Ander… The name was vaguely familiar, it had the taste of truth to it, yet there was a hesitation in the woman’s voice as she had called it out; a nudging aspect as if it might jog something lose: something forgotten.He mulled the name over in his mind as he walked behind the woman. “Where the hell am I?” he thought again that day and it seemed as if he had been saying that statement for quite some time.
They turned onto a narrow animal trail, south maybe, it was hard to tell, yes it was daylight, the woods were not as foreboding as before in the deep of the night, but he could not locate the sun. There was a bright haze to the atmosphere with no real direction; it was as if the light was coming from everywhere. It had a feeling all its own, it was almost malleable and it seemed brighter only when he looked upon the strange and lithe woman that he followed behind. She looked back every now and again to see if he was still following.
“Could he trust her?”
He felt an almost animal quality about her. It wasn’t her look, beautiful and well figured as she was, it was in the way she moved. She had a feline grace that went with her dancers’ body. Calculating…Cunning. She chose her path as if every step was a sacred act and planned to perfection.Again the sense of eldritch ways forbidden to man pervaded his senses. He could not shake the image of a stalking cat looking for prey from his mind.
He thought quietly. “Wasn’t it the female of the great cat species that did all the hunting for the pride?”
He trudged on; conscience of the unfamiliar woodland ways of his guide and his uneasiness with the noise he made as he followed in her quiet footsteps. She stopped suddenly, crouched down to look at something on the path. Coming up beside her, hesitantly, he could not make out what had caught her attention.She smiled and stood when she noticed his closeness and motioned for him to follow. A few steps more brought them into a sheltered grove of birch trees. Their white and brown papery bark peeling and curling in on themselves made it look as if the great trees had been recording time for ages, leaving their lessons festooned upon their large trunks for any who had the wisdom to read them.
She walked into the center of the clearing to a small mound with a crude lean-to erected before an old fire pit that looked as if it had not been used in centuries and sat down. A fire sprang to life as she looked up to him and motioned for him to do the same.
Ander did not realize how truly exhausted he was until he did so. His broad shoulders slumped forward and his long white hair fell to hide his face as he let out a long sigh.
“You have been traveling long Ander.” She said in her satin voice, more a statement than a question. “Rest a while. It is safe here, for the time being at least. The Shadow cannot reach you here for it is under the protection of the ALL.”
“The, All?” He asked as the tension of his travels and situation seeped out of him and seemed to be absorbed by the flickering firelight.
“Yes,” she replied,” The Great One, the Maker of everything, the Unmoving Mover. I know it by no other name. I believe the people of your world and time call it God, but that term is pagan to us and given to your people by those who from the heavens came to earth. In this place it is merely the ALL.” She took in a breath and looked upon his questioning continence and continued. “But I did not bring you here for a philosophical or theological lesson. You were in need and my people and I brought you here out of your, and our, necessity.”
He was lulled by that satin voice and her gentle movements into relaxation and she brought forth food and drink. She handed him nuts and berries on a large strip of birch bark and cool clean water wrapped in a leaf cup. He ate greedily and washed it down with the cool drink that was heartening and surprisingly filling.
When he was done his deep silver eyes shone brighter and he felt recharged and confident. His head was clear and without pain.
“Where am I…Umm when are we?” he corrected as he noticed her questioning look.She sat up straighter and her body language spoke to him of something important about to be conveyed when suddenly her features turned very serious and briefly looked about with only her soft green eyes. He could tell that she had not wished him to notice this but he had, none the less, and worry crept back to his features.
“Ander, I am sorry for this, I had thought we would have more time in this place. But, it appears that the great working my people and I have weaved will not last much longer before you are pulled back into the shadow lands.”She took a deep breath before she continued and again he noticed the scanning of her eyes, her next words shook him out of the reverie of her beauty.
“Know this; the path you walk is our path. You must not falter. For, if you do, we, my people and yours will be lost to the shadow that pursues you.”“For ages long forgotten our peoples have struggled to undo what has been done and you have been running for far too long now. You, Ander, have been chosen by the Shadow. You are the only mortal in all of creation to have been touched by it and been able to throw off the Shroud and run. Though that touch, has forever changed you. You will never be able to return to the world you have known. It is beyond you now and now you live in the shadowed lands of its creation: a potentiality of what your world once was and could be again if not stopped. If you do not make a choice in this darkest of our hours you will forever run and damn us all. Your task must be completed.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What is it? You must tell me!” He was truly confused now and even more scared than when he was running in the night, fleeing from that thing that dogged his every step.
Standing now in fear, scanning his surrounding for a way out, the trees looked as if they had gotten closer and closed all gapes, he could not make out the path they had come by. Images flooded his mind and he turned in place with no way out. The images were made up of the very fabric of the universe. It cooed him and took him in with eyes of the deepest pools of black, swirling, ever turning, he knew not even light could escape those pools. A body that sparkled with the hint of the vastness of galaxies and infinite space laid a shimmered hand upon his shoulder and whispered of powers that could be his as it placed a mantle of pure shadow upon his back.He screamed for his life.
A hint of her true power crept into her voice as she turned bright and smoldering green eyes upon him and spoke. “You must put the Shroud back on Ander. But not for it…you must put it back on for all of us…You must become the Shroud of the Shadow.”“NOOOO!!” He roared and turned and as he did so she stood, reaching out to him to pull him back from the madness that consumed him but it was too late. The very fabric of time shattered and he was again thrust upon that eerie dark path in which he had been running now for eons.
He stood shaking in that dark path. The moon, now bright in the sky overhead, watched him as he stood there in that darkened path of silvery shadow and he remembered something. He knew its name, that great silvery orb, he knew that he could call to it and ask for help if need be; he was not alone.He stood there as the sounds of the shadowed world crept into his very being. A moment ago he had been afraid and alone, but there was something else now. A light that was not there before burned inside of him and called out to that moon and gave him strength.
Ander looked again on the shadowed valley below and knew that it was an ill portent of what was the first trial of a journey he had begun long ago.“NO longer,” he said allowed, “I will fear no more. I will give no strength to that which pursues me. I Will take up my mantle…But on my terms.”
He raised his face up to the moon and yelling into the darkness around him in a voice that seemed to shake the leaves and dust of the valley below.
“I WILL BECOME THE SHROUD OF SHADOW!”
And he ran again…But this time, this time he was fueled by his newfound strength and purpose for what he must become.
The great silver moon smiled upon him as he made his way into the dark valley below, toward a tower that he could not yet see. It sparkled in obsidian silence with the reflections of the starry night.