Shadow of Death 1

In the silvery light of a full moon on a hot summer’s night, a young woman dashed behind a tree and, out of breath, pressed her back against it.

This is the worst summer vacation ever, she thought, which was an oddly prosaic thought given the circumstances.

Things hadn’t started out badly.  She’d gone to a house by a lake with a bunch of her friends, and met an absolutely gorgeous guy.  And she thought that he might like her, too.  So when another friend said that he was waiting for her out back, she tossed her normal cautious nature and shyness aside and decided to go for it.  She’d dressed up in her sexiest dress and sexiest heels, put on a lot more makeup than she normally would use, and tucked her glasses into the small, useless purse that matched the dress, and walked — okay, mostly stumbled because of the addition of the heels and subtraction of the glasses — out to the meeting place to meet him.  When the figure approached, she wasn’t sure if it was her beau or not … but when she barely dodged the machete stroke as it thunked into the wall next to her, she was pretty sure that it wasn’t.  When she put her glasses on again, instead of that cute boy it was a hulking man in a hockey mask with a machete, and the only thing for her to do was keep running, until she made it here, where she thought that she had finally managed to lose him.

That was something that she needed to check on, as it turns out, so she slowly peeked around the tree … and didn’t see him.  She peeked around the other side … and didn’t see him.  With a sigh of relief, she turned back … and let out a scream as she ducked under a machete swing from the man who had suddenly appeared in front of her.

She took off running again, but this was the time the heels tripped her up, and she stumbled and finally fell to the ground.  She turned over and looked at the man approaching her, and tried to scramble to her feet but couldn’t make it and scrabbled backwards until the man stood over her and raised the machete again.  Frozen in fear, she closed her eyes and had what she was sure was her last thought:  Mom was right that chasing boys would get me in trouble.

And instead of feeling blinding pain, she suddenly heard a strange clang.

She opened her eyes, and was shocked at what she saw.  Her attacker had swung his blade at her, but someone else had arrived and blocked it with some kind of long stick-like weapon.  Her saviour was holding the machete in the air over her body, and then even more shockingly was actually lifting the machete up away from her body!  Now, as she was being chased she’d seen just how strong her attacker was, and somehow this guy was moving it up without seeming to be making any effort at all, despite the fact that he was on the long end of some kind of stick which meant that he was giving up a lot of leverage to do that.  She obviously wasn’t going to work out the equations in her head in these circumstances, but her physics classes had taught her that that was not easy.

Soon, her attacker turned his attention to the new arrival, and with blazing speed swung the machete towards her saviour.  Again, in the chase she’d seen just how fast he could be … but again her saviour immediately swung the blade around and with supernatural speed blocked the blow.  In a rage, her attacker swung again and again but his attacks were blocked with almost dismissive ease by her saviour.  Finally, her attacker stopped and looked her saviour deep in the eye … and then his eyes widened and he ran off into the forest.

Her saviour then turned to her, and she didn’t see what it was about his eyes that made her attacker run off, because they seemed to be fairly normal, although they were an unsettling ice blue.  He was, well, pretty much average:  average height, average weight, average looks.  Pretty nondescript, really.  He was dressed all in basic black, and his face was a bit pale, but otherwise you wouldn’t even notice him if you walked past him on the street.  Nothing to suggest that he’d be able or willing to stand down a monstrous killing machine without batting an eye.

He turned to her and said, “I have need of  your services.”

She blinked in shock and could only stammer out, “Uh … what?”

“Not that way, ” he said.  “I have chased off that … creature and will spirit you away to somewhere where he cannot reach you.  In exchange, I merely wish you to promise that when I return to you you will do the favour that I ask of you.  I cannot tell you what that favour is, but you will be in no danger and it will cost you no more than at most an hour of your time.”

His formal speech had given her some time to regain her equilibrium, but unfortunately for him her mind wasn’t on his deal.  “Wait … you can fight that guy!  He’s running back to where my friends are!  You have to stop him!”

“I cannot do anything for them.  They must survive on their own.  You, however, I have need of, and as I have need of you I can save you, if you accept my deal.  If you do not, then I am afraid that he will return and kill you.”

She didn’t think that he sounded all that regretful.  In fact, he sounded pretty damned emotionless.  But she had to save her friends, and the details of his deal had finally sunk in … specifically, the idea that he said that he needed her.  “Well, I’m not going to agree to your deal unless you save my friends.  So your choices are to save my friends or you won’t get from me whatever it is that you need!”.

He paused to consider her words, and she felt a slight smugness at putting him in that bind.  After a moment, she continued, “So, if you hurry towards the house …”

“You think that I’m considering your purported dilemma, ” he interrupted her.  “I am not.  I am deciding if the better option would be to simply take you from here by force, or to leave you here to die and find someone else to take your place.”

Her mouth gaped open in shock, but he continued, “There is nothing I can do for your friends.  They will live or die of their own accord no matter what you do.  So the only choice you have here is about your own life.  Agree to my terms and live, or don’t and die.  This is one time when the choice is all about you, and nothing more than you.”

She couldn’t quite get her mind around that, and so stammered, “But, but …”

He fixed his eyes on hers and she felt a sobering coldness run all through her.  At that moment, she was utterly convinced of a number of things.  First, that he didn’t have any hostile or evil intent towards her.  Second, following on from the first, that he actually didn’t care at all whether she lived or died.  And finally, that it was absolutely the case that there was nothing he could do to save her friends and that this choice really was all about whether she, herself, lived or died and so saved him the trouble of finding someone else to help him.

She didn’t want her friends to die.  She didn’t want to live without her friends.  But she’d rather be alive with them dead than dead with them dead anyway.  If the only choice was whether or not she lived or died … she wanted to live.  “I agree, ” she said.

She thought that she caught a hint of a smile on his face, but then all of that was lost as what looked like some kind of cloak suddenly billowed out from behind him and enveloped her in darkness.  An instant later, the darkness receded and she found herself in bright daylight, on a main road, by a sign saying that she was only a few kilometers from her town and, thus, only a few kilometers from home.  Walking distance.  And then she heard the man’s voice in her head again.  “I will come for your favour at the appropriate time”, it said.

And she shuddered, wondering what she had gotten herself into.

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