The Shadow Path, Chapter 13

Looming over them, a creature with the head of a wildcat, the torso of a deer, the claws of an eagle, and a tail like a lion snarled with its horns gleaming and ready to strike! For a moment, the three of them felt startled, but before the monster could do anything, Aidan pulled out his sword and, in one swift movement, chopped off its head! They looked around and when they didn’t see any other beasts around, they breathed a sigh of relief. They did notice that they had blood spatter on them though! Yasmina and Aidan seemed grossed out, but Ardeshir instinctively began grooming himself. Yasmina lamented, “I wish I could take a bath at a moment’s notice like that!”

Ardeshir momentarily stopped to correct her, “It’s more like scrubbing. I haven’t taken a bath since I was human!”

Aidan joked, “Too bad it stopped raining!”

“We don’t really have time to wash anything,” Yasmina noted, “so we should probably just move on…unless there are creatures attracted to blood…”

“Unfortunately, there is!” Aidan sighed. “Wait! Maybe you can use your magic to get it off!”

Yasmina hesitated. “I don’t know…If something goes wrong, I could never forgive myself!”

“Nothing is going to go wrong!” Aidan said firmly. “If you can send a Comeheistear into a warlock’s throat, then you can cast blood off of our clothes!”

“Yes, but…” Yasmina became very nervous at the thought of possibly hurting either of them and ruining this whole quest in an attempt to do a simple spell.

“No!” Aidan coached her, “If you want to defeat Daeva, you can’t keep focusing on what could go wrong because then it will! You have to tell yourself that you can do it!”

“Okay, okay! I’ll try!”

“No! Say I got this!”

“I…got…this…”

“Say it like you mean it!”

“I got this!” Yasmina shouted as the message finally sunk in. Aidan stood ready to receive her spell-work, and she got rid of any doubt about her abilities, concentrating hard on the blood coming off of his clothing. She felt the magic leave her fingertips and pointed her wand at him. To her delight, she saw the blood fall off of his clothing! Smiling broadly, she scoured his clothes off and then her own. When she finished, she felt proud, and yet she had just as much doubt as her mind wanted to deny what just happened. “Wow!”

“You’re more powerful than you realize!” Aidan grinned. Yasmina knew he was right, and it felt like a strange truth to accept. After feeling so limited in her little cottage all these years, she had no idea what her being a witch made her capable of!

At the castle Rogamaith, a servant burst into the king’s quarters. He saw that Dorian had finished closing a curtain on the wall, and he bellowed, “I told you to never enter this room!”

“I’m so sorry, Sire!” the servant apologized. “I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t an emergency. It’s just that, well, I saw a witch flying by the castle!”

“And?” Dorian responded coldly.

“What do you mean, ‘and?’ Witches killed the royal family!” The servant stared at him incredulously.

Dorian reasoned, “Witches exist in this kingdom. They fly on brooms sometimes. I can’t stop them from living their lives!”

The servant clarified, “Yes, I realize that, but they were banned from the grounds after the massacre. This witch could be connected with the murders! Shouldn’t we summon her for questioning?” Before Dorian could answer, the servant found a piece of bristle from a broomstick on the floor. “She was here? Sir, why would she come…?” The truth dawned on him, and he went pale. “You…you were part of…what? Why?”

“Oh, I wish you hadn’t seen that! Good servants are so hard to find!” Dorian picked up a dagger from his bureau drawer and flashed it menacingly!

As Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir walked along the Shadow Path, Yasmina noted, “It’s kind of strange that we just watched a creature die and are unfazed by it! This is a weird place, so odd occurrences have become normal! Have we gone crazy like everyone said we would for setting foot on this land?”

“Maybe, but does that change anything for you?” Aidan half joked.

Yasmina chuckled, “I guess not!”

Ardeshir put in, “And I’d like point out that I believe I was crazy before I turned into a cat and came to live here!” They all laughed.

“We’re almost to Bothar Ri!” Aidan rejoiced. “It will be nice to bask in the ambiance of Rogamaith! A villainous king may reside there now, but its history and all it stands for is far more powerful than anything Dorian brings there! Sorry for babbling! It’s just that it’s my home, you know what I mean?”

