MASK OF SHADOWS newsletter stories

Story #4

Autumn, 547 R.A.

The Thrice-Blessed School at the border of Alona and Erlend

“What have you done?” Isidora said, standing in the doorway of Nicolas’ room. Only her years of physician training stopped her from dropping her plate of food.

Nicolas pried it from her hands and had the decency to blush. “Nothing useful, certainly.”

Blood covered the floor and wall around his desk. Nicolas, barefoot as always, stepped over the largest puddle and set the plate on his bed. It wasn’t much, only a few pieces of bread and hard cheese, but she was trying to be nice. The last days had been difficult and all she wanted was a relaxing time during which she could pretend Rodolfo was simply in another room. Nicolas held out his arm to her, the runes inked into his fingers unfurling. Blood speckled his skin.

“No, no,” she said and waved away his attempt to translocate her across the blood. “No more of that.”

“Sorry.” He helped her settle into the foot of his bed, cleaned up the mess, and sat next to her once he was done and had cleaned up himself as well. “I was trying something new and it went poorly.”

She pinched off the mold from some bread and handed the good edge to him. “Understatement.”

“More like I underestimated how fickle my magic was feeling,” muttered Nicolas. “It did not want to be bound in runes, but I needed a distraction.”

“Then we had the same idea.” Isidora pulled a small journal from her pocket. Before the war, when she was an apprentice and he was still a student, they used to debate theory. Everything was theory then; now it was all horrifyingly practical. “I had an idea that I wanted to discuss with you. I know you can only relocate yourself to places you’ve been before—where your souls has wandered, but we both know that’s more poetry than proper theory—and I’m curious if we could perhaps expand that capability by altering how much power the body can bear. The soul is more durable. Perhaps we could move those with the mind protected in them and reassemble the bodies?”

Nicolas chewed on the bread, eyes narrowing. “You want Brande and me to pull the souls and minds from our students and relocate them, and then you’ll break down and rebuild their bodies elsewhere?”

“Or something.” Isidora shrugged. “Royal Physicians can’t regrow limbs not because of how difficult it is to build a body but because we need the proper parts to do so. So less regrowing and more disassembling and reassembling as—”

“Relocation,” Nicolas finished. “Barring that time you borrowed my runes, which was excessively painful by the way, relocating one’s self more than three times in a day is dangerous. The magic in the runes starts breaking down the flesh.”

He smiled to soften the comment and lifted one of his feet so that she could see the scarred flesh were she had ripped the runes from his skin and used them in Poppy Green. It had mostly been an accident—she had wanted to get people to safety, and so magic had taken that want and done it. Painfully. Unlike how she imagined. But that was the threat of magic, of course. It gave you what you wanted whether that was exactly what you wanted or not.

“Worth it, though,” he said. “Very worth it.”

“We were unconscious for days,” said Isidora, stretching across the bed to pat his knee. “We all got blood poisoning.”

“And yet here we are. So stubborn of us.” He folded his legs up, knees poking up around his nose, more child who hadn’t grown into his growth-spurt limbs than twenty-two-year-old Priest of the Soul prodigy. “Magic is very fickle, and overusing runes is more likely to kill a mage than help them. To do anything like that again would be…interesting.”

They both knew but didn’t say that the only reason they had all survived the rot caused by overusing runes was the power leftover from Isidora’s ascension to Royal Physician, and they would never have a moment like that again.

“What if we figured out how to contain or transfer it?” Isidora drew a rune in her cheese, nail picking out the pattern, and her magic flared to life. Light but no heat. “Body, mind, soul: the rot isn’t physical but eats through all three. What if we could separate it out, relocate, heal it?”

“The amount of power for that would be astronomical. We would have to do a single student every few days.” He pinched his roll into tiny pieces and tossed one into his mouth. “All right. Where would you start?”

Winter, 547 R.A.

They didn’t get the chance to try.

Nicolas was called home to evacuate after Erlend lost control, and he tried to relocate all the survivors alone.

There were no runes left in his skin after.

No blood in his body either.

He woke up once as they moved him from the cart to the school infirmary, and no words, only ash and blood, crossed his lips.

A specific sort of rot.

“Some survived,” Isidora said quickly, hands cupping his face. His bones were so weak from power she feared they might break if he turned to see her. “You got them out. I promise. Sleep.”

And he did.

For two whole weeks.

Nacea and the lands around it were lost. That’s what the reports said, as if Erlend had simply misplaced them. Words, Isidora thought, were far more dangerous than knives sometimes, and she scratched out the wording in the letters. Nacea was not lost; it was systematically destroyed, and Erlend did not deserve to be absolved of that wrongdoing in letters and histories. So many dead, and Erlend sought to kill them again and again. In words. In ways so deep she wasn’t sure she could put it to words.

There would be retribution, and it would be well deserved.

“How many?” she asked the ones who returned from Field de Contes, but they only shook their heads.

The physician who had amputated Nicolas’ arm listed it as his third worst injury. The runes in his skin had been stripped from him, the magic so powerful they had cauterized the wounds as they fled. Bilocation, Marianna called it with the soft sigh of someone impressed, and Isidora didn’t trust herself to speak because Nicolas’ heart stopped twice in the first hour he returned to her infirmary. The shadow that had flayed his arm skin to muscle to bone had done it so cleanly that Nicolas’ natural defenses were no longer sure what was his and what wasn’t. His body kept fighting her magic as if it were an infection.

Even after that, when he did wake up, when he started getting used to life again, his magic wasn’t the same. As if a shadow lurked in his veins.

Nicolas didn’t leave his quarters for three days, and on the fourth, Isidora’s worry overpowered her desire to let him have time to himself. He was caring for his stitches, she could tell that from the runes on her wrists, and if he didn’t want company, she would leave. She has just never known him to seek out time alone. He thrived in crowds and adored talking. Every other injury, physical or otherwise, he dealt with by searching out his friends. He was not a solitary man.

Except now.

She rapped on his door. She had brought the rations of food he had missed that morning and her own, and she had a selection of Em’s tonics just in case he was too tired of runes.

Maybe he wouldn’t answer, she considered, still as stone before his door. Maybe he thought that if he stayed slow and sluggish, she wouldn’t notice his heart beating with her magic. Maybe this war had made solitary mourners of them all. So she waited.

And waited.

Then, there was a shuffling and a sigh, and Nicolas said, “What do you want, Isidora?”

“I suppose my magic gives it away now.” She rubbed her wrists, the turtle runes bobbing in and out of her skin as if it were water. They moved constantly, and her world was a map of wounds. “I brought breakfast.”

He laughed, not kindly. “Anyone else would have tapped their feet or shifted or left entirely, but not you. Never you.” He voice was a rasp, tired words against tired lips. “I’m not good company today, Isidora.”

