Truth of Shadows

Sharp light cast from the crystal in Jobe’s hand cut deep into the night to reveal a primal land dominated by a choked forest of ancient trees on his left. The long peel of a wolf’s howl silenced the detached birdcalls plucking at his fears. He was not a man who favored nature over the comforts of civilization, but he would consider it fortunate if wild beasts were his only concern.

He thrust the crystal and its protective light forward. A chorus of hisses erupted as figures dashed out of reach of the bright magic. Beyond the perimeter, shadows stalked him with the anguish of a predator denied its prey.  They needed reminding of the pain his blood meant, lest their hunger dislodged restraint.

A few had paced him when he crossed the border into this cursed land. Now a congregation milled about him like a storm around an eye. Even cloaked in night, he could feel their gaze rake along his nerves.

A bodiless voice called to him from beyond. “Join yourself to us. We would give you eternal life as a reward for such brashness.”

Jobe rubbed the dimpled scars along his right cheek and twisted his neck to work out a kink. To keep himself sane, he gave the flat voice the name Jester. The first time he had heard the voice, he considered abandoning his quest and returning to his wretched lot of playing music in hovels undeserving the title of tavern or inn. He had studied under the Master Troubadour Ennis for ten years, had learned more instruments than most men could identify, all for the privilege of wasting his talent on the unappreciative drunks in hopes of earning enough coin for a few meals.

“Play us a song, bard.” The same voice again.

The request twisted a hot ingot in his gut. Drunkards slurred the same while deciphering answers in their tankards full of regrets, or after receiving a violent reminder the serving women were not whores. Unless the drunkard happened to be highborn and angry.  His jaw prickled at the latest memory.

He ground his teeth against the scathing retort and unraveled the past’s choke on his thoughts. Anger would only rile his stalkers.

Although all shadowmen shared the same voice, Jester’s perfectly formed features marked him as the speaker, whereas the others surrounding him bore incomplete bodies or flawed forms. The moon’s position declared the time well past midnight. Pain in his feet throbbed in step with his heartbeat, and the grumbling in his stomach demanded attention.

“Give me a rabbit and firewood. Leave the rabbit intact this time.” He fled his past to find a future among the elite, only to resort to the same currency. Another day or so and such humiliation would end. He would walk among the masters and know the draw of adoration.

Laughter erupted from all directions. “You do not like our sense of humor.”


“Play us the song from a few nights back.”

“Food first. I’ve learned my lesson.” Jobe tightened his grip on the crystal against the answering silence.

“Why do you endure such bestial constraints?” Jester’s questions evolved with every passing day. He displayed the patience of a proselytizing priest or a snake waiting for a meal.

“I told you, I would consider your offer. For now, the rabbit for a song.” He spit, but the sour taste remained.

Time stretched, deepening the silence. Uncertainty planted seeds of fear in the fertile soil of his imagination. A knot loosened in his chest upon discerning two humps beside a pile of dry wood. He jogged a few steps before he quelled his eagerness and returned to a walking pace. These shadowmen would take his enthusiasm and turn it against him with their endless questions and cunning. A short delay wouldn’t kill him. His stomach argued in protest.

After placing the skinned rabbit to roast over the popping flame, Jobe withdrew his flute. The edge of protective light receded with the placing of the crystal atop his supplies. Like a breath, the shadowmen pressed in. He ran his fingers over the gleaming instrument cradled in his arm. An odd sense of betrayal nagged him. He had felt the contentment of the shadowmen at hearing a song meant for living ears. Their inability to appreciate music only served as proof of their incomplete nature. And yet, he would play.

The mouthpiece found its usual perch on his lips. “You want the Sun and the Lake?”


The song required a singer.  It told the story of the Hertal, the sun god, and the lake nymph Venna. Venna would rejoice every time Hertal pulled the sun over the lake, her laughter floating to the heavens to soften Hertal’s hardships. During his daily circuit, he would pause over the lake to hear as much of her laughter as the sun allowed before searing the plants and animals. The day came when he resolved to take Venna as a bride. He descended to the earth, the chained sun plummeting in his wake. Venna’s laughter turned into cries of pain as the water boiled around her. She pleaded to Hertal to return to his orbit, that he never approach the earth again. With a heavy heart, Hertal consented and resumed his trek, dragging his burden. He ripped his heart from his chest and offered it to the consuming sun. From that day, her laughter never roused him from his duty, her name forever void of meaning.

When he finished, Jobe wiped a tear from his eye. He returned the flute to its case and watched the flame leap and dance as it charred the rabbit. He moved the spit and leaned it against the supplies to let the meat cool.

“Why didn’t Hertal let go of the sun and go to Venna?”

He dreaded this part of the night. In a previous bargain, Jobe had told his stalkers the story of Hertal and Venna. They picked apart the story with the clumsy fingers of children fighting over a worm.

