Short Story: The Darkest Shadow

Copy of Book Review (43)

Disclaimer: This is my own piece of work and fiction, including the world and characters. 

 

He had nearly laughed when the villagers of Talov had told him that a demon lived behind a nearby waterfall. Everyone knew demons couldn’t survive near running water; the touch of its cleansing power anathema to them. One local even claimed to have seen it leap out through the wall of water one night, while returning from hunting in the nearby forests.

Petr Ursmann didn’t believe it and neither did his twin sister, Jitka. And yet, every report, every story and every witness they came across spoke of the same thing.  A cave, hidden behind a waterfall, where the freshly melted snows from the mountains peaks merged with the waters of a small, winding river, swelling it, and then tumbling down a jagged cliff face into a deep pool of water below. Recently, every villager seemed to have a tale of something mysterious happening to them in recent weeks, ranging from spoilt crops to children suddenly falling sick and dying. All the standard rubbish that he heard every time a bunch of peasants believed that a demon, a witch, or anything else unnatural plagued their lands.

He and Jitka had arrived in the village two days earlier. The locals had eyed them from behind doorways and windows, their usual suspicion of strangers vying with their desperation to be rid of their curse. It helped that they were both ordained members of The Order of Watchers. The Order had been formed hundreds of years ago by the Emperors of old; they travelled the lands, from the dark, northern forests of the Ursmark to the fertile sun-drenched plains of southern Satteland, hunting warlocks, witches, and a generally anyone they suspected meddled in the magical or occult. Despite this, they had been welcomed in the muddy village square by a haggard and worry-worn old priest who begged for their aid. Not that he had needed to. It was their sacred duty to investigate, even if they didn’t believe that it was a demon.

Petr, like his sister, was tall and wiry, with hard, brown eyes that stared out from beneath their ceremonial hooded robes. Though their faces were similar, Petr’s hair was shaved short, nearly to the scalp, while Jitka’s was long and wild, tumbling down her back. It was only tied up into a high knot when she had to fight. For both twins, it was a pitch black, like the colour of ink. They wore thick, black leather armour, and each carried a mace edged with silver, as well as a variety of holy tomes and scrolls. But what marked them out as ordained Watchers was the pendant that hung at their neck. It was made from pure silver and crafted into the shape of a crescent moon, the holy symbol of The Maiden, goddess of the magical winds and dreams.

Over the next couple of days, they had interviewed all the villagers, gathering nothing more than rubbish and scaremongering for their efforts. In Petr’s experience, crops often went rotten with damp throughout the winter months and children grew sick and died. It was all very natural. In his mind, it was most likely one of the beastfolk, savage and twisted monsters with cloven hooves, horned heads and sharp teeth. At the worst, it was a minor nature spirit, malicious and spiteful, but likely harmless.

That evening, in the hope of a fast resolution and the chance to return quickly to Norov and then Ursholme with pockets lined with coin for some much need rest, they decided to go search the cave. After all, it was clearly no demon. Marcus Eltsov, the hunter who had apparently seen the so-called demon burst from the waterfall, volunteered to join them. His encounter with the so-called demon had left him shunned by the rest of the village, suspicious of his apparent unscathed survival, and so he was keen to help them rid the village of its problems.

 

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The moon shone bright in the sky, bathing the pool, the falls and the rocky cliffs around them in a pale, silvery light. Hidden in a small clump of pine trees above the waterfall, three figures scanned the scene below. Jagged rocks thrust upwards from the dark waters of the pool, while the sound of water crashing from the falls down into the pool below filled their ears. A stream trickled downhill, away from the falls, and wound its way through the thickly forested valley sides towards the village.

“The entrance is over there,” said Marcus. He fumbled at a crudely carved, wooden pendant of The Hunter that hung around his neck with one hand, while the other pointed down to a hidden, rocky passage way that emerged from behind the waterfall.

“Thank you,” said Jitka, watching the old hunter’s movements.  His skin was pale and clammy, while beads of sweat ran down his forehead and his dark brown eyes flittered to and fro from the falls to the twin Watchers.  “We won’t think any less of you if you don’t wish to come any further, you know.”

