Interlude II

Posted: March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

Brother-in-light,

The investigation into the activities of the so-called Outskirts Beast has taken on a new urgency. The Beast grows bolder. Two days ago, as you are undoubtedly aware, it has fatally attacked Peter Malych near the butcher’s shop he ran. This was the first occasion of an attack within the illuminated zone. It also came too soon after the previous attack. Despite these deviations form the established pattern, I am certain the Beast is the perpetrator. Characteristic non-fatal lacerations likely left by claws are present, the victim’s death purposefully prolonged, even though this time his torment wasn’t as long, likely due to a greater risk of exposure in the light.

The Beast relishes victims’ fear. It displays sadism not normally present in the natural world. This, coupled with the unconfirmed reports of the Beast calling on its victims in the voices of their friends, offers further credibility to the theory that the Beast is not, in fact, a beast, but a malicious individual. Thankfully, there are no signs that would indicate the Great Shadow’s or its slaves’ involvement.

Taking these facts into consideration, it is my belief that the Beast’s uncharacteristic attack was not random like the rest. Mr. Malych must have somehow gotten close to the Beast’s secret identity, most likely unwittingly. Therefore it is my recommendation that his daughter Jennifer is to be observed and approached by someone more fitting to the task, in case she knows something without realising it or is to become the next target.

This concludes my report on the assigned task. However, I must once again question the wisdom of the decision to not move on the known distributors of slime. I realise we do not have full information on the suppliers yet, beyond their aquatic disposition, but the immediate effects of this poison flooding the streets are truly sickening. Any respite, however temporary, would be welcome.

Yours,

Sister-in-darkness

Chapter Twenty One

Posted: March 2, 2015 in Arc 2

The precious time Lynn had spent on sneezing, Josh used to run. By the time Lynn had emerged from their hiding spot under the table, he was already at the window. As Lynn got up, the marquis took a step forward, toward Josh, between her and the escape, stopping Lynn in her tracks. Josh slammed into the window with his entire weight, little though it was. The marquis took another relaxed step, no urgency in his movements. The window flew open under another blow, and Josh stumbled onto the bridge. The marquis was right behind him. The boy scrambled forward on all fours. The marquis reached up, one hand behind his back, effortlessly tearing through the sail still wrapped around the curtain bar with the other. The sail fell. Sunlight poured in. The moonbridge disintegrated. Josh disappeared. A cry. A thud.

Lynn still stood frozen as the marquis turned back to her.

“Now, then. Take a seat,” he gestured at the chair, “it is so rare I entertain guests.”

Lynn strained to look past him, to hear anything. Anything that’d indicate Josh was alive. Instead, all she saw was a perfectly manicured hand that had just cut a heavy sail in half. That had left fatal claw marks on Peter, and many before him. The hand that was ordering her to sit. Lynn remained standing.

A fleeting smile appeared on the marquis’ face. He prowled towards the girl, still standing transfixed, waiting for a killing blow. Instead, he sat on the only chair, throwing one leg on another.

“Suit yourself. You must forgive me my rudeness.”

Lynn responded with an expression of blank horror.

“You must think us closely acquainted, after all, to have come into my home unannounced,” elaborated the marquis, “And I can’t recall your name.”

She was being toyed with, Lynn knew. She looked around for another exit, only to discover the man in the black vest standing silently at the door. She was trapped, Josh was gone, and she wasn’t getting out of this. Lynn felt tiny, insignificant, out of control, out of illusions of ever having had control. But as she imagined herself shrink, a scared girl face to face with a giant monster she had foolishly chased, she found a cold, hard part within that wouldn’t diminish. Lynn hid behind her anger.

“Peter.”

“Peter? A peculiar name for a girl.”

“His name was Peter. The person you had killed two days ago. Do you not recall it either?”

“My dear guest, whatever gave you the idea I have killed anyone, much less this Peter?” The way the marquis pronounced ‘kill’, Lynn has heard others say the name of their lover.

“I know what you are. Underneath that mask you wear. I’ve seen your claws and your fangs and your stripes.”

The marquis smiled broadly with pearl-white teeth as he folded manicured hands on his knee.

“And how, pray tell, have you managed that?”

“Slime showed me. It messes with you, but it cuts through others messing with you, too.”

“Ah, a drug-induced haze. Hardly the most convincing of accusations.”