“No,” Yasmina and Ardeshir said in unison.

Ardeshir expanded on that, “I’ve lived in these woods for a century, but this place has never been my home, just where I lived.”

“I felt the same way about Neodrach,” Yasmina concurred. “I never felt like I belonged there.”

Aidan suggested, “When we get to Bothar Ri, see if it feels like home. If so, I can make it happen!”

“You want us to live with you?” Yasmina inquired.

“Of course!” Aidan replied. “After all we’ve been through, do you really think I’d let you live somewhere where you feel miserable? You’ll feel like you belong at Rogamaith, you’ll see when we get to Bothar Ri!”

Ardeshir kidded, “What if we feel like we belong because of the aura from Duanolc? They’re about the same distance away!”

As Aidan went on about how that would never happen, Yasmina froze from a numbing dread. When Aidan and Ardeshir realized she had fallen out of their footsteps, they circled back to get her. Aidan asked, “What’s wrong?”

Her mouth didn’t want to move, so she had to force herself to answer him, “We’re going to be at Duanolc tomorrow!”

Aidan hadn’t thought of it like that, but he realized the magnitude of the moment as he nodded. “Yeah!”

“I’m not ready!” Yasmina spit out unexpectedly. “It’s too soon! I need more time! I can’t…!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Aidan put his hands on her shoulders to gain her focus. “I know it’s scary! I’m nervous too! It’s a huge thing we’re about to go through, and a lot of responsibility lays on our shoulders. But we’ve come too far to quit now! Think about what will happen if we don’t take a stand! When it comes to the really important things in life, are we ever really ready? The time has come, we’re called to action now, and all we can do is try our best and deal with whatever consequences resulting from our efforts! What do I keep telling you?”

“You have to believe you can do this to get through it,” Yasmina recited.

“Exactly!” Aidan exclaimed. “I believe you can do this! But if you’re still too scared to move, just remember you can rely on me for support!” He held out his arm in a way that invited her to link with him, which she did, and he escorted her down the path.

A little while later, the dirt on the road changed into a softer mud. Ardeshir queried, “You feel this loose dirt?” Yasmina and Aidan indicated that they did. “You know what that means right?” They didn’t seem sure, so Aidan told them, “It’s been traveled on a lot!”

“If a lot of people have traveled here, that must mean we’re close to…” Aidan didn’t finish his sentence as his face lit up. He began to run, and since her arm was still linked with Yasmina, she ran alongside him. All Yasmina could see was trees and a pathway that got wider and wider, but Aidan’s excitement had an infectious quality to it that made her smile. Soon, the crossroads came into view, and they practically skipped there at this point. At first, the fork at the road only revealed a dark wood just ahead, but when she looked to a path on the right, she saw a light-stoned tower in the distance and understood why Aidan had gotten so impassioned to come to this point! Aidan fell to his knees and shed a tear as he stared at its majesty. “I’m home!”

Yasmina and Ardeshir smirked at each other in a way that conveyed how happy they were for Aidan. They were also both very aware of Aidan’s invitation to them after this quest had finished. Yasmina liked the idea of living in the royal castle instead of her small, isolated cottage, but she felt a little sad to get put on the same level as a cat. She knew Ardeshir was more of a friend than anything, but she realized that a part of her still hoped that Aidan thought of her as more than just a friend. At this point, she knew that she could never totally get rid of her romantic feelings towards him. She reminded herself that someday Aidan would get married and it would probably really hurt her, but until that happened, she feared this would continue to pop up. She valued his friendship, and so she shook this notion and made a point to herself to focus on the mission they were on. After they had given him a moment, she addressed him, “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah.” Aidan stood up and added, “We’ll be back soon!” Borrowing his optimism, they willfully headed towards the dark woods. Without warning, everything suddenly went black!

