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Tales of Shadow City: Seeing Nowhere Through The Eyes Of A Lie – Chapter 4

Symmarae lost count of the turns and branches her team encountered as they followed in Talona’s footsteps, but with Operations Analyst Varu on hand, committing every move to her copious, flawless memory, the commander did not fear losing her way for one second. If they lost track of the Gifted girl, then they would be worried.

For now, their greatest concern was that they might either lose Talona’s trail, or that she might run into something for which she was entirely unprepared, her attention fixed on the path under her feet…

“The passage is widening”, Varu observed after a while. “Also, it’s sloping upwards.”

“Looks the same to me”, muttered Security Officer Sulthar.

“Of course it does, silly”, Varu replied. “You haven’t got my eyes.”

“Cut the chatter”, snapped Symmarae. “Stay alert, stay focussed. We don’t know what we’ll find in here.”

Varu was right, the team soon discovered as they advanced deeper into the network of passages. The corridors were getting wider, and higher, the walls starting to curve inward towards the tops, but the upward gradient Varu had mentioned was still too subtle for the others to detect. In any case, a change in their surroundings was obvious to anyone who had eyes, for the walls soon stopped being plain stone, and became solely fashioned from the translucent substance of the Spire itself.

“Are we actually inside the Spire?”, wondered Symmarae.

The Commander looked to Varu for confirmation. “Yes, Commander”, said the analyst. “Unless the structure somehow contains a reality that doesn’t conform to what my senses expect, we are down in the ‘roots’ of the Spire.”

Sulthar growled. “Reality is… reality“, he spat. “Can’t be any other way.”

“That’s how it is when all you’re doing is patrolling home space”, Varu responded, almost singing those ill-chosen words. “You don’t see what we-”

“That’s all we’re doing?”, snarled Sulthar, outraged. “It’s in the name: Skylance Defender – we’re the last defence for our world, our people – your families. While you’re out… there, smelling the flowers and looking at all the pretty stars, we might be on fire in orbit over Yafornis, giving our lives for everything we hold dear!”

“And why hasn’t that happened?”, Varu snapped back. “I’ll tell you – because Skylance-X is ‘out there’, looking for all those things that might threaten our world! We don’t get that many chances to get a full night’s sleep, let alone smell the flowers or watch stars…!”

There was always a certain degree of rivalry between the crews of the two Yafornian star-ships, stemming from the fact that Skylance Defender was the first ship, the “test-bed” for the technology that made Skylance-X possible, yet the latter ship gained all the glory. Symmarae tried to keep that rivalry in check, but every now and then, things could boil over. Now was the worst possible time…

“Hush now, children.”

The voice was Talona’s, and it was everywhere. This was not “just” a telepathic communication – the words came from every angle, every surface… even from the air within the three Yafornians’ lungs. It demanded to be heard…

“My Lady…?”, mumbles Symmarae.

“Ah good, you can hear me this time”, the eerie voice answered. “I seem to have found some kind of control centre. You should join me there at once.”

The gentle light emanating from the walls dimmed noticeably, except for a pathway of swirling “tiles” leading deeper into the Spire. “There, that should help”, said Talona. “Quickly now – I’d prefer not to remain in mind-contact with this technology for too long until I know what I’m doing…”

Following Talona’s glowing path along a passage leading off at a right-angle from their previous course, the Skylance crew-members quickly found their senses under attack by a reality that simply did not fit. The corridor started to slope more steeply upwards, curving as it rose – but the curve was too tight, the slope too shallow for even one full turn to exist where the Yafornians found it At least half of two separate stretches of corridor shared the same region of space…

“This… this is so wrong“, whimpered Varu, her Gift now failing her.

“I don’t feel so comfortable myself”, said Sulthar, sounding more sympathetic than he had done all day. “Let’s… let’s just get this done, and get the frast outta here as quick as we can!”

“This thing fell out of a hole in the sky”, Symmarae intervened, sensing panic brewing in both her companions. “It’s bound to be… strange. Focus on finding Lady Talona – if anyone can make any of this make sense, she can.”

I hope, the Commander added in her thoughts. Talona had not sounded much like her usual confident self` when last she communicated with her mission team, and that unease was contagious.

