The past couple of hours chatting with Laori had been a strange, but oddly refreshing experience for Ionas. Their mutual stories of life in Riddleport made for some interesting insights on both their lives, and he could sense a common thread between them. Even stranger, he has found it impossible not to have a grin on his face when in her presence, despite the variety of topics.
With most of the party long past turned in for the evening, he decides to take a chance and make an inquiry of this perplexing elven maiden, " This might sound strange, and maybe naive, but in the campfires of the caravan I’ve heard a few stories that feature the Midnight Lord growing up. One story comes to mind, regarding a young beautiful woman making a deal with a servant of Zon-Kuthon to gain control over Shadows. Her goal of becoming powerful enough to extract vengeance on a corrupt lord who had killed her family. She mastered the darkness and became one with it, as the servant had promised her, and after a long and bloody campaign of vengeance against the lord’s house she finally cornered him.
“After toying with him and antagonizing him for several days, she finally ended his life. With the lord’s last desperate gasps, he asked for mercy on his daughter, pointing and his eyes fixated on a closet not too far away. As he perished, the young woman walked over to the closet, expecting to find a maiden cowering and sobbing. Instead she found a tall mirror, and she had gazed at her reflection, one she hadn’t seen in a long time. She looked more like a ghost than a person, much of her former beauty stripped away and faded, her once shining blue eyes had turned dull, giving off a yellowish hue instead.
“It was then she understood, that the family she once knew was really an illusion, and that her real family was that of the lord who she spent many years bringing about his demise. Consumed with agony and pain, she became consumed with darkness, and now stalks the halls of the ruined mansion, somewhere between life and death, a monster of her own creation, in the Midnight Lord’s image.”
He took a pause for a moment, to gauge Laori’s reaction. “Do you think this story has at least some truth to it?”
The candlelight flickers within the deep black ovals of Laori’s elven eyes, like twinkling yellow stars in the night sky, while her shapely (if pointy) silhouette is cast in large relief on the wall behind her. She has been listening to Slim’s account with rapt attention, her perpetual bounciness confined to simply running the links of her spiked chain through her fingers like prayer beads.
“You tell the sweetest stories, Slim,” she grins. “I hadn’t heard that one before, but it could totally be true. I mean, there’s poetic license and stuff, but it has all the right elements.”
She ticks them off on her fingers. “Anguish, shadows, bargains, absent parents who abandon their children to fend for themselves without any explanation, and even a happy ending!”
The elf maiden leans forward and speaks in a conspiratorial stage whisper. “My turn for a story. Wanna know how ZK became the lord of shadows?”
Without waiting for a response, she jumps right in. " So, it’s like this. After ZK comes back from the space between spaces, he makes a bargain with the god Abadar. The Midnight Lord promises to seal himself up on the Plane of Shadow for as long as the sun hangs in the sky, if in return he could take one perfect item from the First Vault once the banishment is finished. And the city god is totally down with this."
Laori’s hooked chain mail jingles as she leans even closer. “So for millennia ZK waits in his totally awesome palace of Xovaikain on the Plane of Shadow, until Earthfall strikes the sun from the sky. Then the Midnight Lord visits Abadar and collects his present from the Vault: the very first shadow, ever.”
With a jingle of her hooked chain mail, Laori extends her arm out in front of the candle, curling her fingers into an odd shape. “It looked kind of like Mr. Duckie here.”
The far wall of Salvator’s bedroom is now graced with the vague outline of a waterfowl. The duck silhouette bobs along the wall as Laori continues to narrate. “And ZK, being all wise and minty fresh, takes the first shadow back to Xovaikain, dum dee dum dum.”
The elf priestess holds up her other hand. “Once there, he uses it to create even more shadows to play with, like Mrs. Duckie. Here, watch them kiss.”
The two duck shadows awkwardly mash their beaks together, but Laori soon has them fighting one another. It is around the time the third duck shows up that Slim notices that Laori has stopped using her hands.
She leans back and nods at the ongoing shadow play. “Neat, huh?”
Ionas was quite pleased with Laori’s reaction to his tale, his wry smile growing just a bit longer as he nodded and took his turn to listen. So it could be true… he thought to himself before turning his full attention to her story. He made a few mental notes as he listened. The first shadow, what a strange prize to ask for. What was the Midnight Lord planning…
Ionas turned his attention to Laori’s shadow puppet show. The story drew him, ever so deeper as theories and hypothetical raced through his mind. Suddenly, his mind stopped in its tracks as he noticed the third duck and Laori’s lack of direct manipulation.
