Throughout November I’ll be concentrating my posts on Welcome to the Valleys in honor of NaNoWriMo. If you’d like to catch up on this story, the first post of this story can be found at this link
“To wear another healer’s colors. As you said, the story Terrin recited wasn’t entirely accurate. All healers are able to channel the gifts of other orders. We tend to be stronger in one, but that doesn’t prevent an Um healer like myself from stitching a wound or setting a fracture. I’m even passable at brewing restoratives.”
“Yes, Talum, I know that. What does it have to do with you wearing the color of another order?”
“When I’m vexed with a particular case, I like to change my colors and try to think like a member of another order. In this instance, earlier today I was called upon to set a particularly bad fracture for a small child. I’m not very good with bones, I’m afraid, so I changed to green.”
Talum looked over the table and found his guests staring at him in silence. Blushing somewhat he added, “It boosts my confidence, anyway.”
Walter took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “That’s fine Talum. Everyone needs a way to boost their confidence, I suppose.”
Talum brightened. “Well, it’s more than a confidence booster. My preliminary research shows that…”
“But what we really need is for you to answer some more of our questions.”
“Oh? Oh yes. Yes of course you do. I’ve written a paper on color changing at any rate. Ama, would you deliver it to the Healers in The Ravine? It’s all finished, I just keep forgetting to send it.”
Ama nodded with a smile. “Of course, Tallum.”
“And now, questions!” Talum smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Please ask.”
“Great. We wanted to know about the Shadows. You called them ‘Guardians.’ Why?”
“Well,” Talum’s brow creased, “that’s what they call themselves. I always try to use the terms my subjects use for themselves.”
Ama leaned in before Walter could snap off a comment. “Yes, Talum. But why do they call themselves that?”
“They stand guard.”
“What do they stand guard over, Talum?”
“Well, everything.” Sensing the frustration from his questioners, Talum waved his hands. “Oh dear, I see I’ve muddled things. Let me explain.”
“That would be great, Talum, thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Walter, I do love being of assistance.”
“Then get on with explaining.”
“Hmm? Oh, yes! Well, the common narrative of our people places the Guardians as our adversaries in the Extinction War – it also tells us the treaty separated our two peoples and saved us from eradication.”
Ama cocked her head in concentration. “And you’re saying that isn’t what happened?”
“Oh no, not at all! My research suggests, in fact, that the Guardians were our allies in the Extinction War.”
“Our allies?” Walter scoffed. “Guess that alliance broke down.”
The evertorch on the table spun in agitation, and Talum pursed his lips in confusion. “What makes you say that, Walter?”
“I don’t know why Walter would say that, healer,” interjected Michael. “But I have seen the remains of those who have chased the dark and encountered the shadows in their natural habitat.” He shuddered visibly as he remembered. “Allies would not do that to one another, I’d hope.”
“Ah, but that’s just it! Those poor misguided unfortunates did not encounter the Guardians in their natural habitat! Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Walter, who had been leaning his chair back on two legs, brought his seat seat forward as he leaned in toward his host.
“What was that?”
“The Guardian’s natural habitat is not the darkness.”
“Then what, may I ask, is their natural environment?”
“They live in the evertorches.”
It was Jeremy’s voice which spoke, and every eye around the table turned to find him staring down into the evertorch which served as a centerpiece. The shadow inside it swam happily.
Talum clapped his hand together, jolting the attention back upon him. “That’s right! You are observant.”
As pleased as Talum appeared, however, Terrin pushed himself back from the table out of barely checked terror. “But. The evertorches keep the shadestalkers away.” The evertorch’s flicker paused briefly as it surface turned almost solidly black. “How could they live in them?”
“Keep them away?” Talum laughed. “What good are guardians who can’t be near that which they protect? No, the presence of the torches allows them to watch over us safely. For when the Guardians are away from the light, then they are dangerous.”
Jeremy looked at Ama, who shook her head to show her own lack of understanding. Talum saw the exchanged and sighed in frustration.
“Well, surely you must see it! Evertorches. Well, really, evercoal, is the natural environment of the Guardians. When they dwell in these substances of light they are themselves. The further they draw away from the light the less they are themselves. A Guardian in the deepest dark of night truly is a terrifying prospect. Little more than a mindless predator hunting for prey. That, Michael, is what you’ve seen when you’ve discovered the remains of those who chase the dark.”
Michael nodded in a way which communicated his belief Talum’s explanation was less than satisfactory. Jeremy pressed in. “If they lose themselves when they leave the evertorches, why would they leave at all.”
“Well, it’s the universal truth, Jeremy. Every living thing, even beings who spend most of their time in a different kind of reality, needs to eat.” When Jeremy looked at Talum quizzically the healer added, “They leave to hunt.”
In this instance, information did not comfort Jeremy. “Hunt what?”
“Well, anything really. I’ve witnessed Guardians hunt fruit, if it was blowing in the wind enough. They aren’t all that picky when they lose themselves.”
Walter had returned to rubbing his temples. “You chased the dark?”
“I’d hardly call it that. I was doing research and was invited along on a hunt, provided I carried a circle of evertorches along with me.”
“Talum, what do you mean you were ‘invited.’”
“Just that, Ama. Beklow, he’s the head of the Guardian council in this area of The Valleys, thought it would be good for me to witness a hunt. We travelled deep out into the forests beyond Riverside and there, encircled by evertorches I witnessed what few ever do.”
Ama’s face whitened. “You went deep out into the forest, alone?”
“Oh yes. Well they’d never hunt around here.
“First, there are too many evertorches nearby, so manifesting costs a great deal of energy. They’d never be able to resist the pull to their natural state long enough to so much as gobble an apple in the Inner Valleys.
“Second, there’s far too many people around. No guardian would ever knowingly put a human in danger if it could be avoided.”
Jeremy continued gazing into the evertorch. “So is that why whenever Sheilak speaks she doesn’t say much?”
“Yes! Yes, that is correct! The strain of manifesting to us in the presence of an evertorch is generally safe for witnesses, as the Guardian will maintain their personality, but it is exhausing. And the more a Guardian speaks to us in the presence of an evertorch, the more they begin to draw energy from all around them.”
Walter grunted understanding. “And then it get’s cold.”
“Well, today I’ve learned that the stray I picked up along the road is a living legend, and that everything I’ve ever known about the shadows is wrong. Sometimes I just wish I’d stayed out by the coast in blissful ignorance.”
“The Old Fox is summoned,” echoed a voice from the evertorch.
Walter threw his hands out. “Well, I guess that settles things then!”
Ama patted Walter’s back gently. “Talum, just one thing. You said the… Guardians were our allies during the Extinction War. Against whom, then, were were fighting?”
Talum fidgeted uncomfortably as he answered. “I don’t know, Ama. We’ve forgotten. When I ask the Guardians all they will tell me is, ‘danger.’”
“Danger, he must not remember.”
Jeremy looked down into the evertorch and saw the shadow’s shifting form in the depths of its glow. Only this time he was also able to discern the emotion the movement conveyed.
The shadow was afraid.