The boy frowned as he squinted through the mist into the gully below, glancing at the stream that had formed after days of rain. The sodden moss under Damon’s boots gave off a fresh scent as he crouched down. It was not properly raining anymore but the thick fog that clung to the air made it hard to see more than a few feet.
Beautiful, he could admit, edging each leaf and blade of grass with droplets of diamond, but surely more enjoyable if it did not soak through his tunic and breeches. Somewhere in the underbrush, his sister Sunev was puzzling out the tracks of a deer. Among their favourite hunting techniques was for Damon to stay off to one side of the track while Sunev followed it on the other. One of her arrows would drive it off the path and into the sights of his crossbow
It was a good system. Though his sister was better at tracking and far better with a bow, Damon was more adept at moving silently over the forest floor. She scared it and he shot it. It also kept them from shooting each other when the underbrush was too dense to see through.
Damon canted his head, listening to the quip-quip-quip-quip of a bird’s call as the pattern was repeated a few times: Sunev’s signal to move forward a quarter bow-shot. With The trill that followed he smiled; The deer was close.
He reached up to the slender poplar tree that leaned out over the outcropping, using it to steady himself as he got to his feet.
Suddenly, it gave a loud crack and he realized belatedly that its roots were not as solid as he thought. He tried to scramble out from under it but the spongy moss let go of the stone and his boots slipped, pitching him over the edge.
Damon braced himself for a muddy landing and a nasty blow from the falling tree. Instead, a wave of disorientation seized him so strongly that his stomach churned. Everything went black and for a moment he thought he’d fainted. The stream still gurgled close by, though, and he could hear water droplets pattering among the leaves around him.
He opened his eyes to find himself lying in the mud amid poplar branches, yet he could feel neither wetness beneath nor weight on top of him. He tried to sit up but there was no response from his body.
Oh no. Panic lanced through him. No, please no. This can’t be happening. I can’t feel anything!
He tried to push at the tree but there was no movement. Looking down, he could not even see his hands. In fact, he could not see any part of himself, not even the crossbow he’d been holding a moment ago.
Oh Aervie, I’m dead!
Damon desperately tried to scramble to his feet, as though getting away from the tree would change the fact of his demise. Dizziness struck again as he drifted upward, weightless.
This isn’t right. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, scanning the tree below him. Wait…There’s no body. If I died, there would be a corpse. The broken branches and mud gave him no answers. This must be some kind of strange magic, he told himself. Stonehart magic frequently manifested in moments of surprise or fear, often with catastrophic effects.
What if I did die and made my body disappear?
Had the Stonehart Curse claimed him at last? The notorious foul luck of his clan, hewing down men and women in their prime, was not a thing to be envied by those without magic. While lighting a candle with a fingertip or warding a blade against rust were certainly handy, dying by exploding one’s house was definitely not worth the trade.
Like all the other Stonehart children, Damon had heard horrible tales of the wampyr—the bodies of the dead not burned on a pyre as they should be to release the spirit inside—rising to walk the land, preying on their own kin. They were hunted with fire and blessed blades, but how would they put a stop to one that couldn’t be seen?
He shook his head violently. Or rather he tried to and made the world spin around him sickeningly. He pulled in on himself, too frightened to move.
I must get hold of myself. I’m not dead. I must find help.
Damon took a breath and tried calling for Sunev but no sound came out. He had no sensation of opening his mouth, no vibration in his throat or, indeed, any notion of his chest rising as he took in air. He drifted over the downed tree and into the bushes beyond the path, still trying to determine if he was breathing or not. He was fairly sure he was crawling, though he couldn’t feel his arms and legs either.
Sunev stood over him, holding the edge of her divided riding skirt up off the ground as she peered through the gloom. His initial surge of hope when she called out was smashed. She wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at the empty outcropping and the broken foliage. He tried to tug on the hem of her skirt but there was only a faint wafting of mist across her ankles. She noticed nothing. Instead, she went to investigate his abandoned post, concern written into the lines of her forehead.
In desperation, he drifted back toward the clearing where he had left his horse, Silhouette, to graze. Perhaps the stallion would be able to sense him? He’d always been a very perceptive creature.
The air in the little meadow was a bit more stifling than it had been within the tree line, he noticed. It was uncomfortable, but he was more concerned with attracting the attention of the large, black horse cropping away at the grass, his head partly obscured by the thick swathes of fog covering the ground. Damon floated near his hooves and tried to push on his legs.
