Now, everybody knows about the Shadowman. He is the one mothers warn their children to keep watch when they're walking out on starless nights. That darkness peeking out of mirrors, hiding under the linens, beneath the floorboards of the pantry. He is the cold chill that follows every bad gamble and wrong turn. And he is terrifying, all the more to fear when he isn't trying to frighten you. He can be all smooth and smoke. He can be charming like the Devil himself. And one thing you learn is you never bargain with the Devil. So if you know better you work, you be good, and you follow your mama's words when she tucks you in at night, and you never, ever offer anything of yours to the Shadowman.
This is the story that's been told for a long time. Passed down the generations, along with the tilling songs and the catechisms. But a long time is just a long time, and things go back deeper, twisting, longer than long.
In this time before there was a boy. He was born of the bayou, bred in the muddy waters of the swamp. And if you weren't looking him in the eyes he could sink down into the marsh and not even the gators could tell his skin from the very waters they were swimming in.
But the boy did not want to be part of the bayou. He wanted to live in the streets of New Orleans, see the sights, be alive in the life of the big easy. His heart longed for the Garden District, with its hanging ivy and its mansion walls. Not the garden of the swamp, with the buzzard and the bugs. Even when the swamp water clung to him no matter how he scrubbed.
As you please, he was also the son of a mambo. And she was right powerful in her own way. A voodoo priestess, second cousin of Marie Laveau (and whether first nor second did not matter much in the way of royal lineage). This mambo told the boy if he wanted to live like they lived in the city proper, he would have to change his life. To work in their world and earn by their ways.
This boy, he was clever. No one would deny it. He could make light from fireflies, bring possums back from the dead, seal a gator's jaws shut, and swear on all the saints it was from his conjuring. But that wasn't his power. His working was how he could jump head first into the water and make you believe he came out of it dry as a bleached bone.
So the boy thought if he went inland, walked sure and steady in the place where the trails were cobblestones instead of pier planks, they would not believe he was from the swamp. He would not tell them, but they knew in other ways. They knew by what he was not. For the boy did not want to simply be among them, on the streets, brushing arms and swinging steps. If a man haunts a place long enough he starts to blend into the surroundings until you never knew different. But the boy did not want to be overlooked to then be accepted.
He wanted the respect, the way ladies would demurely nod to him and men tip their hats. He wanted to be King of New Orleans, and he was smart enough to know that a son of the bayou could not be king as easily as everything else came to him. So he asked his mother, the mambo. He asked her because she was wise, and she was powerful, but most of all he asked because he had nothing else to talk to but for the swamp and his shadow.
The boy said, "Why should those men in the mansions have everything and I have nothing?"
To which the mambo replied, "You have plenty. This world is yours. But if you ask why he has a mansion and you do not it's because that's the way things are. If you're looking to change to what things might be, that takes work, boy."
The boy spit, and blood from his nose was staining his teeth. He had been fighting, for he had no friends and a boy with no friends in the alleys of New Orleans has a greater habit of making enemies if he's not careful. "He didn't work for his life. What's fair about that?"
"Didn't say it was fair, just that it was. And if he wanted to change it, that'd make him work for it. Change is always the hard way."
"Who'd want to change anything about the good life, eh?"
And the mambo wiped her hands on the white shawl. "Even princes can have his miseries. Listen to me—living this long isn't just for my health."
"All this advice, but you aren't going to help me, are you?" he said sullenly. "People come from miles around for your cures and your readings, but you never done anything like that for me."
"I can't help you that way, as it'd be helping myself. As kin, your blood works the same as mine. Help like that comes from others, from friends. But I can give you something else."
The Mambo touched at her robes and her fingers sought the old black cord to bring it out. It was a wooden figure in the shape of a face with lines etched in its grooves. It was like looking into something deeper and darker than the wood could hide, looking older for the grooves placed where the wrinkles would one day appear. "This here works because of blood. It's a cadeaus. Protection. And it will always guard you if you'll leave it be."
The boy did nothing to conceal his doubt, but took it anyway because he had never seen such a thing before. "How's it supposed to protect me if it doesn't do anything?"
"Because the best protection is what keeps you from meeting strife, not dealing with it when it comes knocking at the door."
And here's where the mothers would rap on the bedpost as they tucked in their wayward child. "You listen here. Listen to the mambo. She speaks the truth, and if her son followed her advice he would not have become what he is today."
Oh, he took the cadeaus and wrapped it around his neck. The boy was not wholly a fool to refuse his mambo's gift. If he was just a fool, it'd be a different story. One that could be told in the daylight. But this is the Shadowman, and this story is one about finding darkness when you stray.
He went off to make his fortune, like many before. And he worked, he slaved, he served, he sweated, but it wasn't enough. New Orleans had more to offer than the swamp, more dangers than the tidepools to drag someone under. Convenience. Temptation. Too late, you find yourself in over your head. And it's all too easy to find the slow, circling downward spiral.
The Shadowman knows. He traveled the same path long before you were born. He's the one waiting for you at the end of it. Black top hat and tails, gentleman's cane, the gift of his mother grinning at you in a private joke. When you fall he'll be the first one to say he'll help you up.
All you have to do is give him your hand.