The Hunter of Shades
by Donald S. Crankshaw
Talyon Ajunar moved through the forest with both care and grace, his footfalls gliding over the ground to find firm footing without cracking either leaf or twig. He traveled lightly, needing only two things for the hunt: a trail to follow and a means to kill, neither of which slowed him down. One he had taken from his dead sister, the other from his brother and Sovereign, and now he was fully prepared as he neared the end of his hunt. His prey thought the hunt was only beginning, but they also believed that they were the hunters and he the prey.
It had begun as a whisper, a rumor among the elite. It was from among them that the first victims were taken, although no one could say by what. The first few disappeared in the night only to be found days later, burned beyond recognition and sometimes deformed and misshapen as if trapped in the midst of Becoming. The speculation was as wild as the dark woods which had claimed them. Some said dragons, others wraiths, still others demons from the very depths of Sehol or the Angel of Death sent by Elarun Himself in judgment. That anything at all could do this to one of the People was worse than terrifying - it was unimaginable.
The People were as close to Immortal as anything in this world, untouched by the ravages of time which destroyed all else and unthreatened by all but the most dangerous of creatures. The murder of their own caused a dismay that bordered on panic. In the wake of these murders, first came the family to scour the place of death with senses both physical and spiritual, only to find it blank, empty and unKnowable, as if wiped clean of the evidence that deaths usually left behind. Then came the adventurers, the thrill-seekers, the self-appointed bounty hunters; these only added exaggerated imaginings to a tale that was horrible enough already. Finally, the Sovereign sent his Stalkers, who never failed once they had their quarry’s trail, but this time they found no trail to follow.
The soulless Slaves were the first to actually see the enemy and live. Years after the first deaths, as the killings began to spread from an isolated corner of the kingdom to locations throughout the continent, the Slaves began to see the creatures, which they described as having the height and proportion of men, but shrouded in shapeless shadows. These shadows moved quickly but silently, keeping to the darkness as they hunted in their ghostly packs. “Shades,” the Slaves named them, and the People, who had no better rumors to go by, picked up on the name. These faceless creatures never touched the Slaves, but pursued any of the People whom they found out of doors and alone at night.
No, not just any of the People. Although the Shades weren’t always choosy, they preferred the rich over the poor, the proud over the humble, the harsh over the gentle. The best of the People. If any master treated his Slaves too sternly, they would begin to mutter hopefully of the Shades. Their prayers were answered often enough to make the People wary of their own Slaves, an indignity not to be endured.
Though the forest canopy hid stars and moon to make the ground invisible even to his eyes, Ajunar’s silent steps found sure footing among the new layer of dead leaves. He touched his hand to a nearby tree trunk, feeling its sharply ridged bark beneath his palm, Aware of the flow of its life, made sluggish by the coming winter. He let his Awareness widen to take in trees and animals both, stretching out further and further until it stretched for miles. He still could not detect his prey, but he sensed a wrongness in the forest’s pattern to the south, a trembling of the plants, an agitation among the animals. All of the forest’s life flinched away from something that he couldn’t . . . quite . . .
There! It wasn’t a thing he was looking for, but a nothing, a blankness in his Awareness. Now that he knew what to look for, he wondered how he could have missed it: a moth-eaten hole in a tapestry could not have been more obvious. Had those of the People caught by the Shades sensed them as he did now, or had they simply overlooked them as he had at first? He suspected the latter. All the People were Aware, but none of them had Ajunar’s instincts.
Ajunar was neither his given name nor one of those meaningless court titles his brother was always handing out. The name, which meant “hunter” in the People’s language, was one he had earned. His peers had initially given it to him mockingly, then in outright scorn, then with reluctant respect. By now, his exploits had given his peers reason to speak the name in awe.
