Part 1: The Same Road
By Kelly Digges
Valka, Champion of War, hefts a large backpack onto her broad shoulders and looks to her companion.
Oddi is shorter and slighter than Valka, a poet and singer rather than a warrior. Perhaps that is why they get along. Where other men struggle to prove themselves her equal, Oddi is content to prattle on about history and record her glorious deeds. Oddi carries only his lyre in its traveling case and a small pack of skaldic supplies—spare strings, paper and ink, whatever else it is a bard needs to ply his trade on the road. Valka carries everything else.
“When you are,” says Oddi, in a cheerful voice he knows perfectly well she finds grating.
Gods, he’s like a child, she thinks, though her own son Aram seldom annoys her on purpose. Like someone else’s child.
They have at least three days of walking ahead of them. Valka is no stranger to walking long distances, but she much prefers to have the deck of a longboat beneath her feet. Ah well.
Valka turns to leave their campsite—and sees another man blocking her path. She would swear to the gods he hadn’t been there a moment ago.
The man is slight like Oddi, but beyond that there is little to say about him. He is neither thin nor stout, neither tall nor short, his skin not especially dark or pale. His unremarkable face is half-hidden behind a domino mask. If he removed it, Valka might not be able to spot him in a crowd. A chain winds around one of his arms and trails off to end in midair in an eerie purple glow.
Orfeo. The Champion of Deception.
Valka sets one hand on her axe.
“What do you want?” she asks, with all the warmth of an ice floe.
Orfeo smiles and spreads his hands in greeting, as though her welcome had been anything other than a threat.
“Well met, Valka of the Valknir,” he says, in a smooth, quiet voice that she is irritated to find herself straining to hear. “I can’t help but notice we’re traveling in the same direction.”
“Are we,” says Valka. It is not a question, but Oddi treats it as one.
“We are,” chimes Oddi, “at least for a while. The Cave of Lethenon is in Pyrenia, east of here. His trial is in the Arkmonian forest, east and north. It’s the same road for nearly two days’ travel.”
“So?” says Valka.
“You are fortunate enough to have a companion in your journeys,” says Orfeo, “but I am alone. If you ask me—”
“—this is a rare opportunity for two champions of the gods to become better acquainted.” Orfeo smiles. “Or, at the very least, for me to at last hear the legendary tales of Oddi Haroldsson.”
The gods know Oddi will be tempted by the prospect of a fresh audience.
“Go jump off a pier,” says Valka. “I’d just as soon kill you as look at you, but under the circumstances I’d happily settle for neither.”
In fact she has no idea what would happen if she tried to kill a fellow divine champion—whether one or both gods would stop her, whether champions can even die, or what the pantheon would do in response. Her uncertainty only makes her angrier.
“Alright, alright,” says Orfeo, backing away. “I’ll trouble you no more. Fare well on your journey, and may the best champion win.”
“I will,” says Valka. “And if I get even a hint that you’re interfering with my journey, I will kill you, divine champion and all.”
“I have no doubt,” Orfeo says, still smiling, and walks away.
Valka watches him go until he rounds a corner, then sits heavily, fuming.
“That was… strange,” says Oddi. “I wonder what he wanted.”
“Who cares? Nothing good.”
“You’ve met him before?” asks Oddi, in the probing tone he uses when extracting the details of a story.
“No,” says Valka. “Just saw him in the Arena like the others. Why?”
“Oh, no reason really,” says Oddi, in his there-is-definitely-a-reason voice. “You were just very hostile with him is all. I thought maybe there was a tale there.
Valka stands back up, stepping close to Oddi and looking down on him, using her height against him in a way she seldom does. There is no fear in his round grey eyes, but now there is no mirth either.
“He is the Champion of the Goddess of Deception,” she says flatly. “I’m not giving him a chance to get in my head, and I’m sure as hell not sleeping anywhere near him.”
“Fair enough,” says Oddi.
Valka steps back.
“In fact, I won’t rest easy just knowing he’s on the same road as us,” she says. “Is there another route we can take?”
“Yes, but it’s rougher and more circuitous. It would add at least half a day to our route, and a fair amount of hardship to boot. I’m sure—”
“We’ll do it,” says Valka. “Come on, it’ll be fun. You’ve traveled all over the Northern Sea with me, you can’t be afraid of a little hike.”
“I didn’t have to walk across the Northern Sea,” says Oddi. “Gods, my feet are going to fall off.”
“Maybe if you behave yourself I’ll carry you,” says Valka, and walks away before Oddi can decide whether she’s joking.
