(A Short Story)

Shadow, a Timeless Light

When she woke, it was all I could do not to cry.

I had waited for a long time. Years, waiting for her. Watching over her. Just as she had asked of me so long ago: Wait for me, she had said, just those simple three words.

I was with her always. Not that I had anywhere else to go. The city was now no more than a small town, and I had nothing to do with it. Nothing drew me more than her. Sometimes I spoke to her, other times sang, still others just sat. But always there, without fail. And always between the lamppost nearby and her resting form, so that I was drenched in cool light, and her cast in warm shadow.

#

Four years ago, a shadow wizard brought battle to a sleepy city, nestled between two almost parental mountains and perched alongside a happy river. He struck in the dark, taking advantage of the cloudy night to best empower him. Dark forms clawed through the city, killing some who stood against them, incapacitating others. The guards were no match for him; he came without arms nor armor but though the city’s garrison had both in excess he needed neither to best them. His warriors, deceptive at best, formless at worst, were as impossible to defeat as the soldiers’ own shadows. And when the wizard himself had strode calmly through the gates, robes ebony over cascading shades of deepest purple, a cowl shading his face from the lights of the braziers, the city’s defenders were already dead or scattered.

He was powerful, inexorable. And uncaring. This city was but another in his silent conquest, conducted from the darkness. Already he had subverted several other just like it, and afterwards save for some mysterious deaths and misplaced memories they were none the wiser. As if nothing had ever happened.

Except that it had. Each city he touched would bear a trace of his shadows, his violet influence. And when he called, those who mattered, who had control, would be compelled to follow. To obey.

#

Twelve years ago, a boy and a girl fell in love. For a long happy time, the two were together, spending time joyfully on the vast wild plains. Verdant green, be it of the flowered meadows the pair loved so much, the deep forested lands that spoke of endless adventure, or simply the rolling beauty of those sprawling fields, spread farther than the eye could see. Behind them, craggy mountains like lazy jagged teeth spread their forms against the rich light of the sun. Massive shadows spread across those lands in a huge unbroken zigzag, and along it ran a girl basking in the sunlight holding hands with a boy languishing in the shadows.

Dusk found the pair lying in a patch of flowers, a mix of purest open white blossoms and deep complex violet blooms. They laid on their sides, he holding her close to his chest and she wrapping herself as close to him as she could. She wore a simple white knee-length dress, light and airy but strong enough to stand up to their adventures. Outlined against his dark violet tunic and similarly-colored loose trousers, she closed her eyes and felt his heart beat against her head. He, outlined by her dress held her and felt her draw each breath, and drew his just opposite hers. When she drew in, he breathed out. And when she breathed out, he drew in. An odd harmony as their hearts beat in time to the melody of the open skies.

None truly approved of the pair together. They were as different as any of their companions could see; she the shortest and most frail-looking of them all, he the tallest and hardiest. And yet she was the most fiery, the most passionate, the most vocal. He was quiet, withdrawn, and solitary. Her face shifted moods as quickly as her body moved, and for as long as anyone could remember she would lead the pack. As for him, he always trailed behind at the rear, and when anyone stopped to consider his face it always bore the same expressionless mask. And yet, there they were. A girl and a boy, a pair, fallen in love.

They made a pact that night, drawing magic into their fingertips and sharing their deepest selves with one another. And they became tied as inextricably as the day and the night. And though years later they would have thought it a foolish child’s game, their ties went farther than either ever knew.

Trails of white and violet entwined against the sky.

#

The shadow wizard had made a mistake in coming to this of all cities. Every other conquest was subversive and required time and energy, but all were still simple. Planning, organization, subtlety, yes. Difficulty was never a factor.

In this town there resided a mage who was his match. And his shadows had not killed her, were not even aware of her, as she was soundly asleep when the attack came. And when she woke, she was prepared to defend her home against the wizard who sought to conquer it. Limping with the aid of a cane, she cursed the injury to her leg that made it so hard to move. Every second lost was a second her opponent gained. But still she would not give up. He had the upper hand, but she had surprise.

