It was shaping up to be a fairly relaxing day, and we’d earned it. The mine owned by the clan nearest us to the east had been having a problem with salamanders of the non-mundane variety getting into the mine lately, and being as they were salamanders over two feet long from head to tail, no one was particularly thrilled to find them sleeping in the fuel stores. We’d no idea where they’d come from, but uncontrolled fires in a mine are bad news, and creatures that like to set their bedding on fire before curling up for a nap are even worse.
My apprentice and I had managed to oust the most recent batch of newcomers from their hiding spots and delivered them to a local farrier who found them useful, but if more kept appearing we didn’t know where we’d put them. Hopefully there wouldn’t be more.
Having cleaned the soot out of our fur, my apprentice and I were relaxing, glad to be home, and planning on taking the entire day, and perhaps the next few, as a bit of a break. Which is why I was not expecting one of the junior engineers to pound on the door in the middle of the day as if their fur was on fire.
“Wrangler of Weird Stuff Digger!” she called through the door, pounding furiously. I opened the door, nearly causing her to fall inside. “There’s….there’s some weird shadow things in air vents by the east tunnels and they’re asking for you! By name and everything!” It was Drift-Adit, one of the younger ones.
Well, I can’t say I’d been expecting that.
“What do you mean, ‘weird shadow things’?” I asked.
“Well they sort of erm...appeared. Like, two small blobby things and one that looks like some sort of….porcupine dragon tentacle thing? Like someone ate the weird mushrooms and started painting with an inkpot?” Drift-Adit was known for being….creative with her imagery sometimes, but this….this I recognized. Could it be?
“Yeah, we’d better come take a look.” By the time we got there, Drift-Adit took us to one of the airshafts cut to serve as both ventilation and a way of bringing spoil out of the newer areas easily. And there, surrounded at a safe distance by some very nervous-looking junior engineers, was….the Shadow I’d helped raise, at least for a little while.
And near to it, almost merged with it, were two smaller shadows. One was dappled somehow, like the ground under leaves in a forest, and the other one...I wasn’t aware darkness could glow, but somehow it managed it. They were both blobbier and less defined, and almost huddled against Shadow, the glowing one peering out at the wombats with an expression I’d swear was curiosity, though reading the facial expressions of Shadow had always been more of a gut feeling rather than actually examining anything physically seen.
Shadow was bigger now, more elongated, and yes, spikier. Drift-Adit’s description wasn’t terribly far off.
“Shadow?” I asked, hesitantly. I didn’t know what to call it anymore, really. Shadowlescent? Shadow-adult?
“Digger!” There was joy in its voice. Pure, actual joy. “You recognized me! This -is- the right place, I knew it.”
“Oh good, it’s your friend, this is the right place, it can go with you,” interrupted the leader of the junior engineers, Double-Bracer-Of-New-Shafts, if I remembered right. “Erm….since it is a weird thing and you are wrangler of anything weird, maybe….maybe you can deal with it now? It’s scaring the mules and we can’t haul out anymore spoil until it’s gone.”
I sighed. “Yes, I can.” Mine mules don’t tend to spook easily, but they don’t take kindly to the weird, either. I’d bet one of them had tried to kick it, and when that didn’t work, refused to move. Mules tend to not like anything too out of the ordinary.
“We can go to my place,” I announced, turning to head back, to the visible relief of the engineers. They were young, and it was probably one of their first projects without a senior engineer’s supervision - they were going to be skittish for a while. “Follow us.”
As we headed back down into the mine, I ignored my apprentice’s puzzled looks for the moment to walk side by side with Shadow, or as much as I could, as the two smaller shadows trailed behind. “How did you find me?” I asked. “It’s been what….seven years?” Seven years and half a continent besides, as I thought about it.
“I smelled your shadow when we were traveling,” it said. “I remembered that scent, and we followed it.” It sounded excited, and yet, almost wistful. “It is….not heard of my kind to have friends, or to be friends with someone who is kind to us. People may try to use us for their own ends, but kindness is unheard of. I wished to see you.”
