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Soulblade: Chapter 32

I APPROACH SHADOW WITH caution, feeling painfully guilty for accusing him of treachery after the one fully loyal deed he has chosen since I have known him.

“Shadow, I’m sorry I doubted you. It’s just that you always bore such animosity to the Eldrin. Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Angry silence.

Jantian breaks the brittle quiet. To my relief he is now sitting propped against the cave wall with Marin and Brac still at his side.

“Farang’s attack was carefully planned. A series of deadly diversions to draw our forces away from Maratic. Kashia barely found out the traitor’s real intent in time to warn me. I gathered together what Eldrin I could on the ride here to support the defenders, but we were too few. When the traitors reached us here they were wearing the livery of our loyal military and took us by surprise. We fought them for more than two days and killed many, but their numbers were too great. We were driven back to the cave entrance. Then they released Gron. Once he had taken power from the source of Maratic, none could stand against him.”

Cold fingers of dread creep up my spine. I have been no closer to this monster than the moment I killed his twin in the dungeons of Corinium––but that was enough to tell me that Samaran is now in grave danger if this creature and his savage tribe of adepts are roaming free.

I turn back to Shadow. “How did you know? And how many adepts did he create?”

Finally, grudgingly, he replies. “I felt the stab of pain at the moment he stole Maratic’s power. By the time I reached the Vale there were already more than fifty of his abominations here. I could not defeat them. All I could do was drive them back, fling them over the precipice to crash in ruin on the rocks below. I saved as many of your wounded comrades as I could but…”

He glances at Jantian and I cannot read the tension that hangs between them.

Jantian dips his head in acknowledgement.

“It was my decision. Almost forty of Gron’s adepts had escaped. I asked Shadow to pursue them instead of saving the wounded. If those monstrosities reach the lowland cities of Samaran, the entire kingdom is lost.”

Now I think I understand why Jantian was so much closer to death than the others. “So you tried to do what I did? Take power directly from the source to finish the healing that Shadow had started?”

“With only partial success, I’m afraid. But my greatest fear is that Shadow returned here before his task to destroy Farang’s army was completed.”

Shadow seems reluctant to admit to what he must see as his own failure. “More than thirty adepts still remain alive. All I could do was to drive all their horses away in fear of me, but men have already been dispatched to find them and bring them back. Farang’s army is encamped at the end of the Vale, on the main route to Blackthorn and Corinium.”

“How many?”

“Four hundred men at arms. Experienced fighters, drawn from the bandit gangs with the cunning and skill to elude the Eldrin for so long. But they are not the problem. Thirty adepts, plus Gron himself––that is formidable.”

I glance back at Marin and see that he is thinking the same as I am. If we had not taken the mountain road we would have run straight into them and never reached Maratic at all.

“So we have a little time to regroup while they either set out on foot or wait for the scouts to round up their horses?”

Marin puts into words the part I have been carefully avoiding.

“You mean, regroup while we work out how to take down thirty adepts at once instead of only one at a time as the Eldrin have always done before?”

IT STILL FEELS STRANGE to see Alina working with Shadow to heal the Eldrin casualties. I had become used to that as my role. Marin sends Lupine to scout the valley and drive the scattered horses further beyond recall. Then we spend our time with Jantian and I discover that he is even more inclined than we are to disregard his own need to rest. Sheer determination drives him to send out orders for more of the Eldrin to come here and deal with Farang’s threat before Corinium is in danger.

Nightwing finally returns to Alina. She sends the hungry owl back out to hunt and brings the tiny roll of paper over to us. Her face tells me it is not good news.

“Nightwing reached Kashia in Corinium. She has passed on what she has learned so far, mainly via messages from the southern militia. Ramil has brought the whole militia to Caerlen and is using our village as a base to clear out the many Rapathian deserters who have turned bandit in the forest region.”

I squeeze her hand encouragingly. “At least we have our village back, even if we cannot live there for a while. But I can tell there are problems?”

“Yes. Farang’s recruitment drive for his new army. He only accepts Samarian traitors, not Rapathian deserters. Kashia thinks he is too afraid of a leadership challenge. But that has removed the competition for the Rapathian raiders––and with their military background, they have already formed strong coordinated groups that have our militia pinned down in the south. They cannot get here in time to help us.”

Jantian lets out a sigh of resignation. “I had already heard similar stories from Eldrin assigned to army support operations across the country. The emboldened deserter-gangs have been growing stronger. I think we are on our own with this if we are to strike before Farang’s army reaches the lowlands.” He scans the scene inside the cave as the survivors help each other to their feet. “We might have thirty of these casualties fit enough to draw a bow by first light tomorrow. But none will be strong enough to fight at close quarters for more than a few minutes.”

