By Nathan Steen
Edited by Alicia Steen
Several hours before nightfall, the Stranger decides it is time to make camp. Once that is done, the Stranger draws his sword and announces that they will begin training immediately. “You will not fare well in these mountains if you neglect to sharpen your skills,” he says. “We will do this every evening for as long as we are here.” Thus, Ecalai’s training begins.
Ecalai had always considered himself proficient with a blade, but he is nothing compared to the Stranger. The Stranger is a master with the sword. Ecalai wonders where he acquired such skill. Also, what is a master swordsman like him doing secluded in the mountains? There are clearly many mysteries surrounding this Stranger that Ecalai shall have to look into. For the moment, however, he requires all his concentration just attempting to hold off the Stranger’s blade.
The training is brutal. The Stranger is an excellent teacher, so much to that he knows exactly how to push Ecalai in the way that will tax his skills and energy to the limit. If this is how every evening training session will go, then Ecalai is in for a world of hurt. It is not all bad, though. Somehow, the Stranger also seems to know when Ecalai needs a break the most, and mercifully lets him catch his breath every now and again. Ecalai certainly appreciates this about him.
Eventually night falls and the Stranger ends the training for the day. He prepares their meal while Ecalai sits and recovers his strength. “You have a rather unique sword fighting style, Ecalai,” the Stranger begins. “I have not met many men that could handle its kind. Where did you learn it?”
“In my home planet of Nagaster,” Ecalai answers.
“I have been here myself. It is quite a ways from Jeshrun. What brought you here?” the Stranger inquires.
“I came to Jeshrun because I heard of the great threat of shadow here. That is really only half the story, though. In truth, I left my home planet many years ago because I felt that I could not stay there any longer. Shadow had invaded and, despite my best efforts, had destroyed over half the planet. There was not anything left for me there.”
“Ah, I see. I sensed you had a history with shadow. Not many have such a first-hand knowledge of it as you do.”
“It was a lot like what happened recently in Dark Moon. Unlike Dark Moon, though no one in Nagaster believed that the shadow was coming. I tried to warn them of the danger, but they would not listen. It was like some sort of nightmare…”
Nagaster. Six years prior. Midnight.
All is quiet in the capital city of Nagaster. Not a sound can be heard from the streets that will turn busy com the first rays of dawn. Even the royal palace at the center of the city seems quiet tonight. Only the night watchmen are awake at this hour, as they patrol the streets of the city, its walls, and the palace. Tonight, however, Ecalai is also awake keeping watch over the sleeping city. He isn’t really sure why, but he feels apprehensive of late as if something were approaching.
It isn’t just his own sense of unease that causes Ecalai’s apprehension. Reports had come in from all over the region telling of signs that shadow might have recently crossed over the borders into the kingdom. No one else had taken these reports seriously, save for him. The kingdom and the capital city are thought to be so far away from any hints of civilization and so well protected that shadow would never bother coming here, or, if it did, would never pass the borders undetected. Still, Ecalai is not convinced. Something, he knows what, is not right.
A sudden movement in the city streets catches Ecalai’s eye. Is it just an night watchman on patrol? Ecalai looks again but nothing is there. Had he just imagined it? Maybe he is more tired that he thought.
The Ecalai realizes that he cannot see the lights from the watchtowers by the main gate. It is as if a large black cloud is blocking his view. The cloud has already engulfed the main gate and is moving toward the palace. Ecalai cannot believe his eyes. How had he missed it? He draws his twin blades. Incredibly, shadow is already in the city.
Jeshrun. Present. Nightfall.
Ecalai warms his back by the campfire as he sits and stares up at the stars. With a little bit of searching he locates the star around which his home planet of Nagaster orbits. Looking at it like this, it feels so far away and out of reach. “All of those years I spent wandering through magic portals that took me from planet to planet I wondered if there was something I could have done to save Nagaster that day. In hindsight, I probably spent too much time living in the past. I suppose I still do. It is hard to move past it, though, after going through such an experience. Scars left by shadow are hard to forget.”
“You have spent a lot of time living in shadow, my friend,” the Stranger replies. “You have lived with it for so long that you have started to believe the things it has whispered to you in the dark.”
“It is not that simple,” Ecalai retorts. “I have spent my whole life fighting against shadow. I am no stranger to resisting its allure.”
“It is simpler that you think,” responds the Stranger. “Shadow has a much more subtle way of worming itself into you if the direct approach does not work. It starts with a small, unnoticeable whisper and slowly eat away at you until you question your very reason for existing. Being swallowed by shadow in this way is truly one of the most painful for your soul to die long before the body is laid to rest. Men who die in this way will, in the end, become the very shadow they once fought against.”
“You mean it is possible for a man to become shadow?” Ecalai asks, horrified.
“Yes. Anyone who has dwelt in shadow for too long will inevitably become a slave of it.”
“How does one resist such a thing?”
“Only the Ancient of Days can rescue a man or a nation from the darkness. Without Him, men are truly without hope. Hopelessness is in essence what the shadow embodies.”
“I can relate to that.”
Nagaster. Six years prior. First hour.
Death, fire, and darkness are all that Ecalai sees. The capital city of Nagaster is burning with flames that will not be quenched. The shadows have come and the city has fallen. There is no more time to think of fleeing – there is nowhere to go and no way out. The city has been surrounded by shadow and, even though wat brief battle there was has long been over, shadows continue to pour into the city. Nothing remains here but death.
Ecalai looks toward the royal palace at the center of the city. All of its banners that normally hang proud and majestic have been slashed diagonally down the center as a symbol of shadow’s conquest. The palace itself, covered completely in shadow, is in ruins with all its splendor gone. It is a fitting image for the destruction of the nation.
