Chapter Eighteen

Posted: December 2, 2014 in Arc 2

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?”

Chapter Seventeen

Posted: September 8, 2014 in Arc 2

The gate loomed. An ordinary wooden gate with barely any ornamentation. Surrounded by a couple of pale leafless trees. Under a tall tower, unhuman whimsy caught in stone. On a street still full of people. It could not have been more mundane. It could not have been more ominous.

Lynn dragged her feet after the butcher and his wheelbarrow. She felt like she was voluntarily walking to her own execution. The Beast waited for her behind that gate, and for the last week she’s done everything in her power to get in. She was out of her mind and out of her depth, she grew more certain of that with every step. It wasn’t too late yet to turn and run. They had reached the fencing. She could just bolt. They’ve walked in. Lynn looked around desperately, searching for a way out. Instead, she saw Josh out on the street, winking at her.

Lynn hadn’t expected to see him there, not after she has gone off at him this morning. She had noticed a jar in his pocket and simply exploded. Everything she had said was true. Slime was poison, and taking it was the stupidest thing one could do. Everything she had said was useless. Josh knew all that, as did she when she took it. It wasn’t any good telling people they were being stupid. There had to have been a better way to go about it. Lynn just couldn’t see it, but couldn’t watch Josh poison himself further either. She didn’t like that maybe she had yelled at him so that she wouldn’t have to.

Or maybe because Josh had passed on a message from Azary, “Two days,” and asked what that meant. Lynn panicked, and the first thing that came to her mind was outrage. Neither of those maybies was a good way to treat a friend, perhaps the only friend she had left. He’d just listened to her yell, then walked off. Seeing him now reassured Lynn she hadn’t driven him away just yet.

The door opened quietly, and all thoughts drained from Lynn. A man stood inside, gold embroidered on a black vest. Lynn finally forced herself to look up to his face, only to find him looking right back. Lynn examined mold on her food with the same expression. But it wasn’t the marquis, so she could actually breathe again.

“What’s this?” the man said.

“She, uh, works for me,” the butcher replied sheepishly.

The man gave a barely perceptible shrug and stepped aside. The butcher was twice as wide as him, and half a head taller. His entire body expressed how sorry he was about this fact as he squeezed past the man in the black vest and into the tower. From inside, he glared back at Lynn and gestured with his head. She rushed in after him, leaving the wheelbarrow with food behind.

Her tower consisted of nothing more than emptiness and stairs. This one had a wall separating the rest of the floor from the stairs and the entrance. Nothing sinister was in sight – except for the dark man. He stood to the side silently, without moving his eyes off of Lynn.

The butcher (she really ought to have learned his name, Lynn knew, but it was way too late to ask) bent down to open a trapdoor opposite the stairs, revealing same spiraling stairs going downwards. He’s clearly done this before, as he reached up without a pause to pull on a large mirror. The butcher adjusted it until it reflected the light from the daylight crystal streaming into the open door, shining it down into the basement. All the while, he kept his back to their host, hiding from the piercing stare. With the mirror angled, he turned to Lynn.

“I’ll carry supplies here, and you’ll be taking them below. Stairs disagree with my knee. There’s a cold storage room there, you won’t miss it. Just stock everything on the shelves. Girl!”

Lynn nearly jumped. She had been looking at the host from the corner of her eye, each time finding him look directly at her and averting her eyes. Turning to the butcher, she nodded dutifully.

The butcher once again did his best to shrink as he passed the host, and returned with a whole pig’s leg. He thrust it into Lynn’s arms. The girl took hold of it, trying not to bring the still soft flesh too close to her body. The view inside the butchery hadn’t bothered her too much, but holding a part of another being’s body, raw and recognizable, was different. She was no longer an observer, she was taking part in the slaughter.

Below, the Shadow ruled. It railed against the intrusion of sunlight, mounting counter-offensives at the luminous shaft. The stairs led to a circular area in the middle of the basement. Four equidistant doors stood in the round wall, and a postament rose in the centre of the room. On it was a bright crystal-like mirror which Lynn recognized as being similar to the ones in Isabel’s home. Light fell directly on it from above, and dispersed in all directions. It engaged the Shadow, carving swathes of the world back into existence. It wasn’t nearly enough to light up the basement.

One of the doors stood open, retreating Shadow having left behind shelves of supplies. Lynn entered the room cautiously, waiting for something to scuttle out of the darkness. Cold air crept across her skin. There was a chest on the far side of the room, glowing softly. It stood on one of the shelves just below Lynn’s face level. Chill radiated from it, and surrounding food items were covered in a thin layer of frost.

Cool mist coiled together with the Shadow, a dance of serpents around Lynn’s arm as she reached out to the chest. She came here to find something out of the ordinary, something that would incriminate the marquis as the Beast. Whatever this chest was, whatever it contained, it wasn’t anything she’d seen before.

Her fingers brushed the stone lid, but slid right off without finding purchase. Lynn took another tentative step forward, coming face to face with the thing. With both hands, she grasped the lid on either side. Pushing her fingers into the smooth surface as hard as she could, Lynn tried to open the chest, to no avail. She examined it closer, looking for a keyhole, and found none. Instead, she discovered a small recess at the front of the chest, just under the lid. It appeared to be a perfect size for a narrow object to slip in. Out went Lynn’s knife, and into the recess. Lynn had intended to lodge it in there and push on it as a lever, but as it went deeper, the lid simply opened with a popping sound.

A white-blue flame tongue lashed out, right at the girl’s face. Lynn yelped and jumped back, the lid slamming shut, the knife tumbling to the floor. She had seen the chest’s contents, even if she didn’t recognize it: a lump of some white, glowing mineral, perhaps ice. Ice burning with a cold flame which kept the entire room cold. Which had caught a lock of her hair, Lynn now realized. She pulled on the whitened strands to see them better, and they snapped off, crumbling in her hand.