“I feel—”

“You feel? Oh, do you want to talk about feelings? Because you might have said that I would be fine, but I can still feel them,” he said through the door. “Inside of me, beneath my skin. The arm is gone, the shadow too, but I can still feel it peeling me apart and Triad help me Isidora because I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still. I can’t stop hating myself for being stuck here when I could be helping because I close my eyes, and I’m there. Not all shadows are fast. I thought they were, but I was wrong, and there were so many dying. I can hear them and the shadows killing them slowly, like the rattles of reed stocks in the breeze. An eternity of last breathes. And I am stuck between the me that was in Lona who didn’t know that sound and the me on that field who was living all that death, and now their deaths live in me. I hear them even now.”

He sucked in a deep breath, snot and spit cracking in his mouth, and sobbed. He scraped down the door, and Isidora let herself slide down till she was sitting on the cold stones with her cheek pressed to the thick wood of his door. He kicked the wall.

“The Nicolas on that field died. I died. I don’t know what would have happened if he had survived, but I was two people and then I was one and then I was dying all over again. My runes depend on symmetry. What am I going to do? How can I help when—”

He groaned. Then, a thump. The door rattled.

“When I was sad,” Isidora said softly, “you told me that people worried because they loved me, not because they were worried we wouldn’t have a Royal Physician. Runes can be rewritten. Please don’t think we’re worried because we think you’re not useful. We are not our usefulness.”

He laughed. Sniffed.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “This is so ridiculous. You died, Isidora. You died.”

“I’m well aware.” She pushed her fingers under the door, fingers too short to do anything but prod his leg. “We are not going to compare traumas. That is what’s ridiculous. We’re friends, Nicolas de Contes. It’s not a competition. You helped me. I want to help you. So are you going to open the door?”

“No,” he drawled, the sound so familiar that she smiled. “I need to bathe first and change clothes. I’ll find you.”

Spring, the first year of the Empty Age

Rodolfo sent her one letter.

They’re not going to stop. They’ll bide their time. They’ll try this again one day, but for now they’re just trying to kill her. I took out one sent to kill Marianna. Tell her she needs to prepare. She needs to protect herself. They think she’s weak.

They’re wrong. We need to make sure they know that.

And don’t worry—I don’t hate myself anymore. I only hate them.

R.

Magic was gone. Marianna had banished it—no warning given—and Isidora was not a Royal Physician. Sixteen and already she had gained and lost and lost again everything she had ever wanted. There was only so much she could do for the dying without her runes.

They were dead.

Trapped beneath her skin like scars, and she was empty.

“I’m tired of being sad,” she muttered. “I’m tired of being.”

She was with Nicolas. They were constant companions now, their waking hours spent figuring out what to do now that Erlend was defeated, magic was gone, and Marianna was too ill to leave her bed. He had gifted Isidora the bed for this rendezvous, his lanky frame folded into the less comfortable chair at his desk, and she set the letter she had been reading aside. There was no one else left alive to do this work, and she couldn’t even use her magic to make sure Nicolas and her were awake enough to do it. They didn’t have sleeping hours so much as they had sleeping minutes punctuated by urgent messages and better ideas.

He tapped one long finger against his bottom lip in thought, and Isidora buried her face in her hands, the familiar tug at the base of her spine warm and demanding. It was absurd. There was so much going on and yet her attraction to him had returned.

Exquisitely, annoyingly in full force.

She didn’t have time for this.

“Isidora?” he asked.

The bed tilted. She glanced up, catching him sitting near her feet. There was a comfort like nothing else in the way she knew what to expect with him, the way he knew her, and he laid his hand over her feet. She had pulled one of the quilts over her legs ages ago, and now he tucked the edges around her. His fingers curled around her ankle and squeezed. He stood.

Isidora wished these moments would never end; Isidora wished these moments would never happen.

They were friends. Her love for him as a friend was wholly powerful and separate, and she would give up this friendship for nothing.

“Sleep,” he said. “I need to talk to Marianna anyway. You should be able to get a few dreams in at least.”

Nicolas left, and she tucked her face into the bed. She dreamt a half-dream before Nicolas woke her for a meeting with Marianna.

And life went on.

And on.

And on.

Spring, 5 E.A.

“Is this nightshade?” Nicolas asked, voice cracking. “Are you planning on murdering someone, darling?”

Isidora laughed and pulled Nicolas from her worktable. Without magic, medicine was harder to perfect but the challenge kept her busy. They had made so much of the world accessible with magic; the world needed reshaping now. “No killing, only experimenting on long-term solutions to heart defects.”

He hummed and nodded. “Of course.”

He did not pull his arm from her grasp.

“Darling?” she asked.

“I need something new. ‘Brilliance’ is losing its impact.” Nicolas collapsed into one of the cushioned chairs in the corner of the room and grinned. His top teeth worried his bottom lip. “Do you have a moment?”

“Why?” She dragged her gaze from his mouth—at least she had never been one to blush—and sat on the arm of his chair, her calf pressed to his thigh.

He shifted. “I have an idea I need to talk over with someone. A lady of Old Alona, as it were. How would you feel about funding all education in your region?”

“If I had the money, exceptionally positive,” she said. “If you have brought this up without having a way for it to happen, I will slip stale bread into all of your pockets, and you will trail crumbs wherever you go.”

“Certain death for a spy, you know.” He laughed and stood, careful not to upset her balance. “So hear me out on this….”

Deep into the dark of that evening, they were still talking. Isidora wasn’t sure how their conversation turned to affordable medicine, but it had, and she was flipping through the pages of an old ledger about medicine costs. Nicolas was slouched over one of the long tables, his mouth slightly open, his tongue wetting his lips with each new assertion. This had been their routine for years—work, endlessly, and try not to waste too much time or ink—but now the light of the burner was casting a hideous light from beneath his chin, stretching out his long face into a caricature of handsomeness. Blue ink speckled his hands, and his hair was loose in magpie-black strands about his face. His shirt was the same one he had worn the last two days.

“You’re right, of course,” he said, “but with this new information, we could—”

“Kiss.” She slipped from her stool. “I think we should kiss.”

“What?” He froze, turned his wide-eyed face to her, and blinked. A lot. And licked his lips. And blushed. Blinked some more. “What?”

She stepped forward. “May I kiss you?”

“Yes,” he breathed. “Yes.”

Winter, 5 E.A.

“I hate parties,” Isidora mumbled, pressing herself into Nicolas’ side as they sat down on one of the long benches.

“It’s our wedding. It’s hardly just a party.” Nicolas laid his cheek against the top of her head. “Marianna wanted even more, you know?”

“Yes, and thank you very much for negotiating her down to only this.” Isidora had no patience for socializing. Parties were a bore and polite chatter the worst sort of chore. “I am very happy to be married, but I am also very tired and would like to sleep for three months.”

