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.

Chapter Twenty Six

Posted: July 24, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

“Tell me more about rakshasas,” said Lynn.

She sat cross-legged in a backroom of the submerged temple. Perhaps, elven priests retreated here between services. With everything but the walls either looted or rotted, it was hard to guess the room’s exact nature. Right now, it served as a somewhat concealed demon summoning chamber.

The demon in question was busy scratching an elaborately obscene scene on one of the walls with its claws. Lynn tried again: “Stan, please.”

The demon looked back, then let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Not my name. Fine. Fine. What do you want to know?”

“Everything. What are they?”

“Hoo boy. We’re gonna be here a while. Sit down and try not to interrupt, then. There’ll be a quiz in the end,” Stain began pacing back and forth with its spindly hands clasped behind its back.

“Do you know what happens when you die? I said don’t interrupt. You soil yourself, that’s what happens. But then your soul goes to the Grey Wastes. A miserable place. Very grey. But souls don’t care, they left the brain rotting behind. So they just wander around doing whatever it is they most often used to do. Gardening, or drinking, or crying. Lotsa crying. Once met a guy who was farting a tune. I kid you not, he had spent the majority of his life perfecting the art of fart, and then a good chunk of the afterlife practicing it. Fetched me quite a price for that one.

“That’s what I did – I hunted for souls. Well, that’s an exaggeration. More like sniffed around for them. Used to be the more evil you’ve done, the more your soul would stink. Oh, the delicious stench of murderers. The pungent aroma of rapists. Now you just gotta run around until you spot something.”

“Aren’t Hells, um, broken? What’s the point?”

“So what, oh interrupting leader? Have you ever seen someone with punctured lungs? Lies there, gasping for air that just bubbles right back out with blood. The bugger’s trying so hard, haha, and it’s just bloody foam, hahaha, oh, the faces they make, ahahaha, the wheezing noises,” the demon collapsed into a laughing garbage heap.

“Ahem,” Lynn tried to interrupt his happiness at someone’s violent death, “You capture these souls, and then they just escape again?”

“Sometimes. More like leak, remember, they don’t have a brain to tell them to run. They only react to what’s happening to them right that second, if they react at all. So one would climb off a torture rack and just stand right next to it like it’s nothing. Mostly they just sit there and suffer.”

“It’s all a mess now, after the Last Battle. There were no Grey Wastes, just trodden paths to the domains of gods and other much more fun places. Used to be, someone would be there to greet you when you died, to guide you to wherever you deserved to go. There was still competition, just which Hell you end up in was a question of who got there first. Nowadays it’s all finders keepers. And there is no stench of Evil anymore. No shining Goodness, either. Just souls, lost in the grey mists. Some stay there for decades, waiting. Stupid souls. I much prefer it this way, lots of opportunities for an enterprising demon to make a name for themselves.”

Lynn listened in stunned silence. She knew the world was broken, has seen ruins every day of her life, was sitting in one right now. But to learn that the afterlife was broken as well, that whatever you did in this life, there would be no due reward or just punishment, that was terrifying. She thought of Josh. Maybe he wasn’t that great a person. But he wasn’t awful, either. Few people were. And to imagine him being dragged around by something like Stan was almost too much to bear.

And then Lynn thought of Peter. Peter, who had been kind to her and paid for his kindness with his life. Who didn’t deserve any of this. And regardless of that, whose soul was also standing in the Grey Wastes, just like Josh, waiting for a demon to claim him. Lynn already knew life was unfair. Now she found out death wasn’t fair either.

“They are the lucky ones, anyway,” continued the demon, “The ones that we get. Not as lucky as the ones the other guys get, but still. Because we’re not the only ones out there anymore. There are things prowling in those grey mists. Nameless things not of this world that got in through the cracks during the Last Battle.”

“What does this have to do with rakshasas, with Karadash?” Interrupted Lynn, before her worldview became even more miserable.

“I was getting to that,” answered Stain grumpily, “Remember how I said souls just do whatever it is people used to do for most in their life? Turns out, Karadash had spent most of his life being a vicious bastard.”

“Wait, he died?”

“More than once, likely. Now, if you’ll let me finish, perhaps I can get to the point before we both perish of old age, too. And that’ll take a while in my case. Yes, Karadash had died, and I was the one who found his soul. It… It didn’t turn out the way I expected. He tore me apart, plain and simple. The proper me, a demon, not this meager apparition I’ve become. He tore me apart and made himself a body out of my carcass. What he didn’t use, he ate. Or, maybe, what he didn’t eat he used, my memories of that moment are a bit hazy. All that remained was this claw you’re holding. And in his new demon-flesh body he wandered back into the mortal realm.”

“That’s what rakshasas are: mortals dressed in demon flesh, fouler even than my kind. They are the scary story us soul hunters tell one another. They are very rare, but they do happen. My bet, it takes not just will and viciousness to become one. I think the bastards can’t conceive of a world without them. They are so egotistical, they refuse to accept their death. So, enlightened leader, now you see why I laugh at the idea of you taking one on.”

Lynn hesitantly nodded. She had set out to rid New Valenar of the Beast, a creature of cunning and claws. It turned out the Beast was a shapeshifting sorcerer whom even death couldn’t hold. Who also had cunning and claws. “In over her head” didn’t come close to describing it.

“There’d be no shame in giving up,” a tiny voice in the back of her head said. The tiny voice could go drown in the sea of guilt Lynn already felt. It’s been four days since she’s entered Under Valenar. She now had a roof over her head, and a family that had taken her in. It wasn’t her home, Lynn knew. She was a guest. But it was so good to pretend. This was everything she had wanted. But this was everything others didn’t have. Why should she get to have a home, however temporary, while Tim and Eric didn’t have one, while Jenny didn’t have a father, while Josh would never have anything?

She had been so intent on waging her war, she didn’t know what to do with the inactivity that was forced upon her. Lynn almost felt happy here, and that made her feel terrible.

“Does he have any weaknesses?” she asked to try and assuade some of her guilt.

“Weaknesses?”

“You know. Maybe he has to keep his promises, or can’t refuse hospitality, or can’t touch his old body?”

The demon snorted.

“You’ve been listening to too many fairy tales. That’s right, you’re just a child, of course you have been. Is that how you imagine it’ll go, the brave heroine defeats the big scary monster through the power of friendship and rainbows? The frog,” he bowed, “becomes a prince in the end? Well, give us a kiss and lets find out,” it stuck out its lips, somehow making its breath smell even worse.