“No.” Marcus shook his head, “This is something I must do. For my family.”

Jitka gave him a warm smile. “You’re a braver man than most,” she said, before turning to her brother. “Your turn to do the honours, I believe.”

Petr nodded, before lowering his head and closing his eyes. His hands clasped together around the silver pendant that hung from his neck. His sister mirrored his actions, instantly. Seeing this, Marcus quickly followed suite.

“Blessed Maiden,” began Petr, his voice little more than a hushed whisper against the deafening roar of the waterfall. “Hear our prayer. Grant us the strength and wisdom to do your bidding. Your light guides us and shields us from the forces of eternal night.” A slow pause stretched out the silence between the three crouched figures. Petr and Jitka’s eyes shot open, locking with each other. “We are your instruments of justice,” they both said in unison.

 

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The black of the cave was nearly complete, only the flickering light of Markus’ torch providing any light. Petr and Jitka’s torches had been extinguished by the spray off the waterfall as they entered the cave; only the veteran hunter managing to keep his alight.

Petr could feel his heart hammering inside his chest like the fast-paced beating of a great drum. In the near silence that surrounded them, water dripping from the ceiling mixed with the sound of their footsteps and echoed through the cave; amplified in his mind a thousand-fold. Behind him, he could hear the sound of water crashing from the falls, though it was muffled by the cold stone walls around them. Tightening his grip on the handle of his silver-edged mace, he felt the palms of his hand becoming clammy with sweat. He was nervous.

While he knew that what they hunted was no demon, their lack of knowledge worried him. Doubt clawed at his mind. Should they have waited until the morning? Should they have prepared more thoroughly? It was too late now, he knew that.

“We should try and relight the torches before going any further,” he said.

“Won’t do any good,” replied Markus from behind him, his voice nothing more than a hushed whisper. “The wood will still be wet.”

Petr rounded on the old hunter; his nerves stoking a surprising anger inside him.

“Hush.” Jitka’s voice cut through the air, silencing him before he could speak. “Listen. Can you hear that?”

All three of them stood rooted to the spot, straining to keep absolutely silent. The flickering flames of the torch reflected off of Markus’ deep, brown eyes as they stared back at him, while, out the corner of his eye, he saw the faintly illuminated outline of his sister’s face watching the two of them.

Only the faint sound of the waterfall behind them could be heard, until eventually, as the seconds stretched out, a sound began to filter through the darkness.

The sound of singing drifted from the darkness ahead. It sounded like the voice of a little girl, sweet and innocent, with a soft, lilting melody.

Immediately, the tension fled from him, a wave of calm washing over him, as the voice filled his ears. His worries disappeared as he felt his shoulders relax. A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye grabbed his attention.

“It’s just a little girl,” said Markus as he stepped past Petr. His arms hung loosely at his side and his voice sounded distant. “She must be lost.”

Watching Markus shuffle forward drew his mind away from the singing. Questions began to run through his mind. Why would there be a little girl in cave this far from the village? Especially one that was said to be haunted by a demon? Soon, his mind was racing through the tales he’d heard from the villagers. None of them had mention disappearing children.

“Stop!” His cry broke the silence of the cave, echoing off the thick stone walls around them, but it had no effect. The old hunter kept shuffle forward slowly, a dazed look splayed across his face. Spinning around, he saw that his sister’s face bore the same vacant expression, seemingly enthralled by the same spell. Then, he noticed sound of the song had disappeared in his ears, replaced by a rasping chant that set his nerves on edge. Immediately, he recognised the language. It was the Dark Tongue. The language spoken by the servants of eternal night and the banished gods.

Panic rushed through him as realisation of what was happening dawned on him. Spinning back to face Markus, he rushed forward and grabbed his shoulder.

