"'Ayn. . .Shar'? Did I hear you right?" The dark-haired young El Paso policewoman laughed. "Would it actually say that on the I.D. you don't have on you, Mr. Shar?"
The tall, gray-clad stranger smiled. The more pleasant among mortals were like happy children. Her laughter was a sign that the disorienting of her mind was beginning. Fortunately, she was here alone for now, without another officer as an anchor to her sense of self.
"'Aynshar', all one word," he answered. "It is as easily two words." He noted her slight frown of concentration. "It was a name given me by mortals. 'Ayn', for a land where your race met me, 'shar' for the things that walked the land. My true name could not be spelled for you, and to pronounce it would be to try to pronounce a flickering tongue of fire."
"How dramatic." She regrouped. "So, mortals, aren't you?" The regrouping failed and she tittered. "What are you then?"
She came close, touched his blond hair, and was fairly lost now, so close to the influence of his mind. "Gray flecks in green eyes. I haven't seen that before. Fine features, strong chin. But no pointed ears."
"A common misconception. It was thought we were more a part of nature than humans. Some animals have pointed ears, and so. . . yet I think in the end we are less a part of nature than you."
He smelled it again, the odor now drifting intermittently on random currents between the buildings. No longer upwind, a bad sign. The woman had to leave. The thing was nearby and was no doubt heeding their voices. And if it summoned acolytes, the difficult might become the impossible.
It was getting dark. "I'll be fine," he said softly into her ear. "Thank you for your concern, but it was nothing really."
"'Nothing?" she asked absently. "Okay. You seem okay."
She walked back to the cruiser she had left by the gate to the storage units. He was relieved to hear the car starting and then the crunch of tires on the pea gravel road. He unlocked the door to his storage unit and stepped inside. He did not relock the door; tonight was a chance.
The single light bulb revealed a mat and a traveling pack. This would have been an issue for the officer, whose attention no doubt had been drawn by his coming on foot to the units, where it was not unknown for people to dwell but illegal. The five-foot-long wooden bow would have intrigued her in the inconvenient way it had often intrigued the minions of the law, yet not as much as the row of arrows standing against the corrugated steel wall, each tipped with a killing head of polished iron inlaid with silver. And the map beside a pile of newspaper clippings concerning the Juarez, and now El Paso, disappearances of young women would have rendered her quite beyond his ability to turn her attention and muddle her mind.
He strung the bow in one fluid movement, nocked an arrow, turned off the light, and stood by the row of arrows, at a right angle to anyone coming through the door. He breathed steadily and let his senses reach out to the night. A hint of cool air in this spring night passed through the joint between the corrugated wall and roof. And the smell was still there. A human might not notice it, but the elf had hunted shar since the fading days of Homo erectus, as humans now called the cannibals among whom shar first found acolytes.
He heard nothing but the traffic on I-10 a quarter-mile away. He did not hear the cruiser returning, and he was thankful, for the officer's sake as well as his. Disorientation was somewhat a violation of human will. An elven mind eons old released into the vague aura around humans must be used gently, but it must be used.
Though his physical senses probed the outside, his mind rested deep within him now like a bird silent in its nest and yet aware. The quieter he was within his spirit, the less the shar would sense of his readiness. Yet this game had been played long. Moments more passed in darkness. He detected the faint "peent" of a nighthawk above the sound of distant traffic, the breeze still whispered, and then the slightest change in the moving air, even more subtle than the change in the room you sense when someone stands behind you, as faint as a shadow across the wind.
His breathing quickened of its own accord, a sour miasma formed in his gullet, and he slowly, silently, drew the bow, drawing courage from the strength he bent into it. The door opened a few inches, and a hand, human enough, crept along the wall searching for a light switch--No, it doesn't need or want light, Aynshar thought and released the arrow in the instant he realized he was being played with, hoping to pin the hand to the wall if he could and gain an instant to nock another arrow. Too late. The hand snapped back behind the door as the arrow punched into a ridge of the corrugated sheet, the silver peeling off as it would have in the shar's bone and sinew.
"Not you, elf!" it barked with a grating laugh. "Your blood and your silver are bitter."
