Shadow Walker

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A housewarming gift of murder

The knock was not unexpected.

It had been weeks of fruitless searching in the library for any further information on siphons and curses. Yechiel was virtually non-existent. I could only pray to the Great One she was busy investigating a cure. My curse had spread further along my arms and collarbone. Nearly every afternoon, migraines were forcing me into my room where the darkness dulled the pain. I was more certain than before that my curse was connected to my siphon—and Winnie. With each passing day, I waited, nearly sick with curiosity and dread, to see if the Winguri would return.

The mages, fortunately, were so focused on leaving that they were oblivious to my well-being. They were easy to avoid too. All I had to do was shut the library doors. Morag was a different story. He’d taken to leaving cups of tea outside my door, but the enki never approached me otherwise. I wondered how much Yechiel shared with him.

Outside, grass stalks bent over onto themselves around the crisp fields that dried in the ever vanishing sunlight. Summer was fully transforming into fall, which I knew hardly existed in the foothills. Harvesting the crops would take everyone. Restless energy emanated from both of the mages. They never anticipated staying so long. It was too close to the first snow for their liking. The pair needed to leave soon or they would be stuck here for the winter.

What caught the household off guard was the timing. I was bent over a binding, stitching the pages back into a semblance of order when the sudden compression of air had me doubled over. A spike of pain laced my temples. Worry quickly followed. I’d never been affected like this before. Did the pain indicate the development of my curse? Something with the Winguri? Dehydration? I didn’t know anymore.

I stumbled over myself trying to put on my shoes and cloak, half tumbling down the stairs with the knowledge that the mages were probably already out there, trying to kill Winnie.

Fortunately, Kai was struggling with his shoes as well, grumbling about shrinking leather as he used one of the patchwork couches as leverage. But instead of a battle, I was greeted at the kitchen door by the sound of several heavy boots and deep accented voices. The door swung forcefully inward, leaving me little to do but stumble out of the way of the large figures that entered, turning sideways to fit their broad frames through.

The woman who stepped through the door didn’t just enter the kitchen—she owned it. Much bigger than any woman I’d met in Society, her broad shoulders were exaggerated by the leather armor she wore, two swords strapped to her back. Why did she need two?

It was difficult to see her face with the helmet she wore, but the woman somehow had bravado sewn into her stride, even as she guided an older man inside. A string of incoherent syllables came from her mouth, but a moment later, the Wayfinder echoed a translation.

“Daddy!” she said to the man, looking directly at Kai, who was peeking over the couch with a boot in hand and his hair askew. “You told me Society mages were prudes, but the scruffy blonde looks fine.

The man, her father apparently, bit his lip and grimaced around his silver beard at his daughter’s comment. “They can understand you, dear. Remember what I told you about the magic of this place?”

If anything, the realization only seemed to bolster her confidence. The woman removed her helmet with a clunk on the table, releasing a tangled mane of dark hair. With her face revealed, I could see she was much younger than I’d previously assumed.

She addressed Kai from the kitchen, her eyes studying his dashing of freckles. “I was just telling my father your hair is finer than spun gold, good mage.” Kai was blushing hard enough for both of them when the warrior waltzed up to him and kissed his hand, continuing, “Victra. She or her.”

“I know,” Kai said, breathlessly staring at the remains of her thick raven braid.

“No. You assumed. Bodies sometimes lie to us, you know.” She peered up at him through dark lashes. “But our hearts don’t. Do you agree?” Her teeth gleamed a feral white against her dark skin, which was richer than that of the eastern traders. She turned away from Kai without waiting for a response.

Once again, it was obvious she was speaking in a foreign tongue as the Wayfinder echoed her voice in a way I could understand. But what did she mean by the last part? Was something lost in translation? What was it like for me when I signed? For a moment, I imagined what I might sound like.

The father stepped forward and took Morag’s hand with two fingers, greeting him with a nod. “Honored Keeper, we thank you for your hospitality.”

Morag’s mouth moved, letting out a string of syllables that mirrored those of the new arrivals. But instead of the Wayfinder translating, he repeated himself. “Welcome, Reidar of Nurd. My home is your home.”

As he said this, another man entered, his salt and pepper hair close-cropped. He was carrying several bags, which he heaved onto the floor in a cloud of dust. Brushing off his hands, he clasped an arm around Reidar and extended a hand to Morag. “Urd,” he said.

Kai snorted. “Your name is Urd of Nurd?”