“It’s all right”, assured Talona, her voice only carried by the air on this occasion, and from somewhere close at hand. “That sensation… it’s one Yafornians have forgotten, but there are ‘body-memories’, buried deep within us, and they simply need time to re-emerge, become part of us again…”

Following that voice, Symmarae and her team were soon led to a chamber, circular but with walls that curved inward towards the top, so that the diameter of the ceiling was maybe three-quarters of the floor. Those walls appeared to be faceted glass, with various hues of misty light drifting and swirling beneath the frosted surfaces – and some of those seemed to have become detached somehow, now slowly orbiting a familiar figure…

Symmarae was unwilling to intervene, afraid to speak for fear of disrupting some mind-to-machine process that could not be recovered, or might do Talona some lasting harm. However, Talona took that oppressive weight from the Commander’s shoulders simply by looking away from the floating facets with a smile on her face.

She followed that with the words “Welcome to the future, my friends.”

…o O o…

Shadow City…

“What do you mean by ‘Talona cannot presently be reached’?”, snapped Dragonfang as she spoke to the duty commander aboard Skylance-X. “This is urgent – we have an ongoing situation here requiring her attention!”

Chief of Security Tornal had seen it all, and done battle with more than his fair share of “it all”, and Dragonfang’s indignation didn’t come close to being a challenge. “The Lady’s orders are quite explicit – and not subject to negotiation”, he responded, as calm as still water. “We are presently engaged in an investigation of the Spire, and we have been advised not to interrupt.”

“This is a matter of City security“, growled the swordswoman. “Something has happened to a member of The Lady’s… special contingent…”

“I thought you ‘Wraiths’ were supposed to be the special ones”, observed Tornal.

We were – until everyone became “special”, Dragonfang muttered to herself. “I didn’t see you out there hunting down the Dracbrood”, she snarled to the security officer. “Now just do your damned job…

“I am – and the facts remain as I stated them”, said Tornal, plainly and unflustered. “Lady Talona gave explicit orders. Commander Symmarae underlined those orders. I am presently in command here, and that means I outrank you. I don’t take orders from you – but I will make it my priority to pass on your message as soon as The Lady becomes avai-”

Dragonfang closed down the comm-channel, cutting Tornal off in mid-sentence in a gesture of the only power left to her. This is what happens when we start looking away from our home-world, she told herself. Looking to the stars, we ignore what’s right under our feet.

“I’m leader of the Wraiths”, she declared to an otherwise empty room. “I have authority here. I may as well make use of it – it’s not as though there’s anyone around who… outranks me.”

Dragonfang was a level-headed leader; stern when it was required, sometimes a little harsh in her reprimands when the other Wraiths did not perform as expected. Out-and-out cruelty was not her style – but she wasn’t adversed to making exceptions. The other members of the team were scattered across the city – and beyond, in the case of Touchstone, who was accompanying Talona – but Dragonfang knew for certain where at least one of the Wraiths could be found. Stormbird was on monitoring duty at the containment facility holding the Tall Ones who had fallen out of the sky in their ungainly winged air-cruiser, filling in for a still-isolated Lethal…

Dragonfang thought back to her conversation with Touchstone, earlier in the day. “Change” had been the focus of the discussion, but as far as Dragonfang was concerned, some things were never going to change. The Wraiths were never going to stop being afraid of their field commander.

A short ride on a personal air-racer brought Dragonfang to the security dome, where the new Tall Ones were presently contained. There, she found Lethal’s temporary replacement on the security detail, the electricity manipulating Stormbird, and the girl was far from relaxed…

“Good you’re here”, she said when they crossed paths in the reception hall. “We have a problem.”

Another one?”, sighed Dragonfang. The food machines have run out of those stupid sweet things she won’t stop eating, I suppose…

“A big black, two-headed problem”, Stormbird replied. “With wings.”

Dragonfang fell silent as steel until she saw the situation for herself. At the wire mesh separating the new Tall Ones’ living space from the rest of the facility, Talona’s new Shadowpet was prowling back and forth, tails twitching, both sets of eyes staring hungrily down the section of corridor beyond the wire. The doors lining the passage were all tightly closed, and none of the Tall Ones could be seen – only a narrow strip of light along the bottom edge of several of the doors indicated there were even occupied..

Reaching behind her neck, Dragonfang let her sword slide from her back to her hip, ready to be drawn in an instant. “These ones are not for eating”, she declared. “Now, back off, and stop scaring the Tall Ones.”

“These are not Tall Ones”, snarled one of the monster’s heads, looking round to glare at the swordswoman. “These are quite different, not born out of another race’s ingenuity. How little you truly understand.

Dragonfang was very much a child of her world, and she didn’t rightly understand the distinction between “Tall One” and “not-Tall One” – if it was not Shadowfolk, and taller than Shadowfolk, what else could a creature be? “I don’t think The Lady will be too pleased to hear that you’ve been… terrorising her ‘pets’, whatever they are”, warned the swordswoman, not caring to argue the point. “Maybe you should leave them be, or at least wait until she-”

“I need to see one of them”, interrupted the Shadowpet monster.

