The place was dark already, save for a few brief slices of red where the thin steel towers didn't block the view of the horizon. Penn had forgotten about the time difference again, but it didn't matter since he knew the man he was here to find would still be up working. Singh was like that about certain things, machines among them. And this was one of those machine havens the regular folk had taken to building in the past century or so to make productivity easier for them. Clever people, the regular folk, finding so many interesting ways to achieve their goals without being able to resort to magic. But they still needed wizards' help from time to time. This was why Singh was down here in the first place.
There was a dim orange glow flickering away some distance off. Every few seconds, a sharp blue would overcome it, burn itself out, and fade back to orange. Penn headed in that direction, being careful not to hit his horns against any of the hanging wires or low pipes. He'd picked this dragon form because it symbolized power and strength, both of which were his specialty when it came to magic, but oftentimes it became inconvenient to deal with when navigating the tight confines of human industry.
Those confines opened up just a bit, and he saw a small shape hunkered over the source of that orange light. Singh's body was arched over, with his knees up near his chest so that his silhouette looked almost like a capital G, betrayed only by the thin snake of a tail curving off of the base of his spine. His eyes, at this distance, glowed with the light, which probably meant he was sporting goggles. Penn strode up to him.
"Hail, friend," he shouted. He couldn't be sure if Singh would hear him over the noise of the blowtorch he held, but at the sound of his voice, the torch went dim and the monkey turned his head. In the faint light, Penn saw his simian friend uncurl and leap down from the bundle of pipes he had been seated on, then come his way.
"If my eyes don't deceive me," he said, "I would say that this monstrous figure coming my way is none other than my old partner Penn?"
"They don't deceive you, Singh," Penn replied. Once the monkey was near enough, he reached out a massive scaled arm and pulled him into a close embrace.
Singh let out a gasp. "Crushing the life from me is a strange way to express your affection!"
"But of course it's effective," Penn replied, then released him. He gave the monkey a look. Ruddy fur all over but for his pink face, which was, like the shabby rags he was wearing, smudged all over with blackish brown grease. His hands were almost completely stained, despite the two symmetric patches of grease near his hips where he'd apparently attempted to wipe them off several dozens of times.
Singh removed the dark goggles from his eyes and looked up, very far up, at Penn, and a puzzled look came over his face. "Didn't you used to be red?"
Penn shrugged. "No sir."
"Well, I suppose it's just been that long since I last saw you. My memory's starting to fade." He turned around and waved a greasy hand for Penn to follow. "Won't you come to my humble abode for a cup of tea?"
Penn followed as the monkey began to walk. "You have an abode here?"
"You're going to have to speak up. Your voice is so low it's almost inaudible."
Penn smirked, a few sharp teeth peeking out from under his scaly upper lip. "I said, you have an abode here?"
Singh turned and began to walk backwards. "And why not? This place is practically a vacation home for me."
"Does it keep breaking down?"
"Oh no. But parts of it wear down over time, and when there's this much of it to wear down, it becomes a matter of simple statistics." Still walking backwards, he turned a corner and tilted his head to avoid a collection of dirty pipes angling off of one of the thin towers. It was a fine demonstration of his point.
Penn followed him, carefully. Odd little metal bits were poking out everywhere, and he very nearly clobbered himself a number of times just trying to keep up with his friend. Eventually, they came to a small shack built of metal sheeting, with a single dirty window to the right of the corrugated steel door. Singh pulled the door open and stepped aside, holding out a hand and bowing slightly. Penn nodded and walked in.
Singh shut the door behind him, then scampered about in the dark for a minute while Penn stood by. Eventually, an electric lamp came on, flooding the tight space with white light. Whatever could fit inside was inside. Along the farthest wall was a bed, just big enough to fit Singh's small frame, and before this in the center of the room was a short table with no chairs. To his right, Penn saw a chest of drawers, clearly of modern construction but painted in the glorious rainbow of colors of Singh's native land. Atop this was a miniscule shrine to some minor deity, and beside this stood a small dish full of the ashes of old incense, the smell of which pervaded the entire room. A small porcelain sink stuck out of the wall just beyond this. To his left, crammed uncomfortably in the corner, was a pot-bellied stove whose chimney zig-zagged its way up the wall and through a hole in the roof that looked like it had been blown out from the inside with a cannon ball.
While Penn looked around, Singh pulled open the bottom drawer of the chest and removed a lidded pot, white with a red lip and handle. He walked to the sink and filled it full of water, put the lid on, and stuck it in the stove. With a few turns of some knobs and the push of a small button, a spark shot out horizontally into the stove's belly and lit an invisible tongue of gas, which began pummeling the side of the pot. Singh went back to his dresser, opened one of the small drawers near the top, and pulled out a tin canister of tea that appeared to have been around since ancient times. He smiled and said, "Black tea okay?"
Penn nodded and went to go sit at the table. He had to duck to make his way through the shack, and when he sat cross-legged, his knees stuck up above the tabletop. He watched Singh muck about the place for a minute, looking for something. Penn glanced around his area, and discovered two mugs with broken handles hiding under the table. He fished them out with a clawed foot and placed them in plain sight. Singh saw this and smiled.
"So what brings you out here?" the monkey asked as he was preparing the tea.
"There's a job the Guild wants us to do."
"They need both of us for it?" He dumped an indiscriminate amount of dry tea into the little pot and shook it around.
Penn nodded. "I told them about your research into magical aura-induced psychosis."
Singh raised an eyebrow. "Oh? That was years ago. And what did they want you for?"
"Just in case things get ugly."
Singh stared at him for a minute with his beady black eyes. "Well you make it sound so serious. Are you allowed to speak of specifics at this point?"
"Yeah, but I get the feeling it's going to be one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type jobs, so I don't think describing the situation will help either of us all that much in the end."
"So what is it, then?"
As the monkey brought the pot to the table and began to dump brown steaming liquid into both cups, Penn told him what he knew. "You know the evaporation basin about thirty miles south of here?" Singh nodded. "Some guy decided to go live right in the middle of it. Dragged tree branches one by one from the mountains out into the salt field and stacked them up to make a little fort. He spends all day sitting out in the sun, staring off at nothing at all. The only reason we know this is because he's gained a sort of spiritual following. People come bring him food and water, and they sit with him for hours, until the sun goes down and he tucks himself into his little wooden fort for the night. He doesn't say a word until the sun starts to go down, at which point he mutters, 'The shadows are coming.'" He paused. "If it sounded like it, that was the official version. More or less."
Penn took a sip of tea and gave his friend a level gaze. Singh thought for a minute. "Psychosis, yes. He says, 'The shadows are coming', you say?" Penn nodded. "Peculiar. Peculiar... but I feel like I may have read of a similar thing happening long ago. Just a brief record, somewhere. It sounds tantalizingly familiar."
"The Guild suspects foul play. Maybe a demon."
This drew a chuckle from Singh. "The people of these lands need to learn to make friends with their demons, like my people have. We have no trouble with demons in my homeland."
"Well, they do have trouble with them here."
Singh puffed on his tea for a second, then downed the whole mug and set it on the table with a thwack. "Is this all the info you have, then?" Penn nodded. "Well, I suppose I can take a short break from this place for a time to try to solve this mystery with you. We should head out tomorrow morning. You may sleep here tonight, if you like."
Penn looked around the place again. "Well... I'll sleep outside, I suppose."
And so he did, and the next morning, the two wizards hugged each other and zipped off into the spaces between space, gliding across the many multidimensional branes that make up the universe, until they arrived, shortly, at the evaporation basin. Singh shielded his eyes from the blazing sun and began hopping from bare foot to bare foot. The only shapes truly visible in this place were the mountains far off in the distance and a small triangular spot stuck into the white earth like a photographic artifact.
