Wynni wasn’t a good person. She knew that. She accepted it. None of her race were good. That was what everyone said, and it made things so much easier. Her choices were so much clearer when she only had to think about herself.
Once she’d believed that she could be different from the monster that the other races mistook her for. Then she’d seen the kind of cruelty the other races were capable of, and the kind of horrors she was willing to perform in response.
She was as much as person as any human, elf, or dwarf. She was crafted with a mindful nature by the same gods that formed the rest of the inhabitants of Gallagrin. Better crafted in fact, and that was her downfall. They’d made her a monster in the strength they’d given her, and the other Mindful Races had made her a monster in how they’d treated her from the day she was born.
Even before the Divine Nightfall, when the gods passed from the world, the Shadowfolk were a race of forgotten children. Wynni didn’t know what the Shadowfolk had been like then, except that even from the very beginning they’d hidden away in dark corners and the tatters of lost shadows.
There were worlds, half built and tossed aside that lay in the darkness below the Blessed Realms. The gods had no further use for these unfinished worlds, so the Shadowfolk claimed them as their birthright. Each was a dangerous, beautiful puzzle that someone could spend their lifetime chipping away at, which made for a decent description of the Shadowfolk themselves.
“The Arrivals log doesn’t show them checking in any time today,” Gendaw said, stepping from the shadows to stand casually at Wynni’s side. There was nothing about being invisible that prevented speech, but people paid much less attention to a random woman speaking quietly to a random man, than they did to that same woman speaking to empty air and the air answering her back.
“We know the the princess and the assassin fled from the giant’s home. Find out if the wagon they were on had any other destinations, even ones further out,” she said.
“Yes, sister,” Gendaw said and vanished.
Tracking the princess was like following a fish through a blind dark cave. You could make guesses where the streams would take her but nothing was ever certain.
“We should pull out of this,” Wynni said, speaking only to herself.
The entire conspiracy had classic touches of the worst failures of the Shadowfolk’s plans from ages past. Setup the various nobles of Gallagrin to look like they were part of conspiracy again the realm’s newly beloved princess. Use guile and misdirection to stoke mistrust and when the queen was ready to move against her own people, kill the princess and frame the best connected noble family in the realm. Iana’s death would guarantee that the backlash would be immense and unmitigated, which was exactly what was needed to bring down a realm.
As plans went, it was terrible. It relied on predicting Gallagrin’s least predictable queen, and had no contingencies worked out for the sort of things an enraged monarch might be capable of, not to mention how the world’s first Sorceress factored into the mix.
True to form though, Wynni’s comrades had managed to make an even bigger mess of the plan that it could possibly have been on its own.
At no point in their scheming had any of the Shadowfolk leaders authorized direct, personal involvement in the mission. The very last thing that they could afford was for the Gallagrin Queen discover the fact that the Shadowfolk continued to exist after her father’s efforts to annihilate them. That fact had been stressed and stressed and made crystal clear to everyone even remotely related to the mission.
And then Miaza and Shippo had blundered into the Faen’s lair and been discovered by the chief Faen in front of the princess and her guardians.
Shippo was never going to speak again, thanks to the damage the Faen had done to his throat. That was lucky for him because, if he ever mouthed a word of what he’d done in her presence, Wynni was certain she would end the idiot’s life on the spot.
Miaza was no less guilty but since she was still missing in the Deep Shadow Worlds, Wynni felt only the customary concern for her return that was reserved for those who fell so far away from the sunlight.
Thanks to Miaza and Shippo’s failure, Wynni and her squire Gendaw were stuck with tracking the princess. And all of the Shadowfolk were back to fighting the Faen. Because the only thing better than earning the wrath of the most powerful person in the realm was fighting a race of hyper-perceptive, hyper-fast predators who believed in avenging the death of their own by inflicting ten times the casualties on their enemies.
Wynni couldn’t fault the Faen for that philosophy. The Shadowfolk neither forgot nor forgave. Not easily. Not ever. They’d tried, but it never worked out. An enemy of yesterday would be a friend today for just as long as it took you to turn your back. Then there would be no tomorrows for you.
“The shipping manifest from the sky giant’s aerie showed that all the cargo on the wagon was bound for a single destination,” Gendaw said as he returned to Wynni’s side.
Gendaw gripped the copy of the manifest page he’d secured as though it would shield him from the calamity their mission had become.
A year. A whole year of work, and all of it wasted because two idiots had moved in too close to the target.
Gendaw flinched back from the rage that burned in Wynni’s eyes, even though he’d done nothing to deserve her wrath.
“Maybe the wagon crashed between here and there?” Gendaw suggested.
It was possible. Traveling the shadows often allowed a faster transit between two points, but at the cost of missing the details of the spaces inbetween. If the cargo wagon had crashed they would have to search the whole route it flew over to locate the princesses’ remains. Worse, they would need to do so before anyone else, otherwise they’d never be able to tell if the crash site was staged or not.
“They didn’t crash,” Wynni said. “Or if they did, it doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter if our target is already dead?” Gendaw asked.
“If this mission were still salvageable?” Wynni asked. “Then yes it would matter. But it’s not. Whether the princess has managed to splatter herself across a mountainside isn’t going to make any difference in what happens to us.”
