Chained Shadows: Chapter 5


    The dawn came slower than expected, golden rays crawling over the horizon like vines over a fence, slowly climbing over the city walls and lighting the city with a faint golden glow. 


    Sticker hadn’t even noticed it at first, only realising that the darkness was retreating and he was forced to rely more on the shadows, which grew weaker every second, limiting his movement and senses bit by bit, telling him the sun was up.


    He had been searching the slums the whole night, a bit frustrated that it hadn’t gone faster. But he had only himself to blame - he’d decided to start with the most populated district in the city, and it was a chaotic shambles that apparently never slept.


    The slums stretched along the southern wall separating Anvil from its docks, all the way from the Chapel of Dibella almost to the western gate, and by now, Sticker knew pretty much everything there was to know about the slums. 


    He knew where all the skooma dens were located and which ones were selling watered down doses and which ones offered the most privacy. He knew which gang controlled which territories, who was in charge of protection money, which prostitutes were the most popular and where they were located. He knew which taverns let rooms with no questions asked, he knew which locales staged underground fights. He knew where all the loan sharks were and what interest they were giving their customers. He knew which warehouses were used by smugglers and what routes they were using. 


    He knew everything. 


    It was a very strange sensation. So much information at once - it had been overwhelming at first, of course, but it was as if his mind drew strength from the shadows around him. Everything was clear, not a single thing he saw was forgotten and the order and sequence of things were completely accurate. He had searched all through the night, and not once had his mind lost its focus, not once did he get bored or distracted - which on its own was amazing. 


    In his old life, he would be considering what to do with all this information. Who to sell it to, how much he could earn... maybe even use it to carve out a little criminal kingdom of his own. Frankly, with everything he knew, he could control all of Anvil. 


    And that made him wonder. What was stopping him from continuing beyond Anvil? Why shouldn’t he use it to claim other cities for himself? Or Cyrodiil itself? Information was power, after all... 


    It would have been a temptation. In his old life. But here? What would be the point, when he was just a tusking intangible shadow? How would he exactly enjoy that power? 


    That thought gave him pause. Did he actually want that? In his life he’d met quite a few people obsessed with material power that provided them with as much gold as they could spend, with an abundance of women and alcohol. Anything they wanted. And then there were people who sought the power to control other people, rule them, which seemed to fill them with some kind of perverted joy. 


    And there was the catch. Sticker wasn’t interested in any of that. It seemed so… limited, so tedious. How could any of that compare to the sheer euphoria of magic crackling through one’s veins? There was nothing that could be compared to that. No amount of money, liquor or women could compare to the power at one’s fingertips, the power to reshape the world around him with sheer will. 


    And that was something he had been missing since he came here. Yes, he could see more now more than he ever could, he could move almost without any restrictions, and more importantly he was free in this world. There were no voices, no dreams, just an unlimited well of time to explore everything there was to explore. And yet…


    It felt hollow. He couldn’t really feel anything. No wind on his face, no magic crackling through his body. He could know everything that was happening in this world, and yet it paled in the face of the fact he wasn’t capable of feeling anything. 


    With all this knowledge he could change everything, make a difference, but why should he if he couldn’t take any kind of pleasure in that? 


    A realisation struck him then. 


    Is this how gods feel? he thought. With their power to know everything and power to act, was this the reason they did not? He suppressed a growl. Of course it was like this. They had the power to know everything and change everything, but they simply did not, because they weren’t invested enough to actually use that power. 


    And then there were the others, those who acted. Daedra. But the Princes acted only for their amusement, for their own goals. Nirn was a playground to them, and mortals but toys to fondle and discard at a whim.


    And how does that make ya any different from them, matey


    The thought was certainly unexpected. And quite arrogant. Comparing himself to the gods… well, Lash had already held the mirror to him once, revealing how he’d done exactly what was done to him to someone else - Lash himself. Would he come to repeat their other mistakes? Because the truth was that with enough time he could actually become a god in this world, in this form. Untouchable, all-knowing, maybe even capable of causing change. But should he want that? 


    It doesn’t matter, matey. This ain’t yer world, the only thing ya should care about here is Lash, ‘cause he’s solely yer own mess and yer own responsibility. Nothin’ else in this world really matters, not to ya. Ya will not help the runt ‘cause ya want somethin’ from him, but ‘cause he needs somethin’ from ya, ‘cause he deserves it. Be better than those silent gods who are either dead or don’t exist at all. Be better than those Daedric tuskers who do things only ‘cause they want somethin’, or simply for fun. Be better than all of them. 


    ‘Yes, Master Merotim.’


    He froze after hearing that, his form stopping right at the corner of one of the houses near the artisan district. Merotim… he repeated, focusing on where it came from. A man had said it, an Imperial, followed by a slight bow of his head. It had come from a house almost thirty steps away from him, right under the northern city wall. 


    A house? It was almost a villa, built in a square with a yard in the middle. Sounds were coming from the there, constant chiseling, sounds of hammers hitting stone, and he could see all the workers in there, either in the yard or in the house itself. It was a workshop, a masonry. He could see labourers working on huge blocks of stone for foundations and bricks. Some were doing more delicate work such as ornamental pillars or decorative frescos, and there were even people working on tombstones or stone coffins meant for the rich. 


    He noticed a large slab of granite hanging above the front gate of the villa and he could sense the delicate golden engraving in the stone saying: Merotim Stoneworks


    Merotim. Decimus. It felt like a red hot dagger stabbing right into his heart, where just moments ago he’d told himself he couldn’t feel anything. 


    And there he was, walking amongst the workers, joking and laughing. Alive. 


    He had been a father to Sticker in a different life, in a different world. And seeing him now, alive, brought up the unexpected pain that Grulmar thought he’d buried long time ago. 


    Decimus. He looked almost the same. Big barrel of a chest, wide shoulders and strong scarred forearms - though the belly was different. Someone had been living a comfortable life for some time now. Short greying hair - still mostly black - but instead of a neat beard around his mouth as Grulmar had known him to, he was sporting an unkempt full-beard covering his lower face. He was wearing a white tunic with sleeves rolled up and a leather apron over it, covered with grey dust. He even had the same bad knee, walked the same way by putting more weight onto his good leg.


