A Journey Into Shadows

by Carpenter Ant

Part 1

David reached the crest of the ridge. Before him spread out a beautiful vista. In the distance he could make out an imposing castle, his final destination. He hoped. Slowly he began to make his way down the embankment. He set a leisurely pace hoping to be at the Keep by nightfall. He thought of the road not a half a league off to his right, it would be easier and more pleasant to walk on the hard packed road than through the thickets to both sides of it. He smiled at this thought. "And how would you avoid lutin raiding parties? They always watch the roads, you know that better than anyone." He turned his thoughts elsewhere before any more memories could surface.

He carefully continued on his way. He was wearing a dark green tunic over which he wore a chestplate of leather armor, it was covered with arcane markings, he also possessed a set of matching gauntlets and a helm, both of which were now stowed in his travel pack to save him from the added heat on his walk. At his belt hung a sheath that at first glance could be mistaken for a sword, but at closer examination it was oddly shaped for such a weapon. Over his armor he wore a long cloak of a dark blue cloth.

He was now in a small grove of pine trees. David breathed deeply of the rich scent, feeling refreshed by the invigorating pine smell. As he reached another small hillock he found a spot under the shade of a lone elm tree and pulled a travel ration out of his pack. He also removed a small wooden cup. Placing the cup on the ground he whispered a single phrase. A small symbol in the bottom of the cup glowed briefly before the cup was filled to the brim with cool, clear water. Raising the goblet to his lips he thanked the masters that had taught him the magic to allow him to adventure without need for burdensome supplies and other survival necessities.

After his noontime meal he again began to plod on. He began to feel uneasy as he crested another ridge. His vision blurred and he was certain he smelt the faint smell of death. As once before he found himself suddenly plunged into a vision, this one was of a battlefield — he didn't know where. On the skyline was an imposing site. It was the shadowy bulk of a fortress. He believed it to be Metamor. On the field rank after rank of soldiers marched. Here was a rank of seeming children; there, a company of fierce looking Amazons. Another held a multitude of vaguely human shapes. Ahead was only a shallow rise. But he saw the top of the rise was alive with movement. The small foul imps were thick as locusts; the larger fiends blacked out the horizon.

They crested the ridge and drove down on the Keeper forces. As the sounds of battle and death grew fainter, before David appeared a parchment with a drawing of the continent upon it. The northern ranges were black with a soot like darkness. He gasped as he saw his own lands darken. He gazed at the area around the keep. The area grayed, then it flashed white and actually began to force the darkness back. Then a Wizened old man appeared before David.

Raising his claw of a hand he blasted the map with a stream of utter darkness. The Parchment burst into flame, but was not consumed. The flame surrounded the Keep. The two forces strove against one another. The flame strengthened as the Light began to dim and flicker. The old man cackled in triumph and strengthened his attack.

"No!" David grabbed the Map and ignoring the pain the burns caused he placed himself between the map and the evil wizard.

The mage laughed. "Do you think that you can save them alone?" He renewed his attack and David saw the magic pass right through him. He watched in horror as the Keep flickered and finally died. The darkness then flowed over the rest of the continent. Soon the map was completely dark. It then fell to ash at his feet.

Turning to the old man, David lunged for him. The mage with an evil grin disappeared. David fell to the ground, weeping bitter tears. "How can I stop it? What must I do?" He screamed.

Then as once before the melodious voice began to chant:

Hard is the journey
The path is made of stone
But seek for friends in hidden guise
And come not back alone

Little may they trust you
Your weapons will be held
But this path you must take
If the darkness will be delved

Beware the painted man
Who bears the Glowing gem
His power is unmatched
His evil too is great

His death demands a hidden price
If you would disperse this blight
Sacrifice your hold to light
And make your final stand

As he heard the words the map appeared again, as it was before. To the north a small area glowed an even darker black than the midnight that surrounded it. David took note of its location. The map disappeared and the entire world went white.

And a second later he found himself standing on the hilltop.

After recovering his composure, David began to travel north. He now traveled not only carefully but stealthily. He walked far into the night before exhaustion finally made him rest.

David grunted as he finally pulled himself up onto the narrow ledge. He had been climbing for half a day and it was getting no easier. He felt the cold hardness of the ledge, how he wished he could go back to the keep. But even if he did the darkness of the vision would eventually overwhelm them.

