Isabel had fantasized sometimes of what she would do if she came upon villains terrorizing innocents. She imagined how she would descend on the crooked-teethed bandits (and all the best villains had crooked teeth) with the fury of a storm, fast and powerful, dodging every blow, wreaking devastation with her claws and fangs.
In reality, when faced with a single deceptively straight-toothed woman with a dagger, Isabel froze. And when said woman grabbed Melai by his scrawny shoulder and roughly pulled him along, telling Isabel to follow, she obeyed.
“I’ll ask again, and there won’t be a third time. What do you want with Lynn?” the woman snarled once they were on the other side of the street.
“We, ah, just wished to speak with her. We can see she’s busy, though, so we’ll leave you to your, ah, burglary,” mumbled Melai, trying to wriggle as far away from the blade pressed to his side as possible without dislocating the shoulder.
The woman sneered, effortlessly holding him in place. Melai’s panicked expression finally snapped Isabel out of her stupor.
“We didn’t see anything,” she said, “And we won’t tell anyone. Please, it was my idea, Lynn is my friend, you can let him go.”
“Not likely,” the woman turned to her, “Not until I know you haven’t ruined our ‘ah, burglary’.”
“There’s no need for mockery. Just like there’s no need for violence, I may add. We are no threat to you, can’t we discuss this calmly?” said Melai, anything but calm.
“But I am a threat to you, and this isn’t a discussion,” said the woman as she put the dagger away, “Make no mistake, if either of you try to run or scream, I’ll find the blade a home in your body.”
“So noted,” gulped Melai.
“Now then. You really need better friends, girl. You went looking for her in a wrong place. Just how wrong a time you picked, we’re about to find out. If you’re lucky, you get to go home. If not…” she let the implied threat hang in the air. Melai’s protestations broke apart against it.
Waiting for their fates to be decided, Isabel studied their captor. She struggled to tell the age of humans. Not much grey in her black hair, so not very old. The woman must have been pretty once, before the poorly set broken nose, the long scar on the left side of her neck and the murderous scowl.
Maybe she’s a bandit queen, fearsome and rough, but secretly good-hearted, mused Isabel, and immediately felt better about the situation. This was all a misunderstanding. The bandit queen will see their goal is worthy, and will surely let them go. Maybe she’ll even help.
A wave of cold air staggered Isabel. Next to her, Melai gasped, a cloud of steam coming out of his mouth. The bandit queen swore. Rime spread rapidly across the ground, freezing mud solid. Isabel looked up to its source, already knowing what she’d find. A fragile, frozen bush, and behind it, a looming presence. An imperfectly ordinary building.
The doors slammed open as Lynn stumbled out, dazed. Isabel rushed to help her up. The woman behind her swore again. Lynn’s fingers chilled Isabel, their color almost as blue as Isabel’s scales. The girl shivered, unable to stand.
“Both of you, help her. We have to move. You’re all coming with me,” barked orders the bandit queen.
Isabel threw Lynn’s hand over her shoulder. Melai attempted the same, but being a couple of heads taller than either of them, settled for awkwardly supporting her weight with an elbow. Lynn’s feet barely moved under her. Fortunately, she didn’t weigh much. They walked two whole blocks before the woman stopped.
“What are you doing here?” Lynn finally found the strength to move her bloodless lips.
“These are your friends, don’t you know,” replied the woman before Isabel had a chance to open her mouth, “You can thank them for blowing the operation. But hurry up, I don’t think you’ll get a chance after the boss is done with them.”
Lynn looked forward, a dead, unwavering stare. Peeking under her hood, Isabel saw pus-like discharge smeared around and over Lynn’s bloated eyes, frozen by the unnatural chill she barely escaped, cracking each time she blinked. The scars surrounding them pulsed with her heartbeat, red, angry, infected. Isabel winced, then cursed at herself for reacting this way to her friend’s misfortune. Lynn didn’t notice.
“You can’t do that, Tam” she finally said in a flat, distant voice.
