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Tales of Shadow City: Seeing Nowhere Through The Eyes Of A Lie – Chapter 2

Tiffany Welles was at the thoroughly frayed ends of her wits. Never in her life had the term “talking to a brick wall” been so appropriate – it quite perfectly described her situation, the only exception being that the wall in question didn’t appear to include any bricks.

Smooth, and neutral grey in colour, the wall did have one outstanding feature, that being what appeared to be a miniature television camera. Tiffany tried her best to dominate its field of view as she tried to attract the attention of whoever was on the other end, but to little effect. She couldn’t even tell whether the device was working.

Tiffany and her fellow survivors had been incarcerated for… at that point, the dancer had to admit she was not entirely sure how many days had passed. None of them had seen whatever passed for a sun on “Yafornis” since that awful day when the airliner that had been carrying them from France to the United States fell from the sky, and that sky was not the one they had originally travelled through.

“Goddammit”, spat Tiffany, as she took a brief break from possibly ranting at no-one. She thought she had the ear of the apparent leader of these “Shadowfolk”, but that now seemed to be an delusion on her part.

These’re busy people, she tried to tell herself. They got stuff of their own t’do, an’ we just got added t’ the pile. Us? We got food, water, an’ some pretty cool places t’ stay…

“But it’s still a prison”, Tiffany muttered to herself – and she knew that if she was ever going to make herself heard, those would the words sure to reach other ears…

The dancer turned back to the wall-mounted camera. “Couldya not at least talk to us…?”

“Yes”, snarled a voice behind her. “Well, maybe not… ‘talk’, exactly…”

Tiffany spun round, and her nose very nearly brushed against that of one of Talona’s “special agents”. This one Tiffany thought she had perhaps seen before – one tall enough to make the disparaging use of the term “Tall One” almost a joke…

Jokes didn’t come dressed for a fight, in leather and high heels. They didn’t carry blades, either.

“Look”, said Tiffany, trying to be as easy-going and non-confrontational as possible. “I… I just wanna talk t’ y’r boss – Lady Talona, right? We…”

“And you think The Lady is just ‘gonna’ come running when you call?”, muttered the well-muscled Shadow Citizen. “Typical Tall Ones!”

The fearsome female advanced a step, fingers gripping the handles of her daggers more tightly, as though she might be considering using them…

“Hey, I dunno half the story ’bout your people an’ whatever trouble you’ve had with… people like me”, said Tiffany, trying to back away and finding a wall behind her, “but y’ can’t blame us for any of it…!”

“You don’t know?“, snarled Talona’s agent. “I thought your kind were always so damned proud of what you did to us…”

Tiffany didn’t know what to do or say. Whatever crimes the humans of Yafornis had committed, and the dancer was sure there had been many, she and her fellow survivors couldn’t be expected to share the blame. Tiffany knew she should speak out in their defence, but she was too scared – the blades of their accuser’s daggers were now glowing, and Tiffany could feel the heat coming from them…

“What? All out of lies, now?”, spat the warrior. “Can’t face an enemy you haven’t got in a cage? It’s different when the cold steel’s in someone else’s hand…”

“I… I’d hardly call it ‘cold’”, mumbled Tiffany, staring fearfully at the searing daggers.

The woman glanced down at her weapons – and could not drop them quickly enough, such was her alarm at the sight of the glowing blades. “Wha…. what did you do?

“Didn’t do nothin’”, Tiffany murmured in reply. “D-didn’t you feel that…?”

The Shadow Citizen shook her head. She crouched to reach for her weapons, only to recoil when, to both women’s surprise, she felt the heat still coming from the blades. All she could say was a whispered “How…?”

“I… I think I should just go back t’ my room now”, offered Tiffany, edging around the woman. “This – I dunno…”

Talona’s warrior-woman said nothing, and Tiffany took advantage of the sudden cessation of hostilities to put some distance, and several walls and doors, between them. Ain’t nothin’ t’ do with me, she told herself. Life’s already too freaky as it is…

…o O o…

All that Talona could see was the ominous shape of The Spire, floating the equivalent of several hours’ walk from the now stationary Skylance-X, but her mind and senses were open to anything and everything that transpired or was uttered within their range, and that encompassed the entire of Yafornis’s first starship, and more.

“So, to summarise”, the half-demoness began once the ship’s commander had finished giving her formal report, “Korthrem was not under orders to make contact…”

“That is correct”, said Commander Symmarae. “He wasn’t even on active duty at the time. He was on a recreational shift following his temporary reassignment to Skylance Defender, and… and it just happened…”

“He didn’t request a change of duty, then”, continued Talona. “He didn’t go out of his way to convince you to allow him to stay in close proximity to The Spire?”