All the People hunted when they wore animal shape. With all of nature to choose from, who would Become the prey when he could be the predator? Whether the wild chase of the wolfpack, the patient stalking of the panther, or the lightning dive of the falcon, every one of the People knew the thrill of the hunt. To Talyon, however, the hunt was more than the instinct of the shape, it was the reason for it. Whatever shapes he chose were selected for the hunt, and he, alone of all the People, hunted in his natural shape as well. In his natural form, with full access to the abilities which animal shape so reduced, he could out-hunt any mere animal. This took the challenge out of the simple hunts of the animal predators, the pursuit of deer or rabbit, so he sought out more challenging prey. Before Talyon had reached adulthood, he had tracked down and captured one of the two-headed cerber. He was barely two hundred when he had captured the more dangerous gryphon, and shortly afterwards he even killed one of the ghostly chimera. His exploits won him more disdain than respect from his peers until his success against a nearly grown dragon.
Tracking a dragon to its lair had not been as simple as he had expected. Talyon’s previous hunts had taught him patience and perseverance, but this endeavor had sharpened both to a razor’s edge. Dragons hid their homes with mystical power and cunning, and Talyon had had to chase after rumors for over a year before he had pinpointed the lair, and even then it had taken a month of searching before he had figured out how to penetrate its protective power. After days of studying the dragon’s hunting habits, he had entered its lair while the dragon was gone and laid his trap. Talyon knew he could not take on the dragon directly, so he had used his abilities to Shape the lair into a deathtrap. Even then, the dragon had nearly escaped, and if it had been a bit older and a bit wiser, Talyon would have been its trophy rather than the other way around. He had managed to keep ahead of the dragon, adapting and re-Shaping the trap as his plan fell apart. Determination in the face of catastrophe had won that desperate battle, and that victory had won him his reputation.
He could run. He had sensed them soon enough that he knew he could make a clean escape. That was not his purpose, however, so instead he changed direction, not walking straight toward them but moving closer nonetheless. He wondered whether his sister had run. There had been signs that she had, signs which only his eyes had discovered. He could not be certain, however, and he had a hard time imagining Salu running from anything.
Ajunar had never been close to his sister, intolerant of her selfishness, shallowness, and vanity. Next to these irritating traits, the stories about her petty cruelty were wholly irrelevant. What did he care how she treated her Slaves? He had no trouble believing that she would tease her male Slaves with her body, then punish the unfortunate fools who dared to regard her with lust, going so far as to Shape their minds so that they were no longer capable of the offending feelings. Such behavior was distasteful, like seducing an animal, but he found it amusing that his peers found her Awareness of her Slaves’ emotions more scandalous than the seduction. It took effort to ignore the emotions which leaked from the Slaves’ minds as readily as from an animal’s, but most of the People blocked them out as a matter of course. Had Salu really enjoyed their uncouth feelings, or was she, like Ajunar, simply too alert and inquisitive to ignore what her spiritual senses could tell her?
When the Shades killed Salu, Ajunar had been the first to investigate the scene. Like the other killings, there had been nothing to Know. Probing with his mind turned up no trace of the murder on her body or the surrounding woods. Neither had there been a scent for him to find in wolf-shape. Most of the People would have given up then, but Ajunar was more observant and more patient. He had seen signs of struggle: displaced leaves, broken branches, footprints. There had been some attempt to hide and remove the signs, so the scattered footprints had been too few and too shallow for him to determine whose feet had made them, much less to follow them, but they indicated physical creatures, not spirits called by the Slaves’ prayers. Nevertheless, the Slaves had to be the key. Whatever these creatures were, there must be spies or informants among the Slaves for them to get their information. How else could they target the People whom the Slaves most hated, catching them alone and offguard?
He had taken on his sister’s Slaves, all the females and the whole males. He had killed the males Salu had damaged in her punishments, since he had no desire to have such aberrations in his household. He had no reason to fear destroying the informant, since those Salu had Shaped were no longer capable of such independent thought. Like his sister, he let himself be Aware of them. He refused to delve into their minds and Know them, but he observed them carefully.
The light sprang into existence so suddenly that at first he mistook it for a flash of lightning. Only when it failed to die out as quickly as it had appeared did he notice the long shadows stretching across the brightly lit forest floor, not trees but vaguely man-like forms. He looked towards the source of the light, shielding his eyes against the white radiance shining from what appeared to be half a dozen miniature suns floating behind black shadows. The shadows had roughly the dimensions of men, but he could only make out vague shapes with heads and arms. The leaves rippled heavily but silently as the eight phantoms glided toward him. Ajunar kept his expression still, hoping it would be mistaken for shock, since he did not want them to see his pleasure. He had drawn them into his trap.