Nicolas laughed. “Three days, but we can sleep those days away down south where it’s warm and not full of people who want to spy on us or ask for our political opinions.”

“Ideal.”

He chuckled, chest shaking, and kissed her crown. “Em’s coming over. Do you want to hide?”

“No,” Isidora said, sitting up. “Emerald is always welcome.”

She was Emerald now and forever, her green mask knotted around her head with green ribbons that matched her green dress. A crown of small green chrysanthemums was woven into her finger-length black curls. Elise de Farone—terribly thoughtful in that way only children could be—had gifted most of the members of the wedding flower crows.

Plucked from Emerald’s garden of course. Those were the best flowers, and Elise couldn’t use substandard ones. At least she had possessed the sense to look apologetic when Isidora had asked her about it.

Not that Isidora was ever giving up her bouquet of calla lilies, but she would never let Elise live this down.

“Not even you could escape?” Nicolas said, gesturing to the flowers.

“It’s from my garden. If she hadn’t given me one, I would have been angry.” Emerald smiled—or so Isidora thought she did by the tensing of her throat, but no one was quite used to the masks yet—as she said it, and Isidora almost laughed. Emerald had never been angry at a child in all her years at the school. “Green is good luck for wedding’s after all. What can it hurt?”

 Emerald settled next to Isidora on the bench.

“You know,” Emerald said slowly, softly, with that dangerous tone she only used for politics. “I thought I saw Rodolfo that last day in Erlend, filthier and thinner than I had ever seen him, holding off shadows while people fled, but I assumed it was a trick.” She touched the scarred skin at the edge of her mask. “A ghost in my veins drawn out by blood loss.”

Isidora rolled her lips together. “Oh.”

Rodolfo sent Isidora no news, only flowers on their birthday.

“But now,” said Emerald, tilting her head imperceptibly to the left, “I’m rethinking that.”

He hadn’t.

Isidora rolled her eyes to the left and groaned. Rodolfo—his chestnut hair darkened to inky black, his freckles hidden beneath pale white cosmetics, his stature heightened by a pair of heeled boots, and his figure carved by hard work and hunger—lounged in the corner of the room. If she had not been looking for him, she would not have noticed him in the crush of people dressed all in springy shades of green. The man who looked nothing like her brother raised a glass of wine in toast and winked.

He had!

She dragged him, asking Nicolas to make sure they weren’t followed, into an empty room off of the party, and Rodolfo wrapped her in a hug so tight she could barely breathe.

“This is dangerous even for you,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “You shouldn’t have come. Thank you for coming.”

“I’m the best gift anyone could get, you know,” he said. He set her feet back on the ground but didn’t let go.

She laughed. She had cried too much these last few years, and here he was to dredge up the last of her tears. “Anyone who doesn’t know you, perhaps.”

“I’m dead.” The right side of his mouth fell, leaving a broken crook in his smile. “No one knows me now.”

Her brother, not returned but reformed. Reassembled. All of the little pieces of Rodolfo da Abreu fitted back together by shaking, fearful hands.

She brushed his hair from his face—they were not the Rodolfo and Isidora they used to be no matter how similar they looked beneath their cosmetics and disguises—and kissed his cheek. “I know you,” she said. “You are a gift.”


Story #3

Spring, 547 of the Runed Age
The Thrice-Blessed School at the border of Alona and Erlend

       Marianna refused to send the students home. Three hundred and twenty-seven children from Alona and Erlend, seven to seventeen years old, had been called back to support the war as mages as if they were capable of anything other than forgetting their homework. Most knew they were in danger at the school, stuck between two nations in the middle of a war, but leaving meant saying goodbye to the friends they had known for years and saying hello on the battlefield. She let those of age leave if they wanted, sneaking them out at night so neither nation knew how many students were left in the school. She was a shield, a force the nations were too afraid to reckon with directly. So they waited.
       “Another five showed up last night,” Nicolas said, rolling his head back and forth, the joints of his neck creaking. He glanced up and his nose broke the surface of his lanky hair like a rudder in murky water. Never had he looked so worn down. “That puts us at fifteen Erlend scouts watching the school.”
       At least Alona had the decency to not place the school under siege. All of the Erlend priests except for Nicolas had fled at the first sign of war, and now they attacked anyone who tried to leave. The thin wooden walls around the grounds would only hold so long as the runes in them held.
       “We can hold out for a while yet,” said Marianna. “We have the resources.”
       “We can hold out.” Em laughed. “Sensational last words.”
       Isidora, tucked into a chair in the corner of Marianna’s quarters, picked at the green cloak wrapped around her shoulders. A mantle of responsibility she wasn’t quite ready to bear, but she had ascended, hand-picked by the Triad after picking herself apart piece by piece. The school needed her now. “I can limit the effects of starvation for a while and perhaps slow our bodies’ needs for substance down a little bit, but I’ll need to practice on someone first.”
       Marianna ran a finger down one of her thick ledgers. “At least we have the spring. Food is certainly the limiting factor so long as nothing happens to us.”
       She called every priest and adult and expert into her quarters tonight to figure out how to proceed, and all of them agreed—they could not give into Erlend who had already proven they cared little for the people under their care. Brande had returned to Nacea after the last reports of shadows had come through.
       “No one,” he had written. “They left no one.”
       But so long as the school turned over no more mages, Erlend would have to make do with the ones it had. The runes required for such monstrous magic would tear them apart soon enough. If the shadows didn’t.
       “Don’t wear yourself out.” Marianna glanced at Isidora, and her shadow, a dark smear like an ink spill across the floor, unfurled from her feet and crept to Isidora. It sniffed, edges catching on the skin of her bare legs. The runes in Isidora’s wrists ached. “You’re tired. Go rest.”
      Em chewed on her nails—there was hardly anything left now, and Isidora’s new level of awareness always let her know just how painful that was—and sighed. “We should all rest.”
       “I’m going to find Rodolfo,” Isidora said softly. He would be thrilled to be her practice subject. Strange, new magic always held his attention. “Nicolas, you’ve got a fever. If it’s not gone in the morning, go to the infirmary.”
       Isidora knew everything now. Too many things.
       Nicolas nodded. “I’ll meet you at breakfast and then stop by.”
       The ass; now she couldn’t skip breakfast.
       Isidora found Rodolfo in one of the dormitories, herding three of the younger students back into their beds. Two were already beneath their quilts, but one sat straight up in bed and shook his head each time Rodolfo tried to leave. Isidora stayed hidden in the shadows of the doorway. Her runes, always moving beneath her flesh, scared the younger children. Shadows and runes, runes and shadows. Magic had wrought them and her.
       “I can hear them,” the boy still sitting up said. Isidora couldn’t remember his name. “Screaming.”
       “Shadows don’t scream,” Rodolfo said. “So if you hear any screaming, that’s only Ora having a nightmare.”
       The quilts ruffled with laughter beneath them, and Rodolfo glanced at the kids. He smiled, he always smiled. There was nothing in the world that could take his joy from him, even on the worst nights when the branches scratched against the school and whispered over the grounds like shadows, when Isidora woke up screaming. He smiled and promised the world would be better. It was as if all the hope in these stone walls lived in him.
       “It will be better tomorrow, but you have to sleep first.” Rodolfo smoothed back the kid’s hair and smiled. “No more nighttime wanderings no matter how scared you get. If you have a nightmare, you come to me.”
       He didn’t say what all the older children and adults were terrified of—Erlend snatching Erlend kids and whisking them away to work as mages.
       “Ok,” the boy said. “Can you leave the lamp on?”
       “I will do you one better.” Rodolfo pricked his fingertip with his ring and drew a small rune on the candle. The fire flared blue briefly. Isidora knew it would burn until the boy snuffed it out. “Sleep well.”
      In the hallway, after, when it was only the two of them in the dark, Isidora whispered, “Will it really be better tomorrow?”
       “If it’s not,” Rodolfo said, smile a crooked crescent moon, “we have to make it better.”