"This would be a good place to come to avoid shadows, for certain," Singh muttered, squinting beneath his monkey paw.
Penn nodded. He pointed a clawed finger. "That must be the fort. And you should have brought sandals."
"I think you're right. On both counts. Although, it isn't that bad, I suppose. Most of it gets reflected back into the sky, doesn't it?"
They headed toward the small structure. Within a few minutes, another shape resolved itself against the blinding backdrop, and then another, and yet another. Five figures sat on the saltbed, knees up against their chests, eyes toward the sun. Penn wondered if in their religious zeal they were attempting to blind themselves, but then he recalled stories of men and women having vivid hallucinations by flooding their eyes with sunlight for extended periods of time, and assumed that this was what they were doing. But they would go blind if they kept at it.
Four of the figures encircled one, a gray-haired man with sagging, leathery tan skin and an extensive and poorly-groomed beard. All of them wore only simple frocks, but theirs were light blue and his was white. It was astonishing the degree of complexity this cult had already developed.
Singh and Penn approached this group and sat down amongst them, though they chose not to observe the sun. Only the wind made a sound. Penn closed his eyes and listened for a moment, that faint, low, whooshing passage of air, taking a gander around this blank slate before growing weary of it and moving on to more interesting places. The first man to discover these lands supposedly went mad, for he thought he'd accidentally stepped into Hell. His tattered journal was found almost five years later, still clutched in his mummified hand.
"I did not expect to see wizards here." The old man's voice carried no tone. It sounded a bit like the wind, but it told the opposite story.
Penn opened his eyes and looked to the old man, whose eyes remained closed. "We were sent here, sir," he replied. "We wished to know what ailed you so to bring you to live in this arid place."
"I came from the mountains. My house still stands there. I would only tell you, if you choose to enter the mine, please be cautious."
"A demon?" Singh asked. He glanced around. No one else had moved.
"No," the man replied, but he would say no more.
Singh and Penn looked to each other, then stood and began to make their way toward the mountains.
The house was in a scenic place. It had been built out of local woods on the edge of a small ledge above a dry riverbed that wound its way between two steep mountainsides. A dirt path led up to it, carved out of dense sagebrush, and an area around the house had been leveled out. Backed up against the mountain was a small stone well. The bucket was laying on its side some distance away.
"Quite the hermitage," Singh was saying as he poked his head into the house. "One room, but it has one of those beds with curtains and a nice fireplace. Oh, and books!" At this comment, he walked inside. Penn followed.
It did look cozy. The floor was wooden, a throwrug near the entrance that had probably been fashioned by some of the ancient native desert peoples, and the furnishing were all top-quality carpentry, quite expensive. Singh was running a finger along the book spines with his nose positioned close by, his lips silently sounding out each of the titles. "Anything interesting?" Penn asked.
Singh nodded. "A number of first editions of famous works. 'Philosophia Veneficium', 'Archangelus Ferrum', 'Fulmineus'. Heavy titles, these. It makes one wonder why he would choose to abandon this place for a lean-to in the salt fields?"
"Indeed." Penn stood for a moment, pondering. "Where did he tell us not to go?"
"Ah, right. We should go there."
"Oh, absolutely." He pulled himself away from the bookshelf and gave a bow. "Lead the way, if you will."
"If I will, and if I knew the way."
Both headed off together, then, and walked along the riverbed's edge for a while. Eventually, tucked away under a small thornbush, they discovered a hole in the mountainside framed by a wooden support. Penn frowned and stroked his chin, and Singh slipped inside. With a shrug, Penn hunched over and squeezed himself through to follow.
The interior was, of course, quite dark, so Penn cast a petty spell to illuminate it just a bit. Initially, the tunnel was cramped, but it eventually opened up into a larger chamber. This was all there was to this particular mine. Perhaps it only had a small gold deposit, or perhaps there was some other reason people stopped digging.
Singh had sat himself down at the far end. He crossed his legs in the lotus position and held his hands out, palms up, like one of the statues of his many gods. Penn plopped himself down across from him and waited.
Minutes slipped away with nothing happening. Occasionally a small wisp of air would blow in through the entrance, and that was all. Penn watched Singh for a time, until he grew bored and began playing with the light he'd created, bending it and weaving it to make shadow puppets of ornate complexity. Singh eventually opened his eyes and watched this for a time.
"I was just thinking," he said, "that in my experience, the best way to quash the desire for sex is to perform complex calculations. The science of physics, I find, has an almost miraculous ability to stagnate one's sex drive for months. I believe this is one of the reasons study was a daily component of the lives of ancient orders of monks, who were expected to remain celibate. What do you think?"
"I think we may be wasting our time hanging around in this mine," Penn replied.
But of course, as such things go, just as he finished saying this, a shape appeared within the shadowpuppet he'd just made on the wall, a shape that eventually consumed the puppet, and then swallowed the whole light. Penn felt a pressure on one of his horns, like someone placing a single finger there and pushing slightly. As he reached up a hand to feel the spot, he had the strange sensation that there was someone inside of him, breathing alongside his own breaths, a heart beating alongside his. "Do you feel that?" he whispered to his companion.
"I feel something," was the reply. "This must be the shadow our friend in the salt was speaking of." They both sat for a minute, feeling the thing. Even the light from the entrance was gone, leaving them both in total silence and total darkness. "It's not unpleasant," Singh followed up.
"No," Penn replied. "Not entirely. What is it, do you think?"
"Have you tried asking?"
Penn nodded, though he knew his friend couldn't see him. He put out a thought. Who are you? Where do you hail from? Why did you choose to come here?
No response to speak of. Singh was better at these types of things anyway, so he chose to simply wait and experience the being, or whatever it was, and attempt to discover an answer that way. He tried matching his breathing pattern to the secondary one, but it only served to mask it. He tried thinking of a song, a poem, a story, something to make a connection, but all he found was the same darkness. He summoned up feelings, emotions, but they all faded into the void around him, like a hot iron succumbing to entropy.
"Are you still there?" Singh asked.
"Yes," he replied. "I can't feel anything from this. If it is a being, it must be a very distant one. It only seems to react to light and to life."
"Then there is but one thing more to try," his friend replied. After these words, a brief pause ensued, and then a magnificent brilliance tore into the room, chasing away every shadow and nearly blinding Penn before he had a chance to close his eyes. Singh held this light for as long as he was able, then let it die down. When all was said and done, Penn counted his breaths and realized that the second presence was gone.
"Time to go for now?" he asked.
Singh nodded. "I hope I didn't kill it. I think we should come back here with the proper tools and attempt to make a more solid connection with this shadow."
"Why? What do you think it is?"
Singh smiled. "I don't know! And that is the best part, my friend."
All they could see, if they were brave and foolish enough to open their eyes, was a choppy silhouette of a roundish object surrounded by an oily liquid flame reaching from one end of the room to the other. It only took a few seconds before that silhouette faded completely, and at this point, Penn stopped to suck in a cold breath and douse the fire on his tongue. His head swam for a minute, and he felt a serious need to drink some water, but the important thing was that the pumpkin was basically gone. Just a spot of ash where it used to be.
The students all burst into applause. Penn bowed graciously; it was a typical reaction to this particular trick. Usually what followed was excited conversation that he would have to quell in order to finish out the lecture. And there it came, and so he put out his hands in a practiced motion and bade everyone calm themselves so he could speak.
