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Upon entering town, I made my way towards the Temple as I always did upon my return. It was that special twilight time when all colors soften and outlines become somewhat hazy, and ordinarily I would have found a strategic location where I could relax, put up my feet, drink some cool cider, and enjoy the view while the farmers returned wearily from their fields. But tonight, the streets were largely deserted, the townsfolk already going about their preparations for the evening meal, and I was too troubled and in need of easing my burden to relax in that way. Neither had I begun to consider returning to my loved ones and my friends, for the fears and hopes set loose in my brain had chased away any thought that they might be mourning me.
I reached my destination undisturbed. The door was unlocked, as usual, but out of habit, I pulled the bell cord anyway as I entered. Before me, the Light shone with the same effulgence Mother had shone with in Shadow, and it struck me like a physical blow: it had been one thing to talk with someone who seemingly was—but was not?—the Mother of us all, but it was quite another to return and find confirmation, or at least what I took for confirmation. I knelt before the Light and focused my attention upon it, seeking as always upon my return to cleanse myself of any lingering taint of Shadow, but even as I sank into that welcoming warmth, I found something amiss: unlike in the past, there came no sense of cramped mental muscles relaxing. It was not as if the Light rejected me, but rather as if there was no taint to be cleansed. Indeed, in hindsight, that clearly echoed what Mother had told me. But at the time, I found old habits hard to overcome, and with a certain measure of alarm, I forced myself to continue.
By now I was concentrating so hard that even when I heard a gasp of surprise, it did not distract me; I was safe here, and could afford to continue with my meditation, so I did. At long last, I felt myself sinking deeper into the Light, seeking more than cleansing—seeking understanding of what had happened to me. I felt myself just on the point of reaching an answer when a rough hand on my shoulder pulled me out of my reverie and brought me back to the small stone room.
“Who or what are you that wears the shape of Amodai?”
My eyes focused on Talmin, whose hand I found upon my shoulder, and my ears suddenly noticed the fear in her voice. “What do you mean? I am Amodai!”
“Impossible,” came a familiar voice from behind me, and I felt the pressure of a sword point against my back, just to the left of my spine and beneath the shoulder blade. “Amodai has been lost in Shadow, and thus dead, these past two weeks.”
I blinked, but still suffused with Light, found myself incongruously at peace. “Nonetheless, it’s me, Graemor.”
Talmin had regained her composure, and there was wonder in her eyes. “Put away your sword, Graemor. One who kneels before the Light cannot be evil, and I feel no sense that he's lying. Whatever we may have suspected, he must be who he claims to be.” The pressure against my back eased abruptly, accompanied by the familiar slither of iron on leather. The young priestess took her hand from my shoulder and grasped my hand, helping me to my feet. I rose slowly, knees stiff.
Graemor moved into my sight, shaking his head. “Incredible. Amodai, is it really you?” There was still doubt and mistrust upon my mentor’s face, but it was gradually being erased by a sense of wonder that matched that of the priestess. All at once, his expression changed to joy, and he clasped me to him fiercely with his one good arm.
“Who else?” I hugged him back, then, suddenly glad to the depths of my soul to be home and safe, yet chagrined that I'd not thought of him and others even more important to me first. I fought back the tears in my eyes by the time he released me and pushed me back at arm’s length to look into my eyes with his one eye. Whatever he saw there, some burden of grief eased in him, though something equally painful that I could not identify took its place.
“You must tell us what happened. We’d long since given you up for dead, or worse; not even Mikali could find your tracks. We abandoned our search for Mohri that first week, hoping instead to find and save you. Tell us what happened!”
“Peace, Graemor,” Talmin spoke softly, a twinkle in her eye. “He's back. Is that not enough? His tale will keep for a time.”
I swallowed, and turned my face away. “It’s a long story, and not one I’m sure that I understand.”