Alarmed, the girl took a step back. This ice box was dangerous. Dangerous, but contained, she concluded. And while unusual, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly beastly about it. She’ll have to keep looking. Lynn placed the pig leg on a nearby shelf, and hurried back up.

Looking straight ahead at the butcher who was straining to do the same, Lynn grabbed the next item from him, a bundle of thankfully less identifiable pieces of meat. Feeling the other man’s gaze bore through her, she rushed back down again.

In the next few trips, Lynn had learned there was nothing else of interest in the cold room, and all the other doors were locked. She was half way through the wheelbarrow, and had nothing to show for it. Had the past week been for naught? Had this trip into the lair of the Beast been worthless?

She’d have time to fret about it later. She could maybe, just maybe, pick a lock. She had seen others do it, and had a couple of thin nails with her for such an eventuality. But which door? Lynn spun around the postament, looking at them. Three closed doors, only enough time for one. Suddenly, she imagined a princess behind one, and a tiger behind another, an old memory coming to the surface. A nursery rhyme, or a tale someone used to tell her. The girl couldn’t remember who it was, and couldn’t care at this moment. She shook her head, trying to banish the phantoms.

Instead, the imagined princess and the tiger began jumping effortlessly through the unseen walls separating the rooms, stopping briefly behind one door or another to look at Lynn. Fine, she thought. Once the phantom princess came to a halt again, Lynn moved towards her. This seemed like a safer choice of the two, the better ending to the tale. The princess grinned hungrily, then turned into a tiger. The tiger didn’t turn into anything, but grinned nonetheless. Her hand already on the handle, Lynn gulped, then rushed to the third, vacant locked door.

She got the nails into the lock and had rummaged within fruitlessly over the next two trips. The wheelbarrow can’t have had much more in it. Finally something gave inside the lock, and the door came open with a deafening creak. Lynn froze, then scrambled to grasp it to stop the noise. She held her breath for several seconds, striving to hear the footsteps over her beating heart, but the dark man hadn’t come rushing down from above to investigate. Centimeter by centimeter, Lynn released the door, wincing at every sound it made.

Inside, the floor was cluttered with assorted trinkets and… bones? It was as if the unknowable refuse of the unknowable marquis’ life was simply being dumped here. Dented goblets and cobwebs, rib bones and rotted shawls, a cracked chandelier and a cow skull. The Shadow lurked within this treasure trove of rubbish.

The whole place felt wrong. Why would there be so many once-valuable items here, and why the bones? Were there human bones here? Would she be able to tell? Lynn moved forward, carefully stepping over the piles on the floor. No, this didn’t feel like just dumping ground. It felt like a sacrifice. Like the things were deliberately smashed, bones deliberately left here, for the Shadow to gnaw on. As if their ruination was the offering. One she has unwittingly delved into.

This must be what the rest of the world is like, Lynn suddenly thought. Ruins and broken things and bones, presided over by the Shadow.

This was it, her one chance for a proof. She began searching blindly through the piles, feeling for something identifiably human, elbow deep in the Shadow. All she got was cuts. Out and in again, she was growing desperate. She only had a couple of trips left. Lynn was surrounded by proof she needed, and had no way to find it. She had made a small pile of bones that could have belonged to someone, but they could just as easily have belonged to a pig. Lynn couldn’t smuggle them all out.

“That’s the last of it,” said the butcher handing her a package, something bird-like. Everything she had brought down has been meat, Lynn realized. An awful lot of meat. How many people lived here, and just how hungry were they?

Another pointless question. She was out of time. She’ll take what looked like a hip bone, Lynn decided, and try very hard not to think of where it came from. The girl stood at the threshold of the refuse room for one last second, looking around for anything she might have missed. Her gaze stopped at a candlestick. Ebb and flow of the Shadow has revealed it, standing on the floor, without a blemish. It might even be gold, Lynn mused, it certainly shone in the light. She moved past it to her pile of bones, then stopped.

She had nothing to show for her efforts. The hip bone was a long shot, the entire endeavor had been a long shot. The candlestick wasn’t. It was right there, gleaming. Azary wanted her to bring something, and here it was. Could she take both? Lynn picked up the candlestick, twirled it in her hands. Three demonic figures, ugly and gleeful, held up their arms for the missing candles, their tails entwined together in the middle, holding them together. It wasn’t a pleasant thing, but it looked like it was really valuable.

Perhaps more importantly, it was slender enough to slip under her clothes, to have it hang at her hip with its base hooked on the skirt. The metal chilled her skin, but almost didn’t protrude. Lynn has hidden it before consciously coming to a decision. And once she did, she knew she wouldn’t give it up. There’d be another chance to look for more evidence. Something more tangible. Something she could actually use, like she can use the candlestick. She needed it, Lynn finally convinced herself. She needed to play it safe, with Azary and with the dark man at the exit. She still had to get past him.

Lynn kicked the pile of bones she had assembled, sending it into the darkness, and hurried back up. She almost made it out.

“Took your time,” the man in the black vest said, standing in the doorway. Lynn stumbled and felt the candlestick tug on her skirt, sliding lower.

“It’s dark there,” Lynn mumbled.

“So dark you’ve missed the open door? I could hear you scratching down there. Scratch-scratch. Like a mouse.”

“Sorry. The door’s creaky. Cold room door. I’ll be quieter next time. You won’t hear me. Sorry.”

Words poured out of Lynn’s mouth. The man kept looking at her, and, despite her every urge, Lynn looked right back at him. She kept his gaze, freeing her arms to correct the position of the candlestick, unseen. The sharp edges of the cold metal cut into her thigh, leaving angry groves in their wake. She’d wince, if she was not so preoccupied with fear. 