“The Defender technical crew requested that he join them”, responded the Commander. “They wanted him to get them up to speed on how ship’s systems dealt with the local conditions while we were away on the resupply run. It all seemed… well, routine. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Talona was looking for some evidence of outside influence affecting the injured crewman. So far, she wasn’t finding any. Perhaps I’m looking at this from the wrong side, she thought. The answers won’t be here – they’ll be inside The Spire…

“Commander Symmarae, would it be correct to assume that you have run detailed exterior scans of The Spire?”

“We have”, the Skylance-X captain replied. “However… that seems to be all that the structure will allow us to do. Anything more… invasive, and our scanners come up with nothing. Beyond the topmost layer of atoms – whatever matter those might represent – our scans register a perfect void. Absolutely nothing.”

“Exactly as we registered when the three Spires rose from the desert on Yafornis”, Talona revealed, divulging what had previously been privileged information. “And do you genuinely believe The Spire contains, quite literally, nothing?”

You don’t”, replied the Commander. “You wouldn’t have us here, watching it, studying it if it was less substantial than a piece of paper.”

“And have you found anything that suggests a way into the interior of The Spire?”

“There are what appear to be artificial tunnels in the rock portion of the structure”, said Symmarae, “but… well, they seem too artificial. Our scans have determined that the measurements of each and every segment of tunnel are exactly the same; wall height, floor width, even the angles between wall and floor or ceiling.”

“Var precision”, mused Talona. “That’s to be expected…”

“We’ve made preliminary moves towards making those spaces atmosphere-secure”, reported Symmarae. “We were thinking that we might be able to use some spare habitation modules from the Skylance orbital construction platform to establish on-site laboratories, and security stations.”

“Consider that request received, and granted”, Talona told her. “Whatever materials and equipment you require, they will be granted, and delivered with all due haste.”

Talona had expected to pay a personal visit to The Spire that very day, but she was prepared to wait until Symmarae had the situation properly organised, the investigation site suitably equipped with an atmosphere and the necessary habitable spaces. She could have gone aboard by herself, magic providing her with air, but she wanted all her people to feel that they were a part of the great advance to a glorious future, not just playing pieces in a game of the gods.

“I’ll return to my quarters for the present”, she told Symmarae. “Do not hesitate to call me when you have made sufficient progress to allow us to go aboard the structure.”

Alone, Talona could turn her attention to other matters – or more correctly, one single matter. The City still needed protecting, and at present the protector of the Shadowfolk was far away; too far away to be able to do anything about defending them in person. All she could do was sit at a data terminal and either observe her world, or make plans for its future.There is just so much to consider, she thought as the glass tabletop projected its data interface into the air before her eyes. It’s not just the races within range of Skylance-X’s exploration missions we have to worry about now. The spatial rip leaves us prone to… visitation from entirely different and alien realities…

“Such as my father’s realm”, she thought out loud, and that was a possibility to make even her shudder. Half-demon herself, Talona stood a chance of survival in a world populated with creatures from the darker layers of the Multiverse, but even with their Gifts, the rest of the Yafornian population could face a challenge that they might not be able to withstand.

Talona opened a new data-file, and started recording her thoughts on the matter. “We may have to scale up the Shadowsword and Shadowshield programmes”, she began. “I do not want to turn our City into a military stronghold, but there may come a time when such a thing becomes necessary, and I would prefer to be ready for that eventuality, which may never come, and not be forced to race to protect my people should the threat arise. I am sure the City Council will react to such a scheme with abject horror… but maybe we are approaching a time when the ‘will of the people’ has to come second…”

For the second time in almost as many minutes, Talona shuddered. This was something she had sworn never to do – directly impose her will on Shadow City – for it took her one step closer to emulating her demonic sire. It was a step closer to crossing a boundary she had spent her whole life avoiding.

All for the right reasons, she told herself, but those words were hollow, as empty as the space outside her armoured synthi-glass window.

“I have to convince the people that what I am suggesting we do simply isn’t optional”, she continued, “and the answer isn’t to go and hide under a rock, hoping some unspeakable… visitor doesn’t peer underneath…

“I may have to consider… repurposing The One-Thirteen”, she added after a pause. “Such a resource cannot simply serve my will alone, my flights of fancy. They have to become something greater…”

Talona began drafting a proposal to the City’s civilian bodies, putting forward her concerns in as unemotive words as she could muster. She knew from the start that it was not going to be easy, but even she found it hard to find words that were even remotely suitable, and more than once she had to get up from her seat and seeking inspiration by staring at the stars.

