Chapter 2: The Weight of Shadow
Cora O’Banion arrived bleary-eyed but giddy with excitement the next morning at Crossroads Tavern. She slid into the booth beside Elric Reichtoven with the rolled-up drawings in hand.
“I’ve got great news!” she exclaimed.
Though their first meeting with Westmeade’s Council had amounted to nothing, the Assiduous Company of Indefatigable Dragon Slayers continued to gather for breakfast and plan their next steps toward fulfilling their commission.
Elric, the young defector from Westmeade’s city guard, slurped his milk, wiping his mouth and flamboyant blonde handlebar mustache on his sleeve. His napkin lay neglected across his knee.
Cuauhtérroc, a savage of the Audric Jungle, sat opposite her, gnawing on the remains of a T-bone steak. His face was lathered in meaty juices, but at least he wasn’t dragging his long black hair through his plate anymore. Most of the length had been lost in a fiery blast from the trapped chest, and he had grumbled about it for days.
Beside the savage sat the alabaster mystic, Ordin Austmil-Clay. His meal was done, and his face registered little as he calmly waited for the other men to finish. Doubtless, half of his meal was wrapped in his napkin and would be delivered later to his faithful wolf, Shinnick, who roamed outside unseen but within a whistle’s call away.
They were a motley group of freeblades, but Cora had grown to love them. They had stuck together through Ordin’s nightmares, supporting him when he railed against prison. They had stayed with Cuauhtérroc when he exploded in rage at the top of Wilder Tower, destroying the top floor. They had gone in after Elric when he foolishly rushed into the dragon’s lair. And together, they had killed the dragon. And it had bonded them with ties stronger than family, a truth Cora was now living every day.
“Ya look purty rough,” Elric commented.
Cora shrugged but continued apace. “I was up nearly all night going over this thing, and I think I found a huge breakthrough. Help me clear some space.”
They moved the dishes to another table and wiped down the surface. Cora spread out the ancient drawing of Wilder Tower on the table and held it down with pewter mugs. “This,” she said, pointing to a circular drawing, “is the fountain in the ground floor of Wilder Tower.”
Ordin frowned at her. “You stayed up all night for that?”
Cora brushed off the remark. “I believe these lines indicate that the fountain is tapped into an underground stream, and these markings here represent small doors in the side of the well.” She looked up expectantly at the others.
Clearly, they were hoping for more.
“Don’t you get it? There are doors in the side of the well. Who does that?”
“Well,” Elric began, tugging at his mustache, “it used t’be a military outpost, back inna day. They all of ‘em had a extra way out, like a secret passage in case ever’thang went south.”
Cuauhtérroc squinted at him. “Why do dey go south?”
“It’s jis a sayin’, Cuauhtie. It means gettin’ squirrelly, goin’ sideways…”
Cora placed a hand on Elric’s arm and explained to the savage. “If they were to lose the battle, it was their escape route.”
The panther warrior nodded, his shortened hair bobbing. Cora frequently had to explain things to him, just as he often had to provide her with common sense. “Jungle sense” she liked to call it.
“So,” she continued with emphasis, “there has to be another underground passage.” She tapped a drawing that looked like caves. “These are not the areas where we found the nisser and the dragon, which all must have been added after this was drawn. This is something else altogether, and I’m betting it’s where Blanchard is.”
“Look,” Ordin said, folding his arms, “we’ve been all over that tower for days, and we ain’t found nothin’. I’m bettin’ it ain’t even physically possible to get where he is.”
Cora sat back, tired and deflated. “Well, we have to try.”
Two hours later, the guards at Wilder Tower allowed The Company of the Dragon Slayers to pass without provocation or proof of authorization. Respect for the freeblades had spread rapidly throughout the barracks. As they passed, Elric received a small salute from the younger guard at the tower, and Cora was certain she heard a “Sir” whispered reverently in his direction.
She chuckled. Sir Elric? That would be the day.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mason Rutland drained the last of his kaffe and leaned back in his booth. Breakfast at Marley’s Tankard was less expensive than Crossroads Tavern, but he had other reasons for being here. And for not being there. Though he had followed Elric’s bold move to leave the guard, he could not yet face his childhood friend. Not after his calloused response to a friendly greeting. Not after running away like a little schoolgirl upon seeing the dragon head. Elric would surely despise him for both.
