Something moved at the edge of the horizon. It was like a shadow, black as a cloud but moving fast across the snow plain. Time seemed to stop, but Dela could feel herself sliding forward as if she were standing on a lake of ice. Freja was still yelling, but she couldn’t hear her. Her arms were flailing, but Dela hardly noticed.
A wave of lights moved in front of the thing, jumping and turning, quick as sparks. It was like a field of quails fleeing into the sky before a coming wolf, but the wolf—the shadow—followed them. The closer it got, the more the shiver racked her spine. She knew exactly what it was, though she’d never seen one. No one in the congregation had. There were no stories. No whisperings. Only a name.
Freja stared at her, bewildered into silence. Perhaps she was going to speak, but then—
“Shade!” Dela reached for her friend, snatching her by the sleeve and pulling her toward her. They ran, berries forgotten even as the bags bounced in Dela’s grip. They were a dozen strides from the bush before she thought to secure them to one of her belt hooks. How could she even think of them at a time like this? They had to get to the camp. People had to know.
They skidded to a stop at the edge of the overhang they’d climbed. The tents were only a dozen feet below, and a handful of people had gathered at the commotion. They stared up at the two girls with confusion intermingled with irritation. They weren’t used to their evening being disturbed by shouting, and the long journey had people’s nerves worn thin.
None of that mattered. All that mattered was what they would do. What were they supposed to do?
“Shade coming from the east!” Dela yelled. “Get the Ministers!”
Chaos possessed the camp. People scrambled, yelling. Others just stood with disbelieving frowns. Some started running in no particular direction. As if that would save them.
Dela knew nothing about Shades. She hadn’t put much thought into what they might be or do or want. All she knew was that whatever that thing was, it was one of them. And the lights? The things it was chasing? What were they?
Freja was trembling as she crouched and threw her legs out over the edge of the rocks. It was a maneuver she’d done a hundred times, and in colder weather than this. But for fear or anger or nerves, her grip failed. Dela lurched downward, chest striking hard against the rocks as her hand snapped out into the air—and caught her friend’s arm. She grunted as she swung the girl toward the rock wall, which Freja caught in an instant. They exchanged an important glance, but there was time for little else.
Dela stood again, scanning the snowfield for signs of the shadow. It was still gliding forth on nothing but empty air, like a nightmare in a dead sprint toward an innocent dreamer. But, she realized, it was not heading straight for them. It had deviated, aiming toward the empty field north of them, and if it kept going that way, it might miss them entirely.
Could it see? It didn’t seem to have eyes. Nor any other body part, per se. Did it smell, then? Or feel? How could it expect to find anything out here in the cold, white abyss of the Bitters?
Whatever rules it followed couldn’t be the same as what humans or animals followed. It didn’t make any sense.
Then she saw the reason. One of the congregation, maddened by fear, had made a break for it, out into the open Basin. The Shade wasn’t just going to miss the camp. It was going after him.
He’d made it a hundred feet from the camp, and showed no signs of looking back or slowing. From the angle of approach, the man couldn’t see the shadow coming. Couldn’t see it bearing down on him. Couldn’t see the impossibility of his flight.
The Shade engulfed him as though it was little more than a localized fog. He vanished entirely from view, and for one bizarre moment, the beast of a cloud seemed to stop.
Then they heard the scream.