SHADOW-PLAY • by Danielle N Gales

Three suns gathered over the land of Never-Night.

It was mid-mid-day, the time when light scattered most freely, and a poor shadow had little choice but to move lock-step with her caster.  Zilch sighed; her caster Abigail dallied about the town, tugging first one way, then the next.  Just once, Zilch reflected, instead of being dragged around, she’d like to climb a tree.

Trees! She imagined their leafy canopies casting dappled shadows, the light lancing though and glittering on the ground like a thousand diamonds.  How much fun that would be to explore!

But Abigail was afraid of heights, and had different ideas besides.  “I think we should visit the Maestro’s workshop.”

“Must we?” Zilch asked.

Zilch hated how the bright beams of the workshop smudged and diluted her in all directions, much preferring the high walls and awnings of the alleys, where she would snatch bare moments to dance in the shade.  She would have sagged, but as Abigail stood bolt upright, all Zilch could do was stretch.

“When I’m your shadow you can choose,” Abigail taunted.

Of course, it didn’t work like that.  Casters had a way of not regarding the parts of themselves they projected upon the ground.  It was a tough life; not quite something, not quite nothing.  As flat and malleable as Zilch was, she still had feelings.  She sometimes wondered if Abigail appreciated her at all.

Sometimes they would visit with Brandon and his shadow Nix.  Abigail and Brandon didn’t seem to care that when they fought with stick-swords, it forced their shadows to play along too.  Shadow-sticks were just as pointy and painful as real ones, and Nix was much more fragile and sensitive than his caster.  Poor Nix; Zilch had cried for what Abigail had made her do to him.  The children had carried on.  They laughed and played because Never-Night was theirs.

As they threaded their way through town, darkness slowly draped itself about them, a soft caress that grew thicker with each passing moment.  Abigail cried out and pointed skyward.  A strange shape had appeared in the sky, an inexorable sphere pushing away the light of the suns as it moved before them.  Fearful, the people gathered in the streets and looked to the heavens, but amongst their shadows a tingling curiosity ran.

One by one the three suns were eclipsed, the last stretching finger of light glaring out and then ceasing.

A blessed shade fell.  There wasn’t an open square, towering precipice, or endless field not cloaked by dark.

Then the strangest thing happened: Zilch drifted from Abigail’s side.  Abigail eyes grew large.  With growing desperations, she wiggled her fingers, waved her arms, stamped her feet, but Zilch felt no compulsion to follow.

“Zilch!” Abigail cried.  “By heavens, where have you gotten to?”

But Zilch was already away, dancing free in the falling dusk.

She shrieked with delight.  The potted cobbles, the winding alleys, the gardens, shops and homes: all hers to roam.  Indeed, she could go anywhere she wished, and because her steps were no longer tied to Abigail’s feet, she could think her way there.  First dashing down the main road and hopping over the carriages, then tumbling into the lake and darting amongst the fish, nothing lay beyond her fleeting feather-touch.  Even the sky, now shrouded in welcoming black, teased her into motion.  Up above, a hundred shadows soared, unseen but felt by one another in their shared joy.

Zilch knew what she wanted the most, and so she found the tallest tree and spun around the trunk.  But it wasn’t what she had imagined: when the wind rustled the branches, there was no light to break through from above.  No slithering rays to lend a shifting form, no spiralling leaves to cast fluttering silhouettes below.

Captured by sudden longing, Zilch sighed.

It was one thing to travel swift and unrestrained as a thought, but quite another to hear a little pair of shoes tip-tapping their way down the pavement.  She missed the bounce and jog of the step, the slithering sensation of sliding from one surface to the next, first stretched and then compressed.  Missed the feel of her form cast upon grass and wood and stone, each a different sensation from the last.  As a tiny speck of thought floating on air, she missed having shape.

She’d been resting at the treetops for some time when she caught a wailing down below.  Abigail was at the base of the tree, tears streaming down her cheeks, fingers clawing at the bark in a clumsy attempt to climb higher.  Zilch shot down through the branches.

“What are you doing?”

“Zilch!” Abigail’s face erupted in a grin.  “I thought you’d gone forever!”

“Were you trying to climb the tree?”

“I thought… maybe, if I got higher up I would be able to find you.”

“But you’re afraid of heights.”

“When it all went dark and you disappeared, I got so scared that you wouldn’t come back, and I’d be alone forever.  I looked everywhere for you, all the places you always wanted to go.  Then I thought of the trees.”  She wiped the wetness from her cheeks, and glanced around the dark.  “I’m sorry I was so mean to you.  Things will be different from now on.  I promise.”

When Zilch saw the rawness on Abigail’s fingertips from her frantic efforts to overcome her fear, the shadow knew her caster’s promise wasn’t empty.

Soon the darkness passed and the suns returned.  Zilch pooled out on the ground, her defining edges no longer the prison they once were.  Swaying pin-pricks of light filtered through the boughs, golden raindrops tickling her form.

“What do you want to do now?” Zilch asked.

Abigail smiled.  “Climb the tree?”

Danielle N Gales is a writer from Sunny Hastings, UK. When she isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction of all varieties, she spends too much time playing video games, fattening her rats with treats, and drinking way too much coffee. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Stupefying Stories, Kazka Press, Kzine, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the Dark Opus Press anthology Tell Me a Fable.

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