I glance at Deris. He seems to have recovered from his encounter with Maratic’s source as well as I have. But what can the four of us do, even if Shadow agrees to fight beside us?

Will he risk his life again after what I did to him?

“Jantian, do you know from reading Jaren’s archives how much adept skill the three of us will retain now the binding with Shadow is severed? Is there a way to take directly from the source, without a repeat of what happened last time we tried?”

He shakes his head. “You and Deris have both learned as I did, that trying to take directly from Maratic’s source is… overwhelming. In the initiation ceremony your friends are there to drag you out of it if you fail to do so yourself after taking only a tiny amount.”

“But without it, we have no chance! I’m not sure if we have a chance anyway.”

I am finally starting to appreciate the steady, thoughtful way Jantian deals with each new problem.

“Ariel, all I learned from the archives is that you are unlikely to lose what you have already learned. Your body and mind know now what your strength and skill feels like, and you are unlikely to forget, provided you maintain your training and discipline.”

Marin hauls me to my feet. “It will have to be enough. We should rest now, to be ready at first light. It would help if we knew how soon the enemy plans to move out.”

“Wait.” I grab his arm and point to the entrance. I had not noticed Shadow leave. Now he has returned, carrying the wide stone bowl I had seen him use for scrying when I first met him in a dark, moss-grown enclave in the forest. He pushes aside the archive scrolls laid out on the stone bench at the back of the cave and sets the bowl down carefully so that no water spills.

I walk across to him, curious. “Shadow? Can you use this to see Farang’s army?”

“Patience, little mouse.”

That cool arrogance has returned to his manner once more. He has not thrown that epithet at me for a long time. I assume this is his way of dismissing what has just passed. He hates appearing weak.

And yet… is that actually a smile on his pale features?

Hmm. Maybe not.

He lifts the two crystal glasses from the water and holds them up, shining gold and orange in the flickering torchlight. Then he focuses his dark eyes on them, gripping them harder in long sinewy fingers.

The crystal freezes and shatters. He stares for a moment at the heap of gleaming shards, caught in his cupped hands.

Then he flings them in a glittering cloud of tiny fragments at the crystalline wall of the cave––and to my amazement, they stick.

He seems mildly amused at my astonishment.

“Well, little mouse? Where did you think they came from? The last relic of my glorious heritage, given back to me by Valara as a beautiful but painful reminder of her geas. But now, no more.”

I wish he wouldn’t keep talking in riddles.

“You mean, you no longer need them?”

“Ask your sister.” He passes his hands across the water and the surface clears. A careless wave to tell me to get on with it before he turns and stalks out in a swirl of dark wings and frosted air. The air of superiority is familiar, almost welcome in the uncertainty of this new situation––but there is something strange and different in him. I have to find out what it is, but I know the scrying-vision rarely shows the whole story and will not last long.

I stare at the dark water encircled by the carved tail-eating serpent, feeling the pressure of bodies around me as Marin and the others gather to look over my shoulder.

Torches flicker in the distant darkness of the bowl. The vision is too far away for more than a rough guess at the numbers but I know that Jantian and Marin have enough military experience to make a reasonable estimate. I look up as the image fades.

“I’m sorry. I tried to go closer but my skill is still limited.”

Deris is holding a bundle of starfoil that Orlin had given him back in the Elf-havens. “I could not change the vision, but I was able to make the camp surroundings clearer, even by moonlight. I know this Vale well, and saw exactly where their camp lies.”

I focus on every detail I managed to hold in my memory.

“There were no horses. Seems like Shadow and Lupine have done a thorough job of scaring them away. And…” I hesitate. “It is almost midnight. They should be sleeping, ready for moving on at dawn, but I sensed a strange restlessness among them.”

Marin frowns. “As if they have discovered there is still resistance here, and are planning to return for  night attack?”

“No… It didn’t seem that way. It was jarring, splintered, sinister. I could not feel any purpose or direction behind it.”

I don’t mention that the very thought of trying to fight against that dark restlessness is bringing back the same sense of dread I last encountered in the gloomy halls of Duhokan.

“Double the lookouts,” is all Jantian says before we scatter to find somewhere for a few hours’ sleep.

I pause in the cave entrance to see Marin deep in conversation with Jantian once more. Duty comes before the comfort of his arms around me I suppose.

As I turn away, a delicate hand slips into mine.

