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? 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.”
“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.”
“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.