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Beneath Shadow

Out of the corner of her eye, Mila watched a patch of shadow trickle across the grassy expanse of the park. Darker than the mingling shadows of oak leaves, it flowed steadily toward where she and her sister walked. Mila stuck her hands in her jacket pockets and tried to focus on her sister's excited chatter about her college classes. The symptoms of Mila's anxiety disorder were severe, but never before had she hallucinated.

This was why Mila usually never left her apartment on weekends. Saturday and Sunday were supposed to be her break from work and panic attacks. She wanted to enjoy this lovely Northern California autumn day before Cara had to go back to college.

When she looked again the shadow remained, rippling like heat waves. "Cara…"

Her sister's eyes were fixed on the patch. "What the hell is that?"

Mila's heart thudded. "You can see it?"

"Yeah." Cara leaned forward. "Is it tar or something?"

"I don't think so. I saw it move."

The patch stayed stubbornly in place. Cara quirked an eyebrow at Mila.

Definitely hallucinations. "I'm ready to go home now," Mila muttered. She hooked her arm in Cara's and leaned closer to share in her sister's warmth. Cara squeezed Mila's shoulder, her lavender-scented hair brushing against Mila's cheek. Cara was the one person who had never judged Mila for her anxieties.

But then, fifty feet down the path, Cara stumbled. A tendril of shadow had coiled up from the grass to wrap tight around her ankle.

"What the…" Mila tried to brush it off. The shadow had no substance she could touch, yet it dug into Cara's skin.

Cara tried to pull away. "It hurts."

Mila scraped at the tendril with her fingernails, but only scratched Cara's skin. The dark mass of shadow writhed and bubbled, gaining texture and height. Mila grabbed Cara and dragged both of them into full sunlight. The shadow drifted along, undeterred.

Cara yanked up her shirt, hyperventilating. Shadow coiled around her torso. "Get it off me!"

"I'm trying!"

Something fell across the light. Above them hovered a nebulous creature with flowing arms and obsidian-dark eyes. Beside Mila, Cara began to scream.

The rational part of Mila's mind remained frozen in confusion and disbelief. The rest of her gripped a fallen branch and struck at the monster. The creature's gaze flicked to Mila, then back to Cara. Her cries cut off as a tendril thick and dark as smoke flowed into her mouth.

Discarding her branch, Mila threw herself at the creature, only to fall through it. She twisted around to scratch at its eyes, and the creature flicked out a tendril and knocked her into a tree.

Blackness crept along the edges of Mila's vision. Her throat worked, trying to pull in air. Cara's gaze was trusting, pleading. Mila couldn't force movement into her limbs no matter how she struggled, couldn't cry out no matter how wide she opened her lips. The blood roaring in her ears mingled with the rush of wind in the trees and the scream lost in her throat as the last hint of awareness faded from Cara's eyes.

By the time others came running, the creature had retreated into the shadows. Amid their questions, Mila sobbed into Cara's hair as her little sister stared blankly at the autumn sky.

Before the paramedics pulled Mila away, she whispered into Cara's ear:

I will kill that creature for what it did to you. I will find how to make you better. I swear it.

When the eastern sky began to lighten, Mila buried her face in her hands with a groan. Beside her, Cara slept, her breathing slow and easy. Only a hint of Cara's usual scent of lavender lingered beneath the harsh smell of medicinal soap.

Five months ago, when the doctors had diagnosed Cara's condition as the result of an aneurism, Mila had not argued. Before the attack, she would never have believed in the existence of monsters. She might have disbelieved it still but for the scar on her arm and the persistent itch of pins and needles in her shoulder.

Mila leaned her head against Cara's shoulder, wanting to linger with the familiar sound of her sister's breathing. But soft footsteps echoed in the hall, mixing with the distant creaks of a heater and quiet murmurs in nearby rooms. Day had arrived, and it was time again to hunt for the monster that had hurt Cara.

Pulling on her gloves and coat, Mila stepped into the hallway. As she headed for the front door, she nodded to the night nurse, and then hurried away before Aimée could speak. The young woman was friendly enough, but peculiarity was evident in the tilt of her head and the limpness of her arms. At times, it was like Aimée had absorbed some of the stillness of her patients. Perhaps someday Mila would be the same, as the quiet of this place seeped under her skin and smothered the pain from her heart.

Mila showered at her apartment, then headed for the bank to deposit her welfare check. She missed her tech job, but caring for her sister and the search for the monster took all her time.