    It hurt. Each second of looking at him intensified the pain threefold. This image was intermixing with the one of an older Decimus, pale and cold, unmoving, lying on the ground with a waterfall roaring in the background. Dead. 


    But this Decimus was alive. 


    He knew he should be searching for Baker, but he simply couldn’t force himself to move, to leave him again. We were supposed to go to Cyrodiil together, to escape all the madness in Skyrim. All Grulmar wanted to do was to reveal himself, to talk with this man.


    And what would ya say, matey? Hmm? ‘Hey, ya raised me as a son in a different life, but then ya died and I just want to tell ya that I miss ya. Can we be friends? Hugs hugs hugs.’ Well, good luck with that, ya idiot. 


    He watched Decimus chat with his workers, about their work, their families, and from the looks of it it seemed that he was leading a good and happy life. Though Sticker did notice several scars that certainly weren’t from working with stone, but inflicted by weapons. Well, it made sense. The fact that Decimus had fought in the Great War had made him what he was - and it seemed that in here, in this world his life was far better, even though he still might have been in the Legion.


    No Goldpact, no bounty hunting. A simple life. Sticker envied him so. 


    Decimus stopped by one of his workers, an absent-minded Breton who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five winters. He was carving an epitaph into a granite tombstone. Well, he wasn’t exactly doing much carving right now, since he was staring ahead, lost in his thoughts. 


    ‘Perian,’ Decimus spoke and the Breton jumped up a little bit, surprised, and turned around on his stool. He noticed Decimus and his skin grew a shade paler.


    ‘Master Merotim! I.. uh-’


    The Imperial raised his eyebrows at that reaction. ‘You're behind with your work, lad. Bristus told me you’ve been behind with everything lately.’


    ‘I’m sorry, Master Merotim,’ the young man sighed in resignation. ‘I can make it up to you, I’ll work overtime-’


    ‘Calm down,’ Decimus put hand on the lad’s shoulder. ‘You’ve always worked hard, I know that, so just tell me what’s going on, lad. You were staring off into nowhere just a minute ago.’ He grabbed another stool and sat down opposite the Breton. ‘Something with your family? I hear Camilla’s pregnant. Is everything alright?’


    The Breton chewed his lip for a second and then sighed again. ‘Yes, the healers at the chapel say the baby is healthy, it is just… I’m worried I might not be able to provide for my family. I mean, the new house we’ve just built and all that comes with it and now the baby…’


    ‘Do you want a raise, Perian?’ Decimus smirked.


    Sticker almost burst out laughing when sheer horror appeared on the Breton’s face. ‘No! Sir- I’d never- The job pays well enough, I assure you. Please, Master Merotim, that’s not what I meant.’ 


    ‘Then what is the problem, lad? Just spit it out.’


    ‘I… I loaned money from some people. To cover the expenses of the house. It wasn’t a big loan, the interest wasn’t that bad and I paid it all, but suddenly this loan-shark says the interest has increased. And that I owe him a favour.’ He lowered his head, continuing in almost a whisper. ‘I can’t tell that to Camilla. With the baby on the way… I would look like I-’


    ‘Perian, you’re such an idiot,’ Decimus lightly slapped the back of Breton’s head. Grulmar could recall exactly how that felt. The Breton looked at the Imperial with wide eyes. ‘Why didn’t you come to me, lad? I would have lent you the damn money with no interest. Why the fuck did you go to a loan-shark?’


    ‘I’m sorry, Master Merotim, you’re my boss and I could never ask-’


    ‘What’s done is done,’ Decimus waved his hand. ‘Now which loan-shark? Elbert? Or the new one in the docks? Mar… Marcino or something?’


    Perian shook his head. ‘No. Frandil.’


    ‘The Bosmer? An elf?’ Decimus raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He looked at the young Breton and rubbed his beard, sighing as he did. ‘You ever hear how these stoneworks started?’ 


    The change of topic was rather sudden and the Breton shook his head more in confusion than in answer to Decimus’ question, clearly not sure where Decimus was heading with this.


    ‘Alright, then listen. It used to be my family’s house, you know?’ Decimus pointed up at the ceiling. ‘It was much smaller, of course. Just me and my father; my mother died when I was still a little boy. My father was a mason and I was learning the craft from him, so it was just the two of us. And then the Dominion came,’ Decimus growled at the end. 


    Sticker knew this story. Decimus and his father fled Anvil, and his father was trampled by other refugees during the escape-


    ‘People wanted to run, but not my father. He wanted to stay, because this house here was everything we had, and because he believed the Legion would repel the damn elves.’ He snorted and shook his head. ‘Stubborn old fool. We survived the siege of Anvil, but then came the occupation and the sharp-ears conscripted locals to fix the walls they damaged earlier. My father refused to do that.’


    Ah, shit.


    ‘They hanged him from the walls, burned down our house and no one stepped up for us, all too scared of the elves,’ Decimus spat. ‘I ran from Anvil, joined the Legion, and I fought the elves because someone had to step up! I built these stoneworks in my father’s name as a place where decent people can work.’ He leaned closer to Perian, grabbing him by the shoulder. ‘We’re like family here and we take care of our own. You never needed to go to fucking elves for help in the first place!’ He shook his head. The Breton was about to say something, to protest or make his case but Decimus stopped him with a raised hand. ‘It’s alright, lad. You made a mistake is all. We’ll figure something out. Just remember to come to me next time you have trouble.’ 


    Sticker retreated a bit and then quickly searched the stoneworks with his senses. Bretons, Redguards, Imperials, Nords, even a few Argonians. But not a single mer or Khajiit worked there. The Great War must have affected Decimus much more than Sticker had thought. But could anyone blame him? The Dominion and the Great War had ruined and affected so many lives, shaping them in unexpected, radical ways. Such was war.


