Sanyare: The Heir Apparent
Goosebumps rose, candle flames guttered. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck lifted, and Rie shivered. She felt like she was being watched.
Two skulls rested on a nest of elder tree leaves, their empty gazes mocking. Rie narrowed her eyes, daring the bones of her long-dead ancestors to judge her. She tried to picture the muscle and skin on top of the bone, tried to imagine the faces that stared back at her.
She was not scared. Nope. Not scared at all.
The crunch of gravel made her spin in her seat.
“Just me,” said Lord Garamaen, who preferred to be called Greg but was also known as Sanyaro, or the truthseeker of the nine realms. He found a seat in the rocky border that lined the path from the clearing to the house.
Rie nodded, returning to her task. She only had a few moments before the deepest dark of night turned to the light of day and the opportunity to reach the Daemon Realm closed. She couldn’t fail again.
Rie clenched her eyes closed and envisioned the two women before her. Una and Nashota, Greg’s twin daughters. They’d mastered the magical abilities of soulspeech and soultouch, the same abilities Rie sought to harness in this test.
But in six months of training, Rie had yet to successfully call on any of her supposed magical abilities. She couldn’t light a candle or intentionally summon a premonition. Day after day, they trained. Day after day, she tried one skill after another. And day after day, she failed even the simplest of tasks.
Today represented the first attempt to call on the souls in the Daemon Realm. At Rie’s request, they had avoided it until now. Her testing in the Shadow Realm had been bad enough, seeing and feeling the death of a bird. She really didn’t want to experience the death of a sentient being.
Greg finally forced the issue, believing the skulls would act as a built-in connection to his long-dead children, a connection he’d strengthened over the centuries with repeated use. That connection should make it easier to magically cross the veil and call upon Rie’s ancestors.
Rie grimaced. Centuries dead, and Greg still kept the bones of his children with him. It was almost as bad as a taxidermist who stuffed every pet he’d ever owned, but worse since they’d been human.
“Focus,” Greg repeated. “Your thoughts are wandering.”
“Find the frequency, amplify it, and call the soul to you,” he encouraged.
Rie scrunched her eyes tighter. A discordant buzzing noise built in her head, growing louder as she concentrated. Nearly unbearable, Rie fought the discomfort and searched for the connection to the skulls.
The buzzing separated into two distinct sounds within Rie’s brain.
She grinned. This might work. Almost there.
She let the vibrations pulse through her body, selecting one at random. She could feel the wavelength moving like a string on an instrument. She pulled the string toward her. With a snap, Una stood before her.
“This is a surprise,” Una said in the common tongue. The woman’s voice sounded soft and lilting, the cadence unfamiliar to Rie’s ear although she understood the words. She looked exactly like Rie expected. Greg’s memory, and his skill, had captured everything from the gently pointed ears to the dimple in her left cheek in the bronze statue that honored her in the sacred circle.
“Who have you brought, Father?”
“Meet your many-times great-granddaughter and my named heir,” Greg replied. “She is just beginning to harness her abilities. Perhaps you could give her some tips on soulspeech?”
Rie connected with the second skull and pulled. Nashota arrived.
“Yow!” the woman squealed. “That was unnecessarily rough.”
“Sounds like she needs more help with soultouch, than soulspeech,” was Una’s dry reply.
“She can stop pulling now. She’s about to attract the wicked souls I was working with,” Nashota chimed in.
“How goes the counseling?” Greg asked.
“Catch up later. She’s still pulling!”
A third soul popped into existence next to Nashota. He snarled, his incorporeal form lunging toward Rie. With the finesse of a thousand years’ practice, Nashota pulled a spear out of thin air and whacked the soul across its head with a resounding crack, pushing him back and away from his target.
Rie felt tension on the line to Nashota, as if she had gone fishing, but caught a great white shark instead of trout. It shivered and shimmied and lunged back and forth as more souls pulled their way through the veil and into the Human Realm.
“Drop the connection,” Greg commanded.
Mentally flailing, she tried to let go, tried to push the souls back through the veil to their rightful place in the wastelands of the Daemon Realm. She failed.
Like the apparitions of Una and Nashota, the souls were gauzy white and incorporeal. They floated in the air, their howling, grimacing faces distinct but the rest of their body flowing from one form to another. They lunged and swirled, shoving against one another in an effort to get past the twins.
Gods damn it all. Her first success would end in catastrophe.
“Rie, you have to let go now,” Greg urged. “Disconnect from the Daemon Realm. Una and Nashota can remain, but the others must not get through.”
“I’m trying,” Rie ground out.
She hardly moved, yet sweat beaded on her forehead. Greg acted like there was nothing to it, like the connections could be made and broken with ease. Nothing that she tried worked. It was as if, now that the ability had been woken, she couldn’t shut it down.
One of the souls, a woman, slid toward Rie like a snake with a human head. The manic grin on her face promised pain. Rie rolled out of range just as Una knocked the woman back into the crowd.