       Erlend attacked and took three more Erlend kids that night. There was a box, the runes holding it shut shuddering with each rattle and scrape of whatever was trapped inside of it, at the edge of the school grounds, and the soldiers from Erlend said it held a shadow. If the school fought, they would release it. They wanted Nicolas and the rest of the Erlend mages.
       “Unacceptable,” Marianna said, or so that was what they told Isidora after.
        Isidora didn’t see the fight. She didn’t see Em let the shadow get closer to her than her own skin and then use that closeness to rip it apart. She didn’t see Marianna’s shadow, the piece of her own soul that she let walk free in times of trouble, what was surely the basis for the shadows of Erlend, rip into the soldiers stealing her students so that Marianna could steal them back. She didn’t see Nicolas slice open his hand to draw forth his sword, the saw-tooth hilt buried in his palm. Isidora was in the dormitories, not quite a student and not quite a priest. Isidora only saw Rodolfo and the Erlend soldiers who had snuck in while the priests were distracted by the fight.
       “Down!” Rodolfo shoved her aside, bare feet tearing across the stone floors, and the magic in him flared. He appeared ten paces ahead in a blink. His sword, only steel, slashed through where the soldier had been. The ones who had taken the kids were already too far for him to catch.
       “Wait!” Isidora reached for him but couldn’t bear to stop him with her runes. “We can make this one tell us where they went.”
       “They’ll never tell,” Rodolfo said, teeth clenched. “Will you?”
       He nudged one of the soldiers with his foot and evoked a gurgling, “I will not betray my country.”
      Rodolfo looked over his shoulder at Isidora, the runes quickly carved, not inked, into his feet and hands smoldering. “I’m going to make it better.”

Autumn, 547 R.A.
southern Erlend

Celso de Lex was dead. Isidora stepped over him, more blood without than within. Rodolfo must have started with Celso, cutting through skin with no regard, and worked his way through the other Erlend mages. Their flayings were much more controlled, surgeon-like, the extremities saved for last so as to not bleed them out too quickly, and the only stroke of mercy was a neat, quick nick of the throat on the person Erlend had meant to make a shadow. Isidora laid one hand on their shoulder, cold skin against cold skin. It was the first cut Rodolfo had made. Their blood touched every wound.
       It was one of the students. Fifteen. Utterly unrecognizable.
      “Rodolfo?” she called out.
       She had traveled with the small group into Erlend to heal the wounded, but Nicolas had taken one look at the laboratories and two students abducted from the school, bloodied but alive, who had been huddled outside of them and walked in alone. He had come out again, pale, shaking, and said he couldn’t lure Rodolfo out.
       “There’s no coming back from this,” Nicolas had said. “It’s bad, Isidora.”
       “It’s Rodolfo,” she had said. “I’m going in and I’m coming out with him.”
       A drop, soft and echoing, came from the far corner. “Did you see what they did?”
       Rodolfo’s voice was hoarse. His tone empty.
       “They were making shadows,” she said.
       “No.” Rodolfo was on his knees and his back was to her, the last dregs of an Erlend mage seeping through his clothes. “Do you see how they make them?”
       “Torture. Physical separation to evoke dissociation.” She crept to him. Her runes hid nothing. It was as if she had been there. As if she had held the knife. She could read wounds like words now. “So you did it to them.”
       There was more than one shadow in the world. More than one person had been hurt so badly their soul sloughed off its body and mind to escape only to be caught and twisted and used for Erlend gain. But tradition so often trumped reason. Erlend nobles were owed trials, not torture, and so many witness had already fled. Erlend would demand Rodolfo’s death for killing Lex and the mages who had been noble.
       Their only crime was helping their nation win a war. Isidora could hear the arguments now and was sure she would never feel well or whole again.
       “Rodolfo,” she whispered, “please. We need to leave.”
       If they didn’t, he would be captured. He would be killed. She would be alone.
       “There was another, a shadow sent out yesterday, and I watched. I couldn’t help them, so I watched. I saw all of it. I couldn’t let them do it again.” Rodolfo turned, his face and hands all red. “We’re supposed to make the world better.”
       “We can.” She held out her hand. “Please. Come. They’ll kill you if they find you here.”
       “There are others who know how to make shadows.” He rose and dropped his scalpel. “They will make more.”
       His gaze caught hers, and no part of her, for the first terrible time, understood him though she understood what he was doing—if they killed him, they would not blame the school or Alona. The rest of them would be safe for a while at least. The world would be safe from shadows.
       “Let them find me,” he said and kissed her cheek. “I think I would like to kill more of them.”
       And Isidora left, alone.

Story #2


Winter, 546 of the Runed Age
The Thrice-Blessed School at the border of Alona and Erlend

       Erlend called them shadows, and they were the only ones left alive to name them. Shadows left no survivors.
       Amalia had still been walking and talking, but people were more than bodies. Bodies were Isidora’s domain, death her constant companion, Shadows had no place in her life.
       “I’d rather not consider it but thank you,” Isidora said to Marianna for the fifth time in two days.
       Marianna sighed, and her shadow shrunk against her like a cat rejected. She held it close these days. The younger children at school who had no homes to return to, whose parents had begged them to stay here safe, or who she had refused to turn over because children were not soldiers, magic or no, had enough nightmares about shadows these days.
       “We need to know what they are,” Marianna said softly. “We need one, and it would not be you alone studying it.”
       She didn’t mention that Isidora would not be breaking the Royal Physician oaths and harming a person. No one mentioned Royal Physicians to Isidora anymore.
       “I may never ascend to Royal Physician status.” Isidora’s voice was as empty as her heart. “But I will not experiment on a shadow.”
       Even if they could catch one.
       “I won’t ask again.”
       Marianna’s subtle honesty and subtler threats were something Isidora had loved about her.
       She wasn’t sure what love felt like anymore.

