“So…I don’t really understand this,” said Cob. “Your Shadow Folk live in an unassailable godly realm, can pass through shadows with jus’ a thought, can basically go anywhere and take anything they want…and yet somehow y’ don’t rule the world?”
Lark grinned and shrugged. “We’re not interested in that.”
She gave Cob a long look, but the frustrated confusion on his face was real, and he had never been the type to argue just for the sake of argument; if he questioned something, it was because he sincerely did not get it. Which meant there were no end of questions. “Well, do you want the short answer or the long one?” she said finally.
“Technically I already gave you the short one. You remember, when I said we’re a business, not a religion?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t wanna rule the world. Don’t religions…do that?”
“What, like your Imperial Light?”
Lark rolled her eyes at his expression. “Don’t sulk, you started it. But no, we’ve never wanted to control people – or even convert them, really. It’s not in our business plan. Kherus Morgwi goes around, um, ‘converting’ women but that’s just because he has no self-control when it comes to his libido or his need to constantly expand his godly harem. The rest of us actually do things like work, so we don’t have time to talk at people who don’t want to buy what we’re selling.”
“And what’re you sellin’?”
Lark sighed, prepared for the long spiel. “It depends on the market. Let’s see, how to explain this. Like you said, Oretcht’ke – the Shadow Realm – is another dimension that, though attached to the material world, only opens to it when forced to by a shadowblooded individual. This makes it ‘unassailable’ in that we have never had a shadowblood turncoat on our organization, and also because the substance of the Shadow Realm is both living and aware, and will eat anything it deems a threat.
“And some things that it just thinks look tasty.
“Shadowbloods are Ker Morgwi’s progeny, and they gain their link to the Shadow Realm through his ‘blood’. It’s not actual blood, mind you. None of the Lords of Light and Dark are actual physical beings, so though they can take on a physical form, they can’t truly procreate. What Ker does when he romances a lady is, well, basically enable her to birth a shadow-clone of herself. A daughter of his essence. That daughter can procreate normally with humans and thus make children of thinner blood.
“All the Shadowbloods are bound to the Shadow Realm by that deific essence, and can cross through any sufficiently dark shadow into the Realm at any time without worrying about the Realm’s wrath. After a number of generations – and it varies – the blood will be too thin to cross over so easily, but the Realm and its denizens will still recognize people of Ker’s lineage and not eat them unless it absolutely has to. You’ve seen real shadowbloods in Bahlaer, the people with the black irises and the inky birthmarks and scars; children of too thin a generation won’t have those marks.”
She looked to Cob to make sure he was following, and at his nod she pondered how to continue. “Well… Oh. Shadowbloods, they’re also the only ones that can spend all their time in the Shadow Realm without getting sick.”
“Sick?” he said, eyeing her sidelong. “What d’you mean, sick? I’ve been through there, am I gonna get sick?”
“No, no. It’s… All right, see, humans and most other animals need some exposure to light in order to be healthy,” she said. “It’s why we get different skin tones and all that – so we can live in the light without it burning us too much, because we need it even though it can hurt us. Different places in the world get more or less sun, so – wait a moment, that’s not what I’m talking about. Shadowbloods, they don’t need sun; they get hurt by too much bright light, which you’d remember from Bahlaer except you were the Guardian then and probably still refuse to acknowledge it ever happened.”
Cob mumbled something noncommittal.
“Anyway, shadowbloods don’t need sunlight and actually suffer from it. However, everyone else who works for the Shadow Folk still needs a bit of sun now and then, and you can’t get that in the Shadow Realm. What’s more, there’s something about the Realm itself that seems to leach some kind of…vital essence from a person the longer they dwell there. This doesn’t happen quickly, so even if you pop back and forth from the Shadow Realm to the real world regularly, you won’t feel any ill effects. But if you spend too much time at a stretch in the Shadow Realm, or Ker-forbid are ever trapped in one of the shadow pockets, you can get sickly and waste away even if you have a constant supply of food and water. It just… It’s like if you locked someone in the basement for a decade, only worse. Sometimes even shadowbloods get sick if they spend too much time in the Realm, or start coming unhinged. Because of the whispering.”
She saw Cob shiver, then try to look like he had not. “Whispering,” he said neutrally.
“I’m sure you’ve heard it,” she said. “When I pulled you through the shadow tunnel. It’s the eiyets, the little shadows. We think they make up the bulk of the substance of the Shadow Realm, but we’re not sure because even the shadowbloods can’t properly extricate the eiyets from the realm itself. Only Ker Morgwi knows, and he’s never told anyone. Maybe because he considers himself their guardian. I told you what they are, right?”
Cob grunted. She was not sure whether to take that as a yes or a no.
