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.

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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 1

She’s coming! She’s coming!” one of Yasmina’s young friends shouted gleefully into her ears as she slept. Yasmina woke with a start as her friend scampered out of her cottage. She ran to the mirror by the door, which had some cracks and blemishes but still did the job. She quickly brushed her long, blonde hair with her fingers and used her fingers to get the smudges off of her fair skin. She straightened out her dress to make the coarse material as neat as possible. She didn’t expect to get chosen since she was still a child, but it did happen once in a while. She glanced across the room and saw that her parents were still asleep in their bed. She decided not to wake them as she ran out of the house.

Young people who were as young as as Yasmina stood alongside men and women who were as old as twenty. Those who had already gone through this gathered on the sidelines of the town square as they all waited eagerly for her arrival. A few people did some last minute cleaning, shining the water well and clearing away the clutter, when the town crier appeared and announced, “Here ye, here ye! Citizens of Neodrach, please welcome Kadera, the soothsayer of Caragsona!”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and stood at attention. An old woman with stringy, gray hair and a tattered black cloak hobbled towards them, relying heavily on a knobbly cane. She poised herself before the gathered youth, eyeing them as if she were reading text above their heads. Yasmina silently prayed that she would get chosen, and excitement flooded her veins as Kadera slowly inched forward. Kadera stopped in front of a young woman and told her, “You shall be a farmer’s wife. You will work hard but be very happy.” The woman beamed as she rejoined her family. Kadera hobbled down the line and suddenly stopped in front of a boy. “You shall be a blacksmith. You start as an apprentice but one day you will get the higher position.” The young man celebrated quietly as he got out of line. Kadera hobbled closer and closer to Yasmina, whose heart pounded wildly. Her hopes were, however, immeasurably dashed as Kadera past her and stood before another child. “You will grow to be a servant for the future king!” The child seemed too stunned to move, and his family had to fetch him. The rest of the of the youth waited with high hopes that she might pick a fourth, but Kadera instructed someone in the distance, “Prepare my horses, that will be all!” She turned to leave, and the youth who weren’t chosen groaned in disappointment. Despite their dejected feelings, everyone still glowed just to be graced by her presence.

The villagers all turned to each other about the recent fates that were given. Yasmira met her friend under the shade of a yew tree and chirped, “That was so exciting!”

Her friend remarked, “I know! I can’t wait to get chosen! I wonder what I’ll end up doing with my life!”

“Me too!” Yasmina agreed. “I’d rather find out sooner rather than later. Still, it was really interesting to see others find out their fate.”

Her friend disagreed, “Two of them are going to stay in our peasant village, and one will get close to royalty. No one is going to become royalty. Maybe next time someone will! Ooh, better yet, I hope next time she says someone will go down the Shadow Path!”

“Saphra!” Yasmina exclaimed. “No one in our village is that evil!”

“You never know!” Saphra commented. “Evil comes from the most unexpected places sometimes!”

Yasmina stated, “I hope that she says the Shadow Path will get destroyed so the other villages will visit us again.”

Saphra scoffed, “Why would you want that? Our town runs just fine without them!”

“Not really,” Yasmina argued. “We barely make enough to survive. If we got more business, we could see all kinds of different fates! Like, maybe some of us would become a noble! Or a sailor! I mean, don’t get me wrong, it will be exciting to learn what we’ll do in Neodrach, but we kind of already know what we’re going to do here. There’s only so many jobs here. So, unless they venture down the Light Path to work for the royals, we’ll all work hard just to survive here.”

“Unless one of us goes down the Shadow Path!” Saphra giggled. Yasmina rolled her eyes and laughed.

Several years later, Yasmira stood in that line again. She had done this so many times now that she had stopped feeling so nervous, but now that she had reached adulthood, she felt her time had come. She was one of the oldest in the group, but that didn’t bother her much. Everyone would get their turn, so if she didn’t get chosen this time, she knew her time would come eventually. She spotted Saphra in the crowd with her husband gave her a little wave. Saphra and her infant daughter waved right back. Suddenly, a chill went down her spine as if the weather had abruptly changed, and she knew it was time!

Kadera hobbled over to a young man and predicted, “You will work in the horse stalls and mary the stable girl.” Upon hearing this, he excitedly ran off. She went in front of a young woman and told her, “You shall marry the grave digger and bear lots of children with him.” The girl practically squealed as she jumped and clapped with delight. Yasmina silently wished them well but secretly didn’t envy them. She did feel a twinge of jealousy that they now knew their fate, but neither option sounded so lucrative. She needed a vocation, but the idea of the humdrum lifestyles that her village offered didn’t thrill her much. She secretly hoped that Kadera would promise a life of adventure, but she didn’t know how that was possible.

