Notch opened her eyes. Something had roused her from slumber. She lifted her cheek from Shadow’s chest and sheepishly wiped a bit of drool off him. She looked around and saw it.
The wight stood over them like darkness incarnate.
“Beware the living,” it whispered and was gone.
Notch sat upright and patted Shadow’s chest a few times. “Shadow. Shadow!”
She stood and began pulling her clothes on. “A warning from a friend. Perhaps danger is coming.”
“I like danger,” he mumbled as he heaved himself upright, eyes more closed than open. “Show me the danger.”
“I face danger naked all the time. Just recently I was naked while facing a dangerous woman, armed only with my—”
“Put on your clothes.” She crossed her arms. “A spirit came.” She looked away.
Shadow sighed. He looked down at his hand and the starlight gleamed along the edge of his sword, which was always with him but was only a sword when he wanted it to be. It was curved like the barest slice of a crescent moon.
“What monsters are out there?” he asked and turned away from her. “I’ll cut them before they come near you.”
“It may be the people who live here. People like Kren.” If that were the case, it wouldn’t be the first time a world’s native inhabitants proved less than welcoming to outsiders.
“I’ll cut them too.”
Notch looked at him, faintly amused. Of course she could defend herself from mostly anything in these worlds. But Shadow had taken on the role of their protector for a simpler reason. He liked to fight. He liked to build and make things, true, but he liked to fight and destroy almost as much. He wasn’t a cruel-hearted man, but battle made him happy and he fought when he could.
He turned and posed with the sword over his head, muscles straining. He swung experimentally a few times, then grinned at her. She rolled her eyes but smiled despite herself.
She tossed his pants at him and they landed on his head. “Put those on, fool.”
It was a small band that eventually appeared, picking their way through the ravine below.
Notch and Shadow perched together on the outcropping, peering down with frowns on their faces. She turned to him. “Just people like the boy,” she whispered.
“I can’t be sure, but they look taller.”
She punched him in the shoulder and turned her attention back to the natives. Eight of them in total. Six with lanterns, scanning the forest around them. A seventh in darkness, walking with crossed arms. An eighth amid the rest, with huge shoulders, the tallest among them. Nothing struck her except that the eighth man had presence, and she felt his presence with her magic. The man exerted pressure upon the world around him as he moved through, like the rolling in of a storm. He seemed like she or Shadow did to one another. Like a spirit.
She drew her power within herself and hid it there, feeling blind. She realized then that Shadow would not have the presence of mind to do the same. She turned to him to whisper, but it was too late: a thin yelp came from below and she looked.
The Eighth man stood straighter, bounced a few times on his toes, yelped again, and fell backwards. He was quite unconscious, spread-eagled there in the snow.
Shadow laughed out loud and Notch shot a glare at him.
He waved a hand. “We have nothing to fear from them. Look at how he fell when he saw my power.” He stood as Notch scowled and grabbed for him. “Hello, you poor devils!” he called down with a grin, waving.
They pointed weapons at him amid confusion. Two of them were tending to the man who’d fallen. The man in darkness responded. “Who goes there?”
“Who goes where?” Shadow said.
“Us. We… What? We’re not going anywhere.” Shadow frowned.
“But who are you?”
“Shadow,” said Shadow.
“What does that mean?”
Shadow shrugged. “I dunno. Who are you?”
“What does that mean?”
Meanwhile, the Eighth man had regained consciousness and was being helped to his feet. He still seemed shaky, pointing a finger at Shadow, mouthing words.
“Demon!” he eventually gasped. That had an effect on the other men. They seemed to be closer to violence than they had been a second ago, Notch thought.
“Wat dat mean?” said Shadow with a grin.
“He says you’re a demon,” said Jibzer and turned to hear the harsh, whispered words of the Eighth man. “He’s our Shaman. He felt you with his magic.” Jibzer’s hand strayed close to the hilt of his sword, and Shadow saw it with a smile.
“I felt him too,” said Shadow with a laugh, waving his sword around dramatically. “Though it took me a second.”
The men tensed. Notch was tired of this juvenile posturing. Shadow did at times like to brag that his magic was bigger than yours. “This is pointless,” she said and stood up, making herself visible. “We mean no harm—”
“Another!” said one of the men and fired his weapon. A crossbow, she saw now, or something like one. The bolt skipped off the rock near her right knee, and she glanced at the impact point with some disapproval.
Shadow’s grin widened.