He belched under his breath and pushed his plate away, gazing across the dingy common room to the bar. Four years ago, August Blanchard was murdered in the back alley, but Marley’s Tankard had opened the next day as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Rumor said Marley, the churlish man of Ogrian descent—no one knew whether he had a second name—had simply shrugged when he heard of the death of an alderman behind his establishment. For Rutland, that was “case file” suspicious behavior. Picking his teeth, he slid lower in his seat and observed the scarred, hairy owner push a breakfast plate across his bar to a petite woman.
Marley nodded at her as she accepted her meal, a knowing nod filled to the brim with unspoken meaning. Rutland had seen that plenty before; two years in the city guard watching passers-by had taught him much about nonverbal communication. The shifty eyes, the lilt of the head, a twitch at the corner of the mouth—words were used only if you needed to lie. What Marley might have been saying to her was unclear, but that brief exchange arrested Rutland’s attention. Something more than plates had passed between Marley and the woman.
A barwench approached Rutland’s table with a pitcher of steaming liquid. “More kaffe?”
Rutland looked up at her, then glanced down at his mug. He held up the mug to the wench. “I reckon so.”
It was the petite woman that caught his eye. She wasn’t from Westmeade, and he would know. He and Elric had spent hours sizing up the young maidens in town as potential marriage material, and he knew all the lasses. This one was new and far out of their league. Diminutive—short enough for Elric’s height—but far too proper and quiet. She ate with precision and attention to detail, neither rushed nor relaxed, moving with deliberate but graceful motions. A light brown ponytail, tied neatly with a red ribbon, hung gently across her black cloak. She was dainty but exuded a level of poise and control that intimidated Rutland even from his distance.
He sipped his kaffe as he watched, even after it had cooled well beyond his preference. His patience found reward as Marley reentered from the kitchen with a small crate draped with a grease-stained sheet. He set it on the floor near the woman’s feet.
The woman leaned over and lifted a corner of the sheet, peering in at what it concealed. She nodded to Marley and produced a small leather coin pouch, slipping it into his thick hand. As she stood and turned about to survey the tavern floor, she lifted the cowl of her cloak over the ponytail and across her face. Rutland caught a brief glimpse before she was shrouded in shadow—stern eyes, narrow nose, red lips. A whispered word accompanied a twist of her first two fingers, and the crate slowly rose from the floor into her awaiting hand. The few patrons paying her any attention stopped mid-bite, their words cut short as the gawked at the petite woman. Ignoring them, the woman strode with the crate and a steady pace out the front door.
* * * * * * * * * *
Inside Wilder Tower, the Company of Dragon Slayers circled the perimeter of the fountain and peered down into the shaft. Twenty feet below, placid and littered with scum and floating debris, the ancient fountain waters festered, forgotten for a decade. Rather than providing a refreshing flow, the fountainhead, cracked and parched, only hinted at its former use. A faint odor of stagnation wafted up from the stony well. But all was black below; flickering light from a pair of torches showed little beyond the water’s edge.
“I do not see dees doors,” Cuauhtérroc said. He turned to Ordin. “What do dees Vashanti eyes see?”
“Nothin’. Ain’t nothin’ down there but darkness and dead water.” He pushed away from the stone wall of the fountain and knelt beside Shinnick with a portion of the wolf’s breakfast. “This is stupid, and we’re gettin’ nowhere.”
Cora sang a brief song of illumination and placed the magical light onto a small rock. She held the glowing stone over the water and peered in again. Though she could now see the film of lifeless water in greater detail, nothing more was visible below the tainted surface even under brilliant light. Her sigh echoed into the lifeless well.
Footsteps shuffled against the nearby stone, and four heads jerked up in surprise. A short woman cloaked in black, her face shrouded by a cowl, stood in the tower doorway. In her right hand she carried a small crate covered in a greasy sheet. For a moment, nobody moved. Shinnick snarled.
“Hello,” Cuauhtérroc said.