Aynshar leapt to the door as it slammed shut. He dropped the bow and drew his long knife from the sheath under his shirt. As he laid his hand on the door knob, the shar pounded at the door with something, and white splinters appeared high and low between door and door jamb. Bone wedges, still moist. Unbidden, an image of a woman's white face and her eyes filled with pain beyond human endurance rose from the aether of collective mind with the sight of her broken remnants, which the shar had saved for this use. In a rage, he sawed at the bone with his knife, but more wedges came pounding in. The fresh bone compressed and filled the thin space tightly, a faint sheen of fluid oozing along the metal of door and jamb. He would be a half-hour sawing away with his knife from this side.
The shar gloated, a guttural snarl rising to a low howl. The woman whose bones these were would have heard that again and again. And then it was gone. The elf knew its intent and was frantic to get out. Leaving the door and sheathing his knife, he repeatedly struck one side of a corrugated sheet of the outer wall in a rhythm, adding force to force as the fingertips of his other hand wedged gradually under the overlapping sheet, driving the panels apart and separating them enough to get a grip on the overlapping sheet. That accomplished, he flexed the muscles of his wide shoulders and bow-strengthened arms and tore the panels one from the other. Only a few minutes had passed since the door was wedged shut. As the night air bathed his heated skin, the elf loosed a war-cry through the rent wall and hoped that the shar heard him.
He gathered the arrows into a quiver and picking up his bow stepped through the opening in the wall. A few kicks to put the sheets back into some semblance of normalcy, in case a security patrol or the police were to shine a spotlight along the rows of units, and he was off. He knew the shar had gone south to where the Mexican immigrants would be gathering in the darkness to walk the miles to their forbidden employment. Not bothering to dogleg to the gate, he ran up the eight-foot chain link fence, pulled himself up in a one-handed somersault over a barbed wire support, and was running again in the instant he landed.
His gray shirt and pants blended into the night, and he passed swiftly south through parking lots and patches of old industrial brownfield. South of I-10 he slowed and stayed to the darkest areas. In part, this was because he hoped to come within bowshot of his quarry. His lips quirked in a bitter smile. "His quarry." A shar might think of itself as elusive, but rarely as quarry. They knew no fear, their strength was twice that of the men they so resembled, and with speed that was only a little less than the elf's, this shar was no doubt far ahead. A better reason for staying hidden was that the Border Patrol and police were not unaware of the illegal migrants and sometimes visited in warning or in earnest. An undocumented male with a bow would not receive favored treatment just because he was blond.
Now he glimpsed the furtive figures coming out of warehouses and up from gullies. From under bridges, out of abandoned cars, from every shelter that could be had for nothing, the least among mankind rose to go to the least among jobs. And in their going, they gathered in groups that varied in size, smaller for stealth when patrols were more frequent, and larger for protection when the disappearances preyed on their minds, as someone--they did not know of shar--preyed on their young women. The groups must however splinter over the miles to their places of employment; paths branched off and branched again. Mostly men went to load freight and run machines. Mostly women went to restaurants, hotels, and cleaning services. And so it was that Aynshar shadowed those women he could, the youngest and loveliest, and the most alone, for that is where the shar would be.
Yet there were dozens of likely victims in the night. The elf was a hunter without a trail, relying on repeated forays to yield the chance that skill by itself could not. For a week now since he had come north to El Paso he had ranged back and forth along the various paths, attempting to keep as many women within range as possible. No doubt that is when the shar noticed him and tracked him to the storage units in the dawn. Now Aynshar must focus both on the women and on being alert for ambush. At any time in the hours of night the shar might shift its intent on to the elf rather than its victims if it knew that Aynshar was close.
By midnight all were at their work, if they made it. He curled up on gravel and dirt beside a culvert to wait the passing hours for those who would retrace their steps in the predawn; daylight would shield the others. There was little to perceive but the highway sounds in the distance that drowned out the music of the night breeze, and the smell of asphalt, dust, and exhaust that smothered the scents of sage and tamarisk. The hard barrenness of the edges of human habitation held no solace as did the fields and forests where he had laid his head a million times in his journeys over the earth. When action ceased, when stratagems must wait, this was when the loneliness came.
Once, when he heard the cry of a night bird, that scrap of nature lost in the city like him, he longed to reach out to it, as for a friend. Somewhere in the world were other elves, or so he assumed, though it had been so long since he walked beside his kindred that he could not say for certain. Killed by the chances of the world and sometimes by shar, if there were any there were few. It was said that some lay down in a sylvan glade in the moonlight and passed away by will. Passed where?
