“Shit,” Dyana muttered under her breath. “Shit!”
All hope of order and calm was dashed. Half the tribe was bolting in every wild direction, and the other half was pressing so close together she was worried the little ones couldn’t breathe. Save them, the god’s words repeated in her mind.
Save them, and I will unknot all you have tied. She’d felt so bold, just an hour ago. Bold and wise, but not anymore. She was about to panic, and that was the worst. Panicking was a misery.
Dyana forced herself to be calm. She couldn’t save anything if she lost her wits. Evil shades rushed in around her to attack the tribe, in such great numbers that she could feel them passing by like wind. Their whispers had risen to an excited and hungry hum. But she couldn’t panic.
She took a slow breath to relax her mind and looked around for Pepper, but the reeking little toad was hiding again. He’d kicked the circle and set the evil spirits upon them, then vanished. Just what she’d expect from a child of that evil giant. Not that she could blame him; not quite. He’d been right about too many things. About her. About Sesh’s people. They all sort of had it coming.
Dyana knew what she had to do, though. She was the only person who did. “Natuak! Listen. No, stop! Look at my face, you old slump! Listen. Gather them all back here. Get them together. No, no questions! Help me get them back together. Now!”
Before waiting to see how he reacted, she turned her back on his stupid face. He’d looked angry and bewildered. The old man had lost his mind. He’d better find it, quickly. Dyana rushed forward to the closest demons she could reach: a young couple holding each other and their small child so tightly they were more likely to fall over than get anywhere as they tried to escape. They’d tangled up their tails and the woman was shouting. Their clothing moved unnaturally as invisible hands pressed and gripped it.
Dyana grabbed them each by one horn and made them look at her. “Go back! You’ll be safer together. Go back! Now!”
For a moment they simply stared, their eyes blank as the shock of the moment stole their thoughts. Dyana shook their horns to jiggle their brains loose and they blinked to attention and tried to pull away. She held them firm. “Go back!”
When she let go, she stared at them with her fiercest eyes until she saw them start to turn around. She then ran to the next, a middle-aged man who had fallen into the snow and was flailing, trying to swat away the unseen touches of shades. She kicked him in the stomach, and he stopped whipping his tail everywhere.
“Get up!” Dyana shouted. She reached down and lifted him by the shirt, slapping him once on the cheek. “I said get up! Go back!” She dropped him and kicked him again. The man hurried to his feet, then turned and went back when she pointed.
One after another, Dyana sent them back. An old woman running like lightning despite her age. Three boys only a couple years younger than her, crying in despair and walking blindly, holding hands. A woman with three small children, slashing a knife through the air as she hurried them along, as if that did any good.
Natuak had not moved from where she left him. He stared around him; not blankly, but like he’d given up. He had a look in his eyes that reminded her of her father when he’d finally let their fires affect him, burning him to death. Resigned and calm, if not truly at peace. He’d looked at her and their eyes met, but they communicated nothing.
Well, so much for Natuak. “Pepper!” she shouted, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. No doubt he was nearby, probably almost underfoot, but she’d never see him. Where else was he going to go?
But she was out of time. Anyone else was on their own. The Night People were starting to fight each other, shouting and shoving and flexing their claws. Several of them lowered their horns in warning: stay back.
“Hey! Listen! Stop, all of you! Listen to me! Everyone look…!” Dyana shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. But no one listened. Some tilted their heads like they noticed her, but no one was interested in what she had to say, not even the few she’d sent back.
She shuffled around in the dirt until she found two rocks the size of her fist. Gathering a bit of her essence to strengthen her arms, she smashed them together as hard as she could, hard enough to turn them into a spray of sharp sand, and caused an ear-splitting CRACK that silenced even the immense chorus of spirits. Into the sudden emptiness, she said, “Listen up. Make this sign. Wish them away. Point away, into the dirt, like this.”
Dyana demonstrated by holding her hand up in the sign of the horns, a gesture as old as the ocean. She waved the horns through the air and into the ground, directing the spirits to be gone. Only a few of the demons even made the attempt at first, but she walked right into them and started pushing people and forcing their fingers into position.
“Will them gone! Don’t ask, command! Begone, begone! Command them with this sign!”
