Shadows Chapter I: The Alley

They said to meet them here, where buildings rose blackly on either side of a deep alley, stars coldly staring down through the narrow gap between them. A siren’s wail echoed down concrete labyrinths, nearly drowning the soft clicking of my heels on damp concrete. Chilled, I tugged at the collar of my leather coat in a vain attempt to wrap warmth about myself. The sleeves crinkled and squeaked in the way that only leather can. My movements shifted an intrusive weight underneath my jacket. The checkered grip pressed into my ribs, a reminder of the weapon’s presence – one as out of place here as myself.

What They wanted, they would not say. My imagination ran to the less pleasant first – maybe some gruesome horde would await me, anxious to rend me limb from limb, and drain my soul. Or perhaps they wanted to make me one of them – sometimes They did that, or so some had told me. I had no such intentions. And I was prepared.

About half-way down the alley my footsteps seemed to change. Now, instead of the familiar tap tap tap, they became silent, as though I were walking on a thick carpet.

I stopped.

The wind whispered in my ear, telling me the tale of my woes. The only problem with listening to the wind, though, was it always only told of possibilities, and never, ever, was it anything but vague.

I slowly turned, peering into the deepest of the shadows.

I knew they were with me as soon as I saw the ground. There, in a black deeper than a sunless void, lay my shadow. But I knew it wasn’t really mine. It was one of Them. And already it was trying to gain control. My feet started to go numb as icy talons clawed at my shoes.

I leapt backwards, snatching my flashlight from my belt. With a flick of the switch I lanced the beam into the now-disembodied Shadow. It pulsed briefly, and one could almost sense a brief conflict between it and the circle of light. Then, with a scream heard only in my head, it formlessly fled up a wall and into a nearby window, moving with such speed I was unable to keep the light on it.

But the first test was over, and They weren’t likely to send another. I turned off the light and put it away before turning back toward the mouth of the alley.

Into a wall.

Funny, it wasn’t there before. Another one of their tricks, I thought – obviously They wanted me to go back from whence I came. So I pivoted and found myself facing yet another wall. Lovely. Just bloody lovely. I couldn’t let it rattle me, though, so I stopped to think.

Clearly the situation needed closer inspection, so I peered more closely at the wall in front of me. Running my hand palm-flat against the surface, the barrier proved to be damp, smooth, and black. It seemed to be made of the same stone as the surrounding buildings. But my investigation soon revealed a difference – regular spaced depressions with roughly rounded edges – clearly meant to be handholds. It seemed They now wanted me to go up, not back. I buttoned up my jacket and began to climb.

The buildings to either side of me seemed to be about 10 stories high. The newly-formed bulwark upon which I was climbing rose their entire height. At about half that, the series of handholds came to an abrupt end. I sighed and tried to step back down, only to stub my toe against the wall. Perplexed, I looked down, just to find that all of the lower holds had vanished. Below me, the rampart had become just as featureless as the others.

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I had found Their second test. I pondered. In my extensive experience, most such trials told as much about those who crafted them as those who became their subjects. My concern was Their motivations. Were They gauging my resolve? My cunning, or my skills – the extent of my repertoire? Or was I nothing more than a toy for their amusement – a gladiator in an arena, or a hamster in a wheel? I preferred to assume that They felt a need to benchmark just precisely what I could do. Was I a threat to them? After all, these shadow-lords knew everyone in these parts, but they didn’t know me. And knowledge is power. They were every bit as aware of this as I. Which is why I had fully intended to reveal as little of myself as I could.

* * *

I suppose now is the time for me to tell you a little more of me, for who I am is every bit as important to my tale as what happened. Perhaps, even more so. But to tell you of me, I must reveal to you secrets which are kept from most of your world.

There are many worlds, of which yours is but one. I do not speak of the planets which your scientists have discovered whirling through space about the fusion infernos that are the stars in your skies. Though these are certainly abundant, the dwindle in comparison to those of which I speak, and are far easier to reach. Or at least, they will be for you one day. No, these do not lie in the same plane of existence as yours. Their laws vary greatly. Some are worlds of pure magic – your science has no hold in these realms. A gun would be as useless there as a match is underwater. Some are lands of science – the spiritual and the magical simply do not exist for them. These I avoid. Still others combine the two, in an infinite variety of concentrations. Yours is one of these, though the magic is fairly weak, but not so much that I was not able to visit.

Each of these worlds is separate by what can best be described as veils. Should one learn how to pull aside one of these veils, you could find yourself stepping from one realm to the next as though they were side-by-side.

I have lost count of how many veils I have turned aside. I could give you my age, if I truly knew what it was – time flows differently in each world, and I have spent so much of my life away from my birth-home, that length of my own life has become a mystery to me.

