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What Paths Men Take (Part 1 of 6)
Epic Fantasy / 2000 words
PREFACE: Today marks the launch of a 6-part mini-serial I wrote two months ago for a Royal Road community challenge. The theme was “mirrors can’t eat people.” Fun!
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I - In these mirrored halls
The stranger had come out the mouth of a monster fallen dead from the sky. At first, he had spoken the language of the gods but, within minutes, intelligible words had flowed from his lips.
“What is your name?” Hatash had asked after revealing his.
“I have had many, all of them now forgotten.” The stranger had looked at him. “You can call me whatever you like.”
“That’s not how it works!”
“Did you choose your own name?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then why should I choose mine?”
“Surely, you must remember the one you were given.”
“What if I do not? Would you have me pick a name for myself? Is that how it works?”
Hatash had decided not to press the issue, though it would be days before he thought of an appropriate name.
The man was kind to Hatash and his people, so they called him Sebharan—a blend word which, in their tongue, meant “he of the gentle soul.” Now he was one of them—as much as a stranger could ever hope to be.
He was tall, lean, and always clean-shaven—though no one ever saw him shave, his skin remained smooth as a baby’s. He wore a robe and cloak as black as his hair and eyes.
Hatash often asked the stranger where he came from, and why he was here. Sebharan would always remain quiet, staring at the stars. He never spoke much, but he loved to listen. And when he did speak, it usually was to ask questions—about their customs, their families, their histories... Then, always, he would listen with rapt attention. At night, he sat quietly with them around the fire as they shared stories and legends.
One sunny afternoon, the stranger asked Hatash to walk with him. Hatash agreed, thinking maybe Sebharan would finally confide in him.
They left the village behind, going down a dirt trail that dove into the forest.
“Where are we going?” asked Hatash after a few minutes of silent walking.
The other man did not answer. Instead, he went through a thicket of bushes, circled two large trees, crossed a small stream, and walked on until they reached a clearing.
There, in the middle of the field, was a strange glittering structure. It reflected the rays of the sun, blinding Hatash as they approached.
“You often ask me why I am here,” said Sebharan. He pointed at the object. “This is why.”
“What is it?” asked Hatash.
The stranger said nothing.
Hatash frowned. Something was wrong. He could see things in that thing. Things that shouldn’t be there. Things that were behind him. And... there were other shapes... human-like shapes.
As they got closer, he froze in his steps.
Those shapes... that was him and Sebharan!
“No!” he cried out, his voice trembling. “This is wrong.”
The other man stopped and looked back at him.
“What is it?”
Hatash pointed at the glittering thing.
“Black magic! That’s what it is. Look! It has already eaten us!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Mirrors can’t eat people.”
“Mirrors? What are mirrors?”
Sebharan said nothing for a moment, seeming lost in his thoughts. “Tell me something,” he finally started. “Do rivers eat people?”
Hatash wondered why the stranger now talked of rivers. But then, as he thought about it, he realized what the other meant. When he would go fishing, he would see his face reflected in the water. He still remembered the first time it had happened and the fear he had felt then, much like the fear he felt now.
“They could,” he said defensively. “If you fell into them.”
The stranger pointed at the mirror without looking at it.
“Then don’t fall into that.” Sebharan paused, a frown on his face. “No,” he muttered, “that is not right.” He looked at the other man. “You have gone into the water, yes? You have swum?”
The frown deepened. “But surely, you must have heard of it.”
Sensing where this was going, Hatash considered lying. But he suspected the stranger would read right through him, and then what would happen? So, reluctantly, he admitted he had.
“Well,” said Sebharan as he pointed at the strange gleaming surface, “this is similar. It is like swimming.”
“But I don’t know how to swim!”
The stranger clicked his tongue. Shook his head. “Not swimming, I suppose. Walking. Yes, more like walking. In water. Except, not water.”
He squinted at him. It was the most the man had spoken since they’d first met, and it made Hatash wary.
“Now you tell me something.” The other quirked a brow. “Why is it that your tongue does not fall off from all your lying?”
Sebharan looked offended. “I do not lie!”
“You say one thing, then you say another. Both cannot be true! Always you do this. I have noticed. Others have as well.”
“Have I ever harmed you or your people? Have I ever tricked you or your people into doing anything you would not have wanted to do?”
Hatash had to admit he had not.
“Well, then, will you trust me today if I tell you no harm will come to you if you follow me into the mirror?”
“You would come with me?”
Hatash frowned but started walking again, though he approached the object with caution. Now that they were so near, he could tell it was about the size of a man in both height and width.
“We would not both fit in this,” he remarked as he walked around it.
It was a cuboid, each of its four faces mirroring what was in front of it—himself included.
“You would be surprised.”
The stranger’s voice sounded amused.
“What is inside?” he asked suspiciously.
“I cannot say.”
“Because you don’t know or because you don’t want to tell me?”
“It is for you to find out.”
Hatash peered at the other man.
“Alright. Fine. How are we even supposed to go in?”
