There is always another November... This excerpt comes from a National Novel Writing Month effort from 2019; as my workload increased as holidays approached, I unfortunately found I had to abandon the process for the year, but have since picked many pieces of the story back up, attempting to reinvent the initial concept. This is the initial prologue and first chapter of that piece.
There is always another November... This excerpt comes from a National Novel Writing Month effort from 2019; as my workload increased as holidays approached, I unfortunately found I had to abandon the process for the year, but have since picked many pieces of the story back up, attempting to reinvent the initial concept. This is the initial prologue and first chapter of that piece. A bit of fantasy meets horror to help explore a world I'd helped create as a campaign setting for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. While many of my stories now take place within this world, this was one of the first attempts I'd made to help capture some of the aspects of this world and its many strange dangers.
I hope you all enjoy.
She called herself Avi.
It was a simple enough name. It was the name her mother gave her as the midwives rushed her to the medicine man of the village in the Ekhor Weald. It was the name the elders had crowned her with when neither mother nor father were present for the day of naming. Her mother, dead. Her father, refused. Now it was the name she fought to cling to, as her breaths heaved, quick and shallow. The transformation shook her to the core and racked her body with pain.
You are Avi. Avi. Avi.
The spines were the worst part. Bony protrusions that broke through the skin, tearing her in two, as her shoulder blades dislocated themselves and shifted into haunches. Her vision blurred with pain, then blacked out entirely, as she felt the bones break and reshape in her hands and feet. The nails on her hands sharpened, curling inwards to fine points, points meant to tear and to rip and to cut. Her repetitions of the name mingled with whispered prayers to Efgert, to lift her suffering, and to Yulfir, that her pain would not be in vain. Then the words ceased, her lips and her tongue incapable of forming the words around the bestial snout, nor tonguing the syllables against the sharp ivory within her mouth. Muscles rippled as spasms and tension gave way. The skin, grey and lifeless, shrugged off, leaving it exposed.
Her eyes flashed open, the last pieces of sentience still echoing inside her. Avi. Avi. Avi.
They said it was the spines that had torn her mother apart.
The weald around her was no longer green nor full of life. It was dark and light and tinted red like the blood she hungered after. The blood she could smell through the thick trees. The damp earth. The vines and the foliage and the scents of those who were once brothers and sisters. The light dappling the world as she saw it faded quickly from sight as the flashes of movement caught her eye nearby. A rabbit darted from one cluster of bush to the next and her sight flashed red before she held herself still.
No. There was more waiting for her elsewhere. Better hunting. Better prizes to be won.
Silently, she strode through the trees, stepping lightly on clawed feet over the exposed roots of trees. The branches gave way under her weight, and to gain better balance, she slowly lowered herself to all four limbs. It was painful to go on two legs for too long a time. The light and the dark and the red swirled in front of her vision as she smelled it. Not too far from here. Deer, and many of them. She would sate her hunger tonight.
The name made her bristle, what patchy hair she layered over the taut muscles stood on end, and she bared her teeth. A low growl escaped her throat as she did so.
She called herself Avi. But the beast knew differently. And the beast always won.
Duurani and Bati stood as sentinels outside the druidic encampments, the staves in their hands planted firmly in the soft earth. Duur was never particularly jumpy. But today… today was different. The air was different, the earth was different. It all held a tension the likes of which he hadn’t felt in many months, and he found his thoughts were as clouded as the sky overhead. He rubbed his thumb along the rough wood of the focus in his hand, glancing behind to watch the smoke rise upward from the campfires. It floated skyward, the ashes following.
“Hunter’s been gone a long time.”
“She always is,” Duur said absently.
“Longer than usual this time, though, isn’t it?”
"How am I supposed to know."
Bati shrugged his shoulders, tapping Duur to catch his attention again. "How are you supposed to know..." The tawny elven man turned to face his companion with a disapproving glare. "You're too soft for her, and we all know it."
"I see nothing wrong with being soft for a member of our own."
"She's not one of ours. I know this. You know this. We all know this."
The look on Duur's face could have frozen the Waters of Cemeris in their falling. Bati grit his teeth, waiting for the reply that he knew would soon be forthcoming.
"She's done more for us in the last while than anyone else around here." He nudged Bati pointedly. "At least Avi can go out and hunt without feeling the need to be distracted by moonwines and chieftain's daughters."
Bati held up his hands defensively. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Duur shook his head, a wry smile crossing his face. "Of course not. Tiata has shown no signs of anything untoward, certainly. I'm sure that it was simply a case of a bad meal, something spoiled or what have you. No matter that we all ate the same thing. Perhaps her stomach is simply more..."
