The Call of The Shadow
A Dark Fantasy Short Story
The fires raged in the forge. They echoed the power that lived within Valen. With every flicker of the flame, the magic within him raged. It poured out like a torrent of mighty water in a rushing river. Raising his hands, what was once unmarked skin became pocked with scars. They hurt.
Every flex of his hand brought a sharp, maddening pain that rushed through his body. Valen tried to control the magic, but it burned him more, the scars moving further and further up his arms. He screamed.
I can help you, Valen!
Silence except for a babbling brook that emptied itself into a large pool surround by trees. The leaves were crimson, the color of Fall, and with it, the airy smell of decay. Valen scanned the area before settling upon a small glow that came from the under the pool’s surface.
The light shone bright enough to illuminate the water and the surrounding landscape, casting them all into shadows. It pulsed as the light made the shadows dance and causing old childhood fears to surface inside Valen’s head.
Look at me, Valen. Find me, and I can teach you magic few in this world could ever witness!
Valen’s heart raced in his chest. The voice in his head sounded close. He continued to look before a movement on the other side of the glade stole his attention. As he focused, the shadow grew bigger and bigger. The shape of the shadow made it hard to discern what it was.
Fear stroked his heart, and Valen stepped back. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
There was a pause before the voice filled his head.
It is you who needs me, Valen. I know the magic that lives inside you fills you with torment. It begs for you to set it free. Valen, you know who I am.
Valen moved to run but stopped. The voice wasn’t familiar, but it sounded like one he should know. “Teacher?”
Valen took a step forward. He wanted to run, but his magic propelled him forward. When he got to the water’s edge, he stopped. A peace came over him as his magic became still, like the pool of water in front of him.
“How did you do that?”
I didn’t. That was your doing, Valen. Your first step helps calm the power that lives deep inside your soul.
“It’s not allowed. I’m not able to learn magic.”
How can they forbid you from learning something that already lives within you?
“I… I don’t know. Who are you?”
You’ll find out soon enough. The road is dangerous if you choose to walk it. Do you want to start your journey?
Valen took a step back in doubt. His magic flared inside him in response. “Yes, but…”
That shadow shifted again. It moved in on itself slowly, then grew in size that dwarfed the trees around the glade. Valen’s eye widened in fright as the creature took shape. “I’m dreaming. This isn’t real.”
Don’t be so sure, Valen.
Something clawed at his arm. Looking back, Valen noticed the trees were alive, as if animated. Their limbs reached out for him and tore at his skin and clothes. He twisted and moved to break free, but each step brought him closer to the shadowy monster on the other side of the pool.
You can make this stop, Valen. You’re doing this to yourself.
Valen flailed wildly. “No. I can’t do magic. It's you who’s doing this.”
No, I’m not. Your power is wild and out of control. I can help you if you let me!
“Make it stop!”
Everything went black, and all Valen could here were his screams and the sound of the trees scratching at his body.
* * * * *
Your magic is waiting. I can teach you the control you need. Come.
Valen shot up from his bed, sweating profusely. He heard the voice from his dreams upon waking. He could feel it. His magic hungered for release, with a desperate need for a master wizard to help him release it. Valen wanted to explore it. The magic that dwelled inside him roared like a caged animal, raw in his veins. He sighed and pushed his hair back with a clammy hand.
Valen jumped as the heat of his magic scorched him. He glanced down and saw his hands inflamed in dark blue light. His arms itched, and his veins bulged as the magic struggled to burst out of his body. His head swam, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Collapsing on the bed, Valen trembled violently. After a while, his magic-induced seizure ceased. This isn’t an excellent way to start a new birthday, he thought to himself.
Valen left his room only to have his mother, Elena, engulf in a hug.
"Happy birthday, my son." She beamed. "Look, your father and I got you a present."
Valen smiled weakly and opened the box she held out to him. Inside was a new tool belt and a wool jacket. His old tattered tool belt needed replacing, but he didn’t have enough coin to buy another one. Tears of gratitude stung his eyes. His mother was the most thoughtful person he had ever met.