“Don’t you want revenge against Karadash, too?” asked Lynn, annoyed, “Isn’t that what demons are all about, giving in to their desires?”

“I want a great many things. Sure, I’d like to see Karadash choke on the body he stole from me, bit by bit. But I’d also like to eat your brain to find out what stupid tastes like. And right now I want to rip out the tongue of the tiny human spying on us. May I?”

The demon crouched down, ready to leap towards the chamber entrance. Lynn looked up to find Nicholas’ sister peeking around the corner, petrified.

Lynn was no less petrified. She couldn’t be discovered with Stan. They’d take him away, her only weapon against the Beast. But what to do, how to explain it away, how to stop Nessa from telling on her? At least Lynn knew her name – she had finally asked Nicholas during an evening chat yesterday.

“It’s okay, wait…” said Lynn.

“Grrr,” said Stain.

“Eep,” said Nessa as she disappeared.

Her bare feet slapping on the stone floor echoed through the sunken temple, followed by a splash.

“You, in the claw. Now,” it was Lynn’s turn to growl.

She ran after Nessa, diving head first, claw in hand. She had little to no hope of catching an Allyrian in the water, Lynn knew, but she had to do something. So far, she couldn’t even see right, everything was too dark. Lynn blinked fiercely as she swam towards the obscured temple doors.

It wasn’t her eyes. There was something wrong with the water. It was murky, like shallow waters after a storm when all the tiny bits of seaweed get dredged up. Except this wasn’t shallow waters at all. Everything was tinted red and tasted of copper. And it was warm, too, realised Lynn, warmer even than the amulet she wore made it appear to be. The name Bloodmist Sea came to mind. Blood-red mists giving the sea its name would rise occasionally over it, always a bad omen. Is this how they looked beneath the surface?

Freaking out, she spun around, looking for Nessa. It was growing darker by the second. There! A small shape swiftly receding into the distance. Lynn followed, as fast as she could. Stupid Nessa, what was she even doing there, spying on her. Of course she was spying on her, Lynn groaned internally, the girl had been fascinated by her from the first day Lynn got here, she was probably the first land dweller Nessa had seen.

A deep vibrating wave travelled through Lynn’s body, rattling her teeth before settling somewhere in her guts. Then another one. What was that?! She’ll ask Nicholas later. First, she needed to catch up to Nessa.

Lynn couldn’t see far, an experience not unlike being swallowed by the Shadow. But this was a turbulent kind of obscurement. Bits of… on reflection, Lynn really didn’t want to know what these crimson bits were of. Bits swarmed around her, swirling chaotically, growing more and more thick. Stan’s claw in her hand was squirming uncomfortably. She imagined the demon licking its lips and shuddered.

This was worse than the Shadow. At least in it, you could trust the ground under your feet. Most of the time. Here, Lynn already didn’t know up from down. But she still could see Nessa’s tiny dark shape, so onwards she swam.

At last, the moving shape grew larger. With a burst of speed, Lynn covered the rest of the distance separating them. It wasn’t Nessa. It was another Allyrian floating lifelessly, impaled by a spear. His arms were thrown back, his legs bent, his mouth open. Blood must have been streaming from the horrible wound in his chest, disappearing into the red storm, feeding it.

With a muffled shriek, Lynn pushed back from the body. It had finally dawned on her that this wasn’t just a nasty underwater weather. Someone was using it to attack Under Valenar, they may even have caused it. Nicholas had mentioned “attackers” before, but didn’t go into any details. The deep wave hit her again, adding to Lynn’s growing panic. It was a warning bell, she finally realised.

She suddenly felt incredibly exposed. An attack could come from any side. Lynn spun frantically, her heart beating wildly. Someone swam by at the edge of visibility, causing Lynn to recoil. They didn’t notice her, or maybe they had other priorities.

She needed to stop for a moment, to think what to do next. It wasn’t just about preventing Nessa from telling others about her pet demon anymore. They were in danger. Nessa was in danger because of her. This family had taken her in, if only for a few days, and in those few days Lynn managed to get their daughter killed. She was poison.

No, she stopped herself. That hasn’t happened yet. Nessa is fine, she’s got to be. She probably swam straight home at the first sign of danger. That’s what they’d teach their kids. There was no need to worry about her. All Lynn had to do was find her way home, too.

“I knew you wouldn’t come,” she heard Eric’s words, the words that’ve been echoing in her mind for the last few weeks. Lynn kicked off away from the body of the dead Allyrian, calling Nessa’s name.

Chapter Twenty Five

Posted: July 7, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Once again, Lynn was being discussed like she wasn’t in the room. What else would Nicholas and his mother argue about, glancing at her from time to time. Lynn “sat” at the merfolk table and stared right back at them. She had considered not coming back at all, just like Nicholas had suggested. She could have swum to the shore, hidden somewhere, waited until the Beast would stop looking, until Azary would stop looking, until everyone would forget about her. But there was no better place to hide than beneath the waves. As much as she abhorred it, Under Valenar was the safest location for her.

Fingers flew and tongues clicked. There was something familiar about one of the gestures that both of them kept repeating, noticed Lynn. There it was again. Just like a thieves’ sign Josh had taught her. New Valenar thieves had their own sign language for silent communication – or maybe they’d stolen it. Lynn only knew a few signs, but this one was the first she was taught: “danger”.

She knocked on the table to get their attention, then signed as best she could: “Me danger you no.” Nicholas frowned. The mother laughed. Lynn cringed. Another signed exchange, and Nicholas indicated for her to follow.

They swam towards the sunken temple again, the nearest place where they could talk. Judging by the darkening waters, the sun was setting. While there weren’t that many people out, they weren’t in any hurry to get home. Darkness was an inconvenience, not a threat. They passed close to a group of soldiers milling about, watchmen like Nicholas, guessed Lynn. The soldiers did what bored soldiers do: laughed at everyone who went by. They all made a similar gesture at her, as mysterious as it was obvious. She was an outsider. Lynn frowned, while Nicholas just kept swimming.

Lynn couldn’t help but look for traces of her blood on the mosaic of the temple as they walked up it’s sloped floor. She had spent some time clearing it all up after the fight this morning, in fear of Stan being discovered. Afterwards, she had rushed to her assigned room to stash the bag with the claw in it, before submitting to the mother for treatment. She had shrugged in response to any questions she may have been asked about her wounds, which clearly didn’t satisfy. But at least she was now covered in some kind of green baked mud, and her scratches didn’t sting in the salt water anymore, even if she still had trouble moving her right arm.