Bati tapped the back of Duur's head, just hard enough to hurt, as he choked out the word, “...sensitive.” Duur laughed a little bit. "For the chieftain's sake," he added, "I'd recommend you finish acquiring that dowry. As soon as possible. And maybe give a few more offerings to Puuth that your spawn won't acquire any of your ugliness."
"You're avoiding my points entirely, Duurani."
"You're soft for the Hunter."
"And what's wrong with that?"
Bati shook his own head, taking a few moments to collect himself. "She's... not... She isn't..."
"Spit it out, or the thief take your tongue next time he passes by."
"She's wrong. She always has been."
Duur leaned against the tree nearest him and exhaled slowly. "She is different to be sure."
"Different?" Bati laughed. "Duur. Different is a little generous. If we shifted here and now, I'd be a bear. You'd be a wolf. We could and we have. But we're still ourselves within the beast's skin."
"And you think Avi is not?"
"I know it!" He planted the staff into the ground, turning to face Duur. "She's no druid. She is an opposite to us. We are men yet within beasts. She? She is a beast, within an elven skin. Surely you can see that. Surely you have seen that." His voice lowered, barely above a whisper. "I'd heard, when she shifts, she sheds her skin. That face you find so lovely just left on the ground. Rotting in the dirt and the leaves."
"It's why her skin is so grey. Why she smells of decay. She goes without her skin for so long that it rots without her."
Duur sprang forth from the tree with surprising quickness, covering his friend's mouth with his hand. "I said, shut up." His eyes darted back and forth through the trees, and he grabbed the staff, positioning it defensively. "There's something out there."
Bati, initially starting to protest, finally followed orders. His lips pressed together, he looked out at the darkness surrounding them, and found he too could see the shadows as they passed through the trees. Whatever else they were, he could not see. Simply shadows, one after another after another as they passed between the trunks of the trees. He looked up to the branches, whispering to Duur. "Are they in the trees?"
"No. There's nothing in the branches."
Duur's eyes flickered across the scene, one after another. Whispering in the tongue of the Circle of Llowyln, the top portion of his staff, braided in leather cords and fixed with small pieces of transparent stone, began to glow with a pale yellowish light. He held it up, trying to illuminate the forest itself. Bati was quick to follow suit, his own staff the dull orange of a dying fire. The forest around them seemed to look even darker in comparison now. Duur's eyes narrowed, peering through the darkness, and turned back to Bati, motioning for him to stay put.
Duur looked for the telltale signs of life, creeping closer to the sight of the shadows. There were no signs to be found, at least none of the normal ones. No eyes reflected back at him in the darkness. No prints lined the soft earth. He wandered, not too far, examining the terrain carefully, then gazing up into the trees. Only the usual squirrels, the owls that glared back down at him in judgment. None of them could have caused the shadows that they had seen. No. They were too tall. Humanoid, bipedal. And they should have been heavy enough to leave prints. Even trying to cover them over, nothing would have been able to do so that quickly and have it be untraceable.
Then Bati screamed.
Duur turned back and ran towards the start of the encampment only to see his friend fighting... nothing at all. He had turned, facing the encampment, the light from his staff only barely making a dent in the darkness that seemed now to coalesce around him in a nearly tangible mass. Bati swung the staff forward, and appeared to make contact with something. The staff seemed to hit something, its swing sticking briefly in the midair, but nothing cried out. And then Bati cried out again, and Duur watched, his friend's face grew pale and wan, his hands starting to shrivel and decay around the staff itself. The elven man, shaking, slammed the druidic staff into the earth, and transformed. He shifted nearly instantly, his shape widening, thickening, going from two legs to four, and thick fur coating his body as he turned into the brown bear that had protected his encampment from so much in the past. He roared.
It was only then, in this moment of panic, that Duur saw the shadows that clung to him from all sides, that seemed to be cast from his own light, from the light of the fire, from the light of the moon. But he was coated in them. And the shadows had not changed. They still stood as a man would stand, and they clawed at him one after another.
He felt it then. A cold hand on the back of his neck. A cold that seeped past skin and bone and musculature. A cold that sunk towards his heart, seizing him with terror, and that squeezed the air out of his lungs. He whirled around and saw as it flickered back and forth before him. A figure as tall as him, taller as the light shifted directions, eyeless and menacing. Ethereal, no body to it. Tendril like fingers that clung to him as he backed away, feeling the muscles wither within him. In the brief moment of illumination, he swore he saw teeth spread wide in a grin.
