Chapter Thirty Two

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Arc 4 - True Faces

Isabel had fantasized sometimes of what she would do if she came upon villains terrorizing innocents. She imagined how she would descend on the crooked-teethed bandits (and all the best villains had crooked teeth) with the fury of a storm, fast and powerful, dodging every blow, wreaking devastation with her claws and fangs.

In reality, when faced with a single deceptively straight-toothed woman with a dagger, Isabel froze. And when said woman grabbed Melai by his scrawny shoulder and roughly pulled him along, telling Isabel to follow, she obeyed.

“I’ll ask again, and there won’t be a third time. What do you want with Lynn?” the woman snarled once they were on the other side of the street.

“We, ah, just wished to speak with her. We can see she’s busy, though, so we’ll leave you to your, ah, burglary,” mumbled Melai, trying to wriggle as far away from the blade pressed to his side as possible without dislocating the shoulder.

The woman sneered, effortlessly holding him in place. Melai’s panicked expression finally snapped Isabel out of her stupor.

“We didn’t see anything,” she said, “And we won’t tell anyone. Please, it was my idea, Lynn is my friend, you can let him go.”

“Not likely,” the woman turned to her, “Not until I know you haven’t ruined our ‘ah, burglary’.”

“There’s no need for mockery. Just like there’s no need for violence, I may add. We are no threat to you, can’t we discuss this calmly?” said Melai, anything but calm.

“But I am a threat to you, and this isn’t a discussion,” said the woman as she put the dagger away, “Make no mistake, if either of you try to run or scream, I’ll find the blade a home in your body.”

“So noted,” gulped Melai.

“Now then. You really need better friends, girl. You went looking for her in a wrong place. Just how wrong a time you picked, we’re about to find out. If you’re lucky, you get to go home. If not…” she let the implied threat hang in the air. Melai’s protestations broke apart against it.

Waiting for their fates to be decided, Isabel studied their captor. She struggled to tell the age of humans. Not much grey in her black hair, so not very old. The woman must have been pretty once, before the poorly set broken nose, the long scar on the left side of her neck and the murderous scowl.

Maybe she’s a bandit queen, fearsome and rough, but secretly good-hearted, mused Isabel, and immediately felt better about the situation. This was all a misunderstanding. The bandit queen will see their goal is worthy, and will surely let them go. Maybe she’ll even help.

A wave of cold air staggered Isabel. Next to her, Melai gasped, a cloud of steam coming out of his mouth. The bandit queen swore. Rime spread rapidly across the ground, freezing mud solid. Isabel looked up to its source, already knowing what she’d find. A fragile, frozen bush, and behind it, a looming presence. An imperfectly ordinary building.

The doors slammed open as Lynn stumbled out, dazed. Isabel rushed to help her up. The woman behind her swore again. Lynn’s fingers chilled Isabel, their color almost as blue as Isabel’s scales. The girl shivered, unable to stand.

“Both of you, help her. We have to move. You’re all coming with me,” barked orders the bandit queen.

Isabel threw Lynn’s hand over her shoulder. Melai attempted the same, but being a couple of heads taller than either of them, settled for awkwardly supporting her weight with an elbow. Lynn’s feet barely moved under her. Fortunately, she didn’t weigh much. They walked two whole blocks before the woman stopped.

“What are you doing here?” Lynn finally found the strength to move her bloodless lips.

“These are your friends, don’t you know,” replied the woman before Isabel had a chance to open her mouth, “You can thank them for blowing the operation. But hurry up, I don’t think you’ll get a chance after the boss is done with them.”

Lynn looked forward, a dead, unwavering stare. Peeking under her hood, Isabel saw pus-like discharge smeared around and over Lynn’s bloated eyes, frozen by the unnatural chill she barely escaped, cracking each time she blinked. The scars surrounding them pulsed with her heartbeat, red, angry, infected. Isabel winced, then cursed at herself for reacting this way to her friend’s misfortune. Lynn didn’t notice.

“You can’t do that, Tam” she finally said in a flat, distant voice.

“I can and I will. The boss will want to punish someone for the failure, and it sure ain’t gonna be me,” replied the woman, “And you’d better hope it ain’t you, either.”

“I don’t care if he punishes me. And it wasn’t entirely a failure.”

Lynn pulled out a small leather pouch out of her bag, fumbled with its strings for a bit with unbending fingers, then released licks of blue flame from within.

“Deep ice! To be expected, I suppose,” exclaimed Melai, “I mean, that place was somewhat cold-oriented,” he finished weakly as everyone turned to him.

“It’s everywhere there, but it didn’t blaze like it does now. It burned calmly. Like candles,” explained Lynn.

“It’s nice and valuable, but hardly noteworthy. The boss was counting on something more substantial,” frowned Tam.

“We’ll just say it didn’t pan out. We went in blind, got what we could.”

“Good luck convincing him.”

They walked as they argued, presumably getting closer to this ‘boss’ even Tam was afraid of. Lynn lacked the strength to put up a fight, Isabel courage, Melai ability. The shadowfall was starting, and she hadn’t returned to where she was supposed to be, studying with Melai. By this point, Stefan has no doubt kicked down the door only to find them gone. Isabel shivered. Everything has gone wrong so quickly.

With alarm, she noticed they were leaving the safe lit districts behind, stepping into a different world. Here, the Shadow ruled. From the cracks in the ground, it spilled. Out of gaping windows, it slithered. Watching, probing, engulfing. It coiled through the air, tearing at the waning daylight, biting chunks out of it. Tam snorted at Isabel’s attempts at stepping over it.

“A little Shadow is the least of your problems right now, princess.”

But Isabel had spent her entire life safely away from the Shadow, she wasn’t about to recklessly walk through it, the way Tam did. Looking for ways around it, she was startled to find people sitting within.

The Shadow teemed around them, poured into their vacant eyes, licked at the pus they cried, nested around their expressionless faces. And in the Shadow, their eyes glowed with a sickening green radiance, illuminated from within, showing every squirming blood vessel, every quivering pupil. Like bloated flies on corpses, the Shadow feasted. But these weren’t corpses. Some blinked, others turned after the group. One bent down in a coughing fit which shook her entire body, and for a moment Isabel could see her clearly. Just a girl. A girl with eyes like Lynn’s. The girl stopped coughing and sat back straight, the Shadow settling around her head again, content.

With tears welling up, Isabel turned to Melai, looking for an explanation. This couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be happening. Or if it was, no one could possibly have known about it. Her father, lord Jahrimir, anyone, any adult, they would have done something. Would have sheltered, fed, healed these people. Would not have left them to die out in the cold and the mud and the slime. They wouldn’t have. They couldn’t have. Melai, just as shaken as her, replied with a pained expression. For once, he didn’t have any words to say.

“Slimers. They chose this. No reason to pity the wretches,” said Tam. Her voice was cold, determined, but Isabel could see she avoided looking around. Isabel decided she didn’t like this bandit queen after all.

They kept moving. Before them, torches burned, dispelling the twilight but not the Shadow. It wrapped around a small garden plaza, turning it into a claustrophobic chamber, closing in by the minute. The flickering light revealed an elfblooded man sitting at a table in an ornate chair, entirely out of place here. Three others were nearby, demonic figures protruding from the primordial writhing nightmare, or so they seemed to Isabel. Lynn stiffened in their hands.

There weren’t any of the slimers in the vicinity, but Isabel could still see their eyes. Green, terrible eyes, burning woefully through the Shadow. All around the courtyard. Unblinking stares full of misery trapped within. And the king of this misery sat in his throne, surrounded by his supplicants.

“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I sent you two to rob the frozen house,” said the man in the chair.

“Lynn was inside, and she got some deep ice, when these two…” started explaining Tam.

The man in the chair somehow made the simple act of raising an eyebrow violently abrupt. Isabel stumbled back, and Tam stuttered. It was clear that with about as much effort and in as much time, the man could have run them through with a blade. It was not at all clear that he wouldn’t, next time.

“These two walked right up to the house, and, um, they must have disrupted the inhabitants. Who kicked Lynn out,” finished Tam weakly.

The man turned to Lynn, who had pushed Melai and Isabel behind. The girl met his gaze.

“And what of these inhabitants, do you know what they are?” he asked.

“Didn’t seem them, just glimpses. They were definitely there, though. It’s like there’s gaps in my memory,” shrugged Lynn. Her speech was still slurred from the cold. In the deepening darkness, her eyes were beginning to glow green, too.

“Gaps. Seems there are gaps in your usefulness.”

“Azary, we knew the place would be warded,” protested Tam.

“That’s why I sent the two of you. Lynn at least got in. You were on the lookout, and you failed to stop these fools from stumbling right into the thick of it. You’d do well not to remind me you exist right now, Tamara, or the next scar on your neck will be deeper.”

