The Spark – Snippet 16

CHAPTER 6: Along the Way

After a few days on the Road I’d gotten healthy enough to be able to say that I felt awful and that I was in a grim mood. The physical pain was from the blow I’d taken. I had a bad burn on my back, though I hadn’t broken my collarbone or anything else as best I could tell. The arm and shoulder had swelled up and looked purple if I took the tunic off. I could open and close the fingers of that hand, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever have full use of the arm again.

I couldn’t blame Easton for my mood, though. The truth was, Easton given me a chance to work off some of the way I felt. There was plenty of it left to keep me down for a long while yet, likely for the whole rest of my life.

At least for another ten, fifteen years, I figured. That’s how long I’d been dreaming of becoming a Champion. Maybe I was through with dreams now, I don’t know. More likely I was through with believing that my dreams could ever come true.

We didn’t meet many people on the way. For the first week we ate from the pack and drank from streams on nodes along the way. Sometimes the water was muddy from recent rain, but I didn’t care and Buck had never cared. I slept on the ground with Buck curled beside me on nights it was cool.

When we passed folks going the other way, I nodded and turned my eyes down. When we came up on somebody, as we did twice, I passed on with a grunt.

The peddler going home was probably just as glad I wasn’t trying to rob him, but the young couple didn’t have a guide animal. I said, “Sorry, buddy,” and clucked to Buck to speed him up. I know they thought I was a bastard and I guess I acted like one, but I truly wasn’t in shape to mix with other people.

Twice I let Buck take me into the Waste. I’d heard that there were animals who could do that, could sense a nearby branch of the Road, but I’d have been afraid to try if, well, if I really cared about anything.

It was like stepping into a crack in black glass, but I followed Buck and in two steps I was on the Road again. I don’t even know they were short cuts, but Buck seemed to think they were.

Despite the slow first days, I think we were making better time on the way home than we had the other way when I was in a hurry to get to Dun Add. My shoulder was getting better and the pack was almost empty again, so I was wearing it normally to free my right hand. Free both hands of course, but I wouldn’t trust my left to do anything but break my fall if I toppled onto that side.

Buck growled.

He couldn’t see anything but the Waste to either side and about twenty feet of the Road in front of us, same as normal. I knew that was all he could see because I was watching through his eyes.

For all that, I trusted Buck even if he had no more than instinct. I paused to lift and switch on my weapon, then raised my shield as well. I hadn’t been sure I’d be able to pick it up, but the adrenalin that surged into my system when I heard Buck growl must have lubricated the muscles.

I switched the shield on at 20%, though I figured I’d just throw it down if I had to move fast. I knew I wasn’t in any shape for a fight, but going straight at the other fellow like I had with Easton was my best bet.

We walked forward. There aren’t any hills or curves in the Road, but there’s only so far you can see anyway.

I thought about Guntram suggesting that somebody had made the Road. I wondered if I’d ever see the old Maker again.

We came onto a Beast, a creature of Not-Here. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen in my life, worse than the drawings I’d seen of them.

I guess that was partly because layers were vanishing and reappearing, into Not-Here I suppose, while the creature tried to escape. It wasn’t going to be able to do that because it was a small one of its kind, about the size of May or a boy of twelve, and the Shade had it firmly.

There were supposed to be things that lived in the Waste, neither Here nor Not-Here, but I’d always supposed they were fancies like ghosts and angels. This had to be what they called a Shade, though: as lovely as blond sin, and as haughty as the Circuit Bishop when he passed through Beune every third year.

Maybe I’ll apologize to Mother Gurton for laughing when she talked about seeing angels dance on the church roof the day she was confirmed. Of course that would be if I ever got back home.

The Shade was touching the Beast with the spread fingers of both hands. If you looked close, you could see that maybe a couple of the fingers were longer than they should have been in order to reach the victim’s back. She must have come out of the Waste behind the Beast and gripped like a hawk with a rabbit.

I say ‘she’. I didn’t know what sex the Shade was or even if it had one, but it looked so human that I couldn’t help how I thought.

“Pass on, human,” the Shade said in a low, pleasant voice. I was hearing her in my mind; I wondered what Buck heard or if he heard anything. “Leave me to eat, and take pleasure in there being one fewer enemy to your sort in the universe.”

That was sort of true. Like I’d said to May, I didn’t figure that all the things from Not-Here were enemies–but when you found a copperhead in your barn you had to kill it, even if you don’t mind snakes and you know it eats rats. If you don’t, you come out in a hurry one day and grab the handle of the hay rake that the snake’s curled around. Then your arm swells up like you’d felled a tree onto it, and maybe you never get all the feeling back in your hand. That happened to Breslin about five years ago.

And that’s how I felt about the Beast: I was fine with never seeing one, but the chances were it was going to go for me as quick as it could. I’d be best off just slipping past while the Shade was holding it and neither of them could get at me.

“Let’s get ’em, Buck,” I said. We went for the Shade.

With a dog all the paths are clear. You move faster, into the Waste if you like. The Shade was a thing of the Waste so that wasn’t a choice here, but we sure could’ve gone back the way we came. Her hands were anchored in her prey, and I didn’t think she could get loose in time to grab us if we cut past her and her victim in the direction we’d been going.

Thing is, the Shade was the enemy of all life. The Beast might well be my enemy, but if I’d been by five minutes quicker the Shade would’ve had me instead. The first I’d have known was that my limbs didn’t work and everything was getting blurry as the Shade sucked my life out. Buck wouldn’t have been able to do anything but bark; if he wasn’t quick, she’d have had him for dessert.

I’d never heard about fighting a Shade. They picked single prey on the Road, never going after groups. You found the shriveled, crispy skin, or you came on a kill in process and ran the other way in all the stories I’d heard.

I didn’t figure the shield would be any good, so I switched it off. I went in close.

The Shade’s face was as smooth as marble. Her hands were withdrawing, but they wouldn’t be clear before I could hit her.

The perfect mouth opened and a three-forked tongue extended. The tips touched my cheeks and the underside of my jaw. I was hooked as sure as I ever had a crappy in the pond at the bottom of the big field. The Shade’s right hand was lifting, already clear of the Beast and reaching for my chest.

I triggered my weapon. There was a white flash.

I wasn’t really conscious of what I was doing. I think my finger twitched just because it was all part of what I was doing, get in close and strike–a single thought.

The Shade deflated, just shrank in on itself like a snowflake in the sun. There was nothing to see: no blood, no pool of liquid where the creature had stood; but it stank, stank worse than a dead mule.

I couldn’t move my head or even blink, and my body was cold down to mid-chest. I stepped backward and tripped because my left foot was dragging and I didn’t know it.

The Beast stared down at me. It had three eyes but mostly they didn’t all show at the same time. It’d be five minutes for my weapon to recharge.

It’d worked on a Shade, though; they could be killed. I wished there was somebody I could tell that to.

The Beast went on around me, giving me as wide a berth as it could. Buck was barking his head off, but he stayed close to my side.

The Beast disappeared, and after a while I got to my feet again.