The Summoning

by Charo Palenzuela

I remember a night like this twelve years ago. 

Hail, pelting against the misted windows. Lightning, cracking through the slate-grey  sky. A chill, not from the air but from within, snaking up my goose-fleshed skin.  Tell me a story! I plead my governess, one tiny hand pulling on her skirts, the other resting on the sleeve of my sleeping sister, Arina. Tell me a story about the old gods!  The woman tuts. Your mother wouldn’t like it, not after she walked in last time. But I like hearing about them, I persist. They aren’t pretty like the temple statues.  They don’t need to be. 

She smiles, tucking my blanket back up to my chin. When she speaks, her voice rolls  over me like thunder in the mountains—like a prophecy hanging in the stars. Your mother is  only fearful because she knows as well as I that such power does not wither.  It waits. 

#

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

The beat trails beneath the house, through the walls, towards a familiar set of  mahogany doors. For months on this lonely estate, I’ve lain in bed each night, ears perked at the curious vibrations. I know at least that they originate from the Library, but Aunt Anne has  always kept the wing firmly locked up. 

Yet tonight, things feel different. My bare feet pad against the icy mosaic floors. My  fingers curl over the brass handles with ease. Whatever locks are in place melt under my touch. And as I step over the Library’s threshold, the shadows swelling inside me, I lift my  eyes and—

“Mary!” 

My lids fly open. Sunrays sear my pupils. 

“Are you sleeping?”

At Windrun, the weather is mercurial as the old gods are said to be. The storms  descend fast, but by morning the sky is crystalline, a mist of cloud scudding across the  bleached sun. Most people would be energised by the daylight, but last night’s storm had  stirred the Library’s pulse to a skull-splitting volume. 

“I was sleeping.” 

Arina pouts. “You didn’t come for me this morning. Did you forget I came to visit?”  “You were with Aunt Anne when I woke up,” I explain. Meanwhile, she’s barely said  a word to me my entire stay.

Still pouting, Arina reaches for my limp hands, and I allow her to pull me to my feet. “Don’t be so sombre. I have good news.”

“Let me guess … another proposal?” 

I’d come to Windrun two seasons ago, hoping that my aloof, childless aunt might  name me heir to her property. But Arina has never needed to worry about her future, not with  her million prospects. Her visit is only a method of enflaming her suitors’ attachments—each  letter she’d sent me had been about a different one. 

Each letter I’d sent her had revolved around the same subject. 

Arina leans in, grinning. “Aunt Anne toured me around the house, and I asked her to  show it to me.” 

I regret how eagerly I react to her. “You went inside the Library?”

Her cerulean eyes twinkle. “Dusty and dark. It was Uncle Albert’s, and you know  Aunt Anne’s still sore about him disappearing. But you can judge it for yourself.” “Impossible. Aunt Anne barely lets me into the drawing room, and even you can’t  charm locked doors to open.” 

Arina merely shrugs, the way someone who has never known failure would. And when she floats back towards the house like an all-knowing will-o’-the-wisp, I ask no  questions. 

I follow. 

After Aunt Anne goes on her daily walk, Arina reveals the secret tapestry entrance. She shifts the heavy fabric as I pry open the crack in the wall, slamming the door behind us before our adrenaline can settle. 

The first thing I feel is ice. 

The chill air bites my bare skin even though summer has just arrived. Arched windows break up the wooden walls, their rusted frames nipped with what looks impossibly like frost. I catch a faded portrait of Uncle Albert in one of them—he is boring, thin-lipped, 

grey. I try not to think about how similar my reflection in the glass looks to him.  My fingers trace across the rows of bookshelves, and I think that if Aunt Anne bequeaths me the estate and the Library, I might never be bored again. But when I see Arina reverently perusing the shelves too, a darkness jolts through my chest. Briefly, and not for the  first time, I consider that perhaps I might’ve been happier had Arina been born a little stupider. 

The beauty coughs, my attention wanes, and I finally notice something standing at the  very centre of the room. A marble pillar juts out from the floor, its domed top draped in a  heavy velvet cloth.

As I step towards it, I feel that ominous thump, thump, thump rising from deep  beneath the floor. Yet the sensation that follows is new to me—heavy as last night’s rain,  filling the empty spaces inside my bones with a wonder I cannot place. 

My hands stretches out to uncloak the pillar when Arina is suddenly at my side,  yanking me back.

“We must go.”

“Wait—” I struggle, but then I see her face. 

Purple shadows rim her eyes; a skeletal gauntness sucks at her cheeks. Even her puffy  cream dress seems deflated, and despite the longing in my bones, I am afraid.  We take each other’s hands and abandon the room, the call of the Library behind us like a siren on the rocks. 

#

I am loitering in the Library hallway when my aunt summons me. 

A week has passed since Arina and my adventure, and every day since, I’ve felt that  inexplicable thump, thump, thump trailing me beneath the house’s floors. I want more than  ever to understand the mystery—I want more than ever to uncover it. And yet, something  pulls me back. 

