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Shadowflame: The Seeker


by brains03

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Dear Readers,

I applaud whatever dark twist of fate has brought you to my doorstep, for I have a tale to tell you. But before you begin, I advise you to go back and read the first two of the series, Shadowflame: Prisoner and Snowfall if you have not already done so. I can’t go telling stories to people who don’t understand them, now can I? Now, with that business behind us, I would like to invite you in by the fire and offer you some tea. There is much for us to discuss.

Brains

Shadow tilted her head back and let the waterfall run over her, rinsing her neatly scrubbed skin clean. Around her the forest was alive with sounds of life, and the quiet echo of the running river slid along the cliff that stood above her. The world was, for a time, at complete peace, and Shadow was determined to enjoy it.

      She was a Shadow Shoyru, but the exact origin of the colour had eluded her for most of her life. At the moment she was content to assume that her parents had done it when she was born, so it didn’t trouble her to any great extent.

      The waterfall drained into a large and semi-tranquil pool of clear water, with light sand all around it. This part of the forest was the closest thing she had to an escape, and she loved it.

      On the shore of the pool lay her Shoyru Sword, long and dangerous as was its design. It was her most treasured possession and she rarely went without whenever possible. The sheath sparkled quietly in the flowing sunlight.

      At the moment however, a small thought nagged at her mind. Seven days ago she had walked into the bank to discover a very unpleasant surprise, as the teller calmly informed her that she was running out of money. She was unconcerned for herself, for she could survive on her own, but there was more to the equation.

      If only she hadn’t given up the chance to sell the Dewdrop, a treasure worth more than she could rightly imagine. There was no doubt in her mind that she had made the right decision, but all the same it felt so distinctly unfair that she would have to suffer for it.

      It all translated down to one very basic fact: She needed a job, a lead, a treasure, anything to make sure that she did not fail in her responsibility. Shadow had been frustrated repeatedly, however, for Caelis had remained silent and Regdar hadn’t spoken to her in some time. Even her secretary, Julia, had gone on vacation for a while, going with her older brother and his family to Mystery Island for some small festival. There was nobody to talk to and nothing to earn her coins, and so she came here to relax.

      With a sigh, she scrubbed the last of the grime from her body and turned to wade out of the pool. A gasp escaped her lips as she found two Shoyrus standing on the shore, flanking a hooded figure. There was a diagonal grey mark across the Shoyrus’ chests, painted, she knew, by the brush of a Grey Faerie. It stood out from their Blue skin, a slash of depressed, dead colour against the vibrant life they shared.

      Shadow narrowed her eyes angrily.

      “I see you have some different guards this time, Halide.”

      The hooded figure chuckled darkly.

      “Haven’t missed a thing, have you, young Shadowflame? But you are not mistaken, Darius and his bond-brother will not be seeing you again. Nor will our dear friend Yuki.”

      “Society’s loss, I’m sure,” she shot back.

      Halide laughed louder this time.

      “At first I found you annoying and unworthy of my presence. But you have a sort of spunk we don’t often see in the Grey. I find your repartee most refreshing, though we have spoken but once. I ask that you reconsider and join forces with the Grey, it really is in your best interest... and that of the family you desperately hope to care for.”

      The roar of the waterfall grew louder in the silence, and Shadow shook her head.

      “I have no family, Halide; you of all people should know that.”

      “Really? Then there must be some mistake, because the family I have locked up in my fortress seemed to believe that you were their guardian.”

      Shock. All she felt now was shock. Her pulse thudded in her ears like a forsaken drum, and she felt the shock. So, it had finally happened, what had haunted her nightmares for six long years. Perhaps the greatest thing she had ever cared for had been taken from her. Beneath the cold numbness, a small worm of hatred and blind rage began to seethe.

      “What have they done to you?!” she half-sobbed, half-shouted, “By the blade, they’re only children! They’re innocent people!”

      “Perhaps, then, you will be willing to talk more reasonably?”

