Paths of the Shadow

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The Challenge

...“So, all in all, it wasn’t a smashing success,” said Akira, sauntering forward. Thadorn gave him a withering look and said nothing.

“I believe no commentary is needed,” Nicholas put in, but Akira had the unpleasant habit of saying whatever wandered into his mind.

“Well, to be truthful, I don’t know what you expected, Thadorn. The Kotsar are stubborn; once they vouch for a cause, they go with it until the very end.”

“The end is very near,” spat Thadorn, whipping towards his wife’s kinsman. “But since you say it so convincingly, Akira, why don’t you go and share their fate? Hurry, and I believe you can still catch up with Jadine if that is your wish.”

“Now, Thadorn,” Akira’s voice rose threateningly. “You aren’t being fair to me. Have I ever given you reason to question my loyalty? We are on the same side, you and me, and as it happens, I believe Jadine is more than half mad – but you surely cannot deny she has style.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” said Thadorn through gritted teeth.

“Have you decided what you are going to do next?” asked Nicholas.

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Akira put himself forward again. “We have only two possible choices. Either we retreat, or we storm their castle... and since the first possibility only counts for traitors and cowards, it is clear what we must do,” he finished, then looked up at the Commander expectantly.

“I do not recall passing the command to you, Akira,” Thadorn said sourly.

“Of course,” Akira said quickly, with an apologetic smile that was more annoying than any open taunt. “I eagerly wait to hear your wise decision, my Commander.”

“There is at least one option you didn’t mention,” said Thadorn, “a siege.”

“A siege?” Akira sounded incredulous. “What good would that be? As far as we know, their castle is half-crumbling. Its defenses cannot be very strong, and their armed forces are small at best. To take it quickly and with as few losses as possible, we would do best to storm it at once. A siege, on the other hand... they might have few people, but they could be well-provisioned – in such a case, a siege might take months, and winter is coming. Besides, arrange your troops around their strongholds and stay there, and you give them ample opportunity to practice every bit of foul sorcery they know.”

“I do not fear sorcery,” growled Thadorn.

“Then, my Commander, you are either a liar or a fool,” said Akira, smiling pleasantly, “for we already saw what the warlocks are capable of. The king fears sorcery, too – if he did not, why would he send you here?”

Thadorn gave it a moment’s consideration. “You are right, Akira,” he admitted reluctantly. “It will be better to end it once and for all. We will march upon the morrow, and may the Spirit help us do what must be done.”

Akira nodded, satisfied. “You can count on me to help you assemble the troops, Commander,” he said. “You can put your trust – ”

But he had no chance to finish his phrase, because a soldier came up to them, looking anxious. He was followed by a small, portly man who was wearing a long patched cloak and a serene expression of mild politeness. Thadorn was quite certain he had never seen him before.

“Commander,” said the soldier, somewhat hesitantly. “This one here just came up, asking for a word with you.”

Thadorn turned towards the stranger with a frown of deep suspicion. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“My name is Vyolen,” said the man pleasantly. “It doesn’t tell you much, I know – but more importantly, I am someone who cares.”

“Cares for what?” interjected Akira, quick as a whip.

“For peace. For justice. For the fate of innocents.”

“Let us have a word together, then,” said Thadorn, gesturing forward. “In my tent, if you please. You stay here, Akira,” he snapped at the man who made to follow him.

All of a sudden, the stranger who called himself Vyolen turned around.

“I believe it would be best if he comes as well,” he said, fixing Nicholas with a beady stare.

“Me?” said Nicholas, confused.

“Why, of course. My senses are seldom deceived. You are a man from the-world-beyond.”

“Who are you?” Thadorn repeated once the three of them were inside the Commander’s tent. He came not an hour after Jadine left. This cannot be a coincidence. Before Vyolen had the chance to speak, he shot another question. “Are you one of them?”

“Them?” the man raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I believe I understand whom you refer to. Yes, you could say that I am one of them, in a way,” he concluded. Thadorn stared at him, puzzled.

“What are you doing here, then?” he asked.

“Allow me to explain myself. When I say one of them, I mean that I, too, were marked with certain... special abilities that I have cultivated for many a year, reaching a level of capability which makes me, if I may say so myself, the only authority in certain obscure matters.”