Talmin’s gentle hand returned to my shoulder. “Then tell us as best you can, and we’ll do our best to help you with that understanding. But first, come this way. You must be hungry and thirsty.” I was not, for I had dined with Mother and that food still soothed my belly. Nonetheless, I followed docilely enough as the young priestess led us to the simple kitchen that adjoined the chamber of the Light, and set about warming some cider. Her preparations took longer than they should have, for despite her admonitions to patience, her attention kept returning to me. But soon enough, the fragrance of warm apple, acid and sweet, began to fill the room.
I took the heavy earthenware mug she offered me, and sipped slowly at the piquancy of the hot cider, collecting my thoughts. After a moment of silence, I began talking, haltingly, striving to capture what I had experienced. When I looked up, it was to meet Graemor’s eye, which never left my face and held me with an intensity I'd only seen a few times before. Now and then, he shook his head curtly, as if throwing off something that oppressed him. Talmin’s face alternated between quiet horror and amazement. When I was done, she sat with us in silence as we sipped our drinks. Graemor’s eyes and thoughts were distant, his cider forgotten, as if he disliked the memories my tale had evoked. Talmin watched me with unfocused eyes, rubbing briskly at her smooth chin as she thought over what I’d said.
“I know not what to think,” Talmin spoke into the silence, an unfamiliar hollowness in her eyes. “This Shadowbeast you speak of scares me even more than most things of Shadow; he must be a great force for evil given what he did to you. And this... Mother... well, I must say I like her even less for all that she saved you. She must be crazed by her time in Shadow to claim the things she claims.”
Graemor snorted, but I shook my head violently. “No, Talmin, you’re wrong. The Shadowbeast did indeed force me into Shadow for a time, but I felt no malice from him... just something I couldn't understand, and had never before encountered in Shadow. He claimed kinship with us, and I feel sure that he meant me no direct harm.”
“Yet he condemned you to Shadow,” Graemor interjected hotly, “knowing full well that it might prove fatal to you on both a spiritual and a physical level. That can hardly be an act of kinship.”
“Had you no family members you wanted to do violence to?” Talmin interjected, forcing a laugh that hung, unaccompanied in the room.
“No!” I took a deep breath to calm myself, surprised at the vehemence of my reaction, but no more so than they were. “You both misunderstand me. There is nothing to suggest that he was trying to kill me; rather, I had the impression that he felt he was doing me a favor, forcing me to confront something our people have not confronted for many generations.”
“You mean the notion that we are children of Light and Shadow?” Talmin frowned. “That is indeed what some of the scriptures teach, but so far as I understand such things, those teachings are purely metaphorical; it's as if those who wrote the scriptures used Light as a metaphor for the good we are all capable of, and Shadow as the principle of evil that moves in each of us, that we must struggle against all our waking moments. In fact, until Shadow came upon us, I was certain that metaphor was all those scriptures were about... I wish I could have returned to the High Temple to learn more in my youth; for all my reading, there are times I feel my education is woefully incomplete.”
Graemor’s voice was dryly ironic. “Those scriptures would seem to be misleading. Is there any question that Shadow is the antithesis of Light? And what of the shadow creature?”
Talmin’s voice was strangely defensive. “You speak of this Mother woman? I say it again: She disturbs me more than the Shadowbeast, for she plays with blasphemies.”
“Are you so sure?” At the sound of my voice, they left off their verbal sparring and returned their attention to me. “In all my time with her, I never felt the slightest sense of evil or ill will. Quite the contrary: what I felt was exactly what I felt tonight when I returned to the Temple to cleanse myself in the Light. Whatever else she may be, she carries the Light within her, and how could that be evil?”
Graemor snorted. “Yet did you not also claim that Mohri bears no evil within him, but still intends the destruction of all we hold dear? I fail to understand the basis for your belief.”
I bowed my head. “That's but one of many things I cannot understand. And you two are hardly helping matters.”
Graemor laughed, harshly and without the release of honest laughter. “Since when has it been my role to make things easy for you? You’d hardly be the man you are today if I’d done so.”
I smiled warmly back at him, remembering. “I’m still not sure whether to thank you or knock you down while your back is turned and take it out of your hide!”
