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Skuggaste

Tanyuin Academy Stories

Skuggaste

Preview

Summoning a spirit is harder than it sounds, especially when you have no idea how to do it.

Kader leaned over the boiling pot. The small branch of the sachion tree bobbed stubbornly at the top, refusing to break down at all. One of the palace cooks hovered nearby, kneading bread and casting looks at Kader and his friends, as if unsure whether she should step in and help. Hopefully she wouldn’t. Taking a piece off a sachion tree, even for a royal Kepron, was prohibited. 

“Stir it around,” Metz suggested.

Kader already felt hot from the steam and the staring, but he took up a spoon and stirred. Technically, his two friends were his servants, but he hardly thought of them that way anymore. So, really, they should be the ones stirring the stick, but they knew he liked to be involved in the process. It felt as solid as ever as it knocked against the spoon. His hand grew hotter next to the boiling water. 

“Did your mother tell you how long this part took?” Kader asked, looking at his other friend, Hob. Hob’s shock of white hair floated above him as if he were underwater. It gave him the appearance of always being surprised.

“No. I figured it would be like boiling a potato.”

“How long does that take?”

“Whole potatoes or diced?” Metz interjected. A line was beginning to form on his freckled forehead where the widow’s peak stretched down. It was his researching look.

Kader frowned. They were getting off track. “Does it matter?”

“It does. One only takes about ten minutes but the other takes much longer.”

Kader gestured at the pot with his spoon. “This much longer?”

“He doesn’t know anything,” said Hob, flicking a look at the cook who had begun eyeing them with more intensity. “The important part is that you have the branch. At least, I think that’s what I heard. And my mother always said her grandmother had spices around the house. Those have to be part of it.”

Kader turned to Metz. “You already have those, right?”

Metz rummaged through his pockets and drew out four small parcels neatly tied with string. 

“Why didn’t you take more?” asked Hob, elbowing him.

Metz elbowed him back, giving himself space. “I figured we shouldn’t waste any. None of the sources I read talked about saddlebags of spices. That would be important to mention, don’t you think?”

Kader sighed. “It’s fine.” Pain spasmed up his shoulder from the repetitive motion. He set the spoon aside. “This is taking ages.” 

Metz seemed to sense his meaning and began stirring for him. 

Kader stretched his shoulders. The embroidered gray tunic felt tight across his chest. He was probably growing out of it again. Metz’s uncle was a tailor and would insist it was no trouble, but Kader’s rapidly growing body felt troublesome. Whenever he thought he’d peaked, his clothes wouldn’t fit right anymore.

“I don’t know,” said Hob. “If you aren’t patient, my mum used to say, the stars will come out without you.”

Metz rolled his eyes. “We just need a little more time and then we’ll try it. What do you think?”

“I think so,” Kader agreed.

A thoughtful look crossed Hob’s pale face. “I just… I just realized that my great-gran might have had those spices for keeping skuggaste away, not for summoning them.”

 Skuggaste. Spirits. 

Metz looked at Kader. “They might be tied to the land—to Hinter. I’ve thought of that too.”

“So have I,” Kader shot back, more harshly than he meant. South Hinter was where he’d first heard of skuggaste. Everyone there seemed to believe in them, but his Amiran tutors hadn’t mentioned them more than once, and even then it was only to give flavor to the mountainous land to the north. “And they believe in mountain ghosts and spirits. Isn’t that interesting?” A fact isolated from reality. 

But, years ago, when he was eleven, Kader had crouched there in hiding for several weeks, seeing murderous Tanyu in every shadow, even as he tried to mourn his family. Stories took his mind off the compulsive loneliness, the sense of being untethered and floating through black space. A Hinterlander family had taken him in, along with the guard and nurse who had escaped with him. It was an unseasonably cold autumn that year and frost crawled on the edges of the leaves and windowsills even as summer was coming to a close. Cupping a hot mug in his hands—tasted first by the guard to make sure it wasn’t poisoned—he had listened to the Hinterlanders’ stories. They told of heroes and monsters and villains, but Kader’s favorites were about the spirits. Were they really the dead? Could they speak? Were they dangerous? Could anyone come back as a ghost?

