Esh paced across the wooden decking, lit by the moon’s brightness. The dockside was empty, the only thing near was his shadow. Kivuli watched his master, listening to every step he took, knowing that soon someone would join them. Malkov. Kivuli’s dark form paled slightly at the thought, for Malkov was a man who commanded complete obedience, an obedience that even his master now gave.
A second set of footsteps sounded in the night. Esh stopped his pacing. A figure was approaching, walking erect and with purpose. As the light hit him, Kivuli saw his face. Strong cheekbones jutted on either side, and his hair was long and straight, framing eyes so bright that they seemed to burn with an inner fire. A perfectly trimmed goatee sprung from his chin, and despite the warmth of the night he wore a thick cloak with a rapier belted at his side. He stopped in front of Esh, who bowed low before him. ‘You have a task for me, my Lord?’
Malkov said nothing. Instead he looked around, and his bright eyes locked on Kivuli for the faintest of seconds, boring down on him as if he knew that the shadow was more than a grey form on the floor. He turned back to Esh. ‘You were not followed?’
‘Of course not, my Lord,’ Esh replied. ‘My methods are not so lax.’
‘Good. Your skills have served me well in the past. I have use of you again.’
Kivuli stretched away from Esh, unable to stand Malkov’s terrible presence. He suddenly felt someone beside him and jumped back, merging with the shadows of the docks.
‘Calm yourself, Kivuli, it is only I,’ a voice said next to him.
Kivuli recognised it. It was the same as Malkov’s, but there was no hint of hardness in it. ‘Ombra?’ he said.
‘Indeed. Surely you were expecting me? After all, is it not my master with whom yours now speaks?’
‘I- It had not occurred to me,’ he said. ‘You know how your master makes me feel. I cannot concentrate on anything when he is near.’
Ombra chuckled lowly. ‘You should take comfort then, Kivuli, for there are many who fear him. There are times when even I tremble in his presence.’
‘Truly? You fear your own master?’
‘He is cruel and ruthless. If he does not get what he wants, his anger is unquenchable. It would be folly not to fear him.’
‘But what does he want? Twice now my master has carried out tasks for him, and both times he has come across danger. I fear for his safety, Ombra. I must help him,’ Kivuli said.
‘No.’ It was one word, but it struck Kivuli silent. ‘You know our laws, Kivuli. You must never reveal yourself to him. Never let the humans know what we are capable of. Only a fool would think of exposing us.’
Without a word more, Ombra slid away to his master, who now turned away from Esh and strode back into the darkness of the night. Esh stayed for a while, watching the tide swell in and out, but eventually he seemed to grow tired. With Kivuli behind him, they made their way to into town.
Esh’s footsteps sounded loud on the cobbled street, but it was lost among the drunken bawling from the taverns. Half-clad whores called out to him while kicking at the rats nibbling at their bare feet. Kivuli drifted closer to his master, but Esh ignored them and turned away down a back-alley. Kivuli followed him along to a rotten staircase that jutted out into the street. Esh darted up it and unlocked the door at the top.
It was black inside, but he struck a match and lit an oil lamp just inside the door. It lit up the narrow corridor they were in, and they headed through the single door at the end. Inside, the room was small, with a straw mattress at one end, and a crude desk and chair at the other. Papers littered the floor, some sketches of people that Kivuli recognised, others old letters from when Esh had lived a respectful life.
Esh stood looking at them, but then sat at the desk, letting his head drop on the rough wood. Kivuli watched from the wall, wishing that he was more than a shadow, wishing he could break the laws binding him so he could help his master.
The sun had risen high before Kivuli saw his master begin to stir. Realising how late it was, Esh jumped up, quickly making his water in a pot in the corner before striding out the room and through the door into the sunlight.
He headed to a tavern in the centre of town that Kivuli had never noticed before. Inside, the floor was littered with straw and the smell of stale sweat and vomit made Esh’s brow sweat. Kivuli looked around at the other customers, and noticed that both men and shadow alike had an unsavoury aura. Shaking a little, he stayed close to his master, who had chosen to sit in the corner, as far away from them as he could get.
A serving wench, wearing a dress so filthy it should have been burnt, came over to see what Esh wanted. ‘Ale,’ he said, trying to hide his involuntary shudder at her closeness. Her eyebrows raised a little, but she said nothing and left.
