SERECE yanked a crystalline blade from the lokyn’s forehead with a grinding squelch. The demon’s essence turned to ash and scattered in the wind, leaving behind the rotted remains of whomever it’d possessed. Disgusting things, these parasitic shadows were. Absolute abominations of nature.
She pressed east, distant shrieks muffled by her hood. She hoped they belonged to demons falling prey to phantaxian blades, but the monsters were so horrifically adept at mimicking voices it was sometimes hard to tell. A sound in the darkness of the pine trees ahead slowed her pace, and she advanced in a crouch, fingers dancing on the hilt of her dagger.
Serece kept on, eyes narrowed, heart thumping. The voice sounded like Sharya.
“Temper Yssa,” Serece recited, grip tightening.
“Don’t let it harness you,” Sharya replied.
Serece took a deep breath.
Then launched a crystalline throwing knife in the direction of the voice. The unseen impact drew a guttural wheeze. When after several seconds no retaliation came, Serece entered the trees to collect her knife.
She looked at the naked corpse, at the blade hilt-deep in the black skull. Clearly a lesser demon; the others didn’t fall so easily. She yanked the knife free and spat.
“Sharya doesn’t speak using contractions, vîthûrstyg.”
Serece continued on her way, the night now still and quiet. Her ears twitched occasionally: they always did when she was anxious. She arrived at the village square, whereupon she found Sharya and her adoptive sisters, Sorin and Taür, gathering the newly dead.
“The others?” Serece asked.
“Lighting pyres in the east,” Sharya said. “What of the west?”
“Abandoned,” Serece said. “Save a couple of demons.” She looked at the corpses. “Were there any survivors?” Sharya heaved a sigh, and Serece understood. Her chest tightened, and her free hand balled into a fist. “This is the third village this week. I…”
“Should suppress what anger you have stewing and refrain from asking why,” Taür suggested. “The lokyns kill for sport. It’s as simple as that.”
Serece frowned. “I know, and I’ve never questioned that. What strikes me as odd, sister, is their very existence. The Ariathans claim to have finally slain Te Mîrkvahîl, and yet its progeny infest our lands like the plague does our flesh.”
“You assume the demons’ lives are bound to Te Mîrkvahîl’s own,” said Sorin, “but there is no evidence to give credence to that belief. Te Mîrkvahîl was the puppet master, the head of the serpent if you will, and when you rend a serpent’s head from its body, it will cease to function properly. For just a moment it will writhe, its actions uncontrolled.”
Serece looked to Sharya for support, but the captain offered nothing more than a shrug and small shake of her head.
Serece turned her back to the women, grumbling, “Father believes me.”
“Of course he does,” Sorin said. “Now that Rejya’s dead who better to indulge his theories than the royal bastard, hmm?”
Serece wheeled around and smacked Sorin across the face. The shorter woman yelped and staggered to the side, strands of silver hair now peeking out from underneath her hood. She glared at Serece, cold blue eyes shifting back and forth between shock and anger.
Sharya stepped between the two, glancing disgustedly at each in turn. “You are childish with your words,” she said to Sorin. To Serece, “And you are quick to give yourself to anger. In doing so, you both disrespect the phantaxian tenets and put us in danger of provoking Yssa’s wrath ”
“Idiots,” Taür muttered, rolling her eyes.
Serece drew her hood further past her eyes. Rejya’s narrow-eyed image took shape in her mind, chiding her with pursed lips and a tilted head.
I know, I know, Serece thought. Temper Yssa. Temper fury.
Rejya’s image arched an eyebrow. “If you know,” it seemed to say, “then why do I still sense Yssa feeding off of you?”
To that, Serece had no answer, and she let the memory of her fallen sister dissipate with shame, a decade-old emptiness welling in the center of her chest. A void created first by Rejya’s death, then widened by the gradual loss of friends and family as the years had passed. She chewed her lower lip, sniffing back tears, then finally let a ragged breath escape and linger in the air.
Sorin shrugged at the apology—she was prone to holding grudges. She brushed past Serece and set to helping a trio of newcomers erect the funeral pyre. Taür followed suit, the pair whispering back and forth.
Half an hour later the pyre blazed, and thick, acrid plumes of smoke carried fallen spirits upward to the Second Life. Or so Serece had always been told they did, and in this instance liked to believe.
“Burn the buildings,” Sharya ordered, handing Serece a torch.
Cleanse the earth. Serece made for the structures north of the square, their pane-less windows not unlike the lifeless eyes of the bodies charring on the pyre behind her. The timber had begun to rot, its soul and structural integrity compromised by the degenerative nature of the mîrkûr. To leave the village standing was to sow a plague.
She set fire to the building nearest her, listening to the rot and darkness crackle as the flames began to feast. Black smoke rose to meet the night. Serece walked the village at a measured pace, leaving conflagration in her wake and ash to fertilize the earth. She hoped, in time, that something beautiful might grow.
An hour later they withdrew, the ash-dusted snow the only hint of what’d transpired.