She had been so lost in thought that it took a while to notice that Kadere was standing before her! Everyone waited with bated breath, and the tension from the villagers was palpable. Yasmina hadn’t realized it before, but Kadera never smiled. The many lines on her face actually gave her an almost menacing demeanor. She never noticed her eyes before either. They were a very light gray and almost milky, and yet they had a shrewdness about them that sent shivers down her spine. They were deep, and she could almost see her celestial thoughts swirling. The more she stared at her, the more uncomfortable she became. She wished that Kadera would reveal her fate and get it over with! The crowd murmured a bit, clearly questioning why she took so long with Yasmina. Just when Yasmina thought she couldn’t take it anymore, Kadera unexpectedly announced, “You are a witch!”

The crowd gasped, and Yasmina’s thoughts hadn’t registered the reality of what just happened yet. It almost felt like a sick joke. Everyone stared at her in shock, and all she could think to say was, “What?”

Kadera elaborated, “You are a witch. Soon your powers will grow, and you will try to kill the king!”

“No!” Yasmina refused to accept this. “I’m not a murderer! I’m a good person! Surely, there’s a job for me! Don’t I at least find true love?”

“No,” Kadera insisted. “You will be penniless and very lonely.”

Yasmina’s heart sunk, and it hurt her so much to hear such insulting predictions. “No! You made a mistake! You-!”

“I do not make mistakes!” Kadera snapped. “I have spoken, and my word is final!” Kadera hobbled away, and all of Yasmina’s hopes were dashed as she watched her leave.

Once Kadera was out of sight, Yasmina turned to the villagers, who stared at her in horror. “Look, I’m not a witch!” She took a step towards them, and they all backed away. “You’ve known me for years, you know it isn’t true!” Everyone stared in disbelief and a growing distrust. She found Saphra and pleaded, “Saphra, tell them!”

Saphra scooped up her child and scowled. “Stay away from my baby, witch!”

Yasmina felt utterly bewildered by her friend’s betrayal. As she saw everyone’s loathsome expression, she started to grow frustrated. “Just because Kadera said it doesn’t mean it’s true!” They all look insulted at her criticism of the soothsayer, which caused her to bellow, “Ugh! I am not a witch!” She felt the anger course through her veins, and it flooded to the tips of her fingers. To her astonishment, green shots sparked out! She stared at her hands incredulously; she had never done that before! She refused to comprehend what it meant and turned back to the crowd, but they were all gone. Despite her disappointment and new obstacles, she vowed to find a way to have a real life.

Her parents had gathered her things in a box and had it waiting for her when she got home. She tried to open the door, but it was locked. She knocked and begged to come inside, but her parents refused. With tears rolling down her face, she picked up her meager possessions and walked away. She went to almost everyone in town searching for someone who would take her in, but not a single soul did. She stood outside the entrance of Neodrach and stared forlornly. She didn’t want to say goodbye to her home, and she bitterly regretted thinking such ill things about their humble lifestyles. She sighed and turned the other way.

Before her stood a fork with two paths. The one on the left had gnarly trees, dark leaves, and storm clouds overhead. No matter what Kadera said, Yasmina refused to go down that path! Her only alternative seemed to be down the Light Path. She saw plenty of sunshine and lush, green plants down this way, and she knew that the king’s castle was located down this way. In her heart, she knew she wouldn’t kill the king, so she felt perfectly safe going down to Rogamaith to ask for help. She steeled herself and headed down the Light Path.

Not that long after setting foot on this path did something catch her eye. On the right side of the path, between some trees, she saw a small cottage. She didn’t realize that anyone lived outside of Neodrach until this moment! She treaded the lawn and walked up the rickety steps carefully. When she knocked on the door, it swung right open. She could instantly tell that the house was abandoned, and she realized that she had found her new home!

The house stood close enough to the village for her to walk there, and after giving them a little time to recover, she did venture back. In time, a few people acknowledged her without flinching. When people were desperate, they gave her work to do, helping them with their vocations when they were swamped. She managed to earn enough to keep herself from going hungry and even had a little leftover to fix up the house a bit. She didn’t have much space, but she did what she could to make it feel like home. She even cleared the brush away so she could see the village from her back window. Her successes weren’t frequent, and she didn’t get to stay at any job for too long. Often times, she went months without finding work. Despite her struggles, she took some solace in the fact that although she sometimes emitted magic, she had refused to succumb to her predicted fate.