Part 2: Shadows Unfolding
Valka, Champion of War, steels herself to enter the Cave of Lethenon alone. Oddi, her traveling companion and herald, has come this far with her, but here she must leave him behind.
“I’ll be right here when you return,” he says quietly. “Waiting to hear the glorious tale of your triumph.”
“It’s just a shadow,” says Valka, with false bravado. “How glorious can it be?”
You will enter the Cave of Lethenon and face the shadow within, the Goddess of Deception had said.
“As glorious as I make it sound,” says Oddi with a grin. “Good hunting.”
Valka nods and steps into the Cave of Lethenon. She carries her axe in one hand. In the other she holds a large torch, which barely keeps the dark at bay. Strange rock formations twist the shadows from the torch and the echoes of her footfalls, playing tricks on her. Her breath mists in the cool subterranean air. Somewhere, water drips in an irregular rhythm.
She heads deeper into the cave, as the walls vanish into darkness around her and the ceiling gets higher. Weird shapes loom in the darkness, too regular to be rock. She moves her torch closer to one.
Chains. Burnished gold chains, with links the size of her hand stretch between the floor and the ceiling, seeming to emerge from the rock itself. Many of them lean at weird angles, but all of them are pulled tight, as though the floor of the cave is dangling from its ceiling.
She reaches out toward the nearest chain, but before she can touch it, she hears something besides her own footsteps and the dripping water. It sounds like… breathing.
Valka whirls. In the darkness, she can just barely make out a small black shape with purple eyes. It stares at her unnervingly, its wispy tail swishing back and forth.
“You’re just a little kitty,” she says.
The cat lunges at her, its shadows unfolding, and now it is a panther made of darkness, a vicious cat-thing with its maw spread wide.
Valka swings her axe as she steps out of the thing’s path, but her axe slides right through the shadowy creature without hurting it. No resistance at all, as though the creature weren’t even there. Of course.
The shadow lands without a sound and turns to leap again, but Valka is already there. She speaks a prayer to Auros, God of War, and swings. Again, the axe passes harmlessly through the shadowy beast, and this time it swipes at her.
Pain blossoms on her forearm, and she looks down to see a bright upwelling of blood from three deep, parallel scratches. Real enough when you want to be, aren’t you?
She tries the torch this time, jamming the fire into the thing’s face. The creature’s form wavers as the flame passes through it, and it shakes its head unhappily, but when she jumps back to avoid its counterstrike she sees no permanent effect.
Valka swears and backs away, brandishing the torch. Now what?
The shadow-cat advances on her, more cautious than she’d expect for something that’s apparently invulnerable. The torch doesn’t harm it, but maybe it hurts enough to keep the thing treading carefully.
Valka stumbles backward into a rock formation, then steps around it to put it between her and the shadow. The cat prowls forward, and its inky body slides through the rock rather than around it.
She looks past the creature, toward the cave entrance. Try to get past it and out of the cave, to regroup and talk with Oddi and try to think of some way to hurt it? That’s the smart thing to do. The safe thing.
Nobody sings songs about people who do the safe thing. They do tend to live longer, though.
“No, damn it,” she says aloud. “Auros chose me. And you—you’re not even a beast. You’re a shadow, barely there. I will not run from a lie.”
The cat of pure darkness prowls forward, teeth bared.
Part 3: Back Against the Wall
The Shadow of Lethenon advances on Valka, Champion of War. It is made of pure darkness, and just as impossible to hurt. But the wounds on her arm prove that it can hurt her.
Valka backs away from the beast, brandishing her torch to keep it at bay even as it steps through rock formations she has to stumble over or around. It doesn’t like light, but there’s no way it’ll follow her all the way to the cave entrance. What about mirrors? She vaguely recalls one of Oddi’s songs about a clever hero who used a mirror to illuminate a cave…
She backs into something, and this time it is one of the huge golden chains that stretch from the ceiling to the floor. The chain is warm against her back, far warmer than the air around it. Like the other chains, it is pulled tight, stretched at an angle between the ceiling and the floor.
Valka steps around the chain, ducking under it, keeping her eyes on the shadow. Gods, next time she might stumble.
The cat-thing steps around the chain too.
Valka blinks, and then a smile spreads across her face.
She looks down at her axe, blessed by Auros and consecrated with the blood of a traitor. Pretty sure this can cut through anything, she’d said, back in the Grand Arena. Time to put that boast to the test.
She looks around to find another chain and angles toward it. When she’s almost there, she whirls and strikes the chain.
The axehead cleaves through the golden chain. The chain whips free, knocking Valka to the ground. Beneath her, the earth seems to shift and rumble. She shakes her head, dazed.
