Added August 15, 1999 - March 05, 2000
Category: Fantasy/Original
Author: The Darkness

Original Fiction Category Winner 1999
[Disclaimer]

The Shadow Warrior

All character and kingdom names and events in my book are copyrighted.

Prologue: Darkness Falls
Chapter 1: Of Men And Monsters
Chapter 2: Praying Mantis
Chapter 3: Dangers In the Night
Chapter 4: Creation to Betrayal


Prologue: Darkness Falls

It was dark. Not the natural dark of the time after day, but a very unnatural darkness brought on by evil. It was the last day. The darkness was spreading, much more rapidly than it had in the past. Time was running out. If the darkness was to reach the hall before he could incite the chant all would be lost.

The hall shook with the force of another assault. In his mind, he felt Hetemara fall, the last of her strength drained. It tore him up inside, but he could not stop the chant once it was started. It was what she wanted, anyway. Again, the hall shook, this time the kjora was shattered. He had only moments, now.

He started to chant rapidly, " Ny avezi a la montra di santra chal toma ponto." The darkness seeped into the outer hall, the evil presence draining the light away. The once grand halls, their allorian marble crushed, their sha lamps shattered and broken.

" La montra ba salta wyn cas di quarto sayt'elle!" The door to the chamber shook, the wood bending and creaking with the impact of the Saal. The door burst open, the shadows leaking in, their inky blackness choking out all light.

"Eela moto sa benya shala ma say coolo!!". The chant wasn't working; he had no time left!

The shadow started to take form, arms and legs twisting together in a billowy mist. He stared as the face became human, features forming into the face of a young man. You might not have been able to tell his face from that of a human except for the eyes, devoid of all life.

"Your time is over, ranger. You, and that of your order. They would not submit to the salvation of the darkness. If you do not, you will be destroyed as well. What is your choice?" The cold words were given without emotion, something that the darkness was incapable of.

It was over. It had finally reached the great Hall of Kirami, last fortress of defense against it. Why? Why did they ignore it for so long? Why had they thought they could stop it when it had grown stronger than anything they could have imagined it had? They were fools, he knew that now. All they could do was watch as they swallowed up the southern kingdoms, steadily creeping northward. All he could do was watch as endless numbers of armies marched on it, only to be swallowed up or utterly obliterated. Now, it was here.

"What is your choice?" The shade repeated, it's words given without care.

"You ask me to submit to the darkness' salvation? You, who's soul now belongs to it and will forever serve it as a slave. You, who's soul will never see the eternal heavens of Ra?"

" You fool ranger, just like the rest of your kind. Why do you not submit? The darkness is eternal; it isn't anchored with the petty emotions of you humans. Why not choose life over death?"

" Because there are worse fates than death. I will never be a slave of the darkness. IÖ" He felt a rift in the continuum open, and a doorway flashed into existence. He ran towards it with all the energy left him.

"WhatÖ NOOOOO!" The figure lifted its arm and a bolt of unlight streaked out.

He was inches away from the doorway when the bolt struck him. Pained seared through his arm as he fell through the doorwayÖ

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Chapter 1: Of Men And Monsters

Panic. Alarm. Frenzy. They were still chasing him. He peered back through the misty darkness that cloaked the street, only to see the dim figures still on his tail. The oil lamps hanging from the wooden poles that lined the dark cobblestone gave off a barely visible light. The tall brick buildings, the lights in their windows long extinguished, loomed over him like cruel faces, mocking him. Yes, mock me now, he thought.

The footsteps pounding the street behind him drew closer. He would be caught, soon. He was tiring fast, not used to the exercise, and the footsteps drew closer still. Up ahead, through the haze, he saw a dark alleyway. He bolted for it, knowing the darkness was his only ally against the footsteps hounding him. He was not surprised to find piles of stinking refuse piled in the stone alleyway, discarded meat, human waste, and decaying corpses. Not surprising, he thought, peasants lived like dogs and had no care for how their betters saw them.

He pulled his silk shirt up over his nose to hide the fowl stench, and plunged in. Pushing his back close to the wall, he waited, anxious, intent. The footsteps that pursued him drew close, and he saw the figures at the mouth of the alleyway. It was a group of nine men. All were big, muscular brutes, that way because of the labor they did for a living, all except the one in front. He was of an average man. Short, not taller than any but maybe a few stunted freaks that came with the carnival shows. He walked with a sly, slinking way that wouldn't attract notice from any, especially the houses or the law soldiers. Perhaps that was why he was so successful at his profession.

The group shuffled past, a few peering down the alley, their eyes not penetrating the deeper shadows. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and started to step away from the wall, when suddenly, a rat appeared in front of him. He recoiled away from the vile rodent, and his foot caught a loose cobblestone and he cried out as he collapsed into one of the refuse piles.

He heard the footsteps in the street stop, and then retreat back to the mouth of the alleyway. When he looked, he saw one of the big men waving and shouting frantically. He scrambled up, turning and dashing for the other end of the alleyway, but he knew he was dead. They had seen him. It didn't take long for him to reach the end of the alley, and for a second he thought he might get away. Then, he felt his body slam into something solid, and his body crashed to the stone. He peered up at what he had collided with, and his face grew grim.

It was a wall. A towering wall, over twenty feet tall, tall enough to keep any person from scaling it. The bricks that were it's substance had been sanded down by the masons so that there were no bricks sticking out that anyone could grab a hold of. It was the wall that separated the City common from the Royal City. It was meant to keep the peasants out of the way of the civilized people within. Now, it sealed his doom.

"There's the royal slime." He heard a voice behind him cry, and he spun around to meet his assailants. All nine men were standing there, carrying crude weapons. Clubs, farmers scythes, and butcher knives. The brutes were grinning at him, like he was some kind of jester that his father always paraded around to be laughed at. He would show them who they were grinning at. He fumbled for the broadsword, Silent Slicer he had named it after he had used it to kill a mute slave for his tenth naming day, at his belt. A pretty thing, the hilt all gold, and the blade engraved with the motto of his house, Only the noble shall rule. He drew it out, the sound of the steel sliding out echoing off the buildings. He held it awkwardly, after all he had never had to use it before, but it seemed to do the job, as he liked to say.

Most of the brutes seemed to take a step back, while the others just seemed to become more cautious.

"I warn you, I have been trained by the greatest swordmasters in the kingdom. If you try to attack I will be forced to strip your hides and make them into an outfit. I could start a new fashion, runaway slave skins." He tried to sound confident, but his voice was shaking from fear. The slaves seemed to stupid to notice, because they started to back away, but then the short man stepped forward.

"He lies. Look how he holds the sword. He has had no training. He holds it like a woman would hold it. Of course, I have heard that royal men are the same as women anyway." This seemed to restore the courage in the slaves and they started forward. His heart started to pound, fearing for his life. He knew he had only one more chance.

"Oh, yes I'm sure a piece of scum like a drug dealer would know a lot about sword training. Especially one low enough to sell the hair dye to slaves." He gave the slaves a look of contempt. All slaves, who were captured in the Steel Claw Mountains, had dark hair, While normal people from the kingdom had blonde hair. Now, with so many slaves escaping from their rightful masters many of the dealers in the city who sold different potions to make people feel better were selling the dye to slaves so that they could blend in with society. Of course, since slaves had no money, they would then be indebted to the dealer and would have to pay him a percentage of their earnings. Then the dye would wear out and they would start over again. Of course, after hearing about this his father, the king, had made it a crime to sell this dye or posses. These dealers though continued to sell the dye and flaunt their defiance of the king's law. Those people made him sick.

When one of the slaves was found out (while drinking at a bar on a hot day he sweated so much that the dye bled from his hair. Luckily one of the king's guard was passing by) the king offered him a full freedom in exchange for the name and whereabouts of the person who had sold it to him. They found out that it was a man named Par Vannus, one of the most respected drug dealers in the city. Some of the bigger houses had even bought some of the harmless drugs from him. No one from the royal family had, of course, because his father said that only the weak minded needed drugs. They thanked the slave who had informed him, and beheaded him quickly so that he wouldn't feel much pain. They couldn't have runaway slaves just doing whatever they wanted.

So, as a token of the king's dedication to the law, he sent his son, the crown prince Cenibus of the ruling house Sonnial of the kingdom of Estin along with three guardsman to arrest Pal Vannus. They made their way to the Flower district, called that because it was where all the gardeners used to have their flowers to sell to the houses. Now, it was just a run down old slum of bars and buildings housing the lowest peasants in the city.

The building that Pal had been doing his business in lately was a decaying old wood building, one of the few wood buildings of the city. The area around the building was a place for all the decaying pieces of the building that had collapsed, but there was also the stench of human and animal waste reeking in his nostrils. They thought that Pal would be alone, or maybe have a couple customers with him. They didn't expect him to have over twenty slaves with him, armed and strong.

The three guardsmen with him made a semi-circle in defense around him. Pal may not have recognized him at first, but he recognized the king's guard well enough. Pal sent the slaves to charge him while he gathered up some flasks of yellow dye and shoved into a leather sack. The guardsmen fought well, taking down over half of the slaves before being overwhelmed.

He ran. He turned and ran for his life. He got a little bit of a ways away while the slaves crushed the life out of the three guardsmen, pounding their skulls with crude instruments. Until the short drug dealer reminded them that he had run away, and if he got to one of the guardhouses, they would all be hunted and destroyed.

So they pursued him, running, scrambling, hiding, until finally, the ally. The ally next to the wall. The ally that now had him trapped.

"Enough!" The short man screamed. "You little fancy house boys. Always looking down at people because you're little mommy or daddy had money! Does that really make you, or anyone, better? Not in my mind. You call me scum, yet you keep people as slaves and use them to do everything for you. Then, if one of them is hurt, you kill them since they are of no more use to you. In the gods minds, that makes you lower than even me." The man now was snarling at him with rage.

"Are you really that ignorant" Cenibus said, sniffing as if he could actually smell him. " The gods are the ones who started all the royal houses of the Ten Kingdoms. They made the royal houses pure, not tainted as the rest of you peasants. That's why we lead and you follow. You are not fit to lick my boots."

