The Blessed Realms were constructed from stardust and gravity, like most other worlds are. For the Blessed Realms though, the stardust was synthesized not in early supernovae but through an act of divine fiat. The gods of the Blessed Realms came as architects and dreamers. They crafted the realms as one milieu in a long series of realities wherein they tried out variations on millions of separate and interlocking themes.
As with many works of art though, they had to go through a few initial designs before they reached one which they felt was right.
Those early works reached varying stages of fullness in the creation. Some were bare sketches of a world; smooth, lifeless spheres where the fundamental physical laws were applied in a haphazard fashion.
Other worlds more closely resembled the Blessed Realms, containing early copies of the mountains and lakes and wonders that the Mindful Races of the realms would live near, work on, and fight over.
Because the sun of the Blessed Realms didn’t shine on any of these half finished creations, they were known as shadow worlds and if there was one thing which united them it was that shadow worlds were never safe for those of the sunlight world to travel through.
Lagressa of the Drowning Kiss knew this. She also knew that as a child of the shadow worlds, they weren’t necessarily safe for her either.
“Those were frighteningly accurate copies of us,” a young girl said. “Are you sure that the queen’s wife is going to be able to tell that they’re not really our bodies?”
“I have no idea,” a Shadowfolk woman said.
Lagressa watched them walk under her tree house hideaway. The instincts that had been drilled into her said to wait for them to pass by and then stalk them from the rear.
Lagressa cast that thought aside. She’d fled to the ruined city on the mountain precisely because she didn’t want to be the person her people wanted her to be. The person she was designed and created to be.
“Do you know where we are?” another young girl asked. This one seemed more assured. She walked with an awareness of the space around her, flowing through the air with small turns that expanded her field of vision while making an attack on her vital organs more difficult.
“We’ve gone to one of the hells,” an older, human woman said. “One of the dark and bad ones.”
“There are bright and happy hells?” a dwarven woman asked.
“Sure, they’re lit by the fools they set on fire there and that makes the demons in them real happy,” the human woman said.
Lagressa couldn’t contain her fascination. Humans and Dwarves were sunlight folk. They never came to the shadow worlds. Not unless something was very wrong.
The Shadowfolk woman was an even greater anomaly though. Shadowfolk and the sunlight people never mixed. Even at the best of times there was too much suspicion between them, and the last decade had not been the best of times for either side.
“We’re not in hell,” a Shadowfolk man said. “The hells are lot easier to get out of than the deep shadows.”
The party that was walking beneath Lagressa’s hideout represented more people than she’d seen over the last six months, and each one of them was a puzzle she couldn’t resist trying to piece together.
“The Council doesn’t believe in Hells,” Iana said. “What’s a wolf’s heaven but a rabbit’s hell? I was taught.”
“I thought the hells were where the worst of the god’s cast offs were thrown?” Yuehne said. “The things that were broken and wrong.”
“Yeah, like the Shadowfolk,” Gertrude, the older human woman, said.
“You might want to consider that it’s those same Shadowfolk who are our only chance of making it back to the sunlit lands,” Venita, the dwarven woman, said. “And more importantly, you might consider that they can hear you and have feelings too.”
“As if we hear anything else from you sunlighters?” Gendaw, the Shadowfolk man, said.
“Whatever you’ve heard in the past, Venita’s right,” Iana said. “Gertrude, these people are representatives from their own sovereign nation. Respect them.”
“Like we got any respect?” Gertrude said. “They burned down my inn!”
“No,” Iana said. “I burned down your inn. If you have a problem with that…”
“I do! I do have a problem with that. I didn’t ask for you to come! I didn’t want you in my inn and I don’t want you in my country.”
“I owe you for the inn,” Iana said. “I have to make that up to you, and make it right. You can judge when I’ve done enough to achieve that. The loss of your inn though does not give you the right to malign others.”
“You’re going to give her a new one, right Princess? A new inn?” Daggrel, a human man, asked.
“Absolutely,” Iana said. “The Queen will consider it a savings if she only has to pay for one new inn instead of assigning a permanent member of her guard to watch over me.”
“Speaking of those two, what are they doing?” Yuehne asked. “Why haven’t they come after us?”
“The safety of an entire clan of people has to outweigh my own,” Iana said. “Plus, I expect Dae has been spying on us.”
“What? Why would she leave you unprotected? Why did she let you burn down the inn and fake our deaths?” Yuehne asked.
“A show of trust maybe?” Iana said. “Or she’s working on the problem through her own channels.”
“That seems to be what Silian is most afraid of,” Wynni said. “It’s why we need to draw my people back away from the sunlight worlds.”
“So that they won’t move onto assaulting the queen?” Yuehne asked.
“No, so they won’t be as easy for Lady Dae to track,” Gendaw said.
“Can she find them in these Shadow Worlds?” Londela, the courier, asked.
There was silence for a moment and then Wynni said, “Silian hopes it will slow her down.”
“It’s not entirely clear what Dae can and can’t do,” Iana said. “The world hasn’t seen a Sorcerer like her yet.”
“I’m surprised more people aren’t trying to assassinate her,” Venita said. “Not that I bear her any ill will but people tend to be scared of what they don’t understand. Our present company as a specific example of that.”
