CIRCLE OF SHADOWS Part 1: Shadow Chaser

By Gustav All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Blurb

The Tome of Death has been stolen from the isolated stronghold island of the Necra: a volume full of dark secrets, prophecies and imbued with unimaginable magical properties. The close-knit group of magic users, whose sole purpose is to guard the secrets of the netherworld and protect the innocent world known as Ithera, send out one of their own to retrieve this valuable relic before it is too late and darkness and turmoil descends across the lands. Alone and uneasy Galen sets off to fulfil his task. Far from his secluded island home he travels, each step hampered by misfortune and unimaginable threats. His path takes him through the wilderness and forests that span Ithera, as he gathers surprise allies along the way, their lives forever changed by this strange person from far away. As they track the Tome, they head closer to the darkness that spreads from within the Red Fortress, an unfathomable evil that threatens to destroy the world of man. Slowly they begin to understand the harsh reality of the evil that will fall over the peaceful lands if they should fail. An evil stemming from the furthest reaches of the netherworld itself, waiting and festering in silence for aeons ,

†Prologue†

Endless sleep is close I fear

To close your eyes

To breathe no more

No need to shed another tear.

Hearts’ soft thud

Against a chest

Weakened beacon

Thickened blood

Cold hands grip sodden sheets

Lifeless body, vacant vessel

Still, still it lies

A soul flies to a distant fleet

† Tome of death verse 13


Spinning around, the man glances across the ocean spread out around him. His thin body shakes as he stands panting for breath the rapid ascent to the top of the hill having taken its toll. Holding his body tightly against the tremors threatening to overwhelm his emaciated limbs his eyes roll across the horizon as he surveys the rolling waves crashing loudly against the rocky shoreline far below. He smiles contently, impressed that he had managed to climb up the steep hillside so quickly, a feeling of inexplicable well being welling up within him. Sweating profusely he rests, his left hand clenched tightly at his side as a violent cramp stitches down from his thigh across to his calf muscle. Hooded eyes drift lazily across the view and he looks down at the medium sized port town nestled safely at the foot of the sloping hills, quays and jetties jutting out into the murky water some distance from the small one story wooden buildings packed closely together. A standard sized seaside town, thriving on local fishing and the occasional trader vessel that calls into port. Several merchant vessels and fishing sloops drift scattered apart in the bay, their captains keeping a safe distance from the rocky outcrops that spear out from the water around them. The outcrops of black rock, glistening with moisture and bird droppings stand staggered haphazardly some distance away from the entrance to the port, partly submerged islands of sharp-edged stone offering a layer of protection from raiders to the small town. Tugboats, miniature copies of the ships they are to lead, row out to meet the merchant galleys and trading ships waiting beyond the rocks and after negotiation of fees and landing costs, lead the way towards the port, the trailing ships following slowly in a zigzag fashion between the rock formations. Watching the movement of the ships waiting beyond the rocks to the ones finally heading out to the open sea his eyes jump between those ships sailing away from the port town and back to the ships being led towards the town, heading this way and that as it weaves between the islands before finally being able to dock. Resting both hands on his hips he bends over backwards, closing his eyes as he rotates his spine, working out the tightness clumped in the small of his back. The dull ache releases slightly and he breathes in deeply, his spine straightening with dull popping sounds. The thought of the long journey that still laid ahead creeps into his head and he grimaces as another stab of pain spears down his leg. Taking a final deep breath, he opens his eyes, straightens his back and gives one last lazy glance across the roiling water spreading out into the distance. Through the haze hanging across the ocean he spies a large outcrop of land, peaks of far off mountains spearing into the blue sky above the island. The mountainous island appears almost invisible from this distance away, its outline and size fading away in the vast ocean surrounding it as the fine haze obscures any definitive edges.

A grin replaces the grimace and he wipes the sweat from his brow before adjusting the heavy wool cloak draped loosely across his shoulders. The thick cloak too warm for the approaching summer heat; the early morning coolness dissipating rapidly as the heat from the sun, rising above the ocean, spreads across the land; the stifling humidity hanging thick in the air, barely moved by the gentle ocean breeze blowing in across the water. Wiping his hands down the thick fabric of the cloak he ponders leaving it but decides that it will prove useful if he should find himself spending the night under a hedge or run into some unexpected bad weather along the way.

