Part XVIII – Dana
Our company traveled through the remainder of the day and on through the night. I held the vanguard along with Ross’s scout. My inner compass wove a path that followed his, quieting any doubts I’d had about his change of allegiance. The warriors of the north, my kin, followed our lead. They blended well with our surroundings and disguised our tracks as we went, and I was grateful to be surrounded by familiar faces. Night had passed halfway when I called a halt. We had reached an assortment of stone outcroppings in the midst of the forest. Faint moonlight filtered down through the quiet enclosure.
“This place will hide us until we see fit to travel once more,” I whispered to the warriors behind me, and signaled to pass the word on. The company scattered to find places of rest until all were hidden by shrubbery and the dim light. I led the scout to a small cave set amidst the forestry. He settled against the wall in a corner. I set my back against a tree trunk just outside the den’s entrance. Footsteps came to my hearing. Two of my warriors strode past to join the scout in the cave. Kearney strode up from behind them and sat with her back to the stone wall just outside the cave, a few paces away from me.
“How far are we from the prison?” she whispered as she settled herself.
“It’s a two-day journey, easy,” the scout’s voice replied from the cave’s back. “With the pace we’ve set, we’ll be there by midmorning.”
Kearney acknowledged his reply with a nod and leaned back against the wall. I wrapped my cloak around my body to ward off the faint breeze that flowed past.
“Is there anything you can tell us about the prison’s layout?” I asked.
“Nothing that wouldn’t help until we’ve seen the place, I’m afraid. It’s one of Ross’s better guarded ones.”
“Is there something special about it, besides its wayward location?” Kearney asked, her eyes narrowing slightly. The scout adjusted his seating before he replied.
“Aye. It was originally a ruin from the old days, some say. Ross renovated it specially when he started the war with your order.”
“Why only then?” I asked, curious. The man frowned, barely visible in the dim light.
“I’m not sure. I’ve heard tales about the place, though. They say it was built by older enemies, ones long gone ages ago. IN any case, it has special cells put into it, with special precautions. Rooms made from steel, for instance. Seems a waste to me, but… well, if there’s any truth of the rumors about your order’s powers, Ross certainly believes them.”
I leaned forward on my legs, the scout’s words giving me cause for concern.
Sounds much like a shadow prison. But it couldn’t be… could it? The order destroyed them all, after…
“I’ve heard rumors of a prison that’s not a prison,” Kearney said, breaking my musings. “It’s a weapon.”
I glanced at her in question.
She shook her head.
“I’m not fully certain. If I were to guess, I would say booby traps. Very good ones. That is the only explanation I can think of.”
Her suggestion only propelled the suspicion I had, garnered from ancient scripts I’d read.
“Hm…” I said, “If such were the case, I may have an idea of what we’re getting into.”
I glanced into the cave at Ross’s scout. His eyes had drifted shut, from weariness, I assumed.
“Our histories speak of such places,” I said, and looked back to Kearney. “Back during the dark years, our enemies would often capture those of our order. These they would keep contained for whatever reason: Study, torture, who knows. But they would build these prison cells in mind for whatever gift the captive had.”
I thought for a moment before I said,
“In my case, for example, they might somehow fashion a constantly shifting labyrinth. Mayhap this is one of these places, a ruin resurrected by Ross for our capture.”
Kearney frowned, an expression of concern crossing her face as I continued.
“Ross, if not Set, will be expecting this. He must have considered at some point one of us would come for them. This could be a trap laid for us in mind, specifically.”
Kearney stood and paced back and forth in front of the cave’s entrance.
“This has to be Set’s doing, not Ross’s,” she said after an interval of silence. “But why hasn’t Set done to Ross what he did to you,” she nodded to the sleeping scout, “and your friends?”
I frowned, bitter experience serving as an aid in my reply.
“Hey may be able to control to extreme, but doing so is quite obvious. What you saw is what he can do, and a person is well aware, usually, that they’re being controlled. It’s not something easily hidden.”
“I see…” Kearney replied.
“Set may be powerful, but if he moved against Ross, he’d be one against thousands. And I have no doubt he’s well aware of that.”
Kearney stared at me, her gaze keen despite the poor light. I stared back.
“But… I also think Set will put himself in control, somehow, someday,” I said. “Whether that happens sooner or later, we’re the greatest threat to him, knowing who he is and being able to stop him.”
Kearney’s gaze shifted away at this, and I raised a finger to hold her attention.
“But… we have our advantages.”
“He won’t win,” Kearney stated with resolution in her voice. “Advantages or no advantages.”
