I don't really know what I expected the Shadow Realm to be. But what I saw was probably beyond that.
The land was vast and beautiful all at the same time. There were houses of all shapes and sizes that seemed to come from different points in time. There were wooden houses that seemed to belong in a viking movie. Others were straw huts or farm houses. There were a few low buildings and Greek temples. Some were rows of Chinese or Japanese apartments. Where I stood was a street of normal modern American houses. All the buildings seemed to be in a darker shade of what they were supposed to be. The Greek temples were gray and the houses seemed to be wrapped in taint. But in the center of everything stood a large, black and gray castle built on a low hill. I could see dark stone towers rising up to the grey sky like branches going higher and higher. There were smooth marble columns and a grey painted drawbridge. Birch trees decorated the palace grounds and most of the strange city.
Strangest of all were the people. All of them seemed to be walking shadows. They looked exactly like a normal person, except their skin was night, shadowy dark. (I am not being racist here!) Their clothes were all a darker shade blue, violet, green or grey. They seemed to have a dark blue outline that highlighted their features. And their eyes... their eyes were all dark blue, the color of the moonlit ocean.
I looked back at my shadow, Erika, and saw her features to be exactly like mine. She was grinning at me expectantly. I, on the other hand, was at a loss for words, still unsure if this was actually happening.
"Wow..." Was all I could say.
" Amazing, huh?" Erika grinned. Then she surged forward, tugging my hand along with her. " C'mon!"
She lead me along the street where different shadows of all ages walked. They all seemed to know everyone around them. I caught a glance of a young shadow, around my age, speaking with a large man in a dark Nazi uniform.But the soldier's eyes... they weren't dark blue like every other shadow's. They were a crisp shade of brown. They seemed warm and content, like he was finally satisfied with his life.
Erika caught me staring, and she seemed to know exactly what I was looking at. She paused, causing me to stumble a little bit. "That is Arnold Fanck, German Nazi. You might know him from one of the museums we've visited." She informed. "Remember about that thing I told you when a human dies? When their shadow's escence is completed and they're no longer bound to humans?"
"Well a telltale sign is when their eyes go back to the way they were before, or at the moment of, death. I don't really know why that is." She shrugged. "But you rarely see any colored eyes around here. It's usually the moderns who live in this area. The ones whose humans live, like me. Arnold's just visiting his great, great niece Lila.Or at least her shadow."
I looked around as we started walking once more, but at a slower pace. " So does everyone know each other here?" I asked.
"Yeah, pretty much." Erika replied enthusiastically. "All the shadows and even the guardians!" Then she stopped abruptly again. "Oh right. The guardians. I am such an idiot." She scolded herself, smacking her forehead, like I do when I'm hating myself. I guess she does have my mannerism.
"Guardians?" I asked, intrigued. Erika gave me a nervous laugh, her dark blue eyes darting around the area. "Oh, I am so dead." she muttered to herself, then she grabbed my arm and started running forward again.
"Ahh!" I gasped, not at all used to being suddenly dragged forward and then being stopped abruptly so I stumble face-first into the asphalt.
She rounded a corner, my legs dragging along, struggling to keep up. Her eyes locked on one of the houses and she lunged for it, pulling me along. It was a bungalo with a maroon roof and grey walls. I thought of it to have a red roof and white walls in the real world. Erika tugged open the wooden door, causing me to slam face-first into the wall as she stopped, and then pulled me in, resulting in me stumbling into the carpeted floor.
"Will you stop that?!" I said after getting out of my daze. Erika just shrugged and muttered an apology. I looked around, seeing myself in a cozy little living room with a fireplace, couches, and a flat screen TV up against the wall. There also seemed to be a doorway to a kitchen at the back. I thought I smelled freshly baked cookies in there and a few mutters and whispers. The scent reminded me of those cold winter nights at my grandmother's house. She would warm us up by the fireplace and bake us muffins and cookies. And by us I mean me and Lisa before she turned into a... I just can't say it, sorry.
"Ros! Ray! I know you're in here!" Erika called, her voice booming throughout the house. In just a few seconds, two shadow children emerged from the back door. They looked like all the other shadows I've seen, dark and human-like, except their eyes were pure white. I jumped back in surprise. One was a girl with twin pony tails, the other was a boy with short cropped hair. I judged that they were twins. They both had mischevious grins and looked like they belonged in a horror movie as ghost children who scare the living daylight out of people who walk into a haunted house. They actually looked potentially capable of murder, and the fact that they were shadows didn't help.
Erika cleared her throat, giving me a small, amused glance. "This is Ros," she gestured to the girl. "And this one's Ray."then to the boy. They both waved in a friendly manner, but their eyes were still bothering me. Erika seemed to have caught on when she said "They were killed just a few months back. Kidnapped, tortured, blinded."
"We're just nine." The girl, Ros spoke up, her voice gentle and sweet but still had a rough edge to it. "Our parents left us on the street and these... these thugs on the street took us with them, only to torture us."
"They took our sight." The boy, Ray, said. "The torture was just... it was just so painful that we forgot our own names. 'Ray' is just a part of what my real name must be." his voice trailed off at the end.
"Harsh, right?" Erika nodded to them.
"Wait," I said. " If they're just the shadows, then how can they experience what their humans had gone through?"
"Have you ever just felt a random pain?" Erika asked. " Like you arm or knee hurting for no apparant reason? Well that's just me getting hurt."