The bearded man—Reidar—said something as he smoothed a shock of grey hair sticking up on the other man’s head. The pair smiled at one another, sharing an old joke. A few seconds later, the Wayfinder’s translation echoed, “Aye, the in-laws thought themselves poets, but I wouldn’t have him by any other name.”

They were partners, I realized with a jolt. I knew, as everyone in Society did, that there were couplings like this. There were no laws against it—that would be sinful to take away that right from one of the Great One’s creations—but nonetheless, everyone was encouraged to form bonds where they could grow into the “ideal” family.

Many same-sex couples ended up leaving because of the pressure to compensate for their identity. I understood the sentiment. There weren’t many people I interacted with in Society, but as I got older they always seemed to bring up potential suitors. Sometimes I used my muteness as an excuse because it was easier to tell others no one could possibly like me than the fact that I didn’t like anyone. Was it too much to ask to be left to live alone in the archives? Who needed a husband when there were books and pastries?

But motherhood is incredibly valued in Society, so much so that some people see it as selfish for a woman to endanger her progeny by putting herself in dangerous situations or by “playing games” with respectable suitors. Next summer, I would have been expected to attend coming of age cotillions. Might still be, if I ever went back. But the more time I spent here, the less I was inclined to return. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that yet.

The woman—Victra—had noticed me in the corner I’d fled to, next to a ratty high-backed armchair that was blocking the remainder of the evening light seeping in from between the curtains. As she approached me, I could smell the travel stink of her sweat above the oil from her armor. I stood politely, trying not to step back into the wall as she impeded my bubble of personal space.

She knelt and reached for my hand, but I pulled it away before she could kiss it. I was probably more of what she was expecting from Society with my long dark sleeves and dress. The Wayfinder’s echoes caught up with the words leaving her mouth. “Can I make an acquaintance of this beautiful, untouchable willow?”

It took me a moment to realize she was referring to me. Asha. I signed, trusting the Wayfinder to translate my name sign.

Before she had a chance to respond, Tobin guided a group of three other adults inside. How big was this group?

A white-haired woman stalked up to Urd and Reidar. She was short, but lean muscles lined her frame, and knives were strapped to almost every limb. Seriously, what was it with these people and weapons?

It was Urd’s echo that addressed Morag this time. “Brynja tells us you have a pest problem?”

Winnie.

I didn’t remember signing, but Kai exclaimed, “Stop calling it that, Asha. It’s a Winguri, not a pet.”

Everyone in the room was now focused on me, and my curiosity about the strangers evaporated. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to retreat up to the library. The shadows around the haphazard furniture were lengthening in response to my discomfort. Victra still loomed over me, Kai standing up a few paces behind her with his shrunken boots discarded to the side. Morag had taken his place on the cooking stool, next to the kitchen counter where the rest of the other travelers were gathering.

I studied the rest of the group that had been filling in behind Tobin. Aside from the white-haired lady, a scrawny and pale man with a bald head was lurking under the weight of an enormous pack. A similarly thin woman was helping him unload the supplies, her red hair dull and plastered with sweat. Next to the gigantic dark figures of Urd and Reidar, the pair looked starved and decrepit. Where had they all come from?

Victra surveyed my face with a calm expression, before looking to her father—and her other father, Urd—who was rubbing his graying stubble speculatively. “What kind of threat are we talking about? Do we have a consensus this Winguri—this Winnie—is something or someone that needs to be disposed of?” she said.

Both mages replied with a firm Yes just as I signed No. The white-haired woman with all the knives seemed inclined to take the mages’ word for it as she raised an eyebrow at Urd.

Where was Yechiel? I needed her vote—she knew what might be at stake. If Winnie were killed, it would affect the siphon that was currently keeping me alive. But the hostess was absent, which left the decision to Morag. Had Yechiel told him anything? It might have been beneficial to talk to him, but… he was still an enki.

Morag spoke slowly, measuring out the syllables of the newcomers’ tongue before repeating himself. “We’ve only had one run-in with the psychophage. While it is not under the protection of the Wayfinder—I caution everyone from picking fights before they are absolutely necessary.” Morag looked at Kai and Tobin specifically as he said this, his bat-like ears twitching. He flashed a pointed-tooth smile at the guests. “But these kinds of decisions shouldn’t be made on tired feet and empty stomachs.”

Reidar let out a bellowing laugh that helped to dissolve the tension in the room. “Indeed,” he said. “Let’s eat.”

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