In the Shadow of Virtue: A Thin Ray of Light Mark Steelman Sword in hand, Dawn cautiously peered through the narrow window facing the balcony. With her free hand she buttoned her overcoat. It was late, she wasn’t sure how late. She had been lying in bed trying to sleep when she had heard a soft knock on her balcony door. Both moons were new this night and it was darker than usual. She blinked her eyes a few times to clear the cobwebs from her weary mind. On the stone railing of the balcony crouched a lone gargoyle, facing out into the courtyard. Long robes and a hood concealed their identity. Dawn slid the bolt from the balcony door and opened it, keeping her sword between herself and the stranger. A hushed but familiar voice spoke as the gargoyle turned and lifted her hood, “I’m glad you were able to wake; I understand humans need a lot of sleep.” Dawn lowered her sword and sighed. “Queen Zhah. I didn’t recognize you without your entourage.” Zhah raised her eyebrow, “Indeed, it is I.” Zhah pulled her hood down once more and looked back at the courtyard under her wing. “May we go inside?” Dawn nodded and kept watch while Zhah folded her great wings and ducked into Dawn’s room. Dawn shut the door and then peered out through the window once more. “It seems no one observed your approach… including my guards. I can’t say I’m happy about that.” “I eluded your guards by magic, of course.” Self-satisfaction was visible on her face. “That doesn’t make me feel better,” grumped Dawn. She lit a candle and checked the hallway for eavesdroppers. The gargoyle stooped in the corner of Dawn’s room. She seemed uncomfortable with her wings pressed against the low ceiling. Her expression quickly grew serious. “I have been researching this demon Virtuebane and I believe I know his weakness.” “That makes me feel better… what is it?” “Humility.” “As in, the virtue?” “Indeed.” Dawn sighed and sat down wearily on the side of her bed with her sword in her lap, “Now I’m feeling bad again, Zhah. Isn’t that a bit… bizarre? A bit esoteric? I was hoping you had an anti-Virtuebane cannon ball or something.” “Esoteric, yes, I’m glad you know that word. We are talking about a demon, my dear. It makes perfect sense that his weakness is obscure and poetic.” Dawn was now both skeptical and annoyed but she tried to remain calm. “Since you have obviously gone through a lot of trouble to tell me this, what is your theory?” Unfazed by Dawn’s lack of enthusiasm, Zhah pulled over a bench and sat. It made Dawn uneasy to see Zhah looming over her in the candle light, her eyes wide with excitement, long fingernails clicking with glee as she revealed her pet idea. “The basis of my theory is this: Virtuebane is gaining power over your people by corrupting the three principles of your virtues: Truth, Love, and Courage.” A frown crossed Dawn’s face. She tried to clear her worry-swamped mind and consider. “Well, my spies tell me that the Bane Chosen are initiating members by having them corrupt replicas of the Book of Truth.” Then something hit her that made her feel sick. She paused for fear of seeming foolish, but then pressed on. “More recently, two strangers sold me replicas of the Bell of Courage to place in the towns being attacked. Their pretense was to help morale. I have learned that Virtuebane has corrupted the bells in any town he takes…” “Yes, exactly. Virtuebane is corrupting your people by corrupting the principles that support your virtues. It seems he is even gaining a supernatural power over those he has corrupted. In addition, I believe Virtuebane has your husband, Ors, and is corrupting Love through your torment.” “I, too, suspect they have Ors, but I can’t discover where.” In her weariness, Dawn was losing her patience with this midnight tour of her personal failings. “You know Zhah, so far I’m still not feeling better. When are we going to get to Virtuebane’s weakness?” “Humility.” “Yes, you said that. Will you elaborate?” “According to your own hallowed texts, Humility is the only virtue that isn’t dependant on the three principles. Arguably, it is the virtue that would grow in strength as the other virtues are diminished.” “Oh, Zhah…. That theory is as thin as a farmhand’s purse on Sunday.” “It’s not thin, it’s esoteric.” Dawn shook her head, “Let’s say you are right: how are we going to forge a weapon out of humility?” “You need something with spirit. Something your people will believe represents Humility. It is the corruption of the spirit found in the symbols of your principles that is empowering Virtuebane; you need an item with as much or more spirit to counter that kind of power. Do you have a widely known artifact with a humble beginning?” Dawn looked at Zhah and opened her mouth as if she would speak. Could it really be I had the solution all along? she thought. Then she closed it, looked at her sword and shook her head. “What?” “No, it’s silly and sentimental.” Zhah slumped forward, running her long fingers over her scalp. Then she sat up and looked Dawn directly in the eye. “My dear Dawn, I know you and I aren’t close… but I am your friend. I am indebted to you and your people for your help in providing resources to my dying world. I am here without telling my closest advisors in order to help you. I mean you no harm. If you have an idea, tell me.” “Do you not trust your closest advisors?” Zhah sighed, “In these strange times with secret enemies, neither of us can know who is reporting to Virtuebane. If I don’t tell my advisors where I am going, I don’t need to know if they can be trusted.” “My sword was made from a plowshare.” “What?” “My sword, it was given to me by my grandfather. My great, great grandfather made it out of a plowshare after his farm was destroyed by orcs. He said he was not going to need a plow until he could keep the orcs from destroying the crop. It reminded him of his purpose, as it reminds me of mine. “ Zhah looked it over. “That is a very nice sword for having such inauspicious beginnings.” “Well, my father had the hilt redone to dress it up a bit. And I had it imbued recently.” Zhah considered this for a moment. “That sounds like a very fine weapon to destroy Virtuebane.” “But it won’t work. I’ve already attacked him with it directly once while defending one of the towns and it didn’t’ seem to make a lot of difference. I finally had to retreat.” “Well, there is a difference between a weapon being humble and a weapon being aligned to Humility. Just like there is a difference between being a bell and being a replica of the Bell of Courage.” “Well, how do I align this sword to the virtue Humility?” “I think it might be as simple as being blessed on the altar of Humility.” “That’s all?! Just… that?” “It’s worth trying.” “I… suppose you’re right. I will do this publicly; it will serve a dual purpose. If it’s really the secret to harming him, it will force Virtuebane into reacting. One way or another, we will know. In the process, I can bring some hope to my people.” Zhah knitted her brow. “That sounds exceedingly risky. If I am right he will bring his full force to bear to stop you. I will not be able to risk going with you, though I can recommend some gargoyles I trust.” “Yes, risky. I agree that it would be unwise for both of us to attend. I will be vague in my announcement and just say we are going on an expedition to get a weapon against Virtuebane. Zhah rose and pulled her hood back over her head. “For now, I must go, and you must sleep. I will visit you again when I know more.” She crept to the balcony door and opened it. Dawn followed her out. As the gargoyle queen stepped up onto the railing, Dawn felt like she should say something, “Zhah,” she began. Zhah turned and looked back, but all Dawn could muster was “Thank you….” Zhah nodded her understanding, then leaped off the balcony and disappeared into the night.