"Now, this isn't something I'd recommend you practice tonight," he said, and some of the students laughed. "And in fact, I can only use fire in this way because of the form I chose. Back when I was human, such a trick would have rendered me quite literally speechless. Perhaps faceless as well. But you all seemed impressed, yes?" Nods, chatter. "That would be the point of this particular use of fire magic. To use it to harm or to kill, to use it even for self-defense, is going a little too far in 99 percent of circumstances. And this, to be very clear, is true of most defensive spells. You need to all bear that in mind as you continue on in your studies, and especially so if you choose to pursue a specialty in displays of power. Any questions?" There was silence. "Then you are dismissed. See you all next week."
Penn did his best to clean up the remains of the pumpkin while everyone filtered out of the lecture hall, and so he didn't notice the one student who stayed behind until almost everyone was gone. When he looked up, he saw a pretty little red-headed girl with a face full of freckles looking down at the floor, an old notebook clutched to her chest. He coughed lightly, and she looked up with a bit of surprise, then straight back down again. "Sorry, Master Penn, sir, but I have a message for you."
"No bother. What's the message?"
"It's from Master Singh. He asked for you to go meet him at the Winking Spider tavern after you were finished with your class today."
His eyes widened ever so slightly. "Ah, Master Singh. I was wondering when I would hear back from him. Thank you very much, Miss...?"
"Miss Ludia. Thank you."
She curtseyed and walked briskly away. Penn stared at the black streak he'd managed to make on the table by sweeping the pumpkin ashes away, and decided it could be left for the custodians to finish up after all. He wanted to hear what his friend had discovered. He wanted to know what the next step might be. So he left the work unfinished and headed out the door into the foggy daylight, whereupon he walked to the old open-air tavern, so called because of the huge hole in the roof the owner still neglected to fix after all these years of operation.
Singh was sitting by himself near the entrance. He only looked up at the noise of the chair Penn pulled over scratching across the marred wooden floor. His fingertips just barely touched the sides of a mug half full of what looked like some kind of porter. "So," Penn said, leaning his elbows on the table, "what's up?"
Singh smiled, but it was vague. "Well," he replied, "let me tell you a little story about what I did two years ago."
Penn leaned back. "Don't tell me you've researched this thing before?" This got a nod, and Penn simply had to smile that kind of barely open-mouthed smile that shows just a hint of teeth, the smile that says without words, "You're kidding me."
But Singh shook his head at that smile. "I remembered as soon as I started looking again. I said it, though, didn't I? I said this whole situation sounded familiar to me. Well, two years ago something very similar happened, except it was a young lady, she wasn't a hermit, and she simply vacated the house and moved to another one in the same town. Here..." Singh rose just a hair from his seat and reached under his rump to pull out an old journal he'd been sitting on, then placed this book on the table for Penn to examine. A page was marked, and Penn opened it up to take a look. He managed to catch the gist of it before Singh interrupted. "Wrote that at the time. The next dozen or so pages, my friend, are the result of countless fruitless hours of grasping at straws scattered about every library in this city, and a few outside it, before I finally gave up on the subject and let it slip away into memory. You see?"
Penn scanned the pages. Lots of writing, only a few diagrams, an awful lot of question marks. The handwriting got progressively more jagged and angry with each page, until the final scribbled message fourteen or so pages later: "FORGET IT, YOU SILLY MONKEY."
Penn tapped that message a few times, then looked to his friend, who was taking another sip of beer. "So there are quite a few pages, here. Would you maybe care to summarize?"
Singh set the mug down and stretched out his fingers a few times. "All that writing you see there is a whole lot of nothing, Penn. Blind alleys, dead ends, nothing more. I do believe that this incident in the basin and the previous incident in the village are the only two such incidents in recorded history, and I happened to be the one who recorded both of them. I believe this entity, whatever it is, is making its very first appearance in our plane of existence, and so any research that can be done must be done on site." He put out his hands, palms up, and lowered his eyes. "And that is my diagnosis."
"Well then this makes things easy. We should just head back to that old mine and try a few more methods of communication."
A bar maid came by, and Penn ordered himself an ale. Singh started shaking his head as she left. "Ah, but you see, we cannot. The entity is no longer there."
"No?" Penn gave it some thought. "I hope you--"
"Yes, of course, I let the old man know. He was perhaps a bit too far gone, I suppose, and anyway, his cult seemed to be thriving under his inattention. Perhaps some day he will recover and return home, but I wouldn't have forced anything on him."
"And the other? In the village?"
He was shaking his head before the sentence was even finished. "The house has a new owner, and he made no complaints to me about anything particularly supernatural. I fixed his faucet for him and was on my way within the hour."
"Well this is a pickle, then. Are we stuck?" The waitress came back with a tall mug of frothy ale. A tad spilled down the side of the mug when she set it on the table. As she walked off, Penn slid a scaly finger up to catch it, then licked the bitter liquid off. "I suppose we may be able to simply ignore it. As I recall, when we felt its presence, it did no harm to us."
But Singh waved a finger through the air. "That is true, of course, but think of the old man. So afraid of shadows he forced himself to live in that hellish place where no shadow could be found. We experienced but a brief moment in touch with the creature, you recall. What dangers might prolonged exposure present, I cannot say. No matter our experience, it is worth investigating further."
Penn harrumphed in reply, blowing a bit of beer foam into the air off the top of his mug. "Then I repeat myself: are we stuck?"
"Well..." Singh looked around, then leaned forward conspiratorially. "I would say we have exactly one more option that I can think of."
Penn took a long draught of ale and licked the foam from his snout with his long lizard's tongue. He set it down calmly and gave the macaque a level gaze.
Singh nodded. "Yes, Penn, that's what I'm thinking."
A sound emerged from Penn's throat, sort of a mixture between a choke and a half-drowned sigh. "These are the times that test the soul of a true researcher."
"But you understand my reasoning."
"Yes... yes. When you run out of options, you perhaps need to think about the issue differently. And you don't find a more different manner of thinking than what you get with him."
Singh sucked down a couple more gulps of his porter through curved lips. "So we should consider heading there soon, before it gets dark where he lives."
Penn thought about that for a minute, then drained the rest of his mug in a few huge gulps. "You know, I destroyed a pumpkin today in class."
The gateway known as the Ogre Road was empty of visitors, as it always was, and so there was no wait to walk through and be transported to the old swamp where the old professor lived. Existed. Existed was a much better word. Penn and Singh felt that usual swimming, skidding feeling of teleportation and opened their eyes to the dim gloominess of those fetid lands where it seemed only the foulest creatures could live. Reeds taller than some trees in the human lands crowded around still, reeking pools of black water, and the only dry land could be found in the form of oily solitary islands crawling with warty, scaled, spiky clawed monstrosities with half a dozen blood red eyes. Black birds with faces like broken sickles floated overhead, hanging in the thick air like shredded paper sacks caught in a dull breeze. And though the sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, its light seemed to catch somewhere high above them, piling up and letting only a few photons at a time drip down to the lands below, each one getting stained brown as it fought its way through the wet air.
Penn and Singh walked forward, up to their knees in brackish water. The ground under their feet felt like peanut butter mixed with chunks of old bones. Penn turned to his friend, who was holding a hand over his face to ward off the smell of rot. "I have to wonder what he was like before, back when he was just a man."
"I have often wondered the same," his friend replied through his hand. "It was a job nobody could have wanted, to be the ambassador to the creatures of this place, so what kind of a man would it take to volunteer to fill it?"
"And the form he did choose... the way it's warped his mind. I understand the necessity, if one is to live in such a place and commune with the nature of it, but was there no better option? Why not simply a toad or a turtle?"
