The Shadow Path, Chapter 8

The birds that she heard were not only giant but they were made of metal! As shocked as she got from seeing a flock of these beasts staring at them hungrily, their sight and behavior triggered a memory for her. Yasmina, at the same time as Aidan and Ardeshir, shouted, “Be loud!” The three of them hollered at the creatures as they flew towards them one by one, but after a while, their voices were starting to get hoarse, and so their defense was starting to get less and less effective. The three of them looked to each other, but none of them seemed to have any ideas.

Suddenly, a flurry of pots and pans flew over their heads and banged together loud enough to create such a ruckus that the metallic birds all flew away. Once they left, the pots and pans were recalled back to an area just ahead of them on the Shadow Path. They discovered that the ones who came to their rescue were a group of rough, disgruntled men and one equally intimidating woman. The man who led them had a tall, slender frame, pale skin, piercing blue eyes, and stringy black hair. He smiled warmly at them and joked, “Prince Aidan! You didn’t come prepared!”

“They don’t usually come in droves in like that!” Aidan said in his defense, but he didn’t sound terribly angry.

The man lamented, “They’ve been doing that a lot lately. They know something’s up.”

As the man spoke, Yasmina felt as though she recognized him, and yet she was sure that she had never met him before. She inquired, “Why do you look so familiar?”

He replied, “Ah, well, you probably know my brother, Duke…I’m sorry, ‘King’ Dorian. What different lives we led! My older brother married a duchess and later became the so called king. Before any of that happened though, I discovered that I was a warlock and got kicked out of the family. Luckily, the Thieves of Mitthuscint took me in! We both rose to leadership, but unlike him, I kept my soul! Jakan, at your service!”

“At our service?” Yasmina reacted quizzically. “Sorry! When you told us you were thieves, I thought you were going to rob us!”

Yasmina thought she had offended him, but Jakan laughed, “What would we steal from you, your cat?” The other thieves reacted jovially at his joke.

Ardeshir half kidded, “If you’re looking for valuables, look no further! How often do you find a talking cat?”

The thieves gasped when they heard him talk, but then Jakan rubbed his chin contemplatively. “Hmm…that does seem rare!” Aidan cleared his throat, which shook Jakan from his thought. “Before you ask, the answer is no.”

“I wasn’t going to ask again,” Aidan retorted. “I found a witch to help me.”

Jakan gave Yasmina an incredulous look. “Why would you do that? It’s a suicide mission!”

Yasmina flushed a little. She had always feared this possibility but never really entertained it. Aidan kept such a positive attitude towards it that it sort of shocked her to hear such pessimism. Despite this grim outlook, Yasmina’s instincts solidly assured her that she was doing the right thing, so she refused to let this slight sway her. “Someone has to take a stand against her!”

“True!” Jakan agreed, “but that’s why our mission is to steal from and wreak havoc against the evil witches and warlocks that support her. We’re not accepting their tyranny lying down! The more they oppress this kingdom, the more miserable we’ll make them!” The other robbers emphatically concurred. Jakan then offered, “You’re welcome to join us if you want.”

Yasmina was surprised to hear him say that, and although she could see the appeal of such a lifestyle, she refused to give up on their quest. “I appreciate the offer, but we need to continue on this mission, it’s too important!”

Jakan differed, “There’s other ways to resist that are a little less deadly! You could settle down somewhere and be happy, which is exactly what she’s trying to take away from you!”

Aidan put in, “I could never live peacefully knowing that a tyrant sits on my rightful throne! My family has a duty bound deep in their blood to protect this land at all costs, and it would be an insult to their memory to go against our code of honor at such a crucial juncture!”

“Oh, I forgot about your family,” Jakan admitted.. “I can see why you would be driven to vengence! I sincerely hope you’re successful and that Caragsona could be set free again! I only worry about your odds. It would be devastating to lose people with so much good and potential in them!”

“Let us worry about the odds!” Aidan responded. “Don’t get too shocked when we beat them! The only thing I want you to worry about is my offer of knighthood when I get crowned as king!”

Jakan guffawed, “I had forgotten your offer of honest work for my men and me upon your success! Well, we’ll cross that bridge when when we get to it. Speaking of bridges, when you come across the bridge and see a village, don’t go there! Their people are starving and yet they’re giving away all of their food! It’s sad!”

“Thanks for the tip,” Aidan told him.

Jakan nodded cordially, and then addressed the other thieves, “Let’s carry on with the hunt!”

“Good luck!” Yasmina chimed.

“To you as well,” he said seriously. The thieves all non-verbally acknowledged them as they headed in the opposite direction. Ardeshir, Yasmina, and Aidan continued forward down the Shadow Path.

Back in the castle Rogamaith, Dorian sat cockily in the throne room as a group of scribes hastily took notes. Dorian decreed, “And therefore, anyone who is caught stealing shall be sentenced to death!”

All of the scribes stopped in mid-sentence and murmured in confusion. One man queried, “To death, sire? For stealing?”

“Yes!” Dorian confirmed.

Another scribe inquired, “What is the minimum value that would constitute-?”

Dorian replied, “If a twig from someone’s house gets taken from them, the person responsible will immediately get captured and brought to the dungeons for a beheading!”

The scribes all stared at him in shock. Another scribe questioned, “A beheading for thievery? You don’t think that’s too harsh?”

“Too harsh?” Dorian grew incensed by their position on the issue. “I was just accused of not caring about peasants, and here we are with a huge robbery problem in our most impoverished villages and I’m being too harsh? If these people are truly starving, they can spare no expense, therefore any resource stolen from them is tantamount to death for them. So, the punishment is fitting! The scribes all looked to each other to confirm their confusion on his logic, so he snapped, “Don’t just stand there gawking! Go! Do your jobs and tell your towns!” The scribes all hastily scrambled out while Dorian chuckled maliciously.

As they traveled, Ardeshir gave Yasmina more lessons on properly using her magic. She held a stone in her hand and pointed her want at it. Ardeshir suggested, “Perhaps it would help to say an incantation.”

“How do you say an incantation?” Yasmina inquired.

Ardeshir explained, “Just say what you want to happen. Some people find it easier to concentrate their energy by saying a spell out loud, but the disadvantage is that when you’re fighting or trying to be sneaky, people can hear what you’re intending to do, which gives them time to evade or offer a counter-curse. A few warlocks and witches will make up a word to avoid this, but it’s important that your body and mind knows exactly what you mean by this word or it would become more of a hindrance.”

Concentrating as much as she could, Yasmina commanded, “Float!” Nothing happened. “Float! Float!” The pebble wiggled a little, so she asked, “Did I make that happen? Or did something on the road make it move?”

Aidan answered, “I would hazard a guess that it was your magic. The forest is pretty still right now. There’s a river coming up, but it seems pretty calm.” Something clicked for him, and so he remarked, “This must be the bridge that Jakan had referred to! Oh, I know the village that’s coming up. It’s Baile Daonna, a town of mortals who got lost in the woods, either accidentally or on purpose, and stayed there. They’re pretty protective of themselves, with good reason! It’s not a place I would have suggested stopping to visit!”

Yasmina puzzled, “So, why did Jakan say that they were giving away all of their food?”

“Something’s not right,” Ardeshir noted. “But if we got involved, it would take precious time away from our quest. Of course, as people with hearts, we can’t just ignore people who need our help. What should we do?” The three of them looked to each other for answers, but none of them knew what to do.

The Shadow Path, Chapter 7

Daeva stared into the cauldron and shook her head. “She’s known these two for less than a day, and yet she risks her life to help them! Why does she value them so much?”

The other three witches shrugged, and then Kadera suggested, “So, why not capture the other two and lure her here? She doesn’t overcome any obstacles without their help, so she’ll be weak without their help.”

