Mar 22

The Arcane | Chapter Two: Miles

“Yeah… no.”
    “Come on! It’s a good deal.”
    I laughed dryly. “For you, maybe! As for me, I’d learn my destination only for my consciousness to be eradicated. My journey would be pointless. Why in the world would I choose that?” The arcane chuckled. “What?” I snapped.
    “You have no idea what possession entails, do you.”
    I was getting annoyed. “I know very well what it entails, you stupid a-”
    “Arcanes don’t eradicate a human’s consciousness. We operate in tandem. Two souls working as one.”
    I glared. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
    “Think on it,” the arcane pressed.
   “Still a no.”
    He sighed. I climbed to my feet and continued down the path. The arcane trotted up beside me and matched his walking rhythm to mine. I wished he would go away.
    We traveled in silence for a time, long enough for me to become hungry. I stopped for lunch and water. The arcane watched as I chewed cheese. “Why does it smell like spoiled milk?”
    “Because that’s what it is.”
    He pulled a face. “Ew.”
    I took pity on him. “Here,” I said, breaking off a piece. “Try it.”
    “I don’t know about this...” he grumbled, taking the shard of cheddar.
    “Just eat it.”
    He shot me a look, then popped the cheese in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “Hmm.” His gaze turned inward, to whatever part of him sensed taste. “Hmm. Not bad. A bit strong.”
    “That’s the type of cheese it is. There’s milder kinds.” I shook the bag. “But this stuff keeps.”
    “Certainly tastes so.”
    I watched him settle with his legs sticking out before him. Even in that ungainly position he managed to look graceful. “So. You’re really going to hang around, then.”
    “In that case, I need something to call you other than ‘the arcane’. Do you have a name?”
    He laughed. “No. Names hold so much power. Why would we give ourselves that weakness?”
    I stared. “I should’ve guessed.” Leaves crunched as I pulled my knees up to my chest. “Okay, then. I’ll give you a name.” He raised his eyebrows as I considered him. “Hmm. You look like a Miles.”
    I nodded. “Yep. That suits you. You’re Miles now.”
    “I’m not calling myself that,” Miles grumbled.
    “Well, I am. Deal with it. It makes things easier on me.”
    He adopted a grumpy expression, then brightened. “What about you? I’ve been thinking of you as ‘human’ or ‘that blond girl’. Do you have a name?”
    “Yes, and you know I do. Nice try.”
    “Gosh dang it.” He placed his chin in his palm. “But seriously. I need something to call you. Give me a fake name or a nickname or something.”
    “How about Minnow?” Minnow was my nickname from childhood because I’d loved to swim, and when it was underwater my hair turned silvered and glinted, like scales.
    “Minnow. I may call you Fish every now and then.”
    “That’s fine.” I stood up, ready to go, and glanced down at his reclining form. “I’m not waiting for you. You’ll have to keep up.”
    “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m fast.”
    Wonderful. I shuffled through fallen leaves back to the small trail. As I continued, I found to my dismay that the little path was narrowing and becoming increasingly faint. It wouldn’t be long before I had no trail to guide me.
    I swallowed down a hard lump of fear and clenched my fists. I would do this. Nothing could stop me. To make my point, I viciously kicked a branch out of my way and stormed onward.
    As the hours passed, the meager light faded until I couldn’t see my feet. I unhooked my lantern and lit it with a match. The matchstick went back in my pack. I might need it for fuel if my light ran out of oil.
    Light from the orange flame spilled over the twisted trees, revealing them to be an odd gray-black. The forest floor lay under a carpet of dead, dark brown leaves. Even the stones I stood upon were a dark color, as if some god had painted this place with a wash of black ink. The darkness pressed around the light like moths, and I fought the urge to swat at it.
    “That’s bright,” Miles grumbled. I jumped. I’d almost forgotten he was there.
    I turned. “No one’s making you hang around-” My voice petered out as I gaped at him. His shape was human. He wore dark pants, leather boots, grey shirt, and blue jacket and bore a sword, but the similarities ended there. Darkness had twisted itself into the form of a boy, his skin greyish-black. Two eyes, angled like a cat’s and so solid black they didn’t reflect my lantern light, gazed at me above a grinning mouth of white teeth, sharp as daggers. On the top of his head were cat’s ears, tufted like a lynx’s. He had a sheet of straight black hair that hung to his waist. His hands ended in vicious claws.
    His grin widened as the silence stretched. “What?”
    “You- you’re made of darkness.”