Tam’s cheeks flared up, but fear must have overpowered her anger as she bowed her head and took a couple of steps back, fading into the darkness. Melai squeezed Isabel’s shoulder. All that stood between them and the wrath of this Azary was Lynn.

“Gaps or no gaps, I did glimpse them,”drew attention to herself Lynn, “And I reckon I retained enough. They were a bit like you, only more so. I reckon they might have been actual elves.”

“Impossible,” breathed out Melai, before clasping his mouth shut.

“It speaks!” exclaimed Azary in mock delight, “How unfortunate for it. Go on, then, old man hanging around with young girls. What’s so important you had to interrupt us?”

Melai swallowed, looked around for ways to escape, then decided it was better to risk Azary’s displeasure by obeying than to certainly cause it by refusing him.

“It’s just that, elves are all dead. Wiped out by Dargoth and the other forces of Evil in the Last Battle. That’s how it started. Those fleeing were cut down in the Forest of Whispers, only of course it wasn’t called that then. Which is not important right now. While there may have been survivors elsewhere, they haven’t made themselves known since, making it highly unlikely. As you no doubt know, being a fellow elfblooded.”

“I am a fellow nothing to you. The only thing you inherited from the elves is the propensity to go extinct. I have no use for these two,” turned to his henchmen Azary.

For a moment, Isabel hoped they were about to be released. Then she saw the way the thugs moved towards them, and realized what kind of release was in store for them.

“You don’t want to do that,” she said, with as much bluster as she could manage.

The thugs continued their advance until Azary said “Oh?”

“Do you know who I am, who my father is?” Isabel tried to puff out her chest, to will lightning into the bony ridges framing her head. The best she could do was a few nervous sparks.

“A guessing game? Very well. Your snout isn’t that long, scales are fine and teeth small. Which means the dragon isn’t your father, grandfather at best. Sorry to say, dear, but there’s a lot of you out there, the old bastard will hardly miss you.”

“No, but my father will. And he is Jahrimir’s Lightning.”

“Curious. You are correct, then. I do not need the trouble. Go.”

Isabel couldn’t believe her luck. They were free. They would get out of this, alive and well. She turned to Melai, only to see him grabbed by one of the thugs. Lynn protested weakly. Tam was silent. No one was going to do anything. Only she was free.

“No, you can’t. Let him go!” cried out Isabel.

“Keep talking, and soon I’ll decide the satisfaction of gutting you would be worth the trouble your precious daddy might bring,” replied Azary.

“G-go,” said Melai.

The man holding Melai yanked him forward, ready to lead him to whatever grisly fate awaited. Azary was grinning, clearly enjoying the consternation on Isabel’s face. Lynn tensed up, slipping a hand in her bag.

Isabel took a step back. She was free. She did something stupid, but was able to walk away. Except she wasn’t. She couldn’t leave Melai here, in this horrible place, with this horrible man. She was fed up with feeling powerless and afraid. So she did the only thing she could. She rushed to the thug holding Melai and stabbed him in the back with her dagger, twisting it inside and pulling it out at an angle, letting the curved blade do its job. Just like Daddy taught her.

Chapter Thirty One

Posted: November 25, 2015 in Arc 4 - True Faces

Throngs of people walked the streets of Lower Valenar, or so it seemed to Isabel. She had rarely left Higher Valenar, and never on her own. Her trips to Karadash didn’t count, she’d spent most of the way fuming. Isabel was struck by just how much the city she thought she knew changed when one crossed the river bisecting it.

House Jahrimir basically owned Higher Valenar, so it stood to reason it was mostly its members that lived there. Still, it was odd to be surrounded by so many people in Lower Valenar, so many non-dragonkin. So many people not related to her. Isabel felt isolated, outside of her extended family, her House. Isolated and excited.

She couldn’t think of a better way to find Lynn than to ask around. Approaching the first person was scary. After the third, it became a chant: “Hi-excuse me-do you know Lynn-she’s this tall and has scars around her eyes-oh well-thank you anyway.”

People shrugged, tried to sell her something, asked annoying questions like “do your parents know you’re here?” and were otherwise unhelpful. No one had seen Lynn. Isabel kept an eye on the declining sun. There was still time before the music box masking her absence would stop playing.

Finally, in the temple district, she had a stroke of luck. Some of the people here were dressed as poorly as Lynn, which gave Isabel some hope. She tried speaking to a woman leaning on a wall, but the woman’s eyes, wide and vacant, only looked through Isabel. Uncomfortable, Isabel left her staring at nothing.

As Isabel backed away, someone tapped her on the shoulder, causing her to nearly trip over from surprise. It was a boy a bit older than her, who had overheard her enquiries and claimed he’d seen Lynn a while ago, hanging around a particular tower. As he described the location, Isabel’s heart sank. It made perfect sense for Lynn to spend time near Karadash’s home. It was also the last place Isabel wanted to visit.

What choice did she have. Isabel thanked the boy, and made her way there. Eventually, she realized she no longer possessed the purse with her savings. Whether it was the boy or someone else that took it, Isabel didn’t know. At least she still had the dagger. Cursing herself for a fool, Isabel moved on. This adventure wasn’t off to a great start.

With dread she approached Karadash’s tower, for the second time today. Isabel didn’t dare look up to its windows for fear of the marquis spotting her. She just had to hope the hood would do its job. The girl resumed her enquiring chant. The first person she approached seemed deeply offended at the mere thought she’d associate with a human. The second was merely annoyed. Isabel didn’t give up.

The fifth person she asked was Melai. He was sitting on the stairs of a tower, visibly drunk, so Isabel almost didn’t talk to him. But she was running out of time, with barely anything to show for it. The elfblooded man stared at her in confusion, until comprehension dawned on his face.

“Oh. Lynn. Yes, her. Yes, I’ve spoken to your friend a few times. Is she alright? I haven’t seen her around lately.”

Isabel’s hopeful smile turned into a disappointed frown. Another dead end.

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m trying to find her. She’s been involved in something dangerous,” she said.

“Oh my. Oh dear, yes, I do think you are correct. And I may have even helped her to endanger herself. Most egregri… egrige… bad of me,” Melai sighed, disappointed at his slurring tongue.

“What happened?”

“She had attempted to… I probably shouldn’t get you involved. I’ve done enough harm, if she’s missing.”

“No, please, wait. You have to tell me. I need to find Lynn!”

“You know, you are a bit like her. Very well, how about this: I will attempt to locate her, and let you know what I’ve found out. If. If you tell me what this is about, and promise not to run off on your own.”

“You’d do that?” Maybe this wasn’t a dead end after all.

Melai considered his answer.

“I believe I will. It would appear it was partially my fault she’s missing, I was a bit cavalier in my interactions with her. Do we have a deal?”

Isabel nodded eagerly.

“Let’s start with your name, then. Mine’s Melai.”

“Isabel Sparkteeth of House Ja… Jahrimir,” she finished weakly. It probably wasn’t the best idea to give out her full name like that.

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” smiled Melai, “Well then. What is the danger Lynn finds herself in, and what does it have to do with the foreigner?” He nodded in the direction of the maquis’ tower, distaste in his voice.

Isabel looked around to make sure no one was listening, then whispered:

“Lynn thinks the marquis is the Beast that’s been attacking people.”

Melai raised an eyebrow, then, unsatisfied with the level of incredulousness he displayed, tilted his head as well.

“As it may be apparent I dislike the marquis, but I find this to be a far-fetched accusation,” he said.

“Lynn didn’t think so,” replied Isabel defensively. A similar conversation with Daddy didn’t go very well, “She saw through his disguise. And he’s really creepy and I don’t like him and Lynn would know more, she was investigating.”

“If the marquis is the Beast, and that’s a big ‘if’, she would be in a lot of trouble,” Melai got up, steadying himself on a wall, “I shall see what I can find out. When can you come back here?”

“I don’t know. I’m not really supposed to be here on my own.”

“I gathered as much,” chuckled Melai.

“I’ll come when I can sneak away. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of days. Please, please find Lynn.”

The conversation left Isabel both hopeful and worried. Before, she was mostly concerned for her Daddy. Now, Melai had confirmed Lynn may have gotten into trouble herself. Was that why no one had seen her around? Karadash wouldn’t… He wouldn’t do something to Lynn, would he? Of course he would, he’s the Beast. He kills people. No. Lynn is fine, she has to be. Melai will find her, and Isabel will talk to her, and together they will bring proof to lord Jahrimir, and everything will be fine.

Heart in stomach, Isabel approached her home. Has her absence been discovered? She’d never get out of the house again if it was. Not until she’s an adult.

Shadowfall had begun, sky growing darker, the Shadow sprouting in the cracks between the daylight crystals. The back alley from which Isabel intended to climb up to her room was one such place. The girl approached it with trepidation, and jumped back when the Shadow reached out to her.

