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Authors: Peng Shepherd

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BOOK: The Book of M
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“And the shadowless?” Davidia asked, calling over the din.

“What?” Ahmadi looked at her, baffled. For the briefest instant, a flicker of a feeling Zhang had long forgotten shuddered through him.
Max?
he almost said.

“The shadowless,” Davidia repeated, and pointed behind them.

They had all been so overwhelmed by the sight of New Orleans that they didn't realize until they turned around that in those wonderful few moments, Vienna had lost her shadow.

The One Who Gathers

HE WATCHED THE NEWCOMERS APPROACH FROM HIS USUAL
place, atop the summit of the small slope at the center of the city. His “altar.” He had heard some of the others calling the place where he sat by that name, even though it was silly. The buildings behind might be known as the sanctuary now, but his seat was no altar. It was simply a small brick square on the ground, braced from behind by a wall of average height—bare and gently curved so it provided some shelter from the back and sides.

The day was clear, the sun strong. He'd seen the carriages even before they reached the walls, when they were still on the far side of Lake Pontchartrain, barely beginning to cross the long bridge. He had summoned Davidia then, to tell her they were coming.

“They're not Transcendence in disguise, are they?” she'd asked nervously once she'd reached him at the top of the hill. She shaded her brow with her hand, but the carriages were still too far for human eyes to see.

“No, not Transcendence,” he answered. “I think they're friends.”

Davidia put her hand down and nodded slowly, lost in thought. “We haven't had that many come in a long time,” she finally said.

“We haven't,” he agreed. He knew what she wanted to ask. “A good thing,” he said.

“Sorry?”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
“I think it's a good thing,” he repeated. “It means there are still more who wish to remember.”

ONCE THE HURRICANE WAS DEFEATED, IT HAD BEEN VERY
easy to remake Dr. Zadeh's former assisted-living facility into what
was now the sanctuary. The storm had wiped the building clean—all the roofs had collapsed, all the rooms had crumbled back into concrete dust and wood chips, except for one of the four walls that surrounded the inner courtyard where the storm cellar lay.

Once the winds had quieted, the others helped the amnesiac's body climb over the wreckage as his shadow followed behind, trailing silently over the shattered chunks of stone and glass. When they found that last remaining wall still standing over a small patch of cobbled brick path, the amnesiac's shadow went toward it, stretching nearer even as his body stood still—two things completely independent of each other except for the point where their two pairs of feet met. The shadow rose so he was upright against the wall's smooth, blank surface, a dark and solid shape, looking at the others.

“This will do,” he said.

His body went closer then, and sat down in the center of the small floor, facing out. It
would
do, the shadow felt it agree with him. The amnesiac's eyes couldn't see after the accident, not directly, but the shadow's could. In that way, he understood what was around them. They were still one, even though they were also more.

There was no ceiling where he sat, but thanks to the shadowless, with the hurricane sealed permanently around the city like the walls of a fortress, the weather inside would always be temperate. The grounds of the assisted-living facility would be a suitable place from which to watch over New Orleans. From that vantage point, he would be free to stretch and contract over any surface and shape below without obstacle, as far as he could see, and farther.

“I'll stay here,” the shadow said to the rest of them. “We can rebuild and expand.” Perhaps no one had realized before, because forgetting was such a terrifying thing that it sent its victims running away from one another, but the amnesiac's shadow had been proven right during the hurricane. It was like with the elephants—he'd realized that while a shadowless's magic was strong, a group of shadowless
forgetting the same thing together was exponentially more powerful. There was a strength in the sharing. Strength enough to bend nature to their will to save a city—and to restore a destroyed building into a sanctuary, if they decided the price to be paid was worth it.

“Expand?” Dr. Avanthikar asked. He saw the incomprehension flicker in her expression again as they looked at each other. A shadow who could move and talk. And more—a shadow that looked more like the memories of its owner than the physical shape of him. The shadow of a
creature
instead of a man.

“Others will come. They will have felt it, what we've done.” The shadow gestured out, at the rest of New Orleans, and past. “Not all the shadowless want their magic, or want it more than their memories. There are many who want help to resist the pull. To eventually be free of it, to remember again. We should be ready for them.”