The years rolled by, and she watched generations grow and form their lives. She grew to her thirties, and she began to lose hope of ever having a happy life. No one seemed to be motivated to give her a permanent position, and she wondered if she really would struggle her whole life as foretold. She even dared to hope that she would find a husband who could help her with the house and consistent money, but she was no longer young with a taut little body. She was growing older, and the more time that went by, the more she doubted that she would ever become a bride. She agonized over different plans to change her situation, but she was at a point where she drew a blank. She had tried so many different things, and nothing ever worked out, so she didn’t know what more she could do. All that she came up with was to keep searching for work and hope for the best. That’s all she could do right then…

…Or so she thought! The possibility never occurred to her, but it came on a seemingly ordinary night when she heard on a knock on her door…

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 24

A dull ringing pierced her ears, and Gwynivara couldn’t figure out where it originated from. She could feel something pressing against her cheek, something hard, bumpy, and cold. Darkness clouded her entire vision, and she briefly wondered if she had died. The feeling in her head started to come back, and it felt sore all over. At this point, she realized her eyes had been closed this whole time. When she tried to open them, her head throbbed sharply. She knew it would hurt, but she had to get her eyes open. They were so heavy, which made it difficult to lift her eyelids, but slowly, she did just that. At first, all she saw was a beige, brick wall, and that didn’t give her any clues as to where she had woken up. Memories slowly flooded back, and the last thing she recalled was walking down a dark street towards the mountain. She remembered seeing a bright light before everything went hazy. A shadowy figure had stood before her, and everything after that remained a mystery.

She heard groaning next to her, and it dawned on her that she had her people with her when she got attacked and didn’t know if they were safe or not. She bolted up and saw them laying in a heap on the ground. Thankfully, she felt a cascade of relief as she saw that they were all breathing and starting to stir. She wanted to reach out to them, but she couldn’t move her arms, and it then occurred to her that her hands were bound. Before she could process anything else, she heard a door open, and the light from the other room practically blinded her. A familiar voice observed, “Oh good, you’re awake.”

It took her a moment to recognize him, but her subconscious figured it out. Without thinking, she inquired, “Chief Forsythe?”

The door closed, and in the dim light of the room, Gwynivara confirmed that it was, indeed, Chief Forsythe. She felt fully awake now and after noticing the bars, she figured out that they were locked up in a jail cell. Chief Forsythe informed her, “While you were unconscious, we ran your fingerprints. We know who you are. I ordered my men to surround the place, so don’t try any funny stuff!”

As the Rebel officers woke up, Gwynivara felt comforted knowing for sure they were alright so that she could focus on finding answers on what happened and why they were there. She knew that Chief Forsythe didn’t keep them here for no reason. “What do you want?”

Chief Forsythe told her, “The only reason you’re not in quarantine is the FBI wants to talk to you. They’re driving down from DC as we speak.”

“The FBI?” Kierram questioned.

“Yes,” Chief Forsythe replied. “They believe that you’re in possession of illegal weapons.”

Bernadette objected, “We paid for those! You know who my father is! We have the money!”

Chief Forsythe argued, “One of my officers nearly got killed in an unnatural way. Don’t tell me you did that legally! Besides, why would innocent citizens possess a military level arsenal?”

“Not for any malicious reasons!” Gwynivara countered. “We’re simply training.”

“Training for what?” Chief Forsythe probed.

Gwynivara hesitated. She certainly didn’t owe him an explanation, and truthfully, she didn’t see the point of one. Either way, whether she helped him or not, they were going to get set to quarantine, so she didn’t see how telling him anything about the mission would help the Rebels out. Plus, she certainly didn’t want to give away where the rest of the Rebels were hiding or the weapons that they had. However, she remembered what Rebekah had disclosed with them about her father. He desperately wanted to find a cure, so much so that he got tunnel vision in an attempt to find it. He probably had no idea how much his officers were manipulating him. She didn’t know how else to help her people out other than get on his good side. It was a long shot, but she decided a small chance was better than no chance. She took a deep breath and revealed, “Partly, we have to defend ourselves against your men. Not because they want to hurt us, but they’re trying to use us to spread Venenatus Sanguis!”

“Bull shit!” Chief Forsythe clearly didn’t believe her, which she was the reaction she expected to get at first.

Bernadette put in, “It’s true. They’re just using you!”

Chief Forsythe refuted, “You’re spreading the disease by refusing to be quarantined. They’re helping us contain it.”

“Oh yeah?” Kierram disputed. “Haven’t you noticed things getting more hectic since they were sworn in?” Chief Forsythe didn’t say anything, but they could tell he was refusing to admit it to them. “They’re using their position of power to make it more widespread, and they’re doing it in plain sight!”

