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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
Warning: as the story progresses, there will be violence, character deaths and some sexual content.

The Shadowy Path - 8. Chapter 8

"Somewhere far away, at the end of the world, lies Bewitched Land. There, the sun does not rise and the moon does not shine with its glow. It is the dark land of the dreaders.

Whoever finds Bewitched Land will find his own death too. Thus not a soul can tell us about this place, gruesome and mean."

- Cedne Usvamieli's chronicle, A Poem About The Dreaders, compiled around 150 New Era

* * *

Josel

Nothing could be done, but Josel remained kneeling on the road, staring at the body in front of him. It was impossible to comprehend. Curtus...calm and secure Curtus, one of the family. Now he was gone, dead. Without warning and forever. First Mom, then Curtus, now only Dad was left, or was he lying breathless in some unknown place?

A series of sobs shook Josel and his eyes filled with tears. He was so alone, his home was gone and loved ones dead all around him. The world was a much crueller place than he had imagined a few days ago. Nothing like the dreaders should even exist! Where did this horrible creature come from? Why had it killed Curtus?

Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"We should get off the road," Zdain said in a faint voice.

Josel had completely forgotten Monteilon. He was ashamed that another boy had witnessed his moment of weakness. "Don't touch me!" he snapped and stood up.

Monteilon's expression changed to hurt, but Josel did not care.

"Where are the horses?" he wondered, not seeing them anywhere. Only Curtus' horse lay motionless on its side on the ground. It was impossible to know what the dreader had done to it, for there were no visible injuries.

"They must have fled," Zdain replied, avoiding eye contact.

Josel wiped his teary eyes on the sleeve of his shirt. "Let's carry Curtus into the woods to hide," he said, his voice cracking miserably. They had to fight and keep going towards Ipalos. That was what brave Curtus had wanted.

Zdain nodded and grabbed the body by the legs. Josel took the still warm arms and they dragged the old man to the edge of the forest. They placed Curtus in a half-sitting position under a large tree. Josel avoided looking at the dead man's face as they lifted his arms into his lap to rest. When they had done so, they returned to the road.

"What about... the dreader?" Zdain asked, carefully pronouncing the name Curtus had given the monstrous creature.

Josel shrugged, not bothering to answer, but turned to the body of the swarthy figure. A deep breath escaped his throat. "Look!" Josel shouted, pointing to where the dreader had fallen.

Where the creature's body should have been, there was only a ragged robe. Black-grey ash dripped from it to the ground. This was all that remained of the monster.

"Witchcraft!" Zdain cursed and stepped back.

Suddenly the road felt very unsafe. The leaves on the trees did not rustle as the wind had completely stopped. Not even the sounds of animals could be heard.

"Hurry to the forest!" Zdain hissed.

The boys scampered into the shelter of the trees, backpacks swinging on their backs. Only when they reached the forest did they dare to stop. But they did not feel safe.

The darkness on the road was no match for the endless gloom of Veilwood. In many places, the sky was completely covered by huge trees, and there was little moonlight filtering through the foliage. It was almost pitch black. Zdain stood beside him, but Josel still could not distinguish the boy's face.

"What's next?" Josel asked, hoping his voice didn't sound startled.

"I guess we need to keep going," Monteilon suggested, pointing to the pitch-black forest behind them. "The road is that way. Let's try to follow it from a distance."

So the boys set off on their way. Zdain led the way, trying to dodge the trees and bushes that stuck out of the darkness without warning. They both had good walking boots on their feet, but it was still a struggle. Roots and stones tried to trip them up, branches splashed against their faces and once they almost fell into a boghole. Their boots were soaking wet, but they had to keep going. They had to get farther away, for they would be no match for any dreader.

Some wild animal scurried across the path without warning. It was probably just a rabbit, but Zdain screamed in fright and stopped so suddenly that Josel bumped into his back. Soon they were lying tangled together in the moss. Josel cursed and showed Zdain roughly away.

"This is not going to work," Monteilon said in a tired voice as he stumbled to his feet.

"Let's take a break," replied an equally exhausted Josel.

They found a dry spot under a large tree and lay down.

"You have some blankets in your rucksack," Josel remembered.

It was frustratingly slow to undo the buckles in the dark, but eventually they both found themselves with a hiking blanket made of coarse cloth.

Josel wiped his runny nose on the back of his hand and drank a drop of water. Then he wrapped himself in the blanket and curled up on a somewhat dry pile of leaves, the moss-covered stump at his side.

The night in the forest was cold, even though the day had been pleasantly warm. Or perhaps the chill was due to wet feet and tiredness. He could not sleep, the mosquitoes were a nuisance, and every sound of the night was frightening.