She headed to the bus station. On Tuesdays, she usually went to the downtown library to search through old newspapers and journals. But the Azogue Art Festival was today, which meant too many people crowding the streets for her peace of mind. Instead, she'd go to Azogue's eastern border and the abandoned Salmon Creek factory district—the only place in the city where she'd found a hint of magic.

Tires screeched to a halt. Mila looked up at the bus and froze. She gripped the signpost to steady herself as she counted the passengers. It shouldn't be so crowded at this time of day. The bus driver glared, his fingers tapping on the wheel. Mila tried to shrink into the rough collar of her red jacket. Maybe she should wait for the next bus.

No. She uncurled her fingers from the post and stepped forward. She would never defeat the creature if she couldn't even handle this.

Legs wobbling, she climbed the steps and thrust her change into the meter. The bus lurched into motion. Mila grabbed the pole nearest to the front and squeezed her eyes closed, but she couldn't shut out the press of bodies all around her. When someone pushed past her to the exit, her knees nearly buckled.

If I can't handle even this… If I can't handle even this…

When she finally reached her stop, she raced of the bus to feel the open air. Her heart returned to its normal rhythm as she skirted dilapidated shops and abandoned cars. The streets here held more than the usual share of lost and homeless, and far more of the unsolved crimes. It wasn't the safest part of town—but that was what had drawn her here.

After the attack, Mila had visited every so-called psychic in Azogue and read every occult book in the library. She'd searched for other victims of the creature, even questioning a few of the more lucid patients at Cara's psychiatric hospital. But when none had been able to tell her of magic or shadow monsters, she'd gone to the streets.

The street kids had told her of Salmon Creek. Huddled around fires with them in the dead of night, Mila had learned of unsolved disappearances that plagued the Salmon Creek district, and eldritch lights that burned its night sky red and purple. The kids had told her of stranger places in their drug-induced hazes, but only the stories of Salmon Creek had yielded results.

Mila looked at her watch. One of the district's strangest residents would be along momentarily. Mila leaned against a lamppost, rubbing at the prickles in her arm. There, right on schedule, came the woman with the tangled brown hair and shoddy gray coat. She passed by Mila's entrance to the factories at exactly 8:24 each morning. Whenever Mila addressed her, the woman only stared vacantly through pink-rimmed glasses. The one time she'd tried to touch her, Mila's arm had gone numb for an hour.

When the woman passed, Mila pulled her hat over her ears and headed for the fence encircling the factory district. Security at the old plant was minimal. Only the desperate trespassed on land soaked in toxic chemicals. Mila had long ago memorized the schedule of the one guard assigned to twenty square miles of broken-down buildings and tangled shrubs.

She pushed aside a piece of fence and slipped inside. Her foot nudged an empty coffee cup. It rolled downhill, scattering the crows that scavenged for scraps. They swept up in a black wave to settle on the eaves of the buildings, their harsh cries echoing through the cold, restless air.

This place should have frightened her, with empty, windswept streets and toxins in every breath of dusty air. But something about Salmon Creek called to her, with its maze-like streets and exotic residents.

There was Tien. The tiny Vietnamese lady plucked bits of magic off Mila's clothes in a flurry of reddish sparks. "It sticks like burrs, up there in the city," Tien said. "And no one who knows how to see or catch them. Such a waste." She squeezed the sparks in her palm until they formed beads and then tucked them into the pouch around her neck.

And there was Jeremy, a tall, gangly man who loved sweets. He traded fragments of information for jelly beans: blue for science, yellow for history, green for philosophy, and red for magic. From him, she'd learned of the existence of twisted portals and gaps in dimensions, but nothing of shadow.

She hadn't met any of the others, though sometimes whispers echoed through the streets. Tien refused to let her search, saying it was too dangerous. Mila didn't mind any danger she could face away from a crowd, but Tien had steadfastly refused.

When Mila made her way to the buildings by the dried-up creek, Jeremy wasn't at his spot. "Hello?" She shook the bag of candy. "Jeremy?"

"Shh!" From the doorway of a dilapidated office building, Tien gestured frantically. When Mila approached, Tien yanked her inside.

"What is it?" Mila sneezed at the thick dust stirred by their passing.

"You must go. Now." Tien brushed at Mila's clothing, drawing red sparks that sizzled across Mila's skin. "Out this way."

"What's wrong? Where's Jeremy?"

