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Name: Jessie Devine
Genre: YA fantasy
Title: The Sweet Dark
Heat gripped the cherry swamp in its putrid claws, even in the dead of night. The air sweated in that place, the cherries rotting ripe and sickly sweet. It would’ve been great if the solution to all my problems wasn’t out in the middle of this. But at least the temperature (or good sense) kept everyone away.
The moon reflected orange across murky water, face broken by cattails and marsh grass. I was supposed to go south, but the swamp had swallowed the path. Trees twisted up out of the water, but I couldn’t tell how deep it was. Some fish or something that could probably eat me made a splash somewhere off in the dark. You’d think I would’ve read the signs: don’t do this, idiot.
Water soaked through my shoes. It squelched between my toes as I slogged into the mud. I grimaced. This mythical white tree better be easy to find. Would it still look white at night? Would I miss it? Had I already missed it? I hesitated, and my foot slipped deeper into the muck. Now I was soaked through all the way up to my crotch. There were probably leeches involved.
A cloud drifted over the moon, and I froze. I wasn’t even scared of the dark, but fear crawled up my spine. I took another step, and another, breath hitching, mud sucking on my shoes until one came off. Lost forever. I kicked off the other because I needed symmetry. Silt floated all around my feet, soft in a gross way. The way I imagined puke would feel if you stepped in it. I shuddered. Eyes trained on the opposite bank, I forced myself to press on. Finally the water receded, and I climbed up onto dry ground.
All the fine little hairs on my body stood on end. They should’ve been slicked down with sweat and swamp, but electricity lit me up. A pang of intensity ran down my spine, and I swallowed. I was headed the right direction, then.
The overgrown path continued all innocent-like, like it hadn’t just made me take a dip in the sludge. Quiet hung over this bank. The bugs were quiet, even. My footsteps seemed muffled, my bare feet light on the soggy dirt.
When I turned the corner, I broke into a run. The tree was indeed white, shimmery, silver white like old snow. “Finally,” I whispered. This was it. This big, dead tree would change my life. My hands hovered a second before I laid them against the bark.
The words of the evocation ripped themselves out of my mouth.
“With power for breath, shade sweet as death,
We rend our souls with this violent request.
Wishes and whimsy contracted for spite,
Allow us the strength to turn day into night.
Slaves to your hunger, our bone made to bread,
In the hour of darkness, leave us for dead.”
Energy surged through my body. All my muscles cramped. I tried to cry out, but my jaw locked shut. My arms started to shake. Pain shot through my neck and seized the thin muscles on the back of my skull. My calves had knives in them. Fractures bit into my spine. All my bones were snapping. But I had to keep holding on, had to. This was my only chance. Agony exploded behind my eyes, lights flickering at the edge of my vision. A trickle of something hot ran from my ear—not blood, please not blood. Still, I couldn’t let go, I had to—I ripped my hands off the tree.
I sank to the ground, panting. None of the stories had mentioned this. Had I said something wrong? The sugar shade evocation was like a nursery rhyme, a thing adults said at night to scare children into behaving. Of course I knew it. It was a myth; everyone in Gilda knew it.
I waited, staring at the powdery bark, willing something to rise out of it. If I hiked out here in the middle of the night and got submerged in filth, covered in leeches, and accosted by a tree for nothing . . .
No, this had to work. It was possible to summon a sugar shade; I’d seen one with my own eyes. Once. A long time ago. Okay, I’d been like ten and it might’ve been a dream. But.
My face started to burn. It was kind of embarrassing that I’d done all this, actually. Magic wasn’t real. Sugar shades? Really? I was a damn fool, sitting out here, bleeding from the head and chanting nursery rhymes to a plant during the seventh full moon.
I pushed myself to my feet. I was hot and sticky and aching, and now what? All those plans I had, everything I wanted for the crew back home? It was all over. I turned away and
Screamed. There was a shade, standing silent in the middle of the clearing. Its face was entirely expressionless, which was more intimidating than even rage could have been.
I swallowed and stepped closer. No telling how old this thing was. It looked the same age as me, but that was the point I guess, to appeal to the bargainer. It was taller than me and as white as the tree. Its—hair? Was it hair? It looked like hair, only it was bright violet and fell in thick spikes around the creature’s face. Its face. Oh lord, its face. It had a jawline like the razor’s edge and cheekbones to match. Its eyes were wide and the color of hematite. It said nothing, but I could feel it, pressing against my mind.
I cleared my throat. “What’s your—” The word floated across my consciousness before I could finish my sentence. “Say-el? Is that your name?” I asked, trying out the word on my tongue.
“Sael.” The creature spoke barely above a whisper.
My heart fluttered like a dying bird. This was becoming rapidly more real by the moment. I wanted to scream and run and hide and jump for joy all at the same time.
I took a breath. I knew how this went. If I didn’t want to end up a scorch mark on the dirt, I had to be calm, and I had to be polite. I put on my most charming smile to go with my most charming voice. “Sael, what is your pronoun preference?”
“My preference is yours,” it said, its eyes glittering.
My whole body shuddered. This wasn’t anything like the stories. They said I should never do this, that I would be made powerless at the hands of an ancient evil. Instead, those soft whispers made me feel like the most powerful being in existence.
I reassessed the shade. I’d never chosen a pronoun for someone before. It seemed like a weird thing to do. How the fuck did I know what words would suit Sael? But then, we were talking about a primordial, cosmic terror. Maybe these things didn’t have gender.
My friend once told me they identified only with the night sky and the spinning universe, and that friend preferred xe and xir. I swallowed hard, praying this wasn’t some kind of test. “Does ‘xe’ work for you?”
Sael nodded. There, I’d already chosen xir pronoun, and we hadn’t even made a deal. Honestly, this is the moment I should’ve seen how this was going to end, but I was too occupied with the possibilities.