      Shadow’s hands were shaking, but she nodded.

     Halide smiled widely and nodded. “Excellent. Quite excellent. I did so hope you would see it my way. I’m not any good at raising children, though the brotherhood is always ready to do what is necessary for its members.”

     Shadow knew what he meant. Had she refused, he would not have left until he was personally sure she had been dealt with. Until she was dead.

     “Just... name your terms and go.”

     “Very well,” Halide responded, still smiling. “Our price is this. You have denied us the Dewdrop, so the Grey is still in need of money- a problem you will now rectify. There is a treasure in the Lost Desert, in a very specific tomb that lies in a very specific place. The only map that can lead you to it lies in the Meridell treasury. Get it.”

     Halide continued. “From Meridell you will follow the map to the tomb, outwit whatever myriad traps surround the treasure, and return it to me for twenty percent of the money and the lives of your family.”

      Shadow stared at Halide. He stared back at her, smiling grimly. Her heart was pounding.

      “As you wish.”

     Halide stooped and picked up her sword, the strap dangling helplessly from the sheath.

      “Ah, perhaps a final piece of insurance against you. My home is in the Haunted Woods. Return the treasure to me and your family- and your sword- are all yours.”

      Shadow watched helplessly as Halide turned and walked away. There was nothing she could do now. Halide paused, and turned around, procuring an Amber Sword and casting it to the ground.

      “I can’t have my little champion running around completely unarmed, now can I?”

      And with that he and his guards were gone.

      Shadow stared quietly at the shimmering blade in the grass as the water’s gentle flow rolled down the cliff in a cascade of echoes and sound, and a single tear rolled down her black, heartless cheek.

   

      Shadowflame,

      I suppose that if you’re reading this, I really have disappeared. Don’t be angry, even though I promised never to leave you like your parents did. I am absolutely sure that they had no choice, and now... neither do I. When I found you on my doorstep so many years ago next to a sword and a note that said ‘Love me, I am lost’, I knew you were different. Since then, you’ve become a big sister to our family, so that Wolf, Copper, and Riff all look up to you. But the fact remains- they’re young. With me gone, they’ll need a mother figure, somebody to feed and clothe them, and keep this roof over their heads. Even though it tears me up inside to say this, I don’t want our family broken up. I want you to watch over them, be their guardian angel. Maybe I’ll return someday, who knows, and I hope that when I do you’ll be standing there waiting with a smiling face and a cheerful family.

      Perhaps it’s unfair of me to ask this of you, but I hope you can do it. I hope you can take care of them. And if ever comes the day where you can do no more, if ever that day comes, I want you to seek out the faerie Illusen. She will help you. This I have assured.

      Until the day that I might return,

      Niobe

   

      Without even bothering to announce her presence or kick the door in like she normally would when entering a house, Shadow pulled on the handle and walked into an all-too-familiar abode. It looked unquestionably as though a hurricane had swept through, with broken dishes, smashed furniture, and torn pages of the Neopian Times strewn about haphazardly on the tile floor of the kitchen.

      Shadow gripped the Amber Sword that now sat strapped to her back, sitting in a hard leather sheath she had ‘borrowed’ from a nearby shop. With a tight fist on the handle, she stepped swiftly into the living room of her Neohome. Nothing there.

      A quick check of the rest of the house revealed no other clues to what exactly had happened. Wolf had almost certainly put up a fight, to protect his brother and sister- Copper and Riff, respectively. Without a doubt they had been gone for days though, because the trip to the Haunted Woods was a long one and it sounded like Halide had been playing host for some time before he approached her.

      The letter she had received some time ago, at least seven years now, kept playing itself over and over in her mind.

     their guardian angel, be their guardian angel. Be their guardian angel.

      Over. And over. And over. Their angel.

      In a flash of rage she whipped out the Amber Sword and swung it into the floor. It stuck. She was unused to its heft, its balance, and that worried her. What she wouldn’t give to have her old blade back. Back. Now.