A pained snarl burst from the hunter’s lips as he spun around to face Petr. In a flash of sudden and violent movement, he bore the young Watcher to the ground; his hands clasped like iron vices around his throat. Saliva splattered across Petr’s face as it hissed Markus’ snarling mouth. Kicking his knees up against the older man’s torso, he attempted to loosen the older man’s grip, but try as he might the hunter’s hands stayed clamped to his throat. His vision beginning to swim, Petr stared up at the face snarling down at him. It was then that he noticed Markus’ eyes burning with an icy blue light. Markus has brown eyes, thought Petr before his world slipped into darkness.

Air exploded down his throat, bringing him back to the world. Stars flashed in vision as even the weak flames of the torch hurt his eyes. Above him stood Jitka, she was smiling down at him.

“Thanks,” he gasped, struggling to get his breath back as he pushed himself up. Only a few feet away, he noticed the body of Marcus slumped on the ground, eyes closed and limbs splayed out across the cavern floor. A thin trickle of blood ran from his temple and down his cheek.

“That must be the tenth time this year I’ve saved you,” said Jitka, her smile growing wider as she held her hand out and helped Petr up from the floor. “Now come one, let’s find whatever inhabits this cave and kill it.” Without another word, she strode past him, carrying the light of torch into the blackness ahead.

 

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Delving deeper into the cave, Petr felt the walls beginning to press in on them, so tightly that they were forced to crouch low. The darkness surrounding them grew oppressive, weighing heavily on their minds, almost as if it was trying to smother the light of their flickering torch.

“Stop,” his voice cut through the silence.

“What?” Jitka hissed in reply, the tension in her voice evident.  He was almost relieved that she seemed to share his nerves.

“If that torch goes out, we’re gonna be stuck here. We’ll never find our way out blind.”

A moment of silence stretched out in reply, before Jitka spoke. “Are you suggesting we head back?”

A spark of hope flickered through his mind as the thought. To escape the gloom of the cave and make for the village inn. Ideas of warm bread and cold, frothing beer filled his mind. No, said a voice inside his mind, that is the coward’s way.

His hand fumbled at the silver pendant hanging from his neck, clasping it tight. The oppression of the shadows instantly lifted from his mind and the doubts that had been eating at him ever since they had entered the cave were washed away.

“No,” he said, defiance building inside him. As his courage built up, a glow of blue light came from the pendant clutched in his hand, faintly lighting up the cave around them. “Something dark and unholy is at work here, sister. I can feel it sapping the courage from my bones. Bringing doubt to my mind.”

Jitka smiled at him as she slid her hand inside her tunic and grasped her own pendant. “Yes, brother,” she replied. “That is clear to me as well. Ever since we entered this cave, I have felt a shadow in my mind.” The warm smile disappeared from her face, replaced by a look of grim determination. “We press on and bring The Maiden’s light to this shadow.”

“And yet, “he started, “We have little knowledge of what we face.”

A questioning look crossed Jitka’s face, betraying her worry of what he might say next.

“And with only one torch left, we are left in a perilous position. The master’s taught us to be brave, but not foolish.”

A slight smile crept into the corners of her mouth, “Don’t worry, brother,” she said. “I have a plan.”

A look of confusion spread across his face, as he watched his sister reach into the multitude of folds that her robe contained, searching the myriad of pockets they held. After a few seconds, she drew out a silver locket that hung loosely on a long chain. It was bigger than most, about the size of a small notebook, while its brilliant, polished surface dazzled his eyes with it’s brightness.

“This, dearest brother,” continued Jitka, “is one of the mirrors of the three Silver Mirrors.”

“The mirrors gifted to the order in the time of the Empress Elenna, nearly 11 centuries ago?”

A nod was the only reply he got for a second. “Master Gregorii gave it to me the night before we left Norov. He said that I was to only to open it in the darkest of places.”

“It seems strange that he would give you such a relic for no apparent purpose,” he said, eyeing the locket warily. “And why did you not tell me?”

Jitka nodded, “It is, and he told me to keep it a secret. But, he is a master. It is not our place to question his judgement.”

A snort of laugh burst from his throat, “If you say so. Master Kyril is always telling me that I must question things. To seek understanding. Still, I am glad we have it.”

