Shadow Walker

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There is an ungodly number of ways to kill a man

As it turned out, the Wayfinder was siege-ready. Yechiel led us back to the outbuilding I had hidden behind when the mages first arrived. Like all of the other doors in the house, there was no lock preventing the massive doors from rumbling to the sides along a track. Inside were a dozen empty stables. I couldn’t imagine anyone bringing horses into the Wilderness—maybe a few had lived here at some point—but the hostess was focused on the armory making up the back half of the building.

I didn’t know weapons very well, but there had to be dozens of killing tools here that I had no name for. Leather padding and targets were piled haphazardly against racks of spears and knives and axes. The closest thing I’d ever had to a weapon was my small carving knife, but Daedalus had seen early on how much I played with that and swore never to give me a real blade.

“You play with a real weapon and somebody dies,” he’d said.

Yechiel was making a halfhearted attempt to straighten up as the mage examined the rows of polished metal.

“Remember Kai, if you decide to have a bout, you must absolve your partner from any harm they may inflict beforehand. Otherwise, the rules will demand I expel you both.” Yechiel said, screwing an arm into a wooden dummy. “You may use what you like, but I will remind you that Morag does not take kindly to mess makers.”

“You’re still keeping that little demon around here?” Kai held a compound bow in one hand and was hunting through several cabinets on the wall for a proper string. “Do you know how dangerous that is? He could kill us all in our sleep.”

Yechiel’s nose wrinkled. “Respect is a virtue, Kai. I trust Morag with my life. He’s under the same oath as everyone else here, if that makes you feel more comfortable. I suggest you keep any ‘monster’ commentary to yourself. Not everyone shares the beliefs of Society.”

I couldn’t help but agree somewhat with Kai when he added, “And what good is an oath that will only expel a criminal after he’s committed a crime? You can’t change the nature of a beast. When you are alone here, who would uphold the rules of this sacred place if he killed you?”

“Well it’s not my fault I’m alone here, is it?” Yechiel’s voice was a dangerous hiss as she stalked to the doors and left.

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. The room seemed to brighten. With my curse, it probably had. I needed to be careful about that.

“Sorry you had to see that,” Kai said. “Yechiel doesn’t always see sense when it comes to how her old master ran the Wayfinder. But I’m just a kid to her. Tobin’s the only one she really listens to.”

All I could do was shrug. My stomach was an uncomfortable knot. Kai had a point, but so did Yechiel. Besides being a monster, was there a reason Morag should be held to a different standard than a human traveler? So far, my experience was at odds with what I’d been told about the Wilderness my whole life. The monster I had run into had been terrifying, yes, but everyone made it sound like the palisade was preventing an onslaught of mindless bloodthirsty things.

How much of what I’d heard were even first-hand accounts? The mages took an oath not to write or speak of their experience in the Wilderness while within Society. But the rumors came from travelers and merchants. Who was to say they didn’t exaggerate the tales of their journeys along the eastern trade-routes? Kai had been into the Wilderness several times. Maybe he could share more about his experiences.

When he glanced my way, I asked. Does Yechiel often let in—I didn’t want to use the “m” word—non-humans?

“Monsters? Not that I know of, thank the Great One. As far as I know, the only creature here is that enki.”

Interesting. No mention of Athanasius. I waited for him to continue as he strung the bow with smooth practice.

“Must have been a shock, waking up to that thing. She let it in the room, didn’t she?”

I nodded, tailing Kai as he began to leave.

He stopped. “Aren’t you going to take something? What do you usually train with? I’m sure it’s here.”

Oh. I don’t… but Kai wasn’t looking at me. He was turned to a small rack of throwing knives.

“I saw your knife work on the bridge. That was good control. Bet it might’ve even gotten you out of a pinch when you ran. I hope you’ll tell me about that. It’s a good idea to share your experience when you’ve survived something traumatic.” Kai held out several knives to me, grinning like they were candy. “Pick one.”

I chose a dull black blade. It needed honing, but I would be less likely to hurt anyone with it—though secretly I was kind of excited for the excuse to try it out. Hopefully Kai would be too busy with his own targets to notice when I missed mine.

