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Mareth had always been too terrified of Shadow to follow me there, so each time we were together, I sought a new means of explaining to her what it was like, that she might better understand what drove me there and might lose some of her fear.
“Think of a battered old silver mirror, coated with thick grey tarnish from years of neglect.”
Mareth turned in my arms. “A battered, tarnished mirror. And why might one own such a thing when a new mirror is so easy to come by?”
I ignored her and continued. “Now take a piece of cloth and some silver polish, and begin polishing lightly at first, then ever harder until you clear the tarnish and begin to reveal the original silver’s surface. Can you picture in your mind what you would see?”
“A very dirty mirror.” Sensing my frown in the darkness, she sighed. “Oh, very well. I suppose you’d see blackest black here and there, where dents and scratches prevented you from polishing away the tarnish, as well as places with more or less tarnish, and even pure, unmarred silver in places.”
“Precisely, and with all the shades of grey you ever imagined in between. More grays than you’ll see in the clouds right before a sun shower, or in the fog, or in a blizzard, or when the sun breaks through the clouds after a rain. If you look at yourself or the world around you in that mirror, what do you see?”
“A mess, I suppose. And you find that attractive?”
“Yes... I suppose I do. But what makes me return to shadow is not the images themselves, beautiful though they are. Rather, it’s the ability to change myself, to become anything I want to become for a time. I don’t think I can explain just what that feels like.”
“Oh, I know something about stepping outside myself for a time.” Her voice held a certain teasing quality as her lips found mine in the darkness. “And I know something of what the change feels like.” Her hand brushed ever so softly across the fine hairs of my belly. “In fact, I think I can feel you changing right now...”
She was right, as it happened, and we both surrendered to the change and made our own dance among the shadows for a short time.
With Graemor a stern presence at my back, I retold my story to the Council, trying not to color their opinions one way or another. That was easy enough, for I was still uncertain what threat, if any, Mohri posed to us. As I spoke, I made an effort to monitor the faces of my audience and gauge what effect my words were having. When I spoke of the dead farmer, there was sorrow on every face, for whatever sport we young folk made of our elders behind their backs, they were our elders, and responsible for the mundane tasks involved in sustaining the village that was our home. Not a responsibility I ever sought. As I came to the part where I described my battle with the shadowbeast, more diversity showed in their faces. Ramath, the eldest looked on me with distrust, for I was a man of arms in a village of farmers; Tereni sat slumped in his chair, old wounds paining him but not enough to conceal his revulsion at my evident relish in describing my joy in shapeshifting and as excitement over the memory gave force to my words; Saera, the nominal leader, listened alertly, not as if she appreciated my excitement but rather as if she needed to understand.
When I came to talk of Mohri, their faces showed a mixture of curiosity, worry, and disbelief. Though each of our three elders knew that other villages existed, most of this knowledge was from tales handed down by parents or grandparents, none from personal experience. Remembering my own journey to Haven, I had forgotten how few of us had had any contact with other villages, particularly of late. Old eyes grew sharp as I reached the end of my tale and my words faltered, for I was no longer certain of just what it was I felt about the stranger. I finally ran out of words, bowed slowly and deeply to the Council, and awaited their questions. There were none, for Graemor had risen behind me and they undoubtedly preferred to hear his seasoned opinion of my account. When I felt his hand upon my shoulder, I retreated to the safety of the rough-hewn bench that stood before the Council table, provided for those who would listen to the Council’s occasional deliberations.
The old warrior paced wearily before the councilors. With his sword belted at his hip, one sleeve hanging empty in plain view, and the evil-seeming black eye patch concealing the ruin of his left eye, Graemor was an intimidating sight. He repeated the story he’d told me, and I watched as the faces of the Council increasingly hardened. Though the Ranger leader had been more or less welcomed into our community, and the more so once Shadow came upon us, he’d never been fully accepted. Coming to us as a stranger, at an age far older than that which was usual for permanent migrants, had been the first barrier, and by no means a small one; youths such as Talmin and me arrived at a young enough age that we could be reliably assumed to adapt ourselves to local custom, but someone as old as Graemor were less certain of fitting in. Bearing arms and seeking to arm us had been another, and cutting his own path through our settled ways had been the third and most serious barrier. We young ones had been more willing to accept him, for we often felt stifled by the rules and traditions that bound us, even though they also brought us comfort and security. But even so, many of my agemates had shunned him, and those of our seniors who saw in Graemor a threat to their safe and unchanging order were wholly unforgiving. It belatedly occurred to me how lonely he must have been.
Ramath waited until Graemor had finished speaking, before she asked the question I’d been fearing. “This is all very well, Ranger Captain, but I’ve heard nothing today that would lead me to fear this Mohri. Amodai tells us that he talked peacefully enough with the man, and you yourself concede that he may have saved your life.”
“Or put it at risk in the first place, yes.”
Ramath and Tereni frowned at this rudeness, but Saera continued to watch keenly, withholding her judgment. Ramath continued. “Let us take it for granted that strangers snooping in and around Haven are a bad thing. What would you have us do, then? Chase the stranger away as we neglected to do with you when you first arrived? That would scarcely be hospitable.”
Graemor stiffened at the poorly concealed venom, then straightened to his full height. His voice was surprisingly calm when he spoke. “Your meaning is clear, and though I take some offense at the tone, I concede the validity of your points.” Ramath’s face relaxed, but the warrior was not yet finished. “Nonetheless, I have spent many hours pondering Amodai’s story and my own experience, and it is my judgment that this Mohri cannot be allowed to roam unhindered around our village.”
“You would chase him away, then, or...” Alarm showed on Tereni’s face, for apart from an occasional fistfight when some reveler quaffed too much hard cider at the harvest celebration, violence between villagers was largely unknown to our people.
From where I sat, I could see Graemor’s scarred face twist into a familiar, superior smile. “Calm yourself. I have no reason to believe we need to slay the man—if man he is—or do him any harm at all, for that matter. But I do consider it prudent to take him prisoner and bring him back to Haven that we may question him before the Light. If he is innocent, then by all means, we can invite him among us or send him away, whichever the Council feels would be wisest. But if he is not innocent, then we shall at least have knowledge that may serve as a weapon against Shadow.”
There was silence for a moment as the Council considered that pronouncement, then the quavering voice of Tereni, who had been crippled by a panicked plow horse many years ago and had been declining visibly for several years now, rang out, suddenly loud. “And what of Mohri if he is not innocent?”
Graemor bowed his head slightly, though whether this was a token of submission to the Council’s will or an attempt to hide the look in his eye I could not say. “Then the Council shall face an even more difficult decision. All I ask is your support in what must be done. Do I have it?”
Ramath rose to her feet. “Leave us a time, Ranger Captain, that we may discuss what you have said. We shall inform you of our decision in the morning.”
Graemor bowed slowly and deeply, then turned gracefully on his heel, beckoning me to accompany him. We passed outside into the cool of the night, and my leader caught me by the shoulder and turned me to face him. As always, I found it difficult to meet his gaze, for there was no second eye for mine to meet. I focused on the remaining eye, as I always did, but it was never a comfortable solution.
“Amodai, assemble the Rangers tonight. We must plan to leave in the morning to seek Mohri.”
“You think they’ll forbid you to take action?”
Graemor smiled, the scar twisting the left side of his face. “As do you, evidently.”
I blushed. “How could they do otherwise? Not a one of them has experienced Shadow as we have. To them, Mohri is but another man, someone to be distrusted until he proves himself, but not to be feared.”
“And they may well be right, Amodai. Don’t scorn them until you’ve lived as long as they have.” I bowed my head, chastened. “Nonetheless, we can’t wait on them to acquire our brand of wisdom. Assemble the Rangers and as soon as dawn arrives, we'll scour the forest for Mohri." He paused a moment. "Probably best to travel in pairs for safety’s sake.”
“You’re taking a serious risk doing this without their approval.”
“I am. But sometimes one must do one's duty, even if others might not agree on what that duty should be.”
We clasped hands. “I’ll do as you bid me.”
I headed off to collect my fellows while the old warrior remained behind on the steps of the Council hall, gazing up at the stars. He looked suddenly old.
We waited together while Graemor used the privy, and I took the opportunity to regard my fellow Rangers with new eyes, conscious of the new world that might soon be upon us. Graemor’s words and the evident worry in his expression told us we were no longer just playing soldier games, and my own recent experience brought home to me that some of my friends might not return from their next trip into Shadow. Our work had always entailed some degree of risk, but until now, it was the sort of risk one took without much thought. But risk one’s life? I didn’t like that feeling one bit.
