Oriana startled awake. Moonlight filtered through the opening in their tent, casting a pale glow on everything inside. It was somehow very calming, and she found the memories of her dream quickly fading into scattered details—a roaring black wave crashing over her, a child's laughter.
But the child's laughter didn't fade.
She could hear it still, faintly, coming from outside. A quiet giggle here and there, nothing but the silence of the night filling the gaps. Watching Wrench's form shuffle in her sleep and deciding not to wake her friends yet, Oriana grabbed her bow and shuffled over to the flap that served as the door, crouching under the low ceiling. Then—carefully, quietly—she stuck her face outside.
Not twenty paces from the edge of the camp she saw a white-blue glow fluttering above the ground. This was the source of the sound, and Oriana gasped as she realized what she was seeing. It was a shrike—a rare creature of pure energy. She had heard many stories of them; a mischievous but kind race no more than three hands tall, winged and wreathed in blue flames that didn't burn. But she had never seen one in person. Few had.
Torn between leaving it to its own devices and watching its inviting glow flit about for longer, she realized something. It wasn't going anywhere. It was hard to tell from this distance, but it seemed to be looking straight at her, floating back and forth, doing nothing more than occasionally twittering with soft laughter. Almost as if it was trying to get her attention.
It was then that she felt the cold fire of steel on her throat, and caught a face moving into the light in the corner of her eye. She opened her mouth in shock, but before any sound could escape, a dark hand slid over her mouth.
Afraid to move lest she test the blade's edge, she strained to see her attacker without turning her head. She wasn't able to get a good look before the blade suddenly shifted, causing her to flinch. It didn’t feel like it cut her, but if it had the pain could have been delayed by shock.
It took her a moment to realize what had actually happened. The blade now lay flat across her throat, pressed against her but not hard enough to be anything more than uncomfortable. She had yet to make heads or tails of the situation when the face crept forward in the darkness and whispered to her.
“How many with you?” it asked, in a voice far less menacing that she would have expected. As it said this, the blade withdrew and the shrike she had seen earlier approached and alighted on the figure's shoulder, finally breaking the silhouette of the moonlight and allowing her to see the face of her ‘attacker’.
It was a man who seemed close to her age, with dark skin and dark clothing except for a glimmering something strung across his chest. His hair—long and bunched together in dreadlocks—was tied back behind his head. The shrike was sitting on his bare shoulder, kicking its legs back and forth and grinning.
Something about his face, serious but not unkind, and the presence of a shrike reassured her, and she decided to answer his question despite his strange behaviour and despite her better judgement.
“Two,” she whispered, narrowing her eyes. She looked at his blade, a strange weapon that was curved like a slithering snake and had a golden inlay down its middle. “Why?”
“How many in your tent?”
“I told you, two. What do you w—”
“How many in your tent?” he hissed, more insistent this time.
Taken aback, Oriana turned her head back toward the interior and counted her slumbering companions. Two, just as she had—
Scrambling backwards to her feet, she stood with her head pressed uncomfortably into the low ceiling of the tent and tried to pull an arrow onto her bow. All the commotion caused a stirring in her companions, and Wrench's groggy face appeared as she sat up in her bedclothes, the pale moonlight bleaching her nearly white.
“Oriana? What's goin’ on?”
“Shh! Someone is in here with us,” Oriana said, quiet but urgent. “Is that Zane beside you? Wake him up. Quietly. And grab your wrench.”
Wrench leaned over the sleeping figure, taking a good look at its face, and shook Zane’s shoulder.
“What exactly is so important?” Zane snapped, instantly alert and clearly unhappy to be awoken. Wrench shushed him and pointed to the last person in the tent, apparently still sleeping.
“Somebody's in here,” Wrench informed him in hushed tones before turning back to Oriana. “Did you hear laughin’ outside?”
“It was just a shrike,” Oriana answered tersely, her attention on the sleeping intruder her bow was now aimed at. “Where’s your weapon? I might need help!”
“I dunno, around here somewhere. Just shoot ‘em!” Wrench said, her eye fixated on the doorway.
Oriana's gaze followed Wrench's, toward where the man and the shrike should have been, but they were nowhere in sight. She turned back to her friend.
“What do you mean, ‘I dunno’? It's your wrench.”
“Maybe whoever dat is took it? All da more reason ta shoot dem.”
Through the canvas of the tent, she saw a slight blue glow appear roughly behind Wrench and Zane (who was rubbing his eye as if he’d seen a ghost). Oriana's eyes narrowed.
