The rain screamed the disharmony of the song with every drop that hit El’s skin, drawing her closer to the village at the bottom of the mountain. The sound had grated in her head for days, and she was surprised it had not attracted every Tracker in the country to resolve the disharmony. Yet, as so often in her life, El arrived alone as night gripped the village in its sleepy embrace.
There was much wrong with the village. A Tracker had not visited in decades and the broken notes of small disharmonies had built to a cacophony, but it was the fresh sound, the discordant blaring howl so at odds with the song, that made El sick and caused her to almost collapse. Of course, the days travelling without food and little rest may have contributed to that.
The noise led her to a house on the far side of the village, nearest the mountain, already barred and shuttered like the other homes at the late hour. El lifted her gloved hand and rapped on the wooden door. She heard voices raised within. She was about to knock again when the bolts were drawn back and the door opened, allowing a blade of yellow light to spill out onto the mud. A man peered out through the chink, his eyes roving up and down El.
‘What do you want?’ he asked gruffly.
‘I’m a Tracker,’ El said. The words crawled in patches out of her cracked throat. ‘I’ve come to find what you have lost.’
‘Haven’t been Trackers in these parts since I was a boy,’ the man said. El waited for him to say something more, but when the silence drew out between them, she realised he was waiting for her to provide her credentials.
‘Your loss has called out to me and drawn me to you,’ El said.
‘Trackers are expensive. We can’t afford your services,’ the man said, starting to close the door.
‘I don’t ask for much. A bed, some food, a little coin,’ El said.
He shut the door in her face. She heard the angry voices again and a few minutes later, the door opened wide and a woman beckoned her into the house. El stepped inside, grateful to be out of the rain, despite the sadness that drowned the house.
‘Thank you for coming, sir. It’s our daughter, Nina. She went gathering herbs with the school, but she never returned. It’s been four days now. We’re so worried.’
El nodded. She stripped off her sodden cloak and handed it to the woman. Her yellow hair was plastered to her face and neck. Her cotton tunic and woollen leggings clung to her body like a second skin. Her boots were caked in mud, oozing through to her feet and calves in a hundred places.
‘A woman.’ The man snorted. He stood up, slamming his fist against the table and rattling the objects on its surface. El turned to face him, aware that her current state did little to hide her sex. She had kept her hair short and bound her breasts until the changes maturity wrought in her male Tracker companions would no longer allow her to pass as one of them.
‘There are no female Trackers,’ the man said.
He grabbed El’s cloak from his wife’s hands and thrust it at El. ‘I’ll have no imposter take advantage of my hospitality. Get out.’
El drew herself up and looked the man in the eye. Imperfections in his body and mind provided one hundred ways for El to twist and deform his song, but she would not use her gift to harm him.
‘It’s unusual, but I assure you that I am a Tracker, gifted by Wind Mother and Father Night to right the tunelessness caused by their most ugly children. I will find your daughter for you, and you can judge by my actions whether I speak the truth.’
The man drew back, unable to maintain her gaze, but his bluster was not yet done. His wife touched his arm, holding him back.
‘Let her stay the night,’ she said. ‘What harm is there, whether she can find Nina or not?’
The man threw El’s cloak to the ground. ‘There are no female Trackers,’ he said. He spat, his spittle not reaching El’s boots and landing on her cloak instead. ‘You can stay for one night. I don’t care if you do find Nina or not, you’re not getting another thing from me.’
In the morning, the woman gathered the other children and brought them to the house. There were nine altogether, ranging in ages from ten years down to five. El knew there was something wrong immediately. Their song was clumsy, hesitant, as if another player tried to imitate its partner’s notes.
‘What happened?’ El asked.
She slipped off her glove and touched one of the little boys on the shoulder. She snatched back her hand immediately. She heard plants screaming, earth and rock and roots mangled together into an approximation of a child, held together by a fierce absence of the Song. There was nothing human in the child. El didn’t want to touch the others. She knew their song was false.
She slipped her glove back on, trying to hide the shake in her hand.
‘I don’t want to distress the children,’ she said. ‘Let them return home. Gabrielle, tell me their story.’
El watched the things that were not children wander back to the houses that now sheltered them, wondering what sort of power had created them and for what purpose.
‘It should have taken them no more than an afternoon,’ Gabrielle said. ‘They’d been gone a couple of hours when a storm blew up. When they didn’t return by nightfall, some of the men took torches and searched for them, but they couldn’t look for long because the rain kept on putting out their lights and they kept getting lost. By morning, the storm had passed and the children returned. They said they had spent the night in a cave.’ Gabrielle shook her head. ‘My Nina didn’t come down the mountain. The children said she had been with them when they left the cave. They got upset and confused when we pressed them.’
El placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and gently knit some of her notes back together, easing the burden of shame and guilt she bore for her daughter’s disappearance. The woman stopped crying and her voice grew stronger as she continued.
‘Bert and some of the others went up the mountain. They found the cave, as the children said, but no sign of Nina. They’ve looked for her every day since, but she’s vanished.’
El squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder.
‘Don’t worry, I will find her. How have the other children been since their return?’
Gabrielle waved at the houses the children had disappeared into. ‘They’re quiet, easily upset as you’ve seen. We’ve kept them from work and school until Nina returns. We’re all upset by her missing. Nina was a light in our village. She led the others into the cave and saved their lives.’
El nodded. ‘I understand.’ She picked up her cloak and drew it around her shoulders. It was still damp, especially around the hem, but it would suffice.
‘Your village will have its light back soon.’
Then she left Gabrielle and took the muddy track out of the village, towards the path that buzzed liked angry hornets, winding between the fir trees up the mountain. El was sure she had ten children to find, not one, and the answer to the puzzle that only nine imposters had returned.
She found the cave easily. There had been so much traffic to it in the five days since Nina had disappeared that it boomed like a hunting horn. Unfortunately, it also made the subtle sounds of what had happened to the children harder to decipher. El quartered the cave. She took off her gloves and ran her fingers over the rocks and the walls, cradling the dirt and the debris in her palms. The rocks had the least to say. They measured their beat in decades and were slow to change their song, but even still, El could hear the discordance of a great wrong tainting their timbre and she puzzled over the dropped notes. The earth and the weeds that grew around the cave entrance were the most helpful. They thrummed with the anxiety of the men searching for a missing child, and the fear of the children mixed with the start of an unnatural storm. What concerned her most, were the chunks of missing song, as if snatches of voice had been ripped from the foliage and earth and folded into oblivion.
She had never encountered that before.
She had no idea what could obliterate the Song in such a way, not causing it to falter and scream, but to cease altogether.
It made El shiver, stealing the foundations from her soul. She was certain of three things. Ten children had entered the cave, and then something bad had happened. More than bad, raising the elements in anger. And nine things that had been ripped from soil and root and rubble but with the appearance of children left and returned down the mountain to a village of loving homes that knew no difference.
El turned to the entrance to scout further up the mountain, the cave having yielded as much of its secrets as it could, and the song soothed and healed as much as El had time for.
A man stood in the entrance, cast in shadow from the difference of the quality in light behind and before him. El reached for her dagger. He had surprised her, and no one had managed to do that since El had been old enough to weave the song around her.
‘Who are you?’ El said.
The man moved towards her. He seemed to flicker, one layer placed over the other, no one picture quite fitting and staying in place, making them all shimmer like leaves in a breeze until El’s head hurt. A handsome man, with brown skin and black hair, a ferocious beast with a luxuriant mane and long teeth, a corpse, so withered and decayed it was no more than dust. A child, fresh and newly born. All occupying the same space, yet none claiming it.
‘Who are you?’ El said.
She pulled out her dagger and jabbed at the man. The unfamiliar note of panic tinged El’s voice and shook through her body. The man smiled, his lips pulling back in a rictus grin over teeth too large to fit within his mouth. He raised his hand and blew a fistful of powder into El’s face. It scalded her, more with the poison of its song than its actual physical properties. She cried out, wiping at her face with her cloak. The powder stung her eyes and wormed its way up her nose and brought with it darkness.
El woke to pain. Her head ached, her eyes and nose felt like fire licked across them. Her body was bruised and strips of white hot pain bound her wrists and ankles.
She reached out to the Song, searching for the river of sound and seeking it to wash over her and cure her ills by setting her right and harmonising her body and spirit. As the pain lessened, she realised that her greatest hurt was not physical but where she had been touched with something with no voice. Parts of her melody had been ripped from her and it was an agony greater than any physical pain she had experienced.
Opening her eyes, she saw she lay in the forest, within sight of the cave. She had not been asleep for long. No more than an hour had passed. Her hands were tied behind her, her cloak and weapons gone. She wiggled into a sitting position, resting against the tree at her back. The tree had recently been struck by lightning and it screamed with that wound as well as the loss of parts of its song.
Looking around, she saw her cloak spread out on the ground, out of reach, with her knife and her belt of weapons carefully laid out on top.
El looked up. Perched on some rocks between her and the cave was the creature. She closed her eyes against the man shaped patch of nothing in front of her.
‘I didn’t expect to have the pleasure of your company so soon. You should still be dreaming for another two, three hours.’
Calling on Wind Mother and Father Night to help her, she opened her eyes. The creature cycled through its component parts a few more times and then resolved into the image of the man, although his edges were blurred and continued to shift and change like the pattern of sunlight on water.