"You didn’t have to, mother. These things must have cost a lot." He protested.
"Hush my boy. Nothing is too much for you. I know your tool belt needs replaced, and this wool jacket is for the coming winter. But I reckon from the look on your face, a burden weighs heavily on your mind."
Valen sighed and brushed away his unruly hair. "My magic, mother. It burns inside me, and it demands release. I need to find someone to teach me."
Valen's mother looked somber. "There's no chance of you getting a teacher, especially here in Valter. Only those of noble or royal blood get teachers. It’s the law. These teachers rebuke us common-folk because they feel we have nothing to offer. I think it’s because we could rise up and teach them a lesson on how they should treat us.”
"Mother, I don’t understand why I can’t go to the Academy in the capital. I have the talent. Possibly more than the others that are going there. Why do we live in this stupid forested town, anyway? Why can't we move to the kingdom's capital? At least there, I could find a teacher who’ll take me on as an apprentice."
"You’re a fool and dreamer, like your father!" His mother hissed. "Don’t you know that the tax is a hundred coin more than what we pay here? And if someone hears you, then we’re dead meat."
Valen sighed. "The magic burns my insides like a forest fire that’s out of control. I don’t know how to tame it. It’s like I’ve gotten to close the forge’s fire."
He showed her his palms, and she gasped. There were burn scars all over his palms, up to his wrists. Valen knew that each time the magic raged, it added a new mark to his body. They faded fast, but at the rate his power intensified, he feared they’d soon become permanent.
His mother framed his face in her hands and kissed his forehead. "This is how things have always been, my boy. Even before I was born. Commoners like us don’t attend the Academy of the Arcane in the capital city. The royals reserve it for those higher in station than us in the Kingdom of Valter. They will execute any commoner like us if found on the grounds of the Academy without explanation. Maybe with the coming of another king, things will be better." She lowered her voice. “King Avalon knows no mercy.”
Valen leaned against the wall, his athletic frame looked as if made of stone. "Sometimes, I wonder if this power will consume me, mother. Do we have to stay here? Can't we run to another kingdom? The kingdoms across the sea don’t share the same problems we have. I hear their citizens are more prosperous than Valter. Maybe we won’t need to be peasants there." He clenched his fists in frustration.
"Hush, boy! Hush! Your blasphemy will kill us." She rushed to the door and looked left and right. She came back to meet him and gave him a threatening look. "I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about you leaving the kingdom. You are free to leave if you want to. Your father and I support you in this, but it’ll be dangerous for you."
"No more dangerous than if I stay here.”
She turned away from him. She sat down and continued to knit. "Hush Valen. Speak no more."
Valen walked into his room, pulled on his tunic, and strapped on his old tool belt.
As he left the house, he paused in the doorway. “I’ll be at the smithy with dad if you need me.” He gave his mom one last look. She smiled and nodded.
Valen looked up at the sky. Its seven moons in their different phases hung heavy in the sky, like his soul. The sun, ever-present, peaked just above the horizon. It was early, but like every other day, the moons would always block the light of the sun. The same way the rules of the king prevented him from exploring his talent.
I hate this place. There’s got to be a way. The God of Magic, Arcanus, would never prevent someone from learning magic.
As he stared at the twilight sky, a tear streamed down his face. Now isn’t the time to cry. It's too late for that, I guess. I can be angry, though. He strolled through the woods toward the center of town, where his father had his smithy. He balled his hands in anger as he thought of the damage the king was doing to others.
I may be a commoner, but how does that make me less worthy of studying magic? Was it money that ran the Academy and not the furthering of magic? I wish I didn’t have so many questions.
Deep down, Valen resented the royals and nobles of Valter. His own town, Crimson Dale, was under constant taxation. He wanted to leave this kingdom to go somewhere else. No matter how much his parents supported him, he couldn’t leave them as his father needed his help at the smithy.