    A carriage drove into the stoneworks yard and Decimus raised his head, looking out of the window. A smile spread across his face when he recognised whoever was sitting in the carriage. He gave the Breton a pat on the back and stood up. ‘Don’t worry about the Bosmer, yeah? Just focus on your work. And say hello to Camilla from me.’


    Sticker focused on the carriage and immediately realised it was completely full. There was a whole family there. An Imperial woman, maybe in her early thirties, and a pack of kids. Seven of them. The oldest was a boy, maybe twelve years old, and the youngest was a girl around two years old, hanging over her mother’s neck. 


    Sticker’s mind was asking the question who they were, but part of him already knew the answer. It was clear from the children’s appearance - most of them had black hair and grey-blue eyes, and two of them seemed to take after their mother with brown hair and green eyes, but otherwise were spitting images of their father. 


    Decimus walked out into the yard and the children rushed out of the carriage yelling and laughing like a small horde of Imgas. They charged Decimus, jumping on him, and he roared with laughter. ‘Ambush!’ he shouted as he struggled to remain on his feet under the children’s assault. ‘I surrender, I surrender!’


    ‘Come now, let your father breathe!’ the mother raised her voice and the kids finally ceased their assault.


    ‘Who is your captain, hmm? I would have words with him,’ Decimus raised his chin, looking at the children like a Legate surveying his troops.


    The eldest boy took a step back and straightened. ‘Me, sir! Captain Meridius Merotim, sir!’


    ‘Well then, Captain. Is this how you commence an assault? Throwing all your forces into the fray without any reserves?’


    The boy didn’t answer at first, but then he smirked, mirroring his father. ‘We had mother and Lucilla in the reserves,’ he pointed behind himself, at the toddler resting in the mother’s arms. 


    Decimus held back his laughter, setting his lips into a thin line. ‘I see. Well done, Captain. Now, your report. How are things at camp?’


    ‘Antonius broke the Emperor’s bust!’ one of the younger boy’s blurted out.


    ‘No, I didn’t! It was Maximus!’


    Decimus shook his head and looked at his wife with a tired chuckle. She simply shrugged and smiled as he crouched in front of his children. ‘We don’t accuse each other, remember? If you have done something you will own up to it, because we do not lie in our family. Is that clear, troops?’


    ‘It was me,’ the youngest boy stepped up. He was about five or six.


    Decimus looked at him and patted him on the back. ‘Very well, Antonius. You are a good boy and I will let it slide this time, seeing as you owned up. But next time there will be consequences. Is that clear?’


    ‘Yes, sir,’ the boy nodded and Decimus then shifted his gaze to the single girl among the five boys. She was the youngest of them, four or five years old, dressed almost like a boy, black hair cut short and green eyes glistening with mischief. 


    ‘And what about you, princess? Have your brothers been good to you?’


    She put her hands on her hips and raised her chin. ‘I’m no princess. I’m a soldier too!’ 


    Decimus laughed and stroked her head. ‘Of course you are.’ He walked up to his wife, planting a kiss on her cheek and another on the infant’s forehead. ‘I wasn’t expecting you today, Remilia,’ he murmured.


    ‘The children wanted to see their father,’ Remilia replied. ‘And I wanted to surprise you. We haven’t seen you for several days now… the villa feels empty without you.’


    He rubbed his beard and hugged her. ‘I know. Sorry, we’ve had a lot of work and - yes, no excuses, I know. But you’re here now, and before you unman me in front of all my workers, there is something I have to tell you.’ He leaned closer and whispered into his ear. ‘I love you. And I will come back home with you today.’


    Sticker tore himself away from the stoneworks, rushing through the shadows as far away from it as possible. If he watched any more he was going to break. 


    He would have wished this kind of life for the Decimus he knew, and it would have made him happy just seeing that, but it only made him angry now. 


    Because that Decimus was dead. The one that he cared about was dead. And while it was beautiful to watch the life Decimus could have had, it also served as a very painful reminder that this wasn’t Sticker’s world, and that the man and his family over in the stoneworks didn’t matter at all. It could have been an illusion for all intentions and purposes, an image of what he wanted to see, because it simply- wasn’t- real. 


    And that hurt. Oblivion, it hurt so much. 


    It was selfish, thinking this way. He realised that much. He should be happy that someone else had found happiness, and yet all he could feel was envy and anger, and all he could think about was what he had lost himself - what could have been his but was not. Because his Decimus was dead. Because this wasn’t his world.


    Focus. Ya have a job to do. He spread his awareness over the artisan district as he rushed from house to house, looking for Baker. But once again, he surprised himself - or more precisely his capabilities in this world surprised him - because he could still search his surroundings even while thinking about something completely different. The mind was a curious thing, and in here it was even more curious, the way it processed information. It seemed that doing several things at once wasn’t a particular problem. 


    So while his senses groped around in the shadows, his mind tortured itself with Decimus and his lovely family in this world. 


    Sticker could have had that too, if he really wanted. There used to be an Orc he could have had a life with, and he had even knocked her up. And then he screwed it up, as he always did. Now she was somewhere in the other world, with his son, and he couldn’t but help wonder how his son was doing now. Was he walking already? Speaking?


    And he’d missed all that... on purpose. He’d left them on purpose. So how was he supposed to take it, now that a person he used to know was living a happy life, a simple life, with a perfect family? 


    Maybe there was another world where he was leading the same happy life. Maybe he could have raised his son, subduing the fear of becoming the same asshole as his own father. Maybe he and Borgakh could have gotten married, stayed in Winterhold where he studied magic, without any stupid incidents caused by his blind hunger for freedom and power.


    But what if Decimus was alive? Would that still have happened? They had wanted to go to Cyrodiil after all. If Decimus was alive, then there would be no practice of magic. No Borgakh and no family. Maybe there was indeed a world like this and suddenly he had no idea what he actually wanted. 


    But what did it matter what he wanted? The importance of his own need or want suddenly seemed somewhat distant, more so with every year that passed in this world, almost as if the time here was making him forget his motivations and reasons. He needed to remind himself of that, every then and now. 


    But right now? Seeing Decimus was reminder enough.


