Bound to Shadows by Christopher Astefanous

The young woman, Elidia, ran for her life—uncertain if death or salvation was her destination. At the trumpeting of thunder, the light rain that had been steadily pelting the earth became a torrential downpour. Pausing to seek shelter beneath the gigantic roots of a nearby tree she watched as plump drops rolled off the foliage and exploded against the ground. If she had any kind of light she might have sought shelter elsewhere, for human visages were carved into the tree’s trunk and the knotted remains of hangman’s nooses hung from its branches. For a brief moment, nestled within a thick serpentine root, she felt safe—as safe as anyone beneath the malign canopy of Urkwood forest could feel. So close to the Capital city of Pangolias, it was nearly certain creatures as cruel and deadly as the one that hunted her lurked in these woods. Her chest heaved and ached with each breath as competing desires for air and silence fought for dominance. More than wanting to be quiet she wanted not to hear the grotesque panting that heralded the demon that chased her.

She tricked it once, it seemed, when she hurled her lantern down into a gully. The beast must have followed it or else she would be dead—unless it was toying with her. There were so many things in Nidal that gained pleasure from sport like this. Slowly, she scanned the woods and listened. Her muscles tensed in anticipation of an all out sprint. An onlooker might have considered her to have the luck of Desna, the way she deftly avoided being tripped in the near perfect darkness. There was something different about her, something she hadn’t even noticed yet. She weaved around the tiniest of moonbeams that penetrated the dense canopy and pressed on until she had to stop and catch her breath.

Thick, curly, blond hair matted against her face. She wiped the hairs away then ripped a piece of cloth from the bottom edge of her shirt to tie her hair back. For a second, she wished she had shaved her head. That thought reminded her of her mother. It was seven years since she had last seen her. “Elidia,” her mother had said, “beauty will only bring you misery. ‘Tis better to be ugly and filthy then clean and beautiful. You’ll see.”

She wished her mother had been wrong. No poet would name her as beautiful, but she was pretty enough to catch the attention of those whose notice everyone wished to escape. It was seven years ago when Duke Scythal offered her work as her personal servant. There was no way she could refuse an Umbral Lord. It had been three months before reality set in that she had become a slave. That truth was like a wailing child in the dark recesses of her mind screaming for freedom and with any luck she would have her desire this night. Through all the terrors she endured she never gave up. Though only a humble basket weaver, her will was like stone. Life in Nidal was hard and the soft perished. She learned that at a young age when her father had been murdered because he had loudly cursed their Cheliax masters, back when all of Nidal itself was a slave. Ever since his death Elidia had to be strong. Bullies, thieves, and cruelty surrounded her. Though slavery had not broken her will, it had changed her.

The pain she caused others raised her spirits—it was a light in an otherwise dark city. Her torment was always carried out on someone deserving, like the grocer who gave her rotten eggs or the tavern that served watered down wine. Yet, it was agitating her master that gave her the greatest pleasure. Her small acts of defiance were limited to mischief such as dropping ink berries into his laundry and over salting his food. She had found the most vexing act was being perfectly quiet as Duke Scythal carved venerations to the Midnight Lord, Zon-Kuthon, into her skin. It’s said that Nidal’s patron deity takes it as a great offence if his offerings aren’t screaming. Gently, she touched one of the throbbing intricate scars on her cheek. The pain last night was unbearable. She must have screamed, at least a little, because she had blacked out. The scarring was one of many etched upon her flesh, but she knew that one way or another last night’s would be the last.

As she continued moving through the woods, there was no regret in her heart. Resting one more time, she tightly gripped the pouch tied around her neck, tucked beneath her tattered servant’s clothes. Within, was an enchanted ring made of a silvery translucent metal and engraved with tiny golden runes. The ring reminded Elidia of a bird’s nest in the way that it was made up of intertwined metallic loops. Her master had acquired the ring nearly a year ago. She heard him speak of its power to summon and bind demons. At first she didn’t believe in its potential, since the only demons she had ever seen had been men. However, there was no denying the thing that hunted her now. When she had first acquired the ring she had been amazed to find that the ring shed its own light, dim like a candle. It was the most amazing thing she had ever seen. Part of her, didn’t want to give it up. Pride filled her as she held the treasure. Yet, she would have to trade it for her freedom.

She was the one who learned to disable magical rune traps, craft sleeping draughts, climb a rope, hide in the shadows, and balance upon thin ledges. However, she had to give credit to her benefactor. He was the one who offered her a new home in exchange for the ring. It was his kind blue eyes that had first lowered her guard and let her hear out his proposition of stealing the ring. The man had trained her over the course of the last year through secret meetings and notes. It was not difficult to gain such knowledge from him within the city—under normal circumstances no one entered or left Pangolias without the Umbarl Court’s knowledge—but slaves were free to traverse the city to do their master’s bidding. He may have given her the skills, but she was the one who had executed the theft. If he kept up his end of the bargain she would be free to choose her destiny. That is if her screw up didn’t kill her first.

The demon had been summoned when she placed the ring upon her finger—a trap set by Scythal. She felt foolish for falling into that, but luckily she had been outside the city walls by the time the trap had been sprung. Getting out of the city had been a disgusting endeavor. Elidia figured out a way to sneak into the morgue and hide within an occupied coffin. Many of the dead were carted outside the cities gates to a fortified cemetery. In the past Pangolias had problems with armies of the dead being used to settle disputes between members of the Umbral Court. The need for the Umbral Lords to remove the temptation of nearly endless disposable soldiers had served her well in facilitating her escape. Just before the cart reached the gates of the cemetery, she quietly opened the coffin and slit the throat of the cart driver. Then, she made her way by foot into Urkwood. After a short distance, she tried on the ring just to see if she could feel its power and only succeeded in creating the worst problem of her evening. The demon had taken time to materialize, but Elidia had wasted no time in running while her thoughts screamed at her, berating her wisdom.

The rain stopped falling. Elidia pulled out small brass compass from a belt pouch, flipped the lid open, and clicked the flint igniter to light the candle within the compass cover. Her benefactor had told her to keep heading west and that he would find her. He was part of the resistance against the Umbral Court, a cleric of Desna. He’d know how to stop the demon—she hoped. She checked her direction one last time, closed the compass cover, and began running. As soon as she began to move a sickly noise filled the air. It reminded her of the sound dead bodies make in the morgue, as the gas of decaying flesh escapes from their orifices—the demon had found her.

She turned back to see amid a ghostly green haze the beast watching her. She couldn’t see it’s every detail from where she stood, but she knew exactly what it looked like—the image of the thing had been burned into her mind when she had first seen it. It resembled a large overweight man in appearance, except for the bile yellow color of its skin and its frog like head. Thick, bulbous, awkwardly formed tentacles dangled from where its lower jaw should have been. The beast stood squat upon two thick garish legs with its clawed hands supporting its torso. A steady mist of acrid green smoke pumped from its appendages. Its yellow eyes were slit sideways. As it began running through the woods, it was strangely silent except for its laborious breathing.

Elidia flung herself to the ground and crawled around the nearest tree—putting it between them. If only she knew how to use the ring. Her hand found the pouch. At this point she figured there was no harm in trying again, she was trapped. She pulled the ring out and tossed the pouch aside. Its light grew out like a halo around her then formed a feint silver circle of light about her feet. Turning towards the beast, she focused into her words all her will to live and shouted, “I Elidia Weaver, command you to stop moving.”

She had a moment to swallow before the beast made a murderous sound and leapt at her. She raised her hands up and closed her eyes.

Then, nothing.

Bound to Shadows concludes in Part 2