A man stepped into the doorway. His graying hair was buzzed short, his uniform neat and wrinkle-free. His badge, which read P. McClanahan, bore the security company's insignia. The rifle cradled in his arm was pointed at Mila.

Mila's hands shot up. The bag fell from her limp fingers, scattering jelly beans across the threadbare carpet. Tien stepped in front of Mila.

"Move." The man's voice was low, angry.

"She's a good girl," Tien said.

"She's tainted."

Mila blinked. "Excuse me?"

The guard's gaze flicked to Mila, then back to Tien. "Let me see your hands."

Tien clasped her hands behind her back. "I don't have anything."

"Now."

Muttering under her breath, Tien uncurled her fingers. Three red beads glittered in her palm. McClanahan's eyes narrowed. "Even these are marked with shadow. No wonder the boundaries are weakening. What the hell were you thinking, letting her come here?"

"It's not her fault," Mila said. "I insisted." Her hand fluttered toward her shoulder, where the creature had struck her. "I didn't mean any harm."

"Ignorance is no excuse."

Mila took an involuntary step backward at the anger in his eyes. But anger swept up from deep inside. "Is revenge? The thing that marked me broke my sister's mind. I swore to her that I'd kill the thing that hurt her."

The rifle lowered, just a bit, but his face was still hard. "You won't like the answers."

"Really," Mila said, matching him for scorn. "What, will they make me aware of other dimensions, of things I can't touch and could never stop?"

McClanahan didn't blink. "You have no idea what's out there."

"And you just told me ignorance is no excuse."

He held her gaze for several long moments before finally lowering the rifle. "All right, but if I help you, you must promise never to come back here. I was not overstating the damage that mark causes. We have poison enough already."

"Done."

"But first, I'm going to need those beads. Tien…" He paused. He and Mila now stood alone in the dusty building. "Damn it," McClanahan muttered. Mila stifled a smile, only to receive a chilling glare. "Don't laugh. It'll take me days to track her down."

"I'm sorry," Mila said. "I'd offer to help, but…"

"No, I want you out of here as quickly as possible. Follow me."

He strode through identical looking streets and over crumbled foundations. Mila could barely keep up. Finally, McClanahan ducked inside a guard station, shooing crows from the roof. At length, he returned carrying a slim, leather-bound volume.

"I've marked the appropriate passages. Ignore the part about the Latin. The servants speak perfect English. Any other questions?"

"No, that's it." She clutched the book to her chest. "Thank you."

"You can thank me by keeping your promise not to return." His scowl lightened. "But if you really want to repay me, killing the creature would also do. Just be careful."

Holding herself steady against the jostling of the bus, Mila flipped open the book. The cover was rough under her winter-chapped fingers, the thin pages covered in closely packed text. The pages held detailed drawings of nightmarish creatures, like an encyclopedia of monsters.

The marked section told of her shadow creature, which it named as a skiath. Mila's gaze tumbled across the page, bits of information leaping out at her.

The skiath's first victims appeared not long after the outbreak of mercury poisoning in the residents of Salmon Creek. As we discussed earlier, magic comes from all living things. But this energy can be interrupted—or corrupted by poison. As the theory goes, corrupted energy pools in low, dark places. And thus the creature was born…

The skiath cannot remain long in the above world, so it created snake-like servants to seek its prey of bright, joyful souls…

Those servants are the key to killing the skiath. Their bones are a unique substance that can touch both shadow and the physical realm, as they were created from both…

The snakes build their burrows in places with abundant wildlife to get their diet of shadows. An offer of prey is the best bribe…

Her head spun with the knowledge. It all seemed feasible until she came to the last paragraph.

There is a high price for making the knife. The skiath will stalk you relentlessly. If you do not take care, it will drag you down to its realm of shadow, from which no human has escaped…

The book slipped from Mila's limp fingers and fell closed in her lap. She took a shaky breath. McClanahan had told her she wouldn't like the answers. And she had implied she could handle anything, but here she sat with trembling hands and gasping breaths. She'd never thought to be rendered so helpless by anything outside a crowd.

That night, Mila couldn't sleep. Curled up in an uncomfortable hospice chair, her chin on her knees, she stared into the quiet night. Only Aimée's tuneless hum as she made her rounds disturbed the stale air.

Now that the initial shock had worn off, the rush of nervous energy was as much excitement as fear. She finally had a solid path forward. If she could fight the skiath on the surface, catch it as it fed on its victims, she could kill it before it sucked her down.

