This is another one that was previously published in Tim Rodriguez’s Pendragon ‘Zine. It also features one of the RPG characters that I return to, in some form or another again and again. For that matter, he is the main character of the fictional universe that unites most of my writing. I am a shameless recycler and hate to see anything I create go to waste. If you’re read one of my two novels, you’ll recognize Shadow Hunter. And you can expect to see him again, in the future.
Shadow Hunter disliked his new teacher almost from the moment he first saw the man. Shenendril was slender and pale and Shadow Hunter felt certain that he cold snap the elf in two with very little effort. His teacher’s face was thin and long with prominent cheek bones and an overly soft mouth. Shenendril’s clothing was ridiculously ornate with a great deal of embroidery, lace and meaningless folds and buttons. To Shadow Hunter’s admittedly unschooled eyes the outfit looked distinctly feminine. Everything about the elf seemed pampered, spoiled and soft. Shadow Hunter wondered briefly what Sk’Tash might have thought he could learn about fighting from this girlish man.
That is, until he saw the way the man moved. Shadow Hunter had been on the field of battle often enough and faced enough opponents to know when a man could fight and kill and when he could not. He could see through the pompous swaggering of a noble who wanted to be a warrior as easily as he could the false bravado of a scared youth. It was clear from the graceful, confident way Shenendril walked and carried himself that he knew the limitations of his own body and how to push himself beyond those limitations. When he drew nearer and Shadow Hunter could see his face, he recognized the hard, calm look of a person who had killed and would kill again if necessary in Shenendril’s eyes. Despite his outlandish appearance Shadow Hunter knew that he was no fop.
“So, you are my new student,” the elf said with obvious disdain before he sipped something from a golden, etched goblet that he picked up from a table that also supported numerous weapons of a wide variety. He appeared as bored with the contents of the goblet as he did with the weapons on the table and the young man standing in the courtyard with him.
After setting down the goblet, he began turning up the cuffs of his shirt, careful not to tear the lace that decorated them. “What backwater did they find you on? Or do you even know what the proper name for it is?” he asked.
“Vel,” Shadow Hunter answered curtly. Though the wonders the Ravnivori possessed boggled the mind and they were clearly far advanced beyond the simple society and technology of his home world, he didn’t like it being referred to in such insulting terms.
“Ah. So you do know, Perhaps there is hope for you,” Shenendril replied, looking shocked that his new student was aware of anything. With his sleeves now rolled up to his elbows he examined Shadow Hunter again for a time. “But, somehow I doubt it. I’m surprised they even managed to get you into a decent set of clothes. I know how you primitives enjoy prancing around in little more than your skins. While it can be entertaining when your feral women do it, I’m glad that they’ve managed to instill the decency in you to cover yourself properly.”
Shadow Hunter’s fists clenched as he was tempted to test his theory that he could break the man with his bare hands. There had been a few other people who had spoken to him so contemptuously because of where he was from since he’d come to the city, but he’d often convinced them with word or fists that it was a mistake to underestimate him. Or course, his often violent responses generally only reinforced what they believed about him, but at least he felt better afterwards.
It only made matters worse that Shenendril’s barbs were not far from their mark. While Shadow Hunter was grateful for the heavy clothes he’d been given when the chill of night filled the air, he itched to be rid of him. The sleeves of his shirt and coat felt like bindings intended to restrain his natural movement. He longed for the freedom of the simple breeches that he’d worn since childhood.
“Aw…I’ve upset you,” Shenendril continued mockingly. In addition to his other talents, he was also, annoyingly, a good judge of character. “Well, perhaps a little exercise will help calm your nerves. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get a chance to make me pay for insulting you. Come, get a weapon so you can take your chance.”