Chief Forsythe obviously didn’t want to believe them. Before he could debate the issue further, he got distracted by the noise of commotion outside. Everyone listened intently as it sounded like the policemen out there had encountered someone causing trouble, and the Rebels were especially interested in who it may be, hoping some of their comrades were coming to rescue them. Gwynivara didn’t have a clue how they would get out of this, but she hoped that the others had found a way to outsmart the police force. To their dismay, the noise died down, and Chief Forsythe turned his attention back to them. “Why would my men want to spread Venenatus Sanguis?”

Gwynivara explained, “They work for the one who created the disease! They’re double agents trying to stop us from getting the cure!”

Before Chief Forsythe could respond, they heard commotion in the hallway. Chief Forsythe stood up in a ready position as a couple of policemen burst in. One of them frantically apologized, “I’m sorry, sir! We tried to stop her!”

They could see a female push past the group of policemen, and everyone’s curiosity peaked. When her presence came in to view, Chief Forsythe gasped, “Rebekah!”

As he stepped towards her, Rebekah brandished a dagger to her throat and warned him, “Don’t come any closer!”

“Rebekah!” Chief Forsythe said in complete astonishment. Some policemen pointed their guns at her, and so Chief Forsythe bellowed, “Stand down! That’s my daughter!” After the policemen reluctantly put down their weapons, Chief Forsythe took another step towards her, “Rebekah…!”

“I’ll do it!” She furrowed the dagger further into her neck, which actually drew a little bit of blood.

“Okay, okay!” Chief Forsythe stepped back, viscerally scared. “Why are you doing this?”

“You’re keeping the cure from us!” Before Chief Forsythe could object, she went on, “If they’re in here, the origin will get away and we’ll never get the cure! I’m not spending the rest of my life trapped like a rat! I won’t do it!”

“What do you mean by the origin?” Chief Forsythe asked.

Gwynivara nervously answered, “The origin of Venenatus Sanguis.”

Manically, Rebekah commanded, “Listen to them or I’ll do it!”

Chief Forsythe turned to the Rebels with a grave look on his face. “Talk.”

Gwynivara told him, “The origin is hiding in the Athas Ridge. That’s the reason we were in that neighborhood and that’s why they ambushed us there.”

“They told me you were hiding there,” Chief Forsythe remarked.

Bernadette commented, “They did that to keep you away from the one with the cure! They’ve been deceiving you from the beginning because they work for the origin. They use the badge to help spread the disease without consequences.”

“They’re also using it to suppress what you know about Venenatus Sanguis,” Kierram added. “They have people on the inside of the Public Health Center who destroy any research people find relating to the truth of the cure.”

“That was them? They told me you did it!” Chief Forsythe shook his head. “I don’t know! I can’t just release you! You’re criminals and you make our streets unsafe!”

Gwynivara calmly responded, “With all due respect, the only real law we broke was evading quarantine. We got the weapons to protect ourselves against your men, but we also have been training to fight against the origin. We don’t really know what to expect though. She’s from another planet, so our weapons could end up being useless. We don’t know! We would love to have a peaceful negotiation with her, but considering she’s trying to destroy the planet, I highly doubt that’ll happen. The Rebellion exists so we can find the cure and save lives. We’re no threat to the public!”

“You may not intend to hurt the public,” Chief Forsythe debated, “but you still create those monsters. That makes you dangerous, and I gotta protect the citizens of this city. No one would stand for your kind being around them!”

“That’s not true!” Rebekah vehemently disagreed. “My boyfriend doesn’t have it, and-!”

“Boyfriend?” Chief Forsythe certainly didn’t seem to have expected to hear that.

“That’s right!” Rebekah confirmed. “”He loves me and wants to be with me; he doesn’t care that I have the disease! He cares about all of the Rebels! He even risked his life to follow them tonight and make sure that they were safe!” Gwynivara and the others were surprised to hear this, but it did explain how Rebekah knew that they were in trouble.

Chief Forsythe didn’t look totally sold. “That’s great he accepts you, but don’t you think it’s irresponsible to be around people who don’t have it? You’re putting them at risk!”

“No I’m not!” Rebekah exclaimed. “If we’re happy, we don’t create beasts! Actually, they can harness the Venenatus Sanguis to do their bidding!”

“Is this true?” Chief Forsythe asked the Rebels.

Gwynivara answered, “Yes, it’s true. That’s how I defended myself outside of the military supply store.”

“Why haven’t you shared this with the Public Health Center?” As soon as the sentence came out, he figured it out. “Oh, right.” He furrowed his brow as he contemplated everything. “What if you’re lying?”

“If you give us a chance to confront the origin and get the cure,” Gwynivara explained, “and if after everything, you still feel like we’ve deceived you, we will happily return to our jail cell. But if we’re right, we can save a lot of lives!”