“Run along, little mouse,” said the man in the black vest, finally stepping out of her way, and grinned hungrily.

Chapter Sixteen

Posted: June 29, 2014 in Arc 2

Her eyes hurt. It was as if that’s all Lynn was now: her eyes. Every other sensation, all the pain and hunger and cold had faded, eclipsed by her eyes. Throbbing, oozing, squeezed tightly by her skull, seared by sunlight. All Lynn could think of were her excruciating eyes. All she could hope for was that they’d get better in time. Maybe in another minute. Or a few. Please.

Josh came tumbling out of the butcher’s shop, followed closely by a cry of “Stop! Thief!”, which in turn was followed by the butcher himself. By the time he showed up, the boy had bounced off a man who turned to the noise, easily dodged two others who made a half-spirited attempt at grabbing him, and was approaching Lynn.

She moved to intercept him, sticking out a leg over which he dutifully tripped without actually touching it. A stick of dried meat came tumbling to the ground, Josh continued tumbling forward and had gone around a corner by the time the butcher reached Lynn. He was a large man, clearly benefitting from his wares. He paused, unsure whether to keep up the pursuit or pick up the stolen item. Lynn had decided for him by grabbing the dried meat and holding it up.

The butcher’s gaze traveled from the corner to the meat, then to Lynn’s eyes and immediately and awkwardly to the ground. Lynn struggled to hide a smirk. He huffed slightly, unaccustomed to running. After a couple of seconds of catching his breath and gathering his thoughts, the butcher reached out and took the prize.

“Thank you. Do you want…Hey, wait!”

The man placed a hand on Lynn’s shoulder, who had turned away to leave.

“Wait. Do you want something? You stopped the thief.”

“I don’t want charity,” Lynn slipped away from him.

“Nonsense! Come with me, I’ll get you something.”

“I won’t take your reward. Ain’t why I done it.”

“Well, what can I do for you?” The butcher was puzzled.

Lynn turned back to him and looked him straight in the eyes.

“I want a job.”

“A… what?”

“A job. I want to work.”

“I don’t have a job to offer,” the butcher scratched his head, “Are you sure you don’t want a piece of this?”

He offered Lynn the dried meat he was holding. She didn’t break eye contact.

“I don’t want charity. And I don’t want to steal no more, or do… other things. I want a job.”

The mention of “other things” did the trick. The butcher’s face turned slightly redder and acquired a concerned expression. It was easy to make well-off people feel guilty about being well-off. The less they knew of being homeless, the worse they could imagine, the more guilty they felt.

“I want a job, because it’s a responsibility. If I have to show up every day, I won’t do slime anymore. I’m not sure I’m strong enough, otherwise.”

“Oh. Ok, listen. Come tomorrow. My daughter, Jenny, will be here. I’m not promising anything. But I’ll try to find something for you to do. An errand or something. Don’t expect much. And use the back door.”

“Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ll do anything. Sweep the floors or take out animal parts you don’t use, or anything. Thank you!”

Lynn only felt a little bit guilty herself.

***

Opening her eyes was a struggle. The discharge from them has become thicker, congealing into lumps on her eyelashes, binding them together. Lynn had to continuously wipe it away, smearing the smelly substance over the side of her dress. The damage done by slime no longer caused just discomfort, but also fear. Lynn was no longer certain she was getting better. Her eyes were changing, but was it for the better? Hope was tainted by doubt.

The girl in the butcher’s shop looked her up and down, and wasn’t shy about showing she wasn’t impressed with what she saw. Broad-shouldered and tall like her father, she didn’t have a gut weighing her down, and only a slight puffiness of her cheeks betrayed her young age. Despite only a couple of years of age difference, Lynn had no doubt Jenny could break her in half. If she could catch her.

“Da said you’d be coming along,” the butcher’s daughter said after a while.

“You must be Jenny. I’m Lynn,” she smiled to lessen the tension. It didn’t quite work.

“Da is too trusting. He says you want to work. For your sake I hope he wasn’t wrong, and you’re not just here to steal from us. Here’s a bucket and a rag. Clean the blood drain. It smells.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not here to steal,” Lynn said as she eagerly took the cleaning implements.

True, in a way.

***

Her eyes continued to dry up. It felt as if all the slime she had smeared over them has turned into sand, taking with it chunks of her eyes. Once again, Lynn was afraid she didn’t even have eyes anymore, just slime which took their shape. Even worse, it felt like there were grains of this slime-sand stuck on the back of her eyeballs, shredding them every time she looked around. She moved slowly and deliberately, turning her head each time she needed to look in a direction.

“Got nothing for you,” said the butcher.

“I’ll do anything. Please.”

“I mean it. It’s a quiet day.”

The butcher turned to leave, but Lynn’s miserable expression made him stay.

“Look. You seem a decent sort. I don’t feel right paying you a pittance for hard work, and I can’t afford to pay more.”

“It’s true, I’d get more by begging. But I can’t go on living like that. I’m not ashamed of it, but I want to… I want to respect myself.”

The butcher sighed, then ran his hand through thinning hair.

“Very well. You can come and check every day. If I have spare coin, I’ll find something for you to do. If.”

For the rest of the day, Lynn would remember this talk, and smile inwardly. Was she starting to believe her own lies, she wondered.

***

She kept telling herself it was her imagination, that there weren’t cavernous holes in her eyes, that there weren’t bloody grooves carved into their backs. It didn’t help that there were now blind spots in her vision, or that her hand came away bloody whenever she would lift it to her face. Lynn tried very hard and unsuccessfully not to think about these changes. It’ll all turn out well in the end. It had to.