“I know what I saw.”

“Quite so. And you even convinced a friend! Pity he had to leave us so soon.”

Lynn took a step forward, looming with her slight frame over the bemused marquis.

“I’ve told others, too. They know where I am. They’ll know I was right once you kill me. You won’t hide forever.”

The smoke made her head spin. It was rising from the bowl Lynn saw earlier, with the candle underneath now lit. The metal figures tried to escape the smoking oil, damned souls forever futilely fleeing their punishment. The marquis really liked hellfire and demons in his art. Was he one?

The marquis laughed. “My dear nameless guest, do I look like I’m hiding?”

“You do, with every second of your disguise. And I’m not nameless. I’m done being nameless. My name is Lynn.”

“Finally, some civility. That is what my ‘disguise’, as you put it, is – a courtesy. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, however briefly. I am Karadash. And so, high on a poison, you saw I am not what I appear to be. Therefore you have concluded I am exactly what I appear to be. My, what a delightfully straightforward mind you have.”

Lynn felt her confidence crumble, her shield of anger begin to give in. The other genuinely dangerous person she had spoken with in her life, Azary, was always out to hurt you. Every word was a sharp dagger, but at least they all came straight at you. Karadash was circling her, stalking her through the conversation. Though he remained immobile in his chair, Lynn’s swirling vision blurred Karadash and the room, made it seem like she was fleeing the lurking Beast through a labyrinth of trees spinning around her. A deeper memory that all of humanity shared deep in their bones: of a dark forest and a yellow-eyed shadow that stalks it, of pursuit and blood. Of terror. Lynn pinched her thigh until the forest receded.

“Say I’m dumb all you like. I got this far.”

“Indeed. For all the good it’s done. Do you think your street friends will do any better?”

“They ain’t the only ones who know. One of the dragon’s own.” Lynn immediately knew this was a mistake. Hadn’t she learned by now, she can’t drag others into this. Karadash can’t get to Isabel, can he? The smoke made it so hard to think.

“I thought it was you at Narid’s house. Still,” Karadash continued over Lynn’s attempts to swallow her words, “You did get this far. And you might even have gotten further, had you had any education. Take a look at the window you got in through, see if you can spot anything unusual. Go on, I won’t bite.”

On unbending legs, Lynn walked over to the window. All she had to do to see if Josh was still alive was look down. She didn’t dare. Facing the Beast was easier than facing another friend being dead. Another person she had failed with her carelessness.

A breath of fresh air cleared her mind a bit. The walls stopped spinning, the Beast hid beneath the skin of a smug man again, a tiger in tall grass.

Lynn examined the frame, if only to avoid thinking of everything else. She didn’t understand what game Karadash was playing, but perhaps she’d stay alive as long as she played along. The frame was much like the one in Melai’s tower: elven runes carved into the wood, their glow receding; a metal hook for holding the panels together she had lifted. Lynn cast a glance back at Karadash, to find him looking at her with the same amused expression he’s had from the start. At least his disguise was holding.

There, the only thing that was different, a piece of string torn in half, hanging from the sides of both window panels near the top, stuck to them somehow. She did feel something snap as she opened the window. Lynn pulled, and the torn strings came off. With both pieces in her hand, she turned back to Karadash.

Silently, he held up his left arm sideways, elbow bent in front of him. Dangling from the seam of his green coat in a row were decorative strings, just like the one she had. One was shorter than the others. Torn in two.

“Is that how you knew someone got in? Are those strings somehow connected?”

“Very good,” the marquis sounded delighted at his prey’s efforts, “Each of these strings is linked to another, guarding my property from intrusion, here and elsewhere. You really had no chance. Grit and bravado can only get one so far.”

“At least I tried.”

“Spare me the martyrdom act, defiance was much more entertaining.”

“So what now? Will you kill me here, or will you spare the carpet?” Lynn was done with Karadash’s games.

“Much better. It’s almost a pity I have no use for you. As for your death, whatever gave you that idea?” Unfortunately, Kardash himself wasn’t done playing, “It serves no purpose. There’s hardly any sport in it. Go.”

“You… won’t kill me?” Lynn couldn’t believe her ears.

“Would you like me to? Don’t try my patience.”

“But sire…” the servant in black, who Lynn had forgotten existed, spoke for the first time. It took one glance from Karadash to make him silent again.