The short man moved to quickly for Cenibus to see. Suddenly, he saw his booted foot flying in a sweeping motion in front of him and his sword was lying across the ally from him. He stared in horror as he realized that his last defense was removed from his grasp. Pal smiled a cold smile as the slaves advanced on him, their crooked yellow teeth visible only through their brightness. He backed away, frantically trying to think of a way for him to cheat death this one time. His hands felt the wall behind him, and he collapsed to the ground crying hysterically for them to spare him. He would give them whatever they wanted, but they saw through. Finally, he brought up his hands and waited for the deathblows.

They never came.

At first, Cenibus thought it was just the play of the lamplight in the dark alleyway, but when the rearmost of the slaves seemed to darken and his neck suddenly twisted and cracked with a sickening snap, he realized it was nothing of the sort. Another of the behemoths was the first to hear it because he started to turn, but there was a dull flash of steel and he was separated from his head. Another of the slaves fell, the blade leaving a deep gash in his chest, before the short drug dealer knew what was happening, and by then it was far too late.

Cenibus, cowering by the wall, had glimpsed the death of all the slaves, but could not make out what was doing the killing. He could see the blade, (it was long, solid steel and shined dully in the low light) but could not see who wielded it. The slaves, finally alerted by Pal's shouting, tried to collapse around the blade, slashing and hacking at the air around the blade. None of the slashes passed the blade though, it moved to deflect all the blows while slashing slaves in their legs, arms, chest, and head. A blur of steel moving back and forth in smooth rhythm, almost sickening to watch.

One slave had broken away and ran for the mouth of the alleyway, and Cenibus thought he might get away, but the blade followed. One moment it was cutting down the last slave opposing him, who already had gashes in his stomach and leg, the next it was in front of the runner, decapitating him with one clean swipe.

Pal Vannus, who was trying to press himself against a building in an attempt to hide, was seemingly the next victim, because the blade was in front of him next. Amazingly though, the blade move in a downward movement away from the short man, disappearing inch by inch. Next, a figure started to appear, the shadows that had hidden him from sight melting away like a thick slime. The figure under it was the most imposing person Cenibus had ever seen.

The figure was a man. He was tall, maybe six foot five or six; it was hard to tell in the dim light. He wasn't scrawny, like most men of great height, but very heavily muscled throughout his body, almost like a slave laborer, but this man was no slave, even though his hair was dark. His face wasn't old, but it looked like it had seen more than had a dozen grizzled war veterans, dark from long hours in the sun and giving away nothing that his mind was thinking. He looked as if he was discussing politics instead of having just killed nine men. His hair, as well as his beard that curved around the outside of his mouth, was pitch black and was cut short down to his ears. He didn't wear any armor, just a thin shirt of linked metal, and leather gloves on his hands, as well as a nice pair of leather boots. The breeches he wore were plain, leather it looked like, but were they new and looked to be of decent cut, so he wasn't poor.

Pal fell to his knees, begging and pleading with the man, " Please my lord. I'm just a simple trader, don't hurt me my lord. I haven't done anything my lord."

"Nothing, eh?" The tall man's voice was deep and echoed richly off the alley. He grabbed the drug dealer's bag and emptied the flasks of dye on the ground, the yellow liquid seeping into the cracks. " As I understand it this dye has been outlawed by the king."

The look on Pal's face could be nothing but stark terror. He dove on the ground at the man's feet, kissing his boots and begging to be spared.

"Get up." The tall man said. When Pal just looked at him with a confused expression on his face, he barked it louder " Get up!" like a man who was used to giving orders and having them followed.

Pal got up slowly, fixing the man with a cautious look. " I have no love for people who do not follow the law and I would have no qualms about killing youÖ" he paused, and the blood seemed to drain from the short man's face, "Ö if I'm paid to. In your case I haven't been." Pal gave a deep sigh of relief, but before he could fully relax, the tall man grabbed him by the shirt with one hand and lifted him into the air. Pal struggled, but wasn't able to brake the tall man's iron grip. " But believe me. I have been paid to scare you. This dye trade ends now! Take that to your bosses." And with that, he dropped him to the ground. He hit the ground hard with his back, but within seconds he was up and speeding out of the alleyway. He rounded the corner and was out of sight.

The tall man was only a few feet him and he started to walk away. Cenibus wanted to give the man something for saving his life, so he took a step towards him. As soon as his foot hit the cobblestone, the man spun and drew his sword in one motion, and grabbed Cenibus by the hair while bringing the sword to his throat.

He tried to tell the man that he wasn't one of those criminals as his pale face became even whiter, but all that escaped his mouth were high-pitched screeches. The man studied him coldly, dark black eyes staring deep into his like an executioner before bringing down the axe. The man's fist tightened around his hair and he brought the blade closer to his neck, the sharp edge lightly pricking him and drawing more of the heart's liquid onto the well bloodied blade. Cenibus had never been more afraid than he was in that moment, believing himself as good as dead for the dozenth time this night, but miraculously the man let go of his blonde hair and he crashed to the ground.

" Who are you? Why are you here?" The tall man demanded, his voice booming with command, while he looked Cenibus up and down, seemingly taking in every detail. Upon spying his silk shirt and clean-cut look, he said softer but no less gruffly " This is no time for house boys to be wandering around dangerous areas."

Cenibus prickled a bit at the term, (it was what peasant born people called the nobility as an insult, but his father told him it was actually because of envy.) but remained calm. There was no telling what someone of that mean temper might do. " My name is Cenibus Sonnial. I am here because those miscreants chased me here. Who are you to demand things of me."

The insult could have been thrown at a deaf man for all the reaction he got out of him. The man's eyes regarded him coldly, his face giving off no emotion. When he didn't respond, Cenibus continued. " Why are you here? Did my father send you to rescue me? "

" I was sent here to dispose of a group of runaway slaves that had escaped the palace grounds a few nights ago."

"Did my father send you to dispose of the slaves then?"

" It depends on who your father is."

Cenibus started to get annoyed. Could the man really be this dense? He thought to himself. I've already told him my house name and he doesn't know that I'm the king's son.

" My father is the king of Estin, keeper of justice in the realm, chosen of the gods, Leseel Sonnial."

Usually all those titles would have sent a peasant to his knees groveling, but this man was no normal peasant. He just regarded him calmly and said, " Then yes, he did send me." Taking a handkerchief out from under his mail shirt, he started wiping the blood off the blade before it could to corrode the metal. He then tossed the bloodied rag into one of the refuse piles.

Why waste a perfectly good rag when you could just wipe it on one of the slaves' shirts? He thought.

He didn't realize he had said as much aloud until the man said, " Because you have to have respect for the dead. That is one of the twenty crimes against the gods. Never defile the body of the deceased. Even a king's son should know that." Cenibus was about to protest that he knew all the holy crimes by heart, but the man turned and started towards the street. " Common, so I can escort his Royal Highness back to the palace."

Cenibus started to follow, but then he remembered his sword and scrambled to where the drug dealer had kicked it. Luckily, the expensive blade had not been damaged. Sheathing the sword, he started after the man and realized he had not stopped to wait for him. He would have to talk to his father about the choice of this rude and uncouth man as an assassin.

When he finally caught up to the man, he said in his most haughty voice, " Slow down. Not all of us normal people have legs that are ten feet tall."

Again, the insult seemed to roll off him like water over a mountain. Instead of getting angry or insulting him back he just said, "That's a nice sword you have there. "

It caught him by surprise. When seeing the look on his face the man said, "I saw it in the alley. I figured it was yours. I'm sure your father hired the best smiths to forge it, right?" When he nodded, the man went on." The steel looks solid, though a bit too flashy for real use. It's also untested in battle by the looks of it."

"I could still slice your head off with it!" Cenibus yelled, angry with this man for his constant even temper and veiled insults.

The man's eyes got a dangerous look on his face. " Maybe you should think before you utter threats that could get you killed."

The rest of the walk went in silence. The man eyes were contently moving; checking a shadow here for possible dangers; examining people who they passed with calm stares that made people take a step or two back.

When they reached the north gate that lead to the Royal city, (where the palace and the estates of the other lords and ladies of Estin were) The guard halted them. "Out of my way guard!" Cenibus shouted at the gatesman. " I am Cenibus Sonnial, heir to the throne. How dare you bar my way!"

"Sorry, lord Cenibus." The guard muttered, sending up orders to the gate operators to start opening the gate. "I am to stop all who come this way. I was just doing my duty."

Cenibus sniffed loudly. After they were through the gates, Cenibus turned, grinning broadly, to look at what the man thought of how he had handled that situation. Surely he would be impressed with that. He thought. But if anything, the man just regarded him more coldly.

The guards at the palace gate did not stop them, knowing Cenibus on sight. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he saw the guards flinch when the tall man passed.

The towering palace was made of solid marble, the dim light reflecting off the pale whiteness. The palace had many levels, the main one was the ground floor, which housed the throne room and all the other places that conducted business. The much smaller second floor, which was directly above the left side of the ground floor, was the Royal Family's section of the palace.

Separate from the palace, put still on the palace grounds, was the tower of the king's guard. Also made of marble, it was over to hundred and fifty feet in diameter, and it sloped up one thousand feet until coming to a point at a towering spire. It was made to house over five hundred thousand of the guard, but there were less than half that here now. Most were now scattered across the realm, in the various smaller cities' guardposts.

Another structure separate from the palace was a long flat building made of brick. Only one story, it sprawled out across the yard, taking up a large portion of it. That was the palace's slave house.

Walking through the brightly-lit hallways, Cenibus couldn't help but admire the way his ancestors had built the Royal Palace. The large columns that held up the ceiling were over fifty feet tall, and the same solid marble as the rest of the palace. The true genius of the structure though was that the walls curved so that the hallway leading to the throne room circled all the way around the outside of the building and kept circling until it lead to the doors to the throne room. All along the walls, murals of wars and torture and executions were placed in regular intervals. This was done so that when criminals were lead down to be questions, they would get petrified and confess their crimes.

At the doors to the throne room, his father's chief steward, Malkim, greeted them.