“Because of his responsibility to the mortals. The sun must continue along its course or else the world would burn, and life would cease.” Jobe stuffed a chunk of rabbit it in his mouth to keep his thoughts from forming on his tongue.

The pagans of the north used the story to teach duty and sacrifice. He often imagined some youth questioning the elders, asking them why Hertal’s brothers never shouldered the burden. Dissatisfied with the answer, they migrated away from a land that bred heartless people and moved south to become the People of the Sun. Once Jobe completed this task, he would go to them and compose a song in the Sun Lord’s honor. He deserved as much.

“We never understood the concept of gods.” An edge crept into Jester’s voice.

“We had this discussion before and the last time it didn’t end well.” Jobe swallowed the hot flesh and tore off another morsel. He slid his hand into his backpack. From past episodes, Jobe knew Jester hated admitting his shortcomings.

“You think you are better than us.” The accusation came from all directions in the same voice. “You think we envy your faiths.”

Jobe grabbed another crystal and worked it free. “We’ve had a good couple of days. Why do you want to ruin it again?”

“Because we hate you.”

Jobe jumped to his feet and clapped the two crystals together. The second crystal flared to life, adding its strength to the first. Dark figures with partially formed features froze in the stark light. Here, a shadowman squinted his lone eye in pain. Smooth skin covered the place of his second eye. There, a shadowman lacked a nose. Only one fully formed figure stood out of the crowd. A snarl twisted his flawless face and bared sharp teeth used for biting into mortal flesh. The others fled into the night, but Jester took a step forward.

“We hate you.” A crack spread along Jester’s perfectly formed cheek. Something inky and ethereal leaked from the wound and sunk to the ground. It burned away like fog in the sun. “We hate you!” Jester growled the declaration like a bear given speech. He turned and fled after the others.

Jobe panted through gritted teeth. The strengthened ring of light pushed deep against the stubborn night to reveal his solitude and safety. He allowed himself a moment to calm his racing heart.

Curses crowded against the back of his throat and ripped through the night in an unintelligible scream. Jester envied him like all the ruffians gifted with the chance of hearing his music, his voice, only to find failure in themselves. Any fool can kill, any brute can work the fields until the sun wounded the horizon, but to be a creator of music, of crafting stories from insignificant words, elevated a man to a higher existence. Jester’s hatred acknowledged this truth.

Jobe sat down to eat his fill and sleep. Another two days, maybe three, and he would grind the envious beneath his boot. Thoughts of the Hallowed Book flavored his meal and sweetened his dreams.

The next day, Jobe continued his march north. Nervous energy infused the ring of the incomplete figures obstructing his view. He locked his eyes forward and tilted to the sky to avoid their nudity. In the day, the sun mitigated the light of the crystal and allowed the shadowmen to encroach closer than made him feel comfortable.

Bones of the dead nation protruded from a land thick with vegetation. He studied a cracked dome of bronze leaning against the remains of a wall with intent. A story formed from the pieces, something fragmented and with promise, until he passed it and sought another ruin to distract him.

Jester appeared before Jobe, walking backward. “What do you seek, bard?”

Jester’s lifeless gaze plucked at Jobe’s nerves. The sight of his body absent vital anatomy raised his hackles.  “An answer.” Jobe shifted the crystal before the advancing shadowman.

Jester sneered. “You are running out of magic. I will enjoy your warm blood on my tongue.”

Jobe rubbed his cheek. The three remaining crystals meant he had as many days, excluding any repeats of last night’s episode. He scanned the northern horizon for hints of his destination.

“You seek the place that repulses us.” Jester said.

“I don’t know what that means. Why do you talk so much when you could wait a few more days and take me.”

“We will not let you enter it.” Jester stopped walking.

Jobe pushed down the icy fear in his heart. He held out the crystal and pressed forward. Murky vapors oozed from fissures spreading up Jester’s arm as he reached out. The circle of shadowmen pulsed in anticipation. A smooth, lifeless hand touched a dirty, calloused one. Jobe grabbed the dagger from his waist and sliced.

Jester hissed in pain as he retreated to the perimeter. “You will pay!”

“You gave me no choice.” Jobe swallowed the lump in his throat and steadied his breathing.

Under the glaring eye of Jester, he continued the journey. The summer sun pressed the sweat from his pores and baked his head. He unbuttoned his salt-stained tunic hoping a breeze would show mercy. The days-old growth on his cheeks mutinied. No matter how hard he scratched, relief escaped him and he needed a distraction from his agitation.

“What is this place that repulses your kind?” Jobe flinched away from the fire in Jester’s eyes. “I’ll make a trade. Tell me of this place and I will tell you a story.”