Chief Forsythe took a moment to really wrestle with his decision. He glanced at his daughter and finally relented, “Fine. Now, is there anything you need from me before you go?”

Inspiration striking her, Gwynivara replied, “Actually, there is one thing…”

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 23

Are you serious?” Kierram asked her.

“Like I would joke about something like this!” Gwynivara pulled out the orb, which showed a crude map with a red dot resting just outside the area that Rick lived in. “It’s been sitting there since last night.”

Bernadette inquired, “You think the origin is somewhere in that neighborhood?”

“No,” Gwynivara replied. “If you were the origin, would you let people visit your house willy-nilly?”

“Of course not,” Kierram agreed. “They must have some kind of security check.”

Bernadette surmised, “They found the tracking device.”

“Exactly!” Gwynivara analyzed the evidence, “They would stop somewhere on the way to their hideout but still far enough away so that if they were followed they wouldn’t give away the origin’s location. What would you do if you found a tracking device on your property? Take it off and immediately chuck it right?” Kierram and Bernadette nodded in agreement. “It’s the natural human reaction if you find something unsettling. Once it was off, they probably thought they were in the clear. They could have gone anywhere from there, in theory, but what lies just beyond that neighborhood?”

“The Great Dismal Mountains!” Bernadette exclaimed. “The mountains would be the perfect place to hide, very secluded!”

“There’s a few trails and camping grounds in that range,” Kierram contemplated. “But it starts to get pretty gnarly along the Athas Ridge. If the origin is in a place to avoid detection, it would be there.”

“Totally,” Bernadette concurred. “But there are three peaks in that area- Cinealtas, Obair Chrua, and Misneach. We couldn’t scale them all ‘cause the origin and their henchmen would figure out what we’re doing and stop us before we found the correct one. So, how do we know which one is the right peak?”

“There would be signs before we got there,” Gwynivara reasoned. “When we get there, we can narrow it down.” Suddenly, it all became real to her. She knew all along that this was the end game, but now that the time had come, it frightened her. She thought out loud, “We’re not prepared! I just got here, I don’t know all the battle plans! I only got a couple lessons on harnessing my Venenatus Sanguis! I barely know what I’m doing! And the others- I didn’t get enough skills to teach anyone to do it too! And a lot of the officers are brand new! They didn’t even get weapons training yet! I can’t… I mean, right now? I-!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Kierram cut her off. “It’s okay! We can wait and do more training if that’s what you think is best, and if this was a military operation, that’s exactly what I’d do. But really, we don’t know what the enemy is capable of. We could be dealing with weapons that we can’t even fathom, so all of that training could be a waste of time. When we get there, if we get a chance to do some reconnaissance, we will, but I think the only way we’re going to know for sure what to expect from the origin is to confront it head on. We need to act quickly, lives are at stake!”

“Kierram’s right,” Bernadette added. “We can train the officers and make them experts at everything and still have shit go wrong. Either way, this could be a suicide mission. The important thing is that we take a stand, let the origin know that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable! No matter what, if we all live or die, the origin would hear our message. The fact that we stood up to them at all would let them know they’re not infallible and someday, our planet will stop them! We’re all capable of telling them that, so, I would say we’re all ready for this.”

Gwynivara knew they were both right and calmed down as much as a person could in a situation like this. She mulled it over for a bit and concluded, “We’re not all going to die. If all of the officers perish, we still have Rebels staying here who would carry on our message. And we could appoint a designated survivor to recruit more officers. We could tell him where we’re going so if we don’t return, he could find us. Oh, and we can let the origin know this so she knows even if she slaughters us all, she’s not safe! We could use that as leverage for…”

She stopped mid-sentence as she heard footsteps approaching. She quickly stashed the orb away as Agnes poked her head in. “We got lunch for all of you if you’re hungry.”

“Oh yes, thank you!” Gwynivara tried to maintain a normal tone, but she could tell Agnes suspected something was up. Agnes didn’t say anything though, and after she left, Gwynivara whispered, “How are we going to do this?”

In a large dining room, several Rebels ate sandwiches with Agnes in an awkward silence. Gwynivara couldn’t tell if it was due to a similar sense of wariness that they all picked up on or because she was a stranger to them. Riley broke the spell by saying, “Great sandwiches, Mrs. Ashling!”

Gwynivara wondered how she would convey vital information while Agnes was present, but she suddenly got an idea. “Oh yes, they remind me of the ones we ate by the Athas Ridge, remember Riley?”

“Athas Ridge? We never ate any sandwiches by the…” In the middle of his sentence, it clicked for him what Gwynivara meant. “Oh right! I remember now! Yes, these are very similar.”

Catching on to Gwynivara’s tactic, Kierram casually suggested, “We should take the Rebel officers there for a hike.”