He struggled on, ever since he had seen the vision, he had been dodging the Keep patrols. He wanted to show himself, but he had the feeling that time was short. Eventually he had to take to the mountains to escape detection. The road had gotten steeper and harder since then. Resting for a moment he looked over the route he had chosen. There was nothing but hard, unforgiving stone in all directions.

Slowly David got to his feet. Even as he continued up the side of the hill, he had the vague feeling something wasn't right. Almost unknowingly he opened his satchel and pulled out a leather helm and a pair of gauntlets. Both were etched with intricately carved markings, much like his armor. Drawing on the gloves he began to glance around, not knowing exactly what he was looking for as he put the helm on as well. At a whispered phrase a rune on the brow of the leather cap began to glow. Again looking around he surveyed the landscape.

Under the effects of the cap his vision was enhanced and the landscape took on the glittering, flowing patterns that all life gave off. The stone itself was unchanged, but all around him were footprints of some kind of life. They showed up a brilliant yellow. Looking at them carefully he traced the detail and attempted to match it to the ones in his memory. Only one would fit the prints.... Lutins!

Even as he determined this he heard a grinding rumble from the next ledge up. Looking up he saw a small band of Lutins pushing the start of a massive rockslide in his direction. The rocks they dislodged came crashing down, grinding others off and adding to the size of the slide.

David calmly sank to one knee. "I have to time this just right, I must wait for the right moment." As he prepared himself, he began to clasp his gloved hands together, twisting them around in a complex movement. The rocks ground closer as they continued their grinding descent. At the last possible second he raised his clasped hands screaming, "Vertoa Nagosh!" The gloves cast a greenish light, as the first massive boulder crashed down in a bounce that should have taken his head off was deflected to the side. The glow quickened forming a bubble of intense energy around him.

More rocks ground towards him, the ones that hit the shield were turned aside. After the slide began to dissipate he lower his hands. The gauntlets were barely warm from the mana drain. The boulders were built up around him to the point that his view of the lutins was obstructed. Reaching into a pouch on his belt, he withdrew a small steel ball. Like his attire, it was covered with strange symbols.

Slowly crawling to the top of the rock pile he drew back and threw the ball with all his strength, as it left his hand he shouted, "Marzen Therec!" The ball accelerated beyond what his throw could have done. It shot up in an arc over the ledge. Again he shouted a command, "Huyria Kormun!" The ball exploded into a shower of fire that blanketed the ledge in a veritable inferno. The lutins were either consumed by the fire or fell to their deaths. Soon the flames had gone down and David began to make his way up to the scene. Once there all he found was a few blackened corpses and a very unpleasant smell.

Walking a little further he bent down and retrieved the ball from where it had fallen. Suddenly he heard a soft sound from behind him. Whirling just in time to catch the sharp end of a spear right in the gut. He fell backwards and spent a few seconds trying to suck air back into his lungs. Before him stood a very large Lutin, almost as large as a man. He had a burn on his right shoulder and thigh from the fire, but other than that he was untouched.

In his hands he wielded a quarterstaff with wicked looking blades on each end. He was spinning the staff in a very complicated rhythm, waiting for a chance to strike a look of hatred in his eyes. David found this odd, Lutins normally hadn't the brains to study an opponent. Gaining his feet he reached to the sheath on his belt. The lutin following his every move, seeming suprised that he hadn't been gutted. David smiled, his armor couldn't be pierced by any implement. He just wished it could also stop the force of the blow as well as the blade, he would have a monstrous bruise later. He drew from the sheath two rods of metal. Holding them outward, David gave the pieces of steel a downward snap. The two halves came together to form a fighting staff about five feet in length.

Warily circling, the two combatants tested each other's defense. David was using a Senturan defense he had learned many years ago, his staff moving in an effortless blur while his hands seem to move in slow motion. The lutin studied this style for a moment, before making a vicious strike to the left. David moved the staff into the slash's trajectory halting its motion before bringing the other end up to catch the lutin under the chin slamming him backwards. The lutin fell back against the far side of the entrance to a small cave, his staff falling far out of reach.

