The journey up the large hill to the war torn and time ravaged remains of a once great castle was a fairly easy one. The roads, though made of dirt, were well maintained and the edges kept clear of weeds and trees. This was in deep contrast to the once mighty road that had linked the kill to the great city beyond; that road was a mess of potholes, bandits and fallen trees. Where the band of twenty had had to fight for every inch for of movement on the main road, the trip up the hill had been a breeze.
All of the band were on foot, but two horses did pull a large wooden carriage. The bulk of the band walked surrounding the carriage, clearly a well equipped guard for the person or persons inside. A few scouted ahead, a few more lagged behind.
Sebastian walked between the two horses, leading them where they needed to go. Normally a driver would sit atop the carriage, but the persons inside found the noise far too distracting. Luckily the horses were well behaved and not easily spooked; lesser horses would have taken fright and squashed Sebastian a number of times. Not so Frank and Steve, as he had come to call them. He was not sure of their breed or their training, but as a son of a farmer he prided himself on his ability to pick out quality animals.
The castle they approached had stood in full splendour a little over five years ago, not that many could believe that now. The wars of magic and time that this castle had defended against had warped the remains years beyond natural. It was said that the very fabric of reality had been breached here once, and even now the shadows of madness could still cloud ones mind. As they grew ever closer to the ruins, Sebastian had little trouble believing it.
Just before the ruins proper a small camping area had been cleared out. The order was given that the band would stop here and setup camp for the night. There was no water source or any trees this high up, so those dreaming of camp fires and fresh water had to keep on dreaming. There were grumbles, but the band were a disciplined lot through and through, so grumbles was all there were. That was not to say they held any love for the people who hired them, but they did have a love for each other. It was also fair to say that the people in the carriage had no love for the band of rogues they had been forced to hire to make it this far. They were private people on a mission best left known to as few as possible. It had occurred to them many times that they may need to take care of the band once the mission was done, but so far a consensus had not been reached.
Sebastian, once a son of a farmer, was now the conduit between two entities that had little to no love for each other. At least he had his horses, who were now free of the carriage and staked at the edge of the camp. There was little grass for them to find, but they did the best with what they could.
As the sun started to set the air grew cool. The horses nestled together and the band did their best to start a fire with the twigs and branches they had collected on their way up. Although the wood was dry, and try as hard as they might, they could not get a spark to turn to flame. The grumbling grew louder, with mumbling under the grumbling of curses, magic, and death.
Sebastian, always one more comfortable with silence, made his way a little up the slope towards the castle. He knew people still lived here, that was the whole point of the journey, yet he still found him surprised to see smoke rising between the ruined walls. If he listened carefully, and when the wind blew the right way, he could swear he heard voices talking and singing. He wondered who it was the people in the carriage were here to meet, and who would chose to live in such a place as a ruined castle still stained by magic. He found it hard to believe good and free people would chose to live here. No, they must be criminals or people on the run. Maybe survivors of the war who found they no longer had a country to call home?
A knife to his throat cleared his mind of all thought.
“You are a noisy thinker young one.” A voice rasped by his right ear. “Yet the knife makes you quiet. Normally a knife only does that after it has done its work, not before.”
The knife left his throat and a cloaked figure steeped before him, the face hidden and the stance deadly.
“You with that lot down there?” The figure asked.
He nodded, mind still clear.
“Why are you here?”
The people in the carriage want to meet with the people who live here he thought to himself.
“Really? And who is in the carriage?”
Shit, she can read my mind. Think of anything but the truth. Not that I know the truth, I have never seen the people in the carriage. Maybe I should scream for help. She can’t be that fast.
She was. The knife was back at his throat before the thought had finished.
“No need to panic young one. Keep still and silent. I apologise for looking into your mind, but it has been a long time since I have met anyone so unguarded against the technique. Even the band down there have a basic defence up; veterans turned mercenary by the look of them. Now, using your words, tell me, who are you?”
“My name is Sebastian, I am a son of a farmer. This band here hired me to deal with the carriage and the horses. I am good with animals you see and something about the carriage seemed to spook the animals good, which is odd as they seem like solid beasts to me. Also, can you remove the knife and maybe even tell me who you are?”
The figure removed the knife, a chuckle emerging from the shadows that hid the face.
“Of course. My name, for now, will be Shadow. Just to add a little mystery and suspense you understand. And because you seem very bad at names. You called the horses Frank and Steve? Even they were disappointed.”
“Hey, my uncle was called Steve!”
“Well with a name like Sebastian I expect your whole family tree is full of boring names. A few named David, or Dave, no doubt. Maybe even a Horace, or a James or three? All family names no doubt, fathers insisting their legacy be carried on by way of forcing dull names on sons.”
Sebastian had no idea how to respond. Should he be defending his families honour, even though he had ridiculed the family names countless times before? Should he just roll with the possible insanity this figure was pouring into the world? They did have a knife after all. No, he would challenge.
“Well what would have called the horses, Shadow?”
“Hmmm. Well, the one with the dramatic colouring on his side? If you look at it just right it looks like a mighty storm playing out in his coat, so I would call him Storm. The other is all black, so, damn, why did I take Shadow? Midnight maybe, or Despair? Oh, wait, he actually likes Frank better. Never mind then.”
Sebastian laughed. The figure and the conversation was absurd, and there was no way he was going to cry. So he laughed. The figure laughed back, removing her hood as she did so.
“I like you Sebastian, which is why I am telling you to leave. You may not know what is in that carriage, but I do. Furthermore I know what it wants, and it can’t have him. I also know that it will not leave before trying, and when it does try anything or anyone still with it shall be fair game for me and mine, understand? Take the horses and leave, and do it now.”
She left, disappearing into the night in the blink of an eye. A coldness gripped him, and he knew that Shadow had been protecting him from it. A shimmer of a person appeared before him, hardly visible in the growing dusk.
“WHO DID YOU MEET?” The figure asked.
“A woman named Shadow.”
“SHADOW? I DO NOT KNOW THAT NAME. WHAT DID SHE SAY?”
“That I should leave. That she knew what you were and what you wanted and that you can’t have it, and that you will try to take it regardless.”
“SHE IS RIGHT. BUT YOU CANNOT LEAVE. WE NEED AN AVATAR, AND YOU ARE IT.”
Shadow looked on from a distance, her eyes and ears telling her nothing. But she heard Sebastian scream, heard his mind trying to fight the entry of so many others, heard the son of farmer die. Then she watched the body that was Sebastian walk away. She had been too late to save him; she always was. Creeping around the camp she approached the horses. They knew, animals always knew. She cut them free, urged them to run. Instead they looked at her.
We hear him still, listen.
No, he is gone. He is a puppet now, nothing more.
We hear him, listen.
So listen she did, though she knew it was hopeless. He was gone, gone forever. Once a mind was claimed, an avatar made, the host was gone. No one could survive the magic, let alone one with a mind as weak and open as Sebastian. All the horses heard was an echo, a hope to cling on to that was not really there.
Help me Shadow, please.
“Well fuck me.” She said.