    A reminder of what lead him here. Maybe he was supposed to see exactly this to know what he had lost and what he was fighting for. Or against. And everytime it spiraled down back to the godly voices in his head that fought to take away his free will.


    Here he was free of those voices - but in their place, he was forced to watch the people he knew live completely different lives without any relation to him. 


    Here he was just an intangible shadow, unseen and unknown by everyone. An alien being that simply didn’t belong, didn’t fit into the workings of this world in any way. 


    And for some reason it stung.


    Was his ego really that big? Or maybe he was just a hypocrite of a scale that spanned realities, because his whole life he’d felt… important. Because of the voices, because of the people who cared about him, and to contradict himself yet again he’d always hated that feeling of importance resting on his shoulders. 


    But suddenly, in here, he was nothing. He wasn’t important at all, not to the gods or the people, and for that reason alone he felt… diminished. Reduced. Less of a person. The only person that was capable of caring about him here was Lash and even that was tainted by the fact that they were stuck together. 


    So is this what we have driven ourselves to, matey? To the point where we actually miss bein’ haunted by visions and dreams, bein’ pushed towards some grand destiny we don’t want at all? Ya sure we want to miss that? ‘Cause the way I see it, it’s why we’re in here; it’s what got us here in the first place. To get rid of that, to be free to do whatever we want, and only way we can do that is through power and -


    Great. Now y’are referrin’ to yerself in the plural form. Simply great. It’s official now, ya have lost yer mind, matey. Completely and utterly. First y’are thinkin’ about bullshit, jumpin’ from one thing to another like an indecisive runt, and now ya refer to yerself in plural. Congratulations, matey.


    He was harping on the same thing all over, dancing around it again and again. The question was right there, ever present. 


    Which world was better for him? The one where someone wanted to take away his free will? Or this one where his will was his own, but where he was nothing?


    Well, as of now, this question doesn’t matter. ‘Cause ya still don’t know how to get out, right? But should he even try to figure it out? Gah! Mothertuskin’ circle! Runnin’ in a circle, in yer own damn mind. Stop that. Ya promised somethin’ to Lash, so focus on that. Lash is the only thing that really matters here, so… Tuskin’. Focus. On. That. Just find that damn-


    He abruptly stopped. He was on the main street in the artisan district, hiding in the shadows thrown by the buildings which mostly consisted of all kinds of shops and workshops, the streets were crowded with people going about their business. And they all were casting shadows, which were like a cacophony of images, sounds and scents to him. There were thousands and thousands of shadows, a complicated mosaic that made perfect sense to him, every single piece of it. And there was one piece that felt familiar. 


    It was the scent, that was what he registered at first. Something exotic, maybe from Morrowind. Then it was the murmuring, the breaths, which felt familiar. He focused on that and his awareness streamed into a tailor shop behind the corner, a small distance away from the main street. 


    The customers were picking clothes. The tailors were taking their measurements and adjusting the clothes, but none of that was of any interest to Sticker. No, he was interested in what was below the shop. He surged through the shadows into the back room and found a trap door hidden under a rug. Slipping between the cracks, he found himself in a cold basement, lit by lanterns. There was a wall completely covered with papers and something about its pattern felt familiar. 


    And there she was. Baker. Sitting behind a desk, counting something. 


    Got ya, Sticker thought. 


    There was no one else in the basement, but he had to assume that the people running this tailor shop were Twin Lamps or maybe just allied with them. He watched Baker and he felt the urge to reveal himself to her and then somehow scare the shit out of her - because what else could he do? Beat her? Yeah, not possible, matey


    But then again, he would have done the same thing if he was in her position. He would have run away from the auction too if shit had gone south the way it did. Though with that line of thinking every betrayal or dagger in the back could be justified, and he didn’t like that. I think I’d rather stay pissed. 


    He watched Baker for most of the day, and she didn’t leave the basement even once. She had enough food and water there, brought to her after the tailor shop closed for the night, and since the slavers were most likely looking for her too, it was only reasonable to lie as low as possible. 


    Sticker focused on the papers on the wall and it took him some effort to recognize what was written on them - the shadows of paper had a bit of a different texture, making whatever was written on them harder to read. 


    It were mostly names and locations. Vague descriptions of people. And then another names and locations with slightly changed descriptions. Some of those descriptions seemed familiar. Ah! They’re describin’ some of the escaped slaves! Frankly, it was almost unbelievable how his mind could put these dots together, but just reading that description allowed him to remember the exact same person from the auction.


    The basement suddenly got a bit brighter and Baker raised her head, looking at the lanterns.


    The shadows were slowly retreating and Sticker realized it was his doing. Shit! He was absorbing the shadows around him. He quickly stopped whatever he was doing and the light returned back to normal.


    Wait. Is that how it works? I absorb the shadows around me to strengthen my mind? If that was the case, it could be the reason he could multitask so effectively and process information with such speed. How ‘bout that? Guess ya learn somethin’ new everyday. 


    So Baker was already helping some of the escaped slaves, finding them new identities and shipping them out of Anvil. He could see that it was mostly just other cities in Cyrodiil but some were even sent to High Rock, Hammerfell and Skyrim. 


    He kept an eye on the Dunmer for a while longer, making sure she wasn’t about to go anywhere, and when the sun began to set he concluded that he’d seen enough. 


    I should head back and plan a route to get the slaves here. Unnoticed. Yeah. Easy peasy…



    Lash was walking among the slaves, helping them prepare to leave. Blankets were used as provisional cloaks to fend off the cold and also to conceal their faces at least a little. Some of them were missing boots so they had to improvise and either they used the boots that Baker had left behind or wrapped their feet in rags. 


    Slaves. Lash paused, realizing that it was somewhat harsh to still call them that. They were people after all, not someone else’s property. Not anymore. 


    And yet, when he glanced at the chain wrapped around his left arm, the same chain used to lock him down every night in Morrowind, he couldn’t help but think that some people never stopped being slaves. Not in their minds. 


