, Meth. If anyone among us goes to the Light, it’s going to be Ran. There are times when I think he’d like that.”
“In your dreams, Bare, in your dreams.” The old defiance was back in his voice, but at least he was smiling again.
Bethan released her grip on my waist and stepped back so she could face me. She locked her eyes on mine and smiled from deep down in the depths of her soul. “I knew you’d be back. Our Amodai is too tough for anything as simple as a few days in Shadow to kill him.”
Ran snickered, and muttered something that made her flush red. She punched him harder than strictly necessary in the ribs; that started some good-natured wrestling, which ended up with Bethan’s arm twisted behind her back and the light of triumph in Ran’s eyes. Bareni’s smile widened, and he laughed outright; even Methema relaxed a bit, the worry lines around his eyes smoothing.
“Enough. It’s all very well to practice unarmed combat, Ran, but we’ll need to discuss some more effective strategies for when we actually confront Shadow.” Ran released Bethan, and she put an arm around his shoulder, friendly and accepting, as if nothing had happened.
I cleared my throat, for a suspicious lump had formed in it. “I think the first problem will be how six of us can fight all of Shadow by ourselves.”
“Six?” Methema wondered, voice trembling noticeably. “Won’t we have the whole town at our backs?”
Bareni nodded, eyes gone serious now. “No, Meth, Amodai’s right. Sure, we could arm the farmers with pitchforks and the townsfolk with crossbows, but the fact remains, there’s only the six of us with the courage to enter Shadow. Haven doesn’t even have a militia, not like most other towns supposedly have. Leaves us kinda outnumbered.”
“It’s not the numbers, it’s the quality,” Ranali interjected. “I’ve never yet met the Shadowbeast that gave me more than a moment’s pause. They’re not trained fighters; we are. That makes all the difference.”
“Does it?” Methema rallied. “What if we meet an army of Shadowbeasts? What if they have archers, or packs of trained hunting animals?”
“We've never seen any evidence of such a thing,” Bareni replied, voice calm and reassuring. “But the point remains that the task necessarily falls to the six of us, and more likely five, since Graemor will have to remain behind to direct the defense of Haven, and he'll want Mikali with him again. That suggests a long, slow campaign.”
“Exactly,” Ranali snapped, moving a bit closer to Bethan. “We’ll pair up in the same teams we formed to hunt Mohri, and spend our days hunting down Shadowbeasts until there are none left anywhere near town.” The look in his eyes chilled me, both because I knew how deeply he meant it and because I'd heard much the same tale from Graemor. It hadn't ended well for our mentor, and seemed unlikely to end better this time.
“But we’ve never found many near town before,” Methema responded, looking hopeful. “Maybe it’s just this Mohri character, and once we’ve killed him, we’ll be safe again.”
Ranali snorted, but it was Bethan who spoke. “Then we’ll just have to go farther afield. Amodai can teach us how he survived that long in Shadow, and once we know that, we can do the same. Right?”
I ached at the hope in her voice. “It’s not that easy. To survive that long in Shadow, I became Shadow for a time and lost all of me that was Amodai. The only reason I’m here today is because Mother rescued me.”
“You always were a Momma’s boy,” Ranali interrupted. Bethan took her arm off his shoulder and dug him in the ribs, hard enough that the breath whooshed from him.
“Ranali, enough. You’re not helping any.” Bareni’s eyes were intense now. “Amodai, Graemor told us something of this woman, but it was all second hand, and his story doesn't sound right for the way you're speaking.”
I shook my head, clearing it. “All I can say is that I was there, and he wasn’t. And he’s had much worse experiences with Shadow than any of us have had. It must have colored his thinking.” Or turned him blind in his remaining eye.
“Maybe your becoming part of Shadow has colored yours,” Methema added distrustfully.
“I can’t rule that out.” Bethan gasped, and put her hand on my arm, but I didn’t meet her eyes. “But I can say... that explanation just feels wrong. Mother is on our side, whatever she may be, and if what she told me is true, then it would be a terrible thing to hunt Shadowbeasts just because they might someday threaten us.”
“If.” Ranali’s disbelief was clear on his face.
“But surely we should make an effort to try and find out?” Bethan’s voice was plaintive.
“No.” Bareni’s voice held the tone of a command. “Graemor has given us our direction, and until Amodai and Talmin can provide a better reason than intuition, we can’t simply ignore him. Amodai, can you accept that for now?”
I hesitated, then gently shrugged off Bethan’s arm. “No, I can't. You know why.”
Bareni nodded. “I do, and I respect you for it.” He came closer, clapped me hard on the shoulder, and smiled his acceptance. “Welcome back. You’ll still be one of us once we’ve gotten past this. Don’t be too long about it.” He turned and headed off in the direction of our communal barracks, followed by Methema and Ranali, the latter looking back over his shoulder with a frown when he noted that Bethan wasn’t following.
“Amodai?” Unnoticed, she’d moved closer and caught my hand in hers again. I squeezed it gently, and she squeezed back, much harder.
“Beth, I can’t come. I’m convinced Graemor’s wrong, and I can’t do what he asks so long as I believe that.”
“You’re so certain that you’d disobey him, and maybe lose us?”
“I won’t lose you... or any of the others either. You heard Bareni.” Bethan moved into my arms and held me tightly. It felt mighty good, and I hugged her back, hoping as I did that Mareth would understand.
After a time, she pulled back. “Then I’m with you too.”
I smiled down at her. “Should I tell Mareth to make room for another bed?” I’d said that lightly, but seeing the sudden pain in her eyes, I swept on quickly. “Look. You’re special to me, you know that, but you also know nothing's going to happen now. Go with the others. When I have evidence that will convince them, then you can stand freely with me. Until then, they need you—”
“We need each other!” She pulled free from my embrace. “Don’t ever forget that, Amodai.” Then she spun on her heel and ran after the others, not pausing to look back. I watched until she was out of sight, then returned home to Mareth.
Mareth and I rarely fought, but this was a big one. In retrospect, I guess I’d missed the signs of just how displeased she was about my rebellion against Graemor, and it wasn’t until I was on the street outside our home—her home, now, though only temporarily, I hoped—that I started remembering: her displeasure at breakfast today, for instance, but more importantly, her growing displeasure at my choice of profession. She’d never been fond of me leaving her to wander in Shadow, and I’d always been confident this was only her fear for my safety. Now, emotions still high, an unworthy thought intruded: could it have been jealousy? Unbidden, I remembered Bethan’s warmth and the herbal scents she affected when she hadn’t acquired them honestly from her time in the woods.
I frowned in anger at myself, but nonetheless turned and headed for the Ranger barracks, despite the risk of meeting Bethan there. As it turned out, I’d naught to fear, for my colleagues were gone, off on their new duties preparing the town for an imagined assault from Shadow. That was expected, but what wasn't was the absence of my pallet in the barracks. I’d been living with Mareth for some time, but the bed had always been there before. Ah well, I thought; it was only natural that they’d used the space to give themselves more room. I dumped my bags in the corner and left, not really sure of where I was going.
I guess my thoughts must have been wandering every bit as much as my body, for I found myself by the Temple not long afterwards. Even through the closed door, I could feel the welcoming warmth of the Light beckoning. On the verge of tugging the bell pull, I stopped; the last thing I wanted now was discuss my love life with Talmin. I entered the Temple noiselessly, cast a suddenly nervous glance about me to confirm I was alone, then crossed to the flame to kneel in worship.
As before, there was the soothing peace of communion with our creator, but it was a wordless thing, free of any message that might give me confidence in the direction I’d chosen. After a time, I rose, at ease in my soul but no more confident in what I’d chosen to do than before. The Temple was silent, and I was hungry, so I entered Talmin’s small kitchen and set about helping myself to some cheese and bread. I'd just about finished my meal when I heard a throat being cleared.
“You make yourself unusually free of the Temple’s charity, Ranger!”
I turned, smiling, to greet my friend. The smile faded when I saw the look on Talmin’s face. Though there was mirth in her voice, there was none in her eyes, and she looked bone-weary. “What’s wrong?”
“You mean apart from finding a former friend robbing the Temple?”
This time the mirth was even gone from her voice. “Talmin?”
She shook her head, averting here eyes. “Let’s just say I’ve been reminded rather firmly of my place in these things. You’d think that as a priestess of the Light I’d have some authority, but it seems that's all in Graemor’s hands now. He has even less training than I do, of course, but he has firsthand experience with the enemy, and that apparently counts for more.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she continued bitterly, still not meeting my eyes, “that I’ve been overruled. Until we have proof one way or the other, all scripture that speaks of Shadow in a positive light has been deemed apocryphal. And my new job is to remind Haven of the scriptures still considered acceptable, and to use those scriptures to unite them behind us in a war against Shadow.”
I put down what remained of my meal and approached her, putting a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Can you at least act as their conscience, and remind them that the situation is not as clear as Graemor would have us believe?”
“Aye, that I can do, for what little it’s worth.”
“It’s no little thing, Talmin. It’s what you chose as your career. You chose to do what you believed, and only grew in your faith as time went by. Me, on the other hand...”
Talmin smiled weakly, but with some genuine warmth. “You, on the other hand, sometimes seem to have taken on the job simply to avoid honest work. Maybe you really did, at first, but nobody else—least of all, me—believes it now.”
Our smiles grew more open, and I wondered what had ever possessed me to neglect her in favor of my new friends. As if reading my mind, she punched me gently on the shoulder. “So what brings you here today? Avoiding more honest work?” At the look in my eyes, her face fell. “I’m sorry, Amodai. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
I nodded, taking a deep breath. “Mareth and I had a fight.”
“A bad one, I take it.”
“Bad enough I’m looking for a place to sleep tonight.”
“And you want to stay here?”
I laughed, watching confusion grow on her face. “No, I just came here to steal your food. I already brought my gear to the Ranger barracks. My bed isn’t there any more, but I imagine we’ll be able to rig something up for the next few days, until she gets over it.”
Talmin grew thoughtful. “Or perhaps not.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what should be obvious even to someone as thickheaded as you. Have you considered that Graemor may have ordered your bed removed from the barracks?”
I laughed again, covering my sudden unease. I doubt I fooled either of us. “Do you think he’d do such a thing?”
“I can’t say for sure. But I can say he spared no effort to discredit you before the elders once you were gone from the Council meeting. Now wait,” her voice rose as she forestalled me. “Don’t mistake me; I’m not saying you’ve made an enemy. We both know how Graemor feels about you. But you can be certain that until he gets everything he wants from the elders and has the preparations for his war irrevocably under way, he won’t spare any time for your feelings. And since you’re not his ally in this matter...”
“... I’m effectively his enemy. Yes, I’ve heard him say that often enough that it comes as no surprise to me. Perhaps my missing bed really isn’t a coincidence.”