A quiet, rhythmic rasping filled the room. Under my gaze, Bareni looked up from where he’d been sitting by the fire, honing his long knife with a whetstone, smiled reassuringly, and returned to his labor. Though I was eldest, Bareni was the best of us. He was short and stocky, dark as the night in hair and nearly so in complexion, stronger than me and—when I wasn’t fooling myself—far more competent. None of his individual gifts were exceptional, but combined, they made him Graemor's obvious successor. I sometimes resented that knowledge, but more often I took some comfort from it. I’d once considered taking on Graemor’s role, many years in the future when time and the Light claimed our leader, but merely pondering that responsibility had left me sweaty and shaken, unable to sleep until I could convince myself such a role would never be necessary.
Methema paced before him, tall, thin, and wiry as a half-starved wolf. I'd never understood what drove my fellow, for he worried obsessively about entering Shadow, and visibly gathered his courage each time he stepped across the border between Light and dark. It was certain each of us had our own anxieties about going out into Shadow, but none of us clutched them quite so obviously to our chest. Even so, the nervousness I felt about entering Shadow was more of the flavor I felt each time I embraced Mareth and felt her respond—not fear, but rather the anticipation of an escape and a release I eagerly sought out at every opportunity. In the end, I simply could not comprehend someone who felt otherwise about Shadow. The townspeople were one thing, certainly, but I’d never really tried to understand what motivated them. A Ranger whose motivation I couldn’t understand? Perhaps it was just duty that drove him, but even that wasn’t easy to understand. I watched him for a few moments, unable to catch his unfocused gaze, then turned my eyes on the next of my colleagues.
Bethan was the only woman among us, and I realized with a shock that she’d been watching me even as I watched the others. She smiled as our eyes met, and I saw the invitation that always danced behind the light in those hazel eyes. She was an attractive woman, with long, straight, chestnut brown hair, pleasant features, and a tall, nicely rounded body that carried a considerable weight of muscle from years spent ranging through our forests or swinging a sword. Bethan's attention always excited me and left me feeling flustered, but it was a guilty feeling now that I was betrothed to Mareth. That betrothal obviously hadn’t changed the way Bethan felt about me. She’d always been that way, though, too daring for her own good; I’d first dared the depths of our river on her urging, unwilling to let a mere girl accomplish what I could not. It occurred to me now that perhaps she was overeager to prove herself, and I wondered what that said about her. She was certainly a skilled Ranger, probably my equal if I were honest about it, but now that I considered the matter, her success sometimes seemed to depend as much on luck as on skill. She always pushed herself beyond reasonable limits. Sometimes it caught up with her, and she returned to Haven with obvious signs of injury, but so far she’d gotten away with it. So far. She must have seen something of my thoughts in my eyes, for she frowned and looked away. Then she rose and walked to the door, standing looking out into the night.
Mikali squatted easily on the floor, motionless as a rock, as I'd seen him do so many times in the forests of Shadow or in more mundane forests. His eyes did not move, yet I had no doubt he saw everyone and heard everything. His blond hair shone in the candlelight as if it bore the Light within it, contrasting with his almond skin, and the first pricklings of a man's beard shadowed his cheeks; each time my gaze dwelled on his hair, it was a wonder to me he could escape the gaze of wild animals when he squatted in a hide. He had a natural patience and keen eyes that made him our best hunter and tracker. But those skills were always at the service of some other among us; only rarely did he take the initiative and act on his own, at least while he was with any of us. I could not say with any certainty whether this was something he would outgrow as he matured.
Ranali was the last of us, both in terms of my current appraisal and in skill. He was not the youngest, though it often seemed that way, and that heedlessness may have accounted for his lack of woodcraft. But I suspect the truth lay deeper, for what he lacked in woodcraft he more than made up for in his ability to kill. Ranali was by far the best of us with sword or bow, or indeed anything with a cutting edge—perhaps better even than Graemor. I watched him playing with the leather fetish bag around his neck that contained some of the small trophies he’d collected during his hunts. I had no true sense that he enjoyed killing things for the sake of slaughter, for I’d seen him apologize solemnly to each deer he’d slain before gutting it and bringing it home for the butcher. Rather, it was that death seemed his only chance to express something deeper in his soul, some need to excel with a weapon in a way he could not do on the practice field. Each time we practiced swordplay, I pushed hard against the limits of my skill in a vain effort to convincingly defeat him just that once, yet my best efforts were always in vain—but not because I could not beat him. Rather, there was something in his eyes that told me only my death would count as a victory, and that he was unwilling to go that far over a mere bout of exercise. So I won more than my share of matches, but I had no doubt that had it ever been necessary, he would have killed me without difficulty. I’m not sure how badly that unmanned me, but I knew for a certainty that I was unwilling to push him sufficiently hard to test my belief.
We sat or stood or squatted, whichever most suited us, until Graemor returned, then all eyes were upon our leader. Even Methema ceased his endless pacing and focused on Graemor with an intensity that excluded the rest of us. Graemor repeated his story; as I’d already heard it, I watched the others instead. Bareni remained unperturbed as ever, but Methema’s intensity seemed to increase beyond even its usual level. Bethan’s face was curiously open and vulnerable as she listened, her eyes never leaving Graemor’s face. Ranali was the one who disturbed me, though, for his eyes shone with eagerness and his right hand played with the hilt of the wickedly sharp hunting knife he always wore at his belt.
When Graemor was done, Bareni spoke for us all. “This Mohri sounds a puzzle—neither menacing enough for us to seek his death, nor harmless enough to be left to go his own way. So we must take him alive, at any cost. Is that your command?”
“Not at any cost—by no means at any cost. He cannot be allowed to go free until we know him better, but the six of you are far too important to Haven—and to me—to risk your own lives. If need be, kill him rather than let him escape or endanger you.”
“You'll have no problem, Meth,” Ranali interrupted. “It’s like killing a deer or any other animal. You simply insert the pointy end of this—” he drew and brandished his knife “—into some vulnerable portion of the man before he does the same to you." He reseated the knife in its sheath with an ominous thunk. "You've done it often enough on the practice field and on the hunt.” There was quiet confidence in his voice, and a certain relish, but no mockery.
“It should not come to that. I've trained each of you well enough you should be able to take him alive. You may have to damage him a bit before he submits, but let’s hope that doesn’t become necessary. In any event, so long as you're in Shadow, you can let him change often enough to heal the worst of his wounds.”
Bethan smiled at me. “Let’s hope. You mentioned we’d be going out in teams?” I looked away. “Who will be teamed together?”
Graemor frowned. “Bareni will go with Methema, and you’ll go with Ranali. Mikali will stay here with me. I don’t like sending Amodai alone, but it’s necessary; there are things that must be done here that prevent me from accompanying you, and I'll need Mikali's help.”
I pondered the pairings. Bareni would ensure that Methema returned alive, and Bethan would provide Ranali the woodcraft he lacked, while benefiting from the protection of the man’s superior skill at arms. I wasn’t sure why I’d been chosen to go alone. Though I wanted to be flattered, I couldn’t convince myself he'd made that choice because of any superior skill.
“Why must I be the one who goes alone?” My voice sounded more peevish than I’d desired, and I flushed.
“Because you're the only one of us who has met Mohri and survived. You would seem to have his trust, and definitely have his scent, and that gives you an advantage none of the others have. It should be enough. It must be.”
“How will we know him?” wondered Methema.
Ranali’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “It would seem obvious. There will only be six humans out there. If you meet someone, and it’s neither one of us nor yet a shadowbeast, then the odds are excellent it’s him.” Methema glared back at him, but relaxed when Bareni put a firm hand on his arm.
“Peace, friend. You know he means no harm.”
“It's no time for such games.” Graemor’s voice was stern. “Each of you has the confidence that comes with surviving in Shadow for the past several years, and a feeling of superiority even over your own kin and loved ones because of it. Don't deny it; I know each of your hearts. That confidence will be the death of you if you ever come to believe in it. If Mohri is truly nothing more than a fellow man with an uncanny ability to live in Shadow, that confidence will not betray you. But if—”
Bethan cast a worried look at me. “If he's the kind of man who has chosen to live in Shadow, with no Light to restore him, he is no normal man. I look forward to meeting him, but doubt it’ll be easy to bring him to Haven.”
“If it were easy, it would be no fun at all,” Ranali replied, and he rose to his feet, unable to restrain his excitement any longer.
Graemor frowned. “I’ve prepared you as best I can, but that may not be enough. I hope I’m wrong, and that your task will be both easy and safe. But in case I’m not, be very careful. As Bethan said, it would be wise to assume Mohri is no ordinary man, and perhaps not even a man at all.”
Each of us clasped his hand on our way out the door, except for Bethan, who put both arms around the old warrior and hugged him tightly. Graemor resisted for a moment, then his face softened and he patted her on the shoulder before nudging her gently out the door. We stood there in the night, the five of us, looking back at the closed door. After a moment, Bareni spoke.