Singh chuckled. "Well, after all, we cannot all be made into glorious symbols of power like yourself."
"A low blow, my friend. A low blow."
They pressed onward for a long time, or perhaps it only felt that way. They pressed onward until they saw a light like a second sun begin to peek out over the reeds and bounce sparkling off of the water. The shape of a straw hut began to form underneath this light, and when it was in full view they were at its doorstep. Both stood for a minute before it, and then Penn reached out and rapped twice on the damp wooden door.
A minute passed. Both looked to each other. "I hadn't considered he may not be home," Singh said. Penn merely crossed his arms, glancing back the way they'd come. It was always a chore trying to find the way back, especially after night set and everything became nearly pitch black.
Penn knocked again. Another minute passed, but just as both began to make signs to the other indicating a preparation to depart, a slow noise rose from inside the hut and gradually grew louder. It was a bit like the slapping sound water makes when it hits a hard surface all at once, but lower and more drawn out. A minute of this, and the latch clicked softly and the door began to draw open, rippling its way through the shallow water. It stopped when it was just a crack, and a groan drifted out that just barely resembled the words, "Who is it?"
"Dorro, old friend," Singh replied. "It's Singh the macaque and Penn the dragon here to see you. We needed your opinion on something, if you had a minute or two."
Another groan, this one more or less incomprehensible, and the door began to slowly inch its way open the rest of the way, the old wizard's form revealing itself along with it. The appendage that pulled the door could be called nothing less than a pseudopod, extending out from a bloated, lumpy sack of a body. The flesh, if it could be so called, was translucent, and through it could be seen a sad grouping of organs colored all the various hues of gray and white, along with two wide, pale disks that served as the man's eyes. Bubbles would occasionally rise to the surface of his body from somewhere deep within, poke out a little bit into the air, and then pop. Penn thought he was over recoiling at the sight of this creature, but nonetheless, his gut jerked ever so slightly as he came into view.
Dorro invited them inside by turning around and oozing back into the confines of the hut. Bubbles rose in a trail behind him as he moved through the water. Penn and Singh walked inside and shut the door behind them, leaving them all in a twilight darkness.
Those pale disks swam back around to meet them once the wizard had slimed his way far enough inside, and a hint of a question bubbled its way out of some orifice on his body. Singh replied again. "Well, you see, we've reached a sort of conundrum, if you will. We were asked to investigate a shadow being that drove a man from his home in a desert valley. Perhaps you have heard?"
The sound that emerged must have been an affirmative.
"Well, it's a very strange case. I have only seen one other like it, and there is no information to be found anywhere in the usual places of research, you see." He looked to Penn, who smiled, then looked back at the abomination of a creature. "Normally in such a case, I would simply leave it alone and wait for more information to present itself, but alas, the creature appears to be at least a little dangerous. It did, after all, drive a man to madness." He waited for a moment, then added, "Perhaps you have some thoughts on this?"
Some time passed in silence. The cry of one of those awful birds blasted out through the sky, echoing off into the unknown expanses of this miserable landscape. Then, Dorro spoke.
Penn looked to Singh, face filled with an expression of confusion. The monkey, however, was just nodding his head. "Like a torrential downpour? Fly paper, yes..." he was saying. It sounded, on the surface, like they were having a conversation, but... well, but. The sloshings and groaning continued to issue forth from the old wizard's mass, and Singh continued to make nonsensical replies. "Fourteen? Yes, a white dress, but with black lace. No? Sorry, inside a black space. A white dress inside a black space."
Penn was impressed by the monkey's apparent ability to understand the horrific sounds dribbling off of Dorro's body. He was beginning to doubt the necessity of himself tagging along. Perhaps Singh merely wanted the company during the trip.
Some time passed in this manner, until those disky eyes eventually drew away and aimed at the hut's one window. Penn followed them and saw that the sun was nearly down. It would be dark soon. Time for them to go. He met eyes with Singh just to make certain he had understood, and received a nod. "Well," Singh said, "this has been most insightful. Thank you very much, Dorro, for your time. I'm sure we'll come to see you again as the need arises."
Penn bowed slightly. "Indeed. Thank you, Dorro. As always, it has a been a pleasure."
With that, they both left the old wizard's hut and walked back out into the swamp. They made their way in silence for a time. When the sun appeared, as it could through the holes in the reeds, as a fat orange ball on the horizon, Penn turned to his friend and put out the question. "Was there any purpose to that, Singh? It sounded as though you two were speaking gibberish."
Singh stopped and gazed back along their path, back toward Dorro's little hut, and smiled. "Well, this is the wonder of the kind of teacher we find in our dear Dorro." He put his hands on his hips. "He teaches you absolutely nothing, but in the end, you still learn a great deal."
Penn watched his friend for a time, looking proud, tail arched into an S in the air behind him, staring off into the distance. A giddiness welled up inside Penn, and he let loose a snort. "You have absolutely no idea what you're on about, do you?"
He turned and smiled, displaying in their full glory all of his broad, flat teeth. "I may need to sleep on it. Come now, let's leave this foul place, shall we? I need to take a long and very hot bath."
Penn woke in the darkness. It hadn't been any of the usual suspects that woke him. He could hear the gentle hum coming from the street lights outside, but there had been no sudden loud noise, no change in temperature, no shift in the breeze, nothing at all out of the ordinary. It was just a feeling he had. Something welled up from deep inside his subconscious and asked him if he would please wake up, because something, somewhere in the world, had changed, and he needed to at least acknowledge that.
He sat up and looked out his window at the stars. They barely twinkled tonight; the air must have been unusually still. He wanted to say he'd been dreaming, but if he had the memory of it was already rubbed completely out. He clenched his claws softly on his sheets a few times, barely feeling them, then threw them aside and swung his feet to the floor. Perhaps he would make some tea. Add a little milk and honey to help him get back to sleep.
As he creaked his way through his apartment, he heard some soft clanking about and muttering coming through the east wall, where his neighbor Jules lived. It seemed as though he wasn't the only one who'd woken up and felt a need for tea. The old owl was probably talking to his strange little friend, the object he very creatively referred to as The Orb. Penn couldn't recall where Jules had gotten The Orb. Perhaps he'd invented it, perhaps he'd found it somewhere during one of his many forays down to the human world below, perhaps it had been conjured up by accident during the course of some experiment. He couldn't be sure. But he did know it never left the owl's side.
A particularly vicious clank sounded from Jules' apartment, followed by a soft curse. Penn smiled and rapped his knuckles on the wall. "Everything all right in there, neighbor?" he asked.
Some more shuffling and clanking, then, "I'm sorry, Penn. Did I wake you?"
"No," Penn replied. "I've been up. Something in the air, I think. Would you like to come over and share a pot of tea?"
Some sweeping and a few knocks on the wall. "Excuse me. Yes, that would be lovely. Just give me some time to clean up this little mess."
Penn just smiled to himself and set to heating up a pot of water. Chamomile sounded like a fine choice tonight. He searched out a tin of dried flowers, and found that we was almost out. Perhaps a special trip to the surface was in order. He hadn't been to that particular desert society in quite some time, anyway; it would be nice to go back and spend a little time there. He could even schedule a night out with that lovely feline archaeologist, if she was still digging around those old tombs.
A soft knock on his door interrupted his thoughts. Jules stood outside when he answered it, dressed in a dun nightgown, his little friend floating colorfully nearby as always. As he stepped inside, he turned to Penn and asked, "I wonder if you are awake for the reason I am."