    We all build prisons for ourselves, forge shackles and chains. Slavery was merely the most radical form of taking someone’s freedom away. There were other forms. The laws of the people, abused and turned against them by corrupted men who revelled in exercising their power, for example. A way to hold people down, control them. The law itself wasn’t at fault, it was usually the people behind them. 


    What kind of world were they all living in? One where it was the law that told people the difference between good and evil, right and wrong? One where a person can be traded as property...


    If people couldn’t rely on laws to protect them, or if the laws were simply wrong, was it wrong to break them in order to do good? To fight the system itself for other people’s freedom? 


    Not in Lash’s mind, and yet here he was, hurt by the way things turned out. He considered himself a good person and yet by doing the right thing - fixing something the system had failed to fix - he was a fugitive in all but name. 


    He looked at the former slaves who had done nothing wrong but had been at the wrong place in the wrong time and felt a rush of rage for how the law had failed every single one of them. 


    It made him angry that they couldn’t go to the authorities. It made him angry that the same authorities were the ones actually turning a blind eye to this slavery in Anvil. 


    It made him so angry he wanted to wrap his chain around someone’s neck and snap it like a dry twig-


    ‘Thank you,’ the old woman in the group approached him, taking his big green hands into hers. ‘I feel like we haven’t said that enough, but thank you. For everything.’


    He stared at her, unable to respond. They were thanking him, thanking him for getting so many of them killed by giving in to his anger, thanking him for getting Parrish killed. ‘I…’ he started, then closed his mouth, still not sure what to say. He knew he ought to be strong for them, show his confidence, but he simply couldn’t. He rubbed his eyes and sighed. ‘I’m sorry, I just… So many people died because of me and I… I don’t know. Was it the right thing to do?’


    The old woman smiled and gently stroked his scarred cheek. ‘Oh, dearie. Doing something is always better than standing idly by. And you have saved us. Maybe it is not much for you, but it is everything to us.’ She looked around and frowned. ‘But I wanted to ask you. Have you seen the young lady, the pretty one in the flower dress? At first I just thought she was hiding somewhere in the warehouse, but I searched everywhere and no, she’s gone.’


    Young lady? Ah. ‘Alois’. Now what was he supposed to say? That the fragile girl was in reality a professional assassin with her own ‘hidden blade’? ‘She’s… uhm. Safe. You don’t have to worry.’


    ‘I’m not,’ the woman smiled. She looked behind Lash, at the wall where his shadow was supposed to be. Her smile waned. ‘I don’t, but some of the others are… unsettled by this… Sorcery. Some of us saw the shadow beast you summoned at the auction and… Well, they are worried you’re in a pact with some demon. I told them it’s nonsense of course, but restlessness can make people think about strange things, and we’ve been here almost three days.’


    Lash narrowed his eyes. ‘No, I’m not in pact with any demon,’ he said resolutely. Depends what you call Sticker, really. ‘You have nothing to fear from me, I swear.’


    ‘I know,’ the woman nodded. ‘I keep saying the same thing to others, but they are scared. Hopefully it will end soon.’ 


    ‘Yes, hopefully,’ he mumbled. Then the woman gasped when a shadow surged through the room and latched on Lash, and all of a sudden he was casting a shadow again. 


    Am I interruptin’ somethin’? Tell granny to close her mouth. We need to talk.’


    Lash resisted the urge to growl and headed towards his room. ‘Be prepared to leave,’ he murmured over his shoulder towards the slaves as he walked into his room, closing the door behind him. 


    ‘A bit of subtlety next time? They already think I consort with a demon or something.’ 


    ‘Do they now?’ Doll said, perched on top of his chair like a dark grey butterfly. ‘I wonder who they meant by that.’


    Don’t get yer hopes up, pretty-boy, y’are not that scary.’


    ‘You think I’m pretty, Mister Sticker?’ The elf tilted his head towards the shadow, his eyelashes fluttering.


    ‘Ya wish. Sorry, murderous stabhappy psychopaths ain’t my type.’


    This might easily go on forever. Lash let the growl out, failing utterly to intimidate either of them. ‘Can we please skip the pleasantries?’


    ‘Pleasantries,’ Sticker repeated and chuckled. ‘Heh. Ya’ve been workin’ on yer sarcasm, haven’t ya? I love it. 


    ‘Sarcasm? But this really is rather pleasant, Mister Sticker.’ Doll slid off the chair without a sound, gliding around the room with his upper body barely moving at all. ‘You have quite the tongue.’ He licked his lips, leaving the rosy buds glistening and moist, and in spite of himself Lash stared.


    ‘Look, Alois-’


    Oho! “Alois”! Ya exchangin’ names now, eh?’ The shadow rose from the ground in his smoky form, only this time he shifted into the appearance of the elven assassin. ‘Oh, Grulmar, oh, ohh, ohhhh!’ he moaned in a perfect mimicry of Doll’s high, girl’s voice, following up with wet kissing sounds. ‘You’re so biiig and manly and stroooong-’


    ‘Cut it out,’ Lash snarled, thoroughly annoyed. ‘Did you find Baker or not?’


    Still in the form of the Altmer boy Sticker turned his head towards him, tilting it a bit. ‘Yes, I did,’ he answered in Doll’s voice. ‘But I’m not sure I want to share the information with “Alois” here.’ Maybe Sticker said that just to get some kind of reaction from the elf, but all he got was a slow, almost lazy blink. 


    ‘He’s been nothing but helpful up to this point, shadow,’ Lash murmured, forcing himself not to look at the Altmer as he said that. 


    Sticker’s outline twitched and he reverted back to the shape of a robed man. ’Ya seriously goin’ to fall for that act? The moment he learns where Baker is he’s goin’ to ditch us and then make the Dunmer give him what he wants. From my experience, mages who like their lightning usually love their torture, ya know-’


    ’Very well,’ Doll simply stated. 


    Lash stared at the elf, narrowing his eyes. Apparently, the assassin didn’t even feel the need to deny anything. Or he'd simply found Sticker’s allegations unworthy of dispute. The undeniable truth was that even with all of Sticker’s paranoia Doll had upheld his side of the bargain, and there was absolutely no indication he was about to betray them in any way. 


