Fiction: The Delicate Art of Stealing Shadows

Dark Epic Fantasy / 4000 words

PREFACE: My brother Terry (that’s him in the picture!), who passed away in 2018, loved to go to Renaissance Fairs where he’d dress up as various characters—some well-known ones (the King of Spain, D’Artagnan…) and others he invented. One of these was Count Varushka, who I felt compelled to bring to life through a series of stories. In January, I will introduce another one of his creations—Jean-Jack Laroch. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this one. WARNING: Contains some graphic scenes of violence.

There are stories of a portal that opens upon the realm of monsters. It is whispered about in fear or used to frighten disobedient children. Most believe it is a myth—or hope to the gods that it is. For if it was real, then could not the monsters find their way through and invade the realm of men? No, better it not be real...

And yet, I know it is. For that is what I seek. Not to let the monsters in, but to let one particular monster out.

But the problem with myths—or truths that are thought of as myths—is that there are few details that people agree upon. I have followed many trails, but none yet has proven reliable.

Still, what am I to do but try, and try again? I can not stay here. It is dangerous... for them.

Though I must say that humans fascinate me. There is evil amongst them too, of course, but for the most part, they are good. I find this appealing, to my surprise. Likely, I would be mocked by my peers for this.

It has been years since I was cast away from my kingdom. And as I traveled through these lands, I made a solemn promise to myself to become a better person—to become more human. If such a thing is possible.

That aspiration may change, though, especially if I find a way back. For blood would have to be spilled, then.

I did find a new lead a few weeks ago. There is little hope that this one will prove more solid than any of the previous, but I head southward nonetheless.

Mist has spread and the weather has freshened quite a bit. Though cold and heat do not affect me the way they do men.

I have been walking through this forest for hours and I begin to wonder if I have not lost my way. There is a stream nearby, I know this for I can hear its waters flow. I decide to turn in that direction. If I follow its course, I will have a better guide, though there is no telling where it would lead me—I can only hope beyond the fringes of these woods.

There is a particular sound that branches make when they snap. Another when steps are taken in the mud. But none of these are what I hear now. Instead, it is a wailing. Loud and piercing and full of pain and longing.

I pause in my progress and listen. Can I find its source? It seems to come from somewhere to my left.

Shifting direction, I head for the cries. They grow in intensity as I approach.

Soon, my steps take me to a small clearing where a translucent shape floats in the misty air. As I arrive, it spins to face me. I rest both hands on my cane as I observe it with curiosity.

It has shimmering hair, a glowing beard, and wide purple eyes filled with tears.

“Heeeeeelp,” it wails at me, “I beg of you, stranger!”

I can read hope in its eyes now as it comes closer and circles around me.

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I am devoid of my flesh!” it complains.

“So I’ve noticed. Alas, I doubt there is much I can do about that...”

“You are mistaken! For this is not my natural state. I have been deprived of my shadow! And a man without a shadow can no longer be a man, and thus it was that I became the spirit you see before you.”

“That is quite unfortunate,” say I, “though I still fail to see how I could possibly be of any help.”

“A spirit can never wander far from the one who made him spirit.” This I know to be true, for it is a well-known fact—especially among those of my kin. “I can show you where he is. My shadow must be there as well. If you could bring it back to me, I could become whole again!”

That sounds reasonable. But I am perplexed and hesitant to help. Not that I am usually averse to doing so, but I need know more before I get involved.

And so I inquire: “May I ask why this man took your shadow? It is no small feat to accomplish, nor are such things done lightly.”

“You ask fair questions,” it replies. “I met him while traveling, little knowing that he was a mage. He was walking at a fast pace and ran into me, then accused me of not looking where I was going when it was he who had not! When I pointed this out, he became agitated. He said he had no time to waste with such an impudent as me. Then he waved a wand and before I had time to do or say anything more, my shadow was gone and I faded from the realm of men. Oh gods, why must I suffer such fate?”

