Velor followed the main road out of Gandy, and it wasn't long before he felt the effects of his long days of travel and the higher altitude. Less than a mile outside of town, he came across the first of many switchbacks that carved their way up the side of the mountain and stopped to catch his breath. He swore as his gaze followed the serpentine path. He had miles of walking ahead of him, all to climb a few thousand feet of elevation.
It was a waste of his time.
Someday he would travel the hidden paths of the world, but such secrets hadn't yet been revealed to him. Loyalty and worthiness had to be proven first. Then came knowledge.
Lacking a better route, he started up the road. At least it was wide and well-maintained, a credit to Gandy's builders. His long legs ate up the miles. The air cooled the sweat on his brow and made the climb almost enjoyable. If not for the angry youngling waiting at the end of his journey, he would almost consider the road a pleasant hike.
He paused at the penultimate switchback and looked down at the valley below. Gandy was now little more than a grouping of tiny lights he could smother with one hand. The sun had long set for the town below, but Velor could still see a sliver of the orb between the distant peaks. He climbed the last incline and waited for night.
As the sun finally died in the west, Velor stretched out his arms and welcomed the darkness. Fresh strength filled his limbs. Weariness fell away like the dead skin of a snake, and the pinpricks of fire from Gandy burned his eyes. He turned away from the valley and began his hike along the wide ridge.
A squat wayside rest stood on the south side of the road, windows darker than the skies above. It was no inn, with a warm hearth, food, and ale waiting to welcome weary travelers. It was a shelter and nothing more. Velor imagined most caravans would stop here after their first full day of travel, satisfied in the knowledge they had conquered most of the pass's elevation in one tremendous effort.
Velor didn't even slow as he passed the building. If he hadn't found the dragon by morning, he would rest through the next day. But if his instincts could be trusted, he didn't have that much farther to travel. Maybe four or five miles at most.
The night was eerily calm, with nothing but a slight breeze coming across the valley from the north. All he heard was the soft crunch of his boots against the rock. Whatever else might live up here had the good sense not to be out and about.
The silence turned his thoughts inward, to paths not taken. To futures he'd already denied himself. There were times like this when he came close to regretting his choices.
He couldn't say how he knew he was no longer alone. No sound alerted him, no unexpected scent filled his nostrils. But something deep within, a primal instinct honed to a razor's edge, caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.
In less than a heartbeat, he'd drawn a dagger from a hidden sheath, spun, and cut across the space behind him. The blade sliced nothing but air, and he dropped into a crouch, a second dagger appearing in his other hand so fast it was as if he'd summoned it.
A high-pitched giggle came from behind him, in the direction he'd originally been walking. He turned around and froze at the sight.
On the north side of the road, in a small space between the road's edge and a ledge that overlooked the switchbacks, a bright fire burned. A small rosy-cheeked man with a patchy beard stood beside the fire, hands held so close it seemed they should burn. Velor flinched back from the sight.
"Didn't mean to startle you so," the man said. His voice was high, but there was more to it, a subtle undertone only the sharpest of listeners would hear. "Fire's warm, and plenty of room for company."
Velor considered his options. Only one gave him any real chance of living through the next five minutes, and that was still a coin flip. He spun his daggers with an exaggerated flourish, and then they were back in their sheaths. They'd do him no good here. He stepped into the fire's circle of light. He was surprised to find it actually was warm.
The other man chuckled. "Didn't believe me, did you?"
Velor looked up, eyes sharply studying the visitor. Could he read minds, or had it been a guess?
"I can't read minds, if that's what you're wondering," the man said. "All I do is put facts together and weave a story around them. It's not so much."
"Who are you?" Velor asked.
The man's smile was impish. "Probably best you don't know."
"What are you doing here?"
The smile grew wider, revealing teeth that were too sharp to be human. "For a child who wants so desperately to walk the Path of Shadow, you ask a lot of questions. Curiosity is not a common trait among the elders you model yourself after."
"I assume most don't have to work so hard for a straightforward answer."
"Hah!" The man clapped his hands in delight. "And a sense of humor. This will be an interesting night, indeed."
"Will I learn nothing useful from your visit?" Velor asked.
"There's nothing useful I can tell you. Threads of past and future are all knotted here, vibrating mightily as the great spider of time fights to untangle her web. I'm as blind as you, my boy, and maybe more so, as the sight that's been stripped from me you've never possessed."
"You talk too much and say too little," Velor accused. He looked back at the road.
"Perhaps," the visitor admitted. "Perhaps not."
A stiff wind crested the ridge, but didn't even cause the fire to flutter. Velor warmed his hands for a moment. He didn't know if more was expected of him, but the only way to find out was to leave. "Thank you for sharing your fire, but I must be going."
The man made an exaggerated, sweeping bow. "Of course, of course. I never intended to delay you long. I like you, child. So try not to die. In many of the spider's threads, your life ends this night."
"I'll do what I can."
"Yes?" Velor was certain he'd never given his name.
"There are many threads that lead to his death. You don't have to choose the Path of Shadow."
"Would you have me take yours instead?"
"Not at all. I only ask for you to use the great mind you've been given. If you follow the shadows, you'll never feel warmth such as this again."
The fire flared, and Velor felt a warmth he'd never felt before. It wasn't so hot that it made him sweat, but it filled him from head to toe, reminding him of being a child wrapped up in a thick blanket in front of a fire on a cold winter's night. It was love and kindness, flowing like a gentle river through his veins.
Velor hissed and spun on his heel. When he glanced back several steps later, the fire and man were gone, the stone underneath the fire unblackened. He spat at the place the fire had appeared.
Who needed warmth when they had revenge?
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