She was still terrified, but she couldn't let fear rule her life anymore. She was tired of making choices based on the worst-case scenario. From today forward, she would trust in hope, make that aspect of her stronger than the fear of crowds, of failure, of death.

For three and a half months, Mila searched every park and garden in Azogue. Finally, on her third trip through Azogue's botanical gardens, she saw a crow falter in midflight. As it fell to the ground in a broken spiral, it gave a harsh cry not unlike how Cara had screamed so many months ago.

Mila set her trap for the shadow snake in a closed section of the botanical gardens. She tied her pigeon's leg to a stake. It had not been easy to catch. The birds in her city were sleek and skittish, probably a side effect of being hunted by unnatural creatures.

Teetering on a tree limb, Mila adjusted her magnifying glass and covered it with a towel. As the book had instructed, she'd placed a circular piece of cardboard in the center of the glass, leaving the edges clear. When the snake approached the pigeon, she would pull the cloth free, trapping it in a ring of focused light. That would give her the opportunity to ask it questions. And then, whether it answered or not, she would kill it, and make the knife. Mila slid out of the tree, and slipped into the bushes to wait.

The sun rose higher in the sky. Twice, she had to leave her hiding place to adjust the magnifying glass. She tipped her head back to the bright sky, imagining a day when Cara knew how to laugh again.

At length, the heat of the day and the heavy scent of flowers eroded her tension. Sweat trickled into her eyes, and through the heat radiating from the black pavement of the path, she almost missed the red eyes glittering from the foliage.

As the snake approached, the pigeon fluttered at the end of its tether. The snake circled the bird, its ink black scales seeming to absorb rather than reflect the sunlight. Mila waited until it was in place, and pulled the string.

The snake whipped its tail into the focused light, then flinched back with a hiss. Its writhing coils were reminiscent of how shadow had boiled in the grassy park. Finally, the snake settled and glared up at Mila. "All right," it said. "What do you want?"

Mila blinked. McClanahan's book had warned of the snake's ability to speak, but not of the very human quality of its voice. "I have some questions for you."

The snake gave a disdainful flick of its tongue. "I'm not required to tell you anything."

Mila decided to ignore that. "I want you to tell me where I can find your master."

"I can't tell you," the snake said absently. It turned its head to lock eyes with the pigeon. The bird stopped struggling and began to sway, trancelike.

Mila cleared her throat. "Tell me how to summon your master."

Now the snake's eyes focused on her, glittering in shadow. "Why would you want to do that?"

"My sister. I want her back to normal."

The snake snorted. "Summoning my master won't help with that. You can't return what's already been digested."

Mila went very still. "You're lying." She adjusted the glass until light singed the snake's coils.

"Quit that." The snake twisted its body out of the way. "I'm not lying. And I'm not intimidated by pain. What you could do to me is nothing compared to what my master would do for such a betrayal. If you don't have a proper request, let me go."

Mila let out a breath. "I can't let you go." She pulled her rope and more stakes from the bushes.

The snake began to struggle in earnest. "You're insane. Don't you know what happens if you hurt me?"

"Yes." She reached out to tie down the snake with shaking hands. It jerked free and struck. She yanked her arm back, but its fangs caught at the edge of her shadow. Pain sliced through her shoulder. Gritting her teeth, she caught hold of the snake and wrapped the loops of rope around it. There was no blood on her shoulder, but in the bright afternoon light, a tiny tear was visible in her shadow.

The snake hissed, trying to writhe away from the bonds. "It won't be long before my master takes revenge." Its ruby eyes glittered with hate.

Mila jabbed the stakes further into the ground. "I'll be ready."

"You can't be ready. As long as there are shadows, it can reach you, and it will pull you down before you can scream. Do you think you're the first that's tried this? Many others have come before you. The Master keeps pieces of them down there, forever trickling blood down the walls."

Mila began to shake. The book had hinted she could fight the skiath on the surface, that she might have a chance at living. "You're lying."

"Are you really willing to risk it?"

Mila's vision swam and darkened, the only thing in focus the bright blade of the knife she had just unsheathed. She swayed, her head aching. God, she couldn't even make her hand move. I'm so sorry, Cara.

The snake watched her. "It will come for you. It will pull you down beneath shadow and steal the joy from you until the air is too heavy to breathe."

