Gendaw didn’t believe in complicating things. He was who he was, and the world was what it was. He could no more change that he was one of the Shadowfolk than the Blessed Realms could become bastions of kindness and sunshine and fluffy bunnies for everyone.
It wasn’t like being one of the Shadowfolk was so bad either. His brothers and sisters (all of the Shadowfolk were his siblings) weren’t always easy to get along with, but they shared the same blood as he did and when worse came to worse, they were always there for each other.
Sometimes that was simple; making a space at mealtime for a family member who was down on their luck, or helping a young hunter corner their first kill. Other times it was harder and more painful. Gendaw wasn’t a fan of assassinations but ultimately there were two sorts of people in the world, those you lifted up and those you put down. Being Shadowfolk meant it was easy to identify who belonged in which category.
For as much as he believed in the Shadowfolks’ methods and dogma though, he still had to question the wisdom of pursuing their traditions of vengeance when the world had been ready to forget that they’d ever existed.
“It’s because we will be forgotten that we must pursue our vengeance,” his father had explained. “The world wants to place us in the past. Odd savages. Failures in the divine process. Then nothing more than myths. Lies told by older children to the younger ones.”
“How does vengeance prevent that from happening?” Gendaw had asked. He’d never been drawn to the scholars’ arts, so he felt out of his depth when the conversation turned to anything philosophical.
“Tragedies live on far past those who suffer them,” his father said, “If we are to be a tragedy, then so long as we not alone in our suffering, we will not be forgotten.”
Gendaw didn’t see how that was a worthwhile end to pursue. Living seemed like a much better idea than being dead, hated and remembered, but he wasn’t a leader and no one was asking for his opinion on the matter.
In theory he should have been able to turn to his mentor to help him navigate the complexities of the Shadowfolk’s operational command structure. That was Wynni’s job – to teach him the ins and outs of fulfilling his chosen role in their society and prevent him from becoming a Wanderer.
In the face of an impending species-wide catastrophe, he suspected she should be making herself more available to him, but when she dove into the shadows, she hadn’t seemed to be of a mind to offer explanations or instructions. She hadn’t seemed to be in any sort of mind at all in fact.
A part of Gendaw was tempted to pursue her. Even if everything else fell apart, Wynni was a survivor. She’d proven that countless times. If there was a safe spot to be found when the sunlight races came looking for them, Gendaw suspected it would lie right behind his mentor.
He didn’t move to chase her though. He wasn’t a brilliant student. He barely paid attention to his instructors on the best days. The one thing he had absorbed though was that you never – not ever – traveled into the Shadow Worlds without observing them first.
The Shadow Worlds were his people’s lands. The gods hadn’t made them with the Shadowfolk in mind, but they hadn’t noticed or objected when the Shadowfolk claimed them either. The problem was that the Shadowfolk weren’t the only ones who traveled the worlds that were sunk in the darkness below the Blessed Realms.
Other creatures moved through the Shadow Worlds. Older creatures. More alien beings. Things that the gods had banished from the realms and things that had never been a part of any of the gods’ creations.
The sunlight races were cruel and terrible. They slaughtered the Shadowfolk for the weakest of reasons, but despite that they were still formed from the same dust as the Gendaw’s people. There were things in the dark worlds that were composed of weaponized malice and things whose very existence was inimical to those born of a world that had ever been touched by sunlight.
Hopping across the Shadows without looking where you were going first had killed more Shadowfolk than all of the purges combined (though the latter did tend to cause Shadowfolk to risk the former).
Gendaw stayed where he was therefor. Poor student or not, he was capable of applying the lessons he’d been taught when the situation obviously warranted caution.
For his caution, he was rewarded.
And she was smiling.
In Gendaw’s experience that wasn’t so much a bad sign as confirmation of the apocalypse. Wynni hadn’t been happy when she left. And she’d been right not to be happy. She didn’t smile much under the best of circumstances and their situation was so far from okay that Gendaw could only guess that Wynni had given into the madness that engulfed them and looped around back to ecstatic.
“Gendaw,” she said, her eyes focusing on him from some far off point that they’d been peering into. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Who will we be killing?” he asked. They had to be about to murder a whole lot of people. Nothing else, in Gendaw’s experience, would put such delight into Wynni’s eyes.
“Probably everyone,” Wynni said, her gaze taking on the far distance quality again.
“Oh, but that’s the best part, isn’t it?” she said, clearly not addressing Gendaw anymore. “Win or lose, everyone dies. It’s so terribly beautiful.”
“We have a very different definition of beauty,” Gendaw said, but he might as well have been speaking to the stone columns in the secluded alcove they were in.
Outside of their immediate area, traffic passed in the noble’s air platform. The cargo retrieval area a place that people wanted to be in and out of as fast as possible, especially since any cargo worthy of shipping by sky carriage inevitably came with a time sensitive delivery requirement. That bought Gendaw and Wynni a large degree of anonymity. Even when someone noticed they were there, it was only in the context of making sure Gendaw wasn’t going to haul a crate into the transport lane and obstruct their progress, or worse, ask for their help with something.
Gendaw suspected that disinterest would evaporate the moment the scurrying people started turning into less mobile corpses. Most of the sunlit people around them weren’t trained combatants, but that was what made his people monsters. They would attack whether their targets could fight back or not. It was the part of his chosen role that Gendaw most questioned.
To him, attacking the helpless proved that his people were pathetic and that the gods had been right to cast them out, but if the elders insisted that doing so was how the Shadowfolk had to operate then how could Gendaw say otherwise?