" My lord Cenibus, you are finally back. Your father was so worried. He sent out a search party hours ago. I'm sure you will want to talk to him. I will get him for you." He wore a smile on his face, but it was a nervous one and he kept glancing at the tall man, who was right behind him. He wore the exact same expression that he had since he had met him.

Malkim hurried into the throne room and he was left with the tall man. His mind started to wander back to the alley, when the man was cutting down slave by slave, but he hadn't known it was a man then. He remembered how the shadows had melted away from him. This man was no normal human, he had already known that, but that wasn't all. There was something about him that seemed familiar. Something that he had heard. Come to think of it, he didn't even know the man's name. He was just about to ask when the doors opened and Malkim gestured them in.

They walked into the large throne room, the guards on both sides of the door closing it with a thud. His eyes sweeping the room, he spotted a couple slaves wandering the room, fetching food and drink for his father. One offered him a cup of tea, but he turned it down. The man was offered one too, but true to form, he didn't accept it. When he was at the foot of the steps that lead to the throne platform, he knelt. Criminals and other peasants presented here were to kiss the floor here. None were to stand though.

The throne was a giant chair, ten feet tall, the seat high enough to make most men's feet hang. The gilded frame was carved with the shape of the snakes, the symbol of his house. Argue with the snake and you will get bitten, was what people said about his family.

On the throne sat his father, his golden hair held back by the crown of Estin. His father was of normal height but he had broad shoulders. His skin was pale, like his entire house, and his eyes were sky blue. He wore a deep red robe, with a golden helm.

The other men on the platform were on his father's council. There was Malkim, of course, and the head of the king's guards, Verril Kaleman. There was also the head of the Royal treasury, Castor Balmine, and Head of Trade, Dalmon Ardin. They each had their own chairs around the throne.

He glanced back at the man behind him, and was shocked by what he saw. He was a few feet behind Cenibus, standing up like he was above the king. It was the worst insult that he could give. Cenibus was up immediately. " This is enough! You have acted like you are above all ever since I met you. Now, you will kneel." The mask of indifference was all that shown on his face and he still didn't kneel.

"Be quiet Cenibus!" The voice that shouted from behind him was his fathers.

He spun around to see his father glaring at him with a burning anger in his eyes. He saw the same from the other council members, but behind the anger he saw an amount of fear.

"Be quiet?! Be quiet?! How could you say that? He insults you in the deepest way possible and you sit there and act like that is normal!" He was in a deep rage; his mind was being controlled by his fury.

" That is enough Cenibus! Don't be a fool. Do you not care for your life?" His father was yelling now, something he never did.

"Why are you all afraid of him? Why? You are all cowards!" Cenibus was in frenzy now. He would teach him a lesson. He drew his sword and went after the man swinging and hacking wildly.

"Cenibus, NO!!!!!" His father's urgent screams didn't reach him in his infuriated state.

The man didn't move a muscle as Cenibus charged him. He waited until Cenibus was within a few feet, and he struck. Cenibus tried to bring the sword down on the man's unprotected head, but the man spun away without even flinching. The blow caught only air and the man grabbed Cenibus's arm, and struck the underside of his elbow. The force of the blow cracked Cenibus's elbow, and he collapsed to the ground, his forearm dangling unnaturally limp. He let out a horrid scream, his pain echoing off the domed ceiling.

" I didn't want any trouble. I just came for my gold." The king, a terrified expression on his face, gestured to one of the slaves to bring it to him.

The Royal doctor had been summoned, and he was telling the slaves to help carry Cenibus to his chambers. Cenibus, though, wouldn't go quietly, " He's a..ahhhÖ monster. He's evil. He kills ..ahh. he kills people for sport."

The man was making his way to the door when he fixed Cenibus with that cold stair one last time; " You are wrong, house boy. I kill for gold. I don't enjoy it. I don't think it's right. Maybe when you want to see a monster, you should gaze in the looking glass." and then he walked through the doors, not looking back.

Cenibus, who was being carried up the stairs, fixed is father with a painful look." How could you let him do that to me? How could you let him walk away?"

"You fool. You are lucky you're still alive. Don't you realize who that was?"

When he shook his head, his father answered him. "That was The Tarelle, The Shadow Warrior."

Cenibus's eyes widened, and he felt a chill rack him to the bone. He was lucky he was alive. Now it all fell into place. The familiarity about the incidents in the alley, the fear on everyone's face. The last thought on Cenibus's mind before he passed out was of the man's sword on his throat.

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Chapter 2: Praying Mantis

The shadowman is in the nest.

Sitting in his large rocking chair, Mantis Jarben grimaced in disgust, crumpling the piece of parchment into a ball and tossing it to the floor. A boy, one of his 'trainees', hurried to collect it, but Mantis took no notice. His thoughts were focused on the note, or more specifically, the contents of it.

The shadowman is in the nest. Pal Vannus, one of his best drug dealers, had written the note. He was currently operating out of Secubis, capital city of Estin. The runaway slave trade had been very profitable of late, but the king had now outlawed the dye. That was not a problem, Mantis had never been afraid of the law. This order, though, hadnít come from the Kingís steward, who normally took care of the city business, straight from the king. That meant the Kingís guard would especially be on the look out for the dye and those who were selling it. Maybe it was time that the dye trafficking slowed down for a while. Yes, he would have the order sent out immediately.

The shadowman is in the nest. Pal must have been scared, or very nervous, to send out a note with such a blatant message on it. Any one who had opened the envelope could have been able to figure out the meaning, if they had half their wits about them. The note hadnít been sealed with wax, so there would have been no way to tell if it had been tampered with. The fool hadnít even sent one of his own men to deliver the message, but some hired man on a sickly looking horse. Pal was usually a very careful man.

The shadowman is in the nest. So, the Tarelle was in Estin. That was not good news, but it was not the worst news either. The famed Shadow Warrior had no soft spot in his heart for criminals, but never seemed to go out of his way to do justice. He was a man who worked for gold, and those were the worst. Men who kill others for gold are always cold and calculated, not caring one way or another for their victims. When a man doesnít care to kill the innocent, he doesnít care to kill the guilty, Mantis thought, running a hand through his wavy blonde hair and brooding to himself. Still, the Tarelle had no vendetta against his organization. Pal was just was just doing the wrong business at the wrong time.

Mantis Jarben rose from his chair, what the people called the 'Crimelordís Throne', and surveyed his little palace. All around business was being conducted, filling his pockets by the minute. To the left, one of his drug dealers, an average sized man with wispy brown hair and an ever present smile, was trying to get some bedraggled looking peasant to buy one of his 'Happy Potions'. One of Mantisís best sellers, it seemed to make all your problems go away. Of course, all it did was make people unconscious, giving them sweet dreams. When they woke, they always wanted more. The peasants wanted to escape from their lives as much as possible of late.

The king of Estin, keeper of justice in the realm, chosen of the gods, Leseel Sonnial had found it in his heart to make this new tax hike just enough that the peasants could pay it, but not be able to pay for little else. The richest country of the ten kingdoms, or would it be eight kingdoms now? Had found some reason to take more away from the commoners. He was probably increasing the size of his army to take over another country. Mantis Jarben was not a compassionate man, but he felt for the people who were not able to pay the high prices. Still, there was nothing that he could do.

In the letter, Pal had also mentioned that the 'shadowman' had threatened them about the dye trade. He knew that slowing it for a while would take care of any interest the Tarelle had in his business. Still, Mantis was troubled. If the king had sent the Tarelle after the slaves, it would mean a lot of money spent. All knew that the Tarelle didnít work for cheap, unless you gave him something that he wanted. Why pay the extra money if a patrol of the kingís guard could have done as well? Was that puffed up house boy trying to send him a message? He doubted that Leseel Sonnial could keep the Tarelle in his pocket for long, a rumor of the dark cult would reach his ears soon and he would be off again. It still gave him a feeling of unease that made his stomach churn. He had met the Tarelle once, and he had never forgotten that face.

It had been many years ago, before Mantis had rose to the position he was at now, and an experience that had made Mantis learn the true meaning of fear. Mantis had been hired to kill a man that had lost considerable money making wagers on the serri fights and failed to 'make good' on his promises. Many unskilled wagerers lost a fortune on this practice and the bosses collected. Serri, a catlike creature that was bred for that particular practice, was an unpredictable way to gamble. The serri were very difficult to bet on because the more skilled trainers would feed the serris less, making the cat look a less likely specimen. The problem was that the size of the serri didnít matter in the fight because the smallest of them could be the best fighters if bred more ferocious. Most would go to bet on the bigger cats and that was exactly the manís problem.

Ahh, it had been so long that he couldnít remember the manís name. It wasnít the man that was the important part; it was whom he was affiliated with.

At this time Mantis was an assassin for the old boss Galdin 'The Bull' Arosia. He was called The Bull because he was a bull. Not in the literal sense but he was a giant of a man. 6 feet in height and half as wide he would dominate any room that he entered. His arms and shoulders were knotted with thick muscles that rippled as he walked. He was a very imposing man, something that was good when dealing with the ruthless men of the crime ring. No one crossed the bull and got away with it. When the man decided that he wasnít obligated to pay for his wager, The Bull sent his best brute squad to give him the message. They tracked him to a building that was run down and falling apart. Nine men went in, but only one came out, bloodied and battered.

Apparently the man was a friend of the dark cult, a religious group of people who worshipped The Dark God, The Lord of the Dead, The Keeper of Lost Souls, Sarellesion. In the language of the Gods it meant The God of Fallen Shadow. The God of the Underworld had many followers, ones that he promised power in order for their service. Many of the lowborn liked this idea and pledged their lives to his service. None outside of the cult knew exactly what it entailed but the cult followers said that they would look on the face of The Dark God. The thought chilled Mantis to the bone.

After hearing of what had happened, Galdin decided that they had to do something about this man. He did not want any trouble with the Dark Cult but he could not let his reputation be tarnished. He got his best assassins together, one of which Mantis was, and brought them together in his office. Galdin told them of the problem and of how they were to go about killing this man. They were supposed to go in twos into the cult house where the meetings were held. After entering, they were to find the shadows like they had been taught. Once they saw the man they were to eliminate him at all costs. The plan, though, never happened.