He remained. He held to the age-old belief that mortals were the younger brother and must be protected, even if they would no longer be guided. He could not protect them from themselves, but he thought he could protect them from the shar. Had the years proved him right? Juarez was lost; the shar had made acolytes to its god Karda. Aynshar killed the followers of the burning god again and again. Atrocities, not mere death, may have impacted the cult more, but the elf, though he considered what could be done with a knife, could not violate his own spirit with the practices he had fought against for millennia. How many men had he killed in Juarez, and how many women had he saved? It was significant, but he had realized that he could continue the crusade for years until he was caught or killed himself, or he could come north to stop the shar from establishing the cult in El Paso and in so doing save many more: Kill the shar while it was hidden in a small place, not in an entire culture.
Another cry, not a night bird. A woman. It came one more time, not just pain, but abandonment in the sound, and was cut off. He rose. The cry had come from the edge of the brownfields where a few remnant houses stood amid sheds and garages a stone's throw from a tamarisk-choked wide gully deep within which a small creek flowed. Within minutes he neared the area and caught the smell of the shar as well as cigarette smoke, alcohol, and the musky scent of men. The shar must have its acolytes, the beginning. Always there were men easy to persuade to evil, to follow one who would give them prey suiting their lusts. Then there was the woman; her scent carried terror and the stench of unclean and confined spaces.
Following the scents and faint, lowered voices, Aynshar closed in on a dilapidated ranch style house beside a two-story stucco dwelling. In the space between the houses were two pickups. The elf saw there the powerful form of the shar facing three compact, muscular men in jeans and western hats and boots. Another such man stood with a young woman in the doorway of the stucco building, his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming again.
It was hard to kill a shar at any distance; power and pinpoint accuracy were needed. Silver only weakened it to one degree or another and only for a time before the creature's horrid vitality threw off what was poison to it. Still, it would be worth doing if not for the presence of the men, who were likely armed, and of the woman, who was in danger. As Aynshar listened from hiding, he understood that the shar had just arrived and quashed some plan of the men, who had called it jefe, their chief.
"We know places in Juarez," one of the three nearest the shar said. "We take her there and do what we want, no worries. Here, more risk."
"You will go to Juarez without her," the shar rumbled with the attempt to speak quietly. "Then return with more men. Karda will grow here." He gestured to the man in the doorway. "Take her back to the basement. I will return before dawn."
There was no argument. The three men got in one of the pickups. The shar swept the area with its eyes, sniffed the air, and loped off on foot. The three men drove away, and the fourth man pulled the woman through the doorway.
Downwind, Aynshar went undetected by the shar now out of sight. He considered following it, weighed the risk of losing it again, and then made his decision and moved in for the woman. He paused behind the remaining pickup, shouldered the bow, and drew his dagger. He could faintly see the man beyond the doorway, at the back of a short hall, pinning the woman against the wall while unlocking a door.
To the remaining man and his captive, it must have seemed that a shadow crossed the threshold of the door, and then the tall elf was standing in front of them. Then nothing, ever, for the man after the dagger hilt struck his temple with killing force. Aynshar took one breath and let it out slowly as his senses scanned for anyone else. As he did this he and the slender young woman were facing each other, her large eyes glimmering in the darkness. He seemed to be paying her no mind but he was as aware of her as he was of the rest of his surroundings. She was exhausted and the smell of fear was coming off her along with the usual odors of humans who had not bathed in days. Yet her graceful hands rose palms up in front of her as she accepted his presence with hope.
Moonlight shone through the windows of the bare living room of the abandoned house where Adelaida had lived with her friend, whose only presence now was a stain in the basement.
"His body?" she asked.
"In a culvert. No blood here, you gone. . .it will look as if he took you, and that will give you more time to find a safe place."
"Safe for me. Let me see their master dead, and other women safe also. He will come back for me. I stay. You will kill him? You will kill him." The musical lilt of a Hispanic woman's voice caressed savage and desperate words.
"Think about this, because--"
She cut him off with a raised hand. The silver light sculpted the planes of her face framed by her dark hair while she sat on the floor, back against the wall, eyes closed for a moment's rest. She was flawless. So many family lines of men had endured the many small accidents in their subtlest tissues, lacking the golden immutability of elves, and thus imperfections increased generation after generation. But this one retained the virtues of mortal frame that men had in their beginning. From proto-Persian chieftain to Goth king to Spanish grandee, her ancestors' daughters may have been princesses of their kind.
