“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.