Sharp screams and desperate cries fill the city streets all around and echo into the night as if to complete the utter ruin all around. Ecalai knows that there will be no help coming to answer those cries tonight. Any last shred of hope faded when the Nightbringers came to complete the destruction.
No, there will be no hope tonight, nor is there likely to be ever again in the kingdom of Nagaster.
“I have spent a lot of time fighting shadow here in Jeshrun,” Ecalai continues, “but I was never able to succeed in driving it out. I have been told all my life that the Ancient of Days is the only one that can make the shadows tremble, but I have never truly witnessed this for myself. Tell me, if it is true the He has such power, why does He not give it to those of us who really need it?”
“Unless you are changed from within you will never be able to wield the power of the Ancient of Days. Even more than that, unless you are made new you cannot escape from the shadow. Those who live in this world will forever be trapped by the inevitabilities of the ruler of this world, but those who live for the world to come will never fall into shadow,” answers the Stranger.
“You speak of the world that will come when the Ancient of Days shall eradicate all that is evil from the world, right?”
“But what do you mean by I need to be ‘changed from within’ or that I need to be ‘made new’?” Ecalai questions. “I have believed in the Ancient of Days and served him all my life. Am I not already changed?”
“Believing in your head and believing in your heart are two different matters. You have called on the Ancient of Days and have pledged your service to Him and that is good. Nevertheless, you must go further. Unless you relinquish all rights to your life and your heart and are made new, the Ancient of Days will not be able to use you.”
“I still do not understand. Have I not already done these things?”
“Consider this. On the day that the Ancient of Days separates what is good from what is evil and destroys all wickedness, will He judge based on appearances or will He judge based on truth? I tell you, He will judge based on the truth of what a man really is and not what he claims to be.
“This is why you must be changed from within and not just on the outside. Men judge based on outward appearances, and by consequence think that outward appearance is all that matters. The Ancient of Days judges on the heart,” the Stranger concludes.
“If this is what it takes to defeat shadow then the world is doomed. Any who meet those standards must surely be a champion among men, and I have not met anyone like that. How can there be enough men in the universe who meet those standards to drive back shadow?” Ecalai asks.
“You would be surprised how many of them there are. You have even met some of them. Even if you cannot see it, the Ancient of Days will always have a remnant who are His champions. Even in the darkest of places the Ancient of Days has champions willing to stand against shadow and rescue the helpless from its grasp.”
Ecalai thinks back to that day in Nagaster. “Now that you mention it I have met someone like that…”
Nagaster. Six years prior. Halfway through the second hour.
Ecalai is on his knees looking directly into the merciless eyes of a Nightbringer. Ordinarily he would rise to his feet and fight for his life, or at least attempt to flee and live another day; however, he is completely exhausted and knows he lacks the strength for either. It had taken everything he had to survive to this point, but now all his energy has been spent. There is nothing left now but to accept the inevitable.
The Nightbringer, sensing that Ecalai is incapable of fighting back, inches forward with deliberate slowness as he revels in his apparent victory. It is as if the Nightbringer wants to savor the despair of his victim before dispatching him. “It was pointless to even think of resisting, human,” the Nightbringer taunts. His words and tone of voice sound different from that of a man. It sounds more like the growlings of a beast than that of an intelligent being. The Nightbringer continues, “We are the Nephilim of old. We are the first and the strongest of all the creatures of shadow. No matter what you try, there is no hope for victory against us.” The Nightbringer stops directly in front of Ecalai and raises a massive claw. “Die now in despair, human.”
“That is far enough, Ramuel,” calls a man’s voice from behind Ecalai. “This one you shall not touch.”
The Nightbringer throws his gaze in the direction of the voice. He is clearly very angry at the interruption. “What are you doing here? We have claimed this world as ours. You have no right to interfere!”
“This one is mine,” the man’s voice says, coming closer to Ecalai and the Nightbringer. “You shall not touch him.”
The Nightbringer takes several steps back as the man approaches. Ecalai can see his absolute hatred for this strange man clearly visible in his eyes. There is also something else in the Nightbringer’s gaze – fear.
The man steps in front of Ecalai and looks directly and the Nightbringer. “Go back to the shadow of your own realm,” the man commands. The Nightbringer growls but he cannot resist the authority in the man’s voice. He slinks back into the shadows and is gone.
Ecalai cannot believe what he just saw. Who is this strange man who can command even shadows? Look at the man, Ecalai can see the absolute authority the he holds There is something about this fearless stranger that makes even the shadows tremble.
Turning back to Ecalai, the man says, “Come, let’s get you out of here.”
Ecalai thinks hard on what the Stranger has said. It does make sense in its own way, but Ecalai knows that it means he has a long way to go before he can become the champion the Ancient of Days has called him to be. He will need a lot more training before he is ready to fight shadow again.
Ecalai sighs as he lays down on his back to gaze up at the stars once more. He wonders where Erianna and Mykai are, and what they are doing. He has not seen them since Dark Moon. They are probably wondering where his is as well. They probably could use his help, but he knows that, at the moment, he is incapable of helping himself, much less anyone else.
His magic still has not returned. Because Mykl used a magic breaking technique in their fight, Ecalai knows that his magic might not ever return. He can still wield a sword, but is not proficient enough to be useful in a fight without his magic. The simple fact is that he is now powerless and helpless on his own.
If the Stranger can indeed show Ecalai his purpose like he said, or at least train Ecalai in the use of the sword, then maybe he could get by well enough to return to Dark Moon and find Erianna and Mykai. It is a long shot but it is all he has. The two would have to be able to survive on their own until then.
“Hang on Erianna and Mykai,” Ecalai whispers to himself. “It may take me a while but I will come find you just like I promised.”