Hey! Help me!
Though he did not succeed in making a sound or putting any pressure on the animal, Silhouette turned his head toward him and snorted, ears quirked in his direction.
Can you see me?
The horse’s nostrils expanded as he sniffed the grass around him. Silhouette’s head passed right through him as he investigated the anomaly of his bodiless rider. Then, he backed off, whickering and shaking his head, agitated. Just as despair began to settle in again, Damon noticed something: when the horse moved, there were two distinct shadows: one belonging to the animal, and the other to Damon.
I have a shadow! He swirled around in a circle, watching black tendrils wave through the greenery. No, he thought, pausing in wonderment. No, I am a shadow. He moved the tendrils around, amazed at the black mist that he had become. He bunched them all up and observed the dark little cloud that was himself. Then, he stretched them out, flattening himself into a fine layer over the clearing, completely invisible.
Afraid of losing bits of himself by spreading too far, he contracted again and moved to hover near Silhouette’s forelegs. As incredible as this discovery was, he really needed to figure out how to get back to himself.
Sunev emerged from the trees, tugging her cloak up around her neck. She looked wet and miserable, pale blue eyes searching the clearing for any sign of her little brother.
“Damon?” she called.
He condensed himself into a little ball and hovered up over his horse’s back, bobbing up and down enthusiastically as he tried to catch her attention. Her mouth fell open as she spotted him.
“What in the name of Aervie is that?”
Sunev’s grey mare, Torrent, ambled over to Silhouette and sniffed at the shadow bouncing above his saddle. She snorted and rested her head on the stallion’s neck, apparently at ease with the whole situation. Sunev approached cautiously and peered up at this strange creature with a wrinkled nose.
“Damon? Is that … is that you?”
He floated down just above the saddle and bobbed emphatically.
Yes, yes! It’s me! Please understand. Please!
She wrapped the edge of her cloak around her hand and tried to poke him with it. It passed through him. She shivered and retracted her hand abruptly.
“It’s cold.” She flexed her fingers, looking at her palm, and then back at him. “It is you! Damon, what did you do to yourself?”
I didn’t do it on purpose, he thought ruefully.
“Well, come on, Fuzzball. Got to get you to Lorne.”
Fuzzball? If he’d had a face, he would have frowned.
“Hope he can change you back,” she continued as she mounted up on Torrent. She could not hear him and thus made no answer.
When she began to trot away, Silhouette followed and Damon was obliged to float along with them or be left behind. He supposed it must look funny, a black ball of fluff “riding” a horse. He was too busy trying not to lose track of the saddle he couldn’t feel to laugh.
His cousin Lorne sat on the edge of the bed in Damon’s room looking perplexed at the mass of shadows hovering just above the blankets. Large, dusty books sat all around him, bristling with bookmarks and pages of notes. It was sheer luck that the librarian had been visiting their father, or it would have taken him days to make it in from his home in the north.
Lorne sighed and began tying his long black hair away from his face in preparation for the spell needed to snap Damon out of his predicament.
“It should be just a simple transformation,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone become a shadow before, though. Any other clansmen who accidentally changed became some kind of animal when they did. I think.” His mouth twisted into a frown. “They could very well have made themselves into bushes or trees and we never found them.”
Damon dearly wished the librarian would leave off with such morbid thoughts. He was never going to look at a tree again without wondering if it was a Stonehart, trapped for hundreds of years and unable call for help. Ants crawling through their bark and … He shuddered.
The sky was beginning to dim in earnest now and Damon’s father, Erik, brought a lantern into the room so that Lorne could see what he was doing. As soon as the light hit him, Damon felt like he was burning, suffocating under a summer sun that had bloated to three times its natural size. He reeled back and oozed off the side of the bed into the darkness. Instantly he felt better.
“Damon?” Erik said. “Where did you go?” He came around the side of the bed, shining the light on his hiding spot.
Damon flattened himself and zipped under the bed.
Cut it out!
“Son, come out. What are you doing?” He heard his father shuffling around on the floorboards on his knees.
“Ah, Erik. I think you may be hurting him.”
“Eh?” Erik stopped.
“He is a shadow. Light rather … banishes them.”
Damon heard the sound of a palm hitting a forehead. “Of course. Sorry Damon! Augh, I can’t believe I just …” Erik climbed back to his feet and moved around the bed again. “Are you certain you can fix him?”
