By the time my eyes open the sun has set over Caelestis, nearly two days since I had taken the crow’s task. Drowsiness clouds my thoughts and the hunger pangs in my stomach cruelly demand my focus. Rising from my bed I wearily bathe, washing away the dried sweat from my earlier exertions. The immediate relief allowing me to feel more human. The shock to my system from the cold water wakes my mind from its lethargy, sparking a continuation of what I had fallen asleep pondering.
The memories of the past half a decade come flooding to the fore. For years I had been running the shadows as loudly and recklessly as I could in a vague hope of finding Sophia amongst them. Even before then I had run the shadows. Since leaving my darling Amelia in Olivia’s nest, I had chased the promise of wealth, purpose and excitement. The mindless ambitions of my youth driving me rudderless into the darkness wherein I had found myself. The process of becoming a shadow is excruciatingly painful and prohibitively expensive. As a result a vast majority of us are either the younger children of aristocrats or otherwise their sponsored servants. The next most populous demographic are the shadows created by the cartel’s. Like the devil men, these shadows have no true will beyond the directions of their cartel bosses, a more pitiable fate I can’t imagine.
The minority of remaining shadows are autonomous operatives like myself. Without guidance most of us fall into the flash trap, diving headfirst into the shadows with only a child’s understanding of what awaits.
Before that day I had been different.
In Night Town Mother Olivia protects the orphans and runaways. Her nest was always overflowing with eggs, like Amelia and me.
Every aspect of life in Caelestis was in some way touched by her baby birds as they left the nest. If she had a mind, I have no doubt she could oppose even the power of the cartels. But Mother Olivia’s only ambition is the success of her baby birds. The time and resources required in tending to her eggs were limitless, and took all of her great intellect and will.
Even she could not achieve what she does without the aid of the birds who leave the nest that always return in time. Her birds remember her and we thank her by bringing her news and gifts from every corner of the city. As a result Olivia knew more of the comings and goings in Caelestis than anyone, and what she doesn’t know she can find out. This vast network of knowledge she leverages only to enrich the future and prospects of her baby birds. This blessing gave me the chance to enter the labyrinthine world of shadows properly without having to sell myself to the cartels or aristocracy.
The shadows are like another world that exists in the same place as the sunlit one, to walk in it one requires a number of arcane surgeries and treatments. No ordinary working person could have afforded the treatments and I was no different. To gather the money necessary I borrowed and stole whatever I could, receiving the treatments piecemeal to further improve my ability to steal.
It’s impossible to describe the sickening and agonising shift as your body changes to accept the alien organs and alchemical elixirs into yourself. The finest surgeons were employed by aristocrats or cartels, so even this step was made harsher by my position. The early years of my transformation remain a blur to me still, most of what I know from that time comes from being told by my darling Amelia. I had turns where I became aggressive like a beast, or where my body would discolour and twist in an unwholesome fashion. She had been afraid that I would not survive, or that I would be forever changed, but in the end I emerged a shadow, in body at least.
The world of the shadows is a sparsely populated one. Her denizens operate in strict channels otherwise becoming known as flash’s. A foolish flash may perceive the term to allude to some talent, while the truth of its meaning alluding to the short lifespans of the uninitiated who burn out like a flash in a pan.
So rare is a true shadow that even among Olivia’s birds, I was the first. While the nest could not provide me with a mentor, the wealth of knowledge revealed to me the means to find one.
Benjamin has been a grim tutor, perfectly suited to life in the shadows. He introduced me to the aristocrats and brokers who had earned the right to deal in the shadows. He taught me the skills and techniques necessary to properly utilise my physiology. Teaching me how to blend in with crowds, how to recognise someone on the lookout, and everything else a novice shadow needed to survive. In return he took half I earned from every job, until the day he finally failed to return from a job.
I hadn’t been left unprepared when Ben didn’t come back. He had been a meticulous master and never once neglected to emphasise the dangers inherent in our work. That being said, I had not expected to operate on my own so soon. Ben had been the closest I’d ever had to a father figure, as distant as he had been.
Left to my own devices I followed the lessons I had received and with the frustrating slow pace of the shadow, I began to make a name for myself. It took years further work to repay the debts I had accrued becoming a shadow, but around five years I had finally a place in the world. I truly owned myself with no other hold on my future. Though I had hardly two coins to rub together, I felt accomplished. I could achieve anything, the whole world was laid open before me.
There was no way I could have known how things were about to change.