One week ago, Tuva:
Tuva stared at the small ceramic jar that sat upon her family’s coffee table, hands together, her fingers interlocked for her chin to rest on, her elbows braced against her knees.
It was ugly. More than anything else, that was the thought that she kept coming back to. The clay had been fired with a fairly expensive looking lacquer finish, a series of interlocked lines alternating between a deep blue and lime green with a ribbon of some sunset orange color running around the middle. In another context, she doubted she would have even given the object the thought needed to leave an impression in her mind. She might even have thought it was pretty. As it was, however, she couldn’t remember seeing anything quite as ugly as that jar. Liza would have hated it.
She took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes, letting all the old smells come back to her. The faint aroma of old leather and wood polish, the drifting waft of fresh coffee brewing on the stove two rooms away. It all felt so odd now, even after just a few months away. It was unfamiliar, out of place.
The flight had been delayed. She’d missed the cremation. Her parents hadn’t questioned her lateness, nor why they hadn’t heard from her in weeks. Her mother had simply hugged her as she stepped in the doorway, burying her tear stained face against her daughter’s shoulder in the closest approximation the shorter woman could make of a proper hug. Her father had simply placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, his eyes dry, his expression stoic. Tuva didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look so hollow as her father did in that moment. That was the most jarring thing of all, really. He had been such a jovial man before.
A part of Tuva wished her father had been angry at her, blamed her for being absent, screamed at her. Anything would be better than this blank, empty sort of silence.
She made no movement as the door into the kitchen slid open, the faint sounds of footsteps approaching through the narrow hall. She didn’t glance up as a hand placed the teacup down in front of her, nor did she offer any attention to the sound of a body coming to rest on one of the steps beside her chair.
Whoever it was, they didn’t speak for a while, and she was grateful for that. It made it easier to pretend she was alone. It didn’t last.
“You hate it here, don’t you.” The voice made her glance across, not expecting it. It was Hideyoshi. The man had accompanied her back from france, paying the zero warning travel fare for her without comment. Her parents hadn’t blinked twice at him arriving alongside her, offering some cursory explanation that she couldn’t be bothered to remember. Compassionate care or something.
Tuva was silent for a while, staring at her sister’s ashes for a solid minute before she finally responded.
“I’ve never seen them so broken.”
Hideyoshi nodded. Communication had been hard for them, at first, the two speaking in largely broken french, before realizing belatedly that they both spoke reasonable english.
“It’s going to be like that for a while,” he murmured. “They’ve lost a daughter. You can’t imagine the pain.”
“I’m not judging them,” she started, but he cut her off, shaking his head.
“Yes you are.” He murmured. “Just a little. I can see it in your eyes. You’re trying not to, but a little bit of you wants them to be who they were. I’ve seen a lot of grief. I know that look.”
“Well, that’s my problem.” She replied, her eyes dropping towards the floor, not really wanting to look at him in that moment.
“True enough.” Came the reply. Had Tuva expected more, she would have been disappointed. The two were silent once more for a time, until the old man spoke again.
“Take your time,” he murmured. “But we’re out of here in a few days. You need training, and I’m not wasting more than a week here helping you mourn.” With that, the old man stood, dusting himself off and walking away.
Tuva didn’t respond, returning her attention to the ugly jar. A part of her was grateful to the older man. Being here felt wrong. She wanted out.
“You’re sure about this?” The young woman asked quietly, her gaze flicking momentarily away from the clearing that lay before them and towards her companion. “This thing killed a family and you want me to do this alone?” Hideyoshi gave a small nod, but did not speak, whether to avoid alerting their quarry or because he felt there wasn’t a need, she couldn’t tell. She hesitated, then nodded, turning her eyes back towards the target.
It lay perhaps a hundred feet away from them, utterly still but for the slow rise and fall of its chest as it breathed, apparently asleep. It was hard for her to really determine its size, being still enough that the pure white of its fur blended near perfectly with the still falling snow. Tuva took a deep breath, then another, before finally, she pulled her shadows towards her. It was harder out here, further from the centre of a city, where bad dreams gathered together in quantities vast enough to almost conjure shadow men on their own. Here, she could barely manage two of them, drawn from what little of that energy she could store within herself, but that was okay. Two was ideal, really. Any more and she’d struggle to control them with enough precision to matter. They emerged in silence, one forming as if from wisps of smoke in the shade of a snow laden tree, the other pooling like tar in the empty space beside her.
It took a few moments for them to fully form, coalescing themselves slowly into solid, hard edged shapes. They stood tall and still where they had grown, staring towards her. Tuva frowned. The one beneath the tree was obedient, not offering any real resistance within her as it waited for the next command. The one beside her, on the other hand, was angry; formed, she thought, from a more violent collection of nightmares. It hissed low and long, a knife edged hand raised at chest level as it turned towards her teacher. She glared at it, and it was still. Hideyoshi chuckled quietly. Tuva rolled her eyes, before sending her creatures forth.