“Me too.” She said in reply, thursting the torch towards him. “Though, perhaps you should carry the torch for now. So, I can reach the mirror quickly.”

Taking the torch, Petr turned back to the dark of the cave. “Come on. Let’s get moving.”

 

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After what seemed like an age of crawling and crouching through cramped tunnels, the two Watchers felt the tunnel growing wider and to their surprise becoming lighter. Up ahead, they saw the flicker of a warm, orange light illuminating the walls. Though black shadows still clung to the roof of the tunnel, as if even this new light could not pierce them.

Soon, they emerged into an open cavern, with a roof that stretched up into the black above, allowing them the stand once more. In the centre of the room, a huge, blazing fire roared and cast strange shadows that danced on the cave walls.

Petr shield his eyes, the light of the fire almost blinding after hours of near complete darkness. Surely this is the lair of whatever we hunt, he thought as his hand gripped the handle of his mace tight. Squinting against the light of the fire, his eyes scanned the room. Nothing. The only sign of life, the fire that burned before them.

Despite the fire, he felt a chill crawl across his skin. His gaze, almost against his will, was drawn upwards. Here, the shadows were at their deepest. No light penetrated into them, creating a wall of black across the roof of the cave.

“What have we here.”

The voice scratched at his mind, setting his nerves on edge. Had it come from within? Jitka’s eyes darted upwards, telling him that She had heard the voice as well.

Two lost servants of the false gods,” continued the shadow-voice.

His eyes caught the flicker of movement in the blackness above. Then he saw the figure of something shifting and crawling among the rocky edges of the cavern roof. A wave of hopelessness settled on him like a heavy blanket. His skin crawled and the hairs across his body hairs stood up on end, as all his senses told him to flee.

His hand shot to the pendant at his neck but he felt no sense of relief or comfort. Instead, a searing heat exploding in his palm. The amulet had only ever been cold to the touch before, but now it was burning. In shock, he stared down at his palm, the shape of the crescent moon burnt into his skin in a red welt.

“What are you?” asked Jitka, her voice mumbling and soft.

“A good question, little one.” His nerves tingled as the voice filled his mind again, drawing his eyes back towards the shadowed roof. “I am a creature of magic. No different to those that you profess to worship and adore.”  

“Lies! Fury exploded from him, overwhelming the sense of despair that had held him captive. “You are a creature of darkness.”

“I am not the one blinded by hypocrisy!” raged the voice. “I have lived a hundred thousand of your pitifully short lives.” The anger and malice in the voice wrecked his mind, forcing him to his knees. His skin felt as if it was on fire, burning through his nerves, as he shadows above them began to swirl in an angry vortex that bubbled like an angry storm.

Tears tugged at the corners of his eyes as he strained to look away, every muscle in his body pulling him away, but he couldn’t. His vision was locked on the shadows above.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Jitka staring blankly upwards, seemingly frozen in place as well.

“Your arrogance shall be the end of you!” In a wave of violent and sudden movement, the shadows flooded forward, swallowing the light of the bonfire. Pitched into perfect darkness, he knew the life of their own torch had been swallowed as well.

“I am a creature of shadow. A being of flame and darkness. Your pitiful flames only feed me.”  A thousand tiny claws ran across his skin, scarring him with a rain of tiny cuts as the voice raged in the blackness around them.

Tears trickled from his eyes, streaming down his face. He knew they would die. His sister couldn’t save him and he couldn’t save her. An image of their mother flashed through his mind. The soft, tumbling brown hair of his mother which fell down to her shoulders, framing her face, while her eyes, filled with love, brought him warmth. Even if it was just from the memory.

Yes,” hissed the voice. “She will await you in the afterlife. You should know that I will feast on her tears and sorrow as she meets you.”  

“No!”

His sister’s voice cut through his mind, followed by a blinding flash of light. Stars filled his vision as he blinked back tears. The cave was as bright and clear as day.

“By the light of The Maiden, I banish you back to the realms of eternal night!” said Jitka, power and anger flowing through every syllable.