Dr. Avanthikar shaded her eyes from the sun that had just begun to peek free of the dissolving clouds with her hand. “I worked with Hemu since the day he was taken into custody, and never really got anywhere with teaching him how to resist the pull. Perhaps one day we'll figure it out, but right now even that's still out of our grasp—let alone how to cure them of it.”

The shadow slid closer to her on the wall. He felt his body cock its head as it thought with him. “I have an idea,” he said.

THE SHADOWLESS RECONSTRUCTED THE SANCTUARY ONCE
they'd agreed on the plans. It was to be somewhat like a temple—the shadow and his body would watch over the grounds from where they sat at the entrance, and behind their altar, there would be two great halls in a line, connected to each other by a long hallway. In the first hall, shadowless who had come for help would rest and wait. They would take care of one another, and Dr. Avanthikar and those shadowless already in their group who were still quite strong would live there as well, to help protect them. In the second hall, shadowless
that the shadow believed he could cure would be invited one at a time. He would stretch up the tall side of the building and enter to meet them through a large open space in the roof.

“It's not too high?” Downtown asked.

The shadow shook his head. “A shadow is not a body. I can travel to the other end of New Orleans from this very place, so long as there is light for contrast, and surfaces to move across.”

The remembering of the two great halls was finished in a day, and a week after, the first shadowless began to appear, drawn by what they had felt happen. In trickles at first. And then once they had seen him—a strangely shaped shadow who moved and talked to them as the human to whom it was attached sat motionless and silent on the bricks before it, the trickles turned into streams. Then rivers. Then oceans. Shadowed survivors began to leave—hope buoyed by so many arriving shadowless they hadn't realized had clung to life so long—to try to find their own shadowless relatives wherever they had lived before the Forgetting began and bring them back to the amnesiac.

When the tide of newcomers began to include shadowed and shadowless from other cities, not just New Orleans, because they had heard about the shadow who had a body, not a body who had a shadow, that was when he became sure of what had to be done to save them.

A shadowless could still learn new things—and they could keep it for a while, whatever it was that they learned. An hour, if they were weak—or perhaps a day, a week, if they were strong. But much beyond that, it wouldn't stick. Nothing would stick without a shadow. That was everyone's mistake so long ago, when it was only Hemu Joshi; they were trying to make memories to give him a shadow again. It was the other way around—they needed to give him a shadow to make memories.

Stating a thing doesn't mean it becomes easy, however. Or even fathomable, according to Dr. Avanthikar. She agreed with the concept, but had no idea how to proceed—because the dark halves of the
shadowless were gone forever. One could not create something from nothing.

But that wasn't the end of hope. There was more to it than that.

The shadow led both his body and Dr. Avanthikar inside the first great hall, and sat them down facing each other in the center of the smooth floor. His body's hand obediently placed a twig between them on the floor.

“Pick up its shadow,” he said to Dr. Avanthikar.

But she could not do it. It was impossible—a human cannot touch a shadow. If she puts a hand on it, tries to grip it in her fingers, the shadow will simply slip away, both under and over at once. Only a shadow can touch a shadow. Only a shadow who understands what it's doing, and is not simply mimicking.

Slowly the shadow reached out to what Dr. Avanthikar had tried to touch and failed, and took hold of the little twig by its silhouette—not its crisp wooden form—and pulled. Beside him, he could feel his body shudder with the effort. It was not easy, to ask a thing to give up its shadow. He felt the world sigh as he strained. It was like ripping apart something that was never meant to be two pieces—something that didn't understand where the line it was supposed to break across lay.

“My God,” Dr. Avanthikar said, transfixed. She picked up the newly shadowless stick and stared at it. Then she reached out and ran her fingers through its separated twin, perched stiffly in his own dark, untouchable palm. Her flesh slipped through both his shape and the dark copy of the twig as easily as before, a hand through smoke.

He smiled as he watched her marvel. He thought of Hemu's notebook again. Of
Peter Pan
—of when poor young Peter found his missing shadow in a chest of drawers, and thought all his problems were solved.