“Or maybe it is, and they just didn’t hear about you and Mareth yet. You must admit, Amodai, we were all beginning to wonder when you were going to make those living arrangements permanent.”
“Do you think—?”
“That maybe Mareth is getting just a bit touchy about waiting? You don’t have to be a priestess to figure that one out, friend. Want a little priestly advice? Settle things between you once and for all before she comes to her senses and picks a more sensible choice, someone responsible—”
“Like who?” I snorted.
“There's no shortage of farmer's sons who'd be sniffing after her if they believed you wouldn't be there to thump them. She could do worse,” she responded, the humor in her voice undermining the smugness she’d tried to project. We both fell to laughing at that, and some of our tension evaporated.
“In the meantime, you’re right. I’d better go get my gear and bring it back here.”
“Yes, you’d better. And bring some bread and cheese on your way back. My pantry only holds enough for one priestess’s small appetite; it won’t last long with some wolf-hungry Ranger rampaging through it.”
“Thy will be done,” I responded, and ducked out the door before she could throw something at me.
The Rangers were still absent from the barracks, and though I lingered a few moments, hoping to meet any one of them, nobody came. On my way back to the Temple, I stopped in the market and purchased provisions for Talmin. The merchants seemed distracted today, and it wasn’t until I spotted some of them talking quietly and looking in my direction that I understood. News of my return and of Graemor’s plans had evidently begun spreading through the town, undoubtedly growing more distant from the truth as it traveled farther from its source. I hurried back to the Temple with my burdens. I was all ready to report what I’d discovered to Talmin, but I found her fast asleep on her cot, snoring gently. I covered her and went to sit outside and ponder my next move.
It didn’t take any kind of genius to figure out what that might be. The only way I was going to stop Graemor’s war would be to bring back proof he was wrong. And the only evidence that would fill that need was Mohri, or someone very much like him. I sighed. I'd scarcely returned, and I would soon be returning to Shadow. Still, though the usual excitement rose in me at the thought, another part of me felt unfamiliar trepidation at the risk of being lost in Shadow again. A smaller, petty part, whispered that driving me away in this manner would hurt Mareth more than it would hurt me. I smiled, enjoying that bittersweet mix of emotions, rose, and re-entered the Temple.
I took Talmin’s slate tablet from her desk, and used one of the meticulously sharpened pieces of chalk to leave a note where I was going. Then I set about packing the gear I’d need. That didn’t take long; I’d done it often enough before that I could pack without thinking, which was a good thing, for my thoughts were in many other places while I worked. I was soon on my way out of town, gauging the angle of the sun and realizing that I only had a few hours ahead of me before darkness fell. I briefly considered returning to town and waiting for a fresh day to begin my quest, but given that I no longer had any bed to sleep in, a night in the clean air of the fields was a much more attractive alternative. I shook my head and forced my thoughts back to the task at hand.
There would be no time to accomplish anything this night, and the best I could achieve would be to get closer to my destination so I’d have less distance to walk on the morrow. So, without so much as a final glance back over my shoulder, I left the last houses of the town behind me and headed for one of my traditional campsites: close enough to Shadow that I could feel its tug on my mind, yet far enough that no creature from Shadow could reach me. This time, I vowed I’d be far more careful.
I awoke to darkness and the scent of a fresh fire, and as consciousness slowly returned, I heard the crackle of fire consuming wood. For a moment, the smell and sound were familiar and comforting, then it occurred to me I’d bedded down alone. I sat bolt upright, my hunting knife coming reflexively into my hand. Then my eyes focused on who was sitting on the opposite side of the fire.
“Is that any way to greet a friend?”
She smiled warmly. “I know. People will talk.”
I cleared my throat, which had grown hoarse overnight. “Let them talk. You’re lucky I didn’t knife you!”
Her smile broadened. “Not on your best day, Am. But you’re really not looking glad to see me...”
I resheathed the knife, and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “No, it’s not that. Not at all. Actually, I’m kind of glad to see that one of you's still willing to talk to me.” I remembered the pang I’d felt when I’d discovered my bed missing.
She came around the fire, crouched by my side, and put an arm around my shoulder. “You should know better.” Then she kissed me softly on the forehead and rose again, rounding the fire to pick up a bundle she’d left there. I was suddenly glad her back was turned, for the tingle of her kiss and my full bladder suddenly raised an uncomfortable warmth in my loins. Blushing, I gathered my feet beneath me and rose, somewhat unsteadily.
“Back in a minute.”
“Take your time,” she called back over her shoulder. “I’ll put on breakfast while you make yourself pretty for me.”
Ruefully, I combed my hair away from my eyes as I walked away from the fire and found myself a secluded spot for a privy. That task done, I moved to the nearby stream and washed my hands and face, then took a long, slow drink. Last of all, the memory of her kiss still on my forehead, I rinsed my mouth out very thoroughly, suddenly aware of the unpleasant taste that had somehow gathered there during the night.
By the time I’d returned to our camp, I found two small, but deliciously fat, trout already grilling on green sticks over the fire. Bethan had returned to the far side of the fire, where she sat, watchful and strangely shy when I met her gaze. I smiled my warmest smile, and she hesitated a moment before returning it. I hesitated for a moment, then sat beside her, close enough I could feel her warmth against my thigh. After a moment, she leaned her head against my shoulder, and I put an arm around her.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so surprised.”
“Damn right you shouldn’t! If you’re that sloppy in Shadow, you’ll be breakfast for some damn Shadowbeast, and what a waste of fine trout that would be.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“No, I suppose...” She shrugged off my arm, and I let her. “Am, I heard about you and Mareth...”
“Heard?” I couldn’t imagine how.
“All right, no, I didn’t really hear. I figured there’d only be one reason you’d be sleeping out here again so soon after returning home.” There was an odd note in her voice I didn’t recognize.
“Yeah. And it’s not our usual kind of fight either. I think it’s more serious this time.”
My friend sighed, then leaned closer and put both her arms around me this time. “Am, I’m so sorry.” She squeezed me tight, and after a while, I hugged her back just as hard. An image of Mareth crossed my mind, and I was suddenly keenly and uncomfortably aware of just how female my friend was, and how good she smelled—but however guilty I felt, it simply wouldn’t have been right to let her go just then. After a time, her grip loosened and we just sat there, side by side.
“Enough, buddy. You’ll make me burn the fish.”
She’d leaned forward to prick the fish with her dagger, and didn’t look back at me. “Hush! Give me a moment here so I don’t drop the fish into the fire.” After a time, she settled back beside me, our bodies touching at shoulder and hip, but her hands preoccupied, fiddling with her knife.
“I’ve heard that tone in your voice before. I said hush, and I meant it, and it’s not just about ruining the fish and you damn well know it.”
“I know it.” I hesitated, then turned slightly to face her. A lock of her thick hair had fallen across her forehead, and I brushed it gently back into place. Her eyes grew vulnerable for a moment, then she turned away.
Still not meeting my eyes, she plunged the knife into the ground. “Then change the subject already, damnit.”
I smiled sadly. “Well, it was nice of you to come to see me off, anyway.”
She smiled gratefully, meeting my eyes again. I pretended not to notice the dampness in hers. “Least I could do,” she responded, with some of the customary fire in her voice. “After all, you’re going to do what the rest of us should be doing.”
“Bring in Mohri to answer some questions, of course. What else would you be doing out here so soon after getting your damnfool self lost in Shadow?”
“What else indeed. Yes, that’s what I’m planning, of course. Any suggestions?”
“It would be much easier if there were two of us.” The smile was still on her face, but it had left her eyes again, replaced by an unfamiliar hesitancy.
“I don’t think that’d be wise.” The smile vanished, but before she could reply, I hurried on. “No, not that. I mean that you’re needed back at the town, and I’ve a hunch Mohri won’t be found if there are two of us. If it’s just me, I don’t think he’ll try quite so hard to get away.”
She bit her lip, face gone thoughtful for a few moments. “True enough. And whether you’re right or wrong about Shadow, there’s no question you’ve been right about Mohri before.”
“I’m glad you agree. Now rescue the fish, if you please, before you turn my farewell breakfast into charcoal.”
With a start, she shifted her attention back to the trout, and gingerly removed them from the fire. Then she laid them to cool upon a bed of ferns she’d prepared in advance. I let her busy herself with the other preparations, uncorking the large flask of juice she’d brought and carving thick slices out of the small round of cheese and loaf of bread that magically appeared from her pack. I felt guilty just sitting there, and I’d have offered to help, but it would have lessened her gift. I sat and watched, trying hard to focus on the food instead of on her graceful movements.
When she was done, we sat in a companionable silence, nibbling still-hot trout and sharing from the flask. After a time, I brushed the crumbs from my lap, wiped my chin on my sleeve, and got to my feet. She rose to stand beside me, and without thinking, I put my arms around her. She hesitated a moment, then put her arms back around me and squeezed until I could hardly breathe. We held each other tightly for a time.
“Am, don’t make a liar of me. Come back, and bring Mohri with you.”
“I’ve got a good reason to come back.” I tried to make my tone bantering, but it didn’t work.
She pushed away from me, and after resisting a moment, I let her. “Yes, I know all about that reason, and she doesn’t deserve you. I'm getting kind of tired of reminding you.”
“She does, Bethan, but she’s not my only reason for coming back.” I smiled at her, and I have no idea how my face looked at that moment; that strange look came back into her eyes, and after a moment, she looked away again.
“You’d better go, Amodai. The day’s not getting any younger.”
“Thanks, Bethan. For breakfast... for everything.”
She turned away, and busied herself by the fire. After a moment, I took a deep breath, shouldered my gear, and focused my thoughts back on the task ahead of me. Then I set off without looking back, not wanting to see her lest other thoughts creep in to distract me. That took some doing.
I don’t know what I’d expected to see when I approached Shadow, but it was certainly not the small black wolf that sat patiently awaiting me, the morning breeze gently toying with its fur. I put a hand to my sword, but didn't draw, for there was something familiar in those eyes. As I cautiously drew nearer, the wolf got to its feet, then abruptly flowed into a new shape. It was Mohri who stepped across the dividing line between Light and Shadow. He staggered briefly, as if shouldering some heavy burden, then gathered his feet beneath him once more and stood gracefully waiting, shading his eyes against the morning sun as if he’d grown unaccustomed to its brightness. He was unarmed, but that didn't reassure me, and I didn’t relax my vigilance.
“Amodai. I was expecting you.”
“So it would appear.” I kept my hand on my sword and scanned the woods behind him alertly.
He frowned. “So distrustful? Didn't you enjoy your brief stay in Shadow? Aren't you grateful to us?”
“You know what befell me?”
His eyes narrowed at the expression on my face, and he took a step backwards. Then he held the hand not shading his eyes between us, palm outwards and fingers spread. “I know. Nay, friend, don’t take it amiss. I'm not mocking you.”
I thought for a moment. “No, you probably aren’t, and that’s part of my problem.”