He knew Bati's cries would have caught attention. Even now he found himself crying out the warnings to the village at large. "Llowyln guard us," he choked, tightening his grip on the staff in his hand. He gazed up at the clouded skies and coughed, feeling the magic of earth and sky flood through him, trying desperately to regenerate the decay that now threatened him inside and out. The clouds slowly began to part, the glimpses of the moon catching his terrified eyes. What healing they seemed to provide did little to nothing.
The darkness clung to him. Another hand, and then another, each one sinking in deeper than the last. He was vaguely aware of the fact that these wounds that were within him were now rending the outside, tearing at him like claws and teeth. The warm and painful familiarity of blood ran down his arms, his legs, his chest.
The clouds finally parted and with desperation, still gripping the focus of magic, Duur called the moonlight to him, to Bati, to the world around them. Only then did they scream. Their eyeless faces starting to shrink as if burned away, their grins now gnashing teeth and voiceless wailing like the wind howling through the trees. Duur held his ground, focusing its energy around him, calling forth a shield of light and brightness. There was so little else he could do, and glancing at himself, he could see the tears all over him, claw marks unlike any he'd ever seen on his skin. The blood flowing from him, too fast for him to stem its flood.
Bati roared again, his form shifting back to that of an elven man. There were too many around him, too many for him to face alone.
Duur threw the moonlight to him. The moonbeams flowing around him now like water, even as his vision blurred and his body went cold. The shadows around Bati shrieked and faded away. And Duur felt the strength leave his legs, leave his arms. He trembled, fighting to stand, once, twice, then fell.
Blood. Not the deer's blood that coated her mouth, that coated her jaw and dripped warmly down her chin and her neck. Over it all there was the blood of an elf. Blood of elves.
The smell of it carried over a distance. Stinking and rich and warm and familiar.
It called her. It called her home.
The name began to echo as if calling her back. Avi. Avi. Avi. Something seemed almost to keep it at bay.
No. The hunt was over now. She had to return.
Blood of elves.
Avi. Avi. Avi. You... are... Avi.
She came to herself. The glimpse of thought reminding her who she was supposed to be. Who she was called. She slung the deer carcass over her shoulder and began running through the forest, leaping over roots, no longer cautious.
She had to find her skin again.
The smell of the elven blood took over her senses. Her own skin did not smell this strongly. Between this scent of home calling to her and the blood that clung to her own muscled self, trickling from the deer over her shoulder, she could not find it. She had to clear herself. To clean herself. She had to get rid of the distracting scents and find the one that mattered.
The firelight of the Ekhor Weald nearly blinded her as she emerged from the woods, swinging the deer carcass onto the ground in front of the encampment, and smelled it now. Close and present and rich. Blood, elf blood, spilled everywhere. Splattered across earth and leaf and the burning moonlight. Slowly she approached. A body lay there. She crouched beside it. A body she should know. If she could only find her skin.
She left the carcass there, fighting to clear her head, to fight back the beast that still clung to the surface of her brain. Avi. Avi. Avi.
She called herself Avi. That body called her Avi. They all needed Avi. Not the other her.
Where was her skin?
She rushed back to where she started, stumbling over dark and light and root and branch. Finally she saw it. Her hands slipped into the skin like tight and ill-fitting gloves. The claws broke through the skin as if piercing through for the first time, only to become nails on the way out. Feet slipping into the grey mass as if putting on the deerskin trousers that lay nearby. It coated her. She forced the face over her own again, letting the muscle meld and stick to it, the snout receding. Teeth growing flat. Eyes piercing through the dark now with regularity as the red began to fade from her view. Tissue began to reform. Some tears remained. They always did. The spines never shrunk enough to fit comfortably over the skin and they stayed visible, as if she were somehow malnourished, sticking out from her as if begging for escape.
This body never felt comfortable. It felt constricted. Her movements less graceful. Her sight less clear, hearing and smell less keen. But this body knew faces. This body knew words and wellness and friendship and honor.
Avi, for she was Avi now, slipped the shift and the trousers over her naked form, skin grey and pale in the now oddly cloudless sky. She could have sworn there were clouds there when her hunt had begun. Then barefoot, she ran back towards the village, where her hunt would soon be cooked and prepared and eaten. At the least what remained of it. She had drunk her fill on the first one, after all. They had the second all to themselves, usually. Even if this form was hungry, she often had to make do.
The warm lights of the fire looked almost welcoming, but the silhouettes of her clan marred the view as they gathered around the entrance to their encampment. The usually kind oranges and yellows now looked harsh in Avi's eyes, harsh against their frightened bodies, and their frantic voices. Even as Avi, the beast could smell their fear within her, and threatened wordlessly to arise again.