    “Solid shadow. I can be anything.” As he spoke, his body solidified into the human boy-shape he’d had earlier. Immediately I felt better, like I’d been fighting a flight response for hours and the urge had just dissipated. Then his form crumbled into something small, and a raven peered up at me from the ground. The bird’s beak clacked as it cawed out a snatch of rough laughter, no doubt at my expression.
    “Shut up,” I grumbled, feeling embarrassed.
    Miles stretched back into black shadow. I clutched my lantern tighter and eyed his vicious fangs warily. Whatever passed for lips on his shadow self pulled shut, hiding his teeth. He looked much less terrifying that way. “I’m not going to eat you, you know.”
    “Then why do you have, like, knives for teeth?” I countered, holding my fingers to my mouth like fangs to illustrate my point.
    “I said I wasn’t going to eat you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t eat a human.”
    I blanched and felt a little sick. “You eat people?”
    “I’m omnivorous. I eat meat. I don’t really care what species it is.”
    “Then what’s stopping you from biting off my head?”
    He grinned, a truly horrible sight. “I’m not hungry.”
    I lurched backward. For the first part of the day he’d almost seemed human, but now I truly saw the monster before me. My hand slipped over the hilt of my knife as cold terror whittled away at my guts.
    He started walking down the little path as if nothing had happened. “Minnow. I’m messing with you. Hurry up before you waste any more oil.”
    I reluctantly followed him; I didn’t have anywhere else to go except backwards. As I watched the lantern light play on the utter wrongness of solid shadow, I resolved to never forget what he was again.

That night I slept in a tree again, my hammock swaying in the odorless breeze. The metal of my knife was cold through the fabric of my shirt where it lay against my chest. It took forever to fall asleep; every time I got drowsy I remembered the arcane flitting over the dead leaves below me and I snapped awake. I only managed to sleep when I peered over the edge of my hammock and found him gone.
    He was still gone when I awoke. I hurried to pack my bag so I could leave before he found me, but when I happened to glance up, I found him perched in the branches above my head. It took me a second to realize he was in human shape.
    I pressed my hand to my chest as my heart started working again. “Could you stop doing that?” I gasped.
    “What?” The human voice was a relief.
    “Surprising me right as I wake up.”
    “I don’t mean to. It’s not my fault you’re jumpy.”
    “Actually, it is.” I studied him. “Why are you a human? Just got back from stalking some poor traveler?”
    “No,” he sneered. “I actually transformed for you. You couldn’t sleep while I was an arcane. Good instincts, Minnow.”
    I frowned. “You did something nice? And rather creepy because then I’d fall asleep in your presence?”
    “It’s better to sleep in a hammock than pass out on the forest floor,” he pointed out. “At least up here you only have a thirty percent chance of being eaten, rather than a one hundred percent chance.”
    I folded my arms. “Why do you care?”
    His face betrayed shock before snapping into a grimace. His true skin took over like a black sickness. “Eat your breakfast, Minnow.” Leaves rained down as he skittered off into the darkness.
    I ate my breakfast. It wasn’t because he told me to; I was far above taking orders from a monster. But I was hungry. As I chewed a strip of dried beef, I wondered what Miles ate for breakfast. Squirrels. Rabbits. Little girls, maybe. I worked my jaw, thinking. I’d have to do something about him sitting in my tree, staring at me all night. I refused to be food.
    My food disappeared, and I packed up my bag. The sky was just bright enough through the strange shadows of the Vale that I could see the dirt track I followed through the woods, as well as the looming reality that the path was much narrower than before. Swallowing down worry, I started off down the trail. Magic would get got.
    For the first few hours I kept my own company. I juggled pinecones with my feet. I hummed snatches of songs. I would’ve sang out loud if the thought of what lived in those dark trees didn’t scare me senseless. Most of them had good ears.
    At the end of the fourth hour I dared to hope that I’d left my monstrous companion behind. Then a black hawk landed on my backpack.
    I swore as colorfully as I knew how and swatted the bird in reflex. It tumbled to the ground with an indignant squawk. The bird grew and there was Miles, knocked on his butt. His onyx eyes regarded me with hurt. “You slapped me.”
    “I thought you were going to bite my head!”
    He cracked a dagger grin and picked himself up. “Not much to eat there.”
    My mouth fell open. “Excuse me?” I gasped. “You literally have shadows for brains.”
    “I could have brains for brains, if I wanted to.” He peered around us. “It’s noon. Are we stopping?”
    “Oh, sorry, are you tired?” I gave him a sarcastic pout. “Wah, wah.”
    “Yes,” he said, floating up and twisting so he was upside down, eyes staring into mine. “I could die.”