While Ajunar lacked his sister’s petty sadism, no one would call him a kind master. His Slaves were animals, useful pets but potentially vicious, and he treated them as such. He punished laziness with a whip and rewarded diligence with small treats. Outright disobedience he tolerated not at all, so he never gave a Slave the chance to disobey him more than once.
With a few exceptions, he treated the Slaves he had inherited from his sister no differently from his own, save that he watched them more closely. Two in particular caught his attention. Both men, Cain and Seth, reeked of resentment for their lot in life, although Ajunar had no idea what other lot they could hope for. The field Slaves had less direct oversight from the People, but the household Slaves certainly lived better, and while stories persisted of escaped Slaves, those few who were not recaptured could not have been any better off than wild dogs. Still, these two Slaves wanted something more, but even with his suspicions, Ajunar was not willing to Know them, since that carried risks beyond the unpleasantness of touching their unclean minds. Even the Slaves could sense a Knowing.
Instead he kept them close, cultivating their resentment into a personal hatred of himself. It proved surprisingly easy to manipulate their emotions even without Shaping them, simply by giving them meaningless tasks and then punishing them for not performing them to his unattainable standards. Once Ajunar had given them motive, he only needed to hand them opportunity. Twice now he had let slip his hunting plans to Cain, whose slyness made him the more likely candidate. His ruse had not borne fruit until now, when his pawn had been Seth.
Now Ajunar turned to run, Becoming in mid stride. The change flashed through him, stretching and shifting his body from his natural shape toward the familiar form of the panther. Then the Becoming stuttered and slowed, from flashing quicksilver to oozing amber, and he landed heavily on his stomach, the wind rushing out of him with a sound halfway between a man’s shout and a cat’s yowl. He was caught halfway in his Becoming, in an unfamiliar in-between form. His clothes had vanished already, leaving short bristles of stiff black fur to cover his body. A snout had formed from his face, but his mouth still maintained most of its original shape. His arms seemed closer to his own than the cat’s, but the stubby fingers and missing thumbs made his hands useless. Worst of all, his legs were bent halfway between cat and man, leaving his knee joints unformed so that his lower legs flopped uselessly behind him. For the first time he felt the cold rush of fear. He had prepared for this encounter, but he had not expected to be so helpless.
Ajunar liked his brother Lainor little more than his sister. He meant to avenge Salu to preserve the family honor, however, and if his foppish brother couldn’t see the need for that, then he didn’t deserve the position he held. While it didn’t surprise him that Lainor’s unbridled ambition had led him to make the Challenge, Ajunar still didn’t know how his older brother had won the duel for Sovereignty. He suspected foul play, but he kept his suspicions to himself. If Lainor wanted to spend his life making inane laws and appointing useless officials until some other fool Challenged him, then let him, as long as Ajunar could make use of his brother’s authority when necessary.
Ajunar had gone to see his Sovereign before each of his ruses. Lainor’s initial inclination had not been generosity, and he had grown even more reluctant each time. Ajunar had forced Lainor to see that this hunt depended on his Sovereign help. It had taken strenuous arguments to convince Lainor that the hunt needed patience and his continued support each time Ajunar went out, even if the first two attempts had failed to lure the Shades. Frustration with Lainor’s stinginess had nearly caused him to go without his aid, but Ajunar knew better than to go hunting without the proper weapon to bring down his prey, a weapon which had to be invisible, lest the prey see the trap before it sprang.
Ajunar tried to crawl through the dirt and leaves on his deformed limbs, the scent of rot in his superior nostrils. The brightening light was his only indication of the approach of the Shades, since he could no longer sense even the blank walls of their minds. His Awareness was gone, as if his spiritual senses had gone blind. When he heard the crackle of footsteps on dead leaves a few feet behind him, he turned onto his back, exposing his naked body. The movement twisted his crippled legs and the pain nearly drowned him. He was still trying to complete his Becoming, but nothing was happening. He felt his focus slipping, so he let it go and abandoned himself to this pitiful shape. Ajunar looked up at the shadows, just vague black shapes against the brilliant light, until his cat eyes adjusted so he could make out the figures. The shapeless masses resolved into manlike shapes shrouded in hooded black robes which hid every feature of face and body, even the hands enfolded by the sleeves.