‘What are you?’ El said.
The man leaped from the rock and stalked towards her.
‘I think I’ll ask the questions, if you don’t mind, what with me having tied you up and all.’
El pulled up her legs and pushed her back further against the tree, ready to stand if the man approached any closer.
‘I’ll take that silence as your acquiescence,’ the man said. ‘I’m Ben, by the way, but you already know that, as I’m sure the one you work for told you all about me. I must say you’re not what I expected. However, that’s beside the point. Let’s get down to business. Where is it?”
El raised her eyes to look at him, but her gaze kept slipping off his face. ‘I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else,’ she said.
The tree bark was rough and she searched for a spar sharp enough to fray her bonds against. She had no doubt that this man – this Ben – was responsible for the jarring shriek that had drawn her to the village and to the cave looking for the missing children.
‘Well, of course you would say that,’ Ben said. He laughed and El heard the echo of a roar in his laugh. ‘I knew he was working with someone, there’s no way he broke those bonds without help. Do you really expect me to believe that you aren’t his chattel when I find you in his prison?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ El said.
Ben paced towards her, crouched over her and grabbed her chin. She closed her eyes, his touch plunging her once more into a void devoid of the Song. She floundered for purchase.
‘Open your eyes,’ he growled.
‘Let me go,’ El managed to say, the words escaping with the last of her breath.
‘You look unwell,’ Ben said. He sounded puzzled, but he didn’t relinquish his hold. ‘I would say it was from the company you keep, but you’ve no taint of the Shadow about you.’
‘Please,’ El said.
Ben let her go and stood up. The Song slowly crept back into El, filling her up. She gasped.
‘It’s you. You’re making me ill,’ she said.
Ben cocked his head to one side. ‘You are curious. Perhaps he can feed off you in a new way, one that I can’t detect. My wards were strong on his prison, how did you break them?’
‘I don’t know anything, I was simply gathering herbs,’ El said, feigning upset.
Ben grimaced, and turned away.
El pushed against the tree trunk at her back for support and launched herself forward onto her cloak. She landed on her back, her hands searching for her dagger. It seemed to fly into her palm. She slit the silent rope, then twirled the knife to grip the hilt, sat up and cut her ankle restraints. Ben turned and strode towards her with a snarl. El stood up, bringing her dagger forward and pressing it against his neck. He looked surprised for a moment. El felt a thrill of triumph. If she had been wearing her gloves, she would have grabbed his hair with her other hand, further exposing his throat, but he had removed them when she was unconscious.
Her feeling of relief fled almost as soon as it arrived. Ben raised his arm and swatted the knife away from his neck. With the same ease, he rolled her to the ground, lying on top of her and pinning her to her cloak. Her things pressed uncomfortably into her back. Ben’s face was so close she would have felt his breath on her skin, if he had been breathing. She turned away, but she could feel him staring at her, probing her, examining her.
‘El,’ he said softly. ‘How did you do that – cut those ropes? I put marks on them. I’ve never come across anyone like you.’
‘Please, let me go,’ El said.
Her head hurt, the proximity to Ben like an unpleasant drone.
‘I won’t tie you up again if you answer my questions. I promise,’ Ben said.
‘You shouldn’t be,’ El said.
‘True, but I am, what are you going to do about it?’
El truly didn’t know. He had no song to mend or break, he was stronger than her, even if she wasn’t weakened by his presence she was no match for him physically.
‘I won’t run,’ she said.
Slowly, Ben pulled back, easing the pressure from her body and then finally releasing her dagger hand. He hunkered beside her. She sat up, rubbing her temples, harmonising the song within her as best she could to relieve the pain.
‘How did you know my name?’
‘I’m good at finding out things about people, you could call it my special talent,’ Ben said.
El nodded. ‘Me too. You, I can’t get a handle on. It’s like you’re a void.’
Ben laughed. ‘I’m an anomaly. Not alive, not dead, somewhere in between. I’m a hunter of Shadows.’
That explains it, El thought. A being caught outside of creation, not governed by its song.
‘Creatures of darkness, once living beings, now existing out in the cold, constantly trying to find a way back into our world. Someone, some fool, long ago provided a chink for these Shadows to crawl through and now they creep and feed, seeking warmth and power to bring more Shadows through.’
El picked up her gloves and slipped them onto her hands, then wrapped her belt around her waist and synched it tight. She started attaching her possessions to it one at a time – her scabbard, a small phial of oil, her water skin.
Ben pushed back his thick dark hair from his face. ‘Now I have explained myself, I think it’s time you did the same. You don’t appear to be in league with the Shadows, but you’re not one of the normal people either.’