He picked up two of the spears that were leaning against the table, holding one casually in his left hand, the shaft balanced lightly on his shoulder. He offered the other weapon to Shadow Hunter, who waited a moment before stalking over to snatch it out of his grip. But as he reached out to grab the weapon from Shenendril’s hand the elf dropped it with a smirk. Shadow Hunter lurched forward gracelessly to make a grab for the weapon but fumbled with it before it slipped from his grip and fell into the grass at Shenendril’s ornately buckled, high heeled, well polished boots.
“It looks like I have my work cut out for me if I’m going to train you. You can’t even keep your weapon in your hands. How can I hope to teach you to wield it properly?” Shenendril’s laughing taunt sent a molten rage through Shadow Hunter, filling his chest and stomach until he thought they might burst.
Snatching up the weapon, he fought down the urge to simply stab the man right then and there. His patron and sponsor, Sk’Tash believed there was something this person could teach him and he owed the Saurian too much to disappoint him in a fit of temper. Besides, he suspected that the elf, despite his pompous attitude and foppish garments might be able to train him as well.
Instead, he simply straightened up and waited for Shenendril’s next words with clenched jaw. The elf was clearly bored by the whole situation and did not speak for several seconds. In fact, he eyed the goblet on the table apparently contemplating taking another drink rather than worrying about the man standing nearby with a weapon.
“Well? I’m waiting. Attack me. I’d like to see if there is any skill and understanding behind those brutish eyes or if I’d be better off trying to train a monkey,” the elf finally said, exasperation heavy in his voice.
The goading did nothing to increase Shadow Hunter’s anger, but the permission was all that he needed. Taking a tight grip on the haft of his spear, he lunged forward with a growl, aiming a stab straight for Shenendril’s gut. The jab would likely not kill the man, especially with the healing abilities he knew the Imperials had, but it would hurt a great deal and might leave the elf in agony for hours.
It appeared that Shenendril didn’t even see the attack coming but he moved subtly, his left arm and wrist twisting. The small movement had a great effect, though and the haft of his spear shot down, deflecting the point of Shadow Hunter’s weapon wildly off target. The Possessed man’s momentum drew him forward and past the elf and before he could regain his balance he felt a sharp pain in his side.
For a moment, he was certain his teacher had stabbed him in turn. It seemed in character for the elf. Shenendril would no doubt injure him simply to prove that he could. Shadow Hunter quickly realized that he wasn’t bleeding, though and the pain was simply the effect of having the blunt butt of Shenendril’s spear rammed into his kidney. Still, the pain was enough to make his knees weak and he stumbled and almost fell before steadying himself.
“Amazing,” Shenendril said with mock surprise. “You are even clumsier than you led me to believe. I don’t think I have to fight you at all. If I just watch you for a few minutes, you’ll trip and fall on your own spear. I won’t have to get mine dirty. How is it you have not killed yourself before now?”
“Shut up!” Shadow Hunter shouted as he spun to face the elf. “I’m going to mount your flapping tongue on the tip of this spear and then we’ll see if you can create such clever barbs.”
He did not rush blindly forward again but rather moved toward his opponent much more carefully. When he was within range, he thrust his spear at the elf’s face like a bolt of lightning, the weapon a blur of motion and death. Again, Shenendril hardly moved but managed to deflect his attack without the slightest hint of effort.
Shadow Hunter jabbed again and again, seeking out any gap in his teacher’s defenses. In desperation, he even attacked all but meaningless targets like Shenendril’s feet, but was no more successful than his attempts to strike something vital.
His frustration and confusion grew with each passing minute. He was no neophyte, after all. He’d been in numerous battles and defeated dozens of foes in the tribal conflicts on his home world. Many opponents had died at his hands and he’d never been beaten. His reputation extended far and wide back home and only the bravest or most foolhardy warriors voluntarily faced him.
In fact, quite a few members of the Imperial Army fell to his prowess when they first arrived to conquer his world as well. Even they began to fear him as they spread across the world. Then the fateful day came when he killed one of the soldiers near Sk’Tash and the spirit that possessed the Ravnivori Saurian sensed something special in Shadow Hunter. No one understood what made the Daemons that gave the Possessed their powers choose a new host for their offspring or the process that occurred when they sent a splinter of themselves to reside in a new host.