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The Shadow Path, Chapter 12

Yasmina silently scolded herself for allowing these feelings to develop. She reasoned that her loneliness and isolation made her vulnerable, and, naturally, she would fall for the first man who was nice to her. Still, she felt like a fool for even thinking about loving Aidan. He was the prince and future king, and while it may not have been totally unheard of for a royal to wed a peasant, it was unheard of for a witch to take the throne! When the kingdom learned the truth about Daeva’s control over the current ruler, the mistrust of a witch in power would only heighten! She decided not to encourage herself to allow these notions to manifest anymore. She wanted to believe that Aidan would still maintain a friendship with her after they succeeded in their quest, but she had gotten so used to people hiring her for a short time only to boot her out as soon as they could get by without her. She didnt’ want to get heartbroken at the end of this, so she reminded herself to be more careful from now on.

Avoiding these feelings suddenly seemed difficult as Aidan let out a contented sigh. She wanted to fancy that their closeness brought about that response, but her mind alerted her to what she just promised herself, so she quickly looked for a distraction. She found herself absentmindedly petting Ardeshir, so she shifted her attention to him. “So, Ardeshir, you have the essence of a warlock, how come you cant’ release magic through your paws or something?”

“I’ve been asking myself that for the last hundred years!” Ardeshir replied. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and what I came up with was that it was a design of nature to only have magic be honed by human beings in order to protect and preserve the planet. If you could switch bodies with a Comas or some other large monster and you could do magic, can you imagine the chaos?”

To Yasmina’s relief, Aidan did not revert back to the sentimental conversation they had before and stayed on the current subject. “Why did you pick a cat? I mean, if you could become any animal, wouldn’t you pick something more powerful?”

“My house-cat was already around, it was convenient. If I had to do it all over again, I would pick a more impressive animal!” When he heard his thought out loud, he quickly changed his mind. “No, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done that spell at all! If I ever get another human body again, I’ll be a little less reckless. I realize there’s a line that the magi were not meant to cross! There are dire consequences for those who do so!”

“What about Daeva?” Yasmina asked somewhat bitterly. “She seems to have faced no punishment for her wicked deeds! And you know she has probably broken all kinds of rules of the natural world!”

“There’s still time,” Aidan pointed out. “Maybe we’re the repercussion for of the evil she has done.” Ardeshir and Yasmina hadn’t thought of that before and seemed to enjoy the idea. Aidan looked to the ceiling and called out, “Do you hear that, Daeva? We will get to Duanolc and you face justice soon!”

Ardeshir informed him, “She can’t hear you. The potion allows you to spy on someone visually but nothing beyond that.”

“You don’t know that,” Aidan retorted.

“Fair enough,” Ardeshir agreed.

Yasmina mused, “If she can’t hear you, I wonder what she thinks you’re doing by yelling at the top of this tree!” The three of them laughed.

When the rain stopped, the sun began to rise. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir had fallen asleep but got woken up when they heard something land on a nearby branch. They woke up startled, then they ducked down to assess the situation. They were ready to attack whatever creature knew that they were cornered in that tree hollow, but then it hopped onto a branch that they could see. The three of them felt incredibly silly to have gotten scared by a robin! Out of a mix of relief and foolish feelings, they breathily chuckled. Ardeshir joked, “Who wants breakfast?”

Yasmina and Aidan made disgusted faces, and Yasmina responded, “Not that I’m tempted, but I don’t think that bird would have enough meat for all three of us!”

Ardeshir wondered, “What if it’s not actually a bird? What if it’s a shape-shifting monster?”

“Time to go!” Aidan responded immediately, and they all left as rapidly as possible.

As they walked down the sunlit road, Yasmina brought up, “When you hunted food in these woods, did you ever go after a shape-shifting monster?”

Ardeshir replied, “A couple of times. You can usually tell when they’re a real bird versus a shape-shifter, the latter behave differently than the creature they’re pretending to be.”

Aidan noted, “Daeva watched us get scared by a bird! She probably thinks we’re going to be easy to defeat!”

“I don’t know about that,” Yasmina differed, “She deliberately spied one of us. If she didn’t view us as a threat, she wouldn’t have done that.”

Ardeshir debated, “But if she really thought we stood any chance to defeat her, wouldn’t she have come out and destroyed the threat a long time ago?”

