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Tales of Shadow City: Seeing Nowhere Through The Eyes Of A Lie – Chapter 1

Every once in a long while, you wake up to face the very first day of a world that was so very different the previous morning. You wake up to a newborn baby by your side, you wake to the realisation that a loved one is gone – you get up and look out of a window upon a world where the rules have changed… again.

I’ve experienced this far too often for my liking. I’ve woken to find a world recovering from the battle with Frostfire and Salya, the “Space Goddess”, and the planet’s exposure to one of The Lost Gods; I’ve seen the dawn after the final battle with the Dracbrood, and another in the wake of our near-destruction at the… “hands” of the entity we called “The Watcher From Beyond”… and now, just recently, the sun has risen on the day when we realised just how small and vulnerable we really are…

My kingdom that becomes potentially far, far larger than I ever expected it might become. A seemingly stable gateway to new universes now stands at our doorstep – but dare we step through it? I already know what manner of… things exist in the realms beyond our own, yet there are also friends in these other “realities”. Is this the start of something quite wonderful, or the beginning of the end for us all? One way or the other, I have to know – and I also have to know whether our other new discovery, the Var device some are now calling “The Spire”, holds the secret to controlling this gateway. The two seemed linked, The Spire tumbling out of the portal, right into our laps… I must explore this further, before it becomes a matter beyond my control.

And, of course, there are other matters in need of my attention, alongside my usual duties as defender of Shadow City – most notably my latest… dare I say ‘pet’? Subject: Black seems quite happy to stand at my side, even though the “creature” is far more powerful than it first appears. A worthy companion… if it can be trusted, and I haven’t quite determined that yet…

…from the personal journals of Lady Talona of Yafornis

“Where is Talona?”

The one-eyed swordswoman Dragonfang looked up from tending to the tools of her adventuring trade, in particular the sword from which she derived her “heroic” name. “I’m not sure”, she muttered, only briefly glancing up at Touchstone, a slight, yellow-haired girl with indelible face- and body-paint – their leader’s favourite. “She doesn’t tell me everything, you know – and that’s Mistress Talona, or Lady…”

“Oh, shut up”, spat Touchstone. “You’re just as worried as the rest of us, and there’s no use denying it!”

“I am… concerned”, admitted Dragonfang, “but not in the same way as you. I can actually think for myself, and I don’t need the Mistress to tell me what to do every waking moment. I’m surprised you lot remember to breathe without being told… maybe that’s why you all act so dumb; your brains’ve been starved of air…”

If previous encounters were anything to go by, this would have been Touchstone’s cue to storm out, indignant, but this time, she stood her ground. “That’s all?”, she enquired, her temper kept in check. “You’re… ‘concerned’? You’re not afraid that the next dose of madness to fall from the sky might be the last…?”

Dragonfang went back to her sword maintenance, inwardly disappointed to have been denied her usual entertainment. “Oh, I forgot”, Touchstone continued. “The Tall Ones took out your heart when they took your eye…”

The warrior-woman stopped adjusting the leather bound around the grip of her sword – and laughed. When she looked up at Touchstone, she was smiling. “I fell in a river”, she told the gaudily-painted girl. “I feel in, got washed downstream, and met a tree-trunk on the way. I was lucky to lose just my eye.”

“I never knew”, murmured Touchstone. “I…”

“You assumed I’d been tortured by the Tall Ones, like you were”, interrupted Dragonfang. “It suited my – and the Lady’s purposes to let you think that.”

Dragonfang was… opening up. Touchstone had been one of Talona’s “Wraiths”, her personal guard and task force, for several years, but Dragonfang had never been anything other than… distant, her past no-one’s concern but her own. Times, it seemed, were most definitely changing…

“To properly address your earlier question”, continued Dragonfang, “the answer is yes, I am worried about our world’s future. I get anxious whenever we face something I can’t deal with with a sword, and you can’t cut or stab a… a hole in the sky.”

Touchstone let out a sigh. “Now I know we’re doomed.”

Dragonfang gave one of her customary sharp snorts, her usual answer to something that amused her, but the damage to her image was already done. “I can handle change”, she said. “One should always try to welcome it when it comes along… but so much has happened recently, so much has changed. Too much…”

“And you think The Lady Talona can’t handle it?”, queried Touchstone.