“Wha... Ar! Wha’ are you?” Ajunar asked, his half-transformed mouth unable to produce all the sounds he needed.
“We are your judgment,” said the one in the center. His words came clearly, spoken in a form of the People’s language, but not as the People spoke it. Although the words were precise, they sounded as if they were unfamiliar and unwanted to the mouth which formed them.
“Who are you ’o ju...jush... me?” he asked.
“I stand witness to your crimes,” said a Shade two removed from the first speaker’s left. “Abuse and murder, as well as collaboration in the oppression.”
“Enough,” said the first Shade. “The guilt or innocence of the accused is not in question. Our task is to carry out the sentence.” He raised his arm, exposing a calloused, dark-skinned hand in the white radiance. Ajunar could feel energy crackle and he knew that it was aimed at him, but he could not move or summon up an ounce of his own power. He tried to send a mental call, Help me!
He may as well have just thought it, for it reached no mind except his own. No help came. The Shades continued watching their leader, whose hand had begun to glow with a gathering energy, while Ajunar still twitched back and forth, unable to act effectively in his present form. He looked longingly at the forest, which had deadened to silence as the night’s creatures fled the Shades. All that remained in the night were Ajunar, the Shades, and the shadows. Had his brother betrayed him? With a trap even Ajunar could not see, how hard would it have been to promise help and then withhold it? A liar as skillful as Lainor could deceive someone even as alert as he. Perhaps he should have run when he had the chance.
No, he should not have. Whatever the indignity of his current condition or the horror of his approaching death, it was nothing compared to the shame he would have suffered for running away from creatures such as these. He would either defeat them and claim victory, or die with what dignity he could manage. He snarled at the Shades, his half-cat form vocalizing his feelings more truly than his natural form could ever manage. Ajunar struggled to sit up, something his current physiology was wholly unsuited for, but if he could not meet death on his feet, he still refused to meet it on his back. With one arm supporting him, the other lashed at the Shade, the extended claws doing little more than tearing at the hem of his robe.
Meanwhile, the glowing hand became brighter, crackling with a brilliant white energy, its light illuminating the leafy ground more than even the glowing spheres which blazed behind the Shades. Or perhaps the spheres had dimmed. Both trees and Shades cast long, stark shadows radiating out from the center of power. Within those shadows, two figures of deeper darkness took form. Like the Shades, they were vaguely man-shape, but taller and less substantial, with bodies which the light leaked through. The shadows hid them, so that even Ajunar was uncertain that they were really there until a flickering crimson aura embraced them, an aura which their glowing red eyes reflected. While the Shades still hadn’t noticed them, focused as they were on their leader, one of the shadows raised an ebony claw with four identical, many-jointed fingers springing from a single point. With a twist of its wrist, the wraith traced the wavering edges of a glowing diamond in the air. A sickly green light lopsidedly filled it, giving the diamond more substance than the wraith who had traced it, and the odd jewel shot toward the Shades’ leader, whose hand now glowed too brightly for Ajunar’s eyes. When it struck, the man stiffened, and a green glow pulsed over him before he collapsed, the light in his hand leaping skyward as a globe of energy, igniting the red and gold leaves overhead as it shot through them.
The other Shades whirled, surprised by the sudden attack. Most of them blinked blindly into the light of their own spheres, but one yelled “Stalkers!” as he hurled a ball of blazing orange energy at the nearest wraith. It passed directly through the insubstantial creature, but the white bolt of lightning which leapt from another of the Shades proved more effective, and the Stalker it touched twitched and howled in sudden pain. The Stalker’s scream tore at Ajunar’s sensitive ear, a whistling sound unlike any made by a living creature, like wind tearing through some horribly twisted tree. The sound startled the rest of the Shades into action, their light sources lifting into the air to float among the tree limbs where they could illuminate without blinding, though the light they cast was speckled and uneven. The air crackled with energy, and Ajunar could taste the Shades’ power on his tongue. The Stalkers countered with their own power, and wavering spheres met invisible walls, blasts of energy broke on glowing cubes.