The woman sidestepped out of the sunlit entrance.
“Can we help you with something?” Cora asked, her illuminated rock casting rays of light and shadow through her fingers.
The woman moved into the slice of darkness between the beams of light, and there she became engulfed in tendrils of shadow. Wisps of inky blackness swirled around her, enveloping her form and obscuring her from view. As Cora repositioned her light, it wavered as if doing battle against an opposing force, fighting valiantly for control of the divide between radiance and darkness. A flicker of light briefly revealed the woman’s face, a contorted mixture of anger and fear twisting her brown eyes.
Then she was gone, leaving behind faint and rapidly fading umbra that drifted across the floor and disappeared into the stone.
Cora dashed to the spot where the woman had stood, holding aloft her lighted rock. “What? It’s like the shadow swallowed her.”
“That was the bestest thang ever,” Elric said, and followed it with an awestruck whistle.
“No, Elric,” Cora huffed. “There was nothing good about—”
The rustle of hurried feet arrested their attention, as the cloaked woman reappeared in the closet leading to the dragon’s lair. Thin wisps of shadow swept up the closet walls as if blown by an internal wind.
Cora threw her lighted rock into the closet, fully revealing a woman slight of frame, with slender features, chestnut hair, and red lips. She shot an irritated sneer at the songsage and scrambled out of the light and down the stairs.
“There she goes!” Elric exclaimed.
Cuauhtérroc unclasped his obsidian-studded macana. “Dees is bad ju-ju.”
Ordin pulled Shinnick close and whispered in the wolf’s ear. “Find her.”
The wolf growled and bounded into the closet and down the stairs, and Ordin ran after him, taking one of the flaming torches with him.
“Wait!” Cora yelled. “What are you doing?” But Ordin’s torchlight receded with his footsteps into the basement. “Cripe.”
Elric chuckled. “That’s the same thang I did.” He pulled his shield around and slipped his left arm through the straps. “Welp, here we go again.”
Cora glowered and grabbed her lute, stuffing the lighted rock in her pocket. “Yes…here we go again. Cuauhtérroc, lead on.”
The Audric savage raised his torch and led the trio down the familiar stony stairs into the rectangular room lined with ancient frescoes. Bloodstains from the red dragon, darkened over time, painted the floor in a wide swath and continued down the wide stairs to the cavern entrance and former dragon’s lair. They had already searched that cavern a half-dozen times, as they had done each of the three rooms and everything in between.
“Guys,” Cora said in hushed tones, “where’s Ordin?”
As if in response, Ordin’s excited voice echoed from the right, punctuated with harsh epithets, followed by a lupine growl and the mystic’s angry curse.
“We go now,” Cuauhtérroc said, running with the torch down the corridor to the transformation room.
Cora cringed at the thought of visiting that horrid place again. Memories of people undergoing the vile and grotesque conversion into alituris haunted her dreams. Dragon-blooded perversions were awful; seeing the nightmarish alteration in progress had filled her with a stomach-churning revulsion. She had felt sullied for days afterwards by horrific images that could not be forgotten and by a foul stench that could not be washed away.
Another curse resonated down the stone hallway, and the freeblades picked up their pace until they met Ordin glaring at the door to the transformation room, swearing at it repeatedly. His torch lay against the wall, smoke billowing to the ceiling, and he clutched his scimitar with both hands. Shinnick bared his teeth, ready to pounce at any moment.
“What is it?” Cora asked as they neared.
The mystic’s breath came out in short bursts. “If I go in there, I’ll lose her again.”
“What do you mean? It’s a dead end.”
Ordin wheeled, his icy blue eyes filled with fury. “That rinkin woman walks through shadow.”
“Ordin…I don’t think she literally—”
“Nine Hells, Cora! Are you still naïve? I’m tellin’ you, she’s a rinkin shadow walker. If I get close enough to see her in the torchlight, she just steps into her own shadow—which I gave her—and vanishes. And like a stupid idiot, I kept chasin’ her down, givin’ her more shadows to step out through. She’s in this transformation room, but I know as soon as we enter…it’s more of the same.” He breathed a curse, his icy eyes darting about as if looking for something to drive a fist through. “I don’t know what to do. I’m so bloody, rinkin mad right now—” He cut himself off with a flash of mystic energy, dousing his torch with a flow of divine water out of thin air. The ambient light reduced by half.