“What in broken hells happened?”

“A fish bit me.”

For lack of a better lie, Lynn settled for being annoying. Nicholas threw his arms in the air in exasperation, mission successful.

“You are some kind of magnet for trouble, it seems. How am I to keep you safe if you won’t tell me what attacked you?”

“Won’t happen again.”

“So you say!”

“What do you care, fishface? Just another, what was it you called us, a walker. Just another walker washing up ashore.”

“I care because I was ordered to watch over you.”

“I’ll do my very best not to disappoint your boss by croaking, wouldn’t want to mar your service record.”

“That’s not what I mean!”

“What do you mean, then? Why would anyone care what happened to me, much less you people? I’ve seen the way those soldiers sniggered at me! The way your family chastised you for bringing me here. The way you all look at me, like I’m a piece of trash spoiling your pristine waters.”

Once again, Lynn had worked herself up to screaming. These days, screaming came easy. It felt good to let it out. No, not good. It felt like all the seething anger within couldn’t be contained inside her body. All she had to do was open her mouth.

And oh, it was so easy to be angry at Nicholas, who had matched her tone for tone from the start. Except he wasn’t raising his voice now. Instead, he hopped up to sit on the cracked lectern.

“There it is again,” said Nicholas, with an unexpected sadness in his voice, “I haven’t picked up on this before. That’s how you really view the world.”

“What are you talking about?” Lynn was taken aback by the sudden shift in the conversation.

“That word. ‘Care’. You don’t believe anyone cares if you live or die.”

“And?”

Nicholas rubbed his forehead with a pained expression.

“That’s a horrible way to live. Don’t you have any friends, any family?”

“You’ve seen my friend. Others… Others will miss me, but they’ll survive. Until they don’t. That’s what happens to people like me.”

“But even beside that. I’m not your friend, I only just met you. And you’re combative and annoying and…” Nicholas saw Lynn’s bristles come up and smiled, “And I still don’t want you to be hurt. Not just because I was ordered to protect you, but because you’re a living being. Just like me, just like everyone else. And I refuse to believe I’m the only one.”

Lynn thought of Isabel, and Melai, and Jenny. And Peter. And Josh.

“You are right. There were others who cared. And I hurt them all. I abused their trust, and put them in danger. Some have already died. Some still could. Maybe you’re right. Maybe, it’s not the world that’s horrible. Maybe it’s just me. You say you care? You shouldn’t.”

Nicholas grimaced.

“That’s not… Not for you to decide what I care about. And not for you to shoulder all the blame for all the ills of the world. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“I did. Don’t make the ones who trusted me any less dead, though.”

“It wasn’t you who killed that boy.”

“Gods old and new! You sound just like Jenny. A girl whose father… Whose father died because of me. You’d get along. It’s true, the Beast killed them, but I put them in Beast’s path. And I’ll live with that. As long as that lasts.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lynn smiled a fake smile.

“Absolutely nothing. I promise I won’t be attacked by the same fish on your watch. And then I’ll be out of your gills.”

“Fine. You don’t have to tell me what happened. Just promise me no harm will come to my family because of you. You’ve managed to sufficiently scare me.”

“Good. And no, I’m not doing anything to endanger them. I’m not a monster. The thing that’s hunting me is. But it won’t find me here.”

“You promise?”

“Promise.”

“For a long time,” said Nicholas slowly, carefully picking his words, “I blamed myself for my father losing his leg.”

Lynn looked up to find him gazing at a wall, engrossed in an unpleasant memory.

“I was playing far from home, even though my parents told me not to. I was just a kid, but I should have known better. There was an attack, and my father broke from his squad to search for me. He did find me, then the attackers found us both. He was a hell of a soldier, my father. But he was alone, and they were many. He was alone, because I was too afraid. I was just a kid. I’ve spent years wishing I had done something different. Wishing I had stayed at home, had found the courage to stab one in the back, had… Had not been found by my father. Things are what they are, though,” he smiled briefly, “My father is alright now, mostly. And after years of hating myself I finally realised it was now that hate that was hurting my family, long after our physical wounds had healed. They still needed me, not in the past but here and now. So I decided I needed to do better. To be better. And I’m trying. I can’t change what happened, so I had to find a way to live with it. For as long as that lasts.”

Lynn knew the story he told was an attempt to relate to her, and it worked. His mistake may have been less grievous than hers, its outcome less tragic, but the sadness in his voice as he told his story was undeniable.

And he was wrong to draw the parallels between them, of course. Nicholas still had someone who relied on him, thought Lynn, and he wasn’t still intent on pursuing the ones who hurt his family. Except… Except he was in the Tidewatch, just like his father. Why else would he join it if not to face the same attackers one day, whoever they may have been. Maybe he was a bit like her after all, just not in the way he imagined.

The tension was gone. Even Lynn’s anger had dissipated, at least for now. Without it to cloud her vision, she looked at Nicholas for the first time as a person, not as her merman captor. He really was annoyingly handsome. For a fishface. Lynn realised she wouldn’t want him to get along with Jenny, for some reason. It was an unfamiliar emotion, one she’d have to examine later. Much later.

“D’you know,” said Nicholas after a bit of silence, “I sometimes come here to just look around, and imagine how it used to be. Before. The fresh air, the light shining through the stained glass windows, the crowds. It must have been really beautiful here. Bright.”

Lynn shrugged.

“We have temples up top. Not quite like this, but still large. You can come look. And if you want bright, just stare at a daylight crystal.”

“I know, I’ve been there,” Nicholas ignored the jab, “Just doesn’t feel the same. Everyone’s staring at me, almost literally a fish out of water. In here I can imagine I’m a part of the crowd.”

Lynn looked around, and tried to see what Nicholas was seeing. Tall, slender elves in their pretty flowing dresses, so unlike her rags, so unlike her. Statues with faces, all stern and looking right at her. The priest, condemning her. No, even in this fantasy Lynn still didn’t belong.

“And sometimes, I think of just how shocked the elves would have been to see me here,” continued Nicholas, “Can you imagine the faces the priests would make, if they saw me sitting where their holy book lies?” He patted the lectern.

Lynn smiled, a little. Encouraged, Nicholas continued.

“Or what they’d say about this,” he jumped off, picked up a pebble and sent it bouncing over the water. The stone jumped three times before colliding with a column. Nicholas cast another one, and it made it all the way to the roof over the submerged temple gates. He turned to Lynn with a grin.

“Do you think they’d join in?”

