Herald-Mage Vanyel stumbled through the thick trees, damp arms held tightly to his wet chest in an attempt to hold in some heat. The air around him was gray and sticky with mist and the sky was dark, shrouded by thick, heavy clouds. His wide, glazed eyes continually scanned his dim surroundings, searching for any possible landmark to lead him-- somewhere. Away. Out of this damnable forest and back to his Companion.
'Fandes? Can you hear me?:
Silence was his only reply. Where was his Companion? Why wasn't she with him?
I don't remember-- why can't I think? I can't concentrate-- can't focus. I left 'Fandes-- dammit, where?-- outside the forest. The trees were too thick for her to stay with me. The recovery of this memory filled the Herald with a small measure of relief, though his continuing vagueness of thought still worried and frightened him. We were tracking something, but what?
His eyes wandered through the endless, monotonous stands of trees, finally coming to rest on a pool of shadow held in the crevice of a rock. Shadows. We were hunting the Shadows, tracking them away from the camp. They'd been there for weeks, draining the morale of the soldiers. I was trying to break their control. Vanyel felt a dizzying thrill of elation at the completion of this new memory, though the feeling was short-lived. That still doesn't explain what's happening, or why-- why I-- Damn that blasted song! Where is it coming from?
Van stopped walking suddenly, shaking with more than cold, listening to the faint strains of the eerie, lulling music that wove through the trees. He had heard it first-- how long ago? An hour, a day? He supposed it didn't matter, really, as all time ran together in this gray haze. It had been some time past, earlier in his wanderings of this forested eternity, when he caught the first snatches of that strange tune. It was at the same time that one of the Shadows had stepped calmly out of the mist.
It was a Shadow-- but it didn't look like one. If Vanyel hadn't seen the darkness swirling inside its eyes, hadn't faintly sensed its nature as it spoke, he would have sworn under truth spell that his friend Randale, King of Valdemar, had somehow been Gated from Haven to stand before him.
Having tracked and hunted the Shadows for days, Vanyel recognized it for what it truly was. But the Shadow touched his mind nonetheless, and so even as the Herald struck, burning away the Shadow's familiar features amid its too-human shrieks, his mind was screaming at the horror of what he was doing. His heart came close to breaking with grief and guilt as the image disappeared. The power of the Shadow-- and too that low, lulling melody he still faintly heard-- confused him until his emotions seemed convinced he had indeed murdered his friend in cold blood, as Randi held out his hands in helpless supplication.
After Randi had come Tran, then Van's mother, his father, Shavri, Jisa-- little Jisa!-- and Savil. They stepped one by one out of the trees, calling out his name and smiling a greeting. Vanyel had seen them, known them, and believed in them as they came forward with a Shadow behind their eyes. And Vanyel had destroyed each of them with his magic, some unrealized and buried instinct making him strike even as shocked tears poured down his cheeks.
The Herald's dazed thoughts whirled crazily about each other, each more despairing than the last. His breath came in choked, ragged gasps and his hands trembled violently as he pushed aside the damp branches that extended across his path. The sound he followed was closer now, that soft, strange music that was so compelling. Instinct prompted him to follow the sound, to find the one who was making that music, for that would be the one controlling the Shadows. If he destroyed that one, then perhaps the nightmare would end.
Vanyel jerked, his heart thudding painfully in his chest, his skin gone clammy. The voice had come from behind him, and so the Herald-Mage slowly turned, trembling in every limb and with cold sweat glistening on his face. He choked back a tearing sob as a figure came into view, and one of his shaking hands came up of its own accord to reach towards the young, blond man who now stood before him. Vanyel felt the Shadow's soft, persuasive magic steal into his brain, stirring up old emotions and creating a certainty that his lifebonded, Tylendel-- dead for eleven years now-- did indeed stand before him, alive and smiling.
In that instant, Vanyel forgot that he was being manipulated, forgot what he knew of the Shadows and their abilities. The thought of their power scarring his mind no longer seemed to matter, because he wanted to believe.
"Gods, it's good to see you, Van." Tylendel wore full Whites, as Vanyel had always dreamed of seeing him wear, and his familiar, crooked smile was joyous. "Oh, ashke, I've missed you so much." He reached out to take Vanyel's outstretched hand, as Van smiled tremulously in agonized hope.
Some instinct that lay beyond emotion rose in Vanyel, and magic flowed through him without conscious direction. As Vanyel cried out in wild despair, his power struck at his lifebonded, burning away the beloved features. Tylendel's brown eyes looked into Van's with a look of such profound hurt and betrayal that it cut gaping wounds into the Herald's soul.
As the image of his lover vanished, like mist under the sun, Vanyel collapsed to the ground and wept in great racking sobs that left him doubled up in anguish. Forgotten, the Shadow-magic burrowed into his mind, tearing at the old half-healed pain and guilt surrounding Tylendel's death and magnifying it out into the present. Lost in his own emotions, Vanyel cried, and contemplated the fact that he had just slaughtered every person he had ever cared for in his life.
