The Shadow Path, Chapter 16

Dorian looked just as surprised to see the three of them as they were upon his entrance. For a moment, they all seemed to have gotten on the same level, but after that spell, Dorian shook off the sentiments and returned to his usual swagger. “Are you here to kill me?”

“You seem awfully smug for someone who’s outnumbered!” Aidan shrewdly observed.

“You can’t kill me!” Dorian said factually. “What a pity! You came all this way for nothing!”

“We didn’t choose to come here,” Yasmina corrected him, “You brought us here! We weren’t going to waste our time with a puppet- we’re after the puppet-master!”

Dorian seethed, “How dare you! As king, it’s my duty to form partnerships that provide me with the necessary means to secure my power! Only a fool would turn down such an alliance!”

Aidan vehementally differed, “Only a fool would sell his soul to serve his own selfish needs! Uprooting century long alliances and sending your country to the brinks of war, and for what? You won’t have power if there’s no one left in the kingdom! After combat, you won’t have much of a country left to rule!”

“Mortals will die, that’s what they do!” Dorian replied dismissively. “The strong will survive, that’s nature!”

Yasmina pointed out, “You’re mortal! If Daeva is successful and does eradicate the mortals, what use will she have you?”

Dorian didn’t seem worried about this possibility. “We have a deal.”

Ardeshir interjected, “She took your essence, didn’t she?” Yasmina couldn’t tell if the stunned look on Dorian’s face stemmed from the fact a cat had spoken to him or by the substance of what he just brought up. In any case, Dorian didn’t answer, so Ardeshir pressed further, “She put it in an obscure object, didn’t she?”

Dorian truly appeared scared at this point, but before he could recover from this blow, Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir suddenly got enveloped by rope! From inside the bureau, Kadera emerged! “Oh! It is you!” Kadera leered delightfully. “Well, we’ll make this quick then!”

As she raised her wand, Yasmina knew she couldn’t fight back, so her instincts prompted her to keep Kadera talking. “You were wrong about me!”

Those words clearly stung Kadera. She lowered her wand and argued, “My predictions are never wrong! You are a witch and you lived a life of loneliness. I knew you would reject the archetype, so you wouldn’t fit in with mortals or magi. I was right!”

Yasmina shot back, “I rejected the narrative that all witches are evil beings bent on destruction, something you probably created to suppress the the good magi out there who have the potential to challenge you! The truth caught up though, it always does! You think I’m the only one who would rise up against your regime? You may kill me, but there will be others!”

“You are no soothsayer!” Kadera spat.

“No, I’m not,” Yasmina acknowledged. “But a person doesn’t need fortune telling abilities to figure that out! Besides, you’re forgetting something. You made two predictions that turned out to bear some degree of truth, but that day in Neodrach, you made three predictions. The third was that I would try to kill the king. You were wrong about that!”

“You were trying to kill Master Daeva, which is essentially the same thing!” Kadera reasoned.

“But it’s not!” Yasmina emphasized this bottom line. “I had the intention but I never had the chance. You were wrong!”

“Enough!” Kadera snapped. “Nice try, but I’m not going to let you go just to make a prediction right! I should’ve killed you a long time ago! You can die knowing your purpose in life was truly pointless! You lose! Goodbye!”

She raised her wand again, but before she could strike, it suddenly got shot out of her hand! An almost joyful battle cry came from the door, and Jakan burst in! His fellow thieves came from all different directions. Kadera summoned her powers through her fingers and took aim at Jakan, but the thieves shot back at her before she could. Although Kadera was outnumbered seven to one, she could still take them all once. A few got knicks, but none of the thieves were seriously hurt. They did start to grow frustrated at their attempts to harm her getting repeatedly thwarted!

During the foray, one of the thieves untied Aidan, Ardeshir, and Yasmina. Aidan immediately drew his sword and fought off Dorian. Yasmina ran towards Kadera, but she couldnt’ take her eyes off of Aidan and Dorian. She detected something off about Dorian’s fighting skills, but she couldn’t figure out why her instincts had prompted her to think that. He seemed to have a formidable aptitude to do battle, but he didn’t move much. He acted as though he was cornered even though he had plenty of opportunity to move from that spot. His stance suggested he was guarding something, but the only thing that stood behind him was the painting…

Suddenly, it clicked for her, and she knew what she had to do! She had never done magic this advance, but every fiber of her being told her that she could do it. She concentrated each cell of her body on exactly what she wanted to happen, and she felt her magic build more and more. When she felt it mount to a peak, she knew it reached the time to release. Without thinking about it, she shouted, “Switch!”

