The world around me was cut off by a thick fog that rolled across the ground in endless waves of grey. The only source of light in the darkness was from the flashlight I had mounted on my crossbow. It barely cut through the dark. Sound was deadened by thick storm clouds that rolled close overhead. An occasional raindrop fell from the sky as the storm searched for a place to let go its moisture; the cold rain was the loudest sound in the night.
There was stillness to the mixture, but there was not peace.
A large graveyard, which was perched on an uneven hillside, was the only thing that stood out from the clouds and fog. Broken headstones marked the rows of the dead. There were no names on the stones, only a cracked reminder of the people who had once lived.
A white crypt, with a large, metal gate in front of the entrance, stood at the bottom of the graveyard. The white was an intense contradiction to the darkness. It was a beacon – a source of light in the dark. Though it was the brightest part of the graveyard, the feeling around it was all wrong. There was anger and lust emanating from the stone crypt; evil had merged with the rows of the silent dead. My focus was there.
I moved toward the crypt quickly, eager to find the source of evil and purge it from the graveyard. I did not get two steps down the hill when a sharp stench hit my nose. It was the smell of rotted flesh and burnt hair; it was pushed along by the rolling fog like a battering ram. Sounds quickly followed the smell. It was clicking and hissing, combined with sharp claws on stone. Low calls, which sounded like shrieks, also filled the air around me. The clouds deadened the sound, but they didn’t stop the chills that erupted over my body.
Crawlers were near.
I held my crossbow tighter and stopped walking. I peered into the darkness, my body focused on the fight I knew was coming. Even with my light, I couldn’t see the crawlers I knew were out there. They were chameleons in the dark; it was in their DNA to blend in without effort. The sounds died down as I searched for them. The silence was more alarming than the shrieking. It was proof they had noticed me.
A rock shifted somewhere to my right. The sound of sharp claws on hard stone came from the opposite direction. There was more than one, and they were closing in.
My crossbow searched for an enemy, though my feet did not move. It was better to move when I could see them, when I knew where they were coming from. Another rock shifted. I turned my crossbow to the left and a flicker of dark caught my attention. I focused my flashlight on the shape and saw the cause of the noise.
At first glance, the crawler looked like a hairless child crawling on all fours. At second glance, it was even more disturbing. It had a stocky, muscular body and long graceful legs that reminded me of a spider. Each of its spindly legs ended in a three-fingered claw. The crawler’s dark eyes had no eyelids, and its black skin was covered in a thick slime that shifted with dull color as it moved. Its lips peeled back to reveal two rows of razor sharp teeth, when my light hit its face.
I felt a sense of movement to my right and turned slightly. A second crawler was moving over a tall headstone. It paused on the headstone when we connected eyes, and a low sound of expectant violence swirled in the space between us. Drool dropped to the earth and blackened the grass that was growing around the broken headstones. The crawler was eager to start a fight. I was happy to oblige it.
I stepped back, so that both crawlers were in view, then I focused my crossbow on the first crawler. I pulled the trigger and an arrow flew through the air. The crawler dodged the arrow with a quick sideways movement. It hissed at me and leapt at my face, its long legs giving it power and direction. As it flew through the air, I released another arrow. This one found its mark. The crawler dropped to the earth with an arrow between its eyes.
The second crawler let out a cry that sounded like an injured cat. It did not take long to mourn its friend. It moved off the headstone and along the ground toward me. It was not foolish enough to jump; it had learned its lesson. I took aim and fired. It dodged two arrows without slowing.
I was down to my last arrow before I had to reload. The crawler moved closer. There was a subtle shift in its muscles, a clue that it was about to attack. I waited patiently for the right moment. I held my breath to make my shot steady. The crawler shifted again. I released the arrow and it landed in its chest. The crawler toppled over with a low whimper and died.
I exhaled sharply, relieved the fight had gone so well, and refocused on the crypt. The evil I sensed coming from it was beyond any I had ever sensed before. It was unsettling – something wasn’t right. Despite the feeling, my body was prepared for the looming fight. I knew what had to be done.
Before I could continue my path down the hill, sharp claws dug into my shirt and back. Pain and fear came just as instantly. There was a third crawler I had failed to notice. It had used my distraction against me.
