Humans don’t cast Shadows.
Even so, Atris couldn’t see more than two paces in front of her as she hurried down the steps of the sentinel tower. Her muscles were stiff and clumsy with cold, and her sealskin boots kept skidding on the frosty stone. Fumes from the oil lantern clogged her throat, but she couldn’t hear herself coughing over the wail of the sirens above. She’d been at the top of the tower when the watchman spotted the swarm approaching. They’d appeared before of course, but today they had come during the worst arctic storm Luxford College had ever seen.
Atris reached the first floor, where scholars and professors worked frantically to hammer down the stormguards. The giant steel shutters had seized up in the cold and could no longer be cranked by hand. Blizzard winds poured in through the shattered windows, strong enough to blow a man over. She shielded her lamp with the hem of her robes, squinting as shards of ice blew into her eyes. The wind wailed in anguish as people hurried and shouted and hammered. The corridor was dark, the ceiling lamps flickering as they swung. Luxford needed to be kept light at all times – that was what the candlekeepers were for – but in a storm there could be no fire, and without fire there could be no light. Today, the Shadows would get in.
It was only a matter of time.
‘I want to go with you,’ Atris panted as she burst into the main study of Oxford University.
Lord Boreas flinched as the door crashed open, upsetting his inkwell over the papers on his desk. His thick eyebrows pulled down into a scowl. ‘What are you talking about, child?’ he snapped. ‘Who let you in here?’
‘I want to go to your college.’ She drew herself up to her full height and met his glare defiantly. ‘The old one in the North you’re trying to open again.’
‘Who told you that?’ Boreas took out a handkerchief and dabbed distractedly at his ruined papers.
‘Luxford ain’t a secret. Whenever I come here, it’s all the scholars talk about.’ She stared at the map on the wall behind his desk. ‘Is it true that the Shadders swarmed it?’
Boreas looked up sharply, then followed her gaze to where a pin marked the college’s location within the Arctic Circle. He sighed wearily. ‘I’m afraid so, though that was over a hundred years ago. The building itself is sound; the main challenge has been persuading scholars to move there.’ He leaned back in his chair, his eyes taking on a distant look. ‘The location is ideal for studying the behaviour of Sila particles in sub-zero temperatures– not to mention the theory of global dimming...’
Atris stared at him blankly.
‘Yes, never mind.’ Boreas cleared his throat and put down his blackened handkerchief. ‘I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? You’re the baker’s daughter.’
‘Yeah.’ She scratched her arm and looked away. ‘Pa died a few month ago. Summat wrong with his lungs, doctor said.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ He looked down. Atris wondered if he was waiting for her to leave, but then he gestured at the wooden stool in front of his desk. ‘Sit down, child,’ he said quietly. Atris sat, and he studied her over the top of his spectacles. ‘What makes you so keen to go to Luxford? I’m afraid you’re too young to be a student.’
‘I’m not young, I’m twelve,’ she said defensively. ‘And I want to go because...’ Because her pa was gone. Because she couldn’t bear to sleep in that empty bakery anymore. Because if she stayed in Oxford, she would die.
Boreas frowned sympathetically.
‘I can help you,’ she insisted. ‘I’m not a scholar, but I could help with the cooking and cleaning or summat. I don’t know much about astronomics but I can read, and count, and write a little. I’m strong and I’m fast and I’m not scared of Shadders if they come.’
He chuckled. ‘I don’t doubt it. Yes, perhaps I could use someone like you.’ The chair creaked as he leaned forward. ‘Tell me child, what do you know about candlekeeping?’
The gale fought back like a vengeful god, pummelling the stormguards even as they were hammered into position. The joints screamed under the strain. Atris dug her fingers into the brickwork and clawed her way along the corridor. Lanterns couldn’t be lit in wind like this. There was nothing she could do here.
Atris stopped. A student lay trapped under a pile of rubble, pale face smeared with blood and brick dust. Her name was Moira. Atris had often seen her at the top of the sentinel tower, studying the stars after everyone had retired to bed. Now she was crying as she stretched out a trembling hand.
On the wall beside her, Moira’s Shadow was waiting.
Everyone’s Shadow has a different shape, unique to the one who casts it. They can have two heads or no head, fangs or feathers or fur, crawling like a spider or sliding like an ink stain. Moira’s was a perfect sphere, no larger than her fist.
Atris reached for her just as one of the stormguards tore free of its restraints. The huge metal shutters were thrown across the corridor in a hail of snow and ice, crashing into the pile of rubble. Atris was thrown backwards, the lantern falling from her hand and spattering her with drops of hot oil. Moira’s hand still protruded from the mess, but it no longer reached for Atris. Her Shadow bubbled like hot wax, mutating into a human shape and joining to the ends of her fingers as though it had always been there.
Humans don’t cast Shadows. Corpses do.
The wind howled through the unprotected window, killing what remained of the lanterns and burning their exposed faces.
