Shadow Walker

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A brisk hike ends in friendship

Surviving in the Wilderness might have been an overstatement. This was more like not dying.

If anyone in the small congregation I left at Vashire had been nice enough to assume I wasn’t a complete imbecile, running full tilt and laughably outdistancing my armed escort probably changed their opinion. I knew my best chance was to move as swiftly and quietly as possible. The mages’ job would be to stall so I might reconsider— it was hard to say whether their sense of honor would have compelled them to protect me without a promise to return— but when the day passed without any sign of a safe house, I was starting to regret not staying with them.

Golden summer light sifted down from the needled eaves, withering toward dusk. The moss-damp earth swallowed my footsteps and all I could hear was the sloshing ka-thump of my own heart. My head was roaring in a bleary, buzzing way, but I didn’t dare stop for water. All I could focus on was the steady pull of my imperium and the cadence of my master’s instructions as I repeated them in my head.

Get to the Wayfinder. Do not stop. Do not listen. Do not look. Your imperium knows the way.

Daedalus and I had been strategizing for the better part of a year, but the topics he could discuss were infuriatingly vague notions on how I might better my chances. No amount of endurance training could prepare me for running twelve hours straight. Either his memory of the distance was fading, or he was giving my stamina more credit than it deserved. I needed water and rest, both of which were huge risks, but we had anticipated the possibility I wouldn’t make it to the Wayfinder before nightfall.

At the next brook, I slowed and quietly drank my fill, careful to keep the thick fabric of my cloak out of the water. Though it was summer, unpredictable weather often rolled down the mountains, sweeping through the foothills of the forest like an icy whisper. Tonight would be cold.

As if the forest read my thoughts, cool and heavy air started to eddy past me, tendrils of mist starting to spill into the ravine. A chill ran up my spine, and I nearly screamed at the sight of shadows crawling toward me across the fading latticework of sunlight.

My curse was so prominent here.

I revised my opinion as I watched the darkness bend and curl around me, responding like a living thing to my fear. It was really, really good I wasn’t still with the mages. Darkness wasn’t something people controlled, it was something they embraced. I needed no imagination to guess what would have happened if it had been anyone other than Daedalus who found out.

Shadows didn’t just come up to people like a lost puppy. Not unless they were cursed. A wave of grief hit me like a spring squall, coming in dark and angry from the West. Why did it have to be me? All I ever wanted was to be recognized as good and faithful. An intelligent young archivist performing a valuable service to Society.

Between my past and muteness, people just assumed I was either a sinner or simple. But the Great One wouldn’t have allowed this to happen if not for a reason. I needed to keep faith in that. I would make it to the Wayfinder and I would find a cure. Someday, I would return to Society and beg forgiveness. But tonight, I needed to stay alive.

From the lining of my cloak, I fished out six ward stones. They required no magic and would create a physical shield after I buried the whole set in a circle. My master had explained there was enough energy stored for two, maybe three nights if I was lucky. “But you will certainly be unlucky if after four days you have not reached where you need to be. It’s best not to stop at all if possible,” he’d added when he first gave them to me.

I kneaded five of the stones into the dirt and drew a loose circle some head-and-a-half longer than my sleeping form would be before tucking the last stone into my boot so the ward wouldn’t activate. I used my knife to pry bark from a nearby tree, exposing clear strings of sap, which I rubbed on my face and clothes. Dung would be stronger, but given the point was not wanting to be eaten, I had ruled out trying to smell like another animal. I dragged over several large spruce branches, doing my best to obscure my hiding place.

The crimson honey glow of the setting sun made the taiga soil shine like blood as I stepped over the circle and planted the last stone before slipping off my boots and practically falling onto the ground. Fatigue muddled my thoughts as I strained to see the barrier— right, it would be invisible to my non-mage eyes— but nothing would be able to cross into or out of the circle while the stones still had energy. So tonight, at least, I should be protected.

In my pine-laden nest, I found myself sinking into a deep, restorative sleep, my bones settling into the lichen-covered ground like a feather bed. And for a moment, I felt safe.

Sometime later, there was a nagging thought my subconscious mind decided to pick at. The first realization spread like fire across my brain, startling it awake. I should be hearing crickets, owls— all the little noises of a living, nighttime forest.

But the forest was dark and silent. Two of the greatest lies in nature.

Creeping things lurked in quiet, still spaces. Things that cast out quiet ripples ahead of them as denizen after denizen felt their presence. Those were the things I wanted to avoid. What the ward was designed to protect me from.