How many times had she done this as a girl, when the evening fires conjured not the ancestors, but some wandering deceiver, come into the world with lies and malice? The whole tribe knew that kind immediately and threw them out. Hundreds of times? No, that was too many. Or was it? How many weeks were… never mind.
“Command them to begone!” she shouted again. Even the children. She wouldn’t keep moving until she made everyone around her do it. They could all protect each other. It was far too many for one person, but the whole tribe, warding them off in every direction? The evil shades stood no chance.
Screams of pain turned her gaze, and not twenty paces from her, a man had thrown a woman to the grown and was clawing at her chest as if to rip it open and eat her heart. Everyone else was hurriedly backing away, but Dyana ran forward and kicked him in the shoulder, sending him flying sideways.
An instant later, the woman was clawing her way up Dyana’s leg, her eyes wild, mouth open to hiss out wordless curses that caused spit to fly everywhere. She tried to dig a horn into Dyana’s thigh but couldn’t puncture the skin. “Hate you!” the woman screamed, her words more bestial than human.
“Stop her, please!” said the man, clutching his shoulder. “She tried to kill the children!”
Oh. Oh, how awful. Dyana looked back down and saw, finally, the truth of it. The woman was lost, insane. The shades had overcome her. Is this what’d happened to that dead demon outside the circle, the old scout? Did Pepper have to fight this?
She was older than Dyana by several years, but still in the flower of her health and beauty. Full breasts hinted at children, perhaps young ones. Clear, smooth skin and firm muscles. Her black hair was long, slightly wavy, and shone with an enviable glossiness, as did her slender, feminine horns and tail.
The woman was also trying to bite off Dyana’s kneecap. Perhaps she could be saved, if given more time. Perhaps the evil shades could be thrown out of her somehow, her mind mended. But not now, not when there was no time. Dyana frowned and steeled her heart. Her eyes watered and a choking knot formed in her throat. Then she stomped the back of the woman’s neck and drove her into the ground. With her heel, Dyana crushed the bones that met the skull and separated them. The woman was dead before she could exhale.
Dyana looked around, eyes misty and heart heavy, but no one was jumping at her for revenge. If anything, they seemed darkly relieved and looked at everything but the corpse. The fear of the dead still held them all firmly in its grasp, though; they stood rigid, or huddled together winding their tails together into rope, or tried to hold their kin firmly enough to keep them from panicking.
The strangest thing they were worried about, however, was injuries. Waving about a bandaged wrist was enough to elicit tears from those nearby. The injured seemed to be held more tightly than the rest, as if with an added measure of desperation.
A new commotion arose on the other side of the tribe and Dyana rushed over to find three adults holding down a youth, not even old enough to have good points on his horns. He laughed and spat at them and tried to bite; his teeth were already red from a prior success. A fourth man jumped in to help, holding his horns while the others held down his limbs.
A woman clutching a bloody wound on her collar with one hand and a knife in the other knelt at his side. Weeping unashamedly, she gripped the knife in both hands and plunged it into the youth’s chest three times. He screamed and hissed and fought with his last moments, which thankfully lasted no longer than a count of ten.
Not a moment after the youth’s eyes lost their shine and he went limp, the woman turned the knife on herself. The men leapt to stop her, but it was too late. She plunged it into her own chest before they managed to fight it away from her. Her cry of anguish turned into a mindless moan as she died with surprising speed.
Dyana’s heart broke as she realized what she’d just seen: a mother killing her own child. The awfulness of it felt like physical pain, burning her insides.
It was the death of Dyana’s tribe all over again. Horrors that she’d been spending all her time not thinking about rose fresh in her mind. Relessa with her guts spilling out. Pakyu’s head. The littles run down by horses for sport. Father, finally allowing himself to be burned to death in exchange for her life.
That chaos had been much like this, except more brutal. Faster. She could not have saved her tribe. Father couldn’t, and if it was possible for a mortal, he would have done it. No, the tides of time had come in and swept them away, inevitable. But not this tribe. The god told her to save them. Agurne’s god, the Child. That meant there was still hope.
She made herself start moving again, ignoring the scalding pity like any other pain. Be strong, she told herself. Father’s daughter. She raced through the crowd looking for a familiar face, anyone who might speak to her amid such a massive panic.
