To the readers: This story doesn't make a strong precedence on humor, although humor will be present. I put it down as 'spiritual' because 'Christianity' is not a category. It is an allegory; sort of like Pilgrim's Progress. I am not copying Pilgrim's Progress, this is an original allegory. The song 'I still believe' will be frequently mentioned, it is sung by Jeremy Camp. To God be all the glory.
Chapter 1—Set Me Free
"I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin."—John 8:34 (NIV)
"You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."—John 8:32 (NIV)
Set Me Free
From the Chains Holding Me
Is anybody out there hearing me?
Set Me Free
—Set Me Free, Casting Crowns
The forests are considered peaceful places; particularly at night, when the nighttime creatures sing their songs and most beings are sleeping instead of disturbing the natural quietness. So it stood to reason that the lone figure darting through these woods, out of breath and seemingly terrified of something he could not see, would be considered out of place.
The man was an ebony black hedgehog with red stripes and crimson eyes that bore the look of a hunted animal desperate to escape. He wore black, medieval-type armor that seemed to be even darker than the nighttime air about him; his sword, which literally radiated yet more darkness, was drawn as if to ward off his invisible pursuer. Yet the most unique thing about his wardrobe was a thick band around his neck, almost like a necklace but considerably wider and heavier than said piece of jewelry, that was glowing red very faintly around the edges.
Although some of you might think that this medieval persona was called Lancelot; sadly, I must correct you. Lancelot, while a fine medieval fighter and a cool guy, was certainly not a black hedgehog, despite what certain recent video games might say. Most video games are generally works of fiction; and besides, the idea of turning the Knights of King Arthur's court into animals was probably not a very bright one.
Besides, I don't think Lancelot would be so intent on evading a pursuer that he tripped over a root and fell flat on his face, like the young hedgehog we are currently observing has just done. Although it would probably be amusing to watch.
Thinking some very unclean thoughts, the hedgehog quickly pushed himself up and regained the sword he had dropped and scrambled back to his feet, his wide eyes frantically searching the woods behind him, to ensure himself that his fall had not been heard by the person or persons he was running from. Reasonably assured that he was still safe, he turned back towards his previous destination—
—and froze as he stared into cruel, heartless, glowing lime-green eyes.
"There you are, Shadow," the owner of said eyes whispered, his voice sounding soft and melodious. He was also wearing black medieval armor; and though one might not think it possible, it was even more dark and foreboding than the outfit currently worn by Shadow—for that's the name of the hedgehog we were observing earlier. But unlike Shadow's, this creature's armor was also adorned with a large red image of a dragon upon his chest. The dragon was the color of blood, and it's mouth was open as if to swallow an unfortunate victim whole.
"Mephiles," Shadow replied, a look of horror on his face as he quickly readied his sword.
Mephiles turned his hostile eyes on Shadow's weapon. Far from being worried or nervous about a deadly weapon being raised to him, he actually seemed rather amused.
"Is this the way a soldier treats his commanding officer?" Mephiles asked.
"You're no commanding officer to me," Shadow spat defiantly. "I finally realized what you really are."
"I'm hurt," Mephiles said, although he didn't sound injured in the least. "I thought you were my friend."
"Slave, you mean," Shadow hissed vindictively. "I refuse to serve you any longer. You will not control me for another instant!"
Mephiles cocked his head. Finally he drew his weapon. His sword was black, and radiating the same darkness as Shadow's, yet at the same time it seemed to glow the same color as the dragon on Mephiles' chest. "Do not be a fool," he said calmly. "Where would you go? To our enemy the King? Do you think the King would take you in? After all, you have been murdering His citizens in cold blood for years now."
The sword in Shadow's hands seemed to start to quiver. "Anywhere is better than staying with you," he said, yet his voice seemed to shake.
"Is it?" Mephiles leaned in close and whispered in Shadow's ears. "With me you have safety. You know that the King will kill you the instant he gets the chance."