“Well…anyway. They’re children – the souls of children who died before they were named, so couldn’t be found by Death or her Unseen servants. Only Ker Morgwi can see what is hidden even from Death, and so he started collecting them into the Shadow Realm millennia ago. Any neglected, abandoned or stillborn child, any nameless soul that Death left unfetched, any murdered person whose demise had been so obfuscated that their name did not show up in Death’s tome. Like you might have noticed, this does include some adults’ souls, but the murdered ones he usually passes on to Nemesis, and there aren’t many nameless adults. Nameless children though…” Lark could not conceal her own shudder. “Nameless children have never been in short supply.
“And Ker is a collector. A hoarder, you could say. Wives, children, secrets, supplies, and souls. Once he started gathering the nameless children, he could not stop, and though at first he let them cavort through his realm as ghosts… Well, some of them were too young to cavort, and others were too destructive, and in the end there just became too many of them. So he changed the nature of the Realm itself to absorb those souls, kind of transmute their substance to the stuff of shadow. And so they became the eiyets – the tricksy, fickle little shadow creatures who deliver his messages and move his goods and sometimes protect children and tear apart people who threaten them, as long as those people are within reach of a shadow.
“They’re troublemakers and kleptomaniacs though, so we actually have a whole Office dedicated to replacing the things they stole.”
“Office,” said Cob, frowning.
“You’d rather talk about our organization than angry child ghosts who kill people?”
“If I was an angry child ghost, I’d do that too,” Cob said with unusual ice in his voice. She glanced at him, noting his fixed but distant expression, and decided not to ask. “But I don’t know anythin’ about how you folk work.”
She scratched between her braids absently, trying to figure out how to explain it, then decided to start at the top. “All right. Well, technically Kherus Morgwi is our leader, him being the god and all. However, he’s not usually in the Realm, as he doesn’t like the whole organizing-and-commanding aspect of being a god and would really rather be flirting with more potential female conquests. So the Realm is actually run by the Regency, a loose organization of his first-generation daughters – living and dead – who cycle through the duties of leadership and judicial administration fairly regularly.”
“Mhm. Shadowbloods never truly die, unless they’re caught outside the Realm and annihilated somehow. They’re not any more durable or long-lived than a normal human, but when they have a natural death, they sort of…reform within the Shadow Realm as Eiyensuriel. Full shadow essence, no mortal restrictions. As Eiyensuriel, they can’t leave the Shadow Realm, but they’re still themselves and they don’t age or die after that. Plus they have wings. They handle most of the Realm administration just because, well, they can’t do field work.”
“…And they do that for the rest of eternity?”
“No, like I said, they cycle through the duties. Some of them enjoy being our bosses, some would rather spy on the material world, and some eventually let themselves dissolve into the Realm, but… Let’s just say the ones who aren’t currently on duty throw great parties. Oretcht’ke isn’t a small place; if you know how to navigate it, it unfolds larger and larger with each turn, and it’s full of Eiyensuriel getting up to everything they care to do when they don’t have to deal with us living folk. After all, just because they’re dead to the outside world doesn’t mean they aren’t alive in their way while within Shadow.”
“…All right,” said Cob after a long thoughtful moment. “Go on.”
“So. The Regency is six people: five Judges and a Recordkeeper from the Office of Oversight, who can advise but not vote. At least one Judge is always a Shadowblood, and usually most of them are, just so we don’t get too stodgy by having centuries-dead people running everything. They deal with all the matters that would go to Ker directly if only he was sitting on his Throne instead of picking up girls.
“Now, before I get into the Offices, and because I was talking about getting sick from being in the Shadow Realm or getting stuck in a shadow pocket, I should mention the Hospice. All the Hospicers are Eiyensuriel, because their job is to pry quarantined people out of the hands of the eiyets and also diagnose lightless sicknesses and dementias in the populace, and they can’t get sick from a contagious person because they’re already dead. Anyone who falls ill in the Realm gets assigned a Hospicer who tries to figure out what is hurting them and whether they need to be ejected from the Realm for their own good or be destroyed.
“See, with the freedom we get from shadowwalking, it’s possible for any of us to pick up a bizarre disease from anywhere and transmit it to the other side of the world within hours by crossing through the Realm. The Hospicers and the eiyets make sure that doesn’t happen by quarantining anyone they sense is ill, and if the illness is dangerous and infectious… Well. Sometimes there are no good options.
“The Hospicers also run the schools for the young ‘bloods and take care of our orphans or any children given to our care.”
“Hold on,” said Cob. “So they can tell if people are sick, but all they can do is kick ‘em out or kill ‘em?”
Lark grimaced. “Well, they’re not healers. The Shadow Realm can shelter you but not nurture you; it’s too detached from the material world. But it’s not like they see you’re ill then just dump you on some random darkened street-corner. We’re allied with the Trifold for a reason; they help our sick, we rescue their refugees. The Hospicers only destroy people who are so brutally contagious that there’s no chance they won’t infect others on the way, or people who are so close to the verge of death that it doesn’t matter.”
