I was dead. Or at least doomed. The two probably weren’t that different given that I’m not sure I’m technically “alive”. I’d thought being a shadow meant that I was untouchable. Turns out shadows are only ‘mostly untouchable’, and Goblins are familiar with how to snag errant ones that go sticking their noses in where they don’t belong.
The other thing I hadn’t known about shadows, despite having been one for my whole life (again assuming I was really alive at all), was how squishable we were. The Goblin that snatched me up had stuffed me into an ink bottle that was smaller than Penny’s fist. I don’t know if I was more surprised to be caught, or that I fit into so tiny a space, or that anyone still used ink bottles.
Mostly I was just angry though. Angry at the goblin for grabbing me, angry at the Boggins for leading me into a trap and angry at myself for being so stupid.
I’d been able to follow the Boggins easily enough. It’s generous to say they ‘lead me into a trap’. They didn’t have a clue I was behind them. I flitted between patches of darkness and pools of light, trailing after them from the lane I found them on down, down, and down, through the folds and creases where the world went a little strange, to the buried stronghold of the Goblins.
They talked as we traveled and I discovered a great many things. For example, if I’m ever quizzed on how Boggins clean their communal cesspit, I’ll be able to answer that question without thinking twice. Mostly because I’ll never get that image out of my head, no matter how hard I try. Pretty much everything I learned while eavesdropping on them was either as nauseatingly memorable as that or so mind numbingly boring I don’t think my shadow ears even transmitted the sounds to my shadow brain.
Their chatter disappeared the instant we passed through the last fold on our journey and arrived in the Deeps though. Boggins are one of the goblin races but, as a rule, Goblins don’t seem terribly fond of one another. Given the behavior of the three I was following, I couldn’t imagine why that might be.
“Where’s the Miser King going to be tonight?” the smallest of the Boggins asked in a whisper.
“He’s holding court at the Gilded Nails,” the largest one whispered back.
“Do we have to go though?” the middle one asked. “If he calls us up we’re going to be in trouble for not bringing anything back.”
“Good, maybe he’ll take one of you away from me then,” the biggest said, almost loud enough to be a normal speaking voice.
“Well I’m not going then,” the smallest one said.
The largest one cuffed the middle one on the head.
“She’s your problem,” the largest one told the middle and stalked off.
“Well I’m not!” the smallest one said.
“Then we’ll leave you here,” the middle one said and stalked after the largest.
I never got to see who the ‘Miser King’ was. Or what his court was like. The smallest Boggin hesitated for a few seconds before a wicked grin spread over her face.
“The King won’t take me,” she whispered to herself. “Not if I tell him Eldest Gnat let a baby witch go!”
Her glee at the idea of selling Penny out to the Miser King sent a shiver down my immaterial spine. It was fortunate for the smallest Boggin that shadows can’t hold knives or axes or other sharp implements. Penny didn’t show her violent impulses much after all which meant they were left in my domain.
It was with those dark thoughts (yeah, dark thoughts in a shadow, who would have imagined it right?) that I followed the Boggins right into the Goblin’s trap.
The Gilded Nails wasn’t an auditorium or bar like I expected it to be. It was a bird shop.
Inside the Gilded Nails, the birds weren’t in cages. The customers were. Gilded wire cages ornamented with ruby thorns and diamond razor wire.
I followed the Boggins in through the main doors and saw a skeletally thin man without hair, eyebrows or eyes welcome them.
“Four to attend the gathering?” the maitre’d asked.
“Only three of us tonight,” Eldest Gnat said.
“My mistake,” the maitre’d said and wrote something in his book with a quill. “You may enter to the left.”
I moved to follow them and found myself stabbed in place by the quill the maitre’d had been writing with. He’d hurled it faster than I’d been able to see much less react to.
“You may not,” he said and bent down to pick up the quill from where he’d thrown it.
I was drawn up with the feather when the maitre’d retrieved it and he then squeezed me out into an empty inkpot below the desk.
I expected some kind of acknowledgement beyond that. Some sort of threat made or deal offered or questions asked. Instead I spent the night being ignored. First by the maitre’d who apparently couldn’t hear a word I was screaming at him, given the things I said and his complete lack of reaction to them. Then the cleaning staff proved to be similarly incapable of noticing me. Lastly the birds didn’t show any sign of being able to detect that I was there, and I was very grateful for that.
The maitre’d was a little weird looking, but as a sapient shadow I didn’t think I had a lot of room to throw stones. The cleaning staff were typical goblins, warty, short, and green-ish blue. Pretty much what I imagined a goblin should look like.
The birds though were something else. They didn’t look strange. They were simple crows as far as I could see. Or rather they wore the bodies of simple crows. But they wore them wrong.
I didn’t have that great a view of them from inside the inkpot but the glimpses I caught showed me one thing very clearly. They looked like crows by they didn’t move like any living thing I’d ever seen.
And they were silent. Completely silent. No caws. No clicks. Not even any sound when they took flight or landed.
By the end of the night I was more than ready to get out of that shop but despite everything I’d tried I couldn’t figure out how to manage an escape, so shortly after dawn broke I tried the very last thing I could think of.
“Penny,” I said. “I don’t know if you can hear me. I can’t imagine how you could. If you can though, I’m kind of in a jam here. I’m sorry I scared you before, but I need your help. Please come for me!”
I don’t technically have a heart as a shadow, so I knew it couldn’t be beating faster in my chest. It couldn’t rise and swell with anticipation. And, after a moment, it couldn’t be filled with warmth and the echo of a distant agreement.