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Stray Shadow · Chapter 1
Dustin Tigner

Back in university, Evan, geek coder extraordinaire, tried to show Dhane how programming languages worked. The delighted man spoke of functional programming, recursion, and really, it could have been black-hole theory for as far as Dhane was concerned.

But despite the mind-twisting ideas of bits of code recursively calling themselves or delegates or event handling . . . the core idea was to communicate intent. Communication was something Dhane was very good at, programming, less so.

Unfortunately, magical symbols fell within the arcane logic of conditionals, loops, and variables. Magic was programming. Yet it was also a language.

He may not understand algorithm efficiency and its Big O notation, but all the different symbols amounted to an alphabet with words and intent, and it took very little time to pick through those symbols and come up with new ideas.

However, such things had to wait.

The warm night, glowing from torchlight and a bright, silver moon, was a chorus of terror-filled screams.

Terror . . . and laughter.

An odd combination to be sure.

“And throw!” the Cobalins yelled together, a chant of grating voices. These voices were directed at a small, wide-eyed Cobalin who had just shifted out from the empty void of death to appear upon one of the four slabs in Dedu Tedu Novus’s cemetery of Light and Shadow.

The newly Returned Cobalin—and slave stone, still chained to her ankle—was launched into the air. She twisted and turned, screaming a shrill sound before landing in the center fountain next to the dozen others who had recently completed their thrilling, wet readmittance to the world.

Other Cobalins, the ones not rolling on the ground laughing, helped pull the flailing Returned Cobalins from the water before they got clobbered by the next round of artillery fire.

This all went to show that though all the Cobalins looked quite similar—short and green with large ears and expressive, dark eyes—there was an entire spectrum of maturity levels. Some took action to help while others laughed and played, a new light in their souls for finally being free.

“Slabs two and four!” Dhane yelled at the exhausted Cobalins, giving them a break and ushering the next team to take their places.

If the slabs were not immediately evacuated before the next Cobalin decided to Return, they’d either encounter a freak accident—the first two-headed Cobalin, anyone?—or more likely the case, the poor Cobalin would Return in a different cemetery altogether, lost, alone, and forever far away.

No one questioned Dhane’s authority, not with him being human and aligned to the Shadow affinity. They saw him as the King of Shadows.

When he fabricated the King of Shadows, it was purely in hope of staying relevant, interesting to society so he wouldn’t get thrown away to the priests of Light.

It was never meant to be real.

It wasn’t real. . . .

But that wasn’t the only thing the Cobalins called him. He was the leader of Dedu Tedu Novus, Hope Bringer, and the one who freed them. Such things went a long way in convincing even the most stubborn and defiant of the lot to fall in line.

“It’s gonna be fine,” Devron said to a timid Cobalin, holding the metal shackle that wrapped the tiny guy’s ankle. “I’m gonna blast it right off your foot.”

“No no no no, it fine,” the Cobalin said. He had ragged, black hair and eyebrows doing their best to sever themselves and crawl away. “I like chain. Yes, I do! Pretty chain, ve-very pretty.”

“That’s nonsense!” Devron said and winked at Dhane as if to say, Watch me do something awesome. “This won’t hurt a bit, little man. Just gotta hold real still, alright?”

The Cobalin grimaced and swallowed hard. He nodded weakly and stared at the swirl of white, glowing liquid that formed into a sphere within Devron’s hand.

Devron thrust his hand forward, and the magical ball of energy slammed against the Cobalin’s foot.

It disintegrated instantly.

There was a fraction of a second where both the Cobalin and Devron stared at the spot where, once upon a time, there had been a foot. Then the Cobalin howled in pain, kicking his legs.

Devron jerked upright, screeching in an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice, “Oh-man oh-man oh-man! Shit!” He patted the Cobalin’s footless leg as if doing so would magically resummon the foot he had so excitedly blasted apart.

Three seconds later, the Cobalin stopped thrashing and noticed his chain had fallen off. His eyes were round. His mouth hung open. He shoved away and hopped on his remaining foot, dragging his slave stone by the chain to where Kuby and a few others were stacking the stones in some sort of monument.