Mila stilled. The snake thought to threaten her with a lack of joy? Either she'd make the knife and be pulled underground to certain death, or she'd forever live with the knowledge that she had failed in the one moment that really mattered. She swallowed back a tired sob.

"I have no joy left in me," she whispered.

And then she slit open its skin.

Mila staggered down the sidewalk, hand clenching her shoulder. Her eyes darted from one shadow to the next. How long before the skiath came for her? She had to get to Cara first, to say goodbye. Her own shadow leaked as steadily as any wound, marking her path with droplets of black. Her mind swirled out of phase with her body.

She pressed her fingers to the silk-wrapped bundle in her bag. She'd sat for hours in the hot sun trying to coax shards of the snake's bones into the shape of a knife. The bones, with the healing ability gifted by the realm of their birth, had kept fusing back into their old shapes. It had taken all day, but she was proud of the end result. The edges were jagged but razor-sharp.

Mila swayed up the steps to the institute. She caught hold of the handrail and nearly screamed with pain. The snake's blood had been so cold that it burned, leaving her fingers swollen and blistered.

She managed a casual nod to the nurse on duty, but then had to lean against the wall in the corridor to catch her breath. The snake's words flowed back to her. Many others have come before you. The master keeps pieces of them… She rested her forehead against the cool paint, her breath coming in choking gasps.

She pushed away from the wall. She had to see Cara one more time.

She found her sister in the common room with several other patients. Some stared at nothing, while others played games with halting motions. Her sister slouched in an armchair with the Aimée at her side. The nurse read aloud from a book of poetry.

Mila put her good shoulder on the doorframe to steady herself. She thought she could see jagged edges to Cara's shadow. One patient brushed by her, and another. The room was becoming crowded. Old fear mingled with new until her head ached with it.

Before she could turn to run, Aimée looked up and saw her. Pasting a smile on her face, Mila crossed the room to kneel by Cara.

"How is she?" Mila asked.

"Fine," Aimée said. "We had a good day today."

"Good girl," Mila whispered, rubbing her sister's arm. Cara smiled absently with a quick tilt of her mouth, and began to hum under her breath. Mila's heart leapt.

Beside her, Aimée gasped. Mila blinked at her, but the nurse was staring at the ground. In the soft light of the lamp, the tear in Mila's shadow stood in stark relief to the beige rug. Aimée reached for Mila, and her arm moved into the light. Her shadow was every bit as torn as Cara's.

"You…" Aimée looked up, and in the depths of her eyes, Mila caught a flash of red. The exact color of the snake's eyes.

Mila jumped to her feet, knocking the lamp to the floor. The roar of blood in her ears resonated with Cara's tuneless humming.

Everyone was looking at her now. Bits of red glittered at her from more than half the eyes in the room. Her sister watched her absently, the glitter of red in even her eyes. Mila got slowly to her feet. Another nurse flicked on the brighter overhead lights, throwing the shadows into sharp relief. Most looked as if they'd been slashed to ribbons.

She took a step back, then another. It felt like the shadows advanced on her, crowding her. Any minute now, the skiath would surely appear from that mass. She could still see its shape, could smell the cold autumn air where it had first appeared.

A hand touched her shoulder. "Shh." Aimée's voice was gentle, soothing. "Hush, now. It's okay."

"The shadows…"

"One of the snakes bit you, yes? The venom alters your vision. Deep breaths, now, you're in no danger here."

A chair bumped the back of her knees. Mila sat. "Safe. How?"

"Spells keep the skiath away."

"Your eyes?"

"All the victims carry its mark."

Mila made herself look up then, at the swirl of red in Aimée's pupils. "So many of you," she whispered. Pain lanced her shoulder. She doubled over with a gasp.

Aimée stood. "I can take you to someone who'll heal your shadow." When Mila hesitated, she added, "You're safe, I swear it."

Mila had her doubts, but she'd never beat the skiath when she was so ill. So she followed Aimée through dim hallways and out to the institute's rose gardens. Dizzier than ever, she pressed her feet hard into the gravel path to reassure herself that she hadn't drifted away from the earth and reality.

"Jaela, the woman I'm taking you to see, is the one who set up the shields here," Aimée said. "And she's the one who saved me from the skiath."

"I looked everywhere for people like you," Mila said. "I spoke to the patients here, but none of them knew anything."

"Most don't remember. The others know better than to speak to an outsider."