Before the day they were to do the job, a man arrived at the 'Crime Palace'. The Tarelle was a tall man, and had a face like an anvil. Apparently he had heard that The Bull was having trouble with the Dark Cult and came to offer his help. Galdin accepted, grateful for the help but afraid to not except it also. Galdin wasnít afraid of anything that Mantis knew of, but even then the Tarelleís reputation was known across the kingdoms. He was to accompany the assassins and 'oversee their mission'. The assassins knew that their real job was just to make sure that The Tarelle kept good on his bargain. Mantis was not sure what they could do if he didnít, a man five and a half feet tall could not do much to stop one a foot taller, but none of them doubted that he would do all he could to help destroy any that followed the cult.

No one was actually sure why the Tarelle hunted the Dark Cult, but the rumors were plentiful. They said that he used to be a member and had been cast out, trying to destroy the cult for slighting him. This seemed unlikely since the cult rarely turned anyone away, always finding some job even for the weak. Others said that he either a friend or a love that was seduced by the promises of power and he hunted the cult to try to win them back. Mantis doubted this because after meeting him and staring into those eyes he didnít think that he was a man to care for others. Another said that the cult had killed his parents, using them as a sacrifice to their God. This seemed the most likely to be true because nothing was known of the Tarelleís heritage, not a name or even where he was born.

They got to the cult house after the moon was already on its way downward. The Shadow Warrior did not talk to the others on the way there, but fixed them with a stare that seemed to say What will you do when it comes down to life or death? At least that was what it seemed to Mantis. It made him very uneasy to be around the man, a feeling he still remembered to this day.

The Tarelle went first, blending into the dark like it he was part of it. Maybe he was Mantis thought, reflecting back on the events of so long ago. The assassins slipped in after, Mantis going first. The Shadow Warrior was nowhere to be found, or nowhere to be seen. Mantis crept around the walls, searching for the man they were sent to kill. None of the men seemed to fit the description, and it seemed to be strangely quiet for one of their meetings. It wasnít until the first of the Dark Brothers was right on top of him did he realize it was a trap.

The assassins were trained in the many ways to kill, but not trained to fight head on. As the Dark Brothers charged them, Mantis pulled out his dagger. It was a foot long, and had been twisted in the hearts of more men then he could remember, but he did not think he was to live to twist in another. The Brothers outnumbered them three to one, and were carrying various weapons made for open battle. One charged Mantis, brandishing a mace and screaming chants to his Dark God. Mantis dodged left, rolling and hopping up right before another manís sword chopped the ground where Mantis had been. He ducked another of the mace swings, but was caught in the arm by a sword slash. The slash had left a scar in his arm that Mantis still had to this day. He stabbed one of the men in the leg as blood came gushing out of his arm, but he hardly noticed, stabbing the sword man in the chest while he lay clutching his leg. Already, though, another two men were in front of him to join the Brother wielding the mace.

Mantis tried to dodge all of the Brothersí weapons as they assaulted him, but he couldnít move quickly enough. He felt the spear butt crack on his head, and he collapsed to the ground. Staring up bleary eyed, he saw the man with the spear bring it up, and get his arm cleaved off by a sword that floated in mid air. The rest turned but fell short after the first. Mantisís mind was still too dazed to understand what was happening, but the events ran clear in his mind now.

Then, as now, most people knew rumors about the Tarelle and how he killed. It was said he fought like he was one with the shadows. The darkness enveloped him like a thick mist, clouding your view of him. You had no chance, it was said, when the Tarelle brought the shadows to him.

The Shadow Warrior cut through the Brothers like they were rag dolls, sword slicing and thrusting as he made his way toward the back of the building. Most of the Brothers ran away from the sword, screaming that it was the Dark God himself, come to take their souls. The Tarelle cut down some of the fleeing brothers as well, but not all. He was moving in a strait line, never wavering from the course, as if he was moving toward something in particular.

Finally, the Shadow Warrior stopped, standing before the back wall of the cult house. By this time, most of the Dark Brothers and Sisters had already evacuated. Some had almost trampled Mantis, taking him for dead like the rest of the assassins. The Tarelle let the shadows melt away from him and flow back into the corners of the house. If Mantisís head had been clear enough, he would have run at this point too, but he just lay there staring at the scene that was transpiring. The Shadow Warrior studied the wall for a minute, and then knelt, his eyes closed and holding the sword into the air. This time, the shadows came together on the blade, pulsing and twitching like they were alive. Next, the Tarelle stood, opening his eyes and staring at the wall as if he saw something inside it. Then, he raised the shadow blade into the air and slammed it into the wall.

The wallÖ twisted. As the blade met the wall, it twisted, wavering back and forth like ripples of water. The Shadow Warrior continued to bring the blade down as it cut through the wall, seemingly absorbing the wall into the sword. The blade met the ground, leaving a slash in the wall that seemed like it was filled with darkness. Then, the wall exploded, disassembling and turning into darkness. The shadows flew toward the roof and windows as if they were trying to escape.

Where the wall had been there was now an altar. The altar was made of wood and a few feet tall. The edges, carved with the language of the gods, appeared to be gilded, but later it was found out that it was just painted. Candles were lit on the top, flames twitching as the shadows moved. Next to the altar, on his knees, a man chanted softly.

It was the man that they had been sent to kill. The Tarelle moved in, sword before him, but the man seemed not to notice. He then looked up at the Shadow Warrior, sword in hand, and laughed. The Tarelle stood there, studying the man coldly, eyes like black ice.

Then, the man spoke. "Hah, they got you to kill me? What did they have to pay you? Three hundred gold? Four hundred?"

"They gave me you. I get to kill you. I get to put an end to this sect of the cult. That is all I need for payment. Your life is my payment." The words were delivered flatly, but Mantis thought that he could hear joy and anger underneath his words.

This, if nothing else that had happened, should have made the man feel fear; he seemed even more amused then before. "My life? Oh yes, such grand payment, Iím sure. More than any gold. Well then, come take my life, but it is not what you really want. That shall never be yours."

The Tarelleís face tightened at this, but when he spoke it was as cool and calm as ever. "You are a brave man. Most would be groveling and begging for their lives now. But you are still scum. Dark Brother scum. You should be afraid, even if you are not."

"Afraid? What is there to be afraid of?" The man was grinning like a mad man now; his eyes had a wild light to them. "I have served my god faithfully, and I do not fear death. My god is the ruler of the underworld; death is a release from this world into his embrace. When the salvation is upon us, all who have given their lives for him shall be reborn. Afraid? You should be afraid." The manís cackling filled the hall as his head hit the ground.

The man had been a high priest of the Dark Cult, one of the people who handled the ceremonies within the cult. That was the highest that a member of the cult could rise, besides the Fist of the Dark. The Tarelle had used this as his payment and left.

When Mantis learned that Galdin had known that he was a high priest the whole time and still insisted on killing him, he said that he could not let his reputation be tarnished. It was a long time after this before anyone dared slight The Bull again.

That was the only time that Mantis had ever met The Shadow Warrior, but his face was still engraved in Mantisís mind. He hadnít known what the 'salvation' that the man had been ranting about was then and he didnít know now, but he didnít like the idea of the dead coming alive and such. The man must have been mad. If you do not fear for your life it would not be long before you are dead, which was why Mantis was still alive.

Remembering that face made Mantis shudder. No, he didnít want trouble with the Tarelle.

From what Pal had told him, the Shadow Warrior hadnít aged much since then, his face still young as it had been twenty years before. Mantis didnít know how that could be, but there was much about the Tarelle that was understandable. A man who could control the shadows and who seemed to feel no emotion was something that seemed too inhuman.

"Mantis," He was woken out of memory by one of his master thieves; a man named Rory Armone. "Thereís a situation that needs your attention in 'The Beggarís King'" Roryís voice sounded like a thunder crash when it hit you.

The Beggarís King was an inn near the north gate of Arovel, the city in Estin that Mantis was currently operating out of. It was a meeting place that he used most often when he needed to meet someone in secret. It was a place where a lot of travelers came through, so it was a good place not to be noticed.

Mantis gathered his cloak up from a peg near his chair and made his way out the door. It wasnít cold out, but Mantis didnít want to take the chance of being noticed. Too many people wanted him dead, other criminals and the Kingís guard. A carriage was waiting for him, a large thing with big wheels and drapes over the outside. He liked the luxury, but it seemed to him like it was too much for someone like him.

He entered the carriage and sat down. It started moving shortly after, wheels creaking as the carriage bounced over the cobblestone. He hadnít asked Rory what it was that needed his attention, but he knew that if Rory said his attention was needed, it was needed.

They arrived at the inn in about a half an hour, Mantis trying vainly to think of what the madmanís words could have meant. Salvation was something that was preached by all priests of the gods, but usually it had to do with crimes against the god and how to make amends with them, which didnít have anything to do with what the mad man was babbling. He remembered that the priests had talked about salvation other times, but it had been so long that Mantis could not recall any particular instances. Never had he regretted not going to the church masses more often.

Exiting the carriage, he took in the familiar sights of the inn. The low shingled roof, the red brick walls and simple square windows. It was by no means a rich inn, but it was much better for his meetings. Going to rich inns attracted more attention, while going into The Beggarís King attracted as much notice as a dishonest house boy.

The inside of The Beggarís King wasnít any more spectacular than the outside. Various sets of mismatched chairs and tables dotted the room, providing the various rabble a place to rest their feet. Pitchers of thin, brown colored beer and sour looking wine was being served by wenches that wore dirty tattered looking dresses. The patrons looked no better than the rest of the place, missing teeth and holed boots a more common sight than not. Still, the mood seemed to be cheerful enough, even with the kingís impending tax raise looming on the horizon.

Mantis went to a table in the back of the main room, kicking his feet up on the table and ordering some of the wine. He wasnít planning on drinking it, but it would serve appearances better if he had it on the table. About five minutes later, a man made his way across the room and sat down next to him.

"Mind if I sit down here?" the man said as he got closer. When Mantis motioned for him to sit, he took off his cloak and plopped down into the seat.

"Would you like some wine?" Mantis asked the man casually, studying him with his light blue eyes and gesturing toward the pitcher on his table.

"No, the weather isnít suitable" the man said, just as casually.