Daeva dismissed this notion. “No, no! If we were to harm her friends, it would only increase her fury and desire to get to us. Remember, we want to distance ourselves from her.” She paused and added, “We’ll have to figure it out later though. I have something pressing to attend to.” And with that, she ambled out of the room.

In the castle Rogamaith, King Dorian blankly focused on the door on the other side of the meeting room. The round table he sat at had piles of papers haphazardly strewn enough to leave very little room left on it. The door opened, and a man who also dressed in royal garb gingerly entered. “King Dorian?”

“King Kahlil,” Dorian mechanically replied, “enter.” Kahlil shut the door behind him and chose the least cluttered spot to sit down at. Dorian hollowly asked, “How can I help you?”

“How can you help?” Kahlil answered in astonishment. “I’m here to find out why you arbitrarily cut off trade with my land!”

“I explained it all in my letter,” Dorian apathetically recalled. “The people of Caragsona no longer need to rely on foreign goods. We are entirely self sufficient, and by producing our own goods, I’ve created more jobs for my people. Since we’ve done that, we’ve become the economic envy of the world!”

Kahlil countered with, “I’ve heard otherwise. Our reports have indicated that your infrastructure is crumbling and many of your citizens are starving!”

“These reports are false!” Dorian scoffed.

“King Dorian,” Kahlil differed, “My sources come from the testimony of some of your own people!”

“Those people are lying!” Dorian picked up a piece of paper from a large pile next to him and manically waved it at Kahlil. “Do you see this data? It shows an increase of annual household earnings! And this one!” He picked up a sheet from another pile. “Our castle treasury reported an increase on the new budget due to more people paying taxes! The previous king let our roads and buildings decay, we cannot realistically fix the entire land after a mere ten years! And if anyone is starving, it is through their own folly! Caragsona is doing better than ever since I took charge!”

Kahlil did not look swayed. “If we hear that you are committing such atrocities against your own people, we will have no choice but to send our military and-!”

“You wouldn’t dare wage war against my kingdom!” Dorian snapped. “Our knights would destroy yours in an instant! I am insulted by your hostile attitude! You are no longer welcome in Caragsona! If we see you or any of your officials near our land, you will be met with our military force! Get out!” With a look of grave sympathy, Kahlil marched out. Dorian sat down, sighed, and continued to stare at the door absentmindedly.

Yasmina, Ardeshir, and Aidan sat on some stones, which were between leafy trees that overlooked a jewel-like lake. Aidan snacked on some berries and nuts while Ardeshir gave Yasmina a lesson, “Don’t close your eyes!”

“How am I supposed to look inward without closing my eyes?” Yasmina probed.

Ardeshir continued, “How can you see what object you’re hexing if your eyes are closed?” Yasmina thought he had a point but clearly struggled to implement his recommendations, so Ardeshir told her, “Okay, practice looking inwardly with your eyes closed for a moment.” Yasmina closed her eyes, and Ardeshir asked, “What do you feel?”

Yasmina answered, “I feel the smoothness of the rock underneath me.”

“Good. Now move upwards to your organs,” Ardeshir directed.

Yasmina complied and felt her body from the inside. “I feel my stomach full from our lunch. I feel my heart beating from…excitment. And I feel energy coursing through my veins.”

“Good! That’s your magic!” Ardeshir informed her. “Use your mind to push it towards your wand.”

Yasmina followed his word and willed her powers to flow all the way down her arm, and it reminded her of the spell she produced when they fought that beast at the start of their journey. It differed from the fire she produced in Santach, which got created by instinct just as it had the few times she did magic by accident in the past, but the magic she used against the monster had been the first time she did it on purpose. She had some sense of how it worked, but now that Ardeshir had explained it, it really clarified the topic for her.

“Now, concentrate on what you want the magic to do,” Ardeshir instructed. “Command it to move that pebble in front of you. But first your eyes need to-.” Before Ardeshir had finished his sentence, energy shot out of Yasmina’s wand that made the pebble Ardeshir referred to explode with such a force that Aidan had to use his arms to shield his eyes. Ardeshir inquired, “Did you do that intentionally?”

“No!” Yasmina became upset and turned to face the other way. She held back her tears of frustration; she did not want to admit she let her emotions get the better of her.

Ardeshir empathized with her, but Aidan was the first to act. He went over to her rock, sat beside her, and put a sympathetic hand on her back. “It just takes practice!”

Yasmina felt comforted by his gesture, but she did not feel reassured about her abilities. “What if I don’t get better? What if this is the best I can do? I mean, the entire kingdom depends on my magic, and I just can’t get it right!”

“You’ve put a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect,” Aidan observed. “Do you think my family was all knowing? We made the best decisions we could with the information we had at the time. Sometimes those choices had terrible consequences, but we learned from those experiences and made new policy from it so that no one had to go through our hardships again. And when we realized we made a mistake, we found ways to remedy what was done. We weren’t always successful, but we found satisfaction in knowing we did all we could. I didn’t bring you on this journey assuming you’d be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, but you’ll find a way to overcome them and emerge victorious! I mean it! I have a feeling you’re going to do just fine!” He saw her smile weakly, and he could tell his message started to sink in. “Why don’t you take a break from learning and clear your head a bit.”

Yasmina didn’t respond to his encouragement or kind words. She stared out at the lake, but her expression started to soften. After a while, she noted, “It’s so unfortunate that evil overtook the Shadow Path! It really is beautiful here!”

“It really is!” Aidan agreed while also looking out at the water. “Once we take back the throne, this path will open up to good again, and everyone will have a chance to see it again!” Yasmina’s face showed hints of doubts, so Aidan iterated, “You have to believe that if we’re going to get through this!”

“You’re right!” Yasmina tried to convey as much confidence as she could in that sentiment. “Someday soon, everyone will get to enjoy it as we have!” Before anyone could expand on the subject, something from within the lake moved! Yasmina stood up with her wand ready while Aidan did the same with his sword. As whatever it was grew closer, it made a bigger and bigger ripple in the water. When it neared the surface, they saw air bubbles form. Suddenly, something big splashed out, and they were prepared for a fight. After a moment though, they could see the thing was a stunning horse with a mane so silky that it looked aquatic! It trotted up to them playfully and beckoned for them to climb on its back. Aidan and Yasmina lowered their weapons but did not appear remotely tempted to ride the horse. Yasmina said sarcastically, “Oh, a horse that can apparently breathe under water wants me to ride it, nothing bad could possibly happen, right? You wouldn’t happen to be trying to drown me, would you?” The horse’s expression soured and it sniffed in resentment. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir laughed as they left the lakeside.

After they returned to the Shadow Path, Ardeshir praised Yasmina, “You remembered something we taught you! Well done!”

“Thanks!” Yasmina realized he was right and sheepishly smiled.

“Now, can you name the monster?” Aidan teased.

Yasmina tried to recall the name of the creature but couldn’t, and when she saw the smirk on Aidan’s face, she objected, “Oh, come on! I remembered everything else about the beast! Isn’t that enough?” The three of them had another hearty laugh as they continued walking.

As they trekked through a very wooded area, they all seemed to be in a contemplative mood. Now that she had given her brain a break, she felt more balanced. She savored the sight of the jagged trees and the sound of birds settling in the branches. She really did feel it was a shame that this path turned to evil because the beauty of its nature was almost blinding! As she heard even more birds land on the treetops, she felt glad that a few normal animals inhabited the area. Suddenly, the clang of metal sounded from above them, causing the three travelers to stop in their tracks. Curiously, they craned their necks to see what happened. What they saw made their jaws drop!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 6

As the adrenaline from that moment began to fade, Yasmina’s body began to grow fatigued. She could feel herself slowing down, but she felt it was imperative to keep running in case any villagers pursed them in the name of vengeance from what she just did. She began to run out of breath, and even though she didn’t want to get lulled into a false sense of security. Soon though, she had to succomb to her symptoms and stopped for proper respiration. She saw Aidan do the same behind her, but Ardeshir galloped up them with ease. “This is one of the few times I don’t miss my human body!”