It was nice to see Shadow again. I had wondered how it was doing, if it had found others like it, or if it was even still alive. For a while...I hadn’t been its mom or anything, but I had raised it a bit. I’d tried to at least. It had been an unusual situation. But it had been my friend and I did miss it. I just had never figured on seeing it again. “How did you get all the way over here? We’re half a continent and more from where we were…”
“I did as I said. I went to find more of my kind, young ones who could still be saved. Sometimes I came too late, and they had been eaten, or hurt, or killed by hunters. Sometimes I found older ones like me, and I talked to them. A lot of the time I got chased. It is….very hard to be the first to do something.”
I nodded. “Has it been worth it?”
Shadow paused. “To do good, when one has the choice….is always worth it, I think. And it is worse to do evil knowing you could have done good. Others of my kind, I do not think they know there is a choice. Some do not believe there is.”
“You’ve the right of it. There is always a choice.” By now we’d reached the entrance to my den. “Well, here’s my rooms. Might as well come in. There’s….” I racked my brain trying to remember what it could eat. There were Rules about this sort of thing. Invite someone in, offer them something to eat or drink. Anything else was just rude. “Well, I have some turnips and some mushrooms in the back storeroom. Do they have shadows you can eat?”
At this point, the glowing shadow trailing behind piped up, in a voice that sounded sort of wobbly, but also excited. “Are they the kind that glow? Glowing mushroom shadows are very good. Sometimes they make me fizz.” And with that, the shadow sort of….bubbled. It’s hard to describe what exactly it did, but it was like gas bubbling through water, but in a shadow. What was that shadow anyways?
“Erm….no, we tend to use that kind for lighting in tunnels. Sometimes. Sometimes it means there’s odd things around and you need to call in someone to figure it out. We just have the usual kind - red pine mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms...nothing glowing for dinner. Just come on inside and erm….sit? Relax? You can eat their shadows if you’d like.”
I led them inside and began to set a pot of water on the boil for tea, at least for myself and my apprentice. Poor kid had been following, looking utterly fascinated but a bit too nervous to speak up. Right, time to be the adult here. “Shadow, this is my apprentice, Hyalite of Clan Dichroite. I sort of wound up as the person who handles anything odd around here. Hyalite, meet Shadowch-....erm, Shadow. The one I told you about.”
“Hello!” Hyalite looked utterly fascinated. “I never thought I’d actually see what Digger was talking about….it’s nice to meet you.”
“You have an apprentice!” Shadowchild sounded intrigued. “So like me, you found another like yourself to teach?”
“Hyalite found me, is more like it.” I motioned for Shadow to sit, or at least get comfortable. The glowing smaller shadow became very interested in one of my pillows. “It’s kind of a long story.”
“I am interested in hearing, if you wish to tell.” Shadow smiled, a kinder smile and not the full of teeth kind I’d seen it use sometime.
“I like stories,” said the smaller dappled shadow. “The trees told good stories. I miss those stories.”
Right. Was going to have to ask about that later. I set to getting the turnips and mushrooms out of the back, and then into a bowl, while the water boiled. “It took me more than three years to get home. I was able to meet up with Trader Manuel like I’d planned, but the route, with all the stops and delays due to weather, pirates, and in one case a plague of walruses, took three years to get me to the warren of Clan Smoking Rock.
“Walruses?” asked the glowing shadow. “What is a walrus? Why are they a plague?”
“They’re like big seals with giant teeth.” No sign of comprehension there. “Like...dogs but with fins instead of legs. And big canine teeth they use to dig up clams.” I gestured to show what I meant. Hyalite snorted. “A big male thought we were invading their territory and attacked, a maternal female walrus mistook me for her pup, I nearly drowned…it didn’t go so well. And that was just the start of it.” The kettle squealed, and I added the tea leaves.