“What’s your feeling on this, Amodai?”
Was that uncertainty in his voice, or just my own fears? “I cannot say. I have an ominous feeling, but perhaps it’s just from watching Methema too long.” The target of my barb just smiled back at me, the familiar intensity in his eyes. “I think things will be changing soon in unpleasant ways—that this Mohri is just a harbinger of things to come. The sooner we find him and bring him back so Graemor and the Council can question him, the happier I’ll be.”
“The happier all of us will be,” Bareni replied softly, then turned and made his way into the darkness of normal night, Methema following.
“Don’t worry so, Amodai; one Methema is enough.”
“You do him an injustice, Ran.” Bethan sounded indignant. “He’s a good man for all his worries.”
“A good child, playing at being a man. It’s a good thing he’s going with Bareni.” Ranali looked down at his feet. “Anyway, better him than me. I prefer my current partner.” He looked up again at Bethan, who smiled back at him, warmly enough I thought. “Are you coming?”
“No, I want to stay a while and talk to Amodai. I’ll see you in the morning.” Ranali half reached out a hand for her, reconsidered, then nodded his head curtly and walked briskly into the darkness, following Bareni and Methema. When his footfalls had faded, she put a hand on my arm, firmly enough that I would have to exert some strength to free myself; I didn’t, for that would have been awkward. Even if it hadn’t been, I didn’t want to lose that feeling of closeness just yet, for if my misgivings were correct, it might well be the last time I'd see her.
“Amodai, your face is an open book. Is it as bad as all that?”
“No, it’s just the night and Methema’s endless worrying. I’m sure we’ll all be laughing about this together in a week.”
“You’re a terrible liar.” She put her arms about me, and held on tight, and after a moment, I returned the hug. After a time, she sighed and pulled away. “You know, that—farmer—doesn’t deserve you.”
“It’s I who don’t deserve her. She’s a good woman, and I love her.”
“If you’re feeling unworthy, then free her and pick a more suitable mate. I’d be happy to lower myself to your level. The fall isn't nearly so far.” She laughed, but her heart wasn’t really in it.
I touched her cheek, softly, then withdrew my hand before she could misinterpret the gesture. “You’re a good friend, Bethan, never forget that.” And I turned and walked away before things could get any more complicated.
I slept little that night and finally, with the dawn, rose and set about my preparations. Though my back was turned, I knew that Mareth’s eyes were upon me, watching silently. As a Ranger, I had trained long and hard to notice when someone or something was watching me, but clearly this skill was a part of us that needed only practice to become a finely honed skill; now, I could feel her displeasure without needing to concentrate. I pulled tight the last strap on my pack, tucked the loose end beneath it, then turned to her.
“Do you really have to go?”
I laughed. “You ask that every time. Surely by now you know the answer?”
Her eyes were wide and sober, tears plainly held just barely in check. “It’s become my talisman. Some day you may answer no, but in the meantime, it’s always brought you safely back to me. I’ll keep asking until the day you say no.”
I turned away, and made for the door.
“Amodai?” I turned back to face her. “I love you. Don’t take any foolish risks.”
“Of course not.” There was more to say, and I wanted to go back and take her in my arms, but I suddenly couldn’t face that. Instead, I turned and left.
Each of us had our particular rituals before going into Shadow; mine was to visit the Light one last time. I made my way to the Temple, and passed through the always-open doorway, taking pains to walk quietly on the stone floor so as not to wake Talmin. Once inside, I knelt by the Light and focused my attention on it, concentrating on that warmth and comfort and making it a part of me. Remembering. It did not take long. As always, I sent out a question, seeking reassurance, but there was no answer this time any more than there had ever been. Sighing, I reached out and felt every last corner of my being, concentrating until that feeling of penetrating warmth was firmly in place, proof against the worst pull of Shadow, then broke my concentration. As I got to my feet, someone cleared their throat at my back.
“You do that often enough you’d make a good priestess. Surely that would be a better profession than your current one?”
“You startled me, Talmin.”
She smiled wickedly. “It’s part of the job. But you avoided the question. You’re going out again, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry, yes, but I prefer the active life. Each of us serves the Light in our own way, after all.”
“That’s standard theology, sure enough. Very well; go with the blessing of the Light, Amodai. And come back on your own two feet, not those of some woodland beast. And don’t come back carried by your friends.”
After a momentary hesitation, I returned her smile. “That would be my preference too. Thanks for the blessing.”
She nodded and I left her, not looking back.
I was preoccupied, so much so I paid little attention as I left town and cannot say whether my fellow Rangers left at the same time; if so, they did not greet me or wish me well. Oddly enough, we had made no arrangements to travel together at least for those first few steps beyond the safety of the Light, perhaps because we’d agreed from the start to split up rather than traveling as a group. But when I reached the border between Shadow and Light, I paused and looked back at Haven. Smoke from the morning cook fires rose slowly into the cloudless blue sky, straight and tall in the still morning air. It was going to be a warm day. There were figures moving in the town, as well as in the active homesteads that still surrounded it beyond the walls, but none paid me any heed. I shook my head, and turned to face Shadow.
Though I’d done this countless times before, today I hesitated as if preparing to throw myself into the icy river before the last winter ice had fled downstream. The dividing line between Shadow and Light was fuzzy and tenuous, much like the meeting point between normal sunlight and the shadows it casts. I nudged that border gently with my toe, like a swimmer testing the water, and felt the familiar pull and the excitement it awoke in me. Today, thinking of Mohri, I had better reason than ever before to resist that pull. Wrapping my courage about me, berating myself for hesitating so foolishly, I stepped once more into Shadow.
I was immediately immersed in that pressure, as if every part of me were striving to expand outwards all at once, and only the tightness of my skin—and my will—was holding it all together. The sense of boundless possibilities that rose in me swept away my earlier hesitation. At the back of my mind, Wolf spoke to me, urging the transformation, and he was not alone; the sinuous sensuality of the serpent beckoned, along with the vicious patience of the spider, the self-absorbed and surreptitious guile of the hunting cat, and the placid imperturbability of the bear. There was also the familiar yet subtler urging to simply release my will and let Shadow have its way with me, sculpting me like clay beneath the hands of a drunken potter. As always, my will was proof against any inadvertent change, but today, I found myself clutching the sword that swung at my hip for the reassurance its immutable solidity always gave me. I smiled, told those urgings “not now”, and wrapping my humanity about me, strode onwards into Shadow.
This time, the world seemed somehow sharper than usual. The sun beat down upon my shoulders, even through my leathers, promising the summer’s dry heat long before noon. My own shadow coiled and writhed beneath my feet, half-lost in the greater Shadow, and the sky was that odd shade of brilliant whitish-grey that tugged at eyes grown accustomed to blue. For the first time, though, I noticed a difference—the sky itself had changed in more than color. Though the day behind me had been cloudless, the sky of Shadow swirled restlessly, as if strong winds were whipping a grey overcast into uneasy motion. I stood and watched that movement for a time, puzzled that I’d never seen this before and glad for an excuse to tarry. But my conscience was still prodding me, and it was not long before I was on my way once more.
The fields beneath my feet were still spongy from the rain that had fallen earlier in the week, and gave off the good, clean scents of wet earth and growing things. Crickets and wolf spiders scampered through the grass, as they’d done a thousand times before, unperturbed by the restless flow above them; these were creatures too simple for Shadow to have much power over them. They, at least, were no different from their counterparts in Light, and it would have been pleasant to stay and ponder such things. Instead, I continued on, moving faster now as the forest came closer. I could already feel the sun drawing beads of sweat from my back, and I would be grateful to find myself beneath the shade of the trees.
Before entering beneath those trees, I paused to string the bow that hung in its case on my back. It was not good for the seasoned wood to travel far with the bowstring strung, but today, I’d be hunting a dangerous foe, and an overstretched bowstring would be small price to pay should the bow suddenly become necessary. I exerted myself, muscles bunching, the bow pressing hard against the edge of my boot as it bent beneath my strength, and I scanned the edge of the woods. Nothing unusual, though I watched with all my skill for the least sign of any unusual movement. The top of the bowstring slipped into its well-worn notch, and I relaxed my arm, letting the string gradually take up that tension. I leaned the bow against my chest, then withdrew my arrows from their quiver. I glanced back at the woods one last time, and still seeing nothing, I examined the arrows carefully sighting along their shafts, something I should have done before leaving. I'd made them myself, so I knew their quality, but in the humidity after the rain, some might have warped. None had, though the fletching on a few needed minor attention. I replaced them in their quiver.