“The Moirai are not going to be happy about this!” Nashota yelled.
Greg stood and dusted off his pajama bottoms with his hand. He walked over to the mass of souls and began sending them, one by one, back to the wastelands where they belonged. He made it look so easy, just a touch and they disappeared.
Rie swallowed her fear and stood. She kept an eye on the shifting mass of disembodied heads. “They’re just ghosts,” she told herself. “Nothing to fear.”
She could do this.
“Did you teach her nothing before calling us?” Una asked.
Greg ignored his daughter and addressed Rie without pausing his efforts to return the souls. “These aren’t just ghosts — the afterimage of the body’s spirit — these are souls, and not just that, they’re the souls of the wicked and damned. They want one thing and one thing only: to once again have a body,” Greg said.
“And you’ve brought them here to the Human Realm, to a land that has given up magic and left itself wide open to possession. Put them back. Now,” Nashota commanded.
Rie swallowed hard.
“I don’t know how.” Strained frustration leached into her voice.
Her hands itched for her missing khukuri blades. For nearly a century she’d relied on her physical abilities, trained to fight with fists and knives. Now she was being asked to use abstract ideas and intangible magics to perform tasks she’d never imagined she could achieve.
The connection with the Daemon Realm still vibrated with the pressure of more souls trying to break through. She mentally pushed and pulled at the line, trying to cut the connection, but it only stretched with her efforts. She didn’t know how to sever it.
“Tell me what to do!”
“Father, what were you thinking, allowing someone so inexperienced to call on us,” Una demanded.
“She is untrained, yes, but she is my apprentice and heir. She must learn.”
“Sink or swim isn’t the way to teach control.”
A few of the souls darted forward, only to be pushed back by one or the other twin. When they weren’t harmed, some of the others grew more bold.
A group of three new souls rushed Nashota. She spun the spear. Pushed them back. Ducked under a clawed hand.
Una, meanwhile, fought with two small knives held in reverse grip. Any soul that found a way around Nashota, found itself sliced instead. But they couldn’t send them back. The best they could do was herd them toward Greg, and there were too many for him to deal with alone.
They kept coming, all slathering to reach Rie.
“What do I do?” she cried.
“Sever the connection, Rie. Push the souls out of this realm. You can do it.”
He touched another soul and it disappeared. The rest of the swarm spread out around him in ripples of angry mist, trying to flee the area before he could reach them. The twins struggled to keep them contained.
“How?” She needed to stop this. Needed to help. They were fighting her battle, cleaning up her mess. She was better than this.
“How would you cut a rope? Or a ribbon?” Garamaen asked. His voice remained surprisingly calm given the chaos around him.
“Father! Now is not the time,” Nashota called. “We cannot let the souls escape.”
Rie backed away as a soul found its way around Una and toward her, his scarred face twisted into a mask of anger and pain. A tendril of whatever substance it was that made up his body reached out toward Rie. With a quick flick, the tendril pierced the skin of her wrist.
She shook her hand, trying to dislodge the unwanted connection. The mist, or whatever it was, pushed its way into her arm. She could feel it slide beneath her skin, wriggling its way past her elbow like a parasitic worm.
Her muscles seized. Her brain clouded. Her body was being invaded. She couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“Get it out! Get it off!” she screamed. She swiped at it with her other hand, but the soul used the contact to set more hooks in her skin.
“Help!” she cried. She had no control, no defense against the thing inside her. It wouldn’t be long now before the soul embedded itself completely.
“Shield yourself!” Greg’s voice boomed through the clearing.
They’d started with shielding. They’d practiced. In her panic, she couldn’t remember a word of what he’d said.
“Imagine a wall, a barrier, an impenetrable steel plate,” Garamaen instructed. “Build a fortress in your mind.
Enclose your soul in an armored safe. Protect yourself on the inside as you would on the outside.”
Bricks. Imagine bricks.
The mental wall crumbled, cracked, and broke.
The soul pushed through the flame like smoke on the wind.
“I can’t!” She leaned her head back, trying to get away from the thing climbing up her neck. It did no good when that thing was on the inside. It just kept coming.
Greg waded through the crowd of souls, sending them back with each swipe of his hand. Not fast enough. He wasn’t going to make it. The soul had nearly disappeared into her skin. His laughter bubbled up through her own lips.
“Too late,” the voice that was hers but not hers said. “Mine now.”
Greg shook his head, his expression filled with disappointment and resignation. He looked deep into Rie’s eyes. Frowned.
“No,” he said.
A single word relayed all of the bitter discouragement felt by everyone in the clearing. Rie had let every single one of them down. Had failed so miserably, she didn’t deserve another opportunity. She was a disgrace.
A tear dripped down her cheek while the alien soul inside her smiled.
Greg lifted his hand. Touched her head. Everything went dark.