Transcript – Shade

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Three: Shade

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Helaina Vinn. Human, aged eighteen, identified as female. Memory regards a traumatic encounter with an unknown creature and was donated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Bloomingtine, in the year 727. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the sixteenth of Thresherstine, 729.

We Begin.

It’s safe for me to talk to you, right? A friend of mine said that you didn’t go to the lawkeepers if someone comes in to tell you something… Not quite legal. And then you keep it all confidential, right? People have to sign memories out if they need them and nothing can be used as evidence? I can just make my donation and go right?

I just want to be sure before I begin because… Well, I may have been doing something not quite legal when all this started and, though I do want to get this down, tell someone what happened to me, if nothing else so that it is recorded somewhere, I’d rather not have to deal with lawkeepers.

Alright so, cards on the table. I am a burglar. I have been for about three years now and, well I’m not going to brag or anything but I’ve stayed out of prison so far so, I’d say I’m a pretty good one.

You won’t have heard of me, I don’t have a nickname or anything. I know in the stories the great burglars all have names like the Gentleman of Evertown, the Cogwick Fox or the Dullworth Phantom but, in my experience, the really good burglars are the ones no one knows about. The ones who can slip in and out without leaving any hint they were ever there with no clue of who they were.

It’s always seemed strange to me in the stories when those famous burglars leave behind calling cards. Like, the most priceless jewel in the land is stolen and a glove or a rose or something like that is left in its place. Super mysterious and classy right? Except, now the lawkeepers know to link it with similar thefts and to check who was in the neighbourhood during all those thefts. I get that it’s meant to be taunting the authorities but surely that’s just helping the lawkeepers catch you? You need to be confident to be a good burglar but there is a point where that turns into just being stupid.

Sorry, I’m rambling. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that you won’t have heard of me which I take as a good thing.

This all started about two months ago. I was travelling around the Pascorrean Sea and was staying in Marmoton. I don’t know if you’ve been up that far north in the middle of winter but it was cold. The snow was thick on the ground and the canals had all but frozen over. And, most importantly, it was getting dark early.

Most folks get indoors when the sun goes down, light their fires and wait for the morning. Not me. Sundown is when my day begins. So, while everyone else in the town was closing their blinds and shutters, I was out looking for a good mark.

I’d not been living in Marmoton long. I make it a point not to stay in any one place for any longer than a couple of months. Out in those rural towns I’ve found there’s usually only a few places worth burglarising and then it’s time to move on anyway. I had been there long enough to pick out the places I wanted to case a bit closer.

It’s the nicer houses you want, obviously. I don’t want to steal from folks who can’t afford it and the rich people are the ones with all the things worth stealing anyway.

So, I started asking around, in the taverns and the market, looking into the town’s elite. You know, the rich, the influential, the business owners who were doing pretty well for themselves, usually at the expense of the regular townsfolk, and also those who produced goods that only sold to the other elite.

I had decided to start with the man who owned the coal mine where a lot of the town worked. He’d made a lot off the backs of his workers so I knew there would be a good score there. And, the bonus, I had heard from a group of washer women in the market that this fellow was not well liked by the lawkeepers after he’d used his influence with the mayor to downsize their branch in the town, which meant they were unlikely to try very hard to track down his missing property.

I knew he was in when I got to the house, him and his family. I could see the firelight coming from their main room. But that was fine, I wasn’t planning on letting myself in just yet. That night was just about reconnaissance, snooping around, identifying good points of entry, that sort of thing.

I’m not sure what time it was exactly. It was a little after twilight I think, so it was very dark but not impossible to see. There were a few stars overhead and the moon was out in full. Normally in my line of work, this is a bad thing, you want it as dark as possible really; but for when you’re casing a building, it was actually perfect.

I’d wrapped myself up in a thick cloak, mainly against the cold but I figured it would also keep me well hidden so no one would recognise me later.

I’d found a small alleyway that ran between the mark’s house and his neighbour’s, there was a small fence I was thinking I’d be able to hop over to get into the back garden and then through a decent sized window on the second floor. I was making my way slowly down that way, counting steps, being sure to make myself look like some beggar looking for a place to stay the night.