I dropped my crossbow and tried to pry the crawler off with my hands. It was no use – the crawler’s claws were too strong. I felt warm blood pour from where it had latched on to me. It dripped down my back and legs. The crawler’s mouth moved toward my neck in relentless determination. There would be no surviving its bite. I would be dead before I hit the ground.
That thought made me focus. My hand moved to the knife I always carried on my belt. I pulled it out and, as the crawler opened its mouth to bite, I jammed the knife into the roof of its mouth. The claws finally dropped away from my back as the crawler fell to earth dead.
I stood over the crawler for a minute and waited to see if there were more of them in the dark. The sticky feeling of the blood running down my back was not as noticeable as the sharp pain that moved through my entire body as I waited. I cursed myself for not checking for more crawlers before refocusing on the crypt. I was supposed to know better. I did know better.
After a tense moment of my heightened senses noticing every stray sound and shift of darkness, I bent down and picked up my crossbow again. The crawler’s attack had just made the fight ahead of me more dangerous and difficult. A part of me wanted to turn back, but I knew I couldn’t. Too much was at stake. My mistake could not be undone, but it did not mean I had to give up on the person I had been sent to save. I had to try.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and quiet the doubt plaguing me. The pain in my back increased at the breath, as if to tell me the odds. I ignored the pain and purposefully reloaded my crossbow.
Feeling considerably more cautious, I moved toward the crypt. I held my crossbow ready, and my body was perched on the edge of violence. I was unwilling to lower my guard again. I knew I would not get lucky a second time.
The feeling coming from the crypt had changed with the fight. There was awareness to the anger. The shade knew I had arrived; it had felt its crawlers die. It was waiting for me.
The gate to the crypt was locked by a heavy padlock. It was not a lock I could easily break through with the weapons I had, but I had come prepared. I bent down and pulled out a set of lock picking tools from my pocket. Thirty seconds later, I pulled the padlock and chain away from the gate. I stepped around the gate and searched for new enemies in the dark.
The crypt was larger than it had appeared on the outside. A marble floor stretched out in front of me for thirty yards. The room was empty, but a set of stairs led downward. I knew the shade was there.
As I moved to the steps, I heard a sound that was very different from the sounds the crawlers made. It was a shrill scream that promised violence and chaos. It pounded against my ears in unrelenting anger and pain. I had never heard anything like it. It grew more intense as I made my way down the marble steps.
At the bottom of the steps, there was another long room built out of white marble. The walls were lined with narrow alcoves that ran in rows all the way to the fifteen-foot tall ceiling. Dead bodies were stacked in ranks inside of the alcoves. Some of the bodies had turned to ash and bone, but others were fresh. It was the shade’s collection. It was a greater collection than I had been expecting.
In the middle of the long room was a stone slab. Dried blood coated its cold exterior. Chains were bolted onto the slab, and attached to the chains was a man. He struggled against the chains, but it was useless. The chains were stronger than he was. He would never work his way free.
Behind the man, and directly opposite from me, was the shade. She was tall and wore a white dress. Her hands were pale, and her nails were almost as long as a crawler’s claws. Dirty black hair hung limply in front of her pale face, obscuring her features. What I could see of her face was not welcoming. She had black eyes, thin lips, and a face so pale she looked like a ghost.
When she saw me, she snarled, revealing sharp, pointed teeth. Blood dripped from the teeth, as if she had just eaten a piece of raw meat. In her hand was a dagger. It too had blood on it, as if it had been used repeatedly in the worst of ways. The shriek I had noticed at the top of the stairs did not seem to be coming from her mouth. Instead, it came from the bodies stacked against the wall. It was the shriek of the dead. The woman had filled the room with an anger her body could no longer contain. It was a warning for me to leave. I did not listen to the warning. I could not listen.
Without waiting for her to attack first, I shot an arrow at her. My aim was perfect. ‘Perfect’ was not good enough. Just before the arrow hit her, the woman disappeared. I was instantly tense. Everything was wrong. I had not been told she was such a powerful shade. I was not prepared for the kind of fight I was about to face.
I searched the room for her, my whole body pulsing in time to the questions circling my mind. Confusion would not help me win the fight, but the thought that I had been betrayed was pervasive. Someone had lied to me. I had walked into a trap.