The swish of the grass beneath his feet provided the only answer. He shrugged his shoulders and considered playing the flute to pass the time. Clawing his beard transitioned into rubbing the scars on his cheek. Each pit beneath his fingers clarified the memory of the day he earned them. He resolved to pay Lord Chatham a visit once he finished this ordeal.

He glanced at the hilt protruding from his vambrace and hoped Chatham raged at finding his man dead in the stables. Soon, all of his house would suffer the same.

“Which story would you tell us?”

Grateful for the interruption, Jobe shook the thought from his mind. “I know many. Any story to your liking.” At the sight of Jester’s hand curling into a claw, he offered, “The Lady Justice.”

“What is it about?”

“It’s a grand story from the desert lands to the southeast. They claim a singular god with a legion of spirits, called angels, to do his bidding. This is the story of a human possessing the power of one of those spirits.”

Animated movements accompanied a surge in excited talk among the shadowmen. Jobe froze, unsure if his words invited another attack.

Jester held a hand up to suppress his brethren. “We accept.”

Jobe inhaled slowly to conceal his fear. “You first.”

“The place is a blight on this land.” Jester matched Jobe’s resumed pace. “The time before we broke free of our masters, a faction of their kind would gather there. It’s a tower of black stone surrounded by a high wall with vulgarity etched upon it.”

“Are we near it?” Jobe winced at the longing in his voice and forced his breathing to a steady pace. “Perhaps there are some supplies I can pillage. I could use more water.”

“We will not let you enter it.” Jester’s eyes flickered to the gap separating them.

“I know. The legend of Careen starts in a room filled with implements of torture and brutish men eager to spill blood.” After a short pause to gauge their reaction, he continued with the long form of the tale. The words spilled from his lips like fabric from a loom. New energy gripped the shadowmen.  They hung on his every breath like the audience he deserved. He found himself adding enhancements to the telling—different voices for various characters, reenactments of fights, and dramatic pauses.

With a third of the tale left, the tower came into view. Jobe masked his bewilderment by drinking from his waterskin. He continued the story while averting his eyes. Each step threatened to spring into a jog. His movements felt stilted and random.

His eagerness subsided when an outgrowth of the forest blocked the tower from sight. The shadowmen didn’t show signs of agitation. He focused on the telling, bolstering every word with emotion and pitch, to keep their attention focused on him.

The story finished with the tower still out of sight. Judging by the previous distance, once he rounded the bulge, he would stand in the shadows of the walls. He slid the backpack from his shoulders and struggled to loosen the drawstrings with one hand.

“Why didn’t her god intervene before her death?”  Jester said.

Jobe withdrew the rest of the rabbit. “I can’t presume to know the mind of a god.” He took a bite of cold meat. “Still, their scholars say that life is a temporary thing. That death is only a bridge and the toll is paid by our deeds on this earth.”

A clamoring of voices rose in protest.  Jobe stifled a sigh. The shadowmen would use any excuse to plunge into violence. “What bothers them?”

Jester flexed his hands into claws. “Every culture claims a deity or pantheon for their own. Faith anchors its believers to this world, gives them permanence.” Tendons flared along his neck as he strained to speak. “No god has claimed us.”

The ring of broken shadowmen boiled in agreement. Jobe licked his dry lips as he scanned for signs of aggression. “There are some who say one must seek out their god.”

“What do you say?”

The sun descended below the tree line to cast deep shadows across the land. Jobe sighed in relief as the light of his crystal strengthened and pushed the shadowmen back. “What is there to say? The world is full of people who chase at dreams. In their pursuit, they end up as dead as the ones who don’t proclaim a faith.”

The pragmatic response subdued his stalkers. Jester walked with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bent in concentration. They traveled in silence as the sky bruised in the absence of the sun. A dark shadow above the forest caught Jobe’s attention. He needed to keep his predators distracted.

Jobe rubbed his face. “You do not offer a trade tonight.”

A blow to his back sent him stumbling. The crystal fell from his groping hands to the soft earth. His backpack pulled against his forward momentum to whip him into the air. Screams drowned the sounds of his panicked cries as claws traced lines of pain along his flesh.

“You think us fools.” Jester’s voice pierced the hungry shrieks.

Jobe focused on the sack. He buffeted away grasping hands to secure his hold on the battered leather.  A blow bounced his head off the ground. Stars burst across his vision, and ringing dammed his ears. He kicked against whatever struggled to snatch the bag from his arms.

Raking claws slashed at his arms and chest. He joined his voice to the chorus of anguish. Another kick freed the sack. Blood dribbled over his stretched lips onto his tongue. His hands found two of the three remaining crystals.

He twisted onto his hands and knees and saw the dropped crystal through a roiling black cloud. A kick to the ribs expelled the air from his lungs. Another threatened to snap bones. He threw himself forward and extended his arms. The sweet note of glass chimed. Dormant crystals flared to life.