       Isidora never left the infirmary. Enya was dead. The school had no Royal Physician, leaving everyone vulnerable. No one talked about the tertiary tragedy of it, how Isidora wouldn’t be able to ascend now that she had no mentor, and yet all of them acted on the thought. They whispered, they watched, and they treated her like a broken thing. She was a tonic that had lost its medicinal properties—worth keeping around but not particularly useful.
       “You’re moping.”
       “I’m working.”
       There was only so much she could do to heal even with runes. She moved to set her newly-made bandages on the infirmary shelves, and Rodolfo stepped in her way. She pushed her hands, knuckles first, into his chest. Enya taught her to do that to check if a patient were faking unconsciousness. Most people screamed. Rodolfo only rolled his eyes.
       “You work constantly,” he said, “but this is moping work. Bandages? We have hundreds.”
       “How do you know what work looks like?”
       He smiled. “Watching you. I certainly don’t do it.”
       But he took the bandages from her and placed them on the shelf. His hands closed around her shoulders when he turned around, and Isidora let him guide her toward one of the infirmary beds. He tucked her in till she couldn’t escape the blankets and made her sleep. She just closed her eyes and breathed.
       They were at war. They were in danger. They were alive, or at least she thought she was. Rodolfo was flush with life and feeling, always laughing and coming up with plots to keep the school content. He still taught writing to the younger students every morning and put on voices when reading aloud. He made them forget that most of them were on opposite sides of a war.
       Isidora couldn’t read anymore. It was too quiet in her head and the thoughts always slid back to Amalia.
        “I’m fine,” Isidora said long after they both should have been asleep.
       Rodolfo shook his head.
       She couldn’t sleep anymore. It was too quiet even with Rodolfo snoring from his bed across the room, and Enya shouted her name still.
       “What woke you up?” he asked.
       “Nothing,” she said. “I’m fine.”
       Rodolfo had always been the better liar.
       “I believe you.”

       Somehow, it was a shock when she found Nicolas sitting on the small chair at her desk. He was comically tall for it, and once she might have laughed. She sat on the edge of her bed now. Silent.
       “Who sent you?” she asked.
       Nicolas laughed, and vaguely she remembered loving the sound of it. “Who didn’t?”
       They sat for a while, him crossing and uncrossing his legs and her still as she had been with Enya died.
       “Last time you had Rodolfo,” Nicolas said. “This is a new type of grief for you. You’re the only one who survived.”
       And for the first time in a long time, she felt. A little mouth of guilt gnawed through her stomach. Nicolas had lost everyone as a child, and she wasn’t a child now. He had been here once and survived.
       She sniffed. “What good am I if I’m not a Royal Physician? That’s what we need.”
       “You don’t have to be a Royal Physician for us to want you here.” He reached across the gap between them and held out his hand. “People are worried because they love you, not because they’re worried we don’t have a Royal Physician.”
       “It’s all I ever wanted,” she whispered and took his hand. “There aren’t any left in Alona, and I don’t want to learn from the Erlend ones. What do I do now?”
       “Tread, and when you feel like you can’t do it any longer, float,” he said. “And if you can’t do either, please let us help you. Don’t drown.”

       It was Brande Rael, the Nacean Priest of the Soul, who had protested her leaving the most, but the others had left it up to Isidora. She was the only physician they had left at the school even if she wasn’t fully trained; they might need her. Brande had eventually given her his blessing, and she had promised to be careful. She knew he had reason to worry—only Royal Physicians invoked peace.
       Fighting once they appeared on a battle field, their green hoods raised and runes reaching for the dying, was a crime punishable by death. It was practically a holy order, and every nation had always obeyed it. It had saved the life of Brande’s husband often enough. Until it hadn’t.
       But Isidora was not a Royal Physician yet.
       “I will be careful,” she said, already planning to take Enya’s green cloak with her just in case. She could lie if it would mean she would live. She would be needed. She had to live. “There are no physicians, trained or not, in Poppy Green. They need me.”


Winter, 546 of the Runed Age
Poppy Green, Alona

       There were shadows here. They hadn’t expected shadows, charging right into the fields of Poppy Green to fight back the Erlend soldiers who had snuck in. After one day, when her magic had tugged at the base of her spine, Isidora had dipped a finger into the blood crook of her elbow where she always did her bloodletting and drawn a rune in the air. It burned red then black then fell. A dozen heartbeats thundered in her head.
       And she drowned in purpose.
       Enya’s hood covered her head and face, and it was a lie but a necessary once. She stepped onto Poppy Green and the fighting stopped. The living waited for the dying.
       She healed a broken bone hanging from a civilian’s shoulder.
       She reknit a laceration splitting a soldier’s face from scalp to cleft chin.
       She scoured and closed the yanked-open gut of an Erlend mage.
       She saved three and already her hands shook. She was not a Royal Physician, but no one noticed until day four. By then, there was hardly a soldier she hadn’t saved. They let her walk the field unharmed. She kept them alive. She kept them fighting.
       Maybe Isidora was the war all along.
       On day seven, the shadows swarmed.
       They didn’t follow mortal laws. She helped as many as she could run, the Erlends vanishing as quickly as they had appeared days earlier. They ran and hid and ran for days, her body weighed down with mud and the names of the dead, and she sunk into the red, red fields of Poppy Green. She carved runes into soldiers and their skin and her bones. She saved a child from a shadow and lost a soldier to a stampede. She lost herself in runes.
       She was a soldier fleeing. A farmer fighting and losing. The child, saved, screaming as strong arms carried them away and they watched the wave of flesh and nothing overtake the fields. She was Isidora da Abreu trapped in the mud beneath a dozen flayed soldiers she had filed to save.
       Three shadows.
       Three hundred dead and dying.
       Three hundred corpses sitting on her chest, her runes in their skin, their heartbeats stuttering and dying in her head. She tried to save them all.
       She couldn’t save them all and herself, so she picked them.