    ’Very well? Very well?! The tusk is that supposed to mean? Are ya sayin’ that I really shouldn’t tell ya the location so that I don’t tempt ya to betray us? Or what?’


    ’Enough!’ Lash bared his tusks in Sticker’s direction. ’We need to get the people out of here, and that’s all that matters, shadow.’


    ‘Yeah, well, that won’t be nearly as easy as ya think, runt,’ Sticker snorted, pointing at the desk next to the wall. ‘Pull it over here,’ he made a gesture towards himself. Lash raised his eyebrows, but went and dragged the desk to the center of the room. ’Alright. So, we need to get the slaves all the way through the slums, towards the artisan district.’ He paused, glancing at Doll, who was now standing on the other side of the desk. ‘Baker’s hiding under a tailor’s. Give me a moment.’ 


    The room grew brighter for a moment as the shadows in it diminished. Sticker extended his arm and from it the shadows spilled over the desk. It took a moment, then the shadows rose up and Lash frowned when he recognized tiny buildings forming. It was a miniature reconstruction of the slums - Lash recognised the southern wall and the Chapel of Dibella. 


    ‘Hmm. That is a convenient ability,’ Doll murmured.


    Lash stared at the pop-up map of the city and frowned. ‘How accurate is it?’


    ‘Perfectly accurate, down to each house, each street.’


    That doesn’t sound arrogant at all, Lash thought and stared at the map. No normal person could remember every house and every street perfectly. But Sticker was hardly a normal person, and he wasn’t about to complain. ‘Where exactly is our safehouse?’ 


    Sticker pointed at a house not too far away from the Chapel - at least on the map. Lash looked at the distance between the house and the artisan district. It… certainly wasn’t close.  


    ‘Can we use the sewers?’ Lash asked.


    ‘The sewers could prove… problematic. Since the search party sent there hasn’t reported, they’ve now narrowed the radius of the search. The sewers are crawlin’ with more rats than usual right now.’


    ‘Fine, then we could sneak them directly through the city and you could pick out a route that wouldn’t attract attention…’


    ‘We cannot move a dozen people through the city undetected, not even at night and with Mister Sticker’s guidance.’


    ‘Well, all right, then we could cover them up, maybe, use the cloaks and blankets-’


    ‘That’d never work, runt. It’d give us a few dozen minutes, maybe, but once they notice the kids-’


    ‘Well, what do you suggest, then?’ Lash snapped, annoyed. ‘All I hear is what won’t work. Stop thinking about the problem, think about the solution.’


    ‘We wouldn’t even be in this mess in the first place if ya hadn-’


    ‘Our destination is a tailor shop in the artisan district, correct?’ Doll interrupted him before he could finish. 


    ‘Yeah?’ Sticker said, tentatively, suspiciously.


    ‘Tailor shops receive regular shipments of fabrics,’ the elven assassin said, bending over the desk and tucking a lock of hair behind his ear. ‘Having taken in the layout of the slums from a vantage point atop the Chapel bell-tower, I can identify several occupied warehouses within a mile of our current location.’




    Lash was wondering the same thing. Where was the Altmer heading with all this? 


    ‘One moment.’ Doll’s eyes darted over the projection, rapidly scanning five points across the slums. ‘This warehouse here,’ he said decisively, gesturing at a large building to the west. ‘It houses a fleet of carriage wagons.’


    ‘How do you know that?’’


    ‘I passed within a hundred feet of this warehouse on multiple occasions in the last two days. The deep grooves in the mud leading out of the area suggest heavy weight and spoked wheels. Additionally, I observed a carriage entering just this evening. The carriage was only in view for fifteen seconds before I moved on, but I could see that the wagon is one with the standard Tamriellian million-angaid capacity. It ought to be enough to accommodate your freed slaves, Mister Grulmar.’


    Those were… some observation skills. Lash felt like an idiot among those two, useless. They were churning out all the solid ideas while he was just staring, unable to come up with any kind of solution. They had also been doing all the hard work while he was stuck watching over the slaves. Why am I even here? he wondered, but Sticker pulled him out of those thoughts rather quickly. 


    ‘So what y’are sayin’,’ Sticker said slowly, ‘Is that instead of tryin’ to walk the slaves all across the city, we could steal one of these carriages and just drive our way to the hideout.’


    ‘Yes. A tarpaulin ought to provide adequate concealment for the slaves.’


    ‘A mile…’ Lash scratched the bristles on his chin. ‘It’d still take a while for us to get there, and not to mention the risk of stealing a carriage, even in the dead of night... the slums never sleep.’


    ‘I will procure the carriage,’ Doll said calmly. ‘You can stay in the safehouse, Mister Grulmar. See here, where our block leads out to this road here. It is under a quarter-mile away, and reaching it should take your group but a few minutes. That should drastically reduce your exposure.’


    Lash felt his jaw tighten. Left with nothing to do again.


    ‘It is almost midnight. Mister Sticker, do you think the slavers will come across this safehouse tonight?’


    ‘I sure as Oblivion hope not,’ the shadow murmured. ‘The trail is not exactly clear even if they find the exit we used, though if they happen to be in the neighborhood when we leave it could get problematic. But I could throw them off a bit maybe. How soon are ya plannin’ to ah... “procure the carriage”?


    ‘I will leave at four and hopefully return with the carriage within an hour. The early morning transport wagons begin their first delivery trips around the city at five in the morning. If we set off then, we should draw far less attention once we start on the main roads.’


    ‘I hate to say it,’ Sticker muttered grudgingly. ‘But that sounds like a plan.’


    Yes, that sounded like a plan, but the night had barely begun. So much time on their hands it was making Lash restless already. ‘What are we going to do during these four hours, then?’ he wondered out loud. 


    ‘What indeed...’ Doll leant close, hands clasped behind a serpentine back, neck curving, eyes sparkling, voice lowering to the sultry tones Lash was beginning to get used to. Not the flirting again. He forced himself not to roll his eyes.