Despite being distracted, Lynn couldn’t fail to notice there was something really wrong with the sheep’s heart which lay in the bucket of guts she had been handed. To start with, it was twice the size of the other heart lying next to it, to the point Lynn wouldn’t have thought they were from the same type of animal if she didn’t see the two carcasses hanging off the hooks herself.

More disturbingly, its blood vessels were bulged and twisted, tied into knots. They were putridly yellow, as if the sheep’s heart had been rotting long before it has been slaughtered this morning. Seeing Lynn’s horrified face, the butcher tsked.

“That’s what Gwydion and his ilk does. Most animals are just sickly from it. But every month or so, we get one that’s been all corrupted on the inside. It’s always different. Some have teeth and hair and even limbs growing on the inside; others just have different insides altogether, like they aren’t even the same creature anymore. There was one that had some sort of thing living inside it, slithering between its organs. It wasn’t happy about me cutting into its home.”

The butcher lifted his left hand to show a long scar running from wrist to elbow.

“Doesn’t seem to happen to pigs much, guess they’re smart enough to stay away from the nasty stuff. But sheep, sheep’ll graze on anything. Best you don’t touch it, who knows what it even is now.”

Lynn nodded absentmindedly. The blood vessels on the heart didn’t just twist randomly, she now realized. It was a script. A prayer, or a message. The heart grew to accommodate it. And she was certain that until recently she could have read it.

She clearly wasn’t as smart as pigs.

***

The worst part, the absolute worst part of it was, Lynn knew exactly what she had to do to end her agony. Slime would dissolve the sand behind her eyes, would fill the holes in them, would wash it all away. She wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t care anymore. Except she wanted to care. She had something to live for now, as crazy as her goal was. And you didn’t use slime if you wanted to live.

Josh still used it. She really should talk to him, Lynn thought. Should try and help him, to free him of his addiction. But not before she’s freed herself. She’s avoided the boy for the last two days, for fear of clawing his eyes out to squeeze the slime out of them.

No, Lynn was in no state to help anyone right now. Right now, she was struggling to stand. She leaned on the mop heavily, trying to keep her legs from folding. She felt like all of her strength has been directed at tolerating her eyes for so long, she had nothing left. Her muscles were drained, useless husks. Her knees wobbled, then gave out. Lynn kneeled in a dirty corner of the butcher’s shop, still holding on to the upright mop. She wished for her arms to pull her up, but the best they could do was prevent her from falling further.

Lynn refused to give up. This was ridiculous, she thought. How can she expect to defeat the Beast, if she can’t stand? She had to get up. Her arms shook from exertion as she tried to make them work, to pull herself up from the dirt. She couldn’t. Thankfully, she wasn’t alone.

Jenny lifted Lynn up by her elbows, then walked her to a bench.

“Stay here, I’ll get you some water,” she said before disappearing.

Lynn slumped, too weak to protest. She drank the water Jenny brought, stopping a couple of times to take a break. Finally, she felt she had regained some control of her limbs, and her mind had cleared a bit. Jenny stood over her, clearly worried.

“Thought you didn’t like me,” Lynn mumbled.

“Thought you were a thief.”

“I am a thief.”

This wasn’t a good time for confessions, but lying required effort Lynn couldn’t spare right now.

“Yes, well. Right now you’re someone who needs to go home and rest. You do have a home, right?”

“I do. But I doubt I can make it there.”

“So do I. Just wait a bit. I’ll take you there. Just need to tell Da I’m going.”

***

The next day had passed in a blur. A feverish, maddening, week-long blur. Lynn felt like she was drowning in a muddy ocean of slime. Sometimes, she would come up for a breath and realise she had been screaming, or sobbing, or begging. She’d remember small, mercifully cold fingers wiping her face. She’d try to move, but her body wouldn’t respond, having seemingly dissolved into an aching puddle, lost in the vast slime ocean. And into the endless slimy depths she’d inevitably be dragged again.

***

She was surrounded by filth. That was the first thought Lynn have had once she was capable of having thoughts again. Sweat and dirt and whatever had seeped through her skin last night stained the rags which served as her bed. A can of soup stood in the centre of the room. Old Martha must have been here. As much as Lynn wanted to eat, and she had realized with some surprise that she did, there was rust on the can, and ancient bits of what used to be food stuck to its sides which gave her pause. She had to fight off queasiness as she devoured the soup in several gulps.

This was new. Lynn hadn’t been picky before, couldn’t afford to be. As she looked around the room of her tower, she kept noticing filth and degradation. It was, she decided, as if all the barriers and haze that slime had created in her head have been washed out as slime left it. And with them the barriers that all the people had built themselves, the ones which allowed them to turn a blind eye to the horrors of their daily lives, have been washed out as well. Not only did Lynn see things, she noticed them, and couldn’t not pay attention.

She still felt weak, though much better after a meal. She probably should have taken it easy and slept some more, she knew. Instead, she brought a bucket of water from the river and scrubbed all the sheets and rags from their home and even Old Martha’s favorite can until she couldn’t scrub anymore. Then Lynn brought a second bucket of water to wash away the mess she’d made.

Weak and wet, she nonetheless showed up at the butcher’s shop shortly before the shadowfall. His face lit up with a smile when she approached.

“How’re you doing? You look better.”

“I am better. Thank you. I think I’m clean now. Not just the clothes,” Lynn squeezed her shirt, forcing a few droplets of water out, “You know.”

“Good. That’s good to hear. We were worried about you.”

“Even Jenny?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised. She talks tough, but she’s just a big softie, like me,” he seemed proud, “Speaking of being a softie. Don’t think I don’t know what you did, with the most obvious and clumsy thief I’ve ever seen.”

“You… You know? Then why?..”

“I figured if you wanted to work so bad, I should give you a chance. See if you meant it. And look at you, you can barely stand but came here anyway.”