      She had two options; retrieve Halide’s all-valuable treasure and return it as agreed, or break into his castle and ‘rescue’ her property and her family. What would a guardian angel do? More to the point, what would she do?

      Silence.

      But really, what else was there to do? She would rescue them like the warrior she was, rather than toady about for some self-inflated Prince. Then she would find Halide’s treasure and keep it from him. He had taken her family, this was personal- this was war. Shadowflame the Shoyru pulled the Amber Sword from the floor of her old life and smiled. This was most definitely war.

   

      From the air, it became much more apparent just how vast the forest really was. Castles, towers, graveyards, ruined cities and towns, and miles of trees spanned the horizon in a mismatched tribute to loss. It was a fascinating and horrifying sight, as history laid so bare can often be.

     Shadow had been frantically searching the Haunted Woods from the sky, seeking out the home of the Grey. She had made a quick stop at the Brain Tree to press him

     tell me now or I’ll take this amber blade to you like a common tree

     for information.

      And he had talked, once she had applied the proper... force to the issue. The Grey had been around for as long as anyone could remember, lead by a Prince, and always in supplication to an unseen Grey Faerie. The Grey Faerie anointed each successive leader, and provided him with the magic paint they used to mark their own.

      Halide had been leader for a long time now, the Crown Prince of the Grey. He had established the brotherhood’s current stronghold somewhere in the Haunted Woods, a fortress amidst yellowed ruins from a tower long gone. But it was finding it that was the catch.

      It had been two days since their meeting at the waterfall and Shadow felt no closer to finding Halide than before. She was sitting now in a small tavern perched on a small meadow at the fringe of the forest, robed in a heavy brown cloak and thoroughly involved in a large pint of grog. The local food was a bit questionable, so Shadow had made it a point to drink plenty before she ordered anything.

      None of the locals who frequented the tavern knew anything more about the Grey than she already knew, or if they did they hid it well. She wasn’t concerned about word of her presence getting out- like the Brain Tree, the people around here got nervous at the point of a sword. An angry, very sharp sword.

      With a cough and a sigh she downed the grog and motioned for another.

      “Bring food this time,” she croaked at the bartender.

      While she waited, sitting on her stool, three hooded figures entered and immediately moved to a table at the back of the dim tavern. Shadow had to strain to hear them, but they came in rather clear over the insane mutterings of the crazy Quiggle to her left.

      “Definitely members of the Grey,” she whispered to herself.

      The Quiggle stared at her, and she glared back.

      “Frog blast the vent core!” he shouted, charging willy-nilly through the door.

     Shadow grinned, then returned to listening to the figures.

      “We’re due for the ritual later tonight. Some new... brothers have joined us.”

      A second voice piped up quickly. A woman- apparently a Zafara, judging from her tail.

      “You know, it bothers me that you all insist on referring to us as a brotherhood. I, and many of the sisters, are just as important as you.”

      “Now, now,” came the third figure’s voice, “Alonn wasn’t denying your value to our order, he was simply pointing out the acquisition of some new followers- all of whom happen to be men. Calm down, Daedra; she is well aware of your displeasure. I’m sure it will be dealt with.”

      “Ha,” the girl named Daedra replied. “I still doubt we’ll see a Princess crowned in my lifetime.”

      “No, Herod has a point. And do not be so quick to forget that even the great Halide still answers to Our Lady.”

      Shadow imagined that whichever figure was Herod was smiling.

      “Thank you, Alonn.”

      “As I was saying, before Daedra-”

      There was a pause. Shadow assumed that Alonn was now giving Daedra a meaningful look.

      “-interrupted me; we have to attend a ritual tonight. No doubt a new Captain of the Guard will be assigned as well, what with Darius’ unfortunate... departure from our ranks.”