The whole room stopped as everyone watched her powerful spell shoot out in three different directions. First, it went to the painting, next to Ardeshir, and finally to Dorian. With a final blast of light, the hex had finished by blasting a hole in Dorian’s painting! They heard Dorian’s voice cry out, “No!” It didn’t come from Dorian’s body, it came from the cat!

Dorian’s body voiced Ardeshir’s words, “No way!”

With Kadera fully distracted, Jakan aimed his wand and quickly shot a spell her way! She fell to the floor, barely able to move or breathe! Yasmina strutted over to her and gloated, “Dorian’s essence lived in the painting. That’s how Daeva controlled him! She won’t be able to do that anymore! And I highly doubt that Caragsona will willingly let themselves get ruled by a cat! Dorian will have to find a new puppet! And by the way, I still haven’t tried to kill the king! You lose! Goodbye!”

“You bested me, but you’ll never win against Daeva!” With that last thought, Kadera took one last breath and moved no more!

Yasmina and the others celebrated, but Dorian interrupted them, “You fools! I’m still king! This is still my kingdom and you’re all still criminals!”

“That’s exactly why we came!” Jakan told him. “You sentenced us to death, so we figured if we’re doomed anyways, we might as well go out with a bang! That way we’d at least die as heroes! Turns out we don’t have to! Good luck trying to rule the kingdom as a cat!”

Dorian growled, “Cat or not, I am king!” He went into the hall and found some nearby chamber maids. “I hereby order you to-!” The chamber maids screamed, grabbed broom from their carts, and chased after him.

Everyone in Dorian’s chamber had a hearty laugh at this, but that instance gave them an idea. They saw two broomsticks left, and Jakan remarked, “That’s okay. We can pair up, and the rest of you can find more and join us.”

“Who am I riding with?” Yasmina inquired.

Jakan replied, “You and I will have to be the head riders.” Yasmina began to object, but Jakan over-ruled her, “Aidan needs to come, and your friend here…”

“This is amazing!” Ardeshir raved as he examined his hand clutching a broomstick. “I haven’t been able to hold anything in a hundred years! Remarkable!”

“…he probably shouldn’t be left alone,” Jakan finished. “Plus, people may assume he’s the improper king and…well, he’s safer leaving the castle immediately!” Yasmina still seemed worried, so Jakan went on, “If we go by foot, we won’t get there for a couple of days. Do you want my crew to get to the battle before you?” Yasmina hadn’t thought of that, and this notion was totally unacceptable to her! Jakan continued, “That’s what I thought! Look, if you can do an essence-switching spell, you definitely have the power to fly a broomstick!”

Yasmina knew he was completely right, and she felt heartened by his encouragement. “Okay, I’m ready!”

“I’m not!” Ardeshir ran over to Kadera and stole her wand. “Okay, let’s go!”

“We can take off from the balcony,” Aidan suggested.

Jakan agreed, “Let’s go!”

They ran towards the front of the castle, but before they could get to the balcony, they were greeted by some knights. “Sire, what are you doing?”

In his most regal voice possible, Ardeshir commanded, “Stand aside!”

The knights were clearly puzzled by his voice, but they did as they were told. Ardeshir, Jakan, Aidan, and Yasmina ran to a large, stone balcony that overlooked the entire kingdom. The view was breathtaking, and for a moment, Yasmina forgot about where she was and why. “Wow!”

“This is where my parents addressed the kingdom,” Aidan said wistfully. “Although, as a kid, I had more fun watching the townspeople enter over the drawbridge!”

Yasmina peeked over the edge to see the drawbridge and nearly had a heart attack! She saw King Kahlil standing before the castle with an army of his knights behind him! Ardeshir also peeked over, and Kahlil addressed him, “King Dorian, for the horrendous crimes you’ve committed against your own-!”

“Woah, woah, woah!” Ardeshir responded. “I’m not Dorian!”

Aidan ran to the edge and desperately shouted, “Please don’t wage war on my kingdom!”

