Cris tried focussing on his surroundings, but it was tedious. There was nothing to look at. Quite literally. Just an endless panorama of uniformity. Parched earth, skeletal scrub, and not a lot else. Even the horizon was boring. Flat and blank. He exhaled, and did it noisily. It was intentional.
His riding partner turned to him and he smiled. The prospect of some conversation piqued his interest, but it was short-lived. The other man just turned away. He always did. Damn it. The silence stretched, like the plains about them.
“Where are we?”
It was a stupid question because he knew the answer, but that wasn’t the point. He wanted to talk, he wanted human interaction, and he wanted to get to know…
Was he stupid to think that this man would take him seriously? He had pleaded for the chance to come on this once in a lifetime opportunity, but he was rapidly regretting the decision. He had expected to learn so much from this mandahoi, but the man just ignored him. No, he didn’t just ignore him. The mandahoi looked at him like he was muck. And that wasn’t fair. He wasn’t just muck.
That got his attention. The mandahoi’s head swung smoothly round, and those hawk-like eyes cut right across him. He gulped. And then he furrowed his brow, grimacing. He could never scare this man, but he would at least stand his ground.
“We are crossing the Wastes of Mikaeta.”
And then the git turned away once more. End of conversation. He was on the verge of crying out in frustration, but the natural order of authority stopped him. Aleña was in charge, and he was therefore fortunate. This was an opportunity. That was just the way of it.
The mandahoi continued to ignore him, apparently unconcerned for his mood. Silence won over, and the two travellers trekked on in infuriating silence. In the absence of conversation, his mind wandered to some dark places.
Until his stomach clawed at his boredom. Mother Bright was much higher in the sky, which meant it was close to noon. Soon it would be time to find shelter from the day’s heat, but first they would eat. It would probably be the highlight of the day.
They started with a rock-hard cheese on claggy bread, and followed it with a stone-like biscuit. And that was all washed down with heavily watered wine. It was meagre, but it was still the highlight of the day. Why had he come? Ah yes.
“Why did you ask for a companion on this adventure?”
The mandahoi looked at him with those eyes once more; they really were hawk-like. They weren’t yellow, but something about them gave a suggestion of gold. And the pupil seemed stretched too. He had removed the polished hawk’s mask for the meal, and his face was visible, which was rare for a mandahoi. Even his features seemed avian. There was a sharp but compact nose, small pointed mouth, and even a downy beard. It was a hawkish face. Perhaps owlish.
He looked at the razor-sharp weapons at the man’s side and raised his eyebrows. Why would he permit such tawdry facial growth? He certainly had the tools to sort that out.
The mandahoi opened his mouth. That in itself was a rarity.
“I have told you this.”
“Yes, yes, you need someone to independently verify that you’re not mad.”
“No-one believes me to be mad.”
“Maybe not, but that’s not the point. Why me? You have not said one voluntary word to me in more than a stretch of days. Damn it, I’ve even lost track of the days. Why invite someone along that you can’t even stand?”
The mandahoi’s head tipped and his face scrunched up in question. Now he definitely looked like an owl. Bloody Brother! This was infuriating.
“There has been nothing to say.”
“But we’ve gone days with nothing to entertain us. Are you not bored?” The man shook his head and stayed silent. No! This was the longest stretch of conversation they’d shared, so he was determined to keep it going. “You’re really not bored?”
“Cris. I spend almost all of my life on these plains with nothing for company but the wind. I am always searching, and the quiet is good for searching. So no, I am not bored.”
He had to keep it moving. “Searching for what?”
“Anything and everything. I am a sensor. This is my job.”
The conversation was petering, which was the last thing he wanted. But he had nowhere to go. He had at least been given some insight, which was rare. And actually, perhaps this man was behaving just as he always did. Perhaps the mandahoi had nothing against him after all, and he truly didn’t bother with conversation. That hadn’t registered before. He had been so desperate for rare insight into the mandahoi phenomenon that he actually had no preconception of what he would find. Then again, he would never have guessed at this. The man was weird.
Then something impossible happened. Aleña spoke voluntarily.
“Why did you come?”
“Because I wanted to learn from you.”
Aleña closed his eyes gently, and smiled. Actually smiled. It was such a subtle thing, but powerful. It made the man look small and timid. Weak even. But despite this, reputation alone suggested that the mandahoi could break him with a stare. That contradiction of personality and reputation was strangely disturbing.
“I am not a teacher, and you are not a mandahoi.”
That sounded quite final. “So this was a waste of time?”
The mandahoi shook his head. “If I were to give you a lesson, I would say this: observe carefully. You look at much, but you don’t often see. Seeing is the first skill of a mandahoi.”