Whatever the reasons and methods, though, Shadow Hunter was now one of the Possessed, the elite of the Ravnivori Empire, completely ageless and capable of becoming more powerful with every person he killed and every soul the daemon that shared his body claimed. He was stronger, faster and tougher than he’d ever been and he was only going to get better.
For all his abilities, however, the best he could do against Shenendril was force him once to step to the side to avoid one of his many blows. Every other thrust and swing he made was deflected by the elf with only the barest hint of effort.
Without a moment’s warning, Shenendril lashed out in return, the haft of his spear swinging in a vicious arc that whistled as it cleaved the air. Too late, Shadow Hunter moved to thrust his own spear between the elf’s weapon and his legs in a failed attempt to protect himself from the blow.
The wood struck him at the knees and lifted him off the ground. There was an instant where he was completely free of the ground before he thumped violently onto his back. He barely managed to keep his grip on his weapon as the air exploded from his lungs and the shock of the impact jolted his whole body. Before he could even gasp to begin replacing his escaped breath, Shenendril was over him. He drew his spear back and Shadow Hunter had only a moment to realize his intent and know that he was about to die.
The elf’s weapon shot down, aimed straight for Shadow Hunter’s heart and he felt the first sting of pain as steel parted flesh. Instinct made him grab for the haft, though he knew it was too late to stop the blow.
But, sting was all that the spear did. The blow was deadly accurate and the point of the weapon was on a course to slip between his ribs and cleave his heart in two, but Shenendril did not complete the thrust. Instead he withdrew his weapon, leaving Shadow Hunter with only a shallow gouge on his chest that still began to bleed freely.
Indolently, Shenendril moved back to the table and picked up the goblet he’d left there. He took a long gulp of the liquid inside as Shadow Hunter climbed painfully to his feet and dabbed his fingers against the wound on his chest. A jolt of pain punctuated the ache that lingered there at the touch and the blood flowing from it would ruin the new clothing his patron had given him. He was surprised to find that the wound was relatively minor, though and there was no risk of it becoming fatal or permanently damaging. He likely wouldn’t even have a scar.
“Your form and technique are pathetic,” Shenendril said, swirling the contents of the goblet around and examining them before taking another drink. He did not deign to look at Shadow Hunter. “Maybe that wild flailing was effective against the other barbarians back on your home world, but any decently trained warrior would cut you to shreds in a minute. You are Possessed now, a scion of the Ravnivori Empire and, as such, you will learn to fight properly, like a Ravnivori. You will learn skill and efficiency when the time comes for you to go to war in the name of the empire.”
Shadow Hunter was contemplating attacking the elf again, but somehow doubted he would get any better result than he had so far. Still, the temptation was powerful. Shenendril had insulted not only his own abilities but also everyone from his home. He wanted nothing more than to erase that smug, bored look from the elf’s face with the tip of his spear.
“Do you understand me?” Shenendril continued, impatiently. “Or have I used words that your primitive mind is incapable of comprehending? Do I need to speak slower?”
“I understand you perfectly,” Shadow Hunter managed to answer through gritted teeth.
“Good. We’ll see what else you are capable of understanding.” The elf put his goblet down and strode toward Shadow Hunter. Expecting an attack, the latter tensed and gripped his spear with both hands.
“There’s no need for such dramatics,” Shenendril said dismissively when he saw Shadow Hunter’s reaction. “It should be obvious that if I wanted to hurt you there wouldn’t be anything you could do to stop me, anyway.”
Shadow Hunter glared at the man, but he could not argue with the logic and had he thought to protest the pain in his chest would have been a good reminder of the futility of such an act. Nonetheless, he did not relax. This man had hurt him both physically and mentally and he certainly didn’t trust him.