Aimée unlocked a large wooden gate at the back of the gardens. Behind it, an ivy-covered cottage sat in the center of a dark yard. Towering pine trees lined the fences. The night sounds of Azogue were almost inaudible. Mila shivered in the warm night.

"You found out enough on your own," Aimée said. "How did you get bitten?"

Mila hesitated, but she had already decided to take the risk. "I was making a knife."

"I see. You know what will happen now, right?"

"Yes. But… will Cara get better? Like you?"

Aimée shook her head. "Jaela interrupted my attack before the skiath finished."

Shaking with depression and fatigue, Mila climbed the rickety staircase. The nurse pushed open the door at the top, and Mila stepped forward into the warm lamplight. A figure slouched behind a desk, but its outline was blurry, as if its colors had stretched and faded into the surroundings.

Aimée reached out to steady her, but Mila jerked back at the burning cold of her touch. Aimée's skin was suffused with shadow. Dark waves of it rippled up her arms, and Mila choked back a scream.

"Jaela." Aimée crossed the room and shook the person behind the desk. "Jaela."

The figure solidified into a middle-aged woman with tangled brown hair and pink-rimmed glasses. She brushed Aimée aside and clapped her hands on Mila's shoulders. At her touch, Mila's world went white.

When Mila's mind cleared, her head rested on a pillow. Though the burns in her palms throbbed in time with the ache in her skull, she no longer felt as if she might come loose from her body. She blinked up at a heart-shaped face and lamplight reflecting off pink-rimmed glasses.

"I know you." Mila had to clear her throat twice before she could speak again. "I've seen you at Salmon Creek."

"Mm." Jaela adjusted a desk lamp until it cast the shadow of Mila's shoulder across a small table. She picked up a needle and thread. "Hold still. This is going to be delicate work after you've lost so much shadow."

"Will it heal?"

"With enough time in the sunlight, yes." The tiny stitches of indigo thread absorbed seamlessly into Mila's shadow. The pain of it came slowly, like it had to trickle through her shadow before it reached her nerves.

Watching it disturbed Mila, so she turned her head to the side. "Thank you for helping me."

"It's what I do." Jaela stitched in silence for a few moments. "Are you certain you want to fight the skiath?"

"I didn't think I had much of a choice."

"As it happens, the knife you made is invaluable to me. I'd be willing to provide you shelter here at the Institute in exchange for it."

For a moment, Mila was too stunned to speak. "What do you mean, shelter? I could live here?"

"Aimée can always use more help with the patients. So yes, you could stay here for as long as you like. Years, if need be."

"But I…" Before Mila could protest further, all her resolve and bravery melted away, and she began to cry. She shook with the force of holding it back, of trying to stay still. Above her came a gusty, frustrated sigh. The brush of a hand across her eyes brought sleep as swift as a blow.

Mila woke with a sore shoulder, throbbing palms, and a cotton-dry mouth. The window above her let in the slant of late morning light. She rose and drifted over to a tray someone had left on a table. She turned a whole wheat roll over in her hands and wondered why she didn't feel more relieved to be safe. Last night's choking fear had evaporated, but disquiet itched along her skin. Something Jaela had said bothered her.

When Aimée stopped by with another tray of food. Mila said,

"Jaela mentioned that I could stay here for years. But now that she has the knife, why would it take so long?"

"The skiath has never let Jaela come near it, and even she couldn't break through its dimension. She has tried."

"I see. And how often does the skiath feed?"

Aimée fiddled with a napkin. "Every other month."

After Aimée had left, Mila took the rough blanket outside and spread it on the ground. Tall, weedy grass swayed around her as she stared up at the bright blue sky and considered the turmoil within her.

A good part of her was relieved to be safe. But it was the same part that for much of her life had kept her hiding away from even the potential for danger. But there was another part of her, the part that had held her steady on a crowded bus, had kept her head high as she searched packed gardens for her enemy's servants. That part was ascendant now, and it recoiled from cowering here when she could be saving lives. But winning wouldn't be so simple.

She set her jaw. She was no warrior, and no mage. But she had chosen this fight, and now she would finally end it. For Cara, for Aimée, and for herself.

Jaela didn't return until much later that night. Mila found her in the office, fiddling with a rubber ball that sparked with every touch of a ballpoint pen. Mila had to say Jaela's name four times before the woman looked up at her. "I'm rather busy," Jaela said.

"I'm sorry to interrupt." Mila took a breath. "I've decided to fight the skiath."