She looked for a way to climb that would avoid the hungry blackness, but there was none. “It isn’t dangerous, not if you barely touch it,” said to herself Isabel, over and over. The longer she waited, the more the Shadow grew. Finally, the dragonkin girl rushed to the engulfed wall and leapt up. She wanted to move as fast as possible, but, hanging there, covered in the Shadow, couldn’t see past the first couple of handholds.

Isabel reached up, feeling for the protruding bricks she knew were there. As she did, the Shadow was feeling its way inside her. Isabel could feel the cold tendrils sliding in between her scales and into the soft flesh underneath. Or, at least, she imagined she could. Mostly, she just felt cold. Up and up Isabel went, desperate to get to the safety of her home.  

She fell into the open window of her room, breathing heavily from stress rather than exertion, then stopped breathing entirely when she noticed she wasn’t alone. The family servant, Margaret, stared back at her in mute surprise. In the silence, the music box’s halting, strained melody sounded ominous, each lone plucked note hanging in the air far too long. The dancer on top of the box stuttered and jerked.

Isabel got up, closed the window behind her, walked over to the music box and closed the lid over it, putting it out of its misery. Margaret kept watching her.

“Where were you?” she finally managed to ask.

“Out,” tried answering nonchalantly Isabel. It didn’t quite work.

“I thought something had happened, that you were kidnapped. I was about to tell Stefan…”

“You can’t. You can’t tell him, please don’t,” Isabel’s nonchalance crumbled, “You can’t tell anyone.”

“I have to. If he found out I hid this…”

“He won’t. You don’t need to worry about him,” cut her off Isabel.

Margaret shook her head.

“I’m sorry, mistress. We have to keep you safe.”

“I… I forbid you,” Isabel copied Daddy’s tone, wincing internally. She’d been on its receiving end far too often.

Margaret grew a bit pale.

“I’m sorry, mistress. Your father…”

“My father isn’t here. That means you will obey me. And I say you will keep quiet of what you saw,” Isabel stomped her foot, guilt washed away by anger.

Margaret bowed, paler still. This wouldn’t work on Stefan, knew Isabel. He was a member of the House, though far removed. Margaret, on the other hand, was their family’s servant since before Isabel was born. Still, Margaret would likely tell Daddy on her, so Isabel needed to find an excuse. Maybe lord Jahrimir himself would favor her for exposing the marquis, and Daddy would be proud. More likely, though, Daddy would be proud and she’d still be grounded.

Next day, Stefan came to Isabel’s home earlier than usual, and watched her like she was made of gold. When Isabel locked herself in her room and looked out of the window, she found him standing out on the street, basking in the winter sun. Whether or not Margaret told Stefan, he must have suspected something, concluded Isabel.

Going anywhere that day was out of the question. The next day, she had more tedious lessons, then more of being watched. Isabel could slip away, just not in a way that wouldn’t be quickly found out. On the third day, she began to consider that option.

Isabel dragged her legs on the way to yet another tutor. Daddy insisted she got the best education possible, but while some of the topics Isabel learned about were interesting, elven language simply wasn’t one of them. How could she concentrate on the intricacies of the wishful future tense when her Daddy still hadn’t returned.

She waited in the guest room for Stefan to check the study, something he insisted on doing whenever they came to a home belonging to anyone outside of the House. Isabel suspected he simply liked to appear busy, as well as to intimidate the host. He even tried to do it the first time they came to see the marquis. He had come back out quickly and silently, nursing his arm, and hasn’t attempted to do so since.

But this wasn’t Karadash. Stefan has begun an argument with her tutor, their muffled voices barely reaching Lynn through the door. Something about a change of the plan, a different teacher. Isabel sighed. She didn’t care who taught her, she just wished they could get it over with.

Outside the window, the river flowed. Somewhere beyond it was Lynn. She didn’t have to endure silly tutors and mean bodyguards. She went where she wanted, did what she wanted, was free. It wasn’t an easy life, Isabel knew. But sometimes she wanted to trade, if only for a day.

The door finally opened, and Stefan walked through. He nodded to Isabel. Mean and obnoxious though he was, Stefan knew his station. Isabel went inside, looked up at her elfblooded teacher sitting at a table and stopped at the threshold.

Melai winked at her conspiratorially.

Isabel composed herself long enough to close the door with a straight face, then the surprise exploded out of her in a barely contained whisper: “What are you doing here?!”

“Since it appeared you were no longer free to travel, I undertook the steps necessary to have this meeting. Turns out, there aren’t too many young dragonkin ladies undergoing an education, and some of my fellow archivists were tutoring on the side. I just asked one for a favor, said I’m trying to get my life back together,” Melai explained, very pleased with himself.

He looked different. For starters, he didn’t reek of alcohol. His clothes were cleaner, and even his face looked younger. Isabel spotted traces of makeup on his fingers, solving that particular mystery.

“A necessary disguise,” shrugged Melai, noticing her attention, “Otherwise the lovely fellow with fake scales wouldn’t let me anywhere near you.”

Isabel wanted to ask if this meant he was just pretending to not be a drunkard, but had more pressing concerns.

“Nevermind that. Did you find Lynn, how is she?”

“Ah, well. Almost. It turns out, our mutual friend had been briefly employed at a butcher’s shop at the time of our acquaintance. Tragically, the proprietor of the shop had been slain by the Beast, lending credence to your theory that Lynn was investigating the monster.”

“It’s not a theory! And can’t you speak less.. pretentiously?”

“As you wish,” replied Melai, his spirits dampened only for a moment, “As I was saying, Lynn had worked there. And while the propri… the butcher is sadly deceased, his daughter was easy to track down. The young woman had joined the city militia. She didn’t know where Lynn was, either, but she’d seen her conversing with another youthful miscreant, someone I realized I had also seen.

“Armed with the description of them both, I could elicit… I mean, it was easier for people to remember seeing them. I found a matronly woman, a pillar of the homeless community, it would seem, who spoke kindly of Lynn. She had been alarmed at the news of her disappearance, and pointed me toward Lynn’s adopted family of sorts.

“Unfortunately, it appears they’ve had a falling out of some description, but the boys were still able to point me towards a likely location. They said they’d seen her there recently, and I quote, ‘casing the place’. They had also indicated she had, unfortunately, and I quote again, ‘fallen off the wagon’.

“I’ve briefly pursued the, ah, drug angle. It was a long shot, the suppliers of the stuff being understandably cagey about their clientelle. The only thing I was able to ascertain was the fact that Lynn had been blacklisted by someone they feared. No one is to sell her any kind of substance. Which is most curious, though I do not know what it means. So that is where my investigation has led me so far,” Melai finished, beaming.

Isabel sat in silence for a few moments, digesting the new information. That was a lot of running around Melai did on her behalf, she was very fortunate to have found him. A lot of running around, but still no Lynn.

“What are we waiting for?” asked Isabel, “Let’s go find her, then.”

“What? No. Your guard will eat me.”

“Nonsense. Stefan doesn’t eat people. He just bites.”

“And I very much would prefer to not be bitten!”

“He doesn’t need to know. The lesson takes at least an hour, often longer. If we sneak out of the back door, he’ll be none the wiser.”

“Lynn may not even be there,” protested Melai weakly.

“But she may be. We’ll see. And if she’s not, we’ll come back, I’ll go home with Stefan, and you can tell me what you find out when you do find her. You seem to be very good at this.”

“Thank you, it had been quite an enjoyable experience. I still don’t think you should…”

“She may not be there for long!” interrupted him Isabel, “Please. I just want to know she’s alright.”

Melai teetered on the brink, and Isabel’s puppy-dog eyes pushed him over the edge. He slapped the table quietly as he got up. He was just as happy as Isabel to be on an adventure.

“Let us go, then. But if she’s not there, we’ll come back immediately.”

Isabel nodded impishly.

The two of them snuck out of the back door, leaving Stefan to guard an empty room. On the way, Isabel mulled over the things she learned.

“Does ‘casing the place’ mean what I think it means? That Lynn was looking for ways to rob it?” finally voiced her concerns Isabel.

“Pretty much. It would appear she is making a career out of thievery. Which is concerning, and a terrible example to set,” Melai glanced at her as he replied, seemingly worried Isabel would follow suit.

Amusing though the thought of picking up robbery was, Isabel didn’t smile. Her best hope for getting rid of the marquis was a thief and an addict, she now knew. She had always known, just pretended it wasn’t important. Pretended that by not thinking about it, she’ll make it untrue.

Before she had the chance to discourage herself any further, they had arrived. A quiet place in Lower Valenar, recently built up as the daylight crystal coverage expanded, its architecture designed to maximize the reach of the light. Wide windows, densely packed houses forming terraces, with not a ray going to waste.

