Shadow Walker

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Trust me, trust me not

As Morag began giving cooking instructions to the group like we hadn’t all just been discussing murder. I had to admit, it was an effective distraction. Everyone was bustling around the kitchen, pulling food from a pantry Morag had opened on the far right side.

While they were focused on dinner, I went to find Yechiel. I edged around Victra’s frame, ducking under the hilt of her sword as she turned to fully face the active kitchen.

Kai moved over to Tobin, who had an eyebrow raised at his mismatching socks. He remarked to Kai, “You know that’s what happens if you leave your boots out in the sun.” The younger mage growled but said nothing for once. Both turned their attention to the kitchen as I continued making my way to the back of the living room.

Twilight streamed in through the windows, catching motes of dust as the shadows of the stairwell shifted to greet me. Thankfully not enough to be noticeable for anyone who wasn’t looking for it. At least I hoped.

I glanced back before heading up, and caught Victra’s dark gaze. She raised a brow and began to pick her way across the room much quicker than her size would suggest. Great.

I couldn’t help but feel like prey as I moved up the stairs, aiming for the library when she called out, “Aisha,” her accent causing her to stumble over the first vowel. My teeth clenched. I knew it was rude to run away, but I was too stressed about the possibility of the strangers and mages teaming up to eliminate Winnie to listen to small talk.

Behind me, I heard a small clip of the generator lights being switched on. It was enough warning for me to squint and look down before the upstairs hallway was illuminated. Grudgingly, I turned to face Victra, who seemed unsurprised by the lights as she examined the space. Her shoulders took up the hallway, a red tunic peeking from the gaps in her armor she had loosened since her arrival.

There was a beat of uncomfortable silence before she spoke. I realized I was scowling and relaxed my face into a neutral position. “I’ve never been one for crowds either. Not enough room.” Victra smirked and rolled her shoulders and neck with a series of loud pops. “What is your—” the translation paused, as if unsure “—ambition here?”

My fingers were frozen with indecision at the odd question. I was only beginning to realize how out-of-whack my sense of trust was from living in the archives. Before I either trusted someone or didn’t—usually because Daedalus told me so. It was simple. For most of my life, Daedalus had been who I confided in. I trusted him and his judgment. But in my short time in the Wilderness, his teachings had been wrong—a lot.

Despite what the mages claimed, I knew he was a good person. I could feel that in my gut. But the last time he went into the Wilderness was decades ago, which meant nothing I knew from him was necessarily true. And I had no idea where to start in learning who to trust or not.

I settled for an exchange of information.

You first. I signed, feeling awkward. Silence didn’t usually bother me like this. When did I start caring whether I signed the right thing? Or had I always cared, and was only now wondering why that bothered me?

There was a realization building in the back of my mind, one that was both exciting and daunting. In the archives, I never had the freedom to sign the wrong thing. Only those Daedalus trusted the most knew any of my signs. I wrote and pantomimed with others, but it was usually more important I understood them than the other way around.

Victra swept her dark hair back with a flourish and knelt to one knee. “Forgive me. I am Victra, Silver Tier. Second swordsperson to Brynja, co-weaponmaster of Urd. My fathers are Viaskipa in the Gold Tier. I protect them on their ventures against Skoggur.”

Even though she was on one knee, I still had to look up to reply. I could do this. Honest but vague was my specialty. I came for the books. I am an Archivist. I signed.

“You say you came. You are not a Keeper, then? Are the mages your Elsk—how you survived your Skoggur?”

What is the S-K-O-G-G-E-R? Do you mean the monsters?

Victra cringed. I’d forgotten that monster could be a derogatory term outside of Society. “No.” For the first time, she looked flustered. “Skoggur is only what necessity makes bad. Whatever opposes my fathers’ ventures. A storm. Hungry creatures. Nasty people. If this Winguri is Skoggur, then we should kill it.”

I felt my eyes widen and gulped on reflex as my mouth dried.

“Perhaps your Elsk are being protective and the Winguri is not as bad as they say,” Victra said, misreading my expression. “But if necessity demands it, we will support them in combat. There is no need to fear for their safety.”

Why was killing everyone’s first instinct? Why couldn’t they all just talk to one another? But then again, how could they outside the Wayfinder?

An idea hit me.

The hallway must have been reflecting her smell back to her, because Victra leaned into her shoulder with a deep sniff and grimaced. “Which room is empty?”

I pointed and edged toward the library. Hopefully Yechiel was in there.

Victra entered the bedroom. “Good night, Datura,” she said before closing the door with a soft clasp before I could ask what that meant.

~🝤~

Once behind the library doors, some of the tension drained out of my shoulders. No light filtered past the door, sealing me into the perfect darkness. Anyone normal from Society would have been terrified. This was exactly the kind of open space of unknown temptation we were taught held unfathomable horrors—servants of the Dark Lord.

Without my curse, would I be more like everyone else? Or would I still be different? Would I still have this curiosity and calm when it came to darkness? Did my experiences shape me? Define me? Did my curse? If I stripped all of that away, who would I be?

I had memories of before Daeadalus took me in. When I would hide, huddled and hardly breathing in the cramped dark. I felt safe where I knew I wouldn’t be seen…

I was only ever scared of people.