"What is the reason that Iím needed here in the middle of the day with the kingís guard wandering the streets" Mantis said, lowering his voice so that it would be covered up by the low hum of the room.

The man studied him for a moment, then leaned close to Mantis and said so that only Mantis would be able to hear: "Dalan Kadar said that you would want to hear what I have to say."

Mantis kept his face calm, but on the inside he was worried. Dalan Kadar was Mantisís spymaster, the man who handled his crime ringís network of spys. He didnít often ask for Mantis to meet his messenger directly, instead giving the message to his other spys so that they could deliver the message. Something important was happening.

"Then you should say it." Mantis said finally, anxious to know what was so urgent.

"The king plans to charge you with treason, murder, and drug trafficking. He will announce this officially in ten days." The manís eyes never left his.

"What proof does he have?"

"He has Pal Vannus."

Mantis cursed softly to himself, and lowered his head. Pal was usually a loyal man, but if put to any kind of torture he would crack. Obviously, he had.

"Tell Dalan to send an assassin. A good one, mind you. I donít really feel like spending any time in a dungeon or on a headsmanís block." Pal was a good drug dealer and made a lot of money, but he had squealed. That, to Mantis, was treason. The penalty for this treason, as against the crown, was death. There was nothing else that Mantis could do. "Is that all? I think Dalan could have figured that out himself."

"No thatís not all." The man paused, as if unsure how to go on. " He saidÖ. he said that the Tarelle was heading for Arovel." The last part was delivered with a nervous tinge in his voice.

Mantisís stomach tightened. Why? Why would he come here? He has no reason to come here. He remembered Palís message, the Shadow Warrior had said that the dye trade ended now. Did he mean to cut it off at its source? No, he wasnít getting paid by the king to do that. Was he?

Mantis handed the man some coins and sent him away, massaging his temple with his hand. He definitely didnít want a confrontation with the Tarelle. Maybe he was coming here for the Dark Cult. There were always meetings in Arovel; it was a crime city and the kingís guard had less power here than anywhere else in Estin. Yes, that must be it. StillÖ the Shadow Warrior was unpredictable.

It was a long time before Mantis left The Beggarís King, and the Tarelleís face continued to flash in his mind.

[top]

Chapter 3: Dangers In the Night

The soft, even sound of the horseís hooves echoed in his ears as they trotted along the long, dirt packed road. Unlike all the city streets, the road between the cities, called the 'Snake Road', did not contain the expensive cobblestone. Leseel Sonnial must have felt that it wasnít important enough for the merchants who used the road to have the comfort, so long as it saved him gold. The King of Estin would not need to use it to travel, so long as he could take a ship to any destination that he wished to go. Like most of the corrupt nobility of the ten kingdoms, the Royal Family of Estin couldnít care any less than they did about the common man.

He felt the saddle start to dig into his rump, and stopped to rest. The Tarelle, The Shadow Warrior, had a sore rump. It would baffle the mind of most to know that he actually felt something, but he was still human. Mostly.

Dismounting his horse, Tellemoni, he had named it, The Shadow Warrior studied his surroundings. The Snake Road was, in this section of it, totally surrounded by trees. Oaks, for the most part, and having the look that they had been there long before the road. Near the Steel Claw Mountains, there were many forest of trees as old as these and older in the deeper parts. The forest held a power, an almost magic quality. The power was not in armies and in gold as it was in the countries, but it was in the knowledge of the beginning of times. The knowledge of the times when the gods sheltered and taught their children the secrets of the world. When the gods still loved their children.

The Tarelle did understand the power of the forest, it was not of the power of the shadows or of steel that he knew. It was enchanting and beautiful and something totally the opposite of himself.

The Shadow Warrior wasnít startled by the sound of a horse galloping up behind. Indeed, he had been suspecting it ever since he had dismounted. Rounding the bend, a man on a horse came galloping up at full speed. Spotting the Tarelle standing on the side of the road, he slowed to a halt, swinging the mount around so that it stopped a few feet from where he was standing. The man then proceeded to dismount, swinging his legs over the horse and letting his feet to the ground softly. He did it gracefully, very gracefully for someone in his condition. Then, with a sweep of his hand, brought the hood of his cloak down around his shoulders.

The man was not young. He was over fifty, with the creases of age covering his face like a loose blanket of skin. He had dark hair, not black, but dark, that spilled over his thin, narrow shoulder. His high cheekbones and narrow, pointed chin accented his sharp features. He had a small, thin lipped mouth and sharp gray eyes that were not affected by his age. His slightly hunched over, five foot ten inch frame was not very imposing, but he carried himself like someone who was used to power. His dress was plain, like someone who had money but did not spend money frivolously. All in all, he was not an uncommon looking person. Except, of course, his left arm. Or, the absence of it.

"You really shouldnít leave an old man riding alone by himself. Unless, of course, you want to be less one uncle." The words were delivered in jest, a grin on the old manís face, but the Tarelle took it seriously.

"Someone has to scout ahead. You knew that I had already checked the back trail. Iím trying to keep you safe, uncle." It was the truth. The Tarelle would never do anything to intentionally harm the one person in the world who he actually cared for.

His uncle just shook his head, giving him one of his looks that seemed to say why canít you laugh? His uncle was always telling him that he needed to laugh; that it was the music of the soul, but he could not find reason to laugh. With all the corruption and destruction in the world, how could you?

His Uncle, turning to inspect the towering trees that surrounded them, inhaled deeply, as if to breathe in the power that seemed to emanate from the forest. "Can you feel it, Maraso?" his uncle said finally, eyes gleaming like smoky glass. Maraso was his name, given to him by his Uncle. The name was not known by too many, kept from peoples ears so that his identity could remain shrouded. "Can you feel the power?" His uncle was very learned in the lore of the ancient ways, of the various powers of the world. He was familiar with all the powers, yet the powers of nature were what he loved the most. The trees, the grass, the air.

"Uncle, I thought I made it clear that I didnít want you to use my name in public anymore. What If someone finds out?" The Tarelle said, his voice not betraying the irritation inside.

His uncle regarded him coldly; his eyes hard as weathered rock. " Oh yes, I forgot. The Almighty Tarelle doesnít want his past exposed, especially to all those prying trees! Well, I better listen to him, or he might lop my head off, fearsome as he is. As if Maraso would give anything away, to all the numerous ears of the wind. Well, what is your next order, master?" His uncleís voice was not loud, but it delivered his mood clear enough.

Maraso, now his nephew in truth, shrunk under the chastisement. If there had been others around, he would never have shown this much emotion, but he felt that he owed his uncle as much. " Iím sorry uncle. You are right, of course. I deserved that."

His uncle studied him for a moment, gray eyes regarding black eyes, and nodded in satisfaction. He then opened his mouth, eyes gleaming again with their normal merriment, and said, "Why did you stop. There is still about an hour of daylight left and you said that we were going slow as it is."

"I thought I saw something in the trees. There are many people who wouldnít mind me having an accident along the road." It was a half lie. He hadnít actually seen something but he had felt eyes on him all along the road.

"I donít think the king will try anything until we are far enough away for him to feel safe. He doesnít have anything to send against you that could do any damage, even if he still has the Larshan." The Larshan was a giant wolf-like creature that Leseel Sonnial had caught in the Steel Claw Mountains. He doubted that the king had actually caught it himself, but he knew that it wasnít a thing to be trifled with. It was rare for one of them to be caught alone, preferring packs like their wolf brethren. They rarely ventured outside the mountains, but if they did, they destroyed wherever they went, eating livestock and trampling fences. The Larshani didnít normally like to eat humans, but it was said Leseel had trained his to track and kill those that he wanted disposed of. His "Un-silent assassin', called so because of the creatures deafening howl it gave off when it smelled blood, was said to be ten feet tall at the shoulders and have over a thousand sharp teeth that could grind through bone. The Tarelle, though, figured that rumor had added about five feet and a ton of teeth. Still, it would be a hard creature to kill, and even harder to keep from killing him, but the Tarelle had killed worse. Much worse.

"Do you think that Leseel would actually let it get away? He would most likely have killed it first." The Tarelle asked as he started to tie his horse to a tall oak, wrapping the reins around the broad trunk.

His uncle raised his bushy eyebrow." Yes, that would most likely be, but I doubt that it went anywhere. He doesnít let that creature out, unless to hunt.

Not since the last time he ate one of the slaves, at least. That creature is wild, its not meant to be kept in captivity. Give it half a chance, it will take his head off quick as that. The only reason he doesnít bolt as soon as heís released is the blood. Those creature get the blood lust, mark my words.

They give him prey; he will get it. The king of Estin likes his pet, itís just another way for him to keep the common fearing him." He sighed, chest rising and falling with his mood.

"I know uncle," the Tarelle said, putting a thick arm on his uncleís shoulder. Maraso towered over his uncle, by almost a foot, but they couldnít be more alike then at that moment. "I donít like being here anymore then you do. The houses are corrupt, and the king is worse. They capture people who are different and enslave them. But what can we do? We needed the money. We were eating snake meat, by the gods! I didnít like what I had to do for it, you know that, but we have it now. I wonít need to do any more jobs for a while now. We can leave." He knew his uncle had a soft spot in his heart for the commoners and hated how they were being treated. It was a weakness, one that he felt for every young boy picking through garbage scraps for food to every women who was thrown in the dungeon for not being able to pay the monstrous taxes.

"I just wish..." his uncle paused, his eyes glistening with unshed tears, " I just wish that there was something that I could do. This was not the way the gods meant for us to be, not at all. The Families were started to protect the people, to serve them. What happened?"

"We became human." The Tarelleís voice was like frozen silk, smooth but cold. "The gods did not realize what we really were, they thought we could be like them."

"No, no. We should have been like them." His uncleís shoulders slumped, like the weight of the world rested on them. "It wasnít their sight that was flawed, it was ours."

"How long ago did the gods leave us?" His uncleís question caught him off guard.

"UhÖ it wasÖover five hundred years ago. Yes, because thatís when the church was founded."