Far off flashes of white catches his eye. Forgetting the stiffness of his limbs his attention focuses on the distant island and the stretch of water between it and the mainland. A spindly hand peaked over his eyebrows he peers into the distance, eyes flit back and forth between white caps frothing from waves crashing noiselessly in the distance. Beams of sunlight reflect dazzlingly on the water, the sharp arcs of light making his eyes tear as he watches the waves. Spots of light blind him. Vision hampered by the bright light he wipes worriedly at the corners of his eyes, water blurring his view even more. A soft groan slips from his lips as he drops his hand from his brow.

‘It simply cannot be. I must be imagining it!’ He mutters softly to himself as he shakes his head and drags a hand through his lank hair trying to smooth down the thin wisps lifting lazily on the breeze. Blinking away the tears coursing across shallow cheeks, the salty water stinging the cracked corners of his mouth he paces frantically, dabs at his face as disbelief wells thickly into his throat, almost gagging him. Murmuring a wordless prayer, he lifts his hand up to shade his eyes, desperately trying to block the blinding sunlight as he looks across the blue crystalline water.

The faint outline of a sail pops in and out of view; a lone ship rides leisurely over the waves dipping and lifting beneath it. The white square barely distinguishable against the few scattered clouds strung out low across the horizon lifts into view and drops out of sight while he watches it, confirming its existence and not a trick of the reflected light on the water. Grunting, his eyes narrow in dogged concentration, staring unblinking as he keeps the sail in view, tracking and calculating its speed and course. Cursing vehemently, he stands immobile for a few minutes longer, despair flooding through him as bile pushes into the back of his throat, his stomach turning over. Shoulders slump lower and lower as exhaustion and despair overwhelms him.

A faint breeze tugs playfully at the long cloak hanging down to below his knees as he keeps watch on the small boat’s progress across the water. The small vessel continuously moving steadily further away from the island, its sharp prow cutting through the waves with ease as it makes its way directly towards the mainland. And him.

Jerking violently at his cloak to relieve the feeling of being choked he rearranges the hefty bag, hanging hidden underneath the enfolding swirls of cloth, the tightly strung leather cord cutting into the soft flesh of his bony shoulder. A shudder racks violently through his body and with an exasperated sigh he turns around, the sudden urge to hastily continue his journey inland overwhelming his senses. Turning he steps gingerly to the other side of the hill and scans for a way down to lower ground, gravel and brush covering the ground sloping steeply down towards the vista of grassland spreading as far as the eye can see. A main trade route bends away far into the distance, white paving stones cutting a distinguishable line through the fields as it snakes inland, a few carts and merchant’s trains moving along it looking like ants from this high up. Plumes of white dust lift lazily into the thick air, the breeze blowing inland blocked by the rolling hills surrounding the coastline. Not wanting to fall and injure himself, he picks an easy route down the rocky slope, descending with painstaking care to the lower lying plateau.

Muttering incoherently as he steps over a half-buried rock he pauses. Shaking his head, he looks back towards the ridge above him, uncertainty etched in his face as he mumbles to himself, closes his eyes soft groans whistling past clenched teeth. Sweat running down his forehead he gazes longingly at the road snaking away across the horizon a few hundred feet away. Exhaling sharply, he turns around, glances one last time at the road behind him and bounds back up the slippery slope, leaping from ledge to ledge, handhold to handhold, scrabbling upwards as small pebbles and scree bounce past him, peppering his exposed arms and shins as the small projectiles continue their accelerated course down the hill past him. Using both his hands and knees to gain purchase he creeps steadily upwards, fragments of mud and soft earth flying through the air as he ascends. Chest heaving he halts at the top of the hill, thin arms shaking uncontrollably as he rests his dirty hands on soiled knees, several deep breaths needed before he can stand straight. Back held stiff as a ramrod, his brow furrowed, thin lips clenched tightly between his teeth he fights against the last few spasms stabbing across his shoulders and legs.

Tilting his head defiantly he walks to the edge of the hill, overlooking the expanse of water as he slaps his hands against his trousers to clean them of the dirt clinging to his fingers. Looking across the ocean waves his coppery eyes glint moistly with a maniacal fervour. Disappointment flicks across his face as he spots the small white sail and realises that the ship has drawn even closer, a strong landward current aiding every tack of sail and every crested wave continuously pushing them closer to the mainland at a rapidly increasing pace. Gauging the small boat’s course, he realises with a sudden pang of certainty that they are heading in the direction of the port town lying at the mouth of the bay. Anguished thoughts flood his mind as he thinks back on his own journey away from the island. Almost three full days spent in the hull of a small fishing sloop, hidden as he was on board the unsuspecting vessel. Three days of constant fear of discovery by crew. Three days of eating raw fish and scraps found in the hold. The constant drip of salt water, sleepless nights spent with moisture oozing into everything, drenching the only pair of clothes he had. The inexplicable fear of capture that hounded him had forced him to wait on board the small ship a whole day longer then he had intended after making port, only moving into the town once certain he had not been discovered. Wincing inwardly, he thinks of the blackness that will follow him to the end of time, relentlessly hounding him to the grave.