Lynn imagined haughty elves bouncing pebbles inside their temple and giggled.

“You try it,” Nicholas offered her a stone.

She accepted it after a moment’s hesitation. It sunk with a splash.

“No, like this, sideways,” tried correcting her Nicholas.

“I’ve thrown plenty of stones, thank you,” replied Lynn. She neglected to mention she was usually hoping to hit someone like Nicholas when she did. That detail just didn’t seem relevant.

The next stone bounced once off the water, then off a column, and then collided with one of the few remaining pieces of stained glass. Lynn cringed at the resounding crash. Nicholas laughed, seeing her expression.

“Don’t worry, there’s absolutely nothing of value left here. What the looters didn’t get, the reclaimers did.”

Lynn breathed out.

“You mean I didn’t ruin a priceless elven artifact?” she said with a meek smile.

“Way too late for that.”

Almost an hour later, having exhausted all the pebbles in the temple, they were about to leave when Lynn remembered something.

“By the way, what does this mean?” she asked Nicholas, contorting her fingers.

“Where’d you see that?” he frowned.

“Those soldiers, outside. I’d like to know what I’m being called.”

“It means ‘merfolk’,” said Nicholas before diving.

“But I’m not…” objected Lynn to the rippling water.

Puzzled, she followed Nicholas to his home. A surprise awaited Lynn there. The little girl followed her into her room, a bundle of cloth in hands. Lynn took it hesitantly, and unfolded it to find dark green pants, thick and coarse. She looked up at the girl in confusion. The girl pointed at Lynn’s legs, then at the pants.

Lynn blushed, realising it was a present. The girl giggled. The pants were much nicer than her torn dress. Not to mention, a dress wasn’t the most modest clothing for swimming, something Lynn had done her best to ignore up till now.

The girl tugged on her arm to get her attention, then floated onto the bed. Unlike Lynn who had tried and failed to stay on top of it, however, the girl climbed under it. It was a kind of a blanket, Lynn finally realised. Heavy enough to weigh a person down, to prevent them from being dragged around by the currents. The girl giggled, and this time Lynn giggled with her.

Life was different here under the water, yet also the same, pondered Lynn as she lay in, or maybe under, her bed later that night. Maybe tomorrow, she’ll help the father trim the coral walls, and then go exploring for a bit. She’d better make it home before dinner, though. Home. What a strange thought.

Chapter Twenty Four

Posted: May 25, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Lynn barely had time to raise her arms when the toothy screeching wart of a creature flew into her. It bit and scratched and tried to get to her face in a frenzy. Acting on pure instinct, she tossed it away before it latched on properly. The creature landed on its side, rolled and pounced right back at her. It looked like a toad the size of a large cat, except toads didn’t have multiple rows of needle-sharp teeth, didn’t stink of carrion and didn’t, generally, try to tear one’s throat open.

The creature slammed into Lynn. What it lacked in mass, it more than made up for with single-minded murderous intent, driving her to the ground. It bit deep into Lynn’s left arm, pulled on her hair with one clawed hand and tried to gouge her eyes out with the other. It squirmed and bounced and raged, resisting Lynn’s attempts to get any kind of hold on it. Twisting, she brought up a knee between her and the creature, and with a cry and a lock of her hair still clutched in the monster’s hand kicked it away.

With barely a second of respite she got and still on the floor, Lynn reached for the bag she had dropped. Knife. Something to protect herself with. The creature landed on her back and screeched in her ear, claws on all of its limbs digging into her. Lynn’s fingers closed on… Not a knife. Didn’t matter. She clutched the monstrous claw that Josh had stolen from the Beast, and swung it at her assailant. Pinned on her stomach as she was, with the thing sitting on top, the claw failed to reach its target. The creature screeched again and bit into her right shoulder, causing her to drop the weapon.

Lynn got her knees under her, slipped on the wet mosaic, got up on all fours again. The thing was still stuck on her shoulder. She grabbed the claw with her left hand and finally managed to jab it into the monster.

“Get off me!”

The thing yelped, and skittered away. Lynn stood up, panting, her right arm hanging limp, blood dripping down it, the claw clasped firmly in her left. The creature crouched a couple of meters away. It poked at the gash the claw left on it.

“Oh well, can’t blame a demon for trying,” said the thing.

Lynn brought up the claw defensively.

“Relax. I know when I’m licked,” the thing’s long tongue dashed over its wound.

“You can speak.”

“Noticed that, huh. I can already see this’ll be a wonderful working relationship.”

“What are you?” Lynn was growing more confused by the minute.

“A demon. Keep up!”

“You’re a demon?”

“Oh boy, we have ourself a smart one. Real observationist, you are.”

“Shut up. Why were you here?”

“Lady, I don’t even know where ‘here’ is. You brought me here.”

“What are you even talking about?!”

The demon sighed.

“I’ll use small words, okay? The claw you hold. It’s me. I live in it. Like… Like a maggot in a corpse. Except it’s my corpse,” the demon waved its left hand around, one of its fingers missing, “It’s complicated, and doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m yours to command, as long as you hold my phylactery. My finger, I mean.”

“Mine to command?”

“Got it in one. Who’s a good fearless leader? You are!”

“So why did you attack me?”

“You didn’t have the finger when I did, now did you? I swear, where’s a warlock out to make a deal when you need one. Those guys know what they’re doing. Well, they think they do, it’s actually hilarious. But at least they know something.”

Lynn’s annoyance at being both a physical and a verbal punching bag finally outgrew her confusion.

“Shut it. If you’re under my control,” she brandished the claw, “Then stop insulting me, to start with.”

“Yes, your commanding highness,” the demon stood to attention, as much as its crooked legs, pot belly and humped back would allow it.

“And no more attacking me.”

“As you wish, your magnificarious majesty.”

“In fact, no attacking anyone, unless I say so.”

“A most prudelicious order.”

“And stop making up words.”

“A made-up word to a fool is just picayune altiloquence to a sage.”

“Did you just call me a fool?”

“I can hardly be blamed for the conclusions you draw from the observations I state.”

“Enough! Enough with the snide remarks and the sarcasm and the rudeness.”

The demon opened its mouth, then closed it again. Rotated its bulging eyes. Opened the mouth again, let out a stifled croak, and sat down, looking pitiful.

“You can’t,” Lynn realised with a nervous laugh,  “You can’t actually not be unpleasant. You have nothing to say that’s not meant to ruin someone’s day.”