He gazed down at the bubbling pot as Metz fished out the stubborn stick with tongs. It dripped on the counter.

“Put it there,” Kader said, pointing. “Is there a way the spices are supposed to go?”

Hob gave an apologetic shrug. 

“She’s going to tell us off for not being more respectful,” Metz whispered, watching the cook leave to another room. “I said that we should call him ‘My Kepron’ in public,” he added to Hob.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Kader. “At least you don’t call me Kade out here. When I’m Keeper, I’ll change it so you don’t have to be so formal around me.” He prodded the stick with a finger. It was hot and damp, but little else had changed. “We’ve just got to work with this, I guess.”

“Should we turn out the lights?” Metz asked smartly.

“Spices first,” said Hob, untying the little parcels and pouring out the contents in rings around the sachion branch. 

The result looked like a mess. If Kader were a spirit, he wouldn’t come running just to see that. But he wasn’t a spirit. They were different. They had to be handled carefully. 

Metz had positioned himself by the lanterns flanking the door that led upstairs to the main level. He took the metal snuffer off its hook. “Good?”

“Good,” replied Hob. “Ready?” There was a slight squeak to his voice that suggested he wasn’t ready at all but wouldn’t show it.

Kader nodded, a now familiar twist coiling in his belly. “Ready.”

The lights went out, one after another. Kader heard his own breath, slightly labored, in the blackness. Only a rim of gold seeped in under the door to the adjoining room. Two guards waited just upstairs, another in the room next door. Kader had requested that they not be here for the experiment. He could never completely dismiss them, not after that day when he was eleven. 

The tight feeling spread over his neck and down his spine. What would he see? Despite Hob having more knowledge than Kader did about Hinterlander folklore, he couldn’t say much for certain about the skuggaste, only offer alternate stories. Most of those stories said the spirits were dangerous, though whether they were malicious or mercurial, no one knew for sure. No one even knew for sure whether the spirits were the essence of deceased people or something else entirely. Kader’s heart beat erratically as he gazed out at the blank room. He hoped one of those was true.

Motes of light from the extinguished lanterns floated before his vision. 

Was that something? 

His blood chilled. He groped a numb hand through the wash of dark and found Hob’s arm. “Do you see something?” he breathed. 

The afterimage of light still hadn’t faded, and now it seemed to be spreading, like a heavy blue cloud arranged in a pillar. A man-sized pillar. It couldn’t be more than five strides away. He squinted into the place where a face should be but there was only blankness. The closer he looked, the less he saw. The whole figure faded when he stared.

Maybe Hob hadn’t heard him. Maybe he was enthralled. Wasn’t there something about—

Crash!

Kader jumped, tension arcing from his heel to his skull. The noise echoed through the empty kitchen, swiftly followed by the sound of Metz and Hob fighting to light the lanterns again. The door behind them opened. A guard stepped in. 

Stabbing pain seized Kader, making him speechless, though curses rippled through his mind. His muscles contracted in that way they did when it felt like his own body attacking him, ripping him apart from the inside. Gripping the counter for support, he gasped in a breath of air. Not again, not now. The room slid in and out of focus. Only the burning slash across his back and neck seemed to mean anything at all. Muffled footsteps blended with the heartbeat churning in his ears. He tried to stay upright, but only for a moment. He had to lie down. Had to stay still, with no pressure on his spine. Had to curl his knees up and rest his head on something soft.

The room was light. Hob bent to pick up the pot he’d knocked off the counter, his entire body chalk-white as he looked at Kader. Just a pot. The image was gone. Maybe it hadn’t been there at all. I had to be so damned afraid, didn’t I?

He lay on the hard floor, curled on his side. Deep breaths. Breathing wasn’t automatic anymore, required all his mind but he couldn’t spare a thought away from the spasm in his back. His arms shook with strain. Hot water soaked through his shirt, pooling under him. The boiling pot had water in it.


Figures stood above him, saying something. He looked away, closing his fingers into fists to stop the trembling. No position helped when the pain was like this. Normally a persistent ache, it rose to a roar more and more often.


Ever since he was eleven.

_________


Read the rest in Tanyuin Academy Stories!