The descent into the Êrahnjë Valley was a silent, single file down a switchback stairway in the rocks. Serece trailed several yards behind the rest, ears twitching madly, fingers dancing on her daggers’ hilts. The air smelled mostly of virgin snow and pyre smoke, but beyond that, past the hint of pine, hiding the darkest crevice of the night, Serece discerned the source of her unease; the scent of rotten, burning flesh encroached from all directions. The atmosphere crackled. Yssa was about to go berserk. Serece hissed at the realization, shoving past her pale-skinned kinsfolk to inform Sharya. She was almost there when a guttural shriek destroyed the midnight calm; like a thousand children screaming their demise. In all her several centuries Serece had yet to hear a sound so terrible as this.
Half a dozen scintillating plumes of smoke javelined downward from the sky, making impact in the valley at the stairway base. Snow and rock flew all directions; the phantaxians drew their blades. From the flurry manifested six slender silhouettes with eyes like full moons—the Shades of Yssa, rage and frenzy made manfest. Each held a broadsword. Each reeked of death. Each had been present thirteen years ago the night that Rejya died.
The Shades erupted toward the phantaxians. Normally a narrow corridor or stairway such as this would have offered a distinct advantage, but the Shades’ fluidity and incorporeal nature negated this.
Serece danced beneath a cleave. Using the momentum, she thrusted upward and sheathed her dagger in the lower jaw of the Shade, its ethereal composition beginning to harden at the touch of her crystalline blade.
It shrieked and kicked Serece square in the chest, knocking her back. She slipped on the icy stone, lost her footing, and tumbled over the edge of the stairway. She hit the ground with a thud, the force of impact from the near ten-foot fall knocking the wind from her lungs. For a moment, the world swam in and out of focus; the skirmish above was a swirl of black and white, light and dark as crystal screamed through smoke.
A deep baying snapped Serece from her trance, just in time to see Sorin’s body soar past her and into the valley. Serece screamed and scrambled to her feet. Equilibrium not yet intact, she tripped and rolled down the hill, coming to rest a yard from where Sorin’s body lay sprawled. Serece bellied herself to her sister’s side, a ragged gasp escaping her mouth.
Blood stained Sorin’s pale skin and silver hair. Her eyes, once the coldest blue, were a swirl of fog. Serece could see no wound, the little good that did. She brushed her hand over Sorin’s eyes, closing the lids. Then, choking back tears, swallowing the lump in her throat, she rose and started up the hill.
She crested, teeth bared, lips curled back in a rictus of rage, and—
Taür lay bleeding in the snow, her entrails hanging from her gut. She was not long for the world, now; with every blink the darkness became more profound. Every breath came weaker than the last. She rolled her head to the right, toward the stairway in the rock, and watched the Shades pin Sharya with their blades. Taür reached weakly, desperately for her friend, though there was little use in doing so. I see, and I feel, was all it meant.
She started, wheezed at a breath on her neck, but she kept her eyes on Sharya, now limp and bleeding in the snow. Taür knew what had found her and she felt no inclination, no desire to gaze upon the thing that’d come to take her life.
Yet still Taür turned, if only to look her spellbound bastard sister in the eyes and curse her name, rue the day their mother’s faithlessness had brought this pawn of ire to life. Behind Serece loomed the puppeteer, a black wolf wrought from smoke. An Avatar of Yssa, Serece’s unbounded rage made manifest.
Taür grasped for the buckle of Serece’s cloak and pulled her close so that their noses touched, so she could see coherence flood her sister’s eyes as clarity left her own. “I…h-h-hate you.” Taür coughed blood, taking care to spit a generous amount in Serece’s face. “Always…did.”
The first blade entered just above her hip, the second through her gut and into her spine. At the very least her physical pain had dispersed. I hope this haunts you ’til the end of time. She closed her eyes, a muffled shriek the final sound she heard before the darkness took her home.
Serece blinked. The night was still and she lay sprawled on her back, daggers clutched in her hands. The pain came first to her chest, then to her head, like a blade sheathed slowly in her flesh, then twisted. The image of a black wolf in blood-spattered snow came to mind, followed by her sister’s battered corpse. The scent of iron clung to the air, to her skin and garb, and Rejya’s words rung loudly in her head: “Temper Yssa. Do not let it harness you.”
Easier said than done.
Trembling, Serece lolled her head to the left, met by the moonlit dead and a massive wolf formed from smoke. It approached, each footfall leaving threads of shadow in its wake. It sniffed Serece, then raised its nose and bayed. The sound exhumed bits and pieces of a fractured memory—she had heard this howl the night that Rejya died; she had bathed in blood drawn by her blades.
Not again, she thought. She tried to scream but was too weak. Fuck. Not again!
Tears dripped slowly from her eyes. Tears of sorrow and despair. Tears wrought by fear of an old truth she’d done her best to bury and the guilt that’d festered all these years. She had to tell her mother and father now, for her sake and for theirs. But Keepers, how would they react? How would they look at her when she told them she had slaughtered Rejya and Taür?
Did you enjoy this preview of SHADOW TWINS: VULTURES? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out CHAPTER ONE if you haven’t already.