Any true father would lay down his life to protect his children, but death took the hunter’s family without giving him the chance.
He raced through the woods, his spear tight in his fist. Towering trees looked down on him as he dodged branches and leapt over jagged red rocks in pursuit of his prey. The hounds barked ahead. They picked up the scent after breakfast and pulled the hunter from a morning haze of self-pity out into the hot summer afternoon. The barking moved toward the edge of the forest. His feet ached in his boots. Sweat soaked his threadbare clothes and ran from his graying hair into his beard.
He had to stop for water.
The hunter finally paused, panting and groping for his waterskin as the noise from the dogs echoed through the trees in the distance. He drank deeply and then gasped for air.
He checked his pack and noticed his daughter’s little music block almost fell out. He stuffed the instrument deep into the bag and tied the opening shut. His hands went to his knees as he tried to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and a memory of his wife and children overtook him.
His younger daughter and his little boy laughed as they played by the river, taking turns swinging from the rope he’d tied to one of the branches above. They leapt from the riverbank and flew through the air, their squeals disappearing in splashes of clear water. His older daughter sat in the tree and watched from above, her feet swinging with the rhythm as she plinked away on the music block he gave her—her karimba. He marveled at how quickly she was maturing into a young woman.
On the shore, his wife sat with him in the sun, her back to his chest and her head resting on his shoulder. He kissed her head. Her amber hair tickled his nose.
“I wish we could live in this moment forever,” she said.
“What about tomorrow?” he asked, stroking her hair. “We have a tower to build.”
She nestled closer. “I will love you tomorrow too.”
He smiled. “You’re a good woman. What would I do without you?”
“I’m sure you’d figure something out.”
Suddenly, the children’s laughter faded and a familiar darkness flooded his memory.
It took everything from him. When the hunter found his family, it was already too late. The shadow hunched over the bed, its back scraping the ceiling. His wife and children were huddled together, pale and lifeless . . . cold. The image haunted him and made his blood boil.
The hounds barked in the distance.
Forcing his eyes open, he cursed the shadow for invading his thoughts, but in reality he preferred seething rage to the pain of remembering the good days long gone. Whatever it took, he would avenge them. He would find the shadow and kill it, or die trying. His anger required total devotion.
“God, give me strength,” he prayed. “Give me justice.”
He put his pack on his back and began running after the dogs again. His heart thumped in his chest and his legs burned, but he would never relent.
Consuming hatred drove him on.
His pace faltered when he heard the hounds’ deep barks give way to baying.
Could they have it treed?
Adrenaline sent the hunter into a sprint. After years of tracking the shadow, he hoped it was finally his chance for revenge. The woods became thinner and light splashed across the mossy carpet. There were fewer obstacles, but he still wasn’t close enough to see the baying hounds. “Get it! Get it!” he shouted as he raised his spear above his head.
It’s mine now.
A yelp of pain came from one of the dogs. Then another.
Thoughts of victory were premature.
He couldn’t run any faster. Fierce growling and barking, then a sharp cry were followed by a horrible silence. He staggered and stopped. Through eyes stinging with sweat, he could see a wide-open space ahead in the distance beyond the trees, but he couldn’t see the hounds.
Where are you, damned monster? He grabbed his spear with both hands and crouched, breathing so hard he feared it would give away his presence.
He inched forward, deliberately inhaling and exhaling, willing his heart to slow. Whatever happened next, he would fight the shadow until his last breath.
He ascended a short, rocky incline and stepped into a meadow beyond the edge of the woods. Squinting in the sunlight, he scanned the horizon.
No sound except the buzzing of insects in the tall grass.
The hunter turned around and bent down. The hounds’ tracks just stopped. His dogs vanished from the earth. He looked closer at the grass surrounding him and saw red droplets sprayed in arcs on the blades, like crimson dew. He touched the blood and rubbed it between his fingers, wondering why the shadow pierced his dogs’ hides, why it didn’t just pull the life out of them into its nothingness the way it stole his wife and children.
While the hunter crouched, perplexed, he didn’t notice the shadow approaching until it was too late. Darkness engulfed him before he could look up.
The ground sped by beneath the dragon. Trees, fields, rocks, and flowers blurred together in a rushing river of greens, browns, grays, and touches of yellow and red. It had all burned before, but life kept insisting. A stream flowed into the palette mixing in an array of blues and whites. Water filled the landscape below, adding a roar to the whistling wind passing over the dragon’s wings.