Dyana found Sheth’s parents holding him between themselves, outside the general cluster of the tribe. It looked like the father was considering making a break for it with Nemua, the mother, trying to pull them back towards the others.
“What is happening? Why is everyone losing their wits? You’re all just making it worse,” she said, accidentally shouting. She took a breath to try and regain some dignity, but it didn’t work.
Sheth’s mother clutched Sheth even more tightly and continued trying to pull them back toward the group. She said, “The spirits harrow our minds, if they can get in. And if we leave for our tent, we’ll be sticking out! We need to avoid notice!”
The father replied, “And one of our own will get us if we stay here! You saw what just happened to Tuen, Nemua!”
Dyana said, “Listen, spirits like these aren’t strong enough to hurt you if you just calm down. They’re mostly harmless, just—”
The father turned to her and with real venom in his voice, said, “They aren’t harmless to us.”
She’d thought it was panic itself. Fear. Being overwhelmed mentally. She’d seen people do some bizarre things in their extremity, and an evil shade taking advantage of that made sense. But this was all such an overreaction! How could they not know? She asked, “Why can’t we just calm down and fix the circle?”
Nemua said, “The Elder will do it any moment now. We will be safe here once he does.”
“And how many more will still turn? The spirits are here already, Nemua. They’re probably in fifty more, who will turn at any moment! Shall we be standing next to them when it happens?”
“Yeah? And what if you’re the only target left, Kishpa, and all the shades came at you at once?”
“If we are not here, they will not be able!”
“Kishpa! Nemua! Stop and tell me why you’re so scared of these shades? I know they’re scary, but you’re giving them power, acting like this!” said Dyana, taking hold of their sleeves to capture their attention.
"Dyana, we don’t have time for you!” said Kishpa, the papa.
The two of them never once stopped trying to pull each other where they wanted to go, and between them, Sheth was not having a good time of it. From the glimpses Dyana could snatch, the poor little thing had his eyes and mouth shut firmly and was too scared to move. A wet triangle down his tunic showed that he’d wet himself.
The real problem was the frenzy, not the shades. But the frenzy wasn’t going to stop until the shades did and everyone felt safe again. She tried again, saying, “Spirits can’t do anything to you unless you let them. They can’t just overcome you—you have to give them power first by being afraid, or willing, I suppose. I know what it looks like, but that’s just not how it works! A measly little dead spirit can’t just hop in you and one breath to the next, you start trying to kill everyone around you!”
“With us, Dyana, with our people, that is exactly how it works, especially if we are injured. They can get in,” said the papa, Kishpa. “Which is why we will be safer, away where no one will hurt us!”
“How does that even happen? That’s not…!” Dyana huffed in frustration. “Why doesn’t that happen any time you scrape your knee, then?”
The mama, Nemua, said, “Because the dead avoid us. They hate us like we hate them. We don’t know why this is happening, and until we figure it out, we’re safer with everyone else!”
There was simply no talking sense into these people, Dyana decided. They had no experience with any of this, not like she did. Why argue with idiots? No, she’d have to do something. She’d never convince enough of them for it to matter. So, two problems, then: Get the spirits away and take care of anyone already overcome. Then maybe she could explain the ways of spirits and prevent this for next time.
Dyana reached between the parents and patted the little boy on the head. She asked, “Sheth, can you see the shades? Can you see the spirits?”
He covered his lantern eye with one hand and carefully opened his other to peek at her. “Only wif my eye,” he said meekly, almost too quiet to be heard over the shouting Night People and the roaring whispers of the dead.
Kishpa, finally relaxing slightly against his wife’s insistent tugging, said, “He can see them. He saw them rushing in like an invading army and screamed so loud half the tribe came running.”
The answer started to form in Dyana’s mind. “Seffy, can you see them when they’re in someone? Or on them? Will you look and try?”
The tiny boy trembled and didn’t remove his hand. He turned his head away. A pang of guilt started to form inside her. Did she really understand what she was asking him to do? What did the dead look like? What if they were horrible, nightmarish things that would haunt his memories forever? But what other choice was there?