Thus it was that when the counterattack came, the shadow wizard was completely unprepared. A sudden burst of light in the west most area of the city, where mostly small homes and hovels laid, grew and expanded to burn away every shadow warrior it touched. The mage’s power pushed the light to cleanse the center of the city but could push no farther.

The wizard, deep in the eastern region, retaliated. A fount of darkest shadow engulfed the markets and bazaars and spawned more warriors to his side. From under overturned carts and beneath protective awnings they poured, easily replacing those he had lost. Yet he, too, could only extend his shadows to the city’s main square.

The two set off, straight for one another. Straight to the city’s center, the giant fountain that was its core. Well-kept parks bordered the fountain to the north and south, their colors lost to the night. Flowerbeds with blossoms and blooms of all colors ringed the fountain, interspersed with large stone benches. Here, too, sat the seat of the city’s government, the formidable structures inside which the mayor and his retinue ran the city. The shadow wizard’s ultimate target. And the light mage’s point of defense.

#

An attack had come on the quiet town of the plains. Barbarian raiders, wearing the cut and cured hides from their hunts, charged in from the north while royal soldiers decked in silver armor and wrapped in golden capes marched from the south. The soldiers’ goal was to destroy the barbarians, and the barbarians’ to defeat the soldiers. The town found itself right in the middle of a vicious battle none were prepared for, and before most people even know what had happened the entire settlement was aflame. Though the walls of their homes were sometimes of stone, many were of wood and all suffered thatched roofs. Fire collapsed from above, burning families to death as they woke. No one knew who, but one army or the other was still launching arrows tipped in flame. Lost in the center of the battle, the quiet town that sought only peace found itself suffering the most from it.

A boy ran through the pandemonium, looking for a girl he loved. He hoped against hope that she was alive, but the more he ran, dodging arrows, burning beams, and the crush of people, the more desperate he became. So many had died already. What if she had too? The thought burned him, worse than if an arrow had hit him and truly set him on fire. If she was dead, he was lost. He feared that he would lose himself to the shadows that haunted him, but deep inside knew that this would be the case. She was his balance, his mirror. And she must be alive. Must, or he was already lost.

He arrived at her home with his clothes tattered and torn from repeated falls, singed in several places, and his skin burned in many more. And despite the damage he had suffered up to then, he charged straight into the burning building without a stop. If she was to die, he too would die, trying to find her.

#

Burning beams of wood fell around the shadow wizard. He had struggled with his unknown opponent from a distance, knew nothing of her save the strikes from her magic. The wizard even thought her to be a man, given the ruthlessness of the blasts. For close to an hour now, the two had sparred, one launching an attack at the other, each deflecting blow after blow. The surrounding buildings were being devastated by the stray bolts of magic; they burned, crumbled, fell. Terror and confusion had gripped the inhabitants of the city, and both could hear the pandemonium about them. The main square had become their battleground and was surprisingly deserted, but around the fringes countless people, dead and living, found themselves in a strange chaotic dance.

The light mage decided it time to advance. She wove together a powerful containing spell, prepared it to use against her opponent, and started forwards towards him. Dressed in pure white robes that shone brilliantly against the fury of the night, she advanced inexorably. Across the square, the shadow wizard felt the movement, prepared a spell of his own, and marched forwards to meet his adversary.

The struggle grew more and more desperate as the two marched on one another. Those who watched from the sides, enthralled by the battle, saw shadow and light pushing, struggling against one another. At one moment, the mage appeared to have the upper hand; a moment later the wizard seemed to have her cornered. A second later the roles were reversed – two primal, almost feral and elemental forces battling for supremacy. Shrieking at one another, ripping, tearing, roaring, rending, an unspeakably devastating fight that the city asked nothing of, but found itself in the middle of anyways.

And then the onlookers saw two enormous surges of magic. A blade of light cut through the shadow and struck at the core of the darkness, and an identical blade of darkness sliced through the light at the center of its whiteness.

Time stood still for several seconds.

Then two massive beams, one of blinding white and the other of consuming dark, fired up from the center of the city. They entwined in the sky and became one.

