An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Stranger in the Twilight Road Avendor

The One Who Hears was a master orator. Her words hung like an echo, lingering in the space between the dimness of the room and the silence that filled it. For several long moments, Avendor could do nothing but gaze in amazement at the small, aged woman as she took another extended sip of her tea. He wrestled with the implications of what she had just told them, struggling to imagine the late Prince travelling through the alien landscape of the Twilight Road. It seemed impossible, even absurd. And yet, from a certain perspective it also fit perfectly with Jayslen’s character.

Wild and unpredictable.

Yanah, I do not understand,” said Nix at last.

“I would not expect you to,” replied the small woman. “It is not something that I ever expected to happen. Nor was it something I ever wanted. It was several years ago now, when the young prince first came to me, asking about the Twilight Road. He was little more than a boy then, and his mind was full of foolishness, as the minds of boys often are. I sent him away. I told him that it was the province of the gandjai, that it was too dangerous even for the Flameborn. He left in anger, and for several months, I thought nothing more of it.

“Then he returned and asked again. I told him that he was as stubborn as an ox, pursuing that which had already been denied to him. I tried to explain that the dangers of the Twilight Road were greater than he could imagine, that the maelfar who are imprisoned there would not merely send him to his death, but that they could bring about the complete annihilation of his being. Of course, I refused him again, and again he went away angry.

“But after he had gone, The Voice in the Twilight spoke. It showed me visions of a man passing through the Twilight Road. He appeared as little more than a shadow, but there was no mistaking the man’s identity. Then the Voice impressed upon me that, should he return a third time, I must relent. I did not understand, and for several weeks, I fretted.

“But a month passed and Jayslen did not return. Then six months. Then a year. The passing of time began to wash the uneasiness from my mind. Jayslen was married to Mayra Blackcroft and I believed that he had put foolish thoughts behind him. Perhaps he had—at least for a time.”

“But then the dear girl died,” said Tiberius. “That’s when he came back, wasn’t it?”

“Very perceptive, Wise One.”

“I spent a lot of time with him,” the sage said. “After Mayra died, Jayslen simply vanished, seemingly without a trace. No one remembered seeing him leave the city, or even board a ship. Nothing. He was just gone.”

“Yes. He came to me once more, and again asked about the Twilight Road. He expressed a desire to leave, to vanish from the Realm and fade into obscurity for a time. Understand that I never wanted what came next, but the Voice in the Twilight had spoken. Who was I to deny it? So I did that which is forbidden.”

Yanah!” Nix gasped, and for one brief instant, his unwavering calm seemed to fall away. Avendor could not decide which was more unnerving—the cracking of the gandjai’s normally impenetrable façade, or the look of horror that lay behind it.

“It is true, dear one. I fashioned a jilen-tar.”

“I’m sorry,” interjected Avendor, “But what’s a jilen-tar?”

“A prism of sorts,” explained The One Who Hears. “But instead of bending light, it bends space and allows its bearer to slip in and out of the Twilight Road at will. Due to the dangers they pose, they have long been forbidden by our edicts, and those we once possessed were destroyed centuries ago.”

“But you made one for the Prince?”

“Trust me when I tell you that it was not something I did lightly. I meditated on this for some time before agreeing, listening to the Voice, hoping that it would tell me something different. It did not. Understand, Virsha, that it was never the Voice itself which outlawed the jilen-tar. It was an edict made by our own, many years passed. But now, the Voice that has guided us for so long was telling me to fashion one. How could I refuse?”

“You could not,” said Nix quietly. His calmness had returned, but his words carried the weight of gravity and reverence.

“I could not,” agreed the woman.

“But why, Yanah? Why would the Voice ask such a thing of you?”

“I do not know, dear Nix. The Voice in the Twilight knows many things—things that are hidden from us. I can only believe that there was some purpose. Some reason for allowing Prince Jayslen to walk the Twilight Roads.”

“But none of this brings us any closer to the question at hand,” said Avendor. “Whoever Nix saw, it couldn’t have been Jayslen.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tiberius shifting uncomfortably. Avendor knew that he was not permitted to speak of the prince’s death, but Nix had already made it known that the gandjai were aware of the prince’s death.”

“No. He is beyond us all now. But the jilen-tar is not. It remains.”

“You know then?” Tiberius asked quietly.

“Of course, Wise One,” replied The One Who Hears. “It was we who first informed the Queen that the Prince’s flame had been extinguished.”

“I see,” said Tiberius. His voice was controlled and thoughtful. “So this prism of yours, might it have fallen into the hands of whoever killed Jayslen?”

“It is possible. But I do not believe this to be the case. Despite what the Voice in the Twilight said, I never fully trusted Jayslen with the jilen-tar. It was not that I questioned his motives, merely that I doubted his conviction. I lectured him extensively on its use, and even more extensively on its dangers, but that boy had always demonstrated a certain tendency toward erratic behaviour. So I added a second aspect to the jilen-tar—a sliver of twilight that would allow me to scry its location. I did so immediately after learning of the prince’s passing—and found that it was right here, in Relen’ayar.”

