“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!”