“When?” Riley replied.

“How about tonight?” Bernadette proposed.

Trying to hide his growing anxiety, Riley probed, “Tonight? So soon? Shouldn’t we wait to do an outing like that?”

“If we don’t do it soon, it could be too late and we’ll never get another chance.” After Bernadette spoke, she saw her mother glance up, so she quickly added, “The first snow of the season is due anytime.”

Riley remarked, “I understand. I guess it makes sense to do it tonight, but some of your Rebels aren’t very experienced with…hiking. Are you sure you want us all go tonight?”

Gwynivara told him, “Actually, I was thinking that you should stay here and teach them everything you know. Then if we…get lost or something, you can lead them to where we went.”

“You want me to stay behind?” Riley’s eyes widened and his voice crackled a little, but he did his best to maintain a normal tone. “But if something happened to you all, that would make me in charge! Are you sure I’m the most qualified person to-?”

Kierram interrupted, “You’ve been with the Rebellion the longest. You know what needs to be done. If you can’t do a specific task, you know who to appoint for the role. No one could do it better than you. So, we’ll take the Rebel officers tonight, and you can hold down the fort here, okay?”

“But…!” Riley saw the logic, but Gwynivara could see that emotionally, he didn’t want to let them go.

Unexpectedly, Agnes put in, “Oh, come on boy! There’ll be other hikes! You can handle things on your own for one night! Personally, I’d take any excuse to stay home! Hiking is too much work! But whatever floats your boat, I guess. Just make sure you bring something to fend off those mountain lions!” To their relief, Agnes appeared to have totally bought that hiking alibi.

Riley sighed, “As long as it really is just one night!” Gwynivara, Bernadette, Kierram looked to the other Rebel officers in the room, who all nodded at each other. It suddenly got hard to eat the rest of their meal normally, not now that it was official- they were going to confront the origin tonight!

As the Rebel officers walked down the street in that neighborhood leading to the mountains, no one spoke. They were naturally a little nervous, but the tension didn’t really surface very much. The whole situation felt like a dream, and as they traveled, they wondered if they would ever get a chance to see any of it again- the houses, the flowers, the trees…A cold wind blew past them, making them tighten up their black hoods. Gwynivara glanced at the others and saw that her theory on walking in the middle of the road to avoid the streetlights had panned out, but from what she could see, she could tell everyone was lost in thought. Gwynivara remembered the old cliché that a person’s life flashes before their eyes when he or she approaches their time to die, but she didn’t feel that. It felt more like nostalgia, thinking about who played a large role in her past, wondering what could have been. John and Max just got here. They escaped a horrible fate in quarantine only to come to this days later. She wondered if Rebekah and Cody would end up married. Niqun would probably adopt the children that Kennith had saved, she had been thoroughly enjoying watching over them lately. Riley would probably hire new leaders and continue his administrative role. She hoped she would get to find out for herself someday!

She glanced to her left and discretely watched Kierram. Her heart fluttered just to have him there at that moment. She longed to hold his hand and receive the comfort of his touch during this harrowing ordeal. She wondered if they had the opportunity to have more time if they would ever have gotten together. She had no idea if he even felt the same about her. It saddened her to think that she may never know. Gwynivara mused about actually achieving this mission successfully and how nice it would be to run off with him. Or would they separate when it was all over? If they accomplished this, she thought, she had no idea if any of the Rebels would stay friends actually. Kierram looked in her direction, so she quickly switched her gaze to Bernadette. She didn’t want him to know she had been staring at him for a while. If he didn’t have feelings for her, she would hate to have an acute awkwardness to distract them at a crucial time like this. Still, even though she looked away, her heart pined for him.

Bernadette let out a soft sigh. Gwynivara felt a surge of gratitude for her presence. She didn’t need to take part in the Rebellion at all; she could have taken her mother’s money and hid like she did. She chose her morals over material goods and personal safety, which Gwynivara found to be a very selfless and admirable choice. She was incredibly kind and loyal, a great teacher…Gwynivara wouldn’t have made it this far without her! Interrupting her train of thought, Bernadette pondered reflectively, “When we were kids and dreamed about the future, we sure didn’t think we would end up here!”

Gwynivara slowly nodded. “When you and I were kids, we couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain or swim in the same pool! Thank god people fought back against society on that! Those rebels made the world a better place!” She realized how much her words tied into their current situation, and it became an odd moment between them all. Without saying it out loud, everyone wondered if their won Rebellion would have that kind of impact. Gwynivara reminded them all, “That’s why we’re here! Don’t forget, that’s why we’re doing…”

Before she could finish her sentence, a bright light ahead of their path blinded them all. Gwynivara’s mind had already been in a dreamlike trance, and this haze added to her confusion. She didn’t understand what was happening until a figure emerged that made her blood curl…

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 22

His presence alone set off alarm bells in her head, but as he got closer, Gwynivara could tell from his grim expression that Riley had devastating news for her. “What happened?” She almost didn’t want to know the answer. She almost turned away and covered her ears. She didn’t know how much more stress she could take right now!