Lynn stood quietly, gazing downward, not knowing what to say.

“But do not do that again. You didn’t know me, didn’t know how I’d treat you, so you lied to get an advantage. You get a pass. Now you do know me. I catch you lying, I’ll throw you out. You have your chance. Don’t blow it.”

Lynn nodded, staring ever more intently at her shoes.

“Good. Now go have a rest already. If you’re up for it, there’s an errand I need to run tomorrow, a delivery. Some rich bugger is paying twice the market price for some goods to be brought to his home.”

Chapter Fifteen

Posted: June 10, 2014 in Arc 2

“It’s a disgrace. Though, I suppose, you won’t see it that way.”

Lynn jerked her head to the left to see the elfblooded man who gave her bread two nights ago sit down next to her. There was wine on his breath, but no aggression in his movements and a mellow expression on his face. A melancholy drunk, she concluded. Not a threat.

“To you it’s just a tall building. But it’s a source of pride to us. We’ve rebuilt it, just like our ancestors would have done. Brick by brick, spell by spell. And now an outsiders lives there.”

The man was looking up at the tower wistfully. Lynn shot a glance at Josh who sat across the street, to which he responded with a deliberate shrug. This was their third day of observation, and any diversion was welcome. If they guy wanted to talk, let him talk.

“He’s got lots of gold, sure. But what good is gold, when you’ve lost your heritage? This was an ideal. We’ve toiled for years, you know. Decades. For the promise that one day we’ll get to live in a tower of our own. And to exchange that for gold… Ah, who am I kidding. Gold is plenty good. And besides, the tower will still be there when this foreigner is gone.”

The man looked at Lynn to see if she had anything to add. She didn’t, the plight of people with property was entirely alien to her. The silence dragged on, and the elfblooded had almost grown bored enough to get up when Lynn had gathered courage to speak.

“How’d he buy it? The tower.”

“Technically, he’s renting it. An important distinction. As to how, it’s the Shadow. With a daylight crystal missing, it now glomps my tower, and partially glomps his. People didn’t want to live like that, not when there was an option to take a payout and move in with relatives. Can’t say I blame them, I’d have sold my share of my tower, had it been of any value.”

“So why do you stay there? Can’t you move in with relatives?”

“Can’t you? I imagine neither of us have another option. And some day the crystal will be back, or a new one will be made, and it’ll all go back to normal.”

“Must be nice, havin’ that to look forward to.”

“It has been, for the first few months. But I’m losing hope. Not sure how much longer I can last on the Reclamation Committee’s pitiful salary.”

“Pft. Try lasting on no salary at all,” Lynn smiled, surprising herself. She didn’t expect she’d emphasize with an elfblooded.

“I couldn’t. Don’t know how your kind manages it.”

“My kind?” And there it was. That’s why no one liked them.

The man laughed at her indignant look.

“The homeless. What, you think I despise humans? My mother was one.”

“Why’d you care so much about your elvishness, then? Why can’t you just be like other folk?”

The elfblooded considered this question.

“Because we came from something. Not just us, by the way, you too. So much has been lost in the Last Battle, whole civilizations wiped out, cultures destroyed, so much art lost. And art matters. Culture matters. It’s what we are as a people. With elves gone, we try and preserve every bit of the elven culture that we can. We scour surviving sources for hints of how our ancestors lived. That’s what I do, I’m a historian.”

“You say culture matters, but why? I live in a ruined tower, every night culture’s threatenin’ to collapse onto me. Can’t say it’s doin’ me any favors.”

“That, my friend, is a topic for a whole scholarly argument,” the man laughed again, “Or a dozen. I’m Melai, by the way.”

“‘m Lynn. If you can’t answer about culture, maybe you can at least explain this to me. Why towers?”

“What do you mean?” Melai was genuinely puzzled.

“‘s not like they had to huddle together like we do. No Shadow back then. Seems like they’d have to do a lot of stair climbin’ for no good reason.”

“Ah, but there’s so much more to elven towers than just their height!” Melai grew animated, tracing the details he so clearly envisioned with his hands, “Winds would sing between them, banners of living green dancing to their tune; the towers themselves focused and amplified the magic flowing through the world; the moonbridges were a sight to behold…”

“Moonbridges?”

“Indeed! There were many towers, not just a few we have now. And they were all connected by a network of bridges made of hardened moonlight. See that stone over there, under the large window?” Melai pointed to near the top of his tower, some thirty meters from the ground, “that’s a door, actually, not a window. And the stone is a foundation stone, from which the moonbridge springs.”

“But there isn’t one?”

“Alas, there isn’t. Not enough moonlight – we only catch glimpses of it, before the Shadow comes. And evidently it’s not enough. Or maybe there’s something wrong with the Moon, wouldn’t surprise me. All those moonstones had to have come from somewhere, after all.”

“Seems dumb. Why use moonlight, when you could just use, I dunno, stone and iron? Wouldn’t that be more stable?”

“An excellent question! We’re not actually sure – the reasoning for this has not been recorded. Maybe they did it because they could, because to them it was the other way around: why toil with stone and iron when you can do it with magic and moonlight. But I think it was a part of their social life. A moonbridge could be re-anchored, you see. Connect to a different tower, at the owner’s whim. I imagine they changed with the mood of their people, a physical representation of their relationships, a canopy of intrigue connecting the entire city, ever shifting.”

Melai’s voice trailed off. Lynn tried to follow his gaze, to see the glory of the past he yearned for. But instead of a vibrant city all she saw were lonely towers sticking up like bleached ribs of an abandoned carcass. Below them, life teemed. Dirty and sometimes desperate, sure, but vibrant in its own way. No, she decided. It’s nice that elves used to live here, good for them. Makes for a pleasant daydream. But she won’t ever understand those who dedicate their lives to bringing them back. Not that she’s done much with hers.