"Wow, thanks for that random cramp back in third grade." I muttered, but my shadow simply dismissed it.
"What shadows feel, humans can too. And that goes both ways. So if a human gets tortured," she gestured to Ros and Ray standing together uncomfortably to the side. "shadows feel every ounce of pain inflicted."
I looked at the twins with pity, but I knew the classic "I'm sorry" was overrated and useless to say, so I kept quiet and said nothing more. But I felt a deeming respect for these kids.
We were sitting around a nice little table in the twins' kitchen. It was an average size with a complete cooking set and a nice, blue cloth-covered square table. We were chewing on some chocolate-chip cookies made by Ros and drank some milk to go with it. As it turns out, Ros was excellent at baking, even if she is a shadow. And she took pride in it as well.
"So why were we running before?" I asked my shadow as I took a bite out of another cookie. I was getting used to this whole 'shadow' thing. It's hard to believe and I'm still trying to process whether this is really happening or not, but I'm getting used to it.
Erika looked a little uncomfortable, her blue eyes darting around the room. I could tell her mind was racing to find an excuse. Ros and Ray looked at her as well, confused themselves.
"The truth, Erika." I urged, looking at her intently.She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. Her shoulders slumped from their tensed position as she opened her eyes again. "You're a normal human." She said. "You can't afford to be seen by the rest of the shadows. It'll freak them out."
I glanced at Ros and Ray who were staring up at me. "What about them?" I questioned, gesturing to the twins seated on either side of me.
"What are you talking about, Erika?" Ros asked, looking back to my shadow. "We see humans all the t-"
"Shhhh!!!!" Erika cut her off. She gave the little girl a pointed look, leading to even more confusion. Then she looked back at me apologetically and gave a nervous laugh. " Look, I can't exactly explain everything just yet. We have to hide here because I can't let specific people see you. Remember that big palace in the middle of town?That's where we'll have to go. But not now."
"You're recruiting her?" Ray asked, a little outrage in his voice. He put down his half-eaten cookie then stared at her with narrowed eyes. " Or are you trying to give her Pardon?"
Ros gasped at that. "You're trying to give her Pardon?!" She also stared at Erika, but with widened eyes. "Are you trying to get her killed?!"
"Woah, woah, woah! " I interjected. "What do you mean 'get her killed'? Why am I getting killed?!"
Erika groaned in frustration. " I'm not- she's not going to get killed, alright?" She told the twins. "Besides, Lorinna will sense her sooner or later. I have to get her Pardon." The two calmed down visibly after that.
"You're asking for trouble, Erika." Ray said, proceeding to eat his cookie. "Don't get us involved."
"I'm keeping my mouth shut for now." Ros promised. "But when they ask me about it I'll have to make a choice."
I folded my arms. "Can someone please explain all of this to me?" I said crossly. All three shadows turned towards me, contemplating whether to lie or to speak the truth. I tried not to squirm under the eyeless gazes of Ros and Ray, but I couldn't help wriggling in my seat, anxious for a decision.
"Lorinna," Ray repeated. "She rules the Shadow Realm, keeping everything in balance. This realm is the in-between of Light and Darkness. These two realms try to stay away from each other for as much as they can, and we're sort of a border, co-existing with humans. But they were the start of everything. It's a tragic story, really. But if they were to fuse together in battle, everything would die and go back to a vast nothingness."
"So anyway," Ros continued. " Humans aren't really allowed in the shadow realm for such a long period of time. Queen Lorinna can and will sense your presence as an imbalance in the realm and might throw you out. So the only way that you can stay here is if the queen gives you Pardon. It's kind of like an official VIP I.D. that you have a better chance of getting when you come to her personally. And you're hiding because Erika fears that a few... patrolling guards might see you and- uh, throw you out."
"Guards...?" I mused, processing everything they've said. Something clicked in the back of my mind and I remembered a conversation I had earlier. "Erika, didn't you say something about Guardians earlier?" I asked.
The twins' heads snapped back to her again and she squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, um-"
"Were these, like, shadow-guardians?" I asked. I had originally thought of shadows who were palace guards for the queen, but these three might have had something else in mind, but I don't know what.
From their expressions, they would have paled if they were regular people with regular skin. "What did you say...?" Erika squeaked, her voice small.
"Shadow-guardians." I said. "Like, shadows who worked as palace guards, or something?"
They all breathed a sigh of relief. Ros stood up and went to put the empty plate of cookies in the sink.
"Okay, no." Erika told me, an unsure edge in her voice. "They're more like... secret, undercover agents who snoop about and whatnot." That didn't really sound convincing, much less real. I was about to press her even more but Ros, who was peering out of the window behind the sink called out in alarm.
"Erika!" She said, still looking out the window so I couldn't see what she saw. "He's here."
Erika's eyes widened in alarm. She stood up and grabbed my arm, sending a chill through me and forcing me to stand up as well.
"Quick, the living room!" Ray called. "We'll buy you time, but you owe us a huge favor. Get her back to her own realm, now!"
"Thanks, Ray." Erika gasped. She pulled me out of the kitchen and made us crouch down behind a vase by the door. I watched as she took a deep breath and went two-dimensional, plastered to the wall as an ordinary shadow in the real world, but her hand still clutched mine.
She was about to say something, but her movements ceased. The back door behind the kitchen creaked open. I could hear muffled voices talking, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. Just before Erika pulled me back, I heard one familiar voice loud and clear- "WHERE IS SHE?!"