“I can and I will. The boss will want to punish someone for the failure, and it sure ain’t gonna be me,” replied the woman, “And you’d better hope it ain’t you, either.”
“I don’t care if he punishes me. And it wasn’t entirely a failure.”
Lynn pulled out a small leather pouch out of her bag, fumbled with its strings for a bit with unbending fingers, then released licks of blue flame from within.
“Deep ice! To be expected, I suppose,” exclaimed Melai, “I mean, that place was somewhat cold-oriented,” he finished weakly as everyone turned to him.
“It’s everywhere there, but it didn’t blaze like it does now. It burned calmly. Like candles,” explained Lynn.
“It’s nice and valuable, but hardly noteworthy. The boss was counting on something more substantial,” frowned Tam.
“We’ll just say it didn’t pan out. We went in blind, got what we could.”
“Good luck convincing him.”
They walked as they argued, presumably getting closer to this ‘boss’ even Tam was afraid of. Lynn lacked the strength to put up a fight, Isabel courage, Melai ability. The shadowfall was starting, and she hadn’t returned to where she was supposed to be, studying with Melai. By this point, Stefan has no doubt kicked down the door only to find them gone. Isabel shivered. Everything has gone wrong so quickly.
With alarm, she noticed they were leaving the safe lit districts behind, stepping into a different world. Here, the Shadow ruled. From the cracks in the ground, it spilled. Out of gaping windows, it slithered. Watching, probing, engulfing. It coiled through the air, tearing at the waning daylight, biting chunks out of it. Tam snorted at Isabel’s attempts at stepping over it.
“A little Shadow is the least of your problems right now, princess.”
But Isabel had spent her entire life safely away from the Shadow, she wasn’t about to recklessly walk through it, the way Tam did. Looking for ways around it, she was startled to find people sitting within.
The Shadow teemed around them, poured into their vacant eyes, licked at the pus they cried, nested around their expressionless faces. And in the Shadow, their eyes glowed with a sickening green radiance, illuminated from within, showing every squirming blood vessel, every quivering pupil. Like bloated flies on corpses, the Shadow feasted. But these weren’t corpses. Some blinked, others turned after the group. One bent down in a coughing fit which shook her entire body, and for a moment Isabel could see her clearly. Just a girl. A girl with eyes like Lynn’s. The girl stopped coughing and sat back straight, the Shadow settling around her head again, content.
With tears welling up, Isabel turned to Melai, looking for an explanation. This couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be happening. Or if it was, no one could possibly have known about it. Her father, lord Jahrimir, anyone, any adult, they would have done something. Would have sheltered, fed, healed these people. Would not have left them to die out in the cold and the mud and the slime. They wouldn’t have. They couldn’t have. Melai, just as shaken as her, replied with a pained expression. For once, he didn’t have any words to say.
“Slimers. They chose this. No reason to pity the wretches,” said Tam. Her voice was cold, determined, but Isabel could see she avoided looking around. Isabel decided she didn’t like this bandit queen after all.
They kept moving. Before them, torches burned, dispelling the twilight but not the Shadow. It wrapped around a small garden plaza, turning it into a claustrophobic chamber, closing in by the minute. The flickering light revealed an elfblooded man sitting at a table in an ornate chair, entirely out of place here. Three others were nearby, demonic figures protruding from the primordial writhing nightmare, or so they seemed to Isabel. Lynn stiffened in their hands.
There weren’t any of the slimers in the vicinity, but Isabel could still see their eyes. Green, terrible eyes, burning woefully through the Shadow. All around the courtyard. Unblinking stares full of misery trapped within. And the king of this misery sat in his throne, surrounded by his supplicants.
“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I sent you two to rob the frozen house,” said the man in the chair.
“Lynn was inside, and she got some deep ice, when these two…” started explaining Tam.
The man in the chair somehow made the simple act of raising an eyebrow violently abrupt. Isabel stumbled back, and Tam stuttered. It was clear that with about as much effort and in as much time, the man could have run them through with a blade. It was not at all clear that he wouldn’t, next time.