“First, your grip is all wrong,” Shenendril said. “You’re holding your spear as though it were a club that you were going to use to batter some beast to death. Don’t clench it, grip it.”
He grasped Shadow Hunter’s hands, making him tense even more. For a moment, Shadow Hunter flinched away but then slowly extended his arms forward. Shenendril pried his fingers off the spear and then replaced them gently on the haft. “Like this. Tight enough so that it won’t slip free but loose enough that you have some flexibility in your movements. Now, you need to find the balance point of the weapon and always know where it is.”
Slowly, Shenendril showed him everything he was doing wrong from the way he gripped the weapon to how he stood and even how quickly he attacked. By the end of the hours that followed, Shadow Hunter wondered how he’d never been killed in battle before now. It was clear that he was too ignorant about the arts of fighting to even understand how much he didn’t know. Compared to Shenendril’s knowledge and skill Shadow Hunter realized he actually was a neophyte.
Shadow Hunter came to realize that the spear was such a crude weapon in his hands. Granted, it just gave him extra reach and the point allowed him to do more damage to his opponents. But in Shenendril’s hands it was a complex and intricate tool of destruction. He used it in ways that Shadow Hunter had never imagined and the weapon became a deadly part of the elf. Despite his dislike for the man, Shadow Hunter longed to learn all that he could from him. He wanted to be just as dangerous with the weapon as the elf was. In fact, he wanted to be more dangerous. He wanted to be able to beat his teacher with the weapon.
The sun was setting, the light around them changing to the strange, deceptive grey of evening when Shenendril finished his lessons and said “Try again, now that you are beginning to understand.”
Shadow Hunter readied himself, trying to remember everything the elf had taught him in the last several hours. There was so much, he was certain he would forget something. In fact, he suspected he would forget most of it and have to learn it again and again. He also knew that only so much of a skill like this could be taught through words. He had to experiment with the methods shown him and the best way to do that was through combat, whether real or mock.
His first thrust was even clumsier than the first time he attacked Shenendril. His mind tried to use the new techniques that he’d been taught while his body reverted to the old methods he’d used with the end result being that neither actually worked. The elf did not even bother to block the blow, but simply twitched his head to the side to completely avoid the attack.
To Shadow Hunter’s suprise, he also did not have any chiding, derisive remarks for the failed attack, though. Instead, he simply waited in silence until Shadow Hunter’s next attempt. The jab required him to deflect it with the haft of his own spear, though again a simple flick of his wrist did the job. The next attack was even closer and they came more rapidly and accurately as Shadow Hunter began to gain experience using what Shenendril had taught him and confidence in the lesson’s effectiveness.
The clatter of wood striking wood filled the air in the courtyard as the light continued to slowly fail with the closing of the day. Every crack was the sound of Shenendril deflecting or blocking one of Shadow Hunter’s strikes and was the noise of success as far as the Possessed man was concerned. The two men engaged in a dangerous dance that could turn instantly deadly with a single misjudgment or misplaced move.
One of the many advantages that the Daemon that shared Shadow Hunter’s body provided was the ability to see clearly in much dimmer light than any normal human could. Even as the twilight faded into true night, he could still plainly make out Shenendril and his weapon. Fortunately, Shenendril’s elven eyes were at least as keen as his own and the two continued to spar as night drew in around them.
After one close particularly close call, Shenendril went on the offensive. No longer did he simply block and evade Shadow Hunter’s attacks. He began to fight back, the head of his spear easily darting through Shadow Hunter’s defenses and cutting a thin trail of blood along his side with the first thrust. The change in tactics took the Possessed man by surprise but he adapted quickly, at least partially because some of Shenendril’s training had taken hold.
He could only defend himself and give ground for a time, backing away from the elf and narrowly avoiding being skewered several times. Even with his defensive posture and the fresh training Shenendril had given him, he was left with several more shallow wounds and the beginnings of numerous bruises as the elf was as likely to use the butt of his weapon against him as to stab him with the point.
