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I stared at the arrow, still quivering, embedded in the wood just inches from me. When I looked up, I saw no one, but I could sense a presence. Standing in the doorway of a hut, I felt unnaturally vulnerable, so I looked for the nearest cover. That boulder would do, I decided. I crouched behind it, watching the trees carefully.
Could someone have followed me here? I doubted that; I had covered my tracks brilliantly. Not even the family of elves who had agreed to take me in for the night recognized me. No one knew, and it would stay that way until I reached the border and left these lands forever.
I pictured the archer perched in the trees – probably one of the people who drove me from my home in the first place. They called me a monster, a half-breed. When I closed my eyes, I could still see fire blazing, scorching my skin, making my eyes water. If I kept my eyes closed for too long, I would also see something else. But I never kept them closed for long. I slept little, and when I did, the sheer exhaustion from self-imposed deprivation allowed me to fall into a deep sleep without dreams.
My dress itched, and I yearned for the silk skirts I once wore. This wool was unbearably hot during the day, so I preferred to travel at night. Lately, though, I had been traveling during the daytime as well, hoping to cross the border before the full moon.
I clutched the bow and arrow in my long fingers, ready for anything. Waiting, breathing heavily, I could hear even the smallest sound in the surrounding forest; the adrenaline heightened my senses. When I heard a twig snap, I spun in that direction, my eyes scanning for the archer.
The head of the elf family, an elder in their clan, stepped out of the bushes and raised an eyebrow at me. His pointed ears wiggled curiously, silently asking what had me on edge. I put my finger to my lips and motioned for him to stay there; I would not put him in danger. I had let too many people protect me, and what had happened?
The flames licked at my face in my memory, but I pushed it away again, forcing my eyes out of the blink that took an eternity. I really needed to get some sleep, but if I slept, that memory would return – the one I kept pushing away. I only knew that I did not want to remember. It would hurt too much.
I stuck my head out from behind the boulder, testing the archer. Had he left? As if in answer, an arrow struck the ground, grazing my nose as it passed. I gasped in surprise and pain, bringing my hands to my face to hide the blood from the elf. If he saw my black blood, he would know and attack me too.
With one hand, I tore a piece of my skirt, wrapping it around my nose. I wiped my blood onto the grass, which withered at the touch of the vile stuff.
I hated what I was – a Shadow, part human, part something else. No one knew what made a Shadow, but everyone knew enough to hate them. History recorded their deeds, every bloody detail. Shadows were not known for compassion or humanity.
But I was different. My mother did not abandon me, even when I tried to attack her as a baby. She raised me with morals, and we worked to control my instincts. I only lost control during the full moon, when the magic in my blood took over, and I lost all ability to think. I had to cross the border before then or I would end up attacking someone.
The elf had disappeared, going after the archer, no doubt. While I respected his courage, he knew nothing about my attacker or why I was in trouble. I decided to deal with this problem myself, but the only solution I could figure scared me to death.
When I closed my eyes, I locked myself away and opened a dark, chained chest. A black thing oozed from my chest into my mind, and took over my senses, my thoughts, my heart.
When I opened my eyes, I could see every minute detail, every ant crawling across the leaves, every particle of dirt that I kicked into the air as I stood. I could not hear my heart beating, though, because it had stopped. My breath felt cold and metallic, but it tasted good. I could taste a living scent, something bigger than the ants.
It felt good to get out of the chest, to roam free. I usually only came out during a full moon, but now I saw the sun. I pushed that question out of my mind and focused on the scent filling my nostrils. Two scents, actually. I perked up at the new one: elf. My lips curled into a pointed smile; what a feast!
An arrow whistled toward me, going too slowly to fool my astute senses. In my human state, it would have penetrated my heart, but I simply grabbed it from the air and snapped it in two. I heard a surprised gasp, revealing the archer’s position. The poor fool underestimated my abilities. And why not? My silly human side wanted so badly to keep him safe, to protect the thing trying to kill her. She made herself vulnerable by keeping me locked up, silly girl. And she wanted to protect the elf too; I could tell by the fight she kept putting up in the whitewashed chest.
Several more arrows flew toward me. I grabbed each one neatly and shot them back with deadly accuracy. I heard the archer’s heart stop with a satisfaction that she would never understand. To wield that kind of power, to decide the fate of any individual, how could she pass that up? How could she deny the magic that gave her so much power?
The elfish scent washed over me, and I heard the distinct snap of a twig. The old elf gasped when he saw me standing over the dead archer, my eyes as black as stone, and he recognized my form. To my surprise, he did not resist. He closed his eyes almost peacefully, perhaps ready to die.
I licked my lips and took a step forward, but I found that I could not move. No matter. My arrows felt light in my hands, the bow only too willing to bend to my will.
The bow broke, splintering everywhere. I gasped in surprise as the wood cut into my hand, black blood trickling across my knuckles. That never happened; I could touch water without disturbing it. I never overused my strength; it went against my nature.
Perhaps it went against my nature, but my weak human side would do such a thing.
I growled, shoving her back into the little white chest. Not until I took care of this elf. His scent invited me, and my mouth began to water. I forgot all about the archer; the scavengers could have him. But this elf, his scent was different, special somehow.
“Lan,” the elf said quietly.
I stopped breathing. I could hear the old elf’s heart beating. How did he know?
“Lan,” he said again. “You always were one for a challenge, trying to find someone who could keep you bottled up, trying to stretch your boundaries. Tell me, did you find her?”
“She may be powerful,” I hissed, my voice as cold as a snake’s and as fleeting as the wind, “but she holds herself back with human morals. I will triumph over her, not because she will give in to me, but because she needs me.”
I saw something change in his eyes, something light.
“Jul,” I spit his name. Not again!
“It’s been a long time, my friend.” He smiled, his wrinkles reaching up into his eyes. “Maybe the next time we meet, it will be on different terms. A few hundred years from now, you may find people more willing to accept your next host, instead of hunting her down like an animal. What will you do when she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore? Until then, I have a feeling this particular soul will take you decades to win.”
“I relish the challenge.”
“Of course.” He smiled, then disappeared in a blaze of light. The light pushed against me, forcing me back into that chained, black box.
I gagged when I saw the mangled archer at my feet. I dove behind the nearest tree, clutching my stomach. Breathing heavily, I forced myself to look at my hands. I saw wood lodged in my knuckles, and black blood, but nothing else. The thought brought a slow smile to my face. It worked; I saved the old elf. I killed the archer but not the elf.
Maybe I could control this thing after all.
A resounding knock from the black chest brought me back to reality. Maybe I just got lucky.
Kansas City, Kansas
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