“If we could find the remains though, we could still plant the right evidence couldn’t we? Throw the blame on someone else. Or anyone else?” Gendaw asked.
“No! There is no ‘right evidence’ anymore! They know we’re part of this. They’re going to hunt us no matter what happens! That’s what they do!” Wynni wanted to stab someone. Princesses would work but her fellow Shadowfolk seemed to be more productive targets.
She’d come so close to dying so many times during the Butcher King’s reign. With the civil war, the pressure to annihilate her people had evaporated. Gallagrin’s sunlight dwelling killers had been too focused on slaughtering each other to bother pursuing the vastly diminished Shadowfolk bogeymen that haunted their nights.
In the years of the new queen’s reign Wynni had almost allowed herself to believe that her people had been forgotten. When the Deep Walkers, the leaders of the Shadowfolk, had spoken of enacting their revenge, Wynni had seen the peril right away, but tradition demanded blood for blood and there had been so much blood spilled during the Butcher King’s reign. She couldn’t hear the cries of the ghosts of her people like some other Shadowfolk could but there wasn’t a night that passed in which her dreams weren’t sufficient to shock her awake with horrors dredged from the memories she could never run far enough away from.
“What are we supposed to do then?” Gendaw asked.
“We supposed to complete the mission or die,” Wynni said.
It was Gendaw’s turn to frown.
“This is idiotic,” he said. “We’re not talking about dying bravely. We’re talking about going back to the Great Bleeding.”
Wynni couldn’t deny that. The Great Bleeding was her life. From the day when the Butcher King had began an undeclared war on her people, the shadows had run red, and Wynni’s life had been bathed in horror. It had only been foolish cowardice that allowed her to believe that time had passed.
“We never left it,” she said.
“We haven’t lost a single brother or sister in nine years,” Gendaw said. “Even Miaza and Shippo aren’t dead. If we can’t make this plan work, then we have to stop it!”
“It’s too damn late. They know we weren’t destroyed, even if they can’t work out the details of our scheme, they’ll come for us anyways.”
“They can’t reach us in the Shadow Worlds,” Gendaw said.
“They don’t have to! All they have to do is wait us out.”
“Not if we’re clever,” Gendaw said. “Silian the Silent escaped the God’s Purge by hiding in and out of the Shadow Worlds.”
“Silian’s a myth! He’s a fairy tale made up to comfort little children and make idiot adults feel braver than they should.”
“Then how did we survive the purge? How did we live if even the gods turned against us?” Gendaw was more of a religious faithful than Wynni had ever found herself able to be. She felt disgusted at tearing his illusions apart, but that just piled onto the disgust she felt for her situation, her leaders and herself.
“There was no purge! Think about it! Silian was the only one clever enough to dodge between the Shadow Worlds and the Blessed Realms? Only he was able to escape both the gods’ attention and the Stalkers in the Deep Shadows? Then where do we come from? Did he split in half? If only one of us survived then the rest of us wouldn’t exist!”
Wynni felt like her world was tearing apart. Her words were blasphemy but she far past caring. She saw the astonishment in Gendaw’s eyes turning to pain and for one malicious second she was glad. She was supposed to standfast with her people, but they were the ones who’d led her to her doom. Maybe having their illusions torn away was what they deserved. Or maybe they deserved even worse. What Wynni couldn’t see was why she deserved any of the misery that bracketed her life.
“If I was clever enough to outwit the gods why wouldn’t I be clever enough to outwit extinction too?”
No one could sneak up on the Shadowfolk.
They could feel the vibrations in the shadows.
They could hear the whispers of malice in the calmest of hearts.
Wynni had been taught these things and had lived them.
She knew that no one was perfectly observant. She knew that she had blind spots. She knew that she could be surprised.
But no one could get so close that she felt the breath of their whisper caress her ear.
Her reaction was as instantaneous as it was ineffective.
Without thought, and without hesitation she drew her blade and buried it in the chest of the man standing beside her. Her strike was invisible not because of any shadow manipulation but because no natural eye could follow something that moved that quickly.
Except, her target was anything but natural.
Where his chest should have been there was nothing but air.
“Death is also somewhat overrated,” Silian said, whispering into her other ear.
Gendaw’s expression had shifted from anger and worry to a distinctly pale shade of panic.
“What are you doing?” he asked as he stepped away to be outside the striking range of her blade.
“Shutup. Listen for a heart,” Wynni said. The command was useless for her because the thunder in her chest drowned out all other noises.
“For what it’s worth, you’re not wrong, and that’s a hell of a backswing you’ve got there,” Silian said, his voice never rising above a barely audible whisper.
“Did you hear that?” Wynni willed her heart to still but it refused to beat a single stroke less fiercely.
“Hear what?” Gendaw asked.
“I’m sure he has other gifts,” Silian said. “Don’t judge him too harshly.”
The mild amusement in his voice was beyond infuriating and Wynni dove into the shadows, intent on slicing the smug smile he must be wearing off his face.
“You won’t find me here,” Silian said, again from behind her. Always behind her, no matter how she spun and slashed.
“Who are you? What do you want?” She spat her words out in a growl.
“You know who I am,” Silian said. “And as to what I want? I want you Wynni Trimurgus,” Silian said.
“Why?” Wynni asked, her body rigid with rage.
“Why to save my people of course,” Silian said.