Valen needed a teacher. It was the only option he knew to keep his magic under control. It would eventually burn him up. All the teachers were in the capital, but getting there would take a few weeks if he was lucky. Even then, there was no assurance he’d find someone that would apprentice him in secret.
A sharp pain ripped through him. He paused and leaned against a tree. I need help, but time is running out.
* * * * *
Valen was at work in his father's blacksmith shop. He was tall and had an athletic build because of hunting and working in the smithy. Valen saw his reflection in a shield his dad made earlier. Valen never realized how much he took after his father. The dark shaggy hair and blue eyes the shade of cobalt starred at him as if a younger version of his father was there in the reflection.
Only his eyes were a little different from his father's. He carried the unmistaken twinkle of magic that dwelt inside him. Even though he smiled and loved everyone in town, they all knew he was different. They were polite, but there was always an edge to it.
“Have you started on that blade, son?” His father called from outside the smithy.
Valen picked up the hammer reluctantly. “Yeah, I’m starting it now. It won’t take long.”
He hammered the blade into shape before trying to refit it into a new hilt. This was the only work he and his father had all day. The only people who came to his father’s smithy were a few farmers and rangers in need of blades sharpened or fixed. Usually, he would have their work done before they needed to leave town.
His magic tore through him, scorching, like the fires of the forge, and stumbled back. The hammer fell with a loud clank. His head throbbed painfully, and he held it between both his hands as his head swam. He staggered outside and sat beside his father Graeme, who sat polishing a set of cooking utensils for the town’s mayor.
"My magic burns in my veins, father. It’s like if I don’t release it soon, I’ll burn up like a phoenix." Valen said, panting, his breath labored.
"I know how it hurts, son. I don’t have the talent myself, but my brother struggled with it until a kind-hearted teacher made him an apprentice. We haven’t heard from him since, and that was when I was your age.”
His father put the utensils down and looked away as if remembering. “He used to get burnt and hurt by his magic, like you. He would wake us up from terrible nightmares. Most of these times, he’d wake up with a blood-curdling scream.”
Valen grimaced in pain before placing a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Does it hurt knowing he’s out there and that we’ll never see him?”
“Aye, it does. But your uncle’s in a better place. His pain was too much.” His father brushed a tear away and ruffled Valen’s hair. “Come, go take a break and cheer up. When we get ready to deliver these things, one of the locals might give a word that a wizard needs an apprentice. Greshmer got lucky that way."
Valen slumped over. "I don’t know, father." He sighed. "It seems like I’ll never find a teacher. If I do, there’ll be a lot of laws that I’ll break."
"Be patient, son. If that time comes, your mother and I will be ready to say goodbye. We won’t like it, but it is what it is. Look, Fall has started." Graeme grinned. “Your mom will probably make her famous pies today. At least we’ll have that.”
Valen looked at the leaves on the trees and saw they were turning red as they always did in the Fall. A light breeze picked up. It soothed the fire inside him a little. It wasn’t much, but he welcomed any respite.
Something tugged at his soul like someone or something was calling him out of town. He shrugged it off and sat beside his father. A few minutes later, he felt the pull again, this time more strongly. Whoever tugged at his soul did so more insistently. So much so that his magic reacted to it by calming down.
Valen stood and stretched. The constant ache of his magic, now a dull throb, helped him think for once. "Can you excuse me, father? I need to clear my head. The fumes of the forge are clouding my brain. There’s a chance I might get inspired on some hilt designs on my way."
Graeme looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Did something happen, Valen? Nevermind, son. What happens will happen. Don’t stay too long as I still you at the smithy."
Valen’s father waved him off, but not before Valen saw the look on his father’s face. Maybe his father knew that something called him. It would surprise him as he heard the stories of his uncle finding a teacher.