“Seffy, please. You have to look, just for the tiniest instant. Can you see them when they’re in people?”
He muttered something Dyana couldn’t make out.
“Sheth?” asked Dyana, pressing.
“I don’t want to!”
She begged, “Seffy, please, it’s important! Please, will you for me? Just once?”
The look he gave her was the most hateful she’d ever seen from him, and in any other circumstances it would have made her laugh. Not this time.
Sheth’s hand slipped down slowly, revealing his closed eye. He looked out at the crowd with his normal eye, then opened his lantern one. In the bright sunlight, it was almost impossible to see the glow. He pointed at a skinny older man, then shut his eye again and turned to hide his face in his mother’s pants.
The man Sheth had pointed out hugged himself so tightly his muscles were trembling, and he stared into the dirt. His mouth was working rapidly as though he were speaking, but there was no one nearby to listen. Upon first glance, he did indeed seem a man losing his mind.
Dyana felt a rush of excitement, tempered slightly by her guilt about making him do this. But it would work! “Sheth here is going to save everyone. You were both right. Stay here, away from them but not too far. I’ll be right back!”
She darted over to where Natuak knelt in the dirt and kicked him in the side. Not hard, just enough to push him off balance. “Where’s the salt?” she demanded.
His tired eyes carried a faint glimmer of hate as he looked up at her, and it was all the life they had in them. “It is there, on the ground.”
“I know you have more, you old lump. Where is it?”
“I used all I had and all we could gather quickly. There is no more.”
“Fine, I’ll find it myself. You said you had charms? Or no, you said you couldn’t make enough in time. Do you have any?”
“I have a few, but they will do us no good now.”
“Go get them,” commanded Dyana.
His eyes smoldered, watery and old but burning nonetheless. He made no attempt to move.
“Go get them or I’ll start kicking you,” she said.
“Who do you think you are to command me this way?”
Dyana held her hand out to help him get up. He didn’t move, choosing instead to look away. “You half-dead coward!”
He looked up at her again, his eyes just a bit more energetic, and a whole lot angrier. He lowered his horns in her direction, which she chose to ignore. “I have fought longer and given more than you can imagine, child. Go lay under a man and get your own children, instead of trying to weasel away ours.”
She held her hand out more insistently. “I really am going to start kicking you, Elder. Go get your charms or tokens or whatever they are.”
Dyana twitched her leg and he flinched. A moment passed, and the defiant look on his face softened as they both realized he had lost. After a deep breath and a sigh, he took her hand and she lifted him to his feet. She didn’t press her luck by yelling at him to hurry.
Sending strength to her legs, Dyana took off at near full speed, running for the tents farthest from the circle since they’d be most likely to still have salt. When it came time to stop and check inside one, however, she rediscovered how treacherous the mud could be and slid a full ten paces before smacking into the flap and tumbling inside. She rolled all the way through and hit the far wall, causing the tent to lean and shake so hard she was sure it was about to fall on her.
But the supports held and she lifted herself to her feet and started tearing through whoever’s tent this was, looking for a pot of salt. She upended nearly everything in there, from baskets to bags to piles of clothing, but no salt.
Dyana left everything a giant, muddy mess and raced to the next one, which she roared through like a typhoon. They were not going to be happy once they saw what she did to their things, but that was their problem, not hers.
The second tent had no salt either, but the third one did, as well as some cloth dolls and wooden play weapons, which stood out to her. She’d never seen Night People children carrying around any toys, but then again, she hardly saw them at all.
She took the pot of salt and returned more slowly than she’d come, not wanting to risk sliding in the mud again and breaking it, especially not with the full attention of the tribe on her. The fighting and panicking seemed to have slowed, since they seemed to have noticed just how fast she could run and they were watching her instead. For the moment, at least, no more of them were in the process of losing their minds.
Dyana quickly found the spot where Pepper had kicked the salt line and made a new furrow with her finger, which she had to strengthen with essence to make up for the lack of claws. She filled the furrow with salt, completing the circle again.
Nothing happened. No spirit barrier rose to replace the one that’d been there before. She couldn’t hide the angry disappointment that filled her, almost completely replacing the hope that had energized her before. She hissed a curse under her breath and looked around to see if it’d been broken anywhere else. There weren’t any other breaks.
