Shadow Walker

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Manners make the world go ’round

Manners make the world go ’round

“Empty?” Yechiel yelled, waking me. She had cleaned up from last night, her braided hair hanging over me like a noose. The imperium healing ring from my finger was now clutched in her hand tight enough to redden the skin. “You’re lucky to be alive. This was full. Do you know how long it takes to fill this stone?”

My skull had the pleasant, wool-stuffed feeling of oversleeping. I shook my head. Part of me wanted to feel guilty that she had spent so much energy to heal me, but I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so good.

“Two weeks! Were your organs ruptured or something? You better hope that no one else comes here injured because I’ve only got one other imperium.”

How often do people come here? I signed in a feeble attempt to distract her.

“Two weeks,” Yechiel muttered again. “Apparently too often if they drain my magic like this. Sometimes no one shows up for a year. Other times, the house is full of travelers. But that happens less and less nowadays.”

I wondered where the travelers came from. People didn’t live out here—they survived or they died. The Wilderness just wasn’t hospitable. If you managed to carve out an existence among the bloodthirsty fauna, rumor had it the flora had its own patient vehemence toward anyone who tried to build here.

To the north and east, the land went up as the forest rose into the foothills. I’d heard stories of people who lived there on the knife’s edge of the mountain range between the Wilderness and glacial wastes. The Wastemen often created plumes of ash, smelling of rot and burning wood, that settled on the plains like snow. Ships sent to make contact ended up frozen at sea, sails crystalized by the very wind that filled them.

Of course, given my other host, there was a possibility the “travelers” Yechiel referred to weren’t human at all.

I glanced at my feet. They were bundled in stained linen, the boots that had chafed them raw notably absent. As was the judge’s knife. I peeked under the bandages, finding the pink skin healed, but still tender.

Yechiel followed my gaze. “Not surprising your feet were in such bad shape if you ran all the way here in a day.”

I didn’t bother to correct her. There was no way to pantomime the cold dread I associated with the monster I had met, and definitely no explanation for how I was still alive. Sliding to my feet, I tested my weight. No pain.

We stepped out of the alcove into a tower lined with built-in shelves along a walkway that spiraled up out of sight. I’d never seen so many books in one place. Society’s archives fit entirely in Daedalus’s cramped workshop.

My feet drifted of their own accord, but Yechiel stepped in front of me. “You will need my permission before touching any of the volumes here. Let me show you the property. I imagine you will be staying for some time.”

She led me through two massive oak doors. I paused to examine the magnificent carving that danced across them. The shapes were too faded with time for any coherent picture, but here and there were claws and eyes and teeth. Creatures of all manner seemed to rise up in parts, appendages breaking the grain like the surface of a still pond. I couldn’t begin to calculate the time and skill the masterpiece would have taken. I wished I could have seen it when it was new.

As I lingered before the dark hallway, Yechiel commented, “The original entrance, as far as I know. Past hosts have added more homely additions since then.” She turned to a small switch on the wall and flicked it. Lights illuminated the walls. I blinked, trying to adjust.

I knocked on the wall and pointed to the lights so Yechiel would understand me. How did you do that?

“Oh. The lights?” she shrugged. “Those are electric. They use energy, the same way magic does, except with no spells. I imagine you wouldn’t see them much in Society. Anyone can use them or set them up, but they require a power source. The Wayfinder is on top of a large pocket of energy underground, which I mechanically convert with the generator I built a while back. If you are interested, I can show you. It’s really my line of expertise.”

If I wasn’t already, the thought would have rendered me speechless. Energy could be used without magic?

I heard judge Keenan in my ear, “The Dark One’s influence is everywhere outside Society. Darkness creeps into corners and settles, biding its time. He will tempt you to take shortcuts, but there is always a price.”

The council had always been adamant that only those who were blessed by the Great One could manipulate energy. Surely mages had come here and seen this? Did their oath prevent them from sharing it with Society?

Yechiel continued to describe the generator with a small smile. I nodded along. Outside of anger, this was the first time I’d seen her face abandon its expressionless mask, her blue eyes wide enough to swallow the sky.

Now the hallway was illuminated, I could see four empty bedrooms that had been added onto the tower. I could pick any of them. All of the rooms were large, some holding multiple beds and fireplaces, with windows overlooking several acres of rolling meadows that sloped downhill from the tower. It felt like the whole world could see me from them.