The screams stretched to a shrill keening. Jobe gasped for breath like a beached fish. The power of the light knifed through the shadowmen and tossed them to the ground. Black smoke seeped from fissures along their bodies to blanket the grass. The fissures expanded to cracks. Arms crumbled under their own weight and the bodies disintegrated like spent coal after hitting the ground.

Jobe rolled back into a sitting position and gasped at the pain in his side.

Jester trembled before him with both arms clutching his body as if trying to hold himself together. Streamers of mist poured from chips in his smooth skin. He leaned into the light; his eyes remained locked on Jobe. “More will hunt— “

Jobe flinched away as Jester’s jaw detached and fell. A thick plume cascaded from the gaping hole to wash Jester’s legs in a murky spume. He struggled to his feet and held his breath from inhaling Jester’s vile blood. He stood a pace away from the dying shadowman. “Smile.” He shoved one of the crystals into the remnants of his face.

A coolness rolled down his arm and stomach as Jester dissipated. When the fog cleared, Jobe stood alone in a large field of light. His ears twitched. The solitude gave him a strange sense of vulnerability. Wary of his injuries, he bent to reclaim his lost items. His body protested but lost the argument.

Jobe stared at the third crystal on the ground. He tossed one crystal ahead and held the other two in his outstretched arms and repeated the process for the remainder of his journey. The shadomwmen plagued the lands. More would come.

Each step agitated the many wounds crossing his body. Blood oozed along his torso and back to dampen the remnants of his tunic. His throws shortened until they were little more than tosses a child would mock. Thirst scraped his throat raw and swelled his tongue. Still, he plodded along with the tenacious need for redemption.

After he rounded the outgrowth, his eyes fell on the immediate space before his feet. Time stretched into nonexistence. He focused only on tossing and picking up crystals. The swishing of the soft grass beneath his feet called for him to rest a moment, just to regain his strength and ease the burning in his arms. His back stooped in answer. A short rest wouldn’t hurt.

When a tossed crystal bounced back at his feet, he didn’t understand.

In the incandescence, red carvings on the wall bled like fresh wounds on the black rock. The language was unknown to him, but it appeared an ancient ancestor of his own. Serenity washed over his weary limbs and coaxed the worry from his mind. A scent like musk saturated his nose and settled in his chest to spread along his skin. His flesh mended.

The carvings blurred. Light shifted and flared when lines crossed. He squinted against the discomfort until the writing shifted into his own language.


The skin on his neck prickled with suspicion. He peered to either side and then back down his path when he found no one. The old witch never mentioned the wall and its nebulous warning. He didn’t like surprises but couldn’t leave this land in defeat. He followed the path of the wall to locate an entrance but found another carving instead.



He clawed his dimpled scars. A recession ahead caught his attention. He quickened his steps to outpace his nagging doubt. As he neared, he could see the outlines of a large gate with another message above.


The wooden gates appeared in good condition and swung quietly with a nudge. Jobe frowned. Who preserved this place?

Brush and overgrowth choked much of the stone walkways dissecting the courtyard beyond. The signs of neglect eased his fears. Aromatic smells of wildflowers and fruit trees curled beneath his nose and urged him forward.

He consented.

Vines swallowed the stairs leading up to the tower’s entrance and hung from the archway like a curtain to obscure a wooden door. Against the protests of his stomach, he worked his way across, placing each foot with meticulous care. Shade and years of lack of use coated the steps in moss. Even this close, an obstacle sought to deny him his desires.

At the door, he paused and placed his hands against the worn wood. A wave of exhaustion threatened to bring him to his knees. He pushed himself upright and pulled the door open.

Inside, rays of light reflected from mirrors slashed trails of gold in the swirling dust. He wondered about the source. A stairwell to his left followed the curvature of the walls into the second story. He quieted his breathing and strained his ears.

Jobe sucked in a breath and shouted. “Hello?”

Only his receding echo answered.

To his right, a few deteriorated sandals rest atop shelves.  Piles of clothing and other traveling gear surrounded two stands in the center of the room. His eyes latched onto the book atop one and his heart pounded in his throat. He stumbled forward, careless in his eagerness.

Movement from the corner of his eye drew his attention to the plaque. The raised characters swirled like sand in the wind and formed words that he could read.

Reading from the Book of Hallowed Wisdom cannot be done bearing the symbols of ignorance gathered from this world. A vessel may break under the force of its contents. Success is not guaranteed.

Jobe rubbed his scarred cheek and wondered what would happen if he opened the book while clothed. He shook off the thought. Now was not the time for him to act the inquisitive fool. He stuffed all his belongings in his backpack and set it down in a cleared spot he made in the ocean of discarded attire. Anticipation heightened his self-awareness. His skin prickled.

With little else to do, he flipped open the cover. As light flared around him, drowning his eyes in a sea of white, a thought came to mind. Why did no one don their clothing after completing the book?

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