‘I’m a Tracker,’ El said, feeling more comfortable now that she had her possessions about her once more. ‘I find things.’
‘And what were you hoping to find when you walked into my prison?’
El looked up. ‘Prison? You mean the cave? Some children went missing and I’m tracking them. They sheltered in the cave. I wanted to find their trail from there.’
‘Of course,’ Ben shouted, slapping his head with both hands. He leaped to his feet, jumping onto the nearby rocks, and shaking his head. ‘You fool. Why would she still be here when the seals were broken days ago?’
He approached El. She shied away from him. He was manic.
‘Was your child among the missing?’
El shook her head, ashamed of the blush that coloured her pale cheeks. ‘No, I don’t have any children.’
Ben waved his hands in the air. ‘Then they were like you, a Tracker?’
El frowned. She hadn’t thought to ask if any of the children were Tracker Becoming. But then, without a Tracker Hall and a resident Tracker, or even one passing through to perform the rituals, would any of the people know that their child had the potential to Become?
‘I don’t know, why?’
Ben started to pace. ‘I placed heavy wards on that cave, only another like me could have broken them, and then only with difficulty. I felt them break a few days ago, so I rushed here to stop him before… but that’s beside the point. Then I saw how you broke through my seals like they were nothing, like they didn’t exist. And my sleeping powder had no effect on you.’
El rubbed the sore spot on her head where he had hit her. ‘I’m governed by the Song. I suppose that’s why your spells don’t work on me, as you’re not a child of Mother Wind and Father Night.’
‘Of course, the Tracker child must have opened the prison and he’s feeding off the others to fortify him for the search. After all this time, he would be hungry.’
El stood up. She picked up her cloak and fastened it around her shoulders. ‘I have to find the children. Who’s this prisoner they’ve released and how can I stop him?’
Ben shrugged his shoulders, as if massaging out a kink in his back. ‘He’s an old enemy. We reached a stalemate of sorts, so I locked him in that cave and kept him from returning to his own kind.’
She tried to imagine what kind of beast would eat children, but perhaps it was better if she didn’t think about it. It obviously had fake magic, enough to bind stone and green things and earth together in the semblance of children and send them back to their families. All save one. All save the Tracker Becoming? El climbed back up to the cave entrance, Ben jogging behind her.
‘He won’t have gone far,’ he said. ‘He’ll be looking for the lion killer.’
El stopped and turned to him. ‘The what?’
‘Lion killer,’ Ben said. ‘It’s a weapon. The only one that can kill me, or someone like me. He found it and was going to give it to his leader, Cedric d’Telle, in Citybridge. I had to stop that.’
El continued walking. She veered away from the cave entrance. The trail was too raucous for her to track. She took off her glove and touched the plants and rocks around the cave, climbing to higher ground. Everything was discordant. She found the recent traces of animals, then the shriek of the storm. That must have been when the children broke Ben’s seals on the cave.
‘If your prisoner hasn’t gone far, I gather the weapon is nearby?’ she said.
Ben moved away, jumping from rock to rock so he was soon climbing up the outcropping above the cave, towering over El. He seemed to be sniffing the air.
‘Yes, I buried it up near the pass.’
She couldn’t’ help from laughing. ‘You mean to say you buried the only weapon that can kill you on the same mountain where you imprisoned your enemy?’
Ben nodded. ‘With all the correct marks for binding and hiding of course.’
‘That doesn’t seem very sensible,’ El said. ‘I’d have kept it with me. Seems safer that way.’
‘Now, that would be truly foolish,’ Ben said. ‘I might as well hand it to my enemies.’
‘You practically did,’ El said. She paused. Something was different. She took off her second glove and pressed her palms flat against the ground. She heard a new note in the voices of the forest, raised in protest. It was very faint, a thrill of harmony here and there, scattered and unclear, but identifiable as the trail of a Tracker Becoming.
Ben jumped down from his high perch, landing lightly beside El. ‘You’ve found something. What is it?’
She crept forward, trying to find the path. The notes were few and far between. The child was untrained, her efforts to mould the Song ineffectual. El had to concentrate to filter as much as possible from her tracks. The path wound up the mountain, then turned and started down towards the village, keeping away from crossing the path the children had taken to the cave. The Tracker Becoming was running and scared.
‘One of the children went this way,’ El said, picking up speed as she became more confident in the direction of the Tracker Becoming.
‘The Shadow went that way,’ Ben said, pointing up the mountain towards the pass. ‘He took the rest of the children with him. Shouldn’t you concentrate on getting most of the children and come back later for this one?’
El started to jog. She wondered why the Tracker Becoming hadn’t returned to the village when she was so close. ‘You don’t have to come with me,’ she said.