“Then we must retrieve it,” said Nix. “And destroy it.”

“No.”

“But, Yanah—“

The old woman raised her hand and Nix fell silent. “Remember our covenant. To follow the Voice in the Twilight in all things. I was instructed to fashion the jilen-tar for the Prince. Yet, as far as we know, the Voice had been silent on the matter of the jilen-tar for centuries. Why would it break its silence now, and commission the creation of such an object? Simply to appease the selfish desires of one man? I think not. Prince or beggar, the Voice does not concern itself with such things.”

“Then what does it concern itself with?” asked Avendor. He had long been curious about the mysterious beliefs that guided the gandjai, beliefs which were said to have their roots in old, Alnish lore.

“Order. Symmetry. Balance,” The One Who Hears and her female companion responded together, in such unison that it seemed almost as they spoke with a single voice. “That all might find their way.”

“So you believe the existence of this jilen-tar will bring balance?” Tiberius asked.

“Only that it might, Wise One,” replied The One Who Hears. “I believe that the Voice speaks with purpose, and that such purpose will be fulfilled in the fullness of time—though it may be that none among us will bear it witness.”

“That’s somewhat fatalistic,” muttered Avendor.

“Merely pragmatic, Virsha. The world flows on around us. It pays little heed to any individual, except perhaps in those rare moments when the course of existence rests in the balance of a singular choice. An act of bravery, or of cowardice. An act of vengeance, or of forgiveness. In those moments, it may be that time itself slows, and all of existence listens, intently, for the outcome of that one choice.

“But enough of that. We were discussing the jilen-tar. I will scry it, and watch it as best I am able, but unless it appears to pose some immediate danger, we will not make any attempts to apprehend it.”

“But what of the one who bears it?” Tiberius asked. “I am far more interested in him. Who is he? Did Jayslen give him this jilen-tar, or was it taken from him?”

“Given, I should think,” replied The One Who Hears. She made it sound like a guess, but something in her tone caught Avendor’s ear. There was an inflection of certainty there that convinced him that she knew more than she was revealing. He wondered if Tiberius caught it too.

“Well at the very least I would like to find this stranger,” continued the old sage. “Whoever he is, he may know something about Jayslen’s final days. Something important. If you could just—“

“There is no need, Wise One,” said the younger woman. The suddenness of her intrusion on the conversation caught Avendor by surprise. He had very nearly pushed her presence from his mind. When he looked at her, she held her head low, as though gazing at the ground. Her long, dark hair cascaded over her shoulders, hiding her face like a veil. “He will find you.”

“How do you know that?”

“She hears the Voice!” The One Who Hears whispered triumphantly, and though her eyes still appeared distant and unfocused, her grin was wide with joy.

“He will be drawn onto you,” continued the woman. “He will seek you, and in time he will carry you into the heart of the shadow.”

“Then he plans to kill the sage?” asked Avendor. He did not like the ring of finality carried by the woman’s words.

“No. He plans to save him. Heed him, Wise One, for only in the heart of the shadow will you find the answers you seek. Only there—only there.” Then the woman went quiet. Her body seemed to sag, and a moment later she fell forward, knocking over the teapot and sending its contents splashing across the carpet. Neither Nix nor The One Who Hears made any move toward her. Avendor did not wait for them to respond. He reached out and carefully shifted the woman into a position where she was not laying in a growing puddle of steaming tea. Her body was limp, but her breathing was strong and steady, suggesting that she had somehow fallen unconscious.

“Such kindness, Virsha,” said the The One Who Hears with a faint smile. “She is well enough. The Hearing is difficult at first. She will grow stronger in time. But now, I have given you the answers that you seek. I must attend to my granddaughter. Dear Nix will show you out and see you returned safely to the palace. We shall speak again soon.”

“Thank you,” said Tiberius as he rose to his feet. “I will think upon what I have learned tonight.”

“You are most welcome, Wise One.” Then Nix, took Tiberius by the arm and led him from the room.

“Avendor,” said old woman once the gandjai and the sage were gone. It was the first time throughout their entire meeting that she had addressed him by name. “May I have a word?”

“Of course.”

“Do not forget the trident of my warning. The danger has not passed.”

“An arrow, a snake and a man made of shadow? I have not forgotten.”

“Very good. But pay heed, Virsha. There is one thing more, something that I did not even tell Nix. Know this: you cannot stop them all. At least one of these dangers will strike at you. Perhaps all.”

For a moment, Avendor said nothing. He still did not know what to make of the warnings, and this new revelation only added to the storm of uncertainty churning in his mind. He knew he could not discount the woman’s words completely. The gandjai had frequently demonstrated that they had access to knowledge that others did not. But what could he do about an arrow in the dark? What should he fear from a headless snake? How could a man be made of shadow? It was all too cryptic.

“What can I do?” he asked quietly.

“Firm your resolve to fight the battles you never thought you would fight. And prepare your heart to lose that which you never thought was yours. I pray that will be enough.”

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