And now she was here, impoverished and desperate. If she had ever been of royalty, what now of the nobles? So many came to nothing, kingship dissolving in the centuries the way other human orders were dissolving now in decades or mere years. Everyone contending or no longer caring, as this age gathered up the human race and rushed like a river into a dark canyon whose end was unknown.
"I wonder," he whispered, "if you know that your civilization is dying?" He said it almost to himself, not expecting her to answer. Her lustrous eyes opened, filled with tears, and flicked down as she wiped at them. She nodded. That was all. No confusion, no denial. He saw that her understanding was as intuitive as he had found her bravery and compassion to be deep.
He bent to her and touched her hair. In sadness, at least, we are equal in wisdom, he thought. She held his gaze. She was young, but he could see that her soul had long roots reaching down to clear water. What did she see?
"Before we do this," she began, "if I am to remember you, should we live, what is your name?"
To honor her for the selfless offer she had made, he wanted to give her his true name. How long since one of his race had hailed him? He collected his memories and chose the words for the human tongue. "'Finder of Brightness.' A finder of gems and gleaming metals, of beauty, of snatches of tunes that carry a little of the fire of creation. Then I discovered that I could also sense the brightness of terror and torment, the mind and the victims of the one you await."
Her lips parted. "You are not a man," she said, her mind leaping over impossibility to conclusion with the same simplicity and finality with which she had told him she would bait a trap. She reached out to his golden hair. "Are you an angel?"
"Wood elf." He would not confuse her mind, considering what they had yet to do. And what did it matter if she heard these words or ever repeated them? Some people claimed to see unicorns, to no effect in the wider world.
She exhaled and nodded.
Never had he met anyone like this. He laughed a little despite the situation. "How can you accept that?"
Her eyes widened and she pointed with her chin at the bow in the corner and the arrows whose silver inlays gleamed in the moonlight. "You have a bow."
"You are. . ." a child he had wanted to say, but he could not. He lowered his head and chuckled again, and then again. The wise among humans said that laughter ultimately comes from a need for relief from fear or other soulish weight. As the laughter unburdened his soul he saw the fear clearly: To travel alone from scene of horror to horror and to travel so long that he was devoured by the journey and became only his purpose and not himself.
His laughter ceased. He passed his hand across his eyes to keep them from misting over. Adelaida looked at him in surprise and also in that woman's way, with a secretive smile, that said she knew she had entered his soul, a little, like a green vine finding a crack in a stone wall.
He sighed. It was time for her to return to the basement where the shar expected her before dawn.
In the basement's far corner where a bare bulb harshly lit the gray concrete walls and gleamed off the handcuffs hanging from a brace embedded in the wall, Aynshar tried again to let her know her risk. "If you can accept that I am an elf, accept this: What comes for you is a shar. It is ancient too. It is not a human. It is stronger and harder to kill."
Tears formed in her eyes again. It had been all she could do to make herself return to the basement where she had seen the horrors committed on another woman, knowing she was next. She had not known that the inhumanity of the men's jefe was literal. That was the way of it: If you passed a shar on the sidewalk, you would sense the strength, see the heavy brow and jaw, but unless its dark eyes with their glittering intelligence and evil looked at you with intent you would not shiver and shy away.
"But you can kill it?"
"I have killed many of the shars' followers, but only twelve of the shar themselves in all my long life. . .though they were never many, even fewer than the elves."
She swayed a moment, near fainting. He took her arm to steady her and to lead her away. "No," she said, removing his hand. "I told you true that I will risk death to stop these men and their master for the sake of other women. You have taken his man away. If the shar does not see me, or smell me," she looked embarrassed, "you will lose the chance to stop him. Wait only a little more time with me."
They sat on the floor together. "Finder of Brightness, will you tell me of this ‘Karda', the name they howl?"
He sighed. "A god of sorts, perhaps a dark angel. Once it was a name given to the spirit thought to brood over empty places at night. It may have been there that it called to the race of shar. Ages passed, and the moon became the vessel of Karda in the minds of men who knew its rumor. Then the shar poured the full poison of their god into the vessel. They said the moon was cold and empty, jealous of the fire of the sun. Sacrifices submitted through fire by burning animals, and later humans, filled and warmed Karda. In time the moon, in truth an innocent creation, was no longer needed for Karda." He smiled. "Even before your race walked on it. The dark being that snared the hearts of the shar had presence enough in itself. And the sacrifices had become the fire of lust, pain, and terror."
