Lynn stretched in her “bed”, exposing different parts of her body to the cool wind, burying others into the rags. Artificial sunlight mixed with the warmer real light on her face. She was adrift on the surface of a dream, deep darkness below her, sunlight and wind above. No, she was the surface, the boundary between the real and the fleetingly real. Dissolved and carefree. She’ll have to get up soon, she knew. Become a girl again, with all her aches and fears and responsibilities. But not yet. She deserved a quiet morning. Everything was well.
Lynn’s tranquility was shattered by a question.
“Where did you get this?”
Lynn jerked forward, sitting up to cover up the traitorous metal near her leg. She hadn’t found a better hiding place last night, having never had a need for one before. She had wrapped the candlestick in a piece of cloth, which obviously hadn’t been enough. Lynn looked up to find Eric standing over her.
“It…” she paused, half-dreams still swirling inside her mind. Lynn ran her hand through her ruffled hair, forcefully blinked a couple of times, willing her consciousness to coalesce, then tried again.
“I took it. From a bad person.”
Eric nodded, then looked back at Tim, who sat in their corner. Tim has barely said a word to her since the night Eric went missing and Tim ran off to rescue him because she wouldn’t. The boys had returned, the trust hadn’t. Whatever their relationship was now, they weren’t her Ducklings anymore.
“You don’t need to worry, they won’t even know it’s gone,” Lynn tried to address the worry on Eric’s face.
“What will you do with it?”
There was another, unspoken question behind this one, Lynn could sense it.
“I’ll sell it. It can feed us for a long time.”
Another glance was exchanged between Tim and Eric. There was a wordless conversation happening, to which Lynn wasn’t privy. Her ignorance did not last long, as Tim blurted out the next question:
“Will you buy more slime with it?”
Eric punched him in the shoulder. Lynn barely registered that. Her first reaction was to lash out back at Tim. How dare he question her like that, after all she’s gone through to get clean. She fought it down.
“I don’t want to. But I don’t know if… I can’t promise it. I will try.”
She looked up at Tim, daring him to say something about it. To let her scream back and feel good.
He didn’t. In the awkward silence that followed, Lynn turned away to examine her throbbing thigh. Three lines of dried blood were left where the candlestick had been. Incredulous, Lynn took it out. There was a bit of dried blood on one of the sides, too, and on one of the sharp demonic tongues. The demon looked pleased with itself. Shuddering, Lynn wrapped the candlestick back up.
The sound of people outside told her the morning had truly begun. The twins were heading out. Tim paused at the top of the stairs, waited for Eric to reach the ground level, then looked Lynn in the eyes.
“If you do get slimed, don’t come back here again.”
Having said this he bolted after his brother, leaving Lynn to sit there, dumbfounded. Somehow, she didn’t feel like screaming anymore.
Soon, the butcher’s shop would be open. She had to go, too. She wouldn’t let this mar her mood, Lynn decided. For once, she was doing something right, and Tim would come around to seeing it.
Some stalls have already been set up. Simple wares of the traders from New Valenar and farms beyond lay on crude wooden tables, surrounded by exquisite ruins. As Lynn walked through them, wary eyes followed her. They were right to be afraid, she smirked. She wasn’t just a street kid anymore, she was a thief. But she only stole from those who didn’t need it. These people were not that much better off than her.
A dwarven merchant had her back turned to the walkway, too busy wagging tongues with her friend at the next stall. The dwarf’s left arm had been hidden in the folds of her shirt, bulging disproportionately. Out there, beyond the protection of daylight crystals, all lived in the Shadow, all bore scars of its touch.
At the corner of the merchant’s table lay a box of dried figs, inviting. So easy to reach out and pocket a few. Lynn walked by, delighting in her benevolence.
Two minutes later, she heard Russell call out her name as he ran after her. He seemed even thinner than when she last saw him, a couple of weeks ago in that square. He’d walked out on her then, so Lynn didn’t know what to expect from him now.
“You look well. Better.”
“You don’t,” she replied with only a tiny bit of satisfaction.
“I’ll be fine. But you, I’ve heard you have a job now!”
“I do. It’s strange, having somewhere to be each day.”
“I bet. Any chance you can put in a word for me?”
“Don’t think the butcher needs any more people. Don’t even think he needs me, really. But I’ll ask.”
“Thanks. Oh, want some?” Russell extended a handful of figs to Lynn. She hesitated, but only briefly.
“And how’s the other thing. You know. The Beast,” the boy lowered his voice as he said it, to Lynn’s amusement.
“We’re getting somewhere. I’ve been in his tower yesterday. It’s very creepy, but I haven’t found anything we could use. Yet.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing.”
Lynn looked at him incredulously. Has she let her guard down too soon? Seeing her expression, Russell raised up his arms.
“I mean, it’s a good thing you’re taking it slowly, not putting yourself in danger. I have said some harsh things to you before, and I… I can see I was wrong. You got yourself a job. You’re not abandoning your friends, your life. You’re building it up. Certainly doing so better than I am.”
Lynn wanted to retort that the job was just a cover. A lie to get her into the Beast’s tower. One she would give up as soon as it had served its purpose. But would she? Not for the first time but still to some surprise, she realised that she liked it. Not the job, but how it felt to have one. To be trusted and valued. Russell took her silence for quiet acceptance.
“So I guess I’m saying I’m sorry. Let me know if I can help somehow. I’ll stop pestering you in the meantime.”
He turned to leave, but Lynn grasped his shoulder.
“Wait. What about you, do you need help? Food or the like?”
Russell shrugged, looking away: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll get by. I’m fine.”
Lynn could see that he wasn’t, but didn’t have the time or the strength to push the issue. She settled for promising herself she’d deal with it once she was done with the Beast. An arrogant thought, she knew, but that’s how she was starting to feel. She’d fix her relationships once she was free of this task she has taken on.