I picked up the bow again, readjusted the bracer on my left arm, and drew the string smoothly to my ear, extending my consciousness into the bow as best I could and seeking any weakness. There was none, and I savored the simple pleasure of that practiced, easy motion; once, I’d tried pulling Ranali’s bow, and I well remembered his smug grin as I strained, grew red in the face, and finally succeeded. Ran always looked for any edge that made him a more effective killer, but I was willing to accept less power for increased ease and speed. Wondering how and where Ranali was faring this morn, I released the string carelessly, enjoying its loud smack! against the hardened leather and ignoring countless admonitions never to dry-fire a bow. I took an arrow from the quiver, nocked it carefully, then gripped its shaft between the first two fingers of my left hand, ready for a quick draw and release. Thus armed, I focused my thoughts on the business at hand and moved on, bound for the last place I’d seen Mohri.
The first trees came between me and the sun, and their shade cooled me most pleasantly, but a slight chill accompanied that relief; part of me was now expecting sinister whisperings and unnerving shapes moving beneath the trees, and it was only faint relief to see no such thing—or at least no more movements than were usual. Shadow behaved as it always did, and the only things that moved were a few strangely deformed birds and squirrels that made their unperturbed way through the trees—plus the inescapable insects that buzzed and whirred about me, drawn by the scent of my sweat and lusting for my blood. I ignored them as best I could, seeking any signs I was not alone. After a time, I came across my own tracks from the previous day, and I followed them easily with only half a mind on the job until at last I came to where the dead farmer had lain.
There were many signs here of the previous day's work, most obviously the deeper scuffs I’d made during my fight with the shadowbeast and the crushed patch of fern on which the farmer’s body had fallen. I spent a long, hard moment scanning the woods about me and the canopy of the trees overhead to be sure I was still alone, then I knelt to consider the ground. The footprints of the wolf Mohri had become led off in one direction, no different from the spoor of any other wolf, save only for their small size. Strange, that. I persisted in misremembering him as a big man, but the tracks were simply too small for that to have been the case. Still... I stored that thought for future contemplation, and bent to examine the crushed ferns, something I would have done the other day had not Mohri made his appearance. I’d been careless indeed, and that could not continue if I were hunting anything as clever as a man.
It was easy enough to find my own tracks, particularly those formed once I’d hoisted the corpse onto my shoulder and pressed my feet that much deeper into the rich mould of the forest floor, but that was not what I sought. Something had obviously borne the farmer here, and other than following the disturbed trail her captor had left, I’d never troubled myself to discover what. My sense of self-preservation now working more strongly, I glanced once more about me before returning my attention to the trail. I let my mind unfocus slightly, as I’d been taught to do, and slowly swept my gaze across the ground. So it was I caught the unmistakable signs that a human foot had trod here. Had it been the farmer? Possibly, but the footprints seemed wrong for the woman, larger and pressed unusually deep into the damp mould, deep enough they were still clearly visible to one who knew what to look for. Mohri, then? Without moving, I followed those footprints with my gaze, losing and regaining their path several times before I understood what had happened. Those footprints led from the corpse’s resting place to a small hole in the ground, distinct enough that even someone unskilled at tracking would have seen it. The hole seemed as if a plant had been plucked from the earth, yet without scattering any soil about its disinterred roots. I felt my face settling into a frown as I rose to my feet. The mystery had only deepened.
The wolf’s tracks led clearly away from the scene of our meeting for a time, and I followed them deeper into the woods, carefully noting the position of the sun and the direction of my back trail before I set off. Mohri had fled into the woods; the spacing between paw prints told me he’d clearly been in something of a hurry. I took my time, now certain the man was less innocent than he’d seemed and not wanting to blunder into an ambush. So I kept my eyes roving about me, looking not so much for someone ahead of me on the trail, but rather for someone who had doubled back and lay in wait beside my course. And I kept the arrow nocked, even as I followed Mohri's trail.
Around the time the sun crossed from behind me to stand directly overhead, I lost the trail. It had been easy enough to follow him thus far, as though he’d had no fear of pursuit, but now, suddenly, the trail had vanished. I retraced my steps, found the last few paw prints again, and followed them right up until the point at which they disappeared. That was sufficiently puzzling I paused to break my fast while I pondered the situation. Eating did wonders for my belly, but nothing at all for my head—today was a day when each new answer exposed a hundred new questions. Here, it was as if Mohri had vanished entirely from the earth.
That, of course, was the solution: he’d become a bird and taken to the air. A closer inspection revealed the faintest impression of a clawed foot superimposed on a wolf’s footprint, and some disturbance of the litter as if air had puffed out beneath large wings. Yes, definitely a bid. Of course, that solution meant he’d be impossible to track, at least in my present form. I got to my feet, brushing crumbs from my lap, and replaced the arrow in its quiver; that done, I unstrung my bow and restored it to its case on my shoulder. I glanced around carefully, not wanting to be surprised during a transformation, then focused on the pressure that had been a constant part of my awareness ever since I’d entered Shadow. Now, applying only the necessary control, I let that pressure work on me and felt my features flowing and distorting once again. In less time than it takes to describe, I was once more on all fours, covered in fur and not the least bit concerned over where my bow, sword, and other gear had gone during the transformation. I pushed that idle thought towards the back of my mind, and it went away, being of no concern to a wolf.
I stopped the change before I faded entirely into wolfishness, and set myself to sniffing the air. There was the faintest trace of a familiar scent, and when I circled restlessly back across Mohri’s trail, casting around for a new trail, the source of that scent became evident: it was Mohri’s, and it was as clear as frying garlic in the paw prints he’d left as a wolf. I smiled, baring fangs, at the confirmation of my suspicions. But sniff though I tried, I could find no trace of where that bird had flown. I felt the smile become a snarl of frustration.
That would have been enough to stump the wolf, but not a Ranger, and I was not yet ready to concede defeat. Mohri's path thus far had been largely in a straight line, with only minor deviations to go around obstacles. Had I been Mohri, I would have continued more or less in the same direction I’d been traveling, but if the goal were to elude any pursuers following blindly along my trail, I would angle away from that path and hope they'd be a long time realizing their error. But at the same time, I'd have been sufficiently self-confident not to double back on my original trail or do much to confuse the pursuit. So I continued in my original direction, casting to either side of that course in ever-widening arcs in case a new trail suddenly appeared. With my mind focused solely on that effort, I lost all track of time until the moment I caught that scent again, clear and unmistakable. This time, though, there was no overlying taint of wolf or bird; my quarry had assumed human form once more. Not wanting to give him any advantage, I maintained my wolf form and homed in on that scent, moving more slowly now and taking more advantage of such cover as the understory provided.
It wasn't long before I found him.
Mohri sat unmoving, his back against a large, downed tree, eyes closed and chin propped on his chest, feet propped upon a small pack. He gave all the appearance of having been waiting for something or someone and having fallen asleep, but in Shadow, that wasn't possible; as soon as he lost consciousness, Shadow would have its way with him. I changed back into human form, attention focused on the seemingly sleeping man. My bow and sword returned from wherever they'd gone, and I strung the bow and nocked an arrow without ever taking an eye off him. Thus prepared, I stepped from behind cover to confront him.
Mohri’s eyes opened lazily as I approached, fixed upon me intensely for a moment, then took on a measuring look even as his mouth smiled a welcome. “Amodai? Good to see you again.”
“Is it?” I raised my bow, but did not draw, knowing how quickly I'd grow fatigued holding that pose.
An eyebrow lifted slightly, but Mohri remained seated, not even gathering his legs beneath him. “Yes, for many reasons, including some I cannot reveal just yet. The one I can reveal and that you will accept is simple: I know you have questions to ask, and I feel the need to unburden my soul to someone with a sympathetic spirit.”
“Was it you who took the farmer?”
His eyes met mine soberly enough. “Yes, though not perhaps as you’re thinking.”
“Because I felt the need of companionship.” His eyes widened slightly as I drew the bowstring to my ear. “No, friend, not in that way. Saw you any sign of violence?”
I reflected a moment, felt the tension drain out of me, and slowly lowered the bow and let the string return to its rest position. “True enough.”
Mohri relaxed visibly, but without changing his position. “Believe me when I say that I mean you and Haven no harm. Quite the opposite. Your farmer's death was perhaps my fault, as it was me who brought her into the woods against her will, but it was her own inflexibility that was the death of her.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mohri sighed. “I'm sure you've felt it as strongly as I have... the difference that sets you apart from those we leave behind each time we enter Shadow. In particular, the feeling that you're better than our elders. If they're like the ones from my village, not a one of them has the courage to face Shadow.” I had felt it, and tried to keep the guilty awareness of that over-proud superiority from showing on my face. I averted my eyes.