"Well, clearly it depends on what reason that is," Penn replied, softly shutting the door behind him. "I'm not entirely certain of it, myself."
"Well then perhaps it is the same." The Orb changed to a soft blue when he said this. Jules glanced over at it and nodded. Penn was never certain if the old owl really understood it, or if he merely used it as a reflective surface for his own thoughts. "A kind of deep feeling, not particularly pleasant, but not unnerving. It is difficult to describe."
The teapot began to whistle, and Penn pulled it away from the heat. He sprinkled some dried petals into two cups and poured the boiling water over them, then brought them to the living room where Jules was beginning to make himself comfortable in Penn's reading chair. "That sounds about right," he said as he handed the owl the steaming cup.
"Such a pleasant smell," Jules said as he brought the cup near his little beak. "It was not too recently I was in the desert down there myself. It was yet another mummy's curse I had to do away with. Grave robbers, this time, picking the wrong grave to rob yet again. It seemed that, after two of their men contracted a wasting illness that left them dried husks of corpses with spiders nesting in the eye sockets, they had actually learned their lesson and returned everything they'd stolen, but you know how those old spirits are about thieves."
"Required a bit more intervention to get them to leave the poor fools alone?"
He nodded. Both sat for a minute, sipping on their tea. When the silence became just a bit awkward, Jules spoke again. "We have not spoken much in the past weeks. May I ask what has been keeping you occupied these days?"
Penn took another sip and set his cup down. "I've been working with Singh, actually. We're still following up on something we found down in the evaporation basin. It's turned out to be quite the elusive project, though I'll admit he's done most of the work so far. It's not exactly my field, you see."
"The guildmasters perhaps thought Singh needed a bit of protection?"
He nodded. "It involved an unknown spirit or spirit-being. Singh is, of course, a wonderful mechanic and researcher, so we wouldn't want to lose him to some diabolical entity he couldn't deal with."
"I feel you are leading up to a `but' statement."
"But, we seem to have reached a bit of an impasse." He chuckled lightly. "We even resorted to asking Dorro for advice."
A bit of tea spilled from Jules' cup. "Oh my."
"I know. Singh went home afterwards to ponder it a bit more. He tells me he's had epiphanies before from speaking to the man, but I can hardly imagine how. I can't even understand a word he says."
"I suppose listening to such seemingly nonsensical drivel may open up new pathways in the mind, pathways that would not have sprouted otherwise if left to their own devices. Yes?" He took another sip of tea. "That is all I can imagine."
"Maybe that's it. I suppose--"
Just then, a fierce chill drove through the air around them both, stopping Penn short. It passed through like the shockwave from an explosion, a burst of cold air that made the breath briefly freeze in their throats, a silent and motionless gale that stilled the steam rising from their cups and formed a network of tiny ice crystals on the scales of Penn's face that instantly melted. His words caught in his throat at the feeling, and he could only turn to Jules, whose permanently frowning face was dominated by widened saucer-eyes. A brief moment passed, and Jules set his cup down on a small table nearby. "Do you suppose," he said, "that this was the feeling that woke us both from our slumber just now?"
Penn stood up and went to the window. He looked down to streetview, wanting to see others up and about, wanting to know if anyone else had felt what they both just had, but before the image of the empty cobblestones even registered in his brain, his eyes were drawn up to the sky. "Jules," he said. "Come look and let me know we're both equally crazy."
Jules stood and walked over to the window with him and turned his eyes up to the stars. Except there were no stars to turn his eyes to. "Black," he said. "Ive never seen the sky so black."
No glow even to indicate cloud cover. The street lamps outside merely shone their dwindling orange light up toward an empty sky. It was as though a fog made of shadow had drifted over the whole city, rolling through the streets and over the rooftops, stealing away every bit of light and secreting them away. Penn would have said he'd never seen its like in all his dealings with magic and spirits and all the mystical forces of the world, except that he had. Something just like this had occurred in a little mine shaft in the mountains near the salt beds, where an old man still sat day after day, avoiding the darkness out of some unknown fear.
Penn decided it was time to see if Singh had made any progress on their project.
Singh looked troubled, but Penn would have guessed it had more to do with being woken up so early in the morning (or late at night, if you prefer) than to do with what Penn and Jules had just experienced. That troubled expression did make a subtle shift, however, once he got a look at the blank sky. Jules was no longer with Penn; he'd decided it would make himself more useful to go inform the guildmasters of what had transpired, if they weren't already aware of it. The fact that Singh had still been asleep when the wave of cold hit indicated to Penn that it was a more or less isolated part of the event, as though this entity was singling him out, letting him know it was here and it remembered who he was.
Singh's eyes lost their sleepiness when he began to contemplate more deeply this turn of events. "But how...?" he asked, letting the question drift off into the night's blackness. "Is it trying to contact us? Is it hostile? What exactly is the extent of its power, and should we fear it after all?"
"You're asking the questions that we were sent to learn the answer to in the first place, Singh," Penn replied. "So unless your brain has managed to come up with something of an answer to them while you were sleeping just now, I think we may need to have another meeting with the guildmasters and see what should be done about this entity." He crossed his arms. "Or whatever you'd like to call it."
Singh rubbed his eyes, then turned and walked into the kitchen. "Maybe we should have just left it alone."
"If it wanted to be left alone."
He nodded. "Yes, yes. It does seem to gravitate to people, doesn't it?" Singh began to pace back and forth, wringing his hands for a bit and then rubbing his chin. "I have been thinking about what Dorro said when we went to see him, you know. Nothing has quite hit me yet, but I feel like I may be on the brink. This is unfortunate, though, because now we're in a stressful situation, and such a complicated problem is not easily solved in a stressful situation."
"You always did poorly on your exams," Penn replied.
"Bah... exams. The real world of research is nothing like taking an exam."
"Except in situations like these."
Singh glowered at him, then continued pacing. After a minute, he spoke again. "It may be we're worrying over nothing. After all, its only interaction with you was to make your tea cold, yes? Perhaps none of this is meant as a threat of any kind. Perhaps this is an entity that sincerely wishes for communication across whatever gulf from which it hails. An entity from a parallel world that is doing its very best to reach across the infinite chasm of the planes to say hello."
"Perhaps not the safest thing to assume."
"No, but it does make me feel a slight bit better to think about it that way. I need some tea." He paced his way into his kitchen and got a fire going under his pot, then began rifling through a cluttered cabinet above the stove. "If I could remember where I put it, of course. This is what happens when you only come live in this city for a few weeks out of the year."
Penn put his hand on Singh's shoulder. "Please, Singh. You're nervous, but I would remind you that this isn't at all your fault. Or mine."
Singh turned to him with a broad, toothy grin. "I will be less nervous when I discover that the guildmasters agree with your analysis of the situation."
Penn reached over his head and pulled a canister from behind a jar of sugar, which he handed to Singh. "We can always convince them," he said, and smiled.
"Very optimistic tonight, despite the blotting out of the stars." Singh began dumping the tea leaves into a cup that had been sitting next to the stove. There was still a half-inch of leaves and muddy water in it from the last time Singh had made the beverage. Penn worried a bit to think when that might have been.
"It's either be optimistic, or worry yourself into an ulcer, I suppose."
"As though your fire-breathing stomach could ever get an ulcer." Singh snatched up the teapot before it had even started to steam and splashed the water atop the leaves, new and old, and went to sit at his kitchen table.
Penn followed and sat across from him. He leaned back in the rickety old wooden chair and crossed his arms. "Well, enlighten me, at least. What have you been thinking about after our little meeting in the swamp?"