“We’re going to have to start here, but we’ll need to fast,” Wynni said, talking to the gods alone only knew who. “Yes, I am aware it would be easier if we had an army of pixies, but we don’t have one of those now do we?”
“No, we do not,” Gendaw said, a strange urge swirling in his heart.
“How recently have you checked the Tempest Compass for messages from our superiors?” Wynni asked without refocusing her gaze. It took Gendaw a handful of seconds to figure out that she was talking to him again.
“I checked it half an hour ago,” he said. “And we’re not due for another check in for ninety minutes.”
“Good, ninety minutes gives us a great headstart,” Wynni said.
“A great headstart on who?” Gendaw asked.
“Everyone,” Wynni said.
“Would this be the same everyone who’s going to die?” Gendaw asked.
“No, this is everyone everyone,” Wynni said. “We’re going to have everyone out to get us when we do this.”
The urge to speak swirled in Gendaw faster and faster until it the word burst from his lips with a force he couldn’t resist.
That single syllable hit Wynni enough force that her gaze snapped back from the distant shore it was looking towards. With a fresh clarity and presence in her eyes, she tilted her head and regarded Gendaw as though he was the one who’d lost the last trace of his sanity.
From where the train of his thoughts was heading, he wasn’t sure she was entirely wrong about that.
“No what?” she asked.
“We’re not going to continue with the plan, pixie army or no,” Gendaw said. “We’ve gone too far already. It stops here.”
Wynni’s expression, which had descended into confused searching brightened into a new smile. Gendaw shivered. He’d seen predators wearing that exact look when they saw their prey make a fatal mistake.
“And you’re going to be the one to stop this? All of it? The work of our whole race?” Wynni asked. “Can you do that? Can you stop any of it? Can you stop me?”
There was no safe answer to her questions, especially not the last one.
“Probably not,” Gendaw said. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try though.”
“You’d fight me?” Wynni asked. “Fight me for something that matters?”
Shadowfolk fought fairly often, not as much as dwarves were famed to, and more than elves were rumored to. Those fights weren’t about things that truly mattered though. The only things that truly mattered in Shadowfolk society were things that affected the continued existence of the society as a whole. Any other fight would be settled when one side tapped out or an arbitrary victory condition like ‘First Blood’ was met. Fights over an issue that mattered weren’t settled though, they were ended, as were the lives of any number people who chose the wrong side.
“This matters,” Gendaw said. “These deaths are wrong. I’ll do more than fight you. I’ll protect them.”
Wynni’s smile broadened into something the shaded into beautiful and she laughed.
“Protect them? These are sunlighters. Why in all the dark realms would you protect them?” Wynni asked.
“I don’t know,” Gendaw said. He wasn’t good with words, if he tried to argue with Wynni he’d lose. She’d twist him up in words and he’d stumble over all the ideas that were crowding in his head. Despite that, talking was still his best option. If he tried to cross blades with Wynni, she would gut him from throat to groin. He’d seen her do it and Gendaw had no illusions concerning their relative levels of skill. “We’re not supposed to be monsters.”
“And what are we supposed to be then?” Wynni asked. Gendaw was grateful she hadn’t filleted him yet, but each word he spoke felt like a step close to that ultimate fate.
“People,” he said. “We’re people, like them.”
“But we’re not like them.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re not like each other either.”
“But the elders say we’re supposed to be monsters? Are they wrong?”
Wynni’s earlier questions were dangerous for how she would react to Gendaw’s answers. Questioning the elders though? That was dangerous on a far broader level. That was the path of the Wanderers, the Shadowfolk who renounced their lineage and left to travel on their own. Few, if any, of those blasphemers survived their wandering for any length of time. They were anathema to everyone, and plenty of the Shadowfolks’ enemies paid no attention to the distinction between those within and those outside of the machinery of the Shadowfolk society. Speaking against the elders meant losing all place in the world, all ties to family and friends, all means of support. It was death, long and excruciating and alone.
“Yes!” Gendaw felt a surge of conviction galvanize his spine with steel he’d never suspect lay within him. He was no hero, he wasn’t going to accomplish anything by taking the stand that he’d chosen, but he had to take it anyways. He couldn’t rush headlong into annihilation along with everyone he’d ever known and loved.
Going along with elders plan of murder and deceit would destroy his world. His strength might not save the world but spending his power to buy even the smallest chance of survival was a much better use for the remainder of his life than anything else he could imagine doing.
“By the Sleeping Gods, how did this idiot figure it out and I needed you to show up?” Wynni asked, again speaking to thin air.
“Yes, thank you, I am aware I am idiot too,” she said.
“Before you kill me, can I ask who you’re talking to?” Gendaw said.
Wynni looked at him, once again confused.
“Kill you? Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about killing you,” she said. “We’re not going to be killing anyone.”
“But you said, everyone’s going to die?” Gendaw asked.
“Yeah, listen, you know how Silian is a myth? Just made up to comfort little kids?” Wynni asked.
“But he’s not, he was real,” Gendaw said.
“Yes, well, it turns out you’re right,” Wynni said. “The jackass is in fact real, and he’s here, and he has a plan that is only terrible beyond words.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“With complete annihilation as the alternative?” Wynni asked. “Yeah, I’ll take a terrible plan that might actually work instead of that.”
“So are we working against the elders now?” Gendaw asked.
“Strangely no,” Wynni said. “I mean, we’re probably going to overthrow them, and destroy the foundations of our society, but if they didn’t want us to do that then they should have built a better society for us in the first place.”