Kahlil’ jaw dropped. “Prince Aidan? I thought you were dead!”

“I’ve been alive this whole time!” Aidan informed him. “But I don’t have time to explain. I have to go to battle to save the soul of my kingdom, but if I don’t come back, watch over Caragsona for me, okay?”

Kahlil looked utterly confused, but he agreed, “Upon my honor!”

Jakan had already mounted his broomstick, and Ardeshir fell in place behind him. Aidan got onto the back of her broom and encouraged her, “You can do this!”

Yasmina mounted the broom and reminded herself, “You have to believe you can do this!” She concentrated hard just as she did with the essence-switching spell, and soon she felt the magic leave her fingertips and enter the broom. Before she knew it, they were up in the air and zooming towards Duanolc!

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The Shadow Path, Chapter 15

Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir dashed out the door before the knights changed their minds. As they ran down the hallway and headed up the stone staircase, they heard Sarid shout, “Hey!” Yasmina’s heart beat wildly. She wondered if they actually had changed their minds as she feared or worse, they set them up for a trap. She turned around expecting the worst, but instead, Sarid tossed her wand to her! Eamon stared incredulously, so Sarid justified himself, “She overpowered me and took it!”

“Thanks guys!” Yasmina regarded them as they ran up the stairs.

They cautiously exited the dungeon and looked to see if the coast was clear. At first, it seemed as though they were safe, however, as soon as they tried to head back to the Shadow Path, they heard knights coming. They weren’t going to assume that these knights were as generous as Sarid and Eamon, so they ran in the other direction. The three of them ran behind the castle with the intention of going the long way back to the woods that they came from, but Yasmina heard a voice in the distance that sent chills down her spine say, “Where are they?”

“It’s Kadera! Hide!” Yasmina whispered.

The three of them dove into the shrubbery next to the castle and waited with bated breaths. Yasmina had her wand ready just in case, but inwardly she hoped that she wouldnt’ have to use it. The sooner they got away from Rogamaith, the sooner they could get to Daeva. She didn’t want to delay this any longer than she had to, so she inwardly prayed that Kadera would give up and fly back to Duanolc. They watched her slowly fly pass by, astutely scanning for any sign of them. Thankfully, she rounded the corner towards the dungeon area, but they weren’t out of danger yet. They heard her tell the knights, “She’s here, I can feel it!”

Dread filled Yasmina’s body. She sincerely didn’t want to face Kadera, but she didn’t see any way out of it. Just as she began to mentally prepare herself to fight, Aidan quietly told them, “This way!” They quickly darted out of the bush and followed him to a small corner between the castle and another tower. He pushed a certain stone, and a secret door opened up! They swiftly went into this entrance, and Aidan immediately shut the stone door. They couldn’t hear Kadera or the knights, so it appeared that they had narrowly avoided peril!

Or had they? The three of them realized they faced a new problem. Ardeshir softly asked, “How do we get out of here?”

“Follow me!” Aidan instructed. As they walked up this staircase, Aidan explained, “Rogamaith has many exits. The public enters through the drawbridge in the front, but the servants have entrances all over the castle. And there’s secret entrances like this one for the royals to escape in case of an emergency. I think those are probably our best bet. The next closest one is by my old chambers.”

“That’s the one you…that day…!” Yasmina remarked.

“Yes,” Aidan confirmed somewhat gruffly. Yasmina could see the haunted look on his face from reliving that horrifying day, but he quickly refocused his attention to their escape. At the top of the staircase, Aidan cracked open another secret door, and the three of them peeked into the castle hallway. Yasmina saw that they appeared to be in the corner between two hallways. The floor was lined with red carpet, and the walls had a wooden door that was presently closed. This part of Rogamaith seemed to be empty, no noise came from the rooms and no one roamed the halls. Before they entered, Aidan explained, “The hall lining the back wall leads towards the king and queen’s chambers, so we don’t want to go down there. Dorian most likely claimed the space.” Yasmina and Ardeshir nodded in understanding, and they tiptoed out of the secret entrance, heading towards the other hallway.