I think it was then I first felt it. This cold shiver on the back of my neck, like some ice water had dropped down there. Given the time of year and the fact it was snowing a little bit, I thought that was what had happened so I ignored it. But it didn’t trickle down my back or just fade away. It just stayed there. It was like that one spot had frozen.

I thought maybe some ice had stuck there somehow so I reached back into my hood to try and wipe it off.

Even through my thick gloves, I could tell there was nothing there.

Obviously, I got pretty confused then. It didn’t make any sense.

I thought I’d just head back to the inn where I was staying so I could take the cloak off and see what was going on.

I had turned to head back up the alley and, well, that’s when I saw it.

There was a figure standing at the mouth of the alleyway. Just standing there, completely still, arms kind of hanging by its sides. It looked like it was watching me. I thought for a minute that it was a lawkeeper so I began walking towards it with my hands up. I hadn’t done anything wrong, walking down that alley wasn’t even trespassing really. But as I got closer, I saw that it still hadn’t moved. What’s more, I couldn’t see any kind of badge and, even in weather like that, lawkeepers always make sure their badges are on show so folks can see who they are.

This one wore no badge. In fact, I couldn’t see anything they were wearing. Their cloak covered everything and it had a deep hood that left its face shadowed. For a second, I thought it might be another thief, here by coincidence. But I knew straight away that wasn’t right. I didn’t know what this thing was but there was something wrong with it.

I know I keep saying “it”, and that’s because, well, I found that out later. But even then, I could tell just from looking at it that it wasn’t right. I mean, It looked right. It had two arms, two legs and a head. It could have passed as human or diman. But the way it just stood there…

It didn’t move at all. You know, even if a person is standing still, they’re still moving. They’re breathing, making small movements as they shift themselves, movements that no one notices. Nobody is ever completely still. This thing was. It might have been a statue except… I could tell it was looking at me.

It was quite tall; I’d guess at just over six feet. And it was thin, really thin. I couldn’t make out anything else because of that cloak.

That was when another thought popped into my head.

My mother used to tell me and my brothers stories, scary ones when we wouldn’t behave or if we asked for them. One story was about the Nightstalker. Monsters that, from a distance, looked like regular people but when you got closer you could see that they weren’t people at all. They always wore long, black cloaks to hide themselves and they came in the night to carry off naughty children.

I knew it was just an old mother’s tale, but looking at that thing I couldn’t help but think of those stories.

I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. The alleyway ended at a brick wall. The only way out was past that thing.

The snow was really starting to come down now.

I did the only thing I could. I held my breath and took a step towards the alley’s entrance, towards that thing, hoping for the best.

And suddenly it was gone.

I don’t mean it ran away or anything like that. I mean one second it was standing there in front of me and the next it had just vanished.

I still went carefully to where it had been standing, in case it was using one of those things the alkismotists make, you know the ones that can make you invisible? But it was soon clear that there was nothing there, not even footprints, so I decided it would be best if I chose somewhere else and I left, fully intending never to return to that place again.

I returned to the inn, locked my door and proceeded not to sleep a wink until morning came.

But I didn’t see the thing again and as the days went past, I started to feel a bit more secure.

I didn’t go back to that first house, the mineowner could keep his money. I decided to try some of the other big business owners in town.

The main money was in the mills.

Marmoton’s main exports, apart from coal, are grain and wool so there were a fair few mills and the owners did quite well out of them and so, I did quite well out of them.

I was leaving the home of Algrad Yates, the owner of the town’s largest grain mill and silos. Out through the window, obviously.

The roof of the neighbouring house was close enough that, with a little bit of effort, I could hop up onto it straight from the window of Mr. Yates.

I remember I was holding this necklace I’d pilfered from his wife’s jewellery box; it had this huge honey-opal as the main piece, nearly as big as my fist, it probably could have fed the whole town for a month. But, anyway, I know I was looking at it because I remember seeing the reflection in that jewel.

I saw it and I swear my heart stopped beating. It was the same thing as before, I was sure of it, standing there on the ground, its cloak blowing in the wind.

It was standing in the house’s back garden. I could tell, even from that distance, that it was looking up at me.

I froze. And it had nothing to do with the cold.