David advanced, intending to finish the lutin off before continuing on his way. As he raised his staff to deliver a killing blow to the temple of the unconscious warrior a small soft whimper from inside the cave stopped him. Peering into the darkness he could make out about half a dozen small shapes. Shapes that could only be children. That stopped him, no child even a lutin child should be left uncared for up here. It was apparently a small tribe that had been defending itself. He had killed all the other adults.

Looking back to the fallen warrior, he saw that he was again awake. The look in his eyes was now not one of hatred, but of fear and sadness. David stepped closer to the lutin and he closed his eyes bracing himself for the final blow.

The lutin gasped at the feel of cool water running over the vicious burns on his arm and thigh, opening his eyes he watched in confusion as the human finished bandaging the wounds and stepped back.

David collapsed his staff and resheathed the weapon. Moving over he retrieved the fallen staff and laid it on the ground in front of the fallen warrior. Then he spoke in the only lutin dialect he knew. His accent was terrible he knew but the lutin was very surprised anyway. He responded, "Fiyure nezith?" David simply shook his head with a smile.

He turned and began walking away. He heard the scrape of the staff being picked up and the hiss of pain as the lutin regained his feet. He didn't look back, but no blow came, no attack was made. Smiling he continued on his journey.

That night David thought back to the conversation with the lutin. "You must live to care for the children. Your life is now theirs. I hope you make the right choice." He heard again the lutin's reply. "Are you the Nezith?" David didn't know who this Nezith was, but he wanted to find out, and soon.

David stretched, ignoring the pain from his battered midsection. Picking up his gauntlets he reached into his pouch and removed a small slender device of shiny metal about five inches long with a rounded end. Closing his eyes he concentrated on the device and when he opened them a brilliant point made of light had formed at the end of the object.

Again picking up one of the gloves he began to write on the leather with the lightwriter. He used small carefully measured strokes; the tiny, intricate sigils were so very delicate, one mistake could render the entire string useless. David chose to ignore the solid bar that adorned the glove higher on the leather, the testament to an earlier failure.

As he wrote he mumbled phrases in a strange tongue. When he was finished a new line had been added to the growing work on the glove. Setting it aside he repeated the procedure with the other glove. After a long hour of writing, he set the gauntlets down and curled up to sleep.

He awoke shortly before dawn. His eyes felt dry in their sockets but he forced them to open and take in his surroundings. Nothing had changed in the night, he was still in the rocky highlands. He packed up what little he carried with him and, after a meager breakfast, he continued on his way. He kept running the words of the vision over and over in his mind, trying to distill their meaning.

The first verse seemed clear enough. He would travel on paths of stone and he must seek for allies hidden among his enemies

The second verse told of their wariness to trust him and that his weapons would be taken from him.

The third spoke of "The Painted Man", an oddity to be found among lutins but at least such a person would stand out. He possessed a magical gem of some kind and was a powerful, evil person.

The final verse was still giving him trouble. It told him that he would kill this man and he would pay a price for that death. But what did it mean "Sacrifice your hold to light and make your final stand"? Would he die in this encounter? Where then would the prophecy of destruction lead? Or would he become a power for evil? If so would he cause the destruction to come?

He was now traveling at a distinctly downward slant, he must finally be coming out of the mountains. Looking ahead he surveyed the terrain. While he was coming down, he still had quite a ways to go before he would again be on the plains. Sighing he continued trudging down the nonexistent path.

Part 2

He was coming down out of the mountains now — he would have to keep a closer watch. He was getting past Keeper lands and was approaching the country held by the Lutins. He now walked with weapons readied.

That night he did not sleep and lit no fire, only rested his legs and ate to renew his strength. Listening to the night sounds he began to sort them from each other. The rustle of a passing rodent, the flutter of a birds wings as it came to light on a tree branch. The snap of a twig and a hiss of intaken breath. David rested his hand on the cold steel hilt of Koru, preparing for a throw. But a snort and the nasal whine that followed told only of a wild boar passing in the night.

David relaxed and continued listening. Eventually he felt the sun rising against his back and knew he must continue on his way. He walked for a while before he smelt the tang of smoke in the air. Making his way slowly towards the source of the odor, he crawled to the top of a small hillock to see a large encampment in the distance.

Again drawing on his helm he activated its power, this time though he used a farsight spell to achieve a closer view of the area. It was Lutins, all right, and quite a few of them from the looks of the fires and tents. Maybe around a hundred or more. He would have to be careful to avoid them or their patrols.

