3. Shadow on the Trail


Fear was haunting the trees in the shape of a shadow looking for prey.

The prey was unknown, but the shadow continued to circle the forest in search of it because the ancient mind that controlled it told it to do so.

Scent was the shadow’s text book, telling it whole stories of the forest. The smell of life, death, the old and the new mixed with the fresh smell of trees and plants.

The shadow felt uncomfortable here. This was not its natural domain and it usually visited this world only in the hours of darkness. All this fresh growing forest energy that created new things on its own was a mystery to it. Where all the energy came from, the shadow could not understand. No one had moulded it or created it, at least not in ways that the shadow could ever have comprehended. The energy simply seemed to seep on its own from the ground, or out of the very air around it.

Then its nose picked up the scent of a wounded animal and its spirits lifted. It sped on for a few minutes, following the smell of dried blood on the ground, and found the carcass of an almost completely eaten deer.

The shadow tasted what was left of the animal, though it wasn’t hungry. It was good. The energy of the dead body felt familiar to it. It gave the shadow some strength. Invigorated, it continued its silent, aimless circling around the old trees. Like the wind, no-one would ever have seen it if they hadn’t paid attention to the sudden silence of birds and little animals wherever the shadow went.

Then it heard something moving, hidden by the foliage. A snuffling type of breathing. The wind brought the scent to its nostrils.

A dog – and not just any dog. It had smelled this one before, by the road before the girl had been killed. There had been an accident, and the shadow had been there. Had – participated in the accident.

The shadow sniffed one more time, letting its nose drink in the scent of the dog. Yes, this was the dog that had tried to wake up the girl bleeding by the roadside. He remembered the smell, and the sound of the little dog’s whimpers. And there were other scents too, a young woman’s… And of someone else as well… This familiarity of this scent made the shadow uneasy, though it did not know why.

Still, finally, there was a trail.

Soundlessly the shadow turned and followed the scent and heavy breathing of the small animal, and the occasional spoken word between the two people, careful not to make a noise and to stay downwind. It soon came to a forest path that led to a weather-beaten old hut, and waited behind it, deep in the shadows of the forest until the humans and the dog had settled. Then it drew closer, without making a sound. It moved only as far as it took to see the girl sitting in front of the shed.

A slight breeze blew from the direction of the hut directly to the nostrils of the shadow. The smell of roses – perhaps it was the scent of the girl’s soap or shampoo. And underneath it all the unmistakable scent of jasmine, with a touch of cinnamon. They had their individual scent, but usually the cinnamon undertone was there. That is how they spotted the maturing young of her kind.

If she was the one sought by the ancient mind, she could not escape the shadow after this, not once it knew her scent.

The girl was crying. The sound made the shadow feel powerful, and it was tempting to grasp the energy and grow on it. Suddenly the girl shivered, as if she sensed something. She glanced back towards the shadow but could not see it from the darkness of the forest. Impatient, the shadow crouched, ready to move closer.

Then it felt a familiar tuck at the back of its neck, which almost made it fall backwards, as if on a leash.

No. Not this one. Need to be sure.  Need to be sure.

The shadow reeled back and forth like a fish on a line, finally obeying the voice in its mind, the voice that controlled the leash.  She was so close. Just two short strides away.

The shadow breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of the pulsing blood, and warm skin, the sensation of young energy and the feeling of grief.

Then the other woman, who had been sitting behind the girl, stood up and walked into the hut. The shadow was still downwind, and now it caught the scent of the older woman.

The scent brought a memory. The shadow shrank deeper into the shade beneath the bush. Ancient mind spoke.

“You know this one?”

“I know this one.”

Chaos. Shadows split apart at the memory. Darkness, explosion and smoke.

“It’s her?”

Ancient mind knew. It never forgot anyone it had smelled. Now they both knew for certain that the girl was the right target.

Follow. Do not show yourself.

The shadow knew the girl had no hope from this moment onwards. She was the one they had been seeking all this time. Eventually they would get her. And maybe, if she refused to cooperate, she would be killed. They did not kill their own kind often, but there was always the chance, if she offended him. The shadow laughed soundlessly at the thought.

With new eagerness and anticipation, the shadow flattened itself against the ground, becoming almost invisible. A twig snapped, and the older woman, who had been drinking coffee with the girl, turned her head and looked in its direction.

Then she rose and walked casually straight towards the shadow, frozen on the ground. She would see any movement immediately, and the shadow knew what would happen.

The hunter was now the hunted. Retreat, retreat, said the ancient voice in his mind. The shadow was reeled in as if on a line and the world changed back to formless mist.

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