“It’s decaying,” my aunt says when I finally wrench myself from the grand doors. She  leads me through the rose gardens, towards the west wing, and then down into the underbelly of the house. When we reach the basement, a guttering lantern casts its light, and my body  lurches back at the sight before us. 

Throbbing midnight branches clamber up the swollen foundations, each brick and  wooden plank underneath turned a rotting grey.

It is more than just decay. 

It is a curse, reeking of ancient times when the old gods still ruled and humans still  cowered under them. 

My aunt’s violet eyes fix on me. “This is what greed does. He cared not for the  consequences.” 

He. I shudder, remembering the sullen portrait in the Library. “You’re talking about  Uncle Albert, aren’t you?” 

Her thin lips purse. “All our marriage, he was jealous that I was the one whom people  admired. He discovered something unholy that promised to sate his insecurity, but it  consumed him, and continues to corrupt even after he is gone.” 

I swallow the building dryness in my throat. “Is this why you won’t name an heir for  the estate? Are you searching for a holyman to rid this parasite?”

“I understand this curse far better than any holyman.” Aunt Anne’s pinched face  smooths. “I have found an heir, and I believe only she can save the house.”  For a delusional moment, I think she means me. 

I think about the Library’s heartbeat following me, calling me, as if it has always  sensed the worthiness in me. 

But then I think about how around Arina, I have always felt empty, as if any iota of  beauty and fortune I was meant to have had been hoarded by her in the womb.  I may want, but it is always she who receives. 

“Arina.” Her blessed name weighs my tongue. “You think she cannot be touched.  You think that her goodness will reverse this.” 

Aunt Anne’s eyes drag from my pitiful face. “You must understand.”

And despite the blood rushing in my ears, I do.

I am bitter, Arina is sweet. I am taciturn, curious, while Arina knows exactly where  she must fit. But knowing she will be made heir feels like a dagger twisting in my gut.  So many months I’d spent flattering. So many months spent loitering these vacant  halls, only to be strung along like a toy horse.

“Maybe you blame whatever Uncle Albert found, but perhaps it’s you who’s bringing  down this house,” I spit before I can stop myself. Strange, viscous shadows border my vision,  seeming to laugh alongside my rage. “You, so pompous and shallow. Is it no wonder your  husband hated you?” 

Aunt Anne’s palm is sudden and white hot against my cheek. 

“Do you know why I didn’t choose you?” she hisses. “Because I recognise the evil inside you. Every light must cast its shadow.” Then she strides back up the stairs, leaving my  gaze to settle on the writhing, abominable vines behind her. 

Growing up, I’d always felt like something to step over—the rinds cast out after the  fruit. But now I imagine those vines piercing through me. Through my soles, through my  palms, through my veins. 

I imagine the dark filling up my body until finally, my shadow becomes my own. 

#

Aunt Anne holds a gathering tonight in my sister’s honour. Arina has chosen a suitor, and in  a week, will be leaving me to venture into her new, perfect life.

While everyone is distracted dancing, I burst into the Library, finally answering its  call in equal measure. I splay my hands against the shelves, feeling the wooden foundations  settle into my marrow, feeling the alien curse echo in my veins. I look to the pillar, prepared  to unsheathe it.

But then— 

“Mary.”

Though darkness swathes my sight, I sense my sister’s pure gaze burning into me. “Go away, Arina,” I say, but her delicate footsteps only draw closer. 

“Aunt Anne told me what happened. You must know I never meant to take Windrun from you—”

“And yet it is yours, just like everything!”

That recess in me is yearning, feeding, and I can no longer tamp down its want.  “You think you’re the sun, everything drawing into your gravity. But you only  consume. You’re no better than a parasite.” 

Instead of apologising the way I expect, Arina’s voice sharpens. “I love you, Mary,  but don’t pretend your faults are because of me. How long have you been consumed by your  own self-pity? How long have you willingly stewed in your misery?” 

Thump. Thump. Thump. The beat beneath our feet grows loud as festival drums, and  as I look at Arina now, fury rending through my body, I realise everyone was wrong about us.  We are not two sides of the same coin—one cast in dark, the other in glory. My twin may be beautiful, but she is no god.

I will not serve her. 

The Library rumbles around me, its pulse joining my own. And when Arina shifts forward, so do I. 

An animalistic scream rips from my throat as I reach the pillar, tearing away its velvet  cover. And even before I can see what I’ve unleashed, I feel my flesh flay apart into  something new. Something terrible. 

Something divine. 

“What have you done?” Arina stumbles as the Library rocks violently around us.

Someone pounds at the door, and when my aunt finally breaks through, I revel in the  whiteness of her face, the wetness of her eyes as they admire the leagues of ravenous vines  splitting through the polished floors. 

They snake hungrily up the bookshelves, and a sudden rain of tomes sends Anne sprawling to the ground. Somewhere, Arina shrieks. 

The gods do not favour any weak vessel, my governess’ voice purls through the chaos.  The gods only answer those who call them back. 

The ceiling caves in, the walls crumble around us. 

Arina fades, and my shadow rises, freeing itself from her chains. I outstretch my arms  as Uncle Albert’s portrait laughs from the wall. 

Mary! 

Mary! 

No longer.

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