The babble of fear got louder the further El travelled until she ran out from the trees into a clearing. Tall firs circled the small rocky space. Years of winter snows and spring melt waters had stripped the top soil from the ground, leaving the strong granite exposed. El fell to her knees at the edge of the clearing, held back by a wall of silence. The song had been stolen from the stone.
‘What’s wrong?’ Ben said.
He walked out into the clearing, unperturbed. He looked even more insubstantial in the direct sunlight. He sniffed, scuffing clods of dirt with his shoe.
‘Something bad happened here,’ El said.
Ben nodded. ‘He fed here. I don’t think the kid you were tracking got away. He did some kind of making that used up all the earth and plants from this clearing. Poured the kids life force into it to make it move. He can’t leave his current shell, I made sure of that, so there’s no Shadow in it. He’s probably building some bodyguards to protect him. He knows I’m coming.’
El stumbled away from the clearing, nausea bringing bile to her throat. ‘That was the Tracker Becoming. I thought she might have got away.’
‘It’s a pity she didn’t,’ Ben said.
El thought of the fake children born in the clearing behind her. What fate had this Shadow in store for the real children? Had they met it already? She swallowed down the acid and increased the Song within her, keeping her melody as tuneful as she could with all the wrongness around her.
‘He’ll use your girl to find the lion killer and break the seals.’ Ben said.
‘Then that’s where we should go,’ El said.
Ben led the way. He travelled fast, which was just as well, as the Shadow had stolen the songs from the ground and the trees, the rocks and the plants as he blazed his trail up the mountain. El would have to stay in the area for months to repair the damage. She doubted that the village would tolerate her presence for that long.
They were nearing the pass when the storm hit them. The first wave of silence pulsed through El, knocking her from her feet. She lay on her back, the Song completely wiped from her, her body empty of its sound. She could feel the bushes, hear the wind, smell the earth and the bruised plants beneath her, but she was numb, her body hollow. She wondered if this was how other people were – those who were not Trackers – and how did they survive being so empty and isolated from creation.
The wave ripped through her, tearing the song from her, but it moved on and the Song whispered its tune back into her. El sat up. She was more prepared for the second wave and tensed, although she was relieved that the ripples grew less intense as they spread out, until the last bumped its cold fingers against her. She stood up, wiping the tears from her face with the edge of her cloak, her body shivering uncontrollably. She felt wrong, out of tune, and it left her sick and disorientated.
Ben had not noticed her fall and was now far ahead of her. She trudged slowly after him, gradually closing distance.
‘Has he found the weapon?’ she called when she was within speaking distance.
Ben shook his head. ‘He knows I’m close, he’s just preparing a welcoming committee.’
They crested a rise in the ground and entered a depression. El staggered backwards. A vast crater stretched before her, devoid of soil and vegetation, the raw bedrock exposed to the air. Everything was silent before her, the Song stolen and ripped from the land. Ben walked out on the naked rock, but El shook her head.
‘I can’t walk on that, I have to go around.’
Ben nodded and changed direction, walking parallel to El as she carefully picked her way around the crater, her body turned away from it, unable to even look at it. The land rose steeply, a sheer cliff rising perpendicular to the ground. A narrow path climbed upwards. Ben stared at the cliff for a few seconds, and then leaped forward pulling his body powerfully upwards.
‘Follow me,’ Ben said.
El pressed her hands against the cliff face. The rich, rhythmical bass of the rocks throbbed in her palms, comforting her. She pressed her body against the slope, resting her face against the cool gritty surface and inhaled the rich earthy scent of dirt and roots. She didn’t watch Ben. She didn’t need to emulate him. She closed her eyes, feeling for the songs in the rock face. She listened for the foot and hand holds that would take her weight and carry her upwards. Her hands and feet reached out, drawn to the right places. Slowly, she flowed up the incline, arriving at the top only minutes after Ben. He crouched near the edge. Ahead, the land continued to rise in a series of steep inclines. Huge boulders, dyed green or red by lichen, lay like giant discarded dice. Little grew on the harsh wind swept plain. A river, not much more than a stream at that moment, cut through the rocks, stronger spring melts carving a deep bed that was now simply a gorge with a rivulet at the bottom. The snow scattered peak rose above, the bare rocks dark grey and blue, the jagged wound of the pass a lighter grey, the red and green boulders bleeding from its entrance.
‘He’s almost there,’ Ben said. He pointed to the pass. El could see a hunched figure, crawling like a deformed ant towards the pass.
‘Where are the children?’ El said.
And then she saw them. They lay scattered across the barren alien landscape, their bodies twisted and still. They were so quiet, so colourless and drab that El hadn’t noticed them at first. She rushed forward, but Ben grabbed her arm and held her back. She struggled to break free, the buzzing in her bones from Ben’s touch unpleasant.