Aidan reminded him, “She prefers to let others do the dirty work, like making her puppet take the throne instead of finding a way to call herself queen. Even with my family, she sent other people to do the deed instead of facing us herself. If anything, if she sees us as a threat, she’ll send her servants to get us before we make it to Duanolc.”

Yasmina added, “I’m kind of glad she has that policy! If she had shown up at the onset of our journey, I wouldn’t have been ready! I’m still not, but I have a better shot at surviving than I did before!” They all laughed.

In the dark castle, Duanolc, Daeva sat imperiously on a black, thorny, throne-like chair that overlooked a nearly empty and dark room. A small, skinny, old woman nervously walked in, her footsteps echoing each step she took. Whe nshe came to the dais that Daeva had perched on, she curtsied. “Greetings, Master Daeva!”

“What do you want?” Daeva grumped.

The old woman stammered, “King Dorian cut off trade with-.”

“Yes, I know!” Daeva cut her off. “He did so by my design.”

“Oh!” the woman became somewhat flustered. “It’s just that my village relied on trading with that kingdom! Without their ingredients, we can’t make the potions that people come to our village for!”

“So!” Daeva replied coldly.

“So?” the elderly witch puzzled. “Master, without these potions, we’re nothing! We’re running out of money, which means we’re running out of food too!”

Daeva definitely seemed more annoyed than sympathetic. “Learn a new trade! Grow your own food! Adapt or you will perish!” The old witch looked shocked, which made Daeva yell, “What do you want me to do? Reverse my decision just for you? How can you be so selfish?”

The old woman hung her head low. “I thought you wanted mortals to waste away, not your fellow magi!” She quickly realized what she had said and gasped.

Just as the elderly witch had feared, Daeva exploded, “How dare you! Kadera!” Kadera came limping in, and Daeva told her, “Dispose of her!” The woman begged for her life as Kadera dragged her out of the room.

As Aidan, Yasmina, and Ardeshir walked down the Shadow Path, Aidan excitedly conversed, “Can you believe it? In a few hours, we should arrive at Bothar Ri!”

Ardeshir less enthusiastically noted, “The crossroad to the castles Duanolc and Rogamaith, each only a day’s journey away!”

“Yes, exactly! Aidan chimed. “Sorry, but it’s so close to my home! I’m just excited to get near it!”

Yasmina gingerly asked, “It doesn’t, um, remind you of where your family lost their lives?” Aidan’s face twisted into a bit of a frown, so Yasmina quickly apologized, “I’m sorry if I seemed insensitive! I was just thinking that if it were me, I don’t think I could even lay eyes on the place where my family got massacred!”

Aidan replied, “I will always remember that horrible day! Every detail! But it is also why I must return! Their blood runs in my veins, and I must carry on their legacy! I hate the fact that this spineless, vile, horrible excuse for a king walks where they once did! I have to make it right!”

“You’re fortunate that you have such an honorable lineage!” Yasmina commented. “I come from a line of peasant farmers who turned away their only daughter, not caring if she lived in isolation and misery! That’s nothing to be proud of!”

“That’s not true!” Aidan disagreed. “The fact that you went through all of that and still have the courage to show others kindness and love shows you have a strong heart and a noble spirit! You’ve created a new path to follow and greater ideals for future generations!”

Yasmina found herself flushing furiously! She had no idea anyone let alone a prince thought so highly of her! It was so hard for her to imagine future generations until this moment, and after picturing returning to isolation after this quest, it felt strange to even imagine! Aidan inquired, “Do you want to have kids someday?”

Without thinking, Yasmina joked “Is that an invitation?” She heard herself say it out loud, and gasped, “I’m so sorry! I’m so weary from the journey, it just slipped out!” Ardeshir roared in laughter, and she felt surprised to see it was Aidan’s turn to blush. She cringed and secretly wished for a distraction. She regretted that desire as a large shadow appeared before them…

The Shadow Path, Chapter 11

What for?” Yasmina questioned. She had no idea how they were going to get out of this situation, and all she could think to do was to keep them talking until an opportunity came up.

The knight who had led the pack informed them, “For the murder of the soothsayer, Makkedah.”

“We didn’t murder him!” Aidan argued. “He killed himself!”