“Can Death reach them if they die in the Shadow Realm?”
“No, but we have an agreement with her to pass over the souls of those in her book, just as she passes over any shadowmarked souls her servants might inadvertently catch. We’re not here to impede the proper workings of the afterlife, but we have to make sure that we don’t accidentally start epidemics among the people we’re trying to help.”
Cob nodded slowly, then prompted, “Offices.”
“Yes yes, so impatient. Let’s see. There are four Offices — Collection, Distribution, Oversight, and Enforcement – and this is where our real work starts. See, what people don’t understand is that nothing we offer is stolen. They think ‘oh that Shadow Cult is full of evil thieves’ but the truth is that we only take things people don’t want, and then only by request. The Office of Collection organizes that part of the work. A collection request can be as small as a pin or as big as a…well, anything, and once we get the request, Collection organizes a team to do what must be done to retrieve the goods.
“Mostly what they get called in for is perishables. Food that will rot on the trees or in the fields if it isn’t harvested, or goods that will be thrown away since they can’t be sold in time. Collection will pull together sufficient harvesters to get the job done – sometimes from our own work-pool and sometimes through local labor – and take a cut of the harvest as our tithe, then pass the goods on to the Office of Distribution. If the petitioners want, we can also take the whole harvest and resell it through our network, returning some of the profits to them and keeping the rest as the tithe.
“Collection also deals with harvesting common land and wilderness areas; for example, they keep long-running ledgers about how much wild fruit is usually consumed by the local wildlife and thus how much we can responsibly harvest when we need to fill a supply gap in another region. They also deal with – all right, when I said we’re not thieves, I meant the shadowbloods and humans, because the eiyets are piking kleptomaniacs, and Collection’s biggest and most frustrating job is tracking down everything they stole and returning it to its proper place.
“But in general, they take what people want to offer us and either resell it or record favors we thus owe those people. They distribute the black ribbons we use to mark tithed items so the eiyets know they can take them, and make sure every object taken into the Shadow Realm is there legally and not stolen. Then they pass everything on to Distribution.
“Obviously, the Office of Distribution…distributes. They share warehouse space with Collection, both in the Realm and in all of our warehouses and drop-points in the material world, and do the doling-out of money, goods and favors that were garnered by the tithes to Collection. While Collection mostly keeps an eye on the supply side, Distribution watches demand, and the two Offices work closely to strike a balance or create a new opportunity if they can’t find an old one. There are enclaves of Shadow Folk all around the world who offer work to the local populace from week to week as the tides of commerce change – one day they might have the locals spinning excess wool, another day canning fruit before it can go off, another turning abandoned lumber to furniture. All are paid for their time and effort, because we just don’t have the manpower as an organization to turn raw materials into finished ones as well as move everything around to where it needs to be.”
“I thought there were thousands of you,” said Cob. “Enough for whole pikin’ districts in cities.”
Lark snorted. “Lay followers, Cob. Lots and lots of lay followers. We have layfolk everywhere, running shops and listening to rumors and searching for opportunities, but even though we do have thousands of shadowbloods and who-knows-how-many Eiyensuriel in the organization, that number is nothing compared to the amount of people – and the amount of problems – in the world. Think of the mountains of work that need to be done! We’re merchants and spies and smugglers, not craftsmen; we get all this junk that people decide maybe we might like or know what to do with, and then we have to figure out where to store it, who might want it, what it’s worth, where it’s needed… We don’t have the time to make things, just move them. So we employ people local to our depots to do whatever’s needed. It’s been a good system so far.”
Cob nodded slightly. Lark waited a moment for more questions, then sighed and tried to remember what she had been talking about.
“Right. Distribution. Distribution also keeps an eye on resellers to make sure that their prices are within reason for the area, so that we don’t negatively impact the economy with our repurposed goods.
“And that brings me to the Office of Oversight. Oversight is there to, well, oversee all assignments and evaluate them for how well they fit into our organizational plan. Usually they do their reviews after-the-fact, but when there’s a large or questionable operation in the works, there will always be Oversight agents observing everything. They make sure all our Collection and Distribution agents remain on the level, not pocketing anything for themselves outside the permitted profit margin, and as the Recordkeepers they also control the judicial archives of the Regency. Most of them are Eiyensuriel, because Eiyensuriel tend to be above the worldly squabbles that still break out among our agents sometimes and, since they’re dead and stuck in the Shadow Realm, they generally can’t be bribed.
