Shadow Walker

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Righting wrongs

At first, I thought the droning was tinnitus. My short hair was matted with blood, a welt crusted over on the side of my head, which felt split open like a summer melon. But what struck me as odd was the knife Morag was holding to my throat.

“Sign something,” he said, pointed teeth bared.

What is going on? I asked, trying not to panic as I searched my memory for what had happened. Where’s Winnie?

Morag stepped back and gestured to the fly covered sheet holding the very dead winguri. Next to it was the scrawny male Nurdian—I’d never even learned his name. My heart lurched and for a moment I thought I might be sick. We were in the outbuilding, several generator lights filling the space. My nausea intensified.

“Sorry to scare you. I needed to make sure you were still you. With that siphon around your neck, if you had died from that blow…” the enki grimaced. “Though you might wish that, once you hear what’s happened.”

You know about the siphon?

“Yechiel explained everything to me, so I understand why you did what you did,” Morag said. A wave of relief passed over me. I hadn’t realized how much I valued the enki’s opinion. Yechiel was right to have told him. If I trusted him earlier, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. An edge crept into Morag’s expression--a hollow distance to his stance. “It makes sense now, that you had a connection to the psychophage… with what I sensed when you came. But I still don’t understand…”

The barn doors rumbled open on their tracks, darkness seeped in. So it was still nighttime. Yechiel had thick dark circles under her eyes as she ushered in the mages and Nurdians. Morag flicked the knife back into his apron. He cleared his throat, twitching an ear.

Yechiel followed the sound. When she looked at me, I could see tear tracks on her cheeks. “Asha!” she gasped, rushing to kneel over me. I was in front of one of the stalls on the floor. She grabbed her imperium and muttered to herself before stringing it delicately around my neck, next to my necklace. I sighed as the cool energy trickled in, better than any compress. It soothed the aching in my head.

“You look like Betsy stepped on your face,” Victra said grimly, though I had no clue who Betsy was. Her raven hair was in a shambled braid. Some of it was sticking straight up, like the flyers had pulled it out. But then I noticed the hasty bandage on her arm, a patch of dried red showing. I’d given her that cut defending Winnie. Little good it did. The Winguri must have truly been mad to call the flyers to their deaths like that. I felt a little sick again.

Finally, Yechiel said in a small voice, “We didn’t want to move you. Head injuries are more resistant to magic, so I had Morag watch you until I could help.” She gestured to my necklace. “May I?”

I nodded. Ooh, that was a mistake. The room spun for a second. Yechiel rested a warm hand on my cheek as I tried to focus on her face. With her other hand, she laid a differential fingertip on my siphon. Unlike the first time, she showed no indication of surprise or worry.

The white-haired woman stalked into the outbuilding, the red-head crying silent tears at her side.

“You!” she hissed. “What were you thinking? Coming onto an active battlefield like that? Because of you, we lost Hugh. The creature pulled his heart right to a stop!”

I gaped at her. She didn’t understand. There was no choice. Killing Winnie should have killed me. I should be dead.

Yechiel answered in my defense. “Asha is sensitive to bloodshed. She never meant to harm anyone. If you cannot blame the Winguri, then you must blame me. I choose to give it a chance to speak and make peace.”

“Aye, and we agreed to that plan. We knew the risks of the plan you described.” Reidar sniffed under his voluminous beard. “But what Brynja is saying is that your girl here wasn’t part of that plan. When she stalled us from killing the Skoggur and wounded my daughter, she became Skoggur. She violated her oath.”

Yechiel’s warning about the rules of the Wayfinder flooded back into my mind. You must absolve one another of guilt. Otherwise, I’ll have no choice but to evict you from the premises. No. No. No. I never meant to hurt anyone. Not Winnie. Not Hugh. Not Victra.

Tobin rested a hand on Yechiel’s shoulder. Her face was white. “If you cannot absolve her, then rest assured as soon as she is healed, Asha will return to Society with us,” he said, oozing false confidence. This was what he wanted all along. My mistakes were wrapping his job up with a nice little bow.

No. A jolt went through me. I didn’t want to go back. Please let me stay. I’ll do anything! I signed intensely to Reidar.

Reidar looked to Urd, who shook his head. “I know you didn’t mean harm, child, but you’ve put us in a touchy situation back in Nurd. See, Hugh was bonded.” He said this as if the word should hold some great significance.

It was Morag who responded with a growl, his nose wrinkling in disgust. “I didn’t think you dealt with Rykul.”