“Well now, that’s some trick you’ve learned here,” Ionas said, looking at it quite perceptively, " Although that is a poor choice of words on my part, if my eyes aren’t deceiving me." While not a trained in the magical arts like Zandu or Egan, Ionas has faked enough magic auras and minor spells to know the difference between a simple cantrip and something truly supernatural. Embolden by this, he looks much more directly at her, his eyes almost yearning for a particular answer.
“One last story, about Riddleport this time,” he said in a soft, hushed tone. His eyes firmly fixed upon her, he continued, " Many decades ago, Riddleport was in control of a particularly mean Overlord by the name of Valak Salendor. He controlled everything with an iron fist, and it was extremely difficult to do my kind of work without his blessing. The only man in Riddleport other than the Overlord who knew what was going on in the city at any given time was this skinny little wretch named ‘Snitch’. Now Snitch was as skittish as they come, always looking over his shoulder and shaking all the time; but it was always Snitch that gave people what they wanted to know. He was clever, always staying in the shadows, capable of remaining unseen as he observed what his marks before he would slip away. Salendor was on to him though, and finally he grew tired of Snitch and decided to deal with him in a creative fashion. When they caught old ’Snitch, they took him to a hall far below the city. There, they threw Snitch into a deep pit, a horrid place called The Edge of the Abyss. The victims would slide down for countless meters, to a point no light would ever touch. There was no sound either that could be heard in that place, although anyone at the top could here what was going on. It was said that the darkness of the pit also housed foul shadow creatures that would strike upon you, careful not to do any serious harm but constantly keep you on edge, so that it would destroy your mind long before you starve. Snitch was no different. His screams could be heard clear as day, and for 2 weeks they tortured him. The end of the 2nd week is when he stopped screaming. Satisfied that they had broken him, Salendor became satisfied that he had closed off that final leak that threatened his reign."
Ionas took a sip of wine that they had poured earlier in the evening. His glanced at the candlelight as he continued, “And that’s when the disappearances started. Men loyal to Salendor would go missing, always near the most dimly lit parts of the city, never to be heard from again. At first it was at random and rare, but it soon became frequent and almost like clock-work. No matter how many torches they had or men, they would all vanish. No blood, no body parts or signs of struggle, just gone. That’s when everyone suspected Snitch wasn’t really dead, nor was he still stuck in the Abyss. What’s more, people started seeing shades of him everywhere, always watching, ever silent. Many tried to follow him, even going so far as to willingly get themselves thrown into the pit in order to gain the power he had seemed to have. Some say a few were successful, but many others failed miserably.”
Taking another sip, his eyes moved back to Laori, " Not wanting to appear weak, Salendor organized a big banquet for all the big time bosses on his payroll, declaring that it would be by sunrise the next morning the threat that had plagued them would be dealt with permanently. He was calling him out, and Snitch would have to be obliged to show. It was a trap of course, but Snitch had other plans in mind. Around twilight, the candles in the grand hall started to dim and the shadows on the wall grew more distinct. Music was still filling the halls as Salendor’s men danced and drank with other guests and escorts brought in for the occasion. It was around this time that the minstrels started playing a tune with a much faster tempo as the crowd grew more rambunctious. Indeed, there was a strange sense of urgency of it, like war drums of a great hunt, but none of the patrons paid it any mind. The swaying of the crowd grew faster and faster, more erratic the longer it went on.
“Then suddenly the music stopped, and everyone that Salendor brought in collapsed onto the dance floor; their blood leaking out onto floor. All that were left standing were these strange figures, half cloaked in shadow and half dressed in outfits similar to the dead patrons. Their eyes had a shadowy glow to them, and with weapons drawn they gracefully danced forward towards where Salendor was sitting, encircling him. Completely surrounded, he defiantly stood up and demanded to see Snitch. Before his eyes a shadow appeared before him, in the shape of Snitch, although none of his skittish nature remained. The shade responded, ‘Snitch is dead, where you left him, but he has been reborn in the shadows. It is your very shadow that has been your undoing. The shades you see before you are merely dancing shadows of this place, always present always watching, as old as Varisia, nay, the world itself. We embraced the shadows you have condemned many to perish in, and now your shadow comes for you.’