His breathing shortened. He was being taught. But then it sank in, and he screwed up his face. What did he mean by that? He could see as well as anyone. “But what—”
The mandahoi’s hand went up and his head spun. He focussed on a blank stretch of horizon, and then he was on his feet.
“We leave. Now. We are going to that copse.” His hand pointed to a knot of gnarled trees in the middle distance. It was all so sudden. What was happening? Aleña was on his horse already, and he was still sat on the ground, legs crossed. There was nothing to disturb them, and his lips parted. This strange behaviour deserved a question. But instead he licked his lips. Aleña was the master here.
And once they were hidden in the scrub of the copse, he understood. There were horsemen coming, and they were coming for them. They had been spotted.
“Come. We need to dig further in.” What was there to do but follow the sensor into the trees. He pushed the mess of question right to the back of his mind.
By the time they were settled, it was getting darker. They had been there a while, and the questions had taken shape. How the mandahoi had spotted the riders from such a distance was bewildering, and how they had been seen was even more so. They were deep in the copse, scraped and clawed by the wiry bushes that they hid within. The mandahoi had set their horses loose on the far side of the trees, which seemed absurd. But he kept the question to himself. They were now deep and watchful. They had been for some time. All was quiet and yet still they waited in silence. Always silent. It was time to ask.
“How did they spot us?”
Those golden eyes turned to him. “When you know what to look for, the signals are bright. Now quiet. We do not want to offer any more than we already have.”
So that was what the mandahoi meant by ‘seeing’. But there was something unsaid too. He gulped. He had definitely just been reprimanded.
The Stranger was bright in the evening sky, casting an eerie red glow over the landscape. There was a strange crackling noise in the air, mixed with the unmistakable sound of dry brush being trampled. The sensor looked at him once more, and indicated with his fore and middle finger. This was what they’d come for, and his heart raced. What were they going to find?
The noise grew, and the strange crackling grew more complex. There were multiple sources, like it was a language, and every now and then there was a grumble. Or a roar. He couldn’t tell. The sounds of feet were all around them, but still he could see nothing. His heart pounded in his ears, but hopefully only he could hear that. Aleña’s hand settled firmly over his left fist. He had been clenching and unclenching it rhythmically. The leather glove had been squeaking. A sound erupted and he trembled. Yes, that was definitely a roar.
He wanted to close his eyes, but his companion demanded submission. He was a mandahoi after all. But the noises were all around them. Were they going to be stepped upon by these things? Whatever they were. Aleña grabbed his jaw and pointed his face at a clearing. He searched the darkness, unsure what he was meant to— And then it was there. Before him. It was as if his stomach had fallen though the earth.
It crashed through the scrub, swinging a great brute of black-steel before it. And its body was enshrined in the matt steel too, encased in a mineral bastion. Only the head and hands were exposed, but that was enough. That was enough.
Because the thing was made entirely of shadow. Black flickering shadow. It was darkness personified.
The thing appeared to be looking about – who could tell with a shadow? – but then it screamed in a peculiar combination of clicking and a serpentine cry. It stomped off through the brush. In the other direction. Away from them. Only then did he resume his breathing. It sounded so terribly loud.
He was reprimanded by the mandahoi with a finger to the hawk-mask. Was it truly that loud? He nodded and closed his eyes. His pulse throbbed in his ears and he had a headache. A terrible headache that pushed against his skull, desperate for release. What had he seen?
They waited almost the entire night. He tried speaking on a number of occasions, but each time the mandahoi stopped him with a sharp gesture. The stomping of the monsters had faded entirely, and he was itching. He had so many questions. It was only when the Stranger was dipping over the horizon that the mandahoi finally turned to him.
“Did you see it?”
“Yes.” They still spoke at a whisper. The mandahoi nodded, and then slowly crept from the brush. He followed obediently. Aleña was still dreadfully cautious, pointing at the ground and stepping with impossible deftness, but he followed as best he could. He was definitely student here.
But his mind wandered. What was it that he’d seen? A children’s story drifted into his head: ’Dusk is Coming. That was about shadow creatures, but that was just made-up nonsense. Wasn’t it? Surely it couldn’t be—
The ground cracked; a twig snapping beneath his feet. He looked up and the mandahoi shook his head. His master was disappointed. And then it rose, like the clicking of an angry insect. It was a cry, the shout of a sentinel. They had been snared. Dusk was coming to get them.
They ran, but it was never going to be enough. Never. The shadows melted from the trees, surrounding them, crushing them. Dooming them. His breath misted before him, but he couldn’t obscure his fate. And this was all his fault. He’d used his eyes, but he had not truly seen.
And his failing was going to be the doom of them both.