Dragonfang stared at the reflection in the polished surface of her blade, and after a moment of silence, she replied. “I’m afraid that she’ll try…”

“Well… then I guess we’ll just have to do all we can to help her out”, offered Touchstone – but it was a half-hearted effort at best. There was so much that Talona kept from her companions, her people, and the girl had seen enough to know that that was probably for the best.

Dragonfang, for once, had more to say. “The world used to be so much more… simple”, she growled. “Any problems you encountered, you solved them with your fists, or a blade – or you ran from them. Now, there’s no running from anything. The sky’s been ripped open, and who knows what might come through…”

The warrior-woman turned her gaze upon Touchstone, and it was a stare the girl could not escape. “Tell me you’re not afraid, and I’ll know you’re lying…”

“I… I…”

Before the girl’s words could achieve the critical mass of coherence, Touchstone and Dragonfang were interrupted by the sudden arrival of another of their number, the electricity-hurling Stormbird. “Quick!”, squealed the girl in silver and black. “Lady Talona – she… she’s got a Shadowpet…!”

“Thought she already had enough pets as it is”, muttered Dragonfang. “Suppose we ought to go and see what’s most likely got the others wetting themselves…”

Touchstone and Dragonfang followed Stormbird through the passages and chambers of The Wraiths’ operations complex, with some degree of reluctance, born mostly out of anxiety, and a growing discomfort about what the future might throw at them next. Eventually, Stormbird came to a stop at the entrance to the launch bay nearest to Talona’s private wing of the facility, and they all saw their mistress, tall, black-skinned and terrible… but with her was something they all felt they should fear more; a dark, dragonlike creature, looming over Talona, with four wings, two heads and the torso and legs of a woman…

It was a shape of life that The Wraiths knew well, but had hoped never to see again.

“Wha… what is that…?”, murmured Touchstone.

“Someone made a Shadowpet that’s like one of those damned Dracbrood things”, answered Dragonfang. “And then, they decided to spit in the face of what’s right and decent one more time for the hell of it. Couldn’t imagine the world could make a monster worse – but you can trust people to make it happen.”

The other members of the Wraiths team cowered around the edges of the launch pad, watching fearfully as Talona “laid down the law” to the frightful creature. Every now and then, the unnamed monstrosity would glance at one of the girls with one set of feral eyes in a way that suggested that, when the opportunity arose, that girl would become prey. “…shortly, I will have the launch bay opened”, Talona was saying, “and your life becomes your own. Fly from here, never to be seen again, and we will not pursue you. Turn your anger against the city, if you choose, and we will be compelled to stop you – or, of course, you can stay…”

“I know which I’d prefer”, Touchstone whispered to Dragonfang.

“As do I”, Dragonfang replied in similar fashion. “Doubt our choices would be the same, however…”

Neither of them expected what came next. In a chilling “chorus of two”, both of the creature’s heads spoke in unison. “We will remain here”, they hissed, sounding like escaping steam echoing through a vast cavern. “This is our city, too. To protect our people, we must protect this place as well.”

“And who, exactly, are these ‘our people’?”, intervened Dragonfang.

The head nearest to the warrior woman turned to look at her, and spoke by itself. “Why, the ones you call Shadowpets, of course.”

Dragonfang’s response was equally straightforward. She spun round on her heels, and strode towards the launch bay’s exit, without a word, but before she could pass through it, a wall of seething blue-black vapour spilled out from empty air, filling the passage. A few moments later, once Dragonfang had come to a stop at the edge of the obstruction, a greater darkness formed at the heart of the cloud; small at first, but growing swiftly as an unmistakeable figure made use of the short-range magical portal concealed within the barrier.

Jet-black skin, snow-white hair, an ivory leather costume that covered her arms and legs in gloves and boots but concealed little else…

“You object?”, enquired the ebony statue of a woman, recognised by all as The Lady Talona.

“It speaks”, responded Dragonfang, more sternly than any of the others would dare. “It has a mind of its own – and now, it has purpose, too.”

“Your point being…?”

Dragonfang glared into the amber jewels that were her mistress’s eyes. “You have given the Shadowpets their Talona. How do you think that will end?”

“I have given nothing”, Talona responded, with the acid of mild irritation on her tongue. “Our… new friend and I have been talking, at some length. We have an accord.”