“I think beating a god into submission was enough to give other people pause,” Iana said. “The world is peaceful at the moment, and for now, no one has a pressing need to upset that. Not after the Green Council was used as an object lesson for what a bad idea doing so could be.”
“You sound like you know a lot about that?” Daggrel asked.
“I was there,” Iana said.
“Where? In the Council?” Venita asked.
“At the final battle,” Iana said. “I was at Queen Alari’s side when she fought against one of my gods.”
“But you’re so young?” Londela said.
“I commanded the division of Warbringers that first invaded Senkin,” Iana said. “I’ve been trained since birth for warfare.”
“That’s not fair,” Yuehne said.
“No,” Iana said. “It’s not.”
Silence reigned over the group for a long moment and Lagressa felt her skin buzzing with excitement.
Living on the edges of the world had been a lonely existence. She had no idea how great a cavity that had left in her until she heard the voices that surrounded her. She longed to reach out and alert them all to her presence, but she knew the peril in that.
The Shadowfolk were a threat she’d encountered before. They exterminated people like Lagressa on the general principal of destroying anything that could threaten their precarious existence. Sunlighters though? They would never trust her. They couldn’t trust the Shadowfolk after all and the Shadowfolk had at least been made to live in the same world as the Sunlighters.
“What are we going to do with these two?” Daggrel asked, pointing to two unconscious Shadowfolk they were carrying on makeshift litters. “You broke them pretty good and they’re getting heavy to carry.”
“We’ll need to find shelter here until we get our bearings,” Iana said.
“Normally we’d toss them into the abyss if they were going to endanger the mission,” Wynni said and held up a hand to shush the objections that leapt to several people’s lips. “But since that’s the sort of thinking we’re trying to change, that’s not an option here.”
“Are these buildings safe?” Yuehne asked. “Maybe there’s room for them in there?”
The buildings were not safe.
Lagressa knew that from painful experience.
The problem was that they looked safe. In the shadow worlds though, how things appeared and what they were actually like often differed. Harmless spaces in particular were rare. With the base laws of reality being flexible, the areas which could support life were fewer than appearances indicated and those places which did have stable physical laws supporting them were often already claimed by the creatures which lurked in the shadow worlds.
“Nowhere here is safe,” Wynni said. “We can check them out but we need to be very careful.”
“Isn’t this where your people live though?” Londela asked.
“It’s not like that matters. Plenty of dangerous things where my people live,” Venita, the dwarf, said. “Doesn’t mean we can’t live there, and doesn’t mean some of us don’t still die because of one dangerous thing or another.”
“We’re deep in the Shadow Worlds now too,” Wynni said. “This is a place my people rarely choose to tread.”
“So there’s spots there are close to our world and ones that are farther away?” Londela asked. “Why did we go to one of the far ones? Was it to throw off your peoples’ trackers?”
“Yes, after we switched places with our mirror bodies, we had to make a blind jump into the Shadows,” Wynni said. “We don’t control where those go, and so we also can’t track them.”
“That was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” Daggrel said. “You dragged a whole other me right out of the mirror.”
“It wasn’t you,” Gendaw said. “It was a reflection body. It looked like you because of the mirror but they’re just empty shells so it could have been anyone.”
“Yeah, but how do you do that?” Daggrel asked.
“It’s bit of Shadow magic. One that’s hard to detect,” Gendaw said.
“Also not widely known,” Wynni said.
“Will your trackers know to check for it?” Iana asked.
“Silian apparently fooled the gods with it when they were looking for him, so it should escape our tracker’s notice too,” Wynni said. “The bodies were inert but the fire burned hot enough that no one will be able to tell that.”
“If the trackers can’t follow us here why go to all the trouble to leave bodies behind?” Londela asked.
“Without the bodies they would have kept looking for me,” Iana said.
“Once they find her though. They’ll try to put together a scene to implicate someone else in the princess’s killing,” Wynni said.
“And Dae will see right through it,” Iana said.
“How does that help us though if we’re lost out in the middle of nowhere?” Venita asked.
“It’ll buy us time to recruit support from within the ranks of my people,” Wynni said.
“Is that possible?” Londela asked.
“Normally it wouldn’t be,” Gendaw said. “Normally we’re trained to be loyal unto death.”
“It’s always unto our own death isn’t it?” she said. “The one’s we’re supposed to be loyal to are never the ones who are at risk.”
“That’s not how it’s supposed to be,” Wynni said. “It’s not what Silian wanted for us.”
“If all the Shadowfolk are brainwashed, won’t they refuse to help?” Daggrel asked.
“They’re not brainwashed,” Wynni said. “And I can get through to them. Or at least enough of them to turn things around.”
“How do you know?” Yuehne asked.
“Because I’ve got the voice of our progenitor nagging in my ear,” Wynni said.”They won’t listen to me, but he knows how to convince them. He managed to convince me after all.”
“Now the trick is getting out of this place and back to the umbral worlds so you can talk to them,” Gendaw said.
“I believe I can help with that.” Lagressa didn’t mean to give herself away. The words slipped out before she was aware she was saying them, but in the silence that followed she decided she wasn’t going to take them back.
Come what may, she was a part of the story she saw unfolding before her.