“And with that, a shade in the appearance of Salendor appeared behind him, running a blade through his heart. As Salendor slumped over, the shades enveloped him. In the morning all in the hall were dead, yet no one could find Salendor’s body. The spot that they said he died upon had a small onyx figure of an eye left in its place. That’s when people stopped calling him Snitch, and instead Ebon Eye, the gaze of Riddleport. His cohorts were called by another name, the name that has only existed in rumor and in legends elsewhere, Shadowdancers.”
He cleared his throat and said flatly with a small smile, “I don’t think they are just rumors and legends.”
“Oh, I remember that!” Laori nods. “They called it the Night of the Long Shadows. Such an awesome name. Afterwards, my friends and I started calling ourselves the Long Shadows. We were the terrors of Lubbertown for a good four years. Then they grew up and moved on and my next friends didn’t want a team name at all.”
She gazes wistfully at her trio of squabbling ducks shadows, who are presently chasing each other back and forth across the wall. When she turns back to Slim, though, her smile is as bright as ever.
“Anyway, shadowdancers are totally a real thing. They can meld into the darkness or summon up shades from the Plane of Shadow. They’re pretty damn awesome, even if they aren’t duckies.”
As she speaks, one of the silhouettes on the wall fades out of view as if suddenly struck with a bright light—though the dim illumination in the room remains unchanged. A moment later, another duck reaches down into the layer of darkness along the bottom of the wall and then pulls the missing duck shadow up by its neck. The two immediately begin fighting again.
Laori blows them a kiss, which they proceed to chase—or possibly flee from. Watching the display, she continues: " There’s a lot of shadowdancers in Nidal and I think Ustalav, but you can find them almost anywhere. The Ebon Eye was definitely one of the best—even if he spurned ZK for that complete poser Norgerber." She sticks her tongue out at the mention of the once-mortal god of theft and murder.
“I used to be really afraid of the dark when I was a little elfling,” she says, tracing a finger through the dregs of her wine cup, “so the idea that this shadowy guy could be lurking anywhere in my room at night just creeped me out. I mean, you can’t exactly hit a shadow over the head or push it into an oven like you would a normal person.”
She shrugs. “Now, of course, I know that shadows are just ZK’s little cuddle buddies. You’re never alone if you’ve got a shadow!”
Laori sticks a hand in front of the candle to cast another duck silhouette on the far wall. The other ducklings flock back to it and disappear inside it. “They’re actually really friendly, too. People just misunderstand them, like I used to.”
She pulls her hand back from the candle to jab a finger at him. “And I’m so onto you, Slim. If you want pointers on becoming the next Ebon Eye, you can just ask me—no need to be coy.” She gives him a wink. “It’s not really that hard, especially since you know the Shadowtongue. That’s like half the battle right there. Plus, you’ve got those adorable dancer’s feet, which is awesome. You’ll make a fantastic shadowdancer!”
“But if you really want to get into the dance, it would be so much easier if you joined the Church of Zon-Kuthon.” She brandishes her spiked chain between her mailed hands, eyes gleaming. “I can induct you in right now if you like!”
So that’s what it was called… Ionas tried to hide his surprise at hearing that Laori was one of those present. I used to think old man Phen was just a senile old man, telling crazy tales only children would believe… “That’s what the stories’ all say,” he said softly, shortly after her remark about Shadowdancers and Nidal, “it is quite interesting to hear it from a more…personal perspective.”
Ionas took up his cup, much lighter now than it was, and gulped it down a little less dignified for someone enjoying pleasant conversation. He listened intently to Laori while filling up his cup with the last of the bottle they had opened. As if on cue, he leaned back in his chair as Laori pointed at him. "Well, in my line of work people can get touchy when sniffing about powers beyond them and, " he paused to take a sip from his glass, “one does not simply ask about Shadowdancers.”
Ionas tried best he could not to break out in laughter as he saw Laori become suddenly enthusiastic at the thought of Ionas becoming inducted into Zon-Kuthon’s church. His family has never been the most zealous of parishioners, even for a Varisian, and this was especially true for Ionas. With one light touch against her spiked chain, he gently nudged it slightly down, away from anything vital as he said, “You’re far too kind with your praises, and generous with your offers. I’m afraid I’m not the best when it comes to worship, but I can promise to keep ZK’s unhallowed days from now on.” He smiled, returning to his glass of wine, “I will, on the other hand, take up your generous offer of instructing me in the ways of shadow-dancing. We all have to embrace our fears of the dark, and maybe I’ll give our enemies something to fear in turn.” Taking a big gulp of his glass, he stands up and with a bit of a bow he extends his hand, “Shall we begin my instruction?”