"Not so long ago, then. Not so long to forget our folly." His uncle stared at the sky, as if he was trying to gaze through the heavens. Maraso, stroking his horses fur lightly with a brush that he had gotten from his saddlebags, worried about his uncle. He had seen the corruption many times before, in the courts of other kingdoms as well as Estinís, but he had never seemed so affected by it. Maraso was going to ask when his uncle spoke up from his seat on a tall tree root.

"Do you remember when we were in Alloria?" The Tarelle nodded his head, remembering well the beauty of the place." The most beautiful architecture, in that place. They take the marble straight out of the mountains. The blood of Urusion still lives in their veins, however thin it has become." Urusion was god of the forge, but he was also the god of creation, the one to craft the first cities, pulling the pure ore from the mountains. "

Allorian marble is valued above all other stone, and for good reason. No ram can break it down; no boulders crack its foundation. Not when a true Builder has carved it.

"Do you remember the king, when we were there?" The Tarelle nodded again, indulging his uncleís love for storytelling. "A man was brought forward, he was accused of building a house that had collapsed and killed a family in the city. The man, of course, denied the accusations that the houses building was to blame, saying rather that it was the family that had not taken care of the house. Now, the law in Alloria states that the owner of a house has to maintain the houseís look and structure so as to keep the cityís prestige above all others. The penalty for not doing this is death. Also, another law states that a builderís craftsmanship cannot be found to be faulty. The penalty for this is death."

"Obviously, the Allorians take their architecture very seriously." Maraso said, interrupting his uncleís flow of words.

"Yes, youíre right. " his uncle wheezed, a soft, thin sound.

"The family could not testify, since they had been killed, so it was up to the king to decide was to be done about the man who had built the house. The king, as it has been for many years now, was of the Daranians, the family of the granite. Harl Daranian, his name was. He had the blood of Urusion flowing inside, stronger than that of any since. He could feel inside the stone, or so it was said.

"The Builder was brought forward, calmly confident at what the kingís decision would be. He thought that nothing could prove that it had been his craftsmanship that was the cause of the house collapsing. But the builder hadnít thought to cover his trail."

His uncle paused then, adding his dramatic flair to the story. After a time that he thought significant enough for the last phrase to sink in, he went on in a full, energetic voice. "The king had gone, personally, to the quarry the builder had gotten his stone from. He had inquired after what stone the builder had used, and found out that the builder had used a cheap imitation of the Allorian marble that was required of the houses, saving himself a childís weight in gold. He was executed that day."

"Uncle," Maraso didnít mind his uncleís stories, but this one he had been present for and had heard repeated many times before, "I do not see the point of this. We should set up camp now before the light is too dim for us to work by."

Uncle Poliarmas glared at him from his spot under the tree, but the voice he spoke with wasnít angry. "The point of this, as you so nicely put it, is to show you that not all royalty is corrupt, who bend the law for their own profit. What Harl Daranian did that day did not win him any love, or help him secure more support for him as king. In fact, it only made him more enemies in the court and among the common people. But, he abided by the law.

"I was trying to show you," Poliarmas went on, his voice flowing, filled with passion and power. "That for every Leseel Sonnial ruling from his golden throne, drinking scented wines with his hand wrapped around the commonís throat, there is a Harl Daranian who puts the law and good of the kingdom in front of personal gain. That the good balances out the evil, that the just balances out the unjust, that the true blood of the gods balances out the blood that has worn too thin to even show a resemblance." They said his uncle had a way of inspiring people, and at that moment, he could tell why.

The Tarelle moved off into the woods, gathering kindling for the cook fire that they would need tonight, while his uncle prepared the food for roasting.

It was mostly dried pork and beef, the stringy kind found from the small cattle and pigs that grazed the plains of southern Estin. The Tarelle felt that with the eyes that he had felt on him along the road a fire might not be that wise, yet he knew that his uncle would complain all night if his meal wasnít warm.

After they finished their meal and put out the fire, they went to bed, curling up on the hard ground with their cloaks wrapped around them. The Tarelle wanted to catch a good nightís rest and set out early the next day, hoping to reach Arovel in less then three days. He wished he did not have to go through there, but word of the dark cult had caught his ear, and this lead felt promising. As always, he cringed as images flashed across his mind at the mention of Arovel and the dark cult, but he suppressed them quick enough with his force of will.

He tried to not get involved with the politics of the kingdoms, but sometimes it was hard not to. Why was Leseel bulking up his armies so much? Was it to take over another country to swell his land mass and increase his gold flow? If that was so, it would probably be the small country of Galia, which bordered Estin to the southwest. The country was a hard one, descended from Farasion, the god of war and horse. The king and his warriors were fierce fighters, and would be hard to conquer, but Estinís army would outnumber Galiaís five to one. Eventually, Leseel would win, and the Ten Kingdoms would be changed again, being seven instead of eight. The rest of the kingdoms could help Galia, for many were not fond of Leseel and Estinís slave trade, but some would not, for they profited from the slavery as well, even if they didnít practice it.

There was also the problem of the slave trade itself. Most outside and some inside of Estin despised it, but none would lift a finger to stop it. However monstrous people of other countries felt it was, it was a distant thing, not for them to be bothered with.

The dark cult was also up to something. Sightings of their meetings had become almost non existent for the past year, almost as if they were preparing for something. This, out of all the other things that were going on in the Ten Kingdoms, was what worried him the most.

With that thought in mind, the Tarelle drifted off into a deep sleep.

One snap of a twig, and the Tarelle was brought out of his restless dreams to the dark of late night. The feeling of a disturbance was heavy in the air, like an acrid smoke. Alert as if he had slept a full night, The Shadow Warrior sprang off the ground, unsheathing his sword with a cold, metallic sound.

With eyes darker than the blackness that surrounded him, the Tarelle scanned the quiet of the woods.

Nothing disturbed the forest visibly, but the presence of something wrong could be easily felt by those acute to it. A twig snapping in the night would not have normally been cause for alarm, but there still was the feeling. The normal sounds of the forest were gone, replaced by an eerie silence that hung in the air like a foreshadowing of trouble to come. All this the Tarelle observed in seconds, standing without movement, waiting for the cause of the wrong, sword bared in front of him.

Minutes passed, and nothing stirred. Tension mounted inside of him as he waited for some movement in the trees, something to give away the location of his silent assailant. He took a moment to glance over at his uncle Poliarmas, sleeping silently a few feet away from him. It would be impossible to alert his uncle without giving away their location to whoever was out there. Whatever was out there.

It seemed like hours, but really the moon had only slightly moved, before he felt something. At first, it was faint, like only the shadow of a presence.

Ever so slightly though, the presence got closer, seeming like a pulse of power that radiated from everywhere at once. This presence was not stupid, and obviously was well informed, for it knew that he could sense itís power pulsing, and sought to disguise it by sending it from all sides. It was not some creature out hunting for meat in the night, it knew him and had the intelligence to use itís stealth, because itís power alone would not win it victory.

A sudden stop of the pulse and concentration behind him gave him only seconds to turn and deflect a blow headed on a path to crush his skull, knocking it aside with his sword. The Tarelle reached out with his mind, feeling the darkness and trying to call the shadow to him, but a blow to his stomach sent him flying against a tree. The contact with the shadows was lost, as he had not thought the creature could have struck again so fast.

The blow had blurred his vision, so the creature was already upon him again before he knew it. The creatureís claw only barely missed him as he rolled to the left and sprang up with a kick to itsís mid section. His kick, that would have cracked a humanís rib, only barely seemed to make the creature flinch, but it gave him enough time to observe it.

The creature was tall, much taller then the Tarelle himself, so that itís head, a flat mass of scales, almost touched the lower branches of one of the great oaks. Itís wide chest and hard stomach was covered with scales, like some kind of giant lizard. Its legs were curved, almost as if it wasnít enough to support the creatureís massive upper body. Itís arms, that seemed almost limply hanging from itís body, were ended in a claw that was made up of three long, sharp joints.

The creatureís eyes seemed to show no emotion that any animalís would have, but the smile, punctuated by the two sharp fangs peeking through itís lips, showed that it did have some kind of sick emotion that took pleasure in itís work. Behind the creature, on the ground, his uncle stirred, being jostled awake by the noise of the fight. The creature turned to look at him, twisting itís neck around to peer at the ground, and that was all the delay the Tarelle needed to strike. He reached out with his mind, taking hold of the darkness around him, wrestling with the shadows so that they settled around him. Sometimes the shadows resisted his manipulation of them, but the Tarelle had long since mastered the ability to take control of them.

The creature, now realizing what was happening, tried to fling itself at the Tarelle, flying through the air with claws outstretched, but he was the master now. Spinning away from the creatureís claws, he drove the blade into the creatureís thick shoulder. The creature screamed, a high pitched wail, but the Tarelle was not done. As the creature turned to where he had been, lashing out blindly, no longer able to see him clearly, relying on his inner sight for guidance. Now, the Shadow Warrior was behind the creature, driving the blade into its back. The black blood that flowed out of the creature was not acidic, for it did not damage the blade, but the stench was terrible. Inside the shadows, though, the Tarelle could not smell it. As the creature lumbered toward him, he swung the blade in a diagonal arc downward, cutting a deep gash through its head and shoulder. This, finally, seemed to make the creature give up. With a scream, it toppled to the ground; death eclipsing the smile until it could no longer be seen.

Wiping the blood off his blade in the grass, the Tarelle let the shadows go, and watched them flee back into the night. He turned and found his uncle staring at the creature, a strange expression on his face. The old man seemed surprised, but underneath Maraso could see that his uncle felt a mix of dread and, buried deep beneath, some kind of fear.

Instead of asking what had happened, though, his uncle asked something different.

"Do you know what that was?" He uttered in a soft voice, like one who felt that the end was near.

"Iím not sure." The Tarelle answered, puzzled at his uncleís reaction. His uncle had seen him face a number of threats and had faced a number himself, but never had he seemed as disturbed by it as he did now. "I thought that it might have just been another creature that could have wandered out of the Steel Claw Mountains, but I felt this power coming from it. And it seemed to know how to hide its position from me. And itís smileÖ" he trailed off as he remembered the creatureís cold, evil smile.