      “Yes, yes, we all know that his Highness has singled you out for some great purpose, please- STOP GLOATING,” Herod shot back testily. “I can only hope that it involves personally polishing the bell until it shines like it did in the days of old. Maybe a shot of humility here or there will serve you better. We are brothers, not some army of nitwits.”

      “We are also SISTERS, Herod. There are Women in the Grey, I have the power to prove it!”

      “Please, Daedra, your righteous crusade... is a lost cause. We have always been a brotherhood, it’s too late to change that. You are a brother as much as I am, unique in your own right. Now kindly settle yourself!” Herod snapped back.

      “Listen, if I am assigned Captain of the Guard, I would like you two as my second-in-commands. As they say, behind every great warrior there is a great woman. And a Herod.”

      Herod snorted, but joined his comrades in laughter after a moment. Daedra settled back into a sulky silence.

      Shadow started as the barkeep returned with a plate of what could have been Meridell potatoes and another mug of grog. She tipped as well as she could afford, and tried not to think about what it was she was probably eating. Potatoes, yes... and fish? Or was that banana? She choked, and cleared her throat with a heavy slurp from the grog.

      “Well fine, I don’t know about Daedra but I will assist you. That is, pending your assignment. If you DO get assigned to polish the bell, you are alone in your endeavour.”

      Daedra was silent. Shadow was forced to assume that she had nodded her agreement.

      “Very well,” Alonn said finally, “Thank you both.”

      Shadow ate in tortured silence as the barkeep wandered over to the group’s table with three dusty glasses and a dark bottle. He left, then stifled the conversation further by returning with three plates bearing a familiar pile of mush.

      “You know,” Herod said to Alonn, “It’s horrible, but it’s a touch better than some of the cooking the brothers do.”

      More time passed. Shadow returned her now-empty plate to the barkeep and downed another mug of grog. After that, she drained the mug of water three more times, hoping it would settle her stomach. It did not, so she stumbled outside for a quick breather.

      When she returned the conversation amongst the brothers of the Grey had resumed. They had eaten two plates of the stuff each, and were all contemplating a third when Alonn noted the dark sky through the window.

      “Brothers, it has grown far too late. I suggest we return to the home of Our Lady. Surely we are nearing time for the ritual.”

      “Agreed. Daedra?”

      “I agree with Alonn, time has grown short. I’ll go discuss matters of payment with our friend over there, and meet you outside.”

      Shadow watched the two men walk outside, and pulled her hood up. Her wings were taut with anxiety as she left a large pile of money on the counter and slipped outside. A new, more sinister discussion had sprung up in the crisp midnight air.

      “Herod, we should leave her.”

     “Abandoning a brother is forbidden, Alonn. You know that.”

     “Aye, but I still think that her presence is a danger.”

     “Oh? And why is this? Does she threaten your bid for Captain?”

     “No, nothing like that.”

     “Then make your point clear, or I will report you personally to Our Lady!”

     Alonn coughed, and shook his head.

     “She is becoming a liability to us! I’m sure at least one of the other customers heard her when she shouted our brotherhood’s name like it meant nothing.”

      “Accidents happen, Alonn.”

      “Not like that.”

      “It occurs to me that they happen like that very often.”

      “Herod, I suggest you agree with me.”

      “Do not mistake my intent Alonn. I agree with you, but that doesn’t make it any more right or wrong to just abandon a brother like that. She is one of us for better or for worse. If you have a problem with her, I suggest you talk to Our Lady.”

      Silence. Shadow narrowed her eyes. Alonn was going to try something, she was sure. Sure enough, he pulled out a knife and pointed it at Herod, glaring from under his hood.

      “Do this willingly, please, or I will leave you behind with her.”

      More silence.

      “Very well, Alonn, but you catch more flies with honey...”

      “I don’t need your silly advice. Now let us proceed quickly, before Daedra returns.”

      Shadow watched from the dark silhouette of the tavern as the two brothers crossed the small meadow on the edge of the forest, and entered it through a beam of moonlight. She pulled out the Amber Sword and spit on the ground. Traitors, the lot of them.

