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Ch. 1: Salvage operation

I knew the missing farmer: not well, but well enough to recognize her motionless body, face staring blankly at the dark sky. From all appearances, she would not be salvageable, other than as the corpse her family would need for the funeral. When I knelt to inspect what remained after the soul had taken flight, I saw no signs of violence, so it was likely she died of fear before Shadow had time to distort her beyond recognition.

It was as I examined the dead woman that the shadowbeast leapt at me from the dark, and had I not still been in wolf form, I might never have known it until three-inch talons opened my throat. But I favor the wolf form for more than the power in those tireless legs and the rush of submerging my humanity beneath the wolf’s primal needs. A wolf’s ability to follow scents through any part of the forest makes it the ideal choice when ranging, and those astonishingly keen senses and reflexes provide a tremendous advantage against most denizens of Shadow.

When the shadowbeast attacked, the wolf part of me had already been dimly aware of its presence for some time, and was ready. So I jumped aside with a quiet bark of pleasure before whirling and sinking my fangs into the muscles of that taloned forearm. Warm, pungent blood washed over my tongue, and the creature yowled and tore its limb from my fangs. We faced each other warily, taking each other's measure. It wore the form of a man-sized cat, albeit one with flowing tentacles of darkness for rear legs and far too many eyes. The wolf within me surged up and I let it sweep me along; this creature was its ancestral enemy, at least to the extent that any creature of Shadow had such a thing as an ancestor or a traditional enemy, and the wolf knew far better than I how to cope with cats.

The giant cat crouched across the body from me and hissed defiance. I felt the hackles rise on my neck and the muscles of my thin legs bunched beneath me, awaiting another leap. Instead, the cat did something startling. With a motion both subtle and disorienting, it flowed into something I’d never seen before, something roughly man-shaped and upright, but with dully gleaming sword blades in place of upper limbs. It began swinging those limbs in a deceptively simple but deadly windmill motion, then advanced, stepping carefully across the body. I feinted a bite at those arms and lost half my whiskers and part of the fur on my nose for my trouble before I could retreat out of range. The creature smiled, gaping mouth half-filled with rows of wickedly serrated bone, and moved slowly closer.

Graemor had always taught us that when in doubt, we should revert to type and fight in our most familiar form: as a human. I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere against those scything limbs in wolf form, so I took his advice and concentrated hard. As I did, the muscles in my back tightened and bunched, drawing me upright as wolf paws became feet and hands. I endured a brief visual distortion as my skull reshaped itself, taking my eyes along for the ride, and the palette of colors I could perceive changed. Simultaneously, an enormous prickling sensation swept across the entire surface of my skin as my fur vanished. Long practice kept me from staggering as my balance shifted and kept from disorientation as my senses changed just as dramatically. The change took less time to do than to describe, but even so, it upset my opponent not at all. That was more than a little worrying.

I drew the sword that had vanished Light knew where while I played wolf and parried strongly, the beast's horny limbs clicking on good, tempered steel. I caught enough of the force of the blow to gauge the strength of the muscles that drove it, and relaxed slightly: I was not overmatched, at least not on the basis of strength alone. Indeed, Bareni had often struck me harder when we sparred. I circled to my left, keeping the sword between us and watching for any pattern in the creature’s movements while keeping to the mostly obstacle-free ground of the clearing. It wasn’t working as well as I’d hoped. Against the equivalent of two swordsmen, my tentative thrusts weren’t penetrating the creature’s guard, and I saw little likelihood of improving that outcome anytime soon. Turning tail and running, even at the expense of leaving the farmer behind, was beginning to seem increasingly attractive.

I was about to exercise that unattractive option, when all at once, the shadowbeast paused and cocked its malformed head skyward as if listening, windmilling arms slowing to a halt. Never one to hesitate over the niceties of combat, I immediately thrust it through the chest, hoping to strike a heart or something similarly vulnerable. The beast hissed like a kettle overflowing onto the fire, and pushed itself off my blade as I sprang back on guard, its thick blood spattering upon the forest floor. Our eyes met for an instant, and for a moment, I saw nothing animal—nor yet anything human. Then the creature wheeled and fled, sword-arms blurring into more conventional limbs that let it escape on all four legs.

