Ericahs slept an unpeaceful slumber; his troubled mind wandered restlessly through the night. His thoughts no longer seemed his own, for they were they were being pulled, as though by some outside force, back to a night twenty years earlier. It was a night of great significance to Ericahs, for it was a night that had changed the course of his future forever.
Donya and her two sons walked along the high ridge beside the Valley of Shadows. The moon was high in the sky and its light bathed the land in a comforting glow, yet the three travelers held their torches tightly in hand as they scurried along the cliff. No matter how many torches they bore, no matter how bright the light of the moon, the edge of the Valley of Shadows was not a place to linger. It was the stronghold of the demons and it was a possibility that in the midst of their own territory, they might have the power to snuff out the light of a torch. It was unwise to journey so close to the Valley of the Shadows, Donya knew that as well as anyone, but she had no choice.
“Hurry, my boys, hurry,” Donya urged her sons. “We mustn’t linger here long.”
The boys quickened their pace, knowing as well as their mother the danger that lay within the valley. But hurried feet are often the most unsteady, scampering along as they wait for the inevitable accident to occur. The unsteadiness of Donya’s sons was intensified by the fear they felt at passing so close to the Valley of Shadows. The two combined were nothing short of a recipe for disaster.
Perhaps it was indeed Petrya’s unsteady feet, or perhaps it was the Shadows themselves, reaching their dark, slippery fingers out of the confines of their valley if only for a moment. It all happened too fast to know for sure, but one moment, the boy was running as quickly as he could past the valley and the next he was slipping down in the rocky crevasse itself.
“Petrya!” Donya screamed as her youngest son’s form disappeared over the cliff.
Petrya gave no answer, but there was a small groan from the bottom of the valley. Donya leaned over as far as she dared, holding her own torch so tightly that her knuckles were white.
“Petrya!” Shouted Donya’s second son running toward the cliff.
“Back, Ericahs!” His mother shouted. “Stay away from the cliff!” Ericahs did as he was told, breathing hard as he watched his mother peer into the Valley of Shadows.
The moon was full and bright overhead, as it always was, but it gave no comfort, for even its silver light could not penetrate the depths of the demon chasm into which Petrya had fallen. He had lost his torch during his fall and now lay at the bottom of the valley alone and defenseless. It did not take the Shadows long to become aware of his presence.
They had been seething for fresh meat for ages, and now a boy lay within their midst. They swarmed upon him hungrily, attracted to the innocent fear within him. They capitalized on that fear, latching onto it, making it grow within the child until it overtook him completely.
“Petrya!” Donya screamed. “Petrya run! Run!”
But it was too late, the Shadows were already taking him, transforming all the life within him into nothingness. The black cloud of fear that the Shadows had been growing inside of the child burst from every point of his body, tearing his entire being apart until there was nothing left, until he was no more than a wisp, until he had become part of the Shadows themselves.
The screams Petrya made as the Shadows ripped through him were the most bloodcurdling sounds Donya had ever heard. They were worsened by the fact that it was her own son making them. Donya could never have described those chilling sounds with any words in any language known to man. They were sounds she would never forget.
“Mother!” Ericahs screamed hearing his brother below and beginning to run toward the valley.
“Don’t look at it!” Donya shouted grabbing the boy and turning him away from the view of the Shadows.
She shielded her son, covering his eyes and ears, but there was no one to shield Donya as she bore witness to the horror of watching her own child be consumed by the wraithlike demons. She painfully watched the blackness engulfing the child until he was gone. Only his screams lingered long after his body was gone, the last remnant of his life echoing on the wind. Donya knew that she could not save Petrya, and efforts to do so would be futile, but the motherly instinct within her soul would have made her cast herself into that valley no matter how useless her attempts to save him. The only thing that stopped her was the son she still held tightly in her arms.
She could not abandon one son to save another who was already doomed, so she sat there helplessly as Petrya was taken from the world. She shielded her son from watching his brother’s death, but there was nothing to stem the flow of tears that poured down her cheeks as she watched Petrya be destroyed. Just before everything became silent, Donya let out one final cry to her son.