“We don’t.” Urd frowned. “But energy bondage still isn’t a crime. Our guild has been working for decades to pass laws against it. In the meantime, we’ve had to funnel our aid into more… creative pathways.”

The sniffling red-head spoke up. “Don’t blame the Viaskipa! Gregora of gold tier held the bonds of Hugh and myself. Urd found a loophole. By definition, Rykul have nothing. Are nothing but energy leeches. But if Urd and his partner could prove Rykul could accomplish work to make a certain profit above their consumption, they would be allowed back into the copper tier.”

“It was a gamble,” Reider grumbled, “True Rykul descend into weakness and stupidity within a year of abandoning food. There is little hope for anyone who gets to that point. But Gregora had recently foreclosed Mallory and Hugh, and their children were being processed for placement within her guild. Urd made a bet with her. If our guild could make more of a profit in two years than hers, despite the burden of taking on her newest Rykul, she would restore all of them back to copper tier.”

Brynja, the white-haired woman, snorted. “She only took it because you bet the tier of everyone in the guild. We should have left here the moment the keeper told you there were no stones to trade, but you couldn’t help your curiosity or your generosity.”

Urd ignored the warrior and turned to me. “Nurdian law has no strike system. Most crimes can be worked out to some agreement, including yours. But one thing we are never flexible on is the economy. Our laws cannot touch it and our currency does not budge from the gold tier standard. If you agree to work for our household for the sixteen months we have left to beat Gregora, I swear to return you here and absolve you of guilt.”

I hesitated. Sixteen months was over a year. With Winnie’s death, there was no telling if or how my curse might continue to develop. Would the siphon continue to be enough to keep me alive? Yechiel had seemed certain killing the Winguri would remove the energy I depended on.

If I wanted to return to the Wayfinder, there really wasn’t a choice.

I lifted a hand to respond, but Kai suddenly shouted, “Make it eight. If she goes, I go. We encouraged this conflict, she should not have to go alone.”

I turned to the young mage in shock. Tobin seemed to have lost the ability to speak for the moment. He stared at his partner with a strange light in his eyes, like he was suspended between pride, surprise, and anger.

“Six months,” Morag said, dark eyes glinting. “You cannot take either of them without a translator.”

Reidar and Urd snuck a glance at one another. “Done,” they both said at once. “We will leave at dawn.”

“Dawn?” Yechiel shouted, “Asha is injured. She needs to stay here for the winter. If you move her, she could die.” She looked at me. “You have a choice in this. We can figure out another way.” Please don’t leave, her eyes said.

“The journey will take less than a day, we have a Klifrari not far from here. Besty can carry the girl until our doctors can care for her. But it is important we leave as soon as possible,” Reidar said.

Who is B-E-T-S-I-E? I signed. This was the second time the Nurdians had mentioned her.

“This is Betsy.” Victra rapped her fist on the stall door at my back, sending vibrations through the wood. Something let out a bellowing groan, and a huge head appeared above me. Its face was brown and cow-like, if a cow could fit an entire bush into its mouth. Armored plates lined the back of its neck. The woman rubbed the creature’s side.

“You can’t take injured into the Wilderness! It’s suicide! Asha hasn’t even consented yet.” Yechiel looked around desperately, like something within the armory would reveal a way to reverse the events of the evening.

It’s okay, Yechiel. I signed. I messed up. Now I need to make up for it. I deserved to be punished for this. It was my fault anyone was in danger at all. If I had let Winnie be, the mages might never have found it. Maybe it would have stayed far away from them.

“At least wait a few days,” Tobin said, “Let Asha stabilize with some rest. We need to bury the dead anyway, before they attract anything else.”

Yechiel spared the mage a grateful glance.

“Two days is all we can spare. Snow will be coming soon, and the Klifrari cannot operate in a blizzard. First sign of a freeze, and we leave,” Urd said.

“Let’s bring you inside then,” Morag unfolded a blanket and covered me with it. “You need a good long rest.” He nodded to Yechiel, who focused on her imperium ring.

“Hold her head still, Morag.” Yechiel said as I began to feel a tug at my middle pull me into the air. The enki’s soft hands guided my head into a neutral position as the hostess lifted me with magic. “Please clear a path, everyone.”

With Morag holding my head still, I had little choice but to squint against the blinding generator lights. My vision was dancing with phantom colors as we emerged into the chilled night air. So I felt the cold pinpricks against my skin first. It was as if the weather itself was mourning the loss of the frost-making psychophage.

Snow drifted in the night, soft and cold as Winnie’s footfalls.

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