I used to have companions, when I was younger. But mine is a dangerous road to walk, and with each loss, the burden becomes too great to bear. It is easier to go it alone.

* * *

I remember Deirdre. Her memory still warms my heart on cold, lonely nights. She was a beautiful woman, with long, luxurious, fiery red hair and emerald green eyes. Short, petite, but with an oh-so-womanly figure, she had curves everywhere they belonged. Her laughter was like sunshine in a crystal glass. I was young and naďve, then. I didn’t know better. I let slip my secrets, and she begged to come with me. I couldn’t say no to that smile, or to the twinkle in her eyes.

So one day I took her outside of town, to a clearing in the woods. And I spoke the words of power, twisted my wrist like so, and reached out, pulled aside the veil, like a purple tear in the air before us. I pulled it aside, and gestured to her: There it was, I said, the world next door. All she had to do was step across the threshold. Step across that thin purple line.

It looked so innocuous, so green. How could such a verdant seen bring anything but joy? And there was a flower. One she hadn’t seen before – it didn’t exist in her world. Its crystal blossom, the way it spread the light into miniature rainbow rays, it fascinated her. And so with glee she stepped across the threshold, and I went with her, confident that if something did happen, I could protect her. I was the Worldwalker, after all.

Like I said, I was young, and naďve.

And I loved her.

My tears couldn’t wash away the stain of her blood upon the ground, where it pooled next to that crystal flower, soaking into the earth. I couldn’t stop it from taking her. And to this day, I do not know why it did not take me.

But that was lifetimes ago, and I am older now, wiser, and far, far more dangerous. And yet, I still find it easier to do this alone. I know better now. I will never endanger another the way I did her.

* * *

I remember Al-Shahar. A portly giant of a man he was, mirth was always found in his face. His cheeks were eternally painted with that rosy blush that one can only find in either the truly young or the truly drunk. He was not the former. And oh, how did I enjoy his company. I crossed many veils with him, in one long bar-crawl across the worlds. From tavern to tavern we went, sampling wines and ales and liquors (and women), made from fruits and grains (and loins) that could never be found all in one place. Wherever we went, his laughter filled the room, booming from corner to corner. His magnetism drew them to us in droves, and he always had a tall tale to tell. Never once did he pay for so much as a swallow or a bite of anything he consumed, and consume he did in volume. He would brag that no man (or woman) could outlast him, in food, or drink (or you-know-what).

This proved to be his undoing.

While it was true that no man, or woman, ever did seem to best him in food or drink (or you-know-what), it was the very challenge of it that brought him low. For some will take any lengths to find victory in the face of challenge.

It was the wine of a fruit unknown to him. The gathered crowd swallowed their breaths into a hush when it was brought forth. They knew! They knew noone could take more than a single swallow of this intoxicating beverage and walk away from it. But they said nothing when his challenger brought forth the bottle.

And he poured it into not one, not two, but three little shot glasses.

And Al-Shahar being Al-Shahar, well, he could not resist. And he consumed not one, not two, but all three of the glasses filled with purple beverage. At first it seemed that he would be the one to walk away. But it was not meant to be. Slowly, his eyelids began to droop. His shoulders began to sag. And slowly, slowly, he leaned forward, until his forehead touch the table. And then he seemed to just go to sleep.

I was the one to take his pulse. To find it no longer there, and his breathing stilled. I did not cry for him – it is not what he would have wanted. Instead, I pulled out my pouch of gold coins, and place it on the table. Eat, I said, drink, I said, be merry. And in the morning, bury him well.

And then I walked away.

* * *

I remember Tik-Tarale.

Proud warrior, she stood tall above me, as did most of her race. She came from a world ruled not by man, but by an insectoid race, of which she was one. Perhaps the best way to describe her to human sensibilities would be to envision a Preying Mantis some three meters tall. But her carapace, instead of green, was instead shaded in brilliant shades of gold, from the buttery-yellow gold that humans prize so much in their jewelry to a red-gold that I find to be much more attractive. Here compound eyes were jet black, and stood out against that gold. She wore angular black armour and carried two black barrels strapped one to either forearm. It was her race that fashioned the pistol I carry under my coat. But she was not a scientist – she lacked the patience for that. Tik was a creature of the moment, and a creature of justice. It was her passion for righting wrongs and her championship of the downtrodden that spurred me to my long streak of similar aspired-knighthood.

Side-by-side we went stepped through many veils seeking perceived evil-does to strike down. It was only a matter of time before our own zealousness caught up to us. Most man-ruled realms possess an innate fear of what they perceive to be giant bugs. This led to not a small amount of prejudice which Tik had to face. She bore it gracefully, and never let it get her down, never let it dissuade her from what she saw as her mission. She saw their looks of revulsion and pitied them, for, to her, they knew not better. And when they needed her help, as she saw it, she would help them despite themselves.