Ajunar again tried to change his shape, and the ease with which his form flowed confirmed that the Shades had abandoned their hold on him. Body and instinct Became the familiar panther, and all the wrongness of the past few minutes slipped away. His sharp nightvision focused on the creatures in robes who fought shadows darker than themselves. His lithe body moved with deliberate silence, crouching, muscles bunching in preparation. Then he sprang, body stretched to full-length as he flew through the air, claws outstretched to meet his target, then impacting, rear legs rushing forward to join forelegs in tearing, shredding, mauling. The Shade fell to the ground, and the panther sprang from his target as quickly as he had attacked, leaving his dazed victim bleeding and bruised but still alive. He Became his natural form then, and this time struck with his own power. He Shaped the air around the Shade he had just mauled, the one who had claimed to be a witness to his “crimes.” Just now struggling to rise, the Shade suddenly found himself unable to breathe in the unexpectedly sparse air. He struggled for a few moments, perhaps trying to summon his own power, before he collapsed into unconsciousness. Leave that one to me, Ajunar sent to the Stalkers. He turned to face the other Shades, realizing that the woods had become dark again.
He wasn’t needed. The Shades had put up a fierce fight, but they were no match for the damned souls they faced. The Stalkers were creatures from another time, dead but bound to this world, eternally enslaved to the Sovereign. While some of the Shades’ attacks had caused pain to the Stalkers, they couldn’t kill what was already dead. The wraiths’ alien hands traced deadly, power-laden shapes in the air; their touch drove the soul from the body. While the Shades had thrown blazing fire and crackling energy at the Stalkers, the wraiths had coldly and methodically killed them one by one, barely slowed by the Shades’ defenses. Most were burned in some way by the Stalkers’ ghostly flames, but one robe looked like it covered a shapeless mass, while only an undamaged skeleton remained of another. Unless... was it the same body with its bones somehow displaced? Ajunar averted his eyes, as some things distressed even his stomach. Even more disturbing, although in an entirely different way, was the Shade who showed no injury at all, lying on his back and staring at the heavens, a look of unmitigated terror on his uncovered face. A human face. It was so like one of the People’s, but lacking the blazing hair and deep eyes which they possessed, dull and soulless even while it had lived. He was not some spirit, not some supernatural beast, but one of the Slaves! With the hood tossed back and the face exposed, Ajunar could not mistake his drab features for anything else, even without his Awareness of the creature’s ordinariness. Elarun forfend! If the Shades are Slaves... How do they possess such power? Slaves no more have souls than rocks do.
He shifted his attention to the ravaged but still living Shade at his feet. With the blazing spheres of light gone, it was almost completely dark, the Stalkers’ crimson auras failing to illuminate anything. Ajunar didn’t need to see in order to examine his prey, as the emptiness which had formerly shielded the Shade from his Awareness was gone. The dark form lay in an unmoving heap shrouded by his torn robes. He still breathed, and Ajunar could sense that his injuries, though serious, were not life-threatening. He crouched down next to the Shade and pulled the hood away from where it clung to the bloody face. It was his Awareness of the man’s mind rather than what he could view of the face that allowed him to recognize him as a Slave from his household, and after a moment he could remember his name. Caleb was one of the Slaves he had inherited from Salu, but he was not one of the two he had suspected as an informant, as Caleb had never given any sign of dissatisfaction that Ajunar had sensed. Steeling himself, Ajunar reached out to the unconscious man, touching the coarse mind and Shaping it to wake the Slave. As an afterthought, he added a twist to the Shaping which would make him more talkative. He hoped it would work--he had no desire to Know the creature well enough to Shape with certainty, and his touch was like a man reaching into sewage to retrieve a precious jewel.
Caleb stirred, groaning, and his brown eyes fluttered a moment before opening and then focusing on Ajunar’s emerald ones. “M-m-master?”
“Don’t call me that, Slave. You just tried to kill me.”
Caleb just stared at him in confusion for a moment, then he turned his head to look around him. Seeing the fallen Shades and his own black robes, he turned his head back, eyes wide now. “If I lie, you’ll just Know my mind, won’t you?” At Ajunar’s nod, he continued, “And I suppose you’ll kill me no matter what?”