I sighed, and forced myself to relax, letting my hand fall away from my sword to hang at my side. “Mohri, I need you to return to Haven with me.”
Whatever he’d been expecting me to say, it wasn’t that. “I’ve already declined your hospitality twice, Amodai, and I fear I must decline it again.” There was no hostility in his voice, but what I could see of his eyes beneath the shading hand remained speculative.
“Perhaps if I explain myself you’ll reconsider?”
“I’ll promise only to listen.”
“I can ask no more.” I saw his eyes narrow as if he’d been expecting a fight, verbal or otherwise, and though he’d not yet relaxed in my presence, he seemed even more on his guard than he’d been earlier.
“I hear those words, but there are others unsaid upon your lips and I remember our last encounter. Let me warn you, so neither of us can later say we didn't understand each other: I won’t let you injure me again, and if you try, I’ll have to defend myself. You won’t be able to stop me before I can return to Shadow, and there I’m your better.”
I held back a smile at the bluster in his voice, and hoped that confidence wouldn’t reach my eyes. Here, in the Light, I had my doubts about whether he’d escape me so easily—if it came to that. “I take your point. Will you listen despite what has passed between us?” He nodded, and I continued, feeling the tension between us easing slightly.
“We spoke of this before, but you gave me no answer. Now, I ask again: how well do you know my mentor, Graemor?” I watched him closely to gauge his reaction, and wasn't disappointed. He knew.
“We know him well, that one. I wouldn't acknowledge his mentorship so proudly were I you.”
I nodded in reluctant agreement. “Until recently, I would have challenged you on that. But now... now, that very matter is part of my problem. I’ve learned of his history with your kin, and after what has happened to me, I don’t share his opinions.”
He nodded warily, increasingly skittish, as if he were readying himself to bolt and run. “You’ve given me no evidence of that so far, but pray continue.”
“I understand your confusion. I’m not much clearer about this myself, and to reassure you I’m not lying, let me add this: I’m also not sure I trust you and your kind. I no longer have any idea where the truth lies, but I do know it lies somewhere between what you’ve said and what he claims. The problem is, he’s managed to convince our elders that your kind are evil and pose a threat to us, a threat that must be ended before it destroys us.”
Mohri’s gaze hardened and he spat noisily on the ground. “Some things never change. And you?”
“Me? I’ve told you. I honestly don’t know.” The uncertainty in my voice must also have shown on my face, for he relaxed visibly.
“Then sit, and tell me more about your problem.” He took his own advice, and after a moment’s hesitation, I joined him on the ground. Not, however, before I overcame a sudden impulse to draw my sword and take him prisoner before he could change his mind.
“Mohri, at first I was horrified by what your kinsman did to me. Then, after a time, I came to savor my experience. It was a freedom I’d never before felt in Shadow.”
“You're one of us, and have always been. I tried to explain that to you once.”
“It’s not easy to overcome a lifetime of being taught the opposite. Even so, I would still fear and mistrust your kind had I not been rescued by Mother.”
I was watching him keenly, and thus I saw his reaction, not that it was hard; he was so obviously startled I'd have seen it even had I not been watching. “Do you speak of the one—?” I nodded, and a strange, awestricken look came into his eyes.
He tore his gaze from me for a moment, and when our eyes met again, he was stubbornly back in control of himself. “Nothing. Please continue.”
“Nothing? You—” I halted myself abruptly, certain I couldn't successfully confront him on this point. “So you know her. Good. Then you understand something of what I felt in her presence. She told me much the same thing you told me, Mohri.”
“Then I fail to see your problem.”
“I can’t resolve the contradiction between what I was taught and what I’ve learned. But I’m fighting my training, and trying hard to trust you and take your part in what lies ahead. At least until I understand where the truth lies.”
His gaze softened. “That’s a very good thing indeed.”
“Unfortunately, I’m only one young voice against a much more credible older voice. I need proof of what I say.”
“Ah. Thus your invitation.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I didn’t say I won’t do that, just that I can’t do it now.”
I got to my feet and drew my sword. “Mohri, I’m truly sorry, but I can’t take no for an answer.”
He rose cautiously, backing away slowly, and I pursued him. “Amodai, you must accept my refusal for now. Soon, I can return with you, but not today.”
I felt my frustration rising as I closed on him; he couldn't turn his back on me without risking a sword thrust, and couldn't move backwards as fast as I could forwards. “There’s no time. You have to come now, willingly or otherwise.”
But I’d tarried too long. With a graceful leap, he sprang backwards into Shadow. I lunged at him as he did, but I was too slow, for my heart wasn’t in it. I recovered from my lunge and sprinted towards him, trying to catch him before he could transform, but I was too late, for he did something I’d never imagined possible: he dissolved before my eyes, and my swinging blade met not the slightest resistance. This new transformation so startled me I almost forgot to resist the seductive urging of Shadow. How could he transform himself into the air itself? Mastering myself, I swung about in a slow circle, seeking any sign that he’d deceived me and was waiting somewhere nearby. For a moment, I thought I saw something moving deeper in Shadow, but it was gone again before I could be certain.
I sheathed my blade, then, and no longer resisted that tugging at my essence. In a second, I stood on all fours, wolf fur rippling in the freshening morning breeze and wolf senses extending into the darkness around me as I sought any sign of Mohri. Casting about the ground where he’d sat awaiting me, I caught a familiar scent and drank deeply of it. Then I cast back and forth across the breeze until I caught it again. With a howl of warning I was unable to repress, I sprinted upwind in the direction of that scent, enjoying as always the surge of powerful lupine muscles and the elastic spring of my spine.
I surprised a doe, rubbing her side against a tree to soothe an itch, and though a part of me longed to pursue her, I overcame that longing and focused once more upon that scent. It was a strange and joyous thing to be half submerged by those instincts, letting my new body do what it had been made to do while the part of me that was Amodai sat back and applied only the necessary guidance, a light hand upon the reins. We ran that way for a very short time indeed, the scent strengthening rapidly enough to bring saliva to my mouth. I reasserted control and forced myself to a much slower pace now, stalking him as silently as only a wolf can and keeping to cover. Then all at once I came upon him, standing in his human form, back to me and facing a large patch of darkness that hovered in the air before him.
“Then we agree. I shall go to them,” he said, then watched with me in silence as the darkness gathered about him before slowly fading into nothingness.
I gave him no time to sense my presence. Gathering my legs beneath me, I sprang through the air and knocked him from his feet. He fell forward onto the rich leaf mould, and as he did, I transformed into Amodai again and wrapped an arm about his throat. He struggled for a moment, half transforming, then abruptly relaxed. With my free hand, I twisted one of his arms behind his back, and he lay limp, not resisting at all.
“You’re coming with me, Mohri.”
He muttered something I couldn’t make out. Abashed, I released my arm from around his throat, and he tried again. “Yes, Amodai, I’m coming with you. I’d already told you that.”
“If you’d release me, I’d find it easier to explain.”
I released him, but not before drawing my hunting knife and pressing it against his lower back. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not exactly trusting after your little disappearance. You’ll have to explain how you did that some day; I’ve a feeling it could come in useful.”
He sighed. “Sadly, it’s not a trick I can do by myself; few of us can. But can I explain myself now?”
“I needed to explain the situation to my own kind first. Surely you can understand that, given that you’ve done exactly the same thing after meeting Mother. So we understand each other. I’ve reported back, and now I can accompany you with a free conscience.”
“That easily? If that’s all it was, then why didn’t you explain this to me?”
“Would you have believed me?”
I pondered a moment. “I don’t honestly know. Probably not. And I’m not sure I believe you now.” I remembered the patch of darkness that had hovered before him, and I frowned. Here was yet another something I didn’t understand.
“If you’re not going to trust me, how do you know I won’t simply accompany you back to Haven, explain to your people that our goal has never been their destruction, then betray you all at the first opportunity? Amodai, if your encounter with Mother meant anything to you, then you know you’ll have to trust one of us eventually. Now would be an opportune time.”
I hesitated, agreeing with his logic but unable to overcome the years of suspicion Graemor had inculcated in us. With a grunt of displeasure, I rolled to my feet, releasing Mohri, and resheathed my knife. “I don’t much like it, but I’ll have to trust you. But one condition.”
Mohri had rolled onto his side, and was rubbing at the small of his back, wincing. “Only one?”
“For now. The condition is that I bind your arms before we come within sight of Haven.” He didn’t seem perturbed, so I continued. “Not because I believe that binding you would serve any useful purpose, but rather because my people would take it amiss if I approached them arm in arm with someone they see as their mortal enemy.”
“Ah. I take your point. I accept your condition. And may I add one of my own?”
I didn’t feel he was really in any position to impose conditions, but it couldn’t hurt to see what he wanted. “Propose one.”
“Should the opportunity ever arise to bring you before my own people, I owe you a few good bruises. Purely to make your capture seem realistic, of course.”
I looked away at the anger in his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Granted.” After all, if the situation ever arose, it occurred to me that a few bruises would be the least of my problems.
“Then lead on.” He got to his feet gingerly, stretched broadly, then approached to stand at my side. After a final moment of hesitation, I took a deep breath and set off along my back trail, moving fast enough to make him breathe hard.
“This would be easier on both of us in wolf form...” he panted.
“I’ll stay human, if you don’t mind. I’ve no intention of doing this on your terms.”
“Amodai, some day you’ll have to return to us and learn more of your heritage.”
“Until then, let's handle this my way.” I pushed the pace until we were almost jogging, and that left him scant breath for further conversation.
For all that, it was a pleasant journey. The woods were full of their usual scents: clean air, the crispness of the leaves and other growing things, and the pungent leaf mold. It was cool, but I didn’t want to talk to Mohri again just yet, so I pushed us hard and added the salty tang of fresh sweat to those scents. The trees flowed past us to the swaying rhythm of a pace that devoured the miles; it wasn't as exhilarating as the same journey made on four legs, but it was nonetheless a pleasant thing to feel my body working so smoothly and to be moving towards a conclusion of some sort. I was almost disappointed when it drew to an end.
Eventually, towards mid-afternoon, we came within sight of the boundary between Light and Shadow, and I drew, panting, to a halt. Mohri moved a few steps past me, then stopped, bent over at the waist and propped erect solely by bracing his hands against his knees. I smiled, pleased to be recovering faster than he was, for it was proof that whatever his other talents, at least I was still his better in some ways. He was still panting when I approached him with the leather thong I’d drawn from my pack.
“Let me catch my breath!”
“Take all the time you need.”
He glared at me. “You'll pay for this too when we return to my people.”
I held up my hands, and with a heavy sigh, he extended his own arms, wrists crossed. “Bind my arms before me, and be glad I’ve permitted you that much.”
“Agreed.” I tied his hands together as gently as I could, yet for all that, tightly enough there'd be no doubt he was my prisoner. That done, I clapped a hand on his shoulder and marched him into the Light.