“I thought so. Then you also understand what it's like to be one with Shadow, and yet have none who can understand that glory and share it with you. You have a wife?”
“Not yet, but soon.”
“Good for you! And yet she is not here with you, is she?”
I frowned, still unwilling to meet his eyes. “No, she fears Shadow too much.”
“Yet what is there to fear?" He swung his arms wide, encompassing the forest around us. "You know as well as I do that anyone with a mind and enough motivation can hold off Shadow and learn to control what it offers us.” His voice grew eager. “Wouldn’t it be a fine thing to bring her with you some time, to help her overcome her fear and learn to share your exhilaration, to celebrate your love in the skin of a wolf, or of—”
“Stop.” His words were suddenly offensive, though I could not deny the strange tingle I'd felt at the possibilities he suggested.
Mohri bowed his head. “Forgive me. I sometimes get carried away. But you asked why I took the farmer with me, and now you have your answer. I've been alone in Shadow a long, long time, and whatever you may fear, I am no less human than when I first entered Shadow. Your company would be pleasant enough, but you don’t offer what I need. I want others to live with me here, to share the joys and sorrows of a life beyond the Light. I want what you have in Haven, but I want Shadow too.”
I met his eyes and saw a deep loneliness there. “That much I can understand. But it grows late, and you must return with me to Haven. You can explain yourself to our elders and to Graemor.”
A shadow crossed his face at the mention of my mentor's name, and he looked away. “As before, I must decline your invitation.”
I raised my bow again. “You mistake me if you think it an invitation. I'm here to bring you back to Haven, alive for a certainty, but not necessarily undamaged.”
He met my eyes again. “Alas, it's too late for that.”
“What do you mean?” I glanced around nervously, as far as I dared without losing sight of him.
He raised an arm slowly enough that I could not confuse the gesture as reaching for a weapon, and pointed at the sky. The sun, unnoticed during the course of my long hunt, had crossed from behind me to stand low in the sky ahead, the shadows it cast lengthening to a chilling degree. It would be sunset in no more than an hour or two, and I was far too distant from home to reach its safety before then, even if I abandoned Mohri and fled as fast as a shadowform could take me. I felt sure now that I'd strayed beyond safe limits and fear rose in me at that realization. By the time I'd mastered it well enough to focus again on my companion, Mohri had risen to his feet, unnoticed.
“Fear not, Amodai. I've told you all you need to survive the night here. But you must do it alone, for I cannot stay.”
“I cannot.” And his features blurred before my eyes, and suddenly I was confronting the small wolf again.
“Stay, Mohri, or I'll stop you.” The wolf turned to go, and I drew the bowstring to my ear. He must have sensed it somehow, for he turned his head to look back at me, the hackles risen on his neck and all down his spine. He drew his lips back ever so briefly from his fangs, then turned again and began to move off. Without another thought, I loosed the arrow, aiming for what I hoped would not prove to be a vital spot.
At this range, I could not miss him entirely, though neither did I accomplish my aim; the arrow passed cleanly through the wolf’s chest, knocking him off his feet and embedding itself deep in the leaf mould behind him. He howled his pain, echoed by the splash of blood that sprang from the wound and began soaking into the forest floor. Yet even as I nocked a second arrow, Mohri transformed, returning to a semblance of humanity, yet with heavy lupine features and a wolf's hunched back. His face whitened, and agony filled his eyes; a slowly spreading bloodstain soaked his jerkin as he lay on his side and bared wolfish teeth at me. But as I’d hoped, the transformation healed the wound enough to keep him alive, and a second transformation would undoubtedly fix the worst of the damage.
“You shouldn't have done that.”
“Nor you. I warned you—you must accompany me back to Haven.”
Mohri gathered his feet carefully beneath him, wincing. “And I told you, that cannot be.” Then, as I watched, he dissolved entirely into something shapeless and indistinct among the gathering shadows. I loosed my second arrow, but it passed right through him, this time with no evident effect. For the second time that day, fear threatened to overwhelm me. But a voice came from amidst the darkness gathering before me.
“Despite what you've done, I have no hatred for you. You shall live. But never try that again; there are limits to my goodwill. Now I must leave you to fend for yourself, and I hope you shall prove equal to the test. Good fortune, Amodai. Try to enjoy what will befall you. I know you have it in you to do so.”
I reached out for him, not knowing what else to do, but he was gone, as if I’d been talking to a ghost. I rested my bow upon my foot, watched the shadows lengthening about me, and fought to master the growing sense of panic that was eroding my self-control, allowing Shadow to seep in around its fraying edges. This time, the seductive pull of Shadow felt vaguely sinister, and it was all I could do to master myself and try to think my way to a solution.
Night had fallen by the time I abandoned any hope of succeeding at Mohri’s solution. Hard though I’d tried, I’d been wholly unable to do more than assume the semblance of a plant, but whenever I tried to move beyond the semblance, to submerge my consciousness as I’d been advised, I found myself unable to let go. And the harder I tried, the harder it became. I briefly considered transforming myself into some great night-flying bird and striving to return that way, but deep as I was in the forest, with no easy way to retrace my path in the dark, it was a fool’s hope. My growing fear didn’t help. It was not that the night and Shadow scared me, for I’d traveled in Shadow before by night; rather, it was the sure knowledge that I would soon have to sleep, and that once my consciousness ebbed, I would sleep and never wake—at least, I’d never wake again as Amodai.
There was one option remaining, and it was a desperate one. Early in our training, before we’d learned to maintain our willpower as a shield against Shadow, Graemor taught us that in an emergency, fire could serve as a temporary replacement for Light. But that protection was weak, and fire often drew shadowbeasts because of its semblance of Light. With my only alternative being to sleep here, unprotected and unsure I'd ever wake as myself, I had little choice. For the first time during my many sojourns in Shadow, I set about making a fire.
Fire in Shadow was a peculiar thing. My small fire produced all the familiar sounds and smells you'd expect from a fire, along with the heat, but the flames were a strange confluence of dancing, twining, silver and white light, with not even the faintest fleeting tinges of gold or red, as if the fire had aspects of Shadow alone. The occasional spark that soared free from the flames danced and fluttered like a moth against a windowpane before vanishing into the darkness. It was endlessly fascinating staring into those depths—that is, when I could tear my eyes away from the night that had fallen around me.
The shadows that gathered 'round, whether drawn by or cast by the light of the fire, were not the ordinary shadows cast by the sun. The first kind were at least familiar: the lesser shadowbeasts that one often saw in the forest, small woodland animals no different from their kin that I'd seen many times in normal forest before the coming of Shadow, still fully recognizable though somewhat distorted by Shadow’s power. Why they gathered so near the fire was a mystery to me, though perhaps some faded memory of Light and its loss drew them. The second kind of shadow I dared not examine too closely, for those shadows partook too much of the nature of Shadow and not enough of Light. My own shadow, for instance, sat with its back against a tree behind me, watching me with a patient gaze that sent chills along my spine whenever—as happened often—some inner urging made me turn to be sure it hadn't left its post by the tree. Early on, when I’d first noticed it sitting there, I attempted speech, but my shadow ignored me, and eventually I desisted, hoping my other self would not betray me.
After a time, lack of sleep, the fatigue of a day's hard physical labor, and the stress of my situation combined to lull me into an uneasy sleep. I awoke almost instantly from a nightmare in which I’d dissolved into Shadow as Mohri had done, to find myself with my back stiff but still upright, sword resting across my lap. I wasn’t immediately sure what had awakened me, for my mind was still clouded with fatigue and the half-sleep I’d awoken from. Then, as my vision and mind cleared, I saw it.
Across the fire from me, sitting just outside the circle of light, sat a large shadowbeast. It had taken on something of human form, though it was a giant of its kind and its face held a strange beauty that discomforted me and made me avert my eyes. It sat watching me with the patient eyes of a hunter, and when it saw I was fully awake, it smiled a predatory smile.
“You come among us unwisely, child. Your kind is safest in the Light that preserves it and you should leave Shadow to those born to it.”
I stretched, then began, as surreptitiously as I knew how, to work my stiff muscles and prepare to defend myself if need be. “Nonetheless, we must occasionally join your kind in Shadow, as I’ve done tonight.”
“Then it would behoove you to learn the courtesy of a traveler in another people’s country. Bringing fire with you is discourteous at best, and unwise even beyond discourtesy.”
I felt anger rising in me, enough so that I grew bold. “Wisdom would seem to depend on one’s viewpoint. This fire is what keeps me alive and safe from such as you.”