The demon nodded, and attempted its version of puppy-dog eyes, which ended up being much more like constipated toad eyes, not that Lynn ever saw such a thing. Thankfully.

“Fine. You can talk.”

The demon cleared its throat with a quick succession of words describing acts that were biologically improbable, historically inaccurate and theologically unwise. Lynn could understand about a quarter of it, enough to turn her face bright pink. Another quarter she could surmise the meaning of, and felt like her hair had turned pink in response as well.

“Much better. Now, fearless leader, what villainy am I to conduct for you?”

“I want to bring someone down. Get rid of them,” Lynn found herself saying, without any pause to think.

“A vendetta! I may have underestimated you. Who’s the unfortunate soul, then?”

“The Beast. Your previous owner.”

The demon fell on the floor, laughing. Every time it seemed like it was done, it would look at Lynn’s determined face and begin anew.

“I’m not kidding,” she said grumpily.

“I know,” replied the demon between the croaking fits, “Wouldn’t be funny otherwise.”

“Done?” enquired Lynn after it had finally stopped.

“For now. But seriously. You, against a true rakshasa? You barely overcame me, in this puny form.”

“I don’t intend to fight him directly. And what’s a rakshasa?”

“Rakshasa, my suicidally fearless leader, is one of the meanest things to ever walk these blasted lands. I say that with envy and admiration. And that particular one, Karadash, has walked them before they were blasted, too. So what do you have to oppose a centuries-old sorcerer with a demon’s heart?”

“You.”

“I see. Sorry to disappoint, but the most use he found for me was as a paperweight. He’d defeated me at his weakest, and me at my strongest. The demon’s heart I mentioned? Not a metaphor.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“I’m looking forward to my eventual return to being a paperweight. Is there anything else you wish me to do right now, or can I go back to sleep?”

Lynn considered the question. If not for the scratches all over her arms and back, this was a good luck turn, and her head was still spinning from it. Or maybe it was the blood loss. A stinking, swearing opportunity had landed on her lap and took a bite.

“How can I call on you? And why did you come out now, for that matter?”

“The delicious blood woke me. There’s something about those last few drops, as it’s growing cold on your tongue, you know? You can almost taste the emptiness the soul leaves behind.”

Lynn shuddered. It was Josh’s blood the demon was talking about. For a brief moment, she had been glad to have this comically vile thing serve her. Now she realized there was nothing comic about its vileness.

“As for calling me, just use my name: Stain.”

“You’re called Stain?”

“As in shit stain, yes.”

“That’s… No, that’s just wrong. Even for a demon.”

“Like you’d know.”

“I’m your boss now, and I say your name is… Stan.”

The demon chortled. “That’s not how it works. You can command me to respond to that name, sure, but you can no more change my name than you can command me to be nice. One and the same, really.”

“Why not? Be Stan. Be nice.”

Not-Stan smiled sweetly, exposing all of its crooked teeth.

“You poor little defenseless girl. It must be so scary, being alone in the whole wide world, with no one to turn to,” it crooned, “How desperate you must be, to ask a demon for help. The blood I tasted, was that your friend? Your only friend? How horrible your fate, how unfair. How you must torment yourself, wondering if you deserve all this, if you are at fault, somehow. Is that why you are on your silly little quest, to end your suffering?”

“Stop. Stop,” Lynn was shaking, “That wasn’t nice. That was mean and condescending and… Don’t.”

“Was it? I wouldn’t know. I know about being nice as much as you know about being a demon.”

“Fine. You are a horrid little thing, I get it. I’ll still call you Stan.”

“Your wish, etcetera, etcetera. Oh, by the way. Those scratches I left, you may want to get them treated. You don’t want to know where my claws have been. Though I’d be delighted to tell you.”

“Why the sudden concern for my well-being?”

“Oh, I want you dead, but I don’t want you dead in a ditch. Being a paperweight is better than being lost.”

With that, the demon disappeared, and the claw throbbed in Lynn’s hand. She stood alone in the gloom, wondering what she got herself into. Faceless stone angels observed her in silent judgement.

Chapter Twenty Three

Posted: May 6, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Morning came, but brought no relief, only numbness. Lynn may have passed in and out of consciousness a few times – the light outside her alcove seemed to grow rapidly. If she did, she didn’t dream. Unless it was all a dream, a haze of terrible events, all blending together in her tired mind. Wouldn’t that be nice. Would explain how she ended up in an underwater coral cavern some crazy merfolk called home. Lynn tried to will the wavering seaweed curtain to dissipate, to turn into an actual cloth curtain on the wind, to wake up inside her tower, to hear the breathing of Tim and Eric instead of the omnipresent susurrus of the currents. No such luck.

Lynn blinked. Whether a second passed or an hour, she couldn’t tell. A face was looking at her from within the seaweed. Lynn jerked up and out of her corner, and the face was gone. Was that a dream?

“Hello,” she tried to call out, but it didn’t sound right. The word came out distorted, quiet, more air than sound. “E-oo,” she tried again. Stupid water. A giggle came from behind the curtain. Lynn scowled. Of course, of course merfolk laughing at her would sound just fine.

The face appeared again, a child, even younger than the twins. Lynn’s scowl grew angrier, and the child disappeared, frightened. Good. She didn’t feel like being a laughing stock, for merfolk or their children.

Glad to be left alone as she was, Lynn soon realised she’d have to go out of her cave. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s morning, and was even more thirsty than hungry. Somehow, drinking the sea water didn’t seem like a good idea, even if she could breathe it now. Lynn’s fingers found the water breathing amulet at the thought, checked the string around her neck. It would not be pleasant to lose it.

Lynn approached the curtain with trepidation. Who knew what waited for her on the other side. What scurrying things lurked within the curtain itself. She’d been marched down here so fast, she had no chance to look around. Nicholas lived here, but who else? Was that girl his daughter? Sister? Were there many merfolk out there, waiting to laugh at her?

Lynn pushed through the curtain to find none. Another room, larger than her alcove, much smaller than her tower. The ceiling curved unevenly, as did the floor. The corridors entering the room were sloped, two leading up, one down. It actually was an underwater cave, after all.

There was a table in the middle of the room, but no chairs. Instead, mysterious planks protruded from below it, too narrow and low to be benches. Strings hung from the ceiling above it, some with food items on their ends, swaying with the flow. At least Lynn assumed they were food items. With the exception of an apple, she couldn’t recognize any of them.

Another giggle sounded behind her, and Lynn spun clumsily, provoking more giggling. The annoying girl was there, poking her head out of a downwards tunnel.