That was when the second realization struck, and my heart nearly stopped. I had rolled in my sleep. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, the ward was just a physical barrier— it wouldn’t hurt me and it would perpetuate until I removed one of the stones from the earth. But I was over the line, which would have been impossible if the stones had energy. There was absolutely nothing between me and whatever was stalking the forest.

If I could have uttered it, a very unholy word would have escaped my mouth.

Before I had any time to re-evaluate my life choices, I felt its presence like a cold, slimy dread slithering up my spine. Fear locked my body in place in a way I had never felt before. This was the danger everyone warned of. This was one of the things that made bodies unrecognizable, that killed with no remorse. I prayed to the Great One my curse would shield me from whatever terrible sight this monster had.

“Hello.” Something whispered in a way water might stir sand on the ocean floor. The sound was deep in my ear. In my head.

My blood froze. Monsters didn’t talk. They weren’t supposed to talk. They were bloodthirsty, well, monsters. Communication meant consciousness. Thought. Understanding.

Even free will— unless this was some type of illusion?

Do not listen. Do not look.

They were the only commands I had left from Daedalus. I had broken the first one by stopping, thinking arrogantly the wards would be foolproof at least for one night against the countless terrible things in the Wilderness. How could I be so dense that I didn’t even check to see if there was a barrier? My only hope was that this was some type of trick to draw me out. And I’d left my knife in my boot. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. If I just remained completely still. . .

“Such a beautiful necklace,” cooed the monster, softer than starlight but sharp as cut glass. It was definitely talking to me. Before I thought better of it, my hand moved.

Thank you.

Better than offending it, right? Hopefully, it didn’t see or understand the gesture. I had broken another of Daedalus’s commands and there was only one left. Do not look. Do not look. Do not look.

Whatever it was seemed to be circling my hiding place. If I wanted to, I would have no problem seeing through the darkness. Seeing whatever it was. But my eyes were firmly shut. Do not look. Do not look.

“A keeper.” The hiss was almost reverent. Did it want my imperium? I had imagined dying at the claws of something beastly, but not from jewelry theft. The judge was going to be so disappointed to find the stone was the only thing missing from my corpse. Almost fitting.

Maybe I could reach some sort of understanding. The monster hadn’t attacked yet.

I cannot give my necklace away.

“No, wouldn’t be given, would it?” The voice mused, “but can be taken.”

My fingers numbly rose to my imperium at the implication. My key to life would be my death. The gold of my mother’s setting was wet with cold sweat.

But if you take this off, I will die.

“Maybe,” said the monster, both curious and uncaring. “Death is a bright, sudden taker. Ravenous. Does not suit you.”

The urge to look was almost overwhelming. The monster spoke of death like a living thing. I tensed, feeling the thing’s frigid presence raise the hair on my arms from underneath my thick cloak. My hand was shaking as I inched the knife up from my boot, slipping the meager weapon into my coat. Do not look.

“Did you come to die?”

Of course not. The judge’s words came back to me as I fingered the blade. Was this temptation? Was this thing some kind of servant of evil?

I’m trying to escape a curse.

“You carry your prison. Running will not set you free.” Glacial words from an ancient mind. The imperium was the only thing keeping it from touching my chest, just above my heart. I could feel the claw tapping lightly on the stone. There was control in the movement as if it were holding back from tearing into me in that instant. “Can set you free. . .”

No. No. No.

Death wasn’t an option- or the escape I meant. I was doing this so I wouldn’t die. How could I possibly convey the life still in me? My heart thumped rapidly in my chest as if counting down the beats it had left. I gripped the knife the judge had given me. There would be one shot. Doubt flickered through me. Could I really kill this thing? Should I? So far it had only alluded to taking my necklace. Maybe, for whatever twisted reason, the monster wouldn’t without my permission. If it was truly a servant of evil, maybe I would be safe if I didn’t give in. But I needed to gauge whatever its intentions were. So I broke Daedalus’s last rule.

Nothing awaited but shadow and forest and fading cold.

The monster was invisible. A fading, ancient singsong echoed around the deserted forest floor. “Cannot see. Cannot see. Cannot see the bars of your cage to set yourself free.” The voice came again, so soft it could have been my imagination. “Twice betrayed, shadow child. First by your silence.” It paused, as if inhaling, before adding, almost blissfully, “then. . . by your fear.

Sleep was not going to come tonight. Even well after the presence vanished, I could not bring myself to move. So I let the shadows of my curse find me, spooling around me in a knot darker than night itself, and tensely waited for dawn.

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