Talmin’s snorted. “Very well—so we're surrounded by those who mean us nothing but good. Then what have we to fear? No, you needn’t answer that.” The priestess yawned suddenly, echoed by Graemor and me. “I propose that we call it a night. You two return to your homes. Amodai, you must return to Mareth, for she too must learn of your return; she has mourned you this past fortnight, and should not suffer a moment longer. As for me, I shall try to unearth some old scrolls my own mentor bore with her when she brought me to Haven. There is more written about our world than is contained in the scriptures alone, and though I was warned that much in those other scrolls would be apocryphal, still they may hold some clues to understanding what you’ve told us.”
At the mention of Mareth, I felt a pang of guilt, for I'd thought of her only once during my long time away, and never again since my return. I could well imagine what she had gone through, and could no longer bear the thought of making her suffer further. I rose again, yawning, and helped my mentor to his feet. “Until tomorrow, then.”
Graemor and I departed, leaving the priestess to tidy up the kitchen and seek her books. Once outside, the old man caught my shoulder in a painful grip and turned me to face him. In the faint light that seeped out through the closing door, his eye was fierce upon me.
“Amodai, there is something I must tell you.”
“Something you felt you couldn’t say before Talmin?”
Graemor looked away, and did not meet my eyes again. “Something I could not say where the priestess might hear.” I put my hand atop his and held it there, silently lending him my support. After a time, he shrugged off my hand and walked slowly off into the night, not pausing to see whether I followed. I did.
“My friend, what do you recall of my arrival in Haven? More specifically, what did I tell you of how I lost my arm and my eye?”
I paused, reconsidered. “I never questioned what you’d told us. Oh, there were certain contradictions in your story from telling to retelling, and certain missing details, but we thought those nothing more than—forgive me!—the elaborations of an old warrior embroidering a tale. You told us that a shadowbeast took your arm and eye in a fight, but you’ve also hinted that it might have been Mohri. Was it Mohri?”
Graemor snorted. “For such a clever lad, you can be dumb as a post sometimes.”
I ignored him. “Well?”
A pause. “To be honest, until tonight I couldn’t have told you for sure who or what it was I fought that day in Shadow. Now I feel certain it was that same creature who imprisoned you in Shadow these past two weeks.”
I shook my head, disbelieving. “I can't accept that. It simply doesn’t seem the sort of thing he would do. I certainly gave him enough excuse to do the same thing to me, yet he didn’t.”
Graemor’s voice was almost a whisper. “Perhaps you gave him less temptation than I did.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Amodai, I was young then, and even more foolish and arrogant than you are, if you can credit that. I spent more time in Shadow than even you have spent, enough that I eventually came to know that we children of Light were not alone in this world. There are children of Shadow who are every bit our equals. Mohri may be one such, and the being you met another, but I met one such as he who transformed you, perhaps even the same creature, and it was he who maimed me. But not for sport. For vengeance.”
“Vengeance. You see, I'd been brought up to worship the Light to a degree even Talmin might not understand, and certainly beyond the extent to which the people of Haven worship.” At first, I took the tone in his voice to be contempt, which jolted me, but as he spoke, I began to feel it was something more nearly akin to sadness. “To my people, Shadow was evil, to be fought and destroyed at every turn. And we did, hunting through Shadow in our own forms with blades and bows and other weapons, for we had not yet learned to transform ourselves, and would not have chosen to do so even had we been aware of the possibility.” He licked his lips and continued.
“One time, I came across a shadowbeast who was my equal in skill and arrogance, and though he at first refused to stand and fight, I would not let him rest. After a long chase, I caught and wounded him. Then he turned on me, and we fought. He was wild and strong, cunning in the way of Shadow, but I was better armed and better trained, and I cut him down and left him to pour his life’s blood on the forest floor. Thereafter, every time I entered Shadow, I felt eyes upon me, and I knew I was being watched.”