They slowly crept and kept a vigilant eye out for any sign of movement since any person in castle could purposefully or accidentally alert Dorian or Kadera to their location. They didn’t move far, but it felt longer than the Shadow Path at that moment! Yasmina kept expecting something to jump out at them from every corner, and she wished that the escape door were closer! All of a sudden, they heard a noise ahead of them, and the three of them hid behind a suit of armor. They expected an adversary, but they soon discovered that it was a few chamber maids gossiping about all of the excitement happening right then. It didn’t seem like the chamber maids were going to leave that general area, so they reluctantly followed Aidan down the other hallway.

Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir heard more noise coming from the floor below, so they moved more quickly. They managed to reach another corner, but just when they were heading down another hall, they heard more noise from ahead of them. They hid behind a large vase as the cacophony grew closer, and as it approached, they could hear a number of servants searching for them. To add to their distress, they heard the chamber maids’ voices growing louder, which could only mean that they were heading in their direction. Seeing no other way out, the three of them dashed into the room closest to them.

After they quietly shut the door behind them, they immediately turned around to scope out the room behind them. To their relief, the room appeared empty. Yasmina kept a weary eye on the door in case the servants came in, but she couldn’t help but study the place they had just sheltered themselves in. A four poster bed stood diagonally from where they were stationed, and while it seemed very comfortable, it didn’t look like it had been rested in for quite a while. Two purple gossamer curtains were shut on the other side of the room, making the room very dark despite the sunlight outside. They were close to a very large, wooden bureau, suggesting the owner of the space had an expansive wardrobe. She grew curious about whose chamber this was, but she didn’t think it was prudent to ask while they were hiding. She hoped its owner wouldn’t return while they were there!

The clamor softened, but they could still here people in the hall. Ardeshir whispered, “We can’t stay here!”

“I know!” Aidan said quietly. “The secret door is really close to here, but if we open the door, we will probably give away our position. We’ll be okay for a little while. They didn’t put any escape doors in anyone’s chambers in case an enemy caught wind of it and decided to go after someone in their sleep. So, if someone enters this room, we’ll know. Be ready to fight off whoever does come in. I know we don’t want to hurt an innocent servant, but we may not have a choice…”

Yasmina stared at the bed and suddenly got struck with an idea. “What if we used the sheets to make a rope and we went out the window?”

Aidan contemplated this notion. “Hmm…I don’t hear anyone outside right now. They must be searching the nearby woods as well as the inside of Rogamaith to figure out where we went, so that area could be clear by now. Okay, Ardeshir, keep listening at the door incase someone comes in or if the hall is clear. Yasmina, you watch the window to make sure it stays clear as I make the rope.”

Ardeshir and Yasmina agreed to his idea. While Ardeshir fiercely listened at the door and Aidan began to roll up the sheets, Yasmina silently debated between the two sets of curtains and arbitrarily decided to pick the one on the left. She had assumed that the drapes had covered a window, but when she peeked behind it, she saw a painting. Puzzled, she opened it further and gasped. Ardeshir and Aidan turned to see a giant portrait of Dorian as king! Other than its large size, the style was realistic, and although they couldn’t quite pinpoint the reason, something about it gave a creepy aura. The three of them shook off this feeling and continued on their tasks.

As Yasmina lifted up the curtains to the actual window, she noted, “We’re in Dorian’s chamber! This seems dangerously reckless!”

“Dorian is a tyrant and a puppet of Daeva, but he isn’t superhuman,” Aidan assured her as he quickly worked. “If he tries to come in the room, he’ll use the door . We’ll hear him coming and have the upper hand so we can ambush him.”

Yasmina gingerly asked, “Is this…was this your parents’ chamber room?”

“No,” Aidan answered, “I guess he didn’t have the guts to take over their chambers after all! Deep down, I think he knows that he isn’t the proper king! This was always his chamber, but I believe that painting is new. It must have taken a while to finish, so maybe he always had ambitions to rise to royalty. But if it were old, I couldn’t see his wife approving of artwork without her in it. She died that day too. I guess he loved power more than her!”

Suddenly, Ardeshir interjected, “I hear something!”