Ericahs awoke with a start, panting, covered in sweat as he recalled the nightmare he’d just had.
“Visions of death?” asked Lismella calmly.
Ericahs looked over and saw her staring intently at him. “How did you know?”
“You were screaming in your sleep,” said Lismella. “Who is Petrya?”
Ericahs hesitated a moment before answering, not sure he wanted to reopen that particular wound.
“He was my younger brother. The Shadows took him many years ago.” Ericahs stood up. “I haven’t dreamed about it since I was child, and yet I’ve dreamed of it almost every night since meeting you.”
“It’s the Keeper of Darkness calling to you, Ericahs. Aecleton is somehow aware that you’ve begun training in the ways of the light. Aecleton knows well enough of the prophecy. These dreams are likely meant to frighten you away from your resolve to destroy the Shadows.”
“But why send me dreams of my brother’s death?” asked Ericahs. “Won’t that only increase my desire to destroy them?”
“The Shadows have only one weapon, preying upon the fears of others, and that what they are trying to do to you.”
“But I don’t fear the Shadows.”
“No,” Lismella agreed. She stepped toward Ericahs dropping her voice, “You’re not afraid of them, you’re afraid of being afraid of them.” Lismella watched Ericahs’ face change as the firelight flickered across it and she could see that her assumption was correct. “You saw someone taken by the Shadows, yes, but you also saw something else. You saw someone driven to madness with fear, and that type of consuming fear is what you fear most of all. Who was it, Ericahs, who was it that you saw lose their grasp on reality?”
“My mother,” said Ericahs slowly. “When we were children, she would take us to the far meadows to gather berries. It was the only place to find them in any quantity because it was far enough out that few people went there. My father had died years earlier and we had no money. We could never pay the king’s road tax though, so we would take the dangerous road by the Valley. One night Petrya lost his footing and slipped in.”
Ericahs turned away. He was telling Lismella the story, but he would not allow himself to relive the pain. He remained emotionally detached from the words he spoke. “His screams were horrible, but we couldn’t do anything to save him as the Shadows feasted upon him. My mother made sure I didn’t look, and she covered my ears with her hands, but I could still hear Petrya’s pleas for help, and I knew my mother could too.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone taken by the Shadows, but my mother did. She watched them take her own son, and she couldn’t even try to help him. I think that was what ate away at her most of all; she was never the same after that. The Shadows continued to torment her with dreams and visions so strong that they finally drove her to insanity. I tried to take care of her, but she just kept drifting further and further from me, fighting with demons that only she could see, and then one day,” Ericahs finally turned back toward Lismella, “she was gone. The visions tortured her to death. It was as though the Shadows had killed her without even touching her.”
“So what did you do?”
Ericahs sighed. “Whatever I could to survive. I became a thief. I was only nine and I was alone in the world; what else could I do? I didn’t even know how to hunt so I began to steal anything I could get my hands on, and once I started, it just became a way of life.”
Ericahs sat down next to fire the. He’d never told anyone so much about his life, but strangely enough, he didn’t even want to stop. It felt good for once in his life to be able to let his guard down and just release everything to someone who was actually willing to listen. “I’ve been in the dungeons of the Argentum palace more than once,” he confessed, “that was where I learned to fight. It was a different world in the dungeons. Down there it was either kill or be killed, so once again I adapted to my situation and I taught myself what I needed to know to survive.
“The first time I was sent to the dungeons for stealing I was fourteen. Two years later I found myself there yet again. When I was freed, I picked up a sword and I hardened my heart against the world, using the fighting skills I had developed in the dungeons. I found that I could live by my sword, fighting for money. Because of what I’d learned in the dungeons, I was naturally very good at it, and it meant I’d never have to steal again. I didn’t even have to kill anyone to win. I only ended up in the dungeons once more after that, many years later when I’d become a man.”