‘Let me go,’ she said.
‘They’ve almost been fully drained of life force, but they’re still alive,’ Ben said.
El pulled against him, gritting her teeth as her vision blurred and her legs weakened. ‘Let me go, I can help them.’
‘Your needful administrations are going to have to wait. We’re not alone.’
El stilled and Ben released her. She searched the landscape. When she listened carefully, easier without Ben’s hold, she could hear an ugly cacophony coming from the rocks ahead. She couldn’t recognise what the sound should be, but it reminded her of the fake children in the village.
‘What are they?’
Ben shrugged and stood up. He grinned at El, his teeth long and predatory, his human face momentarily transforming into a beast with golden eyes and a thick luxuriant mane. ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out.’
He rushed forward. El followed more cautiously. Ben passed the first child without pausing, but El knelt and placed her hands on the child’s head. She recognised the little boy from the village, although he barely resembled his facsimile any more. He looked older, gaunter, all colour drained from his face and hair. He turned clouded, dull eyes towards El. His clothes were filthy, his arms and feet bloody. His song was very faint within him, quieting towards death. El did what she could to make it stronger, righting the tune, strengthening the notes, increasing the melody.
Ben moved ahead, towards the pass, not looking back to see if she was following him. As he passed a large boulder, leaping across the gorge, an enormous beast erupted upward from behind the boulder and crashed into him, knocking him down. It crouched over his prone form, ripping at Ben with its claws and teeth.
El stood up with a shout. A second creature appeared on the boulder. It regarded El with coal black eyes. It was huge, with muscles corded from roots, brown flesh formed from soil and teeth and claws of flint and obsidian. It was shaped vaguely like a wolf, except it lacked a tail and its head was heavier, with a wide wedge shaped skull and small round ears. Now El knew to what purpose the land from the crater had been put to. Before she could draw her dagger, the beast was upon her. It knocked her backwards, a shower of dirt falling from it as it landed. El’s ribs ached from crashing into the hard rock at her back, the breath knocked from her lungs. The creature was powerful, but hastily made, and it frayed its form with each movement. El reached up and pressed her hand against its broad chest. Its song was mocking and upsetting, but better than the numbing silence. She could unpick the song, filter out the individual melodies and return them to their component parts.
Before she could reach into the flow of notes, the creature lowered its head and sank its stone teeth into her shoulder. Muscle and ligament tore as the dagger sized teeth cut into her, almost separating her right arm from her shoulder. The smell of blood flooded her nostrils and El watched with detachment as the beast raised its paw, ready to slash across her chest. She wondered when the pain would come.
The beast’s claw never fell. Ben, roaring, collided with the beast, knocking it from El before it could slash her with its claws. The beast rolled away, dusting the rocks with soil and bits of prickly yellow shrubs. Ben stood over her. El sat up, pressing her left hand to her shoulder. She felt detached. She wanted to float away with Wind Mother and join her and Father Night in eternal, perfect harmony. She fought against it, fixing her song to stop the flow of blood from her shoulder. As the blood vessels knit together and the blood stopped, leaving her right arm sticky and useless, the pain arrived, pulling screams of agony from her.
‘Run, El. These beasts can’t hurt me,’ Ben said.
El struggled to stand, her legs as uncooperative as a new born calf’s. ‘I can unmake them,’ El said.
The first creature climbed out of the gorge and stalked towards Ben. He turned to face it. The monster raised its massive paw to strike and Ben caught it in his hands, twisting it at an odd angle. The creature appeared to feel no pain. It simply sat back on its haunches and raised its other paw, clawing uselessly at Ben’s face. The second creature regained its feet and bounded back towards El. It snapped its teeth together, a tongue of yellow thorns running hungrily over the stone blades.
‘Head for the pass,’ Ben said. ‘The lion killer is there. Stop him from breaking the seals. These creatures I can deal with, but if he gets the weapon, he will kill us both.’
El started to run. The creature showered her with a dusting of soil as it followed her. She expected any moment to feel its obsidian claws in her back, puncturing her heart, releasing her song on the wind. She looked over her shoulder. Ben had his arms wrapped around the head of the monster. Its paws were hugging his body in a bizarre embrace. Ben grunted, twisted and pulled the head from the creature. It looked like he was digging out a stubborn root, the whole time the head continued to bite and snap at him. El’s own attacker was only a leap away from pouncing on her once again. The difficult terrain and lack of blood caused her to slow after her initial spurt of speed. The monster lashed out with its paws and she veered left, barely missing the claws. She lost her footing and slipped into a crevasse between two rocks, twisting her ankle.