'Lendel-- Savil-- what have I done, what have I done? Oh, gods-- just kill me now, please. How can I live, knowing--
"Poor, pitiful man--"
The musical voice whispered through the trees, soft and insidious, seemingly accompanied by the quietly menacing chords of a harp. "Lost, wretched soul, what have you done?" The voice was filled with scorn and accusation, and the harp accompanied it with a mournful chord.
Lifting glazed, tortured eyes that brimmed over with tears, Vanyel looked upon the figure before him. She was tiny, fine-boned, scarcely four feet tall. Her full lips were twisted in a cruel parody of a smile, and her dark, dark tilted eyes glinted coldly at Vanyel from amid dark cosmetics. Her face was sharply angular, and framed by thick black hair.
Behind and around her swirled the Shadows, in their elemental forms of shapeless darkness. They brushed by her, caressing her cheek and arm, and circled the two, flickering and wavering. Though he looked at the black shapes without any recognition, some sense in Vanyel's mind stirred from in shrouded sleep.
Something, he thought faintly, something isn't right about this. Something I should know--
"Why fight it, lost one?" The woman's voice was seductive, soothing. "What is left for you? You have murdered your family, your friends, your loved one. You have destroyed everything you have to live for. Give in. Imagine an end to it all, to the grief, the guilt, the loss. Why fight?"
She's right. Dear gods, she's right. I deserve to die. What have I done?
Numbness nibbled at the edge of Vanyel's mind, closing in on the last of his will and viciously quelling the protest that had begun. His hand slipped of its own accord to his belt, to the hilt of his dagger, and began to draw it.
The feel of the knife and the flash of its blade brought a memory into focus from beyond the Shadows' veil. A temple, with a bier before him bearing Tylendel's body. A knife, like this one, drawn against his own slender wrists to pool blood on a white floor.
Seizing upon the image, Vanyel struggled to keep it in focus, as that smothering wave rose up again in his mind. Gripped by instinct once again, he fought it, tearing at the fog that clouded his thoughts. The lulling music distracted him, swelling to reattract his attention, and Van clapped his hands over his ears, humming to himself to block out the sound. He concentrated on the jaunty tune, half remembering--
The camp. The soldiers were singing this around their fires not two weeks ago. Everyone was outside that night, because it was the first evening without rain in days.
Words to accompany notes burst suddenly into his mind. It was a drinking song, its verses filled with the simple pleasures of warmth, friends and fine ale on a cold night. The Herald felt the numbness recede and his thoughts grow clearer, more focused.
This is what I have to fight for. People like those soldiers-- all the people of Valdemar. And life itself.
Vanyel closed his eyes and began to softly sing the brightest songs he could remember, feeling their words of joy and hope, love and friendship wash over him and buoy his spirit. The happiness inherent in the words drove back his despair and tore away the last of the clinging numbness that hung about his thoughts. The Shadows' hypnotic dance faltered as Vanyel's voice grew stronger and he began to shake off their spell.
The Shadow-singer's eyes widened, and she took a hesitant step backwards as her control of the Shadows began to falter. Dark forms began to unravel, glimpses of the misted forest showing though their substance. Looking at the ragged, White-clad man on the ground before her, the Singer began to fear. With one last, desperate chord on her phantom harp, she turned, and tried to flee.
But as she moved, the last remnant of her Shadows dissipated, the spell collapsing in a physically forceless implosion. The released power snapped back upon her, knocking her to the ground and ripping its way through her. Darkness veiled her eyes, and she knew no more.
Vanyel, hands forgotten upon ears, saw the woman's thrashings cease and breathed a weary sigh of relief. Dead, and without any help from me. A good thing-- gods know, I'm not in much shape for magical duels right now. Still shaking slightly, the Herald felt the last fogs of Shadow fading from his mind, and he rediscovered the deception that had been forced upon him.
I know 'Lendel and the others weren't here, I know none of that actually happened-- but ah, gods, it seemed so real--
:Van? Vanyel! Can you hear me?:
Vanyel's head jerked up. :'Fandes? What happened to you?:
The Companion gave a mental snort. :I could ask the same. I've been calling you for hours, but you never heard me. Van-- I caught some of your thoughts. Are-- are you alright?: Yfandes' mind-voice was filled with worry.
Am I? Not sure yet, love-- Van gingerly began to probe his memories of this venture, but quickly flinched away from them, tears in his eyes. The Shadows' magic might have been banished, but they had left their mark on him. The anguish and despair generated by those memories was as great as if everything had happened just as it had appeared to.
:I'll be alright, 'Fandes,: he thought to her, then added silently to himself, eventually. Staring up through the wet air, past the damp, leafless branches, Van saw the dim circle of the sun trying to burn through the heavy gray clouds. He closed his eyes, and drew a long, steadying breath, enjoying the moment of rest before he began the long trek out of the forest and back to the war.
I'll heal, and the memories will fade. Someday. Levering to his feet, Van took a few quick strides in the direction from which he felt his Companion's presence. He paused only once to look back, his eyes wide and haunted.
But it felt so real--