“Don’t lie!” the knight coldly responded. “We had an eye witness report the whole story.”

Ardeshir probed. “How is that possible? You were nowhere near the village at the time! I patrolled the area extensively and I didn’t see you anywhere! We haven’t been gone that long, so how can you possibly get a proper account in such a short time? Wait, did Daeva…?”

“How we know is none of your concern!” the knight snarled. “And don’t you try to hex us, witch! We know your powers aren’t developed enough to take us all at once!” Before the three of them could respond, they heard growling in the distance. “I said no hexes!”

“I didn’t do anything!” Yasmina told him truthfully. “I don’t know what that is.”

The growling sounded again. “I know what that is!” Aidan realized. “If I were you guys, I’d start running!”

“Nice try!” the knight returned. “But we aren’t easy to fool as your victim! Go on, now! Arrest them!”

As the knights were prepared to apprehend them, the growling got so loud that it made them vibrate. Suddenly, a large creature that resembled a dog with spikes instead of fur pounced on one of the knights! They soon saw a pack of the monsters had surrounded them! The knights took out their swords and fought against them. Aidan, Ardeshir, and Yasmina used the distraction as a chance to escape. They had to duck, dodge, and jump to get out of the foray. When they thought they were out of the battlegrounds, one of the beasts hopped in front of them! It growled as it steathily walked towards them. Yasmina pulled out her wand and concentrated hard on knocking it out. Energy shot out of her wand, and to her relief, it worked. They ran from the scene as inconspicuously as possible.

When they were unable to hear the knights fighting the creatures, they paused to catch their breaths a bit. Yasmina asked, “What were those things?”

“The Comas,” Aidan answered. “They’re not easy to defeat since they travel in packs and have such a rough exterior. If we run into them again, remember that their underbellies are their weak points. Although your spell seemed to do the trick!”

Yasmina grinned, but soon after, she suddenly felt flooded with guilt. “Should we have stayed to help them? What if they all die?”

“Then good riddance!” Ardeshir remarked. “They wanted to take use to the castle dungeons! Do you think Dorian would have spared our lives? Just like with Makkedah, it was kill or be killed. Although they might survive, who knows! I think the more pressing matter is how did Daeva know where we were?”

Yasmina remembered, “Wait! There’s a potion that allows you to surveille a person of your choosing. Daeva has been watching us the whole time! But who was she watching?”

“Could be any one of us really,” Aidan replied. “What we do know is she uses Dorian as a puppet. But Rogamaith is not so close to Duanolc, so how could she send knights here so quickly?”

Ardeshir put in, “It would have to do with the spell she is using to make him a puppet. If we can figure out how she does that, it would help us bring down the Dorian-Daeva regime!”

Meanwhile, in the castle Rogamaith, a large group of knights merrily drank wine and sang drinking songs. Dorian entered with a sour expression on his face as he observed the frivolity. “Enough!” he shouted. The volume of the room drowned out his voice, so this time he bellowed so loud that the walls practically shook, “Enough!”

One knight inquired, “I”m sorry, Sire! Did we wake you?”

“I did not get a chance to sleep. What are you celebrating exactly?” Dorian eyed them judgmentally.

“Well,” another knight replied, “Life, really!”

“Here, here!” the other knights jovially chanted.

A third knight invited, “Care to join us, Sire?”

Dorian made a noise of utter annoyance. “How can you think of making merry when some of your colleagues have died?”

The knights all gasped. The second knight asked him, “Who was it?”

Dorian answered, “Most of the knights I sent to the Shadow Path to apprehend the murderers of the soothsayer of Baile Daonna. A few are heading back to nurse their injuries.”

“Wait, they’re not back yet?” the third knight probed. “How do you know all this then?”

“Never mind that!” Dorian snapped. “I need a group to go back to the Shadow Path to finish the mission.”

The third knight agreed to it. “Alright, but we’ll need more details. When did the soothsayer die?”

“Earlier this evening,” Dorian told him.

“Earlier this evening?” the second knight puzzled. “Sire, that village is about a day and a half’s journey. How did you receive word of this death so soon?”

