Chapter Thirty-four: Devastation
The camp arose early, preparing the morning meal in a happy bustle. Adesina kept herself aloof from the others, still feeling uncomfortable from the festivities of the previous night. As Hestia began frying eggs, she chatted with Adesina and L’era cheerfully.
“We have to use these supplies quickly anyway, because they will not last. There are a few farmers who are willing to trade with us. We rotate between them throughout the year. We work in the fields, rebuild barns, repair roofs, perform at weddings, help shear sheep, build furniture, mend clothes—anything people are willing to hire us for.”
“And they pay you with supplies?” asked L’era.
Hestia nodded. “It is the only payment we can use. Most merchants will not accept money from the Ojuri because they assume we stole it from somebody else.”
Adesina frowned. “What about the High City? They are known to trade with people from the Northern Tribes.”
The elegant woman smiled. “We never go that far south, but it does not matter. We get by just fine without money. Most of the time we keep to ourselves, raising our families and enjoying the beauties of the world around us. We only venture back to civilization when our food is running low.”
L’era furrowed her brow thoughtfully. “What about hunting?”
Hestia shrugged. “If we hunt too close to land that ‘belongs’ to anyone, they accuse us of stealing or poaching. We find it safer to do as little hunting as possible.”
She served them breakfast, changing the topic of discussion to lighter subjects. Never once did she ask them where they were going or what they were doing. Nor did she pry for more information about them personally. When they were done eating, the Ojuri began getting ready to leave.
Ignoring the protests of the L’avan, several bags of supplies were laid by their horses. Hestia shook her head adamantly. “If we do not take care of each other, no one else will.”
With those simple words, she mounted her horse. The scarred young man brought his horse next to hers, acting as if the L’avan didn’t exist. Hestia gave Sa’jan one last lingering glance before turning away and riding northwest. The Ojuri followed her, waving at the L’avan as they left.
The travelers watched them for a while before preparing to depart as well. Adesina shook her head in amazement. “I have rarely met with such people.”
Sa’jan’s eyes were still gazing after the Ojuri. “Yes, they are exceptional. It does not matter how little they have, they will still give you what you need.”
Adesina gave him a sly smile. “Hestia is rather exceptional herself.”
He nodded absently. “She is the heart of the Ojuri.”
L’era joined her friend in teasing. “I think she has more in her keeping than just her own heart.”
This brought a smile to Sa’jan’s face. “Perhaps, but that does not matter right now.”
Adesina frowned. “Why?”
He pointed to the black ribbon he wore around his neck. “I am still in mourning for my beloved wife. Besides, it is difficult for L’avan to marry outside of our race.”
“Is it not allowed?” she asked.
“It is allowed,” he explained, “but our ways are so different from other people’s. It is difficult to find harmony in such a union. There must be equality between a husband and wife, and the gifts given to the L’avan are rarely matched outside of our race.” Sa’jan turned his attention to preparing his horse. “Also, there are other considerations.”
Her lips tightened in comprehension. “Like that young man.”
He was confused. “What young man?”
“The one who follows her around like an angry shadow.”
The light of understanding dawned in Sa’jan’s eyes. “Ah, Hestia’s son. Do not judge him harshly. He is suspicious of any outsiders.”
“Why is that?” L’era asked innocently.
Sa’jan shook his head sadly. “Several years ago they were driven out of a village by a mob. A torch dipped in oil was shoved against his face, burning him badly. He was only ten years old at the time.”
Tears of sympathy and outrage welled up in L’era’s eyes. “How could anyone do that?”
He looked at her, his eyes aged with the sorrow of experience. “The world is a darker place than what we would wish it to be.”
Adesina heartily agreed, but said nothing. She had been raised with the view that the world was corrupt and in need of dramatic change. However, experience outside of the Shimat fortress had taught her that it was a very different shade of black than what she had imagined.
Ravi, who seemed to read her thoughts by the expression on her face, said to her quietly, “It is not too late for the darkness to be overcome. A single ray of light can dispel all shadows, if given the right direction.”
She nodded slowly, wondering when that ray of light would come.
The L’avan continued southward, moving as quickly as they could. They knew their supplies would eventually run out, and they needed to be near villages that were not so set against trading with L’avan.
