Paragon’s Paradox – Sneak Peak

You need not fear us,
Unless you are a DarkSoul
Vile one’s who prey on the Innocents
You can’t hide forever in the empty darkness
For we will hunt you down like the animals you are
And pull you into the very bowels of hell

As the full moon slowly set over a dense grove of trees, lining a river bank, a solitary falcon burst upwards, its lonely cry, echoing across the silent valley. Nothing stirred at its cry; this valley was as devoid of animal life as the previous four had been. The falcon slowly circled the grove, as if it was waiting for something to appear.

Far below the falcon, deep within the silent trees, a tiny speck of light appeared. It quickly grew to the size of a door, through which, a young woman named Jænnielee Stonetear stumbled. As she leant against a tree catching her breath, the light shrunk and disappeared again, quickly plunging the grove back into darkness. Jænnielee pulled the hood of her cloak up, hiding her flame red hair, and slowly made her way towards the river, blending into the darkness as she moved.

She reached the edge of the tree’s moments later and stood hidden in the shadows, using a little of her gift to send out tentacles of magick, searching for life. When nothing was found, Jænnielee stepped out of the shadows towards the river, quickly looked skyward and whistled, her golden avian eyes spotting the falcon high above her. She watched as it screeched in reply and sped towards the north and the start of the river.

Dropping her pack on the ground at her feet, Jænnielee rummaged through it, looking for the three empty water canisters she was carrying, her eyes returning to their normal shade of green as she did. She filled the first and drank it dry while the second as filling. This was the first clean running water they had seen in five days, and the first she had been able to drink since the previous evening. Jænnielee briefly considered diving into the river to cleanse herself of the sweat, dust and unwelcome energies of the past five days, but the cool wind blowing off the mountains put paid to that idea as the temperature suddenly dropped several degrees. She normally would have been able to heat the water enough to take the chill off, however, the last few days of very little food and sleep, coupled with the energy required to open a Gateway between regions, had seriously depleted her gift.

Once the canisters were full again, Jænnielee gathered up her belongings and headed back to the seclusion of the trees, setting up a camp hidden from direct view of the river. Spreading the meagre rations out in front of her, Jænnielee fervently hoped she could locate an active safe house before the food ran out completely. She quickly ate the last of the bread and cheese, then wrapping herself up in her forest green cloak, lent against a tree and dozed, while she waited for her falcon, Shadow to return, looking for all the world, like a moss-covered rock.

Jænnielee woke suddenly a few hours later, as something wet and scaly landed in her lap. As she registered that is was a freshly caught fish, a second, slightly larger one joined it. She quickly looked up into the tree above her and found Shadow gazing down.

“Thank you,” Jænnielee said quietly, as she untied the leather glove hanging at her hip.

“Do you want some of this or are both for me?” Jænnielee queried, slipping the glove onto her left hand.

Shadow glided off the tree branch and landed on Jænnielee covered hand, tilted her head to the left and clicked her beak in the direction of the remains of her own meal.

“Thank you again,” Jænnielee said, caressing Shadows head with her right hand, the added “Let me get a hot meal cooking, then you can show me what you saw”

Shadow chirped and nipped the ends of Jænnie’s fingertips before settling on her left shoulder. Jænnielee hunted through her pack again, digging out the equipment she needed to make a fish stew. With Shadow chattering quietly in her ear as she worked, Jænnielee deftly filleted the two fish and diced up the last of the vegetables in her food supply. Although her magick had not picked up any life signs in a twenty miles radius, Jænnielee decided against lighting a fire, instead she pulled a flat, circular rock from the pack, and placing her pot on it, she used a little of her gift, warming the rock, until it produced a soft pink glow. The pot began to simmer almost instantly.

“All right Sha, show me what you saw to the north,” Jænnielee said, coaxing Shadow back onto her left hand. She rested her arm across her bent knees, bringing Shadow’s eyes in line with hers. Jænnielee stared deep into the avian eyes, her own changing to match the amber colour as Shadow shared her memory of the flight north.

She had come across the first farm on the western side of the river within five miles. The crops had withered in the fields and the homestead had started to collapse in the middle as if the weight of the years to too much for it to stand. The next three farms Shadow had seen, appeared to have shared the same fate, although the last farm had shown signs of extensive fire damage.

Jænnielee sighed sadly at Shadow’s visions, this had been a thriving and fertile valley only ten years ago. She wondered what had gone so wrong in such a short space of time. “Is the safe house still standing?” She asked Shadow quietly.

Shadow’s memories sped forward till she reached the headwaters of the river, the full moon turning the water silver with its light. Shadow had skimmed across the surface, ignoring the flickering shapes beneath the water as she did. On the northernmost shore, she found the shattered remains of the old water mill. The ancient stone structure had been blasted apart by a powerful explosion that had scattered the square blocks across the landscape. The wooden waterwheel alone had survived, it still stood, turning slowly with the current, how long it would remain upright was anyone’s guess.