For the longest time, the shadow thought Hemu had included the excerpts because he was simply wishing for something that could never be—that he might be able to find his own again, somehow. The outright magic of the idea never meshed with the rest of his fevered
research; even the rumors surrounding the elephant Gajarajan's almost mystical powers of memory still had grains of truth in them—there were photographs of the actual animal, interviews with people who had seen him, worked with him.
Peter Pan
was written as a children's story.

It took until his awakening for the shadow to finally understand what Hemu had also begun to grasp himself, before his death. Not that one's own shadow could be found again, because those were gone forever—but that they were far more tangible than anyone had realized, if the right hands touched them. And if that was true, then so was this: a shadow from something else might be able to be used in place of a missing one.

He set the ownerless little shadow down on the dusty brick floor. It lay still, lonely.

“Can you do it?” Dr. Avanthikar asked, no more than a whisper. “Can you bind it to something else?” She clutched the mutilated twig.

“I don't know,” he said. “But I think so.”

They began to try. And fail.

The problem wasn't that there weren't enough shadows to use. It was that there were too many, and all of them wrong. The shadow of a sparrow would cure a shadowless, but it drove them mad, urging them to the tops of trees or buildings while the rest chased after to save them, until they finally managed to leap into the air—and then fall, flightless. A tree's shadow would not take at all, and then could not be given back to the tree. The branches withered within weeks, mournful. A rock's shadow made a human catatonic, even though they could then learn and remember. The shadow of a house gave them great, aching pain all throughout their bones, until they begged it to be stripped off again.

That was the worst of all. The houses were how they learned the horrible danger of their experiment. If a rejoining failed midway—if the new, stolen shadow didn't take or he tried to strip it back off by force—the shadowless died.

“Maybe it can't be done after all,” he said softly as they stood over their latest failure. The shadow hadn't wanted to admit it, but it was becoming harder and harder to believe. The dark outline of a salvaged car engine lay draped over the floor between him and the doctor, lifeless. It had begun to fade even as he tore it from the machine, evaporating. For the first time, he could feel himself lose hope.

“Don't give up,” Dr. Avanthikar pleaded. “No matter what.”

“I don't even understand what caused it in the first place. The shadowlessness.”

She tried to put her hand on his shoulder as best she could. In the end, she simply placed her palm flat against the wall, over the top of his outline. “It doesn't matter,” she said.

“Yes, it does,” he argued.

“No, it doesn't.”

He could feel the warmth of her skin as it seeped into the stone where he lay.

“Look at me,” Dr. Avanthikar said. He slowly obeyed. “It doesn't matter why it happened anymore. It only matters what we do from here.”

He looked down again, trying to believe her.

“You
have
to do this, Gajarajan.” She called him by a name, and for the first time, it felt right. “You're the only one who can.”

GAJARAJAN HAD TOLD DR. AVANTHIKAR THAT DIFFICULT DAY
that he would find a way to do it, somehow, even though he had no idea how. He kept trying, and failing. It wasn't until almost two years later—just before Zhang's army arrived at the wall—that he finally made good on that promise. He only wished that she had still been alive to see it.

They had been fighting again, after damaging another shadow so badly as they tried to strip it from its solid chandelier form that it vanished the instant it came free. Gajarajan was prowling back and forth against the wall, and Dr. Avanthikar was facing away from him,
looking over the rest of the sleeping city, to keep herself from falling into the argument once more.

“Look,” she said suddenly. He turned from his flat surface to see her pointing across town, toward the gate. “Is that someone out there?” she asked.

He looked closer and nodded. She was right. Another shadowless had found his way to them, the first one in weeks, and was now wandering aimlessly back and forth on the narrow bridge over the water, as if lost.

“He needs help to make it the rest of the way here,” she said.

“Too far gone,” Gajarajan replied. “Besides, it's past dusk. The deathkites are out.” Since they'd created the wall, the deathkites knew better than to fly over the city. They could feel the same magic in that thing as was in themselves. But outside its bounds, the night was still their territory.

BOOK: The Book of M
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