“What’s with all of these questions?” Dorian aggravated. “Yesterday, I sent men into those woods to retrieve these criminals, and after they killed the soothsayer, I sent them to arrest these guys. Then they ran into a pack of monsters! But the three outlaws still need to get captured, so I need you to… Why do you all look so confused?”

The first knight nervously brought up, “You sent knights to the woods before they committed the crime? Were they guilty of other crimes?”

“Stop asking me questions!” Dorian roared. “Don’t ask how I know, I just know! Now, be on the lookout for a witch, a man claiming to be the prince, and a gray cat!” Whispers erupted across the hall at the mention of arresting a cat, which only incensed Dorian. “That is not an ordinary cat! I am the king! You pledged an oat the serve me, so you must obey! I need a group to head to the Shadow Path immediately!” The knights, who were still partly under the influence of alcohol, were surprised that he demanded an immediate departure, so they hesitated. Dorian screamed, “Now!” He stormed out. The knights all looked to each other in a confused suspicion.

As they walked, Aidan, Yasmina, and Ardeshir found themselves trekking in the rain. Aidan and Yasmina opened up their cloaks and put their arms together. As they hunched over slightly, they created a tent for Ardeshir to travel under. Ardeshir asked, “How long do you think you can walk like that?”

“I don’t know,” Aidan answered. “Let’s find out together!”

They all chuckled, and Yasmina commented, “At least we’re still moving forward! But I do hope all of the monsters have gone to bed for the night!”

Aidan joked, “Probably everyone did, except for the Kelpies. I mean, if they can breathe underwater, then a little rain wouldn’t bother them!”

“Kelpies!” Yasmina exclaimed. “That was the name of that creature in the lake!”

“Oh finally! It only took a day!” Aidan teased. “Yasmina retaliated by pinching his back, so he kidded, “Ouch! Hey, when I’m king, that will be an arrestable offense!
“You’ll have to catch me first!” Yasmian retorted. “By then I’ll know how to fly a broomstick!” Aidan and Yasmina laughed.

Ardeshir changed the subject, ‘Hey! There’s a large hollow in that tree! Maybe we should stay in there until the rain stops.”

“No,” Aidan replied. “Let’s keep moving! We’re getting closer, and if we keep going, we can reach…” As he spoked, the rain turned into a torrential downpour. They couldn’t see in front of themselves anyways, so Aidan relented, “Okay, a little while couldn’t hurt.”

The hollow had enough room for all of them, but it was a tight squeeze and they found themselves huddled together. Trying to make light of the awkwardness, Yasmina pointed out, “At least we’ll stay warm!”

“Yeah,” Aidan said with a note of disappointment in his voice. He stared at the rain and noted, “It’s kind of funny, we can past all of these monsters but we get disabled by Mother Nature!”

“We’re still making good time!” Ardeshir pointed out.

“He’s right,” Yasmina added. “We’ll be there before you know it! What is it you always tell me? You have to think positive!”

“You’re right,” Aidan admitted. “After ten years of waiting, just being this close and yet so far is maddening!”

“I can imagine!” Yasmina responded sympathetically. “Personally, I’m glad I have had a little bit of time to practice my spell work before we face Daeva. I wouldn’t have been ready if we faced her right away! Of course, there’s not a whole lot of room to practice here, but I’m sure another creature will come along soon enough and I’ll get more practice then!”

Aidan heartily laughed. “Thanks! You cheered me up!”

Yasmina humbly smiled. “Well, you always cheer me up too!”

“Thanks! We make a good team!” Aidan remarked.

“Yeah!” Yasmina agreed. The sentiment made her feel warm, and when she noticed how close they were, it made her heart race. They were literally close, but she felt happy that their relationship grew close too. She hadn’t bonded with anyone since her childhood when she had friends and her parents still acknowledged her. But she felt a little deeper for him than them. She admired his character so much, and she appreciated all he did to support her. It made her so grateful that if he did one more kind thing for her, her rush of gratitude would make her want to scour him with affection! Suddenly, she made a horrifying realization; while she didn’t have much experience in the area and couldn’t know for sure, she began to ask herself- was she developing romantic feelings for Aidan?