“That man!” the Cobalin yelled, pointing an accusatory finger at Devron who stared in abject horror. The Cobalin drew the attention of dozens of the green people. “That one. Big one, black one. He blew off my foot! Look! It gone gone gone!”

“Oh, man. . . .” Devron shook his head. “That’s not what I was tryin’ to do!” He held his arms out, palms up in a begging manner as if his words alone wouldn’t convey the truth of his sincere intent. He started saying something else but then tensed.

The Cobalin hopped back toward him, waving a finger to make sure no one could misinterpret who the Cobalin was talking about. At less than a foot away, he grinned and planted a slobbery kiss on Devron’s conflicted forehead.

“He freed me!” the Cobalin said. “Thank you big man!” And with that, he returned to the others who pointed at his missing foot and laughed.

“I think,” Dhane said, “you’ve earned a new title.”

Devron arched an eyebrow.

“The Slayer of Feet.”

“No way, man! That’s terrible. I didn’t want to blow off his foot.”

“Well, you know, the others found chisels in the toolshed.”

“That’s so mundane. Hey”—he snapped his fingers—“what about a magic symbol? There’s gotta be a cool symbol to unlock . . . locks, right?”

The question slithered into Dhane’s mind and joined all the other ideas currently fighting for attention. The short answer of it was Yes, there was most definitely a way to use the magical symbols to pick locks.

Doing so, however, required understanding how the fundamental magic system worked. Most people only understood the larger symbols, the ones that had been recreated so many times they eventually became universal.

Following the programming analogy, functions stored a series of instructions to accomplish a specific task. The developer didn’t need to understand how the function worked, only that it did, in fact, work.

And that was Olindale, through and through. Thousands of people reusing magical functions without a clue as to how they worked.

Gameus, God of Games, didn’t simply hand over a magical sword and say, “It is dangerous to go alone. Take this.” No, he handed over a book of ancient and possibly lost knowledge, knowledge that Dhane was eager to use.

So while magical symbols could break through the securities of a lock, unless there was a symbol function for the task—which he hadn’t found yet—it would have to be created from scratch.

Before he could answer, Knock ran up, eyebrows pinched together. “No Desley! Where be Desley? En Yundo en Larny en Pun.”

“Give it time,” Dhane said, then shouted over the ruckus to the slab teams, “One and three, switch out!”

Knock huffed, wringing his green hands together. “I should be there, not here! I should go find me Desley en . . . en friends.”

Ceratree City was nearly ninety miles from them. With all the local waypoints locked, and no way to know what enemies lurked nearby, storming off into the night wouldn’t help anyone.

“Knock, we’ll find her.” And when those words didn’t pierce the Cobalin’s shroud of uncertainty, Dhane added, “Look, I know how hard it is to wait, to feel helpless. But we’ll get her back, be it tonight or tomorrow, or we’ll march right up to Ceratree City and demand her release.”

That last idea was comically beyond anything they were capable of. It was pure bravado, a show of fake confidence to take the Cobalin’s worries away.

Even so, what Knock really needed was a distraction, and Dhane needed an assistant, one that had experience using magical symbols. “Why don’t you help me with something?”

“Me?” Knock asked. “Great Shadow wants help from me?”

“We have an important job,” Dhane said. The words spoken aloud somehow made their situation all the more real, more pressing and present.

Seven declarations of war. . . .

The world wouldn’t let them be. They’d be pursued and crushed, and the only thing standing between that seemingly inevitable outcome was him.

The responsibility to keep the Cobalins safe was a crushing weight. The wars to come were already in a fevered pitch of battle, fighting in his chest. It was fear; it was uncertainty; it was the raw, untempered need to succeed against all the odds.

And yet, there was an inkling, stubborn thought that wouldn’t go away. It said he’d screw this up and make everything worse. He was no king or general, just a gamer and book nerd who never wanted the responsibility of such critical things.

But he had an idea, a crazy—potentially stupid, ignorant, and most likely not to work—idea, but an idea nonetheless.

“Yes yes,” Knock said. “I can help, I can!”

Devron sighed and frowned, looking over the forming line of excited Cobalins, some with chains in need of removing, some without. “What y’all want?”

They hopped up and down on one foot while holding out the other, saying, “My foot next!”

“Devron,” Dhane said, “take over for me?”