Singh raised an eyebrow. He took a sip of tea, then looked off toward a spot on the floor nearby and started waving his hand in circles. "Well, you remember what Dorro said, about the white dress?"
Penn shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't remember anything Dorro said. Random patterns of words like that tend not to stick with me very long."
"A white dress. A white dress in a black space."
Penn shrugged. "Ah yes. Of course."
He took another sip. "It got me thinking about those cultists. You recall, the old man had been wearing a white frock, yes?"
Penn nodded. "Not exactly a dress, and the space was very white, if I recall correctly."
"Come now. You asked me what I'd been thinking."
Penn nodded. "Then do go on."
"Well, I was thinking it was a bit of a poetic way of describing the old man's situation. He wore a white dress--or frock, if you will--and his heart, well, his heart was in a very black space. Still is, I believe. This made me start thinking about our perceptions of those colors, you see. I said his heart was in a black space, and I meant it as a negative thing, yes? And the white frock, surely this was a sign of purity, as it generally is in such cults. You often see cult leaders wearing white for this reason."
"It does seem to be almost universal."
Singh raised a finger. "Ah, but I don't believe it is universal to perceive colors in this way. Perhaps for humankind it's very prevalent, simply as a natural reaction to the dangers of the night, but suppose there were to exist a species of man that lived underground and had very sensitive vision, for example. Would these people perceive black as good and white as evil? Or nocturnal animals, who befriend the darkness as a hunting partner. It can't be universal to perceive black and white in these ways."
Penn nodded. "Fair enough. And?"
Singh shrugged. "And nothing, yet. I told you, I hadn't gotten very far. It was a thread to follow, but I fear it may be that the whole blanket has simply unraveled."
"Well, if that's the case, the only option is to knit a new one."
"But knitting a whole blanket takes time, and I've already spent months on this one. And now this entity is here, provoking us, telling us in the most blunt way possible that there's not more time for knitting, that now it's going to get cold and we're going to need that blanket right away." He downed the rest of his tea. "This metaphor is even getting out of hand now."
After saying this, his face went rigid, and his mouth dropped slightly open. Penn raised an eyebrow. "Is that the face of epiphany, or did you just hit something in that tea that you're going to regret tomorrow?"
But just as he began to organize his thoughts into words, there came a knock at the door, and Jules poked his feathery horned head inside. "Penn, Singh?" he said. "The guildmasters would like a word."
Penn turned to Singh. "It's...?" he asked.
"It's... I may have it. But..." He glanced over at Jules, whose crotchety-looking triangle of a face was urging them to follow. "But we have to make a report," he finished. "Come... let's follow our avian friend. Then I can tell you and the guildmasters at the same time."
Penn, Singh, and Jules all walked rather briskly through the dark and empty streets, making their way toward the great dark spires near the center of the city. Well, perhaps not so dark tonight as it usually was, despite the blackening of the sky. Many a light shone through the shutters on windows throughout town, making Penn question his previous assumption that the Entity (as they had all now smoothly transitioned into calling it) had targeted only him. After all, Jules had woken up at around the same time he had, and for much the same reason. Perhaps, then, this was also the source of all the nighttime wakers.
They passed through mostly winding alleyways, as in the city of the Wizards' Guild the shortest path anywhere was always the least obvious one, and before too long they came to the massive iron gates that surrounded the guildmasters' abode. Like the rest of the architecture, it was full of spires and unnecessary whirligigs shooting off in all directions. It had been so constructed because it was all still constantly being worked on as training for the apprentices who were interested in architecture. You began by practicing on the gate, adding little trinkets here and there as you would, starting simple at the bottom and becoming more complex as you went up in your appointed patch of fence. It resulted in a structure that appeared more or less like an upside-down waterfall of iron.
Jules pushed open a small door to the right of the main gate and ushered them both inside. There was a glow in the window of the abode that opened out from the meeting hall. Penn could fathom a number of figures milling about already. He nudged Singh and pointed toward one of the more light-hungry shadows. "I see Barrow is back from his trip to the south magnetic pole. When this is all taken care of, I should like to ask him if the full moon down there really does whisper."
"I was actually wondering myself, but alas, we most likely have more pressing matters tonight." He glanced up at the sky. "Assuming that it's still night. In either case, we may have to shove a question in before the proceedings start in earnest."
The three companions pushed through the abode's front door and entered its main hall. Two spiral staircases, one on either side of the door, shot up toward the ceiling, where they ended in locked doors that led to separate towers used mainly for storing laboratory equipment and old archaic magical devices like wands. The far wall, at the end of a long red tapestry of a rug, normally flooded the interior with colorful light through the storie-high stained glass window, but alas, with the darkness outside the internal lamplight made the normally vibrant colors appear washed out and atonal. They moved onward and found a large door on the right wall from which sounds of scooting chairs issued forth, and here they entered.
The guildmasters were all still wandering about, mostly, though some tired few were seated, bleary-eyed (when their eyes could show such expression), over cups of tea and coffee. Shapes were myriad here, but all were unassuming. There was Vandia the sparrow, Yulek the spotted toad, Grigor the mole, and so on down the list. Their polar-explorer friend Barrow was the perhaps the most extravagant; he'd chosen the form of a raccoon dog. A few heads rose as they entered, but those with caffeinated drinks went immediately back down again. Apparently not everyone had been awake when Jules came with his announcement.
Jules left them here, mentioning something ever so briefly about going to ask Vandia if she'd ever finished reading some old treatise or other. Penn and Singh took this cue to go ask of their friend Barrow their own set of inane questions. They found him pacing back and forth by the window; it was where they'd spotted his silhouette before. He was holding a rather large mug of something that smelled less strongly of black tea and more strongly of something a bit more depressive. Despite this, his triangular face rose up in a sharp-toothed smile as they approached, and he set the mug down on the nearest object that would support it, that being a stool under the windowsill. "You two seem to have gotten us all into a world of trouble tonight, haven't you?" he said. He seized Penn and hugged him as tight as he was able, though his stubby arms could scarcely find each other behind Penn's back. "I suppose I came back at just the right time. It was day when I left the pole, and it had been for four months. And Singh!" He let Penn go and snatched up Singh, who gingerly returned the hug while trying to keep himself from sinking into Barrow's corpulent frame. "I'm glad you finally found an interesting pursuit after fixing all of those metal monstrosities for the regular folk."
"Oh come now, Barrow," Singh replied, gently prying the tanuki off his person. "Those monstrosities are becoming just as advanced as our more organic monstrosities, you know."
"Bah, it's only with our help. Penn, back me up on this, would you?" His whiskers twitched up and his dark eyes shined underneath perky stubs for ears. It was comical, but after all, there was a more compelling reason than appearance that he was able to work his way up into the ranks of the guildmasters.
Penn shook his head and crossed his arms. "I'm sorry, Barrow. I'm beginning to become fond of human machines as well. You should accompany Singh on a trip sometime and let him show you around. I think you would be impressed."
"He finally says something nice," Singh replied. "We had a question for you, Barrow."
Just as Barrow made to reply, however, the last few guildmasters wandered their ways inside and slammed the door behind them, signaling that the meeting was now officially underway. Barrow closed his eyes and smiled, then went to find a seat at the table. Penn and Singh but looked at each, shrugged, and did the same. Penn squeezed himself in beside Singh, across from Jules. He always had a hard time sitting in these chairs; the backs were open only just wide enough to fit the base of his tail.
Once everyone was seated, the ancient tortoise Jiayang cleared her throat several times and began speaking. "The sky appears to have gone dark. Jules--" she waved a stubby hand in his general direction--"informs us that our colleagues Penn and Singh know what it is."