“In other words, you are a warlock,” said Thadorn.

“If you wish to put it that way, yes. More than that, I can understand the ones you stand against. Some of them – not all, mind you – have noble motives. They want to see the Rebirth of the Spirit, the Dominion of Tilir, the Coming of the Messenger... but alas, their lust for power blinds them, making them unable to see that they cannot succeed.”

“Well, if they cannot succeed, we might as well pack up and go back north,” Thadorn said sarcastically.

“They cannot make the long night end before its time and bring the dawn,” Vyolen said patiently, as if explaining a simple truth to an obstinate child, “but they can cause chaos and devastation. The blood they spill will be the blood of death, not birth, but they refuse to see it.”

“You seem to know them well,” Thadorn observed.

The little man sighed. “I will not deny that I have been in contact with them,” he said, “nor that they tried to recruit me. I refused, however.”

“How would you prove that?” demanded Thadorn. “For all I know, you could be their spy.”

“I do not ask you to tell me secrets,” said Vyolen. “I only wish you to listen to my warning. I know Jadine was here not long ago, and I know she is your wife. Now that I have met you I can tell you I am truly sorry for what she has become.”

Thadorn paled. “How... how you...” he stammered. Vyolen shook his head and continued to speak.

“You intend to go against them in open battle.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I never said that,” Thadorn told him.

“You do not need to. What else could you intend to do, a brave man of energetic spirit? But you must know, young one, that against them it will not serve... or rather, it will not be enough.”

“What will be enough, then?” asked Thadorn. Instead of answering, Vyolen looked directly at Nicholas.

“You and I must talk,” he said.

“Of what?” Nicholas said warily. “I do not know you.”

“I do not know you either,” said Vyolen, “but I know that the link between the two worlds never occurs by chance. If you please, there is something I want to show you... in my home. Will you come with me?”

“He goes nowhere alone,” Thadorn interrupted rather rudely. “This man is under my protection, and I will not permit that any harm should come to him.”

“What an admirable sentiment,” quipped Nicholas.

Vyolen spread his arms in a gesture of surrender. “I might be a sorcerer,” he said, “but I am also an unarmed man who lives by himself in a place of quiet retirement. You may send an escort with him, of course, but don’t you think that if I were an enemy I would be aiming first of all for you, Commander?”

“Will you go?” Thadorn asked Nicholas.

He shrugged. “There is nothing to lose,” he said.

“Very well. I will send two men along with you.”

Vyolen looked rather amused. “Would two men be enough against the sort of power you believe I have?”

Thadorn was unconvinced. “It will be this way, or not at all,” he proclaimed.

On the way to his solitary home, Vyolen was unusually silent. He did not appear tense, or mysterious, or even very interesting, though; for all Nicholas could see, he was simply a middle-aged man who values his privacy and looks forward to returning to the quiet of his humble retreat.

They were welcomed by the bleating of goats and the wind blowing through the pines. Vyolen took a large key out of his robes and opened the door. Moving with surprising quickness, he put on the table a loaf of bread, a small wheel of cheese, a knife, a jug of ale and a couple of mugs.

“Stay here,” he told the soldiers. “Eat and drink. I hope you will not become too bored by the time we return.”

“But...” Nicholas looked around in confusion. “I thought we were going here.”

“We were,” confirmed Vyolen.

“Well, then..?”

“This way,” the sorcerer gestured towards a door at the back.

Down and down the slippery stone steps they went, down and down and down, and the air was getting steadily colder around them, until it stung Nicholas’s face – and then the sorcerer Vyolen lifted the torch he was holding in one hand, and a circle of light illuminated the surroundings, and Nicholas gasped.

They were standing in a wide and circular underground grotto, and the red flickering light of the torch was reflected off the surface of a very still black lake.

“What is this place?” asked Nicholas, trying and failing to keep awe out of his voice.

Vyolen noticed that, and offered him a half-smile.

“Many names it has had over the years,” he told. “Some have called it the Womb, some dubbed it The Sanctuary... and other names there are, more than I know myself. I am honored to be its guardian, and to dwell in my humble home right above it. Consider it a great privilege to be allowed a glimpse of it.”

“I am thrilled,” Nicholas said with an attempt of his usual dry manner. “But what am I to do, now that I am here?”