About a week after their encounter with the Ojuri, L’iam brought them to a sudden halt. He pointed in the direction that led out of the trees. “There is a camp there.”
Sa’jan frowned thoughtfully. “It is rare for any of the Northern Tribes to venture into the central lands.”
The young prince’s expression became even more troubled. “I do not believe that they are a Northern Tribe.”
“Who, then?” asked E’nes.
L’iam didn’t answer, but nudged his horse forward, moving out from the cover of the forest. The other L’avan followed him cautiously.
Camped at a discreet distance from the forest were several ragged groups of what could only be described as refugees. It was clear that they were people unaccustomed to living outdoors.
They were scattered and unorganized, dragging along items that no seasoned traveler would ever take on a journey. There were few horses and even fewer wagons. The tents were all makeshift, created out of whatever the refugees had in their possession.
As they approached the camp, they were spotted and shouts of warning rang out through the camps. The refugees stared at them in fear as they cautiously approached. Ravi, especially, was viewed with terror.
Adesina noticed the stares directed at him and frowned. “Can they see you now?” she asked quietly.
Ravi chuckled. “Yes, I am allowing others to see me. I thought it would give our party some added protection.”
“Well, it certainly makes us more noticeable,” she muttered.
They dismounted their horses while still at a fair distance from the camps and went the rest of the way on foot. They wanted to seem as non-threatening as possible.
The L’avan were met by a phalanx of men armed with sharpened sticks and pitchforks.
“What do you want, magic-users?” The hostility in their voices was mingled with fear.
Adesina studied the people before her, suddenly realizing why they seemed so familiar. Their clothes were in rags, but she could still make out what they used to be.
“You are citizens of the High City!”
The foremost man lifted his chin arrogantly. “What of it?”
She spread her hands in an open gesture. Trying to look harmless in spite of her Shimat uniform, Blood Sword, and L’avan features. “I used to dwell in the High City.”
“Impossible,” spat the man. “We would never let one of your kind live in our city.”
A figure pushed it’s way to the front of the phalanx and stared at Adesina. She was shocked to find herself looking into a familiar face.
He could hardly believe his eyes either. “Adrie?”
Adesina could understand his disbelief. The last time he had seen her, she had been dressed as a High City citizen and was pretending to be a docile girl who hailed from the Northern Tribes. Now she stood before him heavily armed and holding herself like an accomplished warrior.
Aleron continued to gape at her as if he had never seen her before. When he spoke it was in a low, distrustful voice. “Did you have something to do with the attack?”
She was baffled. “What attack?”
He didn’t answer her question, but searched her eyes for the truth. When he saw that she honestly didn’t know what he was talking about, he offered a small smile. “I can see that you did not. I am glad, so glad!”
Aleron spoke a few quiet words to the man who appeared to be their leader. “I know this young woman. I will vouch for the company.”
The man wasn’t convinced. “What value will your vouching have when the rest of us are dead?”
He shook his head angrily. “I tell you, I know this woman. She had nothing to do with it.”
The man stood his ground stubbornly. “If you are so eager to join them, then do so. I will not allow those magic-users into our camp.”
Aleron straightened his back, handed his sharpened stick to the man, and turned to face the L’avan. “May I join you for an evening meal?”
Adesina glanced at L’iam, who nodded readily. “Yes, of course. You can tell us what happened here.”
He smiled grimly as he turned to walk back to his own camp. “And you can tell me where you have been for the past few months. Please allow me some time to clean up, and then I will join you.”
The L’avan returned to their horses and rode back towards the trees. They set up a camp at the edge of the forest, keeping a close eye on the refugees.
L’iam looked apologetic as he gave instructions. “We will have to stay on guard. I know under normal circumstances they would be respectable neighbors, but desperation changes people. We do not know of what they are capable.”
L’era began building a fire while Sa’jan assembled ingredients for the meal. Ravi stood guard, E’nes set up tents, and L’iam and Adesina attended to the horses.
Aleron joined the group a short time later, riding a brown plow horse. He slowed to a stop several feet away from the camp. His eyes were on Ravi, uncertain how to act around such a beast.
Adesina walked over to Ravi’s side, resting her hand on his back. He noticed the gesture and gave her a curious look. “Has this creature always been with you?”
She was surprised by the question. “Yes. How could you know that?”