Riley, clearly still harboring some adrenaline from what just happened, told her, “They were followed!”

Gwynivara understood what he said perfectly, but her mind blocked the information from getting totally comprehended. She didn’t know how to respond, but luckily, she didn’t have to since Bernadette spoke up first, “By the police?”

“Yes!” Riley confirmed. “The officers thought they were alone, but when they got into the catacombs, they heard footsteps behind them. The policeman almost paged for back up, so Max had to shoot him! I was door guard and heard the whole thing, but I didn’t know what to do except to find you immediately! Are we in trouble?”

Gwynivara rubbed her forehead and tried to think. So much information just got relayed to her, and her head was still reeling from everything else that just happened. To clarify the facts of the situation, she asked, “Is the cop dead?”

Riley answered, “He wasn’t moving when I saw him, but I didn’t check his pulse or anything, so I don’t know.”

Gwynivara darted off instantly upon hearing this. The others tried to stop her, but she ignored them as she made a beeline towards the catacombs. They knew this was a battle they were going to lose though, so they trailed behind her and kept watch. She found the policeman slumped on the floor, motionless. A number of Rebels had gathered with expressions that conveyed confusion, fear, and curiosity. Gwynivara put two fingers to his neck as she heard his radio page him, “Officer Macanta, are you still in pursuit in the graveyard?”

Gwynivara’s spirits sunk hearing that, but it ligthened a little to feel a pulse. “He’s still alive!”

Should I…?” Max timidly asked her. “I mean, should someone finish…?”

“No!” Gwynivara asserted firmly. “Absolutely not!”

But he knows about our headquarters!” John objected.

“We’re not killing him!” Gwynivara exclaimed. “The point of the Rebellion is to find a cure so we can make the world a safer place. The origin is trying to kill everyone on Earth; if we execute him, we’re no better than them! We won’t sink to their level! Get this man out of the catacombs and call for help!”

The Rebels realized she was completely right and hastily picked up the policeman. As they carried him out, the police radio dispatch paged him again, “Officer Macanta, we need you to copy!”

Most of the others seemed to think the issue was resolved until they saw Bernadette, Kierram, and Gwynivara’s faces. Bernadette stood frozen as if she had seen a ghost. Kierram began pacing and periodically cursing. Gwynivara’s head fell into her hands. It took a while to sink in, but once it did, it crushed her. Everything they worked so hard for…This was their home…was…She didn’t want to say it, saying it would make it real. She craned her head up to see the Rebels trying to figure out what was wrong, so she knew she had to steel herself up to help them. Very hollowly, she addressed the others, “We need to evacuate headquarters immediately!”

Everyone got completely shocked to hear this. Cody was the first to speak, “Why? They won’t find him here, so the problem is solved, isn’t it?”

It was hard enough to say it the first time, and Gwynivara had to muster up the strength to say it again. Before she did, Kierram stepped up and answered, “Whether or not the cop lives to tell, the police know something happened in the graveyard. They know fugitives are in the area, and it’s only a matter of time before they search the area. They’ll figure it out eventually. We can’t stay here.”

Everyone began to object, and Gwynivara totally understood why they were upset. She gave them a moment, and then she loudly told everyone, “Listen! Listen! No one wants to go. I certainly don’t. This was our home, and it hurts like hell to leave, to abandon a place that was so good to us, but we got to go. If we stay, they’ll catch us and it’ll be the end of the Rebellion. We’re still in it, the mission will still continue, just not here.”

“But,” Rebekah sobbed, “where will we go?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Gwynivara reassured her. Truthfully, she had no idea where she would hide this many people, but she was sure something would turn up.

At that moment, Bernadette made a noise of utter reluctance. “I’ll have to give her a call!”

Everyone stared at her questioningly. Gwynivara asked, “Her? Who is she?”

Kierram and Gwynivara walked up to the address Bernadette had given them and got a jolt of surprise when they saw it. They knew it would have ample enough space to house the entire Rebellion, but they weren’t prepared to see a small mansion! It was only two stories, but it spread pretty far like a giant brick. Its pastel pink color reminded them of a Barbie’s dream house, but the ivy covering the exterior, fall leaves spread across the lawn, and the short, mossy fence surrounding it gave the place an abandoned feel. A woman with dark skin, an elaborate pink sun hat, and designer clothes walked outside the house and received them, “Welcome to the Ashling Boarding House! Come on in!”