Sebharan held out his hand and as he pressed it against the surface, it went through.
“Like this,” he said. “I will go first, so you know it is safe.”
And with a step forward, the stranger disappeared.
Hatash stared at the shining object.
It produced no sound.
It just stood there, taunting him.
It was all he could do to stop himself from running away.
He still feared the thing, but it puzzled him as well. He also felt like Sebharan would never do anything to hurt him.
So, with a deep breath, he took a step forward and disappeared into the mirror.
His vision blurred, and everything darkened for a moment. When he could see again, Hatash saw Sebharan standing in the middle of a circular room, looking at him, his face expressionless.
It took a moment for him to adjust to the lighting—it was quite darker here, though not completely dark. The source of the light became quickly apparent as he gazed around.
The circular wall was black—as were the ceiling and the floor—and it was covered with more of these things that the stranger called ‘mirrors.’ Though these were flat, as if embedded directly into the surface, and glowed softly.
What struck him immediately was the size of the place.
“It’s bigger than the outside,” he muttered.
It really was quite large—ten men could easily have stood here shoulder to shoulder—and he counted at least twenty of those things. They all looked identical, reflecting his image as well as Sebharan’s. He couldn’t have guessed which they had come from.
“How will we go back?” he asked, hearing a hint of panic in his voice.
Sebharan made a dismissive gesture. “There won’t be a need for that, not for a while.”
Hatash frowned. “Where are we? What is this place?”
“It is a gateway.”
The stranger nodded.
With a frown, Hatash took another glance around him. He did not understand what any of this meant. And why were they here? Why had Sebharan brought him here? And had he said he’d been waiting for this? He had said it, for sure. But why?
“Why were you waiting for this?” he asked aloud.
“You must choose your path now,” said the other, pointedly ignoring the question. “Which will it be?”
Hatash blinked. He waved his hand around. “How should I know? They all look the same! Why are we here? Are you playing games with me?” When the other said nothing, he frowned. “There are times you remind me of my grandfather.”
“Was he a good man?”
Hatash laughed. “Hardly.” He sighed. “Tell me this, Sebharan. How am I to choose if I do not know what my choices are?”
Without pointing at any of the mirrors, his face still expressionless, the stranger answered.
“The paths here can make all your dreams come true. Some will bring you peace, others strife. Would you want fame, wealth, knowledge, love... perhaps a life of adventure?”
Hatash scoffed at the notion. “Adventure? No, no. I do not think so.” He shook his head. “Why would I want any of that? Oh, love, I suppose, would be good. But I need no path to find it. I have plenty at home as it is. Even if I have no wife and no children, my people love me. I am content with that.”
“Then godhood, perhaps?”
Hatash took a step back, his eyes going wide. “Godhood? How could you offer me that?”
“I offer nothing.”
“But you just said—”
“I ask what it is you want.”
“You said there are paths that can give me what I want.”
“So one of these... things... could make me a god?”
“If that is what you wish.”
Hatash shook his head as he started pacing the room.
“No, no, no... you do not make one a god. That is not how it works. A god is born a god. Gods are unseen, all-mighty beings well beyond our understanding. How could I ever be one? That is not the way of things.”
“It could be. You need only but ask.”
Hatash stared at the stranger. “Who are you?”
“Haven’t we gone over this before?”
“You’ve never given me a straight answer.”
“Because there is none to give.”
Hatash clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Take me back home. Now.”
“Is there nothing you wish, then?”
“There are many things I wish, Sebharan, but none of them are yours to give. And all would take years and much study to achieve. You cannot just get what you want with a snap of your fingers.” He waved one of his in front of the other man. “Unless you are using black magic! And even then...”
“There is nothing black about the magic at play here.”
“So it is magic!”
A slight smile crept on Sebharan’s lips. “I would have thought it obvious by now.”
Hatash grunted. “Well, even with magic, I do not believe you could give me anything I wanted.”
“I would give nothing.”
“Well, those things then, it doesn’t matter. It’s just not possible.”
“You are well versed in magic?”
“Well, no,” he admitted, “but still... I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“And you know of everything?”
Hatash frowned but remained quiet.
“Let us assume for a moment it is possible,” Sebharan said softly. “If you could have one thing, what would it be?”
He was upset by the absurdity of the request, yet his mind reeled at the possibilities. Could this be real? It was unlikely, but what harm could come from answering the question?
“Wisdom,” he finally responded. “I would want wisdom.”
Sebharan gave him a strange look.
“The most dangerous path of all. Very well. Come.”
Without another word, the stranger turned, walked toward one of the mirrors as if he knew exactly where he was headed, and stepped through it.
After only a second of hesitation, Hatash followed him.
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Want to read more of my Fantasy stories? Check out these titles, if you haven’t already:
Deathbringer (Reikk fights a minotaur and a dragon to save an imprisoned mage)
Salamandra Sun (apprentice thieves must help to steal a sun)
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Text (c) 2023 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
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