Cora’s mind whirled. “If she touches the Void, that means she walked through Tenebrae. She’s…she’s a—”
Ordin growled through another mystic phrase, and Cuauhtérroc’s torch extinguished, plunging the freeblades into near total darkness. Only a few miniature rays of light escaped Cora’s pocket.
“Cripe, Ordin!” Cora yelled. “Stop that. What’s the matter with you?”
“Darkness,” Ordin said, his tone considerably calmer. “There ain’t no shade when it’s pitch black.”
Cora pulled out her lighted rock and stared at the amused smirk it revealed on Ordin’s face. “So?”
“She moves in shadow—don’t you get it? I swear, Cora, don’t ever stay up all night again.”
Cuauhtérroc set his wet torch on the floor. “Dees female run away from us in dees shadows. If we make dees shadows gone, she cannot run away.”
Ordin held his hand out toward the savage. “There you go. I ain’t chasin’ her into a dead-end just so she can vanish in my light again.” He grinned at the songsage as his shoulders shook with mirth.
“What’s so funny?” Cora asked, suppressing her irritation.
“You really should have seen your face when you pulled that rock outta your pocket. Like half of you wanted to slap me through this wall but the other half wanted to run home to your mother. I thought you might split in two right then.”
Cuauhtérroc laughed. “Dees two Cora O’Banions will be funny.”
Cora pinched her nose. For Beauty’s sake, what am I supposed to do with these boys? “So…are we done here?”
Ordin shook his head. “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now.” He studied the light emanating from Cora’s hand. “I’m workin’ on an idea…”
Cora held her lighted rock aloft. “You need more of these.”
A short time later, Cora and Ordin had created over a dozen lighted rocks—the mystic’s shone with a greenish tint—which Cora held in her palms. The corridor glowed with the brilliance.
Ordin grabbed the door latch. “Ready?”
“Elric?” echoed a voice from further down the passage. “What in tarnation are y’all doin’?”
Elric shielded his eyes from Cora’s glowing hands and squinted down the hall. “Whozzat?”
“Rutland. I been trackin’ a quaint little woman thisaway. She’s carryin’ sumpin fishy in a covered crate. Y’all seen ‘er?”
Ordin and Elric exchanged glances.
“Look, man,” Rutland continued. “Sorry for all that cripe when I was guardin’ this place. I think y’all are in the right and Cap’n Hunt is hidin’ the truth. So, I quit the guard same as you did.”
“I heard,” Elric said.
“A bunch o’ the other guys are talkin’ ‘bout quittin’, too. I reckon the cap’n’s wringin’ his hands right about now.”
Elric shrugged. “Well, he shouldn’ta burnt all the evidence.”
“That’s what I said,” Rutland replied.
“Listen, buddy, we’re kindly busy here. Meetcha back in ‘at first room an’ we’ll talk, aw’ight?”
“You ain’t sore at me?”
“Sore? Why would I be sore at ya?”
“I dunno. I thought you mighta been sore at me for standin’ up to you.”
“Naw, I ain’t sore at ya. You an’ me go way back.”
“Hey,” Ordin interjected, “why don’t you two kiss and get it over with. I’d like to do this before I die of old age.”
“We’ll talk later,” Elric said to his friend. He turned to Ordin. “Let’s go.”
Each of the men took a handful of glowing rocks from Cora, and Ordin shoved the door in. All was completely dark. He scattered his lighted rocks against the far wall, throwing shadows toward the door. Cuauhtérroc entered and cast his handful along the near wall, cancelling that shade entirely. Elric and Cora joined them, tossing their portions against the right and left walls, driving all but the smallest of shadows from the room.
A greasy sheet laid crumpled in the corner, but the petite woman was nowhere to be seen.
“Sonuvacrap,” Ordin said.
Cuauhtérroc turned the sheet over with his foot. “She was here.”