“Undress,” said Vyolen. Nicholas blinked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Just what you heard. Take off your clothes and get in the water.”

Despite the cold, which made his skin erupt in goosepimples, it did not occur to Nicholas to protest. He began peeling off the clothes he had been given in Tilir – his cloak and his boots, his belt and breeches and tunic, until he stood naked in front of the black water, and probed it with his toe.

“It’s cold,” he complained, thinking to himself he sounded like a child. Did I expect it to be warm? Vyolen did not offer an answer and so, after taking a deep breath, he resolutely began striding into the water. It came up to his navel, then up to his chest, then his shoulders, and yet the sorcerer’s silence plainly hinted that this isn’t enough. He was shivering violently by this time, but nevertheless it was clear to him what he had to do. He filled his air with lungs and plunged his head through the cold black rippling surface of the lake.

And then he had an image, so unexpected he could hardly refrain from gasping. He managed to bring himself to senses in the last second – he did not fancy a foolish death by drowning.

Yet what he saw was unmistakably death. His own death.

He was looking from above, from very far above, and the unusual, unnatural clearness of his sight left no doubt that it is his own body he is looking down on – pale and still and peaceful and cold, curled up as if he were sleeping and covered in the morning dew.

He was right where he came from, in the middle of the Stone Circle.

Someone was stepping lightly, quickly towards him. A woman. He knew he recognized her, yet... and then his memory stirred, suddenly very much alive. Of course! This was her, Cathy, and with her she brought all that could have been, and now would never be. When she saw him, she slowed her step and very gently, as if not to wake him, lowered herself onto her knees by his side. Her hand reached out and brushed away the black hair from his brow.

“Nicholas,” she said softly, “I knew I would find you here.”

He was running out of air. He raised his head above the surface of the water and took deep breaths, panting, gasping, willing himself to forget what he just saw, and yet involuntarily clinging to every detail, wondering whether he witnessed the future or just some remote possibility.

Not giving himself time to consider this, he began wadding back towards the shore. His skin was wet and clammy, and it was unpleasant to pull his clothes back on, yet he was too cold to allow himself the time to dry properly. He had to get dressed, and he had to turn his back on the lake, for if he did that, he would forget – and yet he knew he couldn’t.

Vyolen was looking at him with something that was very much like compassionate understanding, yet instead of appreciating it, Nicholas felt a prickle of anger.

“Did you see what I saw?” he asked abruptly.

The warlock shook his head. “The images of the black water are beheld by no more than one,” he said solemnly.

Nicholas pondered this for a moment or two. “Will it come true?” he asked. “What I saw?”

“That, I think,” said Vyolen, “will be for you to decide.”

“For me?” he asked with a dreadful sinking feeling.

“Just so.”

There was a short silence, during which he squeezed out some drops of water from his hair, which he hadn’t cut since arriving in Tilir.

“Do you realize that you wouldn’t have come here without a purpose?” asked Vyolen.

“Is that truly so?” Nicholas asked doubtfully.

“Of course. Every life has a purpose. Although in some instances,” the warlock paused, hesitated, “the most important part of one’s life is one’s death.”

Nicholas shivered, but not from cold. The most important part of one’s life is one’s death. Was it so? He is lying, lying, he thought. He knows what I saw, he saw it too, or perhaps he made me see it – and who knows why.

“If I didn’t know I still have many years left on this earth,” Vyolen went on, “I would think that my purpose is to die in the upcoming battle, aiding this brave lad Thadorn. It isn’t so, however. Others, I fear, might have to give up their lives instead.”

“Such as me?” demanded Nicholas.

“That is not for me to say,” the warock said mildly.

“And if I refuse?”

“My good man,” Vyolen said, gently touching his hand. “I am not the one to tell you which choice is right, and which is wrong. I am only here to teach you that the choice is yours.”

When Nicholas approached the camp again, he was so deep in thought that at first he didn’t even understand where he is going. Only when he saw Akira’s pert and curious expression, and by contrast Thadorn’s somber frown, did he compose himself and mutter the expected greetings.

“Well?” Thadorn prompted him impatiently. “What was it all about? What did he show you?”