    He could always just tell the little elf that he wasn’t interested, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to say it outright to his face. Why?! It’s not like I’m going to break his heart anyway! Tusk, it should be the other way around!


    ‘Ya know he’s getting close to ya like that to unbalance ya, mask his own intentions and behaviour.’ Typical Sticker paranoia. ‘So stop reactin’ and puttin’ on a show if ya want him to stop,’ the shadow advised. ‘He probably just finds it cute when ya squirm.’


    ‘Lovely,’ Lash murmured while Sticker’s laughter echoed between his ears. 


    ‘Are you two talking about me?’ Doll smiled. 


    Lash cleared his throat and looked away without answering. There was silence for a while. Then he turned back around, opening his mouth even though he wasn’t sure what to say, but the boy was already gone.




    ‘Out the window and up the roof without another word,’ Sticker chuckled. ‘Looks like ya hurt his feelin’s.’


    ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Lash flared. He was feeling strangely defensive. Do I actually…? ‘He is quite cu- I mean bea- well, you know,’ he said, more quietly. ‘If he was an actual girl, I might-’


    ‘Who’s bein’ ridiculous now?’ the shadow said, sounding alarmed. ‘Don’t even go there, matey, I’m serious. This isn’t one of those adorable stuffed things ya give to little kids. Oh no. He’s more like that creepy weird murder doll. What’s that story... Pinno...something. Pinnochukki? The one where ya tell a lie one, two, three times and with every lie the doll goes crazier and crazier until it comes to life and starts stabbin’ the shit out of everyone.’


    ‘Pinnochukki.’ Lash raised his eyebrows. What in the Oblivion was Sticker babbling about? He’d never heard of such a story… Wait. ‘Eh, I think you’re confusing two completely different dolls-’


    ‘Who the tusk cares?’ Sticker snapped, growling angrily. ‘Everythin’ in here is tusked upside down so how am I supposed to make sense of it and stay sane at the same time?!’ His form grew in size and shadows began enveloping the room like a cloak. Then, as if he’d just realised what he was doing, he sighed and let the light return to the room. 


    Again with the ‘here.’ ‘What’s going on?’ Lash frowned, looking carefully at the robed form. Apparently it was one of those moods again. While they were thankfully scarce, they were definitely quite frustrating. And even now Lash still had no idea what triggered them. Something was getting under Sticker’s skin, that was clear enough - but what? ‘Someone step on your shadow?’ he asked with a smirk, knowing very well the kind of reaction that would get him.


    Sticker’s hooded head snapped in his direction and Lash could hear his snicker. ‘Ha-ha. While yer newly discovered wit is rather amusin’ it certainly ain’t welcome right now. Don’t exert yerself pretendin’ ya care. Worry ‘bout yerself, runt.’


    Lash shook his head. Sticker and Doll certainly had more than one thing in common, and in this case it was the annoying ability to deflect. So when Lash asked a question they didn’t want to answer, they twisted it around and turned it against him. Doll with his flirting, Sticker with his insults or bad jokes. 


    He could have let it go, yes, just waved his hand dismissively, but whether he liked it or not, he and the shadow were stuck together. And while there was the undeniable fact that Sticker had messed up his life he had also done everything he could to fix that and protect Lash. They’d been stuck with each other for so long now that Lash had come to think of Sticker as a necessary part of himself, his counterweight. Even if they didn’t always agree, Lash couldn’t help but see Sticker as a… well, not a friend, but an associate at least.


    Which was why he couldn’t just let this go. He owed it to the shadow to understand the whats and whys of this frustration. 


    So he crossed arms on his chest and frowned. ‘If I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re distracted by something. Something’s gotten under your skin.’


    ‘Distracted?’ Sticker snorted. ‘Ya might find it hard to believe but that is rather difficult in here, in this form.’


    Lash narrowed his eyes and then grimaced, baring his tusk a little. ‘Here. In this form. You’re always saying these and I’ve always let it go, never really asking what you mean by that. Care to explain, for once?’


    ‘Explain? Hah! Ya make that sound so easy,’ the shadow shook his intangible head and then looked at him. ‘Want to know what’s goin’ on? Well, alright. I saw someone I used to know today. Only that person is dead where I’m from.’ 


    Lash tilted his head and blinked a few times. He opened his mouth, then closed it and narrowed his eyes. ‘Alright, I don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense. Have you seen a dead man or… I don’t know.’


    ‘Right? How crazy does that sound, eh?’ 


    ‘More crazy than usual.’


    Sticker sighed and his smoke-like hand reached towards his ‘face’ hidden under the hood, seemingly rubbing his chin. That gesture threw Lash off for a moment, because it seemed so out of place on the intangible shadow, making him appear almost like… a real person. That’s rather cruel of you, Lash. He is real, he is a person. And was out of place.


    ‘I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout tellin’ ya several times, but never really figured out how to do it, ya know, or if it won’t have some kind of... unforeseen consequences. Like, how am I supposed to know what happens to this world or the timeline when ya understand the truth. But then on the other hand, I can’t really screw it up any more than I already did by showin’ up in yer life and-’


    ‘Sticker!’ Lash growled, which made the shadow pause. ‘You’re babbling. Start making sense.’


    ‘Yes, yes. Alright. Hmm. Uhm…’


    ‘Now you’re just making noises.’


    ‘I know, for tusk’s sake! I just don’t know how to say it! Alright, here goes nothin’.’ The shadow then extended his arms in a grand gesture and bowed his head a little bit. ‘I’m from another reality.’ 


    Lash raised his eyebrows. ‘Alright?’


    ‘Ya have no idea what that means, do you?’


    ‘Pretty much.’


    ‘Tusk. Fine, grab those two sheets of paper,’ he pointed at the desk and Lash scratched his forehead, but did as the shadow said. He held the paper between his fingers as if he was holding a Daedric artifact. ‘The two sheets are identical, aren’t they? Alright, so just imagine that the paper on top of the other is my reality and the other is your reality. Or...not reality, but world. Nirn. My Nirn and yer Nirn, almost identical copies of each other. Yeah? So, at first glance they seem identical, but when ya look closely there will be some differences. Just for example… we could say that in my world the Red Year didn’t happen, but it did in yours. Is that making sense to you?’


