Another round table
“This is a bad idea,” Tobin said. “Worse than when you let in that squirrel thing to give birth.”
Yechiel huffed. “First of all, her name was Merith. Second of all, I didn’t know she and the babies were going to nest in our walls for six months! But we no longer have a termite problem, do we?”
We were at the base of the library, gathered around a round table that was off to the side of the space, next to one of the truth circles inlaid into the floor. My back was to the wall of shelves and I was standing next to Yechiel’s chair so my signs wouldn’t be blocked, though I was fairly sure the Wayfinder would translate them anyway. Tobin was on the other side of Yechiel, sitting in a blue high-backed armchair he’d dragged over. Kai was beside him, elbows on the table, which was shaking slightly from his tapping foot. Morag was on a stool a few paces away, having just guided a floral tea set into the table’s center. Above us, the carved entryway doors were closed to the Nurdians, who had readily taken charge of the harvest.
Last night, I told Yechiel about my curse. How I heard Winnie speak. That it had been following me since I left Society. She had watched in silence while I explained why I thought it could be reasoned with. My hands shook the entire time. I was so afraid of how she would react. Would she throw me out? Tell the mages?
But at the end of it, she’d pulled me into a stiff out-of-practice hug and I’d started to cry. The relief of someone knowing—and accepting—what had been beyond my control for so long was immense.
Now the hostess looked at me with a reassuring nod. We agreed not to tell the mages about my curse or the siphon, but Yechiel and I had argued over what to tell Morag. For now, he was receiving the same story as everyone else. “Psychophages have always been sentient creatures in the stories recorded here. Your Compact forbids the killing of sentient beings unprovoked,” she said.
“The definition of ‘provoked’ has always been up to a mage’s judgement. I’d say the way it drained us that night is pretty provoking.” Kai said, folding his arms against his chest.
He wasn’t wrong, but Morag raised an eyebrow, which mostly blended in with the rest of his stiff green fur. “Kai, you decided to use a metal spoon to stir boiling soup and burned yourself just last week. And you scratched my pot. Judgement comes from experience, which I have the most out of everyone at this table.”
Tobin gave Kai a look that said, He’s not wrong. The mage nodded at Morag and poured tea into a cup for himself. “That may be true, Enki, but there are facts we need to address. One. You and Yechiel are vulnerable here managing the Wayfinder on your own. If we leave, you will not be able to deal with it if it becomes hostile. Simple numbers.” He took a sip of tea. “Two. The Winguri is dangerous both for its abilities and its tendency to wander around even nastier creatures. No story has been clear whether it attracts or follows creatures that provoke the fear it feeds on.”
So do we meet Winnie on its terms, or ours? I asked, experiencing a surprising confidence in knowing my entire meaning would be conveyed to everyone around me. Letting it inside prevents anything else from interfering and allows us to communicate to find a solution rather than fight.
When Winnie came the first time, there were other monsters roaming nearby. My plan was to bring it inside where it could make a verbal promise to the mages not to harm any guests of the Wayfinder. And if it wouldn’t… I could force it to, then make it leave. Yechiel said that with the siphon connected to it, I should have absolute control over it if I needed it. Though the idea of taking away anyone’s will like that made my skin crawl.
Everyone let the thought sink in. Yechiel reached for the teapot just as Tobin stretched out an arm to grab the honey. Their hands touched, and both jolted away like the action released a static spark. Head down, Tobin poured Yechiel a cup, putting a spoon and a half of honey into it before handing it to her. He took a sip of his own tea without looking at anyone.
Kai slumped back in his chair. “Ugh, could you two make up already? Your will they won’t they is going to make me barf.”
The pair in question tensed up. Tobin managed to swallow his tea with an audible gulp. Yechiel looked ready to take a bite out of her tea cup. But it was Morag who let out a bellowing laugh. “Never thought I’d agree with the kid, but I couldn’t have said it better myself!”
Yechiel closed her eyes and set down her cup in a controlled motion, slow enough she might have been stalling. She addressed Tobin. “If this is going to work, I need you to trust me.” As their eyes met, I realized she wasn’t just talking about this plan. “I know I’ve made mistakes. There’s a lot I haven’t been prepared for, or interested in preparing for, and that’s on me. But I need you to give me space to make mistakes.”
“And what if those mistakes get you killed?” Tobin whispered, his jaw clenched against several shifting expressions. “How am I supposed to live with myself?”