       In the back of her mind, between the beats of the five hearts now using pieces of hers, Isidora felt a rune burrow into the bones of her arms. There was no flesh left. Too many of the dying needed it to live. The rune was frantic and fast-drawn, as if someone had flung out their hand and splattered magic across the world.
        “Isidora!” Nicolas de Conte’s voice wobbled and cracked in her head. “She might not be alive.”
       Rodolfo screamed. “She’s alive. She has to be.”
        “Isidora,” Nicolas called again, and she wished she could hear him laugh instead. “Where are you?”
        “Everywhere,” she said, but her words tore from the mouth of an unconscious soldier who had needed a new tongue. Her tongue. “Everyone.”
       She thought, so she was.
       Her lungs were in a soldier far behind, the skin of her thigh on a burned woman’s arms, and her blood in dozens of people’s veins.
       Drops of rain or blood or ink crept through the cracks of her lips on a girl the shadows had caught. Head wounds bled, and Isidora had needed to stop the bleeding. It was easier to replace parts of her face. Piece by piece.
       Isidora had a body, but she didn’t remember how. A single white rune, a turtle with a cracked shell, snipped its way out of her wrist and scurried south.
        “Stay away,” Nicolas said through his magic, and the heaving of his breaths filled her chest. He was fighting. He was losing. He was a league away with Rodolfo and trying to escape an Erlend spy. “Rodolfo’s on his way. Don’t drown.”
        “Too late,” she said, and his magic carried the words to him.
       He shuddered. It caught in his side, stitching his ribs together. Magic was about willpower, binding your wants to mortal things, and she willed the stitch away. His feet slammed together, his magic flared, and he appeared behind his opponent. She healed the cuts on his hands, too, if only to see if she could.
       He reached out and touched a rune, vanishing. Soul gone, body gone. He would sleep for days after using that much magic. Isidora knew this. She has known him for over a decade, but now when she thought about him or Rodolfo, she knew exactly what they needed. She knew everyone down to their marrow.
       A shadow stretched above her. She laughed, bodyless. What was there left for it to take?
        “I found you,” it said.
       And all she could do was laugh.
       “I found you,” and it was Rodolfo’s voice, face stained with tears and hands stained with blood. “You’re alive. You’re fine. I found you.”

Winter, 546 of the Runed Age
The Thrice-Blessed School at the border of Alona and Erlend

       He was always a better liar than her.
       “Isidora,” he said, carrying her from Poppy Green. “No one died.”
       She remembered dying.
       Magic had given her a new body. She had no more scars, and it looked the same save for the white scars shackling her wrists. It was her soul, she told Marianna in a panic. She ascended—a Royal Physician finally—and magic sent her back to serve the world in a body that was and wasn’t hers.
       It was what she had always wanted. It was terrifying.
       Rodolfo stayed with her each night. She knew the beat of his heart as well as she knew her own. She listened to it sometimes to see if it still sounded like hers, and he dragged her from the mirrors. He kept the scalpels out of her hands, muttering that the bones were hers and she shouldn’t go looking for them. It was supposed to be impossible to sneak into the infirmary where Gaila had her resting. Rodolfo didn’t believe in impossible things.
       “No one died.”
       “No one but me,” she said.
       He didn’t believe her.
       She had ascended, handpicked by the Triad to heal, but how could they have let everyone before Poppy Green die? How could they have given her this power when so many had died beneath her hands?
       “Three more weeks and we’ll be sixteen.” Rodolfo whispered to her, curling up next to her in the uncomfortable infirmary bed. He slipped his hand around her wrist and pressed his fingers into its dip, sighing at the steady beat of her heart. “Think we’ll be dead by then?”
       “No.”
       She’d been dead for days.

Story #1


Autumn, 546 of the Runed Age
The Thrice-Blessed School at the border of Alona and Erlend

       This wasn’t like the last time Isidora’s brother had poisoned her.
       Usually, she noticed immediately, sprinting through the halls to wherever Rodolfo had fled to accuse him. Purging poison from her veins was as natural as breathing now, the runes not even scarring like they had when Isidora and Rodolfo were children and ill-trained in magic. Their pastime had given them the will they needed to master runes. It was a comfort to lift a cup to her lips and feel the burn of something deadly against her nostrils, and Rodolfo had to feel the same. He always laughed and drank her latest attempt to kill him with a flourish. Not that they were trying to kill each other. They were fifteen—far past the brutal fights of childhood.
       Others rarely understood their competition to find something the other couldn’t do, but they were twins and always understood each other. She paced the narrow halls of the infirmary, fingers scraping along the bricks of the squat building next door to the Thrice-Blessed School, and took a deep breath of salt and astringents. If she closed her eyes and tried hard enough, sometimes the salt smelled like home. The steady breaths of the patients were waves.
       She counted the bricks and doors—this building was nothing but doors, fourteen of them to be exact—and stopped at the door at the end of the hall. “Enya?”
       “Open.”
     Isidora pushed open the office door, her stomach rolling. The low light of dawn filtered in through the blue-tinted glass windows, and a lamp flickered warm and golden on the corner of Enya’s desk. The walls were wallpapered in anatomy guides and explanations of the body’s systems, all in Enya’s hand. Isidora adored it all, from the haphazard stacks of books that rustled when she walked to the detailed map of veins of the feet that decorated the floor. Her own office, the corner of the quarters she still shared with Rodolfo, was meticulously organized and labeled. Nicolas de Contes had gifted her a lovely set of adhesive paper strips for her last birthday (Rodolfo he had given a mage’s knife). Her need for organization couldn’t quell her love for Enya.
       “Your adherence to a timely schedule is, as always, admirable,” Enya said, still scribbling notes in her journal. “But it’s not even light out, darling. What are you doing here? Our rounds are in an hour.”
       “Something feels off.” The ache in Isidora’s head had seeped into her eyes and down the back of her neck. “Could you make sure I’m not dying?”
       “You can’t?” Enya lifted her head, round eyes widening. Enya da Dorer was as squat as the infirmary she lived in and shrinking every year it seemed—a bundle of red hair gathered at the nape of her short neck, her square jaw shifting as she gnawed on a nub of mint candy, and long green cloak making her seem more mossy stump than Royal Physician preparing for a day of work. “And here I thought I would escape your apprenticeship without worrying about you.”
       She gestured for Isidora to sit in one of the small chairs across from her desk and pushed herself to her feet. This early in the morning, she was still creaky. Isidora sunk into the chair.
       “It’s like I’ll be deathly ill next week,” Isidora said softly. “I feel off.”
       Isidora knew that Enya would know if she were sick the moment she sat down, but she loved Enya for checking her over fully anyway. Enya never discounted anything; no symptom was ignored and no person was turned away. Distrust by physicians bred apathy, she always said. Apathy killed.
       “You’re fine.” Enya patted Isidora’s knee. “What’s wrong?”
       “Melancholy. Foreboding.” Isidora hadn’t slept without waking in a cold sweat for a week, and her hunger had fled.
       “To be expected with all that’s happening.” Enya took a deep breath and turned to her window, the dark outside only just fading to the watery blue of sunrise. “If you need someone to talk to about what ails your mind, talk to Marianna. She’s busy and I know she mostly teaches now, but she’s the best.”
       Alona and Erlend were at war for the first time since Alona’s conception. Erlend had poked and prodded for three years, sending soldiers to intimidate but not kill, until Caldera Lake. Two towns—Bosque and Caldera—completely gone. Isidora had been too young to help scour the land for survivors. Enya had come back with four. Four out of thousands.
       And now Celso de Lex had announced shadows, whatever they were, and pledged an Erlend victory only a month ago.
Nothing felt right anymore.
       “You have noble holdings,” said Enya. “Perhaps one of you should return home.”
       Home, Isidora thought, was wherever the other twin was, dead or alive. Port da Abreu was all salt and ash, the memories of their parents’ pyres. The Thrice-Blessed School was home. It had been since they were five.
       “No.” Isidora shook her head. “We won’t.”
       If one of them did leave the school, it would be Rodolfo, but neither of them wanted that.
       “Think on it.” Enya’s gaze dropped to her notes and she went back to writing, face softer than it had been but clear of the worry lines around her mouth. “We’re heading north today. Prepare yourself for anything. We are certain that Mage de Lex and his shadows attacked, but it’s unclear what exactly happened. Nicolas attempted to intervene, but whatever magic was used interfered with his transference. We decided it was too dangerous for him to attempt it again.”
       Nicolas could send his soul from his body and mind, a ghost of himself, and walk the earth where no one could see, but each time he did it, each time he stepped farther and farther away, the magic separating his soul from his body grew stronger. They would need that skill later, when the war still raged.
       And yet already Celso had made it useless?
       “It’s the shadows, isn’t it?” Isidora asked while walking to the door. “We still don’t know what they are, but they’re magic.”
       “It is.” Enya’s worry lines reappeared. “They’re nothing like Nicolas’s transference or Marianna’s shadow walking. They’re something new.”