The darkened library held a similar comfort. But now my curse had developed to the point where I could still tell where everything was. It wasn’t sound or sight. More similar to the dreamscape I had encountered the night Winnie came.

I followed the winding corridor down to the base of the tower while the endless shelves stood sentry. As I reached the ground floor, a faint light greeted me through the crack in the black door I had noticed when I told my story that first night. Without a touch, the door drifted open. Like the tower wanted me to enter.

Immediately inside were several other doors. One was ajar, the walls tacked with fading designs, bedsheets half made. This must be Yechiel’s room. At the end of the hallway was a stone staircase, spiraling around a corner. The light was drifting up from below. I squinted as I made my way down it.

After three turns or so, the generator lights became blinding enough that it took me a moment before I realized the stairs had stopped. The room I had entered was a cavern with several natural passageways dividing into the rock. Ahead of me, water was whooshing at a cacophonous volume. The light, however, was coming to the left of me.

As I made my way into the passage, a clanking metal on metal replaced the din of rushing water. Yechiel was wearing a pair of overalls with a baggy shirt, her dusty blonde hair in a distressed knot on top of her head. She was bent over part of what I assumed to be the generator machine. It was huge, and took most of the back wall of the cave.

Rather than approaching and potentially scaring her, I decided to whistle. It wasn’t something I was very good at, and I had to lick my lips a few times before any sound came out.

“What?” Yechiel whipped around, knocking several tools to the side with a clatter. Her intense blue gaze focused on me. “I should have known it would let you down here.”

For a moment, part of me was worried she had forgotten about Winnie—that she told me she would look for a solution.

There are guests here. From U-R-D. They want to help Tobin and Kai kill Winnie. I used personal signs, trusting the Wayfinder to translate as I gauged her reaction.

Yechiel’s mouth pinched to a line. She pulled off her gloves with two swift jerks. “What did Morag have to say?” The hostess walked over to a cluttered workbench and beckoned me with a loose wave.

That everyone should eat first.

She rolled her eyes. “He would say that.” Yechiel slid a piece of metal onto the bench in front of me. “Put these on and hold this steady,” she said, holding a pair of thick gloves out to me. They were small for my hands and smelled like garden soil. Probably Morag’s.

What about our… problem? I wondered if my signs would sound muffled with the gloves on.

“Facing the Winguri head-on will be a disaster for everyone. I’m sure they can be convinced of that.” She looked pointedly at me and I sprawled forward to brace my hands on the sheet. I noticed several x marks she had made in charcoal. “But I doubt Tobin will be satisfied with leaving it be. Not after the way it acted when we opened the ward.”

The hostess put on her own pair of gloves and used a clamp to grab onto a rod with a metal bit on the end. “If only it could communicate.” Yechiel sighed as she touched the imperium on her neck and closed her eyes. As she muttered, the rod began to glow red and then yellow. When the tool was sufficiently blinding, she lowered it onto the marks, which burned off in little fizzles that made me concerned about my proximity.

“I’ve been thinking… ” Yechiel started. She put the metal rod into a bath with a hiss of steam and set down the clamp. As she stripped off her gloves, she continued, “Well, first I need to ask. Do you want to go back to Society? I know why you said you came. What you might have waiting for you with the archives. But have you thought about what you might find here?”

What I might find here?

Did I want to go back to Society? That was the goal, wasn’t it? The point of provoking Keenan to sentence me to Vashire rather than leaving through one of the other gates was to find a cure for my curse. Daedalus always implied that I could come back—that I should come back—though we knew the chances of survival were slim.

Instead of looking at me, she knelt beneath the bench and dragged out two wooden stools. Once I sat, Yechiel gestured for my gloves. Her face was oddly vulnerable. “The library opens for you, Asha. I think you belong here, as a Keeper. I think this could be your home.”

But you don’t know me. I couldn’t be your apprentice! She didn’t even know the extent of my curse. I’d been meaning to tell her, but it had been easier to continue looking in the archives where the risks were low. My cheeks burned with embarrassment and guilt.

Yechiel laughed. “You wouldn’t be my apprentice. There’s nothing I can teach you, aside from maybe how to keep the generator running.” She leaned in with a small frown. “You don’t have to decide now. I’ve only recently come to terms with the fact that things we can’t control tend to work out the way they are meant to. You’ll stay or you won’t. I just want you to know it’s an option.”

The Great One rewards His servants. I signed the first verse from the Covenant, uncomfortable with the yawning opportunity she had just placed in front of me. I still didn’t have much of a choice until my curse was cured. And I wouldn’t be around to make a choice if the mages killed Winnie.

“Maybe,” Yechiel said, her mouth in a pinched line. “Or maybe It doesn’t. At least not for the living. Otherwise, bad things would only happen to bad people.” She sighed. “I don’t think there’s so many bad people, so much as those who are in the habit of making bad choices. And those tend to catch up with you. But that’s not religion, that’s just how it works out.”

The hostess tugged her hair loose, letting it spill down onto her shoulders. It made Yechiel look much younger, but her posture was slouching like she was under a heavy weight. “I’m not sure what to do about the Winguri and your stone. It feels like there are no choices but bad ones at the moment.”

Her words reminded me of the idea I’d had earlier. But to pull it off, I needed to trust her—possibly the mages too.

I signed, a tentative smile forming. Speaking of bad ideas…

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