The shadowbeast’s smile broadened, revealing cruel fangs, and I moved slowly to add more wood to the fire, which had consumed much of its fuel. “Some things are absolutes, child of Light.” There was a hint of sadness in his eyes that contrasted oddly with the threat of those fangs. He rose to his feet and began to circle the fire, casually, one might have thought, were it not for the play of powerful muscles and the narrowing of his eyes. I rose more hastily, ignoring the twinges in abused muscles, and brought my sword blade and the fire into line with his body, circling to keep both defenses between us.
When he’d circled almost to my former position, I poised myself for an attack, but none came. “Come!” he said, and even as I readied myself for a mocking reply that would raise my courage, I saw his command had not been for me. A mass of goose bumps sprang up on my skin as my shadow, forgotten, rose from where it had been sitting, unmoving though I'd circled the fire, and obediently crossed over to the shadowbeast. It extended a hand—
“Stop!” I commanded, not knowing what was about to happen but dread washing through my veins at the suspicion it would not be to my advantage. The shadow ignored me, and reached out to clasp the shadowbeast’s extended hand. With that touch, I felt a chill upon my soul, a cold that deepened when the shadowbeast caught my gaze.
“Some things are absolutes, child of Light, and this is another: you have now given me power over you.” As I watched, my shadow flowed into the shadowbeast, absorbed like water into a sponge. “A demonstration: I bid thee, extinguish that fire that so offends my eye.”
I resisted that command as best I could, but my limbs were no longer mine to command, and after a brief semblance of struggle, I complied, dropping my sword and scooping wet dirt and leaf mould onto the fire in double handfuls until the light faded and only faint wisps of smoke remained, soon to vanish. Then I stayed on my knees, awaiting the shadowbeast’s next words.
Those words came in the form of a surprisingly gentle laugh. “You fear me, child, and not without reason: there is within me something you recognize and that calls to you. But I have no quarrel with your kind; indeed, you are kin to us in a way none of you suspect. For that reason, I leave you with a gift: I bid you sleep, and when you wake, live among us for a time and understand what you have not, before, understood.” His smile grew curiously gentle, almost fond, and with those words in my ears, I found myself sinking slowly to the ground, overwhelmed by a wave of weariness and, somewhere at the back of my mind, a rising tide of despair at what must soon happen.
I awoke with the strange silvered sun of Shadow shining down on my face, and rolled onto my side, stretching prodigiously. The night’s happenings might have been naught but a dream, save that I felt unfamiliar stirrings at my side as I stretched, and the pair of hands that rose to clear the sleep from my eyes awoke a matching movement from the additional set of limbs that had sprouted beneath them. That jolted me awake, but without the sense of horror I should have felt; instead, there was surprise and a growing elation at the sense of lost control—of power!—that grew in me as I got to my feet. Gone were my clothing and weapons, for I wore the pelt of a wolf, my favorite shape in Shadow—but no wolf such as I'd ever imagined; this wolf had the familiar four furry paws, but also the familiar human arms that hung at my sides, brushing against my legs. I smiled, feeling an abnormally long jaw gape in the breeze and the smooth rasp of upper fangs sliding past lower ones.
I rose to my feet—all four of them—and went to relieve myself against a tree, something that amused me greatly, and I bared that grin once again to any who might be there to see, savoring the crispness of tooth meshing with tooth. Then I felt the urge to defecate, and did that too. When I’d done, I kicked my hind legs gleefully several times, scattering leaves and soil and feces, all the while savoring the power in those limbs. Answering their increasingly insistent call, I bunched my legs beneath me and set off at a run, not knowing where or why I was going, but exhilarating in the play of powerful muscles and room to run. Nonetheless, it proved awkward running with that extra set of limbs, and I tripped and stumbled, scarcely balanced well enough to avoid colliding with trees. In less than a minute, I forced myself to pause: I was thinking too hard, concentrating on my form rather than giving it its head. So I relaxed, and all at once I felt myself flowing like heated wax. There was none of that familiar pressure, only a sense of answered potential, and more than my body answered an irresistible call. It felt like that moment of release when, reaching the end of the long arc at the end of a rope suspended over the river, you let go and surrendered to the fall. Elated, I felt the sudden release of control as my new form took full hold, and I reached around with part of my mind I’d never before used and drew upon Shadow, feeling it swell within me until I'd nearly doubled my former size and was near to bursting with the strength of that form.
My belly growled, then, and I felt the hunger I’d ignored until that moment surging in me. I pointed my heavy muzzle to the sky and sniffed, wrinkling my whole face with the sheer pleasure of the answering bouquet of scents, and focusing in on one single blossom in that bunch: something large and warm, with the promise of blood to slake my raging thirst and raw flesh to soothe the ache in my belly. I bared my fangs again in expectation, feeling the rightness of how they’d work on flesh and bone, then howled to alert my prey to my coming, knowing instinctively how the taste of its terror would add to the pleasure of the feast. Then I sprang off upwind, nose raised and savoring the scent of my breakfast.
I came upon the stag in a large clearing, and paused to appreciate the moment. He stood well above the underbrush—a full six feet at the shoulder—his eight legs seeming scarcely adequate to support a spread of antler that scraped the canopy of trees, and confident pride in his eyes as he turned to face me. I howled my challenge, and he bugled his acceptance, face blurring as his neck muscles visibly thickened and the antlers shrank to a size more manageable for combat against one not of his kind. I flung myself upon him then, not waiting for him to charge, and he stamped his hooves once, a rolling eight-fold drumbeat upon the ground, before lowering his antlers to meet my charge. At the last possible moment, I dug in my paws and danced aside, narrowly missing being gutted as I dodged around him, interposing a tree to give me another moment to adjust to his speed.
I tried again, and a third time, yet there was no way through that thicket of spears that would leave me bloodier than my prey. Instead, I danced back towards him at the end of his arc, and before he could begin his backswing, I seized upon one branch of that mighty crown, teeth closing with a viscerally intense satisfaction. Then, as I felt those antlers begin to change direction, I braced my feet in the yielding forest floor, and adding all my strength to his own motion, strove to fling him to his back in one swift, powerful move. I’d reckoned without his strength, however, and with a deceptively casual toss of his neck, he flung me through the air, a large chunk of broken antler still clenched in my teeth. I twisted as I landed, dozens of yards away, and ran at him once again even as I spat out my mouthful of horn.
This time, he met me at a full charge, and I was a moment too slow in dancing around him. Cruelly sharp antlers caught me in mid-dodge, and I howled briefly with the pain before my breath was crushed from me. Dozens of spikes tore into my flesh along the full length of my body, breaking ribs and missing my face and eyes only by chance. All of a sudden, my confidence shattered, and as that mighty head flung me high into the air, I felt the sudden, sure knowledge of my mortality. The wolf panicked and quailed, but the man remained, and even as I crashed through splintering branches on my way upward, I reached out to catch Shadow and desperately bent it to my will. My fall was arrested abruptly as my long, sinuous body caught branches and wrapped around them, the pain flowing from me as suddenly as the wolf form. The stag, my blood still dripping from his horns, snorted and pawed the ground beneath me, but I ignored him as I forced myself to complete the change, long wolf ribs curving into the shorter, rounder ribs of a great serpent and knitting into wholeness as they did so.
With my long, forked tongue, I tasted the air for his scent, but did not recognize it amidst the myriad strange sensations that assaulted me. So I let the Snake rise fully in me, and felt its cold hunger sweep over me. Then I dropped from the tree, muscles coiling and bunching like the flow of the river in full spring flood. I struck the stag with all my weight, and he staggered, but before he could toss his head to gore me, I looped a coil under his belly, interwoven with his many legs, and sank my short, hooked teeth deep into the mighty muscles of his neck. Without my conscious volition, I felt my muscles contract around him until they formed an iron band around his chest; there was an ache in my ribs from my half-healed wounds, and blood still trickled from unhealed gashes. Buried deep, an echo of the agony and shock accompanied that terrible wound, but the Snake was dominant and heedless.
The stag, now realizing his peril, tried to run, but I tangled his legs by throwing yet another loop around him, and he fell heavily, nearly crushing me. But my new form was built for this, and with each exhalation of his heaving chest, I tightened my grip a bit more, feeling the nearly unbearable stress as those mighty lungs struggled to expand against me, then the sense of relief as he inevitably exhaled again and I tightened my grip further. That mighty heart pounded against my ribs as he strained with the utmost reserves of his strength to break me, rolling about and uprooting shrubs and even small trees. But it was a hopeless effort. The sheer power and irresistible resilience of those muscles would have awed me had it not been for my single-minded focus.