Yasmina and Aidan wanted to respond, but they couldn’t quite muster up the strength to do so. Their silence incidentally gave them an advantage at that moment though. From a distance, they could hear people talking, so they quickly saw some luscious plants that were large enough to conceal themselves and sought safety in their cover. The three of them huddled together and put all of their concentration on quieting their inhalations. They saw the shadow of two broomsticks fly overhead, an Yasmina clutched her wand just in case. They heard Maysa’s voice grump, “Ugh, she probably stole a broomstick! She could be anywhere! From now on, anyone who enters Santach has to go through a much stricter vetting process!”

They watched the shadows turn around and head back in the other direction. For a moment, they didn’t move in case Maysa had set them up for a trap. As the danger seemed to have passed, Yasmina became aware of how close she sat to Aidan right then. She felt like she should feel awkward and want to separate, but she surprised herself when she realized that she had no desire to leave this position! His body was warm, and she didn’t notice how cold she was until then! His strong arm around her body made her feel safe somehow, like having a muscular shield protecting her. She had never been a very affectionate friend before, but if she lived through this quest, she now thought that she should incorporate more intimacy in her life.

When the coast seemed to be clear, Ardeshir ventured out first to double check. “You guys can come out now.”

Aidan came out first and offered a hand to help her out. After secretly enjoying the closeness of that instance, she felt sort of uncomfortable grasping his grip and hoped that her contemplation weren’t apparent. When they returned to the pathway, Yasmina saw nicks on his clothes that had resulted from Haben dragging him, and a surge of guilt soared through her. She wanted to apologize to him very badly, but before she could, Aidan ruefully told her, “I’m so sorry!”

“What?” Yasmina’s mind could hardly wrap around how he could regret anything when she felt the fault laid with her.

“I should have warned you about Santach,” Aidan sorrowfully admitted, “but they’re such a migratory tribe that I didn’t know that they had moved to that spot!”

“How can you apologize when you didn’t know that would happen?” Yasmina reasoned.

Aidan seemed to buy that logic, but he still didn’t seem to have let himself off the hook. “I know a lot of the monsters that live on the Shadow Path, and I should have educated you more.”

Yasmina wouldn’t let him take the blame for this. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry! I should have asked more questions about these woods, especially after all of the horror stories that came from here. The whole point of me coming to Duanolc is to help you, and I could be doing more to learn how to do that. If I had been more prepared, I could have thought of something better than what I did and we could have avoided that mess! I know it wasn’t the smoothest move, and I’m sorry!”

“No, I’m sorry!” Aidan insisted.

“No, I am!” Yasmina also insisted.

The two of them started to talk over each other with apologies, and eventually, Ardeshir reached a boiling point and yelled, “Enough!” They both stopped quarreling and turned their attention to him. He softened his voice while he exclaimed, “Neither of you are angry, so let’s leave it alone! You can learn about the creature of the area while we keep moving!” Without saying it out loud, they knew that he was absolutely right and agreed to let it go. They continued on their journey, and Yasmina kept her full focus on Aidan and Ardeshir as they reviewed what they know about the land.

Meanwhile, Kadera and the other two crones nervously craned their heads to view the expression on Daeva’s cace, fearing her wrath. Daeva, however, didn’t seem to have a reaction. She seemed flabbergasted at what she witnessed, and it took her a moment to realize that they were staring at her. She thought out loud, “She chose others’ happiness over her own! Why would she do that? She spent her whole life with nothing, and she had a chance to lead a normal life! Yet, she throws it all away to help a mortal! If she were to succeed, she would get nothing out of completing this quest. What could be motivating her to help a race of people who have only been horrible to her?”

Kadera and the other two witches looked at each other and shrugged. Kaddera suggested, “Perhaps he promised her riches?”

“I think it’s deeper than that,” Daeva conjectured. “No prize would make these obstacles acceptable! Figuring out her motivation could prove key to her demise!”

The two others didn’t know what to do or say, but Kadera came up with a thought, “Why bother figuring it out? Why don’t we just go down there and kill them?”

Daeva answered, “There would be no point if their will is strong enough. They could ellude our attacks, and chasing them would end up becoming time consuming. If we figure out their will, we can figure out how to manipulate them enough so that they have none.”

“We could make them our slaves!” one witch remarked.

“No, they would be easier to kill!” the other one rebuked.

Daeva concluded, “Either way, they would give us no more trouble. Whatever challenges wait for them on the path, let them take place. We will let these events unfold for now. Everyone has their weaknesses. If we are to do battle, we must learn theirs or we could end up not faring well But perhaps we will get lucky and they will perish before they even get here! Either way, victory will be ours!”

As Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir walked through a thick, wooded sections of the Shadow Path, Aidan advised, “So, if you sense that the Comeheistear are around, make sure you don’t let them go into your mouth!”

Yasmina laughed, “Why would I let a monster go into my mouth?”

“Well, obviously you invite them in!” Aidan chuckled. “Let me rephrase that, if you sense a Comeheistear around, don’t open your mouth at all! Don’t scream or talk, keep your mouth sealed tight! If it gets in, it’s almost impossible to get it out!”

“That’s so creepy!” Yasmina shuddered.

Ardeshir added, “But if they’re dead, then they can go in your mouth! Makes a good snack!”

“Ew!” Aidan and Yasmina said simaltaneously.

Aidan commented, “You’ve been a cat way too long!”

“Tell me about it!” Ardeshir agreed.

Yasmina offered, “I can try to turn you back into a human.”

“No!” Ardeshir reacted. She looked a little astonished at his denial, so he explained, “I mean, I appreciate the gesture, but I would need a human body to switch into. Besides, I don’t think you’re ready for that kind of spell. With the power you’ve shown, you definitely have the potential to perform great magic like that, but so far, none of your spells seem intentional.”

Yasmina concurred with his assessment, so instead she stated, “I’m ready whenever you’re ready to teach me!”

“Don’t you think it would be a bit of a knowledge overload after all those lessons we gave you?” Ardeshir questioned.

Before Yasmina could answer, as they stepped onto a part of the path surrounded by fields, a huge gust of wind whisked them off the ground! They landed on the floor with a thud, and when they looked up, they saw a cloud with a somewhat human shape to it hovering above them! Yasmina, Ardeshir, and Aidan split up, and the cloud monster went after Aidan first, spinning him in the air violently. Ardeshir instructed, “It’s a Gaoth an Deamhan! Run!”

Ardeshir zipped twoards the woods, but Yasmina lingered. “What about Aidan? How do you defeat-?”

The wind picked her up, and between the awful shrieking noise and the rapid movement, Yasmina could hardly think. As she spun, she saw that Aidan was slowly picking himself up after getting slammed against the nearest tree. She expected to do the same, but instead, she began to rise in the air! Suddenly, the wind disappeared, and with her support now gone, she quickly plummeted towards the ground! She screamed and braced for impact, but Aidan caught her! The impact made them both tumble down, but before they could pick themselves up again, the wind grew closer. Just when they thought they would get sucked in once more, Ardeshir returned with a small, uprooted plant in his mouth. To their astonishment, the wind clung to that plant! Yasmina realized, “Wood absorbs wind!” She saw that the tree that Aidan fell against had most of its roots above the ground, so she commanded, “Cut open a door!” Aidan did just that as Yasmina grabbed Ardeshir, whose sapling was starting to falter. All three of them made it to the cover of the roots just in time! They watched as the Gaoth an Deamhan got absorbed by the tree!