She drew close, clumsily. Stepping towards the light, she heard murmurings in elven and druidic mingling together.
"What in Regret --"
"-- the shadows, I swear, and then there was--"
"-- seeing things."
"-- and then she was..."
She recognized the one voice. Bati's, above all others. "She was standing over him and smelling him and then ran off into the night and--"
Avi grew suddenly very aware of the blood drying to a crust underneath her fingernails, aware of the metallic taste of iron within her mouth. She had not done this. She knew that much. This taste was deer, raw venison. Not the taste of wood elf. She had not tasted elf in nearly a century.
"Bati, what has happened?" She drew herself to her full height, her words not quite forming as she wanted them too. Bati turned to her, and she saw his eyes widen with fear. He looked half-dead, his skin almost as grey as her own as he struggled to look at her. A few cuts and abrasions lined his skin, small bruises and nicks overall. The lingering musk of bear filled the air and she imagined he must have shifted.
"You..." His voice shook, and with a hand more skeletal than she'd remembered, he pointed at her through the crowd. The elves all turned to look at her as she joined in their fray. "You were there. You arrived right as he stopped screaming. What did you see?"
"As who stopped screaming, Bati?" She felt fear and grief already rising in her chest. Those were not the beast. Those were her, always. She turned around as Bati gestured past her, and saw the source of the smell that still lingered and tempted the beast inside. Avi, Avi, Avi.
She saw him now. The dark stains on the earth and on his clothing. His skin once rich like the warm earth and eyes golden like the flames, were pale, the warmth gone from them. His face once smiling and kind to her now lay frozen in an expression of terror. Terror, and surprise. Cuts lined his body, tears and rips as if torn into by a multitude of claws. Along his neck, where that rich vein and artery lay for so many, was a large bite wound, much of the neck itself missing. The bite was too small to be an animal, no larger than a human mouth, but tore with the same ferocity as a wolf’s jaws. Even the medicine men who surrounded him looked puzzled, as if trying to figure out what had happened.
"Duurani." She barely whispered the word as she knelt down beside him. Her heartbeat raced in her ears, mingling with the commotion of the frightened murmuring of the crowd around her. She placed a hand on his chest only to have it slapped away by one of the elders.
"You will not touch him."
"I don't mean--"
"Leave your hands off of him, hunter."
She knelt beside him, her eyes filling with tears in spite of herself. "What happened to him?"
"You were here, were you not? Surely you should remember?"
"I was not myself, I was..."
"Of course you were not." The elder snapped at her, as she was kept back, the rest of them pushing her aside without a second thought. "Did you at least come back with something worthwhile?"
"I found a deer. I caught it and I brought it back where..."
She looked to where it should have been. The deer's blood mingled with the blood of the elves strewn on the ground but the carcass was nowhere to be seen. No. No. No.
Fear began to rise. Fear did not become the beast and she fought it back.
"Bati," she said, rushing towards the man on the ground. "What happened to him? What happened to Duur?"
"The shadows. They were everywhere. They came at us. Hungry. They reached into us, stole our breath." He stared up into her eyes with his own frantic ones. Here, now illuminated in the torchlight, he shied away from her own shadow as it fell across him, as if it would tear into him.
"Shadows cannot harm men, Bati. Many worse things lurk in the darkness of the world." The elders' voices mingled with one another like the blood on the earth.
"And then you were here, you were over him. Hunter, why did you not help?" Bati's voice again. Not vindictive, but an accusation that filled her heart with dread.
She hesitated. The rush of sound around her slowly fell into silence and she was left with barely a voice speaking aloud. "I... I smelled you only. I could not see. And I had to find my skin."
"Your skin was more important to you than the life of one of our own?"
"I don't mean it like that!" she began to protest, turning around to face the source of the voice. Her father stood before her, unyielding, arms crossed in front of his chest.
"Duurani was a good man, full of promise. Full of life. Either you watched him die, while yet in your monstrous shape, and did nothing to help him, or -- "
"I couldn't be certain I would not hurt him instead." The words were choked and harsh as they fought their way out of her throat. "Father, please, I didn't..."
Her father interrupted. "Leave. Now. We make no judgments with the beast yet in our midst."
"The beast is not here now, father; it is only me. Please." Avi's voice trembled and she reached towards the man who had sired her. He caught her hand in his own, examining the nails now bloodied.
"Then shall Yulfir be your judge?"