As suddenly as the woman had disappeared, I felt a presence behind me. I spun to face the woman. Before I could aim my crossbow at her again, she hit me in the chest. I flew into one of the alcoves and bounced off the wall. Bones and ash fell on top of me as I hit the floor. I gasped for air around the dust and sudden shock of the hit and struggled to sit up. My entire body felt as if it were on fire. The injury on my back seared with the added pain. My crossbow had flown out of my hands. I searched for it as I sat up. It was close to the stone slab, too far away for me to reach.
The woman blocked my path with unnatural speed. One moment she was standing near the door – the next, she was standing over me. I flinched at the sudden movement, but did not have time to do much else. Her lips pulled back in a smile as she looked down at me. The smile was lustful. In her mind, she had just won two victims, not just the intended one. She reached down and picked me up by the throat. Her grasp was firm and relentless. It was also impossibly strong.
My hands moved to hers instinctively. It was like clutching at steel. The crushing feel of her hand would be the last thing I felt. Her grip tightened, as if she had heard my thought. The world started to spin. She raised her other hand, to use her knife on me – to take my heart for her collection. The flashlight mounted on my crossbow reflected against the knife, accentuating the blood and rusted metal. The sight was like a lightning bolt to the brain. It urged me to do something to save my life.
Before her knife could connect, I kicked out. My foot hit her stomach. She dropped me and I hit the floor for a second time. This time, I was not stunned into inaction. I pulled out my knife and slashed out at the woman. The knife cut into her hand. Black blood surged to the surface of the cut. The angry shrieking of the dead grew louder. It threatened to topple my senses. The shade spun away from me and disappeared for a second time.
I jumped to my feet and ran to my crossbow. I had two shots left before I had to reload. I would have to make the best of those two shots. I picked up the crossbow and moved away from the stone slab and the man, whose eyes were full of terror, and pressed my back against the wall. I waited for the woman to reappear. My heart raced with adrenaline that my mind tried to ignore. I had to be focused – calm. It was the only way to survive.
When the shade finally reappeared, she was next to the man again. She raised her knife over the man’s heart, to finish what she had started. If she couldn’t have us both, she would at least have him. Her eyes locked on mine in dark satisfaction as she prepared the downward motion that would make him hers. I released an arrow. She dodged the arrow with easy grace and it clattered to the floor behind her. She was too quick; she had too much time to dodge. I moved closer as she flashed back to the man. The stone slab was between us. I would have to go over the man to get close enough to finish the fight. My knees bent obligingly even as I doubted the likely success of my plan.
I pulled the trigger of my crossbow again. As soon as the arrow was free from my crossbow, I jumped up onto the slab and threw my crossbow away. I dove at the woman, my knife extended toward her. She dodged the arrow easily, but she was not expecting my foolish rush. Her black eyes widened as I fell against her. My momentum carried us to the floor. As we fell, I jammed my knife into her chest, directly into her heart. Her knife fell out of her hand and her eyes lost their dark light. She was dead in a second.
I rolled away from her as her body started to change. Her pale skin changed to grey and then it slowly dissolved away to reveal yellowish bones. The bones disintegrated, until nothing was left but grey dust. The shrieking died down as suddenly as her death. There was finally peace inside the crypt.
I took a moment to collect myself, feeling relieved that I had won the fight. My moment did not last long. The man still needed to be released. He couldn’t do it himself. I moved to him and looked down.
The man was young, perhaps twenty-five or thirty. He was struggling against the nightmare he had just witnessed as much as the chains that bound him. The shade’s spell still had power over his mind. When he looked at me, there was no gratefulness – merely worry I was another nightmare.
“You’re safe now,” I told him.
I put a hand on his forehead and focused. The room instantly changed. We were in a sunny park. Children ran in circles around a wooden play set, and adults talked and watched their children from a safe distance. The man recognized the park. The terror gave way to comfortable familiarity. He did not register my presence next to him at the shift in scenery. I was just another stranger in the park. He moved away from me, his fear replaced by happiness in an instant as a woman appeared around the play set with a small boy. They smiled at the man and gave him warm hugs and smiles at the reunion. He took both of their hands and they strolled down a shaded path.
I watched them walk, feeling pleased with myself. The peace of the moment did not last long. The pain in my back was a forceful reminder of the fight I had lived through. It told me it was time to leave. It also told me there were questions that needed to be answered. I had to find out why I had been sent that fight.
There was a sharp pull on my senses and the park dropped away from me abruptly. For a moment, there was nothing beyond the dull grey color of the place between dreaming and waking.
Then, I woke up.