Once the forest became quiet again, Aidan, Ardeshir, and Yasmina cautiously left the tree. They studied the path ahead, and everything seemed suspiciously calm. Yasmina inquired, “What will we do if there’s another one of these in the fields?”

“We pray,” Aidan replied grimly. Having no other choice otherwise, the three of them nervously moved forward on the path again.

The Shadow Path, Chapter 5

Yasmina lost track of time as they headed down towards Santach. It logically didn’t make sense for the village to be close to the Shadow Path, but Yasmina felt as though they had been walking for ages. Finally, a dull light illuminated a street of rudimentary houses. She couldn’t see most of the town, but the buildings just didn’t seem to belong to unfriendly inhabitants, which made her really question Maysa and her gang’s initial aggression towards them. The homes were situated pretty close to each other, and the walls appeared to be made of pretty thin wood, so Yasmina wondered how the three of them could sneak out of there without getting caught.

Yasmina’s train of thought got unexpectedly taken away when Mays asked her, “Lovely, isn’t it?”

“Lovely,” Yasmina repeated without thinking.

They stopped before an empty cottage, and Maysa informed them, “You guys can rest here for the night. There’s a bed for you and enough room on the floor for your prisoner. It doesn’t have a door, but I’ll have someone guard the entrance.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Yasmina cringed. She had hoped to get some privacy so they could devise an escape plan, but if they had a constant eye on them, that would prove to be impossible.

Maysa iterated, “It’s for our safety as well as yours. If you need anything, let us know. Good night.”

As everyone dispersed to their perspective houses, Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir entered their own abode. Yasmina had never seen a circular dwelling before, and the lack of furniture and possessions, save for the bed, threw her off. She noticed the floor was dirt, which surprised her. She always thought Neodrach had the poorest homes in all of Caragsona, so seeing these conditions made her rethink that perspective. And yet, despite their humble conditions, the people who lived here didn’t seem unhappy. She really never realized how reclusive her old lifestyle was until now!

For a moment, they were alone, and Yasmina and Aidan finally got the chance to make eye contact with each other! It only lasted a moment, but she could see concern on his face. She felt a flood of relief to know he wasn’t angry with her and that he had the same desire as her to get them out safely. He hadn’t given up, and neither would she! Before they could communicate anything more, a warlock as large and tall as the doorway stood before them. His stone face gave no hint of warmth or comfort either. Yasmina and Aidan immediately separated as to not rouse suspicion. Aidan laid comfortably on the floor on the opposite side of where Yasmina’s bed was located. The warlock in the doorway kept his eyes on her, and Yasmina felt glad that she didn’t have any desire to actually sleep because she didn’t think she could with him watching. Ardeshir hopped on the bed and stared at her in a very cat-like way. Yasmina wished she could communicate something with more substance with him, but with a door guard looking over their shoulders, all she could think to do was pat his head. Ardeshir went to the foot of the bed to sleep, so Yasmina stared at the stars through the window over her bed. She wished she could communicate with Aidan and Ardeshir, but she didn’t see a way she could. She desperately wondered how they were going to get out of there!

In the pitch of total darkness, all Yasmina could see was a pair of narrow, red eyes glaring at her. The eyes suddenly widened, and Yasmina woke with a start. She realized she had bad dream, which kind of astonished her considering she she hadn’t realized that she had even fallen asleep! She glanced to the foot of the bed and saw Ardeshir peacefully asleep. She pretended to turn in her sleep so she could flip over to see Aidan. All she saw was his back, so she had no idea if he had fallen asleep or not. With only a sliver of her eye open, she peeked at the door guard and saw him leaning against the frame with his backed turned to them. He shifted back to check on them, looking very weary. Yasmina hastily shut her eyes feigned sleep. Shortly after that moment, she sensed another shift by the door, so she dared to open her eyes again. To her shock, the door guard had left!

Yasmina cautiously sat up and peeked out of the window above her bed, and she saw the door guard heading away from their hut! She knew they had a split second to escape, so she quickly whispered, “Guys!” She had been mentally prepared to wake them up, but when she turned around, she saw that Aidan and Ardeshir were fully alert and ready to go. Without hesitation, they all sprang up and headed out of the cottage.

The sun had begun to rise, but the streets were still empty. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir moved rapidly but not in an obvious sort of way so that they didn’t attract attention. Just when they reached the edge of the village, suddenly, Maysa stood before them! Yamina momentarily panicked, but when she saw that Maysa had a tray of pastries, inspiration struck her. Before Maysa had a chance to ask what they were doing, Yasmina exclaimed, “There you are! Our door guard left his post and we’re starving!”

“He did what?” Maysa reacted. “Oh, I’ll rip him a new one! But after breakfast. Come, let’s eat!”

Yasmina assumed that they were heading back to the cottage that they had slept in, so it confused her her when they went past it. Her curiosity only grew when they came to a large building sealed with a curtain in the doorway. Maysa unveiled the drapes to reveal a long, wooden table with large plates of food and several witches and warlocks scattered throughout the room. Yasmina queried, “Is it a special occasion?”

“No, we always eat together,” Maysa replied. She set her dish down and handed Yasmina a plate before she took one of her own. Aidan half expected to get one, but with the stern look Maysa was giving him, he remembered his role and promptly sat on the floor. As Maysa and Yasmina went across the table, occasionally picking up a piece of food, Maysa explained, “We’re a community, so we stick together. We all have a part in running this town, and we work as one to keep Santach alive.” They found a place at the end of the table and sat down. Maysa elaborated, “We were all kicked out of our old villages for being the people were are, so we formed our own town. That’s why you volunteered to deliver this prisoner to Daeva, isn’t it?”

“Uh…” Yasmina stuffed a roll into her mouth and mumbled something incoherent to avoid answering the question.

“Yeah, I could tell right from the start,” Maysa went on, “You remind me of me not that long ago. I lived in this peasant town that needed all the help it could get, and yet, when they found out I was a witch, they kicked me out. The same thing happened to you, didn’t it?”

“Basically,” Yasmina said truthfully. She was surprised how closely Maysa’s story mirrored hers, and she now felt curious about the story of the other witches and warlocks in Santach. As Maysa rambled on, she watched the townsfolk passing by with building materials, potion ingredients, and more. She noticed how happy everyone looked, and she couldn’t blame them! They spent years watching people live their lives, and now they actually got to have one of their own. No one seemed lonely or outcast, everyone had a purpose here. It sounded like exactly what she had been hoping for herself all along!

“You could stay here if you want,” Maysa invited.

Yasmina’s attention snapped back into place instantly when she caught wind of what Maysa had just told her. “What?”

“Listen,” Maysa addressed her, “I understand why you choose working for Daeva rather than your living in your old village, but have you seen her crones? They don’t look so good. Kadera can hardly walk anymore! I can have someone else deliver your prisoner and you can just stay here.”

“Really?” The offer caught her off guard. No one had really invited her to stay before, and the memories of getting turned down by every house in Neodrach still cut her deep. It seemed incredible to have a chance to belong somewhere.

“Of course!” Maysa reacted. “What’s your talent?”

“Talent? Well, uh, I was always a good apothecary,” Yasmina admitted sheepishly.