‘It’s too soon, damn it! They will be too close on my heels. If that is who I think it is there will be no way I can get far away... quick enough. No way!’ Coppery eyes widen slightly as logical reasoning pushes through the fear and takes over. ’Not unless...’

Voice haggard, a hollow mewling sound reverberating painfully against his own eardrums, Simion screams defiantly into the wind. Pained, narrow lips stretched across bared teeth, he pulls his shoulders back resolutely. The decision made, his course of action planned. Pacing along the edge of the cliff he rubs his palms vigorously together, the thought of implementing a plan even more fearful then the fear of captivity felt only moments ago. Sitting down he adjusts the cloak loosely around him, moves the leather satchel to a more comfortable position beneath his arm before resting his hands in his lap.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Slow down. Relax. Slow down.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The soft incantations spread calm through his mind and aid to still his trembling body, his mind finally reaching a place of peace and tranquillity removed from the here and now. All the years of training, the ingrained responses and techniques slowly take control and as he breathes in deeply one last time, his mind slipping into a pool of perfect serenity.

Silence. Peace. Clarity.

The three words pulse through his consciousness and in the crystal-clear silence of a self-induced meditative state he sits quietly. The sea breeze blowing gently over him, the heat of the day distant as his coppery eyes remains open but unseeing as he focuses inward. Internal plotting and formulations dance through his mind, one plan rejected for another, consequences and results weighed and measured as he tries to decipher a suitable solution to his dilemma with complete emotional detachment. Keeping his mind focussed on whom his pursuer might be Simion filters through several options with varying levels of difficulty and severity.

‘It has to be undetectable or they will sense it and stop anything from happening. Small... No not too small, or the result will be nullified. Something unexpected. Unfamiliar! Unknown...’

Waking from the serenity that surrounds him Simion blinks his eyes, the solution that may just be enough to ensure his escape from the pursuers closing in on him, held tightly within his mind, all his previously felt fear held at bay outside him.

Breathe in... Breathe out.

‘Yes. It can be done.’

In complete silence he prepares, the sound of his steady breathing continues to settle his nerves, keeping his thoughts focussed on the task ahead rather than the fear slinking around the edges of his mind, threatening to overwhelm him. With a shudder he almost loses his resolve as the implications of the plan becomes almost too much to contain within himself, almost giving up. The reality sinks in that if he is to have any hope of delaying that boat coming from the island... or completely preventing them from making it to the mainland at all, this is what needs to be done. Exhaling softly he pushes aside the nagging feeling of wrongness and closes his eyes.

Spreading arms wide open, stretching his hands out into the air a gentle chant trills softly from deep within his throat.

‘E-r-a-e, R-i-b-u, V-a-d-u!’

Ignoring the parched feeling of his throat he continues to ululate, the raspy sound growing in strength after each complete circular incantation. The vibrations forming a mixture of tones and flows, hypnotic as the sounds spins through the air. Deep lines etched across his forehead Simion reaches deeply within himself, reaching slowly into the well of stored power resident within him. For the first time in many years using the training that he has had to keep hidden from others, a power so devastating and dangerous a tremor of fear momentarily threatens to engulf his mind. Reaching reverently towards the pool of power collected deep within his spirit, he removes the wards placed within him, unlocking the door to his stored power and dips a thin mental strand into the essence. A thrumming cascade of power trills along the link within his mind as he drags the strand of power outwards, connecting the gossamer thin line to one of his outstretched hands. Following the same sequence, he reaches inward once more and draws another golden strand out from within the pool. Sweat pours down his cheeks as he strains against the distractions surrounding him, blocking out the heightened sounds, sharper lights, crisper feelings; a cacophony of dangerous distractions that can rip his straining mind asunder and cast him into the abyss of magical oblivion. Keeping himself safe from the madness waiting within, fearing the prison awaiting the unawares where you will forever be looking out but never be able to escape your own soul’s prison he forces his mind away from these thoughts, concentrating harder than he had done before. The golden strand still held within his mental grip writhes, screeching in defiance as it tries to whip free from his dominion. Painstakingly slow he pushes back with his mind, forcing his identity of self and control over the tenuous link held tightly within him before stretching the golden strand out along his arm, connecting it to his other outstretched hand. Tying the final knots, he whispers the words of power, each golden strand flickering into solidity, lines of continuous power flowing from pool to outer extremity.

