Something seemed to tug at every piece of his skin simultaneously. Each step grew more difficult as Dak trudged through the strange barrier he had run into. The doors had opened to reveal only light, and it was as if he was stuck in the light itself. He couldn’t see anything at all except brightness. If this was just some cruel trick by the Valaeyn he wouldn’t put it past them. They were known to give people hope and then rudely rip it away from them. Nevertheless, he knew that he had to keep pressing forward, for stopping the momentum he had now would surely mean his death.
All of a sudden he burst through the outer edge of the wall and darkness overtook him. It wasn’t total darkness, he found after a moment to adjust, but the bright light from the wall seemed to only be traveling in the opposite direction. Looking behind him he saw only a dark mass. He was about to call out for his friend when he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see the younger boy grinning at him.
“I am assuming you fought your way through the whole way?” In stated more than asked, shaking his head as he continued, “Didn’t you remember what the old man advised us in Camiway? Don’t fight the light. Fighting the light just makes you tired. and doesn’t help you get through at all, in fact it slows you down.”
“Well aren’t you smart In? Listening to your elders. . . You’re a good kid,” Dak retorted, a hint of venom in his voice. In bristled at his words and turned away from him, fists clenching as he tried to resist hitting his older friend. His focus was suddenly brought away from the insult as another form stumbled out of the wall and into the dark chamber.
A smile overtook In as he turned back to Dak and replied, “Looks like you still get an opportunity to try on that dress after all.”
Turning, Dak shook his head in disbelief as he saw the noblewoman stand up from where she had stumbled. She brushed her dress off, which did little to remove the dirt, and in fact made it worse, as her dirty hands simply rubbed more of it in. She didn’t seem to care or notice though, and instead turned and eye toward the two boys and gave them a haughty glare, before resuming a slow walk deeper into their new chamber.
“I guess we were wrong about her, at least for now. Well there is a first time for everything I suppose. I guess the old saying is right, ‘Desperation is the best motivator’,” Dak said with a shrug and rested his hand on his younger friend’s shoulder. He made sure In turned to look at him before he said with sincerity, “I am sorry about the kid comment. I know you’re not a kid, you haven’t been in a long time. We didn’t have much of an opportunity for it. You’re my best friend, and neither of us would have made it this far without each other. Lets get moving and put it behind us.”
Nodding his agreement as his smile widened In replied, “Apology accepted. Consider it forgotten. However, weren’t we going to wait and see about expanding our group to increase our ability to survive?”
Before Dak could reply. another form walked slowly out of the wall. Again both boys were taken back by surprise as the old monk nodded casually to both of them. He seemed much more composed than he had been only minutes before, and didn’t even show an ounce of worry on his face. He walked straight up to them and looked them both in the eye until his gaze lingered on In’s face. In was starting to get unnerved and opened his mouth to speak when the monk said, “Nujai monks are burned when they die, and the clothes they die in are burned with them. I expect you to observe that ritual instead of carrying out your jest. Since we are certainly headed toward our doom out here, I know you will probably get the opportunity. Do I make myself clear?”
In nodded solemnly as he maintained the older man’s stare. He had forgotten that the Nujai monks trained explicitly for the purpose of improving their senses. The fact that the old man had heard his jest at the glowpit worried him. In didn’t like the thought of a trained martial artist having him on a watch list.
The old man nodded in acceptance and regarded both of them as he continued, “Now, I believe you are planning on looking for traveling companions no? Well I think that is a good plan, and I am happy to add my skills to your endeavor to survive. In fact, it seems to be the only reasonable plan anyone has had in a long time. Most people with good plans died trying to carry them out when the Valaeyn first showed up, but I think the two of you are worth following, if you’ll have me.”
The two boys didn’t even have to speak in order to know they were in agreement about the issue. They didn’t have to look at each other at all to sense the subtle shift in the air that meant they both wanted the old man along. It was true that they had both doubted him before, but the simple fact that he had ventured out from Shadhaven proved that he was worth their time, and his skills would be very useful indeed. Both nodded enthusiastically and Dak extended his arm toward the monk in introduction.
“I am Dak and this is In, my chief associate. We are certainly pleased to have you along.”
The old man smiled and clasped arms with the older boy, then gestured toward the dark mass behind them, where more people were exiting. There wasn’t a large portion of the group in Shadhaven that had actually chosen to come through, though there were at least several dozen. Turning back to the boys the monk said, “For now I will not tell you my name, for the Nujai protect them and only give names to those they trust. You have not earned my trust yet, but perhaps in the future you can. For now, you may call me Joden, which is simply a name for a student of the Nujai. Now, however, we must set about your plan and see how many will join with us.”
The trio set about their task and after only a few minutes returned with only one other willing participant, a middle-aged woman dressed in a country style dress that had been cut for purposes of riding. It had been further modified at some point, most likely during the long trek to Shadhaven, so that the skirt was tightened further around her legs to interfere less with walking. She had the look of a farmer, or at least a villager. Her face was plain and dirty, yet her eyes bore the strength of one who knew hard work and was willing to put forth the effort to survive. Both In and Dak instantly liked her, and introduced themselves when Joden brought her over to them.
“My nem’ is Daeni, from ol’ Ondel country. It be a pleasure t’ meet everybody. I dun’t know much ’bout fightin’, but I’s a baker by trade, an I can cook for everybody.”
In smiled at her accent as he clasped arms with her and said calmly, “I think that is a very useful talent for us to have with us, and I am sure we are all happy to have you along. Welcome to the group Daeni.”
“I am definitely in agreement with In,” Dak interjected as soon as his friend finished, “But I think it would be best if we get on our way. We won’t survive by just standing still.”
As the group all nodded their agreement, they began to walk deeper into the darkness, still unaware of what survival would mean. They were all more optimistic than they had been earlier that day, but each still knew that death was just around the corner.
That’s just the way the Valeyn worked.