    I adjusted my pack. “Go flop off, then,” I snapped, and, turning on my heel, strode away. My spine prickled, so I knew he followed. I reassured myself that my dagger was snug at my hip and ignored him.
    For a while we continued that way, me refusing to acknowledge his existence and him bobbing along. The fallen leaves gave way to pine and fir needles and the slope steepened. I was entering the jagged mountains that comprised the broken double spine of the Shadowvale. Between the two lines of pointed summits ran a deep valley called the Maw. It was the heart of the Vale, and the place I counted on to hold the magic I sought.
    I pulled myself over a large rock and glared. The path had disappeared. I looked behind me, ignoring the monster, and confirmed that yes, the sorry excuse for a trail led here. It would seem that my luck, if any sane person could call it that, had run out.
    At least I could eat through my growing frustration.
    As I angrily tore at the hard rye bread, Miles drifted down to perch on the rock beside me. “Your trail’s gone.”
    “I noticed.”
    “There’s other trails,” he said, inspecting the forest around us. “Animal and beast-made. And you can follow the rivers.”
    Rivers did run from uphill, and uphill was my goal. It was a good idea.
    I gave him my best side eye. “Why are you helping me?”
    He bared his terrifying teeth. “Maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m leading you into a trap or maybe I’m trying to get you so lost you beg me to save you, giving up your name as payment.”
    I swallowed the last of my bread. “I’m stealing your river idea.”
    “That’s-” He stopped, head flicking between the trees. His catlike ears swiveled as he cocked his head to one side. Suddenly he whipped around, clawed hands reaching for my arms. Before I could protest he’d stood me up and began shoving me up the slope.
    “Hey!” I complained, trying to fight him off. I withdrew my dagger. “Back off.”
    “There’s a pookha coming,” he said. “You should shut up.”
    My mouth silently formed the two syllables. Poo-kha. No human knew what they looked like- scratch that: no living human. Their desired food source was human lungs. They were unnaturally fast and nearly silent, and sometimes they at night entered houses built near the Vale. In the morning bodies with empty chests lay on bloodied sheets.
    I tightened my grip on my dagger. It probably wouldn’t help against a pookha, but at least I had something. My heart constricted with fear and urgency as I scrambled as quietly as possible up a steep slope of rock. Behind me, Miles hissed through his fangs. “It’s here. This isn’t working.” His arms slid around my body and then we were flying. We landed behind a boulder and Miles pressed me to the rock, covering my body with his own.
    Miles put his mouth close to my ear. I didn’t like those fangs so close to my throat, but I didn’t move as he whispered, “Try not to pant so loud.”
    I pressed a hand to my mouth and tried to control my breathing. It was excruciatingly hard, but as soon as I heard the clank all the breath sighed out of my lungs. I didn’t have to worry about loud breathing. I didn’t think I’d ever breathe again, for fear this thing would hear me. There was also a good possibility I wouldn’t have any lungs to breathe with, anyway.
    So it was true. They really did have chains.
    Were the chains shackles, or were they for strangling?
    “It’s gone,” Miles said, sitting back. “You’re safe now.”
    My chest heaved. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough air. “What- why did it just leave?”
    He shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe it found something to eat.”
    A strange sound clicked at the back of my throat. “Oh-” The world slid sideways. Soft dirt, smelling of pine, pressed against my cheek as I fought the urge to pass out.
    Miles touched my hand. “You’ve gone cold and clammy.”
    I wanted to snipe at him, but if I opened my mouth I would lose my lunch, and I couldn’t afford to lose food. So I shut my eyes and focused on breathing.
    I peeled my eyes back open and gave him a Look.
    “Do you need to lie here for a minute?”
    I raised my eyebrows.
    “Don’t swear at me. It was an honest question.” He floated up to the top of the boulder. “I’ll make sure nothing tries to eat you.”
    I twisted my head to glare at him.
    “I told you I’m not going to eat you,” he grumbled. “Honestly.”
    Minutes passed. My eyes were closed as I tried to gather myself and suck in big, cool breaths. The soil was delightfully cold and slightly damp, cutting through my headache. After a while I felt well enough to sit up and gulp down some water.
    “Hmm,” I mumbled, weighing the waterskin in my hand. “I’ll need to refill this soon.”
    “When we find a stream, I’ll have to make sure it’s a clear one,” Miles called. “There’s a lot of poisoned water in the Shadowvale.”
    I frowned. “‘We’?”
    “Can’t count?”
    I glared. “Idiot. What I mean is that you should go away. You’ll probably give me poisoned water, anyway.”