“We could use another apothecary!” Maysa beamed. As Maysa gave her pitch about how great Santach was to live in, Yasmina saw Ardeshir approach her from the ground by the table. He stared at her with very wide, sad eyes, and Yasmina felt a twinge of guild for even considering the notion. She remembered one of the pieces of food she grabbed, and she smiled at her idea. She took a piece of roasted chicken and presented it to Ardeshir, whose eyes sparkled in wonderment. He couldn’t believe he had this opportunity, and when she put it down for him, he gaped in delight. He looked at Yasmina with total gratitude before he dug in. Yasmina grinned broadly and felt warmly about the moment, a moment that got interrupted when Maysa snapped, “What are you doing?”

Yasmina saw the credulous expression on her face, and she realized how strange the moment must have been through her eyes. She hastily fibbed, “I spoil my familiar! He’s my friend, and I haven’t had a lot of friends in my life.”

Maysa seemed somewhat mollified by this. “I can understand that. You must have been very lonely. Those wicked mortals! I can’t wait until we destroy them all!”

“Destroy them all?” Yasmina parroted her.

“You know, the take over, the whole reason why Daeva took control of the throne…” Maysa said in a reminding sort of way.

Yasmina played along, “Oh right, the plan!”

“Yes!” Maysa emphatically chimed. “I can’t wait to watch them dwindle down as our population grows! We’ll outnumber them, and they’ll have no choice but to wallow about how they mistreated us!”

“So, we’re going to do them what they did to us?” Yasmina surmised hollowly.

“That’s right!” Maysa affirmed. “And that’s just the start! That’s also why you should stay here. Daeva’s crew frequently deals with mortals and you seem like kind of a softy.” She caught Yasmina staring wistfully at Aidan, and when she realized Maysa’s disapproving eyes were on her, she shamefully recoiled. “It’s okay, we’ll train you. You can’t be soft in this world anymore, sometimes you have to do what’s best for you regardless of hurting someone’s feelings!”

“Yeah, but…” Yasmina started.

“No but’s!” Maysa insisted. “That’s it! You’re staying for your own good!”

“No!” Yasmina objected. “I’m bringing him to-!”

“Haben!” Maysa ignored her. “Deliver the prisoner to Duanolc! I’m going to start training Saphra in our routine.”

“No!” Yasmina stood up, but Maysa grabbed her arm to hold her back. “I’ll deliver him and come back!”

“No,” Maysa denied. “You’re staying here for your own good!”

Yasmina watched Haben drag Aidan by his arm, and the way he did it looked like it gave Aidan a lot of pain. She saw the deep hurt in his eyes, and something inside her inflamed. Anger coursed through her veins, and before she knew it, she shouted, “NO, I’M NOT!” She pulled out her wand, and all of her ire shot out in an explosion! She grabbed Ardeshir and then Aiden as the bright flame enveloped the building. While the witches and warlocks of Santach’s minds began to process the disaster at hand, the three travelers ran out of the village unnoticed. They didn’t look back as they ran back to the Shadow Path.

The Shadow Path, Chapter 4

Who are you?” Aidan asked the cat. Yasmina found that question somewhat odd considering she had far more questions about why he could talk. She wondered whether or not an animal with the ability to speak was a commonality along the Shadow Path.

“Forgive me for not introducing myself sooner, but mortals usually fly off the handle if I speak,” the cat addressed them. “My name is Ardeshir.”

“Ardeshir, are you a warlock?” Yasmina inquired.

“Did my encouragement earlier give that away?” Ardeshir joked.

Yasmina replied, “No, you said mortals instead of people. An ordinary cat would just say people. What am I saying? An ordinary cat wouldn’t say anything! Why are you a cat?”

Ardeshir explained, “When I was a warlock, I liked to experiment with magic and push the boundaries. I thought if witches and warlocks could switch bodies with an animal, we could apply that knowledge to our military to sneak into enemy territory. It never occurred to me that I would need human hands to switch back!”

“So, somewhere out there we have a man with the mind of a cat?” Aidan probed.

“Oh no!” Ardeshir expounded. “That was over a hundred years ago. I believe they caught him while he ran around town meowing and hissing at the bystanders he passed. They took him to a sanitarium, poor guy!”

“Why were you following us?” Aidan queried.

Ardeshir answered, “Mostly curiosity. I’ve seen mortals go down this road before and usually they don’t last long. I wanted you two to be okay since you were so kind to an animal.” He paused and added, “I’d like to join you, if you don’t mind. I can help you learn to use magic properly.” Aidan and Yasmina looked to each other for an opinion, and since they seemed unsure, Ardeshir pleaded, “Oh, please! You don’t know how lonely it is to go so long without having a clear purpose in life!”

“Boy, I know how that feels!” Yasmina reacted.

Aidan, based on her reaction, surmised, “I think that’s a yes. But before we go, you should know we’re on a quest to defeat Daeva and her wicked empire. If that’s too dangerous for you…”

Are you kidding?” Ardeshir responded. “I’d love an excuse to destroy those evil wtiches! You know, us magical bretheren used to stick together and help each other out, but now it’s changed. Now everyone’s out for themselves! For a hundred years, I couldn’t find one person who would help change me back! It’s all Daeva’s fault! It would be my honor to help you take her down!”

“Sounds like we’re all ready to continue on our journey then!” Yasmina noted. Aidan and Ardeshir agreed, and all three of them marched forward.

Meanwhile, Kadera hobbled over to a woman draped in fine, all black clothing staring at an over-sized painting of a king with straw-like hair and a gaunt body. Kadera cautiously said to the woman, “Master Daeva…”

The woman turned around and glared at Kadera. Daeva’s white hair had the texture of cobwebs, but otherwise, her face still had some youthful features. However, the ugliness of her expression at the moment diminished her good looks. Daeva growled, “I told you never to interrupt me in this room!”

“I’m sorry, Master,” Kadera whimpered a little. “It’s important.”

“It better be!” Daeva seethed.

“Prince Aidan has found a witch to help him,” Kadera informed her.

Daeva’s eyes widened. “Impossible!” Daeva made a beeline out of the room and stomped right over to the cauldron that the other two witches were watching. She saw Yasmina walking with Aidan and Ardeshir and bellowed, “No! The peasant girl from Neodrach! I thought you took care of this!”

Kadera defended herself, “Every village condemns magic! Neodrach condemns magic! Even Yasmina condemned magic! She refused to accept her fate, choosing instead to live a life of poverty to avoid it. I have no idea what would motivate her to embrace it now!”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Daeva countered. “She’s sworn her allegiance to a mortal! Why didn’t you kill him yet? You’ve had ten years!”

“We’ve done everything we can!” one witch protested.

“Who would’ve thought a mortal could survive what many witches could not!” the other added.

Daeva didn’t seem to appreciate their response, but before she could react to that, Kadera told her, “Survival doesn’t guarantee a victory! Prince Aidan may have stayed alive all these years, but he’s been tortured by his failure to win back the throne. Ardeshir may help Yasmina hone her skills, but it doesn’t mean she will gain enough ability to win a battle with you. Just because they live does not mean they live well! And just because they’re alive now-!”

“Yes, yes!” Daeva interrupted her dismissively. “The sooner we can stop them, the better! How far along are they on the Shadow Path?” She used her dark, gnarly wand to zoom out of their image in the cauldron. “Oh! Well, her alliance with the mortal is still new. Let’s see how long that lasts!”

Aidan and Yasmina had glossy eyes and weary faces as Ardeshir happily chirped, “…and cooked food! I’ve grown used to catching my dinner, but raw meat doesn’t compare to a slow-roasted duck or chicken…”

“You had to ask!” Aidan groaned.

Yasmina defended herself, “I knew he missed his human body, but I didn’t know there was so many things that-!”