He pointed to her hand resting on Ravi. “You used to walk with your hand extended like that. I never understood why until now.”
Adesina smiled and nodded. “Aleron, this is Ravi. He is my guardian.”
Ravi inclined his head. “How do you do?”
The young man’s eyes bulged in shock. “It can talk.”
“Yes, he can.” she amended gently.
Adesina beckoned Aleron to dismount and follow her to the L’avan camp. He did so with a small amount of trepidation. All citizens of the High City knew of and feared the ‘magic-users,’ but few of them had had any personal contact with them. Aleron’s brave words in the face of his rude countryman now seemed to fall flat in the presence of the possible danger of the strangers.
The L’avan straightened from what they were doing as the two approached. The young woman began by gesturing to her friend. “This is Aleron of the High City.” Then she indicated to each of her companions, who bowed or curtsied, respectively. “This is L’iam, the leader of our group, and his sister, L’era. That is Sa’jan and E’nes, my brother.”
He bowed clumsily in return, staring at E’nes in shock. “I…I am honored.”
L’era invited him to come and sit by the fire while dinner finished cooking. Aleron was a bit intimidated by her exotic beauty, and could only blush and mumble his thanks. Adesina sat down across from him, smiling at his embarrassment.
He focused his attention on Adesina. “Where have you been, Adrie?”
Adesina’s expression became more serious. How could she explain everything to him? “Well,” she began slowly, “first of all, I must tell you that my name is not Adrie. It is Adesina.”
His sunny features clouded over in confusion. “Who are you?” he asked in a troubled voice.
There was something in his tone that bothered Adesina. She searched for the right words, but couldn’t seem to find them. Finally, E’nes took over the explanation, laying a hand on his sister’s arm.
“My sister was taken from our people and raised by the Shimat. We all assumed she was dead. Not long after the disappearance of the L’avan man from the High City several months ago, L’iam and I came looking for him. We discovered Adesina was living there, and convinced her to come with us back to our homeland.”
Aleron stared at them incredulously. “I thought the Shimat were old wives’ tales.”
Adesina shook her head sadly. “No, they are very real.”
He struggled to swallow. “Can they do all the things the stories say?”
She gave him a questioning look. “I do not know what the stories say.”
Her friend from the High City hugged his knees as he briefly told of the tales that haunted every small child’s nightmares. “They say that the Shimat are demons—shadows that periodically take form. They steal small children from their beds and turn them into slaves. It is said that those who lead wicked lives have their souls taken by the Shimat when they lay dying.”
Adesina would have laughed if she had known less truth about the real Shimat. “The truth is not so bad, and yet it is much worse. They are a secret organization whose sole purpose is to gain power. They use blackmail, corruption and fear to invisibly gain control over the nations.”
He stared at her, his eyes wide with disbelief. “And you are one of them?”
Her expression became stony. “I was raised as one, yes.”
E’nes stepped in. “Most young Shimat do not know the true purpose of the order, Aleron. Adesina has since discovered this truth and chosen to not follow their path.”
Aleron was relieved to hear this. “Forgive me for doubting you, Adrie. After what happened in the High City…”
They waited for him to go on, but he fell silent, staring into the fire with an anguished look on his face.
After a few moments, L’iam asked gently, “What happened to the High City, Aleron?”
He exhaled loudly, wiping some tears from his eyes. “I do not even know where to begin.”
“Start from when I left,” Adesina urged.
He nodded, taking a deep breath and collecting his thoughts. “Your disappearance caused quite an uproar. We searched for weeks through the city and the surrounding area. Every Outsider that had come to the High City was detained and questioned. The Governors were frantic.”
Adesina couldn’t understand why such a fuss had been made. “Why?”
Aleron made a helpless gesture. “You were the second magic-user to go missing from our city. I know you always claimed to be from the Northern Tribes, but the important thing was that you looked like a magic-user. As long as you were around, they could pretend that they were on excellent terms with the race. That is why they were all so anxious to be on your good side.”
She gave him an appraising look. “You seem to know a lot about political maneuvering.”
He shrugged. “What else is there to do in the High City?”
Adesina couldn’t argue with that. “What happened then?”
“Well, you were the second magic-user to disappear,” he repeated, “and the whole city was terrified that a massive army of magic-users would come marching in to destroy us all.”