Jænnielee sighed again and broke contact with Shadow. “Another safe house gone. I wonder how many more we’ve lost” she whispered sadly. In the five days, Jænnielee and Shadow had been travelling, they had discovered thirteen of the most isolated and hidden safe houses completely destroyed. “Looks like we will have to head south, and into Alospire,” Jænnielee said, as Shadow moved back up to her left shoulder, “If that house has gone as well, I’ll use a gateway and take us home Sha”

Shadow nipped Jænnielee’s ear angrily at her words. “Ouch Shadow” Jænnielee said, moving her ear out of reach, “I know I said we’d go home if this safe house had been destroyed, but this was a safe place when we left here, I want to know what happened, there’s no one left out here for me to talk to, we have to go into Alospire. I promise we will go home if there is no safe house”, she added as she soothed the agitated bird with her right hand.

Shadow sighed softly, and gently nipped Jænnie’s fingertips again, accepting her explanation. Jænnielee smiled slightly and said “Can I ask one more favour tonight Sha? Can you keep watch while I eat, and try and get some sleep?. If I have to open another gateway tomorrow, I’m going to need all the energy I can”

Shadow chirped and launched herself into the air towards a tree closer to the river bank. “Thank you” Jænnielee whispered after her, as she quickly filled a bowl with the hot stew. She ate more than was probably good for her, but it felt good to be full for the first time in days. Pulling a blanket from her pack, Jænnielee curled up under it, and was asleep almost instantly, confident that Shadow would wake her if required.

Jænnielee was a Guardian, a force of good charged with protecting the Innocents from complete destruction. The Innocents were the ones who brought peace, balance and growth to the world. The Guardians were are a group of mortals with a gift of Magick, given the task of defeating the DarkSouls, the carriers of pure evil, before it overtook the land. Jænnielee was one of only seven with the ability to step forward through time, an Ancient with the knowledge to lead the Guardians into battle against whatever evil reared its head.

There was usually a period of centuries between the Callings, however, according to the newspaper Jænnielee had taken a few days ago, only ten years had passed since she was last here. The Island of Tariett had been an Innocent safe haven, but as Jænnielee and Shadow had wandered across the land, they had found evil seeping into every corner. The Innocents had gone, animals disappeared, clear rushing rivers turned to slow-moving ribbons of black ink and a taste of metal in everything they ate and the air they breathed.

All but one of the safe houses that dotted the island, providing a fast route back to Inglemoor, the Guardian headquarters, had been destroyed, and with them, a lifeline to the fresh food required to sustain her gift, and the safety in numbers. Jænnielee hoped that the last house still stood and that she could penetrate it without being seen. Her gift wasn’t strong enough to withstand a full attack, which is why she had tried to access the outer lying houses, avoiding the main towns of Westlight, to the Northwest and Alospire to the south.

Jænnielee woke as the sun slowly crept over the mountains, spreading its golden light through the silent grove as it did. Although her energy was nowhere near full, only several nights sleep and filling meals would do that, Jænnielee knew she had enough to use her gift to open a Gateway to home if necessary.

Shadow flew down from her perch high in the trees as Jænnielee stood up and stretched, her back clicking in several places. “Morning Sha” Jænnielee smiled as Shadow landed on her shoulder and clicked a greeting in her ear. “Do you want to stretch your wings before we head off and see if you can catch us some lunch?” Jænnielee added as she walked slowly to the edge of the tree line and looked out over the river.

Shadow gave a falcon’s equivalent of a chuckle and leapt off Jænnielee’s shoulder, soaring high into the air. Jænnielee stood in the shadows, watching Shadow’s intricate spiral dance and sent out her gift again, searching for any sign of life. She found nothing, not even the smallest insect, within twenty miles of where she was standing. Whatever evil had penetrated the barriers of the island had snuffed out all signs of life. Jænnielee released the tentacles of power as Shadow appeared to have had better luck in finding life in the river, and plunged down at high-speed, emerging with a large struggling fish in her claws, and dropping it on the shore at Jænnielee’s feet, before heading out across the river once more.

Jænnielee smiled slightly as she collected the fish and headed back towards their camp, her bond with Shadow, picking up on the fact that she was grateful to be doing something other than scouting ahead for danger or keeping watch over her sleeping master.

Jænnielee made herself another helping of the fish stew for breakfast, then cleared all traces of her camp ever existing, before making her way back to the river as the sun finally crested the tips of the mountains, bathing the entire valley in golden light and slowly taking the chill out of the air. Jænnielee whistled to Shadow, as she circled high above her, eyeing up another silvery shape. Shadow screeched grumpily in reply before plummeting to the river’s surface and capturing another fish between her claws. Shadow winged her way across the water, before dropping the fish with the other five she had collected and alighted on Jænnielee’s shoulder.