She trembled and then was quiet for a time. The hours of night were passing, and the shar must surely be on its way. Adelaida loosely hooked the handcuff over her wrist; she had not changed her mind.
With some misgiving he had chosen to ambush the creature outside. There, the breeze having fallen with the late hour, the shar was less likely to sense him than in the confines of the house. The single bulb in the corner of the basement created a barren lit space around her that grew smaller as he walked away, glancing back. She was disheveled, deeply fatigued, and turned her head from him at the last and closed her eyes.
There were only so many ways the pieces could move, but he had missed one. The speed and stealth of the shar had undone the elf. In the eons of playing the game it had gained a step on him. Adelaida was gone. He ached. A hundred thousand years of aching fell on him.
While he had been checking the approaches to another entrance on the far side of the house, he had heard the pickup start. With a shower of gravel it bounced off the yard, then accelerated down the street and around a corner. He knelt in the street stilling his mind, steeling his heart. What straws were there to grasp? He tried to remember every useful clue he had gleaned from the pile of newspaper clippings in his storage unit, anything that would hint at where the shar might go in this situation. He pictured the clippings. . .the storage unit. . .
A cold surge of certainty swept through him, perhaps borne on the prayers of Adelaida, or perhaps it was he who had gained a step. The shar's perverse pleasures would be doubled if Aynshar returned, tired and defeated after a long search, to find what was left of the girl in the elf's temporary dwelling. The shar would howl from some vantage point when it saw him enter the unit and then be off again for another victim.
Back he ran with no attempt at concealment. His straight line against the grid of streets the shar must follow would make it a near thing. He must arrive before the shar began; its first act after binding would be to disfigure. It was truly darkest before the dawn this night. The moon had set and the predawn glow had not appeared when he approached the storage units from the rear, farthest from his own.
He topped the fence and then leaped from it to the roof of the nearest row of units. Without a slip or pause he crossed the roof and jumped to the next. He closed in from above, bounding over the twenty-foot-wide alleys between. He saw the empty pickup parked outside near the gate and loosed a war-cry to let the shar know that an elf was closing in fury and at speed, and to perhaps stay its hand a few seconds.
He landed beside the door and saw that the bone wedges were gone. No doubt the shar had locked the door, but if it hadn't, it would be expecting him to enter there. It did not know about the weakened wall. Aynshar held the bow and nocked arrow in one hand as he slammed his foot against one panel and yanked savagely at the other with his free hand. The panel fell onto the pavement as the elf drew the bow. He had a brief glimpse of Adelaida gagged and bowed backward so that she rocked on her belly, tied by her long hair over her back to her ankles.
Before him was a blockish head thatched with black hair, strong arms on wide shoulders above a barrel chest, and a face with all the malevolence of a werewolf. The shar was nearly upon him. The arrow ripped at the side of the thing's head, a wound that would stun a human but only made the shar stagger once before righting itself. In that split second Aynshar leaped back and nocked another arrow. All the internal organs of a shar were surrounded by a slippery, tough sheath, including the heart. Only a heart shot could kill a shar, and only if it struck in the center of that adder-shaped thickening of the main artery and so did not slide off to the side. Aynshar released his breath with the arrow, seeing in his mind's eye, feeling with his deepest senses, where the snakelike heart was.
At the tearing impact of the elf's arrow and the entry of silver and iron into its heart, the shar shuddered, then came on with glazed eyes. Aynshar drew his long dagger and with savage strikes bore his foe to the pavement. It took all the elf's strength to hold the thick limbs of the dying shar to the ground. Then it was over. The thing's eyes went as black as the moonless sky.
Shaken as ever by death and victory, the elf stood. Was this the last shar? Would it even matter in a dying age of the world when there was evil enough without them?
With his traveling pack at his side, bow and rolled-up mat on his back, he paused. Adelaida came down through the tamarisks beside the trickle of a creek. She had bathed, found a gardenia for her hair, and wore a clean dress of blue cotton. In leather sandals she approached until her head was under his chin. She did not look up at him but lifted her hands in that graceful gesture again. Aynshar lowered his face to her hair, breathed in the gardenia scent of it, set down his pack, and thought, this could be.