“Did they?” asked L’iam.
Adesina looked at him in surprise. He knew very well that the L’avan had done no such thing. Why would he ask otherwise?
Aleron shook his head sadly. “I do not know. It all happened so fast.”
“Tell us what happened,” urged L’iam gently.
He rested his curly head in his hands, speaking in a low voice. “For weeks after you disappeared nothing happened. Our searches always turned up empty, and there was no sign of retaliation. People started to relax, thinking that everything would be fine in the end.” He took another deep breath, trying to calm himself. “Then one night I woke up to the sound of screams.”
There was a breathless pause. Adesina leaned in and repeated softly, “Aleron, what happened?”
His voice was almost a whisper. “The city was on fire. People were running everywhere, animals were on the loose…and there were dark shadows…”
L’era frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Aleron’s eyes were haunted. “There were shadows everywhere. They were the ones setting the fires and killing the animals and…”
His words fell before Adesina, ringing with condemnation. She knew exactly how this story would end, and she knew who had caused it to begin. She desperately wanted to be wrong, but deep down she knew she wasn’t.
“And what?” she asked woodenly.
“I saw them bar up the doors of houses before setting them on fire. The women and children screamed and screamed, but they could not escape. People on the street were massacred without hesitation, without mercy. There was blood everywhere.”
There were tears running down L’era’s face. “How did you survive?”
Aleron shrugged hopelessly. “I was trying to find my mother. She had gone down to the streets to help one of our neighbors, and she was lost in a mob. As I was searching for her, I was hit on the head and knocked unconscious. When I woke up, it was morning and the High City was in ruins. Some people believe that the magic-users summoned the shadows to revenge themselves upon us.”
Adesina felt sick to her stomach. She clenched her jaw, fighting the anger and horror she felt. “Are those in the camp all who survived?”
Aleron nodded with hesitation. “I believe so.”
E’nes looked at his sister fearfully. “Adesina, you do not know-”
She cut him off. “I do know. I know exactly who did this. What I cannot understand is why.”
Ravi gazed at her sadly. “Can you not?”
Adesina shook her head. “No! The High City bore no strategic importance, it had no enemies, bore no threat. There is nothing to be gained by destroying it so thoroughly.”
“Adesina,” L’iam said quietly, “it was attacked because they knew the L’avan would be blamed.”
The wrath Adesina felt was amplified as she felt the truth of the statement. Aleron looked around the group uncertainly, trying to understand what they were saying.
“Who are these L’avan you have mentioned?”
Adesina was too upset to answer, leaving it to E’nes.
“We are the L’avan. It is the name of our race.”
The young man still didn’t understand. “If your people did not attack the High City, then who did?”
Her voice was cold and biting. “The Shimat.”
Aleron frowned in confusion. “Why? Why would they want you blamed?”
“The Shimat are our mortal enemies,” L’iam explained. “They have been for many years. They would go to great lengths to fuel hatred directed towards our people. If that includes destroying a city and murdering thousands of people, so much the better. It is a perfect show of their power and skill in staying undetected.”
Although Adesina was afraid of the answer, she had to ask, “What of Hass and his family? Did they survive? What about Gainor and Deasa and Rina?”
Aleron looked at her sadly. “They are not in our camp.” He hurried to continue, “But there may have been other survivors in other camps.”
She shook her head blindly and got to her feet, walking away from the fire. It was too much to be borne. The people of the High City may have had their faults, but there was no way that they had deserved such a fate. The heat of fury burned in her chest, contrasting strangely with the tears smarting in her eyes.
Her vyala flared up in response to these emotions, strengthening them and being strengthened by them. She struggled to subdue the power swirling around her body, reprimanding herself for losing control.
Adesina stood with her back to her companions, staring at the refugee camps in the distance. As she fought her internal battle with her emotions and her vyala, something on the outskirts of her enhanced awareness caught her attention.
Something was wrong.
She instantly became more alert, scanning the scene in front of her. She let her vyala go free, tinting her vision dark green.
Hidden in the darkness were several men on horseback, quietly advancing on the refugee camps. Adesina switched her vyala to a light green and immediately felt their murderous intent. She tried to look deeper, discover who they were, but she could tell that time was short and she had to hurry.