Explaining my situation had been cumbersome back in Society—annoying enough I’d even carried a note for a period—but when my curse surfaced and grew worse over the past few years, sharing my experience became impossible. Dangerous.

Yechiel seemed trustworthy, but it seemed more and more she wasn’t entirely collected at the moment. What could she do if the mages found out my secret and those charming smiles vanished? What if she revealed something by accident? These men were friends of hers. Even if she wasn’t appalled by the darkness that called to me or the growing mark on my chest, there was nothing she could do to keep the mages from barring me from Society and punishing Daedalus in my stead.

I slid the knife into a sheath and hooked it onto one of the target straps before picking up the whole thing. Kai grabbed a lopsided dummy before stepping outside.

The training grounds turned out to be a flat area downhill from the tower’s south side. We set up the targets near the ward, but at an angle so nothing would bounce back at us. Foliage strained against the invisible barrier. Tobin said the ward looked like a beacon to mages. How did that work? If it glowed, shouldn’t everyone see it too?

Kai stretched his arms like he was trying to take up as much room as possible, showing off the tight muscles pressing against his cobalt shirt. I had forgotten how obnoxious guys my age could be. Why purchase clothing that doesn’t fit? No wonder it took the mages a week to get here if they spent precious daylight preening.

After nearly an epoch, Kai nocked an arrow from the quiver he had set upright in the long grass, letting it fly in a smooth motion, just like how he had unsheathed his sword earlier. The fletching whizzed before the force of his shot drove the arrowhead firmly into the shoulder of the dummy.

He ran a hand through his hair, gold strands catching the sunlight. “It’s been a while since I’ve trained. But let’s see what you’ve got. Give the knife a throw.”

I weighed the blade in my hand, thinking about how I would spin my knife in the woodshop, away from Daedalus’s reprimands. Throwing one would be like that. Knowing how fast to spin. When to stop. I inched my arm back into the flexible stance I had seen others take from my window above the training courtyard outside the archives. In a fluid motion, I brought the knife forward, letting it go as I imagined using my whole body to set it twirling.

It was a good throw, but I’d forgotten to aim. The black blade glittered as it passed harmlessly over the target, bouncing off the ward with a thrum similar to the one I heard when the mages arrived.

Kai laughed. “I forgot that every blade takes some getting used to. Want to call it back and give it another go?”

Call the knife? It wasn’t a dog.

“You know, summon it? I left my rings with Yechiel to let the Wayfinder charge them.”

I can’t do magic.

Confusion passed over his expression, clearing as Kai came to his own conclusion. “Oh, I forgot. Yechiel said you’ve been healing.” He started toward me, reaching a hand out. “Let me give you a boost.”

Signs might work in a conversation, but they do little to communicate percussive messages. When Kai reached out for my imperium, panic had me reacting on instinct.

I punched him in the face.

“Ahhh! What was that for?” Kai yelled. I ignored the massive shadow of the tower to our backs, stretched across the grass in a slumbering reminder of why I was here. I could feel the shadows beckoning, stretching to where we stood.

At that moment, Yechiel and Tobin cleared the near hilltop and stopped to survey the situation. I was so dead.

Tobin spoke first. “Losing already, Kai? I didn’t realize the noise we heard was your head on the ward.” He crossed his arms over a tunic that matched the fabric of Yechiel’s dress, like the outfits had been made at the same time.

“I hope you remembered to absolve one another before the fight?” the hostess asked, massaging her temple.

Kai’s right eye was already swelled shut as he said, “Of course. Asha and I absolved one another soon after you left the shed.” His other eye bored into mine, daring me to contradict him.

I nodded, trying to clamp down on the terror building in my chest. Why was he covering for me? To all appearances, I had attacked him for no reason—a clear violation of the Wayfinder’s one rule. What did he want?

As we began the hike back to the house, Kai whispered, “I want to hear your story. Tonight. I imagine it has to do with why you lashed out.” Even softer, he added, “I am not your enemy Asha.”

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