Singh coughed. "I would clarify that it's less 'we know what it is' and more that we've been researching it trying to discover what it is."
Penn interlocked his fingers on the tabletop and gave everyone a level gaze. "Some of you may recall a mission we were sent on some number of weeks ago. We were asked to speak with a hermit living in the center of the great evaporation basin."
"I do recall this," Jiayang replied. "Your report indicated that there had been a shadow being residing in a mine near the man's house, which apparently scared him away."
"That's right," Penn replied with a nod. He paused a moment, then snorted a slight trail of smoke. "Singh has been doing most of the work--"
"All of the work," Singh muttered with a smile.
"--on this in terms of research. I personally had seen neither head nor tail of the being since we encountered it in the mine shaft until tonight. I'll leave him to explain what he's discovered, but suffice it to say that I'm certain the shadow covering the sky is the same being we found."
Singh nodded. "Penn speaks the truth. It has been a rather elusive target, which is why Penn shied away from helping with the academic side of things." He smiled at his friend. "Nonetheless, I believe I've had an epiphany tonight, which my two companions here are by now simply dying to hear."
"Dead long ago," Penn replied.
"In few words, I believe that this shadow creature is not a creature at all, but a metaphor."
Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to continue, but he said no more. Eventually, Barrow leaned foward and coughed into his hand. "That was very concise, but I'm afraid it begs at least a little bit of explanation, Singh."
Singh shrugged. "I may be able to find to find a little bit, but I thought of it not fifteen minutes ago. It might be completely baseless."
Barrow once more closed his eyes and smiled. "Humor us, please, Mr. Singh."
"Certainly. Here's my train of thought: there have been two cases so far involving this entity. One was the man in the salt flats, the other a woman in a village. Both vacated the premises, but only one went completely crazy. Now," he said, folding his hands, "judging from the man's bookshelf, he was rather learned in the ancient philosophies. Most of the titles were in a defunct language, and a few were quite heavy works about such tome-inducing topics as life and death, heaven and hell, the nature of good and evil, and so on." He stopped for a second to purse his lips, making sure everyone was on board. "Now, the ancients who wrote these works had very strong beliefs regarding these subjects, and would often use light and shadow to represent them. Light was always positive, shadow always negative. As such, a man who reads such works may have had very strong convictions about the nature of light and shadow, and so a metaphorical shadow would, to him, seem the most dire omen imaginable. Dire enough that the only recourse would be to flee to the middle of the salt flats and bake in the sun until death."
He coughed into his hand. "The woman, however, seemed more or less to be a normal working class woman, perhaps a mechanic or seamstress or something along those lines. She was most likely not well-read, and hence only picked up ideas about light and shadow from the culture around her." He raised an eyebrow. "The village in which she lived is part of the former empire whose philosophy the man studied, and hence still holds the same general ideas, but tempered by the long strokes of time. She may have only felt unsettled by a metaphorical shadow, and hence would simply have left the house for somewhere else in the village."
Now he spread his hands. He was working toward a conclusion. "Lastly, Penn and I both experienced the shadow inside the mine. Penn recalled to me later that he felt as though there was a separate being inhabiting the same space as him, breathing along side him and heart beating with his heart. Penn comes from a part of the world where light and shadow are not considered either good or evil, but instead two equal sides of the same coin. Like two separate worlds that nonetheless coexist. That may account for what he experienced."
Penn thought it over as he spoke, and realized it wasn't unreasonable. Subconsciously, his tail flipped up and down, and he nodded.
"My countrymen tend to see darkness as a lack of something important, a lack of truth and knowledge, and light as the opening up of the real world, the world hidden by the darkness that is our daily lives. I felt a comfort when the shadow arrived, a sense that I already knew what I needed to know about the world, that there was nothing more to learn. When I felt that we had experienced it long enough, I proposed the most obvious solution, which was to banish it with light. Real light: not metaphorical light.
"As such, with these four differing experiences, I can only guess that this entity is not alive as we would normally define it. It appears to change properties based on the preconceived ideas of the one it is interacting with. One thing that does this quite well is a metaphor, or a symbol." He looked around the table and shrugged. "Yes?"
Penn leaned over to his friend and put his muzzle in the monkey's ear. "You made all of that up just now, didn't you?"
Singh's lips curved upwards as he locked gazes with the old tortoise at the head of the table.
"Fascinating idea, Mr. Singh," said Ulleva the ground squirrel. She always seemed overly enthusiastic, and her brain had the habit of making a multitude of sharp turns as she followed a train of thought, but she always seemed to end up at the right answer. "A metaphorical being would be a terribly interesting subject of study. It might be difficult to study, though. It would seem to be rather ephemeral. I wonder, however, if you have any way of testing this idea? Can you rule it out?"
"I haven't gotten that far in my analysis yet, Ma'am," Singh replied. "However I would think if mass panic broke out in this city, we would know for absolute certain that the shadow interacts with culturally similar people in the same way."
"Mass panic?" she replied, beady eyes widening and nose twitching furiously. "Oh my."
"Do you think that's a possibility?" Vandia asked. Her voice was so high and soft it was almost inaudible to Penn's ears.
"Ah, well, I suppose it is," Singh replied. He rubbed the back of his head. "If I had thought of it earlier I may have recommended more haste in these proceedings."
"Hmm..." Yulek croaked. His nictitating membranes flashed up over his permanently wide eyes. "If we need to banish it to prevent mass panic, we can always use light again. But I would be curious if we could devise some way to communicate. The best way to get an answer is to ask a question."
"I attempted a bit of communication when we first encountered it," Penn replied. He ran a hand up and down his left horn. "No luck, I'm afraid. It doesn't seem to respond well to thoughts of any kind."
"How would one communicate with a metaphor, then...?" the toad asked. He began rubbing his warty chin as he pondered the question.
Before his ponderances could make much headway, however, the door suddenly burst open, and a human woman entered looking flushed, like she'd been running. "Please pardon me, sirs," she said in between gasps, "but a riot broke out near the Dragon Road. People are flooding the streets, and--"
"Oh Lord," Jiayang said. "Mass panic." She pointedly avoided making eye contact with Singh. "Thank you for informing us, miss. I will issue an order to guild security to attempt to quell it."
"But many of the rioters are from guild security," the woman replied. Her eyes were quite wide.
Jiayang locked eyes with Penn. "We all seem level-headed enough in here. Penn; you specialize in strength and power. Bring along who you will from this room to help you quell the violence in whatever way you can." She thought for a second, then added, "Without killing anyone, of course."
Penn nodded and stood up. He motioned for Barrow and Grigor the mole, hesitated, then nodded to Vandia. She cocked her head in a questioning manner, so he explained. "Diplomacy, ma'am. Force will only create a temporary diversion, but it won't cause any activity to cease for good."
This seemed reasonable to her, so she too stood up to leave. Singh stood as well. "I need to come, too, to attempt to communicate with the Entity."
"We were going to try that from here, Singh," Jiayang replied. "We would prefer if you would stay with us."
But he shook his head. "If the rioting is localized to the Dragon Road area, then the Entity is choosing where to localize its communications, despite showing its presence over the entire city. If we are to have a chance of communication, we must go where it's choosing to focus itself."
She nodded. "So be it. On your way, then. We here will focus on sending some calming magic in your direction to aid your efforts." Singh and Penn both nodded and turned to head out, but she stopped them. "One more thing. If you do not manage to quell the riot, or if another riot starts elsewhere in the city while you're gone, we are going to take action to banish this being from the city. We do, however, see this as more or less a last resort."