“What?!” Lynn asked, and to her relief it sounded at least somewhat recognizable.

The girl responded with a series of clicks and flashing fingers, then giggled again at Lynn’s puzzled expression. She repeated her movements slower, fingers flowing into patterns and breaking up again, tongue clicks accentuating some signs. Lynn could only shrug.

The girl raised her hand palm up in a universal gesture that meant “stop, wait” and dove down. A short while later, two sets of clicks followed and Nicholas swam out, still groggy from sleep. He and Lynn exchanged angry glares.

Nicholas tried to communicate to Lynn in a similar manner, to which she responded with the only gesture she knew. Annoyed, Nicholas mimed his message: pointed at Lynn, then at the girl, then shook his head energetically as his hands drew a cross. “Stay away from the girl.” Or what, Lynn thought to herself, she’ll get her surface filth on the little brat? But she nodded in acknowledgement. Not like she wanted to spend time with her.

With the method for communication established, Lynn moved on to a more pressing need. She mimed an explosion coming out of her rear, and watched the disgust on the merman’s face with vindictive glee. He led Lynn through the downward tunnel, pointing at another seaweed curtain at its end.

“Drafty”, is the word Lynn would have used to describe the experience, had it transpired on the surface. There were two holes on the sides of the room near the floor, opposite one another. A strong current ran through them, sucking everything in the room down and out. Lynn wondered where it led, then realized she didn’t know where the sewers of the surface city led either. Some things were better left unknown.

When she returned to the living room, Lynn found the rest of the family gathered there for breakfast. In addition to Nicholas and the girl, there was an elderly couple, probably their parents. They had assembled around the table, their legs hooked around the protruding planks, keeping them from drifting away. “Clever,” thought Lynn, before correcting herself: “Stupid mermen.”

As she entered, the clicking, hand-waving conversation stopped, with four pairs of eyes staring at her. At least they weren’t laughing. After half a minute of awkward silence, the mother gestured for Lynn to join them at the table.

Something green, leafy, and wrapped in a net was placed in front of her in a stone bowl, and the conversation continued. Fingers flew, tongues clicked and glances were cast her way. Lynn picked at her food, feeling utterly alone. As far as she could tell, Nicholas was being berated for dragging her in. Not surprising.

The food tasted primarily of salt, or maybe that was just the seawater Lynn swallowed with it. Either way, she could only eat a bit. She tried to untangle herself from the not-chairs, bumped into the mother, then Nicholas, and finally was free, if red faced. Lynn tried to both apologise and thank them for the food, a gesture consisting in equal parts of a shrug, a nod and a spin (stupid water!). The girl giggled again, making Lynn turn even redder.

Not knowing what to do now, Lynn waited in the corner as the family finished their meal. The father, a thin, wiry man with short gray hair, ate quietly and deliberately. There was a rhythm to his movements, an almost mechanical precision: pull down a section of the net, tear the revealed food off, chew it five times, repeat. The girl was the opposite, surrounded by a widening cloud of food debri. Nicholas barely touched his food, but what he did eat he swallowed almost immediately. And the mother was in charge. At her command, the girl sat more still, Nicholas ate and the father participated in the conversation.

Lynn was surprised by how much she had learned about them by just observing the family eat, and also by how relatable they turned out to be. How human. Still, she reminded herself, they may well be just as human as they once were, as they claim they are, but being human has changed its meaning since then. To be human was to fear the dark, to not know when or how you’ll eat next, to huddle in ruins and not trust anyone. To not have a home, or a family. That’s what it meant to be human. Or at least to be Lynn.

The meal at its end, the merfolk family got up. There was something strange in the way the father moved, a bit lopsided. As he swam out of the dining room and past Lynn, she finally noticed the reason: most of his right leg was missing. Lynn gasped at the ugly scar poorly concealed by the trimmed pants, and got a withering glare from the legless father.

The day was starting, and the merfolk were moving around, embroiled in whatever activities merfolk engaged in during the day. Lynn floated, uncertain of what to do. No one was paying her any attention. She went back into “her” room to get her bag, then swam out. She wanted to get a better look at the cavern home. In the diffused light of day, it didn’t seem quite so magical. Instead of a glowing mountain it was a red-brown hill, with other red-brown hills here and there around it.

The father was out here, moving around with some sort of instrument, akin to gardening scissors. He moved his hand along the hill, occasionally snapping off a protruding piece of coral. That’s right, Lynn realised, the coral was a living thing, and it kept growing. She watched the father work for a while, an occupation he approached just like he approached eating, just like he approached most things, Lynn imagined. Row by row, from start to finish, even and dependable.

A short while later, Nicholas came out of the house, on his way into the Under Valenar proper. Seeing him, Lynn remembered just how desperately thirsty she was, so she mimed drinking from a bottle. It took a couple of tries, but he got the message. Nicholas waved for her to follow, and the two swam for about ten minutes, arriving at what looked like an actual mountain, barely covered by the waves. Nicholas swam down, so Lynn followed, to a grand ruined building at its feet.

It used to be a temple to one of the Old Gods. The dead and forgotten deities who failed to prevent the end of the world – or caused it themselves. It sat at an angle, having barely survived the sinking of the bay during the Last Battle.

Statues which used to guard the entrance, no doubt once fierce and awe-inspiring, now wore shoals of seaweed, warriors turned beggars by the fall of their god. Inside, fish swam between the magnificent columns, crabs scuttled across the intricate mosaic of the floor.

The temple may have fallen into ruin, but it still resisted the final collapse. Water couldn’t conquer it in its entirety. Much like the half-sunk tower in which Lynn was interrogated yesterday, the back half of the temple had air in it. Emerging from the water after Nicholas, Lynn looked around.

Similar glowing moss covered the corners and crept up the walls. Within its gloomy light, a lectern could be seen, cracked in two. None of the statues here had faces. The conquering army of Evil must have vandalised the temple. Except it had sunk during the sacking. Hopefully, they had the time, Lynn found herself thinking. The alternative explanation, that all the statues of saints and angels had their faces crumble to dust when their god died, was more disconcerting.

“There is water here,” said Nicholas pointing at a barrel behind the lectern, “For walkers who visit. You can come here when you need to, but don’t stay too long. The air will run out one day.”

Lynn contemplated sneering as a response, but deigned to say “thanks” in the end.

“I’m off to the Tidewatch, and will be back late. Don’t bother my family.”

“You’re not going to watch me? What if I escape?”