Others of my kin would mock me for this as well, but I feel sorry for the poor soul.

“Very well. If you show me where this man is, I will do my best to retrieve your shadow.”

At first, the spirit seems surprised. Then it glows with renewed hope and a dash of joy.

“Thank you! Thank you so much! I have seen so many come through... most would run away in fear, while those who would not refused to help. You are a kind and brave man! I will take you to the mage. Follow me!”

While we travel together, he tells me his name is Caralan and that he comes from a small village near Kaerlud, that he longs to go back there to see his wife and children. He has been stranded in this forest for over two years now—at least, that’s what it feels like to him... for in his current state, he has lost all sense of time.

He leads me to a small cottage by the stream that I had been looking for earlier. Through the thinning mist, I can see windows on each side of the door, with smoke coming from the chimney.

“I will wait for you here,” says Caralan.

“As you wish.”

Since I will be a stranger to the mage, I decide to just knock and talk to him. I will gauge the man before I take any action.

The answer to my knock is prompt. The door swings open and a tall man with curly brown hair looks me up and down. If he is surprised by my appearance—dark vest and hat, long black hair, small round glasses, and a cane with a skull in place of a pommel—he does not show it.

“What is it, then?” he asks.

“I have been walking in this forest for hours. I believe I may have lost my way.”

The man grunts and points down the stream.

“Walk another hour in that direction and you’ll be out of the woods.”

“Thank you, sir.” As he is about to close the door, I add: “However, I am exhausted from my march and fear I cannot take another step right this minute. Would you be kind enough to let me rest a few minutes in your home? I promise not to overstay my welcome.”

The man squints at me for a second. Then, after another grunt, he opens his door.

“Come on in, and be quick about it! I would rather the cold stayed out.”

I thank him as I hurry inside.

Here it is warm. The room is sparsely furnished—a dresser against the wall, a table, some chairs, the chimney in a corner. There are also two doors, one of which is open. From the items I see through the opening—stills, flasks, powder pouches, pots of balm, and an hourglass—I guess it to be a laboratory.

The man grabs a chair and pulls it closer to the fire.

“Have a seat,” he says. “I’ll bring you some broth.”

“That is very kind. Thank you. My name is Varushka.”

He shakes my offered hand with a grunt. “Octovar.”

Without another word, he heads into the laboratory. I sit by the chimney, place the cane across my lap, and stare into the flickering flames.

He is only gone a couple of minutes. When he returns, he holds two bowls, one of which he hands me. Then he pulls another chair and sits across from me.

We eat in silence.

When done, I set my bowl down on the floor and glance at the open door.

“I take it you dabble in magic?”

The man squints at me. “What if I do?”

I smile. “Worry not, friend. I have no issue with mages. It is mere curiosity on my part.”

“Do you dabble as well?” he asks with the first signs of interest I’ve seen in him so far.

“Sadly, I cannot say that I do. Though I have friends who are quite good in such matters.”

“Ah,” he says as he goes back to eating his soup. The expression on his face now seems more appeased.

“In fact,” say I, “one of them once mentioned how he could rip the shadow off a person.”

Octovar frowns at this. “Impossible!”

“Well, it is what he said.”

“Then he must be quite powerful indeed. I have never heard of such a thing. Besides, it would be a cruel thing to do to a man.”

“How so?”

“Have you ever seen anyone without a shadow?”

“I do not think that I have.”

“Precisely.”

“What do you mean?”

“Without a shadow, a man would no longer be a man. He would become invisible to the human eye. A ghost, a spirit, lost for all of eternity.” He shudders at the thought.

This angers me.

How can he speak thus? Could he have guessed the purpose of my visit?

“You must be very cruel, then,” I say coolly.

His frown increases as he stares at me.

“What?”

“Is this not the very fate you condemned a poor traveler to some years ago? Or have you forgotten already?”

