- Markshire PCs:
And she would, in fact, learn a great truth down there. But not from the ice-snakes, whose tattered bodies they left on the floor behind them. The human attacked them with his sword, from hiding, and she would emerge from the dark a moment or two behind him, laying the ice-snakes low with powerful rapier thrusts from the flanks. It was amazing that they could coordinate so well having known each other for so short a span, the human breaking the silence only as the last ice-snake perished.
“You’re…capable…with that rapier,” he said, in his oddly reluctant manner of speech. She half-nodded and half-bowed to acknowledge the praise, determined to impress him, if possible, with a non-committal silence like his own. “Personally, though,” he went on, “I prefer the bow.”
Unsure whether this was just a statement or a rebuke, she mutely followed as he headed toward the cyclops’ heavily trapped treasure chest, where long ago she and her friends had found some roses. He told her to stand back, but she quickly peeked over his shoulder to examine the traps—hard but not impossible. She was surprised, then, when the chest sprung open, acid having destroyed much of the contents. “So,” she thought, “I might have some other skills with which to impress him.” And as she considered the man’s pride-near-conceit, she chastened herself, “But not right now.”
“Pity,” the man said, “mere baubles. But we can talk here.” And so they did, changing roles from the tavern, he telling a bit about himself and she asking the occasional question. He spoke of his loneliness—without really knowing it perhaps—confirming for Sun-Ok the admonition Marco had given her so long ago, that people would hesitate to trust those with Serpent abilities. And he spoke of the shadows and how he was comfortable in them, and among them, in a way he could never again be with people.
Her Markshire words were still far from perfect, but it sounded to Sun-Ok like the man thought the shadows were alive, that they reached out to him, aided him, comforted him, sustained him. She was just trying to decide the right way to broach this with him when he clutched his stomach again. This time, in the darkness of the cave, when he darkened, he became almost a shadow himself, not quite insubstantial, but very disconcertingly part of the darkness.
Slightly worried, she decided the best way to ask was to stay close to the truth and just pretend linguistic difficulty—this solution had stood her in good stead in the past. “But shadows just where light not reach, you say they alive?”
Surprisingly, his face lit up, and his tone became almost jovially boisterous. Almost, because there was still that underlying tone of conceit. “Of course they are! Haven’t you been listening?” And he pushed her toward a point in the cave where some light reflected oddly through the ice. “Look at your own shadow. Watch it. Now move, slowly. It moves with you, right? Follows you without being told? Changes size on its own? Hides where the light is brightest?”
He seemed caught up in his demonstration, so Sun-Ok was not sure whether he intentionally cut off the objection she was about to make. “Now meet mine,” he said. And, somehow, he brought his own shadow to life.
She was stunned, but recovered her wits enough to examine it closely, and even to touch it. “Don’t,” said the man, “they don’t like that.” She backed away. But the shadow just looked at her with a strange grin, then stepped closer to her, and further from the man who had summoned it. In a low but airy and distant voice, the shadow spoke, “Never mind…this one time.”
After a few moments of stunned silence, observing the man and his shadow, listening to them discussing her, Sun-Ok at length approached the man again. “I don’t…”
The two of them looked at her as though she had interrupted a family meal. The man gestured, and the shadow became once again just a pattern of darkness on the cave floor behind him. The man made an exaggerated yawn and said it was time for him to leave.
He was actually walking back out of the cavern before she could gather herself. “Wait…please…you teach me more…sometime?” He turned, slowly, and faced her, across that oddly glinting patch of ice. He did not speak for some time, but her people were known for their patience.
“You can fight, yet you are not a complete thundering bulked up idiot like most of the warriors here.” He paused, and she thought she might have found a way to answer the question she could not ask.
“The serpents of ice…” she started, in the Ancient words, and then intentionally trailed off.
But he had no reaction to the word, just continued on. “Yes, you fought well there,” he said, seemingly annoyed that he had to repeat the praise. “And you have acquired somewhere at least the fundamentals of stealth. And,” and here he paused and shrugged, “my shadow did not despise you. Which actually counts for far more than you could possibly know…”
He clutched his stomach, darkened, and gazed at her for a few more moments. “Yes…I will…share…what I have…learned…when I can. Until then—practice. Hard. Use these,” he said, tossing her a few small badges. “The darkness they make is a little like living with the shadows. Very little.”
She caught the badges deftly and bowed, realizing there was still something unsaid between them. “I am Cheng Sun-Ok. Honored.”
Somewhat startled, he answered, again in that reluctant way, “I…am Dram.” Once more, he showed her the smile she did not wish to see. “And you have your first test—other one-eyes have doubtless returned above, and more ice-snakes have doubtless come out of their holes down here. Get out on your own.” And with that, he leaned into the shadows and was gone. Again.