"Communication is the primary goal," Penn replied, and she nodded affirmation. He returned the nod, and they all rushed out to find the rioters.
It was worse than Penn had expected. Broken glass twinkled across the cobblestones in the lamplight, merchandise had been scattered about haphazardly, a motor carriage had been tipped over, and the smell of smoke was beginning to fill the air. The people were in no better condition; a few were hunkered down in whatever light they could find, grasping their heads tightly in white-knuckled hands, others were running about and yelling, others still were hitting whatever object they happened to wander up to with whatever debris they'd gotten their hands on. Insanity would have been one way to describe it. Not one person noticed the group of wizards approaching.
But Penn felt this could be advantageous. It was an element of surprise, more or less, and what these people seemed to need the most was a good shock, something to remind them where they were and what they were doing. They'd discussed a plan of attack on the way here, and decided that a good option may be to perform some trick that would shock all involved into temporary silence, including, if possible, the Entity itself. A bright flash of light would have scared the shadow off, but there was no telling if anything else would affect it to any significant degree. Upon seeing the carnage, however, Penn thought it perhaps wise to avoid thinking too deeply about the safety of the Entity and instead focus on damage control. He turned to the others and said, "What do you think? Lightning, thunder? Hail storm? Fire?"
Barrow's eyes were flitting over the scene, his face motionless with deep thought. After a few seconds, his eyes lit up. "A fog, first, to disorient them. Then infuse the fog with a soft light to disorient the shadow, and finally, send a sonic wave through the fog to shock everyone and dissipate the fog. Grigor can handle the fog, I can handle the light, and Penn can handle the sonic wave. Yes?"
Penn shrugged. "I have no better plan. Anyone else?"
Rather than reply, Grigor merely started focusing to create a fog. Within a few minutes, a dense cloud began snaking its way into every building and infusing itself throughout the streets, following people and surrounding them. Sounds of violence gradually drew down, bringing with it a disturbing silence punctuated only occasionally by a cry of anguish. The sound gave Penn chills.
With the calm, Barrow began weaving his light spell, infusing the deep fog with a soft and very pleasant green glow. Those cries of anguish grew more frequent, like the light was tearing something out of them, separating them by force from their temporary insanity. Barrow's brow furrowed tremendously as he concentrated. Teeth showed under curled lips around his muzzle. Minutes later, when the cries had grown desperate, his face slowly relaxed, and he drew his gaze toward Penn and nodded.
Penn nodded back, then began his own concentration. He felt the water floating in the air around him, saw the glow through closed eyelids. He began to tense his muscles, concentrating on the way the air moved the water, the way the fog flowed with temperature gradients and wind, congealed around dust and warm bodies to fall under their new weight. He lifted his arms from his sides until they were horizontal, opened his hands, palms down, tensed his shoulders with as much force as he was able, and swung his hands together in a great clap, from which emanated a fantastic thunderous boom that exploded away from his body, shoving the fog chaotically in all directions to dissipate with the wind.
When it had all cleared, a few people could be seen standing in the streets looking as though they had just woken up from a terrible nightmare.
Barrow chuckled. "That worked much better than I honestly thought it would."
He nodded his pointed face at Vandia, who fluttered herself up onto the nearest rooftop. Vandia took a deep breath and began to speak, her voice amplified by yet another form of magic that carried it far and wide. "Please focus on my voice," she said. "Focus on what I am saying, and understand the words. You must calm yourselves, for you are in no danger. I will repeat myself: you are in no danger. Please calm yourselves. This is guildmaster Vandia speaking. You are in no danger."
This manner of speech went on. It served as a form of mild hypnosis, and soon a crowd began to form by the rooftop where Vandia stood chirping out her message. Singh looked to his partner and grinned. "It sometimes makes me sad to treat the non-magical denizens of this place like this. They are not sheep, but can be easily manipulated like sheep. You agree?"
"I suppose it is true, but I think a good part of it is that wizards are still largely trusted. If that wasn't the case, I fear the consequences." He crossed his arms. "In either case, weren't you supposed to be trying to communicate with the Entity?"
Singh nodded. "I've been thinking about how to approach it."
"You weren't just watching the fireworks?" He smiled.
"I said 'have been', which implies off and on. It was off there for just a bit, I will admit. But it's back on now. How does one communicate metaphorically?"
Penn thought about it for a minute. Vandia droned on in the background, her words slipping through their minds without incident. Finally, he shook his head. "I really can't say. This concept is a little too abstract for my brain, I think."
"Abstract.... Hmm. Well, it is difficult, for certain. I mean, the fact is, all speech is symbolic, yes? So by my logic, it would almost make sense that we could simply talk with the Entity."
"But the sound waves carrying the symbolic language are real, so perhaps the sound waves don't register."
"True, true. Now, it certainly seems able to get its own message across just by being present, for the most part. But it can direct its attention, as we've seen here, meaning that its sentience is real. Unless its sentience is metaphorical too?"
"Singh... you've lost me completely."
"It's nothing to worry over. I've lost myself."
Penn rubbed his thumbs over his eyes. "This may not be helping even a little bit, you know."
"I know, I know. Let me try something, then. One second." Singh closed his eyes. His simian face screwed itself up into an expression of severe concentration. Even his tailed curled up on itself behind him. Penn had no idea what he was trying now, but he knew that that expression would stick in his mind for a while, coming back at serious times to make him chuckle inappropriately and get glared at.
Vandia stopped talking. In fact, everyone seemed to stop. Something had changed; everyone could feel it. Something was beginning to push through, into all their minds. But there was no fear in this one. This one felt normal, felt concrete, felt like a real thought.
"Truly? The real world... I see now. Beings living in the real world. I would never have thought it possible. Oh, no... what have I done here? This feels like destruction, chaos. But now I have broken through, so I have found what I came for. My colleagues will be so interested to hear of this."
And with that, it was gone.
Penn looked to Singh, whose eyes had opened once more. "That was...?"
Singh's eyes drifted slowly from the ground up to Penn's face. Everyone's eyes were on him, now, and everyone had the same thought: what had he done?
"Well," he said after a minute. "I think we may have gotten the raw end of that deal. And here I thought we were the researchers."
Vandia flew down from her perch to listen more closely, and everyone else gathered around Singh, who was wringing his hands and staring off into space. "Singh?" Barrow asked. "What just happened?"
"Well," he said again, "it seemed as though... we broke through. We communicated, just a bit. You all heard it?" Quick nods. "So you gather... it was researching us? Our world?"
"I... suspected as much," Barrow replied. "I don't know if I'm relieved or disturbed to know you feel the same. How did you break through? I must know."
"I confirmed my theory," Singh replied. "And in so doing I confirmed its own, that we were both part of separate worlds, separate logics. I described myself as a concrete being, using metaphorical thoughts. I let it know that we were in an objective world, where things do not change based on who is viewing them. It was a very smart creature; it understood almost immediately what I was trying to say."
"And then it left," Penn remarked. "Leaving us no means of reaching out to it."
"That sounds about right," Singh replied. "As I said... short end of the stick."
"You said the raw deal."
"I said the raw end of the deal. Barrow?" Singh turned to his stubby colleague. "Does the full moon really whisper at the south pole?"
Barrow gazed off into the distance. "More or less," he replied.
People were walking around again, heading back to their homes or picking up the mess they'd created. The wizards all decided to help clean up.
Penn and Singh, two long-standing members of the Wizards' Guild, are sent on an investigation regarding a strange shadow-being that has managed to drive a man from his home and his mind. But answers do not come easily, especially when dealing with a potentially dangerous unknown.