“Why isn’t it working?” she said aloud, mostly to herself. Her tribe had never used salt, since all the spirits they wanted protection from tended to come out of the ocean. Why salt? What spirit would be afraid of dried-out ocean water? If she hadn’t seen it working, she would never have believed it. They needed proper wards, like a ring of rope hung with the Eye of High-walker or the Hand of Ab.
She slapped the ground in frustration and tried not to listen to the growing mutters of concern from the tribe, or the subtle screams and laughter of the shades. It was infuriating! It was making her so mad tears were coming to her eyes. What was she supposed to do?
“Did you purify the salt? And bless it?” asked Natuak, who had returned carrying a few necklaces in his hand.
“No. Do you have to?”
“You must let the night sky cleanse it and burn an offering to Calishek to bless it before it can protect his people.”
“Well, we don’t have enough time for that. Is there another way?”
Natuak held out the necklaces, with were hung with a small, flat piece of wood carved with a symbol she didn’t recognize. There were four of them. “Choose who will live, Dyana,” he said darkly. “While there are still some left alive.”
As if on cue, the man she’d seen shuddering and talking to himself threw back his head and laughed, loud and thoughtless. When he lowered his head again, predatory glee lit up his face. Before he had a chance to attack anyone, one of the youths stabbed him clean through from behind with a thin metal spear.
Teshwan? Was that the youth’s name? She couldn’t remember, but it was something like that. She could almost see the last of the youth’s hope die as the dead demon slid off his spear. He was younger than her, with the awkward charm of a boy slowly becoming a man. The ashen look of death and emptiness on his face almost shook her resolve.
Almost. A thought struck her. She was here because the god told her to come, so shouldn’t he be willing to do his part? She rose to her feet and shouted at the sky, “Palthos, god of Agurne and Androkles and minder of orphans, you told me to come save these people! I heard your voice, you god, so I know it was you! Come purify this salt!”
Nothing happened. Not willing to lose the moment, Dyana turned and asked Natuak, “How do you call on a god? What do you do?”
He looked at her blankly, seemingly unsure how to approach that question. “Do you not know of the gods?”
“We worshipped spirits, not gods. We had nothing to do with any gods.”
Natuak sighed, and Dyana could see him considering whether it was worth the effort to explain it to her. Finally he said, “Do you know the prayers of this god? Do you know what offerings he accepts, or his times and seasons? Do you have a sacred space for him, incense to burn? Are you his priestess, that he should listen to you? I know nothing of Pepper’s god and I cannot help you.”
Frustration filled her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream, laugh, or cry. She was so close! Just one more thing, and then Sheth could point out the spirits and it could all be over!
Dyana stood back up and walked three steps away to look at the circle from another angle. Not that it would help. She just couldn’t sit still. In her ears, the whispering and laughter and howls of the shades all around her began to sound like doom. They sounded like something to be feared now. Not because of something they came to say, but because of their mere presence. Little spirits like these couldn’t harm anything and fearing them made her feel like she was becoming less and less a child of her tribe. What would Changgan say, to see her now? Nothing. He was gone forever with the rest of them, and everything they had been and believed.
She wished she could follow that thought all the way down and mourn. But she couldn’t. Sheth’s people needed her. Just her, only her. Only she could help them.
Focus. The god. Palthos. How should she get his attention? Well, Natuak had mentioned offerings, so maybe she could find something. She began to pace nervously, trying to look like she was about to do something. Like she had more of a plan than this.
Ancestor spirits wanted the things they enjoyed while alive. Great Kupati was summoned with yam wine and silk, and Mother with fresh bread and nursery songs. And the chants, of course, and the signs. And the fire and sacred smoke. She didn’t have any of that, and what would a child god want anyway? A puppy?
Toys was as good a guess as any. Without a word to anyone she bolted and ran back to the tent where she’d robbed the salt. The little cloth doll was right where she left it, partially buried under overturned scraps of linen cloth.
She picked it up and considered it. It was a scrappy thing, probably old. The dye was long since worn out and if it started out twilight-blue like the Night People, it was spotty brown and gray now. One of the horns was missing and the yarn of the hair was largely worn away. The tail was long gone, but the little dress looked like it was in good repair. Or newer.