“Nothing very crucial,” said Nicholas. “We sat talking for a long time. He has some extraordinary scrolls, a few of which he deciphered for me.” It was not a lie, and he saw no reason to tell them more. It will hardly raise their morale if I tell that I stepped into a cold lake and saw myself lying dead upon the ground. The last thing I need is to be seen as a lunatic.

“What was written in the scrolls?” asked Akira.

“Some things about the Paths of the Shadow,” said Nicholas. “Apparently, centuries ago there were warlocks who tried to practice just what we are facing now. Some of their writings survived, and I can only presume that is where today’s fellowship of sorcerers got their ideas from.”

“Those writings should have been burned,” grumbled Thadorn.

“Perhaps. But who knows what other dark knowledge could have come up in their stead?”

“This is cheap word-bandying,” scoffed the Commander.

“At any rate, what I read suggested that we fight fire with fire.”

“I do not understand,” Thadorn was frowning again.

“Do you mean that we should practice magic as well?” Akira was quicker to grasp the concept.

“Not quite. But it seems that the...” Nicholas cleared his throat. “The Spirit, as you call it, might appreciate a sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice?” repeated Thadorn. “Sacrifices are not made for the Spirit. That is done by wild people, those who worship the dark demons of sand and sea and stone. When King Alvadon, First of His Name, united the land of Tilir under his rule, some parts of the country were overrun by savages who practiced the darkest rituals one might conjure in his imagination. Our noble king gave them the choice – give up on their savage customs or leave, and most chose to cross the borders of Tilir. There they have remained ever since, unwilling to change their vile traditions. They give their own children to their dark gods, and bathe in blood in the hopes of acquiring – ”

“No, no, no,” Nicholas hastened to make his point clear. “I mean nothing of the sort. Nothing as crude as blood sacrifice.”

“Well, then, why don’t you explain,” Akira said condescendingly. Nicholas shot him a dirty glance. Then he looked around him. Some of the soldiers were eyeing them furtively, no doubt attracted by Thadorn’s discourse on blood sacrifice.

“I think we had better talk in private,” he said, cautiously lowering his voice.

“In my tent, then,” said Thadorn.

“Or you could use mine,” volunteered Akira all of a sudden. “You might despise me for not mentioning it sooner, but I still have a skin of wine that doesn’t taste like piss.”

...“You sly bastard, Akira,” said Thadorn as soon as the three of them were gathered in Akira’s tent, which was slightly smaller than that of the Commander, but also advantageously less drafty. “All these weeks you go on complaining about the quality of drink, and here you have wine that must have cost a small fortune.”

“Men have been killed for less,” Akira nodded sagely, and laughed. “Drink up, Thadorn. The occasion merits it. This is the first time I hear from you anything even remotely resembling wit.”

“Before we begin,” said Nicholas in a voice that made both men push their cups aside and look up at him in tense expectation, “I must pass on a message from Vyolen. Kohir Kotsar is dead.”

Akira swore dirtily. Thadorn was still as a stone, the expression of his face unmoved, but Nicholas could sense he was deeply disturbed. “Is this certain?” he asked eventually, after a long silence.

“I fear that it is,” said Nicholas. “We suspected it, didn’t we?”

“Yes, but there was hope,” said Akira. “He was my kinsman. A good, brave man. A little foolish, to be sure, but – ”

“How did he die?” asked Thadorn.

“Does it matter?” snapped Akira.

“I fear that it does,” said Nicholas. “His body was found by forces of the South Watch, but they were perplexed as to what caused his death. Quite simply, he seemed unscathed.”

“Servants of the Shadow,” Akira said gravely.

“Masters of the Shadow, more likely,” Thadorn corrected him. And then he added, looking as if he would have given anything not to say these words, “Jadine knows. She must have known even as she sat here, talking to me. She might even have done it herself.”

“Her own brother?” Nicholas said in disbelief. Akira shook his head.

“The Kotsar will never go against one another,” he proclaimed.

“She turned her back on me and on her own children, blood of her blood,” Thadorn said gravely. “Why not her kin?”

“Rohir will be heartbroken,” Akira said, staring into space.

“Rohir Kotsar does not have a heart,” Thadorn replied harshly.

“You do not know him. You do not know us. I doubt you even ever truly knew Jadine.”

“That much is true,” Thadorn told, raising his voice just a notch. “She was always what she is now – arrogant, vain, proud, selfish. Yet I was blind to it, or perhaps I chose to be blind. But now that is at an end.”