It seemed like this was a house wrapped around the east side of the tower, like one of Pruvine’s lighthouses in a sea of forest. With no windows in the library, I hadn’t realized that this was an upper floor. It was strange. Why bring me to the library couch when there were nearly a dozen beds just a few feet away?

As we neared a set of stairs, I noticed another door opposite the guest rooms on the tower side of the hall. I pointed and peeked inside. It was a tiny bedroom.

Barely longer than the thin bed it held, the room was unadorned, except for a single wardrobe. The air inside was musty and undisturbed. Hopefully, no one who showed up would even notice it was being used.

“That’s just overflow space. I don’t think I’ve ever had to assign it,” Yechiel said.

It’s perfect. I signed.

“Whatever you like.”

Yechiel stopped by a wardrobe inside the tiny room and surveyed my disgruntled appearance, sifting through several mismatched garments. Other than my cloak and boots, none of my clothes had been touched, evidenced by both the smell and dried mud and sweat crusting them. She wrinkled her nose and shoved a bundle into my arms. “I suggest you clean up before breakfast, unless you want Morag nagging. That is the bathroom.” She pointed to the door across from the room I had chosen. “You know the difference between a tub and a toilet, right?”

I nodded, the urge to relieve myself suddenly very apparent. It was a miracle of sweat and starvation I hadn’t soiled myself. Though by the smell, it was hard to say that I hadn’t. My cheeks warmed as I rushed inside.

After my important business was taken care of, I stripped and stepped into the shower. It took some time and mild scalding to figure out the temperature control knobs, which seemed to be another thing that operated like Yechiel’s spell lights. Hot water without magic. Mages didn’t know the power they had. However it worked, the warmth was a welcome change from the frigid water that was pumped into the archives.

My light hair was black with dirt and sap. A few minutes of lathering worked the stickiness away. Thank goodness my hair was short. When I stepped out of the shower and dried, I avoided looking in the mirror, letting it remain fogged over as I watched the putrid water drain away. I needed no reminder of the mark that had been growing, bruise-like, across my chest in tandem with my curse. Any bigger and it would start to show through my collar.

Yechiel was gone when I emerged in a pool of steam, smoothing wrinkles from the simple gray cotton dress she’d given me.

I knew she had said to ask permission, but Daedalus always said the same thing, which really meant: don’t handle any books you aren’t prepared to restore. So I padded back to the library.

There were no handles, but the massive doors glided open with a gentle touch. I walked to the nearest shelf. The delicate spine I chose was crumbling with age, practically begging for a new binding. I glanced around for a cradle only to see the hostess rising from her desk.

“How did you?—Put that down! You can’t be in here without a host.” Yechiel’s face was white as she put the book away and grabbed my hand. Technically, with her there I was with a host. My apprenticeship was in organizing and caring for old records, among other things. I wasn’t doing any harm, but her grip prevented me from explaining as she led me downstairs.

I blew air through my teeth as I pulled my hand from her grasp. Furniture was placed haphazardly around the open living area. None of it matched, as if it had been collected or made over a long period of time. If I hadn’t been carefully watching my step around the comfortable obstacle course, I wouldn’t have noticed the ball of fuzz on the floor.

Hello. I waved, before leaning down to pet the cat, who began to purr. I picked him up, stroking his ebony fur. I noticed Yechiel stiffen. “He doesn’t usually like…”

“You greet him and ignore me?” a gruff voice interrupted from the kitchen. Morag balanced on a tall stool, bat-like ears sticking out to the sides like a pole of an acrobat. The enki would have been cute in his little frilly apron if he wasn’t bearing several rows of sharp teeth at me. He was cooking eggs on a flat metal surface that was set into the stone counter—another use for the hostess’s generator, it seemed.

I almost dropped the cat when a deep voice rumbled from his small body, “Perhaps she sees a kindred spirit?” He turned his molten silver eyes on me. “I am called Athanasius.” His voice was silky, dark. This definitely wasn’t a cat.

With my hands full, I couldn’t ask how he was talking, or what he was. Judge Keenan would probably say he must be a servant of evil to have such power. The cat was still purring, and I was afraid to stop petting him.

Yechiel seemed to understand my surprise. “In the Wayfinder, guests are given the gift of tongues. That is why we can understand your signs, and you can understand us, though I’m sure Morag could translate if we really needed it. Anything with consciousness will be understood here.”

