The Shadow Bender

February 13, 2015 - Short Story

The Shadow Bender

By Kelly Tolman

Moira Hatfield twisted a shadow for the first time while watching television on her night off. She enjoyed working nights. Daylight offered so little for her imagination. Even as a child she never used the pink nightlight her parents gave her. Instead she preferred to let the subtle light of the stars and moon filter through her windows.

Moira pressed the mute on the remote and looked again at the corner of the table. No she wasn’t imagining it. The shadow actually lifted off the wood. Now that was cool, just the sort of thing her mother would warn her about.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s see if you can do anything else. How about a little twist?” The black fragment of nothing turned as she concentrated. Moira felt a rush of excitement. How long had she been reading about the shadow plane? Wow! She raced to the bookshelf to see if anything there could offer an explanation.

Moira spent the rest of the night alternately perusing for answers and trying to lift more shadows. By the time her roommate, Jill, got up she could cause a shadow to turn or lift at will but nothing more. Unfortunately no one seemed to have written a guide about how to control shadows, so she resolved to hit the library after class.

Jill and Moira shared two classes, and as usual she caught a nap during the American History lecture. The tests all came out of the book anyway. Almost all general courses today. Why did engineers have to take history again?

“You coming to class tonight?” asked Jill. Jill stood a stout five feet even of solid athleticism. Moira couldn’t help but be a little jealous of those baby blue eyes and the bouncy blonde hair. Her own hair never seemed to do anything right.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Moira.

“You really seem to be getting into it. Who knew martial arts would be your thing,” said Jill.

“It’s fun, but it’s a lot more interesting since Dane starting coming,” admitted Moira.

“You better get some sleep if you want to impress him,” said Jill. “You look like a zombie. Are you sure you can handle working nights? There’s an opening at the greenhouse, I’m sure I could get you in.”

“It’s no big deal. I got to get to the library before I catch my nap. See you later.”

Moira had no luck at the library, just a few vague references about the fourth dimension, but nothing about actually controlling shadows. Her personal collection of books centered more on fiction. At least they sparked her imagination, although they offered nothing more than possibilities. Eventually she gave up and drifted into sleep.

Hank’s Kenpo Clinic squished between a narrow side street and a condemned bookstore across the alley from The Pancake Emporium. On a good night two or three people could find decent parking. Tonight Moira decided to walk the ten blocks rather than fight the evening pancake crowd. Crime near the university generally tapered off during the cold months, and November offered plenty of shadows for her to play with along the way.

If only she could carry a shadow with her, it would save time and give her something to do during history. Of course she had a shadow. Everyone has a shadow. Why not? She stopped just at the edge of a streetlight and looked at her own shadow.

“Okay,” she mumbled, looking around to see if anyone was watching. She concentrated on the outline of her hair. A few wispy strands lifted off the concrete. A tingling sensation shot through her head. She caressed more of her shadow off the pavement. The tingling became an itch. When the tip of the shadow of her head finally slipped from the sidewalk she felt something slap the back of her head. Pain shot through her eyes and she staggered, losing control of the shadow.

She turned around as quickly as she could, but saw no one behind her. No footsteps. No sound of any kind. In the parking lot across the street a man held the door for his date. The pain in her eyes felt real enough. Either her mind had loosened a bit too much or something about playing with shadows could hurt her. No point holding back.

She held out her hand and concentrated on the shadow of her pinky. As soon as the shadow lifted from the ground a sharp pain shot through her finger. She immediately let the shadow return to normal, and massaged her pinky. Lesson learned; don’t mess with your own shadow.

The pain in her head subsided by the time she joined the class.

“You’re late,” said Jill when she came in. “I’m glad you made it. None of the other girls showed.”

Moira knew what a pain it could be sparring with some of the guys in the class. Most of them treated her nice. They went out of the way to be helpful. Tonight, though, Moira spotted a couple of the regular jerks. At just over six feet Matt had longer reach than anyone in the class, and he liked to spar hard. Neither he nor his friend Ty worked hard enough to develop the skills to handle more experienced opponents, so they preyed on the weaker and newer students whenever possible.

“I wish Hank would just kick those creeps out,” said Moira.

“They pay just like everyone else,” replied Jill.

“That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it,” said Moira.

“At least it’s practice in case we have to deal with some guy on the street.” Jill winked. She always had a way of finding something positive. “Let’s get warmed up.”

That night they practiced throws and close quarter defense against attackers trying to grab from different angles. Moira worked through the moves automatically, not really thinking about it. By no means had she become proficient and she knew she should be trying harder, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her discoveries.