His uncle looked at him for a minute, then turned away and stared at the sky. Then, in a calm, careful voice, he said, " That was a.. an Aret-Sarellesion, a demon from the underworld. TheyÖthey should not be able to walk the earth. They should all still be sealed in the underworld with their master. This was a weak one, not more than an underling for some of the Hellís Lords, but still. It may be that it just wandered between the worlds and came here by accident, butÖ"

The unspoken suggestion hung between them as they made ready to go, leaving the creatureís body open to the light of day.

[top]

Chapter 4: Creation to Betrayal

"In the beginning, before the world was created, before the universe came to exist, there was time." The priestís voice carried over the low hum of the room as he began to read, and, immediately, Quin sat forward in her seat. The priestís old hands shook as he turned the page, but his voice, echoing through the church, was clear and calm.

"Dwelling in the currents of time, for all of eternity, was Sionarle, God of Time. Time was his, to observe but never to be involved. To remain aloof from the dealings of others so as not to change what he knew would come to pass, even if it meant his undoing." Quin shifted at this last, obviously feeling the tension that ran through the church. The priest continued, though, as if he didnít notice.

"After ages past, there came new beings to dwell with Sionarle, beings of great power. Shapeless they were at first, but not faceless. Each was different, and they glowed next to the black background of the time before the universe. The beings of power talked long of what to do with the nothingness, quarreling long and hard. They sought Sionarle for counsel, knowing that he could see what would come to pass, but he told them that they would have to resolve it without him, for he could not take part and perhaps change what was meant to come to pass. Finally, one of the beings stepped forward, he who would be called Tinarsion, shaper of the world and God of Nature. He showed the others a world of bright green forests, wild and beautiful, and deep blue oceans, strong and graceful. The others agreed wholeheartedly, loving the beauty that they saw. All except one.

"Sarellesion, Lord of the Dead, opposed the plan of the world, hating in his heart the beauty as he hated all things. He spoke for leaving all as it was now, loving the blackness and longing also to extinguish the glowing of his brothers and sisters. He was won over, though, after the rest decided on it and forced him to go along with them. Secretly, though, he hated the world and everything that was to be created, and still held in his heart the hope that he would be able to one day make all dark and black. But he did concede to go along with Tinarsion and shape the object of his hatred. Thus began the creation of the world."

The room was totally silent now, save for the quiet crying of an infant in the back trying to be hushed by itís mother. The only other discernable sound was the scraping of the page as the priest flipped it slowly, so as not to damage the old pages. This copy of 'The Book of the Gods' must have been ancient, maybe an original, preserved only by the Zelphien Loremasters skills.

"First, the beings of power created the sun. They gathered together their power and channeled part of their illumination into a large sphere that radiated pure energy. They set this in the great blackness so that it would illuminate the universe. Then they knew that, since the sun would need half a day to rest and regain itís energy leaving the world black for that time, they would need another source of light to see by. So, they again joined their power and split it up into thousands of pieces and scattered them about the blackness, creating the stars that night travelers guide by. But still they saw that the universe, in the absence of the sun, would be too dark. Then Urusion, the builder, stepped forward. He brought with him a great globe, and lifted it high into the air, gathering the light of the stars inside it. The orb glowed with the soft, white light of the stars, and he named it the moon, to light the universe while the sun slept. With these tasks finished, they set about to create the world.

"Tinarsion knew what the world would look like, so he began the creation. He took part of the blackness of the universe and changed it, turning it into the ground the earth is made of. He gave this to Urusion to shape into the earth that Tinarsion had shown him. He quickly shaped the world, pounding out the sphere and raising the stone for mountains. Tinarsion placed within the world the great trees and the grass and the greenery that he loved. Then, with the power of his ideas, he created the first beasts of the world.

"But there were great gaps in the world, where the water was to be. Neither Urusion nor Tinarsion knew how to create it, but another did. Ardision, Goddess of Water and Queen of the Seas, felt in her heart the crash and flow of the water. So she took her giant chalice, and filled it with her tears of joy, and poured them into the empty parts of the world, watching also as, from the earth that the water touched, the first sea creatures sprang to life. So, just as the tears are a part of her, so are the seas and so she knows all that happens on them and within them.

"Now, having prepared the world and universe, the gods set about their greatest challenge, creating the humans that were to dwell there." Again, the scrape of the turning page caught Quin off guard, being enamored in the story so deeply, even though she had heard it told many times. The world around her was shut out completely to the soft flow of words.

"The First humans were created by the love of the gods, their thoughts taking form in reality as they joined minds. Each god instilled in them a different trait. Tinarsion gave them the kinship with the other life that dwelt around them. Urusion gave them the desire to create. Ardision gave them the love of the water. Farasion, God of War, gave them the will to fight and strength to endure. Hetarsion, Goddess of Knowledge, gave them the ability to think for themselves and to ponder the questions of their life, while Neparsion, Goddess of Order, gave them the clear headedness to sort through the thoughts and keep everything in order. Armusion, Goddess of Music, gave them the understanding of melodies and their voices to communicate. Arialsion, Goddess of Love, gave them the passion to care for one another and create further life. Finally, unseen and undetected by all, Sarellesion slipped deep into their hearts the emotions that he felt: greed, hatred, and fear, so that one day he might turn them to his cause. All this Sionarle watched and remembered, knowing all that was to come.

"The Gods now started to take shape for the traits that they had given the humans. They all looked as was pleasing to them, a blinding array of colors that inspired the ancient artist to sculpt and draw for centuries. Tinarsion with his earthen colored robes and Urusion with his great hammer. Farasion with his bright armor and broadsword, Ardision resembling a storm at sea. Hetarsion with her great book with which she created the histories of the world, Neparsion with her perfectly symmetrical garb. Armusion with her harp and bewitching voice, Arialsion with her revealing attire and alluring eyes. Sarellesion, even despising the others actions, took himself a form, black and billowy, as if he was a great shadow.

"Now with their creation finished, the humans needed a place to dwell. The Gods searched all over the world for the perfect spot, and finding many places that suited. They finally decided on one place. The landscape was diverse enough to allow all the sights and sounds on the earth to be viewed by simply looking around. The place contained tall mountains, rich with the natural ore. It contained deep forests, with the first giant trees stretching tall against the sun. Vast plains stretched across the land, as well as immense miles of coastline. This was the continent of the Ten Kingdoms." Again, scrape of the page and suspense hanging in the air.

"Each god took a number of the people for their own and set out for the part of the land that they thought best suited. Sionarle, though reluctant, was persuaded to take a number of the people and choose a place for himself. Many years they stayed with them in their different lands, teaching the people the secrets of their different arts. They also chose from their people those who they would have rule over their land, setting up the ruling families of the Ten Kingdoms. Great were the deeds of the first people, and many of their tales are still known today. We know of Harral Trabaisint, first king of Alloria, who under the tutelage of Urusion, built the first cities of the Ten Kingdoms, without any help besides that of his massive body and hammer given to him by his god. Such a thing seems impossible today, but it wasnít so for the first humans, who were the blood of the gods and not human as we know it. We also know of Petir Raslimarphos, first king of Galia, who tamed the wild horses of the world and rode them through it as if he was already poised for war. We hear tell of Cione Talbarth, the first queen of Zeplhi, who founded the libraries and schools that we rely upon for learning all there is to know. Of Uria Salphine, first queen of Keltan, who set up the system of measurement and calendars that we use in our everyday life. Of Barithe Orphus, first queen of Aquoria, who built the great ships of old and sailed across the boundless sea to bring back tales of wild lands unheard of before. Of the first composers of Reiana, who set on paper the ballads and symphonies that are still preformed throughout the world.

"Many other tales were told as well, and the gods were happy with their work. They left their children alone to do their work, knowing that they did not need their teachings anymore, and went to dwell in the place that Urusion had built for them; the Eternal Halls of Ra.

"The halls of Ra were eternal, being that as long as the gods existed, they would endure. And, the Gods being undying made the halls eternal. The Halls glowed with the brilliance of Urusion's work, reflecting the beauty of the gods themselves. The columns, that are said to be clear as crystal but strong as iron, glowed with the light of the gods. The Halls were not part of earth, being a place that was above it and not entirely of the same realm. The Halls were for the immortal only, for nothing else could survive there.

"Each God had his own room. Hetarsion, from her room, would look down upon the earth and right the happenings in her great book. From this book we get the writings of history, including all the ancient tales, and The List of the Crimes against the Gods.

"So, for hundreds of years, everything was peaceful and content in the Ten Kingdoms. Then, something happened that puzzled and bewildered the gods. The first humans began to die." Scrape, rustle, and resume.

"First, very few did so that the gods could miscount it as an accident; that something had happened physically to end their life. But then, when every last one of the first humans started to die, they realized they had made a mistake. They realized that, even though their blood was that of the gods, their bodies were of the earth and so, like the beasts, their bodies would eventually become unable to continue to live. Their soul, on the other hand, was something of the gods and therefore wouldnít cease to exist. So the souls of the first humans drifted around the world, trying to communicate with their families but not being able to do so. At first, the gods were puzzled as what to do with the souls, but Sarellesion stepped forward. He said that, since he had no other job to do in the world, that he would take care of the souls. The Gods agreed, puzzled, for never before had Sarellesion wanted to have anything to do with the world, leaving his humans to rule how they saw fit. The Dark God, though, had a plan.

"He first started out by creating a place for the souls. He decided that it would be below earth, just as Ra was above it. He made the place dark, blackness everywhere, and filled with rivers of blood. Fire spewed forth from every jagged rock and it reeked of death. It was just as Sarellesion wanted, and how he secretly dreamed of bringing the earth to look. When the other gods asked why he had made it like this, he replied that the human souls must forget the beauty of earth and leave it behind to ever stop plaguing it with their existence. The other Gods did not agree, but refrained themselves from stopping him by telling themselves that it was his job to do as he saw fit. The true reason that Sarellesion made the underworld as it was, though, so that he could warp the souls into his own evil image.