Wait, Palthos was a boy, wasn’t he? Would he even want a doll? She looked down at the little wooden sword and a flash of spite kept her from picking it up. If he was only the god of male orphans, then he could find someone else to run his errands.
She raced back, almost as if to outrun her fear that it wasn’t going to work. She quickly knelt at the salt she’d laid down and held up the doll. “Alright, Palthos, I give you this offering! Do I… do I burn it? What do I do, Natuak?”
Before the Elder could respond, however, a small girl ran out of the crowd, just a tiny thing. Younger than Sheth. She stopped just a few paces from Dyana and pointed at the doll, then said something in garbled baby talk that Dyana couldn’t understand.
“Oh, why, of--!” Dyana started, but clipped her mouth shut to keep from screaming her frustration and throwing the doll at the tiny girl. Now what? Should she give it back? Was this some kind of joke?
It took only a few heartbeats of the two of them looking at each other for the tiny girl to cover her face with her hands and start crying; a weary, heartbroken sound. By now her father had reached her and picked her up, and the poor thing was so upset that she collapsed against him and wailed her desolation into his shoulder. The look the father gave Dyana was… haunted.
Dyana jumped to her feet and held it out, walking over. She felt sick. “Here, I was going to give it back. Here, take it.”
The father took it and gave it to the tiny girl, who hugged it but didn’t stop crying.
Wow, you can really be mean sometimes, whispered a child into her ear. She jumped away from the sound and nearly fell over. There was nothing there.
“Palthos?” she asked.
I heard you earlier. I just wanted to see what you would do, the god whispered straight into her ear, so close she expected to feel his lips brush against her. Then he giggled and backed away, a sound full of mirth and amusement that made her spirit tingle.
The invisible wall came back into existence, silencing the shades utterly and leaving only the startled gasps of the Night People in the sudden emptiness.
Dyana was so relieved she could cry, and she almost did. She had to stare at the ground a moment and blink a bunch of times and calm her breathing before she dared rise to her feet. Once she did, she ignored the sudden outcry as hundreds of Night People called out for her attention. She scanned the crowd for Sheth or his parents. There!
Ten paces away, Sheth’s Mama had picked him up, wet pants notwithstanding, and his Papa was scanning the crowd for threats. He almost didn’t let Dyana past when she came over, but she waited an instant for him to choose to move instead of picking a fight.
She placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Sheth, it’s your turn. You have to look and see who still has a spirit in them. Come on. You’re safe now. Mama doesn’t even have to put you down. Okay? You need to look, Sheth. Open your eye.”
Sheth was hesitant, and his mother Nemua said, “He’s trembling, Dyana. He’s too scared. Just let him be.”
Dyana tried again, speaking in a way that felt both gently and urgent. “Sheth, almost everyone is safe now except just a few people. You have to tell us who so we can save them too. Only you can do it, Seffy. Come on. Can you be brave like… like Androkles? Remember when he came and got you back after those men took you? And he had to fight a bunch of men to do it? This is just like that, but even he can’t do this. Only you. And you don’t have to do anything--just tell us who has a shade in them.”
Slowly, Sheth loosened his death grip on his mother and turned to face Dyana. It seemed like the whole rest of the tribe was crowding in now, anxious to see what was going on. She could feel all their eyes, their urgency. Her own.
The little boy’s lantern eye hardly glowed at all in the bright daylight; it was almost imperceptible with the sun in his face. But nonetheless, she saw a flash there as he gathered his mental vigor. “That’s my brave little Seffy! Hold his hand, Kishpa. He needs his Papa, too. Now come! Look at everyone and tell us who has a spirit in them.”
Curiously, those close enough to hear what she said shied away as Sheth’s gaze turned to pass over the crowd. She supposed it made sense, since they didn’t know what she was going to do. Maybe they thought she’d just stab the possessed?
She shouted, “Everyone hold still! If you move around it’ll just waste time!”
That kept them frozen in place, thankfully, but it did nothing to smooth the apprehension from their faces. She was sick to think of how Sheth must feel with everyone he knows giving him the same look, but what was she supposed to do? It had to be done.