She whipped around and sprinted back to the L’avan camp. “We have to get out of here now,” she said in a low, urgent voice.
Everyone stared at her without comprehension. L’iam was the first to respond.
Adesina was throwing saddles on horses and stamping out the fire. “The refugee camp is about to be attacked, and we will be as well if we do not leave as quickly as possible.”
The others began helping Adesina in her rushed packing of the camp, asking questions as they worked.
She shook her head. “I am not sure.”
“Why would anyone attack a camp of refugees?”
“I do not know,” she replied impatiently. “They could be marauders looking for an easy target, Shimat returned to finish a job, someone who has a grudge against the citizens of the High City…”
Aleron grabbed her arm. “We have to help them.”
At first she was startled by this declaration. “What?”
He repeated himself. “We have to help them.”
Adesina gave him a scathing look. This was no time for naive heroics. “How could we possibly help them?”
He struggled to find the words fast enough. “Protect them. Fight for them. Anything!”
She looked him directly in the eye as she spoke with finality. “We cannot.”
Stunned disbelief filled his eyes. “What! Why?”
Adesina gestured towards the camp and spoke in a voice as if it were obvious. “We are completely outnumbered, Aleron. There is no way our help would be enough. All we would do is alert the Shimat to our presence, and then our entire mission would be for naught.”
He set his jaw stubbornly. “You said you did not know if they were Shimat or not.”
She let out an annoyed breath. “It does not matter who they are. If we get involved, the Shimat will hear about it.”
L’iam put a sympathetic hand on Aleron’s shoulder. “She is right. We do not stand a chance against them.”
Aleron sputtered. “So, we are just to leave them to die?”
“It is that, or die ourselves.” Adesina said harshly.
In the distance they heard the shouts of chaos begin. Shadows could be seen darting past the campfires, the sounds of horses being charged were coupled with angry yells. Every eye in the L’avan camp turned towards the refugees, searching desperately for some way to assist the helpless people.
Adesina wanted to urge their immediate departure, but was surprised to find that she could not turn away. In the Shimat mind, self-preservation was only outweighed by the protection of the order; yet, she could not leave these people to fight for themselves.
She had a mission to fulfill. One of the utmost importance—one that could not afford to be jeopardized by any sort of deviant action. Still, the sounds of screams rang in her ears, and she knew she could not walk away.
Did such sentiment make her weak?
“Mount your horses,” she commanded curtly.
There was a moment of shocked silence before they realized her intention and did what they were told. Adesina reconnected to her vyala as she settled into her saddle. Her vision swirled red and light green as she projected her power further than she had ever attempted before.
It was a struggle to direct the power to the camps without taking in any unnecessary space, juggle two kinds of vyala, and keep it strong enough to reach far enough and have enough effect. It took every ounce of willpower Adesina had, but she was absolutely set on succeeding.
The shouts of the refugees were joined by cries of dismay from the attackers. Adesina was picking out all those with murderous hearts and covered their eyes with terrifying visions.
“What is going on?” asked Aleron frantically.
Sa’jan’s voice was full of reverence and respect. “She is helping them.”
Adesina felt the energy rapidly draining from her body. She knew she had to keep going, but she wasn’t sure how long she would last. L’iam sensed her distress and summoned his own vyala to lend her aid. He gave her all the energy he could spare, which was only just enough to keep her going.
It felt like an eternity to Adesina before she heard Sa’jan say, “They have escaped to the forest.”
She withdrew her vyala and barely had enough strength to wheel her horse around. “Go!”
They all rode away from the camp at top speed. L’iam led the way, taking them through the thick undergrowth of the woods. Adesina brought up the rear with Ravi and Aleron. Ravi, because he refused to leave her side at a time like this, and Aleron, because his plow horse had a hard time keeping up with the war horses.
She had no idea how long they galloped through the darkness, nor did she have any clue where they were headed. She was merely intent on keeping herself from falling off of Torith’s back. Occasionally she felt a reviving surge from L’iam’s vyala, but it wasn’t enough to restore her completely.
She was aware when they came to a stop, but only just so. A pair of strong arms pulled her gently from her horse and wrapped her in a blanket, whispering urges to go to sleep. The feeling of being embraced was comforting, and Adesina gratefully complied.