“Nonetheless,” I replied with a guarded tone, “Consider your brothers. Ross may have them contained, but they have not realized their potential yet. Now that you stand with me, we can convince them. When that happens, we’ll be that much stronger. Who knows what they’ll be able to do! Many of our order in legend were… quite powerful.”
She stared for several moments, and then nodded.
“Yes… this is to our benefit,” she said.
“The more there are of us, it will be that much easier to bring Set down,” I said, receiving another nod of agreement. I sighed.
“I pity Ross’s position. He thinks he has control in this but… I fear he has no idea what he’s with, both with us, and with Set.”
Kearney shook her head.
“Ross is a greedy fool. I fear my pity for him at present is little,” she said, and walked several paces away into the trees. I watched her go, concern causing a slight frown to cross my face.
Easy. Ross has done far worse to her.
Kearney suddenly shivered, her fists clenching. She sat down hard next to a nearby tree, and I could see her breathing came hard. I narrowed my eyes. And then I felt it. Just slight, cold touch on my mind that caused me to shiver. I stood and made my way to Kearney’s side. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t seem to hear my approach.
“Penny? What’s wrong?” I asked. She started, her eyes snapping open, and her hands grasped for her sword. I stepped back a pace and raised my hands, thoroughly convinced.
“It was him, wasn’t it?”
Kearney stared at me for several moments before she visibly relaxed.
“I’m just tired,” she said, though not in a manner that was entirely convincing. I crouched and studied her face. Weariness I could see, yes, but… I caught just a hint of something else, hidden well. Her eyebrows rose in question.
“Given to us is the power to rebuke darkness,” I said, quietly. “When the time comes... you’ll need to remember that.”
She returned my gaze in silence for several moments.
“I want to tell me something,” she finally whispered. I nodded once.
“Tell me there’s another way to stop him.”
I closed my eyes and sighed.
Fear arose in my mind, in company with sorrow.
If only she knew what he would do, what he has done.
I made no effort to hide my thoughts from my expression, but when my eyes opened, I did not look up to meet her gaze.
“I wish there was… maybe, in some repository, there is knowledge of such a thing. But… of such, I have never heard.”
“I’ll find it; I don’t care where it is or how long it takes.”
A sad smile crossed my face at the resolute steel in her voice.
Such friends I am given, to both their sorrow and my own.
I lifted my head to meet her eyes.
“How many more must die, simply for hope of a chance,” I said, half to myself.
“You’re just going to have to accept the fact that your life means more to everyone else than it does to you. We can figure out how to stop Set without killing him. Then we can find a way to disconnect you both, and then we can deal with him like he ought to be dealt with.”
“He’s not like us, Kearney,” I replied, ignoring the sting in her words. “He isn’t a person.”
“Then how do you know killing him will even stop him?” she demanded. “What if it doesn’t? What then? We’ll have lost you, and then Set will be stronger than ever.”
“Because it’s happened before.”
She set her jaw, and my gaze wandered up to the treetops as I recalled the words of scrolls I’d studied.
“Long ago, during our order's golden years, Set's kind rose up in great numbers. Dark shadows of the true order's knights, and they amassed armies of deluded followers. We fought them, were ever stronger. But the cost of slaying each shadow meant losing a comrade, and we could not contain them imprisoned for all time.”
I sat on the mossy earth, keeping my thought trail upon the tale I told.
“Therefore, those of the order, all who had a shadow twin, met in secret and embarked on a desperate mission, and threw themselves in a suicide attack against the shadow order."
I looked down to the ground between us.
“Their sacrifice succeeded. They shadow order disappeared, never to be seen for hundreds of years.”
I glanced at Kearney, and she looked away.
“If there was another way, how could they, in the golden age of our order, not find it?” I asked.
She gave no reply.
“Even if you think I don’t care about my life, I do. It scares me, and I wonder why I alone have this problem, so often. But I’ve had to live with this for many years, and I’ve seen what Set can do if left unchecked. I’m willing to stop him, no matter what it takes.”
Again, Kearney said nothing, her face expressionless. I looked down.
“If you had a shadow twin… would you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied, her voice soft.
“Good. Because honestly…. I don’t want to.”
I felt silent and rested my head on my knees. For several moments I sat in silence, Kearney doing the same. I glanced up at the night sky; all hope of sleep had fled from my body, weary as I might be.
“I’ll be with the watchmen if you need me,” I said, and stood. Kearney nodded, though her gaze seemed distant. I walked away into the forest.