Jaela bent back over the ball. "If you have a death wish, the gate's at the corner of the yard."

"It's not like that. Look, last night you offered me a bargain. I'd like to propose a different one. You have knowledge, but no time. I have time to spare, and no purpose to hold me here. If you have knowledge or weapons that could increase my chance of survival, I'm willing to fight the skiath. Even if it means being trapped there."

Jaela leaned back in her chair. "If you were smart you'd wait until I had a way out of that dimension."

"And how long will that be?"

Jaela ran a hand through her hair, frowning when her fingers got caught in the tangles. When she didn't answer, Mila said,

"Solitude doesn't bother me. What bothers me is hiding when there are people whose lives I could save. I want the creature dead, and I'm willing to give my life to do it—if I have half a chance of winning."

Jaela regarded her for several long moments, and then a corner of her mouth tilted up. "I think we can do better than half a chance. I know how to contain the skiath, but you'll need another weapon to slow it down." She grabbed a piece of paper and began to scribble on the back. "Maybe focused UV rays? But most bulbs would never hold the charge long enough, and crystals could be unreliable…"

Mila sat back, dizzy with relief, listening to Jaela's mutterings. "Thank you," she whispered. It was more a movement of lips than a spoken phrase, but Jaela looked up. She placed her hand over Mila's. There was fire in her touch, but comfort too, like all the peace of Salmon Creek rolled up in one woman.

"I will find a way to get you out of there," Jaela said. "I swear it."

Mila spent two weeks training in the use of the weapons Jaela made for her, and saying her goodbyes to her sister, reassured by promises that Jaela and Aimée would take good care of her.

Then, less than an hour after Mila gathered up the courage to leave the Institute, she was ambushed. A snake flashed across her path, so close that she stumbled. A tug on her shadow yanked her further off balance. Mila put out her hands to catch herself, but they passed through the shadowed concrete as if it were air. Her shoulder bounced off the border where shadow and light met. Before she could cry out, she struck ground.

Swearing under her breath at the pain, Mila surveyed the wide gray expanse. Its floor was made of the same dark glass as the ceiling. But where shadows fell on the street above, she could see through: pedestrians' shoes, cars, a flock of pigeons. All were tinged in gray. The shadowed patches let in just enough dim light for her to make out her surroundings. Floor mirrored ceiling as far as she could see.

She pushed off her backpack to rummage through the contents. The silk-wrapped knife, the flashlight and a glass vial were all intact. The vial contained a shield to hold the skiath still, and Jaela had altered the flashlight to emit UV rays. With the vial in her pocket and a weapon in each hand, Mila waited for the creature.

There was no sound to alert her, just movement like a warm breeze across her skin. She turned, pushing aside her hair with the back of her hand, and there the skiath waited, all shadow and fire and obsidian-dark eyes. Glittering claws extended from the end of each arm as the skiath lashed out at her.

She had barely dodged the first swipe when the second came from her other side. As claws scraped her scalp, Mila flung herself backward, shoes squeaking on the glass floor. Familiar, hated panic began to thrum in her chest. It beat out of phase with her frantic heart, dulling her reflexes.

Fumbling for the switch on the flashlight, she evaded another swipe, and another, but the third knocked her to the floor. The skiath fell back, giving her time to rise. Mila pushed herself up, blood from long scratches dripping down her legs. It was playing with her.

Mila managed to get her thumb on the flashlight's switch before the next attack. Her first beam went wild, scoring the ceiling with a hiss. The second beam hit, turning the creature's arm a dull gray. Its color instantly reverted to normal.

Panic raged through her. The effect was too short. She would never be able to use the vial in time. Mila's sneakers skidded in the blood that flowed from deep scores all over her body. The edges of the bone-deep wounds were healing, but the skiath was hurting her quicker than she could recover.

The skiath swirled around behind her. As she turned, it knocked her to the floor. She flipped over and threw up an arm to protect her face as it sliced off the top joints of three fingers.

It hurt so much that she couldn't breathe. Trying to grip the light between forefinger and thumb, she struck out wildly with the knife. The creature fell back, but tendrils shot up from the ground. A swing of the light cut back some, but others lashed her with stinging blows. She struck again with the knife, but the pain from her wounds was so bad that she could barely stand. She wouldn't last much longer.

Stupid, to let panic steal her breath, when these were the last she'd ever take. The skiath flicked out a tendril, and she parried with the knife, not yet ready to give in.