“Escape where, to the surface where you said the Beast waits for you? Either that’s true, and you won’t, or it’s a lie and we’d be wasting our time keeping you here. Please do, I’d rather get a chewing out from my officer than babysit you.”

“‘s true. And I ain’t no child in need of babysitting.”

“Then I will see you later tonight.”

With that, Nicholas walked down into the water without turning, causing Lynn to waste a perfectly good glare on his back. As soon as he was gone, Lynn rushed to the barrel, and drank until she washed the taste of salt out of her mouth.

Finally satiated, Lynn looked up just in time to see something leap at her, teeth first.

Chapter Twenty Two

Posted: April 2, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

“Knife, dull. Apple, half-eaten. Comb, bone. Claw and knuckles, bestial, dessicated. Slime, jar of. Body, male, still in the boat,” the obese merman looked up from the wax tablet, “Quite an assortment of possessions.”

Lynn glared at a wall in defiance.

“And you say she was drifting in a boat with these items when you found her, in the middle of the night?”

“That’s correct, sir,” the younger merman responded, “Right on top of Under Valenar. I was out on a patrol when my sharks smelled blood.”

Lynn’s gaze wavered, but didn’t go down. She wouldn’t look at her dress. Soaked as it was by the underwater trip, Josh’s blood would never wash out. She didn’t look at her hands, either. She may be shivering, but she wouldn’t let them touch her.

“Did she say anything?”

“No, sir.”

“What’s your name, child?”

The obese merman tried to sound kind. Lynn didn’t buy it.

“You’re in some trouble right now. But nothing that can’t be cleared up with your cooperation. You didn’t murder the fellow you were found with, did you?”

Lynn shot him a venomous look.

“Didn’t think so. How about you tell us what happened, then?”

Lynn imagined the merman catch fire. His stupid little moustache would burn off first. The younger merman who caught her tried to lay a hand on her shoulder. With a tiny shriek Lynn dove out of the way, moving until she could keep them both in front of her.

“Nicholas, don’t,” the fat merman almost sounded concerned, “The girl is obviously in shock. Her friend, was he your friend? Her friend had died in front of her,” he turned to Lynn again, “We can help you. Tell us what happened.”

Lynn exploded. “Why? What do you care?!”

“It’s our job to care. We are the Tidewatch of Under Valenar.”

“You’re doing a piss-poor job of it, then, or he wouldn’t be dead!” Lynn was shaking, and only partially due to the cold clinging clothes.

“We can’t be everywhere. But we can help you now.”

“No, you really, really can’t. You say you care. Everyone says that. Makes them feel good. No one does anything. Especially not you mermen in your underwater palaces,” she spat on the floor. The sponge this Nicholas had stuffed into her mouth before dragging her out of the boat had left a foul taste on her tongue. It also, somehow, allowed her to breathe underwater long enough to get here.

The older merman raised an eyebrow: “Take a look around you. Does this look like a palace?”

They were in a lower floor of a half-sunken tower, out in the harbor. The part that still stuck out from under the waves at a perilous angle was used as a lighthouse during the shadowfall, to guide the last ships hurrying home. No one was stupid enough to sail during the night. The part below the waves kept the air somehow. There were some pipes hanging from a sealed staircase leading up that probably had something to do with that. They’ve ascended a different flight of stairs to get here, emerging from the chilling water into a dark, dank room.

Some sort of luminescent lichen covered the walls, giving barely enough light to see the people inside. There was a desk to the side, behind which the senior merman sat, with a single candle on it. Water dripped from Lynn’s dress and formed a stream running down the sloped floor, towards the descending stairs. There were smaller streams coming from under the mermen, their attires lacking absorbent cloth – or much of any material altogether. No, this didn’t look like much of a palace. But then again, it was meant for people like her, the ones not able to breathe underwater without disgusting sponges.

Mistakenly taking her silence for agreement, the merman continued: “Oh, and another thing. I wouldn’t advise you to call our people ‘mermen’. Some may react unfavorably. That’s the term we use for the ones made for this life. We are still human, though changed. Call us Allyrian if you have to, the name of our sunken kingdom. Or Menar’s Chosen, though that’s a mouthful. By his grace we’ve survived the Last Battle.”

“Regardless. If you refuse to cooperate, we’ll have to turn you over to the surface authorities. The murder happened above, so that’s where the investigation will occur.”

“Then I’m dead,” said Lynn matter-of-factly.

“I’m certain they’re not so quick to judge.”

“Who, the ‘surface authorities’? They won’t do anything. Another street kid dead. We’ve been dying for half a year now. It’s the Beast that’s been hunting us that’ll get me.”

The mermen (Lynn didn’t care for their distinctions) exchanged uncomfortable glances.

“I’ve heard of this Beast,” said the senior one after some consideration, “Is there a reason it is after you?”

“It is the Beast. That’s what it does. But you’ve already heard about it, and yet you’re still here. You’re still here and the Beast is out there. Lucky you, the Beast doesn’t go into the water, and neither does the Shadow. Fortunate. Chosen.”

“Watch your mouth, girl, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nicholas angrily.

“Or what?” spat Lynn, “There isn’t anything you can do that scares me anymore. The Beast is after me. You, ‘authorities’, none of that matters. Empty posturing, all you’re good for.”

“How about we give you to the Shadowguard for drug trafficking?” Nicholas raised his voice to match her, “They’ve been on our backs about slime for quite some time.”

“You know full well I’m as guilty of that as I am of murder. But sure, go ahead. Lie, get rid of the inconvenient street rat. Not your problem, right?”

“Nicholas, enough. The girl has a point – the Shadowguard is too busy to protect her. And if the Beast is after her as she claims, we can’t turn her away. That means she stays here, for a few days at least, until we figure out what to do with her,” he turned to Lynn, “I’m really tired to talking about you in third person, by the way.”

“Why? I’ve been referring to you as ‘the fat one’ in my head, works for me.”

“Delightful. And that’s not third person, by the way. Either way, I am officer Thomas, officer Nicholas you already know as ‘the skinny one’.”

“Lynn,” she said grumpily.

“No family name?”

“No family.”

“Right. Nicholas, you are in charge of Lynn here. Take her in, temporarily.”

“Sir! I don’t want a criminal on my hands or in my home!”

“Or what, she’ll escape from you? A surfacer will outswim and outsmart a Tidewatch officer in his own home, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, sir, but…”

“Then do as you’re ordered,” Lynn couldn’t tell if Thomas was amused or annoyed, “You can claim compensation for whatever expenses she incurs later.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Nicholas straightened his back and bowed slightly, almost shouting his consent.