“Sorry to break you up, ladies,” said Hank with less than ten minutes of time left. “Throwing around someone your own size is one thing, but if you want to be able to handle someone bigger than yourself you’re going to have to practice it. Are you up for it?”

At first she paired with Dane. He started coming to class less than a month ago but had already passed all of them.

“You sure learn this stuff fast,” she said. She couldn’t help looking him over. At five foot nine, he wasn’t overly tall, but he had a confident muscular build that he carried easily.

“I’ve trained in some other places,” he said. “There’s no wrestling team or boxing team at the college, so this is my way of working out the stress.”

He guided her through the motions of the moves they had been practicing. Somehow his touch seemed electric. Maybe she just imagined it.

“Time to trade up,” said Jill. She leaned over and lowered her voice to a bare whisper. “Your turn with the beast.”

Jill had been paired with Matt. Moira glanced over at the clock. She could handle two minutes, besides Jill was right, if she wanted to be able to deal with a creep on the street she needed to learn to deal with one here.

They practiced defending a basic grab from behind. The first time he groped her, it could have been an honest mistake, but nobody makes that mistake twice. Moira fumed. She opened her mouth to swear at him when she thought of a better idea.

As they clinched again she concentrated on the shadow near his foot. Angrily, she bent it off the floor. Matt gasped in pain and dropped to the ground. He rolled away grasping his foot and cursing.

“Foot cramp?” asked Moira innocently. “You should drink more water.”

Moira sipped some water as class wound down. If bending someone’s shadow off the floor could do that, what else could she do? Jill wandered over.

“You really are out of it,” said Jill. Moira realized she had been daydreaming again. “Want to get something to eat?”

“I got work,” said Moira, a lie, but she needed time to digest what just happened.

Moira waited for Jill to leave before picking up her backpack. The moon outside had risen full and pale, but bits of cloud covered it from time to time. The wind smelled of snow, the first warning of winter, but the air felt clear and cool. Moira cut through another alley behind a couple of small stores. Everything seemed a little more quiet than usual, but not much happened in this town.

“Interesting work,” said a voice in the darkness. Moira stopped. Her heart jumped. She didn’t recognize the voice. It rang out low and resonating. “Shadow bending is nearly a lost art in this world.”

Moira watched as Dane stepped from the shadows about ten feet ahead of her. She hardly recognized him. His vacant eyes stared past her, and his skin appeared pale. Perspiration clouded his face.

When in doubt, ply for time. “What are you talking about?” she asked, checking the distance to the end of the alley. It would be closer to turn around if she decided to run.

“No need to play games,” said Dane. No, not Dane. That was definitely not Dane’s voice. “We felt the energy shift and have come to negotiate.”

“We? Who are you? Where did you come from?” asked Moira. She shivered. “What is it you want?”

“I gather you have seen through the disguise, your powers must be greater than we thought.” Suddenly Dane opened his mouth and exhaled a thick gray mist for several seconds. The last of the mist escaped and Dale collapsed on the pavement. A misty, legless figure, almost the shape of a man with glowing eyes hovered before her in the alley.

Her mind raced. She choked back a scream. She glanced at Dane, but she couldn’t tell in the half-light if he was breathing or not. Whatever this thing was apparently it thought she knew more than she did.

“That’s better,” she said, trying to sound confident. “Now what exactly do you want?”

“We want you to join us, of course,” said the figure. “We seek allies in the shadow war. We are, of course, prepared to barter.”

“First of all, I don’t know who you are. Secondly, I don’t know anything about any war, and even if I did I don’t want any part of it. You have the wrong person.” Moira tried not to sound panicked, but her heart wouldn’t slow down. Instinctively she looked to the shadows in the alley. The creature had a faint shadow that shifted as the mist within its body billowed.

“My name is not important,” said the creature.

“It is to me,” replied Moira.

“Very well. Call me Kierzax. Enough games. Name your price.” Kierzax definitely sounded impatient now.

“Look Kierzax, I already told you, I don’t want any part of your war. I’m going home now, and you should to,” said Moira.

“I’m certain we can reach a bargain,” said Kierzax. He pointed a misty finger at Dane. “I can offer you him. I believe you find him appealing.”

Moira thought for a moment. Whatever was happening had gone beyond serious.

“Is there something else you would prefer? Perhaps some sort of influence here in your home world?” said Kierzax.

“Anything worth that is definitely something I don’t want to do,” said Moira. “For the last time, go home. Find someone else.”