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 9

I say no,” Aidan told them. “They were probably offering their goods to Jakan and the other thieves so that they wouldn’t have to go through the turmoil of an actual robbery. If you visit Baile Daonna, it would do more harm than good.”

Yasmina pointed out, “Jakan said they were starving. If they were going hungry, why would they offer all of their food?”

“They probably knew they couldn’t fight against a bunch of people who could do magic,” Ardeshir figured.

Aidan joked, “I guess I’m the only one crazy enough to do that!”

That remark sparked a new train of thought for Yasmina. “You just told us that they were defensive, defensive enough that you would avoid going there. That doesn’t sound like a group of people that would see a threat and just buckle. People give away food for two reasons- either they want to help you or they don’t want a surplus to go to waste. Since they’re defensive, I don’t think they would try to feed a group of strangers. But if they’re starving, why would the food be extra?”

Aidan caught on to where she was heading with that logic. “They can’t eat the food! They’re plagued with Comeheistear!”

“Then we definitely should avoid the area!” Ardeshir remarked. Aidan and Ardeshir were prepared to leave, but Yasmina hesitated, so Ardeshir asked, “What’s wrong?”

Yasmina probed, “Would a healing potion cure them?”

“No,” Ardeshir answered, “The only cure is to swallow poison.” Both Aidan and Yasmina looked surprised to hear that, so he explained, “The Comeheistear eats whatever you try to eat, so if you ate or drank something poisonous…”

“I never thought of that!” Aidan reacted. “But we don’t have time to find and give away enough poison for everyone. Plus, how would we convince them to take…” He trailed off as they saw, in the distance, a windstorm that didn’t like anything created by nature! “Oh no, not again!”

Yasmina observed, “There aren’t any trees nearby except for the patch over there on the right.”

“That’s Baile Daonna,” Aidan informed them.

Ardeshir noted, “There’s no way around the Banshee Wind except through the village, with infested with Comeheistear. So, what monster do we want to take our chances with?”

The three of them mulled it over for a moment, and then Yasmina declared, “I have an idea!”

By a dirt road that ran perpendicularly to the Shadow Path, two peasants sat by baskets of fruits and vegetables with barely enough strength to keep themselves propped upright. One of them weakly suggested, “It’s almost sunset. Maybe we should pick up and go inside.”

“Let the animals eat them!” the other responded. “I can’t lift a basket anymore, can you?”

The first villager shook his head. They were slightly surprised to see a lizard-like creature appear out of nowhere and dash off to somewhere in the distance. They watched it feverishly run up to a woman on the Shadow Path, and it ran ravenously up her dress. Under normal circumstances, its speed would have made it too late for a victim to fight it off, but this time, it crashed into a piece of cloth. The villagers saw that Yasmina and Aidan had veils over their mouths that they had apparently made from the hoods on their cloaks. Try as it might, the Comeheistear couldn’t penetrate the tight hold of their concealment. Yasmina said in relief, “It works!” She swatted it away and Ardeshir pounced on it.

The villagers gazed at their strange visage with some apprehension, but the first one still asked, “Would you guys care for some food?”

Yasmina answered, “NO, but I bet you do. Take a sip of this.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the vial she put the healing potion in, only this time the liquid inside was a dark green color.

The second villager lamented, “There’s no point. Food and drink don’t ever reach our stomachs.”

“Trust us, this won’t either,” Aidan told them, “But it’ll make you feel better. Don’t believe us? Try it!”

The two villagers shrugged, and then each of them took a drink. Instantly, the Comeheistears crawled out of their mouths, curled over, and moved no more! It took a moment for the villagers to process what happened, and when they did, they still remained somewhat skeptical. One villager picked up and apple and gingerly took a bite. When he felt it reach his stomach, he rapturously devoured the rest of it. The other joyously followed suit, and although their mouths were still covered, Ardeshir saw that Aidan and Yasmina were beaming at each other.

Inside of a wooden yurt with canvas walls, Yasmina, who still wore the mask, wiped the sweat off of her forehead as she stirred a bubbling cauldron over a roaring fire. Aidan, also masked, laid exhaustively over some pillows on the floor. Ardeshir came limping in, and he breathily stated, “I’ve gone through the area extensively, and I haven’t seen any more signs of them. It’s safe to take your masks off.”