Yasmina’s sentence got cut off when the three of them suddenly got ensnared in a net! They hung from the tree that hung over their path, but their high vantage point didn’t give them any clues as to who trapped them. They couldn’t see anyone around them, so Aidan took out a knife and began sawing at the meshed fibers. “It was probably a hunter. There are a few villages along the Shadow Path.”

“I can’t imagine living in these woods!” Yasmina commented.

“Hey!” Ardeshir responded. “I live here!”

Yasmina wondered, “Why?”

Before he could answer her question, an unfamiliar female’s voice exclaimed, “I don’t think so!” Aidan’s dagger got zapped out of his hands, and, at that moment, half a dozen people on broomsticks came into view! Yasmina could hardly see them in the dark, but it appeared that a mix of women and men circled them in their net. The same female spoke again, “Prince Aidan! We warned you what would happen if you returned to Santach!”

Although they couldn’t see their faces, they could see them all stop and raise their wands. Thinking fast, Yasmina raised her own wand and yelled, “Don’t you dare! He’s mine!”

The female sounded aghast, “You’re a witch?”

“Yes! And he is my prisoner.” The last sentence was a fib, but Yasmina sounded convincing. “I could have magicked us out, but I wanted this traitor to work harder. She wants him to come to her alive.” Yasmina privately thought that Aidan knew that she had just lied, but a part of her worried a little because his trust in her was important.

The female rejoiced, “Why didn’t you say so! Haben, get them down.” A man flew to the top of their net and used his wand to cut them down. As they landed the female went before them and introduced herself, “Welcome to Santach! My name is Maysa!”

Maysa extended her hand, and Yasmina hesitated extending her own, but then her instincts prompted her to do so. If she hadn’t done so, she would have raised some eyebrows, and she knew she had to do as much as possible to blend in with this crowd so that they didn’t question her motives. “Hello! My name is…Saphra. I’m so sorry I disturbed you! I was so focused on getting him to Duanolc that I didn’t pay attention to my footing.”

Haben raised his wand to Aidan once more. “We can do Master Daeva a service and dispose of him right now!”

“No!” Maysa slapped his hand down. “Clearly, Master Daeva needs him alive for a spell!” Yasmina tried not to look so puzzled because this character she created would know exactly what spell Daeva might use Aidan for, but she made a mental note to ask Ardeshir about it later. Maysa turned to her and invited, “It is nearly dawn; you must be exhausted from traveling all night! We can provide you some lodging so that you can get a bit of rest.”

Yasmina attempted to politely reject this offer, “I appreciate your offer, but we really should keep-.”

“I insist!” Maysa put a friendly arm behind Yasmina and led her towards her village. “Haben, watch over the prisoner.”

“But don’t hurt him!” Yasmina added. They may not have had motive to kill him now, but she did not want them to mistreat him either.

Maysa turned to see that he obeyed her instructions and saw that Haben had been waiting for Ardeshir to catch up. “Just leave that fleabag outside!”

Yasmina, feeling quite offended, contradicted her, “My familiar stays with me!”

For a moment, Yasmina worried that she had overstepped her boundaries, but the shocked look on Maysa’s face quickly changed to an impressed demeanor. “I like your fire! Come, cat! Keep up with your master!”

Yasmina felt a rush of gratitude to see Ardeshir scamper to her side, but she wished that she could see Aidan right now to make sure his spirit didn’t get broken by this venture. As she trotted alongside Maysa, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had done the right thing. She had hoped that when she claimed she had a detainee for Daeva that they would let them continue on their way, but now that they were traveling to Santach, she didn’t have assurance that she had made the right decision. Aidan had survived this region before and had better insight on these situations, but she couldn’t ask him for help. Ardeshir would have been an even greater resource, but he couldn’t speak now. If they could leave after taking a nap, she wouldn’t have worried about it, but somehow, she didn’t believe that it would be that simple. All she could think to do right now was wait for an opportune moment to return to the Shadow Path as they walked into the unknown.

The Shadow Path, Chapter 3

Right now?” Yasmina reacted.

Aidan had already turned to leave, but when he heard her say that, he went back to her and explained, “Every minute Daeva remains in power, more and more destruction plagues the kingdom! Buildings are crumbling, roads and bridges are collapsing, people are going hungry… They even control the weather! After a while, the foggy, misty air and a total lack of sunshine takes its toll on people! And those who dare to stand up to the tyranny face the wrath of the witches who oppress them! We can’t let them endure this torture a moment longer than necessary! I know you must feel nervous, we do have a daunting task ahead of us, but if we don’t move now, more of the innocent will suffer and our nerves could convince ourselves to give up. Lingering won’t make it any easier, so it’s best to leave immediately!”

“You’re right,” Yasmina remarked. “Immediate should be taken, but…well… I am a total novice when it comes to casting spells! I didn’t want to tempt myself to admitting that I actually can do magic. I limited myself to potions because I could heal people and make a little bit of money now and then, but I rarely dabbled with incantations because up until now, I didn’t think a good witch actually could exist! How can I help you face the grand sorceress when I’m so out of practice?”

“We won’t reach Duanolc tonight,” Aidan informed her. “The journey will take at least three days, possibly more. I know it’s not much, but-.”

“I’ll do my best with the time I have,” Yasmina assured him. She didn’t know how much she could learn in a few days, but somehow she believed that she possibly could learn a lot in a few day’s time. Aidan smiled gratefully, and Yasmina requested, “Just let me grab one thing.” She got a small glass vial off of a shelf above the fireplace and brought it to the clay pot with the healing potion in it. “We might need this.”

“I hope not,” Aidan half joked.

Yasmina grinned as she put a stopper in the vial. She grabbed her black, hooded cloak and exhaled, “I’m ready.”

“You are?” Aidan responded.

“No,” Yasmina replied, “but let’s go anyways.” Aidan and Yasmina chuckled as they left the cottage.

The sun had already set, and the moonlight illuminated the fog that hovered over the land. Even the Light Path gave off a spooky glow! Yasmina put her hood on to warm up, but that didn’t stop the cold from highlighting her breath. She steeled herself and set foot towards the right, but Aidan put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Actually, we’re going the other way.”

Yasmina’s eyes widened as she gazed upon the direction that he intended for them. “The Shadow Path? We can’t go down there! No one has gone down it without becoming evil! I saw it happen once! A man from Neodrach tried to follow this path to open up trade for our village, and when he came back, he was never the same. A lot of people never return at all! If I go down that path, being who I am…”

“I’ve been down the Shadow Path before,” Aidan relayed to her. “Do you think I’m evil?”

Yasmina stared at him incredulously. It never occurred to her before that he could have been inauthentic or have had intentions, but now she felt a little foolish for agreeing to this quest without verifying his character. She peered into his eyes and could see her lack of promptness on her answer hurt him in his core. She believed that he truly wanted to do good for the world, so she truthfully told him, “No! I trust you!”

He seemed relieved to hear her say that, but he didn’t mention it. Instead, he picked up a stick and drew in the dirt. “This is Caragsona. We’re right here, and Duanolc is here towards the end of the Shadow Path. We could head east towards Rogamaith and then north where most of the villages are, but we would still have to go on the Shadow Path at some point. Going east would also take twice as long. We don’t have time to lose; we have to go the most direct way!”

Yasmina stared wistfully at the map he had drawn. “Gosh, I didn’t realize how much of the land the Shadow Path has taken up! No wonder the kingdom hardly ever travels to Neodrach!”

“We’re going to change that!” Aidan pledged. “We’re going to open up trade between the villages and unify Caragosona once more! Listen, the Shadow Path is difficult to trek. There will be dangers that you can hardly imagine. People have given up and even perished. There will also be temptations to lose sight of our morals as well, but we won’t let that happen! We’re going to stay focused and we’re going to make it to make it to the end!” Yasmina admired his conviction but looked less convinced, so he stressed, “You have to believe this or your lack of confidence will betray you!”