The man stands and points at his door.

“Go! Now! I will not have you insult me in my own home.”

I stand as well, brandishing my cane at him.

“Not until you have given me back his shadow.”

“You are mad! Go away now before I do something rash...”

“Threatening me, are you?” I show my fangs.

This gives him pause. To his credit, he does not show fear.

“Who... what are you?”

“Give me the man’s shadow and I will not harm you.”

“I cannot give what I do not have! I would not even know how to do such a thing, assuming it even is possible...”

“Do not lie to me!”

I see him start a Gesture. Before he can finish it, I am upon him, with my hand wrapped tight around his neck.

“Speak!” I hiss into his face. Now he can see the darkness in my eyes, and finally the colors drain from him.

“I swear I do not have it!”

“Did you get rid of it? Where did you put it?”

He struggles to get free. I throw him to the floor and jump on top of him. I can feel my instincts taking over as I dive and bite deep into his neck, tearing at his flesh, and drinking his blood.

I force myself to stop and pull away. I wipe my mouth and stare at the convulsing body as life slips away from the mage.

“By the gods! Why did you not talk? You made me do this, you fool!”

With a deep breath, I search through the house. The closed door gives into a bedroom, but there is nothing there—nor anywhere else within. Could he have hidden the shadow elsewhere? And where—or how—would one hold a shadow anyway?

Disappointed, I decide to go report to the spirit and see if he, maybe, has some idea of where else to search.

As I walk out of the cottage, something heavy hits my head and I fall to the ground.

***

The room I awake in is damp and warm. The ceiling, like the walls and floor, is made of rock and dirt. There are bars between me and the door... I have been locked in a cage! And my cane has been taken away.

Though I’m outraged by this treatment, it is tempered by the pain that pulses in the back of my head.

The door opens and I see a blonde man walk in, with a scar on his right cheek... behind him is my friend the spirit! He must have followed my captor. Now we shall see who has the last laugh...

“Ah! You are awake. Perfect. I was eager to start the ritual.”

I frown at the mention of a ritual. I have seen too many of those in my lifetime, and none of them ever ended well.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“My name is Riivin. Not that knowing this will do you much good.”

“I will rip the flesh off your bones,” I hiss, though I am careful not to let my fangs show just yet—I think it wiser to maintain some element of surprise.

He doesn’t seem impressed. “You won’t get a chance. Sorry.”

I look at Caralan and notice that he has a wicked smile on his face. He’s not paying attention to Riivin, his gaze fixed on me. This troubles me. At first, I thought he was just waiting for the cage to be opened before he struck... but then, why is he not looking at my captor?

The blonde must have noticed my gaze, because he looks at the spot where the spirit floats and grins. “I still can’t believe you fell for that story.” He looks back at me. “Do you know how many people we’ve tried to lure into our trap? People are too suspicious by nature—if not outright frightened by the appearance of a spirit! You were neither. Imagine that! I guess we did well to persist.”

My blood boils as I understand that I’ve been tricked. The two of them are working together. I had assumed the spirit was hiding its presence—as they can only be seen by humans if they wish it so. Unless, of course...

“You killed him!” I let out in sudden understanding. “That also explains why he’s here, since he’d have to stay close to his killer.”

Riivin mock applauds with a smug smile on his lips. “Yes. And now, it’s his time to kill me.”

Oh, this is definitely not going to end well...

I’ll make sure of it.

***

There is magic in this world that is not for the faint of heart. I do not practice the arts myself but, as I’d mentioned to Octovar, I have many friends who do. They are not good people. The spells they weave would make most human mages shudder in horror.

To bind a spirit to the material world is a cruel thing to do, though most times it is of the spirit’s own doing—even if they are rarely aware of this. If, with his last breath, the victim casts a curse upon his murderer; and if, at the same time, there is a witness to this... then, and only then, will the spirit become bound to the curse, and the curse bound to the killer.