“These two walked right up to the house, and, um, they must have disrupted the inhabitants. Who kicked Lynn out,” finished Tam weakly.
The man turned to Lynn, who had pushed Melai and Isabel behind. The girl met his gaze.
“And what of these inhabitants, do you know what they are?” he asked.
“Didn’t seem them, just glimpses. They were definitely there, though. It’s like there’s gaps in my memory,” shrugged Lynn. Her speech was still slurred from the cold. In the deepening darkness, her eyes were beginning to glow green, too.
“Gaps. Seems there are gaps in your usefulness.”
“Azary, we knew the place would be warded,” protested Tam.
“That’s why I sent the two of you. Lynn at least got in. You were on the lookout, and you failed to stop these fools from stumbling right into the thick of it. You’d do well not to remind me you exist right now, Tamara, or the next scar on your neck will be deeper.”
Tam’s cheeks flared up, but fear must have overpowered her anger as she bowed her head and took a couple of steps back, fading into the darkness. Melai squeezed Isabel’s shoulder. All that stood between them and the wrath of this Azary was Lynn.
“Gaps or no gaps, I did glimpse them,”drew attention to herself Lynn, “And I reckon I retained enough. They were a bit like you, only more so. I reckon they might have been actual elves.”
“Impossible,” breathed out Melai, before clasping his mouth shut.
“It speaks!” exclaimed Azary in mock delight, “How unfortunate for it. Go on, then, old man hanging around with young girls. What’s so important you had to interrupt us?”
Melai swallowed, looked around for ways to escape, then decided it was better to risk Azary’s displeasure by obeying than to certainly cause it by refusing him.
“It’s just that, elves are all dead. Wiped out by Dargoth and the other forces of Evil in the Last Battle. That’s how it started. Those fleeing were cut down in the Forest of Whispers, only of course it wasn’t called that then. Which is not important right now. While there may have been survivors elsewhere, they haven’t made themselves known since, making it highly unlikely. As you no doubt know, being a fellow elfblooded.”
“I am a fellow nothing to you. The only thing you inherited from the elves is the propensity to go extinct. I have no use for these two,” turned to his henchmen Azary.
For a moment, Isabel hoped they were about to be released. Then she saw the way the thugs moved towards them, and realized what kind of release was in store for them.
“You don’t want to do that,” she said, with as much bluster as she could manage.
The thugs continued their advance until Azary said “Oh?”
“Do you know who I am, who my father is?” Isabel tried to puff out her chest, to will lightning into the bony ridges framing her head. The best she could do was a few nervous sparks.
“A guessing game? Very well. Your snout isn’t that long, scales are fine and teeth small. Which means the dragon isn’t your father, grandfather at best. Sorry to say, dear, but there’s a lot of you out there, the old bastard will hardly miss you.”
“No, but my father will. And he is Jahrimir’s Lightning.”
“Curious. You are correct, then. I do not need the trouble. Go.”
Isabel couldn’t believe her luck. They were free. They would get out of this, alive and well. She turned to Melai, only to see him grabbed by one of the thugs. Lynn protested weakly. Tam was silent. No one was going to do anything. Only she was free.
“No, you can’t. Let him go!” cried out Isabel.
“Keep talking, and soon I’ll decide the satisfaction of gutting you would be worth the trouble your precious daddy might bring,” replied Azary.
“G-go,” said Melai.
The man holding Melai yanked him forward, ready to lead him to whatever grisly fate awaited. Azary was grinning, clearly enjoying the consternation on Isabel’s face. Lynn tensed up, slipping a hand in her bag.
Isabel took a step back. She was free. She did something stupid, but was able to walk away. Except she wasn’t. She couldn’t leave Melai here, in this horrible place, with this horrible man. She was fed up with feeling powerless and afraid. So she did the only thing she could. She rushed to the thug holding Melai and stabbed him in the back with her dagger, twisting it inside and pulling it out at an angle, letting the curved blade do its job. Just like Daddy taught her.