“Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Then I remember that if I don’t bother with things, things will most decidedly come and bother with me.”– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame
For setting off on a stealthy heist, we attracted a worrisome amount of attention. Narla stood head and shoulders over most of our fellow Cadetlings, and Ilyan seemed to know at least half the people we walked past as we headed towards the dorms.
“Yeah, nice form in your fight too!” he said with a wave to a blonde haired kid who seemed to be organizing a squad of Greyfall cadets. “Catch ya tomorrow.”
We took about four more steps before a red haired girl from Greendell punched him on the shoulder and said, “You beat me by four whole points you jerk.”
“Can’t let you win all the time Gennie,” Ilyan said, hamming up how much the punch had hurt.
“Let me win? Oh, I am so gonna get you next time,” she said, her smile betraying the odd lack of murderous instinct most of the people who greeted Ilyan seemed to have.
The easy camaraderie he shared with a decent chunk of the incoming cadets was simple to understand. Where Idrina was iron and sweat, he was cozy cotton and aromatic tea. Oh, and nearly as deadly as she was.
From what I could tell, he hadn’t been holding back in his last trial any more than she had, and had only lasted as long as she did because the Decent Cadet had limited himself to fighting in Ilyan’s preferred style. Granted Ilyan’s preferred style didn’t leave much room for invoking other techniques or magics, but Idrina didn’t need room. She made room.
Despite being second best to his sister though, he’d still placed in the Top 10 of the incoming students, and with all of the support he clearly had I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d asked to be sponsored by House Riverbond.
The obvious solution to that would be to ask him, but it wasn’t like I could kick him out if I didn’t like his answer.
Also, it was somewhat nice being invisible in his and Narla’s shadows.
Not that people couldn’t see me. I was walking in the front because I was still expecting a lethal attack to come at any moment, and even someone foolish enough to try that couldn’t be foolish enough to think that I wouldn’t repeat my performance from the arena on them if they targeted someone else besides me.
The other Cadets moved out of my path, but no faster than they would have for any other traffic that was trying to pass. I would have mistaken that for indifference to the brutal murderer in their midst except for the razor cuts of panic which stabbed through most of the cadets when they recognized who I was.
Most didn’t let their unease show but even the ones who suppressed their reactions the best didn’t make any particular effort to share pleasantries. They wanted me gone and I wanted to be gone, so silence suited us all.
Narla did not believe in silence any more than Ilyan did though.
The half of the cadets that he didn’t know? Those ones were all best friends with her.
“You won me ten crowns Narla! I love you!” a beefy and newly minted Astrologian cadet said.
“Only ten?” Narla said. “Who was betting against me?”
“Hah, like anyone wanted to bet against you?” Beefy boy said. “We were betting how many hits you’d need to win!”
“Oh now that’s what I want to hear!” Narla said and flexed for beefy boy, a gesture he returned before they parted company.
I cast a glance at Mellina to see if this looked anything other than completely mad to her. She replied with a small shrug reminding me that while she knew more about the Great Houses than I did, we were both well outside our familiar domains here.
Yarrin might have been able to comment on the reaction our two arena stars were getting but he was staring absently forward. His jaw wasn’t set and his shoulders were lose but his eyes were not tracking anything that was in front of us.
“Over here,” he said and directed us to a side passage between two buildings which led off the expansive quad we’d been walking through.
Ilyan and Narla waved to a few of their friends/admirers and joined the rest of us as we marched into the shadows.
“Can you work with this Mellina?” Yarrin asked, stopping as we reached the midpoint of the small alley.
“Yes. This is perfect,” she said and turned to the rest of us. “I can get us to one of the unused dorms unnoticed, but it will be a lot easier if we’re quiet and avoid attention as best we can without relying on my magic. Also, don’t swallow the shadows. I can’t promise you’ll be safe if they get inside you.”
Since no bad idea ever started with a warning like that, I nodded for her to continue.
“Sorry if this feels weird,” she said before closing her eyes and inhaling deeply.
I was expecting a fatal attack to come next – it would have been the perfect time for an assassin to strike – but what we got instead was Mellina breathing out slowly and the shadows around us dripping down to the ground like cold oil. What the shadows left behind was not of our world, and wasn’t something any of us probably should have been looking at for too long.
I looked anyways, because, well, I’m me, but after a moment of staring into the other world I caught the scent of discomfort. Whatever was there, it didn’t want to be gazed upon. So I stopped. I was curious, not rude. Grammy had taught me better than that.
Also the shadows which had run down to the ground were crawling up my legs.
And they felt as much like cold oil as they looked.
Around and around, they wrapped me up and I felt their magic smothering my own. We weren’t where we were supposed to be anymore. We were where they lived.
Without a word, Mellina waved us forward and Narla and Yarrin started to follow her.
I wanted to do the same but pushing through the shadows was distinctly uncomfortable. They weren’t hurting me, but I was pretty certain they were going to.
To my side, Ilyan was struggling against his too. Where I was trying to figure out which form would let me slip free of the shackles the shadows were trying to bind me with, he was straining to break free of them by sheer force.