He paused, his heart pounding. Am I ready to leave my entire life behind? I believe so. Valen removed his tool belt, grabbed his spear for protection, and left. After a few minutes, he remembered that his father mentioned that he needed Valen at the smithy. There’s no more work for you to do. But why… Valen realized his dad knew. Maybe not fully realized it, but a part of him knew that Valen may not be home again.
Valen sauntered, still feeling the tug on his soul. Questions ran through his mind like lightning. Not once did he stumble even though he paid barely any thought to where he went. His feet moved on their own, on a path he didn’t remember. He was so lost in thought he heard the voice that spoke to him for the first time.
* * * * *
Young Valen, the brave hunter, and blacksmith. Son of Graeme and Elena. I can see a burden swarm your mind like vultures on a dead carcass.
Valen stiffened and poised his sword to strike. "Who are you? Show yourself!"
The voice, darker than he remembered, had the faint hint of something reptilian, like a lizard or snake. It bellowed in his head, and fear struck his heart. Valen looked around and saw no one.
You have nothing to fear, young Valen. I have come with an offer you’ll find hard to resist. It’ll be of significant benefit to you.
Valen spun around, thinking the creature was behind him. "Show yourself before I’ll listen to you."
What if I can be the teacher you need so desperately? I can teach you everything you need to know about sorcery and the way of wizards, about magic, and the power of the seven moons! You need someone to teach you. I know the burden that you carry is heavy. It can harm you and others if you don’t learn to control it.
Valen stopped short. He remembered the tales and every story his father had told him about his uncle and other wizards who had learned to use their talent from other sources, sorcerers whose powers could astonish the world.
I can teach you in the ways of the Shadow Mage, young Valen. Your magic is strong but unpredictable. Traditional teachings in magic could never tame it. Your abilities are too pure. Are you willing to embrace the shadow, young Valen? Is the Path of the Shadow one you’re ready to make? If so, follow the shadows of the trees. They’ll lead you to me.
Valen walked fast. As the voice promised, the tree’s shadows moved ever so slightly south, further away from his home and village. They beckoned him as their leaves rustled with cheer in the wind with each step he took. I must be mad to do this. Whoever is speaking to me could lead me to my doom.
Doom or salvation, Valen? It’s your choice to decide which.
Valen shrugged off the voice, his magic for once, calm, and he didn’t hurt. He continued on, even if he didn’t know where he was going. Valen considered how this made him oddly at peace. He strolled cautiously through the woods as the shadows led him across a river by climbing over a tree that had fallen and bridged the gap.
The presence was still with him. It didn’t speak to him so much as it became a constant presence in his thoughts. With each step he took, the phantom in his head grew stronger, and the magic inside him calmer. Valen moved faster. He needed to know who called him and why they insisted on teaching him about his magic.
After some time on his journey, he came to a glade with vines covering the opening and decorated with flowers the color of moonlight. He parted the vines and entered the glade. Fear stabbed his heart, and he hesitated, wanting to turn back and flee for home.
I’ll not harm you, Valen. In this glade, you’ll find peace from the pain of your magic.
Moving forward cautiously, he saw a deep pool of water in the center of the glade. At its center, below the surface of the water, was a glow that pulsated and matched his quickened heartbeat. Valen stared at in fascination, wondering how the light could be underwater. It must be magic!
It is Valen. The magic that I’ll teach you if given a chance.
He jumped when he heard the voice in his head and a hissing sound from behind him. He looked back and saw shadows coming towards him at full speed. They swarmed around him as he backed away, trembling with fear. He swatted at them, trying in desperation to get them to stop.
He tripped and fell, but continued scrambling back towards the edge of the water. They made a circle around him and pulled the power from his body. He held his face, screaming and thrashing in horror. The pain inside him from years of unrestrained magic faded. He dropped his hands as a wave of peace came over him. Still afraid, he kept his eyes closed, unsure of what he’d see.
Open your eyes, Valen. See with your magic and not your doubts and fear!
Suddenly, he felt lighter than a feather. He opened his eyes and saw that all the shadows disappeared. Across the radiant pool, a dragon stood. It wrapped its body around the edges of the glade with the tip of its tail ending a few feet from him.