"After he had gathered up the souls and herded them into the underworld, he began the process of perverting them into his own image. He infused in them his power of hatred and darkness, twisting them so that they did not resemble who they were before. The souls of the first kings and queens, more powerful in spirit then all others, became his strongest Lieutenants, his Hellís Lords, and were almost as evil and twisted as he was. These twisted souls he named Aret-Sarellesion, Shadow Kin. He slowly prepared them for war, for an assault on earth. If the other gods had seen any of this, they would have stopped him immediately, but his realm was closed to them, so that as they gazed towards it, all they saw was a great, black shadow."

This time, as the page turned, Quin could truly see the manís hand shaking, from age or fear.

"He also prepared his humans on earth for war. He had them begin constructing giant supply wagons, and go around the kingdoms buying weapons, food and all other supplies that would be needed for the assault. The Human kings began to get suspicious, as it was obvious the shadow country was mobilizing for some reason. The Gods also began to get suspicious, but could find no reason for what was happening. So they all sat and waited, with their eyes gazing always to the shadow land.

"Then, almost one thousand years after the creation of the first humans, Sarellesion launched his attack. Spewing forth from the underworld he came, a great shadow, with his Aret-Sarellesion, taking grotesque forms, trailing him like shadows. His human soldiers came to, out in front, almost as fodder for the rest. The Gods could not believe this betrayal, for they had not known the emotions that Sarellesion harbored. With a heavy heart, they descended from Ra, and prepared their countries for war. Thus began the first war of the shadow.

"Book of the Gods, Part One, Creation to Betrayal, As written by Hetarsion, Goddess of Knowledge and Keeper of Histories." The priest closed the book with a thud and the room awakened from the spell the words had cast upon them. Rising from her seat, Quin cast a glance about the room. Everywhere, groups of women batted their eyes and discussed marriage and how to get freilberry stains out of cloth; Men puffed out their chests and bragged of their feats on the sea and in battles; All oblivious to the experience that they had just went through. Even the priest, who had read the words of history, seemed not to understand. The sights and sounds that had come to life in front of them, the experiences they had known, all gone from their minds now. Or maybe they were never there.

Striding on her long legs, Quin quickly made her way from the church. A few people waved hasty hellos, friends or acquaintances, and Quin waved hastily back. Those that thought to get in a few words with her, though, were left behind in the dust. Itís not that she did not want to talk to them, necessarily, but she needed to go home and collect her thoughts. Besides, if they wanted to put in a good word for themselves to help win her fatherís favor, they could do it on his time.

Her father. Before she had left for church this morning, they had had an argument. It was a continuing one, and her father was too stubborn to back down. Ilion DeValle was not one to back down from an argument, but neither was his daughter. So, if he felt that she was too young to captain a ship, he wouldn't get any agreement from her.

For a person who had captained his first ship at eighteen, Ilion had an interesting view on someoneís age. A former orphan, his parents had died when he was six, he had gotten a job as a ship boy when he was fourteen to keep himself alive. The work was hard, but at least he got a steady meal. Ilion had quick hands and a quick wit, and soon he was being promoted. While a first mate on a merchant ship that was transporting a load of silk to a lord in Zeplhi, he had to take command when ship was attacked by a group of pirates. After driving them off, the crew decided that he should become captain. Steadily, from there on after, he started to build respect with the shipmanís union and become famous for being willing to transport goods where no one else would. The gold started to pile up, patrons would pay dearly for fast transport through dangerous waters, and then the ultimate honor was bestowed. On his thirty-fifth birthday, Ilion became the Shipmaster of Aquoria. It was the highest-ranking position for any seaman to achieve, only a step below a lord, and, some said, a much wealthier position. Youngest person to ever be given this honor, Ilion wore the mantle with pride.

A Shipmasterís duty was to oversee everything that would come and go through Aquoria. He was to make sure all cargo was legal before letting it be shipped, give authorization to all merchants who wished to use a shipmanís union ship, and he also ran the union. No ship was allowed outside the inner boundaries without the unionís seal and no ship got the seal, which the form for creating was always in the Shipmasterís possession, without his approval. So, Aquoria being the country where all seagoing trade was conducted from, it was a great deal of hard work to keep afloat. Thatís what Ilion, her father, had done though, for over 15 years. Now, Quin wanted to get a hand at captaining a ship, to prove to her father and everyone else that she wasnít just a spoiled girl and would be a worthy successor to her fatherís Title. Too young. Was that the only reason he wouldnít let her?

For several years now, Quin had been strange. Sure, she got along with everyone well, but no one could quite understand her. Every now and again, she would have visions. Sometimes, she would see tall cities and heroic heroes fighting against hideous beasts. Sometimes, she would see visions of far off places, with wild jungles and people who still ran with the animals. Sometimes, she would see a great, black shadow that devoured all life. Other times, when people would speak of things to her, she would see the things they described, as if the words came to life in front of her. That is what had been happening in the church. Thatís what always happened when the priests read from that ancient book.

The scent and sounds of the harbor hit her as she stepped outside, sun high in the sky, almost overhead by now. The tall ships made of dark wood glistening as a sailor scrubbed it down and sang a song that could only be meant for those who had sailed. The High shrieks of the gulls as they perched atop a mast or swooped down to collect some bit of food left by a careless person. The haggling of the riverfront shop owners and customers fighting to get a better deal on their counterparts. The short buildings with their tile roofs and paned windows with some few plants in pots growing in the sun. It was a good day to be alive in the City of Water.

Relona, Capital of Aquoria and home to the queen and, of course, her father, was a lively city. More than three fourths of itís population made up of sailors and merchants, the city was only busy on those few times that most seemed to be in port at the same time. Relona had no walls, not fearing invasion from land because the whole city, like the country, was within twenty miles of the coast. If they were to be attacked, only for their rich assortment of goods and gold, most could simply bring their possessions with them aboard a ship and sail off. Those who couldnít afford to do that most likely didnít have anything worthy of plunder anyway, with the amount of ships in Relona the cost of boarding one was very low.

It took her only about ten minutes to reach her home, the Shipmasterí traditional home was in the middle of the dock section of the city. She doubted her father would be home right now, he usually didnít get home until late in the evening unless it was an aquesta, or Water Holiday, where everyone in the country was encouraged to relax and do as little work as possible.

The Shipmasterís house was very large by the cityís standards but still not all that huge. It had three stories and spread to cover almost five thousand square feet on the ground, nothing compared to a lordís house where land was in greater quantity. The roof was the traditional Aquoria tile, but the windows were great circles, made to resemble the portholes of a ship. Also, the gilded panes were set of lovely by the stone of the building.

The Hallways of the DeValle home were quiet, even more so than usual. Most of the housekeeping would have been finished by now, so the bustle of servants at work was absent. Quinís mother was in the market, most likely, taking care of arrangements with people her father could not get to see or planning another party that she loved to host. So, the house being peaceful as it was, Quin took her time going to her chambers. The Shipmasterís daughter breathed in the scents wafting from the kitchen greedily, just remembering that she had skipped breakfast earlier in a rush to get to church. She would have to have Serin, her maid, bring her whatever gave off the appetizing aroma when it was finished.

Quinís room, like the rest of the house, showed the inactivity of the present time. Her bed, which had been already made up, reflected her sleeping preferences. The bed was large enough for her to shift many times during the night without falling out, and covered with a thick comforter made of goose down. Her writing table sat adjacent to the bed, sheaves of paper and bottles of ink littering the oak surface like they belonged. Her mother liked her to write poetry and, even though that was mostly something for house boys to do, Quin didnít mind it that much. She was actually quite good, enough so that she had entered it in the annual Queenís Poetic Festival and gotten an honorable mention. It was not her passion, though, as nothing was besides the sea.

Throughout her room, on shelves and dressers and in closets, books sat stacked and in rows. From maps to historical books to poetry to fairy tales, Quin snatched up whatever she could get her hands on. They let her mind wander to realms far away from her home and the city of Relona to places where she wasnít the shipmasterís daughter and could experience adventures to the fullest. Sometimes, when very absorbed in the books, she could even see visions. The words came to life and she ceased reading the words, but instead watched the events as they happened. It was wonderful. Wonderful, and horrifying.

The visions were what kept her from leading a normal life. People tried not to treat her different when they knew, but it was hard when you knew the person you talked to might see through your words and watch the images of which you spoke, or see exactly what youíre thinking. There was nothing to do that could stop the visions, or anything that could be done to control when they would happen. It was helpful sometimes, like when she had found out a merchant was going to try to smuggle good out of port without a cargo check. The goods turned out to be a shipment of the valuable material from the Inner Islands called thermosilk that hid changed someoneís body temperature so that it wasnít detectable by any means other then the naked eye. Thermosilk had been outlawed in the ten kingdoms due to itís use in theft and murder, practices where going undetected was key. Her father was able to stop the merchant before he got out of port due to the vision Quin saw while talking with the merchant. Most of the time, though, the visions were more problems then anything else.

Taking off her boots and changing into her bedclothes, Quin plopped into her bed, exhausted more mentally and physically. That was another problem with the visions, they left her feeling like she had just run a twenty mile marathon while reading a one thousand page book without a break. She would probably have that dream again tonight, the same one she had been having the past few weeks, every night. It was not a normal dream, she was sure. Sometimes to visions would come to her in dreams, and that is what this felt like. It wasnít like the other vision-dreams, though. The others had to do with herself, or with people she knew. Visions of things that had happened when she was young or things that she had no recollection of, which could either be from the past or the future. This dream, though, was not like that at all. It was darkness, blacker then any night could ever be. On and on it stretched, never breaking to let light shine through. Sometimes, she thought she could make out shapes or faces in the blackness, but she could never be sure. She did not know what that vision meant. She knew that she could not remember anything ever happening like that. If it was something yet to come, she did not know why she was seeing it. It did not give her any information as to what it was, or what to do about it. It was just there, as if nothing could be done to stop it. The dream made her wake up with a cold sweat clinging to her body. She had tried staying up as long as she could until she passed out from fatigue and yet it still came. She even, as a last resort, bought a drug that was supposed to give you a dreamless, peaceful sleep, and it still the dream plagued her. It was as if whatever gave her these visions and dreams thought this was very important, important enough to torture with the endless visions over and over again.

With the thoughts of the impending dream bringing her into the land of slumber, Quin could not think of her hunger or her father, just the endless cloud of darkness that covered her vision until she was released from itís grip.

The Darkness

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