“Any ideas on how to find her?” turned to Melai Isabel.

“Not a clue. I suspect asking if people had seen a girl looking to rob them may have an adverse effect.”

“Then we’ll simply look. Wander around, maybe we’ll spot her.”

There weren’t many people on the street, this close to the outskirts, and none of them were Lynn. Of course, if she was here, Lynn would be hiding. Bright as the place was, she’d find a way to disappear. Isabel circled one terrace block, then another. There wasn’t much time left before they’ll have to head back. She stood in the middle of the street, looking back and forth, and waited for Melai to join her.

“No luck, I’m afraid,” he reported.

“We have to figure something out. Running around doesn’t work.”

“Agreed. I’m wondering, why here? In the whole city, why would she come here, far from her usual home? Is there some building here that stands out, some resident we should know about? Some, ah, likely target?”

Isabel shrugged. They all look similar, rows of windows upon rows of windows. Nothing special about any of them. And yet something nagged at her in the back of her mind. Something’s been bothering her since she first got here. Isabel closed her eyes to try and concentrate on this feeling. One of the buildings had to stand out, there weren’t that many options…

“Huh,” said Isabel.

“What, did you think of something?” asked Melai.

Isabel nodded slowly, unsure.

“Take a look around. Now close your eyes. How many buildings can you see from here?”

“Five, I think. Why?”

“Now open your eyes and count them.”

Melai gave her a confused look but complied, pointing with a finger as he counted.

“One, two, three, four, five… six. ‘Huh’, indeed.”

“Indeed,” smiled triumphantly Isabel.

“It’s this one. No, this one that’s missing. No, this one?” Melai spun in a spot, pained expression on his face.

“I think it’s this one. It’s slippery, like a fish. My mind can’t get a grasp on it. I blink and I no longer notice it.”

“Then we’ll approach it like a slippery fish. Instead of ‘grabbing’ it, leave it no place to go. That bush in front of it. It’s not disappearing. Concentrate on it.”

Isabel breathed out, relaxing. She would not have been able to maintain attention on the building for much longer.

“How did you notice it at all?” asked Melai, impressed.

“I’ve walked past it twice. The air is noticeably colder near it. Then I closed my eyes, and couldn’t remember it being there, except I remembered it being cold.”

“Fascinating. I don’t feel it.”

“Guess we’re more attuned to the elements. Dragon blood, you know,” said Isabel, almost apologetic.

“Fascinating,” repeated Melai.

They stood in front of a completely ordinary building. As Isabel looked up at it, she felt her mind go blank. There was nothing to see here, so the brain filled the void with idle thoughts.

What was for dinner, she wondered. She’d better hurry back home, or she would be late. Wouldn’t it be great if Daddy was there when she returned. Maybe he brought back a souvenir for her. And if he’s not there, wouldn’t it be great if she found Lynn. She’s been looking for her, remembered Isabel. But why here, in this perfectly boring place?

Isabel shook her head, then elbowed Melai under the ribs. He gasped, looked down at her in surprise, then rubbed his forehead.

“We’d better avoid looking straight at it. There’s a serious enchantment on this place. I’ve only read of such things,” he said, averting his eyes.

“We’re not here for the building anyway. Let’s walk around it, see if we can spot Lynn,” suggested Isabel.

“Eek,” replied Melai.

“Now what would you want with our pet burglar?” asked the woman holding a dagger to Melai’s back.

Chapter Thirty

Posted: October 26, 2015 in Arc 4 - True Faces

“Forget about roaring flames and flashy theatrics. Magic is all about logistics. Casting a lightning bolt down from clear skies rarely accomplishes something that a dozen arrows couldn’t. But it’s getting those arrows to where they need to be, that’s what magic excels at. It is a shortcut. And where there are shortcuts, there are economic opportunities.”

Karadash sipped wine from an elegant silver goblet before continuing.

“Old World was built on this. A network of teleportation circles linked the globe. Commerce thrived. Now, of course, that’s all but impossible. Teleportation has become risky, unreliable, for reasons we don’t need to go into right now. That’s not the problem, though. If every fifth shipment doesn’t arrive, that’s just the cost of doing business.

“No, the problem is that there’s barely anyone to do business with. New Valenar is the greatest metropolis in the known world, yet it is hardly impressive by the Old World standards. About ten thousand people live here. Twice that number lived in the original Valenar alone, and elves weren’t particularly populous to begin with.”

“Is that why you had lord Jahrimir send Daddy away? To find someone else to trade with?” demanded Isabel.

She hated coming here. Hated the tower, hated the lessons, hated the chair she had to sit in, hated Stefan for bringing her, and most of all, hated the marquis.

“That was one of the reasons, yes. I have in my possession maps predating the Last Battle. While mostly useless, they may still offer hints as to the relative location of places of interest. The New Gods preserved the world in a rather slapdash fashion…”

“But this wasn’t the only reason?” interrupted him Isabel. Karadash smiled unkindly.

“Of course not. It is a reason your lord found sufficient, however, so your precious Daddy didn’t have a choice, and neither do you. Do not interrupt me further.”

“Or what,” asked Isabel, defiant, “You won’t dare to hurt me.”

Karadash chuckled.

“Hurt you? Whatever gave you such a ridiculous notion? I am but a marquis, not some… beastly murderer.”

Isabel chortled. “I know what you are,” she almost blurted out. She suppressed the urge with an angry growl.

“I see,” replied Karadash, “The topic of economics doesn’t interest you today. A lesson in politics is in order, instead.”

He refilled the goblet while Isabel fumed. She could walk out. Slam the door, order Stefan to take her home. Except he wouldn’t. He had to obey her, naturally, but he was also left with orders from Daddy, orders he would follow first. Like taking her to the marquis for her tuition. No, she had to endure the full hour.

“You’ve committed a cardinal mistake just now,” resumed the lecture Karadash, “You’ve shown me your true face. Never show your true face unless it is the last thing your enemy will see. And everyone is your enemy, do not doubt that.

“Which is not to say you should always lie. If you do that, it only takes being caught once for your words to be worthless. No. Lies are a tool of the last resort. Tell your enemy truths they already suspect, and they will trust you. Tell the truth, but never the entire truth. Never show your true face, your true intentions.

“If they know what you want above all else, they will be able to offer it or threaten it. Due to your outburst, I know you want your precious daddy back, and dislike me immensely. Pathetically predictable, but still useful. Now I can threaten I’ll find more expeditions for your lord to send him on, if you don’t stop misbehaving. See, no need for violence. Of course, I may well do this anyway.”

“Doesn’t that mean I’ve given you the truth you already suspected? And aren’t you lying right now?” sneered Isabel.

“You didn’t give it. I took it from the emotional wreckage of your face. You could be playing a subtler game, of course. You could be pretending to be just a child missing her daddy, letting her fear control her mouth. If you could pull that off, if you could fool me into thinking I found your truth while all I got was lies, that would be quite a coup. Tell me, granddaughter of the dragon, are you that savvy an opponent?

“And as for my lies, I assume you’re referring to what a certain urchin told you. How is that association working out for you?”

Isabel pouted. Her pout only grew with Karadash’s smug chuckle. It would be so satisfying to slam the door on her way out. Throw a tantrum. Refuse to ever come back, smash something breakable against a wall, claw something to shreds. But Daddy would be back eventually, and then she’d be in trouble. If he ever came back. He should have already been back.

Isabel always worried when he went away. He’s the Lightning of House Jahrimir, he’d explain each time. He strikes at the enemies of the House. Except now, he wasn’t protecting the House. He was away on some errand the marquis had convinced lord Jahrimir would be profitable. That on its own would be bad enough, the fact that it was the marquis’ idea only made it worse. These lessons were also his idea. Daddy didn’t want to put her education on hold while he was gone, and the marquis “graciously” volunteered. Oh, how Isabel loathed him.

She couldn’t see what Lynn saw when she looked at the marquis, but she could still hear the startled cry Lynn had let out when she had glanced at Karadash for the very first time. The pure terror on her face.

And of course, Daddy didn’t listen to her. He said Lynn had lied to distract her. Lynn did lie about many things, Isabel knew. Lynn pretended to be her friend to rob her, and Isabel was so desperate for a friend that she fell for it. She knew better now. The one thing she could trust was Lynn’s fear.

Isabel had to do something, to protect her Daddy, protect her House, before the marquis had wormed his way even deeper into it. She’ll have to help Lynn expose Karadash for the monster he was, she thought once again. A recurring idea, a fantasy she’s had ever since her lessons started.

A stupid idea. Daddy would be back soon. He’ll know what to do, if anything. She was still a child, what did she know. Isabel bit her lip. She looked up to find Karadash studying her with a smug smirk on his face. That was it, then. She’ll do it.