He nodded. “By who or what I know not, save that the scrutiny grew ever more intense. One day, I came upon another shadowbeast, waiting for me by the side of the game trail along which I’d been following a faint, cunning trail that it had set me. I was so focused upon the trail lest I miss it and let the creature escape, that I almost tripped over it. I drew my sword, ready to slay it as I’d slain countless others of its kin, but it did not move. It was then I noticed that the creature was not alone. I’d been surrounded by others of its kind while my attention was only on the trail. I remember my fear at the thought that such single-mindedness would likely prove to be my downfall. I was so badly outnumbered—and so badly shaken—that it would have been fruitless to defend myself, and I did not resist nor even question when they took my sword.
“The one who had led me such a long chase rose, and before my eyes, changed into human form, something I’d never known to be possible until then. ‘Why do you persecute us?’ he asked, and I responded that it was my duty to extinguish their evil. ‘And is that not a greater evil than any you attribute to us?’ he asked. I glared at him, not understanding, and spat my reply: that I would fight him barehanded if he felt that more honorable, and kill him that way. He looked saddened, and asked me again whether I was certain I had the right of it. I was. He nodded, and the other creatures backed away from me, taking my sword, and before my eyes he transformed into a great hunting cat.
“Without waiting for the change to be complete, I flung myself upon him, hoping to take him unawares and find a way to damage some vulnerable spot, but it was a fool’s hope. There was blind rage in his eyes now as he swatted me aside, blinding me in one eye. That rage that was more than a match for my own, and the intensity of that emotion and the pain and shock of my wound robbed me of my strength. In that unguarded moment, he sprang upon me and pinned me to the ground. For a moment, his voice sounded in my ears: ‘You took my right arm, child of Light, and steeped the forest floor in his blood; I shall be more merciful, taking only your left arm and leaving you to return to your people as a warning.’ Then those mighty fangs closed upon my arm, and there was a tearing pain as he ripped it from me.”
I shuddered. “Yet you somehow survived.”
“Not by my own strength, I fear. I felt the blood pouring from me, and grew faint, and commended myself to the Light, but I was not to die. All at once, I felt myself changing, a feeling more terrifying than even the loss of my arm had been.”
“I remember what that felt like.”
“Do you? Yet you were prepared to some extent by what I’d taught you to expect, and you had someone to help you through that first change. I had to face that terror on my own, wholly unprepared, certain that even if blood loss didn’t kill me, Shadow would do the job—or worse, for remember, Shadow was evil incarnate to my people.”
I nodded. “And yet the shapechange saved your life.”
Graemor shuddered. “It did, though at the time I would have taken my own life had enough strength remained to me to do so—anything rather than let that evil be done to me. He who had taken my arm stood over me, human once more, my blood on his face and a terrible look in his eyes. ‘From now on, child of Light, remember that you too have Shadow within you. Learn that, and take the lesson to your people. If you slay us, you slay yourselves.’ "
“And you returned with that message?”
There was pain in his voice, and he half-sobbed his response. “No. No, Amodai, I did not.” He breathed deeply, his effort at control painful to watch, then he mastered himself. “One by one, those creatures vanished into shadow, leaving me there in some beast’s form, half-Shadow and half human, until only one remained. That one knelt before me and taught me what I needed to know to shift back into human form. Then he guided me back to the Light and left me there.”
“I believe so. Even after two changes of form, I was still weak from loss of blood, and too unskilled to heal my own wounds, physical and spiritual. I believe it was him, but I was in no fit shape to clearly remember what had happened to me. I do know that when I returned, I said nothing of what had really happened to the priestesses. So my people continued their war on the shadowbeasts unchecked.”
He slumped, as if the weight of all his years had suddenly descended upon him all at once. I felt that pain seething within him, and reached out and put both hands on his shoulders and squeezed hard. “And you bear that guilt with you, knowing that you were killing people much like ourselves?”
Graemor sighed, and the noise of it was like an arrow being drawn from a wound without first removing the head. “If it were only that, I could perhaps have forgiven myself. But after some time, the shadowcreatures returned to my people, in overwhelming numbers, and destroyed us. They even destroyed our Temple.”
