This story is by Lydia Woodward and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon as I leave the gates of my city behind. My gut twists with the realization that I might never come back, but I shake that thought away before it can take root in my mind. I straighten my shoulders and adjust the straps of my pack, refusing to glance back towards my mentor.
I’ve trained for this moment. I’m ready.
The stone path ahead is worn smooth from the many feet that have come before me – generations of youth setting out on their Journey of Becoming. We all set out with the same goal: to earn our true name and a place on the Light Guard.
Though, lately, it seems that fewer and fewer of my friends are making it back.
I grit my teeth and look up towards the approaching storm. Few rays of sunlight still shine on the path, so I pick up my pace. The trees sway on either side of me, beckoning me on to whatever awaits me in the darkness beyond.
The air is heavy and wet. The moisture weighs down my hair, and I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead to catch the droplets of sweat before they reach my eyes.
I notice a looming shadow up ahead, covering the entire path with thicker darkness than the clouds above. Slowing my steps, I take care not to make a sound as I approach. The thump, thump of my heart pounds in my ears as I force myself to take a deep, steadying breath. Whatever is casting the shadow is shrouded by the trees.
It’s just a tree. I reach inside my cloak to hold the hilt of my training sword. The feel of a familiar weapon is comforting, and my nerves begin to settle. Never hurts to be cautious, I remind myself as I resist the urge to stop, turning the bend before I can second guess that decision.
But I do stop when my mouth drops open, my eyes widening as I tilt my head up at the twisting stone structure. It appears to have been a wall of some sort once, but there’s not much left of the cracked column that looks capable of falling over at any minute. I narrow my eyes as I step closer, peering behind it. It’s too dark to see properly, but I can make out the unnatural shapes of more stonework behind it. Despite the ruin of the structure before me, it doesn’t appear that anything has tried to grow back amidst it.
I fight back a shiver as my hair stands on end. Something is wrong. I grit my teeth and move back to the center of the path. I readjust my pack and roll my shoulders. I just need to keep moving, and I’ll be fine.
As I turn away, something brushes against my arm and whispers in my ear. I whirl back around, unsheathing my sword, but there’s no one there: nothing but the crumbling ruins. My chest heaves as I look back and forth, gripping my sword hilt, my knuckles white.
An icy shiver works up my spine, and my gaze settles back on the column. Probably just the wind. I wet my lips and force my eyelids to blink, but I know it’s a useless lie. There isn’t any wind – not even a light breeze.
I sigh when I look up and see the sun is setting. I grumble underneath my breath as I turn to make camp on the opposite side of the road from the ruins. Out of respect for the dead, of course. I imagine there are all sorts of bodies buried under the rubble. I hesitate, glancing again behind me, and I shake my head. Maybe it’s best not to think of that right now.
Sunlight streams into my tent from every side; I roll to my side with a groan, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes with my fists. As I sit up and stretch, I feel the rush of relief in the brightness all around. I didn’t sleep much last night, but it’s a clear day, and the ruins don’t seem quite as ominous as they did in the dark.
A blood-curdling scream pierces the morning air, and I jump for my sword – grabbing its hilt as I tumble through the tent. The cloth wraps around my legs, and I flail on the ground, my heart leaping to my throat as my gut twists with a painful twinge. There’s a crunch of loose dirt and rubble somewhere near my head, and then a second scream – this one closer, louder than before.
I suck in a sharp breath as I escape the tangled tent, jumping to my feet with my eyes wide. There. In the ruins. A flash of bright color, a woman’s skirt, disappears behind a column as she screams again. There’s a snarl from somewhere close by, and I’m running forward after the woman and the monster before I’m aware of commanding my legs to do so.
I catch up to the woman as she falls to her knees, clutching one of the stone structures. Her wide, frantic eyes turn toward me. “B-b-b-”
“You’re alright. You’re safe now.”
She shakes her head, jerking a finger up at me. “BEHIND YOU!”
I spin around just as a heavy, dark form bashes into me, and my sword drops from my hand. We tumble to the ground, and I’m vaguely aware of the woman’s frightened screech. Long claws scrape down my chest with searing pain. We thrash together on the ground, and I try to shove it off, keeping it away from my throat.
Suddenly, it’s gone. My arms are sweeping through nothing but air as I stumble to my knees, my ears ringing as I look around for the monster or the woman. What –
A cold breeze sweeps over me as the sound of hands clapping reaches my ears. I turn, wincing, to see a strange man with wild gleeful eyes.
“Well done, boy,” he smirks and stretches out his arms, examining the pale flesh, “I think that will do it.” The sunlight makes them almost seem… translucent, and my stomach flips. I glance at his feet to see my sword lying there, but that’s when I realize: he doesn’t have a shadow.
His chuckle grates at my nerves as my eyes snap back up to his. “Shadows don’t have shadows, boy, but you’ll have plenty of time to learn all about that.” He lunges toward me, grips my shoulders, and drags me up to my feet. His cold hand closes around my throat, and I can see how black his eyes are and the strange gray tint to his skin. I grab his arm, my lungs crying for air and my throat burning as his long fingers squeeze tighter.
I gasp for air and tuck my chin sharply, forcing his grip to loosen. I see a glimpse of my forearm, gray and fading, while his skin is growing more natural-looking… more like mine. I’m turning into whatever he is.
My eyes roll back as my body twitches beyond my control—his chuckle echoes at the back of my mind. Shadows don’t have shadows.
NO! I kick his knee hard, and he stumbles, dropping me. I roll to the side, wheezing and gasping, but I reach my sword’s hilt before he grabs my shoulder again. I swing around, slicing across his chest. He stumbles back with a screech and grips his shirt, staring at the blood on his hands with wide eyes. It makes me wonder when was the last time his form was physical enough to bleed, but it’s enough to shock him for a moment, which is all I need.
I shove myself to my knees and up to my feet, slashing my blade across his throat. He stumbles back, and I notice the strange glowing mark on his forehead. I don’t hesitate, don’t think, just plunge my sword for the mark, driving my blade through his skull. His mouth drops open in a silent scream, and he crumples to the ground, his body convulsing.
I gasp and drop my sword as I fall to the ground beside him. My forehead feels like it’s on fire, and my skull is constricting, tighter and tighter until I can only lie there, waiting for it to crack open.
All at once, the shadow man vanishes with a loud POP! and the pain in my head is gone. I shudder and take several deep breaths before pushing myself up on my elbows. My legs are shaky as I pick up my sword and stand up slowly, leaning against a column for support. I glance down to reassure myself that my arms are back to normal when I notice the fresh, black ink on my inner wrist: Orrawri, shadow-slayer. I grin and stand a little straighter. My true name – I’ve earned it.