“I’m sorry,” she said, eyes down, “You are right. I worry for my Daddy, is all. I know better than to believe someone who had already betrayed me. I won’t lose my temper again, please continue the lesson.”

Isabel endured Karadash’s condescension for the rest of the hour. She’d long since mastered the art of appearing obedient. She didn’t need the marquis to teach her to hide her true face.

She remained quiet on the way home, plotting. Once there, Isabel informed Stefan she would be practicing on the harpsichord and was not to be disturbed. The bodyguard nodded, the scales tattooed on his brow creased with… suspicion? Isabel ran up the stairs to avoid his gaze.

Once in her room, she closed the door and pulled out a toy she’d long since abandoned, a music box with a dancer carved out of some poor animal’s bone spinning on top while it played. It didn’t sound quite like the harpsichord, didn’t sound like it at all, to be honest, but Isabel hoped Stefan wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He hadn’t been tortured by the infernal instrument for the majority of his life, after all.

Isabel opened the music box, and the dancer sprung up, smile painted on her face, always ready to please. That’s why she abandoned it in the first place, remembered the dragonkin girl. Not that music boxes were all that riveting to begin with. This one, however, reminded her too much of herself.

From memory, it played for a couple of hours. Dinner was in about three. With any luck, no one will open the door into her room until then. Isabel had that long to… Do what, exactly? First, she’ll need to find Lynn, and see how far she’s gotten. And to do that she’ll go… somewhere.

Lynn lived in Lower Valenar, of that Isabel was certain. She’ll just have to improvise. Ask around. She’ll need a disguise. It was all very exciting, a hero embarking on a quest to save all she valued from marauding knights. Isabel settled on a cloak that could at least somewhat obscure her features from onlookers. In it, she’ll pass for a lumpy-headed human, as long as no one looked under the hood.

Isabel picked matching gloves, found the coins she had stashed back when she still had an allowance, and, after some hesitation, took the dagger Daddy gave her for her birthday. He’d have her head if she lost it. It was, in a word, sinuous. The hilt was an ornate serpent, its mouth open impossibly wide to form a crossguard, the tongue long and curvy and very, very sharp.

Of all the souvenirs he had brought back from his missions, this was her favorite. This wasn’t a toy though it may look like one, Daddy had warned her. Isabel had to promise, over and over, that she’d take it seriously before she was allowed to have it. Taking the dagger with her meant this was serious.

Isabel stood near the window, gathering her courage. Counted to ten, then opened it and climbed onto the roof of the ground floor, quiet as a mouse. A clawed, scaled, half-dragon mouse. A few quick steps, a jump, and she was on the street. Isabel looked around, but no one saw her. No one knew she was here. She was free. Isabel giggled. Back in her room, the dancer spun, smiling.

Interlude III

Posted: September 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

SQUIRREL.

This may seem like a simple word, but it’s not. Whatever language you speak, you understood it, without even realising it wasn’t in your native tongue. What’s more, you knew what it meant, even if you’ve never seen a squirrel. Armed with that word, you could tell without a shadow of the doubt what was a squirrel and what wasn’t.

SHREW.

I speak the language of Creation. The words in which our world had first been described by the demiurges. Each word is the idea itself. They are what gives a thing its identity. When first spoken, they had created their subjects. Now, we speak them to preserve. I move through the courtyard, doing my daily chores as I perform my actual task.

SKUNK.

It’s all but impossible to lie in the First Tongue. The ones who can are called wizards. Our magic is much more simple. By repeating these words daily, we remind the world of everything it has. It is a strange thing to do, I admit. Sometimes I doubt we accomplish much. But we have to try. In the face of all the loss, we have to try. Here comes the part I dread.

GERBIL.

The litany of extinctions. The words that come out not as strong, not as confident. Just like everything is described by the First Tongue, so does the First Tongue require things to describe. There are no words for those that are gone and not coming back. The world forgets them even if we don’t. Every day, we witness the world grow poorer, a word at a time.

HEDGEHOG.

This is the founding belief of our monastery: that we can strengthen the subjects of a word by repeating it. Reinforcing it. A prayer to the world itself. We have split the animals and plants between us, spent years studying their subjects to perfect our pronunciations, all to stave off their oblivion.

Ferrit.

Wait. That didn’t come out right. Furrit. Feerat. I stumble, steadying myself on the nearest wall. Pherret. I struggle to draw breath, to push air out again. The hoarse whisper that comes out doesn’t sound like anything at all. I stand there, my chest heaving, tears welling up in my eyes. The yard freezes. All the eyes are on me. I concentrate, maybe it was just a mistake I made. Maybe it’ll turn out alright.

Furrat.

I sink to my knees. Across the yard, my sister moves her lips in time with mine. She doesn’t notice a bucket full of milk come clattering down from her hands. Stillness spills over the monastery. My brothers and sisters are afraid to move, all saying the same word in unison, begging the world not to forget it. Begging the tiny furry creatures to live.

Ferryt. Fereet. Ferreed. Ferret. Ferret. FERRET. FERRET! FERRET!

Tears flow freely now, tears and laughter. Somewhere far away, a critter had found the will to open its eyes. I stand up, dust the dirt off of my knees. With a grin on my face, I go looking for a broom to do something about the milk. The grin fades, though. Our job is not over. In the world at the brink of petering out, it cannot be over.

WOMBAT.

Chapter Twenty Nine

Posted: September 7, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Lynn watches.

A shadow fey, liberated from Gwydion’s grasp, stands on the edge of the light. Fine chains adorn her clothes, bearing seals proclaiming she is Probably Not a Spy for the Shadow and Is Allowed to Walk About (Within Reason). She may have been a slave of the Shadow before, but it’s only now that she’s free that she has to wear chains.

She faces the turbulent towering darkness before her. Reaches out, then withdraws her hand. Walks away, then runs back. Clasps her chains until her pale knuckles turn white, maybe to tear them apart, maybe to hold on to them. Probably both. Reaches out, like she’s a spurned lover. Reaches out, like she’s drowning in the light. Reaches out, in a curse and a prayer. Her hand falls, powerless.

The Shadow remains untouched. Tears streak down her cheeks as she walks away. Behind her, a ripple passes through the primordial darkness, and a seeking tendril emerges. It extends after the runaway fey, maybe to caress her, maybe to strangle her. Probably both. She doesn’t notice. The shadow tendril falls, powerless. It is obliterated by the merciless borrowed sunlight.

The fey will be back tomorrow.

Lynn watches.

A tiny old man trundles down the street, wizened and weathered. He mutters constantly, and glares with beady black eyes through the bush of dirty grey hair, and spits on the ground. No one pays him any heed as he dashes through the crowd, too nimble for his age, for any age. His iron-shod shoes hit the ground as if he was trying to punish it. His iron teeth gleam darkly when he sneezes.

The horrid old man has a sack on his back. It clinks with his every move, and shifts of its own accord. The sack is heavy, even for him. The old man moves from alley to alley. Sometimes, there’s a rat waiting for him there. He picks it up, and listens to its squeaking. Then he puts it into his sack.

Sometimes, he reaches deep into his sack, and the sack goes into a frenzy. His arm is covered in rat bites. He chuckles as he pulls a rat out, angry and vicious. The old man sets it loose, and moves on. The rat’s iron-shod claws gleam darkly as it scampers away.

Lynn watches.

A young woman sells dried fruit from her tray. She’s been on her feet since dawn, walking up and down New Valenar. She comes here every day at about the same time. Looks around, bites her lip. Wipes her hands on the sides of her dress, runs them through her hair nervously.

An elfblooded man rounds the corner, sees her, and his face lights up with hunger. They greet one another warmly. Their smiles only grow wider when the other isn’t looking. They do a lot of not looking. Money is exchanged, then fruit. Their touches linger. She’s hungry, too.

Eventually, he leaves. She watches him go, then pretends not to when he turns around. Out of her sight, the man hands the fruit he bought to a beggar. He has been sated, for now.

Lynn watches.

A cogheart stands on the edge of a garden, a trio of barren trees outside the boundary of the daylight crystals. Mechanisms whir and hum quietly inside its chest. Snow piles up on its shoulders as it stands perfectly still. It used to be a man once, or perhaps a woman.

Children play snowballs among the trees. They no longer notice the metal figure, used to its presence. Too used: a stray snowball hits it, and the kids freeze. The cogheart looks down at the snowprint left on its chest, and the kids back away slowly. It reaches down, grasps snow with metal fingers. Regards it silently, quizzically. The kids glance at one another.

The cogheart cups both hands over the snow, making a snowball. It reaches back, and tosses the ball, aimed at no one. Unwieldy metal fingers fail to compact the snow, and the throw lacks force. The snowball falls apart ineffectually before it even reaches the ground.

The cogheart hangs its head as it departs. There are no more games that day.