They sat in silence for a while, one thinking about a perfect past, another about an uncertain future. Eventually, a question made its way to the front of Lynn’s mind, a bothersome insecurity she’d felt all the while which finally found its way into words.

“Why’d you talk to me?”

Melai looked at her with a sad expression on his thin face. For the first time, Lynn noticed wrinkles surrounding his eyes, poorly concealed by make up.

“Because I know a bit about being ostracized, due to my recent change in circumstance.”

“Your neighbours’ circumstance changed, too. They sneer at me.”

“Screw my neighbours,” Melai muttered bitterly, “They think if they pretend nothing’s changed hard enough, life’ll go back to being that way.”

“Don’t all elfblooded?”

As soon as she said it, Lynn cursed herself. She had to go and offend the one person who’s been nice to her in however many weeks. To her surprise, Melai smiled.

“You’ve got bite! You’re missing the point, but that’s my fault for not explaining it. Guess we’ll have to have more of these conversations! Can I ask you something, too?”

“Go ahead.”

“Your eyes. Are you?..”

“Oh,” Lynn turned away, ashamed, “Yes, I used slime. Used. I’m tryin’ to stop.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I’d like to help you. I don’t have much, I really don’t. But I can give you some food sometimes.”

“Thank you. I… Thank you.”

“Well. I will see you around, neighbour,” Melai patted the girl on her arm and left. Lynn watched him go. She wanted to cry for some reason, but the sight of Josh approaching made her pretend it was just a discharge from her swollen eyes.

The boy plumped down where Melai just sat, a grin on his face.

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Do what?” Lynn found a note of annoyance in her voice, which Josh ignored.

“Get people to open up to you. First the dragonkin girl, now the elfblooded.”

“He just wanted to talk.”

“Not to me, though.”

Josh pulled out an apple from the inner pocket of his shabby coat. Lynn could remember well how he got his food.

“Maybe if you didn’t hurt everyone you can, they’d like you, too.”

“Ain’t hurting nobody I don’t need to. You know how it goes.”

“I do, I just… Nevermind. Have you noticed anything useful, or are we just wastin’ time here?”

“Nope. But we’re not wastin’ time. You saw marquis come home two nights ago, and someone was killed by the Beast that night. Confirms it was him.”

“I knew that already.”

“Don’t hurt to know for sure.”

“Fine. Now what? No one’s going in. Are you certain they will?”

“Ain’t certain of nothin’. You got any better ideas?”

“We’ll wait until the night, then. Will figure something out come morning.”

Lynn was losing patience, but in an hour Josh has been proven right. Shortly before Shadowfall, a large man came with a cart and a girl to help him. The tower’s door opened for them, just wide enough for Lynn to see a figure standing inside – a personal servant? The pair carried their goods in, the man bowing his head sheepishly as he entered. They made several trips, bringing an assortments of meats and other produce inside, and left in a hurry.

“There you go,” grinned Josh, “A butcher and his daughter. They’re the target.”

Chapter Fourteen

Posted: May 27, 2014 in Arc 2

With nothing to do but wait and think, Lynn thought of what she should do next. This wasn’t something she’d done much of, certainly not lately. As cold turned into numbness and exhaustion into a daze, her plans and fantasies condensed into a single phrase, running over and over in her head. “I’ve got to fix things.” With the Ducklings, with Isabel, with the marquis. Everything was ruined, and there wasn’t much point in reclaiming her life in the state that it was.

Trapped in introspection, she barely noticed a palanquin approach, carried by four burly men. Only when it came down in front of the tower with a clanging sound did Lynn remember her actual purpose of being there. As the door of the palanquin clicked open, Lynn all too suddenly realised she was likely to see the marquis again, and, worse, he might see her. The shift between boredom and deathly fear transfixed her.

Breath held and eyes wide, she watched the marquis climb out and walk towards his tower. Tower’s door swung open at his approach. The marquis stopped at the porch, turned back to the carriers, his gaze passing over Lynn. The girl clasped hands over her mouth to stifle the scream that tried to get out. Without slime to reveal the marquis, he was just a man, and this was the first time Lynn actually saw him as such.

Lighter skinned than most of the locals, his closely shaved dark beard flowed up his cheeks, framing an exquisite face. Every single hair on his head and face appeared to be meticulously trimmed, and cold autumn wind ruffling it only accentuated the perfection of the image. He seemed to be just a man. A wealthy, honed man. That didn’t slow Lynn’s frantic heartbeat. The marquis nodded to his servants, releasing them, took another step into the tower and was gone.

Oblivious to the beast they had transported, palanquin carriers exchanged a couple of quiet phrases, lifted their livelihood and moved on. Not many people used palanquins in New Valenar, but then again not many people owned a tower.

As Lynn sat there shaking, watching the tower’s windows for signs of movement, she had one thing she was thankful for. The marquis looked right at her, and didn’t notice her. He knew her name, knew who she socialized with, and still he didn’t notice her. Being undesirable really had its uses. All she had to do was figure out how to turn it to her advantage.

But first, there was one thing she had to do. One problem she could actually fix. Not in her fantasies, not some day, but now. She couldn’t go back home and face Tim and Eric without doing it. Hungry and tired as she was, she couldn’t rely on them to take care of her anymore. As soon as the morning came, and the sun cut through the Shadow like a knife, Lynn headed over to see Azary.

Slime had been introduced to New Valenar several months ago, and most of those who got hooked on it early were already dead. Not just from the slime itself, but from everything that comes with being desperate enough to use it. The ones who weren’t quite dead yet were in Azary’s court.