“Have a little faith,” Morag said, picking at a claw. “Isn’t that what everyone in Society is supposed to do best?”
“I can speak for myself, Morag.” Yechiel snapped. “Just because I haven’t in the past doesn’t give either of you the right to choose or speak for me in the future.”
Tobin frowned at the enki and took a long sip of tea. “What about Asha?” he finally asked.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine. The tower is practically impenetrable,” Yechiel said. It was, and I would be safe if I were staying inside of it. But I needed to be present to use the siphon if things went wrong. Yechiel had explained earlier it would be easier for me to beg forgiveness than ask permission if we wanted to avoid questions about the siphon.
The mage turned to me. “Yes, but will you be coming back to Society wben Kai and I leave? Have you found anything for your case?” He and Kai exchanged a glance of concern. If I didn’t return with them, they would have to answer to Keenan and provide the explanation I gave them to him.
I want to stay the winter, I signed. Yechiel and I decided that I would stay as long as my curse affected me. There really wasn’t any other option, though for once, what I had to do wasn’t something I dreaded. After that… maybe I would have a choice to make.
The mages sighed. Kai looked ready to argue, but Tobin silenced him with a look. “Part of me was expecting you would say that.” He glanced at Yechiel. “At least you won’t be alone.”
Kai cleared his throat, which in itself was unusual. Since when did he wait to speak? I wondered if his protest would be clever, or more noise. But when he had our attention, he only said, “Okay, but we still can’t leave until this plan has been carried out. How exactly are we getting the Winguri to come inside the Wayfinder?”
“Leave that to me,” Yechiel said, but her neck tensed as she kept herself from glancing my way.
With the meeting concluded, Yechiel and I set out to accomplish the most difficult part of the plan: find Thana.
The cat had been avoiding my questions for weeks before I’d mustered the courage to tell Yechiel about the full extent of my curse. But she’d explained he knew more than anyone about siphons—including how we might sever the connection between Winnie and the stone around my neck. But Thana only liked to approach conversations at his leisure.
We were in the library, kneeling in the dark behind the tower doors, which were swung inward. The hall light streamed onto the paperboard box Yechiel had constructed and left in the center of the entryway. It seemed like a strange lure, but I would pick waiting in the dark with a trap over wrestling a former demon any day.
Only a few minutes went by before Thana emerged from the hallway, examining the box. He rubbed a furry cheek on it, making a curt scratching sound before bounding inside all at once. Yechiel and I emerged from hiding and pushed the doors shut, causing the cat to tense, hunkering further below the lip of the paperboard.
“We need to talk,” Yechiel said, crossing her arms. Even with Thana cornered, there was no guarantee he would unless he was in a mood for it.
Athanasius yawned, showing off his teeth, before his deep voice rumbled, “Surely Asha is living proof that talking is not a necessity.” Yechiel shot him a look, but Thana kneaded the box with practiced nonchalance as he continued, “Alas, I know you are only here to dabble with what you should let die. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to come to me. You want to ask the question all humans who know anything about siphons always come to ask: how do you control a siphon captive? How do you use their power?”
I kept my gaze on Thana’s swirling silver eyes as I responded, Then tell us how to reverse this. Is it possible to resist control? Yechiel and I already knew the Winguri responded to my command when it visited before, but it was still unclear whether it could have chosen otherwise.
Thana’s ear twitched, twice. “The old ones made them for transfer, not control, but that is a side effect. And the Wayfinders didn’t tend to make their experiments reversible. Sometimes siphons are all of someone. Sometimes only part of someone. You ask about the Powers of will, which control everything the siphon contains, but those are always exceeded by the Powers that be—old magic, and the Winguri you’re after is one of the few creatures old enough liable to have it.”
That was… a lot. As I processed this information, Yechiel stared down Athanasius with a cold expression. “You never told me the old ones were called Wayfinders! What were they like? Where did they go?”
“You never asked,” Thana replied, grooming the fur on his shoulders. “But I can’t remember them, just darkness where their faces should be. And they’ve long since disappeared from this world, so far as I can tell. The Wayfinders used old magic, which warped reality itself. Their nexus of power came from the towers they built. Like this one.”
How do you know all of this context, but not remember what they looked like? Are you sure you aren’t just afraid, like you were when Winnie first showed up? I asked, frustrated. One of these creatures seemed exactly the type of thing that could solve all of my problems.