Lying surrounded by thick darkness, Josel felt very unhappy. Without asking permission, he had been driven from his home into the arms of the night. Without the protection of any adult, he had to cope with dangers too great for any sixteen-year-old.

Now, as was often the case when Josel was feeling down, memories of Mom came flooding back. Usually he pushed her to the back of his mind because it hurt too much to think about her. This time, however, Josel didn't have the strength to fight it, and the image of the blonde woman flashed in his closed eyes.

Idalae Sandkan had been a good mother, a kind and humble person. The kind who should have lived a long life and not died crushed by a vegetable cart before she was even forty. It was wrong, so totally unfair!

Josel remembered the morning about two years ago when he had last seen his mother. As usual, she had been busy in the kitchen when Josel woke up. They probably had not talked about anything in particular at the time. She had wished him a good day at school, reminded him of his homework and so on, as mothers in every corner of the Inhabited World would do. When Josel came home from school that afternoon, he found his father and Curtus with weeping faces waiting for him.

The pain squeezed at his heart and Josel wrapped the blanket tighter around him. He felt cold and scared. It wasn't even enough that his mother was dead, Curtus had also been suddenly snatched away.

The news would also affect his father, if Josel ever met him again. What if a similar monster had attacked Dad? No, he wouldn't think of that! He had to try to be brave and hold on, that was what Curtus had wanted. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Josel pulled the blanket over his head to protect him from the beasts of the forest, and slowly sleep took hold of him.

It was pitch black when Josel awoke. At first he thought he had gone blind, but then he remembered where he was. There seemed to be something beside him...Josel felt a very human-like lump with his hand...Monteilon! Luckily it was only Monteilon, lying under his blanket, almost attached to the side of his travelling companion.

Under normal circumstances, Josel would have roughly pushed the boy away. Now, however, the knowledge that there was another human being, albeit Zdain Monteilon, next to him in this ghastly place made nocturnal Veilwood feel at least a little safer. Josel clenched the corner of Zdain's blanket in his fist, just to be sure, and drifted back to sleep.

* * *

When Josel awoke again, the morning was already brightened. The sunbeams filtering through the treetops played on his face and dazzled him. He felt miserable, cold and listless. He forced his eyes open and found himself lying at the base of a large tree. There were trees and bushes all around him. Nothing else. He was alone.

All that was left of Monteilon was a rumpled blanket. Where had the governor's son gone? Did he run away, abandoning his companion alone in the forest?

Josel got up and walked around. There was no sign of Zdain. Finally, Josel couldn't stand it any longer and called out. No one answered. He called again. In vain.

A moment or two passed, then the branches snapped and Zdain emerged from the bushes. "What are you babbling about? Do you want to invite all the monsters of the forest to attack us?" he asked.

The boy's white shirt was badly tattered and one sleeve ripped off after last night's tramping. Even in his dirty clothes and dishevelled hazel hair, he looked annoyingly handsome. Despite the fact that there was still some blue around his eyebrow.

"I called when I thought you'd slipped out. Where were you?" Josel said sternly.

"Sandkan, haven't you ever heard that people have to relieve themself?" Zdain scoffed and then asked: "You did pack some food, didn't you?"

Without answer, Monteilon rummaged through his rucksack and pulled out a bag of dried plums, bread and cheese.

"You don't have to eat if it's not good enough for you," Josel remarked after seeing Zdain twirling the slightly sticky plum in his hand.

"No, it's fine," Zdain said quickly, as if afraid that Josel would take his food away from him.

Josel also searched his own rucksack for a similar set of breakfast items, and they began to eat in silence, sitting on their blankets.

In addition to the food, Zdain had found a map in his pack, which he studied with a frown. Finally he looked up. "Do you know where we are?" he asked.

"No, you forced us to come here at night."

"Could you have navigated better in the dark?"

"I didn't say that," Josel muttered and turned in the other direction.

The situation was almost hopeless. To be lost in the middle of nowhere, with a person he hated. How were you supposed to act in such a situation?

What would Troubadour-Kharl have done? Surely the great adventurer would have climbed a tall tree and gazed at the stars with his hawk-like eyes, or followed the movements of animals to find the nearest body of water. But Josel did not have the talents of an adventure hero, and neither did Monteilon.

The boys sat on their blankets for a long time. Finally, Josel tried cautiously, "The road might be that way, because the sun is rising behind my back."

"Maybe, but do we dare risk going near the road?"

"Let's see where the road goes and follow it through the forest. At least we won't get lost again," Josel suggested.

They gathered their belongings and set off. As there were no paths, progress was slow. This time Josel led the way, trying to deduce from the sun how they could find their way back to the road. Out of curiosity, he broke the silence and asked, "Listen Monteilon, did you know before that the dreaders are real?"