With nowhere to go and no reason to be there, they whiled away their last days at the source of their affliction. They no longer looked, they stared. They’d sit in the court proper, in the dead garden with the vulgar throne, with their king of misery presiding, if Azary’s thugs didn’t kick them out. And every day, like beaten dogs, they came back and begged for more. When they didn’t, they occupied the surrounding streets. No one else went to Azary’s court anymore. Only the slimers, and the Dargothian corpse carts.

Lynn shivered at their unseeing gazes, as she passed through their ranks. She was almost like them. Could still become one of them. It’d be easy, to sit and watch herself die. And Josh was going to end up here, and soon, if he didn’t decide to change, she suddenly realised. Another problem to fix. Lynn clenched her teeth as she walked on. She didn’t dare look up.

The garden was empty, save for two slimers who’ve crept in. An armed man stood in the entrance of the building where the real business was done. Lynn circled around. She looked at it so many times, but never saw it. She wanted to know what was going on inside. Curiosity, an almost forgotten feeling.

A catapult must have hit the building during the siege, as there was a giant hole in the wall at the first floor level, at the building’s back. The crack from it ran all the way down. Lynn scaled the crack quietly, and found a small opening, perfect for peeking inside. She looked around to make sure no one was watching, but only a disinterested slimer was nearby.

It was dark and dusty inside. The girl couldn’t quite see Azary, though she recognized his voice. He was talking to someone in a robe, too quietly for Lynn to make out any words. What she did make out, after a minute or so of watching them, was an all-too-familiar clink of thick glass jars, as the robed person handed over a large bag. Slime. A lot of slime.

The robed visitor turned to leave, and Lynn dropped down hurriedly, not wishing to be seen. She sprinted around, putting on a look of absent puzzlement as she came near the door again. The visitor walked right by her without paying her any heed. Lynn didn’t see below the hood, but she could smell the distinct aroma of washed up seaweed, could see the wetness of the fabric. A merfolk brought slime to Azary. Were they the source of it all?

Lynn didn’t have the time to contemplate this, though, as Azary himself came out.

“Back for more? Thought you’d died.”

“No. I want my money.”

“Excuse me?” Azary stopped halfway to his throne, turning to Lynn.

“The money you owe me.”

“Speak very carefully, girl, you won’t get another chance. I don’t owe you anything.”

A threatening smile cracked open Azary’s lips. Lynn gulped.

“We had a deal, I gave you the jewelry.”

“The deal was for the slime. Slime is what you’ll get.”

“I don’t want slime anymore. We’ll make another deal, then.”
“And why, pray tell, would I do that? I’ve been nothing but fair to you. But if you come in here demanding things, well, I might just take offence at that.”

“Because…” Lynn looked around, desperately. The armed man she saw before was taking up a position behind her, to prevent her escape.

“Because if you don’t give me what you owe me, I won’t bring you the next thing I steal,” she blurted out.

Azary paused, then took a quick step forward, covering the distance between them, and thrust out his hand in a sharp motion. Lynn flinched back, raising her arms to block, but there was no knife in it. The girl looked at the open hand, then, cautiously, raised her eyes to Azary’s wicked grin. He’d bent down, to be on the same level with her, a scarecrow of a man. She shook the hand, feeling the long thin fingers wrap around hers, the fingernails cutting into her. As she did, her eyes met his, piercing and cold, and were trapped by the gaze just as surely.

“A thief, then. Got more trusting fools lined up? Good. Bring me your loot in ten days. Don’t even think of being late, or giving it to someone else.”

Lynn tried to pull her hand back, but the fingernails only cut in deeper, the eyes only grew colder.

“Got it?”

“Y-yes. Thank you.”

The vice holding her opened with an almost audible click, the eye contact broke. Azary turned around to his man.

“Bring the girl some coin. She works for me.”

By the time the money came, Lynn was shaking.

“I own you now,” said Azary as he handed over the bag. And grinned.

Despite every instinct telling her to run, Lynn forced herself to walk out. She’s done enough of running.

Chapter Thirteen

Posted: May 20, 2014 in Arc 2

The Beast’s house didn’t have skulls on the fence surrounding it. Blood didn’t drip down its walls. Dark figures didn’t lurk in its windows, ill winds didn’t howl around it, and passers-by didn’t feel a sudden chill crawl up their spine. Lynn felt both disappointed and unsettled. All these people, cluelessly living their lives next to a monster. And where there was one, there could be more. How many horrors hide behind closed windows and polite smiles? Just recently, she yearned to learn the secrets of the city. Now she almost wished she hadn’t. New Valenar didn’t seem like home anymore.

While the house didn’t stand out as a lair, it did stand out. A fully reconstructed elven tower, less than twenty of them in the whole city. Its twin stood not ten meters away, a monument to the elven culture, raised high over the city that outlived it. A tiny island of feeble greenery surrounded each tower, enclosed by wrought iron fences. On either side there were terrace houses, stacked as tightly as possible, one even squeezed in between the towers.

“Well, we know where the marquis lives. Wasn’t exactly a secret. What now?” Josh asked.

“Now we find a way to get in.”

“Won’t be easy. If it were, he’d have been robbed blind by now. By me if no one else.”

“I’ve never actually broken into someone’s house before. Have you?”

“I made do. Not all of us can find gullible dragonkin girls.”

Lynn winced slightly. She hadn’t even thought of Isabel since her change of heart. Another person she’d disappointed.

“How would you do it, then? How do you break into a tower like this?”

“Well, see, here’s the trick,” Josh was happy to pretend to be an expert, “You don’t. Not like this. There’s always light here. Always people. They see you climbing into a window or rummaging in the lock, they’ll get you in trouble. For an out of the way place, I’d say wait until they left, but that ain’t gonna work here. Not that I could pick that lock, and there’s grates on the windows. No. What we do, is walk right in like we belong.”