This was a blatant lie; Mephiles knew the King was just and merciful. Even now, all Shadow had to do was cry out for mercy for his crimes and he would be forgiven on the spot; and Mephiles would lose Shadow forever. And most likely his own head, as well. Mephiles' own Master, the dark dragon Lucifer, did not at all appreciate losing a single soul to the King.
Unfortunately, Shadow did not at all know this. The hedgehog's sword wavered slightly and his eyes showed uncertainty. The collar around his neck started to glow slightly brighter.
Mephiles felt triumphant as Shadow's sword dropped to the ground and the hedgehog bowed his head in defeat. The Dark One snapped his fingers and several black, ill-formed creatures emerged from the darkness and bound Shadow in chains. Shadow did not resist; he was unable, as the lie Mephiles had told him simply stripped him of all will to fight.
Why struggle when one has no hope?
"Take him back to camp," Mephiles ordered one of the demonic creatures. "And see to it that he is bound in chains and caged so he does not escape again!"
The creature nodded and he and his cohorts started to drag the unresisting Shadow off.
Mephiles waited until they were all out of sight, then he allowed himself to show his uncertainty. "I almost thought I'd lost him to the King," he muttered. "It seems that girl did not teach him as much as I feared…"
Shadow the Hedgehog curled up in the cold, small cage that the creatures had shoved him in. It was hard to curl up enough to warm himself, as he was still heavily chained. He was thoroughly miserable, yet he had been thoroughly miserable long before he had been thrust in here.
How could he have possibly once thought that these monsters he served were noble creatures, or that the massacres they did regularly—that he did regularly—were just? Could he have honestly thought that a mere week ago?
Of course, that was before the last massacre. Before he met…her.
Commander Shadow the Hedgehog surveyed the village below him. He felt nothing but disgust for the pathetic weaklings who lived below; who followed a corrupt King who cared nothing for them.
"Like sheep for the slaughter," his commanding officer, Mephiles the Dark, the only one who currently outranked him, chuckled. "Isn't that right, Shadow?"
"They deserve to die," Shadow replied emotionlessly.
Mephiles chuckled again. "Don't worry, they will," he said softly. "They will."
Then the Dark raised his sword above his head. He held it there for a long second, then he pointed it towards the village. "Wipe them all out!" he ordered, and his forces charged the town.
Shadow was at the front line.
Thunder boomed in the distance and temporarily jolted Shadow from his unpleasant memories; the ebony hedgehog listlessly raised his head just in time for a flash of lighting to light his worn features for a fraction of a second. With a barely audible moan—his cage was made so he was a the mercy of the full fury of the elements—Shadow slumped again, too miserable and exhausted to even continue to hold up his own head.
Shadow's sword was already satiating it's desire for the blood of the people who dared to trust the King when he broke down a doorway into a small cottage. He looked around but saw no one.
A small voice, like wind chimes signing in a soft breeze, caused him to turn. A young girl, no more than ten, in a blue dress and short blonde hair, was looking frightened with tears running down her cheeks. Her bright blue eyes turned to Shadow and she stared at him for a long, agonizing moment.
"You're not Grandfather," she said softly.
"No, I'm not," Shadow replied.
"Are you going to kill me?"
Shadow cocked his head. "Yes," he said simply.
The girl nodded, looking calm. This puzzled Shadow.
"Are you not afraid to die?"
"I don't need to be scared," the girl said simply. "My King will take care of me."
Shadow's eyes narrowed and he brought up his sword. "Foolish child," he snarled, starting to thrust it towards her chest.
Her next words however, shook him to his core. "I forgive you."
The sword froze in its path; a mere inches away from the bold child who stood calmly, awaiting her death with no fear.
"W-what?" Shadow asked, his eyes wide with shock.
"I forgive you," the girl replied. When Shadow failed to respond, she gave him a small, sympathetic smile. "It's OK," she said. "You may do your job. I forgive you."
"I…" Shadow looked into the eyes of his young victim and he could not do it. He could not kill this child in cold blood. He could not murder this young girl who smiled up at the face of her murderer and offered forgiveness. He numbly sheathed his sword.
"If you value your life, you will come with me," he ordered, holding out his hand.