Yasmina and Aidan gratefully took them off, and Aidan opinionated, “Good! We can stop making potions now! I had no idea how exhausting it was until now! Total new respect for you, Yasmina!” She grinned, and then he asked her, “With how much I helped you, does this make me part warlock?”

“I could call you an apprentice, but it hardly seems like an appropriate title for the future king,” Yasmina chuckled, and Aidan did too. “Actually, I think the majority of our weariness didn’t come from gathering ingredients but rather from the journey itself. We got tossed around a lot! That’s why after I replenish my healing potion…” She pulled up her newly cleaned vial and scooped up some more of her crimson potion. “…I don’t think the people of Baile Daonna will mind if we take a little from their stash.” She took a spoonful of the potion and invited him to take it.

“Save it for the villagers,” Aidan told her, “I feel a little tired but otherwise I…” As he tried to stand, he had trouble propping himself up. After he did, he groaned from pure fatigue. “On the other hand, one little sip couldn’t hurt!” He walked over to the cauldron and sat in front of it. Yasmina handed him the spoon, and he raised it as if he were giving a toast. “Cheers!” He merrily drank it, and Yasmina watched as his muscles slowly relaxed all over. “Amazing!”

“It’s a good potion!” Yasmina remarked.

“Oh yeah, the potion is good too,” Aidan said with a smile. It took her a moment to realize he had complimented her, which made her blush furiously. No one really had given her praise before, so she wasn’t completely sure how to handle it.

Before Yasmina could properly react, a villager popped his head into the yurt and noticed their masks were off. “Oh, is it safe now?”

Yasmina answered, “Yes it is! We were just about to tell you, but we-”

She didn’t finish her sentence as he gleefully took his mask off. “Great! That means the feast can begin! You’re more than welcome to join us!”

He zipped away, undoubtedly to share the good news with his neighbors, and Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir shifted guiltily. Aidan commented, “I don’t have the heart to tell them we planned to leave right away.”

Ardeshir put in, “Well, don’t look at me! I have to pretend that I’m a normal cat to mortals.”

Yasmina took a moment to mull it over. “Hmm…we do need to eat something. We could stay for a little while.”

“I am hungry,” Aidan admitted. “Though I highly doubt this will be a quick be a quick meal!” Musical instruments began to play, and they heard people celebrating, which made the three of them smile. Yasmina had Ardeshir take a sip of potion before she took one of her own, and then they headed out.

Aidan, Yasmina, and Ardeshir ate from large plates on blanket as the villagers danced in a circle around a bonfire. As they started to get full and slowed down on their eating, a woman noticed them and invited them to dance. They refused, but she didn’t take no for an answer and pulled them up to the dance floor. Other villagers grabbed their hands, and they couldn’t help but join in on the festivities. It felt strange to be enjoying themselves so much, but they relented and let themselves have a bit of fun.

Suddenly, a horn bellowed, which made everyone still and silent. A chill went down Yasmina’s spine, and she could tell something was approaching that made everyone sober up fast. She whispered, “What’s happening?”

One person replied, “It’s Makkedah, our soothsayer.”

Ardeshir, Yasmina, and Aidan all had the same hunch, and they hid among the crowd just in case this Makkedah person had an alliance with Daeva. Yasmina accidentally knocked over a basket, and some dead Comeheistears fell out. She looked at Ardeshir quizzically, who softly said, “They’re dead.” She gave him another funny look, so he added, “I wasn’t going to eat them! I thought they would enjoy throwing them into the fire!” Yasmina didn’t seem totally convinced, but she let it go since the visitor was approaching.

An old man in a raggedy black cloak limped towards them. His face didn’t appear totally threatening, but he did have a conniving glint in his eyes. He addressed the crowd, “Good news! I procured an antidote, and it will only cost you…” He noticed the plates of food, and so he inferred, “You’ve eaten? Wait, why are you celebrating?” The villagers didn’t say a word to him. After a moment, he unexpectedly shuddered. His body grew stiff, and he growled, “There’s a witch here!”

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!