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The Monastery

Tarin trudged wearily down the beaten dirt path, his boots sticking and sliding slightly in the earth, damp with new rain. A chill wind swept across the hillside, bending the tall grass in wide, sweeping arcs and leaving a dull ache in Tarin’s bones. It had been days since the last town, and his supplies were dwindling. He knew of a monastery nestled among the foothills, and he hoped to make it there before nightfall. The brothers of that order were known to treat sojourners well. He had spent the last several nights under the stars, listening intently among the ordinary night sounds for something more sinister. The innkeeper in the last village had warned him of strange beasts that lumbered through the night, stalking unlucky travelers and devouring them as they slept. Tarin had asked what the creatures looked like, but the man only shook his head. He had never seen one in person and doubted anyone else had either and lived to tell. All this made Tarin somewhat skeptical of the monsters, but he kept a sharp ear for lumbering steps all the same. There were bears in that country, too, and he was not keen on running into one of them.   The afternoon sun beat down on Tarin’s neck and began to dry the freshly soaked earth. He was glad for its company as it softened the chilly bite of early spring. He felt that, so long as it remained in the sky, none of that wild land’s strangeness could harm him. In the distance, he could see the white walls and winding steps of the monastery peeking through the cedar boughs high above. Gradually, his path became steeper as it led him towards the refuge. Crags of rock jutted up from the ground here and there as the land became more rugged. Tarin could not help noticing how some of the boulders looked very much like bowed and cringing figures, weatherbeaten and crumbling. Not dissuaded, he picked his way past several stones, careful to mind his footing on the rough trail as he ascended.   Eventually, Tarin reached the base of the high hill on which the monastery stood. He could no longer see its walls through the cedar forest, which then began to close around him. The day had just started edging towards evening, and the shadows grew slowly longer. Tarin found where the path split off and became the long flight of rough-hewn stairs which wound its way back and forth up the steep slope towards the monastery. The climb was exhausting, and his forehead grew damp from exertion. Running short of breath, he reached a place where the path turned sharply and decided to take a short rest against a large protruding stone. His blood froze as he leaned against the lumpy formation. A horrifying face leered out at him, set with jagged teeth and a hungry, misshapen jaw, its dark eyes piercing his own. Tarin cringed and braced for his inevitable demise, but nothing happened. After a few tense moments, he dared to lift his eyes. The face stared blankly up the winding stair, its stone eyelids unblinking, petrified muscles motionless. He heaved a sigh of relief. It was only a statue—an awful one at that. He wondered what kind of person would sculpt it. Perhaps the monks had a darker sense of humor than he thought.   The sun was low in the sky when Tarin finally reached the monastery’s high white walls and tall iron gate. He undid the latch and entered the compound as the bleating of many goats assaulted his ears. Two men in simple brown robes spotted him right away and came to greet him. “Welcome, traveler, in the name of the most blessed Thundra!” exclaimed one of the monks. “You have reached the house of the Servants of the Sun, who will harbor you most graciously if you wish. Come in with us, quickly, for I see the road lies heavy on you, and night comes on swiftly.”   Tarin nodded his thanks and followed them through the courtyard. Curly-horned goats grazed here and there among rows of bushes on which grew curious golden berries. The scent that rose from them was heavenly and made Tarin’s stomach rumble. The two monks ushered him through a dark wooden door into a wide chamber lined with tables. They sat him down at one of the tables and brought him a large bowl of something hot and brown and a handful of the golden berries. They told him where he might find a bed to sleep, then left him to eat in peace.   Tarin had nearly finished his meal when he realized he was no longer alone. An old monk with snowy hair and beard watched him from one of the doorways. Tarin nodded to him, and the man walked calmly to his table. Both of his eyes bore heavy cataracts, making them appear solid white. It was a wonder he could see at all, much less stride confidently through the monastery! “May I take a seat?” asked the monk. Tarin nodded his approval, and the man sat opposite him.   “I will not ask your name unless you offer it freely. It is not our business to know who passes through our gates, save that they have sufficient need. I am Saleh, the rector of this holy house. I saw you had quite a fright on your way up the steps.” Tarin’s eyes widened. “How on earth?” Saleh raised a hand to calm him. “Thundra knows many things. She is willing to divulge her secrets to those who are willing to listen. Wherever her light falls, there she casts her gaze.” Tarin’s curiosity overcame him. “Tell me about the statue on the path. Who put it there?” Saleh rose and began to walk toward the door. “I see you are from the bright southern lands where Thundra’s power is more potent. You know little of our plights in this land. Follow me, and I will tell you all you need to know.”   Saleh led him out of the refectory, up to an open-air balcony, then across to another part of the monastery. All the while, the monk told Tarin about the stone demons that had plagued the land since time immemorial. They were false children of the false father, Sfindra, lord of shadows, the sanguine dragon. When the world was young, he had desired to create life of his own, imbuing stone with his dark and powerful will. Stone, he reasoned, was more potent than the mud of which men were wrought. But his creations were abominable—mere husks of things, bound slaves to his will and not free as all proper creatures are. Those infernal beings spread across the world in the days of the first sun to do his bidding, unhindered by day or night. When Sfindra devoured the sun and plunged the world into deepest night, his sister Thundra, lady of light, yielded herself up to become the second sun. Since then, any of her brother’s creatures that wander under her gaze become subject to her terrible wrath. Stripped of Sfindra’s accursed will, they return to their former state: mere stone.   The rector led Tarin into a back room, far removed from the main part of the monastery. On a pedestal in the center of the room, there lay a long object wrapped in fine linen. Saleh picked it up and removed its cover. There shone forth a brilliant golden light in the shape of a sword. Tarin stood staring, his eyes dazzled by the sight, attempting to comprehend the blazing weapon. Saleh quickly replaced the linen and returned the sword to its place.   “That is Andéli, one of the eight Sillashasser. Thundra knew that a day might come when her light could no longer reach us, so she gave these as a gift of protection—splintered fragments of her single white. Her power flows through them as the full brightness of day. Egil the Shadowslayer brought this blade with him when he came down out of the Northlands two hundred years ago. He slew many stone demons with its radiant edge—the old boulders on the hillsides—wrenching shadow from stone until only a very few remained.”   Tarin inquired about the statue on the stairs. “It seemed much newer than the rest.” Saleh laughed to himself. “Yes, yes. I recall that creature’s unfortunate demise. One of our brothers was out late in the forest collecting mushrooms and decided to spend the night under an old tree. At some point in the small hours of the morning, he heard heavy footfalls nearby, heavier than any a man could make. He made a run for it and managed to stay ahead of the creature until dawn broke over the hill. Thundra had a good laugh that morning!”   Saleh led Tarin back through the monastery to the refectory and bid the traveler goodnight. Tarin found his way to his sleeping place as the monks had instructed him and fell heavily onto the straw mattress. He slept soundly all through the night, glad he had come to the monastery rather than risking a night in the open. He would have to figure out something else tomorrow night, but that was still a long way ahead.

Cover image: by Ales Krivec


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