CHAPTER 2: Following Shadows and Little Girls
He stumbled into the house, barging on the front door and stopping at the middle of the living room. It stank of rodent feces and rain-dried lumber. He carefully placed a foot forward, now weary and conscious of the new environment. He had never seen this house before, much less knew where exactly where it was located. His hands dabbed the cracked walls and the cobwebbed benches and tables. He figured it had been left for years unattended, or the owner had simply died and no next of kin was available to take it. As he wondered through the hall and into the kitchen, a lock of blond hair swooshed at the corner of his eye. He turned exactly in time to see the girl’s feet disappear into a room above. He followed her inside a wide space with dirty crates, portraits and chests covered with dust sacks.
“Where are you?” he said softly, rounding a crate to see its other side. But no girl was there. “I don’t want to bother you. I only need to know why you can see him.” He lifted a chest big enough for her to hide. Clothes of red and blue greeted him, but no little lady.
“Please. I only need to talk—“
When he pressed the chest shut, the air around him cooled to a temperature close to winter, but the atmosphere felt heavy enough that clouds could form and rain would pour in. His arms instantly wrapped around his body. He wore only a plain brown trouser and a light tunic, not even a doublet for a proper young man. His thin body shriveled from the cold, wishing for the heat of the afternoon sun.
Right when he stood to leave, the slivers of sunlight peeking through the shut windows changed into a blood red hue. His feet led him near the windows, near the rays of crimson light. He held his hand up against it and found it was the same as any light, but no heat carried over as the sun’s blaze like he had expected. Squinting, he pressed his forehead closer to the windows, peeking through the openings. But soon as his head touched the cold dry wood, a loud thud came from downstairs.
He snapped towards the closed door, ears patiently waiting for another sound. When he had dismissed it as a cat or rat causing ruckus in the basement, he casually moved ahead. Another sound thundered from downstairs, making him stop yet again. Then after a while, footfalls followed. Huge and full. When the sound came at him constantly, five seconds apart, instinctively he positioned himself behind a crater, kneeling on one knee and with a good half view of the door.
He was convinced the sounds were either human or a large animal. The owner of the house perhaps or a squatter? No. Impossible. The house wasn’t in fit shape to be habitable by anyone, not unless they’re termites or mold. The sound grew louder and stronger. Whatever it was, it was coming closer. Then it must be a passerby or someone who needed to be alone or something. If it was any normal person, why did William feel the need to hide? Why was his heart beating faster, the hair on his skin standing up and all thoughts inside his head was screaming for him to leave the place?
William couldn’t take the suspense any more. He wasn’t looking to know what it is that was coming to him. He had to get out now. He approached each of the barred windows in front of him, pushing, testing it if it budged. It took him three inspections before he finally found a window lose enough to pry open. Problem was, it was closer to the door where the sound was getting louder and stronger. He suddenly didn’t care about the distance, he only wanted out. His fingers reached for the wooden plank placed on the window and pulled. With three big huffs, he managed to pull the plank from the window and stumble a couple steps back. More red light streamed from the outside as the sound immediately stopped. Silence ruled again.
A part of William wanted to look out and see what had made it stop. But soon as he figured the opening he made was too small for him to pass, his fingers immediately wrapped itself on the next plank and pulled. He could always control his curiosity a lot better than most people. The nails fastened on the ends of the planks were tighter than the ones before, almost impossible to wrest open. But William heaved and hoed, determined to let the plank loose. Bits of scratches appeared on his palms as he pressed on the wood and pulled even harder.
Taking a second break, he placed his right foot against the wall and pulled again. When one of the nails showed signs of giving in, he put more muscle into it, grunted and finally yanked it out. The inertial force caused him to topple and fall on the floor. At the same time, the door slammed open; a five-foot large object wrapped in white flew from the opening and landed on top of him. It was heavy but soft. When he had moved past the pain shooting from his back, he realized he was face to face with another boy fast asleep. His eyes bawled as it took every instinct in his body telling him not to scream. After a moment of quiet panic, he recognized that long bridged nose, those girly lashes and that slick blond hair.
It was his good friend, Garret Talbot. He was the child of the Talbot household, the fifth son of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He liked Garret most among all the Earl’s children for he was more concerned about the people around him than position and power unlike other nobles in court.