“We cannot allow you to join the others,” said Kierzax. “I have been fair. If you cannot be persuaded, then you must be eliminated.” Kierzax’s eyes flared with a sudden inner flame, casting a dim red glow across the alley.

No point stalling now. Either fight or run. Moira hesitated only a second before ripping his shadow from the pavement in one swift thought. Kierzax groaned as his shadow now stood next to Moira, but seemed otherwise unharmed. He opened his mouth, and fire erupted towards Moira. She dodged behind Kierzax’s shadow, trying to find some cover. The flames hit the shadow and Kierzax wailed in agony. Smoke peeled off his shadow. The smell of sulfur and burning trash filled the alley.

Desperately Moira tried to think. Some good Hank’s self defense techniques did now. If an assailant breathes fire, do I try a wristlock or a hip toss?. One shadow stopped his fire, so maybe a lot of shadows could stop him. She pulled the massive shadows from the buildings together. All around, she quickly wove a semi translucent wall of darkness. For the moment it seemed to be working. The barrier stopped a second spout of fire.

Time could not be on her side. Kierzax started to rise into the air. She built her wall higher, but he just moved faster. Soon he would be over the buildings. She added a ceiling to her wall, and instinctively stretched the shadows to add three more walls, effectively sealing Kierzax in. What would happen if those walls suddenly collapsed in? Could she crush him, whatever he was?

Keeping the box together as she collapsed it proved to be more difficult than first imagined. Shadows by their very nature tend to move, and managing the complex geometry of a shrinking cube required skills she hadn’t yet mastered. At the last instant, just before the walls completely closed in Kierzax managed to thrust out one smoky claw and grab Moira’s shirt.

The shadows closed in on themselves and Moira found herself spinning, flattening, and lost to any reality she had ever known. She didn’t lose consciousness, the pain felt too intense. She closed her eyes and covered her ears against a powerful blinding wind that battered from all sides. Finally she dropped onto the cold hard pavement.

She opened her eyes. Kierzax had disappeared, but the faint scent of sulfur hung in the air. Dane was gone. The alley looked different, felt different. The buildings loomed black and flat, not just dark, but blacker than any night she could remember. No sounds came from the street behind her. Moira walked back towards the Kenpo Clinic.

Everything appeared washed of all color. All of the buildings, signs, even the litter varied from black to gray or darker gray. The streetlight switched from one gray dot to another, emitting no real light. Moira saw nobody else anywhere. The silence felt so complete she heard her heart beating and the soft rhythm of her breathing.

A chill wind broke the silence, making her shiver through her winter coat. Nothing moved with the wind. The few scattered autumn leaves, the dead grass, and the litter ignored the breeze. Even her hair seemed unaffected. The moon floated overhead a pale disk shedding no real light.

She ran to the Kenpo Clinic, then to the Pancake Emporium. Flat black and gray cars cluttered the parking lot, but no people filled the restaurant. Suddenly a car door opened. A dim shape, like an erased pencil drawing seemed to get into the car, or did she imagine it. The door closed silently. A few seconds later the car backed out of the stall, though the engine made no sound. The car pulled away and melted into an unseen fog. After only about fifty feet it completely disappeared. When she looked back, the car had returned to the parking stall.

With this many cars, people had to be eating in the restaurant. Moira went to the front door. Through the glass she saw nobody. She pulled on the handle, but it refused to move. It didn’t feel locked. The deadbolt would have at least wiggled a little. She simply couldn’t move it.

“I see you are new to my world,” said a voice behind her. Moira turned and saw a figure cloaked in blackness. It had a humanoid shape, but she couldn’t make out any distinct features. She half expected to see it carrying a scythe, but it had no real hands and held nothing. Two large black dogs with sleek bodies as if cut from pure obsidian waited only a few feet behind the figure.

“Where?” asked Moira, but she had a feeling she knew exactly where she was.

“The realm of shadows, of course,” replied the figure. “Odd that you would not know where you are. Most visitors come here with a purpose.”

“It was an accident,” said Moira. “I was fighting Kierzax and then I was here.”

“The legion is not welcome here,” said the figure. The dogs spread out from the figure, baring black teeth.

“Who? I don’t know anything about any legion,” said Moira.

“Unlikely,” replied the voice. “All who enter this realm know of our long hatred of your war.”

“I’m not fighting any war,” said Moira desperately. Realization of her situation seeped in slowly. Somehow Kierzax must have pulled her into the shadows. “I just want to go back.”

“You have brought your war here.” The voice rang sinister. “It will end here, for you.”