    Lash looked at the papers, frowning and then shrugged. ‘A bit. So when you said you met a person that was dead in your world it doesn’t mean that person is dead in mine, right?’


    ‘Yes, pretty much.’


    There were quite a lot of questions spinning in Lash’s mind, each more ridiculous than the other, but in a way it was sort of comforting to know that Sticker actually wasn’t some kind of Daedra or such sort. ‘So there are just these two worlds?’


    ‘Uhm… Not sure to be honest. This is my first visit. But I think there are… maybe an infinite number of such worlds, every single one almost identical and yet different in some way.’


    ‘And since you can’t leave… I take it you didn’t exactly know what you were doing.’


    ‘Well, apparently. I was castin’ a spell and somethin’ went wrong and I… slipped through the cracks of my world into yers. I think. Though that’s still not the strangest thing. I mean… When this happened, in my world… It was in the year two-hundred-four.’


    Lash stared, mouth wide open. ‘Ehm… Just to make sure I’m understanding this correctly, not only did you travel to a different reality but you also traveled… fourteen years back in time?’


    ‘Well, fifteen technically, I was stuck in yer shadow for over a year until I figured out how to talk with ya. But yeah, that’s pretty much it.’


    Lash sat down into the chair, sighing. ‘Alright. This makes even less sense than anything Sheogorath could come up with, but alright. Last question. Why me? Why did you get stuck with me?’


    A moment of silence followed before Sticker started with uneasy words. ‘I guess… it has somethin’ to do with the fact we are quite alike. Like… a lot. Uhm… Yeah.’


    ‘Alike? Are you-’


    ‘Yeah. I’m ya. I’m Grulmar gro-Largash too.’ 


    Well… Shit.



    The slums were slightly quieter at these hours, but there were far more noises. Shifts of the wind highlighted different events across the city. Voices - shouts, threats, shrieks, sobs, and the faint thuds and clashes of distant violence. The muffled nightly convulsions of the impoverished and the desperate.


    Harrow could only hear the more carrying instances, and only distinguish them clearly from within a radius of one-eighth of a mile. No doubt Ambarro would be able to pick out the louder whimpers from two thousand feet. From three streets away, the dunce could tell which of the village main street eateries were opening and closing their doors from the tinkling of their bells.


    Homesickness ate at him like acid. Spending all those months away from the village… and now that she was gone and he was as empty as he was meant to be, all that was left was the lingering desire to be home.


    Discipline. Focus. He chided himself for his distraction. Tsukikage would be there when he returned. For now, the assignment was what mattered.


    The hours trickled by as he stayed crouched on the rooftop, squatting with his ankles joined together and his hands placed in front of his boots. Some time past two in the morning it began to rain. Harrow pulled back his cowl, baring his nose and mouth, feeling the water impact against his naked cheeks. Because of the high winds and the rain shadow effect, precipitation was a rarity on Mount Furiya. Here in Anvil, though, it rained once every five to ten days.


    He reached out and caught a raindrop on the back of his hand. Parting his lips, he snaked his tongue out and lapped it up. It was cold, tasting of autumn and the winter to come.


    Salty. Add that to the wind factor… the clouds blew in from the ocean. Is it a tropical storm? If it persisted, it would make moving the slaves more difficult, but the reduced visibility could also work to their advantage.


    An hour later the rain stopped. Harrow shifted, hoping that the mud in the area hadn’t gotten too damp.


    Activity continued on the floor below him. It seemed that Grulmar was staying up as well. Too nervous to sleep, perhaps. He may come to regret it in the morning. As far as he could tell, the Orc was a normal sapient being, physiologically speaking. No matter how fit and limber he was, his brain needed rest. Even I must meditate to refresh my mental energies from time to time.


    He closed his eyes and did just that, preparing his mind and body for motion. At four o’clock - or his best approximation of four o’clock - he gathered power in his thighs and leapt off, making a standing jump to a nearby building.


    The roof tiles were still slick from the rain. Harrow applied a slight kiai to his feet, increasing the balance of his weight distribution and his grip on the wet surface. It took three dozen leaps to bring him from Grulmar’s safehouse to the main road on the west. He looked up as he stopped to pace himself. It was no longer raining, but cloud cover was still heavy, masking the stars and Secunda, which was far dimmer than Masser tonight. The darkness was more than adequate concealment. He reached the objective without any pedestrians taking note of his presence.


    Harrow could smell the hay and hear the nickering of the horses before he’d even gotten his first glimpse of the warehouse. The building was connected to a large stable housing a dozen horses but fit for more.


    The warehouse was lit. The first drivers had already arrived. There were three and they were heading out already, shivering in the early morning chill as they led their horses out of the stables and tacked two of them to each of their wagons. Nedic drafts, strong and hardy.


    Harrow flitted to the darker side of the warehouse and stayed attached there, observing as the men set out one by one, trundling out of the slums with their wagons loaded to the brim. Thanks to the rain, they were covering the goods with sheets of tarred hide. Which we could conveniently repurpose, Harrow noted.


    The last driver rolled his neck and boarded his wagon, but before he could take the reins, Harrow leapt off the warehouse and landed on the tarpaulin behind him on all fours, dispersing the impact with ki channelled through his limbs. Unaware of the small shift in his cargo’s weight, the driver sucked in a breath to yawn. Harrow crawled up to him, wrapped an arm around his throat and yanked him back into his seat. Five thumb jabs to acupoints on his temple and the underside of his jaw thoroughly overloaded the Imperial’s nervous system. The driver choked, gagged, spasmed once, then his eyes rolled back and he slumped, beginning to snore.


    Harrow hauled him off the carriage and dragged him inside, then, in short order, unloaded the cargo. The process took him fifteen minutes and was not as delicate as he would have liked. He kept the sheet of canvas for the slaves, checked the driver one last time - the Imperial would not be waking up within the next three hours - and drove the wagon off.