“Teresh here will take you down.” The servant bowed.

“Meanwhile, I still have a ball to go to. I understand my good friend Narid will be there,” Karadash watched Lynn bite her lip before continuing, “Oh, and before you go. I understand concepts such as courtesy may be as unfamiliar to you as bathing, so I will offer an advice. It would be most ungracious of a guest to leave with hosts’ property. A fatal mistake, one might say.”

Lynn pulled the journal she stole out of her bag and placed it on the table. Karadash nodded in mock gratitude. Teresh had opened the door in front of her, and she walked out, utterly defeated yet somehow still breathing.

She flew down the stairs to escape the horrible tower, the horrible marquis and the horrible servant. The latter somehow kept pace. Light-darkness-light, a flight of stairs, partially engulfed by the Shadow. Over and over, down and out.

“Thieving little mouse,” hissed Teresh as he reached over Lynn to open the outer door. She recoiled from him, slipping into the crack, towards freedom. It took the rest of her fraying will not to run the last few steps towards the gate leading onto the street. Lynn felt the servant’s angry gaze lingering on her, stumbled under its weight. She got away.

But what about Josh? He wasn’t lying on the ground broken, as Lynn feared he would. The sail fluttered up above against the Melai’s tower, hanging heavily from the window. The moonstone still rested there, the bridge still tried to appear, only to be destroyed by the magical sunlight, again and again. Some things just couldn’t be overcome.

There was no way Lynn was sticking around long enough to pick the moonstone up. She moved down the street, away from Teresh still watching her from the doorway. She didn’t have to go far to find Josh: his head stuck out of a shadowed alley at her approach, and he waved Lynn in. Through the Shadow they went, to the other side, away from the Beast.

There was a grimace of pain on Josh’s face as they emerged into the light. The entire right side of his pants was torn up and stained with blood. The skin beneath was already swelling up, a massive bruise if not worse. He limped heavily towards a wall, then dropped down with a groan.

“What happened?” asked Lynn.

“What’d ya think? I fell when the bridge gave out. Clutched onto the sail on the way down,” Josh accompanied his words with tired gesticulation, “It took me most of the way, then slammed me into the tower. Don’t think I broke anything, but it hurt like hell. Almost blacked out, and it was still too high. Thought I’d cry for help, but just couldn’t draw a breath. Dunno how I held on. Wouldn’t have mattered none, had Azary not sent one of his thugs to spy on you.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. You owe him. We both do. Again. For saving me, and for failing to steal anything for him. She made sure to tell me that.”

“That’s not… That’s not fair. What does Azary have to do with anything?”

“You tell him that. I warned you to stay away.”

“Fine. We’ll deal with that later. Somehow. How’d you get down?”

“Azary’s thug turned out to be more than just a thug. Clambered up the wall like it was nothing and dragged me down. Magic-like.”

“Magic. Life’d be much easier if we could do it.”

“Lotta things would make life easier. We ain’t got them.”

“Maybe we should try to fix that. But that’s for later, too. For now, we’ve gotta move. Still too close to the Beast’s tower. Here, let me help you.”

The kids moved through the night streets of the city that never slept, Josh leaning heavily on Lynn. Passers-by turned away when they noticed his state, but they did that anyway. Not their problem. Never their problem. Soon, they’ll be lost in the crowd. Soon, they’ll be safe.

Except they weren’t. Something bothered Lynn, an itch in the back of her head. There, the same set of footsteps that’s followed them for the last couple of minutes. She turned around surreptitiously, but there was no Beast behind them, no marquis. Just people. Lynn took a sharp turn, dragging surprised Josh with her. The footsteps followed.

Josh had noticed them by now too, limping along as fast as he could. Under an arch, up a street, down another, through the crowd, over a fence (“Ow!”), the footsteps followed. Past a procession, into a tavern (“Get outta here!”), out of the back door, the footsteps grew closer.

Maddeningly, they didn’t appear to belong to anyone. Every time Lynn looked back, there were different indifferent faces. Elfblooded and dragonkin, humans and dwarves, an occasional cogheart too, but no Beast.

Once again, images of a dark forest, of pursuit and prey came to her mind. Stone buildings may have replaced trees, people may have replaced foliage, but the hunter and the prey remained. The terror remained.