The next morning, the onlookers woke up to a completely different town. Wooden shacks and houses created roads and paths that met in confused, convoluted ways, nothing like the straight avenues and stone buildings of the city they had come from.

They also woke with no memory of there ever being a difference.

#

A boy trapped in a nightmare made real found a girl he loved. Smoke choked the small cottage and flames fell from the roof, setting everything ablaze. She was alive – but trapped, just as he was, for the doorway had collapsed after he had come in. As sacks of food, clothing, bedding, and anything else that could burned around him, he felt an enormous sense of relief. She was alive. Her family, it seemed, had escaped, but she was not so lucky. They might both be trapped in the building, but she was trapped under a beam, her left leg pinned and crushed beneath it. Miraculously, the beam had escaped fire thus far but the boy and the girl both knew that this would change very soon.

He rushed to her side immediately and though he was not the strongest person in the town, he managed to shift the beam off of her and give her freedom. No matter, though, for she could not walk as she was. All the same he went to her, helped her up, tried to break free. All to no avail; they were completely trapped. The cottage was not small but he felt the walls closing on him, trapping them both, and neither saw a way out. So he just sat against a wall, and held her to him. He too would die, trying to save her. But then at least they would be together, without one left behind to miss the companionship of the other. They sat together, peaceful against the wall, as if they were not on the verge of death. As if all was well. He held her to him, and felt her breath, and matched his breathing opposite of hers. She touched his chest and her own, and smiled, realizing that they again beat in time. The same beat, the same harmony, a very different melody. Destruction.

#

The shadow wizard and the light mage saw each other the instant each unleashed their spells, and the recognition burned through them like wildfire. For several seconds they stood in shock as their powerful spells wove together, fighting one another. And then in an instant everything changed.

Magic contained the pair, trapped both of them together, racing along that link they had shared so many years ago. The girl in the white dress and the boy in the dark tunic had found one another again, each believing the other dead. And as they became trapped, unbridled energy remade the city, turned its bright heart into a pit of darkness, transformed its organized beauty into a squalid mess.

The pair found themselves sitting together on one of the benches around the fountain. A large piece was missing off of the back but it was the most complete of all of them, after the battle the two had just waged. A single surviving flowerbed remained beside them, filled with the purest open white blossoms and deep complex violet blooms. They held one another in a way they thought impossible for years, neither speaking for fear of breaking the enchantment.

In the end, she spoke up first. “Thought you were dead. When I woke up, the soldiers had gathered up all of the survivors, and you weren’t one of them.”

“I woke up near the forest overlooking the town. I had no idea how I got there. When I went back to search, I found only charred remains. No life. Both armies were gone.”

The pair sat in silence some more, content just to be with one another in this strange prison they had made together. His right arm was draped over her shoulders, his left holding hers in their laps. He felt her breathing, and matched his to opposite hers. She touched his chest, felt his heartbeat, and then touched her own. And found that still, after all these years, they still beat together. A harmony and a beat with the bittersweet melody of their meeting.

#

And then she touched my cheek lightly, as if a feather, turned my face to hers. She looked me straight in the eye, drew me close, and kissed me. And then with our hands entwined, our lives so attuned to one another, so different yet so the same, she whispered to me.

At the deepest depths of darkness there stands reflected the greatest heights of light…

Almost singing, oblivious of the destruction that surrounded us, she drew my eyes with hers again, and I knew what she would do. Would try to save us, save everyone.

I drew her close to me, and kissed her again. I knew she would need me to do it, but she had to lead.

Wait for me…” she whispered.

And then all was gone.

#

And when she finally turned to face me, spoke my name, the tears came.

Because now that she had awoken, there would be no more. The city restored, the dark pit of its heart saved. A dazzling peak of light and beauty instead. And that meant that she and I were no more. Our time was done. Our prison was cast, and now we were freed.

And we walked out of the door, hand in hand. She the peak, and I the pit.

And her shoulders draped with my dark cloak, and mine draped with her white-sleeved arm.

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