As she came back with his ale, a man walked in wearing a rough-spun cloak. The hood concealed most of his face, but on seeing Esh he lowered it to reveal an angular jaw and a nose that had obviously been broken. He walked over, grinning as though meeting an old friend, but Kivuli was sure his master had never met him before. He looked around for the man’s shadow, and saw it just a little way away from him. It too was angular, and Kivuli didn’t recognise it.
‘Fancy seein’ you ere, friend,’ the man said, sitting down at the table next to Esh. His voice was slurred, with a dryness to it that Kivuli didn’t like. Then he put his hands on the table and interlaced his fingers, dropping both index fingers down quickly and then up again.
Esh swallowed and held his arm half under the table, rolling up his sleeve to reveal the brand mark he had received from Malkov barely a month before. The man nodded, and drew a small package from inside his cloak, passing it to Esh under the table. Kivuli moved closer to look at it, but the man’s shadow clawed out at him with a hiss. He drew back quickly, just as the man got up again.
‘Sorry ta leave ya so soon, friend,’ he said. ‘Tho I ‘spect we’ll be seein’ each other soon enuff.’
Back in their room, Esh opened the bundle. Inside was a bag containing a strange powder, and a note. Putting the powder aside, he unfolded the note and read it aloud. ‘All is set. Ignite the powder when you reach the drop off. Once the light appears, leave. Do not stray, we shall be watching.’ He inhaled deeply and scrunched the paper in his hand.
Sitting down on the floor, he looked at all the sketches and letters littered around him. Now they were the only remainders of his past life. He smashed his fist against the wall and gathered them all up, throwing them in the grate. He took a match from his pocket, ready to strike it.
‘Who said that?’ Esh said, turning around. ‘Is someone there?’ He stood up and opened the door, looking down the corridor, and then shut it again. With no-one replying, Esh went back to the fireplace. Kivuli tried to clench his jaw, but then his master struck the match.
‘No, master, please!’
Kivuli couldn’t stop himself. His master was a good man, he didn’t deserve to be dragged down by the likes of Malkov and his men.
‘Who’s there?’ Esh said again, his skin paling.
Kivuli shook slightly, but he had made his choice. Speaking to one’s master was forbidden, no matter what the circumstance, but Esh was too important for him to care. ‘Master, please. Look at the wall next to you,’ Kivuli said. In the light coming from the window, his outline was distinct against the wall. His master looked at him, still uncomprehending. ‘Master, I am your shadow.’
Silence. His master didn’t move or waver so much as an inch. He just stood, staring at Kivuli, his expression unchanged. At last he spoke, wetting his lips with his tongue. ‘My shadow?’ He walked closer to the wall and held out his hand, touching Kivuli lightly as though he might suddenly attack.
‘Yes, master,’ Kivuli whispered. He lifted his arm independently, with deliberate slowness so as not to cause more alarm. His master’s eyes followed it, growing wide and glistening slightly.
‘No. This isn’t real. You’re a shadow, you can’t move on your own, and you certainly can’t talk on your own either.’
‘Please Master, I understand that this is a shock, but you must listen.’
Esh tightened his lips together and shook his head. Kivuli sighed. He walked around the room, moving from wall to wall and across the floor, merging with the static shadows and then reappearing again. ‘You see?’ he said.
Esh had seen. He grabbed for the wooden chair and slumped down on it heavily, still watching Kivuli with a wild look in his eyes. ‘How?’ he breathed.
‘That does not matter, master. Please, you must reconsider your involvement with Malkov.’
‘Malkov?’ Esh said, blinking. ‘I’d forgotten.’
‘Master, I have spoken with Malkov’s shadow—‘
‘His shadow can speak too?’
‘All shadows belonging to living creatures can speak,’ Kivuli said, as if it was common knowledge. ‘As I was saying, I have spoken to Malkov’s shadow, and he has told me that Malkov’s only desire is to get what he wants. He is using you, master, and I have no doubt that he thinks of you as expendable.’
Esh stood up and picked up a dusty wineskin from the floor. He opened it and took a long drink, wiping his mouth after. He took a few steps away from Kivuli, but then turned back to him. ‘I know that Malkov’s using me. And I know that he’s dangerous. But tell me, shadow of mine, what is it I’m supposed to do? If I back out now, he’ll only hunt me down.’
‘Then go to him.’
‘That would be suicide.’