       That evening before Isidora left, Rodolfo’s eyes found hers from across the crowded yard, and he winked. He had spent the last year bouncing from study to study, from apprenticeship to apprenticeship, all of them slipping from his hands like ill-fitting gloves. The problem with Rodolfo da Abreu, Marianna always said, was that he was good at everything he tried and loyal to nothing. Isidora had wanted to be a Royal Physician since they were five. He had simply followed her.
And he still always found her.
       Isidora had already packed, checked, and double checked her supplies for their journey, and now she was going over them again, the runes on her palms bundled in the nooks of her fingers, hiding from the panic in her veins. They were nothing like Enya’s white turtle runes that paced along her wrists in looping lines, each shell a different style meant for different things. They were black and plain, Isidora’s standard collection.
       Blood production, clotting, scabbing, bone knitting, and a dozen others—she had inked them into her skin over lunch.
Her hunger had not returned. Her stomach still rolled.
       But the movement of her runes, their trembling and posturing, the way they would raise from her flesh, bloodied and ready to help, were her crowning achievement. No other physician in training had ever been selected so young.
       No one else had been able to control their magic so fully at such a young age. Isidora could ink and carve runes into her skin and heal them with the power leftover without so much as passing out from channeling so much power into her skin. It was something Isidora had that was hers and hers alone.
       That was only partially a lie—Marianna was a prodigy to prodigies and had done the same younger; Em could do things with magic and metal no one could replicate; Nicolas had learned to separate the three aspects of himself from each other at the age of ten when stranded at sea after his ship had sunk; and Gaila was a wonder every time Isidora saw her work, runes so small and precise that magic practically offered itself up to her for the taking. The rest of them had to coax it into runes to be used.
       This was the one thing she didn’t share with Rodolfo.
       Rodolfo could’ve been good if he put his mind to it, but instead he let magic run amok across his skin, ink and blood inseparable.
       “That’s the fun of it,” he had said when they were eight and practicing. “If you ask it to do something and it does but not the way you thought, it’s way more fun.”
       No use thinking on him now. Soon, Isidora would be gone for days and maybe he would grow up while she was gone.
       “Unlikely,” she muttered to herself, leaning against the wagon that would carry them away and watching the rest of the people in the courtyard.
       If she stared hard enough, it was like there was nothing at all wrong in the world. It was simply another day. Her friends were dead or dying or training to die with swords in their hands. Shadows, whatever they were, hadn’t been created.
       The yard was mostly empty. Em talked to Nicolas who had returned that morning and only just woken up. Her green eye glinted in the evening light as she threw back her head. Her laughed rolled over the yard, loud and happy, and she smacked Nicolas’s arm. Nicolas, resplendent in his long green coat speckled with gold like sunlight flickering through pines, laughed too, and his shoulders bounced with the barking sound. His black hair was bound back today in a messy tail, and the toes of his bare feet curled across the grass. He spoke with his hands, gesturing wildly about some foible or another.
       Laughter was so rare these days. Would anyone still be laughing when she returned?
       A hand touched her elbow. Rodolfo’s freckled face leaned over her shoulder. “If you undress him with your eyes anymore, he won’t have any skin.”
       As children, they had wondered why they weren’t identical and drawn on freckles so that they matched. Now, he was taller, sharper, and had eyes almost always crinkled into narrow, judging knowing.
       She frowned. “Don’t be vulgar.”
       “You’re the only one here who wants to be vulgar.” He snorted and crossed his arms against his chest. “I really do not understand what you see in that rail of a man.”
       “He’s smart.”
       “You’re smarter,” Rodolfo said.
       Isidora nodded, eyes sliding back to Nicolas. “Yes, and he readily admits it. I do wish more people would follow his example.”
       He had been the only Erlend mage not to laugh when she had asked to sit her training exams two years early, and she remembered.
       But sometimes she stared at Nicolas de Contes and could only remember his laugh from those first few days after the war. He had returned from Lynd half-dead and rotting, the runes so overused that they had nearly needed to amputate his arm; they would have to the next time. Isidora had been shadowing Enya still, and Nicolas had laughed when they walked into his room.
       “Do you know, Enya, what a group of physician is called?” he had asked, words sticking in his throat like vomit. He had laughed them free, mouth full of blood and dirt and loose teeth. “A grief, for they almost always bear bad news.”
       Isidora, two years later, two years bloodier, always bore bad news and bad knowledge. She knew all the ways to heal and could see all the ways a person had been hurt simply by looking at them.
       Physicians bore that bad news because someone had to, and this was her mantle to bear.
       “You’re leaving then?” Rodolfo asked loudly, and his fingers pinched the skin beneath her elbow. “Now?”
       “Soon.” She turned to him. “And I’ll be back soon.”
       Rodolfo swallowed. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
       Who didn’t, these days?
       “Who are they sending with you?” He shook his head, hiding his sniff with an exaggerated sigh, and lounged back against the wagon in a lackadaisical way Isidora could never have pulled off. “Which guards?”
       “Don’t know yet.” She nodded behind them, and saw Nicolas heading their way from the corner of her sight. “Nicolas is probably here to decide that.”
       The soft slap of his blade-less mage sword against his hip marked Nicolas’s arrival. He paused, as he always did, a few steps from their conversation, feet apart, and waited. Rodolfo nodded him over.
       Rodolfo always said, that despite his best efforts, he liked Nicolas.
       Nicolas always said, that despite his better instincts, he trusted Rodolfo.
       Isidora always said they were fools.
       “Enya is yelling at the guard you were supposed to have for oversleeping,” Nicolas said with a wide grin and shrug. “She’s much scarier than I am.”
       Rodolfo snorted. “Are you scary at all?”
       “Only to people with sense,” Nicolas said, bowing, as would have been polite if they were strangers, and meeting Rodolfo’s gaze. “But you shouldn’t mock people taller than you; I might put all of your favorite things on the top shelves.”
       “Please don’t,” Isidora said. “He would be insufferable.” The unease twined about her spine lessened but still lingered. “Who is going with us, though? Not you?”
       “No, I’m destined for Nacea, actually.” Nicolas straightened back up, suddenly serious. His dark eyes were rimmed in red, exhausted skin. “I’m sending Nina, Corrun, and Amalia with you. They’re the best, and you won’t be near where Celso is. Whatever he’s up to is farther north, and you’re going to help out group 149. They reported casualties, and they just got back into range where we could send physicians. You will be very safe.”
       “Send me,” Rodolfo said. He slipped from the wagon and crossed his arms over his chest.
       “Absolutely not.” Nicolas shook his head. “First, you’re siblings. You can’t be sent on the same job. Second, you haven’t earned a sword yet.”
       “I don’t need one.” Rodolfo was one of the best fighters even without a mage sword, but this was a war of magic. Steel was nothing. “Normal soldiers, normal blades. If Erlend attacks while they’re there—”
       “Then one of the fifty or so professional soldiers will protect them.” Nicolas pinched the bridge of his long nose with one hand and waved Rodolfo off with the other. “If you actually sit the exam this time, I will take you with me and continue training you, but you have to pass it like everyone else. I don’t want to send you out only to recover you as a corpse.”
       The door to the courtyard slammed open. Enya marched out, a duckling procession of soldiers behind her. Nicolas turned, distracted, and Isidora grabbed Rodolfo’s arm. He flinched.
       Good.
       “Could you save your own problems for after I go off to deal with death?” she hissed in his ear.
       A flush splotched his cheeks. “Sorry.”
       “It’s fine,” she said. “I know you’re bored. I’ll help you once I’m back, and you can score even higher than Nicolas did. How about that?”
       Rodolfo took her hand, squeezed, and let go. “Deal. Just make sure you come back alive.”