“Gladly!” Devron stood to a chorus of disappointment.

Dhane assumed his best stage smile. “Don’t worry, the Slayer of Feet will return!”

The Cobalins cheered and Devron slumped.

Dhane left the cemetery of Light and Shadow with an excited Knock in tow. With a mental thought, he summoned his phone for the hundredth time that day and opened the Messages app.

Penny still hadn’t replied.

It had been two days of torturous silence. If she didn’t want anything to do with him, he’d . . . well, he didn’t know what he’d do or how he’d feel.

Broken?

Devastated?

Being with her felt right, even if it had only been a few days. Heaven had a way of playing with his emotions, twirling them up inside him enough to take his breath away.

Part of what kept him charging ahead into the darkness of uncertainty was how he didn’t want to take the time to think about what Penny’s silence really meant.

He tapped in a message: Can you just let me know you’re okay? Then hit Send. The message bubble popped onto the screen. What was more worrying than anything else was how the messages were marked as Delivered and not Read.

Maybe she blocked him?

He sighed.

There were more important things to worry about. And yet, he was so damn exhausted, having stayed awake last night to slay monsters in the menagerie.

Just that morning, he fought against the Celestial Royal, fought for his life and the lives of the Cobalins, and somehow won. Then he studied magic symbols until the sun slid beyond the world and Cobalins started bursting out of the cemetery like popcorn.

If it weren’t for his Ring of Rest, he’d be a walking zombie.

Dhane grabbed one of the pole torches, crossed the cobblestone road, and planted it next to a rather large rock that jutted from the grass, covered in small, pink crystals. It was angular with sharp edges and a smooth surface at its center.

The stone looked unlike any of the other stones in the area, which led him to believe it wasn’t there just to sparkle and impress. It also couldn’t have been a coincidence that the stone sat perfectly at the center of their tiny, new village.

But what really drew him to this particular stone were the crystals. Small as they were, crystals could hold mana, and he would need a lot of mana for the combination of symbols he had chosen.

“Help with rock?” Knock asked.

“No, help with symbols,” Dhane said and Knock’s eyes lit up.

“I know three symbols! Trigger, sound, en moving stone.”

“And you know how to write them?”

Knock nodded vigorously. He held out his finger and said, “With me finger!” And when Dhane’s apparent confusion showed, Knock smiled and said, “Watch me magic finger.”

The tip of his finger glowed slightly with pearlescent mana. Then the tiny Cobalin drew his finger across the stone, marking it with a groove and a bit of discoloration.

With a wave, Knock cleaned the stone so it looked identical as before. Little beads of sweat reflected torchlight at his brow and the little Cobalin heaved a breath.

Dhane considered his finger, then understood perfectly what he had to do. It wasn’t just summoning mana like he had when he healed Octoralis or donated mana to the priests of Light, it was a mixture of mana and intent, or so the knowledge at the back of his mind implied.

He had four symbols to draw. The main one was a universal symbol that acted as a function, used to shrink things. Pip’s notes stated that, though the symbol wasn’t used often by people, it was what powered the Inventory app.

Dhane focused on releasing a sliver of pearlescent mana at the tip of his finger. Warmth spread down his arm and hand until a tiny, shimmering point materialized.

It took significant focus to keep it there, and with every passing second, his mana dropped by 6 points out of the full 110.

And so he drew. The symbol looked like two Vs, one within the other, pointing down toward a small circle with two parentheses facing away at the sides.

Drawing the symbol reminded him of calligraphy class all those years ago, and Mrs. Begbie, who often said, “With yer arm, Dhane! Draw from the arm, not yer wee wrist. Brilliant lines comes from brilliant minds—stop chicken scratching!”

Calligraphy wasn’t something most English majors took, though he quite enjoyed the shapes letters made. And, well . . . hand-inked quotes sold well on Etsy and impressed the girls.

By the time the symbol was drawn at the center of the stone, the warmth that had spread through his arm started to burn. His mana was dangerously close to being completely gone, which would have given him the Mana Drunk trait.

“Why this symbol?” Knock asked.

Dhane let out a breath and relaxed, feeling a trickle of his mana start to return. “It’s the symbol for shrinking.”