The girl gave him a sad smile. "If that is what you wish," she conceded, taking the proffered hand. Shadow swiftly darted out of the cottage and darted off down the back alleys of the town, being sure to keep out of sight of his 'companions' lest he be forced to explain why he was aiding an enemy in escaping when none were to be left alive.
The Hedgehog was certain that he would be caught and branded a traitor; his ears flattened and his heart thumped with an excitement one can only achieve when doing a kindness one knows is forbidden.
'Why am I risking myself for this worthless child?' he thought to himself. 'She's one of them. She deserves death.' But, even as he thought these harsh words, in his heart he did not believe them.
Shadow did not stop running until he was well away from the village, and clear from all chances of his fellow's spying him and bringing uncomfortable questions about his actions. It was only then that he slowed down and started to think about what must be done now. He could not take the girl to his camp; nor could he leave her alone in the wilderness. And he was not going to betray his commander any more than he had already. What could he do?
His eyes fell upon a small cave, more than large enough for the both of them to get inside at their full heights, yet not so large as to be inconspicuous. And it was close enough to the camp that he could get to and fro easily; yet far enough away that one could not see the cave from the camp, or vise versa.
Quite pleased at his impromptu discovery, Shadow dragged the child to the cave and unceremoniously tossed her onto the ground.
"You will stay in this cave," he ordered her. "If you leave for any reason, your life is forfeit."
The girl nodded, her blue eyes soft and compassionate. "My name is Maria," she said softly. "What's yours?"
Shadow paused, then decided nothing would be lost should he indulge the child. "Shadow."
Something hard hit Shadow across the face, and he gasped, looking down to where it had fallen.
The ebony hedgehog's eyes hardened and he looked up in time for another rock to hit him just above the eye, cutting flesh. Shadow glared at a laughing creature, who had obviously thrown the first two rocks and was playfully tossing a third in the air and catching it. Finally, it jeered at threw it at Shadow with all its might; and as the other two had, the rock slipped between the bars. This one nailed him just behind the ear, causing his vision to blur and he began to hear ringing. Laughing once more, the creature sauntered off, presumably to find some other victim to torment.
Shadow half-closed his eyes as his head throbbed from the blows. Laughter. He could remember a time when laughter had not been full of cruelty…
It had been three days since Shadow had saved Maria from the fate Mephiles had deemed for her; and as he always did, he appeared inside the cave mouth as the sun reached its peak with food; for most of the army was sleeping in the heat at this time and could not observe him leaving.
As usual, Maria greeted him with a quick hug and a happy laugh.
Shadow bared his fangs and flattened his ears at the show of physical affection; but Maria just giggled, knowing full well he liked the attention.
"I don't see what a little prisoner like you has to laugh about," he said gruffly, as he always did when he came to see her.
Maria smiled back at him; a pure, radiant smile without a hint of bitterness or resentment. "I am alive when I should be dead; I am safe and I have food to eat and shelter from the rain; and my good friend Shadow has come to see me. What do I not have to laugh about?"
Shadow's eyes fell to the ground as he felt a feeling quite foreign to him: shame. "I don't see why you would call me friend," he muttered. "I helped kill everyone in your village and I'm keeping you prisoner here. You may never have your freedom again."
Maria frowned; she so disliked seeing him so unhappy. She hugged him again. "Whom my King has freed, is free indeed," she said, smiling brightly. "Nothing can take my freedom from me, not ropes, chains, death…and especially not my good friend Shadow!" Her smile was so bright, and her faith, which Shadow believed was childlike naïveté, was so pure and simple, that Shadow could not help but smile back.
Maria, feeling pleased that she'd cheered him up, released her hold on his waste and sat on the cave floor, looking up at him expectantly. Not willing to disappoint, Shadow calmly handed her the small bag of food he'd swiped from the camp and watched her eagerly bite into the first morsel.
"Shadow," she said, after the last bite had been eaten. He had been turning to leave; her call bade him pause.
"What?" he asked.
"Why do you serve those bad people?"