“But we just lit the place up,” Ordin complained. “There ain’t no way she coulda shadow-walked that fast.”
Cora knelt near the cage, her mind struggling not to recall the gruesome process that she had once seen here. “Maybe she didn’t.”
Ordin picked up an errant lighted rock and flung it against the wall, where it shattered into a spray of sparkling motes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not, and I’m not still half-asleep. The crate is here, but she’s gone. But think about it: it was pitch black in here when you opened the door, right? She couldn’t have shadow-walked. So, maybe she wasn’t here when we came in. Maybe she left the old-fashioned way.”
“Which way is that?” Elric asked, turning in place.
Cora rolled her eyes. “She walked out.”
“What…the way we came in?”
“No…” Ordin looked about the room. “…there’s another door here.”
“But we done checked fer that days ago,” Eric said, holding out his hands.
The mystic shook his head. “Not like this. Everybody, gimme some quiet.” He dropped to his knees and placed his alabaster hands on the floor. He leaned forward until his forehead and nose touched the cold stone.
“Whatcha doin’?” Elric asked.
Ordin sprang to his feet and pulled his scimitar. “Shut the rink up.” Elric’s eyes opened but his mouth closed, and Ordin resumed his prostrate position. Whispered words escaped his lips, his breath condensing on the cold stone.
With feathered steps, Cora slid to Cuauhtérroc’s side. “He’s communing with Nature,” she said with soft reverence.
After a prolonged silence, the mystic kissed the floor. “Thank you,” he said and slowly stood with the grunt of an aged man, as if he had been drained of all energy. He turned to Cora and exhaled a heavy burden. “It is done. Follow me.”
Cora stood with him as he traced his pale fingers along the stony wall near the empty crate. “You seem…is everything all right?”
Ordin gave her a weak grin over his shoulder. “Talkin’ with rock ain’t easy. There’s a reason we say ‘stony silence.’ It’s like I gotta erode the words out of it. But…rock knows everything. She walked out before we came in, like you said, through a door over here somewhere…” His fingers stopped at a small indention. “Ah, there it is.” A quick prayer spoken over the wall created a small rumble, and the arcane wards vanished to reveal a wooden door with a rusty latch.
He grunted a sardonic laugh. “Don’t it make you feel stupid when it’s hidin’ in plain sight?”
“You recall the illusions we faced in the tower?” Cora replied. “Magic is a powerful force. Don’t feel too bad; none of us could see it.”
Cuauhtérroc growled behind her. “I do not like dees. Dees leetle female is hiding, and we are walking into dees trap. We do not know why she is here or why we are finding her.”
The latch creaked under Ordin’s hand. He pulled the door open to reveal a narrow set of damp steps leading further down into utter darkness. The smell of moist rock filled the passage, and the light plop of dripping water echoed up the stairs.
Cora scooped up several of the lighted stones and passed them around. “Here. Keep these close. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the light we can get.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Rutland strolled about the rectangular room with a torch in hand, admiring the copious dried dragon blood on the floor. It was difficult to imagine what Elric had seen and done. Only legends of old did heroic things like that, not a navel-talking, girl-chasing, handlebar-mustache-wearing duffer like Elric Reichtoven. But here was the blood of a dragon…
Rutland stooped to touch it. He wasn’t certain why he expected it to be warm, and disappointment washed over him that the dark red stain was as cold and lifeless as the stone. It was less heroic that way, somehow.
He gave a brief glance at the fresco that covered the walls around the chamber. The tilework depicted battles with dragon-bloods from long ago, but the faded images failed to excite his imagination. The petite woman was bearing something of importance, but he had let her go. More cowardice. He kicked at a loose tile and sent it sliding across the floor into the far corner. Pacing pointlessly around the room wasted valuable time. If he was going to give up the woman to the Dragonslayers, then he needed to spend his time building a case against Captain Hunt. The whole affair failed the sniff test. Something around here was important enough that Hunt would burn the evidence and ship off the witnesses. The captain couldn’t have covered everything.
He stood at the top of the grand staircase leading to the infamous lair, holding his torch aloft. There were no signs of Elric and his gang returning. Perhaps a brief visit to the lair wouldn’t hurt anything.