She stalked slowly over to the third person in the tent, an arrow still trained on them.
“Oriana, she could be dangerous! I wouldn't get no closer.”
In a flash of motion, Oriana kicked the dark lump at the ground and swung her bow around in the opposite direction.
“Wrench! Help!” she shouted as her aim settled again. But in the split second this had taken, Zane's throat was now clutched in the grip of a too-pale Wrench, blonde hair spilling from beneath her bandana in the commotion. The moonlight was not responsible for this strange appearance after all.
“Where is the shrike?” the doppelganger said with a scowl, Wrench's affect fading from its voice. Oriana could hear Zane struggling to breathe as his hands clawed ineffectively at the one holding his neck, and the stirring of the real Wrench at her feet, but her eyes stayed fixated on her target.
“I scared it off when I looked outside. Let Zane go.”
“I don't think I will. As pathetic as your weapon is, being shot is still something I'd rather avoid.” As it spoke, it positioned Zane further between itself and Oriana, until she could barely see its eye behind him. “But by all means shoot. It would save me the trouble of snapping his neck before I kill the rest of you.”
“Fine.” Oriana released her arrow.
It sailed through the air and sunk itself into the eye of the fake Wrench just as the real thing leapt to her feet with her wrench at the ready.
But before any of them could get any further, the tent wall was torn open and the man from before came careening through, with the shrike still on his shoulder. His blade sunk between the shoulders of the imposter, and a pause hung in the air until Zane fell into the cloud of black powder that his attacker had suddenly collapsed into.
“A shade?” Oriana said, watching in shock as her arrow settled into the black remains.
“What do clouds wear under their trousers?” asked the man.
Oriana and Wrench stared in puzzlement while crouched over Zane, who was struggling to regain his breath.
Dumbfounded, Oriana glanced at Wrench, who looked back at her with a confused smile.
The shrike, however, seemed to appreciate the joke, and burst into a cacophony of laughter, falling from its perch and rolling in the black dust on the floor. Its laughter gained in volume to the point that it was almost painful, until suddenly the fire surrounding it flared up and the entire creature burst into a glittering blue dust.
Oriana gaped openly at the scene.
“I'm sorry, I had hoped a shrike would draw the shade out, not one of you,” the man said, as if nothing had happened to the shrike. “We've been tracking it for days. My name is Atieno, and this is Nix.”
He gestured to the blue glitter on the ground. Oriana didn't introduce herself, or make any sound really, beyond opening and closing her mouth like a dehydrated fish.
“Zane,” Zane wheezed.
“I'm Wrench!” Wrench said gleefully, holding out her free hand toward Atieno.
Atieno held up a hand as well, but not to shake.
“One moment. I need to take care of this first,” he said.
He pulled at the chain draped across his chest—a sturdy gold link with glass vials attached at regular intervals—until he found an empty vial and unscrewed it. Then he reached down and pinched the shade's remains, which Oriana noticed were making no attempt to leave.
A tug on the powder was all it took, and the entire pile lifted as if glued together, only to be prodded into the vial. It looked as if it should have only been able to carry a tiny fraction of what it eventually managed to.
He then screwed the vial back into its topper, attached to the chain, and held his hand out to shake Wrench's.
“Pleased to meet you, Wrench. And Zane, was it,” he said, turning back to Zane.
As Oriana watched, she noticed Zane had pulled his letter opener from the satchel at his waist, and when Atieno’s attention turned to him he lunged forward with the skinny golden blade.
“Zane!” Oriana shouted, far too late. She could only watch as it streaked toward Atieno…
…and past him.
Another Shade collapsed into dust across Atieno’s shoulders, Zane's letter opener now sticking into nothing but the air left behind.
“Yes, Zane Carmine,” Zane croaked, putting the tiny knife away and holding out his spare hand as his other rubbed his throat. “And I guess that makes us even.”
“Not quite,” Atieno said with a frown, and as they watched the dust on his shoulders began to billow and twist away into the night through the torn side of the tent.
“Two of them…” he muttered. “Had I know, I would have had Nix wait. I was sloppy. But they don't usually travel in pairs.”
“Ev’ry time we see dem dey're in pairs,” Wrench said, puzzled.
“What? You've encountered shades before?”
“Yeah! Dey're basic’ly huntin’ us.”
Zane put an arm in front of her and gave her a warning look.
“Not that I don't appreciate the assistance, Atieno, but who are you and what are you doing here?”