Shadow gave Maria a condescending look. "I don't 'serve' anyone," he replied. "I do as I please."
"Does it please you to do as they ask?" Maria asked innocently.
"I…" Shadow had no answer. Maria nodded at his silence, her face conveying a wisdom beyond her years.
"Why don't you leave?" she asked.
Again, Shadow had no answer. He merely turned from her and crossed his arms, his mind swirling.
"I have nowhere else to go," he finally admitted softly.
Maria's eyes lit up. "You can come with me to the King's country!" she said.
Shadow scoffed at her. "The King? He would never accept an enemy like me, and even if He did, how could I serve such a tyrant?"
"Tyrant?" Maria looked sad. "Oh, Shadow, the King is not a tyrant. He's good, and kind, and merciful. There is no evil in Him. Honest there's not. And he would accept you! He wants everyone to come to Him, truly He does!"
Shadow looked at her as one would look at a small child who'd just told them that Santa Claus was real. "And why should I believe this?" he asked.
Maria looked at him intently, and her reply shook him to his core. "Because it's the Truth."
The Truth. All his life Shadow had searched for it. He had believed he'd found it; his heart had told him so. But now…now, as he lay here in this horrid cage, the rain beginning to pelt his body, chilling him even more, he now knew his heart had deceived him. And he no longer had any idea what Truth was.
Something was not right here. Mephiles and a party of his scouts and warriors had left some time ago and had not returned. Shadow felt very uneasy at this; but it was time to go see Maria and he could worry later.
Later never came, for when he came in sight of the cave his heart seemed to stop in his chest.
Mephiles was there, with his warriors. And Maria, her hands bound behind her, being forced to her knees. One of Mephiles' warriors was holding her by her hair so she could not move.
"Shadow," Mephiles said, although his voice seemed thick with suspicion. "We found a survivor. A filthy citizen of the King. Would you like to do the honors of killing her?"
Shadow's mouth felt like cotton. "P-perhaps she could recant," he said, half-pleadingly.
Mephiles cocked his head, his eyes narrowing. Then he nodded. "Very well. If you can get the brat to recant her citizenship to the King, she will be allowed to live."
Shadow leaned in close to Maria. "Recant," he whispered. "It's the only way to save your life."
Maria looked up at him, her eyes sad yet determined. "How can I recant the Truth?"
"Who are you to say what is the Truth?" Shadow snapped, his heart thumping. "If you wish, you can go back to the King later. You said He forgives everyone!"
Maria gave him a sad smile. "Yes, but I could never bear the knowledge that I betrayed the One who gave up everything for me," she whispered.
"What is your decision, girl?" Mephiles snapped, wishing to get on with it.
Maria looked up to Mephiles defiantly, then she raised her eyes to the heavens and began to sing.
"I still believe in Your faithfulness
I still believe in Your truth
I still believe in Your Holy Word;
Even when I do not see,
I still believe!"
"So be it," Mephiles said coldly, motioning one of the creatures, who raised his sword high.
"NO!" Shadow screamed, leaping towards the offending blade. As he did, Mephiles nodded, and a creature behind Shadow lifted his own blade.
"MARIA!" Shadow screamed as her body crumpled to the ground. "NO!"
Mephiles felt nothing but disgust as Shadow fell to his knees next to Maria's body and picked her up, sobbing silently. Finally, the hedgehog's tortured, crimson eyes looked up to the Dark in despair.
"Why?" he asked, his voice breaking.
"You know why," Mephiles said, showing contempt.
"But she wasn't like the rest of them!"
Mephiles made a huge mistake. He replied, "She was exactly like the rest of them."
Shadow's eyes widened in shock, and he looked down at the body of his friend with remorse. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.
To Mephiles' horror, the red, glowing collar around Shadow's neck flashed, then dulled to where it was barely lit. Shadow blinked and gingerly reached up and touched it, as if noticing it for the first time.
He glared at Mephiles. "She was right. I am a servant. But no longer." He stood defiantly.
"What do you intend to do about it?" Mephiles sneered.