Then he caught a glimpse of something that drove all thought of secrecy from his mind. There seated on a raised dais was a tall dark skinned man. His face was covered with a strange set of markings that flowed from the crown of his shaven head down the front and sides of his face to disappear into his clothing.

The painted man. This was where he must go. Lying back on the other side of the hill, he shook his head slowly. And how could he get to this strange man in the midst of a small army of Lutins.

Turning back to his view of the camp David studied the layout. The tents were set up in a series of clusters that staggered around a much larger tent that sat near the dais. A shallow river swept past the camp, providing fresh water to the troops. There were few trees or any other type of cover in the clearing.

The Lutins seemed to be patrolling the perimeter of the clearing, but not penetrating into its dim depths. That offered some ideas. The fact that the guard emplacements seemed so tightly spaced seemed to detract from their mobility, so a fast moving target would be difficult for them to hunt. But there were enough guards to provide almost total support to each other in case of a direct attack.

The few strategies that came to mind were far-fetched and might possibly get him killed. He discarded one after another until he had narrowed down his selection to a bare shadow of what it was. He began readying himself for a fight. All loose articles on his belt were removed and safely stored in his pack, in their place he slung a small leather pouch and a dagger sheath of skillful design.

His armor was tightened and his helm was also secured. Then he removed his cloak and turned it over, underneath was a weave of greens and browns that made up a camouflaged web that would blend in quite well with the forest cover, from his travel pack he removed a large hood of the same weave and attached it to the camo-cloak. Now his armor and weapons were covered in a swirl of forest colors.

He took a deep breath before plunging once more into the wood where he had walked with confidence not more than a half hour ago. Now he moved like a shadow, darting from cover to cover. Every bit of brush was safety; the area in between was dangerous.

Slowly he made his way towards the still distant smell of pungent smoke. It was midday before he neared the edge of the clearing. Taking a deep breath he set to work on the first step in his plan. Slowly, carefully, he circled the clearing, always staying in the heavy forest. Upon reaching a position directly opposite the stream he picked out four large oaks that would suit his purpose.

He spent the next two hours crafting a series of runes on each trunk. First he stripped a large section of bark and with the lightwriter he carved a series of flowing vertical lines. These divided the exposed section of wood into a flowing series of spaces, some separate and some connected in an almost incomprehensibly complex pattern. He then began carefully tracing the sigils themselves inside the spaces.

The work was tiring and his legs and hands started to cramp before he finished. He listened for any noise at all, anything that might indicate something had discovered him. Every once in a while a growl or howl from the camp would make him pause his work and lay hand to weapon, but such moments passed and he bent back to his task. He finished his work and then began working his way back the way he had come. It was slow going as the afternoon deepened into dusk. He continued on until he came to the back of the stream where it passed into the forest.

There he picked up a smooth flat water worn stone. Again using the lightwriter he carved a simple rune into its blue-grey surface. Then he found a resting place in a hollowed out portion of the bank where the stream had deepened its course creating a natural undercut. He then awaited nightfall.

He was jolted awake by a roar from the camp — not the bellow of a giant, but an anguished cry of pain. He moved silently but quickly to a position where he could watch the camp. He soon wished he had stayed back. For a large group of Lutins were dragging a large shaggy brown bear towards the main tent. The poor animal had been trapped but seemed unhurt. David had no hopes of things remaining that way and could see no way to stop what was coming.

The Mage was standing at the edge of the dais smiling at the approaching group. The Lutins dragged the struggling bear to the foot of the platform before releasing it and backing away. The beast managed a swipe at them that knocked two to the ground to the added laughter of those who watched. Then with a cry of glee the mage drew back his hand and made a throwing motion towards the enraged creature. It gave a cry of terror as a mass of pure darkness rose up engulfing it. Its cry ceased, and as the shadow faded all that remained was a body that a moment before had contained life. David turned away, sickened by the sight.

Night fell swiftly, shrouding the valley in darkness and the forest in an even deeper black. David stood and stretched. It was time. He flung the stone into the water and disappeared back into the forest.

Everything was still. The night was undisturbed by intrusions now. Then a small patch of mist rose from the water. Soon it was joined by another, and then a third. They began to grow together as more patches joined them.