She could ditch Josh, it occurred to her. No one could catch her in her city, not at full speed, not even the Beast. In this forest, she knew every branch. And Josh did abandon her up in the tower. He was quiet now. Pale, sweating from the pain of every step, a burden. There was no way she was going to make it with him. There was no way she was leaving him behind.

Josh looked like he was about to pass out, so Lynn distracted him with a panting conversation.

“What should we do now, what menace should we tackle?”

“What d’you mean? We ain’t done.”

“Yeah, we are. We failed to defeat the Beast. There wasn’t anything we could have done. He gloated as he explained that, and he was right, Shadow take him.”

“So what, give up?”

“What else is there? We got caught. We’ve spent weeks trying to get into the tower, and we have nothing to show for it.”

“The journal?”

“He took it.”

“I still have the claw, though.”

Talking while dragging Josh was taking its toll on Lynn. She couldn’t hear the footsteps, so she slowed down to catch a breath and glare at him in exasperation.

“We have a claw. And he has wealth, influence, actual claws and some invisible bastard chasing us.”

The footsteps appeared again, ahead of them. They were being herded. Away from the temple district, from busy streets. With a groan, Lynn set out again. Josh glared back at her even as he was being half-carried.

“We knew all that. It’s not fair. But we can’t lie down and…. ugh, this hurts… we can’t wait for it to become fair. Ain’t happening.”

“You’re dumb,” said Lynn with warmth in her voice. Josh grinned.

The docks. Not the best place to hide: open, somewhat deserted at night, right at the edge of the Shadow. That’s it, they could hide in the Shadow again. Even blind, they knew where to go, Lynn reasoned, could navigate by memory. A desperate plan, she realised, as a single misstep would see them plummet into cold water; a single wrong turn would leave them in a dead end. The wooden docks looked like bridges into eternal night.

“Lynn!” Old Martha called out.

A wave of relief washed over Lynn at the sight of the stout woman. If there was anyone who’d know what to do, it was Old Martha. Weird, strong, kind Old Martha. There were no footsteps. Lynn nearly sank to her knees as Old Martha approached. She was so, so tired of dragging Josh around. Josh, who was pulling on her, pulling her away.

“I’ll help you,” said Old Martha with a kindly smile. Too kindly. Josh whimpered.

Thoughts collided in Lynn’s head. The Beast could pass himself for the marquis. They were being followed by no one in particular. Different faces, same footsteps, same terror, same Beast. Smiling with Old Martha’s weathered lips, barely concealing the fangs within.

Thoughts collided and propelled Lynn. Away. Down the dock. Grab the rope. Into the boat. First Josh, then her. Kick away. Again. Drift. Into the sea, into the Shadow, away from the Beast. They made it.

Karadash stood on the docks with a disinterested expression. He wiped his hands with a handkerchief, then dropped it on the ground and turned away. Red. Silk stained scarlet. But she was fine? Behind Lynn, Josh collapsed quietly.

The Shadow swallowed them.

Chapter Twenty

Posted: February 10, 2015 in Arc 2

Shadowfall. The thief’s hour. The Sun has retreated before the Shadow’s relentless assault, and all the good and sane people follow suit, rushing to finish their business for the day, before they hide behind the intangible walls of the daylight crystals. The nightly siege is about to begin. There is just enough time, if you’re desperate enough, to sneak into a hastily abandoned place, before the Shadow’s vanguard arrives, or the Shadowguard catches you marauding.

Lynn opened the window that was a door. With Josh’s help, she wrapped one corner of the sail around a curtain bar above her. The sail looked long enough to reach the other side. If this whole thing worked. If there actually was some truth to the ramblings of a drunk historian.

Behind them, the Shadow had broken into their tower, its long tongues worming their way between the stones, hunting for the soft bodies inside. Somewhere below, Melai was going to sleep, huddled under a window closest to the nearby daylight crystal.

Lynn pulled out the moonstone she had carefully wrapped in a piece of cloth in her bag. The moonstone’s surface was rough, full of microscopic holes, making it seem like it was mostly empty space. Or, rather, that the thin stone walls barely contained its true essence, the moonlight hiding within. It still had nice heft to it, and in the twilight of the room it shone with a soft pale light.