With her next breath in, the creature flicked two more tendrils toward her, and she swept the light along the ground to discourage more growths. Breathing out, she realized she didn't mind the pain, because it meant she was still alive. The creature was moving faster so she did as well, wanting these moments to last. Out, and she turned with a whirl of light, cutting off more tendrils. Quickly in, as the skiath shot toward her, claws held high. Rushed out, as she struck with the knife to send one of its claws clattering to the floor.

Mila crouched low, lips curled into a snarl. She could do this, one breath at a time, flowing with instead of against the fear until it hummed like adrenaline through her veins. She intercepted the swing of the skiath's arm and sent another claw to the ground.

"Almost even," she said.

The skiath brushed its arm along the ground, and one of the claws reattached. Mila snarled and swept the light between the creature and its other claw. From the flicker of the beam, Mila knew the weapon wouldn't last much longer. Without it, neither would she.

This had better work. She dropped the knife. As Jaela had instructed her, she raised her hand and threw the light weapon down to the ground as hard as she could, and squeezed her eyes shut.

Even though her closed lids, the light seared her. When her vision cleared, she stumbled back. The light had caught the creature mid-attack, its claws inches from her face. She fumbled in her pocket for the vial. Its entire body had faded, but the color was quickly flowing back in. Just as it lunged, she threw the vial in its path. Whirled by the creature's constantly moving shadow, the crystal fragments trapped it in reflected and refracted light.

The skiath didn't—or couldn't—struggle, just watched her through beautiful black eyes. Mila picked up the bone knife and approached. Any moment, it might break free from the flimsy trap and rip her to pieces.

But when she held the blade to the skiath's throat, it did not stir. She slashed the knife down its arm, and the jagged edge cut easily through shadow. A coil of red smoke oozed from the wound. Mila angled the knife carefully through the shield so as not to disturb the hovering crystal. Where her knife moved, flickers of shadow followed, questing for freedom. Mila bit her lip. This would not go quickly.

Working first from its arms, she carved away tiny swathes of translucent black. When the pieces struck the floor, it absorbed into the dark glass with a hiss. Shards of the knife flaked away as her sawing reached a substance hard as bone. The fire in its form burnt her fingers.

It was unnerving to destroy something that could not fight back, to take it to pieces while it watched her. All the while, the creature made no sound of pain, not even when she carved its eyes from its face.

She knew she was done when the last of the skiath evanesced into red smoke. Crystal dust, drops of her blood, and slivers of black bone haloed a shady outline of its form in the smoky glass below her feet. Wearily, she uncurled her palm and let the last of her knife drop to the ground.

As she brushed at her clothes, red dust drifted to the floor. When she went to pick up her backpack, her shoe bumped one of her severed fingertips, now gray. She brushed at it, then nearly shrieked as she felt the touch on the gray flesh. Biting her lip, she pushed it onto her still-bleeding fingertip, and the flesh fused back together. She felt a rush of pins and needles and the tip slowly turned back to pink.

With all her fingers whole, she turned, flexing her hand to banish the last of the prickles. She shouldered her pack and stood on her tiptoes to examine the mottled glass where she'd thrown down the weapon. Would enough light have gotten her out?

For the rest of the day, she explored her new world. A smudge on the horizon turned out to be a staircase. She followed it down to deep, cavernous rooms. She could see quite well in the dark hallways, and was glad she had no mirror to tell if her eyes had acquired a gleam of red.

As the day went on, she watched the fall of sunlit water from a gutter, and the shadows of people and animals in basement apartments. She shrieked the first time the shadows of a tunnel appeared in the lights of a speeding subway. She stood at the bottom of a creek, watching fish-shaped windows into murky water.

She wouldn't depend on Jaela's attempts to free her. She would soak in this realm's secrets and discover how to escape. She could hold on to that, and to Cara's absent-minded smile, through the long, lonely days to come.

When the slant of shadow showed the approach of sunset, Mila found a staircase that led back to the surface. She stretched herself out on the endless expanse of gray glass and bunched her jacket under her head. Would night turn the entire ceiling clear? She settled back and waited to find out.

About the Author
Sabrina West is a writer and wildlife biologist living in Sacramento, California. Her short fiction has appeared in markets such as Cover of Darkness; Strange, Weird and Wonderful Magazine; and Kayelle Press's Night Terrors Anthology. Follow her on Facebook.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link