The mist thickened into a true fog, and began to flow out into the meadow. From his hiding place in the forest he watched the fog flow through the camp, blotting it from view. He closed his eyes, concentrating on another series of runes, willing their magic to life. He felt the energy build and released his mental hold.

Turning his gaze in the direction of the forest at the farthest point from the river, through the fog, he saw the flare as the runes he had carved vaporized in an instant, creating a virtual inferno at the forest edge. The dry brush caught just as he had hoped, feeding the flames as they leaped from tree to tree.

He heard the panicked shouts from the camp and saw the shadowy forms scurrying towards the blaze. It was now or never. He bolted from his cover and sprinted towards the camp. He had only gone about a dozen steps before he was swallowed by the mist.

It was dark, the fog made his skin clammy and although there was no breeze he shivered with a cold he couldn't dispel. It got worse with every step he took towards the center of the camp. In this fog his own footsteps seemed distant and muffled.

Slowly he plodded on, reaching out with all his senses to try and locate any hidden dangers. As he moved, large squat shapes began to loom out of the fog all around him. It took a moment for him to recognize them as the tents that lined the camp. He halted a moment to see if anyone had spotted him, but nothing moved. Finally he started moving again toward the tent where the painted man was.

He moved slowly past the countless shadowy tents. It was an eerie journey for the mage. Nothing moved in the camp and no sound came to his ears except his own muffled footfalls. Suddenly a figure loomed out of the mist and moved toward him. David side stepped to the left and watched as the person moved passed him without making a sound.

He waited for a while to see if the figure returned, but the phantom didn't come back. Finally David started off again moving through the mist.

Then a shape, larger than the rest, loomed out of the fog right ahead of him and the mage paused. It had to be the main tent, the home of his target.

He approached the main tent carefully. He eased the flap to the side and slipped in. There sat the dark man smiling at him. Before the man, a small fire blazed merrily. Other than a small bedroll, the rest of the floor was empty. "What? Only one? Duke Hassan must be running low on scouts to send only one puny insect against me." The mage raised his hand and the tent flap shut tightly. He then stood up, "Well, what exactly are you, hmmm? A Gendermorph? I think not, I can detect no magic from the keep around you. You are more than just a mercenary and you have considerable magic, or else another of your party does." The mage gave an evil grin. "Let's find out shall we." His right hand snapped up and a wave of shadow swept out towards David.

For an instant he was engulfed in frozen torture. Then his natural talent reflexively channeled the magic through his body and gave him the ability to redirect its course. Smiling coldly he sent it in a stream back at the mage. The wall of shadow around him dissolved and he caught the look of surprise on the mage's face as the stream hit his upraised hands. He snarled as he canceled the spell. "So, you are the source of the magic. Our little friend at the keep will be punished for failing to mention you."

David only smiled, not saying a word although the mention of a friend inside the keep was profoundly troubling to him. The mage's eyes studied him with a cold calculation. "Only a few have ever been able to match my power. I am Regenci of the Kerinmahi. I am a shadowweaver and a seer of the future. That little spell was the smallest taste of my full potential. Surrender now, and I might be merciful." David unsheathed his staff and flicked it out to its full length. Regenci snorted as he raised his hands and with a complex gesture every shadow into the small room intensified, leaving their positions and swirling up like a cloud, blotting all light from the room.

"Now how will your weapons help you? You can't fight what you can't see." David lashed out at the voice, but struck nothing but air. A low hum arose, seeming to come from everywhere. A stream of meaningless words filled the silence. David tried to pinpoint where it was coming from, but he couldn't place it.

Reaching to his belt he drew the slender dagger he found there. Raising it, he concentrated on his target. A man, surrounded in darkness, unseeable to the eye. He began to turn, holding the dagger out in his hand, gripping its cold hilt firmly, awaiting the first little tug. It was a long shot he knew, but still it wasn't like he was beset with options at this point.

He felt the hilt warm in his grasp as he called its magic to life. He drew his arm back and swung the blade in a semblance of a throw. The knife sang through the air and he felt a slight jerk as it tried to leave the arc and level into a straight flight. He took note of the position it had been in, before he crept forward as softly as he could. As he neared the Mage's supposed position he began to pick out the origin of the strange chant.

He felt a prickling on his skin as he discerned a magical discharge of somekind. He leaped forward and grabbed hold of the Mage, driving his dagger into the unarmored body before he could escape. The mage let out a choking breath.