Not long after her third quest for such guidance, the communications interface purred urgently, providing a welcome distraction. “My Lady?”, said Symmarae. “Excuse my intrusion, but we have an incoming stream from home. Dragonfang wishes to speak to you.”

Dragonfang was the last person Talona would ever expect to call for frivolous reasons. This communication had to be important.

“I’ll speak to her from here”, said Talona, composing herself physically and mentally to address someone who knew her only as a leader, expecting orders rather than friendship.

Dragonfang’s face, tanned from an outdoor existence and bearing that distinctive simple leather eyepatch, appeared on the desk-top projector. “My apologies, My Lady”, the swordswoman began, somewhat hesitantly, “but there has been a disturbing development…”

Dragonfang was not one for exaggeration. Something she called “disturbing” was deserving of the title. “Explain”, purred Talona.

“Lethal was… addressing a minor issue with one of the new Tall Ones…”

Talona kept a dissatisfied growl to herself. “Tell me she didn’t hurt any of them.”

“Something else got in her way first”, replied Dragonfang. “Her daggers… they started to heat up, to the point of glowing – and she didn’t feel a thing.”

Anxious, Talona took a moment to respond. “This wasn’t the work of the Tall Ones?”

“A specialist from the Shadowshield was called in, and Lethal went with them for tests”, Dragonfang tried to explain. “They said to me that they didn’t think that the Tall Ones had anything to do with it, but there were changes on the girl’s brain patterns – look, you should talk to them, not me…”

“I’ll do that”, Talona told the warrior. “Put them on the link to me at once – and keep the rest of the team away from the newcomers for now, until we’re sure there’s no risk of any form of contamination.”

“Understood, Mistress”, responded Dragonfang – and then, quite unexpectedly, she added “See? We can manage to have some fun without you…”

Talona wasn’t about to start laughing. Any change in her people’s Gifts was a change in something believed to be immutable, and to make matters worse, The Wraiths were a whole different breed of Gifted – they had gained their powers years before everyone else, and in the intervening time those powers had only grown stronger, nothing more…

A new face appeared on Talona’s screen, that of Pajis, one of the scientists tasked with the study and monitoring of the powers of the Shadowfolk. He looked rather concerned.

“Dragonfang reports that you have some findings to share with me”, Talona began before the scientist could get settled. “Please do so.”

Pajis spoke in a quite calm and focussed fashion, suggesting that he had at least had some time to prepare. “Before the manifestation of the so-called Gifts, we had collected neurological scans for more than half the Shadowfolk, and after that, we actively pursued the collection of a full set of that data…”

“The point, if you please”, muttered Talona.

“We have been able to map the changes in the brain resulting from gaining Gifts, by comparing readings from before and after”, explained Pajis. “Now Lethal was one of that rare few to possess exceptional abilities prior to ‘The Gifting’, and so her initial patterns were somewhat different, but now they are far closer to matching those post-Gifting…”

“You’re saying Lethal has manifested a Gift?”

“That does appear to be the case….”

Talona hissed a string of syllables only one well versed in the ways and lore of demons could hope to recognise, let alone translate – and if they achieved that feat, a scholar would have been chilled to the core by the venom Talona put into her demonic profanities. The Mistress of Shadow City hated not being in control of any situation, and right now, the evidence was pointing to just such a situation – the “Gifting” was her doing, using the power of the Spires on Yafornis to grant her people supernormal abilities, and now, those powers were apparently emerging on their own… and Talona was not happy about it.

If it’s happening spontaneously, it could affect Tall Ones too, she feared. Tall Ones aren’t a true threat when they’re few in number, and living in… well, not exactly fear, but a perceived state of suppression. Give them powers to match ours, and the consequences could be serious. If they regain their confidence, and become… motivated, lives will be endangered, not matter how few Tall Ones become Gifted. The Spires on Yafornis are inactive – I would know if that was not the case – so that leaves…

Talona switched channels, calling upon the Commander of Skylance-X. “I need to get aboard the Spire as soon as possible”, Talona told Symmarae. “We can’t wait for habitation modules and all that.”

Talona gave Symmarae no explanation. The half-demoness did not want to start a panic with what was, at present, only a theory, and it was a theory she hoped was right, for she felt she could control a Spire, based on her previous experience… and if Lethal’s new power was the result of something else, there was no guarantee that was something she could master – or stop.

…to be continued…

TSS-101-02

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