Just like the last time, he staggered as if a burden had fallen upon him, but he recovered quickly and strode manfully enough in the direction I guided him. As I watched him narrowly, I remembered Graemor’s story that Mohri had been able to walk in Light, and could thus not be a Shadowbeast, but his reaction to the Light seemed odd. I watched him narrowly, seeking some change, and thus it was that I saw one; as I’d half-suspected during our first encounter, he was older than he appeared, though not enough that he was enfeebled. So it was true that he was a child of Light after all—or was he? This was the second time he’d encountered some difficulties upon entering the Light.
“Are you all right, Mohri?”
“My feet are aching from that run you put me through, and I fear your bonds have halted the circulation in my arms. Apart from that, I'm fine.”
“I apologize for both, but that’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“You seemed for a moment to be having some difficulty leaving Shadow.”
“Ah. And you wonder if perhaps I’m a child of Shadow after all, and that through some effort of will, I’m somehow retaining human form in an effort to fool you. I’m not—at least, not in that way. I’m as human as you.”
“Yet a human who’s uncomfortable in the Light.”
“To that, I freely admit. Have you never felt the same discomfort upon your return from Shadow?”
“I suppose not; after all, with that one exception, you’ve never spent more than a day outside the Light. I, on the other hand, have spent more years than I care to count in Shadow. It becomes progressively more difficult to return.”
That confirmed part of my suspicions. “That’s something you’d best not mention when we talk to the Council. But you’ve piqued my curiosity. How so?”
Instead of answering, he responded with a question of his own. “Why don’t you tell me? You’ve certainly spent enough time in Shadow to answer that question yourself.”
I pondered it for a moment. “There is a certain... stability, perhaps... that comes from the Light. It’s reassuring after the relentless drawing at one’s soul from Shadow.”
“Reassuring? Is that how you see it? To me, that relentless drawing you speak of is more like being one with the wind, swept along in something so much greater than oneself and rejoicing. Have you flown, Amodai?” I nodded. “To me, it’s much like that feeling of launching yourself into space, a small part of you knowing you’re going to fall to your death, yet the larger part knowing that the bird in you would never let that happen. And indeed, once you let that bird part take over, you never fall unless you get careless. Entering Light is like getting careless... soaring, then all at once striking the ground hard.” He was silent for a moment. “It takes some getting used to.”
I shook my head. “I can scarcely imagine how you feel. To me, Shadow is more like falling over the edge of a cliff, and returning to the Light is like catching a vine just as I topple over the edge, and pulling myself back to safety.”
Mohri abruptly stopped walking, and I nearly ran into him. “Is that truly how you feel? Don’t you feel—deep in your belly, in every fiber of your being—the glory that I feel?”
I reflected on the fading memories of my long stay in Shadow. “Perhaps I exaggerated. I did feel much of the exhilaration you describe during my time in Shadow, though most of my visits are short enough I never reach that same reckless, heedless level of acceptance you’ve described.”
Abruptly, Mohri laughed. “And you're the one most sympathetic to the message I bear? I no longer think this is such a good idea.” Yet despite his words, he didn’t slacken his pace, and after a moment, I realized he was joking. Or perhaps not joking, not exactly, but whatever his true emotion, it was nothing that stopped him from proceeding.
By now, we’d come within sight of the village, and those who still toiled in the fields paused in their labor to watch, silently, as we passed. Mohri returned their gazes politely enough, though it was plain to see he'd grown increasingly uncomfortable as we neared the first houses. Before entering the village, I drew him to a halt and looked carefully into his face.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Amodai, I won’t be sure I’m all right until I’m safely back in Shadow again. I have only your word that I’ll be safe in Haven, and as I’m sure you can understand, that assurance is nowhere near as comforting as you might hope.”
I squeezed his shoulder. “So long as I have the strength to do anything about it, you have my word you’ll be safe.”
“Scant comfort, but I’ll take what I can get. Thanks anyways.”
We entered town, attracting something of a crowd of onlookers, since Mohri was the first stranger to have entered Haven in more than a year. Though there was considerable muttering and not a few dark looks, none raised a hand against Mohri, and some few smiled hesitantly in welcome, despite his bound hands. I nodded to those I knew well, and they relaxed somewhat at what I hoped was a confident look upon my face and my firm hand upon his shoulder.
But there was strain concealed beneath the outward calm in Mohri’s voice, and he licked his lips before he spoke. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the Council chamber. Someone will have run ahead by now to alert the elders to our coming. After that... well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
Sure enough, my fellow Rangers were waiting by the Council chamber, each bearing grim looks on their faces and one or two favorite weapons by their side. Each watched us carefully, so no one noticed Bethan’s obvious joy at my return; that emotion shone briefly on her face, then she winked broadly at me and hastily concealed her feelings once more beneath a mask as stern as the ones the others wore. Mohri watched this byplay, then turned his gaze upon me with evident interest. I avoided his eyes.
“You got the bastard!” Ranali exclaimed as we drew near, a fierce look of elation upon his face and his strong right hand clenched tightly on his spear.
“Well done,” Bareni echoed, more quietly, his eyes never leaving Mohri’s face for an instant.
Mohri made to speak, but I tightened my grip upon his shoulder and he relaxed, willing to follow my lead. “He came of his own free will, and you should treat him with respect because of it. It took courage. Have the elders been summoned?”
“Aye, that they have. They await within.” Bareni swept the door open, and the other Rangers stood aside, watching Mohri even more keenly than before. Ranali slipped through the door, and in the patch of late-afternoon sunlight that shone though the doorway, it was hard to say whether his eyes or his spear point glinted more brightly.
As gently as I could, I guided Mohri past the Rangers and into the Council chamber. Graemor sat in his former position, quivering with the intensity of his anticipation, but rose to his feet as we entered. He gestured curtly, and the Rangers fanned out to form a semicircle between us and the elders sitting atop the dais. Then the old Ranger sat down, his face shifting through several emotions before he settled on glaring at Mohri, as if he’d sooner kill him than let him speak. Bareni whispered orders to my colleagues, and while he, Mikali, and Ranali took up guard positions on either side of the dais, Bethan and Methema slid to the side and left the chamber as the townsfolk began filtering in behind us. Soon, there wasn't enough room for another living soul in the room, and the close air was full of the stench of sweating, unwashed bodies. Covered by the low rumbling noise of their whispered conversation, Mohri whispered at me out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes restlessly scanning the scene around us and returning again and again to Graemor.
“That one means us no good.”
“He means Haven all the good in the world, and believes with all his heart that you're a threat to our kind. If you can’t sway him, it will go ill with you. With all of us, perhaps.”
“He’s not one to be lightly swayed, I fear. I’ve seen his work before, and it gives me little cause for hope.”
“Still, this time you have an ally.”
“One who appears to have thoughts at the moment more important than why we are here.” Evidently, he’d noticed my increasingly frantic glances over my shoulder, seeking one specific face. “Who is it you seek?” Comprehension dawned on his face. “Ah. Your wife?”
“The woman Ranger... the one who greeted you when first we arrived, and who just left, undoubtedly to watch for signs of treachery from beyond the city.”
“Bethan?” I blushed. “No, she’s just a friend. A very good friend. My lover is elsewhere.” I cast another look back over my shoulder, ignoring the puzzled look on his face, and there was still no sign of her. Despite what lay ahead and its importance, it was her absence that had the strongest hold on my heart just then. Neither was there any sign of Talmin, I belatedly realized, and that too concerned me.
“Please be silent.” Ramath’s voice rang loud and clear in the chamber, and the whispers and shuffling of feet behind us slowly died down. “We shall begin the proceedings as soon as our priestess arrives.”
An awkward silence fell, and thickened as we waited. Beside me, Mohri closed his eyes and drew in one long, deep, slow breath, then visibly relaxed as he exhaled. All signs of fear vanished with that exhalation, and deep calm took its place. Not long afterwards, there came a few quiet exclamations from the crowd behind us, and my old friend entered, threading her way carefully through the townsfolk and making her way to the front of the room, where she took her familiar place to the side of the dais. Her gaze rested briefly upon Mohri, and she began to make the sign against evil—then forced down her hand with an obvious effort. When she glanced at me, anxiety and deep fatigue were plain in her eyes. After a moment, she looked down at her lap and took up her stylus and scroll, hands visibly trembling.
Ramath spoke into the expectant silence, her voice strong and rich. “By the Light that safeguards and guides us, I declare this session of the Council to be open. Let it be recorded that we've convened to welcome back Amodai, Ranger and defender of Haven, from a sojourn in deepest Shadow, bearing a prisoner. Amodai, what would you have the Council and the people of Haven hear?”
I got to my feet slowly, mouth gone suddenly dry and Mareth’s absence forgotten beneath the pressure of the assembled Rangers, elders, and townsfolk gazing upon me from all sides; it was one thing to speak before the elders, but this—to talk before all those people was quite beyond me.
Saera’s gentle voice fell upon the awkward silence. “Speak, Amodai. You're among friends.” The kindly look in her eyes strengthened me enough that I could draw a deep breath, and so long as I could focus on her, I was able to force out my words. My voice trembled, but mercifully didn’t break, though it was a near thing.
“Elders, I bring before you one Mohri, a child of Shadow and an emissary of Shadow. This is the same Mohri I have told you of previously.” As I drew a second breath, more easily now that I’d begun speaking, excited whispering arose behind me, stilling only as Ramath smacked her hand down hard on the table. As silence fell once more upon the room, I took a third breath and hurried on. “I told you before that I believe Shadow need not be our enemy, and I have brought Mohri here to speak on behalf of his people, the children of Shadow.” That said, I placed a hand on Mohri’s shoulder, and he rose confidently to his feet, having evidently done a far better job of mastering himself than I’d done. Indeed, having seemingly overcome the anxiety that had dogged him on his way into town, he was like a new man.
“Elders and people of Haven,” he spoke, nary a tremor in his voice, “I bring you greetings from my people, those you know as the children of Shadow. I bear you the following simple message of goodwill: that you are our kin, and that whatever you may have been led to believe and whatever may have passed between our peoples, we bear you no enmity. Indeed, we offer you the freedom and joy of Shadow, should you choose to accept it and reclaim your birthright.”
It took two smacks of Ramath’s hand upon the table before the ensuing commotion died down enough for Mohri to continue. Instead, he turned his head gracefully towards Graemor, whose jaw was clenched tightly enough that the scar on his face stood out in painful relief. Mohri nodded to him, and the Ranger stood hastily.
“That is certainly a fine message, but the evidence of our long history belies what you say, and lends a far more sinister meaning to your offer. I've seen your kind destroy more villages than I care to recall, and everyone here knows how Shadow has circled us 'round, ever more tightly, and begun claiming the lives of our farmers. If that is the freedom and joy you offer us, then we find it hard to credit what you say.”