It blended with the shadow well, and its eyes glowed with the same radiance as the light in the water. Its scales looked as if cut from pure onyx. Horns curved out from the sides of its head, adding to the creature’s majesty and frightening appearance. It shifted slightly, and the light from the waters reflected off its gem-like scales.
Valen had seen nothing like it in all his twenty years of living in the Valteran town of Crimson Dale. He had heard tales and read stories, but these were only to scare children if they didn’t go to bed. Here, the fables and legends of old stood before him.
Its wings creaked as the beast sat and stared at him. "I am Straxileth. I’m what your wizards and sages would call a gem dragon. Though we are smaller than our metallic and chromatic brethren, our minds and magic give us the power we need."
Valen recognized the voice as the one that had beckoned him here. He looked fearfully at the dragon, unsure of what to say or do. Valen only knew that the dragon in front of him was a fearsome beast and not one he should trifle with.
Straxileth tilted his head regarding Valen. "I am going to be your teacher, young Valen. At least if you agree to be my apprentice. I shall show you everything you need to know about the art of shadow magic, and how to tap into the great Shadow Weave to do your bidding. But first, I have terms."
Valen stood, dusting his pants off. “I have questions. How can I trust you as you stole my magic already with those shadows?”
“I took the pain caused by your magic and released it. It was burning you up inside. If I didn’t do that, you’d ignite into flames and turn into ash, or go mad. One can never be too sure.”
Valen gestured broadly, confused and angry. “Then why teach me? What do you want from me? I’m just a simple blacksmith. Not even a master smithy like my father.”
“The world needs your power, Valen. Yes, you aren’t a master blacksmith like your father, but your magic is a forge of its own. I’ll teach you to create weapons that will protect your home and kingdom from evil.”
Valen shifted his stance. “What evil?”
Straxileth loomed closer and grinned. Valen could see its razor-sharp teeth and smell the dragon’s fetid breath. “The world always has evil, Valen. My people must remain neutral, but you’re human and can therefore help tip the scales towards balance. Soon, your kingdom will be at war. You’ll need to fight and make things right.”
Valen stepped back in disbelief. “Me? What could I possibly do?”
“More than you realize. The road will be difficult, but you’ll gain so much.”
“Will I need to leave my family? They need me at home.”
“No. I will teach you here. Do you wish to hear my terms as this won’t come easy?”
Valen nodded without thinking. He didn’t want his magic to hurt again. "What are your terms?"
Straxileth dipped a claw inside the water, and it immediately glowed brighter, almost blinding him. "First of it all, I will be your master for five years." He watched Valen's reaction. After a moment of silence, he continued. "Next, you must embrace the shadow fully. As there is no light or darkness, only the shadow and the shadow-weave where the magic dwells."
Valen stood still, his mind overwhelmed with what was happening. He still wanted to run but found himself paralyzed. Not from fear, but curiosity and his desire to learn how to wield the magic he was born with.
Straxileth moved slightly, which brought made Valen when he realized the dragon coiled him in his tail. "Third, I shall not ask you to do anything that is against your nature. The shadow lives to serve you and not the other way around."
Valen squirmed, and the dragon let him go. He breathed easier and wondered if the beast did all this for the sake of drama. Valen noticed his fear slowly dissipated. Maybe it was magic or the glade. All Valen knew was that he was thankful for it.
The dragon raised a clawed finger. "Be warned, young Valen! It's easy to get lost in the shadow and lose yourself forever. So, control is a must for you to survive. Those are my terms. Now its time for you to make a choice, accept or reject what I’ve offered you."
Valen thought for a short while. He knew the dragon watched him struggle with this decision. The ability to learn magic scared him, even though it’s what he always wanted. Now, it drove a stake of fear into his heart. Accepting meant no going back and possibly going against the king’s law. That meant treason for him and his family.