Zdain seemed surprised by Josel's sudden talkativeness. "Mmm...I thought they were just fairy tales. The Chronicles of Nidiel the Bearcatcher, for example, tells of battles against armies of thousands of dreaders. But no one believes the old chronicles.

Josel admitted, the dreaders were part of the mouldy pages of folklore that even the most gullible old men didn't believe to be true. Sure, you heard all sorts of strange things from storytellers and traders from the outback, but there was no mention of the dreaders in those stories. Josel remembered that Franz had once asked a teacher in a school class if the dreaders were real and had been ridiculed by his classmates.

It made Josel wonder aloud how Curtus could have recognised the monster as the dreader.

"He must have seen them before," Zdain concluded.

That Curtus had seen the dreaders in the past! Josel realised that he probably didn't know much about the man who had lived with their family for so long.

The discussion came to a halt. Josel wondered what the dreader had done here in Andiol's hinterland. Had it attacked them on purpose?

They must have trekked very deep into the forest during the night, as it seemed to take forever to reach the road. Although it was not yet very early in the morning, the humid heat of the forest was already oppressive. Josel's shirt was damp under his pack, and hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.

Zdain sighed loudly behind him, indicating what he thought of the other's map reading skills. Josel was still pretty sure they were on the right track.

Soon Zdain was muttering something about "changing places". Josel was about to turn and yell something rude in response when they suddenly stumbled out of the bushes and onto the side of the road.

For a moment, Josel just blinked in the bright sunshine. Then he saw something that made him silently curse at his own carelessness. On the road were several people on horseback.

Without further ado, he threw himself to the ground in the hollow behind a large bush. Zdain scrambled to his side. The riders had no time to notice them.

Josel was about to suggest crawling back into the shelter of the forest when the sounds of hoofbeats and people on the road approached. The boys were able to see part of the road from behind the bushes. Josel craned his neck cautiously and pricked up his ears. He could see the horses' feet and count five riders. The voices again told of people arguing among themselves.

"There's nothing here... who's to say they went this way?" a gruff male voice growled. The speaker's horse stepped towards the other horse.

"I claim, and Vargan claims!" a female voice replied sullenly.

The voice reminded Josel something, but so did the name "Vargan". It could be none other than Isendar Vargan. Which meant that these people had to be the shadow sentries! Josel looked at Monteilon, who was lying next to him, staring back with a frightened expression on his face.

"Blah, you're just a girl and Vargan is far away," the hoarse-voiced man replied.

"Yeah, you're not one to tell us what to do, I heard you failed in your own mission," another man chimed in from a distance.

The criticism angered the woman who shouted at the person who had just spoken, "You idiot, you'll pay for what you said!"

He did not answer, but turned his horse threateningly towards her.

Confrontation was in the air, but the third man began to calm things down. "Don't argue. Our job is to find Monteilon and his companions, not to go at each other's throats. Jolanda is in charge because Vargan and Tomsto ordered so."

Jolanda! Suddenly Josel recognised the voice. He jumped up and saw a familiar young woman on horseback. Jolanda wore a dark blue cloak over her shoulders and her long black hair fluttered in the wind. She looked sullen, but as beautiful as ever. What on earth was she doing with the shadow sentries?

At the same moment, Zdain pulled Josel back to the ground. "Crazy, you're trying to expose us!" he hissed, squeezing Josel's shoulders painfully.

"Let me go!" Josel demanded, wrenching himself free of the grip.

Then Jolanda's voice came from the road: "What was that?"

Both boys froze in place.

"Ha, don't panic. It's just some animal, but I can take a look while I pee," the hoarse-voiced man replied lazily and jumped off his horse.

Josel stared at Zdain in horror. The man came straight towards them. The boys lay as if petrified; one false move would do them harm.

The shadow sentry was already rustling near the bush. He walked past Josel and Zdain, opened his fly front and stood with his back to them. Soon he would inevitably turn and see the hiding duo. By then it would be too late.

Zdain looked at Josel and pointed with his hand. Josel understood the scheme. He had to act, even though his fingertips prickled and his stomach churned. Zdain nodded and they both jumped to their feet.

The shadow sentry had only just turned his head when Josel and Zdain simultaneously shoved him from behind. Urine splattered here and there, the man lost his balance and collapsed to the ground. As he scrambled to his feet, cursing, Josel and Zdain were already running for cover in the forest.

That was also enough to attract the attention of those on the road.

"What the fuck! Ruffus!" someone shouted, and the boys heard the men fall from their horses and rush towards them.