“Okay! We’ll fight until the end!” Yasmian did her best to convey courage despite the dull fear that was slowly enveloping her body.

Aidan gave her a reassuring pat on her shoulders. “Let’s go!”

The closer they got to the Shadow Path, the more her heart pounded. She would have frozen completely if she didn’t feel obligated to walk alongside Aidan. The gnarly trees grew closer, and she had to remind herself to breathe. She had to calm herself down because if she got too worked up, she could release sparks. Aidan hadn’t expressed any concerns about conspicuousness, but she didn’t want to use her magic until he gave her assurance that it was safe to do so. She had gotten so lost in thought that she didn’t notice that the gnarly trees were now right beside them. “Wait, are we on the Shadow Path now?”

Aidan grinned. “What did you think would happen? We set one foot in this territory and automatically get attacked by a hairy beast?”

Yasmina laughed a little, and just when she thought the journey may not be so bad, they heard rustling in the nearby bushes! They stopped in their tracks, and Aidan drew his sword.

Meanwhile, from inside a dimly lit room with dark-stoned walls, two brazen, unkempt women dressed entirely in black stared at an image inside of a cauldron, not liking what they saw. They motioned behind them, and one of them paged, “Kadera, you should see this!”

Kadera hobbled over to them and peered into the cauldron, seeing Aidan and Yasmina cautiously approaching that bush. “So it begins! I didn’t think she would ever have the gall!”

“They found him!” the other woman pointed out.

“Don’t do anything yet,” Kadera directed. “A mortal and two magi who haven’t used their powers in years may not pose a threat to us. Let’s just allow them to discover what lies ahead and see what they can do.”

Aidan moved the branches of the bush with his sword to reveal a gray cat with one of its paws stuck between two branches! Yasmina exclaimed, “Oh, it’s just a cat! Poor thing!”

As she bent to help the struggling creature, Aidan warned, “Careful! Not everything in the forest is what it seems.”

Yasmina briefly considered this notion, but she could tell from its face that the cat was truly scared. “Well, if it’s a trap, there’s only one way to draw it out!” She gingerly picked up one of the branches, half expecting something dramatic to happen, but once the cat realized it was free, it gratefully mewed. It rubbed its head affectionately against Yasmina’s arm and purred. As Yasmina pet it, she smiled and told the cat, “You’re welcome!”

Aidan waited a moment before he suggested, “We should get going.”

“You’re right.” Yasmina turned to the cat and cautioned it, “Be careful out there, okay?” It stared at her but gave no indication that it understood her. Yasmina got up and rejoined Aidan. As they were walking, out of the corner of her eye, Yasmina saw the cat following them. “Oh no, kitty! Don’t follow us!”

The cat stopped because Aidan and Yasmian had done so. Yasmina tried to gently shoo it away, but it wouldn’t budge. Yasmina was worried about the cat’s well being if it followed them, so Aidan assured her, “Once we come across something dangerous, it’ll run away.” Yasmina didn’t seem comforted, but she knew they couldn’t afford to waste more time, so she reluctantly allowed the cat to follow them.

Not long after they began again, they heard noise in the distance ahead of them. They froze in their tracks and listened carefully. It sounded as though a large pack of dogs was in the distance! The cat jumped into a nearby tree, and Aidan drew his sword again. Yasmina admonished herself for not thinking to bring a weapon for this journey. She searched the area for something she could use, but all she could find was a large stick. It would have to due, she figured. As the sound grew louder, they expected to her the pitter-patter of dogs’ feet on the ground, but they only heard a single pair of hooves. Aidan and Yasmina had no idea what to expect now but stood at the ready to defend themselves anyhow.

All of a sudden, the cacophony stopped, and for a moment, the forest grew silent. Aidan and Yasmina didn’t get fooled though and waited at the ready. Without warning, something large zoomed towards them and pinned Aidan to the ground! Yasmina gasped when saw the beast, which had the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, and the hooves of a deer! It brandished its fangs at Aidan, who ardently tried to reach his sword. Yasmina ran over to it and hit it with her stick. The monster’s body was so massive that it broke her stick in half! It flung her away, sending her flying to the nearby trees! Aidan used this distraction to roll away and grab his sword. He fought furiously but couldn’t strike it because of its rapid movements. Yasmina watched helplessly on the sidelines, wracking her brain on what to do. She pointed her stick towards the beast, desperately willing her magic to appear and assist him. Nothing happened. She whipped it around a few times but yielded the same result. She moaned, “I can do magic on accident, why not now?”

At that moment, a male’s voice from above her bellowed, “Concentrate! Will it to come out from inside your body!”

Yasmina had no clue who had advised her just then, but there wasn’t time to figure it out. She closed her eyes and looked for the energy within her. She pointed her stick towards the creature, willing the energy to shoot out. Suddenly, she sense some of it leave her fingers and latch onto the stick. She saw the beast pinning Aidan to the ground again, so she whipped her stick in that direction. The monster groaned in pain as it shot off of Aidan and onto the floor! Aidan quickly stood over it and chopped off of its head! Though he was winded, he turned to Yasmina and congratulated, “You did a spell!”

“I did!” Yasmina reacted gleefully.

They rejoined each other on the path and celebrated for a moment. Aidan complimented her, “Good job!”

“Thanks!” she said gratefully.

Aidan remarked, “And you were worried! You ended up figuring it out on your own!”

“I didn’t figure it out on my own.” Yasmina gazed up at the trees above them. “A man told me how.”

“A man?” Aidan puzzled.

Yasmina eyeballed the tree above where she landed during the foray and told Aidan, “Someone saw me struggling to use my magic and explained how to do it.” She called to the tree, “Good sir! Please show yourself so we can properly thank you!”

Adian looked confused but he, too, waited for a response. Yasmina didn’t think she would find an ally on the Shadow Path, but someone had given her guidance that had saved both of their lives! It wasn’t just in her head, though she remembered the Shadow Path’s reputation for driving people mad, and so she feverishly hoped the one responsible would prove he was real too!

Suddenly, the cat that had been following them plopped down onto the path in front of them. Aidan and Yasmina stared at it curiously, and to their total shock, it spoke, “Funny, I didn’t know you were a witch!”

The Shadow Path, Chapter 2

Who’s there?” Yasmina put her book down on the bed next to her. Usually, she could hear a visitor’s reply from that side of the cottage, and while she could tell the caller was male, the voice sounded too muffled for her to clearly understand the message. With a slight annoyance, she got up and walked over to the door. She cracked it open just wide enough for her eye to see who had knocked. All she saw was a dark, green hooded cloak, which covered most of the man’s face. She opened the door wider and ushered him inside. “Come in.”

The man quickly entered but awkwardly stood in one place. Yasmina went to close the back window and told the stranger, “Have a seat on the rug.” The man did as she instructed, staring into her small fireplace where a flame burned brightly. He hadn’t taken off his hood, but Yasmina didn’t seem fazed as she sat down three clay pots before him. As she sat down, she inquired, “What are you looking for?”

The man replied, “The people say you’re the Magi of Neodrach.”

Yasmina felt a jolt of surprise to hear how commanding and yet warm his voice had sounded. She didn’t know anyone who sounded like that, and her curiosity began to rise. “You found me. What kind of elixir do you need? I have a healing potion ready.” She uncovered one of the clay pots to show a burgundy liquid. “I also have a remedy for sleeplessness and another for energy.” She revealed the other two as she mentioned them, and then she put down a large tome in front of him. “I can create something else if you need it. What did you have in mind?” She couldn’t see his expression, but she could see his head bob between the objects she laid out. She didn’t hear a reaction from him, so she added, “If you’ve come for a poison or anything dangerous, you can leave now because I don’t do that.”