"You might have killed me. But if you even make it out of this tent alive, heed my words. You will have a choice set before you. In one hand you'll have the life of a perfect stranger; In the other, your own. On either hand the darkness awaits you. But you must still defeat my pet, Huj'orin!"

A low growl rumbled from the darkness. David felt his blood run cold at its sound. The mage chuckled tiredly before his body relaxed and he breathed his last. David had enough time to grab the softly glowing gem he wore around his neck before he was forced to roll to the side as something large crashed down on his last position. He tried to find the door flap as he slipped the pendant into the pouch that hung from his belt. But in this inky blackness he had difficulty staying upright let alone walking. He felt a rank gust of breath on his neck a second before something knocked him off his feet.

He shook his head to clear the cobwebs as something heavy fell on top of him. He kept his grip on Koru and shoved the sharp blade into the thing lying on top of him. The shriek that it let out was inhuman and seemed to grind through his very bones as a gush of foul smelling fluid sprayed across him. The crushing weight suddenly lessened. From somewhere near he heard a snarl of pure hate and rage.

His hand came to rest on his fallen staff. Snatching the weapon up he came into a crouch and after sheathing Koru he began to trace a pair of etched grooves with his fingers. As his hands past over the marks they began to glow with a bright fiery glow. He felt a build up of violent magic flare inside the shaft. He gritted his teeth as the magic leaped from the weapon into his hands, racing up his arms. His blood felt like it was on fire. It burned as the magic spread throughout his body. Then his vision flashed a brilliant white....and everything stopped.

Or at least it seemed to. He stepped forward and the darkness seemed to disappear. He saw the creature in all its horror... and he struck. Swinging his staff in a whistling arc he drove it into what he thought must be the head of this foul beast. As if through thick liquid he heard the creature's death scream before it slowly dissolved into a puddle of viscous ooze.

The next thing he remembered was stumbling into the cool dark of the night air. His vision was blurring as he retraced the lines on the staff and deactivated its power. He came back to normal space with a gut wrenching lurch. Only to stare directly at another phantom rising out of the rapidly thinning fog.

He reached quickly for Koru... and stopped. This was no lutin. It was a swirl of forest tones that blended almost perfectly with its surrounding plant life. Whoever it was moved like a shadow making no noise and using its camouflage to maximum effect. It was coming from the direction of the river, where a stand of tall grass had provided it perfect cover.

Even as he hesitated it spotted him, going into a defensive crouch quickly enough that he knew this was a trained fighter that was completely in their element. He also slipped into a defensive position, holding his staff across his body. Now they were no more than a few feet from each other. Both waiting for the other to make the first move. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Who are you?" the hooded figure snarled back. The voice was high pitched, but strangely melodic. Then it became clear. This was a woman; what's more, a woman warrior of great skill. He smiled, this might get interesting. The hooded warrior brandished her weapon, a mace, light but of great craftsmanship. "I don't have time to play games." A distant lutin scream punctuated this statement.

They both flinched and waited in silence, but the scream was not repeated. David decided to take a chance. "I am called David. I'm not part of this delightful little group. By your reactions I would say you also don't belong in this hellhole. Now we can either both get out of here, or wait for the Lutins to give us a proper welcome."

"We can leave, but you will go first." She gestured the way she had come with her Mace. Just as a distant flare from the fires illuminated her face. David gave a start as he saw her short muzzle jutting from her dark, furry face. "You're from the keep, aren't you? From Metamor?"

"Where are you from?" She was back on her guard again in that instant. Unbidden the phrase fell from his lips as he whispered, "Friends in hidden guise." The Animorph cocked her head slightly.

"I didn't catch that." He opened his mouth to reply when a movement behind her caught his attention. Instinctively he drew Koru and, as the morph prepared to defend herself, extended in a throw that caught the lutin in the throat.

The warrior whirled as the lutin gurgled his last breath. David had enough time to sigh before a blow caught him across his left side. He felt something like a warhammer wielded by a giant slam into him and he heard something snap. And then he was lying on the ground, the shouts and commotion almost drowned out by the roaring of his own blood in his ears.

"So the mage was right, to help a stranger I embraced the darkness. But I could do nothing else." And then he had no more time for thought as the darkness closed in around him, and he knew no more.