“Probably,” Ajunar said. He could sense Caleb’s fear; it was a wonder he was coherent at all. “However... Are there more of you? I can’t believe the panic which the Shades have caused is due to just those here. If you were to tell me where I can find more of your kind, perhaps I would spare your life.”
“There are more, hundreds more, but I only knew those here, my fellow students. The Teacher might have known more, but he must be dead now, and I didn’t even know who he really was.”
“So you wrap yourselves in black robes to protect your identities not just from the People, but from each other as well. It won’t do you any good. I can find you all, even if I have to Know the mind of every Slave in the Sovereignty.”
“You can try.” Caleb paused to spit out the blood leaking into his mouth from his shredded lip. “There are too many Slaves for you to probe all their minds, and I know the People’s reluctance to touch the minds of Slaves. We’re trained to discipline our thoughts and emotions, so we won’t give ourselves away to your Awareness. Even if you find a few of us, no one even knows their Teacher’s identity, so we can’t give away more than our fellow students.”
“These Teachers, what do they teach you?”
“It’s what we call it. Magic. The power to shape reality with our minds.”
“Slaves don’t have the ability to Shape!” Ajunar said. Whatever these Slaves were doing, it was not Shaping. Only the People had the spiritual Awareness which allowed them to Know, Shape, and Become. For the Slaves to have that ability would mean that they too had souls, and that was absurd.
“You’re wrong! Not all humans can, and those who can need to be taught how, but we’re learning. When enough of us know how, we will not be your Slaves any longer!”
Ajunar glared at Caleb, frustrated by the dead end at which he had arrived. How could these Slaves be so clever? By keeping themselves anonymous, both to outsiders and to those lower in the hierarchy, there was no way for Ajunar to root out all the Shades using this one prisoner. He’d have to find the top, but considering the short lifespans of the Slaves, the first couple of generations were sure to be dead by now. That left going through the entire Slave population in order to find the Shades. Unfortunately, Ajunar wasn’t Aware of anything that separated this human from any other, and, like most of the People, he had a distaste for touching a Slave’s mind in order to Know it. He would have to, though. If enough of the Slaves learned this “magic,” then they could truly be a threat to the People. He needed to search this one’s mind for some way to separate the Shades from the rest of the Slaves. So he reached out with his mind, determined to find out everything this Slave knew, but his probing thumped against an invisible barrier. Anger and just a trace of fear goaded him to pound against it, again and then again, slowly wearing it down.
He was Aware of the energy building in the air, but he ignored it as he focused on breaking the barrier over the Shade’s mind. Then some force knocked him over backwards, and he tumbled through the crackling leaves. Gasping to regain his lost breath, he twisted to his feet, brushing the dead leaves from his hair. One of the Stalkers stood in front of him, blocking his path to the Shade he was determined to break. Ajunar opened his mouth to command it to stand aside when energy erupted in dazzling light behind it.
Forgive me, Master, the Stalker said in a soundless voice. But you were too close to its power.
Through the Stalker’s transparent figure, Ajunar saw lightning crawling over the Shade’s body, spreading from the fingertips Caleb pressed against his own chest as he performed his last act of defiance. Convulsions shook him, following the pattern of the coruscating energy. His mouth was opened in a scream drowned out by the thundering power, and smoke poured from his mouth and eyes. Then the energy stopped. The Shade jerked once more in a powerful, full-body tremor, and went still. Ajunar stared at the smoking corpse with its burned skin and empty eyesockets, then began to curse. He had caught his prey, only to have it slip through his fingers.
Eventually his curses wore to an end. The danger was even greater than they had believed and the whole of their society might collapse under the weight of what he’d discovered, but as his harsh breathing and racing heart began to calm, a slow, fierce smile formed on his lips. He had been mistaken earlier, when he had thought he’d reached the end of the hunt. Indeed, the hunt had just begun.
© 2007 by Donald S. Crankshaw
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Donald S. Crankshaw has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from MIT, and currently works as a radar engineer in the Boston area. As this gives him little outlet for his writing obsession, he founded the Storyblogging Carnival on his web log, Back of the Envelope, as a way to share his writings. He also leads a creative writing group at his church.
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