Just as William had the inkling to shake his friend awake and ask him what he was doing resting here, a dark boot appeared at the corner of his eye. And then the shouts in his head that screamed for him to leave returned as did his fast beating heart. The man who owned the boots walked from his side and around, looking from Garret to him under his friend. William thought if this man was responsible for kidnapping Garret, it might not be best to here. But what could he do? He had already seen him and most likely he’ll stop him if he tried to escape. So he did the next best thing to do.
He shut his eyes, relaxed his whole body and minimized his breathing so that his lungs didn’t expand too much when he took air in.
William felt the man move closer to him and Garret. When its feet was right next to his face, he couldn’t resist opening his eyes, but by just a tiny bit. Dread and confusion made him feel smaller than he thought possible. The man wasn’t really wearing dark boots. His feet rivaled the blackness of a raven’s feather while coils of smoke snaked around his skin.
The weight was suddenly lifted from his chest as he immediately shut his eyes. A hard thud sounded behind him as the floor vibrated. He could only discern that the man tossed Garret aside like he was made of paper, making him cower in his head, figuring how strong the man could actually be.
As thoughts of escaping slowly dwindled from his mind, a brush of cool air passed over his face, causing his body to tense. His left hand was buried around his back as he felt the fine, hard leather of his dagger’s hilt. As he planned an attack in his head—if ever the situation had called for it—a hard, icy and chilling grip held his jaw. His eyes flung open.
Staring right back at him was a dark face of a man. No. It wasn’t entirely a face. It was a head composed entirely of black matter with depth, contour and shapes that somehow replicated a human face. It had two dark pits where its eyes would have been as it seemingly stared right at him. The more William’s sight adjusted to the dark, the more he learned that this wasn’t a man. It was a shadow. A living, breathing shadow.
“AAAAAHHH,” screamed William.
The shadow screamed back with a monstrous howl, tightening its hold on his jaw. When its fingertips dug deep into his skin, he released his dagger from its holster and slashed it across the shadow’s face. The shadow recoiled back and covered its face with its hands, shouting, shrilling from the pain.
William staggered to stand and walk over to where Garret was. When he was right next to him, he repeatedly and softly slapped and shook his face. “Garret. It’s me William. Get up. Garret. Wake—“ A strong force held him by the arms and threw him across the room. He landed in the middle of chests and crates as his limbs were scrapped by its sharp corners.
The shadow howled from its victory toss, stretched its arms and started towards him.
With adrenaline masking the pains in his body, William forced his limbs to push himself up while holding the dagger in his hand clumsily for defense. When the shadow came in close distance of him, he swiped it up, down and across, daring the shadow to come closer. The shadow shrilled, darting its limbs forward and back.
After a few missed forays, it made a grumbling noise and extended a hand in the air. Its black arm swelled, curled and bubbled, changing into a full length dark sword. It raised its sword-limb into the air and hacked it down. William defended with his tiny dagger but the length and strength of the sword made him release his weapon and hopelessly take a gash at his arm. The shadow raised its sword in the air again and slashed it down. William plucked a plank from the side and blocked with it. But the blade broke it into pieces and swiped his shirt and parts of his skin.
By instinct, he threw what’s left of the plank on the shadow’s face and ran to the side. But after three steps, a piercing pain shot through his left calf, making him trip and fall flat on the floor. His eyes bawled as he clawed his way forward, eager to leave. But he couldn’t move. He looked back. The shadow had pinned him with its sword right at the flesh of his leg.
The shadow towered over him with its black body and created another sword from its other hand.
His eyes locked on its two pits, he whispered with quivering lips, “Please, let me—AAAAAHHH!!!“
It had punctured its free sword right between his shoulder and chest while howling in delight. A snicker passed across the shadow’s face as it wobbled its blade, stretching the wounds wider, playing with his bleeding muscles. Crying out, William blinked back tears as blood gushed from his injuries.
The shadow bent down, so its blank face was right above his. Immediately, he felt light headed as his body was robbed of its strength and will. The adrenaline pumping on his veins seemed to diminish, replaced by a cold eternal calm. His eyes flicked to the side where the sword stuck through his chest. Bits of white light escaped his open wound and glided right at the sword, disappearing into the body of the shadow. His breath began to shallow as his capacity to cry out withered. His legs began to feel numb as did his arms.
Right when his body craved for sleep, a dark hand wrapped around the shadow’s neck, yanked it away from William’s ailing body and flung it across the room.