I have no sense of how long it took, for my time sense was gone, but after a time, he gave one last mighty shudder and stopped moving, unable to draw breath against the pressure of my coils. Still I held him, tightening my muscles with irresistible strength until I felt ribs splinter, then paused until I could no longer feel the beat of that heart. Then, with a feeling of tremendous release, I relaxed my muscles and slowly slid from around and beneath the dead stag. Killing him was cold pleasure, as was the anticipation of swallowing him whole and crawling off somewhere to enjoy the drugged sense of digesting him. My jaw slipped free from its moorings, a decidedly strange feeling, and I began trying to crawl over the stag and force it down my throat, the hooked teeth preventing movement in any other direction. But it soon became apparent that doing so would prove impossible. Though in death the stag had begun to revert to something like a normal deer, it was evident I'd never be able to swallow anything so large, even at my current enormous size. As the cold rage of being thwarted rose in me, a far warmer feeling took hold, and I felt Shadow working within me again.
My ribs and muscles flowed once again, healing what was left of my wounds as they did, and in moments, I stood over the stag in the form of an enormous hunting cat. With a snarl of sheerest pleasure, I sank my fangs into the carcass and strained my muscles against the enormous dead weight: though I wanted to dine now, instinct told me the scent of death would soon draw other predators, some more dangerous than me, and that getting the carcass into a tree was my priority. Nostrils dilating almost painfully wide as I struggled to draw breath around the burden that forced my jaws so wide, I used every last bit of my enormous power and clawed my way up a large oak, bark shredding beneath my claws, the dead stag banging against my side and placing an almost unbearable strain on my neck as my motion caused the body to sway. Yet somehow I made it to a large fork, and wedged the dead stag in the fork with claws sunk deep into his flesh while I caught my breath. Then I fed, greedily drinking in the still-warm blood and bolting down great gobbets of flesh and choice bits of organ meat. The man deep within me recoiled, wishing at least for the chance to chew some of the meat, but it was the Cat that ruled.
When I had gorged myself, I roused my increasingly sluggish muscles long enough to ensure that what remained of the carcass was securely wedged into the fork. Then I changed branches, feeling the sluggishness stealing through me and into my brain, but not so sleepy that I would lie in the blood of my kill. Instead, I coiled myself on the clean branch and sank into a warm torpor, retaining only enough consciousness to lick clean my paws and use them to clean my bloodstained muzzle. The rasp of my coarse tongue on thick fur was enough to lull me to sleep, and I dozed, content in a way I can’t remember ever having been before.
Time passed like the rippling of wind in a field of wheat, marked only by the necessary activities of eating and voiding, and of sleeping at various times, sometimes by day and sometimes by night, depending on my current form. It was a pleasant existence, freed of any constraints on my behavior and of any needs or responsibilities, Shadow pulling at me now and then in unpredictable waves and molding me into some new form. Some shapes were familiar, others far less so, but I made no effort to control the changes Shadow wrought in me other than once, when another great cat surprised me by a kill, and in my panic, I forced myself into the form of a great bear to scare the cat away.
But one day, while I crouched, poised by the edge of a placid pond, waiting for a large fish to come close enough for me to scoop it from the water, I saw a face reflected upon the water. There was something odd about that face, for it had neither whiskers nor fangs, and it floated there beside my own furry visage, evoking strange longings within me. The man who was still in me, buried deep, awakened to those memories, rising slowly to the top of my mind until at last a word came to label those memories: Mareth?
“No, not Mareth,” came a voice that sank right past furry ears and animal consciousness to sound directly in the long-unused ears of that Man.
And of course it wasn’t Mareth. I turned slowly to face the newcomer, greatly unsettled that anything had been able to approach this close unnoticed, but a mingled feline and human curiosity mastering that discomfort. I gazed long upon her, for though her face and figure were those of a young woman of ordinary comeliness, there was also a sense of age and power that shone through her dark skin, giving her a transcendent beauty. I felt myself staring, and she returned my gaze far more politely.
An unspoken thought formed in my sluggish mind, and the woman smiled and responded. “You may call me Mother, though I fear that will mislead you more than it will help.” Though all around me were shades of grey and black, Mother's lustrous hair nonetheless formed a golden stream that flowed restlessly around her shoulders as though it had a life of its own. A rosy blush gilded her dark complexion, recalling summer and warm life, and a rich, peach dress shone like a beacon amidst Shadow. Before I'd seen her, it had never occurred to me to question the beauty of Shadow, but now my surroundings seemed wholly lackluster in comparison.
I began a puzzled response, but all that emerged from my mouth was a snarl. That frustrated me, for I suddenly had much to ask. For the first time since dining on the stag, I consciously strove to transform myself into a shape more suited to human conversation, but found, to my horror, the power was beyond me.
“Fear not, Amodai. It is natural and appropriate that you cannot change here.” She frowned a moment, then smiled radiantly. “Forgive me, for I mislead you. Perhaps it would be easier to simply say that you have become a part of Shadow for the moment. Come with me to my home, and I shall shortly set things right.” She turned away as if accustomed to obedience, and she was not disappointed, for I followed her instinctively, as if nothing else in the world mattered, not even the luscious fish. I moved a little faster until I reached her side, feeling a strange longing, and one slim hand fell brushed against my head, resting there like sun through glass on a cold autumn morning. Like a kitten with a human all his own to pamper him, I butted my head ecstatically against that hand, and felt it stroke my fur gently in return. All thoughts faded from my head save only for the need to keep in contact with that warmth.
After a time, that hand lifted from my fur, and I found myself staring at a tiny, oddly shaped hut from which a steady, warm, golden light emerged. The floor of the hut stood a good three feet off the ground, supported by gnarly, golden-brown pillars that resembled nothing so much as chicken legs. From within the hut emerged a bewildering array of scents, animal, vegetable, and mineral, but one above all stood out: that of a rich and complex broth that caused saliva to spring up in my mouth and my stomach muscles to tighten in anticipation.
“Enter within,” spoke Mother, and took her own advice, rising easily as if there had been no need to step up. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, I complied, springing joyously into the air and passing through that portal.
The floor and walls of the hut were covered with elegantly woven mats made from some unfamiliar, reedy-seeming plant. There were several heaps of pillows made from roughly carded wool and stuffed with what smelled like milkweed seeds, and large earthenware crocks filled to overflowing with a bewildering variety of vegetables and herbs. But what struck me most was how much larger the inside of the hut was then it had seemed from outside, for the space I’d entered was larger than many a house in Haven. There was magic here of a sort wholly beyond my imagination, yet I felt no trepidation whatsoever; rather, I was bathed in more of that same warmth that Mother’s hand had borne, and a powerful sense of belonging. It was as if I’d returned to the home of my youth after a lifetime away to find a warm welcome.
Mother gestured smoothly with one hand and a woven door fell across the opening we’d just passed through, sealing off any sight of Shadow. Then she crossed the room and knelt before me. “Welcome to my home, Amodai,” she spoke softly, and placed a hand upon my brow. At that touch, I understood that I'd been in human form for some time, though I found myself crouched on all fours before her. She rose to her feet and turned away, taking with her the warmth of her touch, and I reached out for her, far too slowly and hesitantly. By the time she turned again, I had mastered myself and moved into a more comfortable sitting position.
My voice felt rusty, but I managed to find words. “Great Lady, I thank you.”
She smiled gently. “Titles are for those who need them. Call me simply Mother, for that is all the title I need.”
“Who are you that you live in Shadow, yet hold it at bay so effortlessly?”
The smile faded, and it was as if the room had momentarily lost much of its life. “I’d forgotten how restless and inquisitive your minds are,” she replied quietly. “You have much of Him in you. Perhaps that's why I love you all so.”
I was well out of my depth, and didn’t like it one bit. “Him? You love us?”
Now she laughed, the smile returned to her face, and all worry and confusion vanished from my mind. Suddenly nothing mattered save the fact that I was here, and was loved. “Know you not? Truly? Ah, I see it is so. Your priestesses have forgotten much, or perhaps merely chose long ago not to reveal certain things to you. But you must eat, for I can feel your hunger even from here.” She crossed gracefully to the cauldron that sat in the middle of the room; it had stood unnoticed until then, despite the blazing fire that licked at it and conjured forth that heady aroma I’d scented earlier. A large ladle dipped into that broth, and even as the ladle emerged dripping from the cauldron, an earthenware bowl appeared and flowed smoothly beneath it to receive its burden. A wooden spoon soon joined it. A spicy, wholesome, wholly delightful scent filled the room, and Mother sighed in satisfaction.
“Eat, and be well, my child. When you are done, we shall talk.” The bowl floated softly across the room until it stood before me, awaiting my hands, and settled gently into my palms when I belatedly lifted them to greet it. Mother had moved to join me, and as I watched, awestricken, she folded her legs beneath her with a casual grace that would have put a cat to shame, and sat before me.