As she lowered the stone on the open window’s edge, Lynn held her breath. First in fear of disappointment, then in amazement. The groves in the doorframe she had taken for imperfections revealed themselves to be elven runes, responding with the same pale glow to the moonstone’s approach, like lovers finally seeing each other after one hundred and seventy eight years of being apart. For the first time since the Last Battle, moonlight shone on this elven tower.

The runes drew the light in, but nothing was happening. Lynn exchanged a worried glance with Josh, who stuck out of the window, extending the sail to shield the area where the moonbridge presumably would appear from the daylight crystal.

“Do you have to, I dunno, say something?” He volunteered.

“Melai didn’t mention anything. Are you covering it well?”

“Ain’t exactly a complicated job.”

“Let’s just wait.”

Minutes passed and Lynn began to grow desperate when the moonbridge finally appeared. The runes have seemingly absorbed enough of the light that spilled from within the moonstone and now shaped and channeled its flow into a thinnest pale ribbon. It extended gradually from the doorway, harsh daylight on the left, terrifying Shadow on the right.

Lynn reached down, placing her hand on the bridge. It looked so flimsy, so immaterial, she fully expected it to go through. Instead, she met a cool, smooth surface. She pushed against it, first carefully then with full force, but it didn’t give in. It may look fragile and transparent, Lynn concluded, but it should support her weight.

She took a step forward, still holding on to the window frame, and didn’t fall through. Behind her, she heard Josh exhale, and she turned to him with a smile.

“It works!”

“Now all we have to do is walk across it and into the Beast’s lair, to find and steal something that’ll prove it’s the Beast. Piece of cake,” Josh smiled back.

Lynn couldn’t think of a better response than sticking her tongue out at him. She carefully took the sail’s edge from Josh and extended it further. With another half a meter shielded from daylight, the moonbridge grew out. At the edge, where the sail waved in the wind and the daylight broke through, the bridge disappeared, only to regrow in the shade. Lynn wasn’t sure if it simply became invisible or if it really dissipated, and didn’t want to find out.

Step by step, unfurling the sail along the way, treading on hardened moonlight, Lynn moved toward the Beast’s tower. Josh followed suit, holding up the cloth in the middle.

“Y’know,” he ventured, “Bards’d have something to say about this. Something about walking the thin line between the light and darkness. The good and the bad.”

“There’s no thin line. There’s a few good people, and a few monsters, and then there’s everyone else.”

“And yet here we are.”

“Yes, well. Bards are stupid. And you are slimed.”

It was Josh’s turn to stick his tongue out. Figuring out the appropriate response took effort on his part, and as he did, the sail slipped out of his hands, sagging under its weight. He caught it almost immediately, but not before a few sunrays fell on the moonbridge between his legs. The hole in the bridge nearly cut it in half, with Lynn on the outer, unsupported side. The kids froze, waiting for the moonbridge to repair. The ground below looked awfully far.

“Quiet now,” ordered Lynn, and Josh nodded.

They reached the opposite window. Lynn leaned in, listening to any noise coming from the inside. Nothing. She tried the window, but it didn’t give. Fortunately, she had examined the windows in Melai’s tower, and knew there was a small hook holding them together. Sticking her knife through the opening she lifted it. Lynn pulled, and the window opened outward with a bit of resistance, as if a string holding it closed had snapped. Lynn hopped in, followed by Josh who secured the sail on a similar curtain bar.

The room took up the entire floor, separated from the stairs by a door. It was as far from the cold desolate elven towers she knew as Lynn could imagine. Books and trinkets and things lay around in seeming disarray, though none of them looked out of place, either. In another room with actual furnishing Lynn had seen, that of Isabel, everything lay in jumbled piles. Isabel had more possessions than she knew what to do with, or where to place them. The marquis had just enough, whatever their purpose was.

A wrought twisted glass jar with no lids or openings, murky purple liquid inside, some dark shape hiding in it, high up on a shelf. A dried up finger of some beast, it’s claw long and razor sharp, pressing down papers on the table. A bowl shaped like a cauldron with tiny metal figures crawling out of it, candle underneath, some oil-like liquid within. Draped mirror in a corner, its one visible corner flashing green as Lynn moved around, a color not found in the room. A tall cage, tiny bird skulls scattered on its floor, hanging from the ceiling.

“Whoa,” said Josh, and Lynn agreed.