The scuffle of feet behind him made Rutland jump. He spun around, his torch throwing light into the chamber and flinging his shadow down the bloodied stairs to the dragon’s den. The petite woman stood in the center of the room as tendrils of tenebrae fell around her.
The woman screamed, a shriek born of terror, and Rutland jumped a second time. She blanched of all color as her brown eyes widened with fright. Blood dribbled from a cut on her pale cheek, matching the tint of her painted lips.
Wisps of shadow spread across the floor and faded into the stone, leaving behind a creature of pure darkness, its white eyes like two motes of light in an otherwise featureless form. Raw tenebrae, palpable and alive, snaked across the woman’s body, fluttering her cloak and latching onto her ashen face.
She shrieked again, long and piercing, her body trembling with a fear that gripped her in a nightmarish stranglehold.
Rutland shuddered as dread crept up his spine. But he would no more be a coward. Whether friend or foe, no one deserved this fate. Emboldened with a courage not his own, Rutland pulled his sword and ran toward the imperiled woman. He had no clue what the inky black form was that harassed her, but he would defend her.
The woman’s body thrashed, her arms flailing, grasping, tearing at the air and finding nothing. Rutland slashed at the black form, and his nerve faltered as the blade found tangible substance in the gloaming form.
The creature’s head whipped about, its beady white eyes shimmering like tiny fires burning empty holes in the darkness. A wave of fear cascaded over Mason Rutland, and his knees buckled. He lashed out from sheer panic and desperation, his military training taking over where his willpower had failed. The sword landed solidly against the creature’s wispy body, and its eyes flashed red for the briefest moment.
The shadow creature leaped from the woman’s body onto Rutland, without effort or sound, and the light from Rutland’s torch wavered. Darkness enveloped his vision, physical gloom pressing down upon his consciousness with the weight of profound evil.
His blood froze in his veins, and his mouth gaped wide in a terrified scream. Haunting images of horrific creatures danced through his head, cruel, misshapen forms dripping with black ichor and hissing in a speech as dark as their form. Claws of shadow ripped at Rutland’s mind, shredding memories, making paste of emotions, consuming him with the voracious hunger of utter emptiness.
His arms fell limp to his sides. As if far in the distance, he heard the hollow clank of his sword on stone. He was undone, and he committed his soul to the Maker.
A brilliant light flashed, followed by a second. Rutland’s mind exploded with sight and sound, his darkened eyes flooded with scintillating colors, his ears pounding with the concussive throbbing of magical signatures.
Spheres of pure energy streaked from the woman’s hands, slamming into the tenebrous creature. It flailed and writhed, silently screaming in agony. Relentless in her attack, the woman conjured a crackling bolt of electric blue and drove it into the shadowy form. The frescoed room thundered with sound, and the creature vaporized.
The woman rushed to Rutland’s side and eased him to the floor. Her face was deeply gouged, as if the shadow creature had tried to consume her physically, and blood leaked from several open wounds.
She pulled a ceramic vial from the folds of her cloak and drank its contents. Her body quivered under the healing power of the analeptic. She retrieved another and held it to Rutland.
“Drink this. It’s all I’ve got, but it may preserve you until help can come.”
Rutland’s arms were leaden, and he groaned in lieu of forming any words. The woman opened the vial and placed it to his pale lips. “I don’t know who you are, but I thank you for saving my life. I’m sorry to have brought this upon you.”
The liquid warmed Rutland’s body, refreshing his soul. He found his words. “W-what was that?”
The woman sighed. “A Grotesque, a shadow creature. It latched onto me.” She averted her gaze and whispered. “I walked too far.”
“Is it dead?” Rutland asked.
She half-nodded. “Grotesques don’t really die. They dissipate and rejoin the Tenebrae. But you won’t see that one again. Or any others, if you’re smart.” She looked up suddenly and scanned the room. “I’ve got to leave. Stay here. Someone will find you.”
“I’m Mason Rutland,” he blurted. After such an ordeal, it seemed fitting to give her that. “What’s yer name?”
The woman stood and created distance. “Very few people know that.”