Yasmina and Aidan fell silent as they listened. They heard footsteps in the distance, and for a moment, the three of them were ready to go out the window to get away. As it grew closer, it almost seemed as though the sound was coming from in the walls. They stood in confusion as the noise stopped. Their hearts nearly jumped out of their chests as the bureau drawer opened and a foot stuck out. To their horror, the person entering the room was Dorian!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 10

Makkedah glared at the townspeople, but no one made a move or sound. Yasmina hoped that if no one made a fuss that he would assume she left already, but Makkedah didn’t look dissuaded. As he craned his head in their direction, Aidan and Ardeshir stood in front of her protectively. Although Makkedah didn’t identify anyone, he marched towards them and seethed, “Show yourself, witch! Don’t protect her or you will receive what’s intended for her!”

Yasmina couldn’t stand the idea of an innocent person getting hurt, so she stepped out and brandished her wand. “Leave them alone!”

Makkedah leered victoriously when he saw that he had made the correct assumption. He inquired, “Who are you?”

“My name is Saphra,” Yasmina fibbed.

“Liar!” Makkedah called her out. “Who are you really?”

Yasmina didn’t know how he knew she had lied, but she had no intention of giving him any more information than she had to. She raised her wand and told him, “None of your business!”

“Careful who you wave that wand at!” Makkedah sneered.

“Or what?” Yasmina challenged him. “Are you a soothsayer or are you a warlock?”

“I can be more than one thing!” He slowly pulled out his own wand, and the villagers gasped as they learned the truth about a figure in their town. “Give me the money you made from doling out a cure to these mortals!”

“I didn’t charge them anything,” Yasmina informed him. “I didn’t even consider it. I saw people in trouble and I helped them, end of story.”

“You simpleton!” Makkedah raged. “I’ve waited for dozens of days for them to scrape together the money for my services and now I lost out on part of my salary just because you’re a softy!”

“Wait,” Yasmina asserted, “You’ve known all along what the cure is and you held back just to make a little money? These people were starving, but you were willing to watch them die for your own superficial needs? How could you?”

Others agreed with her, but he ignored their outcries. “Why do you care? Mortals have never given our kind a lot of respect, and Daeva is eventually going to make sure we outnumber them, so why would you stand in the way of progress?” He paused as he realized, “You’re trying to usurp her, aren’t you?” Yasmina didn’t say anything, but he could tell from her expression that he was right. “Well, we can’t have that, can we?”

He raised his wand and shot some energy towards her, which she narrowly avoided. She hadn’t mentally prepared herself to duel with anyone until she confronted Daeva, and she felt terrified that she didn’t get enough practice to fight an experienced warlock! She raised her wand, but he struck again before she could hex him. She continued to dodge him, but her evasions made it hard to concentrate, so she didn’t execute very strong incantations back. Makkedah picked up on this and dashed out spells faster and faster. She tried to think fast but found it pretty impossible!

All of a sudden, from Makkedah’s side, a basket flew to his head. Makkedah curiously turned his head, and he saw Aidan brandishing his sword. “Leave her alone!”

“Foolish mortal! You dare challenge me!” Makkedah rumbled.

As Makkedah threatened Aidan, Yasmina noticed that the basket he threw was similar to the one she knocked over, which gave her a brilliant idea! While Makkedah was distracted, she pointed her wand at a Comeheistear corpse and made it zip right into Makkedah’s mouth! The villagers gasped, and one of them exclaimed, “You swallowed a Comeheistear!”

Yasmina smugly told him, “I guess there’s no point in killing me since you’re going to starve to death anyways!”

“Don’t be so naive!” Makkedah snickered. “I brought the antidote, remember?” Yasmina pretended to feel disappointed as he pulled a vial of dark green potion out of his pocket, and she watched with rapt anticipation as he brought the bottle to his lips. To her relief, he swallowed a bit of it! He raised his wand to her and leered, “Where were we?”

“Why didn’t it come out?” a child in the crowd loudly asked. “It did when we took the poison!”

Makkedah scoured the ground around him to no avail. “No!” He searched inwardly, and he didn’t feel anything coming up, so he repeated louder, “No!” His eyes blazing, he pointed his wand at Yasmina, who calmly watched him as his insides began to churl. He growled and moaned before falling to the floor. He twitched and wailed more and more frantically, and then, all of a sudden, he stopped. His stance mimicked the dead Comeheistears, and everyone knew he was gone!

The villagers all cheered, and as Aidan and Ardeshir approached, she rejoiced, “I did it! I won!”
“Congratulations!” Aidan grinned.