Mohri met that fierce gaze with remarkable equanimity. “What you say carries a grain of truth, but the grain is not the whole. In fact, it was fear that destroyed each of those villages—fear and the enmity of those who hunted us like animals and slew us until we were forced to defend ourselves. Those like you, Ranger Captain.”
There were gasps of outrage, and Graemor’s face went cold and hard. His remaining hand went to the knife at his belt and clenched there, knuckles white, until he mastered himself. Ramath again banged hard upon the table to still the whispering that had sprung up. Into the sudden silence, I found the courage to speak. “What he says has the ring of truth. I would ask Talmin to speak to us of what she has learned and add the wisdom of a priestess to our debate.”
All eyes turned upon our priestess, who rose slowly, anxious eyes upon Mohri, who returned her gaze with sudden intensity. “Every one of you knows me, and has learned well what I and my predecessor taught you of Light and Shadow, and what I have added to those teachings since my coming to Haven. As I was taught, so have I taught you: that Shadow is the enemy of Light and must be fought by all of us to ensure that Light shall remain.” She looked down at the floor, shame in her face and no longer willing to meet our eyes.
“After Amodai’s return from his long imprisonment in Shadow, I turned to the old books and scrolls my own teacher brought with us when first we came, books I’d been told were apocryphal but worth preserving for their historical value. To my dismay, I learned that what Amodai and Mohri have told us may be true.”
There were gasps of dismay, and not a few protestations, but Talmin raised her eyes once again, tears of shame on her cheeks. “If so, then I have done you all a grave disservice by warning against an evil that doesn't truly exist, and in so doing, turning you against our own kin... though none would know it to look upon them.”
Mohri spoke before Talmin could continue, passion and pleading in his voice. “There's no sin in teaching what you yourself were taught. But I ask you all to look upon me and tell me whether it is truly so hard to believe that I am your kin. Ask yourselves if I could be standing before you now in human form, here amidst the Light, were I not as human as each one of you! I differ from you in only one way: I have embraced my heritage as you have not, but without sacrificing the ability to stand here in the Light with you. Just as your Rangers have done.” Many looked narrowly upon me and my colleagues, and we squirmed under that pressure, but it seemed for a moment that those in the room were on the verge of believing him.
Then Graemor laughed harshly, turning all eyes upon him. “See you how he distorts the truth, as Shadow can never be anything than a shadow of the truth! Mohri, is it not true that you were once a man like me, and only after having lost yourself in Shadow did you claim to be one of them?”
Mohri’s voice now held a trace of anger. “Shadow has no monopoly on the ability to distort the truth, it seems, for it is you who misleads them. What you say is true—once, I was indeed like you before I embraced Shadow and became one with it—yet it is that which proves our kinship. It does not deny our humanity, as you would make it seem. How else could I have lived all these years in Shadow and yet remain fully as human as each of you in this room?”
Graemor was momentarily at a loss, but rallied. “How that may be I cannot say, for learned though I am in some ways, I am not steeped in the ways of Shadow. Perhaps it is only that never before has Shadow needed to walk among us in the guise of a man. We should know soon enough whether you can retain your form and your humanity; you'll have to sleep some time, and then we'll see the truth.”
Mohri responded angrily, all vestiges of calm now gone from his voice. “First, I'm a child of Shadow, then I'm a man corrupted by Shadow, and finally I'm a Shadowbeast. Which is it, Ranger Captain? Or is your confusion a sign that you don’t know, and are trying only to make your people fear me as you do?”
“They have cause to fear!” Graemor spat. “Is it not clear from our scriptures that Shadow will take on any guise it chooses, even the guise of righteousness, if by so doing it can corrupt us?”
“You speak of righteousness? You, who have forgotten so much of the true scriptures?” Despite his bound hands, Mohri would have taken a step forward had I not tightened my grip on his shoulder, where my hand had rested, forgotten, all this time. His words beat at Graemor like lashes, and the old Ranger retreated half a pace beneath that assault. “Let me remind you what your kind has forgotten. Did you never learn that our world has always, until recently, been a balance between Shadow and Light? Have you forgotten that the Council of elders was originally only two individuals, a man to represent our father, who is Shadow, and a woman to stand for our mother, who is Light?” He gestured at our elders with his bound hands, and they flinched back as if in fear that he’d been about to cast a curse upon them. Only Ramath’s eyes were free of fear, for curiosity had taken its place.
“Look you, people of Haven, at this mockery of our old ways: I see not two people, man and woman, but rather three, and the woman silent. Is this how you honor our religion? Is this how your priestesses mislead you?” Mohri paused, breathing deeply, sweat glistening on his brow and eyes narrowed.
As the child of Shadow spoke, Graemor had listened in shock, but now regained his poise. Indeed, a predatory smile began to play upon his lips. “Talmin, tell us the truth of what this heretic says.”
Talmin remained gazing at the floor, and shook her head. “It's true that the old books support what the child of Shadow says. Yet for all my life, I was taught that these books were not valid, and that only the scriptures I have taught all these years were valid. I would trust Amodai with my life, yet Graemor too has defended us and armed us against the lesser shadowbeasts that have stalked our people. I have spent many nights since Amodai’s return, praying before the Light, seeking guidance in these matters, begging for some indication of whether the old books or the new were correct.” She paused, indecision plain on her face.
“And?” Graemor’s voice was suddenly smug.
“And I have not been answered.” There was despair in her voice, and tears once more gleamed on her cheeks as she raised her eyes to us. “Perhaps it is only that I am unworthy, having never completed my training before my mentor died...”
Graemor pounced. “Or perhaps it is because, having come to doubt your faith, you were no longer able to hear the message you sought. Yet it is clear to me that if the older books were not false, then surely you would have been given the answer you needed. Surely this is too important an issue for the Light to remain silent and allow you to commit an injustice?”
Talmin bowed her head still further, defeated. “I cannot deny that possibility.” Saera rose swiftly from behind the table and moved to the priestess, taking her in her arms and patting her back gently as she laid her head on the old woman's shoulder and wept, sagging now and barely able to keep her feet. Gently, Saera led the priestess from the chamber, pushing firmly through the crowd of onlookers.
My hand felt heavy on Mohri’s shoulder, and I could feel him slump beneath the realization that he'd played into Graemor’s hands. My mind was still reeling from how swiftly we had lost, and I was speechless beneath the weight of that defeat, and a growing sense that perhaps I’d been wrong all along. What had been done to me when the child of Shadow had taken my shadow from me?
Ramath spoke into the shocked, sympathetic silence. “We must think on what has been said before we can render a decision. Good people of Haven, please return to your homes or the Temple and pray for us, that the wisdom of the Light may guide us in this matter. Graemor, I bid you take this Mohri somewhere he will be safe from any who would do him harm, yet unable to do us any harm either should he so choose.”
“Let me take him,” I half-whispered, yet in the silence, she heard me.
“No, Amodai. Though we're grateful for all you have done for Haven, there is the risk that you too have been corr... confused by your time in Shadow. It would be safer if you stayed in the Temple with Talmin and cleansed your soul. Graemor will guard us as he has done so well in the past, and in the morning, we'll reveal our decision on the child of Shadow’s fate.”
As the townsfolk began filing out the door, Mohri looked imploringly at me, fear once more in his eyes, and I turned to Graemor. “Your word that he will come to no harm?”
“You have it.” There were confidence and satisfaction in his voice, but no hint he might take matters into his own hands. Why would he need to? He seemed to have won.
“And if you break that word...”
Graemor’s eye widened at what must have shown on my face, but his reply was calm. “I've never broken my word to you before, Amodai, nor shall I this time. I have no need to. Tomorrow, we shall see justice done; there is no need for me to intervene.”
“And what justice will that be?”
“That which the elders decree.”
Mohri cleared his throat. “Amodai?”
I shook my head, not meeting his eyes. “Go with him. He'll keep his word.”
“Tomorrow we shall know. All I can promise is that I'll be at your side, whatever may befall you.”
“And you offer only that small comfort?”
“It's all I have to offer. That and the knowledge we're in the right, and for that reason, the Light shall see justice done.”
“I wish I had your faith.” With that, he turned his back on me and strode calmly to where the Rangers awaited him, but not so calmly that the tremor in his legs was hidden.
I watched dully as he left, Graemor’s hand surprisingly gentle as he guided our guest out past the few remaining townsfolk, mostly older men and women who would stay to discuss Mohri’s fate with the three elders. Then I left myself. In the street outside, Bareni’s voice stopped me.
“Amodai.” I turned to face him. “You did well, friend. And now it's no longer your responsibility. It's in the hands of the elders now, and we can pray that the Light guides them to the right decision.”
“We can pray.”
“Hah!” Ranali snorted. “You’d think our friend Amodai lost his faith in the Light by the look on his face.”
The predatory tone in his voice turned me towards him, and there was excitement on his face, as if he already knew what the decision would be, and relished the chance to be the one to carry out the sentence on the morrow. But his face fell at the sharpness in Bareni’s voice. “Ranali, leave him be. If you have all that energy in you, use it profitably. Arrange a watch schedule for tonight, in case Graemor is right and the children of Shadow try something.” He paused a moment. “Take Mikali with you.”
Mikali started for the door without question, but Ranali hesitated. Then, seeing the look upon Bareni’s face, he swallowed whatever wisecrack he’d been about to make and followed Mikali out the door. When they were gone, Bareni approached me and placed a powerful hand on my shoulder. “I know what you must be feeling. To think that you’d been deceived enough to bring Mohri among us and believe what he said.”
I shook off his arm. “You’ve mistaken me. My fear is that Graemor is the one who’s betrayed us.”
For the first time since I’d known him, Bareni was speechless, and though his mouth worked for a moment, not a word emerged. After a moment, he shook his head violently, and focused his intent gaze upon me. “I know I didn’t mishear you, Am, but I certainly misunderstood you. Did you truly mean to say that Graemor has betrayed us?”
I nodded, the pain clear enough in my eyes that he put a hand on my shoulder again, and this time I didn’t shake it off. “Bareni, you know how I feel about him—how we all feel about him. But he’s told me things he may not have told you.”
“Such as this: that when he told the elders how he’d seen countless towns fall to Shadow, he failed to mention that he may have been the one responsible for their fall.”
Bareni reeled as if I’d landed a solid blow to his jaw. “Mohri said something to that effect, but I’d assumed he was lying.”
“Perhaps he was. Or perhaps not. Graemor told me that each time, the fall of a town to Shadow was preceded by a campaign to exterminate all shadowbeasts within a day’s travel of town. If the children of Shadow were among them, then surely they’d fight back, as Mohri said. And I keep thinking of what happened to me in Shadow, and how I was rescued. If Talmin is right...”
“Talmin is exhausted and in no state to ponder such things. I don’t think she’s slept since your return. She herself had no confidence in her knowledge of what was right and wrong. And what if she is right about those older books?”