“I made myself useful. I guarded the cart, I groomed the Bandersnatch, I helped with the cookfires in the evening. The trip was full of too many odd things to count, but compared to what we went through…it was almost mundane, really. I accidentally drank from some sort of magic spring sacred to a local warrior goddess, and surprised the locals for not only surviving the experience, but coming away from it unchanged. Apparently locals who drink from it, if they survive, tend to come out stronger but hairier and with larger fangs. I was already fairly strong for my body size, and fairly hairy, so they agreed that its effects, if any, would be fairly hard to tell, and could be either due to some inherent magic-repelling qualities of wombats, or maybe I was just going to randomly grow fangs someday.”
Shadow chuckled. “I think I know of that spring. The waters sound familiar to those near to where I found this small one,” it said, gesturing toward the glowing shadow. “The waters in that entire mountain range are…strange.”
I blinked. Yes, definitely going to ask about that one. “Either way, we came away from there with some truly impressive trilobite fossil specimens, which we sold to collectors of curiosities along the route for far more than we paid for them, as per the usual, and I left them with a warning about better signage around hazardous water sources.”
“Or at least warnings that if you go in and survive, it might not be in the same shape,” my apprentice interjected. “I mean, there’s all sorts of water hazards – disease contamination, improperly handled mine runoff, high nitrate levels, weird algae, dangerous fish….some stuff all you have to do is boil.” It was then I recalled my apprentice’s parents were both hydrologists. “That stuff, boiling might just concentrate the weird. Can you concentrate weirdness in water? I wish you’d kept a sample…”
“Given that they worshipped it, I doubt they would’ve taken kindly to that. I mean for three years of travel, it was bound to be pretty eventful right? I bartered in the goblin market, I served as an impromptu farrier for an eight-legged horse, I saw my first ever tornado, and I survived the hail of frogs that came along with it. I ate bread made from seaweed, and helped shear vegetable lambs. I learned that apple cider made from dryad apples causes inebriation on a truly unheard-of level, and that Trader Manuel’s famous hangover cure tasted terrible enough that I was surprised he had any repeat customers. I got run over by a flock of fire-breathing sheep, and smelt like hay and smoke for days after. I did many things both strange and mundane, and managed to survive most of it with only minor injuries. I wound up with some interesting scars, for sure, but the fur grew back around them thick and full enough you can’t tell from a distance, so that’s fine.” I poured the tea into thick, sturdy mugs for myself and Hyalite, and smaller teacups for Shadow and the smaller shadows, in case they wanted any.
“Here we go, tea with rose hips. Maybe the tea leaves and rose hips have interesting shadows, who knows.” I sat down and continued. “In the end, my resistance to magic came to be useful enough that Manuel debated finding another wombat to be his assistant, since it meant I was able to handle some of our weirder cargo without risking any ill effects, and by the time we reached Smoking Rock, he was sad to see me go. Our agreement had been just me working for my keep, but I wound up with a decent amount of travel funds for the next leg of my journey, as bonus/hazard pay. By this point I’d been away from other wombats for a long time, and getting used to being around more of my people took a bit of adjustment. Smoking Rock took me in for a bit and helped me arrange travel with a dwarf caravan to get home, but given Trader Manuel’s accurate, albeit rather flattering, review of my skills, they asked if I wouldn’t mind helping them deal with a few odd things before I left. So did the dwarf caravan. And every warren I stopped at on the way home.”
Hyalite smiled into their teacup. “News gets around fast underground, you should know that.”