“You want be small like Cobalin?”

He laughed. “No, not really. But a lot of people are coming for us.”

“Yes. Like before,” Knock said, growing solemn, eyes unfocused and probably thinking of Desley or the original Dedu Tedu before it was destroyed.

“But what if our village was small?”

“Small? This is small.”

“I mean, very small. It probably won’t work, and if it does, it’ll take a lot of mana to keep it working.”

Oh!” Knock said. “I have mana. Cobalins help!”

Dhane nodded. “It’s going to take all of us, though this is just a test round. I’ve never used symbols before and don’t know how much mana it’s going to require or if there are limits to what can shrink. It might only be possible to shrink items, not locations or people.”

A mental yawn tickled its way into Dhane’s mind. We alive, Daddy?

“You’re back!”

Knock frowned. “I . . . never left.”

“No, Octoralis is back,” Dhane said and summoned Octoralis to the stone. She materialized into her black and orange, furry self, about five inches tall, and he immediately regretted it.

Knock, on the other hand, snatched Octoralis.

She projected an Oof.

“Spiders are good!” Knock yelled, hanging Octoralis by her hind legs. “Fuzzy spiders even better! Make good soup.”

Ugh!” Dhane quickly unsummoned Octoralis to wisps of smoke while visuals of spider soup—little black legs squirming—invaded his mind, making his throat itch.

I eat him! She projected loudly. Little green snack!

“There will be no eating each other!” Dhane said. “Octoralis is my spider, she’s a part of me. You wouldn’t eat me would you?”

Knock scrunched his forehead. “Is test question? Kill human, they drop meat. We no eat . . . meat?”

“What! Humans drop meat?”

“Yes. . .?” Knock said with uncertainty, and as he said it, the knowledge at the back of Dhane’s mind filled in the gaps.

Loot was entirely dynamic, based on the player’s race. A human killing another human wouldn’t drop meat but a human killing a Cobalin would.

The thought of eating green, Cobalin meat was disgusting. Eating intelligent, humanoid creatures just didn’t sit well with him. It was wrong. Of course, as soon as he thought that, a trickle of hunger from deep within his soul said otherwise.

Yes . . . Octoralis would eat anything.

I would not, Daddy! she projected, but then followed that with, Probably.

Dhane refocused on the task at hand. Food would be a consideration for later, a time when they weren’t under constant threat of annihilation.

Octoralis seemed to understand this, and though she filled his chest with excitement for being alive again, she had plenty of memories to review and chose to remain quiet.

As to the question about human meat, he said, “We’ll talk about it later.”

Knock shrugged.

Dhane’s mana ticked up to 110/110, and he had three smaller symbols to draw. The main function symbol he had drawn took parameters, a way to set how it should work.

With mental focus, he drew a circle that corresponded with the numeral one, then affixed it with two diagonal lines. Each line divided the result by two, essentially, in magical calligraphy, writing one-fourth.

The next symbol indicated inch as the measurement unit, and the last symbol specified direction. He used a circle with a line crossing vertically and horizontally to say all directions.

Dhane let out a breath, skin pulsating with heat. He wiped his brow and summoned Pip’s book. The bookmarked pages matched the symbols almost perfectly. Mrs. Begbie would have been proud and . . . come to think of it, dismissive once she had nothing to ridicule.

The only thing he didn’t specify was a mana limiter. This was a test to see how effective the symbols were with his available mana. From there, he could do simple algebra and figure out if this crazy scheme was even possible.

So many unknowns could derail his efforts, then he’d be back to the drawing board with a clock ticking overhead.

There were other ideas, of course: summoning darkness to hide them, raising the ground into massive walls, hiding the village in another cave, or disguising the Cobalins as humans.

He particularly liked this last one, only for how ridiculous it would be: We’re just another human village. Nothing to see here. Nope, nothing at all!

But to shrink? No one would expect that. It’d take their little village and make it practically impossible to find. A tiny safe haven where they could finally relax and focus on other things, like conquering a dungeon and gaining strength to defend themselves.

“Now what?” Knock asked, looking away from the cemetery. More and more of the Cobalins were celebrating their escape from Ceratree City. But none of them, as far as Dhane could tell, was Desley.