In Darran-Sha-halanar, this was a mistake. I should have recognized the signs of them moving against us. I should have quickly guided her away from this world, opened a new veil, and stepped away. But I was every bit as blinded by her passions as she was. And we were both overly arrogant in our beliefs in our martial superiority. We had weapons that wove probability mechanics and chaos magic into one smooth stream of destruction, after all. We could fend for ourselves.

But the crowd was composed of those very people she wanted to help. She would not fire upon them. And the more clever of the rabble rousers had made sure to separate me from her before inciting the crowd to do it. They didn’t need weapons. They didn’t use weapons. Only rope.

They tore her limb-from-limb, segment-from-segment. And they paraded the broken pieces of her body around town before throwing them into the sea.

I went mad for a short while after that.

I don’t remember if anyone was still alive in that town when I left.

I do remember that it was several veils before I was able to wash away the grief and the guilt and be whole again.

* * *

And so I pondered the trial before me. It was only a nuisance, really. There were many ways I could overcome it, but I wanted to reveal as little as possible in so doing. I took a few minutes to consider my options, then, nodding to myself, I selected the one that I thought would be the least revealing, and fit in with what I thought Their current view of me was. They already had to have some inkling that I could work some magics, for no ordinary flashlight could have phased one of Them the way mine had. So I elected to use the most innocuous of which I could conceive, and attempted to keep it as coincidental as possible.

Holding on with one hand, I unbuttoned my jacket and reached inside, pulling out a matching pair of black leather gloves. It took some effort, but by gripping the edge of a glove in my teeth, I was able to slip them on either hand. Then, after murmuring a short incantation, I place first one hand palm-flat against the wall, tested it to ensure it was indeed going to stick (and that my hand wasn’t just going to come right out of the glove), and then the other. Assure that my spell was going to hold, I slowly began to my ascent anew, surely looking something like a spider-man.

It’s hard to tell whether I passed Their final test. Well, let me rephrase that. Whether They were satisfied with my performance. It came quite suddenly, every bit as much as the appearance of the walls. And it was far, far more malevolent.

As I made my way up the faux façade, it abruptly ceased to be. I was falling, but not for long. Before I had a chance to reorient myself and even begin to ponder my imminent impact with an unpleasantly hard surface, the lights went out.

Not that the alley-way had been lit before. But now I was totally engulfed in stygian nothingness. Spots of colour appeared in my vision as my light-starved eyes strained to see something, anything. Then my other senses began to report.

I had already had enough time to have impacted with the ground before I realized there was no sensation of air brushing against my skin, as should be happening were I still falling. No whispering wind teased my ears. There was no sound at all. None save the monotone ringing of ears straining to hear what is not there to be heard. The dank, sour smell of the alley was also noticeably absent, as were any other scents one would expect in a city. And nothing replaced them.

The only sensations I still received came from my skin. The icy chill from earlier returned, only this time it enveloped my entire frame, seeped through my skin and into my bones. The dark nothingness embraced me palpably. It was viscid and abrasive, and wholly unpleasant. I tried to move my limbs, and though I could not see them, their movements still seemed impeded, as though muddled in a morass of molasses.

Breathing became difficult – the shadow-stuff constricted my chest, making expansion difficult. It crawled into my nostrils and opened mouth, forced its way down my airway. It felt like trying to breathe frozen jelly, only the jelly was alive and desperately wanted to be in my lungs.

For this, I had not prepared. My mind sped as I tore through option after option, rejecting most of them not for fear of revealing too much now, but for a conviction of their failure in the face of this dilemma. Incantations and weavings would not work – I could not speak, and the restricted movements of my limbs would interfere with any patterns I might try to fabricate. I doubted fire would affect whatever this was, anyway.

Slowly, I reached out with both hands, concentrated my will, and forced a tear in the veil. With an agonizingly ponderous heave I pulled, pulled it aside and dragged myself through, hoping to leave the shadow-stuffs behind.

I finished falling.

With a great splash I broke the surface of what I hoped was a body of water. Sputtering, I clawed my way back the surface, the awkward strokes of one near-drowning, when the mind leaves and the body takes over in frenzied flailing. Gasping for air, I half-swallowed a salt brine, sputtered some of it back out, and began to take control of my movements back, calming myself down, treading water more methodically.

Taking in my surroundings, I confirmed that I was indeed in the middle of a great body of water – land was nowhere in sight. Normally when I cross a veil, the adjoining realms have at least somewhat similar geography. Not in this case. Which meant I had either torn through multiple worlds, and would be unlikely to find my way back to that of the Shadowlords, or I had come across a rare conjunction of conflicting landscapes.

I hoped for the latter. I was now determined to return and find out more about Them. They had thrown down the gauntlet, and I was going to pick it up.

But first, I had to find my way to shore.

I began to swim.

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