For a long while, we both just stared at each other. I didn’t want to even blink in case that was all the time it would take for it to reach me. By this time, I think I’d convinced myself that this thing was one of the Nightstalkers from my mother’s story and she had said that they could move much faster than a regular man. At this point, I wasn’t willing to chance anything.

Eventually it left. the same way as it had before. I didn’t blink this time, I’m sure of it. I was watching it the whole time and it was just suddenly not there.

That was it, as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t waiting in that town any longer than I had to. I wasn’t going to wait till the next night to slip away, I was going to go back to the inn, pack my bag and leave and never mind who came after me because of it.

I think the walk back to the inn may have been the longest of my life. I looked in every direction, checked every alleyway and side street, any dark corner I could see that might be hiding that thing.

I have pretty good vision in the dark, you kind of need it in my line of work, but this was still the early hours of the morning and I knew that thing could be hiding anywhere. All the more reason I had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I got back to the inn. There was nobody in the common room apart from those who had passed out on the tables, but no one who was going to say anything or stop me. I had already paid for that night’s lodging so all I had to do was pack and leave.

I went up the stairs and opened my door and there it was, waiting for me.

I didn’t even have chance to scream. In less than a second, it was on me, its hand was around my throat. I couldn’t breathe, it was squeezing so tight. I tried to grab, to claw at the back of the hand that had hold of me but every time I tried, my hand just slid off. I couldn’t get any kind of grip, it’s like its skin was frictionless.

It lifted me into the air with no more effort than if it had been lifting a piece of paper. My legs were dangling, kicking pointlessly. Spots of colour began to pop in front of my eyes and darkness began creeping in at the corner of my vision. I was almost certain I was about to die which made me thrash about harder.

Next thing I knew, I was flying through the air, hitting the wall of my room and sliding to the ground. I started coughing and heaving for breath. I looked up and that thing was standing over me.

It hissed at me. I think it was speaking but I couldn’t understand what it was saying. It was some language I’ve never heard.

I told it to… Well, to do something that’s anatomically impossible. Maybe not the smartest thing to do but I was scared and angry so I think I can be forgiven for not acting too rationally.

The next second it had leaned down so that its head was a foot away from my own. Its hood was still up, even after all of that, so I couldn’t see its face. Then it reached up with one hand and pulled the hood down. I really, really wish I hadn’t seen what was under that hood. I would probably have screamed if I’d been able to breathe.

There was a head beneath that hood, but its skin… Well, this is going to sound bizarre, and it was. Its skin wasn’t skin. I remembered what I felt when I was clawing at its hand but, now I could see it. Its skin was like… Oil. It was dark and slick and, as the thing moved, the lamp light fell across it and caught different colours in it just like with an oil slick.

That wasn’t the worst part, though. In the centre of its face was one, giant eye. That was it. No nose, no mouth, no ears. Just that eye.

I think I was too horrified to even scream. What was this thing? And how… How had it made those noises? How had it talked?

That question was answered right away. I had thought the white things that rimmed the eye were eyelashes. That was my mistake, I shouldn’t have assumed anything normal about this thing, this Nightstalker.

The teeth, those thin, white, jagged teeth clacked together as the eyelid opened and closed like a mouth, in time with the words. I know it doesn’t make any sense but that’s what I saw… That’s what I… heard. The thing spoke without a mouth, through that horrible eye.

It spoke Senterian this time, so I was able to understand it.

“Where is it?”

That’s all it said. It had this coarse, raspy voice. I can still hear it sometimes, when the nights are quiet.

I had no idea what it was talking about and said so.

It made this sound, this clacking, gurgling sort of sound, I don’t know if it was laughing or snarling but suddenly its hand was around my neck again and it was lifting me up and slamming me against the wall.

That was the first time I properly saw it move.

Have you ever seen one of those flip books? Where each page has a picture of a boat or a lion or something and each picture is just slightly different so that when you flick through them, it appears to move? But it’s never quite like real life, is it? It always has that uncanniness to it because it’s not really alive, it’s just the pretence of it.

The nightstalker moved like that, though. As it lifted me up, its arm moved as if it were flipping from one picture to the next.

It brought my face close to its own, until I could see myself reflected in its eye.

“Where is it?”

It asked again.