“Yes, just close the shade on the lantern. I’ve looked over all I need to at this point.” There was the sound of a page turning and the rustle of papers. The room darkened and Damon flitted out from under the bed to rest on the blankets once again. “Damon? You can come out now,” Lorne called, and he realized he couldn’t see him.
Damon bunched himself into a denser ball and lifted up to hover just in front of his face.
“Oh! There you are.” He smiled, squinting into the darkness. “Alright, just lie down … um …” Lorne frowned. “If you can.”
Damon stretched himself out on the bed in as close to human shape as he could manage. He really had no idea what of all this shadow constituted his arms and legs and head so he just prayed that whatever Lorne was up to would put him all back together the right way.
“Close your eyes and just relax.”
He tried. He managed to make his vision blur a bit but could not seem to do anything similar to cutting off his sight.
“And don’t open them until I tell you to. You probably don’t want to see this.”
See what? I hope this doesn’t hurt.
“Just focus on your breathing,” Lorne instructed him patiently.
Damon was beginning to see why this would work on an animal transformation better. He tried just imagining the air passing through him. That was pleasant enough.
“I want you to envision a tree. A steelwood tree with its roots reaching deep down in the ground. Imagine that its roots are growing out of your bones, drawing up strength from the soil and giving it to you. Imagine it feeding your marrow, making it grow strong, solid, resilient.”
A bit of a tingle ran through him as he listened to the gentle, hypnotic voice. He reflected that it would be nice to fall asleep with his cousin reading to him.
“Your bones are strong, and heavy. Feel them weighing you down on the mattress. From your skull, right down to your toes.”
He did feel a little more substantial, he supposed. He looked down and realized that there was a skeleton stretched out on his bed. He fought to keep calm in spite of the disturbing sight. A high-pitched shriek ripped through the last vestiges of his tranquillity and he realized that his little sister Rebecca had been standing in the doorway, curious as to the goings-on in her brother’s room. The skeleton evaporated back into shadow as her footsteps and sobbing thudded away through the house.
Lorne sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could hear Sunev talking quietly in Rebecca’s room, consoling her.
“Let’s begin again, shall we?” Lorne said, smiling ruefully in the rough direction of where Damon’s head was.
It took hours to rebuild himself from marrow, to meat, to flesh, and finally to bring forth the clothing and crossbow he’d had with him when he disappeared. Lorne never left his side, talking softly the whole time. Damon had been immensely pleased when he had eyelids to shut out the sight of his own beating heart and contracting lungs.
At last, Lorne fell silent and he rested for a few minutes.
“Damon? Can you sit up?”
He opened his eyes, very carefully moving his fingers. He was terrified that if he shifted too much, he would fly apart again. His body held together, as solid as it had ever been. All the same, he patted himself down, just to be sure.
Lorne offered him his hand and he took it, skin pale as salt against his cousin’s. He sat up slowly but thankfully was not hit with any dizziness this time. He smiled and a sigh of relief escaped him.
“I think I’m alright. Thank you so much, Lorne.”
“Good to hear.” The librarian wrapped his arms around him and patted his back. A hug had never felt so good in his entire life and he squeezed him back. “Think you can keep down some soup?”
Damon thought about it. He was ravenously hungry. “Yes please!”
“Good. You should eat something at least. It will help ground you, keep you in this world.”
That sounded like a great idea. He waited while Sunev fetched some soup and a slice of bread. She placed the warm bowl in his hands and smiled.
“Good to see you in one piece,” she said.
“Has Rebecca stopped ranting about ghosts and wampyr?” he asked her.
Sunev wrinkled her nose. “Eh, for now. Next few days, she’ll be scared of you.”
He frowned as he sopped up some soup with his bread.
“Do you think you can remember all this in case it happens again?” Lorne asked him.
Damon nodded. He was never going to forget a single terrifying moment of this day for as long as he lived. He was quite sure of that. Sunev sighed and shook her head. He swallowed his mouthful of food.
“Luckiest Stonhart ever.”
He laughed. “What? I just turned myself into a cloud of … I don’t even know, and you say I’m lucky?”
“Yes,” Lorne answered for her. “You turned yourself into a cloud of I-don’t-even-know and survived.”
Damon sobered, thinking of the trees again. He shivered. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. Lucky.”
He ate the rest of his meal in silence.