‘Samas te’le pol-jada’

Complete. Whole.

His eyes pop open as the feeling of oneness flicker trough his mind, a broad smile spreading as the feeling of power complete long restrained and hidden within, courses through his body once more. Craning his neck he focuses on the small clouds drifting calmly through the sky above and behind the small ship gliding across the water. Taking a deep breath, he draws the power from within him, at first hesitantly then with more temerity as the memories and feeling of control reasserts itself within him. Pooling power within his palms he pauses, exhales and with a mighty heave casts out a tendril of golden light; a string of gold arcs brilliantly across the water, the distance barely affecting the path of power visible only to Simion as it hits the clouds and fastens in a spray of colourful sparks to the soft mass of white.

With his other fist aimed towards the small boat, he flings another strand outwards, the thin gilded arrow flying through the air and with a dazzling display of light fastens to the small ship’s wooden planks. A soft hum vibrates from within him, turning into a steady hum of words breathed softly as he brings his hands closer together and ties the two extended strands.

‘Veli vedio wasa. Te ma-ra karta plano’

Whispering softly over the glowing strand held tightly in his hands he blows lightly on it and then releases, the joined strands humming with conjoined power shooting across the clear blue sky, snapping violently through the air before fading from his sight. A faint tremor of spent power felt through the eather the only evidence of any magical activity.

Smiling contently, he forces the dregs of the expended power still coursing through his veins to recede, patiently watching the ship until the hum of power niggling in his ears becomes nothing but a dull ache in his head. The endless struggle of containing the released power over, he blinks as the pool finally lays tranquil deep within him. The curse is set.

A smug grin spreads across his face as he turns around and walks to the edge of the hill, eyes glinting mischievously as a sudden gust of wind whips sand violently up into the air, fine grains of sand prickling his exposed legs and arms. A giggle bursts unexpectedly from his mouth as he steps down the edge of the hill to begin his descent. Descending the hill much more calmly he eyes the sun already moving past its apex and begins to hurry along as the urge to be on the white paved road pushes him on. A faint tremor of power resonates through the air and a sudden urge to get through the grassy fields and to the road overwhelms him and he almost runs towards the road coming into view a few yards ahead. A couple of horse drawn carriages disappear around a bend hidden by clumps of small trees. Hailing an approaching wagon, he rushes forwards as the wagon lurches to a halt, lifting his hand in silent greeting as a grizzled bear of a man leans out past the lead oxen, one other hand clutching a broad rimmed brown hat to his head as a sudden gust of wind swirls in from the east. Eyes thinning, Simion contemplates the sudden change in strength of the light sea breeze that had been constant all morning. A rough voice startles him from his reverie and he realises the bear had been speaking to him.

‘...ey? What’cha need, sonny? Wan’ a ride? I can appreciate the comp’ny. Long way to go till we hits the trade route through dem mountains over yonder.’

Simion dips his chin slightly and gives the bear one of his most pleasant smiles.

‘Thank you sir, yes. I would appreciate the help. I hope you will allow me to help as I can, as I do not have a vast sum of coin.’

Pointing a thumb to the wagon bed a grin splits the merchant’s wide face nearly in two; thick bushy eyebrows arched sceptically while looking at the sky past Simion’s head. ’Well, get on up ’ere. Looks like we in for an ‘lmighty storm. And soon... by the looks o’ that!’

Glancing over his shoulder to where the merchant’s finger was pointing Simion heads around the wagon and clambers onto the wagon. The once serene sky was beginning to fill with roiling banks of grey cloud, turning dark and ominous as they move across the midday sky blocking the sun from view. Stepping up over the wagon’s edge Simion plonks down in the seat next to the driver, sparing a quick glance at the merchant clutching at the hat as another gust of wind swirls around them. A pinch of anxiety flutters in his stomach but he mutters a softly spoken thanks and settles back into the wooden seat as the oxen pulls against the hitch; the small wagon grinding back into motion and moving down the road. Dark clouds flow together to cast an ominous pall across the grass fields below as the merchant wagon heads around the bend in the road. The magically induced storm hidden from view as they head north along the road, disappearing beneath the clumps of trees lining the white paved road.

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