They moved through the room, gawking at its contents. Josh went to uncover the mirror, but Lynn stopped him. They should disturb the place as little as possible, she reasoned. Ideally, the Beast wouldn’t even know they were here.

“So, any ideas?” whispered Josh after a couple of minutes.

“Look for records, or weapons, or blood, I don’t know. Something evil.”

“There’s the claw.”

“What about it? It’s just a claw.”

“Don’t you see it? It’s like… Like it’s full of malice. It’s practically growling at me.”

“Slime visions.”

“Don’t mean they ain’t true.”

“Grab it, then. Maybe it’s something.”

The Shadow had made its way into this tower as well, swallowing most of a wall, then a shelf, curling up under the table. Lynn pointed out of the window. Shielding the moonbridge from daylight has allowed the Shadow to move in instead, and take bites out of the fragile light. They didn’t have much time.

“What about that?” asked Josh, pointing at a portrait.

The heavy frame hung on the wall, almost entirely engulfed by the Shadow. Only one side of the picture was still visible, but it was enough. A clawed, furry paw rested on a hilt of a sword. Was the Beast really so arrogant as to have its true form on display?

“Not sure what good it does us, not like we can even lift it.”

“Guess we can point people to it, when it comes to that,” offered Lynn after some consideration.

The window slammed shut behind them. The kids stood still, their hearts beating in terror, but no other sound came.

“Just the wind,” grinned Josh.

Lynn returned to the table, rifling through the stack of papers lying on it. Her mother teaching her to read was one of the few memories of her Lynn had, and to her shame she couldn’t read very well. The papers were full of numbers, leaving her mystified. The idea that someone could have so much money they’d have to keep track of it was utterly alien to Lynn.

She felt around on the table, where the Shadow had taken hold, and fished out a journal. Flipping to the last page that had writing on it, a date caught her eye.

“Hey, Josh, what’s the day today? Thirty seventh of winter?”

“Think so, why?”

“Peter had been killed two days ago. There’s something here about the thirty fifth day. An in… invi… invitation. The marquis was invited somewhere. He left the tower. And here…” She flipped through the journal, “Here! There was a victim a week before that. And on the twenty eighth day of winter he’d had trade nego… negotiations. There’re probably entires for other days, too.”

“So, what, he goes out to chat to people and on the way back murders someone?”

“Looks like it. Gives him an excuse to not be home. Not like anyone’s going to question him on how long it took him to get back.”

“Guess we’d better take it, then. Who knows what else we’ll find inside.”

Lynn nodded. The Beast would definitely notice its journal being gone, she just had to hope it wouldn’t know who took it.

Footsteps heading up the stairs. Lynn jumped, looking at Josh in a panic. The man in the black vest! She was so focused on evading the marquis, she had forgotten about the creepy servant. What did he want in his master’s room?

The door handle began to turn. The window was too far, and closed to boot. Lynn grabbed Josh’s hand and pulled him to the only hiding spot she could see – under the table, into the Shadow.

They crouched underneath, suddenly blind, an arm’s reach away from being discovered. Someone walked into the room. Two sets of footsteps. The marquis must have returned. Lynn held her breath and winced as Josh’s fingers dug into her arm. One of the men said something in an unfamiliar language, right next to her. The Shadow was playing tricks on them, Lynn hoped, distorting sounds, disorienting them further. Her heartbeat was starting to drown out everything. The footsteps circled her. Josh had let go of her arm, and faded into the darkness. She was alone with the Beast. Just her beating heart, the darkness and the thing that dwells within it.

Her lungs were burning, and she finally attempted to breathe out, a slow, torturously wheezing exhalation, sure to attract the predator’s attention.

Leather creaked. The chair in front of the table! She could touch the Beast. More importantly, the Beast would touch her, if it were only to extend its legs. Don’t panic, Lynn thought. She could wait it out. They would be fine. The marquis would leave.

Lynn stifled a scream as two baleful green orbs ignited somewhere far away, the only thing she could see. She’d seen them before, she realised. Josh’s slimed eyes. Lynn reached out to cover them, slowly, incapable of judging the distance between them. Her touch startled him, and the table bumped slightly, deafeningly, from his movement.