“But… We don’t.”

“Someone does, though. He’s a rich man, right? He’ll have servants. We find out who they are, when they come.”

“And then what?”

“Then… I’m not sure. I broke into places, but not like this. Guess we’ll find out,” Josh grinned, satisfied with his answer.

Lynn nodded. Wait and watch, this she could do. This felt familiar, even comforting. The pair positioned themselves across the street, several doors down. No one paid much attention to a couple of poor kids, much less so if they were slimers. Sit and stare all day, a perfect disguise.

Except, it wasn’t a disguise for Josh. An hour in, he pulled out a familiar grimy jar. He had turned away from Lynn, but only slightly. She watched, her eyes watering, as he unscrewed the lid. The pungent, rotting aroma of slime seemed sweet and inviting. Despite herself, Lynn lurched forward a bit, eager for a fix. Oblivious, Josh pulled the glove off his right hand, and Lynn froze. His entire hand had been covered in scabs. Three yellow eyes blinked blindly at the sunlight. The hand itself looked misshapen, its bones pushed out of the way by the growing orbs. Then, as he was smearing the slime over his own eyes, the yellow alien eyes all turned in unison to look at the girl. Lynn gasped.

How many horrors hid among them, indeed.

“I’m goin’ to move over there. Maybe I… Maybe I notice something different.”

Josh nodded half-heartedly. At least he was looking in the right direction, Lynn thought as she moved to the front of the other rebuilt tower. The hours crawled slowly, and nothing was happening. No monsters came slithering from below the tower, no victims tried to escape it, no one even approached it. Josh sat immobile, observing. Lynn fidgeted. Her stomach grumbled.

As the light started to grow dimmer, people began leaving their homes on the side of the marquis’ tower furthest from the city centre. The reason for that became immediately apparent: the light actually grew dimmer there. The daylight crystals didn’t extend this far. There used to be another crystal, further down the street, Lynn realised, but it was gone now. Stolen in the raid, now over a year ago. The Shadow’s minions took several crystals, leaving fear in their stead. The city was wounded, and those wounds couldn’t close.

Every night, people fled from their own homes, seeking refuge in the light. They slept at day, and worked whatever jobs were available at night. In the city that never sleeps, when you slept was everything. To some, these nocturnal citizens were no better off than Lynn. To some, but not to them. As they departed, they threw angry words and angrier glances at a girl in ragged clothes huddling on their steps. Elfblooded, living in a reconstructed elven tower, they must have been well-off before. Lynn couldn’t help but feel a little vindictive joy at their misery.

The girl was startled when a piece of bread was handed to her. She looked up, to see a reassuring smile on a man’s face. Not one to question food freely offered, she grasped it, mumbling her thanks. The man nodded and walked away. She was grateful for the reminder that not all elfblooded were deserving of her anger, though not as grateful as for the food itself.

Soon, the Shadow came. Lynn observed it consuming house after house, a tidal wave of nothingness, until it forced her to retreat, devouring the tower beneath which she sat as well. It finally came to a stop at the edge of the marquis’ tower, licking its side, hiding behind it from the magic daylight. If only it would swallow the tower and the marquis with it, if only they weren’t here come morning. How much easier life would be, if all the horrors were to destroy one another. Lynn knew better than to hope for that.

“We should go,” Josh said nervously.

“Why? Shouldn’t we keep an eye out through the night?”

“If the marquis is the Outskirts Beast, do you really want to be here when it hunts?”

“It doesn’t hunt every evening.”

“It doesn’t kill every evening. Who knows what it’s doin’.”

“So we should find out!”

Josh looked around, exasperated.

“Suit yourself. I’m here to help you get in and find proof, not to confront the Beast. And besides, we need to sleep, and to eat.”

“I’ll sleep later. Go. You can take over tomorrow.”

The piece of bread she was given did little to curb her hunger. Her shirt did even less to curb the cold. Lynn rubbed her arms and settled in for a long night.

Interlude

Posted: May 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

The old man aches. He hasn’t slept in so long, he doesn’t remember what it feels like to lie down. He doesn’t remember many things. A few more steps. There were friends, once. Brothers in arms, willing to share his burden. They came and went, fading from memory. In his weakest moments, he envies them. In his proudest, he admires them. They shared his burden, without sharing his guilt. He can make it a bit farther.

There still are others, who follow him to this day. These, too, are transient. He has outlived so many. He had no right to, but he did. He wishes he could hold on to their names, could remember their faces, could find tears for them. These noble fools willing to pay for the old man’s mistake. The ridge is near, he’ll just make it to there.

The old man’s mind wanders as he travels. Could he have done something differently? Not then, anything would have been better then. But later, could he have prevented this? Could he have fought harder, argued fiercer? He had failed to right his wrong. He can see the water from there, he should at least get to the water. No matter. The past happened. All he can do is live with it, step by step, day to day. Now there’s a joke.

The old man still has hope. It’s the one thing that keeps him moving. Every step brings new heartbreak, yet his hope never waivers. Every step reveals new suffering, yet he keeps moving. Every step condemns his crime, yet he takes it without flinching. One more step. One more.

He has lost his war, that much he knows. All that’s left to him is holding on. Holding on until someone can absolve him. His enemy is vast and ancient, even compared to the old man. The old man knows: what is a personal, life-long struggle for him is a momentary inconvenience for his foe. His foe, his crime. He sees a city, perhaps he can get to it.

The old man has forgotten many things. Sometimes, he forgets he has a body. Sometimes, he forgets he doesn’t need to. He would have forgotten his own name, if thousands of people didn’t greet him on his way. For them, he can keep moving just a bit longer.

Marcus continues his journey.

The sun rises.