“Then Mother spoke the truth, and Mohri is speaking the truth, and if we do aught but release him, we may be starting a war against our own kin. One that, by the evidence of what has happened in the past, we cannot win.”
“And thus, Graemor will have betrayed us by refusing to hear the truth, thereby ensuring that no one else will hear it either. Amodai, I’d sooner believe you were corrupted by Shadow than believe that.”
“And yet it may be just as I have said. I feel sure of that.”
“Then we must trust to the Light to guide our elders. And in the meantime, in case you’re wrong, we must take measures to protect ourselves. It's late, and once night falls, Shadow could easily take us by surprise. Am, we need you with us to take the watch tonight. Will you stand with us?”
I hesitated. “I have somewhere to go first.”
Bareni squeezed my shoulder, then let go. “Go see her, then come take the watch with us. You’ve been away too long, brother.” With that, he walked swiftly away, off to join the other Rangers.
I was sufficiently distracted that I found myself at Mareth's home without knowing how I’d gotten there. There was light shining within, but the curtains were drawn. I went to the door, still in something of a daze, and grasped the latch. The door was barred, so I knocked. There was no response, so I knocked harder.
“Mareth, it’s me. Please open the door.” There was silence from within, then I heard what might have been a quiet sob. “Mareth! Open the door!” The silence deepened. I placed my hand upon the latch, ready to break it if need be, then thought the better of it. “Mareth...” my voice broke, and I sank to my knees, weary. “I love you... please open the door. Whatever’s wrong, let me make it better.”
This time I was certain I heard a sob, and though it tore at my heart, I waited by the door, hoping to hear her voice. There was nothing. Numbly, I forced myself to my feet and turned away, letting my feet take me to the Temple in the hope I could leave at least some of my burdens there. Halfway to the Temple, I stopped. Night was imminent, and the last thing I wanted to do was to confront Talmin. I’d seen the exhaustion and despair in her face, and as the one who’d brought her to that state, I had no desire to make things worse by adding my burdens to hers. I went to the Ranger barracks instead.
The barracks were empty, and as before, there was no sixth bed for me. I was beyond feeling anything, so instead I left my gear inside the door and turned around, walking to the edge of town to seek my friends, who would undoubtedly be waiting for me to help them patrol. Despite the fading light, it was easy enough to find them—and avoid them, for I was seeking one person in particular. When I found her, she was alone, as I’d hoped. She heard my approach, but didn’t turn.
“Welcome back, Am.”
“Would that I’d never left.”
She turned this time, and seeing the look in my eyes, threw her arms around me and held me tightly. After a moment, I put my arms around her and held her as tightly as she held me. We stood that way for a time, silent, taking strength from each other, then all at once, she released me and thrust me back as my own grip slackened.
“Fah! You smell like you’ve been sleeping with bears while you were away. No wonder she wouldn’t let you in!”
There was humor in her eyes, but it became concern when she saw the look in my eyes. “Am? She really didn’t let you in?”
“She wouldn’t even answer.”
“Damn her, what was she thinking? I’ve a mind to go beat some sense into the girl.”
“Leave her be, Bethan. These are difficult times for all of us, the more so for her because—”
“Horseshit! It’s time you stopped making excuses for her. That’s why she walks all over—”
“Bethan!” The sharpness in my tone stopped her dead.
Instead of continuing, she reached out and caressed my cheek, a suspicious glint of moisture in her eyes. “Ah, Amodai, I’m sorry. I know how you feel about her.” She took a deep breath, her hand still warm on my cheek. “Give her time, that’s all you can do. She’ll come back.”
“So you’ve said in the past, and you’ve always been right.”
“Damn right!” The familiar strength was back in her voice. “In the meantime, I wasn’t kidding about sleeping with bears. You reek, Am. And while that might keep your friends at arm's length, it surely won’t scare off anything from Shadow. Go wash yourself, then come back. I’m of no mind to spend the night here awake and alone and let you sleep in peace while the rest of us work.”
She punched my shoulder hard enough to raise dust, and I smiled ruefully. “All right. I’ll be back soon.”
She turned her back on me, once more watching the fields that stretched away before us in the fading light. “See that you do. You’re taking the second watch, and you’ve already used up most of your sleep time chattering.”
I awoke to a soft hand on my forehead, and opened my eyes to darkness and a scattering of stars overhead. “Am? Wake. It’s your turn, and I’ve really got to go.”
I sat up and watched as she moved off into the darkness. It was chilly despite the heavy blanket I’d wrapped around myself; we’d not lit a fire for fear of what it might attract. I chafed my arms to get my blood moving again, listening with a faint smile at the rush of liquid coming from the dark not far away. Bethan returned, and in the light from the stars, I saw the shadow of a grin on her face.
“Damn, that felt good. Your turn, then it’s off to sleep for me. Hurry up before all your warmth leaves that blanket.”
I shrugged off the blanket and draped it around her shoulders, then moved a short distance away and followed her example. When I returned, she was already lying on the ground, wrapped tightly in the blanket. “Am?”
“Sit with me please.”
I sat beside her with my legs crossed, not taking my eyes off the fields before us, and reached out with my hand to pat her. I touched something soft and yielding for a moment, and heard her giggle. “Mind your manners, bud.” I smiled silently, and turned my gaze on her just long enough to locate her head. I stroked her long, soft hair, and she sighed. “ 'night, Am.”
“ 'night, Bethan. Pleasant dreams.”
“You can only imagine.” But her words were already slurring, and her breathing became increasingly regular as I sat there. When I was sure she was asleep, I took my hand from her head. She muttered something incomprehensible, but didn't wake. I rose cautiously to my feet, legs still not fully awake, and began pacing slowly around to bring back the circulation, careful where I placed my feet to ensure I’d not wake her. From the position of the stars, it was well past the middle of the night; she’d let me sleep longer than my share, and I smiled warmly in her direction, not for the first time reflecting upon how lucky I’d been in my choice of friends.
By morning, it had clouded over enough to conceal the stars, and I was half dead from exhaustion. I had to keep moving just to keep awake, and in one of my transits across our watch post, I must have moved incautiously, for I woke Bethan.
“Hey!” she whispered muzzily. “What’s with the racket?”
I knelt beside her and brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “Time to wake up, sleepyhead; it’s morning.” She groaned, and I smiled at her closed eyes and the frown that knit her brows.
“Come lie here beside me and warm me up,” she demanded petulantly.
I glanced once more over the fields I’d been watching all night, and saw the dew on the grass and the innocent darkness that was normal shadow pooling in hollows as the light of day slowly chased it away. Seeing nothing amiss, I lay down beside her and put an arm around her. She sighed, and nestled more deeply into my arms.
“We’ve got to do this more often, Mareth be damned.”
It was so comfortable, I didn’t bother to correct her, and closed my eyes to savor the sensation. The next thing I knew, it was day, and the light of the risen sun shone full in my eyes. I groaned, and felt Bethan squirming in my arms as she too awoke. A quick, guilty glance told me we were still alone, and that the town behind us was still standing. Releasing her, I got shakily to my feet, rested but unsteady with the drugged sort of feeling you get from napping after insufficient sleep. I straightened my clothing and set about stretching, trying to warm my muscles. It was well I did, for Mikali came running up just as I was beginning to feel confident in my balance once again.
“Morning, Amodai!” he called out, cheerfully enough for a man who’d spent half the night awake after an already exhausting day.
“Morning. You slept well, I take it?”
Mikali had always been the best of us when it came to tracking, and the look on his face as he gazed down at the ground, reading the signs, was a mixture of humor and embarrassment. Humor won out. “Not as well as you, it would seem.”
“Humph. You’ve got an overeager imagination, Mikali.”
“Whatever you say, Am. I can keep a secret.”
I started to respond, frowned instead, and was interrupted by Bethan’s firm voice. “There’s no secret to keep, but keep it you’d better, Mikali, or I’ll beat you black and blue. Do we understand each other?”
“Oh, sure, Bethan. Secrets between friends.” He started to wink, caught the look on her face, and grew suddenly serious. “Um, Bareni sent me to find you. He says you’ll be needed back at the Council chamber to hear their decision. Go get yourself fed and cleaned up, then go wait for him.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be here with Bethan.” He unslung a sack that had hung, unnoticed, on his shoulder, and sank to the ground beside Bethan with a grunt. “I’ve brought food for two. You’re on your own for breakfast, Am. See you later, huh?” He began removing hard sausage, cheese, and fresh bread from his sack.
I grunted, cast a fond look down at Bethan, then headed off toward town at a slow jog. The smell of their breakfast had me salivating, and the acid that had begun to grow in my stomach as I pondered what lay ahead had me wanting something solid to fill that void before it burned a hole in me.
Later, comfortably full and somewhat more awake, I made my way from the market to the Council chamber. I was early, and squatted down in a comfortable hunter’s crouch to await the others. I had a longer wait than I’d expected, for the sun was above the rooftops before anyone but a small crowd of silent townsfolk came, but as I crouched there, half-dozing, I had time to replenish my stores of sleep. When the footsteps came, I was ready for them, and rose to stand alertly by the door. It was Saera, and her face was grim.
“Good morning, Amodai.”
“Good morning, Elder. I trust you're well this morning?”
She smiled, warmth returning to her face. “Well enough. And before you ask, your friend Talmin is finally sleeping, and it’s like to be a day before she rouses.” She withdrew a large iron key from her cloak and set about opening the Council chamber. The crowd behind me stirred restlessly, then began flowing towards the door as we entered.
I walked her to the dais, and gave her a hand up as much from courtesy as from need, and when she’d settled into her chair, I covered one of her warm hands with my own. “Saera, did you reach a decision?”
She covered my hand in turn and frowned slightly. “They reached a decision in my absence. We’ll find out together what that decision was, but I warn you Amodai, it’s not likely to be what you're hoping for.”
The burning in my stomach was back. She took her hand from mine and patted me gently on the cheek. “Do you think it was true, what he said about the original Council of elders?”
I shook my head. “Who can say? Only Talmin could tell us, and as you say, she’s in no condition to do so.”
“A pity. I have a feeling it were best my voice were heard in this decision.”
“It’s not too late for that. You could—”
“I could, but it would be unwise to force such a change upon them when what we most need now is unity. If you’re wrong about this Mohri, then we can’t afford any dissension when we face his people.”
“And if I’m right?”
“Then we must trust to the Light to save us from our own foolishness. Now go seat yourself before the others arrive. It wouldn’t do for you to be seen pressuring me.” Her smile was cynical this time, and I bent my head to her and complied.
More townsfolk had entered behind me, until the chamber was once more as full as it could be. Several times I heard my name mentioned, but the whispers were too low for me to make out what was being said. In the end, I closed my eyes again and meditated while I waited. When the tone of the crowd abruptly changed, I woke fully and brought myself to full alertness.
