"I'm getting too old for this," Aerlin said. Around her was the shattered ruin of Castle Kaat'n, and before her where she kneeled was the corpse of the late Ley Druid, Arcanus Goss. That he housed until his premature demise the spirit of Shadow Darkshroud was the only thing to assuage her conscience with regard to her role in his death.
Dearheart, you can't say that. I've seen a lot more than you have, and lived through it as well. You have only my memories. You've done the right thing.
"Have I, Joel?" The glittering blue stone twinkled in one palm, with the sword it belonged to dangling from her other hand. "It was too easy. Shadow gave up without a fight. Yet, he didn't seem to be so evil as I had thought."
Do not question your actions, Lin. That was the body, and indeed mind, of Ley Druid. But it was a corrupted shell. He could not stop Shadow as we could. There was unmistakably a Shadow about him.
"But that's just it, Joel. It was more than Shadow and Ley Druid. Do you think it's possible that the Dark Heart of the Wood had a part to play - preventing them from resisting us?"
Silence from the one who shared her body. They had been together for twenty years, and at times, she wished she could just make him go away. But Sage Advisor was part of her being. She had no idea where she ended and he began.
"Damn it." She fingered the stone lightly, rolling it casually about her hands.
Don't think Shadow wasn't trying to defend himself, Aerlin. Sage's voice took on a different shade, hinting almost imperceptibly at malicious intent. Other powers were at work to hold him at bay. Perhaps you should seek that cause. Whatever could hold Shadow could easily hold you. Or me...
"So, you do think the Dark Heart was involved." Unconsciously, she fit the stone back into its place on the sword. "Why couldn't you just tell me your suspicions? It's about trust, Joel. Sometimes...I don't know what to think. You still manage to hold things from me, even when we share the same thoughts. It's uncanny."
Riddle this then Aerlin:
Anyone perfect must be lying,
Anything easy has its cost.
Anyone plain can be lovely,
Anything loved can be lost.
"I'll take it at face value. I'm not as strong as I think I am - that's the perfect part. Stopping Shadow was too easy; I don't know the cost for that yet. Anything plain...or do you mean plane? Anything loved... Do you mean that the world can end?"
I am not your interpreter, Aerlin. You do not think Shadow was defeated.
"Not really. He felt us coming, Joel. I was channeling such power that he could not have ignored it."
But he did.
"No... he couldn't have..." A jolt of recognition surged through her, leaving the pulsing afterglow of understanding.
You begin to see at last, don't you Aerlin?
"Yes! He used Fatestop to free his spirit from Ley by dislodging the blue stone and disrupting the binding spell that held him there."
Yet Shadow had no new body to latch onto but our own. Doesn't that frighten you? If Shadow was within your body, you couldn't control him. And remember, you've touched the powers of the five bastions. We are arguably the most powerful person on Phaema, now that Thrakkiss and Ley Druid are dead.
Aerlin shook her head. "I was protected by the magic. I shaped it that way. I would have felt him try to break my barriers."
You could have overlooked something.
"I did not."
As you wish. But if Shadow is not within you, where would he have gone?
The sword whistled above her head as she swung it in a wide arc, testing its weight. "Jair said something about Shadow attacking one of the Bastions. I've been wondering why that is." It was well balanced, permitting her to move with fluidity and quickness that belied her age. "They must have posed a barrier to him. But what?"
Shadow - from what I know, was imprisoned on this plane in his youth. He probably sought to destroy that barrier so that he could go free. If he lives, he will try to destroy them still.
"That's insane! If he destroys the bastions, he will destroy that which keeps the world together."
Jaron and Sara believe that the world is nearing its end anyway. What if Shadow was meant to bring about the end of the world?
"Then I must do everything in my power to stop him."
Your powers are quite considerable, Aerlin. But let us think. Who might have the power to destroy the bastions? Tara, perhaps. Your own father managed to influence the Black Bastion greatly.
Eyes wide, Aerlin took that thought and made a leap she never would have before. "And who was my father but Jake the Atog God, at one point in time? Atogs have been gone since the last Atog War, but they eat artifacts, right? The bastions are nothing but artifacts..."
You think perhaps that he may have used the vortex nearby to seek out Jake?
"That is entirely possible. There's only one way to test that theory. I'll go back and see when he went."