“Finally, there’s the Office of Enforcement, which isn’t an Office so much as an on-call thug squad. They police the Shadow Realm, and when Collection or Distribution gets a request for rescue, they’re the ones that are sent to respond. Distribution has some Enforcers attached to it directly just so they can cut down response time. They were the guys who – again, you probably don’t remember, but they came to help fight off the Imperials in the tavern when Darilan tried to take you.”
“Anyway, we don’t like violence but sometimes there isn’t a choice, so we call them in when we need to put our foot down. Mostly they do jailbreaks, free slaves and kidnap victims, save people from sinking ships and the like — anyone who cries into a shadow for help and isn’t magically bound to that place.
“Well, I should say not anyone. Eiyets can tell when a person has blood on his hands, especially the blood of the innocent; they’re everywhere and see everything, even if they don’t tell us much. So some cries for help…just never get heard, and perhaps that’s for the best, because we’re not kind when we learn we’ve been tricked into rescuing someone who didn’t deserve it.”
Cob smirked slightly, perhaps remembering his passage through the hissing shadow-tunnel with the eiyets pinching at him as if they wanted to take him apart. “I can imagine.”
“So, anything else?”
“Well…you’ve said what you folk do for everyone else. What does bein’ Shadow Folk do for you?”
Lark tilted her head. “What, are you thinking of joining up?”
He gave her a dirty look, and she laughed and waved away any incoming ire. “Kidding, I know you and your Light fixation. Let’s see, what does being Shadow Folk do for me. Well, on the purely physical end, as a Shadow agent I get my room, board and clothes provided for me by the organization. Like you pointed out, we have Shadow districts in cities around the world, and any agent is welcome to live at any of them and have all their basic needs provided for while they’re off work. We also get to pick from any excess goods, including luxury items, that we can’t resell — either at a drastically lowered price or just free if they’d otherwise go to waste.
“Mind you, we’re not allowed to accumulate wealth. That’s one of the things Oversight watches out for: agents becoming too avaricious, or trying to bully money out of people instead of getting paid the standard price for services. A lot of Oversight watches our Enforcers because they’re more prone to that kind of overbearing behavior just by the nature of their work. Still, it’s not a matter of if you’re seen hoarding money and goods or intimidating people for payment, you’re instantly out of the Shadow Folk. We don’t do physical discipline and we rarely eject agents; if they’re so bad that we can’t tolerate them, then usually they’re confined to the Realm because we can’t trust them outside of it, but we know that lots of people who come to work for us are from wretched backgrounds and don’t yet know how to behave any better. So agents who commit fiscal or ethical infractions get retrained on how to think more like a proper Shadow agent and how to behave properly toward the people we aid and protect. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re doing: reducing violence, fighting famine, spreading resources to where they’re needed so that there’s less suffering in the world.
“For me, that humanitarian mission is one of the things I get out of being Shadow Folk. You know I work — well, worked, I guess — as Bahlaer’s goblin liaison. We sussed out trade agreements with them, figured out where they wanted to set the boundaries of their territory and how to respect their culture, and also explained to them our rules for interfering with the surface world. From all this, we’ve reduced the incidence of goblin raids nearly to zero — since they used to swarm up to steal food, supplies, anything they wanted from us surface folk, and sometimes killed people in the process — and we now have access to their technological assistance and some of the subterranean spaces that were once off limits. We’re not exactly the best of friends, but we’re working together instead of fighting, and that makes me proud.
“Others… Well, I’ve told you before that we don’t really consider ourselves to be a religion, but of course some Shadow agents do, so those I suppose get a sense of divine purpose from their work. The Regency works hard to give us all a sense of worldly purpose, though; we do a lot of this for profit, but just as much to help others, so when we get some time off and can sit around the tavern drinking through the free portions of our tabs, we don’t have to look at our lives and wonder if we could have been doing something better. Something more worthy. We see the effects of our work every day, and it feels pretty good, even if we’re not ‘blooded.”
Cob’s face was unreadable, which always worried her. She was about to change the subject when he said, “So how d’you handle your god bein’ gone all the time?”
Lark exhaled, then shrugged. “It doesn’t make any difference in most of our lives. We’re not the Trifolders; we don’t draw power from the god himself. He doesn’t even have any priests, really, just his daughters who have his ‘blood’ and therefore can do everything on their own. And while he made the laws against violence and theft, he’s not the one who enforces them. We police ourselves, we rule ourselves, and when he’s on the Throne we’re glad to have him around but we don’t need him hanging over our shoulders telling us what to do. It’s like… We’re not his employees, and we’re not all his kids, but we’re still a family, and we control each other not by money or force but by expectations and the common good. When the organization thrives, we all thrive. When it suffers, we’re all in trouble, and so is the world.”
Cob furrowed his brows but just nodded, and when he raised no more questions, she decided not to babble further. After all, some people needed time to think things through, and from what she knew of Cob, the process was never easy.