There was no time to waste. The boys stormed through the trees, trying to get farther into the forest. Josel heard Jolanda scream something. From the racket behind them, they knew someone had gone after them. Branches splashed against their faces and they both stumbled at least once.

Josel and Zdain kept running long after the sounds of their pursuers had died away. They pushed deeper and deeper into Veilwood. There, the trees were even larger, and vast foliage almost completely covered the sky.

When the boys could no longer run, they half walked and half jogged, struggling to keep up. Finally they stopped at a large rock, gasping for breath like fish out of water.

Josel fell down next to the stone. Zdain glanced behind him in concern, but then threw his rucksack off his back. He dug out a canteen, which he drained in one go. Josel was about to follow when Zdain attacked him with a barrage of angry words.

"What were you thinking, stupid! You almost got us both killed. You don't jump up in a situation like that."

"You don't understand. That girl was Jolanda, my...girlfriend," Josel replied, sitting on the ground, his voice thick with despair.

Zdain stared at Josel, his brown eyes wide open. "Your girlfriend? That was Jolanda Vargan, daughter of Isendar Vargan."

It was as if the rug had been pulled out from under Josel's feet.

"Didn't you know?" Monteilon asked in disbelief after seeing Josel's expression. "You've been shagging with the daughter of our archenemy. Damn it, Sandkan, you're a total pinhead!" Zdain spat.

Normally Josel would have snapped at Monteilon, but now he didn't have the strength to do so. There was no more thirst, no more hunger, only a bottomless fatigue. He really was a total pinhead. Had it all been a lie? Jolanda's beautiful words and promises, even those passionate kisses?

Josel pressed his head to his knees. It would be so easy to just stay there, to let it all go. Perhaps the leaves of the trees would fall on him and eventually the unfortunate young man would be remembered only as an oddly shaped pile of dirt at the foot of a large rock.

Zdain ruined that plan too. "Let's move on, Sandkan," he said.

Why the hell doesn’t Monteilon leave me alone? Josel felt like throwing a pebble or a cone at the heckler. With a groan, he got to his feet.

"You might want to have a drink," Zdain said in a colourless voice.

"Shut up, you smartass," Josel muttered, barely audible. Nevertheless, he dug a water bottle out of his backpack and reluctantly took a few sips. After that, the bottle was almost empty.

"Give me the map," Monteilon ordered.

Josel gasped, but pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket.

Zdain took the map and began to study it with a furrowed brow. After turning the map over for a while, he hoisted his rucksack onto his back and began to walk forward. A glance in Josel's direction was an unspoken command to follow.

At midday, the sun was of little help in determining the right direction, and it was easy to get lost in the dense forest. Besides, Josel knew they would soon have more to worry about than reading the map. Their food supplies wouldn't last long and there was an urgent need to find water. So far they hadn't come across any streams.

Josel hated the forest and the all-knowing Monteilon. But what he hated even more was himself and his own gullibility. Why had he fallen head over heels for Jolanda Vargan?

* * *

Copyright © 2024 Lupus; All Rights Reserved.
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I am grateful for every comment. The story is translated from Finnish, so I apologise for any grammatical errors and strange word choices.
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Apologies for the delay in publishing the new chapter. It was actually ready on Tuesday, but I had technical problems with the moderation queue - probably due to my own clumsiness 😔

I hope you enjoyed this chapter anyway. At least now Jolanda's background is revealed.😶

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Josel found out he was a pinhead.He dated the daughter of his archenemy and did not know it. Now Jolanda is part ot the crew who is after Zdain and him. He at first after hearing Jolanda got up ready to speak to her not realizing who she was. Zdain pulled him down. Joesl was used by Jolanda.  Zdain and Josel had to knock out a guard and then, run and run away. Will they escape? Will they find another dreader who now they know are real and not a fantasy. How did Curtus know about the dreader who killed him?

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1 hour ago, akascrubber said:

Will they escape? Will they find another dreader who now they know are real and not a fantasy. How did Curtus know about the dreader who killed him?

Thanks for the comment. Those are relevant questions. 

There is more to come, but in the next chapter, the point of view character will change. 

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drsawzall

Posted (edited)

Treachery be the guile whims of the fairer sex...

As to where the boys will end up, I have a guess...

"Somewhere far away, at the end of the world, lies Bewitched Land. There, the sun does not rise and the moon does not shine with its glow. It is the dark land of the dreaders.

Whoever finds Bewitched Land will find his own death too. Thus not a soul can tell us about this place, gruesome and mean."

Edited by drsawzall
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2 hours ago, drsawzall said:

As to where the boys will end up, I have a guess...

Unfortunately, I can't answer that because I don't want to spoil the fun😄 However, the story is only at the very beginning: there will be many plot twists, new characters and dangerous situations🤠

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