His name was Wyrm. With no arms or legs, he slithered on the ground, but he preferred the sky. His body was long and slender. From his smoking snout to his shredded tail, his scales were polished ebony. Black teeth as sharp as needles filled his mouth. His eyes were bottomless pits.
All of a sudden, the churning waters dropped away and mist engulfed the soaring serpent. Droplets beaded and whisked down the length of his body as he closed his eyes and flew blind through the clouds. He shot past the falls into the warm air beyond, caught an updraft, and opened his black eyes. An expansive, grassy plain stretched out beneath him. The great height extinguished the sensation of speed. He passed over the labyrinthine town of Ai—its inhabitants about their morning routines—and off into the distance toward a vast forest that grew far from any people or civilization.
Wyrm ruled over everything below him and everything beyond the horizon. The whole world was his kingdom, but he stayed hidden from view. Flying high and unseen, he became more than a mere dragon. His prophets spoke his words, but never spoke his name. He let his legend grow over the generations until he was worshiped as almighty God.
He governed through his blood worms. They filled anyone who would accept their influence and power. His workers tended his kilns and built his towns. His kings led the people according to his will, and the worms in his spies made sure he knew everything that happened in his kingdom. Most accepted Wyrm’s rule, no matter the difficulty of his demands, in exchange for protection from the shadow.
Wyrm flew over the forest following the scent of the hunter’s fire. The smell of animal flesh cooking grew thick and then dissipated, leaving a trail of greasy smoke to follow to its source. He drew his wings in close to his sleek body and spun into a dive, then unfolded his wings with a snap, pulled out of his rapid descent, and leveled off, still high above the woods. He let out a high-pitched screech that only the hounds could hear, then looked back. Trees obscured his view, but he could see the dogs chasing him, darting in and out of patches of light with the hunter behind. Wyrm had been watching the miserable man for many seasons and everything was in place to put his plan into motion. He screeched again and flew toward the edge of the forest, slow enough for the hounds to keep up, leading them on into the afternoon.
Looking back again, Wyrm noticed the hunter had stopped. He circled above, unseen. He was eager to oblige when he heard the hunter’s plea for help.
Wyrm bolted toward the tree line and led the hunter’s hounds out into the open. He dove, sunk his teeth into one of them, and shook it violently before swallowing it whole. The remaining hounds barked and bayed as he circled back around and snatched them from the ground one by one. He belched flames as he ascended higher.
The hounds didn’t provide the nourishment he needed, but their disappearance would draw the hunter out of the forest, leaving him vulnerable and confused. He beat the air with his wings and spun around. He gained altitude until his next target emerged from the trees. He stopped flapping and glided in to take the hunter.
Wyrm swooped down without a sound. He pulled out of his dive just above the baffled hunter, snuffing the light of the sun and engulfing the man in the shadow of his wings. The dragon cracked his tail like a whip and sent the hunter flying into the woods.
Wyrm landed on his belly and slithered toward the forest. As soon as he entered, he felt the shadow’s maddening presence. He turned toward its pull. It stood like a crooked tree erased from the woods, an emptiness that warped the world around it. The shadow’s branches reached out over the hunter’s limp body.
“Why are you here?” Wyrm hissed. “He asked for me.”
The twisted shape didn’t move.
“Haven’t you made him suffer enough?” Flames lit the dragon’s mouth as he spoke. He lifted half his body off the ground and extended his wings. “He gave himself to me.”
Suddenly, the shadow shrank and disappeared.
“Coward,” the dragon growled.
He slithered toward the unconscious man and encircled him. “I will give you the strength you need,” he said. “We will have justice.” Wyrm looked down at his shredded tail on the ground and then sunk his fangs into it. Black blood poured from the bite. The oily substance pooled around the hunter’s head and dripped from the dragon’s mouth. Large drops landed on the hunter’s face. The blood bubbled and black worms emerged from it like maggots from rotting meat. They crawled into the man’s mouth, nose, ears, and eyes as Wyrm hissed, “Welcome to your new home, my children.”
The wound on the dragon’s tail clotted with the same black worms that had just entered the hunter. He slinked through the trees and out of the forest, then took to the air.
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