We are both on time. I step out of an alley just as Velles strides across the square. It’s a quiet day, the market is empty and other than a few pedestrians trudging off to some unspeakable day-long act of labour, the space is ours. She waves as I meet her halfway. The location isn’t important, but this was conveniently halfway between various other commitments. There is always a vague hint of competition between us, or I feel that there is anyway. No doubt that’s some unexorcised impression of weakness in myself that I haven’t quite shaken. I know for a fact that we’re approximately equal in power, so the difference can only be in style, and doubt.
“Good morning Hastrid,” she calls out as we draw near each other.
Even from metres away I can feel that sense of her strength, she seems charged with energy. I wonder how I seem, and promptly curse myself for even wondering because I’m sure I can see my self-doubt reflected in her eyes. Power draws power, it is innately appealing and attractive. So why don’t I feel like I’m the one exercising that draw? And this is why I think Velles is the more powerful. Or I’m just an idiot. The latter is likely whether or not the former is true. And, lost in introspection, I’ve delayed replying beyond the point where it would seem natural, so I awkwardly and belatedly punt out, “lovely morning for it.”
Quite what I meant by that I have no idea, and Velles plainly has none either, offering me the merest quirk of an eyebrow to neatly summarise both her mild confusion, concern that I might be somewhat brain damaged, and – I’m sure – a trace of affection, even if it is just for the neighbour’s cat who likes a stroke of its ears once in a while. It’s going to be a long day.
“Shall we?” she asks, ending this non-conversation. I’m both grateful and busy kicking myself in the mental nuts for failing to keep it together mere seconds into our meeting.
With languid grace, she extends her arms and then with a flourish, allows the shadows to unfold. They flow from her fingertips, drawing the shade out from every place the sun fails to touch her, until it roils before her like a malformed basket made of smoke. Velles is left free of darkness, utterly lit from all directions. At this point I take over, pouring my own shadows out from where they hide in the creases of my clothes, the folds and shapes of my body, from beneath my feet. I weave them into the matt black penumbra that hangs between us, curtail its wispy tendrils and spin it into a flat oval hanging vertically in the air. This part I can do well, and I’m working really hard at not being in any way ostentatious – this is just a thing I’m good at, no need to impress or be impressed. Despite my havering away inside, the portal forms perfectly, the lower edge of darkness hovering mere millimetres about the ground, wide and tall enough for us to pass through together.
“Nice,” Velles mutters, and a little butterfly of happiness does a dance inside me until I punch it into peace.
We step through together, shoulders barely touching, and we leave the real world behind…
…and emerge into light. This is the bright realm, a place where shadows don’t exist. We shed our darkness and used it to enter the brightness. Here everything is utterly visible, nothing lost to shadow. It’s as it sounds: bright. We both produce sunglasses which don’t darken anything but at least take the glare away. Velles’ sunglasses are the same she’s worn here for years, whereas mine are a cheap pair I picked up yesterday because I lost the last ones. I’m pretty sure I took the price label off them.
In this place of absolute whiteness you realise how much shadow helps to delineate shape, gives depth and distance to everything. It’s easy to fall here, and to walk into things because it all seems exactly as far away and shallow as everything else. Thankfully we won’t be staying here long. The bright realm is fine, for what it is, but very little lives here and even the best of us have slowly gone crazy after spending too much time here. It’s a stepping stone, lets us go from one extreme to another. We’re heading for the shadow realm, which isn’t a place of total darkness, because then there would be no shadows there. That’s the void that you’re thinking of, and we’ll travel through that to reach shadow. The liveable realms like ours and shadow exist on the other sides of these polar opposites and there are no short cuts. The bright realm might hurt our eyes, but it’s relatively safe, the void on the other hand…
Velles leads the way, magnificent coat doing magnificent swishing things as she walks. I draw level and keep my eyes open. There’s not much alive here as I said, but that doesn’t mean things can’t move. It’s initially hard to tell, but this part of the bright realm is filled with geometric shapes – you might even call it architecture – stacked high and almost at random, save that they aggregate into shapes that if you get close enough do look like buildings, but from a distance is just a shapeless mass. I always start to miss shadows really badly when I’ve been here for even a few minutes. Velles knows where she’s going though, and follows the open spaces between the shapes until we reach another square. I can only tell it’s a square by squinting and relying on the same sense that lets you watch a two dimensional film and perceive the depth in it. Not easy without shadows, so you go by size and relative brightness. It’s not perfect, and more than one of us has ended up impaled on a needle thin spike that’s utterly invisible until it’s in your chest.