Lynn watches.

A palanquin carried by four burly men speeds down the street. It’s windows are draped. The men in the front yell at stragglers to get out of their way. They are tired, heavy breath erupting from their mouths in fog clouds. One of them stumbles, and the palanquin careens for a moment. They exchange glances, their faces contorted with fear.

A bell rings out, and the palanquin stops. More fearful glances. A long finger moves the drapes aside. Carriers stand to attention, straining to not be noticed. Beads of sweat form on their foreheads as the palanquin door swings open.

Karadash steps out, walks up to Lynn. Regards her. Asks: “Do you know me, child?” Bends down, his face centimeters from hers. There is the face her mind tells her she sees, sharp, noble, alluring, exotic face of the marquis. There is the face her eyes tell her she sees, covered in fur, shrouded in terror, sharp toothed face of the Beast. Lynn watches.

Karadash grabs Lynn’s chin. The Beast’s claws pierce her skin. Lynn watches. Karadash looks her in the eyes. The Beast looks within her. Lynn watches. Karadash sneers. The Beast bares his fangs. Lynn watches. Karadash stands up, turns away, annoyed at her lack of response. The Beast is frustrated its prey is gone. Lynn watches. “Pity”, he drops as he boards the palanquin.

Lynn smiles.

Chapter Twenty Eight

Posted: August 24, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

It wasn’t fair. Lynn had overcome her addiction to slime. She was clean. Not for very long, but still. She had won that battle, she had stayed away. And now the world had thrown slime at her. It was all around, dissolved in the water. Just a miniscule amount, a taste. But it was enough, she was starting to feel its effects. The separation of self from the rest of the world. Slime didn’t make empathy harder. It made empathy a conscious choice.

Lynn remembered about Nessa, and decided she still needed her protection. The Allyrian girl floated next to Lynn, confused at their abrupt stop. Or was she rejoiced? Nessa rubbed her eyes, and Lynn slapped away her hand. It was bad enough Lynn had been affected by slime, there was no way she’d let Nessa get a full dose, she wasn’t that far gone yet.

Lynn looked around. Where did the slime come from, and where can they go to avoid it? And how, by what astonishing bad luck, did she even managed to run into it? Except it wasn’t bad luck, was it. No, she’d caught a whiff of slime, and followed it without realising she did it. It made her feel better, of course she followed it. The world didn’t throw slime at her, she sniffed out a drop of it in an entire sea.

There was no obvious source. No coral building, no crack in the ground in which vile mermen would produce the drug. Lynn had heard the rumors, had seen someone from Under Valenar deliver slime to Azary, so she knew it originated within the sea. No one knew anything else. The mystery would have to remain. She had to get Nessa out of here, not look for the slime manufacturers.

Lynn pointed up, the only direction she knew there wouldn’t be any slime. The two swam towards the water’s surface. Above, the swirling red in the water was replaced by the red haze of the mist. The Bloodmist Sea lived up to its name.

And just like in the water, the dreadful red mist was lifting, disappearing in the sunlight and the wind. Sunlight and wind. It’s only been a few days, but they felt so strange on Lynn’s skin. Not least of all because she was covered in a thin film of bloody ooze and slime. Rubbing her face to little effect, she turned to Nessa who was doing the same.

“Are you alright?”

Nessa nodded.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get back to safety soon. I think the worst has passed.”

Nessa nodded again, less enthusiastically.

“I don’t like it here. Not in water. Can’t see below,” Nessa spoke slowly, carefully picking words. She must not get much practice with the spoken language, thought Lynn.

“We can’t dive yet. There’s… It’s bad there. Can you find this place, later? Can you explain to Nicholas where we are right now?”

“I think so,” said Nessa, unsure.

“Good. Tell him this is where slime comes from, he’ll want to know that.”

“Why can’t you tell him?”

“I ain’t coming back,” said Lynn to her own surprise. She hadn’t exactly planned this. And she wanted to go back. To see Nicholas again, to be there when he sees his sister is safe. But she was also the reason Nessa was in danger in the first place. She and her demon.

So that was that. She needed Stan more than she needed Nicholas to like her. It felt strange to acknowledge that she wanted him to like her at all, but it didn’t matter anymore. She never had to see him again, crisis averted.

The pair swam towards the barely visible shore. Above them, tiny snowflakes swirled in the grey skies, melting as they approached the last remnants of the blood mist. Half-way there, they saw a group of soldiers approaching from below. Lynn tensed up. If these were merfolk attackers, they were doomed. There was nowhere to hide, and they were too tired to try and run. Lynn and Nessa awaited the soldiers, resigned to whatever their fate may be.

For once, fortune was on their side. With the end of the blood storm, the attack on Under Valenar had ended as well. The soldiers were human, or as human as Allyrians got. Lynn watched Nessa set off towards them, then turned to the shore. Her job here was done, and it was time to go back.

She didn’t get far before Nessa caught up with her. The girl hugged her, smiled, then dove again. Lynn smiled, too, as she swam. Whatever else may happen, whatever else she may have to do, she had done something good.

Half an hour later, utterly exhausted, Lynn clambered out of the water. She was still some distance away from New Valenar, their flight during the storm took them a long way from the city. Lynn looked around, memorising the place. If Nicholas failed to find the source of the slime, knowing where it comes from could be useful. Somehow, someway. But not now.

There was a long walk ahead of her. Instead, Lynn sat down on the cold sand to catch her breath. She felt like she’d woken up from a dream, but not yet rejoined the outside world. In this one moment, she could be anyone, do anything. Out of Under Valenar, but not yet in Lower Valenar, Lynn was briefly free. She could turn around, and go in the opposite direction. Away from it all, to whatever lies beyond the hills blocking the view. She’d heard of the city called Char in the middle of the Everbright Desert, maybe it wasn’t so bad there. There shouldn’t be any rakshasas there, at the very least.

And that was why she couldn’t go. She made a promise. Took on a mission. And the mission had cost people she cared about their lives. It couldn’t be in vain. Their lives and their deaths couldn’t be in vain. She had to finish it.

Lynn got up and began to walk. Time to wake up fully, to come back to the real world.

Her clothes were covered in thin sheets of ice, cracking with every move. The shirt, long since worn out, looked like it was about to be pulled apart by the ice. Her hair had become icicles, sticking out of her head at odd angles. The day was cold, even for winter.

Thankfully, the Menar’s Embrace amulet protected her from the elements. It’s a pity she’ll have to hide it somewhere as soon as possible, thought Lynn. Anyone who saw it would try to take it from her. At least, anyone like Josh. Street kids supported one another, but only up to a point. They weren’t a family, not like House Jahrimir and its draconic patriarch.

To live in an azure house, to always know you are protected… Lynn’s old dream resurfaced to her surprise. She’s been so busy chasing her enemy, she forgot how it was to dream of anything but the end of the chase. She’ll have to forget again. There’ll be plenty of time for idle fantasies later.

The guards at the gates followed her with their eyes, but didn’t bother to stop her. She must have looked terminal to them, about to freeze. Just another street rat claimed by the winter. As amusing as the glances she got were, Lynn needed to stop standing out. She considered stealing some shirt drying in a window, but decided climbing up a wall to get one would not be worth it. Her shoulder, where Stan bit her, throbbed painfully. All the swimming she’d done didn’t help.

Instead, Lynn went to the temple of Cerulea. While clothing the poor wasn’t exactly a part of the dogma of the Mother of All, her followers did their best to prevent any loss of life. Usually, this meant Lynn could get a couple of coins from them, but a spare shirt wasn’t entirely out of the question.

She made sure to shiver as much as possible as she entered the temple. People inside looked away. Lynn sneezed, looking for one person to make eye contact with her.

A great tree grew in the middle of the temple, its branches almost reaching the bright blue ceiling, extending all the way to its sides. A narrow circular pool surrounded the tree’s patch of land. Several stone pipes fed into it just above the pool level, filling the temple with the gentle sound of running water. Roots could be seen at its bottom. Birds nested on the tree. At least they weren’t afraid to look Lynn in the eye. It was a tiny tranquil oasis of nature in the middle of the rushing city.

Lynn didn’t feel tranquil. Sunbeams reflected in the pool made her nauseous. Bright plumage of the birds left splotches in her vision. The tree’s angles were too sharp, it hurt her eyes to look at them. Well, that’s new, she thought. And only temporary, obviously. As soon as the slime wears off, it will no longer hurt to look upon the holy place of the goddess of nature and purity.  

Petitioners sat around the pool, ignoring her. Many were much worse off than Lynn, their bodies and minds ravaged by the Shadow or some other horror. She wasn’t like them, not really. Not as warped, not forever tainted by her contact with the… whatever it is slime is. The un-things.

Still, the best that the priests could do for them was ease their sufferings. They could save Lynn. That is, if she was actually freezing to death. Lynn sneezed louder.