‘Not necessarily. Malkov is a man who expects to get what he wants. If you hold your ground, you will surprise him. He may just let you go.’
‘He may…or he may not.’ Esh paced around some more. ‘Damn it! Alright, shadow, have it your way.’
Kivuli and Esh were sitting in a tavern across the street from Malkov’s townhouse. It was the evening Esh was due to carry out Malkov’s plans, and he knew that soon the rest of Malkov’s men would be leaving to set everything up. Malkov himself would be alone.
Twenty minutes passed before the doors of the townhouse opened, and five men came out and made their way back down the street. With a slight smile, Esh noticed the man from the other tavern at the back of the group. He waited until they turned the corner, and then he and Kivuli went outside to Malkov’s townhouse. Following Kivuli’s idea of surprising him, they avoided the main door and went around the side, where they knew there was a door leading to the cellars. Down there was where Esh had been branded. It wasn’t a memory easily forgotten.
When they reached it, they found it locked, but Esh took out a thin knife and a stolen hairpin to try and pick it open. To help him, Kivuli slid his hand into the lock and told him which way it needed to be turned. A moment later, it clicked open, and they descended into the cellar.
Inside it was completely dark, but with Kivuli’s help, his master made it through to the small staircase leading up into the main house. Once they were out in the hall, they listened for any signs of Malkov. Loud voices were coming from a room further down, and a manservant came running from the room, holding a blood soaked cloth to his arm. Kivuli and Esh shrank back as he passed, but then edged down the hall to peer through the door.
‘I should have had a report back by now,’ they heard Malkov say. ‘Something is wrong.’ He sounded panicked, and the dominance had completely disappeared from his voice.
‘You fret much, Malkov. All shall go to plan.’
‘But you said his shadow was concerned. What if—‘
‘Kivuli does not possess the courage to break the Laws of Shadow. He will never reveal himself to Esh.’ It was Ombra speaking.
Before he knew it, Kivuli had slipped into the room. There they were; Malkov, sitting in a fur backed chair near the fire, his eyes now dull and his goatee untrimmed. Ombra was on the wall next to him, stretched out to his largest form, distorted so much that he barely resembled Malkov at all.
‘Ombra? Kivuli said.
Malkov sat up, startled by the voice. He looked around, and his eyes locked on Esh as he stepped inside the room. ‘You!’ he said, half standing, but Ombra silenced him.
‘It seems I knew you not, Kivuli. To think you broke our laws so easily. And you,’ he said, rounding on Malkov. ‘You assured me that this scoundrel would be too fearful to back out.’
‘Ombra, this was all you?’ Kivuli said. ‘Why?’
‘How many thousands of years have we shadows been but servants?’ Ombra hissed. ‘It is time for change, Kivuli. Humans are weak and filled with greed and hatred, we can let ourselves be ruled by them no longer.’ He slid over to Malkov, who withdrew visibly. ‘Dispose of these buffoons, Malkov.’
Malkov got up shakily and drew his rapier from its scabbard. Kivuli saw that his eyes had grown watery and knew that his heart was not in it. Still, he could not see a way to stop him, and with Ombra controlling him, words were useless. He looked at his master, who stood still despite Malkov’s advancement. Then he knew. He swept up and whispered something in his Esh’s ear, speaking quickly.
‘But what’ll happen to you?’ Esh whispered back.
‘Do not worry, master. Please, you have no time.’
Nodding slightly, Esh drew out the powder that had been in the package. He charged at Malkov, driving him into Ombra, and threw it into the fire beside them. The flames leapt up, and a white light burst, engulfing them all. As it hit Ombra, he let out a roar of agony and vanished.
The powder’s effects finally dulled, but it was an hour before both Malkov and Esh had recovered their sight. When they were able to look around, they found both Kivuli and Ombra missing.
‘They have…gone?’ Malkov said, pivoting on the spot.
‘I think so,’ Esh said. He sighed.
‘Why so solemn, master?’ Kivuli’s voice came, sounding faintly amused. ‘Could it be that you felt a loss for me?’
‘Kivuli? Where are you?’ Esh said.
‘Open your tunic, master.’ Esh did so, and Kivuli’s grey form poured out of it and onto the floor.
‘And Ombra?’ Malkov breathed, suddenly fearful again.
‘He is truly gone,’ Kivuli said. ‘There was no chance for him to hide as I did. You are free now.’