“You wanna fight!?” He leaped off the cliff and landed among the natives some twenty feet below, smacking the mud with his palm. When he stood, there was a blue gleam in his eyes, indicating a surge in his power. And Notch felt it too, with a sigh and another roll of the eyes. He’d jumped down from a metaphorical cliff as well.
She crossed her arms and mentally put an X next to this world in her notebook, as with several others. ‘Natives hostile,’ she would write, ‘antagonized by an idiot who happened to tag along.’ She sat down on the cliffside to watch. At this point there was no avoiding a conflict, and she had much of what she wanted from this world anyway.
The shaman spoke now. He had either a tiny head or a huge body. His strange clothes made it hard to tell which. Giant shoulder pads covered with fur and feathers. A long black cape. Huge rings on his bony fingers that rubbed on each other as he summoned his magic.
“Kill the demon,” he squeaked and pointed. A spire of green shot from his hand into Shadow’s chest with a sizzling noise. Notch felt it and recognized the nature of the magic. Light refocused and concentrated, made into a weapon. She’d never seen a variant this weak.
A bit of smoke wafted up from Shadow’s chest, and then with a series of thwacks, the natives fired their crossbows. He was in the midst of stepping to one side, and two of them missed outright. A third stuck in his stomach and another in his thigh.
He stepped forward, whirled his sword overhand with a glint of moonlight, and lopped off the arm of one of the crossbowmen. Another step forward and he was grinning before the shaman.
Notch felt the shaman’s power spike again as he gathered strength. “What—” he said.
Shadow cut him in half from left hip to right shoulder. Most of his torso flew into the air amid a comical shower of blood. His compatriots watched in astonishment, with open mouths that they probably should have kept closed. The top half of the shaman landed somewhere far away and his bottom half sat down.
There was much screaming and carrying on. Shadow stood in the midst of the recoiling natives, an eyebrow cocked incredulously, covered head to toe in blood.
“What in the world?” he said with a weak laugh.
The man whose arm he’d cut off picked up the arm and looked at it.
“You don’t need that, do you?” Shadow said, struggling to maintain his air of playfulness. The man fell over.
Shadow looked helplessly up at Notch.
“Notch? What’s going on here?”
Her mouth worked silently for a moment.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. And it was true. She didn’t.
The remaining natives had all fled back to wherever they’d come from, taking the injured one with them.
The sun was just beginning to dawn. Not with pink, or orange or red, but grey. Grey as ash, silver as a moon. Now Shadow and Notch finally located the top portion of the man called the shaman that Shadow had severed. It had come to rest some distance away, wedged between two rocks, the yawning mouth missing its teeth where they’d struck the stone.
Shadow knelt and hauled the man out into the open while Notch stood over him.
“Hey,” Shadow said. “Hello?” He patted the slack cheeks. Turned out it had been a tiny head, not a huge body. “He’s out cold. Colder than cold.”
Shadow looked up at Notch with a frown. The blood on him had dried and stained him with patches of brown. “You ever seen anything like this?”
Notch shook her head.
“Me either.” He shrugged. “You ever seen somebody come apart like that? And that guy’s arm came right off. I only hit him once. What are these people made of, cheese?”
“I don’t know,” Notch said quietly
“You know everything.” Shadow grinned.
She shook her head again.
Shadow sighed with a shake of his head. He looked down again at the gore coiling out of the shaman’s torso. “Look at this,” he snorted, lifting a length of entrails and letting them drop again. “He’s gonna be unhappy, I’m guessing. How long does it even take for—”
“He’s not here,” Notch said stiffly.
Shadow blinked at her. “What do you mean? He’s right here—”
“He’s not. Here.” Notch looked away.
“I’m looking right at him, Notch.”
“But can you feel him?”
“What?” Shadow looked back at the shaman. “Like, see him in my magic?”
“Don’t say see. It’s not correct,” she said automatically. “Can you feel him? His presence? I can’t.”
Shadow was silent for a moment. “You’re right. It’s like he’s another rock. I can’t feel him either.”
“Of course you can’t,” she snapped. “If I can’t, do you really think you could?”
“Sorry,” Shadow mumbled.
Notch sighed with closed eyes. “No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m just…afraid.”
“You? Afraid?” Shadow laughed. “Of what?”
“I dunno. Something is very wrong here.”
With crossed arms, Notch slowly sat. Shadow looked at her in bewilderment. Now the sun rose, and showed a pale winter world.