“Good haul Sha” Jænnielee said as she strung the fish together and tied them to her pack “Lets go see if we can find out how Tariett fell, and if the safe house in Alospire still stands” She added as she shouldered the pack, turned to the south and began to follow the river as it wound its way through Callandis Forest towards Alospire and the Sea of Wyvernmere.

Shadow dozed on her shoulder as Jænnielee wandered through the forest, stopping occasionally to send out wisps of magick, looking for any signs of life, however the forest remained depressingly silent.

They stopped for lunch in a small clearing four hours after setting off. With the sun high overhead and no sign of life nearby, Jænnielee stripped off her sweat-stained clothing and submerged herself in the clear, cool water. She floated for a while, her pale face tilted upwards towards the sun, her waist-length red hair, streaming out behind her, twisting and curling in the current as if it was on fire, and her sea green eyes staring unseeingly into the distance. When she finally emerged from the water, Jænnielee felt cleansed of the negative energies, death and despair that she had picked up from her travels through the destroyed hamlets of Tariett. But, as she ate her lunch and dozed, waiting for the sun to begin its trek across the sky to the west, she could feel the energies sticking to her again, the metallic taste of evil in her mouth, that made her teeth tingle, as if she had been chewing on tin foil and the oppressive negativity that settled on her skin, slowly draining her energy and her gift.

Jænnielee gently woke Shadow as she packed up her camp a few hours later.
“I need you to scout ahead again Sha,” She said gently as she moved Shadow from her shoulder to her gloved hand “We are only about fifteen miles from Alospire. Whatever penetrated the island barriers, seems to be emanating from there, I need to know what I’m up against”

Shadow’s eyes whirled dangerous as she clicked her beak in reply, then leapt into the air and winged away. Jænnielee opened herself to the bond between them and joined with Shadow, seeing what she did. Shadow’s aerial view, superimposing itself onto the view Jænnielee had from the ground.

The sensation had been quite unnerving for Jænnielee when she had first joined with Shadow. They had been unable to travel more than a few feet before Jænnielee began to suffer from motion sickness and had to break the bond. Jænnielee soon learnt where she needed to focus her eyes, and how to see both images without really seeing.

Jænnielee moved cautiously through the trees with Shadow scouting from high above. As they moved closer to the thinning edge of the forest, she began to see traces of evil creeping slowly towards its heart. Where there had been only one or two dead trees, bleached white by the sun, Jænnielee now found more dead than living trees. From Shadow’s perspective, it looked as if a ghostly hand was slowly stretching its fingers over the forest, bone white tentacles penetrating into the deep green.

Shadow and Jænnielee reached the edge of Callandis Forest three hours later. Shadow swooping down to land on Jænnielee’s shoulder as she stood amongst the withered husks, her red hair and green clock vivid against the sea of white. Jænnielee sent out tentacles of her magick again, this time finding life within five miles. There were people in Alospire still, but she could sense very little good left in the town. Whatever evil had corrupted the landscape, had also corrupted the occupants of Alospire.

“I need to you to keep scouting Shadow,” Jænnielee said softly as she drew her gift back within herself. “There’s no cover between here and Alospire and I’m going to have to glamour since I stand out like blood on snow”

Shadow gave a weary chirp and nipped at Jænnielee’s ear, stopping short of actually connecting with it “I know you’re tired Sha, I’d love nothing more than to sleep for the next three days, but we need to get to Inglemoor before that can happen. We do have time to eat and rest, I don’t want to reach town until after dark” Jænnielee explained, trying to calm the agitated bird. The last thing she wanted was for Shadow to decide she had had enough and vanish back to the spirit plane.

Shadow nipped at her ear again, before flying off to perch high in a nearby tree, ignoring all attempts to bring her back down. She sat sulking in the tree for almost an hour until Jænnielee finished filleting one of the silver fish she had caught earlier, and she swooped down to eat the scraps.
“Do you really think I’m dragging us across this island for the fun of it Sha?” Jænnielee asked with a gentle smile as she watched the ebony bird eat.
Shadow leapt on to Jænnielee shoulder and caressed her cheek with her head in apology.
“You silly bird” Jænnielee chuckled, then added, “Okay, let’s get this sorted”.