I know I didn’t look terribly good, but I felt I kept the panic I was feeling off my face better than he did. I’m sure Mellina would back me up on that. We hadn’t known each other long, but she would lie for me I think.
Yarrin came back for Ilyan and calmed him down with a wordless touch on Ilyan’s shoulders. With gentle touches, he guided Ilyan’s hands down from the fighting posture Ilyan had taken when the shadows started flowing up us.
Yarrin then gestured for Ilyan to exhale and relax.
Ilyan nodded and followed Yarrin’s lead, his whole body untensing for a moment before Yarrin took his hand and led him forward for a few example steps.
I turned from Ilyan’s victories over the shadows to find Mellina close by and ready to help me. She threw a glance toward Ilyan, questioning if I understood what he’d done.
Breathing and relaxing, I tried to take a step forward.
And the shadows bound me tighter.
I let my dismay show and Mellina waved her hand before tapping me on the center of the chest and the middle of my forehead. She then repeated the gesture Yarrin had used for ‘relax’.
Which made sense.
Shadows weren’t a physical thing, so why would relaxing our bodies matter to them?
And they weren’t hurting anyone else.
I knew that. Believing it however was not as easy.
If I could understand what they were doing, I knew that would make things easier.
And I could find that out by devouring one of them and breaking their magic down.
Which, of course, was exactly what Mellina had said not to do.
And she knew her own magic.
I looked into her eyes again.
She wasn’t trying to kill me.
This was her magic and she wasn’t trying to kill me.
Whatever was in the realm beyond the shadows, or whoever this power was drawn from may not have been overly friendly, but the power was flowing through Mellina.
I let a long breath out and shoved a bunch of highly reasonable fears aside.
And I could walk forward at last.
The shadows were still binding me into the form I was in, and only that form, and that stability was uncomfortable but as we walked I started to understand it.
The shadows were limiting me, and they had to. They had to bind us to the world we knew because without that the flow of magic which kept us hidden would have swept us into the realm where Mellina’s magic came from. Walking on the shores of that realm was safe enough, but out in the depths of it lurked all sorts of things we didn’t want to meet.
Our trip to the abandoned dorm took only a few minutes, Yarrin had chosen our starting point well, but it still it felt like hours to get there.
It also appeared to be a wasted effort at first glance.
Mellina had led us to a blank section of wall beside one of the other dorm buildings and then through a perfectly disguised rotating door to a secret area beyond it.
A secret area which was full of dead and withered plant life as well as a shattered door leading into a darkened, and overgrown interior.
The shadows dropped away from us and Mellina gestured to the broken door in the frame.
“We’re here,” she said. “Hopefully.”
“Not bad, not bad,” Ilyan said. “It needs some work, but it’ll clean up nice.”
“Gives us a room over our heads even for tonight I guess?” Narla said.
“We don’t want to take away any of the plants from here,” Yarrin said. “Or clean up at all.”
“We’re going to live with it like that?” Narla asked, which I wanted the answer to as well.
“This isn’t where we’re going to live,” Mellina said.
“But you just…” Ilyan started to say but Yarrin put a hand on his forearm and cut him off.
“This is our ‘doorway’,” he said. “The trick is we need to get through the door. Not the broken one you see there. The real one.”
“Oh! This is all an illusion,” Narla said.
“Not quite,” Yarrin said. “What you see now is all real. What’s an illusion is that you’re not seeing where the door really is.”
“The real door is a portal, but it’s hidden here somewhere,” Mellina said.
I liked that idea. People not being able to find where I was sleeping seemed infinitely preferable to waking up with a poison dagger in my heart.
“I heard about these,” Ilyan said. “They’re impossible to find, aren’t they?”
“Found it!” Yarrin said, pointing towards…I wasn’t sure what he was pointing towards.
I wasn’t sure because there was a compulsion spell making me look away from the direction Yarrin was pointing.
I sank my teeth into the spell and prepared to tear it to shreds but stopped myself before I damaged it.
“We don’t want to reveal this place to anyone else, do we?” I said.
“It would be safer if only we knew where it was,” Mellina said.
“Let me just do this,” Yarrin said and drew a sign in silver light on the air. In the light of the sign, the ‘Look Away’ compulsion faded and marble door with tiny glyphs carved into the image of a roaring water dragon on it stood where the broken door has a moment earlier.
“Look through my sigil,” Yarrin said. “Focus on the door for five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.” When he hit zero the silver tracing shattered but the new door remained.
“We’ll be able to see this door for a year and a day now,” he said. “If we survive till next year, we can either move or I can cast the spell again.”
“This door looks a lot nicer than the other one,” Narla said. “I don’t just mean the carvings either. Someone cleaned this. Recently. Like it’s still damp.”
As she said that the door creaked open to reveal Sea Cotton, the mist woman from Doxle’s house waiting for us.
“Come on in,” she said. “Your rooms are almost ready, and dinner is on the table.”