How did that work? Something about this place was beyond magic, almost mythical. I’d yet to decide whether this was good or bad.

I continued scratching Athanasius, working my fingers around the thin, black collar that blended in with his coat. The leather was studded with six tiny stones. I brushed one and felt the energy inside it. These were imperiums.

“Don’t do that,” Yechiel said, her serious tone returning. Athanasius gave me an almost mournful look and jumped from my arms.

He turned his back, lazily rubbing cat hair onto a nearby couch. “Wouldn’t want poor Thana getting out now would we?” His claws kneaded deeply into the cushion as he spoke.

I glanced at Yechiel. What does he mean?

She only glared at the cat. But he declared, “Didn’t our dear hostess tell you? The Wayfinder is a prison.”

A wave of dizziness passed over me. A prison? That ancient voice from the Wilderness drifted into my head. Choose your cage. Morag was being very quiet in the kitchen. Was he a prisoner too? Was I? Who was the warden?

Yechiel snapped, “This isn’t a prison, no matter what the narcissistic maniac says.” She eyed the creature as he innocently tucked his paws under his chest, looking all the world like a living loaf of bread. “He’s here by choice.”

“By necessity,” the cat corrected, “Not choice. That makes it a prison. And I prefer egotistical to narcissistic. We all know I’m more than skin deep.” There was a bite to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

The hostess turned to me. “Asha, you are welcome to leave whenever you like. There is a switch by the black stones at the edge of the path. Turn it once and the wards will open for one minute before closing.”

But Thana was right. Until I could be purified, there was nowhere else for me to go. Not that I’d ever really had a choice. According to Daedalus, this plan was the only chance I had to survive with my soul intact.

At the table, Morag set a plate of raw vegetables in front of me. Some were so fresh, they even had dirt on them. “For the vegetarian,” he said.

I like eggs.

The enki let out a roaring laugh as he added a wooden board and knife to the table. “I didn’t say ‘eat them.’ If you want supper tonight, you’ll need to contribute. Cut them up. You can have breakfast when you finish.”

I did as I was told, chopping a mite faster than what was probably safe. Morag rewarded my work by shouldering a steaming plate of eggs and mixed veggies—cooked this time— along with a crust of fresh bread onto the table. I thanked the enki. It was the best meal I’d had in… I didn’t even know how long, and I cleaned the plate nearly as fast as I’d cut the vegetables.

A loud metallic thrumming shook the house.

I started to stand up, but my hosts seemed unconcerned. “Someone’s knocking,” Yechiel explained as she grabbed a sword and shoulder scabbard hanging by a door at the far end of the kitchen. She looked at me, “This is what happens whenever you tap on the wards, which is what you are supposed to do, not... whatever you did.”

I rose fully and peeked out into the blinding sunshine through the door Yechiel had exited. The great tower connected to the house cast a shadow like a sundial between the monumental ward stones. It really did look like one of Pruvine’s lighthouses set against the acres of grass and gardens that ended in pine boughs leaning and rippling around the ward like waves.

I tiptoed down the meadow after the hostess. What type of traveler would it be? Human, hopefully. There were already two monsters in the house, I shuddered to think we could be outnumbered. What if Athanasius decided necessity meant he wanted to be more than a prisoner of this place?

Near the entrance was some type of outbuilding, likely the light I had seen when I had been running. I moved into its shadow, allowing my curse to help me blend in as I crept closer. Just in case.

The shadows darkened and lengthened as if someone had sped time along toward sunset and into dusk. I knew from the perspective of anyone watching it would be as if the sun itself had turned away from my face. My trouble was never calling them.

Unlike the magic that Daedalus practiced, I had little control over this effect of my curse. The shadows came whenever I noticed them, steady as a compass needle—especially when I was distressed. It was what my master referred to as the pink duck problem. Normally, no one thinks about pink ducks. But the moment someone tells you not to think about a pink duck, it becomes impossible not to.

From my position, I could see Yechiel at the entrance. Her hand rested lightly on one of the black rocks. She spoke to someone beyond the ward, but I couldn’t make out any voices. The visitor must have been familiar because she moved something on the stone that made a loud click. Her newest guests stepped onto the property.

They were the mages from Vashire.

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