What in the gods’ name…?
Then the creature is upon her. She staggers to her feet, torch at the ready. Behind the beast, the chain dangles to the floor, all tension released.
Valka shoves the torch toward the creature and tries to run past, but it is bolder now. Its claws dig deep into her thigh, cold shadow and hot blood intermingling. She hisses in pain but keeps going, limping now.
Valka steps on the end of the chain to hold it steady and slices through it again, as high as she can. The severed chain drops to the ground with a clang.
Breathing heavily with pain and exertion, Valka holsters her axe and bends down to pick up the chain. Gods, it’s heavy!
She jams the torch between two stalagmites and hefts the chain with both hands. More than her own height of chain to work with. Plenty.
The shadow-beast lunges at her, and Valka loops the chain around its neck. The thing makes a startled yelp as the chain pulls tight around its insubstantial throat. Yes.
She can’t wrestle it the way she usually would, getting on top of it and using her weight, because she’s going right through it. But the chain holds firm as the creature writhes and struggles, and Valka is finally able to loop more chain around it and hold it to the floor.
It is some time before the creature stops struggling, and some time more before its breath runs out and its body settles, more solid now, to the ground. Valka sits there for a while longer, just breathing.
Kill it, skin it, and return with its tenebrous hide. So the Goddess of Deception had demanded. Valka doesn’t know what “tenebrous” means, but “skin it” is pretty unambiguous.
Valka pulls out her axe and gets to work, the motions of butchering a beast oddly familiar in this otherworldly place. The thing seems to have no blood, only smooth black muscle the same color as its fur.
At last the work is done. She tucks the hide through her belt, grabs the torch, and limps toward the exit, leaning on her axe for support.
The sunlight up above is impossibly bright. Valka squeezes her eyes shut and keeps limping. Oddi, where are you, you—
“You’re hurt!” cries Oddi. He takes her hand, guides her to a fallen log, and sits her down.
“What’d you expect?” asks Valka, eyes still shut. “It’s more glorious if the monster gets in a hit or two. Desperate odds, back against the wall.”
She sits there with her eyes closed for some time while Oddi fusses over her.
“There was a small earthquake, while you were down there,” says Oddi conversationally. “I worried the cave might collapse.”
“You felt that?” she says, experimentally opening one eye to find the world still dazzlingly bright. “I, uh, think that might have been my fault.”
“Your fault?” he exclaims. “You think? Gods, that’s song-worthy. What did you do?”
Valka tells him about the chains down in the cave as she gets dressed. When she is finished, she finally opens her eyes to see him facing away from her, humming to himself. She clears her throat, and he turns back to her.
“What is this place?” she asks. “What were those chains?”
“I was wondering if you were ever going to ask,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I know a song about it, as it happens.”
“Of course you do,” says Valka. “I’m surprised you didn’t sing it on the way.”
“Well, it’s not a very good song,” says Oddi with a shrug. “It’s one of those boring ones from the Worldforge Cycle. After Auros defeated the Rotted One and lashed it to the Tree of Worlds, Thaeriel and Elyrian set about binding Eucos together.”
“What do you mean, binding it together?”
“All six gods helped create Eucos, right?” says Oddi. When Valka shrugs, he says, more firmly, “All six gods helped create Eucos. But their creations were fundamentally separate. They kept floating apart, like unmoored boats. So Thaeriel and Elyrian met here at Lethenon, beneath the world, to forge chains that would bind the world together and complete the act of Creation.”
“Thaeriel and Elyrian…?” says Valka, shaking her head. The gods who oversee truth and knowledge are not known for keeping to the shadows.
“They wanted to keep their work hidden, lest mortals learn the secrets of creation,” says Oddi, who is the sort of person who can get away with using words like lest. “So Ludia cloaked the cave in shadows. Thaeriel and Elyrian departed, but the shadows are still there. With teeth, apparently.”
“That’s an odd trio,” says Valka.
“It is,” says Oddi. “In fact, this is the only story I can think of where those three cooperate. Although… they were standing all together in the Arena, weren’t they?”
Valka shrugs again and holds up the shadow-thing’s hide. In the sunlight she can barely see it, nor can she see her hand underneath it, an impossibility that makes her eyes water.
“Not my problem,” she says. “I got what I came for. Let’s head back to our camp and get on the road tomorrow.”
Valka rises, with effort, and the two of them turn away from the cave, leaving the shadows and the lies behind them.
From the darkness of the cave’s mouth, a figure watches them walk away. And smiles.