A narrow gap had opened in the crowd, and through it came Graemor, pushing Mohri before him. Neither looked like they’d slept well, but Mohri walked confidently, while my mentor walked like the old man I’d come to realize he was. Without so much as a glance in my direction, he pushed Mohri towards me and took his seat. I rose and caught Mohri, then helped him to a seat.
A guilty thought came over me. “Your hands?”
He smiled and held them up before me. Though swollen slightly, they were not in such bad shape as I’d feared. “He honored his word. Once he had me in a secure place, he removed my bindings and restored them only this morning.”
“That was well done.”
“Yes, but don’t let it deceive you. He made it quite clear what fate he hoped would await me.” There was pity in his eyes as he looked at me, and I started to ask why, but the arrival of the elders cut me off. Tereni came first, hobbling along at the best pace he could manage, Ramath following sedately in his wake. Both bore calm faces, but their eyes were hard, and my stomach began to hurt. When they sat down, I prepared myself for the worst.
“As our priestess is unavailable to assist us, I shall begin without her.” Ramath glanced about the room, seeking objections, but there were none. She passed the scroll to Saera, who opened it and made ready to record what was said. “By the Light that safeguards and guides us, I declare this session of the Council to be open. Let it be recorded that we have convened to pronounce the fate of one Mohri, child of Shadow, who came before us to plead his people’s case. Mohri, do you have anything more to say before we announce our decision?”
Mohri rose gracefully, with no trace of yesterday's tremor in his legs. “Lady, I have but two things. First, let it be recorded that I hope today will see us heal many wounds between our peoples.” Ramath frowned, but Mohri continued, undaunted. “Second, I thank you for your hospitality, which was more than any presumed enemy of your people might have expected.” There was a pleased murmur from the crowd, and Ramath stilled it with a sharp slap of her hand on the table. Mohri sat down again.
“Very well. The Council conferred until late in the night, but the three of us came to our conclusion just this morning, while we broke our fast.” Saera had smiled a bitter smile when she spoke the word three, but held her silence; nobody but myself seemed to have noticed. “It's our decision that as an enemy of the people of Haven, Mohri be sentenced to death to send a message to his people that we will not be hunted like common animals, and that though we are farmers, yet do we have teeth with which to defend ourselves. May the Light have mercy on your soul, child of Shadow.”
A sigh of mingled excitement and horror arose in the crowd, for Haven had always been a peaceful town, and there had been no executions in living memory. I rose to my feet, ready to protest, but Graemor pre-empted me. “As leader of the Rangers, it is my command that it be Amodai who carry out the sentence, both as a reward for his valor in capturing our enemy, and as proof that he has overcome any remaining taint of corruption from his time in Shadow.”
My knees gave way and I collapsed into my seat, and Graemor’s cruel smile suddenly faltered. Still stunned by his pronouncement, I turned to look upon Mohri, hoping I'd see forgiveness in his eyes, but instead, all I saw was the pity that had been there before. Now I knew its source. I struggled to find words for him, but he winked at me and rose once again gracefully. I reached out a hand, seeing Graemor in my peripheral vision as he drew his dagger, but with my numbness, I was far too late.
Mohri spoke clearly and with considerable force, stilling the crowd. “I would appeal my sentence, if that is permitted.”
“It is not,” Graemor spat.
“Wait.” Ramath’s voice was not as compelling as Mohri’s, but carried a greater authority in Graemor’s ears. The old Ranger controlled himself and said not another word. “Given the severity of the sentence, it's only fair to hear what the condemned has to say.”
Mohri bowed deeply. “Thank you. I do not dispute the sentence itself, for such would obviously be fruitless. Instead, I request your permission to choose the manner in which it shall be carried out.”
“You dare?” Tereni hissed.
Ignoring him, eyes focused on Saera, Mohri nodded his assent. “Yes. Amodai gave me his word that I would be kept safe while in his care, and I would not have him forsworn. Instead, I request that I be brought to the Temple of Light and cast into the Light itself. If I'm as evil as you claim, then I'll be destroyed just as surely as if Amodai wielded the sword... but if I'm spared, it will be because the Light has cleansed me and forgiven me.”
“You'd try to escape your fate thus?” Tereni demanded.
“Not escape, no, but rather ask one more qualified than you to be my judge.”
Tereni became apoplectic, but Saera had relaxed and began to smile faintly. Ramath cast her a look of disapproval, but it was Graemor who spoke. “He's right. Why should we soil our hands with his blood, when the one who gives us everything can solve this problem more effectively? Let it be done!”
Ramath nodded reluctantly, then with more enthusiasm. “The suggestion has a certain justice to it. We shall let the Light defend us as it has always done in the past.”
“Are you mad?” I whispered to Mohri.
His smile was gentle. “No, Amodai, not mad, merely desperate. But it is as I told you: I was once a child of Light like yourself, and returning to that Light holds no terror for me. And there is yet the chance that I will prove our kinship if the Light casts me out, unharmed.”
I shook my head in disbelief, but Graemor, eager to make an end of Mohri, had already seized him by the shoulder and begun marching him through the door. I followed hastily, shouldering my way more roughly through the crowd than I’d intended, my eyes only for the condemned man. Behind me, the crowd surged from the chamber, the younger ones running ahead to ensure that they'd have a clear view of the execution, for such an event was unlikely to occur again in their lifetimes. By the time we reached the Temple, it was already full, and Talmin, looking half dead after the noise awoke from her near-comatose sleep, was standing by the Light, learning what was to happen.
I crossed the room to stand by her, and she hugged me briefly before turning to the elders. “Is it true that this man is to be cast into the Light and judged thereby?”
Graemor’s voice rang out loud enough to still the excited buzz. “It's true. The Light shall confirm our judgment, and strengthen us for the coming struggle against the rest of his people.”
I put an arm around Talmin, needing human contact in that moment, and turned my eyes towards the Light. As always, it danced gently in its small depression in the floor, shedding its warmth upon all in the room. I could feel its balm washing over my soul, and for the first time that morning, I felt truly at ease. Surely the Light would judge Mohri innocent and return him to us unharmed, thereby opening a road towards peace between our two peoples?
Graemor thrust Mohri forward. “Will you enter of your own volition, or must I thrust you in?”
Mohri closed his eyes a moment and took a deep breath. To my eyes, it was as if he briefly swelled somehow, became larger, but surely it was an illusion evoked by the dancing light and the overwhelming feeling of power in the room. When his eyes opened, there was a slight trace of fear in them, but no lack of self-confidence. “I shall walk,” he proclaimed, voice steady. “But I would ask you to cut my bonds that I may go to my Creator as free as when he first brought me into this world.”
Possibly I was the only one who noted his choice of he, or perceive its significance.
Graemor nodded reluctantly, but he was armed and the condemned man was not. With a flick of his knife, he severed the bonds and freed Mohri’s arms. The former prisoner rubbed his arms, chafing the circulation back into them. “I thank you. You shall not find your opinion of me disappointed.” With that, he glanced quickly at me, and what I saw in his eyes made me take a step forwards in fearful recognition.
“Wait!” I called out, suddenly chilled to the core of my being. “Stop him!”
But I was far too late, for Mohri had already turned and taken one impossibly long step into the Light. As he did so, the Light flared up around him, as if a moth had entered the flame of a torch, and wholly obscured his shape. The surge of illumination was such that every last person in the room threw up an arm to shield their eyes from the suddenly blazing Light. But it was the accompanying surge of power that made me cry out, and mine was not the only throat that did. But over it all rang out Graemor’s harsh cry of victory.
“Amodai, what’s wrong?” Talmin’s voice broke into my consciousness, past the slowly waning wave of power.
“That wasn't Mohri!” I whispered. “Or at least it wasn't him alone.”
Even as I spoke, it became clear that something was wrong. As we watched, not comprehending, the Light shrank back to its former size—then continued shrinking until it was a spark, then less than a spark, then gone. There was no sign of Mohri, and the room was dark, for never before had there been any need for artificial light.
Talmin fell to her knees beside the depression that had held the Light for as long as Haven had existed. “It's gone!” she moaned.
A hush fell over the room, for everyone now understood what Talmin had felt: that something had gone out of the room, and left it suddenly cold and empty. I pulled Talmin back to her feet, feeling the panic of betrayal, but her eyes had gone distant. I slapped her, hard, on one cheek, and when that produced no response, slapped her on the other cheek. “What does this mean?” I shouted, my voice but one among the many more crying out in fear.
Talmin returned to me, red spots growing on her cheeks, and there was abject despair in her eyes. “It means,” she whispered, “that we're all as good as dead, for we have nothing to shield us from Shadow.”
No others heard her, for the crowd’s alarmed cries echoed in the small, enclosed space. I released the priestess and seized Graemor by the shoulder. “Keep her in her chambers, and let no one talk to her. Drug her unconscious if you must, just so long as no one hears what she said. Then gather the townsfolk. Perhaps that will buy us some time.” Then I turned and ran for the door, pushing aside anyone in my way, as my mentor thrust the priestess into the arms of Saera, whispered something, and began to follow me as best the milling crowd permitted.
I had gone scarcely a dozen paces beyond the door when I came to a desperate halt, barely avoiding a collision with Bareni. Our leader had come on the run, his short legs driving faster than I’d ever seen him run before. I caught his arm as he flew past, frantically trying to slow down myself, and swung him in a circle about me. Somehow, we both kept our feet.
“What?” I cried, though I already knew the answer on some visceral level. “What has happened?”
There was fear in his eyes, something I’d never seen before. “Shadow!” he whispered. “It's begun to close in on Haven, fast enough you can see its progress. Now let me go... I must find Graemor.” I released him, and let him run past me towards the Temple, from which Graemor had only just emerged.
I had another destination in mind, and I reached Mareth's home faster than I’d dreamt possible. There was light in the window, but this time I did not bother knocking. I struck the door with my boot right at the level of the latch, and something shattered. A second kick, heedless of the ache in my foot, and the door flung open, spilling me into the room.
Mareth stood there in shock, a ceramic mug fallen from her grip unnoticed to lie in the hearth, steam rising from its spilled contents. “Amodai! What—?”
“Come with me. Now. To the Temple.” I took a deep, shuddering breath, then another, and felt my racing heart slow. “The Light has been extinguished, and Shadow is reaching for us even as we speak.”
Without waiting for her reply, I seized her by the arm and pulled her with me, and something in my manner must have convinced her, for after a momentary hesitation, she came without protest. We fled for the Temple without so much as pausing to pull the door shut. Around us, others fled in the same direction, until we were one moving stream of people, all converging on the same point. At the Temple, we perforce slowed, for the streets were so full that none could run any longer. Only when someone’s boot trod down hard on Mareth and she wailed did I realize that she’d not had time to don her own shoes.