Leaping to his feet, he felt energy flowing through him. Next to him, he could see Jitka standing tall and proud; her hands outstretched before her holding the mirror, dazzling light burning through the dark that had once filled the cave. Holy words poured from her mouth. The mantra of banishment. The words began to flow from his mouth, joining with his sister’s voice. The air tingled with energy and the light of the mirror shone brighter with more intensity than Petr could have believed.

“You think your petty tricks and trinkets can defeat me?” the shadow-voice returned, but weaker than before; only a faint whisper at the back of his mind.

Ignoring the voice, his sister carried on, focussing solely on completing the chant, her eyes screwed shut.

A flash of movement caught his eye, frombehind his sister a slender stream of black rushed between the rocks, knocking her to the floor. The mirror spilt from her hands, crashing to the floor. A hundred thousand tiny cracks ran across its surface, before shattering outwards in a shower of brilliant light and razor-sharp shards of glass that threw him to the ground. Once more, his world was plunged plunging into complete darkness. A single, agonising scream echoed through the blackness around him.

Witness her suffering.” The shadow-voice came again, stronger than only a few seconds ago, followed by a soft, orange glow as the bonfire ignited once more in small, flickering flames. Through the gloom, he could make out the figure of his twin-sister. She was crouched on her knees, sobs escaping from her as she clutched at her face. Blood seeped between her fingers, and at once Petr knew that she had been blinded by the explosion.

Behind her, crept the outline of a shadowy figure, until it towered over her. Black hands grasped at her hair, yanking her head back and exposing the ruined mess of her face as her hands flailed behind her, unable to grasp at the ethereal shadow. A single jagged shard of class thrust out from the mass of bloody flesh that used to be her left eye. The other eye stared out blankly, meeting his with a look of defeat. The shadow-demon, for Petr was now sure it was such a thing despite the presence of running water nearby, sliced a black blade across her throat.

He felt sick. Sick at the sight of blood flowing from her open throat. Sick that he hadn’t save her. Sick that he had failed in his sacred duty.

Tears flooded from his eyes as he tried to stand. A savage blow to his chest threw him back. His hands fumbled along the floor beside him, desperately searching for the handle of his mace. For any weapon. A heavy weight pressed down on his mind, freezing him in place. Above him, the shadowy figure was nothing more than a black outline against the glow of the fire.

“And now you join her.”

 

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Markus blinked in surprise as rays of sunshine flittered into his vision. The aching throb in his head made worse by the brightness, as though a great drum was being beaten deep inside his mind. Scanning the cave around him, he saw no sign of either Petr or Jitka. Panic began to build up inside him. Had they made their way futher into the cave? Or abandoned him and headed back to the village? Had their mission been a success? Was he finally free?

“Well done, my faithful servant.”

His stomach dropped at the sound of the voice deep inside his mind. A faint whimpering sound escaped his lips as he stammered his thanks.

“You have proven yourself useful once again, but I need more from you,” said the shadow-voice. “I am not yet at my full strength. Soon, with more blood, I will be able to take physical form.”

“Y… Yes, master,” he replied. “Your wish is my command.”

A throaty chuckle echoed around inside his head. Markus rubbed his head, hoping to sooth the pain he felt. He could feel dried blood in his hair, clumping it together and making it painful to run his hands through his hair. With a bone-weary sigh, he set off back towards the village. None of the locals would follow him up here, he knew that much. He would need to trick some innocent travellers or gullible adventurers again.

Loathing filled him at the thought, but he knew he had no choice. If he didn’t bring the demon more victims soon, it would come for him and his daughter. That had been the deal he had made for his own life all those months ago when he had foolishly taken shelter in that cave from a ferocious storm rolling in off the mountains. Rolling up the sleeve of his rough, woollen shirt, he stared down at the swollen black mark that was spreading across his skin and felt a well of despair settle in his stomach. The Watchers had been his last hope to escape his fate as a slave to darkness. With a bone-weary sigh, he turned and trudged out of the cave towards the village once more.

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