Shadow Hunter managed to get a few counterstrikes in, though no one would claim that the combat was anything but one sided. As they continued to spar the light became so dim that he could hardly see what was happening and more than once he was made aware of a successful attack by his opponent by the pain it caused rather than seeing it coming.
“You’re watching my spear,” the trainer declared with a surprising amount of disdain.
Shadow Hunter thought that was perfectly reasonable given the situation. “The spear is trying to hurt me,” he answered.
“No, I’m what’s trying to hurt you. The spear is just the tool I’m going to use to do it. Watch me and you will know where the spear is going. Watch it and you will only know where it is.”
Shadow Hunter considered that advice completely foolish, until he noticed Shenendril was taking his own advice. His unreadable eyes flicked subtly and quickly but followed his motions and not the motions of his spear. Despite that, he always seemed to know where Shadow Hunter’s weapon was going to be before it got there.
Slowly, he adopted the advice, focusing on Shenendril. At least until the other man’s spear flashed by his face so close that he could feel the breeze as it passed. That shining point was all he could think about for several minutes and he could not pull his attention away from it.
That concentration only seemed to make things worse and the progress he thought he’d been making slipped out of his grasp. Once more, he was narrowly avoiding being skewered at every turn.
Finally, Shenendril called for a halt. To punctuate the command, the elf thrust his spear forward, entangling it with Shadow Hunter’s and gave a twist that sent the Possessed’s weapon flying despite the firm grip he had. Before he could even think to retrieve the weapon, another swing of the elf’s spear caught him in the knees and he once more found himself with his back on the ground.
“Not bad, barbarian,” Shenendril said and Shadow Hunter thought he could detect the faintest hint of breathlessness in the elf. He also noticed that the elf was leaning more than casually on his spear as he planted it in the ground near Shadow Hunter’s head. The possibility that he had tired his teacher out at least left him with some satisfaction and a redoubled desire to learn until he could best the man.
“Perhaps there truly is hope for you. Next time, we’ll use the blunted spears…just in case,” Shenendril continued a bit too casually. “After all, death is but a matter of a moment. One instant a man is alive, the next he is gone. And dealing that death takes only a moment as well. One stroke of the blade or a simple flick of the finger if there is a gun involved and a life that spans decades or centuries of life is over in the blink of an eye. Perhaps you could get very lucky and end the glorious story of my life. A very sad idea when you contemplate it.”
Just then, the moon peeked over the wall of the courtyard, bathing it in faint silver light. Thanks to his Daemon, even that dim illumination was enough to allow Shadow Hunter to see as well as if it were the middle of a cloudy day. And, it was just enough light for him to see a small gash in Shenendril’s clothes. It was not deep enough to break the elf’s skin, but Shadow Hunter swelled with pride at seeing that he’d actually managed to hit his trainer. It also explained why Shenendril wanted to use the blunted spears. Not only was Shadow Hunter now good enough to potentially land a lucky and dangerous blow against his teacher, but also Shenendril would no doubt have to stop pulling his attacks to maintain a distinctly upper hand.
Of course, Shenendril said nothing about either of these possibilities. “Be here again in the morning and we’ll see if I can do anything more with you or if you have simply gotten lucky today,” he said, instead, turning away from Shadow Hunter and returning his spear to its spot on the table.
He scooped up his goblet and drained what remained in it as he sauntered away, leaving Shadow Hunter lying on the grass in the pale moonlight without a backwards glance.
Sk’Tash passed the elf as he came in and the two men gave each other small bows before the reptilian humanoid approached his young protégé. His amber, slitted eyes rested emotionlessly on Shadow Hunter.
“Not many smile after a training session with Shenendril,” he said his voice thick and his mouth straining, as usual to shape the words of the humans. “He must have gone easy on you.”
“Perhaps, milord,” Shadow Hunter replied as he hauled himself to his feet. “Or perhaps only a few of his students understand what it is that he teaches them.”