“Ariel? This is my first time here. It’s all a bit overwhelming and my head feels like thousand wasps have started moving in. Is there a safe place to sleep?”

“Of course. I can show you a snug little alcove in the other cave. So long as you don’t mind a few bats.”

We have not curled up together under the soft wolfskin since we were children mourning the death of our father. It feels good, but sleep will not come for me until I know what is happening with my sister.

Her life has become even more perilous than it was before I left.

“What exactly did Shadow mean when he said I should ask you why he returned his crystal to Maratic just now?” I reach for her hand. “Is he trying to turn you into one of his fighting adepts? A professional killer? Refuse him, Alina. Don’t do it! The pain and grief and rejection it will surely bring you––”

She presses cool fingers to my lips, cutting off my protest.

“Ariel, it’s not like that. asked for this. I felt so helpless when I was trapped in the Rose Mansion. All that fear started again when I was working with Kashia in the palace, trying to track down Farang and his spies. We had no idea who we could trust. Shadow was watching over me as he promised, but his mirror only showed scattered fragments of Farang’s plots against the King and Sarinder. He had to come to my aid too often. So he gave me weapons, started training me to use surprise as my best defense in case he could not reach me in time. Provided I looked frail and frilly and could move fast enough, I could take out anyone who had me cornered. And yes, I used my blades a few times.”

“So why ask for his gift as well?”

I feel her fingers twitch with impatience.

“Isn’t it obvious? Shadow could not be seen at my side within the palace and had to remain cloaked and hidden every time he dared come inside. There was no way Tandarion or the High Council would accept him anywhere near the capital, let alone the royal court.”

“You’re avoiding telling me why you took his gift.”

“Farang finally found a way to get his assassins right into the royal apartment. Shadow barely reached us in time and he had almost killed them all.”

She squeezes my hand. “Except, then you went and died at exactly the wrong moment! Suddenly Shadow was on his knees, gasping and helpless. I knew what had happened, Ariel. I had been dreading it for so long, knowing I could lose both you and Shadow at any time. I ran over to him and gave him my life-force or we would all have been dead.”

“He didn’t even ask you?”

“He wasn’t in any state to ask for anything! It was barely enough to get him on his feet to steal the rest of what he needed from the three remaining assassins. Then he had to give enough back to me to save my life.”

“So the life-force, life-blood you gave him was your own. Freely given… and now he knows he has no need of his old method of finding adepts…” I feel a shiver of danger with this new development, but the imminent threat from Farang is not going to give us time to think about it.

Alina has other concerns. “But Tandarion still would not accept…” Her voice breaks with sadness.

I can guess what happened next. “The King would not accept the infamous Shadowblade even though he had just saved everyone.”

It is so unjust, but centuries of fear and prejudice do not vanish overnight. As I found with my own distrust and anger. As Deris’ warned me with his stories about what happened to his own people.

“So Shadow was banished? Again?”

“Sarinder tried so hard to change the judgement, but all he could achieve was a promise from his uncle to keep everything secret from the High Council––before those grumpy old fossils threw one of their usual hissy fits and started suspecting every bodyguard in the palace. Jantian smuggled me out to Yarkfold to calm things down before the King found out about my affair with Sarinder.”

“But without you in the palace to liaise with Shadow, Sarinder really would be in danger?”

“As everyone discovered. I met up with Shadow at Yarkfold and a few days later we discovered that part of the Manor was once more being used as a meeting place for Farang’s conspirators. At least it was easier to fight them when there was no need for Shadow to stay concealed the whole time.”

“I saw you! When I was scrying a vision from a marsh pool in Rapathia.”

“And yet you nearly killed Shadow as soon as you came back here.” She sounds disappointed.

“Hey. You know the visions are too fleeting to show everything. I just thought he had corrupted you. It made me angry.”

She sighs impatiently. “You’re right about the incomplete visions. We took too long to follow up the clues. We warned Kashia about the attack on Maratic but we discovered too late that the traitors planned to use Samarian livery. And then the assassins almost killed Sarinder.”

“That’s how Tandarion died?”

“Yes. The attack distracted us, persuaded Jantian to redeploy too many Eldrin to Corinium and the palace. Shadow sensed there had been a disaster at Maratic the moment he felt Gron stealing Maratic’s power. We came straight here to find the Eldrin guards wounded and dying. The rest you know. And you just have to believe that all this might seem wild and uncertain to you, but it’s the best I can expect after the way Fate has arranged my life. will be all right, Sissy. Believe it and get some sleep.” She turns away, hunched under the soft fur.

Perhaps it is the best either of us can expect.


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