“I’d forgotten, okay?” I jokingly poked my apprentice in the arm. “ So by the time I reached home, not only did they know I was coming, but word of my skill at dealing with odd things had reached them, too, albeit slightly exaggerated for purposes of good storytelling. Given that before I left I was still in sort of a journeyman stage, not particularly specialized or skilled at any one thing, it was a bit of a shock to come home and have myself immediately declared official Wrangler of Weird Things for the clan, and possibly to any local clans or human settlements that found themselves dealing with anything too odd. Manuel dealt in stories as much as he did in trade goods, and so word of some of the odder things started to filter in, which didn’t help my reputation at all in terms of being left alone. I had enough money left over from Manuel’s parting gift to buy my own place at least, and so was spared the embarrassment of having to move back in with my parents. It is nice to have my own place, I admit, even if it sometimes means being awakened at Oh-Mole-Dirt-It’s-Early in the morning to deal with a strange glowing rock found down some tunnel, or that someone’s mule had suddenly grown antlers. I can’t always fix things all the way, but I could at least give a best guess and pitch in to help.”
“And then I heard about Digger and decided I wanted to be part of it,” Hyalite pitched in. “I love weird things, and when I realized you could have a job dealing with them instead of just getting odd looks for collecting them…”
“So yes, after I’d been back a few years, this one shows up on my doorstep and is related enough to me I can’t say no. Especially since they’d brought all their possessions in a backpack and were pleading with me. I figured I could attempt to teach some common sense and survival skills, and they’re good at reminding me to eat on a regular basis. And having an extra pair of hands around is good.” I sipped my tea, and was about to ask Shadow about its small ones when the bundle of cloth on my chest started to squirm.
“What’s that?” asked the glowing shadow. “Do all wombats do that?”
I carefully unwrapped my daughter from her sling and held her in one arm as the other held my tea. “When they’re small, they do, yes.”
“So you’ve acquired two small ones!” Shadow exclaimed. “Not an apprentice?”
“Shadow, this is my daughter, Ed.” I bounced her a bit in my arms. She was old enough to be out of the pouch but young enough she wasn’t doing much more than eating, sleeping, and crawling around a bit. “I mean…it’s not like I’ve ever been particularly interested in sex or romance, you know? But a bit after Hyalite here showed up I started thinking about having a child. It’s not like single parenthood is unheard of around here, sometimes people want kids without necessarily having a mate or anything long term, and I have plenty of family around to babysit when Hyalite and I can’t look after her.” I held her out a bit from me to show Shadow, though I was a bit leery of Shadow holding her at the moment. “So I spoke to Aunt Strongbracer, and she spoke to her cousin Euclase, and Euclase’s daughter who’d married a girl of Clan Folded-Chert said that Folded-Chert was interested in some tighter links with Clan Quartzclaw, and that they’d be happy to send over a few fellows so I could pick one to get me pregnant in exchange for renewing the blood ties between our clans and a renegotiation of some trade agreements. So I spoke to some males of theirs who were fine with this sort of arrangement, and a nice subterranean cartographer by the name of Mapper-of-Karst-Caves moved in with me for a few months. He was a decent enough sort, and we got along well, and once I was pregnant, he went back to his clan.
“I don’t know how your kind reproduces, and though I admit I am curious to hear about it later if you want to share, but about a month later, a bean-sized embryo crawled its way out of me and into my pouch, where she stayed for another seven months before she was born the second time. Her name’s Ed, because while we get our adult names once we hit apprenticeship age, our parents get to pick what we’re called before then, and well, it was that or keep referring to her as “the Bean” as I had when she was in the pouch. I’m still assuming she is a she, though if it isn’t, she’ll tell me once she figures it out.” I shrugged. “Wombats don’t really go in for specific gender roles and we’re not terribly stubborn about gender, either, if our family members decide what they were called at birth doesn’t fit. People update pronouns and move on with their lives, and there’s not much fuss made about it.”
“Some of us just think specific genders are a silly concept entirely,” Hyalite added. “I’m not male or female. I’m just me, whatever that is. So far no one’s really cared too much about it.”
“Exactly. And well….Ed had been a good friend to me. It feels right that he has a namesake, you know? He deserves to be remembered.”
“I know what he did, at the end,” Shadow said. “I heard from the shadows underground. Some of them I ate, and I learned what they had seen. He was brave.”