“Doubt that’s going to happen”, said Dragonfang, more sternly than before – she was not accustomed to being interrupted, and tolerated it even less.

“One of them will come”, assured the dragon-creature. “Curiosity is as much part of their kind as flesh, blood and bone…”

…o O o…

Inside the secure area…

“Karen, you’re crazy”, whispered Tiffany. “You can’t be seriously thinkin’ ’bout goin’ out there?”

“I… I have to”, replied Karen Alliot, one of the stewardesses of Flight 102. “Don’t ask me why, ’cause I just don’t know. I… feel something…”

Rob Callendar, the co-pilot and the highest-ranking of the survivors of the crash, placed a firm hand on Karen’s arm. “Don’t”, he advised her. “Do you think that fence will keep that thing out for long, if you provoke it?

“No”, Karen answered, “but if that’s what it intends to do, why hasn’t it broken in already?”

“That demon is tempting you, child”, muttered the priest, Father Doyle, “just as demons do. We may be trapped in this hell of theirs, but that doesn’t mean we have no choice but to succumb to their wicked ways!”

“I really don’ think this is Hell, Father”, said Tiffany. “Okay, we’re not exactly free, but see it from their point of view – the Shadowfolk. We fell outta the sky inta their desert, so it’s no surprise that they’re… wary.”

“Who, tell me, child, builds a city in the desert?“, asked the priest. He expected there to be no answer, but the others were far from stupid.

“Talona said therew as some kind of disaster”, replied Tiffany. “They’d been talkin’ ’bout a possible new ice age comin’ back home – guess the reverse coulda happened here…”

“Yeah – and didn’t some meteor come down and kill the dinosaurs?”, added Rob. “Wasn’t there a city of people like us that got hit by something like that…?”

“That’s right”, said Tiffany. “Those were the ‘Tall Ones’ the Shadowfolk keep on about. Wish we could go out an’ – hey, where’s Karen?”

The door to the main corridor was open, and Karen was nowhere to be seen. Quikcly, Tiffany perred outside, and as she had expected, the missing stewardess was over by the wire mesh partition, gazing back at the two-headed monster. The creature was thankfully placid, simply looking back at the young woman – and apparently talking

“There is a song inside you”, said one of the two heads, surprisingly softly. “Many of the Shadowfolk sing similarly. Your mind is more… complex than the others, more open, yet also more stringly guarded – or it will be, if you choose to listen to your song.”

“I-I don’t understand…”

“You will”, assured the second head. “In time.”

“And is that why you came to see us?”, asked Karen.

“What I sense in you is… an unexpected addition to what I had expected”, answered the first head. “I came to see what auras cling to your people, what shreds of the worlds you have passed through remain. In that respect, I have seen more than I anticipated…”

“Can you ‘see’ a way home for us?”, Karen enquired. “We were told it wasn’t possible to find which world we came from…”

“And they were right”, said the monster’s other head. “This place is tangled in a myriad twisted threads, birth-cords and death-shrouds, and a million tattered fabrics in between. Sorting one from another may be possible, now that the Shadowfolk have the right tool…”

The creature, which seemed to be two dragons merged into one, abruptly turned away, and began moving back the way it had come – it, or as Tiffany was starting to think, she, from the sound of its voices. “Wait!”, begged Karen. “Please – can’t you at least let your mistress know we won’t be any trouble, if she lets us out. We promise!”

The dragon-creature paused. One head snorted derisively, then the other, without looking round, said, almost laughing “She is no mistress. She does not even rule herself, but she doesn’t even know it…”

The monster then continued on its way, vanishing into the darkness far too quickly for it to be natural. Karen had no idea whether her pleas would reach the ears that needed to hear them – and to make matters worse, she now had the unsettling feeling that the plight of the Flight 102 survivors was on the verge of being forgotten amidst an impending snow-storm of other troubles; things the creature had only vaguely hinted at, but such strangely chilling hints were more than enough.

Karen stepped back from the fence. For a moment, she stood there trying to think what she was going to say to the others -

***…crazy girl – lucky to be alive…***

The young woman spun around, wondering who was talking to her, but the corridor was empty, the only sign of life the light from the doorway from which she had emerged.

“Oh great”, she sighed under her breath. “Now we’re being haunted as well…?”

“Despite herself, Karen found herself wondering whether Father Doyle, that crazy old Irishman, might have had a point about hell.

…to be concluded…

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