“Here will do,” Velles says, and begins the process for stepping into the void. Where previously we shed our shadows, now we shed our light. If you found losing shade eerie, losing the light would really freak you out. Velles draws the brightness off her, and becomes transparent. White light ripples off her clothes, her hands, her hair, her face, and gathers, itself almost invisible against the bright background. I only know where Velles is because I trust that she hasn’t moved – there is nothing of her that I can see. My turn. It’s an exercise of will, and that kernel of perceptive magic which lets us see ourselves from outside and recognise that we are just light and matter, things subservient to our will. The light slides off me like a wave washing away a sand castle, and I’m instantly invisible too.
“Alright, now you’re just showing off,” comes Velles’ voice to my right. I smile, invisibly, content to be recognised unseen.
This time Velles does the magic, gathering the light which hangs in the bright air of a light-filled realm. She stretches it out, unfolds it into another broad oval for us to pass through. Onwards, into the dark.
The void is worse than the bright realm. There’s nothing to see here, nothing at all. It’s the utter blackness you’d get underground where light has never even been – not even the memory of once being illuminated. You stay together in the void, and my heart catches as Velles takes my hand. I imagine she can feel my heart pounding through my palm. One hundred per cent related to being in the void, I can assure myself. There’s no point going anywhere in the void – not even the slightest chance of knowing if there’s a gaping cliff just before us, or the darker monsters that most assuredly dwell here. We aren’t staying long. With neither shadow nor light to conjure with, we must work with what we have left: certainty. All that distinguishes us from the void is our knowledge that we ourselves exist, that perceptive magic and using it to define ourselves in the darkness.
Velles starts this one, using the spoken word to carve out her existence from the void. She recites a poem that encompasses all that she is. I’ve heard it before, but it still gives me chills. It’s brief, achingly concise yet shot through with beauty. Then it’s my turn. Recitation is the best way to do this, it’s a thing we can learn and associate more deeply with ourselves through repetition and rehearsal – the void is like a stage on which you earn your presence through the weight of your performance. Where Velles used poetry, I have prose. But still, it’s a resonant piece filled with assonance and alliteration, building up its own pattern, describing me in the world and the space I occupy. Velles’ hand is cool in mine, but gripping tightly. No one likes being the void, and the longer we’re here the more likely we are to meet something… untoward.
But my piece isn’t working. I can feel the shape of Velles’ poem close to us, can almost touch its metaphorical threads. I keep going, but a shiver of panic runs through me, doubt clamouring somewhere in the back of my head, the lowest parts of my heart. I’m losing confidence in myself, and here that’s just death. I stammer, stutter and begin to fall apart.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Velles hisses, quite reasonably I think, since my screwing this up will trap us both in the void forever, or at least until something kills us.
“It’s going to be fine. I’m just – it’s been a difficult couple of weeks alright.”
“You have to get it together Hastrid.”
Velles turns and takes my other hand too, and it’s like a circuit has been completed: warmth, comfort, a dozen things that I kick myself for feeling. I start again, and this time it’s going to be OK. From far off in the void comes a rumbling roar, with the kind of subsonic bass that you feel in your kidneys. I keep going, but faster, as Velles squeezes my hands harder. And it’s done, I exist in the void, my words and the shape of me ready to be woven into an exit from this place. I’m shaking and sweating from both the effort and the fear. Together we interweave our stories, invisibly in the dark. The web of ideas falls over us, and we’re transported into the world of shadows.
At last, we can see again. The shadow realm is dark, but nothing like the void. Here there is light, alternately hazy and bright, gifting everything around us with extraordinary depth and detail, while concealing endless secrets in shadow.
“You alright?” Velles asks.
“Yes, thanks. Sorry about that.” We’re still holding hands. I give her hands a gentle squeeze – half apology, half gratitude.
Sometimes it feels like an awful lot of effort to get into the shadow realm, but now that we’re here, it’s time to stop a war.