      Daedra walked from the tavern into the moonlit meadow, and found herself alone. She dropped her head sadly, and Shadow’s heart twinged for her. Daedra’s voice came out very small.

      “...oh.”

      The lone Zafara stared across the cold ground, hoping that her brothers would come from the shadows and accompany her back home to the Grey. Instead, a black Shoyru stepped out of darkness and into the light, a long golden sword drawn.

      “They left you.”

      “I know.”

      “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

      “I doubt it. What do you want?”

      “You. I want you to lead me to the Grey.”

      “They have taken everything from me, Blackskin; they will take everything from you too.”

      “You’re wrong. They already have.”

      “Then... you bear our mark?”

      “No. But perhaps you’ve heard tell of a family of three being held in whatever fortress you people call home. A young family, a Lupe, a Gelert, and an Aisha. Wolf, Copper, and Riff.”

      “I had heard rumors that there were children being held for ransom, but I gave them no mind. I had problems enough of my own.”

      “What, that little ‘brothers and sisters’ tirade that you did?”

      “You overheard that?”

      “Daedra, everybody heard it.”

      “I... we should be more discreet.”

      “We? Doesn’t look like there is a ‘we’ anymore.”

      “We are still a brotherhood, no matter what you say.”

      “Your precious brotherhood? They stole my family and ransacked my life, because of one little tiny insignificant diamond. Tell me that the Grey are anything but evil, twisted puppets. I dare you.”

      “They have left me, but I will return. With your head to prove I am worthy!”

      Daedra pulled a long knife from her cloak and levelled it at Shadow. Shadow laughed at her bravado and adopted a fighting stance.

      “You are dealing with a desperate child of the sword; do not presume to fight. If you do not lead me, I will follow your friends to the Grey. You have your chance to do good, take it.”

      “I bear their mark; I AM GREY!”

      Shadow blocked Daedra’s angry swing, then countered back with a wide sweep of her Amber Sword. Daedra jumped backwards and laughed, pulling a second long knife from her cloak.

      The two crossed blades furiously, moving farther from the tavern and out into the moonlight. From the sky, the white, pale glow washed across Shadow’s pitch-black skin. Daedra’s hood fell to reveal that she was, in fact, a Blue Zafara. Shadow was not surprised, but it felt strange to have her opponent’s face revealed so abruptly. Daedra was so young...

      And angry. She swung the long knives at Shadow, who blocked one and narrowly dodged the second. With her free hand, Shadow smacked Daedra across the face and kicked her in the gut, stumbling as Daedra dropped the knives and grabbed her foot. She easily jumped up and hit Daedra with her other foot, spinning around and landing deftly. Daedra swore heavily, and Shadow laughed.

      The Blue Zafara grabbed one of the knives, but Shadow stepped on the second one and kicked it away quickly. Daedra rolled out of the way as Shadow swung the Amber Sword downwards, sticking it in the ground with a curse.

      Daedra took advantage of the situation to stab her knife at Shadow, who shifted her weight and dropped to avoid it. Following Daedra’s example, she rolled away and grabbed the second knife, standing to face the Zafara.

      They were both breathing heavily, unaware of the crisp, cool temperature in the meadow.

      “You fight well, for the brotherhood,” Shadow panted.

      “You fight well, for a Shoyru,” came a curt reply. Shadow tightened her grip on the knife handle.

      With a clash of steel, the two crossed blades again, parrying back and forth, whirling around and slashing frantically. Shadow unclipped the cloak and dropped the burdensome weight, spreading her wings and using flight to her advantage. Daedra quickly found herself outmatched, and finally dropped her knife in defeat.

      Shadow landed back to the ground and pulled the Amber Sword from the earth with an angry grunt. She stared at Daedra and threw down the second knife.

      “Just... go.”

      And Daedra ran, away into the moonlight.

The End

 
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