“A lot more than your marriage might be at an end,” Akira reminded him. “We are facing a battle, and the outcome is all but certain.”

But then Thadorn said something utterly unexpected.

“There will be no battle,” he told them in a tone that suffered no objections.

“What?” Nicholas stared up, startled. Akira was looking just as confused as he felt.

“I thought we decided – ” he began, but Thadorn raised a mighty hand, silencing him.

"We decided nothing. I am the Commander here, and I say that there will be no battle.”

“What do you intend to do, then? Wave some green branches at them as a sign of peace?” Akira suggested ironically.

“I intend to send them a challenge for single combat,” said Thadorn.

“But – ” Akira tried to put in, yet Thadorn wouldn’t let him speak.

“There has been enough bloodshed already. It will be better to end it this way, once and for all. Me against...” he stopped, realizing he can supply no name.

“Go on,” Akira prompted him. “You against whom? You have not the remotest idea as to whom they can send.”

“Whomever they choose,” said Thadorn decisively, “it is all the same to me.”

“Are you sure?” Akira raised his eyebrows. “They are warlocks, not warriors. They might send someone who will kill you with a whispered word, like they did to Kohir.”

“Better just me than all of us, then,” said Thadorn. “If I die, my death shall serve as a warning. If I win, though...”

“Even if they accept your offer, and even if you win, who can promise that they will stay true to their word? For all you know, the death of their champion might serve as a warning to them... a warning to strike in other ways.”

“They want to rule. To do that, they must win the people... and to win the people, they must fight with at least some measure of honor.”

“Honor,” Akira repeated, smiling twistedly and shaking his head. “You really are hopeless, Thadorn. Well, as you said, you are the Commander. So go on, send them your offer, fight and die.”

“I will send for a messenger straight away,” said Thadorn. “No, two messengers,” he corrected himself. “One will go south, to send my word to the warlocks... and another to Rhasket-Tharsanae, to bring the dark news to your clan, Akira. I might not be very fond of Rohir and Hinassi, but they deserve to know the truth... and so does Kelena, my good-sister. She is as fine a woman as ever lived.”

“You know,” Nicholas said after a brief moment of hesitation. “I hate to say this, but Akira is right. You might die.”

“I will die one day, as all men do,” said Thadorn. “Tomorrow, maybe, or in fifty years. It is not the time of my death that matters, but the purpose.” And once again, Nicholas heard the words that chilled him to the bone. The most important part of one’s life is one’s death.

... Lafgar crushed the letter in his hand. “What does this signify?” he demanded of Jadine. “Is this some sort of trick?”

She shook her head. “When it comes to Thadorn, you need not look for hidden meaning. It is not his style.”

“In that case, he must be either very brave or very stupid.”

“He is both.”

Lafgar looked at her intently. “Do you have regrets?”

“Never,” Jadine said curtly. “That is not my style.”

“Very well, then. You know the man. What do you say we should do with his offer?”

“Accept it, of course. Dispose of him, and his troops will scatter in disarray. That will buy us enough time to see our work through.”

And again he looked at her, silent, studying. “Dispose of him, you say. So easily you utter these words... and yet he is the father of your children. Will you not grieve for him if he dies?”

Jadine met his eyes bravely. “I will grieve for my husband,” she said, “and rejoice for our cause.”

“Very well, then. I shall call Garon.”

The huge fearsome warrior arrived in his usual attire of dinted mail and boiled leather, the visor of his helm lowered, as was his custom.

“What is the matter, Lafgar?” he asked.

“Here,” Lafgar smoothed out the letter and laid it back on the table. “The leader of the king’s troops challenges us to single combat.”

“Whom of us?” asked Garon.

“Anyone we choose.”

“What is the man like?”

“As tall as you, and maybe wider in the shoulders, a bloodthirsty warrior and a fearless leader.”

“Sounds like a task for me,” said Garon with a short laugh that sounded like a bark.

“Are you certain?” Lafgar asked him. “Not many men in Tilir would be willing to cross swords with Thadorn Tionae.”

“No doubt about it. But when he looks at me, he will think he sees someone like himself... a seasoned warrior, a skilled swordsman perhaps. He will not know that there is more... oh, so much more.

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