I nodded, sniffling a bit. “He was.” I paused a bit. “So yeah, that’s what’s been going on with me. Clan wrangler of weird things, and it’s a pretty decent living as it goes. How are the turnips and mushrooms?”
“Their shadows taste like earth and moss,” said the dappled one. “The mushrooms taste of the shadows of the trees they grew upon. I like these mushrooms.”
“They are boring but also filling,” the glowing one said. “The glowing ones are more fun.”
Shadow looked at Ed a bit more closely. “She’s so small,” Shadow said, almost reverently, and I could tell it was smiling. “I have also acquired young ones. I am maybe not as experienced in being kind as you are, but I have tried. Some of the young ones I found were too feral or had been taught by others and were unwilling to listen, much as their elders have been. But these two were young enough and willing to listen.” Shadow gestured and sort of pushed the dappled one forward a bit “This is Whispers-of-Summer-Plums.” There was a sort of encouraging motion, and it spoke. Its voice was soft, like the rustle of leaves in a light breeze.
“I am Whispers-of-Summer-Plums,” the small shadow said. “I was born in the shade of a plum tree. The dryad in the tree thought perhaps I was some sort of tree spirit it had not seen before, and tried to teach me to be a tree spirit.” It shrunk a little. “.....I did not make a very good tree spirit.”
“There was a storm, and lightning,” Shadow continued. “And the dryad died with her tree. The little one learned rage, and exorcists were called. I have...learned of the ways more of my kind are made, and learned the signs of feral children of my kind. I was able to intervene before the worst could happen.”
“I liked trying to be a tree spirit,” Whispers-of-Summer-Plums said. “I was not a very good one, but I liked trying to learn. Now I am learning to be good.” It sounded optimistic, but still clung close to Shadow. Shadow did….something, and the glowing shadow spoke.
“I’m Glowing Waters Underground!” it said, in a much more cheerful tone. “They used to call me ‘What the Heck Is That Thing’ and ‘Weird Water Shadow Spirit Thing I Hope It’s Not Going To Kill Us’ but I like that better.” Hyalite tried and failed to suppress a chuckle at that. I couldn’t blame them. “I was in a bottle and it was boring, but it broke when it fell into a spring, and there were lots of people coming by the spring where I lived. The waters glowed, and there were glowing things under the water. Old things, and their shadows were sharp and fizzy, and sometimes they made me fizz when I ate their shadows. I liked the fizzy shadows. Sometimes people dropped things, and I ate the shadows of those things, too. But not swords. Sword shadows aren’t good to eat. Sometimes people would swim in the water, and I’d go down and say hello, but they never stayed.”
“Someone had captured an infant of our kind and put it in a bottle, for reasons I cannot tell,” Shadow continued disdainfully “Somehow the bottle made its way into a place where many magical items had been improperly stored too close to water. When the earth shifted, the magical items fell into the water. The nature of the magic and the underground spring have made this one….excitable.”
Internally, I winced. Who knows what sort of magic that young shadow had been exposed to. No wonder it looked a bit odd. It had grown up around a magical toxic waste site, and had apparently been living on the shadows of who knows what sort of magical items. That explained the people coming by, too - there was always a party of adventurers dumb enough or desperate enough to try raiding sites like that. But the fact that the shadow had reacted with curiosity….that was promising.
“Based on your description of the spring of the war goddess, I think that some of that magic may have influenced those waters as well. Or maybe the waters were already magic, I do not know. But it has meant this one is a bit unusual for our kind.”
“I’m weird and that’s awesome!” The glowing shadow cheered. “I’m an experience!”
“I bet you are. Shadow was, too. Is, really.”
“I am because of what you taught me,” Shadow said, flowing over to me and wrapping around me and Ed in what felt like a hug. “Digger…I…I missed you.”
I leaned carefully into Shadow’s ‘embrace’, not sure if hugging back was possible but enjoying the sentiment nonetheless. “I missed you too.”