Then it creaked. As if the marquis leaned on it. As if the Beast had found them in their hole, had jumped on top of it, toying with its prey. Seconds passed. A thick smell began to drift down, like a box of spices she had once smelled at a market had caught fire. Lynn breathed in, and the smoke streamed into her nostrils, twisting in them, tugging at the tiny hairs within, stretching and scratching. Lynn sneezed.

Chapter Nineteen

Posted: January 31, 2015 in Arc 2

“Are you going to rob a tower?”

“Why does everyone keep saying that,” muttered Lynn.

Melai looked at her with amusement.

“Moonstone is primarily used as a reagent in magic rituals, or a source of moonlight, a novelty these days. You don’t appear to be a ritualist. Plus I remember telling you about moonbridges.”

“I have to do it. The marquis…”

“Is it about survival? Can I dissuade you, offer food or something else?”

“It is. And no, it’s not about food.”

“Then I won’t stop you.”

“You won’t?”

“You have your reasons, I’m sure. And me, I’m just a silly elfblooded historian, how am I to guess what you’re going to do with a moonstone and a moonbridge. On the sixth floor of my tower, where no one lives. Why, I’d be just as surprised as anyone to find out you knew the key to it was hidden in a gap between bricks to the right of the door. Or how you waited until sundown and shielded the moonbridge from the daylight crystal somehow, as if you knew moonlight couldn’t overcome it.”

Lynn looked at him in mute amazement. This wasn’t how she had expected this conversation to go, she had prepared lies and leading questions to extract the information she needed.

“Don’t look so surprised. Robbing people is wrong, of course. But I won’t lose any sleep over the marquis getting robbed. Perhaps it’s time he became closer acquainted with misfortune we are all so intimately familiar with.”

“Thank you.”

“I haven’t done a thing, so there’s nothing to thank me for. Unless you need a partner in crime,” Melai swayed slightly, cheap wine splattered on his sleeves.

“Oh no. No, you can’t be involved. At all. No one else can. It’s dangerous.”

“I see. Very well, I will defer to your professional opinion on this. Wait, does that mean you are going to be in danger yourself?”
“I have a plan. I’ll be fine.”

She’s gotten really good at lying. And it wasn’t entirely a lie, Lynn did have a plan. Isabel was the next person on it.

Lynn waited for her at the open square in Higher Valenar. Some of the dragonkin who passed her by stared at the girl in disapproval. Lynn didn’t care. She wasn’t here to be accepted. She had a mission.

Sure enough, Isabel showed up on her way to, what was it, harp lessons? Some nonsense like that. Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone. She was accompanied by a solidly built man wearing House Jahrimir’s blazing blue tabard over his armor, a few scales present on his cheeks and brow continuing on over his shaved scalp as a tattoo. A few generations removed from the patriarch, he was more man than dragon but tried to appear otherwise. Proper dragonkin or not, he did look fearsome.

Lynn tried to attract Isabel’s attention without alerting her bodyguard. Isabel noticed her, only to frown and demonstratively look away. Lynn deserved that, she knew. And she’d have to talk to Isabel anyway, so hiding was pointless.

“Isabel, wait!”

This got a glance from the guard, who quickly positioned himself between his charge and Lynn, but not from the dragonkin girl.

“I only need to talk to you for a minute!” Lynn did her best to ignore the guard.

“Stay away, street rat,” he growled.

“It’s really important, please, I need to ask you something!”

Lynn tried to dodge the bodyguard as he moved to intercept her, but he was faster than she anticipated, and his heavy hand grabbed her by the shoulder. Isabel just kept walking.

“It’s about the marquis. I just need to know when he’s out.”

The guard unceremoniously tossed her backwards, causing Lynn to half stumble and half fly a couple of meters before landing on her behind with a yelp. That, at last, got a glance from Isabel.

“I’m sorry, okay. I’m sorry I lied to you, and I’m sorry I used you and I’m sorry I didn’t say this sooner.”

“You don’t get to talk to your betters, trash,” the guard loomed over Lynn, distaste on his face. He moved his leg back, readying for a kick.

“Stefan!” said Isabel in a calmly commanding tone which Lynn hadn’t heard her use before, and the guard froze, “And you don’t get to decide who talks to your betters.”

“But mistress…”

“Enough. You will wait for me at a distance. I won’t be long.”

“Yes, mistress,” he bowed, “Your father will hear about it.”