Atieno passed a curious look over the group, pausing on Oriana. She noticed with a start that he had two eyes, but before she could react to that information she realized he would be noticing the same thing and she froze up.
“I can answer both of those questions together,” Atieno said, still looking at Oriana. “I'm a shade hunter. But what are you doing here? You're Oriana Gale, aren't you? I thought you were in Viducia?”
Oriana said nothing. All she could think to do was turn her right eye away from Atieno as if he'd just forget it was there.
“Well, that explains the shades at least. I'd heard the Crown had sicced them on you. That's kind of why I got this,” he said, and he brought a finger up to his right eye. Oriana winced as he tapped a finger directly on it, but was surprised to hear a sharp rapping.
“Glass. Sort of a fashion statement and bait at the same time. Most Cynics prefer to wear their missing eye with pride, but I don't mind the attention. Makes my job easier.”
“You hunt shades? Seems like dangerous work,” Zane said, his posture still stiff with suspicion.
“Not with Nix by my side. They make a great partner. We've taken out five so far,” he said, pulling up a fine golden chain dangling across his chest like a sash. Strung along it were glass vials, empty except for five that were filled with coarse black powder.
“Morbid maybe, but I'll take whatever edge I can get over those monsters.”
“Speaking of ‘Nix’...” Oriana hazarded, staring at what looked like a pile of blue glitter.
Atieno followed her gaze and smiled.
“Oh, that's normal.”
Oriana raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously. They explode like that when they laugh. Then they come back. Shades hate the sound of it when they’re in solid form, and when they’re not? Well, they more or less turn into regular dust.”
As he bent over to scoop up Nix’s remains, Oriana thought back to what she had seen. As little sense as it made to her, it certainly explained things. Except one.
“It looked like Wrench…”
“Yeah, they can pretty much take whatever shape they want, though they can't change it very often. And for whatever reason they're always pale and blonde. You must have seen these ones before for them to have had her likeness ready.”
Zane lit a lantern to complement the moonlight streaming in the door, after which Wrench strode forward and unabashedly grabbed the chain from Atieno’s chest, turning one of the vials in the brighter light.
“Dese must be da ones Frederick an’ I were fightin’,” she surmised. “Shame one a dem got away again. He'll be real ticked off now.”
“They're drawn to you like magnets, apparently. It'd make my job a lot easier if I could just follow you around. And you would get some extra protection. I could draw up the necessary contracts…?” Atieno reached for the ledger chained to his waist as Wrench moved away again.
“No,” Oriana said, forcefully. Atieno frowned.
“No contracts,” she went on. “Anyone who hunts those monsters is someone I'd be happy to have around, and you'll just have to take me at my word.”
Atieno looked to Zane, but he found no help in the other Cynic in the tent.
“She's very insistent,” Zane said with a shrug.
“And what about you?” Atieno asked, gesturing toward Zane's ledger.
“Er… It's a long story.”
“His book’ll kill ya if ya break yer word,” Wrench interjected brightly. “It's magic!”
“Well… yes. If you want to put it simply.”
“Not that I have any intention of breaking a contract,” Atieno said, his eyes narrowing at Zane's ledger, “but I think I'll go with Oriana's option in this case.”
“So we're good?” Oriana asked.
“...I guess,” Atieno said, a frown emphasizing his discomfort with the arrangement. “I think I'll make camp on my own, though.”
“What, you don't trust us?” Oriana scoffed.
“Yeah, pretty much. You're a complete stranger who won't sign a contract to ensure my safety.”
“Cynics…” Oriana said, rolling her eyes.
“Whatever you are, it's no less frustrating for me,” Atieno countered, turning to leave the tent. “I'll see you in the morning.”
Oriana turned back around to her friends, surveying the mess the ruckus had caused and the hole in the tent, which Zane was attempting to sew loosely closed with a length of cord and his letter opener. She heaved a great sigh and rubbed her tired eyes.
“You have that handled?” she asked Zane.
“Yes, it should be more or less repaired in a moment.”
“Thanks. And your throat?”
“Nothing I won't recover from with a little rest.”
“What are you smiling at?” she asked Wrench.
“Nothin’!” she lied, beaming toward the outside.
Oriana threw a pillow at her and closed the flap.
“Go to bed, you dork.”
She slumped into her own bedroll and fell quickly back asleep despite the sound of quiet giggling from across the tent. At least this time she knew where it was coming from.