Breathing deeply, I rubbed at my nose, still raw and bleeding sluggishly. As the sound of the fleeing beast faded into the distance, I began to sheathe my sword, then stopped and looked long and hard around me to be sure my deliverance wasn’t the result of the appearance of some even larger predator. Amidst the monochromatic landscape with its silvery highlights, I saw no obvious signs of danger, but since my opponent had fled, that meant nothing. As always, I felt Shadow pulling at me, subtly distorting my form, so I responded to that pull and let myself change again, providing the necessary guidance. My spine arced and my hips rotated, and that prickly itch erupted across my body again as I went to all fours and became a wolf. This time, the wound on my nose healed fully; a good thing, as there were more than enough scents to sort through without having to ignore the smell of my own blood and the few drops shed by the fleeing creature.

Once my vision cleared and my brain adapted to the new mode of seeing, there was little difference from what I’d already seen as a man. Nor did my ears detect anything much different, though sounds were louder and there were more of them—but they were all normal sounds. My nose was what made all the difference. In addition to the familiar forest smells, the clearing held the scents of two humans, my own familiar scent and that of the farmer, mingled with the foul scent of her loosened bowels. There was also the heavy cat musk of the shadowbeast I’d fought, and another smell I could not identify. The taint of the sword-armed creature that the cat had become? I resolved to remember that one and stay far away in the future.

But most interesting, there was a smell that was both human—and not. Something I'd mistaken for the farmer when I first entered the clearing. I bared my fangs in a low snarl and felt the hackles rising all along my back as the dark bush I’d brushed against during the fight blurred suddenly into human form. I readied myself to leap at its throat, but whoever it was evidently knew enough of wolves to read my intent.

Hold! I mean you no harm.”

With a conscious effort, I relaxed my facial muscles until my fangs were once again concealed, but no effort would make the hair on my back fall into place. Resisting the pull of Shadow, I pushed my head into a human conformation, forcing myself roughly past the disorientation until I could focus on the small, wiry man who faced me.

“Yet despite those fair words, you lurk beside the corpse of one of my countrymen. That inspires little faith in your good intentions.”

The stranger folded gracefully into a sitting position. He was well built, though not particularly imposing, and had a plain, honest face. At first glance, he seemed not much older than me, but it was hard to tell in Shadow, where Graemor could seem as young as the youngest among us. But there was something in his intense eyes that told me he could have been much older. Graemor once told us that the creatures of Shadow could transform to hide their age, and lived much longer than we humans anyway, so that was no proof of anything.

“I’m Mohri, and in these days, you do well to be on your guard. But I’m as human as you. Indeed, I come from another village.”

“You do, do you?” As he could do me little harm from his sitting position, and appeared unarmed in any event, this Mohri presented no immediate danger—though I’d never heard of a man becoming a plant before and that counseled caution. Resisting the wolf that still raged in me, I forced myself back into a fully human shape. Whatever concealed weapons he might carry, I was hardly unarmed and was confident I could defend myself, as the shadowbeast had discovered.

“Yes, I do come from another village, though one so distant you’ve never heard of, and never would have even had our peoples continued their travels between villages in recent years.”

It was a relief to know other villages existed intact out there, somewhere, for I’d begun to doubt that possibility, but by the same token, claiming to come from a faraway village was an obvious and predictable ploy. I tried one of my own.

“It’s good to know we’re not alone. You can’t imagine how good.” I tried for an ingenuous expression, something I'd been told—to my chagrin—I was good at.

“Oh, I can well imagine, friend. You have no idea how long I’ve walked in Shadow, or how far.” A curious distortion I could not interpret crossed his face. Shadow sometimes did that to a man who let his guard slip. But his response had piqued my curiosity.