A villager shouted joyfully, “You saved us twice! Ever since he arrived, Baile Daonna has struggled. You set us free!”

Yasmina humbly responded, “I couldn’t have done it without these two guys! They were the ones who taught me about the Comeheistears. I needed the distraction Aidan risked his life to make, and Ardeshir helped me hone my magic skills! Thank you both so much!”

“The cat taught you magic?” a town person probed. Yasmina forgot that as far as they knew, he was an ordinary cat, and she wondered if she had just ruined all of the good that they just did by that comment. Thankfully, the villager followed up with, “Cool! Is he magical too?”

With the receptive look on everyone’s face, Ardeshir felt it was safe to say,. “Yes I am!”

The crowd cheered in excitement, and after a moment, Yasmina addressed them, “Listen, we would love to stay and celebrate with you, but we have to get going. We need to get to the grand sorceress Daeva so that no other village will continue to suffer what you had to endure!”

“Say no more,” a villager replied. “Just know we have a deep appreciation for what you’ve all done! You’re always back in Baile Daonna!” The others agreed and cheered for them. Two people gave them new cloaks, and a couple of them gave them food to take with them on the way. After a few well-wishers expressed their sentiments, the three of them entered the pathway that led back to the Shadow Path.

Kadera and the other two witches stared into the cauldron with looks of shock and appall. Daeva popped into the room and inquired, “What’s happening?” The three witches hesitated, silently debating who would get the unpleasant task of telling her unwanted news. Daeva grew impatient and snapped, “I’m waiting!”

Kadera reluctantly revealed, “Makkedah is dead.”

Daeva’s face fell, but in a fit of denial, she projected a bit of optimism. “Of natural causes?” The other three hung their heads to avoid her eye contact, which gave her the answer to her question. She groaned, “So, she killed him!”

“Sort of,” one witch remarked. “She tricked him into taking poison.”

“She got lucky!” the other witch added. “Her magic is still very clumsy and inept. She’s no match for you!”

Daeva bellowed, “Idiots! Sometimes cleverness is far more dangerous than skill! Perhaps we should try a different approach…”

Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir walked through the dark woods with a spring in their steps. “It’s sort of sad,” Yasmina commented, “Makkedah made himself so detested in that town that they’re actually celebrating his death! Do you think he had family?”

“We all had family at some point,” Aidan mused, “However, when you dedicate your life to your own self interests, you tend to sever any loving relationships you might have had. When you love, sometimes you put someone else’s needs before your own. I can’t see any of Daeva’s crones going home to their families to talk about their day!”

Ardeshir imitated Makkedah, “I’m home, honey! Boy, what a long day! It is so tiring haunting an entire town to the point of insanity!”

The three of them laughed, and Yasmina realized, “Makkedah made himself into an intregal figure in this town under the same title that Kadera used back in Neodrach. Do you think Daeva does to every mortal town?”

“That would make sense!” Aidan nodded. “Too bad we…”

Before Aidan could finish his sentence, they heard a branch break in the distance. They stood still and listened to assess the situation. The sound was too far away to know for sure, but to Yasmina, it sounded like hooves. The sound stopped, but in no way did they assume the danger was over. Yasmina and Aidan brandished their weapons and waited. For a moment, nothing happened. Soon, they heard rustling on the right. They watched the bushes in that direction, but then from behind them, they heard more movement. Yasmina and Aidan stood back to back knowing that whatever it was, they were now surrounded! They were mentally prepared to fight a fearsome creature, so they were thrown off completely when a dozen knights jumped onto the path! They encircled the three of them, and one of the knights told them, “You’re all under arrest!”

The Shadow Path, Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for the tip,” Aidan told him.

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

“Good luck!” Yasmina chimed.

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

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

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

“Yes!” Dorian confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Path, Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These reports are false!” Dorian scoffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Path, Chapter 5

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

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

“Lovely,” Yasmina repeated without thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Destroy them all?” Yasmina parroted her.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, but…” Yasmina started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Path, Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yasmina eyed him suspiciously. “Who sent you?”

“No one!” he immediately responded.

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

“No!” he said adamantly.

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

He interrupted, “Not all witches are evil!”

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

“No,” he answered.

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

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

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

“Yes,” he confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not!”

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

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

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

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

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

Yasmina answered him, “Yes.”

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