Someone grabbed Atris’ arm and she was hauled roughly to her feet. ‘There’s nothing you can do here!’ shouted Lord Boreas. ‘Go to the library, it might buy you some time!’
Atris snatched up her dead lantern and ran, passing professors who shouted commands and scholars who lay sleeping with their Shadows. As soon as she’d seen the swarm, she’d known that no candlekeeper could deter them.
The candlekeepers had always been a part of Luxford University: by ensuring that every room and corridor was lit at all times, a Shadow could never enter undetected. Atris had been taught to check for them hiding inside shadows of ordinary objects, and to ensure that the lanterns were always supplied with fuel. These were only precautions, of course. Light could slow a Shadow’s approach, confuse it, but not stop it indefinitely. It was the storm that would kill them, in the end.
Most people see their Shadow two or three times throughout their life. They often allow you the occasional glimpse to remind you that life is fragile and fleeting. Your Shadow knows the day you die and will linger accordingly. Like vultures, ready to descend upon Fate’s prey.
Atris had never seen her Shadow.
But she’d seen her pa’s.
It appeared one night as he lay in bed, hacking coughs shaking his body whilst Atris lay curled up beside him. She saw it slide under the door and onto the wall, a patch of darkness blacker than the rest. ‘No!’ she shouted. ‘I won’t let you take him!’
Pa’s coughing grew more frantic as the Shadow crept towards him, visible only as a movement in the dark. Atris scrabbled to light the candle on the bedside table, but she could barely see what she was doing.
Pa coughed once more and went still.
Atris lit the candle. Pa’s eyes were open and his face was ashen, but he breathed.
Some Shadows snatch lives away. Others linger.
It was a little girl, with a cloud of curly hair just like hers. As Atris stared, it waved and dissolved, reforming into Pa’s burly shape. Not even the light of the sun would move it now.
Atris cried and hugged her pa as he rubbed her back and coughed and croaked words of comfort she couldn’t decipher.
The minutes stretched on and Atris listened to every wheezy breath that lifted Pa’s chest, praying that another would follow. He smelled of firewood and memories and baking bread. She would never forget that smell.
Pa ruffled her hair with a big hand. ‘You should go, my little one,’ he whispered.
‘I’m staying,’ she said fiercely. ‘I’m not going anywhere, Pa.’
Pa smiled. ‘Neither am I.’
And so she watched over him, clutching his hand as he fought to stay awake. Pa’s Shadow flickered in the candlelight, occasionally shaking with his coughs. The dark hours stretched on, until eventually she fell asleep against his chest.
As the sun rose through the window Atris stirred. The hand in hers was cold. Pa slept on, unmoving. His Shadow slept beside him, pale and watery in the light of the dawn.
‘Why did you have to take him?’ she whispered, but the Shadow didn’t reply. Why had it looked like her? Perhaps this Shadow was hers and it had found the wrong person. Perhaps it would come for her once it realised its mistake.
She had to leave Oxford. If she stayed here, she would die.
Screams pierced the air as one by one the stormguards gave way and the storm blasted into the corridor. Parts of the floor above caved in and Shadows dived into the rubble to claim the fallen. Atris kept running, her eyes fixed on the heavy doors of the library ahead. She wondered if her Shadow had always been waiting for her in the North. By leaving Oxford she’d hoped to escape her fate, but in the end she’d only moved towards it. There was no running from Shadows.
The library was an enormous circular room lined with shelves. The ceiling was made of glass, a gently-curving dome that spilled white light over the sparse collection of books and scrolls.
The doors boomed shut behind her, killing all outside sound. She couldn’t even hear the storm, only a distant whoosh of wind overhead. One of the glass panes in the ceiling was cracked, allowing a trickle of snow to flutter to the floor.
Here, the Shadow waited.
Its shape was slightly distorted by the cracks in the floor but she could still see it: tall and muscular, with thick arms and large hands. Just like her pa.
Atris put down her lantern. Her boots crunched on the thin dusting of snow as she walked towards the centre of the room. Snow was beginning to pile up on the glass ceiling; she could hear it straining under the weight.
The Shadow watched her approach, unmoving. Beneath it, the snow was grey.
Her breath came in icy clouds, like the white puffs of flour back at their old bakery. Atris took off her gloves. Even in the North at the edge of the world, the sun could touch her hands though it couldn’t warm her skin. Atris was glad that she wasn’t going to die in the dark.
She bent down to touch the Shadow’s hand but her fingers only met cold stone and damp snow. Atris sat down, and the Shadow sat down too. ‘Hello again,’ she whispered.
The Shadow bowed its head and opened its arms. Tingling warmth spread through her body as it joined to her feet, easing her frozen muscles. She was so tired. The muscular arms became slender, the head sprouting curls. Atris waved. Her Shadow waved back.
There’s no running from Shadows, but maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps they return to us so that we don’t have to be alone in our final moments.
Atris smiled and turned her face to the ceiling above. Snowflakes trickled through the gap, kissing her eyelashes and freezing the tears on her cheeks.
The glass creaked, cracked and shattered.