In theory, this could be reproduced by bringing together all the required ingredients—a victim, a killer, a curse, a witness... but who, in their right mind, would want to do this to themselves?

Riivin and Caralan are mad. That is the only possible explanation.

Though I’m still unsure as to which part I am supposed to play... the killer? the witness?

When the blonde opens the cage, I find I am unable to assault him. He wears an amulet that shields him from physical attacks. Fine. I just have to be patient. There will be an opportunity. There always is.

We walk through a hall and enter another room—all along, rock and dirt surround us. I think we are underground.

Here, there is a chair set against the eastern wall, and a large stone slab in the center. On it lies the corpse of Octovar... I had not expected this.

I pause at the entrance. “What is this?” I ask.

Riivin snickers as he pushes me forward. “Get in and sit on that chair, over there.”

I glare at him but do as I’m told.

The spirit flies in and glides in circles around the corpse and me.

“You haven’t guessed yet?” he teases. I remain quiet, so he gloats: “You are not a very bright one, are you? Well, I’ll tell you, then. For our plan to work, we need to kill each other. This way only will we truly be free, for spirits cannot be bound to other spirits.”

“But you are ethereal, you cannot affect the material!”

“Precisely,” he chuckles as he floats above Octovar. “And that is why we needed a fresh corpse—”

“A vessel!” I say, as it all comes together in my mind. “You plan to possess it!”

Riivin mock applauds again. I can’t wait to wipe that grin off his face and cut off his hands.

“What if I hadn’t killed him?” I ask.

The blonde shrugs. “If he had killed you, you would have been the vessel and he the witness. Had you both survived, we would have knocked you both out and then killed one at random. Doesn’t matter. In the end, the result would have been the same.”

It is a good plan. Safe for one little detail... which I keep to myself.

“Enough talk!” says Caralan. “We’ve waited long enough. Let it be done!”

Riivin nods and walks to an alcove. I had not noticed it before, as it is hidden in a dark corner of the room. From therein, he grabs a dagger that he then places in the corpse's hand.

“Make it nasty,” he says to his friend, with an evil grin.

Without another word, Caralan plunges into the dead mage and disappears.

A long moment of silence follows, during which Riivin spreads his arms wide and closes his eyes, his chest offered.

And then, it begins.

Octovar rises. Pale skin, red eyes, and the same evil grin that his friend had worn earlier. His fist tightens around the pommel of his weapon. He stands in front of Riivin and stares at him.

I consider making a move. But my captor still wears that damned amulet, so I could not hurt him. I could, however, damage the corpse and make it impossible for them to finish the ritual... but why would I do that? It would leave me a prisoner to a madman.

Let him die.

The hand rises and with a shrieking roar, Caralan stabs his friend, over and over again—in the chest, the arms, the cheeks, the eyes... he is like in a drunken rage. Blood and other bodily fluids gush everywhere. Riivin screams in pain, but he does not struggle or resist. There are even accents of ecstatic joy mixed with those screams.

It is despicable.

When the disfigured blonde falls to the ground, he utters words that chill my bones: “I curse you, Caralan, I curse you and your descendants for seven generations to come... may you and they all die as horribly as I die now. Let my curse be my oath, bound by witness forevermore.”

And then he is gone.

It is not enough for them to kill each other, they must drag their future heirs into this madness.

Octovar’s body then turns to face me. In three big strides, he reaches my chair and brings the knife down.

They don’t want the witness to survive... I should have guessed.

I let him have his fun.

While he attempts to kill me, I consider what I should do next.

It is tempting to just leave. Let them be. I always strive to be more human, and would that not be the type of thing a human would do?

One could argue that these two were once human... but I also realize that they were quite mad. Should I be like them? No. I am better than that.

But there is a part of me that hungers for blood and for revenge. I might be deprived of the former, but the latter remains within reach. It would be difficult, though, for now they are both spirits, and how would one kill a spirit? There are ways, but none of them easy. Better then to just let them be...