Another shadow had appeared.
His attacker immediately got off from the ground and charged at the new shadow. It swung its sword across and met a newly formed axe from the intruder. His attacker started shrilling and squealing, talking in a language and a form that had no comprehensible words. The second shadow replied with the same unintelligible babble, flinging looks and gestures at William and a sleeping Garret.
If William had the strength, he would have moved from where he lay, took Garret with him and escaped while they were distracted. Or he would have stabbed one in the back and kicked the other. But he could neither do those things, nor could he yell for help. He was spent.
Weapons returning to regular arms, the two shadows stopped bickering and made their way to him.
It was his time. William’s head sided to his right. “-elp…pleaz…hel…” he breathed out into the darkness, into the shadows that clung on his deathly hour.
One shadow stopped right before Garret and the other walked in his direction. When the footfalls of second shadow ended at William’s face, a dark, deep voice said, “Grimnir, defile.”
The shadow on Garret squealed in terror as it flew in the air and hit the wall. The second shadow turned back to the source of the first’s terror when the intruder hacked its arm with a scythe.
A man in dark robes held a six-foot tall iron rod, decorated with skulls and bones. At both of its ends was a crescent moon blade pointing in opposite directions; if it was viewed from afar, it was shaped like an almost circle with a cut right through its center. One of the blade shone silvery white and the other a blacker shade of ash.
The severed arm on the floor quivered as the shadow screamed in a vengeance. It raised its still working arm and changed it into a sword. Charging, it flung its makeshift blade across. The intruder blocked with its scythe, sidestepped and hacked the white side of his weapon on the shadow’s leg. As the shadow released another howl, the man twisted his weapon in his hands and beheaded his opponent. When its head fell from its body, it and all of its other parts burst into ashes.
Howling, the second shadow had recovered and leaped onto the man with two axes from its limbs. The man blocked the first strike and stepped back. The shadow didn’t let down, striking, swinging and charging. When the man’s back tapped the wall, the shadow cried in near victory as it slashed its double axe down on him. But its blade only hit the floor, flinging bits of wood across. The shadow turned from left to right, wondering where the intruder had gone. As it stood straight, the man fell from the shadows of the ceiling and landed with its scythe slashing through the shadow’s body. The second the man’s blade connected with the floor, the shadow burst in a fog of ashes.
The heavy air that weighed on the room dissipated as the red light from outside disappeared.
The man released a breath; its scythe glowed and changed into an iron key hooped in a large silver ring. He gazed at an unconscious Garret before coming to a wheezing William. “It has been a while since I’ve heard a soul-cry. You’re lucky I was tailing the other damonen, otherwise I would have come later,” he said.
William stared at the tall man, sensing a familiarity from him. Because of the robe that cloaked him completely, he could not see much of his features, only his perfectly sculpted chin and pinkish thin lips. “Who are—“ He coughed the rest of the question, blood bubbling in his throat.
The man’s lips pursed. “You do not know me? Yet you called for me? How can—ah… Your family must have hidden knowledge from you. I suppose knowing is dangerous. Especially when you live out here in the open.”
Knowledge? What was he saying? He tried to speak but an insistent coughing came out instead.
The man stared at William for moments and then smirked. “You remind me of someone, but I can’t seem to recall who. Never mind. I suppose you know not of any spells yet.” He reached a hand in to a shadow on the ground as it passed through and appeared where William’s dagger was. He gripped the hilt and plucked it from the floor, passed it through the shadow and held it in front of him. He opened his mouth as an ancient language escaped his lips, full of stuttering and crackling of the tongue.
It reminded William of the chants his father does under the basement or sometimes outside of their house. He had asked once what it was about, but he was greeted with another round of beatings. From then on, he knew well he should keep his mouth shut when his father did something he didn’t quite grasp.
At the end of his chant, the man kissed the blade with his pinkish lips and returned it to William’s holster. “I bestow you my blessing. Now you can defend yourself properly,” he said.
“Who,” William managed to say.
He knelt down and whispered, “I am your patron. Your Bringer. Your herald. I am Death.”
“Death?” His eyes shone in glee and excitement though he didn’t know why.
“Yes. Now sleep, my child. You need to recover.” Death placed a hand on his forehead as a calming and soothing presence washed over William. He felt the clutches of sleep and exhaustion take over him.