The shadows moved in silence, their almost weightless bodies making no real sound upon the heavy snow as they approached the beast. When they drew close enough, she bid them begin to climb the trees, and they ascended, their sharp edges scraping faintly against bark and branches. Finally, she had them in position, and they pounced as one, diving down towards the faint shape of the creature’s slowly swelling chest. Their claws struck home, and the wolf let out a pained yelp, jerking awake as their blades caught in flesh and fur, pulling back to trace a long, red line across its ribs. Tuva hissed quietly. She’d hoped to end this in the first blow.
The wolf rolled to its feet, catching one shadow man beneath its form and pressing it into the snow, the other jumping back to safety. Against the background of the trees, its size was far easier to grasp than it had been against the snow. Tuva let out a quiet gasp. Beside her, Hideyoshi chuckled again.
“I told you they were big.” He murmured.
“You never said they were that big.” She replied, her voice low. That was, perhaps, unfair. Hideyoshi had stated quite plainly that it would be the size of a horse before the hunt began, but that, she felt, was underselling it. Horses were peaceful things, after all, and so the true implication of their size had failed to really register with her. This wolf, on the other hand, looked like it could win a fight with an angry bear, and so it left a far greater impression of its scale, helped along by the flecks of red decorating its maw.
The wolf turned its attention down towards the shadow caught between its feet, one arm trapped beneath a paw, and opened its jaws with a snarl, ready to bite. Tuva set her creation to clawing at its forelegs with its free hand. Her other shadow threw itself at the monsters neck, leaping up and wrapping its long, sticklike legs around the wolf’s shoulders, one hand digging into a shoulder blade for purchase while its other clawed at the monster’s face, drawing fresh lines of red soaking into its fur. The wolf growled low in its throat, but did not stop, craning its neck down and taking the pinned shadow’s torso between its jaws before biting down. There was a sharp noise, something akin to the cracking of glass, and the shadow began to fade, its form seeping oily black ooze onto the clean snow and into the creature’s mouth. The wolf gagged as the liquid met its throat, and tossed the broken shadow man to the ground, attempting vainly to wipe its mouth clean against the snow and leaving a faint, greyish trail behind it, the second shadow clinging to its hide as the snow pressed against it like a tide meant to wash it away.
Tuva glanced towards the prone shadow, and willed it upright. Obediently, it tried to stand, one leg twitching, its chest splitting and cracking like so much broken glassware. It remained on the ground. She cursed quietly to herself, and banished it back into smoke, returning her attention to the wolf.
It was hurting, she thought, but not massively so. For all their attacks, her shadows hadn’t really done anything to the beast besides draw some blood. She needed to fix that. Her clinging shadow opened its jaws, the featureless dome of its head seeming to split around the middle, the surface cracking into hundreds upon hundreds of thin, needle like points. It pulled itself up along the monster’s shoulder, and sunk its newfound teeth into the wolf’s neck, digging deep. The wolf let out a yelp as the blood began to flow in earnest, trying to shake the shadow off of itself. She willed it to cling on, and it did so, latching itself in tighter, claws burrowing into skin and grasping, tick-like, into flesh.
The wolf turned towards a tree and began to run, charging towards it with all the speed it could manage. She had the shadow bite again, perforating skin and muscle and vein, blood running down its chin, mixing to black with its muck. The wolf rammed the shadow against the tree with a crash and she felt something splinter within it as the spine shattered, the spindly legs falling to the ground below, dissolving into smoke. She bade the torso to hang on as the mouth opened once more, beginning to chew.
The wolf snarled, shaking itself violently in a futile attempt to once more rid itself of the parasite, before taking a few steps to the side, and throwing its shoulder back towards the tree, smashing the shadow against solid, winter hardened pine. There was a small crunch as the shadow finally pulled free, its form already beginning to dissolve; but its job was done. As it faded, one small object remained, sitting in the shadow’s rapidly dissipating jaws, a fist sized chunk of the dire wolf’s throat.
The wolf was panting, a slight whine rising from its throat with every heaving breath its lungs forced out. It was hurting. Tuva turned away, beginning to pick her way down from the rock upon which they stood, heading back towards the car.
“Going somewhere?” Hideyoshi asked, glancing back at her out of the corner of his eye.
“I ripped an artery open,” she replied, her voice cold. “It’s dying. I’m leaving.”
“Dire wolves don’t die that easy,” Came the reply. “Leave now, and you’ll only have left it with a bad scar.” He paused for a moment, then sighed. “Do you want me to finish it?”
“You wanted me to show I could control them,” she replied. “I did. I’ll be waiting in the car.” With that, she turned away and began trudging off through the thigh deep snow, trying to ignore the sudden wave of heat from behind her; the telltale sound of flames over the short lived whine of the wolf, before the air once more cooled to a winter chill.
She turned the neck of her coat up against the cold. At least it was better than home, she thought.