Without blinking, Shadow replied, "I'm defecting," and darted off into the woods.
"After him!" Mephiles screamed instantly. "We can't let the King have him!"
Three days. That's how long he'd been in the cage. Three days without food or water. He was almost relieved that Mephiles finally determined he'd been punished enough and let him out. Almost.
Knowing that he was now and forever a slave to a monster put a damper on his jubilation of being released.
"I trust there will be no more talk of defection," Mephiles said pleasantly. Shadow glared at him, but did not answer.
"Just remember Shadow: The King wouldn't take you anyway. He might forgive everyone else, but you've done far too much evil for him to ever consider forgiving you." It was yet another lie. The Truth could free Shadow; lies kept him in bondage. And that was just the way Mephiles liked him: so bound up in lies that he could not even think of defiance.
Shadow bowed his head, his ears flattened in defeat. Mephiles, pleased with his reaction, ordered his chains removed. "You may retire to your quarters," the Dark said, and Shadow obeyed wordlessly.
It took every last ounce of strength Shadow had to force his body to walk to his quarters where he collapsed on the bed, too tired to move. Tears fell from his face as he thought of Mephiles' wicked lies; lies that he felt inclined to believe. He had done awful things; he had murdered women and children; he had burned down entire cities with their people locked inside their own homes; he had persecuted the King's citizens at every turn and practically spat in the King's own face. How on earth could he ever hope for the King to even consider forgiving him? He was no better than Mephiles.
A small thought entered his head; had not Maria insisted that the King's love and forgiveness was for everyone, even someone as wicked as him? Surely Maria was incapable of lying to him, but yet…
"What are you doing, Maria?"
The child was sitting on the floor with her food on her lap, her hands clasped in front of her as her lips moved.
Maria looked up. "I'm thanking the King for my food," she replied.
Shadow looked amused. "Your King is thousands of miles from here," he told her. "He can't hear you."
"The King can see everywhere and hear everything," Maria said matter-of-factly.
"If that is so, why does he not send his warriors to save you?" Shadow scoffed. "Surely your great and wise King cares for the fate of a little girl like you!"
Maria looked up at Shadow sadly. "I wish you would not mock the King like that, Shadow."
Shadow could find nothing to say; he stared at the ground, half-ashamed.
"I don't know why the King does some things," Maria replied. "But I do know that whatever happens, in the end everything will work out fine. Even if I'm killed, my soul will go to live with the King forever!"
"I see," Shadow gave her a smile; he did not have the heart to mock her again.
"Until then, I will thank Him for my food and I know he hears me," Maria said contentedly.
"Maria…I hope your soul really is with your King," Shadow whispered, as tears streamed down his face. Perhaps Maria had given him his answer…if the King could hear and see everything and everyone, surely He could hear Shadow. The question was, would He listen? But what did Shadow have to lose?
"May Maria's King hear my petition," he whispered softly so none of the other creatures might hear him and torment him again. Maria had whispered during her prayer; so apparently the King had remarkable hearing. "If there is any way a just King could take pity on an unjust man, may You take pity upon me. If I can be forgiven, please…please send someone who can save me from Mephiles! I…I beg you, please…grant me pardon."
Shadow's collar flashed bright again, so bright it lit up the room around him. When it dissipated, Shadow was surprised to see the collar lying on the floor in a million pieces. He gingerly touched his throat—it was really gone! The King had listened and had forgiven him!
Shadow felt an innumerable amount of joy, a supernatural joy that did not disappear even when Mephiles stomped into his quarters to see what had happened. The Dark's eyes widened in…fear?...as he saw the shattered remains of Shadow's collar.
"The King did forgive me," Shadow said. "You don't own me anymore."
Mephiles angrily slapped Shadow across the face. The blow sent the hedgehog hurling to the ground. "I will always own you, you piece of trash! I will make you recant your so-called faith, if I have to break every single bone in your body to make you do so! Take him away!"
As two guards dragged Shadow off, Mephiles screamed in anger as he heard Shadow softly start singing.
"Even when I do not see
I still believe!"