“Do you require assistance, my child?” the elderly voice came from behind and below her.

Lynn turned around, then took a step back. Just her luck, to run into the head priestess. The gnome woman regarded her with a kind smile… or was that a contemptuous one? Slime made it impossible to tell.

“P-please, I need s-some clothes,” Lynn did her best to sound miserable.

“So you do. Come, we’ll find you something. Took a tumble into the river, did you?”

“S-sea, actually.”

“Tut-tut, how clumsy of you.”

Compassion or mockery? As long as she got a shirt out of it, Lynn didn’t care. She followed the gnome into one of the rooms radiating from the tree chamber. It was full of supplies: shelves filled with jars, crates and boxes to the roof. Just like elsewhere in the temple, there was a window in the ceiling, letting a daylight crystal perched on top of the building to shine through. The air here was permeated with the smell of medicine.

Lynn stood at the entrance awkwardly while the head priestess rummaged through one of the crates. The girl wasn’t sure she warranted such attention.

“Here you go, dear. A bit thin in places, but should do just fine,” the priestess handed Lynn a dark grey thick tunic, with a short dark green cloak folded on top of it, “You can change behind the shelves.”

Lynn thanked her, then did as the priestess suggested. Her shirt actually split as she took it off, tearing in two. It made a clinking noise as it fell to the floor. The priestess was still waiting for her when Lynn emerged, much to her disappointment.

“Thank you, this is much better.”

“I’m sure it is. Does anything else ail you, dear, is your memory alright?”

“I… think so, why?”

“You forgot to shiver”

“…oh.”

“Do not fret, you can have the clothes, on one condition. When you are ready to ask for help with your drug problem, come to us.

“I don’t have a drug problem,” said Lynn, acutely aware of the slime that covered her.

“As I said, when you are ready. I sincerely hope it won’t be too late. And next time, please consider asking instead of lying.”

Lynn nodded, ashamed. Shame, huh, the drugs must be wearing off. She covered her face as she ran out and told herself it was to shield her eyes from the tree.

The day was mostly over by then, the sun barely visible between the towers. Lynn headed home. Her real home, the one without half a roof, but with Tim and Eric. The twins weren’t there when she climbed the stairs. It felt strange being there, even though only a few days had passed. It felt like she was spying on them.

And with good reason. Someone else had been sleeping in the pile of torn cloth she called her bed. In its depths Lynn found a gaudy hat she had seen Russell wear, given to him by some kind colorblind quilt enthusiast.

So the twins found someone else to take care of them while she was gone. Big deal, this was her home, Russell would surely go back to wherever he used to spend his nights now that she had returned. Lynn smirked at how easily she’d been replaced. She never asked for this responsibility, but she took some pride in protecting Tim and Eric, even if they barely spoke to her anymore. Even if she had been utterly consumed by her struggle against the Beast. Even if she couldn’t remember the last time she brought them food.

Lynn stumbled out of the tower that wasn’t her home anymore. Not for a while. For the second time today, Lynn questioned her mission.

She looked up to find Tim stare back at her from across the street. Lynn saw herself through his eyes. Disheveled, bloodied, reeking of slime. Gone for days, not truly back. Lynn couldn’t read his expression, but she saw disgust on his face nonetheless. She ran.

This was for the best. She didn’t have the time or the strength for them. Not while the Beast was out there. Russell could take care of the twins, they’re better off away from her. Everyone’s better off away from her. She’ll do the most good by ridding New Valenar of the Beast. It was for them. This was for the best. This hurt will pass.

Lynn ran away from her only home, and found herself near a hiding spot Josh had used. Just as well, it would be a good place to stash the water breathing amulet she had failed to return. Another stolen item, another disappointment. She kneeled at the back wall of an abandoned building, looking for the loose brick she knew was there. Lynn glanced around, but the shadowfall had scared off anyone that could have noticed her.

Lynn pulled out the loose brick, then took off the amulet. A shudder ran through her, and she bent over, coughing up the seawater that was still left in her lungs. She immediately felt the winter wind grip her, creep up her wet legs. Cold, miserable and tired, she shoved the amulet inside the hole in the wall. Her hand bumped into a glass jar.

It wasn’t fair. She was clean. Except she wasn’t. She had found the one jar of slime she knew of in an entire city. This couldn’t make things worse. Except it will. She had given up so much for her mission. Her friend, her home. What else did she have to lose? Except for everything.

She was so tired. She had fought this battle every day for weeks now. Today was one too many. She didn’t have the strength to fight herself and the Beast at the same time.

She was always so good at excuses.

Chapter Twenty Seven

Posted: August 3, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

“Boss, stop,” Stan’s voice somehow sounded clear underwater.

“-ut up,” Lynn responded without slowing down.

“I’m in yer head, no need to scare the fishes. And a desolate place it is, reminds me of the Grey Wastes.”

“Since when are you in my head?” Lynn thought hard at the claw.

“No need to shout either. Since you’re holding my claw, oh hands-on leader. I’m only talking to you, I can’t actually read your thoughts not directed at me. Your fantasies about that boy are safe.”

At a different time, this would have thrown Lynn for a loop. Right now, she didn’t have the time for Stan’s mockery.

“You can talk to me, noted. Now either help me find Nessa or be quiet.”

“Yeah, about that. Why? The little squirt’s either home safe or gutted like the last merman we saw.”

“They are not mermen. I think mermen are the ones attacking them.”

“Like I care about their identity crisis.”

“Not the point, we’re looking for her.”

Lynn called for Nessa again, swiveling her head desperately as she swam. The sound that came out didn’t sound much like her name, but it was better than nothing. The entire world had turned crimson, the visibility diminished to only a few meters. The unceasing taste of blood in the water made Lynn feel like she’d been punched in the nose, constantly swallowing her own blood. Except this blood must have belonged to someone else. Someone like Nessa, or Nicholas.

“You want to find the brat, fine,” the demon continued to annoy her. “But do it smart. You can’t just run around screaming at the top of yer lungs, attracts attention.”

“I do need to attract her attention.”

“What about these merfolk attackers? I don’t fancy spending the next few centuries at the bottom of the sea.”

“Do you have any better ideas, then? Bottom of the sea can be arranged.”

“You’re being snarky! I’m rubbing off on you.”

“Never say that again.”

“I do have better ideas, actually. A rather low bar, that. Do you have anything that belongs to her?”

“These pants? Maybe she helped make them.”

“Good enough. We’ll need a piece.”

Without hesitation, though with some regret, Lynn cut a chunk of her new pants off with the claw.

“Normally, I’d say quarry’s blood is best, but I’m not so sure it’d actually work right now. Take the cloth, and say exactly this.”

Lynn winced at guttural snorting sounds pouring straight into her mind.

“What was that?”

“I’ll repeat.”

Strangely enough, the magic words, if that is what these were, almost made sense to Lynn. They reminded her of something, like a hummed tune reminds one of the characters of a forgotten lullaby. She tried to say what Stan was saying. It sounded no less atrocious, while also entirely different.

“Terrible. Hopeless. The girl’s done for. Oh well, we tried, time to go.”

“We are not going anywhere until we do this,” Lynn pressed her lips together.

“Then would you kindly try and stab the first merman that finds you with my claw? You’ll still die, but maybe they’ll take it as a trophy.”

“Instead of being insufferable, teach me to say it right.”

“It was a silly idea. Takes weeks for a gifted neophyte to learn to do that. And you’re hardly gifted. Thought maybe you had innate talent. No such luck.”

“Well, can’t you do the spell, you seem to know how to pronounce it.”

“Sure, get me back to a room with air in it. I’m not getting my delicate face crushed by the pressure.”

Lynn looked around. She didn’t know up from down, much less the direction back to the sunken temple.

“What if you had the water breathing amulet, would you be able to do it?”

“Don’t see why not. Don’t see where you’d get a second one, either.”

“Then do it, and quickly.”

Lynn tore off the Menar’s Embrace amulet. The gentle embrace of the long-dead god was replaced with the crushing weight of the sea. Lynn felt like she’d been simultaneously hit from all sides, her ears ringing, her chest caved in. And the dazing initial moment of being hit, when the outside world disappears, narrowed down to the point of impact, had lasted on and on. This time, her entire body was the point of impact.

The water she had been breathing in so harmlessly now turned into cold dead weight in her lungs. She wanted to vomit it up, to breathe in, but could do neither. Lynn clutched at her throat, at her chest, at anything that would help her. She would have torn open her own throat in blind panic, if not for her grip weakening with each agonizing second.

In the crushing darkness, she floated, helpless.

What a silly way to die, trusting a demon. No one would know what had happened to her, her body eaten by fishes, unrecognizable when it washes ashore. Or maybe she’s right in the middle of Under Valenar, meters away from someone who’d help. No, better to disappear. One last disappointment for anyone who may still foolishly rely on her, and then they’ll be free.