The creature crouched above her, trying to cram its massive head and paws between the two boulders, but only succeeding in covering El in a blanket of dirt and plant matter. She wondered if it would bury her or bite her first. A large projectile knocked the beast from its position above her and a few seconds later Ben appeared. He leaned down, offering El his hand. She reached up with her left arm, pushing against the stones with her good leg as he pulled her upwards. Free from the crevasse, she saw the monster lying under the still snapping head of its mate, while the now headless body of the first creature wandered blindly in pursuit of Ben behind her.
‘Fun, isn’t it?’ Ben said.
She didn’t bother replying. El started to harmonise the disjointed notes of her injured ankle. Ben jumped across the boulders, moving towards the remaining creature. El, her ankle sore but now able to take her weight, moved after him. When he gripped the monster in a head lock like the first, El placed her hand on its rump and started to unravel the songs of the different elements that had been forced to make up the beast. Where he had taken their song, she breathed in new notes. Slowly the creature unravelled, then faster and faster the tangle of sound became a tune and with an explosion, the monster returned to its component parts, showering Ben and El with clods of earth, torn bushes and stones.
El turned to the head of the first creature to set it free, but Ben shook his head.
‘There isn’t time.’
He bounded towards the pass. Another two monsters leaped up from the gorge as he jumped the stream bed. They gripped Ben in their jaws, one creature with his head and the other with his feet, trying to pull him apart.
‘Get to the pass, stop him, I’ll keep them busy,’ Ben said.
El stumbled towards the pass. The deformed ant ahead of her resolved into a child, a little girl, with a dark shadow covering her head and shoulders. They disappeared into the shadow of the pass. El continued to follow them. She looked back over her shoulder occasionally to see if Ben was still fighting or if one of the monsters had got away and was pursuing her. Ben had pulled the head off another beast and was wrestling with the fourth while the body of the third chased after him, waving its paws in the air.
As El entered the pass, dark clouds gathered. Lightning seared the ground in front of her, filling the air with the scent of ozone. Sheets of torrential rain washed down the rock walls, soaking El in seconds, plastering her rough yellow hair to her neck and face and pressing her cloak to her body. The rain drops scalded her skin. The storm was unnatural, like the storm that had started after the children went into the cave. The lion killer. The seals had been broken.
El sloshed forward into the pass. She found the hiding place for the weapon, a shallow depression in the rocks on one side that still bore the silence of Ben’s marks. El ran her hand around the hole. Water was filling it up. The depression wasn’t very big. Enough for a small knife.
The child and the prisoner were no longer in the pass. El wondered what he wanted with the Tracker Becoming now. She left the pass. The rain rose sheets of mist from the mountainside. A narrow path wound down the side of the mountain, a steep slope falling away on one side, the rain making waterfalls and rivulets gushing down to the forest. El wished she could see the vista beneath her. She was sure it would be beautiful. A dark shape slowly made its way down the path, the surface made slippery and treacherous by the rain. El hurried towards it. The figure stopped and turned. El saw a young girl of about nine – the Tracker Becoming – Nina. She was shaking, bowed over by the weight on her shoulder, her lips pulled back from her teeth in an agonised grimace, dark circles around her eyes. She wasn’t like the other children, drained of their essence until almost death. She was suffering from the eerie silence that was the thing on her shoulder.
El thought that was a worse fate.
‘Nina,’ El said, holding out her hand.
A flicker of hope flashed in the child’s eyes, then it went out and she stepped backwards, nearer to the edge.
The thing on Nina’s shoulder snarled. It was about the size of a cat, with short chestnut brown fur and a long tail that was wrapped around Nina’s neck like a rope. Its face and human like hands and feet were bare, its skin blue. It snarled at El, baring long red fangs. Clutched in one hand was a glass ball. Inside the ball was a crystal shard wrapped around with a string of gold that shone like living flame, the combination producing bottled sunshine.
‘I’ve found you,’ El said, stepping closer.
The creature flicked the ball at El, and a spear of pure sunlight washed over her, drying her instantly, filling her with warmth and the purest, most beautiful song she had ever heard. The light only lasted a moment, the creature twisting it away.
‘You’re not a lion,’ he snarled.
El realised that the globe must be the lion killer. It was not what she was expecting. She wondered what Ben had to fear from something so beautiful. She walked slowly towards the child and the creature. It clambered down Nina and slipped the weapon into a leather pouch at her waste. Then it jumped from Nina to El. El lifted her left hand to grab it by the scruff of its neck. The creature was surprisingly strong, and it slipped out of El’s grasp as if its fur was greased. It wrapped its hands around her neck, its nails digging into her flesh. Its tail gripped her waist, its feet pressing against her chest. Its yellow eyes blazed into her own, the blue of its face growing deeper. Its touch stung, its silence a vacuum that tried to suck her song into it.