“You don’t have to have any powers, magic or otherwise, to sense that this is no… machine in the usual sense, and no mere animal…”

Talona stopped listening halfway through what Dragonfang managed to say, looking upwards towards, and beyond, the doors in the ceiling of the launch bay. When Dragonfang tried to regain her attention, Talona waved the swordswoman away, saying “This will have to wait…”

“That’s almost as bad an idea as letting that… thing run around…”, Dragonfang began, but Talona was no longer paying any attention to her trusted servant. The Mistress of Shadow City was making plans, and only when she was ready to begin would anyone else know what she had in mind.

“Touchstone, with me”, the black-skinned woman said, abruptly. “We are going to The Spire. Now.’”

“You’re just going to walk away from all this?”, asked a disbelieving Dragonfang. “What, are you just going to leave us with… that?”

“Subject: Black will be accompanying me for the time being”, Talona replied. “As will you. You clearly have a lot to say, and I wish to hear it all…”

Talona swept past Dragonfang, and Touchstone fell in step behind as their mistress returned to the Shadowpet monstrosity. “Perhaps, together, we can find a more suitable name for our new friend”, Talona added, stroking one of the dark creature’s snake-like necks. “Something to instill a suitable degree of fear and respect into our enemies…”

“I thought we’d run out of those “, said Dragonfang.

Talona did not look back at the field commander of The Wraiths. “We live to be surprised, or we do not truly live at all…”

…o O o…

Shadow City Operations Dome 2…

“So… just what are we supposed to do with… them?”

It was a question that had frequently crossed Lethal’s mind, but it had never crossed the border into the realm of what she would dare to actually say. Frustrated by the duties she had been assigned, in her mind an insult to one of Shadow City’s finest warriors, Lethal decided no-one was going to be allowed to be comfortable around her…

“That’s none of our – or your – damn business, Rapni”, she snarled at her companion. “Just keep monitoring the Tall Ones until I tell you to do something else…”

Rapni, one of the City’s volunteer defenders in the “Shadowshield” corps, shrank back into her seat and said nothing more, but for Lethal it was hardly the victory she had hoped for. Being one of the Wraiths, Lethal already commanded respect from the general population, and not just because she was taller than most – at least twice as tall as the rest of the Shadowfolk… like a Tall One.

For as long as anyone could remember, and probably for a long time before that, the small and delicate people of Shadow City – the Shadowfolk – had been at undeclared war with the crude and primitive Tall Ones, in their city at the other end of the valley, the only other city in the world. One day, not so long ago, in the flash and thunder of a falling “star”, all that changed; the Tall Ones’ city was destroyed, their numbers reduced to a homeless, bedraggled fraction of what they had been. Showing unfathomable mercy, Talona – Shadow City’s leader in all but name – allowed the Tall One survivors to camp outside the City, and more recently actually let them come inside, and make homes amongst those they had once hunted and persecuted…

And now, Tall Ones were falling out of the sky in flying machines, and those ones were getting one of the City’s new domes all to themselves… a dome for which Lethal was now acting as head of security – and it was a task that was rubbing her raw. They’re just Tall Ones, she told herself. We should have left them out in the desert to die…

The mercy shown to the Tall Ones wasn’t the only thing that had changed in the last few years. Some “dark power” had passed by the planet of Yafornis, and changed the world. A forested valley had become a vast, rust-red desert, Shadowfolk were now flying to the stars – and every one of them had special powers. For Lethal, one of the few who had discovered her abilities back when they were rare, and valuable, it all made her head spin…

To one side, a visual display flashed. “One of the Tall Ones is out of its cage again”, sighed Rapni. “That noisy one, with the dark skin…”

“Right, that does it”, snarled Lethal. “They need to learn their place – surely Talona won’t mind if one of them… has an accident…?”

Lethal rose from her seat. Her eyes went briefly to the security monitor, and the image of the dark-skinned Tall One, curious spherical hairstyle restrained by a brightly-coloured head-scarf, mouth working extra shifts as the woman raged at the camera – a camera with the sound switched off…

The Shadow City warrior’s gaze then shifted to the curving ivory handles of the daggers sheathed in the tops of her own long leather boots. Those weapons had not been used in too long a time.

…to be continued…

TSS-101-01

“(I’m) seeing nowhere through the eyes of a lie” from the lyrics of HOLE IN THE SKY, by BLACK SABBATH