Sheth pointed at a young woman, still a youth near Dyana’s own age. She was the one who’d come back on her own, the one who’d been helped by Androkles. Word of her had spread quickly, but Dyana never quite caught her name. She held her little one in her arms.
Another youth, a male, jumped in front of her and shouted, “No! You can’t hurt her!”
Dyana said, “I’m not going to hurt her. No one is. Turn around and help me. Make this sign. Everyone make this sign! Now!” She held up her right hand in the sign of the horns, the ward against all evil. She raised it insistently and started staring people down one by one until they complied.
Once it looked like enough of them were following her, she demonstrated how to direct the horns and guide the evil into the ground. “We’re all going to do this at the same time. And when we do, we shout ‘Be gone!’ Got it? Shout it like you mean it and the shade will obey. Ready? On the count of three. One, two, three! Be gone!”
The crowd’s shout startled her completely. It was better timed and louder than she expected. She’d been sure it would take ten tries before they decided to get serious. But no, that was perfect! She could feel the pressure of their unified will in the air.
Dyana turned to Sheth. “Did it work? Is it gone?”
The boy had his mouth open and he stared in amazement at things no one else could see. Dyana had seen that look on him a hundred times. If she asked, she was certain he’d go on and on about it and make no sense at all. She asked again, touching his arm. “Sheth, is it gone?”
"Yeah,” he whispered hoarsely, then swallowed to wet his throat.
“You saved her. You saved her life. Now, who else?”
“So many went out…” he exclaimed.
“Who else, Seffy? Hurry and look.”
The boy’s gaze remained at the empty nothing over all their heads, and Dyana had to turn his head so he’d look at her. “Who else?”
Sheth looked around again, wider-eyed and fearless. His Mama started carrying him around the tribe, seeking out anyone who might be obscured or hiding. He looked everyone over, although he kept getting distracted by things Dyana was certain he wanted to tell her about. But she kept him focused, and soon it was done. There was no one else.
“Oh, dere’s one more. A little one, in…” Sheth said, furtively pointing at Natuak.
The Elder scowled with disgust and said, “I do not have a shade!”
Dyana ignored him and said, “All right, everyone! Again! Make the sign! One, two, three, be gone!”
This time the command was a shout that slapped the air like a thunderclap. If it wasn’t the entire tribe, it was close enough it may as well have been.
Natuak looked no different than before, nor did his demeanor lighten.
“Is it gone, Seffy?” Dyana asked.
Dyana turned to the crowd and said, “Is there anyone he didn’t look at? Are you all sure he looked at you? If you’re not sure, step forward!”
After about the space of five breaths, no one had come forward, and the Night People realized they were saved. A cheer went up, and the oppressive atmosphere vanished. Dyana almost wondered if the shades outside the circle were gone as well, but inside, there was certainly nothing but joy. It was such a chaotic mess of laughing and hugging and dancing that Dyana couldn’t even tell who belonged to which family.
Natuak stepped over to her and begrudgingly admitted, “It is impressive what you have done, Dyana, but we are not saved. We are merely right back where we started.”
“No, you silly old man, don’t you see? Everyone left standing is going to survive. I can make charms, as many as it takes. Or we can do other things if the spirits don’t leave. The hard part is over. I won!”
He may have sighed as he turned away, but Dyana couldn’t hear him. And let him stew, for all she cared! He’d cheer up later. Her relief was making her silly anyway and she needed to shout to let it free. “Palthos, I did it! I did as you asked and saved them!” She even started in on the Beet Harvest Dance, joining in the exultation of the tribe.
Dyana knew the god could hear her, and he must certainly make good on his promises. Sheth’s people were saved, and soon so would Androkles and his family, and then… then she might find a place to live. And maybe marry, and maybe… The god said he would unknot all she tied, and her mental impression was that all her mistakes would be undone. Like a fishing line so full of old knots that it caught on everything and returned more frustration than fish. But what that looked like exactly, who knew?
She wanted to go hug Sheth, but everyone was crowding in around him, running their thumbs over his horn nubs in a gesture that she guessed must signal affection or friendship. The adults never touched each other’s horns unless they were close, so that must be it. From what she could see of the boy, he was lost somewhere in a daze of confusion and happiness.