“Now, we test.”

“Test?”

“We need to see if the symbols work on living things, not just items. Here,” Dhane said and took Knock’s shoulder, then directed him to sit next to the stone, “sit there.”

“Will this . . . hurt?”

Huh, there’s really no way to know.

Probably not, but if the size of the effect only captured Knock’s head, it’d probably kill him outright, or leave him looking like Beatlejuice after playing with voodoo head-shrinking dust.

“Of course, not,” Dhane said with his stage smile.

“Okay, great Shadow! Test test!”

Dhane’s mana ticked up to 30/110. He didn’t need a lot of mana to test the effect, but it would be useful to know how to trigger it. The thought awakened new knowledge and he understood what to do.

He drew lines in the air, releasing an experimental 20 mana. The symbol looked like a T with a diagonal cut through the center of it. Once it took form, glowing blue in the night’s air, he focused on the stone and Linked his intent.

The blue lines shot forward and ignited the symbols in the stone. The pink crystals glowed. The ground . . . shook? Knock clenched his jaw, looking very uncertain about his recent life decisions. And all the other Cobalins stopped laughing, chatting, and playing.

Everyone watched.

Cobalins ran out from the cemetery to see what was happening. Some were on top of the hedges, wide-eyed, faces pink from the glow. Others stuck their heads out from the inn’s windows, curious, scared.

A beam of brilliant, pink light shot skyward and refracted off of something thousands of feet high, illuminating the forest for miles.

Shit! How do I turn it off?

20 damn mana shouldn’t have had such a massive effect. And now everyone would see a disturbance in the zone, a disturbance worth investigating.

The pink beam split off into a dozen directions, curving into one massive dome back down to the ground.

New knowledge leaked into his mind: basic symbols, common theories, effects, and finally an off switch. It only required enough mana to visualize the lines.

He drew a vertical line and three horizontal lines: top, middle, and bottom. But before he could draw the diagonal, triggering line, everything changed.

Knock screamed a tiny, high-pitched sound from a tiny, shrunken head. Then other parts of his body sucked in abruptly.

Something slammed through Dhane: a force, a wind, a thing of cold energy. His stomach clenched and the world spun. He was going to throw up.

He fell to his knees, reaching out arms toward the grass only to find they were short—really-really short—like he had T-Rex arms, which proved quite ineffectual at catching his upper body, leaving him to bellyflop to the ground.

He groaned and rolled to his side. The Cobalins were running with their arms waving overhead, shouting squeaky voices. Their legs popped! and became smaller, making them fall and tumble, crashing into each other.

White, puffy Sumilians bleated nervously, some dragging massive, twisting horns on the ground while their bodies were now smaller, others lost their appendages—too small to be seen—and rolled.

“What have I done?” he asked, his voice as shrill as the Cobalins. Then another blast of force shot across the village, into the forest, and across the lakes. His ears popped, and for approximately four seconds, everything appeared normal.

Normal except for the sudden free-falling sensation. Gravity wasn’t there, wasn’t pulling on anything down where it really ought to be pulling. This resulted in floating Cobalins and Sumilians and a delighted Knock, swimming through the air.

“I can fly!” Knock yelled, flapping his arms as if they were wings.

Dhane held to the grass, arms and fingers and everything else, seemingly back to the correct size.

A strong torrent of wind blasted through the surrounding forest. Branches snapped, leaves tore free and spiraled away as if caught in a dozen tornadoes.

But just as it all had started, it ended, and anyone unfortunate enough to be floating above the ground—particularly, Knock—found themselves screaming and slamming back down.

Grass and cobblestones split, forming large, uneven cracks. Windows shattered. A storm of red numbers shifted up from the army of Cobalins, all lying on their sides, rubbing sore spots.

Up above the village, out in every direction, were the jagged outlines of massive mountains ascending far into the night’s sky.

What happened?

Did they teleport to a new place?

But then the answer was obvious. From one mountain range to the next, an enormous wall of water exploded out and over the edge.

The shrinking worked. Dhane just didn’t anticipate it to work so damn well.

Now the many small lakes that had surrounded their village were draining into the gigantic pit they had opened. They just happened to be at the bottom of that pit.

Oh, shit brownies. . . .