Somehow, Thana’s fur seemed to darken. My fingers itched to somehow take my signs back. His molten starlight eyes were brilliant as he hissed, “You would do well to never seek the Wayfinders out, if they still exist. In a way, you are right. I am afraid of them. And that should scare you. They would cut you up and spit you out, offer you your greatest desire in exchange for a taste of your soul. If anything inspired the tale of Society’s Dark Lord, it was those monsters.”
I couldn’t imagine how horrible something would have to be for Thana to consider it a monster. His voice was hoarse, like it was in the dream I had before Winnie appeared. He was afraid then too. What did they do to you? I signed, tentative.
“Beings like that tend to have a funny idea of mercy,” Thana said without humor, “I was dying, and scared. So I agreed to their ministry, only to be stuffed into the freshly dead body of a female cat. The siphons use my own energy to keep this body working and healthy. Brimst, I could have kittens if I wanted to. But they missed an important step. Bodies aren’t like hand-me-down clothes. Nothing fits but your own—anything else is maddening.”
Something deep within me sympathized with the cat. I couldn’t decide whether it was a mercy he didn’t remember. The amount of dysphoria he must feel… Did he even know what he was?
“You don’t seem crazy,” Yechiel said and smirked. “Maybe magnanimous, but not insane.”
Thana rose from his box and lept to the railing that encircled the library’s center. His eyes gleamed as he looked back at us, arching his back in a stretch. “That’s the thing about madness—you can’t predict it. When your being is condensed to a singular point and you are broken apart and smashed into something you are not... you have to forget. I had to forget. Or the madness creeps up on you, rearranges your thoughts and ravages your dreams until what’s left of you is not you anymore.”
He made an expression entirely alien to his cat face, as if letting just a tiny fraction of that madness show, then leapt from the bannister into the darkness.
After some deliberation, Yechiel and I decided to go forward with the plan. Hunting Winnie out in the open Wilderness would only lead to disaster for someone, and the mages refused to leave until they had either a verbal promise of safety or the Winguri’s equivalent of a head. Speaking on neutral territory was the best option.
There was still the issue of calling Winnie for a meeting. Much of our conversation had been debating the likelihood of the mages finding Winnie, though my fear was the odds of it finding them—what it might do to them—without my supervision. For now, Yechiel told the mages and Nurdians that she would be able to attract the Winguri’s notice, but only under the right conditions.
I fulfilled my part of the plan and went to bed.
You will need to maintain full control so that no one gets hurt. The next time you dream, call out to it.
Like my need was somehow detected, my brain skipped the nightmares for once, and went straight to the strange dreamscape I’d started to slip into more and more since Winnie appeared.
As I slipped into the dream, my awareness spread out like rolled pastry dough, encompassing the Wayfinder in its cursory non-sight. The tower and house seemed to lean against the tide of evergreen as the Wilderness pressed up to the ward. Tonight was windy and clear as far as I could tell, starlight making things more muddled than they had been in my first dream encounter. Even still, it was difficult not to be distracted by the volume of nighttime activity as I pushed beyond the ward into the tangle of forest.
In this dream, the monsters were countless as I passed around them, ghostlike. It was no small miracle Winnie was the only thing I ran into—though maybe it had something to do with that. Maybe it had protected me.
Eventually, I came upon a place where the air was unnaturally still, at odds with the windy atmosphere. No vibrations from squirrels in their makeshift winter nests, no bats with their pervasive echoes. Winnie stood inside the lower boughs of a spruce, and I noticed as it noticed me.
There was just one problem.
In this dream form, I had no hands, no feet, no mouth, and no body. But Winnie spoke to me without using any of those things. It had said we had a connection. Maybe the siphon would allow me to will the words into existence for anything that knew how to listen.
Hello? I managed. It was more an image than a word, just like how I would sign it. An impression of the greeting echoed out within the silent stillness, rather than as an actual sound. If Winnie didn’t hear me…
“You call out, shadow child?” Each word came out separated, as ancient and cold as I remembered, but somehow… tired. Had I awakened it? Winnie was not far from the Wayfinder, less than half-a-day’s walk. Hardly any time at all. But I needed to summon it before I lost concentration.
The mages think you are a threat. Please come and convince them otherwise. I don’t want them to kill you. The thought signs were clustered, somewhat out of order. But I knew that come to me had gotten across.
Winnie swayed in its position, bending several limbs as it began its ponderous march. “As you wish...” it replied.