“If I accept, I put myself in danger, along with my family.”
Straxileth tilted his head. “You understand that there are more dangers than you realize. Your family can remain safe, but your power will tear you apart inside.”
He covered his face in turmoil but winced in pain as his magic scorched him again. It seemed to be more frequent now. He knew his chance of getting another teacher was very thin. Valen also knew that learning to wield his magic would keep it from building up like it did.
“I’d have to hide what I am and what I do.”
The dragon frowned, and Valen saw the sadness in its eyes. “Unfortunately, that is true. Valter is not kind to those outside the Academy. As a gem-dragon, I know what it's like to have others hunt me down for what I am. I promise you this, Valen, I’ll never intentionally harm you.”
Valen nodded. The Academy held the only wizards in Valter and the entire kingdom. Even elves and dwarves kept to themselves in fear of the orders of the king, as both races were inherently magical. Agreeing would sign his death warrant, like others before him. Many times, he heard the news of those burned at the stake for practicing forbidden magic. Is this where I’ll be? Kindling for a royal’s bonfire?
Valen regarded the dragon coolly. “Is what you’re teaching me a forbidden art or like that taught at the academy?”
“Thank you for being honest. Not that it matters anyway, as all magic outside the Academy is forbidden.”
Valen knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime, but the risks were too many. He thought of his old father working alone in the smithy of his mother trying to make ends meet by cleaning houses and knitting clothes. Even though Valen would still live in Crimson Dale, townsfolk would quickly notice his absence. Confusion clouded his mind as he considered every possibility he could think of in the time given him.
He thought about the royal family, eating and drinking and spending the commoner’s tax money. He thought about how the nobles oppressed the poor. Valen also wondered about the suffering of his parents and other people in his town. The young man longed to be free of such shackles and knew of only one way to do it.
Valen stepped towards the dragon and spoke clearly in case it misunderstood him. "I accept."
His voice resounded throughout the glade. The dragon reared up and smiled widely. It pulled a small scale from its chest and stared hard at Valen as if considering his next move. Straxileth’s eyes glowed brightly and with menace.
"Good. We shall make a pact that binds us together as master and apprentice. After that, you can’t go back on your word. You will suffer if you attempt to break the bonding pact. There is a death penalty for it."
Valen winced and swallowed slowly. He nodded his acceptance. “I’m ready.”
“Good. Now, open your tunic. I will place this scale upon your chest to symbolize the bond between us. Only then can I truly be your teacher and in time, your friend.”
Valen nodded and exposed his chest. The dragon pushed the scaled upon him. Valen winced as his skin burned with as the scale melded onto his skin. The scale was the size of his palm. He could easily hide it beneath a shirt. Valen’s head swam as his magic rose to the surface of his skin. He suffered no more pain.
Straxileth placed a claw on Valen's head. Valen grew warm as the magic between him and the dragon sealed the pact. Darkness covered him as he drifted into sleep. In his dream, or at least he thought it was a dream, the dragon picked him up and carried him to the center of the pool of water.
The dragon set him in the water and let him float. The water grew warm and rose over him, swallowing him beneath its surface. In the dream, he tried to struggle, but shadows from the surface pushed him down. His power flared and pushed back the shadows, and he surfaced. Awake and wet from the experience.
The scale on his chest stopped aching and looked as it was a natural part of him. Valen glanced around and found himself alone. He emerged from the small lake and sat on a small moss-covered boulder. The pond still glowed, and for once, the magic inside him didn’t hurt.
Valen smiled. “I’m honestly terrified with what I’ve done.”
I was too when I took my oath with my master. Go home to your family and wait for my call. Tell no one as we both are risking our lives to keep magic in the hands of those who the kingdom doesn’t feel are worthy.
Valen looked up, and the sky had darkened slightly, which made it nighttime. “I understand.”
Valen looked at his hands and willed his magic to come forth. Small shadows flitted across his palms like wisps of smoke. He smiled and let them fade. It was time to go home.