Shoel's Story

Chapter Twenty-Five: Wraiths

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The day passed in a strange, uncomfortable mix of boredom and tension: boredom, because she had nothing to do, as Hemlock remained hunting all day, and tension, because she was now alone surrounded by the Dead. Shoel couldn't read, since she wasn't following anyone, and she couldn't talk with anyone except the horses-- which she did do a couple times, just to break the silence and distract herself from the wraiths she could feel following her. An hour or so she spent musing on names for her avicorn, coming up with a few possibilities, but that was only entertaining for so long. She practiced a few Charter marks, simply making them glow in mid-air rather than actually do anything and waste energy, or she watched the scenery. A constant was comparing what landmarks she saw and the direction of the trail with her mental map of the area. She paused for lunch at a nut tree for protein, and wondered what was taking Hemlock so long.

Finally the sun started turning the forest red and orange, and Shoel had found what looked like a halfway-decent campsite, had even dismounted and stretched out a bit, before Hemlock finally reappeared. It was actually the avicorn who saw-- or perhaps scented-- him first: the creature whinnied and stamped, tossing his head so that he nearly pulled free from where she'd tethered him. The little black dragon came charging into the clearing, holding something in his mouth that looked rather like a cross between a goat and a horse with paws. It was about one-fourth his size, and he dropped it at Shoel's feet, panting and glaring back at the path he'd come by before returning to his human form and pulling out a knife from his belt.

Shoel stared at him a minute before shaking herself and blinking. "For dinner?" she asked vaguely.

"For as long as it lasts," Hemlock replied irritably, trying to catch his breath as he settled himself down to began skinning the creature.

" ... Are you all right?"

"Other than being chased because I lost track of time, I'll live," Hemlock grumbled, peeling the hide back from the creature's leg.

"Being chased?" Shoel jumped a bit and peered behind him, fingers twitching, ready to call up a Charter mark for light if it was necessary-- she hadn't gotten to the fire yet, since she'd only just arrived.

Hemlock looked up from the task he'd set upon, giving Shoel a slightly dirty look. "It's darker in there, so they come out a little earlier. Just start the fire...."

"No offense meant," she replied calmly, relaxing a little and setting about clearing the ground for the fire, gathering up a fuel and kindling in the process. Already a host of wraiths were gathering along the edge of the clearing, staring at the two with soulless gray eyes. There were more than the previous night, at least twice as many, and they looked hungry. Still in armor, and eyes flicking to the shadowed Dead, she crouched and called up a Charter mark for a spark, tracing it in the air, and set the small pile of kindling aflame. There was a brief flurry among the shadows as Hemlock tossed the bloody innards of his kill at them, hopefully enough to distract them from the still-living for at least long enough for the fire to grow and the travelers to settle down for the evening. The momentary sense of their attention turned elsewhere was a brief boon, at least, as Shoel fed the fire a few larger pieces of wood and set about tending the four-foots, one eye always beyond the ring of light she'd created.

"Don't forget you're taking first watch tonight," Hemlock said without looking up from his work.

"I haven't," she answered, glancing over at him as she brushed Vesper. He had wrapped pieces of for later in the animal's skin and now was looking around.

"Have any pans or anything?"

"Yes, here." She unhooked one of the larger, noisier bundles from the avicorn's saddle and tossed it to him. It contained some small, nested cooking dishes, just barely big enough to cook for two. There was a clatter as he dug around inside and brought out the larger of the two pans, an Shoel went back to grooming. It didn't take long, though, before she could smell the cooking meat, and it smelled particularly marvelous, especially for camp-cooked. By the time she was finished with the four-foots, it was nearly too good a smell to resist. Clanking over to Hemlock and the fire-- she hadn't gotten her armor off yet-- she leaned over his shoulder. "Did you put something on that? It smells good."

"Just an herb mixture," Hemlock nodded and looked around, frowning at something, presumably lack of places, given his next words: "I think we might have to just eat out of the pan...."

"That's fine," Shoel said, sitting down with another clatter and starting to tackle her armor. "You actually thought to bring herb mixtures for dinners," she added with a half-smile. "That's more than I'd thought of." Hemlock winced at the noise she was making in her armor, glancing briefly to the canid wraiths around the camp. "Sorry," she apologized. "It's hard to be quiet in all this."

He shrugged a bit, then addressed her comment. "I never go anywhere without my herbs. While I'm making potions I usually make other things as well. Things that make travel a little more... pleasant."

"Well, thank you. I, for one, very much appreciate it."

"Heh," Hemlock said with a slight smirk. He allowed Shoel to remove at least most of her armor before he held the pan out to her, handle first with his own gauntleted hand gripping the side. "It's hot." She took the handle carefully, slipping out her knife and cutting off a sliver of the meat to let it cool apart from the whole. She speared it delicately on the tip of the blade and offered the pan back to him. Blinking, he took the pan back and set it down again, apparently not hungry yet.

"So, how was your day?" he asked, as she blew on the slice of delicious-smelling meat a moment.

"Dull, actually," she told him. "But at least uneventful. Yours?"

"Boring, I spent most of the day looking for something to kill," the necromancer said, stifling a rather large yawn. She smiled a bit at him; he looked tired. "Then when I found something to kill and managed to, it was already sunset and the wraiths were drawn by the scent of the blood." That made him scowl, looking at the ethereal creatures as though he were about to throw a rock at them. Shoel understood the feeling; she wanted to throw more than rocks at them.

Finally cooled sufficiently to eat, Shoel took a bite of the meat. It tasted nearly as good as it smelled. "I have a feeling you're a worlds better cook than I am," she admitted wryly, taking another bite off the knife.

"Probably had more practice," Hemlock answered absently, still staring at the wraiths beyond the firelight.

"I suppose so," she agreed, then followed his gaze as she chewed. They were acting differently, congregating in little groups; it reminded her of how the Dead Hands of her homeworld would gather for attack. Swallowing, going instinctively tense, she asked, "Hemlock, is that normal?"

"I don't know," the necromancer said, sounding slightly embarrassed. "I haven't really taken much time to observe wraiths before."

"Well, it looks like they're preparing for something, to me," she told him, setting down knife and meat back into the pan without taking her eyes from the wraiths, which were now mulling uneasily just outside the ring of light, making it seem as if the shadows of fire and trees were alive. She was glad, now, that she hadn't taken off her breastplate and bandolier yet.

The wraiths didn't dare go beyond the safety of the darkness-- except for one, a rather large wraith that gingerly put a paw into the light, revealing a form like a compounded shadow with long, wickedly curved claws that looked almost solid. Then it withdrew, sauntering around the edge as if to get closer to the two humans sitting within the light. Shoel rose deliberately, trying to keep her eyes on that one, and Hemlock, after a moment of shocked silence, growled, "I'd say it's not normal."

"There are three torches bundled on the avicorn's saddle," she told him slowly, attention on the wraiths. "Against the cantle, beneath my bedroll." The avicorn was closer; he should be able to get there and back, to light them, before the wraiths got up the courage to attack. Hemlock had no light magic; he would need the fire. Hemlock got up slowly, moving over towards Shoel's mount while keeping his head turned, one eye on the wraiths. He reached the equine, pushing aside the bedroll to pull off the other bundle and withdraw a torch.

That was when the shadow she'd been watching leapt from the dark, straight at her.


Chapter Twenty-Six



Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.

Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.