“Longer than a day, evidently, for I’ve traveled a full day’s run from my village in all directions and seen no trace of any other village. Indeed, even before Shadow came upon us, I recall no village closer than a day’s hard travel, and the town where I was born lies even farther away. I confess, I find your story hard to credit. Do you simply deny yourself sleep for days on end, until you find an oasis of Light in which to rest?”

I expected to catch him out on that question, for it was plainly impossible to survive that way. Instead, he surprised me. “I’m afraid that even for me, that would be impossible. But I’ve found a better way.”

“Share it with me!” I didn’t have to feign my enthusiasm.

“I share better with those who trust me enough to share their name, and the name of their village.”

I blinked, embarrassed. “Forgive me. I’m Amodai, from the village of Haven, a short distance that way.” I pointed back over my shoulder without taking my eyes off him.

He nodded. “A pleasure. The trick, Amodai, is a very simple one, at least in principle: one need only take on the form of a plant for the night, for such simple, thoughtless beings are largely immune to the effects of Shadow. Surely you’ve noticed that the trees and plants of this forest are much like their kin that grow in Light?”

I frowned, annoyed that the thought had somehow escaped me. “But then how...?”

He returned my frown with a disarming smile. “I didn’t say that you must become as mindless as a plant, merely that you must take on the shape of one and allow your consciousness to be submerged for a time. When you've rested enough to gather your strength once more about you, your consciousness returns, for the life of a plant is too constraining for such as us, and our consciousness rests there uneasily. As our consciousness rebels against its woody prison, it wakes us; then, you need only exert your force of will to become human once more. Try it, if you’d like; it's strangely liberating. I’ll wait.”

There was a curious, eager look in his eyes that restored my caution. I fought down excitement at the notion. “Perhaps some other time. Now, I have more important things to do than play at being a plant.” I cocked my head towards the dead farmer.

“I see. My sympathies.”

I nodded, accepting his words at face value. “She’s hardly the first, but no less important to her family for all that.”

Mohri rose as gracefully as he’d sat. “I would not keep you from your duty.”

“Would you return with me to Haven and tell my people what you’ve learned? You’d be welcome, as would any news you bring of other villages. As you might expect, we've had no visitors for too long.”

Mohri hesitated a moment too long. “I must decline your kind offer, but with gratitude. I shall surely return soon, but for now, I have pressing duties of my own to which I must attend.”

I didn’t much like the way he’d said that, since I could imagine no duties a man so far from home might have in our lands. Yet he’d given me no clear reason to distrust him. “Duty I can understand. But the invitation remains open; ask for me when you return and I’ll show you such hospitality as our humble village can afford.”

He smiled warmly. “And let me extend an offer to you in return. I shall be in these woods for some time yet, and should you ever need me, follow my scent; you undoubtedly learned it when you stood before me as a wolf. I should be easy enough to find.”

With that, he flowed smoothly into the form of a small, slender wolf himself, and bounded off into the forest, away from Haven. I made a note to remember the direction, and tried once again to memorize his scent, then bent to my work. It was only once I had cleaned the farmer, slung her over my shoulder, and begun my return to town that I realized what had bothered me.

The farmer could not possibly have strayed this far into the woods by mischance, nor would she have gone that far of her own free will; there were few of us these days who dared that, and apart from Graemor, all who did were Rangers no older than me. Those who did stray would soon be lost to Shadow without considerable training and long practice resisting its pull. Yet her shape remained largely human, even in death. Something—or someone—must have abducted her, and it could not have been the shadowbeast, for the cat’s behavior and my prior experience with its kind suggested the body would have been mauled and partially eaten by the time I came upon it—yet the body had been wholly unscathed. That left only two possibilities: The first, and least difficult to accept, was to assume that the shadowbeast was something new to our woods, and that we now faced a far more dangerous and subtle predator than any we’d encountered thus far. The second, which pleased me even less, was that Mohri was both more than he’d seemed and less trustworthy. I didn’t want to consider either possibility just then, let alone the possibility that both possibilities were true.

I turned and made my way homewards, bearing two burdens.

Continue reading: Chapter 2

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