Title: Shadows
Fandom: Legend of the Seeker
Genre: Gen
Characters: Zedd, Richard, Cara, Kahlan
Rating: PG13
Word Count: 1,400
Author's Notes: Written for [community profile] legendland for a challenge based on this picture.

Summary: There was something else, something that cast a pall over them; a weight to the air, something oppressive, like a taint or a scent that you couldn't quite catch.

It made Richard think of a predator's lair, only without the animal stench or the detritus of death that he was used to, and his fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword.


-o-

The houses they passed were ramshackle even by the standards of these parts, and these parts - as Zedd so eloquently put it, the forced joviality in his voice clear to all around him - had been stripped bare of crops and gold by D'Hara so often that it was amazing that any of the inhabitants still had the clothes they stood up in.

But the crushing poverty left behind by Darken Rahl didn't explain the eerie silence as they trotted into the last village on the trail, or the silence that fell over their group. Even Zedd's false cheer evaporated the further that they ventured into the hamlet, his gaze growing sharp as he took in the few scattered buildings, windows like dead eyes and doors like open mouths. It wasn't simply empty or abandoned, as though the villagers has just given up and moved on elsewhere. There was something else, something that cast a pall over them; a weight to the air, something oppressive, like a taint or a scent that you couldn't quite catch.

It made Richard think of a predator's lair, only without the animal stench or the detritus of death that he was used to, and his fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword.

He wasn't the only one put on edge by the continued silence; Cara's fingers were as tight as his around her agiel, and her horse was sidling nervously as she looked around, a frown gracing her face, as though she, too, had caught that non-scent. Kahlan's face was also crinkled into a frown, her hand patting at her horse's neck, calming the beast as it snorted, its eyes panicked, wide enough to for white circles to show around the brown of its irises.

Taint Richard thought again, uneasily looking around for a living soul - any living soul, be it person, animal or bird. But even insects didn't dwell here, it seemed. There was nothing but that silence, as though the place itself was sucking up the sound.

He opened his mouth, ready to suggest to Zedd that they move on, that nothing could live here among these grey buildings, nothing that they wished to meet, when there was an explosive whirr from the nearest rooftop, something small and grey that launched itself into the air.

Kahlan let out a gasp, flinging her hand up to protect her head even though the bird - and it had to be a bird, no matter how erratically it was flying, how oddly it held its neck - was nowhere near her. But perhaps her instincts were better than Richard's own, because the bird swooped down towards her, its wings flapping a beat out of time with one another, before it lurched and fell, landing at the feet of her steed.

Zedd moved first, before Richard could even react, before Kahlan could do more than rise up in her stirrups, ready to dismount and help the injured creature.

But it's not injured. The thought was solid and strong, a certainty forged in years of hunting. It was never just injured.

"Stay still!" Zedd barked as he leapt down from his own mount, his expression more solemn, more scared than Richard could remember seeing before, in spite of some of the grave circumstances they'd found themselves in. "Don't come any closer."

Richard was perfectly happy to stay on his horse, but in spite of Zedd's warning he edged closer to Kahlan anyway, his eyes still scanning the houses for something, anything. But he was no longer searching for signs of life. Something told him that only death dwelled here, and not just the limp corpse of the bird in the dust, its neck twisted in a way that left no doubt that it was broken, just as though the bird had flown into a window instead of out of one.

Zedd leaned in closer to the corpse on the ground, holding his sleeves carefully so that they didn't touch anything. His expression, if possible, grew more grim and when he finally straightened and met Richard's eyes, there was something lurking in the depths of Zedd's gaze that rendered Richard mute, all of his questions dying on his lips.

"We need to leave," Zedd said, his words powerful in spite of being spoken so quietly. "Now."

Richard nodded, happy to be out of this place, but as he turned his steed, something caught his eye, something moving in one of the windows overhead.

It was nothing but a shadow, but too solid to be the ragged, flapping curtain, too quick to be anything but alive. It moved like oiled smoke, and something froze in Richard's chest, shivered up and down his spine.

The hairs on the back of his neck were on end, something primal in his reaction.

Predator he thought again, his horse two steps closer to the building in which whatever-it-was was hiding, then three before Zedd caught hold of his bridle and jerked him back to reality.

"Run!"

The word wasn't quiet this time - it was a howl, Zedd's face contorted into a rictus of fear and fury as he dug his heels into his horse and it bolted towards the outskirts of the village. Cara's followed with a scream as she jabbed her agiel into its side, the kind of cruelty that Cara didn't indulge in, not with animals. But her face was white and set, her eyes wide and fixed on the horizon, fear in every line of her body.

Even Kahlan wasn't immune - her eyes were also wide, but she hesitated, her horse dancing on the spot again, edging closer to the building in which the shadow still lay in wait. As Richard watched for a split second, his sudden need to flee tempered by his need to keep Kahlan safe, her face grew slack, her eyes distant as though she could finally hear something in the silence that he couldn't.

If he stopped, if he listened, he could hear it too, something just on the cusp of hearing, a steady whispering that wound its way through his body, took hold of his limbs and turned them to liquid.

"Run!" Zedd screamed, and Richard jerked out of the fugue state he'd fallen into, his horse steadily trotting towards the gaping door. Kahlan, next to him, similarly snapped back into reality, her expression confused.

Richard caught hold of his horse's bridle, pulling with all of his might until the beast finally turned away, submitting to his will. Kahlan's mount was more intractable and it took Richard's steed ramming into it before it, too, jerked its head and came to its senses, trotting first slowly and then with increasing speed towards the edge of the village where Cara and Zedd waited.

Zedd had dismounted and was kneeling down, his fingers pressed against the earth as he muttered a spell beneath his breath, the words repeated over and over again, a steady litany against the pressure coming from behind. And then his voice rose triumphantly as fire raced from his fingertips, down towards the village below.

A silent scream rent the air, something that Richard felt deep in his bones rather than heard as the dry, grey wood of the buildings caught ablaze, rapidly becoming a funeral pyre for whatever evil it was that they'd left behind.

"What was that?" asked Cara breathlessly, her face still unusually pale as she petted her horse's nose, the animal leaning into her and shivering, any resentment at Cara's ill treatment apparently forgotten that it was now safe.

"Dhampir," said Zedd shortly as he rose to his feet and stared back at the conflagration his magic had caused. "Something old and evil, something that literally feeds off death."

"Like a Baneling?" Richard hazarded.

"Oh, no. Much, much worse." Zedd let out a sigh, something old and weary as the strength seemed to suddenly drain out of him. "There have always been things that lurked in the dark, my boy, things like that creature who prey on the unwary. The Keeper is simply making them bolder. They're no longer willing to stick to the shadows, not when they can create shadows of their own.

"This will not be the first we face, I fear, nor the last. And we're still a long way from our destination.

"Be watchful, my dears, or we will never reach it."

the end
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