He strode with purpose, dragging the now crying woman towards the body where it lay. Forcing her hand into the shape of a claw, he splayed it against Duur's chest, where the cuts lay. Her nails aligned with each cut, as if made entirely by them.
"What say you, Hunter?" her father asked. "Bati claims you were here, that you crouched over him. You claim that you had not hurt him, that you sought your skin to avoid it. That you could not help a man in his direst hour. And now we see this?"
The tears running down her grey cheeks stung, and the rest of the crowd watched as the liquid that ran down them was no more water than that which clung to her teeth and her nails. "I swear, father, on my life, it was nothing to do with--"
He let go of her hand with a small shove, and she stumbled back, gazing into the eyes of the people who called her Hunter. Not Avi. The beast snarled inside of her and she shook deep into her core. She could not be certain, but she feared it would return tonight. The deer was long gone, and she saw it nowhere nearby.
The scent, however, lingered.
Those shadows would surely still be nearby.
The beast seemed to think for her. Instinct took over, and she ran. Back into the woods, back into the darkness. Clouds once again began to pass before the moon and the stars in the sky, darkening the forest around her. The firelight flickered behind.
Duur had been kind to her. Time and time again. When others shunned, or stared after her in fear, or looked on as if she were a curiosity to be tamed. He shared his meals at the fire. Smiled at her when the world itself seemed dark and bleak. Took pity on her when none others would.
He had been her only friend.
Even now, she questioned the story. Had the beast hurt him? Had something happened when she was not yet in her skin?
Even now, the tale Bati told confused and frightened her. Shadows that attacked men were threats unlike any she'd heard of. If the beast could fight them anyway, it would still be dangerous, wouldn't it?Could claws and teeth cut through darkness itself?
The smell of the deer's blood caught her again and she followed it, running onward, leaves and branches crunching and snapping underfoot. The skin on her back started to tear and she fought it back, the spines already threatening to break free again. There had to be something. Anything. A clue as to what had happened.
The tears that fell stained her shift red.
She ran until she could run no longer. The scent of blood faded entirely, whatever it had been caused by was now gone, or at the least she assumed. Then again, a shadow didn't leave a scent, as far as she knew.
Avi, still Avi, scaled the nearest of the trees, curling up into a ball on the nearest branch, trying not to cry more than she already had. The scene replayed over and over in her mind, still making no sense. The beast loved to forget what Avi should remember, and it killed her inside every time. Even now it called to her. It tempted her. It fought to come out.
She remembered Duur's face, those eyes once so full of kindness and life, staring vacantly upward. Terror frozen on his face.
Or was it recognition?
She curled inwards and began to cry again in earnest. As her shoulders shook with emotion, she found that the spines fought again to tear free. Now she let them. There was no point in it any longer. Trying to hide what she was. No one else was around after all. No one but the shadows. And what good would it do fighting those as an elf? The shift tore from her back as the agonizing transformation began for the second time that night. She cried out in pain and in grief as it took hold.
She called herself Avi.
They called her Hunter.
Gazing down into the darkness from her perch, as the grey skin lay uselessly against the tree branch, she called with the last bit of sentience she clung to, out to Yulfir, to light her way. The moonlight seeped through the tree's branches, illuminating the ground below, as she leapt from one to the next, the final scents of the deer's blood ahead, though no other tracks could be found.
Within moments she reached it. Seeing it for the first time, trying to recognize what it could be through the beast's eyes.
Useless, was what it was. A skeleton. Stripped of skin and bone and all things that had brought it life before. The skeleton of a deer, laid bare and clear for all to see on the forest floor. The marrow itself had been sucked from its bones, the antlers on its skull yet intact.
Avi. Avi. Avi.
The beast called for logic.
We did not save him. We saved his body.
The beast knelt before her former prey and Avi somewhere deep within offered prayers to Urukian, that its soul would be joined with Duur, to Yulfir that Duur would find good hunting in the lands of the dead. Praying was not of the beast. It reviled her for it. She whispered that it must be done.
Shadows made no tracks. They left no scent. Even now the deer carcass had nothing left of it that would be worth any value to her nor to anyone. If the shadows had been what consumed it, then the shadows were formidable indeed.
This did not matter to the beast. The beast demanded vengeance.
And Avi was more than willing to oblige it now.
If you've read this far, you have my everlasting thanks! If you'd like to know how this story continues, please feel free to leave a tip, or share this excerpt of the story with others. I'd be more than happy to share more of it if that is something you are all interested in. Thank you again for reading, and feel free to investigate some of the other poetry and short stories that I have on my page! You're all the best. Thank you.