I’m not sure which revelation shocked me the more. I was left speechless, comprehending for the first time the depth of the guilt and pain Graemor had kept from us. Numbly, I let my hands fall from his shoulders as he continued.
“When it was done, I alone was spared. All my kin, my friends, my comrades, my countrymen... every one was slain if they resisted or forced into Shadow, all save me. Me, they kept alive until the one who had maimed me finished his work. ‘You did not communicate our message to your people, and for that, they have paid the price. You, however, shall have a different price to pay. You shall bear the same message to other children of Light, and should they fail to heed your message, they shall suffer the same fate as your people.’ Then they took me to another nearby village and set me free.”
“And what happened?”
“The same thing as before. I could not tell the priestesses what had happened, for my guilt was terrible and my horror at the notion that somewhere within, I was part Shadow myself, was worse. Instead, I told them only what I told you: that my village had been attacked by shadowcreatures and destroyed, and that we had to take up arms against Shadow and end the threat to our kind once and for all.”
“And you failed.”
“We failed. And again, I was spared and sent on my way to yet another village. To repeat the cycle.”
Anger grew in me, dim at first, then a raging heat in my breast. “And once again you’ve come to a new village to do the same?” He shrank from the whipcrack of my voice, and all at once the anger faded from me. I took a deep breath, forced the anger from me as some sense of what he must be feeling rose in me. I reached across to him and wrapped my arms about him in a bear hug, holding him as he nearly collapsed on me, sobs shaking his frame.
After a time, the sobs ceased and he straightened once more, taking his full weight upon his own two legs. “Thank you.”
I took another deep breath, then exhaled slowly, trying to expel the anger that had grown once more in me. “I’m not sure what to say to that.”
Graemor dabbed at the tears on his face with his sleeve, visibly gathering his dignity and air of command about him once more. “I meant, ‘thank you for forgiving me’. You can’t imagine what that means to me.” He felt the awkwardness in my pause as he once more focused on me. “What?”
I shook my head slowly. “I haven’t forgiven you. You mean so much to me, after all you’ve given me, that I want to forgive you. But what you’ve done... I can’t simply ignore what that may mean for Haven and those others I love.”
Graemor’s face hardened. “Then you don’t believe we should fight them—that we should push back Shadow until it no longer threatens, even if it means we must exterminate them before they exterminate us?”
I felt my anger pushing out the last of my sympathy. “From what you’ve said, you’ve done a better job of that than they would have done on their own!” No sooner had I said that then I saw the shock on his face and I regretted it, true though the sentiment was.
“You dare!” Some of my mentor’s fire was back in his voice. “With all I’ve told you, how could you even think that?”
“You have no idea what I’m thinking now.” Neither did I, for that matter. I found myself torn between fear at what he was proposing and respect and sympathy for the man who’d just exposed his soul to me—for the man I’d only now begun to understand after all these years. “But I do know you can’t be right. Where you see evil, I see only difference, and that’s no justification for slaying those who may be our kin. Even if it were justification, could we truly risk Haven as you’ve risked so many other towns?”
Some of Graemor’s intensity faded as he visibly forced himself to listen to my words. “No child of Light should ever have to ask that question. Amodai, I misunderstood you... your time in Shadow has confused you, and Talmin and her kind don't understand the truth as I know it. Tomorrow, I'll meet with Talmin and the Council to warn them of our danger. I would ask that you not be there.”
Confused, I stepped back. “You would command me to betray my own people?”
His voice softened further. “It was not an order. But this matter is too important to confuse the issues for those who must decide our fate, and confuse them we shall if we can’t present a united front. Amodai, lad, we’re both tired. In the morning, things will seem so much clearer. Can we part in peace, and resume our discussion tomorrow?”
Speechless, I could only nod. The old Ranger essayed a weak smile, nodded in return, and walked slowly away into the darkness. Belatedly getting my bearings, I made my own way through the darkened streets, off to seek the comfort of Mareth’s warmth and wisdom.
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