    He bared his fangs. “Need I remind you that I’m the only reason you’re alive.”
    “Yes, and why would you ensure my well being? There’s nothing in it for you.”
    His black eyes narrowed, but suddenly his face fell. He looked sad. I was immediately suspicious. His gaze locked with mine. “You’re wrong, Minnow. There is something in it for me.”
    I spluttered in disbelief. “What? How- how could there possibly-”
    “Remember when I told you that I hadn’t had an actual conversation in ages?” he asked.
    I shut my mouth, thought, then said. “Yeah, I guess so.”
    “Well,” he snarled. “That’s the truth. I’ve been alive for over five hundred years. Five centuries by myself. And It’s not as if I could saunter up to a human and ask for a chat.” I stared at him. He ducked his head and watched his fingers. “I haven’t talked to anyone in a very, very long time,” he admitted. “Once you’re dead or gone I’ll be lonely again.”
    That couldn’t be real, could it? It had to be some sort of ploy. There was no way a monster could feel lonesomeness.
    Miles looked up. “You think I’m lying, don’t you. I don’t care. Just know that I’m not leaving. I’ll stay with you until you’re gone, because I’m not so prideful as to turn down even a human’s company after centuries of being alone.” He stood and leapt off the rock. I staggered backwards to make room. “I’ll follow you. Unless you don’t know where you’re going.”
    I glared. “I know where I’m going. I’m going to the Maw. And that’s uphill. So-” I turned to face the slope before me, “-this way.”
    We started up the incline. Miles didn’t float this time, instead he strode over the rocks like a sucker. “Why are you walking? Are you tired?”
    He grinned. “No, I just want to use my feet. But it’s sweet of you to worry.”
    I stuck out my tongue. “I’m not worried, just curious. And the day you call me sweet and mean it is the day you eat me.”
    Miles laughed. It was the first time I’d heard him laugh just to laugh. He didn’t have a bad laugh, for a monster. I smiled slightly, thinking that in obtaining an ever-present nightmare, I could’ve done a lot worse.
    Brr. Like a pookha, for starters.
    Speaking of those chain demons from hell, “What do pookha look like?” I asked.
    Miles’ eyes narrowed, thinking. “They’re humanoid. They have pale, pallid skin, like a corpse.” He frowned. “It’s almost like… like something made them and locked them up. Their chests and eyelids are sewn together, and they’re wrapped in chains. I don’t think they have lungs- maybe that’s why they’re always eating yours. Or maybe they’re the corpses of the humans they’ve killed, and it’s a vicious cycle and all that will be left at the end of the world are roaches and pookha. Oh, and ants.”
    “You are very interesting to talk to,” I said dryly.
    “Thank you,” Miles grunted. “All I’ve ever wanted is to be interesting. Oh, look: a stream.”
    I looked. A little river trickled over the stones, the clear water nearly invisible in the dimming light. I crouched down and sniffed the water, but no dangerous odor arose. It smelled like, well, water. I turned to Miles. “O Great Determiner of the Purity of Liquid, I humbly ask for your divine opinion. Will yonder water make soup of my stomach acid?”
    His hand flashed out and shoved me into the river. “It’s fine.”
    I sat up, cold water rushing past my waist. Then I stood, climbed out of the stream, removed my sodden jacket, and cracked it like a whip against Miles’ side. He yelped and scampered away. “If I die of hypothermia,” I shouted after him, “it’s all your fault. I’ve got nothing that’ll keep damp clothes warm.”
    He laughed, scuttling around the edge of my sight. “There’s a dirty joke in this.”
    “Don’t make it,” I growled. “I’ve already got it. Ha ha, you’re very funny.”
    Still cackling, Miles scooped up my waterskin and filled it. “At least you won’t die of thirst.”
    “Goodie,” I grumbled, doing my best to squeeze every last drop of water out of my clothes and hair. “Thank heavens you didn’t get my pack wet.”
    Miles handed me the waterskin. “Where are we going now?”
    “You want me to follow the river.”
    “This better not be a trap, arcane.” I waved my knife. “Or I’ll gut you.”
    He grimaced. “So violent.”
    We followed the stream upriver. The banks were piles of rock, which held the danger of twisting an ankle, but at least they were dry. The stony incline leveled off to a pine forest, and the rocks on the banks turned to pebbles mixed with sand and needles. I perched on a boulder and drank some water while Miles shredded pinecones in his claws. We walked some more. I was contemplating which tree to spend the night in when Miles said, “Smell that?”
    “What?” I smelled nothing out of the ordinary. Then again, his nose was much better than mine.
    He grinned. “Woodsmoke.”