Lismella thought for a moment before answering. “I can see why those dreams are something you want to remain buried and I wish you didn’t have to face them again, but you must. I know I’m repeating myself, but at some point you will have to face your one fear. You will have to go the Valley of the Shadows and relieve yourself of the fear that you might be afraid. It’s the only way you can stop your dreams; it’s the only way you can make yourself truly ready to meet Aecleton.”
Ericahs shook his head in protest. “Aecleton took everything from me. He killed my family and stole my life when I was forced to become a thief. The desire for revenge is truly the only thing that drives me. I swore I’d never go back to that valley, and so I won’t. I already have all the rage I need to give strength to my fighting; I am ready.”
“I already told you, Ericahs, you’re not ready until I say you’re ready. Yes, you have rage, but it’s misplaced. You are so angry now, you don’t even remember who you were mad at in the first place.”
“Aecleton,” Ericahs replied quickly.
“Yes,” Lismella nodded, “much of your hate is directed toward the Keeper of Darkness, and rightly so, but who else? Who hurt you more than anyone? Look deep inside your heart and ask yourself who you’re really angry at.”
Ericahs’ answer was almost a whisper. “Myself,” he said.
“Because I survived.” Ericahs sighed, turning away once again. “Because all three of us were on that valley ridge and I lived while they didn’t. Even before I had to fend for myself, I was a mischief-maker. Petrya was the good child, and yet he was the one that died.”
He turned back toward Lismella searching for wisdom. “Why did they take him? He was innocent; how can the Shadows take someone who is innocent?”
“No one is innocent, Ericahs, everyone has a dark side.”
Ericahs shook his head. “No, Petrya was only seven, he hadn’t lived long enough to develop a dark side.”
“Everyone has a dark side,” Lismella repeated, “though some are darker than others.” Lismella began rubbing her hands together, using them to demonstrate her words. “There are only two real emotions in the world; fear and love, and all other emotions stem from these two. Hate, anger, joy, hope, sadness, when the surface on these emotions is scratched away, they all come from one of two bases; love or fear. A person’s light half is made of love; a person’s dark half is made up of fear.
“The emotions of fear and magic are more powerful that all the magics of the world combined, for all things are done in the name of fear or love. Sometimes people will kill or steal or do unspeakable things, but all these things are simply because somewhere deep inside people are afraid of something. Sometimes it is the fear of losing the ones they love, sometimes it is the fear of being powerless, whatever it is, dark actions always come fear. Even a seven year old is not immune to fear; even your brother had a dark side though he hadn’t lived long enough to give into it, for a dark side is simply fear.
“That is how the Shadows take people, they find that black spot of fear within a person, no matter how tiny it might be, and they grab hold of it, expanding it and making it grow until it overtakes the person entirely. They are consumed by their own darkness.”
“So the Shadows are trying to reignite my fear to destroy me?” asked Ericahs.
“No,” Lismella replied quickly, “no. Aecleton knows you’re different. Your dark side gives strength to your light. You are not afraid of dying, therefore you are waging war against Aecleton more out of love for the ones you already lost, rather than out of fear of losing something else. The Shadows are sending you these dreams in hopes of distracting your mind to keep you at bay.” Lismella looked toward the west.
“Well they’re going to have to do better than that,” said Ericahs, “a few dreams aren’t going to frighten me. And despite how it might disappoint you, they’re not going to make me go to the Valley just because you think I need to prove something to myself.”
“That is up to you. It is an enemy only you can face.”
“I’m going to get more wood for the fire,” said Ericahs, ignoring Lismella’s last words. He wanted to be alone for a moment, so he began to walk away. When he was far enough out of the firelight, he turned around to look at Lismella, her form glowing in the flames. He had expected her to be trying to sleep, but what he saw was something else entirely.
Her white gown glowed in the night as she reached into the recesses of her cloak lying upon the ground. She withdrew a small packet and glided toward Ericahs’ belongings. She carefully pulled open his pack and took out his water gourd. Without even hesitating, she dumped the powdery white contents of the packed into Ericahs’ water, shaking it to ensure everything was mixed well. Then she folded up the empty packet and returned to her spot by the fire.