“Do I get a say in this?” Lynn wasn’t too happy either.

“No. Unless you’d prefer to be turned over to the Shadowguard.”

“Fine, I’ll go with the fishface.” An uncalled for, and entirely inaccurate insult – if anything, Nicholas was quite handsome, sharp cheekbones and all. “But I want my things.”

“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands,” Thomas kept his ambiguous smirk.

“But you are in a position to steal from me the only things I own. I ain’t about to let you.”

“The term would be ‘confiscate as evidence’. But there’s no need for that. Take it.”

Lynn dashed forward, sweeping her meager possessions into the soggy bag. She stopped when she laid her hands on the jar of slime. Raising her eyes, Lynn saw Thomas watching her, eyebrow cocked. Demonstratively, Lynn let go of the jar, a finger at a time, and moved back. Thomas nodded in approval, causing her to hate the merman so much more.

Nicholas lost the last of his patience.

“Come,” He didn’t bother to look at Lynn. Suited her fine.

“You’re forgetting something. Here, Lynn, take this,” Thomas extended an amulet to her, pulled from within the desk drawer. It looked like a bunch of horizontal wavy lines, or, Lynn realised, a hand with wavy fingers clasping the string. The candlelight reflected from it in a rainbow of colors, like a shell she’d sometimes find washed up on the shore.

“Menar’s Embrace. We keep a few for visitors. It’ll let you live among us,” explained the merman.

Lynn put it on, and a wave of warmth washed over her. Her shivering stopped as the damp clothing wrapped around her ceased being freezing, now merely cool.

She nodded in thanks, more automatically than purposefully. Nicholas was a few steps down already, half submerged in water and looking back. His smirk wasn’t ambiguous at all. Lynn hurried after him. She’ll bide her time. Not dead yet.

“Follow me. Don’t even think of escaping. My sharks will get you before you swim a meter.”

Two dark shapes, as long as Lynn’s leg, were swimming in circles just outside the submerged tower. Nicholas dove, and the sharks moved to him, wagging their tails like puppies. Shark-toothed shark-puppies. Lynn followed. No choice. Again.

With the merman amulet on, the sea accepted her, there was no other way to describe it. The water was warm and welcoming; the stinging darkness dissolved before her eyes and Lynn could see clearly, down to the very seabed; even her movements seemed easier, like the liquid parted more eagerly before her, and propelled her on her way. She forgot to hold her breath, and water rushed into her nose, filling her lungs. A moment’s panic dissipated as Lynn kept on breathing. She felt the heavy movement of water inside her, felt it expelled and inhaled with greater force than air would require. Lynn didn’t choke, didn’t gasp for air that wasn’t there, didn’t drown. Menar’s Embrace, huh.

With her vision clear, Lynn saw Under Valenar for the first time. She knew it’d be sprawling, but didn’t expect it to be so colorful. In the darkness of the night it glowed softly with greens and blues, walls themselves shedding light. And what walls they were!

The houses were built into a coral reef, made out of it, grown into it. Canyons of corals spread under and around her. Dark holes of windows and passages marked their surface chaotically. Seaweed swayed in unseen currents. Schools of tiny fish sped here and there, black silhouettes outlined by the glowing walls. The place looked both unmistakably inhabited and entirely natural. So unlike the opulence of Higher Valenar, yet just as ornate. So unlike the towering history of Lower Valenar, yet not without its own grandeur. Here, the ruins of the older city were neither demolished nor rebuilt. They were used as a foundation for new growth, elven masonry still seen here and there through the enveloping coral.

The third, often forgotten part of the trifold city was beautiful, yes, but also gloomy. The glow of its walls only served to frame the deeper darkness of the night sea. It was a mundane darkness, not disembodied flesh of an insane god crawling across the land, but darkness nonetheless. Lynn had spent her entire life fearing the dark, and this place set her teeth on the edge. The sea may have accepted her, but she wasn’t about to accept the sea.

As she swam after Nicholas, keeping up as best as she could, Lynn seethed. For years, she’s hated mermen, mostly because they weren’t like her. Actually meeting them didn’t change her opinion. She hated the mermen for the safety of their city and for how uneasy being there made her; for doing nothing to protect others against the Beast and for keeping her here to do the same; for the slurred way in which they spoke in the air and for the speed with which they swam in the water. If she could see these contradictions, she’d hate the mermen for them too.

The city seemed endless, rows upon rows of houses, mountains of corals stretching under her. Lynn’s arms burned from exertion, and still they swam. Nicholas had to stop more and more to wait for her with that annoying smirk on his face. Lynn couldn’t see it, but sensed it just the same. Eventually the glow diminished, the coral grew more sparse. Now, there were only splotches of color, tiny islands of illumination under the sea of darkness. Lynn would wonder what lurked there, had she not been so exhausted.

Further out and down they went, finally coming to a small coral hill, barely aglow. Nicholas gestured for her to follow, leading Lynn inside. He led her through a gloomy house, more cramped that Lynn had expected. There was water inside. Of course there was water. For some reason Lynn had thought there wouldn’t be, that inside a home there’d be regular beds and tables and all the things people who have houses have.

They passed through a seaweed curtain, arriving in a tiny room, barely more than an alcove. Lynn felt her way around in pitch black. Something woven and heavy lay on the ground. The walls were uneven and Lynn could almost reach them all from the middle of the room. She turned to Nicholas, but he was already gone. Fine then.

This was her prison. She could wait for the jailer to fall asleep. There were no locks, at least none that she had seen. But then what? Where would she run to? Swim to. No, she was too tired, too disoriented and not in an immediate danger. She’ll wait.

Lynn tried to lay on the woven bed, at least what she assumed was the bed, but kept floating off it. Mere act of drawing breath propelled her. She resigned to sleeping in mid-air, well, mid-water, then bumped her head into a protruding bit of coral. Add that to the long list of merman indignities.

Finally, Lynn managed to back herself into a corner, arms and knees braced against the walls to prevent movement. Not the most restful position, but it would have to do.

Lynn closed her eyes, and felt blood squelching between her fingers in great pulses. Felt the grip on her arms weaken. Heard the gurgling breath grow more desperate and more quiet with each exhalation. Heard her empty, meaningless, lying prayers and promises. Felt the hot blood covering her turn cold, the flesh under her hands turn cold, the whole world turn cold. Felt Josh’s fear as he died, fear from which all his grins couldn’t save him.

Lynn opened her eyes and stared into the darkness.