“I know. Now leave, or he will hear you disobeyed my order.”

The guard bowed again before departing, though Isabel wasn’t looking anymore.

“This doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you.”

“I know,” said Lynn as she got up, then brushed dust off her dress.

“I just didn’t want Stefan to hurt you. Or anyone. He’s too mean.”

“Thank you for stopping him. I really need your help, though.”

“And why should I help you? You got me into so much trouble. It’s your fault I have Stefan following me around everywhere.”

“It’s about the marquis. Remember, the monster you had in your home.”

“I remember. And since your freakout, he’s been making my scales grate, too.”

“Does that mean you’ll help me?”

Isabel sighed, “What do you need?”

“Just to know when he’ll be out. I will find proof of what he is, but I can’t do it while he’s at home.”

“Are you going to break into his house?!” Isabel’s eyes grew large.

“It’s best if you don’t know.”

“Wow. Okay. Well, there’ll be a ball at the Blue Palace in two days, in honour of Lord Jahrimr’s newest consort. Everyone’s going to be there, so I guess so will the marquis.”

“Excellent! Thank you, that’s perfect.”

“Be careful. I’m angry at you, but I’d rather you didn’t get caught.”

Lynn did her best to imitate Josh’s carefree grin.

It was the same grin Josh displayed two days later, presenting her with an entire sail he had pilfered from somewhere. “Wasn’t hard,” was all he said, and Lynn didn’t question the poorly concealed limp with which he moved.

The pair sat on the sixth floor of Melai’s tower, occasionally sneaking a glance at the opposite window, a doorway into the lair of the Beast. The floor was empty, everything of value carried away by the owners. They had the moonstone to create the bridge, the sail to protect it from the artificial daylight, and now they were just waiting for the real Sun to set and for the marquis to leave.

Josh absentmindedly twirled a jar of slime in his hands, and Lynn couldn’t help but stare. Multiple times, he’d grip it, seemingly ready to open, only to let it go again. All the while his gaze wandered, and Lynn suspected these weren’t conscious movements. Each time the lid looked like it was about to come off, she flinched away, fearing the pungent, alluring smell.

“You don’t have to come,” said Lynn to fill the silence.

“What? Where?” Josh looked at her, blinking, puzzled.

“Into the tower. You could get caught.”

“So could you.”

“Yeah, well. I have to do this, I’ve screwed up too many times to back out. You helped me get this far, you don’t got to risk it further.”

“But I want to! You ain’t the only one who wants to… Wants to do something.”

“You’ve done plenty!” Lynn gestured at the sail lying crumpled on the floor.

“Not just today. I want to have done something. With myself, with my life. You’ve been a slimer, you know it’s not about a high. I hate how it makes me feel. But it distracts me from giving a damn. From knowing me, all this, is worthless. I know I won’t feel any better, won’t do any better, not ever, but at least I don’t have to care,” just like Lynn, once he finally started talking, Josh couldn’t stop, “I know it’s killing me, I’m not stupid, but so what? It doesn’t matter, because I don’t have hope anymore. For anything. Except for this. For you. You give me hope that I will have done something. I will have mattered. That I wasn’t born on a broken world too dumb to end when it ought’ve, only to suffer and die in misery, like my friends did and do. Without hope, I was just about ready to die; you can be damn well sure I’m ready to die for it.”

“You say you have enough hope to risk your life, but not enough that you’d try and save it, stop sliming?”

“Funny how that goes,” shrugged Josh.

“That’s just dumb,” said Lynn, growing angry at him again.

“Heh. Maybe. Once we do this, maybe you can show me how you’ve stopped. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll use it. Can’t see straight.”

The moment of sincerity over, Josh’s grin returned. It had never looked more hollow. All those times she thought him fearless, smiling in the face of danger, and only now did Lynn realize he needed the same smile to face a wall. She moved away while he applied the slime, her stomach heaving at the mere sight of it.

Sitting side by side, the two kids looked out of the window in silence. Despite her anger, Lynn smiled to herself, sneaking a sideways glance at Josh every now and then. She gave hope to someone, no matter how dumb that someone was.

A palanquin stopped under the tower as the Sun was setting, and the kids hid, not to be spotted by the marquis, waiting for the footsteps of palanquin’s carriers to fade. The street was almost empty, and no one looked up. It was time.

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.”