Except Nessa relied on her right now, even if she didn’t know it. She’ll have plenty of time for self-loathing in the Grey Wastes, if Stan is to be believed, Lynn decided. She couldn’t give up, couldn’t let unconsciousness take her. She had to trust the demon’s self preservation, not the demon himself.

After a few seconds that lasted a lifetime, Lynn drew a shuddering breath. The Menar’s Embrace amulet was back on her neck, and the water had become pleasant and warm again, its touch soft and gentle. It still hurt. Everything hurt, especially breathing.

The claw! The claw was gone from her hand, slipped out while she was busy dying. So was the piece of cloth which would have, presumably, led her to Nessa. Lynn dove down, or at least towards what she thought was down.

She didn’t travel far before arriving at the seafloor. Tall seaweed swayed heavily in the red storm, making it seem like beasts were rampaging through it. Maybe they were. Lynn hesitated, just out of reach of the moving green stalks. She was still feeling lightheaded, not at all up to facing giant crabs or whatever it is that dwelt at the bottom of the sea.

Something moved at the edge of Lynn’s vision, above her. Better giant crabs than murderous merfolk, she decided, and dove in. Lynn pushed leafy seaweed stalks aside as she moved. They parted easily, closing ranks behind her. The water was clearer deep within this aquatic forest, and schools of fish took shelter there. Or maybe it was always this populated, wondered Lynn as they brushed against her.

There was no claw in sight. Lynn would grow more desperate, if it were at all possible. She squeezed through the ticket at the sea floor, rummaging through algae sludge while cursing herself. Something bit her ankle. Lynn spun around, prepared to fend off the giant crab that undoubtedly came to eat her, only to find the demonic claw, stuck in a tangle of seaweed, the piece of cloth from her pants impaled on it.

“Took ya long enough,” greeted her Stan.

Lynn was too relieved for a coherent reply. She extracted the claw from the tangle, grabbed the piece of cloth in another hand, and took a deep breath.

“So. How does this work?”

“The hard pat is done. Now you just let it go, and follow it, oh insane leader. It will float to the nearest owner who isn’t you – I’ve made sure of that. If that’s the girl, we’re in luck. Otherwise, well.”

“Great. And thank you.”

“Hey, someone’s got to be the sexy voice of reason who saves everyone.”

Lynn got out of the seaweed forest and released her cloth guide. It fluttered in the bloody storm, hopefully driven by magic and not by the currents. She had already went through too much to get it, Lynn reasoned, and had no better options, to suddenly doubt it. After the cloth she swam.

By now she had lost any sense of where she could possibly be. There was just the swirling crimson and the cloth before her. She could have traveled a kilometer or a hundred meters, an hour or a few minutes. At last, the cloth changed the direction of its movement, veering to the right. Lynn followed.

“-ynn!” a distant voice called, tiny and exhausted, “-ynn!”

And there she was, just as frazzled as Lynn. Red had stained Nessa’s clothes, got stuck in her hair, beneath her fingernails. Lynn wasn’t an experienced enough swimmer not to tackle-hug her, but maybe that was for the best. The cloth guide had joined in, fluttering against Nessa. Its mission fulfilled, it lost its animating force seconds later and drifted away.

The two girls held on to each other in hard-earned relief. Nessa must have been searching for her, just as Lynn was searching for Nessa, thought Lynn. Silly Nessa. But at least they found each other. They still weren’t safe, though. Having extracted herself from the hug, Lynn tried to communicate with Nessa using her rudimentary knowledge of thieves’ sign language and expansive miming.

“Not danger where?”

Lynn demonstrated the last word by pointing in different directions and shrugging. Nessa shrugged too, fear returning to her face.

“Down,” decided Lynn after brief deliberation, “hide.”

Nessa nodded.

The seafloor was different here, current-swept dunes rather than floating forests. The water was still clearer, or maybe, hopefully, the storm was subsiding. Nessa followed Lynn as she searched for a shelter. They found one beneath a small outcropping rock. Huddled there, they couldn’t be seen from at least some directions.

Nessa was shaking slightly, so Lynn tried to comfort her. She attempted to hug Nessa again, but the girl was stiff, refusing to join in. Now that the immediate danger had passed, she must have remembered about the demon, realised Lynn. There was fear in Nessa’s eyes, and there was nothing Lynn could do. She couldn’t talk under the water, and even if she could, what would she say?

Good people didn’t consort with demons. She couldn’t even say she had Stan under control, she wasn’t that delusional. The horrible creature made it perfectly clear he would get her killed at the first chance he got, provided he could escape.

But however evil the demon was, the Beast was worse. She needed Stan to stand a ghost of a chance. If she could rid the world of Karadash, that would outweigh any harm she did along the way. Right? Lynn looked at the trembling Nessa, close to her yet distinctly apart, and wasn’t certain anymore.

Someone passed over them, their shape outlined by the swirling red. Rescuer or invader? Lynn held her breath and felt Nessa push herself further into the rock. The figure disappeared, and the girls exchanged relieved glances. Lynn smiled reassuringly, or maybe her mouth just twitched a bit. By now she was exhausted of being on the edge.

Minutes went by. The water grew clearer, bit by bit. Just as tension began to leave Lynn’s body, a merman peered over the rock beneath which the girls were hiding. Lynn would mistake him for a large fish – scales, bulging eyes, huge tooth-filled mouth and all – if not for a spear he held in his webbed hand.

Without thinking, Lynn moved forward, shielding Nessa with her body and drawing the claw she had tucked into her pants. Nessa let out a startled cry. The merman echoed it, the expression on his inhuman face indecipherable to Lynn. He stuck out his spear, which Lynn had barely managed to deflect. Before she could grab a hold of it, the merman drew the spear back, ready for another attack.

Lynn kicked off from the rock, trying to cover the distance between them. Her weapon was much shorter than the merman’s. As terrified as she was at her first and quite possibly last life-and-death fight, she knew her only chance was to get close to her enemy. Unlike him, however, she wasn’t born in water, hadn’t spent a lifetime moving in it. The merman evaded her easily, spinning out of the way.

It was a ponderous, dance-like struggle. As he moved, the merman brought up the blunt end of his spear. Lynn saw it, but could not dodge, carried forward by her own momentum. The spear slammed into her stomach, knocking the breath out of her.

Lynn watched him rotate the spear over his head, preparing for a killing blow. Stan was screeching in her mind, whether encouragements or death wishes, she didn’t know. She knew that she was going to die if she didn’t move, and knew she couldn’t.

Nessa could. Appearing out of nowhere, she grabbed the spear from behind, standing on the merman’s shoulders. With the extra second Nessa bought her, Lynn lunged forward. She grasped the merman’s arm with her left hand, and pulled herself forward. She pressed herself to the merman, and drove the claw clasped in her right hand into him with her entire weight. The merman gasped, his mouth right next to hers.

Lynn tore the claw out and plunged it in again, and again, and again. She screamed, and Stan screamed with her, their voices becoming one in her head. She watched the merman’s face slacken, saw his eyes glaze over, his hands let go of Nessa and the spear, felt warmth envelop her arm. In that moment, holding the dying merman in her arms, Lynn finally recognized his facial expression, unchanged since the moment they saw one another. It was fear. Same fear Josh felt as he died.

She recoiled. The body spun from her movement, revealing gashing wounds on his back. He must have been hurt during the attack and looking for shelter, just like she and Nessa were. Those wounds were likely the only reason she could actually defeat him. Lynn looked at the dead merman and saw Josh. Mean and trapped on a bad path, but not deserving of death. She knew nothing about the merman, but felt like she knew enough.

She didn’t have a choice, Lynn knew. The merman would have killed her, and then Nessa, had she not won. But it didn’t feel like a victory.

Stan gurgled in her mind, satisfied. Lynn almost threw the claw away in disgust. Blood was spreading from the merman, and Lynn pushed further away in a panic. The red storm was almost over, it seemed, as this blood was actually visible.

Lynn looked around, to find Nessa floating nearby, just as scared as her. They couldn’t stay here. Not after what just happened. Not near the… the man she just killed. Lynn motioned for Nessa to follow, and began to swim. Away. Anywhere.

They swam, exhausted yet unwilling to stop. Eventually, Lynn’s worries began to lift. The water was almost clear now, and she breathed easier. Even her ribs, bruised by the spear, didn’t hurt as much. They’ve made it, she thought to herself. It was all behind her. The merman didn’t matter. The scared girl that was following her didn’t matter. Neither did Nicholas. She could finally be free, be apart from them all. She hadn’t felt this good in weeks. Even the deep ache in her eyes had dissipated.

Lynn stopped. There was slime in the water.