The creature snarled, exhaling stale noxious breath into her face. ‘You’re one of those, like the child. I can’t feed from you. Something is protecting you.’
El reached up again and gripped the creature by the back of the neck. It whipped around and sank its long teeth into her. El felt blood spurting out of her wrist. She shook her arm, trying to dislodge the creature. It dug its nails into her arm and shook its head. El could feel flesh tear, her song distorting to reveal the wound. El tuned her song and the blood stopped spilling out of her veins, the damage repairing. The creature squealed and leaped from El. She drew her dagger and ran after it. It grabbed Nina by the ankle and pushed her over the edge of the path. It plucked the pouch from her waist.
‘Which do you want, you can’t have us all,’ it said.
El threw her dagger. Her aim was poor, her throw off. The dagger hit the creature’s tail, impaling it. It shrieked and grabbed for its tail, dropping the leather pouch. The pouch slipped and fell off the path, rolling down the side of the mountain. It snarled, let go of Nina and wrenched its tail free, spraying black blood clots in all directions. Chattering, it ran down the path and disappeared into the mist. Nina screamed. El jumped across the path and caught hold of her, calling on Wind Mother and Father Night’s help as she pulled her back up onto the path. The child scratched El’s skin and ripped her cloak as she climbed to safety, crying and shaking from the ordeal.
When El and the Tracker Becoming had calmed down, El carried the child back through the pass. There was no sign of Ben, only four large patches of mud remained from his fight with the creatures. El went to the children. They still lay unconscious, all save the one she had helped, who had crawled into the shadow of a boulder to shelter from the rain. El went to the children and harmonised their song as best she could. They were all weak, shaken and frightened, but they would live.
It took most of the day for El to get the children back to the village. Someone saw them as they walked down the path, and a welcoming committee waited for them as they entered the village.
‘What have you done to our children?’ a man shouted angrily, stepping out onto the path and blocking her.
‘They’re all dead. They turned to dust and weeds.’
‘They’re not dead, I have them here with me,’ El said, indicating the children.
Their families came forward and collected them.
‘They look sick, what have you done to them?’
‘How do we know that these are really our children this time and not some copies you made to fool us into spending our money on you?’ the men said, while their wives took the crying children back to their homes.
‘I have returned your children to you,’ El said. She took Nina’s hand and led her through the hostile crowd to her home. Gabrielle and Bert were waiting at the door. Nina cried and ran to her parents, where Gabrielle hugged her to her chest, burying her face in her daughter’s damp straw yellow hair.
‘Oh Nina, we’ve been so worried,’ Gabrielle said.
‘She’s a Tracker Becoming,’ El said. ‘She needs the rituals performed and she should attend a Tracker school so she can learn the ways of the Song.’
Bert spat at her again. ‘First you make up these lies about yourself and then you try to make us believe our daughter is a Tracker too. I suppose you would be the perfect teacher, and fleece us for the honour. You should leave, you’re not welcome here.’
El didn’t move. She was so tired, her body aching with stabbing pain running up and down her arms. Her stomach growled. Her clothes were wet and uncomfortable, clinging to her coldly and smelling of damp.
‘We had a deal. I found your daughter. I’ll have my payment now, please.’
Bert laughed. ‘I made no deal with you. You’re no Tracker. Way I see it, you went for a walk in the woods and got lucky. We owe you nothing.’
He turned and pushed his wife and daughter into his house. Gabrielle looked back at El. For a moment, El thought she was going to say something, but then she disappeared into the house. El stepped forward to knock on the door. The men stepped forward with her.
‘You heard Bert, you should leave,’ the men said.
El was surrounded by discordance. All she had asked for was some food, maybe some money. She hadn’t even received thanks. She pulled her sodden cloak around her and walked out of the village, moving on to whither the Song drew her next. She spent the night in an abandoned shepherds hut. In the morning, she found a satchel of food outside her door.
‘I thought you might be hungry. I hear people like you get that way from time to time.’
El looked up. Ben perched on a stone wall watching her, the creature sitting beside him, tethered to him by a silver chain. The creature twisted is blue face into a grimace. El closed her eyes. She’d forgotten how sickening it was to look at Ben. She sat down and opened the satchel. The nausea in her stomach settling when she didn’t look at him.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
She heard Ben moving from the wall behind her.
‘Consider it a down payment, and there’s plenty more where that came from. I’m looking to hire you.’
El smiled. She broke off some bread and stuffed it into her mouth.
‘I’ve a certain weapon that I’m missing and hear your tracking is the best.’
El swallowed and risked a look at Ben. ‘You have a deal.