Dyana felt a tug at her trousers and looked down to see a young demon boy, perhaps around eight or ten, peering up at her. He wore nothing but a wide, pure-white loincloth with fine gold embroidery, hanging from a thin belt of gold-thread rope. His long, black hair was all slicked back to leave his forehead bare. The horn nubs were a bit more pronounced than Sheth’s, but they wouldn’t grow out for years. He held the end of his whip-like tail politely in his other hand, and his face was alight with amusement and playfulness.
He gave her a strangely paternal smile and said, “I like how you did that. Good job, Dyana.”
Then she noticed his eyes—they were deep black, dark as an empty cavern, and filled with white points of light like stars. They contained impossible depths.
She realized she knew his voice.
“Palthos!” She almost panicked. What should she do? What does one do to greet a god? Fall to the ground like for a king? She had no idea, and she was too shocked to move.
Some of those around her must have heard her because they stopped what they were doing and looked at the newcomer. Word began to spread and everyone quieted down to stare in amazement. He was a child they didn’t recognize and that alone was enough to get their attention. But no one—Dyana included—ever expected to see a Night Person wearing such fine cloth. It was impossibly white, white as snow. In a tribe of people dressed in rough linen and ragged furs dyed only by their poverty, such a thing demanded attention, and got it.
Palthos—the god!—stepped toward the crowd and walked among them, looking at them all with great curiosity. They gaped back at him with the same emotion. After a moment, he gave a satisfied nod and came back to stand by Dyana.
The child-god said, “Okay, Pepper, come out.”
Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, Dyana turned to see Pepper standing just out of arm’s reach of her, looking sheepish. His head was bowed, but more out of embarrassment or nervousness than respect. Had he been there the whole time? The whole time!?
The child-god said, “You got nine of them, Pepper. That’s a lot of people to kill with only one kick.”
Pepper looked like he wanted to melt into the ground.
Palthos said, “You thought I forgot about you, didn’t you? Well, I didn’t. And I won’t. You belong to me and you always will. So, are you satisfied? Is this enough to call it even?”
“Yes,” said Pepper. He glanced up, barely enough to just peek at the god. Dyana couldn’t tell if he thought he was about to get scolded, or if he was just feeling embarrassed or guilty.
“Good. It’ll make a great story someday.” Before Dyana had time to process that response, the god turned toward the crowd and said, “Listen, all you children of Calishek, your god is gone. His throne is destroyed and what’s left of him belongs to me now. If you want to survive as a people, you will need a god. And if you want a god, it will be me or no one. No other god will dare take away my toys. Go find my priestess and she can explain the rest. Her name is Agurne.”
Palthos stopped talking and everyone continued to stare. That was it? That was all he had to say? Surely there’d be more! Why would he even bother appearing, then, and not even until the trouble was over?
Dyana blurted out, “I saved them like you asked.” A wave of fear passed through her as Palthos turned to look at her again. He seemed so harmless, but he was still a god. Wasn’t he?
“No, you didn’t,” he replied, plainly, rocking back on his heels with the hint of a smile.
She had no idea how to handle this. He seemed just like any child, other than the white loincloth and being the only one around who looked like he’d bathed in a year. He was just talking to her like normal, too, not even with the mysterious riddles and imperious tone of the great spirits. “I… yes, I did. I put the circle back up, and—”
“No, they would have been fine. I saved all the ones I wanted to save. It would have been the same either way. No, I want you to save them from that,” said the god. He pointed toward the northwest, and Dyana turned to see a shining star in the daylight sky, looking like it was heading their direction. She recognized it at once.
“Wolfscar? You want me to save them from Wolfscar? Then that means…” Horror filled her. She did not want to fight Androkles and his family. Oh, spirits, please, not--
“No, silly. Behind Wolfscar. On the ground. But they’re coming this way. Good luck.”
And with that, the god was gone, vanished like a snuffed candle flame. A quiet, agitated murmur arose among the Night People as they began to wonder aloud about what had just happened.
Then they heard the pounding, quiet and low. More felt than heard, vibrations coming up from the ground.
Drums. Or many, many footsteps.