       Frosted grassed crunched beneath their shoes and the wheels of their small wagon, the fresh nip of cold reddening the tips of their noses. Isidora kept her magic in check, resisting the urge to warm herself for fear she would need that energy later. They traveled for three days, taking turns in the wagon to rest, and Enya asked Isidora questions as they walked, instructing her on runes, healing, and bedside manners. At the end of the third day, an odd quiet fell over the land, and Isidora’s unease tightened in the pit of her stomach. Even Enya’s white skin was green.
       No soldiers from the 149 greeted them. No civilians lingered on the outskirts of town or in the streets.
       There was only the smell—rot and fire and blood. The thick clog of overcooked fat and rotten flesh burned in the back of Isidora’s throat, and Corrun vomited off the side of the road. Enya dropped the hood of her Royal Physician’s cloak and looked around, eyes watery and mouth clamped shut. The runes on her wrists snipped out of her skin and dropped to the dirt. They scurried off to find survivors.
       But in the back of Isidora’s mind, in the ache in her chest, in the way her own ill-made imitation runes cowered, she knew there were none.
       “Corrun, stay here.” Nina, in charge and the only one not breathing through her mouth, nodded to Amalia. “We’ll head in, and we’ll let you know if you should leave. You good for that, Lia?”
       “Let’s go.” Amalia nodded and pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. “I’m fine.”
       They should leave. Isidora dry heaved, and it had nothing to do with the smell.
       Something in the magic was wrong.
       Nina and Amalia did not come back.
       “Isidora, come here.” Enya swung her cloak from her shoulders and wrapped it around Isidora, knotting the ties beneath her chin. It was too long, too wide, and too heavy, and Isidora suddenly hated the pale green and black stitching she had dreamt of wearing since she was a child. “I want you to walk back as far as you can now. In this, everyone will let you pass and keep you safe. Don’t come back.”
       Nina’s voice shrieked, inhuman and painful, across the empty town, and Isidora shuddered. Enya’s hands tightened on her shoulders.
       “Now,” she said, “run.”
       But Amalia was coming back. She stumbled, blood dripping from her empty hands. A smear of red crossed her face, and one of her shoulders slumped down so far her fingers scraped the ground. Her other hand held her face, fingers shaking against her hair, and Corrun lowered his sword. Enya raised her hand, runes writhing beneath her skin. Ink rose up from beneath her shirt.
       A mantle of knives.
       “Lia?” Corrun called.
       Amalia lurched forward as if she were about to vomit but held it in. Straightened. Behind her hand, her face sagged.
       “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
       Enya’s runes recoiled, settling back into her skin. Isidora’s reared, red and angry, ripping out of her skin before she could scream. They hung, power waiting for a command, in the air. Isidora opened her mouth.
       “No,” she said, but it was lost in the choke of her fear.
       Enya stepped forward. Amalia was hurt, and Enya left no one hurt for long.
       “No,” Isidora said again. This time, only Corrun was close enough to hear. Enya was already halfway to Amalia. “Enya? Stop.”
       Isidora’s runes flared, bursting from her skin at the command, and shot to Enya, hooking into the flesh of her back. Her heartbeat rang in Isidora’s head. Her muscles tensed.
       Isidora stopped it all and held her mentor in place.
       “Dora?” Enya said, still stuck staring at Amalia who stepped closer every breath. “What are you doing?”
       “Can’t you feel that? This isn’t right.” Isidora’s runes shivered. All the magic in the air, too much magic for one place, pressed into her as if she had stepped suddenly into the dark, empty depths of the open sea and the weight of the world rested atop her.
       There were only three human hearts beating here.
       “That’s not Amalia.”
       “Fuck!” Corrun raced forward, and Isidora yanked back, her magic carrying Enya with it.
       Enya stumbled. Her magic swelled, the comfort of healing breaking through the terror Isidora tasted in the air. The runes from her skin rose in a shield, bloodied and twisting, and what had been Amalia once launched its body forward. A streak of red rent Enya in two.
       There were two hearts beating here.
       Isidora da Abreu turned and ran.

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