Once they were inside, the lady who greeted them took off her hat, and when Gwynivara got a better glimpse of her face, she could instantly tell that they had just met Bernadette’s mother! They looked exactly alike except for the eyes. Her mother’s eyes were shrewd-looking and gave off none of the warmth that Bernadette’s did. Gwynivara remembered that Bernadette had been so reluctant to contact her, and suddenly she got a very strange vibe from this woman as if she were putting on a show to hide something dark. She gave her a very toothy smile and extended her hand. “Agnes Ashling!”

“I’m Gwyn.” Gwynivara shook her hand and noticed how strong her grip grasped her hand.

“Kierram.” As he shook her hand, Gwynivara could tell he had the same impression of her that she got.

Since they needed her space to house the Rebels, Gwynivara wanted to maintain a friendly relationship with her, so she said graciously, “Thank you so much for letting us use your home!”

“Actually, it’s my second home,” Agnes remarked. “I bought it shortly after my husband’s death. I was so emotional that I just couldn’t be around people, too dangerous!” Kierram and Gwynviara exchanged confused glances, so Agnes clarified, “I have it too. Venenatus Sanguis, I mean.”

Whatever they had expected to hear, it wasn’t that. Kierram inquired, “No one has ever…?”

“Never!” Agnes replied. “The only ones who knew were my family. I’m usually too busy to get too emotional. Feelings have no place in the business world! But if I need a release, I come here.” She glanced at her watch and informed them, “Oh, I have another arrival. Bernadette is waiting for you upstairs. Excuse me!”

They found Bernadette rearranging a closet in a small bedroom that had two twin beds in it. Bernadette kept working, but she told Gwynivara, “I hope you don’t mind, but I started pairing people up as roommates. Figured I’d save you some time.”

“It doesn’t bother me, but I can’t speak for Riley. That’s really more of his thing!” Gwynivara kind of joked but not really.

Bernadette grinned. “There! There’s enough room for your stuff now.” She saw Gwynivara’s surprised reaction and explained, “Everyone has to share a room, and I figured it made sense to pair up the only two female officers. And this room is so small that it’ll just be us in here. Everyone else has at least four to a room thanks to all of the bunk beds already here. Apparently it really was a boarding house at one point, so we got lucky there!”

“Yeah, lucky me, a bunk bed!” Kierram commented sardonically.

“What do you care? You don’t sleep anyways!” Gwynivara teased him.

Kierram tried to hide his smile. “Touché!”

From downstairs, Agnes shouted, “Bernadette! Riley is here! He said he’s gonna take care of the rooms now!”

Bernadette completely cringed when she heard her voice, but she composed herself before she replied, “Okay, great!” She shook off her feelings as she started making her bed.

Gwynivara and Kierram were both thinking it, but Kierram was the first to ask her, “What happened between you two?”

Reluctantly, Bernadette answered, “You know how I said my dad got murdered? They questioned one of his workers that witnesses played on the scene. Daddy was a landlord, and he used to help the community by giving homeless men a place to live in exchange for handyman work. The guy who killed him was a drug addict trying to get clean, so police chalked it up to ‘That’s what crackheads do,” as if he relapsed and just went nuts. The case never went to trial ‘cause the judge claimed that they couldn’t establish a motive. Before Daddy died, he and my mom were arguing. He kept our secret, but it was getting harder to hide, especially since my mom is an emotional basket case and would sprout beasts left and right. He controlled our money to really limit how much my mom left the house. She hated that and threw a fit if he said no to her request. A week before he got shot, she had a huge blow out with him, and he threatened to send her to quarantine. She kept muttering ‘I’ve got to do something! I’ve got to do something!’ I had a real bad feeling before I went on that yacht party, her behavior was just so odd! That murderer roaming the streets right now had a motive alright, she paid him to do it! She had motive to have him killed! The police questioned her but couldn’t prove anything with her either!” She stopped to take a deep breath and collect herself. “She did it! I know she did! I hate the fact I need her help right now!”

Kierram and Gwynivara listened to the story in astonishment. Gwynivara couldn’t imagine what she went through to have her father, whom she seemed to love very much, get murdered, but to think that her mother was responsible for it must have been unbearable! Based on her first impression of Agnes, she believed Bernadette, but she didn’t express this. Unfortunately, they had nowhere else to go right now, so they would have to pretend it wasn’t true for a while. She didn’t express this though, she didn’t have to. She knew that Bernadette knew all of this. Instead, she stated, “Well, we won’t have to be here for too long. I think I know the origin’s location!”