It took a superhuman effort to eat slowly and delicately, for the broth was superb, full of the richness of all good things, though none that I could recognize individually. Had it not been for fear of appearing completely unmannered, I would have bolted it like a wolf and hastened to ask for more. As it was, I ate as gracefully as I could manage, as if I were in the presence of royalty. When I was done, my belly pleasantly full yet yearning for more, I set the bowl carefully on the floor and gazed upon my hostess.
“I hardly know what to ask.”
If I say that her smile lit up the room this time, you would accuse me of committing poetry, but it was far more than that. “We can begin with your first question, the one I so rudely forestalled earlier. You would know of your father.” Sensing my confusion, her smile became gentler still. “No, not the Man who sired you. Your true father.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not, for you have not been properly educated. But even so, surely you know that you are a child of both Light and Shadow?”
I licked my lips, savoring the residual spice from the broth and buying time to ponder. “No. We have always been taught that men and women are the children of Light, and Light alone. Until Shadow came upon us, we had no knowledge but what came to us from old tales that anything but Light existed.”
Mother frowned, but could not hold that look for long. Her gentle smile returned. “Such is His way, that he makes no effort to make His presence known directly. Your father is Shadow, just as your mother is Light; it is that heritage that lets you and every other mortal who chooses to do so walk among Shadow, yet return to Light when they are done.”
I shook my head in confusion, trying to reconcile what she was saying with what I’d read in a great many books and what I'd been taught by the priestesses. “I still don’t understand.”
Mother laughed again, and my confusion instantly abated, though not because it had been replaced by understanding; rather, it was simply that I no longer worried or cared that I did not understand. “Ah, your priestesses have much to answer for, and it is well indeed that I am not vindictive. Do you know, Amodai, where children come from?”
I blushed and looked away. “Yes. I... I have a woman who will be my wife when I return.”
“And she is your lover now? Good. That is another blessing He gave his children.” There was an intensity in her voice, then, that I understood all too well, and I dared not meet her eyes, for my embarrassment mounted to even greater levels until I feared I'd die from shame. But her voice changed once again, and all at once that sense of awkwardness eased.
“Be not ashamed, Amodai, for in the act of love, you recreate the original act that brought your kind into being. Though it is man and woman who celebrate that act, it is others who kindle the spark that brings new life from that act.”
I looked up and, filled with courage from her voice, met her eyes. There was love there, but also a tolerant amusement that would have rankled had it been anyone else. “Is it you who kindles that spark? Are you our true mother?”
Again, the room was filled with her laugh. “Some things are not easy to explain, and this is one of them. Though I am not She of whom you speak, yet am I She of whom you speak.” She sighed, but there was mirth in that sound as well as frustration. “It is so difficult to explain these things. But never mind—it's unimportant. Call me Mother, as I have asked, and let it rest at that. There may come a day when you understand, but that understanding is not crucial.”
Once again, I shook my head in confusion, but this time the feeling did not take root, nor disturb me. “You spoke of... Him... as if he were Shadow itself...?”
“Have you not learned your lesson yet?” Her laughter and the light in her eyes robbed that question of any possible sting. “Very well. He who is your Father is—and is not—Shadow just as I am—and am not—Light. Are you sorry yet that you asked?”
I mustered all my stubbornness and pressed onwards, ignoring the sensation of trying to push my brain out through my forehead by sheer effort of will. “Yes, but I'm not yet satisfied that I’m sufficiently confused.”
Again she laughed. “I’d forgotten how delightful His children are; I must spend more time with your kind and correct some of the more pernicious gaps in your knowledge.” Then she frowned again. “Since you were not born with both Light and Shadow in your life, I must explain things that should be obvious to you and in no need of explanation—yet no explanation is truly possible. Do you understand the principle of metaphor?”
I nodded, and she continued. “The manner in which the night transforms things, releases into the world those unseen forces that make the dogs howl and draw near to the fire and the cats hiss and avoid the shadows, also frees spirits to roam beyond their earthen graves, and causes the hairs to rise on the nape of one’s neck—in such a manner does Shadow make of the world a very different place. Does that make things clearer?”
I gnawed on my lower lip, feeling the pressure in my head grow as I tried to wrap my thoughts around it. “Just as daytime evokes the Light and chases away those forces of night and Shadow?”
There was pride in her voice, and I hated to disappoint her, but I felt that feeble clutch on the answer fail as comprehension slipped away once more and lay there, just out of reach. “That’s just a metaphor, and it doesn’t encompass the understanding I was striving for, and now that meaning is gone again, and...”
A gentle hand fell upon my shoulder. “Don’t berate yourself, child. If it were an easy concept to understand—well, let’s just say that the world would be a very different place. And that brings me to why I’ve brought you here. It would have sufficed that a child of His was lost in Shadow, but there is more to it than merely that.”
A frown grew on her face and in the room, and it was evident that it was not a comfortable or familiar occurrence. “There is another of His children who has labored diligently to bring Shadow to all His other children.”
“But if I’ve understood what you’ve told me, would that be such a bad thing?”
“No... and yes. His understanding is shallow, even as yours must of necessity be, and he acts based on that limited understanding. Thus, he acts in error, and that error will have dire consequences for some.”
“But...” I mentally retraced my steps, groping for understanding. “But surely if we are all children of Shadow, then joining with Shadow would not be wrong?” Unbidden, my thoughts went to Mareth.
Mother turned a sober gaze on me that sank deep into the depths of my soul and robbed me of any confidence that I spoke wisely. “Did I not also tell you that you are every bit as much children of Light? And did you enjoy what you became when you spent too long in Shadow?”
I looked away, feeling sudden shame again. “Yes. I did enjoy what I became. And I should not have.”
Her hand was back on my shoulder almost before I’d finished speaking, and sympathy and understanding swept away my shame. “But you should have!”
I shook my head again, even more confused than before. “How—”
“The problem is not that you enjoyed expressing that part of you which is Shadow, but rather that you lost that part of you which is Light. And that is Mohri’s sin: he does not understand that mortals are equal parts Light and Shadow, and making you wholly one with Shadow denies and perverts that nature. And there is worse to come.”
“Worse?” I felt no alarm in her voice, but fear rose in me anyway and I raised my head to meet her gaze.
Mother laughed, and yet again, my fear vanished. “Ah, my child, language is such a poor tool for what I must say. Perhaps worse was an unwise choice of word, for it carries shades of meaning I had not intended. Suffice it to say that He who is your Father walks in Shadow around the few remaining areas of Light in these parts, and it is His presence that has drawn me here.”
I covered my eyes with my hands and pressed hard to conceal the former’s tears and the latter’s shaking. “Enough. This is far beyond my competence. I feel a complete fool.”
Warmth flowed into me, my trembling ceased, and I felt suddenly strong enough to face her again. “Amodai, be at peace. Yes, it is beyond your competence, but feel not demeaned thereby. You are what you are, and what you are was never meant to understand—only to wonder and marvel at what you cannot understand. Be content that you are loved—by Him as well as by me—and that all will again be as it should be, provided only that Mohri fails.”
"Can you stop him?"
"Of course I can." This time there was a distinct sense of exasperation in her voice. "But it is not my way to intervene in the squabbles of my children. I'm not your mother, after all."
"I know what I said. I mean only that I'm not your human parent. I have more faith in my children than any human mother."
A thought occurred to me, and I seized upon it like a man falling from an apple tree might seize upon an apple when all other support failed him. “Is it my fate to be the one to stop him?”
“Your story and his have yet to be written. But you and your friends must be the ones who try to stop him, and who shall actually succeed, if indeed you do succeed, and we shall know when it happens. Go now to your village and explain what you can of things, and rally your villagers to defend themselves.”
“But how will I find my way home?”
“You are already home.” Her smile once more washed the room with light, and with a gentle wave, she swept aside the curtain that hung across the doorway. Outside, there was Shadow, but in the distance, far below me, lay the border between Shadow and Light. Even as I watched, the hut sank earthwards gently as thistledown falling to earth when the wind abandons it. When that motion ceased, Mother gently pulled me to my feet and led me to the door. In the distance, I could see the familiar walls and outlying buildings of Haven, and the setting sun going down behind the walls.
Without knowing what it was that I did, I stepped out from the hut, almost falling the few feet to the ground. Then all at once, I turned to ask Mother another question, but I was already too late. All that remained to convince me I'd done more than dream our conversation was one very strange image: deep in Shadow, and fading fast, was the sight of her hut, moving swiftly away on long chicken legs. Then that too was gone, and all that remained was a sense of despair—not at having to track down Mohri once again, but rather at the other task that lay ahead, trying to explain what I now knew to Graemor and the others. It was some time before I could shrug off the pull of Shadow and begin moving towards home, eager to reach such safety as it offered before nightfall.
Continue reading: Chapter 4
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