It wasn’t choking me this time, it was only holding me up so I could speak but before I could even say another word, the room’s door banged open.

I was able to turn my head enough to see the landlady and her husband. They must have heard all the banging and crashing and come to investigate. She was holding a long knife and he was holding a club the size of a horse’s leg. He was a big man; I’d seen him throw three men out of the tavern at once for getting too handsy with the serving girls.

I hit the floor at the same time I heard the crash of broken glass. The Nightstalker must have gone for the window and broken out.

I heard the husband running along the landing, calling for some of the kitchen boys to follow him. The landlady was kneeling next to me, asking me if I was alright. Asking “what he had done.”

I took this to mean that neither she nor her husband had actually seen the Nightstalker. I guess it moved too quick for them to see it properly. She was asking if I wanted to call the lawkeepers.

That brought me out of my stupor very quickly. No way did I want lawkeepers poking around my room. I had had a decent bit of success in Marmoton and there were more than a couple of items hidden in the room that I did not want anyone finding.

So I told the landlady that thank you but no, I was fine and I didn’t know who had attacked me and he was probably long gone by now.

I’m not sure she really bought it but well, bless her eyes, she didn’t push the issue. I told her I was grateful for her help but I wanted to be away as soon as possible.

That she was less accommodating of, said there was no way she was letting me leave at this hour, not when that creeper might still be out there. She said that her Sterl and the boys would make sure the inn was safe until morning and I could go then.

I considered arguing but she was almost as big as her husband and seemed fully intent – and capable – on keeping me there by force if necessary so I agreed. She was probably right anyway.

So, morning came and I was off. Good thing too since, as I was leaving, I’m pretty sure I heard the lawkeepers asking in the streets about anyone who might have seen someone creeping around the upper estates during the night.

I was on the road for half a day when I found a wayside inn which had cart and wagons for hiring; one was going up to Surewick for a decent price so I hopped the cart and was on my way.

And that was the last time I saw the Nightstalker. At least, I think it was.

It’s probably nothing, but this is what made me think of coming and donating this memory. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Tileton, on my way to meet with some old friends. I’ve been keeping a low profile for a while, working my way through what I acquired over the past couple of months. I hadn’t forgotten about the Nightstalker, I don’t think I’ll forget it till the day I die, so I was sure to never be out past dark. I don’t know how much truth there is to the old story but I do remember my mother saying that the Shades couldn’t go out in the daylight and both times I had seen one it had been in the night.

So, it was early afternoon and I was passing by the Surewick village green. It’s a wide-open space, lots of green grass with a few copses of trees for the village folk to relax under on their days off work.

It was one of those copses that drew my attention. It was just for a second, but I could have sworn that the shadows under those trees formed the shape of a man covered in a thick black cloak.

I didn’t meet my friends that day. I found the next carriage that was leaving the village and made sure I was on it. I haven’t stopped running since.

Final notes; There is definitely a lot to go through here. I suppose I should start with clarification. Stories such as this are well known, not just in the Federation but across most of the known world. These figures are invariably known as shade-men, wraiths, nightprowlers or stalkers; my own father told me stories of the Gel variant; the wereskaed. A few pages have been attached to this memory, a few items of folklore and children’s stories all featuring mysterious strangers in black cloaks. Another thing all of them have in common is that they are all fictional. To my knowledge, there has never been a confirmed sighting of one of these creatures. They exist only in stories like these.

The real problem with this memory is that so much of it is unverifiable. Unsurprisingly, given her profession, there is no evidence of Ms Vinn being where she claims to be when she claims to be there. We wrote to the lawkeeper department in Marmoton to double check some details and follow up. They were unable to find the inn referenced in the memory, since Ms Vinn didn’t name the place, and no one seems to have any recollection of seeing anyone matching her description. The lawkeepers refused to ask about the wereskaed. They called the idea ridiculous.

I can’t say I blame them. I do not doubt that Ms Vinn did encounter someone and, though we can’t confirm the events in the inn, I’m willing to believe that she was attacked. But the facts of that attack include considerable head trauma which could well have affected her memory of events.

Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm one way or the other. Szelia did try to find her but there is no way to track her down. For all we can tell, Ms Vinn disappeared shortly after this memory was donated.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]