Once she had defeated the Beast. She hadn’t really thought about it before, hadn’t allowed herself the luxury. But it was like Russell had said: she was building up her life, even if that had been an accident on the way to her real goal. And now she had something to look forward to.
She’d almost made it to the butcher’s shop when Josh appeared in front of her.
“Broken hells and empty heavens, is everyone going to ambush me…” Lynn began, when she saw the look on his face. And behind him, an all-too-familiar crowd of gawkers.
“Lynn, don’t…” he objected futilely as she pushed past him.
Josh tried to pull her back, but she shrugged off his hands. Lynn squeezed through the onlookers and onto the street on which the butcher’s shop stood.
As she stood there, all she could think of was how much she wished she was slimed. She would still see the blood and the wounds, but not how much they must have hurt. She would see the tensed muscles of the face, but not the fear that will now forever stain it. She would see the butcher, but not the man who has been kind to her. Yes, she would see the wounds, the three long gashes coming together on the butcher’s chest, but not the candlestick they formed.
Not just that. It was the crowd around her. Buzzing with concern, curiosity, shock. Concern they might be next, curiosity at the manner this stranger had died, shock that it had happened near them. Them, all about them. A good man had died and nothing was going to change and no one was going to do anything. Lynn felt alienated from this selfish mass of humanity. She craved to put as much distance between herself and the people that surrounded her, to shield herself with the detachment provided by slime.
A lone voice cut through the noise of the crowd. Lynn knew who the sound of pure anguish belonged to, and forced herself to move. She didn’t get to feel self-pity, if she was any better than the people she had condemned just a moment ago – this wasn’t about her either. On unbending legs, Lynn went to find Jenny.
The front door of the shop was closed, the inconsolable weeping coming from the inside. Jenny didn’t respond to knocking or calls, so Lynn went around. The back door was closed too, but not locked, and she knew how to nudge it open. Lynn found Jenny leaning heavily on the front counter, tears forming a puddle between her arms.
Jenny didn’t react to her being there. Not knowing what to do or what to say, Lynn approached her quietly, then put her hand on Jenny’s shoulder. Jenny’s arms were shaking, the only thing holding her up. She reached out to Lynn, grasping at her, dragging her down. The two of them sank to the floor, and Lynn found herself weeping with her.
“Oh, Lynn, what am I going to do?” Jenny’s words came between huge sobs, making it seem like she was coming up for air briefly, drowning in grief, “Da’d be opening the shop up by now. He’d be telling me to, to, to hang up a pig or to go pick up a delivery or… He always knows what to do and I’m just, I don’t know how to run the shop, or what to do about his… his… he didn’t want to become a zombie, but I don’t know if I need to say something to someone or what I’m going to do tomorrow or the day after and he’s just… gone. It’s not fair.”
“Go home, and don’t worry about anything. Tomorrow I can help you hang the pig up and deal with the delivery. And I don’t know what to do either. I don’t know how to help you beyond that. I didn’t even know your dad’s name.”
“Peter. His name is… was… Peter.”
“It’s my fault,” Lynn whispered.
She didn’t meant to, but the words came out on their own. Jenny didn’t respond, so Lynn said it again: “It’s my fault he’s dead.”
Jenny pulled back to look her in the face, her fingers digging deep into Lynn’s shoulders.
“Why would you say that?!”
“I’ve caused it.”
“Are you the Beast?”
“No, but… It should have been me.”
“Then don’t say that. No matter what your life was like, whatever had happened to you, it’s not your fault someone you know got hurt. You’re not cursed, you’re not to blame for what others have done. You’re no use to anyone if you fear what might happen to them. Bad things happen, you can’t help that. You can’t save everyone. Just… Be kind, and do good, a day at a time. Like my Da did.”
Lynn’s protestations got stuck in her throat, and she simply nodded instead before hiding her face with another hug.
She left, eventually. Jenny had headed home at Lynn’s insistence, avoiding the mainstreet. While they were inside the shop, Peter’s body has been taken away by a Dargothian priest, and the crowd dispersed.
Lynn felt drained, like she had cried the last tears she would ever have. And with the tears her fears and worries had washed out of her, until there was only emptiness and smouldering anger left.
Josh had been waiting all this time for her outside.
“How is she? Didn’t know you were friends.”
“She’s lost. Even more lost than I am. And we’re not. But I know how she feels.”
“So… What do we do now?”
“We tried to be careful. It didn’t work. The Beast killed again, that’s what it does, that’s what it will keep doing. So we stop it now, or we die. No great loss.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I’m a lost cause,” he waved his gloved, tainted hand, “but you’re not. You could actually have a life.”
Just that morning, Lynn would have gotten into another fight with Josh over those words. She would have tried to convince him he had something to live for, that he had to try and find it.
“Maybe thinking that was a mistake. That’s what got the butcher… Peter… killed.”
“Why did the Beast attack him, actually?”
“I stole from it, and it retaliated. Maybe it thought I was stealing for Peter. Or maybe it’s coming for me next. All the more reason not to waste any time.”
“Wait, you stole from it? Is that what Azary was talking about?”
“Yes. I’m to blame. And now I’m going to make it right. I don’t have a plan yet, but I will. Let’s meet in the evening and figure it out. There’s one thing I have to get that I know we’ll need.”
Lynn moved through the city in a haze. She no longer felt like an urchin, or a slimer, or a benevolent thief. She felt like a missile. Propelled by the rage at the injustice of the world in which beasts flourish, she flew towards her target, utterly out of control.
“I don’t care about my cut. I need a moonstone,” she said as she slammed the damned candlestick on the table.
“Why would you want such a trinket? Unless…” Azary’s grin grew wider, “Are you going to rob a tower?”