The dogs slowly circled into range to attack. Moira thought quickly, and saw that the dogs did not cast any shadow, nothing here cast a shadow. She grasped one of the dog’s legs with her mind. She focused so intently that she didn’t notice her hands come up to make a twisting motion, as if she held the leg in her hands. The shadow substance conformed to her will. The creature let out a hollow, haunting howl as its leg warped suddenly out of shape. The second dog leapt at her, but she pulled it out of the air with her mind and sent it painfully to the ground.

“A bender with some skill,” said the figure. “You could abandon your war and help me here.” The two dogs melted into nothing as it spoke.

“I don’t have a war,” said Moira. “I don’t want anything to do with your war. I’m going home.”

“If you intended to leave you would already have gone,” replied the voice. “If you aren’t here for the war, what is it you want?”

Before Moira could respond, the powerful odor of sulfur washed over them all. Kierzax seemed to appear out of nothing just a few feet from the figure.

“You can’t have her, Vorgos,” said Kierzax. “If she will not join me, then she will join no one.”

Kierzax opened his mouth. Moira expected fire to stream out. Instead he began coughing violently. Vorgos raised a hand and a sudden black shape slapped Kierzax in the head.

“You will find that fire requires elements we do not have,” said Vorgos as Kierzax wheeled backwards. “Your war is unwelcome here.”

Kierzax collapsed into a thick strand of smoke and dodged the blows of the nearly shapeless shadow weapon. Moira chose this moment of distraction to flee around the corner and back up the alley towards her apartment. If those two wanted to fight she wasn’t going to get in the way. Behind her a roar of rage and frustration rang out, but she couldn’t tell which of the two it came from. As the roar died down, Moira hit a full sprint.

Five blocks later she slowed to a jog, and eventually a walk, breathing heavily. “Starting tomorrow, I am definitely doing a cardio program,” she thought. She stopped and leaned against a building to catch her breath. What had Vorgos meant? Clearly he, or she or it, thought Moira could leave at any time.

Moira milled this thought over for a few seconds until a column of sulfurous smoke streamed up the street behind her. Moira caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned to face Kierzax as he took shape. She didn’t have the energy to run anymore.

“You can still join us,” said Kierzax.

“Not interested,” replied Moira. She was starting to breathe a little easier now.

“You were a fool to bring us here. Vorgos will hunt both of us now. You’ve trapped both of us into a fight that neither of us needs.”

“So,” she said. “I can’t take it back now. What do you want?”

“A temporary alliance,” said Kierzax. “Together we might be able to escape Vorgos.”

“No thanks.”

Kierzax swung a smoky fist towards Moira’s face. Instinctively she dodged the blow, grateful she had at least learned that much in class. He tried again. This time she pulled the sign from a storefront, using her mind to make the shadow block the blow. Moira gathered substance from all around the street to defend the constant onslaught of sneaky attacks. Bit by bit she tore up the street as she backed her way up the block.

Suddenly a black shape took hold of Kierzax. Another of Vorgos’ dogs materialized behind him. Kierzax writhed in agony as the creature clamped down where his leg should have been. Then he pounded the dog’s head with a smoky fist, forcing it to release the hold.

Moira used the opportunity to think. Obviously Kierzax couldn’t escape or else he would have by now, which meant that her instincts were right. He was just trying to use her. That didn’t tell her how to get out, though these two seemed to think she should be able to. An idea finally came to her. Vorgos walked into view behind his dogs. The dogs kept Kierzax fully occupied, so once again Moira slipped away down a side street.

Thinking back to her first encounter with Kierzax, she thought how the process could be reversed. Starting with the ground, she pushed all of the shadows away, building an empty black cylinder around herself. Light broke through the bottom of the cylinder, nearly blinding her after the constant darkness of the shadow world.

Once again she felt herself falling, being pushed, and thrown into a new world. Intense pain shocked her again as she found herself sprawled on the sidewalk. A hundred different smells seemed to reach her at once, but not a hint of sulfur. Snowflakes glittered in the moonlight as they drifted down the lazy breeze. Moira stood up slowly and dusted off her pants and coat.

In a building’s shadow across the street, she thought she heard a muffled growl. Tired or not, she broke into a sprint back to her apartment. She slowed once to catch her breath, but didn’t stop until she reached the door. The door was locked. Moira fumbled for her key. Inside she found Jill watching television with the lights off.

Moira flipped the light switch, causing Jill to blink a little. “Who do I need to talk to about that job?” she asked. “I think I’m done working nights. I need a little more light in my life.”


› tags: Fantasy Story / Short Story /

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