Finally, the man spoke, “What kind of spells can you cast?”

Yasmina found this question peculiar. No one had ever asked her that before, and she didn’t understand his motives for doing so. “I specialize in more of the apothecary field.”

“You didn’t say you couldn’t do it,” he pointed out.

Yasmina started to get uncomfortable. She stood up and folded her arms as she addressed him, “Are you here to buy something or to mock me?”

“No, no, no!” He quickly stood up to fall in step with her. “I apologize, I had no intentions of offending you! I need help, and I wanted to know what you could do.”

Yasmina eyed him suspiciously. “Who sent you?”

“No one!” he immediately responded.

“Do you work for the king?” she probed.

“No!” he said adamantly.

She gave him a hard look before she turned her back on him. “I’m not a witch! I’m not evil! You can’t prove any-!”

He interrupted, “Not all witches are evil!”

She turned back around and stared at him in shock. In her whole life, she had never heard anyone say that! “Are you a warlock?”

“No,” he answered.

Yasmina had enough. “Who are you?” He hesitated, so she ordered, “Take off your hood!”

He didn’t do it right away, but he could tell from her demeanor that he had no choice. She didn’t have any clue what he would reveal, but it never occurred to her that he could be handsome! He had dark brown eyes that reflected deep thoughts, and his expression suggested a kind nature. His olive skin was smooth but bore a few scratches and bruises. He appeared around her age, perhaps a little older, and at that observance, she knew he didn’t come from this village. He bashfully admitted, “My name is Aidan.”

“Aidan?” Her first instinct was to not believe him, but a part of her pointed to the evidence. He had an aura of royalty, but he also had a wild look that a person might have after surviving a dangerous territory. The idea was still hard to believe though. “As in Prince Aidan?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.

Yasmina shook her head. “No! Prince Aidan died when King Dorian took the throne.”

“As far as he knows, I died along with my family,” Aidan told her. “I escaped, but I couldn’t return to the castle, not without help, which is why I’m here.” He took a deep breath and explained, “Ten years ago, my parents set sail to do business overseas. Not long after they left, an explosion sounded from their ship. Before my brother and I had time to even comprehend what happened, our castle was invaded. The Duke of Eidoman ran inside Rogamaith and found a massacre. After the funeral, they declared him king. This is what he told the kingdom, and all of this is true, but that’s where his honesty ends.”

“It always seemed strange that no one had any clue who did it,” Yasmina recalled.

“There’s a reason for that,” Aidan affirmed. “There was a plot to make sure that Dorian became king, but it wasn’t for his benefit. He was a puppet for someone more powerful who controls him.” Yasmina looked taken aback by his claim but did not challenge its validity. He went on, “After my parents left, my brother met with some advisors regarding his duties as next in line for the throne. I went to the other side of Rogamaith to take a nap in my chambers. Not long after I closed my eyes, I heard an explosion from the ocean. I immediately ran to the window facing that direction and saw my parents’ ship completely engulfed in flames.” He choked up a bit at this point, but he soon continued, “Before any of us could react, we heard commotion coming from the entrance of the castle. The guards were clearly fighting for their lives, so we ran to help. We didn’t get far before they found us…witches!”

“What!” Yasmina gasped. She expected a formidable opponent, but she didn’t see the story going in that direction. Her stomach twisted a a little because of her association with that realm.

“They flew in on broomsticks, pointing wands left and right, shooting spells at everyone they saw. Our weapons were useless! When I saw a wand pointed at me, I iimmediately collapsed. It didn’t hit me, but I played dead. Do you know how maddening it is to listen to people dying without being able to do anything about it?” Aidan paused as the memory haunted him for a moment. “After a while, the place was quiet. The witches surveyed their work and started celebrating. A woman who they called Daeva chided them for doing so. They were supposed to vacate the castle immediately so her puppet could find the bodies. The instant I couldn’t hear them anymore, I rushed to a secret exit and got away from Rogamaith as fast as I could! When I got far enough, I turned to see it one more time. I actually saw Duke Dorian arrive as Daeva said he would. I didn’t stay long, really, I shouldn’t have stayed at all, but I had to…say goodbye!”

A tear came down his cheek, so Yasmina handed him a handkerchief, which he graciously accepted. She gave him some time before she queried, “What have you been doing all this time?”

He replied, “I realized that I was now the rightful ruler of Caragsona, but I couldn’t take my lawful seat on the throne because a witch was always guarding the castle. I think they were secretly looking for me since they never found my body. The only way to save my kingdom was to seize control from the witches. I traveled the country learning all I could about them, and I couldn’t find any way a mere mortal could defeat a magical being. The only way Daeva and her coven could get defeated was through another witch. I’ve spent the last ten years trying to find one who I could convince to help me, but no one would do it, they’re all on Daeva’s side! I couldn’t give up though, not with so much of Caragsona collapsing because of their control! I knew somewhere, someday I would find a witch who would use her powers for good!” He stared Yasmina straight in her eyes and asked, “Are you that witch?”

Yasmina didn’t answer at first. She felt disturbed to learn that Caragsona got hijacked by evil witches, and her first instinct inclined her to help a kind soul who needed it, but her nerves were gnawing at the pit of her gut. If she opened this door, she feared the the wicked nature of a witch would take over her entire being. Admitting her identity would force her to embrace the very thing she worked so hard to escape. “Kadera the Soothsayer predicted I would try to kill the king!”

“She said you would try,” Aidan emphasized. “She told you snippets of your future to scare you, but did she tell you everything? Did she tell you that she’s also a witch?”

This revelation struck a nerve for Yasmina. “She’s a what? Ugh! She made me feel like I’m a terrible person, she convinced everyone in Neodrach that I’m a terrible person, and this whole time, she…ugh!”

“She saw something in you,” Aidan surmised. “A rival, someone who had the potential to collapse the empire they were building!”

“How could she possibly know that?” Yasmina wondered. “I’m no one special.”

Aidan responded by asking, “If you knew you had these powers, how come you’ve never used them to steal, harm, or destroy things? Or people? Have you ever been tempted to use them for your own ill gain?”

“Of course not!”

“Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

Yasmina had never thought about that before, and it certainly rang true for her. She felt a little better about herself, but she still felt hesitant about his plan. “If I were to help you, and if we succeeded, you’ll get your throne, but how is my life going to be different? How do I know you wouldn’t use me and throw me away when you’re done?”

“I give you my word that if you help me save my kingdom, I will make sure that you will live a life of dignity!” Aidan promised. “I also can assure you that if I can’t find anyone to help me, our land will crumble and decay. I know it’s asking a lot, and all you have is my word, but give me a chance to prove myself! If I show signs of betrayal, you’re free to leave. That won’t happen though because this is far too important!” He gave her a moment to mull it over before he ardently asked her, “So, are you a good witch?”

Yasmina feared that accepting this mission would risk what little she had, and she didn’t feel entirely assured that all would end well. Everything happened so suddenly, and her overwhelming emotions clouded her judgment. She didn’t think she could give an answer until she gazed into his eyes. His pleading pulled at her heartstrings, and her inner guidance urged her to do the right thing. She closed her eyes and forced herself to admit, “Yes, I am.” She opened her eyes, feeling strange. The truth was out there, and now suddenly the air felt different. The feeling both cleansed and frightened her! Something deep within her flowed free for the first time, and she knew the universe agreed with the path she chose!

Aidan asked her, “Will you help me in this quest?”

Yasmina answered him, “Yes.”

Aidan smiled in relief. “Thank you! We don’t have a moment to lose! It’s time to begin!”