I pushed through to the center of the crowd, my size and my status as Ranger gaining me passage, and Mareth limped along in my wake. Above the noise of the crowd, Graemor’s voice rang out clearly, full of a strange mixture of panic and elation. “Calm yourselves, people of Haven. The moment I warned you of has come upon us, and we must now defend ourselves against Shadow. This is our chance to redeem ourselves and bring the Light back to us again in all its glory.”
The din from the crowd waned, but didn't completely vanish, for there were curses, sobs, and the harsh breathing of those unaccustomed to running. Oblivious to this, Graemor continued. “Every woman and child who can fit must move into the Temple, along with the aged and infirm; those who cannot fit can gather in the yard. But every able-bodied man and youth and anyone else who cannot fit within must take up one of the weapons we’ve been preparing against this need. Get them now, and come back here, for we have little time.”
Panic and despair were plain on the faces of the people, whose worst nightmare had become reality, but they instinctively obeyed the tone of command in his voice. As the crowd thinned, I moved closer to Graemor, who was surrounded by the Rangers and the councilors. There was fear on every face save his and Ranali’s; both smiled cruel smiles of anticipation, as if they’d been awaiting this moment their whole lives. Bethan smiled bravely at me, but there was pain in her eyes when she saw who I’d brought with me, and the smile faltered. I turned to Mareth. For the first time, I saw the hollows under her eyes and the pallor of her complexion.
“Go into the Temple with the others. It’s scant protection, but at least its walls will keep out the shadowbeasts, and may offer some shelter against Shadow itself.” Wordlessly, she hugged me tight and I kissed her brow. Then she complied, leaving without a backward glance. I turned to Graemor, who was talking quietly with the elders.
Saera’s voice was strong and defiant. “Here I stand, and here I shall stay. These are my people who are readying themselves to defend me, and I can do no less.”
Tereni spat messily upon the ground, frowning. “It’s your life, old woman. Ramath and I will be inside with the others.” He turned on his heel, and made for the door. The third elder hesitated a moment, torn between the two alternatives, then she too fled indoors.
In the end, we had time to gather our resources and disperse them about the Temple before Shadow came upon us. It approached like molasses spreading from the mouth of a toppled urn, smoothly coating everything in its path. There were signs of panic in many faces, but Graemor had positioned Rangers on all sides of the Temple. Our stance in the front lines and our lack of hesitation gave them courage. None fled, which was just as well, for there was nowhere for them to go. I scanned Shadow frantically, sickly sure that this was the precursor to some attack by an army of shadowbeasts, perhaps led by the children of Shadow themselves, but nothing hostile moved amidst the darkness. I glanced at the torches that rested along the sides of the Temple in their sconces, unlit, abruptly certain it was a very good thing indeed that it was day and we had no need of them to see. All too well I recalled the last time I’d lit a fire in Shadow.
Just as Shadow began to lap at the toes of the foremost among us, it halted as suddenly as it had begun flowing inwards. For a brief moment, I felt hope that the Temple had halted it, like waves breaking on a shore, but it was soon obvious that wasn't the case. From deep within Shadow came a half-familiar voice.
“Children of Light, I have returned to you, for though you threw me into the Light itself, I bear you no ill will.” All at once, he was in plain view, appearing from out of nowhere to face us. It was the same giant who'd come to me the night I lit my fire in Shadow, and he was fully as terrible and beautiful as he’d been that night. I continued scanning around, but he remained alone. Though that should have reassured me, somehow it did just the opposite.
“Name yourself!” Graemor demanded, a faint tremor in his voice.
He was answered with a laughter so deep it echoed within our chests. “Name myself? And what purpose would that serve? A name refers to something that never changes, and I am hardly that. Call me Shadow, if you will, for that's as good a name as any.”
“Then know you, Shadow, that we'll resist you to the last man, woman, and child. We're the children of Light, and Shadow shall never claim us.”
Again that laughter boomed out. “Think you so? Then you haven't listened to my emissary, who you thought to slay.” There was a trace of anger in that mighty voice, and I flinched beneath it. “Hear me now, children of Light. I have come to make you an offer. Those who would come to me and willingly reclaim their birthright, I shall grant the same gift I once granted your Ranger, there.” Abruptly, his gaze fixed upon me, and I felt pinned and breathless beneath its weight.
“And if we refuse?” Graemor’s defiance sounded strained now.
“Then I shall claim you for my own just as surely, but it will be harder on you. I repeat my offer for the final time: Who will come to me of their own free will?”
There was a moment of silence, then a single voice spoke, softly yet clearly. “I will.”
All eyes turned as Saera strode forth, casting off the hand that Graemor set upon her shoulder. The child of Shadow’s voice was gentle as he turned that powerful gaze upon her. “Then come, child, and be reunited with me.”
A kind of paralysis held us as the old woman stepped forward and we held our breath as she stepped to the boundary between Shadow and Light. Saera took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and reached out her hands, which were gently captured by two mighty hands that wholly engulfed them and drew her into Shadow. For a moment, nothing happened, then Saera's eyes widened in wonder, and her captor’s smile washed her with a warmth I could feel even over the distance that separated us. Then all at once, standing beside him was a charcoal grey hunting cat, which snarled its joy into the still air and sprang away, quickly lost to our sight.
The giant’s voice was softer now, all anger gone. “Who else will accept my offer?”
“None of us!” shrieked Graemor. “If you want us, you must take us yourself.”
“And so I shall,” he replied softly, and as the echoes of his voice faded, Shadow once more began closing upon us, accompanied by gasps of panic from those who had never felt its influence before.
“Light torches!” screamed Graemor, and several men set about doing so.
“No! No torches!” I yelled at the top of my voice, remembering what fire had done to me before, but in the commotion, none heard me.
I faced outward once again, sword come into my hand and ready to defend against whatever might lie ahead. Thus it was that Shadow swept over me like a cool breeze, and I braced myself against its familiar tugging. It was no different from any other time, though I’d expected something more sinister. Behind me came shrieks of fear as Shadow engulfed the townsmen who'd been unable to get close enough to the torches that were now alight. Seeing no threat before me, I ran to the men at my back.
I caught each man by the arm, turned him to face me. “Concentrate on your own self, on your form. Hold it in your mind, and cling to it as if it were your lover. That will anchor you against Shadow.” Some heard and obeyed, and that, combined with the torchlight, seemed to work for a time, but as Shadow swept against the walls of the Temple and entered within, a new series of shrieks arose amidst the all-encompassing darkness. I released the man I’d been instructing, and faced the Temple yard. Pushed by panic, those within began spilling into the street, some in human form and some not. One shape in particular I recognized.
“Mareth!” I cried out, and somehow, in her blind panic, she heard me and ran to me, her terror giving her strength to hold her own shape. Then she was in my arms, and I held her, desperately willing her my strength. But even as I held her, I could feel her change. “Look into my eyes!” I said, and slapped her hard when she appeared lost to me. For a moment, she rallied, and met my eyes, but the blind panic there had erased any trace of intelligence, and even as I watched, she crumpled in my arms.
“Mareth!” I cried out again, sinking to my knees beneath her dead weight. Relief at the sight of her familiar, unchanging face, was swept away suddenly when I realized why that might be. I reached out hesitantly to touch her throat, and waited a time to confirm I could feel no pulse there. Then I bowed my head and wept, sobs tearing at my throat and chest as if they would tear me apart. How long I wept like that I cannot say, save only that I came back to myself at the feel of a strong grip on my shoulder.
“Amodai, we need you. Come back with us.”
I looked up into Bethan’s tear-streaked face, and numbly let her lift me to my feet and guide me back towards the Temple, stepping past the occasional body. There, all but the few Havenites who'd been slain or swept away by that initial surge of Shadow huddled together beneath the light of the torches, their shadows moving about on the ground at their feet. Even through my numbness, something about those shadows looked wrong, and that wrongness brought me back to myself.
“You must extinguish those torches before it’s too late!” I yelled. “Look at the shadows by your feet!”
Those who heard me looked down, and recoiled in horror, for their shadows moved with a life of their own, and took up postures that could never originated from torchlight alone. Some of the villagers moved away from the torches in fear, but most stood their ground, not knowing what else to do. And as they hesitated, a rich voice spoke again from the darkness. “Come!”
The shadows rose from the ground, finding their feet and striding towards that voice. “The torches!” I yelled again, and some few ground them into the dirt, trying to extinguish them, but many did not, and by then it was too late. The first of the shadows had reached that giant dark figure, and flowed into him as mine had done short weeks earlier. And when the last of those shadows had been absorbed, that mighty voice boomed out from the darkness, turning all eyes towards him.
“It is done. I bid you extinguish those last few lights, for they will not save you now.” Within moments, the last of the torches had been extinguished and we stood unprotected beneath the monochrome Shadow that enfolded us. “Now I bid each of you, sleep, and when you wake, be one with us.” I felt a pressure lifted from my shoulder, and beside me, tears still flowing down her face, Bethan sank to her knees, then eased forward onto the hard ground. As if they were a single body, everyone in the crowd—save only two—echoed that motion, folding slowly downwards, outlines beginning to blur even as they settled.
“Amodai.” That voice called out. I turned to face him, as if I were a puppet pulled by invisible strings. “Go to the Temple and bring out your priestess.” Without thinking, I moved to comply.
“No! You won't do this to us again!” shrieked a voice, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Graemor lift his sword above his head and charge towards the child of Shadow.
The compulsion that was on me lifted long enough to let me turn, and I watched helplessly as my mentor reached the towering figure and swung a powerful overhead blow. The sword passed harmlessly through the child of Shadow, as if he were insubstantial as a shadow, and clanged off the cobblestones, throwing sparks. Then that mighty hand closed on Graemor and forced him to his knees. “Your time is done, old one, and the evil you have done against us and your own people is at an end. Go to your creator, and may She have more mercy on you than I would have.”
Graemor gave a strangled gasp, and fell to the ground with the boneless motion of someone whose soul had departed his body. Hot tears stung my eyes even as I turned and began moving back towards the gaping door of the Temple. There on the floor, still recognizable despite the Shadow that filled the room, lay Talmin. I felt a moment of horror, certain that she too was dead, but then I saw the slow lift of her chest, and I knelt to gather her in my arms. She was a dead weight, but somehow I staggered to my feet and carried her outside. When I reached the child of Shadow, I halted, still with no volition of my own.
One huge hand reached out and gently brushed the unconscious priestess’s forehead. Then that voice boomed out once again. “She is gone beyond where I can reach her, and that was never my intent. Put her down, Amodai.” There was no threat in that voice now, only a deep sorrow, and I complied. “Now, sleep as you did once before, and when you wake, be one of us again.”
I found the strength in me to ask one last question, even as an irresistible weariness washed over me, sweeping away everything, even my sorrow. “And what of Talmin?”
“Fear not for your friend. I shall see to it that she has time to heal wounds that I myself cannot heal.”
With those words in my ears, my eyes closed, and the world was lost to me.
Continue reading: Chapter 6
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