Jænnielee stood and dropped the green cloak at her feet, then began to weave her gift around her. If anyone had been watching, they would have seen her waist-length wavy hair, become dead straight and slowly change from red to jet black as if someone had poured paint on her head, making her pale skin seem even paler. Her eyes changed from the colour of the ocean to the colour of the dark, inky pools they had seen on their travels, devoid of any sign of life. Once she had changed her physical appearance to fit in, Jænnielee gathered up the remainder of her gift and cast “ignore me” glamour about herself. Most people would now look at her and look away; not registering that she was even there.
An interesting side effect of the two glamour’s was that Jænnielee’s peripheral vision now contained sparkles, like tiny dust particles sparkling in the sunlight
“Let’s go Sha” Jænnielee as she bent and stuffed the cloak deep within her pack, “I’m not sure how long this will last”. Jænnielee could feel the glamour’s slowly draining her energy as she stood there, and they still had five miles of rolling land to cross before making it to the entrance of Alospire.

Shadow launched herself into the air, circling high about Jænnielee as she continued her trek south towards the evil.

The sun was sinking slowly behind the western mountains as Jænnielee approached the unguarded town entrance, and passed quickly between the blackened gates. Shadow’s vision had shown her that most of the eastern side of the town had been burnt to the ground; only one or two structures remained upright. Jænnielee had no idea how long ago the town had been attacked, but the smell of smoke still hung heavily in the air.

As she slowly made her way towards the centre of town, Jænnielee sent a quick thought to Shadow “Find the safe house”. It took Jænnielee twenty minutes to reach what had once been the town hall, and the large stone building had definitely seen better days. The top floor had been completely destroyed by fire, and almost every window had been boarded over. She stood in the shadows of the building, watching the townspeople gathering around a huge bonfire that had been created in the town square. Jænnielee quickly shielded her eyes as someone threw a match on the wood, and it roared to life, lighting every corner of the square.

As Shadow flew over an abandoned Tannery on the far western edge of Alospire, Jænnielee’s overlaid vision, saw the telltale sparkle of a Guardian Mark. She quickly stepped out of the doorway she was hiding in, then leapt back into the darkness as a group of six people walked towards the square, carrying a log between them.

“Damn, this un’s heavy”
“quit ya ‘plaining, ‘bumpkin1’, this is the last of em, then we can sit and relax again”
“and wait for the Guardians to arrive” bumpkin 3 complained
“they ain’t coming ‘bumpkin 3’” bumpkin 2 growled, “they didn’t come when we arrived, why would they come now we finished?”
“who knows why Guardians do anything” Jænnielee heard another “bumpkin” mumble as they moved towards the bonfire.
“DarkSouls” Jænnielee muttered as her enhanced vision saw the angry black and red swirls enveloping their auras. “Why hadn’t the Guardians turned up when Tariett’s barriers had been breached, the charter was quite specific in how they were supposed to respond to threats” Jænnielee wondered to herself as she stepped out of the doorway again, sticking to the shadows as she made her way slowly around the square. “Another thing to establish when I get back to Inglemoor” Jænnielee breathed to herself as she reached the streets running towards the western wall.

Jænnielee stopped in the darkness and glanced back towards the fire, instantly regretting it. By the light of the glowing bonfire, the ‘log’ Jænnielee had seen being carried past her, turned out to be a body, and as the ‘bumpkins’ threw it onto the fire, she realised it was still alive. Jænnielee crumpled against the wall she was hidden next to as a scream reverberated around the square and through her soul. “An innocent” Jænnielee breathed as a roar of victory went up around the square. Jænnielee resisted the urge and her calling to rescue the innocent and ran towards the tannery, she was badly outnumbered and getting caught right now was not going to help the Innocents or fellow guardians.

Jænnielee slid to a halt on the dusty earth in front of the tannery as Shadow swooped down from the roof to land on her shoulder. “Let’s get out of here Sha, this is about to go pear-shaped” she whispered, releasing her glamour’s. She stood at the sealed door, resting her palms on the polished wood, trying to find the frequency that would allow her to step through it.

“GUARDIAN” Jænnielee heard someone yell from the end of the street moments later. She looked up, her eyes still taking on Shadow’s appearance and slid through the door without a trace. Once inside, Jænnielee knew she’d only have minutes to find the permanent Gateway to Inglemoor before the DarkSouls penetrated the tannery. “Help me find the door Shadow,” Jænnielee said as she pulled a table and a few old barrels in front of the door to give her a few extra moments. Shadow screeched and flew off her shoulder towards the back of the building, as Jænnielee checked all the nooks and crannies she could find along the walls.

Shadow found the Gateway to Inglemoor as the DarkSouls breached the tannery door. Jænnielee sprinted the length of the building, grateful she could see in the low light thanks to Shadow’s vision, as she dodged empty tanning barrels, chairs and old rawhide.

“Stop her”
“She’s a guardian, how are we supposed to do that?’
“She’s alone, you idiot” came the cries behind her as Jænnielee reached the door, grabbed Shadow in her left hand and leapt through the Gateway, hoping that the other end was open, otherwise it was going to be a very short and painful trip.