Caralan finally stops stabbing me. He’s made quite a mess of my body. There is pain, but I am used to it. As for the wounds, they will heal.

But much blood has been shed in this room now. Too much. Riivin’s and my own, and even Octovar’s—though his is now old and dry, and does not smell as enticing.

The possessed mage walks back, staring at me. “How can you still live?”

That captivating scent is intoxicating. I feel myself slipping into a more feral state.

“Ah. But I do not,” I say as I finally show him my fangs. “I never have.”

In his panic, he runs backward and trips over Riivin’s body. The spirit exits its corporeal shell, leaving the two friends lying on top of each other.

His fear subsides as he suddenly remembers that he, too, is not alive and that I cannot hurt him... or so he thinks.

It is then that I decide. No matter how difficult it is, I will tear them apart. Both of them. It will hurt me, but it will be worth it. If only to see those haughty expressions crushed to dust.

“Goodbye, stranger,” says Caralan with that very expression on his face.

I smile. “Not quite yet.”

The spirit’s grin turns into a puzzled look with perhaps a touch of concern.

With a shrieking wail, Riivin’s spirit pulls out of his dead body.

“I never knew it’d be so hard to free myself of that retched flesh of mine...”

Distracted by his friend’s arrival, Caralan turns from me. And as the two boast about their triumph, I start to phase through.

They could not have known of my nature. Had they known, surely they would have thought twice before trying to trick me.

My realm is not the realm of men. I come from well beyond. And though I have been banned from my home, there are other planes in between that are within my reach. That of the spirits being one of them—for, like them, I am not of the living... so why should it not?

The air shimmers and glitters before me as I adjust the fabric of reality. It is a tricky mental exercise, but it is not difficult per se. Though there is difficulty waiting ahead.

Shifting waves spread through the entire room, ripping existence apart as the way opens.

The rejoicing spirits freeze as they sense something is off. They turn and stare at me.

“Why is he still alive?” asks Riivin, who had not yet noticed.

“I am not,” I repeat as I walk resolutely toward them.

They still have not realized what I have done. Likely, they will die in ignorance.

My hand grabs Riivin’s neck. His eyes widen in surprise. I pull him to me with force and drive my fangs deep into his spirit skin—its texture, like everything here, is different... and in some ways tastier.

He screams.

I smile.

There is no blood in this plane. I miss it. But here there is a different, yellow substance—more fluid and acid, yet almost as nourishing. I drain as much as I can while the panicked body under me squirms and grovels.

“Stop it!” I hear Caralan yell.

I feel his hands on me, trying to pull me away. But he is no match for me. Not here. If anything, this place makes me stronger and more powerful, as it is closer to the Gleaming. He, on the other hand, is new to this realm—frail, weak, with no experience of such matters.

Riivin’s spirit flesh falls to the ground as I let go of him. It explodes into flakes of dust—as things here are wont to do.

I spin to face his friend.

“Who’s next?” I grin.

***

After I am done feasting, I return to the realm of men.

Though spirit fluids are nourishing, the travel back and forth is taxing and painful. I am exhausted.

I decide to rest here, on the stone slab, for a little while.

The experience was satisfying but, already, I regret my action.

Once again, I let the darker part of me take control. I vowed I would become better, that I would shed my monster instincts... but it is not an easy task.

If I am not careful, I will slide further away from humanity, rather than closer. I must not let this happen.

Six hours later, I find my cane in a smaller room next to the one where I’d been held prisoner, and exit the two friends’ lair. As I suspected, it is a series of underground tunnels that can be accessed through a trapdoor, hidden under wild bushes.

Closing it behind me, I face the setting sun and smile.

I turn and resume my journey southward.

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Varushka will return in By the Light of a Weeping Moon, in February 2022.

Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.

Header image: a picture of my brother dressed up as Varushka, edited by me.

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